“I know I’m kind of asking a lot,” Blue said, and Taelah smiled. Blue actually rarely asked anything of her. Mixing up alchemy reagents or the like didn’t particularly count, as those were things she was doing anyway.
“It’s only three months,” she said. “It’s not that serious an imposition, and it’s not as much of an issue as carrying an actual child, right?”
“I actually barely noticed,” Shayma admitted. “The problem is that I can’t gestate a dungeon seed and still shift to spirit form.”
“It won’t be an issue at all,” Taelah reassured them both. “Especially since it’s clearly so important.”
“Thank you,” Blue said, with a note of relief. “Tonight, then. What about asking Iniri? What do you think?”
“Asking never hurts,” Taelah said. “If you mean, is it appropriate, then yes. I expect she’ll be happy to do so. If you asked me and not her, I think she’d be hurt, actually. It would mean that you don’t trust her.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust her! It’s just that she’s not actually my wife or anything, and we have an understanding, but I know that this past year didn’t help with that. I’m just afraid it’s too presumptuous.” Taelah shared a glance with Shayma and they both rolled their eyes.
“You’re a Power. Even if we all know you’re not quite as scary as it may seem to others, you shouldn’t forget that.” Despite Blue’s change in attitude, he clearly had some weak spots for his Companions. Not that she entirely minded, but he definitely needed some prodding to assert himself with them at times.
“You’re right,” Blue said. “And I hadn’t even thought about the trust issue, which I really should have.”
“I think Iniri even feels a little useless,” Shayma said, tickling Eva with the Chiuxatli wing that she had shifted one arm into. Eva gurgled in delight and clutched at the brilliant feathers. “To you, I mean.”
“But she’s handling all the political stuff!”
“Which she’d have to do anyway, considering it’s the same as Tarnil’s political interests,” Shayma pointed out. “I’m his Voice, Taelah basically runs the Caldera…” Taelah shook her head but Shayma pointed at her.
“It’s true! Even the dragons do what you tell them! Even I do what you tell me!”
“It’s not that bad!” Taelah said, laughing at Shayma’s tone of voice.
“You have no idea what you sound like when you put on your mom mode,” Shayma said, smiling back. “Mom senses and mom voice. Are you sure you don’t have a [Mother] Class?”
“No, but it might be something to aim for when I reach third tier,” Taelah mused. Which wouldn’t be that long now.
“You’ll be even more powerful than me,” Shayma teased. It was still a marvel to have her back. Taelah had missed talking with her, missed the bright and cheerful conversations. Even now, weeks after she’d returned, Taelah felt tears springing to her eyes as she was struck by a wave of relief from just being able to banter with Shayma once again.
Shayma shot her a silent glance of sympathy but didn’t seem to know what to say. Taelah had to admit it had to be hard on Shayma, too, coming back to people who would suddenly cling to her or, more rarely, avoid her for no real reason. She hadn’t had to mourn anyone, or endure the strange year.
“Well,” Taelah said after a bit. “It sounds like you’re going to be busy for a while. If there’s a whole continent that needs Blue’s presence.”
“There are two more borders to survey, even,” Blue said glumly. “I’m going to have to make a full pass, then really settle in to do some work. To be honest Shayma’s way more valuable in the Underneath, where I can’t put the Fortress. Or spot rescue missions, like Kallindakari. Plus, I’m not going to make her run around and do boring depletion sweeps all the time. She’s a hero, she can do hero stuff.”
“And what exactly is hero stuff?” Taelah asked.
“You know, rescuing damsels and dragons and monsters and all that.” Shayma giggled.
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually go like that. You usually rescue the damsel and kill the monster.”
“We seem to collect them, though. Actually I think we’ve rescued more dragons than damsels.”
“Not if you count Tarnil,” Taelah pointed out.
“I mean, that was kind of Iniri.”
“What about that first time? When you opened a way for us when Iniri was fleeing Meil?”
“Oh, I guess that’s true. How many damsels does a queen count as?”
Despite the occasional pang of stray emotion from Shayma’s presence, it was quite pleasant to spend time just chatting. Especially since she didn’t come with problems that needed solving, like most of the Villagers did. It didn’t hurt that Shayma gravitated toward the twins with an inevitable force, and Taelah would never turn down help with childcare.
Eventually though, Shayma had to leave to go see Iniri. Even if Blue could talk to Iniri of his own accord, for something like an official request it seemed he wanted Shayma there to help deliver it. Taelah gave her a hug before she disappeared, shaking her head at Shayma’s propensity for vanishing outright. If she had the Skills Shayma did, though, she probably would too.
“Who wants to go for a walk?” She cooed at Grant and Eva, settling the pair into another one of Blue’s creations. It was actually bizarre how much of his odd knowledge related to baby care, though for all she knew strollers were common in richer areas or denser cities. There definitely wasn’t much use for them where the roads were rough to nonexistent, but the Village had plenty of smooth stone paths. It was still winter, but the Caldera never got that cold and the stroller had been made out of magical enough materials to stay comfortable for the twins.
Taelah glanced at the Tree of Eschaton as she wheeled the stroller out the front door of her Village home, which was basically just a front addition to her secret garden cottage. Blue had once described the tree as smug, and while she wouldn’t normally attribute that sort of thing to a plant, she had to admit it seemed to fit. It wasn’t even feedback from any of her Skills, it was just the impression it gave her.
She pushed the twins along the path around the village green, making sure to stop by Linn Harsted’s new stall. The kid had gotten a [Woodcarver] Class and was trying to go the art route rather than making tools and boards. He didn’t yet have the Skills to imbue his creations with any particular magic, but with the access the Village had to rare woods and a pretty good eye for shape and form, he’d made some nice pieces. She could even tell the difference between the dragons the various figurines were supposed to represent.
“These are wonderful,” she told Linn, who looked embarrassed but gamely nodded anyway.
“See anything you like, Elder Taelah?” She traced her fingers along the various carvings and stopped at one of the Tree itself. Since the Tree hadn’t shed a single leaf or twig in the whole time that it had been growing, it wasn’t made from the Tree’s wood, but it really looked like it was. She probably could have used her Skills to figure out exactly how he’d accomplished the fact, but it was a mystery she preferred to leave as it was.
“How about this one?” She held it up, and Linn beamed at her.
“One of my best!”
“What do you want for it?” Taelah asked, tracing the tiny blossom on the lowest bough with her thumb.
“Maybe bring by some of those herb tarts next time you’re by?” Linn suggested.
“Certainly,” Taelah told him. “Say hi to your mom for me.”
“I will, Elder Taelah!”
She gave him a smile and tucked the carving into her pocket before continuing on, giving Tessa a wave as she passed the clothing store. The woman was seated beside the window, sewing something, and paused to wave back. Suna wasn’t in evidence, but she was often wandering around figuring out her Skills. There weren’t many casters in the Village, but they did have dragons, and Suna was obviously completely fearless about asking them for advice.
On the topic of dragons, it wasn’t unusual to see one or two of them in the sky. Ansae had browbeaten all of them into submission so none of them gave her any lip or pestered the Village, let alone threatened it, but some dragons were more comfortable around them than others. The Mache pair stopped by often enough, while she hadn’t actually seen the Casteyns more than once.
From the ground, she recognized Syrinu’s silhouette and coloring and paused as the shadow dragoness came in for a landing. As far as she knew, Syrinu and Akanen were actually older than Taelah was, but they still came to her for advice as if she were a dragon matriarch. She got the impression that Ansae was a little too scary to pester for casual questions.
“Good afternoon, Matriarch Taelah,” Syrinu said, pitching her voice quietly. It had only taken upsetting Eva and Grant once by speaking at normal dragon volume to learn that lesson.
“Good afternoon, Syrinu. What brings you by?”
“Mostly that I noticed that The Great Lady wasn’t actually in the Caldera,” Syrinu admitted. “I was wondering if you knew where she might have gone.”
“I’ll ask. Blue? Do you know where she’s gone?”
“Who? Oh, you mean Ansae. Yeah, she’s in the Fortress so the dragons over in Nicehapoca can hang out there without owing me directly. And I think she’s catching up on world events while she’s at it.” Syrinu waggled a claw at the stroller while Taelah listened, though she didn’t get close to it. The sheer scale difference made it inadvisable. Now that she had her own children on the way, Syrinu was oddly fascinated with Taelah’s.
“Blue says she’s in the Fortress. Apparently he’s made contact with the dragons in Nicehapoca and The Great Lady is there discussing things with them. Dragon things, I expect.”
“Probably,” Syrinu said, clearly relaxing at the mundane nature of Ansae’s absence. While Taelah was essentially used to Ansae’s presence, The Silver Woe was still near a god to the dragons and any movement of hers might be of great import to them. “This is a fascinating little contraption. I wonder if I could get a dragon version?”
“I can talk to the [Carpenters] that made it,” Taelah said. “Though I think you may want yours made out of metal.”
“Maybe also to the Chiuxatli, for a glider version or something?” Blue suggested. “The dragons over in Nicehapoca had barding with clawholds for their children.” She relayed Blue’s suggestions and Syrinu ducked her head.
“Please thank Blue for his suggestions,” she said. “And thank you as well. I will take you up on your offer to speak to the craftsmen. I would love to have something appropriate for the draconic form.”
“It sounds like a fun project,” Taelah agreed. Not for her, of course, but there were more than a few craftsman who could pitch in. As dragons, they had more than enough to pay with. Not currency or a hoard like Ansae’s – they’d effectively come there with nothing – but their adjustment of the local mana flows had resulted in some interesting things popping up near their lairs.
“By your leave, Matriarch Taelah,” Syrinu said, and at Taelah’s nod she took a few steps away and then launched herself into the air. Taelah watched her fly off elsewhere and looked down at the twins. Grant blinked back, but Eva was distracted.
“You two are going to have dragon playmates when you get older, aren’t you? You’re going to be such a handful.” Eva snapped to attention and made a noise that Taelah took for agreement. She resumed pushing the stroller along the path that outlined the central green, on the lookout for anyone else who needed a talk. Half the reason that she went on the walks was because people didn’t want to bother her at home, but that didn’t mean their problems went away.
Partway around the green she noticed the light on over the big pool they’d made for the Leviathans when they visited. Taelah chuckled to herself and turned the stroller in that direction, navigating off to the side. Ever since Blue and Shayma had humbled the rude one – she honestly couldn’t remember the name – the messengers had been far more solicitous. Uilei-nktik had come by to explain that Leviathans had rules about how to interact with outsiders, for everyone’s safety, and those in the Caldera abechrai had been using the wrong ones.
The Caldera had so many peoples in it, and judging from the stories Shayma told about the Underneath, it might get more. She wouldn’t be surprised at all if some Leyn decided to take up residence somewhere. Taelah was glad that none of those groups had pressed for actual inclusion in the Village, because they were all different enough that it would not have worked, but they were still neighbors and so they all ought to get along.
Her comment about having dragon playmates had been an idle one, but as she pushed the twins over to see what the Leviathans wanted, she decided it was actually very important. Her children were going to grow up in the Village, in the Caldera, and she had the opportunity to make sure it was the place she wanted for them. Where they could meet people of other races in an environment where such encounters would be fruitful and interesting rather than fraught and dangerous.
Shayma had been mostly joking when she said that Taelah ruled the Caldera, but maybe there was some truth to it. Not that she had any desire to control the way dragons or Chiuxatli or Leviathans or Scalemind did things, but she could make sure that nobody was afraid of anyone else. Trust was hard, but with Blue’s backing she could probably make it work. She just had to take it slowly.