Chapter One: Gratitude
Lunen afternoon was when the babies got to play in the sand. Ilen had gotten out the sand tray and was convincing some of his charges to draw patterns in it with their claws when he heard the knock on the door. He opened it. It could have been anyone - Ludei or Finnah or Hallai or someone else wanting a look at the babies, or wanting to hand over a new egg, or wanting to ask a question. But it was someone completely unfamiliar.
"Narax?" said the stranger. Occasionally someone would call Ilen by the name of someone else, his height, similar hairstyle, but he'd never heard that one. No one in the house was named Narax. The stranger was bubbling with excitement, anyway, under mild confusion.
"Beg pardon?" Ilen asked, smiling at her.
"...You're not Narax."
Ilen shook his head. "My name is Ilen. Er, can I help you?" She wasn't one of the babies' parents. Dragons didn't have that color hair. It could be dyed, but dragons didn't do that. And a shren wouldn't do that in the house.
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "I mistook you for someone I knew." Ilen kept smiling at her, to be polite. He knew there was a person in another house with his face, except red eyes, and maybe the forgotten name was "Narax". But Ehail had said that he wore his hair longer than Ilen did. He pushed the thought away; thinking about other shren houses was on the very edge of what he could safely contemplate.
"My name is Rhysel," the visitor continued. "Ehail brought me. I'm here about the babies. I'm from another world, and I have magic from there, and I figured out a way to let them fly - temporarily," she hurried to add, when Ilen opened his mouth. "But enough to take the pain away -" Behind her a tall, Western elf man, all-over calm, was approaching; Ehail passed through the hall behind him.
Ilen got out of the visitors' way, seized the sand tray, and put it back on its shelf, over the littlest platinum's protests. "Please. Please, help them." The possibility of mistrusting the strangers was obviated by the fact that Ehail had brought them, and he didn't dare waste so much as a tick of their time.
Rhysel and her friend - no, boyfriend, the way their emotions fluttered when they looked at each other, they were at least a solid mutual crush - did their magic. Rhysel made little models of every one of the children, starting with the oldest white opal, and down the line to the platinum who wasn't even hurting yet.
Ilen watched them fly. He couldn't feel the pain lifting, but he could feel them react to it. Despair evaporated, and they were all so full of gratitude the room could have floated away.
Ehail came back, with Ludei, and they watched, too, fizzing with astonishment. They weren't green-groups, so they couldn't even feel the babies' happiness, but they could see it. The three eldest babies, who already tried every morning when they woke up to shift into their chosen flying forms just in case they were one of the lucky few who could learn early, were grinning and giggling and flapping their wings in time with each of their companions as they flew. Until Rhysel took "lifeforce" from them and they each curled up to nap.
Rhysel was drawn into a conversation with Ehail and Ludei, and Ilen was too busy marveling at his suddenly happy, suddenly quiet charges to even think of interjecting. The visitors left while Ilen was adjusting a sleeping sapphire so she wouldn't claw her eye in her sleep.
Even if Rhysel never came back - would she ever come back? - she'd bought every baby there the chance to start the accumulation of pain over again. The older ones would be able to bear the smaller amount of esu until they could shift; the younger ones would never reach the upper limit of what their twenty-year wait would otherwise bring. Maybe not a single one of these would break, the way the ruby had broken six years past.
Ilen scooped up sleeping babies and tucked them into their cubbies.
"How'm I doing?" Ilen asked Hallai, that evening. It was better overall if she checked up on him every day, rather than waiting for the inevitable window left uncurtained or square of chocolate in the cafeteria marked "imported" or other, unanticipated trigger.
She couldn't catch every attack before it happened, but it was better than otherwise.
"Better than usual," Hallai said. "Especially considering there were people here today. Must be the babies feeling better. I told you that it wasn't good for you to work with them."
"Well - it doesn't matter now, does it, if they're going to be... okay?" he said with a weak smile. "Supposedly Rhysel will be here every couple of weeks, to fly them around again. That's what Ehail told me."
"Guess it doesn't matter anymore, no. Masochist. Don't know why you wanted to look after them before, when they were half made of unhappy. I mean, you like them." She snorted and tossed her head, sending copper ringlets bouncing over brown shoulders. "But you're fine. You should be okay through tonight and tomorrow if nothing happens."
"Oh." Usually Hallai would spend at least a few degrees projecting at him, laying down calm contentment over the day's bubbling discomfort. He wasn't sure he remembered how to go to sleep without it. But she said he was fine, and she was the expert.
There was a pause. Ilen wondered how closely she still read him, even after making her decision about his competence to spend the next twenty-five angles not screaming and projecting at everyone around him. He could have read her more deeply than usual, to see if her emotions tracked his in faint undulations. But even that probably wouldn't work. She had to read everyone in the house, and if she was reading his feelings the reflections in her own would be lost in the noise.
"Goodnight," he said, scooting back the chair so he could stand up.
"Sleep well," Hallai said dryly.
If he didn't, she'd have to get up and deal with it. "I'll try," he said.
Chenen morning was when the baby whose turn it was to be Storyteller got to read his or her favorite story aloud to everyone. The rendition of "The Prince's Bauble" was abandoned when Rhysel opened the door.
There wasn't as much urgency this week. The babies were yawning, but not hurting, and so Ilen didn't demand that Rhysel set up any faster. He did react when she gave him that strange look again, though.
"I wish you wouldn't stare at me like that." It made him wonder who it was she knew, who "Narax" was, and he couldn't afford to wonder that.
"Sorry," Rhysel said, slowly making the model of the baby most cutely demanding her attention. Ilen resolved to create some kind of equitable system for turn-taking. "Erm. Pardon me if this is rude. Do you know who your parents are?"
What kind of question was that? Ilen shuddered and scrunched his eyes shut. "No," he said.
"Sorry," repeated Rhysel. "It's just -"
"We all look like someone, that's how it works," Ilen said. If he could stop her from talking about this too much, he could pretend she meant the red-eyed man he'd never met in the other house, who might have any name, pretend she'd met that fellow first and didn't understand how faces repeated in the shren population because the same lines of dragons would throw more than one shameful egg.
"How old are you?" she asked next. That was a fine question, if he didn't care why she asked it.
"Two hundred eighty-eight."
And from there she let him be. She and her apprentice, a boy whose name Ilen didn't ask, spent a couple of angles lofting babies into the air for short flights and then bringing them back down.
Ehail came in, and talked to Rhysel, while the apprentice played with a baby diamond. Ilen tuned them out.
When Rhysel broke him out of his distraction, the apprentice and Ehail were both gone. "Do you want," she was asking him, "to come over for dinner sometime -"
Ilen almost tripped over a baby backing away from her. The emotions coming from the stranger were earnest and inviting, her voice sounded kind, but she wanted him to go with her, to take him out, she didn't even realize that would hurt, she was a threat - she wanted to pry him out of where he was safe -
He had to make her understand - make her stop -
"Hallai," one of the babies was saying.
Hallai would understand, Hallai would make the stranger leave him alone, Hallai would make him safe.
The door opened and Hallai was there.
Ilen let her pull him. Hallai wouldn't let him fall. Hallai would understand. He tried to show her - this is what happened, Hallai, I'm afraid, help me
They were in his room, his room was safe and no one else would feel him explaining, but he searched and still felt the stranger there, what if she still wanted to take him away
"I'm here," she said; she had her hand clenched around his elbow, that hurt, that was fine, he could tell she was there; she had her knee on his chest to keep him lying down, that made it hard to breathe, that was fine, it already was; she was sending calm at him and it mixed itself up with the fear, that made it hard to think, that was fine, she was there.
"Sh-sh-sh. I'm here."
"She wanted - she wanted -"
"Forget about her. She's not important. I won't let her take you. You're safe. Forget about her," Hallai said, and every sentence came with a sledgehammer of calm crashing down over him.
"Forget about her," Hallai commanded. "Focus on me. Focus on the calm. Focus. Focus. You're safe. You're here in your room. You're safe. Focus on the calm."
"I'm here," she said firmly. "Focus on me."
He looked. Shining hair and brown eyes and her weight holding him down so he wouldn't thrash. He felt. Calm calm calm insisting at him, forcing him to lie still, biting down on the fear and holding it where it was until it could die.
"Hallai," he whimpered.
"I'm here," she said. "You're safe."
She let his elbow go, although the calm was still pouring over him like a waterfall. "Still here," she sighed.
"She wanted to -"
"Don't think about it, Ilen," Hallai said, putting her hand on his forehead to push it down where he'd started to curl up. "Focus."
"Okay," he murmured, and he looked up at Hallai's resolutely concentrating face and focused.
Hallai wished she could just put Ilen to sleep with one of those potions the house witch made, but that was always a disaster if he took them in the middle of an attack. He'd be trapped in nightmares until morning and wake up so ill-rested that he wouldn't be able to work, and he was one of only three people willing to watch baby shrens for extended periods of time - the other worked nights, and Finnah wasn't old enough to do it as a proper job.
Maybe more people would be up for the task now the babies weren't constantly screaming their lungs out in agony, but that hadn't been going on long enough to effect policy changes, so Hallai left him awake.
She had years of experience bringing Ilen down from an attack, so she didn't back off on the torrent of forced calm as soon as he wasn't boiling over with terror anymore. The thoughts caused the emotions; she had to keep him under control until the thoughts were gone, or he'd just start up all over again.
Hallai hoped that the baby-treater lady had the sense to find someone to watch the kids. They wouldn't get up to much. Maybe they'd play in the little wading pool ahead of schedule. But Ilen always fretted when they spent time unattended because of his outbursts.
"Sh-sh-sh," she repeated mechanically when Ilen tried to talk. If she let him talk he'd work himself up again. She was a stronger projector than he was, but that didn't mean he wasn't damn strong when he got going. The first time he'd had an attack and started spraying fear around everywhere she'd wanted to run like everybody else. The old house projector hadn't been able to handle it either, though, and Hallai had been the only one capable of calming down the terrified jade.
So he was her job.
"Hallai," Ilen started.
"Shhhhh." She smoothed his hair, not that it needed smoothing, shaved down to a quarter-inch of black fuzz. "Sh-sh-sh."
After a half an angle, he had his eyes closed and was lying placidly under her planted knee. His emotions were flowing along peacefully, normal low-key sorts of things that probably didn't accompany problematic thoughts.
She didn't cut him off the next time he spoke. "Hallai," he said, squinting up at her. "Thank you."
"It's nothing," she said, scooting off of him to sit on the edge of his bed.
"Is someone watching the little ones?" he asked.
"Not sure." There were plenty of other rooms between Ilen's and the babies', and Hallai couldn't tell how far away an empathic signature was, only what direction it was in. "Someone was there when I left, but not a usual child-minder." Better not to specify. The baby-treater lady wasn't from inside, and he'd just calmed down.
"I should go back," Ilen murmured.
"Give it two more degrees," Hallai advised, planting her hand on his chest again to keep him down. He sometimes wound up dizzily careening into doorframes or falling down the stairs after a bad episode. "They'll be fine."
"Okay." He closed his eyes again.
Hallai sat with him. The rest of the house's emotional needs could wait.
"Hi, Ilen," said a baby-covered red shren when Ilen went back to the babies' room.
"Hi, Finnah. I'm glad you were here to watch the children," Ilen said, helping her pick little claws out of her clothes so she could shed clingy infants and leave.
"No problem. I was walking by and the kama lady stuck out her head and said you were broken," Finnah said, peeling a turquoise baby off her shoulder. "I think I wanna be a kama."
"Oh," Ilen said.
Finnah didn't go into any other details about where she was likely to do that. "Here." She handed him the turquoise. "I'm gonna go talk to Ludei about tuition and stuff."
"Okay," Ilen said.
He let the day's Storyteller finish "The Prince's Bauble", and then... Chenen afternoon was painting time.
Korulen's teachers usually worked hard to avoid singling her out or showing her special favor just because her father was the headmaster. Rhysel didn't, but Rhysel being Rhysel, Korulen didn't think that the unusual friendliness was any attempt to get an in with the administration.
Especially not when Rhysel turned out to have called Korulen to her office in order to ask, "How do you feel about shrens?"
Because Mom would not find that endearing, if it got that far.
Korulen shrugged awkwardly. "I don't think I've ever met one," she said. "I mean, it's sad, isn't it?"
"Yes," Rhysel said. "It is sad. If you met one, what would you do?"
"Assuming I could even tell that he or she was a shren?" Korulen asked. "I don't think I'd do anything. I mean, maybe I'd avoid mentioning the event to my relatives or to Kaylo, since it'd just upset them."
"That's about what I wanted to hear," Rhysel said, sounding relieved. Korulen couldn't make any progress against mental shielding yet. So she didn't know what Rhysel was relieved about.
"Why?" Korulen asked.
"Two reasons," Rhysel said. "One that I think you'll be fine with, and one that you might not like as much. There is a shren girl, about your equivalency, who would like to learn kamai."
"She'll have to dye her hair," Korulen said at once. "Mom won't stand for it. It's actually illegal for her to not-stand-for-it, but that wouldn't stop her."
"The student in question is planning to," Rhysel said. "But she needs two things that I'm hoping you could provide. One, she needs a roommate who knows - so she can dye her hair without worrying about someone walking in on her, and fly around in her room in bird form, and have personal effects that might be clues around. I know you have a roommate already -"
"I need to put in for a transfer anyway. Saasnil's little cousin is starting next term and they want to room together," Korulen said.
"Oh, good," Rhysel said. "And second, she needs someone she can practice introductory mind kamai with, without having to worry about her secrets. I'd like to have her to the point where she can interface with her classmates and not have them suspect a thing, before she starts in the spring. I can fit in a little tutoring, but it would be better if she could practice with someone else too - like you. You're a talented mind kama. I can pay you standard student tutoring rates - under the table, out of pocket, since obviously your mother wouldn't want to hear of it."
"I can do that, as long as we don't have really incompatible schedules," Korulen said.
"Hers is very flexible. If you're willing to go meet her at the house where she lives..." Rhysel said this tentatively, with a grimace.
"I can't catch shrenhood, I'm not scared of them," Korulen said.
"Right," acknowledged Rhysel with a half-smile. "Well. Here's the transfer point signature." She touched Korulen's forehead. "Go ahead any time during the day, and ask for Finnah."
"Finnah," repeated Korulen.
"Thank you, Korulen," said Rhysel.
"What was the other thing?" Korulen asked.
"Well," Rhysel said. "Also living in Finnah's shren house is a man who looks exactly like your uncle Narax."
Korulen tipped her head. "Oh." She swallowed. "Do you know how he's related? It's not necessarily close."
"I don't know for sure," Rhysel admitted. "But he's older than Narax, and younger than your mother and your aunt."
"I don't know a lot of details about my extended family," Korulen murmured, wondering how distantly related someone would have to be before she wouldn't feel hurt that they'd kept a shren relative secret from her. "I guess I could write the Dragon Council and ask them to find out if any other Alars were having full-blooded dragon kids around that time." She paused, thinking about how long the Dragon Council took to answer non-dragons, even thudias. "He's probably my uncle, though."
"I haven't tried to talk to your mother about it -"
"Good idea," Korulen said. "I won't either. But I'll see him while I'm at the house."
"Ah - be careful," Rhysel said. "He's... they call him an 'inside shren'. He's never left the building. If he thinks about what's outside the house too much, he has panic attacks. He seems to be able to interact with unfamiliar people, like me, but you'll need to be careful with what you talk to him about. Um, here..." Rhysel reached into her desk drawer, and pulled out a mind kamai book. "You can borrow this. Learn what's in the third chapter - it'll help you keep an eye on how agitated he is and not make my mistake."
"Okay," Korulen said, though that sounded like a lot of complication to go through just to meet someone who might be only a distant cousin.
"He's a nice person," Rhysel assured Korulen. "He takes care of the little baby shrens."
"Aw." Korulen smiled at the mental image. "Okay. I'll go down there when I have the time."
"Thank you," Rhysel said.
Hallai got along with Finnah better than she did with most people. Finnah had a sense of humor, and wasn't fragile and brittle, and she didn't make Hallai work too hard. Finnah hung out in Hallai's office sometimes, so Hallai wasn't surprised to find the spare chair occupied when she came back from dinner.
"Hey, I want to talk to you," Finnah said when Hallai nodded to her.
"What about?" Hallai asked, scanning Finnah briefly; the girl was exuding determination instead of her usual disaffected carelessness.
"Ilen's got a relative, and she's gonna be here sometimes. I told her to wait to introduce herself to him, 'cause I figured you'd be a nuisance and complain about her making it hard for you to do your job if she ever interacted with him," Finnah said. "She's nice, and she's helping me with something, and I want you to leave her alone. If she has to do something she doesn't do by herself in order to keep Ilen from curling up in a ball, I want you to tell me instead of yelling at her."
"She's Ilen's relative?" Hallai asked skeptically.
"She's a thudia," Finnah explained. "Got an uncle and a grandfather who look like Ilen. Her name's Korulen."
Hallai shrugged. "Warn me when she's going to be bothering Ilen. I will yell at her if he wants her to let him be and she won't. But you want to be the go-between, and he wants her visiting, fine."
"Thanks," Finnah said. "I really need her on my side - for the school thing - and, y'know, you have this way of putting people off. On purpose. With yelling."
"Yes," Hallai said dryly. "That all?"
"I'll bore somebody else talking about how excited I am for school," Finnah said after a thoughtful pause. "Bye."
"Bye," said Hallai.
When Finnah left, Ilen came in for his evening check-in. Hallai gave him a once-over; he was unsettled enough that she went ahead and doused him in enough calm that he ought to be able to skip past any lurking nightmares, and then shooed him off to bed.
Hallai stayed up later than he did, casting out her reception to catch every emotion from every one of the hundreds of house residents. She had a checklist on her wall that she never needed to look at anymore. Is it safe for the house? Is it safe for the individual? Is it healthy for the house? Is it healthy for the individual?
First priority: make sure no one flipped out in a way that would hurt others. No shifting natural, no attacking neighbors, no setting fires.
Second priority: keep the suicide rate down. Anyone depressed near the witch's office needed a boost. Anyone exhibiting eerie, certain calm in the direction of Ehail's office where high-pull spells were written needed a poke. Anyone showing desperate self-directed rage close to the cafeteria's giant ovens needed a lift. (Per priority one, especially if the suspected method wasn't one that would kill the entire shren rather than just a form.)
Third priority: encourage prosocial behavior. Clusters of annoyance needed to be smoothed out before they turned into bickering that could turn into century-long grudges. Anyone whose sadnesses were obviously leaking towards others was spending too many of his or her friends' resources on pity parties and needed jolting. Any strong emotion accompanied by shouting needed to be swatted down.
Fourth priority: don't turn out too many basket cases. Which meant not interfering, when the first three goals were met. In some cases - Ilen's for instance - it was obviously the lesser evil to dose him as much as he needed. Otherwise, people needed practice handling their own abandonment issues, their own ennui, their own resentment towards whoever took the last lemon square at lunch.
Hallai scanned, and evaluated, and checked her notes on the emotional progress of high-maintenance residents, and made new little symbol markings.
Where necessary, she changed what she felt.
Where safe, she left it alone.
I must be the healthiest of individuals, Hallai thought, not for the first time. Because no one projected for her. There were other green-groups. She could ask the emerald down the dorm hall or the green in recordkeeping or the malachite who worked the job nights to push her mood around with a hit of happiness or serenity or apathy. (Apathy was a good priority-three tool. The apathetic were rarely argumentative or chatty or loud.)
But she didn't ask. She was fine. And she was the expert, wasn't she, she swam in this stuff all day, every day, the malachite dealt with a handful of wakeful people tops and only ever soothed disturbing dreams for the rest of the household.
Hallai finished her evening's work, woke up the malachite night-shift empath with a few ticks of pounding on his door, and went to bed.