Chapter Eighteen: Family
"My family wants to meet you," Tekaal told Rhysel after the students in his practicum dispersed, including Ngen, who'd hung back to quiz Rhysel and Tekaal about kamai as he'd taken to doing since the demo.
"They do?" she asked. "That's - er - how many people?"
Tekaal held out his hand, and when she took it, teleported them both to her tower. "The request was delivered by my mother, but I suspect both parents and all three of my siblings would be interested - and if, as has been proposed, the meeting takes place at the family home, there is no shortage of extended family." He seemed affectionately exasperated.
"Will your great-great-grandmother be there? The dragon?" Rhysel asked, pulling Tekaal towards the sofa and sitting.
"No - well, unless you would like me to invite her specifically to overlap with your visit. Which may take place at any time you prefer; the most relevant family members have flexible schedules and can arrange to meet you."
"Tomorrow, after your classes are over?" she suggested. "I should probably take a break sooner or later - I was thinking I'd sculpt for a while, but visiting your family would be fun too."
"I am uncertain that meeting as many as two dozen unfamiliar people should be classified as a relaxing activity," Tekaal said dryly. "Possibly you should also sculpt before returning to your truly astounding pace of self-imposed work."
"You work hard too, Aar Teacher-Actor-Painter-Musician-Wizard-Kama," Rhysel teased.
Tekaal raised an eyebrow at her. "I have many pursuits, but do not play my instruments professionally, rarely if ever paint according to a deadline or with any sense of urgency, have found that roughly half of death kamai does not function in Elcenia and therefore needs not be practiced to allow me to teach the subject here, currently lack an ongoing theater production, and have a light course burden this term. Meanwhile, you are learning two new kamai disciplines - not one and a half - and filling every spare moment with research and theorization about shrens."
"All right, fine," she said. "But tomorrow would be a fine time to meet your family anyway, wouldn't it?"
"By all means. I'll let them know to expect us for dinner. My mother or cousin - less often my brother the witch - usually handle food for the household, and I will assuredly be asked what you like to eat. What should I tell them?"
"I'll eat anything," Rhysel laughed. "You know me."
"I will tell them to put chocolate in the dessert," said Tekaal, smiling fractionally, and Rhysel laughed as she rearranged herself to use him as a pillow and picked up her mind kamai book.
Tekaal's family lived in one of the houses in one of the circles that dotted the residential zones of Paraasilan, opening to the street on one side and to a shared yard on the other. As soon as the pair began to descend from their flight (selected in place of teleportation in case it would ever behoove Rhysel to know where the house was located), Rhysel heard the whoops of children, the sounds bouncing past the sides of the six-story home from the lawn. Tekaal opened the front door for her, and at once, an elf with a considerable resemblance to her boyfriend peered into her eyes intently. "Are you Rhysel?" he asked. "I've heard you're from another world. What's that like? I'd love to hear all about it. Come in."
"Esten, get out of her face," scolded a female voice; Rhysel couldn't immediately see who it belonged to because her field of vision was occupied by staring grey eyes. The inquisitive fellow, presumably Tekaal's youngest brother, was pushed aside gently by a young woman. "I apologize for him. I'm Linisaar, Tekaal's sister. It's so nice to meet you." Linisaar had wavy brown hair and the same grey eyes as the brothers, and from what Rhysel had gathered about Esmaarlan fashion, she was also smartly attired in her cardigan and long, drapey dress. "Our other brother isn't home yet, but he will be soon, probably before dinner begins."
"It's nice to meet you," Rhysel said, casting a glance in Esten's direction. "Perhaps you could repeat your questions again more slowly?" Tekaal was gesturing furtively at her. <What?>
<I need to learn to initiate mindspeech myself - Esten is a reporter. He writes articles for a newspaper. Anything you tell him is reasonably likely to be served with breakfast to half the country in the next day or two,> Tekaal sent. <He restrains himself from reporting on family members but to the best of my knowledge you do not yet qualify, and offworlders are certainly interesting enough to merit articles if enough information is obtained to fill them out. I apologize for not having previously warned you. I do not often bring people here.>
Esten had begun repeating his questions earnestly while Tekaal thought this at her, and Rhysel avoided exhibiting visible suspicion. "Yes, I'm Rhysel," she said. "Yes, I'm from another world, which is hard to summarize - what would you say if someone asked you what Elcenia is like?"
"I can come up with more specific -" Esten began, but the entry hall, already cramped with four, came to hold five when another woman swung into the room from the adjacent parlor. She looked like an elder version of Linisaar - less sharpness to her ears and less wave to her hair, but the same face with more lines. And once she'd squeezed past her children, she immediately enveloped Rhysel in a hug.
"Hello," said Rhysel awkwardly, hugging the woman back for lack of any other clear reply. "I'm Rhysel."
"I'm Rinaal, Tekaal's mother," said the older woman, stepping back to hold Rhysel at arm's length with a hand clutching each shoulder. "Why, look at you! You're lovely." She didn't sound surprised, but she sounded like she was making sure to avoid it.
"Mother," said Linisaar. She didn't say anything else, but Rinaal, still smiling broadly, huffed a small sigh and let Rhysel go.
"It's nice to meet you, too," Rhysel said. "I know I'm missing one brother, who's not home, and one father. Tekaal, is your dad home?"
"He lets you call him Tekaal," crooned Esten. "It must be love."
Rhysel fixed Esten with an amused look, recalling Tekaal's remark about finding sharing a room with his brother to be a "disagreeable" arrangement. "You're the one he'd be rooming with if he lived here," she said, "aren't you."
"He probably told you," Esten shrugged. "Anyway, Dad is home, but he's currently losing badly at pel-pwon and he's sticking out the entire endgame till he loses his last pawn or until Balket gets tired of humiliating him. Or until Redan drags them both by their ears into the dining room."
"Or until Ahin gets home," Linisaar said, "and tells Dad how to rescue the game."
"Ahin's the other brother?" Rhysel asked. "The witch? I'm sorry, I know I've heard all your names before, but I can't keep them straight."
"That's right, Ahin's my second child, right after Tekaal," Rinaal said. "He might be bringing his boyfriend, Kestaar, and possibly also Kestaar's daughter Rasam. But, Rhysel, you mustn't worry about remembering anyone's name tonight. We all know what it's like to go to someone's houseful of family for the first time. No one expects you to get it right yet."
"Just go ahead and call me 'you in the grey' until you're less overwhelmed," Linisaar offered, smiling.
"And Ahin can be 'Witch With Excessive Potion in His Hair', and I can be addressed as 'Tekaal's Much Better-Looking Brother'," Esten put in. Linisaar made as if to shove him, but pulled her hand back after barely a tap. Esten gracefully pitched himself into the wall to oblige her anyway, upsetting the straight alignment of a painting. Rhysel looked at it to see a portrait of Linisaar and Rinaal together - both somewhat younger - in what she strongly suspected was Tekaal's style.
"Well!" said Rinaal brightly. "Do you want the tour of the house? I should warn you - there are plenty of stairs."
"We do have stairs where I come from," Rhysel said, smiling.
The Kithen family home was all common areas on the first floor: two cushily-furnished parlor/living rooms on either side of the front hall, and then an ample kitchen and a dining room with two rectangular tables behind them. A back door led to the yard, where Rinaal identified one boy and one girl as belonging to their household. "None of my kids have started producing grandchildren yet," she said, leading the way up the stairs to the second floor. "Both of my sisters have several by now."
One of those sisters, Rinaal's identical twin Mubil, still lived in the house; the other had moved in with her husband's family and was not present. Four of Mubil's five children still lived at home, and two of those were married, having produced one of the house's children apiece. Names flew past Rhysel's ears as Rinaal led her up and up, floor by floor - cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and nieces and nephews and details from decades of living with all of them ("I know this looks like a closet, but there's just so few rooms, and Ahin said he'd rather have this to himself than share with Esten, I don't know what we'll do if he marries Kestaar"; "Redan and Olaav share this one, and Redan's making dinner tonight, he's a good cook"; "this used to be two rooms but when Balket married Piran we knocked out a wall so it would be enough for the pair of them, and their girl loves living up in the attic"). The pattern for each floor after the first seemed to be two or three bedrooms of assorted size, a bathroom, and a couple of closets. Several of the bedrooms were turned over to storage of books or other items, which Rinaal lamented the need for as they passed, and one was a sort of shared office.
"I'm home!" a voice echoed from up the stairwell, and Rinaal lit up. It continued: "And I've brought a spectacular man and an adorable child with me! Come one, come all, marvel at my luck!"
"That'll be Ahin!" exclaimed Rinaal. "The sixth floor is just an attic, all one room, it's got angled walls because of the roof. The little girl you saw, Ansil, lives there. We can skip it. Let's go back downstairs and eat!"
Rinaal led Rhysel, and the three of her children who'd been following along for the tour, back down all the stairs again. Ahin, who did appear to have something in his yellow hair to make it spike neatly towards one ear, was already in the dining room by the time the group made it to the ground floor - having accumulated more miscellaneous family on the way down, who also suspected it was time to eat. Everyone seemed to know Rhysel's name, and while she didn't catch all the remarks in the hubbub, she got the general impression that some of them hadn't believed her to exist. Whether this was because she was an offworlder or because she was Tekaal's girlfriend was unclear.
Rhysel wound up sitting with Tekaal on one side and his brother Ahin on the other. Ahin had one arm slung around the shoulders of his boyfriend, who looked at least a quarter human - his daughter was by far the darkest person at the table among all the elves, probably close to half and half. "So!" Ahin said. "You're the famous Rhysel! You're interesting enough that Esten wants to put you next to every glass of banana juice in Esmaar but you're dating Tekaal! Explain yourself at once." He looked too happy to really come across as challenging.
"Are you aware he can sing?" Rhysel asked, laughing.
"That'd be hard to miss," snorted Ahin. "I think half the reason he went off to wizard school was so he could soundproof things and practice without everybody piling in to listen. But I'm glad he sings!" Ahin went on gleefully. "Kestaar's a stage manager. Tekaal introduced us." And with that, the witch pecked his boyfriend swiftly on the cheek. Kestaar smiled almost dazedly in Ahin's direction and Ahin continued. "But this isn't about my good fortune, this is about Tekaal's. Who exactly is this Rhysel Camlenn person I seem to be sitting next to, who appears to be real and not some sort of illusion?"
Rhysel was aware of Esten sitting across the table, failing at looking nonchalant, and kept her response uninformative. "Doesn't he talk about me?"
"Raves about you," Ahin said. "Constantly. It's annoying. He used to be able to hold conversations about other things, you know. But is it all true? Or has he been making it up?"
"I think the 'platypus' was definitely made up," Linisaar said, from beside Esten on the other side of the table. "I didn't think he was exaggerating particularly until he showed us that statue and said it was a real animal from your world."
"Platypuses exist!" laughed Rhysel. "I promise! If I could, I'd take you to where they live and catch a live one for you to look at."
"Wow," said Linisaar, wide-eyed.
"Are you adjusting all right, to being in Elcenia and not even able to travel home?" Rinaal asked. The tables were filling up, and the seat beside Rinaal was taken by a man about her age who Rhysel presumed was Tekaal's father. "Oh, Rhysel, dear, this is my husband Evaad," she added, patting the man on the shoulder.
"It's good to finally meet you," Evaad told Rhysel. He looked more like Esten than like Tekaal, although the three all shared coloring.
"I'm adjusting pretty well," Rhysel told Rinaal. "I suppose it will get hard if it takes the girls who summoned me too long to undo their mistake, because I'll miss being able to easily visit my family and friends, but at this point I plan to go on living here even when they do manage to get me back to Barashi."
"So it's called Barashi," Esten said, leaning forward.
"Esten," said Evaad reproachfully.
Another elf, presumably the cousin of Tekaal's responsible for dinner, started plunking serving dishes onto the table, which was already set with square plates and tall glasses of water and utensils. "Eat up!" he invited jovially, winking at Rhysel but otherwise not insinuating himself into Tekaal's immediate family; he sat at the other table.
Tekaal identified everything for her: the sautéed purple rectangles with pale veins running through them were fried nilir leaves, associated with the yellow mustard and butter and egg yolk sauce. The white stuff was mashed turnips with cheese mixed in. There was bread (Tekaal warned her that it contained insect flour, but Rhysel had gotten over her squeamishness about the Esmaarlan diet of arthropods and took a slice anyway) with garlic oil, and dessert was a chocolate custard that Rhysel was tempted to start with. She held back and tried everything else first.
The cousin was in fact a good cook, although she heard him congratulating the blondest elf in the room (she didn't look closely related; possibly she was married to one of Tekaal's cousins) on her assistance with the sauce, so he hadn't done it all himself. "This is delicious," Rhysel said, loud enough to carry; the cousin smiled at her but didn't shout back across the room.
Over the rest of the dinner, Rhysel dodged Esten's scrutiny, got to like Linisaar and Rinaal both very much, and found herself alternately annoyed and amused by Ahin's exuberant domination of most conversations. She prompted Tekaal to remind her by mindspeak when she forgot names, which led to Ahin's boyfriend Kestaar congratulating her on her memory by the time they were all halfway through their custards.
"I can't take credit," she said. "I've been mindspeaking to Tekaal when I forget things."
"Is that a kamai spell?" asked Esten.
"It's mind kamai, but 'spell' isn't the right word," Rhysel said.
"More like Ahin's witchcraft?" suggested Linisaar. "Did you make a potion?"
"I made a potion-like thing to infuse Tekaal with kamai, but no, mindspeech is just -" <Like this,> she finished, including only Tekaal and his immediate relatives in the sending.
"Oh, how interesting," exclaimed Rinaal.
"Come to think of it, I don't know much about witchcraft," Rhysel said, glancing at Ahin. "What is it that you do?"
"Make potions," Ahin replied at once. "I'm very versatile, not one of those so-called witches who just makes batches of hofis and stops there - I can do medicinal, household, cosmetic, all kinds."
"He can also put pef tan in the food, when he cooks," Linisaar whispered loudly.
"Hey!" Ahin said, affronted. "Pef tan is a legitimate ingredient!"
"Flavor enhancer," laughed Esten, "perks up anything you don't think is good enough on its own, lets you magic it up a bit..."
"Harrumph," Ahin said, but he was smiling. "It's harmless, anyway."
"Delicious pef tan," said Rinaal.
"I want to be a witch!" cried Kestaar's daughter - Rasam, Rhysel remembered. The child had an appetite and had been mostly quiet through the meal, but, having devoured her chocolate custard, had found her voice. "I want to apprentice with Ahin and make all the kinds of potions there are and be super rich."
"You're still a touch too little, sprout," said Ahin, voice transformed from the loud and enthused half-shout that he normally employed to a gentler tone when addressing Rasam. "When you're seventeen, I'll have you - nothing'd make me happier."
"Why do I have to waaaait?" Rasam pouted. "You've got a 'prentice who's only nine!"
"He's all human, and you're five-eighths human and the rest elf," Ahin said implacably. "I didn't apprentice until I was twenty-five, how would you like that?"
"That would be awful!" Rasam declared. "So awful! It's better that I'm not all an elf."
"There you go, this way you only have to wait a couple years," Ahin laughed, reaching in front of Kestaar to ruffle her hair. "And then I'll teach you to make whatever you want."
"In a sane order, please," said Kestaar mildly, clasping Ahin's hand where it was entwined with Rasam's hair. "Hofis first, oharthar essence after that."
"Hofis isn't first, elixir base is first," said Ahin, wagging a finger. "But yes. In order."
"Awww," sighed Rasam. "How old do I have to be before I get to learn everything?"
"Depends on how fast you learn," said Ahin, grinning.
Rasam thought about this, decided it was acceptable, and then looked at Rhysel. "Are you going to be my aunt?" she asked.
Tekaal went bright red, and appeared to be clutching his spoon tightly enough that it could neither be healthful for his hand nor safe for the spoon. "I thought your daddy and Ahin weren't married?" Rhysel asked Rasam mildly, patting Tekaal's arm.
"They're not, but they're gonna!" Rasam crowed, clearly thrilled.
"Rasam, honey, that was going to be a surprise for later," Kestaar murmured, but it was too late - they had the attention of the room. Rhysel could barely make out half the shouts of congratulations, and only when she started listening for echoes of the spoken words via mind kamai did she understand that Rinaal's plaintive question was about whether Ahin would be moving away.
"Well... I don't know, Mom," Ahin told her under the din. "There's not really room for us, is there?"
"Oh - well - we could move some books - put them in people's rooms, or in the living room, if we put the potted plants out back we could -"
"Where would Rasam go?"
"She could share the attic with Ansil?" proposed Rinaal. "Ansil wouldn't mind, she loves Rasam..."
"I don't know, Mom," said Ahin, shaking his head, eyebrows knitted in simultaneous happiness and regret.
"Why don't you have a basement?" Rhysel asked, thinking back to the tour.
"The house didn't come with one, and we would have to evacuate the first floor - people, furniture, everything - to let them put one in without disturbing the neighbors," Evaad said. "There's just no way we can make that happen. We could put in another floor, maybe, if Ansil went to visit Piran's family for a few days..."
"I can make you a basement," Rhysel said. "I put one in under my tower not long ago - it's fast and I don't think it would bother the neighbors and you don't have to move any furniture, unless you want stairs down to it from inside as well as outside."
"My goodness, could you?" breathed Rinaal. "We could move all the things down there - if there were enough new rooms Redan and Olaav could stop sharing, perhaps - Ahin can stay, Kestaar and Rasam can move here - you will, dear, won't you, if there's room?"
"If there's room, yes," Ahin said, nodding. "Rhysel, you can seriously just up and make us a basement?"
Rhysel nodded, pleased. "Right now, if you like. Do you need it accessible from inside?" At Rinaal's eager nod, she said, "Show me where you'd like the stairs to begin."
Under the supervision of Rinaal, Evaad, Rinaal's twin sister and brother-in-law, and several older family members who were presumably Tekaal's grandparents and great-grandparents, Rhysel burned away a designated section of floor down to the earth under the house. Its foundations seemed more magical than the ones she was familiar with from when she'd examined nonmagically-constructed buildings on Barashi - under the floor was bare earth, packed but not poured with concrete or set with stones to connect the house firmly to the ground below.
Whatever wizardry was holding the house down didn't stop Rhysel from pressing the earth into stone and shaping it into stairs. She shored up the rock as she created it, carefully checking it for tension as it had to support the entire six-story building with an increasingly hollow layer. She laid out the basement as the Kithenik requested of her, and let Tekaal do much of the detail work both to save her energy and take advantage of the fact that he was more familiar with the family's needs and aesthetics.
"I should have thought of this," he murmured, "when I saw the modification to your tower, even if not the moment I had your kamai knowledge."
"It's all right, dear, we didn't lose anyone for lack of space and now we may never have to," Rinaal said cheerily, running her hand over the molding he'd installed around a doorway. "Can we make this room blue...?"
By the time the basement was finished to everyone's satisfaction, it was late, and the helpful effects of having eaten a large dinner were flagging. Rhysel went up the stairs again to fetch her satchel, where she'd begun to keep several vials of a potion Tekaal had gotten her. She found it effective at fighting drain, even taken in partial doses, and helped herself to a small sip.
"Is that what Tekaal's doing with all that at-cost wakeflower spirit?" Ahin asked, noticing her as she imbibed. "Giving it to you?"
"Well, I don't know about all of it - he's a kama now, too - but yes, some," Rhysel said. "I'm taking it as directed - never substituting wakeflower for sleep, never more than two doses in a day or four in a week."
"All right, but be careful, that stuff hasn't been extensively tested on offworlders or anything. You're fine so far?"
Rhysel nodded. "Oh," she added, "and I don't think I mentioned before - congratulations."
"Thanks!" Ahin replied, breaking into a grin. "You're invited, of course, to the wedding. We're thinking this winter - maybe early Nidhel."
"Not a very long engagement," Rhysel remarked. "That's just three months from now."
"We've been together for five years," said Ahin, smiling ruefully. "We were dithering because we weren't sure Rasam would adjust to it well - but she's obviously enthusiastic about the idea, isn't she?"
"I did get that impression," laughed Rhysel.
Esten poked his head into the room. "So," he said. "On Barashi, was making basements often how you spent your time...?"
On Fenen afternoon, Rhysel and Tekaal received a list of students who were interested in starting to study kamai. There were fifty-one, and given that they planned to co-teach to start out and couldn't split up the class into halves, they agreed that they couldn't take more than twenty-five. Tekaal fetched academic records where they existed, but Kolaan and his friends Soraak and Kutran had also applied to enroll as kamai-only students, and had no records whatever. It turned out, when Rhysel asked, that Esmaar had no public education, no compulsory education, and effectively no system to get children in general educated: they were taught at home, unless their parents opted to enroll them in a private institution like Binaaralav, usually oriented towards a specific topic like Binaaralav was towards wizardry. "Or," Tekaal said, "towards magic in general, as seems to be the current trend."
"So there are schools for other things?" Rhysel asked, sifting through the names. She made check marks next to Leekath's name, and Kaylo the inquisitive dragon, and Korulen, and Ngen. After a moment, she made checks next to Kolaan and his friends too.
"No shortage," Tekaal said. "Art and dance and music, besides wizardry, are the most common. I believe there are some witchcraft schools that accept children, too, but apprenticeship remains the most popular way to teach that trade. Academic subjects such as history and literature are more the province of universities."
"Huh. But you didn't go to one, did you?"
"No, I did not attend school until I was sixty-one years old, at which time I went to a wizarding university," he said.
"So you learned to sing like that by yourself..."
"I did have a voice teacher for some time. And lessons in the various instruments, until I had enough familiarity to advance on my own. I took several painting classes. It is hardly uncommon for people, children included, to take classes in things, or employ tutors - merely unusual to collect children into uniform, dedicated institutions and teach them generic curricula." He pulled out several files from the pile and sorted them into separate stacks. "I believe these fifteen students would be unable to usefully keep up with the kamai program and their commitments to wizarding classes; these six have behavior problems that make me disinclined to accept them when our discretion is called for; these three appear to have applied in ignorance of the fact that kamai is only possible for individuals who have entered puberty; and this student, while unobjectionable in and of herself, is Oridaanlan, and I believe you would find your objective of keeping kamai under control in Elcenia to be significantly compromised if she returned to her homeland and was legally obliged to do whatever her plutarch requested of her."
"I don't know anything about Oridaan... but we've got to cut some people; I'll trust your judgment. Should we count the wolf and rider as one student or two?"
"It is reasonably likely that only one would physically attend class at a time," Tekaal said. "Certainly they would not be likely to have two students' worth of challenges with the material. But either counting could be justified."
"Okay," Rhysel said. Tekaal crossed out the names corresponding to the ones he'd chosen to reject. Rhysel stared down the remaining twenty-six names, which included "Mata" and "Tama", the wolfrider pair who'd attended the demonstration. "I think that we can call this our first class roster, then. Lutan and Kaarilel have good enough grades?"
"Borderline," Tekaal said. "They may or may not wish to continue with the course's requirements after a term; I will keep an eye out for flagging performance in other areas."
Rhysel nodded. "Well," she said. "I guess this is our roster."