Focus, an Epilogue
K. Ryan, 2005
Author's Note: I thought this was dead, but it wasn't. Finally, after four or five years, I finally have a clear conscience. Merry Christmas.
A courtyard to the Mage's Wing, the Royal Palace, Corus, Tortall
"Don't you call me Lynnie!"
Eight-year-old Rikash Salmalìn sat in the dirt and tried not to cry. His sister, Sarra, was standing over him. Neither of the two children could really remember how they had ended up like this, but it didn't matter. She had pulled his hair; he had called her Lynnie. That was that—it was war.
"Mama can't hear you, Ri-i-kkie," the older girl taunted, taking Rikash's long golden curls into her nail-bitten hand and pulling again.
Rikash jerked his head forward and glared. "You're mean," he said.
"You're stupid, and you look like a girl."
"I do not look like a girl!" The boy got to his feet and poked his sister. "Lynnie Big-Nose."
Sarra growled, and Rikash was almost sure that he glimpsed extra teeth.
"You're not allowed," he said, triumphant. "You're not allowed to do the shape thing."
"Who says I'm doing any shape thing?"
More teeth. Rikash sighed and looked at his feet. "I wish you was allowed," he muttered. "Then you could be a bird an' fly away."
Rikash kicked out, aiming hard for Sarra's shins with his new boots. "Go aw—"
"That's quite enough now, don't you think?"
For Sarralyn and Rikash, the air had turned into the cold, lumpy soup their father's housekeeper made when they all lived in the tower off Pirate's Swoop. It kept them suspended, stuck fast. They couldn't speak, but they could still see and hear, and they recognized the over-cheerful, warm voice and the tall, tall figure that walked towards them.
Numair let Rikash down first, who shook his head once and then launched into a purple-faced babble.
"Speak slower, please."
"But…but…shape thing—my hair—all I said…big nose—but she does—and there was teef!"
Rikash sighed. "It's not fair."
"No," said Numair. Rikash giggled as his father picked him up and held him with one long, sympathetic arm. "Not much is, my boy."
There was a moment of understanding silence before, "shouldn't we let Sarra down?"
The betrayal was terrible. "No!"
Numair laughed. "Why ever not, Rikash?" he asked.
Oh, as if he didn't know the answer. The boy shuddered.
"Papa," he wailed. "Because it's not fair."
"But things aren't fair, child." Numair kissed him on the forehead, all solemn, but then he had to grin. "Therefore, everything we do is never going to be fair."
Rikash groaned. "You're talking stupid."
"It's a natural philosophy."
"That's really stupid."
With his free hand, Numair clicked his fingers. "It often tends to be, yes," he murmured, his eldest child now free and glaring at him, a picture of skinny, offended dignity with dark hair.
"Da, you're mean," she said, rubbing her nose.
"Of course I am, sweetling. I'm where you get it from. Simple inheritance."
Sarra spluttered; Numair absently stroked her hair.
"Since, Rikash," he said eventually, breaking the tableau, "you seem to have decided that today you're a baby enough to name-call, and you, Sarra, are still doing the immature and unoriginal thing in response—threatening death and," here, their father turned suddenly serious, "magical workings that you have been expressly forbidden to perform—it appears that I will have to do something with the two of you."
Sarra gulped. "I'll clean my room…"
Numair responded with raised eyebrows. "Impressive," he said. "However, I was thinking more along the lines of…glaciers."
Rikash whimpered. "One of the big ones?"
"Oh, no. A small one. So small that you'll be squeezed in together, under all the ice, for the next three millennia or so. You see, I can make sure you live that long—"
"Hmph! Magic on the children again, Numair?"
Volney Rain, who had as much right to escape to warm palaces and warm rooms during the ghastly cold weather as any other dedicated citizen, thank you ever so much, used two canes, now. He'd painted stripes on them, and zigzag patterns, in many different colours, the main two being a burning orange and a particularly lurid turquoise. He leant on them heavily, his lined, blotched fingers bent over the heads like claws most of the time these days, though he could still pry them away. His hair was still white, his copper-framed spectacles still bent and green with age and home-repairs. Over the years, his eyebrows had whitened, too, and he had become even thinner and smaller, but his voice still carried and his smile was still evil. "I never had to—mmph—resort to magic with children, mmph-hmph."
"Volney," said Numair, turning to face the tiny man. "You never had children."
"And even if you did, you don't have magic."
Volney sniffed. "Wouldn't need it," he said. "Mmph-hmph. I'd give them something useful to do."
"Of course. Hmph."
Numair groaned. "Rain, you're too ancient to toy with me, I need to get back inside—"
"—Get back inside to the mage's council when you'd much rather be with your wife, yes—"
"—And I cannot do that when—"
"—when your beloved offspring have been replaced by evil little changelings—no offence to you, Sarralyn—who can't, mmph, be left alone."
Numair didn't groan again. This time he stayed silent for a count of ten.
Then, finally, "Don't you ever tire of doing that?"
Volney grinned and Sarra giggled, looking at the strangled, defeated expression on her father's face. "Never," he said. "Mmph-hmph."
"No laughing, fiend," Numair was talking to all three of them, but the words were addressed to his daughter. "What am I doing to do with you?"
"Don't ask me," Volney muttered. "Not my fault that you ended up with a case of hellions. Painful little beggars, hellions, and you can't get rid of them."
"What's hellions?" this was from Rikish. "Do they make you sick?"
Numair didn't hear him—although Sarra, who had something of an extended vocabulary, took this opportunity to whisper, 'stupid!' His expression had taken on a slightly glazed cast, something his two children recognized already as his 'Da's-gone-off-somewhere' look. "You know," he said, smiling. "It really is your fault, Volney."
"Mmph-hmph. Explain. Now."
"If you hadn't painted that miniature…"
Volney laughed, hard. "Oh, that. Preserve us, I never did understand how you managed to get to it and actually, mmph-hmph, engage in procreation, considering you were never man enough to even ask her to sit for it herself."
The children were, by now, bemused. It was Numair's turn to laugh. "So, your work made a man of me."
"Ha. Temporarily and after… what, exactly? A seven-to-ten year interim?"
"Something like that, perhaps. What this comes down to now, since we have established this, is that it really is your fault that I've managed to stay in a relationship long enough to, as you say, 'engage', and to produce two hellions. So," Numair smiled, sweetly, "you do, actually, owe me."
"I am not even going to attempt to fathom how you worked that out."
The smile faded. "Please, Volney? I need you to look after them."
"Oh, no. I am not going to subject myself to the results of your lacksidasical parenting."
"Ugh, no, Da!" shrieked Sarra. "He's old."
"And I'm old!"
"Age," Numair pleaded, putting Rikash back on the ground beside the ancient artist, "brings wisdom?"
"Of course it does! I'm saying no. Hmph!"
"Do I need to beg?"
Volney smirked. "I thought—mmph-hmph—that you already were."
"I'll go down on my knees."
That declaration brought fourth a cackle. "You'll set off your arthritis."
"You do, my boy, you just don't know it yet. Come on, hellions."
"Are your children deaf, Numair?" Volney waved one of his canes in the air, menacing. Rikash, who couldn't believe the effect this scary old man had on his father, watched with wide-eyed astonishment. "Since you have surrendered your progeny into my clutches, mmph-hmph, they'd best come with me to ensure that you end up with at least some work done, mmph-hmph."
Over all the years the two men had been sharing exchanges; it was always Numair who ended up looking, and feeling, grateful. "You're getting soft, Rain."
Volney glowered, and then shrugged. "Enough of this. Come on, children. Keep up, else I'll keep you on either side of me and use the two of you as crutches."
Rikash laughed. "But Lynnie's taller than me!"
"Hmph. It'll be easy to wear her down," Volney said calmly as Numair watched them walk away. "And call her Lynnie again and I'll take your teeth out and grind them for pigment—and same to you, Sarra, if you look smug, mmph-hmph?"
"Oh," said Rikash.
"Oh," said Sarra.
"Well done," said Volney.
The last thing Numair heard before heading back the way he had come was his son's piping voice.
"You talk even stranger than papa."
"You gave them to Volney?"
It was early evening and dark already in Corus, there being only a week to Midwinter. Veralidaine Sarrasri, who had gone to the trouble of doubling her name when she had finally married but still never quite thought of herself that way, leaned into the curve of her husband's arm even as she glared up at him.
Numair, sheepish now, smiled—brushing greying-brown curls from her face. "Not permanently," he said.
"That's fair reassuring."
"Oh, come on, magelet. They won't scar from prolonged exposure."
"You're assuming," Daine murmured, "that it's the kits I'm worried about."
Numair stopped walking to press a kiss to her forehead. "Of course you're worried," he said. "You always are. So am I."
"Things are going to be interesting when Sarra's old enough for courting," said Daine. Now, she was grinning.
Numair winced, and started up again, steering her to the quarter in the palace that now finally housed its longest-serving and least-interested court artist, twenty-three years after they had first been set up. "Enough. Wicked words."
"Yet so true."
They walked in an old, companionable silence the rest of the way, half-listening out for screams.
A gleaming, shining-eyed creature of kingfisher-blue hurtled out to meet them, crying out in the voice of their son.
By the time chubby blue arms had wrapped around Daine's waist, only to leave streaked-blue stains as they slowly pulled away, they had realised that this was their son.
"Odds bobs, Rikash! What have you been…doing?"
The painted imp grinned. He was slippery and luminous. "I made art!" he said.
"Mmph-hmph. Only thing to do, after he got that paint all over himself."
Volney had followed his young charge more slowly, and was now standing just inside the door, leaning more heavily than ever on his garish canes. "I told you, Numair," he said, smirking. "I told you I'd have them doing something useful. Get in here and have a look."
Volney's palace rooms, white and unslept in for so long, were now a glorious chaos redolent with turpentine and gum-mastic and earthy dry-pigment. The now much-faded, but always recognisable, portrait of the (eventually) late Venezia of Genlith took up an entire wall. There was a half-painted miniature boat hanging lopsidedly from another, its sail-cloth enlivened by images of pirates that were too wicked and clever to be frightening. The ceiling appeared to be yellow with orange and green spots, while sketches flowed like water from desk drawers and out of cupboards.
The most startling thing, however, was a blue silhouette that now filled the first space on what had been the last empty wall. It was Rikash-sized and Rikash-shaped.
Daine's smile was faint and amazed. "I see," she said.
"I—mmph-hmph—needed some blue," said Volney, watching it all. "Don't step on your daughter, Numair."
"Oh?—Oh." Mounds of paper shifted, and Sarralyn, back against a small chair, her legs tucked under her, looked up. She had a stick of charcoal in her mouth. More of it smudged her forehead and the tops of her cheeks. On a scrap of paper was a wobbly, but rather delicate and certainly well-shaped, sketch of the wooden boat with pirate sails.
"Did you draw that, love?"
Sarra's dark, heavy eyebrows came together in a glare. Her mouth tightened around the charcoal. "It's not finished, yet!" she snapped.
"Mmph-hmph!" Volney smiled indulgently at the whole scene. "No disturbing the artist at work," he said.
Numair, blushing just a little, bowed his head. "Forgive me, Great One?"
Sarra shrugged and kept working.
Numair pulled Daine close again, heedless of the blue paint that had stuck to her from Rikash's gleeful attentions. He bent down and buried his face in her hair.
"I never…" he said, slowly. "I never really understand how all this happened, magelet. You and I…these two…she can draw and she's ours, and…how did this all happen, again?"
Volney snorted. "So emotional. It's unbearable to think about how cursed unbearable, hmph, you'd be, Numair, if you, Daine, had just gone and died at sixteen from that fever."
Numair, still holding Daine, straightening up slightly to kiss her, shuddered.
"Exactly. In the end, Master Salmalìn, you owe me. Mmph-hmph!"
It was nearly Midwinter, and all was good with the world.