Chapter Thirteen: Claimants

"They," said Ehail, but that was all that came out.

"They can't take him," Gyre said, and thank goodness for him, because that was what she'd meant. They couldn't take Kenar. "They can't. Can they?"

Jensal flung up her hands. "I don't know. I wrote the local family law expert, but it's going to take him at least a week to give me a ruling that would hold up - given that Kenar's egg parents aren't Esmaarlan, so it has to interact with Nirlani statutes, and this isn't like criminal law where there's a technical definition attached to a well-known spell they can cast and have it over with in two ticks..."

"But they can't take him," said Ehail in a small voice.

Kenar was edging toward them. Ehail put her arm out to hug him around the shoulders, reassure him -

He went past her. "Which one's the blue opal? Or is it both?" he asked Jensal.

"He is," said Jensal, looking puzzled at him. "She's a red."

"Do I look just like him?" Kenar asked. He sounded eager. Fascinated. "What do they do? Do I have brothers and sisters?"

"I'm your sister," said Rithka plaintively, scurrying close to Gyre and hugging his leg. "Cenem's your sister. We've got a little brother on the way."

"Er," Jensal said, eyeing Kenar before returning her attention to Ehail. "So, the legality is up in the air, and I am so sorry none of us saw this coming, but I'm on your side and I'm going to work with the family law expert -"

"I want to go," Kenar said. "Can I go? If I want to?"

Jensal stared at Kenar again. She opened her mouth, and closed it, and opened it again. "Well," she said. "You can't cancel the adoption alone."

Kenar turned to Gyre and Ehail.

"No, no," said Ehail. She sounded shrill in her own ears. "Kenar."

"Maybe we should meet these dragons, talk to them, see if they'll step aside," Gyre murmured. "I'm sure none of us wants a legal battle."

"But I want to go," Kenar said. "They're my real parents, I want my real parents, I couldn't have them before but now I'm good enough and I can."

"Kenar," said Ehail again. She couldn't even feel her heartbeat. Her chest was vacant, her vision was rippling before her eyes, someone had tilted the house to the left. She touched Gyre's elbow to stay perpendicular to the floor.

"I thought they weren't going to come," Kenar whispered. "So I went with you. But now they're here."

"Let's go talk to these people," Gyre said in a low, level voice. Ehail didn't know how he was even producing words. "Rithka, Cenem, we'll drop you off with Aunt Rhysel and Uncle Tekaal while we go figure this out."

"But he's ours too," Rithka said.

"Mommy, don't cry," said Cenem.

Ehail touched her damp face, then scooped up her jet girl and hugged her tight. "I can't help it," she whispered against Cenem's hair.

Rithka's protests aside, the girls were brought to Rhysel's tower and left there with a hasty explanation to the nanny, a black opal dragon who opened the door with a twin in her arms. Jensal waited at the edge of the garden. She escorted Kenar and Gyre and Ehail from there to the shren house.

They could have flown. Kenar suggested it twice. They walked instead.

Kenar peppered Jensal with questions about his parents. She answered them wearily, when she knew the answers. "Of course you look like him. Their occupation didn't come up. Younger brother and sister, clutchmates. They live in Nirlan. I don't know what they look like in halfling form; they showed up in human shape. He mentioned a sister; I don't know about her. Do you really want me to tell you all of this or would you rather ask them?"

"I'll ask them," Kenar agreed.

Ehail was walking through sheer reflex. Step. Step. Step. If she let herself think about moving forward instead of just allowing it to happen, she'd stop in her tracks and refuse to go an inch closer to where some dragons were going to demand her son. If she thought about that too hard she would have to fear for her daughters, too, who would have dragon egg parents, too, and who might be claimed, too -

The house looked as it always had. As it had when they chose Kenar and Rithka and Cenem. Jensal showed them in and they trudged to her office.

An older version of Kenar, brown hair tied in a thin ponytail and a book balanced on his knee that he shut when the door opened, sat in one of the chairs. Beside him was a dark-skinned woman with cherry-red curls barely confined at the nape of her neck. They were dressed warmly, and their hands were entangled on the armrests between them.

"Kenar?" asked the man with a kindly smile, and Ehail wished she would die.

The man with Kenar's eyes was Anaph. His wife was Inyne. He wrote books. She was a librarian at the National Library of Nirlan. They were unfailingly polite and gentle and soft-spoken and never demanded their son or denounced his adoptive parents. They had pictures of their littler children, a smaller Kenar-faced boy named Simnel and his clutchmate Tanzil with Inyne's wild red hair, playing in the snow and first learning their human forms (they lived in a human-majority enclave of Nirlan) and messily eating iced ricecakes. Ehail couldn't have concocted a more dangerous egg-family for Kenar in her nightmares.

"I've read some of your books!" Kenar said when he learned Anaph's name. "I didn't know that was you! I loved the review compilation about downtown Pinin - I wanted to go there -"

"Need to put out a second edition of that one," Anaph said. "Things change in twenty years; I'm sure some of the places are gone, there's sure to be new ones, some of them will have changed recipes or remodeled or hiked up the prices. Planning to go back in the spring."

"Can I come?" asked Kenar desperately.

Ehail wanted to ask why they'd sent him away to begin with, when they lived in the remote house the pictures showed and could have kept his egg. She wanted to ask why they hadn't picked him up when he was twenty, when their other children were only sixty-five and hadn't even been conceived when Kenar had learned to shift. She wanted to ask why they hadn't come forty-five years ago, when Tanzil and Simnel learned it for themselves, when that would have protected their wanted, healthy children from catching shrenhood all by itself if they hadn't trusted him. She wanted to ask why now, but she knew the answer.

Because now, he was a dragon.

She wanted to never have picked up the project, never have spent those years writing narrow lines of notes on statistics and dragon magic and analyses, never have given them this impetus to take her child.

It was with a smoldering shame that she realized she was wishing shrenhood back on Kenar just to keep him with her.

She asked no questions. She said nothing.

"Of course you can come," said Anaph.

"Excuse me," said Gyre. "But we still haven't established that Kenar is going with you."

Kenar whirled on Gyre with a look of fury. "I want to go. You can't keep me if I don't want to stay."

"We don't know that yet," Jensal said.

"You can't," Kenar said, pleading. "They're my real parents and they want me and I want them. All you have to do is cross out your signature on a paper. You don't even both have to."

"We would rather this not become litigious," Inyne said. "We didn't expect someone to have adopted Kenar when we came here. We didn't think shren houses adopted out the children entrusted to them."

"What will happen if it does, mialhre?" Kenar asked the red dragon anxiously.

Mialhre was one of some vast number of Draconic words for "mother". The emphasis was on the biological connection; it didn't imply that she'd had the raising of him. The implication was that Inyne was entitled to her son because of that permanent blood relationship, because she'd laid his egg, because he was a walking, talking, old photograph of her husband.

Gyre wouldn't understand the word, but Ehail did.

"Nirlan has a strong position in favor of children's rights," Inyne said, "and counts citizenship by who is conceived there, not where they are born or where they hatch. Our government will want you to go where you want to go. I'm less familiar with Esmaar."

"That information is on its way," Jensal said wearily. "Even if it winds up being irrelevant to this case I'm sure I'll need it later. You aren't going to be the last dragons to turn up asking for their miracles."

"Rthan," Kenar said. Counterpart word to mialhre. "If it turns into a fight, will you..." He trailed off and fidgeted.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, son," said Anaph. He didn't lapse into Draconic for the term but it stung Ehail anyway.

"If he wanted to stay with you," said Inyne, "we would let him."

She addressed that to Ehail.

Ehail turned her face into Gyre's shoulder, silent, weeping.

"Are you sure this is what you want, Kenar?" Gyre asked quietly. "You don't want to visit them for a few days first, make sure of the fit, think it over after a night's sleep -"

"I'm sure."

"We'll spare Ehail," he murmured. "It only takes two."

"No," Ehail said against her husband's sleeve, "no, no, no -" But she couldn't get enough air into her lungs for it to come out as more than a squeak. Crying was more urgent than futile protest.

There was a sound of rustling paper and two scratches of pens.

"Well," said Jensal. "I guess that's this handled."

"Want to fly home or just to and from the teleportation circles?" Anaph asked Kenar.

"I can fly it," Kenar said eagerly.

Jensal's office door opened. It closed.

"My son," Ehail sobbed as Gyre turned in his chair to hold her. "My son."

Ehail sat on the blue-and-gold couch with her daughter in her lap, hugged too tightly, and did not see the carpet she stared at.

Periodically Gyre would coax Ehail's arms open and swap Cenem for Rithka and back, so they could take turns having leftovers for supper, or helping him teach them evening lessons out of textbooks in languages he didn't read, or getting a little fresh air. But no one tried to make her be without one of her children held close for more than a moment at a time. It occurred to Ehail once that Gyre had lost Kenar, too, must be in pain, too, but she could not pry herself away from whichever daughter she had at any given time long enough to try to comfort him.

"I won't go, Mom," said Rithka fervently. "I won't. Does that make it better?"

Ehail didn't answer.

"I won't. If they try and take me anyway for law stuff I'll escape and come home. Mom, please be okay."

Ehail kissed the iron-grey hair.

"Cenem, you promise too," Rithka continued.

"I'm too little to run away," Cenem said. "I'd get lost. I don't know all the maps."

"But you can't let anyone take you away," insisted Rithka. "It'd make Mom even sadder. She's so sad, look, say you won't go."

"Rithka," said Gyre gravely, tiredly, "Cenem can make her own choices if and when she needs to, and so can you. It's kind of you to decide in advance but your sister doesn't have to. And it might not be a matter of letting them."

"You let Kenar go. You crossed your name out so he could go," Rithka accused.

"Rithka, he'd have run away from us if I'd refused. He wanted to go."

"You could've made him stay. Mom could've warded the house to keep him in and me and Cenem could've heard him trying to go and -"

"We're - we were - his parents. Not his jailers," Gyre said. He sounded so exhausted.

"But if you jailed him for just a little bit you could've convinced him," Rithka said. Ehail's heart clenched. She willed that to be false. If Kenar could have been convinced - if anything could have been done to change his mind - then the fault was hers, the inadequacy was hers, she hadn't been a good enough mother, hadn't prepared a welcoming enough home.

"It wouldn't have been right," said Gyre. "Cenem, let's get you to bed."

"Does that mean I can stay up all night, for Mom?" asked Rithka.

"No. We'll figure something out," said Gyre. "Stay put for now."

"He's reading her a bedtime story," Rithka reported after a few degrees had gone by. "It's The Mice In Formal Wear Go to the Leherin, again." She paused. "Mom... are you going to be okay?"

"Maybe," said Ehail. She'd spent six hundred and sixty-three years broken beyond repair (the Draconic language continued to insist that the cure was a miracle, that in the general order of things it would never happen). She'd functioned. She might have been described as "okay". Could she do that again having traded that defect for this agony?

"I hope you'll be okay," Rithka said, snuggling closer.

Well. Ehail didn't have much other choice, then.

Rithka was allowed to stay up later than usual, but eventually Ehail released her into Gyre's hold so he could put her to bed, and she curled up on the couch by herself.

Gyre talked Rithka into reading her bedtime story to herself, and was back downstairs after just a few degrees to make sure her hair was brushed out and her pajamas were on the right way around. He sat next to his wife. "I'm so sorry, Ehail."

"You're right. He would have run away. You had to c-cancel the adoption," Ehail said, speaking in fits and starts.

He wrapped his arms around her. "I'm still sorry."

"What if the girls are taken too?" Ehail asked frantically. "Rithka says she'll stay, but what if she can't, what if they take her away from us? What about Cenem?"

"I don't know," admitted Gyre.

"I love them," Ehail sobbed, twisting around to bury her face in Gyre's shirt. "I love them. Why, why, why -"

Gyre just held her tighter.

The next day, Ehail fixed beans-and-cheese for breakfast and the family ate with a subdued air about them. "Even if we get taken," said Cenem, tilting her head, "you're going to have a baby. Nobody can take the baby, right?"

Ehail's hand went to where her sash cinched her dress. She wasn't showing at all yet. "We are going to have a baby," she acknowledged. The government could take the baby, if she strayed into the set of behaviors that Esmaar considered grounds for loss of custody, but she could control that. She'd read the list and didn't plan to do anything on it.

"Did you read my list of things to call him?" Cenem asked.

"Yes," said Ehail. "But we haven't decided yet."

"I don't think you should name him after a place," Rithka said. "I think you should name him a long Leraal name with lots of syllables to give people who want them."

"Maybe we will," said Ehail. "It could be that and a place name." She was glad the girls were acting normal, talking about a normal topic, even though the mood was obviously colored by Kenar's absence. She could pretend he was up in his room, skipping breakfast to read "one more chapter" which turned into two or three or six.

"Nemaarelanes is a long named Leraal-sounds mountain range in Oridaan," said Cenem. "It was on my list and it has five syllables and I think that is a lot."

"We could give him a middle name, too," said Gyre.

"Maybe after your father," Ehail said. "That's one of the ways middle names are chosen. Isn't it? Family names."

"Yes," Gyre said. "Nemaarelanes Temmer Camlenn..."

"The neighbors could pronounce it without adding a sound it doesn't have the way they do for me," Rithka said.

"It's long to say," observed Cenem.

"We can call him Nemaar," said Ehail. "That's a more typical Leraal name."

"Nemaar, Nemaar, Nemaar," chanted Rithka. "Okay, name him that."

"Dear heart," Gyre said, "will you be all right if I go to work today?"

"Yes," Ehail said, because he didn't mean would she be all right, he meant would his leaving make it worse, and it wouldn't.

Gyre kissed her goodbye and went to make jewelry. Ehail turned the girls loose to play; Cenem started a city of blocks and Rithka went in the backyard to attempt to make herself a sparrow nest without opposable thumbs, occasionally fluttering in through the window to complain that she had no idea how real birds managed nesting.

Ehail wasn't even surprised when the doorbell rang again.

She went to the door, opened it to reveal Jensal, and said in a plaintive voice that didn't feel like it came from her, "Gyre's not home. Can it wait?"

"If it has to," Jensal said.

"Which one is it?" Ehail asked. She didn't know if she wanted the answer, but she did want the answer to which one it wasn't.

"Cenem's," said Jensal, and Ehail imagined the jet's room half-wallpapered with collages - empty. (Would Kenar be returning for his books and toys and clothes...?) "I'll go let them know that we're waiting on Gyre. When does he get home?"

"Eleventh-and-ten, usually. He might be back sooner today," Ehail said. She didn't meet the turquoise's eyes. "Are they - do you - have you heard from the - I - We'll go and talk to them when Gyre is home." She swallowed hard.

Jensal nodded, frowning, and patted Ehail on the shoulder once before turning around and becoming a peregrine falcon to fly away.

Cenem heard. Of course Cenem heard.

She looked up from her blocks at Ehail when Ehail shut the door.

"I don't know anything about them," Cenem said.

"You know a few things," Ehail said weakly.

"I know at least one of them's a jet," said Cenem. "But I dunno if I even look like one of them. They could both be guy dragons."

Ehail didn't want to envision Cenem's egg parents any more than she wanted to keep seeing Anaph and Inyne when she closed her eyes. "Could be."

"I want to know about them. I don't have to go live with them but I want to know stuff," said Cenem. "Is that going to make you cry? I don't want you to cry."

"I - I'll understand if you want to meet them," Ehail said carefully. "And ask them questions."

She should have asked Jensal if it was only the children's parents coming out of the woodwork, now that there were miracles.

Cenem's egg mother was a sapphire woman with Cenem's dark narrow eyes exactly, though the rest of the face must have changed a lot in the hundred and seventy years between Cenem's age and maturity. Her hair was in a fluff of cyan around her face and her hands fluttered unconsciously whenever she spoke. Jensal introduced her as Marlii.

Marlii's husband had jet black eyes with a subtle shine, set in a dark face with dark hair. He was solemn and laconic. Jensal called him "Lhenrath".

With Ehail's luck, she expected Marlii would be a cartographer and Lhenrath would be a gardener who made collages in his spare time and they would have several photogenic children.

It wasn't quite that bad. "I'm a woodcarver," Marlii said. "I used to be a social worker, ages ago, in a few different countries, but I retired from that when I moved to Saraan and found a market for the woodwork I'd been doing as a hobby. Furniture and figurines and frames and vases and - you know, anything that can be made of wood." She bit her lip. "I'm sorry, that was a little bit of a long-winded response to 'what do you do' - And Lhenrath's a leatherworker, but he used to fly postal runs before teleportation and scoots and so on took over the industry, and then he gave tours around Eluson until it was razed, and then he worked in a plutarch's treasury and eventually married one of the line, and then -"

"Woodworker and a leatherworker," summarized Jensal blandly.

"Yes, that's right," said Marlii, nodding.

"Do you have kids?" Cenem asked. "I don't count."

"Oh - well - not alive still," said Marlii, looking down. "Thudias. We had plenty of thudias before we met each other. And we tried, for our own, we tried many times, but - no. None alive still."

There was an awkward silence. Marlii looked from Gyre to Ehail to Cenem and back again. "I didn't realize - I'm sorry," Marlii said. "It's only we thought... You know shrens don't die, when they're babies, like - like dragons do. Often do. We knew she'd be alive."

"So you thought you'd stop trying for baby dragons that will more likely die than not, and come pick up the one in her thirties who suddenly appeared, but someone beat you to it," Jensal said, rolling her eyes.

Lhenrath spoke. "Something like that."

"We're sorry," said Marlii, fluttering her hands helplessly. "Really. We didn't know."

"We can leave," Lhenrath said, touching Marlii's forearm and looking sadly at Cenem.

"It's only we love children - I had so many - and they're gone, I don't even have grandchildren left," Marlii said, hunching her shoulders. "I - I was a good mother. And I hate how they die. The thudias all made it to old age but they still died. And the babies... I hate how they die."

"You have another?" Lhenrath asked Ehail.

"For now," Ehail said, muttering under dark thoughts of iron dragons and not meeting Lhenrath's eyes. And there was a thudia or a parunia, either possibility safe from the malady of baby full-blooded dragons, growing inside her, but she didn't want to offer Cenem to these strangers just because they'd given up their chances for safe baby thudias or parunias when they married each other. They'd known everything there was to know about shrens when they'd seen Cenem's egg to begin with. Hadn't they learned to hate watching hatchlings die by then? Couldn't they have moved somewhere rural, notified the dragon council, and kept her somewhere where Ehail would never have learned to need her? (Did Ehail even wish they had...?) "We have two daughters."

"We understand," murmured Marlii. "We can go."

"I want to know things," said Cenem.

"Well - um - if it's okay with your parents," said Marlii, pausing awkwardly in getting out of her chair. "Then we could - write? Link paper? Or... something. If it's okay with your mommy and daddy." She looked almost like Ehail imagined she'd look if she had to refer to Anaph and Inyne as Kenar's "mommy and daddy".

"Maybe..." Gyre looked at Ehail. "Look, we adopted Cenem and we plan to keep her, but you seem like decent people, and she wants to know more about you - maybe you could visit her sometimes, be a part of her life..." Ehail tensed. Gyre noticed. "We did just... just lose a son to his egg parents. And it might be a while before we're comfortable leaving her alone with you, to be honest. But you could see her."

"Thank you," said Lhenrath.

Marlii nodded rapidly. "Thank you," she repeated. "We're not going to try to take her away - we wouldn't - but thank you."

"Look, I can turn into a bee," announced Cenem, and she did.

Ehail could almost stand to think of Marlii and Lhenrath by the time they gave Jensal her office back.