Chapter Ten: 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.