Royal Tea Service: Chapter 16

Yorani and I experiment, but no matter how I focus I can’t locate her without her input. If she were unconscious, I couldn’t find her. Not as we are now.

I wonder if I need the tea ceremony to activate the bracelets somehow, but in in attempting to sense Yorani I see something unexpected: a glimpse into the world I think Yorani—and Talsu—sees every day.

A world full of spirits.

It’s like the vision of flying through the Cataclysm, but… calmer, somehow. Less chaotic. Flashes of colors, textures, and shapes, floating through space.

I glimpse it all for just a moment before the shadowy impression fades, and I sit back, somewhat stunned.

My faith in the elemental spirits is hardly knew, and between Yorani’s birth and my experiences performing the tea ceremony recently, the notion that minor spirits can exist has been provably true. And it makes sense that they would exist here, in this home where I’ve performed tea ceremony countless times.

It’s still somehow different to recognize that even when we can’t perceive them, they are here in a physical way, in possession of forms. And it’s a sobering reminder to take with me into opening the summit.

I am responsible for them, too.

I created them without knowing how. Being able to see them at all implies possibilities I can scarcely comprehend.

It’s a revelation that perhaps ought to leave me daunted beyond imagining, but instead, here with Yorani, I am instead inspired: by what I can do, when I exercise care; by what can be, if we dare to imagine.

And so that is what I take with me into the start of the next phase of saving our world.


 

The day begins early. Saiyana, with logistical powers that border on magic, has managed to ensure that each delegate has arrived in Sayorsen no earlier than today.

(I do not ask if mysterious accidents befell them on the road to make this happen. I’m not certain I wish to know the answer.)

This means that the morning is spent greeting the delegates and their parties, making sure all known accommodations are appropriate and adjusting for any new information, then arranging for them to settle in.

The Taresal delegation is the first to arrive. Ambassador Perjoun is a woman in her forties, olive-skinned and tall even for a Taresal, with her thick, wavy hair gathered in a gentle tail. Her manner is serious and deliberate, but not overly upright.

We understand each other immediately. This is a woman comfortable in who she is, and she will deal with me in kind.

This is a relief, and also a reminder to myself to be judicious in how I manipulate these proceedings. She will respond well to honesty, but if she senses underhanded tactics directed her way I have no doubt she will respond accordingly.

The Velasari delegation is next. They had a carriage drawn unsafely through the streets in order to arrive earlier than Saiyana asked, so as a slight and warning masquerading as an honor, I send Reyata to meet him first while I finish up with the delegation from Taresan.

Unlike Ambassador Perjoun, Ambassador Ridac will be a problem. I had hoped for a younger delegate less mired in old prejudices in charge but hadn’t expected one; not for a summit of this import. But Ridac is as extreme as they come in Velasar. He’s nearly my grandmother’s age, stocky and jowly, and there was a time in her reign when he was banned from Istalam entirely due to his inflammatory rhetoric against the Istal government. Ridac thrives on political games, and he hates Istalam with a passion.

I have had his measure for years of watching him and my mother verbally circling each other at official functions, even with my father’s presence working against her. I must be on my guard with him always, but I know well what sort of bile and vile tactics to expect.

Ambassador Perjouin is clearly here to find a resolution, and Ambassador Ridac to establish Velasari supremacy. Neither choice is a surprise.

The Isle of Nakrab’s ambassador, on the other hand, is entirely outside my knowledge.

We had arranged for the Nakrabi delegation’s transportation upon disembarking at Istalam’s expense after the Isle of Nakrab had proposed bringing their own. While I was as curious as anyone what it would have entailed, we weren’t about to allow Nakrabi technology that large and obvious on our shores without greater understanding of what it literally meant.

Diplomatically, of course, I knew. Traveling in a showy piece of technology through Istal cities and across the countryside would have demonstrated Nakrab’s technological superiority and reputation well before their arrival. More, it was a ploy to see how far we could be pushed, because we all know perfectly well Nakrab doesn’t need Istal money.

So when the Nakrabi delegation arrives at the city hall in an ostentatious carriage that I know Saiyana did not arrange, that means something, too.

Two attendants with shaved heads precede the ambassador out. Yorani and I watch impassively, my familiar perched on my shoulder as if nothing of moment has happened—just as I am behaving.

Then the ambassador alights, and it’s time.

“Greetings, Ambassador Cherato,” I say, inclining my head in acknowledgement rather than bowing.

The ambassador smiles without showing any teeth as he looks around. He’s far younger than I expected, which may be a sign they’re not taking this seriously; not too surprising.

Nakrabi tend to be lighter-skinned than Istals and Velasari, though with a slightly different undertone than the Gaellani, and so it proves with Ambassador Cherato. I have no understanding of how his dark hair is styled or what it means, but such elaborate twists must require either extreme chemicals or magic to defy gravity thus.

But when the ambassador pauses, it’s his face that sets my heart beating faster.

It’s not the vibrant color painted on his eyelids and lips, nor the perfect symmetry of his features.

It’s that there are images of the negotiations that took place after the Cataclysm. With a memory as trained as mine, I know I am not mistaken.

This face was there, also using the name Cherato. Exactly as it appears now.

Could the effect be produced with makeup? Or is this a relative of that previous Cherato, and the name is a family one?

“Tea Master Miyara,” Cherato replies in accented Istal, not returning my nod. “I am glad to put such an arduous journey behind me.”

Pretending to be ignorant, as if he can’t be bothered with our customs, while still exuding superiority. This is too predictable.

“I hope you will enjoy exploring Sayorsen during your stay,” I say, just as blatantly not apologizing.

Ambassador Cherato looks me in the eye, and my breath catches.

Faced with his gaze, I am certain. This is no young man.

This is the same man who accompanied the delegation to Istalam decades ago, and he looks as though he hasn’t aged a day.

Illusion and deception. Thiano’s warning echoes in my mind. It’s possible the ambassador has not aged physically, due to some application of magic; it is equally possible he has, and this is a public mask.

I do not believe I was meant to identify him, though, which means I have learned something.

Nakrab has a strange fascination with youth, and they’re in fact taking this summit seriously enough to send an expert.

All this passes in an instant, and in respond to my hope, the ambassador says only, “Do you really?”

As if he couldn’t possibly find any enjoyment in Sayorsen.

Or as if I won’t enjoy the kind of exploration he’d prefer.

“If you have to ask, then we have much to learn about each other in the coming days,” I say. “Allow me to introduce you to my familiar, Yorani. She is a young spirit given form, and she will accompany me throughout the negotiations.”

“What a quaint way to make decisions,” Ambassador Cherato says.

I smile mysteriously. “Stranger than you know.”

A blink is the only change in his expression, and I make a mental note to thank Karekin for the advice to not be shy about cultivating an air of mystery.

“I’m sure we will all be duly fascinated,” Ambassador Cherato says, sounding uncommonly bored, and I contain a grin. Always nice to have confirmation that a tactic has worked. “But who is this?”

Another carriage has pulled up, somehow more ostentatious than the Nakrabi delegation’s, and Karisa flutters toward us in a yellow and orange confection that is both perfectly in fashion and makes her look even younger than she is.

I bend my expression into a faint scowl while turning back to the Nakrabi ambassador—in time to catch the naked hunger in his expression at the sight of her.

Before, I might have thought her appearance perfect for her role; now, I have a growing concern.

As she approaches, the ambassador masks the hunger but not the blatant interest.

“You must be the ambassador from the Isle of Nakrab!” Karisa exclaims, bowing gracefully—if only barely, belying her own apparent arrogance—before him. “I just couldn’t wait to greet you. It’s so exciting for someone like you to be here.”

In an annoyed tone, I introduce, “Her Highness, Princess Karisa of Istalam.”

Ambassador Cherato ignores me entirely. “Someone like me?” he asks.

Karisa grins impishly. “Here to stir things up,” she says slyly.

“Your Highness, that’s enough,” I say.

“What a delightful child,” the ambassador says. “Though you misread me, of course. We certainly aren’t here to, as you say, ‘make trouble’, despite what certain parties have implied.”

“How extremely disappointing,” Karisa says. “Perhaps you can make it up to me.” She turns to me. “I’ve been trapped here and am bored to tears. You don’t need him for the rest of the afternoon, do you?”

I keep my expression neutral. “The official negotiations begin tomorrow.”

“Then,” Karisa says, deftly insinuating herself and linking her arm with the ambassador’s with a wink, “I will see about making sure the ambassador feels welcome. What could be more appropriate for a princess?”

“Not setting herself up as a personal attendant to a foreign emissary,” I say dryly.

Karisa waves a hand. “That’s what he’s for, isn’t it? I will be the ambassador’s… cultural advisor.”

The ambassador tears his amused gaze away from Karisa, following the “he” she gestured toward.

“My assistant, Taseino,” I say. “He will be your liaison during your stay, as I will not always be available to you. If there is anything you require, communicate it to him.”

The ambassador considers Taseino for a long moment and apparently finds him adequate or at least inoffensive—he is young, too—and says, “I will be happy to do so.”

I wonder what that means. But the boundary is set: I will arrange for his needs but will not be at his disposal.

“Then we’re all set! I’ll take it from here, tea master,” Karisa says.

I bow. “I leave it to your wisdom, your Highness.”

The ambassador doesn’t smirk as he takes his leave; he doesn’t need to. I have played my hand as though my sister is harmless and annoying yet situated such that she is privy to information like an ambassador’s arrival schedule. We can act as though I will make allowances for a princess that the ambassador will expect to be able to exploit to work around me, as she’s made it plain she enjoys tweaking me.

That went as well as it possibly could have, but there is a thread of unease in my triumph.

“Find a way to make sure Karisa knows he has an odd relationship to youth,” I murmur to Taseino.

“She’s aware,” Taseino tells me. “She’s sure it isn’t a sexual thing. She says it seems to be a philosophical one, and she’ll let you know more later.”

A cultural obsession with youth? How does she know already? And how does he know what she knows?

There’s no time to say more, but I trust her to be able to read people, and to draw the same conclusions about the ambassador from our education.

Taseino catches up with them, making himself unassuming without difficulty.

Not just youth, then, but perhaps the trappings of it: Taseino is accepted because he’s young and thus can be safely disregarded. But he’s not interesting to the ambassador because he isn’t flaunting the aesthetic of youth the same way Karisa is in her manner; likewise the staff attending the ambassador, whom he neglected to introduce.

So Taseino is perfectly suited, too: established from the start to coordinate between Karisa and Elowyn’s team and me, as well as to serve as a scout and potentially plant things for their use if needed. A person he’ll treat as a meaningless functionary, too young to be worth targeting or watching himself around, so he will let him observe while being unobserved.

At least, that is the hope.

Ambassador Cherato’s measure I do not have in full yet, but one thing is certain:

He is absolutely here to make trouble, and he’s well capable of it.

And it’s my job to stop him.


 

Deniel and I have finished eating and are cleaning up the kitchen when he asks, “That reminds me—have you seen Talsion’s book?”

Dinner tonight was soup made from paste, assorted pickles his mother made up a jar of, rice, and fish with a thick, sweet sauce. The discounted fish is a treat, and the rest cost next to nothing—the paste purchased in bulk apparently keeps for many months—so Deniel thought this would be both a good meal for me to learn to cook as well as an easy one when we’re both too tired for more serious experimentation. And it still gave us something to do together.

I assume it is the fish that has made him think of Talsion’s book. “Yorani took it. She wants to give it as a gift to the old woman who gifted me the arcane teapot. She claims Talsu said it was okay.”

Yorani hops up on the table in the living room long enough to shoot me a look.

I raise my hands. “Peace. I’m not accusing you of anything.”

The baby dragon hops back onto the floor.

“I have… several questions,” Deniel says. “Though the first is what they’re doing right now.”

Yorani and Talsion have both been lounging on the floor for some time now, just… looking around. And occasionally focusing abruptly in the same direction.

“Perhaps the notion of playing is too exhausting to contemplate,” I say.

“They have naps for that,” Deniel says. “In my experience cats have a never-ending supply.”

“They’re taking a break, then.”

“Cats do behave inexplicably,” he acknowledges. “I suppose there’s no reason Yorani can’t too. Especially as she’s your familiar.”

“As if you can’t easily predict me. I’m fairly sure they’re watching spirits, though.”

“See, you call yourself predictable, and then you just casually drop that into conversation,” Deniel says. “Do I want to know?”

I shrug. “There’s not much more to tell, honestly. At least on that front. I think spirits are somewhat more concentrated here simply because of how many times I’ve practiced tea ceremony here, but it’s not materially relevant as far as I know.”

“But you can see spirits now.”

“Sometimes. Yorani and I are experimenting.”

“And you two are… talking, now?”

I dry my hands and go to my bag. “I’m somewhat less certain how well we’re doing there. Let me check with Talsion and make sure I didn’t misunderstand Yorani.”

I pull out the wrapped book and begin untying it.

“Miyara,” Deniel says patiently, “just because you can communicate with your familiar, who is a spirit, does not mean you can talk with a cat.”

“You don’t know that.”

Deniel makes a strangled noise. “Miyara—”

“Which of us reads him books?”

“I don’t expect answers.”

“Does Talsu prefer tales of cat detectives to law tomes or doesn’t he?” I ask with mock-severity.

Deniel throws up his hands. “I give up.”

I show Talsion the book, setting it down in front of him in case he wants to sit on it to demonstrate his claim.

Talsu sniffs it.

He glances at Yorani.

Then he stands up, turns around, and settles down again with his butt facing the book.

Yorani chirps shortly at me as if to say ‘I told you so’.

“There you have it,” I say, setting the book on the low table so I can re-wrap it.

“Very scientific,” Deniel teases me.

“If we accept that Yorani can communicate with Talsion, and I can communicate with Yorani—”

“I’m taking the night off lawyering,” Deniel says, throwing up his hands. “Do what you will.”

No sooner has he said this than a paw darts up to attack the corner of the cloth I’m attempting to re-tie.

I look down at Talsion. “Do you protest after all?”

Talsu stares at me.

I start moving the cloth again and his eyes follow the motion, gleaming.

“Oh, I see,” I say. “Now it’s time for cat games.”

I look around for Yorani and find her flapping next to me with a ribbon in her mouth.

“My mistake, it is a dragon and cat game,” I say dryly, looking back at Deniel who has doubled over laughing. “Can I get some help, here?”

“What do you think giving her a ribbon qualifies as?”

I huff, and the next few minutes are spent playing and ultimately distracting our furry and scaly friends with a different cloth and a twig so I can re-wrap the book.

Eventually, they chase each other upstairs and Deniel and I end up settled together on the couch with me nestled in his arms.

“This was good,” I say. “Well planned, past-Miyara.”

“I agree,” Deniel says, dropping a kiss on the top of my head. “Though since you scheduled a night for us knowing the coming days would be too busy, I hope you also did so for yourself? You-time and us-time are different.”

“And I need both,” I say simply. “I have spent plenty of time with my own thoughts, believe me.”

“Knowing you, that doesn’t sound like taking a break,” Deniel says dryly.

“It has been what I needed,” I say. “But time with you is… relaxing in a different way. Being with you reminds me of who I am and wish to be, so in some ways it also counts as both.”

Deniel takes my face between his palms and kisses me deeply.

He pulls back, and we just watch each other for a long moment. Then Deniel’s expression flickers.

“What is it?” I ask softly.

“It just occurred to me,” he says, “it must have been very difficult for your mother. Of course I knew that before, but—”

“She doesn’t have a partner she is safe being herself with.”

“But also no one else, right? She must not trust her mother, who put her in this position. And then she couldn’t attempt to create such a relationship with her children, either.”

I sigh, burrowing into him more deeply. “I am not sure whether to hope that she wished to, because it would mean she loved me after all and denied our relationship because she felt she had to, but—”

“But.” Deniel’s arms tighten around me. “But then it means she’s suffered greatly all this time.”

“Yes.” I close my eyes, breathing in his scent. “Perhaps someday I can try to help her find more happiness. My father, too. For now my sisters are enough of a challenge.” I huff. “Well. And me, of course.”

“You’re doing just fine in my estimation,” Deniel says, taking one of my hands and squeezing it, “for whatever that’s worth.”

“Quite a lot,” I say. “But once Iryasa learns—no, Reyata’s reaction will probably be worse—”

“You’re fretting about the teens again.”

We already covered this while we cooked: Karisa, Elowyn, and Taseino have all been safely home for hours now, and their first experience with the Nakrabi delegation was entirely uneventful.

Though noteworthy, both in that—unless it turns out they are humoring us—our strategy appears to work, and also that Karisa has sussed out what is going on with the ambassador’s strange reaction to youth.

It’s not just philosophical, but magical: youth is indicative of vigor and strength, and a display like the ambassador’s appearance demonstrates the resources and political clout to bring magical fortitude to bear.

She thinks it is probably an illusion rather than a transformation, but isn’t convinced it’s only skin-deep, which might be why he wears it even in Istalam. Too soon to say on that count. But my estimation was correct in that youth is not respected for its own sake; quite the opposite. Nakrabi respect the symbol of youth, but otherwise consider it delightful but lacking in teeth—or perhaps staying power.

I admit I am less worried about the precise form of the ambassador’s particular magic—though I am curious how it will fare with the wards on the tea shop—as I am about why the appearance of vigor implied by magic is so noteworthy on the Isle of Nakrab.

Is there a problem with their magic? Or is there another problem they’re using magic to compensate for?

“And now you’re thinking again,” Deniel says. “Every one of them is prepared for their tasks. Do you believe in them?”

“You know I do.”

He kisses me.

While I’m still savoring that, he murmurs, “And you’ve done all you could to prepare them. Are you going to change your mind now?”

“I—”

He kisses me again, and since he’s made his point I let him distract me.

More specifically, I decide I will distract him.

I pull out of his arms only to twist him underneath me, and this time I kiss him, with more urgency than before.

Somewhat later we separate, breathing more heavily. “Wait,” Deniel whispers. “I don’t want to rush.”

We have so little time together already that I don’t want to slow down, but I nod.

Deniel takes both my hands in his, holding them still. “My boundaries this time,” he says, and his crooked smile is going to kill me. “Rushing like we’ll never have more time is different than enjoying the moment, at least for me. And the latter is what I want.”

I consider and, despite everything I’m feeling right now—or perhaps because of it—decide that I agree.

Deniel laughs softly at my look of grave contemplation and adds, “There are still plenty of things we can do. We’re not in a hurry.”

“What if I am?” I challenge, smiling down at him with raised eyebrows.

“Then I hope you’ll be patient with me,” he says, and I wonder if perhaps it is his voice rather than his smile that will be the death of me. Or the look in his eyes as he gazes at me.

And then I decide, for just a little while, to do somewhat less thinking, and the rest of the evening passes with me in Deniel’s arms.


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Continue to Chapter 17


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