Chapter Twenty-Seven: Sting
"I think we should have Ryll's help, figuring out the logistics of the wedding," Rhysel said, when she'd gotten Tekaal back to his place. Mindful that he'd just been unconscious for several angles and woken with a splitting headache kept at bay only by a potion, she put him to bed and tucked his blankets in around his shoulders over his very mild protest, then sat on the edge of the mattress. "She'll know better than I would how much my parents - and my brother Tennel, who I don't see as much but he's similar - will be able to take. It might be simpler to have two ceremonies, one here and one there..."
"I believe my family might object if they were not invited to attend both, and would insist upon doing so," Tekaal said. "It is probably more efficient to simply hold a ceremony in Barashi. I believe that if I draw the circles myself, I can secure the cooperation of enough Binaaralav faculty to send everyone who will need to be sent."
Rhysel nodded. "Ryll can perform the wedding - she's a senator - and I think she will, if that's okay with you. You're not too attached to the Esmaarlan sort of ceremony Ahin had, are you?"
"I am not, but I expect Ryll lacks the power to make it legal in Esmaar, and I am unclear on the mechanism for importing foreign marriages," Tekaal said. "My cousin Nemifaath would be present in any case; hopefully there is some way to incorporate her into the relevant ritual, but if not, the only indispensible portion is signing our names in her book, which could be done before or after the Barashin celebration."
"Right. I'll write a letter about all this to Ryll, if you'll send it for me."
"By all means," Tekaal said. "Although I will find it challenging to do so while cocooned in blankets."
"Well... are you feeling okay?" Rhysel asked him. "I don't know how well Ahin's potions work."
"I feel quite well," he assured her. "I am certainly up to drawing a circle and casting a spell. They are not strenuous activities. However, the floor in my house is not suited to hold lines of summoning chalk. One of our offices or your tower would be a better choice."
"Mm... all right," said Rhysel, standing up and releasing the edge of the blanket she'd been sitting on. Tekaal disentangled himself from the sheets and profferred his hand to teleport Rhysel.
They arrived in her tower, and Tekaal fetched his summoning chalk from its semipermanent residence on Rhysel's end table and began sketching the sending circle, while Rhysel wrote her sister a letter and occasionally asked Tekaal questions. ("How many people are you going to want to invite, for your side of it?", "At least thirty-five."; "Is Ahin going to want to cook for your wedding too?", "He may, if asked, but will not insist on it, particularly if it is held in Barashi where his excess pef tan will be ineffectual.")
They each finished their tasks at roughly the same time, and Rhysel deposited her letter in the middle of the sending circle and looked for a focus lobe to place her hand.
"This spell doesn't call for a focus," Tekaal said. "I have visited Barashi, and can send objects to it without one."
"Oh, okay," Rhysel said, sitting back.
"If I did need a focus to find the world," he said softly, "you could not serve - for magical purposes, you are no longer Barashin."
"Oh." Rhysel chewed on her lip and watched Tekaal lift his hand for the spell's gesture.
The letter disappeared, and Tekaal collapsed to his knees, his face a mask of pain.
"Tekaal!" exclaimed Rhysel. "What happened? Are you all right?"
"Channeling sting," he gasped.
"But you've sent letters before - you don't collapse -"
"I know," he said, still gulping down air too fast. "Something is wrong. I'll be fine - the sting is instantaneous - but I did not expect it, or I would have reacted less strongly."
"Does this have something to do with the moon water?" Rhysel asked. "Ahin - I should blow up his shop - what was he thinking -"
"I was still able to teleport you here without sting," Tekaal said. "That places some limit on how much of a handicap I now possess. But I should check my channeling capacity. I believe I should transfer to the school and find a spell to do so; I have not taught first tier theory in several terms, where it is customarily taught, and cannot recall it." He drew in a breath between his teeth. "It will take me only a few moments..."
"I'll come with you," Rhysel said, getting to her feet.
They took the transfer point from her tower to the pond outside the school in silence, and Tekaal ordered the lift to the library. He knew exactly where to find the book he was looking for, which relieved Rhysel; if he'd gone about casting the information-based spells he'd taught in the class she'd audited the prior term she would have worried that every speck of magic to go off would be the one that made the situation more dire than it already was.
Tekaal started to cast the capacity-checking spell himself, when he found it, but stopped partway through, with enough time to spare that it didn't explode in his face. "Best not to cast where it is not necessary, until I know what has happened," he murmured to Rhysel. Instead he went to the librarian behind the front desk, handed her the book, and quietly asked her if she was able to do it.
She proved capable.
"Three hundred and five," breathed Tekaal, reading aloud the number.
"That's bad, I take it," Rhysel said.
"It is one hundred and thirty-six units lower than it should be." His voice was carefully controlled.
"Nonsense, channeling capacities don't change except to increase when you get a familiar," the librarian said briskly.
Tekaal ignored the librarian, and he closed the book and went to put it back where it had come from.
"Tekaal?" Rhysel said, following him.
"I was within eight units of death when I sent that letter," he murmured. "If I had chosen a different spell - and I considered it - I would be dead, right now."
Rhysel stood behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Ahin shouldn't have tested his moon water on you." Tekaal didn't answer. "Maybe he can fix it."
"If - if he can't - and it doesn't come back on its own - what does that mean, for you?" Rhysel asked, stepping around Tekaal to look into his eyes.
"I will need to recalibrate my expectations about what will and will not cause channeling sting, and how much," Tekaal said, not meeting her gaze. "I will be obliged to refrain from most summoning and sending activities and to make more trips when teleporting groups of people. My capacity is now below average; it is fortunate that I work as a teacher and not a professional caster, as my livelihood is not likely to suffer overmuch."
"We'll talk to Ahin," she said.
"Later," said Tekaal wearily. "He is unlikely to pour moon water down anyone else's throat in the next week. I believe the day has caught up to me and I would like to sleep."
"Okay," Rhysel murmured. "You're safe teleporting home?"
"That, at least, will not sting even at this capacity," Tekaal assured her. He gave her a deep kiss and then teleported away.
Rhysel didn't find herself tired - far from it, she was wide awake, head buzzing with wedding details and worry for Tekaal and the fact that she'd have to teach class the next day. She went home, decided she was hungry, and then thought she might as well ask Keo if she wanted to have dinner.
<Keo? Want to grab some food with me? But not at that ridiculously spicy restaurant, please.>
<Sure. Saraanlan food?> Keo suggested.
Keo picked Rhysel up a degree later and took them both to a Saraanlan restaurant Rhysel hadn't been to before. "What's up?" Keo asked, after ordering herself a bowl of chickpea mash with horseradish, chili pepper, mustard, and garlic.
Rhysel went for a more conservative wheat with sesame and tomato. "Tekaal asked me to marry him," she said, leaning over the table.
"Eee!" Keo exclaimed, clapping her hands to her cheeks. "And you said yes?"
"Of course!" Rhysel grinned. "We haven't worked out all the details of how we're going to do the ceremony yet, but it's probably going to be a Barashin style wedding - well, Aristanian in particular, since that's where my family lives. And it's probably going to be pretty big, with Tekaal's family and mine and all of my friends - I'm actually not sure if he's going to invite any friends, but he does have a lot of relatives. Anyway, it's traditional for both participants to have an attendant - someone to make sure that all the bride or groom has to worry about is showing up in the right outfit and making it to the front of the ceremonial hall. Would you be willing to be mine?"
Keo blinked. "Well, I can, sure, if you want me to, but I thought you had sisters...?"
"Three, and my attendant doesn't have to be a woman, so I could technically pick one of my brothers too, although I'm not really close to any of them," Rhysel said. "Ryll's going to officiate - at least, I've asked her to, and think she'll say yes. Myret can probably be trusted to show up to the wedding itself without being under the influence of any experimental medicines, but traditionally the attendants each also throw small parties beforehand, and help a lot with the prep work, and I'm not sure if she can go that long without testing some batch of something - or losing her temper and mortally offending someone. And Eryn... well, I think she would probably consider my wedding a good time to not pull any pranks, but I'm not quite sure, and I'd rather be quite sure.
"Besides," Rhysel added with a smile, "you'll be able to talk to everyone, even on Barashi without a translation spell. And, the biggest problem attendants have is that they need to figure out how to fix things so the person getting married has what he or she wants, without stressing him or her out. There are a lot of tiresome books where they try to do it by asking complicated indirect questions and they get misleading answers and - anyway, you won't have that problem, right?"
Keo laughed. "That is true. I can figure out what you want without notifying you. Should I assume I have standing permission to do that?"
"As regards the wedding, yes, erm, except," Rhysel thought suddenly of the possibility that she might want to invite one or more shrens. "Is there a way I can exclude some topics without telling you what they are? Some of my guests might have... privacy issues..."
"Sure, sure," soothed Keo. "I can just do two layers of checking - first, checking whether you'd want me to check this, and then, checking it. No problem."
"Okay, great," said Rhysel, smiling in relief. Then her eyes watered - the waiter had brought their food, and the smell of Keo's was extraordinarily piquant.
"Mmmm," declared Keo around the first mouthful of her garlic-mustard-chili-horseradish concoction.
"You're insane," muttered Rhysel good-naturedly.
"Am not," Keo sniffed.
"Oh, it's good to have that cleared up," laughed Rhysel. "There's one more thing I wanted to ask you."
"What's that?" Keo inquired.
"Do you want to be my sister, too?"
"Your blood sister, like Eryn?" Keo asked. "Uh - maybe! What's involved?"
"Involves blood, hence the name," Rhysel said around a mouthful of her own dinner. "We cut our palms, let some blood well up, recite a little poem in archaic Martisen, and that's it."
"No kamai, no legal proceedings?"
"No. Well, I think maybe there used to be kamai of some kind associated with the ritual, but if there ever was, it's lost."
Keo considered this. "I think I'd like that," she said finally. "Should we do it with me in my natural form? Not that this one doesn't have blood, or anything - but, you know, for authenticity."
"I think that would be great," Rhysel said, smiling. "Assuming you can cut through your scales."
"It'd be easier to pry one off," Keo said.
"Ow," Rhysel winced.
"It sounds worse than it is," Keo assured her. "I probably won't even bother going to a light about it. So what else is going on?"
Rhysel sobered, and told Keo the story of Tekaal's mishap with the moon water. "He says it shouldn't affect his teaching," she said.
"Well, probably it won't, especially as he does more kamai and less wizardry," Keo said. "Don't you worry about his employment status; we didn't hire him for his channeling capacity. But it's peculiar that a potion could have that effect. And why that exact number...?"
Rhysel shrugged helplessly. "I don't know anything about the significance of the number three hundred and five. Or one hundred thirty six."
"Remind me what he did under the influence of the moon water?" Keo asked suddenly.
"Teleported three passengers across a room," Rhysel said. "I think they were probably his brother's apprentices. The apprentices don't seem to have suffered any ill effects, or Ahin probably wouldn't have tested it on Tekaal - you think it had to do with the spell he cast?"
Keo shrugged thoughtfully. "It could be a coincidence, but... teleporting three passengers across a room costs three hundred and four units."
Rhysel sat back. "You think the moon water dropped his capacity to just above the next thing he cast?"
"Maybe?" Keo shrugged. "But then I'm not sure why it wouldn't have done anything to the apprentices. Presumably they tell time or do household chores sometimes. Although the people who would be stung at all by those little spells are few and far between - if the potion only is meant to affect sting, perhaps it just didn't have any effect on them."
"Huh. Not that this helps Tekaal."
"Well, no, it doesn't," Keo agreed. "But it could help people who have a channeling capacity of, say, five hundred and sixteen."
"Five hundred and sixteen?" Rhysel asked. She considered tasting Keo's food, out of sheer curiosity, but eventually decided not to be that stupid.
"You know about teleportation circles?" Keo asked.
"I've used them a few times," Rhysel said, not specifying why.
"Well, only the richer countries have them, and even those countries only have one apiece - except for Oridaan, which has three, because separate landholders sprang for each one. This is because very, very few wizards have the channeling capacity to cast a teleportation circle at all, and the ones who have, don't want to do it. It hurts. But if moon water does what we've just guessed it may, any wizard with a capacity of exactly five hundred and sixteen could cast teleportation circles all day, feel no sting, and not even have his or her capacity reduced. Currently those wizards wouldn't want to try it even though they technically can, because it would use almost all of their capacity and be absolutely excruciating - circles are more often cast by people with extremely unusual capacities like Narax's. His is 545," Keo added. "He cast one of the three Oridaan circles."
"Oh, I see." Rhysel pursed her lips thoughtfully. "From what I've seen, wizards are pretty commonly willing to sell their services, unlike kyma who make a habit of working for fixed stipends - I'll buy that it hurts a lot, but enough that entire countries couldn't pull together enough money to compensate? When it's only for a moment?"
"There's that, and the fact that if you cast a spell and it hurts that much, it can permanently throw off your spellcasting to the point where you can't even tell time any more without getting a faceful of spell-soot," Keo said, shaking her head. "Wizards spend years learning magic - the ones with huge capacities and the head for casting that it takes to cast teleportation circles, can make excellent money without touching teleportation circles. Or they can try it and risk never being able to teleport without a circle, ever again, maybe accidentally killing themselves botching a high-pull cast..."
"Is Tekaal going to be in danger from having sent Ryll that letter?" Rhysel said, spoon freezing in her sesame-tomato mash.
"Probably not," Keo said.
"Is he okay now? He teleported home -"
"Did he disappear when he cast the spell, or did he fall over in place covered in black dust?" Keo asked reasonably. "I can check if you want..."
"He's fine," reported Keo after a moment. "Asleep."
Rhysel exhaled. "Thanks."
"Anyway, more tests of moon water would be called for, before anyone tried this," Keo said. "But it's an idea, if he can't just make it work perfectly."
"Would that let someone cast a summoning circle?" Rhysel said. "I remember months ago, you said there was theory written up for a summoning circle but no one could actually cast it..."
"Maybe," Keo said. "Narax could cast one, he just wouldn't. And for some reason I can't quite dull channeling sting. I can cut out normal pain fine - not wise for extended periods, people start biting through their tongues, but I'll do it while someone I know is on the way to a light for a broken leg. Channeling sting is too fast, or something. My predecessor never figured it out."
"There was another unique green-group. He died when I was twelve," Keo said. "He didn't have any overlap with his predecessor, but he stored a lot of what he'd figured out in my head for me to find later."
"Interesting. I hope Ahin figures out something with the moon water," Rhysel added dryly. "It would be much more convenient to bring all my wedding guests to Barashi by circle than by having half your faculty do us favors."
"Our faculty won't mind," said Keo, waving a hand. "It's a few ticks of their time. When are you thinking you'll have the wedding?"
"Well, we don't have a date picked yet," Rhysel said. "I guess it will depend on - on a lot of things. Maybe in a month or two or three."
"If you get married on the first of Shuraahel, that's supposedly good luck," Keo said.
"Is it? I'll keep that in mind."
They finished their dinners at roughly the same time. "So," Keo said. "Want to go become blood sisters?"
"Yes," said Rhysel, grinning at the jade dragon.
They chose a spot near the pond on campus for the ritual. Keo transformed - she was big, but not as awe-inspiringly so as Jensal - and took the knife Rhysel had formed out of earth to slide it under a scale on the bottom of one forefoot and force it up and off. Then she drew the knife across the exposed skin beneath and produced a well of blood.
Rhysel took the knife out of the dragon's claws and sliced her own palm open, hissing a little, and then pressed her wound against Keo's. And then they recited the poem together.
"Family is blood and blood is family. Chance family is blood and chosen family is blood. I pledge to be your sister for now and always."
"Is that all?" Keo asked when Rhysel lifted her hand away from the large scaled foot.
"Yep," Rhysel said. She couldn't close her own wound with kamai, so she wrapped up her hand in a rag out of her satchel.
Keo licked the blood off her foot with a long, forked tongue, and then shifted into her human form again. "Do you want to see the school light?"
"I would. I don't think I've actually met a light," Rhysel said. "Despite them supposedly being fairly common."
"They don't usually learn wizardry, so you wouldn't have run into one at the school except by visiting the light's office," Keo said, walking with Rhysel to the lift. "You've doubtless seen a few on the street, but they're only a couple percent of the population and don't go around with their hands cupped and lit up all the time. Light's office!"
The lift lurched its way through the buildings and the tunnels between them, and spat out Keo and Rhysel at a small, wide-windowed lounge sort of room. In it was a man, reclined in a puffy armchair. "Keo," he acknowledged.
"It's her, not me," Keo said, aiming a thumb at Rhysel. <Just touch his light when he conjures it; it'll do the rest,> she sent to Rhysel.
The man cupped his hands like he was going to catch falling sand, and a sphere of turquoise sparks materialized an inch above them. Rhysel reached her uninjured hand towards the sparks and dozens of them leapt from the sphere to fizz over her skin, covering her entire body and soothing the cut on her hand. She unwrapped the bloody rag and saw that her palm was whole.
"There you go," said the man, letting his hands fall. The light winked out and he reclined again. "Have a good day."
Rhysel forgot that she'd invited Ehail over for dinner on Arnen until the last moment. She made her apologies to Tekaal - they'd had no scheduled date, but he had been, as was common, loitering in her tower. When he'd gone, she whipped up a meal sufficient to feed to a guest in time for the silver shren's arrival.
Ehail was there on time, and Rhysel was struck by the permanent expression on her face when she opened the door at the ring of the bell. Ehail didn't so much look sad, although that was the first approximation. She looked more like she'd never expected anything nice to happen to her, and it hadn't.
Rhysel ushered her in, and hoped that the silver would like her cooking.
"Did you find the tower okay?" Rhysel asked.
"Yes," Ehail said. "Esmaarlan addresses are easy to follow. I have more translated notes since Chenen."
"That's great. I made us some onion spread to put on sandwiches with sliced roast beef," Rhysel said. The roast beef was leftover and only its slicedness and the onion spread were new, but Rhysel suspected that if she told Ehail that, the shren would simply not have expected anything more sophisticated and act puzzled that Rhysel thought to apologize for it.
"Thank you," Ehail said. She took a seat at the table and started constructing a sandwich for herself.
"I don't know what you usually eat at the house," Rhysel said conversationally.
"Things that are easy to make in large batches," said Ehail. "There are a lot of us. Soups, stews, casseroles, salads."
"How many is a lot?"
"There's usually about twenty babies in our house. It's the biggest," Ehail said. "About half of those are picked up when they learn to shift. The rest grow up at the house, so there are usually something like ninety children who can shift. After that, people leave... I think there are four or five hundred adults in our house now."
Rhysel took a bite of her sandwich. "I wouldn't have guessed that. I think of the houses as mostly being about the babies. I guess I haven't seen much of the children."
"The houses are for the children," Ehail said. "The houses wouldn't exist without them - if shrens stopped hatching tomorrow, the houses would shut down in the next hundred years. Maybe sooner. But as long as they're there, it's easier for a lot of us to stay than to go."
Rhysel nodded slowly. "In a hundred years? But some of the children would still be children, in a hundred years."
"Occasionally," Ehail said, "not very often, an adult who leaves will take a child or two along. If they like each other. It's sort of like an adoption. Not legally, just like the adult is operating a very, very small shren house. I think a dissolving house would have more of that going on."
"Single adults?" Rhysel asked.
Ehail shrugged. "Sometimes couples. I guess couples are more likely to take kids with them. They wouldn't have their own."
"Why not?" Rhysel asked, thinking of the shrens directly below her and their natural-born dragonets.
"If anyone found out about shrens having dragon children and trying to raise them," Ehail said, "the dragon council would take their children away. I'm not sure what would happen if they happened to have shrens. That's possible too. Maybe they could keep those, if they lived in a remote area."
"Oh," Rhysel said. She sipped at her water and tried not to squeeze the glass to smithereens. Keenly wishing to change the subject, she said, "Do you want to come to my wedding?"
Ehail looked up from her sandwich, wide-eyed with surprise. "Um, I - I don't know. I don't usually go out - I mean, I'm not an inside shren, I went to school and I picked you up and I came here, but I don't go to events. And in school I had my hair dyed brown."
"You did?" Rhysel said. "Why?"
"I didn't want anyone to know I was a shren, so I passed for human. I don't think anyone guessed. I kept to myself and was careful about the dye, and makeup to make myself look younger when I started and older when I finished," Ehail said. "I guess I could dye my hair again to go to your wedding. If you really want me there."
"I'd love to have you," Rhysel said. "Although, I will have at least one dragon present - possibly more - would that bother you?"
"Not if you don't tell them I'm a shren," Ehail said. "There were a couple of dragons around when I was in university. I just stayed out of their way and they didn't notice me."
"Okay," said Rhysel. She ate the last corner of her sandwich. "I'll let you know when we have a date picked out."
Ehail nodded. Rhysel plated some cookies she'd made the previous night for dessert, and Ehail ate one and teleported home.