Chapter Fifteen: 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.