Chapter Six: Anxiety
<There,> Corvan announced.
It had been perhaps an angle. Ilen had nearly dozed off, staring at the ceiling and composing brief silly variants on fairy tales in his head for the little ones. He couldn't feel anything that Corvan was doing, apart from resting his hand on Ilen's head.
"That's all?" Ilen asked.
<If mind kamai required years of routine work in order to make progress it would not be nearly so useful. Nor so feared,> Corvan remarked. He looked around. <This room appears to lack a window. For obvious reasons, but it will make departing without encountering your paramour challenging.>
"I don't think she'll give you a hard time on your way out," Ilen said.
The word out had lost its sour taste.
<Perhaps. In any event it will not be called for to linger and endure the abuse. Good day, Ilen.> Corvan straightened up and made for the door.
Rhysel hung back, even when Hallai pushed past Corvan into Ilen's room to cup Ilen's face in her hands and peer into his eyes. She looked like she expected to find something strange there, but Ilen mostly felt just like himself. "Ilen, how are you?" she asked.
"I think I'm fine," he said, sitting up slowly. "But I wish he hadn't left so fast - what if I try going out, and it doesn't work, and -"
"Ilen, I know how to handle your attacks," Hallai said. "You don't need that creep for that. He obviously did something. You don't even sound like yourself, you just talked about going out, you never did that."
"Would you like to go outside, Ilen?" Rhysel asked gently.
Ilen felt like he'd read the sentence in a book. He'd usually been able to read books without reacting too badly to them; they were far enough removed from the world. He knew that this sentence wasn't removed from his world, that if he said "yes" then following through would involve getting up and going up the hall and down the stairs and out to the door and into the yard. This just didn't seem special.
"Yes," he said.
It seemed a little more special during the walk through the house. He was flanked by Hallai on one side and Rhysel on the other. Rhysel was tentatively trotting along, and Hallai was slinking like a cat, boring holes into the back of his neck with her eyes.
"It won't kill me," Ilen said self-consciously. "It wouldn't have even before. Whatever happens it's not going to kill me."
"I know, sweetie, but attacks aren't good either," said Hallai, "even if they won't kill you..."
"I feel okay," Ilen said.
They reached the door.
The babies' room was quite near the front entrance. Ilen had historically avoided looking in its direction, and when he had, he'd learned to edit it out of his understanding - part of the wall, certainly not a door, not on that wall.
He still did that, automatically, and stopped at the door, looking at it too quizzically, before he looked again at it and saw a perfectly unintimidating exit.
He put his hand on the handle and pulled. Hallai drew in breath through her teeth.
Ilen opened the door.
Air rolled in, humid and warm, and ruffled his shirt.
It was so bright.
He squinted, and stepped forward.
"Is it always this bright?" he asked. It reminded him a little of Ehail's office, and the other rooms with live plants in them. He supposed that made sense, but even those rooms weren't so blinding.
"You're... you're not supposed to look right at the sun, Ilen," Rhysel said.
Ilen turned his head. There were flowers surrounding the building. He'd generally avoided interacting with the groundskeepers, but he knew they existed, that a few people from the house earned their keep by maintaining... plants. He'd seen pictures of more kinds of plants than the few types the house contained in pots. The real ones looked just about like that, only three-dimensional. They smelled like perfume.
Leading from the entrance was a path that went to the fence at the edge of the house property. A dragon could avoid catching shrenhood even in his or her natural form from behind the fence, provided no irresponsible children had escaped and run rampant recently. Not that dragons usually got even that close.
Beyond the fence the path widenened into a road, which went to the island's little town full of vacation homes and pineapple plantations. Pineapples coming into the kitchen were always local, with "Kep Island" scrawled on one of their spiky leaves or on their jars.
Off to the left was seashore. To the right were vine-encrusted trees, hiding more seashore.
Ilen took a breath, and the air was wet and hot, and the sun was still bright even with his face turned away from it.
"This is anticlimactic," he said.
"Do you want to see the rest of the garden?" Hallai asked suddenly. "I can show you the garden. We can go into town. We could go to the main island, we could go traveling, we could take a scoot to Mekand and go mountain-climbing - we could move."
"I'd like to see the garden," Ilen said, turning to Hallai and smiling at her.
Rhysel took that as her cue to leave and went, disappearing from her transfer point in silence.
"I don't want to be here," Tsuan said.
"I understand, Tsuan, but the Sainted Roses staff believe that you need ongoing help, and your husband agreed. I remind you that -"
"I know, I'm not compelled outright to be here, I just have to get a divorce first if I want to stop coming," growled Tsuan. She'd lived in Corenta since well before those laws about "spousal decisionmaking proxy" had been passed, and that had been during a time when she'd been single anyway. She'd never expected it to apply to her. "I feel so free."
"I was going to say, that you can talk to your husband; if he changes his mind, he can release you from your therapeutic obligations," the therapist said.
"I don't think he's going to do that."
"Why's that, Tsuan?"
"I have to be here. I don't have to talk," Tsuan said.
"Well, that's true," said the therapist. "We could just sit here staring at each other until the next angle chime and then you could go home, and the same thing next time, if you want. But that would be boring, wouldn't it? And not likely to get you out of this any sooner."
"Kilaer only wants to be sure I'm not going to do anything stupid to myself again. I can prove that by not doing anything stupid," Tsuan said. "When he's satisfied I never have to see you again."
"That's true. You don't have to answer my questions if you don't want to," agreed the therapist. "I think you're going to meet your latest grandchild soon, is that right?"
That seemed unrelated. If she could get through her session with small talk instead of stony silence she'd take it. "Tomorrow," she said, "my son's going to bring her."
"And you're looking forward to that?" he asked.
"Are you capable of interacting with people without asking them why about everything, anymore, or did they train that habit out of you in year two of your therapy training?" Tsuan asked.
"I'm just curious, Tsuan. Why do you want to meet your granddaughter?"
"She's got a name," said Tsuan.
"Why do you want to meet Alyah?" He had a classic therapist voice. Level, smooth, and neither warm nor cold. A voice made of wood.
"She's my granddaughter. She's already more than a month old and I haven't seen her yet. I would have seen her earlier except Sainted Roses was keeping me cooped up and my son didn't want to bring her into the ward to meet Grandma for the first time."
"Why don't you want to meet your other son?" the therapist asked.
"I don't have to talk to you," Tsuan said.
"I know you don't, Tsuan." He sighed. "If there were any dragon therapists in Desinni, I'd refer you to one of them -"
"Are there any farther away?" Tsuan asked. "I'll fly to Esjanta and back twice a week to talk to a dragon instead of you. I have no chance of getting you to understand."
"Do you have a chance of getting your husband to understand?" the therapist asked.
"I don't know. Are there any -"
"I can check the union registry, but I don't think so, Tsuan. Not within the country, anyway, and I can't in good professional conscience refer you to someone without a National Therapeutic Society review score."
"Check the registry," said Tsuan.
"Your son Narax is also a dragon," the therapist said. "Do you think he understands?"
"My daughters understand," Tsuan said.
"Why do you think that is?" the therapist inquired.
"Shut up," Tsuan said.
"You don't have to talk, Tsuan, but I do. Why do you think your daughters agree with you while your husband and son Narax feel differently?"
Tsuan looked at the knicknacks on his desk. "I don't know," she said.
Hallai was looking at real estate listings.
"Hallai, please reconsider," Ludei said. He was standing over her desk, dark and solid and white-irised. "You are very valuable to this house. I can find a way to rearrange the budget and increase your stipend..."
"Wait, I could have gotten a raise all this time by threatening to leave? Now I feel stupid," snorted Hallai, "thanks. But no. Anyone - any green-group - can do my job now that Ilen's better," Hallai said. "You don't need someone forceful or clever, just someone paying attention. Promote the night shift empath, find someone to cycle in to cover the sleepers, you'll never miss me. Get Rhysel to haul her creepy friend in again if more long-term challenges crop up. Ilen can leave now. I can leave now. I'm not an inside shren and never was, I just didn't dare leave him, and now I can take him with me!"
"Hallai, you are very good at your job, and it isn't just Ilen. You were still young when he first had his attacks. I could have asked you just to look after him, but I made you empath for the entire house, instead, despite your age. It's because even as an adolescent you were better at this than anyone."
"Maybe since then someone just as good has grown up here," Hallai said indifferently. She wasn't immune to the compliments, but she'd been cut loose from the only obligation she was sensitive to. "I'll stay on long enough to train someone."
"No one volunteered when your night shift backup asked to be replaced," Ludei said. "Please don't underestimate your rarity. Few people can tolerate the task for any length of time, even without an extra challenge like Ilen."
"That's because the night shift sucks," Hallai said. "You'll get a response if you ask for someone to replace me. Keep the night shift person nocturnal if nobody else will take that, I guess."
"Hallai," said Ludei. "The house has lost fewer residents to suicide since you took on the job than it did in any comparable period before that."
"Great, you'll have lots of candidates to choose from. Ilen can leave, Ludei, and so can I. I took him into town today. I had to show him how to buy a banana. He didn't even know how to buy things. He needs me."
If she didn't show him... someone else would.
"How confident are you that there is someone else who can and will do the job?" Ludei asked.
"Quite," lied Hallai.
"Will you stay until I find such a person, and until you've trained him or her?" Ludei asked.
"No longer than two months, total, from today," Hallai said firmly. "If nobody turns up by then, talk to the other houses maybe or see if you can get someone who moved out to work remotely, but it's not going to be my problem after that."
"Perhaps you'd be willing to work remotely? You would only need to visit as often as we received new residents to learn their signatures."
"We'll see how employable I am out in the world and I'll get back to you. You know why this isn't a popular job? It's not highly entertaining with lots of room for career advancement," Hallai said.
Ludei sighed. "You can change your mind," he said.
"I know I can," Hallai said, scanning the listings. Everything was expensive. She had money socked away, but not that much. Maybe Ludei would come up with a figure for how much he'd raise her stipend by, and she'd be able to save up extra for another year or so. But then, she and Ilen would get out.
The shren who made alterations to the house put a skylight in Ilen's room, and a picture window in the babies' room. The little ones crowded around it to look at the view of the trees and the garden.
"Ilen, I want to go out," said a red.
"Not yet," he said, wincing. "When you're bigger and you can shift. Then."
"Aren't you a cutie," Tsuan cooed.
Kilaer watched her. She didn't look or feel particularly out of the ordinary. It was only a background note of disquiet, which had held steady since Narax's letter.
Kilaer didn't know what to think about the shren. His priority was his wife of the last few centuries. When he was sure she was all right - that she was safe - he could afford to think about the shren.
Easier was thinking about the little thudia Narax had brought them.
"Oh yes she is," Kilaer agreed aloud. "Who has cute little toes? I think it's Alyah!"
"Im!" exclaimed Alyah, grinning gummily. She was a happy baby. Narax looked drowsy but he was a solid sigh of contentment underneath. Fatherhood suited him, as well as it could suit anyone going it alone.
Kilaer had had a lot of thudia children. Humans and elves, but mostly humans, and the humans had been ethnically Ertydon, like Samia, and like Samia's daughter by extension. Alyah looked like his dim memories of his baby Covia, when Covia had been born.
Kilaer wondered if it was a disservice to his thudia children to think about them as little as he did now. They'd been gone for so long.
He wondered if he was doing a disservice to his shren son to put Tsuan's health before attempting a reunion. Or a union. He'd never even seen the egg.
"Tiny little toes," squealed Tsuan, tickling Alyah's feet. "Yes, there they are, and tiny little feet, and tiny little ankles, and I have no idea what else might be under all those swaddling clothes. Perhaps she's got wings and tentacles and a tail and a dorsal fin. Have you got a dorsal fin, Alyah?"
"Nope, she's baby-human-shaped," Narax said. "With any luck she'll take a few years to learn to be baby-dragon-shaped. I don't want to have to figure out how to chase a shiftslipping child around the house until I'm reliably getting a full night of sleep on a daily basis."
"Are you having trouble finding babysitters?" Tsan asked.
Narax shook his head. "Neighbor's family will do it when Keo or Neris can't. Why, you think I should ask someone to keep Alyah overnight? I have to give her up for a month come mid-Shuraahel. I don't want to put her with someone else except when I have classes."
"Oh, Narax, sweetie, everybody needs breaks," Tsuan said. "I had to share my first little boy, Mirad, with his father after our divorce, but I gave him to Mother when I had to anyway. Sleep won't wait for a month, Narax."
"I'm not abusing wakeflower or botching spells or snapping at my students - or Alyah, for that matter," Narax said. "It's not that bad. It's worth it to be the person to soothe her back to sleep."
"You're a good father," said Kilaer, scooping Alyah out of Tsuan's arms to smooth the new coils of dark hair on the baby's head.
"Thanks," said Narax.
There was a pregnant pause.
"I'm thinking tomorrow I'll bring Alyah to, erm, Petar," Narax said.
Tsuan's mood dropped, like a stone, and Kilaer dreaded the next few degrees of conversation.
Narax was watching them, waiting.
Kilaer joggled Alyah in his arms for lack of anything cleverer to do.
"Tropical islands are lovely places to visit," Tsuan said finally. "And I'm sure Petar is nicer than Egeria. Goodness, living in Egeria was awful, let's never do that again."
"Let's not," echoed Kilaer.
"Her uncle's looking forward to meeting her," Narax said.
"Narax, do you have to?" asked Tsuan. She was so terribly hurt. Kilaer drew back his inquiring magic; he didn't want to see it on her face and feel it in his soul, too. "Do you have to do this to us? Can't this just be about Alyah and her - and her -" Her attempt to lapse into babytalk was broken. "Her cute, cute little toes...?"
Narax's hopeful feeling broke. "Sure, Mom," he said quietly. "Today's all about toes."
Tsuan took Alyah back from Kilaer. "And little fingers, too," she murmured.
Alyah clutched at Tsuan's thumb when she got the chance.
Kilaer smiled a weak smile.
"It doesn't look like a baby," complained a white infant shren.
"Or talk, like a baby," agreed a silver.
"I don't think it's really a baby," a blue opal decided. "What is it really?"
Narax looked like he couldn't decide whether to be offended. Ilen answered them. "She's a baby human - well, human thudia - not a baby shren like you," he said. "She'll be able to look more like you in a few years, but not yet."
"She's got to learn to shift too?" asked the silver.
"Or she can't fly!" exclaimed the white. "Her too?"
"Her too," Ilen confirmed. "Or close to it, anyway."
Alyah got hold of a baby blue's nostril and was pulling on it ungently. Narax extracted her hand. "Ah-ah-ah," he said. "Anyway. This is my daughter."
"She's adorable," Ilen said, smiling. "Oh, and did you get my letter?"
"From yesterday? Yes, but I didn't find the time to read it, unfortunately, I've been carting Alyah around to introduce her to - people," Narax said.
"Oh. Well, the only important part in it was that Rhysel's friend Corvan was able to fix me. I can go outside now," Ilen said, smiling tentatively. "I can go anywhere I want. Nothing happens."
Narax smiled broadly. "Oh, that's marvelous. I don't suppose you want to live in my spare house? It's going unused, I don't want to sell it but I don't actually occupy it for the time being."
Ilen smiled back. "Maybe - um, not right away, I need more time to get used to the idea of letting someone else look after these kids. I suppose I could get childcare work anywhere, couldn't I?"
"Most places, including the place where the house is," Narax said. "But you do want to move out? I think it's a good idea."
"Yes. Hallai's been looking at places, but -"
Narax made a small choking noise. "Oh, you're, er, that is - she's looking to move out too?"
"Yes, now that she doesn't have to be here to handle my attacks anymore," Ilen said. "She might keep working for the house remotely if she can't find anything else. She doesn't want to stay here forever, though. It's only that all the places she's found have been expensive and we aren't paid that much because the house is on such a small budget... How much rent would we have to pay you?"
"You're looking to move out together," clarified Narax slowly.
"We've always lived together," Ilen said.
"Yes, but not in exactly the way most people who live together do," Narax said awkwardly. He batted away an encroaching shren claw. "Sharp bits off. She doesn't know how to wear scales yet."
"But we want to live together," Ilen said.
"Ah. The, uh, the house is one I got to live alone in," Narax said.
"We wouldn't need two bedrooms," Ilen said, blinking. "And it's probably bigger than both of our rooms combined, we're not going to feel too crowded."
Narax scratched at his scalp. "I'm... I was thinking you could live in the house, by yourself. I wasn't thinking about Hallai."
"Would it be okay for her to live there too?" Ilen asked.
Narax chewed on his lip. "No," he said finally. "I don't want to be Hallai's landlord. There might be free real estate in the neighborhood, so you could live near each other, if you... must...? Well, not realistically, if you're on a tight budget, it's an expensive part of town. Uh. Well. The house is open to you, Ilen, if you want to live in it by yourself," Narax said.
"Oh." Ilen sighed. "Okay. We can keep looking."
"Sorry," Narax said halfheartedly.
"It's okay," Ilen hastened to say. "I don't think most people let anyone live in their houses apart from family."
"It's sort of irregular. Yes." Narax adjusted his hold on Alyah, and handed her over when Ilen held out his arms. "My best friend, Neris, lives next door to the house and I don't think she'd, ah, get along with Hallai. She'd probably resent me for it if they had a conflict."
"Oh, that makes sense," Ilen agreed.
It didn't occur to Ilen until after Narax had gone that he'd talked about Neris before. Neris was a dragon. Neris might not want to live near even one shren.
But he didn't write about it, and the next time Narax visited, he didn't want to waste any of the very limited time they had together talking about it.
Hallai probably wouldn't have wanted to live in a house Narax was loaning them anyway. She wanted to live in Mekand, Ilen thought, not Imilaat. She wanted to live up in the mountains.
Keo was having trouble coming up with ways to ignore the hints Narax insisted on dropping.
"Thanks for watching Alyah," he'd say. "We're off to Petar if you need us."
As though Keo needed to be told where he was, to contact him, or to even physically find him if she wanted to.
"I always wanted a brother," he'd say. Choosing his verb tenses with too much exactitude.
As though she could miss that he wasn't talking about their dead thudia siblings, whose names they'd dutifully memorized in childhood.
"Alyah likes her uncle," he'd say.
As if Keo would assume that Narax was referring to Samia's brothers. As though Narax had any knowledge about how Alyah got along with anyone on Samia's side of the family.
Keo stewed. She pretended the most implausible ignorance and the most extreme foolishness.
Because she could never, ever tell.
| It's okay, love, | Kanaat believed in her mind.
| I know. As long as we don't tell, | she thought back.
As long as no one ever knew, things could go on as before.
It would be much more dangerous for Keo to have a mental break than it had been for her mother.