Chapter Two: Presence
Rhysel and her husband came by right on schedule to treat the babies on Lunen, newlyweds though they were, and afterwards stopped at Ehail's office for new translations. Ehail handed them over, including the specifications for her dragon magic analysis, and Aar Camlenn started reading the description of the intentional components. "Ehail, do you have a moment?" Rhysel asked when the silver had turned to go back into her office and resume work.
"Yes," Ehail said.
"Do you remember meeting my brother Gyre at the wedding?"
Ehail nodded. "He sat with me, and asked me to dance, which I did, and then I went home."
"He wrote me a letter," Rhysel said, "and in it, he said he was... curious about you."
The silver blinked. "Why?" She wasn't interesting. She'd tried very hard to avoid giving off the mistaken appearance that she was interesting. And it would have been strange to follow up with someone even moderately interesting under the circumstances. "What does he want?"
"Well, he wanted to know more about you, and he wanted me to ask you if you'd be willing to see him again," Rhysel said. "I didn't tell him anything, Ehail. He thinks you're a human from somewhere in Elcenia."
"Oh." Ehail blinked. "But why does he want to know more about me? Or see me again? I don't understand."
Rhysel shrugged. "You'd have to ask him. My guess is that he likes you."
"Gyre's harmless, Ehail," Rhysel said gently. "I haven't been that close to most of my family, but I do know a few things about my brother, and he's not going to do... whatever it is you're afraid will happen if someone finds out you're a shren out of context."
"He doesn't even know what shrens are, does he," Ehail murmured.
"He doesn't." Rhysel paused. "Do you want me to tell him? I can tell you how he reacts, and if you don't like it, you'll never hear about him from me again."
Ehail squirmed. "I can't stop you from telling him," she pointed out. "And it doesn't matter, anyway. I'm back home and everyone here is a shren. Except you and Aar Camlenn."
"So you don't care if I tell him about shrens, and that you are one, and so on?" Rhysel asked.
"Don't send him here," Ehail clarified, "looking for me, but you can tell him that, if you want."
Rhysel nodded. "If you did want to meet him," she said, "I'd let you use my tower if you didn't want him here - that would be comfortable enough, right? You've been over before."
"Yes." The tower was fine. But feeling comfortable in places wasn't very much about the places. "If I were going to meet him I would rather do it there."
"All right. I'll leave you be, then," Rhysel said, and she turned to go.
Ehail shut her office door behind her, and no longer heard the receding footsteps.
Monthly security ward check, read her to-do list. Ask cafeteria staff for list of dishes in circulation to cast better dish cleaning spell. And, Fix us.
Two weeks more saw Rhysel back at the house. Ehail had another stack of translations ready for Aar Camlenn, when he knocked at her office door, and this time he had something for her too.
"My writeup of the results of your analysis," he said. "On three infant dragon subjects, anonymous."
"Thank you," Ehail said, trading papers with him.
She hadn't been going to ask about Gyre, but Rhysel didn't need to be asked. "I talked to my brother."
"I think that's the sort of thing people usually do with their brothers," Ehail said. She winced; that had sounded unkind. "I mean, oh."
Rhysel didn't seem offended. "And I told him about shrens, and that you are one, and about the work I'm doing. He still wants to see you again, and he says my tower would be a fine place to do it."
"...Did you tell him that would definitely happen?" Ehail said. "I - I didn't -"
"No," Rhysel said, and Ehail relaxed somewhat. "But he hopes you'll get over your reserve and talk to him. He said that whatever species you are, he can tell when someone's lonely, and you are - and honestly, Ehail, I think I agree with him."
"I live in a house with hundreds of people in it," Ehail said.
"Are any of them your friends?" Rhysel asked. Her voice was gentle, at least.
"My friends moved away," Ehail murmured.
"Do you write to them? Visit them?" Rhysel asked.
"I did..." But then she'd gone to school, and hadn't dared send letters anyone might want to know about, nor receive them. And over the eight years of her education, they'd stopped, and she'd been busy with work, anyway, once she was a wizard. There was plenty of work.
Ehail shrugged. "I know everyone in the house."
"Come to my tower sometime convenient for you - the middle of the day, any day Inen through Fenen, it's usually empty while we're teaching and my apprentice is running around doing his own projects," Rhysel said. "And I can have my brother meet you there. He just wants to talk to you."
Would Rhysel ever leave this alone if Ehail didn't say yes? Maybe she'd stop making it about Gyre, but she might substitute someone else. Or herself. Ehail didn't want to take up Rhysel's time, directly or indirectly. Rhysel was doing something important, helping the children where Ehail hadn't been able to and teaching her students skills they might use to do the same. "All right," Ehail said. "Saanen? I want a few days to look over the analysis results, first..."
"Saanen, lunchtime?" Rhysel asked, nodding. "Sixth-and-naught?"
"Fine," Ehail said. "I'll be there then."
"By the way," Rhysel said. "I don't know who looks out for the kids Finnah's age, so I don't know who to tell that she's doing very well in class."
"Ludei would know who to tell," Ehail said. "You could speak to him. Or I can, if you want."
Rhysel nodded. "I'll swing by his office on my way out. Thank you, Ehail. Don't forget, Saanen at sixth."
Ehail wasn't likely to forget. She wrote it on her to-do list anyway, and then started reading Aar Camlenn's report.
Aar Camlenn could draw, apparently, and there were representations in color of what he'd seen looking at his anonymous dragon subjects under Ehail's analysis. She was proud of the little flourish that would show color group powers in the corresponding hues. "Subject 1" had her black segment bee-striping the yellow shape of other magic. "Subject 2" had his red portion.
"Subject 3", reportedly a red opal female dragon, didn't.
Subject 3 was missing most of her magic, apparently; she had a thin stripe of yellow along the top of the box Aar Camlenn had drawn to represent the area in which magic was supposed to exist, and that was all.
That was... interesting. She hadn't known quite what to expect from dragon samples. Shrens had their yellow plain magic and their colored group magic, but slightly less of the yellow than the first two dragon children. Or rather, not less, but it flickered at the top, like a glass of liquid under a wind.
These children's magic didn't do that. It held steady.
There were paragraphs of text under the subject numbers and their genders and colors and diagrams. Subject 1 said presents as a typical infant black opal; fluent in 4 tested languages incl. Draconic; flew and breathed fire at standard ages; possesses dragonsong. Subject 2 said the same thing, except "red opal".
Subject 3, though, presents with several symptoms. Has never spoken nor verifiably responded to her own name nor any other language at age 5 months; has not successfully breathed fire; incapable of verifying presence or absence of dragonsong; appears to be of normal intelligence and can draw to communicate or respond to non-linguistic sounds, mental magic, etc. Physically healthy; capable of flight; normal appetite and activity level; hatched out of egg of typical appearance.
And then there was the bit about how she'd nearly died when very young, and been saved by some desperate application of opaque kamai by a person now dead.
Ehail blinked at that. She didn't know how that ought to interact with such magic. She hadn't known it could be done. Baby dragons just died sometimes - that was probably most of the reason some shren eggs weren't smashed. Parents wanted dragon children, but if they failed at getting them enough times, they could go to the house a few years later, pretend they'd never meant to leave their shren past the second decade, have a child even if it wasn't the one they wanted.
Frowning, Ehail looked over everything on the papers one more time, and then set about designing a more sophisticated magic detector. Now that she had (indirect) access to more subjects of three different types, she'd be able to learn more from such a spell. Maybe she could see the dividers that went around the colored stripes; maybe she could watch the magic do its work, whatever that was, and learn how much of it was doing what.
She started sketching the expected parameters of the spell. She didn't have to interrupt her schedule until Saanen; she could get a fair amount done before then.
Ehail teleported to Rhysel's tower and rang the bell precisely on time. She would talk to Gyre about... whatever he wanted to talk about... and then go home, and work. She would be ready to test the first draft of the spell and see what was wrong with it the next day or the day after, if no exceptional requests turned up on her list.
Gyre answered the door at once. He blinked at her hair. "Rhysel mentioned you'd dyed the silver brown, but I didn't realize it was so striking," he said. "You have lovely hair."
"Every silver woman in the world has hair this color," Ehail said.
"But I haven't seen it before," Gyre said. "And it's lovely all the same. Won't you sit down?"
Ehail took the same chair she'd sat at when she'd visited Rhysel for meals, and looked at Gyre, waiting for him to say something else.
He admired her hair for a moment longer, then said, "If you don't mind explaining it to me - why do you feel the need to hide that in public? Rhysel wasn't clear on it herself."
Ehail tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear with the rest. She wondered if she should cut it shorter; she hadn't done anything to it in four years and it fell past her shoulders. "Because everyone with this color hair is a dragon or a shren, and if someone thought I was a dragon, I might have to tell them otherwise. And then they'd know."
"Rhysel told me shrens are a kind of dragon. She's mistaken there?" Gyre asked.
"We're not dragons," Ehail said. "We only have a lot of properties in common."
"I won't make that mistake, then," Gyre promised. "Nor will I keep talking as though you've barely learned any Martisen! I must have sounded very silly."
Ehail shook her head. "I knew what you were doing."
"I'm afraid I'm not going to dazzle you with my language skills much now, either. I didn't pay much attention to those classes in school. Prefer making things. I'm a jeweler - well, a goldsmith and silversmith, but not very many people want sets of spoons in solid precious metals."
"What would be the point of that?" Ehail asked. "I suppose gold ones wouldn't corrode, but they would eventually bend out of shape or get lost, and they'd be so costly. There would be less point to silver ones. They'd tarnish and need polish - I'd know."
"You'd know? Does your hair tarnish?" Gyre asked.
"No. It's hair." She sighed, resigning herself to the fact that merely being a shren apparently made her more interesting than she really was to this offworlder. "But when I was a baby, and used my natural form because I didn't have anything else, my scales did tarnish. And irons rust and coppers patina. Nothing happens to golds. I don't think anything happens to spelters, either. And the gems and chromatics are safe."
"So they had to polish you when you were little?"
Ehail nodded, bewildered by the smile on his face. "Of course."
Gyre laughed, just a little. "I - that sounds very cute."
She shrugged. "A little of the house budget comes from melting down the metallic babies' scales and selling them, so they had to be in good condition when they fell off."
He blinked, and stared. "Oh. I see."
Ehail fidgeted her hands in her lap, trying to find a comfortable way to arrange them. "Why did you want to talk to me?"
"I enjoyed your company," replied Gyre, spreading his hands. "And wanted to enjoy some more of it. And you seem lonely."
"I live in a house with hundreds of people in it," Ehail said.
"That doesn't necessarily mean you can't be lonely," Gyre said. "Although if you tell me outright you're not lonely, I'll concede the point." The statement could have been challenging, but he didn't say it like that. Ehail was losing hope that he'd say something she could object to and storm off in a huff about, thereby proving that Rhysel oughtn't try to find her any friends.
Ehail wasn't sure she knew. Maybe she would ask Hallai sometime. "Why does it matter to you?"
"I don't like to see people unhappy," Gyre said. "Especially not if there's a chance I can fix it. And you look unhappy - even now. What makes you smile, Ehail?"
She shrugged. "I don't, usually."
This seemed to make him terribly sad - all soft green eyes and distressed expression. But he said, "Usually?"
"I did twice," she said. "Once when I graduated from school. Four-hundred-forty-something years ago." She hadn't bothered calculating the up-to-date interval. "And once in the mirror later, to see what it looked like."
"What did it look like?" Gyre asked softly, leaning his chin onto his hands.
"It looked like I was smiling," she said. "It wasn't very interesting."
"And then you never did it again." His eyebrows were drawn together over his spectacles. They were distracting; she kept looking at the wire frames even when she was trying to look away from him altogether.
"I can fix your vision, if you want," she said. "Since we're in Elcenia now. I know the spell."
"Can you?" he asked, mercifully startled out of that expression of intent concern. "Just like that?"
"Can't kyma do it?" Ehail asked. She should have thought of that.
"I suppose, but I get along all right with the glasses, and haven't ever thought of going to one about it. If you can do it easily, though, and you're offering..." He shrugged, smiling. "I won't turn you down."
Ehail still remembered the spell clearly from having cast it on that diamond boy the other week, so she didn't look it up over again, just made the gesture and spoke the word. Gyre's eyes unfocused as the lenses overcorrected, and he took them off, blinking. "Amazing," he said.
"Any wizard could have done it. Your brother-in-law," Ehail suggested.
"You're the one who did," Gyre pointed out with a smile, folding the temples of his glasses and tucking them into a pocket. "That won't break when I go back to Barashi? I'm told some spells do."
"It won't. It's an - it's not that kind of spell," Ehail said.
"Thank you," Gyre said warmly.
Ehail wondered if she had made a mistake.
"So you're lovely and you're talented. What else is there to know about you?" Gyre asked her.
Ehail tried to wrap her elbows around each other. It didn't work very well. "There isn't - I'm not - no - I only went to wizard school it doesn't mean I have any talent, I don't, and I'm not at all - the other thing."
"Who told you that?" Gyre asked, furrowing his eyebrows. Ehail found that the glasses had been a minor eyecatcher at worst.
"No one had to tell me. I can see, and I keep up with work in wizardry. Most wizards are much better than me. Even ones with centuries less experience. And I have a low channeling capacity even though usually shrens have above average ones. And - and I can see."
"I can see, too," Gyre pointed out. "Unless you think your spell didn't work and that I'm lying to you."
"Well," Ehail said, "I'm still not."
Gyre raised an eyebrow at her, neither contradicting her nor agreeing, and repeated his question. "What else is there to know about you, Ehail?"
"I'm a wizard. I'm a silver. I'm a shren and I live in the Keppine shren house," she said. "I don't have any more syllables in my name or a song to go with - I don't have a family - I don't do anything interesting - there's nothing to know."
"What do you do, while you're avoiding interesting things so carefully?" Gyre asked her.
Ehail's hands clenched in her lap. "Cast spells," she said. "I fix things. Lights. Plumbing. Kitchenware. Eyesight. When I don't have any of those things to fix I try to fix... us."
"Us?" Gyre said.
"Shrens. I try to work miracles. I've never done it. I'm not a miracle-worker. But it's something to try," she said.
"Miracles," mused Gyre. "Is that what it would take?"
"I think so," Ehail said, bringing up her hands to shoulder-level and letting them drop again. "It seems like it. Draconic says so."
Gyre blinked. "Isn't that a language?"
"Yes, it is. It didn't say it, really, but if I talk about curing shrens, not just treating us like Rhysel does, curing us so we're not shrens at all anymore - then the word for that in Draconic means 'miracle'."
"Maybe that's what you need, then," Gyre said.
"Well," Ehail said, "yes, but it isn't very helpful to know that."
"It could be," Gyre said. "If you go to a god's temple and put in a request, they might grant it - there's always a price, but sometimes it's one the petitioner is willing to pay."
"For all of us?" Ehail asked in a tiny voice. "Or - or just one?"
"I don't know," admitted Gyre. "You might get different deals from different gods."
"But it's something I could just go and - and do?"
Gyre nodded. "Do you want me to show you where some temples are?"
Ehail couldn't shake her head affirmatively fast enough. The thought of hundreds of years of work obviated with the wave of a divine hand didn't enter into her mind. A miracle, an actual miracle, from a proven miracle-worker, even if only for one person at a time, even at a cost - was there a price she wouldn't offer up? Was there anything she had a god would want? "Wh-what do they ask?" she asked, suddenly deflated. "I don't have anything..."
"Uh. I'm trying to think of stories... This doesn't happen very often," Gyre said. "Gods don't like frivolous requests, so there's some reluctance to even try, and a lot of people don't want to talk about what they asked for. They sometimes ask for things they don't really want first - your firstborn child maybe - to see if you're unscrupulous enough to accept. Sometimes they want promises not to misuse the gift and that's all. Sometimes they refuse outright because they don't like the request - people who ask for money usually get that reply. I don't know what they'd want from you."
"Who should I try first?" Ehail asked, standing up and looking around for anything she needed to bring with her. There was nothing. "Here - I can teleport you to the summoning circle building with me -" It had expanded to include a second floor; the upstairs circle led to Aristan rather than Rhysel's old tower in Restron.
"Aziel," suggested Gyre, putting his hand in Ehail's. "She's the most personable of the gods, from what I've heard, and..." Ehail teleported to the circle complex. "And the request isn't related to any specific god's domain, it isn't as though you're asking for smooth sailing and need Arimal in particular."
Ehail nodded and went to the little kiosk where tickets were sold. She was one of a handful of house residents entrusted with access to the collective fund, largely because of her ability to teleport long distances and fetch faraway things if they were needed. She didn't think Ludei would object to the expense.
Waving her hand at the kiosk upstairs and saying "two" made it print two tickets, per its multilingual instructions. Ehail thanked the foresight of whoever had arranged the debit system's spell to work centrally rather than placing a static on her person that would break in Barashi.
Gyre took his ticket, seeming concerned - again - by Ehail's haste. "Are you in a terrible hurry? I thought Rhysel's treatments for the little ones made it a non-emergency," he said.
"I'm..." Ehail thought, and decided "excited" would have to do. "I'm excited." She strode onto the circle's area. With her ticket in hand, the wards didn't impede her. Gyre followed.
A couple of ticks later, the surroundings changed, and they were in a hastily assembled building on the Aristanian side. Ehail walked briskly off the circle, pocketing her ticket, and Gyre went along again. "Where do we go?" Ehail asked him.
"I saw a temple of Aziel just up the street on my way here," he said. "This way." He motioned, and she fell into step after him, taking two steps to keep up with each one of his. She didn't even care that people were looking at her, at her bright hair, wondering about her. If this worked, there would be nothing to be ashamed of when she emerged.
"I will petition Aziel to come and hear your request," said the priest who staffed the temple. "You may wait in any of these rooms." There were six of them, generic little waiting rooms with chairs and tables, painted white.
Ehail chose one at random, sat, and then stood up again. "Thank you for showing me this place," she said to Gyre.
"It's my pleasure," he said. "I hope you get what you came for. It must be very important to you."
"It's what I've been doing with my life for hundreds of years," she said.
"What will you do afterwards?" Gyre asked.
She blinked. "I'm not... entirely sure. Maybe I'll fly to the moon," she added fancifully. "I could do it, if I were a dragon."
"What," Gyre said, "really? There's no air between the moon and the surface of the world..."
"Not this moon, then," Ehail said. "Elcenia's has air around it. People do fly up to the moon. Dragons. Air mages. Rich people with fancy scoots."
"I'll take your word for it," said Gyre.
Ehail felt an unprecedented sensation that made her skin crawl - someone is here! someone important is here! announced the feeling. That, she surmised, must be Aziel. She was on her feet before the priest tapped the doorframe.
"The Goddess of the Winds is here to speak with you," the priest said. "Follow me. Both of you may enter, if desired, but I understand only the lady has a request?"
"Do you want me along, Ehail?" Gyre asked. He'd gotten to his feet but hadn't moved to leave the waiting room.
"Either way," she said breathlessly.
Gyre followed the priest, too, down the short hallway and through massive doors into a high, arched hall with open windows all the way up to the ceiling. The presence of the goddess grew stronger as they approached, and Ehail still didn't like it, but she kept pressing forward until the priest stopped and bowed.
Ehail bowed too, following the priest's lead, and straightened up when he did. She wasn't sure if she was supposed to speak first, but the goddess, fortunately, didn't pause long enough to make that a pressing question.
"Hello, Ehail," said Aziel. Ehail finally looked directly at her. The goddess of the winds appeared similar to the shren, as far as Ehail could see, though it was probably illusion - silver fall of hair over humanlike ears. Round, brown eyes. The goddess was taller than Ehail, but not by very much. Gyre might see her differently. "What is your petition for me?"
"I want," Ehail began, but then she paused over the wording. "D-do you speak Draconic?" she asked in that language.
"I do," replied Aziel in the same one. "If you prefer to ask in this language, that will not do me any inconvenience."
"I want to be a dragon, I want all of the shrens to be dragons but we can ask one at a time, if we have to," Ehail said, choosing careful words that meant the right kind of dragon. She would have to think longer and harder about whether she'd want to be the Barashin sort. As one she'd be a dragon, certainly, and not a shren, but not a siad either - that word, Draconic was adamant, referred only to the thirty Elcenian types of dragons. Being a Barashin dragon might be better than being a shren; but it might not, and she hadn't thought of it.
Aziel hadn't spoken yet. Ehail went on. "I want all of the shrens to be dragons, forever, no more new shrens, I want us all to be miracles - a-and you're a goddess. I don't have... anything, really, but if you can think of something you want from me..."
"No," said Aziel. She didn't raise her voice, but it was spoken with such finality, and the pressure of divine presence hadn't eased.
"Y-you can't think of anything?" stammered Ehail. "If I have to die to save the others, or - something - then - you could at least ask -"
"No," Aziel said again. "You will not receive your miracle from me, nor from any of my kin."
"Aziel," Gyre said. "I don't understand. You haven't even asked her an impossible price or declared her unworthy. I've never heard of such a response..."
"There has never been such a question," Aziel said, and she was gone.
Ehail crumpled to the floor, free of the weight of presence and the lift of hope both at once.