The Nakrabi delegation led by Ambassador Cherato plans for their move, and so do we.
Yorani spends every available instant inside a teapot, and I continue brewing her tea almost absentmindedly, but always aware when she needs a new pot, as I summon our allies.
When I am ready—as ready as I can be—Yorani emerges from the teapot without a word from me, also ready.
Together, we go to make our stand.
When Ambassador Cherato arrives at the barrier to the Cataclysm with his delegation as well as Karisa, I step through it from the Cataclysm-side to face him with Yorani on my shoulder.
Outwardly, I am careful to look characteristically calm. Inwardly, I am… mostly calm. I know what I have to do and believe that I can do it, if indeed the deed can be done. But there is always the possibility I have not seen clearly enough; that I have missed something, misunderstood something, and that will cost everything.
The thing about saving the world is it doesn’t come with safety instructions, or else the thing wouldn’t need doing.
My hands will not shake, but my heart is already pounding just from emerging openly onto this battleground.
As I have just put myself and Yorani as the lone barrier between the Nakrabi and everything they want, that’s not an unreasonable response; it’s just not the part of this I’m uncertain of. It isn’t the first time I’ve stepped forward, and though it’s not as though it’s become easy, it’s not my first time.
In fact, I am counting on that mattering.
Cherato’s eyes narrow as he attempts to work out how I knew where he would be. He believed he had gotten past the Te Muraka patrol; in actuality they intentionally created the appearance of a minor, easily overlooked hole in their pattern so there would only be one way for him to slip through, and we controlled it.
He also does not know that Elowyn exists, let alone that she has been smuggling messages regarding his activities this whole time to people who know enough of his operation to have maneuvered him to exactly the stage we chose.
It’s a familiar space, this stretch of barrier.
It’s where I first stepped into this world, to bring the Te Muraka home and begin making this the Gaellani’s home in truth. It’s the start of the path I found to find meaning.
It’s where I won the tea tournament, securing my role here and defending that home for those who can’t. It’s where I fought to keep the place I’d made for myself here and attained the right in a way no one would contest.
Today, it’s where I’m going to prove once and for all that my place here, and my path, are worthwhile and unassailable. It’s where I end it all.
And it’s where I begin.
My voice is sure as I say, “You will not proceed any farther along this path.”
Not a question or even a demand: a statement of fact, of the truth as I perceive it.
It is up to me to make it so.
“Tea Master Miyara,” Ambassador Cherato greets me without concern. “You cannot hope to stop me.”
“I can,” I say, “and I do.”
I kneel before the Cataclysm and open my tea kit.
The kit I negotiated to be able to buy, what seems like ages ago now. The tea Lorwyn has blended for me, the cups crafted by Deniel, the arcane teapot.
Gifts, all of them.
“With tea?” Cherato mocks. “Come. Surely we are past such foolishness. I have no interest in your quaint rituals.”
“That is your mistake,” I say. “But you misunderstand. I am not brewing tea for you, world-traitor.”
Ambassador Cherato gestures, and his people fan out, setting up their dread machines. “Excellent. Then I will pay you no mind.”
“Another mistake,” I remark. “You only see that which you wish to, that which you believe you already understand. It is a sad way to move through life, but you do not, truly, do you? You leech life instead to stay always in stasis. Today, that changes.”
“Your people lack commitment, focus, experience, and, critically, numbers in this place,” Cherato scorns. “You are no match for the might of Nakrab.”
He nods sharply, and one of his people aims a weapon at me.
There’s a faint twist in my gut, and then the weapon and the person wielding it are on the ground.
Cherato’s eyes narrow on his fallen retainer.
“Perhaps,” I allow, “I could not stand against you and all your magic and your plans alone.”
I finish arranging my tea ceremony setup with the traditional two cups: one to be the focus; the other the path.
And I look boldly back at him. “But I am not alone. Not here.”
Karisa, weapon from the fallen Nakrabi now in hand and Elowyn at her back, step away from the ambassador.
He sneers. “So. The princess thinks she has teeth, does she?”
“The princess,” Karisa smiles, “has been stealing your plans from under your creepy nose for weeks.”
A Nakrabi agent fires a weapon at her, but it’s deflected by a shield.
Now it is Thiano who emerges into view, his invisibility falling, and he makes a tsking sound. “Ah-ah. None of that, old man.”
“You,” Cherato says flatly.
“Me,” Thiano agrees mildly. “Princess Karisa, if I may express my admiration for the boldness of your vision and the depth of your deception?” His voice has a mocking lilt to it surely for Cherato’s benefit, as these are all qualities the Nakrab claim to excel at beyond any other. The ambassador inclines his head sardonically in acknowledgment as Karisa and Elowyn arrive safely behind Thiano.
“So,” the ambassador says, “this is to be an ambush, is it? You believe you have arranged things such that your might will overpower Nakrab’s. You will be disappointed.”
“You still miss the point,” I say. “But I will make you see it yet.”
Te Muraka, mages, guides and guards begin pouring out of the Cataclysm.
Ambassador Cherato barely blinks before snapping orders at his people, and the battle moves forward in earnest.
I don’t wait: I move, beginning what only I can do: performing the tea ceremony. Because it is not just any tea ceremony.
This is a tea ceremony for the very air we breathe.
This is for the invisible spirits I know surround us that we never see.
This is for the magic in our world with and without form: the spirits that make our world special. The spirits of all of us that we have needed to fight for all this time.
The spirits of the Cataclysm, lost and threatened, who can’t fight this fight themselves without a voice to speak for them.
I will serve as that voice—the focus, and the path—if they will have me.
Ambassador Cherato’s cuts into my thoughts. “Kill the tea master,” he snaps. “She is all that holds these factions together. When she breaks, so will they.”
Not a terrible deduction, but nevertheless wrong.
I don’t control anyone here. I may have brought them together and lifted them up, but while I am a rallying point, I’m not their glue.
That’s what this work has been all about.
A shadow passes overhead even before the Nakrabi’s blast fires my way. Sa Rangim in majestic dragon form eats the magic straight out of the air, his eyes glowing with fire as he regards the Nakrabi forces.
From atop his back, Iryasa gazes down imperiously. From the perspective of a dragon in flight, they will all appear as small in body as they are in spirit.
“You have attacked our spirits, our princesses, and now our tea masters,” Iryasa declares. “The continent stands united as one against you, representatives of Nakrab. You will cease and depart our shores at once, or you will be made to.”
Iryasa looks more powerful than she ever has, the wind in her hair, her dragon love the literal wings beneath her feet, flawlessly executing a move that will define the course of the future.
Making truth of her words, behind the Nakrabi come more forces: Velasari, Taresal, and Reyata with the ambassadors at their head.
Even with all our people making a point of standing together, it is not such a tremendous number: Ambassador Cherato laid the groundwork for a confrontation long before we did. Some of his people may be unwilling, but he nevertheless has many people here, trained to fight and to work as one, and their enslaving magic. They believe they are fighting for their home and their future—but so are we.
We have the benefit of space made for many different minds and skills, and what is possible when they can thrive together. So even with smaller numbers and less preparation, we are strong.
We are enough.
Or: we will be, and we will make sure we have the opportunity to do that work, together.
Ambassador Cherato is done talking, though. He was never here to treat with those of us on the continent, only to use us, and with what between us Thiano, Karisa, and I have learned of him, we can predict how he will move.
He knows that we have done poorly by witches and Te Muraka and Thiano, whom he has successfully turned people against, and that aside from their magic there’s only one being here who can actively thwart his own. And if Yorani is threatened, I, he thinks, will be rendered unthreatening myself.
Taking us out together? For the thorn I have become to him, so much the better.
So Yorani and I are already watching when the biggest blast of magic I have ever seen comes toward us, and no one stands between us and it.
It’s as though the world moves in slow motion, like the air is thick, a morass for it to travel through to reach us.
It’s as though I have all the time in the world to conclude the tea ceremony I have performed for the Cataclysm. To lift the pot and tilt it and pour.
And pour, and pour, and pour.
An unending stream of water that fills the cup below and overflows, and as the steam rises so do the spirits.
Water, earth, and air.
The magic bracelets on my wrists glow, and so does the teapot, and Yorani, as from one cup of tea a cloud of spirits erupts.
They burst forth, roiling magic given form as my tea spirit’s magic connects us, the current we draw strength from.
This is the power we, and she, have.
We are the line of defense.
We, all of us, share responsibility for the Cataclysm. That is how we own it: not in possession, but in our duty to serve.
The battle that had been raging before us grows still as the Nakrabi cower incredulously before an endless wall as far as the eye can see of spirits given form, massed and looming down at them.
“Do you see, finally?” I ask into the sudden silence, eerie as everyone stares in awe at the magical feat before them. “I am not alone here. We demand your exile, and we will see it happen. You cannot fight the waters, lands, and skies. Your path ends here.”
“Shaken” is not an expression I have previously seen on Cherato’s face. “Shattered” also describes it.
His knees give out, though he cannot tear his gaze from the vision of the spirits of our world. “How?” he whispers brokenly.
“These are our spirits,” I say simply. “Ours not because they belong to us—they belong to themselves—but because we serve them. They reject you, and we stand with them. So drop your weapons, or learn what a storm of spirits made manifest can do to you.”
The Nakrabi don’t wait for Cherato’s order; machinery clangs as it’s thrown to the ground with abandon.
Cherato’s expression twists. I see the struggle in him, as he perceives this new reality that fits none of his framework for how the world works. But he also cannot let go of who he has always been, because he does not wish to. He is not strong enough for that kind of change.
Ultimately, I don’t believe his heart can change. I can only work with who people actually are. But he will nevertheless lay the groundwork for his people’s future, because I will make him.
“Ambassador Cherato, in your capacity as representative of the Isle of Nakrab, acknowledge for the record your nation’s role in the creation of the Cataclysm,” I say.
He looks at me. “That’s what you want?”
“Oh, that is the beginning,” I say. “When you’re done with that, you will commit the Isle of Nakrab to making meaningful amends as well as receiving a delegation from the continent into your capital itself.”
“No.” The word is torn from him, a gut response. “Never.”
The wall of spirits roils forward, and the ambassador falls backward, hunching in on himself as his body instinctually tries to take cover, despite the futility. I raise my hand, and the spirits come to a… not stop, exactly, as the mass of them is still seething, but they’re no longer advancing.
Not quickly, anyway. I think they are still scooting forward through sheer momentum if nothing else—and there may be something else.
Their patience with my holding them back could snap at any moment.
“Never is a very long time,” I tell him quietly. “But never is what I promise if you balk. I don’t have to lift a finger to exile any one of your people, Cherato, because the spirits will do so on their own, beholden to no government or regulation or containment you can bypass. They will keep Nakrab exiled forever, and you will be left alone, to die slowly. As you would have died already if not for your pillage of our magic. If you refuse my terms, you will condemn your people to death.”
“What you demand is death,” Ambassador Cherato hisses.
Change. Humility. “Death of the ways that have brought your people and land to death’s door, that have attempted to destroy us in your greed, yes. I do demand that. But it is also a chance of an actual future, which is more than you would have had had you succeeded in your plan today. So choose, Cherato, and choose now.”
He turns away from me, to look at his own people. They haven’t turned away from him, whether that’s for habit or confusion or fear or loyalty or something else I can’t say. But they are looking at the spirits with awe, or looking to him for direction—which implies they believe there is more than one course possible: that alternatives, and thus the choice at all, exist.
And if the Nakrabi elites’ “pawns” believe there is more than one path, the damage to Nakrab has been dealt already. I see Cherato realize it.
He already has the death he feared, but he can still choose against the other death. He can choose to buy Nakrab time—by his faint sneer I expect he hopes Nakrab, even if he is done, will find a way out of reparations and delegations, these institutions of people who have defiantly persisted in mattering, where he cannot challenge a horde of actual spirits.
“The Isle of Nakrab consents to your terms,” the ambassador says. “You have my word.”
I sip from the second cup, the tea that has overflowed into it with the spirits’ grace.
My hand does not shake.
“I will have your oath on the spirits,” I say, “and then we can discuss terms.”
Glynis, Lorwyn, Ari, and Tamak, with assistance from Thiano, Ostario, Saiyana, and Sa Rangim turned back to his human form, confirmed their theory about transferring Nakrabi spirits out of their bound objects by testing it on every piece of Nakrabi technology.
The spirits Yorani and I had summoned had silenced everyone, but this moment gave me heart, with the cheers and buzz of inspiration it inspired in everyone who witnessed this miraculous magic, combining all our ways to help each other.
And many people witnessed it, including the Nakrabi, taking out whatever air was left in Cherato’s sails.
With Cherato’s oath, Nakrab’s offensive machinery destroyed, and everyone under the ambassador’s command taken into custody by Entero’s initiative, the wall of spirits dispersed, and we got right to business.
The first round of negotiations proceeds very quickly. With the vision of the magic of the world itself made manifest fresh in everyone’s minds, everyone is very focused and willing to dispense with much of the usual posturing.
Thankfully. Because I am running on the energy of a successful confrontation and miraculous magical feat, but I am aware that if I stop moving for an instant I am likely to stop moving for several hours.
The representatives involved in the negotiation have expanded from the last time we were in the tea shop—Deniel, for one, as a representative of Sayorsen’s city council as well as for the Gaellani. Thiano and Aleixo even attend as advisors toward their countries of origin, garnering disdain from each corner. Risteri is there as well, not as a noble but as a representative of the Cataclysm guides, and Sa Nikuran as the Te Muraka in charge of overseeing barrier defense.
Sa Rangim is there for the Te Muraka too, but given his new relationship with Iryasa, any future initiatives in Sayorsen will have to be able to be handled without his constant presence.
And of course, the full magic genius crew along with the spy team, without whom none of this could have been possible.
By these accords, we make witchcraft legal and establish that witches, Te Muraka, and any other magic user or refugee from the Cataclysm will be treated under the law just as any other human.
It won’t solve everything, of course. Bigotry runs deep. But it’s a step, and I am adamant it be the first step taken by all of us.
I don’t think anyone is surprised by that, anymore—myself included, which is perhaps the strangest of all.
What’s more surprising is how well all my sisters work together, including Karisa—or rather, my older sisters’ behavior toward her. I should have given them more credit: if they could change their treatment of me so quickly, of course they will adapt to her, and all of who she really is. It’s Karisa who seems more surprised by how to deal with her sisters actually taking her contributions seriously, but for once, we are all in this with each other—as sisters; as family.
The exact form reparations from Nakrab will take is to be confirmed later, once our delegation has had a chance to assess more what the isle is truly capable of providing. I still make sure to include provisions for Saiyana to have the army of genius magic workers I promised her.
“What are we going to call this monstrosity, anyway?” Saiyana complains aloud, as if to distract me from feeling too smug that I have managed what she thought impossible.
Yorani, finally too bored of all this discussion to cope now that there’s no imminent danger, takes off, flying away toward… I have no idea what.
I smile. And I’m entirely at ease with that.
“The Tea Princess Accords,” Thiano suggests slyly.
“No one is going to take a Tea Princess delegation seriously,” Lorwyn comments.
“They will,” Ambassador Ridac rumbles, having not even commented on the presence of a witch in the room, “because I will personally shove it down their throats until they do.”
A Tea Princess delegation. I can scarcely even imagine it.
But what that will look like is a problem for future-Miyara.
Today, I—we—have saved the world after all.
I push my witch-green hair over my shoulder, smiling at the sight of my magic bracelet but feeling no need for the security of touching it.
I meet Deniel’s eyes across the room, and we share a nod.
Today, I’ll see what I can do to minimize how much saving the world will need in the future.
A/N: In case this gives you the impression this is the end of the book, be advised I have gone full Return of the King movie with the endings of this book. I promise I will tell you when it’s actually over. 😂
Continue to Chapter 38