I escort the old woman to my own home. She maintains she needs no healing, and if we were to go to the tea shop—the only other place whose wards I currently trust—there will be people, and with people come explanations. She and I are both tired—not out of energy, exactly, but for all that my power comes from people, it will do me good to have a little space from so many of them. For a small while.
I still don’t know the old woman’s name, though she did offer a reason for that: names have power, for arcanists. Until I know how to use them, she feels more at ease if I do not know. So ‘elder lady of the arcane teapot’ she shall remain in my head for the sake of hospitality.
To my surprise, Yorani stays sleeping. I thought surely offering hospitality to the old woman would rouse her from her self-imposed nap, but whatever she’s resting for, it’s more important than her attention.
I’m also surprised to see Deniel isn’t home—or at work—though fortunately he’s left me a note so I won’t worry: he’s off to council business, liaising between Saiyana’s team and the city’s leaders, and he’s being escorted by a Te Muraka to defend against the chance of an attack by Nakrab. Though the possibility seems minute, I’m glad someone thought of it.
So I settle the old woman at our table while I busy myself in the kitchen.
I bring a large bowl over while the kettle heats. The old woman doesn’t take any note, so intent is she on studying her surroundings. I try not to be nervous about that.
When I return with the tea tray, I set it down next to the bowl between our seats.
Then I bring over the kettle, and she finally blinks.
I gently remove Yorani from where she’s curled around my neck and place her in the bowl. Then I pour the hot water from the kettle over her as though she were a tea pet.
Yorani chirps sleepily and curls into the hot water as I sprinkle a few leaves in for flavor, like accessories to a bath.
The old woman begins to laugh softly. “You do have a way about you, don’t you?”
I slip a quilted round cloth on the table to protect it from the kettle’s heat and set it down, too, so I can top Yorani or our teapot up as needed. “How do you mean?”
She smiles slightly. “Many things.”
I wave this away. “Of course.”
A huff. “But particularly your skill for creating an atmosphere of ease and welcome. I wouldn’t have expected a princess of your power to be able to replicate such coziness authentically, but—” She gestures around. “The signs are everywhere. It’s the note on the counter, the shared bookshelves, the pottery your partner has made but you’ve chosen, the different pieces of your altar that make it whole.”
“My power is about valuing even and perhaps especially what others consider insignificant,” I say. “So that seems to be of a piece. If not of a princess.”
“Yes, I see the pattern,” the old woman says. “And it’s a pattern of love: it’s all ties to people. Caring. Valuing not with markers of status or money or any of that, but with intentionality. The cups, the pieces. It is… an odd experience, to be in such a space. Thank you for inviting me.”
I bow lightly, pouring the tea. “Thank you for accepting. I admit I expected it to feel odder, seeing you interact in my space and remarking on it. But to me, you do not feel out of place here. Please be welcome always.”
The old woman’s gaze turns piercing for a moment. “You mean that. Not as obligation.”
Neither statement is a question, but I nod confirmation nevertheless.
“Nothing here is arranged magelike, either,” the old woman notes. “Surprising, given your training, that you didn’t absorb such habits of pattern even despite a lack of interest. You know when the patterns drew me to you, I thought it was because you had arcanist potential.”
I had wondered. “But that’s not it, is it?”
“No,” she says ruefully, “you’re a tea master through and through, and even now I still have more to learn, it seems. It’s because you’re the focal point to solve what’s broken. No pressure.”
“Thank you,” I say dryly—because this is not new pressure, and finally I feel like I have caught the right winds to lift me up.
And also because I am deeply touched to know that this old woman, the last of the arcanists from before the Cataclysm, can look at the detritus of my life and conclude I am thoroughly the self I mean to be.
“It is about arcanism, though,” I say. “Isn’t it?”
She huffs again. “I can never decide if it’s relaxing or annoying to talk with someone nothing gets past.”
Intensifying the dryness of my tone I say, “Both.”
That garners the chuckle I was aiming for. “Yes. You’re not the arcanist—sorry—but it’s someone you’ve lifted up.”
“I’m not sorry,” I say. “That’s the best thing you could have told me.”
“And that,” she says, “is why I believe you will be able to do what we couldn’t. Send the arcanist to me when you can.”
I don’t need to ask who: it can only be Glynis. She and Elowyn and I all know it. “How will she find you?”
“That’s her problem,” the old woman says. “She’ll figure it out.”
I nod. “I imagine it will be soon. We’re close to the end, now. Will you tell me what happened?”
“If you mean with that withered old woman, she’s not so gone yet that she couldn’t navigate around your spymaster’s measures. Couldn’t thwart them to get in your way directly, but since you weren’t pursuing me she had an opening. Why did you leave her one?”
Withered. It’s an apt term for Lady Kireva: withered not so much in stature, but in relevance; in ethics.
I sip my tea. “Hope,” I finally say. “And a trap as well. She could have chosen another way, and now we can all be clear that even with the option, she didn’t. Her own actions coupled with a new understanding of them will be more constraining than any preventative measures ever could. I am sorry you were caught up in it, however—that I truly did not expect, and my imagination should have included such scope.”
The old woman waves this off too, taking a sip of her own. “I allowed it, as you know. I figured that was what you were up to—leaving a fanged enemy at your back like that wouldn’t fit, otherwise.”
How much credit she gives me. “Then of course you also know that’s not what I mean to ask about,” I say gently. “Should I not?”
She stares at the ripples in her cup. “I knew I was going to talk to you. I thought it would feel more like a relief, an unburdening, sharing this with another person. I find it doesn’t at all.”
“Some secrets are like that,” I say softly. “I can’t promise it will be easier once you begin. You know I won’t ask you to.”
She arches her eyebrows. “Not even if it would make it easier for me?”
“No,” I answer seriously. “I am learning to have a care with manipulation, even when I think I’m helping. I won’t deploy it like that for you. Not for this. I’m sorry.”
She nods slowly. Then decisively. “The withered one is correct about this, of course. The arcanists were indeed present when the Cataclysm was formed, and we—they—were responsible for the barrier, such as it is.”
“Well, I’m not dead, am I?” The old woman lifts the cup shakily to her lips again. “And I’m the only one. But that’s not what you need to know.”
She’s right; it isn’t. I already know enough to have had a reasonable assumption that arcanists had been involved in the barrier.
“What do I need to know, then?” I ask.
She smiles. “I like you, but I’m still mad. Ask the right questions, child.”
Prove that you deserve them. My life is endless tests.
In a way, so it is for all of us. The tests of me are just more actively administered, and I’m not sure if that makes it more exhausting or less, that there are specific agents behind them.
“The question is how to proceed,” I begin. “No, I don’t mean for you to tell me how—but there are questions on that front it is difficult for me to answer. I would like to think the barrier did not fail to contain the Cataclysm because continental magic and Nakrabi are so disparate; that it will be possible to release the spirits in their magicked objects without harm. But I don’t know this, and I have no way to experiment, and by the sound of it all the arcanists died to make the barrier at all. My goal is for no one to have to die for it again, but to live for it instead. But the past is filled with miscommunications and sadnesses that could have been avoided if people had known how to bridge the gaps between them. So my question is, is there a gap in need of bridging that I have missed?”
The old woman drinks deeply of her tea and then sets down the now empty glass with a sigh.
With that, the atmosphere in the room suddenly shifts: like there was a tension, an energy that has now dissipated.
And in its wake, the calm after a storm.
“That,” the old woman says, “is why I can tell you. I will share with you the pieces of the pattern I know, but for this, you must decide how to assemble them.”
“Why?” I ask simply.
“Because the arcanists failed,” she says bluntly. “And their failure began long before the Nakrabi monks ever dreamed of capturing magic from our shores.”
I refill our teacups with the second steeping. “From what I can gather, that is true of all parties. The series of mistakes that led to the Cataclysm didn’t spontaneously occur outside the circumstances that gave rise to them.”
“A fair point. And perhaps it is fair that since the arcanists had greater power and should have been able to prevent the Cataclysm, they bore a greater cost accordingly for the scale of their failure. Oh, don’t look at me like that—yes, of course everyone is responsible for their own choices, Nakrabi and cowardly politicians and all the rest, but you don’t understand the power an arcanist can wield. How could you? The arcanists themselves forgot.”
“I’m listening,” I say, adding more hot water to Yorani’s bowl and then settling back with my teacup.
“Well. To make an extremely long story short, in my youth, which was… longer ago than it appears, the prevailing wisdom among arcanists was that to reach greater power, you needed to separate yourself from ties to humanity for perspective. Lots of hermits, lots of methods of self-negation. You know, sitting out naked in the snow for a few days, or not eating—oh, you don’t know? Hmm. Well, stands to reason I suppose, but it was all standard practice once upon a time. I assume you know enough to understand where I’m going with this.”
“The arcanists were so separated from the affairs of humans that they collectively failed to understand what the Nakrabi were trying to do,” I say.
“Yes, and they failed badly. It was a failure of imagination built on a failure of empathy built on a failure of humility. They were so convinced that they were unmatched as individuals, so used to being able to command more power than anyone—and understand, for many of them, this had been ingrained for centuries—”
“Your pardon,” I interrupt. “Are arcanists immortal? In the sense of living forever unless killed, I mean.”
“Ah. It’s not an intrinsic quality of arcanism,” she explains. “It’s that when you learn to manipulate the essence of magic in the world, you effectively learn to manipulate life itself. So it is no particular trouble to arrange to for all intents and purposes not age, and in continuing to live arcanists continue to grow in power: there is nothing to inhibit them in deepening their understanding of the patterns of the world.”
“You chose to age after the Cataclysm, though.”
“So I did. And then I chose to stop. But you are jumping ahead.”
“My apologies. Of course, what inhibited the arcanists in this case was themselves and a failure to appreciate mortality, correct?”
The old woman laughs. “Ah, how I wish I could have pointed you at some of the elder arcanists like an attack. You see right to the heart of things. Yes.
“I suppose at the rate we’re going I’d better summarize: the forest started dying, people came to investigate, found the Nakrabi monks. The monks wouldn’t stop what they were doing—of course now we know why, given what happened without anyone to manage the channeling of power, but the people only saw fanatics unwilling to abandon their enslavement of spirits. So ultimately they killed all the monks, and about that time a tea master finally managed to get an arcanist’s attention: my master, who was marginally more connected to the world on account of training the newest arcanist apprentice, that of course being me. My master saw farther than most would have: she summoned a conclave of arcanists. But by then it was too late.”
“To undo what the monks had done, you mean?”
The old woman inclines her head. “In part. If the arcanists had had time, I believe they could have. But removed as they were, the patterns of Nakrabi magic were unfamiliar to them. So instead they were forced into a last resort misguided in its very conception.”
I suck in a breath, understanding coming suddenly. “Life.”
“Life,” she echoes in agreement. She swirls the tea in her cup. “A magic they manipulated but had forgotten how to appreciate; one they gave up rather than fighting for. They had time only to destroy or shield, and to their credit they at least determined that destroying the monks’ focus would be catastrophic. So instead the barrier was made with the arcanists’ own internal life magic, and collectively the sacrifice was powerful enough to matter. When the focus shattered and unleashed its magical shockwave, the barrier pushed outwards until the huge concentration of magic had dispersed enough that the internal waves stopped, and then it held.
“That was the best they and all their power could do, and their best cost millions of lives.”
The old woman subsides, drinking her tea, her gaze fixed bitterly on the tableau before her.
I’m not sure what she needs from me. For all her bitterness toward their failure and its cost, she is still the one who survived, and the scope of that loss—losing not just the world at large, but the arcane world she had meant to enter and all its inhabitants and being left responsible with neither guide nor comrade—I can scarcely wrap my mind around the scope of it all.
While this isn’t a formal tea ceremony, I know this still isn’t what—or, at least all—she needs to tell me.
“You were the newest, if not the youngest, apprentice,” I say, “yes? That’s why you were chosen to remain. To tend the barrier?”
“That was the theory,” the old woman says. “My master, lacking options and time at the end, advised me to turn to the ancient codices from the first arcanists to guide me, since in her estimation, anyone else I could learn from would be dead.”
“There are recordings from the firsts arcanists?” I breathe.
She smiles appreciatively, but there’s an edge to it. “Indeed. But you see, while in general arcanists believed in studying history for the patterns, the records of their predecessors were not much regarded by that time. I invite you to guess why.”
I sigh, understanding at once her reaction to my excitement. “Of course. The early arcanists weren’t disconnected from people, were they? So the arcanists of your time thought they had progressed beyond them.”
“Just,” she says, “so. As if they didn’t understand systems and patterns and cycles at all, to believe in linear progress. Your teapot was made by the very person who wrote the first ancient codex I read.”
I blink. “Mine?” I query.
“Yours,” she says firmly. “If you weren’t enough as you are, the teapot wouldn’t work for you. That’s as good of a character reference for me as you can get. That arcanist was in touch with physicality and learned from craftspeople—not magic users—to make teapots herself without magic first; only once she had mastered the skill did she understand enough to create this.”
“And you… just happened to have it?”
Her smile this time has no mirth. She gestures, and her normally ever-present sack appears beside her on the floor—I should have guessed she’d have hidden it from Lady Kireva. “I didn’t make the connection at first. In the wake of the arcanists’ death, I started traveling to each of their residences I could find. Many had been lost to the Cataclysm; some remained pristinely unaffected inside. The sack is my own magic. To remember them, to honor the sacrifice of every arcanist who died trying to save the world, I selected artifacts—mementos of their work. I’d found the teapot years before I read the codex, and by then, I’d begun hunting for more writings from the ancients, preserved as keepsake trinkets if at all, an incredible amount of knowledge divided and lost.
“My master had known she’d no longer be able to teach me, but it wouldn’t have occurred to her that what I would actually learn was that the arcanists of my era had all lost their way. In their quest for power—individual, separate from any effect on the greater world, or so they thought—they spelled their own doom without ever recognizing the pattern. Ironic, isn’t it?”
I am quiet, almost overcome once again by sadness.
Of course she let herself age: to become in touch once again with mortality.
And then of course she halted the process: living with the physical reminders of mortality, and how the weak and elderly and poor are treated by people, so she could never forget. So she would remain to do what they had not—could not.
Ensure that this tragedy never happened again.
Never again. Too many sacrificed on this one altar, fighting alone.
We will do better.
I will do better by us all.
“So,” she says heavily. “Do you think you have what you need, after all?”
In fact, I think I’ve had it for some time, which is why she can speak to me openly: because I don’t need her, not for this. Or not the way she means.
I have the resolve to move forward differently than my ancestors have. To fly boldly into our future working together, working toward sharing and compassion and not wavering.
As to the how—
The door bursts open.
I’m on my feet in an instant, not sure what I will do to anything able to break through the wards on my home, when in charges Glynis.
“Sorry,” she says as she barrels in. “The wards are fine, I just molded them around me for a second to let me through because there’s no time and I thought you should hear this directly and—oh. Hi. Arcanist lady?”
“Not exactly an orthodox way for us to meet,” the old woman says, her tone dryly amused, “but it will do. You can find me again.”
Glynis nods as though this were never in question, visibly gathering her many thoughts into messenger-order. “Yes. I have questions. But this is more important.”
She turns back to me, and as the old woman’s entire being freezes and relaxes in an instant, I decide this is in fact the best way they could have met: knowing each other are interested in abstract mysteries but not at the expense of present concerns.
“We found them. Elowyn is with Karisa—not visible, they don’t know she’s there, but she’s trapped behind the Nakrabi wards,” Glynis tells me. “She’s busy making sure she stays not caught, but Karisa has evidently been busy doing that thing where she provokes reactions—she’s not hurt, just, you know, annoyingly good at getting information out of people they don’t actually want to share—and Elowyn was able to get some information out to us.”
It’s time. “And?”
“The Nakrabi have a weapon they’re planning to deploy against Yorani,” Glynis says.
“What?” I breathe.
“They’re not planning to kill her, exactly, because they neither know nor care if their weapon has that effect,” Glynis continues grimly. “It’s designed to capture and hold her using some kind of magic-draining mechanism, which is why I’m guessing it’ll have worse effects. After Yorani ate the magic from their harvesting tech, apparently they verified that act halted the expansion of the Cataclysm. So now they’re going to try to take Yorani out of the situation so they can use their machines to drain the Cataclysm on purpose. But of course what they’re actually going to do is drain the barrier, and once they have the magic they want they’ll abandon the continent to the expanding Cataclysm—”
“That’s it,” I whisper, turning to stare at Yorani.
She opens one eye to blink at me.
The how: I know exactly what to do.
It is down to me—us—after all.
“Miyara?” Glynis asks.
“First,” I say, crossing the room to a bookshelf where a small wrapped package waits, “we focus on what matters now.”
I return and place it in front of the old woman, bowing.
Yorani does bestir herself for this, jumping out of the water to land—wetly—on my head, joining my bow.
And leaning further forward to nudge the old woman’s nose with her own.
“This was Yorani’s idea,” I explain. “She wanted you to have this. I don’t know what you will think of the story, but it is Yorani and Talsion’s—that is to say, her best friend who is a cat who is often in residence—favorite. As you could perceive the love in my home, I hope too you will feel it in this gift.”
When I straighten, the old woman is staring at me with absolute incredulity—evidently even a magical perceiver of patterns didn’t see a gift from a spirit coming.
And her eyes are filling with tears.
I bow again as she reaches a shaking hand—and this time, I don’t think the shaking is due to her age—for the gift.
I don’t think anyone has given her a gift of love for a very, very long time, and that could not wait another moment.
“Now,” I say, as Yorani settles around my neck once again and I begin gathering my kit, “let us go save the world.”
Continue to Chapter 37