Chapter 1: Kep Island
Finnah has shaved her head, because she wants to go one day without being so stared at. Paste-on eyebrow ornaments are in fashion in Petar, and she thinks they look ridiculous, but she buys a pair. Hair dye that can hide such a bright color as the red of her hair is hard to come by, and her reasons aren't swaying to the people in the house. Razors and rhinestones are cheap.
Someone neglected to tell her that a shaved head on a girl is also the fashionable way to advertise to other girls that she'd rather date them than their brothers. Finnah learns this when a human girl in a purple anointment frock (also shaved bald) stops Finnah on the street and says, "Be my date to my anointment!"
Whether it's appropriate for a shren to be a date to someone's anointment is anyone's guess. Finnah's not a Myriad Unificationist, and even if she were, not even her human form is ever going to have a menarche to celebrate. Also, some stripes of Unificationist would prefer that anointed girls take male dates to their ceremonies. But Finnah follows the girl in the anointment frock and holds hands with her and learns that her name is Parthel.
Parthel's parents look oddly at Finnah - maybe her sticky eyebrow things are falling off, maybe she's dressed funny, maybe she's just three shades lighter-skinned than Parthel and her blue-black relatives who compose the rest of the anointment party. But Parthel gets herself oiled and has words spoken over her and Finnah sits where she's supposed to sit and doesn't talk much.
"Thank you!" says Parthel afterwards. "Are you a Myriad Unificationist?"
Finnah shakes her head.
"Then I'm very sorry, but I can't date you again, even though you're really cute," says Parthel. "But thank you for coming to my ceremony for me. I would've had to ask my cousin otherwise."
"You're welcome," says Finnah.
So Parthel isn't Finnah's first girlfriend.
Finnah's first girlfriend is five years later, when Finnah's hair has grown back and eyebrow ornaments are out of fashion. Finnah's first girlfriend is named Shaalen, and they meet like this:
"Hello, I'm Shaalen. Are you from here?" Shaalen asks, while Finnah is wasting her allowance trying to outfox the fellow running the pearls game.
"Yeah," says Finnah, eyes on the pearls as they bounce in the tumbler. That's a polite way for a villager to ask someone with funny-colored hair (like Finnah's cherry-red, not yet long enough to fall down on its own and puffed out on all sides) if they're a shren. The island never gets dragons, unless they're there about shrens, but that's not never.
"Is it true if you get hurt - like seriously, seriously hurt - you don't even care?" Shaalen asks next.
That's not a particularly polite way to ask anything. Finnah looks away from the pearl game; in all likelihood more attention won't save her two daat ten any more than it did the last five times she played.
Shaalen looks like she should be advertising makeup - she doesn't need it, but if someone put it on her and took the credit they'd be sold out in a tick. She's utterly polished. She's got miniature, careful dreadlocks fuzzing her scalp, and eyes so huge and inky that Finnah thinks she could drown there, and a mouth that looks constantly on the verge of a pout and a kiss. Shaalen's probably fourteen, built slim and dancerlike. That's out of vogue now, but it was very, very in when Finnah determined that girls were pretty, and it is very, very in in Finnah's mind.
"Huh?" Finnah says, purposefully looking at Shaalen's eyes instead of her chest.
"I heard it but I'm not sure it's true - if you like, lost a hand or something, and it didn't kill you - your form? - would it even hurt?"
Finnah shrugs. "It'd hurt. I just don't care if things hurt, anymore."
"Play again, kid?" asks the fellow with the pearl game, and Finnah shakes her head and gets out of the way.
Shaalen follows her, and Finnah likes that, even if Shaalen is asking mightily odd questions.
"How much do you not care?" Shaalen asks.
"I have to care a little," Finnah says. "I'm in salt up to my hairline if I lose a form and turn natural out of the house."
Shaalen smiles shyly (Finnah thinks she might have to start trying to figure out how to flirt very, very soon) and turns over her wrist to show a yellow circle tattoo.
"I guess that's something," Finnah said.
"Will you show me something?" Shaalen pleads. "I just want to see. Here..." She draws Finnah away from the main street, and into a not-even-an-alley between the fish store and the sewing shop.
Finnah probably should suspect the stranger's motives, but she doesn't. "You'll patch me up when I say? I don't want to turn up to the village office without a better story than 'a strange girl wanted to see how shrens work'."
Shaalen cups her hands, and shining down onto pale palms there appears a red ball of sparks.
Finnah has a pocketknife, for practical purposes which have managed to not come up in the six years she's owned it. She takes it out of her pocket, flicks out the blade, and contemplates what Shaalen asked for. "You're weird," she tells the human watching her.
Shaalen doesn't dispute the accusation. She holds her light in place, waiting.
Finnah doesn't know where her arteries are, really, but she's pretty sure that unless she stabs herself right in the heart or maybe through an eye, her human form can hang on long enough to let the crazy light heal her. She goes for a cut in the arm, holding the limb out far enough that she doesn't bleed on her clothes. Her arm demands attention in such a quiet voice that she can't imagine ever having been compelled by it. "There," she says, and she touches the light that Shaalen's holding out for her. The arm heals, the blood remains. She's going to have to wash that off before any of the house adults see her and want to know what she's been doing.
"That was amazing," says Shaalen. And then she licks her lips.
"You can come to my house if you want," says Shaalen, "to clean up."
Finnah follows her.
Shaalen's weird, but her interest in the interior of Finnah's arm isn't the only reason. She asks people for things, not just asking shrens to show her some blood but asking shopkeepers for discounts, asking neighbors for their old books, asking rickshaw runners for free rides. Sometimes people say no ("you're the third shren I tried," she admits) and this is fine with her. Sometimes they say yes and she takes what she's asked for and enjoys it.
She asks for Finnah, and gets her, and enjoys her, and if Finnah spends a lot of their time together getting blood all over Shaalen's bed, well, it's not like she minds, not when she gets to watch Shaalen's face do all those interesting things it does. It's not like they don't know cleaning spells for the sheets. It's not like standing stark naked together under the hose watching red swirl down the drain never leads to other things that Finnah more than just doesn't mind.
Once Shaalen asks a quick-portrait artist for a picture of her and Finnah (she asks to have it for free; he bargains her up to fixing his headache, which isn't worth paying for the regular light). They get a sheet of flimsy paper with charcoal smeared all over it to represent Finnah's features pressed cheek-to-cheek with Shaalen's, and in charcoal and grey paper Finnah doesn't look like a shren.
Shaalen's fourteen, and Finnah's a hundred and forty-five. Shaalen's fifteen, and Finnah's a hundred and forty-six. Shaalen's sixteen. Finnah's a hundred and forty-seven...
Shaalen's nineteen before Finnah's the equivalent of fifteen. Shaalen's still so beautiful, she's gotten tall, she's working at the light office and earns enough to have her own apartment.
One day Shaalen puts down the knife scarcely after she's picked it up.
"You're a kid," she says.
"Am not," Finnah said.
"No, I mean - I know you're older'n me, but you're a kid. You look like you're my niece's age."
"So?" Finnah squirms. "I hope you're not being pervy at your niece."
Shaalen snorts. "You know what I'm getting at."
"I thought maybe a little longer," Finnah said.
Shaalen shrugs, at that, and looks at the knife. "Tempting. But it's going to be hell finding anybody who'll put up with me -"
"But you're awesome."
"With me being pervy at them as you put it."
Finnah could suggest finding another shren, one fifty or sixty years older than she is. She doesn't. "So keep me."
"That's why I can't, if I'm ever going to find anyone else, anyone more my age, I'm going to have to start soon, or I'll be such an old maid. And it's already weird with you."
"That there. That was you being a kid."
Finnah looks away, and starts gathering up her clothes.
"Stay for dinner," offers Shaalen.
"No. I'll just get whatever the cafeteria's having," Finnah mutters.
Shaalen does try more shrens, but she doesn't get much of anywhere.
She moves to the mainland ("for surgical training"; Finnah doubts if that's really appropriate, but she won't tell the surgery school if Shaalen doesn't).
Once a year on the spring equinox, Finnah gets a letter. At first each has a charcoal drawing of Shaalen in it. Then each has a charcoal drawing of Shaalen and her wife (when Finnah is a hundred and sixty). Then they have their daughters (one, two, three) and then a little boy they adopt.
Finnah wonders if Shaalen found, in her wife, someone who likes needing to be healed instead of just not minding.
Sometimes she even hopes it.
Finnah's hair grows out. She lets it go to her waist, chops it off at the shoulder, lets it get halfway down her back and then trims it twice a year. She'd like to put it in wheat patterns but the house hairstylist says she'd have to have turned out Petaran or Egerian or at least some convenient kind of South Espaalan for that to look good. "If you like wheat patterns that much you could try a halfling form, see if you get a Rimdweller," suggests the stylist.
Finnah isn't like most shrens at the house. She knows who her parents are, and she has a line name, and if she wrote her mother a letter her mother would be deliriously happy to tell her what sort of halflings the Diam line can become.
"I don't care that much," she snorts, and settles for a herringbone braid.
Usually Finnah leaves the pink envelopes marked with the little Larotian flag in her mail slot until they get cleared away at the end of each month. She doesn't even touch them to throw them away. This means there are two of them waiting for her when she checks her mail, expecting nothing new - it's not the equinox, not even close; she didn't send away for a new pair of shoes; she did not enter to win the Provincial Lottery.
She takes an envelope.
Colladiam writes like Finnah is some kind of overized diary who must be added to via international mail. So-and-so had her baby. Such-and-such a restaurant closed. The basil's thriving, the cat died, the neighbors moved. Please come home.
Please forgive us.
Finnah is not a Myriad Unificationist. She does not believe that every sin can be washed away with oils and rituals and the healing tears of the Nine Who Are One. She thinks there are some things that set any claim someone has to someone else on fire, and that her mother did one of those things.
She sets the letter on fire.
Everyone sort of knows everyone else. There are lots of them, but the turnover is pretty slow. Cliques form and dissolve and rearrange themselves. Some people attach themselves to mentors or don't-quite-adopt the cutest kid in his or her early twenties.
Finnah knows fewer people - or knows the same number, but not as well - or just as well on average but has fewer close companions - or something. She didn't grow up in the house, and that matters. Most of her house friends are older than her, because the ones within a decade of her age either way knew each other as babies, mourned together when Mommy and Daddy (or Mommy and Mommy, or Daddy and Daddy, plenty of them don't even have that information) didn't show.
And they had chances to compete for the attention of the grownups when they were cute and tiny.
Which is how she winds up hanging out with Hallai instead of someone more popular.
Most people don't want to hang out with Hallai. It's not hard for Finnah to figure out why. Hallai is not a very nice person. She does good work, she keeps Ilen from driving everyone else as insane as he already is, and she's terrible to people who annoy her.
So Finnah just doesn't annoy her.
It's really not that hard. Hallai's clear about how she works. She doesn't have a complex according to which people have to satisfy mystery criteria. She says "don't chew gum around me, that's repulsive" and "don't let people take my seat when I go get a second sandwich" and "if you don't actually want to know what you're feeling, don't ask me, for crying out loud", so Finnah doesn't do those things.
They talk about stuff. Some of it's pointless space-filling chat. The garden looks nice today, the career counselor's in next week to tell me what skills I should work on if I want to do any given thing on departing because we want a higher departure rate, salad again today, the bastards at the charity turned down our application for bonus funding for an athletics program -
"Do you ever feel off about taking charity?" Hallai asks idly, once.
"No," says Finnah.
"Because, everyone knows the story, you could go home -"
"No, I couldn't," Finnah said.
Hallai shrugs. "Think you'll leave when you're older?"
"Might leave sooner than that. I know what I want to do. Some countries'll let you work and live by yourself without a fuss if you're fourteen, fifteen equivalent. But I'm not going back to them."
What Finnah wants to do is run a candy store. She'll settle for working at one, to start with, to learn what she needs to know. She'll go to Saraan maybe, where everyone's very intent on maintaining their professionalism and won't be awful to her. And if that doesn't suffice for the customer end of things (as customers do not need to be professional), whoever hired her can hide her in the back, with the vats of boiling sugar and the icing pipettes and the beaters smothered in chocolate. She'll just make candy all day long, and not even listen to people up front ask for maple pops and vanilla penly and honey-yogurt dipped mango pieces.
And once she knows enough, and saves enough money - ten, fifteen years at minimum Saraanlan wage, if math done on a corner of scratch paper is right - she'll open her own store, anywhere she likes. She'll marry a string of pretty human ladies or maybe elves or whoever, none of whom will look one bit like Shaalen except perhaps around the eyes and the bust and the oh of course they'll look like Shaalen. She'll have cute little daughters. She'll be a good mom.
And even if one of those daughters should happen to be a parunia, Finnah can live with that, because Finnah is not dangerous to baby dragons, and wouldn't hurt one, ever.
The career counselor's name is Bosen. Bosen is a thousand years old and then some. This isn't as old as Ludei, or plenty of other house adults, but it's a heck of a lot older than Finnah. He's never gotten married, but he did leave his house, when he was a hundred eighty something, and he's started businesses and learned all kinds of skills and lived all over the world.
Every five years or so Bosen comes to the Keppine house and sits down with everybody who'll take an appointment with him and talks about what they want to do when they leave. Finnah's not sure if this is just charity or a sense of obligation or if he gets to write it off on his taxes. Or maybe he's quietly harvesting promising young shrens to work at whatever his current enterprise is before there's any competition for their labor. Anyway, he tells them what they should study in the house, and what they should do in their first years out of the house, so they can get where they want to be.
Finnah goes ahead and gets an appointment with him, even though she thinks she knows what candy shop owners have to learn. During the appointment, he mostly confirms that. She has to know how to make candy, in large batches; if she wants to own the shop she'll also have to learn about the local laws that will apply to her and about how to manage employees. He makes one interesting suggestion, which is that she volunteer to run a toy business with some of the little kids and have them sell candy to house residents for play money.
The toy business activity is number one hundred and fourteen in the library's Big Book of Ways to Occupy Children. Everything on the list has been done at least ten times since the house has owned the volume, even boring things like "paper glider contest" and "everyone pretends to be zoo animals". Finnah was in a toy business herself when she was fifty-something and got to count the babies' scales they were using as coins back then while others sold subscriptions to a "magazine" made mostly of crayon drawings.
So she goes to the obsidian lady who does non-academic activities with kids in the fifty to seventy range, and offers to handle a toy business, and finds herself with twelve kids who'll help her make candy (when the cafeteria kitchen is quiet, between meals) and package it (clumsily) and run around through the halls with it offering it to residents in exchange for cardboard cutouts with coin pictures stamped on them. She coaches them about experimental sales strategies, and learns absolutely nothing about any of same because a sixty-two-year-old shren salesperson cannot execute complex instructions.
Finnah sticks with her toy candy shop until the kids get bored and doesn't bother making an appointment with the career counselor the next time he comes by.
She keeps making candy and puts it on the dessert counter at dinner most days. She likes candy because it's completely optional. No one is starving for lack of molasses melts. No one is beggaring themselves paying for crystallized strawberries they can't afford. When you have a little extra to spend, you can have a little candy, and it tastes good, and that's all.
Finnah's mother changes to blue envelopes at the same time Larotia changes its flag. Finnah doesn't recognize either, so she opens it. It could be anything. Sweepstakes notice for the Gold Ring Sugar Corp. giveaway. An invitation to join the mayoral campaign of Tarath Inosaar, who wants to remind her that he cares very much about all the inhabitants of Kep Island. A citation for public voiding, because what else are you going to do when you're midflight and shaped like a cardinal and sometimes the cops have to make up their budget shortfalls with fines.
Much-missed Finnah, reads the salutation.
She crumples the letter.
"Who was that from?" asks a green boy in his eighties or so. Finnah thinks his name might be Danyor or something like that.
"My mom," Finnah replies without thinking.
"What the hell?" he exclaims, looking at the crumple in her hand.
And he stares at her, fury in his eyes, demanding that she justify herself to him.
"I'd let you have her if I knew how to give her away," Finnah says.
"Why are you not even reading her letter? Why did she write you a letter?" Danyor demands.
He's young enough not to have hatched when Finnah arrived at the house. He's young enough to never have seen her red-eyed and sniffling. He's young enough not to have seen her be the one to write letters, in huge clumsy handwriting, begging and begging until even Draconic ran out of words.
"I know roughly what it'll say. She's asking me to come live with her," Finnah says.
"What's wrong with you?" asks Danyor. "What's wrong with you? If I had a letter -"
"You want to know? Is this what we're doing?" snaps Finnah. "You want the story. Fine. She kept me! She divorced my father over it! She moved to a house on a quinoa farm in Nowhere, Larotia, to keep me. She sat up with me when I was in too much pain to sleep, she read me storybooks, she baked me goddamn teacakes -"
"What are you doing here?" hisses Danyor, through tears. "If you were a home shren -"
"And then!" roars Finnah. "And then she married another dragon! And he didn't like me any more than my father did, my father who she divorced to keep me, but you know, Stepdad tolerated me, sort of, he moved onto the quinoa farm, he ignored me, and maybe Mom had less time for me but I was still a home shren. And then. And then new hubby wants a baby! A little boy to carry on his line! And she says yes dear and six tries later I have a little brother! And dear beloved stepdad says there will be no shrens around the house with his baby son. There will be no shrens around his vulnerable litte boy. I might shift. Because one time when I was twenty-two I tried that because I missed fire, he thinks I'm going to cripple his kid. And Mom? Same Mom who gave up the last husband over me, same Mom who read me books and fed me cakes? Put me on a boat. Didn't even come with me on the trip."
"But she writes," says Danyor stubbornly.
"Yeah. Little brother turns twenty, he can shift, now he's safe from his big bad shren sister," growls Finnah. "Mom says come home, your stepfather will let you now. And I told her to fuck off. She keeps trying, but you know what? My mommy is dead. This lady -" Finnah brandishes the envelope with the new, lying Larotian flag. "This lady killed her because her asshole husband asked her to and what's a few decades of motherhood to that? So you know what? I take it back. This letter's not from my mom at all. It's from someone I met one time and didn't like much who's harassing me by mail. You can have her. She can be your mom. Much good may she do you." She throws the letter at Danyor's face and he's too stunned to dodge.
A few weeks later she catches him stealing a blue envelope with a Larotian flag on it, out of her mail slot.
She ignores it. Much good may it do him.
Chapter 2: Keppine House
Rhysel is from another world, where they have magic that is more magical than magic is.
Finnah feels stupid even thinking that. But it's true.
Rhysel's magic can do the impossible.
Rhysel's magic can make the screaming babies calm down, laugh, dry their eyes, fly.
For a few moments each only, but that's enough.
Finnah wants to do that.
Finnah doesn't meet Rhysel in person right away, but no one can talk about anything else. Annoyed "the soundproofing's worn off, somebody tell Ehail" becomes marveling "it's so quiet in that corner of the house". Adamant "I'll take any house job - except baby-minding" becomes indifferent "well, wherever you think I could help most".
Finnah doesn't seek out Rhysel purposefully. Quite. She does take note when the offworlder is scheduled to show up and do her extra-magical magic, and chooses that time to loiter in the hallway. She's too indecisive. Shaalen would have just walked up to Rhysel and said, "Will you teach me to do what you do?"
Finnah's not Shaalen. She's not even Shaalen's girlfriend anymore. Finnah doesn't so much ask for things as hang around near them, eye them, occasionally doodle them. She doesn't know what kamai looks like, so she hasn't attempted to draw it. But she stands around, arriving in time to watch the kama's assistant-or-something let himself out into the front door. He doesn't notice her; that's fine. The house is talking about Rhysel, not him.
A flare of terror from the room pins Finnah against the opposite wall and leaves her shaking there until Hallai storms by and drags Ilen away. False emotion subsides quickly. It isn't about anything. She'd find excuses if she didn't know what was really causing it, but she's familiar enough with Ilen's problems. By the time Rhysel sticks her head out of the babies' room Finnah is fine again.
"Excuse me," Rhysel says. "Do you know who is supposed to look after the children when Ilen isn't?"
The kama's a pretty half-elf, orange braid dangling from the nape of her neck and and green eyes politely confused. "Ilen's brain broke again?" Finnah says, though she knows the answer already. "I can do it." She's not averse to babysitting. It's not that hard. "I'm Finnah," she adds by way of introduction as she lets herself into the room. She sits among scaly children. They approach her and start estimating her value as climbing equipment.
"So I'm told." Apparently the babies know how their caretaker gets sometimes like everyone else does, and have informed Rhysel of what's going on. Hallai certainly wouldn't have paused to explain. "What happened to Ilen, do you know?" And the babies haven't provided much detail.
"Somebody either opened a window, threatened to make him walk out the door, or suggested that he depart the house by magic," says Finnah. One baby gets all the way up her blouse and hoists himself onto her head. "Hallai's going to have to scream calm at him for a few angles and then he'll be fine."
"I didn't realize inviting him over for dinner would have that effect," Rhysel says.
"Sometimes it happens all by itself," Finnah says. Not often - there's usually a push - but it's not unheard of. "I can watch the kids till Hallai's done with him. You don't have to stick around." The poor woman looks uncomfortable with the whole mess. "You're done, right?"
"Waiting for my fiancé to pick up me and my apprentice. He'll be here any degree now. Actually, he should have been here a while ago, if my sense of time is right. I'm not sure what's keeping him," Rhysel says.
"You could get Ehail to take you home." Finnah doesn't really want Rhysel to leave without spilling a few magical secrets, but she doesn't want that to be obvious, either.
"If Aar Kithen isn't here in half an angle, I'd like to find some volunteers to tap so I can build a transfer point," Rhysel says. "I can get home that way. Actually, that might be a good idea anyway."
You call your fiancé "Aar"? Finnah doesn't say. "Volunteers to what so you can build a what?" she does say.
"A transfer point. It's a little like a teleportation circle, but you have to be a kama to use it without help, it's smaller, and you need to know the magical signature of the other transfer point you're going to - so you can't barge in on someone who doesn't share theirs. It takes a lot of energy to make one, but I can borrow it from other people," Rhysel explains. "Shrens have a lot, so I'd only need a few."
"Uh-huh," says Finnah, trying to look attentive but not ridiculously rapt.
"It's a kind of elemental kamai, which is my main specialty," Rhysel goes on. "There are four other kinds - mind, image, wild, and death."
"Death," says Finnah, tilting her head. "Nice."
"It's not quite what it sounds like - or not entirely," says Rhysel. "I don't know as much about that aspect as I do about others, though."
"Which kind are you using on the babies?"
"Elemental," Rhysel says. "There might be a way to do the same thing - make them very light - with wild kamai, but elemental's what I know best and I got it to work this way. It might have taken me years to get to the point of being able to do it with wild."
"What's tuition like at your school?" asked Finnah.
"I don't actually know," says Rhysel. How helpful. "I don't see that side of it."
"If it's not really ridiculous maybe Ludei'd send me there and I could learn kamai," Finnah says to herself. "The house has some funds to get us educated. That's how Ehail's a wizard..."
"Do you think I could get some volunteers from the house - four, five, six people who are willing and able to go outside - to help me with that?" Rhysel asks. That? The transfer point. Right.
"Sure. Try asking -"
"Room numbers would be more useful than names," Rhysel interrupts.
Finnah shrugs and pulls up some room numbers without worrying too much if they belong to who she has in mind. She could generate them at random without getting different results, probably - this is Rhysel who's asking the favor, not a random person off the street. "I'd do it," Finnah adds to the list, "but I'm sort of inhabited." There are baby shrens all over her, wrapped around and clinging by their claws and sitting on her head.
"Thanks," says Rhysel, and she leaves Finnah alone with the babies.
The babies are much better company when they aren't crushed under however many years of esu.
Finnah sticks around until Ilen comes back.
Finnah talks to Ludei about tuition, and he says that he can pay half of it as long as it's reasonable. She'll get the other half somewhere else. Maybe there are scholarships. Maybe she will get a job. Maybe - does she want this badly enough to write to her mother? Finnah doesn't know the answer there. The answer's probably no. She can find work and save her allowance for a few years and see where that gets her, before she starts thinking about any drastic measures like that.
Finnah writes a letter to Rhysel.
Rhysel's reply appears the next day in a grey envelope with an Esmaarlan flag on it. It says (encouragingly) that there is a scholarship that Finnah qualifies for which will cover half of her tuition.
It says (apologetically) that the school's headmaster is married to the unique green-group dragon, and Finnah will be best served if she does not reveal her shren status to anyone who'd inform same.
Finnah would have dyed her hair anyway. She can pass for Esmaarlan with dyed black hair and her milk-tea skin. She thinks the Diam line's human appearance may actually be Esmaarlan in particular, not just a plausible Saraanlan or South Espaalan. It's probably some specific, older ethnicity that's long since bled into the rest of the local population, and Finnah will look like an unusually unmongrelized version for the modern day, but people will take her for an Esmaarlan.
But a unique green-group does not have to be fooled by hair dye if she does not want to be.
And Rhysel's letter points out that mind kamai students don't have to either.
Rhysel's idea is this: Finnah will get tutoring in advance from one person who will know what she is, and that one person will teach her enough mind kamai that she will be able to hide it from anyone who's not actually attacking. The green-group and the other kyma will have no reason to break sufficiently subtle shields. Finnah will then dye her hair, room with this student so she can have a safe place to re-dye and shift and fly, and enroll under a modified name. She's not going to study wizardry; no one will practice lie detections on her and be entitled to an explanation if they catch her lying.
Finnah writes back and says that there are some alumni of the shren house who live in Esmaar and might pretend to be her aunt and uncle if she asks them. And says yes, please send the tutor.
She writes to Amna and Merten (but she puts it on the envelope as Amnal and Merten, as that's the obvious transformation to a Leraal name and they're probably passing for most purposes). She asks if she can use their names on school paperwork and claim to be their niece. Amna looks sort of like her. She'll say she's Amna's brother's kid.
The obvious translation of "Finnahdiam" into Esmaarlan Leraal is "Finaal Dinam", which is okay, if not great. She can go by it for a few years.
Rhysel writes again. The tutor's name is Korulen. She's a thudia - the unique's kid, actually, but she won't tell. She'll be by sometime to introduce herself and talk about what they'll cover.
Also, Korulen is related to Ilen somehow, please run any necessary interference, thank you.
That could be interesting, and not in a good way.
The evening of the next Sinen, there is a tentative knock at Finnah's door.
Finnah opens the door labeled 244 and squints into the dimmer light of the hallway. She likes her own room bright and colorful; the hall is drab, and doesn't have skylights so it won't scare the inside shrens. "Hi," she says.
Korulen - Finnah has to assume it's her - is a blue-eyed elf, at least in this form, with yellow hair draped behind overwide ears in what might be an ineffective attempt to disguise them. She holds herself awkwardly, like she's recently grown an inch and expects to knock something over at any moment, and her white-and-grey dress is a little too big on her. "Hi. Are you Finnah?" she asks.
"Yep," says Finnah. "But you might as well start calling me Finaal. You'll have to in school." Korulen smiles; it makes her eyes crinkle up. "You can come in."
Korulen does, and closes the door behind her, and looks at the walls - two yellow, two blue - and the green-painted bed. "Well," she says. "I don't think we have similar philosophies of decorating."
Finnah laughs. "It's easier to get paint around here than actual decorations. I'd tone it down if I had to share the place, anyway. Are we going to start on kamai?"
"We can't yet," Korulen says. "Rhysel will make a separate trip to infuse you - you can't do any kamai until you get that done. I'm just here today real quick to meet you and make sure I know how to find you, and I can tell you about what getting infused is like if you want."
"What's it like?" Finnah asks promptly.
"The infusion tastes really bad. It's not impossible to drink it like you're supposed to - no one in my class choked on it or spat it out or anything - but it's not tasty," Korulen says. "And it makes you really tired. I only barely didn't pass out, and Rhysel says that's because thudias have more lifeforce than most people. You'll have more than I do, and probably won't pass out, but you'll really want a nap."
"Okay," says Finnah. "That doesn't sound too awful."
"It's not," Korulen agrees. She's got a cute way of bobbing her head when she's agreeable but not quite nodding. It makes some of her hair slide over the obstacle of her ears and fall into her face. Finnah wants to brush it out of the way.
Korulen does that herself before Finnah can decide if it would be a good idea. "So you're aiming to start school in the spring?"
"You'll be in the second class, then, just behind me and the other people in my cohort. So you still get to be among the first Elcenians to pick up kamai and you don't get a completely novice teacher," Korulen says with a grin. "Rhysel's great, but she's getting better. Aar Kithen helps her, though. He's a wizard too and he's been teaching at Binaaralav for a long time."
"How careful do I have to be," Finnah says, "about not letting your mom find out about me? Like, she'll-kick-me-out-of-school careful, or she'll-melt-my-brain careful?"
"Just the first thing," Korulen says hurriedly. "She might not even do that, outright. I don't think we've had a shren enrolled before so it's guesswork. She definitely doesn't melt people's brains though."
"Okay," says Finnah.
Korulen changes the subject. "Rhysel says that I have a - relative of some kind here. Who looks like my uncle and my grandfather, on Mom's side."
"Uh," Finnah says. "Don't introduce yourself yet. Let me talk to someone about that first." Finnah doesn't like to think of Hallai looming over Korulen and screaming. Korulen's obviously bright, if Rhysel's recommending her for tutoring. She can learn how to handle Ilen in... quieter ways.
"Okay. I should get going now anyway and do some schoolwork," Korulen says. "I'll come back after you're infused and we can work out a plan for what to cover, and get started on letting you be all sneaky during class exercises and covering up surface thoughts."
"See you then," Finnah says, smiling faintly.
Korulen teleports away.
Finnah visits Hallai the next evening. Hallai's still at dinner, so Finnah lets herself into the office and sits. When the copper empath returns, Finnah speaks first:
"Hey, I want to talk to you."
"What about?" Hallai asks.
"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 says, feeling terribly ineloquent. "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 asks. Like relatives are most similar to tumors that lights have to carve out of you before sparking you whole again.
"She's a thudia," Finnah says. She would have no hope of getting Hallai to leave off a dragon who was nosing about the house and claiming to be related to Ilen. "Got an uncle and a grandfather who look like Ilen. Her name's Korulen."
Hallai shrugs. "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. 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," says Finnah pointedly.
"Yes," Hallai says, dry, distracted, irritated. "That all?"
Finnah hesitates. "I'll bore somebody else talking about how excited I am for school. Bye."
"Bye," says Hallai.
Finnah doesn't really have anyone else to bother. She supposes she could write Shaalen a letter. How old would Shaalen be? More to the point: her eldest is something like four, now, probably starting some kind of school. Finnah isn't sure what kind - shrens at the house are exempt from the usual Petaran educational requirements and they've never intruded on her notice. Shrens qualify as a "cultural minority with an internally managed enclave" or something like that. Shaalen's kids are in or approaching school, though. Finnah decides not to do anything that would make Shaalen lump her in with her kids.
Rhysel infuses Finnah with kamai during the next day, as she has no classes on Lunen or Chenen. Esmaar is like that, apparently - every establishment chooses a day or two or three of the week that it closes. There's no way to predict whether anything will be open unless you know the place. In Petar, everything closes on Saanenik except for emergency services, and those are dangerously understaffed because they have to choose people who aren't that enthusiastic about showing up to their Observances. Finnah knows a house shren who works as a triage evaluator on Saanenik, sitting in a light office that contains no light and determining how urgently to call someone in.
The infusion burns like bad whisky and tastes like rot and industrial potion. Finnah swallows the whole thing.
She yawns. She naps.
She wakes up a few angles later and she can hear the world singing.
Korulen appears two days later after her classes end. Rhysel has already warned Finnah that this is when she should expect Korulen, and so Finnah's waiting outside, watching the transfer point. (It, too, sings, though Finnah doesn't yet know what to do with the music.)
Korulen also sings. Everyone sings. It's faint, but it's so fascinating that Finnah strains to hear it anyway.
"Hi, Korulen!" Finnah calls. "Wanna work outside today?" In the winter, it's not too oppressively hot out.
"Sure, why not," says Korulen, and she's smiling again, she's one of those happy people. Finnah soaks it up, finds herself grinning. She leads Korulen to the benches under the tree that replaced the lightning-struck one forty years ago.
They sit, across from each other, but the benches are close enough that if either one sits a bit forward they can bump knees. Korulen's perched on the edge of her bench.
"Before you start at Binaaralav in Shuraahel you need to be able to hide that you're a shren," says Korulen, "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," says Finnah. "How do I do that?"
"It's easiest to start if we're touching, so here -" Korulen holds out her hand.
Finnah clasps the offered hand and grins.
Mindspeech isn't terribly hard. She has to scream to be heard, but she's got enough to talk about - recipes, mostly. <So while I'm practicing this,> Finnah segues, <we need to talk about something. 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...?> Korulen asks.
<She's super-protective of him,> explains Finnah. <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 wants to know.
<Plenty who never go out, but most don't have Ilen's issues about it,> Finnah sends. <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.> Finnah doesn't really understand the inside shren mindset. Even when she was a baby, she had the run of the farm; there were no dragons anywhere nearby and her mother had the place registered as a shren danger point, just like the houses are.
<I wonder if mind kamai could help them,> Korulen sends.
<Ooh, I wonder,> Finnah sends. <How much do you already know how to do from your first term?>
<It's only been most of my first term,> Korulen replies. <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 agrees. <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 sends.
<I might've seen him. He knows more mind kamai?>
<Yeah. I'll ask Rhysel about it.>
<What else does kamai do?> Finnah asks.
<In the intro class we're learning bits of everything,> Korulen sends. <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's free hand waves and there's a ball of jade green, like a flame emitted by a baby shren of the same color. <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.>
Is she tiptoeing around being able to fly because she doesn't want to be insensitive? That's adorable; Finnah laughs. <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 goes bright pink. It's so cute. <Oh>, comes her response through their joined hands.
<Am I loud enough yet?> Finnah asks. If she doesn't stop holding Korulen's hand soon, she might kiss her.
<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,> Korulen sends.
<I'll practice that with somebody here. You should meet Ilen,> Finnah responds, getting up from the bench and pulling Korulen back to the house.
<I'm not sure what to say,> Korulen says, following after Finnah even after pulling her hand away.
<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 says. She steps up the subjective screaming of the mindspeech to get across without the amplification.
<Okay,> Korulen sends.
Finnah holds the door for her.
Chapter 3: Binaaralav Academy
Finnah tries to serve as a buffer between Ilen and Korulen, because Finnah's request to Hallai notwithstanding, the copper empath won't tolerate any serious interference with her charge. Finnah practices mindspeech. She gets more involved than she should in the inevitable explosions related to Hallai and Ilen's family. She meets Korulen's uncle Narax, who teaches at Binaaralav, but probably won't out her if she gets close enough to him for him to recognize her empathic signature. He only teaches wizardry, he's decent to Ilen, and anyway Korulen would be furious with him; that's Finnah's evidence and her protection.
Korulen teaches her more than just silent chatting, after Finnah has that down without having to concentrate too hard on it. Finnah learns a shield - through which Korulen can't snoop or even talk. But this isn't subtle enough for her needs. Finnah has to be able to hide a fact, and hide the fact that she's hiding it, and fill in the space where that fact lives with something else. She has to hide things that imply that fact, too. A sixteen-year-old Esmaarlan human would not live where she lives, would not have been dating fifteen years ago, would not know the languages she knows.
Finnah has to translate the top of her brain into Leraal, replace any memories about her actual life that someone might encounter with fake ones that will stand up to novice scrutiny.
<Is this all really necessary?> Finnah says. <I just won't go into mind kamai after the first term. All we'll be guaranteed to cover is mindspeech and shielding which I already know now, and enough poking around so we can test each other's shields - I have so much shielding head start that no one's going to bust mine in my own class.>
<Someone in your class could keep up with mind kamai classes,> Korulen says. <And even in your first term, one of them could pick a mind kamai working for their lesson choice. Rhysel and Aar Kithen are doing that for this and the next terms, letting students have a say in what they study - so they know what Elcenian students find interesting and how long it takes a class to go through it.>
<I don't have to partner with random people for exercises like that, do I? Rhysel and Aar Kithen are in on my deep dark secret. I can just work with you.>
Korulen chews her lip. <I guess. But you probably should work on this until the next term starts anyway - in case someone's rude and goes looking when you're not shielded, or unexpectedly good at shield-breaking, or something. Unless there are a lot of other demands on your time.>
<There aren't, really,> Finnah admits. <But don't you have lots to do?>
<I should probably scale back the tutoring,> Korulen agrees. Finnah represses a whine. <But you can practice what I've already explained and I can check in on you sometimes.>
<Okay,> Finnah sends, because "wait, I take it back, I need to learn more stuff after all, come visit me anyway I'm so bored when you're gone" is not an appropriate answer.
Finnah practices. Rhysel does most of the checking-up, not Korulen, because she comes to the house for the babies anyway and knows more mind kamai than Korulen does anyway.
But in Shuraahel, Finnah will start school, and she and Korulen will be roommates, and they'll see each other all the time.
Finnah turns down an invitation to Rhysel's wedding - she'd rather explore someplace as faraway and strange as Barashi on her own terms, on an unremarkable day. She combs inky dye through her hair and over her eyebrows, stands half-naked under the dryer in the bathroom for a few degrees, and then rinses off the excess goop and peers at herself in the mirror: it'll do. She packs her two skirts (pants won't do in Esmaar) and four blouses, trades her pairs of pants to a diamond girl about her size for another skirt in appallingly bad colors, and wears her only dress.
Korulen picks her up and teleports her directly into her room - their room.
Finnah lives here now.
Korulen had a point about their decoration philosophies. The walls are white. The curtains are beige. The sheets are grey. The furniture is made of wood, and it's been stained but not painted. The ceiling glows white, with one plausibly-whimsical streak of blue in it that looks like it came standard with the room to make it look less stark. There are three tasteful knicknacks on Korulen's bookshelf, and an egg sitting on the windowsill in a lined box.
"That going to be your familiar?" Finnah asks, pointing at the egg.
"If it hatches," Korulen says. "About half of them don't, and if it does it'll take years, and then a while to grow up so I can tie it. But that's the plan."
"What is it?"
"Beestripe drake," Korulen says. "The evidence isn't conclusive about whether drakes are as likely to give extra boost to thudias as they are to dragons, but I like beestripes anyway."
"I think it's weird that kyma never have familiars. Not even wild kyma. I mean, a wild kama can make animals like them a whole lot, and communicate with them really well, but it's still just an animal, it doesn't do anything but be an animal."
"What'm I going to learn in wild kamai this term?" Finnah asks. She flew up high once, cardinal-shaped, and got chased by a hawk. It was faster than her, and actually got hold of her before she was close enough to the ground that she could shift without the fall killing her human form. The hawk had gotten away, even though she'd tried to shift with her fist around its neck. It had taken her a long time to drag herself to the light with one form impaled and one with a leg broken in four places. It would be nice to avoid that sort of thing in the future.
"Animal calming is where they start," Korulen says. "I don't know what else might get in as a special request. Probably depends on whether you have many would-be wild kyma in your bunch."
Finnah isn't sure if hawks are deterred from hunts by being particularly calm, but it would have been something to try. "Neat."
"Later wild kyma also learn most of the healing workings, and woodshaping, and stuff. It's cool, it's just not what interested me most," shrugs Korulen.
"I'll probably do everything except mind," Finnah sighs. Oh well, she's a term behind Korulen anyway. They weren't going to be in any of the same classes.
"Death isn't really interesting, honestly," Korulen says. "A lot of it doesn't work here for some reason. Rhysel thinks it requires more interference from the Barashin gods, or something."
"Huh," Finnah says noncommittally. "Um, by the way. Are these rooms soundproof?"
"Yes," Korulen says. "Soundproofed, and warded with you and me as keys to this one. Right now it'll let my boyfriend in by default - he always knocks anyway, but I can take him off if it bothers you, you being a private person is a good enough excuse and it doesn't have to obviously have anything to do with him being a dragon. Everybody else, even my best friends, has to get let in per occasion."
"Uh," says Finnah, wondering what it would have felt like to be crushed flat from several directions at once. Before it would have felt like nothing, anyway. "Yeah, I'd rather if he was per-occasion too."
"Okay," Korulen says. "D'you know how to control wards?"
"It's not complicated, is it? Want thing, thing happens? Within what the ward does?" Finnah says, looking out the window. She plops down on her bed, distinguished from Korulen's by being on the side of the room that doesn't have any stuff in it.
"Pretty much. I just don't know if you have them on each room at the house."
"Not unless there's a specific problem. Ehail's got lots to do." Finnah had a ward on her room once because there was this jet boy, who did not know what you are the wrong gender meant. He got moved from his original house in Corenta for similar behavior to see if a change of scenery would help, and after a year didn't see him leaving Finnah alone, they sent him to Esmaar. Finnah vaguely wonders if they'd have put him in the iceberg house, if that didn't work out.
"Makes sense," Korulen says. "Are you going to Rhysel's wedding?"
Finnah shakes her head. "I guess I'll have to start calling her Aaral - well, I already call her by her first name anyway."
"She'll still be Rhysel, yes, but she's not even changing names. He's moving into her house, so he'll be Aar Camlenn," Korulen says.
"Oh. Okay." It doesn't work that way in Petar, but "whose house you live in" is a simple enough rule to remember. "What else am I going to trip up on? If I grew up here I'd know that."
"I don't know a lot about Petaran culture," Korulen says. "So I don't know where to start."
"I'm not, like, Ananel Lal Petar. I know other things and I grew up in a weird place anyway."
"Ananel Lal Petar?" blinks Korulen.
"Oh - uh - cultural stereotype," Finnah says. "Ananel Lal Petar is a sheltered middle-class Petaran girl who doesn't know that other countries exist because she lives in a midsize mainland city and doesn't read books or anything. We get a fair few boats and scoots coming by our island, so there's foreigners around sometimes, so the locals talk about mainlanders that way."
"We could start with whatever you do know about Esmaar," Korulen said.
Finnah keeps staring out the window as she describes her understanding of the country she lives in now, and pretends she's talking to someone else, who doesn't have a boyfriend.
Class isn't hard. Finnah's only taking one thing, and they weighted it for people who are in wizardry too, carrying two to five unrelated subjects. That plus her head start plus the fact that she has to stop pining, really, that's not going to accomplish anything, leaves her with a lot of angles to fill.
She gets extra work from Rhysel, which will defer the problem until next term when she'll again be ahead of everybody, but at least then there will be four classes. And she negotiates late-night access to the cafeteria kitchen and ingredients in exchange for dishwashing services.
She sells out her first batch of penly in four degrees, spent sitting with little packets of it at lunchtime.
She makes another ten loaves in various flavors. And cuts it smaller.
People start recognizing her as the candy girl. Finnah takes this identity and wears it. She always has a few bars of salt-pressed chocolate or a bag of acorn brittle to sell if someone wants it during class or spots her in the halls. She stores crystallized apples under her desk and agave chews by the foot of her bed and marshmallow melts in her nightstand.
Korulen likes the caramel fudge best. She takes little, little bites. It makes her close her eyes and let her breath out with a quiet sound...
Finnah makes that kind of fudge every week. And gives Korulen a discount. This is a bad idea and she does it anyway.
Finnah goes through enough sugar that the cafeteria manager wants to start charging her, or make her use tasteless, textureless conjured ingredients that are only suitable for people who are starving. Finnah pays up - she's making enough on the candy to fork over the cafeteria's share and still pay for her own hair dye twice a month.
For her lesson choice, she says she wants to learn edible illusions.
They don't have enough time to allocate to that so that she can get all the way to making solid, chewable, delicious candy which requires no ingredients or cooking at all, but Finnah learns to press simple tastes onto tongues, her own or others'. She can fill her mouth with unadorned sweetness and is just getting the hang of more complicated things like "banana" and "butter" when they have to move on.
The other stuff is interesting too. Finnah makes a mouse calmly tolerate sudden movements and noises that would have an un-tampered-with mouse squeaking in terror. She conjures fire out of nothing and makes it dance around the room, cold or hot or not-really-there-at-all. She pairs with Rhysel to learn to dredge up old memories; there's an odd number of students so that's fine, and Rhysel lets herself be steered to harmless times. She can kill spiders without having to get out of her chair. She jumps from one transfer point to the next, and she could visit the house, now, if she wanted to, but she doesn't want to.
Korulen is gregarious and popular. Lutan and Kaarilel are her best friends, both of them wizards-in-training and Lutan an image kamai student too. Lutan and her girlfriend Lil hit on Finnah once - their boyfriend, they kindly inform her, is optional - and Finnah nearly swears at them in languages she's pretending not to know. Lutan's cute, Lil is hot - and they don't want her, they're just checking as a matter of course. She's just there. It's the second thing she hears out of Lil's mouth after "nice to meet you". Finnah is not interested in being a prop for them until they can think of an actual characteristic she has, without being prompted.
The fact that Korulen is on such good terms with Lutan and Lil and, to a lesser extent, their boyfriend, yet is clearly dating zero of them, adds another layer of sealant over Finnah's already boxed-locked-and-buried hopes. They aren't very good at suffocating.
Term ends. Finnah stays on campus for the break, because she likes the school better than the house. Korulen stays on campus for the break, because her family lives there.
Finnah is not introduced at any time to Korulen's baby parunia sister.
Finnah tells herself that this is only because of their protective, unique-green-group mother. She tells herself that Korulen would obviously want to introduce them if not for that. She tells herself that because it's sensible and has an obvious reason unrelated to Korulen not trusting her, it doesn't hurt at all.
Finnah does meet Korulen's boyfriend, because he comes to their room often, especially during break.
She hates him.
It's not even because he's Korulen's boyfriend. True, she'd probably hate anyone who answered to the same description, but Kaylo in particular is just - well, unless he's fantastic at dancing the dance of the nude, there's no reason for Korulen to like him, and Finnah doesn't think Korulen would go by that as her sole criterion. (If she would, Finnah learned a few things from Shaalen...)
Kaylo is a bird of paradise who hasn't had his tail pulled yet. He doubtless thinks he's the world's best dancer (so to speak), but that's not what he dwells on; he dwells on being a brilliant scholar of magic theory. He's about Finnah's age and he thinks he's smarter than every established name in both worlds on the subject. He's not even a graduated wizard or kama. He's going through classes slower than anyone else in the entire school, his supposed sharpness notwithstanding. Finnah looks for his name in the library system and there's not a thing there he's added to the world's store of knowledge.
He hates his aunt who has guardianship over him but doesn't have the guts to cut her off. He neglects Korulen, and Finnah has to - gets to - does sit with her when he cancels dates to "research" things. (Finnah doesn't have her own school friends. She's standoffish, everybody has to pay for their candy, no one visits their room to see her: she's always there when Korulen is. She doesn't want to risk anyone learning too much about her - knowing her face well enough to tell that in ten years she'll age one - finding out how she feels about Korulen and telling.)
Because Korulen is friendly now, and helpful now, and will unselfconsciously make those noises when she eats her pieces of caramel fudge, and that will evaporate if she knows. Korulen, if she knew, would let Finnah down gently - put in for a roommate transfer - find Finnah a single room or suggest that she confide in Lutan or Kaarilel to room with them. And she will carefully, deliberately pull away and she will never eat fudge in front of Finnah again.
Finnah's second term starts. She continues in everything but mind kamai, for secrecy, and death kamai, which really is dull. Korulen can't help her with any of her work now, but that's fine, Finnah occupies her time with illusions and elements and calling wild moles to surface at her feet for no reason.
She still hates Kaylo.
She does shout at Lil the next time she hits on her - Lil never so much as checks her out, Lil doesn't want to have conversations with her, Lil hasn't even bought the candy. Lil just thinks it's a damn shame if anyone who's attracted to girls doesn't enjoy the girl who is Lil at least once.
Lil leaves her alone after the shouting.
Hallai isn't all wrong about how to manage people, if one is willing to put them off.
"I think Lil needed to hear that, even if she didn't like it," Korulen says thoughtfully, the next day.
"What, hear that not everyone wants to peel the paint with her?"
"Well, now she's heard it," Finnah says irritably.
Finnah hears thirdhand about Ehail's wedding. She doesn't go to that one either. Good for Ehail, though.
Yep, good for Ehail.
During the next break, Finnah hears about the shren adoption program. Species on Barashi live long enough - and are sufficiently nonbigoted - that they will adopt young shrens.
Finnah doesn't know how young is young, but she writes to Ludei and says that she's not going to involve herself in this scheme.
Her mother's letters find her at school now, of course. They are still addressed to Finnah, and this is where Finnah is now, so they appear on her desk. She still doesn't read them; in fact, she now burns them, in case someone sees the name on the envelope which is not Finaal. She wonders if that kid who was swiping them misses being able to do that.
Korulen doesn't ask. Korulen does not pry. Korulen knows what things are and are not her business, and Finnah is starting to search very desperately for something the matter with Korulen somewhere, but it's clearly not that.
It occurs to Finnah that if enough shrens get adopted out, the houses are going to shrink. Possibly fast, if adults take it as a suggestion that they could go live in Barashi too, since apparently Barashi doesn't despise them. The houses could become small enough that they can no longer do things like "pay half tuition".
Finnah looks for jobs. The candy has a small profit margin after paying off the cafeteria; she can only make so much of it and still keep up in all her classes. A lot of it doesn't keep, so unless she wants to make everyone sick of sugar quartz and cane spirals where they're used to variety, she can't just make huge amounts over breaks - when there's scarcely anyone to buy - and then dole it out when she's busier.
Jobs in Esmaar aren't really designed to accommodate people in school. Most people don't go to school, for one thing. The people who do are supported by their families on the assumption that they'll pitch in more money later. (Lutan goes on about entrepreneurial ideas for how to turn kamai into a way to help support her household all the time. Kaarilel is planning to get some dull post with a commercial wizarding outfit, which also makes decent money.)
There are still areas where Finnah finds openings with flexible schedules. Most of them require skills she doesn't have. The only candy store that's hiring does background checks, for some reason, and Finnah can't pass for human and pass one of those.
Finally she finds a Baverian restaurant that doesn't ask inconvenient questions or require her to show up during any time when she's going to have class in winter term. They will pay her a non-insulting wage which works out to a bit better than candymaking at school. She isn't making candy for the restaurant - they don't serve dessert at all - she's just waitressing. She smiles fake smiles and writes down orders and translates "surprise me" into her favorite or least favorite offering, depending on how nice the customer is.
She does not panic when someone with a baby dragon eats there.
That only happens once, anyway. The baby dragon's dad doesn't like their salted cucumbers.
Finnah's third term starts.
Finnah still hates Kaylo, but now it really is just because he's Korulen's boyfriend.
Anyone who works miracles can be as arrogant as he wants.
Korulen bumps her to the top of the queue. She can do that because she's the miracle-worker's girlfriend. She will do that because she is Finnah's... friend. Finnah is among the very first to be cured.
Finnah could have destroyed that hawk if only this had happened a long time ago.
But most importantly, there is no longer any reason to conceal her species.
Korulen's mom would never have been legally allowed to prohibit a shren from attending school. She could have gotten away with it, but she's not going to make a fuss about it retroactively.
Finnah returns unopened hair dye to the mail-order potion company and orders its counteractive agent.
She rinses the black off her head.
Underneath her hair is red, red, red.
Finnah likes to fly, but she loves to breathe fire. This only makes sense. It's what she's for. It's what makes being a shren worst for red-groups, along with white-groups. White-groups at least get to do what they need to do in some other form. They get to fly, if not at their full potential.
Finnah never got to breathe fire, after that one time she shifted when she wasn't supposed to.
And she's ignored the need ever since.
It never ceases to thrill her that she is a sort of creature that can do that. If she yawns just so, pushes just so - fire. Brilliant crimson flames that plume out of her mouth. She can breathe through her nose while she does it. She can make it hotter or cooler. She can make it shoot her entire body length away from the tip of her tongue or create just a tiny candle's worth. She can do this any time she wants.
Kamai's pretty cool like that too, but it's not the same.
This was what she missed.
This was the hole that shrenhood carved out of her heart.
Finnah hops out of the window a lot, now, in cardinal shape, and clears the building and shifts and warms up the sky.
Chapter 4: Colonial Esmaar
Now that it doesn't matter who knows what about her, Finnah can make friends.
She does not turn out to be particularly gifted at it.
There's Korulen (there's still Korulen, there may go on being Korulen until Korulen dies). And, that's about it. Finnah has already established to the people in her level of kamai that she's not sociable and doesn't want to talk to them beyond functional, topical discussion. Last term, someone from Korulen's class who hadn't been keeping up with image kamai decided to add it back in and fell in with Finnah's cohort, but he picked up on this too and never seemed that interested in befriending Finnah to begin with. And there's no one like that this term.
People who buy candy from her don't tend to strike up conversations beyond "the weather's nice, huh?", "can you do raspberry gum soon?", or "this is a ripoff, it was cheaper last week".
Finnah does not like Kaylo, she still has a sour taste in her mouth about Lutan and Lil, and Kaarilel, while nice, is... not a whole lot else. Well, Finnah could think of other words for Kaarilel, but they wouldn't be endearing ones.
In the house, Finnah hung out with Hallai. She was casually acquainted with some of the interlocking circles of shrens her age. She covered for Ilen and would sometimes spend a degree chatting with him when he'd reappear, recovered from an attack. She knew the house leader, the house wizard, the house assistant gardener, and the house hairdresser.
But are they her friends? If she turned up at Ehail's house and wanted to have coffee and rice-syrup cookies with her at that restaurant where all of the tables are for two, would Ehail be politely bewildered? If she visited Hallai and suggested going together to see the model scoot race in Mepek (which is easy flying distance, now), would Hallai laugh her out of the building? If she ran into Ilen on the street (supposedly he can occupy streets, now; it is not due to a change of heart on his psychic sister's part; there was an obviously mass-copied letter about it) and she invited him to accompany her to the free concert in the park, would he make excuses and scamper away?
When Finnah was little, and she'd first learned to shift so she was halfway adequate company, she played with elf children at a playgroup near the quinoa farm. She can remember two of their names with reasonable confidence, faces of a few more. She called those elves her friends, until she was shipped to Petar on a boat and all her letter-writing energy was devoted to begging her mother to take her back.
Those elf children are all middle-aged now.
She and Shaalen were never really friends to begin with, and now they're barely acquaintances. Other islanders tended to steer clear of shrens outside professional contexts.
Rhysel would certainly identify herself as Finnah's friend if Finnah did something preposterous like ask, but Rhysel is just Finnah's teacher. The other teachers wouldn't even have such straightforward and certain answers to the question.
Finnah flops spread-eagled onto her bed and sighs.
In a half-angle she has to get ready for work. Her co-workers at the restaurant are two humans, two elves, and a halfling - one elderly, one obsessed with her homemade cosmetics side business who won't stop trying to sell Finnah kohl and mascara, one who doesn't seem to be all there even if he can group silverware and bus tables, one who doesn't seem to talk to anyone, and one who spends a lot of his time smelling like nauseating recreational fumes.
Finnah has gotten along fine without any friends besides Korulen so far. Just because she could make some now if some presented themselves doesn't mean she needs to.
She spends her half-angle writing down ideas for experimental penly and meringue flavors and then changes into her uniform and goes.
Linnip conquers Rygnaav. They use a civil war therein as an excuse to do it, but once they've begun no one can think why they - or someone - didn't do it years ago, since Ryganaav has been horrible since even before Finnah hatched.
The conquest is kindly done, by all accounts. Ryganaavlanik are pushovers to the point where lethal force is never necessary; they don't even use lights like the other magic-hating country. And Linnip is strange in that it's a former colony that actually wants to be a kinder colonizer than its old master.
Finnah has taken to reading newspapers, which is how she keeps up with this development. She wraps "surprise bundles" of candy in sheets from it, and people buy them as presents or when they can't make up their minds, even though they all cost more than their contents would if bought individually and disproportionately contain things that aren't selling in transparent wrappings.
The newspaper also excitedly tells her about the shren cure and its ongoing effects, including how someone anonymous got turned to stone by mistake and has only recently been fixed and granted dragonhood.
Finnah gets a letter with a Pra Verian flag on it. She has never gotten one of those before, and she opens it.
It contains an article from the Zefira Inspector-Linsang (one of the... five or so... things Finnah knows about Pra Verian is that they take their animal archetypes very seriously). The article is about the shren cure, the headline a dramatically serifed "Hidden Shame Becomes Open Glory by Work of Great Honorable Wizard".
Written over much of the text of the article, in blue pen, are words in Draconic, not in Verian: "Your mother didn't know when I asked. Did they get you yet, tikkase?"
It's not signed. It doesn't have to be. One person in the world could address her as "tikkase"; Draconic is helpful like that.
Apparently Finnah's father lives in Pra Verian now.
She burns the letter - with kamai; this crap doesn't deserve fire that comes from her freed natural self - and cries into her pillow until she falls asleep.
Her father doesn't take up pestering her regularly the way her mother has. Finnah's relieved at this, but not really grateful. Gratitude would take more time and thought, and even time and thought wouldn't necessarily produce it.
And she's busy. She's in three classes, and they're harder now, and Eryn keeps wanting her to invent her own projects instead of using the "examples", and Mysel is tired of moles and wants her to prove that she can work with birds, and Aar Camlenn is so exacting when he grades her on her air-levitations. She's making candy, and a customer's cousin runs a grocery store in town that wants to sell boxes of her fudge there for a small commission.
If that takes off, she can maybe quit waitressing, since she can make fudge in huge batches without it taking too much longer now that she can boil things with fire kamai - but in the meantime, she's still picking up shifts at the restaurant whenever she can and tucking away three quarters of the money to save against the house no longer helping with tuition. The other quarter goes to slowly adding to her awful wardrobe out of the past-fashions shop, and to paying for ingredients, and occasionally going out and having fun. Textbooks come with her mysterious half-ride scholarship. Finnah suspects that the scholarship is just the "Rhysel is Independently Wealthy Ridiculous Altruism Scholarship".
There's barely a break between winter and spring terms, and the classes flow smoothly into each other. She can make physical illusion sugar, now, which will behave exactly like real sugar - until a pot of it and butter and cream spits and burns her, and then the entire batch vanishes all at once and leaves her with hot unsweetened dairy, because images can't hurt people (or animals, either). So she doesn't switch over to making candy with that stuff entirely, but it's fine for things that don't need to be cooked. If only she could make it last more than an angle, anyway.
She gets a strange mass mailing. From Kaylo.
Wanted, it says. Dragon volunteers to donate excess dragon magic (via additional fixed forms).
And there is a list of three beneficiaries, and topping the list is Korulen Inular.
Finnah has her new form picked out before she's even fully decided to help.
When she was cured, Finnah added a third assumed form to the human and the cardinal. Now she can be a striped hyena, with thin legs and a brushtail and red bands streaking grey-beige fur. All three of those forms were sealed up somehow, when Kaylo worked his miracle, and then using them didn't take as much magic and extra could be used to complete the cure.
Finnah turns into a panda right there in the empty dorm room. She doesn't know before she does it whether the white parts or the black parts will have her natural color. It turns out to be the black ones that are replaced; she's like a bouquet of roses, bright beside pale beside bright.
On Shuraahel tenth, she bids an unsuspecting Korulen goodbye and goes to the meeting place in Barashi.
Kaylo separates out some of the donors and sends them back to Elcenia, to meet Rhysel and wait there for the third person who needs donated dragon magic, and then he counts up who's donating how many forms of those remaining. Finnah stays put, and when he gets to her, she fixes him with a stare. He doesn't bother asking her any questions beyond, "How many?"
"One," she says. She wants the last for emergencies. Use of a form would have been a good way to get away from that hawk, if she'd thought of it, and if she'd been able to come up with something good.
Kaylo finishes the count and sends some extras home, thanking them distractedly.
The headmaster's wife - Korulen's mom - is there. Finnah ducks behind a blue and an amethyst when she's sure she knows that this is that jade woman and not some other. Sure, Finnah's a dragon now too; that doesn't mean she wants the brainmelter's attention. Korulen's dad arrives a little bit later.
Also appearing is a brown-skinned, red-haired woman whose charisma is like a physical force, suggesting that while kneeling might not be required, it would absolutely be appropriate. Finnah bristles at this, it feels gross, but she keeps her mouth shut. A spelter fellow to her left does decide to drop to the grass.
The lady with the palpable personality is a Barashin goddess, and she's going to turn Korulen and her dad into dragons.
Finnah waits. She's far back enough that she can't hear much of the conversation between Korulen's familiy and the goddess, but then Korulen's hair turns green.
Finnah edges forward in the crowd to watch Korulen beam.
Korulen shifts, and she's a dragon now, too, and she's beautiful. For some reason Korulen never shifted in front of Finnah before. She must have looked like this, only smaller. She has the loveliest set of horns sweeping back from her head, and a terribly graceful neck, she's stretching her wings -
She shifts back to elf shape. She looks the same, not all symmetrical and smoothed-out. Finnah's not sure how to feel about that. Dragons are generally prettier than the species whose forms they take, but Korulen looks like Korulen. Is Korulen going to be disappointed when she looks in the mirror?
"Thanks," Korulen says. "Thank you so much. Arimal and Mom and Kaylo."
There. There's something the matter with Korulen, and Finnah hates it and needs it all at once. There are so many people here who appeared only to help her and she names three. "I turned into a panda bear for you," she calls out.
"And you, all of you," Korulen adds.
Finnah has no idea if she'd have gone on to say that unprompted.
She should have allowed another few moments, waited.
"You're welcome," she mumbles, too low to be heard.
Another term goes by. Finnah can hold onto physical illusion sugar long enough to make quartz candy with it and get it to her little shop-table, but then someone scratches his lip on a sharp piece and demands his money back when this leaves him holding an empty stick.
Finnah gives up that tack entirely. It's too frustrating to lose an entire batch of something just because it splashes onto her hand, and evidently slow-forming crystals aren't best made out of imaginary sugar either. When she can make an entire, complex candy out of illusion from scratch, then she can sell those - soft chocolate creams and spun fluff that people can eat all afternoon without spoiling their dinners. She won't need any startup money; even if she finds herself unsupported and wandering the square, with this skill, she will be able to set up an illusion table full of illusion sweets anywhere she lands, and make a living anywhere she goes, and she'll be so utterly free.
In the meantime she needs real ingredients for everything. The grocery store is selling some fudge but not that much of it; she can't quit the restaurant yet. The house is definitely going to dissolve, or at least shrink sharply and move into a smaller building. There is no reason for it to exist after shrens no longer do. Miracles are spilling out into the world. Adults that have hoarded their allowances for hundreds of years are buying houses. The babies are all going home. The ones who had correspondence work are transitioning into more typical jobs.
Another term goes by. Finnah can shape wood into anything; it'll move like warm taffy under her fingers. She can cure colds in anyone but herself, given an angle and unbroken silence to work in. She can set herself on fire and run around, unburned, a piece of the sun; she can surround herself with an envelope of air and stay underwater forever. She has made a piece of illusion maple candy - the simplest thing, only soft sugar with one flavor in it - that she offered to Korulen without the jade girl noticing it wasn't real until Finnah couldn't hold it any longer and it vanished.
Korulen is - well. Korulen has jade green hair now, instead of flaxy blonde, and she can speak all the languages in the universe, and she is an empath. Korulen is not adjusting particularly well to empathy. Finnah tries to keep herself calm when they're near each other; even a little frustration over a stubborn working or annoyance at people bickering in the hallway is enough to make Korulen flinch. (The bickerers in the hallway do that in any case.)
Finnah did not get as much mileage as she hoped out of finding one flaw in Korulen, especially not since Korulen finds her change of species - and her new sense - so challenging. There's always some negative emotion to be had and Korulen didn't get trained to withstand it from earliest childhood. Mind kamai isn't designed to help with this problem. She looks tired much of the time and it's all Finnah can do not to guide her by the shoulders into bed and tuck her in.
But Korulen's still studying and she's started tutoring one of Rhysel's nephews, too. The kid's a spontaneous kama, apparently, and needs help getting that under control before he can start learning kamai the way anyone else would. Korulen seems to like the work. She was a good tutor for Finnah; she's doing good for Rhysel's nephew too. Slowly, she's learning to use what she feels from people around her as information, and not as a trigger to retreat and hug her knees and look so thoroughly in need of cuddling that Finnah has to leave.
Early in the Sutaahel break, Linnip kills several hundred people with a mysterious form of attack on a warded village called Aabalan and demands surrender.
Apparently they aren't content with Ryganaav.
Finnah thinks it could have been worse. Someone was bound to try to take over the world at some point. It's too much of a classic goal. Ertydo - itself the prior occupant of Linnip - made its try not too long ago in historical terms, albeit before Finnah hatched. There was Andekanda the Mage and his Legions sweeping down from Mekand to conquer most of Anaist before succumbing to poison. Before that there was the Erthyo Empire that Ertydo named themselves after in their hubris. There was probably someone else before that.
Linnip is demonstrably a restrained and orderly conqueror. They were able to take Ryganaav bloodlessly. Esmaar was harder; they'd leapt from the most trivial attack to one considered impossible, their target secure behind their magical defenses. But now that Linnip has demonstrated their power on a tiny village in the best-defended country in the world, they shouldn't have to do it again. Perhaps everyone else will fold politely now without anyone more having to die, knowing that not even hastily erecting Esmaarlan-quality wards would help, and Linnip can satisfy itself running things for whatever reason countries like to run things.
Everyone else, of course, is panicking.
Korulen is worried about her father, and her father's family home in the city, which is owned by her great-uncle. Lutan is hysterical that her grandfather, her father, her uncles, her various male cousins, and her brothers will all lose their jobs. Kaarilel thinks there's going to be mass swordpoint conversion to Aleism and whines that she doesn't think Sennah even exists. Lil is concerned that the cultural contamination will render all of the boys around her repressed and boring. Kaylo mutters about moving when he's out of school. The classrooms, when classes are back in session, are abuzz with distress and confusion. No one knows how to react to their country being conquered.
Kep Island has belonged to Petar for the last fifty years. It belonged to Petar before that, too, but for a little while in between, it was Aqathe's. And nothing happened, really. Kep Island was a bargaining chip and Aqathe took stewardship of it for one decade as part of a treaty about the treatment of Criin, then gave it back. The taxes went to different people, and the voting system changed, and a different annoying bureaucrat ran the island's public functions, and the signs all had to be written in Munine as well as Leraal. That was it. Until a protest got out of hand and the demonstrators trampled one of their own to death.
Finnah's not scared.
Except of everyone else's fear.
There are soldiers around. They're serving mostly as a highly visible supplement to the police force. A surprising fraction of them are men; some of the men are even allowed to operate unsupervised by women officers, although they're always in pairs or larger groups and sometimes the female soldiers are alone.
There are typically a couple of them around Binaaralav, wandering around, keeping an eye on things. Probably they'd call for backup if anything actually happened; they'd have a hard time handling wizards and kyma, even students, on their own.
Some of them come prowling through the school, taking a census. Not everyone is there over break, but the census is happening all over the country; they'll get counted at home.
Finnah and Korulen sit in their room, reading books, and wait for the knock.
Conducting the census are a pair of women, one in her thirties maybe, the other obviously fresh out of her induction ceremony, sixteen on the nose if Finnah's any judge. The elder has a sour look and neia triangles on her sleeves. (Finnah's newspaper of choice included a section on how to tell apart the various ranks, among other informational articles about their new overlords.) The younger, holding a clipboard, has a single imap dot on each arm and she's got a perpetual pink blush. And big, brown eyes.
The imap makes eye contact with Finnah for a long moment, blinking, before her superior says, "Go on, Nepailah-imap."
"Oh! Yes," the imap says in accented Leraal. Her voice sounds pretty, if a little hard to understand. "Um, hello. We're here to collect data for the census. We need your full names, your species and age, citizenships, and information about your financial support. Do you want to fill out the forms yourself or respond verbally?"
Korulen holds out a limp hand for the form, and Nepailah-imap gives her one, then looks expectantly at Finnah.
"Is the form equipped to handle dragons?" Finnah asks, holding her hand out too.
"Yes, of course," Nepailah-imap says. The very tips of her fingers brush Finnah's hand when she gives the form.
"Okay, but how do you want my name rendered? Korulen's goes nicely into Leraal characters. Mine's not as cooperative."
"Your names can both be put down in Draconic," Nepailah-imap says, blushing harder. "I'm sorry for not mentioning that sooner."
Korulen rolls her eyes and erases. Finnah just smirks and puts down the little blocks of lines that make each syllable. She doesn't have any added ones, unlike Korulen who's already accumulated heaps from various relatives.
"If you don't understand my answers on this form," Korulen says, "what happens?"
"If we don't understand them?" Nepailah-imap says, puzzled.
"She's younger than she looks," Finnah says glibly.
"As long as the checking spell says everything is correct I don't imagine anything much will happen," Nepailah-imap says, looking at the neia for confirmation.
"There will be a followup census in two months," the neia says. "You may be asked to explain any anomalies then, but assuming you don't lie on the form, nothing happens right away."
"Okay," Korulen murmurs.
Finnah scratches out her own unremarkable age in the box provided. "So you're going to know our names," she says to the junior soldier. "What's your name? Besides Nepailah."
"Amaia Nepailah," says the other girl, after another glance at her CO.
"Amaia? That's pretty," says Finnah.
There must be some limit to how pink Amaia can get, but she has not reached it yet. "Thank you," she says. Finnah smiles slowly.
<Finnah. What are you doing?> Korulen asks, not looking up from her form.
<Flirting with the cute girl.> She writes dragon (miracle) in unnecessarily fancy handwriting, and starts doing arithmetic on scratch paper to calculate her annual income and tuition support from various sources.
<She's a soldier!>
<No, you mean the uniform's not a costume?> She pencils in Sale of handmade candy.
<You can't flirt with her! She just conquered Esmaar!>
<Her personally? She doesn't look like she's been in the army more than two days. Also I don't think imaps get to make any decisions, possibly including about their own underwear.> And Finnah puts up her mental shield to shut out further nagging, writes Scholarship, and says, "I don't know if you actually read these or just turn them in. I'm Finnah."
"It's nice to meet you," says Amaia. She's averting her eyes from Finnah's face now, in what might look like a shy behavior if she weren't averting them in the direction of Finnah's neckline.
"Likewise," Finnah purrs. Waitressing. Support from Keppine Shren House, Kep Island, Petar. "Did you just get out of training?"
"Um." Amaia looks at her CO again, who just raises an eyebrow. "Out of first phase, yes, I'm in second phase training now."
"Your Leraal is very good. I can tell you're not a native speaker, but only just." Finnah puts down the school's address and her room number as her long-term address. Someone has probably already moved into her old room at the house.
"Thank you," murmurs Amaia. She's looking at Finnah's face again, and her eyes are very round.
That's Finnah's form done with. Korulen already handed hers to the older soldier.
"Bye," says Amaia softly.
"Go check out the next room on your own, Nepailah-imap," says the neia.
"Yes ma'am," says Amaia, and she scurries away.
The neia watches her subordinate go down the hall, then turns and gives Finnah a considering look. "She's not allowed to ask you out. Anti-abuse protocol."
"Oh," Finnah says blankly.
"But I'll let her off duty at thirteenth-and-naught, at the front door of the school," continues the soldier. "If there is anything you would like to ask her."
"Oh," Finnah says.
The neia winks and leaves, closing the door behind her.
Chapter 5: Livahe's Restaurant
At twelfth-and-twenty-four, Finnah lurks near the front door of the school.
She doesn't care what Korulen says - and that's nearly as glorious as the prospect of asking Amaia out, all by itself.
She doesn't care what Korulen says. Amaia's not Finnah's enemy. Amaia's a cute girl who picked up a steady career which happens to involve being in Esmaar without express invitation. Amaia was totally checking her out. Amaia's got big brown eyes and she looks so very kissable. Finnah does not care what Korulen says.
Finnah smiles to herself, and she waits.
Right on time, the neia and Amaia come through the front hall and out the door. "The rest of the evening is yours to dispose of as you like," says Amaia's CO. "Be in barracks before your shift curfew and conduct yourself responsibly."
"Yes ma'am," says Amaia, crossing her right arm over her chest to touch the opposite shoulder in a Linnipese salute.
The neia teleports away, and Amaia, who apparently can't teleport, starts towards the door on foot.
Finnah peels herself away from the wall. "Hey," she says.
Amaia jumps about a foot in the air, but then composes herself and straightens her posture. "Oh! Hi. You're Finnah, right?" She speaks Leraal, maybe to practice. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Your CO says you're not allowed to ask me out," Finnah says.
Amaia looks at her feet. "That's right," she says.
"But she kinda implied that I could ask you," Finnah adds slowly.
"Um," Amaia says, stunned and smiling, "yes, but, um, this means that I have to be considered partial in any kind of dispute or dispensation of services that our occupancy mediates that involves you or persons personally known to you. That's so there's no incentive to date soldiers just to get perks. There aren't any perks."
"Did you eat a rulebook?" Finnah asks archly.
"They're delicious as a chiffonade with lemon juice," Amaia says. And she says this exactly the same way she says everything else, not even slightly giggling at her own joke, so it takes Finnah a tick to laugh.
When Finnah has recovered and Amaia's looking pleased with herself, Finnah says, "I'm not looking for perks, I just wanna take you out to dinner. If you've been on duty all day you must be hungry."
"Starving," admits Amaia. "And I'd like to! But - but I'm not sure where to get faei food outside the unit hall. Even the restaurants with Linnipese style food here don't always meet the requirements."
"There's some Aleists here, just not many," Finnah says. "I have a part time job at a restaurant and I know how they handle it when you order stuff faei - they have the separate salt and everything. We can just go there."
"Really? That would be great. I'm sick of army food," Amaia says. "I miss my dad's onion soup."
"They don't have onion soup at the restaurant, sorry," says Finnah. "Do you want to change out of uniform first?"
"Can't," says Amaia apologetically. "Even off duty, if I'm going to be away from barracks I have to be in uniform - then I'm identifiable if there's some kind of emergency."
"Some off-duty," Finnah snorts. She starts walking towards town. Amaia follows after, brisk even steps.
"It's also to protect me. There's negative feeling towards Linnip right now - the other day my friend Sinkay had to help a Linnipese-Esmaarlan family who've lived here for ten years whose neighbors were throwing rocks at them. People are less likely to attack me when I've been obviously trained to defend myself."
"Oh." That makes sense. And it's kind of sad. "Uh, this is kind of a long walk, do you want to hike the whole way?"
"I can't teleport yet," Amaia says. "And I haven't been around much of town so far either. Can you teleport?"
"Nope," Finnah says, and she waits for Amaia to figure it out.
"...Do you mean flying?" Amaia asks with a disbelieving grin. "Really?"
"Why not?" Finnah doesn't have a saddle, but image kamai can take care of that. "I fly to work all the time."
"That would be - I mean I never have before," Amaia says. She looks somewhere between scared and hungry.
"New to me too," Finnah says offhand. "But it's the best."
"You didn't read my form at all, did you?" Finnah asks. This is amusing.
"I didn't - there wasn't time - and even if I read it I couldn't have done anything with knowing," Amaia replies. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
Finnah shrugs. "I'm a miracle." She shifts, and in the same moment images up a saddle for Amaia to sit on so she won't get her uniform shredded by scales. And she crouches low, and says, "Hop on."
"How will we land in the city?" Amaia asks, reaching out to touch the saddle, but not hoisting herself up yet.
"Uh." Finnah didn't think of that. "I just turn into a little bird and go down that way, but. ...I can float you, with air kamai?"
"How does that work?"
Kamai can be done in any form, a distinct advantage it has over wizardry. Finnah orders the air to pick Amaia up and float her a few inches off the ground, then set her gently down. "Like that."
"Ooh. Okay, that will work." The army uniforms have pants, not skirts - Finnah has already heard half a dozen uninspired stupid jokes about how for a country run by women Linnip sure seems to like dressing its soldiers as men - so Amaia has no further issue with climbing up the provided saddle and sitting down.
Smiling's not really natural in dragon form - she could do it if she were actively trying to communicate by body language to someone humanoid, but Amaia can't even see her face from there. Instead she finds her tail rippling and her ears relaxing, letting the wind press them back against her head.
Amaia says something, inaudible against the rush of air.
<Beg pardon?> Finnah asks. <Uh, just think what you want to tell me, I can pick that up without anything else.> She knows that much mind kamai, at least.
<I said, this is awesome!>
Finnah's tail is in some danger of destabilizing her flight. She calms it, with effort. <I know, right?>
<I did a scoot-flying course in training, and Nikarra, one of my classmates, said it was nothing like flying on a dragon - she's got a great-grandmother who is one - and she was right,> sends Amaia happily.
<They teach you to fly scoots?>
<Yes. For some reason people who aren't in the army - even back home - seem to think they just teach us combat li-rai and wards and weapons, but that's barely half of it.>
<What's the rest, besides scoots?>
<I learned scoots and crowd control and a history-and-protocol course and disaster relief procedure and supply management and utility spells and Leraal, and enough Upland Alteisec to get along. Everybody has to try two languages, but they only advance you in those if you're decent at them; I knew Leraal from school. And I'll do more courses if I ever get promoted to neia. What do they teach you besides floating people and telepathy, at your school?>
<I can mess with animals, and sculpt wood and rock by magic, and do things with fire and water too, and I'm starting to learn some healing - it even works on lights, one of my classmates was chasing a national-level scholarship to focus on healing in return for agreeing to take a job serving the public lights, but I don't know where that's at now. And the saddle you're on isn't real. I don't have a real one. I can make all kinds of illusion stuff - I mean, they call it illusions but it's not like the wizard kind that you can't touch. Also, I am really good at killing spiders. I don't have to step on them, they just die.>
<That's awesome! Especially the spiders.>
<Especially the spiders?> Finnah laughs.
<Well, spiders are awful!>
Finnah laughs out loud. They're approaching town; she slows down to make sure she doesn't fly right past the restaurant out of distraction. It's in a little cluster of food places near a complex of offices, nestled between an iced planet nook and an upscale Saraanlan place that actually has other Saraanlan foods besides the flavored mash. When she reaches the street outside, she carefully picks Amaia up with air kamai, shifts to cardinal shape herself, and descends with the both of them to the cobblestones.
"Here we are," Finnah says, shifting human and gesturing at the restaurant. "Livahe's."
"Doesn't it get hard to remember what all the restaurants serve, when they're all named after people?" Amaia asks, when Finnah opens the door for her.
"A little, maybe," Finnah agrees when they walk in. "I don't eat out that much. I only know this one because I work here. The language is a clue, though, you know Livahe's is going to be food from someplace Kida-speaking."
"Avehali?" guesses Amaia.
"Baverian. I guess it's not that good a clue." Finnah waves at her nearest co-worker. "Toren!"
Toren, an old human man with nearly white hair, looks over his shoulder - and starts to smile at Finnah, and then he sees Amaia.
The smile instantly disappears.
Oh, great. Finnah holds up two fingers, making steady eye contact and not smiling either.
Toren nods, eyes narrow, and motions for them to come sit at the table near the back corner. Finnah could take issue with the placement - he could just as easily put them by a window - but she's getting the feeling she's going to have to pick her battles here, so she just leads Amaia through the restaurant and sits down on the side that will let her watch the rest of the room. She has no doubt that Amaia doing combat li-rai would be all kinds of fantastic, and maybe if things go really well she'll ask for a demo later, but Finnah's the one who can do magic and turn into a big toothy dragon. Finnah's the one who knows this restaurant and the regulars and the waiters.
Amaia makes no protest at the seating arrangement, just picks up her menu and scans it with interest. "Can they make everything faei?"
"Not stuff that's made in batches, so no soup. Nothing pickled either, because they pickle it with regular salt. And anything that's arranged around mushrooms is out because they get pissy if you want substitutions. But you could have any of the noodles, or the turkey bowl."
"Turkey bowl's good?" Amaia asks.
"It's my favorite thing here. I'm not getting it today because I had it on break yesterday, though. I'm getting the summer noodles."
Amaia nods. "I might steal a bite if you get yours faei too."
"I will, then," Finnah says, smiling.
There should be a waiter here by now. Where is everyone?
Toren's got his back turned; he's clearing another table. The fumey guy is... organizing the menus or something, not looking their way. Cosmetics Saleslady is talking to the cook.
<Hey, Kemnil,> Finnah interjects into that conversation. <What's going on? We're ready to order over here.>
<Gimme a minute, I'm busy.>
<You're trying to sell gloss to Pendaar. That is not work related.>
<You're not the manager, Finnah.>
<I'll tell him.>
<Fine, do that.> And that's all Kemnil has to say, apparently.
Amaia has no idea what the normal wait time is like. She's sitting patiently, looking at the beverage menu.
Finnah looks for the manager's mind. There he is, in the back office. <Halekmin?>
<I think me and my date are being quietly refused service. Kemnil's not even doing anything, she's just talking to Pendaar.>
<Your date a girl?> Halekmin asks. <Not your species?>
<Yes and yes, but I thought you told Kemnil when you hired her that being Kovin was no excuse for ->
<Yeah, yeah, not excusing her, just looking to see if it's that or something else so I know what to say on her writeup. I'll come help you two in a tick myself.>
Finnah waits. She has the menu memorized and can't amuse herself reading it. "So - you're sixteen?" she guesses.
"Yeah. Usually I wouldn't have been allowed to join up until my birthday and I'd still be in training now, but they've started allowing earlier admission into first phase for people with military family, as long as we're sixteen by the time we're on duty anywhere. So I started when I was fifteen, right when I got out of school."
"Bunch of your relatives in the army too?"
"My mom, my older sister, some of my cousins. Both my grandfathers, too, but they're retired. So is my mom - health problems and she couldn't bear a desk job."
Halekmin comes out of the office. He spots Finnah first. "Hello -" And then Amaia. "Ah."
Finnah looks up at him, frowning. "I'd like the summer noodles and Amaia's having the turkey bowl. Faei, both of them."
Amaia still doesn't know anything is the matter. She's looking up smilingly at Halekmin.
He stands quite still for a tick, then says, "Of course. That'll be just a few degrees."
"Thank you," says Amaia.
Finnah smiles tightly. "Yes, thanks."
Finnah doesn't trust him. She listens for surface thoughts - just enough to make sure he actually tells the cook about the dietary rule she needs to adhere to. And he does. But he considers neglecting it.
"I know the basis for the 'only eat stuff from plants and animals' thing is in the Eialei, but why is it that and not something else?" Finnah asks by way of conversation.
"We don't know," Amaia says. "It's older than the Eialei, though. A lot of the pre-Colonial Linnipese cultures would only eat food from plants and animals for spiritual reasons. One of the things the Ertydoan colonists used to do would be to find hungry natives - and there were kind of a lot - and get them to eat mushrooms or stuff that had been salted with sea salt. It's not the worst thing that happened, but it's one of the things that we learn about in history-and-protocols. We're all very serious about being better colonists."
Finnah nods. "Everyone thinks you did a nice job in Ryganaav, near as I can tell."
"Not here?" Amaia says with a weak smile.
Amaia shrugs and looks at her hands, in her lap. "It's okay. I know not to expect everyone to be happy with us. Or me as a representative of us."
"It doesn't bother me," Finnah says. "I dunno what the plan is, but it pretty obviously wasn't your very own personal plan."
"Um, I have no official opinion on Aabalan or any surrounding plan except to extend my deepest condolences to the bereaved," Amaia says carefully. "And to say that we believe we are acting in a way that will minimize long-term violence."
Finnah waves a hand. "I'm not insinuating you have to defend the Aabalan thing, or attack it, or anything. It doesn't matter. My boss could do something assholish, like 'forget' to tell the cook I said faei -"
"Would he?" Amaia asks anxiously.
"Maybe on another day. He didn't just now. I checked," Finnah says. "But if he did, that wouldn't reflect on me. You wouldn't bother asking me what I thought of it. I don't think most people would even judge me for keeping the job."
"I... I appreciate that, really, but I don't think it's quite the same," Amaia says slowly. "I believe in the Empire and what it stands for. You're right that it's way above my rank and experience to be deciding how we do anything, but I don't actually believe that - well, I'm not sure what people around here think exactly. That Esmaar was none of our business, maybe?"
"That's probably a safe guess," says Finnah. She picks up the table's waterspout and fills her glass.
"Right. I don't think it's none of our business. I think nearly everything should be everyone's business, to some degree. No one thought Ryganaav was their business, for two hundred years, and so many horrible things happened there because everyone decided to leave it alone. We put a stop to that. Reasonable people could disagree about whether Esmaar's at all similar, I guess, whether it meets some threshold that would justify various things we could do, but it's just not true that it's none of Linnip's business how Esmaar is run."
"Well," Finnah says. "I think it was pretty unambiguously nicer than Ryganaav. You could've done Mryne or Erubia or something next."
Amaia looks away. "I officially have no position -"
"It's okay, it's okay. We can talk about something else," Finnah says. "So you have a sister. Any other siblings?" She regrets this question as soon as she asks it. She doesn't really want to spill her guts about the baby half-brother she's never met on a first date, and that's the obvious lob-back.
"No, just her," Amaia says. And either she knows something about miracles or she doesn't care about who Finnah's related to, because she asks instead: "Your classmate wants to heal with kamai, but what are you going to do with it?"
"Well, it's useful for all kinds of things, day to day," Finnah says. "But what I really want to do - and it has only a tiny bit to do with kamai - is open a candy store."
Amaia laughs, a single startled heh. "That doesn't have anything to do with kamai at all, does it?"
"It can!" Finnah says. She makes an image maple candy. "Here. Taste it. It's not real - no nutrition at all, disappears before you can try to digest it."
"Uh," Amaia says.
Finnah looks at the maple candy in her hand. "Right. Plants and animals. And this would still constitute eating." She dismisses the illusion. "Are you allowed to drink things that aren't from plants or animals?"
"Yes, of course. Otherwise it'd be really hard to get enough water!" Amaia says.
Finnah makes her a glass of illusion lemonade instead. "Here." Amaia sips it, and looks at it, impressed. "I can make real candy and stuff, too, but the illusions will probably let me carve out my niche. And elemental kamai's good for cooking in general."
Their food should be out already. Pendaar's faster than this on a normal day. Did she lean out the door when Finnah wasn't paying attention and see Amaia? Pendaar's surface thoughts, high up enough to be on the level Finnah can read with rudimentary mindspeech skill, are all about the clams she's frying for someone else's dinner, and her sore knee; Finnah can't go any deeper.
"That's really cool," says Amaia. "I think the University of Peiza has kamai students now. I know someone from Mystic Forces who says they're liasing with the department there, but no one's graduated yet so there's not a full-fledged branch."
"Yeah, I bet Rhysel would have qualms about allowing Barashin kamai teachers to go work at Mystic Forces," Finnah says. At Amaia's puzzled look, she explains, "Rhysel's in charge of kamai on Elcenia - I mean, Elcenians might or might not care, but Barashins care a lot, because a Barashin god told everyone that Rhysel was handling this for them. So Barashin teachers won't teach kamai anywhere on Elcenia that Rhysel didn't tell them they could."
"I don't know how to feel about Barashin... god-things," Amaia says, pursing her lips. "I remember hearing about them... I don't think the sasaideima has a ruling yet."
"I saw one once," Finnah says.
"Really? What was it like?" Amaia's leaning forward over the table now. Finnah could kiss her. Would this be a good time to kiss her? Right when she asked a question which isn't answerable by kissing?
Finnah remembers that she can mindspeak, if it comes to that.
She leans forward too, and tips her head to the right, and kisses Amaia.
Ha, she didn't misjudge, Amaia kisses right back. She's just as kissable as she looks, too. Finnah decides to taste like sugar. She's not making proper image sugar, just the taste of it, so that should be fine as far as Aleist dietary laws are concerned.
<You taste nice. Sweet,> Amaia thinks, sending the words at Finnah to start mindpseech.
<Image kamai. No physical sugar involved.> Finnah reaches up to get a curl of Amaia's hair away from where it's tickling her cheek.
<Oh. That's good then.>
Amaia finally sits back, pink in the cheeks, gulping down air and and grinning. "That was nice," she says softly.
"Mm-hm," says Finnah, grinning back.
"But what was meeting it like?" Amaia asks, blush slowly receding.
"Kinda unpleasant. They have this aura that makes them seem super-important. One guy who was around started bowing. It was nasty. And she looked like me - I mean, colors, not in the face or anything. I think they do that for everyone."
Amaia makes a face. It's so terribly cute. "Oh dear. Why were you meeting one?"
"We weren't personally introduced, she was just there. She's friends with Korulen's mom," Finnah summarizes.
Where is their food?
She sees Halekmin approaching and watches him expectantly - he isn't carrying any dishes. "What's up?" she asks, when he gets to their table.
"There've been complaints," he says, "and you girls need to leave."
Finnah stands up so fast her chair falls over. "Halek-"
"Finnah," says Amaia. "It's okay."
"What? It's not okay! He -"
"There's a sign on the door that I saw when we came in that says you'll refuse service to anyone who disturbs the other customers. It's very clear," Amaia says softly. Finnah's not sure if Amaia's eyes are watering or if that's her own imagination. "So we'll go. We don't need to make a scene." She gets up - without knocking over any furniture. "I'm sorry for disturbing your customers, and I want you to know that there aren't going to be any repercussions about this from the occupancy, so please don't worry."
But Amaia's eyes are definitely tearing up, when they walk out.
<I quit,> Finnah sends viciously to Halekmin. <You can forget about me covering Kemnil's shift next Saanen. I so quit.>
<You're replaceable,> Halekmin replies, agitated, and he disappears into the office.
Amaia and Finnah stand out on the street, Amaia dejected and Finnah furious.
"Come with me," Finnah says. "I have access to the school cafeteria kitchens - I'll make you dinner. I even know what goes in the turkey bowls."
"Really?" Amaia says, smiling a watery smile. "That - that would be nice of you."
Finnah becomes a cardinal, and perches on Amaia's shoulder while she lifts the soldier up into the air. "Least I can do after... miscalculating like that."
Above the buildings, Finnah shifts, and remakes her illusion saddle, and floats Amaia over to it. They fly towards Binaaralav, and watch the sun descend over the lip of the world.