Chapter Twelve: 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."