Tamak leads us swiftly and silently away from Talmeri’s.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask.
He shrugs. “They haven’t stopped yet. But we can catch up. They’re not moving that fast.” He cocks his head to the side. “No, they’re slowing down. I think it’s the bookshop.”
The bookshop? Karisa has never been known to be studious.
Then again, maybe that’s what she wants everyone to think—or maybe there’s something specific she needs there, and maybe it isn’t even a book. It’s shameful that I can’t guess which.
“Then we have a moment,” I say, putting on some extra speed so that I’m in front of him, facing him, so he can’t pull away from me.
Tamak’s expression is totally blank, and I know it for a mask.
“I am not going to ask whether you have a way to track Elowyn,” I say. “But I am going to tell you that it would be unethical to do so without her awareness and consent.”
Tamak looks away. Spirits, I knew it. “Hypothetically, it can’t hurt her.”
“Ah, yes, keeping secrets from the people they’re about certainly never ends badly for anyone,” I say.
“You don’t understand.”
“You are correct. What makes you think Elowyn will, if I don’t? Or do you truly believe she’ll never find out, and that she won’t take it as a betrayal of her trust?”
Tamak hisses out a breath. “It’s not a thing I can help, and the reason for that she’ll take just as badly.”
Well, that’s interesting. “As I don’t know the reason, I can’t say. But consider that you are relying on Elowyn to trust your good intentions without trusting hers. Hypothetically.”
Tamak balls his hands into fists. “This is so stupid. There’s no way to handle this that doesn’t involve me losing—my only friend.”
I place my hands over his fists and stare steadily at him until he meets my eyes. “If you hold her in such high esteem, then give her some credit,” I say. “And trust that she will also extend it to you. Unless you’ve demonstrated to her that you don’t deserve it which, to be clear, hypothetically you would be on your way toward doing, if you don’t reevaluate your course.”
Tamak drops his head and mutters something I don’t catch.
“I assume,” I say, “this is something you cannot speak to Sa Rangim about?”
Tamak shakes his head violently. “No. Definitely not. Please don’t tell him. I’ll… handle this.”
I consider that and nod slowly. I have many questions to ask Sa Rangim. “Then I will leave it to you. Are they still at the bookshop?”
“Then I can find my way. Thank you. No one is expecting you for a bit, are they? Take some time to think.”
He scowls. “I don’t need to brood.”
I laugh, releasing his hands. “Tamak, you are a champion level brooder. But use the time however you think best. I trust you.”
And I leave him staring after me as I make my own way toward correcting a grievous mistake.
When I arrive at the bookshop, I consider ruefully that perhaps I too could have dealt with more thinking, and should have kept Tamak with me a few minutes longer until I had in fact located Karisa. The thing about a room full of bookcases is it’s hard to locate people, on account of you can’t see over the full shelves. They are ideal for hiding.
Which is probably why Karisa made her way here. She’s too Istal not to be noticed in the Gaellani courtyards, and even outside formal robes, it’s too likely any Istal might recognize her for her to linger in their quarters. But a quiet bookshop is ideal, to discover, and in fact simply as a place to exist peacefully without needing to act.
Perhaps Karisa, who has always seemed to excel at scenes, plans them carefully, and needs time either to plot them or to take a break from the emotional toll enacting them exacts.
I, however, have spent a lifetime not acting. It is how I have failed her for years, and I won’t continue now.
I explore the bookshop, eyes sharp for potential hiding places, and so although she’s blended in like an innocuous customer I find Elowyn first. I touch her gently on the shoulder without saying a word, and she melts away, Yorani’s eyes meeting mine just for an instant as she goes. They won’t be far.
Karisa is sitting on the floor, back pressed against a bookcase in a secluded nook surrounded by tall shelves with only one entrance. Not what I would have chosen: I have always considered escape routes, at least since the time Reyata rescued me. But Karisa will know who approaches her and will be prepared to face them head-on.
She looks up from the book she’s reading—a Sayorsen history, though the pages when she lays it down are substantially smaller than the cover: another book sitting inside it. Even alone she’s prepared to show people what they expect to see and keep her true aims hidden.
I sit down in front of her, a small distance between us in case she decides to throw the history of Sayorsen at me. “What’s the small book?” I ask her.
Karisa’s expression flickers. “That’s what you want to know?”
“Among other things, but yes, that is one reason I ask questions.”
“No greetings for your discarded sister? No apologies for your rudeness? No—”
“Oh, come off it, you were unconscionably rude and you know it,” I say. “You wanted a reaction and you got one. There are many things I’m sorry for in our relationship, but that’s not one of them.”
“Oh? Then what are you sorry for?”
“The fact that we don’t really have a relationship,” I say.
Karisa scowls. “Who says I want a relationship with you?”
“Indeed, imagine my surprise and dismay to consider that the sister who as far as I could tell has had no interest in me other than as a target to safely take out frustrations on when I couldn’t hit back might actually have an ulterior motive that isn’t entirely awful, and that I failed spectacularly by not making any overtures of my own accord,” I say.
There has been so much unsaid between us. If I am ever to repair what is broken, or to build something new, I must begin explicitly with truth. Perhaps especially truths that are uncomfortable to one or both of us.
“Your… ” She can’t manage to say friends. “They told you that?”
“Not in so many words,” I admit. “I filled in the gaps. So. What are you reading?”
“Ah,” Karisa says. “A safe, innocuous question that sets up the potential for conversation that isn’t entirely fraught while implying interest in my choices. But of course I should just answer you at face value or I’m the problem.”
“The fact that you can’t take my greetings at face value without interpreting them as a personal attack and lashing out at someone innocent is not my fault, Karisa.”
“That’s your Highness,” she says flintily. “And I do hope you’re not going to try to convince me of the innocence of a person willing to talk back to a princess?”
“I wasn’t, because you picked on her precisely because you thought she couldn’t strike back,” I say. “But since you’ve mentioned it, it was only weeks ago that girl barely uttered a word neither to strangers nor to people she’d known her whole life. The fact that she was willing to even speak at all in your presence is nothing short of a heroic change.”
“Well, there’s no way I could have known that—”
“Clearly not, since you came in snipes blazing first and foremost,” I say. “If I can apologize, so can you, your Highness.”
Karisa closes the books. “It’s hardly the same. An apology costs you nothing.”
I laugh in utter disbelief. “Oh, no, only my entire sense of self, on which I base literally everything I am attempting to accomplish, which currently includes saving the world. No, no cost at all. Karisa.”
“‘Saving the world’?” she echoes. “Well that’s pompous.”
I roll my eyes. “‘Wow, Miyara, that sounds very unexpected, would you tell me why you would say something like that?’ Do you see how I did that?”
Karisa narrows her eyes. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No, I think you’re so in the habit of obnoxiousness you’re no longer deploying it as a tool and can’t tell when it’s not a useful tactic,” I say. “So let me be clear. I have no reason to ignore your behavior anymore. If you treat me or anyone else badly without provocation, I will call you to task. If you want more from me than that, I would honestly be delighted, but I’m not going to put up with being your pincushion ever again. Do you have any questions?”
“Sure,” Karisa says. “Why do you think I’m going to take you at your word now, when I’ve never been able to before?”
That lands, when her other sallies haven’t.
In the space between us, I set down my tea kit.
“You expressed some interest before, even if it was rhetorical, in knowing who I am now that I can be honest with myself and the world,” I say, laying out the tray. “Let me show you.”
Karisa watches me for a moment, then finally says, “Doesn’t look like you have water or a heating spell in there.”
This is entirely true and a weakness in my plan.
Fortunately, I have help. Yorani flutters in, holding a cup of water between her front feet in the cutest tableau I’ve ever seen.
“You are the best tea spirit in the world,” I tell her, plucking the cup of water out of her claws as it sloshes over the edge when she slows. “Thank you.”
“You’re telepathic?” Karisa asks incredulously.
“No,” I say. “Not exactly. But we’re very in tune with each other emotionally. At least, when I’m not making a mess of things.”
Karisa’s eyes are still narrowed as I pour the water into the pot. “And your tea spirit just materialized from where, exactly?”
“Presumably from where she’s been spying on you, having followed you from the tea shop out of concern and curiosity when I was too angry to do so myself,” I say easily. “Which is how I found you.”
“Oh, well that’s not creepy.”
I look up at her. “Are you ready?”
“For you to demonstrate your vaunted skills that I should be falling over myself to praise?” Karisa waves a hand. “Pass.”
“For me to show you who I am, if you’re willing to see,” I say. “To decide if you’re willing to cut a measure of the nonsense between us for us to try to have an actual relationship, or not, because it has to come from both of us. Right now.”
Karisa shifts in her seat, watching me, and I wait, poised on this moment.
Her choice, the first of which will decide us.
“Fine,” she says, making a magnanimous gesture. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The second choice is mine.
I have multiple traditional teas in my kit. There’s a water blend, which I could choose for change; the dark earth, for roots entwining us. Either of them feels comfortable, after my spiritual contemplation of water and earth these past weeks.
Instead I choose air, because I need a different path, a path that can go anywhere. A path that won’t feel familiar, because with us what has become familiar is a symptom of our problem.
Yorani blows fire on the teapot and settles between us; a judge, perhaps, of my performance, or a referee—or a witness to us both as we are.
With a spirit as my witness, I begin the tea ceremony.
It has not escaped me that when Iryasa requested a tea ceremony from me, I told her she wasn’t ready to hear what I can communicate to her. Karisa, though, who for all her protestations of scorn, desperately needs it; and she has wanted forever, and as I have made her wait so long for me to be ready I cannot let her wait a single moment more.
To me Karisa has always seemed dramatic, hot-headed. While I tried to slink through life escaping anyone’s notice, as though that would prevent them from realizing how unsuitable I was, Karisa has relished throwing herself in everyone’s faces and forcing them to confront what their expectations mean.
But it’s not just that I falsely perceived her as my opposite in behavior, but that it was not in fact herself that she presented for the world’s consumption.
That self she has hidden as deeply as I hid mine; just with a different outward cover on the book, a different way of coping.
All her older sisters share an experience of neglect from our parents: until our dedications our father could spend no time with us if our mother did not, and so to prevent Velasari influence we were raised effectively without either of them.
But with Karisa, that changed. Perhaps our mother decided she wanted at least one chance to do the work of mothering; perhaps she decided after four other daughters that surely one potentially influenced by Velasar could be borne. But whatever the reason, she chose to spend time with Karisa, and thus so could our father.
So unlike the rest of us, she has had them for parents. And she has been caught more directly between them.
Iryasa’s path was set, but the rest of us had the semblance of choice, to decide for ourselves how we could best serve. Our parents had little opportunity to influence us in those choices, but with Karisa—she has been told all her life what she should think and why. The very choice to raise her meant she could be considered both a spare and a pawn. She has been the one they had the opportunity to shape, and under that pressure what could she do?
She could be molded, of course; or she could merely appear to be. And she could appear to be so un-moldable that the efforts were abandoned, leaving her with… what?
Not common experience with her sisters. Not any better idea of what her path should be, certainly.
But anger? Well. I can hardly blame her for that.
I have spent so much of my life hiding from who I am, knowing that self could not survive the only world it had, that I have only recently begun to appreciate how angry I should be for what has been done to us. Karisa has never had that luxury.
She has also never had anyone look at her and see her for more than a bargaining piece between two existing powers, never a power in her own right. And so she has taken that role and fed into it, forced people to treat her as though she can’t be used as a bargaining chip, twisting that into its own kind of power that she clings to, because she has to—because what else does she have?
She has sisters.
She has a chance to take a different path, the sky limitless, if she will choose to.
If we will help her.
I am in my place of power, now. I have decided on my path and learned what I am capable of and lived it. I am a person who will not hesitate to challenge awfulness from villain or princess and can make it stick.
But I am also a person who lives for lifting people up into the sky, and I am a person who can see her; and who wishes to.
This is what I tell her, with every deliberate movement. I see who you are, because I see where you came from, and I will do whatever is in my considerable power to see what you can be, when you get to choose.
And I will make sure you get to choose.
It’s how I should have thought to shield her years ago. She found her own way, then. I will be here for whatever way she finds now.
Karisa’s hands do not tremble as she takes a sip any more than mine do; we are both too well-trained for that.
But as we drink, our eyes are both wet, and my chest is tight with emotion.
I did what I could; the next choice must be hers, and it will determine how we go from here, together or separate.
“I’ve never seen you cry,” Karisa finally says.
I consider, glancing at Yorani, who remains sitting utterly still, unblinking. “I didn’t at the palace, in general. Odd that I am significantly happier with my life now but cry more. I suppose because it’s safe to.”
“Do you cry every time you perform the tea ceremony?” she asks.
I huff. “No. The tea master who administered my exam just advised me to effect more of a guise of mystery, though.”
“He thinks you need to be more mysterious?” Karisa asks incredulously.
I laugh outright at that. “More mysterious than bluntly telling everyone in the world I will be personally responsible for calling out their bad behavior.”
“How’s that working for you?” Karisa asks, a hint of snideness in her tone I think she means to be at once teasing and challenging.
“Eh.” I lean back on my hands. “Fairly well in the long view, I think? Exhausting in the short.”
Karisa eyes me carefully. “I assume the exhaustion is related to your saving the world bit. And to do with why you decided to address our relationship all at once instead of patiently.”
It’s almost a question, and I answer it bluntly. “The Cataclysm has started expanding again. If we don’t figure out how to stop or reverse it—”
“We’re all going to die,” Karisa finishes, silent for a moment. She glances at Yorani too, and for her benefit my tea pet moves, blinking at her once before returning to her previous impassive pose. A confirmation, of a sort.
“Well,” Karisa says. “I knew something catastrophic must have happened to get Iryasa to do something so out of character, but that’s outside what I was imagining.”
Curiously I ask, “What were you imagining?”
Karisa shrugs and tosses the small book inside the history of Sayorsen my way.
I burst out laughing when I see the cover, recognizing the series as an espionage romance Risteri gave me. Karisa can’t decide whether to turn defensive or share a joke with me, and I quickly add, “I read the earlier books in this series. I didn’t realize there was a new one.”
Karisa’s eyes bug. “You? Read these? No.”
“My former roommate decided I needed to expand my education,” I explain wryly.
“You had a roommate,” Karisa says wonderingly. “What was that like?”
“Strange,” I say. “Interesting. How did you get into these books?” She definitely didn’t find them in the palace library; its contents run to the academic, and the vast majority of the novels are books there are academic papers written about.
Karisa tosses her hair. “I have my sources. But since you don’t seem to think the world ending is inevitable, will you tell me what Iryasa is planning?”
“Yes,” I say. “Though I do want to add that she’s been counting on your arrival, too.”
Her eyes narrow. “Really.”
“You are sometimes predictable.” I shrug.
Karisa looks affronted for a minute, and then laughs. “Well. I suppose I earned that.”
I am entirely startled by how well she takes that. “For someone who looks for the maximum ways to interpret an action, you really do appreciate bluntness, don’t you?”
“Honesty isn’t exactly a trait I’ve had much cause to witness,” Karisa says easily, and the tragic truth of that isn’t surprising and doesn’t deserve to feel like such a stab right at my heart. “This is terribly refreshing. However: do you want to call your protégé over?”
She noticed Elowyn?
“I admit I’m not entirely sure where she is,” I say. “Only that she’s nearby, and probably the one who filled the cup for Yorani. When did you see her?”
“I didn’t,” Karisa says.
That can mean one of several things: 1) She’s lying. 2) It was a guess, fishing for information, which I’ve confirmed. Or 3) She knew without seeing her.
I suspect it is the last, though I can’t guess how, and Karisa isn’t forthcoming.
“Do you want to tell me how?” I try.
She smiles, and there’s an edge to it. “No.”
I nod, because for me, that settles this. “Elowyn, if you’re listening, please join us.”
Karisa’s still smiling, though it’s a little tighter as she says, “So there’s no difference in what you’ll tell me and her?”
“There’s some,” I say. “But Elowyn is the younger sister of my—” I break off. “Spirits, I’ve forgotten the common term. Pass me that book?”
Karisa stares at me. “The spy book?”
As soon as I sense Elowyn behind me I turn and ask, “What is the term I should be using for Deniel?”
She blinks. “A potter? A councilor?”
“As regards his relationship to me, I mean,” I say. “Like a suitor, or a spouse, or a lov—” I go red and wave my hands. “You know.”
“Oh,” Elowyn says, also going red. “A romantic partner, or partner, I think is what you want.”
Karisa stares between us. “You’re dating a Gaellani potter?”
Elowyn bristles. “Is that a problem?”
“Yes I am dating a Gaellani potter, and I had just moved in with him when Iryasa arrived at our home with her grand plan that I am taking over,” I say. “And no, it is not a problem.”
Both of them look at me. So does Yorani.
“That,” Karisa says, “sounds like a problem. You’re what?”
Tea Master Karekin advised me to delegate, to have faith in people and let them rise.
“In my capacity as Tea Master of Sayorsen, I am calling a summit of world leaders to resolve the matter of the Cataclysm once and for all,” I explain. “We’re going to get to the root of the bad actors working against us, and the plot goes all the way back to the Isle of Nakrab.”
Karisa looks between me and Elowyn and back again. “You don’t sound like you’re taking this all that seriously. This is what you’re claiming to be planning, and you’re off serving tea in a bookstore?”
“I am preparing for the summit right now,” I say. “This is the work. The summit is the performance, which matters, but what we do now, the relationships we build and their strength, determines whether it succeeds or fails.”
“Oh, I see,” Karisa says. “So you’re inspired to talk to me so you can use me, like everyone else.”
I open my mouth and close it again; take a moment while Yorani curls up and stops staring, which I decide to take as a vote of confidence. “You’re not wrong that I rarely take an action for only one reason. I am having a lot of epiphanies in short succession, and I may be overly conflating the solutions to them in my mind. Because on top of saving the world I want this summit to be a resounding victory for all of our sisters, a statement of who we are and what that means for our future. I want you to be part of us, and this. I have an idea in mind for you, and it only works if we actually trust each other. But there is definitely also some insecurity on my part in that I’m worried if I’ve messed up our relationship so badly and can’t fix it, I can’t be trusted to save the world.”
Karisa stares at me for a moment and then just says, “By talking.”
Being this openly vulnerable and not knowing whether it will be thrown in my face, or if she’s even intending to throw it, is fraying my nerves. “Yes, by talking. And listening. Relationship building is what I do, and it’s how I intend to win. I’m sorry if that isn’t flashy enough for you. I’m fairly sure it’s not the path you want for yourself. If you’re not interested in putting in the necessary work without an attentive audience, then we will do it without you. But I will ask that if you don’t decide to actively help, at least please help by staying out of our way.”
“Well if that’s how it is, should you be telling me all your grand political plans with her listening?” Karisa demands, jerking her head toward Elowyn.
“If you’re implying I’m not being honest with you because Elowyn is here—”
“I was in the middle of the Velasari agents’ attack using Nakrabi technology,” Elowyn tells her, lifting her chin. “A little late for that.”
Karisa’s baiting is bringing out the spine in Elowyn, which is both delightful and troubling.
“I can tell whatever I want to whomever I want, which I am happy to remind our sisters if they forget,” I say. “But in this case, your presence together will save me time. Because it isn’t going to be enough for me to just negotiate with the foreign dignitaries.”
“You need information,” they say together, and exchange a glance.
I let out a breath. “I need information,” I agree. “And here is Elowyn, who can hide in plain sight better than assassins I know.”
“You know so many?”
“And here is Karisa, who is better at provoking unplanned reactions from people than any courtier in Istalam,” I continue.
“You want us to work together,” Karisa says, her expression considering but not happy.
“Iryasa thinks having all the princesses and heirs of Istalam in one place will provoke those working against us into rash action,” I say. “But I think there is another way to go about this, more tactically. Iryasa will naturally represent Istalam in negotiations, and Reyata will guard her. Saiyana will hold down the mage side of affairs, and I’m out of the line of succession.”
“So I’m the best target,” Karisa says, her voice odd. “And you want to use me as bait.”
“I want you to bait the Nakrabi for all you’re worth,” I say, looking at her intently. “I want you to play the spoiled princess to have an excuse to establish a connection, and I want you to make them think you’re harmless but valuable and destroy them with it. There will come a point in these negotiations when we will not give the Nakrabi what they want, and they will decide they have to take it. They will seize whatever they can that they think will force us to accede or that they can steal. It’s how they operated in the immediate aftermath of the Cataclysm, and it’s how they operated over the past weeks. So since we know that’s coming, I propose we prepare to trap them with it. Can you do it?”
Karisa’s eyes begin to gleam. “You would trust me to smuggle intelligence from foreign spies?”
“If you’re committed,” I say, “I think you can do whatever you want.”
I look between them. “This is something I can’t do, and it is delicate work, even if it’s not as bodily dangerous as infiltrating like a spy. You will be talking, but I think you both know how much someone can do with words alone. Elowyn’s role isn’t a bodyguard’s; it’s to keep watch invisibly and get you out if everything goes sideways. If Iryasa knew I was even thinking about this, let alone talking, she’d wrest back control of this so fast I wouldn’t see the doors of my cell closing.”
“Then why are you asking?” Elowyn asks.
“Because I believe in you both, and part of that is because I trust both of you to tell me if you think I’ve crossed a line,” I say.
“And because,” Karisa says, “we’re facing the end of the world, and you don’t just need information, you need people you trust to get it—and to you specifically.”
I close my eyes, remembering how sure I had been in the face of Risteri’s grandmother earlier today, and that I am now asking two teenagers to be spies. My stomach twists.
Elowyn says softly, “You didn’t want anyone to know.”
And I know what she means: her skill at fading into the shadows is something she takes joy in, and something I’ve cautioned her against revealing to anyone, Saiyana in particular, lest they use it against her. And now I’ve let Karisa, another princess, know.
“It is not Karisa’s job to exploit potential assets,” I say. “Which is also why I am not going to tell Saiyana or Iryasa. But this is something you want to explore, in addition to tea mastery, right?”
Elowyn nods. Part of me is sad, that she isn’t wholly committed to tea mastery as a possible path for her, but I am also glad she is comfortable enough with me to be honest.
“I can’t promise the job will be safe. But if you change your mind, it will be safer for me to be the one who knows than anyone else.” I look at Karisa. “And Karisa will keep her mouth shut, or I will make her.”
Karisa’s eyebrows shoot up at that, and then she grins. “Harsh bluntness. I do like the new you. And this…” She looks at Elowyn. “I’m sorry about earlier. I know this is messed up, but this is also the most excited I’ve been about anything in my future for a long time. I want to do this.”
I’m glad she seems to understand that my willingness to allow it—and that my willingness matters—depends on Elowyn’s willingness to have her back.
Elowyn folds her arms. “Accepted. We’re going to need to figure out a silent method of communication.”
I close my eyes, and when I open them again, all three of us are matched in resolve, the paths between us beginning to take shape in the air.
This is yet another task to add to my list, the systems that must be put into place to make sure they are, in fact, safe. But it is also a necessary role that I can’t manage myself, and they can and, I have no doubt, will. I look between them and know I have set a critical piece into motion—of the plan at large, and all our paths.
This will work. Yorani’s ears are perked up, listening, but she remains curled in a napping pose, leaving us to work.
“Then let’s talk about what you need to know.”
Continue to Chapter 10