Chapter Eleven: Courage
"Mom?" said Korulen. She stepped out of the lift into her father's office. She thought of it as his, even though her mother was as likely as he was to be in it, doing roughly the same things with it.
"Mm?" replied Keo, looking up from some of Kanaat's compliance reports for the municipal government.
A week ago Ilen was cured and now he's a dragon died on Korulen's lips. "What are you doing in Barashi all the time?" she asked instead.
"Befriending a goddess," said Keo, smiling slightly. "Fraternizing with trolls. You can come with me for the latter some time; they're a fun bunch. But you might want to eat first. I know you don't like spicy food as much as I do."
"A goddess?" Korulen asked. "I always sort of thought..." She waved a hand.
"I haven't gotten any less cagey about dragon views on Elcenian religion," Keo laughed. "Sorry, dear, I wish I could share. But Barashin deities are fair game, and I sent polite letters to several of them asking if they'd like to be friends. Most of them ignored me, but Arimal didn't. I've been visiting her pretty regularly."
"She's the goddess of...?" Korulen had picked up a handful of things, from Barashin kamai teachers and from Talyn, but that didn't mean she had all twenty-four memorized. She did know it was irregular, maybe unheard of, for them to have friends. But her mother was exceptional enough to perhaps attract their interest and indulgence.
"Water," supplied Keo. "She doesn't have special water-related powers that the other gods don't have, as they're all locally omnipotent, but that's her job and what people pray to her about."
"Oh," Korulen said.
"I think she'd like to meet you. She's - hm, I actually wouldn't describe her as nice, but she's interesting, and you should come along sometime."
"Sometime, sure," echoed Korulen. "Um, is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"
"Why, do I look like I've got something weighing on my mind?" Keo asked, half-smiling.
"No." She really didn't. Korulen didn't know how. "We just haven't talked very much for a while. Is there anything up?"
"Trolls, deities," Keo said. "Paperwork, one of Mom's distant descendants writing for favors, lining up more kyma to join the department and teach an ever-growing cohort of your classmates. What's been going on in your life?"
I met my uncle who you won't acknowledge, who I can't bring myself to ask you to acknowledge. I brought Runa to meet him, in secret. I convinced Kaylo to figure out how to cure shrens.
"School stuff," Korulen said. "I should go find someone to practice kamai with - sorry, Mom, you're probably not a good typical case."
"Probably not," laughed Keo. "Bye!"
Korulen went back into the lift.
Keo? Narax thought.
She checked. It was not an emergency.
He wasn't going to drop it, was he. She would either have to answer him, or stop keeping an "ear" out for pings from her brother so that she couldn't even see if he'd stopped deciding to badger her, or keep listening to worthless pings several times a day until she wore out his stubbornness.
Or he wore out hers, which was feeling more likely.
<If you keep bothering me like this,> she sent, <I might stop listening, and stop checking to see if you really need me. I can only think of one time when that would've killed you, but still.>
<If you keep ignoring me,> Narax replied, <you'll never hear that there's no longer any shren to ignore me over.>
Did he think she was stupid? Or that she didn't read? Or that none of her friends had pinged her with the news weeks ago?
She didn't answer him.
<Keo, are you listening?>
Hallai and Ilen moved into a cheap sixteenth-floor Paraasilan apartment which had all of its "rooms" except the bathroom in a single open space. It had a tiny balcony sufficient to fly to, so they could avoid the stairs. In bird or insect form, not in dragon form, but dragon form would take them where they wanted to fly after they'd cleared the building.
Rhysel, apparently unable to restrain herself from niceness, introduced them both to her sister Ryll, who hired the pair of them as translators for the Senate after summary interview. The hours were irregular, tracking the need for communication between senators and ambassadors rather than any customary work schedule. Sometimes they were called in during the night and sometimes they were not called at all for days on end. But the commute wasn't bad, with the circle right in town and both of them bearing working wings that would get them to the right neighborhood in a few joyful degrees.
Ilen was on the lookout for a job in some sort of childcare to switch to, but found to his dismay that Esmaar had none to speak of. Almost everyone lived in enormous households, or at least had immediate relatives in enormous households, and those households would absorb a few extra children, easily and for free, when needed. People who didn't live like that appeared to be mostly recent immigrants, and those were mostly poor enough to favor options other than day care or rich enough to hire live-in help.
Like living in Narax's spare house in Imilaat, live-in helping was not an option for Ilen if he wanted to keep Hallai with him, and he did, however much everyone else hated her. He needed her; he only wanted children.
Paraasilan was a big city, and it did have two daycare services and one school which took children young enough for Ilen's experience to be relevant.
They were not hiring.
"You're the one who said you wanted to live here," was all Hallai said, raising an eyebrow, when he came home disconsolately after another day of wandering the city looking for anything he might have overlooked. "We're going in to do translation tomorrow. It pays better than daycare would anyway."
"When we've saved up enough to move to a nicer place, maybe it could be somewhere else?" Ilen asked quietly.
"I've got to be able to get to work, even if you change jobs," Hallai said. "I'm not going to impose on Samia and ask her to teleport me to the circle and back every day, she's got stuff to do. Tell her you're available to watch Alyah during gaps in our schedule if she'd rather have you doing it than Neris, which I bet you she would, and call it good."
Ilen did that, and became the go-to babysitter for his little niece whenever Narax and Samia worked while he did not. Hallai tolerated Alyah, although she took up embroidery and learned a silent-aura spell to block the baby's occasional cries.
He still couldn't ask Keo if she'd let him mind Runa.
But translation was a fine job. All he had to do was sit off to one side and talk over whoever spoke in a monotone, in whichever language was called for. Runa could have done it.
He didn't think Korulen would be stealing Runa away to visit for anything less than Narax's wedding. He idly considered asking Hallai to marry him.
Ilen decided that Hallai probably wouldn't want Runa there. In fact, for all he knew she despised the institution of marriage generally; he'd have to sound out her feelings first.
He should've done that about kids instead of making a fool of himself. He knew not everyone liked kids; why had he assumed Hallai would want them?
So he translated Martisen into other languages and those other languages into Martisen at the Senate, and he watched his youngest niece, and he adored his girlfriend.
Korulen and Kaylo were on one of their rare "proper" dates which was not canceled due to research or to sudden onset of hormones, and Finnah was their waitress.
(Finnah's tuition was paid by the house, but with the cure, Finnah expected the house to dissolve at any moment, and wanted to save up.)
"Hi, Korulen!" Finnah said brightly. "Kaylo. What can I get for you guys?"
"Surprise me?" Korulen asked. "Is that an allowed order?" and Finnah nodded once, then looked to Kaylo with a far less friendly expression.
"Olive and turkey sandwich, no cucumber," he said, looking bemused at the miracle. Finnah plucked his menu out of his hands, then took Korulen's too and left to put in their orders.
"Have you been antagonizing my roommate?" Korulen asked Kaylo, frowning. "She doesn't seem to like you, and I can't figure out why. If nothing else, you healed her."
"I haven't done anything to Finnah! Why is that your first idea?" exclaimed Kaylo. "Like you said, I healed her, and that's it. I don't think she's got a sudden identity crisis about it or she'd still be dyeing her hair. She didn't even have to wait because you jumped her up to the head of the line."
"I wonder why she doesn't like you," Korulen mused. "Or maybe I'm imagining things." She paused. "You don't have a problem with her, do you?"
"Huh? No. I mean, I can tell she doesn't care for me, but I don't really care about her one way or the other."
"Even though she used to be a shren."
"She's not one now. I was there. You were there."
"Yes, I know, I just wondered if there was lingering... discomfort about it."
Kaylo shook his head. "Nah. She's a dragon now, that's all. A weirdly ungrateful dragon with unspecified grudge."
"Interesting," said Korulen, thinking of her uncle, and her mother.
Towards the end of the winter term, Korulen and Runa went with their mother to Barashi to meet trolls and a goddess. Keo adopted a jade-green troll form for the first of those. The form was about as tall as a tall human, and looked like a mobile sculpture of a thickset heavy-browed figure without hair, deep fissures in the joints allowing Keo to bend. The form was dressed in a tunic and pants that tied at the ankles, and she had a silver torc on her upper arm, but no shoes. Runa was approximately unaffected by the change, able to track the underlying empathic signature regardless of the face wrapped around it, but it threw Korulen off.
The trolls in general were pretty friendly. Among others, Keo seemed to be particularly acquainted with Karanak (blue to Keo's green). Keo introduced him as a teacher of kamai at the University of Daasen's new program. He had become friends with Keo and went home to his clan on the University's off-days.
Korulen's only preexisting information about trolls had been from Kaylo's harried narrative about meeting them during a trip he'd taken to visit Master Stythyss. Kaylo had not liked the trolls, at all, and Korulen had reserved judgment but been privately wary of the species on his say-so. She trusted her mother to look after her, though, so she went among the massive hard-skinned people and was pleasantly surprised.
She did stay away from the food, all of which could make her tear up at ten paces.
But she let a few of the clan kids teach her a ball game, which she played in her miniature dragon shape to enjoy the advantage of extra limbs, and also toughness that could rival the trolls' when the ball struck her at speed. And she made copious use of mind kamai to follow their language, and none of them expressed an interest in challenging her to ritual combat the way the trolls Kaylo had met had done.
Korulen asked her mother about that, on the way to where they were planning to meet Arimal.
"Oh, Kaylo's too young to actually take part in one of those contests," Keo said. "You are too, but in your case, they knew in advance - in his I suppose he didn't let them get far enough to ask his age."
"But trolls randomly fighting each other or anyone else who looks interesting to fight is a thing?" Korulen asked, squeamish.
"Yeah, the first time I was there I got challenged about thirty times. I won them all. Trolls make an interesting noise when thrown into trees," Keo said, grinning toothily.
Korulen flapped to keep up. They were flying to a temple, which Keo knew the way to and Korulen didn't. Runa was clinging to Keo's saddle with all of her claws. "Kaylo made it sound like they only backed off when Stythyss brought up an obscure point of law."
"Well, I don't know what happened in that case. It sounds weird, but it's harmless, really. They almost never even get injured, let alone killed. And there are kyma on hand."
"Oh." Korulen was still glad she wasn't obliged to participate, but her mother was easily strong enough to fling a troll into a tree if the troll felt like inviting her to. "How much farther is the temple?"
"You can ride with your sister, if you're tired," Keo offered.
"No, I just want to know how far we're going."
"A few more miles. It's this very pretty abandoned temple," Keo said. "Arimal could just bring us there, but I like the scenery, and I don't often get a chance to go on a nice long flight like this."
The temple came into view a bit later, after what really was a pleasant flight. It was half ruins, half waterfall. Keo coasted to a stop on a platform of white stone under the falling spray, avoiding the fallen columns around the edges; water spattered her scales. The platform was indented with pools and thin streams between them, and rivulets flowed through their trenches and down a cracked terrace.
Korulen landed too, and avoided shifting into a form that was wearing clothes and would be less pleasant to get wet in. "Where's Arimal?" she asked.
"Here, child," said a voice that seemed more like part of the waterfall's thunder than a separate sound, even though it was light and understandable.
Korulen swiveled her head around. To her eyes, Arimal looked like a jade dragon only slightly bigger than Korulen's midgety form - presumably because Korulen herself was shaped that way. If they'd had a troll along, the troll would have seen a troll-goddess. "I thought Barashin gods had a... presence... thing?" she asked tentatively.
"Your mother has asked that I suppress it while visiting her. She finds it unpleasant," Arimal said with a thin, indulgent smile. "Were your father here, I imagine I would also be asked to suppress my image, to avoid giving them headaches, but at the moment he sees me only through her eyes."
"Oh. That makes sense." Korulen looked around at the fallen temple. "This place must have been beautiful. It still is, in a different way."
"It remains one of my favorites," Arimal agreed.
Runa fluttered off of Keo's back and splashed unceremoniously into one of the puddles that formed in depressions on the stone platform. "Hi!" she said to Arimal. "I'm Runa!"
"Hello, Runa," said Arimal with mock gravity.
"I am very cute," continued Runa.
"Yes, that is plain," Arimal said.
Korulen giggled in spite of herself.
"I am told," Arimal said, turning back to Korulen, "that you have evinced a desire to be more dragonlike than you presently are."
Korulen shifted her forefeet awkwardly. "Mom," she said. "I told you I didn't want you to go around telling people about the time I dyed my hair green. I was barely thirty."
"It is not a current desire?" asked Arimal.
"Well - I haven't really thought about it much lately," Korulen said, frowning. She looked at her little sister where she splashed. "I - I think I'd like it, but there's no way to do it, is there? I'm basically an elf. Who can turn into a little midget dragon with barely any dragon magic."
Arimal nodded once. "Why would you like to be a dragon, Korulen?" she asked.
"To be there for Runa," Korulen said first. "They live longer. My boyfriend's a dragon too - although actually it might be a problem if I was, given how dragons tend to do stuff - but sometimes I'm not sure he's that serious about me anyway, so. I'd like to be an empath, and to speak all the languages, and to shapeshift into anything I wanted even though I don't know what else I'd be." She shrugged. "Why do you ask?"
"My own reasons," Arimal said. "Thank you."
Keo and Arimal struck up a conversation about something unrelated, and Korulen shrugged her wings and went over to splash-fight with her little sister.
"Mom?" said Korulen, after they'd been unsent back home and Runa had been put down for a nap.
"That's me," said Keo.
"You're not talking to Uncle Narax right now," Korulen said tentatively.
"No, I'm not." Keo moved into the office and started stamping Kanaat's signature on a stack of letters about the coming spring term, which mailed themselves as soon as they were signed.
"What would it take for you to not speak to me?" Korulen asked. "How easy is that to do?"
"Sweetie, I'm your mother," said Keo.
"You're Uncle Narax's sister," said Korulen implacably.
Keo chewed her lip. "He's being a nuisance, and he ought to know better," she said.
"So if I were a nuisance and you thought I ought to know better -"
"Korulen, no," sighed Keo. "No, I'm not going to stop speaking to you. Although if you're trying to preemptively excuse yourself from being disrespectful or vulgar or something, that's not going to work."
"I wasn't thinking that." Korulen swallowed and closed her eyes. "Mom, Ilen's a dragon now. Kaylo at least doesn't have any problem with people who just used to be shrens, so this isn't about you being a dragon and speaking Draconic and understanding things about words that I can't, or anything strange like that. But you haven't... done anything about it. And you're ignoring Uncle Narax about it. And I don't understand why, and I've been afraid to bring it up because I didn't know if you'd ignore me too, and Uncle Ilen is too nice to badger anyone about it but it bothers me, Mom."
Keo was already sitting, but as she listened, she looked like she became... heavier, more pressed to the chair, as though Korulen's speech was being shoveled into her lap. She stopped stamping things.
"What's going on?" Korulen asked. "I can almost, almost understand about Grandma. I think it might be a separate thing to have had a shren, no matter what happens to the shren afterwards. But I don't understand about you."
Keo closed her eyes.
"I've always had my powers," Keo said. "Always. When I first hatched, I had them. It is astonishing that I have never actually killed anyone, because small children have no self-control and no understanding of consequences. My predecessor put some safeties in, I'm not sure exactly what. But he didn't outright cripple me, because he knew he could die at any time and might not be around to take out whatever he added as I grew up - and in fact he wasn't. So for all practical purposes, I have always been able to do anything with other people's minds. What do you think Runa would do with that power?"
"She's... she's already pretty good at not reading people's emotions in detail without permission," Korulen said.
"Most of the time. But empathy isn't very useful. It'll satisfy a limited amount of curiosity, but to get people to do anything with it takes practiced finesse. I had unlimited power, unlimited finesse. What do you think Runa would do?"
"Um." Korulen took her turn to close her eyes and imagine her baby sister with mental omnipotence. "Brainwash everyone into thinking that she's the cutest thing in the world. Make you bring her all the lemondrops she wanted. Make you forget about it if she misbehaved. Learn anybody's secrets she wanted if they were even a little bit interesting. Stop you in the middle of a lecture she didn't want to hear -"
"Probably, yes," Keo said. "Maybe not all that, if she were brought up very carefully - which I was, between my predecessor and my parents. They tended to lean on projecting guilt at me, when I misused my powers. But I wasn't always made of mischief. Sometimes I had good intentions."
"Mom, what does this have to do with -"
"Sometimes I'd spy on people who didn't know I was watching," Keo said, quietly. "To see if they needed help. I always got Vara what she wanted for her hatching day. I solved a nervous tic that your grandpa developed centuries ago when he did police work. Sometimes I'd peek into my mother's mind, late at night, when she was sitting up and thinking. And I would see what she was thinking about, in case I could help."
"You found out," Korulen whispered.
"When he was eighteen," agreed Keo.
"And you went looking," Korulen said.
"When I was seventy-nine. With no more maturity or caution than you had when you were twenty-three," Keo said.
"What did you find, Mom?"
"You know what I found," Keo said. "Don't make me think about it again. Please don't." She got up from her husband's desk and swept through the unsolid bookshelf into the headmaster's quarters.
Korulen hesitated for a tick. And then for another tick.
And then she followed.
Her parents were sitting togther on the bed, Kanaat's arms wrapped around Keo's shoulders as Keo hung her head.
"Mom, that's not good enough," she said.
Keo looked up and met Korulen's eyes in shock. "What?"
"That was almost three hundred years ago," Korulen said. "It hurt, I understand that it hurt, but Ilen doesn't go on all the time about how much it hurt to be him when he was a baby. It didn't hurt you more than him."
"I had no slow ramp-up -"
"But it was a lot shorter."
"And I'm a dragon. I knew what I was looking at -"
"Ilen knew what he was. He knew Draconic too."
"Young lady -"
Korulen put up her hands. "I can't make you do anything. Any more than anyone can make Grandma Tsuan do anything. But I'm saying, it's not good enough. Maybe when he was still a shren and you had that excuse too. You had company there. But not now. It's not good enough. That's all."
And Korulen turned around and left her parents behind.
She tried not to shake as she directed the lift.
Ilen was at the grocery store, checking periodically to make sure that his train of baskets was following him. He couldn't cook. Hallai was marginally better at it - she could at least chop things up without bleeding on the vegetables and having to run to a light. But he could follow a grocery list.
He was looking for broccoli when he heard it. It was somewhere between a whisper-spell word, and knowing what someone had said to you in a dream.
A woman's voice, threading through his mind, tentative and soft. <Hello.> A pause, during which he didn't know what to do, what was going on. <...I'm your sister.>