Royal Tea Service: Chapter 23

Iryasa stands and begins to pace as soon as the room clears. “Miyara, you are going to make Cherato do something rash.”

“Yes, I’m going to push him into a mistake, and then I’m going to trap him with it,” I return evenly. “Don’t pretend this isn’t a tactic you’ve employed to great effect.”

“Not when there was this much at stake!”

Saiyana cuts in, “Which is exactly why we need to hurry things along. Your spy has been waiting in the back, Miyara—can I tell him he can come in?”

I blink, my mind racing. “You mean Entero, I assume.”

Saiyana’s gaze whips to me, eyes narrowing. “Obviously.”

Spirits. That was a mistake.

“I didn’t realize you two had a way to communicate remotely,” I attempt to redirect.

It doesn’t work: her gaze changes not at all, though she says, “We don’t. Ostario has a method worked out with his apprentice, who is also in the back.”

“We need to talk about this,” Iryasa insists.

“As you like, but Entero wouldn’t be waiting if there weren’t some urgency,” I say. “I’m not keeping parts of our strategy secret from him in any case.”

I will decide who hears my thoughts,” Iryasa says firmly.

I incline my head. “As you like. Nevertheless, your opinions of my tactical failings, while important, are likely less time sensitive. So if you please, let us take this first.”

“You fall back on formality when you’re uncomfortable,” Iryasa tells me.

“I’m aware,” I say. “It gives me no pleasure to be at odds with you.”

Saiyana cuts in again. “That is Miyara’s way of saying she is not going to poke back at you despite that provocation. Can we move on?”

“I can hear as well as you can, Saiyana, and I do not please. But yes, by all means, ignore me.”

Oh dear.

I carefully do not exchange looks with any of my sisters as Saiyana opens the door for Entero.

“Finally,” Entero says without preamble. “We don’t have much time; you need to listen.”

I don’t see how Iryasa reacts; I only sense the mood in the room ratchet up in tension higher than before.

Entero’s no fool, and he bows to Iryasa immediately. “Please forgive my lack of etiquette, your Highness; we haven’t the time.”

“I understand, there never is time for the crown princess’ opinion on anything,” Iryasa says. “Please, do continue.”

Perhaps my mental blessing on Saiyana for keeping Iryasa quiet was ill-placed.

Entero bows once more but takes her at her word, which is how I know it’s serious.

“Something is blocking Ostario from communicating with Ari directly,” Entero tells me. “He can’t break through it without alerting whoever’s responsible.”

My eyebrows shoot up. “And indirectly?”

“Too dangerous to attempt,” Saiyana interrupts, frowning. “Anyone who knows enough to target Ari and can block Ostario may have laid traps for indirect methods. Ostario could reach another mage with a message only for them to be attacked, or subverted.”

“Why is this time critical?” Iryasa asks.

“Because Ari is the only other mage expert on dealing with the barrier, and we were summoning them as backup because Ostario and I are going to burn out,” Saiyana says matter-of-factly.

“Also because our communications network is now forced to adjust,” Entero says. “We’ve been relying on Glynis. I sent her to smuggle Ari out.”

My eyes widen, and I exchange a quick glance with Saiyana. “He’s landed on the best way immediately,” I say. “Everyone knows she’s been working as your messenger. She’ll have access. And—”

“And she’s clever enough to figure out whatever needs to be figured out, magically or otherwise, even if she’s never been to Miteran, yes, I know,” Saiyana says, passing a weary hand in front of her eyes. “I’ll figure out a magical alert system. I assume our need to factor this change into our plans affects whatever else you’re here about?”

None of my sisters are stupid. Entero nods and continues, “I have information for you on Velasar’s situation you’ll need before he approaches you. My sources indicate it will be soon.”

I glance at Iryasa. “You’re up.”

Iryasa closes her eyes and opens them again. “I’m ready.”

I take a breath, relieved she’s willing to work with me for a little longer without addressing this. I keep looking at her, so Entero will know to wait for her signal to begin rather than mine.

I am running this operation, but this will directly impact her. And any deference toward her authority right at this moment will help smooth matters between us later.

Entero’s report is at once troubling and less surprising than it should be.

“Ostario suspects what’s blocking him from reaching Ari is magecraft, which likely means the faction of magecraft supremacists is involved. We’re working with Aleixo—”

“Who?” Iryasa interrupts.

“A Velasari operative Miyara convinced to cooperate with us,” Entero says. Iryasa’s face tightens, but he continues, “The faction is operated by Velasar but does include Istals. But the fact that it feels like magecraft to Ostario may not be definitive given Nakrab’s contempt for that form of magic.”

“They may have crafted an illusion together,” I murmur. Velasar and Nakrab with Istal sympathizers. We’re not just working against external forces here: we have to root out the bigotry in our own home, too. In ourselves.

“We can’t rule it out,” Entero agrees. “We have determined that Nakrab is funding the faction, but Velasar is more invested in the Cataclysm operations than we’d previously thought.”

Saiyana interrupts with a quick explanation for Iryasa. “The assumption being Velasar was willing to do Nakrab’s dirty work deploying their tech in the Cataclysm in exchange for the island tech they’ve always been angling for—seafaring and so on. You know. What they want to give them leverage on Istalam to overthrow us.”

“Which isn’t wrong,” Entero says, “but they’re more interested than we’d thought in studying the tech and its applications themselves, given how reticent Nakrab has been to share. Apparently the idea is that if Velasar can leverage the tech for magecraft, they can demonstrate their fundamental superiority and not only be rid of witches—and now the Te Muraka too—for good, but also use that advantage to overthrow the Istal government.”

“And the cost to the continent?” I ask.

“As far as I can tell they don’t consider it a problem,” Entero says. “The faction is focused narrowly on short-term goals; if they recognize the potential for catastrophe at all, they’re deferring responsibility for dealing with it to future generations.”

“Meanwhile,” Iryasa says, “Nakrab doesn’t care about the cost to the continent at all.”

“Though they probably do understand what it means, at least in one sense,” Saiyana says. “I bet they’re also fully aware of Velasar’s intentions.”

“Velasar is the perfect partner for Nakrab,” I agree. “The Nakrabi don’t think there’s any chance Velasar will actually be able to use their tech, but destabilizing Istalam will make it easier for them to access the Cataclysm. So they can fund the supremacist faction without fear of repercussions.” I look at Entero. “We keep equating this faction with Velasar—are they dominant there, or is this shorthand forming inaccurate framing habits?”

“In terms of political power, fairly, though the active agents are operating in the shadows rather than with popular support,” Entero says. “Wanting to overthrow Istalam is pretty standard, as is fearmongering against witches, but allying with Nakrab to gain an advantage doesn’t match the common rhetoric. Velasar can’t be seen to need help or outside intervention.”

The really are the perfect partner for Nakrab.

But I think of the arcanists and their separation, and I wonder if perhaps that’s the flaw that will allow me to bring them down.

“Is Ambassador Ridac with the faction?” I ask.

“In theory,” Entero says. “In spirit, I can’t say.”

“Good,” Iryasa says. “Then he can be moved.”

Because if his position isn’t known, deviating from it won’t cause him embarrassment. “Ridac is a loyal hardliner, but he isn’t stupid,” I agree. “If we put pressure on that—”

“I don’t need you to spell my work out for me, Miyara,” Iryasa says.

Right, still not happy with me. I turn back to Entero. “Is there more?”

“That’s the overview,” Entero says. “The details can wait. But there’s some indication your pressure may already be changing the wind in his camp. He’s gotten very careful to appear uncareful, which means we can expect him to use a distraction to make a move soon. Expect him to spring a meeting on you any time now.”

Which explains Entero’s rush to get me this before we go back into negotiations. “That’s far more concrete information than you were able to get on your own during the tournament,” I note. “Your relationships in the city are bearing fruit?”

Entero’s face doesn’t twitch. “Not in the way you mean. My police contacts have not been as useful as I’d hoped, and I’m reevaluating my approach with them. But between the groundwork I laid during the tournament, Aleixo’s knowledge, and Lady Kireva’s assistance—”

“What kind?” I ask sharply.

“Resources and practical experience,” he says. “Most of my life has been spent executing missions, not coordinating intelligence. She’s training me, as we specified. Yes, I’m watching her, and yes, I have measures in place to handle her interference. Anything else?”

I wince. “Sorry.”

“So you take criticism from some people,” Iryasa remarks. The implied, Just not me, your eldest sister the crown princess goes unsaid.

I take a breath. “Entero, would you step outside please?”

“He can stay,” Iryasa says. “It’s fine for him to overhear everything, isn’t it?”

“I choose not to, your Highness,” Entero says, and is so fast out the door Iryasa doesn’t have a change to respond.

Iryasa and I watch each other for a minute.

“Would you like some tea?” I finally ask.

“Thank you. No.” She doesn’t look away.

Here we go.

“One of the benefits of being a tea master is I am free to weigh all criticism with the weight I determine it deserves rather than skewing it depending on the provider,” I say. “I don’t have to favor those with greater political power over anyone else. You came here explicitly so I could run things my way. I am not going to apologize for doing so.”

Reyata speaks for the first time. (Karisa, I notice, stays silent and subtly watchful, observing how I handle our sisters.) “Consider that part of the reason she chose you is due to your assumed understanding of how to deal with royalty.”

“Consider that I have,” I reply. “Excessive deference is no more useful to any of you than excessive obedience.”

Excessive deference?” Reyata repeats.

By which she means: I haven’t shown any.

“I am your sister by birth but not by law,” I say. “I am a tea master. None of you outrank me. Which means I am in the unique position of being able to be a friend or coworker to you.”

“You don’t outrank us either,” Reyata points out, and I notice now it’s Saiyana who’s being quiet, not trying to help and just letting me work.

By my count that’s two sisters currently on my side and two against. Spirits, that shifted fast.

“But I am leading this project,” I say, looking Iryasa in the eye. “I told you I would be doing this my way. I told you I would not clear every decision by you.”

“You are not making us aware of any decisions,” Reyata says.

Iryasa puts a hand on her arm to stop her from going further, but I reply anyway.

“We literally just listened to an intelligence report together,” I say. “But I do have information you don’t, and that you don’t need, which is informing my decisions. Whereas I am not, for instance, pressing any of you for details on Iryasa’s security, or the magical solutions to containing the barrier, or the coming border guard, because while that all ultimately affects me, the details are under your charge and I trust you to see to them. Managing the summit is my work.”

“That is true,” Iryasa says, her voice deceptively mild. “But part of the reason I came to you, Miyara, was to be involved. Not just silent behind the scenes.”

I nod. “You’re right, you should play a more active part in the actual negotiation meetings. Why don’t we all actually take our break now, and then we can meet early tomorrow to plan how best we can work together in sessions tomorrow?”

“Am I expected to sit silently for the rest of the morning, then?” Iryasa asks.

“No, as I trust you to not thwart me outwardly even if you don’t know all my reasons,” I say, which is not entirely true but perhaps speaking it will make it so.

“Or if I don’t agree with them,” Iryasa says.

“Just so. By which I don’t mean I expect you not to disagree with me in public—”

“But to endeavor not to subvert the core of your strategy at the same time. That will do for today, and we will coordinate our strategy for tomorrow, yes?”

Thank the spirits. “Yes, I think that will be best.”

Just when I think I can take a breath, the front door opens.

“I do hope I’m interrupting,” Ambassador Ridac says.

Thank the spirits for Entero.

“Ambassador, what a pleasant surprise,” Iryasa says, going straight to work. “I was just thinking I can’t recall of a time in all your visits to Istalam when we’ve had a chance to connect privately. Perhaps now might be the time to address that missed opportunity.”

He closes the door and locks it behind him. “I’d be happy to entertain the possibility, your Highness, if for no other reason than the number of people whose heads would explode,” Ridac says. “But right now, I need to have a word with the tea master.”

I am torn between triumph that he’s chosen to seek me out and despair, because after the conversation I just had this is possibly the worst thing he could have said.

As all of us are frozen in existential social horror, Ridac clarifies firmly, “Alone.”

I stand corrected: this is the actual worst.

“Tea Master Miyara is here at the request of Istalam,” Iryasa says.

“She may be working for you, but she doesn’t answer to you, and if you think there aren’t things she’s keeping from you you’re deluding yourself, your Highness,” Ridac says congenially. “She wouldn’t be doing her job otherwise. So if I may cut in?”

I have to stop this before Iryasa can either dig in too far or feel like the ambassador has outmaneuvered her. Because unfortunately, if Velasar is willing to deal with me, I can’t afford not to take the opportunity. Iryasa will understand that, even if she doesn’t like it.

Making sure the interrogative inflection is clear, I ask, “Your Highness, it would be remiss of me not to offer the ambassador tea—but although you have already graciously scheduled me for tomorrow morning, perhaps we might move my initial report to this afternoon?”

Let the implications all go unsaid: that we are as she suggested working together, that she is a priority for me to report to, and that I will likely share my findings with her promptly.

Iryasa’s expression is placid like flint. “Let us see how the afternoon progresses, tea master,” she says, then turns and walks out the back. Reyata’s face is carefully neutral as she follows her.

Everything I thought I had a handle on is spiraling. In the space of one morning all my foundations are coming apart, and it occurs to me that this is it. I am going to have to hold them together by force of will.

All of a sudden, between one meeting and another, the final stretch is upon me.

I bow to my remaining sisters, silently thanking them for remaining rather than leaving me with an obviously shaky foundation as Ridac watches. “With my apologies, princesses, I will take my leave now. Ambassador, let’s adjourn to the tea ceremony room.”

He inclines his head but says, “I don’t have time for a proper ceremony, but I’ll take the additional wall.”

I smile as I slide the door shut behind us. “I admit I’m unsurprised to hear that. May I bring you a cup while we speak, regardless?”

He looks amused. “As you like. It’ll take more than drinking your tea to win me over, though.”

I wonder if he’s witnessed the tactic I employed with Aleixo to convince him to cooperate with us. Surely Saiyana would have mentioned if he’d been permitted to visit. He may have also seen another tea master at work—but there is also the fact that Ridac hasn’t maintained his power without craftiness on his side.

“I gather I just caused some problems for you.” Ridac gets himself comfortable as I busy my hands with the kettle. “Princess stretching her wings at last, is she?”

How many young, ambitious politicians has he watched try to rise?

And has he helped them, or hindered them?

“She is different than her mother or grandmother,” I say. “I look forward to the world finding out what that means. But I am grateful for how you handled that interaction.” At least after the explosive start.

He shrugs. “Easy for someone like me to voice uncomfortable truths to Istals in a position of power. Especially when I’ve just put my foot in it. I hope you’re right about her difference from Queen Ilmari.”

I smile faintly again as I pour. “I don’t mean that Princess Iryasa will be any easier for you to maneuver around.”

Ridac shakes his head. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate Ilmari’s mastery over being an immovable stone in politics. She’s painstakingly kept anything from changing. But while that may have prevented changes that would be negative to Istalam, not being willing to work with anyone is also keeping beneficial changes at bay. Or don’t you agree?”

There it is. “In principle, you know I do,” I answer, pouring the tea. “Though you will forgive me for observing that willingness to work with others is not an approach I characteristically associate with Velasar.”

Ridac sips his tea. “Superb as expected. Thank you. Now, if I may be blunt, tea master, since I know you can be?”

“When the situation requires,” I murmur, sipping my own cup.

“Ha. You’re playing a dangerous game, and I want to make sure you’re clear on how dangerous.”

Which game? I’m playing dozens. “Oh?”

“We both live on this continent and are invested in its future, yes? The Isle of Nakrab isn’t, but you can’t fight them,” he says bluntly. “At least not and win. And I’m talking about in the literal sense, not the existential. You are aware that magecraft is completely useless against their magic?”

I consider for a moment and then follow my instinct. “We have been operating under that assumption for some time, yes. Are you aware that both witchcraft and the Te Muraka’s magic do work against Nakrabi magic?”

His eyes widen, then narrow. Velasar may have had suspicions, just as Ostario, Saiyana, and Glynis have regarding magecraft’s interaction with Nakrabi magic, but we have both just confirmed this to each other freely.

My intelligence is the rarer: it would be far more difficult for him to conclusively arrive at that information than it would be for me to learn about Nakrab, even with Velasar’s better relations with the island. So this is an offering, and I wait to see how he takes it.

“That is very interesting, isn’t it?” Ambassador Ridac muses. “So are you proposing we send all the witches and Te Muraka on the continent to the island to ensure our sovereignty? It’s tricky, but I believe that’s a proposal I can get Velasar’s government behind.”

Is he testing me, or is he serious?

I sip again, giving myself a moment before I say, “No, ambassador. I am proposing we work together against a common threat you yourself have identified.”

“Ah,” Ridac says, lifting his cup as if to clink it against mine, “but you are the real threat, aren’t you? You and your unwillingness to eradicate witches.”

For the first time, I am convinced he honestly believes this.

But I also believe this is not a conviction that’s inviolable for him if it does not remain politically useful. Perhaps I’m to be his imaginary foe, to test out how he might play this to his people.

“Witches are not responsible for the Cataclysm,” I say firmly.

“So what?” He swirls his tea. “They’re still abominations. And you’re helpfully setting Istalam up against the Isle of Nakrab, who can crush you. Oh, your witches and Te Muraka may be worthwhile someday, but against Nakrab’s organization today? I think not. So why would Velasar throw in its lot with you?”

I set my cup down and give him a severely unimpressed look.

Ridac raises his eyebrows, smirking. “What, going to try some tea ceremony magic on me?”

I wonder if “tea ceremony magic” is a deliberate phrasing or a Velasari idiom—it at least doesn’t carry the overtones of blasphemy with which they treat any allusion to witchcraft. But now is not the time to pursue that line of inquiry.

“I have never once said that I expect Velasar and Istalam to become best of friends over the signing of a single treaty,” I say. “I hope you do not think me so naïve. There are deep rifts between Velasar and Istalam, and they will take more than one conversation to heal.”

“A marriage, then?” His gaze is keen.

“Is that what you think Ilmari and Cordán have? When they are both actively working toward their own ends and not only not each other’s, but against each other’s, that is not a true partnership.”

Ridac sets his cup down and sighs. “You are naïve.”

“Really? Because if this specious notion is what you have in mind to broach with Princess Iryasa, I recommend, in my capacity as negotiator, you reconsider. She has many reasons to not favor such a suit, and she’ll think less of you for proffering it at this time.”

“Will she be able to refuse what I’m offering, though?” Ridac asks, staring at me intently. “That’s the real question.”

I smile with my lips closed. “I would not presume to speak to what Iryasa will or will not choose. Though I do wonder who asked that question of Queen Ilmari and Cordán the Consort, and if they’re quite satisfied with how that turned out.” I set my cup down. “I will speak to you of mine, however. Which is this: I am going to get what I require. You may stand with me when the time comes, or you may consider yourself my next problem to solve. And if I do say so myself, I am becoming quite accomplished, ambassador, at solving problems satisfactorily.”

I get to my feet, signaling the end of this meeting, and Ridac follows suit.

“You’re not an empire anymore,” he tells me.

“As you yourself reminded, I’m not a representative of Istalam, ambassador,” I say. “I serve the spirits.”

As we part ways, I find myself with the uncomfortable understanding that while I may have facilitated our communication, I’m not sure I actually improved our relationship.

As with Iryasa.

And Cherato.

I close my eyes, imaging all the pieces of this game swirling around, circling closer and away at different rates.

Occasionally we’ll collide. That’s life.

But I can’t help wondering what patterns an arcanist would see in this situation that I am not.

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Continue to Chapter 24

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