The greenery around our house is thoroughly trampled, though no strangers are loitering outside. The door is, for once, properly shut and locked, not just defended with magic.
Inside, the pottery shop at the front looks like a strong wind blew through. The shelves are nearly barren, and what’s left is in utter disarray.
The lights are on in the living room, but Deniel isn’t moving around. After a moment I locate him on the couch, a cat on his lap and an open book covering his face. I set my tea kit down gently and go to the kitchen as quietly as I can.
Nevertheless, Deniel stirs. The book slips off his face, landing with a thud on the ground that jolts him to consciousness. He blinks a few times before his gaze fixes on me. “Miyara?”
“I just got home,” I say. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He blinks again, then glances down at his legs. “I didn’t mean to sleep, but Talsu ambushed me. He knows an easy mark when he sees one. I don’t suppose Yorani would consent to distract him?”
“No, she left with Taseino,” I say, coming over to the couch. “I’m not sure what she’s planning, but I am very nearly too tired to care.”
Deniel levers himself up to make space for me on the couch and carefully rotates, keeping his legs together until his feet hit the floor so his lap is still stable for Talsion. The cat flicks an ear suspiciously, but once Deniel’s movement ceases he curls into a tighter ball. I slip in next to Deniel, and it is the easiest thing in the world to lean my head on his shoulder at the same time he slips an arm around me.
“Maybe,” Deniel says, “Yorani is also learning about boundaries.”
“From me? That seems unlikely, don’t you think?”
Deniel smiles, wearily amused. “You’re perfectly fine at establishing them for people other than yourself, and just because you haven’t learned it all at once doesn’t mean you don’t do it at all. But let’s call it giving people space, then.”
I’m quiet for a minute.
“I didn’t do a good job of making sure you had space today,” I finally say.
“Not exactly your fault,” Deniel says. “You sent warning as soon as you could.”
“That was Meristo’s idea,” I admit. “I’d like to think I would have thought of it on my own, but—”
“Miyara, that’s literally why you have a support team.” Deniel’s tone is exasperated.
“Did you, though?”
It’s his turn to be quiet for a beat, because of course this is one of the things we had in common when we both met: no one knew who we were, not really; we hadn’t trusted anyone with our full selves.
Then he says, “Actually, yes. One of the Gaellani construction groups I won work for with the summit sent people to manage the crowd. Some of the food workers set up mobile carts and did a brisk business, and the hospitality staff sent extra supplies for the nearest businesses with bathrooms so I didn’t have to let anyone into the house to gawk at how a former princess lives with an artist.”
I wouldn’t have thought of any of that. Karisa’s reaction to the tour of our home had been cute, but the idea of the judgment of strangers looking to consider me as a princess rather than as myself, and Deniel as a quirky accessory, makes my skin crawl.
I’d expected the reveal of my past to affect his day, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the disruption to him would be on par with what I’d been dealing with. I should have, though. Even before his position on the council, Deniel was a recognized figure in the public, by some metrics the most successful sole Gaellani artisan in Istalam. He’s been known in Sayorsen for years.
He has also advocated for the Gaellani community for years, and now, even though he’s stood apart from them and alone for so long, it is a relief to know they see his work and appreciate him, at least now.
Still. “I’m glad people took it upon themselves to manage the logistics, but I think the most draining thing for me today was all the talking,” I confess.
“Oh, I wasn’t finished,” Deniel says. “A couple Istal council members showed up, too. One was clearly attempting to make nice now that he knows who you were and the kinds of connections he’s suddenly hoping to be able to access through me. But one of the others apparently experienced a scandal earlier in her career and guessed I wouldn’t be prepared for all the attention, so she brought one of her aides to run interference while she stayed near me to deflect some of the worse comments. I’d have been… much more at sea before you set me up with Saiyana for political lessons. I’m trying to think of today as a field assignment supervised by a teaching assistant. Not that I’ve had those, so maybe they don’t work that way, but—anyway, thank you.”
“You’re thanking me?” I lift my head to stare at him incredulously. “After all this?”
He tilts his head. “Yes? A year ago I don’t know that anyone would have come to my defense even if I’d asked. Certainly not voluntarily. That change is because of you.”
“You wouldn’t have needed anyone to come to your defense if not for me,” I point out.
Deniel rolls his eyes. “First of all, sooner or later everyone needs help. Second of all—Miyara, it’s not like I didn’t know you were a princess and that people might find out someday. You’ve never lied to me.”
I sigh, settling back down on his shoulder. “I know. I just didn’t want who I was to destroy your life.”
He hugs me a little tighter. “It’s hardly destroyed. Remade, maybe. But from the moment I first let you into my home, I knew my life would never be the same.”
I glance up at him. “Is that why you repaired the tea pet for Lorwyn that time? A marker of change?”
Deniel smiles. “No. And I’m still not telling.”
“Strict,” I murmur, draping myself over his lap to hug the cat instead.
He laughs, running a hand over my hair. “I’m more than I was, and we are more together,” he says simply, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. “We’ll get through this.”
And it is, and we will.
I wrap my arms around him, and he hugs me back, and we stay there. That we can find comfort in each other with no more expectation than this, this easy confidence between us is why—though we have taken things so slow in part by preference and in part by necessity—I am sure I am ready to move our relationship forward physically.
But truly, it will have to wait for another time. I sigh.
“Hmm?” Deniel murmurs quizzically.
“I really am too tired for any other kind of fun right now,” I say, “but the next time we’re both capable of more than collapsing in a boneless heap…”
Deniel huffs a quiet laugh. “Agreed. On all counts. I know we’re both trying to find balance, but—”
“We’ve gotten to the busy stage of this undertaking,” I say wryly. “Which is to say, the stage where I can’t even pretend I will be able to make any kind of balance work until I see it finished.”
I turn my head to look at him. We’re close enough to kiss, but Deniel’s gaze is distant.
“Perhaps sleeping,” I say, “though I don’t want to set my hopes too high.”
He grins fleetingly, glancing back long enough to take note of my proximity and take advantage of it to drop a kiss on my mouth. But then he says, “I meant farther ahead than that. What do you want your future to look like?”
I blink. Several times.
I’ve gotten so caught up in what I need for everyone else’s immediate future—my sisters, Sayorsen, Istalam, the continent—I haven’t given this much thought.
What’s even sillier, I was trying to plan for Yorani’s long-term future past my death without considering my role up to that point: my most important role for my familiar isn’t to shape her on purpose, it’s to live the model I wish for her to have in me.
I drop my head down and bonk it against Deniel’s shoulder.
He laughs again and squeezes me tighter. “Let me start. I want more nights just like this, with you and me together. Though I’d angle for some where we’re not too tired to move, too.”
“Me too,” I whisper.
“Your turn,” he says.
I consider, looking across to the room to the shrine to the spirits we set up in our home—that we had separate and, working together, combined. Imagination, the intangible, is also the stuff of air: to reach what I want, it matters to be able to imagine it.
I want to imagine that future with Deniel.
“I want to have demonstrated publicly that the path I’ve chosen for myself is worthwhile,” I say. “As you’ve pointed out, I may never be able to settle entirely, but I need this in order to be semi-settled, so I don’t have to… fight quite so hard for my reality to be allowed to exist. There are other problems I want to attend to.”
Deniel returns, “And I want to not be such a unique example of Gaellani business success for people to point to as an exception, so I can be a person to my community and less of a figure on a pedestal.”
I cup his face in my hands. “We’re working on that.”
“On yours too,” he says, and adds with amusement, “Now try one a little smaller scale.”
I frown, at first pretending to think hard and then actually trying hard to think of something else.
Oh, fine. “I want to be able to bake with your mother without embarrassing myself. I consider this a long-term goal.”
He shakes with laughter. “She’s not going to judge you for not having years of experience.”
“Perhaps not, but I’ll judge myself for not possessing at least enough competence to not get in her way, let alone appreciate all she has to teach.”
“Well. In that case, I want to feel confident in my position as a councilor. Not to know what I’m doing in ever circumstance, exactly—I know I will always have more to learn. But to feel confident that I am capable of serving in this position.”
“You’ll be more comfortable once you have more experience,” I say.
“Which I am getting, with this project, and Saiyana’s help, and with some of the councilors and their various intentions,” Deniel agrees. “But I will be glad once some of that experience is behind me rather than all in front.”
“And,” I nudge him, “you’ll have a law degree.”
His whole face lights up, and, shyly, he nods. It’s been such a dream of his for so long that no one ever considered a plausible reality, I think he forgets sometimes he can be openly excited about it without the same consequences now.
At least he can with me, and having someone at all is already a world different than no one.
I say, “I want to eat noodles with you at a Gaellani market and also at an Istal restaurant.”
Deniel blinks. “We haven’t eaten out together much, have we? Easy to fix. Although, ah—”
“I would also like to be able to do so without getting swarmed or goggled at, yes,” I say. “I’d like to be able to explore and experience Sayorsen with you without it being a cause for remark.”
“Do you think it will ever be?” Deniel asks. “Even if people get used to us in our positions, we will never really be… unknown, here.”
“That’s possible,” I admit. “How about this: I’d like people to be able to notice us without considering our presence behaving just like anyone else as cause for note. They can identify us as the master potter councilor and the ex-princess tea master without thinking it strange that we, say, buy groceries.” I look at him, smiling. “Or release lanterns into the sky. Which I also want to do with you again. Every year.”
His gaze is serious as he meets mine. “I also want us to light lanterns for our children together. If that’s something you also want.”
My heart thumps, and for a moment I am breathless. It’s a thrilling sort of pause, the kind where imagination runs wild with the possibilities, packed into the space of an instant.
This requires more of a response from me, and I lean up to kiss him. “It is,” I whisper. “But… not quite yet.”
His crooked grin is light. “We have years and years. I suppose that’s also one of my hopes: I want to have you to myself for a little while.”
I grin, but it’s a fleeting one, and when I next speak it’s more pensively. “I do want for us to be able to do our work without worrying quite so much about the people in our lives.”
Deniel’s forehead creases. “I can’t imagine you not worrying about your people.”
I shake my head. “I don’t mean not worrying at all. More like not worrying that each of them is teetering on the edge of a precipice, and which way they fall materially depends on my intervention? I want to matter, and I don’t want to not do the work I’ve committed to, but this is… a lot, very personally, all at once.”
“How do you mean?”
I sigh. “Risteri is… probably fine, now, though between House Taresim and her relationship with Sa Nikuran her life isn’t exactly not fraught. I believe Lorwyn and Entero will figure things out together, but until Entero’s position is stable and witches are at the very least legally welcome in Istalam I can’t exactly rest, as I’ve had a hand in all that. Then between the spy teens—”
“They seem to be doing well, but they are teenagers so I suppose our work there isn’t done.”
That ‘our’ warms me, but— “and my sisters—”
Deniel purses his lips and says, “Well, Reyata isn’t on a precipice.”
“Reyata’s future happiness depends on my ability to keep Iryasa out of a situation where she has to marry a Velasari for political reasons so that Reyata can freely pursue a relationship with General Braisa.”
Deniel’s head falls back. “I forgot about that. And Iryasa and Karisa aren’t clear of their own difficulties yet, and Saiyana is… struggling.”
“Perhaps it’s naïve, but I really think I won’t continue to accumulate dire circumstances requiring existential systemic solutions at quite such a pace once all these are… at least confidently progressing in a hopeful direction that doesn’t consistently require my effort to maintain!”
“That is certainly a hope for future Miyara and not your present,” Deniel agrees wryly.
There is a glaring hole in that list of worries and responsibilities, and my eyes narrow as I consider.
“You know who’s always been playing the long game, before any of us?” I ask. “Thiano. He’s a step ahead of every player, every single time. Even when I personally surprise him, it’s like he’s thought of all the ways a situation he’s interested in could possibly go and made plans for every contingency.”
“Or it means he has a very specific focus,” Deniel says, “combined with a long timescale to plan for. You can seed a lot that way.”
I nod slowly. “Yes. Yes, precisely.”
“I forgot to mention before,” Deniel says, “but the reason the Gaellani contractors got the news that the Nakrabi ambassador had revealed you as the former princess quickly enough to help was because of him. Thiano’s how they knew to come.”
That makes me sit up.
I’d thought I was too tired for anything, and I suppose this isn’t ‘fun’, but nevertheless I will have to find the energy.
“They told you the Nakrabi ambassador revealed me? And they got that from Thiano?”
“Yes. Is it not true?”
“No, I’m sure it is true,” I say, thinking rapidly. “But it probably means the Nakrabi ambassador enlisted Thiano to spread the rumor, and that Thiano hates him but isn’t willing to entirely burn that bridge. Which means he needs something from the Isle of Nakrab, and, as you said, Thiano must have been very focused on something very particular for a very long time.”
I pry myself out of Deniel’s embrace and stand. It feels impossible that I should still have to move, and yet.
Deniel asks, “You’re worried you put him in a difficult position with your demands today and should have warned him?”
“I—no, but it didn’t really occur to me I should warn him, I admit. I just assumed he’d know, because he knows everything.”
“I have a theory,” I say. “It’s a ridiculous theory, because it would require a person to have both a massively overdeveloped sense of ethical responsibility as well as the ability to lie in wait for years, acting only in the shadows, and to never let either slip.”
Deniel stills. Most people know Thiano only as a crotchety, crafty foreign merchant, but I have had the opportunity to see deeper, and Deniel knows it. “And?”
“And if I’m right, there are only two reasons Thiano wouldn’t be willing to burn that bridge with Nakrab,” I say. “One possibility is he doesn’t know everything Nakrab has done and is planning.”
“Which would be terrifying, as it would imply levels of craftiness beyond even Thiano’s staggering ability,” Deniel says. “Which is also why it’s unlikely, if they’re at all related to his purpose in Istalam, as seems to be the case. And the second option?”
“The second option,” I say, “is that there’s something far worse on the horizon that I don’t know about. And what I do know is that we’re facing the risk of the Cataclysm expanding endlessly. Either way, it’s past time for Thiano and I to change our understanding.”
Deniel resettles Talsion in the warm spot on the couch where I’d been sitting and stands himself, crossing over to kiss me. “I’ll get some food ready for you to eat quickly while you prepare your tea kit.”
I love this man.
Maybe one day it will be possible for me to show him how much—endlessly, every day, living it.
Continue to Chapter 29