Chapter Three: Fury
Narax went home. His familiar greeted him at the door with a chirp, and claws in his shoulder.
"Hello, Onion, ow," he told the little red-scaled drake. She obligingly clung to his shirt instead, chittering.
Narax looked around his house. He'd moved to Esmaar and taken that job at his brother-in-law's school because he'd suddenly had a wife again. Had planned to raise a child with her, and didn't think Imilaat was a good place for that.
Narax continued to live in Esmaar and teach at his brother-in-law's school because in three weeks, he'd finally get to see his daughter and keep her for a month before he had to give her back again. There was a cradle, not assembled yet, leaning on the banister up to the second floor.
Samia had anti-scrying wards on her house where she was living with her stepfather. Narax didn't think this was specifically to keep his prying eyes away - they'd work equally well on anyone's prying eyes - but it rankled. His daughter was under that ward, probably asleep, and he couldn't even look at her.
His brother was in that... house... under the care of a screamingly irrational woman who, if he'd heard her correctly, had called him some exceptionally rude names.
Well, not anymore, the Ertydon government had set about finalizing the divorce with insulting speed and she wasn't that anymore. But he'd said "until breath quits your body or mine". Not "until I screw up a hasty second mindlink and you sever ties and bear my child across an ocean, under anti-scrying ward -"
His wife was buried somewhere under the damage that the hospital had done, that the mind-shredding spell had done, that the decade of isolation had done. The woman he'd married hadn't been the grasping, shrewish one he'd divorced, who'd agreed to joint custody half in dread of a Dragon Council intervention if she didn't.
Onion was nibbling on Narax's ear. "Ow," he said again, and she stopped and glided from his shoulder to the kitchen table, clacking her jaws in hunger.
"Greedy little thing," Narax said without heat, and he poured her a bowl of drake pellets.
Then he went to assemble Alyah's cradle, because three weeks would elapse eventually and then she'd need a place to sleep.
It wasn't hard to put together, but there were a lot of little pins, and the thing didn't come with an assembly spell - he should have read the packaging more carefully. His thoughts drifted back to his brother.
Normally this would be the sort of problem he could solve by asking Keo. She certainly could fix whatever the matter might be with Ilen, but she wouldn't go anywhere near a shren, not even one blood-related to her; Korulen had made the right call in going to him instead of to her mother first.
Keo reacted violently to mentions of shrens. An innocent conversation starter Narax had attempted when he was in his forties had left him unable to remember the past week; he only knew the incident had happened at all because Keo had left their sister Vara's memory intact and she could report the missing days to him. Keo had been so desperate to make sure that her little brother didn't talk about shrens that she'd wiped out seven days' worth of whatever might have prompted the idea. She couldn't affect his magical-more-than-mental ability to understand Draconic, or she might have made him forget that shrens existed entirely.
Keo was more controlled as an adult, but likely to heal Ilen's panic attacks? No. At best she'd act coldly to whoever proposed it for a month and flee the scene whenever the subject was broached.
So the direct, obvious solution was out. Ilen wasn't going to be whisked out of the shren house and installed in Narax's Imilaat home or some other pleasanter location - away from that individual - by any mechanism involving Keo.
Vara might be an easier sell, although not an actually easy one. She had a brother, and a sister, and didn't spend much time with either. Vara probably didn't desperately long to have someone Ilen-like in her life. And Vara didn't have Keo's abilities, either. She'd be just another ordinary empath if she offered anything at all.
Narax finished putting the cradle together in Alyah's room. He enchanted the walls pastel green on two sides and canary yellow on the other two for what he thought was a nice cheerful effect. He went downstairs and heated up leftover stew for dinner. Are you a wizard or aren't you? he asked himself rhetorically. Just because the house - just because that copper - controlled Ilen with empathy didn't mean that was the best way. He'd do a little background reading, see what there was in the way of psychiatric spells.
His wife might be destroyed beyond repair - the hospital had tried psychiatric spells, Keo had worked on her, if there were anything left that would have done it.
But he'd have his daughter four months of every year.
And he could get his brother out of that place too, he was sure.
Dear Grandma and Grandpa, Korulen wrote.
She stopped. She looked at the letter. She couldn't think of a way to ask. Uncle Narax thought for sure that Ilen was his brother, but how could he be sure? Grandma and Grandpa would know, but how could she ask?
Korulen wrote the rest of the letter like nothing out of the ordinary was going on, referring to the questions that always concluded Grandma Tsuan's own correspondence and the leading remarks that peppered Grandpa Kilaer's. Yes, I'm still seeing Kaylo. He's so smart, and he's always studying things - usually not even stuff for his classes, just stuff he's curious about. But when he snaps out of it he's very sweet and thoughtful. We found a new restaurant the other day, Grandpa would've liked it, it had very good bread...
She finished the letter and dropped it out the window; it disappeared en route to its destination after a two-inch waft downwards.
Most of the people Korulen would normally go to with her problems were not options. Both parents and most other relatives were ruled out by her mom's aversion to shrens. Kaylo was out for the same reason. Lutan was out because, sweet as she was, she could not keep a secret, and Korulen didn't want anything getting back to her parents. Kaarilel, Korulen's other best friend, could keep secrets, but she wasn't likely to have anything helpful to say.
Talyn had brushed her off when she asked about healing inside shrens. She was going to try again, but only after giving him a while longer to rethink the answer. He'd seemed sort of... off. Korulen knew his great-grandfather had died a while ago, and she supposed he might be closer than most people to his great-grandfather, since he'd also apprenticed under him. Still. Two and a half months was a long time to take to behave normally again day-to-day, even if he was occasionally possessed by grief.
Ilen had obviously liked it when Korulen had talked about Runa - he was obviously really fond of kids - and there was no way a baby parunia was going anywhere near the house. He'd never meet her - well, not for at least twenty years - if he couldn't leave.
Hallai watched Ilen.
Not like a hawk (she wasn't even in her goshawk form), but like an empath.
If that intruder (not Korulen, Hallai could find a little more patience for someone Finnah liked, but Korulen's uncle - other uncle) came back, she wanted to know at once.
It occurred to her belatedly that Ilen would only know if Narax appeared upon seeing him.
She started tracking Narax's empathic signature too. She couldn't tell if he approached, or how far away he was, but if he were suddenly directly north of her, she'd know he was probably at the door.
And then she could intercept him and Ilen wouldn't have to go through all of that again.
Ilen was just about back to normal. His emotions flickered transiently, probably reflecting the babies' antics. The little ones usually didn't trigger him but that didn't mean they couldn't. There had been a problematic little boy who'd forced Ilen onto the night shift for four years, because he would not stop asking questions about the world outside that Ilen couldn't answer. (Ilen could memorize facts - he could tell a curious child who the king of Saraan was, or that Linnip was in Anaist - but he could not tell one if Lan Quero was a pretty city or if the weather was nice in Mekand, or tolerate being asked.)
Narax's signature moved several times throughout the day. He was far enough away that the changes were slight, but they were often very sudden (teleportation, Hallai supposed) and got her attention that way. It was annoying, but not noticing Narax turning up on the doorstep would be more annoying.
Still later, it occurred to Hallai that Narax could, if he were as intrusive as she thought he was, teleport directly into the house - maybe directly into the babies' room. He wasn't Ehail, only landing outdoors and then knocking like a normal person to get inside.
She growled to herself, picked up her chair, and carried it down the corridor.
"Don't mind me," she told Ilen. "I'm just going to sit here instead of in my office for a while."
Ilen blinked at her. "Okay," he said, smiling at her, and she smiled back. He went back to the activity he was doing with the babies; it appeared to be a pillow fort.
Hallai could look at things and do her job at the same time (albeit she couldn't do anything taxing, like reading), so she watched Ilen at work. It was cute. A baby all by itself didn't inspire instincts of affection in her, but their big black eyes and squeaky little voices did something to Ilen, and he squeaked right back at them and picked them up when they asked and it was all so preposterously precious.
She'd been sitting there for two angles, even permitting a gold child to curl up in her lap as long as it didn't try to talk to her, when Narax did teleport right into the room.
Hallai stood up - the golden baby made a thin tear in her pants, sliding down to the floor off her disappeared lap - and interposed herself between the matching men.
"Get out," she growled at Narax.
Narax ignored her, looking over her head at a frozen Ilen. Even Ilen's emotions weren't moving. "Hey, Ilen," he said. "I would have come back sooner but I teach classes and this is one of my days off -"
"I said, get out!" snapped Hallai. "You don't belong here, last time you sent him into a panic attack, this is a shren house, you -" Draconic had many colorful epithets, but none of them seemed exact enough, none of them captured that arrogant dismissal in his eyes aimed above her head or the presumption and carelessness of landing right inside the house.
Ilen wasn't panicking yet. Why wasn't he panicking yet?
Hallai focused -
Oh, absolutely not.
"Get out of Ilen's head!" she shrieked at Narax, shoving the dragon square in the chest with both hands towards the door. "Out! You don't know what you're doing, you impossible, you -"
Narax stumbled back two steps, and the door opened against him as Aar Kithen peeped his head in.
"Excuse me," Aar Kithen said. "Aaral Camlenn will be here presently to treat the infants. Should I intercept her and suggest that we come back later? Aar Alar?"
Narax glanced over and recognized the elf as one of the other teachers on staff at Binaaralav, the stiff one who insisted on referring to him as "Aar Alar". "I'm sure we can talk somewhere else if you and Rhysel are going to be here about the babies for a while. Ilen?" Narax kept up the steady press of calm on his brother. Whoever had given this insane copper her job ought not have a leg to stand on when challenged about it.
"No," Hallai snarled. "He's not going anywhere with you -"
"Perhaps -" Aar Kithen said.
"Hallai," Ilen said.
"You can't just teleport in here like you own the place," Hallai shrieked at Narax.
"I can damn well see my brother if he'll have me - it's nothing to do with you, look, feel, he's fine, I'm an empath too, you ridiculous -"
"What are you doing? No one else can keep him controlled but me, no one -"
"It's a harmless spell to boost empathy, if this place is so short on decent empaths that they gave you the job I imagine it might come as a surprise but -"
"Hallai," said Ilen again.
"He's not fine, you're being clumsy, you don't know what you're doing, this is only the protocol for during an attack -"
"And it's not going to do him any harm - and I'm not talking to you, I didn't come here to talk to you, I came here to talk to my brother -"
"He's no brother of yours, you didn't know he existed -"
"Hallai," Ilen said, a little louder.
"Perhaps," began Aar Kithen again.
"Shut up!" Hallai snapped at the elf, who retreated from the room.
"What did he ever do to you?" exclaimed Narax. "He's at worst mildly overstarched! You have no actual grievances to speak of, you just lash out at anyone in range -"
"I have a job to do! Get out of Ilen's head now! Get out of this house this very split! This is not a place for dragons, this is the dumping ground for creatures dragons won't touch -"
Narax snarled under his breath at Hallai and then lunged around her to put his hand on Ilen's shoulder. "I know he exists now, I'm here now, and you can do your job, such as it is, from any distance. Shove off and let me meet my brother."
"You have no right to order me around in my own home -"
"Hallai," pleaded Ilen.
"But you have a right to start a shouting match in front of a couple dozen infants? You're entitled to screen Ilen's visitors? One person abdicated care of him, but I didn't - and she didn't make you his mother in her place, regardless -"
"I'm not his mother, I'm his - I'm the empath, it's my job to look after -"
"I'm taking care of it. If I need to turn him back over to your dubious mercies I'll inform you. Leave me and my brother alone."
"You can't just teleport in and -"
"HALLAI," shouted Ilen, clapping his hand over Narax's where it was still planted on his shoulder.
Hallai's gaze broke away from Narax, and she met Ilen's eyes. There was a silence, even the chattery babies quiet, for a long moment. Hallai's expression twisted in one of desperate misery and she lunged forward to seize Ilen's shirt in her fists, pull him down, and kiss him.
This was startling enough that Narax backed away, pulling his hand from Ilen's shoulder. Ilen didn't look any less surprised, although after the first tick he closed his eyes.
Narax didn't have a retort for the situation.
"Ooooh," said a baby.
Narax shot the little turquoise a look; it shrank away from him.
Hallai finally let Ilen's shirt go and whirled away to push through the door and disappear into the hallway.
"Er," said Narax.
Ilen tilted his head, staring at the half-open door.
"So... now that she's gone..." Narax began.
Ilen swallowed. "Can you come back another day - and watch the babies till Rhysel gets here - please?"
"Thank you," Ilen said, and he went out the door after Hallai.
A house of shrens was, by necessity, not a house of prudes. Cooping up hundreds of questionably sane people in a house together and trying to stop them from forming arrangements of physical convenience was a recipe for tension which could build up over centuries and snap.
By equal necessity, it was not a house of romantics. Cooping up hundreds of questionably sane people in a house together and encouraging them to fairytale notions would be equally foolish. If shrens had to do that kind of thing, they were politely but firmly encouraged to move out. The house could not afford jealousies, or bitter ex-lovers sniping at each other; to serve its intended purpose it had to remain intact for millenia.
Ilen couldn't move out. Hallai had no idea if he'd made arrangements with anyone, but he wasn't in a position to make attachments. She couldn't whisk him away to a mountaintop bungalow in Mekand and keep him safe there. What had she been thinking?!
She got to her room and slammed the door. She sat on her bed and drew her knees up to her chin. She tucked her hands into the opposite sleeves.
He'd kissed her back. Once he'd figured out what was going on he'd kissed her back.
Arrangements. Hallai snorted. That was what Ludei called them. Hers never lasted long enough for any arranging to be necessary; a couple of times a decade she'd pick someone out at lunchtime in the cafeteria, proposition him, and then generally never have cause to interact with him again. She interacted with Ilen every day.
She didn't want an arrangement.
...She might settle for one if Ilen did.
Since he couldn't move out.
And couples were only encouraged to do that, anyway. Ilen would be a public hazard out of the house; they couldn't evict him no matter what he did.
And he'd kissed her back.
There was a knock at her door.
Hallai got up and opened it.
"I didn't panic," Ilen said, later.
"I know you didn't," Hallai said, stroking his hair. It was getting longer than he usually kept it. He'd probably get a haircut soon.
"You don't have to shout at Narax for me," Ilen said. "What he was doing worked okay."
"It's not good for you to just be blasted like that," fussed Hallai, picking up her shirt from the floor and shaking the wrinkles out of it. "Not when you're not panicking."
"But if he hadn't done it, would I have panicked?" Ilen asked, pursing his lips thoughtfully.
"Probably, but - ugh, I don't want to talk about him," Hallai said, dropping the shirt and flopping back down again. "Let's not talk."
"Okay," said Ilen.
They didn't talk.
Narax came back the next day, on the assumption that Rhysel and Aar Kithen wouldn't be there twice in a row. He teleported into the hallway, instead of the babies' room itself, so he could assess whether Hallai was likely to accost him.
Her signature was ninety degrees to the left, not in front of him, so he started up calming Ilen and pushed the door open.
"Hi," Narax said.
"Hi," Ilen replied. "Um, Hallai shouldn't bother you again."
Even their voices were similar. Narax was used to hearing his father through the knowledge of fatherliness, so if the voices were alike he never noticed over the recognition of who was speaking. Ilen sounded like Narax did on a recording, if Narax were having an exceptionally timid day.
"That's good," Narax said, taking a chair. A white baby tried to climb his leg. "Shoo," he told it, and it slunk away.
"Sorry," Ilen said. "I try to teach them not to climb on people without permission, but most people let them, so it doesn't stick."
"It's not a huge deal," Narax said. "So this is what you do all day?"
Ilen nodded. "And there's a night shift person and two people who can substitute. Or Finnah does it sometimes, for short periods."
"I'd expect at least three people watching this many kids."
"They used to be, um, less appealing," Ilen said. "And more... tractable. The labor allocation person sent out a notice looking for volunteers. That's why there's two substitutes now, instead of one. No one wants to be my assistant or co-minder or whatever you'd call it yet."
There was a silence. "I have a daughter," Narax said. "A human thudia. A baby."
Ilen smiled. "What's her name?"
"Alyah." Narax swallowed. "Maybe I'll bring her by sometime. Her mother has her right now."
"Oh," Ilen said. Narax surmised that he was making appropriate inferences.
"I get her on the twenty-fifth. And I give her back after a month," Narax said. "I haven't even seen her yet." He closed his eyes, then opened them. "But, uh, let's see. There's me, and I - we - have two sisters..."
Narax went slowly through the family tree, steering away from descriptions of their parents when an incidental mention of "Mom" spiked distress under the spell-enhanced calming force. But he described Runa, they talked about Korulen, and Ilen proved willing enough to listen to a summary of the entire history between Narax and Samia.
"I don't really have anything interesting to say," Ilen said after that narrative was run through. "You're much more interesting than I am."
Narax shrugged. "I'm sure stuff happens here sometimes."
"Sometimes," acknowledged Ilen. "But mostly I don't see it because if it's interesting I don't stay lucid the whole time."
"Ah." Narax looked at his hands. "I'm looking into ways around that."
"You said Keo was..."
"That's not going to happen," Narax said, wincing. "She is, but she won't."
"Sorry," Narax said, looking up.
Ilen shrugged. "I didn't know anything about her until a very short time ago. I don't have any expectations of her."
"I guess that's one way to avoid being disappointed," Narax snorted. He paused. "It's hard to think of you as being older than me. From my perspective you only just came to exist."
"It's the same in this direction," Ilen said.
"But you're actually right," Narax pointed out. "If you're thinking of me as younger."
"I suppose," Ilen said. "But you've done more things."
"You're working with a handicap. And you've brought up more kids than I have, that's something. I'm afraid Samia's going to hand me my baby in a week and I'm just going to stare at her and hire a babysitter because I don't know what to do."
"I think thudia babies are different," Ilen said apologetically, "or I'd have suggestions. Alyah won't be able to talk, this young..."
"Samia's probably speaking Ertydon to her all the time," Narax said gloomily. "I live in Esmaar, I'll have to teach her Leraal. I suppose I could move to Gibryel or something, but my savings won't last literally forever and I don't have a job lined up there."
"Shouldn't she be able to learn both?" Ilen asked.
"Yeah, but given how this whole mess has gone I expect to get her next Sutaahel and find that she knows sixteen words and they're all in Ertydon and she doesn't want to speak that language that Daddy tries to make her speak." Narax sighed. "I guess it'll all shake out by the time she's five or so."
"Probably," Ilen said.
"Are the kids allowed pets?" Narax asked, looking at the crowd of baby shrens on the floor.
"No, not even when they're older - too expensive, too high-maintenance, there are some allergies in the house," Ilen said.
Narax smiled. "I have an idea," he said.
The brothers watched a small red drake swarmed by babies twice her size, and they smiled lopsided smiles.