Chapter Sixteen: 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.