Chapter Three: Lonely

Ehail felt Gyre's hands on her shoulders. "Ehail, are you all right?"

"You have my deepest condolences," said the priest, sounding bewildered. "I confess I do not know how to counsel you - it is unheard of -"

Ehail wasn't crying. She had simply ceased to want to stand. Gyre didn't need to lean over her like that. Even if she'd been crying, how would that help?

She drew herself to her feet, hugging herself. "I suppose I should go home," she said.

Gyre let one of his hands fall away from her shoulder. The other stayed put. "If that's what you want to do," he murmured.

"One of my functions is to console people whose requests are denied," began the priest, but Ehail waved him away, not making eye contact.

"I think I should go home," she said, and she headed for the temple's exit.

Gyre followed her closely. "I'm so sorry that didn't work out," he said. "I didn't even know that was one of the possible responses - it's possible the gods don't want to handle petitions from Elcenians - or - something - I'm so sorry, Ehail."

"It was a long shot," she murmured. "I didn't expect it to help."

"No?" Gyre asked sadly.

She shook her head. "I don't expect anything to work."

"Are you sure you want to go straight home?" He still had his hand on her shoulder. She couldn't muster the curiosity to ask about it. She didn't want to remove her arms from her middle to brush it away. If she didn't hug herself as tightly as possible something might fall out.

"Where else?" she asked.

"Rhysel's place," he said. "Or, I don't know if it would interest you at all, but my shop isn't far from here. Or anywhere. I'll take you anywhere you'd like to go."

She shrugged. "I suppose we could go to one of those places." She shouldn't have forgotten that he expected some of her time. It was fine if he wanted some more of it. What was she going to do left to her own devices? Cure shrens?

"This way," said Gyre; his hand slid down her arm to take her hand. Ehail let him pull her along. The streets were crowded, full of people on foot or on strange quadrupeds - "horses", Ehail knew the word as soon as she'd seen a few of the animals, but they remained strange to her - or in horse-drawn contraptions. It was a dense city, narrow little buildings in every color butting up against each other. Half the cross-streets were mere alleys. She wondered how much the summoning circle's owner had needed to pay for the square footage his operation required in the middle of such a place.

People were still looking at her hair. She wished they would stop. She ought to have dyed it.

Gyre's shop was three blocks from the temple. His storefront was glass, and behind it were displays of shining things. Bracelets with diamond settings and ruby icicle earrings and a silver-chain necklace with peridot charms and a nesting set of rings each adorned with a tiny triangular beryl. A silver teapot, a gold figurine of a dolphin the size of Ehail's thumb, a rope of star sapphires clasped around a wooden throat. They caught her eye - they couldn't not, reflecting light from two suns and each other. She lost a step to blink light out of her eyes.

He stopped when she did. "See anything you like?"

"It's all very nice," she said. He'd made them, she surmised. It was his shop.

Gyre held the door open for her. "If you see something you want, tell me," he said. "You ought to get something you want today - I am so sorry, Ehail."

Ehail went into the shop and looked at shining things. Apart from the window display, they were arranged neatly - earrings here, necklaces there, rings under this counter and silverware on that shelf. Ehail didn't have her ears pierced. She'd never owned jewelry in her life that she hadn't made during some arts-and-crafts lesson someone at the house might offer after reading about a simple project in a magazine. Her last macrame wrist-cuff from one of those had worn through and fallen off her arm forty years ago.

"It's all very nice," she murmured again.

Gyre ran his hand through his hair. "Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe you'd rather not have a souvenir for this particular day."

"You don't have to give me anything," Ehail said. One of the bracelets had leaf etchings in overlapping silver disks, and a tangle of green druzy shapes chained to the same clasps, partly hiding the design. The leaves reminded her of the doodles she did when she couldn't focus on her work but it wasn't time to go to bed. Her wastebasket was full of drawings of plants, drawn badly but in painstaking detail, vein-vein-vein-vein-edge-stem, over and over. Dense thickets of leaves and thorns and vines and blossoms.

"I'd like to, if you'd take it, if you'd enjoy it, but - Do you like that one? With the leaves?"

Ehail looked away from it. "It's pretty. They're all pretty. You're talented. But you don't have to give me anything."

Gyre sighed and nodded. "If you don't want it I won't press it on you. Do you want to go home?"

She nodded. That sounded fine. Someone had probably written something on her request list since she'd left.

"Am I lonely?" Ehail asked Hallai.

"That's what you interrupted me to ask?" Hallai asked. "Are you lonely?"

Ehail nodded.

Hallai shrugged. "Yeah. I'd blast you with not-lonely if you wanted, but it doesn't work like that. It wouldn't make sense; your mind would reject it. That's why I can't just make the depressed people around here happy. Too diametrically opposite. Best I can do is make them sort of okay."

"Am I always lonely?" Ehail asked.

"Dunno. You're pretty stable, I don't pay close attention to you. Got a lot of folks to cover. Haven't lost one yet," Hallai said smugly. "Why? Are you going to go... I dunno what you'd do if you were going to. Cast something big, sting yourself to death?"

"No," said Ehail. If she were going to kill herself, that would be the way to go. It would kill her, not just her human form, and so it wouldn't force her into natural shape. But she wasn't planning on it. "I'm not going to do that."

"All right then. Anything else?" Hallai asked after a silence. "I think some of the kids are fighting, I want to focus on calming them down..."

Ehail nodded and backed out of the room.

She wondered how Gyre had been able to tell she was lonely. His eyes were green, but he still wasn't an empath. Did she look it? Would she need to go around smiling or something, all the time, if she didn't want to interest more of him? (Were there more of him? Did she want to avoid interesting them?)

Ilen sat next to her at lunch. He usually preferred delivering his requests for spells in person. "It's not really an emergency any more, because they're not crying so much, but the soundproofing spell on some of the babies' sleeping cubbies is wearing thin and they can hear each other at night. They're keeping each other up talking," he told her.

Ehail took a swallow of water. "I can fix that after I'm done eating," she said.

Ilen nodded and attended to his salad.

"Am I pretty?" Ehail asked him.

The jade looked up at her like a startled deer. "I - uh - I'm not sure if you've heard but Hallai and I are together now - and -"

Ehail shook her head. "I'm not propositioning you. I just want to know. And you're here."

"Oh." Ilen chewed on a lettuce leaf and peered at her. "I suppose you are. I think that's how the forms work, isn't it, symmetry and so on? Is there anyone here who isn't pretty?"

"So I'm pretty," Ehail said slowly.

Ilen nodded. "Uh, I'm going to tell Hallai this conversation happened, but I'll ask her not to yell at you."

"Thank you," Ehail said. She finished her soup and went to look up the soundproofing spell.

When she'd finished making sure that the baby shrens could only talk to each other outside of their cubbies, Ehail took her bluejay form and flew through the halls back to her office. Putting it off any longer would be inviting the early stages of esu, and lethargy was no help to her productivity. She shifted back outside the office door, noted the new requests, and carried on with her work.

After two weeks' absence, Rhysel was back, this time with her apprentice instead of her husband. They treated the babies - Ehail, walking in from shoring up the house's anti-lightning spell, could hear squeaky voices giggling and clamoring for their turns. And then they went to Ehail's office to pick up more translated notes.

Ehail wondered if Rhysel would say anything about Gyre. He'd been oddly persistent before. Was he likely to stop?

"My brother wants to see you again," Rhysel said, after Ehail had dug up all of the Leraal versions of her research and clipped them into a neat stack for the kama to take home.

"Oh," Ehail said. "When?"

"I don't see him," Ehail said.

"Just keep going in that direction," Rhysel said, pointing. It was hard to see the gesture in the weak light. "You'll see him."

"I don't understand," Ehail said.

"Gyre'll explain it," Rhysel said cheerfully, and she made her way back to the transfer point.

The point itself was invisible, and so, apparently, was Gyre, and there was nothing else there. Rhysel had brought Ehail all the way to the bottom of the planet for no obvious reason. It would have made sense as a prank, however unkind, if Ehail couldn't teleport home and would have been inconveniently stranded. Since Ehail was a wizard, she couldn't fathom what the purpose of the setup might be.

With nothing else obvious to do but give up and teleport home, or do as Rhysel had said, Ehail shrugged and walked forward.

Thirty feet from the transfer point, she was enshrouded by leaves, and the nothingness had transformed into a forest.

"Hello," Gyre said. He was sitting crosslegged on a blanket, spread on moss between trees. "Do you like it?"

Ehail brushed a branch out of her path. It felt solid. "What is it?"

"Image kamai. There's a crystal under a rock over there..." He pointed. "Which, if you stick its halves together, makes this. It's only visible from inside the illusion. Rhysel's blood-sister gave it to her as a wedding gift, and Rhysel said we could borrow it."

"It's beautiful here, but how can it be an illusion?" Ehail asked, touching the branch again. "Illusions are insubstantial - they can look real, they can even feel real if they're of certain things, but you can't touch them, they won't push back if you push them."

Gyre shrugged. "To be honest, I have no idea how it works. Apart from Rhysel, I haven't happened to acquaint myself with any kyma, let alone learn the trade. But it is pretty."

"I suppose it might be different with kamai," Ehail said dubiously. Illusions wizards made were classified in part by having no substance... But she wouldn't learn anything about it by asking Gyre. She could include a note to Rhysel with questions the next time the babies needed treatment. "It's so detailed."

"It must have taken forever," Gyre agreed. "You can sit down, if you like. The food is real." He pulled a basket out from behind his back, flipped open the lid, and produced a sandwich wrapped in paper.

Ehail paced towards the picnic blanket and folded herself down onto it. She took the sandwich Gyre offered, and peeled away a little of the paper; edges of sliced sausage and crinkles of lettuce and smears of bean spread were visible between halves of the bun. "Did you make the sandwiches?" she asked, as he pulled out one of his own.

"That, I did do myself," Gyre said. "I hope you like them. Rhysel told me you aren't choosy..."

"I'm not," Ehail said. "This is fine." She bit off the corner. It was fine. "How have you been?" That was a polite and normal thing to ask, she thought.

"I've been all right. Have you been holding up, after...?" He trailed off.

Ehail nodded. "It didn't work. That's all." She glanced around at the illusion. It didn't look quite like any ecosystem she was familiar with - Ehail had never exactly studied forests, but she sometimes looked up references to be able to draw new sorts of plants and had picked up some things over the centuries. Presumably it was a Barashin type of landscape. "There's some interesting results from the latest analysis I invented. If I can figure out what they mean, or if Aar Camlenn can, that might help." It occurred to her that Gyre was technically an Aar Camlenn too, except he wouldn't tend to refer to himself with Leraal formalities. He'd have been "Mr. Camlenn" if she weren't already calling him by his first name.

"Do you do anything besides work? What do you like to do?" Gyre asked her.

"I draw, sometimes." She reached past the edge of the blanket and touched soft moss. "I'm not good at it. I just do it to relax, so I can go back to focusing on work."

"I'd like to see some of your drawings," Gyre said.

"I don't keep them," she said. "I suppose I could save the next one if you want it."

Gyre smiled at her. "I'd like that."

"Why are we here?" Ehail asked.

"In Rhysel's illusion forest? It seemed like a nicer setting to have a picnic in than the featureless wastes," Gyre pointed out. "So she offered it."

"I mean," Ehail said, "why are we on the bottom of the world, and not - in Rhysel's yard, or something?"

"Ah." He smiled again. "In case you wanted to - only if you wanted to - spend a little while in your natural form. I understand you probably haven't gotten to do that in a long time."

Ehail froze, sandwich halfway to her mouth. "We - that isn't something shrens do, that's why I haven't."

"Because it could hurt someone else," Gyre said softly. "But there's no one here but you and me. And I can't catch it."

Ehail knew perfectly well he couldn't be a dragon. His eyes weren't quite the right color for him to be a green or an emerald, much less jade or malachite. Even if they had been, a green-group couldn't turn into a half-elf. Even if he'd been wearing lenses or had the color changed by magic, he was Rhysel's brother and Rhysel wasn't a dragon or even a thudia. And he spoke only one language and was from Barashi and even if in spite of all that he'd been a dragon he would be one in an assumed form, and - there were so many reasons why he couldn't be a dragon, why Ehail turning into her "dragon" shape couldn't do him any injury.

"But we don't do that," Ehail said.

"Even here?" Gyre said.

"I - well, I've never been here before. But never. We never do that."

"Why not?"

"We mustn't," Ehail said, shivering.

Gyre scooted towards her and touched her hair, brushing it away from her forehead. "Why, Ehail?"

"It's too easy. It's too fast. If we do it ever, we'll have bad habits - it would be one thing if I were inside all the time like Ilen, but I go out - I was near dragons less than a month ago, even a baby dragon - I can't."

"Surely you aren't going to start shifting at random times and places if you do it once, where it's safe?" Gyre asked. "Do even dragons do that?"

"Dragons do it... casually, I think, not randomly, but they will to show off or to fly from place to place or to pick up and tuck heavy things," said Ehail. "I can't do that." Especially not flying.

Gyre's hand was in her hair, on the nape of her neck, where it had come to rest after adjusting her hair. "I understand," he said. "I'm not saying you should be casual about it. But there's no one here but me and you. You could shift once, and then back, and then never again, if that's what you want."

"If you just want to see me turn into something, I can turn into a bluejay," Ehail said.

"I admit I'd like to see that too," Gyre said.

Ehail wasted no time in adopting this more reasonable shape. As a jay, she had the bright blue back and banded wings of a normal bird, but the gray on her belly shone silver. It was common to choose forms that would look nice with one's color. Ehail had picked out her bird when she was fourteen, from the books of flying creatures the shren house kept handy. The small form dropped her away from Gyre's hand; he pulled his arm back to pick up his sandwich again.

"Lovely," Gyre pronounced.

"You keep saying that," said Ehail.

Gyre looked surprised. "You can talk, shaped like a bird?"

"Yes. I couldn't if I turned into an insect, or anything like that - they can't make noise - but a bluejay can, and so I can speak."

"Can you talk in your natural form?"

"Well - of course. I could talk when I was little," she said. "The babies in the house talk a lot." She stretched her wings out and turned human again, sandwich still in hand. She took another bite. "But I shouldn't turn into it. It's better to never do it than to do it once."

"Why?" Gyre asked her again.

Ehail looked him in the eye. "Why do you want me to do it?"

"I can't really claim to understand what your life is like," Gyre said gently. "But it seems to me that if you have to spend your whole life outside of the shape you were born in - I mean, hatched in - that might not feel particularly nice. Even though you'll go back to your human form for convenience and to cast spells and to keep other people safe, there's this place - this empty place - and you could be yourself."

She bit into her sandwich again. It was almost gone. "I don't even know what I look like," she murmured. "I mean - I know the broad features. The kind of horns I have and so on. Those are common to silvers. But I don't know beyond that."

"I didn't think to bring a mirror," Gyre admitted. "Would you do it if I had?"

"I could go and get one," Ehail said. "If that were it."

"I guess you could," said Gyre. He sighed. "If you don't want to, you don't have to. I'll stop prodding you about it."

Ehail pursed her lips and looked down. "Do you have anything to drink in the basket?" Gyre handed her a bottle of water. "Thank you," Ehail said.

"I'm sorry. I seem to keep having ideas that I think will make you smile that don't turn out very well," Gyre said sheepishly.

"You don't have to do that," Ehail said. "It's not important."

"It's important to me," Gyre said.

Ehail scrunched in towards herself. "How big is this illusion?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I think it's round, but I haven't walked around in it enough to have a sense of the diameter."

She finished her sandwich, and then got to her feet and paced to the edge of the illusion. Past the last trees, she saw a ragged edge of moss floor and then the empty flat of the planet's underside going on forever. She crossed the picnic blanket to check the other side, and found that presently. The whole illusion seemed like it might be fifty feet edge to edge.

Her natural form would fit entirely in the clearing, if she curled her tail around her feet, kept her wings folded, and swan-bent her neck.

The bottom of the world was completely deserted. It was only her and Gyre.

"You might want to get up and go behind a tree, and take the basket with you," Ehail murmured, shuffling back to the blanket.

Gyre opened his mouth, but then closed it again, caught the basket on his wrist as he stood, and went behind one of the evergreens. He peered around the side.

Ehail turned on the spot, marking the locations of "illusion" stones and branches and making up her mind where she ought to be. She knew - approximately - how big her natural form ought to be by her age. She could decide where to put it when she changed. But she didn't have a lot of practice. She didn't even go between human and bluejay very often, and that in space with plenty of room for each.

She closed her eyes and made the shift.

Shifting felt like nothing. Each body felt as ordinary as every other. But when Ehail opened her eyes again, everything was distant and small.

She could hear a patter as heavy scales slid away from her and onto the moss. She couldn't feel them through the thick silver plates that armored her, but the few that traversed the membranes of her folded wings tickled; she shook her wings to get them off but didn't unfold them.

Gyre edged out from behind his tree, staring openly. "You're magnificent," he told her.

"I'm not," she said. She peered around at herself - she couldn't get a look at her face, but she could see the rest. She looked so ordinary. A stretched-out, sleeker, more heavily shielded version of any of the silver babies who came through the house. She could have had some distinction of build or sheen, but she just looked plain.

"These are actual silver?" he asked, picking up a scale that covered the palm of his hand. They came in a range of sizes, from the thumbnail-sized thin ones she would have lost in childhood to the long, heavy ones shed as an adult.

"Yes." She turned back into her human form. "I'm not sure what to do with them. I don't want to explain this to Ludei, even if they would be worth a lot of money melted and -"

"Melted?" exclaimed Gyre.

"That's how we sell the babies' metallic scales," Ehail said.

"I'll give you half again what you would have sold these for if you don't melt them," Gyre said. "I'll give the money to the house if you'd rather. Through some anonymous channel if you'd rather."

"You want them?" Ehail asked.

"They're beautiful," Gyre said.

"I guess I can give you the address for the house and you can mail us a writ of transfer and pretend it's a charitable donation," Ehail said. "And then I don't have to tell Ludei anything but I'm not shorting the house... I'm not sure what the silver market is like right now, but I can find out."

Gyre nodded. "I can't be sure, but I think jewelry made out of these would sell, very well, back home," he said. "In all the colors, not just the metals - would the house be willing to sell me the children's scales too?"

"I don't see why not," Ehail said. "Do you want me to ask for you?"

"If you wouldn't mind. I'm sorry, I must sound terribly mercenary right now."

"It's all right," Ehail said.

"There is," Gyre said, picking up his basket again, "dessert. Chocolate cake."

"That sounds nice," she replied, and took the wrapped slice he offered, peeled the paper away, and nibbled at it.

A silence fell, and something occurred to Ehail.

"Is this a date?" she asked.