Royal Tea Service: Chapter 31

Thiano doesn’t invite me into his living area to help him pack whatever necessities he will need.

“Seeing how I live will make you sad,” Thiano says gruffly. “I don’t want that from you.”

My pity, he means. But I leave the matter alone. It turns out he already has a small pack ready in case of such an event, and this makes me sad enough as it is: that he has lived his entire adult life always believing that everything could be taken from him without warning. Not allowing himself to grow attached more than absolutely necessary; always not just preparing for the worst, but expecting it.

While we await Yorani and the Te Muraka envoy’s return, I help Thiano prepare the shop for what I hope will be a temporary leave of absence, unless he wishes to make it permanent. In my case, that means largely putting the shop to order: making a sign to put in the window for customers, paying off outstanding bills, preparing arrangements for expected deliveries.

For Thiano, that means magic.

He still won’t create any magical objects of his own for fear of trapping more spirits into them indefinitely. I assumed that meant he couldn’t work magic beyond what he’d done for my bracelets at all, but I’m proven wrong. The details are more nuanced than I can follow with my non-expert understanding of magical theory, but Thiano can use Nakrabi magical techniques to change the magecraft wards on his shop.

“Could Ambassador Cherato have altered the protections we have on the shop like you just did?” I ask him.

“And on your house? No,” Thiano says, amused. “Firstly, he’d have to contend with the Te Muraka and witchcraft magic layers. Secondly, he has neither the imagination nor the skill.”

I cock my head to one side. “I was under the impression he was a talented magic worker.”

“Oh, he’s plenty competent. But he’s old—much older than me, even—and very set in his ways of thinking about magic. It could never occur to him that such a thing is even possible. And not to put too fine a point on it, but even if it did, there’s a difference between competence and genius.”

“Even after you haven’t been permitted to exercise your skills for years?” I ask.

His smile is sardonic. “Even then. A tremendous part of our training is theoretical exercises. I am more sensible than I was as an adolescent, but I have not lost my edge.”

Thiano lowers the defenses for me to affix a sign to his outermost door, and as he begins to resettle them, a voice calls, “Wait!”

I startle, which for me means freezing completely while my brain processes the sound. Thiano’s reaction is rather more interesting: his gaze goes distant, only for an instant, and I realize he has all at once thought of and prepared a chant to defend us with magic if the situation requires it.

Not lost his edge, indeed. It makes me sorrier that he’s not been able to practice this path he’s devoted so much of himself to.

But after a moment Thiano’s gaze relaxes as he recognizes who’s approaching us. It’s not the Te Muraka we were expecting, and I barely have time to marvel before they’re upon us.

“Sorry,” Glynis says, Ari breathing heavily behind her. “Seemed like a lot of effort to undo that all the way again if you didn’t have to. Can we come in?”


Thiano pulls a gorgeous tea set of Deniel’s craft off his shelf without apparent concern, evidently bemused that somehow association with me has led to his hosting exhausted adolescents.

Ari is practically asleep on their feet, while Glynis’ gaze is overbright: she’s passed the point of tired when her body should have shut down and is running on momentum alone.

I’m close enough to that point myself to recognize it in another.

But for now, I serve them tea as Glynis fills us in on the basics.

“I assume it’s fine if he hears this,” Glynis says, nodding toward Thiano.

“Oh, so he’s fine?” Ari mutters.

I gather I’ve been dropped into an ongoing argument.

Glynis rattles off, “Thiano was demonstrating magic I’ve never seen before, which probably means it was forbidden, and to Miyara, which means he trusts her, which means—”

“Yes, it’s fine,” I interrupt. “I trust Thiano without reservation.”

Glynis blinks; that qualification is apparently further than she expected me to go. She looks over at Thiano, who gestures sardonically, leaving her to make of that what she will. He may be willing to be vulnerable with me, but that’s a specific exception Glynis isn’t party to.

She looks back at me and nods decisively and begins.

If we’d had two Enteros, one of them clearly should have gone with Glynis on this rescue mission—and it would have been eased by a Te Muraka as well. But for ability to navigate any kind of magic and do so with stealth and speed, I could not have chosen better than Glynis.

She’d gotten herself into the palace with only an expected amount of trouble—expected for her, that is; I wouldn’t have known to do half the preparation she had, between disguising herself and arming herself with political information through her messengers’ guild experience and literally getting to Ari—but getting back out with Ari had been more of an adventure.

Politically and magically.

“Istals are definitely part of it,” Glynis says.

“Shocked?” Ari asks me, their expression a challenge—spoiled by a yawn that makes them scowl.

“I am not,” I say seriously. If Istalam had no problems of its own, my grandmother would never have allowed—forced or not—witches to be treated as they have; my mother would never have been trapped into a marriage that caused her to neglect her daughters; Ostario’s skill would never have been disdained due to his origins—

I cut that train of thought off before I can really get going. Clearly, I have a growing list of injustices I intend to correct.

I’ll stop the world from ending first, and then it’ll be time to look toward addressing the root causes here at home that allowed it to come to this.

In case I ever thought I’d run out of work.

“Istalam’s reckoning will come at my hand,” I tell Ari. Their eyes narrow, studying me, and I meet their gaze until finally they appear to accept my conviction, at least for now.

They will see me make this promise a reality. I promised the ambassadors I would hold anyone and everyone accountable, and I will.

I imagine all my sisters will relish the opportunity to clean our house, too.

Glynis resumes her explanation. Apparently the Istal agents in question are primarily concerned with returning everything to how they imagine it once was: an idyllic Istalam with unchallenged power. They’d rather side with Velasar, a historically known quantity, than a world with Gaellani, and Te Muraka, and change that might upset their comfortable power in the slightest even if it would serve others. The same people who would rather see witches persecuted than accept any upset to the status quo uncertainty would bring.

“Probably some of the same people involved with Kustio,” I murmur, glancing sidelong at Thiano.

“No doubt,” he replies dryly, which is as good as a confirmation.

So Glynis and Ari had to avoid the traps set by those Istals working in concert with Velasari interests against their own government, and then to make matters more complicated, Glynis recognized agents of Istalam—which is to say agents of Istalam’s dowager queen and spymaster, my grandmother.

“You’re sure they were Istalam’s?” I ask.

Glynis rolls her eyes. “After learning to recognize Elowyn’s presence in a dark room, trust me, no one else is hard to identify. They were Lady Kireva’s.”

“We should talk about your apprentice, by the by,” Thiano says idly.

I’m sure he has plenty of thoughts about my maybe-tea master, maybe-spy apprentice. “Not now. Glynis, were Lady Kireva’s spies part of the problem?”

“Not the way you mean,” she says. “At least, I have no idea. I just didn’t know if we could trust them, so we had to hide from them too.”

This explains Ari’s earlier ire. “A wise judgment,” I say. “I do not, in fact, know if they can be trusted.”

Glynis tilts her head. “Really? Even though Lady Kireva works for your family?”

My fingers clench on my bracelets.

After a moment, I remember to breathe.

Of course. I should assume everyone knows, now, Glynis first of all. It will take getting used to.

I look at Ari, whose face is impassive for once. They must know now, too, and I can’t imagine they’ve taken this news lightly.

“I’m not sure I trust even my grandmother,” I say evenly. “I’m certain she means well. I’m less certain our ideas of the best course align.”

Glynis’ eyes widen, as she understands what I’ve just told her.

Not just that I don’t fully trust my birth family, though that would be revelation enough. But Glynis only mentioned that Lady Kireva worked for my family: the crown.

Not my grandmother in specific. Glynis will understand what that means of my grandmother’s current role in Istalam.

Ari, I suspect, is too tired to have made the connection. I’m not certain if Glynis will tell them. I look at them with a challenging expression of my own. “Nothing to say about this?”

“Oh, plenty,” Ari says. “Don’t worry on that count. I’m just saving up to take you on when I’m not so tired.”

That gets a surprised laugh out of me, if a hysterically weary one. “Too bad. I’m tired enough myself that you might have caught me off guard.”

Ari and Glynis both snort at that, which is sweet, but Thiano at least understands I’m not wrong.

“Elowyn passed on a message to me,” Glynis said, “about how arcanism works.”

So Elowyn concurred with my assessment after all, and Glynis has already been in touch with the spy teens.

Good.

“I assume you have thoughts,” I say.

“Always,” Glynis says, and Ari snorts again. She shoves them lightly with her short arm.

“I’m afraid your revelations will have to wait,” Thiano says, the barest hint of strain in his voice.

Thiano has locked and covered all the windows, but nevertheless I know this means the Te Muraka have arrived. Out of curiosity, I try to focus on the bracelets to see if I can at least identify Yorani through our connection.

An actual laugh bursts out of Thiano. “Miyara, no. That’s not how anything works.”

I should probably feel proud of myself for getting a laugh out of him, except it wasn’t intentional, or be glad he can laugh at all, though I’d prefer it weren’t at my expense. Instead I throw up my hands.

“Well, how does it work, then?” I ask. “Neither the bracelets nor my familiar came with instructions!”

Thiano shakes his head, shoulders still shaking a little with his amusement, so at least my incompetence on this front isn’t urgent or fatal.

But his smile fades as he lifts the wards and opens the door once more to welcome back Yorani.

And with her comes Sa Rangim himself.

Thiano opens the door wordlessly and steps back to allow Sa Rangim to enter.

Sa Rangim bows to me as he enters, and I return the gesture. But it’s immediately clear this is not the same Sa Rangim I have become accustomed to dealing with.

This is like the Sa Rangim I faced that first time in the Cataclysm.

The door shuts; Thiano settles the wards back into place, and turns.

Sa Rangim turns, putting his back to me, Glynis, and Ari—

Or rather, putting us behind him, and Thiano alone at the door.

I quash the urge to grip my bracelets, glancing at Yorani, who remains seated on Sa Rangim’s shoulder. Thiano is her friend—is she fine with this setup, or does she not realize?

Yorani’s gaze flicks toward mine, then back at Thiano; her tail swishes once in acknowledgement.

So this is on purpose, then.

How to support Thiano without undercutting Sa Rangim?

I turn away from them all as if entirely unconcerned. “Sa Rangim, would you care for tea?”

“That won’t be necessary,” he says.

Just like that, though nothing has changed, it’s like everything has; like his presence in Thiano’s crowded shop is the size of his dragon form.

Thiano says from the doorway, “You’re aware there are debts between us, then.”

“I am not a fool, Thiano of Nakrab,” Sa Rangim says softly. “I have known this long before now.”

Only now, I have opened a way for him to put Thiano in his power.

But I know Sa Rangim, and I know Yorani. Whatever they’re about, torturing Thiano won’t be it. Punishing? Perhaps, since I didn’t. Wouldn’t.

Glynis and Ari are both looking at me wide-eyed; neither of them is fool enough nor so tired they can’t recognize something is amiss. I make a slicing gesture to indicate they should not interfere.

My hands are steady as I pour the tea he refused.

If I have to pour it down both their throats, I will.

“Out of respect for Miyara and the work she is attempting,” Sa Rangim continues, “I will shelter you for now.”

In theory that’s what I wanted, but that sounds… ominous.

“And then?” Thiano asks.

“And then,” Sa Rangim says, “it rather depends on you, Thiano of Nakrab.”

“You want to know the whole story too?” Thiano demands, his most sardonic expression firmly in place. “It won’t help.”

“No, I don’t imagine it would change anything at all,” Sa Rangim says repressively. “No, what I want to know is what you would choose to do if nothing were required of you.”

Spirits, I am tired. Too late I see what he’s about.

Bless Sa Rangim.

“Pardon the interruption,” I say, walking in the middle of them with a tray holding two cups of tea and one bowl. “Thiano, is ‘of Nakrab’ still a moniker you wish to claim?”

He crosses his arms. “I’m an exile and now a known traitor. It is not mine to claim.”

“A traitor only to those who are themselves betraying the isle itself. Perhaps ‘Thiano of the Isle’ would suit?”

A new name; a new role; a new chance.

That’s what Sa Rangim is trying to give him. He’s trying to lead Thiano on a path to make meaningful amends without trapping him in an endless sentence. Thiano can’t forgive himself, and he can’t accept forgiveness except from someone he feels he’s wronged. I can’t be the one to punish him.

Thiano doesn’t answer, me or Sa Rangim. I also can’t force the tea on Sa Rangim before Thiano takes it.

“Yorani, the bowl is for you,” I say. “You may want to warm it a bit. Thiano, I hope you won’t mind. This was on your shelf and looked sturdy.”

“Think nothing of it, that’s only one of the most expensive pieces even your former royal Highness has ever touched in your life,” Thiano says.

“I knew you wouldn’t mind when it was for Yorani.”

His stasis breaks; Thiano steps forward. “Do you need my answer now?” he asks Sa Rangim.

“Say rather I will under no circumstances accept it now,” Sa Rangim says. “Consider well, because when you decide your position, I will call you to account for it. And you will decide before you leave my protection.”

Which might mean when he chooses to rescind that protection and force Thiano into a decision, but I can’t dislike the stipulation entirely. Thiano has had a series of shocks tonight, and there are likely more to come—and he’ll have a better answer for what he can or should choose once he’s spent more time with the Te Muraka.

Thiano steps forward and picks up one of the teacups. “I’ll drink to that.”

Never breaking eye contact with him, Sa Rangim carefully picks up the other cup. In tandem, they lift their cups, and down them in one gulp.

“You’re allowed to taste it, you know,” I say. “I assure you its flavor is palatable.”

Thiano snorts. “Some moments merit a different approach.”

“Are you insulting my tea, or my manners?”

“Okay, I have missed too many things,” Glynis declares. “Someone better be planning to fill me in.”

Sa Rangim steps aside at last so we can all face each other. “Thiano has chosen to turn his back on the Nakrabi government, who are responsible for our troubles with the Cataclysm. He will apply for asylum acknowledging information he possessed while spying, like that he was aware of the Te Muraka’s situation with Kustio.”

Ari looks like they’re struggling to wake up and process all that while Glynis blinks rapidly. “Oh,” she says, “is that all.”

“There’s also the bit that Thiano is a genius with Nakrabi magic,” I add while Thiano rolls his eyes.

But his shoulders ease a bit. Spirits bless Sa Rangim again, for taking on the burden of deciding how to present Thiano’s situation, and doing so, so Thiano isn’t forced right away to choose to bare his vulnerabilities again and again, but in a way that it won’t feel like a reprieve to him.

I can’t speak to Sa Rangim privately right now or do anything to show my gratitude without Thiano picking up on it, so I ignore it—for now.

“Glynis, do you know where Iryasa is? I need to get her started on the narrative for Thiano’s asylum proceedings.”

Sa Rangim opens his mouth to answer me but shuts it at a look from me as Glynis rattles off, “Yeah, she’s at Taresim. Need me to take her a message?”

Sa Rangim’s keen gaze focuses on her sharply, flicking to me only briefly before resuming studying her like a puzzle. Because of course Sa Rangim might know where Iryasa is, but why should Glynis, who’s only just returned to Sayorsen?

“No, I’ll go myself,” I answer. “I need you to go with Sa Rangim and Thiano now—”

“What? Why?”

“Indeed,” Sa Rangim says. “The danger to Ari I can infer, but Glynis?”

“I don’t know that she’s in danger,” I say. “It’s possible that she will be now that she’s successfully extracted Ari. But this way I can send one guest who may be a mitigating influence on the others, and at the very least won’t try to drive your people away with sarcasm.”

“Hey,” Ari protests half-heartedly, interrupted by a yawn.

Amused, Thiano says, “I think even Ari may be too tired for that tonight.”

Sa Rangim says dryly, “We will, of course, be happy to welcome them both.”

“I should check in with my family,” Glynis says, though she sounds a little glum about it.

“Will a message do for now? What I started to say is that I need you to talk to Thiano about how Nakrabi magic works. You’re the best at putting together different pieces of magic, and I think it’s going to take all of us together to solve this.”

Glynis looks surprised. “Me?”

I take her meaning instantly—if she were less exhausted, she wouldn’t have let it slip. But she’s really surprised not to be an afterthought, or in the way; to be valued and specifically chosen as part of a team for contributions she can make that are unique.

But Ari snorts. “‘Me?'” they mimic. “Yes, you, the person who’s been learning magic for only weeks and just singlehandedly orchestrated an extraction operation while avoiding professional agents from at least two different political factions.”

“I mean, I know I can do magic stuff at all,” Glynis says. “But that’s not the same as being the best.”

Ari rolls their eyes. “You really have a complex about being the best.”

“Oh, you want to talk about complexes—”

Children,” Thiano scorns, in just the right tone of voice to cut them both off immediately.

Before they can refocus their outrage on him, I put in quickly, “Tomorrow morning, get the magic team together to see what you can figure out.”

“About what, specifically?” Glynis asks.

“Why do you think Ari is here?” I ask her. “We’re going to fix the Cataclysm and the world.”

“Oh,” Ari says this time, completely deadpan, “is that all.”


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Continue to Chapter 32


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