Chapter Twenty-Six: Fear
"You don't understand," Rhysel said, when she felt like she could speak.
"Rhysel, you don't have to excuse -"
"I'm not," she said. "I'm not. But until I was fifteen - until I set that switch on fire - until I scared the living daylights out of my parents, until they were afraid of me - I honestly, truly had a wonderful childhood, Tekaal. This doesn't have anything to do with spanking me. The last time they did that, they learned I'd make things explode when hit just like I would when I sneezed. The last time they did that was before it turned into... what you saw." She sighed. "Sometimes I come here to visit and nothing sets them off. Sets Mother off, more like. Father doesn't have her temper. And sometimes, this happens. Ryll tries to smooth things over; she's the diplomat. Sometimes she can."
The inside of the house had been quiet, as far as either Rhysel or Tekaal could hear from the patio, but when Tekaal drew breath to reply, the door swung open and Ryll stepped out. "Lerrel thinks it's best if the children aren't hustled out of the house in a terrific hurry," she said in a low voice. "Let's walk back to my place. He'll bring them home in the cart later."
Tekaal helped Rhysel up, and looked darkly over at Ryll, who didn't meet his eyes. The three of them picked their way through the rain, but Tekaal, evidently having lost interest in the polite fiction about magic, shielded all three from the drops. Ryll didn't complain, about the look or the kamai.
"I expect Mother will cool off and want to come make her apologies in a few divs," Ryll said, halfway to her ranch.
"I've lost track of time," Rhysel murmured. "I don't know if we'll still be here then or not. I don't know if I even hope we are or not."
"We can arrange not to. I can song Aaral Pyga at any time," Tekaal said, squeezing Rhysel's hand. "There is in fact no compelling reason you should ever have to see your parents again."
Rhysel snapped up her head to look at Tekaal. "But - they're not always like - often it's different - today it was only that Myret - Tekaal, I'm not going to shun my parents forever because my mother called me a name over lunch."
"She did not merely -"
"Tekaal," said Ryll sharply. "I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to convey your advice on the subject. But for the time being - Rhysel, what do you want to do?"
Rhysel scrubbed her hand across her face as though rain had fallen on it. "I want to go back to your house. And fix something for lunch to make up for the fact that I got just a few bites of mine. And play with your kids. And let Keo and Kanaat unsend us at the original time, and if Mother comes to apologize before then, I'll let her. And if she doesn't, then I guess she'll do it the next time I'm in town."
"Then that's what you'll do," Ryll said, in a voice that efficiently hedged out the possibility of an argument from Tekaal. Rhysel wondered if she practiced that sort of tone in the mirror, to have it ready to whip out in family disputes and Senate committees alike.
They reached the ranch house. Rhysel busied herself in the kitchen with Ryll's help, and came out with sandwiches. Tekaal took one, fuming quietly. Presently, Lerrel and the children returned home and Ryll roped everyone into a board game, including Tekaal, who moved his pawn at near-random and was swiftly eliminated from the running. Leyf eventually won, and was, by family tradition, entitled to choose the next activity, which wound up with everyone on a horse (Rhysel was obliged to borrow a pair of her sister's pants, which seemed to discomfit Tekaal, but did not elicit complaint).
At the conclusion of the trail ride along the half-trampled path through the thick, buggy forest - during which Tekaal fell off his horse only three times - Rhysel put together a light dinner.
Before they were done with dessert, and before any sign of Allera come to apologize made itself apparent, Rhysel and Tekaal were unsent and reappeared in Kanaat's office.
Tekaal, to Rhysel's mild surprise, left the entire subject of her parents alone for the next week. Perhaps he'd have been more insistent about it if there had been any plans on the table to go back to Tyren. But they readjusted their sleep schedules, and taught class, and on Lunen, they went to Jensal's shren house to treat the groggy but pain-free infant shrens. They talked about kamai and about students and about music and about platypuses and about a new potion Ahin had developed which he believed would make channeling sting a thing of the past and about everything else except Allera and Tem.
It was on Chenen morning, when Rhysel rummaged around in Tekaal's kitchen cupboards trying to find something that was intended to be cooked instead of eaten in its current form, when he brought it up.
"Rhysel," he said.
"Don't you even have flour?"
"I believe there is a small bag of rice flour, in the cabinet to the immediate left of your head, but that was not what I wished to discuss."
Rhysel found the bag he'd mentioned. It was half-empty, but she could make a modest batch of pancakes with it. "What is?"
"I am finding myself unable to make certain relevant predictions about the compatibility between your parents, your desire to maintain a relationship with them, and... a proposition I might ask you to entertain."
Rhysel looked at him blankly, whisking milk into her batter. "I find myself unable to do that, too. Maybe you could explain what you're talking about."
Tekaal chewed on his lip. "Regardless of where the event might take place, some amount of magic - a considerable amount, really - would be called for to enable the attendance of everyone who might wish to be present if..." He coughed, and Rhysel tilted her head. "If you were to agree to marry me."
Rhysel lost a few ticks detachedly considering whether there was any way her parents would put up with being summoned and how much of an improvement it could possibly be to instead send all of the guests from Elcenia to Barashi, before she realized what Tekaal was actually asking and put down her mixing bowl to kiss him.
"I'll marry you," she said in his ear. "We'll figure it out."
"I love you," Tekaal told her, wrapping his arms around her.
"I love you too."
Talyn had pestered Rhysel for a chance to help her with the baby shrens, and since he wasn't allowed in the Paraasilan house, she'd already agreed to let him to come to the tropical one. Accordingly, Tekaal dropped off Rhysel and her apprentice both, and she promised to call when they were done.
Ilen still looked just like Narax, and still made Rhysel double-take when she walked into the roomful of small shrens. "I wish you wouldn't stare at me like that," he said.
"Sorry," she said. "Erm - pardon me if this is rude - do you know who your parents are?"
A deep shudder ran through Ilen. "No."
"Sorry," Rhysel said hastily. "It's just -"
"We all look like someone," Ilen said. "That's how it works."
"How old are you?" she asked.
He seemed to like that question a little better. "Two hundred eighty-eight."
Older than Narax. Rhysel decided to leave the man alone, at least for the day, and turned to the first patient of the day.
Halfway through the queue, Ehail, the silver-haired wizardess who'd first brought Rhysel to the house, let herself into the room. She was silent apart from whispering a greeting to Ilen, and Rhysel surmised she was willing to be ignored until the babies were taken care of. The littlest platinum was granted a circuit around the room, restored to a standard density, and set down; Rhysel then turned to Ehail. "Hi."
"I have some of my notes translated, for your boyfriend," Ehail said.
"Fiancé!" Rhysel couldn't help correcting. She felt a ridiculous grin cross her face.
"Oh. Congratulations. I translated these into Leraal for him," Ehail said, holding out a stack of papers choked with tiny handwriting and rigidly ruled and traced graphs. "I think these are the most important parts, but I'll keep working. I'll have more when you're here again next time. In two weeks?"
"Two weeks," Rhysel confirmed. Behind her, Talyn was teaching an eighteen-year-old diamond shren some complicated clapping game. "But maybe we should be talking to you more often than that. Do you want to come to my tower for dinner sometime this week?"
"I suppose I can do that if you give me your address," Ehail said.
Rhysel tried in vain to find a blank corner to tear off one of the pages of notes, and eventually found a scrap in her satchel instead. "Here. Don't you ever smile?"
Ehail thought about it for a moment. "Twice," she reported, at length.
"...How old are you?"
"Six hundred and sixty-two."
Rhysel stared, then recovered herself and tucked the translated notes into her bag. "Does Arnen at twelfth-and-naught work for you?"
"That's fine," Ehail said. "I'll see you then."
Ehail let herself out of the room. Talyn, apparently bored, went out after her and out to the house yard. Rhysel looked over at Ilen, again, before averting her eyes for fear that she'd stare. "Do you want to come over for dinner sometime, too?" she asked him.
Ilen reacted like she'd threatened to carve out his eyes, shaking violently and drawing back from her. He nearly tripped over a small red shren. "I - I -" Rhysel felt a ripple of terrified empathy, and then another, before flinging up her mind kamai shields.
"Hallai, Hallai," said a malachite baby. "Hallai Hallai Hallai."
"Hallai?" Rhysel asked the malachite. "Ilen, are you -"
The door slammed open, nearly clipping Rhysel across the nose but striking none of the children. A dark-brown-skinned woman with a brilliant cascade of copper hair down her back stormed in, seized Ilen by the front of his shirt, and dragged him, still trembling, out of the room.
"What's going on?" Rhysel asked, addressing the room generally.
"Hallai is the empath," said the same malachite baby. "She took Ilen. He needs to be empathed. You scared him."
"I scared him by inviting him over for dinner?" Rhysel asked.
"Ilen stays in. He's an inside shren," the malachite baby explained. "Ilen doesn't go out. Out scares him. Not me," she added. "I'm gonna go out soon as I'm allowed."
"I see," Rhysel said, though she didn't. She shifted her weight, unwilling to leave the babies unsupervised. She considered calling Talyn back in by mindspeech to ask him to find out who Ilen's backup was, but instead stuck her head out into the hall. It was almost, but not quite, deserted; there was a loitering girl probably in her seventeenth decade, cherry-bright hair marking her a red. "Excuse me, do you know who is supposed to look after the children when Ilen isn't?"
"Ilen's brain broke again?" the girl asked rhetorically. "I can do it. I'm Finnah." She entered the babies' room and plopped herself down on the ground.
"So I'm told," Rhysel said. "What happened to Ilen, do you know?"
"Somebody either opened a window, threatened to make him walk out the door, or suggested that he depart the house by magic," said the red shren. Small shrens started climbing her. One summitted her head. "Hallai's going to have to scream calm at him for a few angles and then he'll be fine."
"I didn't realize inviting him over for dinner would have that effect," Rhysel said.
Finnah shrugged. "Sometimes it happens all by itself. I can watch the kids till Hallai's done with him. You don't have to stick around. You're done, right?"
"Waiting for my fiancé to pick up me and my apprentice. He'll be here any degree now." Rhysel squirmed pleasedly at the word "fiancé" again. "Actually, he should have been here a while ago, if my sense of time is right. I'm not sure what's keeping him."
"You could get Ehail to take you home," Finnah said.
"If Aar Kithen isn't here in half an angle, I'd like to find some volunteers to tap so I can build a transfer point," Rhysel said. "I can get home that way. Actually, that might be a good idea anyway."
"Volunteers to what so you can build a what?" Finnah asked.
Rhysel explained transfer points to Finnah, and then, when the red shren seemed fascinated, went on to give a more detailed description of kamai.
"What's tuition like at your school?" Finnah demanded.
Rhysel blinked. "I don't actually know. I don't see that side of it," she said.
"If it's not really ridiculous maybe Ludei'd send me there and I could learn kamai," Finnah mused. "The house has some funds to get us educated. That's how Ehail's a wizard."
"Do you think I could get some volunteers from the house - four, five, six people who are willing and able to go outside - to help me with that?" Rhysel asked.
"Sure," Finnah said. "Try asking -"
"Room numbers would be more useful than names," Rhysel inserted swiftly.
Finnah shrugged and rattled off a half-dozen room numbers. "I'd do it but I'm sort of inhabited," she said, looking at the pool of babies in her lap and the ones clinging to her sleeves and the two wrapped around her neck and the one still triumphantly sitting in her hair. If she'd been able to rotate her head to look at her own back she might have seen three hanging off the back of her blouse as well.
Rhysel thanked the red shren and found the designated rooms. Five of the six recommended shrens - half young not-yet-adults, close to Finnah's age, the others indeterminate centuries old - agreed to help. Rhysel brought them all outside, called Talyn over from where he was inspecting the vegetable garden, and built a transfer point.
"Does one of you know how to tell time?" she asked the donor shrens. "I can't - no channeling capacity." A woman with glassy black hair - obsidian, Rhysel guessed - made the gesture and yawned the word.
Tekaal was late.
He was an entire angle late.
Rhysel stood up abruptly. "Thank you all for your help," she said, voice trembling. "I need to go home now. Come on, Talyn."
She stepped onto the new point, and jumped to the one in her tower.
Tekaal wasn't answering his communication crystal.
<Keo,> Rhysel tried next.
<Can you find Aar Kithen for me? He's not answering his crystal and he was late to pick me up when he said he would.>
<Just a tick.> A tick, and then two, passed, and Keo's voice sounded again: <I can't tell you where he is because he's unconscious and therefore doesn't know. I could search through his recent memories, but I don't want to do that unless he's been missing for a long time...>
<He was only an angle late. I'm going to try his family. Thanks, Keo.> The mental connection died, and Rhysel felt a moment of frustration for not being able to ask Keo about Ilen before her thoughts flew back to Tekaal.
The kamai students had participated in building transfer points all over Paraasilan, including one near the Kithen household, and Rhysel used that one rather than make the flight. She knocked on the door, but it swung wide when her hand first struck it.
"I'm looking for Tekaal!" she called into the house.
"He's not here!" called back someone else.
"I think Ahin was going to meet him today for something," another voice added.
Rhysel ground her teeth. "Where's Ahin?"
"His shop," came the answer.
"Can someone show me where that is?" Rhysel asked, fighting the urge to pace. "Or write it down?"
One of the voices haltingly recalled something that was half-address, half-directions, and Rhysel took it to be good enough. She backed out of the house, went aloft, and searched.
In time, she located the witch shop ("Ahin's", said its helpful sign) and landed in front of it. The door was propped open. "Is my fiancé here?" she demanded of the girl behind the counter.
"If your fiancé's Aar Ahin's Brother," replied the girl. She was a blond elf with her hair up in thin braids, wearing an apron and leaning on the till.
Rhysel's panic was momentarily derailed by the appellation. "Aar Ahin's Brother?"
"We can't really call him Aar Kithen. That's Ahin's last name too," explained the girl. "And he won't let us use his first name. So he's Aar Ahin's Brother. I saw him come in earlier and he went in the back room to test something for Ahin. I guess they're hanging out or something."
"I don't think so," Rhysel muttered. The hair on her arms stood up when the girl said the words test something. She stalked towards the door.
"You can't go in there," the girl said.
Rhysel's temper was starting to fray, even not knowing what specifically Ahin had done; in Ahin's absence the girl was the only target, but clearly not an appropriate one. She swallowed the impulse to snap at the young elf. "Why is that?"
"Ahin doesn't let anyone but apprentices in the back room. Sometimes he clears us out too - secret recipes."
"What's your name?" Rhysel asked.
The name sounded familiar, but Rhysel didn't let that distract her. "Marin, I need you to go back and get my fiancé out for me. Or get Ahin out so I can talk to him."
"I can't leave the till..."
"There's no one in the shop," Rhysel said, sweeping her arms wide. "If you won't, I'll mindspeak to Ahin, but I wouldn't want him to find that startling enough to drop anything volatile and hurt an innocent apprentice or my fiancé."
"Uh," said Marin. "I can poke my head in real quick..." She hopped down from her stool behind the counter and opened the door, enough to give clearance to her long ears, and called into the back room, "Ahin, your future sister-in-law wants you!"
"Esten needs to stop letting his flings think he's going to marry them!" Ahin shouted back. "Tell her that!"
"She's looking for Aar Your Brother, not Esten," Marin told him.
There was a silence, and then with a loud sigh, Ahin called, "You can let her in."
Rhysel pushed past Marin before the girl was entirely through making way. When she was into the back room, she searched it for Tekaal - there were shelves of ingredients in jars and bundles, half-full boxes of vials and corks, strings of garlic and sprigs of herbs hanging from the ceiling, eight cauldrons (two full) along the left side of the room, and - slumped, half-propped-up by the wall Marin stood in front of when she minded the till - Tekaal. Asleep - or knocked out - or comatose - she couldn't tell. Rhysel dropped to her knees beside him.
"I'm checking his heartbeat and breathing regularly. If he doesn't wake up on his own in two angles, I'm trying a dose of wakeflower; if that doesn't do it, I'm going to try pep elixir; and if that doesn't do it either I'm giving up and hauling him to a light," Ahin said. "And, future sister-in-law, Marin said? Welcome in advance to the fam-"
"What in the gods' name did you do to him?" Rhysel cried, touching Tekaal's wrist. There was a pulse, and breath warmed her hand when she hovered it in front of his face, but he was so still.
"He was testing a potion for me -"
"He's unconscious! He wouldn't have taken a sleeping potion when he was planning to pick me up later!"
"It's not a sleeping potion. It's an anti-channeling-sting potion. The apprentices all took some and they were fine, but they don't usually cast spells that sting, and Tekaal's a wizard, so -"
"So you made him drink it. And then he, what, summoned something -"
"Teleported across the room with three passengers," Ahin corrected her. "He made it there just fine, said it didn't sting, no ill effects, and then a few degrees later he just fell over - I caught him, he didn't hurt himself on the way down."
"You could have the decency to be worried!"
"Do you think I'm not?" Ahin said. "But he's alive, he's not deteriorating in any way, trying everything in my arsenal to get him to open his eyes could make things worse if he's just sleeping something off, and I didn't know he was expected anywhere or I would have dug your communication crystal out of his pocket and told you he was delayed."
Rhysel touched Tekaal's forehead; he wasn't feverish. Finally she remembered wild kamai, and checked him with her magical senses. Her magic came back convinced that he was perfectly healthy, with no explanation for why he should be unconscious; it returned no when she asked it if he was asleep, if he was brain damaged, comatose, dead...
"Is it safe to move him?" she asked Ahin in a low voice.
"Should be," Ahin said. "I mean, don't toss him around, but if you want to hug him or something go ahead."
Rhysel sat against the wall, and gently put Tekaal's head in her lap. She waited.
Every few degrees, Ahin came by, checked that Tekaal was breathing and his pulse was strong, and then went back to instructing his handful of apprentices on the potions they had in progress.
Ahin was frowning and muttering, "I'll ask Marin to pull a vial of wakeflower", when Tekaal's eyelids fluttered.
"Tekaal," breathed Rhysel.
"My head," Tekaal groaned.
"Does it hurt?" Ahin asked, leaning over his prone brother. "Want some hofis?"
Ahin bobbed his head once, and poked his head out the door. "Marin. Get me a vial of teth-teth."
Marin passed him a little glass bottle, which Tekaal opened his mouth to receive and Ahin poured in. "Better?" asked the witch.
"Mm. What happened?"
"Are you missing memories of anything?" Ahin asked.
"I took the moon water..." murmured Tekaal, rubbing his temple; Rhysel smoothed his hair. "You chose three of your apprentices for me to teleport from that corner to the opposite one. I did, and it didn't sting, which was what the moon water was meant to do. I felt perfectly normal. I told you that it worked and that I was all right. And then I closed my eyes for a moment, and woke up here and my head felt as though it was about to explode..."
"Now," Ahin said, "this is important, was the momentary headache worse or better than the worst sting you've encountered? Not the teleporting three passengers, but the very worst -"
"Given that it was momentary, the headache is an improvement, but the unconsciousness - Rhysel, did I neglect to fetch you? What time is it?"
Rhysel bent to kiss him between the eyebrows. "I tapped some people at the house to build a transfer point and got home just fine. Don't worry about it, love."
Ahin cast the time-telling spell. "You were out for three angles, four degrees," he announced. "I think I can probably get rid of the knockout side effect, though maybe not the headache, if I omit the lily petals and substitute distilled water for the spring water. At least the headache responded to teth-teth, but I can't just mix them directly, the willowbark won't tolerate the moondust... I'll need something to replace the lily petals as a stabilizer, though." He paused, thinking, then turned to the nearest apprentice. "Name all the stabilizers and whether they have acceptable interactions with the other ingredients of moon water."
The apprentice started stammering through a list of plants and naming what other things in the recipe would make them explode or dissolve or fall inert, and Rhysel tuned out to help Tekaal sit up and pull him close. "You're never late," she said. "I was so worried."
"I'm fine," he murmured.
"You might not have been -" But she didn't want to stress Tekaal when he could still be fragile. "Let's get you home."