The remaining Cataclysm ingredient-gathering portion of this tournament challenge concludes without further incident, though there are veiled comments afterwards from the officials to the audience about how the guides lost track of both me and Lino. I know I will pay for my choice in the first match.
The officials put on a show for the spectators, who largely couldn’t follow us inside. My showmanship is perhaps not what they’d prefer. But at least I’m confident in my poise, from my upbringing as a princess, and my ease at speaking without preparation for an audience, from working in customer service.
Risteri, likewise, handles herself well. Not because of her aristocratic education, which she largely avoided, but from entertaining tourists with accounts of the cataclysm for years.
By the time we’re out of the Cataclysm, the officials have also crafted a narrative of Risteri as a victim of her father, like a princess trapped in a tower, and her quest for independence and to separate herself from his legacy.
As soon as the show is over, though, the officials don’t acknowledge us; I expect they resent me for putting them in this position. I don’t know what effect that will have on the judging.
As the crowd disperses, I catch sight of Glynis and make my way to her. Yorani has been subdued, quiet and watchful on my shoulder, like she doesn’t trust all these strange people. I can’t say I blame her. I want to get her to a familiar and secluded location as soon as possible.
“Make this quick,” Glynis says gruffly. “I have lots of news to spread.”
“Thank you.” I bow. “If in the future it’s ever possible to warn me, I would greatly appreciate it, but thank you all the same.”
“Hard to pretend total incompetence if an investigation reveals I got a different message to you,” Glynis points out.
I’m not sure whether I should be pleased or bothered she thinks I cannot pretend total incompetence.
“Was that it?” she asks.
“No, to my regret,” I say. “I need you to get a message to Princess Saiyana.”
Glynis’ eyes widen. “You don’t mess around, do you? Do I want to know what this is about?”
I purse my lips. “Probably, but I’m not sure it’s safe for you to know.”
She frowns. “You don’t trust—”
“Other people to not hurt you if they think you might have the information, no,” I interrupt.
Her face goes blank. “Oh. Is this like Kustio again?”
Better and worse. The Velasari don’t have their hands on everyone in Sayorsen, but an international incident has the potential to have very damaging ramifications. “Yes. Can you ask her to meet me here please?”
“No,” Glynis says. “Spirits, you still really don’t understand how message guilds work, do you? The princess doesn’t accept messages from just anyone.”
Ah. I should have expected that. “Mage Ostario, then?”
“Also no, not now that he’s part of an official princess-headed project.” She stares at me hard. “Do you really think a princess of Istalam would just show up and meet you because you asked?”
“We’ve been in communication about the treaty with the Te Muraka,” I explain quickly. “And I met her yesterday. I believe she would. How do I get a message to her, then?”
“Don’t you have special mage schooling?” Glynis scowls. “There’s a code her guards use to filter messages.”
I close my eyes, thinking back. Most of my messages at the palace were carried by guards; I’d had no need to spell them myself. And since I’m no longer a princess, it would be a great affront to everyone, from my sisters to the spirits themselves, if I were to attempt to use a royal code. I’m not certain it would work, regardless. Mages who work for the crown are issued codes for specific missions, and I ought to have asked Saiyana for one. Since I didn’t…
I think back, and I remember visits with my grandmother.
I remember my grandmother, who knew before I did that I know how to listen.
Who, unbeknownst to my past self, retired only from serving as queen and instead serves as spymaster.
I remember time with her, and messages she received, and how they felt.
Although magecraft is not my strength, Saiyana has always said that’s due to my lack of interest, not ability, and in this matter I concur. And unlike many aspects of magecraft, I do know the applicable theory to work out a reasonable approximation of the structure of a message spell.
“What are you doing?” Glynis asks as I hunt around for sticks.
In the corner of my eye, I see Yorani’s ears perk up with interest. Although her position doesn’t change, that’s a small relief.
“This is too important to wait for the usual channels,” I say, glad the audience has left such a mess: there is ample detritus for me to work with. “Have you paper, perchance?”
“You are so weird,” Glynis mutters, but her expression tells me I’ve aroused her curiosity. She passes me her guild-issued magecrafted quill full of ink.
My message is to the point, though I write it with a princess’ artistry so Saiyana will not doubt the source. The structure for the magecraft is even less ornamental, a set of multiple overlaying but simple diagrams, presumably because a mage in the field might not always have time or resources when messaging the crown.
Glynis peers over my shoulder. “What’s this?”
“Secret,” I say. “I will rely on your discretion. If I’m doing this right, it’s a seal used by spies to communicate with the crown.”
She stares at me flatly. “You are not telling me you’ve been a spy all this time.”
“No, but I’ve met several,” I say, “and once I’ve spoken with her, I believe the princess will agree with my reasoning for coopting the seal.”
I clap my hands, and it shimmers into place.
“Clapping,” Glynis mutters. “Should’ve guessed.”
I glance up at her, caught by surprise. I hadn’t realized how seriously she’d taken my suggestions of her potential skill at magecraft, but I should have had more care. “Clapping was always most comfortable for me, but it’s not the only way. Snapping is common as well, and some mages prefer really dramatic gestures. Ostario can mark the casting of a spell with no more than narrowing his eyes, but that is a more advanced skill.”
“What about people who are completely paralyzed?” Glynis asks.
“That’s difficult,” I admit. “To my knowledge, physical movement is a limiting factor for magecraft, like the physical structures themselves. Ostario would know more about that, if you—”
“No,” she says.
She’ll only reveal so much of herself at once, but there’s no rush for this. I study the spell in my hands critically, and I believe it’s at least close enough to pass muster.
“That should do.” I hand it to her.
“Someday,” Glynis says, “I have a lot of questions I want to ask you.”
I smile faintly. She can’t ask about my background now and how I know to cast a spy’s seal without betraying her message guild oath of discretion. “Someday, Glynis, I imagine you won’t need me to answer them.”
She scowls. “I’ll be back with the princess, unless you’re setting me up.”
Before I can assure her I’m not, she takes off.
Glynis doesn’t need my answer, because she already knows I’m not setting her up, and despite my worries—and despite how suspiciously she’s seen me behave—that warms my heart.
I turn away, looking for where Risteri’s gotten to, and instead notice Ari, the young Taresal tea contestant, frowning at the Cataclysm, his image reflected in the rippling mirrored surface of the barrier.
I glance around, but the area is nearly deserted, now.
I approach him quietly so as not to disturb whatever he’s thinking about so seriously. But when I get close, the object of his attention becomes evident.
The barrier looks like a bubble, a wall that extends all the way to the ground, and far into the sky. Further up than I can see, teams of mages have determined it bends inward, a dome containing whatever caused the Cataclysm inside.
But here, at Ari’s feet, the presence of the barrier is not what’s remarkable.
It’s the deadness.
It’s a patch of earth extending right up to Ari’s feet that is gray and cracked, like the land itself has turned to charcoal.
It’s a patch that extends from inside the Cataclysm, outside of it. Yorani edges closer to the warmth of my neck, curling inward.
I shiver and whisper, “Spirits defend us.”
I tear my gaze away to look at Ari. “What?”
“The spirits won’t do anything,” he says.
I search his profile. “The methods of the spirits are not always straightforward, but—”
He looks up at me, and the hardness in his young face stops me cold.
“This is what farms in Taresan look like,” Ari says. “Within the last generation, spots of land that look like this are gradually covering farmland. It’s magical drain, pure and simple. This is the legacy I’ve grown up with, thanks to that.” He jerks his chin at the Cataclysm.
My eyes widen. Taresal farms have become famous for their rates of production in the last generation; if he’s right, this is a frightening correlation. “Surely the farmers would have noticed and taken steps, in that case? Surely—”
“Of course the farmers have noticed,” Ari says. “The small ones, the poor ones can’t do anything about it except make their land die slowly.”
“Make?” Risteri asks, coming up behind me.
“We—they’re poor because they’ve been beggared affording the mage-tech that allows the land to produce enough crops to compete as independents with the big farming conglomerations, but it’s killing the land,” he says fervently.
“You didn’t mean,” I say slowly, “that the spirits won’t defend us because you think they don’t exist.”
Ari snorts. “No. They won’t help because we’re the ones attacking them. And I know they won’t, because they haven’t.”
A chilling thought. That the spirits would abandon us is beyond nightmarish, and I shy away from contemplating it too deeply just now.
“Why doesn’t the state put a stop to it then?” Risteri asks.
“You can’t be that naïve,” Ari says.
Yes. The states will shy away, just like I just have.
“They must realize,” Risteri argues, “that they’re just dooming themselves in the long run? I mean, yes, I get that it would be inconvenient for their profits now and people hate that, but—”
“That’s how the world is,” Ari says. “Most people can’t do anything, and the ones who could, won’t.”
His words hit me like a rock to the chest.
And that’s before he says, “And it’s going to get worse, because of you.”
It takes me a moment to catch up. “You think the dragons leaving the Cataclysm will accelerate this… phenomenon you’ve observed?”
“The evidence,” Ari says, gaze flicking toward Yorani, “speaks for itself. The dragons are new, and so is your land death. That’s not a coincidence.”
I reach a hand up and pet Yorani, shielding her from his accusation. If what Ari’s saying is true, and the land can’t afford to lose any magic here, we do have a problem. I’ve promised the Te Muraka can live here at equilibrium, but they do eat magic.
Have they since crossing the barrier, though?
Ari takes a step closer to me. “You may be in this tournament for fun, lady. I’m not. This is my shot to get the sponsorship I need for people to take me seriously, so I can do something about this before it’s too late. Because no one else will. So as far as I’m concerned, you’re not just another contestant. You’re the enemy.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets and stalks away, shoulders hunched, as I stand there frozen, reeling.
This day has been too much.
Risteri whistles low, turning to watch him disappear into the city center. “I can’t believe I’m saying this about a tea tournament, but I think you need to watch out for him, Miyara.”
Because a boy who cares so much, who’s trying too hard to help, sees me as an enemy.
Because he is not, precisely, incorrect to.
I have been mentally disparaging this tournament since I learned of it, viewing my participation as a… punishment, an offense.
If I am going to participate, I owe it to Ari, to the other contestants who’ve put their all into this chance, not just to take it seriously, but to find a way to not be the enemy.
Easier thought than accomplished.
But of course, there is an exception. “What are the chances,” I ask Risteri as I pull Yorani into my arms and hold her close, “this isn’t related to what the Velasari were attempting inside the Cataclysm?”
Risteri sighs. “Honestly, high,” she says. “Look, Velasari spies make me angrier than anyone even when they don’t actually threaten me with bodily harm. But the Cataclysm is so volatile and so poorly understood, not to mention we have no idea what that tech they were using even was, it’s way too big of a jump to assume that at this juncture. If you tried to legally accuse them you’d be laughed out of court.”
A cloud passes over her face, and it’s hard not to imagine she’s thinking of how cases against her father would have been dismissed, too.
“Rightfully laughed out of court,” she amends.
A fair assessment. Convenient answers are not necessarily true ones. Ari has jumped to conclusions too, but if he’s right, I will have to do far better than accepting what’s convenient if I am to serve the way I mean to.
“Is he right?” I ask. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
Risteri shakes her head. “No. Never. And, I mean, I don’t mean to brag, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’m more familiar with the nuances of the Cataclysm than anyone else alive.” She pauses. “Excepting the Te Muraka. I can ask Sa Nikuran what she thinks.”
“That might be wise,” I murmur, staring at the patch once more in silence.
So it is that familiar footsteps sound loudly in my ears, and my heart clenches in remembered pressure, already anticipating disappointing her, and relief, because in my bones there is a part of me that will always believe my older sister can fix anything.
“You have a lot of nerve,” Saiyana says.
Ostario is with her, thank the spirits, with Glynis leading the way looking not even slightly whelmed.
“Thank you for coming, and my apologies for the suddenness,” I say.
Yorani squirms, and I help her back onto my shoulder, glad she’s showing some initiative and glad she’s comfortable with my friends. My family.
Perhaps her discomfort is a reflection of my own feelings. A troubling notion.
“When exactly did you learn to do that seal?” my sister demands.
“Several minutes ago,” I admit.
Saiyana swears. “You little—I am going to throw you back at mage school,” she growls.
Ah. I hadn’t considered that consequence. “I couldn’t think how else to reach you quickly.”
“That’s on purpose,” Saiyana says dryly. “As a general rule, royalty are not supposed to be at the beck and call of any random person.”
“But I am not a random person,” I point out, “and royalty should, in fact, be open to being of service to all people.”
“Are you kidding me right now?” Saiyana explodes.
“Maybe a little,” I admit.
Ostario laughs softly.
“Uh, I hate to interrupt,” Risteri says.
“Oh! Yes, of course. Your Highness, this is Lady Risteri of Sayorsen, my roommate and also the foremost expert on navigating the Cataclysm. Risteri, Princess Saiyana of Istalam.” I glance over at Glynis. “Were you introduced?”
“Yes,” Glynis and Saiyana say at the same time. They exchange a look, and neither looks embarrassed about it.
I smile. They’re both so blunt they were either going to hate each other or get along famously, and I’m glad to see indications it may be the latter.
But Glynis sighs. “Are you going to have any more messages for me? Because if not, unfortunately I’m already running behind, so—”
I bow. “My gratitude, Glynis. I won’t keep you from your business any longer.”
Saiyana adds, “I may have work I think you’d be suited to in the coming days, if you’re willing. Shall I have someone call on you at the messengers’ guild?”
“That would be best.” Glynis bows. “It’s my honor to serve, your Highness.”
Saiyana returns her bow, and Glynis is gone in a flash.
“Spirits, that girl is fast,” Risteri mutters.
“Also unflappable, and she misses nothing,” I say, and point at the gray patch at my feet.
Saiyana nods. “What are we looking at?”
“I’ll get to that,” I say. “But I think it’s best I start a little earlier.”
I recount our encounter in the Cataclysm and Saiyana has to walk away for a minute, on account of the targets for her anger are not present.
When she returns, she takes a breath, looks me in the eye, and says, “You’re fine.”
“Quite,” I say.
Risteri puts in, “Miyara has nerves of steel.”
“I’m aware,” Saiyana says. “I also may strangle her myself if she continues putting herself in situations where her life is threatened.”
“I was never in any true danger,” I say.
Saiyana looks at me again, and my arguments die on my tongue. She’s not just angry; she’s afraid for me.
“I’m fine,” I say again. “And you need to hear the rest.”
When we’ve finished, Saiyana glares at me for almost a full minute before crouching over the dead patch with Ostario.
“Should we isolate it?” Saiyana asks.
“I think better to not,” he answers. “We don’t know if we can isolate it, except from humans, and it will be more useful to watch how it develops.”
“Monitoring beacons, then,” Saiyana says. “Do it.”
“I notice you said ‘humans’,” I say. “Do you not think the Te Muraka would respect your wishes not to interfere?”
“No, I think I don’t yet fully understand how the Te Muraka affect their environment unconsciously,” Ostario says. “Even if they haven’t been eating magic outside the Cataclysm in the past few weeks, they still may be the source.”
“Don’t even start, Miyara,” Saiyana says, holding up a hand. “I don’t want it to be them, either, but the fact remains their presence is the only major factor that’s changed in the magical makeup of Sayorsen in recent days. And here we have a magical consequence. It’s logical to investigate the possibility that they have something to do with it, even if their intentions aren’t malicious.”
Yorani shifts on my shoulder. “I object to immediately assuming association with the problem—which, you must admit, is circumstantial—merits immediately investigating the Te Muraka as the potential cause,” I say.
“And that’s why you’re not an investigator, isn’t it?” Saiyana shoots back. “Did you call me in to take care of this or didn’t you?”
Once upon a time, her admonitions alone would have made me silent with shame. Even I’m surprised at how quickly I have changed that I don’t even consider staying silent, let alone believing she’s correct.
“I trusted you,” I say, “to treat the Te Muraka fairly.”
“I am, Miyara. I’m not assuming they’re guilty, I’m just gathering information.”
“Then I hope,” I say, “you’ll also be looking into the Velasari, who are experimenting with strange technology in the Cataclysm?”
Her expression tightens. “That’s more complicated and you know it.”
“I do,” I say. “I never took you for someone who only took easy solutions. I see the Te Muraka will already have to work to keep your efforts from institutionalizing their marginalization in our society, just because you have power over them and it’s easy.”
“Don’t snap at me because you decided not to be a princess and now don’t get a say in the work you renounced,” Saiyana says. “You know, I didn’t trust you not to compound your stupidity, but you’ve surpassed my imagination on that front.”
“Enough, both of you,” Ostario says, standing between us. “We all have work to do. I think we’re all aware of the challenges, and we will all do our best. Let’s be about it, shall we?”
Yorani has gone quiet and careful again. I turn on my heel without another word, and Risteri runs to catch up, a silent shadow as I brood.
All my roots are tangled.
Saiyana isn’t wholly wrong. My first instinct was to alert the crown to the risk the Velasari pose. I can tell myself it’s because it’s the crown’s responsibility to handle foreign relations, and I can tell myself it’s because I trust my sister to handle thorny problems.
But it’s also habit. The kind of habit, it seems, that will take more than a few weeks for me to break my reliance on.
The crown considers its responsibility to be serving its people as a whole, not as individuals. This is the fundamental break between us.
If I want something done in a particular way, I must do it myself. I must have both the ability and power to do it myself, because it is not my sister’s job, not anyone else’s but mine.
I cannot simply do my best, as Ostario said. I must, as I resolved in Ari’s wake, do better than that. I must move beyond my best and become yet another new Miyara.
“The timing of this,” I say to Risteri.
“Are you verbal again now?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for giving me a few minutes.”
“No worries. You and your sister are kind of intense together though.”
Perhaps another day, being described as ‘intense’ for the first time in my life might make me smile. But not now.
“The Velasari used the entire tournament as a distraction to work their machinations on the Cataclysm,” I say. “What are the chances, do you think, they might be using the Te Muraka in a similar fashion?”
Risteri goes rigid. “Taking advantage of the new refugees connected to the Cataclysm to pin the effects of the Velasari’s experiments on the Te Muraka?”
I watch her think through the implications of the framing, given the edge of wonder and fear in Sayorsen since the Te Muraka’s arrival. Watch her nod.
“Oh, that is nasty, and definitely in character for at least Lino and Ignasa,” Risteri finally says. “You think their weird tech worked after all?”
“I think it did something I don’t understand,” I say. “I think Lino is exceedingly clever without the ethical core to match. And I think I’m going to find out for certain, one way or another. Are you with me?”
The timing is bad for her, too, to have anything to do with a dangerous and unofficial investigation. If I were a good friend, I wouldn’t have asked her.
But I hope she thinks me a better friend, because I know she would never forgive me for counting her out without giving her the choice—to decide her own fate, to make her own path, and let no one else restrict or define her.
“I’m in,” Risteri says.
Continue to Chapter 8!