Chapter Seven: 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.