Chapter Three: 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.