Chapter 1: Elcenia
At least one of Mallyn's toes was broken. This was not an excuse - to walk slowly, to drop the sack of beans he was carrying, or to complain. It was something to account for while he strove to do none of those things. His left pinky was also broken, but that was easier to avoid using than the toe, and he'd been able to figure out how to splint it when given the chance. He wasn't sure about the rib. That might just be a bruise. There was no good way to avoid straining that altogether, but he could mostly manage to have the beans bump against his other side.
The dairy came into view. They'd painted it since last week. Mallyn half-limped, half-hopped towards the side entrance, and heaved the beans onto the counter. "Miss Syl?" he called tentatively.
Miss Syl, a human with gray streaks in brown hair, peered around the corner from behind the counter. "Oh, it's you," she said. "Last-minute changes?"
"Butter, not yogurt. Please," Mallyn said, ducking his head. Miss Syl didn't usually hit him, but she didn't see enough of him for that to mean much.
"Tallem!" she called into the storeroom. "The Caryllen boy is here! Get me their order, swap the yogurt for butter, don't dawdle!" She opened the sack and looked into it. Smaller bags were nestled among the main delivery of black beans. She checked their labels. Mallyn couldn't read them, so he didn't know whether to expect to be cuffed for misdelivery or not. Even if he'd read them and they'd been wrong he wouldn't have been able to challenge his parents on the subject, so it didn't really matter.
They seemed to accord with Miss Syl's memory of the order, at least. She closed the sack again. Tallem came out of the back and gave Miss Syl a wooden box with the week's dairy. She handed it over to Mallyn.
He was halfway out the door before Miss Syl swore. Mallyn flinched and turned around, in case it was about him - something wrong with the beans? He should have thanked her? But she wasn't looking at him at all.
"Damn Elcenians, meddlers," she was muttering at her newspaper, while Tallem separated out the types of beans into their places under the counter. "Did you read this, Tallem?"
"Which thing?" Tallem asked. Neither of them had noticed Mallyn pausing there, eavesdropping, yet.
"Just because they're the ones who can make circles to their world, they think they're gods over anybody stands on it a few fragments!" exclaimed Miss Syl. "Some malcontent child shows up on their end, in that country, Esmaar, this treaty says they can keep it if the parents don't suit those arrogant bastards. Paper says to keep kids away from it if you so much as swat them for backtalk and they're prone to wander away - didn't you read it? You've got six sprogs, you're taking them to Aristan City in two days, you need to know this."
Tallem took the paper Miss Syl shoved at him and peered at it. "Huh," he said. "Does sound like that. Don't reckon the Watch would let runaways in the circle, though, do you?"
"Boy, what're you doing?" asked Miss Syl suddenly, and Mallyn jumped and finished leaving the dairy.
The whole place stank of cows.
But the cheese in the box looked delicious. Mallyn didn't know how animals as smelly as cows made things as lovely as cheese.
His parents would know if he took any.
He limp-walked home, trying to speed up to compensate for the time he'd spent listening at the dairy. His toe hurt. He was hungry. And if he said that aloud to either parent to explain why he was late or why the cheese was missing a corner, he'd hurt more and get hungrier.
Lyrrae had wet her mat again.
"Did they see yet?" Mallyn asked.
Lyrrae shook her head. Mallyn couldn't take the fall directly, but he shooed her outside and then got one of the dogs, which growled and snapped at him while he dragged it into their room. He locked it in.
When they asked who'd put the dog there, he owned up (but he made them shout a bit first, he didn't want to seem like he was trying to provoke them). He took the whipping, and left his shirt off until the bleeding stopped so it wouldn't show through. They didn't touch Lyrrae.
He wondered what the "circle" in Aristan City was like. The Watch wouldn't help him, he knew that. Renn had gone to an officer once, saying Mallyn didn't know what, and the officer had marched him right back home, and their parents had kept all three up with screaming and blows all night long. As far as the Watch was concerned, the Caryllens had badly behaved children and had to keep them in line because there was so much work to do on the farm. As far as the Watch was concerned, any of them setting a foot out of step on their errands could be sent home.
But if Miss Syl had been reading the paper right, there was a way in Aristan City to get to another world. A way that a runaway child could stumble into. And this other world would keep any children it got hold of whose parents hit them for backtalk.
Aristan City was a day away by cart. He'd been there once, to fetch and carry while his parents made deals with grocers in the dense, crowded city. It would be about the same on foot, if he ran til he was out of sight and then jogged the rest of the way. There was a public well twelve miles along the highway from his house. Could he make it that far with only as much water as he could swallow before leaving and any rain that fell into his mouth? It was still early spring, almost as cool as it ever got in Aristan, but he still poured sweat when he did his chores.
And he knew Lyrrae and Renn couldn't even walk that far, let alone run it.
If he went, his brother and sister would have to pick up his slack on the chores, and he was doing half of their work as it stood because they didn't have his stamina. If he went, the next time Renn screamed in the middle of the night with terrors, Mallyn wouldn't be able to wake him up before their parents heard. If he went, the next time Lyrrae tripped carrying water, he wouldn't be able to say he'd shoved her.
If he went, he could ask the unknown people beyond the unknown circle for help for his siblings too.
But maybe they would only keep, or could only take, children who made it into their circle? Maybe the circle wasn't even real, maybe Miss Syl had been talking about a story - but she'd talked like it was something Tallem needed to worry about with his kids.
Maybe the newspaper was wrong.
Maybe he'd get caught on the way to Aristan City, or once he was there but before he found the circle.
Maybe they'd think his parents were not bad enough to keep him away from them.
The next day, Lyrrae spilled her beans on their mother's dress while they were looking right at her, and there was nothing Mallyn could do. He couldn't say he'd done it, he couldn't say he'd pushed her, he couldn't blame a dog.
He couldn't stop his parents from beating his little sister, but maybe the people on the other side of the circle could.
He was gone as soon as their parents fell asleep that night.
It rained the entire way there, and Mallyn couldn't see anything except when he passed farmhouses with candles in their windows, but he remembered the highway well enough to draw a map in his head and he could feel grass under his feet if he veered the wrong way. Mud clung to his feet, but overall he was grateful for the weather. No one could see him, he could drink rain, and it wasn't cold enough for him to mind being damp. He let himself slow to walking between paved sections; his parents wouldn't notice he was gone until morning. (Unless Renn woke them, screaming, but even then they'd search the farm first.) The splint on his finger became sodden and slipped off, and he couldn't see it, so he went on without. Maybe he'd be able to re-splint it in the other world.
The highway went straight past the cluster of farms he'd grown up in to Aristan City. He avoided the fork that would have led south to Coryla Port. At sunrise, he was dragging himself through a suburb of the capital of Aristan.
He desperately wanted to stop somewhere and sleep - under a bridge, in an alley, with horses in a stable - but he was almost there. All he had to do was find the circle and get by the Watch and stay on it for just a few fragments. And then he could ask the people there. The people who would keep children away from parents who even just swatted them for backtalk.
He walked, and looked, and listened.
Finally Mallyn went up to a girl his age who looked like she was waiting for someone, but didn't have anyone with her. "Do you know which way the circle is?" he asked her, after a couple of false starts.
She pointed, and he went in that direction, and he gradually heard more and more conversations about the circle. He zeroed in on the place, trying not to draw attention to himself.
It turned out to be indoors. He slunk around the building, looking for a less-trafficked entrance. There was a side door, with some lettering on it, which he pushed open.
The corridor led towards a large, open room, and Mallyn flattened himself against the wall, trying to look like he was leaning nonchalantly. His rib twinged and he winced before schooling his features into nonchalance again, and he started to inch towards the circle.
There were a handful of people in Watch uniforms, but one of them was buying something from a little food stall - Mallyn's stomach gurgled - and two were watching the main, front entrance, leaving only one who might look his way. Mallyn crossed the corridor and pressed himself to the other wall, out of the line of sight, and moved towards where the hall joined the main circle room.
When he got close enough to have a view through the crowd, he saw men and women and children appearing and disappearing in the circle. They walked on, they stood a while, they vanished. Others popped into place unexpectedly. They seemed to bump into each other a lot; Mallyn hoped that wouldn't happen to him too much. It wouldn't be good for his rib any which way, and depending on the angle, it could also hurt the healing lines on his back or his finger or his toe.
He was just barely able to see the guard who might spot him. When the man looked away, Mallyn checked for an opening in the crowd. There wasn't one. The next four times, there wasn't one. And the time after that, there was. Mallyn ran. He stepped over the white paint that marked the circle.
Some people made sounds of protest, someone shouted for the parents of the unsupervised child, the Watch turned to look, and Mallyn ducked a reaching hand and spun past a pair of grasping arms, then scrambled back from the border of the circle. He had to stay on it long enough. Someone grabbed for his shirt and he flung himself to the floor, half-choking himself before he broke their grip.
The world changed.
He forced himself up to his feet and ran again.
Mallyn couldn't understand anyone around him, but they weren't dragging him back into the circle, they weren't hitting him, and he didn't have a plan beyond "get through the circle" anyway. He sat in the chair he'd been gestured to and looked at his knees. There was purple brusing on his pinky, now that there was enough light to see it. (The ceiling was glowing. He couldn't muster the energy to wonder how.)
Finally after more gesturing and more gibberish, one of the people spoke intelligibly. "Hi, I'm Marak. What's your name?" asked a human man. He had brown skin, like the family on the tree farm a mile west of the bean farm.
"Mallyn," said Mallyn.
"Where are your parents, Mallyn?"
He winced. "Don't know. Farm," he guessed. They might not have noted his absence yet. Checking the fields, even from horseback, would take a while.
"They didn't take you to the circle?" Marak said.
Mallyn shook his head.
The man muttered with one of the other Elcenians, then turned back to Mallyn.
"Did you come here by mistake?" asked Marak.
Mallyn shook his head again.
"Can you tell me why you came here?" Marak asked.
"Parents," said Mallyn, looking away.
"They sent you?"
"Did you run away from home?"
"Can you tell me why?"
"They..." Mallyn hadn't known he'd be questioned this much. He swallowed. "They hit us."
Marak sat back on his heels. "Ah-huh." He looked surprised. "Okay. Don't worry, we won't let them hurt you. Ever again."
Mallyn swallowed. "Us," he choked out.
That seemed to startle Marak. "You've got siblings." Mallyn nodded. "They're at home? In Aristan?" Another nod. "We'll do what we can, Mallyn, but Aristan is... We'll do what we can. Kohar!" he called, to another man, an elf like Mallyn, who was wiping some kind of ink or chalk off the wall with a cloth. "That can wait, I need to be in touch with Parliament." He turned back to Mallyn. "We'll do what we can. As for you, you're going to need healing, and a place to stay. Will you come with me to the light and then the public housing place? It's not far."
Mallyn nodded again and followed Marak out of the circle building, with shaking limbs.
The "light" was a plump halfblood lady who looked to Mallyn like she might be Fyrran. She did magic. It didn't sound like what he'd heard about kamai, but he hadn't heard much about kamai. He touched the blue sparks in her hands when Marak told him to.
The ache in his side, the stinging soreness on his back, the throb in his toe, and the sharpness in his finger all disappeared, and he gasped.
The lady said something, with a big sad smile on her face, and Marak translated, "She says, all better."
Mallyn nodded again.
The light said something else, which Marak didn't translate.
Mallyn followed Marak out of the lady's office.
By the time they were at the public housing unit, Mallyn had re-learned how to walk without any limp at all, and he'd seen a hundred wondrous things. People talked to green glass shards that they held near their ears. Flying capsules streaked across the sky above everyone. The buildings were tall, some even taller than the biggest ones in Aristan City. There was only one sun, which he squinted at until Marak shaded his eyes with one hand and asked if he liked going to the light that much. The air was so dry, and it was chilly; Mallyn shivered.
Most of the people were humans (brown ones) or elves (light-skinned, paler than Mallyn because he got so much sun) but he'd seen tiny little people shaped like grownup halfbloods who only came up to his chest. He'd seen halfblood-shaped people so pale that they had to go around in black cloaks with gloves (and he could have sworn he saw one of them turn into a bat). There were even people who looked like two-legged lions, like the toothless old pet one the banana farmers had. Mallyn couldn't help but stare, memorizing everything. Even if Marak was wrong and they would send him back, he'd remember it all like an amazing dream. He could draw all the strange people and structures on discarded bits of paper, and show Lyrrae and Renn.
The housing place was neat and clean. Mallyn felt bad about walking into it in his muddy, barely-held-together shoes, but Marak ushered him in anyway. "Mallyn, this is Lorin Deskan," the man said. "She runs this place. She'll look after you until we have a longer-term solution. Okay?"
"Hello, Mallyn," said Lorin. She was intelligible, just like Marak was. "What can you tell me?" she asked him.
"Mallyn, do you want to tell her what's happened to you yourself, or should I do it?" Marak asked.
Mallyn pointed at him. Anything that let him avoid stuttering through it again was good. He looked at one of the chairs, and Lorin said, "Go ahead and sit down," so he did.
"Mallyn came through the circle without a ticket, and he got out of its area, but he couldn't get through the ticket ward. Since he's young and came unaccompanied, we manually let him through the ward so we could have a word with him, and he says his parents hit him. He's got siblings at home, too - someone else who works with me at the circle is getting in touch with Parliament to find out what we can do about them. Protocol for these kids - this is the first time we've used it - is bring them to you, after a trip to a light, right?"
"Right," agreed Lorin. "Don't worry, Mallyn, we've got a room for you upstairs. Are you hungry?"
Mallyn didn't trust himself to speak on the subject of hunger. He nodded again.
"Well, come with me, we'll get you something to eat in the kitchen," she said. "Besides hitting you, how did your parents treat you? It could be important."
Mallyn trotted after the other elf as Marak let himself out the door, trying to think of what to say about that. Food. Maybe it wouldn't even contain beans.
After Mallyn had eaten a meal at the housing unit's cafeteria (sliced lamb on soft bread, and vegetable stew, and a fruit-stuffed cake, not a bean anywhere in sight - Mallyn ate until he couldn't hold anything more), Lorin showed him to an empty little room. She said that he could sleep if he wanted, and could touch a crystal on the wall if he needed her help, and she told him how to work the plumbing, and said he could go to the cafeteria for more food when he was hungry again.
He slept. When he woke up, he went to the cafeteria, and Lorin was there. She said he had to talk to another light, so he went with her to that light's office. This one didn't make sparks for him but instead quizzed him about how much he'd eaten, how much he'd slept, how often he'd gotten injured and how badly. He began to describe how a light could remove any scars Mallyn might have accumulated - none of them were visible, when Mallyn had his clothes on - but stopped when Mallyn paled and hid his face.
When the light was done extracting answers, he turned to Lorin and said that Mallyn needed to eat small amounts of food six times a day for the next several weeks to get his metabolism working properly. He said the big meal had been a mistake, that Mallyn should've had half the sandwich and a small cup of the stew and only a sliver of cake, but just once hadn't done harm.
Lorin started reminding Mallyn to take meals, and she always suggested things. Everything she suggested was delicious. Once she did tell him to eat something with beans, but they were drowned in cheese and spices, so that was all right, and he didn't complain. Lorin was very nice and he liked immensely that there was someone with her job around. He didn't want to tell her that he wouldn't eat beans.
After he'd been there for two days, Lorin told him that his brother and sister had been taken away from their parents' farm and were living in an Aristanian orphanage. They couldn't come be with him, and he couldn't go be with them, but they were safe. He tried to believe her.
He did believe her, the day after that when Lorin took him to Aristan to sit in on his parents' trial. He got to see Lyrrae and Renn and the man who was watching them like Lorin was watching him, and he got to hug them and tell them he was okay and get them to tell him that they were okay.
He didn't watch the trial - he didn't want to store any more pictures of his parents than he already had. But he had little choice but to listen to it, while the Speaker paraphrased everything his parents said in their defense, and what the plump light lady and the other light and Marak had to say, and finally what Lorin added when she went down.
His parents kept shouting and having to be reprimanded for it. "Those kids are ours! You've got no right!" hollered his father. "They're there to work the farm, not play around and eat sweets!" His mother was less loud but longer-winded - "You've misunderstood something, those Elcenians don't understand, they're lying, they're making it up to make us look bad! They coached our kids to tell tales!"
The protests - in their original form, and as rendered by the Speaker - fell on deaf ears. The judges sentenced both parents to personality revisions, and ordered their farm confiscated and sold so they could no longer hide in the countryside with all their neighbors far away. Half the proceeds would be held for their use when they were revised. The other half would be split into thirds, one for each of the children when they came of age.
His mother and father were dragged away, shouting - they even said Mallyn's name, once.
Lorin told him that he should say goodbye to his brother and sister and that then they'd leave.
He hugged them as tight as he could.
Mallyn couldn't talk to anyone else in the housing unit, (though he'd picked up the words for hello and yes and no in Leraal) but that was okay. He got some paper and a stick of graphite and drew his brother and sister, and all the things he'd seen on the way to the place, and sometimes birds. He ate six times a day, and listened to Lorin when she explained things -
"That family are halflings, not short half-elves."
"I can talk to you in Martisen because of kamai in this nugget."
"It's called chocolate, and it's not mud."
"Soon enough, someone will adopt you."
That one threw Mallyn for a loop. "Adopt?"
"When someone here in Esmaar doesn't have good parents who'll take good care of them - without hitting them or keeping them up at night or anything like that - then the government takes them away. You took yourself away, but it's otherwise the same. There are parents who are much nicer to their children than yours were. Some of them want to look after children who they didn't have the usual way, and that's called adoption."
Parents. He was going to have to have parents again. Lorin had been so kind, but she was going to give him to some set of parents.
He opened his mouth to say something, like "Oh," or - well, that was his only idea. But nothing came out.
"It might not be very soon," Lorin said. "You need a little longer to adjust to the world, and it might take some time to match you with a family."
Mallyn didn't think any amount of adjusting to the world would make him ready to have parents again.
But he nodded at Lorin anyway.
She had hair made of silver, and it was so pretty it hurt his eyes.
Chapter 2: Spheote
"Her?" Mallyn asked. The light glinting off the lady's hair was so bright.
"Here, move this way a bit, you'll be able to see both of them through the window. Her, and her husband there with the red hair. See?"
"They filled out a questionnaire, let me see - Her name's Ehail, his name's Gyre," Lorin said, peering at a square of paper covered in circles and coils and boxes. "They've got two young dragon daughters - adopted. They live here in town, but Gyre's from Aristan, and dragons can speak any language, so you'll be able to talk to all of them in Martisen while you work on learning Leraal."
"Dragon?" Mallyn asked. Except for the silver hair, Ehail looked like a human to him.
"Dragons here on Elcenia can learn to turn into other things. Most of them learn to be humans, or sometimes elves, so they can walk through doors and so on," Lorin said. "You can tell who the dragons are because they keep some of their dragon color from form to form. That's why her hair's so shiny. She's a silver dragon."
Mallyn swallowed. He'd never encountered a dragon personally on the farm, but once, he thought he'd seen one flying overhead - he'd memorized the shape of it, and it hadn't looked like a bird or a bat, and it was huge. It was also not the kind of creature he'd expected to offer to take him home. And there one was, married to a -
"Halfblood?" Mallyn asked.
"Gyre's one, yes. Like any halfbloods you met back in Aristan."
That was more normal. But still. Parents. They had daughters at home. They were there to look into taking him home, too, and - doing what with him? His parents hadn't fit with Esmaarlan standards. Ehail and Gyre apparently did because they lived in Esmaar and had adopted children, so they were different, but that only ruled out one thing. It didn't fill in the gap. He'd go home - with them or with someone else - he didn't seem to have much choice - and then what?
He supposed he was expected to learn more Leraal. What else?
But Mallyn couldn't figure out how to ask Lorin, so he didn't.
"Do you want to go meet them?" Lorin asked.
"Okay," Mallyn said, averting his eyes from the dragon's silvery hair.
Mallyn mumbled out a hello to the couple.
"Hello, Mallyn," replied Ehail. "Did Lorin already tell you our names?" She spoke softly, like a dove or like how Renn had used to coo to baby Lyrrae.
Lorin had indeed told him their names. He nodded. And she'd told him something else about them. "Parents."
"We might adopt you, but only if you'd like us to," Ehail said. "We wouldn't adopt you if you didn't want it." Well, that was nice of her, but Mallyn didn't think everybody was guaranteed to agree with her. Lorin had been pretty definite that one way or another he'd be adopted before the year was out.
And that wasn't what he'd meant anyway; he'd meant they were already parents. "Girls," he said.
Lorin put in, "I mentioned your kids."
Gyre spoke for the first time. "We have two daughters, who we adopted a while ago. If you came home with us, they'd be your sisters."
Mallyn didn't know what he thought about that. He already had a sister, and a brother, and supposedly they were safe, but they weren't there. Was he supposed to replace them with strange would-be sisters? Or some other family's sons, or some third family's mix? But he didn't like the idea of being the only child in a house, either. He'd done his best to shield Lyrrae and Renn, but that had been his choice. If they hadn't been there, he wouldn't have had any choice to make about whether to be the constant, unwavering target of parental attention -
"Lyrrae," he said, by way of illustrating part of his train of thought. Lorin explained to the couple briefly about Lyrrae and Renn, and Mallyn murmured to himself, "Safe."
So he was told.
But he already knew something about how hard Aristan worked at filtering parents in it.
"Mallyn," said Gyre, drawing Mallyn's attention out of his thoughts again, "is there anything you'd like to know about us, or our daughters? Or our house or anything at all?"
He might as well get the question out of the way. It was bound to be different from what he was used to, he knew that, but maybe in this strange world full of a hundred kinds of magic and a hundred kinds of people and dragons whose hair looked like fine silver wire, there was some kind of discipline that was even worse than being beaten senseless and nursing a rotating collection of broken bones.
"Punishment?" he asked.
"We never hit our children," Gyre said.
Expecting that was one thing, hearing it was another. Mallyn was pretty sure every parent he'd ever met before hit their kids, at least when they were really bad, really asking for it. He'd even seen Miss Syl slap her niece once, for bad language.
Ehail continued from there. "If the girls don't behave, telling them to stop generally does the trick," said Ehail. "If it didn't I imagine we'd remove them from the situation and put them in their rooms. I'm not sure exactly what Rhysel's nanny, or Rhysel herself, do - if they've needed it we haven't heard about it - but they definitely don't hit children either."
So when Ehail and Gyre needed someone else to mind their kids, they got someone named Rhysel or her nanny to do it. Mallyn's parents had sometimes left the three of them with grandparents, or with whatever neighbor would take them. The grandparents were just as bad. The neighbors were usually a little better, but not the fairytale-level of better that these people were claiming. Telling them to stop? How was that supposed to curb accidents, speed up slow chore-doers, cure disrespectful attitudes, undo sloppy mistakes, get Renn to quit having nightmares -
But Renn wasn't there.
Mallyn looked up, reminding himself where he was. Ehail's hair was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "Hair," he said, before he looked away again, afraid of their eyes.
"I'm a silver dragon," Ehail said. "When I shapeshift, I keep some of the silver color. That's why my hair looks this way."
Mallyn knew that, but Ehail hadn't heard Lorin telling him about her.
"That's also how she can speak Martisen," Gyre said conversationally. "Our daughters are both dragons too. So everyone in the house would be able to talk to you even while you're still learning Leraal."
Mallyn supposed most families who might want to adopt him would only speak Leraal. He didn't really relish the idea of trying to please a family who couldn't even give him instructions; there was no way for that to end well. What would he have to do, anyway? He still didn't know what he'd be doing all day. At the housing unit he ate a lot and drew and listened to people talking to each other with all those long yawny aa sounds. "Chores?" he asked.
Ehail counted on her fingers. "The girls have to keep their rooms picked up, and clear their dishes before leaving the table at meals, and once Rithka has the fine motor control I'm going to teach her some simple cleaning spells but in the meantime it's simpler for me to do all that myself. Cenem helps in the garden, but she doesn't have to do that, she just likes to."
Two girls had two rooms? They had stuff in their rooms that needed to be kept tidy? Cleaning was done by magic? Gardening was optional?
...And that was it? Ehail had stopped talking.
"Even if you don't come with us, Mallyn," Ehail said, "I hope you find a good family who'll love you like they should. No one should ever treat a child the way you were treated."
Mallyn didn't really know what to make of that. He didn't know why any parents who went as easy on the chores as Ehail was claiming wanted kids at all. That was what kids were for.
Gyre asked, "What sorts of things do you like to do, Mallyn?"
Mallyn had no idea what the point of that question was supposed to be. Minimizing distractions, keeping away materials that would tempt him to do things other than whatever they assigned him? Some kind of reward-based system like the chicken farmers used with their kids, with work quotas holding promise of trips to the city or desserts? Should he tell them, or should he make something up?
"Draw," he said finally. Lorin would be able to tell them if he didn't, anyway.
"I draw sometimes," Ehail said. "Mostly plants. What things do you like to draw?"
Was she going to ask him to help her draw? That was just about the best thing he could think of, if that was all she'd want him to do. "Birds, people," he said. He'd have added but I can draw plants too if you want, but that was such a long sentence.
There was a silence. Mallyn looked at Ehail's shoes. They were made out of blue leather and buckled around her ankles.
Lorin asked, "Do you have any other questions for them, Mallyn?"
If Ehail and Gyre wanted to be his new parents, and run his life here on out, he'd need to know their position on - "Lyrrae and Renn?"
"I'm a wizard," Ehail said. That was one of those excessive numbers of kinds of magic... "As long as we can work it out with whoever adopts your brother and sister, it will be easy to visit even if they live far from the summoning circle." Someone else was going to adopt them. He couldn't go with them, they couldn't go with him.
Mallyn supposed he'd known that already.
"I need to stop you here," Lorin said. "He was malnourished when he got here, and the trained-light I spoke to says he needs frequent, small meals - Mallyn, go have some fruit and nut butter, and a cookie if you want one."
Mallyn got up, grateful for the break. He got strawberries and dolloped them with cashew paste and also took a lemon cookie, and took them up to his room and nibbled on them all steadily until they were gone.
When he crept tentatively back into Lorin's office, Ehail and Gyre had left.
"Hello again," said Lorin. "They've gone home, but they'll be back in a couple of days, with their daughters."
"What did you think of them?" Lorin asked.
"They're..." Mallyn didn't know what to say about them. "You saw." She'd been there for everything he could have used to form an opinion.
"I saw them, but I can't read your mind, so I don't know what you think of them unless you tell me," Lorin said.
"They... they seem nice," Mallyn said.
"Do you think you might like them to adopt you?" Lorin said.
"Maybe," hedged Mallyn.
"I should mention, they're probably a better fit demographically than anyone else we'll be able to find - she's a wizard, they're all Martisen-speaking - but that doesn't mean anything if you don't like them personally."
"I'm so sorry that we can't have Lyrrae and Renn here with you," Lorin sighed. "Aristan won't give them up, and Esmaar won't give you up. But with a wizard in the house it would be easy to arrange visits without them having to travel however far to get to the circle from wherever they wind up."
He nodded again.
"Why don't you go take a nap? You look tired," sighed Lorin.
Mallyn didn't need to be told twice.
Lorin had warned him that they'd made another appointment and that this time they'd be bringing their daughters, but he thought he'd have time to finish his snack before they arrived. It was rice crackers, with artichoke cheese spread on them, and he was enjoying them very much when Lorin opened the door and was followed in by Ehail, Gyre, and two little girls.
Mallyn leaned over the food while Ehail said, "Hello, Mallyn."
Was her voice that gentle all the time? Or did she sometimes scream, sometimes snarl?
"It's us again, and we brought our daughters. This is Rithka, and this is Cenem," Ehail continued, pointing at the older girl with thick iron-gray hair and the younger with a glassy black sheen to hers. They didn't look alike, even apart from that; Rithka had darker skin and Cenem's eyes were shaped differently. So Mallyn supposed they'd been adopted separately. Were either of them missing brothers and sisters some other country was keeping for political reasons?
Rithka had run right up to Mallyn while he'd been wondering. "Hi!" He moved the crackers; she looked exuberant enough to knock them over, and he wasn't sure if he could get more if she did that, or if she ate them. "I'm not gonna steal your food. I had lots of lunch. We had turkey and noodles. It was good. There's leftovers and you can have some if you come home with us soon but I bet it'll be all gone in two days."
Cenem said, "Can I have a cracker?"
Mallyn looked at the crackers. He had four left. He'd eaten four already. Seven wasn't that different from eight. He gave Cenem a cracker.
"Thank you," Cenem said, around the food. She went to the chair where Ehail was sitting and sat in her lap.
"If you don't want them all, then -" Rithka said, and Mallyn prepared to give up another cracker.
"Rithka," said Gyre.
"Oh, fine," said Rithka. "I'm not hungry, they just look interesting. We should get crackers for the snack cabinet, Mom." She climbed into Gyre's lap and fixed her gaze on Mallyn. "So you're Mallyn, right? You should talk. We're trying to get to know you so you have to say things."
Oh. He supposed they could probably adopt anyone they wanted. They already had. If he wanted these people and not some other people (but did he? He still didn't know) he needed to give them a reason to pick him. But he couldn't think of anything to say. "Hi," he tried, watching Rithka's feet swing back and forth over the floor.
"You have to say things about you," Rithka corrected. "Or ask us stuff about us. Why're you here?"
Mallyn wasn't sure how to condense a reasonable answer to the question. She couldn't want the whole story of his life. And "because I walked here" would seem disrespectful. What was the simplest way...? Rithka looked like she was about to say something else, probably another question. "Ran away," interrupted Mallyn.
"Why? Mom said your egg par- I mean your birth parents, because you were born, you weren't an egg, but she said they weren't good parents, but she didn't say what they did. Were they mean?"
That was a fair word. He nodded.
"What'd they do?" Rithka wanted to know.
"Beat me," he summarized.
"You got to a light, right?"
Cenem chimed in: "Lights are useful."
"Yeah," Mallyn replied to both comments.
"Mom and Dad make me and Cenem go to a light every other week and heal all our forms even if we aren't hurt," Rithka said. "'Cause one time I forgot to tell her that I munched my finger in a door, and so now even if I say I'm definitely not hurt or anything she wants to make sure we go a lot. One time our cousin Apran broke his leg falling off a horse and didn't tell anybody. Can you ride a horse?"
Mallyn could ride a horse; it was useful for getting from one end of the farm to the other quickly, or for going to neighbors' places farther away than just the dairy. "Yes." He bit another cracker.
"Cenem can turn into a horse," Rithka claimed outlandishly. "I rode on her here but you can go instead of me on the way home if you come home with us, I'll let you."
"I decide who gets to ride me," Cenem said.
"Aren't you gonna let Mallyn if he wants?"
"Yeah, but you don't say so, I say so."
Mallyn said, "How?" He'd been told already that dragons changed shape, and that this was why they all looked like humans, but he'd never seen it done. He had no idea about the mechanism.
"Like this," said Cenem nonchalantly. She got off of her mother's lap and into a clear space in the room, and - there was a horse instead of her, a grown glossy black mare easily twenty times Cenem's previous size.
"See?" said the horse.
Mallyn's half-eaten cracker dropped onto his knee. "B-but." She was so much bigger. Where did it come from? She could talk. As a horse. Horses couldn't talk.
"You're not scared of horses, or anything, are you?" Rithka asked.
"She changed," Mallyn said.
"People on Barashi can do that too," Rithka said. "Turn into stuff, I mean. Our aunt Rhysel has an apprentice kama who's all Barashin and he can turn into stuff. I saw him being a bat with his vampire girlfriend this one time!"
"Oh," said Mallyn. His cracker was on the floor, spread-side down. He clasped his hands in embarrassment. He knew almost nothing. His parents had had to send him to one year of school - they were allowed to keep him back for the other three because they had a farm - but he'd learned almost nothing there, not when the teacher thought he was stupid and all the assignments were written, assuming everyone had learned to read at home. He knew so little. A six-year-old girl made him look like an idiot.
Cenem changed back into human form. Rithka elaborated. "But dragons do it different. I can be a squirrel and a sparrow and a human! I'm being a human right now. See?" She windmilled her arms.
He did see. "Yes."
Rithka turned into a dark grey squirrel in the blink of an eye and bounced from Gyre's lap to the table to Mallyn's shoulder. He'd never had a squirrel on him before, and certainly not a squirrel who was also a dragon and also a little girl. He didn't know what to do, so he held still.
She wrapped herself around his neck. "I'm furry," she told him.
"Rithka, don't jump on people like that without their permission," Ehail said. Mallyn repressed a flinch. Was that really all?
"Okay," said Rithka, not moving a muscle.
"Rithka," Gyre said.
"What? I'm not jumping on anybody, I'm holding totally still," Rithka said triumphantly.
If Rithka had had his parents that deliberate smart mouth would have gotten her clobbered so hard her eyes would have swollen shut for a week.
"Don't be on people without permission," Gyre said.
Rithka's whiskers tickled Mallyn's ear. "Can I be here?" she pleaded.
He didn't really want to find out what Ehail and Gyre would do if he wouldn't let Rithka sit on him, for all that they'd scolded her. (If you could call that a scolding.) Besides, he didn't really care, now that he wasn't startled anymore. "Okay..."
She rearranged herself more comfortably. "Thank you."
She brushed her tail over his nose; he sneezed. "Do you like me and want me to be your sister?" she asked.
He already had - but she wasn't there.
"Maybe," he said.
"Only maybe?" asked Cenem.
"You can't just stay here forever. It says temporary in big letters right on this building," Rithka said.
"I know." He hadn't known that those were the words on the building, but he knew it was the name of the place.
"Who else would you rather get adopted by?" Rithka asked.
Well, he didn't have an answer to that one.
"Don't be pushy, Rithka," admonished Ehail. "He doesn't need to decide anything today."
Rithka nosed at Mallyn's ear again, sending a shiver up his spine. "We're nice," she said. "Ask us whatever."
Mallyn swallowed. "You like it?" he asked. It. Adoption. Their parents. Everything he was being asked to take.
"Yeah. It's way better than the shren house where we lived before," Rithka said. "Mom and Daddy love us and Mom can cook tasty food and we have a cool yard with plants all over it and sometimes I go to work with Dad and learn to make jewelry but I'm not allowed to pierce my ears yet - I did it myself anyway once but then I had to go to the light and they healed so that didn't work very well and I got it kind of uneven anyway - and I have my own cards, even a Continent-style deck not just a Saraanlan traditional deck so I can play all the games and I bet Daddy's going to get me Barashin cards soon too, and I play sports with the neighborhood kids and they're fun and I'm good at 'em. And we have aunts and uncles and a grandma and a grandpa and cousins and stuff!"
Mallyn understood about... half of that. "Stuff?" he prompted. When she was talking, he didn't have to.
She nodded and his ear itched; he scratched it. "Stuff! Our Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal - they have babies who are twins and look just the same, they're cute! - have a nanny and a gardener and when we stay there so Mom and Daddy can do things, sometimes the nanny watches us. She's stuff. And great-grandma is stuff. Kenar is kind of stuff. And, you know, stuff. But mostly aunts and uncles and cousins."
"Oh." That was a lot of people. Could they all be safe to be around? Rithka seemed unhurt, but there were lights, so that was meaningless. (He wished he hadn't thought of that.) "Nice?" he asked nervously.
"They're all nice," confirmed Rithka. "Except Kenar but he lives really far away so he shouldn't be a problem and he only ever reads anyway, he won't bother you, he doesn't like us."
"Oh." That was... weird. She was willing to admit that someone wasn't nice but he was a faraway, unobtrusive person? He'd thought that either she wouldn't own up to not-niceness or the not-nice people would be numerous and nearby.
"You need to talk more," Rithka told him. "I can't even tell if you like us."
Mallyn didn't notice he was petting Rithka until she purred, vibrating his entire head with the sound. He dropped his hand.
"It's okay. You can pet me," said Rithka. "I'm totally furry! But do you like us?"
Mallyn touched her fur again. It was soft. "Yes," he said.
Mallyn wrote a single stroke where his signature was supposed to go. Lorin assured him that it was fine. Gyre's name was made of familiar Martisen characters, fuzzy with stems and branches. Ehail's was two complicated nests of lines.
He wore Rithka home.
He got his own room. They just had... extra rooms.
He might have spent a day sitting in it, touching the covers on the bed (the actual bed) and shuffling barefoot on the carpet if Rithka hadn't told him that Mallyn was supposed to come on a shopping trip for clothes.
Mallyn didn't really enjoy anything about the shopping trip. It was crowded in the stores, and he didn't recognize most of the clothing styles so he had no opinions on anything, and - now Lorin wasn't there, if something changed, if Ehail and Gyre weren't so sweet and gentle, if they took exception to something he did or said, he had no familiarity with this culture, these people, this world.
He felt better with Rithka right there, ready to whisper in his ear. "Get that one, it's a good color." "Daddy'll pay for it." "Do you have to go home now?"
"Mmhm," he half-whined. He hadn't meant to say anything, and he was quiet, but Rithka said aloud, "Mallyn needs to go home now."
"We don't have shoes for him yet -"
"He can fit in Kenar's probably," said Rithka dismissively. "Or we can get them tomorrow."
Mallyn wished she hadn't said anything, but Gyre paid coins for the clothes they'd picked out and they all walked home. "Are you all right, son?" Gyre asked.
"Yessir," said Mallyn.
"You can call him Dad, silly," Rithka said. "He's your dad now as much as he is mine."
That was the problem.
"Mom can teleport," chatted Rithka. "But we're walking 'cause she doesn't want to have to get you used to too many things all at the same time. Next time you have to go home in the middle of shopping just say so. In whatever language. Want to learn some Leraal?"
"I know a little," Mallyn said. He'd found that with Rithka right on his neck, he could whisper ever so quietly, barely exhaling, and she'd hear him plain as day. It was easier to talk just to her than to - everyone. "A few words. You talk all languages, but what one did you learn first?"
"We don't learn them," Rithka said. "They just happen. Or we couldn't speak Draconic. 'Cause you can't learn that."
"I can't?" Mallyn asked, stung. Not it's not important or I don't feel like teaching you but you can't? Even the schoolteacher who'd told him he must be slow had never said that, she'd only said it would take a long time to pick up this or that.
"Nobody can. I mean, you could learn a couple words. But not the whole thing."
"Teach me a word in Draconic?" Mallyn asked.
"You have to learn Leraal," Rithka said.
"Just one? Then teach me more Leraal," Mallyn suggested.
"What do you want to say in Draconic?" acquiesced Rithka.
"How about 'adopted'?" she proposed. "I mean there's like a hundred kinds of adopted, but I can tell you your kind." She paused. "Actually there's a bunch of words that could apply to you too, but I can just pick a pretty one."
"Sure," Mallyn said.
"Spheote," Rithka said. "Like 'this is my new spheote brother Mallyn' or 'hi, I'm Mallyn, I'm spheote'. So what Leraal do you know?"
"Can I have another Draconic word?" Mallyn asked. It was prettier than Leraal was.
"Learn a whole sentence in Leraal and then sure," said Rithka. "I'm s'posed to help you."
"All right," said Mallyn. "I know how to say 'yes' and 'no' -"
Chapter 3: Noi
Sometimes they touched him. Rithka was nearly always draped over his shoulders, or sitting on his head, or coiled around his neck, and that was fine; Cenem liked to hold hands with whoever was convenient when they were walking to stores, and that was fine.
But Gyre patted him on the head once and would put a hand on his elbow to weave the both of them through the throngs of people on the shopping excursions, and Ehail would fluff his hair with her fingers or hug him, and he didn't know what to make of that. They were acting like they were him and he was Lyrrae or Renn. He used to ruffle their hair, wrap his arms around them, pat their heads. He didn't know why anybody was doing it to him. He kept expecting the gestures to turn into attacks. But they didn't, and he didn't complain out loud either.
"Do you like your room?" Ehail asked.
"You don't have to call me 'ma'am'," Ehail said.
Mallyn didn't say anything.
"We're going to have seal for dinner." Ehail said. "Since it's a special occasion. And also a salad. Does that sound good?"
Mallyn wasn't sure he knew what seal was, but it didn't sound like a kind of bean. He nodded.
"Seal is delicious!" Rithka announced. "But it's really expensive so we only have it when special things happen. It's an animal," she added. "A swimming animal that's not a fish."
"Oh," said Mallyn.
Ehail said, "I think these clothes will probably do, but ideally you'd have a nightshirt... I suppose that can wait until tomorrow, if you're too overwhelmed with new things?"
Mallyn nodded again. He hadn't had a nightshirt at the farm - it was always plenty warm in Aristan, and there were three of them in one room, and it just made more sense to sleep naked even if his parents would have provided extra clothes for sleeping in. Esmaar was colder, though.
They got back to the house. It had plants all around the edges, and on the roof.
"Let's go in the yard and play ball," Rithka suggested.
Rithka had a leather-covered brown ball about the size of her (human form) head, and she taught Mallyn a complicated series of rules called "one-on-one kebel", and they kicked the ball at each other until Ehail called them in for dinner.
The little iron dragon charged back inside like she was possessed, and Mallyn followed more tentatively. Rithka had taken her shoes off at the door, so he did too and went barefoot into the dining room.
The seal steaks were good, and so was the salad. Ehail wished aloud that Mallyn wasn't so portion-controlled and promised that there would be leftovers set aside for him to snack on the next day.
Mallyn didn't really mind the small portions. He usually felt pretty full after each meal and snack, though he'd always have room again by the next one.
Everyone was waiting on the brown-sugar apples that were sitting in the oven, because he couldn't have them right after a meal. That made him want to shrink into his seat - he could always have one later, or just have something else for his evening snack, the rest of them shouldn't have to wait on him - but he didn't say anything.
After the meal was over - and the dishes cleared away before Mallyn could blink, by some magical process - Rithka grabbed him by the hand and hauled him up the stairs into her room.
Rithka's bed was smaller than his, and the covers were red-orange-yellow streaked instead of the diamond-patterned blue he had, and she'd had more time to accumulate toys and books and clothes, which were stacked precariously on shelves and piled into the dresser and heaped in several toybins. She pulled him to sit next to her on the bed, then leapt up and closed the door. "I wanna syllable from your name," she announced.
"A - a what?" Mallyn asked.
"A-syl-la-ble-from-your-name," said Rithka. "To put in my name. I have one from Dad already and Cenem's too little and Mom did my line name, but you're not too little."
"What did his name use to be?" Mallyn asked in puzzlement.
"Oh, no, his name's the same!" exclaimed Rithka. "And yours will be too. I just copy part of your name, that's all."
"And then you'd be named - Malka or something?" Mallyn asked.
"No, no. I keep being named Rithka forever. There's extra parts after that. My whole entire name is Rithkaehailre," she said, bouncing up and down on the bed. "You can pick any syllable you want from your name and give it to me, and then I'll be named Rithkaehailrewhateveryoupick."
"Why do you want to do that? Is it a rule?" Mallyn asked.
"No! No no no. Not at all! You can't make rules about that! It has to be asked nicely without any rules about it. By the dragon who wants the name part - you have to wait to get asked. If you don't wait then you can't do it right." She sighed. "And you can say no if you want."
"I - I don't mind really, I'm just trying to figure it out," Mallyn said.
"All you have to do," Rithka said, brightening, "is say my whole name with whatever you want to add, added! I'd write it down for you but you haven't even started learning to read yet."
Mallyn swallowed something large and heavy that had materialized in his throat. He was going to have to learn to speak a new language, and learn to read two of them... "Rithka-ehail-re-mal?" he said.
He wasn't going to give her a part of his last name, their names. That wouldn't be a nice thing to give anyone.
"Thanks!" crowed Rithka, and she leaned over and pecked Mallyn on the cheek, then became a squirrel sitting on his shoulder and leaning her forepaws on his ear. "Let's do some Leraal until the brown sugar apples are done." She switched languages. "Hello! My name is Rithka!"
"Hello," Mallyn replied, trying to yawn on the aa. "My name is Mallyn."
"Mallyn what?" Rithka asked, hopping on top of his head.
"Uh -" It occurred to him that he didn't know if his last name had changed with the adoption. He'd learned to say "I don't speak Leraal", and tried leaving off the word "Leraal" in the hopes that this would just mean - "I don't know".
"You don't?" Rithka asked.
"Caryllen or -" He wasn't sure what Gyre's last name was.
"Camlenn!" supplied Rithka. "Wow, that's weird that you don't know. I always know what my name is. Dragon names are magic."
"They are?" It seemed like everything about dragons was magic. "What's Draconic for 'name'?"
"A dragon kind of name or your kind of name?" Rithka asked.
"A dragon kind."
"The whole thing, or just the part you call somebody, or that and the line name, or just the line name -"
"The whole thing," said Mallyn.
"Isoh. But you don't even know your last name! Let's go ask!"
Mallyn was familiar enough with Rithka after even their short acquaintance to know that this meant he was to carry her in squirrel form to a parent, and she'd ask for him. He felt silly for depending on her so much. He was supposed to be the big brother, the one who shielded the little kids from everything - but Rithka wasn't like Lyrrae or Renn. She wasn't scared.
He walked her down the stairs to where Gyre was playing a board game involving pegs with Cenem. Rithka had said that Gyre usually went to work during the day, but he was taking a couple of days off to help get Mallyn used to things. Mallyn couldn't help but think that this was backwards. It would have been easier to get used to just Ehail, and then Gyre, one at a time.
"Go on," Rithka urged. "Ask him."
"What?" Mallyn whispered, taking a step back towards the stairs when Gyre looked up. "You ask him."
"You have to practice Leraal! Ask him in Leraal 'what's my last name?'" she whispered back.
Mallyn gulped. He didn't know how to say sir in Leraal. He supposed he could lapse into Martisen for that.
"W-what's my last n-name?" Mallyn asked. His aas sounded terrible, he knew it, but Gyre probably had an accent too, even if Mallyn hadn't learned enough to really hear it. "Sir?" Mallyn added in Martisen.
Gyre smiled and replied in their native language, mercifully comprehensible. "It was put down as Camlenn when we adopted you, in the Esmaarlan records. I don't know how it is in Aristan, though."
Mallyn nodded and fled up the stairs.
Cenem liked to make collages, and other arts-and-crafts, and because art supplies were not as high up on the priority list of things to shop for as study materials and a fuller wardrobe, Mallyn wound up borrowing her paper and her drawing utensils. She was quiet, comfortable to be around in her own right even if she wasn't as actively helpful as Rithka with the people he still wasn't comfortable with. She also liked to garden. He tried... not gardening... and nothing happened.
Just... nothing happened.
But it was a small garden, and Ehail and little Cenem between them managed it just fine, so maybe there was something else he was supposed to do.
It turned out that what he was supposed to do was learn to read Martisen. "If we start there, you'll be able to use written notes to study Leraal," Ehail said, "and you won't need to wait until someone's ready to help you."
"Oh," said Mallyn.
"I have some simple Martisen storybooks we can work through, after you've got the alphabet down," Ehail said.
Mallyn nodded, and looked at the sheet of paper she handed him with the criscrosses of angled lines. He memorized it, but he didn't know what any of the shapes meant.
Ehail let him look at it until he glanced back at her, and then she started pointing to each letter in turn and telling him its name and what sounds it made and what words it was found in.
She made him guess how to spell his name, corrected him, and then had him try a few other words before going through the alphabet over again.
"What's Draconic for 'alphabet'?" he muttered under his breath.
"Cax, for the kind Martisen is," Rithka said without looking up from her book.
Meanwhile Cenem was diligently manipulating other characters for her arithmetic practice, and Rithka was reading a fat book with little print.
Mallyn bowed his head and looked at the alphabet again. He could call to mind what they all looked like - he could produce an exact copy of this page, in Ehail's writing, if he had to - but he had to remember which shape went with which sound, and that was harder.
Ehail was right: it would be better to learn to read in Martisen so he could just memorize written notes about Leraal.
"Emy," he murmured, pointing.
"Very good," said Ehail warmly.
Little kid books were boring.
Some of them were also cute. Cenem had books in a dozen languages, and she was the equivalent of three, though he'd been told that she was actually older than he was. Sometimes Gyre or Ehail or even Rithka would read to her, when she didn't feel like reading on her own (she barely came up to his waist and she could read anything), and sometimes what they read was in Martisen, and some of it was cute.
The stuff that Mallyn was equipped to read was not even cute.
"Kynalya," he said, "and her kiersa flew... quickly?"
"Quickly to the big... tree... and said hello to all the... furry... animals..." He was halfway through the book and so far all Kynalya had done was find a giant kiersa and fly around on it from place to place. The illustrations were pretty, but there was just nothing to the story.
"And?" Ehail prompted when he'd paused, and Mallyn jumped.
"And the furry animals said hello... back. Kynalya and her kiersa flew... high... to the... clouds." He put the book down. "Boring story," he muttered under his breath.
"I know, sweetheart," Ehail said. She kept calling him that. "Once you've learned to recognize more words you'll be able to read more interesting books."
Mallyn looked at the novel Ehail had been reading. He could sound out the title. Kathyne. It had held Ehail's attention for divs - for angles, rather - and had to be pretty interesting. At least it wasn't for infants.
He reached toward it, but didn't touch it. It wasn't his and no one had handed it to him or told him to take it.
"That's in Martisen," Ehail said slowly, "and you can look at it, if you like, but I'm not sure if you'll be able to read much of it. It's a translation of 'Kathyne' - your father says it's a story popular in Elystan and he got me a copy from a bookstore in Aristan City..."
Mallyn took a moment to recover from his puzzlement at "your father" before he realized she meant Gyre. Right. Well, she said he could try to read it.
He put it in her lap, instead. If he just looked over her shoulder, while she read it... like she read to Cenem...
She didn't seem to see what he was getting at. He opened the cover.
"Do you want me to read it to you?" Ehail asked.
"Yes," Mallyn said softly.
Ehail picked up the book and touched the words as she read. "Kathyne of Abellen stole out of her chambers in the dead of night..."
It was a long book, and it had lots of characters, and they didn't get very far in it before it was time to stop, but it was much better than Kynalya and her endless boring flight.
Ehail did magic. All the time.
She did magic on the food, to keep it warm if someone was late for dinner. She cleaned with magic. She changed the colors of Cenem's walls with magic when she got bored with polkadots, with clouds and rainbows, with pink and gold stripes, with a map of a continent. She turned into a bird, sometimes, and flew around the house, the way Rithka could turn into a different bird and Cenem into a shiny bee.
He dropped a dish, and it shattered, and he stood stock still stammering, trying to figure out how to make it better. The dishes at the farm had all been made of wood. They'd never given him anything fragile - spilling was bad, but spilling was cleaned up with mops, and the glass everywhere didn't look very moppable.
And Ehail just fixed it by magic, and picked it up off the floor, and it was like he'd never dropped it.
He went on standing there until Ehail said, "Mallyn? Are you all right?"
"I - I broke the -"
"Yes, but it's all fixed now. There's no more glass on the floor; you can move around," Ehail said.
Mallyn shook his head. "I - it -"
"It's not a big deal, Mallyn. Even if I couldn't fix it, it's only a plate," said Ehail.
Mallyn swallowed and looked up at her. She was quizzical, regarding him with those kind eyes.
"Mallyn, it's only a plate. You didn't hurt anyone, and you didn't break anything that couldn't be fixed, and I know you didn't do it on purpose. They can be slippery. Are you all right?"
He nodded. He was all right.
He was just working on figuring out why.
"You're silly," Rithka told him.
They were sitting out in the backyard, Mallyn with an afternoon snack and Rithka with a game of solitaire on cards he'd never seen before.
"Yeah," Rithka said. "You always act like Mom and Dad are gonna bite you. They're not gonna bite you. You wouldn't even taste good."
"I don't think they'd bite me." Probably. That would be new.
"They're not gonna do anything to you," Rithka said. "Actually you could probably get away with just about anything 'cause they don't wanna spook you."
"But - they're parents." He didn't say "our parents". He wasn't used to that yet. But they were clearly Cenem's and Rithka's.
"Yeah. Your birth parents were a special bad kind of parents," Rithka said conversationally, sweeping her cards into a pile and dealing herself a new hand. "Mom and Dad are more regular and so they're not bad. And they're not gonna bite you, or whatever."
"No - you don't understand," said Mallyn. "It's - they can do anything they want."
"No they can't," Rithka said. "And they don't even want to bite -"
"It's not about biting! Or hitting, even, it's not just that, sometimes I had so much work to do I couldn't sleep, working the entire bean farm."
"You can always sleep here - we don't have a farm -" said Rithka in a small voice. "They can't just do that, they won't."
"They can! I'm here in their house and they could do anything to me and I couldn't stop them -" He peeled off his shirt, displaying the layers of scars on his back. "They could do this, all over again, and then what would I do, it was a miracle there was a circle to run to in the first place but I can't go back to Aristan and expect that to help - they can do anything they want - I just have to make sure they don't want to -"
Rithka was staring at him with her jaw hanging open.
"You can't tell anyone," Mallyn said, hastily pulling his shirt back on. "I'm not supposed to go around taking my clothes off in front of people - I mean you can tell anyone you want that they hit me, practically everybody back there does, that's not a secret, but that it was this hard, that it left marks, that you can't tell anybody."
But she was up and on her feet and running toward the house.
"Rithka! Don't!" he exclaimed, scrambling up to follow her, the second half of his buttered roll forgotten. "Don't, I'm not supposed to - I shouldn't've -"
"Mom!" Rithka said loudly. She was standing in Ehail's office doorway when Mallyn caught up to her.
Ehail looked up. Mallyn braced himself. "Don't, Rithka," he whispered.
"What's going on?" Ehail asked.
Rithka ignored her brother. "Mallyn has -"
"Don't!" he cried. No one was supposed to see, no one was supposed to know, the light had fixed everything that still hurt so it didn't even matter -
"You're being silly, I'm telling you, it's okay, you can say and if you don't I will," Rithka told him severely. She turned back to Ehail. "Mom, he has scars all over him. The light didn't get them. I saw when he took his shirt off. We gotta take him to Aunt Rhysel and get them gone."
"Oh, Mallyn, sweetheart," cried Ehail, covering her mouth with her hands. "Why didn't you say anything before? We can get those fixed -"
"Not supposed -" choked Mallyn. "Not - not supposed -" To tell, to show, to let anyone find out.
Rithka stomped her foot. "He didn't want to tell you," she said indignantly, "'cause his evil birth parents said not to say what they did - it was okay to say they hit him 'cause people didn't think he meant hard and how hard matters in Aristan - but they told him not to show anybody the scars! And they wouldn't let him sleep sometimes! And he had to farm beans all the time! When I'm big enough I want to find them and set them on fire and then eat them!"
Mallyn's attempt to form a mental image of this idea was hindered by the fact that he hadn't yet seen Rithka in her dragon shape.
"Mallyn, it's okay," Ehail said, "it's okay, you can tell us anything, we won't hurt you, they can't hurt you anymore..."
"We can put off going to Rhysel if you need us to," she said. "But you don't have to be covered in scars. Your aunt Rhysel can take them away."
He was just stuttering by reflex now, backing up automatically. "N-n-"
"Sweetheart," said Ehail.
He didn't know where to go, so he wound up wedged into a corner of the couch, crushing his ear under his head and hugging his knees.
Ehail followed him. Of course she followed him. Rithka flew in too, in sparrow shape, and perched near his head. "You're being silly," said Rithka.
Mallyn shook his head and scrunched his eyes closed.
"It's okay, Mallyn," Ehail murmured. "You aren't in trouble for telling. It's okay."
"I told you," Rithka said.
"Rithka, thank you for letting me know about the scars, but I'm sure Mallyn remembers what you said. Why don't you go play with Cenem?" said Ehail.
Mallyn heard wings fluttering, and felt the couch shift as Ehail sat on the other end.
He opened his eyes. Ehail was just sitting there, looking at him. She didn't look mad. She hadn't shouted. His birth parents weren't walking into the house through the walls to murder him.
His heart slowed down, after a while.
He sat up, and took a deep breath.
He pulled "Kathyne" off the end table and passed it towards Ehail.
Ehail said she had to tell Gyre about the scars. Mallyn didn't like that one bit, but he couldn't stop her. She mentioned the trained-light procedure to remove scars, which had sounded to Mallyn like it would involve removing all the skin on his torso, and that was far worse than anything his parents had ever done to him. She promised that the kamai method was gentler.
And then she held her arms in the way that always got Rithka or Cenem to hug her.
Mallyn hugged her, once, fast, and then ran up to his room.
At dinner, Gyre said: "Lyrrae and Renn have found a home."
"Where?" Ehail asked, while Mallyn was still in panicked shock - who were they with? Were they still safe? Would he ever see them again? "Will they let us go there, or bring them here...?"
"I think they'll do that," said Gyre cheerfully.
"Who got them?" Cenem wanted to know, and Mallyn stared intently at Gyre, waiting for the answer.
"Safe?" Mallyn asked under his breath.
"Completely safe," Gyre said. "I talked to Ryll." Mallyn thought this was one of his several sisters but didn't remember which one.
"Did she get 'em? She's got lots," said Rithka.
"No," said Gyre. "Batai and Karyn did."
Those names sounded familiar. Someone Gyre and Ehail knew - "They're our uncle and our aunt," Rithka supplied, "we've got lots. They're nice!"
"Safe," murmured Mallyn.
Gyre said, "They don't live too far from the circle. It's not a very long trip to or from their home. We'll make sure that there's plenty of visiting. And Mallyn - I talked to Batai, and if you want to, some days you can come with me in the mornings and stay at their home until I go back. But that does involve skipping lessons, and you can only do that if you're making good progress. Okay?"
"Okay," echoed Mallyn instantly. He would study very hard. He would learn by heart everything Ehail showed him. He would speak Leraal without an accent and read as fast as Ehail did and make sense of the circle-square-squiggle alphabet that made Leraal words. And he'd see Lyrrae and Renn again.
"So they're our cousins? But they're Mallyn's brother and sister? But his cousins too?" Rithka asked. "That's weird!"
"A little," Gyre said, "yes. But I think it's the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances."
"Safe," murmured Mallyn one more time.
"Noi," Rithka whispered in his ear, grinning.
Chapter 4: Inasotho
"What's it like to fly?" Mallyn asked.
"You sure you don't want to ask me how to say flight in Draconic?" Rithka teased. "I think you know more Draconic than Leraal now. By word count, anyway."
"Do not," he said. "I know ten times as many Leraal words."
"So talk in Leraal then," she challenged, switching languages herself.
"I don't know how to say fly in Leraal," Mallyn protested. "Or the grammar for what's it like to."
"But you know how to say how do you say," Rithka said.
Mallyn rolled his eyes. "How do you say what's it like to fly?"
Rithka told him, and he repeated after her, and then she gave an impish grin and replied in Leraal, using words Mallyn couldn't follow at all.
"Rithka," he complained.
She laughed. "I said, it's the best thing, do you want to try it?"
"But I can't fly," Mallyn said.
"I could carry you!" Rithka said.
"Really?" Not in sparrow form - right? - she had to mean dragon form. "How big are you?"
Rithka changed. Her scales were the same color as her hair, overlapping plates of iron. Nose to tail she was almost twice Mallyn's height, and when she spread her wings, the span was even wider. "This big," she said nonchalantly. "You're pretty skinny even still! I could pick you up." She sat back on her haunches and held out foreclaws.
Mallyn didn't like the look of those. "Uh, I believe you," he said. "But flying? You think you could carry me flying?"
"Yeah! Only I think my scales might hurt you. They're actual iron, you know, and some of them poke up, especially when I move. I think we should get Mom to ward you."
"That's a spell?"
"Yeah, with it on you can't get hurt," Rithka said.
"Why doesn't everyone have one all the time?" Mallyn asked.
"They make you clumsy, and not everybody's a wizard, and stuff," said Rithka. "But it'll be fine to have one so I can fly you around for a bit. Let's go ask!" She shed her dragon shape in favor of the sparrow, and once she reached Mallyn's shoulder she was a squirrel again.
"Okay," Mallyn said.
Rithka made him get Ehail's attention. "Go on," she whispered in his ear. "Say 'Mom?'. You've seen me do it. Just like that."
"M-Mom?" Mallyn managed, hanging onto the doorframe so he wouldn't run away without thinking.
"Yes, sweetheart?" she asked, looking up from her mixing bowl.
"I..." He motioned for Rithka to take over.
"I think I might be big enough to fly around with him in dragon form 'cause he's really skinny and I can flap my wings really hard!" Rithka said. "But I don't have a saddle and I don't wanna poke him with my scales. So he needs a ward, okay?"
"Oh, of course. That's no trouble. But Rithka, please don't strain yourself if it turns out you can't carry him. You're only in your sixties. There's a reason they don't make saddles for little girls your size," Ehail said, leading the pair of them towards her office.
"I know, I know," said Rithka.
"And you must land right away if Mallyn wants you to," Ehail went on. "You haven't ever flown before, Mallyn, have you?"
"No," said Mallyn.
Rithka chattered about how wonderful flying was, and Ehail cast a spell, which Mallyn held quite still for - he didn't know if she could miss and hit Rithka instead, or if moving would distract her.
And then Rithka demanded that they go out and fly right then.
She was hard to sit on. And the texture of scales, with a ward on, was weird - he could touch them, but he couldn't press hard enough on any sharp surface to cut himself or his clothes. He felt lighter than he was just from the way this had him perched in front of her wing joints, but the way she grunted when he took the last of his weight off the ground indicated that she was still really carrying all of him.
"Hold onto my neck," she said, angling it up so he could wrap his arms around it. "Since I don't have a saddle to grab."
His arms wouldn't settle very tightly on her neck, but they didn't slide, either, since sliding either direction would also subject him or his sleeves to damage by the scale edges. He clung on and Rithka started galloping forward, pumping her wings as hard as she could. They seemed held to the ground by less and less, and then - by nothing.
Rithka wasn't birdlike-graceful in the air, though Mallyn didn't know if that was his fault or not. But she was flying. He was flying with her.
He could see everything. There was enough wind to pull at his face and push his ears flat back against the sides of his head, and when she did little swoops - complaining about how normally she could do better but he was heavy - he grinned.
Rithka needed a break after about an angle in the air, and then she let him back on again and they soared. "I can't go very fast," she said. "My wings will get bigger by more than the rest of me until I'm a grownup and then I'll be fast. And then I'll get faster on straightaways but worse on maneuvering when I get bigger after that because of inertia."
"What is Draconic for flying?" Mallyn asked her, hollering over the wind.
"There's like a hundred words!" Rithka said. "Draconic doesn't work that way where there's one word for a thing Martisen has one word for."
"Pick one," Mallyn said.
"Kim," Rithka said. "Now you have to learn it in Leraal too."
"Fine," Mallyn returned, and she taught him ten more words in Leraal - "to keep your ratio".
Eventually, Rithka was exhausted, and bucked him off unceremoniously while still a few feet off the ground. It didn't hurt - he was just on the ground, unharmed, not even dizzy - but it seemed kind of rude. She ran inside. By the time he went through the door himself, she'd gotten her cards and a snack.
He went upstairs to close himself in his room and draw.
There had been such a wonderful view from the sky...
Lines trailed behind his pencil. Line, line, line, line -
"Mallyn?" said Ehail's voice from the other side of the door.
Mallyn froze. He was allowed to draw - wasn't he? He'd drawn with Cenem before. "A - just a - a tick?" he said. Rithka said that sometimes.
"Of course, sweetheart."
He tucked the drawing in the drawer - it was still only lines, no shadows, but he could pick it up later. He opened his door.
"I just need to undo the ward," Ehail said. Mallyn might have dared ask why, but she went on. "It's a bad idea to keep them on all the time. But if you ever need it back on again, to fly with Rithka or for anything else, ask me and I can re-cast it for you. Okay?"
"Okay," Mallyn repeated.
She moved her hands and murmured again. And then she leaned at him.
It was very like his birth mother had often loomed over him right before she struck him.
"Would you rather I not do that?" Ehail asked.
He didn't want to just say yes.
So he explained, instead. "She leaned. To hit me."
"I will never hit you," Ehail said. "I'd sooner fly into the sun. Do you want me to not lean over you?"
Fly into the sun? To avoid hitting him? "It's okay," Mallyn said. The leaning itself didn't hurt.
"I love you, sweetheart."
"You say that lots," he mumbled.
"It's true," said Ehail.
He was supposed to be learning words. Not so much in Martisen, but his vocabulary there was nothing to brag about. And she kept saying it, like he was supposed to know what she was talking about.
"What's it mean?" Mallyn asked. When she didn't answer right away, he added, "Think I'm supposed to know. I don't."
"It means that I care about you very much and want you to be safe and happy," said Ehail.
Well, those were all words Mallyn knew.
He went back into his room, looking over his shoulder at Ehail, and pulled out his drawing to give her. He didn't know why he was doing it, but he handed her the paper.
Ehail peered at it. "Did you draw this?"
"This is completely accurate. How - Rithka might have been able to fly with you, but I doubt she could hover this long -"
"I remembered it," he said. Did some people try to look at the things they were drawing while they drew them? How could they do that? Mallyn's eyes wouldn't look in two directions at once.
"That's amazing," Ehail said.
Then he recalled Rithka being unable to remember something she'd read in a book. She'd stared right at the page - he recognized the illustration, when she looked it up again. But she hadn't remembered some of the words on it. And she'd been confused when he asked.
"Rithka says... she can't remember. Like that," Mallyn said.
"I don't know anyone who can," Ehail said. (What, nobody?) "Do you have this clear a memory of everything?"
"Usually have to try," he said. He didn't remember things he'd barely glanced at. Only things that he concentrated on. Or that burned themselves into his memory without permission. Like his birth parents' faces.
Ehail said, "May I see some of your other drawings?"
Mallyn yielded up the rest of what he had in the drawer.
When she got to the page with pictures of Lyrrae and Renn, over and over, from every angle, Mallyn murmured, "Tonight?"
"This evening before dinner we're all going to Aristan City to meet your father at his shop and then go visit Batai, Karyn, Aryn, Myll, and Lyrrae and Renn," Ehail agreed. "And we'll eat with them and you'll get to see where they're living. After they've settled into their new home a bit better, they'll make trips here sometimes."
"And," said Mallyn, "for days?"
"You mean, when can you go there in the morning and come back with your father in the evening?" Ehail asked.
"Yes," Mallyn said. He was supposed to be keeping up with his lessons to get this privilege, but it wasn't clear what keeping up meant. "Lessons."
"It's very important that you learn to speak Leraal. We live in Esmaar, and I think you'd eventually like to be able to go out and play kebel with Rithka without needing her to translate all the conversations for you - right?" Rithka did want him to join her team, but he wouldn't have been able to understand anything that went on - "And translation nuggets and spells are just not as good as knowing a language, in the long run. You need to keep working hard on learning to read in Martisen so you can do more studying with less help, and it would be best if you learned enough Leraal that we could all go back to using it in the house on a daily basis. Not just for you. I think your father is getting rusty on Leraal now too, without all the practice he used to get."
That wasn't very specific - not a number of vocabulary words or a difficulty level of book he had to learn to read on his own - but it was something. "Okay."
"And - please don't work yourself too hard. You don't need to study and practice all day every day. We'll make sure you see plenty of Lyrrae and Renn no matter what. And you still need to play and get plenty of sleep and eat all your meals and snacks."
Mallyn questioned how playing was necessary until it occurred to him that Rithka would probably be more distraction than it was worth if he tried to stop playing with her. He smiled a little. "Okay."
Ehail leaned again - he held very still - and she kissed his forehead and left him alone.
The walk to the circle was short.
The circle, where he'd thrown himself onto the mercies of another world.
They were going to go through it, and see Lyrrae and Renn.
Safe. "Noi". (Rithka had clarified that later; there were kinds of safety in Draconic, like there were kinds of everything else. Noi meant that no one wanted to hurt them and someone was looking out for them. He wasn't sure he could buy that until he saw them.)
And that was what they were going to do.
They had to wait at Gyre's jewelry shop on the Aristan City side of the circle, because Gyre was in the middle of work he couldn't put down. Rithka, who aspired to be a jeweler herself, watched him, and also petted the fairy shopkeeper's wings. Mallyn had only seen fairies a couple of times in his life, but he didn't try to pet her.
Cenem asked what was for dinner.
"Whatever Batai and Karyn are having," Ehail said.
"But what if they have evil beans," Cenem said, and Mallyn winced.
"Evil beans?" Gyre asked, finally finished with whatever shiny thing he was making.
"I told Mallyn, we grow beans in the garden, and he looked scared," Cenem said, "and turns out we have good beans because they are green but there are evil beans."
Mallyn said haltlingly, "That's not..." He'd certainly never used the phrase evil beans during that conversation.
"Oh yeah!" Rithka exclaimed. "Because you had to farm a lot of beans! And eat them! And now I bet you don't like them. Right? So they're bad."
He supposed that was a fair enough summary, and nodded.
"Oh, my. Which kinds of beans don't you like, Mallyn?" Ehail asked.
Mallyn listed everything the farm had produced. Soybeans, white beans, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans...
"Do you mind if we eat them, as long as there's something else for you, or would you prefer that we never have them in our house at all?" she asked, as her husband left the shop to join the rest of them and lead the way to where Lyrrae and Renn were.
"You can. I'll eat them if you want," Mallyn said.
"Everyone in the house is allowed one kind of food they never have to eat," Ehail said. "Yours can be beans."
"Mine is rabbit!" Rithka said. "I don't like it."
"Oh," Mallyn said.
"Lentils are fine?" asked Ehail.
"What are those?" he asked. He was pretty sure the farm hadn't grown them.
"I'll take that as a yes. We're having them for dinner tomorrow," Ehail said.
"Oh." He didn't have to eat beans? Was Ehail ever going to stop surprising him?
Rithka seemed to recognize every building they passed, and reported at every street corner how many blocks they had yet to go. When they were four blocks away, Mallyn was so apprehensive about what they'd find that he'd pulled Rithka off his neck and was hugging her to his chest instead.
If he didn't like what he saw he couldn't do anything. He had already done what he could to make a permanent difference in how Lyrrae and Renn were treated. Nothing would get them away from their new parents, if they weren't really safe there. He had no ability to stand between them and harm anymore.
"They'll be okay," Rithka whispered to him.
"I hope so," Mallyn murmured back, under his breath.
Rithka nosed his chin; her whiskers tickled. "Batai and Karyn are nice."
"I hope so," he repeated.
The apartment was warm. Inside, it had a man who looked a little like Gyre and a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman and two children who were a cross between them.
And it had Lyrrae and Renn.
After he'd gotten past the ordeal of being introduced to his new aunt and uncle, and forced himself past the threshold with an embarrassing amount of encouragement from Rithka and Ehail, he saw them.
Lyrrae and Renn, clean and bright-eyed, playing with blocks with the dark children whose names he'd forgotten on first hearing.
"Mallyn!" cried Lyrrae, running across the room to lean against him and press her face into his side.
Renn followed, hugging Mallyn around the waist. "You came."
"I came," Mallyn said, hugging them both back.
Rithka was around his neck, puffy-tailed. Lyrrae and Renn hadn't noticed her yet, at least as a live person instead of a strange accessory. "You're here," Lyrrae said.
"I'm here. Are you two okay?"
"Yes," said Renn.
"They don't hit," Lyrrae said.
"Mallyn?" Renn asked.
"I'm - I'm fine," Mallyn said. "You like - your new -"
"Aryn and Myll?" Lyrrae asked.
"Them," said Mallyn. "Your new sister and brother."
"Yes," said Renn. "They're nice."
"Dinner is yams," said Lyrrae.
"Not beans," Renn said.
"Play blocks," Lyrrae urged.
"Just a few - slices," Mallyn said, correcting himself to Barashin time midsentence.
Ehail was calling Rithka over, and she didn't seem to want to go. He pried her away from his neck and went back to hugging Lyrrae and Renn when she'd finally gone.
"That's a squirrel," exclaimed Lyrrae breathlessly.
"It's complicated," Mallyn said. "She's my - she's not a squirrel really, she's a little girl like you. She can turn into a squirrel."
"Whoa," said Renn.
At length, Rithka returned to her usual place, not even coming off Mallyn's neck to assemble block structures, or to eat the dinner of nut-stuffed yams and fish. She just clung by her back feet to the collar of his shirt and stole half of the nuts from Mallyn's plate with her forepaws. Mallyn sat between Lyrrae and Renn, who reassured him until he could finally bring himself to believe them that they were safe. That they hadn't been hurt since they'd come here. That they were safe.
He was allowed to stay until Lyrrae and Renn (and Aryn and Myll and Cenem and Rithka) were all asleep on their feet, and then had to leave, exchanging last fierce hugs until Ehail sighed his name and he dragged himself to her side. He whispered thank you to Batai and Karyn on his way out. For taking care of his brother and sister where he couldn't. For being safe for them. For letting him in to check for himself.
"Did you have a good time, sweetheart?" Ehail asked.
"Yes," Mallyn said.
"When Nemaar comes does he get the room with the yellow walls?" Rithka asked over dinner. "Next time Rhysel comes over I want her to make my room green. I'm tired of purple."
Nemaar sounded like a Leraal name in the middle of an otherwise Martisen sentence, but Mallyn didn't think he'd ever been told about anyone by that name, even in Rithka's dizzying recitations of relatives. (Rhysel he remembered. She was the kama aunt, Gyre's sister, the one who he'd eventually have to see about his scars.)
"I can make your walls green with a spell, Rithka," Ehail said. "Rhysel doesn't need to do that."
"Oh. You do it, then. Will Nemaar want yellow walls? Maybe we should make it another color for him," Rithka said.
"Nemaar?" Mallyn said, as no explanation seemed forthcoming.
"He's gonna be our baby brother in a few months," Rithka said. "Mom is pregnant, did I not ever tell you? It's gonna be a boy!"
Mallyn forgot about his dinner entirely. A baby? Their own real baby? When Renn and later Lyrrae were born their parents used to remind Mallyn that they could have all the children they wanted, and if they felt like it, he could be replaced - if he wasn't worth feeding he could be starved and replaced - if he didn't work hard enough he could be discarded and replaced - if he complained, like Ryller had cried and cried, then he could be hit just a little harder, and replaced -
And he had no claim of birthright on his adoptive parents -
"I don't think he knows what colors are good yet," Cenem said seriously. "It's dark in there."
Cenem might be too little to have thought of the problem with the baby. Rithka too.
He would rather not have to ask it in front of them, but they would have to find out eventually, whatever Mallyn had to do to get them to someplace stable -
"What will happen to us?" he asked.
"Huh?" Rithka asked. Maybe she hadn't heard.
"What will happen to us? When you have your own kid?" he asked, trying to meet Ehail's eyes and almost managing it.
"It's not gonna be a carnivorous kid," Rithka said. "I mean he'll probably eat steak when he's bigger I guess. But he's not gonna do anything to us."
The baby himself wasn't the hazard that concerned Mallyn. He looked at Ehail, and wondered what any of them had done that made them need replacing.
Gyre answered instead. "Mallyn, we didn't adopt you or the girls temporarily. We brought you home intending to make you part of our family forever. Absolutely nothing will change when Nemaar is born except that Nemaar will be out in the world with us."
"Mom is in the world, and Nemaar is in Mom, so I think he's in the world," Rithka said. "Like we're in our house, and our house is in Esmaar, so we're in Esmaar."
"It's just an expression, Rithka," chuckled Gyre.
"It's a silly expression," she said, and then she failed at talking coherently around a dumpling.
"We can stay here?" asked Mallyn slowly. So they were just adding, not replacing.
"Of course. Always," Ehail said. "Nemaar won't change that. He'll get some of our attention, especially because he'll be a baby and won't be able to do anything on his own for a while, but you three will always be our children."
Mallyn's fork and knife had been operating on autopilot; when he remembered that his dumplings were there, the pieces were hard to pick up and eat. "Oh." He wouldn't have to work out another escape plan if he didn't like where they were sent. He wouldn't have to learn another language, another set of names. He wouldn't have to be split up from more siblings. He wouldn't have to go anywhere. "That's good."
"You're silly," said Rithka. "Uncle Batai and Aunt Karyn have Aryn and Myll who are their regular kind of kids and they still got Lyrrae and Renn."
That was true. And she'd told him so often that he was silly - and had been right so often.
"Yeah," he said, ruffling Rithka's hair.
After dinner, he let Ehail see his scars. He'd overheard some of the conversation about them, though he'd been distracted at the time by Lyrrae and Renn.
"I heard you and Uncle Batai talking," he murmured.
"Lyrrae's and Renn's aren't this bad," Ehail said.
"I said I did stuff they did," Mallyn said. "A lot."
Ehail leaned to kiss his hair. Mallyn let her, and then put his shirt back on.
She didn't make him see Rhysel, so four days later, he offered on his own.
She came to the house. She had red hair, like Gyre, and her husband Tekaal was an elf like Mallyn. They had little girls, Kaarel and Aaris.
Mallyn wondered at first if the kamai procedure was terrible after all, like the flaying thing the lights would have done, but while he peered around Ehail at his aunt, she explained that it would only involve a brief hand-to-hand touch, wouldn't hurt, he could be awake, and the scars would go.
He held out his hand, and Rhysel touched it.
And there was a strange tingle all over his body, and suddenly less pulling on his skin along those old lines.
He lifted up the hem of his shirt.
They just weren't there anymore.
It was just skin.
"Oh," he said.
"There you go," said Rhysel, like she didn't understand anything about the gravity of it. He'd been marked all over. And now he wasn't. Their name was gone, their signatures on his back were gone, they were gone from his life. They were gone.
"Thank you," said Mallyn, because he didn't know any stronger words.
"You're welcome. Want to hold one of the twins?" Rhysel asked.
Mallyn let her give him a baby. She patted his cheek. Mallyn cleared his throat, after looking at the twin for a while, and said, "Can I learn that?"
"Kamai?" Rhysel asked.
"Yeah." What else?
"Yes," Rhysel said. He could learn to do that... "If you don't have the ability already you can get it infused... do you want me to check you for it?"
Check him to see if he could already do it? Mallyn was pretty sure he had no magic powers, but he nodded. She touched his forehead.
"Nothing, sorry," she said. "But that doesn't have to stop you."
"Thank you," he repeated. Maybe there was a better Draconic word.
It turned out that Tekaal was a painter. When he saw the drawings on the kitchen cabinets where Ehail had put them, he offered Mallyn art lessons. Mallyn had had no idea that art was a "lessons" kind of thing, but he agreed. Rhysel taught magic at a school. She told him what he'd need to know before he could go.
So to learn magic - to see Lyrrae and Renn - to be halfway competent in a home that planned to keep him forever - Mallyn was going to have to turn into a literate, fluent Leraal speaker.
He picked up that novel he and Ehail had been reading through together.
He focused, and guessed where he couldn't remember, and he read her the fourteenth chapter from beginning to end.
Rithka said that the very, very strongest Draconic word for "thank you" was inasotho. "But you don't ever say it for something like you can say 'thank you for the cake'," she lectured. "You only say it when it's really obvious what it'd be about."
"Inasotho," Mallyn said.
"See, you're probably just practicing saying it, but this would be a silly time to actually say it, I have no clue what you'd be talking about," Rithka said. "I didn't just like save your life or anything."
Mallyn just smiled.
Chapter 5: Kim
"How do you say faster?"
"In Draconic?" asked Rithka.
Rithka told him.
"Mom?" Mallyn said, minding his accent, fixing his attention on the words he'd learned to ask his question.
"Yes, sweetheart?" Ehail said.
"Rithka says you fly faster than her." He thought he might have some detail of tense wrong, but that was the general idea, anyway.
"I can," said Ehail. "Especially if she's -" (something) "- anything other than herself. She's still very young, for a dragon." (Maybe she'd said "bringing?" "Lifting"?.)
"Can I - would you - sometime?" he said, haltingly.
"Would you like me to fly you somewhere?" she asked. He hadn't known "somewhere" before, but it was like "sometime" with "place" instead of "angle". He nodded. "After your father gets home and we eat dinner, he can watch the girls," Ehail said, "and I'll take you to the -" (something.) "You haven't seen that before." (He would have to ask Rithka about that one.)
"Okay." She'd probably correct him if he said inasotho.
Ehail smiled at him. He smiled back at her.
Mallyn ran off to ask Rithka what the unknown words had meant.
Apparently he was going to the edge of the world.
Ehail in her dragon form was much, much bigger than Rithka, and sun sheered off her scales with knifelike brightness. Even when she crouched to the ground, the footrests attached to her saddle were too high up to be easily reached. Mallyn ultimately had to stand on her foreleg before he could grab the saddle and haul himself up. (That part at least he could do, having had to ride horses much taller than he was from an early age.)
"Are you all set?" Ehail asked. "You need to have your feet all the way in the stirrups and hold on very tight to the handle in front of you. The ward wouldn't let a fall hurt you, but it would still be scary and unpleasant."
"I'm ready," Mallyn said, white-knuckled.
He was tiny compared to her, so unlike Rithka's charge across the whole backyard to get into the air under his weight, Ehail needed only one long jump, one strong wingbeat, and up they went.
And she wheeled around to face west, and gathered speed.
"Let me know if I'm going too fast," Ehail called.
Mallyn didn't think he was likely to complain about that anytime soon.
Ehail settled into an altitude well above what Rithka usually wound up at, and they soon lost the house in the distance. Mallyn could see the whole city if he craned his neck behind him, all the high buildings in glass and stone, and then he couldn't see it anymore except as a dot. The land was flat and mostly grassy, and more town-dots came into view and sharpened and blurred.
Behind them was a flat and smeared horizon.
Before them was the edge of the world.
It was an edge, he saw, as Ehail glided in for a landing. A literal edge. There wasn't a bottom, and it wasn't just that the bottom was hiding under clouds because they were terribly high up. There was sky down there. Dark sky with faint stars in it.
"Barashi doesn't have a place like this," said Ehail, still in her dragon form, as Mallyn climbed out of the saddle and dropped onto his feet (careful not to fall). "I suppose it probably has cliffs, but nothing like the edges, because it's a sphere. Elcenia is a square planet."
"Yeah," breathed Mallyn, staring down into the sky.
"Oh, and you don't need to worry about falling," Ehail said. "If you walk off the edge, you'll land on the side of the planet. It's just like the top, only there's nothing interesting to see there and it's not very wide. And if you jumped, you might float around for a little while in the corner between here and there, but I could get you back easily enough. You can try either one if you'd like to, but they make most people feel sick."
Mallyn decided not to try it - not with his whole body. He sat on the grass, which grew right up to the edge and sometimes swayed dizzily into the corner she'd mentioned, and stuck out one hand. His hand - but not the rest of his arm - immediately felt as light as could be, but he could still feel the whole thing; it wasn't like it had disappeared. He half-smiled to himself, withdrew his hand, and stuck out a foot.
"Let me know when you'd like to go home. We can stay as long as you like," said Ehail. She had her neck stretched out and her head resting on the ground.
When she was shaped like that it was harder to think of her as a mother. Easier to think of her as just Ehail, who spoke softly and gently even when she was nearly seventy feet long.
The floating idea sounded more tempting as he thought about it, but it didn't sound very controlled. Even if he were weightless, how would he get around? Air wasn't like water; he probably couldn't swim in it.
"Kyma can fly?" he said.
"Yes," Ehail said. "Elemental kyma learn to fly. Rhysel and Tekaal can do it, and so can Rhysel's apprentice. Is that something you want to try when you're ready for school?"
"Yes," Mallyn said decisively.
"When we go home, do you want to see how you like some fancier flying? I'm not particularly good at it, but I can dive and loop a little if you'll hold on very tightly," Ehail said.
"Yes," Mallyn said again.
He looked at the stars in the immense void. They dimmed abruptly, then went on more slowly, as the sun advanced behind them enough to peep over the edge.
"Home?" Mallyn said.
"Of course, sweetheart. Climb on," said Ehail.
Mallyn clambered up, more skillfully than he had the first time, and held on as tightly as he could. "Ready."
Ehail took off, and climbed, and swooped, and Mallyn heard himself laughing deliriously.
Mallyn studied alphabets, and sounds, and sentence patterns. He wrote lists of things, and stared at them, and consulted them in his head at need. When he started routinely trying to have conversations that pushed the limits of his vocabulary, he opened up his Martisen-to-Leraal dictionary and stared at every page in turn until it was stored in his head.
He talked about everything under the solitary sun with Rithka and with Cenem; he tried to speak more to Ehail too, and Gyre when he was home. When Rhysel and Tekaal were over, or when the family visited them, he held conversations with them, and let Tekaal teach him about art beyond the tracing of memories that Mallyn already did, or occasionally held a twin and monologued at her. Rithka pronounced his Leraal accent "not embarrassing" after he spent a few angles doing nothing but saying words with aa sounds in them over and over while she corrected him. By comparison, the other sounds, and the rhythm of the sentences, came easily.
He read the rest of Kathyne, and everything else in Martisen Ehail had on her bookshelf except a few things she thought were "not aimed at your age group".
He then started raiding Rithka's bookshelf for Leraal kids' books, slogged through them, and went back to Ehail's collection for things in that language. The shapes started looking like text to him after a while, and then he could get through everything more efficiently than when he had to treat it like oddly repetitive pictures.
Ehail wouldn't let him study constantly. He showed up to meals - he understood the importance of those well enough. But she also sent him to bed at the same time as Rithka, barely half an angle after Cenem, and if either of the girls complained twice in the same day that Mallyn was too busy studying to play with them, Ehail would take his books and shoo him outside with Rithka, or to where the game board was set up, or into Cenem's den of craft supplies. He joined Rithka's kebel team to have a predictable break to schedule around instead of random whimsical ones.
He also got the distinct impression that he'd be understood to be overworking himself if he opted out of a family trip to a concert or the zoo or the aquarium-pool, but these were kept fairly infrequent and short because he still didn't love crowded places. Even crowded places where you could pet manta rays.
So he tried to work more efficiently, instead. If he learned more words one day than the last, he figured out what he'd changed; if Cenem said he had a better accent one week than the last he kept up with whatever practice he was on. He gave up reading Ehail's spellbooks, even though he'd acquired an unspoken desire to learn that magic too, just like her - he didn't have the concepts to understand them even if he could sound out the words and look them up in his mental dictionary. Instead he read history and novels and textbooks on Natural Things. He mostly stuck to things aimed a couple of years below his equivalency (but not at Cenem's), with more advanced stuff thrown in to keep him moving forward.
Ehail taught him to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and said that he could stop there for the time being while he caught up on everything else. It was fairly simple as long as he broke things down into small operations that he could visualize as things, which he thought he might not be able to do with some of the more complicated math he'd seen in the back of the book. Just as well he was allowed to wait.
When he was good enough, he'd get to spend all day with Lyrrae and Renn, and he wouldn't look stupid next to his new little sisters who'd had so long to learn things.
Gradually he was introduced to more relatives. Gyre had even more siblings than Mallyn did. Even if you counted Ryller. Several of these were married, and there were also cousins, including two more adopted dragons like Rithka and Cenem. The oldest aunt's oldest child was a boy only a little older than Mallyn, but unfortunately they had nothing in common. Where Tyrrel relished the physically demanding work he did apprenticed under his father, building houses and bridges and the like, Mallyn was nothing but relieved to be away from hard labor and directed to learn things all day long.
The littler cousins, though, Mallyn mostly liked.
Especially Lyrrae and Renn, now technically his cousins. And practically his cousins, no longer his brother and sister.
Lyrrae might be young enough that, when she got older, she wouldn't even remember the farm. She'd know about it, but not really be able to recall being there. Being shouted at and struck. Being worked half to death.
Being Mallyn's little sister and not just his cousin.
Maybe Renn too would forget.
Mallyn told himself that this was good.
For the time being they remembered, though, and knew who Mallyn was to them.
So he studied.
There were so many family members to keep straight that Mallyn operated for some time under the suspicion that Kenar was just another of those. Some sort of cousin. Or maybe a friend of Rithka or Cenem's from their orphanage. His name floated around. Rithka didn't seem to like him. Cenem seemed ambivalent, and Ehail became palpably distressed whenever he was brought up, and Gyre wasn't much better. Cenem seemed the safest to ask about what details he'd lost in the confusion about Kenar, and Mallyn had planned to do it eventually, but he had other priorities.
Then Kenar appeared. And he was clearly not just a cousin or just a friend. He wasn't just anything.
He had been adopted. By the selfsame family who'd taken Mallyn in, and Rithka and Cenem. And he'd skipped off to live with his biological parents the instant the opportunity presented itself.
"I can't stand him," growled Rithka. "He made Mom cry! And now they let him come around here any time he wants even though he's the one who decided to stop living here!"
"And he's coming here today?" Mallyn asked.
"Yeah," she grumbled. "You've seen his room. He'll stay there. Mostly he reads, you can ignore him. He doesn't even care. I don't know why he doesn't just go to his aunt's house with his brother and sister."
Mallyn understood about brothers and sisters, but it didn't sound like Kenar had even known his before he'd decided to trade in Rithka and Cenem for them. "Wow," he said.
"Yeah," growled Rithka.
"So you really don't like him?"
"No! He made Mom cry. She was so sad. Dad too but he wasn't a wreck like her. And then he came back and said that he could come stay with us when his parents are off traveling without their kids, like that's so great, and Mom just said he could! Just like that!"
Kenar arrived, and the first thing he did was tell Gyre that he wanted to forfeit his line name.
Mallyn could only hear fragments of the conversation, from upstairs, but Rithka heard it all and filled him in - on what line names were, what they meant, how Kenar had gotten his. "I knew that was the only way for line names to go away, is the edict violation thing," she whispered in repulsed tones. "I didn't know people did it on purpose."
Mallyn heard footsteps, up the stairs and down the hall, and a closed door from Kenar's room. Rithka was scowling. Mallyn tiptoed into the hallway and peered down the stairs.
Gyre looked so profoundly crushed that Mallyn ran back into Rithka's room and told her she ought to go down and hug him.
Rithka took to this suggestion readily.
Meanwhile, Mallyn knocked on Kenar's door, and Kenar opened it.
Kenar was a little shorter than Mallyn, who'd just started a growth spurt, but he had blue eyes - with sparkling freckles in them - and brown hair and pale skin. Mallyn wondered uncomfortably if he was serving as a stand-in for this boy who'd abandoned Ehail and Gyre and their daughters.
"Hi," said Kenar, after an awkward pause.
"That was the cruelest thing I've ever seen someone do to another person without touching them," Mallyn said flatly.
Kenar flinched. "He can use the name for parunias now," he muttered.
"He didn't ask you to free up the name," said Mallyn. "You threw it in his face. What is wrong with you?"
"So," said Kenar, "you must be Mallyn, I remember reading about you in a letter. Hi. How are you? Read any good books lately?"
"Mom and Dad took you in and gave you a home and loved you and you just acted like it didn't matter -"
"Rthan matters too, my little brother matters too, the Koedh line matters, the Gyre line was made up on the spot and now it doesn't exist any more, that's all," Kenar snapped. "What do you know about it?"
"I know what you did was awful, and even if your father made you do it you didn't have to be nasty like that," Mallyn said hotly. He hadn't meant to emphasize Kenar's egg relationship the way Rithka did; it just came out that way. "Why do you even come here if you're just going to be despicable to Mom and Dad?"
Kenar shut the door in Mallyn's face.
Mallyn spun around and stomped into his room.
Rithka was back upstairs a tick later, and she managed to scamper without even being in squirrel form when she let herself into Mallyn's room and up onto his lap. "Daddy is sad," she sighed. "But I think the hugging helped."
"Kenar is an idiot," Mallyn said.
"He's mean," Rithka said. "And he doesn't like us so we don't have to like him. Mom and Daddy say we have to be nice to him anyway though. Like we have to be nice to guests. Because he is one. Because he doesn't live here anymore."
"Right," said Mallyn. "I guess I'll just ignore him."
Rithka nodded, with a stern look out of place on her face.
Kenar wasn't as easy as that to ignore. As Rithka had said, Kenar mostly stayed in his room and read - when it was up to him. Ehail and Gyre had him appearing at every meal, and brought him along to the Osaan Puppet-Dance performance that they all attended. Cenem didn't have the animosity towards him that Rithka did and would innocently invite him to play, even when the existing group contained more than just her.
If it hadn't been for the looming, obvious knowledge of who Kenar was and what he was doing there, Mallyn might have gotten along with him fine. He was quiet, didn't go out of his way to discuss anything controversial, and had polished manners when the topic was neutral.
But he'd hurt Ehail.
Ehail had still never hit Mallyn, or anyone. She still never raised her voice. She still went around making things happen by magic and lighting up like a star when someone around her was happy. And Kenar was a great big rock tied to her, weighing her down. It wouldn't have surprised Mallyn if Kenar's presence rendered Ehail unable to fly.
And Mallyn could not understand it for the life of him.
"Why are you here?" he asked Kenar once. Cenem had called Kenar out to join her in a confusing game about pretending to be lizards and then lost interest; Kenar was sitting alone in the garden. "Why did you come back, if you wanted to leave so bad you'd do what you did?"
"Why are you talking to me?" Kenar asked, looking away. "You don't like me."
"I don't understand you," said Mallyn.
"I shouldn't have been adopted in the first place," Kenar said. "It was stupid. But I shouldn't have stayed with Ehail and Gyre forever just because I did a stupid thing, after I was good enough for my real parents. That would've been worse."
"Good enough?" Mallyn asked. So far the only trace of demands he'd seen Ehail or Gyre make on their children involved studying, and Kenar did almost nothing but read. Had he chosen to go to dramatically more demanding parents? Was he on vacation, getting in all the reading he wanted before he had to go back to -
"A dragon," Kenar said shortly.
Kenar blinked at him. "How long have you been here?"
"Uh, half a month," Mallyn said, working it out in his head. "Elcenian month. About."
"And nobody told you about how me and Ehail and Rithka and Cenem didn't use to be dragons?"
"People can become dragons?" Mallyn breathed.
"Not you," Kenar said, and Mallyn looked away as though he could pretend that wasn't what he'd thought. "Shrens can, now."
"What's a shren?" Mallyn asked.
"They didn't tell you that either?" Kenar asked.
"I've had a lot of stuff to learn!" said Mallyn. "What's a shren?"
"Like a dragon," Kenar said, "but horrible."
That description didn't connect up to anything Mallyn was capable of thinking of. Like a dragon but horrible. "Huh?"
Kenar was starting to look like he didn't think Mallyn was very bright. And that wasn't fair - Kenar hadn't had to learn any languages, learn to read, and he'd had more than ninety years to use his languages and his literacy to learn everything.
"It's not my fault I don't know it," Mallyn said, frowning.
"I know," Kenar sighed. "Are you sure you want me to explain?"
"You're the one who brought it up!"
"Fine, then," sighed Kenar. "A shren is a lot like a dragon, really, if you're not either one yourself and are just looking from the outside. The difference is that a shren in natural form can't fly."
"How would that make somebody horrible?" Mallyn asked, narrowing his eyes; it sounded to him like Kenar was pulling his leg.
"It doesn't make people horrible, especially. It's just a horrible thing to be and a horrible thing to have around. So when I was one, my parents didn't want me - I mean, not right away. They were going to come get me after my little brother and sister grew up. Tanzil and Simnel didn't do anything to make me happen so they didn't need to put up with me, but my parents were going to, as soon as they were out of the house... anyway. Then someone came up with a cure. And now we're dragons. And I could go home."
"Anybody who thought you weren't good enough to live with them because you couldn't fly must like you even less than I do," Mallyn said.
"Look, you don't understand," Kenar said. "You're an elf. You don't speak Draconic. You're not even from Elcenia. Shrens are - or were, I guess, maybe they're all fixed by now - just - the worst thing."
"You can't say that about people," Mallyn said. That was something his birth parents might have said. That their kids were the worst, that it was generous of them to keep unworthy children present and fed. He'd developed the idea that Elcenia was different.
Maybe it was just his new family that was different.
"You can't say that about Mom," Mallyn added, more forcefully. "Or Rithka or Cenem. Say whatever you want about you but they were shrens too, right? And you can't talk bad about them, they're - they're the best people."
"I'm not saying anything about them in particular!" exclaimed Kenar. "Just that they were shrens! I was one too, I'm not putting them down more than I'd do myself -"
"They're better than you!" Mallyn said.
"You don't understand. You'd have to know Draconic to understand," said Kenar stubbornly, and he turned away, became a woodpecker, and flew into his open bedroom window.
Mallyn stared up in openmouthed disbelief.
And then he went looking for Rithka.
"What does shren mean that's so horrible?" Mallyn asked.
Rithka flinched. "I heard you talking to Kenar. You know what it means," she mumbled.
"You could hear me from all the way in here?"
"I have good ears. It's like a dragon but can't fly in natural form," Rithka said. She paused. "It's bad. It hurts."
"But you're a good person," Mallyn protested. "And Mom and Cenem are too."
"It's not about that," Rithka said, looking out the window.
"All this because they can't fly?" Mallyn asked. "I mean, you can shapeshift - the sparrow - even before you could still fly more than I could, right?"
"Mmhm," mumbled Rithka. "Mallyn, I don't wanna talk about it. It's a Draconic thing."
"But I don't understand."
"I know," said Rithka, turning into a squirrel and curling into a ball.
Kenar left later that day, after a prolonged goodbye in which Ehail and Gyre hugged him many times and Cenem twice and Rithka once when Ehail sighed at her. No one tried to get Mallyn to hug Kenar, which Mallyn was grateful for.
He tried asking Cenem about shrens. "I'm not one any more," she said petulantly, and then ignored him.
He went to his room, and tried to study but couldn't concentrate, and went downstairs.
"Yes, sweetheart?" Ehail said.
"I was talking to Kenar. Um, you explained, how you adopted him but he went to his birth - I mean egg - family?" Mallyn said hesitantly.
Mallyn summarized. "I asked him about that. He told me about 'shrens'."
Ehail closed her eyes and made a sad, drawn face. "There aren't any shrens anymore," she said. "Or if there are, they'll be cured very soon. You should learn about them eventually, but you don't need to think about them now."
"But Kenar said... bad things about them," Mallyn said. "And that you were one and Rithka and Cenem, and him."
Ehail took a deep breath. "Is there something you need explained, sweetheart?"
Was it that transparently obvious to everyone else, that they couldn't understand what he'd need spelled out for him?
"I told him not to talk bad about you," Mallyn said. "And he said it was different. Because you were a shren."
"Well..." She was making a series of complicated expressions that Mallyn couldn't read. "Sweetheart, shrens might be hard for you to completely understand, since you don't speak Draconic. I don't think Kenar just meant to 'talk bad' about me."
The Draconic thing again. He knew some words of it. No one had ever told him that when he knew only a few words of Leraal he didn't really get it because he wasn't Esmaarlan. He had learned what a shren was. Why wouldn't that be enough? "I talked to Rithka about Draconic. I don't get it. I know the word 'shren' now. But you couldn't have ever been bad. Or Rithka or Cenem." He paused. "Maybe Kenar."
"Draconic isn't just about understanding what things the word talks about, but also about how the word talks about them," Ehail said. "And that part may not be something we can just explain."
"Does Dad understand it?" Mallyn asked, frustrated.
"I don't think so."
"You couldn't ever have been bad," Mallyn said. It just wasn't possible. Whatever words had applied to her, the list couldn't have included "bad".
"Oh, sweetheart," she said, offering him a hug, which he took. "No one's saying I did anything bad."
"He said you were bad. And him and Rithka and Cenem, and all the other people who were shrens. And he's wrong."
"Maybe your dad will be able to give you a better way to understand this," Ehail suggested. "He's home today."
She'd just said Gyre didn't really understand it.
Mallyn hugged her tighter.
"Tomorrow," he said, changing the subject, "Lyrrae and Renn?"
"Tomorrow, you can go with your father to Aristan City and spend the day at Batai and Karyn's, if they say you may," Ehail said. "If they turn out to be busy, or they can't have you over for some other reason, you can stay at your father's shop for the day and watch him work like Rithka sometimes does. She may go to Barashi that day too."
"Okay," said Mallyn, heart lifting a little. "Thank you." He swallowed. "And Mom?"
"You're good," he said, before he stepped back out of the hug and left the room.
Chapter 6: Kamai
The leap from "Leraal is undifferentiated nonsense" to "Leraal is composed of words, most of which I don't know" was pretty fast. But after the very basics - the articles and numbers and the most generic nouns and verbs - Mallyn felt like his progress was slowed dramatically. There had to be a million kinds of plants and animals that native Leraal speakers knew how to talk about, and a dozen of those didn't get you as far as the first dozen words in the language did. There was a preposterous torrent of adjectives. There were too many words for colors, fabrics, musical genres, cities, foods, shapes, spells, and angles on elf ears. He could get farther and farther through casual conversation every week without having to stop and ask "what's that?", but he wasn't near native and might never be.
And on top of that, Rithka said that every time he had to ask about a word, his ears turned pink.
But when he was fluent and could read fast enough he'd be able to go to school, and learn to teleport and fly and heal and ward.
Ehail got more visibly pregnant over time, and had to start wearing different clothes. She was even pregnant when she went into her bluejay shape or dragon form, but she said that she could shift the baby too so he'd be safe any which way - and it wasn't as obvious in those shapes anyway, because her dragon one was so big and her bluejay one so covered in puffy feathers. (Rithka said that Ehail could also turn into a tiger, but Mallyn had still never seen her do it.)
Mallyn worked on his comfort in crowded places. Anyone in Esmaar who hit him on purpose would be swept into jail without delay. No one wanted to hurt him anyway, anymore. His birth parents were far away in another world with their personalities revised to boot. And he'd need to be able to sit still in several classes five days a week to get anywhere at Binaaralav.
Time seemed to accelerate. He learned, he played, he slept, he ate his mother's cooking, he met with massive numbers of relatives, and before he knew it Ehail was giving birth to his baby brother upstairs.
When Lyrrae and Renn (and Ryller) had been born there had been a lot more screaming. But Rithka had told Mallyn - after burning her hand on the stove and barely reacting except to remark on the bubbly blisters - that this was part of having been a shren. They'd hurt so badly that nothing else mattered. Like someone who lifted heavy things all day for years wouldn't notice the weight of a thick sweater.
"It's not worth it," she'd said hurriedly, reacting to something in his expression. "But now that part's over so this part's okay." And then she'd eaten the spoonful of pudding she'd been trying to fetch in the first place and let Ehail bustle her off to the light.
At any rate, Ehail didn't scream. The midwife-light was being louder about the whole business than she was. Gyre was up in the room with her. Mallyn, Rithka, and Cenem were all sitting downstairs and were to shout for their father if they needed anything.
They all got to see him right when he was born.
Mallyn watched Gyre wrap up little Nemaar in blankets, and looked at that chinless wide-eyed face, and frowned to himself while Ehail rolled over to go to sleep.
Mallyn learned how Elcenian diapers worked, and changed Nemaar's when asked. Otherwise he stayed away. Nemaar was tiny and bad-tempered and screamed -
"Sweetheart," Ehail said, once while Nemaar was napping, "is something bothering you about the baby? You know you're our son, no matter how many other children we have, don't you?"
Mallyn had been convinced enough of that. "I know."
"Can you tell me what's the matter?"
She must think Mallyn was horrible, not liking her real birth son much. Mallyn tried to think of a better way to put it. "It's just because he's a baby," he said finally.
"You don't like babies?" Ehail asked. "Did you like Lyrrae and Renn when they were babies?"
"Yes," Mallyn said.
Maybe she didn't know. Maybe she wouldn't know unless he told her. Maybe no one knew.
"Renn was a twin," Mallyn said.
"Oh," breathed Ehail. "Oh, sweetheart."
"Ryller wouldn't stop crying," Mallyn said. "He got sick. He picked him up and hit his head against the wall." Ehail threw her arms around him. "He died," Mallyn whispered, "and I had to bury him in the backyard. They told the neighbors he died of the sickness." He swallowed. "I did like them when they were babies."
Ehail was still hugging him. She wasn't saying anything.
"Lyrrae and Renn don't know," Mallyn said. "Lyrrae was only just born and Renn was only a year old. I think he might feel something's missing but he doesn't know."
"No one is going to hurt Nemaar," Ehail assured him. "He's safe. It's okay to love him. He's going to grow up here with us and no one is going to hurt him."
Mallyn nodded slowly, crying and hating that he was crying. "But he's little. And hurtable." He swallowed again, trying to get the lump in his throat to go down. "And I don't want to hurt him."
Ehail kissed Mallyn's hair. "You know that he's little and fragile and you'll be careful with him, won't you?" she murmured.
"I don't want to hurt him." He pulled out of the hug and sat on the floor. "...My birth father's parents came to the farm, once. They were awful to me and Lyrrae and Renn. But they were like that to him, too." It had been terrifying to realize that there were not only his birth parents, but also people so dreadful that they terrified them. And Mallyn had been sickened to realize that even someone who'd been brutalized in childhood could do the same thing. He didn't know what alchemy would do it, and so he couldn't know if it would happen to him.
"You aren't going to grow up to be like your birth parents, Mallyn," Ehail said. "You can decide what to do. You don't want to hurt Nemaar, or anyone else, or why would you be nervous?"
"I don't want to hurt him," Mallyn whispered. "He's so little."
"He'll grow. In a few years, he'll be able to shift, and he'll be about Cenem's dragon size and covered in silver scales, and even less breakable. But even now I think you could hold him without hurting him. You've held Kaarel and Aaris."
"I know." He swallowed. "They're girls. I didn't think about it. Ryller was a boy."
"You don't have to hold Nemaar or play with him if you really don't want to, sweetheart," Ehail said. "But I know you don't want to hurt him. If there's some kind of accident, that's terrible, but we can take him to a light, and I know you won't do anything bad to him on purpose."
"Maybe," Mallyn said. Unless something happened, something out of his control -
"You can wait, if you want," Ehail said. "I wouldn't start asking you to watch the smaller children for us even if you were completely comfortable with Nemaar, not yet. But I hope you'll be able to hold your new little brother soon."
"Maybe," Mallyn repeated. He'd certainly never been awful to Lyrrae and Renn. Maybe Nemaar would be safe too. He laughed a little, inhaled dust, sneezed, laughed a little more.
"Did you feel that?" Ehail asked abruptly.
"No. Feel what?"
"A wind. Hm."
"I didn't feel it," he reported, and he started to get up off the floor. He was still getting used to his new sandals and tripped on the toe. Partway through his fall to the floor, he paused, hovering, and then dropped the remaining inches. "Oof. Did you do that?"
"I didn't have time to react with a spell - I don't even know one off the top of my head that would do that..."
Mallyn sneezed again, from the dust in the carpet.
The ceiling started raining.
"Why don't we visit your aunt Rhysel," Ehail suggested.
It was rare. He'd never met anyone who had it besides Aunt Rhysel. But it was known about, talked about, there were all sorts of other words for it, and it was always bad. "She couldn't be more trouble if she came down with kamai-of-a-sudden." "He's as destructive as a firestarter." "You'd better watch out in case he gets the weather."
And now Mallyn had the weather, as evidenced by making it rain in the house.
It would have been funny, almost, if he'd still been with his birth parents. Maybe he could have hailed on them.
But surrounded by people he loved it wasn't funny. He didn't want to be a firestarter, to ruin their pretty house and burn his sisters and his new little brother and scare his parents.
He was barely listening to Ehail and Rhysel's conversation. "I don't want to hurt anyone," he said over and over.
Something about wards and more kamai and not getting sick. How was he supposed to not get sick? If he got that way, wouldn't he just endanger any light who tried to help him?
Rhysel had had to learn to control it even in her sleep.
"I'm going to do magic in my sleep?" Mallyn exclaimed.
He was going to have to work very, very hard. Harder than he already was. He could not hurt anyone.
They wanted to give him a student tutor. Fine. "Okay."
Ehail teleported home to ward everyone. So he couldn't hurt them.
Mallyn sat with Aunt Rhysel in horrified silence.
Ehail came to take him home, and he went with her, breathing carefully to avoid sneezing again, stepping carefully to avoid tripping.
He didn't want to hurt anyone.
He didn't want to learn kamai like this.
Korulen was a jade dragon with a strange name.
"My name's a long story," she said, waving a hand. "Let's talk about you. I've done tutoring before, but never for spontaneous kamai. I know what Rhysel told me, but I hope you'll feel free to tell me anything you want me to know about how you learn best, or if something I'm trying isn't working."
"Okay," said Mallyn, looking at her hair. He loved girl dragon hair; it was always so pretty. And she was elf-shaped, not human like most dragons. "What do we do?"
"Well," Korulen said, all business, "you'll emit spontaneous reactions when you're physically disturbed in some way, or under stress. But we don't want to trip you or have you inhaling pepper just so you can learn to control yourself. Instead, you're going to try to do kamai - simple kamai - and we'll see what you get instead. I'll poke around gently in your mind to find where it's leaking out, and help you find those spots and pay attention to them. When you can focus on all of them at the same time, all the time, you'll be just like other kyma. Like Rhysel. Does that make sense?"
"I - I think so - but how do I do kamai? I don't know how to do any," Mallyn said.
"That's okay," soothed Korulen. "Actually, you're going to have a failsafe most students don't get - it's pretty important that you start making progress soon, so if you don't manage to do any magic at will by the end of the day, Rhysel says I can just push you the knowledge. That's almost never done ordinarily. And it is better to learn it properly, lest you think this means you can be lazy today. It will make more sense learned the normal way."
"Why will it make more sense?"
"Well, 'how to do handfire' isn't just a thing - I can't hand it over like I could hand you a book or an apple," Korulen said. "Everybody does kamai a little differently. You could do handfire - or try, anyway, and get a spontaneous reaction - if I just pushed it at you. But then you might try to do other kamai the same way I do instead of how you should, and that'd slow you down and make it feel frustrating and off. Like if you were trying to scratch your head with gloves on. Or you'd never be quite able to connect up how you did handfire with how you did anything else, and so you'd need more pushed on top of it, or you'd have to re-learn handfire, or it wouldn't count as practice for other workings."
"Oh." He decided Korulen was probably right and he'd better learn handfire how she said. "So - so what do I do?"
Korulen reached into the box that Rhysel had furnished the tower's workroom with and pulled out - a stick.
Mallyn blinked at it, but then Korulen focused on the tip of the stick and set it on fire, and said, "Concentrate on the flame..."
Sensing tones didn't come easily at all to Mallyn. "I guess that makes sense," Korulen said. "If you could hear them as easily as a regular kama - let alone an innate - then that would be your first clue, not an actual manifestation. But you've got a tellyn conduit, and that means your lifeforce can tell your brain what's going on in the stuff around you. Maybe move your hand a little closer - not too close - feel the warmth, watch the light. If you can't hear the music, see if you can get a sensation of textures, or of flavors..."
Mallyn thought he tasted something, but this was determined to be his imagination when he reported it as cheese and Korulen said they were looking for something sweet.
"I wish there was a tone you could see," he complained. "Then I'd be good at this."
"Sorry," said Korulen. "There's just the three, as far as I know, but maybe it's possible to develop more. You can work on that when you've gone through school," she added encouragingly. "I would just hum the notes for you but they might be different for you than they are for me. Only the relations are the same each time - this one will be higher, that one lower, and so on."
At great length, Mallyn managed to pick out the notes, which he couldn't really hear at all (because they weren't sound). He could understand why they were called that, though.
Korulen was at first disposed to tell him to do things like "separate out" one note from another, but this seemed ridiculous - they weren't emanating from musical instruments under his control. Ultimately she sat back and thought and then leaned forward again and told him that just as the notes weren't really sound, he wasn't really supposed to touch the fire - not with his hands. "It's a metaphor. But you want to metaphorically take hold of the part of the fire that makes the note about light, and take it somewhere else, wherever you like. The rest of the fire will go on just like this but we won't be able to see it anymore since you'll have moved the light."
Mallyn wound up imagining a sort of shadow of himself, whose ears heard tones and whose hands could disentangle the parts of fire, and five degrees straight of concentration on directing this self to do as Korulen said resulted in the appearance of fire floating a foot above the end of the stick. The stick went on smoldering under invisible flames.
Also, the entire room was utterly saturated with the smell of cut grass.
Korulen sniffed. "Well, that's harmless, at least," she said. "I'm afraid I can't keep focused on your mind all the time, so I wasn't looking just then, but now you'll be able to make handfire any time, and I can always see where the magic is getting out. You can dismiss it - snuff it out directly, or silence the tone, whichever you like."
Mallyn sent an imaginary shadow-hand to clench around the appearance of the fire, and away it went.
"Now make another one," Korulen said, extinguishing the lightless flame on her stick. "And we'll see what happens."
"Are you warded?" it suddenly occurred to Mallyn to ask.
"Yes, don't worry," she assured him. "I warded myself before coming."
Mallyn nodded and pursed his lips and tried to call back the handfire. In its place came blinding yellow light.
"Well, at least this won't be repetitive," Korulen remarked cheerfully, when Mallyn had dismissed both handfire and antecedent.
At the end of their long, long first session, Korulen had a list of forty-three places in his mind that magic could leak through. "It's not impossible that there's a few more, but it's been only these enough times that I think this is probably it," she explained when she finally called it a day.
"I'll have to close all these holes to stop things from happening?" Mallyn said, looking at the long list. Korulen had written the effects that had come out of each gap next to the numbers - glass beads, floor into mud, snow, illusion fish, swarm of birds, conjured rock, mental broadcast, droopy ears, wind, lifeforce transfer, sudden vivid memory of yesterday's breakfast and a dozen more. Rhysel had needed to be called in to reverse a few of the effects, though a mercifully large proportion was harmless. He was going to give the beads to his sisters.
"Yes," Korulen said. "Eventually. But you can make progress before that too, you see - the beads only came out of holes two, nineteen, and twenty. If you had been blocking those three holes on that occasion then nothing would have happened."
"But there's so many," Mallyn said bleakly.
"There are," she admitted. "But you can work on them one at a time. We'll go on keeping track of which effects come out of which holes, and then you can start working on blocking the most dangerous ones. It doesn't hurt anyone if you make glass beads or illusion fish, though, so it's pretty okay if you leave those holes alone until the very end. Does that make sense?"
"I guess," said Mallyn.
"Now, I'm not going to have time to do another long session like this," Korulen said. "I can meet you for about an angle most days, two or three on Lunenik and Chenenik, but you should practice at home too. The sooner all you do is fish and beads and the like, the sooner people won't need wards around you, and the sooner you get all forty-three gaps stopped up the sooner you can start school."
Korulen cast the time spell. "Your mom is going to pick you up in a few degrees, but you look exhausted, and food can only do so much to replenish lifeforce," she said. "Do you want to go see what Rhysel's doing, or hang out with me for a bit?"
"I don't want to interrupt Aunt Rhysel again," Mallyn yawned. "And I think I hear a twin crying, so she's probably occupied. Say, what's Draconic for 'kamai'?"
"Just 'kamai'," said Korulen. "Loanwords like that happen, especially when a concept has just been introduced."
"Do you want to tell me the long story about your name? Why is it three syllables long when you're a dragon?" Mallyn asked.
"Are you sure? It really is kind of complicated," Korulen said.
"You could start with the short version," Mallyn said, crossing his arms on the table and resting his head there. "And see if I get bored."
"Well," Korulen said, "as far as my name goes, the first two syllables are 'Korul', but I don't think that's a very pretty name. So I go by the first three instead."
"So the -en part is from your line name?" Mallyn guessed.
"No - I actually haven't got one - my mother could give me one, and maybe eventually I'll take her up on it, but that'd go right between the 'Korul' and the 'en', and I'm really used to going by Korulen. And it'd feel weird if I were Korulpygaen and so on instead."
"She didn't give you one when you were a baby?" asked Mallyn.
"No. I actually didn't hatch, and I'm not a hundred and forty-six, either. I'm forty-four and I was born a thudia."
Mallyn lifted his head, jaw slack. "Really?"
"Yes," Korulen said. "Me and my dad, who was an elf, got changed into dragons -"
"Well - oh, now I wish I hadn't told you, you look much too - Mallyn, I don't think it'll work for anyone else," said Korulen, looking away awkwardly.
"But it worked for you, and for your dad..."
"My mom is friends with Arimal," Korulen said. "She did it. And she couldn't even do it entirely by herself! We had to have so many people help us by giving us little bits of their magic. My boyfriend Kaylo had to call in favors from the miracle dragons he helped."
"Miracle dragons - like -"
"People who used to be shrens," said Korulen. "My boyfriend is the one who came up with the cure. It works by moving dragon magic around inside a person. You can get extra by pinching off what's left from a form someone learns. A lot of people learned forms because Kaylo asked them to - and some relatives. But I don't think there would be a very good chance of getting that many donors together again, Mallyn."
"How - how many did you have to -"
"We got the entire extant Pyga line, and a lot of the Alar line too, and friends of the family, and so terribly many miracles. I didn't count them. I suppose you could do with slightly fewer dragons, since the miracles already had three forms fixed apiece, but it would still have to be lots. And you'd have to get a god to help, too, and my mom is literally the first mortal ever to make friends with one. She's a unique green-group. The only one at the moment."
"Is that why they're called uniques?" Mallyn asked, wondering if Korulen was teasing him.
"Sort of. They're born at random really, but it works out to there usually being about one at a time of each color group. I think there might be two of one group and none of another now. Mom only overlapped with the last green-group one by a few years. Anyway. My name." She sighed. "I didn't ask Arimal to do anything about it at the time, and I'm not even sure if she could have. It's not like she could make the dragon magic from scratch; perhaps she couldn't have done anything fancier than moving it either. So it just took off the last syllable from my name, which would have been aesthetically fine if it left me with 'Koru'. But it was a Leraal name and that's not how Leraal works, so - 'Korul'."
"Did you get added syllables?" Mallyn asked, trying to suppress cries of envy. He couldn't imagine managing to get a god to be his friend and a hundred dragons to help him just so he could be fantastic like his mother, his sisters, and Korulen.
"Yes. The 'en' from my uncle Ilen, and then my old last name pieced together from my dad's relatives. And then others from people I just wanted syllables from - friends and my dad and so on. I didn't get one from my mom because I might want the line name later. We don't know that it would interfere done in that direction, but she's quite young for a dragon so there's no need to chance it while I make up my mind." Korulen laughed weakly. "Are you bored, yet?"
"No," said Mallyn emphatically, before spotting his mother out the window and waving goodbye to Korulen.
Chapter 7: Astareh
"Can't I do something besides handfire?" Mallyn asked miserably, not even looking at the flashing, scintillating rainbows his spontaneous kamai was throwing around the room.
"Well - yes, if you like," Korulen said. "But handfire is one of the very least draining workings there is, and unless you try to change the colors or something it's hard to get wrong once you've got the hang of it. Rhysel says there's never been a case of a spontaneous kama dangerously draining him or herself with a spontaneous reaction, but you'll still be able to practice longer if you use the least draining trigger working you can."
"It's just so boring," sighed Mallyn.
"The handfire is - the reactions aren't! I don't think you've got the same one twice, except these glass beads you keep making," Korulen said encouragingly, scanning the papers on which she'd recorded which holes produced which surprises. "But since you're bored, let's go ahead and step it up some - I'm pretty sure now that there's only these forty-three holes, and we have a lot of data about which ones it's most important to block."
"Yeah," shuddered Mallyn. "I don't want to do that bleeding one again, that was nasty." His pores had each oozed a tiny drop of blood, which had been uncomfortable and messy and required the end of the lesson for the day because he was so shaken up. Korulen had cleaned him off with a spell.
"It didn't look fun," Korulen said sympathetically. "I'm not sure why that would even be useful - but I suppose kamai is more flexible than wizardry. It's certainly possible to do things that no one would ever find useful."
"Wizardry's all useful?" Mallyn said, reaching for the snack plate. Korulen let him stop to eat something whenever he wanted, as he was inefficiently spraying a lot of his lifeforce around on worthless spontaneous magic. He was only a little hungry, but talking was more interesting than endless repetitions of handfire.
"Wizardry's all useful to someone at some time, or they wouldn't have put the effort into inventing the spell," clarified Korulen. "But sometimes they're just useful as a teaching tool, like - oh, the Lanfen trace. I suppose you could use that for something, but really the only excuse for it to exist is that it's a two-unit spell."
"What does it do?"
Korulen made a gesture and said "Lanfen-sil!", and from her right index finger there trailed a white glowing line as she followed through on the hand motion. "Just this. The line will follow my finger around, it'll stay until I reverse the spell and then disappear. I can't make gaps in it or change the color or weight of the line or anything. Just this." She made a spiral in the air, then cast the reversal; the glow vanished.
"I wish I could just be learning actual magic now," said Mallyn glumly.
"You'll wind up with an advantage in kamai, eventually," Korulen said. "Spontaneous kyma have more lifeforce than most people - after dragons and innates it's you lot - and you'll have all this practice paying attention to the parts of your mind that do magic. Not to mention you've seen all these effects and you'll see more so you'll have an idea of what kamai can do. A lot of your classmates will be Elcenian natives who've barely heard of it."
"I guess that's something," Mallyn said.
He'd lost the ability to pretend interest in the snacks.
"Once more," said Korulen, "and focus on hole number twelve - that's this one..." She accompanied the instruction with a mental poke that caused Mallyn to make a face. "This might take a lot of work to be able to learn the sort of concentration you need to block a gap, especially since most of them go several tries without being used. But once you've got the first you should be able to make steady progress, till they're all gone."
Mallyn bit his lip and concentrated on the spot she'd poked. He didn't know what to do with it. Maybe if he focused on it enough, he'd be able to tell whether any magic escaped by that avenue, but how would he stop it if it tried?
"What do I do?" Mallyn asked.
"You know," Korulen said, frowning, "that's a good question. I'm following Rhysel's lead here, and she wasn't specific - but maybe it's hard to tell what she's doing from the inside? I'll go get her to make some handfire and I'll keep an eye on her gaps, and I'll come back and see if I can explain how she manages."
"Thanks," Mallyn said, as Korulen trotted out of the room.
His tutor was back a couple of degrees later, smiling prettily. "Okay, let's see if a verbal explanation does any good, but if it doesn't, I can push you what I saw. It's about the same mental process as choosing the next word in a sentence. Your spontaneity is making you "say" random silly things instead - words, workings, but the wrong ones."
"But I don't avoid misspeaking by concentrating on what I don't want to say," Mallyn said, frowning. "That sounds backwards, I wouldn't go around thinking don't mention geese, don't mention geese."
"Right," Korulen agreed. "Eventually, you don't think about geese - or gaps - at all; Rhysel doesn't at this point. But right now it's like you're compelled to chatter on about geese whenever you open your mouth even if you don't want to."
"So I have to make sure that whatever I say, it's not goose, and when I've got that I move on to the next one?" Mallyn asked.
"Yep. Except instead of geese it's this thing here." She poked the spot in his mind again.
Mallyn nodded, jaw set, and produced another ball of handfire.
"Make me more beads," Rithka said. "I'm out of green ones." She was wearing the glass spheres in strings around her neck. Gyre had made holes in them for her.
"I can't do it on purpose," Mallyn said. "And I'm exhausted anyway. We were there for angles because Korulen didn't have any classes today."
"So take a nap, and then make me some beads," Rithka said, changing into a squirrel and leaping up and down on his leg where he sat. "Okay?"
Mallyn didn't need to hear the suggestion twice. He flopped over onto his side on his bed and closed his eyes.
"Mallyn," said Rithka's voice.
Mallyn cracked an eye open. He wasn't sure how long he'd napped. Had he missed dinner? "Hm?"
"How come you have so many drawings of this girl in your drawer?" Rithka was holding up one of his sketches of Korulen.
Mallyn felt his ears get warm. "I draw lots of people," he muttered.
"Yeah, I know, but who is she?"
"She's - my kamai tutor," he said.
"You're blu-u-ushing," sang Rithka.
"She's my kamai tutor! And I draw lots of people!" Mallyn exclaimed.
"Yeah, I think one time, you drew some people on our kebel team," Rithka said lightly. "Once. You drew like six of her. How come?"
"She's just - I see her all the time now - why do you care?"
"I think you liiiiiike her," trilled Rithka. "I bet you dreaaaaam about her."
Mallyn's most recent dream had been about illusion fish and a talking pie, but his ears pinked hotly anyway.
"But it's okay," Rithka said reasonably. "You can like people."
"And I can tease you about it," whooped Rithka, running out of his room at top speed. "Mallyn has a crush on his tutorrrrrr -"
Mallyn flopped back onto his bed without even bothering to put away the drawings she'd dug up.
It didn't help that Mallyn's spontaneous kamai chose random sets of escape routes every time he conjured handfire, and so it took an average of twenty tries before he could even attempt the feat on that particular one. Sometimes he couldn't even make that many attempts in a day. The manifestations were variously destructive, so he had to work supervised and with Rhysel within shouting distance. They were exhausting, too, so even when Korulen had the time, he couldn't continue on forever.
"I'm sick of this!" he shouted, one afternoon after Ehail came to pick him up from Rhysel's tower. "I'm not making any progress! It's like my magic is trying to hide, it never goes out that way, and the one time I tried concentrating on a different spot instead it did! And Korulen made this face at me and asked if I'd noticed it go out - and I hadn't because I was looking somewhere else - and I also appeared across the room and I was so tired - and I'm not any closer to keeping it controlled! Isn't there some way to take the kamai away? I'll just be a wizard, that's fine."
"I - I don't think there is," Ehail said uncertainly. "I think... that if there was such a way, your grandma and grandpa would have found it back when your aunt Rhysel manifested. They were very upset about it at the time."
"Oh. They were?" Mallyn asked.
Ehail nodded. "There was a lot of tension in the family about magic in general, for - for a long time."
Mallyn sensed more of a story there, and looked at Ehail curiously until she sighed and sat down and told him the whole mess. Grandma Allera and Grandpa Tem - mostly Allera - had been terribly upset by Rhysel's early spontaneous kamai. (She'd been prone to fire and explosions compared to Mallyn, who still made colorful glass beads more often than anything else.) They'd tried to find a way to keep her under control, and eventually given up and sent her to her Master - but by then their relationships with her had been damaged to the point where they were cool and distant, punctuated with screaming condemnation. Mallyn's other aunts, and most of his uncles, hadn't been on board with this, though - and Gyre, living out of town and the only boy in the family not to study under Allera as an instrument-crafter, didn't even know it was happening.
"And it might have gone on like that for much longer," said Ehail, "but when I first met them, Mother wasn't too happy about me being a wizard, either. And your father was appalled at her, and spoke to Ryll about it, and Rhysel was pregnant at the time too - and so with all that going on it was decided that everyone should avoid Mother until she changed her mind." Ehail sighed and closed her eyes. "She was stubborn enough to miss our wedding."
"But then she decided magic was okay?" Mallyn asked.
Ehail nodded. "She came here to the house and apologized. And since then she's been fine around me, and Rhysel, and I don't think you've ever noticed anything amiss."
"I haven't," Mallyn agreed. He hadn't happened to see his grandmother since manifesting, but he couldn't imagine her giving him a hard time about it. He'd certainly seen her interacting with Ehail and wouldn't have guessed anything like the story he'd just heard.
"At any rate, I don't think there's a way to take your kamai. But I know you'll get the hang of it soon, sweetheart," Ehail said. "And then you can learn all the magic you wanted to learn originally."
"I guess," muttered Mallyn. "Korulen says even after I learn to stop up all forty-three holes in my head I'll still have to practice a lot to be as efficient as a regular kama just starting out, because stopping the holes will take energy. It's not fair."
"I know, it's terribly unfair," sighed Ehail, pulling him into a hug and stroking his hair. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."
"I have to go to another lesson tomorrow," Mallyn muttered, "don't I."
"Don't you like Korulen?" Ehail asked. She didn't sound teasing; maybe Rithka hadn't gotten around to telling her.
"Yeah, just - I'd rather we were just hanging out. I'm tired of handfire. I'm tired of not being able to control myself. I'm tired of being tired all the time. She'll let me take breaks but then we have to go back to working."
"Well, maybe there will be time for you to just be friends and spend time together, after," Ehail said.
"Yeah. After," sighed Mallyn.
"Once more, please," Korulen said, tapping her notes with her graphite stick.
Mallyn sullenly conjured handfire, "watching" gap number twelve, and the notes went up in flames, startling Korulen to the point of shifting into her dragon form. "Whoa!"
"I'm sorry!" shrieked Mallyn, sitting bolt upright and watching the papers smolder. "I'm sorry! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, my sleeve didn't catch or anything - but the notes -" Korulen changed from sinuous jade dragon back into her elf form. "I should have made copies, now I feel like an idiot -"
"Do you have more paper?" Mallyn asked.
"Plenty." She reached into her bag. "I guess we can start over or I could look up a past-scry -"
Mallyn took the paper, and the graphite stick, and started rapidly transcribing the notes as he'd last seen them. They might be slightly out of date, but they'd be much better than starting completely from scratch.
"You had them memorized?" Korulen asked, impressed. "I - wait - that's my handwriting."
"I can remember things I see," murmured Mallyn, copying the records about gap six and moving on to seven.
"I guess most people can't do it."
"Well, that's really, really useful, Mallyn," said Korulen brightly. "This'll save us plenty of work."
"I'm sorry I set them on fire."
"You didn't mean to," Korulen assured him. "And I think that's the first time you've had a fire manifestation. Unlucky combination - I was distracted but I think it was eleven, fifteen, twenty-nine, and thirty-four."
"Should I switch to working on one of those?" Mallyn asked.
"No, stick with the twelfth. Setting something little on fire is pretty minor compared to some things."
"I could've hurt you."
"I shifted in plenty of time and a cool fire like that can't hurt even a non-red-group dragon," Korulen assured him. "Don't worry about it. I'll go refill the snack tray while you write that all down."
Mallyn wrote, and Korulen came back with sliced apples and almonds and cheese and crackers and little cubes of chocolate fudge. She helped herself to one of the apple slices. When Mallyn was done with the papers, Korulen took a few more sheets out of her bag, and cast a spell that copied the text over. She stashed the backups. "There, now you won't need to do that again even if we have bad luck a second time. Nibble on something, and let's try again."
Mallyn took a stick of cheese and chewed it slowly, then sighed heavily and made handfire again.
He felt something slip past the gap he was watching, like a stutter or a fumble -
And Korulen's eyes flew open and she got halfway through a gasp before she stopped.
"Korulen!" he exclaimed. "Korulen - are you okay - what'd I do -"
"I'm fine," she said at once, blinking slowly and making an awful face. "You did a little mind kamai. I didn't have my shields up because I was watching the gaps."
"What did I do to you?"
"Pushed - memories, I think, or dreams or just flights of imagination. They're none of my business, and I'll go get Corvan to delete them for me as soon as we're done here."
"But - what did you get?" Mallyn asked softly.
Korulen closed her eyes and swallowed. "Uh, there's one where you're standing in a patch of mud drawing birds with a stick. One where you're... plowing a field, with a broken leg, in the rain. And burying - something, or someone. But you don't have to tell me anything about them," she added quickly. "They're none of my business. You didn't mean to show me."
Mallyn shifted in his seat. "I was burying my little brother after my birth father killed him."
"Astareh!" breathed Korulen.
"Huh?" That couldn't be Leraal.
"Oh - sorry - lapsed into Draconic - I used to do it a lot more, right after I got changed. It took some getting used to and occasionally still... Sorry. I'll stick to Leraal."
"What does astareh mean?" Mallyn asked.
"It means - it's an exclamation of sympathetic sorrow," Korulen said. Mallyn had to look through his mental dictionary for help with that definition. "It means I'm so very sorry that you went through that."
"Oh. Thank you."
"Y-you're welcome. I can get Corvan to take the memories out - and he won't even have to look at them -"
"You can keep them," Mallyn said, looking up to meet her eyes. "If they don't bother you too much. I don't mind."
"I..." She didn't seem to know what to do with the offer. "Thank you."
"I don't mind if people know, really. It's just hard to do the telling part."
"That makes sense," Korulen said.
"Do you have to have your shields down, though?" Mallyn asked. "I don't want to hurt you. Or put bad memories in your head."
"I'll talk to Corvan. There might be a more advanced shield I don't know yet that will keep out manifestations but let me see and poke your mind when I need to." She took a deep breath. "Okay, I think it's time to call it a day. I have a date to get ready for."
"A date?" Mallyn asked.
"Yes, my boyfriend's taking me to see 'Red Bird Road'. I'll let you know if it's any good tomorrow," Korulen said with a smile.
"I didn't know you had a boyfriend," Mallyn said.
"Me and Kaylo have been going out for a long time now, but between school and all his research I can imagine why I might not seem to have one - we don't find a lot of time together some weeks." She shrugged. "But I thought I mentioned him, when you asked about the way I got turned into a dragon..."
"I guess I forgot," Mallyn mumbled. Or hadn't integrated the word well enough. It was a compound word, and he was still always tempted to break those into parts instead of looking up the combination.
"It's okay, it doesn't matter for our purposes," Korulen laughed, ruffling Mallyn's hair with one hand. "You'll get plenty of notice if I have a schedule conflict. Rhysel's downstairs with Aar Camlenn and the kids; you can sit with her while you wait for your mom, okay?"
"Okay," said Mallyn, subdued.
"See you tomorrow afternoon," Korulen said, and she teleported away.
Mallyn dropped his forehead onto the worktable.
"How was your lesson?" Rithka asked, grin too broad, eyes too bright.
"Ugh," Mallyn said.
"Did you confess your loooooove to her and get turned down? Dramatically?" Rithka asked.
"No," he grumbled.
"Well, what happened, then?" Rithka demanded, turning into a squirrel to run up his leg, up his shirt, and to her place around his neck. "Tell me tell me tell me."
"She's got a boyfriend."
"Ooh. I think now you have to challenge him to a footrace," Rithka said.
"Yeah! Like in ancient Baverian mythology! A footrace through a wilderness! With no shoes! And only one bottle of water! And you have the goddess of the sun sending wild animals after you all the time to make it interesting! And whoever wins gets to be her boyfriend! I mean Korulen's boyfriend, not the sun goddess's boyfriend."
Mallyn laughed halfheartedly. "I don't think so. She said she'd been dating Kaylo a long time."
Rithka's bobbing fluffy tail stilled. "Kaylo?"
"That's what she said."
"The actual Kaylo?"
"Don't tell me," said Mallyn, "is he famous or something -"
"He's the miracle worker," Rithka said, leaping off Mallyn's neck to gambol about the room. "He cured me and Cenem and Mom and everybody else and now there's no shrens left, and nobody else was ever able to do it, you know Mom tried for hundreds of years but she never did it and he did and now I can fly and Cenem can fly and Mom can fly and so can all the other miracles! That's who he is! I got to meet him once when he was curing us! He's a garnet dragon and he's got to be so, so smart -"
"That spectacular, huh?" groaned Mallyn, slumping over onto his bed.
Rithka leapt onto his chest and nodded energetically. "I don't think you had better steal the miracle worker's girlfriend even if you can beat him in a wilderness footrace with animals chasing you. You should find somebody else to be your girlfriend instead."
"Right," Mallyn said. "I'll just do that then."
"Good," said Rithka obliviously, and then she pricked up her ears in response to some sound too faint for Mallyn to catch, and undulated out of the room.
He stared at the ceiling for a long time before hauling himself off of the bed towards his study materials.
Mallyn sat down at the kitchen table, and watched Ehail continue to peel potatoes. "I just wanted to say thanks for adopting me. Even when I don't like stuff now, it's still a lot better than the stuff I had to not like before."
"You don't have to thank me, sweetheart. You got a family, yes, but we got a wonderful son."
He squirmed but didn't try to contest the compliment. "Well, I thanked you anyway."
Ehail laughed softly. "Well. You're welcome. I'm so glad you're happy here, Mallyn."
"I am. I'm really, really happy here, and you're great and Rithka and Cenem are great and Dad's great. And Nemaar's great. And I don't want to be annoying about having to do spontaneous kamai lessons. It's not your fault."
"It's not yours either. It's not fair that you have to do all this extra work," Ehail said. She rinsed off the potatoes and started quartering them. "But you're doing very well. You work so hard."
"I don't want to be stupid. Or set things on fire."
"You're definitely not stupid." The potatoes went in the pot, the pot went on the stove, and she sat with him. "Did something catch fire today?"
He told her about how he'd had to reconstruct Korulen's notes. "They tell us the order I have to work in, since some stuff is worse to have happen than other stuff. I'm supposed to work on the twelfth hole first. When I've got enough of them that everything my spontaneous kamai does is safe I'll be able to practice at home and I won't have to take up so much of Korulen's time." Against his will, that last clause sounded wistful. Boyfriend or no boyfriend, he liked her.
"I have every confidence that you'll get through this, and sooner than you think," Ehail said.
"Thanks, Mom," Mallyn sighed. He hugged her. "I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart."
Chapter 8: Uen
Ehail found that she had brothers.
This meant that Mallyn had uncles, and an aunt, and cousins, even more than he'd had just from Gyre's sprawling side of the family.
Mallyn felt a perhaps inappropriate gratitude that Ehail hadn't located the extra relatives until Mallyn had learned the rest of them pretty thoroughly. This way he wasn't going to mix up a new uncle with Tennel or a new cousin with Taala.
It was still a fair-sized contingent that came to the house in late Rohel. Ehail's brother - clutchmate - Prathu was a blue opal dragon, who came in a beige-skinned human shape that didn't remotely resemble Ehail's. His husband was an elf, but not the kind that lived around Esmaar - Izaln instead had brown skin and almost-white hair.
The pair had two adult thudias, Feln and Eresti, who looked like their elf father. Feln and Eresti between them had three small elf children who talked over each other so Mallyn didn't hear any of their names. He shook hands with the most energetic of the three anyway when she demanded it. And finally there was a parunia girl from Prathu's previous marriage, Sashpark, whose bright red top looked bizarre with brown skin and color-spangled blue hair.
Mallyn was a little disappointed that his cousins' children were all so much younger than him, although they seemed to take instantly to Rithka and that was good. Sashpark, though, seemed close to his equivalency. "Hi," he said to her, after she'd greeted everyone else.
"Hi," Sashpark said back. "You're Mallyn?"
"Yeah. And you're Sashpark."
"I'm Sashparkphyrnarelprathdennadninkalinnsemiserizeler," she corrected imperiously.
"Do you need me to call you that?" Mallyn asked, frowning.
She laughed. "No! Sashpark is fine. Here, let's sit, my feet hurt, we had pattern chorus today."
"Pattern chorus?" Mallyn said, sitting down next to the chair Sashpark chose.
"March around in patterns, sing songs. It was the only performing arts elective I hadn't done yet so I figured why not, but we have to walk around so much, my feet are killing me. What do you do?"
"Um, I'm still working on Leraal," he said. He omitted and on learning to read my first language. "And I'm working on kamai, too." He was now safe to be around without warding: long steady practice over weeks had gotten the dozen most dangerous gaps closed up, and while he might produce embarrassing illusions, beads, or flocks of starlings, he wouldn't attack anyone's mind or set them on fire or disrupt their heartbeat. The fact that he hadn't made any headway in the last four days also went unmentioned. "I'll go to school for that and wizardry, soon."
Sashpark's attention was diverted to Gyre's wedding bracelet, and Ehail's jewelry too. "Those are super-pretty," she said.
"Thanks," Gyre said. "If you ever want a little something, let me know."
"I like bright things," Sashpark said. "Copper and citrines and rubies and stuff."
Gyre said he'd keep that in mind, and then Rithka and the elf kids came pounding down the stairs, then were diverted to the second table. Ehail started serving fish casserole.
"There's cheese in this, isn't there," Sashpark said, poking at a flake of swordfish.
"Yes," said Ehail.
"Oh well," sighed Sashpark, exaggerated resignation on her face. "I've only had cheese every day of my life for a hundred and fifty-six years, that's all. It probably doesn't build up to toxic levels for at least a hundred and sixty-two."
Mallyn laughed, startled by the sudden sarcasm. Ehail said, "It's not cheese from your father's shop. We ate that a while ago."
"What kind is this?" Prathu asked, but then he cut Ehail off and made a guess instead. He was right.
"Dad," said Sashpark witheringly, "you'd be more likely to identify cheese correctly than to tell the difference between fish and eggplant."
Mallyn could tell that Sashpark wasn't trying to be mean to her dad, but he didn't know how to relate to the conversational style. It wasn't something anyone had ever done with him. Maybe she was really unusual.
The fish casserole was good, even if Sashpark wished it hadn't had cheese in it. Mallyn was allowed two helpings, having left his days of small controlled meals behind him. Then there was lime cream pie.
"Wanna show me your house?" Sashpark asked Mallyn.
"Uh, sure," Mallyn said. "I think you've seen most of the first floor from here, except Mom's office. That's over by the stairs..." He led her towards Ehail's workroom, behind a pack of smaller kids going back upstairs to play. "She's a wizard. This is where she works on... wizard stuff."
"I know she's a wizard. She fixed our oven," Sashpark said. "When she came and visited our apartment a while ago. She's pretty nice."
"She's the best," Mallyn said fervently, starting up the stairs. "And all the bedrooms are up here. Mine's that one -"
"Who did those drawings on your door?" Sashpark asked, trotting forward. "Who are these people with you in this first one?"
There were two pictures on the door - one of Mallyn with Lyrrae and Renn, one of him with Rithka and Cenem and Ehail and Gyre. "I drew them," Mallyn said. "Those are, um, Lyrrae and Renn." Maybe she wouldn't ask who Lyrrae and Renn were and he wouldn't have to explain everything.
"Oooh. They're really good," Sashpark said. "Like photo papers, only in graphite."
"Everyone keeps saying they look like photo papers," Mallyn said. "I just think they look like me and Lyrrae and Renn. Or me and Mom and Dad and Rithka and Cenem."
"Yeah, but photo papers would look like all these people too, if you took photos, and the papers would be flat, like the drawings," Sashpark said, pushing open his door. "Wow, you have lots of pictures up. You can do cover art for my book! Then you'll be a famous artist and people will hire you for money."
"Yeah. You can't read it yet. It's not done. I'm still working on it. But it's going to be really good and I'm going to publish it and write my own translations and it'll be the next Summersdawn!" At Mallyn's blank look she went on, "Summersdawn and the sequels were as seen as the sky by the entire Munine-speaking world starting about five years ago. And the Ertydon translation did pretty well some places too. The author is rich. People name their kids after her characters - there's a baby girl next door to us who's named Asanndra after the protagonist. She doesn't even have to deal with editors any more than she wants to anymore and her new book in a different series is coming out in the winter."
"Oh," Mallyn said. He tried to imagine naming a kid after Kathyne or some other book character he liked. It seemed weird to him.
"I bet there's a Leraal translation," Sashpark said. "I'll tell Dad we should get you that for your birthday so you can know something about world literature. Anyway, I'm writing a book of my own and it's going to be just as good, when I'm done."
"That sounds hard," Mallyn said admiringly.
Sashpark nodded. "I'm writing in Munine to start but I'll do a Leraal translation first thing if you want! Then you can read it. You don't sound that bad at Leraal as far as I can tell."
Mallyn's ears felt warm. "I mix up pronouns sometimes," he said. "I don't know as much vocabulary as I should either."
"Leraal pronouns are easy," Sashpark said. "The one for boys sounds like the word for tall and the one for girls sounds like the word for dress, so you can avoid mixing them up that way, and then you just put them together for mixed company, and the one for cases where you don't know sounds a lot like 'huh?' does in Leraal - hear that? And the one for objects and stuff is then just one little thing to memorize. I don't have a good idea for it."
"Oh," Mallyn said, fixing this tip in his mind. "Thanks."
"I like your drawings," she said. "When my book is ready for you to read it, you should read it so you know what everybody in it is like, and then you can draw the leads on the cover and the war and some landscape in the background. It'll be awesome. Can you do colors too?"
"Yeah," Mallyn said. "It's harder, but I can."
"Excellent," Sashpark said, grinning. "Hey, what's with this big jar of beads?"
"You can have some if you want," Mallyn said, shuffling his feet. "I'm, um, not that great at kamai yet. I keep making those by accident. My sisters can't think of anything else to do with theirs so I'm just collecting them in the jar."
Sashpark dumped out the jar on his bed and started pocketing just the yellow and orange beads. "I'm going to make a necklace," she announced. "Wait, do these even have holes in them?"
"Some of them do. Most of them don't," Mallyn said. "Cenem was gluing them to collages and Rithka was taking them with her to Dad's work and wrapping wires around them to make things, before they got sick of them."
"Maybe I can make it work with wrapping just string. I don't have any wire," Sashpark said. "Oh well. If nothing else I can put them in a vase and put flowers and water in."
Mallyn nodded. "You can have them for whatever."
"Thanks!" She finished filling her pockets with clinking bright glass and scooped the other colors back into their jar. "I know you're adopted, but Dad told me not to ask about your birth family. So tell me about your dad's side of the adopted family. They're Barashin, right? From Barashi."
"Yes," Mallyn said, amused. "They're Barashin and live on Barashi except a few of them who've moved here. My dad has a lot of brothers and sisters, and most of them have kids. It's only Jenner and Tennel who don't yet. But Ryll has a ton and makes up for both of them - she's got seven."
"Phew," Sashpark said. "Even my dad has only had six so far."
"I think Mom and Dad want a whole lot of kids," Mallyn said.
"Like your grandparents, huh," remarked Sashpark.
"Maybe. I'm not sure."
"I took a World Families class that said that Esmaarlanik never adopted kids because they all live in huge houses and the kids can just keep living wherever they are if their parents die or go to jail or anything."
Mallyn shifted from foot to foot and then sat on his chair, across from Sashpark. "Well, maybe they won't adopt any more. Rithka and Cenem are miracles and I'm from Barashi so it's not like they adopted regular Esmaarlan kids. But I'm really glad we got to be in this family. It's a good one. And now Mom's bringing her egg family in, which is great. I wonder when I'll get to meet our grandparents."
"I don't think that'll happen," Sashpark said, chasing a bead out from under his pillow and plunking the refilled jar back on his desk. "Dad said not to mention your mom or any of you to them because they didn't want to acknowledge Aunt Ehail. We can visit you all the time, though."
She was so nonchalant about it.
"They don't want to meet us?" Mallyn asked.
"I don't think they know you exist - I mean, they know Ehail exists, but possibly only in the abstract. You in particular they'd have no way to have learned about. But Dad knows them pretty well and so do I and we think it's best to just -"
"Just let them pretend Mom never hatched?" Mallyn asked, frowning.
"Well, if you want to put it like that, yeah, it would only cause arguments, and you just said you've got loads of family on the other side, and us and Uncle Miklar and his family will all acknowledge you, but Grandma and Grandpa -"
"Are bad people?" Mallyn suggested.
The look on Sashpark's face strongly suggested that he shouldn't have said that.
"Grandma and Grandpa are nice! Not wanting to admit they had a shren doesn't make them bad! They're - you don't even know them! They're my grandparents, how can you -"
"See, just there, 'my grandparents'. They should be both of our grandparents! That's how we're cousins."
"We're cousins because my dad and your mom are clutchmates," Sashpark said coldly.
"Because they have the same parents! Who don't want to know me for an idiotic reason. You and your parents and siblings and Miklar and his family should all shun them like my dad's family shunned my grandma Allera."
"Shunned her?" Sashpark asked, suddenly more bewildered than angry.
"Yeah! She was being horrible to my aunt Rhysel and to my mom, and everyone got sick of it, so they stopped spending time with her and inviting her to things until she changed her mind about them," Mallyn said. "And she did. She missed my parents' wedding -"
"Your family let your grandma miss her son's wedding?" Sashpark asked, horrified. "They didn't even invite her? Because they disagreed with her about something?"
"And it worked! Now she gets along fine with everybody -"
"Because she was bullied into it! That's an awful thing to do. I can't believe anyone would do that. I'm not going to do that to my grandparents," Sashpark insisted.
"Maybe they could be my grandparents too, if you would!"
"I'm not going to have endless fights that won't even help with Grandma and Grandpa just so you can harrass them through me to meet them when they don't want to meet you. I love them and I barely know you, and I don't think they'll ever -"
"You don't even care if they're doing the right thing!" Mallyn cried.
"If I agreed with them I would have stayed home, but that doesn't mean I have to attack them -"
The door was flung open and Rithka trotted in to tackle-hug Sashpark, interrupting the blue opal midsentence.
When Sashpark had blinked several times and then patted Rithka on the head, Rithka let her go, hugged Mallyn too, and then left the room, clicking the door shut behind her.
"That was weird," Sashpark said.
"Yeah," said Mallyn weakly. "She's usually way more talkative."
By unspoken agreement the mutual grandparents were not mentioned again until it was time for Sashpark to leave. They talked about other mutual relatives. They talked about kamai and wizardry. They talked about Esmaar versus Aristan versus Reverni. Sashpark sat for a portrait in colored ink. And then she left.
"I like Sashpark," Mallyn told Ehail, when the visitors had all gone home and Cenem was getting her bedtime story.
"You seemed to get along with her quite well," Ehail said.
"But we had an argument," he confessed. Maybe Rithka had already told.
"About our grandparents," Mallyn explained.
"Oh." Ehail broke eye contact and Mallyn was suddenly ashamed.
"I told her the story about Grandma Allera. Sashpark thought it was awful of everybody to shun her," Mallyn mumbled.
"I don't know if your Grandma Allera would agree that it was awful," said Ehail.
"And when I said maybe I could have your parents as grandparents too, if Sashpark and everybody else they do want to talk to stopped, she got mad at me."
"Sweetheart," murmured Ehail, wrapping Mallyn up in a hug that he gratefully returned. "I don't know enough about them to have any idea if they'd react the same way - and - it's not quite the same thing in the first place - and -"
"Sashpark cares more about not having to fight with her grandparents than about whether they're doing what's right," muttered Mallyn.
"Sashpark only has one set of grandparents left, Mallyn," Ehail said. "Her other father was a human. His parents are long gone by now. If we leave everything how it is, you and Sashpark both get one set of grandparents. If she shuns them, she doesn't get any."
"She didn't say that." He swallowed. "She just said it would be awful to shun her grandparents. But they should be ours. That's how we're cousins!"
"I'm sorry it didn't work out that way, sweetheart," Ehail said, squeezing tighter. "I wish I could give you the usual number of grandparents. But my parents decided a long time ago that they didn't want the job, and they haven't changed their minds."
"Like Rithka's?" Mallyn asked, checking to see if she was around. Maybe she'd hurtle out of nowhere and hug him again. Otherwise he might have to go and find her.
"I suppose," Ehail answered softly. "But sweetheart, at least now you get three new uncles, a new aunt, and plenty of new cousins. You did say you liked Sashpark."
"She likes my drawings, and she had a good idea for how to remember the rule about pronouns in Leraal, and except about her grandparents she's nice. And she's funny." Mallyn gulped. "But..."
"You're allowed to like people even if they do one or two things you don't like very much," Ehail said.
Mallyn nodded, more because he didn't want to disagree with Ehail than because he understood why that could be. "When do we meet Uncle Miklar and Aunt Tialinh and their babies?" he asked. Maybe they would be better.
"Next week," said Ehail.
Mallyn hugged his mother tighter. Then he ran off to find Rithka, who was sitting in her room with her model scoots.
He picked her up and sat her on his lap, and she wound her arms around his chest.
"Hugs help even when they don't," Rithka observed.
"Yeah," Mallyn said. "Heh. Draconic for hugs?"
"Uen," said Rithka. "They might be really nice people otherwise. Grandma Allera is nice. She's not a basically awful person."
"She might as well have been until she changed, I think."
Rithka sighed into his shirt.
Mallyn dumped another handful of beads into his jar. "This isn't working," he said. "I'm not dangerous anymore, but I haven't stopped up one more gap since then! Maybe I should just stop here and deal with making beads and illusion fireworks every time I sneeze forever."
"Mallyn," admonished Korulen. "Rhysel said you'd likely hit a plateau. She did too, and she got all her gaps eventually, and now she's a Master kama. You've only been stalled for a few days -"
"Almost a week!"
"Five days. You were going very quickly before, and now you're going a little slower, that's all. That's a reason to work harder, not to give up."
Mallyn put his forehead on the table. It was cold, perhaps because it was made of stone, perhaps because he'd snowed two inches on his last attempt. "But I don't know what I'm doing wrong."
"Besides complaining when you could be practicing?" Korulen asked archly.
He looked up at her and frowned. "I'm sorry, I just... I'm sorry."
"Sit up," she said, slapping her hands down onto the table. "Let's try something a little different, since you're frustrated. We're working on adding gap number one, but you've only known how to block all the dangerous holes for a few days; maybe you're afraid to lose hold of them if you concentrate. So, as long as we're here and I'm warded and Rhysel's just downstairs if we need her, let all the ones you've been blocking open and just focus on the first gap."
"But then something awful might happen -"
"I'm safe," Korulen said. "Rhysel can fix anything that goes wrong. Go on now."
It was hard to drop his attention to the riskier gaps, but he did his best, and focused hard on the first. He tried not to worry that something would happen that could get around or through Korulen's ward, or even scare her. When he thought he'd relaxed in the right places and that nothing would get past him on the first gap, he closed his eyes and conjured a ball of handfire.
He felt very itchy.
"Spontaneous kyma never hurt ourselves, do we? Not seriously?" he tried to say, but for some reason all he managed was a series of chattery squeaks.
"Mallyn?" said Korulen slowly.
Mallyn was really itchy. He reached up to scratch his head. Something didn't feel right...
"Mallyn, that's you, right?"
"What happened?" he failed to say. He only heard squeaks.
He opened his eyes. Korulen appeared to have multiplied several times in height. The room was huge. He couldn't even see the top of the table.
"Mallyn, you turned into a... a weasel, or something," said Korulen.
Mallyn tried and failed to shriek, "What?" But his squeaking did become louder and shriller.
"Uh," Korulen said. "I guess you can't talk." <Think back at me,> she sent. <I can do all the magic for a two-way conversation.>
<I turned into a weasel?!>
<Well, I don't know if you're a weasel specifically, but you look like one,> Korulen sent. <I'm going to pick you up and take you to Rhysel. I don't know how you'd handle the stairs.>
<I itch everywhere!> complained Mallyn.
Korulen held out her hand, and he walked awkwardly onto her arm, unable to coordinate his feet other than by moving them one at a time. She scratched the back of his neck with her other hand, which didn't help. <I think it's the fur,> he concluded.
<We'll de-fur you soon enough,> promised Korulen. "Rhysel!"
"What is it?" called Rhysel's voice.
"Mallyn turned himself into something like a weasel!"
Korulen got to the bottom of the stairs and displayed Mallyn to his aunt. Mallyn squeaked unhappily.
"Oh gods," exclaimed Rhysel.
"He can't talk," added Korulen.
"No, of course he can't. I think he's a mink," Rhysel added.
Mallyn thought as hard as he could, <It doesn't matter what I've turned into! I'm supposed to be an elf!>
Korulen got that, and forwarded it to Rhysel.
"Of course, of course," soothed Rhysel. "But I don't - I mean, I could change your shape with proxic kamai, but I've never worked on anything this comprehensive. I think I'd better get Bryn."
Mallyn flattened himself against Korulen's arm, which she was now holding in front of her belly so he wouldn't fall. <You can't fix it?!>
"If I were the only Master around, I'd probably be able to," Rhysel reassured him on her way to the transfer point. "But as long as Bryn's available it would be best to try her."
<I itch!> wailed Mallyn with an accompanying squeak of dismay as Rhysel disappeared.
"She'll be back soon," Korulen said. "I'll see if I can find something scratchy for you."
Korulen put him on the kitchen table. Tekaal was sitting there, with a plate of grilled tomatoes and bacon, though he hadn't said anything throughout the proceedings.
<Hi, Uncle Tekaal,> Mallyn sent sheepishly.
Tekaal blinked at him, unflappable. <Hello.>
"Aar Camlenn, can you think of anything that would be good for an itchy mink?" Korulen called.
"Nothing comes to mind," replied Tekaal. "I suppose..." He touched the table and the part of it that Mallyn was sitting on became rougher. Mallyn rolled around on it as best he could; it didn't help. <Thanks,> he said anyway.
Rhysel was back after a few degrees with Bryn Rhylenn, who Mallyn had never met but knew to be one of the Binaaralav teachers. She was an elf as well - or maybe not 'as well', given Mallyn's predicament, but she was an elf. She was old enough to look old, which put her at nearly a thousand years of age. "Well, well. You've gotten yourself into a mess," she remarked to Mallyn.
<Help!> he pleaded, righting himself on all four feet again.
"If you were my apprentice, I'd make you work it out for yourself," sighed Bryn. "Everyone wants quick solutions..."
"Bryn, he can't just stay a mink for the next few weeks," Rhysel said, exasperated.
"He has things to do," put in Korulen.
"All of which are more important than a solid, honestly-won foundation of kamai, I suppose? Very well. Here, child," Bryn said, sitting down carefully at the table and holding out a hand.
Mallyn scampered forward. Bryn tapped his forehead with one forefinger. "There. See how far you can get with that."
"What'd you give him?" Korulen asked.
"Enough skill to funnel his outbursts through the right channels so he'll get a shapeshifting result each time. With decent mental discipline he should be able to aim that at his own form, as I presume he knows it," said Bryn.
<But what if I just turn into something else?> asked Mallyn.
"Well," said Bryn. "In that case you'll need to try again. If you truly can't manage the trick after a reasonable amount of time -"
"Ten tries," said Rhysel firmly.
Bryn shrugged. "Very well. Ten tries, and if you still aren't yourself, I'll go ahead and push to you complete shapeshifting knowledge, at the expense of every attempt you make in the future to learn wild kamai the correct way, since your aunt seems to consider your momentary inconvenience such a high priority."
"Try handfire," said Korulen coaxingly. "You want the spontaneous reaction to go out holes four, nine, thirty-six, and thirty-eight, and now you can do that without having to actually block the rest."
Mallyn tried, and changed, but not into an elf. The itching went away, so probably he wasn't furry.
"Frog," supplied Korulen.
He tried the requisite ten times: sparrow, bee, platypus, squid (he had to change very quickly out of that one), tiger, bluejay, squirrel, swan, and finally Korulen.
"Augh!" he and Korulen cried at the same time.
"Most likely," remarked Bryn, "whatever is so important for you to accomplish can be done in her form as well as -"
"Bryn!" exclaimed Korulen.
"Very well, very well," sighed Bryn, and she touched Mallyn-in-Korulen's-form's forhead again. "There you are, child. I trust I'm needed for nothing else?"
"That should be it, assuming he can shapeshift to his choice of forms at will now," Rhysel said. "Mallyn?"
Mallyn closed his eyes again and tried.
When he opened his eyes, Bryn had gone, and he was himself once more.
He inhaled as deeply as he could and flopped backwards onto the table.
Chapter 9: Talhainet
"So now you can turn into anything," Rithka summarized.
"Well, yeah, but shapeshifting's the only thing I can do without a problem," Mallyn said. "Any other kamai will still make beads or rain or whatever."
"But you can turn into anything!"
"Not quite actually," Mallyn said. "Rhysel says I shouldn't try to turn into, say, a dragon, because dragons need dragon magic and I don't have any and I could die. I could mess with my shape in smaller steps until I looked pretty much like one though. Or I could be a Barashin dragon. But I don't -"
"Be a squirrel!" commanded Rithka. "We can be squirrels." She shifted first, and twitched her tail with anticipation.
"But I can't talk if I'm something that can't normally talk!" exclaimed Mallyn. "And I don't like not being shaped like myself. It feels weird. And fur itches like crazy no matter what I do."
"Fur doesn't itch, you're silly," Rithka said, grooming her whiskers primly. "Come on! We can be squirrels!"
"But I don't like being a squirrel," Mallyn said.
"Please please please please please -"
"After I get my kamai under control and can learn mindspeech so I can still talk, maybe -"
"That could take forever!"
"Learning to shapeshift was supposed to take forever. I only know how to do it now because I had to cheat to fix an accident," Mallyn muttered.
"But now you could be a squirrel with me and we could climb trees and race with legs that are the same length instead of you being taller and we can build squirrel obstacle courses for each other and then run them -"
"Rithka," said Mallyn. "I'm a kama, not a - you. I can barely move in a new form. I can sort of guess but mostly it feels like I'm horribly deformed instead of like I'm supposed to be a squirrel, or whatever. I'm not going to be any good at climbing or running or obstacle-course-ing. At least not without a lot of practice, and practice'd be uncomfortable and itchy."
"Be a sparrow?" Rithka tried, changing to that form herself. "Sparrows don't have fur. So you won't itch."
Mallyn thought this was probably the best compromise he could get without listening to Rithka beg him for a week. He sighed and turned into a sparrow. He couldn't really tell how he was doing it. He just did it. Whether that was a normal side effect of having knowledge pushed to him, or something Bryn had done so he couldn't "cheat" any further, he wasn't sure.
Rithka squealed with delight. "Fly with meeee!" she demanded, spreading her wings and starting a lap around the room. "C'mon!"
Mallyn didn't feel like he could fly any more than he did when he was elf shaped. He managed to unfold a wing, and then extrapolate to the other wing, but "flapping" eluded him.
"Why aren't you flying?" Rithka asked, landing near him on his bed and hopping closer. "Oh right, you can't talk. I guess I should teach you to fly!" She seemeed excessively excited about this prospect. "Okay! You have to get your wings spread out - both of them - wider - and then -" She took off again. "Like that! Do that!"
Her wings had gone far too quickly for Mallyn to learn anything useful about what "that" was. He just looked at her.
"Mal-lyyyyn, come onnnnn."
"Did you shapeshift wrong? Because a grown up sparrow can totally fly!" Rithka said. "That's like what they're for."
Mallyn tweeted again. If she kept asking him questions he was going to shift back to answer them and then it'd be much harder for her to talk him into being a sparrow with her again.
"Okay, just try flapping your wings," Rithka says. "And then I can see what you're doing wrong."
After prolonged trial and error, Rithka got him into the air, and he promptly crashed into his desk chair.
"Silly Mallyn," she said. "Are you okay?"
He couldn't really nod. He made an approximation of the gesture, bobbing his head up and down along with much of his body.
"Okay, so you need to know how to steer," she decided. "Then you can practice that and if you're going to crash you can crash on something soft like your pillow. And then I can teach you to land. Does that sound good? I think so!"
Rithka wasn't a very good teacher, but she was enthusiastic about her subject, and showed him over and over again, trying to fly as slowly as she could while she showed him how to execute turns and tried to explain what she was doing.
Mallyn got off the floor, made it to his bed, crashed, and then tried a series of short hops from headboard to foot and back before attempting to implement dubious steering advice, but once he had the very basics of takeoff, landing, and control midflight down, he could improve via practice instead of by listening to his sister. She was just as happy either way, and shadowed him on his tentative flights before turning into a girl, opening the window, and flying away. "Follow meeeeee!" she hollered.
Mallyn attempted a birdy little sigh and went out the window after her.
Mallyn found a letter on his desk the next morning. He wasn't sure how letters worked in Elcenia, even still - he never saw couriers wandering the neighborhood. Perhaps it was governed by magic like almost everything else.
At any rate, there was his name on the envelope, so he opened it. It was from Sashpark, who'd written a brief note in Leraal indicating that he could come visit her during the next day or two days after that if he liked. The letter went on that she had the impression that he hadn't gotten to see that much of Elcenia and she'd be willing to show him her city. Mallyn folded the letter and put it in his pocket, unsure what to reply or how to send an answer even if he had one.
Ehail's older brother Miklar and his wife and their kids all came to visit later in the afternoon. Miklar's humanoid form wasn't a human, it was a halfling - and it was blue. Mallyn had never seen a blue-skinned person. He didn't think it could be dragon coloring, because Miklar was a silver dragon like his sister and the little girls he brought with him. Halflings actually had to come in blue. How peculiar.
The babies were exactly alike, silver and sinuous and small. They spoke in invariable unison and went jointly by "Nivah and Aji" rather than accepting individual names. They were cute, but not as interesting to talk to as Sashpark. Mallyn agreed to escort them, Cenem, and Rithka to Rhysel's mostly because the things the adults were talking about - water treatment and imports - seemed boring.
"You should be something small to ride me so I can go faster," Rithka said. "I guess you don't have to fly if you don't want to 'cause you're bad at it, but you should at least be small."
"Like what?" Mallyn asked. "It has to be something without fur, that can hang on to you."
Rithka thought this over. "A halfling?" she said. "And those can talk, too."
Mallyn figured that would be okay. He based the change more on Miklar's wife Tialinh than on Miklar's own halfling form, because he wasn't sure how he felt about being blue, and climbed on.
"Hee, you're a mini-Mallyn," giggled Rithka. "You kept your face. Except the ears."
"If I kept the ears the same I wouldn't be a halfling," Mallyn said as she took off. Cenem and the twins flew after them too.
The whole visit was pretty cursory. Nivah and Aji wanted to look at Rhysel's garden, but lost interest after a brief peek at the roses. Mallyn had time to say hi to Rhysel, and ask if she'd be willing to transport him to Reverni and back should he wish to visit Sashpark. She said that travel by transfer point was quick enough that it would be fine, as long as he didn't ask right in the middle of a class.
The four dragons plus Mallyn flew back, and found Miklar and Tialinh just about ready to leave. Mallyn shapeshifted back into his normal form and watched them go. They'd been friendly enough even if they didn't have much in common with him.
So both of Ehail's brothers were decent people. And Ehail herself was just wonderful. Mallyn knew - very well - that people could be lousy and have at least three fine kids... but Sashpark spoke highly of their grandparents too. Mallyn wondered if no one had explained it to them; maybe everyone was just assuming that they'd be terrible about Ehail. Maybe they were okay, like Sashpark said, and they'd behave decently if someone gave them a chance.
Maybe he could get Sashpark to help if he found another way to explain it to her.
Ehail said Mallyn could take the trip to Lypan when he asked, so after he was through with his brief, unproductive lesson with Korulen he went to Rhysel's for a lift to Reverni. Tekaal cast a translation spell for him when he remembered he'd need one at the last tick, and Rhysel brought him to a transfer point at the university there where she'd allowed a kamai program. "Song your mother when you're ready to come back," Rhysel said. "She'll be able to leave the other kids with Gyre soon and she can teleport here and get you." And with that, Rhysel disappeared from the transfer point.
"Now I have to find Sashpark's house," Mallyn muttered.
Some kind of crossing guard or Watch member or equivalent heard him say that, and offered to escort him. She looked at the address Mallyn had written down and showed him the whole way there, asking on the way what his name was and what he was doing in Lypan. Mallyn wasn't sure why she was so curious about him, but he answered her questions - she was being helpful, after all - and bade her a polite goodbye when they reached Prathu's cheese shop.
Sashpark was sitting behind the shop counter, wrapping cheese in glass paper and writing what Mallyn supposed were cheese names or prices on it - the translation spell didn't work on writing. "Hi, Mallyn!" she said. "I wasn't sure if you were going to come so Dad made me stop waiting and start helping wrap cheese."
"You can go," said the shopkeeper standing at the till. "Thanks for helping out."
"C'mon, you can see our apartment," Sashpark said.
Mallyn let her haul him by the hand up the stairs and point everything out. "We've only lived here for about ten years," she said. "We keep moving - ourselves and the shop so we're always right by it. When I was little we had a place on Westlake, and when my brothers and sister were all moved out we got a smaller place in the Rose District, and then the district was rezoned so we moved to Potato and then Dad met Stepdad and we moved to Larch when they had the twins and for a while Stepdad's sister lived with us too but then she got the job up in -"
"Why are the districts called that?" Mallyn asked, as she pulled him into her room and sat him down on a giant pouf that appeared to be full of rice or something. She sat on her bed, with its brightly printed comforter, and swung her legs.
"Uh, let me think, I learned this," said Sashpark. "Yeah, I did, now I remember! It was the Third Green King, before the Revolution of the People's Will. He named parts of the city after plants he liked. Lypan wasn't even the capital then, Toann was. Toann has plant districts too but people don't use them as much since they've got grid streets. I went there for a school trip once."
"I guess all that school they make you sit through is good for something?" Mallyn said.
"I guess. But sometimes they change the understood version of history on me and then I'm at a disadvantage! Like, they used to call the Revolution of the People's Will something else that I forget now, but it took me a while to unlearn it. And also, I think people used to be kind of okay with the Third Green King and just not like the First Purple King that much? The First Purple King was the one the revolution was about. But now it seems like we're not supposed to like any of the kings or the three queens we had either except for the Mad White Queen was a puppet of her vizier so it's him who was bad...? I barely pay attention in history anymore."
"Wait, they change it? How does that make sense? Only one thing can have happened, right?" Mallyn said.
She shrugged. "I guess historians are learning stuff? With better scries? I don't really care, the Third Green King is dead. But there's a girl in my class who says she's descended from the Red Kings so if their dynasty wasn't over she'd be a princess. Except that doesn't make sense, because a lot of things would have had to be different for the Red Dynasty to still be running Reverni, right? And I bet if her mom was a royal consort she wouldn't have married a transcriptionist. That's what her dad does."
"You have," Mallyn said, "a lot of facts memorized."
She grinned. "You will too, I bet, when you're my age. I mean, the alternative would look like this: 'Clouds and rainbows! When did it get to be the year 11253?'"
"Clouds and rainbows?" Mallyn asked. Sashpark was doing most of the work of the conversation; it was relaxing.
"It's an expression in Munine about being surprised. I don't know why. Clouds and rainbows are pretty ordinary. It should be, I don't know, 'floating rocks and talking butterflies!' instead."
"I've never seen either of those," Mallyn agreed. "I've seen about a billion clouds and some rainbows too."
"There you go. I'm right. I'm going to start saying the rocks and butterflies thing when I'm surprised. I like butterflies. I didn't learn to be one, because I couldn't talk if I was a butterfly, but I can turn into a fairy. They can talk. Want to see?"
Sashpark got up, spun, and became a fairy mid-spin, hovering where her head had been. She was about three inches tall from head to toe, but she had enormous, blue-sparkly wings that topped her head by another couple of inches. "Like so," she said, waving two of four arms.
"You have pretty wings," Mallyn said.
"Yes, I do," Sashpark agreed. She looked like a bug, more than like any fairy Mallyn had ever seen.
"Barashin fairies don't look like that," he said. "They look more like halflings with bird wings."
"Why use the same word, then?" Sashpark asked.
"Mom says it's a glitch in the translation spell and it stuck."
"Huh. So, what's up with you lately?" she asked. "Are you doing exciting things?"
"Uh. Still working on vocabulary; I'm trying to practice with more specific color words than the basic ten Leraal has, now, but you don't have to talk more about dead kings or anything if you don't want to, since I got a translation spell before I came here to be able to get around. I can basically read books that people my equivalency are supposed to be able to now, though. I'm still working on kamai stuff. I made a really bad mistake and to get out of it I learned - sort of - to shapeshift. And -"
"You can shapeshift?" Sashpark asked with interest.
Mallyn scrunched his eyes shut. "Yeah. But I don't like it much. It's uncomfortable and I'm no good at moving around in bodies that aren't at least basically like mine."
"Oh." She made a thoughtful face, then shrugged. "I was going to suggest you be a fairy, too, and come hang out with me at a fairy colony I visit sometimes in Blue Park, but if you don't want to that's fine."
"What else do you do?" Mallyn asked. "Besides school and the cheese shop and visiting fairies."
"And writing my stories," Sashpark reminded him. "I read a lot, too. And I sometimes go to the circle dance at the place around the corner, and every few years I have a friend who's worth getting close to even though they'll outgrow me and then I do stuff with them but I don't right now. And I go to the graveyard kind of a lot. And right now I'm kind of into competitive flying, I mean for dragons not skyfolk or anything - I mean, I don't participate, I'm not that good, but when there are meets around here I go and watch. Once I volunteered to staff the beverage table. I kept spilling things so I didn't do that again."
"You don't usually have friends?" Mallyn asked. He'd gotten the impression that people in general had them. Rithka got along great with the kids on her sports teams, Cenem played with the littler neighbor kids, Gyre kept in touch with most of his old co-prentices, Ehail had been friends with Rhysel even before they'd been related. Mallyn assumed he'd make some friends once he was in school.
"No," Sashpark said. "I mean, I'm not unpopular particularly. I sit with people at study hour and sometimes I walk partway home for lunch with this girl from my class on Our Economy. But whenever I make a friend in two or three or four years - maybe a little more if she's an elf, but those aren't as common around here - she's not interested in me anymore because I'm this kid still held back in the Tenth Form."
"Always a she?" Mallyn asked.
"Usually, I guess, it's a little less common for girls and guys to be friends with each other," said Sashpark. "I had a friend who was a guy for a little bit when I was a hundred and twelve. He'd be, like, old now. But I sort of want a boyfriend. I mean, boyfriends would have the same problem, but just to practice, you know?"
"I sort of want a girlfriend," Mallyn said, thinking of Korulen.
There was a brief silence, and then Sashpark said, "Is it just me, or are these fixable problems?"
Mallyn stared at her. "Huh?"
"You wanting a girlfriend and me wanting a boyfriend. Not forever, obviously, you'll outgrow me and -"
"And we're cousins."
"Yes, actually! My mom and your dad are siblings," Mallyn said. Any interpretation of the universe which had him more connected to a nightmare he'd left behind in Barashi than to Ehail was a wrong interpretation.
"You know what I mean! She's not your biological mom so we aren't biological cousins. Even if we were, I'm a parunia, but we're not so even that doesn't matter. It's not like we grew up together, either. And it'd only be temporary so we don't make fools of ourselves later when we have regular boyfriends or girlfriends."
Mallyn shifted in his chair. Korulen was taken, it wasn't like Sashpark was asking him to marry her, and he did want to avoid having no idea what he was doing with a serious girlfriend. Such as Korulen if she ever broke up with Kaylo. "Maybe," he said.
"We can go out for chilled cream," she suggested. "I'll buy. I bet you don't have any Revernian money."
Chilled cream sounded good, too.
"Okay," Mallyn said. "Heh, is there a word for this? What we're doing? The practice relationship thing."
"What, in Draconic?" Sasphark sprang to her feet and grabbed his hand again, but this time she laced their fingers together as she pulled him out of the apartment and up the street. "There's the best chilled cream place right around the corner. They give out huge servings and they'll put maple crystals on it for free if you want."
"Wow," Mallyn said. "Yeah, in Draconic, doesn't it have words for everything?"
"Talhainet?" Sashpark suggested.
The shop was a big, clean place with little tables and uncomfortably tiny chairs. Sashpark read aloud the flavor names to Mallyn. They sounded weird to him - "crystallized ginger" and "corn" and "elderberry". Sashpark steered him to the mint chocolate and he took the advice. She got a dish of apple flavor for herself, but before tasting it stole a spoonful of Mallyn's.
"Is that why you told me to get this one? You wanted both?" Mallyn asked, amused.
"Yes," Sashpark said unabashedly. "You can taste mine too if you want."
Mallyn did. He liked his better. "So, if we're going to date," he said. "What do we do besides go out for chilled cream?"
"I'm really not sure," Sashpark said. "I know what people do when they're the protagonists of romance novels, but I don't think we're those."
"Well, it could be a starting point."
"In that case, I think you have to get into a huge fight with my dad, and I have to sneak out of the house to see you, and then you have to get kidnapped by the bad guy who wants to marry me against my will, and then I have to rescue you, and then I get hurt while I do that and you have to rush me to a light and maybe also have a spiritual awakening, and then we reconcile with my dad and then together defeat the bad guy and then get married."
Mallyn blinked. "You're right, that doesn't sound like a plan at all."
"I know. So maybe we'll just eat lots of chilled cream," she said, drinking the melted dregs of her serving.
"I could get used to that." His cupful was already gone.
Mallyn sang for Ehail to come get him angles later, having let Sashpark walk him all over the city and show him the Blue Park and the University of Lypan and the Twin Cathedrals and the Artists' Row. Ehail teleported to Prathu's apartment, politely greeted her brother and niece, and then teleported Mallyn home and served him dinner. He was apparently a few degrees late for it; Rithka was half done with hers.
"Did you have a good time with Sashpark?" Ehail asked.
"Yes," Mallyn replied. And then, deciding he might as well explain right away, he added, "Um, she decided we should date."
"What?" Gyre said.
"Really?" said Ehail.
"Son, Sashpark is your cousin," Gyre said, sounding concerned.
"That's what I said!" Mallyn exclaimed. "She said it's not like regular cousins because I'm adopted and she's a parunia and we didn't grow up together and we aren't going to get married or anything. It's just sort of practice." He hesitated, wondering if there were rules about this that he'd run up against because he was the highest equivalency kid in the family. "Is it okay?"
"You're a little young to be dating, aren't you?" Ehail asked, chewing her lip. But not in a way that made it sound like there was a rule.
"I won't let it get in the way of any of my other stuff," Mallyn promised. "I think I'll be ready to go to school in Marahel." Optimistic, considering his plateau, but maybe. "I'll still draw and play with Rithka and Cenem and study, and I'll go back to kebel when I can stop raining all the time."
"What does Sashpark being a parunia have to do with anything?" Gyre asked.
"Nothing really, since Mallyn is adopted," Ehail said, "but supposedly - I haven't looked closely into the research on this - a lot of her genetics come out of nowhere and she's literally less related to me than Feln or Eresti are. I believe Reverni's consanguinity laws actually refer to that sort of thing, which may be why she mentioned it... Gyre, do you think this needs to be disallowed?"
"It's just for practice," Mallyn put in. "So I don't look stupid when I - have a regular girlfriend, later. If I do."
Gyre looked puzzled, but he shrugged. "Up to you, Ehail."
"And as long as you can keep everything you need to do with your time under control, I'll allow it," Ehail said.
"Thanks," said Mallyn, smiling, and he coiled some noodles around his fork. Rithka, inevitably, started to pester him about how he had a giiiiiirlfriend and demanded to know whether he had kiiiiiiissed her.
(He hadn't, but he tried to think of the least embarrassing way to answer that question again in the future, in case that changed.)
Chapter 10: Ekua
Mallyn began making progress at kamai again. When he managed to plug one of the holes that was involved in producing beads, Rithka made a show of distress, but she had pounds of them already sorted and unused; by the time she ran out he would be able make more for her on purpose. And they'd all have holes in them. When he managed to stop the indoor weather, Ehail put away her book with the drying and waterproofing spells in it, and there were somewhat fewer makeshift paperweights in use around the house.
He was working on the last gap. It was harder than any of the previous ones. Korulen thought he just wasn't motivated - magic escaping through that hole couldn't do anything on its own besides drain him, so no one else could tell if he left it open. Mallyn felt like he was working as hard as ever, but if he bought her theory, it would be because he didn't want to stop having an excuse to see her.
He told Sashpark about Korulen, feeling that it was only fair.
"I have a crush on my kamai tutor," he said. "It's not going to go anywhere - she's got a boyfriend, I don't think she's interested in me at all, I'm just her teacher's nephew she's helping. She might even be getting paid, I'm not sure. But it seemed like you should know about that."
"It's fine with me," yawned Sashpark. She picked up his hand where it was resting on her bed between them and inspected it. "Since we're only practicing anyway. What is the appeal supposed to be of holding hands? This is just a hand. It's not even gross and cool like it would be if it wasn't attached to you. I don't go around holding things that I have around that are equally interesting, like my umbrella, for no reason."
"It could keep us from losing each other in a crowd," he suggested. "I think that's why Mom wants me to hold her hand when we have to go shopping."
"Your mom makes you hold her hand when you go shopping?" repeated Sashpark, eyebrow raised.
"You're how old again?"
"It's so I don't get lost!"
"You couldn't find your silver-haired mom again in a crowd of elves and humans?"
"You can shapeshift," Sashpark remarked. "In an emergency you could get a good view that way."
"I couldn't before."
She became tired of holding his hand and put it back down. "You could song her."
"She didn't want to lose me in the first place, I think. Besides, I see long strings of family members all holding hands walking around together all the time, kids older than me even. Maybe it would be weird just in Reverni?"
Sashpark made a dismissive noise. "They didn't mention anything like that in my class on families around the world."
"Uh, maybe they didn't have time to cover everything?" Mallyn suggested. "If they were trying to do the whole world."
"It wasn't really the whole world. We did Esmaar and Imilaat and Nirlan and Ertydo and Linnip and Mekand and Larotia and Rannde and Egeria." She made a fleeting face when she named the last country.
"Is something wrong with Egeria?" Mallyn asked.
"They don't like dragons. We're not allowed in their country without official government escorts the whole time and if we split up from them we can get arrested. Thudias need escorts too, but they don't have to be Egerian employees, they can just be anyone who's not a dragon or a thudia."
"That's... that's pretty horrible," said Mallyn. "Why is it like that?"
"You think they have a reason?" Sashpark asked, scowling.
"It doesn't sound random... I mean, dragons are great, so they'd have to be thinking something weird. If you don't know, then -"
"There isn't such a thing as a good enough reason to be like that," Sashpark said firmly. "I went there once, when I was fifteen."
"...Why? Wouldn't you want to stay far away if they're awful to you...?"
"I would!" exclaimed Sashpark. "I was fifteen! I was a baby! I didn't get to decide to stay home."
"How did that happen?"
"It's a long story," she mumbled. "Do you really want to hear it?"
"Yeah. If you don't mind telling me," Mallyn added hastily. "You don't have to if you don't want."
Sashpark looked away. "My other grandma," she said. "My papa's mama. Gramma Gia. She was Egerian but she moved here and married my grandpa Onnarn. She didn't like my dad. And she hated me."
Mallyn nodded slowly.
"But she pretended, in front of my papa and Dad. So they thought she was just a crotchety old lady but grandmotherly love won out." Sashpark swallowed. "I don't blame them. I never told them a thing till I was fifty. She... told me never to say anything about how she locked me in the closet when me and my brothers and sister stayed with her - or how she called me that lizard thing when Papa couldn't hear - or how she said I should stop complaining about my cousin hitting me because I had scales so it couldn't hurt - or how she promised Papa she'd look out for me when she took us all four to Egeria when I was fifteen to learn about our heritage and instead she gave me to the escort and said I could learn about where dragons belonged and the escort kept me in a cage the whole week." She rubbed at her eye.
Mallyn stared at her.
"Gramma Gia said that if I did say anything, my papa would realize how wrong it had been to marry a dragon, and my parents would get divorced, and Papa would never want to see me again and I'd never see my sister and brothers either." She said Gramma Gia like it was all one word, all one syllable, that poured out to refer to its subject without indicating any affection or familiarity. It wasn't quite Mallyn's emphatic nameless pronouns, but it was familiar.
Mallyn opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
"And when I was fifty, she died," Sashpark said flatly. "And then she couldn't do anything to me or get anybody divorced, and I told... and my papa wouldn't even go to her funeral or let my brothers and sister go."
"Good," said Mallyn fiercely.
"No," Sashpark said. "It wasn't good. My papa lost his mom. He loved her up until the angle after she died, they had a fine relationship for decades and decades that mattered, and then he wouldn't go to her funeral. But him going to her funeral wouldn't've hurt me. She was dead. I was fine. He could've gone and I wouldn't have cared. Maybe it would've been okay if I'd said something sooner, if he'd had a huge fight with her and then didn't care about her anymore and then years and years went by and then she died, but that's not what happened. And he should have let the others go if they wanted. They were a little scared of her - she got mad if they shifted out of their human forms, but never as mad as she got at me - but she was nicer to them and maybe they liked her so they should've gotten to decide."
"She hurt you, and he loved you," Mallyn said. "Of course he wouldn't want to go after finding out. Why didn't your siblings say anything? They were older equivalencies than you, they would have been about our maturity level by the time you were fifteen, wouldn't they?"
"I asked Linnde once," Sashpark said softly. "After, long after. And she said she was ashamed that she'd never said anything but since I was never injured, she let it be, since we weren't there that often and she was worried about the same thing, that our parents would get divorced. And after I was fifteen my parents stopped putting me with Gramma Gia anyway, even in emergencies, because I came back from the trip shaky and couldn't sleep for a month."
"I'm sorry," Mallyn whispered.
She didn't react to that at all. "They didn't know exactly what'd happened, but thought maybe she was senile or something and shouldn't be looking after kids. And Vernn was old enough to babysit by then anyway." She paused. "He always did. Once he canceled a business trip to watch me when it looked like there wasn't going to be anyone else but him and Gramma Gia. Maybe that's what he did instead of telling. Anyway - once I wasn't around Gramma Gia alone anymore, Linnde thought it was okay to let it be. She was like Dad. She didn't like drama, confrontation, any of that."
"Your family should've taken better care of you," Mallyn began.
"If you say one thing against my papa or my sister or my brothers I might hit you," Sashpark snapped.
Mallyn flinched away from her.
"I wouldn't even mean to," Sashpark said. "I miss them. They were good. I get mad when people say bad things about them. My papa put me in counseling with a free service a Revision Salvationist church offered even to unbelievers, and the counselor told me I must be very angry at my parents for not protecting me, and I bit him and never went back. Gramma Gia did what she did and that's not their fault."
"Don't," Mallyn said, "threaten to hit me. I don't want to make you upset, but don't threaten to hit me. You can just tell me what I shouldn't do and then say that if I do it you'll be mad."
"Fine." Sashpark flounced backwards onto her bed and tucked her hands under her back. "I won't. Don't blame my papa or my siblings for anything Gramma Gia did."
"Someone should've done something, though," he pressed. "Maybe someone else."
"What, have the government step in like for you? This was before lie detection spells were good enough to get used all the time by the cops, Mallyn. They had to ask more questions of more people and they were sometimes wrong. Getting them involved would've been worse for everybody. Probably even me."
Mallyn fell silent.
"They didn't even leave us with her that often," Sashpark said. "There was the trip to Egeria, and there were a handful of times before that when they had plans and then Grandma Phyrna and Grandpa Sernet canceled at the last tick and they couldn't get Uncle Miklar or Aunt Pessala or a neighbor to take us. They could tell I didn't like Gramma Gia. But I disliked lots of people who weren't as bad, too."
"So when you couldn't have our grandparents looking after you," Mallyn murmured, "that was when you got locked in the closet."
"Yeah. But they could usually take us. They'd fly down and stay for days and sneak us sweets and toys and Grandma Phyrna would measure us for new sweaters and let us pick out our own yarn, and - I'm sorry. Do you not want to talk about them?"
Mallyn watched the way Sashpark's entire body had relaxed at the drift of topic.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'd like to hear more about them anyway. What's Draconic for grandparent?"
"Either kind? Ekua," Sashpark said.
Mallyn was mostly able to avoid fighting with Sashpark. Their grandparents were a touchy subject, but the rest of their family - including her dozens of great-grand- and great-great-grand niblings - were safe topics. She loved books, in all languages, and could recommend readings for any set of specifications he cared to name, albeit with a bias towards her favored romance novels and kids' books published more than thirty years previous. He improved his literary fluency considerably with her help, and her provision of context. She had something to say about everything.
When he wasn't spending time with her, exploring and chatting and figuring out how to kiss, he was busier than ever. He spent less time in his appointments with Korulen because most of what was left to do was down to sheer practice and she could provide only minor course correction. That reduced scheduling didn't let him off the hook for kamai work; Ehail kept an eye on him and made sure he devoted at least an angle or two a day to blocking his gaps. He read - he had to be able to get through technical books without stumbling to make it in school. He played with his sisters, and sometimes tentatively with Nemaar. He made time for various family members, determined to treasure them all the more fiercely when his mother's parents wouldn't have him.
Aunt Ryll was confident that it was fine for Mallyn to travel around in Aristan alone. The mess around his adoption was far enough in the past that no random Watch member was likely to identify him, let alone decide to take him into custody to get him out of Esmaar. Ehail and Gyre were willing to bow to Ryll's senatorial judgment on the matter. So, with a bag full of books, he made an unaccompanied trip to Tyren, where Ryll and Myret and Gyre's parents lived. He intended to stop at his grandparents' first, where he'd most likely be able to see everyone else over dinner.
The coach's second stop picked up a passenger whose big blue eyes were freckled with color.
"What are you doing here?" Mallyn asked Kenar sharply.
Kenar took a seat diagonally across the coach. "Woodcarving lesson," he muttered, pulling out a book of his own.
"With Grandpa?" Mallyn demanded.
Kenar nodded once, awkwardly.
"Please don't fight, I'm trying to sleep," muttered a halfblood woman sitting on Mallyn's right.
Mallyn didn't say anything else, but he did sneak occasional glances up from the pages of A Price For Every Fruit, Sashpark's latest recommendation. He never caught Kenar looking away from his own book. Mallyn couldn't tell what the book was about, either, as it was in some language he didn't recognize.
Hadn't Kenar rejected Ehail, Gyre, and everything that came attached to them? He couldn't be taking woodcarving lessons from someone besides Tem. Even assuming there were other sculptors on the coach route, Kenar's parents wouldn't sign him up for lessons so far away from where they lived. He'd be taking classes in Nirlan somewhere. Obviously he was going to see Tem, a holdover from when he'd been Tem's grandson like Mallyn now was. Why?
Mallyn did not get very far in his book.
He and Kenar both got off at the Tyren stop, and both started walking down the main street.
Mallyn decided to veer off from the path to Tem and Allera's and go to Ryll's instead, because he didn't think he could stand it if he had to be nice to Kenar in his grandparents' house too.
Ryll wasn't home, but her husband Lerrel was, and so were all of her kids. The girl twins wanted to show Mallyn a makeshift shelter they'd put together in the backyard out of sticks and spare nails. The boy twins wanted Mallyn to borrow a horse and go on a trail ride with them. Taala wanted him to tell her all about his girlfriend, who she'd learned about from Rithka. Apran wanted to be told stories. Tyrrel wanted someone to play pyndo with who he hadn't already beaten a hundred times, even though Mallyn didn't know how to play yet. Mallyn set about fulfilling various cousinly desires until Ryll got home and announced that they were all going to Grandma and Grandpa's for dinner.
Mallyn squirmed. Was Kenar still going to be there? His lessons couldn't last too long. He'd probably already started home. It was a long coach ride. (Why would he take the coach instead of flying, anyway?) He could go home, too, if he didn't want to risk it. Unless Kenar was on the same coach again.
Ultimately Mallyn let himself be swept along with his cousins through the streets of Tyren to the house that Allera and Tem shared.
And indeed there was Kenar.
Ryll and Lerrel and their kids didn't seem to find that strange.
Kenar sat at the table and ate with them and politely thanked Allera for cooking. After dessert had been obliterated, he and Tem left to sit on the porch while Allera attempted to organize all of her actual grandchildren in a game Mallyn hadn't seen before. It had cards and a board and pawns, but also involved hiding in various parts of the house during certain rounds; Mallyn was pretty sure he accidentally broke the rules once or twice, but he was even surer that Apran did, so that was probably fine.
Tem went to bed early. Kenar didn't leave.
"Are you staying the night, dear?" Allera asked the blue opal boy. Mallyn could hear her out on the porch through the window.
"No, but I'd like to stay another div, if that's okay. Rthan's not going to be done with his cheese tasting for a while, and I finished my book so I was planning to fly back and can't kill time with the coach ride."
"Of course you may," Allera said.
Mallyn lurked around the doorway when Allera went to do the dinner dishes with Lerrel, and watched Kenar peel bits of wood off a block of it.
"Hello?" Kenar asked him, looking up.
"Hello," said Mallyn resentfully.
"You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to," Kenar said.
"Why are you here?"
"You keep asking me that," said Kenar. "I just go places like everybody else. I came here to learn woodcarving with Grandf-"
"You dumped the whole family when you dumped Mom and Dad, didn't you? Why are you calling him Grandfather?"
Kenar looked away. "I still visit you guys. I visit here too. He's like my part-time grandfather."
"I don't understand why you think you can just do that," Mallyn said.
"Mallyn, I really don't want to -"
"I don't get why you think you can practically spit on -"
"So if somebody besides Batai had adopted Lyrrae and Renn you'd never see them again because you're only connected through sharing your birth parents?" snapped Kenar.
He calmed down before Mallyn could even scream at him. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have brought that up. Mallyn, I don't want to talk to you. Leave me alone."
"Mallyn. I don't want to talk to you. Leave me alone," repeated Kenar in a dead sort of voice.
Mallyn shut up, but he didn't move. Kenar looked at the whittling knife and the half-formed shape of wood in his hands. He turned his head toward the window and called, "Grandmother, I'm going to go now. I'll see you next tenday."
"Goodbye, child," replied Allera from somewhere inside.
Kenar didn't put away his tools or his project, he just shifted to tuck them away, and ambled off the porch and took to the air. The rain made splattering sounds against his scales.
Mallyn slipped back inside the house, teeth clenched tightly.
"Are you okay?" Apran asked him, tapping Mallyn's elbow. The little miracle had strikingly emerald-green eyes, which could make Mallyn uncomfortable when used for staring.
"I'm fine," Mallyn said.
Apran studied Mallyn's face for a moment, then hugged his leg, and then ran off.
"Mallyn, come see," cried Sel's voice. "Vianne found a baby tamarin! Come see before it runs away!"
Mallyn went to look at the baby tamarin.
He caught the late coach to Aristan City and went home.
He glanced into Kenar's room on the way to his own, at the neatly made bed and the bookshelves and the tidy desk.
He did not understand, and it felt like his skin was too tight.
Mallyn finished blocking his gaps exactly two days after Korulen said: "You know, even after you're done with this, you'll be spending a while much less efficient than a regular kama. If there's time between you getting under control and term starting, we might as well carry on lessons to work on some introductory stuff. So that it doesn't handicap you badly in your first kamai class."
He practiced with renewed fervor, and soon nearly passed out showing off how he could conjure handfire without doing anything other than that.
And then she started teaching him mindspeech.
For a beginner who couldn't find other people's minds across open space, this involved holding hands.
Mallyn promptly explained the appeal to Sashpark.
Sashpark looked at him, and looked at their linked hands, and said, "If Korulen breaks up with her boyfriend, you have to break up with me before you date her. I'm pretty sure I lean serial, not simultaneous."
"There's slang for it but those are the words from the required seminar for twelve-equivalents on Comporting Oneself Romantically. Slang changes too much anyway, ten years go by and it's all different and not everyone catches up at the same time so I have to keep switching idiolects - anyway. It means you can't date me and her at the same time, is what it means."
"Okay. That's what I figured anyway," Mallyn said. "Wait, does that mean it might not matter that she already has a boyfriend?"
Sashpark gave Mallyn a considering look. "Both of them would have to lean simultaneous, and so would you. Do you want two girlfriends at the same time?"
Mallyn contemplated his schedule. "I guess not. I mean, even if - when - we break up, you'll still be my cousin and we'll hang out, right?"
"Yep," said Sashpark.
"Which would it be if I didn't care that she had a boyfriend but didn't want two girlfriends myself?" Mallyn asked.
"Would you really not care?"
"I think I'd care. Maybe not enough that I'd rather not date her at all. But suppose it wouldn't bug me?" said Mallyn.
"I didn't get a technical word for anything like that in Comporting Oneself Romantically because it's not a culturally likely thing in Reverni really. People here just do pairs or webs," she said. "Do you want the modern Leraal or some Martisen or what?"
"Draconic," suggested Mallyn.
Sashpark produced words for that, and for the case where he'd have two girlfriends and not want them to have any other boyfriends, and myriad other edge cases. "Why do you want to learn so many Draconic words?" she asked him, after he was out of ideas. "You can't use them."
"Sure I can. I know a lot of dragons. Now me and Rithka can talk about all the many boyfriends she'll have when she grows up, like she keeps telling me. I can ask her if she'll have them antasi or lharze."
"I mean, you can't make entire sentences in Draconic."
"I can if I learn enough words," said Mallyn.
"Not grammatical sentences," contradicted Sashpark. "Not without getting a dragon to give you the whole sentence."
"Yeah, well. I can pretend," Mallyn shrugged.
"That you're a dragon?" she asked.
"That I can speak Draconic," he corrected hastily. "That's not the same thing. Barashin dragons can't speak Draconic. And Mom says Barashin deities can."
Sashpark still looked skeptical, but she tossed her hair and said "I guess everybody needs hobbies."
"You're glad I have hobbies. When your book is done you want cover art," Mallyn pointed out.
"Yes," she agreed, and then she launched into a description of how she was considering rewriting an entire chapter of said book in Ecian and then translating it back into Munine, for realism. Mallyn sat back and listened.
Chapter 11: Nanain
Mallyn's immediate family sometimes received visitors, too, and that included Tem and Allera. During their next trip through Paraasilan to see Rhysel's and Gyre's families, Mallyn sat next to Tem and tried to think what to ask.
Surprisingly, the taciturn old human spoke up first. "Kenar's a decent kid," Tem said.
Mallyn glowered at the floor. "He hurt Mom. And Dad."
"Not a perfect kid," Tem said.
"He hurt Mom."
Tem shrugged. "D'you hate your grandma?"
"What?" Mallyn asked.
"You know the story. Do you hate your grandma Allera?"
"Why?" asked Tem.
"She - she apologized. She changed what she was doing and made it right," Mallyn said.
"Kenar apologized. He started visiting," Tem said. "I had to talk a little sense into him first. But he's only a boy."
"That doesn't make it right," Mallyn said stubbornly.
"What would?" Tem asked.
"He -" Mallyn realized he had no idea how to finish the sentence. He didn't want Kenar to come live with them, or even visit more. He was pretty sure time travel would be an unfair thing to ask of anyone, even Kenar. Kenar had apologized to Ehail. He didn't owe Mallyn an apology; the whole mess had happened before Mallyn had even been adopted.
"I don't like him," Mallyn said.
"Don't have to," said Tem. "Don't have to hate him either."
Mallyn chewed on that one even after his grandparents had gone.
Kenar came to vist at the end of Komehel.
Mallyn ignored him, and avoided skulking around to shoot dirty looks at him, too. Kenar didn't make it any harder than he ever had to keep out of his way.
"Mallyn?" Rithka said, when Cenem had been allowed to go out to lunch with her egg parents. She was messily spreading almond butter onto a piece of bread. "What did they do to your birth parents?"
"Personality revision," Mallyn said shortly, not putting down the copy of All About Simple Mind Kamai he'd borrowed from Korulen.
"So they aren't the same people?" Rithka asked.
"No - well, yes, but - sort of," Mallyn said uncomfortably, sighing and closing the book. He tried to avoid thinking about them at all, really. "Supposedly they only change what they have to so they won't be able to hurt anybody."
"But that was practically all they did so they'd have to change a lot," Rithka said.
"If they can't hurt anybody, why did you all get taken away?" she asked.
Mallyn shuddered at the idea of being sent back to the farm with revised birth parents. "I don't know what they usually do about situations like it. For me it was probably because I made it to Esmaar, and then if Aristan left Lyrrae and Renn there, they'd look bad."
"But if they're not the same -"
"If somebody made me go back to them at this point I'd probably try to hurt them," Mallyn said flatly. "And I'd definitely run away again. It doesn't matter what the kama did. They're still them. They look the same and sound the same and under a couple of magic blocks they are the same and they're not my parents."
"So you wouldn't ever go with them, not even a little like Cenem, just because they're different now," said Rithka.
"Is that what you brought this up for?" Mallyn said with a weak laugh. "Never. Never, ever, ever. I never want to see them. They're evil people. Cenem's parents screwed up but they're basically okay."
"Okay," Rithka said, putting her plate on the table and hugging him. She got a smear of almond butter on his shirt. "I'm glad you're not going anywhere."
"It shouldn't even surprise you," Mallyn said. "I don't think I ever sound like I want to run into them, do I? I mean, how would you feel about getting to never see Kenar again?"
Rithka's eyes flew wide open. She was still for a moment, and then let go of Mallyn and dashed up the stairs at top speed.
"Rithka?" said Mallyn. There was no reply. He got up to follow her. "Rithka? Are you okay?"
"She's in here," said Kenar's voice, sounding puzzled.
Mallyn peered into Kenar's room, and there was Rithka, all four limbs wrapped around Kenar's leg. She was half-bawling, but Mallyn could make out sentence fragments: "don't want to never see you again", "I'm sorry," "I'm your sister forever" -
"What's going on?" Mallyn asked.
"I don't know," Kenar said. "She just ran in here and grabbed me and started talking."
"I don't wanna never see you again, I was mad but I love you," wailed Rithka.
"Rithka," Kenar said, "I can't move, let me go."
Rithka just sobbed and hugged him tighter. Kenar looked at her, and looked at Mallyn, and finally turned into a woodpecker beating his wings in midair, leaving Rithka with an armful of air.
"Rithka, c'mon," Mallyn said, "let's go downstairs, you were in the middle of a snack..."
The iron dragon rubbed at her eyes, looked up at the circling bird, and got up to grab Mallyn's hand and follow him out.
"So," Mallyn said, "you don't actually hate him?"
"No-o-o," sniffed Rithka. "I was really mad! I was just mad, that's all! But then you said - and he could just go anytime, he might, he almost did, it's not like you 'cause you don't ever want to at all and not like Cenem 'cause she always comes home!"
"I didn't mean to... scare you," Mallyn said.
She sniffled again and plopped into the chair in front of her bread.
"I don't think he's going to stop coming here," said Mallyn. This was mostly because Kenar seemed to actually like Tem, and Tem's approval was probably contingent on Kenar having some connection to the family. So maybe the visits would stop when Tem died, which could be alarmingly soon - but probably not soon enough that Rithka wouldn't have a while to find other ways to make nice to Kenar, if she wanted him around.
"I guess," Rithka mumbled.
"If I make you mad are you going to tell me you hate me and avoid me all the time?" Mallyn asked.
"I'd have to be really mad," Rithka said.
"That's probably not the best way to be mad at somebody."
"What's the best way?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Mallyn.
Mallyn didn't interact with the blue opal again until Kenar started making an awful racket in the backyard. It was a patter of erratic short thunks that made Rithka cover her ears and Cenem put her head under a pillow.
"I'll go see what's going on," Mallyn told them, and he got up from their game.
Kenar had a small log propped up in the yard and he was clinging to it in woodpecker form. Apparently it had occurred to him to try a novel form of sculpture. "That's really loud," Mallyn said over the din.
Kenar stopped and looked at Mallyn. Bird beaks didn't afford much room for facial expression. "I'll stop," he said, and he let go of the log and shifted to human form.
Mallyn really hadn't been lurking so as to glare at Kenar, but then he was right there. He found himself looking quizzically at the blue opal boy. Kenar was a fair bit shorter than Mallyn was, since Mallyn had started getting better nutrition. For the first time Mallyn realized how young - youthful, rather - Kenar was.
"I haven't been very nice to you," Mallyn said.
"No," Kenar said. "You haven't."
"I'm sorry," Mallyn said.
Kenar looked away and shuffled his feet. "Does that mean you don't think I'm a morally bankrupt idiot, anymore?"
"That's good. Or at least it's better," said Kenar.
There was a prolonged silence. Mallyn wondered why Rithka hadn't run out to haul him back to the game yet. Maybe she didn't want to go near Kenar, out of lingering anger or embarrassment.
"Was it worth it?" Mallyn asked.
"Going with your egg parents. Was it worth it?"
"Yes," Kenar said.
"How?" Mallyn asked.
"They're - I could've been unlucky," Kenar said. "They could have been totally different. I would have gone anyway, but they could've not matched up with how I am at all. But they do. Rthan's a writer. He goes all around the world and writes about the places there. Mialhre's a librarian. She spends all her time around books and loves them as much as I do. My little brother and sister knew about me from the time they were babies and they're glad to have a big brother and they're so cute. I used to write dumb little stories about my family, before I knew anything. I never showed them to anyone. But they had a little sister and a little brother in them, and I guessed wrong about Tanzil being a red but that doesn't matter, and they had a big old house and I guessed wrong about it being in Nirlan but that doesn't matter either."
"They could have been awful," Mallyn said. "You didn't know. They could have been like my birth parents."
"I wouldn't have cared if they hit me," Kenar said.
Mallyn was stunned by the simplemindedness. "You wouldn't have cared if they hit you," he repeated slowly.
"Yeah. Why?" Kenar asked, looking up. "Do you feel like hitting me?"
"No." Mallyn swallowed. "It's not just that. Even if you really didn't care about it hurting - maybe you really wouldn't - it's not just that. Sometimes I couldn't see, or breathe, or move, and I thought I was going to die - sometimes they wouldn't let me sleep - I had to sneak off and risk getting punished worse to do anything but work - they hurt Lyrrae and Renn too -"
"If my parents were hurting Tanzil and Simnel that'd be bad," Kenar acknowledged.
"Being a miracle doesn't make you immune to not getting sleep or any of that," Mallyn said.
"Different stuff is important to me than you," Kenar said. "That doesn't make me stupid. It just means I'd put up with stuff you wouldn't to get my real parents."
"I bet you wouldn't say that if your parents were terrible," Mallyn said.
"I bet I would," Kenar said flatly. "But I got lucky."
Mallyn bit the inside of his cheek. "Ask Mom for a silencing spell if you're going to do that to the log," he said, and he turned around and marched back inside.
Sashpark wanted to see Barashi.
"You know your way around Barashi, right?" she asked. "You should take me and show me all the cool stuff."
"Barashi is really big and I've only been to one country in it," Mallyn said. "And like four towns in that one country."
"You can show me those, then," Sashpark said, undaunted. "I've been showing you Lypan. It's only fair."
"I guess. We could just start at Aristan City because it's right through the circle. Do you want to see Dad's jewelry shop?"
"That sounds good," Sashpark said serenely.
"Okay," said Mallyn, "but as long as we're in Aristan City, do you mind if we visit my aunt and uncle and - cousins?" He'd started referring to Lyrrae and Renn that way to avoid the long, difficult story. He still flinched a little every time.
"I don't mind. But not for all day, I want to see stuff, not just distant relatives," Sashpark said.
Mallyn nodded. "I know a couple places. There's temples and the Peace Tower and the Garden on the Wall."
"Wouldn't a garden on a wall be really narrow?"
"It's on the side of the wall, and the wall's a sloped retaining-type wall against a hill. You go up stairs and along the top and down stairs and along the bottom along the whole thing."
"What kind of temples do you have?"
"I don't personally have... Just ones for gods. One per temple usually, but there are some for pairs or groups and some for all of them," Mallyn said.
"Temples are usually for gods," Sashpark said, pursing her lips. "I mean what religions do you have there?"
"There's not a bunch of religions. Everybody knows the gods exist," Mallyn said. "It's not like here."
"Whoa, did your religion form an army and take over the entire world and convert everybody at swordpoint and coalesce into an overgovernment?" exclaimed Sashpark. "Like in Gray Chapel and the sequels! In the sequels some people independently reconstruct Salvationism and they start a rebellion -"
"It's not like that," Mallyn said. "There's lots of governments. We all agree on the gods like we all agree on there being two suns in the sky during the day. They show up and you can see them and talk to them and they'll tell you what their names are, there's nothing to argue about."
"The suns tell you their names?" teased Sashpark.
"No, but the sun pilots will."
"Your suns have pilots? Are the suns like... really shiny scoots?" Sashpark asked.
"I think they're about like the sun here. I'm not sure. I don't know hardly anything about astronomy. But they have to move around, and some gods do that," Mallyn said.
"If we go to temples will we meet gods?"
Mallyn shook his head. "Probably not. They have a lot to do and a lot of temples they could be visiting if that's how they're spending time. Unless you want to petition one and call it over on purpose, and that's not a good idea unless you're really desperate."
There was a pause, and Sashpark said, "Why didn't you ever petition one?"
"Because," Mallyn said, "all the stories about gods we heard in school, when I went to school, had them asking for the worst possible thing in exchange, to make sure the petitioner's really serious. And I tried to think of what the worst possible thing would be, and I decided that a god would probably make me pick a sibling to leave behind."
Sashpark bit her lip and reached out to squeeze Mallyn's knee.
"Also I would have had to run away just to get to a temple," Mallyn said. "And gods take a while to show up to meet petitioners and my birth parents could have come and taken me away."
Mallyn sang for Ehail, and she popped into the living room of Prathu's apartment and teleported the both of them to the circle, admonishing them both to be home in time for dinner.
They went to the jewelry shop. Mallyn introduced Sashpark to the assistant, who was a black-haired, black-winged Mainland fairy and didn't ever seem to know what to make of Gyre's personal friends and relations appearing in his shop no matter how many times it happened. Sashpark tried everything on. She also inspected the assistant until her feathers fluffed up with annoyance, remarking that Barashin fairies looked like winged halflings. Then Sashpark showed off her linguistic accident of an insectile fairy form, inspiring spluttered insistences that this was not what a fairy looked like from the small assistant.
When they'd grown bored with looking at the pieces and Gyre had gone back to his crafting, they set off for their next destination.
They were halfway to the Peace Tower when Sashpark suddenly stopped and put her hand on Mallyn's shoulder.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Your mom is songing me," Sashpark said, puzzled.
"Why would she do that?"
"I don't know. All I can tell is that she's songing me. I didn't even know she had my song; I guess Dad must've given it to her at some point."
"Should we go home?" Mallyn asked.
"I guess," Sashpark said. "Should we stop at the shop again? And see what your dad thinks?"
"That sounds like a good idea," said Mallyn, relieved. They could abdicate the decision.
Gyre seemed unnerved too, when Sashpark explained. He finished up the wire he was drawing, told his assistant the shop was in her hands until closing, and then said they were all three going back to Elcenia to see what was wrong.
Nothing was obviously the matter when they reached the house. Ehail was pacing, but Rithka and Cenem were coloring nonchalantly.
"What's the song for?" Sashpark asked.
"It's... I'm not sure," Ehail said. "I was using an analysis to look at a spell in a journal that I wanted to try, and... the wards have been raised. Centrally. I can't move ours even though I'm the ward tie."
"Mom," Rithka said, "I told you, that happens sometimes, it's always a false alarm. It happened once four years ago, and once ten years ago, and once sixteen years ago, and nothing happened."
"But there must be a reason," Ehail said.
"The ward will keep you guys safe," Sashpark said. "Esmaar's impenetrable. Do I have to go home?"
"I think that would be best," Ehail said. "If something does happen -"
"Nothing's going to happen," yawned Rithka.
"- then you should be at home in Reverni. I'll take you," Ehail said, ignoring Rithka.
Sashpark sighed theatrically, planted a kiss on Mallyn, and let Ehail teleport her away.
Ehail came back, still looking nervous, but Mallyn was inclined to listen to Rithka, who'd lived in Esmaar for more than sixty years.
He regretted this choice in the morning.
"A town exploded?" Rithka cried, having glimpsed a headline in the newspaper before Ehail snatched it away.
"They don't know anything yet," Ehail said. "They know something bad happened in Aabalan but not what. Parliament will release a statement soon."
"Should we be here?" Gyre asked. "Should we all go to the circle and stay with my family for a while?"
"The circle is guaranteed to be mobbed," said Ehail. "I could send you all, but then I'd be stuck. We might want to try Prathu's, if we decide we need to leave."
"Is Aabalan... near here?" Mallyn asked.
"What does that matter?" Rithka asked.
"I just - I wanted to know," Mallyn said.
"It's not nearby," Ehail said. "It's very far away. It's closer to Daasen. But Rithka is right, that doesn't matter. If this is going to happen again -"
"Parliament has to have known," said Gyre, "if they raised the wards. Didn't they raise the wards over Aabalan too?"
"They must have," said Ehail.
Rithka squirmed. "Let's go visit Uncle Prathu."
"All right," murmured Ehail. "Everyone, pack as much as you want. I can tuck everything in dragon form if it's too much so don't worry about the weight. And then we'll go. I'll call ahead."
Everyone split up and went to their rooms to bundle up key possessions. Mallyn didn't know if he was supposed to be packing to move or packing to have an overnight visit. In the end he tied his sheet around his modest wardrobe and boxed up all the books he was still working through and left everything else.
Mallyn slept on the couch and Rithka and Cenem shared Sashpark's room, though Sashpark argued it made more sense the other way around. Prathu just remarked that he'd heard Mallyn and Sashpark argue and didn't want to stuff them together into a single room. Ehail and Gyre and Nemaar went into the little guest room. The apartment was crowded, meant for three people and containing nine; everyone spent time outside when they could. Mallyn helped at the cheese shop when Sashpark did, and she amused herself by bossing him around.
They were there for a week, with Ehail performing spellwork to get Gyre to and from his shop most days. They kept an eye on the news, which was obligingly reported in the Lypan Observer.
The statement from Parliament said that Linnip had been behind the attack, that they could do it again, and that they wouldn't if and only if Esmaar surrendered.
Esmaar didn't have much other choice.
"What do you know about Linnip?" Mallyn asked Sashpark.
"They're Aleist and they're kind of a bad place to be a guy in and they have an Empress," said Sashpark. "Most of them have red hair. They wear silly clothes and eat a lot of rice."
"How bad to be a guy there," Mallyn said, "exactly?"
Sashpark frowned. "I don't know. I think it mostly depends on your female relatives? Like, you'll have to put stuff in your mom's name."
"Oh. That's okay then," breathed Mallyn. "If that's all."
"You think you'll move back permanently?"
"I think so. They aren't making it hard to leave, so if we want to, we can, but maybe it's fine," said Mallyn.
"Okay," yawned Sashpark.
"What's Aleism like?"
"I don't remember much about it. There's a goddess. Or five of them. Or something."
That wasn't very helpful. "Oh."
"Let me know how it is when you get settled back in and if it's awful you can just come back here," she went on brightly.
"I think Mom and Dad will decide where we live, but yeah," Mallyn said. "Maybe we'd go here."
"You'd be the only one who'd have to learn a new language. Nemaar's little enough that he'd just grow up speaking Munine if you moved now," said Sashpark.
"Dad would have to, too."
"Oh, right, him. But still," Sashpark said. "But you're going home. I'll help you pack."
"Thanks," said Mallyn.
Nothing was overtly changed. Mallyn went back to his occasional head-start lessons with Korulen. He played kebel with Rithka and her team. He saw soldiers around outside, occasionally, but aside from a single census visit where they wanted to know who lived in the house, they never bothered him. He was still able to enroll in school for Marahel. He picked courses: First Tier Theory, Basic Spells Practicum, Introduction to Kamai, and, because he was still behind on academics all his classmates would probably know, Introduction to World History. Rhysel advised against trying to fit any more classes than that into his first term.
It was with surprise that Mallyn noticed that he'd grown taller than his mother.
It was with more surprise that he realized he'd been in Elcenia for nearly a year.
"What's Draconic for year?" Mallyn asked Rithka.
"Elcenian year? Or any kind of year? Or Barashin year or what?" she asked.
"Elcenian year. It'll be the anniversary of my adoption in about three weeks," he said.
"Nanain," said Rithka. "You know every time I tell you a word it's wrong for about half the ways you could use it? You would say something like 'it's been one nanain', but you wouldn't say 'one nanain ago' or ever talk about more than one nanain. You'd have to decline it differently."
"I still like the words," Mallyn said.
"You're weird," Rithka said.
"That's okay with me," Mallyn said contently.
Chapter 12: Lalti
Ehail figured out that Mallyn liked Draconic words, and used them to distract him from the chaotic crowding while they shopped for school supplies. It worked fairly well; he focused on memorizing them instead of on how many people thronged the stores.
"You'll need a bag - atlo - for your books - kez," she muttered as she looked at the shopping list. "It should be reasonably big, to hold all those texts and notebooks and whatever else you want to put in it. Do you want to pick it out yourself?"
"You can pick," Mallyn said. "What's Draconic for 'school'?"
"Lalti," Ehail said after a moment's thought. She peered at the selection of bags, and got something serviceable in slate-blue canvas that could be worn over one shoulder and under the other. "All right. I think we should get you some more clothes -"
"You're taller again."
"Isn't there a spell? There's spells for everything." And workings for other things, like transferring some CC from Rhysel's apprentice to him, but clothing alteration seemed more wizardy than kymic.
"Alteration spells are no good for lengthening sleeves and pants unless the caster has knowledge about clothes that I don't, I'm afraid. You can see if your wizarding teacher will help you with one if it really bothers you. But we can hold it down to a few outfits if you're getting tired. Remember if we need to make another trip before school starts, we have to bring Nemaar and the girls along; your father can't take off work too often or he'll fall behind."
"I'm a little tired," Mallyn admitted. Ehail had coaxed him along with words the whole way - bekhorlt for the kind of spontaneity that applies to kamai, mueke for "teacher" and reth for "student", yoara for "wizard". He would start forgetting them if it went on much longer.
"Okay. Three new shirts, temet, three new pairs of pants, viarr, and then we'll go home," Ehail said.
"Casaith," Mallyn said. That one he'd learned from Rithka. It meant something like "okay, all right".
Ehail smiled at him, and he followed her to the next store.
Mallyn looked at his schedule. It was tucked away in his pocket, only not discarded in case he wanted to show it to someone else - he was just calling up the memory of what it looked like. Theory and kamai met every day except the schoolwide breaks each week. Basic Spells met on Inen, Saanen, and Fenen, and World History on Arnen and Sinen. So each class day would have three classes, starting with kamai (so he would need to eat plenty of breakfast) and ending with theory.
Going over this in his head made it a little less scary.
Just three classes, and then he'd go home.
Mallyn took a deep breath, and stepped away from the lift to find his first classroom.
The room was crowded; there were twenty-five students in each of the two introductory classes, he'd heard, and half of them had arrived before him. But they were all sitting at desks, not milling around. He was fine. He sat up front and wouldn't have to look at more than the few in his row, plus the teacher. He'd been placed in the class that Rhysel taught to start, although since introductory courses handled several disciplines there was a rotation between more than one instructor and later he'd have someone else.
Rhysel arrived a little before class was due to start, and she patted Mallyn on the head on her way to the head of the room. He wished she hadn't done that. Everyone would assume that she'd treat him differently for being her nephew.
When classtime arrived, Rhysel called roll. Names flew past Mallyn's ears. He was never going to remember who any of these people were - he'd mix up the wolf and the rider - he had no hope of pronouncing the vampire syllables - he'd confuse the last name of one Min with the other - he'd call the wrong Saasnil by her nickname - he'd better just not talk to anyone.
Sure, he thought to himself. That's one way to make friends in school.
Rhysel passed out syllabi. Mallyn had a moment of terrible dreamlike blankness at the Leraal writing, before it resolved into words and he exhaled. Handfire. Mindspeech. Water conjuration. Transfer point use. Surface visual illusions. Animal-calming and animal-calling. Line-of-sight death kamai (for insects). Flight, or, free study unit.
Such a lot of things. He only knew the first two. If only something else had been first, he could have lagged behind on that like he was guaranteed to do and then caught up while everyone else breezed through handfire and mindspeech.
"Okay," said Rhysel. "Let's get started. We'll get to handfire today if we have time, but first I want to talk about - what is kamai? What do kyma do, and how?"
She talked about tellyn conduits, and the three kinds of tones, and what materials each kind of kamai used for its tools (stone for elemental, wood for wild, crystal for image, bone for death, and metal for mind). She spoke sternly on the subject of forbidden kamai: "The curriculum will try not to mention it at all. However, some acceptable workings are very similar to forbidden ones - similar enough that you could figure out the latter on your own - and there we'll tell you what you are not to do. If you practice forbidden kamai, it'll be the last kamai you ever learn."
"That doesn't make sense," a halfling boy said. "What if we learned the forbidden working, and then learned something else, and then did the forbidden kamai?"
"Fine," Rhysel said darkly. "I'll put it another way. I've been charged by the Barashin gods to keep kamai on Elcenia under control. If I find out one of my students has used forbidden kamai, he or she will be stopped, even if I have to kill him or her. You'll get comparable guarantees from your other teachers. Forbidden kamai is not something fun you can get away with. It is nasty stuff that has been placed off-limits for sound reasons. If you look like you don't take me seriously by the time we get to those sections, I will ask Corvan, the mind kamai instructor, to enforce it with mental blocks. Is that clear?"
"Clear," squeaked the halfling.
"What if it's a mistake?" asked a human girl. "If we read ahead before you get to warning us, or we invent something you never mentioned, or we forget -"
"Well," Rhysel said. "If it's a sincere mistake - then it won't be hard for me to stop you, will it. Certainly it wouldn't come to a huge fight."
The human nodded, pursing her lips.
Rhysel moved on and talked about the approach differences between the five disciplines, and the options for specialization.
Mallyn took notes with his brand-new graphite stick in his brand-new notebook, so he could memorize what Rhysel said effectively. Over the course of the class, he calmed down.
They didn't get to handfire after all. His classmates had too many questions, and Rhysel didn't seem at all inclined to cut them off so she could get to the balls of light lesson. Mallyn filled four squares of paper with a near-verbatim transcript of the entire class.
"Hey," said a voice at his elbow, after Rhysel declared the class over.
"Hmm?" Mallyn looked up, and then discovered that "up" was the wrong direction; the kid who'd addressed him was the halfling who'd complained about Rhysel's wording. Of course he couldn't remember the other boy's name.
"You take a lot of notes," observed the halfling.
"Yeah," Mallyn said. "I remember stuff better when I see it than when I hear it."
"I have terrible handwriting. Can I study from your notes sometimes? I don't need to today, but if there's something complicated later."
"Uh, sure," Mallyn said. He would never need to look at the notes on paper more than once anyway.
"Your name was Malin, right?"
"Mallyn." The pronunciation was just a little differently accented. "Yeah. Um, I don't remember yours."
"Eran. Eran Kang," said the halfling, peering at Mallyn's notes. "You have really good handwriting."
It was mostly stolen from a combination of Ehail and professional calligraphers who copied out books, but Mallyn said "Thanks," anyway.
"You're welcome. Is this your first term here, or just first term in kamai?"
"I'm new altogether," Mallyn said. "I'm doing wizardry too. I have my practicum next in a half angle."
"Aw, everyone's doing wizardry, but kamai's still really new," Eran said. "That's why I'm just focusing on this. So I can have a chance at distinguishing myself, you know."
"My mom is a wizard," Mallyn explained.
"So's mine, but she just repairs people's stoves and whatnot. Most people don't have what it takes to do anything interesting in wizardry and it takes years of studying it to figure that out. But since there's only, what, a couple hundred people in kamai classes ahead of us, we don't have to be super-special to do neat kamai things."
"Well, I'm doing both to start," Mallyn said, shrugging. "I might stop one or the other."
"Up to you. I don't have anything else today but I'm staying on campus anyway. Maybe I'll see you at lunch." Eran touched his thumb to his temple in some sort of gesture Mallyn didn't recognize, and scampered off.
Mallyn packed up his notebook, and the class text that he'd taken out for no reason, and got up so he could find his next room.
The practicum instructor knew that no one had picked up any gestures yet, since those were - for some reason - covered in theory courses. So instead he passed out syllabi and talked about some of the spells they were going to cover. He also introduced them to the class's cageful of test mice and reminded everyone that botching a spell could kill one so they ought to be very careful. He also showed them the other testing targets: blocks, papers, pillows, boxes, sticks, cups that could be filled from a waterspout, "and the very air around you - and yourselves, once you're steady enough to try that!"
Then, with most of an angle left to go in the class period, he dismissed them.
Mallyn would normally have gone to lunch after the practicum, but he wasn't hungry yet, so instead he sat in the hallway and read ahead in his theory textbook and tried moving his hand through the first five gestures. He wasn't sure how long they were going to spend on each batch, but knowing five couldn't hurt him, even if he couldn't get through the entire first lesson on those alone.
"Why are you sitting in the hall?" asked a - leonine. Mallyn couldn't tell boy leonines from girl leonines until they got a bit older than this one. The clothes were no help; he'd seen adult leonines of both genders wearing that exact kind of skirtlike wrap. Perhaps pants didn't work very well with legs that bent that way or it was a cultural thing.
"I'm studying," Mallyn said.
"Why don't you do that in the library, though?" the leonine asked.
"It didn't occur to me," Mallyn admitted.
"I was going there anyway," the leonine said. "Come on."
Mallyn stood up and followed the leonine to the lift. "Uh," he said. "What's your name?"
"Aaseth Nesh-har," came the reply, which was no help at all, because "seth" was a unisex name ending. "Library!" The lift started trundling along.
Mallyn scrunched his eyes shut. "This is a really embarrassing question, but I can't tell if you're a boy or a girl," he said.
Aaseth laughed. "You won't have that problem next year. I'll start growing a mane and my voice'll drop."
"Thanks," breathed Mallyn.
"You seriously can't tell? I can tell what you are."
"I don't think girls usually get this tall, at my age, or tend to cut their hair this short," Mallyn said as the lift shuddered to a stop. "So that'd help if you couldn't tell by my face or the fact that I'm wearing pants."
"Nah, none of that," said Aaseth. "You just smell different."
"Ah-huh," said Mallyn.
"I don't mean you smell bad," Aaseth said. "Just not like a girl."
"I guess that's one way to tell," Mallyn said diplomatically.
Aaseth laughed and plopped down into a beanbag near the library lift entrance. Mallyn picked one nearby and took out his book again.
"But it's weird," Aaseth said, "that boy elves and humans and halflings and vampires and so on cut their hair around here. It's the other way round some places even for those species, or at least it's not gender-based some other places, so what's up with Esmaar? It makes you look girly."
"I look girly?" Mallyn said.
"With the short hair, a little. You're old enough you'd probably have a mane longer than that by now if you were me instead."
"If I were you instead, I'd be your age," said Mallyn.
Aaseth chuckled. "You know what I meant."
Mallyn shrugged. "I like my hair this way. I should probably get it cut soon, actually."
"I have that same textbook. I mean, plus the Supplement for Leonines, since my fingers work different," Aaseth said, in obvious lieu of laughing at Mallyn's aesthetics. "First tier?"
"Yeah. I have theory in about an angle and a half, so I'll have lunch soon."
"I have theory in an angle and a half too," Aaseth said.
"Aaral Fenbin?" Mallyn asked tentatively.
"Aaral Fenbin," repeated Aaseth.
"Cool," Mallyn remarked.
Aaseth grinned with sharp teeth.
Lunch was good; Mallyn sat with Aaseth and watched his new friend eat a half-raw steak with nothing whatsoever on it, and Aaseth watched with equal repulsed interest when Mallyn ate a cabbage-and-egg stirfry.
They accompanied each other to Aaral Fenbin's first tier theory course, and sat next to each other, but they couldn't be of much help to each other since Aaseth was mostly working out of the Supplement for Leonines. (He showed Mallyn how he could extend and retract his claws, which Mallyn found unduly fascinating but which seemed like more trouble than it was worth for a would-be wizard.)
The class covered only the gestures for one, two, and three units, plus the pronunciation for number reads and an explanation of the Two Essential Spell Features (gesture to measure and pull power, word to select spell). The syllabus had them learning the regular gestures up to one hundred units for the first four weeks. This was nineteen gestures in total (one through ten, and then up by tens), at a rate of two or three a day, and with one lesson in the middle devoted to combining multiples of ten with single digits for results like 22.
Then they'd cover other theory subjects, go back to gestures and learn those for 200, 300, and, for those of them with sufficient CC, 400 and 500. This would sting, and induce spell-flinch, which they'd be expected to train away in their practica while they were still dealing mostly with smaller, safer spells. There was another more academic segment, and then the class concluded with Voyan numbers.
Someone, mercifully, wanted to know more about sting and spell-flinch; Mallyn couldn't figure out how to ask. Ehail hadn't been able to tell Mallyn much about that. She was as inured to channeling sting as she was to other kinds of pain, and had never had to work through a period of flinching away from something that felt so trivial to her.
Aaral Fenbin explained that while wizards didn't spend most of their time casting spells that were big enough to sting much, they did do it sometimes. That led them to subconsciously expect even smaller spells to hurt, and that caused botched gestures or stammered words. Messing up small spells was just embarrassing; messing up big ones was more dangerous than just sting. So, early on, they were exposed to enough sting via number reads to provoke this hesitancy, and then practiced following through on small, first-tier spells until it went away. Aaral Fenbin said that it was very rare for anyone to have to do this more than once.
Mallyn hoped he did not have to do it more than once.
Aaral Fenbin taught them to pronounce the number read spell, which accompanied by any gesture would display a number in the air corresponding to the amount of power pulled. She had them all able to display the first three numbers by the time she let them go, which was four degrees past the official end of class.
"My hands hurt," said Aaseth. "The supplement says that'll go away in about a month if I practice an average amount though."
"Just in time to start dealing with spells big enough to sting," remarked Mallyn.
Aaseth winced. "Well," he said. "If being a wizard didn't hurt, my brothers would make fun of me for doing it."
"That's not very nice," Mallyn said.
Aaseth shrugged. "They're bigger than me, they can do what they want. Till I learn some good spells."
"I saw a sign for practice rooms in the library," Mallyn said. "Do you want to go work on the number reads some more?"
"Yeah," Aaseth said.
The first room they tried contained a pair of boys, neither of whom was wearing a shirt; Mallyn couldn't think of any good practice-related reason for that to be, but he closed the door at once when they snapped at him. He heard them muttering to each other about how the practice rooms should come with wards like dorms did.
The second room they tried contained Eran.
"Hi, Eran," Mallyn said. "Uh, what are you practicing? We didn't even get to handfire today."
"Yeah, I know," he said. "I'm trying to see if I can get it to work without being told how. I've seen it done, but, no luck so far. Who's... that?"
"This is Aaseth," Mallyn said. Eran nodded but still had the puzzled expression. "He's a boy."
"Oh," said Eran.
Aaseth laughed. "This school is going to get awfully tedious before I get my mane. At home people could tell because there's more leonines in the neighborhood and they got used to us, I guess, but there's not so many here. Should I wear a sign?"
"Might help," said Eran. "Or pants."
"I don't wear pants," Aaseth said.
"Up to you," said Eran.
"I know how to do handfire," Mallyn said. "Do you want me to show you?"
"You two do that, I'll work the cramp out of my thumb," Aaseth said, taking a seat, and Mallyn grinned.
Mallyn learned to change the color on his handfire, which he hadn't done when he was only using it as a spontaneous-reaction trigger. He got more efficient and learned to control his volume better when using mindspeech. He conjured water, read transfer point signatures and hopped from one to the other, and started the long unit on illusions.
He got all the assigned gestures down, with some out-of-class help. Aaseth wasn't useful there, but Ehail was. He was better at the academic theory, though, memorizing charts and names and categories.
He didn't get any of the test mice killed, which was about the best thing he could say about his performance in the practicum. Two other students were doing worse than he was. Ehail said some people took a while to get the knack of casting, and she didn't want him to get discouraged, but he could stop next term if he wanted to.
When the teacher who traded classes with Rhysel for the unit on visual illusions took a day off to attend someone's wedding, Rhysel combined the absent teacher's class with her own and took all fifty kids on a field trip to see the Hub.
"On Barashi," Rhysel said, "the Hub is a huge, old chamber under one of the poles. But since Elcenia doesn't have any land connection to Barashi, it needs its own. If we ever colonize the moon, that'll need one too."
"Where are we?" asked a girl with scarlet-red hair.
"A couple of miles under the northwest corner of the world," Rhysel said, smiling with satisfaction at the dim chamber she'd brought them down to. Illusion crystals that he recognized from Rhysel's quick overview of common kymic tools glowed with false light. The Hub seemed bigger than it needed to be, perhaps just because much was left in shadow.
It was a circular room, oriented around a dais with a table that was also a huge map of Elcenia. The landmasses seemed to be made of crystal, a different color for each country, and the water looked like actual water with more crystal below. Rhysel walked up to the map and showed them how the table's two legs were connected with a rod that went through the map, allowing it to spin and show the underside.
"What's the crystal for?" someone asked.
"What's the Hub for?"
"Does it just map where transfer points are? What good is that?"
"It doesn't just do that," Rhysel said merrily. She flipped the map back right-side-up and poked at Esmaar. A blown-up illusion of the country sprang into existence over the main map. It was sprinkled with colors and black speckles. "If you touch a country," she said, "it does this. A colored region - like here over Paraasilan - means there's another illusion nested beyond it, with more detail, because there are a lot of points there. The black spots are those transfer points. And if you touch a spot, the Hub will impart the signature of the transfer point to you."
"Does this have all of them?" inquired a boy from the image kamai class.
"Not private points, like the one inside my tower," Rhysel said. "And not points that may have been made without anyone telling me or putting them here themselves."
"We can add points?" asked Eran, who didn't seem to be able to see.
<Do you want me to pick you up?> Mallyn asked.
<I'll learn to fly and then I won't have this problem. For now? Sure,> Eran sent. Mallyn hoisted up the halfling and set him on his own shoulders.
"You'll learn to make your own transfer points later, if you continue on with elemental kamai for a few years," Rhysel said. "Adding things to the Hub is a little more complicated still. You need some mind kamai - to embed the signature in the metal plate inside the map. And some image kamai to make the spot show up. But those things can be done by separate people. I worked with Eryn and Bryn to make this."
Everyone took turns crowding around the map and looking at closeups of spots around the world. There was at least one in each country except Erubia and the merfolk nations. When Mallyn had jostled up to the front of the crowd - and put Eran down, so he could look too - he touched one in Lypan, which might be walking distance from Sashpark's house.
He saw one in Mekand, too.
It was near the little bay along which Sashpark said their grandparents made their home.
Mallyn touched that one, too.
Chapter 13: Ankauy
If Mallyn waited, he'd never go.
He'd convince himself that going to Mekand was a terrible idea. That even though it itched and burned to have the grandparents he shared with Sashpark living in a house on the bay without ever even meeting him, going and forcing the issue would be silly.
And Mallyn didn't want to go on itching-burning forever.
His last class ended, and he went.
Sashpark had a photo of her and her grandparents standing in front of their house, in her room. She tended to take it down when Mallyn was over. Once she forgot it, and that was enough to burn it into his brain.
The bay was bigger than it looked on the map, but Mallyn could shapeshift. He turned into a gull like the fluffy-footed ones that swarmed the beach, and started a clumsy flight around the coast.
Their house wasn't that far from the transfer point, as the bird flew.
It was chilly, even for a thickly feathered bird, and Mallyn was glad when he found the matching house - there was new paint on the shutters that were clipped open above each window, but it was clearly the right place. He turned back into himself, wished he'd brought a coat, and jogged from the beach up the wooden slat staircase to their front door.
He hoped they were home.
Mallyn swallowed hard and knocked.
His grandmother opened the door and blinked at him. Phyrna looked exactly like Ehail, except she had her hair up in a bun... and she very obviously had no idea who he was.
And then she opened her mouth and asked him a question. Or at least he thought it was a question, because he didn't speak Kandaph.
"Beg pardon?" he said softly in Leraal. He didn't know enough mind kamai to understand her that way, yet.
Phyrna blinked, then frowned. "I said, is this about the provincial preserve initiative, because we already mailed our constituency ballots. But I suppose it's something else?"
"What is it, then?"
She didn't use the exact same facial expressions as Ehail, but she still looked kindly, like if the answer were "I'm an annoying door-to-door salesperson" she'd still give him a degree of her time and maybe buy something inexpensive and correct his posture.
He made sure he had her calm, indulgent face burned firmly into his memory before he said, "I'm your grandson."
Mallyn expected her to slam the door in his face, or scream at him, or otherwise match the impression he'd built up that anyone who'd reject Ehail had to be an awful monster.
He didn't expect her to say, "I'm sorry, I think you've found the wrong house."
But he hadn't found the wrong house. Even if it was possible for him to make a mistake on the house, he wasn't going to make a mistake on the face his mother shared with her own mother.
"I have the right house," he said firmly. "You're my grandmother."
Phyrna's hand went to her face in a gesture of puzzlement. "Well, maybe a few generations removed - are you entirely elf, or for that matter entirely Western? My Lalkaxa's second husband was -"
"No, not generations removed," Mallyn said.
Phyrna crossed her arms. "There is no way for that to have happened," she said, somewhere between placid and irritated.
"I'm adopted," Mallyn said exasperatedly.
"My Iwadhir adopted two children, but they were not elves," Phyrna said, "and he and all his little ones died hundreds of years ago."
"And my mom and dad are alive."
"My living grandchildren are all Eastern elves, dragons, and halflings," Phyrna said flatly. "You are not one of them. You must have the wrong house."
"You sent her away," Mallyn said, words tumbling out of his mouth clumsily and with high speed; he heard his accent thickening. "You put her egg in a box and mailed it to Petar and she looks just like you -"
And then Phyrna slammed the door in his face.
Mallyn pounded on it until his hands were sore from cold and impact.
"I'm your grandson!" he shouted.
There was no response from inside the cheerily painted house.
"I am!" he cried.
Mallyn sat down right where he was. It was very cold. He hadn't learned to work with warmth yet - handfire was only light, and if he tried improvising something with what he remembered about the other tones that comprised fire, he might burn himself. He could live with the cold. He pulled some scratch paper out of his bag, and a book to prop it up on, and a pen. And he drew a picture of Rithka, and a picture of Cenem, and a picture of Nemaar, and then he turned around and started stuffing them under the door.
A voice behind him said something in Kandaph.
Mallyn twisted around.
That had to be his grandfather Sernet. He and Uncle Prathu looked just alike, apart from hairstyle - and again, facial expression. Mallyn never saw Prathu look so disapproving.
"Uh," said Mallyn. "What?"
"I said, what are you doing? Are those advertisements?" asked Sernet, switching to Leraal. "You should know that hand-distributing advertising to private residences isn't legal anymore. You'll want to take those to a business district."
"They're not advertisements," Mallyn said.
"Why are you shoving them under our door?" Sernet asked.
"They're drawings of people who ought to be important to you," muttered Mallyn.
That confused his grandfather. "Are you some kind of missionary? Are those drawings iconography of some sort? My wife and I are dragons; I'm sure you know that sending missionaries to dragons has never accomplished anything."
"I'm not a missionary," exclaimed Mallyn. "I'm - I'm your grandson."
"You have the wrong house," said Sernet. He leaned over and picked up the half-inserted drawings and offered them back to Mallyn. "Sorry."
"I don't have the wrong house!" Mallyn cried, refusing the drawings with a violent shake of his head.
"Easy, calm down, you've just made some kind of mixup -"
"I have not! You look exactly like my uncle Prathu! She looks like my mom!"
That seemed to unsettle Sernet, but he said, "Look, kid -"
"I'm your grandson!"
"Kid," said Sernet again, more annoyed, "we are not your grandparents. We're nothing to do with you and you're well past your stranger's welcome. Take your papers. Go home."
"I don't understand why you won't just -!"
"Get off my property," Sernet said, "or I'll remove you and notify the police."
Mallyn blanched at the threat and backed away, out onto the sandy planks.
Sernet watched him until he was about twenty feet away, then tore the papers in half and in half again and went inside.
Mallyn stood there, numbing from the chill and furiously heartbroken.
Finally he was too frigid to stay still, and the tide was approaching to lick his heels. He ran along the beach back the way he'd come, hands tucked under the opposite arms, until he had feeling back in all his extremities. He turned back into one of the local gulls and flew the rest of the way to the transfer point, and he went home.
He didn't tell his mother where he'd gone. She probably assumed he'd been studying with Aaseth or Eran.
He couldn't entirely believe that he'd made the trip, himself, with so little to show for it.
He told Sashpark.
"I don't believe you," she said flatly. "Grandpa wouldn't have threatened you. Even if you did trespass."
"He did! I'm not lying to you!"
"You must have just misinterpreted him somehow, that's all," Sashpark said.
Mallyn turned away.
"Why did you go to their house, anyway?" huffed Sashpark. "Why would you do that?"
"I just want them to acknowledge me, and Mom, and if they're so great they should've done it, and they didn't," Mallyn said.
"You don't go up to somebody's house and make demands of them!" Sashpark exclaimed. "That's not how you do it! It would be very dramatic but it makes them all defensive and they can just go in their house and then you can't do anything."
"I could show up at your house - I did, I showed up at your house and you were perfectly nice to me, until I complained about your grandparents," Mallyn said. "I could show up at Uncle Miklar's and he'd be nice to me and if I could fit in his house he'd let me in. I go to Uncle Batai and Aunt Karyn's all the time and they're nice to me."
"You shouldn't have gone to Grandma and Grandpa's," insisted Sashpark. "You don't know them."
"I want to know them! I ought to!"
"That was a terrible way to do it!"
"Well, what's your idea?"
"Come to my hatching day party," Sashpark said.
Mallyn blinked. "Huh?"
"They'll be there," Sashpark says. "And you won't be barging up to their house, you'll just be at your girlfriend's party. So they can't be mad."
"When is that?" Mallyn asked.
"Day after tomorow," Sashpark said.
"You didn't tell me."
"Well," Sashpark said, rolling her eyes, "Grandma and Grandpa are going to be there, and it's not like I'm not going to have thousands of hatching days, so you could have just skipped this one and not had a massive confrontation with them, but if we're going to have massive confrontations anyway, just come to the party and have it out then when you're not showing up uninvited at their house all the way in Mekand. I don't like to fight with you. It's not any fun."
"You think they'll act any better then?"
"They've always been great around me," Sashpark says. "If your presence turns them into horror-novel monsters somehow then at least I'll know what's going on."
Mallyn bit his lip. He didn't like that idea at all, but then they'd been acting abominably even before they set eyes on him, hadn't they? "Okay. What time, day after tomorrow? It's not during my classes, is it?"
"No, no," Sashpark said. "Evening. Dinnertime. Twelfth-and-naught. It's some family and some of my school acquaintances and the shop assistant who makes the paper pixies, a small party. Dad's cooking."
"Okay," said Mallyn again. "I'll be there."
Mallyn drew Sashpark a picture of herself, with her grandparents, intended as a hatching day gift but usable as a defiant gesture. He wasn't as convinced as Sashpark was that her presence would make Phyrna and Sernet see reason.
He fidgeted throughout his classes, doing worse than normal at casting spells and drifting off into thought during kamai. Since he didn't want to be early to the party, he went home, and did his homework at about half-speed before switching in frustration to drawings. He drew himself and Ehail and Gyre and his sisters and his baby brother. He drew all his aunts and uncles and their kids. He drew his house.
Finally, after having checked the time roughly once a degree for half an angle, Mallyn judged it was time to be on his way.
He got a translation spell on him from Ehail so he'd be able to talk to non-dragon guests at the party. He hugged Rithka and then his mom and then Rithka again goodbye, and took the transfer point that Aunt Rhysel had made in the front yard to Lypan.
Even from the street, he could hear early arrivals to Sashpark's party talking and laughing. He started climbing the steps.
"I hear someone coming!" Sashpark said. "I'll go see who." The door opened, and she spotted him. "Come in!" she exclaimed.
"Are they -"
She pulled Mallyn in through the door, and said, "Some of you have met my boyfriend, and some of you haven't, so this is Mallyn!"
"Hi, Mallyn!" a human girl promptly responded, but then she fell silent and looked confusedly at the silent room. Everyone else was focused on the ashen faces of Phyrna and Sernet.
"Sashpark?" Phyrna asked in a high, thin voice.
Sashpark planted her hands on her hips. "What, Grandma?"
"What is it, Grandmother?" Mallyn asked levelly. His heart was racing. His hands were cold.
There was a silence.
"Wait, is he your boyfriend or your cousin?" asked the same relative-of-some-kind who'd greeted him to begin with.
"Both," said Sashpark. "It's okay. He's adopted."
"Weird," said the girl softly, but then Feln shushed her, and she fell silent with everyone else.
"What is it, Grandma?" Sashpark asked.
"I don't understand why you would want to do this to us," Phyrna said.
"I just wanted to meet you properly," Mallyn said softly. "Uncle Prathu - Uncle Prathu, back me up -"
"Leave me out of this, Mallyn," said Prathu, looking away.
"We're leaving," Sernet said. "I'm very disappointed in your behavior, Sashpark."
"Grandma - Grandpa -" squeaked Sashpark, but they didn't pause. They didn't even go past her and Mallyn. They went out the window, her a silver-tailed fluffy-footed pigeonish bird and him a blue-opal crow.
Mallyn's eyes felt hot and prickly. He turned around.
"Mallyn," said Sashpark.
He looked over his shoulder. "What?"
"I..." She looked away. "You're going?"
"Yeah." He pulled the drawing he'd made for her out of his bag and handed it to her. "Happy hatching day."
"I - thank you," Sashpark said, subdued.
"Bye, I guess."
Mallyn started down the stairs.
"Mallyn," a different voice said sharply.
He turned around to see Feln standing at the top of the stairs. "What?" he snapped.
"What kind of stunt was that? That has to have been the worst possible way to -"
"I don't want to hear insults," Mallyn cried. "I'm going home."
"I'm not insulting you, I'm telling you that -"
Mallyn spun around, stumbled on the stairs, and regained his footing one step down, then kept on towards the transfer point.
"Does Ehail know you're here? If you don't tell Ehail what happened," Feln said, "then I will."
Mallyn shuddered and took the last step down to the street.
"I will check," said Feln.
He transferred away.
"Mom?" Mallyn said.
"I..." It was hard to tell her; the very fact that Feln thought his mother needed to know made the fiasco shameful, let alone the fact that it had worked out so poorly. "Did something," he finished.
"What was it?" she asked.
He swallowed. "I convinced Sashpark to help me, about... our... grandparents."
"She had a hatching day party. They came. She told them she was inviting her boyfriend. They didn't know who I was." Mallyn was trembling with remembered cold or just emotion, he didn't know which. Ehail hugged him, which let him stop shaking, and keep explaining. "But I went to their house once - a while ago - and tried to talk to them and get them to change their minds, so they recognized me when they got to the party, and they acted like I'd killed someone or something. And I asked Uncle Prathu to back me up and he told me to leave him out of it, and then I ran out to transfer point home and Feln followed me and said I'd gone about it stupidly but I didn't want to listen to her insult me so I just left, but now I don't have any way to try again, the time I went to their house they said they'd call the cops on me if I ever went there again, and now they know that I'm Sashpark's boyfriend so I can't even try again with a better idea, and I just want an entire family now that I have one worth having at all and - and -"
"Oh, sweetheart," Ehail murmured. And then again, "Oh, sweetheart."
Mallyn squeezed her harder. "I'm sorry. I screwed up, I'm sorry."
Feln showed up later that evening, interrupting a quiet board game Mallyn was losing terribly to Cenem at. Ehail got up to answer the door.
"Hello, Ehail," Feln said. "I told Mallyn that if he didn't tell you about what happened at Sashpark's hatching day party, I would. Did he?" Mallyn cringed.
"He did," Ehail said, patting Mallyn's hair, but he barely felt it. He was so mad at Feln. He didn't even understand why, just that he was furious with her.
"Ehail," Feln said, "it was my impression that you wanted to leave Grandma and Grandpa alone. I didn't particularly speculate on why you'd want that, but there are any number of reasons it was plausible. It is true?"
"I... I didn't think there was much choice involved," Ehail said. "They've made it more than clear that they didn't want me..."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean they're unpersuadable. No one has been trying because no one except your moody teenage son has indicated he wanted to make it an issue," Feln said.
"Uncle Prathu said -!" Mallyn exclaimed. He'd said to leave him out of it, like it wasn't his problem, had nothing to do with him -
"My dad is one person, and one of his traits is an allergy to confrontation," Feln snapped. "If you'd gone to anyone else in the room for support you'd have gotten it. Notice that he also didn't side against you. I'm not offering you help sugar-coated, but I am offering you help, and I, unlike Sashpark, am an adult who can come up with more sophisticated plans than tricking them into the same room as you during Sashpark's hatching day party, which they came to equipped with beribboned presents and not their inmost feelings about their offspring. If you don't yet understand that it was a lousy idea to try to handle this on your own without any grown-ups helping you, Mallyn, then you aren't as smart as Sashpark claims."
Mallyn shrank behind Ehail, who said, "Feln..."
Feln interrupted her. "Do you want the rest of the family to attempt to get you and Grandma and Grandpa reconciled?"
"I - I - I don't know," Ehail whispered. "Can you stay for an angle - stay for dinner -" Mallyn did not want Feln to stay for dinner. But that wasn't up to him. "Gyre will be home, I need to talk to him."
"All right," Feln said, sitting in the red armchair and ignoring Mallyn like he wasn't there. "Thanks."
Mallyn wasn't privy to the rest of the relevant conversation. Feln didn't bring it up before or during dinner. He holed up in his room after eating, and didn't ask Rithka to eavesdrop for him. He just held his sister, squirrely and furred in his arms, and petted her, fuming.
Ehail and her parents... reconciled.
Various types of pressure to which Mallyn was not privy were brought to bear, and Ehail - accompanied by Gyre, while Mallyn and the other kids were left at Rhysel's - met up with them.
There were a series of these meetings, and then, towards the end of his school term, they came to visit.
Mallyn would have been perfectly happy to forget all about the history. He'd already experienced one great set of grandparents suddenly appearing in his life; another could have done the same and he would have dropped all the baggage they had attached to them. (It wasn't as though the people they most resembled were people he didn't like, either.) He tried to hug Phyrna, when she first walked through the door.
She (perhaps willfully) misinterpreted the gesture, patted him dismissively on the shoulder twice, and then turned away.
Phyrna and Sernet were stiff - she was polite, and he was quiet, and they ate what Ehail put in front of them, and they picked up Cenem and Nemaar, and looked freezingly at Rithka when she said, "Why did you take so long to come meet us? Even when we got miracled?"
Rithka didn't get an answer.
Mallyn barely got acknowledged to exist.
But they'd talk - superficially, about Sernet's new tenant at the office building he owned and the knitting circle Phyrna ran and their concerns about the flagging membership at the swatball club such that it might shut down.
They thought Cenem was cute. They thought Nemaar was cute. They wanted to hear all about Cenem's favorite stories and maps and collages and about when Nemaar had achieved various milestones.
They thought Rithka was a brat - they didn't say it, but it was obvious from the first moment she opened her mouth - and they harbored no affection for Mallyn at all.
Ehail wobbled like a puddle in the wind the entire time they were there. She was pale and folded in on herself, paperlike, and tried to anticipate everything they could ask for before they could ask for it, fetching glasses of water and throw pillows and the arithmetic workbook Cenem used the moment they seemed thirsty or uncomfortable or curious. Her face flashed a terrible pained expression every time Rithka made one of her increasingly blunt accusatory remarks, and every time Phyrna shut her down.
Gyre looked unsettled by the whole thing, and seemed to take up a permanent position behind Ehail, as though she were going to fall over. He didn't talk much, except to shush Rithka when she fumed and looked ready to yell. (A pointed look from Gyre was enough to keep Mallyn from making waves.) Rithka was sent up to her room - though with her cookies, not deprived of dessert as was customary for premature ejection from the dinner table.
If this was what he got for his trouble - if this was what Ehail got for her six hundred and sixty-something years of playing orphan - then Mallyn thought he might have to find the transfer signature to the bottom of the world just so he'd have someplace to scream.
He fled up the stairs as soon as he'd eaten his cookies, and went into Rithka's room. She was hugging her knees and sitting on her pea-filled cushion on the floor, silent tear tracks striping her face.
"You okay?" he said.
"Why am I mad at Cenem?" Rithka asked. "She didn't do anything. They just like her. Because she's cuter and littler and not mouthy. But I'm mad at her."
Mallyn nodded. "I'm surprised they like any of us, how they're acting," he said. "I'm surprised they even came here."
"I bet Feln made them. Feln's scary."
"She's not really -"
"I bet she's a super-spy and she can make anybody do whatever she wants," Rithka said.
"Heh." Mallyn dropped his chin to his chest. "Maybe they think if they come and it's unpleasant for everyone no one will ask them to come back. And they can go live in their house on the bay with the pretty shutters and not be bothered by relatives they didn't want."
"Draconic for jerk is rekero," Rithka muttered when Mallyn sat down on the floor beside her.
"What's Draconic for 'disappointed'?" Mallyn asked.
Rithka hesitated. "Ankauy," she told him.
"I'm that," Mallyn said.
Chapter 14: Belsmiar
The red dragon girl Mallyn had noticed during the field trip to the Hub turned out to sell candy during certain angles, in the cafeteria. She was on the far side of the room but he could still see her, over Eran's head. Mallyn hadn't spotted her there before, but at the start of his second term of school, he did - maybe her schedule and his schedule finally aligned well enough, or something.
(Not that his schedule wasn't full. After introductory kamai, the course of study exploded into five different ones, and Mallyn was stubbornly clinging to them all; he'd passed wizarding theory on the first try, so he didn't need to take another until he graduated to a new tier, but he was in a second practicum on household spells. He'd been convinced to keep out of further academics until he dropped a kamai aspect or ran out of death kamai curriculum.)
She was selling penly and Rithka loved penly.
Eran finished his meal and dashed off to his section of elemental kamai; he wasn't in Mallyn's class for that, though they shared a couple others. Mallyn was left alone, so he got up and went to the red dragon's table and picked up a bag of vanilla penly. "Just this, please."
"That all for you?" she asked.
"For my sister," said Mallyn.
"And she's your only sibling and there's no cousins around and nobody'll be jealous?" asked the red shrewdly.
Mallyn paused, and picked up a bag of maple candies for Cenem. Nemaar was too young to make a fuss over not getting any.
The red dragon smiled and named the price, and Mallyn counted out coins. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Finnah," she said. "Why?"
"Just curious. I saw you on the field trip to the Hub, last term," Mallyn said.
"You're just starting out, huh?" Finnah asked.
She turned aside to sell a halfling girl some candied lemon wedges and then looked surprised that Mallyn was still there. "Nothing better to do?" she asked.
"Not really. My next class is in a half angle," Mallyn said.
Finnah tilted her head. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Oh, I know who you are!" she exclaimed, as she reached under the table to produce more sugar-encrusted citrus sections and lay them out where a gap had formed in her inventory. "You're Rhysel's nephew - Korulen was tutoring you, a few months ago."
"You know Korulen?"
"She's my roommate," Finnah said. Someone bought a packet of molasses chews and a peanut brittle and, when Finnah suggested that those were surprisingly good eaten together with honey crystals, some of those too. "So yeah. She mentioned you sometimes," Finnah continued, when the customer had gone.
"Uh, what'd she say?" Mallyn asked.
Finnah smirked. "Perfectly nice things. You're a spontaneous kama, you work pretty hard, you made plenty of progress, you were ready for school in good time. She thinks you're a good kid."
Okay... Korulen thought he was a kid. But she was a dragon and he wasn't; maybe that didn't rule him out if he was a little patient. (If she ever broke up with her boyfriend.) "Okay," Mallyn said. "That's good."
"What, did you think she was spreading awful rumors about you? Hey," she added, to another customer, "that doesn't go in your pocket until you pay up." The customer paid up; Finnah returned her attention to Mallyn. "She doesn't seem the type."
"Well, no," Mallyn said. "I just - wouldn't you want to know what she was saying about you, if you found out she'd been talking about you? She hasn't been that I know of. I don't think she ever mentioned you."
"I wouldn't think she would," Finnah said. "She's got lots of friends to talk about, even if she were going to spend her tutoring sessions talking about people she knows."
"Well, but you're her roommate," said Mallyn.
"I've been talking to you for a couple degrees now and I don't know who your roommate is. Those are cheaper if you buy a bundle of three," she told someone whose hand was hovering over the truffles-on-sticks. "Assorted or all the same." She sold the person an assorted bundle.
"I live at home, my family lives in Paraasilan," said Mallyn. "I did say the candies were for my sisters."
"A lot of people have families in Paraasilan, it's a big city. And more than that can teleport. Plenty of them have roommates and live here part-time anyway to be, y'know, part of school life."
Mallyn didn't want to live at school. He wanted to live with Ehail and Rithka and Cenem and Gyre and Nemaar. In about that order. He couldn't room with Eran. Or, well, it wasn't impossible, but the halfling-sized furniture was all in rooms in a separate section of the dorms, and the rooms themselves were a little smaller too. Leonines roomed in the general population - and for some reason they put female leonines together and male leonines always with other species - but Mallyn had seen the state of Aaseth's side of his room and didn't want to live with him either.
"Well, I don't," Mallyn said.
"I like home. I like my family."
"Good for you," said Finnah.
"So you like living here, I guess, with Korulen," Mallyn said.
"Enh." Finnah started to make some sort of explanatory gesture, but was interrupted by someone shoving coins into her hand. She counted them and did not attempt to call back the boy who'd made off with a bag of the molasses things, so it must have been right. "If I liked my family, maybe I'd live with them too. Not like I have a lot of friends here at the moment." She paused. "Well, ever."
"Aren't you and Korulen friends?"
"Yeah. Pretty much."
"Pretty much?" When Finnah looked like she didn't know what to say, he suggested, "What is it in Draconic?"
"Er, you're not a dragon."
"I sorta collect the words."
"Korulen's my anashex, but - she doesn't like my girlfriend and we keep fighting about that, so she's not my belsmiar anymore and she was never liable to become my icain because those can't have secrets... this is ridiculous, you don't speak Draconic. She doesn't like my girlfriend, is the point. No one here likes my girlfriend. You wouldn't like my girlfriend, if you knew who she was," said Finnah, shutting her eyes tightly and then opening them again.
"...Uh, what's wrong with her?" Mallyn asked slowly.
"Nothing," hissed Finnah. "My girlfriend is wonderful. People are just nasty."
"Why wouldn't I like her, then?" Mallyn asked. "I don't think I'm nasty."
Finnah gave him a considering look. "She's a Linnipese soldier."
That did bring Mallyn up short, but he shrugged. "If she didn't personally kill the people at -"
"See, there you go," Finnah said, sounding tired. "That's the first thing everyone thinks, and even if they decide my girlfriend isn't personally a mass murderer, that's nasty. If I were in a long-distance relationship with a Corentan soldier - let's say I went out of my way to specify that she's a Special Mage, Third Grouping - would you ask me, 'Pardon, but did your girlfriend personally participate in the Suffocation Massacre during the Battle of Whorl Valley?'"
"Uh... no?" Mallyn said. "I don't know what those things are. I only took one history class and it didn't cover it."
Finnah shrugged. "It was when Corenta helped put down the rebellion in southern Gibryel, six years ago. But the fact that you didn't know what I was talking about just supports my point. Would you bat an eye if said I was dating a Special Mage, Third Grouping, of the Corenta Forces?"
"Do you actually know anyone who died in Aabalan?"
"No more than you knew anyone who died in the Suffocation Massacre. So why did it even come up when you decided whether you could approve of my girlfriend?"
"It wasn't long ago and it happened in my country?" Mallyn suggested meekly. "Um, I'm sorry. Maybe I should just go to class. Thanks for the candy."
"Wait, wait," Finnah said, dropping her forehead into her hand. "I'm sorry. I'm really touchy. I've been dealing with this for a long time but you weren't really out of bounds and the Suffocation Massacre is completely irrelevant."
"...Okay," Mallyn said.
"And I don't have any friends besides my girlfriend and you're a basically tolerable conversationalist."
"Oh," said Mallyn.
Finnah tossed him a trio of truffles-on-sticks. "You and the sister and whoever the maples are for," she said. "Don't be late to class or anything, but you could come hang out again on Inen."
"Okay," Mallyn said.
It occurred to Mallyn, while he was sitting in his wild kamai class and poking a bit of wood to try to make it relax, that he knew nothing about Linnip. He didn't know why they'd done what they did, or if normal Linnipese people supported it, or anything about them except for what he'd heard from people who really hated them. He certainly didn't know if they were otherwise nice people, the way he'd been led to believe Corentans largely were.
It occurred to Mallyn that he didn't know very much about the world he lived in at all. Could he trust his history teacher to give an unbiased account of everything the class had covered? Could he expect his classmates to have informed opinions about faraway places and people, fair opinions? Could he assume that everything printed in the Chronicle would be just true, about something so fuzzy as that?
His next class was elemental kamai, and Rhysel taught his section. They were shaping stone (which was not any easier than shaping wood was, and it was annoying to fail at roughly the same thing twice in a row). He hung back after.
"What's up, Mallyn?" Rhysel asked.
"You've been to Linnip, right?"
"Several times. To set up the kamai department at the University of Peiza," she said, with affected indifference. "Why do you ask?"
"Is - is it nice there?" That wasn't really his question, but it might be a start.
"When it's not raining, it's all right," Rhysel said. "As places go. I'm not that immersed in the culture, you know."
"I mean - the people who live there aren't all awful."
"No, they're not," Rhysel said. "What's got you thinking about this?"
"I upset someone," Mallyn said, "talking about it."
"Ah." There was a silence, and Rhysel said, "Do you want to come along, next time I'm there?"
"Maybe. Would people be horrible to me? Because I'm a boy?"
Rhysel considered this question. "Maybe," she said. "Talyn's been there with me before, and he expected much worse than he got - he kept being surprised when women there would even acknowledge that he'd spoken. So perhaps not as horrible as you think they might. It isn't like Esmaar. But it isn't backwards-Ryganaav-pre-colonization either."
"Maybe I should be a girl, and go like that," Mallyn said.
His aunt blinked at him. "Dress up as -?"
"No. Well, yes, but actually be one too. I can still shapeshift. From when I had the accident," Mallyn said sheepishly. And that way everyone in Linnip would treat him like they'd treat a stranger, but not a lesser stranger, and he could see how they were then. At their best.
Like how Sashpark had always gotten to see their grandparents, and he didn't. He'd have so much preferred to see them at their best.
Having to be a girl would be annoying, but not as annoying as being a mink, and he'd change back when he got home.
"I might have to borrow a skirt," he said.
"Ah." Rhysel looked thoughtful. "Well, I'll take you along if you like, either way. I'm not sure whether you'll find what you're looking for tagging along with me around the University. I suppose if you turn into a girl you'll be able to wander around on your own without getting unwanted attention for it, though."
Mallyn nodded. "When do you go next?"
"Tomorrow morning," Rhysel said. "There's a department meeting and I'm going to sit in on a class. You'd have a few angles. Sound good?"
"What do you want me to say if someone asks for your name?" Rhysel asked.
"I don't know. Something sort of like mine, I guess, a Barashin name. Myla?" suggested Mallyn.
"All right. I guess I'll see you in the morning, my tower, at second-and-naught," said Rhysel.
At second-and-naught, Mallyn got a translation spell from Ehail. (Explaining to her what he was going to do had been only mildly awkward, though he'd had to tell her twice that he did not want or plan to remain a girl.). He transferred to Rhysel's tower, not shapeshifted yet. He'd worked out a form that he thought would be reasonably comfortable on paper, first, and since his clothes wouldn't fit after he changed shape he was waiting till he got to Rhysel's.
Rhysel loaned him an outfit, and he ducked into the bathroom to change.
He was a few inches shorter and he had to add a little fat so he didn't look starved, but he was still tall and skinny for a girl. He kept his hair the same and most of his face too, and left himself as flat-chested as he thought could make sense for his age. The result wasn't especially pretty, but that wasn't the point of the exercise. In the borrowed outfit, he was pretty sure people would assume on inspection that he was a she.
The skirt was impractical, but not otherwise that unpleasant. Aaseth wore skirt-things all the time and was, as his slowly sprouting mane attested, a boy. Mallyn came out of the bathroom. "Do I look right?" he asked Rhysel.
He sounded softer and higher than usual, but his voice hadn't dropped very deep anyway; it wasn't a huge change.
"You look fine," she said, shrugging. "You'll pass for an Esmaarlan elf girl while in Linnip, at any rate. Ready to go?"
Rhysel gave him the transfer point signature for the University of Peiza transfer point, and he followed her to Linnip.
His first impression was that everything was too visually busy. The walls of the university buildings were crawling with decorations, carved in and stuck on. It seemed to be an even mix of architectural inclusion and artful graffiti, sort of pretty in its own way but hard to look at for very long.
"Meet me here in three angles," Rhysel told him. "If you need me before that, get directions to the kamai department coordinator's office and that's where I'll be."
"Even when you sit in on the class?"
"It's held there too, yes."
Rhysel disappeared into the bauble-encrusted structure and Mallyn was left standing alone.
There were various students milling about, but they were all older than he was and looked preoccupied. Ideally he'd find someone his age. Did they have school on Lunenik in Linnip? (Most people - girls, anyway - did go to school in Linnip, he thought; Esmaar was the unusual one in having the majority homeschooled.)
Mallyn turned slowly on the spot. The university buildings - or at least the ones he could see - were, while variously decorated, all shaped about the same. More varied and slightly smoother structures were lined up across the nearest street. Mallyn headed that way.
Walking felt kind of strange in "Myla's" body, mostly around the hips, but he got along. Peiza looked like... well, a city. There were shops, and apartments on top of them; there were little sloping alleys with patterns picked out in blue or white stone among the gray; there were scoots flying overhead, and people in busy clothes wandering to and fro.
There was a little park a block away from the university. Mallyn didn't want to stray far and get lost, so he sat on a bench there, and reached into his bag for something to draw with so it wouldn't be obvious that he was just staring at everyone and hoping to eavesdrop. He started sketching a picture of Sashpark.
He did eavesdrop, some - he heard a pair of sisters talking about one's new job, and a mother telling all of her children to wait for her at the toy store and look around while she went into the bank, and a father and a daughter gossiping about some other relative of theirs. People seemed to arrange themselves in families a lot. Mallyn supposed they did that in Esmaar too, some, but at school people hung out with clumps of friends - everyone he saw here was related to their companions or alone. Maybe he just hadn't seen enough people, or women who were just friends called each other "sister" here.
After a few degrees, he became aware that someone was peering over his shoulder.
He turned his head, and she scrambled back. "Sorry. I just - who are you drawing?" the girl asked.
She looked about his equivalency, and very much a typical Linnipese citizen - bedecked in patterned articles of clothing that didn't match and excessive jewelry. "It's okay," Mallyn said. Of all the things he could be self-conscious about, drawing wasn't one of them. "I'm drawing my girlfriend."
"She's pretty," opined the Linnipese girl. "What's your name?"
"M-Myla," Mallyn said, remembering at the last second. "Yours?"
"Satalia Meialek - do you not normally introduce yourselves with last name, wherever you're from?"
"Is my translation spell that bad?" Mallyn asked.
"Well, no - well, a little, but even if there are some Eastern elves living in Peiza, you aren't dressed like you live here," Satalia said. "I'm not wrong, am I?"
"No, I live in Esmaar," said Mallyn.
"See, there you go, and you look it too. What's your last name?"
"In Linnip we always add last names. Most people don't start calling each other by first name right away unless they already know the family," Satalia said, sitting down next to him. "I didn't mean to interrupt your drawing. Is it okay if I watch?"
"It's fine with me," said Mallyn, and he went on blocking in the shadows on Sashpark's face.
Satalia stared eagerly. "I like to draw too," she said. "But my mom doesn't think it's practical. She wants me to go into the military like her. I don't want to go take over foreign countries, though. I don't think we should be doing that. Right?" She batted her eyes at Mallyn like she expected to be awarded points.
"I'd rather draw than join the army, too," Mallyn agreed. "It could be practical. Somebody has to draw illustrations in books, and advertisements, and stuff."
"I was thinking maybe architectural design, if I have to do something that's not pure art," Satalia said. "But I might also just run away when I turn sixteen and put myself through school and not care what my mother says. My grandma did that! Well, she was getting out of an arranged marriage, but she still had to run away and support herself when she was sixteen. She got her friend who was just out of seminary and not even a real priestess yet to do a marriage ceremony for her and her sweetheart - my grandpa - and her mom couldn't do anything about it. My grandma's awesome but I guess it skipped my mom." Satalia sighed.
"I'm sorry you don't get along with your mom," Mallyn said.
"What's yours like?" Satalia asked.
"My mom? She's a dragon," Mallyn said. "She's - we get along a lot better than you and yours, it sounds like. My mom is pretty much my favorite person."
"What would your girlfriend say if she heard that?" teased Satalia.
Mallyn laughed. "I think she knows. It's not hard to tell."
"Are you her favorite person?" Satalia asked.
"My girlfriend's or my mom's? Because I have - siblings," Mallyn said. Brothers and sisters wasn't quite right. Even if Ehail certainly, painfully loved Kenar still. Lyrrae and Renn existed but weren't likely to rate high in Ehail's heart. (They were drifting away from the center of Mallyn's life, too. But they were safe. Noi, whatever that meant.)
"Your girlfriend's," Satalia said. "I am so not my mom's favorite person. Both my brothers are better behaved than me, and of course there's Dad."
"I don't think I'm Sashpark's favorite person," Mallyn said slowly. He was pretty sure her favorite people were dead.
"Oh well. What kind of a name is 'Sashpark'?" Satalia asked. "It doesn't sound Leraal. Actually, 'Myla' doesn't either."
"I'm adopted and she's a dragon."
"Ohhhh. That makes sense," Satalia said contently. And she didn't ask about where he was adopted from. Instead she said, "You're putting so much detail into her hair."
"This is what it looks like. She's a blue opal."
"But you could simplify it for a drawing. I would just have a dozen little sparkles, and one or two really attention-grabbing ones, and that would sum up the whole thing - it's going to take you angles and angles to finish just this one sketch."
"That's not really my style. I do extreme realism generally," Mallyn shrugged.
"Oh." Satalia watched him for another moment, then said, "Do you have some paper and graphite I could borrow?"
"Sure." He handed them over. Satalia tapped the graphite stick on the corner of the paper twice, and then started sketching.
"Trees?" Mallyn guessed, after the first few lines.
"Clouds. I'm into cloudscapes, lately, they're better in color but I can work on my shading," Satalia said.
And they drew silently, until Mallyn thought to check the time.
"I have to go," he said. "My aunt will be waiting for me by now. It was nice to meet you -"
"Here," Satalia said. She took out two pads of paper, about half the size of what they'd been sketching on, and handed him one. "Take this."
"It's link paper. I won a set in a trivia contest at school." She brandished the other pad. "I'll keep this one. Won't you take it? None of my friends like to draw. We can draw stuff to show each other," Satalia wheedled.
Mallyn stared at her for a tick, then closed his fingers around the pad and said, "Sure."
Satalia grinned brightly. "Great! I'll write to you later, then."
Mallyn nodded, and put the link paper in his bag, and waved to Satalia as he headed back towards campus.
So apparently people in Linnip did make friends with people who weren't related to them.
This was awkward.
Rhysel saw Mallyn home. He scurried up to his room before Rithka could see him and tease, and shapeshifted back into himself and put on a normal set of clothes. Rhysel had said he could keep the outfit, when she'd asked him if he was likely to want to make another trip and he'd squirmed and said "maybe".
"Mom?" Mallyn said.
"What is it, sweetheart?" Ehail asked, drawing him into a hug.
"Uh - Myla made a friend."
Ehail's hands stilled on his back. "How did that happen?"
"I was just - I was sitting there - and she asked what I was drawing - and now I have this pad of link paper and -" He pulled it out of his bag. It already had marks on it; Satalia had written look, it's color link paper! and drawn a sunset-cloud.
It was a pretty little drawing.
"What do I do?" Mallyn asked. "She thinks I'm a girl."
"Well... yes, she does," Ehail said slowly.
"That's my fault I guess," Mallyn mumbled. "I guess she can't tell through the link paper?"
Ehail stroked his hair. It was getting hard for her to even reach his head; he kept getting taller. "No, she probably can't. Is that what you want to do?"
"It'd be kind of lousy to take her link paper and then never write anything," Mallyn said. "And it was fun to draw with somebody - and if I tell her she might be mad at me."
"She might," agreed Ehail.
"So what do I do?"
"I think that's up to you," said Ehail.
Mallyn looked at the cloud.
He looked at his mom.
He went to get his colored pencils.