Iryasa and Reyata accompany me to where Aleixo is being held. They watch through a magical viewing pane, where they can see in but we cannot see out, while inside Aleixo’s cell I make him tea and explain the situation.
“The trick will be navigating the Nakrabi defenses, to make sure you don’t trip an alarm while finding the princess’ location in stealth,” the former operative for Velasar says with a frown. “I can tell you what I know to look out for and how it fits together, but I wouldn’t swear they don’t have more that our—that is to say, Velasar’s—spy network hadn’t discovered or understood yet.” He pauses. “Or, frankly, that Ignasa chose not to share with me. She survived too long to have not understood where my loyalties lie.”
“I understand,” I say. “Though I’d actually prefer you tell Entero directly, as he’s our spymaster in all this.”
Aleixo’s eyebrows raise. “Sure. Spymaster now, is it? I wouldn’t have thought he was suited to that skillset.”
“What do you mean? I mean, I know what you mean, but—”
Aleixo waves away my floundering. “You don’t get into this line of work without being able to take initiative. Entero’s a problem-solver, same as me. That’s how a soldier gets recruited into this life. But we both tend to be… more direct about our approach. Spymasters are different. It’s more distant, more maneuvering, less physical action. He seemed like a pretty hands-on, lone operator sort. That’s all.”
I nod. “That’s a fair characterization. I don’t think I’ll qualify it for you just now.”
He frowns, following my implication. “But you will later?”
“Later I don’t think I’ll need to.”
Aleixo’s eyes narrow. “Entero’s not here right now, is he? So you’re here for something else. I can’t help with the princess or anything else if you don’t tell me what.”
“I would like to,” I say frankly, “but in this case I believe you’ll still be able to help even if you don’t know all the details. Perhaps even better.”
He scowls. “Not my favorite approach, but fine.”
I raise my eyebrows, and he rolls his eyes.
“You know what I mean, and it’s not this.” He gestures around the cell. “I prefer to know where I stand. Especially in light of how things have gone down the last couple years for me.”
Lied to and betrayed by his own government into serving a cause that betrayed himself.
“But since whatever this is comes from you,” Aleixo says, “it’s fine. Just point me at whatever problem you need me to solve, and I’ll do what I can to solve it.”
The door to Aleixo’s cell opens abruptly, and both my oldest sisters come in.
Aleixo’s eyes widen. He glances at me and back at the princesses he clearly recognizes, going very still and clamming his mouth shut.
“I’ve heard what I need,” Iryasa says, nodding to Reyata.
Reyata holds up a key for Aleixo’s benefit before approaching him.
He scoots back into the wall. “What are you doing?”
“Releasing you to help,” Iryasa says. “I admit I thought Miyara’s suggestion was ludicrous at first, but unsurprisingly here we are.”
Aleixo regards Reyata’s approach with something akin to horror. “I’m a Velasari spy who tried to compromise—everything that matters. You can’t just release me.”
“Can’t I?” Iryasa asks mildly.
Reyata nods. “Ostario and Saiyana are busy. We’re not going to fix you with any tracking magecraft. Doesn’t seem necessary.”
My eldest sister is no tea master, but she has spent her life in a court where even—perhaps especially—her own family tries to use her. She is an excellent judge of character. Reyata has led men and women in battle and judges them her own way, but no less adroitly.
Aleixo holds very still as Reyata uses the key to undo the magecraft holding him in this cell. “Entero isn’t here for you to teach because he’s busy, too, so I’m just going to bring you to him,” she says.
“You’re one of Braisa’s, aren’t you?”
Then drops his head, takes a breath. Squares his shoulders and looks back at her. “Yes, your Highness. I am.”
Reyata nods like this is exactly the reaction she expected; she clearly knows exactly how to handle this former soldier.
“Before that,” I put in as I pick up Yorani, who at some point curled up for a nap—another sign of approval, for her to relax her guard in the presence of someone involved in hurting her before—”I’d like you to join us for the start of a meeting with the other ambassadors. You haven’t met with Ambassador Ridac since he arrived, have you?”
“No,” Aleixo says, tensing again. “I think he attempted to make contact once, but whatever defenses you have up here prevented it. What do you want me to say to him?”
“Whatever you want,” I tell him.
He crosses his arms. “Is this a test?”
“Yes, but not for you,” I assure him. “I think your honest opinion is exactly what Ridac needs to hear right now.”
Aleixo scowls. “I don’t know what you expect me to say.”
“I’m confident the ambassador will provoke it from you,” I say dryly.
He sighs. “I said it’s fine, didn’t I? What are we waiting for? The princess isn’t going to save herself.”
I smile. “She just might, at that. But let’s go.”
Yorani sleeps in my arms the whole trip to the tea shop. I poke her at one point and murmur, “Everything okay?”
She flicks an ear back at me and burrows a little more deeply into my arms. I take that to mean everything is currently okay.
But Yorani is not actually a cat, and to have put herself into a nap when so much is occurring is… notable.
It makes me think she is resting up for something big. I wonder if she knows what.
When the four of us arrive at the tea shop, Ambassador Ridac, Ambassador Perjoun, and Sa Rangim are ready for us. The tension is palpable, but of a different kind than before:
This is the kind where everyone understands we are here to take action.
“Keeping us waiting, tea master?” Ridac asks as I walk in—then his expression tightens at the sight of Aleixo following after Iryasa and Reyata.
“I had an errand to run,” I say blandly as Iryasa and I take our seats. Reyata and Aleixo wait by the door.
“What is this?” Ridac asks in a flat voice.
Aleixo glances my way for direction, then shrugs when I don’t offer any. “I’m here at the tea master’s request.”
In a voice that might sound friendly if not for the words, Ridac says, “That much was plain, traitor.”
Aleixo’s chin lifts. “Velasar’s government is on a course that will destroy her own people and many more besides,” he says. “I am absolutely a traitor to that cause.”
“In exchange for, what, loyalty to Istalam?” Ridac asks, his voice dripping scorn.
“I am loyal to what I believe General Braisa would respect,” Aleixo says. “Not Istalam’s institutions. But the individual people trying to prevent the end of the world instead of serving their own selfish gain, yes.”
Ridac’s eyes flick to Reyata; so her connection to Braisa isn’t unknown to him, at least.
“You two should get moving,” I say. For a brief moment Aleixo looks vaguely surprised that was all that was desired of him here, and then both he and Reyata make their bows and take their leave.
But he’s already planted the seed I needed: to make Ridac think about Braisa. Not just about the possibilities of an alliance between the general and a princess, since we’ve thwarted his notions of a pairing with the crown princess. But more specifically, a reminder of General Braisa herself: what she stands for, how popular she is, and the effect that will have in Velasar when we’re done here today.
Because we will be done here today.
“Events have begun moving very quickly,” I say, “and we are out of time to dawdle.”
Ambassador Perjoun clarifies, “Will the ambassador from Nakrab not be joining today’s gathering?”
Which is to say: did I not invite him, or did he choose not to attend?
“Ambassador Cherato has kidnapped Princess Karisa and is holding her hostage,” I say. “So, no.”
Her eyes widen, then narrow thoughtfully. “You’re not concerned. Despite your promise of safety.”
It’s a relief to know how serious everyone thought me. “Say that I am not surprised, and steps are being taken.”
“Thus your drafting of the traitor,” Ridac notes, then rolls his eyes at my look. “The term is accurate, whether or not you agree with his philosophy.”
“The question isn’t my philosophy, but yours,” I say. “I said ‘events’, plural. I have learned how the Cataclysm came to be, I know what Ambassador Cherato is here for, and I am going to do something about it.”
“You have been busy,” Ridac all but growls. “Are you going to tell us, then?”
“No,” I say.
“Ambassadors.” This time I look all the way around the table, from where Iryasa and Sa Rangim sit quietly in support, and back to the ambassadors from Taresan and Velasar.
“You have a choice to make,” I tell them. “And you’re going to make it now.”
The time has come.
This is what I’ve been building toward. The relationships, the careful couching of information and managing its delivery, the demonstrations of who I am and what I will do and how.
This is when I take a stand and issue a final ultimatum, or invitation, and see if takes.
This is where we learn if the power I have in the path I’ve chosen is enough, or if it isn’t.
Ridac says, “You’ll need to be a little more specific—”
“No,” I say again. “You aren’t stupid, ambassador. You know exactly what the choice is. I have plans to set in motion and don’t have time to coddle you. When I leave this room, one way or another, I will have my answer. Choose.”
He glares at me.
I am forcing this on him ungracefully; there are few ways he can see this but as a capitulation.
I don’t particularly care.
Then Ambassador Perjoun sighs. “This is silly. Tea Master, Taresan stands with you. We’ll support your demand for reparations and whatever else is required to address this situation.”
“Ambassador Perjoun,” Ridac says with some exasperation, “for your sake, and your government’s, have a care what you promise her, and how—”
“I am here,” Perjoun interrupts him, “for solutions. We’re all aware I am not Taresan’s most decorated diplomat, Ambassador Ridac, nor am I trying to be. I am here because I get things done without a fuss.” She meets my eyes. “Taresan is in need of healing; I’ve seen some of the same signs here in Sayorsen, so I assume you know of what I speak. All I ask is that we speak of this before my return, and you share whatever knowledge you can.”
“I’ll do better than that,” I promise. “Thank you.”
She inclines her head. “Then we are with you.”
“Say rather we are in this together,” I say.
Ridac runs his hands through his hair in agitation.
I don’t have to press him, though, because Sa Rangim speaks next. “It appears the tea master has things well in hand,” he says as he rises. “Let it be known that she has the Te Muraka’s full trust.” He bows to Iryasa. “I should return to the barrier. Will you speak for the Te Muraka regarding any further developments?”
“It would be my honor,” Iryasa says softly, bowing in return.
A searing glance between them, and then Sa Rangim takes his leave. With just a few sentences and a bow he’s done his part representing the Te Muraka as a bloc to be reckoned with while demonstrating his support of Istalam at the same time, and now his time is better spent leading his people from the front rather than the negotiating table.
The negotiating is done, and all that’s left are formalities.
Idly, Iryasa says, “Istalam, of course, has full respect for the position of tea masters.”
“Oh, stop,” Ridac says disgustedly. “You don’t have to rub it in. Yes, of course I’m with you, curse everything. Curse Cherato, curse his cursed technology, curse anyone in my cursed government who makes an issue of this, curse you specifically, tea master—”
“I’m honored to know how you really feel,” I say dryly.
“Are you done with us now, or do we get to know what the spirits you’re planning?” he demands.
I pull a stack of papers from my tea kit. Not an ideal place, but my aides are busy, and we work with what we have and who we are.
“I’ve drafted an agreement, which we’re all going to finish and sign right now,” I say. “Before you protest, the language allows for certain specifics to be worked out later. The ones included are non-negotiable, however, because they are required to make imposing consequences on Nakrab viable.”
“That’s an answer to the first part of my question,” Ridac says, “not the second.”
I pass him a pen. “Get started. I’ll explain while you sign.”
My feelings are a complicated mix of relief and surprise and bold validation, as though this working was a foregone conclusion. Of course I thought I could help, or I’d never have taken this on and made the promises I have.
Still. It is one thing to believe in my path and its power, and another to see it in action.
Ultimately, it takes less than an hour for the continental nations to officially form an alliance. We will all be working together to save each other.
I look forward to a moment when I can appreciate that I managed this and what it means, but—later.
Now, there is no time for rest—especially when a pale boy arrives in the colors of House Taresim.
A pit of dread opens in my stomach. Entero has been handling Lady Kireva, but Entero has gotten busier with more actively important concerns. Meanwhile I kept behaving like she was a threat rendered benign.
A mistake, but how big of one? What has the old spy done?
“Where is she?” I ask.
“The main house,” the boy gasps. “But. Under.”
There’s a note of anger in Iryasa’s voice as she says, “I saw the underground level on the schematics. It should be closed to everyone—and she has no business in the main house while I’m in residence.”
The boy quails. “I’m sorry. She said—”
“Just me,” I cut him off grimly. “Don’t worry, I intend to handle her alone.”
I draw myself up and turn to the ambassadors. “My apologies. Can you finish up without me?”
“We can handle what remains, yes,” Iryasa says.
Then Ridac asks, “Do you know what you’re walking into?”
“If you mean specifically, no,” I say. “If you mean do I realize that whatever this is I’m not going to like it, at least until I ensure she doesn’t like it, and that it will be a battle, then yes, of course I know.”
“Well, in that case.” To my surprise, Ridac grins. “You’d better get going. I’d hate for us to monopolize all your fun.”
This, I think, is the surest mark I’ll ever have that the storied, cantankerous ambassador from Velasar respects me in truth: he trusts my ability to handle an unknown situation so implicitly he can joke about it.
Or so I think, before Ambassador Perjoun bows to me deeply, and Ambassador Ridac and Princess Iryasa follow suit in tandem.
My eyes sting.
Yorani is still sleeping, this entire culmination having passed her by. I gather her in my arms, and we go.
Together, to the next challenge.
To the next step in ending this once and for all.
I descend into the basement of House Taresim, Yorani curled up sleeping around my neck. It’s like walking into another world: an older one, that looks much like ours, but where things are done differently.
Dimmer. Dustier, a hint of smoke.
And, critically, no windows. Not that I’d expect them underground, but nothing down here is visible to anyone outside. The walls are thick, and the stairs go down deep: no sound would penetrate either.
But there is a… sense, I suppose, not actually a scent, of old blood.
I wonder if this perception comes from Yorani: she stayed with me insistently but immediately settled back into sleep when I let her be. Which tells me both that she believes something of import is here, but also that whatever she is sleeping for is critical. Ominous on all counts.
At last I reach the base, which opens into a cavernous chamber, and there is Lady Kireva.
Surrounded by cold stone on all sides—one of which contains a blood-red tapestry flanked by two dark-clad figures—Lady Kireva sits in the center at a large, solid stone table that seems to grow out of the floor.
It could only be here if the basement was constructed with its presence in mind.
“Shall I offer you tea?” Lady Kireva asks. “Will we bypass the game of how you choose to accept it—”
“You’re wasting my time,” I cut her off, making no move to sit with her. “You also should not be opening pathways to the residence of the crown princess.”
Lady Kireva rolls her eyes. “Did you really think I didn’t have back ways into my own House, child?”
“Contrary to your determination to think me stupid, no. But having the ways is not the same as using them, and I also won’t believe you don’t have back ways into other places in the city you called home for so long.”
“I still do,” she says softly.
“Then why here, Lady Kireva?” I ask. “Why now?”
“Why now?” she echoes. “Because you know as well as I do we’re at the critical juncture now.”
“And you could have sent me a message at any point, rather than summoning me—”
“A message, as you have sent me, keeping me apprised on that which I could advise you?” she asks pointedly.
“To what end, when you’ve spied on me relentlessly regardless and only made me aware of your presence when working against me? Undermining my relationship with my sisters, interfering with my operations—”
“We are here,” Lady Kireva cuts me off this time, “because this location is secure in the ways that matter. Because had you consulted me, I could have directed you appropriately. Because you didn’t, I have taken the steps you should have, but could not.”
My blood runs cold. At least we’re coming to the point, but—”What steps, precisely?”
Lady Kireva smiles; gestures for me to sit.
I am not prone to physical violence, but the urge to smack the smirk off her face is overpowering.
Yorani lifts her head and hisses a warning flame.
“I would not sit so close to you just now,” I say softly.
Her eyes narrow, but perhaps she is remembering when Yorani launched herself at her face because the elderly spy doesn’t push it further. Instead she snaps her fingers, and one of her thugs whisks the red tapestry to the side.
Revealing the old woman who gifted me the arcane teapot.
Chained to the stone.
I am so shocked, so angry, that as rage floods me at first all I do is gape silently.
The old woman meets my gaze, hers unreadable. There is a bench for her to sit, though she does not. Her hands are manacled together, and a chain attaches them to the floor.
“You are attempting,” Lady Kireva says, “to make vast changes to not just our nation’s social structure, but the entire magical underpinnings of the world. Here exists a known source of information you have neglected to tap before making your plans, and you think to lecture me on responsible behavior?”
I tear my eyes away from the old woman. “You will release her at once.”
“No, I won’t,” Lady Kireva says. “Not only would it be a mistake, you have no power here to make any demands of me.”
“No power,” I echo.
“No power?” I repeat, my voice louder. “You think your thugs, your position, the magecraft baked into these walls have any ability to stop me? You think I cannot strike you where you will feel it—”
“Not now,” Lady Kireva says easily. “So you might as well sit, since I’m not vulnerable to you here, whereas you have exposed your weaknesses.”
I let out an abrupt, disbelieving crack of laughter and slowly cross the room. “You think you haven’t? Your weakness is how you value your legacy, Lady Kireva. It is your need to feel important when you are no more so than anyone else, the same as the people who have brought us to this point.”
I know what my power is. I know how to wield it, and I am furious.
So now, for once, I deploy it like a wrecking ball: no softness, and no qualification.
“Your weakness is the look of shame your granddaughter will bestow upon you ever after, Lady Kireva, when she learns who you truly are: not a dedicated defender of the crown, but a desperate, bitter woman without morals whose ability to raise a child like Kustio grows clearer every day. You wonder how he went wrong? At whose feet, and in whose shadow, did he learn? Yet you think you are fit to restore your House?”
Her expression grows set, but I have lost my customary restraint. I am only beginning.
“Your weakness is the House whose name and traditions will be struck from the records not due to your son’s folly, but yours, so you can never be remembered, now or in the future, let alone move in the circles to which you’ve become accustomed.”
“You could never manage such a thing,” Lady Kireva scoffs. “Don’t get hysterical.”
“Couldn’t I? The tea guild, foreign ambassadors, every member of the royal family and every Istal community leader and Te Muraka and Gaellani and genius magic worker in the city will stand by me. As they have before, and have sworn to again. It would be no trouble at all to move any of them against you, Lady Kireva, nor will I hesitate to do so. I can see already how it will be done, and the effort will hardly be notable, but I wasn’t finished.”
I lean forward across the table from her, and she only just catches herself from leaning back instinctively.
Yorani’s eyes snap open to fix her gaze on Lady Kireva’s face as I say, “Your weakness is also the magic I can bring to bear to ensure you are trapped and unable to work power of any sort: no words may you speak to work a plan of any kind, and that, truly, is your power, isn’t it? The connections you can make.
“But Lady Kireva, you may have people. Relationships, magic, certainly. Still I will triumph on every count, and you will be left not just with nothing, but with your entire life and legacy destroyed long enough for you to know in your spirit the desolation has come to pass through your own fault. And I assure you, I will never, never let an offense this grave go.”
Finally, her easy demeanor has slipped. Her expression is even, but her face has gone ashen.
“You tell me, Lady Kireva,” I say. “In this room, in this moment. Do you truly think I wield no power?”
She has no response.
The silence echoes through this horrible chamber.
“I will say this once more,” I tell her in a deadly voice. “Release her now.”
The voice isn’t the old woman before me, though; it’s the one behind.
I turn and regard the woman shamefully chained.
“Why?” she repeats. “Why go to such trouble for me? When we first met, you were motivated by respect for elders, but you don’t extend the same to her. Why special treatment for me?”
I am almost baffled that she has to ask, but I know a test when I hear one and am too angry to answer it gracefully. “I was motivated by respect for all people regardless of affect,” I snap. “And of course I will not treat you the same as anyone now. You are magic, to be respected obviously, but also to come and go as you please, to never, never be chained against your will. How can I possibly do otherwise?”
The old woman smiles, though it doesn’t reach her eyes. “That you believe that,” she says, “and treat it as self-evident, is why I will talk to you, and not her.”
She stands fully upright, snapping off her manacles as if they were made of paper.
Both thugs attempt to move toward her but freeze, immobilized without a gesture or word from the old woman.
Though there is an almost familiar roil in my gut.
Lady Kireva, too, is still and wide-eyed, though I cannot tell if it is by magic or fear.
“Your small magics are nothing to one such as I,” the old woman says coldly, holding out an arm for me to support. “Come, Miyara. I could go for a cup of tea.”
Continue to Chapter 36