Chapter Seven: Astareh
"Can't I do something besides handfire?" Mallyn asked miserably, not even looking at the flashing, scintillating rainbows his spontaneous kamai was throwing around the room.
"Well - yes, if you like," Korulen said. "But handfire is one of the very least draining workings there is, and unless you try to change the colors or something it's hard to get wrong once you've got the hang of it. Rhysel says there's never been a case of a spontaneous kama dangerously draining him or herself with a spontaneous reaction, but you'll still be able to practice longer if you use the least draining trigger working you can."
"It's just so boring," sighed Mallyn.
"The handfire is - the reactions aren't! I don't think you've got the same one twice, except these glass beads you keep making," Korulen said encouragingly, scanning the papers on which she'd recorded which holes produced which surprises. "But since you're bored, let's go ahead and step it up some - I'm pretty sure now that there's only these forty-three holes, and we have a lot of data about which ones it's most important to block."
"Yeah," shuddered Mallyn. "I don't want to do that bleeding one again, that was nasty." His pores had each oozed a tiny drop of blood, which had been uncomfortable and messy and required the end of the lesson for the day because he was so shaken up. Korulen had cleaned him off with a spell.
"It didn't look fun," Korulen said sympathetically. "I'm not sure why that would even be useful - but I suppose kamai is more flexible than wizardry. It's certainly possible to do things that no one would ever find useful."
"Wizardry's all useful?" Mallyn said, reaching for the snack plate. Korulen let him stop to eat something whenever he wanted, as he was inefficiently spraying a lot of his lifeforce around on worthless spontaneous magic. He was only a little hungry, but talking was more interesting than endless repetitions of handfire.
"Wizardry's all useful to someone at some time, or they wouldn't have put the effort into inventing the spell," clarified Korulen. "But sometimes they're just useful as a teaching tool, like - oh, the Lanfen trace. I suppose you could use that for something, but really the only excuse for it to exist is that it's a two-unit spell."
"What does it do?"
Korulen made a gesture and said "Lanfen-sil!", and from her right index finger there trailed a white glowing line as she followed through on the hand motion. "Just this. The line will follow my finger around, it'll stay until I reverse the spell and then disappear. I can't make gaps in it or change the color or weight of the line or anything. Just this." She made a spiral in the air, then cast the reversal; the glow vanished.
"I wish I could just be learning actual magic now," said Mallyn glumly.
"You'll wind up with an advantage in kamai, eventually," Korulen said. "Spontaneous kyma have more lifeforce than most people - after dragons and innates it's you lot - and you'll have all this practice paying attention to the parts of your mind that do magic. Not to mention you've seen all these effects and you'll see more so you'll have an idea of what kamai can do. A lot of your classmates will be Elcenian natives who've barely heard of it."
"I guess that's something," Mallyn said.
He'd lost the ability to pretend interest in the snacks.
"Once more," said Korulen, "and focus on hole number twelve - that's this one..." She accompanied the instruction with a mental poke that caused Mallyn to make a face. "This might take a lot of work to be able to learn the sort of concentration you need to block a gap, especially since most of them go several tries without being used. But once you've got the first you should be able to make steady progress, till they're all gone."
Mallyn bit his lip and concentrated on the spot she'd poked. He didn't know what to do with it. Maybe if he focused on it enough, he'd be able to tell whether any magic escaped by that avenue, but how would he stop it if it tried?
"What do I do?" Mallyn asked.
"You know," Korulen said, frowning, "that's a good question. I'm following Rhysel's lead here, and she wasn't specific - but maybe it's hard to tell what she's doing from the inside? I'll go get her to make some handfire and I'll keep an eye on her gaps, and I'll come back and see if I can explain how she manages."
"Thanks," Mallyn said, as Korulen trotted out of the room.
His tutor was back a couple of degrees later, smiling prettily. "Okay, let's see if a verbal explanation does any good, but if it doesn't, I can push you what I saw. It's about the same mental process as choosing the next word in a sentence. Your spontaneity is making you "say" random silly things instead - words, workings, but the wrong ones."
"But I don't avoid misspeaking by concentrating on what I don't want to say," Mallyn said, frowning. "That sounds backwards, I wouldn't go around thinking don't mention geese, don't mention geese."
"Right," Korulen agreed. "Eventually, you don't think about geese - or gaps - at all; Rhysel doesn't at this point. But right now it's like you're compelled to chatter on about geese whenever you open your mouth even if you don't want to."
"So I have to make sure that whatever I say, it's not goose, and when I've got that I move on to the next one?" Mallyn asked.
"Yep. Except instead of geese it's this thing here." She poked the spot in his mind again.
Mallyn nodded, jaw set, and produced another ball of handfire.
"Make me more beads," Rithka said. "I'm out of green ones." She was wearing the glass spheres in strings around her neck. Gyre had made holes in them for her.
"I can't do it on purpose," Mallyn said. "And I'm exhausted anyway. We were there for angles because Korulen didn't have any classes today."
"So take a nap, and then make me some beads," Rithka said, changing into a squirrel and leaping up and down on his leg where he sat. "Okay?"
Mallyn didn't need to hear the suggestion twice. He flopped over onto his side on his bed and closed his eyes.
"Mallyn," said Rithka's voice.
Mallyn cracked an eye open. He wasn't sure how long he'd napped. Had he missed dinner? "Hm?"
"How come you have so many drawings of this girl in your drawer?" Rithka was holding up one of his sketches of Korulen.
Mallyn felt his ears get warm. "I draw lots of people," he muttered.
"Yeah, I know, but who is she?"
"She's - my kamai tutor," he said.
"You're blu-u-ushing," sang Rithka.
"She's my kamai tutor! And I draw lots of people!" Mallyn exclaimed.
"Yeah, I think one time, you drew some people on our kebel team," Rithka said lightly. "Once. You drew like six of her. How come?"
"She's just - I see her all the time now - why do you care?"
"I think you liiiiiike her," trilled Rithka. "I bet you dreaaaaam about her."
Mallyn's most recent dream had been about illusion fish and a talking pie, but his ears pinked hotly anyway.
"But it's okay," Rithka said reasonably. "You can like people."
"And I can tease you about it," whooped Rithka, running out of his room at top speed. "Mallyn has a crush on his tutorrrrrr -"
Mallyn flopped back onto his bed without even bothering to put away the drawings she'd dug up.
It didn't help that Mallyn's spontaneous kamai chose random sets of escape routes every time he conjured handfire, and so it took an average of twenty tries before he could even attempt the feat on that particular one. Sometimes he couldn't even make that many attempts in a day. The manifestations were variously destructive, so he had to work supervised and with Rhysel within shouting distance. They were exhausting, too, so even when Korulen had the time, he couldn't continue on forever.
"I'm sick of this!" he shouted, one afternoon after Ehail came to pick him up from Rhysel's tower. "I'm not making any progress! It's like my magic is trying to hide, it never goes out that way, and the one time I tried concentrating on a different spot instead it did! And Korulen made this face at me and asked if I'd noticed it go out - and I hadn't because I was looking somewhere else - and I also appeared across the room and I was so tired - and I'm not any closer to keeping it controlled! Isn't there some way to take the kamai away? I'll just be a wizard, that's fine."
"I - I don't think there is," Ehail said uncertainly. "I think... that if there was such a way, your grandma and grandpa would have found it back when your aunt Rhysel manifested. They were very upset about it at the time."
"Oh. They were?" Mallyn asked.
Ehail nodded. "There was a lot of tension in the family about magic in general, for - for a long time."
Mallyn sensed more of a story there, and looked at Ehail curiously until she sighed and sat down and told him the whole mess. Grandma Allera and Grandpa Tem - mostly Allera - had been terribly upset by Rhysel's early spontaneous kamai. (She'd been prone to fire and explosions compared to Mallyn, who still made colorful glass beads more often than anything else.) They'd tried to find a way to keep her under control, and eventually given up and sent her to her Master - but by then their relationships with her had been damaged to the point where they were cool and distant, punctuated with screaming condemnation. Mallyn's other aunts, and most of his uncles, hadn't been on board with this, though - and Gyre, living out of town and the only boy in the family not to study under Allera as an instrument-crafter, didn't even know it was happening.
"And it might have gone on like that for much longer," said Ehail, "but when I first met them, Mother wasn't too happy about me being a wizard, either. And your father was appalled at her, and spoke to Ryll about it, and Rhysel was pregnant at the time too - and so with all that going on it was decided that everyone should avoid Mother until she changed her mind." Ehail sighed and closed her eyes. "She was stubborn enough to miss our wedding."
"But then she decided magic was okay?" Mallyn asked.
Ehail nodded. "She came here to the house and apologized. And since then she's been fine around me, and Rhysel, and I don't think you've ever noticed anything amiss."
"I haven't," Mallyn agreed. He hadn't happened to see his grandmother since manifesting, but he couldn't imagine her giving him a hard time about it. He'd certainly seen her interacting with Ehail and wouldn't have guessed anything like the story he'd just heard.
"At any rate, I don't think there's a way to take your kamai. But I know you'll get the hang of it soon, sweetheart," Ehail said. "And then you can learn all the magic you wanted to learn originally."
"I guess," muttered Mallyn. "Korulen says even after I learn to stop up all forty-three holes in my head I'll still have to practice a lot to be as efficient as a regular kama just starting out, because stopping the holes will take energy. It's not fair."
"I know, it's terribly unfair," sighed Ehail, pulling him into a hug and stroking his hair. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."
"I have to go to another lesson tomorrow," Mallyn muttered, "don't I."
"Don't you like Korulen?" Ehail asked. She didn't sound teasing; maybe Rithka hadn't gotten around to telling her.
"Yeah, just - I'd rather we were just hanging out. I'm tired of handfire. I'm tired of not being able to control myself. I'm tired of being tired all the time. She'll let me take breaks but then we have to go back to working."
"Well, maybe there will be time for you to just be friends and spend time together, after," Ehail said.
"Yeah. After," sighed Mallyn.
"Once more, please," Korulen said, tapping her notes with her graphite stick.
Mallyn sullenly conjured handfire, "watching" gap number twelve, and the notes went up in flames, startling Korulen to the point of shifting into her dragon form. "Whoa!"
"I'm sorry!" shrieked Mallyn, sitting bolt upright and watching the papers smolder. "I'm sorry! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, my sleeve didn't catch or anything - but the notes -" Korulen changed from sinuous jade dragon back into her elf form. "I should have made copies, now I feel like an idiot -"
"Do you have more paper?" Mallyn asked.
"Plenty." She reached into her bag. "I guess we can start over or I could look up a past-scry -"
Mallyn took the paper, and the graphite stick, and started rapidly transcribing the notes as he'd last seen them. They might be slightly out of date, but they'd be much better than starting completely from scratch.
"You had them memorized?" Korulen asked, impressed. "I - wait - that's my handwriting."
"I can remember things I see," murmured Mallyn, copying the records about gap six and moving on to seven.
"I guess most people can't do it."
"Well, that's really, really useful, Mallyn," said Korulen brightly. "This'll save us plenty of work."
"I'm sorry I set them on fire."
"You didn't mean to," Korulen assured him. "And I think that's the first time you've had a fire manifestation. Unlucky combination - I was distracted but I think it was eleven, fifteen, twenty-nine, and thirty-four."
"Should I switch to working on one of those?" Mallyn asked.
"No, stick with the twelfth. Setting something little on fire is pretty minor compared to some things."
"I could've hurt you."
"I shifted in plenty of time and a cool fire like that can't hurt even a non-red-group dragon," Korulen assured him. "Don't worry about it. I'll go refill the snack tray while you write that all down."
Mallyn wrote, and Korulen came back with sliced apples and almonds and cheese and crackers and little cubes of chocolate fudge. She helped herself to one of the apple slices. When Mallyn was done with the papers, Korulen took a few more sheets out of her bag, and cast a spell that copied the text over. She stashed the backups. "There, now you won't need to do that again even if we have bad luck a second time. Nibble on something, and let's try again."
Mallyn took a stick of cheese and chewed it slowly, then sighed heavily and made handfire again.
He felt something slip past the gap he was watching, like a stutter or a fumble -
And Korulen's eyes flew open and she got halfway through a gasp before she stopped.
"Korulen!" he exclaimed. "Korulen - are you okay - what'd I do -"
"I'm fine," she said at once, blinking slowly and making an awful face. "You did a little mind kamai. I didn't have my shields up because I was watching the gaps."
"What did I do to you?"
"Pushed - memories, I think, or dreams or just flights of imagination. They're none of my business, and I'll go get Corvan to delete them for me as soon as we're done here."
"But - what did you get?" Mallyn asked softly.
Korulen closed her eyes and swallowed. "Uh, there's one where you're standing in a patch of mud drawing birds with a stick. One where you're... plowing a field, with a broken leg, in the rain. And burying - something, or someone. But you don't have to tell me anything about them," she added quickly. "They're none of my business. You didn't mean to show me."
Mallyn shifted in his seat. "I was burying my little brother after my birth father killed him."
"Astareh!" breathed Korulen.
"Huh?" That couldn't be Leraal.
"Oh - sorry - lapsed into Draconic - I used to do it a lot more, right after I got changed. It took some getting used to and occasionally still... Sorry. I'll stick to Leraal."
"What does astareh mean?" Mallyn asked.
"It means - it's an exclamation of sympathetic sorrow," Korulen said. Mallyn had to look through his mental dictionary for help with that definition. "It means I'm so very sorry that you went through that."
"Oh. Thank you."
"Y-you're welcome. I can get Corvan to take the memories out - and he won't even have to look at them -"
"You can keep them," Mallyn said, looking up to meet her eyes. "If they don't bother you too much. I don't mind."
"I..." She didn't seem to know what to do with the offer. "Thank you."
"I don't mind if people know, really. It's just hard to do the telling part."
"That makes sense," Korulen said.
"Do you have to have your shields down, though?" Mallyn asked. "I don't want to hurt you. Or put bad memories in your head."
"I'll talk to Corvan. There might be a more advanced shield I don't know yet that will keep out manifestations but let me see and poke your mind when I need to." She took a deep breath. "Okay, I think it's time to call it a day. I have a date to get ready for."
"A date?" Mallyn asked.
"Yes, my boyfriend's taking me to see 'Red Bird Road'. I'll let you know if it's any good tomorrow," Korulen said with a smile.
"I didn't know you had a boyfriend," Mallyn said.
"Me and Kaylo have been going out for a long time now, but between school and all his research I can imagine why I might not seem to have one - we don't find a lot of time together some weeks." She shrugged. "But I thought I mentioned him, when you asked about the way I got turned into a dragon..."
"I guess I forgot," Mallyn mumbled. Or hadn't integrated the word well enough. It was a compound word, and he was still always tempted to break those into parts instead of looking up the combination.
"It's okay, it doesn't matter for our purposes," Korulen laughed, ruffling Mallyn's hair with one hand. "You'll get plenty of notice if I have a schedule conflict. Rhysel's downstairs with Aar Camlenn and the kids; you can sit with her while you wait for your mom, okay?"
"Okay," said Mallyn, subdued.
"See you tomorrow afternoon," Korulen said, and she teleported away.
Mallyn dropped his forehead onto the worktable.
"How was your lesson?" Rithka asked, grin too broad, eyes too bright.
"Ugh," Mallyn said.
"Did you confess your loooooove to her and get turned down? Dramatically?" Rithka asked.
"No," he grumbled.
"Well, what happened, then?" Rithka demanded, turning into a squirrel to run up his leg, up his shirt, and to her place around his neck. "Tell me tell me tell me."
"She's got a boyfriend."
"Ooh. I think now you have to challenge him to a footrace," Rithka said.
"Yeah! Like in ancient Baverian mythology! A footrace through a wilderness! With no shoes! And only one bottle of water! And you have the goddess of the sun sending wild animals after you all the time to make it interesting! And whoever wins gets to be her boyfriend! I mean Korulen's boyfriend, not the sun goddess's boyfriend."
Mallyn laughed halfheartedly. "I don't think so. She said she'd been dating Kaylo a long time."
Rithka's bobbing fluffy tail stilled. "Kaylo?"
"That's what she said."
"The actual Kaylo?"
"Don't tell me," said Mallyn, "is he famous or something -"
"He's the miracle worker," Rithka said, leaping off Mallyn's neck to gambol about the room. "He cured me and Cenem and Mom and everybody else and now there's no shrens left, and nobody else was ever able to do it, you know Mom tried for hundreds of years but she never did it and he did and now I can fly and Cenem can fly and Mom can fly and so can all the other miracles! That's who he is! I got to meet him once when he was curing us! He's a garnet dragon and he's got to be so, so smart -"
"That spectacular, huh?" groaned Mallyn, slumping over onto his bed.
Rithka leapt onto his chest and nodded energetically. "I don't think you had better steal the miracle worker's girlfriend even if you can beat him in a wilderness footrace with animals chasing you. You should find somebody else to be your girlfriend instead."
"Right," Mallyn said. "I'll just do that then."
"Good," said Rithka obliviously, and then she pricked up her ears in response to some sound too faint for Mallyn to catch, and undulated out of the room.
He stared at the ceiling for a long time before hauling himself off of the bed towards his study materials.
Mallyn sat down at the kitchen table, and watched Ehail continue to peel potatoes. "I just wanted to say thanks for adopting me. Even when I don't like stuff now, it's still a lot better than the stuff I had to not like before."
"You don't have to thank me, sweetheart. You got a family, yes, but we got a wonderful son."
He squirmed but didn't try to contest the compliment. "Well, I thanked you anyway."
Ehail laughed softly. "Well. You're welcome. I'm so glad you're happy here, Mallyn."
"I am. I'm really, really happy here, and you're great and Rithka and Cenem are great and Dad's great. And Nemaar's great. And I don't want to be annoying about having to do spontaneous kamai lessons. It's not your fault."
"It's not yours either. It's not fair that you have to do all this extra work," Ehail said. She rinsed off the potatoes and started quartering them. "But you're doing very well. You work so hard."
"I don't want to be stupid. Or set things on fire."
"You're definitely not stupid." The potatoes went in the pot, the pot went on the stove, and she sat with him. "Did something catch fire today?"
He told her about how he'd had to reconstruct Korulen's notes. "They tell us the order I have to work in, since some stuff is worse to have happen than other stuff. I'm supposed to work on the twelfth hole first. When I've got enough of them that everything my spontaneous kamai does is safe I'll be able to practice at home and I won't have to take up so much of Korulen's time." Against his will, that last clause sounded wistful. Boyfriend or no boyfriend, he liked her.
"I have every confidence that you'll get through this, and sooner than you think," Ehail said.
"Thanks, Mom," Mallyn sighed. He hugged her. "I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart."
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