“I got your message to pick up cleaning supplies on my way in,” I tell Lorwyn when Entero and I arrive in the back. “I put the cost on Talmeri’s tab.” I heave them down on the floor, taking deep breaths.
“Why isn’t Grace ‘My Muscles are Chiseled from Stone’ Entero carrying any of this?” Lorwyn demands.
I can’t tell if Entero is amused or irritated as he replies, “I’m a guard, not a cargo animal.”
I put in, “After last night, Entero thinks it’s best to keep his hands as free as possible.”
Lorwyn frowns. “How do you already know what happened last night?”
I pause. “I’m talking about the council meeting last night, where I may have made an enemy of Lord Kustio. What are you talking about?”
“You did what?”
I glance at Entero, second-guessing my assumptions and assessment. “I admit I thought that might have been noteworthy enough to have spread.”
“It has,” he says. “It’s not you who’s the odd one here.”
Lorwyn says, “You’ll have to forgive me if I take some extra pains to distance myself from people when there’s a real possibility a mage may shortly come for me and then my family.”
“He won’t,” Entero and I both say in tandem.
Lorwyn rolls her eyes. “I expect that kind of naiveté from Miyara, but you, Entero? Come on.”
“That should tell you something,” Entero says.
“Yes, that you’ve taken leave of your senses, too!”
I interrupt, “Lorwyn, what did you think I knew?”
She gestures around the lab. “Look around.”
The shelves are messier than I thought they’d been when I left last night, but they’ve certainly been in worse states.
Entero, however, swears, and Lorwyn nods in grim satisfaction.
“Yeah,” she says. “Someone broke in. So far it doesn’t look like anything was taken, and it’s not like we have many extremely valuable things here anyway. But they also didn’t go to any trouble to make sure we didn’t know they’d been here.” To Entero she adds, “Don’t worry, I made sure the place was clear before you got here.”
Entero snaps, “Why don’t you have protections on the shop to keep this from happening in the first place?”
“Oh, should I just post an iridescent sign advertising a witch works here, then?”
“What about the tea pet?” he asks intently.
She blinks. “Well I can put protections on some things.”
Entero relaxes a fraction. “Just not on the whole shop. That would be too obvious.”
Lorwyn narrows her eyes, not sure what to make of this. “Yes.”
“So does someone want us to know they can break in?” I ask. “Or did they just not find what they were looking for?”
“Not sure,” she says. “We don’t have much that’s valuable here. Basically, at least right this second everything seems fine.”
“It’s not,” Entero says.
“I realize,” Lorwyn snaps. “But what I’m getting at is, since you’re about to go negotiate with Talmeri for this week’s salary, you should know that she’s in a mood. So, you know. Spirits guide you and all that.”
“My uncle is so excited to have a tea ceremony from a real live tea master,” Iskielo is crowing to Talmeri when I enter the front.
Talmeri looks venomous.
I cross quickly over to them while Entero checks to make sure there’s nothing amiss Lorwyn wouldn’t have noticed.
“Lorwyn just told me what happened,” I say. “Iskielo, have you had a chance to check whether anything is missing, or have you been cleaning the whole time?”
“Both,” he announces. “The inventory is so easy to check now! I’m almost as fast as Taseino now, and Meristo told me that would take months.”
“And was anything missing?”
“Except,” Talmeri says, “the dragon teapot, which Lorwyn tells me you took with you.”
“Ah,” I say. “Yes, I’m so glad I took it with me. Perhaps that’s what they were looking for.”
“Miyara,” Talmeri says with a small, tight smile, “I do hope you’re not serious. I’m sure you know that you can’t simply take things from the shop.”
“Oh, but look, she brought it back,” Iskielo says quickly as I extract it from my case and put it back on the shelf. “That’s just borrowing, right? I accidentally brought a towel home once.”
“I appreciate your support, Iskielo,” I manage to say without a hint of dryness in my tone. He must be utterly hopeless at keeping out of trouble. “But Talmeri would be correct that this is inappropriate.”
“Would?” Talmeri echoes, dangerously pleasant.
“This teapot was a gift to me, not the shop,” I remind her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize my taking it would come as a surprise to you, given the compensation we worked out last week and that you understood what I was working toward.”
Her smile vanishes. “Is that what this is about? You’re unhappy with the terms of our negotiation? That is why we established that every week—”
“We will renegotiate, yes,” I say. “But I think perhaps we should adjourn to your office? Iskielo—”
“Keep doing what I had you working on,” Talmeri cuts me off.
“Yeah, sure.” Iskielo bobs his head, apparently untroubled to find his managers arguing in front of him.
I follow Talmeri into her office, and she slams the door behind us.
“Let us keep one fact very clear,” she says. “You are not in charge here.”
“I’m aware of that,” I say. I knew she would take my overhaul of inventory as a challenge to her authority.
I counted on it.
“Do you? Because that means you don’t decide,” she continues, “who works here when. You don’t use my business to promise favors.”
“I didn’t promise any favors from you, since those are not mine to give,” I say. “I promised them something I am solely responsible for. You made me responsible for inventory, grace, and I have taken that responsibility seriously. I’m sorry we seem to have had a misunderstanding about how this was supposed to work. Perhaps, in the future, if you don’t want me to be so responsible for a task, could you give me more specifics when you task me with it? Maybe that will help alleviate potential future confusion.”
I hold her gaze steadily, not bothering to mask my expression or tone.
Talmeri narrows her eyes. “Perhaps before we go any further we should take some time to discuss the scope of your position.”
“I agree,” I say. “Fortunately, the new inventory system is helping the boys serve customers more efficiently, so I think it’s time for to open the tea ceremony room.”
Talmeri frowns. “Already?”
“No time to waste,” I say, not giving her time to regroup. “I got the portable set to practice, and so I have been. I have some thoughts for aesthetic changes to make to the room that I’d like your feedback on before we discuss the advance, but more to the point you’re much more familiar with both running this business as well as the shop’s clientele. I thought perhaps we could discuss the best way for the shop to present this new avenue and work that out together.”
Talmeri studies me, clearly suspicious, probably thinking I hold a grudge after last week and want to steal her ideas.
But not, ultimately, so suspicious to outweigh how much she wants this for her shop, now.
“Let’s discuss, then,” she says.
In the end, we decide I’ll start offering two ceremonies in each shift to begin with, at a discounted rate since I’ll still be practicing—and that will also serve as part of her marketing scheme to help entice people who will then spread the word, the prospect of enacting which has brought out her shark smile.
And in the end, I don’t have to exchange any further words with her on the subject of my compensation and how she deals with me. The substantially heavier weight of the bag of marks speaks for itself.
Talmeri sticks around for a while after our meeting to work on her plans, though she bustles out of her office regularly to help customers.
So she’s on hand when Iskielo starts to greet a new customer, and freezes.
Maveno saunters in.
“Maveno,” Talmeri greets him in an admirable approximation of warmth. “What a surprise to see you again so soon. How can we be of service to you?”
“Oh,” he says smirking, “not to me.”
He holds the door open with a flourish.
I understand an instant before Lord Kustio himself enters the tea shop.
All our customers are on their feet at once, bowing. Kustio savors their deference for too long a moment before dismissively waving it away.
I step away from the tea kiosk toward Kustio—but not all the way. And bow, only slightly more deeply than one grace would to another.
“Lord Kustio, what an honor to meet you in person, so soon after our introduction last night,” I say. “Iskielo, will you fetch Entero from the back, please?”
“No need to trouble yourself to bring backup on our account,” Maveno says.
I bow again. “I will endeavor not to disappoint such faith in my abilities, but I’m sure the lord’s business will command much of my attention. I would hate for our other customers to go unattended while I’m occupied. Iskielo, please.”
Iskielo flees. He’ll blurt out who’s here the second he’s in the lab, and Entero will make sure he doesn’t follow him back to the front.
“Lord Kustio,” Talmeri says, crossing the room to bow herself. “I’m humbled to have you grace our establishment. To what do we owe the gift of your presence?”
“Nothing to fret over, Talmeri, I assure you,” Kustio says kindly, turning his gaze to me. “I was interested in meeting the tea aspirant in more… private circumstances, and when I heard about the unique piece that’s recently come into your possession I decided to make the long trip downtown.”
As if it’s such an arduous journey from his estate, when I walk it every day.
“You must mean the dragon teapot,” Talmeri says, not quite masking her relief at a request she can meet, as Entero enters the room.
The movement attracts Maveno’s attention, and he studies Entero with interest. Except for a perfunctory bow, my guard appears to ignore him.
“Entero, please keep an eye on the front while we assist Lord Kustio and Maveno,” I say.
“Of course,” he answers. The customers won’t protest when he does the bare minimum.
I cross the room to where Talmeri is regaling Kustio with a much-edited tale of how the teapot is, where Kustio’s whole expression has sharpened on the image of the teapot itself.
I arrive just in time for him to ask to have it, her to hold it out for him unthinkingly, and me to pluck it gently from her hands.
“I’m afraid this teapot is not available,” I say with a bow. “My sincerest apologies.”
Talmeri tenses. “I’m sure Lord Kustio meant to ask to hold it for a moment, nothing more, Miyara.”
“On the contrary,” Kustio says, focusing on me, and I grip the teapot a little more tightly. “Grace Miyara has the right of it. Can you not make a gift of this teapot? To me?”
Talmeri hesitates. “This… is highly irregular, my Lord.”
Behind us, Maveno says, mildly, “And?”
He says nothing else, and neither does Kustio, waiting expectantly, but nor do they need to. The threat is clear.
Talmeri clenches her jaw and won’t meet my eyes. “I suppose—”
“I truly regret that it’s not possible,” I say. “As Grace Talmeri described, this teapot was given to me, not the shop, and it came with a condition I will be unable to meet if I pass it on to you.”
Kustio watches me, almost amused. “I would very much like this teapot,” he drawls. “I’m confident you can work something out to meet any other… conditions.”
“I am pleased by your confidence.” I bow. “Nevertheless.”
Maveno prompts behind me, “Nevertheless?”
Talmeri jumps. I don’t take my eyes off Kustio.
“The teapot is mine, and I cannot be persuaded to part with it,” I say.
“Do you think,” Kustio says, “you are being entirely reasonable?”
As if he is behaving reasonably.
Then again, his guard is entirely in favor of his intimidating behavior, while my guard is glaring daggers. But he has not employed any actual daggers, nor tried to intervene, so it’s possible the daggers he glares are as much for Kustio as for me.
Entero’s instincts, truly, are not those of a bodyguard.
“I admit,” I say, “I am quite curious about your sudden attachment to this object you’ve evidently never encountered before. Does it hold some special significance for you, my Lord?” Beyond being a means through which to publicly demonstrate he can bend me to his will.
“I believe an object of such value should be treated with the utmost care,” he says. “I have the resources to provide for such, when even a respectable shop like Grace Talmeri’s might encounter… difficulties.”
Does he mean the break-in, or is he threatening to raise her rent again? “There are many kinds of care,” I say. “Monetary support is one, of course, but so is time, attention, and experience. And I suspect I am not so greatly burdened with treasures to care for as a person of your stature.”
“Is that so,” Kustio muses. He runs his hand along a shelf like it belongs to him. “Perhaps when you have so few things, they become more precious to you. Harder to share. I suppose it’s true of people as well, isn’t it?”
“I don’t own any people, my Lord,” I say. “Nor do you.”
Talmeri sucks in a breath, and Maveno chuckles quietly behind us.
The tea room, I suddenly realize, is too quiet.
I glance toward Entero, and he promptly drops a tray carrying a full tea set. All the customers turn toward him, begin offering to help clean up.
Spirits bless him, he was already prepared for the moment I wouldn’t want them to hear whatever Kustio was about to say to me.
“Don’t we? Are there not people you would claim as yours? Our family,” he says, idly toying with another pot that sits on the shelf.
I scarcely dare to breathe, waiting for him to reveal that he knows, of course he knows, how many other people in Sayorsen know I was—
“Our friends,” Kustio continues, and glances back at me, “and theirs. The owner of that exquisite tea pet, for instance. I do wonder what Mage Ostario would make of it.”
I was so prepared for a different axe to fall it takes me a moment to recognize what he actually knows, to process that the reality is even worse than what he could have known.
Beside me, Talmeri’s eyes widen, and I watch her whiten as she realizes what he must mean.
I risk a glance, in time to see Entero deftly cutting Maveno off from entering the back door.
As evenly as I can, I say, “I don’t believe Mage Ostario has time to appreciate lost pottery restoration arts.”
“I think in this case,” Lord Kustio says, “he could be persuaded to make the time. I think he would be very interested to see an object so… magical. One way or another. Don’t you?”
Until that point, I was, if on edge, still calm. And I am, still, somehow. In a way.
But I am also incandescent with rage. He thinks to trade Lorwyn’s safety for a teapot?
May the spirits guide me, but I will not continue on as I have.
“Are you so concerned with winning the investigator’s favor, then?” I asked. “How curious. Perhaps you should consider your family. I’m sure your daughter would be happy to help anyone she considers hers.”
“Ah, my daughter.” Lord Kustio shakes his head gently. “My daughter thinks she can come and go as she pleases, but she was not so careful as a child, you know. She did not have so many friends it took significant resources to work out how she was managing it. I have, I assure you, deeply considered my daughter in this matter.”
That bodes poorly, but I’m not sure he realizes what she’s really doing in the Cataclysm. I’m certainly not about to draw his attention there. “I had wondered why,” I say, “with her considerable skills, Risteri chooses to return people’s stolen objects. I begin to apprehend what she is attempting to compensate for.”
Talmeri’s voice emerges strangled. “Miyara!”
“Now, now, grace, I think we are finally beginning to understand each other,” Kustio says, looking down his nose at me with a smug smile.
“We do indeed,” I say. I’ve learned what I can; it’s time to end this. “And I regret to inform you that teapot is the only one I own, and I have been using it to practice for my tea mastery. I require continual access to it, so any attempt to part me from it would interfere with my training.”
“Are you quite certain it’s so crucial?” His eyes glitter. “I would hate for a contested claim among the tea masters’ guild to cost your prospects. You have such… promise.”
“I’m afraid within the guild, the word of a tea aspirant can only be gainsaid by that of a tea master,” I say.
And the prospect of that censure is enough to give even this awful man pause.
But not to back off; just to try another mode of attack.
He bows, mocking, and steps in closer to me. “You are new in town,” he murmurs in my ear, “so I will warn you this once. I always get what I want, in the end.”
“I will take that under advisement,” I say. “Good day, Lord Kustio.”
The entire tea room barely dares to breathe as Lord Kustio, haughty and undaunted as ever, and Maveno, smirking, take their leave.
Talmeri spares a smile and a few words of social easing nonsense for our customers before dragging me into her office.
“Miyara, I know you don’t like him,” she begins fervently.
“An extreme understatement,” I say.
“But that doesn’t change the fact that you just made a very bad mistake making an enemy of him. And you’re clever enough to understand how bad.”
“Yes,” I agree.
“But it’s not too late to fix this,” she says. “We’ll let some time pass—not too long, mind you, we don’t want to give him time to set anything else in motion—but we can set up a meeting, later, and you can apologize—”
“—and hand over the spirits-cursed teapot—”
“I won’t let him bully me,” I say. “Never again.”
“Oh, well, there’s a fine principle,” she snaps, “but a teapot is not worth Lorwyn’s life!”
She does understand. I’m relieved to know that she wants to do what’s right, that she knows what that is. But even Talmeri cannot afford the risk she senses, and her apprehension of what’s at stake is not misguided.
I cover her hands with mine. “The tea pet can be hidden,” I say steadily. “If Kustio had any other hard evidence against Lorwyn, he’d have used it to threaten his daughter with years ago.”
She tears her hands away. “Don’t you understand? He’ll just make something up!”
“Exactly,” I say. “Which means that whether I give him the teapot doesn’t matter. And so I won’t give him anything.”
She shakes her head. “Mark my words, Miyara, making trouble for a man like Kustio can only backfire.”
“Don’t worry. You can always fire me, which will please him, and I know you can spin that in a way that will keep any fallout from blowing back on the shop.”
“This isn’t about the shop!” she cries. “It’s not safe, Miyara, for you. You don’t understand what he can do to you.”
“I do,” I say quietly. “But I’m not here to have a safe life. I’m here to have a meaningful one. He is not the first person to pressure me into being someone I do not want.”
“Oh, is that so? Was that before or after you showed up here with nothing to your name?”
She meant that to sting; it doesn’t. “Before, of course.” I smile. “And I won what mattered.”
“Then I’d hate to see what losing looks like,” she snaps.
“And you won’t,” I tell her.
Disgusted, she storms out of the office.
I take a breath, pull my portable case from where I’d set it earlier, and carefully set the dragon teapot back inside.
“I hope,” Entero says, closing the door behind him, “you don’t think you’re going to keep carrying on your person the thing he actively wants to steal.”
It had to have been Kustio’s people who’d broken in, if they knew about the tea pet hidden in the back under magical protections.
“You missed the other piece,” I say. “He suggested the tea pet as an alternative magical item.”
Entero’s eyes narrow. “He came here looking for the teapot and found the tea pet.”
“He came here looking for magic,” I say, “and he found it.”
“You think this is one of the pieces of contraband Ostario’s tracking the source of?”
“I’ll tell Ostario just in case, but if it were, I don’t know why Kustio would be trying so hard to get it,” I say. “It seems like that would just implicate him in the smuggling operation, doesn’t it?”
“Which means,” Entero says, “Kustio knows something about this teapot neither Lorwyn, a shockingly powerful witch, nor Ostario, both a witch and a shockingly accomplished mage, do.”
“Or suspects,” I agree. “And if the teapot is something he wants, it’s something I’m going to go to great pains to keep.”
Entero watched until I’d finished sealing the tea case. “What are you planning?”
I close my eyes. “It’s not enough,” I whisper. “It’s not enough to stall Kustio. It’s not enough to resist him.”
“He threatened Lorwyn,” Entero says darkly. And then after a moment he adds, “And you. But I don’t think you care about that.”
“He threatened Lorwyn,” I agree. “And he did so at least in part to punish Risteri. But if he ruins Risteri’s or my prospects here, we will be able to recover. Lorwyn doesn’t have that luxury.”
“She doesn’t belong to you, no matter what Kustio says,” Entero tells me. “And she will hate you if she finds out you put yourself in danger to protect her.”
“Oh, I don’t intend to hide it from her. It’s time to find out where Kustio’s money is coming from.” I meet Entero’s now gleaming eyes. “It’s time to take him down for good.”
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