Chapter 1: Shyness
Ehail watched Rhysel swear wedding vows through a half-fallen curtain of brown hair. The hair in her face reminded her of school in Lypan; she'd diligently combed dye from root to tip and smoothed more over her eyebrows, and if she'd missed a spot, she could only hope that anyone spying it would think she was going prematurely gray.
Dyeing her hair again for the wedding had felt drearily familiar, even with her graduation four hundred and forty-two years distant.
Maybe it was four hundred and forty-three. It was Shuraahel 1, back on Elcenia; a new year. She could remember the year she'd graduated but not the date.
She could look it up, when this business was over and she was home among her things.
The vows concluded. Various combinations of people in the wedding party danced, and then Ehail, as an ordinary guest, was allowed to dance or fetch food, as she chose. Ehail wasn't sure why Rhysel had invited her at all, but the woman was nearly a miracle-worker. She'd stopped all those children from hurting and crying. If all she wanted from Ehail was her attendance at a party, Ehail could give her that.
Ehail didn't want to try setting foot on the dance floor. There was a mix of styles, since the dancers were from two worlds and more nations, but she'd only ever picked up Giad toe-dancing. That would attract attention, wouldn't go with the music, and would require at least two other people dancing with her to make sense. Both of the shrens she'd taken lessons with when she was a child had moved out of the house when they'd grown up. She wondered if she could even reconstruct the steps, given partners and a solid drumbeat. It didn't really matter.
Dancing ruled out, Ehail moved to the tables of food. It was all labeled. She didn't think anyone was tracking her gaze, but still she made a point of reading only the Leraal, not the Martisen. Humans pale as her wouldn't normally know Leraal, either, but she could reuse her story from school if someone asked. Mekandish diplomat's daughter, grew up in Petar. The Petar part was even true.
(The diplomat's daughter part might be true. She wouldn't know.)
She didn't have any real food preferences. Pickiness had matured away by the time she was three hundred, helped along by the cafeteria's indifference to requests, and she was left with a shren's tolerance for spice and a broad indifference to everything. Ehail noticed what other people were taking, wondered if there would be enough for everyone, and spooned out some of the less popular dishes onto her plate. There were enough tables and chairs for everyone. Ehail could sit by herself, and not have to stutter her way through small talk with strangers.
The food was better than the house cafeteria, or at least different. The "arrabek" was quite hot. Ehail ate that in between bites of everything else and drank plenty of water. She didn't think the fact that pain tolerance extended to peppery meals was well-known, but there was no reason to risk it. The other options were theatrical pretenses of discomfort or avoiding the arrabek altogether, neither of which she wanted to do.
And then she wasn't sitting alone anymore.
The fellow who'd sat with her was a redheaded half-elf. In context, that probably made him related to Rhysel, not a half-Linnipese half-Western hybrid. Especially since he was wearing glasses. On Elcenia, only Salvationists who shunned corrective wizardry still used those. She stared at him blankly; there were plenty of empty seats next to other redheaded halfbloods. Or friendlier-looking Elcenian strangers, if he wanted to meet new people. How was he even expecting to talk to her? Maybe he couldn't tell she was Elcenian, thought she was some friend of Rhysel's from Barashi...
"Hi," he said. "My name is Gyre. Rhysel says you're called Ehail - that's a beautiful name."
He wasn't even asking her if she spoke Martisen. She could pretend blank incomprehension, babble at him in Leraal. She already had the stunned-rabbit why-are-you-interacting-with-me expression.
But Rhysel had apparently sent him in her direction (why?) and that meant he probably believed she spoke Martisen. Technically true. Contradicting that belief instead of making up a story to explain it would confuse him, possibly send him back to Rhysel with questions. Ehail trusted herself to cover for herself, at least more than she thought she ought to trust Rhysel when Rhysel was so busy and didn't really understand about shrens.
Besides, Ehail expected him to lose interest soon enough anyway; she was boring. She could make herself more boring by speaking Martisen badly, as though she'd learned it as a second language. There had been some time since she'd met Rhysel. She could have picked up a few things, if she'd wanted to. (Why would her cover story have wanted to? Why was her cover story invited to Rhysel's wedding? She should have rehearsed this.)
"Am I pronouncing it right?" Gyre asked after she'd stared at him a little too long. "E-hail?"
"Yes," she said, trying to apply a Leraal accent to the word. She had to guess at it, but she had Rhysel's new husband's example from when he'd spoken his vows to draw on. "Ehail is my name." If he knew enough about Leraal to know that that didn't make sense, well, the Mekandish diplomat's daughter story fit that. Was "diplomat" a particularly introductory word that people learned when they studied languages? Was "daughter"? Ehail had no idea.
He sat down. "I hope you don't mind if I keep you company. You looked lonely. Nobody should be alone at a celebration like a wedding."
Was he rephrasing it like that to get through the supposed gaps in her vocabulary she'd suggested with her accent? Was this a helpful person? She wasn't sure how to get rid of one of those. Ehail sipped her water. Green eyes regarded her with terrifying interest through spectacle lenses. "Oh," she said. Boringly.
"How did you meet Rhysel? I'm her younger brother," Gyre said.
"She needed my help," Ehail fake-accented. Shorten the ees and ys - if she had to say his name she'd pronounce it "Ger". Flub consonant clusters starting or ending words. Trail off at concluding vowels as though they were unexpected or add extra sounds. "I don't know the Martisen - 'teleporting'." Martisen didn't have a word for it; transfer wasn't the same thing.
"What's that?" he wanted to know.
"...Going places," Ehail summarized in simple words, trying to avoid squirming in her seat. "Magically going places fast." Rhysel's brother would probably talk to her in the future. Her wedding was probably the sort of thing they might talk about.
"So you use magic? I think I remember hearing that Elcenian kinds are different from Barashin kamai magic," said Gyre. He was speaking carefully, pausing between words, making everything a little redundant to give her multiple chances to catch it. It would have been enormously helpful if she'd been as she was pretending. If she'd wanted to talk to him. "I can't do any myself. Rhysel's the only kama in the family."
"Sorry, I hope I'm not making you work harder on talking than you were expecting to do tonight. I'm afraid I don't speak any Leraal at all," he said apologetically.
Ehail nodded in silence. Maybe he would go find someone who "spoke his language".
"When we've finished eating," he said instead, "would you like to dance?"
"I don't know this dance," she said.
"No one's going to laugh at you," he said. "I'm not a great dancer myself. That talent went to my brother Jenner. Won't you come dance with me anyway?"
Was it acceptable to refuse? Ehail didn't know how Barashin weddings worked. She knew that in Reverni - or at least Reverni a few hundred years ago - turning up to an event that involved dancing told everyone there you were willing to dance, and turning down a specific invitation was a grave insult. She'd avoided parties in general during school, especially dancing parties. Had it been a mistake to go to this one? What would happen if she told him "no"?
"One song?" she hedged.
"One is all I ask. I'm sure someone else will have snapped you up by the time it's over," Gyre said.
"Oh," she said, stomach sinking into her shoes.
"Are you enjoying the food?" he asked.
"The arrabek is hot," she said neutrally.
"It's troll food. Trolls like their food very hot," Gyre told her. "I grew up with it because it's a specialty of my mother's. But Mother can make other things, too."
Ehail picked at her food; when it was gone, she'd have to either get up for seconds or dance, and she wasn't hungry enough to eat much more. "Oh." She felt so boring. So ridiculously boring. Why wasn't he bored? Why wasn't he leaving?
"Rhysel said you were shy," remarked Gyre. "I guess she was right. I promised not to scare you out of the hall, though."
She fidgeted. "I'm still here," she admitted inanely.
Eventually she had no reasonable thing to do with her hands but spear her last tidbit of asparagus and eat it. "I suppose we dance now?" she said, looking up at Gyre and trying not to look rudely apprehensive.
Gyre led her out onto the floor and Ehail faltered her way through one interminable stretch of strings and woodwinds. She stepped on his feet twice, which was a sincere accident, although she somewhat wished she had the spite to do it on purpose. She fell over outright once and Gyre had to catch her before she fell onto the mother of the groom.
She finished up reasonably confident that she would not be able to pick up her languishing dance hobby should it ever enter her head to try. She was tired of the sensation of being watched - only by Gyre, admittedly. She wanted to go home, and doodle leaf veins, and do more pointless familiar research to feed the pointless familiar hope of being something that wouldn't need to hide. Like all the jade guests, who Ehail thought were mostly relatives of Rhysel's attendant. That diamond, some other relation of someone, completely sloshed on bring-her-own redreed wine that Ehail would never dare touch because what might she say.
"Did you have fun?" Gyre asked earnestly, searching her eyes as she wove her way off the dance floor between spinning couples.
"I want to go home," murmured Ehail, ducking her head so he wouldn't look at her. "I didn't know the wedding would go on this long." She'd forgotten her accent, and winced behind her hair.
"Oh. Lots to do?"
Sort of. "Yes."
"Will you let me help you find a kama who can take you back to that circle thing, Ehail?" Gyre asked.
"Fine." She didn't even sound snappish, just tired. Gyre put his hand on her shoulder and steered her through the loosely arranged tables until he spotted someone he recognized; it wasn't the student who'd brought Ehail to the wedding, but he did agree to take her away from it.
The kama didn't try to engage her in conversation. He just went out with her to the transfer point, leaving Gyre behind, and brought her to the transfer point in Rhysel's old tower. <Can you go on yourself from here?>
"Yes," murmured Ehail, suddenly wary of anyone casually wielding telepathic powers - what if he knew - but he transferred away as soon as she'd said the word.
Ehail walked to where she'd appeared on Barashi in the first place. She stood there, took deep breaths, and waited.
At last, the circle's delay elapsed, and she was back on Elcenia.
She didn't even step out of the circle before teleporting home.
Ehail didn't like to teleport directly into rooms. Hundreds of years ago, the state of the art had been a different spell. That one did not particularly tend to embed a person in walls and floors any more than modern teleportation did, but it had made a loud pop with an accompanying wind when one appeared, and this had tended to rattle decorations and blow papers around the room. Ehail retained the habit of appearing outside of the shren house and opening the door, rather than landing directly in her office or her bedroom.
An obsidian - Ehail could call her name to mind in a tick, but didn't need to - was staffing the door. She nodded to Ehail politely while the iron door shuddered closed, and went back to painting white designs on her hand. Ehail nodded back and went on.
She passed the babies' playroom. Ilen was singing his charges a song, some old folktale in lowland Alteisec about a farmer with lyrics that could be adjusted for arbitrary crops. The babies were suggesting things that did not grow in the relevant area, including "flutes" and "kittens" that were not plants at all, but Ilen was making up rhymes to suit anyway.
The first floor held all of the non-dorm-rooms, including Ehail's office, which was at the very back of the building. This meant it was a bit of a long walk from the front door. She wondered if the house maintenance committee would build a back door, if she asked. They would probably ask her why she didn't just teleport. That was why she never asked.
The offices and storage rooms and children's dormitories and closets and classrooms all wrapped around the cafeteria and the library, the two largest rooms in the house. Ehail's little study to herself shared a wall with the kitchen, but she had the room magically soundproofed, so she could concentrate during its angles of operation. She let herself into it and the silence fell over her like a blanket - no more chopping and mixing from the cooks, no more chatter and tussling from the children who roomed on the ground floor, no more footsteps from everyone moving place to place to fetch things and carry messages and put things back and return to their own places.
The office didn't have a window. Ehail had a sunglow spell on the ceiling instead of standard lighting, to keep her spider plant alive, and so it was quite cheery nevertheless, although she had to wear a sunscreening spell at all times. It occurred to her that the trip to Barashi would have broken hers. She re-cast it, then picked up her to-do list. On it were several mundane chores that fell to her as the only wizard in the house (fix the light in this bedroom, correct this child's blurry vision, teach the new addition to the custodial team to cast some cleaning spells safely). At the top - always at the top, though she made sure everything else was done first - was fix us.
Ehail renewed the spell on the fading ceiling light upstairs. She fixed the little diamond boy's eyesight. She taught the new custodian to clear dust, clean floors, and smooth away scratches in surfaces with spells that were simple enough for non-wizards. And then she went back to her office.
Fix us. The current subtask was to translate her notes, so that Rhysel's husband could read what little she'd figured out so far. Maybe he could do it. Maybe he'd see something she hadn't. He had a more up to date education than she did, even if she did have a subscription to a couple of wizarding journals so she could read up on new developments. Ehail took out a fresh stack of paper and flipped to an old notebook and scratched the best corresponding Leraal words in to match the old Munine. A literacy spell wouldn't help the abbreviations, or translate the words she'd made up that no one else knew, or put the diagrams into modern shapes, or keep all of the nuances she'd written in. And she didn't mind tedious work.
Her research fell into a few categories. There were spells she'd invented, dozens of them, different analyses and statics and installations to peer at the inner structures of her housemates, try to compensate for the brokenness. There were her records of attempts to apply the standard ideas-that-did-not-work, like disconnecting a baby shren from the magic that pulled it towards the floor (they thought this was fun, but it didn't help). She tried them all, just in case they did-work and had been misreported. (They did-not-work.) There were reams of statistics, trying to find patterns in the numbers of shrens over the centuries or what families they might be from - a hopeless endeavor. Many shren eggs might never make it to a house. It was too easy to smash one when it came out with stripes, claim a smaller clutch, never think about it again. Ehail had no idea what fraction of striped eggs were packaged and mailed to one of the four houses.
She kept the statistics anyway. The other three house leaders all sent her letters when they got new eggs, telling her color and sex and, twenty years later, whether the shifted baby looked a bit like anyone else they'd seen before.
As near as she could tell, it was random - there were a few more violet-group shrens, but there were a few more violet-group dragon couples. They never paired off with vampires who could last as long as them, like land dragons might, and weren't as likely to marry between colors and let chance even out the numbers. Otherwise, no patterns. Girls and boys were struck just the same - if the gender ratio rippled it matched the census data the Dragon Council kept, which Ehail got through a former resident's throwback thudia grand-niece's subtle assistance at the moment. Some faces came up more than once - Ehail herself had a 2,200-year-old twin living somewhere in Larotia, who'd grown up in a house since dissolved in a kingdom since conquered - but nothing that looked significant.
Ehail's current avenue of research - apart from the strategy of sharing her work with Rhysel's husband - revolved around a new analysis. She had finally managed, after months of painstaking work, to invent a spell that let her look at... Well, she called it "dragon magic", for lack of a better word, but shrens had it. It powered the languages, the shapeshifting, the firebreathing, all the other little powers. And big powers, in unusuals and uniques - Ehail thought it was the same thing fueling those. She wasn't likely to get a chance to look at one and cast analyses.
So far she hadn't had the opportunity to look at a regular dragon, even, which made her current avenue slow going. Rhysel's husband might have better luck.
Ehail might have dared cast the analysis surreptitiously at Rhysel's wedding so she could inspect the dragon guests, but it had been on Barashi.
When she noticed her eyes sliding over the Munine words without reading, she picked herself up, conjured a little water for her spider plant, and went up the stairs to her bedroom for the night.
In the morning, she'd wash out the dye.
The dye Ehail had chosen for the wedding was temporary stuff; she hadn't been going incognito for years as she had in school. It came out as soon as she lathered her hair, leaving wet silver strands behind when she rinsed it out. That taken care of, she dressed in the only clean outfit she had left. The laundress came by every three days, so Ehail had three sets of clothes - an eclectic mix. She'd worn a passably nice dress to the wedding, but this day was a brown blouse and blue slacks. The slacks were wearing through a little at the knees.
On her door was a paper for people to write chores that called for a wizard. She added mend slacks - for the house in general, patching up clothes wasn't considered worth her time, but for Ehail's wardrobe it was faster in terms of her own time than teleporting up to the town and buying a new pair would be. The rest of the list read, next to the requesters' names, renew sixth oven's spell something's wrong with it and break my room's empathy ward, I'm moving and fix the third shower in the blue-tile bathroom and teleport me to the mainland by eighth-and-naught to meet govt. person about budget.
After checking the time, which was well before eighth-and-naught, Ehail looked up the relevant spells to make the repairs and fixed the oven and the shower. Then she went to find Hallai, who was in her own office four doors down.
"Hey, Ehail," said Hallai. The copper shren was sitting in a rocking chair, pushing herself back with one foot against the office wall at a steady pace. There weren't enough powerful empaths to have more than one working at a time. In theory, any green-group could do it, even a child, but the attention and the fortitude and relentless force of personality necessary to keep a houseful of shrens in emotional check wasn't as common as all that. Hallai had the skills, but had to use her own methods to keep on an even keel while she was working. Her nearest inferior, an malachite, took over at night when there were only dreams and people on odd schedules to look after. "Did you break the ward on my room yet?" Hallai asked.
"I can't," Ehail said. "I'm no good at breaks. Why are you moving rooms?"
"Finnah's going to enroll in that kama lady's school program and live on campus. I want her room. She was too young to move upstairs anyway, and then she got a corner room when we had to bump her because that decade we had too many no-show parents, does that seem fair?"
"I don't know," Ehail said. Hallai didn't much care if people agreed with her, as long as they didn't disagree. Lacking an opinion didn't risk the copper's temper. "But I can't break the ward on your room. I can cast a new one on the corner room so you can sleep there without projecting at your new neighbors, but the old one will stay there until it wears off by itself."
"Or we hire a better wizard to get rid of it," Hallai said.
"Or that," acknowledged Ehail. "Is it a problem to leave it there? Anyone else who projects in their sleep will need one - although I think it's only you and Ilen unless you've noticed one of the children starting? - and anyone who doesn't won't notice it. It's one-way."
"Oh. Thought it was both ways. I guess there's never anybody in my room while I work so I wouldn't notice," shrugged Hallai. "All right, if it's not going to get in my way you can leave it. Put a ward on Finnah's old room."
Ehail left Hallai and considered going to Ludei and asking for confirmation. He might not allow the move; Hallai probably hadn't gone through the normal room-swapping procedure if she'd written the ward request herself. But it really wouldn't hurt anything to have an extra empathy ward on any room, so she didn't bother. She looked up the spell, went to the corner room Finnah had indeed vacated, and cast the barrier to prevent empathic projections from escaping its walls.
After all this, Ehail went to the cafeteria, avoiding the breakfast and lunch rush both in exchange for a reduced selection; she usually wasn't hungry right after waking. She took some of everything and brought it back to her office to eat as she worked. There were a few angles left before eighth-and-naught.
Ten degrees before that time, she went to Ludei's office. "Are you ready to go to the mainland?" she asked.
"Ah, hello, Ehail," Ludei said. He was in one of his "talking to people with money" outfits, the version reserved for Petarans rather than foreigners - a stiff black flat-fronted thing under a color-striped smock. The colors had some significance in some early islander culture that it was currently popular to have familiarity with. "Yes. I'm ready to leave. Thank you."
Ehail held out her hand and he took it. She teleported to the Petaran capital, which she'd visited specifically to be able to ferry Ludei there, and he thanked her with a pat on her hand and proceeded to his appointment. "I will call when the business is over with," he told her over his shoulder.
Ehail teleported back to the shren house's front door, and walked the long way to her office. She put the communication crystal that matched Ludei's in the pocket of her slacks, and then looked up the spell to patch the garment's knees.
With that handled, she checked her paper for more requests. There were none.
Her to-do list had only one item on it: fix us.
Chapter 2: Presence
Rhysel and her husband came by right on schedule to treat the babies on Lunen, newlyweds though they were, and afterwards stopped at Ehail's office for new translations. Ehail handed them over, including the specifications for her dragon magic analysis, and Aar Camlenn started reading the description of the intentional components. "Ehail, do you have a moment?" Rhysel asked when the silver had turned to go back into her office and resume work.
"Yes," Ehail said.
"Do you remember meeting my brother Gyre at the wedding?"
Ehail nodded. "He sat with me, and asked me to dance, which I did, and then I went home."
"He wrote me a letter," Rhysel said, "and in it, he said he was... curious about you."
The silver blinked. "Why?" She wasn't interesting. She'd tried very hard to avoid giving off the mistaken appearance that she was interesting. And it would have been strange to follow up with someone even moderately interesting under the circumstances. "What does he want?"
"Well, he wanted to know more about you, and he wanted me to ask you if you'd be willing to see him again," Rhysel said. "I didn't tell him anything, Ehail. He thinks you're a human from somewhere in Elcenia."
"Oh." Ehail blinked. "But why does he want to know more about me? Or see me again? I don't understand."
Rhysel shrugged. "You'd have to ask him. My guess is that he likes you."
"Gyre's harmless, Ehail," Rhysel said gently. "I haven't been that close to most of my family, but I do know a few things about my brother, and he's not going to do... whatever it is you're afraid will happen if someone finds out you're a shren out of context."
"He doesn't even know what shrens are, does he," Ehail murmured.
"He doesn't." Rhysel paused. "Do you want me to tell him? I can tell you how he reacts, and if you don't like it, you'll never hear about him from me again."
Ehail squirmed. "I can't stop you from telling him," she pointed out. "And it doesn't matter, anyway. I'm back home and everyone here is a shren. Except you and Aar Camlenn."
"So you don't care if I tell him about shrens, and that you are one, and so on?" Rhysel asked.
"Don't send him here," Ehail clarified, "looking for me, but you can tell him that, if you want."
Rhysel nodded. "If you did want to meet him," she said, "I'd let you use my tower if you didn't want him here - that would be comfortable enough, right? You've been over before."
"Yes." The tower was fine. But feeling comfortable in places wasn't very much about the places. "If I were going to meet him I would rather do it there."
"All right. I'll leave you be, then," Rhysel said, and she turned to go.
Ehail shut her office door behind her, and no longer heard the receding footsteps.
Monthly security ward check, read her to-do list. Ask cafeteria staff for list of dishes in circulation to cast better dish cleaning spell. And, Fix us.
Two weeks more saw Rhysel back at the house. Ehail had another stack of translations ready for Aar Camlenn, when he knocked at her office door, and this time he had something for her too.
"My writeup of the results of your analysis," he said. "On three infant dragon subjects, anonymous."
"Thank you," Ehail said, trading papers with him.
She hadn't been going to ask about Gyre, but Rhysel didn't need to be asked. "I talked to my brother."
"I think that's the sort of thing people usually do with their brothers," Ehail said. She winced; that had sounded unkind. "I mean, oh."
Rhysel didn't seem offended. "And I told him about shrens, and that you are one, and about the work I'm doing. He still wants to see you again, and he says my tower would be a fine place to do it."
"...Did you tell him that would definitely happen?" Ehail said. "I - I didn't -"
"No," Rhysel said, and Ehail relaxed somewhat. "But he hopes you'll get over your reserve and talk to him. He said that whatever species you are, he can tell when someone's lonely, and you are - and honestly, Ehail, I think I agree with him."
"I live in a house with hundreds of people in it," Ehail said.
"Are any of them your friends?" Rhysel asked. Her voice was gentle, at least.
"My friends moved away," Ehail murmured.
"Do you write to them? Visit them?" Rhysel asked.
"I did..." But then she'd gone to school, and hadn't dared send letters anyone might want to know about, nor receive them. And over the eight years of her education, they'd stopped, and she'd been busy with work, anyway, once she was a wizard. There was plenty of work.
Ehail shrugged. "I know everyone in the house."
"Come to my tower sometime convenient for you - the middle of the day, any day Inen through Fenen, it's usually empty while we're teaching and my apprentice is running around doing his own projects," Rhysel said. "And I can have my brother meet you there. He just wants to talk to you."
Would Rhysel ever leave this alone if Ehail didn't say yes? Maybe she'd stop making it about Gyre, but she might substitute someone else. Or herself. Ehail didn't want to take up Rhysel's time, directly or indirectly. Rhysel was doing something important, helping the children where Ehail hadn't been able to and teaching her students skills they might use to do the same. "All right," Ehail said. "Saanen? I want a few days to look over the analysis results, first..."
"Saanen, lunchtime?" Rhysel asked, nodding. "Sixth-and-naught?"
"Fine," Ehail said. "I'll be there then."
"By the way," Rhysel said. "I don't know who looks out for the kids Finnah's age, so I don't know who to tell that she's doing very well in class."
"Ludei would know who to tell," Ehail said. "You could speak to him. Or I can, if you want."
Rhysel nodded. "I'll swing by his office on my way out. Thank you, Ehail. Don't forget, Saanen at sixth."
Ehail wasn't likely to forget. She wrote it on her to-do list anyway, and then started reading Aar Camlenn's report.
Aar Camlenn could draw, apparently, and there were representations in color of what he'd seen looking at his anonymous dragon subjects under Ehail's analysis. She was proud of the little flourish that would show color group powers in the corresponding hues. "Subject 1" had her black segment bee-striping the yellow shape of other magic. "Subject 2" had his red portion.
"Subject 3", reportedly a red opal female dragon, didn't.
Subject 3 was missing most of her magic, apparently; she had a thin stripe of yellow along the top of the box Aar Camlenn had drawn to represent the area in which magic was supposed to exist, and that was all.
That was... interesting. She hadn't known quite what to expect from dragon samples. Shrens had their yellow plain magic and their colored group magic, but slightly less of the yellow than the first two dragon children. Or rather, not less, but it flickered at the top, like a glass of liquid under a wind.
These children's magic didn't do that. It held steady.
There were paragraphs of text under the subject numbers and their genders and colors and diagrams. Subject 1 said presents as a typical infant black opal; fluent in 4 tested languages incl. Draconic; flew and breathed fire at standard ages; possesses dragonsong. Subject 2 said the same thing, except "red opal".
Subject 3, though, presents with several symptoms. Has never spoken nor verifiably responded to her own name nor any other language at age 5 months; has not successfully breathed fire; incapable of verifying presence or absence of dragonsong; appears to be of normal intelligence and can draw to communicate or respond to non-linguistic sounds, mental magic, etc. Physically healthy; capable of flight; normal appetite and activity level; hatched out of egg of typical appearance.
And then there was the bit about how she'd nearly died when very young, and been saved by some desperate application of opaque kamai by a person now dead.
Ehail blinked at that. She didn't know how that ought to interact with such magic. She hadn't known it could be done. Baby dragons just died sometimes - that was probably most of the reason some shren eggs weren't smashed. Parents wanted dragon children, but if they failed at getting them enough times, they could go to the house a few years later, pretend they'd never meant to leave their shren past the second decade, have a child even if it wasn't the one they wanted.
Frowning, Ehail looked over everything on the papers one more time, and then set about designing a more sophisticated magic detector. Now that she had (indirect) access to more subjects of three different types, she'd be able to learn more from such a spell. Maybe she could see the dividers that went around the colored stripes; maybe she could watch the magic do its work, whatever that was, and learn how much of it was doing what.
She started sketching the expected parameters of the spell. She didn't have to interrupt her schedule until Saanen; she could get a fair amount done before then.
Ehail teleported to Rhysel's tower and rang the bell precisely on time. She would talk to Gyre about... whatever he wanted to talk about... and then go home, and work. She would be ready to test the first draft of the spell and see what was wrong with it the next day or the day after, if no exceptional requests turned up on her list.
Gyre answered the door at once. He blinked at her hair. "Rhysel mentioned you'd dyed the silver brown, but I didn't realize it was so striking," he said. "You have lovely hair."
"Every silver woman in the world has hair this color," Ehail said.
"But I haven't seen it before," Gyre said. "And it's lovely all the same. Won't you sit down?"
Ehail took the same chair she'd sat at when she'd visited Rhysel for meals, and looked at Gyre, waiting for him to say something else.
He admired her hair for a moment longer, then said, "If you don't mind explaining it to me - why do you feel the need to hide that in public? Rhysel wasn't clear on it herself."
Ehail tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear with the rest. She wondered if she should cut it shorter; she hadn't done anything to it in four years and it fell past her shoulders. "Because everyone with this color hair is a dragon or a shren, and if someone thought I was a dragon, I might have to tell them otherwise. And then they'd know."
"Rhysel told me shrens are a kind of dragon. She's mistaken there?" Gyre asked.
"We're not dragons," Ehail said. "We only have a lot of properties in common."
"I won't make that mistake, then," Gyre promised. "Nor will I keep talking as though you've barely learned any Martisen! I must have sounded very silly."
Ehail shook her head. "I knew what you were doing."
"I'm afraid I'm not going to dazzle you with my language skills much now, either. I didn't pay much attention to those classes in school. Prefer making things. I'm a jeweler - well, a goldsmith and silversmith, but not very many people want sets of spoons in solid precious metals."
"What would be the point of that?" Ehail asked. "I suppose gold ones wouldn't corrode, but they would eventually bend out of shape or get lost, and they'd be so costly. There would be less point to silver ones. They'd tarnish and need polish - I'd know."
"You'd know? Does your hair tarnish?" Gyre asked.
"No. It's hair." She sighed, resigning herself to the fact that merely being a shren apparently made her more interesting than she really was to this offworlder. "But when I was a baby, and used my natural form because I didn't have anything else, my scales did tarnish. And irons rust and coppers patina. Nothing happens to golds. I don't think anything happens to spelters, either. And the gems and chromatics are safe."
"So they had to polish you when you were little?"
Ehail nodded, bewildered by the smile on his face. "Of course."
Gyre laughed, just a little. "I - that sounds very cute."
She shrugged. "A little of the house budget comes from melting down the metallic babies' scales and selling them, so they had to be in good condition when they fell off."
He blinked, and stared. "Oh. I see."
Ehail fidgeted her hands in her lap, trying to find a comfortable way to arrange them. "Why did you want to talk to me?"
"I enjoyed your company," replied Gyre, spreading his hands. "And wanted to enjoy some more of it. And you seem lonely."
"I live in a house with hundreds of people in it," Ehail said.
"That doesn't necessarily mean you can't be lonely," Gyre said. "Although if you tell me outright you're not lonely, I'll concede the point." The statement could have been challenging, but he didn't say it like that. Ehail was losing hope that he'd say something she could object to and storm off in a huff about, thereby proving that Rhysel oughtn't try to find her any friends.
Ehail wasn't sure she knew. Maybe she would ask Hallai sometime. "Why does it matter to you?"
"I don't like to see people unhappy," Gyre said. "Especially not if there's a chance I can fix it. And you look unhappy - even now. What makes you smile, Ehail?"
She shrugged. "I don't, usually."
This seemed to make him terribly sad - all soft green eyes and distressed expression. But he said, "Usually?"
"I did twice," she said. "Once when I graduated from school. Four-hundred-forty-something years ago." She hadn't bothered calculating the up-to-date interval. "And once in the mirror later, to see what it looked like."
"What did it look like?" Gyre asked softly, leaning his chin onto his hands.
"It looked like I was smiling," she said. "It wasn't very interesting."
"And then you never did it again." His eyebrows were drawn together over his spectacles. They were distracting; she kept looking at the wire frames even when she was trying to look away from him altogether.
"I can fix your vision, if you want," she said. "Since we're in Elcenia now. I know the spell."
"Can you?" he asked, mercifully startled out of that expression of intent concern. "Just like that?"
"Can't kyma do it?" Ehail asked. She should have thought of that.
"I suppose, but I get along all right with the glasses, and haven't ever thought of going to one about it. If you can do it easily, though, and you're offering..." He shrugged, smiling. "I won't turn you down."
Ehail still remembered the spell clearly from having cast it on that diamond boy the other week, so she didn't look it up over again, just made the gesture and spoke the word. Gyre's eyes unfocused as the lenses overcorrected, and he took them off, blinking. "Amazing," he said.
"Any wizard could have done it. Your brother-in-law," Ehail suggested.
"You're the one who did," Gyre pointed out with a smile, folding the temples of his glasses and tucking them into a pocket. "That won't break when I go back to Barashi? I'm told some spells do."
"It won't. It's an - it's not that kind of spell," Ehail said.
"Thank you," Gyre said warmly.
Ehail wondered if she had made a mistake.
"So you're lovely and you're talented. What else is there to know about you?" Gyre asked her.
Ehail tried to wrap her elbows around each other. It didn't work very well. "There isn't - I'm not - no - I only went to wizard school it doesn't mean I have any talent, I don't, and I'm not at all - the other thing."
"Who told you that?" Gyre asked, furrowing his eyebrows. Ehail found that the glasses had been a minor eyecatcher at worst.
"No one had to tell me. I can see, and I keep up with work in wizardry. Most wizards are much better than me. Even ones with centuries less experience. And I have a low channeling capacity even though usually shrens have above average ones. And - and I can see."
"I can see, too," Gyre pointed out. "Unless you think your spell didn't work and that I'm lying to you."
"Well," Ehail said, "I'm still not."
Gyre raised an eyebrow at her, neither contradicting her nor agreeing, and repeated his question. "What else is there to know about you, Ehail?"
"I'm a wizard. I'm a silver. I'm a shren and I live in the Keppine shren house," she said. "I don't have any more syllables in my name or a song to go with - I don't have a family - I don't do anything interesting - there's nothing to know."
"What do you do, while you're avoiding interesting things so carefully?" Gyre asked her.
Ehail's hands clenched in her lap. "Cast spells," she said. "I fix things. Lights. Plumbing. Kitchenware. Eyesight. When I don't have any of those things to fix I try to fix... us."
"Us?" Gyre said.
"Shrens. I try to work miracles. I've never done it. I'm not a miracle-worker. But it's something to try," she said.
"Miracles," mused Gyre. "Is that what it would take?"
"I think so," Ehail said, bringing up her hands to shoulder-level and letting them drop again. "It seems like it. Draconic says so."
Gyre blinked. "Isn't that a language?"
"Yes, it is. It didn't say it, really, but if I talk about curing shrens, not just treating us like Rhysel does, curing us so we're not shrens at all anymore - then the word for that in Draconic means 'miracle'."
"Maybe that's what you need, then," Gyre said.
"Well," Ehail said, "yes, but it isn't very helpful to know that."
"It could be," Gyre said. "If you go to a god's temple and put in a request, they might grant it - there's always a price, but sometimes it's one the petitioner is willing to pay."
"For all of us?" Ehail asked in a tiny voice. "Or - or just one?"
"I don't know," admitted Gyre. "You might get different deals from different gods."
"But it's something I could just go and - and do?"
Gyre nodded. "Do you want me to show you where some temples are?"
Ehail couldn't shake her head affirmatively fast enough. The thought of hundreds of years of work obviated with the wave of a divine hand didn't enter into her mind. A miracle, an actual miracle, from a proven miracle-worker, even if only for one person at a time, even at a cost - was there a price she wouldn't offer up? Was there anything she had a god would want? "Wh-what do they ask?" she asked, suddenly deflated. "I don't have anything..."
"Uh. I'm trying to think of stories... This doesn't happen very often," Gyre said. "Gods don't like frivolous requests, so there's some reluctance to even try, and a lot of people don't want to talk about what they asked for. They sometimes ask for things they don't really want first - your firstborn child maybe - to see if you're unscrupulous enough to accept. Sometimes they want promises not to misuse the gift and that's all. Sometimes they refuse outright because they don't like the request - people who ask for money usually get that reply. I don't know what they'd want from you."
"Who should I try first?" Ehail asked, standing up and looking around for anything she needed to bring with her. There was nothing. "Here - I can teleport you to the summoning circle building with me -" It had expanded to include a second floor; the upstairs circle led to Aristan rather than Rhysel's old tower in Restron.
"Aziel," suggested Gyre, putting his hand in Ehail's. "She's the most personable of the gods, from what I've heard, and..." Ehail teleported to the circle complex. "And the request isn't related to any specific god's domain, it isn't as though you're asking for smooth sailing and need Arimal in particular."
Ehail nodded and went to the little kiosk where tickets were sold. She was one of a handful of house residents entrusted with access to the collective fund, largely because of her ability to teleport long distances and fetch faraway things if they were needed. She didn't think Ludei would object to the expense.
Waving her hand at the kiosk upstairs and saying "two" made it print two tickets, per its multilingual instructions. Ehail thanked the foresight of whoever had arranged the debit system's spell to work centrally rather than placing a static on her person that would break in Barashi.
Gyre took his ticket, seeming concerned - again - by Ehail's haste. "Are you in a terrible hurry? I thought Rhysel's treatments for the little ones made it a non-emergency," he said.
"I'm..." Ehail thought, and decided "excited" would have to do. "I'm excited." She strode onto the circle's area. With her ticket in hand, the wards didn't impede her. Gyre followed.
A couple of ticks later, the surroundings changed, and they were in a hastily assembled building on the Aristanian side. Ehail walked briskly off the circle, pocketing her ticket, and Gyre went along again. "Where do we go?" Ehail asked him.
"I saw a temple of Aziel just up the street on my way here," he said. "This way." He motioned, and she fell into step after him, taking two steps to keep up with each one of his. She didn't even care that people were looking at her, at her bright hair, wondering about her. If this worked, there would be nothing to be ashamed of when she emerged.
"I will petition Aziel to come and hear your request," said the priest who staffed the temple. "You may wait in any of these rooms." There were six of them, generic little waiting rooms with chairs and tables, painted white.
Ehail chose one at random, sat, and then stood up again. "Thank you for showing me this place," she said to Gyre.
"It's my pleasure," he said. "I hope you get what you came for. It must be very important to you."
"It's what I've been doing with my life for hundreds of years," she said.
"What will you do afterwards?" Gyre asked.
She blinked. "I'm not... entirely sure. Maybe I'll fly to the moon," she added fancifully. "I could do it, if I were a dragon."
"What," Gyre said, "really? There's no air between the moon and the surface of the world..."
"Not this moon, then," Ehail said. "Elcenia's has air around it. People do fly up to the moon. Dragons. Air mages. Rich people with fancy scoots."
"I'll take your word for it," said Gyre.
Ehail felt an unprecedented sensation that made her skin crawl - someone is here! someone important is here! announced the feeling. That, she surmised, must be Aziel. She was on her feet before the priest tapped the doorframe.
"The Goddess of the Winds is here to speak with you," the priest said. "Follow me. Both of you may enter, if desired, but I understand only the lady has a request?"
"Do you want me along, Ehail?" Gyre asked. He'd gotten to his feet but hadn't moved to leave the waiting room.
"Either way," she said breathlessly.
Gyre followed the priest, too, down the short hallway and through massive doors into a high, arched hall with open windows all the way up to the ceiling. The presence of the goddess grew stronger as they approached, and Ehail still didn't like it, but she kept pressing forward until the priest stopped and bowed.
Ehail bowed too, following the priest's lead, and straightened up when he did. She wasn't sure if she was supposed to speak first, but the goddess, fortunately, didn't pause long enough to make that a pressing question.
"Hello, Ehail," said Aziel. Ehail finally looked directly at her. The goddess of the winds appeared similar to the shren, as far as Ehail could see, though it was probably illusion - silver fall of hair over humanlike ears. Round, brown eyes. The goddess was taller than Ehail, but not by very much. Gyre might see her differently. "What is your petition for me?"
"I want," Ehail began, but then she paused over the wording. "D-do you speak Draconic?" she asked in that language.
"I do," replied Aziel in the same one. "If you prefer to ask in this language, that will not do me any inconvenience."
"I want to be a dragon, I want all of the shrens to be dragons but we can ask one at a time, if we have to," Ehail said, choosing careful words that meant the right kind of dragon. She would have to think longer and harder about whether she'd want to be the Barashin sort. As one she'd be a dragon, certainly, and not a shren, but not a siad either - that word, Draconic was adamant, referred only to the thirty Elcenian types of dragons. Being a Barashin dragon might be better than being a shren; but it might not, and she hadn't thought of it.
Aziel hadn't spoken yet. Ehail went on. "I want all of the shrens to be dragons, forever, no more new shrens, I want us all to be miracles - a-and you're a goddess. I don't have... anything, really, but if you can think of something you want from me..."
"No," said Aziel. She didn't raise her voice, but it was spoken with such finality, and the pressure of divine presence hadn't eased.
"Y-you can't think of anything?" stammered Ehail. "If I have to die to save the others, or - something - then - you could at least ask -"
"No," Aziel said again. "You will not receive your miracle from me, nor from any of my kin."
"Aziel," Gyre said. "I don't understand. You haven't even asked her an impossible price or declared her unworthy. I've never heard of such a response..."
"There has never been such a question," Aziel said, and she was gone.
Ehail crumpled to the floor, free of the weight of presence and the lift of hope both at once.
Chapter 3: Lonely
Ehail felt Gyre's hands on her shoulders. "Ehail, are you all right?"
"You have my deepest condolences," said the priest, sounding bewildered. "I confess I do not know how to counsel you - it is unheard of -"
Ehail wasn't crying. She had simply ceased to want to stand. Gyre didn't need to lean over her like that. Even if she'd been crying, how would that help?
She drew herself to her feet, hugging herself. "I suppose I should go home," she said.
Gyre let one of his hands fall away from her shoulder. The other stayed put. "If that's what you want to do," he murmured.
"One of my functions is to console people whose requests are denied," began the priest, but Ehail waved him away, not making eye contact.
"I think I should go home," she said, and she headed for the temple's exit.
Gyre followed her closely. "I'm so sorry that didn't work out," he said. "I didn't even know that was one of the possible responses - it's possible the gods don't want to handle petitions from Elcenians - or - something - I'm so sorry, Ehail."
"It was a long shot," she murmured. "I didn't expect it to help."
"No?" Gyre asked sadly.
She shook her head. "I don't expect anything to work."
"Are you sure you want to go straight home?" He still had his hand on her shoulder. She couldn't muster the curiosity to ask about it. She didn't want to remove her arms from her middle to brush it away. If she didn't hug herself as tightly as possible something might fall out.
"Where else?" she asked.
"Rhysel's place," he said. "Or, I don't know if it would interest you at all, but my shop isn't far from here. Or anywhere. I'll take you anywhere you'd like to go."
She shrugged. "I suppose we could go to one of those places." She shouldn't have forgotten that he expected some of her time. It was fine if he wanted some more of it. What was she going to do left to her own devices? Cure shrens?
"This way," said Gyre; his hand slid down her arm to take her hand. Ehail let him pull her along. The streets were crowded, full of people on foot or on strange quadrupeds - "horses", Ehail knew the word as soon as she'd seen a few of the animals, but they remained strange to her - or in horse-drawn contraptions. It was a dense city, narrow little buildings in every color butting up against each other. Half the cross-streets were mere alleys. She wondered how much the summoning circle's owner had needed to pay for the square footage his operation required in the middle of such a place.
People were still looking at her hair. She wished they would stop. She ought to have dyed it.
Gyre's shop was three blocks from the temple. His storefront was glass, and behind it were displays of shining things. Bracelets with diamond settings and ruby icicle earrings and a silver-chain necklace with peridot charms and a nesting set of rings each adorned with a tiny triangular beryl. A silver teapot, a gold figurine of a dolphin the size of Ehail's thumb, a rope of star sapphires clasped around a wooden throat. They caught her eye - they couldn't not, reflecting light from two suns and each other. She lost a step to blink light out of her eyes.
He stopped when she did. "See anything you like?"
"It's all very nice," she said. He'd made them, she surmised. It was his shop.
Gyre held the door open for her. "If you see something you want, tell me," he said. "You ought to get something you want today - I am so sorry, Ehail."
Ehail went into the shop and looked at shining things. Apart from the window display, they were arranged neatly - earrings here, necklaces there, rings under this counter and silverware on that shelf. Ehail didn't have her ears pierced. She'd never owned jewelry in her life that she hadn't made during some arts-and-crafts lesson someone at the house might offer after reading about a simple project in a magazine. Her last macrame wrist-cuff from one of those had worn through and fallen off her arm forty years ago.
"It's all very nice," she murmured again.
Gyre ran his hand through his hair. "Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe you'd rather not have a souvenir for this particular day."
"You don't have to give me anything," Ehail said. One of the bracelets had leaf etchings in overlapping silver disks, and a tangle of green druzy shapes chained to the same clasps, partly hiding the design. The leaves reminded her of the doodles she did when she couldn't focus on her work but it wasn't time to go to bed. Her wastebasket was full of drawings of plants, drawn badly but in painstaking detail, vein-vein-vein-vein-edge-stem, over and over. Dense thickets of leaves and thorns and vines and blossoms.
"I'd like to, if you'd take it, if you'd enjoy it, but - Do you like that one? With the leaves?"
Ehail looked away from it. "It's pretty. They're all pretty. You're talented. But you don't have to give me anything."
Gyre sighed and nodded. "If you don't want it I won't press it on you. Do you want to go home?"
She nodded. That sounded fine. Someone had probably written something on her request list since she'd left.
"Am I lonely?" Ehail asked Hallai.
"That's what you interrupted me to ask?" Hallai asked. "Are you lonely?"
Hallai shrugged. "Yeah. I'd blast you with not-lonely if you wanted, but it doesn't work like that. It wouldn't make sense; your mind would reject it. That's why I can't just make the depressed people around here happy. Too diametrically opposite. Best I can do is make them sort of okay."
"Am I always lonely?" Ehail asked.
"Dunno. You're pretty stable, I don't pay close attention to you. Got a lot of folks to cover. Haven't lost one yet," Hallai said smugly. "Why? Are you going to go... I dunno what you'd do if you were going to. Cast something big, sting yourself to death?"
"No," said Ehail. If she were going to kill herself, that would be the way to go. It would kill her, not just her human form, and so it wouldn't force her into natural shape. But she wasn't planning on it. "I'm not going to do that."
"All right then. Anything else?" Hallai asked after a silence. "I think some of the kids are fighting, I want to focus on calming them down..."
Ehail nodded and backed out of the room.
She wondered how Gyre had been able to tell she was lonely. His eyes were green, but he still wasn't an empath. Did she look it? Would she need to go around smiling or something, all the time, if she didn't want to interest more of him? (Were there more of him? Did she want to avoid interesting them?)
Ilen sat next to her at lunch. He usually preferred delivering his requests for spells in person. "It's not really an emergency any more, because they're not crying so much, but the soundproofing spell on some of the babies' sleeping cubbies is wearing thin and they can hear each other at night. They're keeping each other up talking," he told her.
Ehail took a swallow of water. "I can fix that after I'm done eating," she said.
Ilen nodded and attended to his salad.
"Am I pretty?" Ehail asked him.
The jade looked up at her like a startled deer. "I - uh - I'm not sure if you've heard but Hallai and I are together now - and -"
Ehail shook her head. "I'm not propositioning you. I just want to know. And you're here."
"Oh." Ilen chewed on a lettuce leaf and peered at her. "I suppose you are. I think that's how the forms work, isn't it, symmetry and so on? Is there anyone here who isn't pretty?"
"So I'm pretty," Ehail said slowly.
Ilen nodded. "Uh, I'm going to tell Hallai this conversation happened, but I'll ask her not to yell at you."
"Thank you," Ehail said. She finished her soup and went to look up the soundproofing spell.
When she'd finished making sure that the baby shrens could only talk to each other outside of their cubbies, Ehail took her bluejay form and flew through the halls back to her office. Putting it off any longer would be inviting the early stages of esu, and lethargy was no help to her productivity. She shifted back outside the office door, noted the new requests, and carried on with her work.
After two weeks' absence, Rhysel was back, this time with her apprentice instead of her husband. They treated the babies - Ehail, walking in from shoring up the house's anti-lightning spell, could hear squeaky voices giggling and clamoring for their turns. And then they went to Ehail's office to pick up more translated notes.
Ehail wondered if Rhysel would say anything about Gyre. He'd been oddly persistent before. Was he likely to stop?
"My brother wants to see you again," Rhysel said, after Ehail had dug up all of the Leraal versions of her research and clipped them into a neat stack for the kama to take home.
"Oh," Ehail said. "When?"
"I don't see him," Ehail said.
"Just keep going in that direction," Rhysel said, pointing. It was hard to see the gesture in the weak light. "You'll see him."
"I don't understand," Ehail said.
"Gyre'll explain it," Rhysel said cheerfully, and she made her way back to the transfer point.
The point itself was invisible, and so, apparently, was Gyre, and there was nothing else there. Rhysel had brought Ehail all the way to the bottom of the planet for no obvious reason. It would have made sense as a prank, however unkind, if Ehail couldn't teleport home and would have been inconveniently stranded. Since Ehail was a wizard, she couldn't fathom what the purpose of the setup might be.
With nothing else obvious to do but give up and teleport home, or do as Rhysel had said, Ehail shrugged and walked forward.
Thirty feet from the transfer point, she was enshrouded by leaves, and the nothingness had transformed into a forest.
"Hello," Gyre said. He was sitting crosslegged on a blanket, spread on moss between trees. "Do you like it?"
Ehail brushed a branch out of her path. It felt solid. "What is it?"
"Image kamai. There's a crystal under a rock over there..." He pointed. "Which, if you stick its halves together, makes this. It's only visible from inside the illusion. Rhysel's blood-sister gave it to her as a wedding gift, and Rhysel said we could borrow it."
"It's beautiful here, but how can it be an illusion?" Ehail asked, touching the branch again. "Illusions are insubstantial - they can look real, they can even feel real if they're of certain things, but you can't touch them, they won't push back if you push them."
Gyre shrugged. "To be honest, I have no idea how it works. Apart from Rhysel, I haven't happened to acquaint myself with any kyma, let alone learn the trade. But it is pretty."
"I suppose it might be different with kamai," Ehail said dubiously. Illusions wizards made were classified in part by having no substance... But she wouldn't learn anything about it by asking Gyre. She could include a note to Rhysel with questions the next time the babies needed treatment. "It's so detailed."
"It must have taken forever," Gyre agreed. "You can sit down, if you like. The food is real." He pulled a basket out from behind his back, flipped open the lid, and produced a sandwich wrapped in paper.
Ehail paced towards the picnic blanket and folded herself down onto it. She took the sandwich Gyre offered, and peeled away a little of the paper; edges of sliced sausage and crinkles of lettuce and smears of bean spread were visible between halves of the bun. "Did you make the sandwiches?" she asked, as he pulled out one of his own.
"That, I did do myself," Gyre said. "I hope you like them. Rhysel told me you aren't choosy..."
"I'm not," Ehail said. "This is fine." She bit off the corner. It was fine. "How have you been?" That was a polite and normal thing to ask, she thought.
"I've been all right. Have you been holding up, after...?" He trailed off.
Ehail nodded. "It didn't work. That's all." She glanced around at the illusion. It didn't look quite like any ecosystem she was familiar with - Ehail had never exactly studied forests, but she sometimes looked up references to be able to draw new sorts of plants and had picked up some things over the centuries. Presumably it was a Barashin type of landscape. "There's some interesting results from the latest analysis I invented. If I can figure out what they mean, or if Aar Camlenn can, that might help." It occurred to her that Gyre was technically an Aar Camlenn too, except he wouldn't tend to refer to himself with Leraal formalities. He'd have been "Mr. Camlenn" if she weren't already calling him by his first name.
"Do you do anything besides work? What do you like to do?" Gyre asked her.
"I draw, sometimes." She reached past the edge of the blanket and touched soft moss. "I'm not good at it. I just do it to relax, so I can go back to focusing on work."
"I'd like to see some of your drawings," Gyre said.
"I don't keep them," she said. "I suppose I could save the next one if you want it."
Gyre smiled at her. "I'd like that."
"Why are we here?" Ehail asked.
"In Rhysel's illusion forest? It seemed like a nicer setting to have a picnic in than the featureless wastes," Gyre pointed out. "So she offered it."
"I mean," Ehail said, "why are we on the bottom of the world, and not - in Rhysel's yard, or something?"
"Ah." He smiled again. "In case you wanted to - only if you wanted to - spend a little while in your natural form. I understand you probably haven't gotten to do that in a long time."
Ehail froze, sandwich halfway to her mouth. "We - that isn't something shrens do, that's why I haven't."
"Because it could hurt someone else," Gyre said softly. "But there's no one here but you and me. And I can't catch it."
Ehail knew perfectly well he couldn't be a dragon. His eyes weren't quite the right color for him to be a green or an emerald, much less jade or malachite. Even if they had been, a green-group couldn't turn into a half-elf. Even if he'd been wearing lenses or had the color changed by magic, he was Rhysel's brother and Rhysel wasn't a dragon or even a thudia. And he spoke only one language and was from Barashi and even if in spite of all that he'd been a dragon he would be one in an assumed form, and - there were so many reasons why he couldn't be a dragon, why Ehail turning into her "dragon" shape couldn't do him any injury.
"But we don't do that," Ehail said.
"Even here?" Gyre said.
"I - well, I've never been here before. But never. We never do that."
"We mustn't," Ehail said, shivering.
Gyre scooted towards her and touched her hair, brushing it away from her forehead. "Why, Ehail?"
"It's too easy. It's too fast. If we do it ever, we'll have bad habits - it would be one thing if I were inside all the time like Ilen, but I go out - I was near dragons less than a month ago, even a baby dragon - I can't."
"Surely you aren't going to start shifting at random times and places if you do it once, where it's safe?" Gyre asked. "Do even dragons do that?"
"Dragons do it... casually, I think, not randomly, but they will to show off or to fly from place to place or to pick up and tuck heavy things," said Ehail. "I can't do that." Especially not flying.
Gyre's hand was in her hair, on the nape of her neck, where it had come to rest after adjusting her hair. "I understand," he said. "I'm not saying you should be casual about it. But there's no one here but me and you. You could shift once, and then back, and then never again, if that's what you want."
"If you just want to see me turn into something, I can turn into a bluejay," Ehail said.
"I admit I'd like to see that too," Gyre said.
Ehail wasted no time in adopting this more reasonable shape. As a jay, she had the bright blue back and banded wings of a normal bird, but the gray on her belly shone silver. It was common to choose forms that would look nice with one's color. Ehail had picked out her bird when she was fourteen, from the books of flying creatures the shren house kept handy. The small form dropped her away from Gyre's hand; he pulled his arm back to pick up his sandwich again.
"Lovely," Gyre pronounced.
"You keep saying that," said Ehail.
Gyre looked surprised. "You can talk, shaped like a bird?"
"Yes. I couldn't if I turned into an insect, or anything like that - they can't make noise - but a bluejay can, and so I can speak."
"Can you talk in your natural form?"
"Well - of course. I could talk when I was little," she said. "The babies in the house talk a lot." She stretched her wings out and turned human again, sandwich still in hand. She took another bite. "But I shouldn't turn into it. It's better to never do it than to do it once."
"Why?" Gyre asked her again.
Ehail looked him in the eye. "Why do you want me to do it?"
"I can't really claim to understand what your life is like," Gyre said gently. "But it seems to me that if you have to spend your whole life outside of the shape you were born in - I mean, hatched in - that might not feel particularly nice. Even though you'll go back to your human form for convenience and to cast spells and to keep other people safe, there's this place - this empty place - and you could be yourself."
She bit into her sandwich again. It was almost gone. "I don't even know what I look like," she murmured. "I mean - I know the broad features. The kind of horns I have and so on. Those are common to silvers. But I don't know beyond that."
"I didn't think to bring a mirror," Gyre admitted. "Would you do it if I had?"
"I could go and get one," Ehail said. "If that were it."
"I guess you could," said Gyre. He sighed. "If you don't want to, you don't have to. I'll stop prodding you about it."
Ehail pursed her lips and looked down. "Do you have anything to drink in the basket?" Gyre handed her a bottle of water. "Thank you," Ehail said.
"I'm sorry. I seem to keep having ideas that I think will make you smile that don't turn out very well," Gyre said sheepishly.
"You don't have to do that," Ehail said. "It's not important."
"It's important to me," Gyre said.
Ehail scrunched in towards herself. "How big is this illusion?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I think it's round, but I haven't walked around in it enough to have a sense of the diameter."
She finished her sandwich, and then got to her feet and paced to the edge of the illusion. Past the last trees, she saw a ragged edge of moss floor and then the empty flat of the planet's underside going on forever. She crossed the picnic blanket to check the other side, and found that presently. The whole illusion seemed like it might be fifty feet edge to edge.
Her natural form would fit entirely in the clearing, if she curled her tail around her feet, kept her wings folded, and swan-bent her neck.
The bottom of the world was completely deserted. It was only her and Gyre.
"You might want to get up and go behind a tree, and take the basket with you," Ehail murmured, shuffling back to the blanket.
Gyre opened his mouth, but then closed it again, caught the basket on his wrist as he stood, and went behind one of the evergreens. He peered around the side.
Ehail turned on the spot, marking the locations of "illusion" stones and branches and making up her mind where she ought to be. She knew - approximately - how big her natural form ought to be by her age. She could decide where to put it when she changed. But she didn't have a lot of practice. She didn't even go between human and bluejay very often, and that in space with plenty of room for each.
She closed her eyes and made the shift.
Shifting felt like nothing. Each body felt as ordinary as every other. But when Ehail opened her eyes again, everything was distant and small.
She could hear a patter as heavy scales slid away from her and onto the moss. She couldn't feel them through the thick silver plates that armored her, but the few that traversed the membranes of her folded wings tickled; she shook her wings to get them off but didn't unfold them.
Gyre edged out from behind his tree, staring openly. "You're magnificent," he told her.
"I'm not," she said. She peered around at herself - she couldn't get a look at her face, but she could see the rest. She looked so ordinary. A stretched-out, sleeker, more heavily shielded version of any of the silver babies who came through the house. She could have had some distinction of build or sheen, but she just looked plain.
"These are actual silver?" he asked, picking up a scale that covered the palm of his hand. They came in a range of sizes, from the thumbnail-sized thin ones she would have lost in childhood to the long, heavy ones shed as an adult.
"Yes." She turned back into her human form. "I'm not sure what to do with them. I don't want to explain this to Ludei, even if they would be worth a lot of money melted and -"
"Melted?" exclaimed Gyre.
"That's how we sell the babies' metallic scales," Ehail said.
"I'll give you half again what you would have sold these for if you don't melt them," Gyre said. "I'll give the money to the house if you'd rather. Through some anonymous channel if you'd rather."
"You want them?" Ehail asked.
"They're beautiful," Gyre said.
"I guess I can give you the address for the house and you can mail us a writ of transfer and pretend it's a charitable donation," Ehail said. "And then I don't have to tell Ludei anything but I'm not shorting the house... I'm not sure what the silver market is like right now, but I can find out."
Gyre nodded. "I can't be sure, but I think jewelry made out of these would sell, very well, back home," he said. "In all the colors, not just the metals - would the house be willing to sell me the children's scales too?"
"I don't see why not," Ehail said. "Do you want me to ask for you?"
"If you wouldn't mind. I'm sorry, I must sound terribly mercenary right now."
"It's all right," Ehail said.
"There is," Gyre said, picking up his basket again, "dessert. Chocolate cake."
"That sounds nice," she replied, and took the wrapped slice he offered, peeled the paper away, and nibbled at it.
A silence fell, and something occurred to Ehail.
"Is this a date?" she asked.
Chapter 4: Rosebush
Gyre did not appear to have expected that question. For a long moment, he didn't reply.
"Is it?" Ehail asked again.
"Do you want it to be?" he asked tentatively.
She fidgeted. "Is it one?"
"I hope I didn't mislead you," Gyre sighed. "It doesn't have to be a date if you don't want it to be one. But that is what I had in mind, yes."
Ehail sank down onto the picnic blanket and drew her knees to her chest. "Oh."
"I never meant to make you uncomfortable, or unhappy," Gyre said. He looked like he might want to touch her, but he didn't approach any closer.
"I know. You wouldn't do that." She sighed. "I don't know what I would have said, if I'd known."
He sighed and flopped onto the blanket to look up at the brightening sky. The sun would be completely up - well, down, but they were down - in a few degrees. "Fair enough."
"Why?" she asked, and then realized that this wouldn't be a clear question alone. "Why do you want to go out with me?" No one ever had, or she might have ever thought about the possibility before, and then this would be so much easier.
"I've never met anyone like you," said Gyre.
"That's because we're not from the same world," Ehail said. "I'm not actually interesting. There are a lot of Elcenians you could meet who would be more interesting than me."
"Would lots of them be just like you?" asked Gyre skeptically.
"Some ways," Ehail said. "I know of another shren who looks just like me - there are certainly more dragons who look the same. There are a lot of wizards. I'm not the only person in the world who doodles."
"That's not what I mean," Gyre said. "I mean - your demeanor. Your personality."
"I barely have a personality," objected Ehail.
He sat up at once. "You have a personality!" he insisted. "You're shy and lonely and selfless and diligent and sweet and that's just what I've been able to learn having met you a handful of times."
"I only do my work, and what I need to do my work," Ehail said. "You can put words to that but that doesn't make it interesting."
Gyre inhaled, like he had an angle-long speech ready to refute her, but she met his eyes and he deflated. "I don't want to argue with you," he said, almost too low to be heard.
Ehail picked up her forgotten cake and took the last three bites in silence. Gyre didn't seem interested in his anymore.
"I don't know if you can get all of the scales in the picnic basket," she said finally. "I know where your shop is. I can just bring them to you after I know how much they cost. And I may as well figure out the exchange rate. It's bound to be awful between Aristan and with the circle in Esmaar and my house in Petar but we sometimes work in foreign currency for some things... I can talk to all the moneychangers more easily than you can, or get help from the house accountants."
"If you'd be willing," said Gyre, glancing up. "I'd appreciate that."
"It shouldn't take more than a few days," Ehail said.
"Then I'll see you then," he said with a watery smile.
"Do you want me to teleport you to the circle?" Ehail asked. "Or to Rhysel's tower? Are we supposed to leave the illusion here?"
"Rhysel's coming back to get the crystal in a few divs - angles? - in a while. She didn't think anyone would be apt to steal it, down here, and I suppose the same will go for the silver. The circle would be good," Gyre said.
Ehail held her hand out, and he hesitated, but touched it. She brought him to the circle complex, fumbled at saying goodbye, and teleported back home.
It took five days in all before Ehail had finished running between all of the businesses she needed to visit in order to get hold of a piece of paper Gyre could sign to pay for her scales. Various financial outfits had pounced rabidly on the opportunities afforded by the summoning circle, but they were still working out all the details and the exchange rates were fluctuating wildly. She wound up figuring the worth of the silver via Pleian currency exchanges, which often used raw ingots, and adding fifty percent to that and allowing a Paraasilan moneychanger to handle the conversion to emarks at what was probably an obscene markup.
Eventually, she had something that she thought would work, and she got an old rice sack from the kitchen to collect the scales in. They all fit, but they were quite heavy. She picked them up to teleport them to the circle, but set them down to buy her ticket, and dragged them into the area of the enchantment. When she was across to Aristan she hauled the sack over her shoulder and turned into a bluejay to complete the trip.
At the door of Gyre's shop, she transformed again. He was behind the counter, twisting copper wire around a rod. "Ehail!" he exclaimed, standing up and dropping the tool and the spool of spun metal onto his worktable. "I was beginning to think you'd run into some serious trouble."
"It was tricky," she said. She let the scales down onto the floor with an exhalation. "Here they all are. I don't think any were disturbed or taken." She fished around in her pocket for the slip of paper with her compiled instructions on how to send the right sum to the Keppine House, and passed it to him over the counter.
"Thank you," he said, picking it up and peering at it. He walked around the counter to take the sack, seeming surprised at its weight. "I really appreciate your going to the trouble."
"The house can always use the money," Ehail said. "And I asked if you could buy the babies' scales, too; you can. They have a lot of them, in a box in a closet. I don't know how much you're willing to pay for them, though."
"I'm not sure what the non-metal scales are made of, so I'm not sure what would be fair. You can't sell them for anything there?" Gyre asked.
"No. They're just scales, and not even a metal - they'll work like it to a point, but they won't melt properly."
"Well, then I guess I'll buy those at whatever the rate for the copper ones shakes out to be - half again the value of the plain metal," Gyre said. "Do you only have time to talk business? How have you been?"
"Busy," she said. "I was able to get some help from the house accountant, though. Since you're interested in the babies' scales too, and that isn't a secret." She realized that this was business. "And," she added, reaching into her pocket, "I kept a drawing for you like you wanted."
Gyre took the paper, handling it delicately as he unfolded it. It was a closeup of a bonsai orange tree, blooming but not fruiting. "My word," he said. "How long did this take you? It's so detailed..."
"I don't know. Five degrees at a time, over a couple of weeks, I don't know how long in total."
"You drew every vein on every leaf," Gyre said.
"I know," Ehail said.
"Can I keep this?" he asked.
"I don't see why not." She would have thrown it away, otherwise. "It's not good, it's just complicated. The leaves aren't layered like real ones because I just draw whole leaves where there's room and then partial leaves behind them, and the tree is cramped on the page because I didn't make it the right size to begin with, and -"
"I still like it," Gyre said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Ehail said.
The bell on the door jingled, and an old human man walking with a cane inched into the shop. "Excuse me," said the old man. "My granddaughter is getting married this afternoon. I need a wedding gift."
"Certainly, sir - do you want my help choosing something?" Gyre asked, all customer service. He whispered to Ehail, "You can have a seat in the back if you like - you must be tired from lugging the scales -"
Ehail opened the door behind the counter. There was a modest little apartment there, and she sat in a chair not far from the door to the shop. She could still hear Gyre and the old man through the wall; the former had to speak up to be heard, and the latter seemed to think Gyre had a comparable ailment. "Something significant, something large," the old man said. "Won't do to be outshined by someone on the groom's side..."
"Of course, sir. A necklace? Perhaps something with emeralds she can wear immediately after you give it to her, to match the spring green?" Gyre said.
"No, large," said the man. "Don't you have any bigger statues in here than this sort of thing?"
Gyre paused, but then said, "I do have one, sir, that might be what you have in mind. Let me get it out of my workroom." A door opened, light footsteps went one way and heavier steps the other, and there was a thunk. "Would this suit?"
"Yes, perfect. Carry it to the wedding hall for me, won't you?"
"Can't you see I'm an old man?" said the customer. "Look! I have a cane! It's only six blocks, a strong fellow like you can manage."
"Of course, sir, I can carry it for you," Gyre said hastily. "Just a moment, please." He opened the door to his apartment and looked beseechingly at Ehail. "I'm never going to get rid of that ugly old statue if I don't sell it to this fellow, and I went and made the thing out of mixed metals - But you're welcome to stay here, and it shouldn't be too long," he said. "You can look around at the stock, or sit back here, or - whatever you like."
"All right," Ehail said.
Gyre flashed a smile at her and left the door open a crack, turning back towards the old man. "Oof - all right, sir, which way?"
Ehail crept out of the apartment into the storefront to look at the jewelry as Gyre flipped his sign to closed and locked the door behind him. She didn't feel as self-conscious about admiring the wares without Gyre looking over her shoulder, waiting for her to evaluate his skills. Waiting for her to ask for a gift.
The stock hadn't changed much since the last time she'd been in the shop. She was reasonably sure she'd seen everything, and wasn't sure if Gyre would like her to go into his workroom. But there was a work table, just behind the counter, where Gyre had been making the copper coil. She could look at that, she was fairly sure.
Tucked under the lip of the counter, next to the till, was a tiny metal rosebush, thornless silver stems and leaves couching a dozen half-open flowers of rose gold.
Tied to the trunk of the bush, which connected it to a silver base, was a paper tag that read Ehail.
Ehail reached out and cradled the rosebush in her hands, lifting it up to eye level. She didn't think Gyre had meant for her to see it, at least not without him even in the room, but she preferred it this way. If she wanted, she could put it back and pretend not to have come across it, but she wouldn't have to decide how to react on the very spot when he gave it to her.
She was still holding the rosebush when the key turned in the lock and the bell jingled. Ehail looked up, expecting Gyre, but the bearer of the key was a woman Ehail had never seen before.
The woman - who seemed as surprised by Ehail as Ehail was by her - was a brunette elf, wearing what Ehail might have unkindly chosen to call two-thirds of a snug red dress. The elf's eyes were gold - and her eyelids were lavender and her lips were frowning crimson. "Well," said the newcomer, speaking first. "Who are you? How did you get in?"
"Gyre let me in," Ehail said, blinking. She opened her mouth to ask who the elf was, why she had a key, but was interrupted.
"He's in, then? I thought he might be," cooed the elf. "No matter what the sign says. He'll always talk to me. He's probably mentioned me to you if you've spent any time with him at all... I'm Arylla. Who are you?" she repeated, more sharply.
"Ehail," said Arylla scornfully. "And what's that you're holding?"
"A silver rosebush," Ehail said.
"I mean - wait - what does that tag say?" asked Arylla suddenly, squinting at it and taking six fast steps towards the counter.
"It says 'Ehail'," Ehail murmured. "I think he made it for me."
"Made it for y-" snapped Arylla, eyes flying wide, head tilting back. "Don't be stupid. I don't know why your name is on there, but he wouldn't make you something so nice. What in the world did you do to your hair to get it that garish color?" came an abrupt change of subject.
"N-nothing," admitted Ehail, wishing again she'd dyed it. Although if she had, she'd have dyed it brown, and the idea of having anything in common with this elf didn't appeal to her.
"You're a nasty little liar, aren't you. You probably put that tag on the rosebush yourself," hissed Arylla. "You probably broke in here to do that so you could pretend you've got Gyre to yourself, pretend he'll give you expensive presents, because you know he'd never touch anyone as mousy and sneaky and... and short - as you. Well, smarten up and get lost, shiny-scalped miss, you don't have a rat's chance in a kennel - he's going to be mine - make no mistake."
"I didn't," said Ehail helplessly. "I - I didn't."
"I didn't, I-I-I-I didn't," mocked Arylla nastily. "Put the rosebush down and walk out of here and maybe I won't tell Gyre you broke into his shop."
"I didn't break in," Ehail said. "He let me in. He was here a little while ago - he -" She wondered if Arylla would follow her back into Gyre's apartment. Probably. Would Gyre be unhappy if she left the shop, like Arylla wanted? Probably. But he would be back soon.
"The door was locked, Gyre's nowhere to be seen, you've got your grubby little hands on merchandise drastically beyond your obvious level of taste that ought to go for scads of emarks, and I've never heard of you in my life," Arylla said. "I can add, precious."
There was a sour taste in Ehail's mouth, and she felt cold, but Arylla was between her and the exit. Cornering herself in Gyre's apartment didn't seem like an improvement either.
The bell jingled.
"Arylla, what are you doing here?" Gyre asked, shouldering his way through the door.
Arylla was instantly all smiles as she turned. She leaned towards him. "Gyre! I just wanted so much to see you. It's been forever!"
"It's been a tenday," Gyre said neutrally. "Ehail, I hope I didn't leave you too long. I guess you found the rosebush... I was trying to think of an appropriate way to give it to you..."
Ehail glanced at Arylla, who was looking daggers over Gyre's shoulder, but shivered and looked back at the halfblood. "This is fine too. It's beautiful," she said, trying to forget that the elf was present.
Gyre turned back to the brunette. "Well, Arylla, I'm afraid today's just not good timing. Maybe later. If nothing else I'm sure I'll be at your brother's sooner or later." Everything was cordial, almost the customer-service voice but chillier. Ehail didn't have the impression that Gyre liked Arylla, which was... preferable, but he was clearly unwilling to dismiss her directly.
"Oh, but Gyre, I'm sure now she's got her little present there, Ehail won't mind if you and I go off somewhere nice and secluded and catch up a bit," purred Arylla.
"Sorry, Arylla." He didn't sound it. "I'm sure there will be some other time. Later."
Arylla pouted, but Gyre didn't relent. She sighed theatrically and ran her fingertips from his shoulder to his wrist, inspiring no reaction from the jeweler, and let herself out. "Let's see each other again real soon, Gyre," she called.
He waved, noncommittally, and finally Arylla was out of sight.
"She's your friend?" murmured Ehail.
"No," said Gyre firmly. "I have to put up with her - and the key she copied by swiping mine - because her brother is the only affordable lapidary in the city who'll work with hard gems. She doesn't steal things, or even leave the place unlocked. Just lets herself in uninvited, tries things on, puts it all back. If I changed the lock, she'd know I don't like her doing that, and complain to her brother, who might make it hard for me to get diamonds and rubies and sapphires - I'm sorry she bothered you."
"Why does her brother decide who to sell things to depending on what Arylla says?" Ehail murmured.
"I'm not entirely sure, but it happened to a woman I apprenticed with - she annoyed Arylla, and now she has to buy diamond and corundum from somewhere else at a higher price if she wants any at all," Gyre said, sighing in frustration. "I wish she'd leave me alone. I'm sorry, Ehail."
"It's okay," Ehail said, squirming. She was still holding the rosebush. It had made prints in her hands, she saw, when she set it onto the counter. "The rosebush is so beautiful."
"I'm glad you like it," he said, smiling. He looked relieved. "I know you're fond of plants. I can't make you a live one, but I can make one out of silver and gold."
"I'll put it next to my spider plant," she said. "In my office."
"I was worried you wouldn't take it," Gyre admitted.
"It has my name on it," Ehail murmured. That wasn't why, that wasn't even half of why, but she wanted the rosebush and he was offering and she could imagine how it would catch the sunglow that lit the little room.
He smiled at her. "So have you gotten to do anything else in the last few days besides run around talking to currency exchange clerks?"
"A few chores," Ehail said. She listed them - ordinary, simple things, but they seemed to fascinate Gyre. He had questions about the underlying magic, about the people in the house, about every bit of daily life. She answered him, her answers gradually lengthening as it came to be obvious that he really did want to hear them. He chimed in with corresponding information about Barashi, when he had it - showed her how the sink in his apartment worked when she asked why pipes had anything to do with water. ("Conjuring water is an old spell," she explained when her confusion puzzled him. "It's been around since before I hatched!").
Another customer came in at length. Ehail slipped out of the shop while Gyre was occupied rather than muddle her way through an awkward goodbye.
She flew back to the circle, and went back to Elcenia, and teleported home.
On Rhysel's next visit, Ehail had a question for her. She'd considered asking Gyre directly, or even one of the moneychangers, but decided she'd rather not talk to a moneychanger about this particular issue - yet - nor turn up at Gyre's place with nothing but a silly inquiry. Rhysel it was.
"Do you know," Ehail asked, while she assembled her translations, "whether it's legal on Barashi to sell conjured gems?"
"Perfectly," Rhysel said. "Why?"
"I just wondered," Ehail murmured.
Rhysel didn't pry any further, but gave Ehail a quizzical smile as she left the office, and seemed to notice the glinting rosebush in its place beside the spider plant.
Finding the spell was unexpectedly difficult. It wasn't unlawful to conjure the gems, as long as one only kept them or gave them away. People could have decorated with fabricated tourmalines and beryls all they liked. But scarcely anyone did; glass was nearly as pretty, and worthless conjured gems didn't show off wealth to the neighbors very effectively. Certainly Ehail hadn't cast the spells before; decorations were spare in the house, and certainly nonessential, not worth the only wizard's attention.
Eventually she went to the University of Esgan, on the mainland, which let the public visit its library without too much fuss and had a decent wizarding section. An angle's hunt found her an old book on conjuring, including a set of spells for gems. Cut gems. Any type she liked, as many as she wanted.
Ehail got another book, about gems themselves, and looked up diamonds and rubies and sapphires.
It wouldn't do to miss a color or a shape.
She took detailed notes, returned the books to where they belonged, and went home to work.
Two days spent conjuring with neatly diagrammed spells, working in bursts between her other work, saw Ehail in possession of a small heap of gems, every hue. She'd almost forgotten that diamonds weren't all ice-clear and sapphires not all electric blue and was glad she'd checked; rubies did turn out to be consistently red. They were shaped like everything from cushions to teardrops. Hopefully the shapes used in Barashin jewelry were the same as the ones Elcenians used. They looked similar to what she'd seen in Gyre's shop.
There was no reason to wait.
She folded up the gems in a square of old fabric, tied the corners, and teleported to the circle.
It was evening in Aristan, but the gaslight in Gyre's shop was still on, setting the jewels aglow. He was talking to a customer - thankfully, not Arylla - but when Ehail opened the door and the bell sounded, he glanced towards her and lit up.
She waited in the corner of the shop, looking at some earrings that hadn't been there before, while Gyre sold a fellow halfblood a bracelet and boxed it for him. "Ehail, hello," he said, once the customer had left. "What brings you here? I was going to give you a bit longer before asking if you wanted to... see me again."
"I have something for you," she said, holding up the pouch she'd fashioned. Gems clinked together inside of it.
Gyre, puzzled, went out from behind the counter to come closer and take it from her hands. He set it over the till and untied the corners.
The heap of jewels flattened when he freed it; one red faceted square skittered off the edge of the cloth and onto the floor. Ehail picked it up and put it back with the others.
"What are - are these - is that a ruby?" Gyre stammered.
"I think that's a ruby. It might be a red diamond, though. There are a few of those too. I can't really tell them apart now - if you don't know how to tell and you need to know, I can bring them home and check by magic," she murmured.
"I can tell rubies and diamonds apart," Gyre breathed, still staring in amazement at the gift. "This is - I don't - how -"
"I made them," Ehail said.
"You can make gems too?"
"Too?" She realized a moment late that he meant the silver. "Oh - not the same way. I conjured them."
"Conjured them," he said, seeming to be less stunned, if only by a fraction. He looked back at her, finally tearing his eyes off the stones. "With wizardry?"
"Yes. It doesn't get done much. On Elcenia you can't sell conjured gems, only natural ones. But..." She shifted her weight, trying to find a way to stand that would make him stop looking at her so preposterously reverently. He averted his gaze and started sifting through the heap gently. "I asked Rhysel and she said you would be able to sell them just fine."
Gyre nodded slowly. "Do you want me to send the house another -"
"No - this is just - it's for you, it's a gift," Ehail said, twisting her hands together behind her back. "I would have brought the babies' scales in the same trip but Ilen wants to go through the couch cushions again and make sure he's not missing any."
"This is amazing," Gyre said, picking up what was either a sapphire or a blue diamond and holding it to the light. "Thank you. I don't know what to say - it's a spectacular gift."
"Diamonds and corundum," Ehail said. "I can make others if that's important but - you mentioned - that - those are the ones you got from Arylla's brother -"
"Yes," Gyre murmured. "Yes, they are. And now I don't have to tolerate her another day, and I can change the lock, and - thank you, Ehail."
"I'm glad you like it," she said. "I - I like my rosebush. Very much."
Gyre smiled at her warmly. "I'm glad." He hesitated, then tied up the gems in their cloth again and locked them in the till. "I'm about to close up for the night," he said. "Do you want to come with me to the locksmith, and get some pastry twists to celebrate?"
"Yes," said Ehail.
Chapter 5: Island
Gyre was supposed to be at the house already, which was why Ehail was at the door with the obsidian who monitored it during the day, and he hadn't arrived yet.
"It's probably the inter-world timekeeping issues," Ehail remarked. The obsidian didn't reply. "Probably just that. Or traffic. Or a customer."
Finally, there was a knock on the door, and Ehail pulled it open in time to see Gyre waving goodbye to Rhysel as she vanished on the spot of the transfer point. Gyre turned when his sister had gone, and grinned to see Ehail. "Hello there."
"Hello," Ehail said. "You're - here."
"I hope I'm not too late," Gyre said. "I wouldn't want to keep you waiting."
"Oh," she said. "It's nothing. Come in."
He came in, nodded politely to the obsidian, and took Ehail's hand in his as she led him down the hall. "So - I don't know how thorough a tour you want," Ehail said.
"I'd like to see your office and your room, at least," Gyre said.
"Then we can start there," she said. "My office is all the way at the back - past the children's dorms. There are a few other offices. For accounting and for Hallai and the other house empath..." She trailed off; she had no reason to believe he was interested in any of those functions of the house. "And mine. I'm in there most of the day." She wasn't entirely sure how to go about holding his hand beyond the moments it would have taken to teleport him somewhere. Still, he didn't seem to be complaining about her technique. "Have you made anything with the gems I made yet?"
"Not yet," he said. "I've had my hands full with another project. But they'll come in handy - even if you never make me any more, they'll give me enough of a head start that I won't run out until I can afford to go to a more expensive lapidary. I keep pouring all of my profits into more materials," he explained. "Keeps me on a bit of a knife edge, but sooner or later I'll have more metal and gems than I have time to work it all, and then I can start looking into making a Masterpiece, and then maybe taking apprentices. I probably wouldn't be interested in Mastery if it weren't a prerequisite for having apprentices."
"What other project?" Ehail asked.
"That's a surprise," Gyre said, squeezing her hand and smiling.
"Oh." A warm feeling that she didn't quite recognize uncurled in her middle. "What do you think you'll do for your Masterpiece?"
"I'm not sure. Probably not a piece of jewelry - or, not an ordinary piece of jewelry. I might make Ryll a new Senate circlet," he said. "Or maybe I'll make something else for you."
He smiled gently at her as they rounded the corner. "Any ideas? I'm mostly guessing about what you might like. Maybe the decorations in your rooms will be enlightening."
"I don't really have any," Ehail said. "Apart from my spider plant, and your rosebush."
"It's your rosebush," he said.
"You made it."
"For you. It was never anyone else's," Gyre said.
"This is my office," said Ehail, turning away to hide her flush. She pulled the door open. "I only have one chair - I could get one from the night empath's office, though, she wouldn't mind and she'll be asleep now."
"I don't need to sit, it's all right," he said. "I want to look around." There wasn't much to look at - he was peering at the high shelf with her plants, living and artificial. "Can I look in the file cabinet?"
"You can," she said, "but you won't be able to read any of it."
He pulled it open anyway. "You have such small handwriting," he murmured.
"It's more efficient. Paper is cheap now, but it was expensive when I first had anything to write," she said.
"Is the house's budget really that tight?"
Ehail nodded. "We save a lot of money by having me around - and if we really needed to save more, I could start conjuring food, too, as long as it was very simple - but we have a lot of people to support. Parents sometimes send money with the eggs, but it's not often enough to even cover the twenty years before they might come and get the baby. So we have charity income - not much - we're not a popular cause - and some of the adults who live here take in freelance work or have jobs in town, but people don't prefer to hire shrens when they can avoid it. Not unless we are very, very cheap."
Gyre winced. "Right, so about buying those other scales..."
"I think Ilen is stalling on purpose, talking about losing them behind couch cushions," Ehail said. "He's sentimental. He keeps them all because he knows he won't see half the babies ever again after they get to be twenty. Ludei lets him keep one scale per baby when they're metallics and money is good, but he's never had to give up any of the others at all before."
"Ah. It doesn't have to be those scales in particular. Is there any chance others could be coaxed to shift? I don't know if you're typical in that respect..."
"Some probably could," Ehail said. "Especially younger ones who would fit in the house still. Especially red-groups, who would like the excuse to have a chance to breathe fire. We could ask Ludei."
"I can't afford to buy all of the scales the population of this house could probably drop," cautioned Gyre. "Not without taking out a loan. And, er, I'm not sure I'll be able to bring myself to sell any of yours, so I don't yet have a good idea of the market. But if a selection of kids want to shift in the house and sell me some scales, I can figure out how well they'll sell, and maybe justify the loan to buy more."
"We lose scales very slowly," Ehail said. "You could corner the market, if there is one, by buying up all the shren scales - after that new ones will only trickle in."
Gyre nodded. "But I don't want to spend this entire visit talking about sales and the like. Is your room upstairs?"
Ehail nodded. "We move upstairs if we get to be about a hundred and eighty and don't show any sign of moving out," she said. "Some people do leave later, but not as many as go when they're young adults." She showed Gyre out of the room and to the closest stairwell.
"Are these all single rooms?" he asked, noting the close spacing of the doors once they'd ascended the stairs.
Ehail nodded. "People who want to share rooms move out," she said. "It happens, but not very much."
"No married couples?"
"Not in the house. It's... well, people have relationships," she said. "Ilen and Hallai have one now, he said. But we can't expect them to last forever, and it's not good for the house if there's a lot of friction between people, and so usually anyone who is very serious about it will move away so if they fall apart later, it doesn't hurt everyone else. I'm not sure what Ilen and Hallai mean to do. He's an inside shren."
"An inside shren?" asked Gyre. They reached the turn where Ehail's hall was. She went to the correct door and pushed it open for him.
"He doesn't leave the building. He never has, in his life," Ehail said. "He has panic attacks if he thinks about it." Her room was as undecorated as her office - more so, really, lacking plants. It had a skylight, and that was its most interesting feature. The rooms were little. Hers had room for a narrow bed and a chair and a squat nightstand, and space to walk between them. "He doesn't even have a skylight in his room."
"That sounds dreadful," murmured Gyre.
"Well," Ehail said. "Of course we can't go outside until we learn to shift. Some go home with their parents then. I assume those don't have this problem. But the ones who stay here may just never go on any outings, or may have problems that mean we can't trust them not to turn into their natural shapes outside at first, and so they stay in, and stay in, and eventually that's all they can do."
"I'm glad you can go out," Gyre said. "I'm glad I got to meet you."
"So am I," Ehail said. "So... this is my room. It's not very interesting."
"You're right," he admitted, laughing softly. "I think you mentioned I might be allowed to eat in the cafeteria?"
"I don't think anyone will mind this once, if you want to. Especially if you'll buy scales," Ehail said. "But first can I see what you made? Did you bring it?"
"I did bring it," he said, smiling and reaching into the pouch on his belt. "Turn around?"
"So I can put it on you," he said.
Ehail faced the wall and closed her eyes, and Gyre draped something heavy and chilly around her neck and clipped it closed behind her head, then pulled her hair through.
She opened her eyes, and looked at the mirror on her right.
It was a necklace made half of her own scales, half of plates of some subtly different metal, riveted together into a flexible crescent with a wide throat scale flowing into others of decreasing size.
It matched her hair.
It made her pretty.
"Oh," she breathed.
"You like it?" Gyre asked anxiously.
Ehail nodded as fast as she could.
"I'm so glad - I didn't know if it would be strange to wear something made of your own scales," he said.
"A little," she said. "But only because they aren't usually used in jewelry here, I think. I'm going to wear this."
Gyre grinned at her in the mirror. "Still no smile, alas."
"Oh - I - if you want - I can just -"
"Ah, ah, no. I haven't given up on earning it yet," Gyre said, running his fingers through her hair once. "Maybe shiny things aren't the right tack."
"I do like them. And I can smile if you want to see -"
"No, not just because I want to see," he said. "Because you're happy. I want to make you happy enough to smile without even thinking about it."
"Lunch?" proposed Gyre.
"The cafeteria is downstairs," Ehail said, stealing a last look in the mirror before she turned out of the room.
At lunch, Ehail wondered if someone would remark on her necklace, ask about her scales, but no one did; perhaps they thought Gyre had made the scale shapes instead of collecting them. While she fretted, Gyre amusedly listened to a posse of three adolescent shrens argue about his eye color until one remembered that he couldn't be a green-group and have a half-elf form.
The younger residents left them alone when it was clear that Gyre wasn't a shren of any kind. "I'm sorry. They shouldn't have thought that," Ehail murmured.
"That I'm one of you? Why not?"
"Well - they were guessing because you're here - they probably thought you were from another house - but they still shouldn't have assumed you were. It's not a nice thing to think," Ehail said.
"I'm not offended that someone thought I was like you," Gyre said.
Ehail took a bite of her vegetable pie. "Oh," she murmured.
Gyre picked up his soup bowl and sipped at the broth, then dropped it; it landed base down on the tray, but it was a near thing. "Hot," he gasped, reaching for his water and gulping until it was gone, then looking around frantically for more.
There were waterspouts on every table, little devices that would pour out cold water from nowhere. Ehail traded glasses with Gyre and, while he poured her water down his throat too, filled up the one he'd emptied. "I should have warned you," she muttered.
Gyre finished a third glass of water and seemed able to stop, though Ehail refilled both cups anyway. "It's only about twice as hot as the arrabek Mother makes," he panted in a weak attempt at humor, "what's to warn about?"
"I'm sorry. Not everything is spicy, but when they make something that is, they aren't gentle about it. None of us mind," Ehail said sheepishly. "I'll take the soup - I'll trade you my casserole, that's all flavored with cheese, not spices."
Gyre accepted the swap, shaking his head in disbelief. "Why would anyone make anything that hot unless they were a troll, all but immune to spice?"
"We are all but immune," Ehail said. "I don't know anything about trolls. But shrens don't mind ordinary levels of pain - or - I suppose they don't feed the smaller babies this sort of thing." She sipped the soup. "And maybe they'll have to stop feeding it to older and older shrens as more grow up with treatment. But no, I can drink this soup just fine."
"Grow up with - you mean to say -" Gyre was silent, presumably processing that. "You're just immune to pain, in general? Rhysel suggested something like that but I didn't realize..."
"I don't think that's exactly right. If I didn't fly for twenty years again," Ehail said, "I'd notice that. But I could go for ten, maybe fifteen, if I wanted to stick out the lethargy period... I'm not sure what else would bother me. Aar Camlenn's notes on how they saved that little red opal dragonet mentioned a lifelink which apparently hurts a lot and keeps getting worse. Maybe one of those could get bad enough." She took another swallow of soup. It was salty. "It's not that I don't notice it," she amended. "It just doesn't matter. The feel of my socks on my feet doesn't matter either. I'd pay attention if I were in a sort of pain that would mean I was injured or sick. Or if my socks felt unfamiliar and I thought they might be someone else's mixed up with mine."
"Socks," said Gyre.
He started on his salad, shaking his head with wide eyes. "How?"
"How did you live through all that?"
"Oh," Ehail said. "There's nothing very tall to fall from in the babies' room. And their claws and teeth aren't hard enough to get through their own scales, or each other's, although some of them chew on themselves a bit anyway. There's nothing sharp, and it's not that hard to forcefeed a baby shren, and the sootheweed is all kept locked up except for safe doses. The last time this house had a baby die was almost three hundred years ago. He managed to -"
"No, that's not what I mean," exclaimed Gyre. "I mean - how did you not go insane?"
"A few do," Ehail said. "You probably won't see them. They have their own hall upstairs, and some people who look after them."
"But how is it only some?" asked Gyre. "How are you sane, or any of the others?"
"I don't know," Ehail shrugged, looking away awkwardly. "I don't know what the difference is between the ones who go off and the ones who don't."
Gyre just stared at her, his face slack in blank incomprehension, and at length he leaned towards her and wrapped his arms around her tightly. "You're amazing," he said in her ear.
Ehail hugged him back, as that seemed the thing to do, but she didn't understand. "I'm not. There's hundreds of us," she murmured.
"That doesn't mean you aren't amazing," he said. One of his hands was flat against the back of her head, fingers in her hair.
"Ehail has a boyyyyyfriend," called one of the adolescents who'd been speculating about Gyre's possible emeraldhood earlier. Her friends whistled.
Ehail blushed and drew her hands back into her lap; Gyre released her as soon as she moved. "I apologize for them," she murmured.
"I'm not offended," he murmured, "that someone thinks I'm your boyfriend." There was a wistful thread to his voice.
"W-well," Ehail began, but she didn't know what came next in that sentence. She started another one. "You can see how someone would think it."
"Yeah," he said softly, looking into her eyes.
"A-a-actually there are a lot of pointers to that," she stammered. "It's a - a good explanation - for things."
There was a heartbeat's pause.
"Can I be your boyfriend?" Gyre asked.
Gyre kissed her.
Later, up in her room where they'd retreated to avoid teasing from younger shrens, Gyre asked, "Do they always poke fun like that?"
"Sometimes. Nothing too serious. Is that odd for children that - not age, I suppose, but that maturity level? I haven't been around any who weren't from the house," Ehail said. "I don't know if they would be different in families."
"Why aren't they in families?" Gyre asked slowly.
"Because their parents never came and got them," said Ehail.
"I mean - after it was obvious that those particular parents wouldn't be coming to get them - why aren't they put up for adoption?" Gyre asked. "Surely someone would take them. Surely not everyone is irrational about shrens."
"Very occasionally some other relative will come for one," Ehail said. "About eighty years back a baby who'd just shifted for the first time went home with her thudia nephew, who'd heard about her and cared more about her than about his father ever visiting... But then ten years ago that same child came right back here. The thudia nephew died and no one else in the family made the same tradeoff so the little girl went to a friend but the friend was old too, and died too. People who might want to adopt don't want to die while their children are still small like that. They'd rather take home some orphaned human, or elf, or what have you. The only species who live that long are dragons who often don't even want their own shren children, and vampires who closely associate with dragons and don't want to risk their goodwill, and sometimes elves but they can't be very sure of it and they spend a lot of that time so old and infirm."
"Adult shrens who move out?" Gyre proposed.
"If they've grown close to a specific child, sometimes, but we're just not very equipped to be parents, as a group - the ones from houses aren't, anyway," Ehail said. "The ones whose parents pick them up aren't going to earn any favor with those parents by bringing more shrens into the family."
"So it's not that they aren't up for adoption," Gyre said, "it's that there aren't prospective parents who'll be young and alive long enough, who are far enough away from dragons?"
Ehail nodded, and then her nodding slowed as she looked at Gyre. "That's why," she murmured.
"Barashin elves," he said. "Barashin halfbloods. Barashin fairies. Maybe Barashin dragons, maybe trolls, but I'm less confident about those working out. I can talk to my sister Ryll, she's in the Senate, she can navigate all the obstacles that need navigating and set up some kind of program -"
Ehail didn't realize, until Gyre beamed at her and cupped her face and kissed her, that she was smiling.
"Assuming there aren't laws in the four relevant countries designed to prevent international adoption," said Ryll, rummaging through her cupboards for tea to offer her houseguests, "I don't see any reason why Aristanians won't be taking home shrens within the next month. There won't be as much demand for the older ones - and any children within the window of time when their biological parents might turn up to claim them will probably be better not adopted to avoid disputes - and I suppose we'll have to make sure that anyone interested in a violet-group lives near water?"
"Yes," Ehail said. "They can learn human or elf forms if they don't have them, I doubt any of us have used all the forms allotted, but they'll want to swim - as fish or aquatic birds or mammals. They mustn't be allowed to take natural form. Any of them. Dragons can move between Elcenia and Barashi as freely as anyone."
"I'll make sure that's understood," said Ryll. "Will a river or lake do, for the violet-groups? Aristan doesn't have very much coastline."
"They'll all have saltwater swimming forms already, since that house is in a sea," Ehail said. "So coastline would be better. But nothing will stop them from learning to turn into something comfortable in freshwater."
Ryll nodded. "If we can't find enough comfortable homes for them here I can talk to my contacts in Korsyca, which has a lot of beach to go around. How are we going to handle large-scale transportation between all the houses?"
Gyre spoke up. "Rhysel has transfer points at three of them - Ehail's, the Paraasilan one, and the other land one - but the sea one, Tekaal teleports her to and from. I'm sure she'll help."
"I suppose she will. She might want assistance, to handle the relevant volume..."
"I can teleport to my house and the Paraasilan one and the circle," Ehail said. "If Rhysel and Aar Camlenn take me to the other two houses once each I can teleport to those too. I don't have that much work to do - usually it only adds up to an angle or two a day."
Ryll nodded. "Maybe that will be enough. But since it's possible to travel from the circle to Paraasilan without requiring any individual's help like that, I think I'll want to base the program at the house there. Will that house be willing to let some children from the others visit long enough to have interviews?"
"I would need to ask Jensal," Ehail began.
"Oh, you don't need to do that, Ehail, I've got this handled and I have a staff, too," said Ryll. "I just wanted to check if you knew off the top of your head. Is there anything else you think I ought to know before I write in to my assistant about it?"
"I - I think we've covered everything," Ehail said. She felt vaguely floaty, like she was dreaming.
"Excellent," said Ryll, sitting back and smiling brightly. "Then this can be a social visit, if you have the time. I want to know something about how my baby brother is doing, and who he's seeing."
"Oh," murmured Ehail, while Gyre mumbled an ill-formed protest about not having been a baby in years.
"So, Ehail," Ryll said with a whimsical grin, "what makes you think you're good enough to date my brother?"
"Nothing," squeaked Ehail.
Ryll blinked. Gyre put his arm around Ehail's shoulders and pulled her close on the couch; she acquiesced wordlessly as he chastised his sister. "Ryll, does asking that question ever go well? Myret is always complaining that you scare off her boyfriends that way."
"Tekaal had a very witty reply," murmured Ryll, flushing. "I'm sorry, Ehail, I didn't mean to upset you. You obviously have many fine qualities -"
"Of course she does," said Gyre tightly. "Ehail is a sweet and altruistic and hard-working -"
"Gyre," Ehail whispered, embarrassed.
"Well, you're wonderful," he told her. "Can't I brag about you at all?"
"Not like that..."
"All right," he said, and he punctuated the agreement with a kiss to her scalp. "No more cascades of pretty adjectives. Nouns? Can I say 'wizard'?"
"Brag in mime?" proposed Ryll weakly.
"No," said Ehail, stifling a helpless laugh.
The front door banged open, and the chatter of children drifted through the Rysen household. "That'll be my sets of twins home from school," Ryll said. "Do you want to meet them, Ehail? And if you stay long enough, Lerrel and Tyrrel will be in from working on the scaffolds in the town square to have dinner. You could meet the whole family."
"I -" Ehail's thought process was interrupted by a flying ball of small halfblood propelled directly at her lap.
"Pretty!" announced the child, petting Ehail's hair with the hand that wasn't full of her schoolbag. "Who're you?"
"Sel," said Gyre, "this is my girlfriend, Ehail."
"Hi, Ehail!" said Sel. "Hi, Uncle Gyre." Sel presented Ehail with a gluey craft project from her schoolbag, slid out of the shren's lap, and ran off with her twin sister.
"I didn't know you had a girlfriend, Uncle Gyre," said one of the boys.
"Hello, Leyf," said Gyre. "It's a recent change. What'd Sel give you, dear heart?" he asked Ehail.
"I'm not sure," Ehail said.
"Their class is in a history unit," said Leyf. "It's probably something historical."
"What about you, what are you and Garyn up to?" Gyre asked, smoothing Ehail's hair where Sel had mussed it.
"We're in a math unit. We can solve for emy and we have to prove that we can do that, all day," groaned Garyn, dropping his bookbag on his twin's foot and earning a shove. "And it was stormy all day so we couldn't even go out for playtime! We had to stay in and do card games! Which is dumb because we had to walk home in the rain anyway so why couldn't we play in it?"
"You wouldn't care if you didn't always lose at cards," taunted Leyf, and he was immediately chased out of the house by his irate brother.
Ehail blinked several times.
"Well," said Ryll. "If I know Sel and Vianne they're going to saddle up their ponies and go for a ride. Meanwhile, Leyf and Garyn are going to wrestle in the mud and then stand in the rain until they can claim they didn't. You're probably not interested in the latter. Would you two like to borrow some of my horses and follow the girls, work up an appetite for dinner?"
"I don't know how to ride," murmured Ehail.
"It's not hard to do, if you start slow," said Ryll encouragingly. "I'll pick a gentle horse for you."
Ultimately, Ehail consented, and Ryll and Gyre together managed to get her all the way around a paddock on a sedate dappled horse without any of the involved creatures breaking her neck. Ehail was then coaxed into petting the ranch's sole zebra, while Ryll's ranch hand saw to the dappled horse. The girls, when they were finished with their ride, combed and fed and watered their own animals, then came inside to wash up.
Ryll's elven husband brought in their eldest boy not long after the horse-riding was all through. "Ryll! Your mother came by the worksite today," he said. "Wants us all over to look at a harpsichord she just finished - she thinks something may be off with the sound but she and your father have been listening to it so much she says they can barely tell anymore."
"Oh my," said Ryll. "All right, everyone, are we all ready to go to Grandma and Grandpa's? Get to it!" Children scattered to change clothes or fetch boots. Ryll then turned to Gyre and Ehail, who were sitting together at the kitchen table, and visibly swallowed. "Er," she said. "Would you like to join us?"
"Why not?" asked Gyre. "If Ehail's willing."
"Why not?" Ehail heard herself say.
Chapter 6: Shunning
Ryll looked like she might actually have an answer for why not, but the children were bouncing around in excitement about visiting Grandma's, and she was soon occupied lacing up Sel's boots. "If you want to come, you can," she said.
"Does she think your parents won't like me?" Ehail murmured in Gyre's ear as she set down Sel's craft project and they followed the Rysen family out in the rain. "Should we just leave instead?"
"I can't think why anyone wouldn't like you," Gyre murmured back. "Maybe she thinks you'll be bored by the harpsichord."
"Oh. I don't think it will be boring." Especially not if the children kept jostling her just like they were jostling their parents and their uncle, like she belonged there, was a perfectly appropriate addition to a family outing.
Everyone piled into the wagon, and Ehail wound up with Vianne in her lap. Vianne picked at the stitching on Ehail's sleeve and asked, "Are you from Elsenya?"
"El-see-ne-ya," Ehail corrected. "Yes. I am."
It wasn't a long trip, and the children shortened it by talking, often over Ryll who kept starting sentences. The three boys and two girls filled the air with chat about the horses, when one might foal and another might be trained up well enough to sell; about school, their lessons and their teachers; about the weather (rainy) and the sounds the carthorses made with each hoofbeat (splashy).
Ehail remembered being a child, but only dimly, and that was the only part of her life she'd spent very much around children. She'd moved upstairs when she was two hundred and three, when Ludei had asked her if she'd thought about moving away from the house and she'd told him no. After that she'd seen children, and heard them, but not interacted with them, and they hadn't climbed on her or presented her with artwork.
"I think you should be -" Ryll began for the tenth time as the wagon pulled up to its destination.
"Mom! Mommy I have a rock in my boot you have to carry me in or it will go in my foot and then I will have a rock in my foot!" cried Sel.
Ryll sighed, got out first to scoop Sel out of the wagon, and carried the girl to the patio where a weathered, grayed human man sat polishing a carved wooden chain. Ehail wasn't even sure how someone would make something like that, but he had several dozen unbroken links of wood, which he was smoothing down with sandpaper.
"You might want to -" Ryll started again, but Vianne tapped her mother's forehead and whispered that it would be only fair for her to be carried to the patio too, because otherwise that would be Sel getting a prize for having a rock in her boot, and that would be silly. Ryll carried her second daughter in and was then caught by her father in a hug.
Ehail climbed out of the wagon after Gyre so he could help her down. She caught Ryll's eye, hoping to hear whatever she'd had to say, but Ryll glanced at her father and just smiled at Ehail. Ehail concluded that whatever Ryll had to say probably wasn't too important. Gyre had to know his parents as well as she did.
The stones of the street were slippery, not just with water but also with some kind of algal growth indicating it was always wet. The climate wasn't that different from the tropical warm-wetness of Keppine Island, although Aristan's atmosphere pervaded the indoors in a way that climate control spells wouldn't let it do on Elcenia. Even when Gyre had hurried her inside out of the rain, Ehail's clothes clung to her, and she wished she'd worn something more weatherproof.
"Rushing by me like that, I'd think you didn't want a hug, son," said Tem, following them in and holding out his arms. "What are you doing here? Didn't know you were in town."
Gyre readily embraced his father. "It's been a while! Hope I didn't surprise you too much. I was here with Ehail, my girlfriend -" (Gyre said this with pride, which Ehail couldn't figure out) "to talk to Ryll about an idea for something Senatorial, and we decided to tag along when she and Lerrel and the niblings all came over here. I hear you have a harpsichord needs tuning?"
"Your mother has," Tem said, turning to scrutinize Ehail. "I carved the legs for it but don't think that has much to do with tuning." He was looking at her hair. Ehail wondered if he would be insulted should she turn into a bluejay, to be smaller. Gyre put his arm around her and she squished closer to him.
"Hello," Ehail murmured. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Ehail." These seemed like polite sentences to utter in context.
"Gyre's girlfriend, are you?" Tem asked. "Good to meet you too, child. I'm Tem."
"I'm not a child," she said. "I'm six hundred and sixty-three."
Gyre snorted good-naturedly. "Good luck convincing my parents that means they shouldn't call you 'child'," he said. "Lerrel is even older than you are and they call him that."
A redheaded elf woman came into the room. "What are you all standing in here for? The harpsichord is in my studio," she said. "Gyre, you are here, Garyn mentioned, do come in, bring your guest."
"Mother, this is my girlfriend," Gyre said. "Ehail, my mother, Allera."
"Girlfriend? Goodness. That's a first for you, Gyre."
"I've had girlfriends," he murmured, although he sounded embarrassed. "Just none I was - none who - I didn't bring any here."
"That's all I meant, child," Allera said. Everyone was assembled in the studio, which was full of instruments of all kinds, in various stages of completion. Most prominent was a harpsichord, a chair pulled out before it for Allera to sit in. She ran her hand over the keys fluidly and played a chromatic scale.
"How does it compare to the tuning fork, Mother?" Gyre asked.
Allera snatched up a metal fork from the top of the harpsichord and struck it on the chair, then pressed a corresponding key. "You see, that sounds right, it's the other notes I'm not sure of..."
"I'd say flat above that note, sharp below it," murmured Ryll. "But you might want to bring in Jenner or Batai or Tennel, for this one."
"Are you musical, Ehail, dear?" Allera asked, opening up the harpsichord and beginning to tweak things.
"Oh, no," Ehail said. "Not particularly."
"What is it that you do, then?"
Ryll opened her mouth; Ehail thought she might have been about to chide one of the children, though there wasn't anything obvious to chide them about. "I'm a wizard," Ehail said.
A muscle in Allera's jaw twitched. She carefully closed the harpsichord.
"You've only re-tuned half the strings," volunteered Tyrrel, Ryll's eldest.
"Well," said Allera. "I'm going to see how this half sounds before I do any more." She touched the keys again, but her fingers came down harder, and the notes sounded like whether they were in or out of tune they would have jangled badly. Ehail winced.
"Mother?" said Gyre.
"Oh, don't you take that tone with me, young man," said Allera, standing up fast enough to send the chair skidding towards Leyf, who dodged it. Lerrel corralled all of the children and ushered them out of the room, holding some urgent whispered conversation with Ryll that Ehail couldn't hear.
"What?" Gyre asked. "I just -"
"You just nothing. You brought a wizard - another wizard - into this house. Maybe you think the harpsichord would be improved if it caught fire? Or if it got rained on, so the roof needs to be blown off?"
It seemed that Allera didn't like her. Oh. Ehail didn't understand the content of the outburst, but the dislike was normal enough.
"I beg your pardon?" said Gyre. Ehail wondered if she should leave. Her legs didn't seem to work.
"Mother," said Ryll. "Maybe we -"
"It's one thing for Rhysel to marry one," Allera snapped. Ehail wilted. If Allera didn't approve of Aar Camlenn, who was so perfectly polite, and helped with the babies, and wasn't even a shren or anything similarly horrible, Ehail had no chance. "What can you expect from her? But I didn't think you were like that, Gyre, I thought you'd find some nice, non-freakish girl one day and -"
"Excuse me?" said Gyre. It wasn't news to him, was it, that Ehail wasn't the best he could do? She'd thought he'd known - she hadn't had a clue why he'd settle for her, but that he would, she'd assumed, or why else would he want her for his girlfriend? Silly of her. Of course it was news.
"I will not excuse you from -"
"Oh, I don't care if you excuse us or not," Gyre said coldly, taking a step back and drawing Ehail back with him, both arms wrapped around her waist. "We're leaving."
"You don't have to, I can go home myself, you don't have to," Ehail murmured against her own shoulder as he pulled her back and out of the room. Ryll stepped between Ehail and Allera and was addressing her mother in sharp words and sharper tones. The swinging door closed behind Ehail and Gyre when they'd left the room.
"Yes," he said fervently. "I do have to. We're leaving. You don't deserve that."
"She's your mother," whispered Ehail. They were halfway to the front door. "You don't have to fight with your mother. Not for me. She's your mother."
"That doesn't give her leeway to treat you like that. Nothing would." They were out. It had just barely stopped raining, although droplets from the towering trees were still trickling down.
"If I knew my mother," Ehail began, but she didn't finish the sentence. If she knew her mother, then what? That mother hadn't given her the chance to find out. But if she'd known her mother wouldn't she find that relationship too precious to risk over some - shren?
"If..." Gyre didn't finish his sentence either. He sighed. "I know it's late on Elcenia. Do you want to go home?"
"I should probably leave you be," agreed Ehail. He was still holding her. Why was he doing that?
"No, that's not - Ehail -"
"She's right," Ehail said reasonably. Her lip was only trembling a little bit. At least the children hadn't been in the room. "I'm -"
"Ehail, I have no inkling as to why she reacted like that - I guess from what she said there may be something between her and Rhysel that I wasn't around for, that has bled over in some bewildering, irrational way to hurt you, but whatever it is isn't right and it doesn't change how I feel about you," he said.
He sounded just as though he meant it.
He hugged her closer. "Ehail," he murmured in her ear. "I think I'm in love with you."
Ehail wondered if she was dreaming. She could never remember dreams past the first moments of waking, so perhaps this was how they went. Exactly like standing in a rainforest on another world with Gyre's arms around her and him telling her he loved her.
But everything felt solid. The ground was slick and hard under her shoes, and the air was soupy, and Gyre was warm. She didn't think dreams were like that.
If she said it back, he would really hear her.
"I love you," she whispered anyway.
Inside the house, Ryll was shouting at her parents, and Allera, at least, was shouting right back, but Lerrel had gotten the kids out the back door and into the wagon, and he pulled up around the front. "Do you want to come back with us?" he asked Gyre and Ehail in a low voice. "Ryll may be a while, but you're always welcome at our place. You can stay the night if you like; we've got guest rooms."
"Do you want to go back with them?" Gyre asked Ehail. He was swaying slightly, and she swayed with him rather than step out of his embrace. "Or we could go to dinner, or we could go back to Aristan City, and you could stay at my place or go home. Whatever you like. Anything you like."
"We can go back with them," Ehail said. The little children hadn't heard anything Allera had said. Lerrel had taken them out of the room.
"All right, then we'll do that," Gyre said, and he helped her into the back of the wagon where the kids were all sitting. They seemed disgruntled; Garyn in particular had wanted a chance to tell his grandpa about a frog he'd seen that morning. Tyrrel had a pensive look about him - he seemed to know something odd was going on - but he gave Ehail an encouraging smile.
Vianne sat on Ehail's lap and looked at Gyre as though defying him to shoo her off of his girlfriend.
And the wagon trundled back to the Rysen household.
Lerrel assigned the boys to set up Gyre and Ehail in guest rooms, and after a brief detour in which Garyn and Leyf attempted to provoke their older brother into a pillow fight with the guest pillows, everything was set up to let them stay the night. "It's so nice of you to let me stay here," Ehail told Lerrel when the boys had cleared off and he poked his head in to check their handiwork.
"It's a long coach ride back to Aristan City," Lerrel said. "And it's the least we can do. You're welcome here, Ehail. I apologize for my mother-in-law. Ryll tried to warn you, but we're trying not to expose the kids to those attitudes and so she couldn't say much in front of them."
Ehail nodded slowly. "Gyre didn't know? That she wouldn't like me?"
"Suppose not," Lerrel said. "He would've been off at his apprenticeship before Rhysel came down with kamai. Magic wasn't such an issue with her, before that, is what I understand."
"Oh." Was it only about magic? Ehail had become a wizard to be something other than just a shren. Knowing magic made her more useful, better.
"I need to go get some food into the kids and put them to bed. I don't know if you or Gyre are hungry," he said, turning his head so his voice would carry into the adjacent guest room where Gyre was re-making the bed, "but if you do, you're welcome to join us for dinner."
"I could eat," said Gyre. "Ehail?"
"I could eat," she echoed.
"I'll call you when the food's ready, then," Lerrel said, with a friendly, apologetic smile, and he went off to collect junior kitchen helpers.
Gyre finished replacing the inexpertly tucked-in sheets on his bed and went into Ehail's guest room to sit beside her on the mattress. "How are you feeling?" he asked her softly.
"Complicated," she said.
He chuckled ruefully, and wrapped his arms around her waist and nuzzled the back of her neck. "I am so sorry I didn't know not to bring you there," he said into her hair. "I would never have subjected you to that if I'd known."
"I know," Ehail said.
"I was thirteen when Rhysel manifested," Gyre said. "I apprenticed far enough away that all I got were letters - I knew she was a spontaneous kama, that she had control issues, that they apprenticed her to a fellow in Restron, but I thought that was the end of it. By the time I came home for a visit, Rhysel was thousands of miles away. I never saw my mother behave that way in my life. If I had dreamed she would speak that way to you..." He shook his head; she could feel it on her neck. "I love you, Ehail."
"I love you too," she said, almost inaudible.
She could feel him smile, too. "I'm trying not to cavort around the room repeating that over and over like a character in a bad play," he said. "I think it might alarm you."
"It would be strange," Ehail said. "If you cavorted."
"Yes, a bit. But I'm very, very glad," said Gyre. He'd moved his head to speak in her ear.
"I am too," Ehail decided. "And other things. It's complicated."
"Let me know if I can help you tease any of it apart," he said.
Ryll was home in time for dinner. She'd apparently walked the whole way, but looked more furiously resolved than tired. Ehail wound up sitting across from Ryll, between Gyre and Sel, and as she served herself mango papaya salad and a beef-and-bean dish, she kept flicking her eyes towards Ryll's face and wondering what she was upset about.
"Myret will be here in few subs," Ryll said, when everyone had served themselves. "She's eaten already, but she's a part of a decision I've made. So are Jenner and Batai and Tennel, but they'll have to be informed by mail - unless you want to stop by Batai's when you're back in Aristan City, Gyre. I won't be there until the Senate is back in regular session."
"What do you mean, Mom?" Tyrrel asked. "What decision?"
"Let's wait until Myret arrives," Ryll said.
"Is it about Grandma?" Tyrrel asked.
"We're waiting for your Aunt Myret," Ryll repeated, and she took a spoonful of the beef-and-beans. "Thank you for fixing dinner, dear, children."
"You're welcome," said Lerrel. He looked curious, and apprehensive; Ehail thought that these were appropriate ways to feel.
Myret appeared when only Vianne and Lerrel were still picking their way through dinner and Tyrrel had begun cutting everyone slices of cassava cake. Myret's entrance was audible through the whole house, as was the mild curse associated with the stubbed toe she acquired on her way in. "Here I am, Ryll, what was so danged important you needed me to walk halfway across town about it?" she called.
"Come in to the dining room," Ryll called back.
Myret stomped in, shaking water out of her short hair, which spiked every which way where it was still dry and was barely tamed by the damp. "Well?"
"Mother has gotten away with her overblown, outdated anti-magic prejudice for years, and it is not good for this family," Ryll announced. "It drove Rhysel away, it soured Tekaal on his in-laws and for good reason, and now it's done Ehail harm. I'm not sure if all of you have heard yet that Rhysel is pregnant -"
"She is?" Gyre exclaimed.
"I didn't know that," Myret blinked.
"She's taking her time telling everyone about it," Ryll said. "Because of course her children are going to be kyma, and of course she doesn't know which of her siblings except the one who happened to be in a position to name a child after her are on her side."
"That's me, I'm named after my aunt," Sel whispered loudly in Ehail's ear.
"Mother is hurting herself too," Ryll continued. "She literally does not know that she's going to have more grandchildren in a few months, because Rhysel and Tekaal have a reasonable fear that she'll behave abominably towards those grandchildren."
"It's twins?" Tyrrel asked.
"Identical twin girls - apparently Tekaal could tell that immediately," Ryll said. "But my point is, Mother's prejudices are tearing this family apart. And until she changes them, I don't think we should invite her to be a part of the family."
"You want us all to shun Mother?" Myret asked, tilting her head farther than looked comfortable.
The words not for me came to Ehail's lips, but she didn't say them. It wasn't about her, apparently, although she might have triggered something; it was about Rhysel, Rhysel's twins on the way.
"Until she changes her tune," said Ryll firmly. "She's not invited to family gatherings, we don't go to her place for meals or to visit, she isn't welcome at our homes, and anyone who stands with her instead of with the injured parties here isn't welcome either. Father excepted, as he has to live with her, but if he voices agreement with her hateful beliefs we'll disinvite him too."
"Mother'll be apoplectic," Myret predicted. "She'll seize up and keel over twitching."
"No one is proposing shouting at her like she's vermin, for having a skill, while she stands there trembling," said Gyre darkly. Ehail didn't remember trembling. "We're just not having her by for brunch twice a week."
"It's not just that. What if she never changes her mind?" Myret swiped a slice of cassava cake and took a bite. "Won't she ever get to even meet Rhysel's kids?"
"I haven't spoken to Rhysel about this yet, but assuming she agrees with me, no, she won't," Ryll said. "If I adopt a shren child, the way I plan to, she won't get to meet him or her either. Until she's willing to change."
"You're going to..." breathed Ehail.
Ryll nodded once. "Now, I expect Tennel will agree with Mother," she said regretfully. "He's never liked kamai. But I think the rest of us can pull together for Rhysel. And Tekaal. And Ehail. And the little kyma-to-be."
"So we shun Mother," Myret said. "And Tennel, if you're right, and you probably are. And if we have to pass urgent tantalizing messages like 'you have the following number of new grandchildren' we do it by having Father over and him going home to talk to Mother?"
"Yes," said Ryll.
"I wouldn't put it past Mother to stand outside my shop and not budge till I talk to her," Myret said.
"Neither would I. I'll loan you a horse and you can outrun her when you go to and from work," Ryll said. "If she gets too extreme, we can talk to the Watch, although I'd really rather not involve them in a family matter."
"A horse? Oh, can I have Guarana? I like her," Myret asked.
"Yes," said Ryll. "Any other questions?"
Gyre shook his head. "I'm with you. Thank you, Ryll."
"Thank you, Gyre," Ryll said quietly. "And you, Ehail. I've been considering this for some time. I might have waited until Rhysel's children were born, but today gave me a push - even though I wish I'd managed to warn you first and spare you some pain."
"I'm fine," Ehail murmured.
Gyre kissed Ehail's hair. "I'll tell Batai," he said. "I think Batai will want to tell Jenner. Will you write Tennel, Ryll?"
"I'll do that," Ryll nodded.
Ehail was cajoled into reading bedtime stories first for the girl twins (while Vianne put her silver hair in a messy braid) and then for the boy twins (while they pulled faces at each other, trying to avoid getting caught). Tyrrel was allowed up a little later, and said that he'd outgrown bedtime stories, but he gave Ehail a hug before he went to bed.
After all of that was done, Ehail kissed Gyre goodnight, and went to bed in the guest room provided. She couldn't remember having ever been so tired in her life.
Chapter 7: Adopt
In the morning, Ryll asked Ehail to look over her letter to her assistant, who was holding down Ryll's Senatorial office while they were not in session. It looked fine to Ehail, although she suggested adjusting the transliteration of "Keppine" in the reference to the tropical house.
Gyre and Ehail shared eggs and rice with the family for breakfast, and left as Lerrel and Tyrrel went to their worksite and the younger children headed for school. They caught a coach to Aristan City that stopped in Tyren. "I'll stop and talk to Batai, before I go through the circle again and tell Rhysel," he said. "Do you want to join me, or meet again later?"
"I'll come with you," Ehail said. "I don't need to be home any time very soon."
"I'm sure Batai and his family will love to meet you," Gyre said. "They live just a couple neighborhoods away from me."
The coach ride was long, and everyone else in the carriage was asleep. They talked quietly about everything from the upcoming scheme for shren adoptions to the projects Gyre was working on. Ehail spent most of the trip with her head pillowed on his shoulder.
They got out at the Aristan City stop, and rather than hike from there to Batai's place, Gyre caught and hired a local carriage to take them to the address. "Batai makes instruments like Mother and Jenner and Tennel, but only to order - he doesn't have a storefront and he stays home most of the time with the kids. Karyn, his wife, is a medic and often at work, so it makes sense for them," Gyre said. "He'll be home."
"That makes sense," said Ehail.
Batai's family lived in a third story flat near the center of the city, up creaky stairs and across from a bustling hospital. Gyre knocked on the door to the apartment. "Daddy, somebody's at the door!" shouted a child's voice.
The door swung open to reveal a bearded halfblood with red-brown hair, balancing a five-year-old boy on his hip. The boy had skin the color of milk tea and a fluff of dark curls. "Uncle Gyre! Shiny hair!"
Ehail touched her hair self-consciously. "Hey, Batai, Aryn," said Gyre, pulling his brother into a half-hug and patting the child on the head. "How are you?"
"All's well here. Myll's gotten over her sniffles," said Batai. "What brings you here? Wasn't expecting you. Though if you stay long enough, Karyn'll be home for lunch and you might get some cabbage for your trouble. Who's this?"
"This is Ehail, my girlfriend," said Gyre, pulling her close. After a pause, Gyre pulled Aryn from Batai's arm, tossed him lightly into the air and caught him, and then offered him to Ehail.
Ehail took the little boy, unsure how to hold him but quickly finding the question of exact technique academic as he squirmed around trying to get ahold of her hair. "Well, my son likes her," Batai commented. "Come in. Did you say why you came by? I didn't think you liked cabbage."
"Didn't know you were having it," Gyre said, taking a seat at the kitchen table. "No, we're here to relay some news from Ryll. It's about Mother."
Ehail occupied herself while the brothers talked by sitting in an empty armchair and joggling Aryn on her knee. Aryn's sister Myll was sitting on the floor playing with wooden carts and stuffed animals that she crammed into them. She seemed more shyly intrigued by Ehail than Aryn had, waving and scooting a little closer but not attempting conversation.
Batai listened to Gyre explain the ultimatum, grave and silent, and finally nodded when the story was complete. "I don't think I would have chosen this approach," he said. "But Ryll's smart. I'll trust her on this one - although - no guarantee that it will last if it threatens to make Mother miss the kids' birthdays. They don't deserve to be punished."
"I'll understand, but hopefully it won't take that long for her to come around," said Gyre.
"Hopefully," Batai echoed. "Do you want to stay for lunch? Does your girlfriend like cabbage?" He glanced at Ehail as he asked that.
"I'm not choosy," Ehail said. "But don't we need to talk to Rhysel, too?"
"That's right," said Gyre, snapping his fingers. "We do. Better sooner rather than later, even if she's never visited Mother much. Batai, you'll pass on the information to Jenner?"
"Will do. He's going to be here tomorrow afternoon with a flute he made for me when I was flooded with orders. I'll tell him then," said Batai. "It's good to see you, Gyre. And nice to meet you, Ehail. You should both come over some time when Karyn is home."
"We'll try to arrange it," Gyre said brightly, standing up and ruffling Myll's curls before extending his hand towards Ehail. Aryn slid off her lap, albeit not before sticking out his tongue at his uncle, and Ehail stood up to follow Gyre out.
They walked between Batai's building and Gyre's shop. "You seem to like kids," Gyre remarked.
"I do?" Ehail asked. "They're - well, your niblings are all very sweet."
"They are," Gyre said. "Do you spend much time with the kids at your house?"
She shook her head. "My job doesn't take me near them often... when it does it's all very quick, fixing someone's vision or casting an analysis for my research or something, and they don't gravitate towards me just because I have shiny hair, either."
"Mm. I was wondering if you were thinking about adopting one or two of them, once that becomes possible," he said.
Ehail pursed her lips. "I don't know. Maybe, but I think I'd rather get them from a different house... I think it would be strange, to pick one who I've known all of his or her life, and suddenly take so much more interest than I ever had before."
"Fair enough," said Gyre. He looked thoughtful.
They rounded a corner close to his shop, and Ehail nearly bumped into Arylla.
"Oh!" exclaimed Arylla. "You're back! I had no idea where you were, Gyre, I wish you'd tell me when you go on vacation. Maybe sometime, we could go somewhere together, just the two of us." She completely ignored Ehail. "You haven't had trouble with thieves, have you, Gyre? I noticed that you have a new lock on your shop door - I mean, I saw that it's brass, now, instead of the iron one you had. I hope nothing was taken!"
"Arylla," acknowledged Gyre, shutting his eyes. "Hello. Goodbye."
"What?" said Arylla. He routed around her and Ehail jogged to keep up with his longer stride; when he dropped back into a walk, he caught Ehail's hand and squeezed it.
"Gyre?" called Arylla.
Gyre didn't look around, but Ehail did, and the elf behind them shot her such a look of venom that Ehail felt chills down her spine. Ehail faced forward and sped up a bit, pulling Gyre along.
"What is it?" Gyre murmured in her ear.
"She looked at me like - like she wanted to cut me into pieces," Ehail whispered back.
He drew in a sharp breath through his teeth. "Excuse me one moment," he said to Ehail, and then he released her hand and spun on his heel to march back towards Arylla.
"Oh, Gyre, do you have some time to spend with me after all?" purred Arylla, when she saw this. "There's a massage parlor up by the bridge with a special for couples -"
"Absolutely not," said Gyre. "Arylla, I don't want to see you ever again. I don't care if you tell your brother to blacklist me. I don't even care if he does it. It's not worth putting up with you, or letting you look at my girlfriend that way. Leave me alone."
"I don't understand," said Arylla in a thready whine, pouting brilliantly red lips at him.
"I'm done talking to you," said Gyre, turning his back on Arylla and striding back towards Ehail.
Ehail didn't look over her shoulder again. She didn't think Arylla would look any friendlier the second time.
"Why is she like that?" Ehail asked Gyre during the hike from the circle building towards Rhysel's tower.
"Arylla?" he asked. "I won't ask what you mean by 'like that'... I think she expects me to make a lot of money," he sighed. "I don't have much now, since I keep sinking profits back into materials, but I think that's what she wants from me. She never did an apprenticeship herself and doesn't seem to have any interest in looking for one now, so she mooches off various siblings and has some sort of unskilled job at any given time. Why me as opposed to anyone else in a lucrative profession, I don't know. Maybe because of the business with the lapidary."
"How long has she..." Ehail made a vague gesture.
"A couple of years. She's very persistent - I promise, I never encouraged her any more than you saw the first time you met her," he said fervently.
"I believe you," Ehail said. "I hope she'll leave you alone now."
"I hope she'll leave you alone," he said. "I don't want to deal with her, but I did get somewhat used to her over time, and it's probably my own fault for putting up with the implicit extortion in the first place. You didn't do anything to make it even slightly appropriate for her to mistreat you."
"It's not your fault either."
"Arylla's," he agreed. He squeezed her hand as they passed the edge of Paraasilan and Rhysel's tower came into distant view.
They reached the tower and Gyre rang the bell. Rhysel's apprentice - Ehail thought his name was "Talyn" - answered the door. "Hi, Ehail," he said. "And you're one of Rhysel's brothers, right?"
"I'm Gyre," said Gyre, nodding. "Is Rhysel home?"
"She's teaching class," said Talyn. "She'll be home in a half angle to get a snack. Aar Camlenn, too. Can I help you?"
"Afraid not. It's a family thing and we should talk to her in person," said Gyre. "Is it okay if we wait here?"
"Don't see why not," said Talyn, standing aside. "Do you need anything? I was practicing kamai..."
"Don't let us interrupt," said Gyre.
Talyn disappeared up the stairs, and Ehail and Gyre sat at the kitchen table. "Place is neat," commented Gyre. "Either Rhysel got a lot tidier as an adult or that's one of her apprentice's chores."
"Or Aar Camlenn does it," Ehail said.
"Or that. Point. Are you excited about Ryll and Lerrel adopting a shren?" he asked her.
"It's - it's very nice of her," Ehail said. "She already has five..."
"Ryll's wild about kids," Gyre said. "She would have been itching to have another one - or two or three, the way halfbloods come in multiples so often - if this hadn't come up. Especially with Tyrrel apprenticing with his father, now, and often out of the house. I'm frankly surprised the girls got to be seven without any little siblings."
"Oh. That makes sense," said Ehail. "Her children are so cute."
"Aren't they?" asked Gyre with a smile.
Ehail nodded. "I wonder how quickly all of the shren children will be adopted. Are there a lot of people like Ryll, in Aristan?"
"I'm sure they'll all have homes very soon," said Gyre encouragingly.
"Oh." Ehail pursed her lips. "How soon?"
"Are you worried about whether there will be any left for you?" Gyre asked softly.
"I - well - I couldn't adopt one now, I live in a shren house. I don't have a job outside of it, to make money to live somewhere else and support a child." She shifted in her seat, looking at the smooth stone table. "And I'm probably just going to keep doing that forever."
"Do you want to do that forever?" Gyre asked.
"What else would I do?"
"Whatever you like," he said. "Anything. What do the others do when they move away?"
"They find work. Or they already have it - people in the house take in work sometimes. Some of them get married..." Ehail shrugged awkwardly. That sounded presumptuous. Gyre drew breath, but was interrupted by his sister's entrance.
Rhysel descended the stairs, presumably having arrived by indoor transfer point. "Gyre! Ehail!" she exclaimed. Ehail glanced at Rhysel's midsection: her tunic was belted higher, showing a slight rounding. "Hi!" Rhysel continued, taking the last few steps. "What are you doing here?"
"Ehail and I went to see Ryll yesterday," said Gyre. "And while we were in town, we swung by to see Mother and Father."
Rhysel winced. "You didn't happen to mention that Ehail is -"
"A wizard? We did. Rhysel," said Gyre, "I had no idea - believe me - I didn't know Mother felt that way, about you or magic in general - why didn't you ever tell me?"
"What should I have said?" Rhysel asked, looking away. Behind her, Aar Camlenn came down the stairs too. He went around his wife while applying a peck to her cheek, nodded to Gyre and Ehail, and started rummaging around in the kitchen for food.
"I don't know, exactly," admitted Gyre. "But I gather it's been going on for years - I wish I'd known."
"Now you do," said Rhysel. Aar Camlenn handed her an apple, which she bit into mechanically. "I'm sorry if she was rude to Ehail, too. I suppose I should have warned you in particular, for that reason."
"Well," said Gyre, "Ryll saw the whole thing, and had an idea."
"Hmm?" said Rhysel.
Gyre summarized the shunning. "We're expecting Tennel to be on Mother's side, unfortunately," he said. "I'll let you know if he contradicts our expectations. But Ryll and Myret and Batai and presumably Jenner and I are all with you."
"And if this doesn't work, are you going to involve extended family?" asked Rhysel. She sounded tired more than gratified. "Get Grandmother Cerysa and Cousin Laryn and everyone to ignore her too? Encourage Father to crash at Myret's place?"
"It hasn't come to that," said Gyre, drawing his eyebrows together. "I thought you'd be glad..."
"It's a nice thought," Rhysel said. "It would have been nicer, when I was seventeen and I was safe, and I came back home for an Ascendancy holiday thinking that if everything went well I could pick up my sculpture apprenticeship again, and instead I left earlier than planned because Mother had forgotten how to talk to me any way but shouting. Now... well. Everyone else has the relationships with her you all built. I have what's left of mine. Maybe you can slightly improve mine by wrecking all of yours, but I'm not sure it's worth it."
"Rhysel," said Gyre. "I'm so sorry."
"I accept your apology," sighed Rhysel, sitting down and rubbing her back with the hand that wasn't holding her diminishing apple. Aar Camlenn sat beside her, smoothed a tendril of hair out of her face, and nibbled on a slice of toast with some kind of nut butter. Ehail liked how they moved around together. Like they had joint personal space, instead of negotiating two separate bubbles of it.
"What about your children?" Gyre asked her. "Ehail?"
Rhysel smiled thinly. "The girls aren't entirely up to me. I wouldn't go against Tekaal's wishes by letting Mother see them if she 'steps out of line' with them, and he has no qualms about letting her know that's what's on the line, when the time comes. She is capable of restraining her temper. When it's important. And Ehail..." Rhysel peered at the shren. "You're right. She deserves better."
"It's important when it's you, too, and she has to see that," Gyre said. "I didn't think I'd even have to ask, but I guess I never did get to know you as well as I should have... are you going to participate in the ultimatum?"
Rhysel took the last bite of her apple and incinerated it; the ashes floated to the floor and melded with it. "I suppose so," she said. "Goodness knows that given the choice I'd rather get visits from you and Ryll and My and Batai and Jenner and my niblings than from Mother and maybe Tennel. I'm just not very optimistic that it'll help."
"Maybe one day," Ehail piped up quietly, "she'll apologize to you."
Rhysel blinked at Ehail in surprise. "Does that seem likely?"
"You have something she wants," whispered Ehail. "You can take it away. So maybe. She might tell you she's sorry." Ehail had nothing her parents wanted. She wouldn't have been able to refuse them if she had, if they'd come to claim it. But Rhysel did and Rhysel could and maybe Rhysel would get what Ehail had always wanted.
"Maybe," said Rhysel, looking away. Gyre hugged Ehail, then got up and walked around the table to pull his sister into a hug. Rhysel hugged him back.
"We both have classes in two degrees," said Aar Camlenn, after finishing his toast and casting the time spell.
"Is there anything else?" Rhysel asked, addressing Gyre and Ehail together. She stood up, extracting herself from the hug in the same motion, and took her husband's hand.
"What are you going to name them?" Ehail blurted.
Rhysel smiled a little. "Tekaal's mother suggested Kaarel for one of them, and we like that, but we're still thinking of a name for the other. Do you have an idea? We want Leraal names, since we live here."
"Aaris," said Ehail.
Ehail swallowed. "Years ago a thudia came to the house and took his baby aunt home. When he died, the girl went to a friend of his. I never met the friend, but I thought she must have been a wonderful person, to take in a shren who wasn't even related to her because a friend of hers had asked her. And her name was Aaris."
"I like that name," said Rhysel quietly, and she glanced at Aar Camlenn. He nodded once.
"That's all," said Ehail, ducking her head apologetically.
"We'll see you both later," said Rhysel, and Aar Camlenn teleported them away.
Silence hung in the air. "I should probably go open my shop," he said. "And see if I can sell anything in what's left of today."
"Do you want me to teleport you to the circle?" Ehail asked. "I should probably have teleported us here - I don't know why I didn't think to offer - the weather is nice -"
"It is," he agreed. "I enjoyed the walk. I could've asked to teleport if I'd wanted to cut the time we spent on the trip, although I think we'd have wound up waiting for Rhysel until the same time anyway. But if you don't mind, I would appreciate the ride to the circle."
Ehail bit her lip and held out her hand. He took it and squeezed it. She brought them both to the circle, and kissed her boyfriend goodbye.
It took a month and a half before Ryll was able to adopt, and Ehail, between house work and time spent with Gyre, was kept busy teleporting various people from place to place for negotiations.
The violet-group children existed in a legal vacuum, as the local merfolk didn't claim them as citizens or subjects until they tried to move into merfolk settlements. They could be dispersed to Aristanians in congenial environments immediately. Ryll's ranch didn't qualify, and so she had to wait to clear various hurdles with the relevant terrestrial governments.
Petar's adoption laws strongly disincentivized foreigners from removing their children, and everyone hatched in the Keppine house technically had citizenship with Petar. The fact that shrens weren't being adopted by locals, and that Aristan claimed a population with special advantages in doing so, took a long time to cycle through the relevant offices of social services. Corenta, meanwhile, turned out to have four contradictory applicable law sets on shrens, adoption, foreign policy, and the interaction of changes of residence with taxation. No one unambiguously authorized to make a ruling between these seemed to exist, and the matter was tied up in a snarl between judicial and legislative bodies.
Esmaar turned out to be the one quickest to let its juvenile shrens go. They were in extended negotiations with Aristan about extradition, asylum, and similar - necessary, as a circle connected the two countries. Some policy had already been hammered out and could be brought to bear. The only restriction was that the shrens weren't allowed to go home to any household that employed corporal punishment. (Ehail didn't think that made a lot of sense, as all of the shrens old enough to be adopted by people unrelated to them wouldn't care either way, but it was apparently called for to score some political point.) Since Ryll and Lerrel never struck their children, they were the first to help themselves to shrens from the Lator house.
Gyre, of course, promptly asked Ehail if she wanted to go with him on a trip to meet his new niece and nephew.
Ehail said yes.
They gave the kids a Barashin tenday to settle in and learn to keep their new siblings' names straight, but after that time had elapsed, Ehail found herself in another coach between Aristan City and Tyren.
"She got two," Gyre said. "A ruby girl in her seventies and an emerald boy in his forties. Taala and Apran."
"I hope they like it in Aristan," said Ehail.
"Me too. I hear," he added, "that Ryll and Lerrel were able to give them line names."
"Really?" Ehail asked. "I wasn't sure if it worked for adoptive family."
"Apparently there's precedent Jensal knew about, so she suggested it," Gyre said. "So, Taalacamlenn and Apranrysen."
They walked to the ranch from the coach stop, hand in hand. The front yard contained Ryll's entire pack of children plus Batai's two all at play. Most visually arresting was a girl her new sisters' size with brilliant, translucent-red hair. A less obtrusively otherworldly boy was following his brothers and cousin Aryn around in some kind of race. The emerald shren wasn't doing very well in the competition, and was lapped due to tripping three times while Gyre and Ehail watched. Ryll and Lerrel, and beside them Batai and a woman Ehail presumed was his wife Karyn, looked on.
Ehail frowned at the picture. "Ehail?" asked Gyre as they came within earshot and could hear the children laughing. "Is something the matter?"
"It's only..." Ehail began, but Sel barreled into her and hugged her leg.
"Hi Ehail!" exclaimed Sel. "Taala! Over here, this is Ehail, she's Uncle Gyre's giiiiiiirlfriend and she has pretty hair, like you."
Taala, and Vianne with her, approached at a more sedate pace. "Like me?" asked Taala quietly.
"Yes," said Ehail. If she were Taala she would be alarmed at the idea of a dragon turning up at her new, supposedly remote home. "Like you. It's nice to meet you, Taala."
"It's nice to meet you too," said Taala politely. "Apran, come here, this is our uncle Gyre and his girlfriend!"
Apran abandoned the lost cause of the race and tripped his way over to meet the new arrivals. "Hi, Uncle Gyre," he said tentatively. "Hi, um..." Vianne whispered in his ear, and he finished, "Ehail."
"Apran, do you have a broken leg?" Ehail asked him.
The emerald looked at his feet. "Well, um, I don't know, how do you tell?"
"A broken leg?" asked Gyre.
"Did anything happen that could have injured one or both of your legs?" Ehail asked.
"I fell off a horse," he said.
"That could do it," Ehail said. "You should go to a light - or a kama - and get that healed -" Gyre was running over towards the collection of adults closer to the house. "Gyre?"
Ryll, ashen, and Karyn, fumbling with some sort of bag, came back with Gyre, also at a run. "A broken leg?" exclaimed Ryll. "How?"
"I fell off a horse," Apran said. "Remember?"
"That was four days ago."
Apran nodded, looking mystified. "Yeah, and I guess I broke my leg then - Aunt Karyn, what're you doing?" Karyn had scooped him up and was walking briskly towards the house. Ehail - and everyone else, sensing that something interesting was afoot - followed her in.
"I am going to set your leg," Karyn said firmly. "Ryll, don't worry, it's probably just a thin fracture. It's possible to ignore those for a few days. But it should be splinted. Lucky I brought my bag..."
"It might not be a -" Ehail began.
"Apran," said Ryll, "why didn't you tell me or Daddy that you'd hurt yourself?"
"I didn't think it was worth bugging you about," said Apran sheepishly. "It's not bad."
Karyn set him on a chair with a footrest and started rolling up the leg of his pants. Ryll sat on the arm of the chair and hugged him, his head to her shoulder. "Apran," she said, "it's not bugging us if you tell us you're hurt."
"But it's not that bad. Garyn got a papercut the other day and he didn't tell you," Apran said.
"Papercuts," said Karyn, "will heal by themselves. Broken legs need attention. Now, I need to poke at this a little bit, and it may smart, Apran, be brave."
Apran looked completely nonplussed at Karyn. "Okay..."
Ehail spoke up. "You were tripping, and your leg could have healed wrong and made it hard to use even after it was knitted. You want to be able to run and play, don't you? And some injuries can lead to infections. Those could make you feverish, or tired, or even cost you a form, and you wouldn't like that."
"Oh. I guess. But what things are like papercuts and what things are like broken legs?" Karyn was probing his leg delicately with graceful brown fingers, occasionally flicking her eyes up to his face and frowning.
"Four months' esu," said Ehail. "That's the approximation I learned for what's worth going to a light about. Any worse than that, it's a problem."
"Elcenian months?" Apran asked, and Ehail nodded. "Okay," he said. "I think I can remember that."
Karyn's mouth dropped open. "Oh," she breathed. "I didn't... make the connection..."
"And tell for less than that, if it hurts for more than two days, or if it's because you hit your head, or if it also itches," Ehail said, looking away from Karyn's sudden, intent look at her.
"Okay," said Apran. "Aunt Karyn, what's wrong?"
"You don't need to splint his leg, necessarily," Ehail said, avoiding looking at the medic. "He could go into his flying form - what have you got, Apran?"
"I'm a parrotlet," he said. "I'm really cute, too! Want to see?"
"Yes," said Ehail, and he shifted, out from under Karyn's hands and Ryll's arms. "This form isn't injured, so your leg won't get any worse. You can go to a light or a kama like this, and get your human form's leg all fixed."
"I think it should still be splinted until then," said Karyn, somewhere between firm and faint.
"Okay, Aunt Karyn," said Apran, shifting back obediently and holding out his broken leg for her. She went about her business, hands admirably steady despite her obvious discomfort, and soon his leg was splinted.
"The town kama here does wild magic," said Ryll, when the splint was applied. "Apran, if you'll shift and ride on my shoulder, I'll take you there right now."
Her son obliged, and Ryll went out back to saddle a horse.
Ehail turned to Taala. "Did you hear everything I said? It applies to you too."
"Yes," said Taala. "Thank you."
Ehail felt a ghost of a smile cross her lips, and she sat down to accept cuddles from Gyre's nieces and nephews.
Chapter 8: Tiger
Tennel spent more than a month on Allera's side of the ultimatum. After that, Gyre turned up at the shren house (having troubled his sister for a ride through the transfer point) announcing that he'd cracked - he'd heard about the shren adoption business at his town council meeting and that Senator Rysen had two. He'd decided he preferred to swallow his pride and meet his niblings than wait, stubbornly, with Allera.
Allera had gotten the news too, but hadn't budged.
"Tennel wants to meet you," Gyre said. "I told him I'd ask if you wanted to come out again. In the meantime he's at my place, rather than taking the entire trip back to his town from Tyren in one leg."
"This is the first break in ferrying children to Paraasilan I've had all day," Ehail said. "We just got word that they can be adopted. But the ones who're willing to be in the adoption pool are all in Lator house now and I would love to be somewhere else for a while."
"Shall we?" Gyre asked, holding out a hand. "I'm glad they're getting adopted."
"They aren't quite yet," Ehail said, taking his hand. She teleported them to the circle. "They're just boarding in the Lator house so they can be interviewed by prospective families who come in by circle. They're bunking beds and doubling up rooms to accommodate them all but Jensal is very pleased about it."
"I'd imagine," replied Gyre as they walked onto the circle and appeared in Barashi. "How many of the kids are going into the pool?"
"Most of them," Ehail said. "Not all. Some want to... wait, and see if their biological parents come after all."
"Does that happen?" Gyre asked.
"Not after they turn twenty-five," said Ehail. "And one going home at age twenty-four only happened once." She sighed. "And some of them don't want families. Or think they're too old."
"It is more likely that the smaller children will find families than that the older ones will, but there are a lot of people in Aristan and only so many shrens," Gyre said.
"That any of them get homes is amazing," murmured Ehail.
"I was wondering..." Gyre began.
They were nearly to his shop. A redheaded halfblood with a small tuft of beard on his chin was sitting in front of the window of jewelry, playing something on a flute. "Never mind," said Gyre. "Tennel, hello again. This is my girlfriend Ehail."
Tennel stood up and withdrew the flute from his lips and bowed. "Nice to meet you, Ehail," he said. "Ryll told me a little about you."
"Wh-what did she say?" asked Ehail. She bowed back tentatively, surmising that it was the equivalent of shaking hands in cultures she was acquainted with.
"All good things," Tennel assured her. Gyre held open the shop door and they went inside. "I'm afraid I only have a few subs left before my coach leaves, though, and if I don't catch that one, I'm stuck here another two days. I live out in the sticks."
"Do you like it there?" Ehail asked, feeling remarkably inane.
Tennel seemed to like the question, though. "I do. It's quiet, I have a lot of space to myself. It's only inconvenient when I want to see people. So I don't do much of that, which is why I could hold out as long as I did." He sighed and looked at Ehail apologetically. "I've never met you. I have no idea what you do with your magic. I'm just sorry it took me this long to realize I was basing my reaction to real people on scary folktales."
"There are scary folktales about wizards?" Ehail asked blankly.
"No, which makes me feel like even more of a fool," Tennel said. "I still think it made sense to be wary around Rhysel when she'd recently manifested, even if no one was ever actually hurt. I mean, she was slinging fire. But then she stopped. And for all I know, you can't even do anything like that."
"I can't cast any spells in Barashi at all," Ehail said.
"There you go." Tennel sighed. "Well, I'd better head to the coach stop. See you around, Gyre." The brothers hugged and clapped each other on their backs, and Tennel let himself out.
"He seems nice," Ehail said.
"He is," Gyre agreed. "When he's not being reactionary about magic. He was always very big on history, and thousands of years ago some kyma did get up to some remarkably awful things. There was a war. But afterwards, the remarkably awful things were forbidden, and as far as I know no kyma have repeated the behaviors since."
"Oh." For no particular reason, Ehail stepped closer and leaned her cheek on his shoulder. "I love you."
"I love you, too," he said, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the crown of her head.
The door opened; Ehail looked up to see what sort of customer it was. She stepped back when she spotted Arylla, instead. The elf had her characteristic makeup on, and to aid her limited dress in showing herself off, she had both hands clasped behind her back.
"Gyre," purred Arylla. "I figured out what's wrong."
"What's wrong is that you won't leave me alone," growled Gyre. "Go aw-"
"No, no," she said with a mirthless laugh. "What's wrong is her."
"Me?" asked Ehail softly.
Arylla ignored her. "She's done something to you, Gyre, we always got along so well before, I know you looked at me even if you didn't want to admit how you felt..."
"I tolerated you because I knew you'd bully your brother about selling me gems if I didn't, and now I don't care anymore. We didn't get along," Gyre said.
"I'll forgive you for saying that because I know it's all her doing," Arylla crooned. "Some kind of magic. It'll go away when she's gone."
"I've told you to go away without Ehail around, too," Gyre said, rolling his eyes. "Get out of my shop or I'm going to call the Watch."
"You won't want me to go after she's gone," said Arylla, stalking forward. "This will only take a slice and then it'll be all back to normal..."
"What are you talking about?" said Gyre. "No, never mind, I'm going to call the Watch -" He advanced a step.
Arylla's right hand flashed out from behind her back, clutching a carving knife, and she stabbed it towards Ehail's chest.
Ehail turned into a bluejay as soon as she saw the blade approach, several feet out of its way, but Gyre didn't see her do that, and interposed himself in its path.
With a shriek, Arylla buried her knife in his chest, and then her eyes went wide and she pulled it out again, staggered back, and lunged towards Ehail's bird self.
There was blood on the knife.
There was blood on the floor.
There was blood on Gyre, and he was making some half-vocalized sound, not even a word.
Ehail watched Arylla fall towards her and wondered if her silver head hitting the ceiling would kill her if she lost the jay form and force-shifted, and then Gyre twitched and there was no time to wonder that. He hurt and he cared that he hurt, he was injured and he didn't have other shapes to fall back on...
Tiger, Ehail thought, and she was a cat, propelling herself roaring claws-first into the elf without regard to the knife. It glanced off the thick fur as Arylla fumbled it in surprise.
Ehail knocked Arylla into a display case. Arylla's head struck a corner and her eyes rolled back in her head.
"Gyre," said Ehail, nudging his face with her great head where he lay. "Gyre. I need to get you to a light or a kama. Can you get on my back? Can you hold on if I run? I can't wait to catch a coach. I need to carry you. Gyre?" She shifted human and pulled him to a sitting position and shifted again, and he managed to get his arms around her neck and haul himself onto her. "Hold on. Hold on."
She pushed out the door, and broke into a run. Screaming pedestrians parted before her.
The doors to the circle were open. She leapt through, and felt Gyre's grip slipping, but they were on the marked area, and had only to wait -
"Hold on," she said.
"Ehail," he murmured.
The magic noticed them and pulled them across.
"LIGHT!" roared Ehail when they were through. She closed her teeth on the fabric of his shirt and pulled him clear of the circle. "LIGHT!" she repeated. No one in the room had the identifying yellow circles tattooed around their wrists; no one came forward. She flung herself into human form, ran to the mandatory emergency crystal on the wall, and brought her hand down onto it hard enough to open a cut in her palm. "Light!" she shouted again, in case there was one in the complex after all who could arrive faster than the emergency healer.
Another instant went by without help coming. She tried to think of a light's office, any light's office, she might have been to in the last fifty years, that could be counted on to still be standing where she'd seen it - but she hadn't been that sick in ages -
She ran back to Gyre, dropping to her knees and sliding when she was close, but she couldn't bring herself to look at the wound. She didn't know any spells for pain, for bleeding, for healing; those tasks were left to lights and witches. "I need a light!" she cried again. Someone might have a very young light with them, not realize it was urgent, come running if she shouted one more time.
"Hold on," she whispered.
Someone - yellow circles, yes - popped into place at the emergency crystal. "Who needs a -"
"Here!" she cried. "Here!"
The light was an aging human man, and his little globe of sparks was the same red as Gyre's blood, and he pressed it to the wound. Light spread over Gyre's skin in red bolts of magic. Gyre coughed up a spray of blood and gasped. He opened his eyes.
"Gyre," said Ehail.
Gyre gasped again. The light sat back and let his hands drop and the sparks died away. "Is that the only injury here?" asked the light.
"I-I think so," Ehail stammered. "Gyre. Gyre, you stupid man, I would have been fine, even if she'd gotten me -"
"I couldn't -" He gasped again, coughed again. "I couldn't let her hurt you."
"Better me than you, and I'm not saying that because I love you or to be self-sacrificing, I'm saying that because I can shift and because -" The circle complex was crowded; people were watching her. "Because it makes sense, you shouldn't have jumped in front of me."
"Wasn't thinking like that," he said with a rueful smile. "Was thinking - I couldn't let her hurt you."
Ehail bent over him to scoop him into a hug.
"Marry me," she murmured.
"Yes," he said.
"Explain, in your own words, what happened, Ms. -" The Watch officer trailed off, unsure what to make of her name.
"It's just Ehail, sir," said Ehail. "That's the only name I have. No 'Ms.'."
"All right. Ehail. Explain in your own words what happened, please."
"I'm sorry, but where exactly did your partner take my fiancé? He said we'd need to talk to the Watch and I went along; I didn't expect him to be in any sort of trouble..."
"My partner's assessing Mr. Camlenn for injury to see if he needs medical attention, that's all, M- Ehail."
"But I got a light for him."
"This is all extremely irregular and we're just going to play it by the book as best we can, Ehail," said the Watch officer. "Explain what happened, please."
"We were in his shop. This woman he knows, Arylla, came in and -"
"I don't know it. Gyre probably does. She came in and she was talking about how she thought I'd enchanted him somehow so he wouldn't like her anymore."
"Are you a kama or in possession of kamai ability, Ehail?"
"No." She paused, then said, "I'm a wizard. But I can't do any magic in Barashi. I definitely can't do the things she was saying. Anyway, she said the enchantment would go away if I was gone, and Gyre threatened to call the Watch - I guess that's you - how long does it take to assess him for injury, please?"
"A while, given that he appears completely unharmed without so much as a scab, and he's claiming he was stabbed in the chest," said the Watch officer.
"I got him a light." Ehail glanced around the Watch station. Officers came and went through the doors, front and back, and disappeared up stairs and into rooms. "That's how lights work. There would only be a mark on him if he'd already scarred when he was healed. But there's his blood on his shirt, and on her knife."
"You hadn't gotten to the part about the knife. Please explain in your own words what happened," he said implacably.
"Gyre threatened to call the Watch because he wanted Arylla to go away and she wasn't leaving him alone. And then she came forward and she had a knife held behind her back, I guess it's still in his shop unless someone's moved it, and she tried to stab me. I shifted into a bluejay -"
"This is a wizard power?" asked the officer.
"No. I told you I can't do magic in Barashi."
"Turning into a bluejay sounds like magic to me."
"I meant I can't cast wizard spells, I can't do anything wizardly here. I can turn into a bluejay because I'm - how long does it take to assess him for injury, please, I would like my fiancé here with me now," she said, clenching her fists.
"Because you're what, Ehail?"
She fluffed her hair, not meeting his eyes, and willed him to come to his own conclusions, but apparently that wasn't by the book. "I'm a shren," she said. "We can learn to turn into things. Like this form, or the bluejay one."
"Or a tiger?" asked the officer.
"I haven't gotten to that part yet. I want to see Gyre."
"Ehail, even if he weren't being assessed -"
"I think you're lying," she said.
"Even if," the officer repeated, "he weren't being assessed, we'd need to keep the two of you in separate rooms so you couldn't coordinate a fabricated story, understand?"
"We had all the time we wanted to talk about anything we could have wanted to talk about, before Gyre decided it was important to come and see you!" said Ehail. "Keeping us in separate rooms now won't help."
"Telling me how many clever ways you have to get around our detective work won't help either," said the officer. "What happened next?"
"I turned into a bluejay, so she would have missed anyway, but Gyre didn't see me do it, and he got in the way of the knife," said Ehail. "Arylla stabbed him and I turned into a tiger and knocked her over and then I got him to cling to my back so I could take him to the circle and get him a light. I didn't know where to find a kama around here. And I got him a light and there were dozens of people there to see it happen and he woke up." She glossed over the proposal. That wasn't this fellow's business even if everything else was. "And he said that there was an unconscious, maybe dead, woman lying in his shop and the door had been left wide open and he wanted to come and explain everything to you but I don't know why."
"Can you demonstrate the turning-into-animals thing for me, Ehail?"
"I'm demonstrating it right now," she said testily. "I've turned into a human."
"I mean the bluejay and the tiger, Ehail, since those are the ones in the story. Don't try to rile me, it doesn't look good."
Ehail shifted, jay and then bloodstained tiger and back, just barely slowly enough that he'd have to acknowledge she'd done it. "I want my fiancé now," she said. She sounded shrill. She'd never been involved with any Elcenian law enforcement but she was sure they didn't go about things like this.
"- told you I don't need a medic, but if you insist, will you at least let me see my sister-in-law?" came Gyre's voice down the stairs. The man himself followed, accompanied by another Watch officer in the pale brown uniform that was beginning to annoy Ehail in its own right.
"He doesn't need a medic," said Ehail, getting to her feet. "Can't we go?"
"Ms. Arylla Allysel is in poor condition at the hospital," said the officer who'd been assessing Gyre. She waved him over to Ehail and he crossed the floor to stand by her and put his arm around her shoulders. "The fact that neither of you is injured and she is makes the story about self-defense a little tenuous. We're hoping she wakes up and can give a statement of her own, but..."
"Get her a light," Ehail said. "Or a kama, I know you know how those work. As long as you can keep her from trying again once she's better. Get the light who healed Gyre to tell you how he was hurt. Get anyone who saw me running to the circle to tell you how he was bleeding. Look at her knife. I know you don't have criminological spells here, but just because you don't know how Elcenian magic works -"
"Ms. Ehail, we're doing our best to get to the bottom of this, and being uncooperative or telling us how to do our jobs won't improve the situation," said the male officer, apparently forgetting her lack of title.
"Are we free to go?" Gyre asked.
"Just a few subs, Mr. Camlenn," said the female officer, and she conferred quietly with her partner.
Ehail leaned on him. "Why did we have to come here?" she asked in an undertone.
"I don't like how they're handling it either, but it's better than if they'd had to track us down after finding Arylla unconscious in the shop, I think," he murmured back. "This way we aren't acting guilty. They already know it's a weird situation - a lot of people saw you take me to the circle."
"Why aren't they getting her a kama or a light?" asked Ehail.
"They probably will. It's not typical - there aren't enough kyma to staff every hospital and handle every injury, even every life-threatening injury, and some people wouldn't stand for that anyway - but they want her testimony, and they'll want her to stand trial. So they can justify calling one in," he soothed. "And then as long as there's a kama there already, if she lies about what happened, they won't have as much resistance to involving a mind kama to check her story. I think we'll be fine; we just have to sit through some hassle first. Do you need to get home urgently?"
"Not urgently - things don't break that quickly - but they'll wonder why I'm still gone," she said, wringing her hands once and then instead hugging him. "He made me turn into a bluejay and a tiger for him - I can't turn into my natural form if they ask me, I just can't..."
"They probably don't even have a working treaty with Petar yet," soothed Gyre. "If you have to go, tell them to get in touch with your government and get their permission if they want to hold you. They have to do that if you ask, and they might just let you go rather than try to get ahold of your representatives."
"Okay," she sighed, tucking her head under his chin.
"Your stories check out with each other and with the witness statements we'd already taken in before you got here," announced the female officer. "You aren't under arrest, but I need to ask you to stay in Aristan City until further notice -"
"How long is that?" asked Ehail.
"Depending on how backed up the court system is, possibly one to three tendays."
"I can't stay here that long," Ehail said. Gyre squeezed her hand and she continued, "So, you can ask th-the government of Petar where I have citizenship if they want to let you do that."
"Ehail," said the male officer, "by your own admission you turned into a tiger and attacked a romantic rival who is now hanging on by a thread at the hospital -"
"Arylla does not qualify as Ehail's rival," said Gyre.
The officer ignored him. "- and then fled the country. If she attacked you and your fiancé, and only then, will that be something you're going to get away with. I'm pretty sure whatever kind of country Petar is, they don't take kindly to assault or murder no matter how many whiskers you sprout first."
"If I have to stay in this city, you have to talk to Petar and let them know you're making me do that," said Ehail. Her voice only shook a little. "And they'll tell you to send me home, and maybe they'll be suspicious enough to ask me to tell them I'm not a murderer while someone wearing a lie-detection looks at me and sees if I glow black or not, but they won't strand me for weeks."
The male officer looked like he had a headache and his partner looked like she wanted to go home. "Fine," said the former. "Mr. Camlenn, do you have any problem with staying in town for a few tendays? Can you get ahold of Ehail if we need her to testify later?"
"I don't need to go anywhere out of the city," said Gyre, "unless you want me to get ahold of Ehail sometime when she isn't already here enjoying Aristanian hospitality. She lives in another world."
"Right. That. We can have someone escort you if necessary, will that do?"
"I imagine so," he said. "Within city limits excluding the circle, I'm free to go?"
The female officer nodded, and Gyre and Ehail turned to go, snugly hand in hand.
"I'm sorry that was such an ordeal," Gyre said, picking up the jewelry that Ehail had knocked over with the back of Arylla's head and inspecting the pieces for damage. The Watch had been all over the area moments after Ehail had turned tiger, and nothing seemed to be missing, but a couple of things had new scratches and one bracelet was bent out of shape. "I would have gone alone if I'd known how they'd act."
"I'll be okay," she said. "I should probably see if I can find the emergency light who helped you. He might be willing to come to her 'trial' - that's a thing where some people formally try to figure out whether she's guilty, right? I think they have them in Erubia but I don't know if they're the same."
"Finding that light would be very helpful. Will it be hard to do?"
"I don't think so. I don't know the Esmaarlan light system very well but they probably have ways to locate lights who were at particular scenes. If that doesn't work I can look for him with spells." She sighed. "I really want to stay here with you, but I should probably do that before he forgets all about the incident and can't tell them anything interesting. He probably sees a lot of equally serious injuries every day."
"You're probably right," said Gyre regretfully. "Come back when you can? I can't come fetch you anymore."
"I will," said Ehail, and she gave him a kiss.
"We have a wedding to plan," Gyre reminded her, smiling.
Ehail didn't know whether to faint or grin at him. She settled for kissing him again and then pulling away to go back to her own world.
Chapter 9: Trial
Ehail tracked down the light, asked him to write down what he remembered about Gyre so his memory wouldn't fade, got his address, and wrote it down to give to the Watch the next time she was in Aristan City. She went back to the house, and caught up on repair work, and teleported four more children who'd changed their minds about being adopted to their temporary home in Paraasilan. She notified Ludei that she was engaged and likely to move out, but was willing to continue working at the house for a couple of angles every day until they could get a new resident through wizard training. She went to sleep and woke up again. And then she went back to Barashi.
She had a wedding to plan.
When Ehail went into Gyre's shop again, he vaulted over the counter, dipped her, and kissed her. "Hello, dear heart," he said when the kiss broke.
"Hello," she said breathlessly.
Gyre stood her up again. "How are you?"
"I'm all right. I found the light. I can give the Watch his address so they can find him and ask him questions." She frowned. "He's not going to be used to being treated like the Watch apparently treats people any more than I was - will they act like that in Esmaar?"
"I don't think so," said Gyre. "They won't want to hurt the case - they have no way to make the light talk, if they annoy him and he doesn't want to. They certainly can't take him into custody without Esmaar's permission."
Ehail nodded once. "I'll give them his address on my way home, then, when I go."
"And before you go?" Gyre asked. He kissed her neck.
"I - I was thinking about - getting married," she said.
"I - um - I -" He was still kissing her neck; she knew she'd had at least one thought but he'd misplaced it for her. "Well..."
The door opened; Gyre reluctantly disentangled himself from Ehail to attend to the couple who'd come in and sell them a matched set of bracelets. They left after a short while, which Ehail spent looking over the jewels and spotting occasional pieces that featured baby shren scales (none of her own, larger scales) or what she thought might be the gems she'd conjured.
"That's what we need," Gyre said.
"What?" she asked, looking up and blinking.
"Wedding bracelets. They're not a local tradition - it's more of a fashion on the Trysterran continent - but I think they'd suit us. Two for me, two for you, all a set. Both on the right wrist until we get married and then one on each after that."
"Oh. That sounds nice," she said. "Do you want to have an Aristanian wedding?"
"Unless you have another idea?" he said solicitously, opening the door to his workroom and propping it there to allow a view of the front entrance. He started sifting through densely organized tools and materials, presumably with wedding bracelets in mind.
"I don't, really," she said. "I'm a citizen of Petar but I wouldn't say I'm culturally Petaran... I went to school in Reverni but I didn't have anything to do with any weddings there... and you're Aristanian and the only wedding I've ever been to was Aristanian too. So it makes sense."
"You'll need to pick an attendant, if we do it that way," he pointed out. He seemed to have her scales sorted into several boxes by size. "What do you think of one scale on each bracelet, with our names engraved on the reverse? And maybe little portraits on the obverse, though I don't know how well I'll be able to squeeze those in."
"That sounds perfect," Ehail said. "Um, attendant. Who will you pick?"
"I think I'll go with my twin sister," Gyre said. "That's Myret, in case you're having any trouble keeping track of my family - there's a bunch of us." He paused, and looked over his shoulder at Ehail. "And any of my other brothers and sisters would be glad to help you out, if there's no one you'd like to ask from your house or who you met anywhere else."
"Maybe Rhysel," Ehail murmured. "I've at least been over to her tower for meals a lot. I think she likes me."
"Of course Rhysel likes you," said Gyre. "She loves you. I was a little discouraged, early on when you were still skittish around me, but she kept talking you up and saying how great you were." He was holding up scales of various sizes to the light two at a time, maybe looking for matched pairs.
"She did?" Ehail asked, tilting her head. "Why?"
"I think she likes the idea of you in the family. We can watch her light up when we tell her we're engaged - unless you already did?"
"I didn't. Do you think it's too much - if I go around in the necklace and the bracelets all the time and they all have scales on them?"
"Do you wear the necklace every day?" Gyre asked. "I thought it might only be when you were going to meet me. I have a sweater I only wear when I see my grandfather because he made it for me and likes to see it getting use."
"No, I wear it all the time," Ehail said. "I like it."
"Oh. Hm. Well, I'll want to make sure the bracelets don't clash with your necklace, then... but it might be overdoing the scale motif. It's a pity, I don't think I'll ever be able to bring myself to sell these."
"Why not?" she asked. "You seem to be selling baby scale jewelry as fast as you can make it."
"And I keep nudging the price point up, too... But these are yours. It's fine to make things with them, but I wouldn't want to sell them to a stranger," Gyre said. "Let's see. I think I do want to use silver for the bracelets. Maybe some rhodium too, like in the necklace. But I should incorporate some gems." He tapped his chin and peered at Ehail. "I'd say something brown like your eyes, but the selection of brown gems isn't great..."
"The silver is like my hair. You could put green gems. Like your eyes," she said. "They don't have to look like a jewelry version of me."
"Fair enough," chuckled Gyre. "I'll figure it out. I'd like them done before the wedding, but how far off will that be?"
"Do... do you want to wait... for your mother?" Ehail asked quietly. "Someone could tell your father. And he could tell her."
Gyre pursed his lips. "If Ryll adopting Taala and Apran didn't do it," he said slowly, and then he trailed off.
"You don't think our wedding will either?" Ehail asked.
"Missing it might. She can always cave later, meet Taala and Apran later - but we'll only get married once. I suppose I do want to try letting her hear about it first," he sighed. "I miss her. I'd like her to find the humility, this little bit of humility, she needs to be decent to her daughter and her son-in-law and her future daughter-in-law. If you don't mind trying to use our wedding to make that happen... then yes, I'd like to get the message to Father and see if he can budge her with it. But if it doesn't work?" He swallowed and shook his head. "No. I don't want to wait for her. I want to marry you, whether she likes it or not, whether she'll make the necessary concessions in order to come or not."
"She's your mother," murmured Ehail.
"You're my fiancée. And you have done nothing wrong. You have done nothing to deserve having someone who behaves as she's likely to at your wedding - and it will be that, as much as mine."
Ehail bowed her head, and Gyre set down the box of scales he was still holding and walked around his worktable to enfold her in a hug.
A customer walked in the front door. "Just a moment, dear heart," Gyre said, kissing her on the forehead and going out to handle the intrusion.
After Gyre closed up shop, he went with Ehail to the Watch station, hovering over her protectively while she gave the light's contact information to the female officer she'd met the previous day. The officer didn't give her any trouble, just a couple of odd looks.
"How is Arylla doing?" Gyre asked.
"Ms. Allysel has been seen by a kama and made a full recovery," said the Watch officer. "She's being held, awaiting trial. We'll let you know when that is - you'll be obliged to attend and stand as a witness. And Ehail will be... invited to do the same." The emphasized word was spoken with some annoyance.
They left the station. "I still can't leave town," Gyre said. "I think we should tell Batai we're getting married first, since we can do that in the city, and he can go to Tyren and tell My and Ryll and Father for us. Will you tell Rhysel on your way home, or do you want to wait until I can go with you?"
"I'll tell her," Ehail said. "Since I need to ask her to be my attendant." They were wending their way back to Gyre's shop and apartment; it was on the way to Batai's place from the Watch station. "Where will we live?"
"Oh." He stopped outside his storefront. "I guess this is really very bacheloresque, the apartment in the back. I might want to clear it out and knock a hole in the wall for more display space, if I'm not going to live there anymore. Let's see. Would you be more comfortable in Elcenia - since there you're able to cast spells?"
Ehail nodded. "But you shouldn't have to spend too much time commuting to your store every day. I can teleport you to the circle from anywhere, but I might not be available every day, and you don't always close your shop at the same time, so I wouldn't know when to pick you up - you can't bring a communication crystal with you to Barashi, it'd break. There's the same problems with me summoning you and unsummoning you all the time, plus keeping a circle around... And if you move the shop to Elcenia, I can't conjure gems for you again."
"We could live somewhere near Rhysel," Gyre said. "This isn't too far from our end of the circle. If we live in Paraasilan close to that end of it, the commute will be nothing. Do you know if it's easy to move to Esmaar?"
"I think it's pretty easy," Ehail said. "Is it easy to move out of Aristan?"
"Once Arylla's trial is over with," Gyre said, "it won't be a problem."
Ehail rang Rhysel's bell as evening descended on Elcenia. Aar Camlenn answered the door. "Good evening," he said, avoiding calling her by name as always. Ehail wondered fleetingly what her line name would have been. "What brings you here?" Aar Camlenn asked.
"Is Rhysel home? I need to talk to her," said Ehail.
"We've just sat down to dinner. You are welcome to join us," he said, standing aside. Ehail immediately felt awkward about interrupting their meal, standing invitation to "come for dinner anytime" notwithstanding, but she went in and sat at an empty chair.
"Hi, Ehail," Rhysel said. She was visibly pregnant. Ehail wondered when she was due - would Rhysel even know? How would twin half-Elcenian-elf-half-Barashin-halfblood children grow? "How are you?"
"I'm fine," Ehail said. "I -" Rhysel conjured up a spare bowl out of the stone of the table and ladled soup into it, then passed the soup to Ehail and made her a spoon to match. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, always," said Rhysel. "I don't think you've actually turned up without a day-specific invitation before. Getting a little bolder?"
"I just needed to ask you something." Ehail took a mouthful of soup. It was a puree of potatoes, thick and herby. "Gyre and I are engaged -"
"That's wonderful! Congratulations!" Rhysel exclaimed, leaning over to hug Ehail. Ehail patted one of Rhysel's hands where it rested on her shoulder, until the kama sat back down. "When?"
"We aren't sure," Ehail said. "But I wanted to ask you, if you'd be my attendant."
"I'd be honored," Rhysel said. "I assume Gyre's asking Myret?"
Ehail nodded. "He can't ask her in person, though, because he's supposed to stay in Aristan City..." She summarized the business with Arylla, the Watch, the upcoming trial, and other surrounding details, taking spoonfuls of soup intermittently. "We went to Batai and Karyn's place and told them, and Batai is going to go up to Tyren when he can, to pass on the news and ask Myret for Gyre."
"That sounds like a mess," Rhysel said. "I'm so glad you were able to get help for Gyre in time. He's completely all right?"
"Completely," Ehail said. "But it was very bad before the light came. I was so worried."
"And now you can turn into a tiger," Rhysel said.
"Yes." Ehail winced. "The form would still be covered in blood. I don't know how to get it out. I'd cast a cleaning spell but tigers don't have hands, and I doubt standing in the shower will get it all."
"I can do that," Rhysel said. "You'd have to shift into the form, but I can rinse out the blood with kamai for you."
"Thank you," said Ehail. "When we finish dinner, if that's all right?"
"Of course. So if you're having an attendant, are you having an Aristanian wedding? Or some kind of fusion ceremony?"
"Just Aristanian. But Gyre is going to make us wedding bracelets," she added. "Um, and Batai is also going to tell your father... so he can tell your mother... so she can... decide if she wants to come."
"Of course," said Rhysel, frowning a little. "And if she calls his bluff?"
"It's not a bluff," said Ehail softly.
"You're actually going to get married without Mother there if she won't budge?" Rhysel asked in surprise.
"Yes," Ehail said. "That's what Gyre wants to do. But Tennel will be there. He changed his mind. I met him yesterday."
Rhysel's lip trembled a little and she looked away, prompting Aar Camlenn to reach across the table and take her hand. "Well," Rhysel said finally. "Yes. I'll be your attendant."
They finished dinner. Tekaal cleared the table while Ehail turned into her tiger form and Rhysel rinsed the blood out of the silver-striped orange fur with water magic. Ehail teleported home.
Arylla's trial was scheduled, and Ehail learned about it during one of her visits to Gyre when a Watch officer dropped by the shop to give him his summons. Ehail got her "invitation". When she did the math, she discovered that the trial was starting early in Aristan, but in the dead of night on Elcenia. "If you didn't have to be there, I might not go, just because I'll be so tired," she said. "But at least there's a little warning... I can be nocturnal for a couple of days."
"You don't need to be there," Gyre said. "I just hope the scheduling doesn't make the light refuse to come."
"What happens if they decide she didn't do it?" Ehail asked. "Is that likely?"
"I don't know how likely it is," Gyre admitted. "Since the only information I have about who's innocent and who's guilty is the outcomes of trials. But if they decide she's not guilty, they set her free."
"And then she might attack us again. I'll be safe, if that happens, but you might not be - I don't think she originally meant to stab you but she might change her mind. I need to be there if that could help."
"All right. Do you want to stay here for a few days before the trial date?" asked Gyre. "It'll be a little crowded in the apartment, but I'd be happy to have you and you could adjust to the time zone. You could go back to the house for a couple of divs a day to work when daylight coincides."
"That sounds like a good idea," Ehail said.
She brought a bag with her things a few days before the trial was scheduled to start. The apartment was crowded with two people in it, but not uncomfortably so.
The morning of the trial, a Watch officer came by to "remind" them to attend. He escorted Gyre and Ehail to the courthouse, where they were assigned some sort of junior functionary to tell them when to stand up, sit down, speak, move from place to place, and otherwise conduct themselves. Ehail was inordinately grateful for this, as Gyre didn't seem to know much about the local legal system for all that he'd grown up in Aristan. She supposed he'd simply never interacted with it before.
Arylla was sitting uncharacteristically meekly, legs shackled together, in the courthouse hall. When Ehail and Gyre were shown in, she was already in what the functionary called the Speaker's Dip, a low point in the center of the room surrounded by raised judges' podiums and other seating. She spoke first, but in a murmur Ehail couldn't make out directly. Everything she said was filtered through a neutral Speaker who worked for the court, slightly paraphrasing and putting everyone on a level threshold of eloquence and audible emotional display.
"Ms. Allysel," began the speaker, bent with his ear close enough to listen to her as she mumbled, "does not deny entering Mr. Camlenn's jewelry shop on the twenty-eighth of Pokumest, Voden, in this year of 24869. She acknowledges that she entered the shop, concealing a weapon, with which she intended to harm witness Ms. Ehail. However, she points out that Ms. Ehail was unharmed, and maintains that the injury of Mr. Camlenn was a deeply regretted accident. Further, Ms. Allysel says that Ms. Ehail's retaliation was uncalled for. Ms. Allysel submits that upon realizing that she had inadvertently stabbed Mr. Camlenn, she came to her senses, and would not have interfered with a peaceable attempt to bring him out of the shop for medical attention, as Ms. Ehail is acknowledged by preliminary witness interviews to have done subsequent to her attack on Ms. Allysel."
"This court lacks the authority to formally reprimand Ms. Ehail for what may or may not have been a disproportionate response," said an aged human woman in one of the judges' seats. "She is a foreign national from a country lacking an established protocol with Aristan, and the Department of Foreign Policy did not agree to this court's petition to expedite its attempts to form a relationship with said nation. With that understood, Ms. Allysel, please concentrate on your own trial rather than attempting to set one up for Ms. Ehail."
"But she -!" Arylla said, loudly enough to be heard, but the Speaker made a sharp gesture in her direction and she fell silent and turned her head away.
"Ms. Allysel," said a different judge, "do you have anything further to say regarding your own actions on the twenty-eighth of Pokumest?"
Arylla went back to mumbling. The Speaker paraphrased. "Ms. Allysel submits that she was provoked, agitated, under personal stress, and without a prior history of violent crime. She pleads for mercy in sentencing."
"Will that be all?" asked the second judge.
"Yes, Adjudicator," said the Speaker, after conferring briefly with Arylla.
Arylla's chair turned out to have wheels, so she wasn't obliged to walk in her shackles when a guard went down to take her out of the Speaker's Dip.
"This court wishes to hear the testimony of Mr. Camlenn," said the first judge.
Gyre walked into the Dip and sat down in one of the unwheeled chairs. "Mr. Camlenn," said the Speaker, after Gyre had said a few words that Ehail strained to hear, "alleges that Ms. Allysel had, prior to the incident of the twenty-eighth of Pokumest, engaged in prolonged harassment, which he originally tolerated because of a suspected threat of career harm and later ceased to tolerate out of concern for Ms. Allysel's treatment of Ms. Ehail. He did not anticipate a violent reaction, but alleges that Ms. Allysel had in the past stolen and copied the key to his shop, and that he had recently changed his locks as of the incident."
"Mr. Camlenn, why did you never report Ms. Allysel's alleged harassment to the Watch?" asked a third judge. Ehail counted them; there were five.
"Mr. Camlenn did not expect the Watch to take the complaint seriously, as Ms. Allysel had never stolen anything with her copy of the key, nor explicitly threatened him with the aforementioned career harm. Said harm would have come in the form of her brother, a lapidary, refusing to do business with him," the Speaker said.
"Noted. Does Mr. Camlenn contest any part of Ms. Allysel's statements about the events of the twenty-eighth of Pokumest?" asked the third judge.
"Mr. Camlenn disputes only that Ms. Ehail's reaction ought to have had any relationship to Ms. Allysel's unstated regrets subsequent to stabbing him," said the Speaker.
Gyre, too, was dismissed, and the court wished to hear the testimony of Mr. Andef, the light. Mr. Andef was unavailable. The court wished, upon so learning, to hear the testimony of "Ms." Ehail.
Ehail went down to the Dip, trembling. "Take your time," the Speaker murmured to her. "I'll edit out any stuttering, ums and ers, that sort of thing - it's all right, just tell the truth."
"Ms. Ehail, you were the one who provided the Watch with the contact information for Mr. Andef, the alleged 'light' who healed Mr. Camlenn's alleged wound," said a judge who hadn't spoken before. "Can you explain Mr. Andef's absence?"
"It's the middle of the night in Elcenia," Ehail said softly. "He doesn't have any experience with Aristanian courts. He probably thinks that if it were really important, an Esmaarlan cop would visit him at a reasonable angle of the day and ask him a question or two."
The Speaker cleared his throat. "Ms. Ehail suspects that scheduling and unfamiliarity with Aristanian courts are responsible, and indicates that in Mr. Andef's home country he would never expect to testify at a trial, particularly not during the Elcenian night."
"Would Ms. Ehail care to testify about the events for which Ms. Allysel was not present and Mr. Camlenn incapacitated?" asked the first judge. She didn't sound happy about phrasing it as a question about Ehail's preferences.
Ehail took a deep breath. "After Arylla stabbed him I learned a tiger form to get her away from him. I carried Gyre to the circle in that form, too, and took him through, and got him off the circle, and pressed the emergency crystal on the wall. Public buildings in most countries in Elcenia have them and they call lights to teleport there and heal people who need help. Aar Andef - it'd be Aar, not Mr., he's an Esmaarlan - came and healed Gyre. Since Gyre was the only injured person there, he left after that. I tracked him down later and asked him to remember the incident and got his address, but then this trial was scheduled for the middle of the night. I've been in Barashi for a few days changing time zones myself. Aar Andef doesn't have a reason to do that."
After some clarifying questions, the Speaker said, "Ms. Ehail belongs to a species capable of spontaneously learning to shapeshift into a limited number of forms. She learned to turn into a tiger in order to separate Ms. Allysel and Mr. Camlenn. In the same shape, she transported Mr. Camlenn to the circle, which took them to Esmaar. Among Esmaar's conveniences are emergency healer-alerting crystals in public locations such as the circle; she activated one, prompting Mr. Andef's arrival. Mr. Andef healed Mr. Camlenn and then departed. Ms. Ehail later located Mr. Andef and obtained his address, as well as indicating to him that the incident would be important to remember compared to others he encounters over the course of a work day, but while Ms. Ehail has enough invested in the outcome of this trial to have dedicated some days to adjusting her sleep schedule, Mr. Andef is not so motivated."
"Ms. Ehail," said the second judge, "in your opinion, which is acknowledged to be non-expert, would Mr. Camlenn have survived his injury without Mr. Andef's attention?"
"A kama could have saved him," Ehail said. "If a light hadn't come I would have teleported him to his sister Rhysel's place and I think she could have done it - she's a Master kama. A witch might have been able to give him something that would have helped enough to let him live. But I don't think a non-magical medic could have."
The Speaker reported, "In Ms. Ehail's opinion, magical assistance, although not Mr. Andef's in particular, was essential to Mr. Camlenn's survival."
The court no longer wished to hear Ms. Ehail's testimony. She went back to Gyre.
A few Watch officers summarized what they'd seen and the statements they'd taken from bystanders who'd observed Ehail's tiger form. And then the first judge said, "The court will confer for a maximum of one div, and return with a decision regarding Ms. Allysel."
The judges stepped down from their podiums and went out of the room together. Ehail and Gyre waited. Across the room, still in her shackles, Arylla waited too.
The decision didn't take a full div. Ehail and Gyre hadn't finished discussing what sort of house they wanted to live in when the judges marched back into the room.
"It is the opinion of this court," said the first judge, "that Ms. Allysel's actions were unconscionable. Despite complications, including potentially ill behavior by a politically sheltered participant in the action, Ms. Allysel did enter the workplace of a person who had repeatedly asked her to leave him alone; did do so armed; did intend to commit grievous bodily harm with this armament; and did escape having caused another's death only through luck and magic. These actions constitute a crime. They constitute a violent crime. This court will commission the services of a mind kama -"
"No!" shrieked Arylla. "No! No!" The guard standing by her chair put his hand over her mouth.
"And," said the first judge levelly, "request of this kama that she be subject to the minimum interventions necessary to leave her a harmless citizen of the nation of Aristan. This sentence will be carried out within two days to minimize both the distress of anticipation for Ms. Allysel and the risk of flight. The decision of this court may be reevaluated if the requisitioned mind kama indicates, on inspection, that it is called for."
"Mmmmf!" said Arylla behind the guard's hand. He wheeled her away with his other hand.
"You two can leave," chirped the functionary who'd been guiding Gyre and Ehail.
Chapter 10: Union
"She's not coming," said Myret.
"Somehow, I don't think you mean Cousin Lyra," said Gyre, sighing and looking out the window. The window in his apartment looked out on a scraggly little courtyard, full of plants that weren't supposed to be there and the surrounding buildings' garbage bins.
"I don't remember a Lyra on either of the guest lists," said Ehail frantically, seizing the list of people to send invitations to once they pinned down a date and a location. She wasn't under Family as expected for a cousin, nor misplaced under Friends with Gyre's old Master and former co-apprentices and favorite neighbors and Ludei.
"Shh, it's okay," said Gyre weakly. "I've got a Cousin Lyra, but I've never met her and she lives very far away. I never thought she'd come."
"Oh." Ehail put the list down and looked at Myret. "You mean your mother."
Myret nodded, mouth set in a frown. "Yes, that's who I mean. I told Father, he told her, he said she agonized, but then finally she said that if you want to get married without her you can, and Father said that he told her you didn't want to but you would if she couldn't change her mind about Rhysel and magic and wizards and stuff - this isn't a direct quote, mind - and that she'd better hurry up because if he knows anything about you, once you hear that she's not going to change to watch you get married you'll have you and Ehail set up in a cute little house in Elcenia -"
"A cute big house," interrupted Gyre, though his heart wasn't in it.
"Fine, a big house with lots of room for grandkids she'll never get to meet, because if he knows anything about you, it's that you decide to do things and then you don't wait around forever like how Batai and Karyn had their silly four-year engagement, and so if Mother wants to watch it happen she doesn't have very long to change her mind, right?" Myret continued.
"And?" Gyre breathed.
"And then Father said, that Mother said, 'We'll see who knows our boy better. He doesn't love aberrations in the natural order more than he loves his mother.'"
A silence fell. There was a lump in Ehail's throat that she couldn't swallow.
"Well," Gyre said.
"We could wait -" Ehail whispered.
"Myret, do you think Grandmother would stand in for Mother during the first dances?" he said, looking up. "I don't know where Mother got her attitudes but at least it wasn't from her parents."
"I think Grandma would be willing to do that," said Myret.
"Good. I should write her and let her know I need to ask, so she can brush up on her dance steps if she has to. Speaking of which, Ehail, I should be helping you practice, too. I might invite Jenner over for a while. He's the better dancer and probably the better teacher. How fast do you think you can pick it up?"
Ehail remembered dance lessons from ages ago a world away. "If I'm mostly doing that and not other things, pretty fast," she said.
"All right. I'll write to Jenner too." He was making notes on another sheet of paper, a to-do list. "The bracelets are designed; I think we're both happy with the design, right?"
"So I'll get started on making those. I think I can have them finished in four, five days if I put off some nonessential other work. We can write up invitations - My, will you help? You and your nice apothecary's handwriting?"
"'Course I will," said Myret. "Nobody will mix up their wedding invitation with their sedative powder on my shift. But if I fall over twitching having flashbacks to penmanship lessons from my apprenticeship that's your fault, you know. 'Bad letters kill! Bad letters kill!'" she screeched in what was probably an impression of her former Master.
"Ryll will perform the ceremony," murmured Gyre. There was a tension in his neck but he'd otherwise stopped betraying distress about his mother's stubbornness. "So that's handled, don't have to fuss finding a celebrant. The Senate's in session now, but not for much longer - it'd be kinder to her to set a date during their next recess. We need to figure out the house. Rhysel said she'd build us a house, you mentioned earlier?"
"She insisted that we let her build us a house," Ehail said. "She said if we didn't let her build us a house she would mope for days and never forgive us. I think that's a little extreme..."
"She was pushing you to accept, Ehail, not making threats," said Gyre with a faint smile. "So we need to buy some land for Rhysel to put a house on. Ehail, can you make me a batch of diamonds, all colors, look like so?" He sketched a shape on his to-do list. "This is actual size. And then I can make a big batch of solitaire rings - boring work, but with conjurations I can underbid competitors, and sell them to a mail-order company that sells a lot of boring samey jewelry, and have a lump sum big enough to buy a plot and pay for the wedding. Rather than taking out a loan, which I'm probably going to want to do later to buy more shren scales anyway, and I don't want to go unmanageably into debt."
"I can make as many diamonds as you need," Ehail said.
"I'll ask Tennel to take care of the music," Gyre said, scribbling. "And Mo- and Cousin Laryn to take care of the food. I think his restaurant caters, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," said Myret. "One of my old co-prentices throws parties every Ascendancy Day and orders from Laryn's place every time. Threatens to start worshipping Laryn as a deity, and me as a priestess of his church for recommending his food. I keep telling him, that's how you get gods on your doorstep sharpening the spikes on their clubs, but does he listen?"
"So Laryn'll be able to do the food without... help," said Gyre. Ehail lifted her hand to rub the taut muscles in his neck.
"You need wedding outfits," Myret said.
"Right. I wonder if Rhysel's sister-in-law who did hers and Tekaal's takes commissions from more dubiously related people? We can pay her - doesn't have to be a favor - but I did like her work," Gyre said.
"The outfits were pretty," agreed Ehail. "But they might take a long time to have made custom."
"We could just buy from a store," admitted Gyre. "I don't really care what your dress looks like as long as you're in it, dear heart."
Ehail kissed him below his nearer ear. "I can ask Rhysel to ask her sister-in-law about how long it would take, though."
They carried on fussing about wedding preparation. Gyre's to-do list stretched longer, and Ehail started one of her own, beginning with conjure diamonds that look like so and ending with invite Ludei.
"Fix us" wasn't anywhere on the list. That was in other hands for the time being, and she would start work on it again after she had just one thing for just one shren.
Ehail had never expected to see Arylla again.
She didn't recognize the elf at first. Arylla was still an elf, and still a brunette, and hadn't gone shopping for new, less provocative outfits since her sentencing, but everything else was different. The excess makeup was gone, her posture didn't make anything more conspicuous than the dress managed all by itself, and she entered the shop with her eyes downcast and her empty hands clasped before her.
Ehail, standing in front of Gyre's till counter, turned into a tiger anyway. Her tail lashed of its own accord. Arylla flinched.
"What are you doing here?" asked Gyre, exasperated but unheated. He wasn't even afraid of her. Maybe he knew more about kamai personality modification than Ehail did.
"I'm sorry," Arylla said. "I'm so sorry. And I told my brother he should sell gems to anyone who wants to buy them. And I'm sorry. That's all I wanted to say. I'll never bother you again."
Arylla turned around, and went out of the shop.
"She's so different," Ehail murmured.
"Around us, at least," Gyre said. "I expect there are large parts of her unaffected - but I never got to see those."
"What did the kama do?"
"Found what patterns were making her behave badly," said Gyre. "Interrupted them. Those things - I guess in Arylla's case, extortion and harassment and assault - are unthinkable to her now. She's completely harmless - if you'd attacked her she wouldn't even be able to defend herself. But she does remember what she did. So I suppose she wanted to apologize for doing the unthinkable. Maybe she behaves completely normally around her friends or her parents, I wouldn't have any way to know."
Ehail turned human-shaped again. "Oh," she said softly.
Gyre walked around the counter to fold her up in a hug. "I don't think she's incapable of lying, but I'm pretty sure she really will never bother us again," he said gently.
She nodded, looking at the door of the shop.
"Late Pyrmaesest? Early Penmaesest?" said Gyre.
"That's so soon," Ehail said. "Is it enough time?"
Gyre took her right hand, reached into his pocket, and slipped two matching emerald-studded silver chains onto her wrist and reclasped the ends to sit snugly. "These are done," he said with a warm smile, and he pulled up his right sleeve to reveal his heavier pair. "The mail-order catalog fellow's head nearly exploded when I told him how cheaply I could make solitaires and he wants fifty. I can churn them out fast and have enough money to pay for everything by a month from now - Barashin month. The hall we picked is open a few of the relevant dates. I have a list."
Ehail consulted the table she'd made comparing Aristan time to Elcenian time and Gyre's list. "Morning of Penmaesest 5? That's the afternoon of Komehel 26. Everyone will be awake."
"Sounds good," Gyre said. "Myret's nearly done addressing and writing out all the invitations except for the date. I'll get her to fill that in and we can get everything in the mail."
"I wanted to ask you something," Ehail said.
"Anything, dear heart," said Gyre.
"When we get married - maybe as part of the ceremony if we can work it in or right after - can I have a syllable from your name?" she asked.
"Of course - but - you'll have to tell me how that works," he said sheepishly.
"It's simple," she assured him. "You can pick any syllable from any part of your name, whatever you think would sound nicest. Then you say my whole name with the syllable added to the end - so, three syllables. I could write it down if you needed it but I don't think you will," she said. "And then that's my name. You can't give away the same syllable to anyone else but you can give away other ones."
"Of course. I think we can work that into the wedding. We do say each other's names," he said.
"I love you," murmured Ehail.
"I love you too," returned Gyre, and he kissed her.
"This is the place? It's so nice," Rhysel said.
"It's a chunk of a rezoned park," Gyre said. "The realtor you recommended found it for us. Good and close to the circle so Ehail doesn't have to teleport me there every day. Plenty of yard. Neighbor families in walking distance but not all crowded in like most people here seem to live."
"It must have been astronomically expensive," Rhysel said. "It's so pretty. My garden might be about as complex by this point but I put it there since I moved in and yours just comes with the place. I can't even decide where to put your house that won't kill some lovely plant."
"It wasn't all that bad. People stopped coming to the park because the local pixies were being obnoxious - the pixies are gone now but the owners had already lost too much money. So they sold."
"Can you lift the plants up?" Ehail asked. "Have them growing out of the roof? It would be a strange look but not in a bad way."
"Maybe," said Rhysel. Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she surveyed the parcel of park. "I'm going to do this in a few sections. Mind if I have some students watching me for parts of it? Watching and supplying energy?"
"That's fine," said Gyre. "Just don't let them booby-trap the place, please."
"Of course not," said Rhysel, laughing. "I'll have the structure up and furniture ready by Fenen. I can do colors and other detail work as you like after you've been here for a couple of days and had a chance to see how it all works for you."
"You are a spectacular sister," Gyre declared.
"It just seemed like a suitable wedding present," said Rhysel, smiling. "You two deserve a beautiful home."
Rhysel led Ehail through the hall. Across it, Gyre followed his twin. The attendants were in blue, the couple in green, and Ehail was worried she'd trip because she kept stealing looks at Gyre.
Ryll, enrobed in gray and bearing a circlet on her head, stood in front of all the benches filled with Gyre's friends and family and one white-irised shren. The wedding party came to a stop before the Senator.
"Join hands with your intended," said Ryll.
Ehail reached forward and Gyre laced his fingers with hers.
"Gyre and Ehail met at the last wedding I officiated," began Ryll, and then she carried on with the rest of the story of their courtship and engagement. She made it sound so much more like a story than it had felt to Ehail, but she supposed that was part of Ryll's job.
Ryll's speech came to an end, and she went on to the ritualized part of the wedding. "Rhysel," she said. "Is it your belief that Ehail loves Gyre?"
"Yes," Rhysel said, grinning.
"Myret," Ryll said, "is it your belief that Gyre loves Ehail?"
"Yes," said Myret emphatically with an affectionate roll of her eyes.
"Do you agree to stand as witness to this union?" Ryll asked.
"Yes," chorused Myret and Rhysel.
"And is it your belief that they should be wed?"
"Yes," repeated both attendants.
Ryll looked at Gyre. "Gyre Camlenn, you may speak your vows."
"Ehaillenn," he said fervently, and she half-felt a twinge in the back of her mind as her name changed for the first time since she'd been given one. "I love you with all my heart. I am yours, body, mind, and soul, and I swear to be devoted and faithful to you, unwavering, for the rest of our days together. I swear to accept you and everyone and everything that comes with you, with open arms."
"Gyre," she said, and a smile crept unbidden onto her face. "I love you with all my heart. I am yours, body, mind, and soul, and I swear to be devoted and faithful to you, unwavering, for the rest of our days together. I swear to accept you and everyone and everything that comes with you, with open arms."
"I witness these vows, and witness them binding, and let what I have seen joined be joined always," Ryll concluded, touching their hands.
"Always," Gyre whispered, which wasn't part of the ceremony at all, and he dropped Ehail's hands to cup her face and kiss her smile.
Ehail had a cozy little office in the house. It had a window, so she cast only a normal light spell on the ceiling, not a sunglow. She moved out of her shren house office in a few trips. When she came back for her spider plant, one of the childminders looking after those who didn't care to try to be adopted was already using the space for a petulant black's time-out.
She gave half of a communication crystal pair to Ludei, so that he or whoever he delegated to could call her when work needed doing at the house. A moonstone fellow Ehail didn't know well had been equipped with contact lenses and enrolled in the University of Imarnni to study wizardry; eventually Ehail would not be needed to do repair work at the house at all.
Rhysel came over to the flower-roofed house a few evenings a week, and taught Ehail to cook a little at a time, and went with her from room to room in the house changing colors and details of the place and its stone-made contents as called for. She kept getting more and more pregnant, at what she said was roughly the same rate she would expect for a normal halfblood pregnancy. Aar Camlenn (Ehail was newly allowed to call him "Tekaal", but hadn't gotten used to it) was working on a spell to predict due date, as prior spells to do the same were not behaving normally around the interworld twins.
Ehail bought a book of gardening spells and looked after the plants they'd inherited, and encouraged ivy up the sides of the building. She picked up her research again, passing notes to Tekaal at a regular clip. With rigid obedience to recipes, she put together meals with varying levels of success. Her drawings of jungles and topiaries and ferns were slowly collected on the wall of the living room, at Gyre's insistence that they not be discarded.
And there was Gyre himself.
The time zones out of sync meant that at first he went to work at predictable but strange times; finally, he hired an assistant who lived in Aristan City to handle the sales and bookkeeping from five-zero to twelve-zero every day. He went in to actually make things for periods of time that made sense in Elcenia regardless of whether it was noon or midnight in Aristan. Gyre announced that he wished he'd hired an assistant years ago, as he'd never realized quite how annoying minding a store was until he could turn his attentions entirely to jewelrymaking.
Then, every afternoon, he came home to her.
There were a few mirrors in the house, along the stairs and in the bathrooms and across from the big blue-gold sofa, and she kept catching herself smiling. As though that were just something she did. She lost count.
It wasn't as hard to get used to as she might have guessed.
Ehail liked cooking all right as long as Rhysel didn't push her to abandon the comfortable recipes with "substitutions" and "dashes of things" and "cook it until it looks done". She'd secured recipes for all of the things served at her wedding, as they'd all been delicious. She'd then been terrified by their intricacy and Barashi-specific ingredients, and had gotten Rhysel to simplify them for her. Simplified egg soup and simplified flatbread with simplified chicken-and-spinach was on the menu when the doorbell unexpectedly jangled.
"I wonder who that could be," Gyre said. They'd made themselves known to the inhabitants of the nearest house-circles, but none had shown an inclination to come over for impromptu visits. Rhysel and Tekaal would normally call ahead.
Ehail ladled servings of soup into bowls. "Can you check? I need to time the bread."
"Of course, dear heart." Gyre snuck a sip of his soup before going to the door and pulling it open.
Allera stood there, and looked up at her son with apprehension and sorrow.
"Mother," Gyre said. "...What are you doing here?"
"May I come in?" Allera asked quietly.
"How did you get here?" he asked.
Allera winced, but brought it under control a moment later and inhaled. "The circle," she said. "May I come in?"
Gyre hesitated and looked at Ehail, who was standing stunned at the oven with a pan of flatbread clutched in her mitts. He turned back to Allera. "Very well," he said. "But I will not hesitate to throw you out if you insult my wife again, so help me. Or my sister or my brother-in-law or any of their colleagues."
The elf flinched. "I suppose I deserve that," she said as she entered.
He silently pulled out one of the chairs for his mother. Allera sat. Ehail stopped witlessly standing frozen, put the pan of bread down on the stove, closed the oven, and started transferring breads into the bread basket.
When Ehail had brought the basket to the table and lowered herself into her own seat across from Gyre, Allera said, "I've come to say I'm sorry, Ehail."
"Thank you," Ehail said softly.
"I had no right to speak to you that way. You were a guest in my home. You'd done no one and nothing any harm," said Allera. The words sounded practiced, but not awkward; she might have written them in advance herself. "And I'm sorry I believed of you what I did. And I'm sorry I was such a stubborn fool that I missed your wedding."
Ehail thought of saying "thank you" again. Instead, she got up out of her chair, walked around the table, and hugged her mother-in-law where she sat.
At this, Allera shed tears. "I hope you can forgive me," she said, hugging Ehail back.
"Of course," said Ehail. "You're forgiven."
The hug ended, and Ehail went back to her place while Allera cast a watery look at Gyre.
"I love you, Mother," he said after a brief silence which he spent mostly looking at Ehail. "Of course I can forgive you."
Allera managed a faint smile and scrubbed at the tears on her face. "I wish I'd managed to say this before," she said, addressing Ehail, "but welcome to the family, child. Ryll told me a lot about you before I worked up the nerve to come here. You sound like the perfect match for my son."
"Thank you," Ehail said again. "Do - you want to stay for dinner?"
"I'd love to," said Allera. "But I really can't stay. I still need to go apologize to Rhysel." She swallowed. "If you want to extend the offer another day, I'd be happy to accept."
"Any time," Ehail said. "When the time zones match up."
"Ryll has an almanac of some kind about that," Allera said, nodding slowly. "Well. I have directions on how to get to Rhysel's... tower, but it may take a while, so I shouldn't stay longer - I don't want to risk waking them -"
"If you want," Ehail said hesitantly, "I can save you the trip."
Allera froze, looking panicked, but she controlled herself with visible effort and ended up appearing more chagrined than afraid. "If it won't disrupt your dinner," she said, "I would appreciate that."
Ehail held out her hand.
Allera took it.
Ehail teleported to the flagstone that sat outside her home's threshold, opened the door, and sat down to dinner again.
"Do you think she would mind," she asked without preamble, serving herself a flatbread and a heap of chicken-and-spinach on top of it, "if I called her Mother?"
Gyre blinked. "Why?"
"I always wanted," Ehail murmured, "for my mother to find me and ask me to forgive her." She met his eyes. "Do you think she would mind?"
"No, dear heart," Gyre murmured. "No, I don't think she'd mind at all."
Chapter 11: Papers
"I know Taala," said the iron girl winningly. She hopped up and down to catch attention. "I'd like to be her cousin. I bet she'd like me to be her cousin."
"Yeah, but you and Apran used to fight all the time!" chimed in a malachite boy, waving his arms. "I knew Apran -"
"I think you should take home her," said a blue solemnly, aiming a thumb at a quiet jet girl, which would have been a more effective display of altruism if he'd avoided sounding haughty and self-righteous in saying so.
"I only want to go if I can take Prathkey and Datra too, people aren't taking us in threes, if you want a few instead of just one please -"
"I think your necklace is really nice," cooed a garnet girl.
"I like magic, I want to learn to be a wizard - like you! - and I can't do that in Barashi - so I didn't talk to any of them but you live here -"
"I have -"
"I think -"
"This," said Jensal, "was probably not the best way to handle it. Sorry, I thought they'd behave differently around another shren. Everybody into the sunroom!" she said, clapping her hands and herding the children out of the room. "We're doing this one at a time! Eldest first!"
"Are you all right, dear heart?" Gyre asked, peering at Ehail's face. She supposed she must look every bit as torn as she felt. There were too many of them. She didn't know how to disappoint even one.
"Well," she said weakly, "it would be strange if picking out children didn't feel like a hard choice."
"We don't have to narrow it down to just one. We can take two or three - Ryll was only going to bring home one but couldn't resist Apran and Taala both," Gyre said. "And we can afford it."
Ehail nodded. "There are so many. I thought they would have been all gone by now..."
"Honestly, so did I. I suppose even the orphanages located in Aristan proper are never quite empty. I think Ryll is in talks with some neighboring countries about expanding the program," said Gyre. He squeezed Ehail's hand.
"How are we supposed to choose? What are we supposed to choose based on?" Ehail asked. "I know you brought your list, but they're all trying to be on their best behavior for us... Are we supposed to interview them all and then go behind their backs to ask Jensal about whether they - whether they're picky eaters or if they draw on the walls?"
Jensal came back into the room, leading a black-eyed boy by the hand. "Come out when you're done," she told him, "and let the next one have her turn."
He looked like he was about a hundred and thirty, and regarded Ehail and Gyre with cautious hope. "I'm, um, everyone was talking over each other - I'm Sutho, the one who wanted to be a wizard -"
Gyre glanced at his notes on what to ask. Ehail forced herself to look at the black eyes and wonder if this would be her son.
"What do you think will be the best thing about living with a family instead of here?" Gyre asked the blue opal.
The boy, called Kenar, was in his mid-nineties, and he had the general demeanor of someone who'd been unexpectedly chucked out of a scoot and left on the side of the road. He looked at them, and answered their questions intelligently, but he was so sad.
"More trips to the library," Kenar said. "I've read practically everything in the house library. We get new books, but not many. The city library has more books but we only get outings there twice a month."
"So you like to read," Ehail said, and Kenar nodded. She asked, "Anything in particular?"
"Stories," Kenar said. "And history and travelogues and memoirs and - I guess that isn't very particular."
"It's a little particular," said Gyre with a wry chuckle. "It leaves out math textbooks."
"I don't think you're supposed to just read those, straight through," said Kenar. "But I've gone through them for our lessons. I'm okay at math. Is that important?"
Ehail shook her head. "No."
"It was just an example. There's all kinds of books," said Gyre. "I wouldn't imagine all the books in the library are aimed at kids. When you say you've read almost all of them..."
"The harder ones take longer," Kenar said. "But I know the words and I can figure out the sentences if I think about them."
Ehail had most of Gyre's list memorized; they'd already interviewed five children. "What do you think you'd like to do when you grow up?" she asked.
"If I get adopted, or if I don't?" Kenar asked.
"Is it different?" Gyre inquired.
"Maybe," Kenar said. "If I don't get adopted I might stay in the house and work in the library. Or work in some other library. I like them."
"If you do?" Ehail breathed.
Kenar looked out the window into the sparsely grassy yard around the house. "I always thought, if my egg parents had come to get me, I'd have done whatever they wanted to make up for not being a dragon. I could do whatever as long as I don't have to fly with my real wings to do it."
"That's -" Gyre began, sounding like he was half in shock.
Kenar continued, more softly. "I want to become something that'll make somebody want me, since I didn't hatch that way." Then he met Gyre's eyes and managed a faint smile. "But - if you didn't care what I did - I like being around books."
"He reminds me of you," Gyre told Ehail, between interviewees. "How you were when I met you."
"Does he?" She turned to look at her husband.
"I don't want to decide for sure until we've met them all, but I think we should consider him," Gyre said with a soft smile. He squeezed her hand.
The next one marched in.
"Can I take my fish tank?" asked Heia, adjusting a wooden pin that held wine-red hair to the nape of her neck. "I swim in it sometimes - or - actually a bigger fishtank would be better. It also has regular fish in it," she said. "Will they be hard to move?" She had a businesslike tone to her. "And I really do like your necklace."
"Er," said Gyre. "We haven't decided who to adopt yet, Heia. We want to meet everyone before we decide."
"Can I pretend?" Heia asked, suddenly as wounded as any of the others, sorrow in place of her presumption.
"I -" Gyre seemed unable to formulate a reply. Ehail couldn't either.
"I'm going to pretend," said Heia, and she straightened up again and adjusted her hair. "Besides the fish tank I don't think I'll be much trouble to move. I only got a fancy fish tank and fish to put in it by saving almost all my tokens for toys and 'nonessential clothes' and treats and stuff for thirty years. And it's not even here. It's back in Corenta where I grew up and Lyal is feeding my fish for me. But you're a wizard so I bet you can move it really easy with a spell."
"Heia..." said Ehail.
"That's my name. Do you like it?" Heia chattered. "Lyal's the one who named me. It was his turn to name a kid and the two next older than me in our house got names from their parents in their letters, and - and - and -" She scrubbed at her eye and inhaled deeply. "And I heard, that when I come home, I'm gonna be able to get a line name - and - pretending is hard."
"Heia," said Gyre softly.
She shook her head and hopped off her chair. "I'll get you the next kid. It's okay. I'm pretty good at waiting for stuff."
"I like playing kebel, and cards, and board games, and I know Taala, and she's nice, and she's your niece, right?"
"Right," said Gyre, obviously charmed. The iron girl, Rithka, was in her sixties and looked at them with cheerful brown eyes from under her puff of iron-gray bangs. "My sister Ryll adopted her and Apran."
"And I usually don't get to play a lot of kebel here because we can only go in the yard and it's not very good for it but if I lived with you there's probably a neighborhood team and I'm real good so they'd take me. And, um, I -" She trailed off, turned into a sparrow, turned back, and continued thinking. "I dunno what things I should mention 'cause I dunno what kind of kid you want. Nobody else took me already so maybe I'm bad at figuring that out. Can you just tell me?"
"We didn't come here with anything too specific in mind," Ehail said. "Just someone who would fit in with us, and with whoever else we bring home."
"Who else are you gonna bring home?" Rithka asked. "Oh, and that one boy said I fight with Apran, that's not true, Apran fights with me, he thinks I cheat at cards but he just doesn't understand all the rules and won't let me explain them to him. But I like him just fine except he should pay attention when I explain rules. If he wants to double on a four of squares he should just be the dealer even if he's got little hands, right?"
"Makes sense to me," said Gyre, amused. "So you're not going to pick fights with him if we go visit my sister and we have you with us?"
"Nuh-uh. I'll just play with Taala. She's nice. We're close to the same age and both girls but she's quieter and doesn't like running around as much so we did stuff inside mostly and I'd play with boys our age when I went out. For twenty years I couldn't go out at all and I didn't like that. I like having lots of room. I have more room when I'm littler so I turned into a little bird." She demonstrated the sparrow form again and spread her wings. "I'm thinkin' about what else I might want to learn to be. Little stuff. Not another bird 'cause this is enough bird."
"It seems like plenty of bird," agreed Ehail.
"Do you have more stuff on that list to ask me?" Rithka asked. She stood on one clawed foot, then the other. "I could read it from here but it's not pointed at me."
"Nope, we ran out of questions a while ago," admitted Gyre. "Do you want to go send in the next kid?"
"Oh." Rithka-the-sparrow drooped. "Okay."
"We're not deciding until we've seen everyone, Rithka," said Ehail swiftly.
"Oh!" Rithka perked up, returned to her human form, and skipped out the door.
"Prathkey," said a diamond boy. "I'm fifty-eight. I really do want to get adopted but I won't without Datra and Kesting. We're really close. We never fight or anything. We can all share a room if you don't have a lot of space, that's fine. Or me and Kesting can and Datra can get her own since she's a girl."
"How did you all get so close?" Gyre asked. "I didn't see anyone else asking to be taken in groups."
"It's just us," said Prathkey. "We're all white-groups and we all hatched the same year. So I guess it came out of that. But that's not the only thing we have in common. We like the same music and games and stuff."
"Do you have to be siblings, or would you settle for being cousins?" Gyre asked. Ehail wondered which of his brothers or sisters he thought would be a good match for which of the triplets.
"Siblings or nothing," said Prathkey firmly. "If we were going to go into an Esmaarlan extended family house maybe cousins would be fine since we'd live together. But the point of the adoption thing is to put us in Aristan-type houses. Even if yours is in Paraasilan."
"It's wonderful that you have such good friends," Ehail murmured.
"I think it's why nobody wants us," Prathkey said. "But I guess we're more okay about it since we want each other."
"Let's not declare you universally unwanted just yet," said Gyre.
"I know," said Prathkey, smiling ruefully. "Got to hope."
They were nearing the end of the parade of children with miscellaneous hair and eye colors. The small jet, sitting still in her chair and blinking at them, was the third-to-last; everyone younger still was being held back lest their egg parents retrieve them in a late change of mind. "My name's Cenem. I'm thirty-six," she said.
"Only one year younger than me," Gyre observed, smiling. "If I count in Barashin years, anyway."
"I learned that Barashin years are longer. So you're still older than me," Cenem said.
Gyre nodded. "So, Cenem, what do you like to do with your time?"
"I like making collages," she said. "And once I got an old atlas, to make collages out of, and I didn't 'cause I liked it. Maps are neat. They're of places."
"Do you make maps, or just look at them?" Ehail asked.
"I tried to make a map of the house but straight lines are hard. And I put a ruler but it slipped a lot. So I just look."
"I bet you know a lot about the world, then," said Gyre. "Do you want to travel?"
"Yes," said Cenem. "I have old maps. Things aren't like my maps now. I want to see the new things that are there instead."
"You probably don't get to go out much," Ehail said.
"We go out to parts of Paraasilan," said Cenem. "But nowhere far. And maps are all drawn from the sky, and I haven't gotten to look at many places from there."
"What's your flying form?" asked Ehail.
Cenem became a bee, flew around the chair, and then became a girl again. "It's that. Bees can't talk though, even when they're shrens."
Gyre watched her fly with a smile. "Why a bee?"
"I thought the stripes would look pretty with my jet color," she said. "And it's little and can buzz. I'm claustrophobic. So sometimes I like being able to be a bee. I was almost a butterfly but they can't buzz, not any kind of butterfly at all."
"You make a very cute bee," Gyre said. "What do you think will be the best thing about living with a family instead of here?"
Cenem squirmed in her chair and looked at the walls to either side of her in the interview room. "More space," she said.
"Remind me how we were going to do this," Ehail said, staring at the pen and paper in her hand.
"Write down the ten you'd pick, if we could take that many," Gyre murmured, rubbing circles on her back. "And I'll do the same, and then we see who's on both lists. If we have too much overlap, we'll think of something else, but if there's only a few, we'll take those."
Ehail nodded, squeezed her eyes shut, and thought about the children. She wrote ten names.
Gyre's pen scratched longer than hers, and he tapped on his paper in thought, but eventually he had ten names written too.
They traded lists.
"Not Heia?" Ehail asked.
"She didn't let us finish the interview," Gyre said. "We didn't get much chance to get to know her. And it seemed to me like she has a lot of expectations riding on her future family. I think she might be better off with experienced parents. If you want to come back and pick up a couple more in a few months, if there are any left then, we might be better equipped for her then. No Sutho on yours?"
"I think he thought I would be home-teaching him. I mean, I realize there aren't public schools in Esmaar and it only makes sense for me to give the children lessons while you're at work. But I'm just a passable wizard, I couldn't teach."
"Makes sense," said Gyre. "After I have the market cornered on scale jewelry, we could afford Binaaralav, but there's delay and uncertainty there."
Ehail nodded. "Not the group of three?"
"They're fine, but if we took them we couldn't take anyone else," Gyre said. "And there's a few I'd prefer to them. Prathkey would have been number eight, except I had different ideas about nine and ten..."
"We have three overlaps," Ehail murmured.
"Any last-tick misgivings?" Gyre asked gently. "Do you want to go home just us today, and come back with a final decision later?"
Ehail shook her head. "No. Let's go get our children."
Jensal spread out three adoption forms on her desk. "Parents sign on these lines," she said, pointing at one. "Child signs here. I witness them and turn in copies to the government. If you need to reverse an adoption later for any reason, any two of the three signatures should be crossed out by the signers, or all three - if one of you wants to reverse it without the cooperation of at least one of the others involved, you need to go through more complicated channels."
"What alphabet do we write our names in?" Rithka asked, standing on tiptoe to see over the edge of the desk.
"Draconic's fine," Jensal said. "These don't have to be standardized in Leraal letters like some forms. And Gyre, you can write yours in Martisen."
"Thank goodness. People can't figure out the right pronunciation from the transliteration of 'Gyre', even if 'Camlenn' works fine," Gyre said, taking a pen out of the bouquet of them on Jensal's desk and writing his name three times.
"I picked the closest string of letters I could," Ehail said. "It just doesn't get any closer than 'Kaher' in legal Leraal constructions unless I borrowed two Ryganaavlan letters, and that would give the wrong idea."
Ehail wrote her name on all three forms too, beside Gyre's, and then gave her pen into Rithka's reaching hand. Rithka sketched the pair of characters that spelled her name in Draconic and handed the pen over to Cenem, who scrawled on the second form. Cenem offered the pen to Kenar. He took it, and looked at his paper, biting his lip, before signing too.
Jensal had a stamp on her desk, which she impressed on all of the paperwork before peeling each form in half from the corner to create identical copies. "These are yours," she said, handing the originals to Ehail. "Thank you. And you three..." She regarded the young shrens and smiled wanly at them. "You have good lives, okay?"
"Okay," said Cenem blithely.
Rithka tugged on Ehail's skirt. "Can I have a line name? I want my song," she said. "Mom," she added as an afterthought, and then she grinned to herself and spun around.
"How am I going to have a line name?" Cenem asked. "If Rithka gets your first name? We aren't the same color."
Ehail thought. Rithka was old enough to dispense syllables, as was Kenar; "Ehail" could be Rithka's line name and a pair of added syllables could be Cenem's. But she couldn't announce that before actually getting the syllables from Rithka and Kenar, as that would be, ideally, private until both were securely attached to her name. "We'll work it out, sweetie," Ehail said, stroking Cenem's hair, and this seemed to satisfy the jet.
"Do you want a line name too, Kenar?" Gyre asked.
"Use your first name," Ehail put in, "not your last. Taala has 'Camlenn' and she's a ruby, and a girl - she shouldn't share his line."
Kenar looked at Gyre, and at Ehail, and back at Gyre. "Yes," he said.
"And, Rithkaehail," said Ehail, patting Rithka on the shoulder and picking up Cenem to balance the youngest of their new children on her hip. "Come on. Let's go home."
"You can decide who gets which bedroom amongst yourselves, but if we hear any bickering, we'll assign them at random," Gyre said. "They all look about the same now, but your aunt Rhysel can change the furniture for you when she visits next. Quick simple changes, your mother can look up a spell for. Let me guess, Kenar - you'll want some bookshelves?"
"I'll get books?" Kenar asked, half-smiling.
"Of course. We definitely need to go on some shopping trips for you kids, and soon. My assistant has my shop under control. I'll be home during the day for a week and then I'll go back in," Gyre said.
"We want to make sure you're comfortable and settled here," Ehail said. "Make sure you let us know if there's anything more you need or want to make that happen."
"I'm hungry," said Cenem, and Ehail ushered her into the kitchen and showed her the snack cabinet, which Rithka raided from around her musing sister as soon as the words "cheese crackers" were uttered.
"Rithka," said Ehail, "may I see you alone for a moment when you've finished your crackers?"
"Sure, Mom," said Rithka chirpily. Ehail glowed inside every time one of them said that word (Rithka: 17; Kenar: 2; Cenem: 4, but she said "Mommy" instead). She wondered if that would wear off. She didn't think it was likely.
Cenem was exploring the house with quiet meticulousness. Kenar had found Ehail's office and was reading the spines of her spell volumes. "Kenar - don't get stuck in the middle of a book just yet," Ehail said. "I'll want a word with you in a bit."
"Okay," Kenar said. "Can I borrow some of these?"
"Of course," said Ehail. "As long as you put them back where they belong when you're done. But I don't know if they'll be very interesting to you. Your father has some novels up in our room and you're welcome to borrow those, too."
"I'll do that then," said Kenar. "Thanks. Mom."
Ehail smiled and kissed the boy on the top of his head, and followed Rithka's distinctively frenetic footsteps up the stairs.
"This one's mine, okay?" Rithka said of the bedroom closest to the stairs. "Okay, Mom?"
"It looks like yours," agreed Ehail, stepping inside and closing the door. She sat on the edge of the bed, the bounciness of which Rithka was already investigating. "Rithka, may I have a syllable from your name?"
"Sure. What've you got now?" Rithka asked. "Mom?" She seemed to be having as much fun with the word as Ehail was.
"Ehaillenn," said Ehail.
"Ehaillennrith," grinned Rithka. "I can't ask you for one 'cause you did my line name, right?"
"Right. So you have two from me already," Ehail said. "That's the limit."
Rithka nodded. "Okay. Want me to get Kenar for you? I heard you asking. Me and Cenem're both going to be able to hear anything that happens in the house."
"Not quite," laughed Ehail. "I know sound-dampening spells and how to maintain them. But we'll keep in mind black-group hearing. I would like it if you'd get Kenar."
Rithka turned into a sparrow, flew to her doorknob, turned human again to push the door open, and charged down the stairs yelling for her brother.
A short time later, Ehaillennrithken dubbed her youngest "Cenemlennrith" and wished the girl was old enough to give a syllable back. The jet sang her newly accessible song to herself while deciding which of the unclaimed rooms would be hers and which would be the guest room.
Then she started on dinner for five.
Chapter 12: Dragons
The children settled into the house and made it theirs. Cenem carefully started a garden along the walls, where some of the original plants accustomed to more sun were failing in the house's shadow and could be torn up. Kenar turned his room into a miniature library of his own, full of all the books he'd read more than once and all the books he'd wanted the shren house library to buy. Rithka joined four neighborhood sports teams and wheedled the entire family into joining her for a game of something or other more evenings than not.
Ehail loved them all instantly and with an almost frightening intensity.
"Am I supposed to love you more than them?" she asked Gyre once. She spoke quietly, even though she had their bedroom under a soundproofing spell to ensure privacy from the girls' sharp ears. It seemed like the sort of question that needed whispering.
Gyre looked at her, and she wondered if that had been a hurtful thing to say, and wished she'd thought about it for a moment longer. She'd lost several layers of thought-before-speech since meeting him. But then he laughed. "No," he said. "If there's any 'supposed to' about it at all, they're supposed to come first."
Ehail leaned on him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "They're ours."
"Yes." He kissed her head. "They're all ours."
"What are you doing, Mom?" Rithka asked, poking her head and then the rest of her into Ehail's office.
"Well, I'm... working on a project." Ehail had always avoided letting information about her project filter to the children in her own house. Some of them still thought wizards were omnipotent, and would have thought she'd be able to actually do it, instead of endlessly - flapping her wings. "It's what I do in my spare time, when I'm not looking after you three or going to help out at my old house."
Maybe Rithka would lose interest at that.
"What's the project? Are you inventing a spell?" asked Rithka, trotting into the room and turning into a sparrow to flutter to Ehail's shoulder. She peered at the notes, which were mostly arithmetic and not anything revealing. "Is it a math project? Does math have projects in it?"
"Math does have projects in it," said Ehail. She spun her chair away from the desk, but the bird on her shoulder just hopped to face the pages again. "Do you want to start learning more complicated math? You seem to have the hang of the word problems in your book."
"I want to do no math for... ten years?" said Rithka.
"Ten years?" asked Ehail, amused.
"Five?" tried Rithka.
"You can stop when you get all the way through your textbook series, if you still want to then," Ehail said. "We can talk about going through them slower, if you want to do less math every day, or faster, if you want to get them over with. You know a lot of the games you like have some math in them?"
"Fiiiiine," sighed Rithka. "But what's your math project?"
"It's not actually a math project," Ehail admitted, spinning back to face her desk. "It's a magic project."
Rithka hopped around again. "Are you inventing a spell?"
"Not yet. I need to know a lot more about what I'm doing before I can make a spell to do it."
"But what's it, Mom?"
Ehail took a breath. "Well. For a very long time now, since before you hatched, I've been trying to. Well. Find a way to help - us."
Rithka was silent for an uncharacteristic length of time.
"Oh," she said, finally. "I guess it's very hard."
Ehail lifted a hand to touch the soft feathers of Rithka's wing. "Yes," she said. "I have help now. I didn't before. So I think I'm making a little more progress than I was years ago. But yes, it's very, very hard. It might be impossible."
Rithka put a stray wisp of silver hair in her beak and tucked it behind Ehail's ear for her. "Thank you, Mom," she murmured, and then she flew from the room.
Ehail looked out the door of her office for a moment, sighing, and went back to her project.
As it happened, Ehail was making unusual amounts of progress. Or, the project was. Rhysel and Tekaal had found some other anonymous collaborator who didn't want to work directly with her - Ehail thought he might be a dragon, and was just grateful that he'd work on the problem at all.
This collaborator was good at the abstract thought that took Ehail so long to swim through, and through Rhysel, he passed her a lot of the more tedious work. She picked through it bit by bit, passed it back, and got more, having vaguer and vaguer notions of what he was up to but suspecting that he was making more leaps in a month than she had in the last century. She ran analyses and recorded data under every possible experimental control - day, night, after breakfast, after a day of fasting, after casting as many spells as she could in a degree. Sometimes Rithka, who hadn't told her brother and sister about the little hope lurking in the office, sat tamely and let Ehail look at the magic moving under her skin, so she could collect data about dragon magic in shrens in animal forms.
But she was doing less work on the project, all told, than she had been before. There were children to play with, to pick up and hug, to feed and bring on errands and garden with and read to and put to bed and sing inexpert lullabies to and show off to a manageable trickle of Gyre's relatives.
"Motherhood suits you even better than I would have guessed," Rhysel said when she came for her second visit since Ehail and Gyre had adopted their kids. This visit featured her infant twins Aaris and Kaarel, who'd been left with their paternal grandparents during the prior one. "I on the other hand have no idea what I'm doing. I feed them and otherwise I mostly stare at them or try to get them to sleep without resorting to magic."
"Well - mine can talk," Ehail said. "They can tell me what they need."
"I can read the twins' thoughts - have I mentioned how glad I am to have kamai back?" The last few weeks of pregnancy had broken most of Rhysel's entrained control of her spontaneous magic and she'd spent the time under an inverse ward, preventing her from injuring anyone or destroying anything. Ehail hadn't seen much of her during that time, only heard about it after Gyre went to find out where his sister had gotten to.
"Yes," said Ehail.
"So I know when they want things, when they're cold or warm or hungry or tired, but I still feel like I'm faking it," said Rhysel. "At least my being on maternity leave and Tekaal on paternity for this term prompted Kanaat to hire more kyma. The two of us couldn't have kept up with all the levels of kamai students anymore."
"Why don't you put them to sleep by magic?" Ehail asked. "Isn't it safe?"
"It's safe enough," Rhysel said. "I'd do it if one was miserably tired and couldn't fall asleep for some reason. But it's not good to regularly sleep more than you naturally would and I worry I'd overdo it."
"Here, I'm done now," said Rithka, holding up Aaris, who she had been allowed to hold, from her position on the sofa. Ehail took the baby out of her arms and Rithka skipped off, muttering about how holding babies wasn't really interesting and she didn't see why anybody wanted to do it all the time.
Kenar accepted Kaarel when offered his cousin the next time he passed through the room, and sat with her for longer than Rithka had held Aaris. Cenem was too small to hold a baby, but she did pet their downy hair and peer at the points on their ears, silently comparing them to Rhysel's. "Anyway," Rhysel said, "I'm glad you and Gyre are enjoying parenthood."
"It's wonderful," said Ehail warmly.
"On an unrelated note, I have more notes from our anonymous friend. It would be so convenient if he'd let me use his name; I'm not even sure why he won't."
"He's a dragon," Ehail said, "isn't he."
"Yes, but he didn't ask me not to tell you that, so I'm confused. At any rate." Rhysel traded notes for Aaris.
Ehail scanned them. "This looks - this looks like a complete spell set," she said. "He - oh, that's what the business with the analyses in the different forms was - it's a complete spell set. I... I think... if it works in practice, it would work. But I don't see how we'd - during this part we'd die. If that were the idea we wouldn't need all this complicated magic to do it."
"Read the last page," Rhysel said, smiling impishly.
Ehail flipped to the end.
A kamai lifelink by a helper (not the primary caster who will be otherwise occupied) is indicated during the procedure, read the first sentence.
Ehail dropped the papers in shock and watched them drift down to the carpet.
"Well?" asked Rhysel.
"Miracle," said Ehail.
Ehail waited until after dinner to tell the children. They couldn't be cured immediately. The spell set was long, and sufficiently complicated that the nameless collaborator didn't think anyone but him would be able to perform it reliably. He was also charging for his time, although when Rhysel ruefully relayed that, Gyre pointed out that he had already been planning to take out a loan to buy up shren scales faster and each shren could pay his or her own way out of that money. Nothing about the cure would vanish the detritus of accumulated form neglect.
"So we can be miracles but we have to wait?" Rithka summarized.
"Your Aunt Rhysel bumped us up the list of people to be cured," Ehail soothed. "There are a few people ahead of us, who volunteered to be the ones the spells are tested on for real first. But we're pretty sure it will work. All you have to do is each pick one more form so you have three learned."
"Why?" asked Cenem. Rithka crossed her eyes and turned into a dark grey squirrel.
"You have lots of magic that helps you shapeshift," said Ehail, after thinking a bit to simplify the explanation for the little girl. "It's in five slots - ten for me and Kenar - and most of it is just there to let you pick forms with. You don't need a lot of magic just to change between forms you have already, or thudias couldn't do it with the tiny bit of dragon magic they have. Once you pick a form, most of the magic in that slot doesn't do anything but sit there. The miracle-worker -" (she still didn't know his name) "- will move that extra magic and use it to fix us."
"And then we'll be dragons," said Kenar. He didn't sound like he dared breathe.
"Yes," said Ehail.
"But I'll still be able to be a bee, right?" asked Cenem. "I like being a bee. I'd rather be a dragon than a bee but both would be best."
"Yes," Ehail said again. "You'll still be able to use the forms you've learned."
"When?" demanded Rithka. "When, when, when -"
"This Fenen," Ehail said. "I have to go first. I can't spend any amount of time as the shren parent of dragon children, not even an angle. But after that it's you three."
"Who goes after you?" Kenar wanted to know. "And who after that?"
"I think, unless someone wants to volunteer to go last -" No one indicated that they did. "Then we should pick randomly. Rithka, want to go get your cards?"
Rithka fetched them, and Ehail shuffled and dealt one to each child. "High card goes first, and so on."
Kenar won, Cenem came in second, and Rithka was last. "My own caaaaards betraaaayed me," she moaned, collecting them again to put them back in their box.
"Rhysel said that the miracle-worker will do all four of us in a row," Ehail soothed. "You won't need to wait very long. Just until Fenen."
They waited till Fenen, though not patiently. Cenem decided she wanted to become a horse, and cantered about the yard with Rithka attempting to sit or stand on her back in any of three forms. Kenar learned to be a rabbit with gently twinkling blue fur and long, lop ears. Ehail cast about for way to keep them occupied with anything other than the constant dwelling on "we're going to be dragons soon!" "I know! I'm excited!" "I'm going to fly to the moon!" "You won't be able to, you're too little!" "I'm going to surprise everyone on my kebel team!" "Do you think anybody we know from the houses is miracled yet?"
Rithka took to accompanying Gyre to work on days she didn't have sport matches, as a sort of informal pre-apprenticeship, and on those evenings she twirled through the door ahead of her father with her arms wrapped in wire and her neck looped with chain. She started pestering Ehail about piercing her ears "and anything else people pierce", which she wanted done immediately and which Ehail thought ought to wait until she was seventy-five or eighty at least. Ehail suggested to her that she might enjoy inventing her own games, and twenty-five angles later Rithka was excitedly trying to teach everyone a dizzyingly complicated set of rules on how to use flatware as a pawn and the family room's carpet as a board.
Kenar learned to navigate the Aristanian coach system by himself (Gyre assured Ehail that it was perfectly safe). Equipped with a steady supply of books to churn through on the long rides, he made several trips to visit Gyre's parents. Tem was giving him lessons in sculpting, as he made exceptions in his retirement for family, and Kenar came home with whittled mice and molded twists of clay abstraction. On one such trip he also visited Myret at work, and came home slightly green and reporting a hitherto undiscovered allergy to stingweed extracts. He reorganized his books four times, choosing different criteria to alphabetize by, sorting by language and then by subject and then by size (for more efficient shelving).
Cenem looked after the garden, with Ehail's help, solemnly tending green beans and strawberries and herbs as well as little shoots that were supposed to grow into clusters of massive spheres of pink flowers. She joined the neighborhood young children's choir to rehearse most afternoons. She looked through the up-to-date world atlas that Gyre bought her (which was twice her size, when she was in human form), and sounded out the names of cities and rivers and mountains and forests that didn't have words for names she could figure out automatically. She collected food labels and newspaper clippings and old magazines, and combined them with colored paper from the art supply shop into thick gluey collages that Ehail displayed on the walls.
And Fenen came.
Gyre stayed home from work, to watch the miracles occur, and Rhysel brought the family down to the bottom of the world, as the procedure did require that they spend part of it in natural form.
In dragon form.
The miracle-worker was a dragon: garnet-red eyes squinted at them and at notes in his hand. He was nowhere near ageless adulthood - Rhysel's teenage apprentice was standing next to him and looked close to the same equivalency. "Here's how this works," the garnet said without preamble, not looking directly at Ehail. "I know you read the spell set, but bear with me, because you doing the wrong thing can make things go wrong, and a lot of the ways this could go wrong involve, for example, death. So. You have to start in natural form. Bring your head close enough to Talyn that he can get blood around your neck, and on your forehead, and then let him paint your feet too, all four. Then he has to touch your head again to start the lifelink, so that's in place in advance and you aren't suddenly in trouble when the key point hits. Stay in natural form until I say 'now', and then move to one of your adopted forms. You have three, right?"
"Human. Bluejay. Tiger," said Ehail.
"Right. So move to one. When I say 'now' again, move to the next, and when I say 'now' a third time, move to the last one, and when I say 'now' a fourth time go back to natural form so I can tie everything off. Talyn's going to give you the pain from the lifelink, but that's well within your tolerance."
"What are you doing for little babies who get miracled?" Cenem asked.
"They're always going to be accompanied by adult shrens who take it," Talyn said.
"I mean for shape changing," said Cenem.
"I have a different spell set that takes four times as long for them," said the miracle-worker. "Since we have a lot of volume to get through and everyone wants it done a century ago, it's not preferred for shrens who can shift, given that shifting when I say 'now' is really not complicated. Are you done asking questions? Can I fix your mom now?"
"Sorry," said Cenem, chastened; Ehail tousled her hair in what she hoped was a comforting gesture.
"When I tell you to switch forms," the garnet said, finally looking directly at Ehail to fix her with a severe glare, "do it immediately. I'm juggling analyses and dynamics and casting instants on top of those and I need to get into a rhythm and move to each step when I expect to, not whenever you feel like it. Shift when I tell you. Understand?"
"Yes," said Ehail. Her heart was beating terribly fast.
"Natural form, lifelink, go," said the miracle-worker, waving a hand.
Talyn slit open his palm with a little hiss of pain, and bled a ring around Ehail's neck, a spot on her forehead, and a line on each foot behind where they divided into toes. She couldn't feel it through her scales, nor anything when he touched the forehead spot and established the lifelink.
The miracle-worker began to cast.
"Now!" he barked after the first spells, and she blinked at once into human form. There was another spell. Pain, irrelevant but there when she wondered about it, built swiftly under her ribs. "Now!" Jay. "Now!" Tiger. "Now!" Natural form again, dripping blood, and the pain winked out and the miracle-worker dropped his hands to his sides.
"There," he said. "You can't catch, transmit, or have shrenhood. Welcome to being as siaddaki as me. Go ahead and fly around, breathe some fire. Who's next?"
Kenar stepped forward; Gyre patted his son on the head as he went by.
Ehail looked up into the sky, lit by stars and a silvery half-moon.
She spread her wings and beat them hard against the air.
They carried her up.
Ehail landed before Kenar's miracle was over with, and Gyre put his hand on her side until she resumed human form and he could put his arm all the way around her. They watched their blue opal boy turn from his long-spined blood-decorated dragon form to his slender human shape, from that to the new navy-sparkled rabbit, from that to his woodpecker wrapped in bands of glittery blue.
She watched him take dragon shape and climb into the air.
Cenem went next. She was only five feet nose to tail in glossy jet-scaled dragonet form. By far her largest form was the horse, which she took next. By far the smallest was the bee with shining stripes. And then she was her Ertydon-looking little girl self, and back into the shape she'd hatched in and up into the sky, fluttering madly.
Rithka had rust around the edges of some scales; she must have learned to shift when due for a scrubbing with steel wool. She became a girl and a sparrow and a squirrel when told, and capered up after her siblings, who were still aloft.
Ehail's cheeks were sore from grinning and stinging from tears.
"There, that's you all done," said the miracle-worker. "Rhysel paid for you in advance so you can go. Talyn, want to take them back up top?"
"Sure," said Rhysel's apprentice. "When they come down."
"Kids!" called Ehail. "Let's go home! You can fly around there!"
They came down reluctantly, in the order they'd been cured, and took their human shapes again. They all linked hands and followed Talyn onto the transfer point. The miracle worker cast the time spell, apparently expecting more shrens.
Ehail wasn't a shren.
She was a miracle.
All four of them, dragons, entitled to the word, to all the other words that clung stubbornly to that one, and capable of flight.
Ehail and Gyre left the children with Rhysel and Tekaal and the twins, and Ehail bought a saddle for her husband to sit on, and they packed a few meals' worth of picnic, and she flew to the moon. She pumped her wings relentlessly, spiraling up at the steepest angle she could maintain, up and up, until she could see the nearest edge of the world, and then the far one, and then there was no down any more and she could rest, floating, until she was ready to make for the half-lit hemisphere hanging in the still air of space.
The moon captured them with its own notion of down, and she glided to it and landed in a puff of grey dust and spread out their picnic blanket and ate. "Here we are," Ehail said breathlessly.
"I'm glad you could fly here," Gyre said. "But - we are teleporting back, yes?"
"Yes," Ehail laughed. "I only wanted to make that trip once. It was enough."
Gyre dug out a sandwich and handed it over. "For some reason," he said, looking up at the planet, "I expected it to be more interesting here."
"It's much like the bottom of the world, only grey instead of beige," Ehail said, trailing a finger through the dust. "But the planet is so pretty."
"It might be nice to bring the kids here sometime, now that you can teleport here," Gyre observed.
"Do you want to have a baby?" Ehail asked abruptly.
He blinked. "I didn't know you wanted to have a biological child. Or do you mean adopting a baby?"
"I don't mean adopting one," she said. "I didn't want one - I mean - we couldn't have had one before. We might have gotten a parunia."
Gyre was silent for a moment. "And - I see. But that wouldn't be a problem anymore."
Ehail nodded. "We'll probably get a thudia, but if we don't, it's not a crisis. Do you want to? A little boy, I think, to even out the numbers..."
"Do we need to do anything in particular for it to happen?" Gyre asked, eyeing her speculatively.
"The usual," she laughed. "Well, I have to intend something. But - the usual."
"Rather isolated up here," he observed.
"It is," Ehail agreed.
They teleported to Rhysel's to visit for a bit and then bring the kids home. Ehail announced their imminent little brother, which interested all three to varying degrees. An argument about what he ought to be named sparked promptly. ("It has to be two syllables! He might be a dragon! Like us!" "But he probably won't!" "It should sound good to Esmaarlan people!" "Mine doesn't and I hatched in Paraasilan!" "I wrote a list of good names, Mommy and Daddy, you should pick off this.")
The doorbell rang while Ehail was reading Cenem's list of names. They seemed to be mostly names of regions and towns and features of geography, although she didn't recognize all of them as such. Gyre went to get the door.
Jensal, dour as ever in spite of having had early priority for her miracle, stood at their doorstep. "Hello, Ehail, Gyre," she said grimly.
"Hi, Jensal," said Ehail. "What brings you here?"
"Well," said Jensal. "There's a couple of dragons in my office, and they want Kenar."
Chapter 13: Claimants
"They," said Ehail, but that was all that came out.
"They can't take him," Gyre said, and thank goodness for him, because that was what she'd meant. They couldn't take Kenar. "They can't. Can they?"
Jensal flung up her hands. "I don't know. I wrote the local family law expert, but it's going to take him at least a week to give me a ruling that would hold up - given that Kenar's egg parents aren't Esmaarlan, so it has to interact with Nirlani statutes, and this isn't like criminal law where there's a technical definition attached to a well-known spell they can cast and have it over with in two ticks..."
"But they can't take him," said Ehail in a small voice.
Kenar was edging toward them. Ehail put her arm out to hug him around the shoulders, reassure him -
He went past her. "Which one's the blue opal? Or is it both?" he asked Jensal.
"He is," said Jensal, looking puzzled at him. "She's a red."
"Do I look just like him?" Kenar asked. He sounded eager. Fascinated. "What do they do? Do I have brothers and sisters?"
"I'm your sister," said Rithka plaintively, scurrying close to Gyre and hugging his leg. "Cenem's your sister. We've got a little brother on the way."
"Er," Jensal said, eyeing Kenar before returning her attention to Ehail. "So, the legality is up in the air, and I am so sorry none of us saw this coming, but I'm on your side and I'm going to work with the family law expert -"
"I want to go," Kenar said. "Can I go? If I want to?"
Jensal stared at Kenar again. She opened her mouth, and closed it, and opened it again. "Well," she said. "You can't cancel the adoption alone."
Kenar turned to Gyre and Ehail.
"No, no," said Ehail. She sounded shrill in her own ears. "Kenar."
"Maybe we should meet these dragons, talk to them, see if they'll step aside," Gyre murmured. "I'm sure none of us wants a legal battle."
"But I want to go," Kenar said. "They're my real parents, I want my real parents, I couldn't have them before but now I'm good enough and I can."
"Kenar," said Ehail again. She couldn't even feel her heartbeat. Her chest was vacant, her vision was rippling before her eyes, someone had tilted the house to the left. She touched Gyre's elbow to stay perpendicular to the floor.
"I thought they weren't going to come," Kenar whispered. "So I went with you. But now they're here."
"Let's go talk to these people," Gyre said in a low, level voice. Ehail didn't know how he was even producing words. "Rithka, Cenem, we'll drop you off with Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal while we go figure this out."
"But he's ours too," Rithka said.
"Mommy, don't cry," said Cenem.
Ehail touched her damp face, then scooped up her jet girl and hugged her tight. "I can't help it," she whispered against Cenem's hair.
Rithka's protests aside, the girls were brought to Rhysel's tower and left there with a hasty explanation to the nanny, a black opal dragon who opened the door with a twin in her arms. Jensal waited at the edge of the garden. She escorted Kenar and Gyre and Ehail from there to the shren house.
They could have flown. Kenar suggested it twice. They walked instead.
Kenar peppered Jensal with questions about his parents. She answered them wearily, when she knew the answers. "Of course you look like him. Their occupation didn't come up. Younger brother and sister, clutchmates. They live in Nirlan. I don't know what they look like in halfling form; they showed up in human shape. He mentioned a sister; I don't know about her. Do you really want me to tell you all of this or would you rather ask them?"
"I'll ask them," Kenar agreed.
Ehail was walking through sheer reflex. Step. Step. Step. If she let herself think about moving forward instead of just allowing it to happen, she'd stop in her tracks and refuse to go an inch closer to where some dragons were going to demand her son. If she thought about that too hard she would have to fear for her daughters, too, who would have dragon egg parents, too, and who might be claimed, too -
The house looked as it always had. As it had when they chose Kenar and Rithka and Cenem. Jensal showed them in and they trudged to her office.
An older version of Kenar, brown hair tied in a thin ponytail and a book balanced on his knee that he shut when the door opened, sat in one of the chairs. Beside him was a dark-skinned woman with cherry-red curls barely confined at the nape of her neck. They were dressed warmly, and their hands were entangled on the armrests between them.
"Kenar?" asked the man with a kindly smile, and Ehail wished she would die.
The man with Kenar's eyes was Anaph. His wife was Inyne. He wrote books. She was a librarian at the National Library of Nirlan. They were unfailingly polite and gentle and soft-spoken and never demanded their son or denounced his adoptive parents. They had pictures of their littler children, a smaller Kenar-faced boy named Simnel and his clutchmate Tanzil with Inyne's wild red hair, playing in the snow and first learning their human forms (they lived in a human-majority enclave of Nirlan) and messily eating iced ricecakes. Ehail couldn't have concocted a more dangerous egg-family for Kenar in her nightmares.
"I've read some of your books!" Kenar said when he learned Anaph's name. "I didn't know that was you! I loved the review compilation about downtown Pinin - I wanted to go there -"
"Need to put out a second edition of that one," Anaph said. "Things change in twenty years; I'm sure some of the places are gone, there's sure to be new ones, some of them will have changed recipes or remodeled or hiked up the prices. Planning to go back in the spring."
"Can I come?" asked Kenar desperately.
Ehail wanted to ask why they'd sent him away to begin with, when they lived in the remote house the pictures showed and could have kept his egg. She wanted to ask why they hadn't picked him up when he was twenty, when their other children were only sixty-five and hadn't even been conceived when Kenar had learned to shift. She wanted to ask why they hadn't come forty-five years ago, when Tanzil and Simnel learned it for themselves, when that would have protected their wanted, healthy children from catching shrenhood all by itself if they hadn't trusted him. She wanted to ask why now, but she knew the answer.
Because now, he was a dragon.
She wanted to never have picked up the project, never have spent those years writing narrow lines of notes on statistics and dragon magic and analyses, never have given them this impetus to take her child.
It was with a smoldering shame that she realized she was wishing shrenhood back on Kenar just to keep him with her.
She asked no questions. She said nothing.
"Of course you can come," said Anaph.
"Excuse me," said Gyre. "But we still haven't established that Kenar is going with you."
Kenar whirled on Gyre with a look of fury. "I want to go. You can't keep me if I don't want to stay."
"We don't know that yet," Jensal said.
"You can't," Kenar said, pleading. "They're my real parents and they want me and I want them. All you have to do is cross out your signature on a paper. You don't even both have to."
"We would rather this not become litigious," Inyne said. "We didn't expect someone to have adopted Kenar when we came here. We didn't think shren houses adopted out the children entrusted to them."
"What will happen if it does, mialhre?" Kenar asked the red dragon anxiously.
Mialhre was one of some vast number of Draconic words for "mother". The emphasis was on the biological connection; it didn't imply that she'd had the raising of him. The implication was that Inyne was entitled to her son because of that permanent blood relationship, because she'd laid his egg, because he was a walking, talking, old photograph of her husband.
Gyre wouldn't understand the word, but Ehail did.
"Nirlan has a strong position in favor of children's rights," Inyne said, "and counts citizenship by who is conceived there, not where they are born or where they hatch. Our government will want you to go where you want to go. I'm less familiar with Esmaar."
"That information is on its way," Jensal said wearily. "Even if it winds up being irrelevant to this case I'm sure I'll need it later. You aren't going to be the last dragons to turn up asking for their miracles."
"Rthan," Kenar said. Counterpart word to mialhre. "If it turns into a fight, will you..." He trailed off and fidgeted.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, son," said Anaph. He didn't lapse into Draconic for the term but it stung Ehail anyway.
"If he wanted to stay with you," said Inyne, "we would let him."
She addressed that to Ehail.
Ehail turned her face into Gyre's shoulder, silent, weeping.
"Are you sure this is what you want, Kenar?" Gyre asked quietly. "You don't want to visit them for a few days first, make sure of the fit, think it over after a night's sleep -"
"We'll spare Ehail," he murmured. "It only takes two."
"No," Ehail said against her husband's sleeve, "no, no, no -" But she couldn't get enough air into her lungs for it to come out as more than a squeak. Crying was more urgent than futile protest.
There was a sound of rustling paper and two scratches of pens.
"Well," said Jensal. "I guess that's this handled."
"Want to fly home or just to and from the teleportation circles?" Anaph asked Kenar.
"I can fly it," Kenar said eagerly.
Jensal's office door opened. It closed.
"My son," Ehail sobbed as Gyre turned in his chair to hold her. "My son."
Ehail sat on the blue-and-gold couch with her daughter in her lap, hugged too tightly, and did not see the carpet she stared at.
Periodically Gyre would coax Ehail's arms open and swap Cenem for Rithka and back, so they could take turns having leftovers for supper, or helping him teach them evening lessons out of textbooks in languages he didn't read, or getting a little fresh air. But no one tried to make her be without one of her children held close for more than a moment at a time. It occurred to Ehail once that Gyre had lost Kenar, too, must be in pain, too, but she could not pry herself away from whichever daughter she had at any given time long enough to try to comfort him.
"I won't go, Mom," said Rithka fervently. "I won't. Does that make it better?"
Ehail didn't answer.
"I won't. If they try and take me anyway for law stuff I'll escape and come home. Mom, please be okay."
Ehail kissed the iron-grey hair.
"Cenem, you promise too," Rithka continued.
"I'm too little to run away," Cenem said. "I'd get lost. I don't know all the maps."
"But you can't let anyone take you away," insisted Rithka. "It'd make Mom even sadder. She's so sad, look, say you won't go."
"Rithka," said Gyre gravely, tiredly, "Cenem can make her own choices if and when she needs to, and so can you. It's kind of you to decide in advance but your sister doesn't have to. And it might not be a matter of letting them."
"You let Kenar go. You crossed your name out so he could go," Rithka accused.
"Rithka, he'd have run away from us if I'd refused. He wanted to go."
"You could've made him stay. Mom could've warded the house to keep him in and me and Cenem could've heard him trying to go and -"
"We're - we were - his parents. Not his jailers," Gyre said. He sounded so exhausted.
"But if you jailed him for just a little bit you could've convinced him," Rithka said. Ehail's heart clenched. She willed that to be false. If Kenar could have been convinced - if anything could have been done to change his mind - then the fault was hers, the inadequacy was hers, she hadn't been a good enough mother, hadn't prepared a welcoming enough home.
"It wouldn't have been right," said Gyre. "Cenem, let's get you to bed."
"Does that mean I can stay up all night, for Mom?" asked Rithka.
"No. We'll figure something out," said Gyre. "Stay put for now."
"He's reading her a bedtime story," Rithka reported after a few degrees had gone by. "It's The Mice In Formal Wear Go to the Leherin, again." She paused. "Mom... are you going to be okay?"
"Maybe," said Ehail. She'd spent six hundred and sixty-three years broken beyond repair (the Draconic language continued to insist that the cure was a miracle, that in the general order of things it would never happen). She'd functioned. She might have been described as "okay". Could she do that again having traded that defect for this agony?
"I hope you'll be okay," Rithka said, snuggling closer.
Well. Ehail didn't have much other choice, then.
Rithka was allowed to stay up later than usual, but eventually Ehail released her into Gyre's hold so he could put her to bed, and she curled up on the couch by herself.
Gyre talked Rithka into reading her bedtime story to herself, and was back downstairs after just a few degrees to make sure her hair was brushed out and her pajamas were on the right way around. He sat next to his wife. "I'm so sorry, Ehail."
"You're right. He would have run away. You had to c-cancel the adoption," Ehail said, speaking in fits and starts.
He wrapped his arms around her. "I'm still sorry."
"What if the girls are taken too?" Ehail asked frantically. "Rithka says she'll stay, but what if she can't, what if they take her away from us? What about Cenem?"
"I don't know," admitted Gyre.
"I love them," Ehail sobbed, twisting around to bury her face in Gyre's shirt. "I love them. Why, why, why -"
Gyre just held her tighter.
The next day, Ehail fixed beans-and-cheese for breakfast and the family ate with a subdued air about them. "Even if we get taken," said Cenem, tilting her head, "you're going to have a baby. Nobody can take the baby, right?"
Ehail's hand went to where her sash cinched her dress. She wasn't showing at all yet. "We are going to have a baby," she acknowledged. The government could take the baby, if she strayed into the set of behaviors that Esmaar considered grounds for loss of custody, but she could control that. She'd read the list and didn't plan to do anything on it.
"Did you read my list of things to call him?" Cenem asked.
"Yes," said Ehail. "But we haven't decided yet."
"I don't think you should name him after a place," Rithka said. "I think you should name him a long Leraal name with lots of syllables to give people who want them."
"Maybe we will," said Ehail. "It could be that and a place name." She was glad the girls were acting normal, talking about a normal topic, even though the mood was obviously colored by Kenar's absence. She could pretend he was up in his room, skipping breakfast to read "one more chapter" which turned into two or three or six.
"Nemaarelanes is a long named Leraal-sounds mountain range in Oridaan," said Cenem. "It was on my list and it has five syllables and I think that is a lot."
"We could give him a middle name, too," said Gyre.
"Maybe after your father," Ehail said. "That's one of the ways middle names are chosen. Isn't it? Family names."
"Yes," Gyre said. "Nemaarelanes Temmer Camlenn..."
"The neighbors could pronounce it without adding a sound it doesn't have the way they do for me," Rithka said.
"It's long to say," observed Cenem.
"We can call him Nemaar," said Ehail. "That's a more typical Leraal name."
"Nemaar, Nemaar, Nemaar," chanted Rithka. "Okay, name him that."
"Dear heart," Gyre said, "will you be all right if I go to work today?"
"Yes," Ehail said, because he didn't mean would she be all right, he meant would his leaving make it worse, and it wouldn't.
Gyre kissed her goodbye and went to make jewelry. Ehail turned the girls loose to play; Cenem started a city of blocks and Rithka went in the backyard to attempt to make herself a sparrow nest without opposable thumbs, occasionally fluttering in through the window to complain that she had no idea how real birds managed nesting.
Ehail wasn't even surprised when the doorbell rang again.
She went to the door, opened it to reveal Jensal, and said in a plaintive voice that didn't feel like it came from her, "Gyre's not home. Can it wait?"
"If it has to," Jensal said.
"Which one is it?" Ehail asked. She didn't know if she wanted the answer, but she did want the answer to which one it wasn't.
"Cenem's," said Jensal, and Ehail imagined the jet's room half-wallpapered with collages - empty. (Would Kenar be returning for his books and toys and clothes...?) "I'll go let them know that we're waiting on Gyre. When does he get home?"
"Eleventh-and-ten, usually. He might be back sooner today," Ehail said. She didn't meet the turquoise's eyes. "Are they - do you - have you heard from the - I - We'll go and talk to them when Gyre is home." She swallowed hard.
Jensal nodded, frowning, and patted Ehail on the shoulder once before turning around and becoming a peregrine falcon to fly away.
Cenem heard. Of course Cenem heard.
She looked up from her blocks at Ehail when Ehail shut the door.
"I don't know anything about them," Cenem said.
"You know a few things," Ehail said weakly.
"I know at least one of them's a jet," said Cenem. "But I dunno if I even look like one of them. They could both be guy dragons."
Ehail didn't want to envision Cenem's egg parents any more than she wanted to keep seeing Anaph and Inyne when she closed her eyes. "Could be."
"I want to know about them. I don't have to go live with them but I want to know stuff," said Cenem. "Is that going to make you cry? I don't want you to cry."
"I - I'll understand if you want to meet them," Ehail said carefully. "And ask them questions."
She should have asked Jensal if it was only the children's parents coming out of the woodwork, now that there were miracles.
Cenem's egg mother was a sapphire woman with Cenem's dark narrow eyes exactly, though the rest of the face must have changed a lot in the hundred and seventy years between Cenem's age and maturity. Her hair was in a fluff of cyan around her face and her hands fluttered unconsciously whenever she spoke. Jensal introduced her as Marlii.
Marlii's husband had jet black eyes with a subtle shine, set in a dark face with dark hair. He was solemn and laconic. Jensal called him "Lhenrath".
With Ehail's luck, she expected Marlii would be a cartographer and Lhenrath would be a gardener who made collages in his spare time and they would have several photogenic children.
It wasn't quite that bad. "I'm a woodcarver," Marlii said. "I used to be a social worker, ages ago, in a few different countries, but I retired from that when I moved to Saraan and found a market for the woodwork I'd been doing as a hobby. Furniture and figurines and frames and vases and - you know, anything that can be made of wood." She bit her lip. "I'm sorry, that was a little bit of a long-winded response to 'what do you do' - And Lhenrath's a leatherworker, but he used to fly postal runs before teleportation and scoots and so on took over the industry, and then he gave tours around Eluson until it was razed, and then he worked in a plutarch's treasury and eventually married one of the line, and then -"
"Woodworker and a leatherworker," summarized Jensal blandly.
"Yes, that's right," said Marlii, nodding.
"Do you have kids?" Cenem asked. "I don't count."
"Oh - well - not alive still," said Marlii, looking down. "Thudias. We had plenty of thudias before we met each other. And we tried, for our own, we tried many times, but - no. None alive still."
There was an awkward silence. Marlii looked from Gyre to Ehail to Cenem and back again. "I didn't realize - I'm sorry," Marlii said. "It's only we thought... You know shrens don't die, when they're babies, like - like dragons do. Often do. We knew she'd be alive."
"So you thought you'd stop trying for baby dragons that will more likely die than not, and come pick up the one in her thirties who suddenly appeared, but someone beat you to it," Jensal said, rolling her eyes.
Lhenrath spoke. "Something like that."
"We're sorry," said Marlii, fluttering her hands helplessly. "Really. We didn't know."
"We can leave," Lhenrath said, touching Marlii's forearm and looking sadly at Cenem.
"It's only we love children - I had so many - and they're gone, I don't even have grandchildren left," Marlii said, hunching her shoulders. "I - I was a good mother. And I hate how they die. The thudias all made it to old age but they still died. And the babies... I hate how they die."
"You have another?" Lhenrath asked Ehail.
"For now," Ehail said, muttering under dark thoughts of iron dragons and not meeting Lhenrath's eyes. And there was a thudia or a parunia, either possibility safe from the malady of baby full-blooded dragons, growing inside her, but she didn't want to offer Cenem to these strangers just because they'd given up their chances for safe baby thudias or parunias when they married each other. They'd known everything there was to know about shrens when they'd seen Cenem's egg to begin with. Hadn't they learned to hate watching hatchlings die by then? Couldn't they have moved somewhere rural, notified the dragon council, and kept her somewhere where Ehail would never have learned to need her? (Did Ehail even wish they had...?) "We have two daughters."
"We understand," murmured Marlii. "We can go."
"I want to know things," said Cenem.
"Well - um - if it's okay with your parents," said Marlii, pausing awkwardly in getting out of her chair. "Then we could - write? Link paper? Or... something. If it's okay with your mommy and daddy." She looked almost like Ehail imagined she'd look if she had to refer to Anaph and Inyne as Kenar's "mommy and daddy".
"Maybe..." Gyre looked at Ehail. "Look, we adopted Cenem and we plan to keep her, but you seem like decent people, and she wants to know more about you - maybe you could visit her sometimes, be a part of her life..." Ehail tensed. Gyre noticed. "We did just... just lose a son to his egg parents. And it might be a while before we're comfortable leaving her alone with you, to be honest. But you could see her."
"Thank you," said Lhenrath.
Marlii nodded rapidly. "Thank you," she repeated. "We're not going to try to take her away - we wouldn't - but thank you."
"Look, I can turn into a bee," announced Cenem, and she did.
Ehail could almost stand to think of Marlii and Lhenrath by the time they gave Jensal her office back.
Chapter 14: Colors
It occurred to Ehail to ask, in the evening two days later, "Have you heard anything from Ryll and Lerrel? About Taala and Apran?"
"They've heard from Apran's egg-parents," Gyre said. "But that's all I know."
"They didn't have to give him over?" Ehail asked.
"I think if they had, we would have heard by now," Gyre said. "They've heard about Kenar."
Ehail flinched at his name. "Right," she said. "No sign of Taala's?"
"No," Gyre said. "Not that I've heard."
Ehail was on constant tenterhooks about Rithka's egg-parents turning up to fight over her, so she had an idea of how that would feel for Ryll and Lerrel, but depending on what Apran's were like perhaps that was worse. Kenar's were worse.
The doorbell rang, again, and something cold swallowed Ehail's heart.
Gyre squeezed her hand and got up to open the door.
On the doorstep was a man with silver eyes. It wasn't impossible that he was Rithka's egg father, but there was no iron dragon in sight to match him; he was alone. The cold receded, partially. "Excuse me," he said to Gyre in Leraal. "I'm Aiosh. I'm looking for an address with some unregistered dragons; have I got the right place?"
"Unregistered?" said Gyre blankly. Ehail got to her feet and crept up behind her husband tentatively.
"Yes," said Aiosh, peering at Ehail and smiling thinly. "I see I have. Yes, one of my fellow Council members notified me that there were several dragons living here - I'm here to note names, colors, lines, that sort of thing, for Council purposes. I'm told you're not all the same color, but assuming I can meet all the resident dragons today, no further visits will be necessary; I can contact the relevant representatives for the other types. You I represent personally, but I'm afraid I don't recall your name," he said to Ehail.
"I'm Ehail, but I don't understand."
"You wouldn't, of course, I understand you weren't always a dragon so you went unregistered," Aiosh said. "But now you are, and one of the functions of the Dragon Council is to keep track of the dragons. So, I need your full name, your hatching date..." He produced a folded form from a pocket inside his jacket. "You can just fill these out, for yourself and the other dragons here."
"I don't understand why you came in person to give me forms," Ehail said, taking the paper in numb fingers and the pen that Aiosh offered after it.
"Well, after you have those finished, I need to give you a way to get in touch with the council, and since if you were in touch with your parents you'd have been registered already, I assume you don't have one. Am I right?"
"Now," said Aiosh carelessly, "if there was ever a perfect example of a line, you're a Hiral -"
She backed up three steps before fully registering the meaning of the sentence. "I - I don't - I'm not," she said. "I don't have a line."
"I didn't say you had. But the color representatives like myself are contacted through line representatives, and dragons who for whatever reason have no lines - there are starting to be rather a lot of you - or who belong to tiny no-account lines, borrow other representatives. The Hirals are -"
"Not them. Whoever they are, not them," Ehail said.
Aiosh shrugged. "Doesn't make a lot of difference to me. There's no women's silver line with a representative in Paraasilan, but there's one not too far. The Kotsis, I think. Euakotsi. But fill out the forms."
Ehail went to the kitchen table and wrote out her name, Rithka's, Cenem's. There was an extra form. She shoved it aside. She wrote colors, hatching days, confirmed the address. Behind her Gyre was talking softly to Aiosh, but the sound-dampening spells that prevented Rithka and Cenem from tossing and turning all night hearing every little noise didn't let her make out the words. She did hear footsteps coming down the stairs and going back up again, to let Aiosh have a look at each of her daughters.
The forms were written in Draconic, and designed to be used in any locality; she skipped many sections, but did have a place to write her Petaran citizen identification number and her Revernian visiting student serial. She gritted her teeth and penciled in Marlii and Lhenrath's names on Cenem's page. She listed Jensal as the girls' prior guardians, checked "adopted" where it belonged, skipped two boxes in her own name to signify that the syllables after "Ehail" were added and not line.
Gyre and Aiosh's conversation came to an end before she left the kitchen with completed form and accepted Euakotsi's contact information. "Eua will come visit you in a week or so, and similar for the line representatives we wind up finding for Rithka and Cenem," Aiosh said. "It's important that line representatives know everyone they represent just the same way that I know all the silver line reps. So we can serve as foci and whatnot - no one's more than two steps removed from the council."
"All right," said Ehail. "Is that all?"
"Let me check the forms." He looked over the paper squares. "Is my information out of date? I was under the impression..."
"Your information is out of date," snapped Ehail, eyes stinging. "Is that all?"
"Just - if any of this information changes contact Eua about it," said Aiosh, putting his hand up placatingly. "I'll go, then. Good day, Ehail."
He departed, and Ehail let her knees give out over the couch.
Kenar was the next to ring the bell.
It was during the middle of the day, and Gyre was away; Ehail almost dropped the dish she was painting for the craft project Rithka had roped her and Cenem into trying. She caught it, set it down on the previous day's newspaper, and went to the door with her free hand white-knuckled in her skirt.
And there was her son.
Or not, perhaps, but there was Kenar.
Ehail found herself perfectly speechless, and just stood at the door motionless, staring at color-flecked blue eyes.
"I'm sorry," said Kenar, after a silence.
"Wh-what?" Ehail asked. She added in a whisper that the black-group girls' sharp ears would hear and Kenar's wouldn't, "Stay put, girls..."
"I said, I'm sorry. I mean - for - not the - I should've said goodbye," Kenar said. "Or something. I went back to Grandfather Tem for a carving lesson and he, uh, he chewed me out really good, and so - I'm sorry."
Ehail stared. She noticed that Inyne was standing behind Kenar - well behind, far enough to give them privacy, but she was there.
"I shouldn't've ever met you," said Kenar. "I shouldn't've done any adoption interviews. Jensal talked me into it but I should've kept telling her no. But I did meet you and I let you adopt me and I went here with you and I shouldn't've just gone like that. I was scared you and Gyre would try to keep me even though I didn't want to stay, and I thought being horrible to you would make you let me go, but you didn't deserve me being horrible to you. I just did a lot of stuff I shouldn't've."
"Oh," Ehail murmured. It wasn't her son back. It wasn't anything like her son back. It was an apology, which on some intellectual level was worth having, but it wasn't her son back. It was him standing before her telling her he wished he'd never met her, telling her he'd been frightened of being forced to stay with her.
"I had - a letter," Kenar said. "It came with my egg. Jensal let me have it when I learned to read, and I got it glassed so it would last, and I shouldn't have ever met you. Jensal talked me into it because she said a lot of people get letters and the ones who get sincere letters get picked up when they're twenty, that nobody gets picked up by their parents after that, but I should've trusted Mialhre and Rthan." He swallowed. "You can see the letter, if you want."
Ehail swayed on the spot; something about that must have looked like assent because he reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter, encased in glass paper to protect it from wear and water and other hazards. He pressed it into her hand. She held it in front of her eyes.
To my child, read the letter. I am told that the place we have sent you is a safe place, if of necessity not a happy one. I hope that you will be as happy as one of your sort can. Some day in the future, possibly the distant future - I cannot tell you when - your father and I will go there and bring you home. In the meantime you must understand that we do not have the fortitude to be among your fellow sufferers, to contemplate you overmuch, to generally be present in your life. Some have that capacity. We do not. We are going to develop it as much as we can, but in the meantime we are going to try to give you at least one brother or sister. They will know that you exist and know that you will be coming home.
If the leader of your house has followed the instructions sent with your egg, she has named you Kenar (if you are my son) or Mreisi (if you are my daughter). Names are very important to us, and I think to you too. Your name can comfortably go with you where I am unable.
If the leader of your house has followed the instructions sent with your egg, she has named you Kenar (if you are my son) or Mreisi (if you are my daughter). Names are very important to us, and I think to you too. Your name can comfortably go with you where I am unable.
She would never have her son back, Ehail realized. He belonged to them.
"And, Rthan and Mialhre said I could ask you and Gyre something, but I guess he's not home?" Kenar said. He took the paper out of Ehail's hand.
"Work," said Ehail, incapable of complete sentences.
"Well, um, maybe you can pass on the question to him?" Kenar asked, shifting uncomfortably. "See, um, Rthan and Mialhre," (Ehail hated those words) "travel a lot, so he can research places for his books." Books was said with a thread of childish thrill. Ehail wondered if she could hate books. "And me and Simnel and Tanzil can come on some of the trips, but sometimes they like to go by themselves. Simnel and Tanzil usually stay with our aunt, Rthan's sister, but after I talked to Grandfather Tem, I thought, if you want, I could come here then instead."
"Yes," said Ehail. "I don't need to ask Gyre. The answer is yes."
Kenar smiled at her tentatively, and Ehail's heart broke and melted and broke and melted and she wished a thousand things that couldn't all of them happen even if wishes had power. "Okay, um, we'll let you know when their next trip by themselves is," he said. "Can I just leave the stuff that's in my old room there, then, so it's here when I am?" Ehail nodded. She hadn't even thought of touching his things. Kenar hesitated, then said, "Oh, and - Mialhre wanted a word with you."
"Oh," Ehail said. Was there something to say? She supposed she'd find out.
Kenar nodded awkwardly, and trotted over to the red dragon. She ruffled his hair, left him where she'd been standing, and approached Ehail.
"I only want to make something understood," Inyne said. "I'm not saying this to be vindictive. I don't harbor any dislike for you. But you need to be aware that Kenar is my son, has always been my son, and is going to remain my son. He is visiting you because you inspired some affection from him, not because you have any entitlements. If I get the impression that you're trying to mother my son in my place, the visits will stop. Is that clear?"
"Clear," whispered Ehail.
No. Definitely not her son back.
She went back to the girls, who had been eavesdropping, and directed her attention back to the craft project. She was considering trying to reward Rithka and Cenem for not interfering in the conversation. They'd sat quietly.
"Well, he's not our brother any more," Rithka declared to break the silence, slapping paint onto her dish in contrast to the neat dots she'd been placing before Ehail had gotten up. "And I don't think you have to let him come here. He wanted to leave."
"We don't have to, but we can," Ehail murmured. She mixed green paints to dollop a leaf on the ivy that traversed her plate. "And he wants to come visit us. And he is welcome here."
"But he's not my brother," Rithka said obstinately.
Ehail closed her eyes. "I guess that's up to you," she said.
"Oh." Rithka sounded like she'd expected more opposition.
"Rithka, I can be your sister," Cenem said, "right? Even though I see my egg parents?"
"Yeah," Rithka said, "we're sisters. As long as you live here and you're not awful like Kenar."
"Don't talk about people that way," Ehail said quietly. If Rithka's affection was that fragile, what would Ehail have to do for Rithka to count her as "awful"? If she said that in front of Kenar, would that be all it took to make him pack his clothes and his toys and his books and never come back?
Rithka scowled. "Okay, but he's not my brother."
"That's up to you," Ehail repeated.
She finished painting ivy on her plate in a shivering silence - the quiet was typical for Cenem, sullen for Rithka - and dug through the kit box for the wand enchanted to set the glaze. She wanded Rithka's and Cenem's plates for them too, put them all in the cupboard, and went to make sure that all of Kenar's things were still in place for when he came home.
Well, not home.
Not her son back.
But for when he was there.
Gyre didn't second-guess her decision to allow Kenar's visits. Not aloud, anyway. He did seem to have misgivings, probably on Ehail's own behalf - but did not tell her that Kenar could not be there when he chose.
"Have you been reading the papers?" he asked after silently accepting her announcement.
"No - not generally," Ehail said. "Why? Did something happen?"
"Several things, from coverage on the cure to some kind of military action in Ryganaav. But the thing I was meaning to bring up is that an anonymous thirteen-year-old boy from Aristan got through the circle as a refugee," Gyre said, slowly, eyes on her face to gauge her reaction. She didn't have one, yet. "Aristan made an agreement with Esmaar that if a child who was abused by Esmaar's standards got through and asked for asylum, Esmaar didn't have to give the kid back - Aristan figured it would never happen, that its kids would never run away over the sorts of things that Esmaarlanik consider abuse. But apparently this one was very seriously mistreated and considered the asylum guarantee surer than going to the Watch."
Ehail shuddered. "Why were you meaning to bring that up?"
"Well - he doesn't speak a lick of Leraal," said Gyre.
She went very still. "You want us to adopt him?"
"Only if you do," Gyre said swiftly. "But he can't go back to Aristan - Esmaar would lose some sort of political point if he did, I confess I can't understand all of the context in the newspaper articles about the boy. And Aristan's gotten his brother and sister out of the home, but for the same political reasons they won't let them come here with their brother."
"I'm a wizard," Ehail said, looking at her hands.
"That you are," Gyre said, half-smiling.
"If we adopted him I could summon his brother and sister from wherever they go - or send him - and you know Martisen and the girls and I do too -"
"But, I repeat, we should get into this only if you want to," Gyre said. "We should probably actually meet him first, for one." He swallowed. "But I think I can guarantee that he doesn't want to go home to his birth parents."
"Who do we talk to about meeting him?" Ehail asked.
Lorin, a blond elf who reminded Ehail vaguely of Jensal, ran the Paraasilan temporary housing unit that was harboring the refugee boy until more permanent arrangements could be made. "You're not reporters, are you?" she asked when they expressed interest in the asylum-seeker.
"No, no," Ehail assured her.
"We think we might be a better fit for him than the average Esmaarlan family," Gyre said, "assuming we get along. I'm from Aristan originally, and my wife is a dragon."
"Obviously she's a dragon," said Lorin, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Ehail's hair. Ehail wondered if she ought to be offended. "Well, don't talk to reporters about him, all right? I have a dreadful time trying to keep them away. It's apparently a really hot story, the abused kid running to Esmaar because Aristan couldn't protect him. People feel very patriotic about it."
"We won't," Ehail promised.
"All right. His name's Mallyn. In Barashin years, he's thirteen, which works out to seventeen, almost eighteen, in Elcenian years. He's an elf, but for Barashin ones that age is early adolescence; he's not a little boy. But he is very jumpy and he's had just about no education at all, so you could be forgiven for supposing him younger the way he acts. He doesn't talk very much and not often in complete sentences, unless my translation nugget is lying to me -"
"Nugget?" asked Ehail.
Lorin fished a glob of white metal from her pocket. "Kamai-based translation. Only works between two languages, but you can take them to Barashi and they won't break. They're selling them at the circle now. Anyway. Mallyn can't read, not even in his native language. He's easily spooked - I can't emphasize that enough - he's all right around me, I think because I haven't tried to act particularly parental towards him and he's clear that I'm just doing my job, but I've brought up the fact that eventually someone will adopt him and he finds it fairly nerve-wracking."
"He thinks we'd hurt him?" Gyre asked, concerned.
"I can't read his mind. But I can tell you that this kid was utterly brutalized. Before a light got to him, he looked like someone had painted him, he was so bruised. She fixed three broken bones, too many cuts and scrapes to count, and more still beyond that. If he has any understanding of parents who aren't monsters, it's purely hypothetical."
"Can we see him today?" Ehail asked. "To get an idea of whether this is likely enough that we should tell our daughters, I mean."
"I'll ask him," Lorin said. "Wait here, please."
Mallyn was a straw-thin boy with haunted ice blue eyes, recently trimmed brown hair, and no ability to maintain eye contact. "Hello," he mumbled in Martisen, looking at Ehail's feet.
"Hello, Mallyn," replied Ehail. "Did Lorin already tell you our names?"
He nodded. "Parents," he said.
"We might adopt you, but only if you'd like us to," Ehail said. "We wouldn't adopt you if you didn't want it."
"Girls," clarified Mallyn, still confining himself to single words.
"I mentioned your kids," Lorin explained.
"We have two daughters, who we adopted a while ago," Gyre said. "If you came home with us, they'd be your sisters."
Mallyn nodded again. "Lyrrae," he mumbled.
"That's his sister's name," said Lorin. "The brother is Renn. Aristan hasn't found them a home yet, either."
"Safe," muttered Mallyn under his breath, not appearing to intend to communicate to anyone but himself with the word.
"Mallyn, is there anything you'd like to know about us, or our daughters?" Gyre asked. "Or our house or anything at all?"
Mallyn was silent for a long moment, but then said, "Punishment?" It was the longest word he'd managed, and Ehail winced that it was the first thing to come to his mind.
"We never hit our children," Gyre said.
"If the girls don't behave, telling them to stop generally does the trick," said Ehail. "If it didn't I imagine we'd remove them from the situation and put them in their rooms. I'm not sure exactly what Rhysel's nanny, or Rhysel herself, do - if they've needed it we haven't heard about it - but they definitely don't hit children either."
Mallyn seemed to consider this all rather long-winded, but he didn't remark on it. "Hair," he observed, looking up at Ehail's face for a flicker of the eyes and then down again to the floor.
"I'm a silver dragon," Ehail said. "When I shapeshift, I keep some of the silver color. That's why my hair looks this way."
"That's also how she can speak Martisen," Gyre said conversationally. "Our daughters are both dragons too. So everyone in the house would be able to talk to you even while you're still learning Leraal."
These didn't appear to register as very dragonlike characteristics to Mallyn, but he didn't ask for further details. "Chores?" was his next question.
"The girls have to keep their rooms picked up," Ehail said, ticking off fingers, "and clear their dishes before leaving the table at meals, and once Rithka has the fine motor control I'm going to teach her some simple cleaning spells but in the meantime it's simpler for me to do all that myself. Cenem helps in the garden, but she doesn't have to do that, she just likes to."
Mallyn seemed to expect more to this response, but when none came, he just tilted his head and nodded again.
"Even if you don't come with us, Mallyn," Ehail said, "I hope you find a good family who'll love you like they should. No one should ever treat a child the way you were treated."
He didn't say anything, but he glanced up at Ehail again, expression mostly mild puzzlement.
"What sorts of things do you like to do, Mallyn?" Gyre inquired.
This one took a long time to answer, but finally Mallyn said, "Draw."
"I draw sometimes," Ehail said. "Mostly plants. What things do you like to draw?"
"Birds," was Mallyn's first answer, followed by, "People."
"Do you have any other questions for them, Mallyn?" Lorin asked after a lull that lasted a bit too long.
Mallyn was looking at his knees where his hands were folded. "Lyrrae and Renn?" he asked in a small voice.
"I'm a wizard," Ehail said. "As long as we can work it out with whoever adopts your brother and sister, it will be easy to visit even if they live far from the summoning circle."
Mallyn didn't seem to understand all of that, but he got the gist, and nodded slowly.
"I need to stop you here," Lorin said. "He was malnourished when he got here, and the trained-light I spoke to says he needs frequent, small meals - Mallyn, go have some fruit and nut butter, and a cookie if you want one." Mallyn hopped to his feet to obey, muttering something that might have been thanks.
"Trained-light?" Gyre murmured in Ehail's ear.
"A light who's learned things about anatomy and potions, so they can do more complicated healings," Ehail explained.
"I do have another question that Mallyn himself wouldn't have been able to answer," Gyre said.
"Shoot," said Lorin.
"If we adopt him," Gyre said, "is he ours, to keep? Or is there a risk that some political business will end with him taken away?"
"I'm not going to unconditionally guarantee that he's yours forever if you bring him home," Lorin said. "If an accusation of further abuse from anyone in your household sticks, he's out - but you can trust the police spells. If you decide to give him back, you don't get to change your minds later - we don't jerk kids around like that. But you don't need to worry about Aristan being able to swipe him. They might try to convince you to move there with strongly worded letters or something, but on a political level they're negotiating from a position of weakness. Esmaar's got all the transworld magic and the moral high ground, and every parliamentarian in office knows that if someone can point to him or her as the person who decided to give back the kid to his inadequately protective country, they'll be out on a referendum before you can say 'concerned citizen'."
"I do work in Aristan," Gyre said. "But I also have a sister in the Senate..."
"Nice, get her help as extra insurance if you like," Lorin said. "If I thought he'd fit in with my family, I'd adopt him and not expect him to be taken, and I don't have any influence in Aristan. I think you can expect the same."
"Do you think he'll want to go with us?" Ehail asked.
"Maybe," Lorin said. "We'll see."
Chapter 15: Safety
Two days later, Ehail and Gyre returned to Lorin's housing complex, this time with Rithka and Cenem in tow to meet their prospective new brother.
"So he's a big brother, like Kenar," said Cenem, during the walk through town.
Ehail swallowed. "He's older, equivalently. And younger than you in real years. And just because he's a boy and taller than you are doesn't make him much like Kenar, you know, sweetie."
"Does he get Kenar's room?" Rithka asked. "We should do something useful with Kenar's room."
Ehail closed her eyes and squeezed Gyre's hand, letting him prevent her from tripping over anything while she recovered her composure. He answered before she did. "Kenar will be using his room, Rithka. Just not every day. We'll give Mallyn one of the rooms that's a guest room right now, if we do wind up adopting him."
"But you could give Mallyn the room," said Rithka, "and then Kenar could go in a guest room. Because he'll be a guest."
"No, Rithka," said Gyre firmly.
Rithka pouted, then turned and pestered Cenem to turn into a horse so she could ride the rest of the way to the housing unit. Cenem obliged, and sparrow-Rithka flew onto her back only to return to human form and twist her fingers into Cenem's mane. "Why aren't we flying?" she asked.
"None of us is big enough to carry your father and still small enough to land in the middle of the city," Ehail said. "When we go to Rhysel and Tekaal's we fly because there's room for me to take off and land."
Kenar had been the right size. But he wasn't with them.
"Mallyn can't fly either," observed Rithka. "Right? Maybe he should learn to fly the way Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal do! Then he can fly with us. Flying's fun. Cenem, go faster!"
Cenem broke into a sedate trot, clopping against the stones. Gyre jogged to keep up. "I wonder if we should get her shod," Gyre said, looking at her hooves. "I'll ask Ryll, she'd know better than I would about horses."
"I'm not a real horse," said Cenem.
"Yes, but your hooves might not hold up too well on cobblestones without horseshoes on them anyway," said Gyre, patting her neck. Ehail, on shorter legs that couldn't match a horse's trot, became a bluejay and clung to Gyre's shoulder.
"Faaaaaster," said Rithka. "I wanna meet Maaaaallyn."
"I don't wanna run into somebody," said Cenem.
"And I won't be able to keep up if you go any quicker, girls," said Gyre.
"You could sit on Cenem too," offered Rithka.
"Can't ride bareback," apologized Gyre. "I'd fall off. Be patient."
Further bickering about transportation methods notwithstanding ("Mom could make three trips back and forth and just teleport us all! She's been there!" "Yesterday you were complaining that you don't know your way around the city well enough, Rithka."), they arrived and all three dragons became human-shaped. Lorin met them and took them up to the apartment where Mallyn was staying.
"Hello, Mallyn," Ehail said when they reached him. He was eating crackers with some kind of green spread on them. He crouched over the food when everyone trooped in, like they might steal it. "It's us again, and we brought our daughters. This is Rithka, and this is Cenem."
"Hi!" Rithka said, skipping up to him. He pulled his plate of crackers aside. "I'm not gonna steal your food. I had lots of lunch. We had turkey and noodles. It was good. There's leftovers and you can have some if you come home with us soon but I bet it'll be all gone in two days."
"Can I have a cracker?" asked Cenem.
Mallyn looked at his crackers, and at the jet dragon, and picked one up and handed it to her without making eye contact. Cenem took it and popped it into her mouth. "Thank you," she said politely, and then she skipped over to where Ehail had sat down and squirmed into her lap.
"If you don't want them all then -" Rithka began.
"Rithka," said Gyre.
"Oh, fine. I'm not hungry, they just look interesting. We should get crackers for the snack cabinet, Mom," she said, climbing into Gyre's lap and then turning her attention back to Mallyn. "So you're Mallyn, right? You should talk. We're trying to get to know you so you have to say things."
"Hi," said Mallyn, watching Rithka's shoes swing back and forth between Gyre's knees.
"You have to say things about you," Rithka clarified. "Or ask us stuff about us. Why're you here?"
Mallyn paused for a long time, and as Rithka drew breath to speak again, he said, "Ran away."
"Why?" Rithka asked. "Mom said your egg par- I mean your birth parents, because you were born, you weren't an egg, but she said they weren't good parents, but she didn't say what they did. Were they mean?"
"What'd they do?" Ehail wondered if she should interrupt the line of questioning, but Mallyn didn't seem particularly discomforted. She supposed he'd been asked the same question by plenty of people since coming to Esmaar.
"Beat me," Mallyn said.
"You got to a light, right?" asked Rithka.
"Lights are useful," put in Cenem.
"Yeah," Mallyn said.
"Mom and Dad make me and Cenem go to a light every other week and heal all our forms even if we aren't hurt," Rithka said. "'Cause one time I forgot to tell her that I munched my finger in a door, and so now even if I say I'm definitely not hurt or anything she wants to make sure we go a lot. One time our cousin Apran broke his leg falling off a horse and didn't tell anybody. Can you ride a horse?"
"Yes," Mallyn said, tilting his head in puzzlement as he listened to Rithka and eating another cracker.
"Cenem can turn into a horse," Rithka said. "I rode on her here but you can go instead of me on the way home if you come home with us, I'll let you."
"I decide who gets to ride me," objected Cenem.
"Aren't you gonna let Mallyn if he wants?" asked Rithka blithely.
"Yeah, but you don't say so, I say so," Cenem said.
"How?" Mallyn asked, peering at Cenem.
"Like this," Cenem said, sliding off Ehail's lap and moving to a part of the room with enough room for her horse form. She shifted and swished her tail. She became a large, leggy animal, not like the ponies Ryll's daughters rode or the compact well-matched coach horses Ehail saw in the streets of Aristan City when she went there - Cenem was more like a racehorse. "See?" asked the jet.
Mallyn startled, dropping a cracker onto his knee, when Cenem changed shape. "B-but," he said. That was all he managed.
"You're not scared of horses or anything, are you?" Rithka asked.
"She changed," murmured Mallyn.
"People on Barashi can do that too," Rithka said. "Turn into stuff, I mean. Our aunt Rhysel has an apprentice kama who's all Barashin and he can turn into stuff. I saw him being a bat with his vampire girlfriend this one time!"
"Oh," said Mallyn, turning away and clasping his hands together, straight-armed, as though embarrassed. Cenem turned human again.
"But dragons do it different," Rithka said. "I can be a squirrel and a sparrow and a human! I'm being a human right now. See?" She waved her arms.
"Yes," Mallyn said.
Rithka demonstrated her squirrel form, and leapt off of her father's lap to the low table and from there bounded to Mallyn's shoulder. He went very still as she curled herself around his neck. "I'm furry," she explained.
"Rithka, don't jump on people like that without their permission," Ehail scolded.
"Okay," said Rithka, but she stayed put around Mallyn's neck.
"Rithka," said Gyre.
"What? I'm not jumping on anybody, I'm holding totally still," Rithka said.
"Don't be on people without permission," Gyre said.
Rithka nosed Mallyn's long ear. "Can I be here?" she asked.
"Okay," managed Mallyn uncertainly.
Rithka re-draped herself more comfortably across his shoulders. "Thank you," she chirped.
"Y-you're welcome," Mallyn said.
"Do you like me and want me to be your sister?" Rithka asked, twitching her tail.
Mallyn sneezed when her tail brushed over his nose. "Maybe," he said, squirming in his seat.
"Only maybe?" asked Cenem.
"You can't just stay here forever," Rithka said. "It says temporary in big letters right on this building."
"I know," Mallyn said.
"Who else would you rather get adopted by?" Rithka asked.
"Don't be pushy, Rithka," sighed Ehail. "He doesn't need to decide anything today."
Mallyn was silent, and Rithka nosed his ear again until he shivered.
"We're nice," Rithka said. "Ask us whatever."
"You like it?" Mallyn asked her.
"Yeah. It's way better than the shren house where we lived before," Rithka said chattily. "Mom and Daddy love us and Mom can cook tasty food and we have a cool yard with plants all over it and sometimes I go to work with Dad and learn to make jewelry but I'm not allowed to pierce my ears yet - I did it myself anyway once but then I had to go to the light and they healed so that didn't work very well and I got it kind of uneven anyway - and I have my own cards, even a Continent-style deck not just a Saraanlan traditional deck so I can play all the games and I bet Daddy's going to get me Barashin cards soon too, and I play sports with the neighborhood kids and they're fun and I'm good at 'em. And we have aunts and uncles and a grandma and a grandpa and cousins and stuff!"
Rithka nodded and Mallyn had to scratch his ear where her whiskers brushed it. "Stuff! Our Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal - they have babies who are twins and look just the same, they're cute! - have a nanny and a gardener and when we stay there so Mom and Daddy can do things, sometimes the nanny watches us. She's stuff. And great-grandma is stuff. Kenar is kind of stuff. And, you know, stuff. But mostly aunts and uncles and cousins."
"Oh," said Mallyn. He seemed too bowled over by the torrent of words to pick out anything specific to ask about, be it Theedy or Gyre's grandmother or Kenar. "Nice?"
"They're all nice," agreed Rithka serenely. "Except Kenar but he lives really far away so he shouldn't be a problem and he only ever reads anyway, he won't bother you, he doesn't like us."
"Oh," repeated Mallyn, drawing his eyebrows together.
"You need to talk more," Rithka told him. "I can't even tell if you like us."
Mallyn considered this question; his hand went up, apparently unconsciously, to pet the long fur on Rithka's tail where it was settled around his neck. Rithka purred, startling him, and he pulled his fingers away.
"It's okay. You can pet me. I'm totally furry!" Rithka said. "But do you like us?"
He thought another moment, tentatively petting iron-dark squirrel fur again, and concluded, "Yes."
Mallyn moved into the erstwhile guest room, next to Rithka's. The family took him on the requisite shopping trips, although they had to be kept brief and spaced out; he withdrew into a quiet ball of stress when out of the house and among strangers for very long.
He wasn't a lot better around Ehail or Gyre, though. Without Lorin's apparently calming influence, he categorized them as threats, addressed them as "sir" and "ma'am", and had to consciously force himself not to flinch when Ehail reached out to touch his hair or enfold him into a hug. Ehail decided to put off requesting a syllable for at least a couple of weeks. She wasn't sure if she was doing this for Mallyn's comfort, or so his name wouldn't lie there like a scar on her own if something were to... happen.
Rithka showed no such circumspection, and announced herself as Rithkaehailremal by breakfast the day after his adoption. Mallyn was dramatically less nervous and restrained around the girls than when either parent was present, at least. Ehail could look out the window and see them playing in the garden, and observe (albeit not hear) entire sentences emerging from Mallyn's mouth. Cenem learned that Mallyn liked to draw, and sometimes the two spent extended periods of time in one or the other of their rooms making art.
Ehail tried to approach Mallyn slowly. She worked through Rithka as often as not - Rithka showed him where the snack cabinet was and explained the foods he hadn't encountered before, Rithka took him on a tour of the house and around the perimeter of the yard so he'd know how far out he was allowed unsupervised, Rithka repeatedly assured him that he was being silly for being nervous around their parents.
A squirrely scarf was a near-permanent fixture on Mallyn's neck. Rithka translated his one- and two-word utterances when called for, and he could whisper to her without having to address anyone else. But Rithka, while literate and fluent in the language he needed to learn and the alphabet he had to work on, was not equal to the task of teaching Mallyn to read Martisen or speak Leraal. Ehail did that, while Rithka played with Cenem or worked on her own slow-paced lessons.
"Boring story," muttered Mallyn after struggling halfway through "Kynalya and the Kiersa" and putting the book down in disgust. It was one of Cenem's (a gift from Myret), and even Cenem had only read it once - it apparently didn't equal the literary standards of any of the adventures of "The Mice In Formal Wear". But it had simple words that were mostly possible to sound out.
"I know, sweetheart," Ehail said. "Once you've learned to recognize more words you'll be able to read more interesting books."
He reached for the novel Ehail had been reading where it sat on the end table, but stopped short of touching it.
"That's in Martisen," Ehail said slowly, "and you can look at it, if you like, but I'm not sure if you'll be able to read much of it. It's a translation of 'Kathyne' - your father says it's a story popular in Elystan and he got me a copy from a bookstore in Aristan City..."
Mallyn put the book in her lap, and, when she just looked at him, opened it to the first page.
"Do you want me to read it to you?" Ehail asked.
"Yes," said Mallyn shyly.
Ehail picked up the book.
"Kathyne of Abellen," she said, moving her finger bit by bit across the first line to show Mallyn where she was reading, "stole out of her chambers in the dead of night..."
"Mom," said Rithka loudly.
Ehail put down the wizarding journal she was reading; Rithka was in the doorway to her office. Mallyn stood behind his sister, looking miserable and embarrassed.
"Don't, Rithka," he mouthed.
"What's going on?" Ehail asked.
"Mallyn has -"
"Don't!" Mallyn pleaded.
"You're being silly, I'm telling you, it's okay, you can say and if you don't I will," Rithka said, rounding on him before turning back to Ehail. "Mom, he has scars all over him. The light didn't get them. I saw when he took his shirt off. We gotta take him to Aunt Rhysel and get them gone."
"Oh, Mallyn, sweetheart," Ehail said, her hands flying to her mouth. "Why didn't you say anything before? We can get those fixed -"
"Not supposed -" Mallyn said, sounding choked. He looked like he was going to cry. "Not - not supposed -"
"He didn't want to tell you," Rithka said, stomping one of her feet indignantly, "'cause his evil birth parents said not to say what they did - it was okay to say they hit him 'cause people didn't think he meant hard and how hard matters in Aristan - but they told him not to show anybody the scars! And they wouldn't let him sleep sometimes! And he had to farm beans all the time! When I'm big enough I want to find them and set them on fire and then eat them!"
"Mallyn, it's okay," Ehail murmured, "it's okay, you can tell us anything, we won't hurt you, they can't hurt you anymore..."
"We can put off going to Rhysel if you need us to," Ehail said, trying to sound soothing. He backed up a step anyway. "But you don't have to be covered in scars. Your aunt Rhysel can take them away."
He backed up again, almost out of view of the office door. "N-n-"
"Sweetheart," Ehail said. She didn't know what else to say.
Mallyn bolted down the hall, but he didn't go far; when Ehail stepped out of her office he was curled up on the far edge of the couch, hugging his knees to his face and with one ear bent crazily against the armrest. He didn't run again when Ehail walked into the room, but she didn't try to sit on the sofa with him or touch him. Rithka, for her part, became a sparrow and perched on the picture frame on the end table that showed one of Gyre and Ehail's wedding photos. "You're being silly," she insisted to Mallyn.
He shook his head fractionally but didn't answer her.
"It's okay, Mallyn," Ehail murmured. "You aren't in trouble for telling. It's okay."
"I told you," insisted Rithka.
"Rithka," Ehail said, "thank you for letting me know about the scars, but I'm sure Mallyn remembers what you said. Why don't you go play with Cenem?"
Rithka flew up the stairs, muttering to herself, and Ehail very gingerly sat down on the opposite end of the sofa from Mallyn. He didn't react to that, so she stayed there, still and quiet.
After a long while, he uncurled from himself.
He sat, and she sat, and after another long while, he pulled "Kathyne" off the end table and put it down between them.
Ehail picked up the book, turned it so he could see, and read from where they'd left off.
Ehail finished chapter four and marked the spot in the book. "Your father will be home soon -"
"I have to tell him about the scars, but we don't need to go to Rhysel's right away, if you would rather not," Ehail said. "The light would have healed any injuries that were still dangerous to you."
"Okay," Mallyn whispered.
"I suppose the trained-light Lorin mentioned as having evaluated your nutrition didn't think you should have your scars removed their way? Are you allergic to something in those potions?" asked Ehail.
Mallyn swallowed. "I heard how," he said.
"Oh." She supposed that the way lights had to go about removing scars would have sounded awful to someone not used to lights or witches' brews. He'd have been unconscious for the entire process, but lights couldn't heal scar tissue - only wounds - and so they had to cut away all of the scar tissue before they could make any progress. Rhysel's kamai would be faster and less messy. "And they didn't make you. I see. Kamai does it differently - you can be awake. And it won't hurt at all." Ehail didn't actually know that last part, but she knew kamai could move pain around. She could hang onto it for him.
"Okay," Mallyn whispered again.
Ehail set down the novel. She didn't stand up or scoot over, but she turned towards him and opened her arms.
Mallyn looked at her, eyes huge and ice-blue.
He got up and shuffled closer and hugged her, tightly, quickly, and then ran up the stairs.
Gyre was home later than expected; Ehail had put the potatoes and the artichokes back in the oven to keep warm, and had gone ahead and started on an unplanned batch of muffins, by the time he opened the door. "Welcome home!" she called, loud enough that the children would be able to hear even through the sound-dampeners.
"Muffins!" observed Gyre.
"Carrot ones," Ehail said, spooning sugar onto each cupful of batter. "What kept you?"
"I have news," Gyre announced, grinning. "Over dinner, I think."
"All right. But before the kids get downstairs, you should know -" Ehail summarized what she'd learned about Mallyn's scars. She still hadn't seen them. "I told him we can wait to go to Rhysel, if he wants. He still hasn't met her and it might take him a while to get used to the idea."
Gyre's mouth thinned. "All right. I would probably have just invited her over... but you're getting more time with him than I am, you've probably got a better idea of what he can tolerate."
Ehail kissed her husband and slid the muffins into the oven before taking out the dinner dishes. "Kids! Dinner!" she hollered.
Cenem was down first, unusual for the pre-Mallyn era but typical for a day when Mallyn was wearing Rithka as a cravat and descending the stairs at a timid pace. Mallyn and Rithka were down soon after and Rithka, at a look from Gyre, hopped off her brother, onto her chair, and into her human form. "Aaaaartichooookes?" she said, distressed.
"I thought you liked artichokes," said Ehail.
"Oh. Right," said Rithka. She picked up the tongs and put one on her plate.
"Do the Mice In Formal Wear disapprove of artichokes or something?" asked Gyre quizzically.
"It's Cenem who reads those. Not me," said Rithka. "Did Mom tell you about how Mallyn -"
"Yes," Gyre said, serving himself an artichoke. "We'll deal with that when Mallyn is ready. But I have some news, everyone."
"You're all done with your masterpiece and you're gonna make me your real apprentice for real instead of just sorta pretending!" guessed Rithka, bouncing in her seat.
"Nope," said Gyre, "not yet."
"Are we going to go for iced planets after dinner?" Cenem asked, cocking her head.
"With delicious muffins in the oven, not today," said Gyre. "Mallyn, any guesses?"
Mallyn shook his head and served himself small portions of the food.
"Lyrrae and Renn -" Gyre began.
Mallyn's head snapped up and his eyes bored intently into Gyre's when he heard his birth siblings' names.
"Have found a home," finished Gyre.
"Where?" Ehail asked. "Will they let us go there, or bring them here...?"
"I think they'll do that," Gyre said, smiling faintly.
"Who got them?" Cenem asked.
"Safe?" Mallyn breathed.
"Completely safe," Gyre said. "I talked to Ryll -"
"Did she get 'em?" asked Rithka. "She's got lots."
"No. Batai and Karyn did," Gyre said.
"They're our uncle and our aunt - we've got lots," Rithka whispered loudly in Mallyn's ear. "They're nice!"
"Safe," murmured Mallyn.
"They don't live too far from the circle," Gyre told Mallyn. "It's not a very long trip to or from their home. We'll make sure that there's plenty of visiting. And Mallyn - I talked to Batai, and if you want to, some days you can come with me in the mornings and stay at their home until I go back. But that does involve skipping lessons, and you can only do that if you're making good progress. Okay?"
"Okay," said Mallyn immediately.
"So they're our cousins? But they're Mallyn's brother and sister? But his cousins too?" said Rithka. She nibbled on an artichoke leaf. "That's weird!"
"A little, yes," agreed Gyre. "But I think it's the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances."
"Safe," murmured Mallyn again.
Chapter 16: Refuge
"M-mom?" said a soft voice from just outside the kitchen.
Ehail looked up from the dressing she was mixing for lunch salads. Mallyn, Rithka about his neck, was clinging to the edge of the doorframe. "Yes, sweetheart?"
"I -" He swallowed and touched Rithka's tail.
"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," Ehail said, setting down her spoon and going past them to enter her office and look up something appropriate. "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."
"I know, I know," grumbled Rithka.
"And you must land right away if Mallyn wants you to," Ehail continued. "You haven't ever flown before, Mallyn, have you?"
"No," Mallyn murmured. He didn't call her "Mom" again, but at least "ma'am" seemed to have gone away.
"You'll like it! It's the best thing ever," chattered Rithka, turning into a sparrow and doing a lap around the room while Ehail scanned the table of contents of 88 Warding Spells for Most Purposes. "It's not gonna be totally the same to be flying on me instead of by yourself with wings that are growing out of you but it'll still be awesome! And this way it's fair 'cause I know you rode Cenem around the garden the other day when she was being a horse and I don't have a horse form but I have a dragon form."
Ehail picked Ward #5, "A. Nannde's Personal Ward (includes clothes; rated against falls and violent changes of direction as well as stationary-subject injury)", and cast it on her son. He held very still, as though afraid he'd disrupt the spell.
"There!" said Rithka. "Come on, come on..." She landed on his head and hopped up and down there. "Come on let's fly!"
It was several angles later, when Ehail was patiently taking Cenem through the steps of long division, that Rithka and Mallyn came inside.
Rithka got herself a pear and dealt herself a hand of solitaire; Mallyn was upstairs, quiet. Ehail left Cenem to her assignment and went upstairs to undo the ward, as if he kept it on for too long he'd be liable to acquire the clumsiness that came with invulnerability and begin to fall down stairs, kick over chairs, and bump his head on shelves - none of which would damage him, until the ward came off and he had to re-learn caution.
She could have undone the spell without going up, but it was foolish to have someone unaware that they were unwarded, too.
"Mallyn?" she said.
"A - just a - a tick?" he asked in the accented Leraal he was starting to acquire pieces of. He was probably imitating Rithka's understated requests for more time with her book or her music crystal or her toys before coming to dinner or to take her bath or to read her history lesson. He sounded so tentative. Still afraid that asking for a tick to himself would bring down wrath.
"Of course, sweetheart," Ehail said.
A few ticks later, Mallyn opened his door and looked up at her.
"I just need to undo the ward," Ehail said. "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 said.
Ehail reversed the spell, then leaned down to kiss his forehead. He shivered, almost flinched. "Would you rather I not do that?" she asked quietly.
He swallowed. "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?"
He looked at his feet. "It's okay."
"I love you, sweetheart."
"You say that lots," he mumbled.
"It's true," Ehail said.
"What's it mean?" he asked. Ehail considered how to phrase her answer; Mallyn squirmed and 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.
Mallyn thought about this. Then he turned and went back into his room, but left the door open. He looked over his shoulder at her, like he was going to say something else, so Ehail stayed put.
He rummaged around in his desk, and pulled out a drawing, and gave it to her.
It was a startlingly accurate picture of their house from the air. The tip of Rithka's wing covered one corner. A tiny outline of Ehail herself was visible through the back window. The flowerbeds and the rows of edible plants were all there where Cenem had painstakingly spaced them out, the shingles were all drawn in. And Ehail had seen the house from the air. It was exactly right.
"Did you draw this?" Ehail murmured. The other hypothesis was that he'd borrowed an image paper, snapped a picture, and traced lines over it.
"Yes," Mallyn said.
"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.
"That's amazing," Ehail said, still staring at the drawing.
"Rithka says... she can't remember. Like that," Mallyn said.
"I don't know anyone who can," Ehail said. "Do you have this clear a memory of everything?"
"Usually have to try," he said.
"May I see some of your other drawings?" Ehail asked.
Mallyn opened the desk drawer again and produced the art he'd been working on alongside Cenem. Cenem must not have noticed. There were two more pictures of the house - from the ground. A picture of Ehail, smiling and hugging Cenem. A picture of Rithka running up Gyre's arm in squirrel form to ride with him to work on his shoulder. A page of nothing but faces, faces, faces, that looked like younger Mallyns with different hair - Lyrrae and Renn, Ehail supposed.
Like he'd traced photo papers.
His eyes were lingering on the last page of drawings. "Tonight?" he asked.
"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 said, nodding. "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... for days?"
"You mean, when can you go there in the morning and come back with your father in the evening?"
"Yes. Lessons." He looked very serious. Ehail wished there were some way to triple the angles in a day, so he could spend all day at Batai's place with his separated siblings and all day playing with Rithka and Cenem and all day studying what he needed to learn. Or maybe she just wished Aristan had let her take the three as a set. But that wasn't what she had to work with.
"It's very important that you learn to speak Leraal," Ehail said. "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? 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," she added with a soft smile. "I think your father is getting rusty on Leraal now too, without all the practice he used to get."
"Okay," said Mallyn.
"And - please don't work yourself too hard," Ehail said. "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."
"Okay," said Mallyn again. He was smiling, a little.
Ehail kissed his forehead again, and went back downstairs to check on the girls and fix dinner.
Mallyn was trembling the entire way to the circle, and from the Aristanian side of the circle to Gyre's shop. Ehail suspected it was excitement more than fear, although she wouldn't blame him for being apprehensive about seeing the conditions his siblings were in, either.
"What's for dinner?" Cenem wanted to know when they'd lingered too long at the shop waiting for Gyre to be able to put down a hot piece. Rithka was petting the wings of the indulgent fairy shop assistant, who was apparently accustomed to being preened by her boss's daughter.
"Whatever Batai and Karyn are having," Ehail told Cenem.
"But what if they have evil beans," Cenem said.
"Evil beans?" Gyre asked quizzically, emerging from his workroom.
"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."
"That's not..." began Mallyn awkwardly.
"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."
"Oh, my," Ehail said. She'd been planning to fix bean soup for dinner the next day. "Which kinds of beans don't you like, Mallyn?"
He swallowed and started listing species. Green beans of the sort Cenem was tending in the garden were fine, but everything from soy to cannelini was out; Ehail mentally rearranged her menu plan.
"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 Mallyn. Gyre bade his assistant goodbye and led the family out into the street.
"You can," Mallyn mumbled. "I'll eat them if you want."
"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," said Mallyn.
"Lentils are fine?" Ehail asked.
"What are those?"
"I'll take that as a yes. We're having them for dinner tomorrow," Ehail said.
"Oh." Mallyn was looking at his feet again, but she saw the corner of a smile.
Batai and Karyn's apartment wasn't far, but Mallyn didn't know that - or he wouldn't have, if Rithka hadn't been calling out every landmark she saw from her perch on his head and announcing that this meant they were only so many blocks from their destination. By the end of the walk, Mallyn was holding his squirrel-sister to his chest snugly and shaking, murmuring to her and getting nosed on the chin in return.
Batai opened the door wide when Gyre knocked, and embraced his brother; Mallyn was standing crouched behind Ehail before she'd realized what had happened. "Mallyn, sweetheart," she said. "This is your uncle Batai."
"Hello, Mallyn," Batai said. "Lyrrae and Renn are inside with Aryn and Myll. I believe they're playing with blocks. Hi, Rithka, Cenem. And Ehail, of course."
"Hi, Uncle Batai," chorused the girls. Rithka jumped out of Mallyn's arms, caught his pant leg in rodential teeth, and pulled him ineffectually in towards the apartment.
"It's safe, sweetheart," Ehail said quietly.
"Ours are jumpy too," Batai admitted, rueful. He looked sleepless. "Lyrrae's latched onto Karyn and Renn sticks to either Aryn or Myll at all times, but I scare them. Haven't managed to overcome that yet."
"C'mon," Rithka urged, muffled by the cling of her teeth in Mallyn's pants. She turned into a girl and grabbed him by the hand to pull harder, although he was still stronger.
"You are too big to turn dragon indoors," Ehail reminded her daughter, in case she tried that next. "Mallyn, do you want to wait out in the hall for a little bit, or...?"
"No, I'm..." He followed where Rithka pulled with a glance at Batai, but got into the playroom. Ehail followed and closed the front door behind her.
Aryn and Myll were indeed playing with blocks. So were Lyrrae and Renn, although they seemed to be adding onto structures the others made more than constructing independent towers. Cenem decided that the block city needed to be inhabited by a bee, while Rithka pulled Mallyn down into a sitting position next to her and then fled squirrel-shaped to his throat when Lyrrae and Renn pounced on him.
"Mallyn!" Lyrrae cried, burying her face in his shirt. Ehail stood back, as did Batai; Karyn was already sitting in the room supervising the block-building.
"You came," Renn said, arms around Mallyn's waist.
"I came," agreed Mallyn, hugging each with one arm.
Rithka's tail was bristling. Karyn greeted all the children, and Mallyn nodded at her and Cenem exited the block castle to assume her human form and say hello, but Rithka didn't reply to her aunt.
"What's for dinner?" Cenem asked Karyn.
"Nut-stuffed yams and fish," Karyn said. "Sound good?"
"Yes. No beans," Cenem said. "They're bad."
Ehail expected Rithka to chime in there, with an explanation of what that was supposed to mean, but the iron was silent.
"Rithka?" Ehail asked.
Rithka lashed her tail once but didn't reply.
Ehail decided not to push it at that moment and just leaned on the wall to watch the proceedings. Mallyn was still hugging Lyrrae and Renn; they were speaking in halting one- and two-word phrases about how, yes, their new family was safe, and yes, they liked Aryn and Myll and blocks and yams, and yes, they were so happy to see him again.
"Rithka and Mallyn are close?" Batai asked Ehail.
"Yes, very," she replied. "He plays with Cenem, too, but not as much. Oh - you should know - I'm sure you've seen, Lyrrae at least is too little to take baths by herself, but Mallyn has a lot of scars. When he's ready to meet more family, we're going to take him to Rhysel and ask her to heal him."
"Karyn's been giving them their baths. I think I may look like their birth father, or something. They haven't said," Batai said. "I'm sure she'd have mentioned it if they had a lot of scars. We expected at least a few - we read a transcript of the trial..."
"I haven't seen Mallyn's," Ehail admitted. "Rithka did. They might have different amounts, I suppose... Rithka, sweetie, will you come here?"
"I'm comfy," said Rithka snappishly from where she was wrapped around Mallyn's neck. He was still hugging Lyrrae and Renn.
"You can go back after, sweetheart," said Ehail.
"I want to stay here!"
"Rithka, we want to talk to you," Ehail said. "Come here, and then you can go back."
Mallyn unlooped his arm from around Renn to pry her little feet away from his neck, and she sprang away from him in a dramatic flounce, sulking towards her mother. "What? I told you what I saw," Rithka said.
"When you said there were a lot, how many did you mean?"
"I mean it looks like that doodle of bamboo you did that I took to put on my door, only in all directions and it's not bamboo. Why'd I have to come over here to say that?" she pouted, scratching her side with a hind foot.
"Is something bothering you, Rithka?" Ehail asked. Gyre emerged from the kitchen with a plate of food for himself and one for Ehail, served buffet-style; she took her plate and tasted the yam.
"No! I mean - you made me get off Mallyn's neck and I wanted to be there! I told you what you wanted to know and now I'm done," complained Rithka. She undulated back to her brother, climbed his shirt (with a leap over the crisscrossed arms of siblings still clinging to him), and re-scarfed herself.
Ehail made up her mind to try asking about that again later, when Rithka was calmed down, but let it be for the time being. Mallyn, Lyrrae and Renn, and Rithka from her perch all trooped into the kitchen for dinner - Cenem was already there. Rithka didn't shift to eat. She just picked bits of nut off of Mallyn's plate.
The visit lasted until Cenem was draped asleep over Gyre's shoulder and the other young kids were fading too. Mallyn dragged himself away from his tired siblings and their siblings, and followed Ehail docilely out of the apartment and back through town to the circle.
"Did you have a good time, sweetheart?" Ehail asked Mallyn.
"Yes," he said. He wasn't shaking anymore.
"Everyone else has extra family!" wailed Rithka when Ehail convinced her to open up the next day. "Mallyn's birth parents don't count 'cause they're bad and I'm going to eat them when I grow up but he's got an extra sister I don't have and an extra brother I don't have! And Cenem has egg parents! She sees them! They're coming over tomorrow and I have to be nice to them, Daddy said! And Kenar! And I don't have any extras and I love you and stuff but everybody else has somebody just theirs..."
"Are you worried Mallyn will go away?" Ehail asked.
"He can't, he isn't allowed - I mean actually not allowed, the government stuff means he's not allowed - he can't go live with them. But he has them. And where are my egg parents so I can prove I'm good and won't go away and make you cry?" she howled.
"I don't know where your egg parents are," murmured Ehail. "Or mine, for that matter. Taala's haven't come either."
"I wouldn't go!" insisted Rithka. "I would stay here with you and Daddy! But they don't know that! Where are they?"
"I don't know," Ehail repeated.
"And Lyrrae and Renn are boring!" Rithka grumbled. "They didn't talk about any things! Just about how they were there and Mallyn was there and Mallyn's their brother and they're not even interesting like Mallyn is!"
"They're your cousins," Ehail said. "You'll have a chance to get to know them and learn more about them. You can teach them games you like, I'm sure."
Rithka grumbled some more, but seemed to have discharged her bad mood. "I'm gonna go play," she said. She hurtled out of the office.
Ehail was supposed to go back to the Kep Island shren house in a few days to do a few angles' worth of maintenance. But the house was gradually shutting down, and soon they wouldn't need her to come in anymore. The babies were all gone. Every single set of parents of a miracle under twenty had retrieved him or her. The older kids were adopted, or with their egg parents, or consolidated into the Paraasilan house waiting for a final ruling on how long they had to wait for egg parents before they could go back to trying for adoptive ones. The adults, cured, were dispersing into the world the way far fewer had managed under the burden of shrenhood.
Even if a few were never able to slide seamlessly into the general population, they wouldn't need such a large facility.
Ehail decided that she'd ask, when she was there, if any adult miracles had seen their parents turn up suddenly.
"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."
"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 asked.
"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!"
"I don't think he knows what colors are good yet," Cenem said seriously. "It's dark in there."
Mallyn was very still, and then he said, "What will happen to us?"
"Huh?" Rithka asked.
He swallowed. "What will happen to us?" he said again. "When you have your own kid?"
"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."
This was plainly not the sort of answer Mallyn had in mind. He just looked at Ehail.
Gyre managed to recover his wits and answer before she did. "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 opined, and popped a dumpling into her mouth whole. "Mmmrrfffmm mm."
"We can stay here?" Mallyn asked.
"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 cut up his dumpling into very small pieces - to the point where he then had trouble spearing one with a fork. "Oh." He paused. "That's good."
"You're silly," Rithka told him. "Uncle Batai and Aunt Karyn have Aryn and Myll who are their regular kind of kids and they still got Lyrrae and Renn."
The tips of Mallyn's ears went a little pink. He ruffled Rithka's hair. "Yeah," he said.
Mallyn showed Ehail his scars after dinner. She didn't seize him and hug him as hard as she could, but it was a near thing.
"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 swallowed and kissed his hair. Mallyn squirmed and put his shirt back on.
He asked if he could meet Rhysel and Tekaal four days later.
They and their baby twins came over. Rhysel explained the scar-removing procedure while Mallyn hid behind Ehail, and Rhysel took his hand when he held it out and she did - nothing that Ehail could see, but Mallyn made a confused face and then pulled up the hem of his shirt.
His skin was all smooth. Paler than his face, from being covered whenever he played outside. "Oh," he said.
"There you go," Rhysel said cheerfully.
"Thank you," Mallyn said.
"You're welcome. Want to hold one of the twins?" Rhysel asked.
Mallyn accepted Kaarel, who pawed at his face, and said after a pause, "Can I learn that?"
"Kamai?" Rhysel asked.
"Yes," Rhysel said. "If you don't have the ability already you can get it infused... do you want me to check you for it?"
Mallyn nodded, and Rhysel touched his head. "Nothing," she said, "sorry. But that doesn't have to stop you."
"Thank you," he said again.
Rhysel and Tekaal stayed for several angles. Tekaal saw Mallyn's drawings where they were stuck to the kitchen cabinets, and offered art lessons. Rhysel told him about the school program and gave him an idea of what he would want to have studied up on before enrolling, Leraal chief among those subjects.
They went home.
Mallyn touched Ehail's hand, and led her over to the couch, and picked up "Kathyne" and read her the entire fourteenth chapter.
"Mom?" said Mallyn.
"Rithka says you fly faster than her."
"I can," agreed Ehail. "Especially if she's carrying anything other than herself. She's still very young, for a dragon."
"Can I - would you - sometime?" he said.
"Would you like me to fly you somewhere?" she asked.
"After your father gets home and we eat dinner, he can watch the girls," she said, "and I'll take you to the edge of the world. You haven't seen that before."
"Okay," he agreed.
Ehail smiled at him, and he smiled back.
It wasn't until she heard him asking Rithka for translations of some of the words she'd used that it occurred to Ehail that they'd had the entire conversation in Leraal.
Mallyn laughed, when she swooped low to the ground.
Chapter 17: Fragile
Kenar's first visit to the house came at the end of Marahel, and it began inauspiciously.
"Hi, Gyre," he said when he came in. Gyre was taking a day off work to spend more time with the kids; Ehail had pointed out that Mallyn still acted far more afraid of his new father than of his new mother, and thought it was likely to be a matter of exposure. "Hi, Ehail."
"Hello, swe- Kenar," Ehail said, remembering Inyne's warning. "Your room is just how you left it."
Kenar put down his knapsack, lightly packed with whatever he thought he'd need and wouldn't be able to find in their home. "Thanks," he said shyly.
"Mallyn's room is on the other side of Rithka's," Gyre said, "if you want to know where to find him, although he's often outside or in one of the girls' rooms."
"Okay. I remember you mentioned him in the last letter," said Kenar. "Uh, Gyre, there's something I want to ask you."
"Of course," Gyre said, while Ehail busied herself with picking up the bits of collage scraps that Cenem had left lying around and missed when tidying.
"I want to forfeit my line name and take Rthan's," he said. "But I can't do it without you cooperating."
Gyre made a choking sound. "You can... do that?" he asked. Ehail's hand clenched around a shred of ribbon.
"Not usually," Kenar said. "But since there's just me with the line name and you as the progenitor I can, if you'll help. Will you help?"
There was a silence. Ehail looked at Kenar's face - hopeful, big-eyed - and at Gyre's - crushed, but he was holding it together. He'd fall apart later.
"How is it done?" Gyre asked.
"We have to agree on a line edict," Kenar chattered. "It doesn't have to be a serious one, just something I can break. Like, 'don't drink apple juice'. Is there apple juice in the house?"
"Yes," murmured Gyre.
"That would work, then," Kenar said. "And then my line name will go away, and Rthan looked it up for me and I should be able to take his line name after that and be a Koedh."
"Koedh," repeated Gyre slowly. "Do I need to do anything else?"
"No, just the agreeing that we have a line edict about apple juice," Kenar assured him, heading for the kitchen. "And now if you have any parunia boys later you can use it for them without me being all blue opal and in the way, right? Taala already has 'Camlenn' for her line name so you can't use that. And the line won't even exist anymore once no dragons have it, so it's not like silver Gyres won't be allowed to drink juice."
"I have a two-syllable middle name," Gyre murmured, too low for Kenar to catch over clinking glasses and the sloshing of juice in its jug.
Kenar poured. He drank, and cocked his head, and nodded once.
"Thanks, Gyre," he said. He put the juice away, put his glass in the dishrack where it was magically cleaned and put away, and picked up his knapsack and trotted upstairs.
"It didn't hit me before," Gyre told Ehail that evening.
"It didn't?" It had hit her a thousand times. Her heart was stained in bruise colors. It had hit her when the pen scratched and when the egg parents announced their occupations and when he was gone for angle after angle and when she'd read that letter and when Inyne had made that speech.
"No. I had... some connection to him that I didn't think could be crossed out. It didn't feel over. And now I don't have that," Gyre said against her neck.
"He's theirs, now," she murmured. "But he'll be here sometimes. He's here now."
"I know," he sighed. "I know. But that hurt..."
Ehail held him. "I know."
"Mom?" said Mallyn, a degree after Kenar had been sent off to fly home with his father after all the hugs he could tolerate.
"I was talking to Kenar. Um, you explained, how you adopted him but he went to his birth - I mean egg - family?"
"Yes?" Ehail said.
"I asked him about that. He told me about 'shrens'."
Ehail closed her eyes. She supposed Mallyn should have had at least a basic sketch of his mother and sisters' history, but he'd been dealing with so much. He was making great strides in Martisen literacy and Leraal fluency, he had started visiting Tekaal for art lessons periodically, he'd joined Rithka's kebel team (the only sport that would let people of disparate ages play together fairly), and he'd had an entire world and slew of magical conveniences and new people to get used to. They hadn't even managed to introduce him to all of his aunts and uncles yet, as travel was so stressful. So "shrens", as an educational topic, had waited.
"There aren't any shrens anymore, or if there are they'll be cured very soon," Ehail said. "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."
"Is there something you need explained, sweetheart?" she asked.
"I told him not to talk bad about you," Mallyn said. "And he said it was different. Because you were a shren."
"Well..." He'd defended her? To Kenar? "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."
"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 slowly. She'd never had to explain this before. "And that part may not be something we can just explain."
"Does Dad understand it?"
"I don't think so," admitted Ehail.
"You couldn't have ever been bad," Mallyn insisted.
"Oh, sweetheart." She held out her arms and he stepped into the offered hug. "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."
Mallyn considered this, still hugging her. "Tomorrow," he said, "Lyrrae and Renn?"
The household had mostly transitioned back to full-time Leraal use, with translations whispered into Mallyn's ear as needed. He had read the rest of "Kathyne", an elementary Aristanian history textbook, and several chapters of a novelized version of "Samarra". He'd effectively learned the Leraal alphabet in two degrees, leaning on his photographic memory to imprint a picture of each letter and its Martisen equivalents into his mind for ready reference.
"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," Mallyn said. "Thank you. And Mom?"
"You're good," he said.
Mallyn learned to read Leraal, although he was frustrated with his progress, especially when he compared himself to his polyglot sisters. "You shouldn't expect yourself to learn to read like dragons do," Ehail soothed. "We never had to work at learning languages the way you are. You're doing so well."
He didn't contradict her, but he did study a lot, not just the languages but also the materials he was given to help him catch up in academics. Rithka sometimes had to drag him out to play over his misgivings about his supposed slowness, though he never missed anything he'd committed to in advance, like a kebel game or a family card tournament. He did show up to meals, and the mark passed after which the trained-light had said he didn't need to snack so often. He never passed up a chance to see Lyrrae and Renn.
Ehail, meanwhile, became steadily more pregnant, learned to swap out beans for lentils in all of her recipes that called for the former, and became almost, almost used to the stab when Kenar came and the wrench when he left.
"Does Mallyn still want to be a kama?" Rhysel asked Ehail, while Cenem patiently attempted to teach the twins to say simple words and Rithka babbled to Tekaal about her day over the art lesson he was giving Mallyn.
"And a wizard too, now," she said. He sometimes shadowed her, when she was doing housework by spell or looking up a magical solution to a problem. Once he'd come along for her maintenance trip to the Lator house, finding all of the routine spellwork fascinating. "We told him that there does exist a double track, at Binaaralav, and I remembered you said there was some kamai method to acquire CC even for a Barashin."
"He's a little old to start at wizardry in Binaaralav, but a fine age to start in kamai," Rhysel said. "And I'm sure the wizardry program will take him. Although it's a heavy courseload to do both. Do you think he's ready for formal schooling? Starting this Rohel?"
"We'll make sure he knows he doesn't have to stick with both kinds of magic, if there are too many classes or he strongly prefers one once he's tried them," Ehail said. "But he's doing so well and he works very hard. I think he'll be ready by Rohel, especially if you and Tekaal are teaching again."
"We are," Rhysel confirmed. "I can arrange to have one of us teaching Mallyn's introductory kamai class, but for wizardry - and any academics or art he takes - he'll have to settle for standard teachers. Tekaal doesn't teach wizardry classes any more because kyma are in higher demand. Although he'll go on teaching Mallyn art outside of school, of course."
"Perhaps he could meet his teachers ahead of time," Ehail suggested. "To get comfortable with them. He's fine around other children, but can be nervous meeting strange adults."
"That can be arranged," Rhysel assured her. "How goes being pregnant?"
"It goes," Ehail said, peering down at herself. "I'm due end of Pehahel, if we assume a typical halfblood pregnancy - but Nemaar is as far as I know the first halfblood thudia - first one of a Barashin species - so I suppose something unusual for thudias might happen with him."
"I think it's very cute that he's a moon-baby," Rhysel confided.
"Maybe we'll make a tradition of that," Ehail said lightly. "I can teleport to the moon now."
"So you plan to have more?"
"I think so," Ehail said. "Not immediately. We can space them out, and make sure we're ready for another."
"Makes sense," Rhysel said. "I think I want a little boy." She looked at the twins - Kaarel was trying energetically to repeat after Cenem, but managing mostly unrelated gurgling; Aaris didn't seem interested in the exercise at all. "If we get one next time we try, I may name him after my Master. 'Reven' works in Leraal. Speaking of which, are you going to bring up Nemaar bilingual?"
"I suppose so," Ehail said. "Maybe trilingual, if we can think of a good third language."
"I'm trying for trilingual," Rhysel agreed. "I speak to them in Martisen, Tekaal speaks Leraal, and the nanny speaks Eashiri. Tekaal's mother says she read a book according to which it works better if you have one person per language."
"I think we'll probably wind up stopping with two unless we discover that we're going to have a lot of reason to go to, I don't know, Rannde. Gyre and Mallyn need to stay in practice with Leraal."
Aaris was starting to fuss, which was Rhysel and Tekaal's cue to pack the twins up and bring them home. "Say bye!" Cenem instructed Kaarel.
"Va!" Kaarel replied loudly.
Nemaar came along on the forty-third of Pehahel. Ehail severely alarmed the midwife-light during the course of the housecall by refusing sootheweed throughout the labor; she didn't explain why, being uninterested in detailing her history, but reassured the poor woman that she was just fine without "just one vial" of extract.
After the midwife-light handed Nemaar to Ehail and left, Gyre draped a blanket over his wife and let the kids in to see their baby brother. Nemaar was scrunched in towards himself, and his ears had understated little points; he had a thin dusting of reddish hair and almost-green eyes and a set of matching dimples. He cried, until Gyre swaddled him up in a blanket tightly enough that Ehail winced - "I learned to do this on Ryll's eldest, and they really do like it this snug," he explained, putting the baby back on Ehail's chest.
"He's little," Rithka said, turning into a sparrow and flying to Ehail's shoulder for a better vantage point.
"He'll grow," Ehail yawned. She was exhausted; she didn't care about the soreness, but she did want to go to sleep soon.
"When will he learn to shift?" Cenem asked.
"Probably when he's about six in Elcenian years, but it could be sooner or later," Ehail replied.
Mallyn was looking at the baby with shadowed eyes. Ehail made a mental note to ask what was troubling him, later, if he didn't volunteer the information, but for the moment she handed Nemaar to her husband, shooed Rithka off her shoulder, and rolled over to sleep.
Mallyn continued to be uncomfortable around Nemaar. He learned how to change a diaper when Ehail called him in to watch it done, but didn't volunteer for that or even less unpleasant infant-related tasks.
"Sweetheart," Ehail said, after Mallyn put down his arithmetic exercise and while Nemaar was down for his nap, "is something bothering you about the baby? You know you're our son, no matter how many other children we have, don't you?"
"I know," Mallyn said.
"Can you tell me what's the matter?"
Mallyn was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "It's just because he's a baby."
"You don't like babies?" Ehail asked. "Did you like Lyrrae and Renn when they were babies?"
"Yes," said Mallyn. Then, "Renn was a twin."
"Oh," breathed Ehail. "Oh, sweetheart."
"Ryller wouldn't stop crying," Mallyn said. "He got sick. He picked him up and hit his head against the wall."
Ehail pulled Mallyn into a tight hug. His voice lowered, once he could speak right into her ear.
"He died," he said, "and I had to bury him in the backyard. They told the neighbors he died of the sickness." Mallyn swallowed. "I did like them when they were babies."
Ehail just held him, swaying side to side, completely at a loss for words. Had the charges in Mallyn's parents' trial included murder?
"Lyrrae and Renn don't know," Mallyn said, incongruously pleading. "Lyrrae was only just born and Renn was only a year old. I think he might feel something's missing but he doesn't know."
"No one is going to hurt Nemaar," Ehail said. "He's safe. It's okay to love him. He's going to grow up here with us and no one is going to hurt him."
Mallyn nodded slowly, and she felt a tear soaking into her shirt. "But he's little. And hurtable." He swallowed. "And I don't want to hurt him."
Ehail kissed Mallyn's hair. "You know that he's little and fragile and you'll be careful with him, won't you?"
"I don't want to hurt him." He pulled out of the hug and sat on his feet on the floor. "...My birth father's parents came to the farm, once. They were awful to me and Lyrrae and Renn. But they were like that to him, too."
"You aren't going to grow up to be like your birth parents, Mallyn," Ehail murmured. "You can decide what to do. You don't want to hurt Nemaar, or anyone else, or why would you be nervous?"
"I don't want to hurt him," Mallyn whispered. "He's so little."
"He'll grow. In a few years, he'll be able to shift, and he'll be about Cenem's dragon size and covered in silver scales, and even less breakable. But even now I think you could hold him without hurting him. You've held Kaarel and Aaris."
"I know." He swallowed. "They're girls. I didn't think about it. Ryller was a boy."
"You don't have to hold Nemaar or play with him if you really don't want to, sweetheart," Ehail said. "But I know you don't want to hurt him. If there's some kind of accident, that's terrible, but we can take him to a light, and I know you won't do anything bad to him on purpose."
Mallyn nodded slowly. "Maybe," he said.
"You can wait, if you want," Ehail said. "I wouldn't start asking you to watch the smaller children for us even if you were completely comfortable with Nemaar, not yet. But I hope you'll be able to hold your new little brother soon."
"Maybe," said Mallyn again, and then he sneezed and laughed weakly.
Ehail felt a strong draft, and looked at the window, which was firmly shut. "Did you feel that?" she asked.
"No. Feel what?" Mallyn asked.
"A wind. Hm." She shrugged.
"I didn't feel it," he said, and got to his feet, but he tripped over the end of his sandal and fell face-first towards the floor.
With a small boom, he levitated two inches off the ground rather than striking it, and then fell through that gap with a soft "oof".
"Did you do that?" he asked Ehail, sitting up again and rubbing his nose.
"I didn't have time to react with a spell - I don't even know one off the top of my head that would do that..."
Mallyn sneezed again.
This was followed by three seconds of indoor rain.
"Why don't we visit your aunt Rhysel," Ehail said faintly.
"I'm sorry, Ehail," said Rhysel quietly, taking her hand away from Mallyn's forehead. "Can you ward your whole family?"
"If I have to -" Ehail began, but she stopped; Mallyn was shaking in his chair. "Mallyn, sweetheart, are you okay?"
"I don't want to hurt anyone," he keened.
"You won't," Ehail said. "I can look up enough wards for all of us, and if you damage some of the things in the house, it can be repaired or replaced. We'll be fine."
"I'm so sorry," Rhysel said.
"Don't be," Ehail said. Spontaneous kamai was something they could deal with, with wards and patience; she was just glad they'd found out what it was.
Rhysel shook her head. "No, it's my fault. He wasn't a kama before, and spontaneous kyma don't appear completely out of nowhere. He wasn't a kama until he was exposed to kamai - I didn't do it deliberately, and it's rare, it hasn't happened to any of the Binaaralav students or random people in Paraasilan, but before he was around kamai he couldn't have spontaneously manifested." She sighed and looked apologetically at Mallyn. "I know you wanted to learn kamai, but I wouldn't have wanted you to have to do it this way. You have some tough work ahead of you getting yourself under control."
"I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't want to hurt anyone," chanted Mallyn, drawing his knees up to his chest.
"While you're here, I can counteract anything you put out," Rhysel said. "When you're home, there's wards. If the first three things you did were a gust of wind, catching yourself in midair, and making it rain, you probably don't have my pyrokinetic tendencies anyway. Avoid stress. Don't get sick." She brushed a wisp of hair out of her face. "Ehail, do you want to leave him here for a few degrees while you go look up wards for Gyre and the other kids?"
"Not just yet," Ehail said, scooting her chair to the left so that she could put an arm around her son's shoulders. "How does he learn control? How did you do it?"
"Me? A lot of extremely patient tutoring from my Master," said Rhysel. "And practice. I had to learn where the kamai was escaping and maintain focus on all of those gaps, and then practice doing it enough that I could do it perfectly, unconsciously, in my sleep -"
"I'm going to do magic in my sleep?" Mallyn asked, horrified.
"Maybe, maybe not," Rhysel said. "It depends."
"You won't be able to hurt anyone. And we don't have anything irreplaceable, sweetheart," Ehail soothed. "It's okay. As long as it takes, it's okay."
"I can tutor him that much during the school break," Rhysel said slowly. "But not while school is in session, and it starts in three days. Tekaal says I overextend myself, but even if my ideas of my limits are different from his, I know how many angles there are in a day."
"Can Tekaal help?" Ehail asked.
"He's not a mind kama. He could supervise Mallyn's practice and prevent damage from magical outbursts, but it takes a mind kama to be any help with making progress beyond that. They can find the gaps." Rhysel chewed on her lip. "We can try Talyn, but... I don't think that should be our first choice, for reasons I'd rather not detail unless we wind up going with that plan."
"What about the other teachers?" Ehail asked.
"This goes a little beyond 'personal favor' level in terms of time investment, and ideally he'd have the same supervisor throughout at least most of his work," Rhysel said. "Mallyn can't start regular school this term, not uncontrolled, and that means I can't just assign my department to give him extra help." She closed her eyes and thought. "Student tutor? I can assign extra credit."
"Mallyn, would you be comfortable with that?" Ehail asked softly. He was trembling and couldn't seem to decide whether to scrunch his eyes closed or stare into space.
"Okay," he murmured.
"Okay," Rhysel repeated. "I'll ask Korulen. She's a promising mind specialist, and in the highest-level class, and she's keeping a light courseload. There are more possibilities if she turns me down, though."
"Okay," Mallyn said again.
"It'll be fine, sweetheart," Ehail said, smoothing his hair. "Will you be okay sitting here with Aunt Rhysel for a few degrees while I go find wards for everyone at home?"
Mallyn nodded mutely. Ehail kissed his forehead and teleported home.
She sifted through the book of wards until she found five different, acceptably-rated personal wards, which she would cast on Rithka when she got home from her darotan game and on Gyre, Nemaar, and Cenem when they got home from their excursion with Cenem's egg parents (Nemaar was on this outing to make Gyre's day off work more efficiently distributed between his children).
Ehail hoped that they wouldn't need to wear them too long - Nemaar in particular she thought she might want to regularly de-ward, out of harm's way, to avoid affecting his development - but Mallyn was too terrified of hurting people to take the risk that everyone would make it through the way Rhysel's parents and siblings had. Even if Ehail and Rithka and Cenem spent most of their time nearly impossible to kill, didn't care about pain that was less than supernatural, and could certainly be healed from injuries which fell short of killing a form, leaving them unwarded and only protecting Gyre and Nemaar wouldn't be good for Mallyn.
She cast one of the wards on herself (it wasn't rated against falls or self-inflicted injury, but she expected that would be fine for her purposes) and teleported back to Rhysel's to retrieve her son.
"Let's go home, sweetheart," she said. "It'll be okay."
Mallyn took her hand.
Chapter 18: Opal
Gyre watched Ehail feed Nemaar, and asked quietly, "Do you wonder about your egg family?"
She looked up from Nemaar's sleepy face. "I was never adopted," she said. "Why 'egg' family?"
"To distinguish them from me and my relatives and our children," Gyre said. 'You have a family, Ehail."
She smiled at Gyre. Nemaar disengaged and she adjusted her dress, then put the baby in his cradle. "I wonder about them," she acknowledged.
"Would you want to know about them? If the information were available."
Ehail placed a kiss on Nemaar's forehead and left the room. Gyre followed, after he kissed their son too.
"I am a wizard," she murmured. "I would have been able to find out if I were ever desperate to know... and if the shren house records weren't sealed up for a reason. Those people, whoever they are, didn't want me to know about them."
"So you're just respecting their wishes," he said, as they went to find Cenem and put her to bed.
"I suppose. I don't want to force myself on them."
Gyre swallowed. "What if you had brothers? Or sisters. They wouldn't have been the ones who decided to send you away."
"I guess that's true," Ehail said. "Do you think I should go through the dragon council, ask them to find out for me...?"
"It's up to you," Gyre said.
"I suppose they'd be able to figure it out," Ehail said. She spotted Cenem outside, attempting to chain plucked daisies together to imitate something out of one of her picture books without any understanding of how flower chains were actually made. "Cenem, sweetie, time for bed."
Cenem was put to bed, Rithka was indulged in a card game, Mallyn showed off his progress in learning to read Leraal, and finally all four kids were down for the night.
"You wouldn't have to go to the dragon council," Gyre blurted, when they were sitting together in their bed.
Ehail blinked. "...Because the representative already said he recognized me as a Hiral, and I could just look for those some other way? I think if I were looking for Hirals in general instead of just my relatives I'd do that through the dragon council too."
"Rhysel helped me convince Ludei to give me your parents' names," Gyre said, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand.
"But those records are sealed - without a letter from the parents he never -" Ehail trailed off. "No, what am I saying, this is Rhysel we're talking about, she could probably get anyone who ever cared about a baby shren to do anything she asked. But just their names wouldn't - did you find them?"
"Yes," Gyre said in a low voice.
"Oh." She picked at a piece of lint stuck to their blanket. "You didn't tell me."
"I would have, but - they wouldn't acknowledge that you existed. They talked to me, but only as if I were someone who walked up to their house off the street," Gyre said. "But they have two sons, Ehail. You have brothers."
"Brothers," she repeated.
"I don't know how to find them," he admitted. "Your parents didn't tell me that much. And I didn't know if you'd even want to know. But they're blood-related to Nemaar, and even though they've never met any of us, that might matter to them. It might be a good reason to look for them. If you want to, dear heart."
"The dragon council would know where they are," Ehail said.
"Yes, I suppose."
"What are my parents like?" Ehail asked in a soft voice. "What's my mother like?"
"She looks - exactly like you. She had her hair up. But she looked exactly like you, and it was unreal," Gyre murmured. "She sounded like you too, once I got her to talk in Martisen. It was disturbing to hear her refuse to acknowledge you. He's a blue opal. Very cordial, both of them, except when I tried to make the topic about you, and not about how I really wasn't the fellow they'd sent for to repair their flagstones."
"Oh." Of course her mother looked like her. She might have had a different hair color, or preferred a non-human form with some other face, or both - she didn't have to look the same - but no. Of course her mother looked just like her.
"Do you want to ask the dragon council to find your brothers?" Gyre asked. "They might need your parents' names to do it."
"What are their names?" Ehail whispered.
"Phyrnahiral," Gyre said, "and Sernetkaber."
Ehail wrote to her line representative, Euakotsi, and Eua came to the house a week and a half later with a bundle of papers copied out of the council's genealogical archive. "I filled you in where you belong in the family net," Eua said chattily. She wore a Petaran-looking human form, short and amber-eyed with a woolen fluff of silver hair. "So now you're there, in case your brothers aren't interested but they later have dragon children who are! But here's the registration data for both of them. You've got a silver big brother, and a blue opal clutchmate. Miklarsernet and Prathukaber. Miklar apparently just missed being a Sandor - one of your paternal great-grandfathers was a silver, and he lived to be old enough that he missed Miklar's naming ceremony by just months, isn't that a pity? But Miklar hasn't got the Sandor look anyway, so he'd just be a branch of theirs instead of being a divergence of the Kabers... Oh. Sorry. I'm being boring."
"I just... I'm not used to all this," Ehail said.
"I usually know when to shut up about line stuff," Eua said, waving a hand. "But it's your family so I thought... anyway. Your older brother is Miklar, silver, age 752, who's on his second wife and lives in Tava, two grown thudias, both living, twin parunias - now that's unusual, their poor little halfling Mommy! but oh, it says she's alive, so I suppose that's all right - and the twins are nineteen now. And your clutchmate is Prathu, blue opal, your age. I mean, of course your age. He's on his second husband, five thudias, two living, one parunia. My, what a lucky family, I never had any parunias, do you suppose it runs in the family, are you going to have enough babies for a good shot at it?... And Prathu lives in Reverni. Their addresses are here." She pushed papers at Ehail.
"Lypan, Reverni," read Ehail aloud. "I went to school there."
"He's lived there for a long time!" Eua said. "Maybe you saw him and didn't even know you were related! But you look like a perfectly canonical Hiral, you aren't even doing anything odd with your hair, so I think he would have recognized you if he had seen you. But there are lots of Hirals! Maybe he thought you were my cousin Lutee or something, barely related to him. I guess you can ask! Is there anything else you need from me? I know it's weird for me to be your line representative since you are just a perfect Hiral -"
"I'm not a Hiral."
"I know, not technically, but you know what I mean. And I'm not either! So it's strange for me to represent you, it wouldn't be if you were from a little line with two people in it but it's strange since you're not. But I'll help you with any line-representative things you need done anyway!"
"I think this will be fine. Thank you, Eua," Ehail said, running her fingers over the address in Lypan. It was in the Hay District. She'd been through there once, looking for cheaper textbooks than the ones the school sold. She didn't think she'd been down Broad Street.
And her hair had been brown, so without a good look at her face this Prathu person wouldn't have recognized her at all, but she didn't want to talk to Eua about that.
"Okay! I'll go home, then," Eua said. "It's so nice to see you taking your place among us! Welcome!" She waved - Ehail did not understand how someone could act so energetic and chipper while ostensibly being more than two thousand years old - and let herself out.
"Prathu," Ehail said experimentally. "Miklar."
Maybe they would want her.
Gyre read over her letters for her, which were spare and talked around most of the details, but said that she'd gotten their information through the council, was Prathu's clutchmate, wanted to know them. She listed the biographical details ("married to a Barashin half-elf half-human, we have a thudia together and an adopted iron, adopted jet, and adopted Barashin elf who are the following ages, we live in Paraasilan"). She had rather intrusive amounts of corresponding information about them. She wrote in Leraal so Gyre could read it with the help of his pocket dictionary he'd bought at the circle, but he didn't have any changes to suggest. She put them in the mail.
She took Rithka and Mallyn to their sports, Cenem to choir, Mallyn to his tutoring sessions with the mind kamai student. She took all of them - plus Kenar when he was there - swimming and to visit the edge of the world and to picnic on the moon and to see plays and concerts and to see all of Gyre's family, especially Batai and Karyn and their four. She fixed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and taught every subject on the National Standards list. Once weekly, she left the kids alone with Gyre and teleported to Petar to look after the maintenance of the barely-populated Lator house.
And she waited.
It felt like longer than it really was. After about two weeks, she had two letters - like they'd coordinated. Maybe they had.
She dithered about which to open first, and finally went to Gyre, thrust them in his direction, and shut her eyes and told him to give her one.
She opened the envelope without looking and unfolded the letter, then opened her eyes. It was Prathu's.
I tried to write to you once when we were kids. Mom and Dad didn't mean to tell me you existed, but I found out - I don't even remember how - and they caught me writing you a letter. I never tried that again, but I guess they can't do anything about it now. I won't tell them if you don't!
I live in the Hay District with my husband and my parunia daughter from my last marriage. Two elf thudias from this marriage are grown and out of the house and you've got two grand-nieces and a grand-nephew that way. The thudias from the last marriage were half-human, and their descendants are pretty thinly related by now, but I know where they're all at if you're very serious about getting in touch with family.
My husband is Izaln, my parunia's name is Sashpark, and my elf thudias are Feln and Eresti. I showed all of them your letter and Sashpark especially wants to meet you. You and your husband and kids are all welcome at my house (it's above my cheese shop) any time. Izaln and Sashpark are both home by tenth-and-same. I'm in the store all day up until then, so if you just want to meet me, come in. I'll give you free cheese.
If there's anything else you want to know about me/us, you can ask! I'm just not sure what all to put in here. There's a gap between "not close enough to this person to do anything but small talk" and "live with this person, and can talk about whether to have rice or noodles for dinner" and you've dropped right into it - you're my
I might be able to find time to visit you in a while, but my shop is open every day and I just had to fire my employees for behavior I don't even want to write about. Sashpark will only mind the shop if I bribe her, which I suspect isn't the best of parenting methods.
- Sincerely, Prathu
I tried to write to you once when we were kids. Mom and Dad didn't mean to tell me you existed, but I found out - I don't even remember how - and they caught me writing you a letter. I never tried that again, but I guess they can't do anything about it now. I won't tell them if you don't!
I live in the Hay District with my husband and my parunia daughter from my last marriage. Two elf thudias from this marriage are grown and out of the house and you've got two grand-nieces and a grand-nephew that way. The thudias from the last marriage were half-human, and their descendants are pretty thinly related by now, but I know where they're all at if you're very serious about getting in touch with family.
My husband is Izaln, my parunia's name is Sashpark, and my elf thudias are Feln and Eresti. I showed all of them your letter and Sashpark especially wants to meet you. You and your husband and kids are all welcome at my house (it's above my cheese shop) any time. Izaln and Sashpark are both home by tenth-and-same. I'm in the store all day up until then, so if you just want to meet me, come in. I'll give you free cheese.
If there's anything else you want to know about me/us, you can ask! I'm just not sure what all to put in here. There's a gap between "not close enough to this person to do anything but small talk" and "live with this person, and can talk about whether to have rice or noodles for dinner" and you've dropped right into it - you're mysister, but I don't know hardly anything about you! I'll read anything you want to write. Or hear anything you want to say, if you come here.
I might be able to find time to visit you in a while, but my shop is open every day and I just had to fire my employees for behavior I don't even want to write about. Sashpark will only mind the shop if I bribe her, which I suspect isn't the best of parenting methods.
- Sincerely, Prathu
Ehail read the letter twice, then handed it to Gyre - Prathu had written in Leraal just as she had. She picked up Miklar's letter.
Sorry this took so long! I didn't know we had a miracle in the family and wanted a while to talk over how best to welcome you, with my wife Tialinh and my sons Gahav and Attan. I think that if we want to visit, it'd be best to do it at either your place or maybe Prathu's - we live in a halfling-proportioned apartment in Tava, and while I imagine you can fit in here since you'd be Mom's height and she's short in human form, your husband probably can't, and I don't know about the Barashin elf kid either. (It's a funny coincidence - I only heard about Barashi existing at all last month. A fellow in your city is using witchcraft formulae that use Barashin plants and I read a writeup of that. I work as a witch myself.)
I've enclosed a recent picture of my girls. I'm afraid I can't tell you which one is Nivah and which one is Aji. They won't tell us - the only way to figure it out is for me or Tialinh to watch them while the other goes somewhere out of earshot and sings one dragonsong or the other, and see which one reacts. They mix themselves up again as soon as they can. Short of permanently denting a few scales (not something I'm going to do to them on purpose!) or calling in an empath to check them, there's no good way to avoid confusing them when they'll sabotage us if we try, so we just let it happen.
At any rate, I'd love to meet you. I'm free every Fenen all day, and most evenings, but given enough notice I can fly to Esmaar (or down to Reverni) any day of the week by rearranging my hours, and of course I can bring the girls. Tialinh's time is more limited, but we can work something out - tell us about your schedule!
Sorry this took so long! I didn't know we had a miracle in the family and wanted a while to talk over how best to welcome you, with my wife Tialinh and my sons Gahav and Attan. I think that if we want to visit, it'd be best to do it at either your place or maybe Prathu's - we live in a halfling-proportioned apartment in Tava, and while I imagine you can fit in here since you'd be Mom's height and she's short in human form, your husband probably can't, and I don't know about the Barashin elf kid either. (It's a funny coincidence - I only heard about Barashi existing at all last month. A fellow in your city is using witchcraft formulae that use Barashin plants and I read a writeup of that. I work as a witch myself.)
I've enclosed a recent picture of my girls. I'm afraid I can't tell you which one is Nivah and which one is Aji. They won't tell us - the only way to figure it out is for me or Tialinh to watch them while the other goes somewhere out of earshot and sings one dragonsong or the other, and see which one reacts. They mix themselves up again as soon as they can. Short of permanently denting a few scales (not something I'm going to do to them on purpose!) or calling in an empath to check them, there's no good way to avoid confusing them when they'll sabotage us if we try, so we just let it happen.
At any rate, I'd love to meet you. I'm free every Fenen all day, and most evenings, but given enough notice I can fly to Esmaar (or down to Reverni) any day of the week by rearranging my hours, and of course I can bring the girls. Tialinh's time is more limited, but we can work something out - tell us about your schedule!
Ehail handed that letter on to Gyre too, and sat, thinking.
Her life had gotten so full of people.
"Well," she said into the silence, after Gyre put down her elder brother's letter. "We should go see them."
Ehail could teleport to Lypan, whereas she'd need to fly at least partway to Miklar's place in Lan Quero; Prathu had also opened himself up to drop-ins where Miklar hadn't.
The Hay District had been a sparsely traveled area of mostly warehouses, hole-in-the wall stores and restaurants, and the world's first scoot factory (which had churned out unsafe, clunky vehicles that could barely fly), back when Ehail had attended school. The modern-day Hay District had several warehouses, but also contained residences and brightly stained-glass-fronted shops and islands in the streets with miniature flower gardens. Every corner was decorated with the Revernian flag, the state flag, the municipal flag, the Hay District flag, or a combination. The police made themselves a visible presence, pausing arbitrary passersby to find out what they were doing and send them on their way.
Ehail and Gyre were waved over by an officer as soon as they popped into place. "What brings you here, folks?" he asked them, fidgeting with a pin on his collar.
"We're here to visit my brother," Ehail said. "Can you give us directions? I haven't been here in a long time." She showed him the address.
"Up that way, turn left at the garden-island with the water feature, it'll be on your right," said the officer. "Have a good time!"
Ehail smiled and followed the directions. "What did he want?" Gyre asked.
"Should I have put a translation spell on you before we left? Since we were only going to see Prathu I didn't think of it. He just wanted to know where we were going," Ehail said.
"What makes it his business?" Gyre asked, frowning.
"Reverni is like that. More so now than it used to be, but there were always a lot of police. I'm just glad they never asked me what species I was when I was in school, only where I was going. I didn't wander around much then anyway."
They found the cheese shop. Its front window was bands of frosted glass in yellow, white, and orange, and the door was propped open. The man behind the door was tall and solidly built, with light brown skin and close-cut darker brown hair that would have let him pass for a local human save his sparkling blue eyes.
"Ehail?" he guessed when they walked in. "And that would make you... Gyre?"
Ehail nodded. Gyre said, "And you must be Prathu. Nice to meet you."
Prathu smiled tentatively at Ehail. "You too," he said. "So, er, welcome to Reverni. I didn't expect you here this soon. Even when I could leave the shop to my staff I tended to plan ahead by a week or two to fly across an ocean."
"I went to the Lypan Institute, a long time ago," Ehail said quietly. "I could teleport most of the way."
"Oh, so you're a wizard! Neat!" Prathu said. "I, er, I own this cheese shop. It's more interesting than it sounds. Do you want any cheese?"
"Maybe. What do you recommend?" Ehail asked, looking around at the selection. Blue paint on the counters and shelves signified that they were enchanted to keep cold. They held individual wedges and wheels of cheese, wrapped in glass paper or sitting in jars of brine. "Are you allowed to distribute to non-citizens?"
"Yeah, I have a permit for that," Prathu said. "My current favorite is the basket cheese over there in the blue jars... You didn't get citizenship here while you were in school?"
"No. Petaran exchange program," Ehail said, looking for something she could put on the pasta she had planned for dinner. "It allowed me ten years' residency and I didn't have to, um, answer as many questions as I would have had to if I'd gone for citizenship."
"Oh. Right." Prathu swallowed. "I did try to write you once when we were kids."
"I believe you," Ehail said.
"Mom and Dad practically scaled me alive. They'd never been so mad. They wouldn't even tell Miklar what I was in trouble for. He kept asking me if I'd killed someone." Prathu shook his head. "I don't know how far you're planning to go in the plan to unite with the family, but... maybe leave them be. I've got a whole lot of great-great-grandchildren and such to occupy you if me and my husband and our kids and their kids and Sashpark won't do the trick."
"I'm not planning to go bother them," Ehail murmured.
"That cheese over there with the pink mold is Sashpark's favorite," Prathu said, abruptly changing the subject. "Let me know if you want a taste of any of these before you pick out what you want."
"Where is Sashpark? Is she in school?" Ehail asked.
"Has to be until she's a hundred and seventy," Prathu said. "They let her skip every other semester, though, since she's got to spend so many more years on it than a non-dragon would. She's on until the end of this month and then off until spring. And even during the semester she's only there alternate days - our district is on an interlocked double schedule so they can use the schools and staff for twice as many students." He scratched the back of his neck. "I'm rambling, sorry."
"It's fine," Ehail assured him. "We're thinking of sending our son Mallyn to school for magic soon. He has Barashin magic called kamai, and he wants to be a wizard, too... there's a school in town that will teach him both."
"I thought Esmaarlanik didn't go to school," said Prathu blankly.
"Some of them do. Only for specialized things, usually," Ehail said. "I teach the girls at home - but Rithka sometimes goes to work with Gyre."
"Did you grow up in Reverni, Prathu?" asked Gyre.
"No," Prathu said, "Mekand, but I moved here when I got old enough. It was more important to be geographically central before teleportation got so common, selling something like cheese... and I like the place."
"Why cheese?" Ehail asked.
"I've always liked it. And it's more interesting than you might think," Prathu said, warming up to the topic, when footsteps sounded from the door.
"Hi, Dad," said a brown-skinned brown-eyed girl with long puffy spangled-blue hair and a shirt saturated with orange flowers. "...Grandma...? Oh! No, you must be Aunt Ehail. Hi! I'm Sashpark! I'm more interesting than cheese, so it's lucky I came when I did. School let out early because the anthem rally was canceled because the dance choir all have the south flu, Dad."
"What, all of them?" asked Prathu.
"Well, no, but enough to cancel an anthem rally over. So I'm home. Hi, Aunt Ehail! Hi, Linnipese-half-elf-looking-person! It's nice to meet you!"
"I'm from Barashi," Gyre told her, amused. "I'm your uncle Gyre."
"Hi, Uncle Gyre!" Sashpark replied, undaunted. "So what do you do?"
"Ehail was just telling me that she's a wizard," Prathu said.
"Nifty," Sashpark said. "Can you fix our oven?"
"Probably," Ehail said, at the same time as Prathu said, "Sashpark! That's rude!"
"What? I just asked her if she could. But it'd be great if she did fix it. You're too cheap to hire someone to do it. At this rate we're going to have to cook everything on the stovetop until we can file for hardship. Come on," Sashpark said, rolling her eyes.
"Show me?" Ehail asked, and Sashpark gestured for her to follow. A rickety set of metal stairs led from the street to a second-floor balcony attached to the building, but Sashpark turned into a butterfly - or, no, looking closer, a fairy - and avoided them altogether. Ehail followed suit in bluejay form, while Prathu and Gyre went sedately up the steps on foot.
"Jay, neat," commented fairy-Sashpark, going in through an open window that had just enough room for Ehail to get through too, and then both shifted back to their human shapes. The window led to the kitchen, which was wallpapered in green and gold and smelled even more of cheese than the shop did. "There," Sashpark said, half-falling into a kitchen chair and grabbing a kiwi from the fruit bowl on the table. She bit into it, skin and all. "It doesn't heat up."
Ehail cast an analysis on the oven, and had just decided which spell it needed by the time Gyre and Prathu came in. "I can fix this," she told Prathu, ending the analysis. "Do you want me to?"
"I don't want to put you to any trouble - we mostly do things on the stove anyway," Prathu said.
"It's not a problem. In exchange for the cheese?" Ehail suggested. "I think I'd like to try the pink kind on our way out."
"If you put it that way... all right," said Prathu, smiling and shrugging.
Ehail cast two spells to patch up the stove and sat down next to Gyre. "How's school, Sashpark?" she asked.
"It's okay, but I hate civics," Sashpark said around a bite of kiwi. "For stuff like history I can just learn about a lot of different history, there's tons, but civics is always the same and I'm not allowed to skip it and do an extra creative writing or art or something. Ugh. Here's how to fill out tax forms, here's how to rent apartments, here's how to fill out nine hundred kinds of paperwork, here's how to cooperate with cops, here's why we have five bodies of legislature and why they're all sooooo important. It hasn't changed in fifty years. And they only find the budget to send us on field trips to the Tower of the Capital every four years or so even though we live in the capital. Can I come live with you in Esmaar, Aunt Ehail? I know Esmaarlan kids don't have to go to school."
"Sashpark!" exclaimed Prathu.
"Oh, never mind," she grumbled. "Only I'm almost done with my book! I wish I had more time to work on it."
"You're writing a book?" Gyre asked her.
She nodded rapidly. "It's about a World's Four Corners light-aide who goes to help the wounded in war-torn Pleia and then she gets involved with a soldier she helps and they have a forbidden romance. And, you know, a war, because there's a war. But mostly it's about the forbidden romance. But you can't read it yet! It's not ready!"
"All right," said Gyre mildly. "But it's impressive that you've written a book."
Sashpark propelled most of the rest of the conversation, but Ehail and Gyre eventually had to go home to pick up the children from their various activities.
Ehail teleported herself and her husband, a wedge of pink cheese in her pocket.
Chapter 19: Kinship
Half a dozen letters back and forth sufficed to pin down a time when Miklar and his wife and daughters could visit. Before that date arrived, though, Prathu - his husband and three living children and three living grandchildren in tow - found a chance to do the same. "Rehired an old employee who quit to go to school and hasn't found work yet," he explained, when Ehail asked him what he'd done with the shop.
"She talks weird now that she knows all that philosophy," Sashpark said, squeezing past her father and into the house to stare down her curious cousins. "But she still brought me a paper pixie like she used to when she worked there before. I like her. Hullo everybody."
"This is my husband, Izaln," Prathu said of an aging blue-eyed Eastern elf, "and our twins Feln and Eresti." Feln, the woman, and Eresti, her brother, had their elf father's eyes and his silver-white hair - if either resembled Prathu at all, it would be in Prathu's hypothetical elf form or in their hidden miniature dragon shapes.
Feln carried her son on her hip, though he looked a trifle old for that; Eresti was leading two little brunette girls by the hand. The three children all looked close to the same age, and were all elves. "I think the kids can introduce themselves."
"I'm Brennde," said the probable eldest, sticking out her hand. "I'm twenty-seven! My mommy would've come but she has to work."
Her sister Valli introduced herself while Brennde went around shaking everyone's hands, and the boy permitted his mother to set him down so he could announce himself as Zermin from a more dignified position. Feln explained her husband's absence as being due to a desire to avoid particularly dense family reunions, but offered to bring him over on some other occasion.
Rithka, closest in equivalent age to Ehail's grand-niblings, hauled all three up to her room to induct them into the mysteries of pel-pwon, her newest board game. Cenem sat on Gyre's shoulders and watched the proceedings with mild interest, as everyone greeted everyone in various combinations and Prathu gave Ehail a tentative hug.
Dinner was in the oven, but before it was due out, everyone besides those who'd disappeared upstairs assembled themselves in the kitchen. Mallyn and Sashpark sat near each other. It was crowded with mismatched chairs; another table in the living room would contain the younger kids when dinner was served. "So," Gyre said, sounding like Martisen to Ehail through the translation spell but presumably rendering as Munine to the monolingual among the visitors. "I know Prathu's got the shop, but what do the rest of you do?"
"Real estate," Izaln said, "but I'm thinking about retiring soon."
"I edit the Encyclopedia Ennda," Eresti said. "Fact-checking, sometimes proofreading close to press time."
"Feln?" Gyre prompted when she was silent.
"Classified," Feln replied in clipped tones. "What's that lovely smell?"
Ehail blinked. "It's a fish casserole... Classified?"
"As in, I can't talk about it. I understand you're a wizard, Ehail? Dad said you fixed his oven."
"I did," Ehail said. "I, er, I actually went to school in Lypan."
"And I'm a jeweler," Gyre said, lifting one of his hands to shake the ever-present wedding bracelet around his wrist. Ehail touched the necklace at her throat.
"Those are super-pretty," said Sashpark.
"Thanks," Gyre said. "If you ever want a little something, let me know."
"I like bright things," Sashpark said, gesturing at her brilliant scarlet shirt. It clashed terribly with her hair. "Copper and citrines and rubies and stuff."
"I'll keep that in mind," laughed Gyre.
Rithka, followed by Brennde, Valli, and Zermin, charged down the stairs. "We," she announced, "are all hungry!"
"Then it's a good thing it's almost dinner, isn't it?" said Ehail. "You four are at the table in the living room. Sashpark and Mallyn can sit there too, if they want," she said, glancing at the pair of them where they were holding their quiet conversation. Neither seemed inclined to go sit at the kids' table.
The timer Ehail had cast chimed, and she took out the dinner and started plating squares of it. "There's cheese in this," Sashpark said when she saw her own plate, "isn't there."
"Yes," Ehail said.
"Oh well," sighed Sashpark theatrically. "I've only had cheese every day of my life for a hundred and fifty-six years, that's all. It probably doesn't build up to toxic levels for at least a hundred and sixty-two."
That got a laugh out of Mallyn, and Ehail smiled. "It's not cheese from your father's shop," she said. "We ate that a while ago."
"What kind is this?" Prathu asked, poking at a bit of fish on his plate with his fork. "No, don't tell me, I'll see if I can guess."
Prathu guessed the cheese correctly, prompting gentle ribbing from all three of his kids. When everyone had finished their casserole and the pie that came after that, the kids, this time including Cenem and Mallyn and Sashpark, all went upstairs, and Feln demonstrated an ability to come up with endless conversation topics - possibly due to practicing every time someone asked her about her job.
The guests went home after Cenem buzzed downstairs and asked for her bedtime story; Ehail saw them out while Gyre read Cenem something out of The Mice in Formal Wear Omnibus Edition.
"I like Sashpark," Mallyn commented after everyone was out.
"You seemed to get along with her quite well," Ehail agreed.
"But we had an argument," he said.
"About our grandparents."
"Oh." Ehail looked away.
"I told her the story about Grandma Allera." Ehail suspected he meant the one about shunning her until she learned to tolerate magic - she hadn't told him the story, but he could have heard it from Rithka, or maybe Rhysel, or from Allera herself. "Sashpark thought it was awful of everybody to shun her."
"I don't know if your Grandma Allera would agree that it was awful," Ehail said.
"And when I said maybe I could have your parents as grandparents too, if Sashpark and everybody else they do want to talk to stopped, she got mad at me," said Mallyn.
"Sweetheart," murmured Ehail, hugging Mallyn. "I don't know enough about them to have any idea if they'd react the same way - and - it's not quite the same thing in the first place - and -"
"Sashpark cares more about not having to fight with her grandparents than about whether they're doing what's right," Mallyn said.
"Sashpark only has one set of grandparents left, Mallyn," Ehail said. "Her other father was a human. His parents are long gone by now. If we leave everything how it is, you and Sashpark both get one set of grandparents. If she shuns them, she doesn't get any."
"She didn't say that." He swallowed. "She just said it would be awful to shun her grandparents. But they should be ours. That's how we're cousins."
"I'm sorry it didn't work out that way, sweetheart," Ehail said, hugging him tighter. "I wish I could give you the usual number of grandparents. But my parents decided a long time ago that they didn't want the job, and they haven't changed their minds."
"Like Rithka's?" Mallyn asked, after a furtive glance around turned up no evidence of the named sister.
"I suppose," Ehail replied in a low voice. There had been no suggestion that Rithka's egg-parents were going to make themselves known. This didn't seem to be an ongoing source of distress to Rithka, though occasionally she had miniature crises about it, often timed around Kenar's visits or Cenem's outings with Marlii and Lhenrath. "But sweetheart, at least now you get three new uncles, a new aunt, and plenty of new cousins. You did say you liked Sashpark."
"She likes my drawings," he said, "and she had a good idea for how to remember the rule about pronouns in Leraal, and except about her grandparents she's nice. And she's funny." He swallowed. "But..."
"You're allowed to like people even if they do one or two things you don't like very much," Ehail said.
Mallyn nodded slowly. "When do we meet Uncle Miklar and Aunt Tialinh and their babies?" he asked.
"Next week," said Ehail.
The next week, Miklar landed in their yard, and on his back were a white-haired halfling woman and two indistinguishable silver babies. They dismounted - the babies fluttering, the halfling unrolling a rope ladder and climbing down that way - and Miklar changed into his own halfling shape. It was the chromatic opposite of his pale wife: black hair, black goatee, and navy blue skin corresponding to the Rimdweller halfling population, but of course he had silver eyes.
"Hello," said the twin parunias together when they'd fluttered up to the door. Their parents approached behind them.
"Hello," Ehail returned. "I'm told that you won't let me know which of you is Nivah and which of you is Aji."
"That's right," they said, still in unison.
Cenem, when she spotted them, turned into her slightly larger dragon form and flowed around Ehail's knees to go out and meet them. Miklar and Tialinh caught up.
"You might be more comfortable in human form, in this house," Ehail told Miklar. "Prathu implied that you have one."
"I have, but I'm used to this one. So are Tialinh and the girls," said Miklar. "Besides, apart from the eyes, my human form looks like Prathu's. Wouldn't that be confusing?"
"A little," Ehail admitted. It might have been her imagination, but she thought Miklar paused when he named their brother; maybe he'd meant to refer to their father instead. "Come in, please."
"We want to play outside!" chorused the twins, and Cenem a beat after.
"You can if you like," Ehail said agreeably. Tialinh and Miklar took her invitation, though, and entered the house.
"So what do witches do?" Gyre asked Miklar when everyone had served themselves little plates off the tray of snacks.
Rithka was trying very hard to sit still and look serious, and was eating crackers and a jelly blend that she normally eschewed on the grounds that they were "grownup food". "Witches make potions, Daddy," she told Gyre.
"I was asking your uncle Miklar," Gyre said gently, "since he's a witch."
"And anyway, I haven't made a potion like the kinds you find in stores in years," Miklar said. "I mostly work with industrial substances lately, not headache cures and shampoo. More like ore refiners, solvents, dyes. And every Sinen I teach basic water treatment craft at the community center."
"Water treatment?" Gyre asked.
"Well, you can conjure water all you like, that's cheap," Miklar said, "but it's just water - it's not like rain or river water which has a taste, some minerals, that sort of thing. A pinch of this, a pinch of that, and some very introductory witchcraft can get you a batch of water that tastes better and some people consider it healthier. And if you get stuck without your waterspout somewhere, you want to be sure that the water you can find - assuming you find some - is safe. Witching it up a bit can do that."
"What about you, Tialinh?" Ehail asked the diminutive woman. Tialinh and Miklar were sharing a couch cushion, pressing their knees together. "What do you do?"
"I'm on Tava's import regulation commission," said Tialinh.
"What's that mean?" Rithka asked. She had abandoned some of her pretended adulthood by scooting over into Mallyn's lap.
"It means that when people in Tava want to buy something that's grown or made outside of Tava, I help make sure it's safe and legal, because we don't have the same product safety standards or laws about what people ought to buy as everyone else," Tialinh said. "When there's something that's very popular in Tava from outside, I work with the people who make it to help that go more smoothly so not every transaction has to go through the commission."
Nivah and Aji (whichever was which) gamboled in from the garden with Cenem at their tails. "Mummy, Daddy, we want to go flying, with Cenem," they said. "May we?"
"How far?" Miklar asked.
"Not very," they said.
"To Aunt Rhysel's," Cenem put in. "And back. She has a kind of rose from Barashi and they want to see it."
"That's a couple of miles away, to Gyre's sister's place," Ehail told Miklar and Tialinh, "and we let the kids go by themselves when they like. Cenem has my dragonsong."
"The twins have mine," said Miklar. "But I don't know..."
"I could go with and be supervisory," offered Rithka.
Eventually Miklar and Tialinh were persuaded to release their twins to the expedition, provided Rithka went along and also brought Mallyn on her back. He was filling out - and had, upon beginning to keep a reasonable diet, begun to grow taller again at a rapid clip - but she was still capable of keeping up with dragons half her size while carrying him. He'd made enough progress at controlling his kamai outbursts that he could be among unwarded people - he would still produce uncontrolled effects if he tripped, hiccupped, or was startled, but Korulen had helped him track down the outlets that produced the worst dangers, and he would do nothing more harmful than rain on people or produce colorful glass beads that had to be distributed to eager sisters.
"At some point," Miklar said when Tialinh had left off watching the children depart and sat back down, "you should meet my sons, Gahav and Attan - and Attan has a daughter and a granddaughter, too. My daughter-in-law is no longer with us, unfortunately..."
"I never realized I came from such a large family," Ehail murmured.
"We're not a large family," Miklar said, surprised. "As dragons go, that is. I mean, Prathu had four kids with his previous husband, but not a dozen. It's just the two - three - of us in our generation. And we're already in our seventh and eighth centuries and none of us has been married more than twice, unless you've been up to more than you mentioned in your letter."
"I've never been married to anyone but Gyre," Ehail said.
"Dragons just sort of accumulate relatives," said Miklar. "I suppose it's easier to follow when you get used to them slowly. You can wait on meeting my sons if you like, of course."
Ehail nodded. "We've been busy here - the kids have a lot of activities, and Gyre's usually at work during the day, and I'm -" She'd been about to mention going back to the house for maintenance; she decided against it. "- dealing with Nemaar. He naps well, though."
"Thudia babies are trickier than parunias," said Miklar sagely, "at least when they still are babies. Except for mixing themselves up constantly ours aren't much trouble. But if you need tips with your sprout I remember a thing or two from handling my boys, back when."
There didn't seem to be as much to say to Miklar as there had been to Prathu; Ehail wasn't sure if that was because he'd brought fewer people or because he just wasn't as friendly for some reason, but at any rate Miklar and Tialinh excused themselves once their daughters had returned from viewing Rhysel's rose garden. "Thank you for having us, Aunt Ehail," the twins said politely.
"You're welcome," she replied, and they went.
"Mom?" said Mallyn. She was feeding Nemaar, which he usually avoided being present for; she looked up with mild alarm.
"What is it, sweetheart?"
"Can I go visit Sashpark by myself?" he asked.
"How would you do that?" Ehail asked. "I can't teleport you - there's no one here to watch Nemaar and Cenem and Rithka."
"Aunt Rhysel has a transfer point set up in Lypan," he said. "It's got one of the schools that wanted to add a kamai program."
"So she'd be taking you?" Ehail asked.
Mallyn nodded. "I asked her when I was there with Nivah and Aji yesterday."
"And is Sashpark off school today?"
"Yes. She's off odd-numbered days this month."
"Well, that's fine with me, as long as it doesn't interfere with your lessons with me or Korulen," Ehail said. "And sometimes I may be able to teleport you there, when there's someone to watch the other kids. You know my dragonsong, right? Sing it if you need me."
"Yes. Thanks, Mom," Mallyn said. He ducked out.
Mallyn came home angles later, in time for dinner. Ehail put a plate of noodles in front of him. "Did you have a good time with Sashpark?" she asked.
"Yes," Mallyn replied. "Um, she decided we should date."
"What?" Gyre said.
"Really?" Ehail said.
"Son, Sashpark is your cousin," Gyre said.
"That's what I said," Mallyn said. "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. Is it okay?"
"You're a little young to be dating, aren't you?" Ehail asked, chewing her lip.
"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. 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 said. "So I don't look stupid when I - have a regular girlfriend, later. If I do."
Gyre thought, looking perplexed, but finally 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 and endured Rithka beginning to pester him about how he had a giiiiiirlfriend and her interest in whether he had kiiiiiiissed her.
Kenar's next visit was at the end of Komehel. "I found out we're related," he told Ehail when he'd put his knapsack up in his room.
"...Oh?" she said. She didn't think he'd just recently realized that her name was still on a canceled adoption paper, never crossed out.
"Rthan's cousin is your dad, apparently," Kenar said. "I met some extended family at a flight competition - Tanzil and Simnel compete in the kids' leagues together, they do relays - and a distant cousin was talking to me about books and then she mentioned her boyfriend Mallyn and I don't think that's a common name so I asked. So apparently we're actually related."
"Oh," said Ehail.
"I thought you'd maybe like that," Kenar said, shrugging awkwardly.
Ehail had no idea if she liked it or not.
Mallyn was ready for school in Marahel. He controlled his outbursts without fail - Rhysel was fantastically impressed with him - and was making progress in maintaining his energy levels by doing this with increasing efficiency. (He was still drained every time he suppressed a burst of magic, ate ravenously to make up for it, and had become taller than Ehail.) He was sufficiently competent in Leraal to attend classes taught exclusively in that language and had started teaching himself Munine in his spare time so he'd be better able to operate during his visits to Reverni. Ehail was full to bursting with pride.
A few weeks after he learned to use transfer points, he came home from a visit to Sashpark and knocked on Ehail's office doorframe. "Mom?"
"Um, I... did something."
"What was it?" she asked.
He swallowed. "I convinced Sashpark to help me, about... our... grandparents."
Ehail felt cold, and could no longer assume that this was an actual temperature change wrought by Mallyn's flailing kamai. "Oh?"
"She had a hatching day party. They came. She told them she was inviting her boyfriend. They didn't know who I was."
He was shaking and avoiding eye contact; Ehail got to her feet and held out her arms, and he almost fell towards her. "But I went to their house once - a while ago - and tried to talk to them and get them to change their minds, so they recognized me when they got to the party, and they acted like I'd killed someone or something. And I asked Uncle Prathu to back me up and he told me to leave him out of it, and then I ran out to transfer point home and Feln followed me and said I'd gone about it stupidly but I didn't want to listen to her insult me so I just left, but now I don't have any way to try again, the time I went to their house they said they'd call the cops on me if I ever went there again, and now they know that I'm Sashpark's boyfriend so I can't even try again with a better idea, and I just want an entire family now that I have one worth having at all and - and -"
It was probably the largest speech he'd ever uttered - even graduation to full sentences hadn't made Mallyn a chatterbox - and by the time he trailed off he was weeping on Ehail's shoulder. "Oh, sweetheart," she murmured, still cold. Were her parents - those people - whoever they were - she knew what they'd look like, but nothing of their personalities - what was going through their heads? Were they angry, would they retaliate, had they been slowly changing and then been thrown swiftly back into rigid refusal to hear of her by the shock, had he made otherwise decent people who had raised good sons miserable by mentioning her to them...?
Did they even know her name? Ludei had named her; her name hadn't been written on her egg's packaging. Gyre might not have had occasion to mention it when he spoke to them. Mallyn would have called her "Mom". Did her parents know her name?
"Oh, sweetheart," she said again.
Mallyn hugged her tight. "I'm sorry," he said. "I screwed up. I'm sorry."
Two angles later, Feln rang the doorbell, and Ehail left off the soberly conducted game of pel-pwon she and the kids were playing to answer it.
"Hello, Ehail," Feln said. "I told Mallyn that if he didn't tell you about what happened at Sashpark's hatching day party, I would. Did he?"
"He did," Ehail murmured, reaching behind her to touch Mallyn's head. He was shaking again, and looking mutinously at his cousin.
"Ehail," Feln said, "it was my impression that you wanted to leave Grandma and Grandpa alone. I didn't particularly speculate on why you'd want that, but there are any number of reasons it was plausible. It is true?"
"I... I didn't think there was much choice involved," Ehail said. "They've made it more than clear that they didn't want me..."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean they're unpersuadable. No one has been trying because no one except your moody teenage son has indicated he wanted to make it an issue."
"Uncle Prathu said -!" began Mallyn indignantly.
"My dad is one person, and one of his traits is an allergy to confrontation," Feln snapped. "If you'd gone to anyone else in the room for support you'd have gotten it. Notice that he also didn't side against you. I'm not offering you help sugar-coated, but I am offering you help, and I, unlike Sashpark, am an adult who can come up with more sophisticated plans than tricking them into the same room as you during Sashpark's hatching day party, which they came to equipped with beribboned presents and not their inmost feelings about their offspring. If you don't yet understand that it was a lousy idea to try to handle this on your own without any grown-ups helping you, Mallyn, then you aren't as smart as Sashpark claims."
"Feln..." said Ehail, trying to think of something to say to defend her son, but she wasn't sure that she was wrong.
"Do you," Feln asked, "want the rest of the family to attempt to get you and Grandma and Grandpa reconciled?"
"I - I - I don't know," Ehail whispered. "Can you stay for an angle - stay for dinner - Gyre will be home, I need to talk to him."
"All right," Feln said, taking a seat and ignoring Mallyn's grouchy look. "Thanks."
Gyre was home when expected, and listened to Ehail and Feln explain the situation between them. "You thought Ehail didn't want to meet her parents?" he asked Feln.
"If I were her, I'd resent them pretty badly," Feln said, shrugging. "Or maybe I wouldn't much care for not-miracle sorts of dragons. Or something like that. It seemed like it might explain the facts I had to work with, and I didn't make it my top priority to learn otherwise. But Mallyn's blowup suggested that it at least wasn't a family consensus."
"I don't know what to do," Ehail said to Gyre in a small voice.
He kissed her cheek. "You don't have to decide right away," he said.
"I'll think about it," Ehail said. "If that's okay."
"Fine by me," said Feln.
They might not even know her name.
Gyre said he hadn't gotten to it - they'd interrupted whenever he'd said "your daughter"; they'd sent him away before he'd thought of switching to "my wife"; she'd heard no indication that Mallyn had used it.
They were acting as a unit, her mother and her father both, but she didn't know if they moved that harmoniously by nature or if one might be more reluctant the other - if one or the other might, let alone or encouraged gently, want to meet her at least once, confirm the family resemblance, learn her name.
It was possible they'd like her if they met her, if she was very polite to them.
It was possible that, backed into a corner, they'd be like Allera - who Ehail still called "Mother", planned to go on calling "Mother" no matter what, but was only calling "Mother" because her real one had been absent to begin with and Allera had changed first.
It was possible that if Ehail got enough help, her mother could be coaxed to ask for forgiveness like Allera had.
And they might not even know her name.
Ehail squeezed Gyre's hand, probably too tightly, and teleported to the Blue Park in Lypan. Neutral territory, Feln's idea. Feln was there, and Miklar, who didn't share his brother's hatred of conflict, and - Ehail saw when she took a slow step forward and could see past Feln - Prathu's longer-haired double, and her own mirror image. Blue opal father and silver mother.
She took another step, looking at her feet as they shuffled through blue grass and continuing to clutch Gyre's hand in hers.
She reached the edge of the patterned picnic blanket, and forced herself to look into eyes just like hers.
"Hello," she said quaveringly. "My name is Ehail."