Chapter One: 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.