Royal Tea Service: Chapter 20

There is nothing quite like righteous anger to impel me to move pieces into play at speed.

That the anger is at myself—for setting events up in a way that allowed what occurred in the Cataclysm yesterday—is an additional motivator, and I am addressing my errors with prejudice.

If I don’t actively curate and enforce boundaries, I can’t expect them to hold.

In the early hours before negotiations for the day begin, I send Glynis to summon Entero, Elowyn, and Taseino to a meeting at House Taresim. With Entero as an adjunct to the local police, and Taseino and Elowyn—not that she’ll be seen—as my assistants, it’s the easiest place to make sure no one remarks on their attendance.

And that no one, including my sisters, takes note of Karisa’s.

“Is Yorani well?” Entero asks immediately as we gather in the library, for once absent a tea spirit.

I love him for asking this first. “She seems to be, but she’s in a deep sleep. I don’t want to bring her anywhere contentious until she’s well enough to be aware of her own volition. Glynis assured me the protections on our home are almost as thorough as the ones at Talmeri’s.”

Entero nods, looking thoughtful. “You didn’t hesitate.”

I blink. “I did consider keeping her with me, since as my familiar she heals faster in my presence—”

He shakes his head. “I mean when you called it ‘our home’.”

Oh.

I think about for a moment, and then startle into a smile. “So I didn’t.”

“When do I get to see it, then?” Karisa asks, closing the door behind her.

This honestly hadn’t occurred to me. “Would you like to?”

“Everyone else has,” she replies, which is its own answer.

She would, in part because she feels left out, but our new relationship is still tenuous enough she’s not confident asking earnestly.

“I haven’t,” Taseino points out. “Or do non-princesses not count, your Highness?”

Caught, Karisa tosses her hair airily. “Certainly not.”

“I haven’t been over since Miyara moved in either, and my brother lives there,” Elowyn adds, emerging from a corner of the room where she really shouldn’t have been so invisible.

What’s really curious though is that no one currently in the room reacts when she makes herself noticeable: all of us could tell she was there, Taseino and Karisa included.

Interesting.

“We’ll set something up, then,” I say. “Let me think on it. Today I have a new wrinkle to add to our plot, and I think it will take all of you. In short, I want intel on Velasar and Nakrab’s activities outside the negotiations: specifically what they’re working on together, and what they’re not.”

“We’re taking Ambassador Perjoun at face value, then?” Taseino clarifies.

“Some people are who they appear to be,” Karisa says. “Saiyana confirmed she’s gotten where she is through consistency, hard work, and building connections rather than the usual intrigue.”

Karisa’s even spying on our sisters. I suppose I can’t be surprised—if anything, she’s always been spying on her sisters, myself included.

It makes me feel better about Taresan to hear this, though—that they would choose to send Perjoun for this summit. I hope the ambassador and I can learn from each other.

“That is my read as well, so no, we’re not going to devote resources toward her at this time,” I say. “The further complication is this: I want to get a hold of Nakrabi technology that Lorwyn and Glynis can experiment with. Saiyana or Ostario too, if we can steal them. But I need a better understanding of what we face so I know what to maneuver around or against.”

“No problem,” Karisa says. “I’ll talk them into giving me something.” She shrugs. “Or I can always steal.”

“I think we should avoid that,” Taseino says.

“You don’t think I could?” Karisa challenges, her smile sharp.

“No, I think they might let you,” he says. “Either to gain leverage over Istalam or just to see what you’d do with it, which would then blow your cover. If a piece of tech goes missing and you’ve been at their base, you’re going to be the logical suspect, not me.”

“Yes, because I’m the entitled one.” Karisa rolls her eyes. “Annoying but predictable I suppose.”

I try not to stare. I have never seen anyone get agreement out of Karisa this quickly in my life, and I’m not sure how much of this is Karisa’s willingness to work with us rather than against, and how much is Taseino’s hidden talents coming to light. He didn’t even call her ego into question.

“Do you have a suggestion?” I ask him.

He nods, turning to Elowyn. “Tamak made that tracking device for you, right? It looks entirely normal on the outside.”

“A swap?” Elowyn surmises, nodding slowly. “That could work.”

“Nakrabi tech requires a steady stream of magic, though,” Karisa points out. “Can he make a decoy fast enough?”

“Yes,” Elowyn says, which makes me wonder how much more she understands about Te Muraka magic than I do. “The bigger question is whether the decoy will last long enough before it’s discovered as fake. I don’t think that will work permanently, so we’ll have to place it and replace it.”

Taseino looks at me. “We’ll work out the details on our own. Anything else?”

“You’ve learned more about Nakrabi magic already, it sounds like,” I say.

“Still working on it,” Karisa says, “but it’s clear their tech is entirely magic-dependent. And it’s a status symbol: Cherato’s attendants don’t use the tech at all except in service of the ambassador. I’m not sure yet how much of that is resource scarcity or cultural hierarchy. I assume you haven’t missed that their makeup is designed to hide how exhausted they are, though, which begs more questions. Oh, speaking of makeup—Nakrab loves deceptions, right?”

“Right,” I say, trying to process all the implications here and keep up.

“Interesting side effect of our ruse here: they have a higher opinion of me than I anticipated not because of the age weirdness, but because Cherato’s realized I’m not entirely stupid.”

What?

“Not like that,” Taseino clarifies.  “He’s not onto her. It’s more that he’s treating her like an entitled noble who’s been constrained by her minders and is trying to stretch her wings for the first time but isn’t as experienced as she is clever.”

“Which has the advantage of being close to the truth,” Karisa says smugly. “But he’s amused I’m smart enough to deceive our sisters and is hoping he can use my own ruse against them. But you should be aware I think he’s also figured out you know what I’m up to and are allowing it, which also makes him think more highly of your skills at deception. It’s all delightfully circuitous.”

“I’m glad you’re having fun,” I say, my mind still racing. He’s as sharp as I feared. “I don’t think we need to adjust our overall strategy for that yet—Entero?”

He nods shortly. “Agreed. I don’t have much more to add on the Nakrabi magic side, though I’ll make sure we’re aware of their movements. Let me focus on the Velasari—my contacts will be more use there.”

“Police or unofficial?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “My business, not yours.”

That’s fair. I didn’t want to go into the spy business; I owe it to him to manage without interfering.

“Then we’re settled,” I say. “Let’s get ready for today’s challenges.”


 

The day’s negotiations are grueling. We don’t make any progress.

But by the end of the day, everyone has conceded to the new restrictions. It’s a victory, and I will take it.

It’s forward movement, but at the same time it sets my immediate goals for the negotiations back several steps. I’d intended to start with clear boundaries and then lighten my touch. Instead I’ve cemented an impression that I am immoveable, which is not entirely to my advantage.

It will be harder for me to see what they’re up to, if everyone feels they must commit to underhanded tactics. They may not try to take advantage in the same way, but there are others that can be more troublesome. Saiyana’s warning from the day before haunts me, but I can’t regret it now.

I have demonstrated thoroughly that I mean business, and that isn’t nothing: a long-term strength even if the short-term is more complicated.

And my covert preparations are well in hand.

Still, when Tea Master Karekin comes through the tea shop door, I can practically feel myself droop.

“Oh dear,” he says sympathetically. “One of those?”

“Long day, yes,” I say. “I was looking forward to getting home. Can whatever this is wait?”

“Perhaps, but I can’t guarantee it,” he says.

I sigh. “Let’s take tea in the ceremony room, then.”

“Allow me,” he says once again, waving me away. “Take your time finishing up; I know you weren’t expecting me.”

Thoughtful of him, considering there was no way he could have alerted me during the negotiations without distracting me. I take a few minutes to check in with those who remain at the shop preparing it for its afternoon opening to the public—Taseino and Meristo, not even Lorwyn since she’s rushing back to the Cataclysm to work with Sa Nikuran—and ushering the rest away.

“Busy, even outside the negotiations,” Karekin notes when I finally enter the ceremony room, closing the sliding door behind me.

“Always,” I agree.

He nods. “The work doesn’t stop just because the scheduled times for action do. The surrounding preparation is just as important.”

“I know,” I say. “I fear my preparations are inadequate across the board, however.”

“Always,” he agrees wryly, and I manage a tired laugh. “You don’t mean the summit itself, though.”

“Right at the moment I mean the tea shop. We established a system for the shop to run in my absence, but it may not be sustainable after all. Everyone involved besides Meristo, our most experienced tea specialist, has taken on too much outside the shop responsibilities, and skilled as he is, Meristo is only one person.”

I don’t count Iskielo and Talmeri, who are as likely to help as hurt.

Karekin pours hot water over the cups and tea pet, then adds it to the pot. “Perhaps you might make use of my assistance, then.”

My brain screeches to a halt.

And then the dratted thing starts moving again, in a different direction.

Karekin brought up the busyness of the shop in the first place—was he angling for this? Of course he was, but—

“Why?” I ask.

“Because I’m here to assist you,” Karekin says. “I can’t run the summit for you, nor would I try. That requires your particular touch. But while you are saving the world, I should think I might manage the serving of tea.”

It would do more than that—for our trust in and understanding of each other, and the tea guild, and external perceptions of both.

And yet.

“I will take you up on that,” I say, “but you are here today to tell me something you don’t think I’m going to have an easy time hearing, and you’re trying to alleviate my burden in another way. What is it?”

Karekin smiles briefly as he pours the tea. “I heard Yorani had an adventure yesterday and wanted to check in.”

I frown. “I’m going to see her as soon as I’m done here.”

“No, I don’t mean her health—not precisely. I assume you would not have left her if you’d had any sign she were unwell.”

“You think there might be signs I would miss?”

“Only perhaps due to lack of education, and that is what I hope to rectify,” Karekin says. “Though lest you worry, I have no reason to believe Yorani is any present danger. Events merely inspired me not to wait for that time to talk to you about the nature of tea spirits. The guild was too late to help you last time, and I would not have a repeat occurrence.”

I sip my tea.

He’s going to change all the rules on me again, just when I felt like I was beginning to get a handle on things—after discovering I’d already made critical errors with what I thought I understood.

I change my mind and tip the entire cup back, then set it down.

Karekin wordlessly pours again.

“You’re aware that Yorani is the first tea spirit seen in centuries,” he says. “You may not be aware the last known appearance of a tea spirit was created by an arcanist turned tea master.”

I had not. “I’m not an arcanist, tea master.”

“I’m aware,” Karekin says. “But it is relevant to you to understand what we know of the magic involved in tea spirits. What do you know?”

“Tea is a sacred practice because of its ties to the spirits,” I say. “Tea spirits are made from earth—in this case, leaves—steeped in water, and released into the air. And whenever I perform the tea ceremony, I give spirits shape, though they are not typically visible.”

“Ah,” Karekin says, “good. I assumed you must have made that connection, given what you did at the tournament. Yes. May I ask how you knew?”

I swirl my current teacup. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars, but I was gifted an object that allows me to see them briefly when they form.”

The bracelets, the teapot. It begins to seem like my surprising success at creating a tea spirit was less accident than design—someone else’s.

“Interesting,” Karekin says.

I tilt back this cup, too.

“There is a theory,” he says, “that the increasing demand on the world’s magic over the years—with the rise of other forms like magecraft and witchcraft, especially as they diverged and grew—have left less ambient magic to form familiars. Perhaps still for spirits, though that too had been much in doubt before your recent experience.”

What? “I’ve never heard there might be a limit on available magic.”

He shakes his head. “Spirits are not just any magic, though. They are a form of wild magic given shape. Chaos rendered to purpose. Consider what you accomplished with the barrier during the tea tournament.”

I stare down at our empty cups, pondering as Karekin dutifully pours again.

“I shaped them into form and purpose,” I say, “which created a patch—the barrier is the line between chaos and stability, then? Is that it?”

“That is my essential assumption,” Karekin says, “though of course this is conjecture, not studied lore, and I am no mage. But there are stories of a lost application, or possibly origin, of the art of tea, as a kind of defense. Consider that you are also taking magic and creating a degree of consciousness in each spirit.”

I do not in fact wish to consider that very seriously, or I would be forced to come to some troubling conclusions about the potential for disaster in my own home, particularly with a cat able to see spirits and willing to get into trouble.

“No two spirits are identical,” Karekin continues. “They change depending on the tea master performing the ceremony and the recipient, and because people change, a ceremony between the same two people at a later date would not produce a twin. They’re unique, and that prevents their magic for being available to any purpose. A conscious spirit cannot be harnessed for magecraft, for instance—unless they wish to be.”

“But wild magic can be,” I say slowly.

“That is the theory. I see you’ve had a thought, but before you chase it, let me explain where I’m going with this. A tea spirit, a familiar, has a purpose, and it’s one we know: to reflect you.”

My burgeoning thoughts of the Cataclysm derailed. “I’m sorry? Yorani has her own personality. We may bear some similarities, but she isn’t me in dragon form.”

“No, she’s not a copy. But she learns from you.”

Sa Rangim had said something very similar, but Karekin is making me think I didn’t fully understand. “By living with me, she learns my values, doesn’t she?”

“As well as your role in the tea ceremony of her creation, and what that means for her,” Karekin says. “Yorani’s near-death experience during the tournament caused her to shrink, so you may not have yet noticed that she’s growing.”

“You make that sound much more ominous than I typically understand growth in a child to be.”

“Yorani eats both physical food and magic, does she not?”

“I wasn’t sure the magic actually had any… nutritional value for her,” I admit. “But yes.”

“Oh, yes. Either will sustain her, but while she’s not big enough to eat much physical food now, she’ll grow. And at some point, how much physical food will it take to fill her?”

My eyes widen. “How big do you expect her to get, exactly?”

“When we’re talking about legends, it can be difficult to be clear on specifics,” Karekin says. “But Miyara, I would be shocked if she stops growing once she’s the size of your house.”

Oh, spirits.

I point at the teapot, and Karekin obligingly fills it with water as I knock back another cup and pours me another.

“What you’re very carefully not telling me,” I say, “is that there’s no internal limiting factor on her growth.”

“Breathe,” Karekin says. “I’m not finished. Eventually as she grows bigger, and stronger, she’ll eat more magic than food, and the more magic she eats, the more she will become magic only. Her physical form will eventually disperse. This is why tea spirits are considered sacred: we believe they eventually become guardians of the spirits themselves. It will take far longer than your lifetime, but how she lives once you’re gone will be a reflection of what she learned during your life.”

My eyes fill with tears. Spirits, I have so much to teach her. About change and growth, roots and friendship, and flying free. I don’t want her to be sad and alone.

I take a breath. She made friends with one cat very much without my help; I’m sure there will be more cats for her to make friends with. And Yorani is too curious to ever be bored for long. She will be fine, and I will do whatever I can for her to make sure of it.

“You’re not worried about her breathing fire or stomping on cities,” I manage. “Why are we talking about this now?”

“Because while she does eat magic, she’s not strong enough to handle all that much at once at her current size,” Karekin says. “It won’t make her grow faster; it will make her sick. For better or worse, be careful that what she learns from you isn’t to endlessly push herself too hard—even, and perhaps especially, if the cause is just.”

The breath rushes out of me. There’s an indictment, and perspective.

I’m already working on boundaries. But while Yorani has grown quite a lot, if not physically, I have to remember that for a tea spirit, she is still very small. I can rely on her to do what she can, but I don’t know what her limits are: and if she does, I need to make sure she attends to them.

I can’t rely on her to tell me ‘no’ when I am in need, not unless I model that for her.

Karekin sets his cup down, and I look up.

“As I said, I have no reason to believe Yorani is currently in jeopardy,” Karekin says. “And allow me to add one point further. You are the only person who has created a tea spirit in centuries, and I don’t think that’s an accident. Whatever magical circumstances of that ceremony contributed, it’s not an accident that you, who actively a chose a path of greater connection to the world, succeeded where no one else has.

“No one since an arcanist who made the choice to become a tea master, going from, in a sense, greater power to greater understanding. So I have every confidence in both you and Yorani, Miyara.”

To that, I find I have nothing to say. My throat is tight with tears.

It somehow matters more to have faith from someone I know clearly sees exactly what my weaknesses are.

I struggle to take a breath. “The tea guild should hire you out as a career coach,” I joke.

“I doubt many would be well disposed toward my particular brand of encouragement,” Karekin notes wryly, “given what it comes with.”

Constant, directed challenge. No, perhaps not.

“Well, then it’s my turn to pose you some challenge,” I say. “Let me show you Lorwyn’s station in the back, and the ingredients we use to make tea.”

Karekin bows over the tea tray. “Lead on, tea master.”

I intend to.


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