Chapter Five: Island
Gyre was supposed to be at the house already, which was why Ehail was at the door with the obsidian who monitored it during the day, and he hadn't arrived yet.
"It's probably the inter-world timekeeping issues," Ehail remarked. The obsidian didn't reply. "Probably just that. Or traffic. Or a customer."
Finally, there was a knock on the door, and Ehail pulled it open in time to see Gyre waving goodbye to Rhysel as she vanished on the spot of the transfer point. Gyre turned when his sister had gone, and grinned to see Ehail. "Hello there."
"Hello," Ehail said. "You're - here."
"I hope I'm not too late," Gyre said. "I wouldn't want to keep you waiting."
"Oh," she said. "It's nothing. Come in."
He came in, nodded politely to the obsidian, and took Ehail's hand in his as she led him down the hall. "So - I don't know how thorough a tour you want," Ehail said.
"I'd like to see your office and your room, at least," Gyre said.
"Then we can start there," she said. "My office is all the way at the back - past the children's dorms. There are a few other offices. For accounting and for Hallai and the other house empath..." She trailed off; she had no reason to believe he was interested in any of those functions of the house. "And mine. I'm in there most of the day." She wasn't entirely sure how to go about holding his hand beyond the moments it would have taken to teleport him somewhere. Still, he didn't seem to be complaining about her technique. "Have you made anything with the gems I made yet?"
"Not yet," he said. "I've had my hands full with another project. But they'll come in handy - even if you never make me any more, they'll give me enough of a head start that I won't run out until I can afford to go to a more expensive lapidary. I keep pouring all of my profits into more materials," he explained. "Keeps me on a bit of a knife edge, but sooner or later I'll have more metal and gems than I have time to work it all, and then I can start looking into making a Masterpiece, and then maybe taking apprentices. I probably wouldn't be interested in Mastery if it weren't a prerequisite for having apprentices."
"What other project?" Ehail asked.
"That's a surprise," Gyre said, squeezing her hand and smiling.
"Oh." A warm feeling that she didn't quite recognize uncurled in her middle. "What do you think you'll do for your Masterpiece?"
"I'm not sure. Probably not a piece of jewelry - or, not an ordinary piece of jewelry. I might make Ryll a new Senate circlet," he said. "Or maybe I'll make something else for you."
He smiled gently at her as they rounded the corner. "Any ideas? I'm mostly guessing about what you might like. Maybe the decorations in your rooms will be enlightening."
"I don't really have any," Ehail said. "Apart from my spider plant, and your rosebush."
"It's your rosebush," he said.
"You made it."
"For you. It was never anyone else's," Gyre said.
"This is my office," said Ehail, turning away to hide her flush. She pulled the door open. "I only have one chair - I could get one from the night empath's office, though, she wouldn't mind and she'll be asleep now."
"I don't need to sit, it's all right," he said. "I want to look around." There wasn't much to look at - he was peering at the high shelf with her plants, living and artificial. "Can I look in the file cabinet?"
"You can," she said, "but you won't be able to read any of it."
He pulled it open anyway. "You have such small handwriting," he murmured.
"It's more efficient. Paper is cheap now, but it was expensive when I first had anything to write," she said.
"Is the house's budget really that tight?"
Ehail nodded. "We save a lot of money by having me around - and if we really needed to save more, I could start conjuring food, too, as long as it was very simple - but we have a lot of people to support. Parents sometimes send money with the eggs, but it's not often enough to even cover the twenty years before they might come and get the baby. So we have charity income - not much - we're not a popular cause - and some of the adults who live here take in freelance work or have jobs in town, but people don't prefer to hire shrens when they can avoid it. Not unless we are very, very cheap."
Gyre winced. "Right, so about buying those other scales..."
"I think Ilen is stalling on purpose, talking about losing them behind couch cushions," Ehail said. "He's sentimental. He keeps them all because he knows he won't see half the babies ever again after they get to be twenty. Ludei lets him keep one scale per baby when they're metallics and money is good, but he's never had to give up any of the others at all before."
"Ah. It doesn't have to be those scales in particular. Is there any chance others could be coaxed to shift? I don't know if you're typical in that respect..."
"Some probably could," Ehail said. "Especially younger ones who would fit in the house still. Especially red-groups, who would like the excuse to have a chance to breathe fire. We could ask Ludei."
"I can't afford to buy all of the scales the population of this house could probably drop," cautioned Gyre. "Not without taking out a loan. And, er, I'm not sure I'll be able to bring myself to sell any of yours, so I don't yet have a good idea of the market. But if a selection of kids want to shift in the house and sell me some scales, I can figure out how well they'll sell, and maybe justify the loan to buy more."
"We lose scales very slowly," Ehail said. "You could corner the market, if there is one, by buying up all the shren scales - after that new ones will only trickle in."
Gyre nodded. "But I don't want to spend this entire visit talking about sales and the like. Is your room upstairs?"
Ehail nodded. "We move upstairs if we get to be about a hundred and eighty and don't show any sign of moving out," she said. "Some people do leave later, but not as many as go when they're young adults." She showed Gyre out of the room and to the closest stairwell.
"Are these all single rooms?" he asked, noting the close spacing of the doors once they'd ascended the stairs.
Ehail nodded. "People who want to share rooms move out," she said. "It happens, but not very much."
"No married couples?"
"Not in the house. It's... well, people have relationships," she said. "Ilen and Hallai have one now, he said. But we can't expect them to last forever, and it's not good for the house if there's a lot of friction between people, and so usually anyone who is very serious about it will move away so if they fall apart later, it doesn't hurt everyone else. I'm not sure what Ilen and Hallai mean to do. He's an inside shren."
"An inside shren?" asked Gyre. They reached the turn where Ehail's hall was. She went to the correct door and pushed it open for him.
"He doesn't leave the building. He never has, in his life," Ehail said. "He has panic attacks if he thinks about it." Her room was as undecorated as her office - more so, really, lacking plants. It had a skylight, and that was its most interesting feature. The rooms were little. Hers had room for a narrow bed and a chair and a squat nightstand, and space to walk between them. "He doesn't even have a skylight in his room."
"That sounds dreadful," murmured Gyre.
"Well," Ehail said. "Of course we can't go outside until we learn to shift. Some go home with their parents then. I assume those don't have this problem. But the ones who stay here may just never go on any outings, or may have problems that mean we can't trust them not to turn into their natural shapes outside at first, and so they stay in, and stay in, and eventually that's all they can do."
"I'm glad you can go out," Gyre said. "I'm glad I got to meet you."
"So am I," Ehail said. "So... this is my room. It's not very interesting."
"You're right," he admitted, laughing softly. "I think you mentioned I might be allowed to eat in the cafeteria?"
"I don't think anyone will mind this once, if you want to. Especially if you'll buy scales," Ehail said. "But first can I see what you made? Did you bring it?"
"I did bring it," he said, smiling and reaching into the pouch on his belt. "Turn around?"
"So I can put it on you," he said.
Ehail faced the wall and closed her eyes, and Gyre draped something heavy and chilly around her neck and clipped it closed behind her head, then pulled her hair through.
She opened her eyes, and looked at the mirror on her right.
It was a necklace made half of her own scales, half of plates of some subtly different metal, riveted together into a flexible crescent with a wide throat scale flowing into others of decreasing size.
It matched her hair.
It made her pretty.
"Oh," she breathed.
"You like it?" Gyre asked anxiously.
Ehail nodded as fast as she could.
"I'm so glad - I didn't know if it would be strange to wear something made of your own scales," he said.
"A little," she said. "But only because they aren't usually used in jewelry here, I think. I'm going to wear this."
Gyre grinned at her in the mirror. "Still no smile, alas."
"Oh - I - if you want - I can just -"
"Ah, ah, no. I haven't given up on earning it yet," Gyre said, running his fingers through her hair once. "Maybe shiny things aren't the right tack."
"I do like them. And I can smile if you want to see -"
"No, not just because I want to see," he said. "Because you're happy. I want to make you happy enough to smile without even thinking about it."
"Lunch?" proposed Gyre.
"The cafeteria is downstairs," Ehail said, stealing a last look in the mirror before she turned out of the room.
At lunch, Ehail wondered if someone would remark on her necklace, ask about her scales, but no one did; perhaps they thought Gyre had made the scale shapes instead of collecting them. While she fretted, Gyre amusedly listened to a posse of three adolescent shrens argue about his eye color until one remembered that he couldn't be a green-group and have a half-elf form.
The younger residents left them alone when it was clear that Gyre wasn't a shren of any kind. "I'm sorry. They shouldn't have thought that," Ehail murmured.
"That I'm one of you? Why not?"
"Well - they were guessing because you're here - they probably thought you were from another house - but they still shouldn't have assumed you were. It's not a nice thing to think," Ehail said.
"I'm not offended that someone thought I was like you," Gyre said.
Ehail took a bite of her vegetable pie. "Oh," she murmured.
Gyre picked up his soup bowl and sipped at the broth, then dropped it; it landed base down on the tray, but it was a near thing. "Hot," he gasped, reaching for his water and gulping until it was gone, then looking around frantically for more.
There were waterspouts on every table, little devices that would pour out cold water from nowhere. Ehail traded glasses with Gyre and, while he poured her water down his throat too, filled up the one he'd emptied. "I should have warned you," she muttered.
Gyre finished a third glass of water and seemed able to stop, though Ehail refilled both cups anyway. "It's only about twice as hot as the arrabek Mother makes," he panted in a weak attempt at humor, "what's to warn about?"
"I'm sorry. Not everything is spicy, but when they make something that is, they aren't gentle about it. None of us mind," Ehail said sheepishly. "I'll take the soup - I'll trade you my casserole, that's all flavored with cheese, not spices."
Gyre accepted the swap, shaking his head in disbelief. "Why would anyone make anything that hot unless they were a troll, all but immune to spice?"
"We are all but immune," Ehail said. "I don't know anything about trolls. But shrens don't mind ordinary levels of pain - or - I suppose they don't feed the smaller babies this sort of thing." She sipped the soup. "And maybe they'll have to stop feeding it to older and older shrens as more grow up with treatment. But no, I can drink this soup just fine."
"Grow up with - you mean to say -" Gyre was silent, presumably processing that. "You're just immune to pain, in general? Rhysel suggested something like that but I didn't realize..."
"I don't think that's exactly right. If I didn't fly for twenty years again," Ehail said, "I'd notice that. But I could go for ten, maybe fifteen, if I wanted to stick out the lethargy period... I'm not sure what else would bother me. Aar Camlenn's notes on how they saved that little red opal dragonet mentioned a lifelink which apparently hurts a lot and keeps getting worse. Maybe one of those could get bad enough." She took another swallow of soup. It was salty. "It's not that I don't notice it," she amended. "It just doesn't matter. The feel of my socks on my feet doesn't matter either. I'd pay attention if I were in a sort of pain that would mean I was injured or sick. Or if my socks felt unfamiliar and I thought they might be someone else's mixed up with mine."
"Socks," said Gyre.
He started on his salad, shaking his head with wide eyes. "How?"
"How did you live through all that?"
"Oh," Ehail said. "There's nothing very tall to fall from in the babies' room. And their claws and teeth aren't hard enough to get through their own scales, or each other's, although some of them chew on themselves a bit anyway. There's nothing sharp, and it's not that hard to forcefeed a baby shren, and the sootheweed is all kept locked up except for safe doses. The last time this house had a baby die was almost three hundred years ago. He managed to -"
"No, that's not what I mean," exclaimed Gyre. "I mean - how did you not go insane?"
"A few do," Ehail said. "You probably won't see them. They have their own hall upstairs, and some people who look after them."
"But how is it only some?" asked Gyre. "How are you sane, or any of the others?"
"I don't know," Ehail shrugged, looking away awkwardly. "I don't know what the difference is between the ones who go off and the ones who don't."
Gyre just stared at her, his face slack in blank incomprehension, and at length he leaned towards her and wrapped his arms around her tightly. "You're amazing," he said in her ear.
Ehail hugged him back, as that seemed the thing to do, but she didn't understand. "I'm not. There's hundreds of us," she murmured.
"That doesn't mean you aren't amazing," he said. One of his hands was flat against the back of her head, fingers in her hair.
"Ehail has a boyyyyyfriend," called one of the adolescents who'd been speculating about Gyre's possible emeraldhood earlier. Her friends whistled.
Ehail blushed and drew her hands back into her lap; Gyre released her as soon as she moved. "I apologize for them," she murmured.
"I'm not offended," he murmured, "that someone thinks I'm your boyfriend." There was a wistful thread to his voice.
"W-well," Ehail began, but she didn't know what came next in that sentence. She started another one. "You can see how someone would think it."
"Yeah," he said softly, looking into her eyes.
"A-a-actually there are a lot of pointers to that," she stammered. "It's a - a good explanation - for things."
There was a heartbeat's pause.
"Can I be your boyfriend?" Gyre asked.
Gyre kissed her.
Later, up in her room where they'd retreated to avoid teasing from younger shrens, Gyre asked, "Do they always poke fun like that?"
"Sometimes. Nothing too serious. Is that odd for children that - not age, I suppose, but that maturity level? I haven't been around any who weren't from the house," Ehail said. "I don't know if they would be different in families."
"Why aren't they in families?" Gyre asked slowly.
"Because their parents never came and got them," said Ehail.
"I mean - after it was obvious that those particular parents wouldn't be coming to get them - why aren't they put up for adoption?" Gyre asked. "Surely someone would take them. Surely not everyone is irrational about shrens."
"Very occasionally some other relative will come for one," Ehail said. "About eighty years back a baby who'd just shifted for the first time went home with her thudia nephew, who'd heard about her and cared more about her than about his father ever visiting... But then ten years ago that same child came right back here. The thudia nephew died and no one else in the family made the same tradeoff so the little girl went to a friend but the friend was old too, and died too. People who might want to adopt don't want to die while their children are still small like that. They'd rather take home some orphaned human, or elf, or what have you. The only species who live that long are dragons who often don't even want their own shren children, and vampires who closely associate with dragons and don't want to risk their goodwill, and sometimes elves but they can't be very sure of it and they spend a lot of that time so old and infirm."
"Adult shrens who move out?" Gyre proposed.
"If they've grown close to a specific child, sometimes, but we're just not very equipped to be parents, as a group - the ones from houses aren't, anyway," Ehail said. "The ones whose parents pick them up aren't going to earn any favor with those parents by bringing more shrens into the family."
"So it's not that they aren't up for adoption," Gyre said, "it's that there aren't prospective parents who'll be young and alive long enough, who are far enough away from dragons?"
Ehail nodded, and then her nodding slowed as she looked at Gyre. "That's why," she murmured.
"Barashin elves," he said. "Barashin halfbloods. Barashin fairies. Maybe Barashin dragons, maybe trolls, but I'm less confident about those working out. I can talk to my sister Ryll, she's in the Senate, she can navigate all the obstacles that need navigating and set up some kind of program -"
Ehail didn't realize, until Gyre beamed at her and cupped her face and kissed her, that she was smiling.
"Assuming there aren't laws in the four relevant countries designed to prevent international adoption," said Ryll, rummaging through her cupboards for tea to offer her houseguests, "I don't see any reason why Aristanians won't be taking home shrens within the next month. There won't be as much demand for the older ones - and any children within the window of time when their biological parents might turn up to claim them will probably be better not adopted to avoid disputes - and I suppose we'll have to make sure that anyone interested in a violet-group lives near water?"
"Yes," Ehail said. "They can learn human or elf forms if they don't have them, I doubt any of us have used all the forms allotted, but they'll want to swim - as fish or aquatic birds or mammals. They mustn't be allowed to take natural form. Any of them. Dragons can move between Elcenia and Barashi as freely as anyone."
"I'll make sure that's understood," said Ryll. "Will a river or lake do, for the violet-groups? Aristan doesn't have very much coastline."
"They'll all have saltwater swimming forms already, since that house is in a sea," Ehail said. "So coastline would be better. But nothing will stop them from learning to turn into something comfortable in freshwater."
Ryll nodded. "If we can't find enough comfortable homes for them here I can talk to my contacts in Korsyca, which has a lot of beach to go around. How are we going to handle large-scale transportation between all the houses?"
Gyre spoke up. "Rhysel has transfer points at three of them - Ehail's, the Paraasilan one, and the other land one - but the sea one, Tekaal teleports her to and from. I'm sure she'll help."
"I suppose she will. She might want assistance, to handle the relevant volume..."
"I can teleport to my house and the Paraasilan one and the circle," Ehail said. "If Rhysel and Aar Camlenn take me to the other two houses once each I can teleport to those too. I don't have that much work to do - usually it only adds up to an angle or two a day."
Ryll nodded. "Maybe that will be enough. But since it's possible to travel from the circle to Paraasilan without requiring any individual's help like that, I think I'll want to base the program at the house there. Will that house be willing to let some children from the others visit long enough to have interviews?"
"I would need to ask Jensal," Ehail began.
"Oh, you don't need to do that, Ehail, I've got this handled and I have a staff, too," said Ryll. "I just wanted to check if you knew off the top of your head. Is there anything else you think I ought to know before I write in to my assistant about it?"
"I - I think we've covered everything," Ehail said. She felt vaguely floaty, like she was dreaming.
"Excellent," said Ryll, sitting back and smiling brightly. "Then this can be a social visit, if you have the time. I want to know something about how my baby brother is doing, and who he's seeing."
"Oh," murmured Ehail, while Gyre mumbled an ill-formed protest about not having been a baby in years.
"So, Ehail," Ryll said with a whimsical grin, "what makes you think you're good enough to date my brother?"
"Nothing," squeaked Ehail.
Ryll blinked. Gyre put his arm around Ehail's shoulders and pulled her close on the couch; she acquiesced wordlessly as he chastised his sister. "Ryll, does asking that question ever go well? Myret is always complaining that you scare off her boyfriends that way."
"Tekaal had a very witty reply," murmured Ryll, flushing. "I'm sorry, Ehail, I didn't mean to upset you. You obviously have many fine qualities -"
"Of course she does," said Gyre tightly. "Ehail is a sweet and altruistic and hard-working -"
"Gyre," Ehail whispered, embarrassed.
"Well, you're wonderful," he told her. "Can't I brag about you at all?"
"Not like that..."
"All right," he said, and he punctuated the agreement with a kiss to her scalp. "No more cascades of pretty adjectives. Nouns? Can I say 'wizard'?"
"Brag in mime?" proposed Ryll weakly.
"No," said Ehail, stifling a helpless laugh.
The front door banged open, and the chatter of children drifted through the Rysen household. "That'll be my sets of twins home from school," Ryll said. "Do you want to meet them, Ehail? And if you stay long enough, Lerrel and Tyrrel will be in from working on the scaffolds in the town square to have dinner. You could meet the whole family."
"I -" Ehail's thought process was interrupted by a flying ball of small halfblood propelled directly at her lap.
"Pretty!" announced the child, petting Ehail's hair with the hand that wasn't full of her schoolbag. "Who're you?"
"Sel," said Gyre, "this is my girlfriend, Ehail."
"Hi, Ehail!" said Sel. "Hi, Uncle Gyre." Sel presented Ehail with a gluey craft project from her schoolbag, slid out of the shren's lap, and ran off with her twin sister.
"I didn't know you had a girlfriend, Uncle Gyre," said one of the boys.
"Hello, Leyf," said Gyre. "It's a recent change. What'd Sel give you, dear heart?" he asked Ehail.
"I'm not sure," Ehail said.
"Their class is in a history unit," said Leyf. "It's probably something historical."
"What about you, what are you and Garyn up to?" Gyre asked, smoothing Ehail's hair where Sel had mussed it.
"We're in a math unit. We can solve for emy and we have to prove that we can do that, all day," groaned Garyn, dropping his bookbag on his twin's foot and earning a shove. "And it was stormy all day so we couldn't even go out for playtime! We had to stay in and do card games! Which is dumb because we had to walk home in the rain anyway so why couldn't we play in it?"
"You wouldn't care if you didn't always lose at cards," taunted Leyf, and he was immediately chased out of the house by his irate brother.
Ehail blinked several times.
"Well," said Ryll. "If I know Sel and Vianne they're going to saddle up their ponies and go for a ride. Meanwhile, Leyf and Garyn are going to wrestle in the mud and then stand in the rain until they can claim they didn't. You're probably not interested in the latter. Would you two like to borrow some of my horses and follow the girls, work up an appetite for dinner?"
"I don't know how to ride," murmured Ehail.
"It's not hard to do, if you start slow," said Ryll encouragingly. "I'll pick a gentle horse for you."
Ultimately, Ehail consented, and Ryll and Gyre together managed to get her all the way around a paddock on a sedate dappled horse without any of the involved creatures breaking her neck. Ehail was then coaxed into petting the ranch's sole zebra, while Ryll's ranch hand saw to the dappled horse. The girls, when they were finished with their ride, combed and fed and watered their own animals, then came inside to wash up.
Ryll's elven husband brought in their eldest boy not long after the horse-riding was all through. "Ryll! Your mother came by the worksite today," he said. "Wants us all over to look at a harpsichord she just finished - she thinks something may be off with the sound but she and your father have been listening to it so much she says they can barely tell anymore."
"Oh my," said Ryll. "All right, everyone, are we all ready to go to Grandma and Grandpa's? Get to it!" Children scattered to change clothes or fetch boots. Ryll then turned to Gyre and Ehail, who were sitting together at the kitchen table, and visibly swallowed. "Er," she said. "Would you like to join us?"
"Why not?" asked Gyre. "If Ehail's willing."
"Why not?" Ehail heard herself say.