Chapter Five: 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.