Royal Tea Service: Chapter 24

Iryasa did return for the next session of negotiations, but rather than participating—undermining me or not—she was coolly, aloofly silent. Although I was inclined to think this was a bad sign, it was not impossible she’d decided to hold herself in reserve until she’d had time to process and choose a plan of attack with more deliberation.

When she is the first one out the door before any of the ambassadors, that is a snub of me specifically. Given that we’d discussed in front of Ambassador Ridac meeting afterwards, it is a pointed rejection of considering my expertise valuable enough to politely decline, let alone to make time for.

Saiyana comes up to stand next to me, presenting at least the façade of a united Istal strategy as the other delegations take their leave. “She’ll come around,” she murmurs.

“Only if she takes a more active hand and it matters,” I say.

“Obviously, but you were already planning for that, weren’t you?”

I sigh. “Apparently not well enough.”

Saiyana huffs. “It’ll be fine. Iryasa is cool-headed, and so are you.”

We are also both hot-blooded, so I’m not certain that will help. But I accept her faith in me and nod as she too goes to depart.

Then Karisa appears at my shoulder. “I’m thinking I should lay off Cherato for a bit.”

“I agree,” I say. “But placing the duplicate—”

She rolls her eyes. “Already done. Give us some credit.”

I blink. Karisa had been with us during the entirety of negotiations, which is when we could be sure the ambassador was not in the Nakrabi lodgings. Either Elowyn placed it alone, which I like not at all, or they went another time when the ambassador could have been there, which is possibly worse.

Karisa watches me placidly, waiting for the objections that will demonstrate I don’t have faith in their ability to handle this and think through these obvious factors without me.

“You’ve had word?” I finally ask.

“I’m sure, if that’s what you’re asking.”

She’s not going to give me specifics, and I am going to tear out my hair if I think about this any further.

But her answer also comes out… practiced. And I can’t help wondering if there’s something about their communication Karisa doesn’t want me to know about.

So all I say is, “It’s probably not a good time to work on Velasar either. He’ll be expecting it, and any reactive move will undermine the conversation I just had with him.”

Karisa nods, relaxing a fraction after I let it go. But then she responds, “Want me to watch Iryasa instead?”

Spirits. “Please do not spy on her on my account.”

“Fine. But if I happened to hear anything relevant, would you want to know?”

I close my eyes. “I will trust your judgment on whether you should report any actions that are taken with the understanding that I won’t find out about them.”

Karisa rolls her eyes. “Wow. Way to undercut all the fun. Well, some of the fun.”

“One more thing,” I say. “Could you let Elowyn know I’d like her to come to the back, please? And that I’d like her to take care to keep out of sight.”

At this point, I am at least confident the teens can all get in touch with each other and share information far faster and more effectively than I can with anyone, even without Glynis’ presence.

“As if she needs to take care,” Karisa says.

“I did not misspeak.”

She pauses; her eyes sharpen. “Do I get to know what this is about?”

“Elowyn can share anything she learns in this case with anyone she chooses,” I say. “That’s in fact the point.”

We’ll see if her judgment matches mine, and if she comes to the same conclusion about what should done about it.

“Karisa!” Saiyana calls. “Stop bothering Miyara. Let’s go.”

Karisa rolls her eyes dramatically and flounces after her.

I wonder if Saiyana will still be on my side when she realizes I’ve participated in Karisa misleading them all.

But for now, I have someone else to, hopefully harmlessly, mislead.


 

To the best of my knowledge, Tea Master Karekin and I have the back to ourselves. If Elowyn is here, even I can’t tell, which is at once encouraging and alarming.

And if she’s here, I hope she’ll understand why I wanted her to listen in and will act accordingly.

If I understood the tea guild’s rules better, I might have insisted on her presence as my apprentice or relayed this knowledge anyway. But I need Karekin’s information right now more than I need to win that particular fight. I hope, if he finds out, he will understand, too.

“You want me to teach you about arcanism,” Karekin says. “May I ask why the urgency?”

“Not yet, if you don’t mind,” I answer. “I’d prefer not to bias you. My intuition here may be off base, but that’s why I need more information.”

He regards me for a moment, not entirely satisfied by that answer, but he doesn’t push me.

“A moment, then. Hmm. Will you clear that tray, there? Yes, that one. I’ll be right back.”

I lift my eyebrows but do as instructed, carefully following Lorwyn’s protocol for handling the Cataclysm ingredients resting on it.

Tea Master Karekin returns from the stacks—I am both pleased and oddly challenged that he has completely learned my inventory system so quickly—with a bag of sand, which he proceeds to pour into the tray.

Then he takes one of Lorwyn’s magecraft practice sticks and begins to draw.

“Watch the patterns, and how they shift,” he tells me. “See what you can see.”

His words have the weight of ritual behind them. “Don’t tell me you’re a master of Taresal sand art, too?” I ask. “How in the world do you have time?”

Karekin laughs. “My skills in this arena are hardly adequate, actually. But many tea masters pick up hobbies to help keep us grounded. Have you truly none?”

I consider. Tea had been my hobby at the palace.

Then I remember how much satisfaction I was taking learning to bake, and wonder if I should meet Deniel’s mother for a lesson after all or keep exploring. Or perhaps I can do both.

Someday. Once I’ve ensured I have a future to play in.

Now, I watch.

I see why he is teaching me this way, though I hope Elowyn has a good view. Arcanism is about patterns, and much of what the tea guild knows of arcanism must, by virtue of the lack of arcanists today, be recorded. So he can sketch the records for me and let me draw my own conclusions, rather than rely on his interpretation.

I wonder if this is how arcanists taught their apprentices, too: by training their perception.

I fall into an almost ceremony-like trance as Karekin traces and erases different patterns, converting them into different shapes.

The first thing I understand from this is that arcane magic is, in a way, like witchcraft: the power is internal. Or at least: they’re able to use internal spirit.

All I am perfectly clear on, watching the flow of the patterns, is that arcanists could handle magic directly, without shaping it in any way.

Yorani is the only being I’ve known with that ability, and she is made of magic.

As if that weren’t world-shattering enough, what I realize next is that it is also like magecraft—which stands to reason, as both witchcraft and magecraft are supposedly derived from arcanism—in that theoretically anyone can learn it. Where magecraft is about discipline, though, what rewards arcanist power is increased perception of the world.

“The arcanists must have all ended up very eccentric,” I murmur, with a new appreciation for some of the more ridiculous legends I’ve heard. “Each with their own processes for seeing hidden patterns and truths.”

Karekin nods, his hands still moving. “I understand that matching apprentices was always particularly important and difficult, to help people learn compatible patterns. I don’t quite remember the exact progression for this section from our lore, so I’m afraid I’ll just relay this one directly: arcanists tried to learn multiple approaches, because the greater their capacity for perception in that way, too, the greater their power.”

“But they also believed in separating from people to gain perspective,” I say.

Karekin brings his drawing to a close, sensing that I’ve gleaned whatever I was going to. “Traditionally, yes. They tended to be hermits, many losing time in projects no one else could understand, others attempting to negate their selves using various harsh meditative practices. And since they could, we believe, manipulate their internal magic—or life force, or spirit, it’s not entirely clear—this is what made them immortal. So they could remove themselves for not just decades, but centuries.”

Humans as immortals. This I can scarcely credit.

But unfortunately it supports a suspicion that has been growing in me.

“You’re not surprised by this revelation,” Karekin notes.

He’s not wrong. “More distressed, perhaps. Please, in the interest of training my perception, may I review what I believe I’ve learned here?”

He gestures for me to go ahead, and I do, filling in with context from previous conversations in case Elowyn is listening and wishes to check her perception.

“I can confirm your reading matches mine,” the tea master says. “Whether we are correct in our assessment, I cannot say. So?”

“So I’m wondering,” I say, “if it was arcanism that produced the barrier.”

“You would not be the first,” Karekin says. “But it is not something we can prove.”

“Because all the arcanists have been gone since the Cataclysm, which is a noteworthy correlation. Did they sacrifice themselves to create it?”

“It’s not impossible. But arcane works are… impossible for those of us who aren’t arcanists to aspire to.”

“I assure you I am impossibly impressed by a barrier capable of halting the advance of the Cataclysm,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Consider your teapot. That is clearly arcane work: almost terrifyingly untouchable.”

An arcane teapot, from an arcane bag, carried by an old woman I can’t explain.

But I leave that aside to point out, “I’ve only managed to affect the barrier with actual spirits.”

But as soon as this is out of my mouth I realize what he’s getting at.

“Yet the barrier was breached,” he says. “I’ve never known arcane work to be vulnerable to attack. It is difficult to imagine that, if the magic of the Isle of Nakrab is vulnerable to witchcraft, which is a derivative of arcanism, that an arcane work of that scale could be affected by their technology.”

“Magecraft is also a derivative of arcanism, though, which is entirely useless against Nakrabi magic,” I say. “But I actually have a more troubling question.”

Karekin looks at me, not asking. But waiting.

“You said the arcanists had removed themselves from the world,” I say. “There was already a magical disturbance in the east before a tea master went to summon them. We don’t know what caused it, though I’m beginning to guess. We don’t know how powerful the Cataclysm, or whatever led up to it, was by the time they were summoned.”

“You’re suggesting the arcanists may have caused the Cataclysm,” Karekin says. “This, too, has been suggested before.”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I say.

“What, then?”

“I mean that for all their power of perception, the arcanists had been unusually removed, even by their standards, for some time, to the point they had to be summoned.

“I mean they were used to being wise and powerful—immortal, even!—to the point that their understanding might have suffered from lack of awareness or empathy or both.

“I mean the arcanists were human, and different, and pressed for time.”

I take a breath. Karekin’s expression has gone politically blank, but I voice my question nevertheless.

“What if the arcanists did make the barrier, but they made a mistake?”


 

When Tea Master Karekin leaves, Yorani arrives. I don’t see her fly in—I am staring, lost in thought, at the sand box Karekin has drawn in.

Until my baby dragon starts kicking up sand from the tray.

I startle, then sigh. “Are you trying to get my attention, or are you just enjoying making a mess?”

Yorani pauses long enough to meet my gaze.

Without breaking eye contact, she deliberately kicks a clump of sand out of the tray, spraying it across the room and the floor.

Burying my face in my hands, I laugh ruefully. “So, both.”

I set the tray on the floor so at least Yorani’s continued fun won’t spread more over Lorwyn’s workstation and leave her to it as I go for cleaning supplies.

“So,” I say, starting on Lorwyn’s desk with a damp cloth. “Where have you been today?”

Yorani turns her back on me, shaking her tail and then lashing it into the sand to swipe greater quantities all at once.

“I don’t need an explanation, but is it so wrong that I’m curious? I know perfectly well that you’re devious.”

Yorani turns to me to preen dramatically.

Then resumes her sand spree.

I take it that’s all the answer I’m going to get from her, and I’m oddly unbothered. (Growing sand mess excepted.) I don’t know what Yorani’s up to, but I nevertheless feel like we’re… in alignment, perhaps. We may not be pursuing a goal in the same way, but we’re still working as a team toward a common purpose.

I wish I were more confident that were true with the rest of my allies.

Then again, perhaps this is the problem: I always needed to be in alignment with myself, first.

The foundation is built; maybe now I’m in a position to mend the cracks in it. In this, it’s like air: the shape is indefinable, and it can be everything or nothing.

The foundation is what I make of it; I direct its shape. Unlike the tides, air can blow in different directions. I have shown different faces of myself to different people.

I’m still too used to hiding. It’s a useful skill, but tactically, I need to change.

It’s time to show everyone who I am without apology, and see how they meet me.

But speaking of hiding.

I scan the room for my apprentice, but as far as I can tell she isn’t here. “Do you know if Elowyn was here recently?”

Yorani looks at me and, very deliberately, nods her head.

Oh my spirits, she can answer yes and no questions now.

Am I supposed to make anything of that? Will she wished to be praised? I think not, though I can’t say why.

“And was she?” I ask.

Another nod.

Well. That’s something that’s gone right, then, though it does mean she is capable of hiding from me when she really wants to. Elowyn has enough of the gift for tea mastery already I have faith she’ll know what to do with this information—or at least, what I expect her to do. In the grand scheme… that I haven’t decided. Maybe she will.

“Thank you,” I tell Yorani, running a hand over her scales.

She croons back at me.

With her supervision, I clean our tea house. It’s the calmest and most assured I’ve felt in days.

Events will always transpire too quickly. This is the core I have to remember, the center I have to hold as the world swirls around me, so I can choose my path through it all.

When a knock sounds at the back door, I am almost resentful of the interruption.

But I have also never been more ready.


 

Or that is what I think before I open it and find Iryasa on the other side—without Reyata.

Iryasa’s eyes narrow just a fraction at the sight of me, and we regard each other in silence for a moment.

“You were here for Lorwyn,” I realize, though I can’t guess why. “She’s out. Would you like to talk to me instead?”

“Not particularly,” Iryasa says. Her tone isn’t nasty, but the fact that she says this at all, from her, is nastiness. Before I can continue, she adds, “I suppose you can help me, however. Can you direct me to the abode of Risteri of House Taresim?”

I have even less idea what’s going on. So much for my confident serenity.

“I can guide you there myself,” I say.

“I would prefer directions.”

“I’m not offering them.”

We stare at each other.

Her jaw firms. “I don’t want to talk about earlier with you yet.”

Has she still not decided how to deal with me, or has something happened? “Very well. We can speak of other things or not speak at all. Would you like to tell me about the Te Muraka food Sa Rangim introduced you to?”

Her skin tightens so imperceptibly if I were anyone else, I wouldn’t have noticed. And if she were anyone else, I wouldn’t have cared.

But we are who we are, and this is akin to a full-body cringe.

Something is amiss. Iryasa would not have left—perhaps could not have, lacking such provocation—Reyata behind.

“No, then,” I say smoothly. “Yorani, I’ll finish cleaning up the sand later. Let’s go.”

The tea spirit alights promptly on my shoulder, then does a full body shake that spatters sand on Iryasa and me both. The sudden need to shield her eyes distracts my sister from whatever she might have said, and I lock the door behind me.

“That’s it?” Iryasa asks suspiciously.

“That’s it,” I confirm. “You don’t wish to talk with me, and so we won’t.”

“For now.”

“All things considered, I am not promising I will never speak to you again ever, no,” I say dryly. “Nor is that what you asked. Shall we?”

Still, she hesitates. “I truly can go on my own.”

Have I betrayed her trust in me so deeply?

Or is it that she knows I can see too deeply, and she’s feeling a need for privacy?

I raise my eyebrows. “Then do you want to tell me what’s wrong? Because it’s one or the other. I’m certainly in favor of respecting personal boundaries, but they don’t obviate basic safety precautions. Your choice.”

She doesn’t have to consider. “Let’s go.”


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