Chapter Nine: 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.)