I stay late, working on inventory until Lorwyn tells me she wants some privacy in the back and shoos me and Entero out.
“How are you feeling?” I ask Entero. He’s been uncharacteristically quiet in the face of Lorwyn’s temper this afternoon, and I’m not sure if it’s out of consideration for her or if he’s worrying over something else.
But he looks at me like the question itself is silly. “What do you have in mind?”
“I was going to go to Deniel’s,” I explain. “I didn’t have a chance to pick up the tea cups before work today. But if you’re tired, I don’t have to stay—”
“It’s fine,” he says. “Don’t worry about me.” He eyes the sky. “Might rain, though.”
I can’t tell what he’s noticed; the sky is clear. “Well, if it starts raining, feel free to knock and come get me.”
He studies me. “You don’t think you’ll notice the sound of the rain?”
I glance away as we walk. “When I’m alone with Deniel I have a tendency to forget my surroundings.”
“Hmm.” He doesn’t sound as upset by that as I expected, and I risk a glance at him. “You really like him,” Entero says.
Was that a question? “Yes,” I say. “I really do.” And then impulsively add, “What about you?”
“You mean, what do I think of Deniel?” he asks.
I am interested in that, but I say, “No.”
“Ah.” Entero looks up at the sky for a moment. “You’re my charge, Miyara, and I’m your only guard, which means you always come first. Even if I had the time, I don’t think I’d ever feel comfortable being with someone who I couldn’t make my priority. Who would always know that she could never be first in my mind. I’d want her to know I’d always be there for her and for to never have reason to doubt that. But I can’t offer that. So you don’t have to worry about me getting distracted.”
I close my eyes. “I’m sorry, Entero.”
“I signed up for this,” he reminds me. “It’s not as if my position would be better as a spy. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable being with someone I always had to lie to, either. And I wouldn’t want someone who’d be okay with the lies.”
“What if you could do something else?” I ask. “Have you ever wanted to?”
He rolls his eyes. “People don’t tend to end up in my line of work when they have lots of options, Miyara.”
“Not what I asked,” I say.
“Fine.” He looks at me directly. “No, I haven’t ever wanted to do something different. This life has always suited me, and I’m not ashamed of my choices.”
“And if that changes?” I ask him quietly. “If you decide you do want something different, what then?”
Entero shrugs. “Probably nothing. We can’t all just quit one life and start over fresh. And, as I said, I’m not sorry about who I am.”
“Even if it means being alone,” I say.
“Wouldn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t handle all of me anyway,” he says. “Are you satisfied?”
“Never.” I smile. “But I’m glad you’re at peace with yourself. You have been doing a lot of thinking today.”
He snorts. “You can’t leave anything alone, can you?”
“I will if you ask,” I say honestly.
“But you’ll worry about it anyway,” Entero says, resigned.
“Yes,” I admit.
He’s quiet for a minute, and I think we’re going to leave it at that, when he abruptly says, “Don’t tell her.”
“I would not,” I say seriously. If he’s not willing or able to fight for this, I will not push.
And who am I to judge the lines he has drawn for himself, the choices he’s made? Lorwyn made that clear to me; maybe to him, too.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I’m not sure this deserves thanks.”
“Given how hard it seems to be for you to keep your fingers out of anything, I will take it,” he drawls.
That startles me into a laugh. What Miyara have I become, that my own guard should expect me to push so? “If there’s ever anything besides silence I can give you that would help you find happiness, I hope you will let me know,” I say.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, “but don’t wait for it.”
All through this conversation, he has been confident, assured. He knows who he is, and has for some time. I won’t wait for him to change.
But if he decides to, I hope I’m there to witness it.
Deniel is breathless as he opens the door. “Sorry,” he says.
I blink. “For what?”
“Oh.” He runs a hand through his hair. I now know it is not always disheveled, but it has returned to its natural state tonight. “Nothing. I was distracted, so it took me a bit to come to the door. Please, come in.”
I hadn’t noticed it was that much longer than usual, but now I’m curious. “Distracted by what?”
“Oh, just work,” Deniel says.
This late? “Something special?”
“Just busy,” he says.
It takes me a moment to realize he’s being evasive, which is so unlike him I’m not sure what to make of it.
“I’m sorry, it sounds like you’ve had a long day,” I say, fiddling with my wrists. “Should I come back another time?”
Deniel stops and turns around abruptly. He reaches over and takes my hands in his, gazing at me intently. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’d like you to stay. If you want to.”
Suddenly shy, all I do is nod. Deniel’s thumb brushes over my bare wrist, a flutter of a touch, as he releases my hands, and I’m frozen like a statue, not even daring to breathe, not sure why.
Deniel holds out an upturned palm. Everything suddenly feels so surreal, so important and fraught, but like I’m stepping into a whole new world, I place my palm in his, and our hands close around each other.
I’m blushing, but I make myself meet his eyes.
I’m not sure what the look in his eyes is. It’s intent, but warm, and somehow fragile. I squeeze his hand, and he smiles.
“Let me show you what I found,” he says, and leads me forward.
Two tea cups sit on his dining table. They’re clearly a pair, though not identical: the shapes are slightly warped in different ways, and the deep green paint at the top drips down the sides in unique patterns.
I love them immediately.
“I didn’t realize how I’d messed them up before I fired them,” Deniel confesses, running his free hand through his hair. “So then I thought I’d try a different way of glazing to mitigate the effect, and it exacerbated it instead.”
“Are you sure you can’t sell these?” I breathe. “They’re incredible.”
His smile is rueful. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford to let people know I have a fondness for strange experiments, but not yet.”
I glance up at him. “How much more successful could you possibly need to be?”
“It’s not about success, or even skill, as much as it’s about establishment,” he explains. “My shop has a good reputation, but it’s not at the point where that’s just… accepted as a matter of course, I suppose. Without that security, there’s nothing to keep me from being well-known one day and out of work the next.”
That must be especially true for him, being Gaellani in a city whose leaders were allowing the Gaellani to be forced out. He couldn’t afford to take those kinds of risks in his position.
“Well,” I say, “when you get to that point, remember to describe those pieces as ‘eccentric’ rather than strange. People are very comfortable paying for eccentricity from artists.”
“That’s true,” he acknowledges with a wry smile. “But they really are strange, and I’d like to be able to call them that openly. Someday.”
His voice ends on a wistful note, and I squeeze his hand. “Someday.”
He glances down at our hands, then back up at me uncertainly. “Do you want to try them out?”
Could he be worried I don’t like them in truth? “Very much so,” I say fervently. “I just. Ah. Do not especially wish to hurry to release your hand.”
Deniel bursts into laughter. Then he lifts our joined hands and bows over them.
His eyes flick up to mine, a question in them, though I don’t know what it is.
Gently, he kisses the back of my hand.
My eyes widen, and I am amazed I don’t combust on the spot.
Perhaps I’m wrong—I certainly feel as though I’m entirely aflame.
But Deniel is blushing, too, as he unlocks our hands with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, and it feels like a promise.
Oh, yes, I will definitely be able to focus now.
I carefully pick one cup up, turning it around and getting a feel for the weight of it in my hand, then the other, studying its grooves from all sides and trying to think how I can present each best during the ceremony.
I set them down with an absent bow and pull out my new portable tea kit. Opening the compartment, I’m relieved to find that the cups will both fit inside easily, and I barely have to adjust the interior padding at all to keep them from bouncing around.
Deniel has been watching me silently, and I’m not sure how long it’s been because I really do lose track of my surroundings with him. He doesn’t seem to be waiting for anything from me in particular, just… watching, and I find myself blurting, “May I perform the tea ceremony for you?”
He blinks, startled. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” I say. “It would be my pleasure to serve you.”
He nods, shyly. “Then I’d like that.”
All at once I’m filled with a combination of excitement and nervousness—the combination of feelings is no longer strange to me around Deniel, but it is definitely acute.
“Let me try with my tea set, if you don’t mind,” I babble, and when I notice my hand is shaking slightly from the jolt of nervous energy I turn my back on him briefly to take a breath.
I’ve never served him tea before. Not really; not like this.
I’ve been studying, but he’s gone to so much trouble for me, and—what if I’m not any better?
It’s not that I mind serving Deniel. It’s that I want too badly for it to go well.
I want to impress him. And that will interfere with shaping an experience that’s about him, not me.
Earlier, when I served Ostario, I could feel a change in the ceremony, like I was finally part of it. But not as a bridge; something was off, there.
Here, I don’t know how I can keep myself out of the ceremony, because it’s Deniel, and I can’t stop focusing on him, and so many of my thoughts about him are bound up, selfishly, with myself, and my own desires.
Why do I want to impress him? Aside from the obvious?
I want him to think I’m wonderful, even if I don’t believe it—no, I want to be wonderful, for him. I want him to think I’m worthwhile, that I’m not wasting my time, or his. Because he’s wonderful, and I want him to know that, to know that I know it.
I relocate to the floor opposite the small sofa table. The tea ceremony can only properly be performed on the ground. Deniel settles gingerly across from me, and then his jaw drops when I withdraw the dragon teapot from the tea set.
“Is that—?” he whispers, eyes going wide and words breaking off like he’s strangled.
Already I’ve managed to eclipse myself, but at his failure to form words I can’t help but smile.
“The old woman did say it was a gift to me.” I shrug. “If Talmeri wants me to continue displaying it at the shop, she can give me enough marks to purchase its equal.”
“No such thing,” Deniel breathes, reaching out and then aborting the gesture.
“No, there isn’t,” I agree, watching him. “You can touch it. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”
Deniel can still barely bring himself to touch the pot, and when he does, his touch is reverent. Like he can’t quite believe this magic is within his reach.
Finally, I withdraw it from his grasp, smiling at how totally awed he looks at me. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “But for now, let me serve you.”
I begin, flowing into the ritual movements of the ceremony.
The ceremony is different from the start. I can feel it, though I can’t pinpoint exactly how. I try to focus on each movement, perfecting it, though I falter more than once. It’s not the unfamiliar tools; it’s my own nervousness, the pressure of my own desire to make Deniel’s experience as wonderful as he deserves at odds with my conviction whether I can make him feel that much for himself.
As I bring the ceremony to a close, I find I’m no less a mix of excitement and nervousness than I was when I started.
Deniel sips his tea, not looking at me. I sit still, not sure what to do or say now.
And Master Karekin thought I didn’t need any help with the etiquette portion of tea mastery. Ha!
When I’m about ready to erupt from my skin, Deniel finally looks at me.
There’s a part of his expression that’s like the warmth in his eyes earlier, and the awe from seeing the dragon pot, and a strange hint of—sadness? Like when he couldn’t believe that magic was before him.
“Miyara,” Deniel says. “I… honestly don’t know what to say. That was amazing.”
Wonder. That’s what his expression is.
“I didn’t understand the tea ceremony could be like that,” he says. “I knew you had to be good, obviously, but Miyara, that—”
“It wasn’t that good,” I say. My performance doesn’t merit that degree of praise, and it makes me uncomfortable to accept it from him. “I slipped several moves, and the flow broke—”
“No, don’t you dare,” Deniel interrupts me so sternly I do break off in surprise. “You were the one who told me these tea cups I gave you were incredible even though they’re not perfect, weren’t you?”
“It’s not about that,” I say, rubbing my wrists absently. “It’s the experience that has to be perfect.”
“And it was,” Deniel says, gaze holding mine fiercely. “It was perfect in part because of those flaws. Listen to me. I don’t know as much as you about tea ceremony, but I know art, Miyara. If you let yourself focus too hard on just the craft, the art suffers.”
“But the craft is what I can control.”
His expression turns wry. “Yes. And the craft matters. But a technically perfect piece of art—or a performance—won’t be as meaningful as a heartfelt one. The craft is the skeleton that carries your art, but without spirit it’s empty. And people can always tell.”
As soon as he says it, I know it’s truth.
Minute mistakes in craft—well, I should endeavor not to make them, but they aren’t, ultimately, what breaks the ceremony. Which also means executing them perfectly won’t make the ceremony, either.
“I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or terrifying,” I say.
Deniel smiles slightly. “Then we may make a professional artist of you yet.”
I let out a breath that’s half laughter, taking a bracing sip of my own tea. Lorwyn was right: this is very close to the traditional dark fire blend.
We sit there quietly, drinking tea, watching each other, being, as the rain starts to fall.
And then, all at once, to pour.
I hear a thump from the roof, and Deniel winces. “Excuse me. I should go make sure the bowl upstairs is in the right place.” He looks embarrassed. “The roof leaks when the rain comes down hard.”
“I don’t think that’s what that sound was,” I say. Now I’m embarrassed. “As much as I’ve been enjoying the way our evening has been going, would you mind terribly if I invited my guard inside?”
Deniel blinks. “He was on the roof?”
“He’s overly fond of dropping down from high places.”
He peers at me. “You’re not joking, are you? Yes, of course. No one should be exposed in weather like this.”
He’s right, of course, which is why I asked, but my silly dreams of curling up with Deniel are still dashed. I open the front door, stepping out of the way as Talsu darts inside as a blur of gray, and call over the shockingly loud rain, “Entero, come inside!”
He drops down in front of me instantly, and I back up to let him inside quickly. The wind whistles, and as I struggle to shove the door closed against the wind hands appear on both sides of me to help.
A pair of hands on each side, in fact.
Deniel and Entero eye each other warily.
“Deniel, this is Entero, my guard. Entero, this is Deniel, my—” I break off, not sure how to finish the sentence. We are friends, I suppose, but I don’t want to term us just friends.
Entero comes to the rescue. “If you ever do anything to hurt her, I will make sure there are too many pieces of you to ever be put back together.”
Or not. I whirl to face him, blocking his view of Deniel, my eyes narrowed. “Deniel, if Entero gives you so much as a paper cut, I will find a witch to cast something that will cause him no end of trouble.”
Entero’s eyes narrow at me in return. “You wouldn’t.”
“Make myself invisible and watch you fret yourself silly trying to locate me?” I ask evenly. “No, I probably wouldn’t.”
His eyes widen, and he scowls, realizing even if I won’t abuse the bargain I made with him before how very hard I can still make his life if provoked. “I didn’t think you were the type to play that game.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m the type that won’t stand for unwarranted disrespect.”
Entero leans sideways to see Deniel. “Do you feel better knowing where we stand now?” he asks, then smiles at me, the wickedest smile I’ve ever seen.
My jaw drops, and I know I’m blushing furiously again.
Behind me, Deniel says dryly, “I did wonder what your relationship was like. I see you get along well.”
“Is it too late to send him back out into the rain to drown?” I ask.
“Much,” Entero says easily, dodging out of the way before I’ve even thought of lifting a hand to mock-swipe at him. “Deniel, could I use your washroom for a few minutes please? I don’t want to soak your house.”
“Of course,” Deniel says. “I can bring you a change of clothes while they dry.”
Entero nods his thanks easily, like it is totally expected to give clothing to strangers in need.
And I suppose perhaps it is. The priestess at my dedication didn’t hesitate to give me her own slippers. But I’m still surprised to see Entero taking easily to any part of “normal” life.
“When the rain stops,” Entero says, “I can fix your roof for you, if you want.”
Is that a normal offer, too? But no, Deniel seems taken aback as well.
Entero catches my incredulous eye and shrugs. “You learn a lot of strange skills in my line of work.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’d be glad of the help,” Deniel says simply.
Now they’re both getting along, and I feel somehow more at sea than I did when Entero threatened him. When did I go mad?
“I’m going to make another pot of tea,” I say.
The rain lasts long enough for the three of us to have time to make dinner and eat together, with Talsu tucked in a corner of the couch watching us suspiciously, as though we’re to blame for the rain. Entero knows his way around a kitchen, too, though he looks slightly abashed when Deniel and I stare at the speed at which he chops vegetables. I knew he was good with knives, but I have a new level of appreciation for that level of precision with all knifework.
After dinner, even though Entero appears to nap on the floor, I can’t shake the feeling that we have a chaperone. Which perhaps is just as well: I don’t know where things were going with Deniel tonight, and I want to take care with him.
So Deniel and I study until Entero abruptly sits up and says, “The rain has stopped.”
“We should go then, before it starts up again,” I say regretfully, closing my book.
“You can keep my clothes for now, since yours won’t be dry yet,” Deniel offers to Entero. Then glances at me with a smile. “I imagine you may have an occasion to bring them back.”
I smile back. “I certainly hope so.”
“So, tomorrow then,” Entero says dryly and bows. “Thanks.”
Deniel bows in return. We catch each other’s eye, and there’s a spark there, and an understanding, but I don’t know what to do with it.
I follow Entero to the door, and then on an impulse I whirl and wrap my arms around Deniel.
He staggers back a step in surprise, but before I can be mortified for longer than a moment he quickly hugs me in return.
I have never felt so warm, not even falling asleep Risteri’s grandmother’s bed my first night here. And I have never been so aware of the pace of my heartbeat.
Finally, reluctantly, I let go. “Goodnight,” I whisper.
His smile is crooked and perfect. “Goodnight, Miyara.”
“Well?” I ask Entero as we leave.
“Now you’re asking what I think of him?”
“I’m going to strangle you,” I agree.
Entero snorts. “I like him. He’s not intimidated by you, and only a little by me.”
“He isn’t stupid,” I say.
“I know. That wasn’t a criticism.” Entero thinks for a moment, then shrugs, abandoning the effort to locate the correct words to describe his thoughts. “You two move well together.”
Or perhaps he found them after all.
“Thank you,” I say simply. And then, “Does this mean now you’ll actually knock on the door when you start falling off the roof?”
Entero glances at me sidelong. “Depends. Am I going to be… interrupting?”
I blush, looking away. “No.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll let you know if that becomes a concern.”
I might die of embarrassment having that conversation, but not as hard as if he appeared while Deniel and I were—
“I’d appreciate it,” Entero says. “Some things I’d strongly prefer not to walk in on, even in the name of duty.”
I sigh. “You are never, ever going to stop teasing me, are you.”
“I had no idea how easily the unflappable Miyara would fluster every time I as much as mention him,” Entero says cheerfully. “It’s possible the novelty might wear off with time.”
Would the idea of Deniel and I together ever not make me feel like this? I… am not sure I’d want that.
Which Entero, smirking at me, must realize.
“That’s it, we’re going to the Night Market,” I announce, and Entero sighs dramatically.
And I realize that if we had the introductions to do over again, while I’m still not sure how I would name Deniel, Entero I would want to introduce as my friend.
At the Night Market, Entero helps me bargain for a nice, simple candle that I can use for my altar.
And I pick out the fluffiest, warmest pair of socks I can find, and add them to my portable tea kit. A silly place for them, but I intend to carry it with me everywhere, and I never want to be without such a luxury again.
I’ll never forget what I promised myself my first night in Sayorsen, and it’s time I start making good on it.
With Ostario’s preservation spell active, I pick up two rice dumplings, too, and add them to the kit. I’ll never be without food, either, to have myself or to offer to someone else who’s hungry.
The portable tea kit is full now, and heavy, the weight of it uncomfortable.
After Entero escorts me to my door, I pause, weighing how tired I am. Then I take a moment to scoop up a handful of small rocks from outside, stones just like the ones Lorwyn had thrown at Risteri’s window that first night.
I rinse them in the kitchen, then layer them in the bowl I purchased from Thiano and fill it partially with water. Last the candle, wedged carefully up by the stones, and though my eyelids are heavy I dig around in the kitchen until I find a lighting tool, because this matters and I will see it done.
In the quiet of darkness, I bow, feeling, at last, like I’ve come home. “Spirits of earth, water, and air, be welcome in my home.”
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Continue to Chapter 19!