Chapter Four: Anguish

"Uncle Narax?" Korulen said. She was in one of his classes, a practicum on the sorts of flashy dramatic spells that weren't of much everyday use but could impress people or blow off steam if safely cast outdoors. They'd just spent a class period at the edge of campus, manipulating the terrain into miniature cliffs and pits and ravines with a tricky dynamic spell before putting it all back slightly the worse for wear.

"Mm?" Narax asked.

"How sure are you that you and Ilen are brothers?" She'd waited until all of the other students had teleported or flown away; Narax was peering around at the area looking for any outcroppings that hadn't been cropped back in.

"No one else from the Alar line was trying for full-blooded dragons around that time," Narax said.

"But you didn't hatch till after that. You'd notice if someone at a line meeting was talking about having a new baby, but do people really talk about clutches they lost? Isn't that most of them...?"

"Well, I could do more scrying to be sure, but I don't really want to watch my mother laying eggs," Narax said. "Most of the Alars weren't even married to other dragons at the time, though."

"Most?" Korulen said.

"I'll scry for just before Ilen's egg arrived at the house, then, and pan backwards, but it's really likely. Why? Don't you like him?" Narax asked.

"I like him," Korulen said. "He's nice. But... I don't like to think that way about Grandma and Grandpa."

"Just your grandma," Narax said absently. "Dad wasn't home at the time, he was off on a trip to see some of his descendants. And they're dragons, Korulen -"

"You're a dragon."

"I'm not Ilen's father, I'm Ilen's younger brother, there's no risk that anyone's going to dredge up a stupid old folk belief saying I'm responsible for his existence," Narax said. "I don't know what I'll do if I have a shren kid in eight hundred years. I hope I'd be a father to it, but I don't know what it feels like to look at one of those eggs and know I made it."

"So you're not going to tell Grandma? That we found Ilen?" Korulen asked.

"I wasn't planning on it anytime soon. Not till he can leave the house one way or another, anyway," Narax said heavily.

Korulen swallowed. "About that. I was thinking, mind kamai."

"Maybe. You can't do it, can you?" Narax asked.

"Not yet, but in a few years... I tried asking Talyn," Korulen said. "He's better at mind kamai than Rhysel is. But he's been acting weird, and I don't think he's up for anything complicated. Maybe when Rhysel brings in more teachers I can ask one of them."

"I'm considering telling your grandpa," Narax said after a pause. "I don't think he knows. I think Mom sent the egg away before he got home."

"He'll tell Grandma," predicted Korulen.

"Maybe," Narax said. "She might react badly, too. But he ought to know, and he can decide whether to confront her about it or not."

"Maybe he'll agree with her," said Korulen quietly.

"Maybe. I'm going to start with Vara and see how it goes over with her," Narax said.

"Do you want me along?" Korulen asked.

Narax shook his head.

Vara lived in a cave.

She didn't like it when people called it that, but Narax couldn't help but see it as a cave. It was carved out of a mountainside, accessible by flight or by zigzagging stone steps, and the entrance was covered up with sheets of leather rather than anything like a door.

Vara had moved to Pleia for a girl; Narax had met the girl, and didn't think it was a good tradeoff.

He landed on the ledge and pushed around a few layers of leather strips. It was warmer, if not actually warm, in the cave ("this is a Pleian house, Narax," he could hear his sister saying). This was due to the roaring fire, which fed smoke up through a thin vent drilled to the outside of the mountain but still wasn't as evenhanded as one warming spell.

"You should let me fix this place up for you," he called into the back rooms of the cave, by way of greeting. There was enough clearance in the place for him to stand up straight, but this put his head in the smoke that hadn't crept out the vent yet - it was designed for dwarves, or in Vara's case, dwarf-shaped dragons. He sat on the floor and scooted forward. "I wouldn't charge you or anything," he continued encouragingly.

His sister, in her squat brown-skinned green-haired shape, stepped into the front room. "I've told you, no," she said. "It's how Pilar likes it."

Pilar, an actual dwarf, followed. She was paler than the shape Vara had wound up with when turning dwarven, and had red-brown hair - almost coppery. Narax wasn't thrilled to be reminded unexpectedly of Hallai, but he prompted himself to smile politely at his not-technically-a-sister-in-law anyway. "Why do you like your cave -"

"It's a house, Narax, a Pleian house, not everything has to look like an Imilaatan villa," Vara said.

"Why do you like this place cold and smoky and dark -"

"Let it go, Narax," said Vara. "What do you want?"

"I know I've offered before, I just can't figure out why, since you have a wizard handy -"

"What do you want?" Vara snapped.

Narax rolled his eyes; he'd had a leadup plan, but, as he ought to have predicted, he'd been derailed from it. "We've got another brother," he said.

"Bull," said Vara.

"I'm not lying to you," said Narax, exasperated. "He's a shren, Mom sent him away without telling anyone -"

"No," Vara said.

"Let me finish -"

"No, let me. I get that maybe you found a shren who hatched out of an egg Mom laid - don't tell me how you found that out, I don't want to know what weird things you're doing in your spare time - but then she gave him up. You know how adopted kids' parents really are their parents? A given-up shren really isn't our brother. Or, I guess he can be yours, if you want him, but I'm not interested. Can we stop talking about shrens now?" Vara asked.

Narax hadn't expected that reaction. "He's our brother," he said slowly.

"Narax, I barely tolerate you, and I grew up with you and got to see you when you were still actually cute enough to get away with your crap. I did not grow up with this shren you found. Or any of the thudia half-'siblings' who died before we hatched. I don't really care what the genealogy records on Dragon Island say - actually, come to think of it, they aren't going to mention your shren either. I care about who I care about." She reached out for Pilar and put an arm around the dwarf's shoulders.

Narax sat on the floor of the cave and stared at his sister. "I figured you might not care much about meeting him. I didn't think you'd deny outright that he's part of the family." His eyes stung; he didn't know if it was the smoke or not.

"It's not because he's a shren. That's repulsive but not outright disqualifying, I have a friend who's got a shren sister. Sister was raised at home, though, after the danger zone. This guy you met wasn't. He's what, your age?"

"Older than me," Narax said quietly. It would be obnoxious to burst into Draconic with Pilar there - with Pilar anywhere in earshot - but it probably wouldn't help. He could pick all the Draconic words for siblings he wanted, ones which didn't imply shared childhoods, and Vara would just announce that she didn't care about that kind of sibling.

"So, centuries of not-being-our-brother aren't going to evaporate like that." Vara clapped her hands, taking her arm off of Pilar in so doing; the dwarf went into the rear rooms of the cave-house and started busying herself with something or other.

"Right. Well. I'd stay for lunch, but I'm not in the mood for smoked fish," Narax said, getting to his feet but hunching under the smoke; he didn't like to cast spells sitting down.

"We eat other things besides -" Vara began, but he teleported away.

The next day, after he finished grading the assignments he needed to hand back on Inen, Narax went to the shren house. Ilen wasn't watching the children, and the woman who was seemed to resent the intrusion. Narax read Ilen's signature from where it emanated upstairs, found it flat and calm, and surmised that the shren had had an attack (so much for Hallai's technique) and was recovering. He went home.

Keo wouldn't take well to a shren-related reason to cancel his classes for the next few days, but Narax wasn't going to get any less busy when his daughter appeared in a week...

Why did everything have to happen at once?

A moonstone woman volunteered to become Ilen's backup. This meant that in addition to having a better substitute when he was completely out of commission, he got two days off a week even when everything went well.

Hallai was pleased about this, because it meant that she could have him around without having infants swarming at their feet. On those days he'd sit in her office with her, and next to her at the cafeteria instead of taking meals in the babies' room.

Hallai was also pleased about this because once, Narax came for a visit, found the moonstone substitute in the babies' room, and must have assumed that Ilen was indisposed, because he teleported away rather than search deeper inside the shren house.

Hallai didn't tell Ilen. Ilen could have kept his own lookout for Narax's empathic signature, the way she was; if he wasn't, she wasn't going to alert him. Narax could have asked someone if Ilen was available instead of assuming the only thing Ilen could ever have to do that was more important than Narax was recovering from an attack.

As far as Hallai was concerned, everything Ilen could be doing was more important than Narax. Bugs were more important than Narax.

Mostly, things weren't that different after the kiss or what followed. They had always talked a little, socially, during the daily check-ins or after Ilen was winding down from an emotional disaster. It had added up, over decades. And neither minded silence.

But it was changed in some ways. There was a different quality to it when she touched him, and sometimes what started as an affectionate pat would turn into her crooking her wrist behind his neck and pulling him in for a kiss. And there was a lovely languid smile on his face when he spoke about her to other people. Hallai liked that; she liked that he was hers.

If only aggravating dragons would stop trying to steal him from her, everything would be perfect.

Dear Dad,

There's something you might not know...

Kilaer checked the mail late in the day. He and Tsuan were up early every morning to bake, so morning customers would have fresh bread and pastries. Their assistants and that new boy from the University who minded the till didn't come in until a bit later, and by the time they were there the place was so busy that Kilaer couldn't come by a spare moment.

So, while Tsuan closed up the shop and brushed flour off the counters, Kilaer went to the mailbox.

Two bills, a mail order for forty loaves of bread for the sandwich place uptown, a letter from Narax, two catalogs, a coupon booklet, and a package of decorettes they'd bought for the iced planets. The letter was addressed to him alone, not Tsuan, which was odd - when Narax wrote at all he usually combined the letters. Kilaer and Tsuan took turns reading aloud joint correspondence from their children and granddaughter, over cookies and tea.

Kilaer took the package into the bakery and kissed Tsuan's cheek as he passed her to put the decorettes on the shelf. He tucked the other mail under one arm and opened the letter from his son, still standing in the pantry.

There's something you might not know. But I've done some scrying to confirm it. The clutch of eggs Mom laid on Nidhel 47, 10963 was three, not two -

Kilaer stopped reading. He closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. The air in the bakery smelled like crusts and powdered maple sugar.

He was going to finish this letter sitting down, while Tsuan was running errands.

Kilaer tucked the letter back into its envelope and closed the pantry door on his way out. Tsuan was covered in flecks of bakery debris, from bran in her jade-green hair to smears of fruit on her apron. "All set for the night, love?" she asked her husband.

"All set," he echoed.

He wasn't sure off the top of his head that Narax had found anything to be alarmed about. After all, Narax hadn't hatched yet, in 10963; whatever he thought he knew about the clutch could be distorted some way. Not that Kilaer knew much about how scrying worked. It was a recent development. (He was glad he wasn't doing police work anymore; he could only imagine how boring it would be if it now consisted mostly of watching spells play back events.)

Kilaer didn't remember the lost clutches individually. The one that had produced Keo and Vara and two nameless doomed sisters, he remembered; Narax's four clutchmates who'd all coughed themselves to death, he remembered. The others blurred together, the long string of chipper jade girls until they managed daughters giving way to a long string of squirmy jade boys until they managed their son.

But maybe there had been one that winter, maybe there was something off about it. Tsuan covered up mistakes she made, large and small, if she could. If she'd fallen on one of the eggs and Kilaer hadn't been there, she'd have cleaned it up and put on a happy mask and might never have said a word. If she'd...

Well, the letter would say what Narax thought had happened.

They walked home, carrying tins of cookies and a quiche and a loaf of sourdough. They'd lived in an apartment above their shop for a time, but ultimately agreed that it was too cramped and the neighborhood too loud. They rented it to an endless series of university students and lived in a house on a quieter street where everyone grew roses.

Kilaer and Tsuan went in, and Kilaer put the mail on the counter - Narax's letter face down. He put the kettle on for tea and she went to the neighbors' house to trade half of the cookies for the eggs the neighbor's chickens laid.

Kilaer read the rest of the letter.

three, not two. The third was a shren egg, which she mailed to the Kep Island, Petar shren house (the Corenta one is closer to you, which may be why she didn't choose it, if she thought you might run into him on the street or something). Through elaborate happenstance I'm not going into here, Korulen and I have met my brother now. His name is Ilen.

You might not want anything to do with him. Vara doesn't, and I don't plan to try Keo. But I was pretty sure you didn't know, and you ought to. You have two sons living.

I'll leave it up to you what to tell Mom, if anything.

Love, Narax

Kilaer was halfway through a second read-through of the letter when the front door opened and Tsuan came back with eggs. They bought in bulk for the bakery. For occasional egg dinners at home, though, they liked the neighbor's.


Kilaer bit his lip. After dinner, he told himself, I'll show her the letter.

"You're all worked up about something," Tsuan observed.

"It's nothing that won't keep," Kilaer said. "I'm starving."

"Tsuan," Kilaer said after dinner.

"What, love?"

He closed his eyes. "How many sons do we have, Tsuan?"

She was silent, and when he opened his eyes, she went rapidly from openmouthed horror to a very bad attempt at looking like she had no idea what he was talking about.

"Just Narax," she said faintly.

"That's not what he told me," Kilaer said, and he produced the letter and pushed it forward.

Tsuan didn't take it. "Do you understand?" she asked softly.

"Why you'd send a shren egg to the shren house?" he asked. "Yes. Why you wouldn't tell me..."

"I couldn't, I couldn't say it, I could barely put the egg in the mail," Tsuan whispered into her hands. "I almost smashed it but I couldn't do that either. And I couldn't say. You'd have wanted to talk about it, like now..."

"Tsuan," murmured Kilaer.

"I won't," she said. "I won't have this conversation." She got up and stomped into the bedroom.

"Tsuan," Kilaer called.

"I won't," she snapped over her shoulder, and she slammed the door.

Kilaer had been married to various people for the overwhelming majority of his fourteen and a half centuries of life. Almost four of them he'd spent married to Tsuan in particular. He was approximately familiar with what the slammed door meant.

Pocketing Narax's letter, Kilaer went to the linen closet for a spare blanket to crawl under on the couch for the night.

Dear Narax, read the letter.

I have spoken with your mother about Ilen - or rather, have attempted to do so. She did not react well. I will keep you updated.

I didn't know.

Love, Dad

Narax paced, waiting for Samia. They'd agreed to swap the baby at midday, but hadn't picked an exact time, and so his stomach was growling in complaint about the lunch he'd postponed for the last angle.

Finally, finally, there was a knock on his door.

He opened the door and there was Samia.

She had Alyah in one arm, but even the short time Samia had spent as the center of the universe left Narax unable to look away from her immediately on seeing her. That was the face of his other half, even if she looked tired and had her hair wrapped up in decorative webbing rather than trailing down the way she used to. Even if she was looking at him with narrowed eyes and her mouth pressed into a thin line.

She was, to be fair, looking very intently at him from those hooded, frowning eyes.

He'd been the center of the universe to her, too. But he must not have done a very good job of it.

They stood, staring at each other, until he finally slid his eyes down to focus on the baby in Samia's arms.

Alyah was not a newborn anymore, but she was small, with only a little dark down on her scalp and exactly her mother's face. She was a baby Samia. One he was going to raise, as opposed to marry, but maybe he'd be better at the one than the other.

Narax held out his arms.

Samia set Alyah down in the crook of his elbow, and watched to make sure he didn't drop her. Then she slid the bag of Alyah's things off her shoulder and set it on her doorstep, and she teleported away.

"Well," Narax said to Alyah in a soft coo that turned high and doting of its own accord. "Hello there. I'm your daddy."

"Wuh," said Alyah.

"We'll have you babbling in Leraal soon enough," Narax said. "Soon it'll be all 'aal' and 'em'. None of this 'wuh' while you're here, okay?"

Alyah did not reply. She just looked up at Narax, dark irises filling out almost all of the visible eye.

Narax picked up the bag of things with his free hand and carried his daughter inside.

Dear Narax,

I am writing to let you know that your mother did herself some harm. She has not lost any forms, and is physically well again now, but she's currently in the Greater Desinni Sainted Rose Hospital for monitoring and counseling.

I don't know how to talk to her about this. I hope they do.

I want you to know that I'd rather be aware of Ilen than not, and that your choice to inform me has nothing to do with my choice to talk to your mother.

Let's reschedule the visit with Alyah for two weeks from Saanen; the hospital staff think that your mother should be okay to come home by then, if not before.

Love, Dad

Tsuan sat in the cot that the hospital had put her in "to rest and relax". The walls were mint green. The sheets were white. The city, visible out the window, was a conglomerate of grays and browns and occasional painted dots of color.

Her wrists were pale and unbroken, but the clothes she'd been admitted in were still wadded up in the corner hamper, streaked with red.

It had been a stupid thing to do. She'd only have lost a form and wrecked the house if she'd cut in the right direction, which she hadn't. The doctors were calling it an "announcement of distress", an act engineered to make sure that the people around her knew that she was fragile and in pain so they wouldn't force her to confront difficult issues.

Tsuan thought this was probably about right.

Couldn't Kilaer guess - he'd never personally laid eggs, sure, he'd had more children than she had but they didn't come out of his body. He'd never watched anything stamped defective, contagious, awful emerge from him and known that he made it.

And because she hadn't told him, he hadn't had to contemplate the choice twenty years later. She'd made the hard decision in advance, and he hadn't had to think about justifying it to his elderly but still living parents, if he brought the shren home, or about trying to bring up a shren among normal children (trying to protect normal children from a shren).

Or about how poorly adjusted they always turned out. Tsuan had never met a shren, but she'd heard stories - this cousin's parunia married someone who had a shren aunt, that friend's dragon grandmother had a shren brother. And the shrens were always such unstable people, such difficult company, angry or sad or boiling with resentment. Maybe numb dragons of other colors who wouldn't feel those awful feelings could live with it. Tsuan knew she couldn't.

And they'd already had the girls, and what if Keo had looked into the shren's mind and hurt herself?

And, and, and, there were a thousand reasons, and if she'd tried to say any of them to her husband, he would have wanted to talk through them all, a long torturous conversation that might end the way she wanted it but only after too much miserable fuss, and might not end the way she wanted it and then there would be hundreds of years of shren, shren, shren.

She wished she'd brought her foot down on the egg. She almost had.

A buzzer sounded and a light went off; she had two degrees to make herself presentable for her next counseling session.

The mirror told her that she looked like herself, just worn out and dull-eyed. Kilaer had brought her changes of clothes so she didn't have to wear the hospital's ugly burgundy outfits that they provided to longer-term patients.

She redid her ponytail and kicked off her shoes to tuck her feet under herself where she sat.

The therapist came in. "Hello, Tsuan," he said. "How are you feeling today?"

"About the same," she said. "If this were about how I was feeling, my husband could just project at me some prescribed cocktail of emotions."

"At Sainted Roses, we try to use empathic solutions only in extreme circumstances where other therapies are ineffective," said the therapist. "If you'd like to ask your husband to help you in that way, you certainly can, but it won't be part of your treatment here."

"I feel like everybody found out I had a shren," Tsuan said.

"That you had one," the therapist said, "not that you hid it, or anything else?"

"If I hadn't hidden it, they'd have found out earlier, that's all," Tsuan said, looking out the window.

The sky was so blue.