Chapter Seven: Meeting
Talyn felt like if he stopped kissing Leekath, something really awful might happen, like him no longer kissing Leekath. Mindspeech it was. <I love you,> he repeated, and then, quickly, before she could answer, before the startled thoughts in her head could resolve themselves into a shape, <It's okay if you don't feel the same way - I just didn't want it to be a secret.>
At least Leekath didn't stop kissing him. <I - I don't know what to - is this because of Mysha?>
<No, it's because I love you - well - it's mostly because I love you. A little about Mysha. She was in love with me but she didn't say anything because she wouldn't have been allowed to do anything about it. And I think that's awful that it was a secret, and so I don't want this to be.>
"Aaran Casten," said Aar Kithen dryly, "perhaps you would like to show Aaralan Hhirheek your room."
It was diplomatically done, though Talyn felt a coil of embarrassment in Leekath's mind. Rather than solve the problem of how to walk to the room without disengaging his mouth from hers, he picked the both of them up with air kamai and floated to the place Aar Kithen was thinking of. <Sorry about that. I didn't think it ought to wait,> he sent.
<It's okay,> she said sheepishly. Without breaking the kiss, she sent a high-pitched ping into the room. Talyn peered into her mind with fascination as she effortlessly interpreted the echoes. <So this is where you live now?>
<Well, I'll still be going to visit my parents pretty often,> Talyn sent. <And I might go visit my grandmother for a tenday sometime, because I won't be able to learn a lot of death kamai here and she can fill in the gaps. But yeah. I live here.>
<I'm glad you'll be nearby now,> Leekath replied. She was shy about the mildness of this sentiment next to his declaration.
He pulled her closer and stroked her hair. <It's okay,> he assured her. Her hair was soft; he ran his hand down it again. Her thoughts quieted, almost as though she was falling asleep. <Leekath?>
<You can't sleep in this form, right?>
He was concerned enough to actually pull his face away from hers and search her eyes, which were half-open. "Are you okay?"
Leekath's eyelashes fluttered. "Oh. I'm fine. I think you found my trance trigger," she said. Her thoughts were waking up somewhat. "Trancing isn't sleep. I was conscious, just not very energetic."
"That's going to happen every time I pet your hair?" he asked, furrowing his eyebrows.
Leekath nodded. "Unless I'm not comfortable, or want to be particularly alert. Then it won't."
"...Nobody ever petted your hair before?" Talyn asked.
"My sister has styled it sometimes since she wants to be a hairdresser, but not really petted it." Leekath leaned towards him again for another kiss. <It's okay. It's nice.>
Talyn kissed her back and ran his hand through her hair again, and Leekath sighed contently.
Some time later - Talyn supposed he'd better start thinking of it as degrees - he asked, <Do you see a lot of your family?>
Leekath snapped out of her trance instantly. <Not during school. I live with them on breaks between terms.> There was an edginess to her thoughts. Talyn poked at it.
<They don't know about me?>
<I told Aaihhhi,> she sent. <And I mentioned you in a letter to my brother which he might have read already. But - Fheeil and my sister and the others don't. They're the ones who I think will have a problem with you not being a vampire or even a dragon.>
<Why's that a problem? On Barashi people don't usually date people of species they can't have kids with but I didn't think that was a problem here - I haven't heard anyone even thinking a complaint about Rhysel and Aar Kithen.>
<They can probably have kids just fine if they want, by magic if nothing else - vampires are more complicated,> Leekath said. <I don't have a circulatory system. Or a digestive system. If I couldn't turn into a bat, I'd die of sleep deprivation. People have half-vampires, but they miscarry a lot, and die as children a lot, and when they grow up they have a lot of health problems as adults too.> Her mind was full of bleak memories of the half-dozen attempts before her surviving half-human cousin was born - three dead before birth. One dead in infancy, unable to shift and needing it to sleep. One dead in infancy of malnutrition, fed the wrong guesswork mix of blood and milk. One with half a heart that worked for a week and stopped. <That uncle lives in a different house - they're not as conservative about this sort of thing - and it's worse when a vampire is carrying the baby instead of a human like my aunt, or something.>
<Is that it? Because I bet there's a way around it, if that's it. I want your family to like me,> Talyn sent.
<No, that's not all of it.> She squirmed. <Don't read my mind too much about my religion, please. It's mostly a secret from people who aren't vampires.>
<Okay,> he agreed, and then he instantly regretted it as he realized this might mean he would never know.
<Dragons can't be in the religion either, but they're really tasty, and they can speak the language, and they can turn into bats or even humanoid vampire shapes if they want, so they're... tolerated, if vampires want to date them or marry them. And vampire thudias count as vampires for religious purposes and they're perfectly healthy. But other than dragons, people don't like it. My aaihhhi's okay,> she sent earnestly. <I think he'll like you. And my brother Khi. But my fheeil and my sister probably won't be very nice to you.>
<Does it have to be a big deal?> Talyn asked tentatively. <I mean, do they expect to meet me?>
<Not yet,> Leekath said.
Talyn started petting her hair again. The fretting in her thoughts calmed.
The ability to saturate themselves with each other didn't pall; by the time Leekath's semester wound down, Hihhliir was teasing Leekath about Talyn more than about anything else. Since this didn't seem to bother Leekath - she thought of her roommate with a sort of indulgent amusement, taunts and all - Talyn didn't step in to defend his girlfriend. He did hear unkind thoughts from her hall neighbors and classmates (mostly bizarre speculations about her behavior that wouldn't have made sense even if the voices she heard were hallucinations). These he was tempted to confront, but they never escalated into outright bullying and he didn't want to risk getting in trouble with the school authorities and having them forbid him from meeting her on campus.
The last day of the semester was the last day of Komehel (well, technically "Komehel-for" wasn't in Komehel, though Talyn couldn't figure out why that was). <I'm not allowed to stay at school over the break,> Leekath told him. <My parents want me home and this time I don't even have to wait for a shuttle that goes to Mifaar, since I can teleport.>
<We can see each other over break sometimes, though, can't we?>
<I don't know about that,> she admitted. <Fheeil doesn't like me to go places, uh, "unsupervised". He figures being at school is like being supervised, but when I'm home I mostly stay home except when I visit neighbors to ask for lunch.>
<I could come by and give you lunch. Would they be okay with that?>
She hesitated. <Probably. But I... I still haven't told Fheeil about you - and he'd want to know who you were and why you were, um, delivering.>
<We can tell him, right? It's better than not seeing each other for a month. A long month.>
<...Maybe,> Leekath sent back. <You have the communication crystal I gave you, right? We can at least talk. I'm allowed to do that.>
<Yeah, I have it.> He sighed - through his nose, so he could keep kissing her. <Is he going to punish you for dating me, or something?>
<I don't know. I never dated anyone before,> Leekath admitted. <If I'm not there by -> She disengaged, to cast the time-telling spell. "Four degrees from now -" She fastened her mouth back to his, expertly avoiding fanging him. <Then he'll be mad at me for dawdling...>
<Then we have four degrees,> Talyn said.
Leekath left him behind with just a tick to spare.
Talyn didn't know what to do with himself while Leekath was gone. They talked by crystal, but she couldn't usually spare more than an angle a day - "I'm supposed to tutor my little cousin" was the usual reason; sometimes it was "Aaihhhi's home, I want to catch him before he starts working up in his study". If they talked late at night it was occasionally "time to leave for temple", about which she could say no more.
He studied kamai from Rhysel's books and the ones he'd brought with him, but sometimes he also loitered around Binaaralav. Some of the students did stay over break: the people with the enormous wolves who thought in decorated sync were getting extra language tutoring, and some students who wanted to get studying or projects accomplished with the use of the library were around for other reasons, and Talyn heard some people thinking that they were there to avoid various flavors of irksome home life.
Kaylo, the dragon Talyn had encountered at the kamai demo, was on campus for what appeared to be the library-related reason. Talyn ran into him sitting on the floor in the stacks, chewing his way through a stack of dense theory books that made the dragon's head buzz with jargon and abstract reasoning far above Talyn's level of comprehension.
Talyn hadn't meant to disturb Kaylo, but the dragon looked up anyway in a gap between thoughts. "Oh, hey, I remember you," he said in Martisen. "You answered some of my questions at the demo. I didn't know you were in Elcenia again."
"I started apprenticing with Rhysel," Talyn said, upon ascertaining his welcome to start a conversation. "Can we talk in Leraal? I'm still practicing it."
"No problem," said Kaylo easily, in the requested language. He shelved the book he'd been flipping through - "this monstrosity is useless, author did not check the literature" - and picked up the rest of his stack of books. "Is Rhysel a better teacher than she let on at the demo? I know Aar Kithen's all right, but he has less kamai background than she does, right?"
"I guess that depends on how thorough Keo was giving him Rhysel's knowledge. And how you compare the extra reading they've been doing. I guess she's okay, but I'm mostly self-teaching," Talyn said.
The boys strolled towards one of the study tables and Kaylo plunked his volumes down and started sorting them into three piles. Talyn slid into a chair. "Well, I'll live, I suppose," Kaylo said. "I mean, with wizardry, they ostensibly teach theory, but I'm having to research everything on my own time anyway because half of it is manifestly nonsense. Maybe having a teacher who doesn't care about theory will save time in the long run."
"What're you working on now?" Talyn asked, peering at the books. They were titled things like The Complete Tah Roie Rhythm Data [volume 6, 11000-11100] and Wizardry: A Statistical Analysis and Collected Papers on Familiar Theory.
"Channeling capacity," said Kaylo. He finished his sorting into piles and began arranging each pile into his desired reading order, then pulled a notebook out of the bookbag he wore on his back. "It doesn't make sense - there's not even a pretense of an understanding of why or what the stuff is unless you go by Sand Dusk Chanter apologia and say it's the trust of our Lord God - er - do you mind?"
Talyn's welcome had worn out with the books laid out on the table before Kaylo, who was near-twitching with the urge to seize them all at once and extract their contents into condensed cross-referenced nuggets. "Sure," Talyn said, getting up again. "Good luck with your project."
"Thanks," said Kaylo absently, already hunting through the index of Minutiae on Channeling (A Crosstraditional Approach).
Talyn went outside and loitered by the pond that had once contained Rhysel's housekeeper, gardener, and their three children, waiting for Leekath to call. She'd said the previous day that her brother was coming home for a brief visit - his school operated on a different schedule than Binaaralav did, and was still in session for the month of Sutaahel; he was mostly coming to see Leekath while she was there. She'd told Talyn that she'd ring as soon as Khi was gone.
The sun had almost set when the crystal in his pocket chimed. "Leekath, hi!" he exclaimed into it, scrambling to hold it to his ear. "Did you have a good visit with your brother?"
"It was really good to see him!" she said. "Um, but."
"...I still hadn't told Fheeil about you."
"Khi didn't know that. He thought everybody knew. And he mentioned you."
"Oh. Uh, did that not... go well?"
"Uh. Fheeil wants to meet you. So, I guess tomorrow, you should come over... and meet my family."
Talyn had considerable information about how to make a good first impression, even if Leekath hadn't been able to tell him much - she didn't seem to have any examples ready to hand of any person or thing that her fheeil found pleasing. Given twenty-five angles in which to render himself suited for meeting his vampire girlfriend's vampire dad, his first order of business was to buy new clothes. He got money from Rhysel, followed passersby's thoughts to an upscale store, and told the first clerk he saw, "I need to look nice. Impressing-my-girlfriend's-family-when-they're-predisposed-to-hate-me nice. Help me?"
The clerk wisely gave no consideration to Talyn's stylistic preferences in the face of such a task. She picked out a long-sleeved red shirt with a row of square buttons trailing down the front alongside his right arm, a pair of brown ticked-patterned slacks with no pockets, and a pair of heeled boots that divided into four sections above the ankle and had to be bound closed with a series of cords. Once the clerk had finally impressed upon Talyn how to tie the shoes, she took the money and Talyn went back to Rhysel's tower.
Theedy, the housekeeper, and Eret, the gardener, were respectively willing to tutor him in languages but untalkative, and unwilling to tutor him in languages but capable of producing plenty of words at a time. Given the volume of vampire language Talyn wanted to pick up and how much time he had to do it in, he antagonized Eret rather than wheedling Theedy. The red opal man would snap at Talyn in any language, which on this occasion worked against his stated preference to be rid of the pest. Talyn tottered around in the boots, eventually managing not to fall over in them, and practiced syncing up his mouth with illusion kamai of vampire words. He had to lean on Eret's ability to hear the high pitches, as he couldn't himself, and that impeded the fluency with which he could imagine them and press them into being. But he would be around plenty of readable vampires when he visited Leekath's family.
By the time Talyn felt it prudent to go to bed, he expected to be able to hold a very simple conversation in vampire, and as a side benefit he'd be able to understand it if any of Leekath's relatives decided to curse him out.
In the morning, Talyn studied shapeshifting.
Revenn had wanted him to hold off, Revenn had wanted to save shapeshifting for later, but Talyn didn't just want to be able to make himself a phoenix or a dolphin for kicks. He needed to turn into one thing, and it was important.
Talyn had spied on Byron practicing shapeshifting once, but Byron had never become a bat, so Talyn couldn't just directly lift the shape of the magic; he had to figure out which parts of it were generally applicable and which parts he needed to mess with, and how, to make himself a small furry flying creature.
His book was annoyingly vague - it was a textbook, and contained a high ratio of suggestions like "ask your Master to demonstrate the following exercise" - but by lunchtime, Talyn had managed to blur his arms into wings and back. He bolted down three bowls of the soup Rhysel fixed and moved on to attempting to shrink and finish the change.
Leekath called him while he was eating dinner; he'd successfully managed to bat-ify himself exactly once and only just changed into his sharp outfit. "I can come pick you up now," she murmured into the crystal. "Are you ready?"
He put his fork down. "Yeah, I don't want to keep your folks waiting."
She teleported onto Rhysel's front step; he could hear her mind pop into audibility there and opened the door before she knocked. Leekath spotted the plate of dinner on the table. "Oh," she said. "You could finish eating."
"I can do without," he said.
Leekath hesitated, trying to piece together whether her fheeil actually knew that non-vampires could safely skip meals, and finally held out her hand. "Call Fheeil 'Aar Hhirheek'," she said. "If Aaihhhi comes home while you're there, call him Representative Hhirheek first, but he'll probably tell you to go ahead and call him by his first name and then you can. Don't talk back to Fheeil or - or anything. Ignore my sister as much as you can because she'll probably try to goad you but don't be outright rude to her - if she asks you a direct question answer her and stuff. Um, my other relatives probably won't try to interact with you, but they might be around. Nod at them when you first go in but you don't have to talk to them if they don't talk to you. And - uh - Fheeil might want to talk to you alone. He might send me to work with my little cousin on something, maybe, and then I'll have to go, but he doesn't know about mindspeech, so if you need to ask me something you can do it that way."
"Oh. Uh, okay," Talyn said, taking her hand. "I think I can do that."
"You look really nice," Leekath added softly. She kissed him, just once, and then teleported them both.
Leekath's family home was smaller than its neighboring ones, but comparatively better-maintained with fewer obvious additions, and it had a rigidly trimmed flower garden climbing the walls and sitting on the roof. Leekath landed them on the gray-brick street encircling its ring of homes, inhaled deeply, and pulled the door open.
Her fheeil was waiting behind the door, tall and grim and unsmiling. "Welcome home, Aaeeihhyleekatheeei," he said, though there was no welcome in his voice or his thoughts. "Hello... 'Talyn'." His pronunciation of the foreign name had the exacting perfection of someone who insisted that his surface behavior be beyond reproach, whatever lapses he might have beneath that. Such as not being the least bit glad to see his daughter when she came home.
"Hello, Fheeil," murmured Leekath, dipping her head respectfully.
Talyn leaned on his image kamai to answer in vampire. "It's nice to meet you, Aar Hhirheek," he lied.
"Enter," said Aar Hhirheek, standing aside. Leekath trotted in at once and Talyn followed her, propping himself up with air kamai when the heel of his boot caught on the threshold. Aar Hhirheek didn't notice the trip, but he noticed the shape of Talyn's ears and the color of his eyes and concluded that he could not reasonably be lying about his lack of dragonhood. (Black dragons would have had eyes like Talyn's but only blue-groups could turn into half-elves.) This disappointed Aar Hhirheek; he'd have rather Leekath been dating a dragon who was for some reason pretending to be otherwise than a half-elf.
Talyn hadn't been sure what to expect about the interior of a vampire home. Except for perches attached to the ceiling over the chairs and couches, it was normal on the open-plan ground floor apart from the lack of a kitchen. Vampires in both forms occupied the miscellaneous seating and hanging. One bat-shaped individual - Talyn gathered from her thoughts that she was Leekath's sister Iilha - released her grip on her perch and transformed into humanoid shape such that her feet were planted exactly on the ground. Her hair was in an overcomplicated updo that didn't do enough to distract from the sneer on her face. "Well, God on the moon, Leekath actually has a bleeder boyfriend. I thought that was just a detail to make the "boyfriend" story more plausible but she actually went and did it," remarked Iilha.
Talyn steeled himself to ignore her as Leekath had said. <Am I allowed to sit down?> he asked his girlfriend.
<Wait until Fheeil does.>
Aar Hhirheek didn't seem to be inclined to sit soon. Possibly ever. He paid no mind to Iilha's comment. "Are you aware," he said to Talyn, "that Aaeeihhyleekatheeei is mentally unwell?"
"I know about the voices she hears," hedged Talyn. "Aar Hhirheek. It doesn't bother me."
"I did not ask you if it bothered you. Are you equipped to look after my daughter? At her current level of stability, or should it drop to a more customary level for sufferers of her disease? Or perhaps you are not interested in looking after her, which would be perhaps more understandable, and intend to discard her after her delusions cease to amuse you?"
"I love her -" began Talyn.
"I did not ask you," Aar Hhirheek said, "if you loved her. You may or may not believe that you do; you are very young, certainly not much in excess of thirty -"
"I'm not an Elcenian half-elf, I'm from Barashi and we age -" Talyn started.
<I told you not to talk back to him!> Leekath shrieked in his head, as Aar Hhirheek's expression darkened further and Iilha snickered while hoisting herself back up onto the perch.
"Aaeeihhyleekatheeei," said Aar Hhirheek slowly, "I believe Kaeesiishiialaei would benefit from your assistance with mathematics."
"Yes, Fheeil," murmured Leekath, and she trudged up the stairs.
When she had gone - and the room had otherwise cleared out, Iilha and other relations taking the hint from Aar Hhirheek's glowering silence - Aar Hhirheek advanced two steps to stare Talyn down from closer quarters. Talyn didn't back up, or set the man on fire, both of which victories ceased to bolster him when Aar Hhirheek said, "Considering that you are a rude and excessively idealistic cultural outsider; considering that you are too young whatever your aging rate might be to take on the commitment of an unwell and necessarily dependent lover, let alone spouse; considering that you cannot so much as propose to present me with healthy grandchildren I can present in the temple; considering that you have the effrontery to correct me while you are a guest in my home... Considering all of this, Talyn, do you have any considerations to present which suggest I should not forbid Aaeeihhyleekatheeei from seeing you?"
Talyn's blood ran cold. Would Leekath dump him, if Aar Hhirheek told her to? What would happen if she didn't, and he found out? What would he do to her? The man's thoughts didn't hold answers to any of that; in his mind he was simply to be obeyed. The question of consequences for disobedience didn't come up until after that unthinkable thing happened.
"Perhaps," Aar Hhirheek said, after Talyn had gone too long without answering for his liking, "you believe that she loves you, and that this will cause such obstacles as her welfare, her duty to her family, or her status as a dependent in this household to evaporate. That is incorrect."
Talyn considered and rejected saying You can't stop her! We can run away to Barashi!. He considered and rejected I can probably fix the grandchildren thing with kamai when it's time! because he didn't think he wanted Aar Hhirheek's mind actually going anywhere nearer that topic than it already had. He considered and rejected You're the rude one!, which wouldn't improve Aar Hhirheek's estimate of his maturity. He considered and rejected turning into a bat for no reason, which would probably not actually shock his host into acceptance of the relationship.
"What would her aaihhhi say if Leekath told him you did that?" Talyn asked instead.
Aar Hhirheek drew himself up even taller, but Talyn could tell he'd made a dent - albeit a very small dent - in the vampire's frosty composure. "My husband," said Aar Hhirheek, "prefers not to handle the minutiae of our children's upbringing, given that he has a great deal of work to do and I am available for the task. Aaeeihhyleekatheeei will not trouble him with the matter. And," he continued, "he would respect my decision, most particularly as he has not met you and I have. Do you have an answer to my question?"
But he drew breath as though to answer it anyway, because he heard someone else whose politics-saturated thoughts could only belong to Leekath's aaihhhi approaching the front door.
"I'm home!" Leekath's aaihhhi called. He flung the door open and strode in with a smile and a bulging caseful of paperwork. He pecked his husband on the lips, having to stand on tiptoe to do it, and then peered at Talyn. "Goodness. You must be Talyn! It's good to meet you." He profferred his free hand to shake; Talyn pumped it twice. "Where's Leekath?"
"Upstairs," said Talyn. "Tutoring her cousin, Representative Hhirheek."
Her aaihhhi beamed brightly. "Call me Thiies... She's so helpful. It's such a blessing that she can manage academic work, let alone assist others. Leekath!" he called up the stairwell. "Come down here!"
Leekath was down the stairs in a flash; Talyn hadn't actually been aware she could move that fast. She threw her arms around her aaihhhi and he patted her on the head. "So this is your boyfriend?" Thiies asked her.
"Yes, Aaihhhi," she said. "This is Talyn."
Thiies patted Talyn on the head too. "Leekath, has Kaee got a handle on whatever you were teaching him?" At her nod, he continued, "I think you might be about old enough to start looking at some of my work, and see if you might want to help me out in my office when you're a bit farther along. Strictly unofficial for now," he added with a wink. "But I recall you can teleport as of last term - maybe you'll have something to say about this amendment to the restrictions on licensing -"
He drew Leekath away to his office up the stairs, leaving Talyn and Aar Hhirheek standing where they'd been when he came in. Talyn was puzzled over Leekath's ecstatic reaction to the invitation to what sounded like extremely boring work. She hadn't seemed to object to tutoring Kaee in itself, so it wasn't a reprieve from distasteful work -
Aar Hhirheek called Talyn's attention back before he could read deeper. "I will not forbid Leekath from seeing you," he said in a low, growling voice. "Provided you are on your best behavior - No, that will be unlikely to suffice. Provided you are on adequate behavior on any further occasion you should be a guest in my home. I will not suffer to be disrespected under this roof. The five degrees it would take to convince my husband that you were better gotten rid of will not stop me from ordering you out of my daughter's life if it comes to that."
"I understand," said Talyn, not breaking eye contact. "Aar Hhirheek."