Chapter Fourteen: 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.