Chapter Eleven: 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.