Chapter Three: Noi

Sometimes they touched him. Rithka was nearly always draped over his shoulders, or sitting on his head, or coiled around his neck, and that was fine; Cenem liked to hold hands with whoever was convenient when they were walking to stores, and that was fine.

But Gyre patted him on the head once and would put a hand on his elbow to weave the both of them through the throngs of people on the shopping excursions, and Ehail would fluff his hair with her fingers or hug him, and he didn't know what to make of that. They were acting like they were him and he was Lyrrae or Renn. He used to ruffle their hair, wrap his arms around them, pat their heads. He didn't know why anybody was doing it to him. He kept expecting the gestures to turn into attacks. But they didn't, and he didn't complain out loud either.

"Do you like your room?" Ehail asked.

"Yes ma'am."

"You don't have to call me 'ma'am'," Ehail said.

Mallyn didn't say anything.

"We're going to have seal for dinner." Ehail said. "Since it's a special occasion. And also a salad. Does that sound good?"

Mallyn wasn't sure he knew what seal was, but it didn't sound like a kind of bean. He nodded.

"Seal is delicious!" Rithka announced. "But it's really expensive so we only have it when special things happen. It's an animal," she added. "A swimming animal that's not a fish."

"Oh," said Mallyn.

Ehail said, "I think these clothes will probably do, but ideally you'd have a nightshirt... I suppose that can wait until tomorrow, if you're too overwhelmed with new things?"

Mallyn nodded again. He hadn't had a nightshirt at the farm - it was always plenty warm in Aristan, and there were three of them in one room, and it just made more sense to sleep naked even if his parents would have provided extra clothes for sleeping in. Esmaar was colder, though.

They got back to the house. It had plants all around the edges, and on the roof.

"Let's go in the yard and play ball," Rithka suggested.

Rithka had a leather-covered brown ball about the size of her (human form) head, and she taught Mallyn a complicated series of rules called "one-on-one kebel", and they kicked the ball at each other until Ehail called them in for dinner.

The little iron dragon charged back inside like she was possessed, and Mallyn followed more tentatively. Rithka had taken her shoes off at the door, so he did too and went barefoot into the dining room.

The seal steaks were good, and so was the salad. Ehail wished aloud that Mallyn wasn't so portion-controlled and promised that there would be leftovers set aside for him to snack on the next day.

Mallyn didn't really mind the small portions. He usually felt pretty full after each meal and snack, though he'd always have room again by the next one.

Everyone was waiting on the brown-sugar apples that were sitting in the oven, because he couldn't have them right after a meal. That made him want to shrink into his seat - he could always have one later, or just have something else for his evening snack, the rest of them shouldn't have to wait on him - but he didn't say anything.

After the meal was over - and the dishes cleared away before Mallyn could blink, by some magical process - Rithka grabbed him by the hand and hauled him up the stairs into her room.

Rithka's bed was smaller than his, and the covers were red-orange-yellow streaked instead of the diamond-patterned blue he had, and she'd had more time to accumulate toys and books and clothes, which were stacked precariously on shelves and piled into the dresser and heaped in several toybins. She pulled him to sit next to her on the bed, then leapt up and closed the door. "I wanna syllable from your name," she announced.

"A - a what?" Mallyn asked.

"A-syl-la-ble-from-your-name," said Rithka. "To put in my name. I have one from Dad already and Cenem's too little and Mom did my line name, but you're not too little."

"What did his name use to be?" Mallyn asked in puzzlement.

"Oh, no, his name's the same!" exclaimed Rithka. "And yours will be too. I just copy part of your name, that's all."

"And then you'd be named - Malka or something?" Mallyn asked.

"No, no. I keep being named Rithka forever. There's extra parts after that. My whole entire name is Rithkaehailre," she said, bouncing up and down on the bed. "You can pick any syllable you want from your name and give it to me, and then I'll be named Rithkaehailrewhateveryoupick."

"Why do you want to do that? Is it a rule?" Mallyn asked.

"No! No no no. Not at all! You can't make rules about that! It has to be asked nicely without any rules about it. By the dragon who wants the name part - you have to wait to get asked. If you don't wait then you can't do it right." She sighed. "And you can say no if you want."

"I - I don't mind really, I'm just trying to figure it out," Mallyn said.

"All you have to do," Rithka said, brightening, "is say my whole name with whatever you want to add, added! I'd write it down for you but you haven't even started learning to read yet."

Mallyn swallowed something large and heavy that had materialized in his throat. He was going to have to learn to speak a new language, and learn to read two of them... "Rithka-ehail-re-mal?" he said.

He wasn't going to give her a part of his last name, their names. That wouldn't be a nice thing to give anyone.

"Thanks!" crowed Rithka, and she leaned over and pecked Mallyn on the cheek, then became a squirrel sitting on his shoulder and leaning her forepaws on his ear. "Let's do some Leraal until the brown sugar apples are done." She switched languages. "Hello! My name is Rithka!"

"Hello," Mallyn replied, trying to yawn on the aa. "My name is Mallyn."

"Mallyn what?" Rithka asked, hopping on top of his head.

"Uh -" It occurred to him that he didn't know if his last name had changed with the adoption. He'd learned to say "I don't speak Leraal", and tried leaving off the word "Leraal" in the hopes that this would just mean - "I don't know".

"You don't?" Rithka asked.

"Caryllen or -" He wasn't sure what Gyre's last name was.

"Camlenn!" supplied Rithka. "Wow, that's weird that you don't know. I always know what my name is. Dragon names are magic."

"They are?" It seemed like everything about dragons was magic. "What's Draconic for 'name'?"

"A dragon kind of name or your kind of name?" Rithka asked.

"A dragon kind."

"The whole thing, or just the part you call somebody, or that and the line name, or just the line name -"

"The whole thing," said Mallyn.

"Isoh. But you don't even know your last name! Let's go ask!"

Mallyn was familiar enough with Rithka after even their short acquaintance to know that this meant he was to carry her in squirrel form to a parent, and she'd ask for him. He felt silly for depending on her so much. He was supposed to be the big brother, the one who shielded the little kids from everything - but Rithka wasn't like Lyrrae or Renn. She wasn't scared.

He walked her down the stairs to where Gyre was playing a board game involving pegs with Cenem. Rithka had said that Gyre usually went to work during the day, but he was taking a couple of days off to help get Mallyn used to things. Mallyn couldn't help but think that this was backwards. It would have been easier to get used to just Ehail, and then Gyre, one at a time.

"Go on," Rithka urged. "Ask him."

"What?" Mallyn whispered, taking a step back towards the stairs when Gyre looked up. "You ask him."

"You have to practice Leraal! Ask him in Leraal 'what's my last name?'" she whispered back.

Mallyn gulped. He didn't know how to say sir in Leraal. He supposed he could lapse into Martisen for that.

"W-what's my last n-name?" Mallyn asked. His aas sounded terrible, he knew it, but Gyre probably had an accent too, even if Mallyn hadn't learned enough to really hear it. "Sir?" Mallyn added in Martisen.

Gyre smiled and replied in their native language, mercifully comprehensible. "It was put down as Camlenn when we adopted you, in the Esmaarlan records. I don't know how it is in Aristan, though."

Mallyn nodded and fled up the stairs.

Cenem liked to make collages, and other arts-and-crafts, and because art supplies were not as high up on the priority list of things to shop for as study materials and a fuller wardrobe, Mallyn wound up borrowing her paper and her drawing utensils. She was quiet, comfortable to be around in her own right even if she wasn't as actively helpful as Rithka with the people he still wasn't comfortable with. She also liked to garden. He tried... not gardening... and nothing happened.

Just... nothing happened.

But it was a small garden, and Ehail and little Cenem between them managed it just fine, so maybe there was something else he was supposed to do.

It turned out that what he was supposed to do was learn to read Martisen. "If we start there, you'll be able to use written notes to study Leraal," Ehail said, "and you won't need to wait until someone's ready to help you."

"Oh," said Mallyn.

"I have some simple Martisen storybooks we can work through, after you've got the alphabet down," Ehail said.

Mallyn nodded, and looked at the sheet of paper she handed him with the criscrosses of angled lines. He memorized it, but he didn't know what any of the shapes meant.

Ehail let him look at it until he glanced back at her, and then she started pointing to each letter in turn and telling him its name and what sounds it made and what words it was found in.

She made him guess how to spell his name, corrected him, and then had him try a few other words before going through the alphabet over again.

"What's Draconic for 'alphabet'?" he muttered under his breath.

"Cax, for the kind Martisen is," Rithka said without looking up from her book.

Meanwhile Cenem was diligently manipulating other characters for her arithmetic practice, and Rithka was reading a fat book with little print.

Mallyn bowed his head and looked at the alphabet again. He could call to mind what they all looked like - he could produce an exact copy of this page, in Ehail's writing, if he had to - but he had to remember which shape went with which sound, and that was harder.

Ehail was right: it would be better to learn to read in Martisen so he could just memorize written notes about Leraal.

"Emy," he murmured, pointing.

"Very good," said Ehail warmly.

Little kid books were boring.

Some of them were also cute. Cenem had books in a dozen languages, and she was the equivalent of three, though he'd been told that she was actually older than he was. Sometimes Gyre or Ehail or even Rithka would read to her, when she didn't feel like reading on her own (she barely came up to his waist and she could read anything), and sometimes what they read was in Martisen, and some of it was cute.

The stuff that Mallyn was equipped to read was not even cute.

"Kynalya," he said, "and her kiersa flew... quickly?"

Ehail nodded.

"Quickly to the big... tree... and said hello to all the... furry... animals..." He was halfway through the book and so far all Kynalya had done was find a giant kiersa and fly around on it from place to place. The illustrations were pretty, but there was just nothing to the story.

"And?" Ehail prompted when he'd paused, and Mallyn jumped.

"And the furry animals said hello... back. Kynalya and her kiersa flew... high... to the... clouds." He put the book down. "Boring story," he muttered under his breath.

"I know, sweetheart," Ehail said. She kept calling him that. "Once you've learned to recognize more words you'll be able to read more interesting books."

Mallyn looked at the novel Ehail had been reading. He could sound out the title. Kathyne. It had held Ehail's attention for divs - for angles, rather - and had to be pretty interesting. At least it wasn't for infants.

He reached toward it, but didn't touch it. It wasn't his and no one had handed it to him or told him to take it.

"That's in Martisen," Ehail said slowly, "and you can look at it, if you like, but I'm not sure if you'll be able to read much of it. It's a translation of 'Kathyne' - your father says it's a story popular in Elystan and he got me a copy from a bookstore in Aristan City..."

Mallyn took a moment to recover from his puzzlement at "your father" before he realized she meant Gyre. Right. Well, she said he could try to read it.

He put it in her lap, instead. If he just looked over her shoulder, while she read it... like she read to Cenem...

She didn't seem to see what he was getting at. He opened the cover.

"Do you want me to read it to you?" Ehail asked.

"Yes," Mallyn said softly.

Ehail picked up the book and touched the words as she read. "Kathyne of Abellen stole out of her chambers in the dead of night..."

It was a long book, and it had lots of characters, and they didn't get very far in it before it was time to stop, but it was much better than Kynalya and her endless boring flight.

Ehail did magic. All the time.

She did magic on the food, to keep it warm if someone was late for dinner. She cleaned with magic. She changed the colors of Cenem's walls with magic when she got bored with polkadots, with clouds and rainbows, with pink and gold stripes, with a map of a continent. She turned into a bird, sometimes, and flew around the house, the way Rithka could turn into a different bird and Cenem into a shiny bee.

He dropped a dish, and it shattered, and he stood stock still stammering, trying to figure out how to make it better. The dishes at the farm had all been made of wood. They'd never given him anything fragile - spilling was bad, but spilling was cleaned up with mops, and the glass everywhere didn't look very moppable.

And Ehail just fixed it by magic, and picked it up off the floor, and it was like he'd never dropped it.

He went on standing there until Ehail said, "Mallyn? Are you all right?"

"I - I broke the -"

"Yes, but it's all fixed now. There's no more glass on the floor; you can move around," Ehail said.

Mallyn shook his head. "I - it -"

"It's not a big deal, Mallyn. Even if I couldn't fix it, it's only a plate," said Ehail.

Mallyn swallowed and looked up at her. She was quizzical, regarding him with those kind eyes.

"I -"

"Mallyn, it's only a plate. You didn't hurt anyone, and you didn't break anything that couldn't be fixed, and I know you didn't do it on purpose. They can be slippery. Are you all right?"

He nodded. He was all right.

He was just working on figuring out why.

"You're silly," Rithka told him.

They were sitting out in the backyard, Mallyn with an afternoon snack and Rithka with a game of solitaire on cards he'd never seen before.

"I'm silly?"

"Yeah," Rithka said. "You always act like Mom and Dad are gonna bite you. They're not gonna bite you. You wouldn't even taste good."

"I don't think they'd bite me." Probably. That would be new.

"They're not gonna do anything to you," Rithka said. "Actually you could probably get away with just about anything 'cause they don't wanna spook you."

"But - they're parents." He didn't say "our parents". He wasn't used to that yet. But they were clearly Cenem's and Rithka's.

"Yeah. Your birth parents were a special bad kind of parents," Rithka said conversationally, sweeping her cards into a pile and dealing herself a new hand. "Mom and Dad are more regular and so they're not bad. And they're not gonna bite you, or whatever."

"No - you don't understand," said Mallyn. "It's - they can do anything they want."

"No they can't," Rithka said. "And they don't even want to bite -"

"It's not about biting! Or hitting, even, it's not just that, sometimes I had so much work to do I couldn't sleep, working the entire bean farm."

"You can always sleep here - we don't have a farm -" said Rithka in a small voice. "They can't just do that, they won't."

"They can! I'm here in their house and they could do anything to me and I couldn't stop them -" He peeled off his shirt, displaying the layers of scars on his back. "They could do this, all over again, and then what would I do, it was a miracle there was a circle to run to in the first place but I can't go back to Aristan and expect that to help - they can do anything they want - I just have to make sure they don't want to -"

Rithka was staring at him with her jaw hanging open.

"You can't tell anyone," Mallyn said, hastily pulling his shirt back on. "I'm not supposed to go around taking my clothes off in front of people - I mean you can tell anyone you want that they hit me, practically everybody back there does, that's not a secret, but that it was this hard, that it left marks, that you can't tell anybody."

But she was up and on her feet and running toward the house.

"Rithka! Don't!" he exclaimed, scrambling up to follow her, the second half of his buttered roll forgotten. "Don't, I'm not supposed to - I shouldn't've -"

"Mom!" Rithka said loudly. She was standing in Ehail's office doorway when Mallyn caught up to her.

Ehail looked up. Mallyn braced himself. "Don't, Rithka," he whispered.

"What's going on?" Ehail asked.

Rithka ignored her brother. "Mallyn has -"

"Don't!" he cried. No one was supposed to see, no one was supposed to know, the light had fixed everything that still hurt so it didn't even matter -

"You're being silly, I'm telling you, it's okay, you can say and if you don't I will," Rithka told him severely. She turned back to Ehail. "Mom, he has scars all over him. The light didn't get them. I saw when he took his shirt off. We gotta take him to Aunt Rhysel and get them gone."

"Oh, Mallyn, sweetheart," cried Ehail, covering her mouth with her hands. "Why didn't you say anything before? We can get those fixed -"

"Not supposed -" choked Mallyn. "Not - not supposed -" To tell, to show, to let anyone find out.

Rithka stomped her foot. "He didn't want to tell you," she said indignantly, "'cause his evil birth parents said not to say what they did - it was okay to say they hit him 'cause people didn't think he meant hard and how hard matters in Aristan - but they told him not to show anybody the scars! And they wouldn't let him sleep sometimes! And he had to farm beans all the time! When I'm big enough I want to find them and set them on fire and then eat them!"

Mallyn's attempt to form a mental image of this idea was hindered by the fact that he hadn't yet seen Rithka in her dragon shape.

"Mallyn, it's okay," Ehail said, "it's okay, you can tell us anything, we won't hurt you, they can't hurt you anymore..."

"N-n-not -"

"We can put off going to Rhysel if you need us to," she said. "But you don't have to be covered in scars. Your aunt Rhysel can take them away."

He was just stuttering by reflex now, backing up automatically. "N-n-"

"Sweetheart," said Ehail.

Mallyn ran.

He didn't know where to go, so he wound up wedged into a corner of the couch, crushing his ear under his head and hugging his knees.

Ehail followed him. Of course she followed him. Rithka flew in too, in sparrow shape, and perched near his head. "You're being silly," said Rithka.

Mallyn shook his head and scrunched his eyes closed.

"It's okay, Mallyn," Ehail murmured. "You aren't in trouble for telling. It's okay."

"I told you," Rithka said.

"Rithka, thank you for letting me know about the scars, but I'm sure Mallyn remembers what you said. Why don't you go play with Cenem?" said Ehail.

Mallyn heard wings fluttering, and felt the couch shift as Ehail sat on the other end.

Nothing happened.

He opened his eyes. Ehail was just sitting there, looking at him. She didn't look mad. She hadn't shouted. His birth parents weren't walking into the house through the walls to murder him.

His heart slowed down, after a while.

He sat up, and took a deep breath.

He pulled "Kathyne" off the end table and passed it towards Ehail.

Ehail said she had to tell Gyre about the scars. Mallyn didn't like that one bit, but he couldn't stop her. She mentioned the trained-light procedure to remove scars, which had sounded to Mallyn like it would involve removing all the skin on his torso, and that was far worse than anything his parents had ever done to him. She promised that the kamai method was gentler.

And then she held her arms in the way that always got Rithka or Cenem to hug her.

Mallyn hugged her, once, fast, and then ran up to his room.

At dinner, Gyre said: "Lyrrae and Renn have found a home."

"Where?" Ehail asked, while Mallyn was still in panicked shock - who were they with? Were they still safe? Would he ever see them again? "Will they let us go there, or bring them here...?"

"I think they'll do that," said Gyre cheerfully.

"Who got them?" Cenem wanted to know, and Mallyn stared intently at Gyre, waiting for the answer.

"Safe?" Mallyn asked under his breath.

"Completely safe," Gyre said. "I talked to Ryll." Mallyn thought this was one of his several sisters but didn't remember which one.

"Did she get 'em? She's got lots," said Rithka.

"No," said Gyre. "Batai and Karyn did."

Those names sounded familiar. Someone Gyre and Ehail knew - "They're our uncle and our aunt," Rithka supplied, "we've got lots. They're nice!"

"Safe," murmured Mallyn.

Gyre said, "They don't live too far from the circle. It's not a very long trip to or from their home. We'll make sure that there's plenty of visiting. And Mallyn - I talked to Batai, and if you want to, some days you can come with me in the mornings and stay at their home until I go back. But that does involve skipping lessons, and you can only do that if you're making good progress. Okay?"

"Okay," echoed Mallyn instantly. He would study very hard. He would learn by heart everything Ehail showed him. He would speak Leraal without an accent and read as fast as Ehail did and make sense of the circle-square-squiggle alphabet that made Leraal words. And he'd see Lyrrae and Renn again.

"So they're our cousins? But they're Mallyn's brother and sister? But his cousins too?" Rithka asked. "That's weird!"

"A little," Gyre said, "yes. But I think it's the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances."

"Safe," murmured Mallyn one more time.

"Noi," Rithka whispered in his ear, grinning.