Chapter Twenty: Conversations
The last term of the calendar year began on Sutaahel-for, the Inen closest to the beginning of winter. Rhysel was nonplussed by how samey the Esmaarlan weather seemed to be despite the claim to have four seasons - it was as cloudless and unhumid as it had been in the spring when she'd arrived, just a little colder and windier. Aristan, where she'd grown up, was limited to a dry (drier; it was never dry) season and a monsoon season, where Restron, where she'd been living as an adult, had extreme winters that couldn't have masqueraded as anything other than winter. Esmaar just seemed to cycle from pleasantly cool to rather chilly.
Rhysel and Tekaal went to their assigned classroom together. There were twenty-five student desks (Tama wouldn't be able to use one, if she even attended class in person rather than through her rider and the mindlink). Rhysel sat at one of the two chairs behind the larger desk at the back of the room and stared out at the chairs. "I'm going to screw something up," she said.
"Would you like to go over the lesson plan again?" asked Tekaal.
"No, I have it memorized, I'm just going to be really creative and find a way to screw something up anyway," she sighed.
"I believe you will be fine," Tekaal said. "If you need to, you can of course consult me via mindspeech before improvising in any way."
"I guess that will be fine for this term, but what about next, when we have a second-term class in each discipline and a new batch of first-termers? We'll have to split them up then."
"Then, you will have a term of teaching experience," Tekaal soothed, stroking her hair.
"And this term. We're going to be inundated with students signing up for the one-on-one meetings because they're all going to have different specific interests within even the introductory material. Especially Kaylo. Gods, I have no idea how I'm going to handle his addiction to theory. Did I tell you that the other day I got a letter from him? He tracked down my address to send me a letter full of questions."
"You can refer some of those to Aaran Casten." This had been the compromise regarding the policy of not bringing in young, outside tutors - like Talyn - to Binaaralav. Talyn would not participate in standard class sessions, but if the two teachers were overloaded by extracurricular requests, he could handle some of their overflow. Rhysel suspected that Leekath would be getting - had perhaps already gotten - private lessons from her boyfriend, but as that wasn't arranged through the school, Keo and Kanaat didn't concern themselves with whether it was to be allowed or not.
"That reminds me - Leekath's going to be ahead of everyone, probably - we should have waited to infuse them until closer to today -"
"Aaralan Hhirheek is accustomed to being somewhat ahead of her classmates. I have never observed this to cause problems, with her in particular," Tekaal said.
"Aren't you at all nervous?" Rhysel asked.
"It is a new subject," he said, spreading his hands, "but I start new classes on a regular basis, and can still remember beginning to teach. I am not completely unresponsive to the situation, but it does not begin to disquiet me as badly as it has you. Had I learned any mind kamai beyond basic mindspeech I might attempt more directly to help you..."
"I'll get over it," Rhysel sighed as the door opened. Kaylo entered; the door didn't have time to close before Ngen followed, and then Korulen and her friends. Tekaal took this initial flow of students as his cue to begin placing syllabi on each desk. Rhysel looked at her own copy. The first lesson was to be on handfire - Tekaal had thought it was optimistic to suppose that everyone would manage to conjure it at all on the first day, but anyone who managed it before the class was over could learn to turn it different colors or control several globes at once or move it around, trivial variations on the exercise that didn't warrant classtime in a non-specialized introductory course. Saanen, they'd start on mindspeech. Fenen, simple visual illusions. And so on. Rhysel hoped they'd picked a good series of workings to teach to let the students get an idea of where they'd rather specialize.
Finally, the last chair was filled, and Rhysel drew herself to her feet and called up her memory of the introductory speech she and Tekaal had written. Trusting that he'd take over smoothly if she needed to excuse herself to vomit, she began: "Hello, everyone. Welcome to Introductory Kamai..."
Everyone did manage handfire on the first day. (Mata joked that when Tama did it, it should be called "pawfire". Korulen suggested that if she did it while in her dragon form, it would be "clawfire". Everyone had looked at Leekath, expecting her to chime in with "wingfire", but she'd been too busy turning her firelight into firewriting and drawing spirals of it up the legs of her desk.)
"I'm alive," sighed Rhysel into Tekaal's shoulder, when she'd finally shooed Kaylo away with an invitation to put his questions into another letter.
"I was not aware that you had believed the class to be life-threatening," he replied in a deadpan.
She laughed weakly. "Have I mentioned recently that I love you?"
"If we define recently to mean within the last twenty-five angles: no," he said, smiling faintly.
"I love you," she said. "You're amazing. I could not have done that without you. I never wanted to teach - I don't know if I'll get used to it, but right now it is hard and you made it doable."
"I love you too," he murmured.
"And in..." Rhysel consulted the sign-up sheet for one-on-one lessons. "Five degrees, I need to meet Kaylo in my office. I have an office." She made a face. "Maybe we should have taught everyone to use transfer points for the first lesson, and then they could just jump to my tower for lessons. I don't think I like having an office."
"Did Aaran Besayn specify what he wished to meet with you about?"
"He promised it wasn't theory questions," Rhysel sighed. "He's a red-group dragon, right? Maybe he wants to get a jump on learning more fire workings. I could do that."
"Garnet," supplied Tekaal. "That seems plausible. I will see you this evening, then? Iraamlan fondue to celebrate achieving the modest goal of living through your first lesson. Possibly, iced planets to celebrate having taught twenty-five children to work handfire."
"Why are they called iced planets?" Rhysel asked. "I think we've been out for them four times now and I keep forgetting to ask."
"Because," Tekaal explained, "they are square, with the icing on top."
"Of course," she laughed. Tekaal kissed her, and then he teleported away.
Rhysel went to her office. It was next to Tekaal's. It had come furnished, but hadn't yet accumulated any objects, except for a wren-golem she'd made for it to liven the place up a bit. Her books were in her library, and so far her papers for class all fit in her satchel. She'd given the wren some dry grass - the plants seemed to be able to tell it was winter, even if Rhysel couldn't - and it was cheerfully building a nest it couldn't sleep in, in the corner of an empty bookshelf.
Kaylo showed up early, and Rhysel heard him cast the time spell and then mutter under his breath. Footfalls suggested pacing. She opened the door rather than making him wait. "Come in, Kaylo."
The dragon entered, grinning. "Hi! I won't take up much of your time - I mean, I'm going to write you that letter, I don't have to pose my questions out loud as long as you'll get to them that way. I just wanted to ask -"
"Fire workings?" Rhysel asked, ready to unearth a stick to burn by way of example.
"No. You have Korulen's family over for dinner sometimes, right? Do you know if she's dating anybody?" Kaylo asked, blinking expectantly.
"Er." Rhysel hadn't been expecting her first ostensibly school-related meeting to involve gossiping about another student. "Why are you asking me?"
"Well, I'd ask Lutan, but then she'd tell Korulen even if the answer was 'yep, Korulen's engaged to an Oridaanlan prince' or something, and then she'd tell the whole rest of the school to boot. Although, to be fair, I suppose I'd have heard it through Lutan if Korulen were engaged to an Oridaanlan prince..."
"As far as I know, Korulen's not seeing anyone," Rhysel said. "And I'm not going to tell the whole school, but if Korulen asks me, I'll tell her you inquired."
"That's fine," said Kaylo merrily. "That's all I wanted to know - except the contents of my forthcoming letter. Expect it soon."
"That reminds me," Rhysel said as Kaylo stood up. "How did you get my address?"
"Asked Lutan," Kaylo replied cheerfully, letting himself out of the office.
Rhysel received an unexpected visitor the second day of term. Kamai lessons met only three times a week, so she was at home while Tekaal was teaching his other classes; Talyn would have been home if he had not been out with Leekath. Eret or Theedy wouldn't have rung the bell before entering. Kolaan wasn't supposed to be by with groceries until Sinen.
Rhysel opened the door to see a human man she'd never met before. "Er," she said. "Hello."
"Aaral Camlenn -"
"Rhysel, excuse me. I'm Fet Disam, Esmaar Post. Can I have an angle of your time?"
"Depends on what you want to do with it, I suppose," Rhysel said, raising an eyebrow. "'Esmaar Post'?"
"It's a newspaper. Do stop me and ask any questions you have if I use terms that aren't familiar to you; I know you're an offworlder but not precisely what you will and won't need explained. May I come in, or would you prefer to talk outside?" he asked, smiling. He showed a lot of teeth.
"I guess you can come in," she said. "Why the visit?"
"I heard about the new kamai program you're heading up at Binaaralav, Rhysel," Disam said, striding across her threshold when she made way and helping himself to a kitchen chair. The way he said "kamai" wasn't wrong, like it was when most Leraal speakers tended to adapt the word, but he made an obvious and dramatic change of accents to utter it. "It's just fascinating, and I think it's a shame that the public hasn't had a chance to learn a little about the development. Do you mind if I use a recording crystal, Rhysel, so I can focus on talking to you instead of taking notes?" he asked, producing a little red prism.
"It just... records what we say?" Rhysel asked, looking dubiously at the object. Disam nodded, gesturing at his prism as though to demonstrate its harmlessness. "I guess." He tapped it twice on its top face, and an inner light set it aglow. "But I'm not sure if I'm the best person to talk to. Kanaat Inular's the headmaster..."
"Oh, I do plan to conduct several interviews," said the reporter pleasantly. "Aar Inular among them. But I'm given to understand that you're the head of the department and I can hardly leave you out, Rhysel."
"It's not much of a department. It's me and one other teacher. I'm not even sure if I'm formally head of it, actually," Rhysel said.
"I'm sure Aar Inular will be able to explain the setup. Rhysel, how is kamai typically taught on your home world? It's called Barashi, is that right?"
"That's what it's called," Rhysel sighed, and resigned herself to answering some of his questions; the less time Kanaat had to waste on this reporter, the better. "Usually, on Barashi, kamai and everything else is taught through apprenticeships. Sort of like what witches do here. I have an apprentice, too, who I inherited when his previous Master died. He's not home, though," she said, when Disam opened his mouth.
"Pity, I'd have liked to talk to him. How are you adjusting to Esmaar, Rhysel? The culture, the different expectations of teachers...?"
"I wasn't a teacher before, so I suppose I didn't have any habits I needed to break," she said.
"But Rhysel, you had teachers, surely."
"Mostly just one. The same man who died and left my apprentice in need of a new Master."
"Mostly?" prompted Disam.
"Well, he had colleagues, and they'd sometimes come by and help out... more experienced apprentices taught newer ones some basics... and before I started as a kama I was apprenticed under my father, as a sculptor."
"What led you to change apprenticeships, Rhysel?" asked the reporter.
Rhysel told him the story about setting the switch on fire, and Disam leaned forward and touched his prism as though to confirm it was still there; his eyes never left Rhysel's face. He kept her talking about kamai - asked her to demonstrate some; she made it rain on his head and he only smiled more broadly - wanted to know details Rhysel didn't have about her co-teacher's professional qualifications - asked the strangest things about the circumstances of Revenn's death - wanted to know when Talyn would be home. Finally, an excuse to shoo him away arrived. Without the ability to cast the time spell, Rhysel didn't know if he'd outstayed the intended angle of her time or not, but she was past caring by the time Tekaal rang her bell.
"That'll be my boyfriend," she told Disam, standing up abruptly. "We have plans. So sorry."
Disam stood up more smoothly, smiling. "Your boyfriend. You hadn't mentioned him."
"You didn't ask. Now, I'm sure you've got lots of other interviews to get to," Rhysel said, struggling to keep polite. She opened the front door; it was indeed Tekaal, who blinked at Disam. "Goodbye," she said, aiming this at the reporter with finality.
"Of course. I wouldn't want to disrupt your plans," said Disam, fixing his eyes on Tekaal and continuing to smile. He gently scooped up his crystal, turned off its interior glow, and tucked it into a pocket inside his sleeve. "Goodbye, Rhysel."
Disam slipped out of the tower past Tekaal, who hadn't spoken. Tekaal remained silent until Disam had walked out of earshot. "Who was that?" he inquired of Rhysel.
"Called himself Fet Disam. Said he was a reporter. I couldn't think of a good way to get rid of him until just now - thank goodness you're punctual."
Tekaal frowned. "I see. What did he want?"
"To talk to me." She sighed and stepped out, shutting the door behind her. "About the kamai program, and kamai in general, but also about everything else to do with me."
"Esten has explained to me that reporters prefer to personalize articles by soliciting details about their subjects," Tekaal said, though his voice was wary. He held out his hand for Rhysel, and when she took it, teleported them close to their intended restaurant, though he hadn't been to it before and couldn't take them directly there. "I hope you were judicious about what you said."
"I'm not even sure what he's trying to do. He doesn't have a reason to make me look bad, does he?"
"Not quite. He has a reason to make you look interesting," Tekaal said. "If he can do that more easily by painting you like a villain of some kind - or like anything at all - you may expect him to do it. The consolation is that he can't lie outright in the article, or his newspaper is legally obliged to fire him."
They reached their restaurant, and the conversation turned to other things.
At the Saanen kamai class, Korulen and Kaylo sat next to each other, and took it in turns to poke each other in the calf with their feet, then giggle; Lutan spent the lull before the lesson so pleased that her head looked about to split open from her grin. Rhysel told everyone to pair off, to work on mindspeech, and was unsurprised when the thudia and the dragon wound up scooting their chairs closer together. She was equally unsurprised when Kutran and Soraak formed a pair; although they were supposedly not dating, they were exceptionally close.
There was technically an even number of students, but it was soon plain that Mata and Tama couldn't have different partners without getting confusing echoes, and so Rhysel assigned the particularly proficient Leekath to work with both of them and then partnered Kolaan herself while Tekaal wandered the aisles looking for anyone in need of assistance.
<What do we talk about?> Kolaan finally succeeded in whispering at her.
<Don't worry about deafening me. Go ahead and "shout" as loud as you can, for now,> Rhysel said. <We can talk about anything. Like... Why are Soraak and Kutran not dating?>
<Because they're dumb?> suggested Kolaan. <If I had an aaber for every time I tried to convince Soraak to just kiss her already - well, okay, I'd still want more aaberik, but not as much. But he won't do it. Doesn't think she likes him that way.>
<He is obviously wrong,> Rhysel said.
<I know!> Kolaan answered, finally achieving something resembling conversational volume in his strident agreement. <He doesn't see it. I think the problem is that she used to babysit him, when he was little, so he figures she thinks of him as a little kid and she figures he thinks of her as being, like, old or something. Elf-human aging stuff is kind of a mess. I like another elf - not Kutran, you don't know her, her name's Marin. Way more sensible. But there's no helping Kutran. She's so far gone I don't think she knows other boys exist. She probably thinks I'm some extra, third gender.>
<Want to tell me about Marin?> Rhysel proposed.
Kolaan did, chattering with increasingly adequate clarity about how Marin was apprenticing with a witch and she was really pretty and she lived next door to him and she was dating this guy of whom Kolaan disapproved but he thought she might break up with him soon and then he was definitely going to ask her out -
"Switch partners, please," Tekaal said, after checking the time.
Rhysel directed Korulen to talk to Mata and Tama, since Korulen still seemed to intend to specialize in mind and would probably benefit from the challenge, and then when Kolaan had gotten ahold of Soraak and Kutran was looking shy about partnering anyone else, Rhysel crouched next to her herself. "Hey," she said. "Want to mindspeak at me? See if you can do it without touching," she added, raising her voice to address the entire class with that instruction.
Clasped hands came apart, and Rhysel suspected there was some relief as people were freed of the obligation to touch partners not their first choice. <So,> Rhysel sent to Kutran, <can you get me to hear you without touching?>
Kutran scrunched up her face in concentration. <-th Soraak,> Rhysel finally heard a murmur of. <This was so much easier with Soraak ->
<I can hear you,> Rhysel said encouragingly. <Go ahead and pour in enough power to tire you out a little. You'll get more efficient in time and mindspeaking will be easy even from a bit of a distance.>
<What do we say?> Kutran asked.
<What were you talking about with Soraak?>
<His little sisters, and then about a music crystal that we accidentally both got copies of for each other for Lufelsis, and then about soap, and then about how my mother says he can come over for dinner on Fenen after all because my aunt and uncle aren't coming over because my uncle's brother is moving back in and they want to help him settle, and then about my ears and whether they're more of a Darpan or a Keltis shape - um, I don't know what kind of words you have where you're from to talk about ear shapes, but they're a thing here, like if you were describing me you'd say I was blond and had green eyes and Darpan type ears.>
<What kind of ears do I have?> Rhysel inquired.
<Well, it's different for people who're only part elf,> Kutran sent. <I'm not sure if the same words work for mixes. I guess just angle-wise you're some sort of Tanpenaav. But there's stuff about width and pointiness. Aar Kithen's very Keltis. A really good example actually, you could put his picture in a book of ear shapes.>
<Are some ear shapes more fashionable than others?> Rhysel asked, amused. <I haven't heard of this before.>
<Yeah, Keltis is the best kind actually,> Kutran said. <And...> The girl glanced around the room. <That girl talking to the wolfriders - Korulis? Korudaar?>
<Korulen's a wide Afsar. Afsar's fine, but wide's not fashionable. She's probably sensitive about it, don't mention it.>
Kutran went on elaborating about the correct descriptions for all the elf ears in the classroom, and gamely attempted the shorter but still pointed ears on Ngen and Mata, and then identified a sent image of Rhysel's mother as having the same ear type as Kolaan, while marveling that Rhysel came from a society full of elves with prominent ears but had no particular way to refer to them other than being more or less long and pointy.
<I wouldn't have expected you to have the same words for ear shapes and angles, but none at all is weird,> Kutran opined.
"Change partners, please," Tekaal said. "Do not return to your original partner." Some of the students had to get up and move around, looking for partners not within easy range of their original seats.
Rhysel went to talk to Mata and Tama herself rather than assigning another student. <Hi,> she said, taking an empty chair near the pair, curious about what the wolf would sound like. Generally, people sounded like their actual voices; Corvan, who couldn't speak, had a distinct mindspeech sound, but there was no way to compare it with what he would sound like if he'd ever gotten someone to repair his vocal cords from their malformed state, because he'd always refused to let anyone do it. Rhysel suspected Tama might sound like her rider.
Mata answered first. <Hi, Rhysel,> she sent. <We were telling Leekath about wolfrider face marks, and Korulen about backchannel, but we are so tired of talking about how we are wolfriders and that is different from who we talk to. Can we mindspeak about something else?>
<Do you have something in mind?>
<We could talk about how you are Barashin, and that is different from us,> suggested another voice with an edge of mirth - feminine, but low and edged, distinctly wolfish. Rhysel hadn't heard Tama whine or bark or growl, but the voice was more like that than like Mata.
Mata giggled and Tama licked her face; Rhysel smiled. <You two should be doing more of the talking. I already know how to mindspeak.>
<Leraal is hard,> Mata sent; it sounded like this was a well-rehearsed grievance. <We have done hardly anything but study it, and were here all of this break instead of back with our family except for one visit. But if we sent in wolfrider you could not understand it?>
<I don't think so, no,> Rhysel replied. <I don't have a spell on to understand backchannel, or know the words.>
<Korulen said that backchannel sounded hard,> Tama sent. <But it is much easier than having too many - I mean, so many words.>
<In wolfrider,> Mata sent, <too many and so many and all the numbers of many and not many and - and many other things - are all one word, with different colors.>
<Colors?> Rhysel asked.
<That is not the real word for it. Leraal does not have one, but one meaning of the word in wolfrider that means it is "color" - if you make it a different "color",> Tama sent.
<Narax says explain it this way,> Mata sent. <Suppose you write simple words, and you have several colors of pen, and you draw lines between your words too. Lines can be dotted or have arrows or curl around or have angles - things like that - and colors can be one to a word or to a syllable or to a letter. And these lines and colors make the simple words a complicated sentence. Leraal does the same thing by having so many words, and making "tone of voice" mean so many things, and you must say words in specific orders.>
Rhysel tried to imagine a sentence written with the lines and colors Mata described. <I could probably learn to hear backchannel with mind kamai, if I tried,> she sent, <but I'd still have to learn it like it was its own language or code?>
<Yes,> Tama said. <We have met wolfriders from farther west than us who color and tie some things differently. They were hard to understand.>
"We are coming up on the end of our time," Tekaal announced. "You have two degrees left."
<I might want to meet with you outside of class, when I have more spare time,> Rhysel sent to the pair, <and figure out a kamai working for backchannel anyway.> She got up to head for the desk at the back of the room.
<Okay,> Mata sent faintly after her as she left their range.
The class adjourned, and Rhysel went home, to study and think about shrens for a few angles; she went to bed earlier than usual, mentally exhausted by the still-novel experience of teaching.
When Rhysel woke up, she found that Tekaal had let himself into her tower. This wasn't unusual, except for the time of day.
And the fact that he was pale, trembling, and clenching a mangled newspaper in his hands.