It is said that when Fera’s father died, she had a cup of tea.
She knew the exact moment of his passing since she felt his power fall suddenly upon her shoulders like a heavy blanket. She was the Ignis now. The Ignis: the Fire-blessed, the face of the kingdom’s wrath, the sorcerer who could summon a sea of fire to rain hell upon her enemies.
She called on the blaze that had ignited in her blood, summoned a tiny but scalding tongue of flame in the palm of her hand, and used it to boil water for tea.
She had made her decision by the time they came for her.
They knocked on the door to her apartments in the royal palace loud enough that she could hear them from her dining room. The apartments were not small; they were rooms certainly fit for the heir of the Ignis. But she wasn’t the heir any longer; they’d want to give her the rooms meant for the Ignis themself.
They’d want to give her many things. But they wanted something from her in exchange.
She opened the door to the Queen and a small horde of attendants and officials. All but the Queen bowed deeply at the sight of her.
“We are sorry for the loss of your father,” the Queen said.
“That’s not why you’re here,” Fera said. “And no, I will not fight in your army.”
Spines stiffened. The Queen’s brow furrowed, and she placed her left hand upon the pommel of the ceremonial sword that hung from her waist.
“It is the duty of the Ignis to defend this kingdom and protect its people,” the Queen said.
“I have no duty to anyone.”
“Ignis, you will have your every desire met, there is no need to negotiate—”
“My one desire is for you to leave my door. I will not fight in your army.”
“This is not the decision you want to make, Ignis. I know you are young and your power is new, but remember that your actions have consequences.”
“You cannot threaten me, your Majesty. You cannot make me fight for you. Push me too hard, and I will burn everything for miles around to ash.”
Fera shut the door.
“You should not threaten me either, Ignis,” the Queen said, her voice muffled from the hall. “But I will forgive you, since it seems you still need time to mourn.”
Fera did not wait to listen for their footsteps receding down the hallway. She got to work.
It took her about a week to find a place to buy, as well as to sell off the small fortune of books, clothes, jewelry and all the other valuables she had to her name now that her father had died. She kept a few things, though: her teapots, her kettle, her mugs, her collection of tea leaves, and a small trunk of keepsakes and her plainest clothes.
There were regular “visits” from various officials and figureheads, but she refused to talk to any of them. At least the Queen didn’t make another appearance.
Finally, the goods sold, the money transferred, the deed signed, she moved out. She’d sold her carriage and team of horses, so she loaded everything into a pushcart she’d bought and started walking.
She’d bought an inn that stood just two or three miles out of the walls of the capital, across the river and sitting on a hill overlooking the city. She could just barely make out the shimmering gold spires of the palace. Her own inn was roofed with red clay tiles. At least it wasn’t thatch; that probably wouldn’t have ended well.
But more importantly, it was hers.
The first visitors were locals from the nearby farms, and a few curious regulars from the old inn’s taproom. But the crowd grew quickly as word of free hot tea spread. Or perhaps it was just word that she was the new Ignis, on the run from her responsibilities.
Word reached the Queen, too. It took two weeks for them to find her. The Queen didn’t come in person, of course.
The bell over the door jangled. A man entered; a general, judging by the medals that hung heavy from his inky black military jacket.
“Ignis,” he said. Heads turned at the mention of her title. “Your taste of independence has lasted long enough. News of your absence is spreading. If it reaches the Southerlings, we will have war. It is time to take up the mantle you were born to.”
“Sit down,” Fera said from the inn’s old bar. “Have some tea.”
“You should be fighting, not boiling water, Ignis. Your talents are wasted here.”
Fera took a strainer and turned to the jars of leaves on the shelf behind her. She lingered for a moment, deciding, before filling the strainer with a blend of blood orange and strawberry. She placed it in a teapot and filled her kettle with water from the rain barrel. She waved a hand, and steam rose from the spout. She filled the pot and placed it on a table with two cups.
“If you wish to talk to me, General,” she said, “we will do it over tea. Sit.”
They both sat.
The general spoke. Promises of wealth, of power, of respect. Appeals to patriotism, to her father’s legacy. Reminders of her duty. Fera said nothing, only poured the tea when it was finished steeping.
The general finally fell quiet. Not wanting to offend the Ignis, he sipped his tea.
“Do you like it, General?”
“It is good, but it is only tea. It cannot save a kingdom.”
Fera hummed. “Why did you join the army, General?”
“For the reasons I just told you,” he said.
“Well, which one was the most important to you?”
“The kingdom needed me. War was near, just like it is now, and we needed every person to stand and fight.”
“I didn’t ask which reason was the most important to the kingdom. I asked which was the most important to you. Tell me about the moment you decided to join.”
The general frowned. He stared into his tea, watching the swirling steam.
“I had a brother,” the general began. “He was three years older than me. My father sent him to the military academy when he was twelve. When he finished the year and he came home, he seemed so…. confident. Like a new person. Yet distant. I did not know where he had gone, but I wanted to follow. We lied about my age so I could start school at ten instead of twelve. And I worked as hard as I could, and I got to where I was, trying to find the confidence he had.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died in an ambush before what would have been his first battle.”
They were both silent for a while. The general finished his tea.
“If it took your brother, why did you stay?” Fera asked softly.
The general shrugged, and his shoulders slumped. When he spoke, his voice was small and thin. “What else was I supposed to do?”
Fera refilled his cup. “Do you want to join me in the tea shop, General?” she asked.
The man looked around the room.
“Maybe I do,” he said.
Six weeks later, the bell over the door jangled. A man in the green and gold livery of the Queen’s messengers entered, his chest heaving with his rapid breathing.
“Ignis!” he shouted. “Her Majesty the Queen summons you! The Southerlings march to war, and the Queen needs you at the head of her army!”
“Sit down,” Fera said without looking up. She handed the mug she was cleaning to the general, and instead grabbed a teapot and started filling its strainer with chamomile and anise tea.
“But Ignis,” the messenger said, “we must ride immediately! Already their vanguard has breached our borders, and their full army shall be upon us any day now.”
“Sit down,” Fera repeated. “Have some tea.”
The messenger wavered.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked him.
“Ignis, we must leave now,” he said. She ignored him, boiling water and pouring it into her pot. As it brewed, she gestured for him to join her at a table. He hesitated for several seconds, watching the steam rise from the water she’d boiled with a turn of her hand, before finally sitting.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Lubin.” The young man fidgeted, twisting in his chair, scratching his neck, casting his eyes everywhere but at Fera.
“Why did you become a messenger?” she asked him.
“You can just come back with me,” he said.
“At least tell me first.”
He swallowed. “My family raised horses. Fast horses. But then my father died, and my brother took over. He was too young, too unfamiliar with the business.” He paused, his rapid stream of words ending abruptly before restarting just as suddenly. “We made some bad deals, had some bad luck, and it looked like we were going to lose the farm. So I joined the Royal Messengers to try to earn some money to help us out. It was the only choice we had.”
“What happened to the farm?”
“It wasn’t enough to save it, but I helped find my siblings work in the messengers as well. It worked out, I guess.”
The tea was brewed, so Fera poured two cups. Lubin drank, wincing at the heat. Fera had no such reaction; the Ignis didn’t burn. But she gave the young man time, and he slowly drained the cup.
“Are your siblings happy?” she asked as he finished the last of his tea. He tensed.
“I—” he managed. His mug shook in unsteady hands, and he hung his head. “I tried,” he said. “I really did.”
“I know,” Fera said. She took his mug and refilled it. “Do you want to join me in the tea shop, Lubin?” she asked. “Your siblings are welcome, too.”
For the first time, Lubin met Fera’s gaze. He nodded.
One week later, the bell over the door jangled. Six guards entered, two of them stooping to lay a rug over the threshold. “All rise for her Majesty the Queen!” the other four proclaimed.
Patrons all over the tea shop scrambled to their feet as the Queen entered, dressed in black leather armor and a blood red cape for battle. But Fera had seen the arrival of the royal procession from the kitchen window, and was seated at a table, a teapot and two steaming cups already in front of her. Lavender, lemongrass, and lily.
“Sit down,” Fera said. “Have some tea.”
“We do not have time for your games, Ignis,” the Queen spat. She strode up to Fera with such haste that her cape streamed behind her and her guards hastened to keep up.
“The Southerlings are a day’s ride to the south of here,” the Queen said, her voice low so that only Fera could hear. “Our army has marched out to meet them, but we are greatly outnumbered. Without you, we will be slaughtered.”
“So you want me to slaughter Southerlings instead?”
“To spare the lives of our own soldiers! Our countrymen!” For a moment, the Queen’s voice rose. It shook with anger like the sea. Then she quieted again. “And besides, once we are defeated, the Southerlings will besiege the capital. These hills—and this precious tea shop of yours—will be overrun.”
Fera shrugged. “The Ignis fears for nothing.”
“Foolish, selfish girl,” the Queen hissed. “You claim to value the lives of the Southerlings, yet you condemn the civilians around you to die. At least be honest, Ignis. You don’t value the lives of anyone. I hope the screams of our dying soldiers haunt your nightmares for the rest of your miserable life.”
She stormed from the tea shop, her guards following in her wake. The teacups were left upon the table, untouched.
“Lubin,” Fera called. The messenger appeared at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Ride to where the Southerlings are camped,” she said. “Tell them that their King is invited here, to meet with the Ignis.”
The next day, the bell over the door jangled. Lubin looked in.
“They’re here, Fera,” he said.
“Show them in, please,” Fera replied.
She sat at a table in the center of the room, a single chair across from her. The rest of the furniture had been stored elsewhere. The tea shop was closed for today; so she had told the patrons yesterday, and so read the signs on the door. Even the General and Lubin’s siblings had been sent elsewhere to shelter.
On the table sat the teapot and the two cups of tea from the previous day. Fera waved a hand, and the cold water began to steam.
Soldiers entered first:; scores of them. One sat in the chair, one used a spoon to sip from the teapot, and two of them tested the mugs, one drinking from each cup. They searched the whole place: the bar, the cabinets in the kitchen, the rooms upstairs, the cellar and its stores. They knocked against the floorboards and walls with the butts of their spears, they opened jars of tea leaves and smelled them carefully. But they did not break anything.
As the soldiers spread through the rest of the tea shop, more entered. They surrounded her, blades drawn, but they did not search her person. There was no need to check for weapons on someone more dangerous than any steel.
None of the soldiers stooped to place a rug on the threshold, and none raised their voices to announce his arrival, but Fera recognized the King when he entered. He wore no crown or robes, just plain armor like the rest of his soldiers, and he walked among them as if simply another member of their ranks. But the soldiers looked at her like she was a threat; he looked at her like she was a puzzle—or a prize. Fera gestured for him to come forward.
“Sit down,” she said. “Have some tea.”
The King said nothing, but merely stepped forwards and took a seat. He picked up the cup before him.
“I tasted no additives, nor feel any ill effects, your Highness,” one of the soldiers who had tested the tea said. The two others murmured their assent, and the King drank.
“When you were a child,” Fera said, “what did they tell you about being king?”
The King set down his cup. “They said it was my duty to protect my people,” he said. “To protect them from hunger. Disease. Disorder. The Ignis.”
“And you thought you had the chance to get rid of one of those threats forever,” Fera said.
The King nodded. “But it seems you are a threat no more, Ignis,” he said. “Except to your Queen, still. You know, if you joined us, the Queen would likely surrender without a fight. Even now, she hopes you’ll join her, and that is why she’s lined her soldiers up to die. But if she sees you at my side, then the battle can be avoided.”
“The battle can be avoided if you turn back home.”
“Ah, Ignis,” the King said. “I told you, I have a duty to protect my people. And as long as there are borders, there will be war. As long as there is war, there will be suffering and death. And as long as you live beyond our control, even if you do not threaten us, Ignis, your heirs do. For you have proven that the daughter has no duty to the loyalties of her father.”
“So do you have any duty to the loyalties of your forebears?” Fera asked.
The King was quiet for a moment.
“I swore an oath, Ignis. I chose this duty.”
“And you can choose how you fulfill it. I didn’t swear to my father that I would serve the Queen; I swore that I would protect the people. And I believe I can do that better behind the counter here than at the front of an army. You can do the same. You can choose to stay here, keep an eye on me. Work with me. You can choose blood and fire, or you can choose peace and hot water. Whichever you think will save more lives.” Fera sipped from her cup. “Do you want to join me in the tea shop, King?”
The King smiled sadly.
“I’ve always had a choice,” he said. “But I can’t undo the ones I’ve already made.”
For the first time in her life, the Ignis felt cold.
“Did you know, Ignis,” the King continued, “that there are poisons that do not begin to harm the body until twenty four hours after they are taken? And that, unless you have taken a special antidote which we have discovered, they will then kill you swiftly and suddenly? And did you know that these poisons can be slipped into a cup of tea by someone pretending to test it for a poison just like the one they are adding to it?”
Fera said nothing. She drained her cup of tea slowly, deliberately.
“Ignis, I do think we can get along in time. You yourself said we could work together. We both want to protect the lives of our peoples. We both bear the burden of duties handed to us by birth rather than by choice. And that burden means choosing between principles and the greater good. I know you know this. It hurt me to make this decision,” the King said, “but I know it will be the right one in the end. Do you want to join me in my army, Ignis?”
Fera set her teacup down and stood.
“I may never know if my decision was the right one, but I am willing to die for it,” she said. “You will have to live with yours.”
She drew a dagger from her sleeve and ran it through her heart.
It is said that when the Ignis died, the King of the Southerlings had a cup of tea.