Chapter Thirty-Eight: Continuing

Priests - or a priest - kept asking Talyn what he thought. What would his stars be? What line would he belong to? Did he think he'd passed the Test of the Empty Room?

"I don't know what passing would look like, or I'd have just done that instead of guessing," Talyn said. "I don't know what the test is meant to show, or what it means to pass it. I could guess, but if I guessed that I passed I'd be hoping that this would pass me, and if I guessed that I didn't I'd be trying to look humble hoping that would pass me. So - I don't know. What do you say?"

Talyn could see just enough of the priest's chin to hazard a guess that maybe he was smiling. Maybe they were always smiling; maybe priests walked around in continual religious ecstasy. "But I have asked you what you think, and you have not answered me. You have only told me what might motivate either answer."

Talyn sighed, and wracked his brain for a sincere reply. Had he passed...? "I think I failed," he said. "I think people fail by default, and I'm not special in any relevant way, just in unrelated things. Being an innate kama can't have anything to do with it, I think, and that's my biggest advantage in, well, anything. I wish I'd passed but I don't think I did."

"Why do you want to pass?" the priest then asked.

"That's - what people do on tests, is try to pass," Talyn said, puzzled.

"Tests exist to differentiate groups of people," said the priest.

"And I shouldn't want to be in a specific group, just in whichever group is right?" Talyn hazarded. He thought he was getting the hang of interpreting priests. Slowly. "Even if one of them is called 'failed' and the other is called 'passed'?"

The priest's hood dipped.

"I think I failed," Talyn said again. "I'm a weird, marginal member of the faith, passing probably means extra responsibilities or secrets or something, and there's no reason to expect God to trust me with anything besides the minimum stuff he needs to to let me in at all - and even that was a huge privilege. I bet people who pass the Test are divinely inspired to do something specific that no one could guess, so you can tell who's supposed to do... something. I wasn't. Divinely inspired, I mean. I bet people who pass go on to do special things that they need to be very deeply trusted to handle discreetly and properly, and I haven't demonstrated enough faith in the short time I've had to do that."

"Correct," said the priest.

"Is there any way I can take the test again, later -"

The priest shook his head under the deep hood.

Talyn couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, but at least he was in decent company with Leekath in failing the test.

"When will I need to be ready to do the Song of Night and the Dance of Black?" he asked.

"When you have turned eighteen in the years of your native world," replied the priest. "You will want to choose a time soon after that day, when vampires who are close to you are free to attend and you can secure the assistance of a Witness. Witnesses wear leather bands around their wrists in temple, if you need to know who to speak to."

Talyn filed that information away for later. "Am I finished here for now?"

The priest nodded. "Save one thing. Come with me."

Talyn followed the priest back into the room with the scripture on its platform. "What is it?"

"We do not know the names of the figures from our history. They are hidden from us. You do not know my name, or the Pontiff's name, or God's name. And, accordingly, vampires each receive a secret name."

Leekath hadn't mentioned that. Perhaps it was so secret that it didn't fall under the umbrella of things she was allowed to tell other vampires - at least what her specific secret name was.

"Most vampires have another layer to our names. As our language - and thus our names - are unpronounceable to others, we use nicknames, which often serve the purpose of making the names we are given at birth lesser-known, though not truly secret. You will be without this layer, as 'Talyn Dalenn Casten' is quite pronounceable and it will remain your legal name and that which you go by. But you will still have the name I am about to give you. It must be concealed from all except for priests and the Most Holy Successor to our Most Holy Founder, the Pontiff. It is to be used only in private, protected correspondence and communication between you and the hierarchy of the faith. Not even your fiancée may learn it, and you may not learn hers."

"Yes, Ieeht," Talyn said, hoping that it would be a good name. But not so good that he'd go nuts wanting to tell someone about it.

A gloved hand settled on Talyn's head; Talyn closed his eyes. "I name you Aieenaahheeiisaaali."

Talyn picked apart the compound word; he was pretty sure it meant something like "strange echo". Or "unfamiliar shape in the dark". Interesting choice. He'd take it. "Thank you, Ieeht."

"And now, you may go," said the priest, removing his hand from Talyn's head.

Talyn half-nodded, half-bowed, and went out of the temple to go home to Leekath.

<I wonder what your fheeil would say. Or Iilha,> Talyn sent. <If we told them I converted.>

<I told Khi. He didn't believe me,> Leekath replied. <I haven't had a chance to bring it up with Aaihhhi yet.>

<Is there a way to prove it, short of showing up at the same temple service as one of them?> Talyn asked. <How is Khi keeping up with everything, anyway?>

<He already Sang and Danced,> sent Leekath. <He doesn't have to go to services if he doesn't want to. I think he does, when he's at Osaan instead of with his Barashin Master, but it's not a requirement. Even children don't have to go more than a few times a month so that they can learn the dialect and that part of the culture.>

<I think I'll go more often than that,> Talyn sent. <It's late at night, but Rhysel came up with a good array of potions that are safe and compatible with kamai drain if you swap between them often. I'll dip into those when I need them. The emergency power box can stay what it is, don't worry.>

<So you didn't pass the Test of the Empty Room either, did you?>

<Nope. Is it obvious?>

<If you had you'd have bragged about it first thing,> Leekath pointed out. <And then you would have stopped midsentence and tried to talk about something else, because you couldn't give me any details.>

<I think you might know me awfully well.>

<Oh, yes. On an unrelated topic, Emryl's coming over Fenen evening to stay overnight and I'm taking Lunen off to show her tourist traps around the city. I thought we'd put an illusion bed in the living room for her. I don't know if you want to appear in vampire form to her or not.>

<I might as well. I'm going around in public like this all the time, and it's not like my family who don't even live in the right world. But I'm not going to explain about the conversion. I think that's supposed to stay a secret - and we don't want the pontiff flooded with requests just because they let one guy in. Let her think I'm a slightly pathetic failed wannabe.>

<I'm not going to talk about you that way to her, but we'll see what we can do to imply it,> Leekath sent with a mental laugh and a physical smile.

<Is there a good way to rub it in your less beloved sister's face? Or your fheeil's?>

<If I think of one I'll let you know. But maybe it should even be a secret from the people it'd be really satisfying to tell,> Leekath said, suddenly solemn.

<I'll trust you on that, then,> Talyn sent. <At least until I learn more.>

Leekath smiled again, and pressed her lips to his.

Talyn signed up for another term of classes for the term starting in Komehel: Third Tier Theory; a practicum on Spells To Alter The Self (Or: Asaamen Folktale Blessings You Can Actually Have!); and History of Wizardry Overview, which he chose in favor of a three-course series on the same subject and hoped would be more fun than contemporary literature. At least he couldn't complain that people who'd actually existed weren't arranging their lives for entertainment value. His advisor didn't complain about his course selection during their brief meeting before term began.

The new term started on the first of Komehel, Talyn got all his syllabi and textbooks as soon as they were available, and he got off to a decent start in everything. He had a different theory professor, who was dry but inoffensive. The practicum had long blank spots in its syllabus marked "Student Choice", and Talyn was supposed to submit a list of self-enhancement spells he'd like to learn in two weeks - "If you don't have any ideas, look to literature, history, or even the newspaper!" the professor exhorted.

Talyn picked up a newspaper and flipped through it, since he had an idea of what he thought of literature and had not yet learned much history. There was a personal-interest piece on Ryganaav with cherry-picked quotes from natives - mostly women and leonines, he observed - who had nice or at least non-outraged things to say about Linnipese rule. There was a fair amount of Linnipese news, too, for an Esmaarlan paper - "Sali-peiradeima joins sasaideima", "Kaimia-ai rumored to succeed Empress over Tia-ai", "Rebels Quashed -"

Talyn put down the newspaper. He wrote down a handful of self-enhancements he already knew how to do with kamai and would be vaguely curious to see how wizards would manage. He turned that in.

He didn't think there was a spell that would let him reshape politics with impunity and no moral issues or unexpected fallout.

Leekath was still studying kamai at Binaaralav, though only four classes of it, as she'd run out of death kamai to take - an exhaustive search by the death kamai teacher had revealed what did and did not work in Elcenia, and so the entire course formally came to an end after only eight terms instead of the projected twenty or twenty-two for the other aspects. (There was an optional half-term rundown of what death kyma in Barashi could do that kyma in Elcenia could not. Leekath took it, but Talyn got the sense that this was just for completeness, not because she expected to want to harness the knowledge and powers of spirits in Barashi on a regular basis.)

Leekath's particular advantages led her to accumulate a collection of all the kamai tools Talyn had ever heard of, bought and made and received as presents from Emryl and Rhysel and other teachers. She had ward stones, wands in gold and rowan and bone and marble and quartz, conduit staffs of similar materials, storage crystals, nuggets and bangles and beads and splinters and snaps and knucklebones and hornwhistles and totems and pebbles and a glass disc. And, somehow, she'd acquired an honest-to-goodness soulchain.

"Where," Talyn had asked her when she came home with that, "did you get a soulchain?"

"From Bryn," said Leekath.

Talyn still didn't want to bother Master Bryn Rhylenn until he knew all the kamai he could learn without her help, for all that she was teaching at Binaaralav. Her institutional students were one thing; a random ex-apprentice of someone she worked with was another, and he didn't want to be brushed off because he seemed like he was using her as a shortcut. "She just gave you a soulchain."

"She wanted to ask me how to use it," Leekath said.

That actually made a lot of sense; the information was lost since the kyma purge, even to Bryn, but Leekath could recover anything one might care to know about a solid object. "Is it empty?"

"Of course it's empty. She gave it to me so I can put her in it if she dies while she's here. She's nervous about how little death kamai works here. And then I'm supposed to take her to Barashi in it and break it there."

Talyn nodded slowly, eyeing the tangled loop of black metal chain dotted with red self-sustaining light. Master Bryn was very old. And the death kamai thing would make one nervous, if one weren't Talyn. "Right."

Leekath started wearing most of her wearable tools - the soulchain looked ominously fetching around her left wrist - and carrying the smaller examples of the others, as half fashion statement and half utility gear. She grew her hair out so she could tangle more bits of wood and metal and bone and crystal and stone into it. It all made her look very complicated.

She still went to work when she didn't have classes; her teachers went easy on written work and she reviewed her textbooks all the time just by keeping them around, so this meant every Lunen and Chenen, plus breaks between terms, she was at Parliament. She spent most of her days out of their house.

But at night, if they felt like staying up late - if Talyn's first class the next day began in the afternoon, and her first class the next day was a review section or something about a kamai object that she could safely skip - they'd go to temple together. (Without her, he'd often go alone. He wanted to show everyone - however many priests came through the local temple - that he took his privileges seriously, that he wasn't going to forget about what he'd agreed to once he had the permissions he'd wanted.)

At first Talyn had a hard time following a lot of the conversations that went on during temple. Everyone arrived at slightly different times of night, and spent an angle or so milling around or soaking in the pool and talking about the topics that couldn't be discussed on the outside, but they kept using names he didn't understand.

Leekath explained that to make it easier to talk about the figures from Scripture, they had nicknames - for instance, the Founder's wife was commonly referred to as Aai, which meant "Moon", although this was not to be understood to be an actual segment of her name the way modern vampires' nicknames were. Leekath gave him a rundown of the nicknames she could remember off the top of her head and thereafter he was able to participate much better, though he spent more time raptly listening.

The other congregants didn't have mind-shielding pendants, but he didn't catch anyone thinking "by the way, I'm a priest". Maybe they occupied distinctly different mental tracks outside of their clergy garb, maybe off-duty priests were steering clear of his temple specifically because it was his; Talyn wasn't going to go digging in anyone's head looking for clues against God's will. Maybe not even if he got really impatient.

He didn't encounter anyone not in a priestly cloak who was wearing one of the pendants, although on occasion he spotted Leekath using a spare moment to create a new one and deposit it into a black envelope. As far as he knew, she was the only vampire who could create such things, besides him; the other vampire students at Binaaralav weren't that advanced, let alone anyone at the newer Daasen program. And they probably had a point in not asking him to create defenses against himself.

After a while spent in unstructured socialization at temple during each service night, a priest called everyone to order and the service proper began. The priests spoke about ethics and personal fulfillment and learning and privacy and cooperative living and family and obedience to God. They held up the examples of the Most Holy Founder, and his wife, and the First Witnesses. Anonymous requests for prayers could be left in a bowl of black glass in the temple, and would be paraphrased by the priests during services and made the subjects of discussions about similar problems, what God wanted done about them, what the Most Holy Founder would have done, and what resources might be available to help.

And they sang.

Vampire voices were more uniform and naturally musical than those of other species; they had to be, to handle precise pitching and vowel length that carried half the meaning in their languages. Singing beautifully was more about trying hard than about having any natural talent. Talyn started out pretty poorly, but he borrowed Leekath's music crystals - full of secular songs exclusively, of course - and sang to himself while he did homework. Soon enough he could shrill along to each of the Songs from scripture in any of their multiple tunes, and the other hymns that had been added to the canon over the years, and occasional wordless choruses of emotion emitted spontaneously during services.

There was dancing, too, though it was more formalized. Talyn had been envisioning dances done on two feet. Sometimes, that happened. More often, everyone present shifted - except the priest, who could not transform where anyone might see him and recognize his bat form. "Flutterdances" were chaotic group patterns where everyone shared an algorithm for how to react to the approach or retreat of others, resulting in beautiful ripples of motion throughout disorganized flocking. Talyn picked up the handful of most common flutterdances and worked on his maneuverability until he didn't embarrass himself.

The Dance of Night, which he had to learn before turning eighteen, incorporated elements of both forms at different stages. A Witness - who was Red Line, but knew the dance anyway - made appointments with Talyn to teach him the dance so he'd be able to acquit himself without difficulty. Talyn had needed to ask four Witnesses before he found one who knew the relevant dance. Apparently most of the vampires in Esmaar were descended from settlers of the Red or White lines, with only a handful of Black, Blue, and Silver trickling in during more recent years.

After the sermon and prayers and the singing and dancing, there was more milling around, and some people left. Departing then left Talyn with time for about five angles of sleep before he had to be up for a morning class - six if he was willing to sleep in his clothes and was current on the anti-beard potion that he spread on his chin once a week. Maybe ceasing to age at twenty meant that vampires could tolerate that kind of interference with their sleep on a regular basis. Maybe a lot of vampires had jobs that didn't require them functional at the crack of dawn.

Some didn't leave, though. Some went into side rooms one or two at a time, to ask private questions in private audiences with the priests. Talyn hadn't taken advantage of this yet, but he could imagine doing it, if he had a problem he couldn't figure out or apply brute force kamai to. For the time being, though, his life was running pretty smoothly.

Talyn went and visited his parents during a three-day holiday break from university in mid-Marahel.

Leekath couldn't come, as Parliament didn't let out for the holiday even though Binaaralav did. Instead, she sent him with presents for each parent and the four siblings he was likely to encounter, tokens of her affection in lieu of her presence. Little Cyranna got a stuffed bat with a copper "heart" Leekath tucked inside it, stamped with a mindprint of love. This was a practically valueless implementation of the mindprint working, but one that meant that the bat could be reasonably said to love Cyranna. Erryl got a clever toy - mechanical, imported from Erubia, which wouldn't break in transit - that folded and unfolded and clicked as it twisted under his hands. Abel she didn't know as well, but she sent a generically useful nice wooden box. Coryl got a drake egg, which would, properly incubated according to the instruction packet, hatch into a highly unique sort of pet for the journeyman veterinarian. Talyn's mother got a packet of skeins of raan thread and Talyn's father got a replica of a historical Esmaarlan article of jewelry.

Talyn went, bearing all these gifts, in halfblood form and didn't breathe a word about his conversion. His dad would want to know all about it and no protestation of privacy would put him off - his mom would feel hurt that she hadn't been consulted or warned. His little sister and little brother would make pests of themselves, and any given older sibling would think he was making a stupid and immature decision that was worthy teasing or admonishment material.

The presents were all well-received, even if Talyn had to repair a broken wooden joint in Erryl's toy almost right away and Coryl's egg-hatching instructions had to be translated. As expected, Talyn had to defend his decision to not move home in terms of having already acquired the rooftop cottage with Leekath. Even then, when he mistakenly let slip that she was paying for the house, his mother questioned the wisdom of living together before getting married. She suggested that he move back home until the wedding - "Which you're postponing until you finish school, right? At least four or five more years?" his mother asked.

"Yeah," Talyn said. They'd probably have to have duplicate ceremonies, one in temple and one on Barashi; they could figure that out when they weren't juggling school on top of everything. "I think I'll be able to do one tier per term, which has me all done halfway through 11258 - Elcenian years. End of 11258 if I fail a test and have to redo a tier. Leekath's all done with wizardry so she's just wrapping up kamai. That's not done by tests - they're laying down curriculum as her cohort goes along, though. So we don't know exactly when she'll be through but we think the same year is about right."

"I'm glad, dear," said his mother. "I do like Leekath, she's a sweetie, but you're both so young. Really very young to be living by yourselves."

"Well, I couldn't do my homework or practice spells, here," Talyn said. "And it's very inconvenient for Leekath to come to Barashi even when she has the time to spare. Between school and her I'd wind up spending all my time there anyway."

When he went to sleep in his old bed, it took him a long period of tossing and turning and wishing he was hanging upside-down beside Leekath before he could manage to drift off.

He didn't mention that to his family, either.

The next day, he made a trip with all of them to visit the tree that had been planted where Revenn had been buried.

He toyed with the idea of calling on his grandfather's spirit. And discarded it. Grandfather had known, practiced, and taught death kamai, but he made it clear to all his students in that discipline that the dead formed habits and plans that could be thrown terribly off by answering a summons. Revenn was with his parents, his wife, his friends - he was not expecting to be yanked back into the living world for a chat with his grandson. In a dire emergency he'd put up with it. Since Talyn wasn't planning to die himself, he'd have to wait for a dire emergency.

One was sure to crop up eventually.

Leekath wanted to bite him immediately when he got home; he hadn't bothered changing into vampire shape for the hop from the circle to the house. He let her. He wasn't sure if she'd been going without or dipping into the stockpile that was still preserved in the citadel under wolfrider territory; either way she curled into him with eager languor when she drew blood out of his throat and tranced when he stroked her hair.

"I love you," he told her. "I think I might have to marry you."

"Mmm, good," she said. "You should do that."

He shifted, and snuggled closer. "In a few years," he said.