Chapter Nine: 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.