Chapter Twelve: Flight
Aar Kithen blinked at Rhysel, plainly nonplussed. "Have you?"
"When I was looking for paper to write you a note on," she said, feeling a blush steadily creep up her face, "I opened a different drawer first. It, um, had paper in it, and I picked one up, and..."
Aar Kithen had stopped blinking, and possibly also breathing.
"And I saw what looked like a poem on it, and I didn't read it, but I saw the title, and..."
It was no longer obvious by looking that Aar Kithen was still alive.
"And obviously I shouldn't have been going through your drawers," she stammered, "I should have thought ahead and brought paper, or - or something. Firewriting still wouldn't have worked but... I shouldn't have been going through your desk, and I'm sorry."
Aar Kithen's eyes slid over to her front door, as though he was contemplating the exact most efficient angle at which to bolt.
"Er," she said, "if I give you an excuse to leave right now, are you going to be able to teach classes with me in them? I can skip this afternoon's, but I really did want to go to all the theory ones..."
"Possibly," he said in a low voice.
"I didn't read anything but the title," she reiterated.
"The fact that you are aware that I wrote po- a poem about you is sufficiently problematic," he said. "I... you have my apologies, and -"
"Apologies?" she said blankly.
"It's hardly professional," he said.
"You didn't interrupt classes to recite them, so I don't see how it's unprofessional..."
"That's not precisely what I meant," he said. No longer rigid, he appeared to be experimenting with ways to twist away from Rhysel that were not overtly rude but spared him having to look her in the eye.
"Then I'm afraid I don't understand," Rhysel said.
"Do you require an explanation in more detail?" asked Aar Kithen, looking desperately at the door.
"I guess I can just chalk it up to different standards of professionalism - although, isn't Keo on the school payroll...?"
"Aaral Pyga is employed on paper as Aar Inular's secretary," said Aar Kithen, "although in practice she serves as a proxy for him in arbitrary contexts, and - and they were involved with one another before she took the job."
"On Barashi apprentices aren't allowed to date other apprentices with the same Master, unless they were already dating or engaged before they started their apprenticeships. Is this like that?" Rhysel asked. "I should really look at the employee handbook..."
"There is not a rule of that nature in the handbook," Aar Kithen ground out.
"Then what I don't understand," Rhysel said, "is why you wouldn't have just said something to me, if you were interested?"
He went very still, and said, "I did not expect that it would be a useful course of action."
She smiled faintly. "Why'd you think that?"
Aar Kithen closed his eyes outright, and bit his lip. "Aaral Camlenn -"
"You can call me Rhysel," she prompted. "That was the title of the -"
"Rhysel," he said, possibly just to cut her off before she said the word "poem". "I am aware that you are not a native speaker of Leraal, and fear that you are implying things that you do not intend to imply."
"I think I'm implying that you could ask me out," she said. "And implying that I'd say yes."
Aar Kithen opened one eye.
Rhysel made an effort to smile encouragingly.
He took an extremely deep breath, and forced out a sentence: "Would you like to go to dinner with me on Sinen evening, before that day's showing of The Man in Red and Gold?"
"I would love to," said Rhysel. "Can you recommend a restaurant? I haven't been to any since I arrived in Elcenia, unless the school cafeteria counts."
"Not knowing what passes for standard fare in Barashi, I'm not sure how to suggest something that you'll find inoffensive," he said. "In the absence of such information, I suppose there is Varaas's, a Saraanlan restaurant. Saraanlan food is typically a starchy mash of some sort, intensely flavored with highly concentrated forms of the spices, juices, or other seasonings of your choice."
"That sounds interesting," said Rhysel. "I'd like to try it. What time on Sinen would be good?"
"Twelfth-and-naught?" he said. "I can meet you here and teleport us to the restaurant."
"Or I could teach you to fly," Rhysel offered. "How much do you want to learn before Keo transfers everything I know about kamai?"
"I think learning to fly would be agreeable," he said.
"And," Rhysel said, "if we're going to dinner, do I have to call you Aar Kithen?"
"I suppose not," he said slowly. "If you prefer, you can call me Tekaal."
Saanen's theory class went perfectly normally, except for the chat right before the students arrived, during which they called each other by their first names. "Please don't refer to me as 'Tekaal' in front of the students," he said. "And I am not planning to call you 'Rhysel' in front of them either. At times, it seems as though gossip is their only entertainment."
"I can imagine," Rhysel said. "In front of third parties, 'Aar Kithen' it is."
The class was on channeling capacities, more specifically how they neatly came in integer quantities, except for a handful, which were the only non-integer capacities on record but each came up as often as their non-fractional neighbors. There was no explanation for why this should be, which seemed to frustrate several of the students.
Rhysel lingered afterwards, but Tekaal had to excuse himself to grade exams, apologizing profusely before making it halfway to the lift and then remembering that he could teleport. Rhysel allowed herself a giggle.
She took the lift herself, and it let her out by the pond. The ducks were out on the water, sparkling red and black together. A few students were watching them, practicing color-change spells on blocks of wood but occasionally casting glances in the direction of the waterfowl. Perhaps two terms ago the ducks had been orange and pink.
Rhysel found a suitably non-spongy patch of ground close to the pond, levitated a large rock out of the dirt, and turned it into a spade. She stabbed the spade into the grass around the perimeter of a suitably sized circle, and then made the spade end broader and flatter and worked it under the grass roots until she could turn up the flora whole. The sod could go back after she'd worked the transfer point with the help of Kolaan and his friends, but for the working itself, she needed bare earth.
Out of her bag, she produced the paper-wrapped sandwiches she'd made to feed her helpers; they'd be ravenous by the time she'd taken the lifeforce she needed for the transfer point. They'd also be exhausted, but they could sit by the pond for a while. It would be staggeringly inefficient for Rhysel to send energy, and as none of them were kyma they couldn't tap her, but at least she could feed them.
She counted the sandwiches, then flew around from the pond to the front entrance, where she waited for Kolaan and his entourage. They arrived a couple of degrees late, all crowded together on Kolaan's hover platform, which he'd unfolded wider than she'd seen it before. Mostly, they were elves Kolaan's age, but there was a human boy and a lion-girl ('leonine', Rhysel remembered), too. "Hey, Rhysel!" called Kolaan, waving, when they approached within earshot. "Will eight of us be good?"
"Eight's fine," she called back. The hover platform coasted to a stop by the building. "Follow me," she said, and she popped up into the air to show them to the pond.
Once she had them where she meant to put the transfer point, they got off the platform and sat around it where she directed. "Link hands," Rhysel said.
"Th-that wasn't mentioned," stammered an elf girl, blond hair in a loose ponytail. She was sitting next to the human boy, who she was determinedly not looking at.
"Relax," said the leonine girl on her other side, "my claws are retractable."
"...Oh?" said the elf, and then immediately pretended that had been her concern. "I... should have known that."
"Why... are... we... linking hands?" asked the human boy, glancing at his blushing neighbor. They were sitting very close together, for all that they seemed nervous about doing what everyone else in the circle had already done.
"So I can get energy from all of you without having to touch you all at the same time," said Rhysel, sitting on the grass between Kolaan and another elf boy and grabbing the nearest hand belonging to each. "If it really bothers you -"
"No, it's fine - right, Kutran?" the human boy said hastily.
"Right," agreed Kutran swiftly. "Her claws... are... retractable." Her hand was already in the leonine's.
Rhysel looked, amused, as everyone was finally connected in a circle. "Well then. This won't feel like anything in itself, but I'm sure Kolaan warned you that you'll feel tired, and you'll also get hungry. I have a variety of sandwiches with me and you can help yourselves to those once I've finished the working."
"I'm a Kovin; do you have any sandwiches that are okay for us?" asked one of the elves.
"What do Kovin eat?" Rhysel asked.
"Plants," came the reply. "And salt and mushrooms - basically no animal products."
"Yes, I've got some that are just plants," Rhysel said. "Any other questions before I start?"
The human boy spoke up. "Do we have to be really careful not to let go of each other or else you'll explode, or anything like that?"
"No, not really. If one pair of you drop your hands I can still access everyone from the other direction - if two pairs of you did, the ones I was still connected to would get much more tired and hungry, but I can interrupt the working if I don't have enough to draw on. So do please hang on, but it's not a dire emergency if you don't." The boy nodded, but he squeezed Kutran's hand anyway. "Ready?" Rhysel asked.
"Ready," Kolaan announced, scanning the circle.
Rhysel focused on the cleared spot of ground, and firewriting flared to life in the requisite pattern. "Ooh," Kutran said, watching it, "that's pretty."
Just for fun, Rhysel made the fire coruscate through a rainbow of colors, and then she started drawing on her helpers to make the transfer point sing with its own signature and let her hop to it effortlessly from the one in her tower.
The working itself didn't take long. "You can let go now," Rhysel said to the slumping adolescents. Most of them let go, including Kutran and her friend, although she did fall onto him, yawning hugely and pillowing her head against his chest where he'd flopped back onto the grass. Rhysel yawned once herself, although she'd conserved enough of her own energy to supervise her donors and distribute food. She placed a sandwich on everyone's knee, reserving one of sprouts and avocado and bean curd for the boy who'd identified himself as a "Kovin".
"Actually," said the leonine girl, around an enormous sigh of tiredness, "I'm a carnivore..."
"You don't have to eat the bread or the lettuce," Rhysel said. "The other filling there is all ham."
"Ham's good," said the leonine. "Mm." She flipped her sandwich open, un-retracted a claw, and hooked it through the topmost slice of meat.
Gradually everyone perked up enough to start devouring their sandwiches; particularly hungry people got seconds. Kutran and the human boy (Rhysel heard him addressed as "Soraak") swapped their food halfway through, casually enough that Rhysel was perplexed as to why they were hesitant about holding hands.
Eventually everyone piled back onto Kolaan's hover platform, several of them sitting on the edges with their legs dangling. "What do I owe you?" Rhysel asked Kolaan.
"I decided, um, three aaberik for each of them, and an extra aaber for me 'cause I got them all together for you," Kolaan said.
Rhysel handed out the coins; Kutran, leaning her head on Soraak's shoulder, didn't take them herself but waved in her friend's direction and mumbled that he could hold them for her. When everyone had been paid, Kolaan lazily kicked the platform into gear, and they drifted away at a leisurely pace.
Rhysel turned back to her transfer point and rolled the sod back over it, then tested it out. She appeared in her tower, and then back at the pond, only to find the ducks watching her.
Rhysel picked up the bread the leonine hadn't eaten, and the lettuce leaf, and tore them up to throw to the birds. They ate them, although occasionally the black-sparkling duck would catch a bit of bread in its bill and then swim with it into a low cave-like opening at the pond's far edge. Rhysel couldn't see inside, but supposed they nested there.
When she ran out of extra sandwich fixings to throw, she transferred back home, smiling to herself.
Tekaal arrived at Rhysel's house precisely on time, though he looked self-conscious about it when she answered the door. "Good evening," he said. "We have roughly two angles before I am expected at the theater; I am not sure how long it takes to learn to fly, but we can interrupt the process and teleport to the restaurant instead if it threatens to constrain our meal."
"You're a quick study," she said. "I bet we can fly there. Have you been listening for tones from things in general?"
"They have become hard to miss when I am not otherwise occupied," Tekaal said.
She grinned. "Right, so, you know how air sounds?" When he nodded, she said, "What you're going to need to do is pick out the tones of your own lifeforce, and meld those with the chord of the air - then it'll pick you up and move you around as you direct by altering its tones, like you're part of it yourself. There are a few ways for this to go wrong, but I can undo or tell you how to undo any of them. Does it make sense to you when I say you need to meld the tones?"
"I suppose, but if I have tones of my own, I have yet to notice them," said Tekaal.
"Right. Sorry, got ahead of myself. They're very easy to ignore if you're not looking for them. Everything will become that way, in time, but since you're only just newly a kama, you're still hearing everything you pass unless you're concentrating on something else. Now, living things don't have tones in exactly the same way that air and water and earth and fire do," Rhysel lectured to the attentive elf. "Instead, we have biorhythms. These are... sorry, I work with flavors and I have to dig up the old musical analogies. I guess I'm glad I learned them, now. Biorhythms are more percussive. But even a drum has a pitch, of sorts, and you can translate that into a chord that will behave with the air."
"And how do I go about detecting my biorhythm?" he inquired.
"It's a combination of three things," she said. "Heartbeat, breath, and lifeforce pulse. The first two you can figure out yourself, I imagine - press your fingers to your wrist, pay attention to how far apart the moments when you stop inhaling and begin exhaling are. The lifeforce pulse I'm going to find for you, this time, since otherwise you would need to meditate for a while to find it until you'd done that a few times. Give me your hand?" she asked, holding hers out.
Tekaal laid his hand in hers, timidly limp as though he feared he'd offend her should he twitch the wrong way, and she interlaced their fingers and closed her eyes to seek out his lifeforce - not to tap, only to monitor. "I assume you can keep time once I start. This one doesn't change. Beat," she said, "beat, beat, beat, beat..."
He nodded his head in time, and she stopped speaking and released his hand. He didn't seem thrilled about the disentanglement, but laid his first two fingers against his opposite wrist, and began adding a nod at a different angle to the rhythm set by his heartbeat. "Is it," he asked, once these were established, "a poor idea to deliberately breathe in time with one or the other, so as to make the entire thing more manageable?"
"No, it's recommended when you're starting out," she said.
"Mm." He began breathing in time to the slow intervals of his lifeforce's swelling and falling. "What do I do next?" he murmured.
"Next," she said, "think of the approximate pitch of your heartbeat..."
"Aal," he sang obligingly, and Rhysel's breath caught before she composed herself. "And similar for breath, presumably, but I haven't personally heard my lifeforce."
"Right," Rhysel said, embarrassed. "I'd, um, I'd hum it for you, but I have no ability with anything related to pitch. I'll be able to tell you if you guess it, though. It should be between breath and heartbeat, and something that sounds nice with the both of them."
Tekaal assigned his breathing a note, which he sang on the same nonsense syllable - politely ignoring the heat in Rhysel's cheeks. Then he began guessing at a center pitch. When he struck unison with the hum of his lifeforce, she nodded vigorously.
He sang through the entire chord again, root and middle and top, and an involuntary shiver went up Rhysel's spine. "Right," she said. "Now... add that to the air's chord..."
Tekaal didn't move, but Rhysel was paying attention, and noticed the moment when he performed magic. "Er," she said. "You're supposed to add you to the air. If you add it the other way around, this happens..." She poked a finger at his chest, and it sank in up to her second knuckle.
He looked down at where she'd prodded him. "That is very alarming, Rhysel," he said.
"Sorry." She withdrew her hand. "Separate the chords again. That's actually a useful working - you can turn into air and get through the smallest of spaces - you didn't do the whole thing, and that's good, because you can't yet use your lifeforce that efficiently and you'd be exhausted. But you did a little of it."
He concentrated, and then asked, "Am I substantial again?"
Rhysel patted his arm, and it was as it ought to be. "Yep," she said. "Try again - leave the air what it is, and add your chord to it."
Tekaal repeated his attempt, and Rhysel tasted the air's acceptance of him as a part of it. "Great!" she enthused. "Now, you can control vertical and lateral movement and rotation and pitch, too, but since you can turn around by briefly landing, I think for today all we'll cover is going up, down, and forward. That will get you to the restaurant. To lift off the ground - hear the second highest note in the air chord? Make that one louder..."
She walked him through the changes necessary to hover a foot off the ground and propel himself forward, and then hopped into the air herself, showing off with a loop around him as he moved at his sedate pace. "With practice, this is second nature," she said. "I'm not thinking about changing flavors, I'm just flying. It's all much more intuitive once you're accustomed to it than it seems now."
"I'll take your word for it," Tekaal replied. "It's most intriguing even with the explicit musical manipulation."
Rhysel grinned at him. "Great. Where are we going?"
Tekaal had to land and make course corrections on a few occasions, but conducted them to the restaurant with almost an angle left to spare for the dinner itself. The menu was divided into two parts: substrates, and flavors. Rhysel recognized a few things on the first list (mashed potatoes, oatmeal, rice, wheat) and many things on the latter (blueberries, fennel, mustard, peanut, onion, chocolate...), but she wasn't sure on what basis she ought to make selections, nor why the flavorings list said It is advised that you select no more than three flavorings, though experienced customers may choose up to five. Quantities of each flavor are not adjusted to reflect the total number. So she asked Tekaal.
"The flavors are very intense," he said. "That's a good portion of why I like Saraanlan food - I have no sense of smell, and am rarely able to detect subtler flavors. One flavor is not appreciably stronger than an ordinary meal, although it has less complexity than most. Two is strong, three extremely so. Four and five are better not attempted unless one is attempting to win money from one's friends."
"What are you getting?" she asked.
"Fennel, garlic, and mixed peppers," he said. "With potatoes."
"Hmm," she said. "Does raspberry and chocolate sound good? On oatmeal?"
"I think that sounds like a fine choice for your first Saraanlan meal," he said.
They placed their orders by writing them down and handing them to the waiter who glided by the table. "So," Rhysel said, "how is my teaching technique?"
Tekaal mulled this question over. "It could," he said, in a diplomatic tone, "benefit from advance lesson-planning, to ensure that you have the opportunity to select the best order in which to present information."
Rhysel looked down. "That... would have been a good idea. I'm sorry."
"I have suffered no ongoing ill effects," Tekaal said mildly. "It would have been a wise choice to create lesson plans for our classes in introductory kamai regardless of native skill at that aspect of teaching, simply to coordinate with each other."
"Right," said Rhysel, chuckling self-consciously.
"I did successfully fly here," he said. The waiter chose that moment to come by with their square bowls; the slips of paper on which they'd written their orders were stuck to the lips of the dishes and each heap of food had a spoon stuck into it. Rhysel's oatmeal was a burgundy-brown color, presumably from the raspberry and chocolate flavors. Tekaal's was pale with flecks of green and red and yellow, and looked festive.
Rhysel filled her mouth with a spoonful of oats, and immediately made a strangled pleased noise as raspberry and chocolate flooded her senses with tart-sweetness. "Oh my word, that's lovely," she said, when she'd recovered the presence of mind to chew and swallow and was released from the thrall of deliciousness.
"I'm glad you like it," said Tekaal, having nonchalantly gone through two bites of his own food. "This is one of the better Saraanlan restaurants in Paraasilan."
"If it wasn't, I think I'd be scared to try the really good ones," she said. "They'd send me to the..." Rhysel cast about for a Leraal word, then just inserted the Martisen term - "the hospital, delirious with fruit and - and, what exactly is chocolate? It comes in so many forms."
"Chocolate is derived from a seed," Tekaal said. "I'm not familiar with the details of how it is processed. What is a 'hospital'? Perhaps if you describe it I can tell you the Leraal word, although I don't think there is a particular place designated for victims of excellent Saraanlan cuisine."
Rhysel tilted her head. "In Barashi, there aren't enough kyma to treat every illness or injury - and some we can't treat, and some people who won't see us. They're helped by non-magical medics who can give them drugs, set their bones, or stitch up wounds. In larger cities, instead of just going to a medic's house, you go to a hospital, where a lot of them work."
"I see. I suppose the nearest equivalent would be a light's office, although they staff facilities in shifts one at a time. They work quickly and there would be little advantage to collecting many of them in central locations."
Rhysel winced; she had yet to personally meet a light, and the only one she'd heard of was the one who'd faked Samia's death only to ensconce her in a mental institution. When she thought of that, she added, "There are also hospitals for illnesses of the mind."
"Those," Tekaal said, "do exist." He supplied the word, but went on, "It would probably not be sensible to appropriate that term for the Barashin hospitals."
"I'll just make the Martisen into a loanword, then," she said. "How's your dinner?"
"Quite pleasant," he said. "Would you like a taste?"
"Sure." She turned her spoon around and used the other end of it to get a bit of his mashed potatoes, and popped it into her mouth. Assaulted by piquancy, she reeled for a moment before commenting, "Are you just really accustomed to this sort of thing, or...?"
"The lack of a sense of smell is relevant," he said. "I am most likely experiencing less than half of what you are, when we taste the same food."
"Why don't you have a sense of smell?" Rhysel asked, sipping water before going back to her oatmeal.
"It runs in my family," Tekaal said. "My paternal grandfather, my father, my uncle, and the younger of my two brothers have the same condition, although my other brother and my sister and great-aunt escaped it. I don't believe it is common."
Rhysel nodded. "Is there no way to fix it? I had sort of got the impression that magic could do anything whatever along those lines."
"It does not fall within the scope of lightcraft, although some syndromes with comparable symptoms would," said Tekaal. "There is no reason why a diligently researched wizard spell, precisely targeted, could not repair the condition. No one has troubled to invent one, including myself. It rarely interferes with my life, and none of my relatives has requested that I devote the necessary time."
Rhysel nodded. "I suppose you're accustomed to food not tasting like much."
"Indeed, and I doubt it would be an entirely positive development for that to abruptly change. It might be challenging to adjust. I can certainly come to establishments like this one, but you will notice I requested only three flavors."
"Still," she said. "I bet kamai has a way to fix it. I would need more detail than I have to even try with proxic magic, and that's it for my repertoire and healing, but I could ask my Master the next time I contact him. Would that bother you?"
"It would not," said Tekaal. "I would, of course, prefer to have more detail about any such cure before accepting it for myself, although I could pass along to my family its availability even if it did not interest me."
"Of course," said Rhysel. "So... what else, besides making lesson plans, do you think I need to learn before we start teaching kamai?"
The conversation drifted from there, through Tekaal's gentle criticisms of her didactic technique through a comparison of their own educational history. (Rhysel learned that it was uncommon for Esmaarlan children to be sent to schools like Binaaralav, and the place only existed because it taught magic - one of a handful of subjects that the average extended family couldn't teach its own youngsters at home. And more would-be wizards didn't begin to study until they reached adulthood and could do so at a university.) By the time their bowls had sat empty for several degrees, Rhysel was confessing to her history of cliffdiving ("the trick is to gather the energy to fly before you jump, so you can do it in an instant when you're nearly all the way down - not that it was smart of me anyway -"). Tekaal named the instruments he played ("the stringed one is a marteth, the key instrument is a fron").
Abruptly stopping midsentence, Tekaal cast the time spell, and paled at the numbers it displayed. "I needed to be at the theater four degrees ago," he said. "The makeup artist will be livid."
"Go ahead and teleport there, I'll cover dinner," Rhysel offered.
"It's covered - my credit stamp was keyed to our orders when we placed them - but yes, I need to go. I'm terribly sorry; if I had been paying more attention it wouldn't have needed to be so sudden -"
"Do I get a kiss goodbye?" Rhysel interrupted brazenly.
Tekaal stared at her, stunned, for a few ticks, but then he leaned across the table, pecked her cautiously on the forehead, and disappeared with a hasty wave of his hand and muttered word.
Rhysel smiled giddily to herself, and, after confirming with the waiter that Tekaal had paid for the dinner without even asking if she wanted to cover her half, she flew home.