Chapter Thirteen: Ducks
When Rhysel transferred to Binaaralav on Fenen, ready to attend theory class, she landed up to her knees in muddy water.
Spluttering, she pulled herself into the air and out of the hole that her transfer point had become. It still worked - it would take more than digging it out to break it - but that only meant that instead of being unable to use it, and flying in to see what was wrong with it, she'd ruined a pair of shoes and soaked her leggings and skirt. In front of some dozen students. "Ugh!"
"Oh, yikes!" said a girl Rhysel recognized from class, Korulen's human friend Lutan. "Do you want me to look up a cleaning spell? I'm sure I've got one in this book I have if I just run up to my room..."
"Thank you," said Rhysel, "but I've got it - well, perhaps not the shoes, but could your spell fix those?"
"No, probably not," Lutan admitted. "It'd dry them off and get the dirt out but I don't know how to fix the water damage. You could ask Aar Kithen. What are you going to do? Kah-maa?" she asked, trailing off awkwardly at the end of the erroneously declined foreign noun.
"Kamai," corrected Rhysel. She forced the water out of her clothes first, then took hold of the remaining dust by magic and ushered it out of the fibers. Soon her skirt and leggings were clean, if oddly stiff. "How long has my transfer point been a pit of mud?"
"It was like that when I got here," Lutan said. "It's not supposed to be, I take it?"
"No," Rhysel said. "It's not. I don't see how this would have happened here even if it rained very hard on this spot and nowhere else..." She felt water squish between her toes, and magically wrung out her shoes, too, but the leather was already damaged. She'd wear them until the end of the class, then go home and swap them for a backup pair.
"It looks kind of like somebody dug a hole there and then poured water in," Lutan said. "But I don't know who'd do that. Can you fix it?"
"It's not broken, per se," Rhysel said. "It'd take much more damage to the area to ruin the magic - the place'd have to be completely unrecognizable - but it's certainly not pleasant to use as is. I can fix that." She frowned at the glop on her transfer point, then fountained it up into the air and into the middle of the pond. It splashed, but was far enough away not to hit Rhysel or any of the students lounging around the edge of the water. The ducks were nowhere to be seen; Rhysel would have been hard pressed to avoid them too if they were on the water.
When the hole was only that, not a pool, Rhysel transmuted the bottom of it to rock and pulled it up to lie flush with the surrounding ground much as she'd pulled up her tower. This was a smaller working than that had been, and she was only a touch drowsy when she'd finished. "That should make it challenging for whoever it was to repeat themselves, at least," she said.
"Looks good to me," Lutan said. "Hey, Korulen said you're going to teach kaa-maa-eeeeee... Why do languages exist that end words on vowels? I don't know when to stop saying them. Anyway, Korulen said you're going to teach your magic here. Do you have room for me in there?"
"I haven't started evaluating potential students yet," said Rhysel, starting for the entrance. Lutan followed at her heels. "But possibly. Did Korulen also tell you about the aspects?"
"Mm-hmm," said Lutan. "I like the sound of image kama-a-ai. I like wizard illusions, but you have to advertise what you're doing to everyone, waving your hand around and saying the words. Ka-a-ee-maa-aa don't have to do that, right?"
"Kyma. No, we don't. Some kyma use words or gestures to help focus their attention, but they have nothing to do with the workings themselves."
"How're you going to pick who gets in the program, anyway?" Lutan asked. "If you just go by word of mouth you'll have me and Korulen and that dragon boy who I think has a crush on her and maybe four other people we know."
"I hadn't thought about it," Rhysel said, and she instructed the lift to take them to the correct hall. "Any suggestions?"
"Hold an open assembly and show off what you can do?" Lutan suggested.
"I only know a few workings in disciplines besides elemental kamai, right now, so it might have to wait while I cram with - Aar Kithen," said Rhysel. "But perhaps."
"Riiight," said Lutan. "Aar Kithen's helping you. That's neat. He's a good teacher, just kind of stuffy. I know hardly anything about him and I know things about most people."
"What do you know about me?" Rhysel asked, amused, as she and Lutan walked from the lift up the hall to the classroom.
"Mostly stuff I got out of Korulen. You're an offworlder from a place called Barashi - her mom went there and it has two suns and the planet is a ball shape - and you do kamai, the elemental kind. And you were with her uncle Narax for a bit but you're not now because of his wife but I don't know the exact details of that, was she okay with you and then she changed her mind or what? And, you know, stuff like that. I like knowing who's around me."
Rhysel laughed good-naturedly. "That so? Why?"
Lutan pushed the door to the classroom open. "It's like knowing somebody's name, to me - like, wouldn't you think it was odd if you talked to a person for a couple angles and then when they left you realized you had no idea what their name was?"
"So what should I know about you?" Rhysel asked Lutan, taking a seat and nodding (she refrained from winking) at Tekaal. Lutan sat at a nearby desk and began chattering happily about her art classes and her practica and her girlfriend and her boyfriend and the anthology of short stories she was reading, although she seemed to find it persistently difficult to talk about herself, and not her friends or her significant others or her relatives. By the time the classroom filled up, Rhysel thought she could have recited more facts about Korulen and Lutan's friend Kaarilel than about Lutan herself.
Korulen and Kaarilel, and the others in the posse, wound up clustering around Rhysel. Kaarilel attempted to pass a note to Korulen through Rhysel once, but mysteriously, it was caught by a breeze en route and directed into the misbehaving elf's hair, instead.
Lutan waved at Rhysel when she left with Korulen and company, and Rhysel waved back. The classroom emptied of students.
"Do be cautious about Aaralan Mehaas -"
"Lutan?" Rhysel asked.
"- Yes. She is not discreet with what she learns, as you may have already discovered," Tekaal said.
"I won't tell her anything sensitive. But she seems like a nice person," Rhysel said. "And she's a friend of Korulen's, and she offered to help me with something when I got here..." Rhysel then explained the state she'd found her transfer point in. "I can't think what the motive might be. The only person who might hate me that much is Samia, and the last I heard, she lived in Ertydo. Which, correct me if I'm wrong - isn't it on a different continent?"
"Aaral - what is her surname?"
"I don't think I ever learned it."
"Aar Alar's erstwhile spouse is a wizard, and so the distance may mean little to her, but it does seem farfetched for her to do as you describe. Yet I agree it sounds deliberate."
"Hmm." Rhysel sighed. "Well, it'll be a good bit harder for anyone to repeat the vandalism now. The grass was all gone anyway, so I turned it into a rock dais. Is it technically accurate to call a dragon 'Aar' and then his line name? I thought they were different from surnames."
"It is as close as one can get to formal address with a dragon," Tekaal said. "The only one I would prefer to address by anything else is my great-great-grandmother."
"You're part dragon?" Rhysel asked.
Tekaal shrugged. "A great many people have traceable dragon ancestry. Many more have lost track but have it nevertheless. All of the significant traits breed out within a generation or two. But, yes, my great-great-grandmother is a dragon, and my great-grandmother a thudia. Diamond."
"Wow. Are you close to her?"
"She visits my family several times annually; there are some dozen of her descendants in the one house alone, and she divides her time between ours and various other households to which her progeny have migrated. So while she is permitted to address me by my first name and so forth, it might not be accurate to claim closeness. She lives in Drast, now. And as neither a wizard nor a licensed teleporter, does find the distance significant - although as a white-group dragon, not as significant as she might."
As it was Fenen, there was no immediate need to vacate the room, and they loitered for some time chatting about miscellaneous things. By the time Tekaal teleported away, they had another date set: after his Lunen instance of the play, they would attend an art show. Rhysel went out to her transfer point - which had acquired a chalk drawing of some roses in unlikely colors, but was otherwise unmolested, and she didn't mind its being used as an art canvas. Smiling at the observing ducks, she jumped home.
Lunen found Rhysel curled up with the books her Master had sent along on the other four disciplines of kamai. She started reading about mind, inspired by Keo's usefulness to pick up what had always seemed to her a relatively uninteresting topic, but found that she couldn't get very far without a practice partner. Wild kamai, her next choice, was similarly limited, but she would be able to get a subject by sitting outside and practicing animal-soothing. It was normally simpler to start with domestic creatures, but having none ready to hand and not interested in buying a pet, she decided to hop to school and try the ducks. They were close to tame, if still wild.
When Rhysel jumped to their pond, though, she nearly fell over. Instead of being dug out, her transfer point was buried under a mound of earth nearly waist-high at the top, but it wasn't packed down and didn't hold up well to being stood on. She had to catch herself in flight to avoid tumbling into the water.
She landed on solid ground, located the nearby scooped-out place whence the heap of dirt had come, and shoved the pile of soil into it unceremoniously with kamai. Her temper was beginning to fray.
A soft quack sounded behind her.
Rhysel turned around to see the red-sparkling duck, floating in the water, looking somehow disgruntled.
She glanced from side to side; there weren't any students up this early on a day with no classes, even if some of them were on campus. The lake was deserted apart from her and the duck. So she could feel only so ridiculous about saying, "Are you ducks trying to ruin my transfer point?"
The duck paddled backwards, then turned around and swam for its hidey-hole.
Rhysel frowned, and reached out across the air for the retreating duck's lifeforce, intending to calm its rhythm and tame the duck long enough that she could pick it up and get a look at it. But the duck didn't have a weak, fluttering biorhythm that should have belonged to such a small animal. It didn't even have a solid medium-sized one like she'd expect from herself or Tekaal. It had a veritable torrent of lifeforce wrapped up inside its feathers, like it was a tiny power well. Rhysel had only tapped a power well once, but felt a comparable rush of dizziness when she brushed the duck with her magic.
"Wait," she said to the duck, intending to call out but managing only a weak, awkward murmur. "Hey - wait - can you understand me?" She stepped out onto the water of the pond, making it support her as she chased the duck.
The duck quacked in alarm and swam faster, but when Rhysel was halfway to the hidey-hole, it abruptly turned in the water and squawked angrily at her, spreading its wings.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she said. "It's just -" She stepped forward, forcing the water not to ripple and upset her footing.
The duck took off into the air, flying at her face and swatting her with its wings. This was more painful than she would have expected, but once she recovered her balance and her presence of mind she had no trouble catching the duck with a wad of controlled air and forcing it away from her. It hung suspended there and quacked furiously, unable to otherwise move.
"There was no call for that," Rhysel said sternly. "I haven't attacked you. Can you understand me? Quack twice if you can."
The red duck remained resolutely silent. Out of the darkened hidey-hole swam the black-sparkling duck.
"Hello," said Rhysel to the newcomer, feeling steadily less ridiculous about addressing ducks. "Can you understand me? Quack twice if you can."
The black duck didn't make a sound, but looked up at the red one, then at Rhysel.
"It attacked me," Rhysel said. "I'm hanging onto it until I know what's going on. Maybe you'll be more reasonable." The black duck swam in a tight circle, then looked at the red duck again. "No? Okay. I'm going to see what's going on myself, then." Rhysel advanced towards the hidey-hole.
The black duck swam in front of her, although it didn't fly into her face. Rhysel stepped over it, and it tried to get in her way again, but she continued anyway.
When she was six feet from the low, darkened hole, both ducks behind her, she heard a low, pained woman's voice: "Stop!"
Rhysel did stop, and turned around to see the black duck looking up at her. "Please," went on the voice, and she saw it was the black duck speaking. "Please don't. Please leave us alone. Please."
"Have you been interfering with my transfer point?" Rhysel demanded.
"Please go away," said the black duck. "Please."
Rhysel sighed. "Does the headmaster know you're here?" she asked. "I mean, I suppose he knows that there are ducks in the pond, but does he know you're intelligent?"
"Don't tell him!" cried the black duck hysterically. "Please go away. Please. Forget we're here and leave us alone. We'll leave your transfer point alone. Please, please, please."
"So you have been messing with it," said Rhysel. "Why?"
"I couldn't hear you coming," said the black duck, swimming in an anxious circle. "I can hear people coming on foot. There's no reason for anyone to teleport here. Please let him go," she added, gazing up at the red duck.
"All right, but he'd better not attack me again." Rubbing the bruise he'd left on her cheekbone, Rhysel released the other duck, who dropped unceremoniously into the water, shook out his wings, and touched beaks to the black duck. "What are you doing here? What are you? Ducks in general aren't intelligent in Elcenia, are they?"
"Please go away and leave us a-" the black duck began to repeat, but then she startled, perhaps hearing something Rhysel couldn't make out. She swam at top speed towards the hidey-hole, and the red duck got between Rhysel and the entrance, looking challengingly at her.
"I'm not going to follow her in," said Rhysel, holding up her hands placatingly. From a distance, she hadn't been able to make out how big the hidey-hole entrance really was. It wouldn't be a comfortable fit, but she could have floated in horizontally.
"You'd better not," said the red duck in a snarling voice. It sounded very odd, emerging from waterfowl.
"No," came the black duck's voice from inside the hole. "No, no, don't go out there, come back, little one - little one!"
But her exhortations were ineffectual. Out of the hidey-hole swam a sparkling, black, infant dragon.
The baby dragon looked up at Rhysel cheekily and made a peeping noise.
"You're dragons," breathed Rhysel. "Not color-changed ducks."
"We are not," snapped the red-feathered one. "We're shrens. Will you go away now?" He swam forward and tried to nudge the baby black-opal-scaled dragon into the hole with his beak, but the baby wasn't having it, and they were similar sizes while he was in duck form.
"Eret," called the black not-a-duck. "I can't hold onto all of them at once now they're awake -"
"Dammit," Eret muttered. He looked around, saw only Rhysel anywhere nearby, glared at her, and shapeshifted. In human form, he was a brown-skinned, brown-haired man, wearing shabby pants but no shirt or shoes. The pond was reasonably deep, but he was tall, and he was able to stand on the bottom and shove the tiny dragon back into the dark hole. When that was done, he glared at Rhysel with red color-flecked eyes, and shifted back into duck form. "Go away."
"You're trying to raise children here? What do they eat?" Rhysel asked incredulously.
"How many times do we have to tell you to leave us alone?" snapped Eret. "How is that confusing? I know you speak Leraal. I've heard you do it. Do you want it in some other language?"
"I just - why would you - living as ducks, with - someone is bound to find you eventually," Rhysel said. "Keo could just walk by and she'd notice your empathic signatures; she wouldn't even have to suspect. I know Korulen brings Runa here sometimes and soon Runa will be able to express herself well enough to mention the same thing."
"Yes," said Eret, voice heavy with sarcasm, "someone is bound to find us eventually. I wonder when that will happen."
Rhysel flushed. "I won't tell anyone about you," she said. "But how are you going to feed - how many baby dragons?"
"It's none of your business unless you want to bring us a sack of groceries twice a week!" snarled Eret.
"I could do that," Rhysel said.
He stopped short, and blinked at her.
"Really," she said. "What do you want? I'll get it and bring it here for you. Your children shouldn't have to go hungry, no matter why you're living as ducks. I've personally fed you bread and lettuce; you probably don't have some excellent source of food if you'll eat what you're thrown."
"Four," he said, finally. "Four baby dragons. They'll eat most anything humans or elves will eat. We're fine ourselves. Ducks eat grass."
"And I assume you don't have a kitchen in there." At his silence, she said, "I'll bring something by, stuff that doesn't call for cooking, tomorrow or the day after - my delivery person will need at least that much notice."
"Thank you," said Eret grudgingly.
"Can I ask you a question?" Rhysel asked, sitting down on the water.
"Fine," he huffed.
"What exactly is a shren?"
"Like a dragon," he said, "but can't fly."
"But you can fly; I saw you do it. Right at my face."
"In our natural forms," he said, exasperated. "Once we learn to shapeshift, yeah, we can fly in other forms as long as they come with functioning wings."
"Oh," she said. "Are the babies shrens too?"
"No!" he shouted. "Do we look sadistic to you? Why the hell would we have children if we expected them to be shrens too?"
"I would hope so. Ugh. Someone might drop by any moment. Would you go away and stop drawing attention to us? And come back tomorrow with food," he added in an undertone.
"Maybe I'd better get a book about shrens, or something," she said.
"Even you are unlikely to offend a book," said Eret. "Goodbye." And with that, he swam into the hole.
Rhysel transferred home, thoughts of taming ducks forgotten. She wrote an extensive list of minimal-preparation foods that didn't require cold storage on her link paper to Kolaan. Then she scratched in quantities that she thought would sate four tiny dragons Runa's size for four or five days.
She felt like she ought to do more to help the small family, but they clearly didn't trust her. Maybe a few grocery deliveries, and a few weeks of no one turning up at their hidey-hole looking for them, would help them be willing to tell her what they needed. Although she didn't understand how they were going to keep their children out of sight, when Runa alone was a such a handful for her parents. Maybe Eret and - Rhysel kicked herself for not asking the black opal's name - had only had their babies hatch very recently, and didn't yet know how much of a trial they'd be.
Once she'd put in the grocery order and added As early as you can get it here tomorrow, please, or the next day if need be, she transferred back to school, politely ignored the "ducks", and made for the library. The librarian she asked gave a delicate shudder at the word "shren", but pointed her to a shelf.
There were a handful of likely-looking titles: "A History of Shrens and Shren Houses". "On the Etiology of Shrenness". "Six Shren Case Histories (Anonymized)". "Illnesses of Dragons, & Shrens, incl. Shrenness Itself". "Sociology of Shrens: The Childhood, The Stigma, The Obscurity".
Rhysel stared at these. Eret and his (wife? presumably wife) hadn't seemed particularly diseased. Not being able to fly in dragon form was surely inconvenient for them, but "stigma"? She pulled the last book off the shelf, and opened it to the introduction.
This volume would be remiss to exclude the following introduction to shrens before moving on to the more advanced branches of the topic. Shrens are the dragonlike children of dragon parents (full-blooded always; shren parunias unheard of except in cases where there is plausibly a situation of deception (p. 348) or cuckooing (p. 350)), sharing in fact all of their characteristics save the inability to fly in dragon form. Shrens themselves, on the occasions that they reproduce (rare: see ch. 12), produce children as dragons (thudias, parunias, "full-blooded" dragons with other shrens or even (see p. 202) with dragons, and no higher than typical risk of producing shren children of their own). Shrenness is detectable via markings on the eggs (p. 115). Of shren eggs that are not destroyed immediately on laying, an overwhelming majority are sent to hatch in "shren houses" (list of these institutions on p. 38), where the hatchlings grow to shapeshifting age and then, no longer necessarily contagious (p. 16), may be picked up by their parents or other relatives; however, approximately half of shrens are left at shren houses past this age. Other shrens without clutchmates they would infect whose families live in sufficiently remote areas are occasionally raised at home (ch. 14 section 3), though dragon parents often find themselves unequal to the task of raising infants in such constant pain (p. 63) and with draconic culture standing so formidably against their choice.
Eyebrows shooting up at the word "contagious", Rhysel turned to the marked page. Shren Contagion, it said:
While shrenness is not caused by any detectable microorganism (c.f. Rak and Enseeli, 11197), it can nevertheless be passed from shrens to dragons. This contagion has several unusual characteristics. First, it can only be transmitted if both the shren and the dragon are in natural form. Second, it is a matter of pure proximity - recorded infections (see page 386) have taken place through assorted barriers provided that the shren and victim were within some 200 feet of one another. Third, it is instantaneous, although if the victim does not attempt to fly immediately after infection, he or she may not immediately notice the situation. (This can in theory lead to "shren chains", where shren 1 infects victim 2 immediately affects more distant victim 3, but this has never happened in recorded history.) And fourth, non-shrens cannot transmit the infection. Parts of shrens such as shed scales, or non-dragon non-shrens who associate with shrens and then interact with dragons, do not carry the contagion. For obvious reasons, infant shrens are the most dangerous and infant dragons the most vulnerable. Shrens who have learned to shapeshift typically never return to their natural forms again (though see ch. 12), associating the form with pain and with the necessity of being shut away. Shren houses also responsibly teach young shrens to avoid the form, to limit the risk of contagion.
Rhysel frowned and went back to the introduction, then turned to page 63. A section header marked "Esu" preceded a paragraph that read:
Esu is the transliteration of a Draconic word (accurate as of this edition's publication in 11239) referring to the effects on a dragon (or a shren) who does not fly for an extended period of time. For obvious reasons, shrens too young to have learned to shapeshift (i.e. in the first two decades of life, plus or minus a year) are most subject to this effect. Initially it takes the form of lethargy and what has been called "air hunger" (c.f. Rhanaleuly). If left unsatisfied, this "air hunger" deepens into a non-localized pain, which continues to worsen steadily until the affected dragon or shren takes flight. The flight may be in any form, but must be under the dragon or shren's own power. (It is unknown if dragon or shren mages, if any existed, could satisfy the esu/"air hunger" with air mage powers in place of actual effective wingbeats.) The pain of esu is originally very slight. Interviewee Ludei (see full text of interview in appendix 4) compares it to a pinprick. By the end of one full year of painful esu, he claims that it is more similar to a fractured arm, and continues to worsen at a comparable rate throughout each subsequent year. He cautions that as a white shren himself he may have been more subject than shrens of other colors to the effects of esu, though interviews with shrens from each color group do not yield consistent differences.
Rhysel winced, and wished she could teach babies kamai, but the way dragons aged they'd have been flying around in assumed forms for a century before the ability would take, no matter whether she chose to infuse them before that. She flipped back to the introduction, and followed the page number directions to the list of shren houses.
Rhysel squinted at the third line of the list. The book she was holding didn't have more detail about it, so she put it back and grabbed the history of shrens and shren houses. That one didn't have an address, but it did show Lator Shren House on a map. An outdated map, but the layout of the city and the cardinal directions would do the trick.
Rhysel re-shelved the books and went out of the library, and took to the air, looking for the shren house.