When Orla’s sister dies in the war, her mother calls for a meeting with the general she blames for the death. There will be retribution.
From a chair beside the fireplace, Orla watched her mother place a single guest tea cup upside down on the serving tray, then wring her hands again. Merete was nervous, or maybe angry, Orla had seen both emotions in force recently. The impending visit with Seeker Birk wasn’t doing any favors.
Merete smoothed her dress over her stomach, then repeated the motion twice more. Orla glanced at the teapot over the fire. It was already steaming, but until Seeker Birk arrived, Merete wouldn’t take it off the heat, which meant their little four-room shelter was quickly becoming humid.
Merete sorted through the tea tins on display over the fireplace for a third time. She replaced the gentle white and selected a rough-ground green, then replaced that and considered the fermented black.
Orla would have served the black and given Seeker Birk the first, dusty steeping, just to make sure he understood how insulting his visit was, but Merete dismissed the black and selected the green again. Her anger surpassed Orla’s, but Orla had never known her mother to serve the black to any guest in her home. That was reserved for family: children who enjoyed the stronger taste with sugarleaf, and adults who understood the reprimand.
Merete held the tin of white tea, turning it over in her palms to warm it, then seemed to steel herself. Her back straightened and she replaced the white firmly on the shelf. Seeker Birk didn’t deserve the finest they had.
Steam throbbed out of the kettle in time to Orla’s rising heart and boiled along the woven bows of the greeting room’s ceiling. Her twice great grandmother had woven these saplings together by hand rather than casting on magic. The trees had since grown intertwined, encircling the family for generations.
Orla remembered her younger sister begging Merete to allow her to cast on the trees and expand their tight little room, but Merete, like Orla’s grandmother and grandmother before, had been firm. These trees were a gift from their ancestors, twisted and formed by hand, there would be no casting on anywhere near them.
Long ago the individual trunks and branches had grown together and each year the bark thickened against the snow. It was a living home in the same tradition as every other home in the golden forest, but most others had been cast on, which left theirs unique in origin.
Orla didn’t feel that uniqueness had given their family any advantages. Her mother’s stance against casting meant even if Orla had an interest when she was young, she’d never had a chance to explore it. But for her younger sister Rie, there hadn’t been any other life.
Rie had been six when she cast on for the first time, entirely by instinct or accident. Then nine when she did it on purpose. For years she cast on in secret–an easy secret to keep when the rest of the community used magic with every breath of their lives. And finally, when the secret got out and their mother discovered Rei’s practice, she was released from the golden forest to serve under Seeker Birk. With him, at least, Merete wouldn’t have to watch Rei go against her wishes every day.
Rie loved their mother, she’d told Orla a thousand times, but she didn’t understand the way the magic burned in Rie’s veins. She couldn’t grasp that casting on was both a pleasure and pain, for it opened new avenues in a mage to hold larger and more volatile magics.
Magics that Merete had told Orla could and had broken free of a casting and run wild, destroying lives and homes alike.
In the same way a child slowly learns the nuances and honors of the tea, by the time Orla had a better grasp of the politics of casting on, she’d been too old to learn the practice no matter what her opinion developed into. She frequently wondered if she could have practiced in secret, as Rie had, and perhaps their mother would have lost two daughters instead of one.
There was a knock at the door.
Merete hooked the kettle off of the fire to begin cooling, then answered the door with a stiff smile, but it wasn’t Seeker Birk on the threshold. From her place in the chair between the fireplace and her bedroom doorway, Orla easily spotted Lance-Warden Tilde’s close-shaved blonde head.
Her mother startled to see the leader of their community at her door unannounced, but recovered in a bow, inviting the Lance-Warden inside. Orla hopped to her feet and also bowed her welcome. Then she spotted Seeker Birk following next and stiffened.
”Please have a seat, Lance-Warden,” Merete said. ”I was just about to pour tea.”
Offering tea to a guest of the house was necessary tradition, and Merete always took great care to follow tradition. She swept the tea of green tea off the serving table and replaced it with the white, as befitting Lance-Warden Tilde’s station.
She added a second guest cup to the formal serving tray, rim down. The tray was thick, sporting a top layer of rosewood carved through with a scripture blessing. The bottom layer was solid, to catch the water that was poured through. Merete took the steaming kettle in hand and poured boiling water over the bottoms of both cups to warm them. It splashed across the serving tray and dripped through, leaving the rosewood darker.
The water was still too hot to steep the green tea, which meant it was far too hot for the white. Despite this, Merete poured water into the steeping bowl over a small cluster of leaves.
Orla tried to cover a wince. Such a high temperature would burn the leaves and destroy the delicate flavor of her mother’s most prised tea.
Then, before the drink had a chance to steep, Merete served one cup from the steeping bowl and offered it silently to Seeker Birk.
His lower rank meant that he was offered a steeping before Lance-Warden Tilde, generally the second, where the flavor is full but too strong. He didn’t deserve the best tea, though, so Merete had destroyed it with temperature and too-short steeping time. Furthermore, she offered him the first, dusty steeping, a direct insult for any guest.
The drink in Merete’s hands could hardly be called tea. If it had any flavor at all, it would taste burnt and ashy.
Seeker Birk silently accepted both the insult and the teacup with a low, seated bow. He took the expected sip and Orla sought his face for any sign of the bitterness he was sure to be tasting. She didn’t even see him wince at the temperature.
Merete rinsed the steeping bowl clean and replaced a new pinch of white tea. The kettle temperature had dropped, so she poured another steeping. This time everyone waited several minutes. Merete discarded the first steeping directly into the rosewood tray. She poured a second into the steeping bowl and again the group waited several minutes. The second steeping also went into the rosewood tray.
By now, Seeker Birk’s ashy, burnt tea had to be cold, but he held it loosely in his fingertips as if unbothered.
Merete poured the third steeping into the bowl. This was the most delicate version of the best tea they had. The third steeping was for honored guests, celebration, and ancestors. It was reserved for intimate moments. This most perfect steeping, Merete poured into the second guest cup and offered it to Lance-Warden Tilde.
The Lance-Warden took a sip and smiled, cradling the cup like a precious flower.
In extended silence, Seeker Birk and Lance-Warden Tilde finished their teas together, the Seeker’s cold and bitter, the Lance-Warden’s warm and complex.
Only after they both replaced their cups rim-up on the serving tray did Merete finally take a seat across from them both.
Lance-Warden Tilde crossed her hands on her lap. ”You honor me with your tea offering, Merete, but I’m afraid I am here to bear terrible news.”
Orly watched her mother’s brow pinch in sudden anger, then smooth again under control. She nodded a slight bow to the Lance-Warden, but addressed Seeker Birk. ”I want to hear it from him.”
The Seeker waited only for permission form the Lance-Warden, then he met Merete’s eyes and said clearly, ”Your youngest daughter Rie Juul, served in my command as a powerful and fearless caster. Her leadership has inspired great progress in our campaign–”
”I don’t need to hear of her achievements, Seeker,” Merete said, with a harsh edge in her voice. ”Tell me what I already know to be true. Tell me how it is by your guiding and protective hand that my daughter is dead.”
Seeker Birk bowed his head so quickly it was almost a nod. ”Rei Juul died on the evening of the serene moon defending our campaign–”
”Fighting in your war,” Merete interrupted again.
Seeker Birk tackfully rephrased. ”Defending us all from an unexpected advance through the Inray Pass. She and her team were tasked to hold the pass, and they did so successfully until I could reinforce the group. Rei did not survive the encounter.”
”And tell me, Seeker, why I have no body to intur at the ancestor tree.”
”As a consequence of her dedication to our campaign, Rei sacrificed herself to ensure the success of her team–”
”Magic ate her,” Merete said with darkness in her eyes. ”It burned her up from the inside out, consumed her very soul so that I have nothing left to dedicate to eternity. Because you encouraged this. Because you made her think this was her destiny. Because of you, I cannot see my daughter at the solstice when the veil thins because there is nothing left.”
Seeker Birk didn’t apologize. He bowed and stayed there.
Orly shook in her chair, clenching her hands together so she wouldn’t lunge across the room and hit him. A bow wasn’t enough. Taking the ruined tea wasn’t enough. Apologies wouldn’t ever be enough, and he knew it. Rei was gone forever. Not just passing on as people do of old age, or illness, or accident. Death was not the end of a soul; all the ancestors who met at the veil every solstice saw to that. Rei wasn’t just dead, she was destroyed.
A sob choked out of Orly’s throat and she slapped her hands across her mouth. Lance-Warden Tilde glanced at her, eyes softening further, then refocused on Merete.
”I demand blood tribute,” Merete said, her eyes still pinned to Seeker Birk’s bowed head.
”Merete, you don’t mean–” Lance-Warden Tilde started.
”I offer myself,” Seeker Birk said right over her.
”No, I don’t want you, Seeker. Taking your life doesn’t hurt you and it doesn’t bring my Rei back. Furthermore, you have a powerful and respected position in this war. You are better suited where you are to better change the minds of those around you and stop this madness. No, not you, Seeker… your daughter.”
Seeker Birk’s head shot up, wide-eyed at Lance-Warden Tilde. Orly could see his mind working quickly, but panic only drew blanks.
”I don’t want her death,” Merete clarified. ”I want her. To raise as I would have raised my Rai.”
Seeker Birk turned to Merete and swallowed hard. ”My partner–”
”Will be allowed to visit. But not you.” Merete’s voice stretched thin. ”Not you. You will watch from afar and you will know that you deserve this.”
Seeker Birk looked back at Lance-Warden Tilde, who’s expression fell. ”It is fair.”
”I can’t…” Seeker Birk switched again to Merete. ”Don’t ask this of me, please.”
”I don’t ask you. I expect it.”
Seeker Birk half-stood before ingrained protocol made him freeze again. Then his expression broke into panic. ”I must go. I must.” He knocked ungently past Lance-Warden Tilde’s seat and ran from the house without a glance back.
Lance-Warden Tilde stood more elegantly from her chair. ”It is fair,” she said again, softly. ”But it is cruel.”
”No more than what he has done to me.”
”Seeker Birk did not teach Rai to cast on, Merete. She was born to it. What if you had nurtured that in her?”
Merete placed the kettle back on its hook over the fire. ”Do not think I haven’t considered every what if there is. What if does not bring my Rai back.”
”Neither does taking Seeker Birk’s daughter. She is not Rai.”
”I’m sorry to cut this short, Lance-Warden Tilde, but I’ve had a sudden development in my plans for the afternoon and I must get to them. You can let Seeker Birk know that I intend to pick up my daughter at the first dinner bell.”
In a manner quite unbefitting of tradition, Merete waved Lance-Warden Tilde out of the room and through the door, which she shut behind the woman with extreme finality.
Orla watched her mother stiffly walk back to the chair Lance-Warden Tilde had just vacated and rest into it heavily. She put her head in her hands.
Orla finally stood from her chair to take the tea tray. It needed to be cleaned and reset for the next guest.
This story is available from July 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be notified of free fiction when it goes live, please join the newsletter! You can buy your own copy on my webstore, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short story possible.
This story was available from July 5th — 13th. If you’d like to be notified of free fiction when it goes live, please join the newsletter! You can buy your own copy on my webstore, or your favorite ebook store. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short story possible.
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