Chapter Two: 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.