My ultimatum hangs in the air.
It’s another test, of both the ambassadors and myself: do I truly have the authority to make such a judgment, and the power to back it up?
There are different parts to power. There is what I can do on my own, which depends on me: my will, my abilities, my limitations.
But there is not just what I choose to do, because once my actions interact with the world, there is also perception. There is whether others believe I have power, or are willing to act as though I do; there is little effective difference between the two.
I have the will to enact vengeance upon anyone who attacks the Cataclysm. In this moment, full of fury, I am certain I can summon the means, though later I may doubt.
But will the ambassadors believe, or will they decide to try me?
And if they do…
“You are quick to throw threats around, tea master,” Ambassador Ridac says, his eyes narrowed.
“You are quick to challenge the very core reason we are all gathered in this place, which I made plain not hours past,” I say.
“Challenge? No one here has exacted the violence you cautioned us against. No one has abandoned your talks of peace—except, it seems, yourself.”
“Ambassador, you have misunderstood me greatly, and for that I accept responsibility,” I say. “We are not here to talk of peace. We are here to survive. And as for violence, how should I take it when your first act, it seems, is to attack the very barrier that protects us all from the Cataclysm?”
“We have done no such thing.”
“You have, and whether it was done in ignorance or full knowledge I care not at all,” I say. “Let me be perfectly plain. Until this matter is resolved, no member of an ambassadorial team may enter the Cataclysm without an escort I have approved.”
“Except the Istals,” Ambassador Cherato remarks.
“Princess Saiyana is responsible for stabilizing the Cataclysm to the extent such an undertaking may be possible,” I say. “I will hold all others not directly involved in its safe-keeping to the same standard.”
“Will you?” he asks. “I question your objectivity, tea master.”
“Do you? I question your motives, ambassador. I question whether you are unaware of the consequences the last time such technology was deployed within this sphere. I question whether you invited the Velasari ambassador here to be Nakrab’s shield. I question whether you truly did not understand what a grave offense you have given, and ambassadors, I still await your justifications.”
The Nakrabi ambassador spreads his hands. “Then you will wait, tea master. You are already prepared to believe the worst of me, it seems. If I am to be guilty whether I provide an explanation or don’t, I will keep my counsel.”
Here it is, then.
“You are partially correct,” I say. “I will not believe your presence here to be entirely innocent, as I will not do you the disservice of believing you to be stupid.”
Our gazes lock.
Then his gaze drifts to Yorani at my shoulder, and I tense as he considers her lazily.
Yorani has done more than thwart him this day. She’s demonstrated that she can and will get in his way, which means she’s made herself a direct threat.
I lift a hand, letting the gesture draw attention away from the tea spirit. “Ambassadors. With, as you say, a witch, a dragon, a noble of a treasonous house, and an officer of the law, I surely have sufficient ability to detain you until I am satisfied.”
It doesn’t work: Ambassador Cherato’s next words are, “Not with a tea spirit, then?”
I let my gaze narrow. “No spirit is for use, ambassador, be it personal or worldly.”
Ambassador Cherato tilts his head to one side, as if this is a curious notion and not a foundational principle.
“Enough of this,” Ridac says abruptly. “I was interested in seeing the Cataclysm for myself, and Ambassador Cherato invited me to view a demonstration of the Isle of Nakrab’s technological ingenuity. Rare opportunities, I’m sure you’ll understand. To provoke a reaction like this from you, my curiosity about its power is certainly satisfied. You of course have Velasar’s apology for any unintended consequences, tea master, but I think any further discussion should be occur in official negotiations.”
No apology for the intended consequences, at least not explicitly.
But he has taken a more important step: he has answered my demand for them both, tacitly accepting my authority.
And in doing so, he has complicated whatever understanding existed between Velasar and the Nakrabi ambassador.
“I concur, Ambassador Ridac,” I say. “Ambassador Cherato, do you have anything to add?”
He smiles, close-lipped, and shakes his head.
“Then understand it is only Ambassador Ridac’s words and my desire to find a real solution that spare you today from a cell,” I tell him. “And understand that if I learn you have employed Nakrabi technology again inside Sayorsen or the Cataclysm, I will not be willing to extend you further opportunities of any kind.”
That’s as much as I can do for Ambassador Ridac, for the huge risk he has just taken, making it appear that he has just saved the Nakrabi ambassador rather than betrayed him. Ridac is canny enough not to react.
But Cherato, experienced as he is, does not bother with a non-reaction.
He turns to leave the Cataclysm, and we are obliged to follow in order to escort the ambassadors outside, leaving the awful technology abandoned behind us.
Where the Cataclysm ignored me before, it takes the opposite approach in this case.
When I glance back, the machinery’s structure is disintegrating into the air.
Outside the Cataclysm, the ambassadors go their separate ways, and I can only watch. I have no force prepared to detain or escort them.
Clearly this was an extreme oversight in my preparation.
My stomach twists, and even though the ambassadorial staff is not quite out of sight, Lorwyn says, “We can speak freely now.”
I let out a breath, prying Yorani off my shoulder so I can take a closer look at her.
The tea spirit is definitely fatter, but as far as I can tell she’s unharmed.
She chirps at me drowsily, and I settle her back on my shoulder. She curls herself around the back of my neck and falls asleep directly.
“I forget sometimes what you can be like when you’re really furious,” Risteri observes, not sounding particularly concerned about it. “Have I mentioned recently that you’re kind of terrifying, Miyara?”
Next to her, Sa Nikuran snorts. “Foolish. The tea master is more dangerous than any of us.”
“Really?” Lorwyn asks. “Because we were all helpfully quiet there and you still didn’t manage to put the Nakrabi ambassador in his place.”
“No,” Entero says, “but she did the first important work with Velasar.”
Lorwyn frowns. “What?”
“Velasar believes their interests are more aligned with Nakrab than Istalam,” I explain. “I’ve just driven a wedge in that relationship. Ridac doesn’t have to like me, but if he respects me and believes Nakrab is willing and able to sacrifice Velasar in its machinations, I may yet turn him.”
Lorwyn blinks, then scowls as she sees Risteri nodding along, having also understood the undercurrents of what just happened. “I hate politics.”
“My life is going to be nothing but for the next while,” I say grimly. “I may have gotten them to leave, but nothing prevents them from entering the Cataclysm somewhere else and starting over right away.”
“Not right away anyway,” Lorwyn says. “I made sure the device couldn’t be salvaged. They didn’t have anything else on them big enough to channel that kind of power.”
I stare at her, remembering how my gut had twisted earlier in the middle of my ultimatum and I hadn’t thought anything of it.
Lorwyn misinterprets my stare and glares at me. “I didn’t disable any of his other tech for him to inspect later, did I? And I made sure to do it at a moment when my witchcraft could be mistaken for Yorani’s power. Worth it to confirm Glynis’ hypothesis from before, anyway—looks like I can un-work Nakrabi tech easily enough. We’ll just have to keep them from recovering it to study and try to counter my witchcraft to fix.”
“The Cataclysm took care of it,” I say.
I can’t help wonder if this is why Cherato abandoned it without a thought: perhaps because he knew it couldn’t be used anymore. There’s no way to be sure if he knew why.
“What do you think they were doing, anyway?” Risteri asks.
Entero answers her. “At a guess, Ambassador Cherato was demonstrating the technology in exchange for whatever the Velasari agents learned in order to continue the work.”
Risteri looks stricken. “Do you think they finished before we interrupted?”
“What were you doing there, anyway?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Honestly, it was luck. Lorwyn and I were going to explore, since we haven’t done that in… well, years, and we needed get out of the apartment for a bit.”
“It really isn’t big enough for three.” Lorwyn shrugs.
“You shared a room with a whole passel of sisters until weeks ago,” Risteri reminds her.
“They’re smaller and easy to shove in corners when they annoy me.”
“Not if you expect them to stay there, unless adolescence has somehow made them less impossible,” Risteri says. “Then Sa Nikuran wanted to come, and then she decided to invite ‘Lorwyn’s Entero’—”
“I will enchant your underclothes to stay on when you next need to pee,” Lorwyn threatens easily. Entero looks faintly amused.
Risteri rolls her eyes. “Anyway, we picked up the trail and followed.”
I ignore the pang of feeling left out of this excursion. Exploring the Cataclysm together is a perfect thing for them to do together now that they’re friends again, and there’s no reason to invite me, especially since I couldn’t have joined anyway. Instead I ask, “It didn’t occur to you to send for help?”
“What help?” It’s Sa Nikuran who asks. “If it hadn’t been ambassadors, we would have been sufficient for any navigational, magical, physical, or bureaucratic problem. Since it was, who else but you could have helped, and how could we have reached you in time?”
I take a breath. Sa Nikuran has been the Te Muraka’s right hand, and that means more than just as an enforcer. With one question, she has focused me on the immediate problem.
“We have a small window before Cherato can conceivably retrieve any additional machines he may have brought and return to the Cataclysm,” I say. “We need some sort of system in place to prevent that entrance or at least notify me that he has attempted it. Any ideas?”
“Not sure magical prevention is a good idea,” Lorwyn says. “It would be tricky to specify anything enough to limit it to just ambassadorial staff, let alone for the exemptions you mentioned. And honestly I’m not sure it’s a good idea to rely on any magical working near the barrier of the Cataclysm in its current state.”
“You need physical guards,” Sa Nikuran says bluntly. “There is no reason the Te Muraka cannot fill this role. This is not so different from your princess’ own idea.”
“And Princess Iryasa also noted that there is a problem,” I say, “which is that we don’t want the perception of the Te Muraka to be that you’re only valuable when fulfilling a function, and we don’t want Te Muraka to have to do this to be perceived as valuable.”
“Perception is irrelevant given the current stakes,” Sa Nikuran says implacably. “I can have a team of volunteers to patrol the border in less than an hour.”
“Perception is unfortunately the opposite of irrelevant,” I say. “Please believe me when I say that the summit will fail entirely if I lose control of the narrative.”
“Then let it be not just a Te Muraka thing,” Lorwyn says. “You still need a way to be notified, right? I can work on that.”
I hesitate. “I don’t want to force you into this either.”
Lorwyn’s brow wrinkles, and then her eyes widen. She snaps, “Are you kidding? I hesitated to help you once, and that was ages ago now, and now you’re never going to count on me for anything ever again? Are you trying to be an ass?”
I bristle. “I am trying not to manipulate you into something you don’t want to do!”
“Yes, but would you have if I hadn’t messed up, and then started having this conversation like—”
“Are you really kidding right now.”
“You’re the one who reminded me to make sure not to put you on a pedestal,” I snap.
Risteri steps between us. “You’re not. The Te Muraka will help, and Lorwyn will help, and so will the guides. Since it won’t look good if the Te Muraka start apprehending people, we can track them inside the Cataclysm until help arrives.”
“And I,” Entero says, “will handle what comes next.”
My gaze flicks to him, and he crosses his arms, daring me to tell him I’m not willing to involve him in this either, to let him do the job he’s chosen after the consequences of my last usage of him.
When I keep my mouth shut, having the ability to read a figurative room even if I feel conflicted about it, Entero continues, “Furthermore, I’m going to organize this so you don’t have to. You have a different role.”
I close my eyes and take a breath. He’s right; they all are, even if I don’t like involving my friends in my problems.
In this case it’s clear they’re going to insist on involving themselves, and a part of me can’t help being glad for it.
I knew we were going to have to prepare to change our plans on the fly, and here we are, with the people and capacity to do so. Now I have to do my part.
“What exactly does Miyara have to do now?” Lorwyn asks suspiciously.
Risteri puts a hand on her shoulder, restraining her. “Liaise with the official royal authority.”
“Oh,” Lorwyn says. “Yeah, you’re definitely on your own for that part.”
Iryasa is already in the library of House Taresim waiting for me when I arrive without my having to summon her.
“Why am I hearing from Lady Kireva that you’ve had an altercation with two ambassadors outside official negotiations?” my sister asks without preamble.
“Because Lady Kireva’s a meddling old woman who wants to drive a wedge between us and is trying to prove that you need her and can’t trust anyone else,” I say. “I have literally not stopped anywhere else since I exited the Cataclysm.”
Iryasa considers that for a moment. “I suppose it’s not impossible she was trying to save time by making sure I was ready to receive you.”
“I suppose it’s not,” I say an equally bland tone.
“I take it whatever altercation she’s referring to occurred in the Cataclysm? That explains why she didn’t have details for me, but I can’t say I’m pleased by this explanation.”
“I wish I could be happier about this discovery of a certain way to keep happenings secret from her, but under the circumstances I have little to smile about.”
I carefully lift Yorani from where she’s slumbering around my neck and settle her in my lap. She curls up a little tighter but otherwise doesn’t wake.
“She’s grown,” Iryasa observes.
“In one direction,” I agree, trying not to focus on why exactly it is she’s so exhausted she’s fallen into such a deep sleep in the middle of the day, and launch into a detailed recounting of what has just occurred.
Iryasa is just as angry as I am—and as I am, with both ourselves and the ambassadors. We should have been prepared for them to push in such a way, but I hadn’t thought they would try something so blatant so soon.
When we come to the matter of guarding the barrier, though, her unease is clear.
“You’re relying too much on physical threats,” the crown princess cautions me. “We can’t scare them into agreeing to terms if we want them to hold.”
“I’ll use whatever tactics work,” I tell her. “Ambassador Perjoun hasn’t been put off. What I need is to pressure them to be willing to get to the point.”
“Not luring them in? I was under the impression that defeat by graciousness was your primary mode of operating.”
“It is,” I admit. “I planned to transition into that tomorrow, when we start in on the meat of thing and work toward getting answers. But I won’t get anywhere if the ambassadors don’t believe I’m worth taking seriously.”
“Posturing is not worth the risk of our entire framework of international relations, Miyara,” Iryasa tells me. “We got them to come to this summit at all, but now we have to give them a reason to stay, not give them reasons to not go. Do you see the difference?”
I tilt my head to one side, considering. “What is your best-case scenario for this, exactly? What are you hoping for?”
“An answer to what’s caused the barrier to expand, and a solution we all agree on,” she says in the tone of someone admitting something radical. “I know the latter will be nearly impossible, but I want for all of us to leave with a shared goal.”
“Is that all?”
Iryasa mimics my gesture. “What do you mean?”
“I want to know what caused the Cataclysm in the first place,” I say. “I want us to not have just a common goal to prevent its expansion, but to have common cause in preventing whatever systems allowed it to come to pass in the first place. I want all of us—Te Muraka and Nakrabi, Velasari mages and Gaellani witches, princesses and refugees—to find understanding and common cause together.”
Her eyes have widened slightly, her breath hitched, and I know why.
I’ve dared to state intentions out loud what she’s never dared to think.
“You’re not talking about plugging a hole,” she says. “You’re talking about unraveling a whole system and rebuilding its foundations.”
“We have to,” I tell her seriously. “It’s the only way we stop this for good. Or else power will change hands and the Cataclysm will be caught in games for political leverage once more, and we’ll lose this continent span by span.”
Her gaze catches mine, piercing to the core. “Can you change a culture? Can you change several, all at once?”
“We’re going to find out,” I say. “I have bigger dreams, Iryasa, and I’m going to get them. And I think it’s what you want to, but if you’re still not prepared to admit it and what it means, then my work starts with you.”
Iryasa huffs out a breath, leaning back. “You never give, do you?”
“I do,” I disagree. “But usually only if it furthers my ultimate cause.”
She laughs at that, shaking her head. “All right. You think I’m being too passive and letting the ambassadors set the pace, don’t you? Give me a moment to think.”
I do. Someday she won’t have these moments, but someday, I hope, she’ll have trained herself out of such mental patterns of habitual nonconfrontation.
“How’s this,” my sister finally says, and I keep my expression blank rather than react to the fact that my elder sister the crown princess is seeking my approval. “There needs to be some kind of repercussion for their blatant disregard for both the proceedings and the barrier’s integrity, yes? And I’ll also need to specifically make clear my support of witches and the Te Muraka in particular, as representatives of each were involved in forestalling the ambassadors’ scheme. We will use the barrier defense for both, framing the new service as a reward for those involved and an indication of my trust in them, while it will also function as a formal slight and a preventative force against the ambassadors.”
“Perfect,” I say. “You’ll need to frame it in such a way—”
“—that the service does not become obligatory for those groups indefinitely, and that they’re not only valuable for being able to provide this service, yes, I know,” Iryasa finishes. “I can lay the foundations for wider recruitment among all Istalam following their lead, and we’ll adjust the parameters once the summit has concluded.” She smiles at me. “Favorably.”
I bow. My worry for my friends and my fear for Yorani and my anger have not yet faded, but this, at least, is good work I have done this day, if Iryasa is willing to believe we can succeed.
“I’ll start working with Sa Rangim on this right away, unless there’s anything else?” Iryasa says, standing.
“You’ll want to speak to Saiyana too—”
“She’ll be busy with the barrier now, I assume.”
“—so I’ll stop by to update her in person so she’s prepared later,” I finish dryly.
Iryasa’s lips quirk.
Finally, we are in tune.
“There is one more thing,” I say. “Now that I’ve begun working on Ridac, I think you will be better suited to continue.”
Iryasa looks startled for a moment—that I’m asking her to take a more active hand, and that I believe she can.
But as she nods decisively, I know the timing is right. I can model what making space and a role for myself looks like, but Iryasa will have to figure out hers for herself.
“But in the meantime,” I say in a danger-sweet voice I know my eldest sister will understand, “let’s set some spirits-blighted boundaries and make them stick.”
Continue to Chapter 20!