Chapter Fourteen: Colors

It occurred to Ehail to ask, in the evening two days later, "Have you heard anything from Ryll and Lerrel? About Taala and Apran?"

"They've heard from Apran's egg-parents," Gyre said. "But that's all I know."

"They didn't have to give him over?" Ehail asked.

"I think if they had, we would have heard by now," Gyre said. "They've heard about Kenar."

Ehail flinched at his name. "Right," she said. "No sign of Taala's?"

"No," Gyre said. "Not that I've heard."

Ehail was on constant tenterhooks about Rithka's egg-parents turning up to fight over her, so she had an idea of how that would feel for Ryll and Lerrel, but depending on what Apran's were like perhaps that was worse. Kenar's were worse.

The doorbell rang, again, and something cold swallowed Ehail's heart.

Gyre squeezed her hand and got up to open the door.

On the doorstep was a man with silver eyes. It wasn't impossible that he was Rithka's egg father, but there was no iron dragon in sight to match him; he was alone. The cold receded, partially. "Excuse me," he said to Gyre in Leraal. "I'm Aiosh. I'm looking for an address with some unregistered dragons; have I got the right place?"

"Unregistered?" said Gyre blankly. Ehail got to her feet and crept up behind her husband tentatively.

"Yes," said Aiosh, peering at Ehail and smiling thinly. "I see I have. Yes, one of my fellow Council members notified me that there were several dragons living here - I'm here to note names, colors, lines, that sort of thing, for Council purposes. I'm told you're not all the same color, but assuming I can meet all the resident dragons today, no further visits will be necessary; I can contact the relevant representatives for the other types. You I represent personally, but I'm afraid I don't recall your name," he said to Ehail.

"I'm Ehail, but I don't understand."

"You wouldn't, of course, I understand you weren't always a dragon so you went unregistered," Aiosh said. "But now you are, and one of the functions of the Dragon Council is to keep track of the dragons. So, I need your full name, your hatching date..." He produced a folded form from a pocket inside his jacket. "You can just fill these out, for yourself and the other dragons here."

"I don't understand why you came in person to give me forms," Ehail said, taking the paper in numb fingers and the pen that Aiosh offered after it.

"Well, after you have those finished, I need to give you a way to get in touch with the council, and since if you were in touch with your parents you'd have been registered already, I assume you don't have one. Am I right?"

Ehail nodded.

"Now," said Aiosh carelessly, "if there was ever a perfect example of a line, you're a Hiral -"

She backed up three steps before fully registering the meaning of the sentence. "I - I don't - I'm not," she said. "I don't have a line."

"I didn't say you had. But the color representatives like myself are contacted through line representatives, and dragons who for whatever reason have no lines - there are starting to be rather a lot of you - or who belong to tiny no-account lines, borrow other representatives. The Hirals are -"

"Not them. Whoever they are, not them," Ehail said.

Aiosh shrugged. "Doesn't make a lot of difference to me. There's no women's silver line with a representative in Paraasilan, but there's one not too far. The Kotsis, I think. Euakotsi. But fill out the forms."

Ehail went to the kitchen table and wrote out her name, Rithka's, Cenem's. There was an extra form. She shoved it aside. She wrote colors, hatching days, confirmed the address. Behind her Gyre was talking softly to Aiosh, but the sound-dampening spells that prevented Rithka and Cenem from tossing and turning all night hearing every little noise didn't let her make out the words. She did hear footsteps coming down the stairs and going back up again, to let Aiosh have a look at each of her daughters.

The forms were written in Draconic, and designed to be used in any locality; she skipped many sections, but did have a place to write her Petaran citizen identification number and her Revernian visiting student serial. She gritted her teeth and penciled in Marlii and Lhenrath's names on Cenem's page. She listed Jensal as the girls' prior guardians, checked "adopted" where it belonged, skipped two boxes in her own name to signify that the syllables after "Ehail" were added and not line.

Gyre and Aiosh's conversation came to an end before she left the kitchen with completed form and accepted Euakotsi's contact information. "Eua will come visit you in a week or so, and similar for the line representatives we wind up finding for Rithka and Cenem," Aiosh said. "It's important that line representatives know everyone they represent just the same way that I know all the silver line reps. So we can serve as foci and whatnot - no one's more than two steps removed from the council."

"All right," said Ehail. "Is that all?"

"Let me check the forms." He looked over the paper squares. "Is my information out of date? I was under the impression..."

"Your information is out of date," snapped Ehail, eyes stinging. "Is that all?"

"Just - if any of this information changes contact Eua about it," said Aiosh, putting his hand up placatingly. "I'll go, then. Good day, Ehail."

He departed, and Ehail let her knees give out over the couch.

Kenar was the next to ring the bell.

It was during the middle of the day, and Gyre was away; Ehail almost dropped the dish she was painting for the craft project Rithka had roped her and Cenem into trying. She caught it, set it down on the previous day's newspaper, and went to the door with her free hand white-knuckled in her skirt.

And there was her son.

Or not, perhaps, but there was Kenar.

Ehail found herself perfectly speechless, and just stood at the door motionless, staring at color-flecked blue eyes.

"I'm sorry," said Kenar, after a silence.

"Wh-what?" Ehail asked. She added in a whisper that the black-group girls' sharp ears would hear and Kenar's wouldn't, "Stay put, girls..."

"I said, I'm sorry. I mean - for - not the - I should've said goodbye," Kenar said. "Or something. I went back to Grandfather Tem for a carving lesson and he, uh, he chewed me out really good, and so - I'm sorry."

Ehail stared. She noticed that Inyne was standing behind Kenar - well behind, far enough to give them privacy, but she was there.

"I shouldn't've ever met you," said Kenar. "I shouldn't've done any adoption interviews. Jensal talked me into it but I should've kept telling her no. But I did meet you and I let you adopt me and I went here with you and I shouldn't've just gone like that. I was scared you and Gyre would try to keep me even though I didn't want to stay, and I thought being horrible to you would make you let me go, but you didn't deserve me being horrible to you. I just did a lot of stuff I shouldn't've."

"Oh," Ehail murmured. It wasn't her son back. It wasn't anything like her son back. It was an apology, which on some intellectual level was worth having, but it wasn't her son back. It was him standing before her telling her he wished he'd never met her, telling her he'd been frightened of being forced to stay with her.

"I had - a letter," Kenar said. "It came with my egg. Jensal let me have it when I learned to read, and I got it glassed so it would last, and I shouldn't have ever met you. Jensal talked me into it because she said a lot of people get letters and the ones who get sincere letters get picked up when they're twenty, that nobody gets picked up by their parents after that, but I should've trusted Mialhre and Rthan." He swallowed. "You can see the letter, if you want."

Ehail swayed on the spot; something about that must have looked like assent because he reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter, encased in glass paper to protect it from wear and water and other hazards. He pressed it into her hand. She held it in front of her eyes.

To my child, read the letter. I am told that the place we have sent you is a safe place, if of necessity not a happy one. I hope that you will be as happy as one of your sort can. Some day in the future, possibly the distant future - I cannot tell you when - your father and I will go there and bring you home. In the meantime you must understand that we do not have the fortitude to be among your fellow sufferers, to contemplate you overmuch, to generally be present in your life. Some have that capacity. We do not. We are going to develop it as much as we can, but in the meantime we are going to try to give you at least one brother or sister. They will know that you exist and know that you will be coming home.

If the leader of your house has followed the instructions sent with your egg, she has named you Kenar (if you are my son) or Mreisi (if you are my daughter). Names are very important to us, and I think to you too. Your name can comfortably go with you where I am unable.

Your mother

She would never have her son back, Ehail realized. He belonged to them.

"And, Rthan and Mialhre said I could ask you and Gyre something, but I guess he's not home?" Kenar said. He took the paper out of Ehail's hand.

"Work," said Ehail, incapable of complete sentences.

"Well, um, maybe you can pass on the question to him?" Kenar asked, shifting uncomfortably. "See, um, Rthan and Mialhre," (Ehail hated those words) "travel a lot, so he can research places for his books." Books was said with a thread of childish thrill. Ehail wondered if she could hate books. "And me and Simnel and Tanzil can come on some of the trips, but sometimes they like to go by themselves. Simnel and Tanzil usually stay with our aunt, Rthan's sister, but after I talked to Grandfather Tem, I thought, if you want, I could come here then instead."

"Yes," said Ehail. "I don't need to ask Gyre. The answer is yes."

Kenar smiled at her tentatively, and Ehail's heart broke and melted and broke and melted and she wished a thousand things that couldn't all of them happen even if wishes had power. "Okay, um, we'll let you know when their next trip by themselves is," he said. "Can I just leave the stuff that's in my old room there, then, so it's here when I am?" Ehail nodded. She hadn't even thought of touching his things. Kenar hesitated, then said, "Oh, and - Mialhre wanted a word with you."

"Oh," Ehail said. Was there something to say? She supposed she'd find out.

Kenar nodded awkwardly, and trotted over to the red dragon. She ruffled his hair, left him where she'd been standing, and approached Ehail.

"I only want to make something understood," Inyne said. "I'm not saying this to be vindictive. I don't harbor any dislike for you. But you need to be aware that Kenar is my son, has always been my son, and is going to remain my son. He is visiting you because you inspired some affection from him, not because you have any entitlements. If I get the impression that you're trying to mother my son in my place, the visits will stop. Is that clear?"

"Clear," whispered Ehail.

No. Definitely not her son back.

She went back to the girls, who had been eavesdropping, and directed her attention back to the craft project. She was considering trying to reward Rithka and Cenem for not interfering in the conversation. They'd sat quietly.

"Well, he's not our brother any more," Rithka declared to break the silence, slapping paint onto her dish in contrast to the neat dots she'd been placing before Ehail had gotten up. "And I don't think you have to let him come here. He wanted to leave."

"We don't have to, but we can," Ehail murmured. She mixed green paints to dollop a leaf on the ivy that traversed her plate. "And he wants to come visit us. And he is welcome here."

"But he's not my brother," Rithka said obstinately.

Ehail closed her eyes. "I guess that's up to you," she said.

"Oh." Rithka sounded like she'd expected more opposition.

"Rithka, I can be your sister," Cenem said, "right? Even though I see my egg parents?"

"Yeah," Rithka said, "we're sisters. As long as you live here and you're not awful like Kenar."

"Don't talk about people that way," Ehail said quietly. If Rithka's affection was that fragile, what would Ehail have to do for Rithka to count her as "awful"? If she said that in front of Kenar, would that be all it took to make him pack his clothes and his toys and his books and never come back?

Rithka scowled. "Okay, but he's not my brother."

"That's up to you," Ehail repeated.

She finished painting ivy on her plate in a shivering silence - the quiet was typical for Cenem, sullen for Rithka - and dug through the kit box for the wand enchanted to set the glaze. She wanded Rithka's and Cenem's plates for them too, put them all in the cupboard, and went to make sure that all of Kenar's things were still in place for when he came home.

Well, not home.

Not her son back.

But for when he was there.

Gyre didn't second-guess her decision to allow Kenar's visits. Not aloud, anyway. He did seem to have misgivings, probably on Ehail's own behalf - but did not tell her that Kenar could not be there when he chose.

"Have you been reading the papers?" he asked after silently accepting her announcement.

"No - not generally," Ehail said. "Why? Did something happen?"

"Several things, from coverage on the cure to some kind of military action in Ryganaav. But the thing I was meaning to bring up is that an anonymous thirteen-year-old boy from Aristan got through the circle as a refugee," Gyre said, slowly, eyes on her face to gauge her reaction. She didn't have one, yet. "Aristan made an agreement with Esmaar that if a child who was abused by Esmaar's standards got through and asked for asylum, Esmaar didn't have to give the kid back - Aristan figured it would never happen, that its kids would never run away over the sorts of things that Esmaarlanik consider abuse. But apparently this one was very seriously mistreated and considered the asylum guarantee surer than going to the Watch."

Ehail shuddered. "Why were you meaning to bring that up?"

"Well - he doesn't speak a lick of Leraal," said Gyre.

She went very still. "You want us to adopt him?"

"Only if you do," Gyre said swiftly. "But he can't go back to Aristan - Esmaar would lose some sort of political point if he did, I confess I can't understand all of the context in the newspaper articles about the boy. And Aristan's gotten his brother and sister out of the home, but for the same political reasons they won't let them come here with their brother."

"I'm a wizard," Ehail said, looking at her hands.

"That you are," Gyre said, half-smiling.

"If we adopted him I could summon his brother and sister from wherever they go - or send him - and you know Martisen and the girls and I do too -"

"But, I repeat, we should get into this only if you want to," Gyre said. "We should probably actually meet him first, for one." He swallowed. "But I think I can guarantee that he doesn't want to go home to his birth parents."

"Who do we talk to about meeting him?" Ehail asked.

Lorin, a blond elf who reminded Ehail vaguely of Jensal, ran the Paraasilan temporary housing unit that was harboring the refugee boy until more permanent arrangements could be made. "You're not reporters, are you?" she asked when they expressed interest in the asylum-seeker.

"No, no," Ehail assured her.

"We think we might be a better fit for him than the average Esmaarlan family," Gyre said, "assuming we get along. I'm from Aristan originally, and my wife is a dragon."

"Obviously she's a dragon," said Lorin, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Ehail's hair. Ehail wondered if she ought to be offended. "Well, don't talk to reporters about him, all right? I have a dreadful time trying to keep them away. It's apparently a really hot story, the abused kid running to Esmaar because Aristan couldn't protect him. People feel very patriotic about it."

"We won't," Ehail promised.

"All right. His name's Mallyn. In Barashin years, he's thirteen, which works out to seventeen, almost eighteen, in Elcenian years. He's an elf, but for Barashin ones that age is early adolescence; he's not a little boy. But he is very jumpy and he's had just about no education at all, so you could be forgiven for supposing him younger the way he acts. He doesn't talk very much and not often in complete sentences, unless my translation nugget is lying to me -"

"Nugget?" asked Ehail.

Lorin fished a glob of white metal from her pocket. "Kamai-based translation. Only works between two languages, but you can take them to Barashi and they won't break. They're selling them at the circle now. Anyway. Mallyn can't read, not even in his native language. He's easily spooked - I can't emphasize that enough - he's all right around me, I think because I haven't tried to act particularly parental towards him and he's clear that I'm just doing my job, but I've brought up the fact that eventually someone will adopt him and he finds it fairly nerve-wracking."

"He thinks we'd hurt him?" Gyre asked, concerned.

"I can't read his mind. But I can tell you that this kid was utterly brutalized. Before a light got to him, he looked like someone had painted him, he was so bruised. She fixed three broken bones, too many cuts and scrapes to count, and more still beyond that. If he has any understanding of parents who aren't monsters, it's purely hypothetical."

"Can we see him today?" Ehail asked. "To get an idea of whether this is likely enough that we should tell our daughters, I mean."

"I'll ask him," Lorin said. "Wait here, please."

Mallyn was a straw-thin boy with haunted ice blue eyes, recently trimmed brown hair, and no ability to maintain eye contact. "Hello," he mumbled in Martisen, looking at Ehail's feet.

"Hello, Mallyn," replied Ehail. "Did Lorin already tell you our names?"

He nodded. "Parents," he said.

"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."

"Girls," clarified Mallyn, still confining himself to single words.

"I mentioned your kids," Lorin explained.

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

Mallyn nodded again. "Lyrrae," he mumbled.

"That's his sister's name," said Lorin. "The brother is Renn. Aristan hasn't found them a home yet, either."

"Safe," muttered Mallyn under his breath, not appearing to intend to communicate to anyone but himself with the word.

"Mallyn, is there anything you'd like to know about us, or our daughters?" Gyre asked. "Or our house or anything at all?"

Mallyn was silent for a long moment, but then said, "Punishment?" It was the longest word he'd managed, and Ehail winced that it was the first thing to come to his mind.

"We never hit our children," Gyre said.

"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."

Mallyn seemed to consider this all rather long-winded, but he didn't remark on it. "Hair," he observed, looking up at Ehail's face for a flicker of the eyes and then down again to the floor.

"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."

"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."

These didn't appear to register as very dragonlike characteristics to Mallyn, but he didn't ask for further details. "Chores?" was his next question.

"The girls have to keep their rooms picked up," Ehail said, ticking off fingers, "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."

Mallyn seemed to expect more to this response, but when none came, he just tilted his head and nodded again.

"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."

He didn't say anything, but he glanced up at Ehail again, expression mostly mild puzzlement.

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

This one took a long time to answer, but finally Mallyn said, "Draw."

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

"Birds," was Mallyn's first answer, followed by, "People."

"Do you have any other questions for them, Mallyn?" Lorin asked after a lull that lasted a bit too long.

Mallyn was looking at his knees where his hands were folded. "Lyrrae and Renn?" he asked in a small voice.

"I'm a wizard," Ehail said. "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."

Mallyn didn't seem to understand all of that, but he got the gist, and nodded slowly.

"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 hopped to his feet to obey, muttering something that might have been thanks.

"Trained-light?" Gyre murmured in Ehail's ear.

"A light who's learned things about anatomy and potions, so they can do more complicated healings," Ehail explained.

"I do have another question that Mallyn himself wouldn't have been able to answer," Gyre said.

"Shoot," said Lorin.

"If we adopt him," Gyre said, "is he ours, to keep? Or is there a risk that some political business will end with him taken away?"

"I'm not going to unconditionally guarantee that he's yours forever if you bring him home," Lorin said. "If an accusation of further abuse from anyone in your household sticks, he's out - but you can trust the police spells. If you decide to give him back, you don't get to change your minds later - we don't jerk kids around like that. But you don't need to worry about Aristan being able to swipe him. They might try to convince you to move there with strongly worded letters or something, but on a political level they're negotiating from a position of weakness. Esmaar's got all the transworld magic and the moral high ground, and every parliamentarian in office knows that if someone can point to him or her as the person who decided to give back the kid to his inadequately protective country, they'll be out on a referendum before you can say 'concerned citizen'."

"I do work in Aristan," Gyre said. "But I also have a sister in the Senate..."

"Nice, get her help as extra insurance if you like," Lorin said. "If I thought he'd fit in with my family, I'd adopt him and not expect him to be taken, and I don't have any influence in Aristan. I think you can expect the same."

"Do you think he'll want to go with us?" Ehail asked.

"Maybe," Lorin said. "We'll see."