When we arrive, Sa Nikuran appears to take over touring Lorwyn and Entero through their options on Sa Rangim’s behalf. “It’s no trouble at all,” she says, her smile sharp.
I laugh. “I suppose you are incentivized to make sure they’re happy with their accommodations.”
Sa Nikuran’s eyes narrow. “I will not do badly by the best friend of the one I wish to be my mate.”
Lorwyn says, “Miyara’s not accusing you of dishonor or whatever—she thinks you want privacy for sex.”
“Ah.” Sa Nikuran nods. “That is also important to Risteri.”
“Risteri,” Entero puts in, “would also prefer her relationship not be discussed where every Te Muraka can hear. As you know well.”
“Spoilsport,” Lorwyn says.
“Miyara, we’ll see you later,” Entero says. “Shall we?”
I blink as they walk off, momentarily confused before my brain catches up.
Little by little, I’ve been losing my edge the last few days. It’s as though my brain knows it desperately needs to rest but can’t quite believe it’s allowed yet, so it slowly decreases its capacity while I’m not paying attention.
Of course, Entero would have still noticed that although Sa Rangim promised to show them around, he isn’t here and didn’t have Sa Nikuran excuse his absence. Entero probably noticed where Sa Rangim is, too, but after wracking my brain for a moment I can’t figure out where I missed it.
Entero was a spy for a long time. He can pace himself better than I can.
I sigh and go to ask the nearest Te Muraka where I can find Sa Rangim when the man in question finds me instead.
We exchange bows, and then Sa Rangim asks, “May I show you something?”
The room he shows me is new: or rather, I have been in here when it was empty, but it is completely changed.
There are three low stone basins: one filled with water, another with soil, and the other with burning embers. Benches sit between. The arrangement is simple and beautiful.
Sa Rangim has made a shrine in his home.
Or—his people’s home.
I blink rapidly past the sudden surge of emotion in my chest. It is one thing to invite another person into your home; it is another for them to actually feel at home there.
Whatever else he may intend with this place, I know Istalam, our spirits, and our service, have touched Sa Rangim, and he has embraced us all. As those of us who were here before make space for the Te Muraka in Istalam, he makes space for us with them, too.
When I look up at him, Sa Rangim is smiling. He squeezes one of my hands, just as Iryasa did. “A priestess will come to bless this place soon, but as the one who brought me into your world in the ways that matter, I wanted you to be the first to see it.”
He releases me and goes inside, and I join him. We’ve shared time at shrines many times now, and we go through the motions of prayer in an almost practiced way. I linger at over the warmth of the fire for a moment, wondering if I have gone through the mental motions without attending as well, before smiling.
I don’t need to stay there anymore. Today I have everything I need.
Sa Rangim and I sit together on a bench. “You don’t need a priestess, you know,” I say. “The spirits are already here.”
He glances at me. “You can feel them?”
I nod. “Since the Manifest.” That’s what everyone is calling the shield of manifested spirits from the confrontation with the Nakrabi delegation. We’ll see if it sticks. “I still can’t see them when Yorani plays with them, but I can… feel them, sometimes. Swirling. They’re always here. But they’re particularly here in this place.”
Sa Rangim smiles. “I’m glad. I will have this place consecrated all the same, however. I wouldn’t want them to think I take their presence for granted.”
I finger my bracelets. “Glynis thinks the spirits in my bracelets are happy here and don’t want to go back to Nakrab. But she said she can free them if they ever change their minds. I’m not sure how she’ll know.”
“But you know she will.” He leans back. “Why aren’t you a priestess, Miyara?”
“I didn’t think of it fast enough,” I say, and he chuckles. “But if I had, it would have put eventually put me into a complicated position with the crown in terms of who I serve and how. This way… in a way, I may be a priestess after all. Just a different kind.”
That warms me. Spirits, I’m grateful for this man, his wisdom and understanding. Which reminds me— “I never thanked you for Thiano.”
“There’s no need. We have talked about leading before, and serving. I know what it is like to have a cause. I know what it is like to need forgiveness. I know what it is like to balance freedom and service and fail. Of course I wish he had made different choices. Now we will see what he makes of the opportunity to do so.”
“He won’t disappoint you.”
“I don’t expect him to.”
I smile. “You’re something of a priest yourself.”
“High praise indeed, from you. Thank you.” Sa Rangim glances at me sidelong. “And for your machinations on my behalf.”
That makes me laugh. “I am glad beyond words that your relationship with Iryasa has worked out.”
“Working,” he corrects, “always. I’m glad as well. It is… more than I ever expected for myself. You remind people how to dream. I imagine that’s why the spirits have always been happy to be with you.”
“You are going to make me cry.”
“Then cry,” he says simply. “Be how you are and how you need. I and your sister and all of our people will make sure you are free to. This I swear.”
Spirits. I swipe my hands over my eyes before I really do lose it.
“The world is going to change,” Sa Rangim says reflectively. “I doubt it can ever be put back to how it was. Magic, like life, is all about change—I suspect that’s why the backlash to Nakrab’s current way of doing magic is so dramatic. It keeps magic in stasis.”
“Not all magic will want to go back to how it was,” I muse. “We’ll have to address that. Do you think it will cause problems for the Te Muraka? With needing to eat magic?”
“No. I worry, because at this point I am trained to. But I believe all will be well. Say rather, I believe it may be possible for all to be well, and with that in mind I will do everything in my considerable power to make it so.”
I have seen only flashes of his true power to date, and those were impressive enough for this to be a great comfort.
“Every time I perform the tea ceremony,” I say, “I shape magic into discrete spirits. They’re not physical like Yorani, they don’t interact with our physical world except with her and cats, but they… have a form. An individual one.”
“You’re gathering wild magic into a shape that allows the magic to disperse safely back into the world,” Sa Rangim says. “The magic isn’t gone or trapped, yet you channel it to freedom. It’s remarkable to watch.”
It’s my turn to ask, “You can see them?”
“Not in the way you mean. It is a kind of sense. And it will change as your tea spirit does. You and she still have far to go together.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Do you know something about what Yorani is capable of?”
“Let us say I don’t believe in coincidences,” he says with an arch smile, and I laugh. Spirits, it feels as though it’s been so long since we met. “The world has experienced the greatest magical cataclysm in known history, the first tea spirit born for centuries, and you. Knowing what I do of at least the latter, I have my suspicions.”
“Sa Rangim, please, we only just finished saving the world.”
I thought he would smile, but instead it fades, leaving his gaze serious on mine. “I am quite aware, and I will not forget. Rest now. It will come to you in time.”
Before I can say anything else, blue scales whiz past me into Sa Rangim’s face. He does laugh then, effortlessly catching the tiny dragon chirping insistently at his face.
“Oh, to have your reflexes,” I say mournfully.
He grins at me. “I am always happy to dragonsit, as you call it. You’ll simply have to visit.”
Yorani freezes, as if this thought has arrested her. Did she think she would lose him, the man whose tea ceremony made her possible? She turns adorably imploring eyes at me before chirping and nuzzling my neck.
“Of course we’ll visit,” I say. “We do not forget our friends.”
Sa Rangim smiles.
Yorani’s nuzzling becomes insistent pecks. “What is this about, now?”
“I believe the little one thinks you have somewhere to be,” Sa Rangim says, amused.
I pause, taking stock of how much time has passed today. Oh. “Thank you, Yorani. I remember. Will you be home later tonight?”
Looking out for me from afar, and she will know where I am. Connected but distinct.
She flaps off of me and shakes her head no, then lands on Sa Rangim’s shoulder.
On my own then. My heartbeat accelerates as I stand.
Sa Rangim starts to bow, but on impulse I hug him and Yorani both instead. Sa Rangim freezes in surprise for a moment, and I hear the telltale rumbling sound Yorani makes when she burrows, as if she’s demonstrating to him what to do.
Sa Rangim huffs a quick laugh. “Thank you, little one,” he says, his voice a rumble too, as he returns the hug.
This time I know he means me.
Deniel is waiting for me at the entrance to a Gaellani courtyard, leaning casually against the wall. It’s not one I’ve been to except to pass through—never the closest to any of the places I’ve lived or worked.
It is the closest to Deniel’s family, though. It’s where he grew up.
He eyes me speculatively. “You look different.”
He doesn’t mean my attire. I’m dressed in the same formalwear I always don, my hair its now-normal green.
Deniel looks just the same too—just as calm and sure as ever. He’s even wearing the same clothes he wears to craft pottery, though this is a clean set. At first he thought he should dress up to go to council meetings, but he and Saiyana apparently decided it was better to force them to deal with Deniel as he is.
That’s what we’re doing here too, in a way.
“Is that your way of saying you don’t know what I look like when I’m not tired?” I ask.
He smiles faintly. “No. Though given the conversations you planned to have today, I did expect some weariness. But you look… not at peace, exactly, but—”
“Clarity, I think. Just without the force of anger behind it for once. Are you ready?”
Deniel pushes off the wall. “Just about.”
I know what he’s going to do. My blood has been singing, my heartbeat a steady thrum since I saw him.
He closes the distance between us and takes me in his arms and kisses me.
When we finally break apart, we’re both breathing hard.
“On second thought,” Deniel murmurs, “maybe I’m not ready after all.”
I know I’m blushing, but I am learning how to play this game. I lean in and say in his ear, “Get ready, because the next time I kiss you I want everyone to see.”
Deniel’s arms tighten around me, and when I pull back I see that I have, finally, managed to make this man blush the way he so easily does to me. I laugh and tug him into motion.
We enter the courtyard holding hands. More than one person has held my hand today, but everything is different with Deniel, like the warmth of his hand is a direct line to my heart.
People in the courtyard notice us. How could they not? At this point we’re the best-known residents of the city, and today we are recognizably ourselves.
But no one says anything. No whispers or furtive glances start up. We order food, and sit at a stall, and everyone treats us as if there’s nothing special about us.
Which isn’t true. But I would like to think that they treat us as if we’re no more special than them, which is.
Deniel has taken me to a dumpling stall—he’s wanted me to try these but never learned how to make the dough. After a single bite, I withhold a groan of pleasure and decide I will.
“So what did Hanuva’s apprentice want?” he asks me.
It has been a long day of conversations. I’d met this apprentice for the first time during the events surrounding the tournament and wasn’t wholly surprised to be hearing from her again now. “A job. A couple of the other apprentices took over Hanuva’s business and are managing, if with some difficulty, but this one felt too guilty to stay. She still wants to practice tea, though, and she thinks if I hire her it will help her friends there too, so she won’t feel like she’s abandoning them.”
“Publicly demonstrating that you don’t hold them responsible for Hanuva’s actions,” Deniel murmurs. “So?”
“I agree. Talmeri’s not thrilled, since the tea boy tradition was her policy, but the shop clearly isn’t what it once was and she knows it’s time to embrace change.”
“That doesn’t sound like her.”
I smile. “I didn’t say she liked it or is willing to admit it yet, but she does know.”
He laughs. “There we go.”
“We’ll need someone who knows their business quickly anyway, so Hanuva’s apprentice is a good fit,” I say. “It’s about time for Meristo to move on, and Taseino will be close behind him.”
“So that conversation went well too?”
I roll my eyes. “Turned into about four conversations, but yes.”
“Of course it did.” Deniel’s voice is amused. He knew the plan going in, and he’s also learning about how many conversations politics always takes.
“Also I think Sa Rangim expects Yorani to eat the Cataclysm.”
That makes his eyebrows shoot up. He takes a bite, chews slowly on it and the thought, before nodding slowly. “Okay. That’s interesting. Not soon, I assume, if Sa Rangim isn’t urgently worried about it.”
“You are a very difficult man to surprise,” I tell him.
Deniel grins. “Not at all. You’ve just gotten me used to the sensation. Where is Yorani, anyway?”
“I think she arranged with Talsion to give us the house to ourselves tonight. She’s with Sa Rangim.”
Deniel pauses then, his gaze going intent.
He doesn’t even have to say anything and I start blushing.
“Excuse me,” a woman says.
We look up. It’s no one I know, but Deniel does this time. She needs a favor.
This is starting to happen a lot to both of us, now. It happens a couple more times as we sit there, but each time we’re able to redirect them.
We’ll help them, of course. Just… not right this second.
This moment is ours.
“Look at you,” Deniel teases, “enforcing boundaries like it’s easy.”
It isn’t, which he knows. I’m sure I’ll be learning this for a long time, and it will change.
But I’m learning.
“Look at us,” I say. “Out in the open, as ourselves. No more hiding, no more making ourselves smaller, no more being limited by anyone else’s view of us.”
He takes my hands, as we sit in full view of our people, the bustle of life around us that somehow feels quiet. Like in this moment, there is a bubble just for us that we’ve made with our own focus.
“So?” he asks me. “We have time. Tonight. Tomorrow.”
“Our whole future,” I murmur.
He smiles that crooked smile I love so much. “What do you want to do with it?”
“Oh, I have some ideas.”
His hands tighten on mine. “So do I. Do you want to go home and talk about them together?”
Everything I wanted and didn’t know how to imagine or believe. My heart is going to explode out of my chest.
“I could not have dreamed you,” I whisper.
Deniel leans forward until our foreheads touch. “You don’t have to,” he says softly. “I’m right here.”
I make good on my promise and kiss him.
I think of all the other promises I want to make, and the future is just as dazzling in my imagination as in my reality. This moment, and all the others to come.
I can’t wait.
Hand in hand, we go into our future.
~~~ THE END ~~~
That’s it for this book, and this trilogy. (!!) It feels surreal to type that. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the story.
If you’re looking for more Tea Princess Chronicles content, don’t miss the bonus scenes and Tea Shop Interludes. Also surprise, the directory listings are still populating at various places so I haven’t officially announced yet, but you can now also listen to the Tea Shop Interludes in podcast form.
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Yours in tea and dragons,