Chapter Twenty-Three: Homeworld
"You're not Narax," Rhysel realized aloud.
"My name is Ilen," said the man. "Er, can I help you?" He could've been Narax's mirror image - but not quite. He had his hair cut short, fuzzily close to his head, in contrast with Narax's shaggier style. While Ilen was smiling, and lopsidedly, he didn't have his eyes squinted with the same smugness Narax exhibited when happy. They were the same height, but Ilen stood stiffly, where Narax slouched and exuded comfort wherever he went.
Rhysel privately kicked herself for having such an indelible memory of Narax's mannerisms after so long without crossing his path. He wasn't in her department at school and she never had to show up to his meetings; he didn't live near enough her that she risked running into him when she went on errands; he had not turned up on her doorstep. But a second look at Ilen instantly confirmed that this wasn't the same man.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I mistook you for someone I know." Shaking off the disorientation, she explained what she was doing there. Tekaal approached behind her as Ehail completed her second trip, and the silver shren went off to explain the situation to Ludei, Jensal's counterpart at the tropical house.
Ilen was plainly taken aback by Rhysel's pronouncement about her ability to help the children, and when she fell silent, he didn't react beyond a still stare for the first few moments. Then he scrambled to get out of her way. "Please," he said. "Please, help them."
The southerly assortment of baby shrens were in more or less the same shape as the ones at Jensal's western house. Rhysel's first patient was a white opal who reacted with more decorum than Kytheen had, although he was still enthusiastic about the treatment being bestowed on all of his peers. Tekaal levitated, Rhysel lightened, shrens flew, Rhysel tapped, shrens slept.
Somewhere during the middle of the sequence of treatments, the door opened again, and Rhysel was vaguely aware that Ehail and a dark-skinned shren man were standing behind Ilen and watching her and Tekaal work. They didn't speak and she paid them no mind until the tiniest shren in the room - a platinum too young to have even started to feel pain in place of lethargy - was taken care of.
"Astounding," said the dark shren. Rhysel turned her head and gave him a closer look. The irises of his eyes were even whiter than the surrounding sclera, giving his otherwise kindly gaze an unnerving quality, but his voice reminded her of Revenn's deep boom and she felt a twinge somewhere inside her ribcage.
"Thank you," Rhysel said. "Ehail, has Jensal called back? I think she was going to contact the other houses and ask if they had ways to get us to them today too."
"I would take you if I could, but I've never been to Corenta or Tenebirokalamikikek," Ehail said. "I don't think either of those houses have wizards, either."
"How are we going to get there without?" Rhysel wondered aloud.
"A combination of teleportation circles and flight should suffice for the first trip, after which I can transport us myself," Tekaal said. "But we will need to consult teleportation circle schedules and will most likely be obliged to wait until tomorrow."
Rhysel ground her teeth, but nodded. "I'll be much happier when I've seen to them all," she said.
"That you are doing this for any of them is a great good," Ludei said. "That you desire to help them all is... as I said, astounding. We are not a common object of charity. But excuse me, I should introduce myself. I am Ludei."
"It's nice to meet you, Ludei. And - well - until literally the other day no one could have done this," Rhysel said. But she thought of Keo, and bit her lip. "Anyway. I'm just glad I could help. I'll want to come by regularly and make sure none of them need to hurt as long as I have any way to help."
"Thank you, Rhysel," said Ludei, stepping forward and clasping her hand in his. "You cannot know the extent of my thanks."
"Do you need to go home right away?" Ehail asked.
"No; why?" Rhysel inquired.
"I'd like to talk to you," Ehail said.
Rhysel glanced at Tekaal, who seemed amenable, then nodded and followed the silver shren - with a glance backward at the jade one. Ilen shivered with some unidentifiable emotion, but his smile soon returned, and he picked up an iron-scaled dragonet as Rhysel turned into the hallway.
"I have an office," Ehail said. "I - I'm not very good at wizardry, I suppose you could have guessed because you just did in a few angles something I haven't made any progress on in a hundred years, but I have a sort of a research project going on, trying to figure out... us. Why we're how we are. If there might be a way to change it." Ehail led Rhysel and Tekaal through the house towards her office.
"I am also a wizard," Tekaal told her. "I am reasonably likely to be able to follow your research, presuming any of it is written in a language I know."
"I - I'm afraid most of it is in Munine, because that's the language I studied in," Ehail said. "And some Draconic, although not very much, because I did always hope I might find someone to collaborate with. Do you read Munine?" she asked. Tekaal and Rhysel both shook their heads. "I can get started on translating. But I wanted to know more about what you did today, whatever part of it you can explain."
Rhysel and Tekaal fluidly described the technicalities of the procedure together, Rhysel doing the fiddly sculpture demonstration and Tekaal providing analogies to wizarding jargon to cover for the fact that Ehail was not a kama. Ehail listened with great solemnity. "I'll consolidate and translate my notes for you," she told Tekaal. "But I don't have very much of use. I hope you'll be more successful than I've been."
Tekaal nodded gravely. "I wish I could learn wizardry," Rhysel said. "It sounds so useful."
"Jensal said your magic was from offworld," Ehail mused. "I guess you must be too. And you must not have a channeling capacity at all. Mine is low but it's there. I'm sorry you can't cast spells."
"I have kamai," Rhysel said. "At any rate, Ehail, thank you. We'll be back in a few weeks and repeat ourselves, and we can talk more then."
Ehail dipped her head. "Thank you," she said. "On - the babies' behalf. Ilen tries but they're really too young to have good manners."
"You're welcome," Rhysel laughed softly. "Well -" She turned to Tekaal. "Home?"
He took her hand, and brought them back to Esmaar.
Tekaal dropped Rhysel off and was immediately on his way, excusing himself to Daasen to see about teleportation circles. Rhysel, at a loose end, poured herself a glass of juice and made for her current textbook - the third in its series - about wild kamai, only to glance out the window and find an unfamiliar feature in the view.
A bit beyond what she remembered as the border of her yard, there had appeared a petite, square-windowed cottage under a slate roof.
"Talyn?" Rhysel called.
<What? I thought you didn't need me for anything today!> came Talyn's protest. Rhysel rolled her eyes at the fact that he wouldn't even disengage his lips from Leekath's long enough to reply audibly.
<I don't. I just want to ask if you know anything about the little house next door.>
<It's full of halflings,> he reported. <A mom and a dad and two girls and four boys. They came over to introduce themselves and I said you weren't back yet but would be later.>
<I hope you weren't rude to them about it, even if they did interrupt you.>
<I wasn't! I said, very nicely, that I didn't own the place and couldn't let them in but I was sure you'd be happy to meet them later in the afternoon.>
<All right then. I'll leave you be,> Rhysel replied.
Talyn didn't answer her. She sipped at her juice and peered out the window at the wee house. It was noticeably shorter than the sort she was used to seeing, although if she guessed rightly there was enough clearance that she'd be able to stand upright in it, should she ever have cause. She'd need to duck through the doorway, though.
As Rhysel watched, a face peered out the cottage's own window. From a distance she might have mistaken the child for Tekaal's niece-to-be - she had a similar pale brown coloring and darker brown hair, and similar gently-pointed ears - but of course she was half the size. The halfling girl's face vanished from the window and a tick later a line of eight people was marching neatly from it towards the tower, no doubt alerted to Rhysel's return and intent on making themselves known.
Rhysel met them at the door without waiting for the bell to ring. "Hello," she said. "You must be my new neighbors."
"Hello!" replied the man, who came up to about Rhysel's navel and wore a broad grin across his square-cornered face. He said it in Martisen - or rather, Rhysel heard it in Martisen. She supposed he was speaking something but had a translation spell on him. "We are your new neighbors. We're the Mimerings. I'm Ennim, and this is my wife Ranalin, our daughters Lerra and Mariming, and our sons Marlan, Ingarren, Elingmer, and Nangingel." He pointed at each member of the family, all of whom smiled at her and nodded when indicated. Lerra was the oldest of the children, about Ngen's age (whatever age that was; Rhysel couldn't keep track of all the disparate aging rates among the species in Elcenia). Mariming was the one Rhysel had imagined mistaking for Rasam at a distance, through the window, and looked to be second-youngest.
"It's nice to meet you. I'm Rhysel. Would you like to come in?" she inquired. She held up her cup of juice. "Have something to drink?"
"Thank you, don't mind if we do," Ennim said, stepping around her and into the tower. His family followed him; they weren't in lockstep, but maintained a practiced, stable distance between each one and the one following.
"So you just moved in," she prompted.
"Just today," Ennim agreed cheerily. "From Nirlan. The house is prefabricated. We're going to start a farm, but we'll spend the winter learning Leraal and making sure we have the network we'll need to sell our produce. There are a few things we can plant at this time of year, but we're probably only going to use half the plot on that while we're settling in. We'll also be putting up some outbuildings for animals."
"Sounds like a plan," Rhysel said. "Are you the only one with a translation spell on?"
Ennim nodded, but then frowned. "I was told it wouldn't be noticeable," he said. "That I would sound like a native speaker to anyone listening."
"You do sound like a native," Rhysel smiled, "of my native language - I suppose you'd sound like a Leraal speaker to anyone who spoke that first."
"Oh," blinked Ennim. "Well, I suppose that makes sense. Anyway, we're the Mimerings from Nirlan and we just wanted to get to know you. Your - apprentice? - answered the door earlier and didn't seem to want any more guests besides the vampire girl we saw, so we thought we'd come back later, and then Mariming saw you through the windows. Your home is so striking - very tall. It's just you and the apprentice here? Does the vampire live here too?"
"Leekath doesn't live here. She goes to the wizarding school nearby, where I teach an offworld magic," Rhysel said. "But she is here frequently." She avoided mentioning the family in her basement; it was up to them if they wanted to take steps to be invisible to the neighbors. Rhysel could build them an interior staircase so they wouldn't need to get in and out of the tower via the outdoors, although she wasn't sure how the gardening would work. Theedy could probably see in the dark and might take over that job past dusk. She would ask later. "My apprentice is interested in learning Elcenian languages, and he has a form of magic that lets him pick them up very fast by just talking to people who use them - it's the same offworld magic. If you want, I'm sure he'd be happy to help you and your family with Leraal if they'll speak - whatever your native language is - to him sometimes."
"That sounds like it would be very agreeable," Ennim said. The children were all still in their row, listening intently to Rhysel when she talked, presumably picking up Leraal; Rhysel wasn't used to kids behaving so solemnly, but chalked it up to some halfling oddity or perhaps a Nirlani cultural feature. Or it could just be the Mimerings in particular.
"I'll let him know and he'll drop by at some point. I think he could probably fit in your house," she said. "Until he hits his next growth spurt, anyway. And if you find it inconvenient to get groceries out here, I can recommend you a delivery service."
Ennim smiled. "That's kind of you," he said. "Well, it was lovely to meet you, Rhysel. We're going to head back and unpack some more. Thank you for inviting us in."
With that, all the halflings stood up, and went out of the house, nodding politely to Rhysel as they departed. She shut the door behind the littlest boy and picked up her book again, waiting for Tekaal.
Tekaal explained the itinerary to Rhysel when he returned to her tower. Esmaar's only circle was in its capital city, Daasen, and this was also the only city with a circle in it that Tekaal had ever visited. He went to its surrounding complex, picked up a schedule that made Rhysel's eyes swim to look at, and determined the most efficient route. "We'll have to start at Daasen," he said. "The next closest circle is in Saraan's capital and that's too far to fly from anywhere I can take us - if I teleported us to the tropical shren house we could fly to the Petar circle, but it's on the main island and doesn't have a better schedule than the Daasen circle does. So we'll go to Corenta's circle at fifth-and-four, and to the shren house from there. That will be a flight, but not an unmanageable one."
"And the shren house in - I can't remember the whole name of the country - the one with the violet-group shrens in it, in the water?"
"Tenebirokalamikikek is a merfolk country. They may or may not have a circle, but if they do, it isn't part of the network on land. I think our best bet is to travel to Mekand, which we can do from the Corenta circle earlier than from the Daasen circle, and there find a wizard or a licensed teleporter who can take us to an island or an iceberg close to the house. In theory we could hire such an individual anywhere, but geographic closeness to the house in question can only help. I will need to cast translation spells on us, as residents of Mekand are unlikely to speak any of the languages we do."
They were curled up on her sofa, books lying open and unattended on either side of the couple. Rhysel nodded at the explanation of their schedule, but had nothing to add. "Ludei sounds kind of like Master Revenn," she said against Tekaal's neck. "He doesn't look anything like him, but his voice..."
"It had escaped my notice," Tekaal said.
"There are exceptions," Rhysel said, "but usually the dead are less and less interested in answering calls as time goes on. They get involved with projects in the afterlife - they don't outright develop amnesia, but their memories don't get any better, either, and they forget things from the living world and reunite with people who died before them. Death kyma interrupt them; they're annoying; eventually they can't convince the spirit to come back, at least not without pestering them nonstop for days so it's less trouble to answer. Probably he won't be willing to talk to me by the time Korulen can get a familiar and unsummon me to Barashi. I don't suppose Saasnil is proving to be a prodigy with breaks?"
"She is not," Tekaal acknowledged. "She is not even proceeding as well with the academic background as Aaralan Inular did, let alone demonstrating talent at the practice."
"Right," Rhysel sighed. She pulled Tekaal closer for comfort.
"Rhysel," Tekaal said slowly.
"I had meant to wait until I was more confident in the practicality - had perhaps tried the spell on an animal at least once, which unfortunately I have yet to find the time to attempt - but perhaps you would prefer to know now - I believe I may have a way you could return to Barashi."
Rhysel froze, pausing even in her breath. "How? Some esoteric break...?"
"No, nothing of that nature at all. I found another angle from which to approach the problem. You understand that there are summoning spells and sending spells, and that these are different - that summons bring people from other worlds to this one, and sendings push people from this world to others?"
"Yes," she said, clenching her fingers in his shirt.
"I have been developing a spell that would, so far as the relevant magic is concerned, reset your home world to Elcenia."
"Then," she said, but couldn't finish the sentence before taking a deep breath, "then what would happen?"
"If I am correct," he said, "and I caution you that I may not be - then, nothing visible, to begin with. But a wizarding summon cannot affect an Elcenian creature, so it ought to break - and then you could be sent the same way I could."
"I could go back to my tower and get the rest of my things," she murmured. "I could go see that death kama Eryn found and try to contact my Master. I could visit my family. We could visit my family, if you want - I've met yours -"
"I would be happy to accompany you," Tekaal said, and he punctuated this remark with a kiss to her hairline.
Rhysel bowled him over like she was a wild animal and locked her lips onto his.
The Corenta house was much like the Esmaarlan and Petarlan houses. The aquatic one - which they eventually reached only by walking into a Mekandish post office and announcing that they wished to be mailed there - was something else again. The adults had merfolk forms, and they and the babies (amethyst, violet, charoite, spelter, erythrite), all water-breathers, lived inside hollow tunnels within a vast iceberg. Rhysel and Tekaal were able to envelop themselves in warm air and travel through it, but of course for the babies to fly they needed to swim up to the surface. For permission to make that happen with dragon-shaped shrens, Quaro, the fellow who ran the place, had to call the dragon council.
"The dragon council takes your calls?" Tekaal asked.
"Oh," Quaro said, expression unreadable on his scaled merfolk features, "they have to. I could be calling about a rogue shren."
"We could just take them to the bottom of the world," Rhysel said. "Or if any rooms are bigger than what we've seen, we could get an air bubble into one..."
"They're all too small," Quaro replied.
"We could melt the ice," Rhysel said.
"I think it would be preferable to go to the bottom of the world rather than remodel our iceberg," Quaro told her. "Should it come to that. There is a small ledge open to the air, above the waterline, but it is intended for them to take off as puffins or fruit bats or what have you."
"And if they take off as dragonets, you need to let the dragon council know. Understood," Rhysel said.
Quaro made the call, which took place entirely in Draconic, and finally put away his communication crystal. "As luck would have it, there are not any dragons anywhere near the shren house, and we can safely proceed," he said. "How fortunate. Shall we?"
Once the babies were lined up in the air, in age order, claws dug into the ice, the process was as normal - purple and silvery shapes flew as far as they needed to and were deposited back to damply nose Rhysel's knees or pat Tekaal's shoes, then disappear back into the tunnels of ice. There were fewer babies at this house than at any of the other three, as it served only one color group rather than the mix of five seen at the terrestrial locations, and the entire thing was done in less time than Rhysel had expected.
They made arrangements to come back on a regular schedule that didn't clash with kamai classes or the visits to other houses, and Tekaal teleported them home.
"I'm so glad we've gotten them all now," Rhysel sighed. "Just maintenance from here on out... Can we try the homeworld reset now?"
"I would prefer to summon an animal of some kind, ideally from Barashi, and attempt it with that first," Tekaal said.
"Are you going to send it back if it works, or just leave it here?" she asked.
"I am reluctant to leave a sending spell permanently active on an animal," he said.
"Get a platypus, donate it to a zoo?" she suggested, a smile playing about her lips.
"I am uncertain that Elcenian zoos are equipped to deal with such... entities. Would you like something to add to your collection of combination pets and wild kamai subjects?"
"How about something little, then - a wren?" she said, pulling a birdcage shape out of her wall and twirling it around on her finger by the hook at its top.
"A wren it is. I can begin drawing the diagram right away, of course. I'll fetch my chalk."
An angle later, Rhysel had a wren in her birdcage, newly a citizen of Elcenia. Tekaal cast an analysis on it and peered at the surrounding magic.
"No active summon," he murmured.
"The wren is fine," she said, calming the bird with wild magic and coaxing it to step onto her finger. "He's completely fine."
"Ideally, we would give it some time, to ensure that -"
"But there is no reason whatsoever to assume that there are non-obvious side effects," he said, sighing at her affectionately, "and so, yes, if you like, I can reset your homeworld now."
"Please," she breathed, eyes moist.
Tekaal gently kissed her between her eyebrows, and cast the spell.
So far as Rhysel could tell, absolutely nothing happened.
"Is it gone?" she asked. "My summon?"
Tekaal's analysis was still active; he looked her up and down. "I believe so," he said in a low voice. "Welcome to Elcenia."