Chapter Four: Togetherness

Rhysel's first thought was that something was the matter with her spell, any of the three but probably the one for the wolfriders in particular - but the look on Narax's face said otherwise. He was gazing at the ceiling, corners of his mouth pulled down.

"You and Samia were mindlinked, too?" Rhysel asked quietly.

"We were," confirmed Narax distantly. "After, I was something of a wreck for - well, a long time. Occasionally I'm still a wreck. It's... hard to be without, once you've had it."

"He says that," said Roluro, "but he's alive! He's a miracle."

"Rolu, please," said Narax. "We're here to visit and show Rhysel what it's like here. My miraculousness is - is nonexistent, anyway, because as you said it's not the same as a wolfrider bond, and even if it were existent it wouldn't be a comfortable topic."

"Fine, fine," said Roluro. One of the rider's hands reached behind him to bury in the fur on his wolf's neck. Luroro, who made Rhysel double-take every time she looked in his direction because wolves were not supposed to be that big, butted his forehead into Rolu's shoulder gently. "What'd you want to see, Rhysel?"

"I'm told you sing?" said Rhysel. This was nearly all of what she'd been told and she'd been expecting Narax to play the tour guide. Perhaps he'd been expecting it too, but Roluro had gone and derailed Narax's train of thought. If it weren't for Keo and Kanaat, Rhysel would have thought everyone Narax knew made a habit of bringing up Samia on every possible occasion.

"We do!" said Roluro cheerfully. "Later in the day, though. We were planning to visit the Ri, after supper, and we will certainly sing with them. Do you sing yourself?"

Rhysel's eyes began to adjust to the dim light in the cave provided by indirect sunshine and her floating ball of handfire; she made out a dozen more riders and a dozen wolves to match scattered around the space. The riders were all dressed up, and some curled against their wolves as though cold, but there wasn't a fire lit. Rhysel didn't know if that was because they didn't need it, or didn't have the fuel, or didn't want to use up the oxygen in the cave. (If that was even how fire worked in this existence.) "No," she said, recovering from her distraction and looking back at Roluro. "But I come from a musical family and love to listen."

"What are your talents, then?" asked Roluro. "You have some kind of magic I've not heard of - not quite a mage, not quite a light, not quite a wizard like Narax, what are you?"

"I'm a kama," she said. "I, um, work with earth and air and fire and water. That," she said, pointing to the ball of white light, "is just part of fire, not all of it. Just the light, not the heat or the burning of fuel."

"Like all four kinds of mage?" Roluro inquired, peering with renewed interest at the handfire. "At the same time? Did you have to die?"

"I beg your pardon?" Rhysel asked.

"Yes, somewhat like all four kinds of mage," said Narax. "Rhysel, mages are an element-controlling magic user, one element per person. The potential's inborn for some people, but doesn't activate until the element in question would otherwise get them killed somehow, for instance a potential fire mage almost dying in a fire."

"Oh. No, I didn't have to die," Rhysel said.

"Can you teach it?" he asked eagerly, lifting a hand towards the light as though inclined to touch it but pausing before making contact.

"You can touch the handfire; it's harmless," she said, and he combed his fingers through the flame, interrupting the light but not otherwise affecting it. "I don't think I can teach you. For one thing, I don't have my Mastery qualification yet; I'm only a Journeyman. I'm not allowed to take students. And even if I broke that rule, you need to have the ability to use kamai before you can learn any workings. I don't think anyone here is likely to have it. I can check, I suppose."

"Yes, please," said Roluro. "What do you need to do?"

"Just touch you," she said, and he stepped closer and she placed her fingertips on his forehead, looking for the conduit between his lifeforce and his mind that would let him use kamai, if he were a kama. It was absent. "I'm sorry," she said. "You're not capable of kamai."

"Oh, well," sighed Roluro. His wolf drooped behind him.

"I don't know if this will be a consolation," Rhysel said, "but - to qualify for Mastery - I was working on reverse-engineering an old ritual that supposedly would have been able to infuse anyone with kamai ability. Maybe, if I ever get back to my research and finish it, I can come back and do that for you."

"It sounds very useful," Roluro said. "We have few mages - there are no wizards here, except when Narax visits, to tell us who can be one and who can't. So trying to have more mages would be very deadly and there are only sometimes accidents that cause them. Narax was helpful when he was last here, checking many of us for potential, but then that's rare to begin with. He found one potential water mage, in the Sa pack, and that was all. And they took her to the shore and drowned her and now she's very useful, but it would be good if there were more."

Rhysel twitched at the casual mention of drowning a girl, but, given the implication that she'd survived, changed the subject instead of complaining. "Do you all live in packs?" The people in the cave were boys Roluro's age or younger, but all postpubescent.

"After our wolves are riding size, and until we get married," said Roluro. "Children live with their families while the young wolves can't yet carry their bondmates, and adults go back to their families when they're ready to have children of their own."

"So," said Narax thoughtfully, "is there a reason you're going to visit the Ri in particular today?"

Roluro laughed. "Yeah. Me and Luro, and those two -" he pointed at a pair on the far end of the cave, who looked older than anyone in the pack but Roluro and his wolf themselves. The rider of the indicated pair was sewing closed a hole in something leather. "We're seeing pairs from the Ri. There's also two pairs of us courting La girls, but we saw them day before yesterday, so it's our turn now."

"I'm going to have trouble keeping these names straight," murmured Rhysel.

"Just call everyone by three syllables, oos and ohs for guys and ees and ahs for girls, and they'll correct you on the details," Narax muttered back. "In their language there's telepathic backchannel decoration on everything and it doesn't sound so... monotonous."

Rhysel nodded once, and then Roluro clapped his hands. "So. Time to break open the freezer for dinner. Kono, Noko, Ozu, Zuo!" he called, beckoning two riders and their wolves to follow him out. "Narax, want to make yourself useful and do the cooking?"

"You cook?" Rhysel asked him, following the group outside to watch.

The left corner of Narax's mouth quirked upward. "Yes, actually, but he means he wants me to breathe fire on the meat. Saves on fuel."

The three pairs moved aside a stone that covered a pit in the ground, and then Roluro and the other two riders descended the narrow stairs that led down and came out carrying what looked like deer parts. Rhysel thought it might be enough to account for an entire deer, and a large one at that. They laid everything directly on the ground with a third of the meat apart from the rest of it. ("I can clean yours off by magic if you want, but it's safe without," Narax said in her ear.) Then the dragon resumed his natural shape and everyone stood back.

Narax breathed fire that was as jade as his scales. Gentle bursts, swept back and forth as he swayed his head, defrosted all of the meat in a short time. The riders and wolves started ferrying the greater portion into the cave at that point, and Narax went on heating the smaller amount, presumably for the riders to eat while the wolves preferred it undercooked.

Narax turned over the meat once with a foreclaw, unharmed by the heat, and cooked the other side before cutting off the stream of jade fire with a snap of his jaws. He shifted again. "Let's eat," he said, clapping his hands together once. "I'm starving."

Roluro and another rider who came out to help sliced off pieces of the meat with the bone blades they carried, and Roluro also cut pieces for Rhysel and Narax. She pulled a fist-sized rock off the ground and shaped it into a plate, though she willingly ate with her bare hands once she had the food set down on her makeshift dish.

"Neat trick," Narax said.

"Do you want one?" Rhysel asked. "There are more rocks handy."

"Nah, I got used to this last time I was here," Narax said, taking a bite out of his piece. "I was hanging around these guys for, what three months? Four? Not these exact ones, this was years ago and most of the pack from then is married now and most of the ones here now are new since then." They started to meander back into the cave, as the pile of meat dwindled at the hands of hungry riders.

"And that was before I had my house," Narax continued, "so I couldn't just teleport home - I mean, I could go visit my parents or Keo or our sister Vara, but I didn't like to do that too much. Neris had an apartment then that barely had enough room for her if she spent all day as an ant, so I didn't like to impose on her."

"Neris turns into an ant?" Rhysel asked after finishing her bite of caribou. It was plain, but tasty.

"She can turn into any number of things. She's a sapphire - blue-group dragons get extra shapes - and she's an unusual, which means she's like Keo, only less so and for blue-group powers instead of green-group ones. She can learn all the forms she wants. I don't actually know if she has an ant form," he said thoughtfully, pursing his lips. "But she'll take one as soon as someone suggests it to her."

Rhysel sat on the floor of the cave, nibbling on her food, and listened to the conversation swirl around her. The riders did all the talking, by necessity, but the wolves weren't silent: not only did they have a surprisingly expressive range of body language, they barked and whined and made laughter-like noises, and half of everything their corresponding riders said referred to wolf opinions and wolf thoughts.

Roluro sat near her and Narax. Glancing again at the handfire, he said, "Where did you learn your magic?"

"From my Master. Revenn Casten," said Rhysel, voice full of affection. "He was a brilliant teacher. I studied under him for eleven years before I achieved Journeyman status and moved out."

"Moved out?" Narax asked. "You lived with your teacher?"

"Most apprentices do," Rhysel answered. "Sometimes they don't, especially if their families live near their Masters, but my Master lives across the continent from my parents." She paused. "Of course, there are transfer points, but I couldn't use those immediately. And... I don't visit my family very much, even now. Or rather, even at the time right before I was summoned." She sighed. "At least they won't be worried about me if I get home within a few months. I think Ryll at least - my oldest sister - will want to know what became of me if I'm not back in a year."

"Why did you travel so far to study?" Roluro wanted to know.

Rhysel flushed and looked down. "I had... unusual needs, early on. I wasn't born with kamai ability. I'm what's called a 'spontaneous' kama. We get our ability suddenly, later than usual - and we can't control it at all without a lot of training. It took me a year to reliably manage even handfire, without accidentally raining on everyone in the room with me, or breaking the windows, or dissolving a wall on the tower into sand. Most people can do handfire perfectly on their first day of trying, if not the first try. My parents originally didn't want to send me to learn kamai at all, they wanted me to stay at home and keep apprenticing with my father at sculpture, but... I destroyed a lot of things. I almost hurt my family, several times. So they finally did decide to send me away, but they had to search pretty far afield to find a Master who'd take me. I was lucky, though. He's a great, great man, and a fantastic teacher, and I'm still friends with most of the people who were apprenticed with him at the same time as me."

Roluro and Luroro gave her twin stares. "You're safe now, right?" Roluro asked.

"Right," she said. "I'm controlled now. As long as I don't get even slightly drunk." She shuddered, recalling the experiment that had yielded that information.

"Oh, there goes my idea of taking you to a wine tasting on a tropical island," said Narax, snapping his fingers. "Darn."

Rhysel giggled. "Did you actually have that idea before, or did you just make it up?"

"I just made it up," Narax admitted. "They do make nice wines in Moyet... but you know what, they also make nice cheese. We can go eat cheese in Moyet instead."

"All right," laughed Rhysel. "I have no objections to cheese."

"What's 'cheese'?" Roluro asked, and Rhysel sat back and listened while Narax explained cows, domestication, milking, and curdling to his puzzled but rapt friend.

After her food was all gone and she'd decided that she didn't need seconds, Rhysel melded her plate with the wall of the cave, leaving smooth stone behind. Roluro watched this, fascinated. "Is that hard to do?" he asked.

"No," she said. "Why? Do you want me to smooth over the rest of the cave?"

"I was thinking perhaps the floor," Roluro said. "We're pretty good at not tripping, but it'd be easier if it were even, and more comfortable."

"Sure," Rhysel said.

"Do we need to get out of the way?" Roluro asked, half-standing; Luroro, who lounged nearby, straightened his forelegs and sat up.

"Not if I do it slowly," Rhysel said. "Might be a good idea for everyone to be sitting..." She peered around in the half-light her handfire afforded, confirming that everyone was in fact sitting or lying down, and then she leaned forward and planted both palms on the ground. Smoothness languidly rippled away from her hands, coating the floor of the cave even under the inhabitants. One of the wolves nosed the flat stone and barked approvingly at her.

Rhysel lifted her hands, and sagged with effort. "There," she said.

"Thanks!" exclaimed Roluro. "This is great. You look... tired."

"I am," she said. "I'll be fine in a sub. It wasn't that draining, but it wasn't trivial like the handfire, either." She sat back and monitored her power levels, rising with the slow creep of natural recharge and the faster replenishment from pulling energy out of the world around her.

"Whenever you're ready," Roluro said, raising his voice to make it an announcement to the pack instead of just a statement to Rhysel, "we'll head for Ri territory."

The likelihood that she'd get to travel on dragonback to get there perked Rhysel up as much as the renewal of magical reserves did. She drew herself to her feet, avoided leaning on the wall, and said, "I'm all set."

The pack trooped out of the cave in uncanny unison; Rhysel wondered if they could also use their backchannel without words, to coordinate like that. Outside, each rider vaulted onto his wolf. Rhysel noted the variance in sizes - younger riders were smaller than older ones, but not by as much as younger wolves differed from older wolves. Younger children would be unable to travel on wolfback for long.

"Ahem," said Narax, and she turned to see that he'd already shifted. She laughed, activated the necessary magic, and wafted up onto his back. He grinned toothily and leapt into the air.

The wolves were fast even burdened with their bondmates, but compared to how rapidly Narax had traveled before, he was maintaining a sedate pace to follow them. The wind was quiet enough that she thought he'd be able to hear her if she spoke.

"How long will we stay up here?" she asked loudly.

"I was thinking we'd leave either shortly before they get ready to go to sleep, or tomorrow morning if you wanted to stay the night," Narax called back. "I have a guestroom in my house, to which you are welcome and in which you may be more comfortable than on even a magically remodeled cave floor."

"All right," said Rhysel agreeably. "As long as I get to hear singing first."

"There'll be no shortage," Narax promised.

After a while on the run, the wolves began to howl loudly. It was mostly Luroro, but occasionally others chimed in, harmonizing with keening calls. In reply, there were softer, more distant howls, and the pack angled to follow them where they beckoned. The rest of the journey was brief, and soon Roluro's pack was greeted by a young girl mounted on a wolf of her own coming out of an aboveground house made of sod. She appeared startled to see Narax approaching from the air with the pack, and her wolf backed up two steps, barking.

Narax landed neatly on all four feet, let Rhysel off, and then shifted, smiling broadly. "Sorry to alarm you," he called to the female pair. The first few Ro boys halted and dismounted while the slower ones caught up. "I didn't know I was going to be up here myself until recently."

"I've heard of you!" exclaimed the rider girl, and her wolf wagged her tail, just once. "You're the dragon who the Ro adopted, nine years ago. Some of the older pack sisters have met you. But you have some terribly long name I can't remember."

"I don't use the whole name," he laughed, which saved Rhysel having to wonder how two syllables constituted length. "Just call me Narax."

"Okay," said the girl. "I'm Kanari, and this is Nakari." She patted her wolf on the head when speaking the second name. "We welcome you, adopted of the Ro, in the name of our pack the Ri." Kanari then turned her gaze to Rhysel and tipped her head. "Who are you?"

"Rhysel," answered Rhysel. "I'm just visiting, with Narax."

"Ooh," said Kanari, clearly taking more from this statement than Rhysel had intended to convey, but instead of commenting she just said, "We welcome you, visitor to the Ro, in the name of our pack the Ri. You can all come in," she said, raising her voice to indicate that she spoke to all the Ro as well as to Narax and Rhysel.

The dwelling was only partly aboveground; it had a dug-out basement, reached by a spiraling ramp large enough to accommodate even the biggest wolves. No one was on the ground floor at all. "So what's your actual name?" Rhysel asked Narax, as they went down into the darkness. She conjured a new globe of handfire, much to the interest of Kanari and Nakari.

"Naraxalar­tsukeraemershao­kerialnersamro," he rattled off fluently, as they reached the bottom of the ramp and stood aside to let the Ro flow in. "First two syllables are my personal name, second two are my line name - sort of like a surname, but not really - and the ones after that are syllables I've been given by friends and family members who I'm close to."

"Given? They don't have them anymore?" Rhysel asked.

He laughed. "They do. I just copied them. The way it works is I ask someone for a syllable, and then they say my entire name with the one they want to give me tacked on. Uh," he added, "never ask a dragon about whether they want or plan to ask for one from you. There's magic attached to dragon names, and syllable-adding only works if it's entirely the idea of the dragon in question."

"I won't," Rhysel promised. "Can I ask where your syllables came from?"

"In order," said Narax, "my mother, Keo and our sister Vara, a bunch of friends I had when I was a kid interspersed with a couple cousins, Neris, Samia, and Rolu - but I asked him because he could give me the same syllable as the pack's, and they were adopting me and that's normally when one adds a pack syllable their own way." His eye twitched when he spoke Samia's name, but it didn't seem to bring him down as decisively as it did when someone else brought her up first.

"Not your father?" she asked.

"Couldn't get one from him - he conferred the line name, 'Alar'," Narax explained. "Keo and Vara don't have one from our mother, same reason."

"Hey," said Roluro, padding over to where Narax and Rhysel stood, "Rhysel. We're going to sing."

"Ooh," she said, lighting up and sitting down to watch. Narax sat with her, and around the cavern the riders and wolves were forming a snug circle. Roluro strode to the open center, Luroro staying behind to lounge on the floor and look at his rider. One of the Ri girls, Roluro's age, got up to join him - her wolf trotted across the circle to lounge against Luroro, but was obviously not part of the song.

At no signal Rhysel could see, Roluro and his girlfriend launched into perfectly twinned harmony.

Rhysel listened raptly while they sang. The lyrics - rendered comprehensible, if non-rhyming, by the translation spell - were about some legendary romance, each singer taking the part of the participants of the matching gender. (Rhysel had already had an inkling that wolfriders could not do otherwise than marry in pairs, and the song confirmed it.) Roluro and the girl were both good singers. Not the best she'd heard, but the best she'd heard in a while, and they contributed a fair amount of feeling to the love song too. Their wolves had developed a habit of licking each other's faces when Rhysel next glanced in that direction.

The song ended, and Roluro dipped his girlfriend and kissed her deeply before leading her away from the center of the circle while she giggled. The youngest Ri girl, eleven years old if riders aged like people on Barashi, sang a solo next, and then two of the Ro boys duetted, and then three girls and a boy - Rhysel was dizzy with music, grinning from ear to ear.

"You look happy," Narax murmured in her ear between songs.

"I am. This is wonderful," she whispered back, beaming.

"I'm glad you're having a good time," he replied.

"Go on, just kiss her, Narax," crowed Kanari, who was standing up to take the center of the circle. "She obviously wants you to!"

Narax stared at Kanari, completely poleaxed. Rhysel felt a flush creeping up her face and suspected she looked red as a tomato; she was tempted to let her handfire wink out. It wasn't that she didn't like the idea, but apart from one comment on her hair that could have meant anything, she had no evidence that Narax felt anything but friendly and sympathetic towards her. Especially given her unfamiliarity with the culture in Elcenia.

The dragon was still gaping in astonishment at the rider girl, who was starting to look uncomfortable about having blurted out the suggestion. Kanari shrank, and turned aside and started to sing.

Rhysel left her handfire where it was, but she called up her air magic too, and flew along the ramp to the outside.

"Rhysel!" Narax called as she broke out into the setting sun's light. "Where are you going?"

"Just - out," she said. "I was embarrassed." She paused. "I guess you knew that."

"I wasn't trying to read you," he said. "Even if I was, empathy's an imprecise instrument - it'd tell me what you feel, but not why or even what you're feeling it about. Relying on it for anything complicated is a bad idea."

"So you really were surprised, then," Rhysel said softly, "when Kanari said that?"

"Well, I would've been surprised that she said it, even if you were going around wearing a sign that said 'I think me and Narax should kiss now'. And if wolfriders could read. But yeah, I was also taken somewhat aback by the idea itself."

"I wish she hadn't pointed it out," said Rhysel.

Narax blinked and tilted his head at the phrasing. "Pointed it out?" he said. "Not, 'made it up' or 'hallucinated' or -"

"No," said Rhysel, flushing deeper and turning away.

There was a silence, and then Narax said, "If you ask Neris, I'm emotionally unavailable, have no direction in life, and am incapable of smiling with both sides of my mouth at the same time."

"I didn't ask Neris," said Rhysel.

He hesitated again. The wind whistled in Rhysel's ears.

"Rhysel," he said, and she turned around to find him standing somewhat closer.

Close enough to cradle her face in his hands, lean down three inches, and kiss her.

Rhysel had not made a habit of kissing people before.

It was not, quite, her first kiss. Eryn had laid one on her, back before she acknowledged that Rhysel was never going to be attracted to women and decided that she only wanted to be Rhysel's blood sister; there had been a brief relationship in her teens, with a boy from her hometown, before she manifested kamai and started blowing things up and he'd been too afraid of her to even hear her attempt at a goodbye; the same party at which Rhysel had gotten tipsy for the first and last time had featured her plastering her face against Corvan's while he shouted in mindspeak that he did not appreciate that, especially not while her hair was on fire.

But she very much enjoyed kissing Narax, and while she suspected she wasn't very good at it, he didn't seem inclined to stop her to issue corrections on her technique so much as he seemed inclined to toy with the end of her braid and wrap one arm around her waist.

Then he pulled away, looking - annoyed? His mouth formed words, but no sound came out. It looked to Rhysel like the whisper spell he'd used with Neris before; someone presumably had bad timing and was contacting him. Possibly he couldn't talk to anyone except the caller on the other end while the spell was active. She didn't blame him. She swayed a bit on the spot, waiting patiently.

Rhysel's translation spell made people's mouths match up with what their words sounded like to her. She wasn't a skilled lipreader, but she could make out a few words. "Neris" and "time" and "Rhysel". It looked like he was telling off his friend for bothering him.

Then Narax's face went utterly ashen and his eyes widened.

"Narax?" asked Rhysel.

He didn't even look at her.

He just cast the teleportation spell, mouth forming the familiar shapes to accompany the gesture even as no sound came out, and disappeared.

Rhysel stood in place, stunned. She reached forward, as though he might have become invisible for some reason and not vanished, but her hand met empty air. He was gone.

She sank to the ground, and waited. Quite likely there was some emergency at his home. His house was on fire, or a wild animal was eating Onion, or Rellen had come back from the dead for revenge. She wasn't in immediate danger or anything. He would come back at any moment.

After the sun had dipped below the horizon, one of the wolves peeked out of the sod house to see what was going on. She waved the wolf away and he retreated underground again. <Keo?> she tried.

<What is it?> Keo replied promptly, and Rhysel released tension she hadn't known was there about the idea that she'd be stranded in the tundra with no way to get to civilization. However much she liked the wolfriders, she didn't like to think of living with them full time for the rest of her life.

<Narax... disappeared,> Rhysel thought back. <I think Neris whisper-spelled him, but I don't know what she said. He just teleported away.>

Keo was silent for a moment, and then said, <Neris is going to trace his teleportation spell and fetch you. She'll bring you to the school. The room you were using is still open. Everything will be fine.>

<I don't understand what's happened!> protested Rhysel.

<I'm very sorry, Rhysel, but I have just become extremely busy and I can't talk. Neris will be there in a tick.>

Rhysel flopped onto her back on the ground, staring up at the sky while the stars winked into existence. The constellations were unfamiliar.

When she thought of that, it sparked a little flare of hysteria somewhere in her ribcage, and she realized Narax wasn't even calming her anymore. Even though he could do that from any distance.

Neris popped into place right where Narax had stood, her bright hair visible against the darkness even under starlight. "Ready to go back to Paraasilan?" she asked, bending down to hold out a hand to Rhysel.

Rhysel sat up. "What's going on?" she demanded, not taking Neris's hand immediately.

"Samia is alive," said Neris shortly, and then she touched Rhysel's forehead and cast the teleportation spell.