Chapter Thirty-Five: Praying
"What can you tell me about how praying works?" Talyn asked Leekath.
"It works like... praying," Leekath said. "I don't do that much of it. How do you pray to Barashin gods?"
Talyn shrugged. "Technically anything invoking their names or titles counts. 'Aziel, I want a pony', 'begone rain in Arimal's name', 'pilots of the suns, fly away and leave me alone, I'm tired'. Like that."
"Well, you don't get God's name," Leekath said tartly.
"That doesn't surprise me."
"But you can address him as God if you want," she said.
"God," said Talyn loudly, but she made a shushing gesture.
"Not while I'm here," she hissed. "Do I pray in front of you?"
"I figured that was a coincidence, or you didn't want to let anything slip -"
"That too, but - here, I'll go in my study and do work," she said. She kissed his temple, and slipped away into the cross between a closet and a bedroom that she kept her school assignments and extra Parliamentary work in. (His textbooks and school supplies occupied a levitating table with shelves under it in the living room.)
Talyn was left sitting on the edge of the bed in their bedroom, wondering what he'd been going to say after addressing the vampire deity.
"God," he said again, more quietly. "God, I need her. I love her. I can't lose her over this. And I can't let our children get swallowed up by something I don't understand. Let me in."
There was no answer, but from such a secretive deity, any communication would have been a surprise.
"Please," Talyn added.
Talyn learned the sunscreening spell, and started going around in vampire form habitually, changing only to eat meals or let Leekath eat hers - and even then he kept up a visual illusion of the bloodlessly pale skin, the fangs. (Leekath didn't find the facade appetizing the first time, but after she'd gone ahead anyway this was corrected.)
His classmates noticed, or at least a few of them did. The teachers noticed too. Several of them even asked him about it instead of minding their own business or making quiet assumptions. He told the curious ones that it was "an exercise" in kamai shapeshifting.
He couldn't blink instantly from vampire form to bat (although he could make it look like he was, with image kamai on top of the blurrier transition) so he didn't spend time in bat form during the day - but he slept beside his fiancée, hanging from the perch above the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable.
Vampire ears were better. Vampire eyes were worse. He held books closer to his face, and got used to echolocating over long distances to hear/feel the space around him when it was unclear. He was stronger and faster, but not enough that he accidentally broke things or performed absurd athletic feats when he was just going about his life. He reacted to temperatures differently: warm objects were appealing but warm ambient temperatures distressing, cold days pleasant and cold surfaces aversive. Esmaar's weather was just as congenial to either shape on average, but the indoor climate control wasn't always.
When he got home, before he started chipping away at each day's pile of homework, he took a moment to haul himself up to a perch, hang there, and talk to the silent god of the vampires. Usually he said the same thing. "Let me in."
Sometimes he got creative. "I'll be a good vampire." "I don't know what you want your followers to do, but I trust Leekath that it's all right." "I won't tell anyone about what's in the rest of the temple. Or the part I saw. Or what the priest said to me. Not even my dad. Even if he badgers me for a week." "It's not like the Barashin gods have a great hold over me, they don't care what I do. I'm not going to have divided loyalties. I don't even live there." "I won't even tell anyone but Leekath that I convert, if you don't want a lot of people trying. If you let even me."
"What do you want?"
"What should I do?"
God did not reply.
Talyn let himself down to the floor and watched white hands belonging to a species that wouldn't take him flip through Contemporary Short Stories from the Leraal Speaking World, Volume Three, Edition Six.
Unbelievably, he got used to the classes. He became accustomed to the weird ways the local literature unfolded, and the similarities it shared with plays, which he often did like. The vampire shape had steadier hands and was better suited to gesturing crisply, crisply, so he no longer dreaded the practicum so badly. He applied himself to theory, studying the Elementary Components of Intentionality, and the standard notation systems, and the differences between manipulating an installation and casting it in the first place.
Then the first large swath of tests approached.
Aar Sosrik casually informed the class that when he started teaching low-level theory courses, no more than a third of them ever passed their first test, and that even after he began issuing warnings the pass rate never cleared fifty percent - "so the problem, you see, is that none of you yet believe that wizardry is difficult, that you must study, and even though I'm telling you this now, you'll have to see your mark on the test to believe me."
Talyn decided it would be most efficient to believe him in advance. He took the study guide and went over it four times. He bought the recommended book of practice intentional-component-identification exercises, and then went through Leekath's spellbooks for more advanced practice. When she had spare angles she wasn't spending practicing kamai or doing take-home work from Parliament, she'd check his work.
He still slept beside her - when he slept. Darkness didn't mean time to sleep to a vampire body; his wakeful periods stretched beyond all previous limits. He hung on the bedroom perch only when exhaustion compelled it. At least he couldn't literally fall asleep over his books. He'd stay conscious until he became a bat. (Or a halfblood, but that was only for mealtimes.)
For that matter, he wasn't sure he needed to eat on a daily basis if he was spending most of his time in vampire shape. Leekath drank her fill every evening, but that was a special case. He tried skipping lunch, and felt fine, and skipped dinner, and pulled an all-nighter writing his practice tests and working out exactly how he'd made all the mistakes that didn't correspond to the answer key.
He was too exhausted to safely teleport by the time his last class let out the next day. He didn't feel hungry, exactly, just drained - his lifeforce was accustomed to being replenished with food and sleep frequently. He took a transfer point most of the way home, which mercifully took only a tiny spark of energy. He climbed the stairs that zigzagged up the wall of the building, because he didn't have the wherewithal to fly or shapeshift.
In the kitchen, he stared into a cabinet, and sluggishly realized that if he didn't have enough lifeforce to shapeshift he had no way to eat. Not food.
Talyn was going to have to sit or hang, doing nothing, not even sleeping, let alone applying himself to studying. He would have to do that until Leekath came home and he could tap her.
Or he was going to have to find somebody to bite.
He wasn't so utterly perfect at shapeshifting that he could get any lifespan gains - or losses, more likely - from doing that. Probably. Probably without divine intervention blood would be only nourishment, not lifespan adjustment. Maybe it'd drop him down to the span of whoever he bit. Or average with what he had. He didn't have any communication crystals; he was used to finding people he had to talk to. Otherwise he could call Kaylo...
It occurred to him belatedly that he could find someone to tap just as easily as he could find someone to drink from.
Well, it was an essential part of the vampire experience, wasn't it, depending on the people around oneself - people who weren't family, usually - for sustenance. Asking over and over that they let someone bite into them and suck blood, asking to be trusted to stop short of taking too much, asking without offering any repayment that could ever fall into the category of coercion. Beggars by biological constraint. Ethical parasitism.
Also, he wouldn't have to explain to a random neighbor how vampire bites worked, whereas tapping would be extra degrees of conversation he couldn't easily afford.
But mostly the essential vampire experience part.
"Thanks?" he said wearily to the air, to himself, to God, and he went to find the stairs down to the next house down in the building.
An elf answered the door. This meant she wasn't bewildered by the question when he knocked as humans (or other vampires) might have been, and he didn't have to make a clumsy excuse and try another house. "I'll go see who's home," the old lady who answered said. "You just wait right here."
The person who was home was Memin, also an elf, was probably in his fifties or early sixties, and while he didn't have visible bitemarks, he was clearly familiar with the procedure. He leaned on the doorframe. "Don't think we've met," he said.
"I'm Talyn," Talyn said. It didn't sound much like a vampire nickname, but some of them were more mangled from the source than others, and his name was sufficiently pronounceable in Leraal that this might appear to be the point of it. "So can I -"
"Yeah, go for it, you look hungry," Memin said.
Talyn didn't need any further encouragement. The elf's warmth stood out like a beacon against the room-temperature hallway. He bit.
The blood didn't taste like anything, which Talyn found a profound relief. If it didn't have a taste, in all likelihood it wasn't messing with his lifespan. If he'd been less desperate he would have offloaded the extra span onto Leekath before making an experiment like this, but he hadn't been thinking clearly except inofar as continuing to be that drained was unacceptable.
He stopped at about the point in the feeding that Leekath did in hers, which was a little earlier than Memin had expected - she took short sips, since she ate daily. "Thanks," he said, a world better.
"No problem," Memin said. "Friends are all out of town?"
"I really need to get some communication crystals," evaded Talyn with a weak laugh.
"All right. Well, drop by again if you need to," offered the elf, and he closed the door.
Talyn returned to the cottage, looking hopeful in a vaguely upward direction.
Leekath came home, and he told her about what had happened, and she frowned a little and wanted exact words of how he'd asked. Then she wanted to check his lifespan, but she nodded to herself and confirmed that it was the same. Then she wanted him to tap her and shapeshift and let her drink, so he did.
He was, though, beginning to understand what she'd found so unsettling about having a heartbeat when she'd tried halfblood form. It wasn't an intrinsically unpleasant sensation, but after a day of lacking it, he could definitely feel a palpitation in his chest when he blurred his heart back into existence.
"Don't try to go without sleep again," Leekath told him. "It's probably more tempting in vampire form because we have to stay at least minimally functional on very short sleep - we need to at least be able to shift and get to a perch or we could die of it - but you still, really, can't go without. You need to sleep a reasonable amount of time every night."
"I will, from now on," Talyn said. "But I think it might have been important that I try actually biting someone, just once. Even if I shouldn't make a habit of it."
"You shouldn't. You don't need to - or at least, you don't have to need to, even if you did today because you were careless," she said. "I guess once doesn't hurt anything."
Talyn nodded agreeably.
"Maybe we should keep a power box in the house all the time," Leekath suggested. "For emergencies."
He winced. "That sounds maybe too tempting to have around all the time. I'd wind up using it to short myself on sleep."
"We can make it really inconvenient to get to," she said. "And you'll have to justify it to me if you use it. Just more convenient than going around looking for someone to tap or bite."
She put it on her to-do list, for later when either of them had lifeforce to spare to fill such a thing with. They decided that it would go on the top shelf of the linen closet, behind the towels.
Talyn ate dinner in halfblood form, studied for his exams in companionable silence beside Leekath, and went to perch with her at seventeenth-and-naught, utterly wrung out.
When he woke up the next morning, she was already gone, and he was left with the residue of some odd dreams.
Talyn wrote down the contents of the dreams so he wouldn't forget them, although they weren't tearing themselves to shreds yet. They didn't seem interesting - he did not ride astride a giant loaf of bread to a half-sunken isle and become its king, as he had in a dream the previous week. But that was only part of what made them unusual. They'd been in black and white, while he normally dreamt in full color. They'd been about Leekath, which was common enough, but they hadn't featured him at all - in first or third person. And they'd felt - unusual.
Dreamed that Leekath was handling citizenship forms, he labeled one piece of paper, and then he peppered it with all the other details he could conjure up - where she sat, the time of day that appeared when she cast the spell to check. He'd never even been to her office before and yet he had such a clear picture of it... He made an illusion of it, and then decided that he didn't want to leave that draining him all day, so he flattened it and traced the lines onto the paper before letting it go.
Dreamed about Leekath in temple, singing, and again, there was a picture, of a room in the temple he hadn't seen, and Leekath in it among a hundred other bat-formed vampires in ultrasonic chorus. He didn't draw that one. It seemed rude - sacrilegious? - to create a picture of a place that was so aggressively kept private, even if no one had mentioned that specific thing as something to avoid.
The memories of the dreams held vivid all day long. He wanted to tell Leekath about them, but it was Lunen and she was at Parliament; even going home between classes wouldn't let him catch her. She took her government-mandated "lunch" break at unpredictable times, or he'd call.
So he went about his day as though nothing was out of the ordinary, and listened attentively to the reviews of test material that two of his three classes were going through. And less attentively to the prolonged, animated tangent about the love life of indecisive protagonist heartthrob Endin Ataanimer from the novel Contemporary Literature was finishing up.
He got home, and he went through another one of Leekath's spellbooks ("200 Miscellaneous Spells People Will Expect You To Know If You Are A Wizard") to practice what he knew about identifying intentional components. That particular book let him check his own work on the opposite pages.
He still reliably missed components, especially temporal ones - too many of the elementary spells took effect immediately and instantly, while others had delays or lasted all afternoon if desired. He gritted his teeth and made an explicit checklist in his head to go through each time, though it was tedious and he routinely felt that he knew the answers without it.
When Leekath got home, he showed her the writeups of his dreams.
"You had these dreams last night?" she asked softly.
"You've never been to my office," she said.
"No, I haven't."
She frowned at the second page. "Can you send me a mental image - I'm glad you didn't draw it, that's good - but -"
Talyn sent her the wispy remaining impression he had of the temple in which she'd sung.
Leekath pursed her lips. "You didn't sneak past the priest, did you? You only went into the front room like you were supposed to."
"Swear to God," Talyn said, half-intending irreverent lightness but not managing it.
"I'll write another letter to the Pontiff," Leekath breathed.
Talyn grinned at her.
The tests for classes were scattered around Shuraahel 49 and 50 and Shuraahel-for, with a handful even scheduled for the first of Berehel. Contemporary Literature and Theory had blocks of time during the first of these days; he'd sit his practical exam the following day. Someone in the faculty had been alerted to the fact that Talyn could easily, maybe inadvertently, cheat by mindreading. He hadn't been going to, but everyone in his exams was tapped on the head by the university's mind kamai professor and rendered unreadable for the duration. So were the teachers and graduate students.
The theory test was hard, although the lack of chattering thoughts in his head actually helped him concentrate. And despite the fact that it was a theory test, Talyn had to prove his understanding with a few practical demonstrations: on his turn to go up to one of the graduate students, there was a section where he had to cast spells without being told what they did, only knowing the word and gesture and intentional components.
First tier had drilled into him that one never cast a spell without knowing what it was supposed to do, but the grad student assured him without prompting that everything was safe to cast, and that he was to aim the ones that called for targets at the test mice. Talyn verified for himself that everything was small enough that it wouldn't kill him if he botched it.
Talyn managed to cast two of the three unknown spells, causing his mouse to emit a high tone and then adding red polka-dots to it. The third spell didn't go off, and he wasn't allowed a second try.
Then he went back and wrote about fine distinctions between intention types, and the interaction of Voyan numbers with sting, and review material from first tier that he floundered on because he hadn't expected it and had done his earlier studying at a different school.
At the end of the exam period Talyn still had six questions of a hundred and twenty-five left to answer, but the grad student whisked his paper off his desk anyway, leaving a smear of graphite along the incomplete page from where it smudged against his hand. He couldn't help emitting a curse word. All that studying and he still wasn't at all confident he'd pass. At least he could still pass the course if he failed the first test.
The literature exam was easier, but more tedious. There was a section of trivially easy questions ("Who is the protagonist of Lulel's Song?") to prove that he'd read everything, and then he got his pick of essay questions ("Compare the theme of finding one's place in one's family as expressed in Redreeds, A Houseful of Palanik, and An Assembly of Birds.")
And there was a section in this exam too, where he had to go up to the front of the room and talk instead of writing. He took his turn with the professor instead of a graduate student and was obliged to give an oral description of what he thought of the trends in the Esmaarlan selections as opposed to the Saraanlan ones.
Talyn elected to go on a lengthy rant about how he didn't like anyone in any of the books, but he disliked the Saraanlan characters because they lacked significant emotional connections with each other and disliked the Esmaarlan characters because they were directionless and had only the shallowest of interest in anything they did. He couldn't read the professor's mind, but the expression on his face seemed neither impressed nor disappointed, which was something.
The exam sections were longer than the regular class sections, so even with only two during the entire day, Talyn arrived home later than usual to find Leekath already there.
She was holding another one of those envelopes from the office of the pontiff.
"That was faster," Talyn remarked.
"I don't know how they organize the pontiff's office, but at Parliament this sort of thing would have a case manager on it who'd have gotten it straight away; it wouldn't have had to be picked out of an unsorted pile and evaluated," she said.
"What's it say?"
"You're supposed to go back to see the priest again and talk to him about the dreams," said Leekath. "On Shuraahel-for at midnight."
"Well, at least I'll be done with my exams then," Talyn remarked. "Does it say anything else?"
"That's all," she said.
"Will it be the same priest?" he asked.
"It doesn't matter," Leekath said.
Talyn got out of his wizarding practical exam without soot on his face, which was more than he could say for a good fraction of his classmates, so he assumed he'd done all right. The person he was supervised by at least didn't tell him "crisply!", but maybe that was because it was a test and not a learning exercise. After he was let out, he decided to take the rest of the day off, even though he had more Contemporary Literature reading to do for the class on the first of Berehel.
He spent the time before Leekath arrived home in the most prolonged and haphazard sequence of prayer he'd ever attempted. It was exhausting, considering that it consisted solely of hanging from his knees and begging an unresponsive God for consideration, for welcome, for admittance. "Please let the dreams be enough. Please let them be really from you, and not anything else. Please let me become one of yours. Tell the priest, please, tell him to let me in."
There were no classes on Shuraahel-for, only exams, and his were over with. He went to campus anyway, and wandered around, practicing walking and flying with his eyes closed so he navigated solely by echolocation. He wondered if there were analysis spells that would render examined magic as echoes - or for that matter regular sound. Leekath would probably know.
When that became boring - well before he ran out of campus - he teleported to Rhysel's tower to meet her new baby boy. She'd called him "Reven", as she'd said she would. She noted Talyn's vampire appearance, obvious by her expression if not by her concealed thoughts, but she didn't comment on it, just let him hold the infant. Talyn stayed until the awkward pauses between either of them having something to say grew too long, and then he went home to do his literature reading.
A little before midnight, Leekath adjusted his suncloak for him, then wished him luck and sent him out.
Talyn went to the temple, glad that he had no heart to pound in his ears.