Royal Tea Service: Chapter 29

As I make my way toward Thiano’s shop, I think about what I know, and what I can do that will matter, to Thiano. Tea mastery is my tool and my weapon, but arguably I haven’t been using all of it.

Because I haven’t been planning with Yorani in mind.

I draw to a stop and close my eyes, focusing on her, on my concept of her, as if through our connection I will be able to reach out across a spiritual thread and know where she is and how to reach her.

I hold that thought for a long minute, waiting for a sense of change, or really any sense at all.

There’s nothing.

Perhaps I will be able to sense Yorani in that way someday, but not today. That’s not among our skills yet; I can only focus on what we can do now.

For one thing, Yorani is the one being in this world Thiano loves without reservation, who can put him at ease reliably and without provoking him by reminding him of his humanity, and the connections we all share.

For a second thing, Yorani is enormously more advanced at responding to my inner state than I am knowing hers: perhaps a consequence of her being my familiar, rather than the other way around.

So I close my eyes again and focus on my familiar once more.

Yorani. I need you. I think the words as hard as I can.

When I open my eyes… she’s not there.

A disappointment, but not exactly a surprise. Imagine if she’d just spontaneously appeared in front of me! But I hardly expected that.

I leave it alone and resume walking. She either got my request, or she didn’t.

But I believe in the strength of our connection, even if I don’t understand how to manipulate it.

So I’m also not surprised when, by the time I’m in view of Thiano’s shop, Yorani swoops in from above and lands on my shoulder.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

She nuzzles the side of my face gently. Not even an inquiring chirp: she knows she’s here for Thiano’s support.

Together we face forward and approach his door.

I knock. There’s no answer.

I wait, and try again: still nothing.

I glance at Yorani. Her eyes narrow, and her tiny ears flick, ending pointed toward the shop.

Thiano is definitely inside, then.

“I don’t technically have any authority to break into your place of business,” I begin casually. “However, the strictures on what I can and cannot get away with in my capacity as Sayorsen’s tea master remain rather nebulous. I’m confident I can successfully make the case to anyone who might ask that your uncharacteristic lack of response made me fear for your health and I felt obligated to investigate. As ward-breaking isn’t among my skillset, I would naturally turn to my familiar, forlorn at no longer being welcome at your hearth, so I cannot guarantee the state your door would be in once Yorani—”

The lock clicks; the door swings open, and Thiano glares at me.

“Why, Thiano,” I say evenly. “I’m so delighted to find you home and well.”

“You’re a menace.” He points at Yorani. “You are also a menace.”

Yorani chirps and hops off my shoulder, fluttering until she lands on his.

Thiano sighs. “You know I know what you’re here for,” he tells me.

“It had certainly occurred to me you might have some reasonable guesses.”

“Then you know I’m not going to talk to you.”

I step closer. “There are many people’s actions I can confidently predict, but in this case I would not dream of presuming to know your future course.”

“Convenient for you, you can take me at my word,” he snaps. “Or is that not good enough for you, princess?”

I tilt my head to one side, studying him. “Am I no longer a tea princess in your eyes?” A change after today’s news, or something else?

Thiano’s eyes narrow. “Does it matter?”

“To me personally, rather a lot,” I say seriously. “I value your estimation highly.”

“A curious choice for someone who hitherto has not seemed unduly fond of disappointment.” It’s not quite a sneer, but it’s close.

If he really wants me to go away, he should know perfectly well that his standard cantankerousness isn’t going to cut it.

I heft my tea kit. “Also I don’t actually expect you to talk, but if you think I can’t make you an adequate cup of tea I would ask if you might consent to allow me the opportunity to challenge your understanding.”

Thiano frowns at me. “A tea ceremony is not going to help, Miyara.”

“All to the better. Then you won’t be disappointed when I don’t try to help. But surely no one can reasonably object to a cup of tea freely offered from a master?”

By ‘no one’, I mean Ambassador Cherato, and Thiano knows it. His glare intensifies.

Yorani butts her head into his ear.

“Yes, I know I’m going to let you both in, you menace of a spirit. It’s past time you learned about dramatic timing. Observe.”

Thiano gives Yorani a look to make sure she’s paying attention; glares at me; flings the door wide; gestures grandly with great implicit sarcasm for me to enter; and sweeps off into the shadows of his shop.

“There,” he mutters to Yorani, a disembodied voice in the darkness. “That’s how these things are done.”

“You’re spiteful,” I call after him, closing the door behind us, “teaching her things like that she will certainly use against me.”

“It’s no less than you deserve!” he growls back. “Now hurry it up while I find the space to accommodate your demand. Anyone ever tell you a forced gift isn’t, tea princess?”

The ‘tea’ is back now; interesting, and a relief.

“No need,” I say. “I know perfectly well we both fit kneeling in the aisles of your clutter. I have everything else I require.”

“Hmph.” Thiano emerges bearing a chair before he passes behind the shelves, and I follow him as he slams it down in between two over-stuffed rows, causing some of the items to rattle.

Yorani looks up at the movement with interest, and without taking his eyes off mine Thiano casually yanks her back down to his shoulder before she can get into trouble.

“My knees aren’t what they used to be,” Thiano says, a cruel smile that makes me wonder what real emotion he’s covering for there. “I’ll sit.”

“And I,” I bow, “am happy to kneel.” I do so on the ground before him, and look back up. “At your service.”

Something flickers across his face before his expression closes into its sardonic default. “Then proceed, tea princess.”

Once again, I extract a water bottle I’ve added to my kit—possibly a better addition even than the emergency snacks. But to get to it I have to pass Yorani’s emergency socks, and she promptly flies over to plop on her back in my lap, feet pointing up imploringly.

“My apologies, it appears I must pay a tithe before she will heat the water,” I say dryly. “A moment, please.”

I unfold the baby socks and slip the first one over her foot, carefully slotting her claws into previously poked holes. Once Glynis returns to Sayorsen with Ari, perhaps I can ask her to adjust the holes properly so they don’t continue unraveling.

“You bought Yorani cat socks?” Thiano asks, faintly incredulous.

I’m surprised he can make that out in the dim lighting here. “It was her idea. Talsion is her friend, and she has no concept of moderate behavior where her friends are concerned.”

Thiano’s expression flickers. “You’re one to talk.”

“Certainly not.” I know it’s not what he means, but I lift my skirts enough so Thiano can see my own socks: a matching pair.

Thiano buries his face in his hands. I’d like to think he’s amused despite himself, but something tells me that’s not it; or at least not all of it.

There’s something there about friendship, and equals; moderation and protection. And clarity in this, for me: the tea ceremony is the journey, but as though Yorani’s wings cleared a path, I see where we begin to take flight.

As I finish with Yorani’s second sock, Thiano shakes his head, dropping his hands. “That would be quite some moderation for a princess.”

“Ah, so now I’ve lost even that moniker from you,” I note. “Weren’t you not going to talk to me?”

Thiano scowls, caught out. He’s so used to deploying barbed words with veiled meanings he’s out of practice at how to use silence.

Yorani flutters back to Thiano, pausing right in front of his face for him to admire her socks. His scowl deepens.

“You’re perfect, little one,” he says gruffly, his words at odd with the severity of his expression, with the line of tension in his shoulders, as if Yorani and I together present an enemy of the highest caliber.

Yorani chirps happily, flies around his head once, and settles on his shoulder.

I meet Thiano’s gaze: there’s a challenge in his expression as if to ask, Am I truly a match for my familiar?

She breathes a glowing stream of magical fire toward me that stops just at the teapot to heat it.

We’ll find out.

I begin.

I am once again using a traditional air blend, but this one is a dark tea: not light, but sharp.

Despite its history, it’s not commonly used for tea ceremony. Tea ceremonies are typically thought of as a soothing comfort, and this is not a tea for soothing—or rather, not for calming.

This is a tea for the clarity of anger.

This is not a tea that makes a person feel as though everything will be well: this is a tea for fighting. For acknowledging that the fight is necessary, and matters.

There is comfort in easing pain. But sometimes, the real comfort to be had is not by trying to lessen it, but by acknowledging it.

Perhaps I cannot help Thiano. But I can see him.

I can see into this man who has operated from the shadows longer than I’ve been alive.

I can see a man who has intentionally isolated himself—from the people he came from, as well as the people he traveled to—and I can see his understanding that this distance is fundamentally necessary to the course he’s committed himself to.

And never, never strayed.

I would admire that dedication alone, but it matters too that I see that Thiano works in the service of others, not himself.

He’s not habitually sarcastic because he believes he’s better than anyone: it’s a distancing mechanism. He’s not isolated because he prefers it that way, but because of lack of trust.

From our first meeting, he has tested me: my mettle, my resolve. His pressure has honed me like honing a blade, and at every turn he has tested the currents in the air to predict how my ideals and actions will interact, taking their place into account in his grand scheme.

I would have to be stupid not to see the pattern, that every time I demonstrate to him that I care about others more than myself, that I will use whatever skills and strength I have to fight for those who cannot, he has chosen to aid me—in ways that far surpass how any spy should behave.

I flick my fingers like a flicker of flame. A strong wind can snuff out a candle.

Thiano is so wary of me, and I imagine will be for many years to come, if not forever. A deep betrayal from a power you should have been able to count on leaves scars. I personally couldn’t have had any role in whatever happened in his past—the timelines can’t match—but I don’t begrudge him his tests: I will simply be sure to pass.

Every one. As many as it takes.

Let him see that his dedication is a model for my own. I will not abandon my path, or minimize it, or betray it.

Whether he can ever consider me a friend is moot: I consider him one of mine. So he can choose to look away from me, but I will never stop looking for him, to him; after him, if he allows it.

He will never be invisible to me. I will never forget what he’s done for me, from the small gestures to the large, from the scathing moments to the tender ones.

He will never be negligible to me. And not just because of what he’s done or who he is—though those, too; somehow he teaches me even when he’s actively not trying to—but because he is a person. He matters.

I truly believe everyone’s existence matters to the world. Even if I didn’t, though, I would believe Thiano mattered to the world.

I can be absolutely certain he matters to me.

I don’t know how many people’s lives have been affected by his choices and actions. Air can smother flames, but it can also fan them: how many plots has Thiano quietly managed with no one being the wiser? And:

What flames could he fan if he chose not to be quiet?

Whatever he chooses, I will still consider Thiano a friend: I believe in him, even if he does not believe in himself.

But I am not above adding some pressure of my own to the air.

Thiano may dream for the world, but not himself; never himself, unless it is to be enough to see his course through.

So I will dare to dream for him.

I don’t know what cause has driven him all this time, what it is that he safeguards. But it is clear to me that he is currently on the defensive, moderating himself, and I can’t help but wonder:

What could Thiano, on an aggressive offense, do?

What could he risk, if he believed anyone would have his back, and that it would matter?

What if he believed, not that I can help him by performing a tea ceremony that magically transforms him into a happy person, but that I can help him by taking him—his anger and his silences—as he is, and believing in him not despite it all, but because of it?

What could Thiano be, if anyone dared to see him, and believe in him, for who he is—in my perception, not how he thinks people perceive him, or how he thinks they ought to?

I do; I am.

The rest, we’ll find out.

I pour the tea into Thiano’s cup and offer it to him with both hands. Looking directly at him.

He does not meet my gaze.

But he does deliberately reach out to me and takes the cup.

Thiano holds it for a long breath, considering. Even Yorani is still: this moment is for him.

Finally he says, “You give me too much credit.”

“If anything,” I say, “I suspect I may not give you enough.”

His face is like stone, but I see the twitch around his eyes that another time might have been a visible cringe.

At last, like a man who believes the cup is poison, his hand shaking, Thiano chooses.

He sips my tea.

He closes his eyes and bows his head.

Without opening them he says, “I will give you one chance to speak your piece.”

That is what my tea ceremony has won me: a chance; a chance to allow myself to be tested.

This is who he is, and what he needs, and I will always do my best to be a person who can pass tests in his eyes without fail.

I do not hesitate.

“I’m sure you’re aware that yesterday there was an attack on the Cataclysm, deploying Nakrabi technology against the barrier to weaken it. I do not know if you’re aware that the assailants were not Velasari agents, but Nakrabi under illusion magic. Nor did they use magic themselves. While I believe Entero is still tracking them down, I will be shocked if they do not appear just as Cherato’s attendants do, drained of vitality.

“But I also have no evidence that these Nakrabi had any understanding of what they were doing, Thiano. They are sacrifices, because Ambassador Cherato, on behalf of the government of the Isle of Nakrab, does not care about the lives of anyone lesser. We are sacrifices, because he, on behalf of the Nakrabi elite, considers us lesser and thus expendable. Those elite do not allow themselves to be changed or influenced away from who they are: people who will sacrifice the entire world for their own short-term self-interest.

“Cherato is not a person who can be changed. This is not a person you can reason with and expect to hold to promises, but he is also not a person who can be made to care when, not if, he does not. You can undermine him from the shadows, but you cannot stop him alone, because you have limits and he does not. So I am asking you to tell me what I need to know so I can apply systemic power to force limits upon him. Because while you may emerge from this round still standing, someday you will die, and the Nakrabi government will live on. Whatever you are protecting will never be safe unless we make it impossible for them to succeed. Please.”

Thiano’s knuckles around the tiny teacup are so white I almost expect it to explode in his hand, and he is breathing hard, like my words alone have exhausted him.

But steadily now, he lifts the teacup once more and knocks the rest back at once.

Then he looks at me, and his gaze is clear.

There’s anger there, but also a tremendous sadness I don’t know how to compass.

“The Cataclysm,” Thiano says, “was caused by a series of mistakes there were many opportunities to prevent, or correct.”

My heartrate kicks up.

At last, this is it.

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Continue to Chapter 30

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