At the sight of Taseino’s condition, Saiyana swears and lurches into motion. “So much for no one in that room being harmed,” she grimly casts back at me over her shoulder.
Before I can respond, Taseino lifts his head. His face looks so awful I struggle to focus on his words as he somehow manages, “That’s what they want you to think. Karisa was unharmed and in control of the situation when I last saw her, and I have no reason to believe that’s changed.”
“Even though you look like this?” Saiyana demands.
Taseino says wryly—spirits that expression somehow makes his face look even worse—”Whose idea do you think this was?”
It’s like the whole room pauses, processing that.
Saiyana frowns. “Wait. Karisa got you beaten up?”
“To get you away from the Nakrabi delegation,” I realize. “She wasn’t confident they wouldn’t harm you worse if you were in their power?”
Taseino tries to nod, winces, and stops. “Yeah. We’re much smoother at infiltration than emergency escape plans. But it worked, and she’s fine, and I’ll live.”
I close my eyes for a moment. It’s one thing to have faith in people, and another to see people I’ve allowed to put themselves in danger show up at my door severely beaten.
It worked. She’s fine. He’ll live.
Not good enough by half. I need to do so much better.
But this isn’t the time to second-guess whether I’m deploying my power correctly or could have done so differently; this is the time to do what I am here in this world to do.
“You’ll only if you start talking,” Saiyana growls, but still reaches toward him while most of the rest of the room breathes a little easier at this news. But he certainly has all of our undivided attention.
Then Ari steps between Saiyana and Taseino. “Save your power and focus for the barrier.”
She frowns at them. “You know what to do?”
They roll their eyes. “I’m a self-trained mage, your Highness. Trust me, I know a thing or two about healing injuries.”
Saiyana snorts, but she does step back. “Hey Miyara, remember when I thought you should work with me on Istalam’s behalf?”
What’s this now? “Yes,” I say cautiously.
“I take it back,” my sister says firmly. “Everyone you spend any time with stops being intimidated by me. My entire process would collapse.”
Reyata barks out a laugh.
“In that case, I told you so,” I say. “Now please come sit on this nice comfortable stack of boxes with me before you keel over.”
“I’m not going to keel over.”
“You look like you’re going to keel over, and it would be stupid to expend energy looking sturdier when you could just sit down.”
“Or you could ignore how I look—” Saiyana breaks off as Iryasa takes her by the shoulders and propels her to the nearest stack of boxes.
“Sit,” the crown princess orders.
Saiyana scowls. “Fine. But only under protest.”
“Your lack of self-preservation is duly noted,” Iryasa says coolly, and Saiyana twitches as the room quiets again.
“Now,” my eldest sister says. “If we could return to the matter of our kidnapped sister?”
“And both our missing teammates,” Glynis puts in. “Tamak, Elowyn wasn’t there?”
“Taseino should start,” Tamak grinds out, and his voice is definitely closer to a growl than I’m entirely comfortable with.
Entero appears to share my concern; his gaze flicks quickly to mine in acknowledgment and back. He releases his hold on Taseino but doesn’t go far, ready in case he needs to intervene.
As the potential for disaster involves a prodigy who can turn into a dragon, I strongly hope he does not need to intervene.
And maybe it will in fact be fine, because Tamak stays right where he is, supporting Taseino, who doesn’t look concerned at all and is certainly intelligent enough to be, even with the distraction of pain.
“Elowyn is still trailing Karisa,” Taseino says, “or at least she was when I last saw her. The Nakrabi hadn’t recognized her presence yet.”
I take a deep breath. Thank the spirits. We’re not done here yet, but I’m glad of at least some concretely positive news I can convey to Deniel. He has faith in his sister, but confirmation is still to be desired.
Iryasa glances at me. “Isn’t Elowyn your apprentice in tea mastery?”
No way around this now. “Yes. She has excellent judgment and also an uncanny ability to go unnoticed in plain sight. Better even than I ever managed. It’s not actually magic, but it might as well be.”
Glynis’ head tilts to one side, like she’s considering that, but keeps her mouth shut.
“So Elowyn’s role is to keep an eye on our sister and sneak messages away to you as needed?” Iryasa clarifies.
“Essentially, yes,” I say. “But it’s Taseino who’s coordinating their operations.”
Iryasa’s eyes narrow back on Taseino. “And yet he is here, having been rescued after a fashion by the princess in his charge, and I gather that while Tamak expected to be able to locate Elowyn somehow he has failed.”
Oh dear. “You’re gathering quite a lot when you could wait for persons with knowledge to report on actuality.”
“Am I wrong?” She gestures with false magnanimity at Taseino. “Do go on, then.”
Taseino nods—Ari has apparently restored the relevant muscles for that sufficiently—and continues as if he’s not reporting to an angry crown princess. “Last night Karisa was convinced Ambassador Cherato was up to something, and we decided to make a play. When Elowyn signaled to me that Karisa’s strategy looked to be going sideways, I interrupted as planned, which has previously been effective. But it quickly became evident that Cherato’s method of operation has shifted drastically: the techniques I’ve used to manage him previously were not only ineffective, he moved straight to deploying a magical trap.”
“Really,” I say, distracted from his circumstances despite myself. “I’d thought the ambassador was hoarding magic.”
“That’s Karisa’s doing, too,” Taseino says. “It looked like the Nakrabi were going to take me hostage for Karisa’s good behavior, with the strong implication that this would be accomplished through magic and I might never recover. She convinced them otherwise, to disable me physically to prevent me from interfering but not do any permanent harm to avoid what she presented as a potential overreaction from Miyara.”
“So the ambassador doesn’t really believe I’ll be upset about anyone’s fate but Karisa’s,” I realize.
Taseino’s eyes flash with anger, and I realize something else: Karisa likely thinks the opposite. Or is trying to convince herself that the opposite isn’t true.
Spirits, that makes this whole endeavor a greater act of bravery on her part.
“Yes,” Taseino says tightly. “Karisa and I managed to plant enough doubt to get me beaten up, and eventually I lost consciousness. Yorani apparently did something to bring me around, though none of us know what.”
We all look over at where my familiar is perched on a high stack of boxes, looking angry and not at all tired.
My familiar can focus other people’s consciousness. That’s… perhaps not so surprising, given both what she is and who I am, but it’s certainly interesting.
“Tamak, do you want to explain this next part?” Taseino asks, looking back with a bit of a wince at the movement.
Tamak’s eyes flash red before returning to all black.
And then, miraculously, back to normal human eyes.
More than one person in the room glances at me to see what I’m making of this, and I keep my expression entirely unconcerned, as if this is not at all worth a moment of worry.
The people in the room being who they all are, this also tells them that I am not, in fact, perfectly calm, but likewise that drawing attention to this development would be a mistake in the current situation.
Then Tamak looks from Iryasa to me, and I realize, for all Tamak’s magical and emotional maturity, what must be even more complicated for him to reveal under these circumstances to a person embarking on a relationship with the head of the Te Muraka whom he is answerable to.
“If I may?” I ask Tamak, who clenches his jaw but nods sharply. “Tamak and Elowyn have the beginning of a unique bond,” I explain delicately. “Given their youth comparative to when a Te Muraka would normally be capable of embarking on a mating bond, Tamak paused their bond and, with Sa Rangim’s approval, developed a way to externalize it in the form of a device Elowyn can choose to carry. This way he and Elowyn can make sure they are practicing active consent for all the current potential effects of the bond before they decide if they will pursue further ones.”
“That is a lot of very careful phrasing,” Iryasa says softly.
I shrug. “The existence of their bond has become relevant to current political events, and I think it’s also important for you to know that it’s being handled responsibly. I have complete faith in both Elowyn and Tamak, and Sa Rangim, Deniel—that is, Elowyn’s older brother; I’ve forgotten if you knew of their relationship—and I are aware of more particulars of exactly how. The details of their relationship, however, are not your business.”
Iryasa considers me, then Tamak, and finally nods thoughtfully. “Very well. The bond is how you intended to find her, then?”
Tamak takes a breath to steady himself.
Then he reveals a bracelet he’s had clutched in one hand.
My heart aches just looking at it. Bracelets are so many things in my life now.
“Yes. Elowyn took the bracelet off for the first time and left it with Taseino. Then she must have waited until she was some distance away to try to catch my attention with the bond. It… I didn’t design the device to be activated remotely like that. I could tell something was strange with the bond, but not that it was with her side rather than with me.” Tamak’s gaze drops. “She apparently wanted to make sure I found Taseino, but not her.”
“Elowyn knew you would come for her,” I say, glossing this out loud in case he didn’t understand. “But the situation with Nakrab has changed in a way you didn’t have plans for, and she wouldn’t want to risk you being caught or injured either because we don’t know enough. If Cherato had realized he was being tracked, he might have done something drastic.”
“More drastic than kidnapping a foreign princess, you mean,” Saiyana drawls.
“Yes,” I say seriously. “Because that we knew was a possibility. Tamak, this means you can’t track Elowyn’s whereabouts directly for the foreseeable future, correct?”
He nods tightly, like he doesn’t trust himself to speak. Oh, but this must be so hard for him, but with our audience and the immediate problem this isn’t the time to counsel him.
“Then we’ll have to hope Elowyn managed to follow Karisa without getting caught, and she’ll get word to us when it’s safe to do so or when she must. Glynis, you know how she’ll leave messages while Taseino is recovering?”
Taseino answers first, “Ari’s got me patched up enough that I can go out again.”
“Only if you don’t get beaten up again,” Ari warns. “The second anyone lands even a pinch on you, you are going to drop like a stone.”
“Also,” Taseino bulls ahead, “before the beating, we did get some information you might find useful.”
Saiyana makes a strangled noise at this buried lede, but Reyata notes, “You have a good head for reporting priority.”
He began with Karisa being fine, then explained the circumstances to confirm that and why we shouldn’t or couldn’t locate her immediately, first, with perfect consideration of his audience’s concerns.
“I have been learning,” Taseino says dryly, and I almost smile and cry at the same time, because I know he means here, at the tea shop, with me. “The gist is this: Cherato figured out about their missing tech—Tamak, before you ask, I don’t know how they finally recognized your decoy or what took them so long—”
“What’s this now?” Iryasa asks.
Lorwyn answers, “The spy teens stole a piece of Nakrabi tech for Glynis, Tamak, and I to experiment with. Now we’re saving it to test a more developed version of Glynis’ theory about how to release spirits trapped in Nakrabi machines.”
Iryasa blinks at her slowly and finally echoes, “The spy teens.”
Iryasa closes her eyes for one moment, takes one breath to process everything Lorwyn’s statement contained, and then looks back at Taseino. “My apologies. You were saying?”
This, finally, abashes him slightly. “Basically the Nakrabi are afraid Miyara is arranging to destroy all their tech, which they’ll need for their plan. So kidnapping Karisa is intended to keep Miyara from moving against them, since they assume her being your younger sister makes her impossibly precious.”
“That strange fixation on youth again,” I murmur.
Taseino nods. “Also the fascination with deception. The fact that the two of you pretended so well not to be sisters convinced him you must care about her a great deal.”
“Well,” I allow, “he’s not wrong about that.”
“But he thinks having kidnapped Karisa allows them to do whatever they want, because you won’t make any moves that might risk her wellbeing,” Taseino says. “And he is wrong about that.”
“Well,” I say again into the chilly silence that has filled the room at this pronouncement, “yes. But that’s because I’m both sneakier than he gives me credit for and also know my sister’s worth extends beyond her youth and fantastic ability to lie.”
Taseino smiles slightly. “I know. So?”
“I’m thinking,” I say.
“Think faster,” Iryasa says, “or I will take it out of your hands.”
I ignore her and cross the room to Taseino, still supported by Tamak. I lean down and give him a very gentle hug.
“Thank you for keeping her safe,” I say softly in his ear.
He blinks rapidly, shaking his head. “I didn’t. She’s still—”
“Exactly where she means to be,” I say, pulling back. “And yes, you did. I can’t make you believe it, but all the same know that I do.”
Taseino looks sideways at me. “You could absolutely make me believe it.”
I smile and straighten. “No. Because if I did, it would remove the meaning behind the knowing.”
Then I turn to Tamak and say, “And you did well, too.”
Tamak scowls. “I did even less.”
I step in closer. “I don’t know everything about your bond, but I have some understanding of what it is costing you to stay like this until you know what Elowyn needs from you,” I say. “I see you, and I acknowledge what you’re accomplishing. Thank you.”
Tamak bows his head, clenching his fists around the bracelet, and I turn back to the room, positioning myself like a shield so Taseino and Tamak are both behind me.
I survey the present members of my team in saving the world.
Ari has plopped down at Taseino’s feet, taking a break from their ministrations, while Glynis is looking around constantly, as if trying to take in every piece of information and fit it into a pattern. My sisters, meanwhile—Saiyana hunched, Iryasa standing with feigned calm, and Reyata looming behind her—all manage to look as menacing as Cataclysm predators.
Entero has stood down, sort of, except he is now angled specifically to shield Lorwyn if she needs it. Not that she will, but I am glad that she now has a person in her life who will absolutely do whatever he can to protect her, even if it’s a matter of dragons or princesses. For too long no one would have stood for her. Now, she can afford not to look over her shoulder and focus her attention on what’s ahead—and trusting another person, and me specifically, to come out with a plan she can participate in without qualm.
As with Thiano’s tests, I will always endeavor to be worthy of her esteem.
This is the path I’ve dedicated myself to.
And this is why it matters:
“Before anything else, we are going to locate Karisa and Elowyn and determine their safety,” I announce.
Iryasa says, “I know it isn’t ideal, but I think Thiano can use his magic to find Karisa faster than anything else we can do.”
I shake my head. “No. We still aren’t sure what that would do to the spirits, and I trust Karisa to manage her current situation. We’ll find another way.”
It is a mark of how far we’ve all come that the crown princess of Istalam does not argue with my flat refusal, or surety, or leadership—and nor does anyone else—and instead simply asks, “How?”
“I don’t think you’ve yet met Aleixo,” I say.
“The former Velasari spy you turned? No, but I understand he’s still being held in Sayorsen. What of him?”
“I want you to release him,” I say.
At this Iryasa frowns. “Since it’s your suggestion, I’ll consider it. But tell me why—and I don’t mean your assessment of his character.”
“Because between Thiano’s knowledge of how Nakrab works, Aleixo’s inside knowledge of their operations in Istalam, and everything Entero has learned of them, I am confident they will be able to locate Karisa.”
Entero speaks for the first time. “Thiano and Aleixo’s knowledge would speed the process considerably. They can provide the context necessary to sort out what I already know but haven’t yet determined how it fits.”
“I can help too,” Glynis says.
“And me,” Tamak rumbles.
“I’m failing to see,” Iryasa says, “why the prisoner needs to be free for you to have access to his information.”
Entero frowns, trying to think how to explain. “Spies intuitively know a lot more than we typically have a reason to find words for or even awareness of. I might not know the right question to ask for Aleixo to know what information I need from him. And there’s plenty that is more effectively communicated by doing. Since Miyara vouches for his character, he’d be a great asset for this.”
“You were a spy for Istalam, were you not?” Iryasa asks him directly.” Entero nods. “How does Aleixo’s skill compare to yours?”
“We have different specialties. As a former soldier, Aleixo has more experience with logistics and with working with a team.”
Blandly, Entero says, “I was an assassin, your Highness.”
This time it’s Lorwyn who shifts in front of him—another person no one would ever have defended, once.
That ‘was’ in regards to his assassin career being in the past fills me with joy, too.
“I see,” Iryasa says.
Entero considers that and adds, “At your grandmother’s direction.”
That gets a few double takes around the room, and Iryasa’s eyes narrow immediately. “I’m certain you don’t have permission to speak of that publicly.”
“I don’t consider our current crowd public,” Entero says, raising an eyebrow. “I’m also certain there won’t be any consequences.”
He doesn’t glance at me, but I grin appreciatively anyway. Entero is indeed learning how this game is played, and what his outward confidence that there won’t be consequences will communicate to Iryasa, both about him, and about his relationship with the Dowager Queen.
“Between them,” I say, bringing us back to the point, “they will find Karisa, determine her situation, and prepare to extract her if necessary. But—” I direct this specifically at Entero, and in so doing make it clear I expect him to be running this—”treat Karisa as the competent operative she is. If she signals not to extract her, then leave her be.”
“Explain,” Iryasa orders.
“They will have a plan to extract her by force immediately if necessary,” I say. “Tamak, I am relying on you for that.”
He nods shortly, color flashing in his eyes.
“But if it’s not necessary, Entero and Aleixo will have time to create an extraction plan with more stealth.”
“The advantage of that being?” Iryasa asks.
Reyata answers her. “Stealth is safer. In a big magic confrontation, there’s always a greater risk of casualties. That’s even truer in this case, since we don’t know what Nakrab’s magic is capable of.”
“And,” Saiyana puts in almost grudgingly, “if you don’t have to act immediately, then you can set the scene. Choose the stage for the confrontation for maximum effect.”
Iryasa frowns at me. “You want to put Karisa on display?”
“Karisa’s made her life into a performance,” I say. “Let her use it. And you use your skills at crafting narrative to make it matter.”
My eldest sister looks at each of us in turn and at last sighs. “All right. What else?”
And in that way, together, we set the next steps of the plan to save the world in motion.
When we’ve finished and my sisters have taken their leave, Glynis regards me curiously.
“What is it?” I ask.
“You didn’t ask us to leave,” she notes. “At the beginning, when your sisters arrived ready to ream you to shreds.”
“Of course I didn’t. You’re part of this team, and your contributions matter,” I say. “You can’t make them if you don’t know all the pieces.”
Glynis waves this off. “You could have handled the dressing down—of you and of your sisters—first, alone, and then brought us back.”
“You’re not luggage,” I tell her. “You’re not objects I will displace and summon at my whim. But you’re right if you mean it was a deliberate choice.”
“Why?” she asks simply.
Everyone left is waiting for my answer to this, I realize. Glynis, Ari, Taseino, and Tamak, but also Entero and Lorwyn.
“Because you needed to stay and see that you are no less relevant in this world than even royalty,” I say, “and royalty are ultimately just people, too.”
Ari snorts. “No, they’re super not. And I don’t just mean that you’re all raised with astounding privilege and it makes you think about the world differently. I mean you specifically are different.”
“And so are you,” I say evenly. “Every one of you. Leave rooms if you choose to, but never let anyone make you believe you don’t deserve to belong in them.”
Being able to work in tandem with my sisters is a victory.
This is another of a different sort.
I look around the various forms of thoughtful expressions around me. This, too, I can’t make them believe. But I can believe it, and I can live demonstrating that belief.
And sooner or later, I have faith they all will, too.
I can already see it—us—beginning.
Continue to Chapter 35