Chapter Two: Narax
"So that's what this world is called?" asked Rhysel, still feeling abnormally calm. She considered asking Keo to back off, but decided to wait until she was more settled in. Wherever they were going to put her. "El-see-nee-ya?"
Narax nodded, apologized, and departed the room, but not by lift nor by outright vanishing; instead, he turned and walked straight through the bookshelf occupying the far wall of the room. "Is... that shelf an illusion?" Rhysel asked.
"It's real," Keo said, "but can be walked through. More shelf space than having a door. Leads to the headmaster's quarters, where me and Kanaat and our baby live. Narax is going to see his new niece, as long as he's already here. He was going to visit soon anyway." She shrugged apologetically. "There's still a chance Korulen or Saasnil will be able to break the spell. It's much easier to break your own than someone else's. And if that doesn't work, it's still not forever. Whichever of the two graduates first - more likely Korulen - can get a familiar. Then she'll be able to channel enough power to reverse the spell herself. I'm so, so sorry, Rhysel."
"What do I do in the meantime?" Rhysel asked softly.
"The school is responsible for you," Keo said briskly. "And in this country - it's called Esmaar - that means Kanaat personally, since he's the headmaster. We'll let you live in the school, eat in the cafeteria, et cetera. There are some empty dorms, although you'd have to be next door to teenage girls."
"What do I do?" Rhysel repeated. "With my time. At home I'm a town kama; I have a tower and my neighbors come to me for help when they need magic done. Is there something useful for me to do here?"
Keo fidgeted. "Well... whatever you like, really. I suppose I can't rule out the possibility that you could get work doing magic, but people here haven't heard of kamai and won't know what you can do, so they won't know when to go to you as opposed to a professional wizard. What can you do?"
"I'm an elementalist," said Rhysel. "Yesterday, I moved stone that had collapsed from a building in progress onto some of the workers. Last tenday I stopped a fire from spreading to the town from where it started up in the mountains. I can do healings - injuries only, not illness - with proxic workings. I can fly, create wells, erect buildings. Sculpt," she added, though as often as not that last had nothing to do with magic.
Narax emerged from the headmaster's quarters. Draped around his neck was a two-foot-long green dragonet the same color as Keo's hair or Narax's eyes, sleek with tiny scales and swept-back pale horns. Liquidy black eyes, huge in her miniature head, peered around the room. "Baaa," she declared. "Asto tlep vee." Rhysel wasn't sure if the syllables were baby talk, or a language that her spell wasn't coping with.
"That's... your other daughter?" Rhysel asked Keo uncertainly. She'd never seen a dragon on her home world, though she knew what they looked like. They didn't tend to care for interacting with humanoids, and certainly never shapeshifted into them. An infant dragon many times smaller than she ought to have been, belonging to a woman who looked human (albeit with green hair), was jarring.
"That's right," said Keo. She extended an arm in Narax's direction, and the dragonet flowed down his arm and launched herself into the air to land on Keo's shoulder instead. "Anyway, as long as you don't break the local laws you can do as you please. I should probably get you a summary of what those laws are, sooner rather than later, since I don't know what is and isn't common sense where you're from."
"It's called Barashi," supplied Rhysel. "The world, anyway. I was living in a country called Restron. I suppose I'll find ways to occupy my time, but I'm not used to having nothing productive to do..."
"Do you like traveling?" interrupted Narax suddenly. "Going places, seeing stuff."
Rhysel blinked. "I haven't done that much of it, but yes, in general."
"My travel buddy," he said, "up and got married and turned into a homebody, last month. I'm bored when I'm home and now I'm lonely when I go places. Want a tour of the planet? Maybe you'll run into something you're more comfortable doing than idling in one of the school dorms and letting students doing Otherworld Studies interview you about your dietary habits and religion and marriage customs."
Rhysel blinked - it was an abrupt invitation - but she tilted her head and considered the prospect. Holing up in a dormitory, without even her research notes, sounded like a recipe for miserable dissipation to her. Going by what Korulen and Saasnil's room had looked like, it wouldn't even afford the opportunity to throw herself into cooking. She imagined herself generating stones, turning them into figurines, and then slagging them, by the dozens and hundreds, for lack of space to keep them or recipients to take them off her hands...
"Maybe," she hedged. "Where would we go?"
He shrugged, smiling crookedly. "Anywhere! Linnip, maybe, I wouldn't go there alone but it'd be fine with you. Baverian beaches. All the tourist traps in Mekand. Visit wolfriders, maybe. Heck, my house could be interesting with a really fresh pair of eyes looking at it; everything'll be new to you."
"Why would Linnip be fine with me but not by yourself?" Rhysel asked. She didn't feel like much of a guide, in this foreign world.
"They look funny at men walking around alone, there," Narax said, rolling his eyes. "It's not actually illegal even for the locals, and people don't tend to harass a dragon so all I have to do is shapeshift and I get as wide a berth as I want. But that doesn't mean I like it. You'd fit right in there, though, even have the red hair - well, it's mostly humans, there, not half-elves, but from a distance no one could tell. You are a half-elf, right?"
"Yes," she said, "as it happens, but that's not what we call it. I'd say I'm a halfblood."
"Why's that?" he asked. Keo had scooted her chair towards Kanaat's half-ring desk and was helping him with some paperwork.
"Because halfbloods are all the same, even if they're only a quarter elf, or a thirty-second elf, or for that matter a tiny fraction human," Rhysel said. "My father's human and my mother's elven, but I'd look the same if I had only one ancestor of either a hundred generations back, and some halfbloods do. It's the blood that's halved, not the actual descent."
"Interesting." Narax clicked his tongue. "Hey, Keo, should I and possibly Rhysel get out of your hair? I know my way around, I can show her to a dorm if that's what she decides on."
Keo looked over her shoulder at them, smiling. "Sure," she said. "Room 4410 is open now. Rhysel, if you need my attention for any reason, you can just think my name, very hard, and I'll pick it up and contact you. Okay?"
"Okay," said Rhysel, picking up the stacked plates on her lap and tipping herself up to her feet. "I..." She gestured at the dishes.
"Ah," said Keo, getting up to take them out of Rhysel's hands, "like this." She passed a hand horizontally over the plates and they disappeared. "Sent them to the cafeteria."
Rhysel blinked. "Of course you did. Um, I suppose I'll see you both later?"
Keo and Kanaat nodded in unison, and Rhysel turned to step into the lift that Narax was holding open for her. "Bye," she said, and Narax let the door close.
"Hall 44," Narax told the lift, leaning comfortably on its wall, and the little room began its swift transit complete with abrupt changes in direction. "Even if you don't want to stick around in the room it'll be a decent place to hang out for the time being," he commented to Rhysel.
She nodded. "Are you doing the empathy thing Keo mentioned now?"
"Yeah. She can do it from any distance, but I took over because you can just say so if you want me to stop, instead of doing Keo's mindspeak thing. Which does work, but might be strange for you. Do you want me to stop?" he inquired.
Rhysel shook her head. "I'd probably be gibbering in a corner without it. Mindspeech won't be so unfamiliar, though. I think. If it's like what kyma do at home. I don't know any mind kamai to speak of, myself, but I've met a man who was born mute and can only talk that way."
"Interesting. Your kind of magic can't fix that?" Narax asked. The lift jolted to a stop at its destination and opened for them, revealing a dorm hallway much like the one Korulen and Saasnil lived on. Some of the rooms stood open, and she heard girls chattering to each other and watched a few of them going from room to room. The ones she spotted were all humans or elves, and all matched coloring with Saasnil or Korulen depending. Narax went out of the lift first, peering at the numbers on the doors until he found the one he was looking for. Rhysel found that she couldn't identify the numerals.
"It can, he just opted not to have it done," she answered. "The translation spell doesn't work on reading?"
"Not if Kanaat only cast one, it won't, but you can get a separate literacy spell," Narax replied, opening the door and walking into the room. It was furnished and laid out like the one Rhysel had appeared in, though it was devoid of personal possessions. He sat on one bed, and she sat on the opposite one after closing the door behind her.
"What is it that you do?" she asked. "I take it you're also a 'wizard'."
He nodded. "At the moment, I'm officially unemployed, though," he said. "Being a wizard isn't a job all by itself; you still have to sign on with an employer or freelance at doing something in particular. I wrote books, and then I invented a thing, and that made me some money so now I'm on vacation all the time." He regarded Rhysel, chewing on his lip a bit. "Do you want me to try to explain the thing I invented, which is very wizardy, or not bother?"
"Not today, I think," she said. "I have so much to get used to. Although really I guess I should be glad this place is as hospitable as it is. That I was summoned by foolish children, not anyone with ill intent. That there's air to breathe and that I still feel fine after eating the food here."
Narax peered at her sympathetically. "Anything I can do to cheer you up? Besides the cheap, possibly unethical, obvious solution of more empathy?"
"Distract me?" she suggested, glancing out the window. This one displayed not open prairie, but school buildings and, farther out, denser town. "How does the empathy work?"
"It's a dragon power," he said. "Specifically, a power belonging to green-group dragons. Me and Keo and our sister and parents and the little one you saw are jades, so we've all got that. Keo's got extra stuff because she's just lucky that way. We pick up emotions from people around us, or people we've met and are concentrating on at any distance, and can send them the same way. It's not as useful as it probably sounds, most of the time. Most days there aren't any spooked offworlders to soothe."
"I'm having a slightly hard time really believing you're dragons. The baby I can believe - does she have a name?" Rhysel asked.
"Not yet. She'll get one in about six weeks. Little dragons don't get named until they're a month old," Narax said.
"Right," said Rhysel, filing away the information about the length of months. "Anyway, shapeshifting kamai exists, but dragons don't use it, certainly not to turn into humans. They're reclusive sorts where I'm from. They don't... marry elves and live in schools."
"I assure you we're dragons," said Narax cheerfully. "Korulen's not. Takes more after her dad. She can turn into a dragon shape, but it's midgety and doesn't have interesting powers. Which is why her hair's not green."
"Your hair isn't green," Rhysel pointed out, and then felt foolish, because even if this would have been news to him his hair was long enough to get in his eyes and he'd have noticed without help.
"My eyes are. Male/female thing," he explained. "In humanoid shapes, anyway. Keo can turn into a mouse and then she's green all over. I don't have a mouse form but if I did, I too would be green all over."
"Still," said Rhysel. "It's strange."
He shrugged. "Want to see? We have to go outside, but I'll show off if you want. I am resplendent and shiny."
"Yes," she said at once. She'd occasionally toyed with the idea of taking leave and traveling to someplace where dragons were common. Her blood sister lived not far from a conclave, though there wasn't significant contact between the remote mountain town and their reptile neighbors. Not that a dragon from Barashi would have deigned to talk to her even if she'd managed to spot one.
"Right then," he said. "I was hearing you through a bookshelf, but I think you mentioned you can fly? We can just go out the window."
"Wizardry lets you fly, too?" Rhysel asked, peering at the window. It looked like she'd fit through.
"No. Well, I'm sure there's a spell for it, but I haven't learned one; what would be the point? I was planning to turn into a beetle," he said. "Then into a dragon, obviously, that being the point of this exercise."
Rhysel blinked rapidly. "A beetle."
"I can turn into one of those same as I can turn into this," he said, gesturing at himself. Rhysel tracked the path described by his hand, then nodded and got up to open the window. The clip holding it shut was unfamiliar but simple, and once she had it undone, the window readily slid up and out of the way when she pushed.
"Probably should make sure your magic works here before leaping out the window," advised Narax.
Rhysel nodded and focused, but the air was full of all the usual flavors, and her energy responded as normal when she called on it to push out and make winds to pick her up. "See?" she said, smiling at Narax, floating six inches off the floor.
"I do," he acknowledged. "Oh, by the way, if there's anyone outside, you're not likely to get looked at oddly for flying. Wearing pants, on the other hand, will get you attention. It's just this country, not the rest of the world." He shrugged, and then abruptly became a large, iridescent green beetle. He zipped directly out the window and Rhysel soon lost visual track of him, but she assumed he'd find her once she'd gone out after him.
She looked down at her pants, which were perfectly ordinary brown linen, then shrugged and tilted to make a controlled dive out the window. She touched the ground a few moments later, having gone down nine stories.
Narax-the-beetle made one circuit around her head, and then flew clear of her and landed in the grass. And then, instead of a beetle, there was a dragon.
Rhysel took an involuntary step back. Narax was easily a dozen times as long as his tiny niece, twenty-five feet nose to tail, and in the sunlight he shone like he was tiled with real jade. His horns were the same shape as the baby's, and he had the same sleek contours, free of the spines and protrusions Rhysel kept expecting to see on his back and tail. He dipped his head with his long, swanlike neck to preen above one of his wingjoints, and then spread both wings wide. Light filtered through the pale membranes, leaving Rhysel shadowed with green staring up at the outstretched appendage. It was enormous, easily enough to carry the dragon aloft.
As though reading her mind, he grinned toothily, said, "Watch," and then leapt into the air, bringing his wings down hard in several beats before flinging them open against the breeze and gliding in a wide circle. Rhysel was buffeted back a few steps by the wind. She stared, and then he landed where he'd started. He resumed his human shape, which appeared standing with his arms spread wide in self-satisfaction and a lopsided smile on his face.
Rhysel applauded, beaming, and then heard laughter from a pack of children who were sitting on the grass near a neighboring building. They didn't seem to have been affected at all by the display Narax had put on; they were in fact looking at Rhysel, and her clothes.
She turned back to Narax, who had ambled over to her after changing forms again. "You're wearing pants," she observed.
"I'd be getting the same giggling if I went around in a skirt," he said. "As far as Esmaar's concerned, you're in drag. Say the word and I'll whisk you to a country with more compatible styles of dress," he offered.
"Maybe I should just get new clothes," muttered Rhysel, picking at a stray thread on the hem of her blouse. "I've been in these since yesterday and can't get at my wardrobe. Which has, I think, one dress in it anyway. I don't hate them, they're just not practical." She paused. "But I don't have any money here, and even if I did I don't think the stores would take my emarks."
Narax waved a hand. "Kanaat's responsible for you, and that doesn't mean he's supposed to leave you in one outfit for the next several months or years. If you want to go shopping, you can go shopping." He chewed on his lip a bit, and then said, "I'm probably not the best companion for the purpose, and I have no idea where to find women's clothing in Paraasilan, but if you want..."
"Maybe Keo would take me," said Rhysel, presuming Paraasilan was the name of the town near the school.
"She'll probably send Korulen," predicted Narax. Then he cast a quick spell, which made symbols appear in the air before him; he studied them and then they vanished. "It's almost tenth-and-naught," he said. "Stores will be closed in a couple of angles. You want to get ahold of Keo, or want me to do it?"
"What's an angle? Tenth-and-naught?" asked Rhysel, bewildered. "Are those times?"
Narax blinked, then said, "Right. Here." He cast the same spell he had before. "See how the last number after this dash is changing?" he asked, pointing at it. "You don't have to read it, just note how fast it goes. That's a split. Five splits is a tick. Twenty-five ticks is a degree. Twenty-five degrees is an angle. Twenty-five angles is a day. Tenth-and-naught means exactly ten angles since sunrise, or rather the time that would have been sunrise if this were the summer solstice, whereas it is in fact late spring."
"I'm never going to remember that," said Rhysel. She didn't think Narax would be able to map these times onto divs and subs if she asked, and she might not be able to keep track of them even if he did.
"Okay... well, you have time to go shopping, but not that much, so you should get started," Narax translated.
"I'll try getting ahold of Keo," Rhysel said. She closed her eyes, and tried to "think hard": Keo!
<You called?> inquired Keo's voice, floating into Rhysel's mind in much the same way as kamai mindspeech might, although without the hollow quality.
<Can you hear me?> Rhysel asked, thinking back and trying to mentally shout.
<Just fine. Don't strain yourself,> Keo returned mirthfully. <What's up?>
<I could use a few more sets of clothes...>
As predicted, Keo sent Korulen on the errand. Korulen arrived on the wing, like Narax in miniature or her sister increased to four times her length, and landed beside Rhysel and Narax before shifting into the elf shape in which Rhysel had met her. "I'm supposed to take you into town and show you where to get clothes," she said to Rhysel. Korulen had on a belted burgundy top and a marble-patterned purple skirt, and Rhysel hoped that there was a wide selection at the stores she preferred.
"Have fun," said Narax, waving, and then he gestured elaborately and spoke a word, and vanished.
"Where'd he go?" asked Rhysel.
"Home, probably," said Korulen. "There's no reason for him to stay here overnight, when he can teleport. This way," she said, and started off towards the town on foot.
"Wouldn't you rather fly?" asked Rhysel, pulling up the air magic again and lifting off.
Korulen peered over her shoulder, took note of the gap between Rhysel's boots and the ground, and said, "Sure!" She swapped instantly into her green-scaled alternate shape and sprang upward.
"Can you talk in this shape too?" Rhysel asked, keeping pace alongside the girl.
"Sure," replied Korulen from a mouth full of pointy teeth. "So... I think I've said this a dozen times now but... I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. We were being stupid. A boy from the next hall over kept making fun of us and we chose one of the stupidest possible ways to try to prove him wrong and impress everyone."
Rhysel didn't say anything for a moment. Then, "This world isn't so bad. I would have been happy to just have the chance to visit. It's not being able to return that's the problem."
"There are summoning spells that I could have cast alone, or Saasnil could have," murmured Korulen. "I got the one I used out of an old book on obsolete magic, because my parents would have been told if I'd gotten a book about summoning, and I knew I wasn't allowed."
"What's going to happen to the two of you, anyway?" Rhysel asked.
Korulen glanced at her. "Sort of depends on you, actually," she said. "It was an actual crime. You can press charges, if you want, and then as soon as one of us manages to get you home we go to jail. And they'd check to make sure we were studying hard, and not trying to put off being able to send you home indefinitely to avoid that. If you don't, then we get a school punishment and take a couple of classes early and... that could be it." She stopped short of actual pleading, but it seemed implied. "Uh, let's land here, there's a good store with lots of stuff."
Rhysel followed the half-dragon to the ground, glancing around at the people on the street. They were mostly an even mix of brown-skinned humans and pale elves, although Rhysel saw one adult-proportioned person who was less than three feet tall, and one person who looked like a bipedal lioness, and a small group in such full-coverage black garments that she couldn't identify them. "I don't think I'm going to press charges," she said to Korulen. "What kind of school punishment are you looking at? If I did something wrong when I was a child, or during my apprenticeship, I usually got paddled, but I don't know what they do here."
Korulen shifted back to her elven shape and stared incredulously at Rhysel. "My parents aren't going to hit me," she said, sounding affronted. "Don't even say that in public, you'll upset people. Me and Saasnil are getting detention. She's going to work in the library. I have to tutor the lower tiers in wizarding ethics until I manage to send you home, because Mom thinks it's ironic."
Rhysel snickered. "Are you qualified to tutor wizarding ethics?"
"The sad thing is, I actually am. I passed it two terms ago," sighed Korulen. "I got an Excellent. Theory and practice." She pushed open the door to the clothing store and proceeded to help Rhysel with reading the labels on the clothes, which came in enough variety that Rhysel wasn't completely displeased with her selections when the staff started looking like they wanted to close up. Korulen paid a clerk with thin, ellipse-shaped electrum coins, and Rhysel walked out with skirts, tunics, sashes, and leggings in brown, grey, beige, and shades of green and red.
"The leggings don't count as drag?" she asked Korulen.
"Not if you have a skirt over them," Korulen said. "So that'll be good for flying. You probably want clothes on when you fly." She shifted into her own jade-scaled form, which needed no such accessorization, and took off, leading Rhysel after her back to the school.
"Now that we're not in public, per se," said Rhysel, when they were in midair, "what's the issue with mentioning -"
"You'll upset people! You don't just announce that you're an abuse victim in the middle of the street, unless you're actively trying to get police help," Korulen said. "And it's outright insulting to suggest that my parents would hurt me. The accusation wouldn't stick, but can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if I had to stare down a cop, telling him in precise legal language that my parents have never hit me in my life so him and his lie detection will be satisfied?"
"I'm not an abuse victim," said Rhysel.
"Okay, I guess maybe they don't see it that way, where you're from, there's places in Elcenia like that too, but this is Esmaar and everybody who might have overheard you was Esmaarlan," said Korulen, rubbing her forefeet together uncomfortably as they coasted in to land in front of the school. She shifted again, looking flustered. "So... do you need any other help, or do you want me to tell my parents anything for you, or...?"
"No," said Rhysel, picking out the still-open window she'd flown out of from the wall of the correct building after a moment's inspection. "I'm set, I think."
Korulen ducked her head and went at a near-run to the closest door. Rhysel sighed and flew back to her borrowed room.
After changing into more local garb and flopping back onto one of the beds for a failed attempt at a nap, Rhysel thought, <Keo?>
<Here I am,> replied the dragon woman.
<Would you tell your brother for me that I want to accept his offer?>
For a moment, nothing happened, but then there was a knock on Rhysel's room door, and when she opened it there stood Narax, wearing that uneven smile. "Missed me?" he asked.
Rhysel laughed faintly, standing aside to let him in. "Korulen seems really uncomfortable around me, and your sister and brother-in-law not much less so. I realize me being here is a big deal, but it's easier on me to pretend it's not, and it helps that you're so at ease."
"It's a carefully cultivated skill," he replied. "Korulen'll loosen up after a while, though. She's just feeling guilty."
"It's not that. She acted like I was an abuse victim, because my parents and Master used to paddle me when I misbehaved." Rhysel shook her head incredulously. "They never raised a hand to me in anger, or left a mark, but she didn't act like that mattered."
"Esmaarlan thing," said Narax. "I don't live here. My current home isn't thrilled with the practice either but they're not so horrified by its existence. And I didn't grow up there, I actually grew up in Corenta and went to school in Ertydo."
"And you now live...?"
"Country called Imilaat. South of here, by the beach, next door to the newlywed former travel buddy I told you about," he said. "Want to see?" He held his hand out to her.
"How are we getting there? I can't teleport," said Rhysel, looking at his hand.
"I can take passengers, but we have to be touching," he explained. "I mentioned you to Neris - she's the aforementioned neighbor - and she wants to meet you, so we'll start at my house but after that we can go wherever you want."
"All right," said Rhysel, and she placed her hand in his. Narax curled his fingers around hers, and then with his other hand, made the motion that accompanied the spell while he spoke the word.