Chapter One: 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.