Chapter Three: Planet
Narax teleported the pair of them to a light-filled front hall, irregular panes of glass interrupting the stone wall on either side of his front door. Rhysel turned in place, noting houseplants along walls, on shelves, and - she nearly failed to notice - creeping along portions of the ceiling and the wall leading up the side of the stairwell.
"Here we are," Narax said.
"How do you water all your plants if you're away so much?" Rhysel asked, approaching a potted fern.
"Magic," he said. "Enchanted pots and the like. Useful stuff." As he finished his reply, a sinuous purplish-red dragon, even smaller than Keo's younger daughter, gamboled into the room and crawled up Narax's leg. "Oh," he continued as Rhysel stared inquisitively, "this isn't an actual dragon. This is a drake, and it's her adult size, too - they're only animals, they just look sort of dragony."
"She's a pet?" Rhysel asked. The drake clung to Narax's shirt and peered in her direction, making a chattering noise.
"Kind of. She's my familiar," Narax explained, pulling the drake off his shirt only to deposit her on his shoulder. She didn't care for the change in position and jumped off, gliding to the third step on the staircase instead. "They're animals that wizards enchant to help us be able to channel more magic. Not everybody has one - Kanaat doesn't - but I have. Her name is Onion."
"She's very cute," Rhysel said. Onion chittered and flew directly towards Rhysel's face; when Rhysel ducked, the drake winged around to land on her shoulder instead. "And apparently has some personality, too."
Narax laughed. "Yeah. She's never actually collided with anybody's nose, don't worry - very agile in the air."
There was a perfunctory knock on the door, echoing on the metal, and then it swung open. On Narax's doorstep stood a dark-skinned, grinning woman, who looked human save for the electric blue hair pulled into a puff at the base of her neck. "Narax! And you must be Rhysel!" she exclaimed.
"And you must be... Neris," said Rhysel, remembering. "It's nice to meet you."
"Don't be silly," said Neris. "It's perfectly dreadful to meet me. If your day were going well you'd never have heard of me. But hello! Welcome to Imilaat. So where is it exactly you're from?"
Rhysel was wrong-footed by this response to her pleasantry, but said, "My world is called Barashi."
Neris bobbed her head once, then turned to Narax, and said, "Why are we standing in your hall? Let's all sit in the library." She led the way, and Narax laughed and followed her; Rhysel went after them both and took a puffy chair with checkered upholstery while the dragons sat on the couch. Onion departed Rhysel's shoulder and began attempting to nest in Neris's hair, with which the drake's scales clashed brilliantly.
Narax disentangled his familiar from his friend, then said, "So we need to figure out where we're going, after my house ceases to amuse you."
Rhysel peered at the nearest bookshelf, and said, "If you put a literacy spell on me, that might give us a lot of time to decide." The room was full to bursting with books, which were mostly neatly shelved but had begun to overflow onto the footrests and an oddly-shaped flowerpot.
Narax laughed and tipped a book off the shelf that was nearest him. Flipping through it, he replied, "If you want to hang out here for a while and read, fine by me, you deserve a chance to decompress. But we could also go someplace interesting."
"I still say you need to learn to sit still," said Neris. "Maybe if you were home for two days running you'd get used to Parak."
"I have nothing against Parak, seriously," said Narax, sounding like this was an old or at least oft-repeated exchange. "I just think you married him kind of hastily, is all."
"You're one to talk."
"You're married?" Rhysel blurted. There'd been no hint of it, and wouldn't Narax have wanted to consult a spouse before extending Rhysel the invitation he had...?
"She died," murmured Narax, much of the mirth gone from his eyes. "Ten years ago."
"Oh," Rhysel exhaled. "I'm so sorry."
"You didn't murder her," Neris said. "And one of these years I'm sure Narax will be able to hear Samia brought up without instantly turning into a gloom factory." She gave Narax a friendly sort of shove to the shoulder, and he leaned with it, huffing a brief sigh.
"She was murdered?" Rhysel said, unable to restrain herself.
"Mm-hm," Neris said. Narax let Onion wind snakily between his fingers, looking at neither woman. "The very day after they got married. It's a horrible story, but it was a decade ago and he still does this every time she comes up." She gestured at his slumped posture. "And he married her when they'd been dating each other for four months - after sneaking looks at each other behind her previous boyfriend's back for three - so the fact that I've known Parak for a year is not grounds for him to be saying anything."
"Oh," said Rhysel quietly. She was inclined to cross the room and give Narax a hug, but wasn't sure if it would be welcome or appropriate.
"Neris," said Narax, "you've met Rhysel now. Maybe you should go home to your husband."
"He's not home," Neris said blithely. "If you want me to stop making the comparison, stop sniping at me, understood? But I'll go. Bye, Rhysel." She stood fluidly and teleported, rather than walk to the house next door.
There was a silence, and then Rhysel said, "I'm sorry."
Narax glanced up at her, barely lifting his head. He wasn't crying, but it looked like he wanted to. "You didn't do anything wrong. As long as I'm in a mood, you can ask whatever questions you have. And I'll cheer up soon enough and then we can go up to the tundra to see some wolfriders, or wherever else."
Rhysel hesitated, but then asked, "Who killed her?"
"The previous boyfriend Neris mentioned. Name was Rellen. He tried to get me too, but he picked a method and bad timing such that Keo was able to save me. Not Samia, though." Narax delivered the answer in a near-monotone.
Narax leaned backwards, tipping his head over the cushion behind him to look at the ceiling. Onion chose this time to creep under the couch. "Magic isn't all nice helpful stuff like watering my plants. I'm not saying it's common, at all, but sometimes someone invents a really nasty spell. The one Rellen picked was called a 'memory shred', but that's not really a complete description. It separates all the parts of your mind from each other."
"Parts of your mind, meaning...?"
"Memories, personality fragments, but also the parts that are telling your heart to beat and so on. Even if a light - that is, a healer - gets to you right away and forces your body to work correctly regardless, that's not something you recover from. I was talking to Keo when the one he sent my way hit, but she's got more power in the mind-magic department than any spell I've ever heard of and undid its effects before they did anything besides disorient me. But by the time she'd sorted that out for me, Samia was already gone."
"What happened to Rellen?" whispered Rhysel.
"I incinerated him," Narax replied shortly. "And then fled the country."
Silence ensued again, until Narax said, "I did go back and pay a large fine to his surviving relatives and let the cops put a five-year anti-aggression spell on me, later. But I waited until they managed to find probably the only person on their police force who doesn't have some anti-dragon prejudice to pass the sentence, because I didn't like the idea of letting them issue a judgment while quietly ignoring the provocation, or something unfair like that. Ertydo's not a friendly country to us. I was pretending to be human for the duration of my education there and only gave myself away after I graduated."
"You can... just flee the country when you commit -" Rhysel began, and then, deciding that was rude, she began again. "Where did you go?"
"Dragon Island. Home of the... I guess you could call it a dragon government, but they only perform some of the functions thereof. The Dragon Council don't normally harbor fugitives from justice, but they make limited exceptions for Ertydo and Egeria, those being the countries that don't like us." He sat up straight again; his dour mood was starting to lift. Presumably he found the topic's drift distracting.
"So." Rhysel cast about for a suitable, non-depressing topic, then said, "Tell me how dragons age. You and Keo must both be older than you look, if you were married ten years ago and she has a teenage daughter." Either of the siblings could have passed for twenty.
Narax blinked at her, then said, "Korulen's forty-two."
"She's what? How?" exclaimed Rhysel.
"She's an elf. Well, for that purpose, she's an elf. They age three times slower than humans." He paused. "Who are usually considered adults sometime between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, depending on who you ask, and usually die shy of a century along."
"Okay, so humans are the same here," Rhysel surmised.
"Good, because they're the usual reference point," laughed Narax. "They tend to yield convenient multipliers. How's it work where you're from, that you thought Korulen was in her teens?"
"I need to stop making assumptions like that here," chuckled Rhysel. "At home, elves grow to adulthood at the same rate as humans; they just stop aging when they're twenty-five and don't start again until they're approaching a thousand - but then they get old at the same rate as humans. Halfbloods are the same, except we don't live as long."
Narax studied her. "If you were an Elcenian half-elf, I'd say you were around fifty. But now I have no idea." His eyes lingered, perhaps longer than necessary for identifying her apparent age.
"Thirty-eight," she corrected. "You?"
"Two hundred forty-six." He rearranged his feet, twice, then finally toed off his shoes. "Dragons - well, in our natural forms we grow at a constant rate our whole lives. About a foot a decade, give or take. And in most animal forms, we look like adult versions regardless of how old we are. But in humanoid shapes like this one, we grow ten times slower than humans till we're two hundred and then stop. Without starting again later."
"If you don't start again," Rhysel began, but she couldn't think of a tactful way to word then how do you know when you'll die.
Narax figured it out anyway. "Dragons die of old age at random times somewhere between the ages of two and four thousand," he told her. "Averaging on the younger side of that. Which makes certain kinds of advance planning awkward."
"I'd imagine," Rhysel said.
Narax looked down at the book in his lap, then said, "Oh, right, I was going to get you a literacy spell, and then you can look at an atlas and discover the limitations of magical transliteration. And, also, pick a destination." He turned a few more pages, found what he was looking for, and cast a spell.
Rhysel didn't blink, and there was no flash of sudden change on the book spines, but when she looked at them they seemed like they were written in Martisen. The spell wasn't perfect - one book she looked at now trailed title text past the actual height of the volume - and some of the words were incomprehensible anyway, things about people and places and jargon she'd never heard of. "My consolation is that you'd be nearly as bewildered by my library," she said.
Narax chuckled. "Probably. Knowing the language only helps so far." He re-shelved the spellbook and hunted for the atlas he'd mentioned, an oversized but still square leatherbound monstrosity. He plopped it onto Rhysel's lap. "Nice world map on page one."
She opened the cover, and there was a square map, with three continents and numerous islands, but the continents reached the edges and two corners, and Rhysel couldn't figure out for the life of her how they were supposed to wrap around. If Narax hadn't called it a world map, she would have expected continuations, but as it was she asked, "What kind of projection is this? It doesn't make sense."
"Projection?" Narax asked. He leaned his forearms on the back of her chair and peered over her shoulder; a wisp of his hair brushed her cheek. "I can't say I know what that means in the context of maps. That's what the planet looks like."
"But these continents," said Rhysel. "Something's missing."
"Nanela," he said, indicating the northern continent. "Espaal. You are here." He pointed at a coastal spot on the western landmass. "And Anaist." The eastern chunk of land. "Those are all the continents we have unless you count Mekand, which is the huge island up there. Were you expecting more?"
"No, I was expecting them to... connect, or be bordered by water on all sides," she said. "This makes it look like your planet is flat."
"It's got mountains," he said. "The topographical map is in the back somewhere..."
"I mean flat as opposed to round. A sphere," interrupted Rhysel, feeling like she ought to be hysterical but not managing it. She wondered if tamping down her emotions constantly was tiring for Narax or if he was just doing it unconsciously. "Planets are ball-shaped. They have to be. Anything big enough to be a planet will already be close to spherical or they'll crumple in on themselves until they are."
"Oh." Narax considered this, tapping his fingers on the back of the chair. "I didn't do a lot of otherworld studies, so I'll take your word for it that planets do that where you're from, but here they can be all kinds of shapes, usually regular polygons. This one's a square. You are really freaked out, under the empathy - um -" He patted her shoulder, twice. "Why is this a bigger deal than the rest of it?"
"I'm... I think I'm farther from home than I thought I was," whispered Rhysel. "I thought I was just on another planet. Under a different star. We can't travel to them yet but we have telescopes and an idea of what's out there; magic that would let me be summoned to one wasn't so farfetched. But if you don't even have the same laws of physics..."
"Ooh. Hm." Narax straightened up and went to sit back on the couch, looking pensive. "Translation spells have their weaknesses. We were saying 'world'... I don't think Martisen has a better word for it, and that's what you're getting when we speak anything you don't understand, because it's your native language. Eashiri has... 'existence'?" he tried.
"Existence," repeated Rhysel. "I'm in another existence. With laws of physics that let planets be square. How does that work?" she cried. "How does the planet hold an atmosphere? How does it have day and night and seasons and weather? How are we not floating around in space instead of sitting on chairs that are themselves standing on the floor?"
"Is it any help at all if I say, 'magic'?" Narax asked apologetically.
"Not really," Rhysel said, "no."
"Sorry. I never took an astronomy class, and while my primary education might have covered some of those questions in more detail, it was a hundred years ago," he said. "I can't remember the capital of Kervaite anymore either. Look, it's okay," he soothed, and Rhysel noticed a distinct uptick in the eerie calm. "It's okay. It's not any harder to get you home than was explained before. The air's not going to evaporate, days and nights and seasons and weather are going to happen on a regular basis, and you're not going to start floating around in space except when you decide you feel like it. Okay?"
"Okay," Rhysel breathed.
"Are we secure about the ground under our feet now?" Narax asked, lifting his own feet off the floor a couple of inches before bringing them back down again.
"Mostly." Rhysel unfolded from herself as the distress passed. "Thank you for keeping me from - I don't even know what I'd be doing without help. Shrieking and tearing my hair out, probably."
"And that would be a pity, when you have such lovely hair," Narax said.
"Thanks," she said, laughing self-consciously. "I gather you can read emotions too, not just send them? When you said I was freaked out."
"Yeah," he said, "that's the standard green-group dragon package. Jades and greens and coppers and malachites and emeralds," he added when Rhysel raised an eyebrow at the phrase "green-group". "All have the empathy. Unless you're an unusual, in which case you get that and you're also a telepath. And unless you're Keo, who's an empath and a telepath and also kind of ridiculous."
"Kind of ridiculous how?" Rhysel asked. "You mentioned how she saved your life, but other than that I don't think I've seen her do anything that telepathy alone wouldn't explain."
Narax smiled crookedly. "You met Kanaat."
"Yes," Rhysel said. "He's not even a dragon, though, is he?"
"No, he's all elf," Narax assured her. "But what Keo did is she hooked up her and Kanaat in a mindlink. They're always connected. One hundred percent. Always know what each other are thinking. Instant access to each other's memories, senses, feelings, et cetera. For a lot of outside purposes, they're one person in two bodies at this point. They'll tell you otherwise if you ask, of course..."
Rhysel gave an involuntary shudder. "That sounds. Well. Excessive."
"Does it?" he asked. "Mm. Well, it's an example of something she can do. Has done. In theory she doesn't have limitations within the category of fooling around with people's minds, although most of the things that fall into that category she won't do. She's very restrained."
He chewed on his lip. "If the idea makes you uncomfortable, maybe we'd better avoid wolfriders. They do the same thing, just not with their spouses, and not so artificially. When they're babies they get connected to each other, wolves and riders, in about the same way."
"It's not that," Rhysel said. "I'm not going to be uncomfortable around Keo and Kanaat now, and I don't imagine I'll be uncomfortable around wolfriders either. I was just thinking the mindlink didn't sound appealing to me."
"Fair enough," said Narax, after a pause. "Do you want to go visit wolfriders, then? I should warn you, they move around a lot and I don't know exactly where the ones I know are. We might have to fly around some looking for them."
"I can... what was it you said? Decide I feel like floating around in space," laughed Rhysel weakly. "I might need to stop and recharge if we don't have any luck within a couple of divs, though."
"I'd offer you a ride, but I just outgrew a saddle," he said. "New one's on order. You probably don't want to try sitting on a dragon without something between you and sharp scale edges."
Rhysel blinked rapidly, then said, "You let people ride you?"
"Sure, when that's the most convenient way to get around. It's not that different from teleporting a passenger, just requires more equipment. Why is that surprising?"
"Dragons never do that at home," she said. "I mean - I haven't met any - but I've heard."
"Every time you mention Barashin dragons, it confirms my suspicion that they must be extremely tiresome people," said Narax. "I'd be happy to fly you around if that would be more convenient for some reason and I had the new saddle."
"I can protect myself from getting scratched by your scales, if that's the only obstacle," Rhysel said, perhaps too quickly. "And I'm not going to hit the ground if I fall off for lack of anything to hold onto."
"All right then," said Narax, looking amused. "Uh, let's see, other logistical issues... It's cold there. They'll offer us food, most likely, but they only eat meat, at least this time of year - we can teleport back for dinner instead if you want. And they'll probably invite us to stay overnight, which, again, we can turn down if you want, but if we don't it involves sleeping on the ground in a cave or a mud-based structure. And they will visibly pity you for not having a wolf. Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "And I need to put an extra translation spell on you. Wolfriders are weakly telepathic and their whole language is built around that; the spell you have isn't that versatile."
"I can handle the cold," Rhysel said. "And be comfortable on a stone or earth floor as long as they don't mind me using magic to adjust it. I don't mind an all-meat dinner and I think I can stand it if they think I'm pitiful."
Narax nodded, and then flipped through the same book he'd gotten Rhysel's literacy spell from. "I've got one on myself. I'll have to give you a different version, either that or call Neris over to do yours. I can't have the same one active twice at the same time. I think one of the older spells will do the trick, though." He paused on a page, frowning at it. "This one's main weakness was that it didn't work on anything sung..."
"Are they likely to sing?" asked Rhysel. "I'd like to be able to understand it if they do. I love hearing people sing, even though I'm hopeless at it myself."
"Yeah, pretty likely," said Narax, glancing up at her and smiling. "Most nights they sing a bit before they go to sleep. Okay, so you need the best spell. I'll ask Neris." He cast a spell without consulting his book, and then his mouth moved without any sound coming out for a few sentences.
Rhysel cocked her head curiously. When Narax had finished his silent conversation, he said, "Whisper spell. Conveys my voice to her ear. Not all of us are Keo."
Neris appeared in the middle of the room, plucked the spellbook out of Narax's lap, and turned to Rhysel, on whom she cast the desired spell. Then she returned her friend's book and teleported away, waving a bit with the hand she hadn't used for the spell, before Rhysel could thank her.
"She's sometimes... perfunctory like that," Narax excused her. "By the way, let me know if there are any odd problems with your spell. I'm not completely satisfied with the current version but I'm not sure how to adjust it."
"Did you invent this spell?" asked Rhysel, blinking.
"Yeah. There were a couple of really lousy ones circulating before I started working on it, but as recently as a century ago, the general consensus was that wolfriders must be very stupid and not worth talking to because their spoken vocabulary is small and simple and they're confused by all-verbal languages. It took a really dedicated anthropologist to figure out that they weren't just talking, and then she had some trouble getting any wizards interested in learning to work with their telepathy until I read her book." He rolled his eyes. "It's no longer fashionable to believe that wolfriders are stupid, at least, but people still mostly ignore them."
"There are some similar stereotypes about trolls on Barashi, although they have a perfectly normal language," Rhysel said. "Of course, the trolls confirm some of the things that are said about them anyway."
Narax laughed. "Okay. I think we're all set, now. Shall we?" He got to his feet and extended a hand to Rhysel.
She took it in hers, and Narax cast the teleportation spell.
Their destination was extremely chilly; Rhysel was buffeted across the face by a cold wind and began heating the air in a thin envelope around her body. The pair of them were standing hand in hand on a rocky outcropping over a gently sloped tundra, spotted with irregular patches of grasses and lichens. There was no sign of habitation that Rhysel could detect. "How do we find them?" she asked.
"Well," he said, "they're not here, so next I take a guess as to who I've met will still be with the pack I want to introduce you to, and follow the empathic signature." At Rhysel's blank look, he explained: "If I read someone's emotions I also know where they're coming from. Direction, not distance, so I don't know how long a flight it'll be, but we can find my friend Rolu thataway." He pointed, then finally released Rhysel's hand to step back and shift into dragon shape.
"...May I?" Rhysel asked, lifting into the air and unobtrusively activating her defenses to protect from scale scratches, even though she had enough energy to fly for quite some time on her own.
"Go for it," Narax said, tossing his head. "Sit in front of the wing joints, up by my neck."
Rhysel rose higher and deposited herself where he indicated, and was glad of having bought leggings to go under her skirt, as it was not otherwise clear how she could have managed to sit astride. "Hang on," warned Narax, and then he sprang off the rock into the biting air.
Narax flew faster than Rhysel normally cared to spend the energy on, and with a natural aerobaticism that she'd never managed at all. That, plus the fact that she was riding a dragon, was preposterously thrilling and she couldn't resist whooping with delight. Narax laughed at her, good-naturedly. "I'd offer to do a loop, but I'm sure you'd fall off," he called over the shriek of the wind.
"This is amazing already," she shouted back, although she wasn't sure if he heard her, since the air wasn't carrying sound in that direction. In any event, he didn't loop, and she clung to him with her knees as every wingbeat shifted her seat.
After almost a sub in the air by Rhysel's estimate, Narax yelled, "The direction of the signature is angling down; we're close. I'll land in a tick."
He tilted his wings and spiraled in a wide loop to the ground, touching down so gently that Rhysel barely felt a jolt. She floated off of his back and onto the ground herself, though she wobbled for a few steps after the exhilarating flight.
"Rolu!" called Narax, shifting between syllables from dragon to human shape. "It's Narax! I've brought a visitor!"
Rhysel looked around for a structure, but didn't see one. But it turned out the entrance to the dwelling was just angled towards her and on the far side of a rock; presently a young man emerged from it.
To Rhysel, Rolu looked almost like a halfblood, with a dusky parchment tone to his skin and hair as black as Narax's. On his face were dark slate-blue markings, symmetrical on either side and covering the space around his eyebrows and tapered stripes along his cheekbones, as well as a line of circles dotting his jawline. His outfit appeared to be composed entirely of leather and fur, and at his waist he wore a slender sheath from which a bone hilt protruded.
"Hi, Narax," said Rolu amiably. "Who's your girl?" From the same underground hideout emerged a pale wolf the size of a horse, who proved on turning around to have facial marks that matched Rolu's as well as they could on a wolf's face.
"This is Rhysel," Narax said. "Rhysel, Roluro and his wolf Luroro - you use the three-syllable names. How's the pack?"
"Pack's well," said Roluro. "Come in! I haven't seen you for years. You're looking better."
"Could say that," Narax said. "Time helps."
"I can't imagine," Roluro said, shaking his head and leading the pair of them into the cave. It was dark, and Rhysel conjured up a globe of white handfire to see by. Roluro looked at her hands where they hung by her sides, and seemed mildly puzzled, but didn't comment. "I mean, I know it's not the same, but -"
"Rolu," interrupted Narax.
Roluro ignored him. "Know it's not the same as me and Luro, but I don't know how you survived your wife's death, when you were linked in almost the same way."