Chapter 8: Kailani
...trust who I’m gonna be
As the noise rose around the dining hall after Doctor Regine's announcements, Kailani looked around the room. Luke the gym teacher was definitely flexing wings by the back door to the hall, and Dr. VanderLinden, the Literature teacher, has a set of ram horns curling out of his soft blonde hair. There were other differences, here and there, both on teachers and students, but those two were the most noticeable.
She held her purse a little tightly in her lap as she looked around her own table. Behind her, somebody yelped, not quite a scream, and was quickly hushed. In front of her, Taro's friends watched her curiously.
She had expected some revelation from the way everyone talked around things. There had been the suggestion of other about Addergoole since she stepped foot in here, and a whispering behind hands as if someone shared some sort of dirty secret, but this was beyond anything she'd postulated. Luke, Dr. VanderLinden, that student juggling fire – these things didn't happen. They were entirely impossible feats for human beings, and she felt strangely betrayed that Taro and his friends had known about this and not told her. She looked at them each in turn, trying to discern if they were hiding something still.
"Is it time to take the masks off?" Mabina asked, shrugging lightly. Not trusting herself to talk, Kailani nodded slowly. Mabina – and Cassidy at the same time, with the same movement – brought their hands to their faces – Mabina's left, Cassidy's right, and mimed removing a mask.
The two of them had always looked similar, more like they came from the same country than the same family, summer-tanned skin, dark brown hair and brown eyes – but when they dropped their hands to the table, they looked like mirror copies of each other. Mabina's features were a little more delicate, Cassidy's a little rougher, but they were, aside from gender, identical twins. Both also had ears which split and curled at the tips into delicate scrollwork-like patterns. Mabina, however, was heavily pregnant; Cassidy was not.
Kailani's gaze traveled from the matching pairs of eartips, unlike anything seen in nature, to the four golden eyes, slanted upwards at the outer tips, to the round swell of Mabina's belly. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, unsure what to say.
Mabina seemed to understand. "If you're going to go through physical changes in the Becoming, it will probably happen soon," she said gently. "Not everyone does." Kai nodded mutely. There were so many questions... "The Mask is one of the first things they'll teach you, once everyone adjusts to the... strangeness. It helps sort of smooth things over."
"Our Masks," Cassidy picked up, "are pretty much how we looked before we, well, changed." He shrugged a little, and Kai noticed that Mabina echoed the movement without apparent thought; they were both looking at her. Everyone at the table was looking at her. She hugged her purse a little tighter.
"And..." she hesitated for a moment, unsure exactly how to phrase the question, before letting irritated curiosity win out, "the belly?"
Mabina blushed a little bit; so did Cassidy. "Oh, that," she answered. "Doctor Regine seemed to think it would make the newb... the Fifth Cohort nervous, since there's three of us that are showing, so, since we were Masking anyway..." she and Cassidy shrugged.
"...oh." Newbies. Well, she was, wasn't she? She shifted her grip on her purse and turned to Vladimir, who had lost the musical chairs again today and was sitting next to Cassidy.
"My turn?" He looked a little downcast for a moment, and then, with a small smile, mirrored the move Mabina & Cassidy had used, removing an invisible mask.
With Mabina & Cassidy, the change had been like bringing an image into focus. With Vlad, it was a colored filter laid over the image. His dark red hair shifted to a shade between navy blue and forest green, with teal highlights; his skin, which had been light with a bit of ruddiness, took on a light blue tint. His eyes were an oceanic green, and his nose, still patrician, was somehow smoother than a human nose should be.
He caught her looking at his nose, and ducked his head so that she was looking at his eyebrows and forehead, frowning on the way down. "We didn't keep it from you on purpose," he murmured. "It's just that Regine made us promise, made us swear an oath not to tell until she gave the cue."
"We did the same thing to Conrad and Taro last year," Cassidy offered, as hang-dog sounding as Vladimir, although he & Mabina were smiling.
She really didn't trust herself to say anything to that, so she simply turned to look at Conrad. He was grinning at her, although it looked a little nervous.
Instead of the mask-removing gesture, he brought both hands up to chest level, curled into fists, and, his grey-blue eyes watching her carefully, he uncurled them, revealing hands with seven extra-long and slender fingers. Each finger, she noticed, actually had an extra knuckle in it and, while his hands were a bit big, they seemed to be proportional to the fingers.
Still watching her, he kicked off his sandals and pulled his knees up to his chest, wiggling his toes at her. Both feet had seven extra-long toes on them, although, for some reason, the nails of both big toes had been painted a lurid purple. He folded his legs into a tailor's seat and flicked his tail up into his left hand – a softly-furred tail that curled around his wrist in a prehensile-seeming way, the same silver-tawny variations in color as his hair.
"That's it," he said with a shrug, the grin definitely nervous now.
"Wow," Kailani murmured. "You guys... wow." She looked back at Vladimir – his hair was still teal green, his skin still bluish, but with a lilac tinge on the cheeks – and then to Mabina & Cassidy, with their chestnut hair trailing around the scrollwork of their identical ears, before turning to Taro.
He smirked at her, spreading his hands, palm up. "What you see is what you get," he declared. "This is me."
Was this a logic puzzle, where the strangeness had been in plain sight all along? She looked him up and down – black hair pulled into a ponytail, skin within the normal range of human skin tones, a little darker than hers, nice muscle tone but not body-builder-toned. Five fingers on each hand, ears round, eyes brown. Nothing outside of human parameters.
He shook his head. "You're cute, honey. No, everything is normal. Some of us don't have any physical changes, like Cassidy said."
"Aaaah." She really had nothing else to say. Although Taro's assurance seemed off-kilter somehow, she couldn't quite place it. Thankfully, there was a full plate of food in front of her that she could focus on, and the rest of the table seemed to be sympathetic to her shell-shocked state.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, before Conrad and Vladimir picked up a thread of banter - apparently an argument begun in their physics class earlier that day. Cassidy, and eventually Mabina and Taro, joined in, and the table rattled with repartee as if it were a normal day.
Maybe, for them, it was.
Kailani looked around the cafeteria as she ate, noting the changes in the earlier cohorts - not everyone had obvious changes, and all but one of those she'd identified as Fifth Cohort still looked normal, human. That one, Aisa, had coloration in hair and skin that made Kailani think of a tree, or a dryad.
A few images caught her her attention for a moment - fangs, claws, hair or skin in some unlikely color, but there seemed to be no pattern in it, no explanation for the widely variant appearances. What purpose did they serve? She ate in silence, trying to stave off an impending headache.
"So," Taro smiled at her, as the dinner came to a close, "I'll come by your room tomorrow a little before eight?"
"Hunh?" She stared at him, trying to figure out what he was talking about.
"The dance?" He chuckled lightly at her baffled expression. "It's been a pretty hectic day, I know. Remember? Doctor Regine said there was dance tomorrow night at eight?"
"Oh... oh. Yeah." She nodded lightly, a flicker of memory returning to her. "Okay. Eight?"
He laughed a little more, tousling her hair. "Poor girl. We rendered her speechless. I'll walk you back to your room before the poker game, okay?"
"Okay." She had caught of glance of what Acacia's friends really looked like; an escort to her room seemed like a very good idea.
"Great." She thought she saw a strange expression on Mabina & Cassidy's faces, but, like so much else today, she didn't know how to interpret it. She rested her hand on the arm he offered, smiling shyly at the gesture, and let him lead her to her room.
It wasn't until Kailani reached her room that she realized one small part of the pattern that was out of place: Taro had quoted Cassidy that not everyone showed physical changes (and that was the much bigger tangle in the pattern!), but it had been Mabina that had said it, and, the more she thought about it, Taro seemed averse to talking directly to Mabina, talking instead to Cassidy. She had chalked it up to some male strangeness about talking to a friend's girlfriend, but that no longer seemed like a reasonable explanation. What was going on there?
Chapter 8.5: KailaniDiscuss
...we got fun and games...
Kailani left her door propped open that evening, as a number of the students in her hall had taken to doing, but stayed in her room, rather than taking her accustomed perch in the corner of the lounge.
She hadn't forgotten Conrad's "Rosetta Stone" offer - and she needed it now, more than ever! - but she had nearly convinced herself he wouldn't show up. She still felt warm and foolish, as if she had been the butt of some elaborate joke - but, more than that, as if the joke was still going on.
The knock at her door startled her; she looked up from her scribbled notes to see Conrad standing just outside her threshold, his grin still set on "nervous" and his tail twitching slightly between his feet.
"There's no pattern to it," she complained. "Tail, pointed ears..." she gestured exasperatedly at her notes.
"Not enough data." She looked back at him, startled; he elaborated. "You're working from too small a set for one, and out of context. If you had a cheetah, a Siamese kitten, and, say, an elderly bobcat, and just a snapshot of each, no scale or background..." he shrugged. "Same problem."
"Mmm." She glanced back at her notes. If each example was a separate "breed," maybe even species... She looked back up at Conrad, to see he was still standing in her doorway, watching her with a small, enigmatic smile.
"Come in," she offered. "You didn't have to knock, you know. You can just come in any..."
"Don't," he cut her off, more brusquely than she had yet heard him be. He strode into her room, pulling her door mostly closed, and pulled the second chair to her desk. He straddles it backwards and looked at her, unsmiling now, his blue eyes intense.
"Don't ever give anyone, especially another - someone else 'down here,' open permission to enter your home. Not even me." She blinked at him, befuddled, and he sighed. "I told you I was going to explain, and I will - as much as I can, right now. Okay?"
He searched her face, though she wasn't sure what he was looking for; comprehension, maybe? She nodded, although she was nagged by the feeling she might be missing something.
"Okay." He relaxed a little, and shifted in his chair, turning it rightways and sprawling, his bare feet a few inches from hers and his hands folded above his head. "I'm not much of a teacher, so bear with me."
She nodded, although he was watching the ceiling, and he continued.
"To start with, there's - let's call it two societies - the one you and I grew up in, 'out there,' and the one that's in place 'down here,' right?"
"Mmm-hmm." She tried to make it sound encouraging.
"Okay. The one 'down here' is ruled by a different set of laws, what they just call capital-L Law. There's a lot of laws in the Law, but there's a couple you need to know right away." He looked at her again, still looking worried, and she squirmed a little. He clearly thought she wasn't taking this seriously enough.
"This is still a little overwhelming," she explained, hoping that would be enough. He nodded, smirking slightly at her.
"You're too smart to be overwhelmed. You just haven't figured out quite where all the pieces go yet."
Kai found herself blushing, and ducked her head to hide it, letting her hair fall in front of her face. "Something like that," she murmured.
"I thought so. Okay, the doorway- the Second Law of Sanctity..."
"What's the First?"
He chuckled, although she thought she could hear some regret in his voice. "All right. The First Law of Sanctity is the Oath: once signed and sworn, a contract is binding forever."
"Forever," he agreed ruefully. "Be careful with signing anything. The Second Law of Sanctity," he rushed on, and this time she let him, "is Home - which is pretty much what it says. Your home - your dorm room, here - is inviolate. No-one will ever enter it without your permission." He grinned wryly at her. "So don't go giving away blanket permission."
She found herself answering his grin with a rueful one of her own. "Yes, sir."
Conrad chuckled. "Okay. Now, that whole musical chairs thing with Megan and Taro..."
"...That's off a different set of Laws." He took a deep breath then began rattling things off. "The Laws of Belonging say that a child belongs to its Mother, then its Mentor, then to itself - but that two 'consenting adults' can agree that one Belongs to the other."
He glanced at her sidelong, and frowned as he saw the frown on her face. "Like slavery?"
"Sort of like slavery," he agreed, "but both people have to consent to enter into it, and both have to consent to leave it. Essentially, the 'Keeper' agrees to take all responsibility for the 'Kept' and make all the decisions."
"That sounds... horrible." Civilized, organized, but horrible.
"I thought you might feel that way," he responded dryly.
"But what does all this have to do with Taro?" Although she could see where this pattern was going, she wanted confirmation.
Conrad hesitated for a moment, his face looking thoughtful. When he started talking again, it was slowly, as if he was pondering every word before he let it out. "Their society… it’s very old, and sort of piecemeal. It’s always existed inside someone else’s society. So it has a thousand little rituals that let others… of them… know what’s going on without having to come out and say it.
"That first day, Taro sat you down to his left, and he said something, didn’t he?"
Kailani nodded slowly. There was a sort of intensity back in Conrad’s eyes now that made him seem more like himself. "He said ‘it won't mean what they think it means, but it will keep them from bothering you too much ," she repeated.
Conrad nodded. "The problem is, that Taro is really part of ‘they’ now." He shrugged uncomfortably. "We both started here last year, but Taro sort of soaked it all up really quickly. So, even though he knows it doesn’t ‘mean what they think it means,’ in his head, it still does."
"But what does it mean?"
He looked back at her – he had gone back to staring at the ceiling – with a slightly serious look on his face. He didn’t want to tell her. That alone confirmed her fears. "Oh…"
He seemed to take that as comprehension. "Two things are in your favor here. First: we’re still students, by the Law. So any agreement we enter into, anything but a signed and sealed contract, is just sort of… practice. It won’t last past graduation. Second, you have to consent, explicitly. So you just have to be really careful about phrases that involve the words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’"
He was watching her intently again, and she knew she was frowning. "Wow. Okay, I think I understand. But Megan…?"
"Megan." He sighed. "She snagged Taro really early into last year, when none of us really knew what we were getting into, and I don't think that ended up really going the way he wanted it to. The deal ended when she 'graduated,' but she still tries to lord it over him."
"Aaaah." As with so much she was learning, it was a puzzle piece without enough other pieces to make an image. It explained one thing, two things, while leaving other questions still open.
One, at least, she could ask right now. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
He stared at the ceiling for a moment, clearly formulating an answer. "Because I like you," he told the ceiling. "You're smarter than most of the girls here - any of the girls here, and you've got this way of looking at someone like you're really paying attention." He seemed to be winding up as he talked, leaning forward and looking at her intently. Their knees were bumping now, and he took her hands in his.
"I love the way you put things together," he smiled. "Watching your brain work is like watching some fascinating piece of machinery. And I can’t wait to see what you do if you get all the pieces, what you make out of all of it. I don’t want to see that stifled."
She felt herself flushing a little bit. "You really think…" that I’m that impressive?, she didn’t say. She left it hanging out there unsaid, and, somehow managing to smile solemnly, Conrad nodded.
"I really think you could be the best of us," he replied. He brushed his hand across her cheek lightly. "And I want to help you reach that pinnacle."
It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. She looked up at his eyes, at his sincere and slightly cautious expression, and believed him entirely. "I think I’d like that," she whispered.
He smiled, some invisible tension releasing from his shoulders, and closed the tiny distance between them, his lips meeting hers in a soft kiss. "Good," he murmured.
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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