Chapter Four: 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.