Royal Tea Service: Chapter 25

I lead Iryasa to my old apartment, and we don’t speak.

Except for one moment.

Yorani hides in my bag, remarkably still—I think she’s amused by the stealth operation of our trying to pass through the streets without being recognized. If Iryasa is noticeable, Yorani is even more so.

I take us on a shortcut through a Gaellani market, because if Iryasa’s hood falls she’s still less likely to be recognized here than by Istals. At one point, she lifts a hand to part a curtain, and as her sleeve falls I see her security bracelet.

She hadn’t been focused on me, but she still notices how I minutely relax. Suddenly suspicious, she asks, “What?”

“You’re still wearing your bracelet,” I say. “I wasn’t sure if you’d taken it off.”

Iryasa frowns at me, but she falls into step as I start moving again, tentatively reassured I’m not leading her into a trap. “I’m not stupid, Miyara.”

“I’ve never thought you were.” I lift my own wrists, which, though in possession of bracelets, are distinctly different than the ones I used to wear. She startles minutely—I’m sure she knew I didn’t have them anymore, but I haven’t made a point of bringing it up, either. “It’s not as though they don’t come off, though, and you clearly didn’t want to be found.”

Iryasa’s jaw tightens. “I’m the crown princess, Miyara. I don’t have the luxury of taking off my duty when I don’t care for it.”

I consider my response to this. On one hand, she’s already angry at me, but on the other? I just resolved to show people who I am, and I am not backing off right at the beginning.

“I have only ever dedicated myself to one duty,” I finally say, “and I answered the door when you knocked. Will Reyata track you?”

Iryasa’s lips purse in anger, but she lets me redirect back to the original topic. “Not unless there’s an emergency. She’ll respect what it means that I’ve gone to the trouble of leaving her behind and will respect my wish for space.”

And it has become abundantly clear that Iryasa isn’t convinced anymore that I respect her wishes or boundaries.

“The closest you can get to privacy,” I murmur.

“Yes,” she agrees. “Some of my sisters trust me.”

I make a point of rolling my eyes so she can’t miss it. “Are we talking now, or are we still not talking?”

My sister looks away for a moment, and then turns back quickly and asks, “Why the bracelets?”

Mine, she means. “They’re a gift from Deniel,” I say, leaving out Thiano’s role in their procurement. For the purposes of her question, it’s not relevant, and I’m not currently filled with confidence on how spiteful she feels toward me. “He noticed I was uncomfortable without the security bracelets—I’d grown too used to their weight. Even though these don’t serve the same function, wearing these helps me feel at ease.”

I don’t mention the reminder they are for me about Deniel, our feelings and relationship and commitment, either. She may infer that on her own.

“So we both have our illusions, then,” Iryasa finally says.

Which is how I am absolutely certain something has gone badly wrong with Sa Rangim. My heart races: if there is bitterness between them, everything I am trying to hold in balance is at risk.

But her words were a deliberate challenge, and I meet it the way I absolutely must.

I respect her boundaries.

I don’t ask.

The rest is silence.


 

Risteri isn’t the only one in the apartment. Lorwyn’s presence isn’t a surprise, at least to me; nor is Sa Nikuran’s. But it’s immediately clear Sa Nikuran is low on the list of people Iryasa wants to see right now.

I see my sister mentally calculating her position—whether it’s worth trying to do this another way, whether she’ll be able to get away at another time—and deciding the same way she did when I pressed her.

She’s moving forward.

Once the immediate pleasantries are taken care of, Iryasa says to Risteri, “I understand you’re the best guide to the Cataclysm in Sayorsen.”

I had been selfishly hoping she wanted to talk to Risteri about a House Taresim matter. But in that case, she wouldn’t have needed to leave Reyata behind.

So I’m not surprised, exactly, though I may be the only one.

“I am,” Risteri agrees slowly—not arrogantly, but cautious of what she’s getting herself into. “Was there something particular you wanted to know about the Cataclysm, or—”

“I think it’s past time I see it for myself,” Iryasa says. “I was hoping you might favor me with a private tour.”

From a crown princess to a scion of an out-of-favor house among her subjects, this is not a request.

Risteri glances at me, and Iryasa snaps, “Miyara is not in charge here.”

Risteri blinks, startled by this vehemence.

But however much she’s rejected her upbringing with her father, it doesn’t change the fact that she was raised as aristocracy. It only takes a moment for her expression to even out, and she says, “No, your Highness, if we’re talking about a trip to the Cataclysm, then I am in charge.”

Iryasa narrows her eyes.

“Is there anything I should know about this trip?” Risteri continues. “If there are to be clandestine meetings, for instance, I will take different precautionary measures.”

Iryasa relaxes minutely. “You will take me, then?”

Risteri thankfully does not look at me this time. She’s clever enough to understand my silence means I’m not going to intervene, and if I were opposed to this I would have to precisely because Risteri isn’t in a position to.

Guiding is what she does best, so I let her lead.

“It would be my pleasure, your Highness,” Risteri says. “But any trip into the Cataclysm requires planning, so—”

“I have nothing specific in mind,” Iryasa interrupts her. “I just want to see it for myself, this focal point on which so much turns.”

It’s a good idea. I wonder about the reasons for it.

“Very well,” Risteri says. “Let me get you both some more suitable clothing for traipsing through the Cataclysm, then, and we’ll get started.”

Iryasa’s eyes narrow. “Perhaps I was unclear. Miyara will not be joining us.”

Risteri takes a deep breath. “Perhaps I was unclear, your Highness? I am in charge. And this is exactly why Miyara has to come.”

“Explain,” Iryasa says, because she can’t twist a narrative she doesn’t understand.

“On a trip to the Cataclysm, a guide’s word is absolute,” Risteri says. “If I give you a direction, I can’t afford for you to argue about it or decide whether it’s worth following. The Cataclysm is life and death.”

“I can abide by your directions.”

“With all due respect, your Highness, I think you are not accustomed to abiding by anyone’s directions except her Majesty’s, and I can’t risk that you will slip out of habit,” Risteri says. “Miyara will be accompanying us because she has demonstrated she will abide by my directions. And, to be frank, your Highness? She is one of the only people who, if the situation arises, can tackle you to the ground without putting her precarious household at risk of your further displeasure.”

Iryasa absorbs that, expression souring. She won’t have missed Risteri’s usage of the word ‘further’—Risteri caught on to the tension between us. But given how she started this conversation, Iryasa won’t be able to reasonably persuade Risteri that she can follow orders.

“So that’s why I need traipsing clothes,” I observe. “They’re to be emergency tackling clothes.”

Lorwyn says, “You have prevailed on me for emergency clothes-salvaging witchcraft more than once.”

“Not from visiting the Cataclysm, though,” I point out. “When your explosions at the tea shop are the cause, I don’t feel bad asking you to clean up the consequences.”

Lorwyn looks at Iryasa. “I’ve always wondered this. Is the whole ‘remaining pristine even when running through a magical monstrosity’ ability a princess thing?”

Iryasa stares at her. “You are remarkably confident in addressing me so casually,” she says in a chilly voice.

Lorwyn shrugs. “You have more gravitas than Saiyana, but if one princess has to treat me like a person I don’t see why any of the rest of you should be exempt.”

“Miyara’s not a princess.”

“And I was talking about Saiyana,” Lorwyn says blandly.

The words hang in the air.

Iryasa scowls at me. “Your doing, I take it?”

“No, Lorwyn is just like this,” I say as blandly as Lorwyn, knowing full well Iryasa was referring to Saiyana’s behavior.

My sister shakes her head; takes a moment. Then she looks at Lorwyn and says, “Yes, it’s a princess thing.”

My chest tightens, and I breathe.

We’re not okay yet, but I think maybe we will be after all.

“I would also like to accompany you,” Sa Nikuran says, and the moment shatters.

“No,” Iryasa says flatly.

Risteri glances from Sa Nikuran to Iryasa, clearly not understanding the undercurrent there. “It would be irresponsible to bring the crown princess to a place as dangerous as the Cataclysm without a protector familiar with the Cataclysm’s ways. If Sa Nikuran is willing—”

“No,” Iryasa says again, more softly.

More icily.

Sa Nikuran bows low. “Please, your Highness. Sa Rangim—”

“Sa Rangim does not rule here,” Iryasa says, her voice ringing with finality. She stares a challenge at Risteri. “Are you only the best guide under Te Muraka oversight?”

Risteri’s expression evens. “Of course not, your Highness. But I gather time is of the essence in the interest of stealth. Lorwyn, can you come?”

“Sure, I do like nothing better than to serve at the crown’s pleasure,” Lorwyn drawls.

I can practically see Iryasa consider a scathing response, remember Lorwyn is a witch and that the crown she will one day hold has allowed witches to be persecuted for decades, and keep her mouth well shut.

“Risteri—” Sa Nikuran begins uncomfortably.

“My love, under the circumstances there is absolutely no way I am getting in the middle of a fight between Sa Rangim and the crown princess of Istalam,” Risteri says.

Circumstances could mean her House’s position, but I know Risteri better than that: she means without knowing what went wrong between them. Given her firsthand knowledge of Te Muraka bonds, I wonder what she’s guessed.

More to the point, Iryasa’s attention sharpens at her words. She must have known Risteri and Sa Nikuran were keeping company, but to bring love into it?

I admit mine sharpens at that as well. To throw a word like ‘love’ out there so casually—

“Then I will take my leave,” Sa Nikuran says, bowing formally.

“Wait,” Iryasa says, and I tense.

So does Sa Nikuran.

“Do not allow any Te Muraka to interfere,” Iryasa commands. “If Sa Rangim requires an explanation, you may remind him that I make my own choices and don’t need his protection.”

My eyes widen.

Ohhhh dear.

Sa Nikuran’s expression remains impassive, but her eyes flash. “I will communicate this to him, your Highness.”

The directive itself, or that Iryasa directly commanded a Te Muraka? Which she legally is allowed to do, and yet—

It occurs to me that Sa Nikuran was insisting on accompanying us because she knew Sa Rangim would have wanted her to.

And in that case, if what Iryasa needs is perspective after an altercation with Sa Rangim, and she is choosing to take herself to the Cataclysm with minimal protection

I can’t give any sign I am not entirely behind my sister right now, even to give Sa Nikuran a hint that I will do what I can on the Te Muraka’s behalf. Not if I wish to be able to do anything for them or my sister.

As I have asked Iryasa to trust me publicly in negotiations, so too do I now keep my mouth absolutely shut on her behalf as Sa Nikuran takes her leave with a final inscrutable glance at my tea spirit, whose reaction I can’t see from her perch.

But once Sa Nikuran’s gone, I turn to my sister and say, “I hope you understand the statute on my not talking is going to run out the moment we cross into the Cataclysm.”

I thought this might make her angry, but instead it’s like a weight has lifted off her shoulders.

“Yes,” she says, and there’s the ghost of a smile as she adds wryly, “but until then, keep your mouth shut.”


 

Lorwyn makes us all invisible—which makes Yorani sneeze and then chirp in delight at however that feels to her—as we head to the Cataclysm. To avoid accidental bumping Risteri takes us on a roundabout route. Our invisibility means we all have to keep quiet or else ruin the point, though that doesn’t stop Lorwyn from casting pointed looks my way.

I ignore them, as does Risteri, who is at least noble enough to understand the façade of discretion where royalty is concerned. As does Yorani, who flies around Iryasa’s head in an attempt to get her to laugh.

And I have at least enough awareness for how lonely I have felt witnessing Lorwyn and Risteri’s exchanges that even were Iryasa not a princess, I would endeavor to refrain from weighted glances right now. Iryasa can’t have intended her adventure to go exactly like this, but she is nevertheless stuck with three people (and one tea spirit) who are all close friends with each other and not her. Yorani, at least, is in more of a position to address this by virtue of not existing in a firm category in Iryasa’s mind.

The barrier to the Cataclysm is placid, swirling lazily as if such currents visible under the surface are entirely expected, and not a reflection of us. My sister does not appear to note anything amiss—and why should she? This is what she knows.

But for her taking one deeper breath as if to gird herself for what her life means, we pass through without any pause or acknowledgment. My stomach twists, and Lorwyn announces, “We’re visible again. I don’t want to maintain that while being ready for anything else.”

“Can’t people see us through the barrier?” I ask.

“So what if they can?” Lorwyn asks. “No one’s looking, and no one innocent is going to follow if they were. If they’re not innocent, I’d like nothing better than to deal with them first and get it over with so we can continue.”

Iryasa murmurs, “I’m glad you assume this journey would continue after an altercation.”

“Of course, your Highness,” Lorwyn says. “I’m glad my eagerness to get into fights doesn’t bother you.”

“How could I be at risk, with one such as you to defend me?”

Lorwyn lets out a crack of laughter. “Always pleased to be appreciated. So? Are you ready to move on, or do you want to take a minute?”

I’ve been watching Iryasa gaze around while she bantered, a lifeline to hold onto something human when the landscape around her is decidedly not. Yorani, who moments ago had been entertaining her with antics, has now slipped in among the chaos like she belongs here, and Iryasa notes it. She takes one more moment, and then she inclines her head to Risteri. “I am ready when you are, guide.”

Risteri regards her thoughtfully. “Your goal is to get a fuller impression of what the Cataclysm is, correct?”

Iryasa inclines her head again, not answering with words.

Risteri nods sharply, apparently confirming a decision. “Then I will take us on a more… nuanced tour than where I typically bring tourists. Follow me.”

She shoots a glance at Lorwyn, whose eyebrows lift but she nods.

All at once I realize what she has in mind. It’s risky, but—maybe she’s right. She is the guide, and if anyone knows the Cataclysm’s heart, it’s Risteri.

“Well?” Iryasa asks, and I startle, realizing she’s addressing me.

Expecting me to start in on demands.

“I can wait,” I say.

Her eyes narrow. “If you’re trying to give me a break—”

Lorwyn comments, “That is honestly not really Miyara’s way of handling anything.”

I roll my eyes. “You wanted to get an impression of the Cataclysm, and my input will only interfere in that.”

“So you can at least understand your input isn’t always helpful.”

I incline my head, glancing ruefully at Lorwyn. “I’m at least capable of learning. And biding my time.”

Lorwyn snorts but happily does not disagree with either sentiment outright—I wish I were more confident that’s because she actually agrees and not just that she’s choosing not to undermine me in this situation.

Iryasa considers me for another moment and then decides to take me at my word, gesturing for Risteri to begin.

If she is willing to take my word at all, things between us are not as broken as I feared.

And that means I will be able to do what I do best.


 

This tour begins like my first visit did, and I keep quiet as promised.

Risteri gauges Iryasa’s response to seeing a site where the Nakrabi tech was deployed: my sister is calculating and watchful. No tenser than she was, but no lessening of her anger, either.

Risteri exchanges another glance with Lorwyn, who nods.

After that, everything is different.

What follows isn’t an exact path I’ve taken before. At least not as far as I recognize—I’m no guide, so for all I know it could be.

What is clear, though, is that Risteri is leading us deeper into the Cataclysm.

Very, very much deeper.

If I’d had any doubt, given the roiling landscape and ethereal shrieking, the rapid shifts in temperature and scent and color, it would have been clear by the time the ground vanished from underneath us.

Risteri takes Iryasa’s hand from the front; I have been down a path enough like this I instinctively reach for my sister on one side and my best friend on the other while Yorani alights on my shoulder to stay connected to our path of human magic. Lorwyn catches us all as we freefall and holds us aloft with witchcraft I barely feel given the tumult.

No one says a word. No one needs to.

Thus connected, we continue, led by Risteri’s knowledge, carried by Lorwyn’s power, and Iryasa and I holding the center together as Yorani rides along.

Until Risteri pauses, drawing us up in a line so we can all see.

Iryasa immediately freezes at the sight. She isn’t stupid.

A static, dead vision below, caught in the shifting winds of chaos, is the bleak, empty expanse of the Te Muraka’s desert.

Iryasa attempts to snatch her hands back, but we hold fast.

She whirls to face me. “You told her to bring us here.”

“No, I did not,” I say. “My friends aren’t any stupider than I am.”

“Then you must all be stupid indeed, to have thought that at this moment, when you have all clearly realized I don’t want anything to do with even thinking about the Te Muraka, this would be a site I wished to see.”

Risteri answers her. “I think it’s a site you need to see, if you want to understand where the Te Muraka’s protective impulses are coming from. I don’t know what Sa Rangim could have said during negotiations to anger you this badly, but as a person who is dating, sleeping with, and maybe forming a mate bond with another Te Muraka, I can promise you there’s no way to have any kind of functional relationship with them if you’re not prepared to deal with this part of them.”

Iryasa is vibrating with anger. She bites out, “Your choices are your own, but I will not be controlled. I will not curb my own behavior to make allowances for another’s need to wrap me in a protective cocoon.”

“Nor should you,” Risteri says evenly, and Iryasa’s eyes narrow. “Well, I guess I have no place with ‘should’ where you’re concerned, but what I mean is that’s not at all the point.”

“And what,” Iryasa’s words are measured with violent calm, “in your vast expertise, is the point?”

“If I may cut in,” I say softly as Iryasa’s gaze snaps back to me, “the point is his story, and where it overlaps with yours. If you wish to shape the narrative, you have to understand both. And if you are part of the story—which in this case you cannot deny—it’s even more important to understand how it might shape you.”

“I don’t wish to be shaped.”

So little emotion in that statement I recognize how vast it has to be underneath: a cry, a plea, a shout.

And oh, do I understand it. I can’t give her the freedom I felt realizing I did not have to contort myself into the person everyone expected me to be.

But maybe, if I really am the tea master I claim to be, I can help her find it for herself.

“Shaping art shapes the artist in the doing,” I say. “People aren’t different. And I of all people know you are here to change.”

“I am here to change myself.”

“So am I, and if it could happen in a vacuum you’d already be how you wish,” I tell her. “Risteri, can you find us somewhere calm? Or at least flat, where it’s safe to sit down?

“Uh.” She jerks her head in the direction of the Te Muraka’s prior residence.

“No,” Iryasa says.

“No,” I agree. “If anyone brings her there, it should be Sa Rangim. Not us.”

Risteri frowns. “Then not nearby, no. It’s like the existence of an ordered chunk makes the surrounding chaos even less stable than elsewhere in the Cataclysm. Do you want to turn around?”

“Yes,” Iryasa says.

“No,” I disagree this time, and my sister glares at me. I turn away from her and look to Lorwyn. “As long as you can hold us.”

Lorwyn narrows her eyes. Then with her free hand she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bunch of sticks, then casually tosses them into the air.

Not truly casually, of course: each of them moves, directed remotely, to a specific point around us. They hang their midair, a mage structure suspended by her witchcraft.

Glowing lines appear connecting each stick, and then it’s as if each stick is the point connecting facets of a cloudy jewel that flares with opaque light.

When it clears, Lorwyn looks a question at me for permission; I nod.

She lets go of my hand.

We all drop onto a solid, invisible, nonexistent surface. Lorwyn winces with the impact but waves a hand as if to banish the distraction.

“Risteri, I’m going to have to focus on this after the water,” Lorwyn says. “Yell if you need me. Better yet, yell at Yorani.”

My tea spirit lifts off my shoulder to gently brush Lorwyn’s face with her wing; an acknowledgment. Risteri also nods, turning her back to watch around us, confident in herself and in us.

It’s incredible to stand here between them and recognize this clear demonstration of how far we’ve all come.

“And what will we be doing?” Iryasa asks archly.

I sit down on a transparent floor, the gleam of the magecraft nodes in the corner of my vision, the expanse of the Te Muraka’s drifting prison below—for now—and the whorling currents of Cataclysm all around.

I unstrap my tea kit and begin to unpack it to Iryasa’s frank look of astonishment.

“You once asked me to perform the tea ceremony for you,” I say. “The time for it is now.”


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Continue to Chapter 26


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