Chapter Sixteen: Infiltrating
The spring term ended. Talyn was enrolled to start wizarding classes in Rohel - a slimmed-down schedule from his initial crazed excess. But that left him Pehahel to kill, and he couldn't while it away with his girlfriend, because Leekath had obtained a vacation job assisting her aaihhhi in his office and was only available in the late evenings after the work day finally ended.
He was surprised that the government of Esmaar even wanted to employ someone her age for the sometimes fifteen-angle days - without even weekly breaks - that Thiies Hhirheek usually logged, and when she'd first told him about her job, he'd initially assumed that she'd be leaving considerably earlier. He waited three angles for her to get out of the Parliament building on her first day on the job, expecting her to appear at any moment, before she finally emerged well past sunset carrying a stack of documents.
"Couldn't you have left earlier?" he asked her, looking at the paperwork she held. It was tucked into pockets on a long strip of fabric, which was folded between each pocket.
"Yes," she told Talyn, "I could leave before Aaihhhi does, but then I'd have to go home. Fheeil says it's fine if I go out with you after working a full day, but if I'm not going to work as long as Aaihhhi does I should be home making myself useful tutoring or something. I'd rather stay at Parliament."
"Oh," Talyn sighed. "This is going to be a long month."
"You can practice kamai," she soothed. "And hang out with Kaylo, and learn a hundred languages. And I'll have at least a couple angles most days where I'm not working or sleeping. Aaihhhi doesn't literally work all the time."
He didn't waste any more of their truncated evening complaining about her work hours, not when he heard her thoughts buzzing gleefully around the day she'd spent being helpful to her favorite parent.
Talyn was no longer endangered by boredom, thanks to Leekath's intervention in his mindblast-scrambled head. But boredom was also easier to come by with integrated memories. He remembered everything his grandfather had remembered at the time of his death - which included Mastery-level knowledge and centuries of experience in all five aspects of kamai. Talyn could practice the workings, sure, but he knew it all already. He'd been reading a shapeshifting book; a skim of what he'd had left to read revealed nothing he still didn't know. He'd been curious about "clockwork" illusions; he pulled a classic off on his first try without mishap, albeit he then managed to kill four more angles trying to design an original one. The workings he still didn't know were esoteric specialties, and the only esoteric specialty around for him to learn was Rhysel's elemental proxying - which he'd already picked up.
He could pull together a Master working of some kind, he had loads of ideas and now the expertise to back them up, he could graduate from apprentice to Journeyman to Master in one fell swoop the way Kaylo had gotten his Mastery for his CC-transfer working (not that Kaylo could use the title, while he was studying, a fact which the garnet dragon had complained about at some length.)
Talyn could just skip ahead to the end.
And then what? He was still young, and even if the Researchers or the Wanderers or whoever it was coordinating tower assignments thought he could handle a town by himself, it would be in Barashi. Leekath didn't like to be there for very long, unable to cast spells and trapped under twin suns. Talyn was the same age as most of the kamai students at Binaaralav; he could tutor them, but wouldn't purport to stand in front of a class and teach unless he was serving as an emergency substitute, and he didn't like the idea of being a teacher full-time anyway.
Besides, Rhysel wasn't charging him rent for his room, or board for his meals, and she and Aar Camlenn had both gotten adequate at shielding their thoughts.
And he was sure he'd be less bored when wizarding classes started, but that left him with a month of very little Leekath, and no interesting new kamai at his fingertips.
"Think I'll go to Ryganaav again," he said, after Leekath came out of the Parliament building into the dark street to meet him on her second day of work.
"For how long?" she asked. "Not as long as last time, I hope, you promised."
"I'll come back every day to see you - and shower - and sleep in a nice bed and stuff," he assured her. "I'm not going to live ten feet from a camel manure heap again anytime soon. I just want to learn more about the place, and think of something to do with it. Oris is in there, and I feel kind of responsible for her."
"As long as I get to see you when I get out of work," Leekath said, kissing his cheek. She hesitated over her next sentence. "Will you come back tastier again?"
"Yes, I most certainly will," he said gallantly. "How is work?" he asked. He set off in a random direction, just to walk. Daasen was a dense city, full of tall buildings with bridges over the streets and alleys connecting many to their neighbors.
"I'm not doing anything really important," Leekath said, following after him and catching his hand in hers. "Aaihhhi's office pays me, but not much, since I'm not even a graduated wizard yet and that means I'm classified as a 'non-volunteer' - as opposed to a volunteer or a caster. One of the secretaries seems not to like me - maybe because I only have the job since I'm the representative's daughter? - but she hasn't actually done anything."
"What is it you do all day?" Talyn asked. He didn't understand most of the thoughts she harbored about work. They were dense with jargon that was half-opaque even to her, but she knew how each term related to each other and so she could think about things without letting him understand the ideas.
"Mostly I just read law revision proposals and write summaries of them. Committees of representatives write proposed changes - they want to update them in the face of new spell advances, and make everything shorter so police can learn the law, and stuff like that. There's a law in the works to count kamai as a kind of magic for Parliament purposes, so people who are kyma and not wizards or anything can be in the government," she said. "Other people in the office work on foreign policy resolutions and stuff."
That sounded mind-numbingly dull to him, but she liked it - or maybe she just liked being around the only adult relative in her house who treated her at all decently, whether she'd admit that the way the rest of them behaved was awful or not. He changed the subject. "Is there a better way to get to and from Ryganaav repeatedly besides storing up lifeforce in a power box, making a transfer point somewhere in the desert, and then flying wherever I want to go next?" Talyn asked her.
"I could push and call you every time, or you could get a teleportation license," Leekath said. "The second one's probably a better idea. You wouldn't have to wait for me."
"How long does that take?" Talyn asked.
"Since you aren't in wizard school yet it's a six-week course. It doesn't really need to be that long, but people demand that it get longer every time someone has a teleporting accident," Leekath said. "It would still be faster to start a course now than to wait until school starts again and take the class then, but not by very much."
"Ugh," said Talyn. "I think I'll go with the transfer point."
"Okay. I can push you there to begin with, so you don't have to fly all the way there. And you can fly around invisibly to get from place to place, if you aren't trying to actually live there and don't need to be accounted for all the time by the Ryganaavlanik," Leekath said, nodding.
"But I think," Talyn said, pulling her into an embrace, "that I'll put it off until later." He fastened his mouth to hers, expertly avoiding her fangs. <I don't want to miss any time with you I don't have to. I missed you too much last time.>
<I love you,> she sent, a sigh in her mental voice.
<I love you too.>
Leekath drew the circle she needed to push him that evening in his room in Rhysel's tower. The next morning, before teleporting herself and her aaihhhi to work, she stopped in to quickly kiss him goodbye and cast the spell that would fling him into the desert outside of Ryganaav's capital with a backpack full of food and ward stones.
Talyn turned himself invisible, assembled a power box, and flew up and over the walled city of Pridetaal. It sat on a river, and drank greedily from it; the water roared in blue past the north wall and trickled darkly out the other, spidering out on either side into irrigation channels that turned the ring around the city into a stain of green.
He descended over a knot of people and skimmed over them, pulling a little lifeforce, a little lifespan, and all the CC from each one - barely touching them enough for them to notice, though some did detect his brushing past to their scalps and suspect a bird. There were a lot of pale-feathered doves and swift wrens and other birds in the city, nesting on the flat roofs and swiping scraps of food from the omnipresent shouting street vendors.
When the power box was full enough to make a transfer point, Talyn sailed over the outer wall again. It was a hot day, but the river sucked some warmth out of the air, and flying quickly left Talyn reasonably comfortable.
He picked a spot that wasn't too close to the well-trafficked water or the worker-populated farms, and landed in the sand, where he sat and set down the power box. It wasn't generally a good idea to make transfer points via power box, but it could be done, and it was a better idea than trying to bring a bunch of Esmaarlanik to Ryganaav or kidnapping some locals to tap. The former would lecture him about how insane he was, the latter would probably be murdered by their friends.
Besides, Revenn had known how to make a transfer point from a box.
Talyn outlined the spot he wanted in a his-eyes-only illusion, for focus. No one was nearby, but if he knocked himself out and someone showed up while he was sleeping off the drain, he didn't want to be near suspicious-looking fire-writing or anything else that would appear as devil-powers. With the circle demarcated, he set about creating the point.
Sand was harder to work with than he'd anticipated - neither he nor Revenn had ever made a transfer point in unsolid ground before - and he did slip asleep after the point was made. When he woke up, he had the beginnings of a mild sunburn and he was terribly thirsty, but he was still unobserved in his little valley of dunes, and his magic had vitrified a column of sand rather than work with the loose grains.
He didn't think a glass cylinder would go unmolested for long, even in a relatively secluded spot on the dunes, so he buried the transfer point - it would work through a few inches of sand just fine, and he could see it from miles away if he opened his kamai senses. Then he swigged most of the water he'd brought, and devoured all of the food.
Talyn tested the transfer point, hopping back to Rhysel's tower and then out into the desert again.
That was that.
He had several angles to spend in Pridetaal before it was time to jump to Daasen and meet his girlfriend.
Talyn dismissed the illusion around the border of the new point. He sucked the last power out of the box, which he'd been unable to draw on any further after committing to the working. That perked him up enough that he could reassume his invisibility and fly back to the city.
The walls wrapped around Pridetaal completely - the river was allowed through a barred section, not an outright gap. Talyn made a circuit and found six gates, all heavily guarded by men who ranged from lazy shadow-watchers to fervently paranoid warriors expecting leonine attacks at any moment.
Talyn flew over the walls again, and started looking for the high priest.
That was why he'd picked Pridetaal: it housed the center of the religion that locked the entire nation into its murderous, misogynistic culture. The best way to change the whole country had to involve starting with the man who ran the faith.
The high priest, Talyn learned by listening to the thoughts of Pridetaalanik, lived in the vast Temple of Makas and His Sons. The Temple was near the center of the city, overlooking a yard swarming with gardeners keeping it watered and trimmed. Its terraced walls were carved with images of historical priests and martyrs of note, and passages from the holy text the Yaanorel in half-legible script, and the symbols of each of the five gods. Makas's was a spiral, more snugly spaced on the left than the right. The gods of the four elements had corresponding signs - a square for the earth god, a droplet for the water god, a three-pointed flame for the fire god, and a stylized tornado for the air god.
Talyn landed, still cloaked in illusion, and waited until no one was looking before swiping a honeyed pastry off an offering table. He wasn't clear on what happened to the offerings that weren't taken by invisible kyma; nothing on the table looked stale, though it sat under the hot sun. Another moment of collective inattention netted him a leg of squab, and then he moved on into the temple.
The temple had five wings, with one for each elemental god arranged squarishly; the courtyard cut into the forward pair and the largest wing, for Makas himself, carved out part of the rear two.
Talyn started with a tour of the ground floor, although listening to the thoughts of gathered clerics and worshipers suggested that he'd only find more offering tables and prayer rooms and libraries of theology, not the priestly living quarters. Those were upstairs.
Eventually Talyn located the stairs. They were guarded, but not by anyone who could see him. He ran between them and up the wide, shallow steps.
The high priest's family was huge. He had sixteen wives, who were milling about the living space of the temple idly - the temple's work was looked after by servants and lesser priests, and they were forbidden from religious work of their own, so apart from talking to each other and minding the younger of the high priest's eighty-odd children, they had little to do.
The children were stairstepped in ages from thirty-nine to infancy. Most were between the ages of ten and twenty - Talyn's inquisitive mindreading revealed that the high priest had ascended to that position at age fifty, and prior to said promotion had only had three wives, two of those early ones since deceased. He was now pushing seventy years of age, but had enjoyed a decade's window of both excess spouses and sufficient vigor to enjoy them.
All of the sons above the age of fifteen were priests, scattered throughout Pridetaal's lesser dioceses and neighboring towns and vying for approval to be next in line when their father died; all of the daughters sixteen and older (so old only to allow prolonged bidding wars) were married to unrelated priests, similarly distributed. The younger children still lived in the temple, with the wives, studying the Yaanorel as soon as they were old enough to read.
Talyn didn't find the high priest himself on the floor of living quarters. So he went up to the steepled top, bypassing the spiral stairs that climbed its walls in favor of flying directly through the center towards the pointed roof.
And there was grey-bearded vi'Yan Rylaatin the Third, standing on the balcony of the spire with closed eyes and folded hands, stooped with age and bowed with prayer.
Talyn sat on the low wall that surrounded the open floor of the tower, and listened to the man who ruled Ryganaav think.
Unlike the priests Talyn had listened to in Egalon, the high priest literally heard the voices of the gods in his head.
Revenn had known what spots to check in a mind for mental illness. Just for kicks, Talyn checked. The high priest was as scrambled as eggs, and he ruled a nation, had every trapping of status heaped on him, was considered holy for the delusions he attended to. Meanwhile Leekath heard voices that spoke the truth - that gave her real information and real power - and she was widely considered sick, she escaped institutionalization only via harmlessness.
Talyn took a moment to convince himself that it would not be the best way to change Ryganaav if he just set the illustrious vi'Yan on fire.
He went back to listening to the old man's prayers. Outbreak of disease in a northern province; suddenly aggressive "fish-devils" finding ways to attack coastal settlements; the ever-present threats of leonines and drought; his eternal fear of "moral decay" among his people - these were the things he sought guidance for. The five voices that sounded in his head said what he expected them to say. They spoke mostly in scriptures, reciting general principles that Rylaatin could apply on his own.
At sunset, the vi'Yan went down the spiraling stairs, still unaware of Talyn, and mulled over the results of his prayers so that he would be able to condense them and deliver them to his subordinates. His words would spread quickly through Pridetaal, subsequently downriver, slower up it, and at a caravan pace everywhere else. He usually didn't have anything new to say - the text of the Yaanorel hadn't changed in hundreds of years - but regular reaffirmations of the articles of faith were traded to and from Pridetaal anyway as a means of keeping cohesion.
If his messengers brought back news that anyone wasn't reacting appropriately to his dictates, he could assemble a small military party and take care of that.
Talyn watched Rylaatin have dinner with his wives and those of his children who still lived in the temple, and he paced, and he thought.
A standard personality modification wouldn't work with a mentally ill person - not one this thoroughly wedded to the voices he heard, anyway. Talyn could probably cure the illness, if he spent a while in the Repository reading books on it - treatment hadn't been a specialty of Revenn's, only enough diagnosis that he could refer people to specialists, but it was learnable. That was the standard procedure on the criminally insane in Restron.
But if the voices went away the vi'Yan would assume he was meant to step down and leave power to his oldest son or whoever else he considered suitable. A cure and then a personality change would do the trick if Ryganaavlanik weren't so damnably suspicious, such that half a dozen of Rylaatin's sons would be ready to suggest that their father was senile and that they should send him to retire and install one of their generation in the Temple -
And Talyn hated personality revisions anyway.
He was due back in Daasen to meet Leekath. If he hadn't had a better idea by the time he returned to Pridetaal the next day...
He was going to start writing a book.
<Your plan is to write a sequel to the Yaanorel?> Leekath asked skeptically.
<The first one doesn't have enough okay material in it, or I'd just lean on that. I mean, it tells them to cooperate with each other and look after their kids and stuff, but the justifications are all awful. So I'm going to write a new book that has some resemblance to the old one so people will buy it - same nice instructions, no nasty justifications - and then tones down the awful parts. I can probably get them to just send kids with magic out into the desert, and then there could be some charity from Esmaar or wherever that picks them up...>
<That didn't work very well with Oris.>
<Okay, granted, but that's because no one knew how to handle her and because she didn't realize she had devil-powers. If there were a bunch of kids like that, and their towns turned them out so they couldn't be in denial, and a charity that was devoted to helping them that could figure out what they needed, I bet it'd work better. And anyway, it's better than the poor kids dying.>
<I guess. Can I bite you?>
It had been only three days since the last time she'd fed, and he heard a frission of guilt about what she thought of as her greed, even given the fact that he could now replenish his blood. But she wanted the taste. And he liked that she wanted the taste. And it was going to be better than ever, after he'd lopped off the likely-unusable decade from the end of the lives of much of Pridetaal.
<Go for it,> he said magnanimously.
Leekath didn't need any more encouragement; she broke off the kiss and brushed her lips across his face and down his throat to where he bore healing bitemarks. She renewed them.
<Mmmm,> she sighed at him.
Talyn stroked Leekath's hair. It looked lustrous under the faint ceiling-glow Aar Camlenn had added to all of the rooms in Rhysel's tower. "And once I've gotten them to tone it down that much," he said, "in a few years I can do another book that takes it a step further, and so on, until they're decently-behaved."
"Mm," she hummed aloud.
"I probably need to add bits to the story parts of the Yaanorel. It's got long parts about how Makas made the other four gods, and made humans, and how the gods rained blessings on their people but the people hoarded the blessings. How do you hoard a blessing? In a jar, it said. And then apparently they coalesced into an adversary figure, Koraalin. Do you think it's too soon to write in that the Koraalin is dead now and they can relax?"
"Dunno," breathed Leekath. He was still petting her hair; she was half-awake. Until he put his hand down he might as well be talking to himself. But she was tired anyway, after drinking.
"I'll need to re-read the original," Talyn murmured, undoing the ponytail she had part of her hair in so he could run his fingers down her scalp unimpeded. "So I can match the style. I really only skimmed it when I was in Egalon..."
Talyn closed his eyes and held her quietly.
In his head, he started outlining the book.