Chapter Four: Colonial Esmaar

Now that it doesn't matter who knows what about her, Finnah can make friends.

She does not turn out to be particularly gifted at it.

There's Korulen (there's still Korulen, there may go on being Korulen until Korulen dies). And, that's about it. Finnah has already established to the people in her level of kamai that she's not sociable and doesn't want to talk to them beyond functional, topical discussion. Last term, someone from Korulen's class who hadn't been keeping up with image kamai decided to add it back in and fell in with Finnah's cohort, but he picked up on this too and never seemed that interested in befriending Finnah to begin with. And there's no one like that this term.

People who buy candy from her don't tend to strike up conversations beyond "the weather's nice, huh?", "can you do raspberry gum soon?", or "this is a ripoff, it was cheaper last week".

Finnah does not like Kaylo, she still has a sour taste in her mouth about Lutan and Lil, and Kaarilel, while nice, is... not a whole lot else. Well, Finnah could think of other words for Kaarilel, but they wouldn't be endearing ones.

In the house, Finnah hung out with Hallai. She was casually acquainted with some of the interlocking circles of shrens her age. She covered for Ilen and would sometimes spend a degree chatting with him when he'd reappear, recovered from an attack. She knew the house leader, the house wizard, the house assistant gardener, and the house hairdresser.

But are they her friends? If she turned up at Ehail's house and wanted to have coffee and rice-syrup cookies with her at that restaurant where all of the tables are for two, would Ehail be politely bewildered? If she visited Hallai and suggested going together to see the model scoot race in Mepek (which is easy flying distance, now), would Hallai laugh her out of the building? If she ran into Ilen on the street (supposedly he can occupy streets, now; it is not due to a change of heart on his psychic sister's part; there was an obviously mass-copied letter about it) and she invited him to accompany her to the free concert in the park, would he make excuses and scamper away?

When Finnah was little, and she'd first learned to shift so she was halfway adequate company, she played with elf children at a playgroup near the quinoa farm. She can remember two of their names with reasonable confidence, faces of a few more. She called those elves her friends, until she was shipped to Petar on a boat and all her letter-writing energy was devoted to begging her mother to take her back.

Those elf children are all middle-aged now.

She and Shaalen were never really friends to begin with, and now they're barely acquaintances. Other islanders tended to steer clear of shrens outside professional contexts.

Rhysel would certainly identify herself as Finnah's friend if Finnah did something preposterous like ask, but Rhysel is just Finnah's teacher. The other teachers wouldn't even have such straightforward and certain answers to the question.

Finnah flops spread-eagled onto her bed and sighs.

In a half-angle she has to get ready for work. Her co-workers at the restaurant are two humans, two elves, and a halfling - one elderly, one obsessed with her homemade cosmetics side business who won't stop trying to sell Finnah kohl and mascara, one who doesn't seem to be all there even if he can group silverware and bus tables, one who doesn't seem to talk to anyone, and one who spends a lot of his time smelling like nauseating recreational fumes.

Finnah has gotten along fine without any friends besides Korulen so far. Just because she could make some now if some presented themselves doesn't mean she needs to.

She spends her half-angle writing down ideas for experimental penly and meringue flavors and then changes into her uniform and goes.

Linnip conquers Rygnaav. They use a civil war therein as an excuse to do it, but once they've begun no one can think why they - or someone - didn't do it years ago, since Ryganaav has been horrible since even before Finnah hatched.

The conquest is kindly done, by all accounts. Ryganaavlanik are pushovers to the point where lethal force is never necessary; they don't even use lights like the other magic-hating country. And Linnip is strange in that it's a former colony that actually wants to be a kinder colonizer than its old master.

Finnah has taken to reading newspapers, which is how she keeps up with this development. She wraps "surprise bundles" of candy in sheets from it, and people buy them as presents or when they can't make up their minds, even though they all cost more than their contents would if bought individually and disproportionately contain things that aren't selling in transparent wrappings.

The newspaper also excitedly tells her about the shren cure and its ongoing effects, including how someone anonymous got turned to stone by mistake and has only recently been fixed and granted dragonhood.

Finnah gets a letter with a Pra Verian flag on it. She has never gotten one of those before, and she opens it.

It contains an article from the Zefira Inspector-Linsang (one of the... five or so... things Finnah knows about Pra Verian is that they take their animal archetypes very seriously). The article is about the shren cure, the headline a dramatically serifed "Hidden Shame Becomes Open Glory by Work of Great Honorable Wizard".

Written over much of the text of the article, in blue pen, are words in Draconic, not in Verian: "Your mother didn't know when I asked. Did they get you yet, tikkase?"

It's not signed. It doesn't have to be. One person in the world could address her as "tikkase"; Draconic is helpful like that.

Apparently Finnah's father lives in Pra Verian now.

She burns the letter - with kamai; this crap doesn't deserve fire that comes from her freed natural self - and cries into her pillow until she falls asleep.

Her father doesn't take up pestering her regularly the way her mother has. Finnah's relieved at this, but not really grateful. Gratitude would take more time and thought, and even time and thought wouldn't necessarily produce it.

And she's busy. She's in three classes, and they're harder now, and Eryn keeps wanting her to invent her own projects instead of using the "examples", and Mysel is tired of moles and wants her to prove that she can work with birds, and Aar Camlenn is so exacting when he grades her on her air-levitations. She's making candy, and a customer's cousin runs a grocery store in town that wants to sell boxes of her fudge there for a small commission.

If that takes off, she can maybe quit waitressing, since she can make fudge in huge batches without it taking too much longer now that she can boil things with fire kamai - but in the meantime, she's still picking up shifts at the restaurant whenever she can and tucking away three quarters of the money to save against the house no longer helping with tuition. The other quarter goes to slowly adding to her awful wardrobe out of the past-fashions shop, and to paying for ingredients, and occasionally going out and having fun. Textbooks come with her mysterious half-ride scholarship. Finnah suspects that the scholarship is just the "Rhysel is Independently Wealthy Ridiculous Altruism Scholarship".

There's barely a break between winter and spring terms, and the classes flow smoothly into each other. She can make physical illusion sugar, now, which will behave exactly like real sugar - until a pot of it and butter and cream spits and burns her, and then the entire batch vanishes all at once and leaves her with hot unsweetened dairy, because images can't hurt people (or animals, either). So she doesn't switch over to making candy with that stuff entirely, but it's fine for things that don't need to be cooked. If only she could make it last more than an angle, anyway.

She gets a strange mass mailing. From Kaylo.

Wanted, it says. Dragon volunteers to donate excess dragon magic (via additional fixed forms).

And there is a list of three beneficiaries, and topping the list is Korulen Inular.

Finnah has her new form picked out before she's even fully decided to help.

When she was cured, Finnah added a third assumed form to the human and the cardinal. Now she can be a striped hyena, with thin legs and a brushtail and red bands streaking grey-beige fur. All three of those forms were sealed up somehow, when Kaylo worked his miracle, and then using them didn't take as much magic and extra could be used to complete the cure.

Finnah turns into a panda right there in the empty dorm room. She doesn't know before she does it whether the white parts or the black parts will have her natural color. It turns out to be the black ones that are replaced; she's like a bouquet of roses, bright beside pale beside bright.

On Shuraahel tenth, she bids an unsuspecting Korulen goodbye and goes to the meeting place in Barashi.

Kaylo separates out some of the donors and sends them back to Elcenia, to meet Rhysel and wait there for the third person who needs donated dragon magic, and then he counts up who's donating how many forms of those remaining. Finnah stays put, and when he gets to her, she fixes him with a stare. He doesn't bother asking her any questions beyond, "How many?"

"One," she says. She wants the last for emergencies. Use of a form would have been a good way to get away from that hawk, if she'd thought of it, and if she'd been able to come up with something good.

Kaylo finishes the count and sends some extras home, thanking them distractedly.

The headmaster's wife - Korulen's mom - is there. Finnah ducks behind a blue and an amethyst when she's sure she knows that this is that jade woman and not some other. Sure, Finnah's a dragon now too; that doesn't mean she wants the brainmelter's attention. Korulen's dad arrives a little bit later.

Also appearing is a brown-skinned, red-haired woman whose charisma is like a physical force, suggesting that while kneeling might not be required, it would absolutely be appropriate. Finnah bristles at this, it feels gross, but she keeps her mouth shut. A spelter fellow to her left does decide to drop to the grass.

The lady with the palpable personality is a Barashin goddess, and she's going to turn Korulen and her dad into dragons.

Finnah waits. She's far back enough that she can't hear much of the conversation between Korulen's familiy and the goddess, but then Korulen's hair turns green.

Finnah edges forward in the crowd to watch Korulen beam.

Korulen shifts, and she's a dragon now, too, and she's beautiful. For some reason Korulen never shifted in front of Finnah before. She must have looked like this, only smaller. She has the loveliest set of horns sweeping back from her head, and a terribly graceful neck, she's stretching her wings -

She shifts back to elf shape. She looks the same, not all symmetrical and smoothed-out. Finnah's not sure how to feel about that. Dragons are generally prettier than the species whose forms they take, but Korulen looks like Korulen. Is Korulen going to be disappointed when she looks in the mirror?

"Thanks," Korulen says. "Thank you so much. Arimal and Mom and Kaylo."

There. There's something the matter with Korulen, and Finnah hates it and needs it all at once. There are so many people here who appeared only to help her and she names three. "I turned into a panda bear for you," she calls out.

"And you, all of you," Korulen adds.

Finnah has no idea if she'd have gone on to say that unprompted.

She should have allowed another few moments, waited.

"You're welcome," she mumbles, too low to be heard.

Another term goes by. Finnah can hold onto physical illusion sugar long enough to make quartz candy with it and get it to her little shop-table, but then someone scratches his lip on a sharp piece and demands his money back when this leaves him holding an empty stick.

Finnah gives up that tack entirely. It's too frustrating to lose an entire batch of something just because it splashes onto her hand, and evidently slow-forming crystals aren't best made out of imaginary sugar either. When she can make an entire, complex candy out of illusion from scratch, then she can sell those - soft chocolate creams and spun fluff that people can eat all afternoon without spoiling their dinners. She won't need any startup money; even if she finds herself unsupported and wandering the square, with this skill, she will be able to set up an illusion table full of illusion sweets anywhere she lands, and make a living anywhere she goes, and she'll be so utterly free.

In the meantime she needs real ingredients for everything. The grocery store is selling some fudge but not that much of it; she can't quit the restaurant yet. The house is definitely going to dissolve, or at least shrink sharply and move into a smaller building. There is no reason for it to exist after shrens no longer do. Miracles are spilling out into the world. Adults that have hoarded their allowances for hundreds of years are buying houses. The babies are all going home. The ones who had correspondence work are transitioning into more typical jobs.

Another term goes by. Finnah can shape wood into anything; it'll move like warm taffy under her fingers. She can cure colds in anyone but herself, given an angle and unbroken silence to work in. She can set herself on fire and run around, unburned, a piece of the sun; she can surround herself with an envelope of air and stay underwater forever. She has made a piece of illusion maple candy - the simplest thing, only soft sugar with one flavor in it - that she offered to Korulen without the jade girl noticing it wasn't real until Finnah couldn't hold it any longer and it vanished.

Korulen is - well. Korulen has jade green hair now, instead of flaxy blonde, and she can speak all the languages in the universe, and she is an empath. Korulen is not adjusting particularly well to empathy. Finnah tries to keep herself calm when they're near each other; even a little frustration over a stubborn working or annoyance at people bickering in the hallway is enough to make Korulen flinch. (The bickerers in the hallway do that in any case.)

Finnah did not get as much mileage as she hoped out of finding one flaw in Korulen, especially not since Korulen finds her change of species - and her new sense - so challenging. There's always some negative emotion to be had and Korulen didn't get trained to withstand it from earliest childhood. Mind kamai isn't designed to help with this problem. She looks tired much of the time and it's all Finnah can do not to guide her by the shoulders into bed and tuck her in.

But Korulen's still studying and she's started tutoring one of Rhysel's nephews, too. The kid's a spontaneous kama, apparently, and needs help getting that under control before he can start learning kamai the way anyone else would. Korulen seems to like the work. She was a good tutor for Finnah; she's doing good for Rhysel's nephew too. Slowly, she's learning to use what she feels from people around her as information, and not as a trigger to retreat and hug her knees and look so thoroughly in need of cuddling that Finnah has to leave.

Early in the Sutaahel break, Linnip kills several hundred people with a mysterious form of attack on a warded village called Aabalan and demands surrender.

Apparently they aren't content with Ryganaav.

Finnah thinks it could have been worse. Someone was bound to try to take over the world at some point. It's too much of a classic goal. Ertydo - itself the prior occupant of Linnip - made its try not too long ago in historical terms, albeit before Finnah hatched. There was Andekanda the Mage and his Legions sweeping down from Mekand to conquer most of Anaist before succumbing to poison. Before that there was the Erthyo Empire that Ertydo named themselves after in their hubris. There was probably someone else before that.

Linnip is demonstrably a restrained and orderly conqueror. They were able to take Ryganaav bloodlessly. Esmaar was harder; they'd leapt from the most trivial attack to one considered impossible, their target secure behind their magical defenses. But now that Linnip has demonstrated their power on a tiny village in the best-defended country in the world, they shouldn't have to do it again. Perhaps everyone else will fold politely now without anyone more having to die, knowing that not even hastily erecting Esmaarlan-quality wards would help, and Linnip can satisfy itself running things for whatever reason countries like to run things.

Everyone else, of course, is panicking.

Korulen is worried about her father, and her father's family home in the city, which is owned by her great-uncle. Lutan is hysterical that her grandfather, her father, her uncles, her various male cousins, and her brothers will all lose their jobs. Kaarilel thinks there's going to be mass swordpoint conversion to Aleism and whines that she doesn't think Sennah even exists. Lil is concerned that the cultural contamination will render all of the boys around her repressed and boring. Kaylo mutters about moving when he's out of school. The classrooms, when classes are back in session, are abuzz with distress and confusion. No one knows how to react to their country being conquered.

Kep Island has belonged to Petar for the last fifty years. It belonged to Petar before that, too, but for a little while in between, it was Aqathe's. And nothing happened, really. Kep Island was a bargaining chip and Aqathe took stewardship of it for one decade as part of a treaty about the treatment of Criin, then gave it back. The taxes went to different people, and the voting system changed, and a different annoying bureaucrat ran the island's public functions, and the signs all had to be written in Munine as well as Leraal. That was it. Until a protest got out of hand and the demonstrators trampled one of their own to death.

Finnah's not scared.

Except of everyone else's fear.

There are soldiers around. They're serving mostly as a highly visible supplement to the police force. A surprising fraction of them are men; some of the men are even allowed to operate unsupervised by women officers, although they're always in pairs or larger groups and sometimes the female soldiers are alone.

There are typically a couple of them around Binaaralav, wandering around, keeping an eye on things. Probably they'd call for backup if anything actually happened; they'd have a hard time handling wizards and kyma, even students, on their own.

Some of them come prowling through the school, taking a census. Not everyone is there over break, but the census is happening all over the country; they'll get counted at home.

Finnah and Korulen sit in their room, reading books, and wait for the knock.

Conducting the census are a pair of women, one in her thirties maybe, the other obviously fresh out of her induction ceremony, sixteen on the nose if Finnah's any judge. The elder has a sour look and neia triangles on her sleeves. (Finnah's newspaper of choice included a section on how to tell apart the various ranks, among other informational articles about their new overlords.) The younger, holding a clipboard, has a single imap dot on each arm and she's got a perpetual pink blush. And big, brown eyes.

The imap makes eye contact with Finnah for a long moment, blinking, before her superior says, "Go on, Nepailah-imap."

"Oh! Yes," the imap says in accented Leraal. Her voice sounds pretty, if a little hard to understand. "Um, hello. We're here to collect data for the census. We need your full names, your species and age, citizenships, and information about your financial support. Do you want to fill out the forms yourself or respond verbally?"

Korulen holds out a limp hand for the form, and Nepailah-imap gives her one, then looks expectantly at Finnah.

"Is the form equipped to handle dragons?" Finnah asks, holding her hand out too.

"Yes, of course," Nepailah-imap says. The very tips of her fingers brush Finnah's hand when she gives the form.

"Okay, but how do you want my name rendered? Korulen's goes nicely into Leraal characters. Mine's not as cooperative."

"Your names can both be put down in Draconic," Nepailah-imap says, blushing harder. "I'm sorry for not mentioning that sooner."

Korulen rolls her eyes and erases. Finnah just smirks and puts down the little blocks of lines that make each syllable. She doesn't have any added ones, unlike Korulen who's already accumulated heaps from various relatives.

"If you don't understand my answers on this form," Korulen says, "what happens?"

"If we don't understand them?" Nepailah-imap says, puzzled.

"She's younger than she looks," Finnah says glibly.

"As long as the checking spell says everything is correct I don't imagine anything much will happen," Nepailah-imap says, looking at the neia for confirmation.

"There will be a followup census in two months," the neia says. "You may be asked to explain any anomalies then, but assuming you don't lie on the form, nothing happens right away."

"Okay," Korulen murmurs.

Finnah scratches out her own unremarkable age in the box provided. "So you're going to know our names," she says to the junior soldier. "What's your name? Besides Nepailah."

"Amaia Nepailah," says the other girl, after another glance at her CO.

"Amaia? That's pretty," says Finnah.

There must be some limit to how pink Amaia can get, but she has not reached it yet. "Thank you," she says. Finnah smiles slowly.

<Finnah. What are you doing?> Korulen asks, not looking up from her form.

<Flirting with the cute girl.> She writes dragon (miracle) in unnecessarily fancy handwriting, and starts doing arithmetic on scratch paper to calculate her annual income and tuition support from various sources.

<She's a soldier!>

<No, you mean the uniform's not a costume?> She pencils in Sale of handmade candy.

<You can't flirt with her! She just conquered Esmaar!>

<Her personally? She doesn't look like she's been in the army more than two days. Also I don't think imaps get to make any decisions, possibly including about their own underwear.> And Finnah puts up her mental shield to shut out further nagging, writes Scholarship, and says, "I don't know if you actually read these or just turn them in. I'm Finnah."

"It's nice to meet you," says Amaia. She's averting her eyes from Finnah's face now, in what might look like a shy behavior if she weren't averting them in the direction of Finnah's neckline.

"Likewise," Finnah purrs. Waitressing. Support from Keppine Shren House, Kep Island, Petar. "Did you just get out of training?"

"Um." Amaia looks at her CO again, who just raises an eyebrow. "Out of first phase, yes, I'm in second phase training now."

"Your Leraal is very good. I can tell you're not a native speaker, but only just." Finnah puts down the school's address and her room number as her long-term address. Someone has probably already moved into her old room at the house.

"Thank you," murmurs Amaia. She's looking at Finnah's face again, and her eyes are very round.

That's Finnah's form done with. Korulen already handed hers to the older soldier.

"Bye," says Amaia softly.

"Go check out the next room on your own, Nepailah-imap," says the neia.

"Yes ma'am," says Amaia, and she scurries away.

The neia watches her subordinate go down the hall, then turns and gives Finnah a considering look. "She's not allowed to ask you out. Anti-abuse protocol."

"Oh," Finnah says blankly.

"But I'll let her off duty at thirteenth-and-naught, at the front door of the school," continues the soldier. "If there is anything you would like to ask her."

"Oh," Finnah says.

The neia winks and leaves, closing the door behind her.