“Wow,” Risteri breathes once I’ve finished performing the tea ceremony for her in the cottage. “You really are good at this.”
“Not good enough, yet,” I say. The deprecation is out before I can stop it, so I wince and add, “But thank you.”
Risteri nods. “Yeah, a tea master performed the ceremony for me once,” she says. “You’re not quite there, but I can definitely tell you’re good enough to be there soon.”
I let out a breath. It’s an odd kind of relief to hear her echo aloud what I know rather than heaping false praise. This I can accept more easily, and perhaps that is its own kind of failure.
The cottage door bangs open. “You called?” Lorwyn demands, then freezes when she sees Risteri.
She turns on her heel to walk right back out, but Entero blocks the exit.
“Move,” Lorwyn says.
“I have faith that you can manage to contain your natural urge to lash out for a few minutes,” Entero says.
“And why do you think that?”
“Because I’m still here,” he says, closing the door behind them both.
Lorwyn crosses her arms and glares at me. “Talk fast.”
“Yes,” Risteri says, setting her cup down and turning from watching Lorwyn with Entero to watching me with narrowed eyes. “I also didn’t know this was a setup.”
Lorwyn scoffs, and Risteri rolls her eyes.
“She did not,” I confirm, for whatever chance there is of Lorwyn believing me. “I apologize for inviting you both here under false pretenses, but this pertains to you both.”
I take a sip of tea, centering myself, or perhaps bracing myself for what I’m about to start.
“Risteri,” I say, “are you aware that your father has bought up nearly seventy percent of the city to force gentrification to drive the Gaellani out of Sayorsen?”
“What?” Risteri echoes.
But so does Lorwyn. “Seventy?” she demands. “Since when?”
“The city council was surprised too,” I say.
Risteri is shaking her head. “No. He can’t possibly have.”
Lorwyn shoots her a look. “You’ve met your father.”
Risteri glares back. “I’m also a scion of House Taresim. I know what assets he has access to through the House, and there is no way he could afford something that.”
“But,” Lorwyn says, “you’re not surprised that he would.”
Risteri looks away. “Not as surprised as I’d like to be. I have, as you pointed out, met my father.”
“But of course you didn’t know.”
“I believe you,” I tell Risteri.
“Oh, I believe her too,” Lorwyn says. “That’s the problem.”
“The point,” I say with a quelling glance at Lorwyn, “is that no one seems to know where Kustio’s funds are coming from. Not the city council, not a member of his own House, and not… Entero.”
Lorwyn and Risteri both regard Entero, Lorwyn frowning, Risteri speculative. Neither seems surprised that this is the sort of thing he would know about.
“Kustio has an underground operation of some kind, but I haven’t penetrated it yet,” Entero says, leaning back against the door casually.
“And coincidentally,” I say, “Mage Ostario is here to investigate a smuggling operation of untraceable magical objects.”
“Which may actually be a coincidence,” Entero says, “since it’s likely Ostario was sent here for unrelated political reasons.”
“But Kustio did show up at Talmeri’s yesterday to demand a very special teapot from me,” I say. “Which I’m sure is at least in part because he knew it was mine. But it might also be because he knows something else about it.”
“Wait, stop right there,” Risteri says. “Why is my father interested in you at all?”
Ah. “Because I had the gall to publicly suggest he shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against Gaellani.”
Lorwyn throws up her hands in disgust. “I should have known.”
Risteri has gone rigid. “Miyara, no,” she says. “I mean, obviously I support that worldview, but you have no idea what he can do to you.”
“He can’t,” I say.
“You don’t understand.”
“I’m a tea aspirant,” I say. “I leveraged that to pit myself against him, which affords me a certain amount of protection. What he can do to me isn’t the problem. The problem is that I hadn’t realized he knows about Lorwyn. If he can’t get at me directly, he’s going to go for her.”
The blood drains from Risteri’s face.
“Breathe,” Entero says quietly, and I glance at Lorwyn in time to watch her expression move from shock, to fear, to anger.
“That is the fourth time my witchcraft has been discovered since you came to town,” she snarls.
“No, it isn’t,” I say calmly, though with Lorwyn I fear she may take that worse. “Kustio’s daughter started vanishing from underneath his nose, and she was previously known to have a public association with exactly one person. He’s known for years, and he’s been keeping quiet, waiting to blackmail Risteri with it for years. Which makes me ask, why issue the threat now?”
“Spirits take you, I DO NOT CARE,” Lorwyn spits. “And if you expect me to be grateful that you’ve deigned to tell me my life and that of my family is in danger—”
Definitely worse. “I don’t—”
“Save it,” she snaps. “I’m getting out while I can.” She whirls on Entero and says dangerously, “Move.”
He does not.
Instead my guard looks her in the eye and tells her, “If I thought you were in imminent danger from Kustio, he’d already be dead.”
That arrests Lorwyn, long enough for Risteri and me to exchange alarmed looks at all the implications there.
Long enough for Entero to continue, “You should know I don’t share Miyara’s worldview or her privilege, and I don’t expect you to. If you want to run, I won’t stop you.”
Lorwyn starts, “How very generous—”
“But if you stay, we can fight him. And we can win.”
Lorwyn stares at him for a long moment.
Then she turns to me and says flatly, “Get to the point. Fast.”
She’s still here, and listening. I bow quickly and, keeping my face impassive, say, “Kustio has wanted Risteri to stop acting out for years now.”
Risteri nods in confirmation. “So if he hasn’t threatened me with exposing her before, he must have been saving it for something.”
“And if he’s willing to reveal it now, it means something has changed,” I say. “Since the city can’t stop him from taking over, it must be Ostario’s presence. He’ll sacrifice this play he’s been holding onto for years to keep Ostario from finding him out.”
“Great, fabulous, my witchcraft his favorite huge secret and he’s up to no good,” Lorwyn says. “The point, Miyara.”
“The point is that no reason has been enough for him to come forward with that before now, because he needs to keep knowledge of what he’s up to from getting out. And since the only person before now who would care if he went public with your witchcraft is his daughter, he’s been holding onto that expecting that one day she would find out.”
“The people in the Cataclysm,” Risteri breathes. “He does know where they are.”
“Oh, come on,” Lorwyn says.
“Risteri,” I say, “has spent years looking for them in the Cataclysm and hasn’t been able to find them.”
“Because they’re not there.”
“That may be, but something is, or someone,” I say. “We saw the same eyes Risteri remembers in the Cataclysm weeks ago. And if Kustio, with all his resources, used magic to block whatever he has going on there, of course Risteri can’t find it alone, no matter how well she can navigate the Cataclysm. But you, a witch, might be able to.”
“Oh, so this is somehow my fault again?”
“Obviously it’s Kustio’s fault,” I snap. “But Ostario is here because there are magical objects that can’t be traced, which means they’re unknown magic, which suggests they could have come from the Cataclysm. Kustio is worried what Ostario will find, and he’s been waiting to blackmail the two of you specifically for years. Are there other potentially world-altering secrets you both stumbled on as children?”
They exchange a long look.
“So we find whatever he’s hiding,” I say. “And we end him with it.” My heart is beating rapidly, but my voice is calm. “We end the grip he has over the Gaellani, and the city, and both of you.” I meet Risteri’s wide eyes with my own. “If you think you can do it. It’s no small thing, to betray your family.”
And here is the next obstacle. It’s a risk, making clear to her that my plan involves her deliberately opposing her family. But she deserves to know before she chooses.
And Lorwyn isn’t wrong: she should have known before.
Risteri shakes her head. “He betrayed me, and if you’re right, it’s worse than I ever knew.” She closes her eyes. “Or worse than I was willing to believe. But I don’t claim anyone as family who would do what he has. I won’t.” She takes a breath, squares her shoulders. “I’m in. Lorwyn?”
Before I’ve had time to take a relieved breath, Lorwyn says, “No.”
“What’s your plan, cut off his money and then turn him over to the police?” she asks me. “So then he gets arrested, blames everything on the witch, and he goes free while I get executed. Do you think I was born yesterday?”
We’re all silent.
I’m not sure anyone in this room can protect her from that. I’m neither a princess nor a tea master, and my word vouching for her won’t make a difference. Risteri’s might, if she gains favor by turning her father in, but she could just as easily lose favor for betraying her family, or for being tarred with the same brush as House Taresim. And if Entero tries to go public, given his real line of work and the secrets he could expose, I wonder, uneasily, if he’d even be allowed the chance to.
Lorwyn snorts. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
Entero says, “I can forge a trail that indicates you registered years ago.”
Oh, sweet spirits, I’m ridiculous. Here I’ve been dwelling on death and honor and justice. I restrain the urge to smack myself in the face, instead praying a brief thank you to the spirits for Entero. At least someone here is practical.
“Oh, and I’m supposed to trust you?” Lorwyn asks.
He shrugs. “You can’t change what Kustio knows, Lorwyn. You’re going to have to deal with it somehow.”
“Wait,” Risteri says. “Can you just change what he knows?”
I blink, arrested by all the implications of that question.
“No,” Lorwyn says shortly.
“But what if—”
Risteri pauses. “Did you try on me?”
“Of course not,” Lorwyn snaps. “I’d have melted your brain. I’m sure it’s possible for some witch, but my witchcraft works best on physical things. So I could melt your father’s brain, but that’s not likely to convince anyone there shouldn’t be a witch hunt.” She closes her eyes. “And if Kustio figured out our connection that easily, it’s too much to hope for no one else could.”
“Oh,” Risteri says. She purses her lips, and then asks Entero, “Could you just kill him? That seems like it would solve our problems.”
Perhaps I should be dismayed that everyone around me is quite so practical.
Perhaps I should be dismayed the notion doesn’t offend me more. Perhaps I am less concerned with justice than vengeance, after all, and perhaps it’s past time I visit the shrine again to evaluate what I am in truth coming to stand for.
Entero doesn’t look at Lorwyn when he answers. “Even outside of House Taresim, your father’s security is tight, and a lot of it’s magic-based. I’m confident I could kill him, but I’m less confident I would survive the attempt.”
Lorwyn stares at him, no doubt realizing what he’s just admitted in light of his earlier promise.
“It would not be my first choice of plan,” Entero says, “but it makes for a solid backup.”
Lorwyn erupts. “Don’t be stupid!”
“I’m not,” Entero says, still not looking at her. “I’m making a rational assessment of the risks involved.”
“In any case,” I interrupt, sensing that argument rapidly morphing into one I should not be overhearing, “if we can’t find what Kustio’s hidden in the Cataclysm on our own, we might need him alive.”
And then I frown in concern at Risteri, who, of all possible reactions, is laughing.
“I knew it,” Risteri manages to say, looking at Lorwyn in some combination of fondness and sadness. “I knew someday something would matter to you besides your own skin. Even if it wasn’t me.”
Lorwyn snarls, “And I knew someday you and your obliviousness would be the death of me, and here we are.”
“So are we agreed?” I ask. “You’ll help find whatever Kustio has hidden in the Cataclysm?”
Lorwyn and Risteri exchange a long, weighted look.
A knock sounds at the door, and we all jump.
All, that is, except Entero, who says, “It’s Glynis.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Risteri asks.
“Recognize the footsteps,” Entero says.
“See how infuriating he is?” Lorwyn mutters.
“Does anyone have an objection to letting her in?” I ask.
“She’s already interrupted our portentous moment,” Risteri says. “Might as well.”
Lorwyn nods, and Entero opens the door.
Glynis darts inside, and as the door shuts behind her she looks the group of us, one at a time.
And sighs. “Well. I guess it was inevitable, then.”
“What are you on about?” Lorwyn asks.
“I have a message from Talmeri,” she says grimly to me. “It’s for Miyara, but I think you all need to hear it.”
My heart jumps into my throat. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.
Probably it’s something else, but part of me can’t help worry he’s found out about me and this is how Risteri and Lorwyn will learn of it. Then how will they trust me? And why should I deserve it?
“Let’s hear it,” I manage.
Glynis takes a breath. “Kustio has filed a motion with the city council to move up the lease termination date on Talmeri’s shop,” she says.
“What?” I gasp. “How? Can that work?”
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask Deniel, but Talmeri thinks so,” Glynis says. “At least for the legal explanation. As far as interfering with your tea mastery training, apparently this also checks out, so there’s no out there. And Talmeri also told me to tell you nothing she said could change his mind.”
“What does that mean?” Risteri asks.
“That she volunteered to fire me,” I say, thinking fast. “Possibly also that she volunteered to steal the teapot from me for him.”
“What? Wait, you didn’t give him the teapot?”
“Of course not.”
Lorwyn cuts in, “Why did she try to fire you, for him?”
“It was my idea,” I explain. “As a backup. Apparently not a sufficient one.” Spirits, I’d underestimated him. This wasn’t good. “Glynis, how long does Talmeri’s have before—”
We all freeze.
“A week?” I echo faintly.
“One week. And then time’s up.”
One week, and then Talmeri’s will be gone.
And so will my job—I’ll be back to having no money, and no chance of getting another job in Sayorsen, not if Kustio has anything to say about it. And he will.
But what matters more is that I’ll lose the support Talmeri has given me to become a tea master. I won’t just fail her and the shop; I’ll fail Sayorsen, leaving the people here neither a tea aspirant or tea master to stand up for them.
One week, and Lorwyn will lose her haven.
One week, and Kustio will win.
And it seems like such a silly thing to dwell on, but my chest constricts with the knowledge that in one week, I’ll have failed myself. I finally decided to do something, finally decided I wanted it, and tried—and in just one week, I will have failed. Just like that.
“So,” Glynis says, “I guess I see the answer on your face, but the last part of the message is Talmeri asking if you can be ready to take the tea ceremony exam next week.”
My heart thumps.
Risteri says incredulously, “She wants Miyara to what?”
“Well, Talmeri’s officially lost it,” Lorwyn mutters. “This whole situation must have driven her fully mad.”
One week. One week to master the art of tea.
“Well?” Glynis asks. “Want me to tell her no?”
“I’m thinking,” I say.
Risteri and Lorwyn both pause, looking at me, then at each other. Probably thinking I’ve gone mad, too.
But what do I have to lose?
Entero answers before I can. “By your own logic, this means Kustio must think he has at least a week of grace to get you. So everything else he’s planning will be on hold for at least that long, too.”
“Do you think I can do it?” I ask him.
“What I think about it has never mattered,” he says. Reminds me, perhaps.
One week, to succeed in full, or to fail, completely.
I look at Lorwyn. “I think I may need some help.”
Mindful of Glynis’ presence, Risteri says, “I have some preparations to make before we can… do what we were talking about anyway. That kind of, uh, trip, is a little different than my usual fare. But I can start while you two… try.”
One week, to determine whether I can, and will, be able to make my way alone.
I meet at each of my friends’ gazes in turn, see the belief in them.
Not that I’ll succeed.
That I won’t give up.
That I can be the person that I want to be.
One week, to follow my chosen path. To serve.
“Tell Talmeri,” I say to Glynis, “I’ll be ready. Let’s get to work.”
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