Chapter Five: Livahe's Restaurant
At twelfth-and-twenty-four, Finnah lurks near the front door of the school.
She doesn't care what Korulen says - and that's nearly as glorious as the prospect of asking Amaia out, all by itself.
She doesn't care what Korulen says. Amaia's not Finnah's enemy. Amaia's a cute girl who picked up a steady career which happens to involve being in Esmaar without express invitation. Amaia was totally checking her out. Amaia's got big brown eyes and she looks so very kissable. Finnah does not care what Korulen says.
Finnah smiles to herself, and she waits.
Right on time, the neia and Amaia come through the front hall and out the door. "The rest of the evening is yours to dispose of as you like," says Amaia's CO. "Be in barracks before your shift curfew and conduct yourself responsibly."
"Yes ma'am," says Amaia, crossing her right arm over her chest to touch the opposite shoulder in a Linnipese salute.
The neia teleports away, and Amaia, who apparently can't teleport, starts towards the door on foot.
Finnah peels herself away from the wall. "Hey," she says.
Amaia jumps about a foot in the air, but then composes herself and straightens her posture. "Oh! Hi. You're Finnah, right?" She speaks Leraal, maybe to practice. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Your CO says you're not allowed to ask me out," Finnah says.
Amaia looks at her feet. "That's right," she says.
"But she kinda implied that I could ask you," Finnah adds slowly.
"Um," Amaia says, stunned and smiling, "yes, but, um, this means that I have to be considered partial in any kind of dispute or dispensation of services that our occupancy mediates that involves you or persons personally known to you. That's so there's no incentive to date soldiers just to get perks. There aren't any perks."
"Did you eat a rulebook?" Finnah asks archly.
"They're delicious as a chiffonade with lemon juice," Amaia says. And she says this exactly the same way she says everything else, not even slightly giggling at her own joke, so it takes Finnah a tick to laugh.
When Finnah has recovered and Amaia's looking pleased with herself, Finnah says, "I'm not looking for perks, I just wanna take you out to dinner. If you've been on duty all day you must be hungry."
"Starving," admits Amaia. "And I'd like to! But - but I'm not sure where to get faei food outside the unit hall. Even the restaurants with Linnipese style food here don't always meet the requirements."
"There's some Aleists here, just not many," Finnah says. "I have a part time job at a restaurant and I know how they handle it when you order stuff faei - they have the separate salt and everything. We can just go there."
"Really? That would be great. I'm sick of army food," Amaia says. "I miss my dad's onion soup."
"They don't have onion soup at the restaurant, sorry," says Finnah. "Do you want to change out of uniform first?"
"Can't," says Amaia apologetically. "Even off duty, if I'm going to be away from barracks I have to be in uniform - then I'm identifiable if there's some kind of emergency."
"Some off-duty," Finnah snorts. She starts walking towards town. Amaia follows after, brisk even steps.
"It's also to protect me. There's negative feeling towards Linnip right now - the other day my friend Sinkay had to help a Linnipese-Esmaarlan family who've lived here for ten years whose neighbors were throwing rocks at them. People are less likely to attack me when I've been obviously trained to defend myself."
"Oh." That makes sense. And it's kind of sad. "Uh, this is kind of a long walk, do you want to hike the whole way?"
"I can't teleport yet," Amaia says. "And I haven't been around much of town so far either. Can you teleport?"
"Nope," Finnah says, and she waits for Amaia to figure it out.
"...Do you mean flying?" Amaia asks with a disbelieving grin. "Really?"
"Why not?" Finnah doesn't have a saddle, but image kamai can take care of that. "I fly to work all the time."
"That would be - I mean I never have before," Amaia says. She looks somewhere between scared and hungry.
"New to me too," Finnah says offhand. "But it's the best."
"You didn't read my form at all, did you?" Finnah asks. This is amusing.
"I didn't - there wasn't time - and even if I read it I couldn't have done anything with knowing," Amaia replies. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
Finnah shrugs. "I'm a miracle." She shifts, and in the same moment images up a saddle for Amaia to sit on so she won't get her uniform shredded by scales. And she crouches low, and says, "Hop on."
"How will we land in the city?" Amaia asks, reaching out to touch the saddle, but not hoisting herself up yet.
"Uh." Finnah didn't think of that. "I just turn into a little bird and go down that way, but. ...I can float you, with air kamai?"
"How does that work?"
Kamai can be done in any form, a distinct advantage it has over wizardry. Finnah orders the air to pick Amaia up and float her a few inches off the ground, then set her gently down. "Like that."
"Ooh. Okay, that will work." The army uniforms have pants, not skirts - Finnah has already heard half a dozen uninspired stupid jokes about how for a country run by women Linnip sure seems to like dressing its soldiers as men - so Amaia has no further issue with climbing up the provided saddle and sitting down.
Smiling's not really natural in dragon form - she could do it if she were actively trying to communicate by body language to someone humanoid, but Amaia can't even see her face from there. Instead she finds her tail rippling and her ears relaxing, letting the wind press them back against her head.
Amaia says something, inaudible against the rush of air.
<Beg pardon?> Finnah asks. <Uh, just think what you want to tell me, I can pick that up without anything else.> She knows that much mind kamai, at least.
<I said, this is awesome!>
Finnah's tail is in some danger of destabilizing her flight. She calms it, with effort. <I know, right?>
<I did a scoot-flying course in training, and Nikarra, one of my classmates, said it was nothing like flying on a dragon - she's got a great-grandmother who is one - and she was right,> sends Amaia happily.
<They teach you to fly scoots?>
<Yes. For some reason people who aren't in the army - even back home - seem to think they just teach us combat li-rai and wards and weapons, but that's barely half of it.>
<What's the rest, besides scoots?>
<I learned scoots and crowd control and a history-and-protocol course and disaster relief procedure and supply management and utility spells and Leraal, and enough Upland Alteisec to get along. Everybody has to try two languages, but they only advance you in those if you're decent at them; I knew Leraal from school. And I'll do more courses if I ever get promoted to neia. What do they teach you besides floating people and telepathy, at your school?>
<I can mess with animals, and sculpt wood and rock by magic, and do things with fire and water too, and I'm starting to learn some healing - it even works on lights, one of my classmates was chasing a national-level scholarship to focus on healing in return for agreeing to take a job serving the public lights, but I don't know where that's at now. And the saddle you're on isn't real. I don't have a real one. I can make all kinds of illusion stuff - I mean, they call it illusions but it's not like the wizard kind that you can't touch. Also, I am really good at killing spiders. I don't have to step on them, they just die.>
<That's awesome! Especially the spiders.>
<Especially the spiders?> Finnah laughs.
<Well, spiders are awful!>
Finnah laughs out loud. They're approaching town; she slows down to make sure she doesn't fly right past the restaurant out of distraction. It's in a little cluster of food places near a complex of offices, nestled between an iced planet nook and an upscale Saraanlan place that actually has other Saraanlan foods besides the flavored mash. When she reaches the street outside, she carefully picks Amaia up with air kamai, shifts to cardinal shape herself, and descends with the both of them to the cobblestones.
"Here we are," Finnah says, shifting human and gesturing at the restaurant. "Livahe's."
"Doesn't it get hard to remember what all the restaurants serve, when they're all named after people?" Amaia asks, when Finnah opens the door for her.
"A little, maybe," Finnah agrees when they walk in. "I don't eat out that much. I only know this one because I work here. The language is a clue, though, you know Livahe's is going to be food from someplace Kida-speaking."
"Avehali?" guesses Amaia.
"Baverian. I guess it's not that good a clue." Finnah waves at her nearest co-worker. "Toren!"
Toren, an old human man with nearly white hair, looks over his shoulder - and starts to smile at Finnah, and then he sees Amaia.
The smile instantly disappears.
Oh, great. Finnah holds up two fingers, making steady eye contact and not smiling either.
Toren nods, eyes narrow, and motions for them to come sit at the table near the back corner. Finnah could take issue with the placement - he could just as easily put them by a window - but she's getting the feeling she's going to have to pick her battles here, so she just leads Amaia through the restaurant and sits down on the side that will let her watch the rest of the room. She has no doubt that Amaia doing combat li-rai would be all kinds of fantastic, and maybe if things go really well she'll ask for a demo later, but Finnah's the one who can do magic and turn into a big toothy dragon. Finnah's the one who knows this restaurant and the regulars and the waiters.
Amaia makes no protest at the seating arrangement, just picks up her menu and scans it with interest. "Can they make everything faei?"
"Not stuff that's made in batches, so no soup. Nothing pickled either, because they pickle it with regular salt. And anything that's arranged around mushrooms is out because they get pissy if you want substitutions. But you could have any of the noodles, or the turkey bowl."
"Turkey bowl's good?" Amaia asks.
"It's my favorite thing here. I'm not getting it today because I had it on break yesterday, though. I'm getting the summer noodles."
Amaia nods. "I might steal a bite if you get yours faei too."
"I will, then," Finnah says, smiling.
There should be a waiter here by now. Where is everyone?
Toren's got his back turned; he's clearing another table. The fumey guy is... organizing the menus or something, not looking their way. Cosmetics Saleslady is talking to the cook.
<Hey, Kemnil,> Finnah interjects into that conversation. <What's going on? We're ready to order over here.>
<Gimme a minute, I'm busy.>
<You're trying to sell gloss to Pendaar. That is not work related.>
<You're not the manager, Finnah.>
<I'll tell him.>
<Fine, do that.> And that's all Kemnil has to say, apparently.
Amaia has no idea what the normal wait time is like. She's sitting patiently, looking at the beverage menu.
Finnah looks for the manager's mind. There he is, in the back office. <Halekmin?>
<I think me and my date are being quietly refused service. Kemnil's not even doing anything, she's just talking to Pendaar.>
<Your date a girl?> Halekmin asks. <Not your species?>
<Yes and yes, but I thought you told Kemnil when you hired her that being Kovin was no excuse for ->
<Yeah, yeah, not excusing her, just looking to see if it's that or something else so I know what to say on her writeup. I'll come help you two in a tick myself.>
Finnah waits. She has the menu memorized and can't amuse herself reading it. "So - you're sixteen?" she guesses.
"Yeah. Usually I wouldn't have been allowed to join up until my birthday and I'd still be in training now, but they've started allowing earlier admission into first phase for people with military family, as long as we're sixteen by the time we're on duty anywhere. So I started when I was fifteen, right when I got out of school."
"Bunch of your relatives in the army too?"
"My mom, my older sister, some of my cousins. Both my grandfathers, too, but they're retired. So is my mom - health problems and she couldn't bear a desk job."
Halekmin comes out of the office. He spots Finnah first. "Hello -" And then Amaia. "Ah."
Finnah looks up at him, frowning. "I'd like the summer noodles and Amaia's having the turkey bowl. Faei, both of them."
Amaia still doesn't know anything is the matter. She's looking up smilingly at Halekmin.
He stands quite still for a tick, then says, "Of course. That'll be just a few degrees."
"Thank you," says Amaia.
Finnah smiles tightly. "Yes, thanks."
Finnah doesn't trust him. She listens for surface thoughts - just enough to make sure he actually tells the cook about the dietary rule she needs to adhere to. And he does. But he considers neglecting it.
"I know the basis for the 'only eat stuff from plants and animals' thing is in the Eialei, but why is it that and not something else?" Finnah asks by way of conversation.
"We don't know," Amaia says. "It's older than the Eialei, though. A lot of the pre-Colonial Linnipese cultures would only eat food from plants and animals for spiritual reasons. One of the things the Ertydoan colonists used to do would be to find hungry natives - and there were kind of a lot - and get them to eat mushrooms or stuff that had been salted with sea salt. It's not the worst thing that happened, but it's one of the things that we learn about in history-and-protocols. We're all very serious about being better colonists."
Finnah nods. "Everyone thinks you did a nice job in Ryganaav, near as I can tell."
"Not here?" Amaia says with a weak smile.
Amaia shrugs and looks at her hands, in her lap. "It's okay. I know not to expect everyone to be happy with us. Or me as a representative of us."
"It doesn't bother me," Finnah says. "I dunno what the plan is, but it pretty obviously wasn't your very own personal plan."
"Um, I have no official opinion on Aabalan or any surrounding plan except to extend my deepest condolences to the bereaved," Amaia says carefully. "And to say that we believe we are acting in a way that will minimize long-term violence."
Finnah waves a hand. "I'm not insinuating you have to defend the Aabalan thing, or attack it, or anything. It doesn't matter. My boss could do something assholish, like 'forget' to tell the cook I said faei -"
"Would he?" Amaia asks anxiously.
"Maybe on another day. He didn't just now. I checked," Finnah says. "But if he did, that wouldn't reflect on me. You wouldn't bother asking me what I thought of it. I don't think most people would even judge me for keeping the job."
"I... I appreciate that, really, but I don't think it's quite the same," Amaia says slowly. "I believe in the Empire and what it stands for. You're right that it's way above my rank and experience to be deciding how we do anything, but I don't actually believe that - well, I'm not sure what people around here think exactly. That Esmaar was none of our business, maybe?"
"That's probably a safe guess," says Finnah. She picks up the table's waterspout and fills her glass.
"Right. I don't think it's none of our business. I think nearly everything should be everyone's business, to some degree. No one thought Ryganaav was their business, for two hundred years, and so many horrible things happened there because everyone decided to leave it alone. We put a stop to that. Reasonable people could disagree about whether Esmaar's at all similar, I guess, whether it meets some threshold that would justify various things we could do, but it's just not true that it's none of Linnip's business how Esmaar is run."
"Well," Finnah says. "I think it was pretty unambiguously nicer than Ryganaav. You could've done Mryne or Erubia or something next."
Amaia looks away. "I officially have no position -"
"It's okay, it's okay. We can talk about something else," Finnah says. "So you have a sister. Any other siblings?" She regrets this question as soon as she asks it. She doesn't really want to spill her guts about the baby half-brother she's never met on a first date, and that's the obvious lob-back.
"No, just her," Amaia says. And either she knows something about miracles or she doesn't care about who Finnah's related to, because she asks instead: "Your classmate wants to heal with kamai, but what are you going to do with it?"
"Well, it's useful for all kinds of things, day to day," Finnah says. "But what I really want to do - and it has only a tiny bit to do with kamai - is open a candy store."
Amaia laughs, a single startled heh. "That doesn't have anything to do with kamai at all, does it?"
"It can!" Finnah says. She makes an image maple candy. "Here. Taste it. It's not real - no nutrition at all, disappears before you can try to digest it."
"Uh," Amaia says.
Finnah looks at the maple candy in her hand. "Right. Plants and animals. And this would still constitute eating." She dismisses the illusion. "Are you allowed to drink things that aren't from plants or animals?"
"Yes, of course. Otherwise it'd be really hard to get enough water!" Amaia says.
Finnah makes her a glass of illusion lemonade instead. "Here." Amaia sips it, and looks at it, impressed. "I can make real candy and stuff, too, but the illusions will probably let me carve out my niche. And elemental kamai's good for cooking in general."
Their food should be out already. Pendaar's faster than this on a normal day. Did she lean out the door when Finnah wasn't paying attention and see Amaia? Pendaar's surface thoughts, high up enough to be on the level Finnah can read with rudimentary mindspeech skill, are all about the clams she's frying for someone else's dinner, and her sore knee; Finnah can't go any deeper.
"That's really cool," says Amaia. "I think the University of Peiza has kamai students now. I know someone from Mystic Forces who says they're liasing with the department there, but no one's graduated yet so there's not a full-fledged branch."
"Yeah, I bet Rhysel would have qualms about allowing Barashin kamai teachers to go work at Mystic Forces," Finnah says. At Amaia's puzzled look, she explains, "Rhysel's in charge of kamai on Elcenia - I mean, Elcenians might or might not care, but Barashins care a lot, because a Barashin god told everyone that Rhysel was handling this for them. So Barashin teachers won't teach kamai anywhere on Elcenia that Rhysel didn't tell them they could."
"I don't know how to feel about Barashin... god-things," Amaia says, pursing her lips. "I remember hearing about them... I don't think the sasaideima has a ruling yet."
"I saw one once," Finnah says.
"Really? What was it like?" Amaia's leaning forward over the table now. Finnah could kiss her. Would this be a good time to kiss her? Right when she asked a question which isn't answerable by kissing?
Finnah remembers that she can mindspeak, if it comes to that.
She leans forward too, and tips her head to the right, and kisses Amaia.
Ha, she didn't misjudge, Amaia kisses right back. She's just as kissable as she looks, too. Finnah decides to taste like sugar. She's not making proper image sugar, just the taste of it, so that should be fine as far as Aleist dietary laws are concerned.
<You taste nice. Sweet,> Amaia thinks, sending the words at Finnah to start mindpseech.
<Image kamai. No physical sugar involved.> Finnah reaches up to get a curl of Amaia's hair away from where it's tickling her cheek.
<Oh. That's good then.>
Amaia finally sits back, pink in the cheeks, gulping down air and and grinning. "That was nice," she says softly.
"Mm-hm," says Finnah, grinning back.
"But what was meeting it like?" Amaia asks, blush slowly receding.
"Kinda unpleasant. They have this aura that makes them seem super-important. One guy who was around started bowing. It was nasty. And she looked like me - I mean, colors, not in the face or anything. I think they do that for everyone."
Amaia makes a face. It's so terribly cute. "Oh dear. Why were you meeting one?"
"We weren't personally introduced, she was just there. She's friends with Korulen's mom," Finnah summarizes.
Where is their food?
She sees Halekmin approaching and watches him expectantly - he isn't carrying any dishes. "What's up?" she asks, when he gets to their table.
"There've been complaints," he says, "and you girls need to leave."
Finnah stands up so fast her chair falls over. "Halek-"
"Finnah," says Amaia. "It's okay."
"What? It's not okay! He -"
"There's a sign on the door that I saw when we came in that says you'll refuse service to anyone who disturbs the other customers. It's very clear," Amaia says softly. Finnah's not sure if Amaia's eyes are watering or if that's her own imagination. "So we'll go. We don't need to make a scene." She gets up - without knocking over any furniture. "I'm sorry for disturbing your customers, and I want you to know that there aren't going to be any repercussions about this from the occupancy, so please don't worry."
But Amaia's eyes are definitely tearing up, when they walk out.
<I quit,> Finnah sends viciously to Halekmin. <You can forget about me covering Kemnil's shift next Saanen. I so quit.>
<You're replaceable,> Halekmin replies, agitated, and he disappears into the office.
Amaia and Finnah stand out on the street, Amaia dejected and Finnah furious.
"Come with me," Finnah says. "I have access to the school cafeteria kitchens - I'll make you dinner. I even know what goes in the turkey bowls."
"Really?" Amaia says, smiling a watery smile. "That - that would be nice of you."
Finnah becomes a cardinal, and perches on Amaia's shoulder while she lifts the soldier up into the air. "Least I can do after... miscalculating like that."
Above the buildings, Finnah shifts, and remakes her illusion saddle, and floats Amaia over to it. They fly towards Binaaralav, and watch the sun descend over the lip of the world.