Royal Tea Service: Chapter 33

The question in my mind is not whether Karisa has been kidnapped. All things considered, that conclusion seems plain. The question is the specific circumstances.

I don’t know if her captors are treating her like a valued political hostage or are planning to make her an object lesson.

I don’t know if Karisa is alone. I don’t know if Taseino is with her, and I don’t know if anyone has found Elowyn.

Tamak, Entero, and Yorani have the best chance of anyone at locating my nigh-invisible apprentice, and all three have already been enlisted in the search.

Ari sends more transmissions out at my direction to members of Ostario’s team to convey as appropriate: one to ask Deniel to stay inside our magically fortified home temporarily, for instance, and likewise to the foreign ambassadors and their staff. I suspect these precautions will prove unnecessary, but greater vigilance is in our collective best interest until we know more.

But after that? Until I have more answers, there is little I can do. So I do what I can, and prepare for what I do know will be coming imminently, beginning with setting a large kettle on.

I’m not surprised when Iryasa bursts in.

I’m only a little surprised that she’s followed by both Reyata and Saiyana—and no one else. Which means she expects this conversation to go badly for me.

Lorwyn swears under her breath, and Glynis and Ari have both gone very, very still.

All the elder daughters of Queen Ilmari of Istalam have gathered in this room like a storm, and sooner or later, lightning will strike. It’s a matter of when, not if, and the crown princess wastes no time.

“Tell me how this happened, Miyara,” Iryasa begins flatly. “Tell me how a foreign government has kidnapped our youngest sister on your watch, tell me why you didn’t think this merited my attention, and tell me how you think you’re fixing this.”

And we’re back to that: you, not we. Not unexpected under the circumstances, I suppose.

At least she hasn’t bothered demanding Lorwyn, Glynis, or Ari leave the room. They all hold still anyway, wisely wary of being caught in the middle of a princess throwdown, but Iryasa has the wits to know that any plan of mine is likely to involve them.

I begin, “You seem to have come by some information—”

“Don’t even start with that,” Iryasa says coldly. “I am not sharing any information or sources with you until you have proven yourself deserving of them.”

“Do you know if she’s safe?” I ask anyway.

No reaction. She’s mentally prepared herself for a confrontation with me, and when she’s careful I can’t read that masking as good news or bad.

Fine, then.

I pour the water from the kettle.

“Miyara,” Saiyana growls.

“I don’t actually take orders from any of you,” I say coolly. “This will go far more smoothly once you remember that.”

“Are you kidding me right now?” Saiyana demands. “If you try to calm us down with tea I am going to dump that pot over your spirits cursed head!”

“Try it,” Lorwyn says just as coolly.

They hold each other’s gaze, and the tension in the room somehow ratchets higher.

I expected Saiyana’s anger. She has tacitly backed my plays to Iryasa this whole time, she’s trusted me to manage while she couldn’t, and now she thinks I’ve betrayed her faith. I can’t be happy at this reaction from her, but I understand it.

“Miyara.”

This time it’s Reyata. Meeting her eyes is somehow harder, because until this moment, she was the one sister I’d never known to be disappointed in me.

She doesn’t say any more than my name. She doesn’t have to.

I was prepared for anger and disappointment from everyone, or so I thought, but somehow not quite from her.

I look away, not responding and instead focusing on breathing steadily, and pour each cup carefully.

“Ah,” Iryasa says, her voice cutting, “a show of calm. Strange that you think that will in turn calm me when in fact it is quite the opposite.”

My sister takes a single step forward.

That’s it, and yet it’s as if the whole room freezes. She’s entirely commanded the atmosphere purely by choosing to wield her presence.

I’m almost envious. That skill, or rather its lack, very nearly prevented my tea mastery. I am glad to know she can produce this on command: she will need it, in the future.

But not here.

“I am calm,” I say, looking at each of my sisters in turn. “The show was, indeed, for you, as remains the tea, whenever you choose to drink it. I am calm because I can finally see the shape of this whole pattern, and for once I am confident that I am handling it.”

“Handling it?” Iryasa drops her own pretense of calm in outrage. “Our youngest sister is kidnapped and defenseless—”

“Are you kidding?” I demand. “Defenseless? Have you met Karisa?”

Saiyana growls, “Being a brat isn’t a defense, Miyara.”

“Of course it’s a defense,” I snap. “That’s exactly what it is, and it’s an offense as well, and she’s so good at deploying it none of us realized for years she was managing us on purpose.”

Saiyana’s whole expression shutters, shutting down like mine is trained to as well as her weary mind processes the implications of that.

She isn’t fast enough. Iryasa doesn’t miss a beat, voice dripping sarcasm. “Oh, what a convenient justification for you to suddenly come to that understanding now when she’s at risk and people are angry with you.”

“No, I came to that understanding before Karisa and I hatched a plan together that has been unfolding under your nose,” I say coolly.

Silence.

The tension in the room snaps.

It doesn’t lessen, though—it just changes.

“You know I haven’t told you everything,” I say to Iryasa, “and I have made a very careful point of that for this precise reason. Karisa not only has a role in this endeavor, it relied on her being able to manipulate Cherato’s impression of her. His understanding was in turn informed by how we behaved around her. The best way to make sure your actions were predictable to her was to leave your understanding of who Karisa is and what she’s capable of the way it has always been. And that is not my fault.”

Reyata crosses her arms. “Do you think it’s our fault for believing what you claim she wished us to believe?”

“Yes,” I say. “And mine as well. We should have seen who she is, and who she needed us to be for her, long ago. That being her sisters.”

“Oh, that is rich, coming from you,” Iryasa whispers, “when you are telling us that you have set our youngest sister to spying on the most dangerous ambassador, on her own—”

“With a team,” I correct, “but otherwise, yes.”

“And yet she’s been kidnapped—”

“Yes, she has,” I say calmly, waiting for Iryasa to understand.

It ripples across her face, realization and anger and astonishment. “From the very beginning,” she says slowly, “you made that declaration that Saiyana hated immediately—what was it, about not accepting anyone getting hurt—”

Be they members of ambassadorial staff or a princess, I said, understand I will tolerate no harm coming to anyone in this room.

“So I did, I say softly.

Iryasa’s gaze snaps into focus on mine. “You knew,” she breathes. “You knew—”

“Knew, what, that I would during these proceedings push the Nakrabi ambassador, a person we knew would be powerful and representing a nation whose tech had clearly been deployed against the Cataclysm and that Istalam has virtually no diplomatic leverage over nor understanding of, to a point where they would feel threatened by my unwillingness to allow them to skirt responsibility and would retaliate by attempting to demonstrate their control?”

I take a breath. “Yes, Iryasa, obviously I knew their kidnapping Karisa was a possibility because it was designed to be. Karisa and I deliberately devised a strategy to make her bait, so that the pushback from this powerful, unpredictable corner would be predictable. Meanwhile she has been spying on him all along, and if she’s been kidnapped it is because she has allowed herself to be, believing she will be able to learn more from it.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Saiyana asks. “If Cherato has known all along what she’s been up to, and if Karisa is not there by her own design, but because she was caught?”

“That is why the first thing I asked you when you arrived was for information,” I say. “It is why, as I imagine you have already tried to track Karisa by her security bracers and found the magecraft negated by Nakrabi magic, those most likely to be able to pick up her trail have already been dispatched to secure more information, which we will then use to adapt a plan.”

“A plan,” Iryasa says flatly. “A plan where you risk our sister.”

“A plan where my sister chooses to risk herself, because she has her own free will,” I say. “But yes, I too will risk her, as I am risking all of us, because we are facing the literal apocalypse, Iryasa. You came here wanting to take real-world risks, well, here you go. They don’t get realer than this.”

This time, when I look at all my sisters in turn, they are silent.

I lift the tea tray and carry it to the surface nearest to where my sisters stand—a stack of boxed ingredients—feeling a twist in my gut as Lorwyn, without a word between us, reheats it with witchcraft.

“So yes, I am calm, Iryasa.” I hand a cup to each sister, one at a time. “I still believe in our people. That includes Karisa, and Elowyn, and Tamak, and Yorani. It includes myself, and it includes everyone in this room. So here. Have some tea, tell me where your news of the kidnapping came from, and let’s begin to plan our next step in saving the world, and our sister only if she needs it.”

Saiyana doesn’t hesitate, knocking her teacup back like she’s starved for thirst, or faith. It is just as likely wakefulness she’s starved for, so I try not to think much of it.

Reyata waits until I’m watching her before drinking her own teacup, the gesture hiding her face. With a resigned sigh, Iryasa follows suit.

There.

“The thing you have to remember about Miyara,” Lorwyn notes idly where she leans against her desk, “is that she has nerves of witchcraft.”

My sisters stare at her in unison.

Saiyana says, “Look, I swear I’m not trying to be offensive, but I have had a long I don’t even know how many days, and all I’m coming up with is that witchcraft has a reputation for being capricious and undependable.”

Lorwyn grins, and there’s more than a hint of shark in it. “Immutable unless she wills them differently on purpose.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” I say.

“No, it isn’t,” Reyata says.

My warrior sister. I meet her gaze, and this time it’s clear the coolness has morphed into approval, and something in me unclenches.

Iryasa regards cup thoughtfully. “Perhaps you should consider a marketing slogan, if you’re going to keep at it like this,” she says. “‘Maybe tea will help’. Or ‘tea fixes everything’.”

“Oh good, business advice from the crown princess,” Lorwyn says. “Talmeri will love it.”

Iryasa actually rolls her eyes and says dryly to Glynis and Ari, “It’s safe to come over now, I’m no longer preparing to bite.”

Taking charge of bringing people together, and leading by example. My breath this time is a great deal easier.

“Thank you for that distressing image,” Glynis says, unflappable as ever.

But as tough as she is, her mask isn’t as rock-solid as those of the princesses of Istalam, and I can see the coolness is an effort. Planned or no, Karisa is at risk, Glynis’ friends are missing, and all the princesses of Istalam along with Sayorsen’s tea master just threw down in front of her with no attendance to propriety.

Glynis is smart and tough, but she’s still a teenager, and that’s a lot.

Spirits, it’s a lot for me, though I suppose I’m not truly that far out of adolescence myself. Glynis has had a solid career as a messenger longer than I’ve had solid anything—and of course I came into her life and began upending her comfortable system with magic.

Fortunately, Glynis hasn’t minded yet.

By some unspoken agreement we all stay in the back. Even though there are no customers and we have magic aplenty at our disposal to block the windows to keep us from being on display, the front is for facing the world, and the back is for us.

We stack boxes as needed so everyone has something to sit on, and only Ari looks a little wild around the eyes at being part of such a circle—the company, and the informality of it.

I think exposure to me has inured Lorwyn at last.

Tea disseminated, Iryasa’s information comes out.

The first critical piece is that Ambassador Cherato sent a ransom note for Karisa directly to Iryasa.

“Yes, of course I realized he was trying to cause trouble between us to give himself more room to maneuver,” Iryasa says before I’ve finished considering commenting on this. “I know what he’s witnessed from us in negotiations. Just because I know what a narrative is doing doesn’t prevent it from working. My sister was kidnapped, and you did know about it and hadn’t told me—that was all true.”

“Did the ambassador tell you that I knew?” I ask.

Iryasa shakes her head. “No. That much I reasoned on my own.”

She casts a wry glance my way, and I return a half-grin.

My eldest sister has learned what I’m like after all.

What’s more interesting is her next piece of information: that the ransom note was delivered via Nakrabi magic. As Iryasa and Reyata were visiting the Te Muraka compound when it arrived, my sister had the presence of mind to ask Thiano what he could tell her.

“Not much,” Saiyana says with a scowl.

“The most important information,” Reyata disagrees. “He could tell us that Karisa is safe.”

“How?” Glynis asks.

“Magically, how,” I clarify.

“The note,” Iryasa explains. “Because it came via Nakrabi magic and the spirits were already trapped, Thiano was able to convert the object to another use. Apparently there was very little power to work with, however, which is why he was only able to gain that information.”

“Do we know if a note sent like that normally would have used more power?” Ari asks.

It’s a good question: that tells us whether Cherato is hoarding power.

Iryasa nods. “Apparently so. Its power was almost used up by the time I put it in Thiano’s hands—he had to work quickly, so there wasn’t time to debate what information he should attempt to come by.”

“A location seems pretty obvious,” Saiyana growls.

I shake my head. “No, Karisa’s immediate safety is the most important determinant to our next step. If we didn’t have that, we’d have to act more drastically without time to prepare. This way, we have time to determine her location ourselves.”

Iryasa considers me. “Thiano thought you’d see it that way. He’s learned a lot from you, hasn’t he?”

That question is coming from her crown princess side more than her elder sister side. “I’ve learned as much from him.”

She nods, thoughtful. “The trigger for the kidnapping is likely to have been that, too, isn’t it? Not just the pressure you exerted in negotiations yesterday, but also that he’s aware of Thiano’s defection. He needs to exert pressure on us in turn to buy himself time, but for what?”

“We may not know the specifics, but the broad shape of his intention can be inferred,” I say. “He’s planning to ransack the barrier and unleash the Cataclysm unless we can figure out how to stop him.”

Iryasa’s eyes widen. “Do we have time, then?”

“Yes,” Reyata answers. “The ambassador wouldn’t be bothering to expend power he’d prefer to hoard on delaying tactics if he didn’t need to buy time.”

“But how much?” Ari asks. “How much time does Karisa have?”

“That’s it exactly,” Iryasa says, her hands clenching, and she meets my gaze. “Karisa is not expendable, but neither is the world.”

Ah, now I understand better her distress upon arrival. She thought I’d forced her into a position where she’d have to choose between her duty and her love.

I can’t deny I’m relieved she considers neither an acceptable sacrifice and moreover is willing to admit it.

“You won’t have to choose,” I say steadily. “I promise.”

All my sisters’ eyes narrow in unison, and I burst out laughing. “No, not because I’m planning on taking on the burden of choosing for you, either!”

“Wow,” Lorwyn says dryly, “you really are related. That you all knew right away why that statement from Miyara should be suspect—”

“There was a great deal of similarity in our educations,” Saiyana drawls. “Also, at this point we’ve clearly all met our sister.”

“I love you too,” I say, still smiling as she rolls her eyes.

“Is Thiano still with the Te Muraka?” Glynis asks.

Reyata answers, “No, he and Sa Rangim joined Ostario at the barrier to help defend him against any attacks from the Nakrabi delegation, since Thiano knows how their magic works and the Te Muraka can eat it.”

“Oh,” Glynis says with a slightly dumbfounded look, like a piece of a puzzle has just slotted into place for her. “That is a good idea. And Sa Nikuran and Risteri and the rest of the Te Muraka-guide teams are patrolling, I’m guessing?”

Reyata blinks, considering her. “Yes, we can call on them there if we think of anything more they can do. Are you a tactician then, too?”

“She’s good with patterns,” I put in blandly before Glynis can answer.

Both of them look at me and then back at each other, as if deciding whether to accept my intervention at face value and leave it alone.

Saiyana sighs, breaking the détente.

Backing me tacitly again once more.

I make a point of breathing normally so no one will see my sigh of immense relief.

“I should get back to the barrier, too,” Saiyana says.

“Since you’ve been gone this long already, can you spare a few more minutes?” I ask her.

“For what? We’re not making a plan here.”

“I suspect more pertinent information will be arriving soon,” I explain.

Her eyes narrow. “How soon?”

“Oh,” Glynis says, “give it about five seconds.”

Saiyana frowns at her, as does Reyata, but before anyone says anything the back door flies open.

Yorani flies in first, her tail lashing. She’s followed by Tamak, in human form but gaze entirely black, and Entero, expression carefully neutral, each supporting a visibly beaten Taseino.

And no sign whatsoever of Elowyn or Karisa.


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Continue to Chapter 34


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