Chapter Fourteen: Shrens
The shren house was obvious when Rhysel found it: three blocky stories wrapped around a courtyard, surrounded by a fence that would keep any onlookers well back beyond infection distance. Rhysel wasn't sure if the place was also warded to keep out flying dragons, but when she landed at the entrance and tried the gate, it swung to admit her - either it didn't have a ward like that, or it ignored her.
She saw people peering out of the windows - small dragons (shrens, presumably, though why the distinction was made so rigidly was lost on Rhysel) and shapeshifted human or elf faces - but no one came out to greet her, and when she knocked on the door, it wasn't immediately opened.
Rhysel waited, and finally, someone opened the door. The woman had light brown skin and sky-blue hair, bangs curling down over annoyed brown eyes. "You aren't the orchestrator of the charitable cause department, a dragon, or a shren. What are you doing here?"
"I -" Rhysel's purpose had seemed clear in her head. Go meet shrens, see if there was some way that kamai could help where Elcenian magic couldn't. Elcenian magic hadn't been able to regrow Samia's hair, couldn't make transfer points - maybe kamai could heal shrens, but she'd need more cooperative ones than Eret and his wife to see if that might be the case. But obliged to articulate it, she blanked. "I'm here to help."
The blue-haired shren closed her eyes briefly and took a sighing breath, then put on a rehearsed smile. "Our organization accepts monetary donations through the Paraasilan Charitable Cause Department, or federally through the Daasen Union of Welfare. We are not in the market for volunteer work at this time and prefer to source needed labor in-house. If you wish to provide some other form of help, please mail us a written description so that we can evaluate our ability to make use of it. Thank you for your interest in the Lator Shren House."
"That's not what I - I mean, I have offworld magic," Rhysel said, backtracking. "I only just learned what shrens are, and I know my magic can do some things that Elcenian kinds can't. I wanted to learn more and find out if there's any way I can help."
The blue-haired shren blinked at her. "Offworld magic."
Rhysel nodded, and conjured a globe of handfire, which she spun through a rainbow of colors. "But I don't know if I can help until I get a closer look at some shrens. Or I'd go home and write a description for you. Er, what's your name? Are you Jensal?" she asked, recalling the list of houses in the book.
"Yes. So what do you want to do, exactly?" asked Jensal.
"Er," Rhysel said. "Meet some baby shrens, I suppose? Check their lifeforces, figure out what wild kamai I might want to learn to work on their wings -"
"Do you think you can handle being in a room with a bunch of baby shrens?" asked Jensal. "They're not going to stop screaming to avoid offending your sensibilities."
Rhysel winced. "I'm not going to make it any worse, am I?"
"Are you?" inquired Jensal archly. "I don't know anything about your magic. Are you affiliated with some trustworthy institution I might have heard of? Do you have credentials? Or do you just want me to let you muck around with the babies on the off-chance that you'll perform miracles?"
"Er." Rhysel bit her lip, then said, "I'm supposed to start teaching my form of magic, kamai, at the Binaaralav Academy in a term or two."
"It might be a better use of your time to use that connection to convince the headmaster's unique-green-group wife that she really should tolerate the horrible, horrible thought of shrens for the half angle it would take her to individually anesthetize every baby in every house."
Rhysel hadn't thought of that before, but nodded immediately. "I'll bring it up to her. I'll have her over for dinner tomorrow and mention it. But it's possible that even after she does that, some of you would want to be cured outright, isn't it? I might be able to do that."
Jensal sighed. "I will let you meet one baby. A little one who won't cry too much, because I would feel foolish if it turns out in fifty years that you can cure shrens but didn't get around to it because you weren't prepared for the reality of a nineteen-year-old shren who left behind the mere sensation of melting some five or six years ago. You get half an angle or until I say otherwise, whichever comes first. I will supervise the entire process and you will explain what you're doing before you do anything to the baby in question. Is that understood?"
"Okay," said Rhysel meekly.
"Come in," Jensal said, waving Rhysel through the door and into an office just inside. "Sit here. Don't go anywhere. Don't touch anything. If someone walks in, tell them I'll be there in a degree. Understood?" Rhysel nodded, and Jensal left her behind.
The office was small, neatly kept, and full of files and books and slips of paper tucked into things. Rhysel was on one of three chairs that were not tucked under Jensal's desk, looking out the window behind Jensal's own chair into the lawn between building and fence.
Jensal was back promptly, before anyone else ventured into the office asking after her. In her arms was a baby shren Runa's size, whose bold, primary-green scales made her stand out starkly against Jensal's black shirt. "This is Artha," Jensal told Rhysel. "Artha, say hi."
"Morning!" said Artha instead, waving a forefoot. She scrabbled against Jensal's grip, trying to get down. "You do miracles?"
"Uh," Rhysel said.
"She's going to see if maybe she can," Jensal said. "No promises, Artha, okay?"
"Okay, but maybe?" said Artha.
"I wouldn't call it a 'miracle' even if it turns out I can do it," Rhysel said. "I'm not a god, I'm a kama."
"Forgive her," Jensal said dryly. "'Shren' is a Draconic word. And Draconic is set up in such a way that a shren ceasing to be a shren by any means other than death is a miracle, no two ways about it. Your lack of divinity doesn't enter into the question. But Artha -"
"No promises," sighed Artha. "But, but, you can try."
Rhysel held out her hands, and Jensal handed over the little shren. Artha moved differently than Runa did. Even when Runa wasn't trying to take off, she used her wings to maneuver and express herself. Artha didn't do that. Her wings were present, and weren't obviously shriveled or in any way misshapen, but she held them tightly against her sides all folded even when she was climbing into precarious poses on Rhysel's forearms.
"What are you going to do?" Jensal asked.
"Miracles!" cried Artha. "Miracles miracles. No promises," she added hastily when Jensal opened her mouth.
"I'm going to check her lifeforce first," Rhysel said, petting the tiny green shren between her stubby conical horns and getting a purr for her troubles. "It's completely harmless. I've done it to my boyfriend."
"And he's fine?" Jensal asked. Rhysel nodded, and the turquoise pursed her lips. "All right then. You can do that."
Rhysel sought out Artha's lifeforce. Like Eret's, it was considerable - there was a lot of energy wrapped up in the little hatchling. "This is interesting," Rhysel murmured. "I wonder if it's just shrens, or dragons too? I should check Runa, and Keo..."
"You didn't test me too, did you?" Jensal asked. "Did you meet some other shren before?"
Rhysel brought herself up short; she didn't want to give away the "ducks" after having promised not to. "I can test you," she offered.
"Knock yourself out," said Jensal. Rhysel reached out for the other shren's lifeforce, and found it no less spectacular than Artha's or Eret's.
"Amazing," Rhysel said. "I could build a transfer point tapping just three dragons."
"Amazing," said Jensal. "That was completely meaningless to me. I speak all languages; I'm not familiar with all concepts."
"Sorry. I just mean - apparently shrens have a lot of lifeforce. That's what I use to do my magic, and for large workings, I can borrow it from other people."
"Also," Jensal said, "I'm not a dragon."
"...Sorry?" Rhysel said. "Can you explain why? If I couldn't walk, I'd still be a halfblood."
"Draconic," said Jensal. "'Shren' is a Draconic word, and it means us, and it doesn't mean dragons."
"Okay then," Rhysel said. "Can you tell me what's wrong with her wings?"
"You mean besides the fact that she hatched out of a striped egg?" Jensal asked. "Not a thing. She's not using them because they don't work."
"She can't move them at all?" Rhysel asked.
"Nuh-uh, I can," said Artha. With a look of supreme concentration on her face, she stretched out her left wing to its full span before Rhysel's eyes. Apart from the color, it could have been Runa's wing. There was nothing wrong with it. "It's not so hard!"
"I'm going to touch your wing, okay, Artha?" Rhysel said, and at the infant's nod, she ran her fingers over the struts and the webbing. "Does it hurt?"
Artha tossed her head. "Not especially."
Rhysel winced, but continued to examine the wing. The wing felt like one of Runa's too. Warm, though not as warm as a non-reptile; the webbing taut and leathery between the scale-encased bones and muscles. "Is dragon flight a physical thing, or magical?" Rhysel asked Jensal.
"Physical," said Jensal. "If you buy the latest research. Their wings have to be very strong to do it, but they're taking off and flying around like birds and bats do."
Rhysel let go of Artha's wing. It flopped limply, and then Artha folded it, using her tail to help move it now that she was done showing off. "I think," Rhysel said, "that I need to learn more wild kamai, and come back and try again. Maybe I should even ask my Master for help so no one has to wait on my education."
"So you're done?" Jensal asked.
"For today," Rhysel said. "Yes. But I'll ask Keo about it tomorrow night, assuming she'll come over for dinner - I think I know how to lure her - and I'll be back later when I've talked to my Master and gotten his advice on what to do."
"Miiiiiiiracles," sang Artha as Jensal scooped her up out of Rhysel's lap.
"You can see yourself out," Jensal told Rhysel, draping Artha over her shoulder. "Close the front door behind you." She paused, and said, "Good luck with the unique green-group. She'd be the first of her kind to do anything about it, if you talked her into helping."
Rhysel frowned. Something didn't add up; Keo wasn't callous. But she waved goodbye to Artha, who lashed her tail in reply, and saw herself out of the shren house.
Rhysel successfully got Keo to agree to come to dinner on Chenen, with the aid of the promise that there would be blackened catfish and a pepper-filled potato stew. She didn't mention the ulterior motive. Then she read from her wild kamai book - not practicing the basics, just looking for anything she might want to learn out of order to help the shrens.
Her reading didn't show anything immediately useful. The most promising item she found that was within her ability to accomplish was a lifelink. She'd always assumed that was advanced death kamai, but apparently it was a basic working and wild kyma learned it too. The magic was simplicity itself - but wreathed heavily with cautions, and she surmised that the reason she'd thought it was advanced was because no one dared try it early in their studies.
She memorized the instructions, but the shrens weren't dying, only in pain. A lifelink would prevent them from dying until and unless Rhysel did, but it wouldn't anesthetize them, or cure their disability.
Rhysel might have been late for her date with Tekaal if she'd had to meet him there. As it was, he rang the doorbell and snapped her out of her studious reverie. She kissed him in greeting, leaving him to stammer somewhat through his question about whether she'd prefer to teleport or fly to the art show.
They flew, and Rhysel allowed herself to be distracted for a couple of angles by the landscapes in the gallery. Tekaal hadn't painted any of them - he didn't do landscapes, preferring portraiture and abstracts, but he knew one of the artists who'd contributed. After they'd seen all the paintings, Rhysel said, "So today I went to the shren house. Did you know there's one in Paraasilan?"
"I was aware," Tekaal said. "My great-great grandmother has occasionally complained."
Rhysel frowned. "Why would she complain? It'd be hard to miss and accidentally get herself turned into one."
"I am unclear on some of the details of why dragons feel so strongly about shrens," Tekaal said. "But it is a particularly strong prejudice among white-groups, of which my diamond ancestor is one."
"At the house, the woman who ran the place didn't seem to think I'd be able to talk Keo into helping the baby shrens," Rhysel said slowly. "I thought that was ridiculous, but..."
"I would not be surprised if Aaral Pyga were in fact unwilling to entertain the question," Tekaal said quietly.
Rhysel's frown became a scowl as they left the art gallery and simultaneously lifted off into flight. "That's absurd. She's a good person."
He shrugged. "It is not impossible, but if you are determined to help shrens, you may need to choose avenues that don't involve the cooperation of dragons. It is a blind spot that is, if not universal, at least very commonplace among them."
"Right. I guess I'll look deeper into mind kamai as well as wild, so I can anesthetize them myself. Speaking of which, I should ask Keo when she wants to transfer my kamai knowledge to you."
"Tomorrow might be ideal, as it is a Chenen and she will have few if any school-related responsibilities," Tekaal said. "Perhaps it would be wise to do it before the dinner at which you pose this question, as it is likely to make her uncomfortable regardless of her answer."
Rhysel sighed. "Okay. I'll ask her after we get back to my tower. How was your day?"
Tekaal summarized his day - worked on a painting, graded some assignments, practiced his instruments, starred in The Man in Red and Gold, picked up Rhysel for the art show date - during the rest of the trip home. Rhysel coached him intermittently on flying, and while he still moved stiffly, he could manage the changes beyond going up and forward and down after a moment's thought by the time they landed on her doorstep.
"I had a good time," Rhysel murmured.
"Likewise," Tekaal replied. There was a pregnant pause. And then he kissed her - not the perfunctory peck that he'd had startled out of him at the restaurant, but a more thoughtful and extended kiss that made her spine tingle. When he straightened up again, she smiled at him, and he smiled back in a vaguely goofy way that was quite uncharacteristic of him.
"G'night," Rhysel said.
"Good night," Tekaal replied, and he teleported away.
<I don't actually need you to be near each other, or me, to make the transfer,> Keo sent the next morning when Rhysel pinged to let her know that she and Tekaal were ready.
<Oh. Well, he's already here,> Rhysel sent.
<That's okay. I won't even need your attention for most of it, so you can just hang out together, study kamai or chat about teaching or whatever,> Keo sent. <But don't start anything you'd mind my interrupting.>
<We won't,> replied Rhysel, before she caught the implication and blushed. Tekaal, looking at her from across the table, evidently noticed but didn't comment. <What do we do?>
<He doesn't have to do anything. Putting stuff in a mind is much simpler than finding stuff in one. You need to do one thing right now, and then you're done unless I turn up a problem spot-checking at the end of the procedure. Pull up and focus on the memories of learning the following workings: one that you do so easily now that it's instinctive and you don't even have to decide to do it, one that you still find difficult, one that strikes you as a very standard, ordinary working, and one that you've learned but most people wouldn't. And say when.>
Rhysel thought of the stoneskin defense that she brought up when startled; the infusion working itself with its many nerve-wracking steps and high stakes; handfire; and the proxic workings that she'd only delved into because of her background in sculpture. <When.>
<Okay, I'll get going on that then,> Keo said. <You two have a fun day.>
"She's working on it," Rhysel reported.
"She mentioned as much," Tekaal said. "While I suppose it is not in fact necessary for me to impose on your hospitality for the length of time originally planned... I am already here."
"You are," Rhysel agreed. "Uh, I don't know what order Keo's going to be finding and moving stuff in, so I don't suppose we ought to start on a lesson plan just yet or anything else that relies on you having kamai knowledge I didn't already teach you. But we could do something else. You could sing," she proposed shyly.
Tekaal blinked. "That is a capacity I possess. I have no memorizations current except for the selections from The Man in Red and Gold and a handful of others that have stuck in spite of minimal practice; did you have in mind a few degrees of singing or some number of angles? If the latter I will need to retrieve sheet music."
"I'd find it entertaining if you sang all day. I don't know if you want to," Rhysel said.
"I'll see how much material I have," he said, looking gratified, though surprised. "I'll be a few moments." He teleported away.
Rhysel leaned back and waited. Tekaal returned with a number of books under one arm. He casually reached out a hand and crooked a wrist, pulling a music stand out of the rock floor to eye level. Then he blinked, and stared at his hand.
"She works fast," observed Rhysel, applauding softly and grinning. "Did you even mean to do that?"
"I arrived, realized there was no music stand, considered teleporting home again to fetch mine - and then it occurred to me that this would be simpler - and then it occurred to me that I hadn't known how, mere ticks ago," Tekaal said. "How unsettling. I will most likely become accustomed to it." He furrowed his brow at the music stand, and set his books on it. "Have you any preference about where I begin?"
Rhysel shook her head, eyes shining. Tekaal smiled at her, then opened the first book, cleared his throat, and sang.
After some deliriously lovely amount of time, Tekaal halted at the end of a song and coughed. "I hate to interrupt myself when my audience is so appreciative," he began.
Rhysel didn't let him finish the sentence before she shot to her feet and threw her arms around his neck, planting a kiss on his mouth enthusiastically. Tekaal reeled, faint, and - she thought unconsciously - propped himself up with a touch of air kamai, but even when she pulled out of the kiss breathless and beaming, he didn't resume his sentence. "You were saying?" she prompted.
"Oh. Yes, I was. I believe it might be a suitable time for lunch," said Tekaal, blinking rapidly. One of his arms had gone around her; his hand found the end of her braid and fidgeted with it gently enough that she could barely tell he was doing it. "I am unaware if you had plans incompatible with spending lunch together, or prefer not to dine out several times in the same week..."
"I could fix us something here," Rhysel said, pillowing her head on his shoulder. "I should probably start the pie for dinner about now anyway; I can make sandwiches between steps. Runa will complain if there isn't any pie."
"Aaral Pyga's family is coming?" Tekaal asked. "Sandwiches sound eminently suitable."
"Sandwiches it is," Rhysel said, pecking him on the nearest cheekbone and drawing away into the kitchen. Her hair bounced against her back when he let it go. "The rest of her family isn't, but she's bringing Runa, because there's a wizardry convention Kanaat and Korulen are going to that has its opening talks this evening and Runa would be bored there. So the alternative would be to leave Runa with a set of grandparents or something, and I didn't think it would be a problem to have her over. Do you think it'll make the conversation go more awkwardly?"
"I would be surprised if it did not," Tekaal said, watching Rhysel chop strawberries. "However willing Aaral Pyga might be to discuss shrens under neutral circumstances, having her infant parunia with her would not be the sort of factor that could improve things."
Rhysel chewed her lip. "I don't think I can uninvite Runa at this point. But it's not like I have a shren in the attic threatening Keo's baby."
"Perhaps it will make no difference," said Tekaal.
Rhysel put the chunks of fruit in a bowl with some sugar and put it aside to macerate, then started slicing bread. "What do you want on your sandwich?"
"I could not be reasonably described as choosy," Tekaal said.
Rhysel nodded and started building identical sandwiches for each of them. "Oh, by the way," she said. "I think I'm going to want to talk to my Master about the possibility of kamai helping shrens. They shouldn't have to wait for me to learn the relevant discipline if kamai has a working that could help them now. Would you mind casting the relevant spells to send him a note and get a reply?"
"I am entirely willing," Tekaal said. "Shall I fetch my chalk and draw the circle now?"
"Sure," she said, "as long as I'm occupied over here."
He teleported away and back again, and went to the part of the floor Rhysel indicated to draw the circle. Time went by in companionable near-silence, punctuated by occasional remarks, as he sketched and she assembled pie and sandwiches. Rhysel got her pie plate into the oven roughly when he chalked in the last symbol in the sending circle, shut his diagramming book, and stood up. "Aaral Pyga is highly unobtrusive with her work," he said, "but I remain intrigued to note the changes in myself as she adds information. For instance, I no longer find the sounds of tones intrusive. They are available when I choose to listen and otherwise fade into the background."
"I wasn't sure if that would happen or not," Rhysel said, rinsing flour off her hands with conjured water and then carrying plated sandwiches to the table. "Help yourself to these; if there are extras I'll leave them in the preserving cabinet to bolt down next time I magically overextend myself. I probably won't decide to make a transfer point all by myself again, but -"
"You did what? Power boxes can only -" Tekaal interrupted himself, a bemused look on his face. "How peculiar. But - you made a transfer point without tapping any subjects?"
"I wasn't thinking straight," Rhysel admitted. "It was stupid. I thought maybe if I had one, I could use it to go home, but - well, you probably know why that wouldn't have worked."
"Twice over," Tekaal said. "The planets aren't physically contiguous, and kamai doesn't have any transworld functionality." He paused, chewing on the last corner of his sandwich, then said, "Do you miss Barashi very badly?"
"At this point..." Rhysel sighed. "Well. The world itself, I can live without. I don't care that there's only one sun here, and I stopped freaking out about the planet being a square more than a month ago, and the culture here isn't too different in important respects except for how much people overreact to being told I was spanked when I was a child -" She stopped, observing that Tekaal's face had gone pale and his knuckles were white around the cup of water he'd conjured for himself. "Tekaal. I'm fine. This is the sort of overreaction I mean."
"I will attempt to react... less... should the topic come up again," he said carefully, unpeeling his fingers from his cup one at a time and leaving it on the table. "I must ask that if you ever have cause to meet my sister, you do not share this information with her."
"Why?" asked Rhysel. "I mean, she's presumably Esmaarlan as you are, but why her in particular and not your brothers?"
"Linisaar, my sister, at one time had an abusive boyfriend," Tekaal said delicately. "It is apparent that you do not consider your upbringing to have been abusive, and perhaps your culture also distinguishes between significant others and parents here -"
"But Linisaar would not consider those nuances if she heard of your history. It would simply upset her to no purpose, and she would be unable to believe that you were 'fine' unless she had previously known you for some years. The way she behaves around my brother's boyfriend's daughter is evidence of that. Linisaar is fond of the girl but treats her more delicately than she does our cousins of comparable ages."
"Your brother's boyfriend's daughter was abused?"
"Her mother hit her," Tekaal said. "Once. Since that time the girl has been in her father's sole custody, as her mother has been in prison and can be expected to remain there until her child reaches adulthood."
"Oh," said Rhysel. "I see."
Tekaal pressed his lips together, then took a sip of water. "But you were talking about Barashi," he said, after a silence.
"Right," she said. "Well, in spite of that... thing... and other stuff that looms larger to me, I miss my family. But they'd never want to come here. They don't like magic. My fault," she added.
Rhysel took a breath through her teeth. "Well, people in general are suspicious of kyma, but I manifested spontaneously, and I couldn't control myself until I had a year of training under my belt. No one was seriously hurt, but I did a lot of damage. The first thing magical I ever did was set a switch on fire when my father was about to punish me -" At the look on Tekaal's face, she raised an eyebrow. "Do I need to censor all my stories from before age eighteen for you?"
"No. Please go on," he said.
"He wasn't burned, but he was shaken. At first my parents didn't want to send me to a kama to apprentice. A lot of people with kamai ability just never learn magic and go on as though they couldn't, and they didn't see why I shouldn't be the same. But I kept doing magic accidentally - usually setting things on fire or blowing them up - whenever I sneezed or got scared or anything. My mother's last straw was when the oven exploded. I think Father's was when I melted one of his sculptures. So they had to find me a teacher, but most kyma aren't used to dealing with spontaneous manifesters and didn't want me. I wound up thousands of miles away, in Restron with my Master. I used to visit my eldest sister sometimes. She's the most accepting."
"But you suspect that even she would not prefer to visit Elcenia?" Tekaal asked. "I would be happy to summon anyone you wished who was willing."
"Ryll might be willing if I wrote her a long letter to convince her, but she's way too busy," Rhysel said. "She's a Senator of Aristan. Even when the Senate isn't in session she's got five children and trains horses and there's more local politics she has to keep up with. Even reading the letter would take too long. So I'd rather visit her, and fade into the background or talk to my other relatives when she needed to do something - but I can't."
Tekaal regarded her gravely. "I would offer to try again to break your summon, but as I explained on the first attempt, it would be futile after multiple failures."
Rhysel nodded, and sighed.
<All done!> Keo sang in her mind.