Chapter Two: 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.