The world looks different inside Lorwyn’s magic.
I can see all the same things as my friends, but I still can’t understand how we progress. I don’t know what track it is that Risteri is following, I don’t know what Lorwyn does to counteract magical interference—only that she does something, as my stomach is a riot of sensing witchcraft—and I don’t know how they both apprehend the manifestations of the Cataclysm in our path and circumvent them.
I watch them move, circling around me in a dance, never letting go of my hands.
And I don’t let go of theirs.
I match their rhythm, and I move forward, drawing us all inexorably through the shining abyss.
Finally we arrive, just as before, Risteri and Lorwyn shaking from the exertion of protecting someone who cannot protect herself so deep in the Cataclysm.
I’m safe with my friends, even without Entero to guard me. Which is good, considering what’s to come.
Then darkness passes over us, a cloud blocking the light.
I hear the snap of enormous wings, and look up to see their shadow dissipating in the air.
A woman drops in front of us, slamming into the ground hard enough to leave a small crater. Dust billows into our faces.
When I can stop using my arms to block the dust from my eyes, I see it’s the same woman we noticed before.
The one whose eyes we saw in the shape of a dragon weeks ago.
She is staring, intently, at Risteri.
“You returned,” she says in a throaty voice.
Risteri swallows. “I was always returning,” she rasps out.
“Why?” the woman asks, and tilts her head, studying Lorwyn’s aura. “What is this?”
“Lorwyn, let it go,” I say.
“Do you really think that’s a good idea?” Lorwyn asks, eyes narrowed on the woman whose attention has turned to us.
But Lorwyn is willing to follow my lead, and Risteri waits for my decision, too.
This is my task, now, and they’re trusting me not to get them killed.
I nod, and before my eyes have finished adjusting I know the moment Lorwyn drops it because I feel heat emanating off the woman before us like she’s a fire.
I gather myself and bow. “It is an honor to meet you. I am Miyara of Istalam, and I would speak with your leader.”
Her eyes narrow. “I am Sa Nikuran, and I say again. Why?”
“I would hear from Sa Rangim how I may serve you,” I say.
And then says, “Follow me.”
We do. I try to exchange glances with my companions, but Lorwyn is studying Risteri, whose gaze is fixed firmly on Sa Nikuran. It is not hard to see why: against the bland landscape, Sa Nikuran is like the slash of an ink stroke, perfectly executed, her features sharp but her movements smooth.
We reach a set of boulders like a gate, and another Te Muraka steps out. They exchange words with Sa Nikuran and vanish.
She leads us through the boulders to an arched tunnel of rock, which we pass through to a wide circle enclosed by stones.
Sized, perhaps, for a dragon.
“Wait now,” Sa Nikuran says.
“For what?” Risteri blurts.
Sa Nikuran cuts a glance at her. “Te Murak.”
It is soon clear what she means, as Te Muraka file through the archway and take up positions behind stones, and I count as best I can. They number in the dozens.
But not the hundreds.
And then the sky darkens, and I look up to see it is filled with dragons, soaring in.
They circle high above us, and some descend to land behind their brethren outside the circle, each alighting a boom that shakes the very ground.
“Miyara, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Lorwyn whispers in my ear.
“Indeed,” Sa Nikuran says, stepping in front of us.
Her form blurs, and she launches into the air.
And right above us, she transforms into a crimson dragon.
The first pump of her wings sends such a torrent of air down that we’re flattened on the ground.
I already understood that these people are dragons, or I thought I did. But now not only is the evidence incontrovertible, I begin to feel, in my bones, what that means.
By the time I’m able to take to my feet again, Sa Nikuran is directly above the circle. Her head draws back, and then she exhales a jet of flame.
Frozen, I can only watch in awe as the flame hits the rocks that surround us, starting from the arched gate. Sa Nikuran turns, meticulously breathing her precise flame around the circle, leaving us sealed in radiant obsidian.
And with that display of the degree and discipline of Te Muraka power, only then does Sa Rangim enter.
He is as imposing as I remember. But although I feel his heat, it is more muted than Sa Nikuran’s—not a slap, but a controlled burn.
And, I understand, more dangerous for it.
“I am Sa Rangim, of Te Murak,” he says, inclining a bow toward me.
At the perfectly correct angle for a ruler greeting a foreign dignitary. I bow in return, two shades deeper, covering my surprise. Given their acceptance of Kustio’s arguments, I’d thought them largely ignorant of Istalam, but that is apparently not a complete picture.
“I am Miyara of Istalam,” I reply. “My companions, Lorwyn and Risteri. Thank you for your grace in meeting us.”
“Your companions,” he rumbles, “do not merit your place name?”
“They merit whatever names they choose for themselves,” I say. “Names are more than places; they are families and homes.”
“A courtesy,” I say, “to them.”
Sa Rangim waits expectantly.
Lorwyn says, “Lorwyn Witch of the Gaellani.”
“I see,” he says, and turns to Risteri.
After a moment, she says, “Risteri of Sayorsen.”
“You hesitated,” he notes. “Do you not customarily introduce yourself thus?”
Risteri looks at me in query, and I nod. “No. Until recently I introduced myself as Risteri of Taresim.”
The name registers. “You are with Kustio, then?”
“No. But he is my birth father.”
“You renounce him, then.”
“Emphatically. But the city of Sayorsen is my home.”
Sa Rangim circles all of us, studying. I’m close enough to see the tiny hairs on the back of Lorwyn’s neck standing on end, be it because of magic or her natural sense of danger.
But although I have deduced Sa Rangim is not to be trifled with, my hackles are not raised. Which is curious and not, clearly, reciprocal.
How can I make him see we are not like Kustio? Because that is where we must begin, if we are to move forward.
“And you, the witch, the Gaellani,” Sa Rangim says. “You do not claim Istalam either.”
Lorwyn scowls, and I silently urge her not to slam Istalam in front of all the Te Muraka. “Istalam’s welcome of witches and Gaellani has varied,” she bites out.
I dare to breathe. A far more diplomatic response than I would have expected—or than Istalam may deserve.
But then Sa Rangim’s attention is back on me. “But you claim Istalam,” he says.
“I do,” I say. “I am a daughter of the queen, and serving the people of Istalam is my purpose.”
There is a rustle at that, and only then do I realize not just how eerily silent the Te Muraka have been, but now that even from a distance they can hear us.
“You keep saying you are here to serve,” Sa Rangim says. “How do you propose to do so?”
Tomorrow, I don’t know.
Today, I do.
I set my tea case on the ground and bow over it. “Sa Rangim, if I may, before we continue meeting each other, I would be honored to serve you tea.”
He cocks his head, considering me. “The tea ceremony,” he says. “I witnessed one, long ago. You are an adept at its practice?”
The ease of the certainty in my words startles me a little, but at the same time I feel as though a lock has clicked into place inside me.
I will never claim the title of tea master, now. But I am adept, certification or no.
“Very well,” he says. “How do we begin?”
I bow. “Could I prevail upon you for water?”
“We will provide water,” he agrees, and instants later a Te Muraka appears at his side with a glass pitcher. “Will this be sufficient?”
“More than,” I say, and turn to Lorwyn. “Will you heat it for me, please?”
“How will she heat it?” Sa Rangim interrupts.
“With your permission, with witchcraft.”
His eyes narrow. “We can create fire for you.”
“I do not need fire,” I explain. “The pieces I have on hand will not tolerate an open flame. I need the water heated to a specific temperature to correctly brew these particular leaves.”
The blue dragon’s blend. Perhaps it is best not to name aloud, now. Lorwyn can see what it is clearly enough.
She puts in, “It will barely take any magic. I doubt you will notice the difference.”
“I will,” Sa Rangim says, “but you may proceed.”
“Then please, be seated,” I say, and glance over my shoulder. “Both of you too, please.” The Te Muraka can lurk if they wish, but it will not create a good experience for the guest if all of us are looming.
I carefully set out the tea set, shuffling the sweet buns and socks inside so as not to interfere with my impression, and reflect on what I am about to do. This is no private ceremony, and the guest has little idea of what to expect. This is no tea room, and I can’t control any of the atmospheric variables.
I can control myself.
But I won’t.
This is the tea ceremony in its barest form. There is no bridge but what I make, what I bring, so I must bring all of myself.
And I am not afraid.
I am a surging wave.
Sa Rangim takes in the image of the teapot, and me behind it, watching me through a heavy-lidded gaze.
Spirits guide me.
“Ready, Miyara,” Lorwyn says quietly.
I bow, holding the tray steady.
And from the beginning, I know this is right.
I’ve listened, and listened well, and I know what of me my guest needs to see in return. He needs to see service, and welcome, and commitment, and fight.
I know who I am today, and I am all of those things.
I perform the tea ceremony, and I feel as though every nerve is alive and dancing with me, conducting the flow of the magic of the ceremony through me, and my guest, into the dragon teapot and its witched water.
And when I pour the tea, a cluster of steam rises into the air.
I offer a cup to Sa Rangim, and only then do I see that the steam has stopped rising.
I blink, almost dropping the teapot.
The steam has clustered in the shape of a miniature dragon.
And as I watch, the lines of the dragon fill in, turning blue.
A baby dragon, floating before me in the air.
It turns golden eyes on me, then shivers.
Flaps its wings ineffectually.
Without thinking, I drop the teapot, reaching out to catch the baby dragon.
The crash never comes, because the instant I moved, so did Sa Rangim, reaching underneath to catch the priceless teapot in a move as fast as Entero.
The dragon nuzzles my hand, and I gape, feeling its soft, smooth, warm scales in my hands and not understanding.
“Is this your magic?” I whisper.
“No,” Sa Rangim says, his eyes now glowing. “It is yours, and all of ours.”
The dragon shivers, then huffs out a breath through its nose made of smoke, flickers of fire in it.
“If they can breathe out fire, how can they possibly be cold?” I wonder.
“Perhaps it is cold outside the steaming warmth of your teapot,” Sa Rangim suggests.
It probably speaks poorly of how well I am coping with the suddenness of this strange magic that such an explanation sounds completely logical to me.
The baby dragon crosses its hands and feet, trying to warm them themself, and I sit back abruptly. Setting the dragon in my lap, I dig into my tea kit and produce the socks.
Fortunately, they are loose for a human, so I’m able to gently slip the baby dragon’s clawed hands into one sock and its toes into the other. It chirps at me, curling in my lap contentedly. Another source of warmth.
I look up at Sa Rangim. “I have some questions.”
His eyes are still glowing warmly. “You do not know what your teapot is, I take it.”
My eyebrows lift. “Evidently not.”
“It is made with arcane magic,” Sa Rangim says. “I am not an arcanist, to shape raw magic thus, and I cannot tell you more than that. How did you come by it?”
“It was a gift,” I say, staring at the shimmering teapot. “From someone of whom I perhaps should have asked more questions. But I have never produced a dragon with it before.”
“I suspect you were not in the Cataclysm, before,” he says. “Nor were you performing the ceremony for me. And pure acts of art, like what you just performed, have always created spirits, even if you can’t see them. Tea has always been sacred among your people, has it not?”
The traditional blue dragon’s blend, refined centuries ago. “Made from earth, formed in water, released into open air,” I say numbly. “But that means—I made them?”
“Your familiar is female,” Sa Rangim says.
I bow quickly. “My apologies, she is acting like a certain male cat of my acquaintance and I did not wish to presume. How can you tell?”
“It is a sense, with some beings,” he says. “That is one of the changes we experienced.”
“The changes?” I ask.
“Are you well?” Sa Rangim returns. “You appear to be shaking.”
“I magically created a baby dragon familiar,” I say by way of explanation. “Perhaps tea will help.”
I bow, and we each reach for our cups.
After a bracing sip, Sa Rangim says, “Once upon a time, the magic of the Te Muraka was channeled through our ability to forge connections with spirits. When the shockwave that created the Cataclysm came, those who could reach out to the spirits did so intuitively, and we survived. The rest of our people did not.” He gestures around the circle. “We are the Te Muraka who remain.”
My eyes fill with tears. So many, in a sense. But also so, so few.
“Our connection to the spirits kept us alive, allowed us to survive as stable beings in the Cataclysm, but it also changed us,” Sa Rangim says. “We had to take in magic, to become part magic, to keep from being warped. This is how we differ from your mages and witches, as I understand.”
“They channel magic, through structures for mages but directly for witches,” I say. “A mage’s skill comes through training their mind, but a witch’s ability is innate.”
“But they do not possess magic; they draw it to them. It is their capacity that is determined by ability. I have seen mages work, and now I have seen a witch. They are not comprised of magic. They do not need to eat magic to sustain them. We do.”
“That’s why this place has grown barren,” I say. “You’ve eaten all the magic.”
“We’ve rationed the magic,” Sa Rangim says. “And the magic that sustains food in the Cataclysm. But we do not have the ability to stabilize forms in structure. We must accept Kustio’s hollow promises that he will ready your world for us, because without his mages we will not last.”
“But you’ve been preparing,” I say. “You speak Istal fluently. You know our etiquette customs.”
“I have bargained for books from Kustio when other favors were not forthcoming,” Sa Rangim says. “We will be as ready as we can.”
“Why wait at all?” I ask. “Why not cross the barrier into Istalam now?”
“To be killed? To be persecuted by those who are too weak to survive us, or too close-minded to allow us the chance to live?” His hands encompass the circle around us. “This is all of us, daughter-of-the-queen Miyara. This is all we have. We have learned to drink magic out of the air, to control the fires that burn inside us, but how will we change outside the Cataclysm? Who will grant us the space to grow?”
Trying to protect his own people, but also ours. At all costs.
That, ultimately, is all I needed to know about him.
“But you must rejoin human society,” I say quietly. “Because there are too few of you here.”
Sa Rangim nods. “If we stay, we will die. Individually, and as a people. I believe we are still human in the ways that matter. But I do not know for certain, nor what it will mean.”
I sigh. “Well. That explains clearly why, aside from his financial motives, Kustio never intended to welcome you into Istalam.”
Sa Rangim’s eyes narrow. “By which you mean?” he says in a low, angry voice.
“Kustio is using the money he has made from the objects you’ve given him to attempt to exile the Gaellani, whom he hates for being different.”
“And for witches,” Lorwyn murmurs behind me. “Never forget that.”
“He would never welcome more difference into a sphere he thinks he can control,” I say. “In his own words, he does not consider you people.”
Sa Rangim’s eyes flash with fire.
I hold up a hand.
“Kustio does not speak for Istalam, only for himself,” I say. “I do speak for Istalam, and I do, obviously, understand you are people. Which I have already told an Istal council.”
“What are you saying?” Sa Rangim asks.
“I, Miyara of Istalam, wish to welcome the Te Muraka to Istalam and offer you refuge, now and in the future,” I say. “To be full citizens of Istalam. To provide you that space. And I wish to do so today, because we are not as delicate as Kustio has led us to believe, nor are you so dangerous.”
“You don’t know that,” Sa Rangim says.
“I know everything I need to,” I say, stroking the calm baby dragon in my lap. “I promise the support of the crown, and I promise my personal support, in whatever you need for Istalam to become a home for you all.”
“And in exchange?” Sa Rangim asks, voice barely audible.
“I really would like to finish this today,” I say apologetically.
Sa Rangim frowns. “Why?”
“In brief? Ruining Kustio. He’s conspired against you as well as the Istal people, and I wish him to face justice.”
“Why,” he repeats.
“So he can never hurt anyone ever again,” I say. “I want him stripped of his power. And I want to use the systems he abused to do so, to demonstrate our commitment to the best parts of those systems, the parts that help and protect people, instead of the worst.”
Sa Rangim sips his tea, places the cup down. Considers the people around him, my companions, the dragon in my lap.
He, too, knows all he needs to of me.
“I am amenable to your proposal,” Sa Rangim says.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” I say. “Shall we negotiate the details of the terms now?”
Sa Rangim’s answer is lost among the thunderous cheers that erupt around us.
But he’s smiling. A gentle smile, but the gleam in his eyes nonetheless reminds me of Lorwyn’s shark-like expression.
“A shared bite, to celebrate,” I say, withdrawing the two steamed sweet buns from my case.
The dragonet’s eyes pop open, head twisting around backwards to gobble one right out of my hand.
Sa Rangim laughs outright, and carefully splits the one remaining into two halves, holding one out for me.
“A shared bite indeed,” he says, and we toast with tea.
To new beginnings, together.
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