Chapter Twelve: Curiosity
The spring was the fifth term of kamai taught at Binaaralav, and there were enough students to justify half a dozen kamai instructors. Korulen's classes were mostly with Corvan (he couldn't convince most of the students to address him as Master, so settled for first-name terms). Rhysel was still learning mind kamai, but with a dedicated mind instructor available, preferred to teach more in her own specialty.
Korulen's best friend Lutan studied image, and spent a lot of time in lessons with Rhysel's blood-sister Eryn, who Lutan liked immensely. Eryn preferred first-name terms because they suited her. She sat in on other classes on a regular basis for what was apparently her own entertainment. As long as she was there, she'd partner odd-numbered students in mind exercises (she didn't do them, but she could have them done to her). Korulen occasionally wound up partnered with Eryn; Corvan wouldn't allow her to stick to Kaylo as her partner in every class.
<Rapid conversation workings will fail to take hold on trivial subjects,> Corvan told the class. <You would have to be exceptional indeed to use this working to speed up a speech about what you had for breakfast.>
<Exceptional in what way?> asked Mata. The wolfrider girl was generalizing, in everything except image kamai. She still had some trouble with Leraal and resorted to language-independent mindspeech whenever permitted. In Corvan's class it was outright required; their classes were always silent.
<You would need to be able to come up with an inordinate number of things to say about your breakfast, specifically,> Corvan replied. <At any rate, when you try the working, be sure to attempt to rapidly transfer your explanation of a sufficiently complex subject.>
<Such as?> asked Kolaan, an elf boy in the back row.
<Perhaps a novel you read recently which your partner will not mind hearing the plot of. Personal drama. A hobby you are capable of pontificating on at length. Something of that nature,> replied Corvan. <You may choose to discuss the topic choice ahead of time. These conversations take little time but it is still possible to become bored.>
Korulen turned to Eryn. <Preferences?> she asked.
<Personal drama, definitely,> chirped Eryn. She had to use language in her mindspeech, never having learned the language-independent variant; Korulen accordingly read her deeply enough to discern the meaning under the Martisen words. <I'm nosy.>
Korulen considered. She definitely wouldn't run out of things to say if she went over the whole mess with Ilen. Would he mind? Would her mother mind; would Grandma; would Uncle Narax?
She looked down at the notes she'd taken during the lecture on the working. Eventually she determined that if she did it right, she could be cagey about a lot of details. The rapid conversation would cover any question that Eryn would ask, but as long as Korulen walled off some answers in advance it wouldn't provide them.
And she'd still have more than a few degrees' worth of mess to talk about, so she could practice the working.
<All set?> Eryn asked.
Korulen nodded and reached out.
"Excuse me," said Hallai, "who did you say you were?"
"I'm Rhysel's sister Eryn," said the stranger.
"You don't look like her," Hallai said. "Except for the ears, I guess."
"We're not biological relatives, we're blood-sisters. We adopted each other," said Eryn. "Rhysel and Keo have done the same thing, so in a very distant and peculiar way I'm a little bit not actually at all related to your boyfriend."
Hallai scowled. Keo was yet another demand on Ilen's attention, and she didn't even need to arrange visits to intrude; she could just talk directly into his head without Hallai even knowing about it at any time. Hallai's only defense was to sharply increase the percentage of the time Ilen spent unwilling to be disturbed by sisterly conversation. It was tiring. "That doesn't explain why you're here," she said pointedly.
"Oh, that. I'm nosy," said Eryn.
"Mm-hm," Hallai agreed.
"And I heard a few things about you and your boyfriend, and it sounds to me like you're surrounded by a lot of people who don't like you very much, and that sounds like it sucks," Eryn went on. "Especially since it sounded to me like most of them had their minds made up about you before they had much chance to see you in more than one or two situations."
"Mm-hm," repeated Hallai.
"So I'm curious about your side of the story," Eryn said. "Ilen's not home?"
"No, he's working. Special request from the troll ambassador," said Hallai.
"Can I come in? I just want to know what you have to say, about - everything," Eryn said.
"Because you're nosy."
"Because I'm nosy."
"Does that really get you in very many doors?" Hallai asked.
"You'd be surprised!" laughed Eryn.
Hallai shrugged and stepped aside. She could talk while she sewed.
<What, Mom?> Korulen replied. Mindspeech felt different when it was her mother instead of a kama. It was as though kyma spoke through their eyes - you could mindspeak to someone you weren't looking at, but if they were in the room it felt most natural to look at them. Just like talking aloud. Keo's mindspeech felt like she clung to the back of Korulen's ear in her mouse form and whispered there. (But no, she didn't have a mouse form anymore; Arimal had freed up the magic for her, so she could become a troll without spending her last form and having none free for emergencies.)
<Can you teleport to the summoning circle?.>
<Yeah. What is it? I have class in two ticks.>
<You're excused; this is important, and time-dependent. Meet me at the circle.>
<What is it?> Korulen asked again, raising her hand to teleport. She'd have bidden Finnah goodbye, but Finnah wasn't in.
<It's a surprise.>
Keo was very good at surprises; she could know whether they'd be welcome before springing them on her target. Korulen cast the spell.
It took a few ticks for them to find each other in the crowded complex, even mindspeaking directions to each other. Finally Korulen caught a glimpse of jade-green hair and tapped her mother on the shoulder.
Through the circle they went, jogging away from it before it sucked them back to Elcenia.
"What's the surprise?" Korulen asked.
"Not yet," Keo said, grinning. "Come on, this way."
She turned into her natural shape, and Korulen changed to follow. "Where are we going?"
"North," said Keo cheerfully.
"To the river. Your father's already there," Keo said.
"Dad's here? Why?" Korulen asked.
"Well, it's not a surprise, for him, obviously," Keo said impishly. "Otherwise the same thing."
"You're not, like, marrying a second husband or anything...?"
"No, I wouldn't spring that on you," Keo said.
They reached the river, or rather a large sandy shore of the river. It was full of people. A second glance revealed that about half of them had dragon-colored hair, mostly shades of blue. And Kaylo was there, standing near Kanaat, and Arimal.
"What's going on?" Korulen asked.
"Hi, Sunshine," said Kaylo.
"You're in on this? Whatever this is?" Korulen asked, landing and turning back to her elf shape.
"This," said Kaylo, "is me and a lot of miracles who owe me favors."
"And me!" called Finnah's voice from the crowd; Korulen turned to see her roommate waving.
"How do you not owe me a - no, not having that argument," muttered Kaylo under his breath.
"What are you calling in the favors for, then?" Korulen asked.
"Dragon magic," said Kaylo.
"That form of magic is not of our world, our domain," Arimal said. "I cannot manufacture it. But it can be moved, while it stands here in my sphere of influence."
"I could move it, too," Kaylo said in Korulen's ear. "The only trouble is I don't know what would happen while I was doing it, and it'd take longer to get enough than it takes to cure a shren. Your mom's friend here can do it instantly. I got the volunteers, though."
"Move it - but - what?" Korulen asked.
"Arimal's gonna make you and your dad into dragons," Finnah said. "We're gonna learn some more forms, and that'll free up some more magic, and Arimal can use it to do your mom a favor."
"That's why mostly blue-groups," Kaylo said. "Since they can learn more forms."
"I think Korulen could have figured that part out," Finnah said.
"How many people is this?" Korulen asked.
"Lots. I didn't ask them individually, just figured out how many forms' worth of volunteers I needed and asked the house organizer people to see what they could do," Kaylo replied.
"For me and Dad," Korulen breathed.
"Now that this is explained," said Arimal, "we may as well proceed. Provided, Korulen, that you will confirm your consent, from your own lips. And you, Kanaat; despite your link I would prefer to hear it in your voice."
"Yes," said Korulen and her father almost in unison.
"Well, then," said Arimal.
And to Korulen's eyes, Arimal's hair changed color around the image of elf ears.
Korulen picked up a tendril of her own hair.
Just like she'd dyed it when she was young, but truer to the color, and more natural to the hair.
Korulen already knew how to shift, of course, and she did. Her dragon form was as accessible as ever, but it was no longer a stunted little thudia alternate shape, it was sixteen feet long, roughly Kaylo's size. "Will I," she asked, shifting back to elf shape after stretching wide tented wings, "age like a dragon, from here?"
"Yes," Arimal said. "But I did not make you as you would be were you a trueborn dragon and your true age."
Korulen imagined looking twelve again and blushed. "Thanks," she said. "Thank you so much. Arimal and Mom and Kaylo."
"I turned into a panda bear for you," called Finnah.
"And you," laughed Korulen, glancing at Finnah, and at her father's newly green eyes, and at the crowd, "all of you."
Keo gathered Korulen into a hug and kissed her forehead. "You're welcome," she said in Draconic.
Rhysel made a habit of throwing dinner parties on Fenen evenings. Ilen had a standing invitation. Sometimes he went. It was a convenient way to see Keo and Kanaat and Korulen and even Runa all in one place, as well as Rhysel's adorable twin daughters. He tried to be friendly to the miscellaneous other guests, but there was often a distressingly large number of them, and he was only used to being around large crowds of children.
Sometimes he didn't go. It was overstimulating. And it was an easy way to put Hallai in a bad mood for the next day or two.
He'd told Rhysel he wouldn't be at the dinner on the fourteenth, but he was regretting it, as Samia and Hallai had produced last-minute plans to see a play together and he was alone in the apartment with nothing to do. If he asked Rhysel of course she'd say that he was welcome to turn up even though he'd declined for the week. But he didn't expect she'd have enough food for an extra, unplanned guest.
There was a knock on the door, and he hopped to his feet to answer it.
At the door was a half-elf with wavy blond hair who he'd seen at some of the dinners. She was a friend of Rhysel's, he thought, or maybe a relative, and taught at the school. He cast about to remember her name. "Hello, erm. Elyn?"
"Eryn," corrected the halfblood. "Hi, Ilen. Is Hallai home?"
Ilen shook his head. "She's out with her friend."
"Oh. Can I come in?"
"Uh..." Ilen tried to think of a reason to refuse. He couldn't claim not to know her, for all that he'd forgotten her name; they'd met several times. It would be rude to just abruptly ask why. "I guess."
Eryn sidled in. "How come you're not at Rhysel's for dinner?"
"I don't go every week," he said. "Why aren't you?"
"I don't go every week either. I had plans but my girlfriend canceled on me. So I thought I'd come by and see if Hallai was around to chat."
"You're friends with Hallai?" Ilen asked, puzzled. He hadn't thought Hallai maintained friends beside him and Samia, and maybe Finnah but Finnah was immersed deeply into her schooling and didn't come over to visit.
"I don't know if I'd put it that way, but we talk sometimes. Since she's not home, can I talk to you instead?" Eryn replied with a winning smile.
"Why would you want to talk to me?" Ilen asked.
"Well, I've heard a lot about your story from Hallai, and some from Korulen," Eryn said. "But it's always good to get more perspectives."
"Oh." Ilen sat down in the armchair. It had come with the apartment and the upholstery was faded. "What do you want to know?"
"Honestly? I want to know what you see in Hallai," Eryn said. "I think she's interesting, but I wouldn't date her. And that's not just because she's got a boyfriend and I've got a girlfriend, and it's in spite of her being extremely pretty. Why do you like her?"
That was a weird question. "I need her. She takes care of me," Ilen said.
"Even still? You're not agoraphobic any more," Eryn said. She plopped onto the couch, yellow waves of hair bouncing on her shoulders.
"She still takes care of me," Ilen said. "I wouldn't know what to do without her. And she loves me and I love her."
"Do you think that's a good reason to date her?" Eryn asked. She was leaning forward, elbows on knees, eyes wide. Ilen felt very stared-at.
"I... what? Why are you dating your girlfriend?" he asked, scrunching his arms towards himself.
"I enjoy spending time with her, I admire her intelligence, I like the challenge of getting her to laugh, and she has a fantastic rear," Eryn said promptly.
Ilen tried to think of comparable answers to satisfy Eryn. He wasn't sure why it seemed important to have satisfactory answers for her, but it was easier than trying to kick her out of the apartment. "I - um - Hallai's pretty, like you said, and." He thought. "I do enjoy spending time with her. She's gone now and I'm not sure what to do with myself."
"Not knowing what to do when she's gone isn't the same as enjoying her company," Eryn said.
"It's not? But I don't like it when she's gone," Ilen said. "I miss her."
"That's not really the same either. I'm okay when I'm not around my girlfriend. I have hobbies and friends and work. But being with her makes me happy."
"Being with Hallai makes me happy," he said automatically. He wasn't sure if that was exactly accurate. He couldn't read his own emotions from the outside to be able to categorize them. But he knew being with Hallai made him feel safe. Safe and at home and content and anchored. And being away from her made him all at loose ends and afraid.
"Really?" Eryn asked, tilting her head.
"Why are you asking me this?" Ilen asked.
"Because I'm curious," Eryn said. "It genuinely puzzles me why someone like you would be dating someone like Hallai."
"We love each other," Ilen said.
"Maybe she talks differently when you're around, but it sounds like she thinks she owns you, more than like she loves you," Eryn said gently. "Like she earned you and now she's entitled to do what she wants with you. She doesn't like it when you visit your friends and family."
"They don't get along," Ilen said, fidgeting. "But she lets me go anyway."
"Yeah, I don't like my girlfriend's work friends, but I don't complain when she hangs out with them. Except when she cancels dates to do it," Eryn said. "And she doesn't need me to let her. I don't think Rhysel's husband likes Narax but he lets her invite him over to dinner once a week. He does kind of need to let her because it's his house too, but you wouldn't need to bring anybody into Hallai's space to go to Fenen dinners."
"What are you saying?" Ilen murmured.
"Well, I hadn't made up my mind before I talked to you, but now I'm pretty much convinced that you should dump Hallai," Eryn said.
"But then what - what would I do?" Ilen whispered.
"Can you afford this place on your own?" Eryn asked.
Mental arithmetic said yes, barely, if he went to dinner at Rhysel's every week and let her press leftovers on him to take home, and asked Narax and Keo for a little money when he watched Alyah or Runa. They'd offered before and he'd turned them down. He nodded slowly.
"She didn't want to live in Esmaar anyway. Give her a couple of weeks' notice, I guess, but if I were you I'd dump her and lean on friends and family for a while. Rhysel'll bend over backwards to help you out if you let her, you know. Probably your brother and your sister and your niece will too."
"But what will I do?" Ilen asked.
"Go to work, sleep, eat, babysit nieces, find something to do with your spare time?" Eryn suggested. "Develop hobbies? I know Hallai embroiders. You should have something to do too."
"But - but -"
"It's just my opinion," Eryn shrugged. "But I think you can learn to live without her, and you'd be better off that way."
Ilen shivered. Eryn was the only person who'd ever said it point-blank, but he was pretty sure everyone else he knew would agree with her if he asked. Even Rhysel, who said she didn't dislike Hallai.
They'd all agree if he ever brought it up. They were never going to like Hallai. Hallai would never like them.
They thought Hallai was bad for him, and even if he couldn't, couldn't see it, even if she made him feel safe and warm... they weren't stupid, were they...?
"I - I'll talk to her," he said.
"I'm glad to hear it. You deserve better," said Eryn earnestly. "Well, I'm going to head home. Thanks for the chat!"
Eryn patted him on the head twice, and then bustled out the door.
Ilen stared at the floor.
Hallai was home well after dark, humming to herself the musical theme of the play she and Samia had gone to see. She'd never been to many shows, since the house only rarely found tickets low-priced enough to justify, she hadn't been high on the priority list to get any, and she'd typically not wanted to spend her small luxuries budget on things she couldn't test out ahead of time.
She noticed that Ilen was pensive and anxious as soon as she reached their floor. Since his healing she didn't make a habit of monitoring him throughout the day from arbitrary distances, but within thirty feet she'd sense him anyway and generally felt she might as well open up to extra precision.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" she asked, stepping inside and hanging up her jacket. "You're not worried that Rhysel and company will be annoyed with you for staying home, are you? They won't care. You don't ever have to go when you don't want to."
"That's not it," he said softly.
"Tell me about it," she said, sitting in his lap and running her palms over his hair. He closed his eyes and calmed, but only a little, before distress spiked again.
"Eryn came by," said Ilen.
"And now you're a wreck? What did she say to you?" exclaimed Hallai. "Yeesh, I thought she was harmless or I would've told her to buzz off. What did she say?"
Ilen's jaw seemed to be stuck shut, and he trembled in her arms.
"Sweetie, tell me," said Hallai, reaching to rub his neck.
"E-Eryn thinks -"
Hallai waited, kneading her fingertips into the back of Ilen's neck.
"She said -"
Hallai waited another few ticks, and said, "Do you need me to calm you down?"
Ilen shook his head miserably. "No - no -"
"Why not?" Hallai asked, bemused. She couldn't think of a time he'd ever actually turned her down. She only asked to prompt the conversation to move along. Ilen loved calm, loved safe predictable feelings.
"Because I don't think I'd better let you comfort me when - when I'm - when I'm trying to -"
"What did Eryn say?" Hallai demanded.
Ilen's voice was almost inaudible. "She said I should break up with you."
"She did what?"
But he wouldn't say it again; he was squirming under her where she sat, and she stood up so fast her vision swam. "She told you what?"
Ilen scrunched his knees up to his chin.
"And you're doing what she says, are you? I thought you loved me!" Hallai was raising her voice, but she didn't care if the neighbors could hear through the cheap unsoundproofed walls. Someone had walked right into her apartment and kicked her boyfriend out from under her. Her Ilen. She regretted ever having met Samia, if this was the result of leaving him home. She regretted ever having talked to Eryn, good listener or no. She regretted letting them live in Paraasilan instead of on some isolated mountaintop in Mekand.
"I - I thought -"
"What did you think?" shrieked Hallai. "That you'd just drop me like a piece of frozen air, because someone you've barely met thinks she knows better than I do what's right for you? Is that what you thought?"
Ilen's breath was coming in shaky fits and starts, and his face was hidden by his knees, but she could feel the waves of misery pouring off him like heat, and she couldn't bear to be around it any more. Not forced out of her task of looking after him. It was no longer her job to mitigate those emotions.
And she couldn't stand it, that he was there and hurting and some near-stranger had done it to him and he didn't have the willpower to resist. She couldn't stand it that now she was supposed to do without him, the only person she'd ever, ever loved, her Ilen, because Eryn had made up her mind and snuck in when Hallai wasn't there to defend herself.
She couldn't stand it.
Hallai went to the balcony and jumped off. She considered hitting the ground, just to get it out of her system, she probably wouldn't deal too much damage if she was forced into a shift on the street. But she turned goshawk at the last moment and caught air to fly higher. Above the tips of the buildings, she turned dragon.
Eryn's signature wasn't in Elcenia, but that only left one world to search through to find that interfering little bitch and make her pay.