Royal Tea Service: Chapter 21

With Tea Master Karekin’s assistance, the rest of my time at the tea shop is less grueling than I feared. It takes time to teach systems to another person, but there is so much he knows already that working with him is still a relief.

When I finally leave the tea shop, Sa Rangim is waiting for me outside.

“Glynis,” I surmise as I turn to lock the door.

Sa Rangim’s lips quirk, though his eyes remain solemn. “No need for such extremes, when I have some understanding of the work you’ve taken on and your commitment to it.”

I sigh. “You think I’m modeling over-work too, then.”

Sa Rangim tilts his head to one side. “Only if you allow this to become your regular way of operating. Our current situation is, it must be said, unique in its acute nature. But I gather you don’t need to hear this caution from me.”

“I’ve just had it from Tea Master Karekin, not that it was especially a surprise. Though the implications for Yorani are somewhat more complicated.” I blink at him. “How are you again the first person I see after he’s upended my understanding of the world?”

“I thought catching you here would be the most efficient way to get your thoughts on the proposed border guard before I meet with Princess Iryasa later this evening,” Sa Rangim says. “Under other circumstances I might table such a discussion for another time, but—”

“No, let’s walk and talk,” I agree. “What I’ve just learned may affect your people more directly, and you should have all available information when planning the Te Muraka’s future. I need to stop by the market on my way home—will that do?”

“Beautifully,” Sa Rangim says. “I will have more questions for you once we arrive there.”

I look at him quizzically, but he gestures for me to go first.

So I do. I tell him what Tea Master Karekin has explained about a tea spirit’s fundamental nature: her lifespan, her consumption of magic, all of it.

“Ah,” Sa Rangim says. “This is why you’re worrying about the Te Muraka. You don’t know how much magic Yorani will need to eat, nor how much there is available, and whether there will still be enough for us.”

“And yet you don’t sound worried at all,” I say with some confusion.

Sa Rangim laughs. “I may have a better understanding of how much magic there truly is in the world than you,” he tells me. “I certainly know precisely how much it takes us to survive, even with our lifespans. But while I’m pleased your consideration jumped to us so naturally, I believe you may have missed the fundamental point your tea master attempted to convey.”

“Did I? Because being aware of and managing my—in this case literally—outsized impact on the future seemed to be the core of his point.”

“Then perhaps he missed it,” Sa Rangim says. “You focus on what you can control, Miyara.”

I scowl. I am too tired for more puzzles of this nature. “I don’t know what I can control.”

“You know some,” Sa Rangim tells me. “You can’t control the future, but you can gather the kindling you, or generations beyond you, may need to burn. You set in place what you can, and you trust in the future. You’re not the only one working toward the future, and you’re not the one who has to solve every problem—yes, even if you were involved in Yorani’s creation. You set goals within your power to attain and focus there.”

I mull that over. I may not be able to control how much magic will be available in the Te Muraka’s futures—yet—but perhaps I can lay out processes for future generations to manage distribution.

I think perhaps Tea Master Karekin and Sa Rangim have related but different points, though. Really what I can control isn’t what people—or spirits—will need from me when I’m gone: it’s what they need from me now.

“Do you think Yorani needs another tea spirit to be her friend?” I blurt. “I don’t want her to be lonely.”

Sa Rangim’s face looks soft in the light as we approach the Gaellani market closest to my house. “I think she will be content to be unique, like you.”

“But I need people,” I say, and startle myself at the simple truth of the statement.

Fundamentally, connections are what I was missing back at the palace. A purpose, too, but since my life’s work is in building bridges, the one necessitates the other.

“So does she,” Sa Rangim says, “but they need not be scaled and fire-breathing. She may not ever be as close to another human as she is to you, but she communicates easily with Deniel’s cat, does she not? I suspect she will always be partial to cats as her first friends. They see spirits too, you know.”

I roll my eyes. “I’ve gathered. With all that pouncing, I knew the two of them were up to something.”

“But then, so are you,” Sa Rangim teases.

I smile back. “Well, I definitely don’t control cats, so let’s talk about something simpler, like multifaceted international politics.”

To my surprise, Sa Rangim doesn’t hesitate to outline what he and Iryasa will be discussing in front of the Gaellani hesitantly listening in. After a moment, I understand why: it’s an effort at normalizing, and also of trust, one with minimal consequences since no official documents have been signed yet.

Our assessments largely match. As we move through the market, I point out some particular legal phrases for him to ask Iryasa about that she might be so familiar with she’d forget to explain their particular connotations, while Sa Rangim asks my opinion as an expert Istal taster on various foods we come across.

As he selects one delicate broth over a heartier bean sauce, I ask, “Is determining what is least offensive to an Istal palate your goal here?”

Sa Rangim eyes me. “You know who I’m cooking for.”

“Yes, and I know why, which is why I’m asking.”

“I want to be able to share myself with her,” he says simply.

Which is sweet, but. “It’s important that you not misrepresent who you are, too. You have to trust that you can share what you like and she’ll still like you and want to fit with you even if you don’t fit neatly or easily into her preconceptions.”

Sa Rangim eyes me thoughtfully. “You have a suggestion.”

I hand him the second starter sauce; close his hands around both bottles. “Let her choose what she likes and tell you her honest opinion. She doesn’t get to, much.”

Sa Rangim blinks at me, a deliberate movement as the color of his eyes flash with something deeper. He bows without a word.


 

At home, Yorani is awake, though still lethargic. Talsion is carrying a string around her in circles, trying to tempt her into a game, but Yorani only rolls on her back and bats at it lazily. It’s clear who she learned that from.

I wonder if future generations will curse me for not interfering with her befriending a cat in her impressionable years.

She appears well, though one thing I have learned is her health benefits from close contact with me. So I set her on my lap as Deniel and I eat, and try not to think about how she’ll heal when close proximity with me is no longer an option. I’ll have to hope by then she’ll have grown enough to be able to recover fully without me. It’s an odd contradiction, wishing to both be present and to make myself redundant.

Deniel continues working on council arrangements after dinner, and I lean against him with Yorani settled in my lap. My brain is too exhausted for any real work of my own now, so I content myself with answering his legal questions by rote and petting my baby dragon.

Eventually, Deniel says with amusement, “It might help if I could move my arm more freely.”

I don’t move. “Are you quite certain?”

“Content though I am, I would dare to risk a test.”

I sigh in a long-suffering way and slide slowly down the side of his body until my head is resting in has lap and I’m looking up at him. “There. How’s that?”

He shakes with laughter.

Talsion chooses that moment to pounce from the ground, startling Yorani into flight. Then a chase is on, and it’s just Deniel and I left on the couch.

“I guess she’s feeling better,” Deniel says. “Being close to you really does help.”

“I can get closer,” I suggest, burrowing in a little further.

As he laughs, I dare bring one hand to his stomach, and begin to stroke upward.

Deniel’s laugh stops abruptly, his breath hitching.

“Miyara,” he says, and it’s half-groan.

Perhaps I have a bit of energy after all.

I pull myself up, wrap my arms around his shoulders, and lock my gaze on his for a weighted moment.

I lean forward slowly, letting the anticipation build for both of us, and—

A knock on the door shatters the moment.

Deniel frowns. “Do you think—?”

“It can wait,” I say firmly, palming his face, trying to bring back the focus we just had.

“She might not be home.” Taseino’s voice is quiet outside but nevertheless audible.

“Someone is home,” Elowyn answers. “I can see light from the main room. I don’t know about Miyara, but Deniel wouldn’t leave the lights on if he were out.”

“With everything that’s happening, Miyara could be at another meeting elsewhere.”

“I told you we should have asked Glynis. She could find her for sure,” Karisa says, and then after a pause adds, “Or open the door so we could wait for her.”

I bang my head against Deniel’s shoulder. He laughs at me again, but helps shift me to sitting up.

“Come on. You don’t want them to risk deciding you don’t actually need to know something that badly, when all three of them thought whatever this is merited coming over.”

He’s probably right, but I also remember Karisa felt left out of seeing the house and wonder how much that has to do with the sudden visit.

I throw open the front door, but the mock-scowl I’d prepared for my sister dies swiftly once I take a look at them.

They’re all holding together, but I’m a tea master, and I can’t miss that they’re also shaken.

Something happened.

“I applaud your timing,” I say.

Karisa narrows her eyes reflexively. “Oh, are we interrupting?”

“Not compared to if you’d been a few minutes later,” I say.

The distraction is immediately effective. Karisa’s eyes sharpen with curiosity, Taseino winces and laughs ruefully, and to my delighted surprise Elowyn, rather than being embarrassed, smiles like the idea of her brother and I making out is the best thing she’s heard all day.

The tension snapped, I usher them all inside and start the kettle while Deniel carries the dining chairs closer to the sofa and large chair, so we can sit together in a circle.

“You bake, don’t you?” Karisa asks me.

“When did that come up?”

She shrugs. “I must have overheard it somewhere.”

“You consummate eavesdropper,” I say. “Another time. If you want homemade baked goods I need warning so I can host you properly.”

She sighs. “I know. But if I wait for you to feel like you have time to host me properly I wouldn’t get to see your house until next year.”

I hope it won’t be that long, but she does have a point. “So this is a plotted visit, then?”

“Only recently,” Elowyn says, setting a bag on the middle table and beginning to unload small packages from inside. “Just long enough for us to pick up some snacks so Deniel wouldn’t worry about not being able to feed me.”

“I’d still be able to feed you,” Deniel says, somewhere between amused and offended.

“But this way you don’t wear yourself out more doing it from scratch.”

Spirits, both our younger sisters have us pegged. I exchange a look with Deniel, wondering for an entirely different reason if I should ever have facilitated their getting along.

Taseino walks up to the kitchen counter at just the precise moment to dispose of the trash and then casually take the tea tray from my hands and carry it over himself. “It’s a little bit worrying how quickly Elowyn was able to buy all that with my money and no one ever seeing her.”

“Show-off,” Karisa remarks. “Next time let me try, and I’ll see if I can get everyone’s attention at the same time.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” I say, throwing up my hands. “Taseino, go sit down in the comfortable chair and let me serve the tea.”

“I—”

I cast him a thoroughly unimpressed look. He shuts his mouth and passes me back the tray.

Karisa frowns after him, as if I’d needed confirmation that this part of their plot.

“Karisa, Elowyn, the couch,” I instruct.

Elowyn moves off her careful perch on the dining chair without otherwise reacting, though Karisa rolls her eyes like I’m being tiresome in my insistence that they be comfortable.

Deniel sits in one of the dining chairs, and I follow suit. I exchange another glance with him; he lifts his eyebrows and gestures for me to take the lead, presumably since whatever they’re up to clearly has something to do with me and is therefore my problem first. I manage not to roll my eyes.

“Now,” I say, “who wants to tell me why you’re preemptively making up to me?”

There’s a moment of silence.

Then Elowyn and Taseino say in sync, “Told you.”

Deniel casts me an amused look while Karisa crosses her arms.

“You’re going to be mad,” my sister warns me.

“You don’t get to decide that for me,” I tell her.

She lifts her chin. “I told Cherato you’re one of us.”

It takes me a moment to process what on earth she means by that, and then it hits me all at once.

She told him I was a princess.

What she just told me is that she still thinks of me as one.

I’m apparently silent a beat too long, because Taseino steps in. “She’s leaving out the context.”

“Because it doesn’t change what I did,” Karisa says matter-of-factly.

“It’s still relevant,” Taseino snaps. “If you’re so desperate to prove your sister should hate you at least let it be for the right thing.”

That shuts Karisa up.

Now I’m speechless for an entirely different reason.

Taseino audibly angry? And not just seeing Karisa for who she truly is, but managing her?

Exactly what foundation for the future did I lay here?!

“Karisa was working on drawing information out of the ambassador about Nakrabi tech, to see what she could get about what Velasar and Nakrab are actually working together on,” Elowyn finally supplies.

Karisa says flatly, “And I let the old man talk me into a corner where I had to give something, and that’s what I chose.”

“She had to give him something or none of us were getting out of there without… considerable difficulty,” Taseino says.

“All of you stop,” I say. “Karisa, if you’re waiting for me to get mad and hold this against you, I won’t. You improvised and got the job done and kept yourself safe. That’s all that ever matters.”

Karisa shook her head sharply, her shoulders hunching. “Taseino got us out of there safely, too. Not me.”

“Which means the team is working as intended,” I tell her. “That’s the point of a team: so you don’t have to do everything alone. And before you even start, it’s not because you’re not capable, it’s because no one can do everything alone. If that were a lesson I’d learned better I wouldn’t have had to rely on the accidental grace of my friends being in the Cataclysm yesterday to prevent a magical disaster. You know how many people have berated me for that oversight?”

Karisa looks at me mutely.

“Zero,” I say. “You want to guess how many people have rightly yelled at me for not relying on them sufficiently?”

Deniel coughs.

Karisa almost smiles. “Is it all of them?”

I sigh. “Very nearly. Do you think you could manage to make different mistakes than me? I really do have this one solidly locked down.”

“I’m sure I can come up with something,” Karisa says. “You’ll be very impressed.”

I shoot her the look that deserves, since making an adverse impression on people is a well-worn skill in her arsenal, and she finally laughs.

“So now who’s going to tell me what it means that you were trapped and in danger of not being able to make it out?” I ask.

“None of us,” Elowyn says softly.

I stare at her.

Taseino says, “This isn’t your job for a reason, Miyara. And we’re a team for a reason. We handled it. You don’t need to worry any more than you’re already going to.”

“You don’t think wondering about the specifics isn’t going to make me worry?” I ask. “And don’t you dare say ‘not as much as knowing them’.”

Elowyn speaks up again. “What do you think you’ll notice that we collectively wouldn’t?”

I swear, standing abruptly from my chair so I can pace into the kitchen and back.

She’s right, drat everything. Alone I might notice something one of them would miss, but all together? No. They’ve been proving for days that collectively they can stay a step ahead of me. They may be shaken now, but they’re together enough to still be analyzing and plotting as a team.

I hate not knowing, especially when I can’t not feel responsible for putting them in harm’s way. But I also can’t smother their freedom without shifting into what Saiyana tried to become for me: an oppressive force under the guise of support I learned not to trust.

How does anyone ever judge when to hold the ones in their care tight, and when to let them fly?

I drop back down into the chair again and glare around at them, Elowyn last.

“If I ever hear you doubt again whether you have the ability to become a tea master, I may throttle you,” I growl at her.

Elowyn ducks her head shyly, smiling.

“And you would all tell me,” I press, “if there were something I needed to know or could help with.”

Emphatic nods all around.

Taseino adds, “And we do also know that you can help with more than most people expect, and that you can do a lot with a little information, which is why we’re working on this in the first place. We’re okay, Miyara.”

Deniel reaches out and grasps my hand. “Okay?” he asks.

I take a breath. “I am tentatively willing to be mollified by hearing what was worth such a near miss,” I say with poor grace.

Karisa smirks. “I got the tech is what.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Nakrabi tech for us to experiment on?”

“Glynis took charge of it; she’s going to show Tamak first so he can make a duplicate, then Lorwyn, since Saiyana, Ostario, and Sa Rangim were apparently busy,” Karisa explains. “Do you know how she always knows? It’s like magic.”

I blink. Maybe the abilities that make Glynis an astounding messenger are related to why she grasps principles of magecraft and witchcraft so easily.

“Maybe it is,” I say, filing that thought away for a time when my brain has borne fewer assaults. “You compared notes with her on what you’ve observed, I assume?”

To my surprise, Karisa reports all her findings and conclusions methodically, with only occasional interjections from Taseino or Elowyn and with an organized discipline I hadn’t known to expect from her.

Some we knew, or had surmised: Nakrabi are dismissive of magecraft because its structures are observable, and they value illusion and deception, because it’s important to appear to have access to more power than they do.

What limits that access is not yet clear, but what is evident is that their tech requires a steady stream of magic they exhaust faster than they can replenish. After Karisa saw Cherato activate magic in correlation with one of Cherato’s attendants slumping into exhaustion, she echoes my fear that Nakrab makes some citizens effectively an underclass to be harvested from for magic, with others like Cherato above them and given their magic to use for their tech.

We don’t know enough about what this means for them on a societal level or a magical one. I don’t understand how Nakrab’s harvesting of magic differs from continental forms, but I can’t ignore the dead spots that appeared around the barrier before the first Breach; the vast swaths of similar areas Ari told us about in Taresan.

It’s not so surprising Ambassador Perjoun is willing to treat with us, but perhaps I need to message Ari for a professional opinion on the tech sooner than later.

“We—Glynis and I—think Nakrabi magic works by infusing objects with magic,” Karisa is saying, and somehow I manage to not compulsively touch the bracelets Thiano made for me. “So it’s similar to witchcraft but not the same, right? Because like Thiano told you, a witch can change the nature of an object to have a magical purpose, but not to actually hold magic. Whereas Nakrabi magic makes things into objects of power.”

She must have talked with Glynis more than I realized, to have this casual depth of understanding of witchcraft.

“It seems obvious at this point that Nakrab is harvesting the magic of the barrier to use to power its tech,” Karisa concludes, as if this isn’t a revelatory accusation that would send corps of diplomats into apoplexy. “I haven’t figured out why they think it won’t be a problem though. Whatever else Cherato is, he isn’t stupid, and he doesn’t seem even remotely worried. That bothers me.”

“Either there’s something he doesn’t understand, or there’s something we don’t,” I agree.

“Probably both,” we say together.

And now we’re back to my role in this business.

“I think it’s time to bring Ari in after all,” I muse. “Ostario can communicate with them remotely.”

“Isn’t Ostario a little busy halting the expansion?” Karisa asks, a note in her voice I recognize and ignore, since she’s clearly trying not to feel slighted.

“All the more reason to get them here directly. Ari’s the only other mage who’s already an expert on those dead spots around the barrier. They’ll be able to take some of the burden off Ostario and Saiyana.”

Deniel’s hand tightens on mine, and I look at him.

His expression is pointed, and he nods.

I take a breath. “And everything else can wait. Eat, and I’ll make a new pot of tea.”

Somehow making tea morphs into my giving Karisa and Taseino a tour of the house, where to my surprise Karisa isn’t shy about asking practical questions about what it’s like to live here. I wonder how much of this is for Taseino’s benefit, to hear his dry reactions to particular juxtapositions she reveals about our way of life in the palace.

We carry a once-again drowsy Yorani and nap-ready Talsion back downstairs to settle in. I look around at all of us—me and Deniel, our sisters and apprentices, the creatures in our care—and am struck by how surreal this moment is for me. For who I’ve become, and where I’m going.

“What is it?” Deniel murmurs to me.

This isn’t a subject we’ve talked about, and it’s awkward to broach it now but would be perhaps a worse idea, given all the underlying expectation I sense in the room, to lie.

This particular group of people is perhaps the only one that I think would always be able to tell a lie from me. I don’t think that’s what it means to be family in general, but given how I’m capable of manipulating people as a tea master, perhaps it’s part of what it means to be mine.

“I’m wondering what it would be like for us to have children,” I say, waving a hand to encompass the room. “A house with children. Us as parents. It’s like a strange glimpse into a possible future.”

Deniel smiles crookedly. “Miyara, do I need to break it to you that that’s already becoming our present, at least in a figurative sense?”

Karisa answers before I can. “She’s worried about what kind of mother she’s going to be, given our background.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” Deniel says, rolling his eyes. “Having met Miyara before, it certainly would never have occurred to me that she would have doubts about her own abilities that are patently obvious to anyone who chooses to look.”

Karisa blushes in surprise at this takedown, and she looks between Deniel and me in sudden understanding.

I sigh. “Why is your ability to peg me like that without hesitation what convinces my sisters our relationship has substance?”

“I’m not sure you actually want me to answer that,” Deniel says, amused.

I close my eyes. “Surely this is a perfectly normal thing to have concerns about.”

“Miyara,” Elowyn says tentatively, “if you and my brother decide to have children, you’re going to be a wonderful mother. I don’t know if it helps to hear from someone else, but I think all of us can agree on that?”

Emphatic nods again from all around, which is sweet and obscurely embarrassing in a way I can’t quite pinpoint.

“Will I?” I ask. “I certainly can’t model balance. I keep trying to solve problems for people instead of—”

Taseino cuts in, “You listen and learn and change and act. What else do you think you need?”

Deniel leans back, pulling me with him in a hug. “There, you see, next time you’re worried about something, we’ll just call all the teens you know. They have all the answers.”

This teasing chastisement causes all available teens to find simultaneous interest in drinking tea and snacking, and the near uniform response surprises them and makes me laugh.

“I will remember this tactic and turn it against you,” I tell Deniel.

He kisses my cheek. “I have met you,” he murmurs.

I smile at him fondly, but this close I can’t miss the weary lines on his face.

I sit up. “As educational as this has been, I think it’s time we all get to bed. Do all of you have a plan for getting home?”

“Yes,” Taseino answers me, beginning to tidy up, but I wave him off.

“We’ll take care of that,” I say. “Thank you for thinking ahead.”

He ducks his head, hearing the underlying meaning in my words without my having to embarrass him acutely with praise and gratitude.

Elowyn and Taseino get up readily, but Karisa lingers.

I raise my eyebrows at her.

She purses her lips, looking speculatively from me and Deniel, to where her compatriots are still listening. Finally she asks, “It’s the norm outside the nobility to try out sex before formalizing anything, right, so you know if you’re compatible?”

“That is my understanding,” I say slowly. “Though I’m sure you’re aware plenty of nobles have tried the same with varying levels of success and discretion.”

“Right, obviously. But why did you and Deniel decide to move in together without that? Forget worrying about motherhood, what if you’re not compatible in that way?”

Taseino and Elowyn are frozen, and I’m not much better.

“I have so many questions for you right now,” I finally manage.

Deniel clasps my shoulder. “I have an answer. It’s that we already know we’re attracted to each other, and the rest we can learn together. Norms aren’t requirements, and this is what works for us.”

Karisa considers that, and then gets up decisively. “Okay.”

“Okay?” I echo.

She grins at me. “Good night, sister.”

And more suddenly than they arrived, the teens are gone.

I sink back against Deniel. “I am extremely confused about what just happened.”

He snickers. “I am possibly more used to being surprised by a sister than you are.”

That’s… fair. I’ve always known my sisters so well—or at least what to expect from them—that they couldn’t surprise me easily. Oddly, removing myself from the family legally has changed all that; deepened our connections in a way I never could have imagined.

But Deniel removed himself physically from his family longer ago, and perhaps that had a similar effect on his relationship with Elowyn, who is always a surprise.

“I am not even a little bit equipped to talk to any of my sisters about navigating societal expectations of sexual engagement,” I say. “Where did that even come from?”

“It came from her trusting you not to lie to her about what matters,” Deniel says. “If you model anything, Miyara, it’s certainly that.”

I sigh. “That’s something. Though it’s also certainly something that I of all people am trying to teach all my sisters about boundaries and balance in work and life when I’ve never figured it out.”

Deniel rests his chin on my shoulder from behind. “I think the secret is there’s no such thing as perfect balance,” he says. “Too much overlaps, doesn’t it? You’re doing what you can to make a world that anyone, whether it’s children or dragons on your sisters, can be safe in. How can it not overlap when your work is part of who you are?”

I pull out of his embrace so I can turn to look at him. “If you put it like that, how can I ever expect to set reasonable boundaries?”

“Goals,” Deniel says promptly.

I stare. “Now you have all the pat answers. Did the teens rub off on you?”

He laughs. “Maybe. But this one is from being an artist—and also still trying to do other things with my life, but mainly art. I can’t control what someone will think of my work, can I? There are things I can do to help sell pieces, but some of it always depends on other people.

“So a successful work day for me isn’t whether I’ve sold a piece; it’s whether I’ve done my work. Whether I showed up and put in time. Whether I did my best crafting a piece of pottery. Whether I presented it to customers as well as I could have. That’s what I can control, so those are the results I focus on. There’s enough art to tea mastery that I think there must be some overlap there.”

It’s a curious echo of my conversation with Sa Rangim, and I look over to meet Yorani’s drowsily watchful gaze.

Part of tea mastery is shaping perceptions, but ultimately I don’t control them. I can’t control what people—or scaly spirits—will do, now or in the future.

But I can control what I do.

I can do my best as myself, and by extension for them.

Maybe that will be my legacy.


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