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.