Chapter Twenty-One: Proxy
"What?" Rhysel asked, staring at her boyfriend, at the paper in his hands. "Is that the - is it bad?"
Tekaal held the newspaper towards her. He didn't speak or make eye contact. Gingerly, Rhysel took it; it was open to an article headed Binaaralav Academy Teaches New Form of Magic [Fet Disam, Esmaar Post Staff].
"At least the headline isn't too -"
"Please tell me there is some factual error in his article," Tekaal said, sounding terribly level despite the tension in his shoulders and burn in his eyes, "such that a complaint can have him fired for printing misinformation."
Rhysel swallowed and read the body of the piece.
On Berehel 38 of this year (see the 39th's edition of the Post for coverage), two students of Binaaralav Academy of Wizardry illicitly performed a cooperative summoning spell, which brought half-elf Rhysel Camlenn to Elcenia. The summoners - one of whom is the daughter of Binaaralav headmaster Kanaat Inular - were not charged for the crime they committed, although their mistake trapped Aaral Camlenn in our world. But, not content to wait out the elder summoner Korulen Inular's graduation such that she can be unsummoned home, Aaral Camlenn has founded a new department at the school to which she was brought, and has begun teaching her homeworld Barashi's only form of magic, kamai.
"He didn't need to do that to Korulen," Rhysel said when she reached the end of the first paragraph, "but it's -"
Tekaal gestured, and Rhysel pursed her lips and read the rest of the article. The middle of it mostly summarized what the kamai disciplines were and could do, and had a dry quote from Kanaat about the school's hopes for the ongoing success of the kamai program. Rhysel held her tongue and reached the last paragraph.
Aaral Camlenn has certainly put down roots in Elcenia, from purchasing land and building a home on it to committing to heading up a program that may persist for many decades. On a more personal note, she has become romantically involved with co-teacher Tekaal Kithen (also known in acting under the same name, perhaps best known for his 11247 starring role in the Isken Theater production of Salute the Night, more recently as the titular character in The Man in Red and Gold at the Chaahintek). Her interest in remaining in Elcenia indefinitely is understandable. Before being summoned, she had already taken up residence in a country many hundreds of miles away from her birthplace, where she was abused by her parents. The recent death by violence of her former teacher, and the fact that one of that teacher's surviving apprentices chose to move to Elcenia with her instead of staying behind, suggests that Barashi may be a dangerous place in general. Whether that has anything to do with the presence of kamai or not remains to be seen.
Rhysel blinked rapidly at the paper. "Factual errors will get him fired?"
"To be exact," Tekaal said, "lies, rigorously specified, will. Did you find one? I could not detect any."
"I wasn't abused," she said firmly.
"The legal definition would not agree with you, and is what would be consulted."
She frowned at the paper. "Barashi's not an especially dangerous place? Kamai didn't have anything to do with my parents' disciplinary choices or with my Master's death? I didn't decide to settle in here because of dangers there?"
"Couched as speculation, for the first. As is the notion that kamai itself could be dangerous. For the last, the connection between your decision to live here and the supposed hazards of Barashi is never reported as such."
There was a silence, and Rhysel said, "Tekaal, I didn't tell him anything about you. I didn't even say my boyfriend and my co-teacher were the same person, let alone anything about your acting."
Tekaal let out a long breath. "He may have simply recognized me, and done additional research on his own," he said in a low voice. "I do not always go masked onstage."
"Or he got it from somewhere else," Rhysel said. "Come to think of it, how did he hear about the program to begin with? A student? I'd believe it of Lutan, I suppose, but wouldn't that have gotten him the information a lot earlier?"
"I do not know."
"At least it wasn't Esten, breaking his rule about reporting on family?" Rhysel offered weakly, putting the newspaper down on the table and taking a chair next to Tekaal's. Tentatively, she reached for his hand; he squeezed it.
"My brother," murmured Tekaal, but he didn't finish the sentence.
"Mm?" Rhysel prompted.
"Excuse me," Tekaal said, getting to his feet and releasing Rhysel's hand. "I need to go shout at my brother. I expect to be finished before our lunch appointment."
Before Rhysel could say anything about that, Tekaal had teleported away.
Tekaal hadn't returned to the tower by a few degrees after the sun reached the top of the sky, at which point Rhysel decided something was seriously wrong. She flew to the Kithen residence and tried the door. It opened when she pushed, but inside, it was chaos.
"Esten Kithen," Rinaal was hollering, "do not set foot on those stairs until we are done talking to -"
"I'm not twenty anymore, Mom! I said I was sorry!" cried Esten. "I don't have to listen to everyone until you happen to be done screaming at -"
"You knew what that man was like! What did you trade the lead for? An interview with an ambassador? A press pass to a Parliamentary hearing? What? What was worth destroying Rhysel's privacy and mine?" Tekaal snapped. Rhysel winced; she couldn't remember ever hearing her boyfriend that angry. "What did he offer you that was so valuable?"
Esten's answer was drowned out by Linisaar's pleading, "Everyone, please, calm down, please, this won't solve -"
"Linisaar, you have things you'd prefer not to see printed, too," Evaad said, albeit at a more reasonable volume. "Esten breached confidence, loophole or no loophole, and -"
"I didn't know what he was going to write! I told him there was a story in the kamai department, that's all -"
"That's not all, Esten!" Tekaal roared, and Linisaar made a piteous noise.
"Rhysel?" said one of Tekaal's cousins, the only woman, coming in from the other side of the hall. The shouting family members hadn't noticed Rhysel's presence yet. "What are you doing here? Come in away from the yelling..."
Rhysel followed the cousin through the abandoned second parlor and into the dining room, where it was a bit quieter. "I'm sorry, I can't remember your name -"
"Feris," supplied the cousin. "Tekaal's mother's twin's middle child. The little boy of the house is my son. That help?"
"It does. Er, has Tekaal been shouting at his brother since early this morning?"
"There've been occasional lulls of mere hissing and glaring," Feris said. "People keep going in trying to break it up and starting the shouting part again instead. I'd stay out unless you think you can extract somebody instead of just participating yourself."
"Well, I came intending to get Tekaal. We were going to get lunch, and then he was going to check on a letter for me," Rhysel said.
"Check on a letter?" Feris asked.
"I sent one to my blood sister back in Barashi, asking her to find a kama who'd ask my Master some questions -"
"I read the article," Feris said. "Isn't he -"
"He died, but a death kama can talk to him, if he's willing. But Eryn's having some trouble finding a death kama who'll talk to him when I'm trying to be as confidential about some of the questions I want to ask as possible," Rhysel said. "They don't like the idea of being responsible for letting me have a conversation when they can't be sure of what everything in it means. If Eryn doesn't manage to find one for me in the next week or two, I'm going to ask someone to send Tekaal to Barashi so he can try." Rhysel sighed.
"Oh." Feris didn't ask what it was Rhysel needed to talk to Revenn about. "I'm not sure if you'll be able to get Tekaal out of here until Esten coughs up what he got in trade for the lead on your program," Feris said. "It was probably good. He's never pulled anything like this before. I mean, he's a reporter, but he stayed away from family."
"I don't like that my parents are being libeled in the press, but -"
"Oh, was that a lie? You can get him fired if -"
"Not legally," Rhysel said, grinding her teeth. "Apparently. But I'm more concerned about Tekaal. He's definitely not happy about his various 'personas' being connected. Also, our students didn't know we were dating."
"Ooh," said Feris sympathetically. In the other room the shouts were dying down. "You might want to duck in and tell Tekaal he's keeping you waiting," she suggested.
"I'll do that. Thank you," Rhysel said, and she went to fetch her boyfriend before anyone could burst into loudly-expressed outrage again.
Rhysel didn't try to engage Tekaal in conversation over lunch, which took place at a Nirlani restaurant (no menu: one made requests along the lines of "something fruity" or "something with rice", and received an improvised response from the kitchen). Rhysel got "a soup, something hot" and Tekaal got an "anything"; they were presented with identical bowls of soup and crackers on the side, and Tekaal disintegrated crackers into his bowl until there was a layer of them half an inch thick before taking a spoonful.
"Are you all right?" Rhysel asked softly, after they'd both finished their food and he hadn't offered his hand for teleportation.
"I will, I expect, survive. The students will be insufferable this afternoon, however," he said.
"They read newspapers?"
"Some of them do. I suppose my students today are likely to be less of a problem than our students tomorrow, who are more likely to have chosen to read the... article... on the kamai department in particular."
"We can check Eryn's letter tomorrow, instead, if you want to be alone," Rhysel murmured.
Tekaal appeared genuinely startled by this idea. "No, not at all, we certainly should unsend the letter and see if she has added an update on her progress. Aaralan Dyret and other interested parties should not have to wait longer than strictly necessary. I apologize; I'm being poor company. I am merely... distracted."
With that, he held out his hand, Rhysel took it, they teleported to her tower, and he made a beeline for the sending circle semipermanently installed on her floor, reversing the sending spell as he went. The letter appeared. Tekaal picked it up. "There's writing on the back," he observed, but he handed it to Rhysel rather than reading it.
Hey Rhysel, finally found a death kama who'd do it - no, not Master Bryn, she's holed up in the Repository up to the tips of her ears in research - a lady who apprenticed with Master Revenn before we did, finally sent word back with a Wanderer saying she didn't care what I wanted to tell him as long as I wasn't going to teach her parrots vulgar words. Went there on Pyden and she summoned him up - he took half a div to answer her, she said that's normal for people who've been gone so long - and read him your letter. He says your dedication is admirable but that's not what death kamai's for, and that he loves you too (and me, when I gave him a look, but I know he was practically like your dad), and to try "making the children lighter" and to tell you that he thinks "the red opal is like the children from the house, somehow". Then he disappeared. I don't know what in the names of the twenty-four you're working on, Rhysel, but hope that helps. I don't think he'll come again if called, but the death kama lady said she'd try again if I needed her to (or if you figure out how to get back here and you want to talk directly). I was going to teach her parrots a vulgar word just for fun before she said that, but now I think I'd better keep on her good side, right? Best of luck, sister-mine. Love, Eryn.
"Lighter," murmured Rhysel. "Hasn't that been tried?"
Tekaal had skimmed a couple of her books about shrens. "It has been tried with wizardry - the spells in question would probably work by reducing the force of one's pull towards the ground, rather than by affecting the children's composition. It may or may not make a difference."
"Something proxic," Rhysel murmured. "Reduce their actual density. Temporarily, long enough that they can fly around the room and reset the esu. It could be so dangerous, though, I don't know how light I'll have to make them - they could break bones so easily if I made the least plausible change, they could bruise, they don't have any practice at flying and would be so likely to crash - Jensal will never let me test it on the babies." She thought, the letter falling ignored from her fingertips. "If I tested it on myself until I managed to get light enough that I could get off the ground by flapping my arms, then wouldn't it have to work? Even if their wings were cursed or something, they have legs, tails..."
"Rhysel, you can't do proxic kamai on yourself," Tekaal said.
"I know, I'd need your help -"
"You want me," Tekaal said, "to help you with a working that could leave you extremely fragile, to the point where the proprietor of the shren house would not permit you to attempt it on even the older, pain-inured infants who would be helped immeasurably should it succeed?"
Rhysel frowned. "I can ask Talyn," she said.
Tekaal shuddered. "Rhysel, don't."
"It's the only idea on the table right now. Those babies are in pain -"
"You don't need to be the test subject. You aren't even built the same way. If you won't be allowed to experiment on the local infant shrens, there are other houses -"
"I shouldn't test this on babies, even if I can find someone who'd let me try."
"Ask the adult shrens living in your basement."
"They have children! And besides, where would they go? They mustn't get into dragon shape anywhere but a shren house, not without warning everyone."
"The bottom of the world. It's uninhabited," Tekaal said. "Well away from anyone who could be infected, and unlike the moon it is not popular to fly there simply because one can. It is something of a long walk, as the side of the planet is some ten miles across, but both you and they can fly - provided they shapeshift first - and if they break anything, you will be able to heal them. Plausible levels of pain will not distress them, you can heal them if they are injured, and they are capable of consent."
"But what if one of them died? Their children -"
"What if you died?" exclaimed Tekaal. "I will grant that you have no children, but you have a family, you have students, you have an apprentice - you have me - if nothing else will sway you, you have a promising avenue of research into the shrenness question -"
"You and Talyn could pick it up -"
"I have little information on Aaran Casten's dedication to the issue, but as far as I am concerned, I am likely to live for another two hundred years, if that; suppose it is not such a tractable problem? Suppose Aaral Pyga discovered what I was up to - you are her friend, and may well have leeway that I do not in reminding her of topics that distress her; she is not incapable of having me fired on grounds such as 'the sight of this employee makes me think of shrens and I am not so personally fond of him as to forgive the fault'. To say nothing of the fact that I would be obliged to find other employment or move back in with my family, there would be the more immediate consequences to the kamai program that you were divinely appointed to supervise."
"Keo wouldn't do -" Rhysel paused, and realized that she had no idea what went through Keo's mind when shrens were the subject. "I'll ask Eret and Theedy, but they might say no, and then -"
"Then there are four shren houses full of shrens of assorted ages, with the contact information for more shrens still. I will not abet you in making yourself the test subject, and if I have to threaten to unsummon him to arrange it, nor will Aaran Casten."
"You'd unsummon Talyn just to -"
"I am certain that Aaralan Hhirheek would find a way around my uncooperativeness in due time, but the necessity of due time might make him pay attention, if for some reason the fact that you wish to be the subject of a life-threatening experiment intended to test a treatment for another species did not."
Rhysel sighed and dipped her head, chastened. "All right. I'll try Eret and Theedy."
"Thank you." He cast the time spell, between deep breaths, and pursed his lips. "And now I need to be on my way to the school. I will see you tomorrow if not sooner."
"I love you," Rhysel said.
Tekaal stepped forward and bestowed a careful kiss on her. "I love you too." He teleported away.
Rhysel picked up Eryn's letter, read it over again, and then started sketching out lists of things that might be safely reduced in density and how much.
"You think you could make us fly? In our natural forms - with our real wings -"
"Theedy, it could get you very seriously hurt, maybe even killed," Rhysel said. "I can't lifelink you or I wouldn't be able to heal you if you needed it; my boyfriend doesn't know how to lifelink and can't be the one to heal you because he's not good enough at sculpting to do proxic healings safely; Talyn can't lifelink you because he wouldn't be able to hold on if he had to even long enough to transfer the pain to someone else. I'm only suggesting it because -"
"Can I try it now?" whispered Theedy.
Rhysel blinked. "Er, we need to go to the bottom of the world, first, but I think I have everything worked out as well as I can without a practical test -"
"I'll tell Eret he needs to look after the children," said Theedy, fluttering her hands. She dashed out of the house, long hair twinkling as it trailed behind her.
Rhysel pulled up a chair and sat in it. A degree later, Theedy was back, wringing her hands and incapable of keeping both feet on the ground at one time. "He's all set."
"Theedy, this could literally kill you," Rhysel said. "I haven't had a chance to try this with anyone else yet."
"You don't think it will definitely kill me," Theedy said. "You wouldn't ask if you did."
"Well, no, but -"
"I want to fly," she said. "I don't care if I break every bone in my body - you can heal me, can't you? Or I can shift after being injured, and then even if I can't be healed, I never need the form. It could stay injured and never bother me at all."
"I can definitely heal any injury that doesn't kill you," Rhysel said. "I just - well - okay. Just don't crash into anything, or move around too fast or stomp around - you're going to be very delicate."
"I understand," said Theedy.
Rhysel chewed her lip, but finally said, "I need to stay here for another angle because I'm expecting Kolaan with groceries. I thought you'd want more time to think about it, and you didn't let me finish before. But after the food arrives, then we can go."
Theedy nodded vigorously and trotted away; with black-group dragon hearing she'd know when Kolaan had been and gone even from the basement apartment.
Kolaan rang the bell at roughly the correct time, and when Rhysel opened the door with a greeting on her lips, he stomped past her, groceries in hand, and thunked them onto the counter before going back for a second load.
"Afternoon," she said, nonplussed.
"You knew I didn't recognize him," Kolaan said under his breath.
"I was in The Man in Red and Gold," Kolaan said. "I got you your tickets to it. Remember?"
"Now," Kolaan said, "Soraak and Kutran both think I was hiding from them the fact that apparently our teacher is the actor they both saw in my play. They thought he was really cool when they came to see it. They wanted me to get his autograph for them. I told them I had no idea who he was, he always showed up in his mask, I wouldn't know him on the street, and they said, oh, okay. And now this article is out and they think I was winking at Aar Kithen behind their backs the whole time."
Rhysel winced. "I can tell them otherwise, if -"
"I don't know if that'll help, but yeah, great, that won't change the fact that Aar Kithen was the same guy I was in the play with and you never thought I might want to know that."
"He's careful about his privacy. The article really bothered..." She trailed off at the skeptical look on Kolaan's face. "What?"
"All that, and he didn't think of using a stage name?"
"Isn't his name really common?"
"Sure, but it's more common to have a name other than it," Kolaan said. "He could've gone on stage as, I don't know, Min Palan."
"I'm sorry, Kolaan."
Kolaan set the last batch of groceries on the counter. "Here you go. See you tomorrow." He closed the front door behind him and zoomed away.
Theedy was through it a moment later, looking at Rhysel with wide, dark eyes.
"How do we do this?" Rhysel asked, staring at the edge of the world.
"You haven't been to the edge before?" Theedy asked. "You just walk over it and plant your foot on the side. You'll swing around and you can walk on it."
"Why can't we fly over?" Rhysel asked.
"I don't know if you can," Theedy said. "I could, but it would make me even sicker than just walking over would. We can fly when we're on the side."
Rhysel stared at the corner. It looked exactly like a sheer, flat cliff dropping away into dark blue nothingness.
"I can go first," Theedy offered.
"Would you?" Rhysel said, knitting her eyebrows together.
Theedy approached the edge, touched the sole of her foot to the side of the world, and pushed off with the other. With only a little windmilling of her arms, she was standing sideways.
"I'm never going to be used to this," muttered Rhysel, and she attempted to mimic the step.
She promptly vomited onto the side of the world.
"Did you eat?" Theedy asked. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you."
"Not recently," coughed Rhysel, conjuring some water to sip slowly. "Okay," she huffed when the taste was out of her mouth. "Down we go." Except it didn't look like "down" anymore; it looked like a perfectly horizontal desert expanse.
Theedy transformed into a duck and Rhysel got airborne in her own way, and they flew.
Ten miles and another sickening transition later, they were on the bottom of the world.
"I have my satchel with me," Rhysel said. "It has ward stones in it. I think I might want to hang out down here for a while, tap you a few times, pour some power into a power box, and make a transfer point so I do not have to do that again."
"Okay," Theedy said blankly.
Rhysel inhaled deeply, created some more water to gulp down, and sat down. "Give me a tick. You can shift whenever you want -" (the bottom of the world was flat, lifeless emptiness on all sides; anyone who approached would be visible from miles away) "- but I need a tick."
Theedy walked a ways away from the bottom edge of the world, turned twice on the spot looking intently into the distance and cupping her hands to her ears, and - changed.
The black opal shren was about twenty feet long, nose to tail, delicately built with horns that curled back around her ears like Lisha's did. When she transformed, a rain of scales shimmered down her sides and clattered to the ground, some hundred of various sizes. Theedy looked up at the sky - it was dark, although not completely, as the sun was setting on the top of the world - and breathed a tiny lick of black flame.
"Where did all those scales come from?" Rhysel asked.
"We lose one every year or two," Theedy murmured, touching one with a claw. "If we're never in natural form, they can't fall off anywhere."
Rhysel picked up a scale. "They're pretty."
Theedy dipped her head as though embarrassed, and then slowly unfurled her wings. "You can have them, if you want. I don't have anything to do with them."
Rhysel consulted her stomach, which was complaining somewhat less. "I think I'm ready to give this a try. Be careful, Theedy, all right?"
"I will," Theedy said.
Rhysel made a small model of Theedy, pressed the scale into it, and touched the shren's outstretched wing to forge the connection.
Eighty-two cracks, loud and soft, signified breaking bones.
Sixteen when Theedy flapped her wings. Two when she opened her mouth to comment, nine when she moved her neck. Twelve when the loss of lift from the snapped-backwards wing struts left her to collapse, putting sudden pressure on legs, and then eight ribs; fifteen when the spine followed. Twenty when she twitched her tail in frustration.
Rhysel repaired the model, wincing, and Theedy returned to her customary solidity, uninjured. "Can you try again right away or do you need to do more research first?" asked the shren.
"Didn't that hurt?" Rhysel cried.
"Yes," said Theedy. "I don't mind."
"You mean you can feel it, and you don't care? I don't know how this works."
Theedy shrugged her wings. "For twenty years, all the pain meant nothing. I know now it means something, but I'm still used to it being just esu, just a signal that didn't mean I was injured or needed to be worried. I don't care about it as long as it won't kill me."
Rhysel bit her lip, but said, "I can try again. I'm going to modify the structure of the bones, and see if I can strengthen them relative to the kinds of motions you were making..."
They tried again. Seventy bones. Again. Seventy-four. Sixty-eight. Sixty-one. Rhysel wouldn't have had the will to go on, except Theedy seemed so encouraged by the progress, and protested again and again that she didn't care if it hurt.
When Rhysel rested from the drain and squinted against the bottom of the world's sunrise, Theedy blew plumes of fire into the sky, and stretched her wings.
Sixty. Fifty-two. And then Rhysel, at last convinced that she didn't have to expect Theedy to howl and weep if another bone gave way, gave up on protecting Theedy's legs, which were irrelevant to the flight once airborne; they'd snap on takeoff but that didn't matter. She allowed barely anything more than smoke in place of the shren's ornamental horns and spines, thinned the shining scales until they were translucent black mica, and left space-filling foam in exchange for every muscle that didn't power Theedy's wings and let her leap into the air in the first place and breathe. If Theedy could blink without bruising her eyes by the time Rhysel was done, it wasn't for lack of trying. "Jump," Rhysel whispered. "Fly."