Chapter Two: Spheote

"Her?" Mallyn asked. The light glinting off the lady's hair was so bright.

"Here, move this way a bit, you'll be able to see both of them through the window. Her, and her husband there with the red hair. See?"

Mallyn nodded.

"They filled out a questionnaire, let me see - Her name's Ehail, his name's Gyre," Lorin said, peering at a square of paper covered in circles and coils and boxes. "They've got two young dragon daughters - adopted. They live here in town, but Gyre's from Aristan, and dragons can speak any language, so you'll be able to talk to all of them in Martisen while you work on learning Leraal."

"Dragon?" Mallyn asked. Except for the silver hair, Ehail looked like a human to him.

"Dragons here on Elcenia can learn to turn into other things. Most of them learn to be humans, or sometimes elves, so they can walk through doors and so on," Lorin said. "You can tell who the dragons are because they keep some of their dragon color from form to form. That's why her hair's so shiny. She's a silver dragon."

Mallyn swallowed. He'd never encountered a dragon personally on the farm, but once, he thought he'd seen one flying overhead - he'd memorized the shape of it, and it hadn't looked like a bird or a bat, and it was huge. It was also not the kind of creature he'd expected to offer to take him home. And there one was, married to a -

"Halfblood?" Mallyn asked.

"Gyre's one, yes. Like any halfbloods you met back in Aristan."

That was more normal. But still. Parents. They had daughters at home. They were there to look into taking him home, too, and - doing what with him? His parents hadn't fit with Esmaarlan standards. Ehail and Gyre apparently did because they lived in Esmaar and had adopted children, so they were different, but that only ruled out one thing. It didn't fill in the gap. He'd go home - with them or with someone else - he didn't seem to have much choice - and then what?

He supposed he was expected to learn more Leraal. What else?

But Mallyn couldn't figure out how to ask Lorin, so he didn't.

"Do you want to go meet them?" Lorin asked.

"Okay," Mallyn said, averting his eyes from the dragon's silvery hair.

Mallyn mumbled out a hello to the couple.

"Hello, Mallyn," replied Ehail. "Did Lorin already tell you our names?" She spoke softly, like a dove or like how Renn had used to coo to baby Lyrrae.

Lorin had indeed told him their names. He nodded. And she'd told him something else about them. "Parents."

"We might adopt you, but only if you'd like us to," Ehail said. "We wouldn't adopt you if you didn't want it." Well, that was nice of her, but Mallyn didn't think everybody was guaranteed to agree with her. Lorin had been pretty definite that one way or another he'd be adopted before the year was out.

And that wasn't what he'd meant anyway; he'd meant they were already parents. "Girls," he said.

Lorin put in, "I mentioned your kids."

Gyre spoke for the first time. "We have two daughters, who we adopted a while ago. If you came home with us, they'd be your sisters."

Mallyn didn't know what he thought about that. He already had a sister, and a brother, and supposedly they were safe, but they weren't there. Was he supposed to replace them with strange would-be sisters? Or some other family's sons, or some third family's mix? But he didn't like the idea of being the only child in a house, either. He'd done his best to shield Lyrrae and Renn, but that had been his choice. If they hadn't been there, he wouldn't have had any choice to make about whether to be the constant, unwavering target of parental attention -

"Lyrrae," he said, by way of illustrating part of his train of thought. Lorin explained to the couple briefly about Lyrrae and Renn, and Mallyn murmured to himself, "Safe."

So he was told.

But he already knew something about how hard Aristan worked at filtering parents in it.

"Mallyn," said Gyre, drawing Mallyn's attention out of his thoughts again, "is there anything you'd like to know about us, or our daughters? Or our house or anything at all?"

He might as well get the question out of the way. It was bound to be different from what he was used to, he knew that, but maybe in this strange world full of a hundred kinds of magic and a hundred kinds of people and dragons whose hair looked like fine silver wire, there was some kind of discipline that was even worse than being beaten senseless and nursing a rotating collection of broken bones.

"Punishment?" he asked.

"We never hit our children," Gyre said.

Expecting that was one thing, hearing it was another. Mallyn was pretty sure every parent he'd ever met before hit their kids, at least when they were really bad, really asking for it. He'd even seen Miss Syl slap her niece once, for bad language.

Ehail continued from there. "If the girls don't behave, telling them to stop generally does the trick," said Ehail. "If it didn't I imagine we'd remove them from the situation and put them in their rooms. I'm not sure exactly what Rhysel's nanny, or Rhysel herself, do - if they've needed it we haven't heard about it - but they definitely don't hit children either."

So when Ehail and Gyre needed someone else to mind their kids, they got someone named Rhysel or her nanny to do it. Mallyn's parents had sometimes left the three of them with grandparents, or with whatever neighbor would take them. The grandparents were just as bad. The neighbors were usually a little better, but not the fairytale-level of better that these people were claiming. Telling them to stop? How was that supposed to curb accidents, speed up slow chore-doers, cure disrespectful attitudes, undo sloppy mistakes, get Renn to quit having nightmares -

But Renn wasn't there.

Mallyn looked up, reminding himself where he was. Ehail's hair was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "Hair," he said, before he looked away again, afraid of their eyes.

"I'm a silver dragon," Ehail said. "When I shapeshift, I keep some of the silver color. That's why my hair looks this way."

Mallyn knew that, but Ehail hadn't heard Lorin telling him about her.

"That's also how she can speak Martisen," Gyre said conversationally. "Our daughters are both dragons too. So everyone in the house would be able to talk to you even while you're still learning Leraal."

Mallyn supposed most families who might want to adopt him would only speak Leraal. He didn't really relish the idea of trying to please a family who couldn't even give him instructions; there was no way for that to end well. What would he have to do, anyway? He still didn't know what he'd be doing all day. At the housing unit he ate a lot and drew and listened to people talking to each other with all those long yawny aa sounds. "Chores?" he asked.

Ehail counted on her fingers. "The girls have to keep their rooms picked up, and clear their dishes before leaving the table at meals, and once Rithka has the fine motor control I'm going to teach her some simple cleaning spells but in the meantime it's simpler for me to do all that myself. Cenem helps in the garden, but she doesn't have to do that, she just likes to."

Two girls had two rooms? They had stuff in their rooms that needed to be kept tidy? Cleaning was done by magic? Gardening was optional?

...And that was it? Ehail had stopped talking.

"Even if you don't come with us, Mallyn," Ehail said, "I hope you find a good family who'll love you like they should. No one should ever treat a child the way you were treated."

Mallyn didn't really know what to make of that. He didn't know why any parents who went as easy on the chores as Ehail was claiming wanted kids at all. That was what kids were for.

Gyre asked, "What sorts of things do you like to do, Mallyn?"

Mallyn had no idea what the point of that question was supposed to be. Minimizing distractions, keeping away materials that would tempt him to do things other than whatever they assigned him? Some kind of reward-based system like the chicken farmers used with their kids, with work quotas holding promise of trips to the city or desserts? Should he tell them, or should he make something up?

"Draw," he said finally. Lorin would be able to tell them if he didn't, anyway.

"I draw sometimes," Ehail said. "Mostly plants. What things do you like to draw?"

Was she going to ask him to help her draw? That was just about the best thing he could think of, if that was all she'd want him to do. "Birds, people," he said. He'd have added but I can draw plants too if you want, but that was such a long sentence.

There was a silence. Mallyn looked at Ehail's shoes. They were made out of blue leather and buckled around her ankles.

Lorin asked, "Do you have any other questions for them, Mallyn?"

If Ehail and Gyre wanted to be his new parents, and run his life here on out, he'd need to know their position on - "Lyrrae and Renn?"

"I'm a wizard," Ehail said. That was one of those excessive numbers of kinds of magic... "As long as we can work it out with whoever adopts your brother and sister, it will be easy to visit even if they live far from the summoning circle." Someone else was going to adopt them. He couldn't go with them, they couldn't go with him.

Mallyn supposed he'd known that already.

He nodded.

"I need to stop you here," Lorin said. "He was malnourished when he got here, and the trained-light I spoke to says he needs frequent, small meals - Mallyn, go have some fruit and nut butter, and a cookie if you want one."

Mallyn got up, grateful for the break. He got strawberries and dolloped them with cashew paste and also took a lemon cookie, and took them up to his room and nibbled on them all steadily until they were gone.

When he crept tentatively back into Lorin's office, Ehail and Gyre had left.

"Hello again," said Lorin. "They've gone home, but they'll be back in a couple of days, with their daughters."

Mallyn nodded.

"What did you think of them?" Lorin asked.

"They're..." Mallyn didn't know what to say about them. "You saw." She'd been there for everything he could have used to form an opinion.

"I saw them, but I can't read your mind, so I don't know what you think of them unless you tell me," Lorin said.

"They... they seem nice," Mallyn said.

"Do you think you might like them to adopt you?" Lorin said.

"Maybe," hedged Mallyn.

"I should mention, they're probably a better fit demographically than anyone else we'll be able to find - she's a wizard, they're all Martisen-speaking - but that doesn't mean anything if you don't like them personally."

Mallyn nodded.

"I'm so sorry that we can't have Lyrrae and Renn here with you," Lorin sighed. "Aristan won't give them up, and Esmaar won't give you up. But with a wizard in the house it would be easy to arrange visits without them having to travel however far to get to the circle from wherever they wind up."

He nodded again.

"Why don't you go take a nap? You look tired," sighed Lorin.

Mallyn didn't need to be told twice.

Lorin had warned him that they'd made another appointment and that this time they'd be bringing their daughters, but he thought he'd have time to finish his snack before they arrived. It was rice crackers, with artichoke cheese spread on them, and he was enjoying them very much when Lorin opened the door and was followed in by Ehail, Gyre, and two little girls.

Mallyn leaned over the food while Ehail said, "Hello, Mallyn."

Was her voice that gentle all the time? Or did she sometimes scream, sometimes snarl?

"It's us again, and we brought our daughters. This is Rithka, and this is Cenem," Ehail continued, pointing at the older girl with thick iron-gray hair and the younger with a glassy black sheen to hers. They didn't look alike, even apart from that; Rithka had darker skin and Cenem's eyes were shaped differently. So Mallyn supposed they'd been adopted separately. Were either of them missing brothers and sisters some other country was keeping for political reasons?

Rithka had run right up to Mallyn while he'd been wondering. "Hi!" He moved the crackers; she looked exuberant enough to knock them over, and he wasn't sure if he could get more if she did that, or if she ate them. "I'm not gonna steal your food. I had lots of lunch. We had turkey and noodles. It was good. There's leftovers and you can have some if you come home with us soon but I bet it'll be all gone in two days."

Cenem said, "Can I have a cracker?"

Mallyn looked at the crackers. He had four left. He'd eaten four already. Seven wasn't that different from eight. He gave Cenem a cracker.

"Thank you," Cenem said, around the food. She went to the chair where Ehail was sitting and sat in her lap.

"If you don't want them all, then -" Rithka said, and Mallyn prepared to give up another cracker.

"Rithka," said Gyre.

"Oh, fine," said Rithka. "I'm not hungry, they just look interesting. We should get crackers for the snack cabinet, Mom." She climbed into Gyre's lap and fixed her gaze on Mallyn. "So you're Mallyn, right? You should talk. We're trying to get to know you so you have to say things."

Oh. He supposed they could probably adopt anyone they wanted. They already had. If he wanted these people and not some other people (but did he? He still didn't know) he needed to give them a reason to pick him. But he couldn't think of anything to say. "Hi," he tried, watching Rithka's feet swing back and forth over the floor.

"You have to say things about you," Rithka corrected. "Or ask us stuff about us. Why're you here?"

Mallyn wasn't sure how to condense a reasonable answer to the question. She couldn't want the whole story of his life. And "because I walked here" would seem disrespectful. What was the simplest way...? Rithka looked like she was about to say something else, probably another question. "Ran away," interrupted Mallyn.

"Why? Mom said your egg par- I mean your birth parents, because you were born, you weren't an egg, but she said they weren't good parents, but she didn't say what they did. Were they mean?"

That was a fair word. He nodded.

"What'd they do?" Rithka wanted to know.

"Beat me," he summarized.

"You got to a light, right?"

Cenem chimed in: "Lights are useful."

"Yeah," Mallyn replied to both comments.

"Mom and Dad make me and Cenem go to a light every other week and heal all our forms even if we aren't hurt," Rithka said. "'Cause one time I forgot to tell her that I munched my finger in a door, and so now even if I say I'm definitely not hurt or anything she wants to make sure we go a lot. One time our cousin Apran broke his leg falling off a horse and didn't tell anybody. Can you ride a horse?"

Mallyn could ride a horse; it was useful for getting from one end of the farm to the other quickly, or for going to neighbors' places farther away than just the dairy. "Yes." He bit another cracker.

"Cenem can turn into a horse," Rithka claimed outlandishly. "I rode on her here but you can go instead of me on the way home if you come home with us, I'll let you."

"I decide who gets to ride me," Cenem said.

"Aren't you gonna let Mallyn if he wants?"

"Yeah, but you don't say so, I say so."

Mallyn said, "How?" He'd been told already that dragons changed shape, and that this was why they all looked like humans, but he'd never seen it done. He had no idea about the mechanism.

"Like this," said Cenem nonchalantly. She got off of her mother's lap and into a clear space in the room, and - there was a horse instead of her, a grown glossy black mare easily twenty times Cenem's previous size.

"See?" said the horse.

Mallyn's half-eaten cracker dropped onto his knee. "B-but." She was so much bigger. Where did it come from? She could talk. As a horse. Horses couldn't talk.

"You're not scared of horses, or anything, are you?" Rithka asked.

"She changed," Mallyn said.

"People on Barashi can do that too," Rithka said. "Turn into stuff, I mean. Our aunt Rhysel has an apprentice kama who's all Barashin and he can turn into stuff. I saw him being a bat with his vampire girlfriend this one time!"

"Oh," said Mallyn. His cracker was on the floor, spread-side down. He clasped his hands in embarrassment. He knew almost nothing. His parents had had to send him to one year of school - they were allowed to keep him back for the other three because they had a farm - but he'd learned almost nothing there, not when the teacher thought he was stupid and all the assignments were written, assuming everyone had learned to read at home. He knew so little. A six-year-old girl made him look like an idiot.

Cenem changed back into human form. Rithka elaborated. "But dragons do it different. I can be a squirrel and a sparrow and a human! I'm being a human right now. See?" She windmilled her arms.

He did see. "Yes."

Rithka turned into a dark grey squirrel in the blink of an eye and bounced from Gyre's lap to the table to Mallyn's shoulder. He'd never had a squirrel on him before, and certainly not a squirrel who was also a dragon and also a little girl. He didn't know what to do, so he held still.

She wrapped herself around his neck. "I'm furry," she told him.

"Rithka, don't jump on people like that without their permission," Ehail said. Mallyn repressed a flinch. Was that really all?

"Okay," said Rithka, not moving a muscle.

"Rithka," Gyre said.

"What? I'm not jumping on anybody, I'm holding totally still," Rithka said triumphantly.

If Rithka had had his parents that deliberate smart mouth would have gotten her clobbered so hard her eyes would have swollen shut for a week.

"Don't be on people without permission," Gyre said.

Rithka's whiskers tickled Mallyn's ear. "Can I be here?" she pleaded.

He didn't really want to find out what Ehail and Gyre would do if he wouldn't let Rithka sit on him, for all that they'd scolded her. (If you could call that a scolding.) Besides, he didn't really care, now that he wasn't startled anymore. "Okay..."

She rearranged herself more comfortably. "Thank you."

"Y-you're welcome."

She brushed her tail over his nose; he sneezed. "Do you like me and want me to be your sister?" she asked.

He already had - but she wasn't there.

"Maybe," he said.

"Only maybe?" asked Cenem.

"You can't just stay here forever. It says temporary in big letters right on this building," Rithka said.

"I know." He hadn't known that those were the words on the building, but he knew it was the name of the place.

"Who else would you rather get adopted by?" Rithka asked.

Well, he didn't have an answer to that one.

"Don't be pushy, Rithka," admonished Ehail. "He doesn't need to decide anything today."

Rithka nosed at Mallyn's ear again, sending a shiver up his spine. "We're nice," she said. "Ask us whatever."

Mallyn swallowed. "You like it?" he asked. It. Adoption. Their parents. Everything he was being asked to take.

"Yeah. It's way better than the shren house where we lived before," Rithka said. "Mom and Daddy love us and Mom can cook tasty food and we have a cool yard with plants all over it and sometimes I go to work with Dad and learn to make jewelry but I'm not allowed to pierce my ears yet - I did it myself anyway once but then I had to go to the light and they healed so that didn't work very well and I got it kind of uneven anyway - and I have my own cards, even a Continent-style deck not just a Saraanlan traditional deck so I can play all the games and I bet Daddy's going to get me Barashin cards soon too, and I play sports with the neighborhood kids and they're fun and I'm good at 'em. And we have aunts and uncles and a grandma and a grandpa and cousins and stuff!"

Mallyn understood about... half of that. "Stuff?" he prompted. When she was talking, he didn't have to.

She nodded and his ear itched; he scratched it. "Stuff! Our Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal - they have babies who are twins and look just the same, they're cute! - have a nanny and a gardener and when we stay there so Mom and Daddy can do things, sometimes the nanny watches us. She's stuff. And great-grandma is stuff. Kenar is kind of stuff. And, you know, stuff. But mostly aunts and uncles and cousins."

"Oh." That was a lot of people. Could they all be safe to be around? Rithka seemed unhurt, but there were lights, so that was meaningless. (He wished he hadn't thought of that.) "Nice?" he asked nervously.

"They're all nice," confirmed Rithka. "Except Kenar but he lives really far away so he shouldn't be a problem and he only ever reads anyway, he won't bother you, he doesn't like us."

"Oh." That was... weird. She was willing to admit that someone wasn't nice but he was a faraway, unobtrusive person? He'd thought that either she wouldn't own up to not-niceness or the not-nice people would be numerous and nearby.

"You need to talk more," Rithka told him. "I can't even tell if you like us."

Mallyn didn't notice he was petting Rithka until she purred, vibrating his entire head with the sound. He dropped his hand.

"It's okay. You can pet me," said Rithka. "I'm totally furry! But do you like us?"

Mallyn touched her fur again. It was soft. "Yes," he said.

Mallyn wrote a single stroke where his signature was supposed to go. Lorin assured him that it was fine. Gyre's name was made of familiar Martisen characters, fuzzy with stems and branches. Ehail's was two complicated nests of lines.

He wore Rithka home.

He got his own room. They just had... extra rooms.

He might have spent a day sitting in it, touching the covers on the bed (the actual bed) and shuffling barefoot on the carpet if Rithka hadn't told him that Mallyn was supposed to come on a shopping trip for clothes.

Mallyn didn't really enjoy anything about the shopping trip. It was crowded in the stores, and he didn't recognize most of the clothing styles so he had no opinions on anything, and - now Lorin wasn't there, if something changed, if Ehail and Gyre weren't so sweet and gentle, if they took exception to something he did or said, he had no familiarity with this culture, these people, this world.

He felt better with Rithka right there, ready to whisper in his ear. "Get that one, it's a good color." "Daddy'll pay for it." "Do you have to go home now?"

"Mmhm," he half-whined. He hadn't meant to say anything, and he was quiet, but Rithka said aloud, "Mallyn needs to go home now."

"We don't have shoes for him yet -"

"He can fit in Kenar's probably," said Rithka dismissively. "Or we can get them tomorrow."

Mallyn wished she hadn't said anything, but Gyre paid coins for the clothes they'd picked out and they all walked home. "Are you all right, son?" Gyre asked.

"Yessir," said Mallyn.

"You can call him Dad, silly," Rithka said. "He's your dad now as much as he is mine."

That was the problem.

They walked.

"Mom can teleport," chatted Rithka. "But we're walking 'cause she doesn't want to have to get you used to too many things all at the same time. Next time you have to go home in the middle of shopping just say so. In whatever language. Want to learn some Leraal?"

"I know a little," Mallyn said. He'd found that with Rithka right on his neck, he could whisper ever so quietly, barely exhaling, and she'd hear him plain as day. It was easier to talk just to her than to - everyone. "A few words. You talk all languages, but what one did you learn first?"

"We don't learn them," Rithka said. "They just happen. Or we couldn't speak Draconic. 'Cause you can't learn that."

"I can't?" Mallyn asked, stung. Not it's not important or I don't feel like teaching you but you can't? Even the schoolteacher who'd told him he must be slow had never said that, she'd only said it would take a long time to pick up this or that.

"Nobody can. I mean, you could learn a couple words. But not the whole thing."

"Teach me a word in Draconic?" Mallyn asked.

"You have to learn Leraal," Rithka said.

"Just one? Then teach me more Leraal," Mallyn suggested.

"What do you want to say in Draconic?" acquiesced Rithka.


"How about 'adopted'?" she proposed. "I mean there's like a hundred kinds of adopted, but I can tell you your kind." She paused. "Actually there's a bunch of words that could apply to you too, but I can just pick a pretty one."

"Sure," Mallyn said.

"Spheote," Rithka said. "Like 'this is my new spheote brother Mallyn' or 'hi, I'm Mallyn, I'm spheote'. So what Leraal do you know?"

"Can I have another Draconic word?" Mallyn asked. It was prettier than Leraal was.

"Learn a whole sentence in Leraal and then sure," said Rithka. "I'm s'posed to help you."

"All right," said Mallyn. "I know how to say 'yes' and 'no' -"