Chapter Thirty-Four: Petitioning
"What does it say?" Talyn exclaimed. The letter was still sealed, but that wouldn't matter to Leekath. It was hard to pick out specific hhikiiias from the storm of them -
"It's good news!" she said. "But it's not exactly what you wanted, I think... he said you can have a dispensation to go into just the front chamber of a temple, no farther, as long as you're in vampire form the whole time and wear a sun cloak and don't tell anyone but me, and a priest will talk to you and send up a recommendation to the pontiff about what to do next. I mentioned our address in my letter, so you have an appointment in a week at the nearest temple. It's at midnight. And I have to make the priest a mindshield pendant so you can't read his mind."
"I don't need you to shield to avoid reading your mind about religion," Talyn said. "I don't because you asked me."
"You don't read me automatically, because you have to go around the hhikiiias," Leekath said. "And - other things. I have to make the pendant, anyway. The pontiff doesn't know you personally, it would be weird if he trusted you not to read the priest at all."
"I guess," muttered Talyn.
"This has never happened before," Leekath said. "No one has ever been let into a temple without being a vampire. People have tricked their way in, and forced their way in, but you are literally the first non-vampire to be let in. Don't make it out to be nothing."
"Sorry." Talyn said. "One week from today at midnight?"
"Yep. Don't be late, wear a suncloak -"
"A suncloak, at midnight?"
"A nice formal suncloak. They're not just practical, they're also a really visible way to signal that you're a vampire doing vampire things. Even lights wear them to temple. I can go with you to buy one tonight or tomorrow evening," Leekath said.
"I don't understand how things are kept so secret anyway. Isn't your religion older than anti-scrying wards?" Talyn asked. "Even if everything's carefully protected now, couldn't anyone do a past-scry into the temples a few hundred years ago?"
Leekath's lips thinned. "There's laws against that, and against publicizing anything found by doing that, in a few places, where we have enough of the population to push it through - here, Rannde, a few other countries. But they don't actually prevent anyone from doing anything. Until recently, translation spells didn't work through past-scries, and that helped, but now they do work. What we'd really like is retroactive warding. No one's cracked the problem yet."
"You could ask Kaylo," Talyn said lightly.
"I don't think Kaylo would help me do something designed to hide secrets from him. I'd rather not draw his attention to our faith at all," Leekath said. "And don't you try anything like a past-scry on old temples either -"
"I wasn't going to!" yelped Talyn. "Honestly! I can resist reading your mind and you're right there but you think I might spend all day figuring out a diagram and casting a spell tiers above my level just to have a look?"
"Just making sure," Leekath said, looking ruffled.
"Can I see the letter?" Talyn asked.
Leekath shook her head. "You can listen to the hhikiiia if you want, but you shouldn't read it directly," she said. She tucked it into the shirt pocket at her hip.
Talyn had temporarily given up on trying to find explanations for her religious prohibitions. "Fine."
"How were classes?" she asked.
"I'm dropping political geography," Talyn said.
Talyn determined very quickly that he didn't like contemporary literature, at least not the selections from Esmaar and Saraan and the one example each from Petar and Imilaat that the course was offering. However, he was able to talk about why he didn't like them, so he got good grades on his first two assignments, with half-legible marks like "insightful" and "refreshing".
He used the time freed up by dropping geography to join a book club that was affiliated with the lit course and its other sections. He just wanted to figure out what people were getting out of the impenetrable, overlong plots with characters he couldn't sympathize with. He made a little progress, but not much, and dropped the club after two meetings to have more time for homework.
There was a lot of homework.
And it was graded harshly. He could half-ass the literature essays (one on every short story, one on every five chapters of the novels, and one every two weeks about the Theme of that two-week period that he was supposed to guess - "it's a puzzle!" - based on the reading selections).
But he had to know what he was talking about in the theory courses when he filled out the page of sentence-answers and paragraph-answers he picked up at the end of each class meeting. That included all of the supplemental reading. He could ask questions during class, but in six attempts hadn't managed to elicit a more helpful response than "Did you read the assigned pages of Meket Pabaar's Introduction to Static Theory?" or "For simple questions like that, just use the glossary in the back of your primary text."
He didn't know if he just wasn't very bright or if the other students had just had a better introduction to wizardry than Binaaralav had provided him or what, but they didn't have that problem.
Talyn spent the entirety of theory classtime reading his neighbors' minds just to keep up vicariously. He started sitting in the third row so he could be near more of the chronic questioners, and the professor or the teaching assistant of the day, and learn what in the world was going on when they asked questions like "do familiars affect sting with Voyan numbers" and got answers like "yes, except in cases of fractional capacity, and even then only the Corenta Study ever yielded that result; if this interests you, consult Aaral Mikaten, room 1557-Av, she's working on the methodology for a replication".
In the practicum, he was immediately caught and chastised any time his gestures were insufficiently precise, or if his pronunciation was off including by way of his lingering accent, or if any of a thousand telltale signs let the sharp-eyed professor or graduate student determine that he was being sloppy with his intentional component.
At Binaaralav, practica had been about teaching vocabularies of spells and talking about what they were used for. At Daasen it seemed to be about making sure that he could cast anything he was going to cast so neatly that he'd still be able to get out passable pulls and words if he were repeatedly punched in the mouth and had all of his fingers broken. "You can always look up a spell," the professor had a habit of saying, "but only practice will let you cast it safely and correctly!" At least, he thought, later tiers would have to focus on the more interesting topic of intentionality rather than just endlessly repeating "Crisply! Crisply!"
Fortunately, with only three classes, he was capable of keeping up with the work, but after term had been underway for four days, someone took him up on his kamai tutoring offer.
Talyn set up an appointment for his would-be tutee, Natalen, in the time slot that dropping geography and then the book club had freed, and met her in the kamai department lounge.
"You're a kid," said the student incredulously. She was a human, and looked to him to be mid-twenties.
Talyn rolled his eyes at her. "I'm an innate kama, Journeyman rank, and I can help you. What's the problem?"
"I wasn't expecting you to be a kid," she said.
"I wasn't expecting you to be focused on that when you're four days into term and already need a tutor. What's the problem? Image, mind, elemental -"
"I didn't know they let kids even go here."
Talyn fumed silently, and reminded himself of the pay-by-angle plus a bonus if the professor noted an improvement in the student's progress. He then shapeshifted into a decent likeness of his father and crossed his arms. "There. Can you concentrate well enough to ask your question now?" he asked.
"Augh!" exclaimed Natalen.
"So, your problem is that you're terrified of kamai. You want me to do a mental edit on that?" Talyn suggested. "I can't imagine why you'd have taken the course, though..."
"No! That's not it! I just suck at flying. But I don't want to get shown up by some pathetic child."
"How about a not-pathetic child? Look, if you came to me, you already decided against going to a teacher, so your options are basically to run to a little elementary magic school for pathetic children over in Paraasilan and asking someone there - someone about my age, tops - or going all the way to Barashi and seeing if you can get a suitably venerable Master to give you the time of day. Which you probably can't, because the ones who are interested in teaching have a lot of apprentices already and the ones who don't are already teaching here or at one of the other schools with a kamai department. So, let's go outside and troubleshoot your flying, okay? It's easy."
"It's not easy!" exclaimed Natalen. "It's hard! There's so many tones to juggle all at the same time!"
"So, let's go outside," Talyn repeated impatiently, shifting back to his normal shape because he was rapidly less interested in indulging Natalen.
He finally got her out of the building and into the air, and made sure she knew what all the tones did, and ran her through the exercises that he'd seen Emryl and Jenn use to learn to fly. (He just flew directly ever since he'd learned the chord, but he'd spent enough time around non-innates to have an idea of how to teach them.) Natalen got through the prescribed exercises well enough. It was when he told her to "just fly around" that she ran into trouble, dropping to the use of only two axes and thinking loudly uncomfortable thoughts about how anyone walking below them could see up her skirt.
"Okay, first," Talyn said, "wear some leggings -"
"This school doesn't have a dress code!" Natalen said. "You can't tell me what to wear."
"Right," said Talyn, grinding his teeth. "You might choose to wear leggings under your dress voluntarily so you don't make that face every time you get more than six feet off the ground, how about that. Are you taking image kamai too?"
"Are you good enough to make some illusion leggings so we can move on? Or I could do it, but I doubt I'd get the fit right."
She frowned. "I'm new at this, I can't do anything useful yet."
"Natalen, you can fly. Could you fly before?"
"I suck at it!"
Talyn entertained the uncharitable notion that she didn't want to be around a "child" because he highlighted how immature she was even more than someone her own age would have. "Okay, so you can't make yourself leggings. Let's go higher and then you'll just look like a bird or something to anyone on the ground and I'll stay above you and you can relax, okay? I have a fiancée, I am not going to look at you funny."
"You're engaged? You're what, thirty, thirty-five?"
"I'm not an Elcenian half-elf, Natalen," Talyn said, climbing higher into the air. She followed unhappily. "It's not the same thing. Let's pay attention to what we're doing, okay? Now we're up here, nobody can see anything, run through the slalom exercise again. Remember to tilt as you go." He conjured up illusions of poles for her to swerve around, floating in midair.
Natalen groaned, and she rigidly slalomed through the course and rigidly slalomed back.
"I'm going to make a complete guess here," Talyn said, "arrow in the apple tree - are you also a wizarding student?"
"Yeah?" Natalen said. "Why?"
"Because you're stiff, and kamai isn't stiff."
She blinked. "Huh?"
Talyn swooped and barrel-rolled and looped and spun in the air until he was dizzy, and came to a stop. "Right there, like that. I have an advantage, because I'm an innate, but I wasn't thinking 'okay, now it's time to bank, now it's time to pitch thisaway thirty degrees', I was thinking I wanted to be over there and then after that I wanted to be over there. And if you keep flying like you expect a professor to yell 'Crisply! Crisply!' at you -"
"Did you have that one too?"
"Yes. That professor would suck at teaching kamai way worse than you suck at flying. Kamai's a natural thing, wizardry's invented and also explodes a lot more than anything you'll learn in beginner kamai will. Just fly around."
Natalen didn't become an expert flier instantly, but she loosened up by increments, ultimately completed the slalom course with an elegant drifting motion, and had made up her mind to at least borrow a pair of leggings by the time she and Talyn descended to ground level.
"Thanks," she said.
"Get your teacher to write the progress note," Talyn replied.
"Sure," said Natalen, and they parted ways.
Talyn kept on top of his assignments but did not excel, overall. Some of his classmates were breathtakingly, effortlessly smart - almost like Kaylo, but generally without the heavy layer of contempt. Some of them had no conceptual advantage over him but seemed to pull extra time out of nowhere, and they turned in all their homework for five courses and then accepted dinner invitations and thought about the nine club meetings they were going to attend that week. Others neglected their coursework entirely, expecting to make up enough of the grade in tests - in fairness, advancement was controlled by tier tests, not by the margin by which one passed a class. And a few others were burnt out or floundering and were unlikely to see the end of the term.
He didn't have any more meetings with Aar Sosrik. Advisors didn't do much, besides those initial interviews in which they insulted one's intelligence with infuriating accuracy.
Talyn didn't try to join any more clubs. Or special interest groups. He just showed up to classes, snuck in lunch between them, set up meetings with flailing kamai students when called for, and went home and spent angles upon angles on homework.
At midnight on Shuraahel the ninth, clad in his brand-new black silk suncloak with white and red triangle detailing around all the edges and leather backing for the gloves, Talyn went to the temple.
Leekath had taken the evening off from her own schoolwork to coach him. "He'll have lie detection on. Priests always do, on duty. Don't lie to him. Just don't even try. Be very respectful. He's important. If the pontiff wanted his recommendation he's basically the difference between you getting to convert or not. Don't try to make any guesses about his identity or if you know him from somewhere. Don't do any kamai, at all, besides being in vampire shape - mindreading's the only thing you do uncontrollably so that should be doable, right? Stay in vampire form the whole time. You shouldn't need to shift bat, but if he does, you do too and hang opposite him wherever he goes. Don't get indignant, don't get sarcastic, don't get pushy."
"Okay," Talyn had told her.
"Call him 'Ieeht'. That's not his name, I don't know his name and I'm not supposed to, but it's the title. Speak vampire. You can shapeshift precisely enough to really pronounce it now, right? You're not just using image kamai?"
"Good. Oh, and - um - I don't know how much he's going to tell you, or what he's going to talk about, but don't take any bait, about me - or anything but mostly about me - okay? About the hearing or anything like that? This isn't a good time to argue about it being magic and not a disease. Anything even like that, ignore it, just be respectful and assume he knows everything and is right about everything -"
"What, is the priest God in disguise?" Talyn had asked.
"No! But you might as well pretend that he is," she'd replied, and then it had been time to leave, and she hadn't been allowed to come with him.
So he was standing at the door of the temple, wishing he'd remembered to ask her whether he ought to knock or something.
He was still deliberating about that question when the door swung outward, revealing a vampire whose face was completely obscured by the hood of his own formal suncloak in black with stars of silver splashed across each shoulder and hip.
At the priest's throat was a silver pendant Leekath had made, and it was working. The stranger's mind was dead of audible thought.
"Talyn Dalenn Casten," said the priest. He didn't sound familiar, but he was speaking in a formal, serious tone that Talyn might not recognize even if he'd known the guy.
Talyn didn't stop to wonder why Leekath had bothered to include his middle name in the letter. "Yes, Ieeht," he said, pronouncing the vampire words without the help of kamai.
"Come past the threshold, and no farther," the priest instructed, and Talyn's cloak whispered around his ankles as he obeyed.
The front room of the temple was either habitually bare or made so in anticipation of his arrival. The floor was thick glass over red-marbled rock; the walls were white, with stylized vampire characters in blue protruding a half-inch from the surface and spelling out words Talyn didn't recognize. The ceiling was glossy black, and barred with rows of silvery perches. Faint lighting emanated from the white parts of the walls rather than the ceiling. Apart from that, the diamond-shaped room was empty, with only silver-handled black doors interrupting the two rear walls. Talyn wondered abruptly if he was going to have to stand up for the whole interview, and how long it would be.
"Why are you here?" the priest asked. His suncloak had a pocket in the front, open on each end, and his hands were hidden.
Talyn blinked and fended off the first six flippant answers that came to mind. "I want to convert," he said instead.
"Why is that?"
He's probably got a lie detection on, Talyn reminded himself. Even if that wasn't always true, the cost of it being true was low. He picked his way carefully through the sentence, "I'm engaged to a vampire girl, and I want to be involved in her life and our future children's lives, and being shut out of the religion is - an obstacle."
"An obstacle," repeated the priest thoughtfully. Talyn couldn't read anything in his expression past the hood. He couldn't read anything of the man's thoughts. Blasted pendant. "But of course you know very little about the religion you propose to join. It is not like that of the Sand Dusk Chanters or the Thanetans, who offer tracts and their holy texts to anyone who asks for them." Talyn took a moment to retrieve the words for the other religions mentioned. It was much harder to speak a foreign language without being able to root around in others' minds for vocabulary.
"I know it's important to Leekath." Maybe he was supposed to use her full name? The nickname was mostly for the convenience of people who couldn't pronounce the shrill pitches... He couldn't tell. The priest's blasted mind was shielded.
"You've appeared in vampire shape," the priest observed.
"Yes, Ieeht." Was he supposed to elaborate? Was he supposed to claim to be a vampire in spirit too? Was he supposed to offer to go around like this all the time to prove his sincerity? He didn't know what the priest wanted.
If Leekath had been there to ask she probably would have told him that he was doing fine with his minimal, conservative answers.
But he didn't know.
"But this is also something dragons can do. And dragons, too, can have vampire children, who despite their additional shapes are accepted into our faith."
Talyn swallowed. "My children won't be thudias, Ieeht."
"No, perhaps not. But half-vampires whose parents are one vampire and one human, or elf, or half-elf as I understand you to be, can have children who are more than half vampire, if they marry accordingly. The half-vampires themselves, despite this power, are not admitted into the temple. You have already come farther than Aaeeihhyleekatheeei's cousin Thiris, who has genuine vampire ancestry where you do not."
This priest from the neighborhood they had just barely moved into seemed to know an awful lot. Was there a file on Leekath and her family somewhere? "Thiris can't speak the language, or shapeshift -"
"But a dragon can," interrupted the priest. "A dragon can make every claim that you do to vampirehood, if so inclined. And yet a dragon is not a vampire. A dragon does not practice vampire religion."
Talyn thought about that one, hard. The priest didn't interrupt him.
"Are they so inclined?" he asked finally. "Dragons?"
"No," the priest replied. "And that is why you are in this room."
"Because I asked to be?"
"Because you wished to be - and because of your other claims. But the question remains of why you wish to be here. Why you have changed your shape, learned this language, asked your fiancée to petition the highest mortal office of our faith, and have appeared here in our manner of dress."
Talyn swallowed. He'd already answered that question. Was it one of the things Leekath had said not to be if he repeated himself? He looked at the hood draped over the priest's face. He couldn't even see the man's mouth. Was it a man? He wasn't good at telling by voice alone, when all the pitches were so high. Were women even allowed to be vampire priests? Leekath had said "he" throughout...
Finally Talyn asked a question. "How is it determined, who's vampire enough to be here?"
"Would you care to guess?" suggested the priest.
Talyn hated that pendant. He hated it very fiercely.
"God decides?" Talyn offered.
"How else? And I am speaking to you now to determine whether God has rendered a decision about you."
"What would that look like?" Talyn asked, doing his best to mask impatience.
"Since the very earliest years of our religion, there have been no converts, and it was clear, in those years, who was and who was not a vampire. Your case would be the first of its kind - and so we can expect that if God has a plan for you, unlike any others of your kind, he will make his wishes clear. He will bestow signs of his favor on you. But I see no indication that any of the traditional indications of God's attention are about you, nor any spectacular show of a less typical signal."
The priest had a lie detection on.
Talyn couldn't think of any signs of divine favor. He was an innate kama, but that had happened before any Barashins had even discovered Elcenia. And not even the Barashin gods took credit for individual instances of that, though they were recognized for inventing kamai in general. He got into Daasen? There were reasons to expect that without divine intervention and lots of non-vampires got in. He was going to marry an awesome vampire girl? Leekath's cousin Thiris's parents were married too.
"What are the typical ones?" Talyn asked weakly.
To his surprise, the priest answered him. Maybe there wasn't any reason not to with lie detection so common and easy, but it was way more information than Talyn had expected:
"Overpowering inclinations towards prayer or ritual - or, sometimes, flight. Unaccountable knowledge of secrets beyond one's station - unaccountable the operative word. Prophetic dreams, on any subject, but some are more common than others. Lightcraft and sorcery have both been considered signs of favor in the past but are now less so, as they do occur in other species who may be safely assumed not to have the scrutiny of God. Magery is still considered a sign despite the same fact, but not mere mage potential. Certain astrological circumstances surrounding one's birth or important milestones. Exceptional precociousness, preternatural luck. Spectacular talent at dance, singing, rhetoric, or listening."
"Yes. Usually, only one signal is not sufficient to have any practical effect on one's status."
Listening? Weird talent. Talyn dropped it. "I was precocious," he said softly.
"Yes," agreed the priest equably.
Talyn had no urges towards prayer or ritual, and his urges to fly were not overpowering. He could account for his knowledge. He did not have prophetic dreams. He was not a light, sorcerer, or mage, and didn't think he'd get anywhere making a bid for innate kamai to count in the same class. Elcenian astrology probably didn't apply to his birth. He was not lucky, just powerful and occasionally clever. He did not sing, dance, orate, or listen particularly well.
...Maybe he did listen. He couldn't listen to the priest (damned pendant), but maybe...?
"What kind of listening?" he asked.
"The ordinary sort. A skilled listener will cause those around him or her to pour out their secrets gladly, relieved to unload them. It is not to be discounted as a talent."
Not his sort of listening. Mostly. He was probably better off not making a case for it.
"What should I do?" Talyn asked. "To get God's attention?"
"Prayer, as you may have heard, is customary," said the priest with a sigh. "You may go."