Chapter Thirty: Distracting
"How did Annei escape?" cried Leekath.
"It's my fault," Rhysel admitted.
"What did you do?"
Rhysel winced. "She was going stir-crazy. She wasn't even faking, she was really having serious problems. I asked her again if she'd rather be knocked out and she said no, again, and I asked if there was anything I could do, and she said she had to be outside and talk to people who weren't - and then she was very insulting."
"You didn't just -"
"I had her sent to Barashi," Rhysel said, shaking her head. "I didn't let her out of the citadel to somewhere she'd be able to teleport away! I went with her, but I gave her space. Too much, apparently."
"She wasn't anywhere near the circle, was she?" Leekath exclaimed.
"No. It was a tiny town in Aristan. But she went straight to the Watch and told them - I don't even know what she told them. I was informed that I wasn't allowed to take her with me."
Leekath stared. "So you left her there. On purpose. Just have whoever sent her undo the spell and -"
Rhysel groaned. "Aristan has a legitimate, non-evil government, with legitimate, non-evil asylum treaties it made with Esmaar before the takeover. My sister's in the Senate, for crying out loud -"
"So talk to your sister -"
"I can't, for her own protection, she can't know about this business. They're in an ongoing diplomatic mess with Linnip about Esmaar's status already. Apparently that means that they're willing to keep Annei there. They're not sending her home, they're keeping her in a sort of custody. But I'm sure she'll figure out a way to communicate with Linnip. She knows just about nothing - she's never seen any of our real faces and has no way to have an accurate count of how many of us there are. But it means we can't trade her."
"Who sent her?" Leekath asked quietly.
Rhysel pursed her lips, then said, "I don't think I'd better tell you."
"But it's someone who cares more about Aristan's asylum laws than about Talyn."
"Leekath, please, calm down. We're all happy to defy Linnip. Aristan is another matter. That decision has been made, Annei's in Aristanian protective custody, and that's the end of it. We'll come up with something else do to about Talyn."
"Well, she was lower-ranked than the other one anyway," said Leekath, recalculating furiously. She was no longer by any stretch of the imagination Rhysel's friend, but Rhysel was still offering her aid as a limited-purpose ally, and Leekath would be foolish not to take it. "Can we try to trade Liria for Talyn?"
"We can try," Rhysel sighed.
Figuring out how to negotiate with Linnip safely was not easy. Ultimately, Annei proved to be a resource: they could send letters directly to the little house Aristan had provided her to take asylum in, and she passed them along after confirming with her government that they were willing to entertain proposals.
It took days before Leekath realized that they simply did not value Liria Meialek-rimei highly enough to give up their rebel innate kama prisoner for her.
"Well," Leekath said. "We'll just have to keep kidnapping people, then, until -"
"No," Rhysel said. "That's just going to make things worse, and put more of our people in harm's way. Without the geas on him, Talyn could get out of almost any tight corner one way or another. The rest of us don't have that kind of power. Leekath, I know you're particularly partial to Talyn. I am too - he's my apprentice, however little he actually learns from me. But I think we should take one of these hints -" She gestured at letters from the Linnipese military. "Which suggest that they'd take Liria in exchange for Emryl."
Leekath liked Emryl, had liked her from the first time they'd met in Revenn's tower, but she needed Talyn. She'd only managed to stretch out her time between feedings to two days. If she tried waiting longer, she became so miserable that she started cutting corners on secrecy when making a run for the compartment. So two days it was. Even taking a drop at a time to redouble and multiply for an entire feeding, she would eventually run out.
And she was so lonely without him.
Khi was too busy for her to make regular visits, her aaihhhi was comatose, she couldn't stand her sister, she hated being around her fheeil. Her ordinary, non-rebel teachers and classmates were inaccessible as she was hidden away in the citadel to avoid recapture. She couldn't stand to socialize with Rhysel, who was sitting on a perfectly simple way to increase their leverage and refusing to budge. And she had to be suspicious of every wizard capable of a sending spell in the rebellion, because one of them was cooperating with Rhysel on that. Talking to Corvan was awkward because he was more interested in getting his niece out than in saving Talyn and blamed Leekath for dragging their collective heels on the offered trade of Liria/Emryl. There were a handful of other nonwizards around, but none of them were truly her friends.
The fact that Emryl herself was a friend, and would probably understand Leekath's position where her uncle didn't, was a signifcant factor in Leekath ceasing to object to going through with that exchange.
She missed Emryl too. Emryl, too, could help with loneliness.
They began to work on ways to secure the swap.
While they were doing that, Linnip graduated a class of Esmaar-native peacekeeping forces they trusted to enforce their laws, withdrew most of their soldiers from Esmaar except those needed to command those forces, and then summarily conquered Tava.
Barashi was a problematic site for the exchange. It worked fine for returning Liria: if she was sent to any point on Barashi, she could then be unsent by a summoning circle, which worked equally well at undoing its own sendings or others. Emryl, on the other hand, was a Barashin native, brought to Elcenia by circle. The Linnipese couldn't send her. They didn't want to bring her to a summoning circle when there were only a handful and they could be easily covered for ambush. And the circle placed extremely rigorous, regular summons, without the chinks in them that any ordinary break could exploit.
The rebels couldn't say "well, what about whoever cast your circle to Isatei, why not have that wizard cast a circle to Barashi" because that would guarantee to the Linnipese that someone who knew about Isatei was involved with or passing information to the resistance. Of course the Empire already knew about Talyn, who'd gone to Isatei, but they didn't want to narrow down a window of time during which Talyn would have had to interact with or leave messages for other rebels.
So instead it was determined that Emryl would have her homeworld reset. Mercifully, Aar Camlenn had published his spell for that back in 11251. It still wasn't exactly common knowledge. But that they knew to suggest it was not highly identifying information given that the rebellion was already understood to contain wizards and suspected to be largely Esmaarlan.
Leekath didn't know if there was a way to undo the reset later, if it bothered Emryl.
With Emryl magically treated as an Elcenian, she and Liria could be simultaneously sent to Barashi, one near the circle in Aristan and one near the circle in Restron, and then they could come through. Since both circles led to the same building in Paraasilan, the ambush possibility remained, but it was mitigated by the symmetry and the simultaneity. Liria could teleport away; Emryl could transfer away. Everyone would be where they belonged, except Annei, who was still stuck in custody in Aristan but could at least have visitors.
And except for Talyn, who it seemed the Linnipese wouldn't part with for anything.
Emryl didn't know the citadel's new transfer point signature, so Corvan went to pick her up; it was generally agreed that he had plausible deniability because he was her uncle and she'd been living with him, and even if he'd been personally unaffiliated with the rebellion he'd be a logical choice for them to contact for Emryl's collection. Leekath wanted to go along, but there were so many reasons why that wasn't safe.
(Leekath was terribly tired of having to do things or avoid things because so many of her choices were not safe.)
Corvan checked Emryl for nefarious sleeper-agent style mind edits, and brought her to the citadel when she proved empty of non-Emryl contents.
Emryl then went to one of the dormitories and slept for a day and a half.
"Hi," Emryl said.
Leekath looked up from the history assignment Rhysel had brought her as part of the latest batch of schoolwork. (Talyn was absent from school entirely. She wondered if he missed it.) "You're awake! Hi."
"Before you ask, I don't remember anything," Emryl said. "They wiped my memory up to just before the first time I impersonated that rimei. I don't know what it's like in Linnipese prisons or anything."
"They didn't wipe me," Leekath said, confused.
"I hear you weren't in there that long. Maybe they handled us differently or they only do it when they keep you a long time."
"Maybe," said Leekath. "Do you think they did something awful to you...?"
"What was it like on your end?" Emryl asks. "If you want to say, I mean."
"Boring," Leekath said. "Little cell with a perch and a chair and a bucket of water to soak my feet in. I had to have my arms in cuffs so I couldn't cast anything and they had a spell that detected it if I accessed my tellyn conduit to do any kamai and if I did they dropped a stasis spell on the cell and I'd wake up an angle later. They asked me questions and I ignored them and sang songs to myself. Are you okay? Do you think they hurt you? You slept for a long time."
"I... don't think the sleeping means anything. I always crash after I've been under stress - I slept for ages after Master Revenn died too. As for the wipe, maybe they figured they were doing me a favor. For all I know they asked nicely first before they cast the spell and I just don't remember that either. I'm not traumatized, or anything. And it sounds like I probably didn't miss much." She laughed, a little. "I - I don't know if I told them anything. I might have. I don't know. I'm sorry, if I did."
Leekath smiled tenatively. "I'm glad you're okay. The only thing we know they know that might have been you is my involvement, and... and Talyn got me out. And I'm really glad you're here."
"But you're worried sick over Talyn?" Emryl asked, half-smiling.
"Yes," moaned Leekath. "They know he's important, so they won't let him go. We don't know where he is, and it's not safe for me to leave the citadel anymore playing nearer-farther with a figurine of him, so we can't find out and get him out that way. He most recently got here by summoning circle, so we can't just reverse his summon spell. There's nothing we can do."
"Do you want to work on the problem furiously until it's solved because you can't bear not to be making even some tiny amount of progress, or do you want to be distracted because you can only have a certain number of ideas over a day or a week anyway?" Emryl asked, plunking down into a seat beside Leekath at the table.
No one had asked Leekath anything like that, and she was nonplussed by the question at first, but Emryl was looking at her earnestly and so Leekath gave her inquiry some thought.
In practice she'd been alternating between doing tasks that were presented to her ("here is an assignment: do it", "now you have been awake fourteen angles: sleep", "you are drying out: take a bath"), or ignoring everything in favor of railing at Rhysel about her continued refusal to call back Annei, trying to convince other rebels to capture arbitrary other soldiers so they'd have something else to trade, and redoing her studies of Linnipese law all over again to try to find some technicality according to which they had to let Talyn go, just in case the Empire was as lawful as it pretended.
She hadn't made any headway on that last. Talyn was still in prison, and she'd had no flashes of insight, had made no headway on convincing anyone that Talyn was worth going around Rhysel's terribly obnoxious principles.
"Distract me," said Leekath, pushing the history book away.
Leekath taught Emryl some of the dances she'd picked up from growing up alongside Khi, and showed, but couldn't teach, flutterdancing for a bat form Emryl lacked. Emryl taught Leekath increasingly obscure vocabulary words in Martisen. Leekath tried to teach Emryl some vampire words, and they gave up when Emryl confessed she'd always been hopeless at image kamai and wasn't going to be able to patch her deficiencies of pronunciation.
Emryl wasn't qualified to help with wizardry homework either, but she was interested in how academics were covered at Binaarlav and would hover over Leekath's shoulder while Leekath did assignments and caught up on readings, gleaning the meanings of words out of the vamipre's mind (after she'd learned to do arbitrary mind kamai workings through or around the hhikiiias, which took practice all by itself).
Leekath had nightmares, one night, and told Emryl this the next morning when Emryl thought she looked short on sleep.
Emryl installed a sleeping bar in her dorm room.
Leekath was skeptical that it would help, because she'd never slept more easily near her entire extended family than she did alone, but she moved into the room that night anyway. It turned out that Emryl had learned a dream-sharing working from her uncle but had no excuse to practice it with anyone else before - Corvan was too private to actually coexist in sleep with anyone, he only knew the magic for academic reasons.
Lucidity was only intermittent, but when terrifying dream-logic attacked Leekath, she was not alone in the universe.
Emryl taught Leekath a game her second Master had shown her and Jenn, when they'd reapprenticed after Revenn's death: it involved slinging elements at each other, starting with harmless puffs of air and then moving on to water, earth, and then fire as one became better at dodging. They moved to the second element after Leekath had learned the rules, and splashed each other.
Leekath tried to let all this distract her from Talyn's absence.
It helped. It didn't work, but it helped.
"Did you dry yourself off?" Emryl asked, while they took a break from mutual soaking for the halfblood to eat a snack.
Leekath looked down at her blouse, which was damp but not soaking anymore even though she'd been repeatedly drenched. "No, I just absorb water," she said. "Through my skin. I could drink it, but it's not naturally occurring in pressurized containers and the kinds of bags I can use to drink potions weren't around all that long ago, so vampires get water this way instead."
"It's interesting how you look so much like a halfblood - like me, even - in this form but you're so differently put together," Emryl said.
"I have lungs," said Leekath. "And bones and eyes and skin and a brain and muscles. I think that might be it that's like you, though."
"No blood?" Emryl asked.
"No. I don't have blood any more than you have sandwiches," said Leekath. "When I've just eaten I guess there's some recognizable blood still being processed floating around."
"Huh. I guess..." Emryl trailed off.
"Well, there's this thing, but it normally involves both of the people doing it having blood."
"What kind of thing?" Leekath asked.
"A blood sibling ritual. Rhysel's got two blood sisters," Emryl said. "My father has a blood-brother. On Barashi, if you do it then you're considered siblings after that, just like if you shared parents."
Leekath made a face. "I don't think you want to have my sister. I don't want to have my sister."
Emryl laughed. "It doesn't work like that. It's just the people who do the ritual. Everyone else is left how they are."
"So I can't replace my sister with you, either?" Leekath asked ruefully. "I'd rather have you than her."
"Sorry," Emryl chuckled. "I don't know a ritual to actually swap us. Would you rather have me for your sister than not, though?"
"Yes," Leekath said. "But I don't have any blood."
"It's just a ritual, not magic that needs exact ingredients," Emryl laughed. "I don't think you really need to have blood. We'd just have to change the wording - it says 'blood' four times. I'm not sure what we'd say instead. What happens, if you cut your hand open?"
"It would have to be deep, for anything much to happen," Leekath said. "We've got thicker skin than you, I think. But if you cut deep enough a vampire will sort of leak interstitial fluid. It's white, not red, and it's pretty bad to lose too much of it because it takes longer to make more of it than it takes you to make blood, but if I got healed right away it wouldn't be a problem really."
"Well, I don't know any healing, but we could get Rhysel or someone to spot us," said Emryl.
Leekath nodded. "But I'm not sure what to say instead of 'blood' in the ritual. 'Fluid' sounds weird, doesn't it? Not very ritualish at all."
"It doesn't really matter. There's some blood in you, isn't there? Like there might be sandwiches in me sometimes?" Emryl said.
"I suppose." Leekath had never fed so often that she'd visibly turned color, probably in part due to thick pale skin, but for all she knew drinking as frequently as she tended would actually render her interstitial fluid a little pinkish. "Okay."
Emryl grinned, and touched the floor, drawing up a little blade as she pulled her hand away. "We each cut our right palms," she said. "And press the cuts together. And then we say, at the same time, '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.' And that's it. Since you have to cut deeper than me, do you want me to anaesthetize you? I'm fine without, but I don't know how you work."
"I don't think I've ever actually had a cut deep enough to leak before," Leekath admitted. "If you wouldn't mind..."
"And repeat the poem?"
Emryl recited it over until Leekath had it memorized, and then the halfblood sliced open a thin cut in her palm and handed over the stone knife.
The knife murmured to Leekath as she stuck it firmly into her hand, gritting her teeth. It twinged, but didn't truly hurt, thanks to Emryl's mind kamai. Leekath widened the cut until it would overlap somewhere with Emryl's, and then dropped the blade and held her arm out.
"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," they said together.
"Let's get Rhysel to heal us so I can hug you without getting blood on your blouse," Emryl said.
Leekath turned into a bat and fluttered to Emryl's shoulder, and wrapped one wing around the back of her head. <This form's not cut,> she pointed out.
Emryl laughed, and wandered through the citadel in search of Rhysel with Leekath perched there.
That night, there was a meeting.
"Frankly," Rhysel said, "we don't have a good plan for retaking Esmaar on behalf of the complete Parliament. The place is too defensible. Placing the anti-bomb shields as we did means that they can't massacre another town, but the original wards are all still up, and the Linnipese and the forces they've trained can use them. And even if we could collect everyone into a traditional battlefield and make all their native forces defect, we don't have the numbers or training to beat them. Siege doesn't work when everyone can teleport. But now they've taken over Tava."
"You don't sound too upset about that," said Kaylo.
"It means," Rhysel said, "that they are now more obviously angling to gobble up a great deal of territory over a short time scale. And their forces are spread thin. I think this will improve our ability to get help from other nations, and our ability to confront the Linnipese here."
"Esmaar is still too defensible," said Ngen. "No one attacked us before Linnip got its weapon."
"Esmaar is defensible against attack," Rhysel said. "But the remaining Linnipese forces are in a limited number of buildings, and Aristan is no longer convinced that it can keep itself and its immediate neighbors safe in the long term by compromising its principles - so they'll help."
"What are you going to do?" Leekath asked.
"Narax, do you want to...?" Rhysel asked.
Narax coughed. "The spell for the summoning circles in commercial use has a deliberately inflated power pull, to max out the CC I had then. But CC is now a fungible commodity, and except for the fact that we don't know gestures beyond a certain point, we can now cast even bigger spells. We're working on a sending-only 'circle' that will cover a whole building and doesn't require a diagram. There's no reason for a Standard Structure Ward to block it out, and we can send everyone in such a building - like city hall - to Aristan. The Linnipese soldiers won't be able to use wizardry or wizardry-based items, and Linnip won't be able to unsend them manually. Aristan can sort out any regular Esmaarlanik who are caught in the diagrams and send them home by one of the regular circles."
"But even with the reduced occupying force," said Leekath, "they're spread out into every city bigger than Isapor. You can't cast over all those places at once, not unless you're talking about a spell so big we don't even have gestures for it yet. No one's figured out the gesture for six hundred yet, that would be huge news."
"Right. I'll have to do it in pieces," Narax said. "I think there's a good chance I can teach Kaylo the spell I have worked out. Others can try, if anyone else wants a crack at it, but it's a terribly complicated intentional component without the diagram to help. So I'm going to go under all the wards there are, and invisible and the like, and so will the people who will be along to cover me."
"If they find out they'll have military-grade ability to respond," said Leekath.
"But we'll have a fighting chance," said Narax. "If we start with the most important bases of operations and move around unpredictably."
"And," Rhysel said, "while it's been determined that Aristan's soldiers wouldn't have a reasonable chance in Elcenian combat, we think that might not be the case with trolls."