Royal Tea Service: Chapter 38

My grandmother, the dowager queen Esmeri and spymaster of Istalam, has taken up residence in House Taresim and is holding court, summoning all manner of people to official meetings for reports. She doesn’t technically have any authority over my sisters, but none of us is stupid—she has nearly as much power now as she ever did as queen. So we’ve all decided to go along with her, at least for now.

If she wants to push any of us in directions we’d prefer not to, it will be another matter entirely.

Fortunately, my grandmother isn’t stupid either.

My turn for a meeting has come at last, and I’m oddly nervous about it. Not that she’ll be able to push me—I feel secure on that front. But I’m not sure what my relationship with my grandmother will be like, now that I’ve left royal duties and found a path outside what she intended for me.

And, of course, now that I know more of who she is: not just that she’s been the spymaster of Istalam for so many years, but about what she allowed to be done to witches.

I’m angry, but I still love her. So I’m not sure how this will go.

Iryasa is outside the library door when I arrive. “Your turn at last, then,” she says.

“So it seems. What are you waiting here for?”

“You,” she says. “Also I asked Saiyana to make me a magecraft device to eavesdrop as needed. Thiano’s in there now with Yorani.”

I frown. “Trouble?”

She shakes her head. “Not so far, and I don’t think there will be. Yorani and I are both being cautious. But I was hoping to talk to you when you’re done. I promise I won’t listen in.”

“No, you can,” I say. “In fact, I think maybe you should.”

Her eyebrows lift. “Very well. I will, then. Saiyana’s certain our grandmother can’t prove I can do this, but—”

“—she’s canny and likely has guessed anyway. I know. See you in a few minutes?”

Iryasa nods. “I’ll meet you at the back door.”

A private conversation then, not a public stroll. Since Iryasa’s presence here has become public knowledge, she is both more free to go where she wills and less: she doesn’t have to hide, but she does travel with at least discreet bodyguards at all times she’s visible.

I knock and wait for my grandmother to call, “Enter,” before doing so.

I make my bows to both her and Thiano—respectful, but the one I direct toward my grandmother is not as low as the last time I saw her. She smiles wryly and inclines her head, and acknowledgement of the shift, of what it means.

I blink as Yorani flies over to meet me, processing that, somewhat to my surprise, my grandmother doesn’t seem intimidating to me in the slightest. It could be that she’s moderating her behavior, but I think maybe it’s me who has changed.

Yorani flapps around my head once before booping my nose.

“Hello, there,” I say. “I was wondering where you’d gotten to. Did you think Thiano needed backup?”

Thiano rolls his eyes fondly. “That is absolutely what she thought. Most of my time in this room has been spent convincing the little one to stop posturing.”

I take a seat in one of the empty chairs. “How did that work out?”

“As well as you expect. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve made formal introductions to your grandmother in your absence.”

I do so enjoy presenting Yorani and seeing people’s first reactions. Ah, well. Yorani can choose who gets the pleasure herself.

“When I was told you had a familiar,” my grandmother says, “I admit I expected that to mean she would be like you in personality. But even as a child, you were always so serious, and your smiles full of innocence. Nothing like the mischief evident in this one from even an instant of her delightful company.”

Could I have been, had I been raised differently? There’s no way to know.

“Yorani and I are alike in the ways that matter,” I say, holding my grandmother’s gaze.

We’ll defend who we consider ours with everything in us.

“So I understand,” my grandmother says, more gravely now. “You’ll be glad to know Thiano and I are coming to an arrangement on what his future will look like.”

“Oh?” I ask, my tone notably cooler.

Thiano snorts. “See, Yorani’s version of that reaction is hissing. Entirely different.”

I relax slightly, inclining my head to Yorani as she flaps with her chest puffed out. My tea spirit can be trusted to react badly to any attempts to control another’s will, so as she hasn’t let loose any flame, all is probably well. “And so?”

Thiano’s gaze is sardonic as he meets mine. “I’m not going to be spying for her, if that’s your fear, and nor did she expect me to.”

That last had been my fear—that she would try to pressure him into doing what he’d been forced to do his whole life, trapping him in stasis again and preventing him from moving on. “I’m glad to hear it.”

My grandmother asks mildly, “Are you always this direct with my granddaughter? Perhaps she should sit in more often.”

I smile. “Only when he’s trying to make me uncomfortable, which admittedly is often.”

“My rate of success is so embarrassingly low, I have to take as many chances as I can,” Thiano says lightly. “The first part of our terms is that I will advise any of your sisters on Nakrabi culture should they call upon me.”

I look back at my grandmother; she’s watching me.

My sisters, not her, or even my mother. That is more acknowledgment of her failures—or my perception of them—than I expected from her.

Perhaps it is that she is canny enough to realize how hard I will push if I decide she’s crossed lines, and that for me, manipulating Thiano’s freedom to choose is a very firm line. 

“I will still keep my shop,” Thiano continues. “Depending on how your delegation goes, I may be able to also help my countryfolk adapt to continental ideas. But for now I will offer lessons to the Te Muraka on understanding Istalam as an outsider. Sa Rangim has given his blessing.”

That is the most important thing. He’s found a way to leverage his knowledge—of how people interact, of different cultures, of the profession of a merchant and expertise on just about every object under the sun—to make amends to the Te Muraka first, putting his resources at their disposal to set them up for their future, and perhaps also to the people he feels he abandoned.

“And?” I ask. Because that isn’t something he needs my grandmother’s approval for.

“And,” he says, “when you have determined the shape reparation efforts will take, I am willing to assist.”

“He’ll supervise things on the Nakrabi magic front,” my grandmother explains. “He’s clearly the best qualified to do so.”

“Are you sure?” I ask him. “You’ve already spent so much of your life—”

“I’m sure I don’t understand how it can have escaped your notice that I enjoy teaching,” Thiano growls at me.

That gets a surprised laugh out of me.

He settles back, and his eyes are softer as he says, “Miyara, for most of my life the best I could hope for was to mitigate damage. If I can use my skills and knowledge to actually improve the world—that is a gift I won’t pass up.”

My throat is thicker, and I nod. “All right then.”

He smiles crookedly. “Don’t make me hug you in front of the spymaster of Istalam. My reputation will never recover.”

But the look he sends my grandmother promises danger, and her back straightens—in an instant, they are two predators sizing each other up.

Two old, impossibly clever shadow-operators.

And Thiano is challenging her to make it clear that for him, I am the line she cannot cross.

“I really am going to hug you at this rate,” I threaten him.

The tension drains in an instant.

“In that case, I will make my exit,” Thiano says, bowing theatrically. “If I’ve demonstrated to your satisfaction that your grandmother and I aren’t going to eat each other without your supervision?”

I laugh. “Not at all. But I think we all understand each other here.”

His eyebrows lift. “So we might at that,” he murmurs. “Yorani, shall we? I need to completely upend my shop to arrange things for the Te Muraka. You’ll love it.”

My tea spirit trills, bumps my shoulder and looks at me quizzically.

“Go have fun,” I drawl. “You’ll know if I need you.”

She chirps and flies to Thiano’s shoulder, and the two of them take their leave.

The door shuts, and my grandmother and I are both silent for a moment.

“Well,” I say. “Thiano must think this conversation is going to be difficult for us, if he’s volunteered to dragonsit.”

The dowager queen shakes her head, pulling her gaze away from the door where she was frowning after him. “That man has made many hard decisions in his life, but so have I.”

Hmm. Perhaps we don’t understand each other after all. “He’s not judging you for your decisions about the Cataclysm,” I say softly. “He’s judging you for your decisions toward me.”

“I do realize that.” My grandmother sighs, leaning back. “This should have been your job. You understand service and the responsibility of Istalam’s monarchy. Managing people, seeing their strengths, the backbone to make things happen without appearing to have any power at your disposal. You’re perfect for it.”

“Evidently not,” I say. “And perhaps, if you’d ever asked, you might have known where I shine brightest is in the light. I could be good at what you do. But it would twist me, and I don’t think I’d like who I’d become.”

She studies me. “You do blame me. If I had told you what I had in mind and you hadn’t thought there were any other options, you would have taken it. And that would have been a mistake. This is something you need to choose.”

I nod. “I realize that. Unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that I grew up believing I had nothing worth offering anyone, while also believing that only my ability to serve makes me worthwhile. I can blame you for the position you forced my mother into, that created the conditions I grew up in. Neither of us can change the past, but I hope you understand that when I offer you a solution for the future, I expect you to treat it not just with care, because I do know that you care. But with empathy, as family, and not just as a mover of pieces.”

“Because that, you think, is easy for me?” she demands.

“No, I think it’s become habit for you, and I’m asking you to work on breaking it, for the sake of your granddaughters. All of us.”

She frowns, and then her eyes snap wide as she puts the pieces of my meaning together. “Karisa?

“Karisa,” I say firmly. “You want a person who can see into people’s hearts, is bold enough to take action, hides in plain sight and thrives on it? That’s the sister you should be training. And openly, this time. Help prepare for the delegation to the Isle of Nakrab. We both know it won’t happen immediately: she has some time.”

My grandmother visibly considers that. “You really think your wild and barely tested sister should lead the first delegation into a foreign country? Or are you thinking it should be your innocent protégé, the tea shadow?”

“Taseino,” I say.

My grandmother’s face is utterly blank as she tries to place who that is, and I smile in satisfaction.

“Don’t get too excited, I know who he is,” she says. “One of the tea boys who works with you.”

“But you almost didn’t remember, even though I have been working with him since before I became a tea master, and visibly during the tournament, and then made him my official liaison to the Nakrabi delegation,” I point out. “And if you almost didn’t remember—”

“How do you think a tea boy no one notices is going to manage a team of adolescent spies through an international diplomatic disaster?”

“He will surprise you,” I say. “He’s also smart, level-headed, and all the people I’d recommend as critical to this mission already trust him.”

My grandmother drums her fingers on the arm of her chair. “Spymasters have always been in the family, Miyara. There are reasons for that. We’re all raised to understand what our service means. You’re recommending Karisa in one breath and then suggesting giving power to a nobody in the next.”

“There’s no reason every member of our family has to be crushed under unbearable pressure,” I tell her flatly. “Just as there’s no reason every member of our family has to be unhappy and alone. When it comes down to who is giving orders, I’m confident they can find a way to work as partners—all of them. Karisa was able to work with Elowyn without giving her orders. Taseino already knows how to pretend to fill a seneschal role and coordinate from the background. They’ll handle it.”

The dowager queen’s frown is different now, and I can see her thinking it through—her eyes are bright in a different way. I have her. “None of that team is a combat specialist,” she murmurs.

“Then maybe we’ll learn to solve problems other ways,” I tell her. “But if you don’t want to lose another granddaughter, give her a chance to fly, to learn who she is and what she’s capable of. Before her dedication ceremony, this time?”

My grandmother meets my gaze with a steely one of her own. “Very well. We will try it—no. We will do it your way. But I wish to be clear that I do not consider you lost, granddaughter.”

I smile, and she answers with a soft one of her own.

Words of affection are not habit between us, but maybe this is another relationship I will be able to find a way to navigate after all.

“I’m not,” I agree.

When I leave to go meet Iryasa, an unwelcome sight greets me outside the library door:

Lady Kireva, Risteri’s grandmother.

“I’m here by invitation this time,” she tells me, nodding to the door where my grandmother sits behind. “We have some formalities to straighten out between us.”

I regard her flatly.

I don’t regret my words to her before, and I’m not asking this woman for anything.

The old woman sighs. “But the essence is that I am formally renouncing all claim to Taresim and passing it to my daughter to do with as she sees fit—and she has some notions of making this a base of operations for the restoration of the barrier and the Cataclysm, rather than restoring our family to court. I will also be leaving your grandmother’s service to remain local and advise Risteri, Entero, and you. On whatever terms you choose.”

I study her. “Why? And why are you telling me?” I can’t imagine she wants any more to do with me than I want to do with her. I can’t say I’ll be glad to have her around, but it’s not impossible Entero and Risteri might benefit from it.

“Because my granddaughter asked me to,” Lady Kireva says steadily. “I believe I have experience worth sharing, but we’ll see if I can’t learn a thing or two from the younger generation in my old age, too.”

She nods one last time and walks through the door.

I fall into step with Iryasa as she leads me into Taresim’s gardens. Somehow in all the times I visited, I never had a chance to explore them before my eldest sister showed them to me.

“I have a knack,” she said with a wry smile, “for finding places and stories no one else wants to tell. It’s one of the few ways I can find privacy without having to fight for it.”

Today we make our way to a bench that is made of stone but looks like black glass, jagged around all its edges but the smooth surface on top. The previous bench, unattended by Kustio for so long, had rotted: this one was a gift from Sa Rangim.

A way he finds to support her, even at a distance, by also supporting her privacy yet reminding her that she’s not alone.

“You’ve been doing a lot of matchmaking,” Iryasa notes. “How long have you been building Karisa a team?”

“Longer than I knew she needed one,” I say. “Tea mastery isn’t the same as arcanists discerning patterns, but—”

“You just sort of scatter connections that help people lift each other up in your wake as you pass, I’ve noticed,” Iryasa drawls.

I laugh. We both know there’s more to it than that, but… she’s not wrong, and that delights me.

“Having her lead the delegation makes sense,” I say. “She got as much from Cherato as I did and spent more time with the Nakrabi. Put her in as the figurehead—”

“And, assuming they’re all willing, Taseino will help steady her, Elowyn will watch her back and Tamak will watch hers. Ari’s expertise in how the land is affected will be instrumental, as will Glynis’ ability to put pieces together. I do see what you did there. You, Risteri, Sa Nikuran, and Thiano prepare things on this side, while they figure out what’s even possible for Nakrabi magic. Will Lorwyn go with them too?

“They can handle Nakrabi magic without her now, I think.”

Iryasa’s eyes narrow. “You’re not telling me something.”

I shrug. “I don’t think Lorwyn will go, anyway. Even if she’s now explicitly allowed to come back.”

“Ah yes,” Iryasa says. “We’re back to matchmaking. I don’t disagree with your plan in principle, but I don’t like all of them going without someone with a little more experience.”

“Lorwyn would definitely object to being a babysitter,” I say. “I was thinking Aleixo. He has the experience, he knows what they’re capable of, he needs something to do, and it solves the concern about potential physical confrontation.” I shrug. “But that’s up to you.”

“Neat,” she approves. “Not quite as neat as what we managed with Ridac, but neat all the same.”

We share a grin. The two of us together managed the ambassador so well even he was grudgingly amused.

As part of the accords, Velasar consented to dissolve our father’s hold on consort duties in Istalam, though we made sure to include a provision that allows him to remain in Istalam if he chooses to and our mother consents.

Let them both get to determine their relationship and roles for once.

At this reminder, I hand Iryasa two letters, one for each of our parents, which she has promised to deliver. In this case, I am both tea master and princess, taking the weight for all my sisters of beginning to see if we can have a different relationship with our parents. Iryasa will have to take on most of the burden of handling how that plays out, so I can do this much at least.

Each letter is brief. To my father I write, “Let me give you the advice about earth, roots, and duty you should have given me when I asked for it. Ties can be a vise or a strength.

“You can choose us if you wish to. As your daughter, I have always wanted to know who my parents would choose to be if it were up to them.”

My letter to my mother is briefer still. “I don’t know what you need to be happy, but thank you for making the space for the rest of us to be. It’s not too late for you to choose yourself. We are hoping for it, and we are ready now.”

Iryasa reads the letters, her eyes misting, and nods silently, folding them back up and slipping them inside her sleeve.

We are ready.

“So,” I say, “about matchmaking.”

“Whose, exactly? I’m losing track.” Iryasa laughs, her hand sliding over the bench, but her eyes are serious enough when they meet mine. “Are you worrying about Saiyana and Karisa now that you’ve gotten Reyata and me sorted?”

Part of how we managed things with Ridac was, first of all, by making it clear Istalam will also be paying reparations: to the Gaellani, and toward supporting witches. I promised to hold everyone accountable, and I am.

But we also managed by making the opening indicators of discussing a new, different alliance with Velasar. Ostensibly this is to discuss combined military efforts against the Isle of Nakrab, so we do not actually have to rely on summoning forth spirits to defend ourselves from their superior technology.

Since Reyata and General Braisa would clearly be leading these efforts and we all know how they feel about each other, it’s understood this is the beginning of a different kind of match between us—not one that the succession rests on, yet one that already includes love, which should make it substantially more likely to be useful to all our people.

“I can get away with not making a strategic political marriage because I’m officially disowned,” I say. “I know the rest of you don’t have that freedom. You and Reyata happily found politically advantageous matches, but—”

“But nothing,” Iryasa says firmly. “I’m not so blind I can’t see where Saiyana’s affections clearly lie, and if the two of them work things out, I’ll make sure it’s allowed to stand. Karisa too, whoever she chooses. It won’t even be hard.”

I lift my eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

Iryasa gazes up at the sky. “The world is changing again, but it’s not like when there were dozens of nations around. We can’t just marry royals anymore, because there only are so many royals to go around. In a way of course that makes us rarer and more special, but it also means what a person brings to an alliance is different. We only know of four surviving nations now, and maybe someday that will change again, but now we have ties between us.

“Now we can focus on more than that smallminded vision of survival and perhaps deal with the idea that this entire strategy of creating alliances based on noble power nearly broke us. Trying to hold onto this antiquated power structure literally threatened the very spirit of our world.”

“Well, if that’s the scope you’re thinking of, it will definitely be more of a challenge,” I say. “You’ll have to be prepared to leverage your power to make everyone more free.”

“I don’t need you to tell me that,” Iryasa says, but she’s smiling—she’s comfortable with who she is now, and with her authority. “Though I suppose you’re right that our sisters’ marriages, if they choose to have them, may be more complicated to arrange once the nobility realize what I’m up to. But I will make sure of them nevertheless, and I am glad you will be watching. I will also always watch for you.”

Now, we see each other. We can see each other, as equals—and as sisters.

“And I, you,” I say, taking her hand.

She squeezes my hand briefly with a smile, and keeps holding it as she continues, “I hope you realize, in all this, what else I saw, when things got serious. Ambassador Cherato targeted you.”

I tilt my head. “If you’re thinking I need protection—”

She laughs. “No, I won’t saddle you with this. Even my short time here, with minimal oversight and still in hiding, was enough to make me understand how impossible it would be for you to return to the expectations of a princess after the freedom of the life you’ve led here. I mean the value of your work—the connections you build, the very notion of bringing together different people and ideas, that’s what threatened them. That’s what stood against the greatest threat to our world and saved it. I just wanted to make sure you knew I’ll prioritize that, too—in my own way.”

She really does see. I slump, letting my head fall against my sister’s shoulder. “Thank goodness,” I manage, having difficulty speaking past my relief. “I don’t want to manage a demonstration like that a second time.”

Iryasa huffs her amusement, wrapping her arm around behind me at the same time. “Don’t worry, I had an excellent view.”

From the back of a dragon in flight. “How was it?” I ask.

Iryasa knows I don’t mean watching me. “Perfect,” she says. Which would be enough, but because she frames the world in stories, she gives me more words: “On every level. Politically, obviously it demonstrated unity between Istalam and Te Murak. He found a way to, very literally, make sure I could be both safe and involved when it mattered. And I proved—to both of us—that I can in fact handle the fact that he is also a dragon. In the most spectacular fashion possible, if I may say so myself.”

“So you did,” I agree with a faint smile. “And also he proved his control to you, didn’t he?”

She shakes her head. “No. There was no need for that. I proved that I didn’t doubt his control, which I had previously made a point of contention. And while we are agreed that we will make private space for our relationship, I think demonstrating all that to each other publicly—being comfortable with it, and being who we are—mattered, too.” Iryasa wiggles her eyebrows at me. “Although we’re negotiating our boundaries well at this point, I hope I can rely on you to negotiate the terms of my marriage, when the time comes. I trust you to look out for both our interests.”

“It would be my absolute pleasure,” I say. “In fact, you two should both come over for dinner before you leave town.”

“I would love that, but it’ll take a bit of coordination for all our schedules, I suspect,” Iryasa says ruefully. “But I’ll be here a little while longer anyway, because when I return to Miteran I want to do so with Sa Rangim. And he has things to arrange to make ready for that.”

“Then for once, his and Deniel’s schedules will be the more limiting ones than yours or mine,” I say. “I am on a break from the tea shop until I’ve caught up on my sleep.”

“Oh, I see,” my sister says, her tone inciting me to poke her. “And what about you and Deniel?”

What a world, where two princesses can speak openly to each other about our romances. “I think we want a chance to just be for a little while before we take our next step together,” I say. “After all—we have time.”

The crown princess of Istalam inhales deeply, taking the world in. “Yes. For once, finally, we do.”

A/N: For a bonus scene from the dowager queen’s perspective, read how Entero became a spy.

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Continue to Chapter 39

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