Chapter 1: Gratitude
Lunen afternoon was when the babies got to play in the sand. Ilen had gotten out the sand tray and was convincing some of his charges to draw patterns in it with their claws when he heard the knock on the door. He opened it. It could have been anyone - Ludei or Finnah or Hallai or someone else wanting a look at the babies, or wanting to hand over a new egg, or wanting to ask a question. But it was someone completely unfamiliar.
"Narax?" said the stranger. Occasionally someone would call Ilen by the name of someone else, his height, similar hairstyle, but he'd never heard that one. No one in the house was named Narax. The stranger was bubbling with excitement, anyway, under mild confusion.
"Beg pardon?" Ilen asked, smiling at her.
"...You're not Narax."
Ilen shook his head. "My name is Ilen. Er, can I help you?" She wasn't one of the babies' parents. Dragons didn't have that color hair. It could be dyed, but dragons didn't do that. And a shren wouldn't do that in the house.
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "I mistook you for someone I knew." Ilen kept smiling at her, to be polite. He knew there was a person in another house with his face, except red eyes, and maybe the forgotten name was "Narax". But Ehail had said that he wore his hair longer than Ilen did. He pushed the thought away; thinking about other shren houses was on the very edge of what he could safely contemplate.
"My name is Rhysel," the visitor continued. "Ehail brought me. I'm here about the babies. I'm from another world, and I have magic from there, and I figured out a way to let them fly - temporarily," she hurried to add, when Ilen opened his mouth. "But enough to take the pain away -" Behind her a tall, Western elf man, all-over calm, was approaching; Ehail passed through the hall behind him.
Ilen got out of the visitors' way, seized the sand tray, and put it back on its shelf, over the littlest platinum's protests. "Please. Please, help them." The possibility of mistrusting the strangers was obviated by the fact that Ehail had brought them, and he didn't dare waste so much as a tick of their time.
Rhysel and her friend - no, boyfriend, the way their emotions fluttered when they looked at each other, they were at least a solid mutual crush - did their magic. Rhysel made little models of every one of the children, starting with the oldest white opal, and down the line to the platinum who wasn't even hurting yet.
Ilen watched them fly. He couldn't feel the pain lifting, but he could feel them react to it. Despair evaporated, and they were all so full of gratitude the room could have floated away.
Ehail came back, with Ludei, and they watched, too, fizzing with astonishment. They weren't green-groups, so they couldn't even feel the babies' happiness, but they could see it. The three eldest babies, who already tried every morning when they woke up to shift into their chosen flying forms just in case they were one of the lucky few who could learn early, were grinning and giggling and flapping their wings in time with each of their companions as they flew. Until Rhysel took "lifeforce" from them and they each curled up to nap.
Rhysel was drawn into a conversation with Ehail and Ludei, and Ilen was too busy marveling at his suddenly happy, suddenly quiet charges to even think of interjecting. The visitors left while Ilen was adjusting a sleeping sapphire so she wouldn't claw her eye in her sleep.
Even if Rhysel never came back - would she ever come back? - she'd bought every baby there the chance to start the accumulation of pain over again. The older ones would be able to bear the smaller amount of esu until they could shift; the younger ones would never reach the upper limit of what their twenty-year wait would otherwise bring. Maybe not a single one of these would break, the way the ruby had broken six years past.
Ilen scooped up sleeping babies and tucked them into their cubbies.
"How'm I doing?" Ilen asked Hallai, that evening. It was better overall if she checked up on him every day, rather than waiting for the inevitable window left uncurtained or square of chocolate in the cafeteria marked "imported" or other, unanticipated trigger.
She couldn't catch every attack before it happened, but it was better than otherwise.
"Better than usual," Hallai said. "Especially considering there were people here today. Must be the babies feeling better. I told you that it wasn't good for you to work with them."
"Well - it doesn't matter now, does it, if they're going to be... okay?" he said with a weak smile. "Supposedly Rhysel will be here every couple of weeks, to fly them around again. That's what Ehail told me."
"Guess it doesn't matter anymore, no. Masochist. Don't know why you wanted to look after them before, when they were half made of unhappy. I mean, you like them." She snorted and tossed her head, sending copper ringlets bouncing over brown shoulders. "But you're fine. You should be okay through tonight and tomorrow if nothing happens."
"Oh." Usually Hallai would spend at least a few degrees projecting at him, laying down calm contentment over the day's bubbling discomfort. He wasn't sure he remembered how to go to sleep without it. But she said he was fine, and she was the expert.
There was a pause. Ilen wondered how closely she still read him, even after making her decision about his competence to spend the next twenty-five angles not screaming and projecting at everyone around him. He could have read her more deeply than usual, to see if her emotions tracked his in faint undulations. But even that probably wouldn't work. She had to read everyone in the house, and if she was reading his feelings the reflections in her own would be lost in the noise.
"Goodnight," he said, scooting back the chair so he could stand up.
"Sleep well," Hallai said dryly.
If he didn't, she'd have to get up and deal with it. "I'll try," he said.
Chenen morning was when the baby whose turn it was to be Storyteller got to read his or her favorite story aloud to everyone. The rendition of "The Prince's Bauble" was abandoned when Rhysel opened the door.
There wasn't as much urgency this week. The babies were yawning, but not hurting, and so Ilen didn't demand that Rhysel set up any faster. He did react when she gave him that strange look again, though.
"I wish you wouldn't stare at me like that." It made him wonder who it was she knew, who "Narax" was, and he couldn't afford to wonder that.
"Sorry," Rhysel said, slowly making the model of the baby most cutely demanding her attention. Ilen resolved to create some kind of equitable system for turn-taking. "Erm. Pardon me if this is rude. Do you know who your parents are?"
What kind of question was that? Ilen shuddered and scrunched his eyes shut. "No," he said.
"Sorry," repeated Rhysel. "It's just -"
"We all look like someone, that's how it works," Ilen said. If he could stop her from talking about this too much, he could pretend she meant the red-eyed man he'd never met in the other house, who might have any name, pretend she'd met that fellow first and didn't understand how faces repeated in the shren population because the same lines of dragons would throw more than one shameful egg.
"How old are you?" she asked next. That was a fine question, if he didn't care why she asked it.
"Two hundred eighty-eight."
And from there she let him be. She and her apprentice, a boy whose name Ilen didn't ask, spent a couple of angles lofting babies into the air for short flights and then bringing them back down.
Ehail came in, and talked to Rhysel, while the apprentice played with a baby diamond. Ilen tuned them out.
When Rhysel broke him out of his distraction, the apprentice and Ehail were both gone. "Do you want," she was asking him, "to come over for dinner sometime -"
Ilen almost tripped over a baby backing away from her. The emotions coming from the stranger were earnest and inviting, her voice sounded kind, but she wanted him to go with her, to take him out, she didn't even realize that would hurt, she was a threat - she wanted to pry him out of where he was safe -
He had to make her understand - make her stop -
"Hallai," one of the babies was saying.
Hallai would understand, Hallai would make the stranger leave him alone, Hallai would make him safe.
The door opened and Hallai was there.
Ilen let her pull him. Hallai wouldn't let him fall. Hallai would understand. He tried to show her - this is what happened, Hallai, I'm afraid, help me
They were in his room, his room was safe and no one else would feel him explaining, but he searched and still felt the stranger there, what if she still wanted to take him away
"I'm here," she said; she had her hand clenched around his elbow, that hurt, that was fine, he could tell she was there; she had her knee on his chest to keep him lying down, that made it hard to breathe, that was fine, it already was; she was sending calm at him and it mixed itself up with the fear, that made it hard to think, that was fine, she was there.
"Sh-sh-sh. I'm here."
"She wanted - she wanted -"
"Forget about her. She's not important. I won't let her take you. You're safe. Forget about her," Hallai said, and every sentence came with a sledgehammer of calm crashing down over him.
"Forget about her," Hallai commanded. "Focus on me. Focus on the calm. Focus. Focus. You're safe. You're here in your room. You're safe. Focus on the calm."
"I'm here," she said firmly. "Focus on me."
He looked. Shining hair and brown eyes and her weight holding him down so he wouldn't thrash. He felt. Calm calm calm insisting at him, forcing him to lie still, biting down on the fear and holding it where it was until it could die.
"Hallai," he whimpered.
"I'm here," she said. "You're safe."
She let his elbow go, although the calm was still pouring over him like a waterfall. "Still here," she sighed.
"She wanted to -"
"Don't think about it, Ilen," Hallai said, putting her hand on his forehead to push it down where he'd started to curl up. "Focus."
"Okay," he murmured, and he looked up at Hallai's resolutely concentrating face and focused.
Hallai wished she could just put Ilen to sleep with one of those potions the house witch made, but that was always a disaster if he took them in the middle of an attack. He'd be trapped in nightmares until morning and wake up so ill-rested that he wouldn't be able to work, and he was one of only three people willing to watch baby shrens for extended periods of time - the other worked nights, and Finnah wasn't old enough to do it as a proper job.
Maybe more people would be up for the task now the babies weren't constantly screaming their lungs out in agony, but that hadn't been going on long enough to effect policy changes, so Hallai left him awake.
She had years of experience bringing Ilen down from an attack, so she didn't back off on the torrent of forced calm as soon as he wasn't boiling over with terror anymore. The thoughts caused the emotions; she had to keep him under control until the thoughts were gone, or he'd just start up all over again.
Hallai hoped that the baby-treater lady had the sense to find someone to watch the kids. They wouldn't get up to much. Maybe they'd play in the little wading pool ahead of schedule. But Ilen always fretted when they spent time unattended because of his outbursts.
"Sh-sh-sh," she repeated mechanically when Ilen tried to talk. If she let him talk he'd work himself up again. She was a stronger projector than he was, but that didn't mean he wasn't damn strong when he got going. The first time he'd had an attack and started spraying fear around everywhere she'd wanted to run like everybody else. The old house projector hadn't been able to handle it either, though, and Hallai had been the only one capable of calming down the terrified jade.
So he was her job.
"Hallai," Ilen started.
"Shhhhh." She smoothed his hair, not that it needed smoothing, shaved down to a quarter-inch of black fuzz. "Sh-sh-sh."
After a half an angle, he had his eyes closed and was lying placidly under her planted knee. His emotions were flowing along peacefully, normal low-key sorts of things that probably didn't accompany problematic thoughts.
She didn't cut him off the next time he spoke. "Hallai," he said, squinting up at her. "Thank you."
"It's nothing," she said, scooting off of him to sit on the edge of his bed.
"Is someone watching the little ones?" he asked.
"Not sure." There were plenty of other rooms between Ilen's and the babies', and Hallai couldn't tell how far away an empathic signature was, only what direction it was in. "Someone was there when I left, but not a usual child-minder." Better not to specify. The baby-treater lady wasn't from inside, and he'd just calmed down.
"I should go back," Ilen murmured.
"Give it two more degrees," Hallai advised, planting her hand on his chest again to keep him down. He sometimes wound up dizzily careening into doorframes or falling down the stairs after a bad episode. "They'll be fine."
"Okay." He closed his eyes again.
Hallai sat with him. The rest of the house's emotional needs could wait.
"Hi, Ilen," said a baby-covered red shren when Ilen went back to the babies' room.
"Hi, Finnah. I'm glad you were here to watch the children," Ilen said, helping her pick little claws out of her clothes so she could shed clingy infants and leave.
"No problem. I was walking by and the kama lady stuck out her head and said you were broken," Finnah said, peeling a turquoise baby off her shoulder. "I think I wanna be a kama."
"Oh," Ilen said.
Finnah didn't go into any other details about where she was likely to do that. "Here." She handed him the turquoise. "I'm gonna go talk to Ludei about tuition and stuff."
"Okay," Ilen said.
He let the day's Storyteller finish "The Prince's Bauble", and then... Chenen afternoon was painting time.
Korulen's teachers usually worked hard to avoid singling her out or showing her special favor just because her father was the headmaster. Rhysel didn't, but Rhysel being Rhysel, Korulen didn't think that the unusual friendliness was any attempt to get an in with the administration.
Especially not when Rhysel turned out to have called Korulen to her office in order to ask, "How do you feel about shrens?"
Because Mom would not find that endearing, if it got that far.
Korulen shrugged awkwardly. "I don't think I've ever met one," she said. "I mean, it's sad, isn't it?"
"Yes," Rhysel said. "It is sad. If you met one, what would you do?"
"Assuming I could even tell that he or she was a shren?" Korulen asked. "I don't think I'd do anything. I mean, maybe I'd avoid mentioning the event to my relatives or to Kaylo, since it'd just upset them."
"That's about what I wanted to hear," Rhysel said, sounding relieved. Korulen couldn't make any progress against mental shielding yet. So she didn't know what Rhysel was relieved about.
"Why?" Korulen asked.
"Two reasons," Rhysel said. "One that I think you'll be fine with, and one that you might not like as much. There is a shren girl, about your equivalency, who would like to learn kamai."
"She'll have to dye her hair," Korulen said at once. "Mom won't stand for it. It's actually illegal for her to not-stand-for-it, but that wouldn't stop her."
"The student in question is planning to," Rhysel said. "But she needs two things that I'm hoping you could provide. One, she needs a roommate who knows - so she can dye her hair without worrying about someone walking in on her, and fly around in her room in bird form, and have personal effects that might be clues around. I know you have a roommate already -"
"I need to put in for a transfer anyway. Saasnil's little cousin is starting next term and they want to room together," Korulen said.
"Oh, good," Rhysel said. "And second, she needs someone she can practice introductory mind kamai with, without having to worry about her secrets. I'd like to have her to the point where she can interface with her classmates and not have them suspect a thing, before she starts in the spring. I can fit in a little tutoring, but it would be better if she could practice with someone else too - like you. You're a talented mind kama. I can pay you standard student tutoring rates - under the table, out of pocket, since obviously your mother wouldn't want to hear of it."
"I can do that, as long as we don't have really incompatible schedules," Korulen said.
"Hers is very flexible. If you're willing to go meet her at the house where she lives..." Rhysel said this tentatively, with a grimace.
"I can't catch shrenhood, I'm not scared of them," Korulen said.
"Right," acknowledged Rhysel with a half-smile. "Well. Here's the transfer point signature." She touched Korulen's forehead. "Go ahead any time during the day, and ask for Finnah."
"Finnah," repeated Korulen.
"Thank you, Korulen," said Rhysel.
"What was the other thing?" Korulen asked.
"Well," Rhysel said. "Also living in Finnah's shren house is a man who looks exactly like your uncle Narax."
Korulen tipped her head. "Oh." She swallowed. "Do you know how he's related? It's not necessarily close."
"I don't know for sure," Rhysel admitted. "But he's older than Narax, and younger than your mother and your aunt."
"I don't know a lot of details about my extended family," Korulen murmured, wondering how distantly related someone would have to be before she wouldn't feel hurt that they'd kept a shren relative secret from her. "I guess I could write the Dragon Council and ask them to find out if any other Alars were having full-blooded dragon kids around that time." She paused, thinking about how long the Dragon Council took to answer non-dragons, even thudias. "He's probably my uncle, though."
"I haven't tried to talk to your mother about it -"
"Good idea," Korulen said. "I won't either. But I'll see him while I'm at the house."
"Ah - be careful," Rhysel said. "He's... they call him an 'inside shren'. He's never left the building. If he thinks about what's outside the house too much, he has panic attacks. He seems to be able to interact with unfamiliar people, like me, but you'll need to be careful with what you talk to him about. Um, here..." Rhysel reached into her desk drawer, and pulled out a mind kamai book. "You can borrow this. Learn what's in the third chapter - it'll help you keep an eye on how agitated he is and not make my mistake."
"Okay," Korulen said, though that sounded like a lot of complication to go through just to meet someone who might be only a distant cousin.
"He's a nice person," Rhysel assured Korulen. "He takes care of the little baby shrens."
"Aw." Korulen smiled at the mental image. "Okay. I'll go down there when I have the time."
"Thank you," Rhysel said.
Hallai got along with Finnah better than she did with most people. Finnah had a sense of humor, and wasn't fragile and brittle, and she didn't make Hallai work too hard. Finnah hung out in Hallai's office sometimes, so Hallai wasn't surprised to find the spare chair occupied when she came back from dinner.
"Hey, I want to talk to you," Finnah said when Hallai nodded to her.
"What about?" Hallai asked, scanning Finnah briefly; the girl was exuding determination instead of her usual disaffected carelessness.
"Ilen's got a relative, and she's gonna be here sometimes. I told her to wait to introduce herself to him, 'cause I figured you'd be a nuisance and complain about her making it hard for you to do your job if she ever interacted with him," Finnah said. "She's nice, and she's helping me with something, and I want you to leave her alone. If she has to do something she doesn't do by herself in order to keep Ilen from curling up in a ball, I want you to tell me instead of yelling at her."
"She's Ilen's relative?" Hallai asked skeptically.
"She's a thudia," Finnah explained. "Got an uncle and a grandfather who look like Ilen. Her name's Korulen."
Hallai shrugged. "Warn me when she's going to be bothering Ilen. I will yell at her if he wants her to let him be and she won't. But you want to be the go-between, and he wants her visiting, fine."
"Thanks," Finnah said. "I really need her on my side - for the school thing - and, y'know, you have this way of putting people off. On purpose. With yelling."
"Yes," Hallai said dryly. "That all?"
"I'll bore somebody else talking about how excited I am for school," Finnah said after a thoughtful pause. "Bye."
"Bye," said Hallai.
When Finnah left, Ilen came in for his evening check-in. Hallai gave him a once-over; he was unsettled enough that she went ahead and doused him in enough calm that he ought to be able to skip past any lurking nightmares, and then shooed him off to bed.
Hallai stayed up later than he did, casting out her reception to catch every emotion from every one of the hundreds of house residents. She had a checklist on her wall that she never needed to look at anymore. Is it safe for the house? Is it safe for the individual? Is it healthy for the house? Is it healthy for the individual?
First priority: make sure no one flipped out in a way that would hurt others. No shifting natural, no attacking neighbors, no setting fires.
Second priority: keep the suicide rate down. Anyone depressed near the witch's office needed a boost. Anyone exhibiting eerie, certain calm in the direction of Ehail's office where high-pull spells were written needed a poke. Anyone showing desperate self-directed rage close to the cafeteria's giant ovens needed a lift. (Per priority one, especially if the suspected method wasn't one that would kill the entire shren rather than just a form.)
Third priority: encourage prosocial behavior. Clusters of annoyance needed to be smoothed out before they turned into bickering that could turn into century-long grudges. Anyone whose sadnesses were obviously leaking towards others was spending too many of his or her friends' resources on pity parties and needed jolting. Any strong emotion accompanied by shouting needed to be swatted down.
Fourth priority: don't turn out too many basket cases. Which meant not interfering, when the first three goals were met. In some cases - Ilen's for instance - it was obviously the lesser evil to dose him as much as he needed. Otherwise, people needed practice handling their own abandonment issues, their own ennui, their own resentment towards whoever took the last lemon square at lunch.
Hallai scanned, and evaluated, and checked her notes on the emotional progress of high-maintenance residents, and made new little symbol markings.
Where necessary, she changed what she felt.
Where safe, she left it alone.
I must be the healthiest of individuals, Hallai thought, not for the first time. Because no one projected for her. There were other green-groups. She could ask the emerald down the dorm hall or the green in recordkeeping or the malachite who worked the job nights to push her mood around with a hit of happiness or serenity or apathy. (Apathy was a good priority-three tool. The apathetic were rarely argumentative or chatty or loud.)
But she didn't ask. She was fine. And she was the expert, wasn't she, she swam in this stuff all day, every day, the malachite dealt with a handful of wakeful people tops and only ever soothed disturbing dreams for the rest of the household.
Hallai finished her evening's work, woke up the malachite night-shift empath with a few ticks of pounding on his door, and went to bed.
Chapter 2: Panic
Korulen transferred down to the island to give Finnah's first preliminary lesson on mind kamai. The first time she'd been to the house, it had just been to meet the red shren, and give a firsthand account that Rhysel couldn't provide about what it was like to be infused. Finnah hadn't passed out after swallowing the liquid, any more than Kaylo had during the group infusion.
Korulen hadn't mentioned the comparison to her boyfriend. Or to her new pupil.
Finnah was waiting outside the house when Korulen appeared on the transfer point. (It would have been too weird to teleport down in order to give a kamai lesson.) "Hi, Korulen!" she said, grinning ear to ear. "Wanna work outside today?"
"Sure, why not," said Korulen, smiling back. Finnah led her to a spot on the grounds within the fence that had some benches, under a moss-draped tree. "Before you start at Binaaralav in Shuraahel you need to be able to hide that you're a shren, but I don't think we can just start there. Let's do language-based mindspeech first so you have some idea what's going on, and then I can teach you the shield I know, and then we can try the thing with the secret-keeping."
"Okay, how do I do that?" Finnah asked.
"It's easiest to start if we're touching, so here -" Korulen held out her hand.
The lesson went on longer than strictly necessary, because Korulen knew as soon as she announced that Finnah knew plenty of mindspeech to practice on random people, the next topic of conversation would be Korulen's probable-uncle.
Korulen turned out not to be quite correct about that. <So while I'm practicing this we need to talk about something,> Finnah chatted, once she'd transmitted a silent-whispered recipe for iced planets. <I got Hallai to agree not to be awful to you when you talk to Ilen.>
<Why would she be awful to me in the first place...?>
<She's super-protective of him. He's really, y'know, emotionally fragile, because of the inside shren thing, and she's the one who manages him. And her default way of getting rid of people who annoy her is to be awful to them.>
<Are there many inside shrens?> Korulen asked.
<Plenty who never go out, but most don't have Ilen's issues about it,> Finnah sent. <There's a guy down the hall from me who stays in but he'll look out the window. There's a lady upstairs who stays in but she says she's "working up to it" and she'll talk all the time about what she's gonna do when she can leave.>
<I wonder if - mind kamai could help them,> Korulen sent. "Mind kamai" hadn't been her first thought. But Finnah wasn't going to pick up on anything like that, not on her first day knowing mindspeech when she still seemed to have to hold Korulen's hand to get a message across. Korulen was there to teach Finnah to hide thoughts. She wasn't going to give away the fact that her mother was the unique green-group to a shren who'd grown up before Rhysel's treatments.
<Ooh, I wonder,> Finnah sent. <How much do you already know how to do from your first term?>
<It's only been most of my first term,> Korulen said. <I can do non-linguistic mindspeech, and shield, and hide stuff from casual peeks into my mind. And Rhysel gave me a book to teach me something a little like what green-groups can do, receptive only. She thinks it might help me not set Ilen off when I talk to him.>
<Maybe,> Finnah agreed. <What are you going to learn? Do you think you could fix Ilen eventually? Could Rhysel?>
<Eventually, maybe. Rhysel's not all that far ahead of me, though. She started out in elemental kamai and she's only learning mind and wild now so that she and Aar Kithen can teach all five aspects between them. Maybe Talyn could do it.>
<Rhysel's apprentice. He might have been here sometimes, he's about our equivalency, a little paler than you, dark curly hair, half-elf ears?> Korulen sent. She was supposed to learn to send mental images over the next week.
<I might've seen him. He knows more mind kamai?>
<Yeah. I'll ask Rhysel about it.>
<What else does kamai do?> Finnah asked.
<In the intro class we're learning bits of everything. We're not going to officially specialize until later even though some of us know already what we want to pick. So I know stuff like handfire.> Korulen conjured a globe of the stuff in jade green that matched her mother's hair. <And some really simple illusions - flat things, the color's often off, I have to concentrate on them or they go away. My friend Lutan's better at them. I can calm down a nearby animal, I can check lifeforces. I got permission to skip flying lessons and practice mind kamai instead because I can already - um, because I'm a thudia.> She swallowed; she wasn't sure what Finnah would consider insensitive. Finnah could surely now fly just the same way Korulen could, by turning into something, but...
Finnah laughed, surprising Korulen. <Tiptoe around other shrens if you want, but not me. Usual slew of questions-and-answers: yeah, I'm a shren, yeah, means I can't fly with the wings I hatched wearing, yeah, it hurt like crazy, yeah, I turn into a cardinal and do a lap around the island every morning now, and no, you can't stab me just to see me not blink unless you are really hot and really into that.>
Korulen blushed; Finnah laughed again. <Oh,> Korulen sent weakly.
<Am I loud enough yet?>
<Yeah... you'll get more efficient over time but with your lifeforce you don't need to worry about that much, you're plenty loud. I bet you could reach me without touching me now.>
<I'll practice that with somebody here. You should meet Ilen,> Finnah sent, hopping up off the bench and swatting moss tendrils out of the way to lead Korulen back into the house.
<I'm not sure what to say,> Korulen admitted, following Finnah and extricating her hand.
<If you don't know what to say pick up a baby and say it's cute. There's a bunch of them, you're not gonna run out anytime today,> Finnah advised, fainter without the contact but still "audible".
<Okay,> Korulen said hesitantly.
Finnah opened the door to the building, and then the door to the babies' room.
Ilen had known that someone would visit him sometime. He'd known that the someone was "one of Rhysel's students" and the sometime was "soon", because that was what Finnah had told him. So he was not particularly alarmed when a blond elf girl he'd never seen before shuffled into the playroom.
He guessed Leraal, because that was a good guess for a blond elf. "Hello," he said, looking up from the baby silver he was polishing.
"Hello," she replied; her Leraal had an Esmaarlan accent, so he'd guessed right. "Um, I'm Korulen."
"I'm Ilen," Ilen said.
"I know. Um... I'm not sure, but I think I'm your niece."
Ilen closed his eyes, and swallowed, and opened them, and said, "Oh."
"I'm not sure. I'm related to you somehow. You look like my grandfather and my uncle and my great-uncle. And probably like ten distant cousins. But you're the right age for me to be your niece."
"Oh," Ilen said again.
There was a silence, and Korulen scooped up a gold who was nuzzling at her ankles. "Isn't he cute?" she cooed, tickling the baby's tummy.
When the unfamiliar empathic signature disappeared that evening after nerve-wracking angles of visitation, Hallai rose to her feet, woke up the night-shift baby-minder, and marched her to the babies' room to swap her in for Ilen and look after whatever mess the stranger had left him in. He wasn't panicking, but the triggers were cognitive. Just because the intrusive thudia hadn't mishandled Ilen to the point that he was now, that didn't mean she hadn't planted an idea that would ruin his even keel at any moment.
I wish I were a telepath, I wish I were a telepath, Hallai thought as she escorted an unprotesting Ilen up to his room. But the telepaths were all dragons. Shrens didn't get the extra-special powers. It was odd enough that she had as much empathic force as she did.
"Tell me what happened," she said, sitting him down on his bed and taking a spot beside him.
"We just talked," Ilen said.
"About what?" Hallai insisted.
"She was careful," murmured Ilen. "Nothing bad. A little about Finnah and the house. Some about dinner - Finnah told the delivery person to bring a tray for Korulen as well as me and the little ones today, and the server didn't understand that Korulen wasn't a shren, so she got something a little too spicy for her. Mostly we just talked about the babies." He paused. "She's got a baby parunia sister."
"Of course she does," muttered Hallai.
"She seems very nice," Ilen said. "She's studying to be a wizard. And to do that magic that Finnah wants to learn, kamai. She showed the babies a few workings."
"And then she just left?" Hallai asked. "That's all?"
Ilen twitched a little at "left". Just as Hallai had suspected, he wasn't as smoothed-over as he'd felt before. Too much visiting wasn't going to be good for him even if Korulen did nothing beyond show up and go home. "She's going to come back," Ilen said.
"How soon?" Hallai asked sharply.
"I don't know. She's working on something with Finnah. I guess she'll be back to see both of us next time she has time free."
Hallai's teeth squeaked as they ground together and Ilen winced. "I don't think you'd better see her - or anyone like her - more than once every week, or two, or three, until we have more information about how this affects you," Hallai announced.
"Oh," murmured Ilen, and Hallai scowled behind her hair at the disappointment he exuded.
"Just to be safe," she said, petting the fuzz of his hair. "I - You wouldn't want to scare Korulen off forever by panicking while she's here, would you?"
"No," agreed Ilen.
"There you go. If you're fine for the next three weeks, then of course you may as well see her again," Hallai said.
Ilen nodded slowly, then asked, furrowing his brow, "When was the last time I went three weeks...?"
"Rohel. You've been doing well this year," Hallai encouraged. "If you don't do better with Korulen coming over it will mean she's not helping you, anyway."
"That's not... exactly what she was here for..."
"What was she here for, then?" Hallai asked.
"Just to - meet me, I guess. And her thing with Finnah."
"Well," said Hallai. "She can talk to Finnah all she likes, I don't care. But why did she want to talk to you?"
"Because I'm related to her," Ilen said.
"So?" Hallai said.
Ilen squirmed awkwardly; she pulled his head down onto her shoulder and he sighed and left it there. "I don't know. It matters, doesn't it?"
"Why?" Hallai demanded, more sharply.
"I - I don't know," Ilen admitted.
"I wouldn't talk to my niece, if I had one and she showed up here," Hallai said. "So what if her grandparents are my parents?" Hallai spat the last word. "So what?"
"Korulen seems to think it matters," Ilen said.
"So? What do you care what she thinks?"
Ilen's head slipped off Hallai's shoulder. "I'll wait three weeks like you said," he said.
"I'll tell Finnah," Hallai said, running her nails over his scalp affectionately. "We'll see how you do, okay?"
"Now let's see what you need before you go to sleep..." She dialed up the empathy, reading him closely and applying delicate little pushes towards a calm neutral state. It was subtler than what she ususally did, but this was a different day.
Ilen had a secret.
It was this: usually, when the only triggers were ordinary people talking about ordinary things, he didn't really have to let them turn him into a wreck.
This was a secret because Ilen knew everybody hated it when he had an attack. Hallai took several ticks, sometimes even a degree or two if he struggled, to grab him and wrestle him into his room that blocked his projections. During that time everybody whose empathic signature he could find was artificially terrified. He caused accidents. He interrupted lessons. He suspected he might be responsible, by sheer coincidence, for one young shren's phobia of spiders, just by a few unfortunately timed incidents when the girl had been looking at one.
It was a secret, because if anyone knew that he could think very carefully, that he could mostly tune out talk of the outside and all this functionally did was make him a little more spaced-out in certain conversations, they'd want him to do it all the time.
Ilen was moderately spaced-out anyway, usually. He didn't like having attacks either. They were - well, of course they were, by their nature they were - scary. But he didn't like being stupid. He didn't like purposefully misinterpreting people to pretend they were talking about safe things. He didn't like looking blankly at everyone just in case, instead of daring to pay attention, when nine times out of ten it was nothing.
And he didn't like all the effort, being constantly on his guard, walking on mental tiptoes -
When if he just relaxed he might be fine, and if he wasn't fine, Hallai would take care of him.
Hallai would move him where he needed to be, and she'd make him feel what he needed to feel. And then he didn't have to work so hard just so he could look even dimmer to anyone who tried to have a conversation with him.
Sometimes, Ilen relaxed.
Sometimes, that threw him into a panic.
Ilen made Hallai work so hard, and Hallai was never lazy. She did her work every single day, all of it, even when he made it harder for her. Hallai didn't even have someone helping her, if she felt bad. Ilen watched her emotions sometimes, to see if there was anything he could do. Debt-paying wasn't the idea. That would be impossible. Ilen couldn't give her anything of as much value as the lifeline she gave him, tirelessly, whenever he needed it, from the very first time -
But there might have been something he could do.
He never found anything. He wasn't that good of an empath, anyway. There was force behind it when he was in enough mental agony, but he didn't have much discernment, and certainly not much practice on adults' emotions when he spent all his time around children.
It had been almost two of the three incident-free weeks Hallai required, and Ilen was spending them not being lazy.
He couldn't explain it to Hallai. Or himself, for that matter. But he wanted Korulen to come by again.
And he'd gone for three weeks before, so maybe no one would guess the secret if he did it again.
Ehail had once asked Ilen if he wanted the projection blocking ward on the babies' room.
He'd told her no, because that wouldn't protect the babies, and they couldn't very well run down the hall and get Hallai. At least he served as his own alert system without a ward on the room.
Ehail had then asked him if he wanted her to look up a ward that she could put on him, that would stop him from projecting, ever.
He'd told her no, because he used empathy to help the babies. To give Hallai that much less work. Both at the time because he was shouldering their needs, and later, when the half of them who stayed in the house were under her domain and ought to have had the pleasantest infancies they could.
He didn't tell her that he was afraid of twitching on the floor, harmless to the children perhaps but unable to get help for himself, trapped in his head for as many degrees as it took Hallai's overtaxed attention to swing his way of its own accord.
Ehail would probably not say the exact words "you're such a coward, you terrify everyone around you when you get set off and you're worried it will take a few extra moments for Hallai to get to you?"
But she might look at him just so. She might tell someone and then he might have to have a ward like that on him, whether he wanted it or not. And she'd think he was a coward, whether she said it or not.
Ilen was too much of a coward to let anyone think it.
More than they already did because he was so fractured to start with, anyway.
"How am I doing?" he asked Hallai at his evening appointment, after the night shift minder had come in to supervise the babies in the dark, fetch them midnight bowls of water and usher them back into their cubbies if they were restless.
"Fine," she said, pursing her lips in concentration. "A little guilty, but you're always a little guilty. I sometimes wonder what it is you think you're doing. You're the most sweet and harmless person in the world."
Ilen squirmed. He didn't contradict her.
Hallai dosed him with a little neutral contentment and sent him to bed.
Ilen went, very carefully, to sleep.
At the three week mark, Ilen asked Finnah to tell Korulen that he could see her again.
<Sure,> Finnah replied; she'd taken to showing off her mind kamai whenever she had the opportunity.
And that afternoon, Korulen came.
With her came a man who was about Ilen's height, pale with black hair, with jade-green eyes.
This man smiled a tentative, lopsided smile, and waved once.
Ilen's brain seized up.
There was shouting, and vertigo, and someone was crying, and there was a flash of copper-bright hair and Ilen forgot that there was a world.
Ilen was lying on his bed, Hallai was sitting on his chest, he was staring at the ceiling, she was muttering words out of sequence that had once been parts of comforting sentences. "Focus, here, Ilen, calm, focus -"
"Hallai," he said. He was tired. He wondered what time it was.
Hallai inhaled deeply. "That's not going to happen again," she told Ilen.
"People's parents don't come for anyone my age," Ilen murmured. "They don't -"
Hallai blinked. "Parents?"
"I saw -"
"He's younger than you," Hallai snorted. "And an idiot. I told Finnah I'd leave Korulen be even if she did something insane, but made no promises about him..."
"He's younger than me?" Ilen asked, perplexed.
"Yes, but don't think about him, Ilen, just relax, this was a bad one -"
"He's not my... my father," Ilen clarified.
"No, of course not." Hallai was frowning at him.
"What is he, then?"
"I didn't ask. Somebody. Don't think about him."
"But what is he?" Ilen asked. He shifted position, nearly toppling Hallai off of him. "If he's not - that? If you don't know who he is how do you know how old he is...?"
"Finnah yelled something about how he couldn't be your dad because he's younger, in the commotion when you were crying about your father. I'm sure that thudia ninny knows a dozen people who look like you, don't think about them, Ilen," she said, sitting back down to push him onto his pillow again. "Just relax. Go to sleep if you can."
"We can talk in the morning. It's late, Ilen, go to sleep."
Ilen closed his eyes. Hallai slid off of him and the ceiling dimmed as she let herself out of the room.
Narax had a tick and a half to look at his brother's face before pandemonium descended and a copper woman, spitting curses into Narax's face, dragged Ilen away.
"What was that?" Narax asked his niece.
"I - he has panic attacks," Korulen said, wringing her hands. "I didn't know just looking at you could cause one. Rhysel and I were both strangers and he didn't react specially to us. And I was so proud of myself for talking you into coming here at all, I didn't warn you -"
"Who's the copper woman?" Narax asked, edging away from baby shrens as they swarmed over each other. Finnah, Korulen's red-haired friend, sat down among them and was disgruntled.
"The house empath," Finnah supplied. "She projects at Ilen to calm him down when he does this sort of thing."
"Korulen, you should have warned me," Narax sighed. "I'm an empath too; just because your mother is what she is doesn't mean that the rest of us are useless. I kept Rhysel from going into shock or anything when she first got to Elcenia. I think I could do a fair bit towards keeping Ilen calm as long as I got to him before he became... shouty."
"Right," said Korulen sheepishly.
"Don't think Hallai will let you," Finnah remarked.
"What the hell business is it of hers if I visit my brother?" Narax demanded. He'd never had a brother, except the handful he couldn't remember from his own clutch who'd died where he'd lived. And once Narax got to his naming ceremony, his parents were done trying. Three was enough for them. Narax didn't even have any male cousins remotely close to his age. And then out of nowhere a brother.
He did have to be a brother. Narax knew more about the family than Korulen did. Korulen got Finnah to fetch Ilen's hatching date. It matched a clutch of eggs that Mother had written down in that yellowed old journal, which Narax had found snooping around in the master bedroom as a child. Narax hadn't remembered the contents unaided, but there was no shortage of spells that would show a wizard something he'd seen long ago.
Laid 2 eggs, the journal had read. (And that was already a suspiciously small clutch of full-blooded dragon eggs.) Wrote Kilaer the news. He'll be back before they hatch at least. Maybe this time.
Mother would not have been the first person to spirit away a shren egg without telling anyone.
With Father away, she might not have had to tell him either. Might have lied even in her journal.
And the date was right.
Narax had a brother, and damned if some unrelated shren who took a dislike to him was going to get in his way.
Chapter 3: Fury
Narax went home. His familiar greeted him at the door with a chirp, and claws in his shoulder.
"Hello, Onion, ow," he told the little red-scaled drake. She obligingly clung to his shirt instead, chittering.
Narax looked around his house. He'd moved to Esmaar and taken that job at his brother-in-law's school because he'd suddenly had a wife again. Had planned to raise a child with her, and didn't think Imilaat was a good place for that.
Narax continued to live in Esmaar and teach at his brother-in-law's school because in three weeks, he'd finally get to see his daughter and keep her for a month before he had to give her back again. There was a cradle, not assembled yet, leaning on the banister up to the second floor.
Samia had anti-scrying wards on her house where she was living with her stepfather. Narax didn't think this was specifically to keep his prying eyes away - they'd work equally well on anyone's prying eyes - but it rankled. His daughter was under that ward, probably asleep, and he couldn't even look at her.
His brother was in that... house... under the care of a screamingly irrational woman who, if he'd heard her correctly, had called him some exceptionally rude names.
Well, not anymore, the Ertydon government had set about finalizing the divorce with insulting speed and she wasn't that anymore. But he'd said "until breath quits your body or mine". Not "until I screw up a hasty second mindlink and you sever ties and bear my child across an ocean, under anti-scrying ward -"
His wife was buried somewhere under the damage that the hospital had done, that the mind-shredding spell had done, that the decade of isolation had done. The woman he'd married hadn't been the grasping, shrewish one he'd divorced, who'd agreed to joint custody half in dread of a Dragon Council intervention if she didn't.
Onion was nibbling on Narax's ear. "Ow," he said again, and she stopped and glided from his shoulder to the kitchen table, clacking her jaws in hunger.
"Greedy little thing," Narax said without heat, and he poured her a bowl of drake pellets.
Then he went to assemble Alyah's cradle, because three weeks would elapse eventually and then she'd need a place to sleep.
It wasn't hard to put together, but there were a lot of little pins, and the thing didn't come with an assembly spell - he should have read the packaging more carefully. His thoughts drifted back to his brother.
Normally this would be the sort of problem he could solve by asking Keo. She certainly could fix whatever the matter might be with Ilen, but she wouldn't go anywhere near a shren, not even one blood-related to her; Korulen had made the right call in going to him instead of to her mother first.
Keo reacted violently to mentions of shrens. An innocent conversation starter Narax had attempted when he was in his forties had left him unable to remember the past week; he only knew the incident had happened at all because Keo had left their sister Vara's memory intact and she could report the missing days to him. Keo had been so desperate to make sure that her little brother didn't talk about shrens that she'd wiped out seven days' worth of whatever might have prompted the idea. She couldn't affect his magical-more-than-mental ability to understand Draconic, or she might have made him forget that shrens existed entirely.
Keo was more controlled as an adult, but likely to heal Ilen's panic attacks? No. At best she'd act coldly to whoever proposed it for a month and flee the scene whenever the subject was broached.
So the direct, obvious solution was out. Ilen wasn't going to be whisked out of the shren house and installed in Narax's Imilaat home or some other pleasanter location - away from that individual - by any mechanism involving Keo.
Vara might be an easier sell, although not an actually easy one. She had a brother, and a sister, and didn't spend much time with either. Vara probably didn't desperately long to have someone Ilen-like in her life. And Vara didn't have Keo's abilities, either. She'd be just another ordinary empath if she offered anything at all.
Narax finished putting the cradle together in Alyah's room. He enchanted the walls pastel green on two sides and canary yellow on the other two for what he thought was a nice cheerful effect. He went downstairs and heated up leftover stew for dinner. Are you a wizard or aren't you? he asked himself rhetorically. Just because the house - just because that copper - controlled Ilen with empathy didn't mean that was the best way. He'd do a little background reading, see what there was in the way of psychiatric spells.
His wife might be destroyed beyond repair - the hospital had tried psychiatric spells, Keo had worked on her, if there were anything left that would have done it.
But he'd have his daughter four months of every year.
And he could get his brother out of that place too, he was sure.
Dear Grandma and Grandpa, Korulen wrote.
She stopped. She looked at the letter. She couldn't think of a way to ask. Uncle Narax thought for sure that Ilen was his brother, but how could he be sure? Grandma and Grandpa would know, but how could she ask?
Korulen wrote the rest of the letter like nothing out of the ordinary was going on, referring to the questions that always concluded Grandma Tsuan's own correspondence and the leading remarks that peppered Grandpa Kilaer's. Yes, I'm still seeing Kaylo. He's so smart, and he's always studying things - usually not even stuff for his classes, just stuff he's curious about. But when he snaps out of it he's very sweet and thoughtful. We found a new restaurant the other day, Grandpa would've liked it, it had very good bread...
She finished the letter and dropped it out the window; it disappeared en route to its destination after a two-inch waft downwards.
Most of the people Korulen would normally go to with her problems were not options. Both parents and most other relatives were ruled out by her mom's aversion to shrens. Kaylo was out for the same reason. Lutan was out because, sweet as she was, she could not keep a secret, and Korulen didn't want anything getting back to her parents. Kaarilel, Korulen's other best friend, could keep secrets, but she wasn't likely to have anything helpful to say.
Talyn had brushed her off when she asked about healing inside shrens. She was going to try again, but only after giving him a while longer to rethink the answer. He'd seemed sort of... off. Korulen knew his great-grandfather had died a while ago, and she supposed he might be closer than most people to his great-grandfather, since he'd also apprenticed under him. Still. Two and a half months was a long time to take to behave normally again day-to-day, even if he was occasionally possessed by grief.
Ilen had obviously liked it when Korulen had talked about Runa - he was obviously really fond of kids - and there was no way a baby parunia was going anywhere near the house. He'd never meet her - well, not for at least twenty years - if he couldn't leave.
Hallai watched Ilen.
Not like a hawk (she wasn't even in her goshawk form), but like an empath.
If that intruder (not Korulen, Hallai could find a little more patience for someone Finnah liked, but Korulen's uncle - other uncle) came back, she wanted to know at once.
It occurred to her belatedly that Ilen would only know if Narax appeared upon seeing him.
She started tracking Narax's empathic signature too. She couldn't tell if he approached, or how far away he was, but if he were suddenly directly north of her, she'd know he was probably at the door.
And then she could intercept him and Ilen wouldn't have to go through all of that again.
Ilen was just about back to normal. His emotions flickered transiently, probably reflecting the babies' antics. The little ones usually didn't trigger him but that didn't mean they couldn't. There had been a problematic little boy who'd forced Ilen onto the night shift for four years, because he would not stop asking questions about the world outside that Ilen couldn't answer. (Ilen could memorize facts - he could tell a curious child who the king of Saraan was, or that Linnip was in Anaist - but he could not tell one if Lan Quero was a pretty city or if the weather was nice in Mekand, or tolerate being asked.)
Narax's signature moved several times throughout the day. He was far enough away that the changes were slight, but they were often very sudden (teleportation, Hallai supposed) and got her attention that way. It was annoying, but not noticing Narax turning up on the doorstep would be more annoying.
Still later, it occurred to Hallai that Narax could, if he were as intrusive as she thought he was, teleport directly into the house - maybe directly into the babies' room. He wasn't Ehail, only landing outdoors and then knocking like a normal person to get inside.
She growled to herself, picked up her chair, and carried it down the corridor.
"Don't mind me," she told Ilen. "I'm just going to sit here instead of in my office for a while."
Ilen blinked at her. "Okay," he said, smiling at her, and she smiled back. He went back to the activity he was doing with the babies; it appeared to be a pillow fort.
Hallai could look at things and do her job at the same time (albeit she couldn't do anything taxing, like reading), so she watched Ilen at work. It was cute. A baby all by itself didn't inspire instincts of affection in her, but their big black eyes and squeaky little voices did something to Ilen, and he squeaked right back at them and picked them up when they asked and it was all so preposterously precious.
She'd been sitting there for two angles, even permitting a gold child to curl up in her lap as long as it didn't try to talk to her, when Narax did teleport right into the room.
Hallai stood up - the golden baby made a thin tear in her pants, sliding down to the floor off her disappeared lap - and interposed herself between the matching men.
"Get out," she growled at Narax.
Narax ignored her, looking over her head at a frozen Ilen. Even Ilen's emotions weren't moving. "Hey, Ilen," he said. "I would have come back sooner but I teach classes and this is one of my days off -"
"I said, get out!" snapped Hallai. "You don't belong here, last time you sent him into a panic attack, this is a shren house, you -" Draconic had many colorful epithets, but none of them seemed exact enough, none of them captured that arrogant dismissal in his eyes aimed above her head or the presumption and carelessness of landing right inside the house.
Ilen wasn't panicking yet. Why wasn't he panicking yet?
Hallai focused -
Oh, absolutely not.
"Get out of Ilen's head!" she shrieked at Narax, shoving the dragon square in the chest with both hands towards the door. "Out! You don't know what you're doing, you impossible, you -"
Narax stumbled back two steps, and the door opened against him as Aar Kithen peeped his head in.
"Excuse me," Aar Kithen said. "Aaral Camlenn will be here presently to treat the infants. Should I intercept her and suggest that we come back later? Aar Alar?"
Narax glanced over and recognized the elf as one of the other teachers on staff at Binaaralav, the stiff one who insisted on referring to him as "Aar Alar". "I'm sure we can talk somewhere else if you and Rhysel are going to be here about the babies for a while. Ilen?" Narax kept up the steady press of calm on his brother. Whoever had given this insane copper her job ought not have a leg to stand on when challenged about it.
"No," Hallai snarled. "He's not going anywhere with you -"
"Perhaps -" Aar Kithen said.
"Hallai," Ilen said.
"You can't just teleport in here like you own the place," Hallai shrieked at Narax.
"I can damn well see my brother if he'll have me - it's nothing to do with you, look, feel, he's fine, I'm an empath too, you ridiculous -"
"What are you doing? No one else can keep him controlled but me, no one -"
"It's a harmless spell to boost empathy, if this place is so short on decent empaths that they gave you the job I imagine it might come as a surprise but -"
"Hallai," said Ilen again.
"He's not fine, you're being clumsy, you don't know what you're doing, this is only the protocol for during an attack -"
"And it's not going to do him any harm - and I'm not talking to you, I didn't come here to talk to you, I came here to talk to my brother -"
"He's no brother of yours, you didn't know he existed -"
"Hallai," Ilen said, a little louder.
"Perhaps," began Aar Kithen again.
"Shut up!" Hallai snapped at the elf, who retreated from the room.
"What did he ever do to you?" exclaimed Narax. "He's at worst mildly overstarched! You have no actual grievances to speak of, you just lash out at anyone in range -"
"I have a job to do! Get out of Ilen's head now! Get out of this house this very split! This is not a place for dragons, this is the dumping ground for creatures dragons won't touch -"
Narax snarled under his breath at Hallai and then lunged around her to put his hand on Ilen's shoulder. "I know he exists now, I'm here now, and you can do your job, such as it is, from any distance. Shove off and let me meet my brother."
"You have no right to order me around in my own home -"
"Hallai," pleaded Ilen.
"But you have a right to start a shouting match in front of a couple dozen infants? You're entitled to screen Ilen's visitors? One person abdicated care of him, but I didn't - and she didn't make you his mother in her place, regardless -"
"I'm not his mother, I'm his - I'm the empath, it's my job to look after -"
"I'm taking care of it. If I need to turn him back over to your dubious mercies I'll inform you. Leave me and my brother alone."
"You can't just teleport in and -"
"HALLAI," shouted Ilen, clapping his hand over Narax's where it was still planted on his shoulder.
Hallai's gaze broke away from Narax, and she met Ilen's eyes. There was a silence, even the chattery babies quiet, for a long moment. Hallai's expression twisted in one of desperate misery and she lunged forward to seize Ilen's shirt in her fists, pull him down, and kiss him.
This was startling enough that Narax backed away, pulling his hand from Ilen's shoulder. Ilen didn't look any less surprised, although after the first tick he closed his eyes.
Narax didn't have a retort for the situation.
"Ooooh," said a baby.
Narax shot the little turquoise a look; it shrank away from him.
Hallai finally let Ilen's shirt go and whirled away to push through the door and disappear into the hallway.
"Er," said Narax.
Ilen tilted his head, staring at the half-open door.
"So... now that she's gone..." Narax began.
Ilen swallowed. "Can you come back another day - and watch the babies till Rhysel gets here - please?"
"Thank you," Ilen said, and he went out the door after Hallai.
A house of shrens was, by necessity, not a house of prudes. Cooping up hundreds of questionably sane people in a house together and trying to stop them from forming arrangements of physical convenience was a recipe for tension which could build up over centuries and snap.
By equal necessity, it was not a house of romantics. Cooping up hundreds of questionably sane people in a house together and encouraging them to fairytale notions would be equally foolish. If shrens had to do that kind of thing, they were politely but firmly encouraged to move out. The house could not afford jealousies, or bitter ex-lovers sniping at each other; to serve its intended purpose it had to remain intact for millenia.
Ilen couldn't move out. Hallai had no idea if he'd made arrangements with anyone, but he wasn't in a position to make attachments. She couldn't whisk him away to a mountaintop bungalow in Mekand and keep him safe there. What had she been thinking?!
She got to her room and slammed the door. She sat on her bed and drew her knees up to her chin. She tucked her hands into the opposite sleeves.
He'd kissed her back. Once he'd figured out what was going on he'd kissed her back.
Arrangements. Hallai snorted. That was what Ludei called them. Hers never lasted long enough for any arranging to be necessary; a couple of times a decade she'd pick someone out at lunchtime in the cafeteria, proposition him, and then generally never have cause to interact with him again. She interacted with Ilen every day.
She didn't want an arrangement.
...She might settle for one if Ilen did.
Since he couldn't move out.
And couples were only encouraged to do that, anyway. Ilen would be a public hazard out of the house; they couldn't evict him no matter what he did.
And he'd kissed her back.
There was a knock at her door.
Hallai got up and opened it.
"I didn't panic," Ilen said, later.
"I know you didn't," Hallai said, stroking his hair. It was getting longer than he usually kept it. He'd probably get a haircut soon.
"You don't have to shout at Narax for me," Ilen said. "What he was doing worked okay."
"It's not good for you to just be blasted like that," fussed Hallai, picking up her shirt from the floor and shaking the wrinkles out of it. "Not when you're not panicking."
"But if he hadn't done it, would I have panicked?" Ilen asked, pursing his lips thoughtfully.
"Probably, but - ugh, I don't want to talk about him," Hallai said, dropping the shirt and flopping back down again. "Let's not talk."
"Okay," said Ilen.
They didn't talk.
Narax came back the next day, on the assumption that Rhysel and Aar Kithen wouldn't be there twice in a row. He teleported into the hallway, instead of the babies' room itself, so he could assess whether Hallai was likely to accost him.
Her signature was ninety degrees to the left, not in front of him, so he started up calming Ilen and pushed the door open.
"Hi," Narax said.
"Hi," Ilen replied. "Um, Hallai shouldn't bother you again."
Even their voices were similar. Narax was used to hearing his father through the knowledge of fatherliness, so if the voices were alike he never noticed over the recognition of who was speaking. Ilen sounded like Narax did on a recording, if Narax were having an exceptionally timid day.
"That's good," Narax said, taking a chair. A white baby tried to climb his leg. "Shoo," he told it, and it slunk away.
"Sorry," Ilen said. "I try to teach them not to climb on people without permission, but most people let them, so it doesn't stick."
"It's not a huge deal," Narax said. "So this is what you do all day?"
Ilen nodded. "And there's a night shift person and two people who can substitute. Or Finnah does it sometimes, for short periods."
"I'd expect at least three people watching this many kids."
"They used to be, um, less appealing," Ilen said. "And more... tractable. The labor allocation person sent out a notice looking for volunteers. That's why there's two substitutes now, instead of one. No one wants to be my assistant or co-minder or whatever you'd call it yet."
There was a silence. "I have a daughter," Narax said. "A human thudia. A baby."
Ilen smiled. "What's her name?"
"Alyah." Narax swallowed. "Maybe I'll bring her by sometime. Her mother has her right now."
"Oh," Ilen said. Narax surmised that he was making appropriate inferences.
"I get her on the twenty-fifth. And I give her back after a month," Narax said. "I haven't even seen her yet." He closed his eyes, then opened them. "But, uh, let's see. There's me, and I - we - have two sisters..."
Narax went slowly through the family tree, steering away from descriptions of their parents when an incidental mention of "Mom" spiked distress under the spell-enhanced calming force. But he described Runa, they talked about Korulen, and Ilen proved willing enough to listen to a summary of the entire history between Narax and Samia.
"I don't really have anything interesting to say," Ilen said after that narrative was run through. "You're much more interesting than I am."
Narax shrugged. "I'm sure stuff happens here sometimes."
"Sometimes," acknowledged Ilen. "But mostly I don't see it because if it's interesting I don't stay lucid the whole time."
"Ah." Narax looked at his hands. "I'm looking into ways around that."
"You said Keo was..."
"That's not going to happen," Narax said, wincing. "She is, but she won't."
"Sorry," Narax said, looking up.
Ilen shrugged. "I didn't know anything about her until a very short time ago. I don't have any expectations of her."
"I guess that's one way to avoid being disappointed," Narax snorted. He paused. "It's hard to think of you as being older than me. From my perspective you only just came to exist."
"It's the same in this direction," Ilen said.
"But you're actually right," Narax pointed out. "If you're thinking of me as younger."
"I suppose," Ilen said. "But you've done more things."
"You're working with a handicap. And you've brought up more kids than I have, that's something. I'm afraid Samia's going to hand me my baby in a week and I'm just going to stare at her and hire a babysitter because I don't know what to do."
"I think thudia babies are different," Ilen said apologetically, "or I'd have suggestions. Alyah won't be able to talk, this young..."
"Samia's probably speaking Ertydon to her all the time," Narax said gloomily. "I live in Esmaar, I'll have to teach her Leraal. I suppose I could move to Gibryel or something, but my savings won't last literally forever and I don't have a job lined up there."
"Shouldn't she be able to learn both?" Ilen asked.
"Yeah, but given how this whole mess has gone I expect to get her next Sutaahel and find that she knows sixteen words and they're all in Ertydon and she doesn't want to speak that language that Daddy tries to make her speak." Narax sighed. "I guess it'll all shake out by the time she's five or so."
"Probably," Ilen said.
"Are the kids allowed pets?" Narax asked, looking at the crowd of baby shrens on the floor.
"No, not even when they're older - too expensive, too high-maintenance, there are some allergies in the house," Ilen said.
Narax smiled. "I have an idea," he said.
The brothers watched a small red drake swarmed by babies twice her size, and they smiled lopsided smiles.
Chapter 4: Anguish
"Uncle Narax?" Korulen said. She was in one of his classes, a practicum on the sorts of flashy dramatic spells that weren't of much everyday use but could impress people or blow off steam if safely cast outdoors. They'd just spent a class period at the edge of campus, manipulating the terrain into miniature cliffs and pits and ravines with a tricky dynamic spell before putting it all back slightly the worse for wear.
"Mm?" Narax asked.
"How sure are you that you and Ilen are brothers?" She'd waited until all of the other students had teleported or flown away; Narax was peering around at the area looking for any outcroppings that hadn't been cropped back in.
"No one else from the Alar line was trying for full-blooded dragons around that time," Narax said.
"But you didn't hatch till after that. You'd notice if someone at a line meeting was talking about having a new baby, but do people really talk about clutches they lost? Isn't that most of them...?"
"Well, I could do more scrying to be sure, but I don't really want to watch my mother laying eggs," Narax said. "Most of the Alars weren't even married to other dragons at the time, though."
"Most?" Korulen said.
"I'll scry for just before Ilen's egg arrived at the house, then, and pan backwards, but it's really likely. Why? Don't you like him?" Narax asked.
"I like him," Korulen said. "He's nice. But... I don't like to think that way about Grandma and Grandpa."
"Just your grandma," Narax said absently. "Dad wasn't home at the time, he was off on a trip to see some of his descendants. And they're dragons, Korulen -"
"You're a dragon."
"I'm not Ilen's father, I'm Ilen's younger brother, there's no risk that anyone's going to dredge up a stupid old folk belief saying I'm responsible for his existence," Narax said. "I don't know what I'll do if I have a shren kid in eight hundred years. I hope I'd be a father to it, but I don't know what it feels like to look at one of those eggs and know I made it."
"So you're not going to tell Grandma? That we found Ilen?" Korulen asked.
"I wasn't planning on it anytime soon. Not till he can leave the house one way or another, anyway," Narax said heavily.
Korulen swallowed. "About that. I was thinking, mind kamai."
"Maybe. You can't do it, can you?" Narax asked.
"Not yet, but in a few years... I tried asking Talyn," Korulen said. "He's better at mind kamai than Rhysel is. But he's been acting weird, and I don't think he's up for anything complicated. Maybe when Rhysel brings in more teachers I can ask one of them."
"I'm considering telling your grandpa," Narax said after a pause. "I don't think he knows. I think Mom sent the egg away before he got home."
"He'll tell Grandma," predicted Korulen.
"Maybe," Narax said. "She might react badly, too. But he ought to know, and he can decide whether to confront her about it or not."
"Maybe he'll agree with her," said Korulen quietly.
"Maybe. I'm going to start with Vara and see how it goes over with her," Narax said.
"Do you want me along?" Korulen asked.
Narax shook his head.
Vara lived in a cave.
She didn't like it when people called it that, but Narax couldn't help but see it as a cave. It was carved out of a mountainside, accessible by flight or by zigzagging stone steps, and the entrance was covered up with sheets of leather rather than anything like a door.
Vara had moved to Pleia for a girl; Narax had met the girl, and didn't think it was a good tradeoff.
He landed on the ledge and pushed around a few layers of leather strips. It was warmer, if not actually warm, in the cave ("this is a Pleian house, Narax," he could hear his sister saying). This was due to the roaring fire, which fed smoke up through a thin vent drilled to the outside of the mountain but still wasn't as evenhanded as one warming spell.
"You should let me fix this place up for you," he called into the back rooms of the cave, by way of greeting. There was enough clearance in the place for him to stand up straight, but this put his head in the smoke that hadn't crept out the vent yet - it was designed for dwarves, or in Vara's case, dwarf-shaped dragons. He sat on the floor and scooted forward. "I wouldn't charge you or anything," he continued encouragingly.
His sister, in her squat brown-skinned green-haired shape, stepped into the front room. "I've told you, no," she said. "It's how Pilar likes it."
Pilar, an actual dwarf, followed. She was paler than the shape Vara had wound up with when turning dwarven, and had red-brown hair - almost coppery. Narax wasn't thrilled to be reminded unexpectedly of Hallai, but he prompted himself to smile politely at his not-technically-a-sister-in-law anyway. "Why do you like your cave -"
"It's a house, Narax, a Pleian house, not everything has to look like an Imilaatan villa," Vara said.
"Why do you like this place cold and smoky and dark -"
"Let it go, Narax," said Vara. "What do you want?"
"I know I've offered before, I just can't figure out why, since you have a wizard handy -"
"What do you want?" Vara snapped.
Narax rolled his eyes; he'd had a leadup plan, but, as he ought to have predicted, he'd been derailed from it. "We've got another brother," he said.
"Bull," said Vara.
"I'm not lying to you," said Narax, exasperated. "He's a shren, Mom sent him away without telling anyone -"
"No," Vara said.
"Let me finish -"
"No, let me. I get that maybe you found a shren who hatched out of an egg Mom laid - don't tell me how you found that out, I don't want to know what weird things you're doing in your spare time - but then she gave him up. You know how adopted kids' parents really are their parents? A given-up shren really isn't our brother. Or, I guess he can be yours, if you want him, but I'm not interested. Can we stop talking about shrens now?" Vara asked.
Narax hadn't expected that reaction. "He's our brother," he said slowly.
"Narax, I barely tolerate you, and I grew up with you and got to see you when you were still actually cute enough to get away with your crap. I did not grow up with this shren you found. Or any of the thudia half-'siblings' who died before we hatched. I don't really care what the genealogy records on Dragon Island say - actually, come to think of it, they aren't going to mention your shren either. I care about who I care about." She reached out for Pilar and put an arm around the dwarf's shoulders.
Narax sat on the floor of the cave and stared at his sister. "I figured you might not care much about meeting him. I didn't think you'd deny outright that he's part of the family." His eyes stung; he didn't know if it was the smoke or not.
"It's not because he's a shren. That's repulsive but not outright disqualifying, I have a friend who's got a shren sister. Sister was raised at home, though, after the danger zone. This guy you met wasn't. He's what, your age?"
"Older than me," Narax said quietly. It would be obnoxious to burst into Draconic with Pilar there - with Pilar anywhere in earshot - but it probably wouldn't help. He could pick all the Draconic words for siblings he wanted, ones which didn't imply shared childhoods, and Vara would just announce that she didn't care about that kind of sibling.
"So, centuries of not-being-our-brother aren't going to evaporate like that." Vara clapped her hands, taking her arm off of Pilar in so doing; the dwarf went into the rear rooms of the cave-house and started busying herself with something or other.
"Right. Well. I'd stay for lunch, but I'm not in the mood for smoked fish," Narax said, getting to his feet but hunching under the smoke; he didn't like to cast spells sitting down.
"We eat other things besides -" Vara began, but he teleported away.
The next day, after he finished grading the assignments he needed to hand back on Inen, Narax went to the shren house. Ilen wasn't watching the children, and the woman who was seemed to resent the intrusion. Narax read Ilen's signature from where it emanated upstairs, found it flat and calm, and surmised that the shren had had an attack (so much for Hallai's technique) and was recovering. He went home.
Keo wouldn't take well to a shren-related reason to cancel his classes for the next few days, but Narax wasn't going to get any less busy when his daughter appeared in a week...
Why did everything have to happen at once?
A moonstone woman volunteered to become Ilen's backup. This meant that in addition to having a better substitute when he was completely out of commission, he got two days off a week even when everything went well.
Hallai was pleased about this, because it meant that she could have him around without having infants swarming at their feet. On those days he'd sit in her office with her, and next to her at the cafeteria instead of taking meals in the babies' room.
Hallai was also pleased about this because once, Narax came for a visit, found the moonstone substitute in the babies' room, and must have assumed that Ilen was indisposed, because he teleported away rather than search deeper inside the shren house.
Hallai didn't tell Ilen. Ilen could have kept his own lookout for Narax's empathic signature, the way she was; if he wasn't, she wasn't going to alert him. Narax could have asked someone if Ilen was available instead of assuming the only thing Ilen could ever have to do that was more important than Narax was recovering from an attack.
As far as Hallai was concerned, everything Ilen could be doing was more important than Narax. Bugs were more important than Narax.
Mostly, things weren't that different after the kiss or what followed. They had always talked a little, socially, during the daily check-ins or after Ilen was winding down from an emotional disaster. It had added up, over decades. And neither minded silence.
But it was changed in some ways. There was a different quality to it when she touched him, and sometimes what started as an affectionate pat would turn into her crooking her wrist behind his neck and pulling him in for a kiss. And there was a lovely languid smile on his face when he spoke about her to other people. Hallai liked that; she liked that he was hers.
If only aggravating dragons would stop trying to steal him from her, everything would be perfect.
There's something you might not know...
There's something you might not know...
Kilaer checked the mail late in the day. He and Tsuan were up early every morning to bake, so morning customers would have fresh bread and pastries. Their assistants and that new boy from the University who minded the till didn't come in until a bit later, and by the time they were there the place was so busy that Kilaer couldn't come by a spare moment.
So, while Tsuan closed up the shop and brushed flour off the counters, Kilaer went to the mailbox.
Two bills, a mail order for forty loaves of bread for the sandwich place uptown, a letter from Narax, two catalogs, a coupon booklet, and a package of decorettes they'd bought for the iced planets. The letter was addressed to him alone, not Tsuan, which was odd - when Narax wrote at all he usually combined the letters. Kilaer and Tsuan took turns reading aloud joint correspondence from their children and granddaughter, over cookies and tea.
Kilaer took the package into the bakery and kissed Tsuan's cheek as he passed her to put the decorettes on the shelf. He tucked the other mail under one arm and opened the letter from his son, still standing in the pantry.
There's something you might not know. But I've done some scrying to confirm it. The clutch of eggs Mom laid on Nidhel 47, 10963 was three, not two -
Kilaer stopped reading. He closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. The air in the bakery smelled like crusts and powdered maple sugar.
He was going to finish this letter sitting down, while Tsuan was running errands.
Kilaer tucked the letter back into its envelope and closed the pantry door on his way out. Tsuan was covered in flecks of bakery debris, from bran in her jade-green hair to smears of fruit on her apron. "All set for the night, love?" she asked her husband.
"All set," he echoed.
He wasn't sure off the top of his head that Narax had found anything to be alarmed about. After all, Narax hadn't hatched yet, in 10963; whatever he thought he knew about the clutch could be distorted some way. Not that Kilaer knew much about how scrying worked. It was a recent development. (He was glad he wasn't doing police work anymore; he could only imagine how boring it would be if it now consisted mostly of watching spells play back events.)
Kilaer didn't remember the lost clutches individually. The one that had produced Keo and Vara and two nameless doomed sisters, he remembered; Narax's four clutchmates who'd all coughed themselves to death, he remembered. The others blurred together, the long string of chipper jade girls until they managed daughters giving way to a long string of squirmy jade boys until they managed their son.
But maybe there had been one that winter, maybe there was something off about it. Tsuan covered up mistakes she made, large and small, if she could. If she'd fallen on one of the eggs and Kilaer hadn't been there, she'd have cleaned it up and put on a happy mask and might never have said a word. If she'd...
Well, the letter would say what Narax thought had happened.
They walked home, carrying tins of cookies and a quiche and a loaf of sourdough. They'd lived in an apartment above their shop for a time, but ultimately agreed that it was too cramped and the neighborhood too loud. They rented it to an endless series of university students and lived in a house on a quieter street where everyone grew roses.
Kilaer and Tsuan went in, and Kilaer put the mail on the counter - Narax's letter face down. He put the kettle on for tea and she went to the neighbors' house to trade half of the cookies for the eggs the neighbor's chickens laid.
Kilaer read the rest of the letter.
three, not two. The third was a shren egg, which she mailed to the Kep Island, Petar shren house (the Corenta one is closer to you, which may be why she didn't choose it, if she thought you might run into him on the street or something). Through elaborate happenstance I'm not going into here, Korulen and I have met my brother now. His name is Ilen.
You might not want anything to do with him. Vara doesn't, and I don't plan to try Keo. But I was pretty sure you didn't know, and you ought to. You have two sons living.
I'll leave it up to you what to tell Mom, if anything.
You might not want anything to do with him. Vara doesn't, and I don't plan to try Keo. But I was pretty sure you didn't know, and you ought to. You have two sons living.
I'll leave it up to you what to tell Mom, if anything.
Kilaer was halfway through a second read-through of the letter when the front door opened and Tsuan came back with eggs. They bought in bulk for the bakery. For occasional egg dinners at home, though, they liked the neighbor's.
Kilaer bit his lip. After dinner, he told himself, I'll show her the letter.
"You're all worked up about something," Tsuan observed.
"It's nothing that won't keep," Kilaer said. "I'm starving."
"Tsuan," Kilaer said after dinner.
He closed his eyes. "How many sons do we have, Tsuan?"
She was silent, and when he opened his eyes, she went rapidly from openmouthed horror to a very bad attempt at looking like she had no idea what he was talking about.
"Just Narax," she said faintly.
"That's not what he told me," Kilaer said, and he produced the letter and pushed it forward.
Tsuan didn't take it. "Do you understand?" she asked softly.
"Why you'd send a shren egg to the shren house?" he asked. "Yes. Why you wouldn't tell me..."
"I couldn't, I couldn't say it, I could barely put the egg in the mail," Tsuan whispered into her hands. "I almost smashed it but I couldn't do that either. And I couldn't say. You'd have wanted to talk about it, like now..."
"Tsuan," murmured Kilaer.
"I won't," she said. "I won't have this conversation." She got up and stomped into the bedroom.
"Tsuan," Kilaer called.
"I won't," she snapped over her shoulder, and she slammed the door.
Kilaer had been married to various people for the overwhelming majority of his fourteen and a half centuries of life. Almost four of them he'd spent married to Tsuan in particular. He was approximately familiar with what the slammed door meant.
Pocketing Narax's letter, Kilaer went to the linen closet for a spare blanket to crawl under on the couch for the night.
Dear Narax, read the letter.
I have spoken with your mother about Ilen - or rather, have attempted to do so. She did not react well. I will keep you updated.
I didn't know.
I didn't know.
Narax paced, waiting for Samia. They'd agreed to swap the baby at midday, but hadn't picked an exact time, and so his stomach was growling in complaint about the lunch he'd postponed for the last angle.
Finally, finally, there was a knock on his door.
He opened the door and there was Samia.
She had Alyah in one arm, but even the short time Samia had spent as the center of the universe left Narax unable to look away from her immediately on seeing her. That was the face of his other half, even if she looked tired and had her hair wrapped up in decorative webbing rather than trailing down the way she used to. Even if she was looking at him with narrowed eyes and her mouth pressed into a thin line.
She was, to be fair, looking very intently at him from those hooded, frowning eyes.
He'd been the center of the universe to her, too. But he must not have done a very good job of it.
They stood, staring at each other, until he finally slid his eyes down to focus on the baby in Samia's arms.
Alyah was not a newborn anymore, but she was small, with only a little dark down on her scalp and exactly her mother's face. She was a baby Samia. One he was going to raise, as opposed to marry, but maybe he'd be better at the one than the other.
Narax held out his arms.
Samia set Alyah down in the crook of his elbow, and watched to make sure he didn't drop her. Then she slid the bag of Alyah's things off her shoulder and set it on her doorstep, and she teleported away.
"Well," Narax said to Alyah in a soft coo that turned high and doting of its own accord. "Hello there. I'm your daddy."
"Wuh," said Alyah.
"We'll have you babbling in Leraal soon enough," Narax said. "Soon it'll be all 'aal' and 'em'. None of this 'wuh' while you're here, okay?"
Alyah did not reply. She just looked up at Narax, dark irises filling out almost all of the visible eye.
Narax picked up the bag of things with his free hand and carried his daughter inside.
I am writing to let you know that your mother did herself some harm. She has not lost any forms, and is physically well again now, but she's currently in the Greater Desinni Sainted Rose Hospital for monitoring and counseling.
I don't know how to talk to her about this. I hope they do.
I want you to know that I'd rather be aware of Ilen than not, and that your choice to inform me has nothing to do with my choice to talk to your mother.
Let's reschedule the visit with Alyah for two weeks from Saanen; the hospital staff think that your mother should be okay to come home by then, if not before.
I am writing to let you know that your mother did herself some harm. She has not lost any forms, and is physically well again now, but she's currently in the Greater Desinni Sainted Rose Hospital for monitoring and counseling.
I don't know how to talk to her about this. I hope they do.
I want you to know that I'd rather be aware of Ilen than not, and that your choice to inform me has nothing to do with my choice to talk to your mother.
Let's reschedule the visit with Alyah for two weeks from Saanen; the hospital staff think that your mother should be okay to come home by then, if not before.
Tsuan sat in the cot that the hospital had put her in "to rest and relax". The walls were mint green. The sheets were white. The city, visible out the window, was a conglomerate of grays and browns and occasional painted dots of color.
Her wrists were pale and unbroken, but the clothes she'd been admitted in were still wadded up in the corner hamper, streaked with red.
It had been a stupid thing to do. She'd only have lost a form and wrecked the house if she'd cut in the right direction, which she hadn't. The doctors were calling it an "announcement of distress", an act engineered to make sure that the people around her knew that she was fragile and in pain so they wouldn't force her to confront difficult issues.
Tsuan thought this was probably about right.
Couldn't Kilaer guess - he'd never personally laid eggs, sure, he'd had more children than she had but they didn't come out of his body. He'd never watched anything stamped defective, contagious, awful emerge from him and known that he made it.
And because she hadn't told him, he hadn't had to contemplate the choice twenty years later. She'd made the hard decision in advance, and he hadn't had to think about justifying it to his elderly but still living parents, if he brought the shren home, or about trying to bring up a shren among normal children (trying to protect normal children from a shren).
Or about how poorly adjusted they always turned out. Tsuan had never met a shren, but she'd heard stories - this cousin's parunia married someone who had a shren aunt, that friend's dragon grandmother had a shren brother. And the shrens were always such unstable people, such difficult company, angry or sad or boiling with resentment. Maybe numb dragons of other colors who wouldn't feel those awful feelings could live with it. Tsuan knew she couldn't.
And they'd already had the girls, and what if Keo had looked into the shren's mind and hurt herself?
And, and, and, there were a thousand reasons, and if she'd tried to say any of them to her husband, he would have wanted to talk through them all, a long torturous conversation that might end the way she wanted it but only after too much miserable fuss, and might not end the way she wanted it and then there would be hundreds of years of shren, shren, shren.
She wished she'd brought her foot down on the egg. She almost had.
A buzzer sounded and a light went off; she had two degrees to make herself presentable for her next counseling session.
The mirror told her that she looked like herself, just worn out and dull-eyed. Kilaer had brought her changes of clothes so she didn't have to wear the hospital's ugly burgundy outfits that they provided to longer-term patients.
She redid her ponytail and kicked off her shoes to tuck her feet under herself where she sat.
The therapist came in. "Hello, Tsuan," he said. "How are you feeling today?"
"About the same," she said. "If this were about how I was feeling, my husband could just project at me some prescribed cocktail of emotions."
"At Sainted Roses, we try to use empathic solutions only in extreme circumstances where other therapies are ineffective," said the therapist. "If you'd like to ask your husband to help you in that way, you certainly can, but it won't be part of your treatment here."
"I feel like everybody found out I had a shren," Tsuan said.
"That you had one," the therapist said, "not that you hid it, or anything else?"
"If I hadn't hidden it, they'd have found out earlier, that's all," Tsuan said, looking out the window.
The sky was so blue.
Chapter 5: Caution
"Rhysel?" Korulen asked, hanging back after class. "I have a mind kamai question."
"I'd be more surprised if you had any other kind of kamai question," Rhysel remarked, and Korulen laughed softly. "Is it something you want to teach Finnah? She mentioned that she's been moving at a decent clip and I wouldn't be surprised if she wanted to learn more."
"No, nothing about that, I think I know enough to keep Finnah occupied until next term given how often I can even visit," Korulen said. The classroom had emptied; even Lutan wasn't waiting for Korulen anymore, and Aar Kithen hadn't lingered when it was clear that Rhysel was going to be in conversation for a while about a sort of kamai he didn't much practice. Korulen continued: "I was wondering if you think a mind kama could help Ilen, and the other inside shrens."
"That's a maybe," Rhysel said.
"I asked Talyn, but -"
"Not Talyn," Rhysel said at once.
"He's been acting weird, is that why?" Korulen asked.
"No - it's not that, of course he's still... grieving." Rhysel swallowed. "No, it's what happened the last time he tried to use mind kamai to help a shren. Dragon - and shren - minds appear to be put together very differently from other people's in at least some places. Mindspeak and other basic things are turning up normal results so far, or I wouldn't have asked you to help Finnah and I'd be treating Kaylo with more caution, but anything complicated needs a more practiced and more careful touch than Talyn has."
"I thought him being an innate kama would help," Korulen said slowly.
"It helps," Rhysel said, pausing a bit between words. "Talyn uses his magic like it's part of his body, not like it's a tool. But if I needed surgery, I'd rather someone carefully holding a scalpel do it than someone with natural claws and poor impulse control, even if in theory the scalpel's not as precise."
Korulen shivered. "Right," she said. "Do you know someone who could do it?"
"Yes," Rhysel said. "In fact, I was thinking of asking him if he'd like to teach here; I can add the question about inside shrens to the same visit. He doesn't have apprentices, but that's because apprentices generally live with their Masters and he wouldn't want his tower full of teenagers. I think he'd do better teaching a few classes every day and then going home to an empty home." She tapped her chin. "Do you want to come along? To give him an idea of who he'd be teaching, and to tell him something about Ilen?"
"Who is it?" Korulen asked.
"One of my old co-apprentices, Corvan Rellick. Does Lunen afternoon work for you? I'm going to treat babies at one of the houses in the morning and then go after lunch, but I can rearrange the schedule if that's not a good time."
"Lunen afternoon works as long as we're back by dinnertime," Korulen said, "since I have a date with Kaylo."
"We won't be long," Rhysel said.
Master Rellick's tower was on a flat ledge on a Restronian mountainside, accessible by transfer point (their method, after Aar Kithen sent them to Barashi) or by shallow stone steps that wound up the slope below.
<Corvan?> Rhysel broadcasted. She added to Korulen alone, <If you don't shield, he'll be able to understand you speaking Leraal or any other languages you know, but language-independent mindspeech is the best bet. And he'll be replying the same way; he can't speak.>
<A moment,> came a mental voice. The "sound" of it was masculine but otherwise oddly devoid of character. Korulen supposed that someone who couldn't speak wouldn't automatically base his silent voice on his real one, but he could have picked something with a little more personality.
Korulen and Rhysel waited patiently at the door. The place had a pretty good view of the town in the neighboring valley, but it was very windy and her hair kept whipping yellow streaks across her vision.
At length, the door opened. Master Rellick looked like a slightly pinkish vampire with a sour expression and one of those fashion senses that consisted entirely of "black goes with black, right?". <Rhysel,> he acknowledged. <And companion. What is it?>
<Hi, Corvan,> Rhysel said. <This is Korulen. She's one of the students at the school I'm teaching at now in Elcenia. We have a couple of questions ->
<I was occupied when you arrived and am not interested in spending overlong on this visit,> Corvan said, holding out his hand at Rhysel's forehead height and looking expectantly at her.
Rhysel leaned forward an inch so her head touched Corvan's outstretched fingers; after a moment he dropped his arm and she straightened up.
<What was that?> Korulen asked.
<Corvan's Master working was to develop a way to hold conversations mentally much faster than you can with ordinary speech or mindspeech,> Rhysel explained. <Because it's so fast you can't do a lot of creative brainstorming during one of those exchanges, but you can ask questions you're already planning to ask, and get answers to anything that's not too off the wall.>
<The questions are not "off the wall", but I do require more information before answering,> Corvan sent. <I surmise I will need to pass muster with the authorities at the school in question, and develop a means of commuting, and additionally I require more information about the scheduling and about the commitments I would be making. Regarding your friend with the phobia, if the minds of his kind are as different as you suggest, I will not know if I can be of help without a closer examination.>
<My dad is the headmaster at the school,> Korulen sent. <I think if Rhysel recommends you he'll probably wave you through, although he does have to interview you, or have my mom do it. And apprise you of Esmaarlan teaching ordinances and stuff.>
<Are there a great many ordinances?> Master Rellick inquired with a raised eyebrow.
<I don't think it's that many. Things like anti-harrassment policies and fairness to students of all backgrounds and traits.>
<We can correspond with letters sent back and forth if you're very busy right now, Corvan,> Rhysel sent. <And arrange a time for you to come in for an interview and visit Ilen.>
<Very well,> sent Corvan. <Thank you for the offer. You are likely correct in your estimate of how I will tolerate teaching in this setting as opposed to the traditional one.> Without futher farewell, he stepped backwards into his tower and shut the door.
"Friendly," muttered Korulen.
"He's a good person, just not a very sociable one," Rhysel said. "And he's a skilled mind kama and highly professional."
"Do we go back now?" Korulen asked.
"Aar Kithen won't unsend us for another half an angle or so. Want to come with me to ask my blood-sister Eryn if she wants to teach, too? She's an image kama - a Journeyman, so she can't have apprentices, but she can teach in Elcenia."
"Sure," Korulen said.
"Hello, Rhysel," Ilen said, when Rhysel let herself into the babies' room during blocks time. A little gold knocked over her block tower in her haste to scamper over and wrap all four legs affectionately around Rhysel's leg. "It's a Sinen - usually you aren't here on Sinenik."
"I'm not here about the babies today; they have to wait till I have a whole day off from teaching," Rhysel said. "Sorry, little ones." She scratched the gold behind the ears. "I've brought a friend, Ilen. We think he might be able to help with your panic attacks. Will you let him try?"
"I - this is sudden," Ilen said, blinking rapidly. At least she hadn't said help you be able to go outside. If he didn't have panic attacks that didn't necessarily mean he'd have to actually go outside. He could stay inside, and not panic, and be safe and feel safe. Maybe.
A pale, thinly built human man followed Rhysel into the room and shut the door behind him. He stoically ignored the small blue who began to poke at his shoes. <It is possible that your mind will prove to be arranged sufficiently unusually that I will be unable to make any changes, but I am willing to investigate,> he announced, silently in a hollow not-a-voice like Finnah used when she was practicing magic.
"I - I don't know," said Ilen. "Is it... safe?"
<I will not proceed with anything other than an investigation until I am certain I can make adjustments without harming you,> sent the human.
"Corvan is a very good mind kama, Ilen," Rhysel said.
"I," began Ilen, but then Hallai pushed the door open and stalked in.
"What are you doing here on a Sinen?" Hallai asked Rhysel sharply. "Who are you?" she added to Corvan.
"It's nothing bad, Hallai," Rhysel said in a placating tone.
<I am Master Corvan Rellick. I am not here to interact with you,> Corvan sent.
"I don't care if you're here to interact with me; I care if you're here to interact with Ilen. What are you doing to him now? Is this guy related to him too? Maybe this is his long-lost-great-grand-half-nephew who just had to pick up and saunter in and -"
"Hallai, they want to help my attacks," Ilen said.
Hallai stopped short and peered at Ilen. "Can they do that?"
"They don't know, they're here to find out," Ilen said.
Hallai sat down on a couch, nearly catching the tail of a little copper whose scales matched her hair. "Oh," she said.
"I don't have to actually... go anywhere," Ilen said, looking up at Corvan, "to... test it or anything?"
<That should not be practically necessary. You will not, however, find the prospect aversive if I am successful.>
Ilen shuddered; Hallai reached out, grabbed his arm, and pulled him onto her lap, which was sufficiently distracting that he stopped thinking about not finding the outside terrifying, and how terrifying that was.
"Sh-sh-sh," she soothed. "You don't have to go anywhere. You can stay right here with me as long as you want."
Ilen nodded slowly, and curled up to tuck his head under her chin. "What do you need to do?" he asked Corvan.
<It would be advisable for you to lie down. I will need to touch your head, as working at range is not sustainable for extended periods. I may determine that it would be ideal for you to be unconscious during the examination for delicate detail work, which can be accomplished via drain and subsequent ordinary sleep if I doubt my ability to render you unconscious via mind kamai.> He looked assessingly at Hallai, and said, <I will conduct this procedure in her or any other supervisory presence if, and only if, she can be relied upon not to interfere, distract, or otherwise disrupt any part of it. For that matter, we should not be in a room full of small children for the purpose.>
"I'm his girlfriend, you can't kick me out while you mess with his brain," said Hallai. "That is literally illegal in this country for lights to demand that patients receive treatment without social support, you're not a light but even so -"
<I am a volunteer. I will volunteer under some conditions and not others. It is not a matter of discussion. If I open myself to legal liability by working in this location, then my services are not available,> snapped Corvan. <I am not here to interact with you. Rhysel, collect your friend, move him to an appropriate environment, and retrieve me from the front garden when my services are deemed acceptable as they are offered - or inform me that I may return to your tower and ask your fiancé's conveyance home.> With that he pivoted and marched out the door.
"You have such a lovely social circle, Rhysel," Hallai drawled.
"Corvan volunteered to help Ilen," Rhysel said. "His requests are just as much about Ilen's safety as his own comfort, anyway. Ilen, can you call in a substitute to watch the babies and we can move to your room or somewhere else appropriate?"
"I can," Ilen said, before Hallai could answer. Hallai meant well, and maybe most strangers offering to do things to Ilen's mind weren't trustworthy, but Rhysel was Rhysel and Corvan was someone she trusted. Ilen was willing to assume that this meant Corvan was safe to let help, or let try.
The moonstone substitute baby-minder took up her post and began helping the gold rebuild the destroyed tower. Ilen went out, followed by Rhysel and a faintly fuming Hallai, to his room.
"Are you staying - quietly without disturbing Corvan - or going, Hallai?" Rhysel asked softly, while Ilen arranged pillows and tried to get comfortable. He wasn't sure how to be comfortable while having his mind looked at; he only knew how to be comfortable to fall asleep or to cuddle with Hallai. Eventually he settled on propping his head up on a pillow and staring at the ceiling with his hands folded on his chest.
Hallai snorted. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be quiet if talking will hurt Ilen, but if that creep sets off a panic attack while he's trying to cure them, or something, I need to be here."
"If you interrupt Corvan I need to go have a talk with Ludei about this," Rhysel said. "This is serious."
"I am not even slightly finding any part of it amusing," said Hallai, glaring at Rhysel.
"All right," said Rhysel with a sigh, and she left to find Corvan and bring him upstairs.
"Are you okay with this, sweetie? Did you think about it?" Hallai asked Ilen.
"I - well - not too hard," Ilen admitted. "I can't. He's only going to look. He might not be able to do anything."
"Maybe you should think about it, a little at a time to be safe, to make sure you're ready, that you want this kind of solution," Hallai said.
Ilen crossed his ankles, uncrossed them, burrowed his head a little deeper into the pillow. "I don't want you to have to calm me down all the time. You work really hard," he murmured.
"I only even have the job because I'm the one who can do that for you, Ilen," Hallai said. "There are other green-groups who could do the rest of it. I'm not overworked."
"You don't like it when my family visits..."
Hallai flinched; Ilen just saw it out of the corner of his eye. "I don't think they're good for you. I'm not sure this mind kamai business is good for you - how much do we really know about it?"
"It helps the babies."
"That's some other kind of kamai, and that's Rhysel doing it, not her friend," Hallai said scornfully.
"Finnah's learning it."
"If Finnah was doing this I'd be way less concerned, but she doesn't know enough so Silent Dark Creep is doing it, and why is Silent Dark Creep doing it? What does he want out of this?"
The door swung open and Rhysel and Corvan came in. Ilen adjusted all of his limbs again and swallowed. "Hello."
<Hello,> Corvan said, shooting a look at Hallai. She remained silent.
"Why do you want to help me?" Ilen asked, because Hallai sort of had a point. Rhysel was just a nice person, and the babies would be in awful pain if she didn't treat them. Corvan might be competent but he didn't seem nice, especially to Hallai, and if Ilen didn't get repaired all that would happen would be that he'd have to stay inside. Which he fully intended to do anyway, but maybe he could stay inside and scream less.
<It is something that kyma do. Typically only within our jurisdictions, but there are no adequate mind kyma closer to your... home,> said Corvan. Ilen restrained a shiver and forced down thoughts about more distant locales. <If you do not want my assistance I will not force it on you; I will go home and stop wasting my time.>
"No - no, it's fine for you to at least look, um, I'd like to know what you do before you do it if you... do anything, but you can look. Um, but, not at everything -"
<I will not invade the privacy of any personal thoughts or memories you may have,> Corvan said, <without your express permission. It may or may not be necessary for treatment but should not be necessary to determine whether treatment is possible. Are you ready?>
"Okay," whispered Ilen, and he scrunched his eyes tightly shut.
Corvan's fingers came to rest lightly on his forehead. <This will feel like nothing. Relax.>
It didn't feel like anything, except for the kama's hand resting on his head, so Ilen tried to obey. He thought about lunch and about the book of number puzzles he was working through (first copying each puzzle onto scratch paper so he didn't have to write in the book and ruin it for everyone else) and about whether it was worth calling in a light just for the little platinum's sniffles or if it would be fine to wait for the biweekly visit.
He thought about what it would be like not to be so burdensome on everyone.
He thought about what it might be like not to be so afraid, of the outside and of his own fear.
The examination seemed to be going on for a very long time, and Ilen eventually cracked open one eye, then the other, to squint up at Corvan. Corvan was frowning in deep concentration. Hallai was frowning at Corvan, and Rhysel was - not exactly frowning, but looking sort of disapprovingly, at Hallai.
There was a silence, and then Corvan convulsed backwards, jerking his hand away from Ilen's head and clutching at himself as he collapsed to the floor.
"Corvan!" exclaimed Rhysel, falling to her knees to clutch at her friend's shoulders; Ilen propped himself up on his elbows to see what was going on, eyes wide with alarm, and Hallai burst upward from her chair.
"What is going on?" Hallai demanded. "Is Ilen all right? What did you do?"
"Corvan, are you okay?" Rhysel asked.
"Did I do something wrong...?" Ilen asked, watching Corvan where he lay curled up in a ball.
"Corvan. Say something, send something," Rhysel said.
"Ilen, are you okay?" Hallai asked, smoothing Ilen's hair and urging him back down onto his pillow with a gesture.
"I think I'm fine - I didn't feel anything -"
<He is unharmed. I looked into something which... alarmed me,> Corvan sent. There was no indication in his "voice", but he looked shaken and drained and close to shock, like he'd abruptly been dropped from a height.
"What was it?" Rhysel asked.
<I correctly estimated that the section of the mind in question would contain... trauma. I was anticipating something emotional in nature to explain the panic attacks. I did not adequately defend myself against traumatic physical sensations.>
"So you found esu, is that the problem?" said Hallai snidely. "Get over it. Little babies the length of your arm used to do it every day."
<I believe I agreed to involve myself in this on the condition that you remained unobtrusive,> Corvan sent to her, sitting up and accepting Rhysel's help to get up to his feet. <Ilen, with your permission, I will resume; I can block the problematic traumas, having learned what they are.>
"I should have warned you," Rhysel said, white-faced.
<Yes. You should have. However ->
"What were you doing, poking around in Ilen's traumas without asking him, pray tell?" Hallai hissed.
<Rhysel, will you kindly do whatever is necessary to remove this woman?> Corvan asked.
"Excuse me! You can't remove me, I'm entitled to be here as long as Ilen wants me, there is a law -"
"Hallai," Ilen murmured, "he won't help me at all if you stay."
"I'll come get you when it's over with," Rhysel offered Hallai weakly.
Hallai looked daggers at Corvan, and spun to meet Ilen's eyes. "Do you want me to go?" she asked him.
"No, I want you here, but I want him to help me, and he won't if you don't," Ilen said, squirming. "When he's done you can come back."
Hallai ground her teeth. Finally, she said, "Sweetie, I will be right outside, I will be paying attention, I'll come in if you need me, but okay." She inhaled very deeply, looked at Corvan like she was imagining eviscerating him, and drew backwards out of the room without taking her glare off the mind kama.
When the door closed, Ilen said, "I want to know the answer to her question, too."
<It is possible to identify patterns in memories without accessing their specific content. If the etiology of your problem were related to a traumatic event, I could request access to the memory in more detail. However, I do not think that your panic attacks are related to your history of "esu", and there were no other significant items in that region of your mind apart from the memories of the attacks themselves. I will continue with the examination, if you are willing.>
"Okay," said Ilen. He resettled himself on his bed and closed his eyes.
Corvan touched his forehead again.
The rest of the process didn't take very long. <I believe I can repair your problem without significant side effects,> Corvan announced. <It is a straightforward case, exacerbated by your prolonged childhood but not difficult to reverse. Do you object to my doing so now?>
"You can just fix him, just like that?" Rhysel asked. "There's no issue with his brain being put together differently?"
<Some items are unexpectedly attached to other items, but not the relevant ones. I do not believe that I could accomplish what Talyn attempted without the same side effect, but this is unrelated to anaesthesia.>
"Just like that?" echoed Ilen.
<Unless many kyma have previously examined you and declared you incurable this should not come as a dramatic surprise,> Corvan sent dryly.
"I... I guess not," said Ilen. "Um... are there insignificant side effects?"
<You may suffer a slight reduction in attention span for cognitive tasks, a delay not in excess of one or two fragments ->
"Splits," said Rhysel.
<A delay not in excess of one or two splits between experiencing events or thoughts and producing emotional reactions to them relative to how quickly you have hitherto done so, and a general decrease in fear responses even where they are unrelated to your panic attacks per se. Is this acceptable? It is possible that I can, with some thought, produce another approach to treatment, which would have greater but different side effects, if one of those results is prohibitively intrusive.>
"You don't have to decide right now; we can find time to come back later," Rhysel said, when Ilen paused a little too long.
"I... just a few degrees to think, okay? I don't want to make you make a separate trip, I just - I might think of more questions," said Ilen. He started to feel awkward about lying down, and sat up again. "The attention span thing is for 'cognitive' tasks - what does that include?"
<It will only affect how long you can tolerate doing things such as working on puzzles, reading books, doing complex problem-solving, studying academic topics, or similar. It will not affect the amount of time you can spend on activities that are primarily social or physical. For example, unless the children you look after are bewilderingly gifted and enjoy quizzing you, it should not impede your willingness or ability to look after them,> Corvan sent. <And the effect is slight, on the order of a percentage point or two - it will be spillover from an intervention in your tendency to dwell unbrokenly on single thoughts.>
"Oh." Ilen chewed his lip. "The delay in reacting to things... can you say more about that...?"
<Your mind will less automatically interpret events and ideas as having emotional significance. There will be more of an element of decisionmaking involved - you will not acquire total control over your emotions, or anything similar to it, but you will have the time and opportunity to do limited steering. This makes the emotional reactions less than immediate, but they should still be reasonably brisk,> said Corvan. He looked bored. Ilen checked - Corvan was bored, and Ilen winced inwardly.
The decrease in fear responses sounded harmless. Ilen didn't think there was anything he wasn't afraid enough of. He allowed himself one more question. "If something about the side effects is terrible can you fix them...?"
<I can mitigate them, at the cost of other side effects. Minds are complex and heavily interconnected. The process will not exactly be reversible, however; I cannot simply restore your mind to its previous state.>
Ilen closed his eyes again. "Should I lie down again?" he asked.
Ilen dropped his head back onto the pillow, eyes still closed. "Okay," he whispered.
Corvan touched his head again.
Ilen wished Hallai were there.
Chapter 6: Anxiety
<There,> Corvan announced.
It had been perhaps an angle. Ilen had nearly dozed off, staring at the ceiling and composing brief silly variants on fairy tales in his head for the little ones. He couldn't feel anything that Corvan was doing, apart from resting his hand on Ilen's head.
"That's all?" Ilen asked.
<If mind kamai required years of routine work in order to make progress it would not be nearly so useful. Nor so feared,> Corvan remarked. He looked around. <This room appears to lack a window. For obvious reasons, but it will make departing without encountering your paramour challenging.>
"I don't think she'll give you a hard time on your way out," Ilen said.
The word out had lost its sour taste.
<Perhaps. In any event it will not be called for to linger and endure the abuse. Good day, Ilen.> Corvan straightened up and made for the door.
Rhysel hung back, even when Hallai pushed past Corvan into Ilen's room to cup Ilen's face in her hands and peer into his eyes. She looked like she expected to find something strange there, but Ilen mostly felt just like himself. "Ilen, how are you?" she asked.
"I think I'm fine," he said, sitting up slowly. "But I wish he hadn't left so fast - what if I try going out, and it doesn't work, and -"
"Ilen, I know how to handle your attacks," Hallai said. "You don't need that creep for that. He obviously did something. You don't even sound like yourself, you just talked about going out, you never did that."
"Would you like to go outside, Ilen?" Rhysel asked gently.
Ilen felt like he'd read the sentence in a book. He'd usually been able to read books without reacting too badly to them; they were far enough removed from the world. He knew that this sentence wasn't removed from his world, that if he said "yes" then following through would involve getting up and going up the hall and down the stairs and out to the door and into the yard. This just didn't seem special.
"Yes," he said.
It seemed a little more special during the walk through the house. He was flanked by Hallai on one side and Rhysel on the other. Rhysel was tentatively trotting along, and Hallai was slinking like a cat, boring holes into the back of his neck with her eyes.
"It won't kill me," Ilen said self-consciously. "It wouldn't have even before. Whatever happens it's not going to kill me."
"I know, sweetie, but attacks aren't good either," said Hallai, "even if they won't kill you..."
"I feel okay," Ilen said.
They reached the door.
The babies' room was quite near the front entrance. Ilen had historically avoided looking in its direction, and when he had, he'd learned to edit it out of his understanding - part of the wall, certainly not a door, not on that wall.
He still did that, automatically, and stopped at the door, looking at it too quizzically, before he looked again at it and saw a perfectly unintimidating exit.
He put his hand on the handle and pulled. Hallai drew in breath through her teeth.
Ilen opened the door.
Air rolled in, humid and warm, and ruffled his shirt.
It was so bright.
He squinted, and stepped forward.
"Is it always this bright?" he asked. It reminded him a little of Ehail's office, and the other rooms with live plants in them. He supposed that made sense, but even those rooms weren't so blinding.
"You're... you're not supposed to look right at the sun, Ilen," Rhysel said.
Ilen turned his head. There were flowers surrounding the building. He'd generally avoided interacting with the groundskeepers, but he knew they existed, that a few people from the house earned their keep by maintaining... plants. He'd seen pictures of more kinds of plants than the few types the house contained in pots. The real ones looked just about like that, only three-dimensional. They smelled like perfume.
Leading from the entrance was a path that went to the fence at the edge of the house property. A dragon could avoid catching shrenhood even in his or her natural form from behind the fence, provided no irresponsible children had escaped and run rampant recently. Not that dragons usually got even that close.
Beyond the fence the path widenened into a road, which went to the island's little town full of vacation homes and pineapple plantations. Pineapples coming into the kitchen were always local, with "Kep Island" scrawled on one of their spiky leaves or on their jars.
Off to the left was seashore. To the right were vine-encrusted trees, hiding more seashore.
Ilen took a breath, and the air was wet and hot, and the sun was still bright even with his face turned away from it.
"This is anticlimactic," he said.
"Do you want to see the rest of the garden?" Hallai asked suddenly. "I can show you the garden. We can go into town. We could go to the main island, we could go traveling, we could take a scoot to Mekand and go mountain-climbing - we could move."
"I'd like to see the garden," Ilen said, turning to Hallai and smiling at her.
Rhysel took that as her cue to leave and went, disappearing from her transfer point in silence.
"I don't want to be here," Tsuan said.
"I understand, Tsuan, but the Sainted Roses staff believe that you need ongoing help, and your husband agreed. I remind you that -"
"I know, I'm not compelled outright to be here, I just have to get a divorce first if I want to stop coming," growled Tsuan. She'd lived in Corenta since well before those laws about "spousal decisionmaking proxy" had been passed, and that had been during a time when she'd been single anyway. She'd never expected it to apply to her. "I feel so free."
"I was going to say, that you can talk to your husband; if he changes his mind, he can release you from your therapeutic obligations," the therapist said.
"I don't think he's going to do that."
"Why's that, Tsuan?"
"I have to be here. I don't have to talk," Tsuan said.
"Well, that's true," said the therapist. "We could just sit here staring at each other until the next angle chime and then you could go home, and the same thing next time, if you want. But that would be boring, wouldn't it? And not likely to get you out of this any sooner."
"Kilaer only wants to be sure I'm not going to do anything stupid to myself again. I can prove that by not doing anything stupid," Tsuan said. "When he's satisfied I never have to see you again."
"That's true. You don't have to answer my questions if you don't want to," agreed the therapist. "I think you're going to meet your latest grandchild soon, is that right?"
That seemed unrelated. If she could get through her session with small talk instead of stony silence she'd take it. "Tomorrow," she said, "my son's going to bring her."
"And you're looking forward to that?" he asked.
"Are you capable of interacting with people without asking them why about everything, anymore, or did they train that habit out of you in year two of your therapy training?" Tsuan asked.
"I'm just curious, Tsuan. Why do you want to meet your granddaughter?"
"She's got a name," said Tsuan.
"Why do you want to meet Alyah?" He had a classic therapist voice. Level, smooth, and neither warm nor cold. A voice made of wood.
"She's my granddaughter. She's already more than a month old and I haven't seen her yet. I would have seen her earlier except Sainted Roses was keeping me cooped up and my son didn't want to bring her into the ward to meet Grandma for the first time."
"Why don't you want to meet your other son?" the therapist asked.
"I don't have to talk to you," Tsuan said.
"I know you don't, Tsuan." He sighed. "If there were any dragon therapists in Desinni, I'd refer you to one of them -"
"Are there any farther away?" Tsuan asked. "I'll fly to Esjanta and back twice a week to talk to a dragon instead of you. I have no chance of getting you to understand."
"Do you have a chance of getting your husband to understand?" the therapist asked.
"I don't know. Are there any -"
"I can check the union registry, but I don't think so, Tsuan. Not within the country, anyway, and I can't in good professional conscience refer you to someone without a National Therapeutic Society review score."
"Check the registry," said Tsuan.
"Your son Narax is also a dragon," the therapist said. "Do you think he understands?"
"My daughters understand," Tsuan said.
"Why do you think that is?" the therapist inquired.
"Shut up," Tsuan said.
"You don't have to talk, Tsuan, but I do. Why do you think your daughters agree with you while your husband and son Narax feel differently?"
Tsuan looked at the knicknacks on his desk. "I don't know," she said.
Hallai was looking at real estate listings.
"Hallai, please reconsider," Ludei said. He was standing over her desk, dark and solid and white-irised. "You are very valuable to this house. I can find a way to rearrange the budget and increase your stipend..."
"Wait, I could have gotten a raise all this time by threatening to leave? Now I feel stupid," snorted Hallai, "thanks. But no. Anyone - any green-group - can do my job now that Ilen's better," Hallai said. "You don't need someone forceful or clever, just someone paying attention. Promote the night shift empath, find someone to cycle in to cover the sleepers, you'll never miss me. Get Rhysel to haul her creepy friend in again if more long-term challenges crop up. Ilen can leave now. I can leave now. I'm not an inside shren and never was, I just didn't dare leave him, and now I can take him with me!"
"Hallai, you are very good at your job, and it isn't just Ilen. You were still young when he first had his attacks. I could have asked you just to look after him, but I made you empath for the entire house, instead, despite your age. It's because even as an adolescent you were better at this than anyone."
"Maybe since then someone just as good has grown up here," Hallai said indifferently. She wasn't immune to the compliments, but she'd been cut loose from the only obligation she was sensitive to. "I'll stay on long enough to train someone."
"No one volunteered when your night shift backup asked to be replaced," Ludei said. "Please don't underestimate your rarity. Few people can tolerate the task for any length of time, even without an extra challenge like Ilen."
"That's because the night shift sucks," Hallai said. "You'll get a response if you ask for someone to replace me. Keep the night shift person nocturnal if nobody else will take that, I guess."
"Hallai," said Ludei. "The house has lost fewer residents to suicide since you took on the job than it did in any comparable period before that."
"Great, you'll have lots of candidates to choose from. Ilen can leave, Ludei, and so can I. I took him into town today. I had to show him how to buy a banana. He didn't even know how to buy things. He needs me."
If she didn't show him... someone else would.
"How confident are you that there is someone else who can and will do the job?" Ludei asked.
"Quite," lied Hallai.
"Will you stay until I find such a person, and until you've trained him or her?" Ludei asked.
"No longer than two months, total, from today," Hallai said firmly. "If nobody turns up by then, talk to the other houses maybe or see if you can get someone who moved out to work remotely, but it's not going to be my problem after that."
"Perhaps you'd be willing to work remotely? You would only need to visit as often as we received new residents to learn their signatures."
"We'll see how employable I am out in the world and I'll get back to you. You know why this isn't a popular job? It's not highly entertaining with lots of room for career advancement," Hallai said.
Ludei sighed. "You can change your mind," he said.
"I know I can," Hallai said, scanning the listings. Everything was expensive. She had money socked away, but not that much. Maybe Ludei would come up with a figure for how much he'd raise her stipend by, and she'd be able to save up extra for another year or so. But then, she and Ilen would get out.
The shren who made alterations to the house put a skylight in Ilen's room, and a picture window in the babies' room. The little ones crowded around it to look at the view of the trees and the garden.
"Ilen, I want to go out," said a red.
"Not yet," he said, wincing. "When you're bigger and you can shift. Then."
"Aren't you a cutie," Tsuan cooed.
Kilaer watched her. She didn't look or feel particularly out of the ordinary. It was only a background note of disquiet, which had held steady since Narax's letter.
Kilaer didn't know what to think about the shren. His priority was his wife of the last few centuries. When he was sure she was all right - that she was safe - he could afford to think about the shren.
Easier was thinking about the little thudia Narax had brought them.
"Oh yes she is," Kilaer agreed aloud. "Who has cute little toes? I think it's Alyah!"
"Im!" exclaimed Alyah, grinning gummily. She was a happy baby. Narax looked drowsy but he was a solid sigh of contentment underneath. Fatherhood suited him, as well as it could suit anyone going it alone.
Kilaer had had a lot of thudia children. Humans and elves, but mostly humans, and the humans had been ethnically Ertydon, like Samia, and like Samia's daughter by extension. Alyah looked like his dim memories of his baby Covia, when Covia had been born.
Kilaer wondered if it was a disservice to his thudia children to think about them as little as he did now. They'd been gone for so long.
He wondered if he was doing a disservice to his shren son to put Tsuan's health before attempting a reunion. Or a union. He'd never even seen the egg.
"Tiny little toes," squealed Tsuan, tickling Alyah's feet. "Yes, there they are, and tiny little feet, and tiny little ankles, and I have no idea what else might be under all those swaddling clothes. Perhaps she's got wings and tentacles and a tail and a dorsal fin. Have you got a dorsal fin, Alyah?"
"Nope, she's baby-human-shaped," Narax said. "With any luck she'll take a few years to learn to be baby-dragon-shaped. I don't want to have to figure out how to chase a shiftslipping child around the house until I'm reliably getting a full night of sleep on a daily basis."
"Are you having trouble finding babysitters?" Tsan asked.
Narax shook his head. "Neighbor's family will do it when Keo or Neris can't. Why, you think I should ask someone to keep Alyah overnight? I have to give her up for a month come mid-Shuraahel. I don't want to put her with someone else except when I have classes."
"Oh, Narax, sweetie, everybody needs breaks," Tsuan said. "I had to share my first little boy, Mirad, with his father after our divorce, but I gave him to Mother when I had to anyway. Sleep won't wait for a month, Narax."
"I'm not abusing wakeflower or botching spells or snapping at my students - or Alyah, for that matter," Narax said. "It's not that bad. It's worth it to be the person to soothe her back to sleep."
"You're a good father," said Kilaer, scooping Alyah out of Tsuan's arms to smooth the new coils of dark hair on the baby's head.
"Thanks," said Narax.
There was a pregnant pause.
"I'm thinking tomorrow I'll bring Alyah to, erm, Petar," Narax said.
Tsuan's mood dropped, like a stone, and Kilaer dreaded the next few degrees of conversation.
Narax was watching them, waiting.
Kilaer joggled Alyah in his arms for lack of anything cleverer to do.
"Tropical islands are lovely places to visit," Tsuan said finally. "And I'm sure Petar is nicer than Egeria. Goodness, living in Egeria was awful, let's never do that again."
"Let's not," echoed Kilaer.
"Her uncle's looking forward to meeting her," Narax said.
"Narax, do you have to?" asked Tsuan. She was so terribly hurt. Kilaer drew back his inquiring magic; he didn't want to see it on her face and feel it in his soul, too. "Do you have to do this to us? Can't this just be about Alyah and her - and her -" Her attempt to lapse into babytalk was broken. "Her cute, cute little toes...?"
Narax's hopeful feeling broke. "Sure, Mom," he said quietly. "Today's all about toes."
Tsuan took Alyah back from Kilaer. "And little fingers, too," she murmured.
Alyah clutched at Tsuan's thumb when she got the chance.
Kilaer smiled a weak smile.
"It doesn't look like a baby," complained a white infant shren.
"Or talk, like a baby," agreed a silver.
"I don't think it's really a baby," a blue opal decided. "What is it really?"
Narax looked like he couldn't decide whether to be offended. Ilen answered them. "She's a baby human - well, human thudia - not a baby shren like you," he said. "She'll be able to look more like you in a few years, but not yet."
"She's got to learn to shift too?" asked the silver.
"Or she can't fly!" exclaimed the white. "Her too?"
"Her too," Ilen confirmed. "Or close to it, anyway."
Alyah got hold of a baby blue's nostril and was pulling on it ungently. Narax extracted her hand. "Ah-ah-ah," he said. "Anyway. This is my daughter."
"She's adorable," Ilen said, smiling. "Oh, and did you get my letter?"
"From yesterday? Yes, but I didn't find the time to read it, unfortunately, I've been carting Alyah around to introduce her to - people," Narax said.
"Oh. Well, the only important part in it was that Rhysel's friend Corvan was able to fix me. I can go outside now," Ilen said, smiling tentatively. "I can go anywhere I want. Nothing happens."
Narax smiled broadly. "Oh, that's marvelous. I don't suppose you want to live in my spare house? It's going unused, I don't want to sell it but I don't actually occupy it for the time being."
Ilen smiled back. "Maybe - um, not right away, I need more time to get used to the idea of letting someone else look after these kids. I suppose I could get childcare work anywhere, couldn't I?"
"Most places, including the place where the house is," Narax said. "But you do want to move out? I think it's a good idea."
"Yes. Hallai's been looking at places, but -"
Narax made a small choking noise. "Oh, you're, er, that is - she's looking to move out too?"
"Yes, now that she doesn't have to be here to handle my attacks anymore," Ilen said. "She might keep working for the house remotely if she can't find anything else. She doesn't want to stay here forever, though. It's only that all the places she's found have been expensive and we aren't paid that much because the house is on such a small budget... How much rent would we have to pay you?"
"You're looking to move out together," clarified Narax slowly.
"We've always lived together," Ilen said.
"Yes, but not in exactly the way most people who live together do," Narax said awkwardly. He batted away an encroaching shren claw. "Sharp bits off. She doesn't know how to wear scales yet."
"But we want to live together," Ilen said.
"Ah. The, uh, the house is one I got to live alone in," Narax said.
"We wouldn't need two bedrooms," Ilen said, blinking. "And it's probably bigger than both of our rooms combined, we're not going to feel too crowded."
Narax scratched at his scalp. "I'm... I was thinking you could live in the house, by yourself. I wasn't thinking about Hallai."
"Would it be okay for her to live there too?" Ilen asked.
Narax chewed on his lip. "No," he said finally. "I don't want to be Hallai's landlord. There might be free real estate in the neighborhood, so you could live near each other, if you... must...? Well, not realistically, if you're on a tight budget, it's an expensive part of town. Uh. Well. The house is open to you, Ilen, if you want to live in it by yourself," Narax said.
"Oh." Ilen sighed. "Okay. We can keep looking."
"Sorry," Narax said halfheartedly.
"It's okay," Ilen hastened to say. "I don't think most people let anyone live in their houses apart from family."
"It's sort of irregular. Yes." Narax adjusted his hold on Alyah, and handed her over when Ilen held out his arms. "My best friend, Neris, lives next door to the house and I don't think she'd, ah, get along with Hallai. She'd probably resent me for it if they had a conflict."
"Oh, that makes sense," Ilen agreed.
It didn't occur to Ilen until after Narax had gone that he'd talked about Neris before. Neris was a dragon. Neris might not want to live near even one shren.
But he didn't write about it, and the next time Narax visited, he didn't want to waste any of the very limited time they had together talking about it.
Hallai probably wouldn't have wanted to live in a house Narax was loaning them anyway. She wanted to live in Mekand, Ilen thought, not Imilaat. She wanted to live up in the mountains.
Keo was having trouble coming up with ways to ignore the hints Narax insisted on dropping.
"Thanks for watching Alyah," he'd say. "We're off to Petar if you need us."
As though Keo needed to be told where he was, to contact him, or to even physically find him if she wanted to.
"I always wanted a brother," he'd say. Choosing his verb tenses with too much exactitude.
As though she could miss that he wasn't talking about their dead thudia siblings, whose names they'd dutifully memorized in childhood.
"Alyah likes her uncle," he'd say.
As if Keo would assume that Narax was referring to Samia's brothers. As though Narax had any knowledge about how Alyah got along with anyone on Samia's side of the family.
Keo stewed. She pretended the most implausible ignorance and the most extreme foolishness.
Because she could never, ever tell.
| It's okay, love, | Kanaat believed in her mind.
| I know. As long as we don't tell, | she thought back.
As long as no one ever knew, things could go on as before.
It would be much more dangerous for Keo to have a mental break than it had been for her mother.
Chapter 7: Dread
"I have good news and bad news, Tsuan," said the therapist.
"What's the good news?" Tsuan asked.
"There is one dragon therapist practicing in Corenta. She's well-reviewed, too."
"Great. Refer me to her," Tsuan said.
"The bad news is she won't see you, partly because she specializes in children but partly because she doesn't think she can remain impartial about your particular issue."
"Why?" asked Tsuan.
"She's got a shren daughter," said the therapist quietly, "who she raised herself."
Tsuan swallowed. "Oh."
"Tsuan, I know you don't want to be here, so I'm going to be a little blunter than I normally would be in the hope that this will help you reconcile with your husband faster. Being a dragon, or speaking Draconic, or whatever your explanation is, is an excuse. Some dragons make different choices than you did. It was a choice. Sainted Roses won't force you into therapy even on your husband's say-so just for having an estranged son, but they will if you're being dishonest with yourself about why your son is estranged and refusing to confront your own reasoning. You made a choice. You continue every day to make that choice. It's not forced on you by your species, Tsuan."
"I want everything back how it was," Tsuan whispered. "It was okay how it was."
The therapist sighed, and turned a page in his notebook.
Kilaer didn't have many friends. He wasn't antisocial - although he'd been called quiet - it was just that friends, like spouses, tended to die over time. By the time he'd married Tsuan, he'd been altogether exhausted by mourning wives and friends and children and grandchildren.
Some people, however, were undeterred by Kilaer's lukewarm attitude towards short-lived friends, and it was to such a person he gratefully turned when the topic was one no dragon would welcome.
"Coyo, I don't know what to do," he confessed to his friend, after an afternoon's communication crystal tag finally materialized into dinner plans.
Coyoder was in his fifties, and owned the printers' across the street from the bakery. He was also technically Kilaer's innumerably-great-grandson, but they'd met independently of that and discovered it in a genealogy project only after ten years of friendship; that branch of the family hadn't kept up contact aggressively more than a couple hundred years after the relevant wife's death. Coyo looked Ertydon - well, it wasn't considered polite to say that about Corentans, but that was the squarewide-usual name for the broader phenotype, with the dark hair and the tilted eyes - but any similarity his ancestors might have borne to Kilaer or his thudia daughter had washed out over the generations.
"About that silly old-fashioned hairstyle? I've heard good things about scissors," Coyo suggested.
Kilaer snorted. "I'd look like Narax if I cut the ponytail off. Not everyone can recognize us by empathic signature. But that's not what it is. It's... I told you Tsuan was in the hospital."
"I told you I didn't believe you," Coyo said. "She's a steady lady."
"Usually. Yes. But I'm not sure what to think anymore."
"What happened, anyway?" asked Coyo.
Kilaer told him, in a low voice that he struggled to keep level. "I'm backing Sainted Roses' advice to keep her in therapy, but I don't know if it's getting anywhere," he concluded. "I don't know what to do about her. I don't know what to do about the... the shren."
"Are their names contagious?" asked Coyo skeptically.
"No. Sorry. He's called Ilen. I'm not sure how they get their names, but I'm told that's his."
"Don't apologize to me, Gramps," said Coyo. "Have you talked to this Ilen fellow at all?"
"No. I've been wanting to wait until Tsuan is... I was thinking 'stable', but as far as I know she won't try to hurt herself again. Now I'm not sure what I'm waiting for. Narax would go with me, I imagine, if I wanted to stop waiting. He's been visiting the - Ilen."
"The Ilen," said Coyo, shaking his head. "You are having a hard time with this. If you agree with Tsuan and don't think she's going to do anything harmful, why're you keeping her in therapy?"
"I'm not sure if I agree with her," sighed Kilaer. "I don't know what I'd have done if she'd told me back when she laid the clutch. I certainly don't know what to do now."
"Gramps," said Coyo. "Are you trying to get me to tell you what to do so you don't have to pick something?"
Kilaer considered this. "If you don't mind," he said finally.
"Let Narax take you on a trip. You've had, what, twenty other kids, you should be able to figure this one out. Don't bother Tsuan about it until she's made progress with her therapist," Coyo advised, slapping the table with his pronouncement and rattling the flatware. "And let me have two of your seaweed rolls."
"All right," Kilaer said, smiling a lopsided smile.
"I don't know how we can afford to move out," Hallai said flatly.
Ilen furrowed his brow. "Oh."
"Not to anyplace worth living, anyway, we could probably afford a lousy apartment in Erubia and work as translators because we can translate things 'naturally' and Erubians won't have wizards in their midst," she said scornfully. "But I don't want to live in Erubia, we could be arrested for telling time..."
She trailed off; Ilen nodded to fill the gap.
"But even if I talk Ludei up as high as the budget will stretch and work remotely, and even if I assume you get a job right away doing childcare of some kind, and I assume landlords don't gouge us because we're shrens and they can get away with it, we don't have enough now to start out. We're going to have to save up for a couple of years or get Ehail to teach us to teleport so we can work at higher wages far away and save up for a few months."
Ilen could learn to teleport, if he wanted. This was an interesting thought. Of course, it only worked to go to places one had already been, and he'd barely been anywhere, but he could travel more places.
"I don't really mind living here," he assured Hallai. "And now that I have regular days off, we can do some traveling, if you want. I mean, if it isn't too expensive, since we're saving."
"Sure," she said, pursing her lips. "Maybe we'll stumble across a place to live that isn't in any of the listings I got... I couldn't look at literally everything, just a sample or two from each country. I suppose it would be very inexpensive to turn into pigeons and live outside, but really, better to sleep in actual beds here..."
Ilen nodded. He didn't think he had anything useful to add. He still found things to be puzzled by every time he went out of the building; Hallai would know better than he would how they ought to go about living away from the shren house.
"Do you care where we live?" Hallai asked.
"I'm not sure," Ilen said. Narax's house in Imilaat was out. He didn't know much about the rest of the world.
"We'll go on some trips," Hallai said. "I can take occasional days off if I check in on everyone around midday and the night shift empath knows to be on top of things... we'll look around. I still like the look of Mekand."
Anywhere out of the shren house that was nice enough for Hallai would be fine for him.
"I should warn you," Narax said.
"You already told me that he'll be around unshifted shrens," Kilaer said, scrunching his eyes shut. "What more could you possibly need to warn me about?"
"His girlfriend," Narax said venomously. "If Ilen is willing to contradict her today, he'll ask her not to bother us, but he might not be. She's really quite nasty. I'm not sure enough of my standing with him to seriously advise him away from her, yet; he's known her his whole life."
"She's a copper, called Hallai, yea tall, looks Petaran," Narax said. "I think reacting to her only makes it worse, not that I've been able to do much not-reacting to see how that goes." He swallowed. "Are you ready, Dad?"
"I'm not getting any readier," Kilaer said after a pause.
Narax held out his hand.
Kilaer took it.
Narax smiled, the opposite of Kilaer's mirror image, and teleported.
Kilaer instantly hated the feel of the shren house. The entire place looked like it had been built to efficiently sulk in. It was comfortable and sturdy and utterly undecorated.
The babies' room, which Narax perfunctorily knocked at and then opened, was a little better. Children's art projects were pinned up on surfaces. It was still boxy, though, with drab furniture arranged squarely, and the window that looked out on the (significantly less sulky) garden was carved out of the wall like it had been installed the day before.
"Hello, Narax," said the only human-shaped shren in the room. He had the Alar look, certainly. With his hair buzzed close he didn't look much like Narax or Kilaer, although he wasn't the only person in the extended line to resort to the hairstyle.
"Hi, Ilen," said Narax. "Since Rhysel's friend came by... I thought this would be safe." He swallowed. "This is our father. Kilaer."
"Hello," Kilaer said after an awkward silence. Babies in several colors were inspecting his shoes. Apart from how they held their wings, and what he knew, they could have been dragons. Ilen could've been a dragon. If not for what Kilaer knew.
"Hello," Ilen said carefully.
Kilaer still didn't know what he'd have done if Tsuan had told him. Maybe he'd have agreed with her. Maybe they'd have sent the egg off and never told their children - dragon children. Maybe. He didn't know, and it was disturbing.
But he could still sincerely say -
"I didn't know," he said. "About you, until Narax told me."
"Narax said so," Ilen said nodding slowly.
"So... you work here?" Kilaer asked, looking around. It was a good-sized room, with space for a lot of little children to - he supposed they'd have to run. There was some ceiling clearance, but that... didn't matter.
He remembered the first time his first child had flown. Mishera had learned to shift, the very day she'd turned five, and he'd spent all afternoon with his first wife trying to catch the little girl in a city too cramped for his own dragon form but with plenty of room for her clumsy flight.
The memory seemed sad, in this room, though he'd spent that entire day laughing when it had happened.
"Yes," Ilen said. "I've been doing this for about ninety years now."
"Pick me up," insisted the only jade baby in the bunch, tapping on Kilaer's knee with a forepaw.
Ibre had looked like that when he'd first learned to shift...
Kilaer picked up the baby gingerly. The baby wasn't as cooperative as its insistence would have suggested, and it squirmed until Kilaer gave up and put it down again.
"Well," Kilaer said. "I can see why Narax's friend would -"
"Rhysel and I aren't, exactly, friends at the moment," said Narax awkwardly. "We just know each other. She told Korulen."
"Still, I can see how she'd have recognized you. Obviously an Alar," murmured Kilaer.
"...I'm not," Ilen said. "Technically. An Alar." He said it with so little weight, like it didn't matter.
"Oh." Of course. That had been an idiotic thing to say.
"Do you want to be?" Kilaer blurted.
Ilen blinked at him owlishly.
"Usually there would be a - a ceremony - I don't know how your name was chosen -"
"I think Ludei picked mine," Ilen said.
"But - if you don't have a line name. I think I still most likely count as your ancestor," finished Kilaer. He was trying to find a part of the room to look at that wasn't occupied by shren or artwork or Narax. He decided on a corner of an unoccupied chair.
There was a silence.
"I don't have a line name," Ilen said. "They don't give them to us here. They can't, they're not parents." He paused again. "If you want to give me yours, I'll take it."
Kilaer decided he ought to make eye contact at this point. He met Ilen's eyes. "Ilenalar," he said. His voice didn't shake; it was only four syllables.
"That worked," Ilen said after a moment. "Thank you."
Kilaer had blocked out his entire day for this visit and he had no idea what else to say.
Narax seemed to have a better idea. "I think I'll teleport to Neris's and grab Alyah," he said.
The primary use of baby grandchildren, Kilaer had learned, was to have something to talk about.
"You let him name you."
Ilen fidgeted. "Yes."
"Why did you do that?" Hallai was looking steadily into Ilen's eyes; he was looking away. "I don't understand. Why did you let him do that?"
"I couldn't really get a line name any other way," Ilen said.
"Why do you want one? What good will it do you? You could've gotten a song by asking any two or more kids you've brought up who've cleared their fiftieth birthdays."
She didn't bring up the possibility of asking her. She wasn't sure if the notion that one couldn't take a syllable from anyone who'd asked about it was just superstition or not, but she wasn't going to chance it.
She'd ask him to add to her name, but she hadn't thought of it before, and now they were dating, and it was also supposed to be important not to exchange syllables with romantic partners before marrying them. She thought. She'd never given it a lot of consideration and made a mental note to look it up.
"I guess," Ilen said. "But - it was nice of him to offer."
"Oh, yes, giving you a line name definitely makes up for centuries of neglect."
"I didn't say that," Ilen said. "But he didn't know, anyway."
"Ugh." Hallai flopped onto her back on the bed. Her comforter was getting worn out, but she thought she could put up with it for another year all right, rather than spend precious money on a new one. The house wouldn't replace it until she'd had it a solid decade.
"I do have a song now," Ilen said.
"What's it like?" she asked. She didn't really want one. Sooner or later, if she had one, someone would talk her into sharing it, and then they could bother her any time they wanted.
Ilen sang four notes. "Il-en-al-ar. It's... it's interesting, I guess is what it's like. Finnah has a song too. Did you never ask her?"
"Don't think she wants reminders of her jackass parents," Hallai said.
Hallai tested out Ilen's song tentatively, watching his face.
"Mm-hm," he confirmed when she'd shut her mouth.
"Well, I guess that'll be useful, maybe," she said. "If we're ever very far apart and don't have communication crystals for some reason."
"It's nice to have," Ilen said.
"I don't want to talk about you having a line now, though," Hallai said, hooking a finger into the collar of his shirt and pulling him down so she could hold him. "Let's not."
Narax paced, his daughter in his arms, and tried to think of excuses not to give her back.
The Dragon Council would have backed his custody claim if she were a parunia, but officially had no stance on how thudias ought to be brought up.
He supposed if he wanted to turn it into an outright war he could move to Oridaan, buy land, and make his own laws within that space of the world, but that would embroil him in Oridaanlan politics and might get him killed - or get Alyah killed, for that matter.
Ertydo wasn't already at war with anyone or he could have moved to an enemy nation and taken shelter there. Did any countries hate Ertydo enough to offer protection anyway...? Linnip? No, he wasn't going to live in Linnip, not as a single father of a little girl.
He was a better wizard than Samia was, but if he ran to the wilderness somewhere, cloaked in magic and with his baby in tow, she could get the entire Ertydon law enforcement contingent of wizards after him. He was probably better than any one of them, but he had to sleep, and there were a lot of them. They'd spare no effort. The story would make papers. "Dragon Kidnaps Brutalized Ertydon Woman's Baby Daughter". He'd probably lose even the shared custody arrangement, if he couldn't evade the law altogether, and then he'd never get Alyah back.
Narax paced. Narax thought.
Narax's doorbell rang.
He froze, and then, clutching Alyah, moved towards the door. He took long enough that the bell rang again before he touched the handle.
And there was Samia.
Her face was set and she wasn't smiling. She held her arms out for Alyah.
Narax raised his eyes skyward, inhaled deeply, and handed his daughter over.
Samia settled Alyah in the crook of one arm and teleported away.
Narax stood in his doorway for a few degrees. The neighbors across the circle of houses were watching their children play in the yard.
He turned around and went back in.
"I hate her," Tsuan said.
"The arrangement isn't nice, but it is fair, Tsuan -"
"You never had to share a child!" Tsuan exclaimed to her husband. "You never had to, your marriages were all perfect, you never had to hand over the most precious person alive to someone who used to love you and stopped."
Kilaer sighed. It wasn't worth arguing with her, not about the "perfection" of his past marriages (just because he'd made it through all of them without any divorces) or the equitability of their granddaughter's handling. He held his arms out and held her when she stepped into the embrace. "Alyah will be back again in a month," he said, stroking Tsuan's hair.
"Samia seemed like a nice enough girl," Tsuan sniffed. "Back when Narax married her. For an Ertydoan, anyway. But she ought to be making some compromise not to divide up Alyah's life like this. Narax can't live in Ertydo, not now that they know who he is, it's not like when he went to school and they thought he was some anonymous Ebrenna human. She could live in Esmaar! She even speaks Leraal passably well! They wouldn't have to talk to each other, but they could at least have Alyah seeing both of them on a daily basis."
"It's still new. Maybe it'll smooth out into something better," Kilaer said. "Samia's still getting back on her feet, living with her stepfather last we heard, maybe she'll move out somewhere Narax can go..."
"She won't," Tsuan said. "She doesn't care. I hate her."
Kilaer sighed and kissed Tsuan's hairline. "We need to get to the bakery," he said. "Making some cookies will calm you down."
Tsuan swallowed. "Lemon jam dots," she said tremblingly, and she nodded once, squirmed out of his hug, and went to lace up her shoes for the walk to work. "Oatmeal date balls. Almond butter squares..."
Kilaer watched his wife finish the bows on her boots. He wondered about her.
If it's worth this much vitriol to take someone's child away from them four months of every eight...
how much for centuries solid?
how much for centuries solid?
But he didn't wonder this aloud. He pulled his hair back into its ponytail and linked elbows with Tsuan, and went with her along spring-leafed streets towards their bakery.
He'd never divorced any of his wives, and it wasn't because he'd chosen universally agreeable wives.
"And Samia just took her," Narax said. "She didn't say a word. Like I'd never met her before, let alone... you know."
"Have I mentioned how, much as I of all people know how mindlinks work, I don't really like turning up to a lunch meeting with my sister and finding my brother-in-law?" Narax said. "You're not who I scheduled lunch with. You're just passing messages to her, and I was expecting her to be here in person."
"You can understand what's going on when I'm here instead of Keo," Kanaat said. "Runa can't, yet. She's still going by faces and empathic signatures rather than what she's been told about how her mommy and daddy work."
"And why isn't Runa's daddy good enough for her?" Narax asked.
"We don't know," Kanaat said. "She's not thinking with enough clarity for Keo to figure it out even if Runa tells her to 'just know it'."
"And why isn't 'Mommy has an appointment now' good enough?"
"Runa is less than a year old, Narax. Boundaries and promises and so on aren't in her repertoire."
"Never too early," Narax grumbled.
"She's consented to take her nap, now, so we'll swap," Kanaat said.
He teleported away. A moment later Keo appeared in his place. "Hi," she said to Narax, with that carefully eyebrow-raised look that she always greeted him with of late.
"Hi. I hear Runa's finally asleep?" said Narax.
"She's been fussy lately. But yes. I am sorry about how hard Alyah's custody is on you. It sounds awful, I can't imagine."
Narax nodded and looked down at his plate. Keo had food, too, a bowl of soup that Kanaat had ordered for her; she took a spoonful. "Keo," Narax said.
"You haven't reflexively deleted memories from anyone recently, have you?"
"No! Not since I was a little kid," she said. "I think the last time I did anything I shouldn't have apart from just looking was when I was, oh, eighty. Not that I even just peek uninvited all the time, but that stopped more recently," she amended. "You're not missing time, are you?"
Narax swallowed. "No. That's not why I asked."
"I'm not going to be upset with you if you ask for a raise. I won't give you one, either, but -"
"Keo, we have a shren brother," blurted Narax. "We have one, and you have to have figured that out by now, and -"
She stood upright, dropping her spoon. "Narax, don't."
"His name is -"
"Narax, I said no, why are you doing this now, we are in a crowded restaurant -"
"Ilen and he -"
"I told you -"
"Looks after children -"
"Narax, shut up."
"He's your little brother, like me -"
"I KNOW!" Keo shouted, and this got several restaurant patrons staring at them. Keo sank down into her chair. She had one hand raised as though she'd be teleporting away at any moment.
"You know?" Narax asked.
Keo dropped her head into her hands and sobbed.
Chapter 8: Limerence
"You know?" Narax repeated.
| love | whatever happens | I'm here |, thought Kanaat.
"Just shut up," Keo told her brother.
| whatever happens | Kanaat thought.
| love |, she thought back. She needed Kanaat, and the fact that demonstrably nothing in her head would drive him away was just as needed. That didn't mean she wanted to escalate the spat with her brother from "Keo is being avoidant about shrens" to anything more... drastic.
"Keo, what do you -"
"We're in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Everyone is looking at us," Keo hissed.
"If I thought you'd actually turn up at any other place we could move to, I'd suggest leaving," Narax snapped back. "Far as I can tell the only thing keeping you here now is that you're too frazzled to get the gesture right."
Keo clenched her teeth. She hated it when Narax was right in that particular tone of voice. | help |
Kanaat, calmer around the topic than she was, guided her hand, and she barked out the word, and she was safely at home again.
| I'm going to find a way | to keep you | love |, she thought, pulling her husband close and burying her face in his shoulder.
Ilen was good at not spending money. He took his annual allowance of generic clothes, used his art supply budget to let the babies dye them (even rainbow splotches or muddy brown were better than the plain pale grey), and made do with that. He didn't usually attend any of the house's workshops or mini-classes, let alone the ones with materials fees. Even able to leave the house, he stuck with the free cafeteria. He wasn't used to walking by shops that would sell him things and had no impulse to purchase items that caught his eye even when he was in retail areas.
It was actually possible to live in the shren house without spending any money at all, as the food and shelter were free. This meant that Ilen could do that too.
This also meant that Ludei didn't have to pay him very much for his work, because Ludei knew perfectly well that Ilen didn't have much in the way of expenses.
Before he'd been fixed Ilen had usually dumped his pay half into the budget for things for the babies, and half into an "account" with the house finance office. He'd told Hallai how much was in it and she'd sighed and shaken her head.
"Even if they'll actually cough it up if you ask for it it's not as much as we need," she said. "Not if we want to have a shot at staying out of the house in case we don't find jobs right away. I don't relish the idea of crawling back here."
"I guess I can stop supplementing the babies' budget," Ilen said.
"Yeah, let your backup do it for a change if they don't have enough stuffed animals this year," said Hallai. "But I'm starting to think the best solution is to find a job outside the house before we try to move. We might as well get paid in dirt, here, it's pathetic."
"The budget -"
"Is made of shame money from dragons and special interest earmarks from Petar, I know, but still. You watch more than a dozen little brats at a time for decades, you save half of it, I've been working longer and make even more and save about as much, and we still can't afford to live anywhere worth going." She snorted.
"We can wait," Ilen said.
"...and so now Keo's not speaking to me. At all. I tried promising to talk about nothing but my familiar and how Neris is thinking of having a kid and what I ought to fix for dinner. I even meant it. But nothing. I'd try passing messages through Korulen, but Korulen's just a kid, and I don't know what Keo would do if her kid started pushing the issue," Narax sighed.
"Don't talk Korulen into it for my sake," Ilen said, alarmed. "It's already - it's really something that you're here. That you still come here. I didn't know if I had any brothers or sisters until a little while ago. It's not the end of the world if not all of them want to talk to me. One does."
"Well, if it were just that I'd be haranguing Vara, too. But I don't get Keo." Narax chewed his lip, then sighed. "Well. I don't think she'll sulk forever. How have you been?"
"Hallai and I don't really have enough money to move out. So we're staying here and saving up more carefully," Ilen said. "Other than that there isn't really anything unusual going on."
Narax wished his brother led a more interesting life. "Kids do anything cute lately?"
"One learned to shift, last week," Ilen said. "It's less of an... an event, now that Rhysel's helping. I mean, it's still a major thing. But not in the same ways."
"Is it going home?"
"We don't know yet," Ilen said. "Sometimes the parents take a while to answer the letter but show up eventually."
Narax nodded slowly. "I wonder," he said, "if you should send two letters. One addressed to each parent. Make them look different, so it's not obvious they're both from you... I mean, I don't know how often..." He trailed off.
"Ludei's office handles that sort of thing," Ilen said quietly. "Once they learn to shift they move out of this room and into the dormitories. I guess I can suggest it to him."
"Where do you think you want to live?" Narax asked after a silence.
"I'm not sure. Maybe somewhere near you. I can't just fly wherever I want to go, not for very far on moth wings, and haven't learned to teleport. Ehail says I have shaky hands and might blow myself up if I try to learn," Ilen said.
"Let me see," Narax said.
Ilen held out a hand. It trembled, a little.
Narax nodded, drawing breath in through his teeth. "Yeah. If you wanted to be a wizard outright, spend ten years in school starting with little spells and get soot in the face every time a wobble messed up a gesture, you could train that away well enough - I would expect - but just learning to teleport, can't recommend it. I'll take you places you want to go, though."
"Thanks," Ilen said. "But if you came to pick me up at a place I shared with Hallai - I mean, more than just us living in the shren house together - I'm sort of worried that you might wind up having a fight with her. So maybe it would be better for me to get most places I'll have to be by myself."
"Fair enough," Narax said. "Your flying form's a moth?"
"You picked that all by yourself when you were twenty?"
"Of course. Why?"
"Preference for bug forms run in the line," Narax said, smiling. "I turn into a beetle. Dad turns into a dragonfly. Uncle Brannel's got a wasp..."
Narax hated swapping Alyah back and forth. He hated it both ways, even though he infinitely preferred having Alyah to not, because whichever way the slowly growing baby was traded, Samia just looked at him. It wore at him: getting her back in Berehel, handing her over in Pehahel, and waiting for her return the next month.
In Rohel, Alyah arrived with a rolled-up note explaining that Samia had gone ahead and exposed her to the south flu while she was still young and it wouldn't be very dangerous, and Narax spent most of his month with his daughter pouring potions down her throat and trying to figure out if Esmaar had any lights who'd work with the illness so she wouldn't have to suffer through its full course.
On the twenty-fifth of Komehel, therefore, Narax decided not to be present when Samia came to retrieve Alyah at all. He wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't hit her. Quite apart from timing it so he'd be the one to deal with a sick baby, what kind of idiocy was it to expose a thudia who couldn't shift yet to the south flu? She'd only have to get it in her other form later anyway, and if she'd been shifting age, and had infected one form and then the other, she wouldn't have had to suffer through it at all insofar as she could always be in the healthy shape.
"Neris," he said with false brightness into his communication crystal.
"What do you want? I know that voice," said Neris.
"Come watch Alyah till Samia gets her. Hand her over when it's time. Please?" Narax said.
"Does she have the flu still?" Neris asked. "I like this form, and I didn't have the flu in it to get it over with when I was young..."
"You can watch her in elf form, Neris," Narax said, rolling his eyes. "I don't think Alyah will be particularly alarmed. I don't think she's contagious anymore, though."
"All right, fine, but just the once. I'm not Samia's very best friend, you know."
Neris teleported into his house, elf-shaped, and ruffled Narax's hair affectionately. Narax slipped out to wander Paraasilan until the window of time when Samia might come by had passed.
He came back midafternoon.
Neris was gone.
And Samia was sitting on his front step, with Alyah in her arms and tears in her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Narax asked.
Samia sniffled deeply. "Sitting," she said. It was the kind of smart remark that had gotten her demerits in school.
"I think she went home. I don't know. She teleported away," said Samia, "after she gave me the baby. What was she doing here?"
"Babysitting," hedged Narax. "Why aren't you back in Ertydo yet?"
"Because... Why was Neris babysitting?"
"I asked her to," said Narax, deliberately uncooperative, "and she agreed."
"I knocked on the door and a strange woman opened it - I suppose I may have seen Neris's elf form before, but I didn't recognize her until she spoke - but until I heard her voice I thought - she was just someone, some... some woman you met around here, who was in your house," Samia said, clutching Alyah tightly. "Holding our baby."
"Well, it was Neris. She didn't want to risk catching the south flu in human form," Narax said, closing his eyes. "Is that all you wanted to know?"
"Do you -" She hesitated, and when he opened his eyes she was looking up at him searchingly.
"Do I what?"
"Do you ever think about us getting back together?" she blurted.
Narax didn't know what to make of that. Did he ever think about it? Yes. Did he think it was a good idea...? Well, that depended on the day.
Little as it tended to help, he opened up his empathy, seeking a read on Samia more detailed than the four-color division he couldn't turn off. She was unsettled, sad, and when he opened up she poured loss and longing over him.
"Sometimes," he admitted, looking at Alyah.
They were silent for a long moment, and then Narax said, "Why do you ask?"
"For Alyah," Samia said at once, and then, "But - it shouldn't have - it was - we were good together once. And... you know what I wanted."
"What you wanted to do to get it," Narax murmured, imagining harmless Rhysel handing over her lifespan to a near-stranger out of misplaced guilt.
"For a few moments, not longer," Samia defended. "If we hadn't been linked you'd never have even known I'd thought it. Most people can think without having to suffer for it like they'd spoken, let alone -" She stopped and shook her head. "But that's not - not what I was talking about."
"What were you talking about, then?" Narax asked, looking at their child. Alyah was asleep, and there were unruly dark curls brushing past her eyebrows; if her hair grew more she'd be blinking away strands constantly.
"You know what I wanted but I've gone and gotten the opposite. I knocked on your door and Neris answered, and so what if it was Neris and not some stranger, it amounts to the same thing. And I'm still alive, and even if you could never love me enough - even if I could never be enough - it doesn't have to be now, or this soon, that you'd... have strange women in your house. Or Neris there to... do anything other than babysitting."
"Neris is married," Narax said tiredly. "They're considering having a baby."
"Well, her husband could have died or left her, I didn't know, I haven't actually spoken to anyone who knows her in months," muttered Samia.
"I suppose. As long as we're talking, why did you give Alyah the south flu this young? She's a thudia, it's still safe enough for five-year-olds, and then she could be in whichever shape wasn't sick."
"I didn't think of that. I had it when I was her age and don't remember it, I prefer not remembering it. But," she went on. "You wouldn't entertain Neris while she's still married," Samia pressed. "You wouldn't cheat on me if we were still married. I remember that conversation we had with Vara and Pilar, when she thought you were assigning too much importance to what some nation thought of your relationships, but you care about that, it means something to you, if we were still married I'd have you now even if I couldn't keep you forever."
"If you hadn't divorced me, yes, that would be true," Narax said. He'd honestly gone into his first marriage expecting his father's unbroken record. He hadn't expected to inherit (if such things were heritable) his mother's less stellar history, albeit so far only a quarter of her husbands had left her while still alive.
"I wasn't thinking," pleaded Samia. "I was still mentally fragile. Keo didn't do a perfect job, there were too many little details she didn't want to spend time out of her link to attend to. And I wasn't used to having a working brain, but I'm clearer-headed now."
"So you're saying you want to get back together - remarried outright?" Narax asked slowly.
"I could move here. Father will understand." She swallowed and looked at him until he allowed eye contact. "You wouldn't have to be without Alyah for weeks at a time."
And that was the kicker, wasn't it.
Narax had spent so much time early in their relationship - before the disaster, before everything had fallen apart - reassuring Samia that time didn't feel any faster for dragons, that eighty years weren't going to pass in the blink of an eye for him, that she would still be special to him even if she was a small fraction of his life.
The difference was, when Samia died, he would still have centuries and centuries of life and youth left, to spend more carefully.
He didn't choose forever in choosing Samia.
(That had really always been the sticking point.)
"Why don't you come inside," he said, "and we'll talk."
Samia got to her feet, still holding Alyah, and followed Narax through the door.
"Do I want to come to your wedding?" Korulen asked.
"That's what I asked," Narax said. "It's going to be a little thing at City Hall. Me and Samia and her stepfather and one of her brothers. And Ilen - and you and Runa, if you'll come and bring your sister. Keo's not talking to me, Vara would laugh in my face, my parents would have a serious talking-to with me about knowing what I'm getting into."
"...What are you getting into, Uncle Narax?" Korulen asked.
"Oh, grand," he chuckled weakly.
"No, seriously. I remember the first wedding - not that clearly, but I do remember it. And I remember what's happened since. Do you think this is a good idea?"
"Samia's improved some. We've talked. She's been spending some time over at my place," Narax said. "I didn't decide this overnight - it's been nearly a month. She's still not - what she would have been if she'd never been attacked. But she's livable."
"You're going to settle for livable?"
"I can settle for livable or I can settle for half a daughter," Narax said, shutting his eyes. "And she's gotten this much better in this amount of time. Maybe she'll go on stabilizing. Maybe by the time she's sixty she'll be the person she would've been at sixty."
"Or maybe not," Korulen said.
"Maybe not. I don't think Esmaar would be as expeditious about legally splitting us up at word one, compared to Ertydo, but it's still doable if need be. The circumstances of the original split were - were awful. Were a one-time thing. Nothing comparable is at all likely to happen again. I can live with Samia for a few decades for Alyah."
Korulen chewed on her lips. "I think I have an... an unsual home life. In terms of my parents getting along with each other. But I visit Dad's family house sometimes."
"And I've got a cousin who doesn't get along with his husband, and I feel really bad for their little boy," Korulen said. "But I bet they'd say they're staying together for the kid."
"Would you feel less bad for the little boy if his other dad lived across town - or across the country or across the ocean - and never got to have both of them around at once?" Narax asked.
"No, but if you can tolerate Samia and she can tolerate you, it doesn't have to be either-or, does it? Alyah could have you both at her birthday parties and move around between houses whenever it worked for your schedules instead of the rigid once a month thing."
"Samia would... not go for that," Narax said. He'd proposed something similar and she'd burst into tears. Eventually she'd managed a stammering explanation that she was too full of feelings for him even still to interact with him if he couldn't be hers "properly". This, she'd said, was why Alyah's exchanges had passed without a word.
Korulen pursed her lips. "Well," she said. "I'll get hold of Runa and we'll come to your wedding and I won't bother my parents about it."
"Thank you," Narax said. "It's in a week, seventh-and-naught."
"At City Hall. We'll meet you there," Korulen said.
Runa squirmed in her sister's arms. "Where're we going?"
"We're going to City Hall," Korulen said. "Uncle Narax is getting married."
"Mommy said she wouldn't do that anymore," Runa said.
"Not mindlinked, married."
"But I asked a person about what married is and he said like your parents," Runa said.
"Our parents are a few different things. Mindlink's just one of them, and more people get married," Korulen said. "Hold still. If I have to chase you around then I'm telling Mom you didn't behave, and she'll take your lemons."
"But the lemons are my lemons," Runa said. "They are mine."
"Mom gave them to you and she can take them away if you're bad." Korulen didn't expect to back up the threat. Telling her parents about where she'd gone with Runa on their outing would be more trouble than it would be worth to keep a wriggly parunia in line. But the threat alone might be effective. "Don't squirm."
"Can I sit up on your shoulder, please," said Runa.
"Are you going to fly away?" Korulen asked.
"No, no," said Runa, squirming one wing out of Korulen's arms to stretch it out. "I want to play with your hair. I want to sit on your shoulder and play with your hair."
"You want to leave snarls in my hair," muttered Korulen, but she loosed her hold and Runa climbed up to perch on her sister and run her claws through yellow strands.
"I'm combing it," Runa said. "I'm combing, not snarling, see." She tried to pull a lock of blond in front of Korulen's eyes but it snagged on her paw scales.
"Of course you are," laughed Korulen. "You're a little comb."
"I'm a gigantic comb. Combs're small," Runa objected. "I'm big!"
Korulen scratched Runa under the chin. Runa purred.
"How do people get married if Mommy doesn't do it?" Runa asked.
"In Esmaar, they get someone who works for the government to initial next to their names in a great big book," Korulen said. "Sometimes they have a party -"
"Are we going to a party?" exclaimed Runa in rapturous delight.
"No, no, this isn't the kind with a party," Korulen said apologetically. "It's just a few of us. But you'll get to meet a new uncle."
"Uncles are married to aunts or uncles, or they are brothers of moms or dads," mused Runa. "Uncle Narax is marrying an uncle?"
Korulen snorted with laughter. "No, he's marrying an aunt. You might remember Aunt Samia."
"No," said Runa breezily. "So how is there a new uncle? Ooh! Ooh! Did Grandma and Grandpa have a new baby?" She froze suddenly and dropped her forefeet to Korulen's shoulder, yanking a bit on tangled hair and provoking a hiss and sharp headtilt from her sister. "Someone might think he's cuter than me! But he's not."
"No - he's not a baby, he's not exactly new. He was just missing for a while," Korulen said.
"Oh. And then got found?" Runa asked.
"Right. But, um, don't mention him to Mom and Dad, okay?"
"He's a secret uncle?"
"Sure. He's a secret uncle. I know, and Uncle Narax and Grandpa Kilaer know, but he's otherwise a secret. Understand?"
"Uh-huh. And he's not a baby so I'm cuter."
Korulen smirked. "Yes. You're cuter."
It wasn't very weddinglike.
They wrote their names. The officiator initialed them. They weren't even dressed up.
Uncle Ilen got to hold Runa and encourage her chatter until Narax looked too uncomfortable for anyone to miss, however low Ilen's empathy was turned down. And then Ilen gave Runa back to Korulen and let Narax teleport him home.
Samia's family members all looked stiff and unhappy, and looked at the ceiling for the duration of the process until Samia teleported them back to Ertydo.
Korulen let Runa perch on her shoulder - "Oh, your hair is snarly. I'll fix it. I'm a comb," Runa said.
"Okay," Korulen said, smiling to herself. "Do your job, little comb."
"Big comb," agreed Korulen, and she winced as Runa pulled at her hair. There was probably a spell somewhere in the library to fix knots.
"Secret Uncle is nice," Runa said.
"Yes," agreed Korulen. "He is nice."
"He pets right, and I didn't have to tell him how," Runa said. "It's good. Why is he a secret uncle?"
"Let's wait to explain that till you're older, okay?" Korulen said, trying not to sound desperate.
"Okay." Runa diligently worked on Korulen's hair while Korulen wove through pedestrian traffic. "Now I'm older."
"Lots older," said Korulen.
"Old as you?" Runa asked.
"Nope. When you're older than me, then we can tell you the mysteries of the secret uncle." Korulen's age would translate to Runa still being a very little girl.
"But I'm never gonna be older than you because you're older than me and no matter how much I try to get older faster I don't," Runa said.
"When you're a hundred," Korulen said. "Then I'll tell you everything if I haven't already."
"You're gonna be a grown-up when I'm a hundred," snuffled Runa. "I want a not-a-grown-up sister."
"Sorry, Runa," Korulen mumured. "I'd try to get older slower, but I can't."
"Try harder," said Runa as they approached the school.
Chapter 9: Hope
Most students at Binaaralav did not live in the dorms during the off-months of Pehahel or Sutaahel. Korulen did, because she'd always lived at the school - she'd be welcome at her father's family home, but avoided staying there for too long. And Kaylo did, because he didn't like his aunt and didn't prefer to cast about for another relative to take him in when he could simply spend those months with his on-campus room to himself (and the library easily accessible).
It was in the library that Korulen found him, after she dropped off Runa in her parents' quarters with a whispered reminder that the secret uncle was a secret. Kaylo was at one of the carrels, reading a book in a language Korulen didn't know.
"Hi, Kaylo," she said.
He looked up. "Hi, Sunshine. How're you?"
"I'm pretty okay," she said.
Kaylo looped one arm around her waist and pulled her in so he could lean his head on her side while still keeping an eye on his book. "Just pretty okay? I can't tell the details without actual words like your kid sister can, you know."
Korulen chortled; Runa was actually getting a lot more prudent about reading people around her. "No, it's just..." It was, she realized on reflection, the look on Uncle Narax's face when Ilen had held Runa.
However glad Uncle Narax was to have a brother, however ridiculously unlikely it would be for Ilen to shift to his natural form in the middle of Paraasilan City Hall, most particularly with a baby parunia right there... there was still something.
Hundreds and hundreds of people, afflicted, ashamed, so badly hurt that they could probably gnaw their own hands off if there were a reason to spend the time on it.
Narax was doing better than most dragons would, but why hadn't he tried to actually solve the problem? Rhysel would if she could; she couldn't, so she was treating it. Uncle Narax was brilliant at... most subskills of wizardry. He had astounding intentional control. He tied for highest natural channeling capacity. He had a knack for putting his ideas to spellcraft efficiently and with enough of the work done on his end that it was easy for others to cast his spells.
Her uncle was not particularly renowned for his groundbreaking advances against conceptual limitations.
"Tell me how smart you are," Korulen murmured, leaning to say it nearer Kaylo's ear.
"I'm incomparably - wait, what? Why do you want me to tell you that?" Kaylo replied.
"I want an idea about whether you can do something," she said. "Whether you can think of something."
"I'm incomparably brilliant. My equal has never existed within spitting distance of my field and perhaps not beyond. There is no soluble problem in magical theory I will not solve within my lifetime, and then I'll die of boredom, or maybe invent another kind of magic to solve problems in. What is it you want me to think of?"
"You're particularly good at seeing past other wizards' preconceptions, so-called axioms, prejudices..."
"I overthrow wizarding orthodoxy once a week like clockwork, Korulen, what's this about? If this is a mood you're in I'd expect you to haul me to one of our rooms first," he added suggestively.
"Maybe in a bit," she purred. She couldn't purr very well, not like a dragon - like Kaylo himself, occasionally - but she could imitate it. "So if there were a problem that no one else had solved yet, and if even you had been inculcated with the idea that solving it was unthinkable..."
"Well, you have me all curious, now, out with it," said Kaylo.
Korulen smirked at him.
"Please, Sunshine?" Kaylo said, drawing his eyebrows together. "You did think of something, right, and you're just buttering me up so I'll prioritize it, right?"
"Will you?" she asked. "Whatever it is?"
"I'm working on Voyan numbers at the moment, I'm kind of scraping the bottom of the project barrel," Kaylo said. "Please?"
"I don't think you'll like it," Korulen warned, smoothing some of his hair out of his wine-red eyes.
"It's a problem? In magic? That no one else thinks can be solved?" Kaylo asked, pausing between questions and looking at her skeptically.
"And it would mean so much to me," she sighed, "if you'd work on it. I'll help, but compared to you I might as well be a rote wizard..."
"I'm buttered, I'm buttered," Kaylo said. "You're not a rote wizard, Korulen, you're smart, and you can tolerate literature review way better than me -"
"Promise you'll work on it?" Korulen said. "Even if you don't like it?"
"I promise," Kaylo huffed. "What is it?"
"I want you to cure shrens," said Korulen.
The rest of the break was... difficult. Kaylo did not appreciate how Korulen had euchred him into the task, and she repeatedly nudged him back onto it when she caught him reading about tertiary runes or partial breaks or Voyan numbers. Nudging occasionally turned into fighting.
And then he'd send her off on vast literature errands, some of which had very dubious relationships to the shren project, but Korulen gritted her teeth and fetched books and took notes and assembled them into summaries for her boyfriend.
She didn't tell Ilen. She didn't tell Narax. She didn't tell Finnah.
It might not be doable, and she didn't want to be responsible for getting their hopes up.
She did tell Rhysel. Rhysel was a treasure trove of data. They started corresponding with a wizard who'd been working on the problem - Korulen suspected she was a shren; Kaylo did too and demanded anonymity. Korulen did arithmetic and searched indices and became very familiar with the library staff.
"It's the same problem, over and over," grumbled Kaylo. "Wizarding orthodoxy is not invariably wrong, you know."
"You're creative," Korulen purred.
"Oh, please. That's getting really wearing, Korulen, it's like you're trying to advertise the shren cure project as though it were a liquor and needed to claim improved luck with girls as one of its side effects."
"Fine," she said, dropping the voice. "But you are creative. Does kamai have a solution?"
"If it did, I think Rhysel might just possibly have figured it out by now," Kaylo snapped.
"So kamai orthodoxy is perfectly fine, kamai doesn't need Kaylobesayn to swoop in and sort it out," Korulen said. "One Master kama who doesn't even know all five disciplines suffices to render you -"
"They'll die, okay?" Kaylo exploded. "Do you think I didn't figure out that I could damn well get you off my back about this if I called in your uncle as a test subject and tried to turn him into a dragon and he died? But I'm not doing that!"
"Oh, thanks for not murdering my uncle, that's really great of you -"
"I mean it, I've looked at this every which way, and there is no order of operations that will get a shren cured alive!"
"Do it anyway! Think laterally! Cheat at magic!" Korulen retorted; those were his own turns of phrase, and they obviously stung him.
"I -" Kaylo stopped abruptly. "Just a second."
"I need to find Talyn."
Ilen couldn't remember the last time a house meeting had been called. Generally house business was printed in the little newsletter-memos. Something fantastically important had to be going on if Ludei wanted to cram everyone into the cafeteria, half standing up and some sitting on the tables and many in smaller forms to take up less space.
"Is everyone here?" Ludei asked, fidgeting with a packet of notes. Normally Ehail would have charmed his voice loud, but she'd moved out, Ilen had heard, and only came by occasionally for maintenance. "Child-minders, please count your charges, everyone please look for your friends."
Ilen, sitting on a table with the babies spread out before him having been told to pretend they were for supper, dutifully counted again. He got one more than he ought to have, but then realized he'd double-counted one who wouldn't sit still. He picked up that child, counted the rest, and had the correct number.
After Ludei was satisfied that the entire house was present, he said, "There is a miracle."
The noise was deafening; Ilen covered the ears of the little black-scaled baby in his lap when she whined.
"Quiet! Quiet!" shouted Ludei over the din.
It took a couple of degrees for everyone to finally shush, especially the excitable children. Ludei finally continued. "Rhysel, who you all know as the woman who treats the babies, has related to me that she believes - and Ehail has confirmed - that there exists a spell set which, in conjunction with some kamai, is expected to effect a miraculous cure for our condition."
The crowd took several more degrees to calm down the second time.
"Only one wizard - no, it's not Ehail - is currently expected to be able to safely cast the spell set," Ludei announced over a low hum of excitement. "He also has other demands on his time, so we cannot all be cured this week or even this month. And he is... charging money."
There was a thrum of concern about that last, but Ludei raised his voice to continue. "Rhysel's brother, Ehail's new husband, will buy scales that drop off during the cure procedure," he said loudly.
"How is that going to cover it?" demanded a gold-haired woman.
"Estimates of how much your scales are likely to fetch based on your age will be posted on the noticeboard soon, as will the price. Those of you who are too young to cover your cures with dropped scales will be covered by the house. Those of you who are old enough to more than cover your cures with your scales are strongly encouraged to contribute to funding younger individuals' cures. We will be writing to the parents of the unshifted infants soliciting their backing for their children's cures, as well."
"Who goes first?" shrieked a man Ilen didn't know well.
"Regarding order," Ludei said, frowning at his notepaper. "The wizard -"
"Miracle-worker," cried a green woman from near the salad bar.
"The miracle-worker has made it known that he is susceptible to bribery," Ludei said in a mildly repulsed voice. "Test subjects whom Rhysel has already secured are, of course, first. Shrens owed personal favors or regard by those involved in the miracle will be next. After that, the four houses will jointly be prioritizing our child-minders -"
Ilen looked up, startled.
"- as we do not want to fall prey to accusations of keeping dragon children under the immediate care of shrens, while the reverse is permissible. Thereafter, we will queue the babies, particularly those with parental support, and then elder shrens willing to donate excess scales, and so on. However, there will be delays, as shrens who live outside of the houses may be more able than we are to pay to jump the line." Ludei didn't look at all happy about the miracle-worker's conduct.
There were a few more questions called out, but Ludei deflected most of them with promises of future noticeboard posting. Ilen sat tight with the babies, waiting for the crowd to thin out so he could lead them back to their room without losing any.
He was going to be among the first to be cured? After however many wealthier shrens or home-raised shrens with wealthy parents who elbowed their way ahead of the house residents, anyway. Just because he watched the children.
That didn't seem right, that he was going to be a dragon before Hallai - maybe by months.
They didn't even have enough for a house, though, and he expected the pricing to be pretty fiercely competitive... and he couldn't just defer his own turn, not when the babies had to wait on him.
The cafeteria emptied to ordinary levels of fullness. "Line up," Ilen told the babies, as he slid off the table onto his feet. "Back we go, come on."
They lined up and followed after him like a row of ducks, and chattered to each other interminably about how excited they were to be better.
Rhysel came to the house that Lunen. "Hi, Ilen," she said politely as she started her usual treatment of the babies. "I guess I won't see you as much, soon, huh?"
"How soon?" he asked. "A couple of months, I guess, but the 'childminders' mark on the calendar keeps getting moved."
"He keeps encouraging people into bidding wars. You're ahead of most people, though."
"I don't want to be ahead of Hallai. I don't like it," he muttered.
Rhysel tilted her head. "Has she been complaining to you about -"
"No, she didn't say anything about it," Ilen said, stung on Hallai's behalf. "As far as I know she's okay with taking her turn. If we even had that kind of money she wouldn't stand for spending it on line-jumping. It just - I want her to be a dragon first."
Rhysel regarded him thoughtfully, even as her husband floated up a turquoise baby into the air for safe takeoff.
"And I can't just give my spot to someone else and wait for Hallai's turn," Ilen said as the turquoise zoomed around the room. "Because of the babies."
"Actually, Ilen -"
"You're ahead of most of the other child-minders, too," Rhysel said. "Because the, er, miracle-worker, is Korulen's boyfriend, and she put in for you to be in the 'personal favors' category."
Ilen blinked several times. "So - when -"
"I was actually planning to take you along with me when I left today, if you could get your backup," Rhysel said. "I would have given more notice, but obviously things have been very busy, I've been trying to keep the miracle-worker under control, but he's not my actual apprentice so I'm limited -"
"What about Hallai?" Ilen asked.
"Hallai isn't... isn't really Korulen's close friend, or mine, or the miracle-worker's, or Talyn's, or anyone else she'd have to have an in with to jump the queue that much," Rhysel said slowly.
Ilen pursed his lips. "Will it offend Korulen if I wait...? Or maybe I should ask her about Hallai."
"You can talk to Korulen, yes," Rhysel said. "But if I don't bring you today, Jensal's going to insist that you lose your slot and wait to be cured with the other child-minders. She was somewhat opposed to anyone getting special treatment at all. Jensal doesn't have final word, but I'd rather not antagonize her."
"Can I fall back and bring Hallai up to just before me?" Ilen asked. "It could be - there's got to be some reason, hasn't there? That won't antagonize Jensal?" Ilen knew that Jensal was a turqouise who ran the house in Esmaar, but had no acquaintance with her personality.
Rhysel pursed her lips. "Could you describe Hallai as looking after any of the children?" she asked dubiously.
"Well, empathically," Ilen said. "Yes. I work with the babies myself when they need it, but everyone in the house twenty and up is Hallai's job. Does that count?"
"I can suggest it. I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do, if you feel that strongly about it." Rhysel made a statuette of the next shrenlet. "So you won't be coming today?"
"I... I'd like to, I don't exactly want to wait. But it doesn't... Hallai's supposed to be... if she weren't..." He didn't know how to put the sense he had into words, but it seemed so obviously incorrect for him to be a dragon, flying around under his own power on jade wings, while Hallai remained a shren.
"I'll see what I can do," said Rhysel.
"Thanks," Ilen said, simultaneously with the little red who'd just completed a flight.
"Don't mention it," Rhysel said, and she moved on to her next subject.
"So now Hallai and Ilen are both scheduled for the thirty-third," Korulen said. "But Finnah took her early cure, and so did Rhysel's sister-in-law, and five kids that I think must be Rhysel's nieces and nephews."
"Well, that's not the first time Ilen's refused something nice that was offered to him because Hallai couldn't have it," Narax remarked disgustedly. "I wonder when he'll catch on to the pattern about people not wanting to offer Hallai nice things."
"I don't know if he ever will," Korulen said. "Maybe - I don't know, maybe Hallai's okay when one gets used to her? Ilen's known her a really long time."
"I find that really unlikely," muttered Narax.
"Well, you don't think she likes us either, right? You could, I don't know, invite her and Ilen both over to dinner, and make it clear that Ilen can come alone if Hallai doesn't want to come. I bet Ilen would show up then, but Hallai might not," Korulen said.
"Maybe. I'll coordinate with Samia on dinner or something like it, I suppose, why not. As long as Alyah's still unlikely to pick up any awful words from a visitor. We can't just do it any old day - Samia has some late shifts at her job, trying not to overlap with my class schedule too much to minimize how often we need to ask others to watch Alyah," Narax said.
"Is she still teleporting to that Ertydon office every day to cast paid statics and conceptions and stuff?" Korulen asked.
"Yes. She'd ask for a school job like I did but doesn't think she'd like teaching, plus the scheduling concern, but she's on the lookout for an office-wizard position with better pay. In the meantime, since she can teleport to work anyway, she's keeping that one."
Korulen nodded. "How are you and Samia - Aunt Samia -"
Narax raised an eyebrow at her. "We're fine, Korulen."
"I only mean -"
"We are fine."
They were. Just fine, not rapturous or anything, but fine.
Korulen shrugged, accepted a mug of hot pear juice which she drank too quickly, and then left. Narax expected to see a little more of her while her boyfriend spent so much of his time on that spell set he'd invented, but she'd probably also disperse some of her newfound spare angles to her friends and sister and Kanaat's side of the family, too.
When Samia got home that evening, she kissed him. Just a peck on the lips, but they were fine, certainly fine enough for ordinary little bits of physical affection to pass between them. "Hello," she said. "How was your day?"
"All right," he said. "Yours?"
"Had a couple come in wanting triplets spelled. Of all the insanity," Samia said. "Otherwise just as usual. How's Alyah?"
"She's fine. Asleep. Korulen came by."
"Thinks Ilen might tolerate being offered things if Hallai were invited but predictably refused out of personal distaste." He sipped at his pear juice. "Thought we might ask them over for dinner sometime."
Samia shrugged. "All right. Sinen?"
Samia went to have a peek at Alyah, and then settled down in the library with a book.
Narax graded essays without getting up from the kitchen table.
He went to bed first and wasn't awake to note her coming in.
Narax was far more surprised than he should have been to arrive at the shren house and find both Ilen and Hallai sitting in the front garden waiting for him.
"So, both of you?" he asked, trying not to sound too pointed.
"Yes," said Ilen happily.
Narax made up his mind to kick Hallai out if she was obnoxious, but perhaps she was in fact capable of conducting herself civilly for an entire dinner. He held out his hand. "All right."
Hallai didn't say anything to him, or attempt to make eye contact, or claw furrows in his hand when she touched it, so he thanked his good luck and brought them both to his house. "I made a chilled pasta thing earlier," he said. "Samia! We're here!" he called.
Samia came down the stairs with Alyah, and affixed the child to her chair. "Hello," she said politely to both shrens. Well, she hadn't met Hallai before, and apart from Narax's reports knew nothing about her; she had no reason to be automatically short with the copper. "I'm Samia, Narax's wife."
She sat between Narax and Hallai on one side while Ilen had the other, which unfortunately meant that Narax was facing Hallai, but there was no other place he could have sat to get much farther away. He fixed his attention on Ilen, who occasionally consented to look up from his half-babbled conversation with Alyah. Samia appeared to be keeping Hallai occupied with innocuous small talk.
"Are you excited about - it's just about two weeks from now, right? The thirty-third?" Narax asked his brother.
"Of course," said Ilen, nodding and smiling. "I'm really looking forward to it. Er..." He took a bite of the pasta. "Oh, this is nice. I didn't know you cooked so well."
"I expect it's easier to cook a small batch than to do it for hundreds of people daily," Narax demurred. "You were saying?"
"Do you suppose, that after, our sisters...?"
"I doubt Vara will change her mind, although she could surprise me," Narax said. "Her position has very little to do with you being a shren. Keo... maybe, I don't know. She's not speaking to me still. Perhaps she'll start again and I can test the waters. Korulen said she's been up to something in Barashi a lot of the time lately, though."
"Barashi?" Ilen asked. "That world Rhysel's from? What would she be doing there?"
"Hasn't told Korulen," Narax said, "last I heard." He dug into his pasta more energetically; he really was hungry. He looked over at Hallai and Samia.
Samia appeared to be telling Hallai her entire life story.
Hallai appeared to be paying polite and sympathetic attention.
Narax blinked; Hallai glanced in his direction. "What are you looking at?" she asked pointedly. "I'm talking to Samia."
"Narax, you already know all this," Samia said.
"You were at the part where your sister-in-law gave up on helping you before putting everything back where it belonged," Hallai prompted, looking back at Samia and leaning forward.
"Well, she didn't want to be out of her link, so I spent a while back at home with my stepfather -"
"Explain that part?" Hallai asked. "I know you said your dad left -"
"Mmhm, and my mother died later on, but -"
Narax turned back towards his brother and daughter, puzzled and somewhat disquieted.
"Thudias learn to shift when they're about four or five equivalent, right?" Ilen asked Narax earnestly.
"Yep. Alyah will figure it out in a few years. I can barely remember learning to shift, myself."
"I remember it," remarked Ilen. Narax made a face that Ilen couldn't see. "It looks like they're getting along."
"Yes. It does," Narax said, with a sidelong look at the women. It appeared to be Hallai's turn to talk; something about being made house empath at a young age. "It does look that way."
"No, I agree with you," Samia said to Hallai. "They should be paying you more. That sounds exhausting."
"You should be on disability dole, honestly - or if working disqualifies you, doesn't Ertydo have any system of insurance for victims of crimes...?"
"That's nice, isn't it?" said Ilen blithely.
"Sure," Narax lied.
Chapter 10: Discontentment
Hallai liked Samia.
This was unusual. Hallai liked a small handful of individuals, tolerated a handful more, ejected everyone else from her life with no tact and less decorum because she did not have patience for useless cretins. Most people had no discontentment, like Hallai had, and she despised them for it, for being so unprotesting about the crap that the world heaped onto everyone. Finnah had discontentment, serious discontentment, even if it didn't run as deep as Hallai's. This was why they got along.
Or else people came in another type: they had no reason to be discontent and were anyway, trivializing Hallai's life and Hallai's unfair helping of misery with their every complaint. Narax had that problem, having hatched into every sort of privilege and then grown up unable to accept that maybe his brother was already spoken for and no, he could not take Ilen away from Hallai. No, he could not have that too, not at her expense, not without a fight. This was why Hallai did not care for Narax.
Ilen should have been discontented. He was a shren. He was entirely too okay with that. Hallai didn't mind it in him the way she did in others, but he was an exception. A very special exception.
Samia had discontentment. And she had a good reason. She'd had trials, she resented them because she had sense and knew what was worth resenting, and she went right on wanting things even when simpering luckier people deemed her undeserving. Her style was a little different than Hallai's. Less direct. But akin enough that Hallai did like her.
So Samia had talked her idiot husband (not that Hallai was going to disparage him that obviously in front of her) into teleporting her to Kep Island, so she could pick up Hallai and they could get lunch together while Samia was on break from work.
"I've only got an angle, before I'm back on shift," Samia warned.
"Noted," said Hallai. "You're buying. I saw that house, and Ilen and I are still saving up to move out."
"The house? That's Narax's money. But I can buy, I know they barely even pay you," Samia agreed. "Do I need to run and change coins or will they take my credit stamp?"
"They'll take the stamp. Don't you share money?" Hallai asked.
Samia sighed. "We're keeping separate accounts for the time being. And a third that he fills up for Alyah's things. But I can cover lunch."
Hallai considered the prospect of Ilen refusing to help fund their project of starting a life together out of the house. She didn't care for that. They were doing something together and they were jointly investing in it. Narax was in even less of a position to be tightfisted; the joint endeavor of Samia-and-Narax was officially underway on his own say-so. More indication that Hallai had the better of the two. "Is he just too selfish to let you in on his spending power, then, even though he married you, or is this a cultural thing that even though you're married...?"
Samia made a sour sort of face. "No. It's not a cultural thing. Usually in Ertydo there would be - joint accounts. We had one before my ex shredded my brain. And in Esmaar there would be a household account. He just... he's holding back some, I guess because of how we broke up last time." They reached the restaurant, a divey seafood place in the village part of the island. "I'd like to just go back to how we were, but how can I do that, when he's holding me at arm's length in case something happens again? Like it would. Rhysel's not coming anywhere near us this time."
"It was Rhysel, really? What'd she do?" Hallai asked. "Was she a terrible busybody? I really doubt all her little projects can be like the thing with the baby shrens. She's so... what's a good example written in Ertydon...? Have you read any of the Karra Ferra books?"
"Oh, yes, now that you mention it, she is exactly like that, traipsing around expecting everyone to be her friend, messing with things that aren't hers because maybe she can help -"
"And sometimes she's right, and it's by complete accident, but it's enough to make most everyone love her, so no one can call her on her crap," Hallai said. "But seriously, it was her fault? What'd she do?"
"She was a busybody, and even before that she was all over my Narax," Samia growled under her breath. "I don't care if I was presumed dead, I ought to be able to ask for my husband's fidelity. Just because he's a dragon I can't and everyone expects me to be fine with that. And don't tell me it's my Aspirationist upbringing."
"I wouldn't tell you that. I don't know anything about Aspirationists anyway, although I guess they're very big on marriage? Well, you have my word I won't touch your dragon with anything friendlier than a claw," Hallai said. "For my part, if I were going to die I assume Ilen would need someone to take care of him, whether they were romantically involved or not. He needs looking after. Since I'm not liable to predecease him by much, though, and certainly not more likely to die young than anyone else I could set up to take over, my major concern is people trying to steal him right out from under me."
"Narax wants a brother very badly," Samia said. She took her menu, frowned at it, and cast a spell, probably translation.
"Let's not talk about his side of the Ilen-stealing story, please, it's rare I meet decent company and I think that conversation would render you less so," Hallai said, raising an eyebrow. "He's not entitled to Ilen however much he wants him. He didn't put in the decades of work of supporting him to earn any stake. I don't care if Narax didn't make the decision. No one asked random Mekandish shepherds individually if they'd care to have the job of taking care of Ilen either; that wouldn't make any of them deserving of any chunks of Ilen's life they wanted to carve off and pocket."
"So you'd rather Ilen spent all his time with you?" Samia asked.
"No, not really, since he also spends a lot of time with little brats who think they're terribly cute, and I don't care to," Hallai said. "If he were friends with someone inoffensive that would be fine, since I sometimes go off and do things. Like this. But he doesn't make very smart choices, a lot of the time, and he's too much of a pushover to tell people like your husband to butt out."
"Narax didn't expect you to show up to dinner."
"What, I'm going to abandon Ilen to his influence for so much as an evening given a way not to? Not likely. Of course he thinks that little of me, though." Hallai snorted. "Well. Insurance that I won't be wandering over your grave to sneak him, right?"
"I admit, I'm more comfortable that you obviously don't like Narax," Samia said. "You get that I do, though? I mean, it's not the same as it was, but he's just..." She sighed wistfully.
"Rich, good-looking, accomplished, maybe he has a personality too?" Hallai hazarded. "Hope you don't mind my commenting on his looks. I think he could stand to cut his hair and not go around looking so smug all the time, but he does look awfully like someone I am quite fond of."
Samia laughed weakly. "You don't get what I see in him, and I don't want you to. I don't want yours, either."
"Good," Hallai said. "We understand each other."
"Rather well," Samia agreed.
"My uncle Ilen's tomorrow," Korulen said.
"Yeah," Kaylo said. He had his eyes closed; he'd fallen into the habit of letting them droop that way when he could get away with it. He was putting in a lot of angles on curing, and he still had classes, Korulen, and other research; sleep was taking a hit. "I know."
"So it's especially important that you be well-rested," Korulen said. "Can you stop thinking about - what is it lately, spellspace targeting? - and go to bed?"
Kaylo's eyes opened partway and he looked at her, heavy-lidded. "Yeah, okay," he yawned, and he let her teleport him to his room and shoo him inside over his roommate's mumbled complaints.
"Where's Korulen? I thought she was going to be here," Ilen said. Hallai frowned; on this day of all days he was thinking about his idiotic niece?
"I'll call her here on your turn," the miracle-worker said; his lip curled a little as he spoke. Probably he didn't want to talk to a shren. "You're going after your girlfriend."
"Right," said Ilen. "Okay."
Rhysel was there, though, maybe to supervise her apprentice. Hallai ignored her. She just listened to the garnet boy's instructions (ugh, he was so young, so cocky, but not a fraud: Finnah had written, Finnah could fly). She shifted and let the apprentice kid paint her with blood, let Ilen collect her scales to sell for their pricey miracle.
She shifted on command, choosing a copper-furred lioness form to complete the set she needed.
She turned goshawk, and human, and back to dragon form, and the miracle-worker was casting and casting and then something -
There had been pain in the background the entire time, but that was nothing, that was ignorable. This was something else, nausea and violation, every possible emotion singing at her from no source, people shouted nonsense, and she was dizzy, falling, she tried to right herself, tried to use her tail for balance, cried out wordlessly because words wouldn't come -
And there was a creeping cold ache -
Hallai, Hallai, Hallai, what am I going to do?
The apprentice had turned her into stone. She was a still statue. She didn't even emit her empathic signature anymore. Ilen cast out for it, that familiar label that meant Hallai, meant safety and calm and home, and it wasn't there. Was she dead?
What would he do without her?
And after a moment, he felt guilty - that was his first thought? What he would do? What about Hallai? She'd wanted things, she'd had plans. She'd been alive, a moment, ago, alive and now she was -
"This lady isn't dead," claimed Rhysel's apprentice.
But her signature was gone. How...?
"You are walking a very fine line, Talyn," Rhysel said.
"I can un-stone her if you have another way to keep her safe while Kaylo figures out the problem," Talyn offered.
Ilen wanted to say yes, find another way to do it, find a way that will let me feel that she's still there, please please please I need her, but he bit his tongue and didn't interrupt Rhysel and Talyn's discussion of alternatives.
Hallai remained a stone.
The garnet was confident that he'd be able to fix the problem. In days or weeks.
Rhysel turned to Ilen. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
"No," he said, shaking.
"I don't think Kaylo's going to be curing anyone else until he figures out what went wrong with Hallai," Rhysel said gently. "Maybe you should go home -"
Ilen shook his head, looking at the red-brown scale pattern of Hallai's side.
"If you want to stay a little while I can transfer you back to the house later," Rhysel said. "If you'd rather."
Ilen nodded, pressing his lips together so they wouldn't tremble. "Can I - is it safe to - touch her?" he asked.
"Yes," murmured Rhysel.
Ilen walked unsteadily towards Hallai and sat down by her side, to lean against her. Her scales were rough and hard and cold.
Maybe they would have been anyway. He didn't know how scales felt on shrens that big; babies were softer and smaller, their scales thinner.
Maybe it would have been just like this.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the hole in his empathic map.
At length he let Rhysel coax him to the transfer point and take him back to the house.
A baby green butted his head against Ilen's knee. "You're sad," he complained.
"Yes," Ilen said. He'd gone to work - watching babies was more distracting than moping in his room. That didn't mean he didn't think about Hallai, about her itching awful absence. "I'm sorry if it's bothering you. You can practice dialing-down and then you won't know so much about it."
"May I help you please?" asked the green. "I asked politely, now I should get a candy."
Ilen reached into the candy jar and picked out a chocolate drop from the packet of homemade ones Finnah had mailed in. "Please don't try to help," Ilen said. That was Hallai's job. "She's going to be okay, and then I won't be sad anymore."
"Okay," sighed the baby, accepting his chocolate drop.
It was storytime. Ilen picked the next book in the stack.
"Tell me how I can help you," Korulen said to her boyfriend.
Kaylo stared at the notes on Finnah's desk, which she had donated to the project so Kaylo could work in Korulen's room without interruption from his roommate. Finnah, cardinal-shaped, was sleeping in a soundproofed corner of the room. Kaylo's handwriting was deteriorating. Korulen waited. "Find me those charts I made - you remember the - those charts," Kaylo said.
She knew which ones. "Okay."
She found the charts, and he kept working.
"This'll do it," Kaylo said.
Korulen woke up. "What?"
"I fixed the spell set. The thing that happened with the copper won't happen again."
"She's got a name," complained Finnah from where she was sprawled on her bed, levitating a kamai textbook above her face.
"It'd be weird if she didn't," Kaylo said. "Anyway. This will prevent it happening again. If I pick up from this part, I can get her all the way to dragon without a problem."
"Great, then I can have my desk back," Finnah said.
"You volunteered it," said Kaylo.
"Yeah, at the time I liked Hallai more than I disliked you," Finnah said, rolling her eyes.
"Ah-huh." Kaylo inhaled deeply. "Better go fix her. The stone will work as well as the lifelink for this part."
"Ilen will want to be there," Korulen said. "Rhysel and Talyn should probably be there too."
"Would you get them," Kaylo yawned, "while I go nap well enough not to botch these spells?"
"Of course," Korulen said, kissing his temple. Kaylo picked up his stuff from the desk and wobbled out of the room.
"Do not know even slightly what you see in that dragon," Finnah said.
"I don't know why you don't like him," Korulen answered her roommate. "He cured you."
"He cured me because you pestered him, not becaue of his personal virtue."
Korulen shrugged and went to find her uncle and her teacher and Talyn.
There was a warm looseness, sliding over her like a cracked egg.
Vision came back to her, and motion, and when she woke, words were already there and she could barely remember their having gone.
"What in the world did you do to me?" Hallai hissed, snaking her neck out towards the miracle-worker. "Why was that not among your disclaimers that it would feel like that?"
"Abnormal result, won't happen again, it's Marahel 41, if you attack me your boyfriend doesn't get his miracle, go away," said the garnet, not even looking at her. "Korulen's Uncle, your turn -"
"Excuse me?" said Hallai, turning human-shaped again.
"What, you're not going to fly? Suit yourself," said the miracle-worker. "Korulen's Uncle -"
"It worked?" Hallai asked. "You screwed up somehow but in the end it worked?"
"Yes, it did, go away. Korulen's Uncle!"
Hallai wanted to bite the rude garnet in half (just his human form, he could take an elf one or something and get back to casting) but she held herself back. She turned back into her natural form; Ilen was already in his, letting the half-elf kid decorate him with bloody marks, but she couldn't be un-cured, that was part of the introduction she'd gotten.
She stretched out her wings.
They would take her up, if she wanted.
Hallai folded them again and waited for Ilen.
Ilen learned a lion form. He liked the idea of matching Hallai. He had a green mane on a tawny coat.
He was apprehensive, the entire time, but he shifted on demand and when he was done and dragon-formed Hallai wrapped her tail around his, copper and jade spiraling together.
"Come on," she said.
She took off, and Ilen followed.
With Hallai he didn't have to ask himself over and over what he would do.
He was so glad she was back, so glad, and they were flying.
There were more cures happening below them, and more new miracle dragons in the air with them after a few degrees more. Hallai and Ilen ignored those goings-on.
They flew in a circle, following each other.
And then something occurred to Ilen.
"We could have kids, now," he said. "No one would stop us or try to take them."
Hallai looked at him quizzically.
"Once we've moved out," he said, "not in the house. But we could have them."
He imagined a collection of, oh, maybe a dozen stairstepped copper and jade dragon children, all theirs free and clear, bright hair on girls and bright eyes on boys and bright scales on the very smallest, and they wouldn't call him by his first name the way the house babies did, and no one would come snatch them away when they turned twenty and they wouldn't graduate to someone else's care -
"Ilen, I don't want any kids," Hallai said.
The picture shattered.
(It would have anyway. They couldn't have a dozen, not without watching dozens more die; they certainly couldn't space them so close, not without supernatural luck.)
(He'd only been fantasizing anyway. She hadn't ruined anything real.)
(So it couldn't matter much.)
"You don't?" Ilen asked, carefully.
"I don't like most people. Can't see why my kid would have a much better shot at it than anyone else," she said.
"But," he said.
"I'd be a lousy mother," Hallai said. "We know what that's like, don't we?"
Ilen still hadn't met his mother; he might never meet her. Hallai hadn't met any of her family. "I guess," he said.
"You've got the kids at the house," she said carelessly.
"Not forever," said Ilen softly.
Because he was cured, they could be, too. Maybe some of their parents would want them back sooner rather than later. Shren eggs laid in the future could be cured right away after they hatched and they'd never come to him.
"Not for long," he said, "at all."
"Well, we'll have extra money from our scales - make sure we collect those before we go - and I think it will be enough that we can move away, and you can work in some daycare, and you'll have that," Hallai said. "Sheesh, I don't care if you're around kids, I just don't want any of my own."
They landed, because the miracle-worker was done for the day. They picked up all the jade scales and weighed them and took Rhysel's promissory note from her brother for their value.
Rhysel took them and the other miracles up to where they belonged.
They went to bed.
"I'd like to live in Paraasilan," Ilen said.
Hallai stared at him.
"You're friends with Samia, you could be near her," Ilen pointed out.
"I am, but she can teleport. I still like the look of Mekand," Hallai said slowly.
"And Rhysel lives in Paraasilan," Ilen said. "And Korulen."
"Rhysel can build transfer points, if she's really that likely to want to visit, and -" Hallai stopped. "Wait, are you thinking you want them to visit us or that you want to visit them?"
"I don't think I can visit Korulen," Ilen said. "Because of her mother. We... still don't know, if the cure makes a difference. But I could visit Narax or Rhysel at their places. If we live in the same town -"
"Then the fact that they can travel easier than you can doesn't mean they'll be occupying my place all the time," muttered Hallai.
"Cost of living is outrageous but little apartments aren't too bad in Esmaar," Hallai muttered, grabbing for her listings. "Samia's a wizard, maybe she'll do our appliances, save that way..."
Ilen kissed her.
"Hello again, Tsuan," said the therapist.
"Hello," Tsuan said.
"What's on your mind today?"
"According to my son, the - there's been -"
"The shren cure is all over the news," the therapist said evenly.
"That," she said. The therapist was silent. Tsuan sighed and continued. "So I don't have a shren anymore."
"That's true," he acknowledged.
"So can you tell Sainted Roses to let me go?" she asked.
"Well, that depends," the therapist said.
"Does the fact that Ilen is not a shren anymore mean that you no longer have serious issues around him that ought to be addressed?"
"It probably sounds like a sarcastic question, but I'm quite serious. You've told me repeatedly that you don't think I can understand, because the business with shrens is based on speaking Draconic. Ilen's not a shren any more. Does that mean there's no longer a problem?"
"What would there not being a problem look like?" Tsuan asked suspiciously.
"I can think of a few things it might look like," the therapist said. "Or at least things that would be unproblematic enough that I'd recommend that Sainted Roses let you stop therapy, though of course you could continue of your own volition."
"Well, you could welcome Ilen into your family."
Tsuan went very still. "That's one thing," she pointed out, trying to sound neutral.
"You could come to terms with healthy reasons not to. It's not a requirement for a pass on a mental soundness test to be in friendly contact with every relative you have, but some rationales are better than others."
"That's several; there are a few reasons you could choose that I'd accept, if you seemed to be going through them properly instead of just to be rid of me. Which is why I'm not going to tell you what they are, although you're probably capable of guessing."
Tsuan looked at the therapist through narrowed eyes. "There's no longer anything inherently the matter with Ilen but he's never been part of the family and it would be arbitrary to start treating him like part of it now?" she suggested. This was about Vara's understanding of the situation. No one was making Vara go to a therapist every Fenen.
"But if Narax had simply made a friend who he was very close to, you'd meet that friend, wouldn't you," the therapist said.
"There's no longer anything inherently the matter with Ilen, but he's associated with a traumatic memory for me, and I, as an adult with value and agency, can set boundaries and only let people in my life who I can associate with positively?" Tsuan guessed, looking away. It sounded like something she'd read in an advice column. "Present company excepted," she added snidely.
"What do you suppose your husband would say if you told him that and asked him to withdraw his backing of Sainted Roses's recommendation?" the therapist asked.
Tsuan scowled. "I really don't like you," she said.
"I'm sorry," said the therapist.
"I don't need a reason," she said. "I don't have to interact with people. I am an adult. I'm many times your age, even."
"I know how old you are, Tsuan," the therapist said. "And it's true, you don't need a reason. No one is trying to directly force you to meet Ilen. But I'm curious if you have a reason."
"I don't need one," Tsuan repeated.
"So you're doing what you're doing for no reason?" the therapist asked.
Tsuan didn't want to agree to that.
"I'll try talking to Kilaer again," she said.
"All right," the therapist agreed. "But we have the rest of this session to fill up, at least. Have you got a reason?"
"No," whispered Tsuan.
Chapter 11: Courage
"Mom?" said Korulen. She stepped out of the lift into her father's office. She thought of it as his, even though her mother was as likely as he was to be in it, doing roughly the same things with it.
"Mm?" replied Keo, looking up from some of Kanaat's compliance reports for the municipal government.
A week ago Ilen was cured and now he's a dragon died on Korulen's lips. "What are you doing in Barashi all the time?" she asked instead.
"Befriending a goddess," said Keo, smiling slightly. "Fraternizing with trolls. You can come with me for the latter some time; they're a fun bunch. But you might want to eat first. I know you don't like spicy food as much as I do."
"A goddess?" Korulen asked. "I always sort of thought..." She waved a hand.
"I haven't gotten any less cagey about dragon views on Elcenian religion," Keo laughed. "Sorry, dear, I wish I could share. But Barashin deities are fair game, and I sent polite letters to several of them asking if they'd like to be friends. Most of them ignored me, but Arimal didn't. I've been visiting her pretty regularly."
"She's the goddess of...?" Korulen had picked up a handful of things, from Barashin kamai teachers and from Talyn, but that didn't mean she had all twenty-four memorized. She did know it was irregular, maybe unheard of, for them to have friends. But her mother was exceptional enough to perhaps attract their interest and indulgence.
"Water," supplied Keo. "She doesn't have special water-related powers that the other gods don't have, as they're all locally omnipotent, but that's her job and what people pray to her about."
"Oh," Korulen said.
"I think she'd like to meet you. She's - hm, I actually wouldn't describe her as nice, but she's interesting, and you should come along sometime."
"Sometime, sure," echoed Korulen. "Um, is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"
"Why, do I look like I've got something weighing on my mind?" Keo asked, half-smiling.
"No." She really didn't. Korulen didn't know how. "We just haven't talked very much for a while. Is there anything up?"
"Trolls, deities," Keo said. "Paperwork, one of Mom's distant descendants writing for favors, lining up more kyma to join the department and teach an ever-growing cohort of your classmates. What's been going on in your life?"
I met my uncle who you won't acknowledge, who I can't bring myself to ask you to acknowledge. I brought Runa to meet him, in secret. I convinced Kaylo to figure out how to cure shrens.
"School stuff," Korulen said. "I should go find someone to practice kamai with - sorry, Mom, you're probably not a good typical case."
"Probably not," laughed Keo. "Bye!"
Korulen went back into the lift.
Keo? Narax thought.
She checked. It was not an emergency.
He wasn't going to drop it, was he. She would either have to answer him, or stop keeping an "ear" out for pings from her brother so that she couldn't even see if he'd stopped deciding to badger her, or keep listening to worthless pings several times a day until she wore out his stubbornness.
Or he wore out hers, which was feeling more likely.
<If you keep bothering me like this,> she sent, <I might stop listening, and stop checking to see if you really need me. I can only think of one time when that would've killed you, but still.>
<If you keep ignoring me,> Narax replied, <you'll never hear that there's no longer any shren to ignore me over.>
Did he think she was stupid? Or that she didn't read? Or that none of her friends had pinged her with the news weeks ago?
She didn't answer him.
<Keo, are you listening?>
Hallai and Ilen moved into a cheap sixteenth-floor Paraasilan apartment which had all of its "rooms" except the bathroom in a single open space. It had a tiny balcony sufficient to fly to, so they could avoid the stairs. In bird or insect form, not in dragon form, but dragon form would take them where they wanted to fly after they'd cleared the building.
Rhysel, apparently unable to restrain herself from niceness, introduced them both to her sister Ryll, who hired the pair of them as translators for the Senate after summary interview. The hours were irregular, tracking the need for communication between senators and ambassadors rather than any customary work schedule. Sometimes they were called in during the night and sometimes they were not called at all for days on end. But the commute wasn't bad, with the circle right in town and both of them bearing working wings that would get them to the right neighborhood in a few joyful degrees.
Ilen was on the lookout for a job in some sort of childcare to switch to, but found to his dismay that Esmaar had none to speak of. Almost everyone lived in enormous households, or at least had immediate relatives in enormous households, and those households would absorb a few extra children, easily and for free, when needed. People who didn't live like that appeared to be mostly recent immigrants, and those were mostly poor enough to favor options other than day care or rich enough to hire live-in help.
Like living in Narax's spare house in Imilaat, live-in helping was not an option for Ilen if he wanted to keep Hallai with him, and he did, however much everyone else hated her. He needed her; he only wanted children.
Paraasilan was a big city, and it did have two daycare services and one school which took children young enough for Ilen's experience to be relevant.
They were not hiring.
"You're the one who said you wanted to live here," was all Hallai said, raising an eyebrow, when he came home disconsolately after another day of wandering the city looking for anything he might have overlooked. "We're going in to do translation tomorrow. It pays better than daycare would anyway."
"When we've saved up enough to move to a nicer place, maybe it could be somewhere else?" Ilen asked quietly.
"I've got to be able to get to work, even if you change jobs," Hallai said. "I'm not going to impose on Samia and ask her to teleport me to the circle and back every day, she's got stuff to do. Tell her you're available to watch Alyah during gaps in our schedule if she'd rather have you doing it than Neris, which I bet you she would, and call it good."
Ilen did that, and became the go-to babysitter for his little niece whenever Narax and Samia worked while he did not. Hallai tolerated Alyah, although she took up embroidery and learned a silent-aura spell to block the baby's occasional cries.
He still couldn't ask Keo if she'd let him mind Runa.
But translation was a fine job. All he had to do was sit off to one side and talk over whoever spoke in a monotone, in whichever language was called for. Runa could have done it.
He didn't think Korulen would be stealing Runa away to visit for anything less than Narax's wedding. He idly considered asking Hallai to marry him.
Ilen decided that Hallai probably wouldn't want Runa there. In fact, for all he knew she despised the institution of marriage generally; he'd have to sound out her feelings first.
He should've done that about kids instead of making a fool of himself. He knew not everyone liked kids; why had he assumed Hallai would want them?
So he translated Martisen into other languages and those other languages into Martisen at the Senate, and he watched his youngest niece, and he adored his girlfriend.
Korulen and Kaylo were on one of their rare "proper" dates which was not canceled due to research or to sudden onset of hormones, and Finnah was their waitress.
(Finnah's tuition was paid by the house, but with the cure, Finnah expected the house to dissolve at any moment, and wanted to save up.)
"Hi, Korulen!" Finnah said brightly. "Kaylo. What can I get for you guys?"
"Surprise me?" Korulen asked. "Is that an allowed order?" and Finnah nodded once, then looked to Kaylo with a far less friendly expression.
"Olive and turkey sandwich, no cucumber," he said, looking bemused at the miracle. Finnah plucked his menu out of his hands, then took Korulen's too and left to put in their orders.
"Have you been antagonizing my roommate?" Korulen asked Kaylo, frowning. "She doesn't seem to like you, and I can't figure out why. If nothing else, you healed her."
"I haven't done anything to Finnah! Why is that your first idea?" exclaimed Kaylo. "Like you said, I healed her, and that's it. I don't think she's got a sudden identity crisis about it or she'd still be dyeing her hair. She didn't even have to wait because you jumped her up to the head of the line."
"I wonder why she doesn't like you," Korulen mused. "Or maybe I'm imagining things." She paused. "You don't have a problem with her, do you?"
"Huh? No. I mean, I can tell she doesn't care for me, but I don't really care about her one way or the other."
"Even though she used to be a shren."
"She's not one now. I was there. You were there."
"Yes, I know, I just wondered if there was lingering... discomfort about it."
Kaylo shook his head. "Nah. She's a dragon now, that's all. A weirdly ungrateful dragon with unspecified grudge."
"Interesting," said Korulen, thinking of her uncle, and her mother.
Towards the end of the winter term, Korulen and Runa went with their mother to Barashi to meet trolls and a goddess. Keo adopted a jade-green troll form for the first of those. The form was about as tall as a tall human, and looked like a mobile sculpture of a thickset heavy-browed figure without hair, deep fissures in the joints allowing Keo to bend. The form was dressed in a tunic and pants that tied at the ankles, and she had a silver torc on her upper arm, but no shoes. Runa was approximately unaffected by the change, able to track the underlying empathic signature regardless of the face wrapped around it, but it threw Korulen off.
The trolls in general were pretty friendly. Among others, Keo seemed to be particularly acquainted with Karanak (blue to Keo's green). Keo introduced him as a teacher of kamai at the University of Daasen's new program. He had become friends with Keo and went home to his clan on the University's off-days.
Korulen's only preexisting information about trolls had been from Kaylo's harried narrative about meeting them during a trip he'd taken to visit Master Stythyss. Kaylo had not liked the trolls, at all, and Korulen had reserved judgment but been privately wary of the species on his say-so. She trusted her mother to look after her, though, so she went among the massive hard-skinned people and was pleasantly surprised.
She did stay away from the food, all of which could make her tear up at ten paces.
But she let a few of the clan kids teach her a ball game, which she played in her miniature dragon shape to enjoy the advantage of extra limbs, and also toughness that could rival the trolls' when the ball struck her at speed. And she made copious use of mind kamai to follow their language, and none of them expressed an interest in challenging her to ritual combat the way the trolls Kaylo had met had done.
Korulen asked her mother about that, on the way to where they were planning to meet Arimal.
"Oh, Kaylo's too young to actually take part in one of those contests," Keo said. "You are too, but in your case, they knew in advance - in his I suppose he didn't let them get far enough to ask his age."
"But trolls randomly fighting each other or anyone else who looks interesting to fight is a thing?" Korulen asked, squeamish.
"Yeah, the first time I was there I got challenged about thirty times. I won them all. Trolls make an interesting noise when thrown into trees," Keo said, grinning toothily.
Korulen flapped to keep up. They were flying to a temple, which Keo knew the way to and Korulen didn't. Runa was clinging to Keo's saddle with all of her claws. "Kaylo made it sound like they only backed off when Stythyss brought up an obscure point of law."
"Well, I don't know what happened in that case. It sounds weird, but it's harmless, really. They almost never even get injured, let alone killed. And there are kyma on hand."
"Oh." Korulen was still glad she wasn't obliged to participate, but her mother was easily strong enough to fling a troll into a tree if the troll felt like inviting her to. "How much farther is the temple?"
"You can ride with your sister, if you're tired," Keo offered.
"No, I just want to know how far we're going."
"A few more miles. It's this very pretty abandoned temple," Keo said. "Arimal could just bring us there, but I like the scenery, and I don't often get a chance to go on a nice long flight like this."
The temple came into view a bit later, after what really was a pleasant flight. It was half ruins, half waterfall. Keo coasted to a stop on a platform of white stone under the falling spray, avoiding the fallen columns around the edges; water spattered her scales. The platform was indented with pools and thin streams between them, and rivulets flowed through their trenches and down a cracked terrace.
Korulen landed too, and avoided shifting into a form that was wearing clothes and would be less pleasant to get wet in. "Where's Arimal?" she asked.
"Here, child," said a voice that seemed more like part of the waterfall's thunder than a separate sound, even though it was light and understandable.
Korulen swiveled her head around. To her eyes, Arimal looked like a jade dragon only slightly bigger than Korulen's midgety form - presumably because Korulen herself was shaped that way. If they'd had a troll along, the troll would have seen a troll-goddess. "I thought Barashin gods had a... presence... thing?" she asked tentatively.
"Your mother has asked that I suppress it while visiting her. She finds it unpleasant," Arimal said with a thin, indulgent smile. "Were your father here, I imagine I would also be asked to suppress my image, to avoid giving them headaches, but at the moment he sees me only through her eyes."
"Oh. That makes sense." Korulen looked around at the fallen temple. "This place must have been beautiful. It still is, in a different way."
"It remains one of my favorites," Arimal agreed.
Runa fluttered off of Keo's back and splashed unceremoniously into one of the puddles that formed in depressions on the stone platform. "Hi!" she said to Arimal. "I'm Runa!"
"Hello, Runa," said Arimal with mock gravity.
"I am very cute," continued Runa.
"Yes, that is plain," Arimal said.
Korulen giggled in spite of herself.
"I am told," Arimal said, turning back to Korulen, "that you have evinced a desire to be more dragonlike than you presently are."
Korulen shifted her forefeet awkwardly. "Mom," she said. "I told you I didn't want you to go around telling people about the time I dyed my hair green. I was barely thirty."
"It is not a current desire?" asked Arimal.
"Well - I haven't really thought about it much lately," Korulen said, frowning. She looked at her little sister where she splashed. "I - I think I'd like it, but there's no way to do it, is there? I'm basically an elf. Who can turn into a little midget dragon with barely any dragon magic."
Arimal nodded once. "Why would you like to be a dragon, Korulen?" she asked.
"To be there for Runa," Korulen said first. "They live longer. My boyfriend's a dragon too - although actually it might be a problem if I was, given how dragons tend to do stuff - but sometimes I'm not sure he's that serious about me anyway, so. I'd like to be an empath, and to speak all the languages, and to shapeshift into anything I wanted even though I don't know what else I'd be." She shrugged. "Why do you ask?"
"My own reasons," Arimal said. "Thank you."
Keo and Arimal struck up a conversation about something unrelated, and Korulen shrugged her wings and went over to splash-fight with her little sister.
"Mom?" said Korulen, after they'd been unsent back home and Runa had been put down for a nap.
"That's me," said Keo.
"You're not talking to Uncle Narax right now," Korulen said tentatively.
"No, I'm not." Keo moved into the office and started stamping Kanaat's signature on a stack of letters about the coming spring term, which mailed themselves as soon as they were signed.
"What would it take for you to not speak to me?" Korulen asked. "How easy is that to do?"
"Sweetie, I'm your mother," said Keo.
"You're Uncle Narax's sister," said Korulen implacably.
Keo chewed her lip. "He's being a nuisance, and he ought to know better," she said.
"So if I were a nuisance and you thought I ought to know better -"
"Korulen, no," sighed Keo. "No, I'm not going to stop speaking to you. Although if you're trying to preemptively excuse yourself from being disrespectful or vulgar or something, that's not going to work."
"I wasn't thinking that." Korulen swallowed and closed her eyes. "Mom, Ilen's a dragon now. Kaylo at least doesn't have any problem with people who just used to be shrens, so this isn't about you being a dragon and speaking Draconic and understanding things about words that I can't, or anything strange like that. But you haven't... done anything about it. And you're ignoring Uncle Narax about it. And I don't understand why, and I've been afraid to bring it up because I didn't know if you'd ignore me too, and Uncle Ilen is too nice to badger anyone about it but it bothers me, Mom."
Keo was already sitting, but as she listened, she looked like she became... heavier, more pressed to the chair, as though Korulen's speech was being shoveled into her lap. She stopped stamping things.
"What's going on?" Korulen asked. "I can almost, almost understand about Grandma. I think it might be a separate thing to have had a shren, no matter what happens to the shren afterwards. But I don't understand about you."
Keo closed her eyes.
"I've always had my powers," Keo said. "Always. When I first hatched, I had them. It is astonishing that I have never actually killed anyone, because small children have no self-control and no understanding of consequences. My predecessor put some safeties in, I'm not sure exactly what. But he didn't outright cripple me, because he knew he could die at any time and might not be around to take out whatever he added as I grew up - and in fact he wasn't. So for all practical purposes, I have always been able to do anything with other people's minds. What do you think Runa would do with that power?"
"She's... she's already pretty good at not reading people's emotions in detail without permission," Korulen said.
"Most of the time. But empathy isn't very useful. It'll satisfy a limited amount of curiosity, but to get people to do anything with it takes practiced finesse. I had unlimited power, unlimited finesse. What do you think Runa would do?"
"Um." Korulen took her turn to close her eyes and imagine her baby sister with mental omnipotence. "Brainwash everyone into thinking that she's the cutest thing in the world. Make you bring her all the lemondrops she wanted. Make you forget about it if she misbehaved. Learn anybody's secrets she wanted if they were even a little bit interesting. Stop you in the middle of a lecture she didn't want to hear -"
"Probably, yes," Keo said. "Maybe not all that, if she were brought up very carefully - which I was, between my predecessor and my parents. They tended to lean on projecting guilt at me, when I misused my powers. But I wasn't always made of mischief. Sometimes I had good intentions."
"Mom, what does this have to do with -"
"Sometimes I'd spy on people who didn't know I was watching," Keo said, quietly. "To see if they needed help. I always got Vara what she wanted for her hatching day. I solved a nervous tic that your grandpa developed centuries ago when he did police work. Sometimes I'd peek into my mother's mind, late at night, when she was sitting up and thinking. And I would see what she was thinking about, in case I could help."
"You found out," Korulen whispered.
"When he was eighteen," agreed Keo.
"And you went looking," Korulen said.
"When I was seventy-nine. With no more maturity or caution than you had when you were twenty-three," Keo said.
"What did you find, Mom?"
"You know what I found," Keo said. "Don't make me think about it again. Please don't." She got up from her husband's desk and swept through the unsolid bookshelf into the headmaster's quarters.
Korulen hesitated for a tick. And then for another tick.
And then she followed.
Her parents were sitting togther on the bed, Kanaat's arms wrapped around Keo's shoulders as Keo hung her head.
"Mom, that's not good enough," she said.
Keo looked up and met Korulen's eyes in shock. "What?"
"That was almost three hundred years ago," Korulen said. "It hurt, I understand that it hurt, but Ilen doesn't go on all the time about how much it hurt to be him when he was a baby. It didn't hurt you more than him."
"I had no slow ramp-up -"
"But it was a lot shorter."
"And I'm a dragon. I knew what I was looking at -"
"Ilen knew what he was. He knew Draconic too."
"Young lady -"
Korulen put up her hands. "I can't make you do anything. Any more than anyone can make Grandma Tsuan do anything. But I'm saying, it's not good enough. Maybe when he was still a shren and you had that excuse too. You had company there. But not now. It's not good enough. That's all."
And Korulen turned around and left her parents behind.
She tried not to shake as she directed the lift.
Ilen was at the grocery store, checking periodically to make sure that his train of baskets was following him. He couldn't cook. Hallai was marginally better at it - she could at least chop things up without bleeding on the vegetables and having to run to a light. But he could follow a grocery list.
He was looking for broccoli when he heard it. It was somewhere between a whisper-spell word, and knowing what someone had said to you in a dream.
A woman's voice, threading through his mind, tentative and soft. <Hello.> A pause, during which he didn't know what to do, what was going on. <...I'm your sister.>
Chapter 12: Curiosity
The spring was the fifth term of kamai taught at Binaaralav, and there were enough students to justify half a dozen kamai instructors. Korulen's classes were mostly with Corvan (he couldn't convince most of the students to address him as Master, so settled for first-name terms). Rhysel was still learning mind kamai, but with a dedicated mind instructor available, preferred to teach more in her own specialty.
Korulen's best friend Lutan studied image, and spent a lot of time in lessons with Rhysel's blood-sister Eryn, who Lutan liked immensely. Eryn preferred first-name terms because they suited her. She sat in on other classes on a regular basis for what was apparently her own entertainment. As long as she was there, she'd partner odd-numbered students in mind exercises (she didn't do them, but she could have them done to her). Korulen occasionally wound up partnered with Eryn; Corvan wouldn't allow her to stick to Kaylo as her partner in every class.
<Rapid conversation workings will fail to take hold on trivial subjects,> Corvan told the class. <You would have to be exceptional indeed to use this working to speed up a speech about what you had for breakfast.>
<Exceptional in what way?> asked Mata. The wolfrider girl was generalizing, in everything except image kamai. She still had some trouble with Leraal and resorted to language-independent mindspeech whenever permitted. In Corvan's class it was outright required; their classes were always silent.
<You would need to be able to come up with an inordinate number of things to say about your breakfast, specifically,> Corvan replied. <At any rate, when you try the working, be sure to attempt to rapidly transfer your explanation of a sufficiently complex subject.>
<Such as?> asked Kolaan, an elf boy in the back row.
<Perhaps a novel you read recently which your partner will not mind hearing the plot of. Personal drama. A hobby you are capable of pontificating on at length. Something of that nature,> replied Corvan. <You may choose to discuss the topic choice ahead of time. These conversations take little time but it is still possible to become bored.>
Korulen turned to Eryn. <Preferences?> she asked.
<Personal drama, definitely,> chirped Eryn. She had to use language in her mindspeech, never having learned the language-independent variant; Korulen accordingly read her deeply enough to discern the meaning under the Martisen words. <I'm nosy.>
Korulen considered. She definitely wouldn't run out of things to say if she went over the whole mess with Ilen. Would he mind? Would her mother mind; would Grandma; would Uncle Narax?
She looked down at the notes she'd taken during the lecture on the working. Eventually she determined that if she did it right, she could be cagey about a lot of details. The rapid conversation would cover any question that Eryn would ask, but as long as Korulen walled off some answers in advance it wouldn't provide them.
And she'd still have more than a few degrees' worth of mess to talk about, so she could practice the working.
<All set?> Eryn asked.
Korulen nodded and reached out.
"Excuse me," said Hallai, "who did you say you were?"
"I'm Rhysel's sister Eryn," said the stranger.
"You don't look like her," Hallai said. "Except for the ears, I guess."
"We're not biological relatives, we're blood-sisters. We adopted each other," said Eryn. "Rhysel and Keo have done the same thing, so in a very distant and peculiar way I'm a little bit not actually at all related to your boyfriend."
Hallai scowled. Keo was yet another demand on Ilen's attention, and she didn't even need to arrange visits to intrude; she could just talk directly into his head without Hallai even knowing about it at any time. Hallai's only defense was to sharply increase the percentage of the time Ilen spent unwilling to be disturbed by sisterly conversation. It was tiring. "That doesn't explain why you're here," she said pointedly.
"Oh, that. I'm nosy," said Eryn.
"Mm-hm," Hallai agreed.
"And I heard a few things about you and your boyfriend, and it sounds to me like you're surrounded by a lot of people who don't like you very much, and that sounds like it sucks," Eryn went on. "Especially since it sounded to me like most of them had their minds made up about you before they had much chance to see you in more than one or two situations."
"Mm-hm," repeated Hallai.
"So I'm curious about your side of the story," Eryn said. "Ilen's not home?"
"No, he's working. Special request from the troll ambassador," said Hallai.
"Can I come in? I just want to know what you have to say, about - everything," Eryn said.
"Because you're nosy."
"Because I'm nosy."
"Does that really get you in very many doors?" Hallai asked.
"You'd be surprised!" laughed Eryn.
Hallai shrugged and stepped aside. She could talk while she sewed.
<What, Mom?> Korulen replied. Mindspeech felt different when it was her mother instead of a kama. It was as though kyma spoke through their eyes - you could mindspeak to someone you weren't looking at, but if they were in the room it felt most natural to look at them. Just like talking aloud. Keo's mindspeech felt like she clung to the back of Korulen's ear in her mouse form and whispered there. (But no, she didn't have a mouse form anymore; Arimal had freed up the magic for her, so she could become a troll without spending her last form and having none free for emergencies.)
<Can you teleport to the summoning circle?.>
<Yeah. What is it? I have class in two ticks.>
<You're excused; this is important, and time-dependent. Meet me at the circle.>
<What is it?> Korulen asked again, raising her hand to teleport. She'd have bidden Finnah goodbye, but Finnah wasn't in.
<It's a surprise.>
Keo was very good at surprises; she could know whether they'd be welcome before springing them on her target. Korulen cast the spell.
It took a few ticks for them to find each other in the crowded complex, even mindspeaking directions to each other. Finally Korulen caught a glimpse of jade-green hair and tapped her mother on the shoulder.
Through the circle they went, jogging away from it before it sucked them back to Elcenia.
"What's the surprise?" Korulen asked.
"Not yet," Keo said, grinning. "Come on, this way."
She turned into her natural shape, and Korulen changed to follow. "Where are we going?"
"North," said Keo cheerfully.
"To the river. Your father's already there," Keo said.
"Dad's here? Why?" Korulen asked.
"Well, it's not a surprise, for him, obviously," Keo said impishly. "Otherwise the same thing."
"You're not, like, marrying a second husband or anything...?"
"No, I wouldn't spring that on you," Keo said.
They reached the river, or rather a large sandy shore of the river. It was full of people. A second glance revealed that about half of them had dragon-colored hair, mostly shades of blue. And Kaylo was there, standing near Kanaat, and Arimal.
"What's going on?" Korulen asked.
"Hi, Sunshine," said Kaylo.
"You're in on this? Whatever this is?" Korulen asked, landing and turning back to her elf shape.
"This," said Kaylo, "is me and a lot of miracles who owe me favors."
"And me!" called Finnah's voice from the crowd; Korulen turned to see her roommate waving.
"How do you not owe me a - no, not having that argument," muttered Kaylo under his breath.
"What are you calling in the favors for, then?" Korulen asked.
"Dragon magic," said Kaylo.
"That form of magic is not of our world, our domain," Arimal said. "I cannot manufacture it. But it can be moved, while it stands here in my sphere of influence."
"I could move it, too," Kaylo said in Korulen's ear. "The only trouble is I don't know what would happen while I was doing it, and it'd take longer to get enough than it takes to cure a shren. Your mom's friend here can do it instantly. I got the volunteers, though."
"Move it - but - what?" Korulen asked.
"Arimal's gonna make you and your dad into dragons," Finnah said. "We're gonna learn some more forms, and that'll free up some more magic, and Arimal can use it to do your mom a favor."
"That's why mostly blue-groups," Kaylo said. "Since they can learn more forms."
"I think Korulen could have figured that part out," Finnah said.
"How many people is this?" Korulen asked.
"Lots. I didn't ask them individually, just figured out how many forms' worth of volunteers I needed and asked the house organizer people to see what they could do," Kaylo replied.
"For me and Dad," Korulen breathed.
"Now that this is explained," said Arimal, "we may as well proceed. Provided, Korulen, that you will confirm your consent, from your own lips. And you, Kanaat; despite your link I would prefer to hear it in your voice."
"Yes," said Korulen and her father almost in unison.
"Well, then," said Arimal.
And to Korulen's eyes, Arimal's hair changed color around the image of elf ears.
Korulen picked up a tendril of her own hair.
Just like she'd dyed it when she was young, but truer to the color, and more natural to the hair.
Korulen already knew how to shift, of course, and she did. Her dragon form was as accessible as ever, but it was no longer a stunted little thudia alternate shape, it was sixteen feet long, roughly Kaylo's size. "Will I," she asked, shifting back to elf shape after stretching wide tented wings, "age like a dragon, from here?"
"Yes," Arimal said. "But I did not make you as you would be were you a trueborn dragon and your true age."
Korulen imagined looking twelve again and blushed. "Thanks," she said. "Thank you so much. Arimal and Mom and Kaylo."
"I turned into a panda bear for you," called Finnah.
"And you," laughed Korulen, glancing at Finnah, and at her father's newly green eyes, and at the crowd, "all of you."
Keo gathered Korulen into a hug and kissed her forehead. "You're welcome," she said in Draconic.
Rhysel made a habit of throwing dinner parties on Fenen evenings. Ilen had a standing invitation. Sometimes he went. It was a convenient way to see Keo and Kanaat and Korulen and even Runa all in one place, as well as Rhysel's adorable twin daughters. He tried to be friendly to the miscellaneous other guests, but there was often a distressingly large number of them, and he was only used to being around large crowds of children.
Sometimes he didn't go. It was overstimulating. And it was an easy way to put Hallai in a bad mood for the next day or two.
He'd told Rhysel he wouldn't be at the dinner on the fourteenth, but he was regretting it, as Samia and Hallai had produced last-minute plans to see a play together and he was alone in the apartment with nothing to do. If he asked Rhysel of course she'd say that he was welcome to turn up even though he'd declined for the week. But he didn't expect she'd have enough food for an extra, unplanned guest.
There was a knock on the door, and he hopped to his feet to answer it.
At the door was a half-elf with wavy blond hair who he'd seen at some of the dinners. She was a friend of Rhysel's, he thought, or maybe a relative, and taught at the school. He cast about to remember her name. "Hello, erm. Elyn?"
"Eryn," corrected the halfblood. "Hi, Ilen. Is Hallai home?"
Ilen shook his head. "She's out with her friend."
"Oh. Can I come in?"
"Uh..." Ilen tried to think of a reason to refuse. He couldn't claim not to know her, for all that he'd forgotten her name; they'd met several times. It would be rude to just abruptly ask why. "I guess."
Eryn sidled in. "How come you're not at Rhysel's for dinner?"
"I don't go every week," he said. "Why aren't you?"
"I don't go every week either. I had plans but my girlfriend canceled on me. So I thought I'd come by and see if Hallai was around to chat."
"You're friends with Hallai?" Ilen asked, puzzled. He hadn't thought Hallai maintained friends beside him and Samia, and maybe Finnah but Finnah was immersed deeply into her schooling and didn't come over to visit.
"I don't know if I'd put it that way, but we talk sometimes. Since she's not home, can I talk to you instead?" Eryn replied with a winning smile.
"Why would you want to talk to me?" Ilen asked.
"Well, I've heard a lot about your story from Hallai, and some from Korulen," Eryn said. "But it's always good to get more perspectives."
"Oh." Ilen sat down in the armchair. It had come with the apartment and the upholstery was faded. "What do you want to know?"
"Honestly? I want to know what you see in Hallai," Eryn said. "I think she's interesting, but I wouldn't date her. And that's not just because she's got a boyfriend and I've got a girlfriend, and it's in spite of her being extremely pretty. Why do you like her?"
That was a weird question. "I need her. She takes care of me," Ilen said.
"Even still? You're not agoraphobic any more," Eryn said. She plopped onto the couch, yellow waves of hair bouncing on her shoulders.
"She still takes care of me," Ilen said. "I wouldn't know what to do without her. And she loves me and I love her."
"Do you think that's a good reason to date her?" Eryn asked. She was leaning forward, elbows on knees, eyes wide. Ilen felt very stared-at.
"I... what? Why are you dating your girlfriend?" he asked, scrunching his arms towards himself.
"I enjoy spending time with her, I admire her intelligence, I like the challenge of getting her to laugh, and she has a fantastic rear," Eryn said promptly.
Ilen tried to think of comparable answers to satisfy Eryn. He wasn't sure why it seemed important to have satisfactory answers for her, but it was easier than trying to kick her out of the apartment. "I - um - Hallai's pretty, like you said, and." He thought. "I do enjoy spending time with her. She's gone now and I'm not sure what to do with myself."
"Not knowing what to do when she's gone isn't the same as enjoying her company," Eryn said.
"It's not? But I don't like it when she's gone," Ilen said. "I miss her."
"That's not really the same either. I'm okay when I'm not around my girlfriend. I have hobbies and friends and work. But being with her makes me happy."
"Being with Hallai makes me happy," he said automatically. He wasn't sure if that was exactly accurate. He couldn't read his own emotions from the outside to be able to categorize them. But he knew being with Hallai made him feel safe. Safe and at home and content and anchored. And being away from her made him all at loose ends and afraid.
"Really?" Eryn asked, tilting her head.
"Why are you asking me this?" Ilen asked.
"Because I'm curious," Eryn said. "It genuinely puzzles me why someone like you would be dating someone like Hallai."
"We love each other," Ilen said.
"Maybe she talks differently when you're around, but it sounds like she thinks she owns you, more than like she loves you," Eryn said gently. "Like she earned you and now she's entitled to do what she wants with you. She doesn't like it when you visit your friends and family."
"They don't get along," Ilen said, fidgeting. "But she lets me go anyway."
"Yeah, I don't like my girlfriend's work friends, but I don't complain when she hangs out with them. Except when she cancels dates to do it," Eryn said. "And she doesn't need me to let her. I don't think Rhysel's husband likes Narax but he lets her invite him over to dinner once a week. He does kind of need to let her because it's his house too, but you wouldn't need to bring anybody into Hallai's space to go to Fenen dinners."
"What are you saying?" Ilen murmured.
"Well, I hadn't made up my mind before I talked to you, but now I'm pretty much convinced that you should dump Hallai," Eryn said.
"But then what - what would I do?" Ilen whispered.
"Can you afford this place on your own?" Eryn asked.
Mental arithmetic said yes, barely, if he went to dinner at Rhysel's every week and let her press leftovers on him to take home, and asked Narax and Keo for a little money when he watched Alyah or Runa. They'd offered before and he'd turned them down. He nodded slowly.
"She didn't want to live in Esmaar anyway. Give her a couple of weeks' notice, I guess, but if I were you I'd dump her and lean on friends and family for a while. Rhysel'll bend over backwards to help you out if you let her, you know. Probably your brother and your sister and your niece will too."
"But what will I do?" Ilen asked.
"Go to work, sleep, eat, babysit nieces, find something to do with your spare time?" Eryn suggested. "Develop hobbies? I know Hallai embroiders. You should have something to do too."
"But - but -"
"It's just my opinion," Eryn shrugged. "But I think you can learn to live without her, and you'd be better off that way."
Ilen shivered. Eryn was the only person who'd ever said it point-blank, but he was pretty sure everyone else he knew would agree with her if he asked. Even Rhysel, who said she didn't dislike Hallai.
They'd all agree if he ever brought it up. They were never going to like Hallai. Hallai would never like them.
They thought Hallai was bad for him, and even if he couldn't, couldn't see it, even if she made him feel safe and warm... they weren't stupid, were they...?
"I - I'll talk to her," he said.
"I'm glad to hear it. You deserve better," said Eryn earnestly. "Well, I'm going to head home. Thanks for the chat!"
Eryn patted him on the head twice, and then bustled out the door.
Ilen stared at the floor.
Hallai was home well after dark, humming to herself the musical theme of the play she and Samia had gone to see. She'd never been to many shows, since the house only rarely found tickets low-priced enough to justify, she hadn't been high on the priority list to get any, and she'd typically not wanted to spend her small luxuries budget on things she couldn't test out ahead of time.
She noticed that Ilen was pensive and anxious as soon as she reached their floor. Since his healing she didn't make a habit of monitoring him throughout the day from arbitrary distances, but within thirty feet she'd sense him anyway and generally felt she might as well open up to extra precision.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" she asked, stepping inside and hanging up her jacket. "You're not worried that Rhysel and company will be annoyed with you for staying home, are you? They won't care. You don't ever have to go when you don't want to."
"That's not it," he said softly.
"Tell me about it," she said, sitting in his lap and running her palms over his hair. He closed his eyes and calmed, but only a little, before distress spiked again.
"Eryn came by," said Ilen.
"And now you're a wreck? What did she say to you?" exclaimed Hallai. "Yeesh, I thought she was harmless or I would've told her to buzz off. What did she say?"
Ilen's jaw seemed to be stuck shut, and he trembled in her arms.
"Sweetie, tell me," said Hallai, reaching to rub his neck.
"E-Eryn thinks -"
Hallai waited, kneading her fingertips into the back of Ilen's neck.
"She said -"
Hallai waited another few ticks, and said, "Do you need me to calm you down?"
Ilen shook his head miserably. "No - no -"
"Why not?" Hallai asked, bemused. She couldn't think of a time he'd ever actually turned her down. She only asked to prompt the conversation to move along. Ilen loved calm, loved safe predictable feelings.
"Because I don't think I'd better let you comfort me when - when I'm - when I'm trying to -"
"What did Eryn say?" Hallai demanded.
Ilen's voice was almost inaudible. "She said I should break up with you."
"She did what?"
But he wouldn't say it again; he was squirming under her where she sat, and she stood up so fast her vision swam. "She told you what?"
Ilen scrunched his knees up to his chin.
"And you're doing what she says, are you? I thought you loved me!" Hallai was raising her voice, but she didn't care if the neighbors could hear through the cheap unsoundproofed walls. Someone had walked right into her apartment and kicked her boyfriend out from under her. Her Ilen. She regretted ever having met Samia, if this was the result of leaving him home. She regretted ever having talked to Eryn, good listener or no. She regretted letting them live in Paraasilan instead of on some isolated mountaintop in Mekand.
"I - I thought -"
"What did you think?" shrieked Hallai. "That you'd just drop me like a piece of frozen air, because someone you've barely met thinks she knows better than I do what's right for you? Is that what you thought?"
Ilen's breath was coming in shaky fits and starts, and his face was hidden by his knees, but she could feel the waves of misery pouring off him like heat, and she couldn't bear to be around it any more. Not forced out of her task of looking after him. It was no longer her job to mitigate those emotions.
And she couldn't stand it, that he was there and hurting and some near-stranger had done it to him and he didn't have the willpower to resist. She couldn't stand it that now she was supposed to do without him, the only person she'd ever, ever loved, her Ilen, because Eryn had made up her mind and snuck in when Hallai wasn't there to defend herself.
She couldn't stand it.
Hallai went to the balcony and jumped off. She considered hitting the ground, just to get it out of her system, she probably wouldn't deal too much damage if she was forced into a shift on the street. But she turned goshawk at the last moment and caught air to fly higher. Above the tips of the buildings, she turned dragon.
Eryn's signature wasn't in Elcenia, but that only left one world to search through to find that interfering little bitch and make her pay.
Chapter 13: Wrath
Eryn's empathic signature was an infuriatingly bubbly signal of happiness and undulating amusement, and it pulled Hallai across the surface of the planet as though it and not her wings propelled her. Whatever was entertaining Eryn wouldn't go on entertaining her much longer. How dare she. How dare that woman invite herself into Hallai's home under pretense of civil curiosity and poison Ilen against her. How dare she go home after that and find something funny.
It was a long flight. The horizon curved ahead of Hallai. She didn't bother tracking time. What else was she going to do with her day besides chase the one who'd wronged her?
Ilen could have the apartment. Hallai wasn't going to turn him out into the world. He'd probably die if she did.
Without the apartment why should she bother showing up to work? She could kill things for food. She'd done it as a goshawk, tearing apart vermin on her off-hours for something to do, and when the cafeteria served meals she didn't like. It was free. Maybe if she had leftover aggression when she was done with Eryn it'd help. She could land in a jungle somewhere and learn to hunt as a lioness too.
But first things first.
Eryn was having far too much fun.
Hallai flew on.
It was dusk when the angle of the followed signature started changing rapidly enough to indicate nearness. Just the tip of the sun cast shadows when Hallai triangulated her way to a tower and landed on the mountain that stood under it.
There was another signature in the tower, too, close enough to blip on Hallai's senses without being familiar. Irrelevant.
Hallai meant to call out Eryn's name, demand that she account for herself, but when she opened her jaws and cold air hissed in past her teeth, all she could force out was an incoherent roar.
Faces appeared at the window. Eryn and another blonde, less plump, similar in the eyes - a relative maybe. They looked tiny with Hallai in dragon form and approaching forty feet long. If she stood up on her hind feet and stretched out her neck she could look in the window of the fourth and highest story. She did that, to meet Eryn's eyes.
She roared again.
Eryn didn't even seem to recognize her. She was only confused and frightened, and her relative the same.
A little frightened. Maybe Eryn had never seen an Elcenian dragon before. She had only the mild unsettled trembling of someone facing something unknown and large and loud and sharp.
Not frightened enough.
Hallai had never used her empathy as a weapon. She'd used it productively. Her strength was to counter Ilen's, when he was afraid. It was to calm and smooth and gentle and nudge.
But no one had ever reached into her ribcage and extracted her heart before.
And so Hallai did not feel so unjustified in using it to terrify.
Eryn screamed, and scrambled backwards, falling over herself to get away. She sobbed and hid her face behind her arms, soaking her sleeves with tears. She wailed and shook and tried to move backwards through the far wall of the tower.
Hallai hadn't included the relative in the projection. She could focus on it with more force that way, crash down on her target like the moon was falling. But out of the corner of her eye she saw the relative moving, now more alarmed, grabbing something made of wood from a table. Wood wouldn't hurt Hallai, but magic might. She aimed doubly. Let this person who was apparently on friendly terms with Eryn fear, too.
But unlike Eryn, who went on screaming and clawing at her scalp on the floor, the stranger was motivated by fear to action. She pointed the wooden object and -
Nothing that Hallai noticed, and the relative's eyes went wide and her fear spiked under the layer of projection. She hooked her hind foot into a lower window to climb higher, and reached a claw into the window to swat at the wooden implement anyway, but couldn't reach. With a snarl, she pushed the wall in with both forefeet. A few shoves later and she'd cracked it, and a few more after that and the window was just part of a large ragged hole in the wall.
She reached again, and the relative jabbed in her direction with the stick.
This, Hallai did feel. There was pain - come to think of it, there had been the previous time, too, just not enough to catch her attention; this she detected, but it was more than bearable. But also sickness and exhaustion. Her breath came with difficulty; she wouldn't be able to roar again, not without embarrassing herself. She was so tired.
But empathy didn't take much energy. Hallai rested her chin on the floor of the damaged tower and hissed and went on.
Fear obviously moved the relative to act the way it didn't Eryn. Hallai switched tactics. Sadness, let the annoying distraction try to attack her under a crushing press of that. Let them both. Eryn could feel the consequences of her actions.
Hallai might have gone into more detail in the projection, given a more thorough understanding to Eryn of what she'd done, how much she'd hurt, but the relative still held her stick, and was weeping uncontrollably but could still point and shoot.
The dragon's wings drooped with more heaviness, and she tried to bite at the attacking kama but couldn't lift her head. She slid away from the side of the tower and collapsed on the mountainside, but she would not stop making either miserable until she was done.
Her dragon shape was sick. She'd been in it because she'd been flying; she could project as well in any other, though, and wasn't interested in tearing up the tower further. She shifted to her human form, but that felt sick too; she appeared in it standing but couldn't keep her feet.
Lioness, also sick.
Goshawk, sick, but light-boned enough that she felt perhaps she could fly. She could get away before the kama with the stick made her worse.
Hallai took to the air.
She got a fair distance, pressing misery at both targets, and giving up on the relative to focus on Eryn when she thought she was out of kamai range, and then she dove to the ground and could not deny sleep.
Ilen rocked in place in his chair. He was hungry, but they only had ingredients, because they were cheaper, and he couldn't cook. He was cold, but Hallai had embroidered the only blanket in the apartment and he couldn't bear to touch it after what he'd done to her. He was alone, and she wasn't coming home, and it was his fault, and he couldn't even retreat into emotional screaming insanity that demanded a magical solution anymore, he could only sit and rock and mourn.
So he tilted himself forward and back and wrapped his arms around himself in an inadequate facsimile of a hug and tried to remember whether starvation was the kind of death that killed just one form, or all of them.
Hallai didn't know how much time had passed when she woke up. All she knew was that she was still weighed down with sickness, her wings sprawled out awkwardly to her sides where she'd crashed, and she was fuzzy-headed and dizzy and could feel every one of her feathers where they were threaded through her skin. She shifted human, and it was no improvement; she was still heavy and oversensitive, overcome with vertigo and cotton in her skull.
She was hungry, and thirsty. She didn't think she could do much about getting herself food in her current state, but she'd crashed right next to a stream. She dragged herself in its direction and spent a few degrees figuring out how to put her mouth against the water without inhaling it or having to press her hands into service.
After a few mouthfuls, which tasted silty but better than nothing, she relaxed and lay where she was. Eryn's signature was gone; she must be in Elcenia. So was that other kama's. Probably they were rallying friends to come kick Hallai while she was down.
Hallai turned lioness and shut her eyes. It was marginally better than the human form, not because it was any less sick but because it had more affordances for lounging comfortably even on rough ground. Whatever was the matter with her had to be inherently magical on top of being a kama's fault. Ordinary diseases wouldn't affect more than one form unless they were all infected separately, and certainly wouldn't affect a reptile, two mammals, and a bird all the same way. She wondered if it would kill her.
A shadow fell over her back, and the chill was as unpleasant as the warmth from the sun had been, and Hallai cracked an eye open to see what it was.
It was a dragon, but not one like Hallai had ever seen before. She had black and orange patterns splotched across pebbled skin, and a salamander-like face peering down at Hallai's copper-furred form, and was far larger than even Hallai's own dragon form, by at least two or three times.
"Why, my eggs," she said, "what a strangely colored creature. Why might that be, my eggs?"
"Your eggs?" Hallai asked, bewildered.
The black-and-orange dragon reared back, surprised. "And it speaks."
"I speak? I'm astonished. That's new," said Hallai as sarcastically as she could without moving her mouth too much.
The salamander-dragon chuckled softly, settling back down on all fours. "I did not mean to offend, speaking lion."
"I'm not a lion," complained Hallai.
"Ah. Of course not. Appearances deceive, my eggs," murmured the dragon.
"Are there some eggs around that you're talking to?" Hallai asked, blearily looking off to the left and giving up before turning to the right.
"Not around. Inside. But oh, they can hear," said the dragon. "Who are you, shining unlion?"
"And I am Sal. What non-lion thing are you? What makes your coat bright like metal and lets you speak? In my language, no less."
"I'm a dragon from another world. I can shapeshift and speak any language," said Hallai tiredly. "And I am sick and hungry and don't really want to make small talk."
"You are a sick and hungry dragon here alone?" Sal asked, sounding horrified.
"Mm-hm." Hallai had room to shift under Sal's nose; she did it, just for a tick, to prove her claim, and then became a lion again.
"Where is your conclave?"
"I don't have one of those... things. Whatever it is," Hallai said.
"A conclave. A community of dragons."
"Oh." Hallai thought of the shren house. But she hadn't been a dragon there. And didn't have it anymore. "No. Don't have one."
"Well. If you have no conclave, you must obtain one. I am nearly ready to return home myself. Can you fly?"
"I can pick you up, if you stay this small. But I fear catching your disease, while carrying my eggs. They are so vulnerable. What is it that afflicts you?"
"I don't know. A kama did it to me. It might be more than one thing."
"A humanoid kama?"
"Halfbood," Hallai specified.
"Ah. They are not worth associating with; perhaps you should simply avoid them. I know only a small amount of kamai, and perhaps not the right kind, but if I look carefully..." Sal reached out a delicate claw to touch Hallai's side, and Hallai wasn't in much position to protest. "I do not think you will spread your sickness."
"Can you fix me?" Hallai asked.
"No. But I can safely take you to the conclave. No dragon should be sick and hungry and alone, even if you have enraged a kama."
Hallai didn't much care where she went, and it sounded like Sal or Sal's friends would feed her, so she didn't make a fuss when Sal scooped her up in long foreclaws and took to the air.
"We must always look after our kin, my eggs," she murmured. "Even distant kin."
"Kama's wrath," pronounced the spike-spangled dusky red dragon who had been introduced to Hallai as Ban. He seemed to be a different subtype from Sal, no more alike than a copper and a violet. He continued peering at Hallai, who sprawled in natural form in a comfortably mossy cave the conclave had provided her. "Three times over. You say you felt nothing the first time?"
"It hurt, but not enough that I'd notice," Hallai said.
"And you were in this... form, at the time. The foolish biped must have neglected to compensate for your size, and you suffer most of your symptoms only from the second and third workings, but that is more than enough."
"Can you fix her?" Sal asked Ban.
Ban shook his head. "Not yet. When the illnesses have burned through some of their staying power I will be able to accelerate her healing, but I can do nothing of value now. Only the kama who attacked her could reverse it, or a more skilled practitioner than I."
"Hear this, my eggs, kamai is powerful, but not all-powerful," murmured Sal.
"Hear this, my eggs, it is best to avoid picking fights," Ban said good-naturedly.
"Oh, I did not start this," growled Hallai. "The image kama started it. I would've left the other one alone but she went after me."
"I do not say that you started it," Ban said. "I did not witness any of this. But my eggs are most likely to have the chance to suffer what you do if they pick fights when they have rested and hatched and grown, and I spoke to them."
"Right." Hallai was vaguely amused by the practice of speaking to unlaid eggs. "They're yours too?"
Hallai cut off that line of inquiry there; she didn't want to think about happy couples, not with her loss so fresh. "So I just... do I lie here for days, months?" The dragon language contained neither a term for seven-day periods, nor the ten-day ones that were the popular substitute among Barashi's humanoid cultures.
"Perhaps fifteen days," Ban said. "But I have not seen your sort of dragon before, or three kama's wraths overlaid on each other, so this is only a guess. At least I do not expect that you will die of it. With no conclave of your own, we will look after you, of course."
"There's no 'of course' about it," said Hallai irritably. Her joints were all stiff. Between sentences she held her breath as long as she could to postpone the wheezing exhalations and struggling gasps that followed.
"Yes there is," contradicted Sal. "You are a kind of dragon, however strange. If you need a conclave's help, you have it. But you are not trapped here, if that is your concern. You can go if you wish, under your own power or asking conveyance from one of us, now or when you have recovered. Listen, my eggs, our conclave is floor, not wall..."
"Does your kind of dragon fall into the Sleep?" Ban asked. "Have you learned to trigger it? It would last longer than the kama's wrath would, but might be pleasantest on balance."
"No, we sleep, but we don't do it for years on end," Hallai said when she'd deciphered the word's significance. "Just parts of days."
"What about eating? Do you eat?" Sal asked.
"Of course I eat." Hallai paused. That might not be obvious; she slept differently, maybe she ate differently. And actually she did, come to think of it. "But if I eat enough to feed whatever form I'm in, then I'm fed. I don't have to handle them separately."
"So you could eat as a lion," suggested Ban.
"Yeah. I don't care. If you're low on food -"
"No, no, you misunderstand," said Sal. "We have no shortage of prey, and you are welcome to all you need in any or every shape when you can catch it for yourself. But if you can eat smaller game than your normal shape suggests and this will be no hardship, we can ask a child to do your hunting without that child needing to make many trips. That is all."
"Sure. Makes no difference to me. I'm used to eating in human shape," Hallai said.
Ban made a little hissing sound. "Well, we would prefer you didn't do anything as vulgar as take that form," he said. "On occasion, conclaves tolerate bipeds, but only when they are the ones who take the trouble to be our shape."
"Makes no difference to me," Hallai repeated hollowly. When she pictured Ilen's face she pictured the human one. Maybe she should stop that. She could call to mind the dragon face, or the moth's pattern, or the lion he'd become to match her because he loved her -
She turned away from the dragons who were peering at her. "Anything else?" she asked. "I want to be by myself."
"Nothing else," said Ban, and they left and flew away from the mouth of the cave. There were more caves all against the mountains that ringed the conclave's valley. Huge mouths of openings each with naturally running water and mossy spots to lie on and decorative carvings in the rocks. Hallai's cave had stood unoccupied for some time, and smelled of dust and bats.
She didn't want to cry, because if she did enough of that she'd develop embarrassing patina streaks under her eyes, and if she started she'd never stop. She tried to sleep, instead, and dozed fitfully, distracted by the difficulty of breathing and the overwhelming malaise.
A dragon child, already two-thirds Hallai's size but juvenile for the local species, came by an angle later with a dead sheep in her mouth. She was dark green, almost black, and as bedecked with spines as Ban. "Do you still want to be alone?" she asked Hallai, after she'd deposited the sheep near Hallai's head.
"Yes," said Hallai, beginning to painstakingly peel the sheepskin away with her claws so she didn't wind up with a mouthful of wool.
"Okay," said the younger dragon, and she left.
Hallai turned lioness and ate.
Ilen ate cheese that had been intended to grate over pasta. He ate the spinach that had been planned for the same pasta dish, raw, without any dressing and overcautiously washed so many times that it was limp and falling apart by the time he ate any. When he was ravenous again, he read the directions on the pasta itself twelve times, attempted them, and wound up with an overcooked starch glop. He choked this down with some powdered garlic and enough hunger to make almost anything taste edible.
Then a note appeared summoning him to the Senate, and he splashed water on his face until he didn't look like he'd spent the last forty angles crying and flew to the circle. If he didn't go to work, they wouldn't pay him, and he'd be kicked out of the apartment, and maybe now Narax would let him live in the Imilaat place for free but then he'd have no hope of ever seeing Hallai again. She might turn up and get her stuff. He hoped she wouldn't do it while he was at work. He also guiltily hoped she wasn't going to turn up to work. He would absolutely not be able to do his job if she did.
He managed, somehow, to translate things without causing international incidents. At the end of his shift he went to his supervisor, and, blushing beet-red, asked if he could do more written work for the next while. It wouldn't matter so much if he lost his composure while writing something.
His supervisor said yes, and didn't press for details.
Ilen got lost on his way out of the Senate campus. He'd made it out once or twice on his own, but usually Hallai had been with him, and he couldn't remember the way without her to follow, not this time. He wandered in search of landmarks, trying not to break down in public. Finally he went into a building marked "Senate Staff Services". It sounded promising; maybe they had a map of the place or an employee who'd point him to the circle.
He heard children. Laughing.
Forgetting what he was in the building for, he followed the sound.
The Senate had a daycare. Three women and a man were looking after some four dozen children of all ages. One was reading a storybook. One was supervising snacking. One was bustling to and fro with cleaning supplies. One had a weeping child in her arms, and was soothing him.
How, how, how had he been so foolish as to look in Esmaar for work, give up, and then take an unrelated job in Aristan without first looking for something like this?
He stood stock-still, watching, before one of the women, the slim halfblood with dark hair who'd been cleaning, ducked out of the daycare space and waved in front of his face. "Hello? Sir?"
"Are you here to pick up your kid? Which one's yours?" she asked.
"No - no, I don't - I don't have any - I'm only - I got lost," he stammered.
"Oh! Where are you hoping to go?" she asked.
"To the - the summoning circle," he said, leaning slightly to his left to watch the older lady with the storybook conclude the story and authorize the use of stuffed animals. There was a dragon doll among them.
"You just want to go around the circular path about halfway, either direction's fine, and - are you okay?"
Ilen swallowed. "Are you hiring?" he asked.
Ilen went home with a job application clutched tightly in his hands. Ludei would write him a recommendation for his experience with the baby shrens. Narax could assert that his competence extended to other species. The daycare was thinly staffed enough to want a new employee but not so understaffed that he couldn't go to the better-paying translation job when they called him in. They sometimes watched diplomats' children who didn't speak Martisen. He might not have to look up what his species of moth was supposed to eat to save money on groceries at all.
Coming home hit him like a blow to the chest. Hallai hadn't been by for her things. They were right where she'd left them, untouched.
He ate as much of a head of cauliflower as he was sure was intended for consumption, put away the stem and the leaves in case someone told him differently later, and went to half of a cold bed.
Hallai didn't know how much time had passed. Maybe a couple of days, since the only thing worth having in her life had pushed her away and she'd discarded the rest. She'd been very lucky that Sal found her. Lucky that the dragons she'd fallen in with weren't obnoxious. It seemed like until she said otherwise, the little green one would bring her a sheep or a deer once a day, clear away the bones from the old one, and otherwise demand no interaction with her. She could wallow in peace without starving.
She wondered what the little green one's name was. She could ask when the next meal came.
And then who should appear in her cave but Rhysel.
"I'm being watched," Rhysel warned, first of all.
"Oh, goody. Does that mean if I try to eat you, someone will pull you back to Elcenia and you'll leave me be?" Hallai drawled tiredly, rolling over to look away from the intruder.
"If you try to hurt me, someone will pull me back to Elcenia, and then you won't have a chance to convince me to talk Eryn into dropping criminal charges," Rhysel corrected.
"I should charge that friend of hers. Or is it legal to go around infecting people three times with kama's wrath?" Hallai snapped.
"Eryn's sister was acting defensively; I don't think you'll convince a court otherwise," Rhysel said. "Your good luck is that laws on the books in Restron only refer to kamai, not magic in general - for now. They're drafting replacements. They can charge you with destruction of property and intimidation, but not with unlawful mental tampering. Or trespassing, since those laws don't apply to kama towers. But there are still complaints you'll have to address if Eryn charges you. Restron doesn't have the resources to pull you out of a dragon conclave. Esmaar does, though, and you were their resident. They've got a good enough relationship with Restron that they'll do it if Eryn calls for it."
"Oh, lovely," growled Hallai.
"Tell me what happened. Eryn will listen to me."
"Eryn made Ilen break up with me, that's what happened!" cried Hallai; she was trying to sound furious but only managed a thin whine through the congestion. "She's lucky I didn't - ugh, I don't even know why I didn't set her on fire. Didn't think of it."
"Were you going to kill her?"
"No." Hallai was tired. She'd been trying to go to sleep.
"But you don't know why you didn't set her on fire?"
"I know enough about kamai from Finnah, she could've put it out, I just wanted her to know some fraction of what she did to me," growled Hallai.
"Are you going to go after her again?"
"Not unless she goes after me again," said Hallai.
"Mm. I might be back," Rhysel said.
"Not responsible if a speciesist dragon eats you."
"I understand," sighed Rhysel, and she disappeared.
Chapter 14: Sadness
Ilen went to work, when called in. He waited for the daycare center to process his application ("two or three tendays", they'd said, "we have to go through the personnel office and they're very backed up." He didn't want to ask Rhysel's sister for another Senatorial cutting of red tape, not when he didn't even know her personally.) He steadily cleared out the cupboards. Then he looked up what his sort of moth ate after all, and bought a bottle of honey to water down and sip at. It was sweet and filling.
He didn't wind up going to Rhysel's for dinner. It sounded too exhausting, and he had nothing left to be exhausted with, not after putting in as much as he could for work. (His translation supervisor was listed as a recommendation contact for the daycare application.) When he had spare time, he spent it napping, or doing take-home written work for the bonuses it would earn him.
And sometimes he spent it stretched out face-down on the sofa, weeping, and alone, and with no realistic hope of anyone coming to spirit him away and urge him into calm contentment that was so hard to prop up on his own. No children, no classroom next door, no common lounge across the hall full of people who'd know to get Hallai.
And no Hallai.
Whatever Eryn had said about his friends and family, he wasn't up to asking any of them for anything. He didn't even know what to ask for. Food that wasn't mock nectar eaten as a moth? He was already turning down weekly dinner invitations. Money? Not until the next time one of them brought over a child for him to watch and he could justify the request. Company? They'd wind up sitting with him and relentlessly bad-mouthing Hallai, ten times as cruelly as ever, because they'd know she was gone and couldn't defend herself.
For all they'd say about her given half a chance, she'd still been defenseless when Ilen, of all people, had turned on her.
And he was paying for it. She'd been right, he needed her.
And he knew his friends wouldn't agree with him that he deserved every bit of retribution his life threw at him after he'd abandoned his protector.
So when Keo spoke in his mind he told her he didn't want to talk. When Rhysel left a note asking whether he'd be at the next Fenen dinner he didn't answer. When a box of cookies came in the mail with a long letter from his mother he didn't read it.
"Have you heard from your uncle Ilen at all?" Rhysel asked Korulen after a class session during which she'd filled in for Corvan.
"No. Is he coming to dinner tonight?" Korulen asked.
"I don't know. I wrote him to ask, but didn't get an answer. I haven't had a chance to go to his place and check on him in person, but it seems unlike him."
"He doesn't always come," Korulen said.
Rhysel frowned. "Has anyone told you yet that he broke up with Hallai?" she asked.
"I would have expected it to get back through Lutan to you. Did you know Eryn was attacked?"
"Lutan said that Eryn wasn't turning up to classes, but didn't know why. Eryn's not back yet or I suppose Lutan would've grilled her about it. What happened?" Korulen asked. She couldn't imagine Ilen developing the backbone to dump his girlfriend, and couldn't think what Eryn had to do with it.
"Long story," said Rhysel, but Korulen stayed put, and Rhysel told her.
"This is my fault," murmured Korulen.
"Because - oh, no," Rhysel sighed. "Eryn would have picked up on enough to start poking around sooner or later without you. Narax would have told her, or she'd have gotten it from me, or from Ilen himself. You didn't tell her to advise Ilen to break up with Hallai. She made that decision all by herself. I'm just glad she lived through the fallout."
"So now Hallai's living in a conclave sick with three kama's wraths?" Korulen asked. There had been a short tutorial on forbidden kamai and kamai that was not actually forbidden. Kama's wrath was the second kind for purely historical reasons: it hadn't happened to help provoke the kyma purge. That didn't make it a nice thing to do.
"Yes, although for obvious reasons she's not suffering as much as most people would," Rhysel said. "She said she wasn't trying to kill Eryn. I know enough mind kamai that I could have told if she were lying to me. I've talked Eryn and her sister out of - do you know Mysel?"
Korulen shook her head; Eryn's sister was a new hire teaching wild kamai and didn't have Eryn's habit of sitting in on others' classes.
"Well, I've talked them both out of pressing charges. I don't think a legal fight would do any good and I don't think Hallai's still a threat to them. But they're taking some time off. It was traumatizing."
"I'd imagine." Korulen was shy about using her new empathy powers at all. Even having them dialed down all the way, the sensations were strange and sometimes disorienting. Even when she was far enough away from people that she couldn't sense any of them, she was no longer a creature who lacked the sense, any more than being in a dark room would make her blind. "Yeah. Is Ilen okay? How is he holding up?"
"I don't know. Possibly badly. I was wondering if you could swing by his place before dinner and see if you can get him to come."
"Sure," Korulen agreed.
"Thanks, Korulen," said Rhysel.
Korulen teleported to just outside the door of the apartment. It was much less distressing a destination when Hallai wouldn't be there.
The sadness hit her first. That was one of the four basics, so simple that she couldn't miss it even if she "squinted" to blur out the distinctions between things like bereavement and depression. She hadn't been around anyone really, intensely sad since turning dragon. People would register in that direction a little if they got a bad mark on a test or woke up in a lousy mood, and she'd flinch back from them, but this was worse, this was nauseating, she didn't know how other dragons stood it.
Korulen had a flood of fellow feeling for her sister, always desperately nosing at sad people around her trying to find out what was wrong. No wonder it took years to learn not to do that. No wonder even adults slipped.
She took a deep breath and stepped back into the stairwell, where the sadness didn't bear down on her unless she looked for it. She could sense it at any range. She'd left plenty of time before the start of dinner, and could practice a little, tasting it a little at a time, before going into a room with... that.
Eventually she thought she'd be able to interact with Ilen without making horrible faces or needing to pause to run crying from the room. It wasn't exactly that being around him while he was sad made her sad - it just made her intensely, sensorily aware that he was. She supposed it might have been satisfying if she'd loathed him. Maybe that was why Hallai had found an empathic assault satisfactory revenge.
Korulen edged towards Ilen's door and knocked.
"Come in," said his muffled voice.
She pushed the door out of her way. The cloying misery wasn't any heavier close to Ilen, but approaching would make it harder to escape. "Uncle Ilen?"
He didn't even look all that different. Come to think of it, Ilen always looked kind of sad and alarmed. Korulen didn't think he was always this bad underneath that, though. He couldn't be. "Are you okay?"
He peered at her hair. "You dyed your hair green."
Korulen swallowed. "I'm here about you. How are you doing?"
His face closed; he looked as neutral as he ever did. But he couldn't fool Korulen. Anymore. "I'm fine, Korulen."
"Rhysel really wants you to come to dinner tonight," Korulen said.
"I was thinking I'd stay home today." He was avoiding eye contact.
"I don't want to go."
Korulen closed her eyes. "Uncle Ilen, I know you're really, really upset -"
When she opened her eyes, he had one of his hands on his face as though searching for a traitorous facial expression, and he was looking at her hair.
"But," she went on, "we'd all really like it if you came."
"That will only make things worse," he said, apparently giving up on pretending he was fine.
"What would make things better?" The unhappiness streamed toward her from his direction in a continuous ray, but if she tried to sidestep it, it would follow her. "What could we do to help you?"
"I don't want you to help me," he said softly.
"What do you want?" Korulen asked desperately.
"Hallai," whispered Ilen. "But I ruined things - she's gone - she'll never have me back -"
Korulen sat on the floor; she didn't want to have to dedicate attention to Ilen and to standing and suddenly have the latter fail catastrophically. "How exactly did you even break up with her? I can't imagine it."
"I just - I told her what Eryn said - she put the rest together herself," Ilen said. "I could never have gotten it out - I only - Eryn said it was a good idea."
"Did you actually tell her that you wanted to break up?" Korulen asked. She'd done a little bit of reading of emotions before, with mind kamai. She was sure that Ilen hadn't been that sad. Hallai was obnoxious but Ilen didn't deserve to be so terribly mournful. Hallai had hurt some people but not this badly, Ilen had to have been like this for weeks.
"No, I guess not. That would have been even worse," Ilen said. "I didn't want to - I thought - I don't know what I thought."
Korulen cast about for other ideas. "Do you want me to try to - help you?" she asked, touching her hair.
Ilen blinked damp eyelashes. He shook his head, but then paused, seeming to change his mind. "I guess you can try."
She'd never tried projective empathy at all, but it was there like a new limb, the way her wings had been the first time she'd figured out how to shapeshift. Relieved at the possibility that she could do something to alleviate his woe, she pushed. Happy. Be happy. Please, please, cheer up.
His mood lifted. A little. Almost not at all.
"I think I'm probably desensitized to a light touch," he said. "I can barely tell you're doing it."
"Mom can try," Korulen said, backing off and biting her lip. "She's got to be stronger than even Hallai -"
Ilen shook his head. "No - I almost didn't let you - Hallai always used to - it doesn't feel right."
"The way you feel now doesn't feel right," cried Korulen. Sympathy tears, or maybe tears of frustration, were stinging her eyes. She twisted her knuckles against her eyes to wipe them away. "Uncle Ilen -"
"Keo has to sleep sometimes, she can't just project at me all the time," Ilen pointed out, almost inaudible. "And if she changed something permanent, I'd... well. I trust her not to mess with my head without my permission. If I gave her any permission, though, I don't think I trust her to do just one thing."
"You think she'd do... what?"
"Make me forget Hallai? Or hate her like everyone else does, maybe. Something like that. But I don't want to. I love her and I wronged her and if that makes me feel like this that just makes sense," Ilen mumbled.
Korulen was silent. Ilen looked at her, like she was a work of sculpture. And he was sad, he howled sadness into Korulen's new ears, he shone like a miserable sun to new eyes.
"You didn't actually say you wanted to break up with her," choked Korulen.
He shook his head, like it was heavy.
"So," Korulen said, "you could maybe convince her you weren't trying to."
Ilen didn't go to Fenen dinner. Instead, after Korulen had gone, he packed himself a few bottles of fake nectar, filled out one of his leave-of-absence forms for work, and went to the circle.
On Barashi, Hallai's signature was immediately evident when he looked for it. She was sad. Not as crushed as he was, mellower and more level, but he knew a fresh wave of guilt about it. All his fault. He'd have to make it up to her.
He got above the buildings of the city the Restron circle sat within, shifted to dragon form, and flew.
He didn't pay much attention to the passage of time. When he got hungry, he stopped, poured some of his nectar into his bottlecap, and drank until he could go on. He wasn't in transit long enough to need to stop to sleep.
When he got closer to the signature, enough that its angle started changing noticeably, he had to navigate more, weaving around mountains. But he found the conclave easily enough: a valley dotted with caves on its mountainsides and a forest full of game in the bowl of the landscape.
Ilen didn't land too close. He hadn't worked out what to say, and Hallai would notice him if he got within thirty feet of her. He perched on an outcropping that wasn't too near any cave entrance, but near enough hers that he could hear her talking.
"- is that what you'd call it? No, we just call it 'breathing fire'," said Hallai.
"We don't call it 'sparking electricity'," said a higher, younger voice. "I think 'flaring' is a better word for what you do like 'arcing' is a better word for what we do."
"You didn't even get a whole arc," said Hallai. "Just a little around your wingtip."
"Well, I'm little! When a bunch of grownups do it together, though, they can do lots of lightning," said the child's voice.
Ilen crept closer.
"I'd," Hallai began, and she stopped short.
"Hallai?" asked the high voice.
"Hang on a tick, Miln," said Hallai.
And then she crept out of the cave, craning her neck, and he saw her, shining in the sun.
"Ilen?" she whispered.
Miln slipped off without complaint, waved away with a gesture of Hallai's wing. Ilen clung to the mountainside above the mouth of the cave, and Hallai stood half-in and half-out, neck twisted around to look at him.
"Did you come to bring me my stuff?" Hallai asked hollowly.
Ilen shook his head. "I don't have - I didn't bring anything," he replied. "I - thought - I wondered if - I never said I wanted to -"
He trailed off, and Hallai appeared to tire of holding her head up. "You can come in," she said. "I'm not contagious."
Hallai coughed a copper fireball against a scorched part of the cave wall. "Eryn's sister infected me three times over with a magic disease. It's in all my forms. I'm not over it yet."
"I didn't know that," Ilen murmured. Three times? Why three...?
"Yeah. All I was doing was scaring Eryn. And she attacked me."
Hallai was obviously too tired to attach a lot of complex judgment to her tone. She was just reporting on what had happened. But this still sounded wrong to Ilen. Empathy wasn't nice to attack someone with, but it was in the forgivable province of words or maybe petty theft. It wasn't violence. Eryn's sister had escalated to another level. "I'm sorry," he said.
Her eyes closed. "Why are you here?" she asked.
"I miss you," he said, dipping his head. "I don't know what to do without you, Eryn was wrong, I do need you."
She opened one eye. "What, Eryn just left you like that?"
"I haven't seen her since," he said.
"What about everyone else?"
"Korulen came over once. She's the one who said you might take me back," Ilen said softly.
"I knew there was a reason Finnah liked that girl," Hallai muttered.
"Is that a - is that -"
"Yes," said Hallai tiredly. "But I'm still sick. I can't go much of anywhere."
Ilen lay beside her on the floor of the cave. "I put in for a leave of absence at work. And they haven't called you in for the last week so I don't think they know you left. I can tell them you're sick."
She closed her eyes again, and so did Ilen.
The next morning saw them both awakened by the little dark green dragon who'd been talking to Hallai. Miln, Ilen thought her name was. Miln had a young elk hanging from her jaws. "Ng," she said.
"Hi, Miln," said Hallai.
Miln dropped the animal. "Hi, Hallai. Is this your boyfriend you were talking about?" She was using a Draconic loanword for "boyfriend"; on inspection, the language of the rest of the sentence didn't have a reasonable facsimile for anyone who hadn't fathered at least one clutch of one's eggs.
"Mmhm. Ilen, this is Miln. She's been making sure I don't starve."
"Thank you," Ilen said to the Barashin dragon.
"Are you going to come join our conclave too?" Miln asked Ilen.
Hallai answered for him. "We're going to go home when I'm better," she said. "You guys have been very nice, but I don't really want to live here forever."
"Oh," said Miln. "Will you visit?"
"Maybe," said Hallai. "It's nice here. Not a lot to do, though. I guess it'd be a good vacation spot."
"But I'll be bored if you go," Miln said. "There isn't anything to do. All my friends are Asleep."
"Too bad," said Hallai without heat.
Ilen could have carried Hallai home, even if she couldn't fly on her own, but maybe she thought she'd fall from his back, or she'd rather Miln feed her than Ilen. "I should tell the Senate you're taking sick days," he said.
"Yes," said Hallai. "Come back? When you're done?"
"Okay," Ilen said.
Once Ilen returned, he didn't leave Hallai's side until she'd recovered enough that Ban could banish the last of the sickness from her airway and her joints. He caught up with her about what he'd been doing (not much, except for the daycare job application) and what she'd been doing (not much, although she'd befriended some of the local dragons).
"You seem to like Miln," he said tentatively, after she'd brought them a flock of dead pheasants.
"She's decent company."
"I thought you didn't like children."
"I don't like most people. Including most children. Miln's just one. I like her in particular." She paused. "I'm not going to change my mind about wanting kids, let alone as many as you're probably thinking, Ilen. They wouldn't be likely to be people I'd happen to like."
"You're not thinking you'll leave me, again, over that, are you?" she asked. "It's not my fault."
"I can't live without you," he said. "I can live without kids. I have so far."
"And you'll have your daycare job, if they take you," Hallai said comfortably.
"Right," Ilen said.
"Oh, and, Ilen."
"I don't want you to talk to Eryn. Ever again. I might or might not have scared her off for good, but if I didn't, she's proven she's willing and able to screw around with your head until you do stupid things. That's not a good influence. I'll put up with everyone else, such as Korulen, if they're not with Eryn, or passing messages from her, or starting to sound too similar to her. Come to think of it, same goes for Eryn's sister, if she pokes around at all. Okay?"
"Okay," said Ilen. Listening to Eryn had caused intolerable results. Listening to Hallai never did that.
"Which means you'll have to find out if she's attending before going to any of Rhysel's dinners. Don't do anything obvious like turning it into an ultimatum, or they'll never leave you alone about it, but keep it in mind when you decide whether you're going any given Fenen."
"Okay," repeated Ilen, relaxing onto the floor of the cave and against Hallai's side. He could do that. That would be easy.
"Good," purred Hallai.
After Hallai had been sick for two weeks by Elcenian time, Ban healed her the rest of the way, and she stretched her wings, bade Ban and Sal and Miln all goodbye, and went with Ilen out of the valley.
Ilen got the daycare job.
He spent a lot more time at work once he had that every day he didn't have translations. And he loved it. He had to spend a tenday in training - "retraining, really, since you know children of another sort already," his supervisor Tynn said. And then he was just one of the daycare workers, supervising storytime and meals and making sure no one got hurt or ran off out the back door or argued too strenuously with the other kids.
Together with having Hallai again, the job made Ilen feel infinitely better than he had. Children were relaxing, children were simple, children's problems were generally easy to solve. Children liked Ilen and didn't try to tell him what to do, who to like, whether he was associating with bad company or not.
Ilen asked Korulen to tell him each week whether Eryn would be at dinner or not. She agreed - she understood, at least enough to know why he'd want the information, and she could get one of her friends to tell her about Eryn's whereabouts without notifying Rhysel. He got a note Fenen morning.
"I might go this time," he said, when he received a note saying that Eryn wouldn't be present due to a date with her girlfriend.
"She won't be there?" Hallai asked, looking up from the sampler she was working on.
"She won't," Ilen said. "Korulen's friend says that Eryn and her girlfriend are going out tonight."
"Her girlfriend cancels on her a lot, assuming it's the same girlfriend," said Hallai, fingers tightening around her embroidery frame.
"If I sense her signature when I get there, I'll leave," he suggested.
Hallai didn't answer, and dinnertime approached. Hallai cooked. She was making something with a lot of basil and nuts. It smelled amazing.
"So you're going?" Hallai asked lightly.
"Will there be leftovers of that?" he asked.
"If you don't have your portion tonight, yeah," she said.
He got up to kiss her. "I'll be back after," he promised.
"All right," she said.
Ilen left by the balcony, and flew to Rhysel's, but the whole way there was a sense of trepidation that he couldn't shake. When he landed on her doorstep it bloomed into the nearest thing he'd felt to a panic attack since Corvan had rid him of those. He was still functional; he could ring the bell, and remember to check for Eryn's signature, but even failing to find it wasn't relieving.
He picked at his food, and didn't talk much, and left as soon as he was able.
As soon as he took off again from Rhysel's front yard, the feeling was gone. And being at home with Hallai that evening was as comforting as ever.
"I love you," he told Hallai, before she replied in kind and the lights over their bed dimmed.
Chapter 15: Loneliness
Ilen went to two dinners during Berehel, and one during Pehahel. But this was more out of a sense of obligation than anything else: he owed his friends and family, didn't he? He didn't like the crowdedness, even though he tried to time it for when Korulen said there would be a low turnout. He didn't like the way everyone talked about Hallai, or the fact that they wouldn't even stop talking about Hallai if he asked them. He didn't like the anticipatory dread while he traveled there or the sickening discomfort that pervaded the meals themselves.
He only felt right when he was working, at either job, or at home, alone or with Hallai.
He didn't go to any dinners in Rohel.
At the daycare job, he had more opportunities to make friends than he did at translation. And Hallai didn't mind them, as long as he didn't neglect her to see them outside of work. He got along well with the other workers, and the few parents who took the time for more than perfunctory conversation as they came and went.
"So," said one of his co-workers, Tysal, as she chopped apples for snacktime. "Ilen, do you have any little ones of your own?"
"No," he said, shrinking somewhat and adjusting his hold on a two-year-old who needed to be held before he'd go down for a nap. "My girlfriend doesn't want any."
"Oh, that's such a pity," Tysal said. "Me and my husband are trying for our second now. You've met Bylea, of course." One of the perks of the job was permission to bring one's own children to work every day; Ilen had indeed met Tysal's daughter.
"Yes," Ilen said. "You're lucky to have her."
"And him," Tysal said with an indiscreet giggle. "Why doesn't your girlfriend want any? Childbirth isn't so bad. My apothecary gave me some powder and I barely felt anything."
"That's not why," Ilen said.
"Why is it, then? I know they're expensive, but you'd bring them with you for free, you wouldn't have to spend that much extra -"
"It's not that either. We have three jobs between us and we're doing okay. She just -" He simplified. "She doesn't like kids."
"That's silly," said Tysal, kissing her daughter's forehead as Bylea approached with artwork made from colored glue to share.
"She doesn't like most people," Ilen said. "Kids just aren't an exception."
"Well, I hope she likes you an awful lot, if she's going to be all you have at home," Tysal remarked primly.
"She does," Ilen said. That he knew. Whatever anyone said, he knew Hallai loved him, and that meant he couldn't trust anything else they said about her. If they'd deny that they could be making up anything they said, just to get rid of her. She thought they were out to get her, and he... was not at all confident that she was wrong.
"That's good. What's she like?" Tysal asked. She'd finished cutting up the apples and was plating them alongside little dishes of honey and sweet vinaigrette to dip in. Most of the kids wouldn't touch the vinaigrette, but she'd gotten an entire case from her cousin and was trying to get rid of it.
"She's..." Hallai defied description, to his mind, and he wasn't going to borrow anyone else's. "She's got a lot of passion," he tried.
That stumped him. She had hobbies, but wasn't intense about them; she had work, but didn't care much about it; she was wrapped up in Ilen, but that seemed like the wrong answer, somehow. And "for life in general" seemed wrong too. "I didn't mean it like that," he said at length. "I just mean - I think I've told you about how Elcenian dragons have different, um, powers, and ours is empathy? She can put a lot of force behind hers, when she wants to. Most people can't. It's not that we only share what we're feeling, but if you don't feel intensely about things at least sometimes, you can't do it."
"Oh," said Tysal, but she didn't seem to understand.
The child in Ilen's arms was breathing evenly and had his head resting limply in the crook of Ilen's elbow. Ilen went to put him down on one of the mats they used for napping kids, and moved on to clear away a dollhouse setup that hadn't been touched in at least an angle.
Then a pack of little boys wanted him to settle an argument about who had hidden a shared ball. Ilen had become a favorite for this purpose because he could tell who was genuinely indignant and who was hiding shame, as long as the children all agreed to have him mediate. Some of the older kids had started to skip straight to confessing their crimes as soon as someone came up with the idea of going to Ilen, but this expedience was lost on five-year-olds, who only understood that anyone refusing to talk to him was probably guilty.
Once he'd identified the culprit and made sure that no one was too belligerent in getting the ball's location out of him, Ilen went to supervise a music period and make sure no one was breaking the instruments. Bylea had a sliding whistle and was trying to imitate the birds outside.
Then a little girl wanted a lion ride, which he had let on that he could provide the week before, and he loped around the room with her pulling on his green mane until someone else demanded a turn.
When everyone was tired of lion rides, he shifted back to human form, just in time to bandage a cut a boy had managed to open in his hand. Ilen knew more first aid than the average Elcenian, because it was not at all uncommon for newly-shapeshifted shren babies, exuberant with analgesia and unaccustomed to bodies not protected by scales, to injure themselves while running around in new shapes. The light only came to the house every other week unless it was an emergency. So he'd only had to learn a simple translation from Elcenian supplies to Barashin ones.
And then he handed off a pair of siblings to their father, who picked up one and held the other's hand and led them away.
But Ilen got to borrow them, for part of most days.
And that was going to have to do, because he couldn't do without Hallai.
"You could write him again," Kilaer told Tsuan.
"He didn't answer the first time," Tsuan said. "I don't want to bother him." Usually when Tsuan expressed a desire not to bother someone she sounded self-effacing, like she expected her presence to be distressing. This time she sounded defensive, felt resentful, and he extrapolated: she didn't want to bother Ilen, even though through proxies he'd bothered her for an intolerably long time. Only writing the letter and sending it with the cookies had gotten her out of her therapy sessions.
"I suppose." Kilaer hadn't spoken with his elder son for some time himself. Once, Keo's friend Rhysel had extended an invitation to a dinner party, but Ilen hadn't been there when Kilaer had appeared and he found it awkward to eat dinner in a stranger's house. Even if he'd insisted on bringing a few sticks of bread. Ilen had never asked Kilaer over to his own home. And unlike Keo, Kilaer couldn't begin conversations without proximity or an exchange of communication equipment.
According to Keo, Ilen hadn't even been talking to her much. He worked in another world, a barrier sufficient to keep even her out.
But Kilaer supposed it would be only reasonable for Ilen to take a while - maybe years - to set his own pace for integrating into the family. If he decided that was what he wanted to do at all.
He had the Alar name to remind him that he was welcome. Kilaer didn't suppose he had any business being more intrusive than that.
"Maybe later," Tsuan said placatingly. "But now I just want to go back as much as we can to how things were."
"All right," said Kilaer. He'd read her letter. He'd mailed it on her behalf, for all that this mistrust had left her in a bad mood for the next two days. He couldn't claim that she hadn't put forth the effort he'd asked of her.
"Our beans have gone off," she remarked, looking into the cold cabinet. "I'll pop out and buy more and we can fix dinner."
Tsuan swept off, trailing green hair and long drapey sleeves.
The children at the daycare couldn't have caused more internal conflict in Ilen if they'd tried.
He knew enough to tell the difference between someone else's wants and his own.
When he'd followed Eryn's advice that hadn't been about anything he wanted. He'd overheard enough conversations he wasn't supposed to, back when he'd been going to Rhysel's for dinners, to know that his family and his friends (were they really?) thought that Eryn had been right, that for his own good he needed to be rid of Hallai, but it had just been a disaster.
They didn't seem to be able to imagine that he really did need her, really couldn't get along on his own, really didn't mind if she wanted to be in charge and have some say in what he did all day. She wasn't unreasonable, not relative to what Ilen wanted, only relative to what other people thought he ought to want. She hadn't hedged out Eryn until Eryn had done harm. She hadn't demanded that they live on a mountaintop in Mekand, inaccessible to anyone who wanted to speak against her in Ilen's ear.
She hadn't asked him to quit his second job.
And so every day, except when the workload for translators at the Senate was ratcheted up, he was buried under adorable children who were not his.
Suppose someone provoked Hallai again. He couldn't think of anything that would incense her as badly as his leaving had, but there might be something. Rhysel wouldn't likely interfere to get charges dropped a second time. He'd have to live without her for at least a while if she were trapped in jail. If she wound up doing something that got Barashin authorities angry with her, she might cease to exist; he'd heard stories about personality revision that made his skin crawl. If he'd encountered them earlier he'd never have let Corvan into his mind to cure his panic attacks.
Suppose she died; it wasn't impossible, and even if she didn't die an untimely death, she was seventy years older than him and might go first anyway. She said she wanted him to be taken care of, if not by her, then by someone. He believed her. But the people he could possibly ask for that much help were family, and presently he didn't really trust them to look after Ilen instead of someone they'd made up who they thought made more sense. Except perhaps Korulen, but she was only a girl.
Suppose Hallai simply became bored of him. He didn't think he had much to recommend him, really, and there was a reason dragons usually married outside their species until they were at least a thousand years old. Ilen thought he could sustain a good long relationship with someone who'd parent children with him, that would be an endless shared project and fascination, but that someone was not Hallai.
Suppose, suppose, suppose -
One way or another he was likely to need to be able to do without Hallai. Putting it off until he had no choice wouldn't change that.
Moving it sooner could change something else.
Suppose he did leave Hallai. Again. She wouldn't have anyone but him to blame if the reason was that he couldn't do without children for the rest of his life; she wouldn't attack anyone. He knew she wouldn't attack him. She hadn't last time. She loved him too much.
Suppose in spite of that he left her a second time. She could go back to the conclave; she'd seemed to get along with the dragons there. Or she could go to Mekand like she'd wanted. Or he could let her have the apartment and he could go somewhere else. It might make more sense to live in Barashi anyway.
Being alone had not literally killed him.
He was going to live such a long time.
Long enough to have a dozen children if he found almost anyone to love other than Hallai.
Maybe even long enough to learn to be just Ilen, without her.
It was a fearsome idea.
But he was used to fear in almost the same way he was used to pain. And he was no longer psychologically capable of dropping over the edge into heedless panic.
For something he wanted badly enough maybe he could face it.
But not right away, Ilen decided. It could wait.
<Keo,> Korulen thought. She'd never gotten used to that, since in every other context she called her mother Mom, but Keo couldn't keep an ear out for thoughts of the word "Mom" the way she could for her name without being flooded by false positives.
<Ilen hasn't been at dinners for a long time now,> sent Korulen.
<I know, but he's at work a lot, and hasn't tended to want to talk to me on occasions when I can catch him in the same world. I haven't had a chance to ask him why.>
<Did you notice the last time he was there how he felt the whole time?>
<I avoided paying attention, and you should too; it's his business,> Keo sent.
<I've been trying! I'm new at this! But I did notice and it was awful and - it was steady. Does that make sense? I haven't seen it often enough to find a dedicated word for it, but it didn't quiver like people's feelings usually do,> Korulen sent.
There was a pause. <Is it possible that's a side effect of what Corvan did to heal him?> Keo asked.
<That was my first idea, so I got Corvan to tell me what he did. Not to the point where I could do it myself, it's really complicated and took forever to go through all the steps, but I know what the side effects were, and that wasn't one of them. Delayed emotional reactions yes. Not blocky ones.>
Keo didn't answer. Korulen went on. <But I thought of something else that could do it. Projections cause that, don't they, Mom.>
<I thought it was the best of a lot of bad options to suggest that he go back to Hallai, but if she's doing this...>
<You can check,> Korulen sent.
There was no tussle over whether this was ethical; even if Hallai hadn't been as targetable as she was, it was fairly easy for Keo to answer single questions like that without touching anything else. Korulen waited.
<Yes,> sent Keo.
<I'll tell him,> Korulen replied swiftly.
<He's probably more likely to listen to you,> acknowledged Keo.
<I'll monitor you. If you run into her I'll make sure you're safe,> Keo assured her.
<Mom.> That was Korulen's test for whether Keo was really listening, or just sitting ready to listen.
<I'm here. Do you want me to come in person...?>
<No. I'm fine.>
Korulen reached Ilen's apartment. His emotions weren't as squared-off and smooth as they had been at dinner.
Hallai's signature was not within automatic-pickup range. Korulen sought it out and found it present in Elcenia, off to her left, not moving at a sharp enough angle to suggest that she was just down the street.
Korulen knocked on Ilen's door.
Ilen answered. "Hi, Korulen," he said. "Come in."
"Where's Hallai?" Korulen asked.
"She's having dinner with Samia. Why, did you want to talk to her?" Ilen asked, surprised.
"No, just you. Do you know when she'll be back?"
"In about an angle, I guess. Hallai doesn't mind you, though, I wouldn't have thought you'd avoid her like some people do."
"She's not going to like me anymore," Korulen said, swallowing. "Uncle Ilen... why haven't you been coming to dinner?"
"I haven't enjoyed it," he said, "the last few times I've been. I just don't like it anymore."
"Why?" pressed Korulen.
"It's... crowded," he said.
"Aren't your jobs crowded?"
"I guess. Not in the same way. Why does it matter?" Ilen asked. "And people use the dinners as excuses to say nasty things about my girlfriend, and no one stops when I ask, because they think the fact that I don't want them to do that is just more evidence against her. No one does that at work."
Korulen bit her lip. "Well, um."
"You're here to say something nasty about Hallai," sighed Ilen, looking away, "aren't you."
"It's true, though. I checked. I made sure," Korulen said softly.
"What is it? How did you make sure?" Ilen asked.
Korulen swallowed. "I'm bad at not paying attention to what I get from my empathic sense when I don't have permission," she said. "I'm working on it, but I couldn't help but notice how you felt the last time you did come to one of Rhysel's dinners. And it was..." She made a vague gesture. <Mom, what is the word?>
<Aszinu,> Keo supplied.
Korulen would have located the word in her bottomless vocabulary with a few more examples of the phenomenon to help triangulate it, but asking worked too. "Aszinu," she concluded.
"And Mom checked," Korulen rushed, "and she found out that yes, Hallai was doing it, she's been projecting at you to feel lousy when you're doing things she doesn't approve of. And I guess you haven't noticed because like you said you were desensitized to a light touch, since she had to hit you with so much calm all the time before Corvan helped you, so if she didn't do it with all her power you wouldn't notice that it was happening but it would be enough to steer you away, over time..."
Her uncle was looking at her in shock, and his emotions were fluttering like a butterfly with one wing pinned down.
"I know you love her," Korulen said. "I know it was awful when you went without her. I know you're a grownup and you can decide who you want to hang out with and who you want to date. But it's not right that she's doing that and you deserved to know. And if you need help I'll help you, and Mom will help you, and Uncle Narax -"
"Like before?" Ilen asked.
Korulen swallowed. "I don't think anyone knew what you needed. I still don't know, really, but if you ask..."
Ilen looked away. "Thank you for telling me, Korulen."
They were each silent, until Ilen said, "Was that all?"
"Er. Yeah, that's all I needed to say," Korulen said. "But you know you can ask me if you need anything, right?"
"Yes. Thank you," said Ilen again.
Korulen shuffled awkwardly towards the door.
"I don't mean to be - I really am grateful," Ilen said. "But I just can't be unambiguously furious with her. It isn't like this feels vindicating for me the way it might for... your uncle Narax, say. She's done so much for me."
Hallai was home when she'd said she would be.
Ilen was sitting on the sofa, hands clasped over his knees, pensive.
"What's the matter, sweetie?" Hallai asked.
"A couple of things," Ilen said. "I don't know how to fix them."
"Tell me what they are, I'll help," Hallai said.
"I don't think so," Ilen said.
"Well, if it's that bad, you have to tell me," said Hallai.
Ilen looked up at her. "The first thing is that I don't think I'm ever going to stop wanting children. And I don't think you're ever going to start."
Hallai chewed on her lip. "If it's that big a deal, we could look for adoptable ones who I can interview first and see if I can tolerate. Miln would do except she's got parents and wouldn't fit in the house..."
Ilen's heart clenched. "You don't want to be a mother, even if you could stand having one or two kids live with us," he said.
"Right, but if we can shop around enough and it'd make you happy, if the daycare isn't enough -"
"And that doesn't have anything to do with the second thing," Ilen said.
Hallai sat down, frowning. "What's that, then?"
Ilen didn't want to name Korulen, or Keo, even though the latter could protect them both easily enough. Would it be implausible for him to come to the realization himself? Maybe not. "I was thinking about why it felt so unpleasant, to go see everyone at Rhysel's dinner parties, even when Eryn wasn't going to be there," he said.
Hallai was carefully expressionless, but he didn't miss the flicker of worry.
Evidence he'd been ignoring piled up as he spoke. "It was sudden; I didn't have the problems before. You avoided going to work on Fenen evenings so you wouldn't be in Barashi at those times. It didn't depend on who was there and who wasn't. And it didn't stop when I left the tower, it didn't stop until I took off to leave - and the direction I was relative to you would have angled up."
Hallai was sitting very still.
"I'm not trying to figure out whether you did it," he said. "But I'd like to know why."
"They're a bad influence on you," Hallai said. "They don't have anything but insults to say about me, they think you're stupid and weak. I thought I could trust Eryn and I couldn't, and I didn't want anything like that to happen again."
"You could've asked me not to go," Ilen said.
"I didn't think you'd listen to me. Not after one of them asked you politely to please come be their dancing long lost relative, anyway," Hallai said. "You only do what I think would be best if you have an emotional reason for it."
"If I said, yes, let's go visit some orphanages and you can meet all the kids and see if you like any of them," Ilen said, "would I feel inexplicably anxious the whole time we were at any of them?"
"Or if we brought home a little boy or girl, if we found one you liked, one you could care about, one you could love as much as you love me," Ilen said, wiping at one of his eyes, "and that little boy or girl broke a house rule or made a friend you didn't approve of or wouldn't listen to you, would that little boy or girl, our son or daughter, feel like bursting into tears or like curling up in a ball out of fear, as some kind of punishment?"
He looked at her, blinked away more tears, and said, "I think I loved you enough to live without children because you didn't want them. I don't think I love you enough to live without them because they wouldn't be safe from you."
Hallai had her hands clenched in her skirt; she was radiating kaleidoscopically negative emotions ranging from outrage to guilt; and she didn't try again to start a sentence.
He took her silence as a chance to inhale deeply, once, twice, thrice, and then he said, "This time I'm doing it on purpose. We have to break up. This time I'm not going to come find you and ask for you back." He looked away. "You can have the apartment if you want. It doesn't matter to me."
"I'm so sorry," Hallai whispered. Her eyes were open so wide, and everything about her sang pain.
"I know," he said.
"It's yours," she said. "It's all yours." She got up, picked up her embroidery bag and her jacket, and took a running leap off the patio.
Ilen ran after her, to make sure she caught herself, and he saw a flash of copper feathers swooping upward.
He stood on the patio, looking out at the city, until the sun set.