Chapter Nine: Adventuring
Talyn was getting very, very tired of Leekath being in school.
There was only a tiny break between the winter and spring terms, and that break had been a flurry of activity in Rhysel's tower because she got married. Talyn didn't have to do anything for the wedding itself besides show up in a decent set of clothes and transfer-point some guests around. What he did have to do was any chores his Master set him, and those piled up when she was busier than usual. Then by the time Rhysel and Aar Camlenn were wed, and Aar Camlenn was settled in, and the lyrics to every song Talyn had ever heard of were etched so deeply into his brain that he was sure they'd left scratches on the inside of his skull, and Rhysel was capable of leaving her new husband's side to take back some of the work she'd fobbed off on Talyn... school started again. And Leekath had her massive courseload to contend with.
She made time for him, an angle or two nearly every day, but that left him with twenty-three or twenty-four angles to fill with other things. And he was beginning to... not exhaust his boundless enthusiam for kamai. That wouldn't ever happen. But he was running out of things to do with it in the confines of Rhysel's tower, her garden, the Binaaralav campus that he wasn't technically supposed to be on so very much, and the environs of Paraasilan.
And when he was bored, the torn minds under his own spoke to fill the quiet.
So he tried to avoid that.
Kaylo took fewer classes than Leekath did. In fact, he took the minimum number he needed to stay enrolled in the wizardry program, though he kept up with his cohort in kamai. "Why?" Talyn asked him once. "Aren't you super-into learning?"
"Right in one," said Kaylo, flipping through a book called "Tolerances in Wizarding Gestures, w/ a Special Appendix on Voyan Numbers".
"No, I mean..."
"I know what you meant," laughed Kaylo. "There's three related reasons. One, I want time I don't need to spend in class or doing assignments for class so I can work on my own projects. Two, I'm a dragon, I can take my time - I don't need to hurry through like a human or something so I can get started on a career while I'm still young. And three, my aunt is obligated by my parents' will to continue support me only so long as I'm enrolled in some sort of school. If she keeps that up 'till I'm out of school she gets their money. If she quits before then, I get it." He paused. "I don't get along with my aunt."
"Ah-huh," said Talyn. He'd known that Kaylo's parents had died - hard to miss, since Kaylo thought about them pretty frequently - but he'd never caught a thought about an aunt. "Do you live with her?"
"I avoid that when I can. I stay here on breaks. Before I started here I found other relatives who'd let me live with them. My mom had eighteen Ranndean elf thudia kids before she married my dad, and as long as I put in some legwork doing the genealogy, I could convince them I was related. A few let me stay with them 'cause they liked me or if I did chores or whatever. Rannde's okay. Human relatives - that's practically everyone on Dad's side, he used to live in Corenta where I grew up - were a little trickier to find. More generations. And there was one dwarf family I tried but they turned out to have moved to Ertydo so, no on that."
"Oh," said Talyn. "That's not a usual sort of will, is it?"
"Nope. My parents were pretty eccentric." Kaylo put a bookmark in his book about gesture tolerances, pushed it aside, and picked up a reference tome about magic words in use (volume eight). "They figured if Aunt Mijja put me all the way through school, I'd be fine without the money since I'd be so very educated, and then she'd be rewarded with the inheritance. I don't think they counted on the antagonism."
"How'd your folks die?"
"You're really inquisitive today," Kaylo remarked without heat. "They got hit by a scoot - this was like seventy years ago, scoots were a new thing, they weren't yet so riddled with advanced safety spells that you can't hit a tall dandelion with one. That would've cost them forms is all, but they were walking under a bridge."
"And..." Kaylo's mental image saved Talyn asking the question. They'd been forced by the impact into giant, natural garnet dragon shapes, and struck their heads on the stone above them with their sudden height. "Oh."
"I don't really mind the company," Kaylo said. "Since you do shut up when I get deep into something... I'd mind-shield around you but I don't think you'd be able to tell when I need quiet, anymore, if I did that. But why are you hanging around me so much lately? I know you don't understand eighty percent of what's running through my head."
"Bored," Talyn said. "Don't want to be bored. Need something to do, somewhere to go... I'm going to sound like a little kid, but I want an adventure." Something relentlessly occupying enough to make those extra people in his head shut up shut up shut up.
"Are you looking for the 'people trying to kill you' kind of adventure or the 'discovering ancient civilizations' kind of adventure or the 'intense work on an interesting problem' kind of adventure?"
"If I wanted the last kind I'd get you to explain more of what you're working on," said Talyn, gesturing at the books. "If I wanted the middle kind I'd ask Rhysel for a few weeks off and go on an archaeological expedition with my dad, but I've done that and it's not actually very exciting. Are those the only kinds? Where can I go where people'll try to kill me?"
"Ryganaav," said Kaylo. "Cut your hair so your ears show, fly south for a while, do a little lightshow for 'em, you'll have guys with swords on you in two ticks flat."
"I did not actually expect you to answer that question," Talyn said.
"I don't think you should actually go. It'd be dumb," Kaylo said.
"Guys with swords couldn't actually kill me," Talyn pointed out thoughtfully. "I could just stoneskin and jerk them around a bit."
"Does that count as an adventure, then?" Kaylo asked. "You might as well wait for Rhysel to have her kids and when they've got motor skills give them wet noodles and tell them to thwack you with them. Wooooo."
"I dunno. It'd be better than sitting around, trying to figure out if there's a plant in Rhysel's garden I haven't fiddled with to the limits of its tolerance, or an illusion I haven't made six times already, or another language I have any chance of ever using that I can get - dragons to speak at me until I'm fluent."
Kaylo didn't catch the little pause in which Talyn remembered that he needed to lie about Rhysel's housekeeper and gardener, Theedy and Eret. Kaylo practiced with Talyn on occasion too. "D'you want to learn Ryganaavlan Leraal? It's just barely still mutually intelligible with the kind around here, but they've got a couple extra sounds, lots of different vocabulary, some weird sentence patterns, and one hell of a different accent."
"Sure," Talyn said. "Why not?"
"Well," said Kaylo, and his accent did radically shift, all of the vowels rounding like he was going to give a speech or call across a distance. "Why not would be if you want to have any conversations about devil-powers. That being the only word in this dialect for the sort of thing us devils do to mess with stuff." This was accompanied by vaguely flailing gestures.
"And - hang on." Something in one of Kaylo's books of devil-powers caught his eye. "Oh, that's just not true - when was this thing written - okay, this publishing company needs to hire a fact-checker - now I have to go verify everything I took out of this thing -"
Talyn knew when he wasn't wanted. He slipped out of the library, leaving Kaylo to devilishly mess with stuff.
<Where would I go if I wanted to meet a Ryganaavlan person?> he asked Leekath later that evening.
<Why would you want to do that?> she asked him, adjusting the tilt of her mouth on his.
<It sounds like an interesting place. I mean, in a horrible sort of way.>
<I guess,> she said dubiously. <Well. Don't actually go to Ryganaav. But sometimes Esmaar gets refugees from there. You might be able to meet one who's in public housing.>
<Maybe, but probably not. We're nowhere near the border. You could try in town and ask whoever runs the housing in Paraasilan if they know which town you should try. What are you going to talk to a Ryganaavlan refugee about? They won't like you. You're not a human.>
<Even if they came here?>
<I read a study Aaihhhi sent me on the kinds of refugees we get most so we can see about updating the protocols for them... They - the human refugees; we get leonines from Ryganaav too but I don't think that's what you meant - usually come because they have light or sorcerer children and don't want to turn them in to get murdered. Sometimes women come if their husbands are abusing them more than usual. They don't usually come in because they have sympathetic feelings for non-humans. There's classes for them to take where they have to meet vampires and halflings and elves and leonines and not try to kill them.>
<You could volunteer for a class like that,> she said. <If you want to meet some. You'd maybe be a good introductory exposure since you're almost a familiar color and your ears are only a bit pointed, not all long like an elf's. They'd give you a ward, though, I don't think they'd let you rely on stoneskin.>
<Maybe,> he said dubiously. Hadn't he decided he wanted some people to try to kill him...? <Er, why hasn't someone conquered this place already? Would it even be hard? Doesn't anyone care about the people in it?>
<Of course we care. That's why we take all the refugees who come in,> Leekath said. <But Esmaar doesn't have an army. We can't go around conquering places. And the countries with armies don't want to go after Ryganaav, I guess. It's a desert. You could conjure water and turn it into a nicer place to live but it'd be a big commitment of resources and it'd be really hard to absorb the natives. And some other country with an army could stab them in the back while they're distracted, I guess? I mostly know domestic politics, not international politics.>
<Think anybody'd object if I tried to get a Barashin country to try?> he sent darkly.
<Yes,> Leekath sent, her tone frank. <They'd have to send an army through a circle. That would look suspicious. Also do Barashin armies even use magic? Without it they'd have some serious casualties.>
<A little magic. Mostly healing magic,> Talyn admitted. <Kyma aren't supposed to ally with national militaries and they're weird about accepting kymic help anyway. But...>
<I know, it's pretty bad,> she said. <I think sometimes charities like the World Relief Union put together expeditions to go in and find people who need help and get them out in case they can't cross the desert themselves. You could volunteer as magical support for one of those.>
<Maybe. I think I'll try meeting one who's already in Esmaar first,> he said. <I promise not to let them strangle me.>
<Good.> She shifted, nuzzled his throat. <I like your neck not-strangled.>
"Yes, actually," said the elf woman, called Lorin, in the Paraasilan public housing's administrative office. "Normally we wouldn't have any Ryganaavlanik all the way up here, but we took overflow from Lotaasten last week, and there's a woman and her son. She's already been through all the required desensitization, though, or they'd have found someplace else to send her besides to me. The kid is just four; I think he'd be afraid of me if I were a leonine but he hadn't yet learned to fear my ears."
The Esmaarlan idea of public housing wasn't much different from its idea of private housing, though the scale differed. Eight massive buildings lettered Mel through Shath circled a courtyard, and each could hold five or six average Esmaarlan households entire. It surprised Talyn that the entire city could be served by only enough space to harbor the contents of fifty homes at most. Either Paraasilan sent more overflow than it received, or the dynamics of poverty were very different than they were in countries he was familiar with. He supposed closer extended families under single roofs would make it easier to absorb one or two lost jobs without resorting to life on welfare.
"Can I meet them?" Talyn asked. "Since they're desensitized already."
Lorin scrutinized him. He met her eyes, trying not to be distracted by her complex earrings. "How would you feel if somebody heard there was a half-elf living wherever you live, and said, 'ooh, a half-elf', and showed up and wanted to ask you all kinds of questions about that?"
"Uh." It hadn't occurred to him that wanting to meet Ryganaavlanik just because they were Ryganaavlan might be rude, as Lorin thought. "I didn't mean to offend, I just... I'm from another world. I don't know much about Ryganaav and I want to learn more. Books aren't as good," he added, before Lorin had a chance to suggest the nearest library out loud.
"Is there some reason she should want to meet you?" Lorin asked. "Are you going to give her an apartment in exchange for a certain number of angles interviewing with you? A sum of aaberik? Does your family run a niche clothing store that will offer her a job hand-sewing exorbitantly expensive traditional Ryganaavlan garments, for theaters and collectors and playactors who care about authenticity?"
"Er... what happens to her if she can't find a job or someone who'll give her stuff?" Talyn asked.
"She can stay here indefinitely," said Lorin, "if she has to. Although eventually she might work up to being able to use magic objects, even if she never learns to so much as tell time on her own. Then she could work retail, or something like that. As it is there's really nothing - Esmaar isn't set up to accommodate people who hate and fear and won't perform any magic." Lorin was remembering this bleak set of prospects for her tenant out of training materials, not long experience - she'd never had a Ryganaavlan in her housing before - but she couldn't think of any counterexamples, though she'd tried. It distressed her, under the businesslike calm she wore on her face.
"What if I pay her for her time?" Talyn asked. It was the sort of cause Rhysel would gladly throw money at if he asked her. He wouldn't have to balance curiosity - and flight from boredom - against the ability to take Leekath to concerts and dances and plays.
"Then I could ask her if she'd be willing to talk to you," Lorin said.
Talyn went back to the circle of public houses the next day while Leekath was in one of her unbroken marathons of classes. At his side hung a bag heavy with coins, enough to pay the Ryganaavlan woman for three angles at the rate Rhysel paid her housekeeper and gardener. (Both Theedy and Eret, in their thoughts, reckoned themselves drastically overpaid; the former thought Rhysel knew and was just generous, the latter dreaded a pay cut. Talyn didn't think either the Ryganaavlan woman or watchful Lorin would call him a cheat if he wanted five or six angles for the money he carried. But he also didn't think Rhysel would complain if he went back for more.)
"I brought money," he said without preamble when he went into Lorin's office. "Will she meet me?"
"She will. Her first name is Sarid," Lorin said. "I'm not sure if she'd rather you call her that or call her Tetal tis Nam - that being the nearest equivalent of calling her by Aaral and a surname, but I think it means something more along the lines of 'she who belongs to Nam by purchase'. And she ran from him."
"You call her Sarid?" Talyn asked, though he knew the answer.
"I'm another woman, devilish ears or not. You, she might react to any which way." Lorin shrugged. "Her little boy will be with her through your interview. His name is Sinhar Dehel. And he's a sorcerer." That's why she ran, Lorin was thinking.
"Okay," Talyn said.
Lorin led him to Aan house. Inside, it was divided into "apartments", each big enough for more than a dozen people, but thoughts and voices were scarcer than the architecture suggested. Much of it stood empty. Sarid and her son had one of the sections to themselves. "I'd have to make them share it, if we were fuller," Lorin said. "But I don't, and there's no point in scaring her with roommates who insist on knowing what time it is and using the stove and so on."
Talyn wondered what Sarid and her boy ate, if they couldn't use enchanted kitchen tools. The question was answered when Lorin pushed open the door to her apartment, two flights of stairs up from the entrance. They stepped into the kitchen, which was full of fruits and breads and vegetables and nuts and cheeses and dried meats that could be eaten raw and stored outside of the cold cabinet. Talyn doubted that the public housing department also went to the trouble and expense of procuring food that had been produced without magic, but apparently it accommodated Sarid's terror of the appliances.
Sarid herself, dark-colored and wearing pale yellow, looked to be either a well-preserved thirty-five or a weary nineteen. She was standing in the kitchen, stiffly knifing cheese onto a heel of a loaf of dark bread, and she did radiate terror. The color-coded blue-white cabinet scared her. The stove and all its dials frightened her. She shivered when she looked at the sink, but appeared to have (mostly) managed to think of it as a bizarre-looking mechanical contraption attached to a well.
"Hello," she said in a low voice, dipping her head politely to Talyn. His ears didn't show past his hair. He didn't alarm her, at least not visually - there was an undercurrent of dread that he practiced some dreadful magic or hid some devilish "deformity".
"Hello." Talyn replied as best he could in the same dialect; he wouldn't be fluent in the idioms without more practice, but the transformations of the sounds were simple enough. "How are you?"
Sarid finished putting the cheese on the bread. "My health is good," she said.
Lorin didn't show any inclination to leave them alone. "Do you plan to stay the whole time?" Talyn asked her.
"For the first few degrees. Then I'll let you be," Lorin said. She was thinking about some protocol regarding her responsibility for tenants; she didn't think he was going to do anything to hurt Sarid, but wasn't yet willing to act on that expectation.
"If you'll excuse me," Sarid said, "for just a short while, I would bring my son this," she gestured at the food, "and then I can talk with you as Lorin said you wished."
"Of course," Talyn said.
Sarid ducked her head again and scurried to the sofa around the counter from which Sinhar's simple thoughts drifted. "No," Talyn heard her say. "No, eat with your hands. Your hands, Sinhar."
Sinhar didn't like this rule, and resumed bringing bread to his mouth with sorcerous telekinesis when Sarid stopped looking, but she didn't know that. "What do you wish to talk about?" she asked Talyn with another one of those head-dips. He knew she was doing it to be polite, but they would make him dizzy if she did it much more.
"Er, Rygnaaav," he said. "Where you came from, what it's like there."
Sarid sat at one of the kitchen chairs, and Talyn took one opposite her. Lorin, who expected to leave soon, continued standing. Sarid didn't seem to understand the topic. "What about it?"
"Well..." It was usually easier to get people to talk about themselves. "What was your childhood like? Did you wear more or less this sort of thing? Why did you come here? What do you miss about it, if anything?"
"This is a normal dress," she said, looking down at the yellow cloth. "I made it. I grew up in Astol with my brothers and sisters until my husband bought me. I came here because I couldn't let Sinhar die." She paused, closing her eyes, thinking about the faces of two little girls, toddler and infant - "I miss my daughters," she said.
"You have daughters? They're not here?" Talyn asked, blinking.
"I do. I couldn't take them," Sarid said, looking away. "Not all that way. Not carrying them and enough water for all of us too."
"Are... they safe?" Talyn asked slowly.
"I think so," Sarid said quietly. "My sister-in-law is there to watch them." She expected her husband to keep the girls until they were salable, and his sister to look after them for that time. She was reasonably sure he'd find a way to make sure their daughters were taken care of even if a buyer turned up for his sister, the youngest of three he'd inherited on his father's death and the only one he hadn't managed to marry off yet. Talyn winced. As chattel, the girls were, at least, a valuable investment - it would be foolish to let them die just because their mother had run off, their brother in tow - but it left a bad taste in his mouth.
"But you're not sure," he said.
"They could be like Sinhar," she said. "Whatever's wrong with him, whatever let the devil powers into him, they could have it too and just be too young to show it."
"Nothing's wrong with Sinhar," said Talyn.
Sarid didn't argue with him, but she was thinking about a sinister figure whispering in her boy's ear, tempting him to float bread to his mouth and dooming him to hellish torment for it by stern gods. Whatever let him hear that voice was what was "wrong" with him, in her mind.
Talyn decided that her religious concerns about Sinhar's virtue could wait. "Lorin," he said, addressing the elf, "what if I go and get her daughters? Is that legal?"
"Uh," she said. "I'm not a cop or a legal scholar. It's not legal in Ryganaav, I'm sure, but what Sarid did wasn't either. I don't think you'd actually get into trouble for it, if that's what you're asking. People take a dim view of Ryganaavlan ideas of parenting and they'd be more likely to pat you on the back than arrest you if there was even any involvement from the law."
"Do you want me to go get them for you?" Talyn asked, addressing Sarid.
"I - I - they don't belong to me," Sarid said. "They belong to Nam." Her husband, their father - the girls were named Path and Naarin us Nam. Path and Naarin, belonging to Nam by birth. Sarid might not have been able to bring herself to "kidnap" Sinhar if he'd been a girl: he didn't technically belong to anyone.
"They're your daughters," said Talyn. "I think they'd be better off here with you than there with him, waiting to be sold off when they're, what, sixteen?"
"Younger, if they're pretty," Sarid murmured. "But that's what's supposed to happen."
"Waiting," Talyn said, "to hit their fourth or fifth birthdays, and start moving things without touching them or producing light from nowhere?"
Sarid shuddered. "They're not mine," she whispered.
"They shouldn't be his, either," Talyn said.
"Talyn," Lorin said uncertainly.
"They will be worth so much money when they are older, if they're pretty," Sarid breathed. "And without me he has to replace me, if he wants a wife, and -"
"If I leave money behind for them?" Talyn asked, feeling sick to his stomach. Rhysel would reach into her sack of troll gems again for this, he was sure.
"Why would you want to buy them?" Sarid asked despairingly. "Path is only two. Naarin is a baby."
"I don't want to buy them," Talyn said, grinding his fist into his eye in frustration. "I want you to have them. If the only way you feel comfortable with that is if I compensate your husband for taking them, I can do that. Do you want me to go get them for you?"
Sarid got to her feet suddenly and strode towards her son. "Sinhar," she said, and he caught his bread out of the air before she noticed it floating. "Do you want your sisters here with you?"
"My sisters," he said. "They're my sisters."
"That's right," she said. "Do you miss Path and Naarin?"
"Do you want them here?"
"They're mine," Sinhar said. "After Daddy," he added.
"Never mind about Daddy," Sarid murmured, and Talyn shuddered at the guilt she felt over running, even to save Sinhar's life. "Do you want Path and Naarin?"
Sarid stood up, face set, and looked at Talyn over the counter. "If you can do it," she said, "if you can bring them here - without hurting them or tainting them with your powers - then - yes."