At Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes, the ambassadors wait for me to begin. They all clearly know something has occurred; what’s more, they expect me to take action on account of it.
In that respect, at least, I have succeeded. They know I will not stand idly by.
They also know I will not act in a way they can predict, and so they are watching me.
I’m glad I finally have their attention.
I’m also confident they’re not going to predict what we have planned, even if they think they know the corner it’s coming from:
That being the delegation from Istalam, the one section of our circle that remains empty and waiting.
Taseino is here as my assistant, with Elowyn keeping out of sight behind the tea counter but close enough to observe in person, rather than through Lorwyn’s witchcraft in the back. I can’t have Cherato associating Elowyn with me, given her role with Karisa, and since Elowyn and I haven’t had much opportunity to work on appropriate etiquette for such a situation this is hardly the time for an education rite by fire. Still, if she is ever to be a tea master, she will need more experience of negotiations than her life has hitherto been preparing her for, and now that she has some context for what to expect—well, there will be very few as high stakes as this.
Yorani watches from a shelf, so anything of notice from that quarter will be attributable to her, though I don’t expect there to be. Karisa sits alone in the Istal camp, affecting obliviousness and occasionally sipping her tea. Not loudly, exactly, but with just enough irregular volume to grate on nerves in an otherwise silent room.
Until the front door opens, and Iryasa enters.
Followed directly not by Reyata or even Saiyana, but by Sa Rangim.
Ridac sucks in a breath.
My eldest sister pauses inside the threshold for Sa Rangim to reach her side, and then they continue walking together. Only then does Reyata enter the tea shop, following afterwards.
Ambassador Ridac’s reaction is entirely what I expect, as the canny old operator’s expression moves rapidly through shock to outrage and then naked calculation as he thinks through the implications of this power move.
Iryasa is not only expressing her support by bringing Sa Rangim with her; he is expressing his support of her. The arrangement of their positioning indicates mutual respect, and moreover that there is an understanding between them. Ridac’s plans of pushing a new Istal-Velasari ruling marriage have been greatly complicated. His eyes narrow as he realizes I must have known this was in the works during our last conversation.
Ambassador Perjoun of Taresan smiles faintly, inclining her head to me as if in recognition of what I’ve done. When I don’t acknowledge her, her eyes narrow, her whole body shifting in readiness. She takes my hint for what it is: that this is not my doing, which means that what is my response is yet to come.
Ambassador Cherato’s response is the most interesting of all, in that, for once from him, it’s visible, in the tightening of his entire expression when Sa Rangim passes through the door.
Sa Rangim: a Te Muraka who, unlike the rest of us, can nullify—or perhaps consume—Nakrabi magic.
“This summit purports to be a meeting of equals,” the Nakrabi ambassador says. “The Isle of Nakrab has allowed this fiction in deference to local custom, but this passes permissible propriety.”
Ridac had also been opening his mouth to object, but at that he clenches his jaw in annoyance at such an offensive argument—now sharing a position with Nakrab will put his own point in a less optimal light—and waits for me to respond instead.
Instead, I look to the crown princess of Istalam, who is taking her time settling into her seat and making a point of ensuring Sa Rangim is oriented.
After a minute has passed, she meets Ambassador Cherato’s gaze directly and says, “Istalam is honored to serve the Te Muraka as our own citizens, and we value their counsel just as highly. Where we are welcome, so are they.”
Ridac lets out a breath, shaking his head. “Tea Master Miyara, are we to understand that his presence here is with your permission, and you support the Te Muraka’s sudden intrusion into our talks?”
“Say rather ‘belated welcome’,” I say blandly.
Ridac snorts and leans back in his seat, lacing his fingers behind his head. He, at least, recognizes, this isn’t the end of the excitement I have planned.
I ask, “Are there any further objections to Sa Rangim joining our discussions?”
“You have yet,” Ambassador Cherato says, standing, “to answer mine.”
I smile. “So I have.” I look inquiringly over at Ridac and Perjoun, both of whom motion me onward.
Cherato’s eyes darken.
“Now then,” I say. “Ambassador Cherato. We have business.”
“You would insult us so?” he cuts in. “You begin with this affront, deliberately ignoring the concerns of a respectable ambassador, and now you will hurl accusations—”
“Say rather I will lay them out calmly,” I say. “Taseino, if you would distribute the report in front of Princess Reyata to each of the ambassadors, please.”
“Honored ambassadors,” Reyata says in her cool voice, “in this document you will find a copy of reports, first from Istalam’s Cataclysm Defense, of an attack against the barrier that contains the Cataclysm by Nakrabi persons using Nakrabi technology. Second, from Istalam’s magical research division, who have laid out clearly the connection between the knowing deployment of this technology and its direct effect on the Cataclysm—which is to say, its expansion. We have clearly found the immediate cause of our current difficulties.”
“Despite,” I add softly, “very, very clear instructions to each respectable ambassador about what interactions with the Cataclysm are under no circumstances permissible.”
“These are lies,” Cherato says flatly. “You cannot prove this so-called attack—which we have only your word for its occurrence, I must add—happened at all, or that Nakrab had any part in it.”
Sa Rangim speaks for the first time. “I understand, ambassador,” he says calmly, “that you are inclined toward magical demonstrations. Shall I demonstrate for you, how a Te Muraka reveals what is beneath Nakrabi masks?”
The room stills.
Cherato points a single, deliberate finger. “You are threatening me, and thus the Isle of Nakrab.”
“Was it a threat, then,” I say, “when you, and thus the Isle of Nakrab, insisted on demonstrating Nakrabi magic to me?”
“From the beginning, you have decided against me,” Ambassador Cherato says. “The Isle of Nakrab sent a delegate in good faith, as the continent seeks to address a problem that affects us not at all, and you have slandered us at every turn.”
“For the record,” Iryasa puts in mildly, “that is not at all why the Isle of Nakrab sent a delegate.”
Ridac casts her a shrewd look, and Perjoun’s expression is considering as she takes the crown princess’ measure anew—and mine.
“When the ambassador from Velasar was found inside the Cataclysm with unsanctioned magical technology, you both can recall that I confronted him as well,” I say. “If you are uniquely the subject of my censure, Ambassador Cherato, it is because you uniquely disregard the boundaries I have clearly, in deference to potential for cultural differences, set. By participating in this summit you have consented to abide by my judgment, and I have promised consequences. So we come to it, Ambassador:
“On behalf of the continental nations, I, Tea Master Miyara, demand reparations from the Isle of Nakrab, to be tithed in the form of magical service.”
The entire table stares at me in shock.
“Reparations?” Ridac finally asks, as if he cannot quite believe what he is hearing.
Reparations have not historically been a tactic with much success on the continent; he’ll be shocked that I would bother deploying it. But if Iryasa and I can make this work, if we can teach the world and ourselves to shoulder responsibility for our actions, we can change a great deal.
All the way to the Te Muraka, and Gaellani, and witches.
Ambassador Cherato’s entire demeanor has shifted now. He openly displays a façade of amusement, inviting the other ambassadors to join him, because he believes this to be impossible.
Impossible is my specialty.
So first, we start here: that this is not a sally to slip in what I actually want; that I am, in fact, completely, utterly serious. Let them believe that when I show my aim, it is because I am entirely confident in its inevitability.
“Reparations,” I repeat firmly. “We cannot move forward equally together on this matter when one party is allowed to disadvantage the others. The Cataclysm’s growth disproportionately affects Taresan and Istalam, whose lands and citizens have been lost, even as they have taken in an influx of refugees into ever smaller areas. Velasar has not been immune to consequences either, as Taresan and Istalam have leaned on Velasari resources for support when theirs were drastically altered and strained.
“The Isle of Nakrab has had no care for this continent’s greatest treasure: their spirits. So to make amends, the continent will have use of the Isle of Nakrab’s treasure. And we are all aware of how Nakrab values its magical expertise.”
Ambassador Cherato’s expression goes sardonic. “Of course you demand our magic. It’s what you’ve wanted all along.”
“What I want—”
“Is to serve as a proxy for your family, Istalam’s rulers. Tea Master Miyara.”
Ridac startles and swears.
My body runs cold, like I’ve been doused with freezing water from within.
After all this time, there it is.
I’d known this move would provoke Cherato, of course, but I had expected him to hold this play in reserve for a while longer. That he has not means I have struck closer than he would like to admit, which is good.
Ultimately, dealing with this may also be good. But right now, it is… not optimal. I cannot afford to falter.
Karisa, spirits bless her, doesn’t miss a beat: she affects shock and betrayal and shame in quick succession, that Cherato would reveal what she had told him in confidence, then dramatic obliviousness.
Ridac snarls, “Of course you’re the spirits-cursed fourth princess.”
“It brings me great joy to merit such recognition,” I say dryly.
Because of course, until this moment he didn’t recognize me or even suspect. He, who has spent more time than any of these ambassadors at the palace where I lived, did not note undue familiarity between me and the princesses.
His face mottles as he slams his hands down on the table in front of him. “You didn’t think that merited disclosing? The integrity of this entire summit is now in question. We have all wasted our time.”
To my surprise, Ambassador Perjoun speaks up. “The tea tournament.”
It’s all she says, but it’s all that’s needed.
The tea tournament is the highest profile event on the continent. Ridac throws himself back in his seat, remembering: the unusual addition of a tea master, the tournament’s clear attempts to disfavor me, and my victory without the tea guild’s support. At the time, that lack raised eyebrows: now it is notable that I likewise triumphed without support from the crown.
I still disagree with the guild’s actions, but right now they’re about to serve me well.
“You are not the first to voice such concerns, Ambassador Ridac,” I say. “I have been called to prove my position before, and I’m sure I will again. The Istal crown as well as the tea master’s guild have separately accepted my position as an independent operator from both of them. That is not the issue of this summit.”
“Are you kidding? You can’t expect this information to change nothing,” Ambassador Ridac says.
“I’m no stupider than the last time you spoke to me, no,” I say dryly.
I can read a room. Ambassador Perjoun is more firmly on my side than before: Entero’s intel indicated her respect for established order—which in this case, for better or worse, means lineage—runs deep. She likewise respects work, and both I individually and the Istal royal family’s special commitment to service play well there.
On the matter of reparations, I might have been able to convince Ambassador Ridac to vote in favor of such an idea by my and Iryasa’s choice to position Velasar as a beneficiary of Nakrabi magic. But the revelation about my heritage, and the fact that he wasn’t aware of it, has made him feel manipulated by Istalam, which will speak to a long history of perceived slights—some of which I’m sure I could not fault his interpretation of.
Ambassador Cherato, of course, I have lost entirely; but then, he was lost before this meeting began, and it is not worth my time to invest precious energy in someone who will always possess no regard for my life or the lives of those I care about.
That makes him my enemy, and I will not pretend otherwise. I will triumph.
And that means today’s strategy needs to change.
One more day, Saiyana. I will have to trust she can hold that long.
“It seems this day has been a surprise to many of us,” I say. “I invite you to take the afternoon to review all of the information made available to you today, foremost the packet in front of you, and we will reconvene tomorrow. If you have any questions about it, or me, or the shape of reparations, I am happy to answer your questions.”
“A question then, before we adjourn, regarding your position on reparations,” Ridac says smoothly.
Spirits. If he wants to do this publicly, it won’t go as smoothly for me.
“I am happy to clarify,” I say.
His eyes gleam; he has outmaneuvered me at last. I wait.
“Istalam,” Ridac says, “has historically resisted punishing the witches for their part in creating the Cataclysm.”
“Witches were not responsible for the Cataclysm.”
He waves this off. “Let us pretend we agree, for the sake of argument, that they did,” Ridac says. “You claim to be in favor of reparations regarding the Cataclysm. My question is, would you impose that same judgment on the architects of that disaster?”
Ambassador Perjoun steps in to equivocate. “If I may be so bold, I believe that is outside the scope of this summit.”
A solid effort, but Ridac judges me correctly as he says, “I want to know if Tea Master Miyara is willing to push that scope and go all the way.”
Have I considered all the implications, is what he means. Will I see this to its natural end.
I look at my eldest sister; she nods.
Without breaking eye contact, I say, “If in the course of this summit I discover that Istal mages are responsible for the creation of the Cataclysm due to permitted bigotry among the mage council of the university of Istalam, I will hold that council to account.”
I turn to regard each person in the room in turn as I continue.
“If overseers of Taresan’s department of the interior are aware of and abetting the weakening of the barrier, I will hold them to account.” Ambassador Perjoun’s expression reveals nothing, and Ridac’s is hostile as I say, “And if I discover that a Velasari intelligence division backed by the Velasari government is responsible, the Velasari government may expect to hear from me. Does that answer your question in full, Ambassador?”
“No, as you’ve avoided it entirely,” he says. “Your biases cloud your judgment after all.”
“My biases?” I shake my head. “Your hypothetical is a false equivalence, and as it is already demonstrated false and I will not engage in it. I do not allow it for the sake of argument, because the argument is moot at best and discriminatory at worst. Shall I be clearer, ambassador? If witches are involved in communal reparations, it will be as the receivers.”
To my vast relief, Iryasa, who could trip me here and now, does not balk at this. Instead she calmly nods, as if this is entirely obvious and she has no objection to holding such an unequivocal stance on a subject Istalam’s royal family has been forced to back down on in the past.
As I am backed into a corner, she takes a stand there with me.
Thank the spirits.
“Istalam,” Ridac sneers, “always looking for those they consider smaller.”
He harkens back to Istalm’s imperial history as a smear against us and is thus surprised when I don’t dispute him.
“Exactly so,” I say. “I will not stand for any measure that attempts to extract service from witches, or Te Muraka, or Gaellani. They have been wronged, and it is our duty to serve them.”
“And will you answer for your wrongs to the Isle of Nakrab?” Cherato cuts in softly.
The one major player in this room I have not yet named, which I’m sure no one missed.
I meet the ambassador’s gaze and don’t entertain his false equivalence, either. “If I learn the Isle of Nakrab engineered the immense destruction brought on by the Cataclysm for its own selfish benefit, then you may rest assured that I will demand satisfaction, and I will not rest until I receive it. Am I perfectly clear, Ambassador?”
Tension crackles between us.
He meant to trap me into accidentally admitting bias he can use to take me down.
Whereas I am entirely confident in intentionally showing him the shape of the snare that he is poised to step into.
If he steps into it, I will see that it snaps shut.
“Perfectly, Tea Master Miyara. I believe we all now know where we stand.”
I’ve drawn the battle lines.
Now we will see who steps over them, and how.
The truth is out, and my past a princess has been revealed.
Now everyone will know.
Word travels quickly now that Cherato is actively using my identity to discredit me, so I make myself spend the rest of the afternoon at the tea shop to prove to Sayorsen nothing has changed: I am still their tea master, the same I was before.
It’s as much an effort to prove it to myself, that there is still a place for me here, that people will still look at me the same way.
The last is not true. Maybe someday it will be, but not today, not with the news so exciting and fresh—or raw.
The full employee roster of Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes comes in to help—not including Entero, who’s officially resigned, but for once including Talmeri herself, as she can’t miss a chance to tell the tale to anyone who will listen.
This is a gift: the more people listening to her, the fewer demanding royal stories of me.
The shop is as busy as it was during the height of the tea tournament; I am both grateful and ill at ease that no ambassadors seek me out.
The tea boys rotate line management. Talmeri remarks that the queue is likely to increase as those who are overawed at first realize they can in fact still ask a princess to serve them. Meristo cracks jokes constantly, mostly at his own expense, as a continual prick every time tension considers rising. Iskielo endears himself to the customers by visibly sharing their astonishment at the whole thing.
Yorani emerges from the back to be charming and adorable, while Elowyn and Tamak remain there working companionably as if nothing was ever amiss between them, and on the occasions I retreat there this is balm to my spirit. Not that they have found each other, but that honesty and good intentions turned to action can overcome strife and bring people together. Or at least, the possibility of that.
Because there have been people today who feel betrayed by this secrecy from their tea master, too; or let down upon learning, or deciding that I’m not one of ‘them’ after all.
If ever there were a gauntlet to convince me I cannot be everything to every person, this would be it.
I can only do my best, and it can never be enough for everyone.
I hope Saiyana is holding on.
It is an emotional whirlwind; I do my best.
Weeks ago, this announcement would have meant the end of my freedom, forever. Today it means… more work. Difficult work, to be sure, and more to come, but the life I have built has not been blown away in the wind.
I am afraid to believe it. When the doors finally close, I’m so wrung out it takes me a moment to process that while everyone who came to support me today is exhausted, they’re also, to my surprise, largely in good humor.
Lorwyn takes the towel out of my hands while I stand there numbly. “You thickskull. You’re one of us, and we’re not abandoning you. That’s how this works, remember?”
I stare at her, tears springing to my eyes.
It’s exactly what I always hoped she would expect of me—I never dreamed of the reverse. From Lorwyn most of all.
Her eyes widen as she seems to realize the meaning of what she’s just said, and now she’s almost as surprised at herself as I am, because she believes it, too.
A coat drapes over my shoulders, and Taseino comes into view, holding my tea kit. “You’ve done enough. I’m taking you home.”
You’ve done enough. That isn’t true. In a very real way, this shop is my home—
And apparently it still will be tomorrow. With some fuss, to be sure, but—no dramatic arguments, or contests of my place here. No challenges I—we—couldn’t handle without too much trouble.
A strong foundation, ready to support when an unexpected wind blows in.
Meristo promises to handle everything, and Talmeri herself shoos me out the door with Yorani at my shoulder and Taseino escorting us.
“I can walk myself,” I say. “You don’t have to go out of your way.”
“I’m aware of that,” Taseino says. “But we will all feel better knowing you weren’t accosted on the way home with no one to defend you.”
I let it go, too tired to push and selfishly not wishing to. Yorani is quiet, just being present—not asking anything of me or giving otherwise. I wonder how she learned that.
But Taseino, it turns out, isn’t done.
“You know I’ve learned a lot watching you,” he says after a few minutes.
I smile wearily. “I sometimes fear how much.”
“You never just rescue people,” he says. “You make them part of their own solutions.”
He chooses his words with care. “You’re so used to standing as a lone pillar. But I think sometimes it’s important for us to actually see you lean on us, so we all remember that we’re in this world together. We should know that we can hold you up, and you should know that we will—especially when you need to lie down for a while.”
Which is, at this moment, exactly what I need. For so many reasons.
I’m not on my own here. That’s a huge part of the point.
We’re going to win this for everyone, and we’re going to win it together.
I did my best today, and I will do my best tomorrow, and so will we all, and it will be enough.
We will make it be.
Continue to Chapter 28