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Generated: Sep 23, 2020 5:37 PM
Post last updated: Sep 23, 2020 8:42 PM
una volta che avrai spiccato il volo
tiny leareth comes back and is very sad
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Essi walks through the outskirts of Smithtown with his head down and his hands shoved deep into his pockets, trying to be as invisible as possible and look bigger and older than his thirteen-and-a-half years both at the same time. 

It's not that he wanted to run away. It's just that - well, Hardorn doesn't like mages much these days. Not since the war. Essi lives with his uncle since his pa died, and his uncle is Superstitious, and thinks mages are Nothing But Trouble and probably possessed by demons, and unfortunately, Essi is one. (A mage, he's pretty sure he isn't possessed by demons.) He tried to hide it for a while but one too many weird things happened in Uncle's sight, and he thought it better to run off before he got a beating for it.

Essi reaches the outskirts of town, shivering, because it's a cold late-autumn day, already past Harvestfest. At least it's not raining, but it'll probably frost tonight. He finds a tree that offers some minimal shelter, and starts gathering wood together. 

...He doesn't have a flint and steel with him. And he doesn't at all know how to use his magic, yet. But he'll give it a try. 

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- and he comes rushing back into the world, everything at once, toobrightooloudtoomuch, and - it hurts, almost unimaginably, it takes him a long time to figure out that the pain isn't physical at all. For a long time he can't orient to it any more than that, only lie on the blanket of dead leaves under the tree, whimpering quietly. 

Belrun.

He remembers her name, and her face. Remembers looking at chicken eggs with her, for some reason. She was a Healer - what - she went to Valdemar... 

It takes a very long time, after that, to put the rest of the pieces together. The ones he even has, anyway, he's lost so much. Is still losing it, maybe. He feels like there's a crack right through the centre of him, and everything is wrong and broken and awful, and it's so hard to think... 

Leareth. That was his name. 

The far north, on the other side of the Ice Wall Mountains. (Fortunately, it appears that the child whose body he just stole - pause to feel some distant grief for that, the quiet promise that someday, somehow, he's going to fix it - anyway, Essi knew some geography and the mountains should be north and west of here.) He was laying the final preparations in place, there. Damn it, it's such an inconvenient time to die again.

Vanyel. A silver-haired Herald-Mage greeting him in a snow-coated pass - not a real memory, though, it was a dream. Telling him things. What exactly he told Vanyel is a blur, though. 

He remembers meeting Belrun. That part is crystal clear. Kind of a lot of his memories are of Belrun, in fact. Some of them are useful conversations. Some of them are very much not that! 

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It's getting dark, and it's starting to rain, or maybe sleet, the moisture falling on him is very cold. 

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Focus. He needs to pull himself together, and not freeze to death, and then reconsolidate something that will hold until he finds his lifebonded. He really hopes Belrun will remember what shape of person her lifebonded is supposed to be, because the whole broken lifebond thing is really interfering with his ability to put together coherent core memories. 

...Urtho. He remembers that much. Well, mostly he remembers Belrun telling Vanyel about it, actually, but secondhand will do. He can build most of the rest off conversations with Belrun too, actually, it's easier to focus on those. Explaining to her what he'd done in the past, and why. Her conviction that they ought to at least try to find a better way...

It takes him half the night, and then he curls up with his paltry heat-spell under his little mage-barrier to keep off the rain, and sleeps very badly. 

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It does frost overnight, and the freezing rain doesn't stop. When he wakes up, the branches of the tree he's under are encrusted with glittering ice. 

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He gets up, shivering, and jumps around a bit until he's warm, then starts walking down the road, in the direction of Valdemar. He'll need to pass through in order to reach the north anyway, and maybe things won't have utterly fallen apart yet, with the negotiations that he left in progress, and he can get in contact with someone... He can't remember any of his people's names, that's so irritating.

(Belrun, Belrun, Belrun, he needs to find her - it hurts, and imagining her in this much pain as well is almost unbearable - if she's even still alive - no, she's tough and stubborn and he has to believe that she is, at least until he gets confirmation one way or another, believing something on faith isn't exactly his style but it's the only way he can keep going, right now.) 

Eventually it occurs to him that one, he would probably be able to think better if he ate something, and two, he could reach the border faster if he can catch a ride of some kind.

...Right, inventory, what Gifts does he have? Essi thought it was just mage-gift, but he wasn't very clear on the exact distinctions there, and it seems like he has some fledgling Mindspeech as well. That's helpful. He doesn't have a lot of range, but at least he remembers some of his habits and training, and he can snoop on the surrounding area. 

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There's a farm nearby! There are donkeys grazing in a pen, but without anyone watching them, and no one is watching the storehouse either. 

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It takes some strategic distractions, and trying very very hard to stay on task and not get lost in how miserable he is, but a candlemark later, Leareth is in possession of a stolen donkey and a stolen sack of potatoes, as well as several raw eggs snatched from the chicken-coop in his belly and a couple more in his pockets where he hopes they'll stay intact.

He rides down the road. 

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It gets even colder the next night. 

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Leareth doesn't freeze to death, due to his heat-spell, but he wakes up unable to feel his fingers and toes. He would consider staying in inns, except that he doesn't have any money, and he doesn't feel great about stealing lots of coin from people here, the region seems pretty impoverished. He does pickpocket one traveler, though, in order to buy some better food than plain potatoes at the next village market, and some grain for his donkey. 

It takes a week of hard, miserable riding, frequently sobbing for a while when he's out of sight of other travellers, before he hits the Valdemaran border. It's guarded. 

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A blue-uniformed guard greets him. "Please state your business." 

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It's completely implausible that a small thirteen-year-old dressed in rags would have important news for the King. "My auntie lives in Haven," he says instead. 

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It takes a few more minutes of invented explanation, but he's eventually allowed past. 

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Ugh. 

He had forgotten about the vrondi but it doesn't take him long to remember, because they start watching the instant he tries to warm himself with a little heat-spell. Great. Now he's got a broken lifebond and is being constantly watched by air-spirits, this is even more miserable than before. 

He grits his teeth and keeps going. 

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The next day it's snowing. 

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Leareth is starting to admit to himself that he has a problem, here. 

He's probably still two weeks of riding away from Haven, at this rate, and he isn't sure that he's even going to make it. He's risking freezing to death every time he sleeps. He has to struggle to bring himself to use magic, knowing that the vrondi are watching. If he steals again, he risks getting caught and ending up in trouble with the Valdemaran legal system. He can't Gate; he hasn't been to Haven in this lifetime, and his mage-gift is barely awakened and isn't strong enough yet anyway. He's not eating enough. He's barely getting any real sleep; it's amazing he can still think or do magic at all, at this point. Also now he's ended up with a nagging cough and sore throat, and if he keeps traveling from dawn to dusk and sleeping outdoors he'll end up with pneumonia.

(Not to mention, two more weeks on the road is two more weeks of his lifebonded thinking he's still dead.) 

Maybe ending up in trouble with the Valdemaran legal system isn't such a bad idea. 

Hmm. He needs to think it through, to the extent he even can. He doesn't know that Haven has anyone friendly waiting for him, so summoning attention to himself is a risk.

...But Vanyel isn't going to be cruel about it, even if the alliance has fallen apart. They were almost friends, before, and - well, Vanyel knows what a broken lifebond feels like. 

Leareth pulls together all the courage he can muster, and spends ten minutes throwing around as much magic as he can, making pretty lights and knocking over some trees and sending levinbolts harmlessly into the air. At the end of it he's attracted what feels like an army worth of vrondi, and he sits down on the snow and hugs his knees to his chest and waits. Miserably, but that's no different from usual. 

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:Ugh, Web-alarm in the east, who's on it?: Sandra sends to Savil. 

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:Ask Van. I'm in meetings:

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And so Herald-Mage Vanyel uses Farsight to scope out the region of the alarm. 

:Nothing?: he reports back. :Or, no - there's a very harmless child sitting there looking exhausted. Hardornen, I'd guess. Could be a new mage-gift: 

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:I wouldn't assume that looking harmless means he is. But I suppose we'd better collect him before he does any damage by accident. Goodness! We haven't had mage-gifted trainees in so long: 

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:This one isn't Chosen: 

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:Yet. Anyway. Where is it? I'll pass word down the relay, but if he's tossing around uncontrolled magic like that, might be better for me to Gate in and bring him direct to Haven rather than sending him along in some poor merchant's caravan or pulling a Herald off circuit: 

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:I can do i–:

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:How about not. Armor hills? I can Gate to Leder's Crossing tonight and collect him: 

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There were some parts Leareth didn't think through. Namely, that it's below freezing out, he's a small thirteen-year-old without much body mass to keep warm, and now he's utterly exhausted. He lies in the snow and hopes that someone, anyone, is going to show up before he manages to die again. 

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Someone does. A Herald shows up, picks him up, tries to talk to him. 

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He's mostly not capable of coherent thought at this point, but tries to say repeatedly that he has to talk to Herald-Mage Vanyel. 

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The Herald says something soothing to him that he doesn't manage to parse, and then lifts him on onto her Companion and holds him firmly in place in front of her, leading the donkey behind them. And a while later, he's indoors, with a fire, and someone gives him a blanket, and the message is finally conveyed successfully that Herald-Mage Savil is Gating out to bring him to Haven, they know he's a mage with a uncontrolled Gift, but it's not his fault and everything is going to be all right. 

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Everything is going to be all right! But probably not for the reasons they think. 

Leareth falls asleep before Savil arrives. 

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He wakes up to find that he's being carried through a Gate. "Careful, I've got him," someone is saying. "Thank you - that's all - Shavri, need you to take a look at him, they're not sure if he's injured or just wore himself out, what do you think...?" 

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Leareth forces his eyes open. "Have to t-talk to Vanyel," he pushes out. "S'important..." 

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"What? How did you– oh, I suppose everyone's heard of him by now, what, were you hoping for lessons? I need you to relax for right now - Shavri?"

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"He needs to be in bed, is what he needs." Her voice softens. "How long were you traveling alone for?"

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"A week. Have to talk to Vanyel. Urgent." 

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Some mutters are exchanged, but eventually it's decided that he needs to be brought to the House of Healing now but that Vanyel can meet him there whenever he's next free. 

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Leareth pretends to be asleep, in hopes that this will delay anyone asking his name until he's spoken to Vanyel first. 

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By the time Vanyel gets there, Leareth actually is asleep, finally warm and cozy in a bed at Healers'. Vanyel clears his throat. "You asked for me specifically?" 

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"Hnngg?" He struggles awake. "Oh. Sorry. Vanyel." Seeing his face again is causing a lot of emotions to happen, which are at least of a different flavour from 'constant misery'. "I have to - have to..." It's surprisingly hard to speak of it. He switches to Mindspeech, which he's not very skillful at yet. :I have to find Belrun: 

And he bursts into tears. 

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Vanyel blinks, frozen on the spot for a long moment. "...Oh, gods. Leareth?" 

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It's been six weeks, total, since Leareth's death, though they didn't hear the news for a few days afterward. They were expecting him, Savil supposes when Vanyel is trying to explain it to her over Mindspeech, but not that he'd come to Valdemar first, they assumed he'd head north for some reason. This way makes sense, the north is remote and inconvenient. Also she's kind of surprised, for no good reason whatsoever, that tiny reincarnated Leareth is so adorable.

(Vanyel doesn't want to leave and meet with her properly because Leareth is currently accepting a hug, which seems like something he must need very badly, and Vanyel is kind of worried that if he leaves and comes back, Leareth will have remembered that he's supposed to be dignified with Vanyel.) 

There are a few rushed emergency meetings with the Senior Circle and Leareth's diplomatic party, and then not very long after, one of Leareth's mages is arranging a Gate to Petras. Savil can go and deliver the news. They're not sure where Belrun lives but the university won't be hard to find and probably the dean will agree to talk to the most senior Herald-Mage of Valdemar on short notice. 

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Belrun is working.

Belrun works a lot. She got herself assigned some assistants to collect samples and handle administrative tasks and she spends her time in her lab, infecting eggs with things and taking meticulous data and courting headaches from Gift overuse until it's dark and time to ride Amshalan home and eat something her mother puts in front of her and go to bed. They had a stall built for Amshalan off the side of the house right by Belrun's room; the window opens into it and they moved Belrun's bed so if desired Amshalan can stick her head right in and nose her.

But at the time this inquiry is made Belrun is in her lab studying diphtheria.

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Savil isn't sure if she's in the middle of something that would be bad to interrupt, so she asks Kellan to poke Amshalan instead. :She probably wants to know right away, we have Leareth in Haven and he's asking for her: 

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Belrun is just sketching the diphtheria at this moment, not doing anything hard to drop.

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Then Savil will knock politely. "Belrun? It's Herald Savil."

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Belrun opens the door. "...yes? What is it?"

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"Good news. We found Leareth again - er, rather, he found us. He's in Haven right now." 

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"- can you Gate me there today or should I get you a hotel room or did you bring him with you or -"

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"We can Gate you there today! I would've brought him but, er, he was traveling alone for a while and he's not in great shape, he's at the House of Healing." 

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"...alone? He - did he not go up north first - did he not get my letter -"

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"Hmm? No, as far as I can tell he, er, came back somewhere in rural Hardorn and immediately stole a donkey and rushed here as fast as he could. Up to and including deliberately setting off a Web-alarm so we'd go see what the fuss was. He told Van that he wasn't sure of getting a friendly welcome, but that he believed Vanyel at least was going to, well, have some compassion about the lifebond situation, and would help him find you again, even if what happened had disrupted our talks. Also, I think he didn't want to take any more travel time. He's very sad." 

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"Does he in fact have a broken lifebond. I wasn't sure it'd - stick."

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"Pretty sure it stuck." 

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"Okay. I've been keeping everything in boxes except the eggs and I can come back for them later -" She waves vaguely at an assistant and the assistant nods. "My stuff is at my mother's house." She shuffles out of the lab, mentally calling for Amshalan.

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:I'm so happy for you!: Amshalan sends, delighted. :I wasn't expecting him to head for Valdemar either, but, well, the north really is quite inconvenient - it's not like he could've gone through Iftel, he would've had to cut through Valdemar to get there anyway: 

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Savil hauls herself up onto Kellan's back, and they can ride ahead to Rana's house and get everything loaded out while Leareth's people who Gated Savil here catch up. 

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Belrun assembles all her boxes and leaves a note for her mother and is ready in about eight minutes.

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Which is around how long it takes for their ride to catch up, assisted by Savil sending Kellan back to give the two a lift. Leareth's people are trained in a particularly efficient concert Gates, making the five hundred mile distance a lot easier. 

And then they're in Haven. 

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Shavri meets them at the Gate, along with some Palace servants who can help carry boxes across so they can take down the Gate. "Guessing you'd like to see him right away?" she says. 

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"Yes please. Is he okay -"

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Shavri starts leading her at a brisk walk, switches to Mindspeech. :Mostly just exhausted, he was on the road for a week - sleeping rough, outside, he didn't have any money and I guess was reluctant to steal from the Hardornen locals, the area's pretty poor. He nearly gave himself pneumonia but we've nipped it in the bud, he'll be fine in a few days: 

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:Thank you:

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:I should, er, warn you, so you're not too startled, he's really young. I wasn't sure how his whole thing worked but I wasn't expecting this: 

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:...I don't actually know how young he usually is when he comes back:

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:Well, he says his, um, new body is thirteen, but he's very tiny even for that: Glance back. :I'm sorry, if I were in your position that'd probably feel pretty weird - but at least he's alive, right...: 

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:Yeah:

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And then they reach the House of Healing, and Shavri knocks on a door. "Leareth, Belrun's here, may we–"

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"Come in," a very young, slightly hoarse voice interrupts. When Shavri opens the door, Leareth - well, a very small-looking boy with a mop of curly dark hair, who is presumably Leareth - is scrambling to sit up. "Belrun, I am sorry...I came as fast as I could..." He smothers a cough into his sleeve. 

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She shuffles over to the side of the bed and sits and takes his hand. "It's all right. I was - expecting you to go north, I left a letter, but this was probably faster.

- do you know how long it's likely to - take to -"

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He squeezes her hand. "I have no idea, this has not exactly come up in the past. Possibly this exact situation has never happened before. ...I hope it is not too long, but - I think it helps just to see you. I - sort of had to believe that you were all right, to manage, but I was not sure." 

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"I coped. I went home to my mother and I had Amshalan. I knew you'd be back."

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"What happened? After I...died...?" 

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"Amshalan and I got away clean. Some of your people picked us up and brought us north. I wrote you a letter and went to Petras. I haven't been keeping up with diplomatic stuff here in detail."

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"It's been fine," Shavri says quickly. "Not much to report. Overall we agreed with your take that this occurrence looks very suspicious and also difficult for a human to pull off, and - any gods that would do something like that aren't very friendly to human welfare. That got people thinking a bit. But - nothing urgent that needs to be addressed. Leareth, you need to rest. Belrun, you look like you haven't been sleeping the best either. Should I get a cot brought in so you can stay near each other?" 

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"Yes please. I assume there's still room for Amshalan in the Companions' stables -"

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"Of course, there's generally plenty of room - just a moment..." Her eyes go unfocused. "Yes, someone's on it. If it was going to help a lot, we do have a room for Heralds here that fits a Companion, we didn't put him there initially because it's occupied, but the patient there is mostly recovered and we could free it up if having Amshalan nearby would help for you." 

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"You don't need to kick anyone out, I'll be all right."

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Shavri nods. "Well, please let me know if you need anything else in here, in the meantime I'll give you some privacy." She ducks out, shutting the door. 

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Leareth looks over, seems like he's maybe about to say something, but stops. 

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"I didn't know how young you'd be," she remarks after a moment, looking where his hand is small in hers.

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"It is possible I should have specified more. I did not really expect it to come up, certainly not this soon. I am difficult to kill. That was a shockingly blatant intervention; it was very recognizably not a coincidence, which is rare for the gods' activities. Anyway, it varies somewhat, but since it is tied to the first use of mage-gift for a fire spell, which is very basic, and Gifts tend to awaken around this age..." 

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"I guess that makes sense."

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"I hope it does not bother you too much." 

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"Uh, I've never heard of anyone being lifebonded younger than sixteen so it might mean we're both stuck like this for a while if it doesn't clear up overnight. Also it's just sort of generally awkward but I'll get over that in less than several years. Also, like, some random thirteen year old is dead, but random thirteen year olds die on a routine basis so I shouldn't be letting that be too salient."

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"...It is still quite salient to me. I really do not like this part of it! I wish there was a different way that I trusted would work and it were safe to switch to it–" Great and now he's crying again. "I apologize," he says through tears, "I am not very - in control of my emotions right now." 

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"Side effect?" she wonders, dabbing his cheek with the sleeve at her free hand.

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"Of having a broken lifebond or of being thirteen? I suppose it could be mostly just from sleep deprivation. I very much hope that at least I will be able to sleep with you here, I suppose being indoors and in an actual bed will help too." As though on cue, he yawns. "Sorry." 

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"Or of the reincarnation process, you have lots of reasons. Go ahead and sleep when you're tired. I'm not going anywhere. ...I guess I might leave if I have to pee but I won't go anywhere for very long."

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He nods. "I wanted to say, because I think I did not mention this before either - I am not really all of Leareth, yet? I remember a limited amount and I have not had a chance to even find any of my records yet, much less read through them. So I am quite - incomplete. I just want to make sure that will not catch you off guard." He smiles, tiredly. "I think I remember the highlights of our relationship well enough, it was all recent and - not very long." 

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"It really wasn't. I summarized everything in the letter - I kept a copy for myself, I could go dig it up if you want?"

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"I would appreciate that. Maybe...in the morning...?" Yawn. "Belrun, I want - could I have a hug? I missed you so much. I know it was worse for you, it was so much longer, but..." 

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"I knew you were coming back and I had Amshalan and I kept really busy," she says, scooping him into a hug.

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Leareth hugs Belrun back, cries a bit more, and then dozes off in her arms. 

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She waits till he's deeply asleep and then deposits him gently on the bed so she'll be able to transfer to the cot when it shows up.

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It arrives shortly later with Gemma, the Healer who originally greeted her on her arrival to Haven. She nods to Belrun, and sets it up almost without any noise, then pauses by Leareth's bedside and quickly examines him with Healing-Sight without otherwise disturbing him. :Hope you both sleep well. I'm here all night if you need anything: 

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:Thank you:

And she stretches out on the cot, one hand reaching over the gap to rest her fingertips on his, and she sleeps.

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Leareth sleeps through the night for the first time since acquiring his new body; it's unclear whether it's thank to Belrun's presence or being comfortable and warm indoors, or both. 

As usual for the last week, though, he wakes up very disoriented. Where is he - nothing is how it should be - his body is wrong, even his mind feels half-alien, unfamiliar. And when he instinctively reaches out with mage-sight, none of the wards he usually puts down before sleeping are there. (He was way too drained, and then distracted by Belrun's arrival, to manage it.)

–Belrun is there, though, the only thing about his surroundings that's familiar, if not entirely right and okay, he can feel her but it still feels somehow unbalanced. She's there, though, and without thinking he reaches out with his mostly-untrained Mindspeech, :Belrun help where are we???: 

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:Nmmm ugh uh we're at Healers' in Haven? Don't you remember -?:

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:Give me a moment...: He works on piecing together the fragments from yesterday. :Right - I remember now. I am sorry for waking you: 

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:It's okay: She pats his hand.

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Leareth lays down again, focuses on slowing his breathing until he feels reasonably calm. :I have been waking up confused about where I am every day: he admits. :I suspect this is normal, when I am just starting out in a new body? Everything feels very unfamiliar and wrong, still, so it startles me when I wake: 

(Again a pang of sadness, and frustration; his previous body should have been good for at least another fifty years, if the stupid gods didn't keep killing him then a certain Hardornen thirteen-year-old would still be alive. Well, maybe, it's not like Essi had a very good plan for running away from home.) 

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:When you're feeling better we can get you to your records and perhaps they have a how-to guide. Do you want my letter now, though, since that's nearer to hand?:

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:Yes, please: 

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She identifies the box it's in and Fetches it out and hands it over.

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Leareth reads it. Halfway through he starts crying again, and has to stop and dab at his eyes so he can see the paper again. Then he reads it a second time, very focused. 

"Thank you," he says finally. "That is very helpful, I feel much more oriented." 

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"You're welcome."

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Leareth reaches out and squeezes her hand. "...How are you feeling? I still feel - very sad - I think something is different with the lifebond but it does not feel like everything is all right, yet." 

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"Yeah, me too. You told me once that reincarnation in general preserves lifebond compatibility but you didn't mention how you knew that."

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"It was mostly a guess, from some Tayledras and Shin'a'in anecdotes; they have a small population size and strong oral history traditions, so more cases of recognized reincarnation, and the Star-Eyed seems fond of lifebonds. It also makes sense given the mechanism. The soul is the part that the gods can work with directly, the rest of what a person is, is - fleshed out, I suppose, as they are born and grow up in a particular brain and body, there can be nudges there but it would get messy. Given that I have reason to believe lifebonds are a tool the gods use to meddle, I can infer that the soul, which transfers across lifetimes, is the relevant part." Frown. "I suppose the gods might sometimes make modifications before reincarnating a given soul, but I know They did not do so for me, since I bypass that system entirely." 

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"Okay. So it's probably just that you're too young or something."

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"Normally lifebond compatibility is preserved but people do not come back with broken lifebonds," Leareth says thoughtfully. "I am a little confused that it seemed to come across for me, though it does seem as though it would be much odder if the person were returning as an infant and without memories. I have significantly more continuity of self than would usually be the case, maybe that is why."

He twists around to lock eyes with her. "And - you would have accepted a broken lifebond for the rest of your life? If I had come back without one, and - not wished to be mind-control-bonded to you again? That is–" he blinks hard, "it is - very, I am not even sure of the word, 'kind' is not it, but - very something..." 

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"I really hate mind control."

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"I know." He drags a sleeve over his face. "You are not going to like this idea, I think, but - we could have a Mindhealer look and see if they think the bond is going to re-form soon or if we are stuck like this for years. I would prefer to at least know, so I can mentally prepare myself for it." 

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"It's a good idea. I can psych myself up for it. Do you want to ask Melody here or wait till we can see Nayoki?"

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"I am not sure what logistics are in the way for seeing Nayoki. Also I only sort of remember her anyway." Leareth actually doesn't remember the name at all, he vaguely remembers a mage-Mindhealer leading a research team, and can guess from context that Belrun is referring to her. "Either seems fine but - I do not feel very up for navigating how to get back to the north, if it requires actions from me, it is distressingly hard to make plans right now." 

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"Okay. We can ask Melody and probably since your people and the Valdemarans are already talking they have a way to arrange to transport us."

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"All right, that makes sense–" And he barely finishes the sentence before, for some inexplicable reason, he's crying again. :I am sorry, I do not understand why I am like this right now - you seem to be coping with it much better...: 

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She scoops him into a hug. "I have more practice I guess? And I'm not dealing with a new body at the same time, and also only half of my soul-gluing modifications are busted right now as opposed to a hundred percent of them, and also I'm not frostbitten and whatever else."

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"Mmm." Leareth tucks his head under her chin and gives himself exactly sixty seconds, counted out, of crying without trying to stop it, and then wrestles his emotions back under control. 

"Oh. I was going to ask you - normally I pick a new name, when I start in a new body, it helps keep track with records and such. I had been saving 'Leareth', though, it was - significant, it was the name I chose for when I began actually executing the first steps of my plan. But - I suppose we now have greater hopes that it will be a different plan we carry out... I am not sure. I would also understand if you found it too confusing for me to suddenly be named something else." 

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"It would be kind of confusing but if you really want a new name I'm not going to stop you."

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"I do not actually have one lined up or anything, so it might be simplest to stay with 'Leareth' and find a different way to demarcate the records." 

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"'Leareth Two'."

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Leareth laughs. "What is that convention they have for kings sometimes, when royal families follow that very confusing policy of naming their firstborn sons after their father... 'Leareth the second', 'Leareth, second of his name'..." He has to stop because he's giggling too hard. 

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"The exact conventions differ! I think I've heard both in reference to different dynasties."

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"Well, for day to day purposes I can just be Leareth. It will probably be less confusing on net, sticking to the same name; usually I have ended up pursuing something different in each life, when I was in the exploratory phase, or at least not making it known that I was immortal and actually the same person as previously, but this time I am trying to pick up exactly where I left off, so." He finds her hand again, squeezes it. "I know this situation is not ideal for either of us, in many ways, but - I am glad I had you to come back to. I have never had that before." 

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"Is it usually worse, the transition - this seems pretty bad!"

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"I mean, usually I am not dealing with a broken lifebond! That is definitely part of what is making this bad. But - the disorientation is normal, I think. And usually I am coming back in a rather vulnerable position, as a child or teenager with a Gift not yet at full strength, alone in a strange place. I have to re-derive the schema I used to select my records cache locations, since I cannot rely on having retained enough memories to find them otherwise. So I generally would spend weeks or months wandering around in the wilderness looking, with only sketchy memories of anything. I do not like it very much." 

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"I'm not surprised! I'm glad you were able to get here with relatively little incident."

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"It was mostly because I could come here, and expect Valdemar or at least Vanyel to be friendly. Which is entirely thanks to you." 

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"You had laid some groundwork with Vanyel before I came on the scene," she points out.

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"That is true. I do not remember most of our conversations very well, though. I am looking forward to having my notes again and feeling less like I have no idea what is happening." 

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"Do notes jog your memory or just substitute entirely?"

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"I think it is a mix of both. I usually keep two or three dozen clear memories, and then there is a lot of - blur, and I think my notes will help me make sense of that. But for anything more than a single lifetime ago, the records substitute entirely - except for some very core memories of Urtho that I make a great deal of effort to carry across each time, because that is - where I keep my sense of purpose, I suppose? Of who I am and what I am trying to accomplish in the world, and why–" Goddamnit he's crying again, this is so irritating. 

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"How long is a memory - like, a day, or events of varying length, or a minute, or -"

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"Events of varying length, usually more than a minute, but definitely not a full day. I remember meeting you, and I remember the dreams we had with Vanyel - and our conversation where I told you of my plan and you were horrified and trying to think of alternate power sources - that might have been more than one conversation? It is a bit fragmented." 

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"I'd have to look it up."

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"Anyway, I think I retain significantly more - sense of who I am, I suppose - then would naively be the case with so few explicit memories of events. But there is a great deal missing, and then I have to sort of, hmm, to check it against the written records? Make sure I am still a similar shape of person to the past self who wrote them, ensure that my goals and values have not drifted sideways by accident... It is kind of nerve-wracking every time. This is not true of most people, but - I wish to do large-scale things in the world, right, and so I am the sort of person where most random changes to who I am would make me a lot more dangerous." 

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"Right." Pat pat. "Also, like, continuity of self is I think valuable to most people."

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"Mmm."

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This is the point at which there's a tentative knock on the door. "Now an alright time for visitors?" 

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Belrun glances at Leareth to confirm, then says, "Yeah?"

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Shavri comes in, Vanyel behind her. "Oh, good, you look much better. Can we talk briefly? It'll be mostly just logistics, figuring out what our plans our for the next few days." 

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"All right." 

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And Vanyel taps politely at her shields. :Belrun, could we talk privately for a little bit, after this?: 

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:Sure, once Shavri's gone?:

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:That works fine, we can talk in Mindspeech if you don't want to leave the room for it: 

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Shavri sits down. "All right, Leareth, I'm guessing you'd prefer to head north fairly soon, is that right?" 

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Glance at Belrun. "I think so, yes. I apologize for not being more helpful with arranging that." 

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"Don't be," Shavri says gently. "You were barely lucid yesterday. We can help figure out what makes sense, here." 

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:Sure:

"I assume the actual diplomats are here now and have a way to talk to the folks up north."

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"Yes! They've already passed word north that he's here. It's long-range for a Gate and the mages who did the Gate yesterday are a bit tired still, but you two could Gate out tonight if you wanted. I'm not sure if there's a reason to stick around a bit longer, though?" 

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"I'm not aware of one."

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Leareth considers it in silence for a few moments. “I think not,” he agrees. “We will still have communications if I am in the north.”

He sits up straighter in bed, squares his shoulders. “Before that, though, I ought to hear a report on how the talks have been going, if you can provide one.”

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“Um, sure, we can do that. Anything else?”

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Glance at Belrun. “You have a Mindhealer here, yes? We - would appreciate if they could quickly examine what is going on with the lifebond currently.”

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Vanyel winces. “Is it, er, not fixed?”

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"It's not fixed. I think maybe he's too young right now."

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“I am not sure. It did not repair itself instantly, in any case.”

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Shavri clears her throat. “Melody can have a look, I’m sure. I’ll find out when she’s next free.”

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Leareth nods to her, seriously, which is a familiar gesture for adult Leareth and is very out of place on a small thirteen-year-old sitting in bed wearing a nightgown. “Thank you.”

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"There's one up north too if she's not available before it makes sense for us to leave."

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“Good to know. I’ll keep you updated. Do you need anything else right now?” 

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Leareth shakes his head.

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"Thank you, Shavri." :Okay, Van, what is it?:

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:I’m not really sure how to say it, but...: He hesitates and then forges ahead. :Does Leareth seem - okay - to you - is he acting like himself? It’s just, it seemed really uncharacteristic for him, to just march right into Valdemar and get our attention, in a way that meant he was exhausted and vulnerable when someone found him. He’s so careful and paranoid normally. So I guess I’m feeling a bit concerned about him:

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:I mean, he had fewer resources than normal and a broken lifebond he wasn't used to and he was pretty disoriented:

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:Mmm, that does make sense. Do you think whatever’s going on will fix itself, now that he’s back with you and is going to have resources again?:

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:Resources and notes, I think. And time:

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:Right. Well, er, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help? I - I know what happened isn’t actually my fault, just, if I had Gated you both north sooner then maybe...:

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:We are pretty sure a god tried to kill us, I don't think exact timing on your part was a major input:

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:Why are the gods so terrible, anyway?: Sigh. :You know, this happening might’ve actually helped the negotiations along. Even Tran agrees that if a god did that, it’s deeply unacceptable and something we ought to fight back against. He’s still against Leareth’s methods, but, well... Some progress:

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:I mean, even Leareth doesn't like his methods! They suck! They're objectively bad methods! He just has very few options because the gods themselves are against him and he has really big projects to work on!:

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:I get that. I still don’t know what he’s actually planning, right, the diplomatic team thought that telling us was a decision Leareth ought to have input on, which makes sense. But - wherever it is, I really hope we can find a way to work together and do something better instead:

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:Me too:

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Vanyel hesitates for a moment. :All right, I guess that’s all I had to say, unless you’ve got more questions about anything...?:

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:Did I miss anything interesting going on around here? With the diplomats or the jailbreaking or anything:

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:Hmm. We had a slew of jailbreaking attempts right after we properly got the news. Ended up being everyone on the Senior Circle - oh, and this was kind of shocking to me, Tran was first! It still hasn’t gone further than that, really. We haven’t been pulling Heralds off circuit to brief them or anything. Rolan has been keeping to himself and hasn’t tried to Choose anyone, but he seems to be - I don’t know, waiting for something? To decide whether he’ll help with the god message part:

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:Tran? Really?:

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:I know, right? It didn't make sense to me at first! But what I think happened is, hmm - he's a very bright-lines person, right? And I'm aware that this probably isn't the worst thing the gods have done to Leareth or someone else working with him, but - I think it made it real for him, that some god out there did something that crossed a line, when they went after you even though you'd only been dragged into it at all thanks to some other god plot. It took him a bit, wrestling with it, but - I guess he concluded that he's not willing to let that stand, actually, and maybe Leareth has been a pretty bad person at times but the enemies he's fighting are worse? I don't know, that's my best guess at it: 

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:He's been yanked around a fair amount himself, I'm glad he now has a framework to not just round that off to the greater good:

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:I thought so too. I think he's got a lot of processing to do, right, I've got way more years of being sort of aware I was being yanked around by the gods, and eventually deciding I was allowed to be mad about it. I think Tran just sort of - couldn't notice it, until pretty recently: 

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:I wonder if he and his Companion should talk to Amshalan about that:

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:Hmm, that might be a good idea, but I wouldn't want to delay your leaving for it - I can ask 'Fandes to pass it on to Delian and see if they're free today?: 

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:Sure. Amshalan's giving me some room to reconnect with Leareth anyway so she's probably not busy:

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:I'll do that, then: He gets up. "Leareth, I'm sorry you're having such a rough, er, start, and I hope you feel better soon." 

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"Hmm?" Leareth has been leaning against Belrun with his eyes closed for the last couple of minutes, apparently oblivious to the private Mindspeech conversation. "Oh. Thank you." 

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Pat pat.

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Vanyel nods to them both and heads out. 

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Leareth blinks and sits up properly. "Were you talking about something in Mindspeech?" 

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"Yeah. How are you feeling this morning, anyway, Shavri was in but didn't really focus on you and maybe she figures I'm doing that even though I mostly don't see patients," mutters Belrun, blinking at Leareth with Healing-Sight now that it's occurred to her.

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"Fine–" He stops, takes a moment to actually consider it. "I am not feeling ill but I do feel very tired. Oh - I suppose I do have a sore throat, I had not really noticed, I thought it was just - being very sad..."

(Belrun's Healing-Sight mainly shows signs of recent malnourishment and overexertion, and some lingering backlash from pushing his barely-awakened mage-gift too hard the day before; his body's resources are very depleted. He's managed to dodge actual frostbite, at least. He's definitely fighting off a cold.) 

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"- no, you're actually in kind of bad shape. Also you need to eat better, whoever this was wasn't getting enough. I wonder when breakfast shows up around here but I can get some work done on you anyway -" She does this.

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"His name was Essi," Leareth says quietly. "He - ran away from an abusive home, I think. Living with a relative who thought mages were trouble and maybe possessed; it seemed there was considerable superstition against mages in the region. That is - why he was alone and trying to cast a fire spell..." Sniffle. "I am so irritated about dying again and having to - do this, it had seemed possible that it could be the last time..." 

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Squeeze. "Well, there goes my idea of sending his folks a care package, I guess. - wonder what Dara's up to these days. Uh, the Groveborn's Chosen he accidentally repudiated some weeks back. You'd been going to send her scholarship money since it was sort of my fault making her think too hard about gods but we have had other things on our minds obviously."

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"Of course," Leareth says quietly. 

Breakfast arrives shortly later with a different day shift Healer, who does take the time to examine Leareth with her Sight, remarks on the same things Belrun did, does a tiny bit of Healing, and declares that he needs rest and plenty of food and fluids. She smiles at Belrun and asks a trainee to bring breakfast for her too. It doesn't seem like either of them have any context on who Leareth is. 

Leareth drinks all the water that he's handed, but picks at his food without enthusiasm. 

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"You're going to finish that before lunchtime, right?"

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He gives her a glum look. "I can try. I am not very hungry." 

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"You're malnourished. I've been having a hard time eating too but I finished what my mom put in front of me."

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"It was very annoying to try to eat enough when I was a runaway in the poorest part of Hardorn." Leareth puts in a bit more effort, though, and finishes his plate over the next twenty minutes. He should probably be asking Belrun to help him review things he's forgotten, or catching up on events in Valdemar, but it's enough of a challenge keeping his eyes open. 

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She pets his hair and does not do anything to dissuade him from sleeping.

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In which case he's going to be fast asleep when there's a gentle knock on her shields, just before lunch. :It's Melody. I was told you wanted to see me?:

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:Yeah, we wanted to know what our lifebond is doing since it's not 'being okay again instantly'. He's napping but I can wake him up? Or just, you know, inform you that he was interested in learning this information when he was awake:

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:Up to you. I can accept you consenting on his behalf and it sounds like he needs his rest, but if he needs to be awake for something else anyway... I'll be there in a moment: 

She opens the door very quietly when she arrives. 

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:I don't think he needs to be awake right now:

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Then Melody will sit down beside the bed and have a look without waking him. 

:...Goodness: she sends, a while later. :That is one confused lifebond you have there: 

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:Confused?:

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:Sorry, that's not the clearest description. But this is a pretty weird situation, where lifebonds are concerned! Normally a lifebond will properly snap into place when there's mutual sexual attraction, although I've read it's sometimes possible to notice the beginnings of a lifebond earlier than that - say, if one or both of the people involved are way too young. If you were both, er, lifebond-compatible but hadn't previously been bonded, I think there wouldn't be anything yet. However. You both have holes in you, so there's a lot more - metaphorically looking for the missing piece, I guess? I don't know exactly what's going to happen from here, but my best guess is that if you spend a lot of time together, you're going to end up with a sort of partial lifebond. Until he's, um, actually past puberty, I would think: 

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:I guess in a lot of ways that's better than if it didn't wait:

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Melody makes a face. :This must be pretty strange for you. It's - gods, it's very surreal, it really doesn't feel like 'Leareth' and 'tiny and adorable' ought to combine like that:

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Among the many drawbacks of stealing children's bodies, yes. :It's pretty strange for me, yes:

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:Also his mind is a mess in other ways, but I'm guessing he knows what to do about that, and I think there's a Mindhealer up north too?:

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:There is, yes. Could you give me a general idea now though -:

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:It's - gods, this is very hard to explain. I could show you my Sight, if you know how to do sense-sharing with Mindspeech?: 

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:I haven't learned how before:

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:Hmm, I'm going to try sort of pushing it at you - this doesn't work with entirely un-Gifted people but might do fine if it's just that you haven't done it before, and it's not like you need more than a second or two to get the overall gist. Ready?: 

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:Yeah:

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And she'll get a burst of Melody's Sight, similar to Healing-Sight in some ways but extremely different in others. Whatever she's Seeing is a lot more metaphorical than Leareth's actual brain - the impression is of something like a tapestry, splayed out in a way that wouldn't quite work in ordinary space.

It is very obviously a tapestry that has some problems.

One of them is the ragged hole in the middle. It's not hard to guess what that represents. There are loose tendrils of thread sort of floating out from it, searching for something... 

The rest is also pretty weird! It kind of looks like a previous tapestry was recently shredded (this is sort of exactly what happened), and has been patchily replaced with - something even stranger, a sort of rectangular-grid scaffolding not exactly made of thread, with the beginnings of a new pattern being laid down and woven into place on it. The most complete section of it wraps around the hole. It's a pattern of stars against a dark sky.

Everything except that is very unfinished and messy and jury-rigged, with bits of shredded Essi scattered around the edges. 

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Belrun shivers a little and nods.

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Melody drops the deeper connection. If she's disturbed by it, she isn't showing it. :I'm guessing the other weirdness is a result of his, er, method of dying and coming back, and that he's got ways of dealing with it, but it's very much not dealt with yet and I'm assuming that's having consequences on how well he can function right now: 

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:Yeah. His notes are up north, I think that'll help:

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:I hope so. ...Do you want a peek at yours? I'm not sure if that'd be helpful at all, it might be the opposite: 

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:...I admit I'm curious:

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Then Melody can show her that too. 

Belrun's mind is a very tidy tapestry, with a coherent aesthetic theme and neat stitching. It also has a gaping hole in the centre, complete with loose bits searching haplessly for the missing half; the edges are less messy, though, overall the pattern is holding together decently well. Her bond with Amshalan is sort of visible off to one side, as something like an added section, trying hard to match the colour scheme for the rest and not quite making it. 

:Overall: Melody sends, :you're in shockingly good shape, given the givens: 

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:I guess so. Huh, I wonder if Amshalan'll integrate more when it's been more than a month and a half. The lifebond probably clashed even worse:

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:I suspect so. Companion-bonds tend to stay looking more, well, separate than lifebonds do, but I think it'll work its way in somewhat more over a few years: 

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:Well, thanks for showing me:

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:You're welcome. Any questions before I go?: 

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:I don't think so:

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Melody bobs her head and slips out. 

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A Healing-trainee brings lunch around a candlemark later. (Leareth is still asleep). 

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Belrun eats hers, then nudges him a bit.

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Leareth makes a frustrated sleepy sound and tries to roll away from her, and then startles fully awake, goes through about five seconds of frantically checking his surroundings with mage-sight and Thoughtsensing, but recognizes her faster this time and relaxes. "...Still in Haven, right?" 

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"Right. Melody came in while you were napping - you've been asleep since breakfast and it's lunch now - and showed me what the lifebonds are up to, which is, uh, being holes with threads of whatever it is the threads are a metaphor for waving around in the hole trying to grab each other. Also you're in a bad way but you'll be better with your notes, I expect." She pushes lunch at him.

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He starts eating without additional coaxing, switches to Mindspeech while his mouth is full. :I am sure my mind looks extremely horrifying. I know I can manage that part fine, I have done it dozens of times. For the lifebond - is that good? What did she think would happen after this point?: 

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:She pretty much agrees with me that it's just you being too young at the moment -: She wrote it down and can read it to him while he eats.

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:I suppose it would probably help with the hole to have a partial lifebond and it would be less weird and uncomfortable than having a full one: He sets down his fork. "I really cannot eat any more right now." 

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"I'm pretty sure they're calibrating the serving sizes for how much you need, but if you want to try again in half a candlemark that should be okay."

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"Mmm, all right." He puts the plate on the bedside table and flops back. Turns his head to look at her. "How are you feeling?"

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"I'm just kind of telling myself what I've been telling myself for weeks. It hurts but the hurt is lying. Like - like a phantom limb, except in this case it's just that my shoulder hasn't wised up to the fact that actually my arm is right there in, uh, acceptable health, and thinks I have for some reason stuck it in a pot of boiling water."

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"That is certainly a vivid metaphor." He stretches out his hand toward hers. "I am sorry. I mean in the sense that I wish it had not happened, not that I think it was my fault; I think we were a reasonable amount of careful, I could have reduced the danger to myself by staying behind but that would only have made it more dangerous for you. But - I do not approve of things that hurt you. I particularly do not approve of gods who hurt you!" 

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She squeezes his hand. "Two of your least favorite things, combined, yep. It was really blatant, and nearish Iftel, but wyrsa are actually a Pelagirs thing, it might have been two of them collaborating."

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"I do not like that idea." He frowns. "Though - it is odd, that it seems to perhaps have backfired?" 

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"I did actually think about that - I think maybe Amshalan was hard to see coming? Like, of things one might predict in the ordinary fashion, 'Belrun lets a Companion Choose her' has to be pretty slim odds. And it had only been a couple of days since that, so the plan may have already been set up when I did it."

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"It is not always very productive to try to guess the motives of gods, but - how contingent do you think it was? Did it depend, for example, on Amshalan's specific traits?" Leareth sits up again, slightly more animated. "Because that gives the impression of a different god's intervention. And that god might have had extra information, here." 

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"I guess it depended on her specific traits? Not very much - I didn't specify 'you and only you may Choose me if that's a thing you can do now', I said 'if somebody's waiting for me now would be a good time' or something like that - but I did say that having talked to Amshalan in particular in the time leading up to that moment and gotten kind of used to her and less squirrely about Companions as a concept through her."

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Nod. "She seems to be an unusually good match for you in particular, as Companions go, no?"  

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"Yes. I think that's normal, for them to be sorted for compatibility. Uh, the thing that stands out to me as unusual was that she was so recently reincarnated - Vanyel knew her last Chosen before he died, and also she'd had him stolen out from under her - uh, on top of her, I guess? - by Taver, and had some practice beating her head against the mind control from that, which made things go more smoothly after the Choosing."

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"Oh. Interesting. I assume that is nonstandard for Companions?" He makes a face. "I do not actually remember, this is so inconvenient." 

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"You didn't actually meet Amshalan, you like, heard about her secondhand and saw her for a few seconds, so no big loss there, you can just meet her when you're ready to get out of bed. But yeah, they usually have bigger gaps between incarnations, I think, and of course most don't even have an opportunity - so to speak - to have their Herald stolen."

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Leareth nods. "I think I could get out of bed now, if it were helpful to meet her, but I suppose I will meet her anyway if we are going to Gate out tonight." 

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"Yeah. No rush. Uh, right before I left Haven last time I'd talked to Rolan, the current Groveborn, about maybe talking to his boss - so to speak - and apparently he's still dithering about that."

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Leareth looks a bit alarmed. "I would prefer not to be anywhere close to the Groveborn, I think. Probably he will not be suddenly possessed by a god to murder me again, but I am less certain of that than I would like!" 

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"That's - understandable but I think whoever's running the show with Companions is not inclined that way. Still, if it's necessary for you to speak to him you can do it from inside this Companion-hostile architecture over Mindspeech."

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"All right. ...Do you expect it to be necessary or useful for me to speak to him directly?" 

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"No, not at all, it just occurred to me to catch you up about it."

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"Mmm." He sits up. "I could eat a little more now, I think." 

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She hands him the plate with the rest of his lunch.

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He's just finishing it when there's a polite knock on the door. "Would now be a good time to quickly go over our side of what we've discussed with your diplomats?" 

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"Now is all right for me." Leareth looks at Belrun. 

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"Mm-hm, come in, how is it going?"

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"Good, good. We're all very, er - there are slightly complicated feelings here, as you might imagine, but we're mostly very relieved Leareth is back and you're with him." 

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Tantras follows Savil in, carrying an extra chair. 

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"Hello, Tantras."

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"Belrun." He nods to her; his expression is neutral, but a different flavour of it than before, in some hard-to-parse way. "Leareth." 

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Leareth sits up straighter. :Belrun, is he the one who was hostile before?: He has some vague floating half-memory but it's blurred. 

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:Yes, but he was reportedly upset about the circumstances of your death and jailbroke his Companion, and even before that he apologized:

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:Do you think it is - I am sorry, just, I am trying to figure out what is and is not safe and I am very disoriented so it is difficult:

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:I think we're safe here and if that changes I will be doing something about it and not sitting here calmly:

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He nods, seems somewhat reassured, and goes back to looking attentively at the visitors. 

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Tran folds his hands in his lap. "First, I think we owe you - well, Belrun mainly - an apology for her initial poor reception. And I suppose both of you an apology for, er, reacting in a way that made it necessary. We...didn't realize what we were working with, here. Honestly it's pretty terrifying, that we apparently live in a world where gods will send wyrsa after you and your lifebonded partner if they don't like you," he shivers, "but, well, it sure does look like that's the situation here." He looks down. "I don't agree with your methods and I probably never will, but - you make a lot more sense to me, as a person, knowing what kind of thing you've been up against. Suppose you'd been trying to tell Vanyel this whole time, but..."

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"But Heralds by default can't think clearly about the whole topic," Savil finishes. 

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"I hear that's been improving."

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"We've done everyone on the Senior Circle, hmm, actually I think everyone in Haven at this point! Yfandes is pretty good at poking people through it." 

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"I am glad to hear it," Leareth says, quietly and seriously. He does not reach out and hold hands with Belrun even though he wants to; it's hard enough to look competent and adult when you are, by all appearances, thirteen. 

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"Yeah, congratulations."

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Savil and Tantras can cover the rest fairly efficiently. They haven't made a ton of progress with the diplomatic team in terms of specifics, due to their not being able to get clarification or authorization from Leareth on anything. They've done a lot of getting to know each other, and also, following Valdemar's lead, talked somewhat about the gods' questionable behaviour and additional examples of it that were known to Leareth's organization. 

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It's a good thing they're doing it quickly, because Leareth is hiding it well but it's noticeable that he's getting tired again. 

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"Okay, so it sounds like major steps forward need to wait on us getting north again for Leareth to catch up on his own records, ideally, uh, without divine ambush this time."

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"Sounds right. You should be Gating direct to the north this time, right?"

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"I believe so." He is trying so hard not to yawn. 

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"Yeah. Uh, is that all for now?"

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Tantras exchanges a look with Savil. "I think so." He stands up. "We should be able to exchange messages faster, going forward, so we can cover anything else later." 

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Savil smiles at Belrun, and they head out.

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"Go ahead and sleep," she murmurs to Leareth.

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"Can you..." Leareth swallows. He's been trying to keep himself distracted but it still hurts, a lot, all his thoughts are trying to bend around the void where a lifebond should be and isn't - he was running on adrenaline before, promising himself it was temporary, and having Belrun there should fix it but it's not. Although he wonders it maybe he's starting to be able to feel her, in a way that he doesn't think is just via Thoughtsensing, which he isn't using.

He tries again. "It - I feel very sad again and - I know it is a lie, the phantom limb metaphor is helpful, but - could you hold me? I think maybe it will help." 

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"Yeah, of course." She wraps her arms around him.

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He rests his head on her shoulder, closes his eyes. :I am very much looking forward to the part where my brain stops yelling at me constantly that everything is very terrible. I am not used to having this problem: 

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:It's a very stupid problem and I hate it too:

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:I would be tempted to ask Vanyel for advice, except for the part where that feels tactless in the extreme...: Leareth's mindvoice trails off into a sleepy murmur. 

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:It does, doesn't it: She pets his hair away from his face.

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:Poor Vanyel...I wish...we could fix it...: And then he's too drowsy to Mindspeak words, and shortly after that is asleep. 

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She snuggles him till he seems asleep enough and then extricates herself carefully so she doesn't get bored unable to write or read.

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A few minutes later, footsteps come right up to outside the door and then stop. A few seconds later there's a very tentative knock on her shields. :Belrun?:

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:...Dara?:

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:Can I, er, come in and talk to you for a bit?: 

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:Quietly, Leareth's napping, but I don't mind:

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:Oh. Of course: She opens the door very, very quietly and tiptoes in. Stops at the foot of the bed. :...Oh my goodness is that Leareth he's so - small...: 

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:Yeah, he's physically younger than you now. I didn't actually know till I got here he'd be so small:

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Dara sits down in the chair on the opposite side of the bed from Belrun. :Is it weird of me to say that he's really adorable?: 

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:You wouldn't be the first:

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Dara gives her a sympathetic look. :I'd be getting really sick of that in your place, so - I'm sorry to be one of the people making it worse, I won't bring it up again: 

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:Thanks. What's up? I'm surprised to see you here:

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:Well, I went home to my ma and I thought she’d be happier in Haven so I convinced her to move. She’s - not quite all there, but she can clean, there’s work for her here. I was thinking I’d take you up on the scholarship Leareth promised, maybe go study in Rethwellan, but...:

She looks down at her clasped hands. :But whatever just happened to you and Leareth is a really big deal. And - I think I want to help, if I can. If you’ll have me: Brief flicker of a smile. :I know I’m young, but I’m good at lots of things, I’m sure I could find somewhere to be useful:

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:I bet he'd be happy to hire you, though I don't know what he has open right now and he might not either because it takes him a while to get recombobulated:

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:Mmm. That must be really stressful for him!:

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:It is, yeah, on top of having to travel alone for a week with a broken lifebond before he got Heralds to pick him up and grab me for him and now it's still broken till he's older, so, like, don't assume whatever he does in the next month to threeish years is him at his best:

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:Gods! I’m so sorry - I didn’t realize... That’s awful. Three-ish years! Is that how long you think it’ll be until he’s old enough to get lifebonded again properly?:

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:It's probably the upper bound, we don't know exactly:

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:Well, I hope for both your sake that it ends up being less than that. Anyway. I’ m guessing there isn’t, but - if there’s anything I can do to help right now, let me know?: She scrunches up her face. :I’m not really at my best right now either. Being repudiated wasn’t as bad as I thought based on how horrified everyone is about it, but it’s still not great:

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:I bet, yeah. Uh, how much do you know about what happened after you left?:

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:Um, when I got back to Haven - that was only a couple weeks ago, I spent a while being useless at my ma's place and then helping her clean nobles' houses because at least it was distracting - anyway, Savil said there was a diplomatic team here from Leareth but that you'd left. I had a suspicion there was more. Then yesterday there was a commotion and I figured it was related, so I went and found Yfandes and asked her, and after a bit of convincing she was willing to just tell me. You and Leareth almost got murdered? Well, I guess Leareth did get murdered: A worried look at his sleeping form. :And you thought a god did it. That's honestly extremely terrifying! Although if it was the Star-Eyed Goddess I can't say I'm surprised, She seems very dubious: 

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:I think it might have been a team-up with Vkandis based on the location. Uh, also I have a Companion now:

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:What?: Dara stares at her. :Er, all right, I think I'm missing a lot here actually, maybe I should've asked Yfandes for more of the background. You seem like the last person who'd want a Companion! Even leaving aside the, um, problem, with Rolan, that I had...: 

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:So, yeah, I didn't want one, but - nobody was listening to me, they were all really freaked out about how, uh, listening to me had gotten you repudiated? And I was afraid if they didn't listen to me there'd be a war so I talked to Amshalan about it and she Chose me and it turns out Companions who are not Groveborn can stop having that problem by actually not having it instead of the way Rolan handled it:

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:Whoa! That...explains a lot, actually. How you managed to get the negotiations to work at all, it'd seemed so stuck and that wasn't all Rolan's fault: 

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:Yeah, it worked pretty well. And Amshalan is great and I was not exactly working with a zero mind control starting point at the time and also she got me away when the wyrsa murdered Leareth:

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:That part is definitely really good!: Dara winces. :It would've been so awful if you'd died too, he would've come back - like this - and without you even there to find...: Shudder. 

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:Yeah, I'm not immortal yet, it's complicated:

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A crooked smile. :Is he working on that for you?: 

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:Not at this moment. It was on the to-do list before but it is actually very complicated:

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Nod. :I guess that makes sense that it would be. Good luck, I guess: 

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:Thank you:

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Dara fidgets for a minute before standing up. :All right, I guess I can - send you a message via the diplomats, at some point, to check in if Leareth is hiring people in the future? I guess if he's not sure right now then maybe I should go to Rethwellan and learn something useful. I'm honestly really bored right now: 

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:That makes sense to me. Do you want a letter of recommendation to the school I went to when I was your age?:

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:Sure! That would be very kind of you. Could you leave it with Savil? I ought to head back and fix some supper for my ma:

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:Sure, I can do that:

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And Dara smiles brightly at her and heads out.

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Belrun writes the recommendation letter.

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Leareth remains asleep, looking very small in the bed. At one point he whimpers and stirs, and Belrun catches what is maybe a faint flicker of distress from him, though it's hard to tell for sure if it's coming via the former-lifebond. 

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...huh. She notes that down, tries not looking right at him.

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It seems to still be there, though very distant and sort of fading in and out. 

–and then Leareth startles awake and jerks into a sitting position, involuntarily making the bed shake a little and the curtains rustle. 

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"- are you okay?"

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It takes a while for his eyes to focus on her. "...Are we still in Haven?" 

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"Yes. Were you having a nightmare?"

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"I think so. There were - wyrsa..." He shakes his head, hugs himself a little. "I suspect that I always have nightmares about how I died most recently, for a time, even though it is not helpful at all." 

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"Nightmares usually aren't, I don't think anybody knows why they happen." Hug. "I think there was a twinge of it through the lifebond, which is encouraging."

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"Oh. That does seem good." He leans into the hug without speaking for a minute or two. "Did you keep notes on the conversation with the Heralds?" he says finally. "I did not and - I think my memory is not working well, right now, I do not like it." 

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"Yeah, I took notes, here -" She can show them, they're not processing-intensive. "Dara came by while you were asleep - Rolan's former human - she isn't in a rush about it but when you're feeling a little better she might want to work for you."

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"Oh. Interesting. You liked her, right? But she is also very young?" 

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"Right. She's fourteen."

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“You know, I am certain I have some system for hiring people but I do not have the faintest idea what it is currently. Fortunately I am sure it will be written down.”

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"Yeah, I told her it might be a while, she might go take in some Rethwellani education first, I wrote her a recommendation letter."

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“Thank you.” He tugs away from her, stretches. “How long was I asleep this time? Also, am I allowed to get out of bed?”

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"We haven't been brought dinner yet. I don't have instructions from the locals on you getting out of bed but I think it'll be okay, though I should walk with you in case."

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“All right. I am not sure why I am sleeping so much, this is rather ridiculous.” He swings his legs toward the side of the bed.

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She helps him up. "You're getting Healed a lot after an exhausting trip where you didn't sleep well."

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"I am sure I have been under those circumstances before and it still seems odd to sleep for an entire day. Though I suppose I have relatively little context on how anything works, right now, most of my memories are all smeared together. Do children need more sleep? That might be it."

He starts to stand up, and sits back down abruptly. "Should I stop?" he says, quite calmly. "I feel very dizzy." 

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"Uh - I don't know, I'm not a - I'll go get somebody." She pats his shoulder, steps out to see who's handy.

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"Something wrong?" 

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"He's been sleeping nearly all day. I got him to eat all the breakfast and lunch that was served to him but he tried to get up just now and came over all dizzy. I'm a good enough Healer not to accidentally kill people but I don't have much clinical experience, I'm a microbiologist, so I thought I'd ask if that seemed normal to you."

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"It seems unsurprising to me but I'd better come have a look, can't tell from that description whether it's worrying or not." She follows Belrun. 

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Leareth is still sitting on the side of the bed, swinging his legs, which don't quite reach the floor. "It has mostly passed now," he says when he sees them.

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"Mmm." Gemma examines him for a moment. "Reckon you just tried to stand up too fast after lying down all day, that'll do it. I think you're fine to walk around, but," glance at Belrun, "maybe stay in arms' reach just in case? You put your body through a lot recently." 

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Leareth nods. "Thank you." He tries standing up again. It seems all right this time. Maybe they can walk a bit up and down the hall, he's vaguely restless. 

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She goes with him up and down the hall, in arms' reach but prepared to yoink him with Fetching rather than risk being pulled over herself if he stumbles.

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He manages fine, though after two laps he’s suddenly very tired and more than ready to head back to bed.

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One of the mages who Gated Belrun over earlier arrives about two minutes after their supper does. “We would be ready to Gate over anytime. ...Would it be better to wait?”

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Leareth glances at his mostly-uneaten food and then at Belrun.

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"Maybe till after he's finished dinner."

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Leareth nods and finishes eating, making an effort to go a bit faster. 

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"We should Gate from outside," the mage says. "So your Companion can come, Belrun. It's not that warm out, does Leareth have anything to bundle up in?" 

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"All of the clothes I had were in terrible condition," Leareth admits. "I could wrap up in a blanket?" 

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:Gemma, can we steal one of these blankets? Leareth's short on wardrobe and we want to Gate outside to have room for Amshalan:

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:–Yes, of course. You're headed out now?: 

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Yup. She picks something warm-looking off the bed and drapes it around Leareth. "Gemma says we can take one."

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Leareth wraps it more tightly around himself, holding it in place with one hand, and reaches to take Belrun's hand, he's not totally steady on his feet but with her help he can shuffle toward the doorway.

...Oh, he should bring the notes he's been keeping. He isn't sure where they are right now. 

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She scoops them up with her own, Fetching them rather than let go of his hand.

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Leareth follows the mage outside - it's a chilly grey day but not actually raining right now. 

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Amshalan is already there, saddled too. :We're headed back north now?: 

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Yeah. Can he ride behind me -

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:Of course: Her saddle is the usual Heralds' one, which has a pillion pad already in place. She pulls Leareth into her Mindspeech as well (it's not exactly standard for Companions to do that, but they are lifebonded, after all.) :Go on, she can give you a boost up. Make sure you hold on tight, although I can give you a pretty smooth ride: 

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The saddle in fact looks very high up, and Leareth doesn't trust his arm strength now, so he gives Belrun a hopeful look. 

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She squeezes his hand and manages with liberal abuse of Fetching to get up without letting go and pull him after her so he can hug her around the waist.

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He holds onto her, tightly. 

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And the mage leads them over to the Heralds' temple, it's not too long a walk and the temple has a nice big set of bronze doors that Amshalan can easily fit through. 

He raises a Gate. 

And then they're back in the Gate-room up north. 

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Leareth glances around. At least it feels vaguely familiar, here. 

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Belrun gets them down from Amshalan, still without breaking contact. Pets Amshalan's neck with her other hand once they're down.

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He's feeling pretty shaky by now. "I probably need to go back to bed now. Do I need to be in the infirmary or can I go back to the bedroom I had before." 

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"I should maybe ask one of the Healers here, but you seem pretty stable now - Belrun, what do you think?" 

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"I think his old room should be fine. I can Mindspeak a Healer who knows more about what they're doing in a pinch."

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"Sure. This way, then." 

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Leareth needs them to walk slowly, but he can make it all the way on his own feet. 

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And then she can tuck him in and sit beside him and pet his hair.

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Leareth closes his eyes. "I am glad to be home again. Very glad you are here... I am maybe going to sleep again now." 

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"That's fine. Sleep well."

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The next week or so passes uneventfully. Leareth sleeps a lot, and then gradually a bit less, though it's still kind of an unreasonable amount of sleep in absolute terms. He takes walks around the hallway, a couple of times a day, more laps each day as he regains his strength. He starts reviewing his notes, though he needs to do it in short bursts because it's still hard to concentrate for long. 

After a few more days, it's pretty obvious that they are developing some sort of weak partial lifebond; Belrun can feel Leareth from several rooms away now. He still finds it unpleasant when she leaves, reasonable or not, and his preference is to be touching her all the time; when they're in physical contact, they can feel each other almost as well as they could before with the full lifebond. 

Leareth is still kind of background sad and in pain, a lot of the time, which is really stupid of his brain but his brain isn't listening to reason on this one. 

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It's harder to keep busy and drown the pain in work when she's trying to stay by him. She has her eggs brought into the room so she can work on them while holding his hand with her left and writing notes and drawing sketches with her right. She discovers that under certain conditions some microbes can be killed with cranberry juice and occupies herself investigating various aspects of whether that could ever actually be useful in actual people.

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Her research is neat and Belrun is wonderful and very impressive and Leareth sometimes asks her to talk about it, when he's having trouble focusing on anything else. 

About a week later, he wakes up and rubs his eyes and checks if he's still quietly miserable. (Still miserable). 

"I think we should ask Nayoki to look at the lifebond again," he says to Belrun. "If you do not mind. I - would like to know if it is going to get any better than this, before I am old enough that we lifebond properly again. If not, I think I need to figure out some better way to cope with it." 

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"Yeah. She can look."

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And Nayoki will come over promptly when Leareth Mindspeaks her. She does ask each of them individually, again, if it's all right for her to look. 

"You have some level of bond," she says once that's approved. "I can show you my Sight?" 

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"Yes please."

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So Nayoki can slip into close enough Mindspeech-rapport with both of them to share her Othersenses. 

Her Sight looks different from Melody; her view of their minds, rather than resembling a tapestry, seems to be...loaves of bread? 

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- that startles her into a half-giggle.

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Nayoki glances at her with slightly raised eyebrows and a crooked smile, but doesn't say anything. "I will go in closer." 

And she can show them the lifebond, which appears as some stringy ropey bits of what looks like half-baked dough beginning to link their loaves, from underneath; it's solid at this point but not exactly complete. 

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"I assume you can't directly, uh, bake... that...?"

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"I do not think it would help to do that; the problem is that it is too limited, not just that it is fragile. I think it would slowly fill out a little more than this, and perhaps I can make that happen now instead of later? It would be somewhat invasive, though, and I am not sure it would work, though I am confident it would not cause harm." 

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Belrun shivers a little. "It's just - it's hard to do anything more than very routine things with it this bad, and I can fill up on routine things, plenty of science is very routine stuff I can do going down a checklist, but it makes me feel like I'm brain-damaged. I guess I am. I would like to stop all else being equal."

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"I am having difficulty even with routine work," Leareth admits.

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"That makes sense. It is hitting you harder because you are still, well, reassembling yourself after being murdered and coming back."

Nayoki focuses her Sight more closely on Leareth's mind, still sharing it with both of them. It comes out differently in bread; rather than fragments of new tapestry being woven on the weird square-grid scaffolding, it looks like two loaves sort of crumbled and shoved together, the Leareth-one gradually taking over and absorbing the remaining bits of a dead innocent thirteen-year-old. 

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(Leareth really hates his immortality method, sometimes.) 

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Nayoki points out how Leareth is having trouble consolidating the pieces of himself, due to what looks like a large hunk sort of nibbled and hollowed out from the loaf, underneath. The fragments of unbaked-dough-stuff are trying to form around that hole, but they're not providing much stability yet. 

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Dead thirteen year old bread is not fun to look at. Belrun squeezes Leareth's stolen hand.

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"Maybe you can try to fix my side of it first?" Leareth suggests. "Since I am having more trouble being functional at all. Then I can tell Belrun if it has any side effects she would find unacceptable." He glances at her, as if to ask silently if she thinks that's a good idea. 

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"That... might be fine? It might have some spillover on to me anyway of course, since there's some connection..."

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"I am quite good at aiming my Gift in a controlled way," Nayoki says. "There will likely be effects for you, but only via the lifebond-mechanism, not Mindhealing effects. Among other things, you have very good shields and you actually are partially shielding my Sight."

She can show this with a quick, bird's-eye-view glance across the lifebond at Belrun's mind, which shows up a lot blurrier, then she's back to focusing on Leareth. 

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"I look so round."

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"You do! Usually the shape conveys something about a person. I think that you have a very neat and well-arranged mind, would be my guess." 

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"That's what it looked like to Melody too. - you're sure doing what you have in mind won't stop it from growing in the rest of the way at least as fast as it would by default?"

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"Fairly sure, as long as I do not 'bake' anything into place - that is why stabilizing the current lifebond does not seem worth it, I think that might slow its further development." 

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Belrun nods.

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And Nayoki pushes Mindhealing at Leareth, hard, but as promised in a very neat and focused way, aimed just at the gnawed-out looking section of his mind. 

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Leareth isn't sure if he's ever had Mindhealing used on him this hard, much less in this lifetime (what little of it he's had so far). The walls are meeeeeelting. He grips Belrun's hand more tightly. 

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Belrun collects him into an entire hug.

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He clings to her, as the centre of his mind goes gooey and melty. Nayoki doesn't do anything else, but she doesn't have to; the loosened material flows like cake batter poured down a slope, toward Belrun, thickening the bridge between them. 

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She backs off, slowly. "Are you all right?" 

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"I - think so..." He feels dizzy. But he also feels Belrun a lot more than before. 

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She pokes, internally, at the fragmentary bond on her end.

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It feels maybe a little more connected and less wispy than before, though the difference isn't huge. 

:Hey. I felt that: There's relief in Leareth's mindvoice, though. "It feels better on my end," he says out loud. "I do not think Belrun would like the side effects, though, it was very disconcerting." 

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"I apologize." 

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"Temporary, though, right, it might still be worth it. Maybe when I'm asleep."

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"I can wait and see whether it helps with doing things. Also, I think she ought to be able to put you under for it, though that is even more Mindhealing so maybe you would prefer not." 

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"Will that work better than just being asleep somehow?"

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"I am not sure if doing Mindhealing this intensely would wake you if you were simply asleep." 

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"Then I'll just cope with things being - Mindhealy."

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"All right. I can check back at your usual bedtime if you want me to try once you are asleep, then." 

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"If I'm likely to wake up and be freaked out I should possibly be rooming with Amshalan tonight."

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"That makes sense." 

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"I can come with you." Leareth prefers not to sleep where Belrun isn't. 

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"Sure."

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Then they can go on with their previous activities until bedtime draws near, and Leareth changes into pyjamas and then grabs his things and troops after Belrun to the room that's been made up with a hay floor to be comfortable for Amshalan. 

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She explains to Amshalan that Nayoki's going to duck in and try this thing to make the lifebond fix itself faster and she hopes to sleep through it but might wake up very unhappy and Leareth is here too so they don't have to be in separate rooms assuming that's okay.

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:Yes, of course, by all means: She can wriggle over so there's room for both of them to snuggle up. :Hey, Leareth: 

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Leareth nods to her. Yawns. He's still been tending to fall asleep very early. 

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They can all curl up in a heap together.

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And Nayoki answers Leareth's Mindspeech summons and hovers nearby. Once Belrun is fully, and deeply, asleep, she can push Mindhealing juuuuuust toward the area of her mind affected by the broken, partially-reformed lifebond. She starts it gently this time and ramps up more slowly, in case that's less likely to wake Belrun. 

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It takes Belrun an entire minute to wake up all the way, though she starts sounding really distressed while talking in her sleep before that. When she wakes up she lurches out of the cuddlepile to find the least disastrous place to throw up, does so, and then starts crying.

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Amshalan held off on doing anything during, but she offers wordless reassurance through their bond, not pushing it so much as gently extending an imaginary mental hand that Belrun can take if she wants. 

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Nayoki started backing off a bit when the distressed sleeptalking became audible, and does so nearly all the way when Belrun wakes up. "I am sorry. That may be enough for the effect we wanted." 

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Belrun wipes her mouth on her sleeve before faceplanting on Amshalan. :If you're not sure I'd rather get it over with than do this again or be more crippled than necessary for the next year or three:

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"May I have a look to check?" 

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:Mhm: She's hugging Amshalan and leaning into the one mind control that whatever its other features at least usually feels cozy so she can try to ignore the other one that does not.

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:I'm here. It'll be done soon: 

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Leareth isn't quite all the way awake, but he's awake enough to find Belrun and snuggle up against her from the other side. 

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"I will be more confident it is as thorough as possible with another thirty seconds or so." (She's been pushing in enough Mindhealing to keep it the same amount of squishy, while avoiding being any more upsetting than it has to be, so she won't have lost any ground to warm up again.) "If you can handle that now?" 

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:Yeah get it over with:

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Then Nayoki will get it over with, going for 'fast' rather than 'gentle' this time. 

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Snuggle snuggle snuggle. 

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Belrun tries to think about anything else. It's hard. She winds up counting by threes, pressing half-moons into her hand.

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"Done." She doesn't try to make the trail-off gentle either. Just - snap, and suddenly the walls are not melting even a little bit anymore and everything is back to normal. 

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And she can feel Leareth quite a lot more. He's still drowsy, but picking up on her tension; he's worried, still trying to orient, he doesn't wake up scared anymore these days but it sometimes still takes him a while to figure out where and when he is, and being in a different room from usual doesn't help. 

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She tugs him to her with one arm and catches her breath. :Thank you:

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:You are welcome. I hope it is easier now. It should not at all affect the full lifebond forming whenever it chooses to do so: Nayoki nods to her, and ducks out. 

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Sleepy kind-of-confused Leareth curls against her. He's already drifting off again, it's hard to stay alarmed when Belrun is definitely right there. 

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She snuggles him. She snuggles Amshalan. She sits there, awake, nauseated, trying briefly to touchsight the glass of water in the next room over where she usually sleeps to Fetch it to her and get the taste out of her mouth. She gives up. She chases herself in circles, trying not to start crying again about how she's using mind control to patch the holes left by more mind control while comforting herself with still more mind control out of the hopes that slightly less of her life going forward will be spent falling into mind control holes and she can have anything left from before she was MIND CONTROLLED.

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Eventually her misery is enough to wake Leareth all the way. :Belrun? Do you need something?: 

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:Having a hard time getting back to sleep:

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:I am sorry. I - am so glad to be with you, because you are wonderful, but lifebonds are very bad and half-broken ones are even worse. Is there anything I can do to help?: 

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:Snuggling me helps. Though I think it'll help more when you've grown more. Mostly so I can stop thinking about Essi involuntarily quite so frequently but also because I miss there being perks instead of it just being a shitty way to have met an interesting person. Puberty had better hit you like an avalanche:

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Leareth is also looking forward to not involuntarily thinking about Essi so often. :The gods had better not murder me again until we have figured out how to improve the management around here and I can put both of us onto one of the less horrible methods without fatal interference. I think I can dig up some magic that will help me grow faster, although it might have side effects on cognitive development in which case I would prefer to be conservative: 

And he can snuggle her. 

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Eventually she falls asleep.

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Leareth wakes up earlier than usual and kind of stiff, it's not the best sleeping surface. 

Belrun probably didn't sleep great, so he stays still and cuddling her rather than try to get up and risk waking her. He can feel her again. Not as well as before, he thinks, and there's still a faint undercurrent of badwrongpain, but mostly he feels better than he has in weeks. 

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She wakes up groggily a candlemark later than she usually does. Sighs. Fetches the bile off the floor into the nearest suitable receptacle and manages, now that she's more fully awake, to also get her water from the next room.

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Yawn. "How are you?"

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"Better than I was this time yesterday."

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"So am I. And, thank you for doing that. I think it was much more painful for you - I know you did it for your own sake as well, but - it helps for me, a great deal." 

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"It sucked. But it didn't last very long."

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"True. The maximum intensity of badness before was less, but the duration was far longer, and - years is a very long time... I think I will be able to concentrate better now."  

He hugs her.

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Hug. "I miss my old brain," she mumbles.

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"I am sorry I was insufficiently paranoid and got myself murdered." 

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"That was very bad and you should never do it again but lately I am actually just kind of wishing it was last year and instead of my brain the arc of history had required heroic amounts of microbiology research. It's not comfortable to - be leaning on my closest relationships for comfort about how awful it is that I have them, and for a while I was pretty good at not doing that, but this week is not a great one on that front."

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"That would have been a much more reasonable arc of history. I am still sort of worried about what the Power that arranged this is planning. We are both going to be less effective, for a time but not permanently. I suppose it seems that more than one god is involved, with different goals..." Shiver. "I am sort of uncomfortable about having been rescued from losing you permanently by a god, but. Better than the alternative." 

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"Yeah. I assume that if there were any convenient immortality methods around you would have gotten around to it before I even went to Haven but at least I'm probably going to wind up in storage on account of inserting myself into the Companion pipeline, maybe you could grab me out of that if you had to."

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"There are feasible ones but certainly not convenient, and all require your presence and participation. I would feel more comfortable if we went ahead, of course, but I would not pressure you into a method that involves killing anyone else - now or later - even if I thought I could succeed at that, which I do not. Maybe we can put our heads together and see if your rare Healing talents allow a much greater delay to aging than I have been able to enact just with magic. Also I ought to set you up with said magic, if you accept it, it works best when started young." He looks down at himself. "Perhaps not quite this young." 

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"Well, I'm reasonably young, I'm 23. - you were dead during my birthday."

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"I am sorry!" He hesitates. "What does one usually...do...for birthdays. I have not celebrated any in a ridiculously long time. I could give you gifts? Belated gifts." 

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"Gifts are traditional. My mom also baked me a pie but I wasn't really paying attention to the calendar and didn't realize at the time it was birthday pie."

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"I will have to work on some gifts, then." Leareth gets to his feet. Stretches. "I look forward to sleeping in an actual bed tonight." 

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"Yeah. Amshalan's a good pillow but not a good bed."

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Inadequate bed or not, Leareth finds it much easier to be productive that day. He's even a bit less clingy, more comfortable with just having Belrun in the same room but not necessarily touching him at all times. 

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Since her research is awkwardly crammed into this room right now anyway this is not untenable. She does cranberry juice experiments.

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And Leareth makes substantial notes on rereading his personal records, piecing his full identity back together. 

The next couple of weeks are substantially better. Leareth encourages Belrun to move her research back to the properly set up room; when he misses her during the day, he can always wander over there. He spends a lot of time in his library, interspersing reading his personal records with textbooks on various topics, occasionally Mindspeaks Belrun with interesting tidbits. 

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The remaining ache is comparatively tolerable. She's interested in his past lives. Vaguely curious what he used to look like, but probably it wasn't a priority to sit for a portrait each time.

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It really wasn't! Leareth has spent most of his lives not publicizing his immortality to anyone, and after the turbulent first few centuries, generally as a scholarly advisor rather than a ruler; why stand out more than he has to? It does mean there aren't a lot of roles in power where he would have had official portraits done. He digs up a few for her, though.

Also he can show her all the books he's written, with the disclaimer that he won't necessarily remember their contents, right now. There are hundreds. 

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She can concentrate on reading without getting lost midsentence half the time, that's cool. She will read his books.

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Leareth is happy to divide up his reading list! He wants to get up to speed as soon as he can, but Belrun being up to speed on some of it instead of him seems fine too; he'll get to all of it eventually.

A month in, he's starting to seem a lot more like himself. It's hard to tell if he's grown much, per se, but he's definitely back to a healthy, less malnourished weight for his age– well, the age of his current body. 

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Puberty had better hit him like an avalanche and at least now it has the calories to do that whenever it gets around to it.

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Puberty does not show up during the next month.

Leareth does read through enough of his records to start feeling a lot more...himself-shaped. It's felt like everything else is sort of on pause until he can sort that out. It's not totally sorted out, yet, there's still some level of background distress and he thinks he can compensate for it but he's not utterly sure and therefore feels dubious about his ability to make high-stakes decisions. 

It's also awkward having everything on pause, though, so at some point he seeks out Belrun and asks if she's available to talk about future plans. 

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"- yes? What sort of plans do you mean?"

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He's made notes. "I am not sure I have everything important here, yet, but - in the longer run we ought to think about researching different power sources, and about - ways to make you immortal. In the more immediate term, we need to decide what else to tell the diplomatic party they can share with the Heraldic Circle. And at some point I should perhaps consider whether it is safe to visit Haven again myself." 

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"Nothing happened to you while you were there last time, so there's that... Uh, what are my options, immortality-wise?"

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"Realistically there are not any options that allow you to keep your current body forever. There are two possibilities that I think are significantly better than the one I have set up, ethically speaking, but both are - somewhat less robust and riskier. The first involves transferring your spirit to a Changed body - not an ordinary Changecreature, but one would usually start with a less intelligent animal, modify them with magic to allow a fully human intelligence to be accommodated - this does not really result in the animal becoming more intelligent, since its spirit cannot make use of a larger brain - and also to make the body very long-lived. We would then transfer you at the death of your current body. This does involve killing some animals, and some of the modifications are painful for them, although pain can of course be treated and the death made as humane as possible. Also, it involves either keeping a host-animal on hand for decades, or predicting the time of your death." 

He pauses, referring to his notes. "The second is somewhat of a hybrid between Need's method - the immortal intelligent sword that I think we spoke of before? - and mine. Your soul would be partially anchored to an artifact while you are still alive, and would spring fully there on your death. A willing surrogate-mother could then have your soul attached to an early fetus, rather than waiting for this process to happen by itself at the usual time. At birth, your self and preserved memories would still be mostly contained in the artifact, since a baby's brain cannot hold an adult mind, but the burden would gradually shift as your new body grew up. The main downside of this method, in my opinion, is that you would have periods of being less functional during the transitions." 

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"I don't object in principle to killing animals but that's sure giving me very strange ideas of what I'd wind up looking like... where would one find surrogate parents, seems like it might be hard."

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"Nayoki might be willing? Or there are some women with the Healers. Or, honestly, I would think a lot of women would be willing to do it for money, they do not need to also be the one who raises you." 

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"I guess that would work for having someone on standby in case I die violently but we'd need to keep updating it, people can't indefinitely bear children."

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"That is a good point. Keeping an updated list seems not unreasonable, though - if any of them ended up changing their mind, I could arrange it, as long as we did not both die at the same time - which is perhaps an unwarranted assumption, so we would want further backups. The other difficulty with this method is the period of vulnerability where gods might decide to interfere, and of course the initial setup of the artifact is challenging and finicky." 

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"Could a book or whatever support a lifebond while the body was growing up? Waiting till you grow up is bad enough."

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"I am not sure. This is one of the areas that will require research. I suspect it would be better than if you were fully dead, but a very weird lifebond." 

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"What would a Changecreature host body look like?"

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"It could be a variety of ways! Depends on the initial body plan, and then on your preference. If you want to come to the library, I think there is a book somewhere from when I studied this some number of centuries ago?" 

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"Sure."

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They can head to the library and hunt for it, then! 

Leareth has a lot of books and only the haziest memory of a one-off-reference in something else he was reading to having done this research, but also his library is well indexed, so it doesn't take them too long to find. 

The research was mostly very theoretical, and not particularly aimed at producing reasonable, humanoid bodies to get reincarnated into. There are examples starting from deer, rabbits, hawks, and some large species of fish. They can get pretty far from the starting point in terms of superficial appearance, at least. 

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"Probably you'd ideally want some sort of monkey to get a human-enough result? Since supporting the lifebond is a necessary feature it can't look too wild. Not that it wouldn't be very cool to be able to actually legitimately fly."

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Nod. "I did not have a reason to do it with monkeys specifically for that research; and it is not ideal for generic research purposes since monkeys are more intelligent and I correspondingly disprefer causing unnecessary harms to them. Also I think they are only native to the southern regions? It ought definitely be feasible, though. I think that version would involve less - potential downtime, with the lifebond." 

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"Yeah. I'd say I'm open to both options but finagling some sort of monkey based solution is probably better if it works."

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"That makes sense. I can figure out a research agenda for it. ...You are well placed to help with the monkey one, in fact, one of the more straightforward approaches to that work involves working with a Healer who has trained the kind of fine-detail Sight that you have." 

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"Huh, okay. What should I read?"

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"You could start with all of the notes in this book, and - I do not know if there are others in this library, it is quite an obscure field, but I am sure other writings exist and I can search for them." Or, realistically, ask Nayoki to do it. 

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She nods and takes the book.

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"Do you have thoughts on what information we can share with the Heralds, now?" he asks her. 

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"There's no gentle way to say 'the reason we want to annex you is so we can murder your grandchildren for fuel'. Mentioning the end result is safer if you don't think they'll extrapolate, but they might."

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"...No, there is not really, is there." Sigh. "I suppose we can at least share more facts about gods in general with them, since the Companions are mostly jailbroken at this point. And - maybe we can come up with a different plan. Somehow." 

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"Figure out how to blow up the moon. - I used that as a stand-in example of something that would obviate the mysterious reasons behind the invasion plan, when I was down there."

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He smiles. "It is a good example!" 

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"I should probably actually give you all my notes of that time - well, all the relevant stuff, I'd redact some."

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Leareth is very curious, but he nods and doesn't ask, if Belrun wants to keep it private then he's sure she has good reasons. 

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She does indeed present him with redacted notes some time later outlining the events and speculations and plans spun up during her days in Haven. And she reads the book and asks Amshalan whether it's nice to have a tail.

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:I like it! It's useful for flicking flies and such, and it's fun that you can braid it and put ribbons there, and I suppose I do just enjoy the feeling of having it: 

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:We're talking about ways to make me immortal and one option is to move me into a homemade Changecreature whenever it comes up. If I start with a monkey - that's the obvious thing, since I want hands and stuff - I could take off the tail, but I might not!:

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:Huh! And, yes, having hands seems for the best really. Would the replacement body be Healing-Gifted, I have no idea how that would work..: Sudden pause. :...I’m not immortal:

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:I've never heard of a Companion dying of old age but at any rate making you a new body would be easier, you're more like a horse than I'm like a monkey:

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:True. And, huh, I'd never thought about whether Companions would die of old age - and at what age - if it wasn't for our Heralds dying. We do seem to age somewhat, I remember being - slower - toward the end of my last last life, but I definitely wasn't as affected as a human at seventy or eighty: 

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:And it's not instantly fatal so even if there's a transfer delay...:

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:Oh, us dying when our Heralds do? No, we usually have time to make our goodbyes. If it's a very sudden and unexpected death the shock sometimes takes the Companion along, but that's rare: 

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:The other option is sticking me in a very early fetus, which wouldn't be able to hold me all at once and might be hard to time exactly, so I'd have to spend the interim being partly an artifact, like Need. It would be awkward and much more stress on the whole 'lifebonded' situation though it does involve less sinister experimentation on monkeys:

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:And then you'd have to grow up from babyhood all over again? Gods. That'd get tiresome. Humans take so long at it, too, horses are much better that way: 

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:Yes, that'd be more convenient if I wanted to be a horse, but I think it'd be awkward with Leareth, the prospect of me winding up too weird for the lifebond to work right now that we're both dependent on it is pretty salient right now:

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:...It seems possible the lifebond-compatibility would, er, make you - fall in love - in the relevant way anyway. Um. Not that I'm sure that would be any less awkward. Probably better to avoid having to learn the answer to that question: 

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:I'm willing to try having a tail and I would like wings if there's some way to glom an eagle on there without it being a bad tradeoff in some way but yeah, would rather be a horse than dead but would rather not get to that point:

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:Huh. Gryphons got made - I think, if they're not just a legend - so that must've involved smushing together a bird and a mammal somehow. Weird thought: 

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:Maybe Leareth knows how to do it. I should read this book:

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:You'll have to tell me about it, I'm very curious! How's Leareth doing, by the way, he sounds more lively if he's bringing this up: 

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:The thing Nayoki did helped. And you can read through my eyes, right, if I let you -:

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:Yes. I don't want to intrude on your life any more than you actually want, though: 

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:I don't want you to know what I'm thinking if I don't tell you, but what I'm looking at isn't sensitive information the same way as I see it:

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:Mmm. I do like it when you tell me what you're thinking, but - only because you wanted to tell me, you know?: 

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:Yeah. Conversations are great! Mindreading is different:

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:I think some Heralds like the passive mindreading because it's convenient and saves time, but it's also very reasonable not to like it! And I would honestly find it pretty weird. I like communicating in words, it's good: 

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:Is it usually bidirectional, with Heralds and Companions?:

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:It varies? Certainly there are Companions who don't particularly shield and share most of what they're thinking. I do think it's usually the Herald sharing more; it seems like Companions have a bit more attentional capacity, and usually the Heralds are the ones busy out doing things and we're the ones offering helpful advice over their shoulder. Attempting to be helpful, anyway. I think I'd find trying to do that very distracting: 

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:Distracting from? What are you up to when I'm not paying attention?:

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:Thinking about things? Gossip, lots of. Giving advice to younger Companions - I'm not even very old! They still seem to think I'm rather wise and ask me. Looking at cute foals being cute. Mostly, I don't know, my thoughts at least are all sorts of weird and go off on side tangents, it just seems - harder to follow - than Mindspeech: 

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:Are you really bored up here - I should be bringing you more books -:

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:I'm a little bored. I started talking to his staff a while back, though, Companions don't usually but we can. One of the Healers is very nice and reads books out loud to me: 

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:Aw, which one?:

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:Adari. She's lovely. Likes poetry. Also gory books about battlefield Healing, but I don't mind that either: 

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:A strong stomach is handy in the discipline:

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:Oh, definitely! I suppose a little less in your sub-field. If you do end up researching animal-modifying, I'm very curious to hear all about it!:

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:Go ahead and read along, then! Let me know if I should go slower or back over a section:

Notebook at the ready, she has at the book.

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The book seems to skip some steps and assume background she doesn't necessarily have, but is mostly comprehensible anyway with some rereads, and it cites the other books it's drawing on. It describes how a skilled Healer and a mage (or a single person who has both Gifts, very strong, but that's extremely rare outside the Tayledras) can work together, the Healer providing a detailed view of an animal's insides while the mage uses some sort of specialized mage-technique to - shift them, wiggle them into the new formation wanted. And then the Healer has to use sustained, generic healing-energy while the new configuration is held exactly in place; it has to be 'focused' in the right way, it's apparently tricky to learn by any method other than trial and error, and it has to be focused on the whole animal.

If it's focused in the right way, though, the new body layout is now what the animal's body considers its Healed state, and if it's done very skillfully - again, the book doesn't manage to convey exactly what the difference is - the animal's offspring will inherit the changes. 

Different species of animals can also be combined, though this is fiddly and fraught and the experimental process usually kills a lot of the test subjects. And it's harder to get it to stick deeply enough to become heritable, sometimes it just makes the animal infertile, sometimes the offspring are deformed, or themselves infertile like a mule. Nobody seems to really understand why, or what makes a particular combination work aside from luck. It's harder to combine very different species of animal; mixing mammal traits is the most straightforward; birds and mammals have been done, the result was gryphons. Birds have been combined with reptiles. Birds have been combined with fish but the resulting animals were never able to reproduce successfully. No animals with spines (birds, mammals, fish) have ever been successfully combined with insects, though insects have been mixed with each other. Some very creative mage once tried to combine mice and grass, which completely did not work at all. 

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Huh. :I wanna send a copy of this book to people I know at the university, it'd be useful for that hybrid plant research I imagined a while ago: she remarks to both Amshalan and Leareth.

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:Ooh! Good idea!: 

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Leareth agrees that it seems quite reasonable, although when he's having it copied he might want to redact the chapters about creating creatures for weaponized purposes. 

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:That will suit them just as well. I'll need some mice or something to practice on - also I will need to be in a meld without panicking, I can probably do that with you in particular with practice -:

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:I am certain that with some practice - and I can do that with people who are not you - I will be able to very reliably do the relevant parts of the meld, Sight and reserves, without going near your actual thoughts. I know a lot of Healers do not have good enough control to promise that: 

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:That's good. When can I expect mice?:

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:A couple of days? Do they need to be special mice in any way?: 

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:I don't think so, I'll just be practicing the skillset, not trying to get specific mouse-results. Though I'll probably have mice in all kinds of interesting colors and whatnot sooner or later:

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Giggle. :I look forward to seeing it: 

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:Maybe if we're really careful we can prevent it from being too unpleasant for the mice, or whatever I graduate to after that.

I'm getting ahead of myself but would it be weird for you if I wanted to try leaving the monkey's tail on? Amshalan likes having a tail and I could always with some ado take it off if I didn't like it once I moved in.

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:Of course, if you like. I would not mind, and I suppose having a prehensile tail could be rather useful, if you started with that kind of monkey: 

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:That's what I was thinking! I could also try putting wings on like how gryphons are, if we really take to the art anyway:

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:That would be quite something! ...I wonder if gryphons have lighter bones, like birds do, or if they support their weight in the air by cheating with magic. I assume I knew this once but I do not remember: 

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Get me sparrows or pigeons or something and I will try making flying rodents:

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:It sounds very tricky but I can definitely set you up with that!: 

And within a couple of days there's a nice workshop set up for her, with mice and sparrows in cages. 

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She has by then re-read the book and organized all her notes and can get to work turning mice interesting colors, since that seems easiest as proof of concept and also shouldn't hurt them much. They'll have to wait for the new fur to grow in, though.

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She does not kill any mice! Although some of them lose some patches of skin before the fur starts growing in again, and need extra Healing, and the fur colour is pretty blotchy on most of them the first round. 

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She is not immortal but she is also not sick or in a particularly dangerous place; she doesn't need to be in a terrible hurry. She keeps practicing on mice till she can get them interesting colors without patches of either sort.

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She can get there in a couple of weeks of concerted practice, though it takes longer to confirm it since she needs to wait for mice to recover. 

(There is no shortage of new mice to try if she runs out.)

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She does want to try breeding the interestingly colored mice to see if they have interestingly colored babies too, though.

She studies sparrow wings, when she's waiting for mouse fur to grow.

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Wings are really interesting to look at and draw! They have a lot of delicate specialized internal structures. Incidentally, bird lungs are weird. 

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Huh. She watches sparrows fly around with Sight, putting their food and water in various places so they have to flutter to get it.

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It takes some practice to capture that kind of fast movement of larger-scale structures with Healing-Sight, but after a while she'll start to have a sense of how the wings attach to the rest of the bird's skeleton, what ligaments and muscles are necessary and would need to be rebuilt or rerouted in a mammal to make flight possible. 

The book has some notes on how to prepare for the actual grafting, by working just with the skeletons of dead animals and mocking them up with soft clay and string to model the body mechanics. 

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She supplements with touchsight; it helps. She makes morbid little sculptures.

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The morbid little sculptures are educational and Leareth is impressed with her progress. He's also been practicing melds, regularly, with the other Healers here. By the time she feels ready to try wing-attachment on live animals, he's pretty ready to do a meld, with confidence that he won't read any of her thoughts by accident. Belrun is an unusually easy partner, here, he expects her to be very good at containing her mind and not accidentally projecting her surface thoughts a little even when their shields are meshed. 

Wings are a major organ and trying it for real will kill the sparrow, although she can anesthetize it first, either with drugged food or by using her Gift to put it to sleep. 

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She does it by Gift; drugged sleeps are a little hard to monitor, another thing to juggle while she's trying to get the wings from point A to point B.

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Her Fetching can actually do a lot of the delicate work of hooking up blood vessels and nerves, peeling off tendon attachment points and reconnecting them elsewhere, knitting bones into their new home. Leareth does the rest; he's not that skillful at the mage-work parts of this, yet, it's a specialized craft, but he's been practicing hard too. 

She doesn't kill the mouse who's getting wings, anyway. It'll take a while to know if the graft will take properly. She needs to do some specialized Healing work on the nerve grafts, and of course the targeted Healing-energy that will fix everything properly in place and maybe, if she did it right, result in little winged mouse babies eventually. 

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She picked one of the line of sparrow-speckled mice for this, so it will look all matchy, if it comes through. She tends her sparrowmouse carefully.

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Her sparrowmouse seems pretty confused and curious about its new wings! Then it gets bored with them; they're still useless. 

A week in, the nerve grafts heal enough that the sparrowmouse can twitch, twitch, twitch the wings. It's very uncoordinated, though; its brain does not have a spot for 'wings' and it must be baffled as to what they're for. 

The book describes a technique for aiming some Healing-energy at a creature's brain, which is supposed to give it more ability to learn new things than an adult of that species usually could. It's also fiddly, though, and can cause the animal to instead get a tumour in its brain and die if it's not done quite right. 

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Seems best tried on non-painstakingly-grafted mice first. She will teach green mice tricks as a control and blue mice the same tricks with bonus brain energy.

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The first batch doesn't have much difference, she must not have gotten the hang of it, but the second batch learns noticeably a bit faster. One of them gets a fast-growing brain tumour of some sort, though. The third batch does even better with tricks and she doesn't give any of them cancer either. 

(Her winged mouse seems to be making some headway, its wings are less randomly spastic, but it's definitely not learning flight.) 

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When the third batch has learned to walk tightrope and run little obstacle courses she will try the brain trick on the sparrowmouse.

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(Leareth is rather delighted by her tightrope-walking mice.) 

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The sparrowmouse is definitely more lively and playful! It spends more time flapping its wings around and trying things with them, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to it that the thing they're for is flying. Maybe it needs to be taught more explicitly. 

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What happens if she sticks it right next to the sparrows?

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It's very curious about them! Also pretty wary. It spends some time gradually getting more comfortable sitting right up against the sparrow cage and watching them flutter about. 

After a while, something seems to click, and instead of playfully jumping or attempting to burrow into its wood chips (which goes less well with wings), it also adds some playful attempts to leap and flutter. 

She could try putting some food at a place it can't reach without some fluttering? 

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Yup. Treats up on a high shelf in the cage, suspended from the ceiling so it can't just climb.

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The mouse is now a lot more determined! It watches the sparrows intently, and tries jumping and fluttering, and is not very good at staying aloft or steering and bumps into the bars some, but within a few days it can get its treat with multiple attempts, and two days after that it's a pretty good flyer. It's not quite as adroit in the air as the sparrows, maybe because it's starting in adulthood and the brain-Healing can only compensate so much, or maybe because its mouse body just isn't very aerodynamic. 

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It's encouraging! She will make it a sparrowmouse mate and see if they have sparrowmouse babies.

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Sadly they don't. Some of the babies are normal and some of them have some minor deformities, but not wings. The book did warn that this part was a lot harder to master. 

(The two sparrowmice get along well, though, and are very adorable in their cage.) 

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She will persevere at getting a breeding population of sparrowmice out of intellectual interest even though she is not actually planning on this being a major feature of her own future body; it's good practice.

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It's taking a while.

Leareth is noticeably growing now! He's taller and his voice is just starting to break and he informs her that some other signs of puberty are starting to show up. His face still hasn't lost any of its baby fat, though, and so he doesn't look older so much as bigger. 

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"I don't know if I can speed this process up by attempting to become sexually attracted to you on purpose or not but at some point - maybe not yet - that'll probably make a few months worth of difference."

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Nod. "Maybe not yet. I assume at some point I am going to start having - feelings, about that sort of thing, I have not yet. I can tell you when that happens?" 

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"Yeah." Sigh. "I miss how you used to look. Even when you're physically twenty or whatever..."

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"I am sorry." He looks thoughtful. "I - could probably shape my adult appearance somewhat? Well, you could, mostly. Once you have done some more experiments on mice and can definitely do so safely." 

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"There's an idea. After I'm a lot better at this, but I'll get there."

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"You are making very rapid progress." He looks so delighted about it. 

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"The sparrowmice are cute! Impractical, but good practice."

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"If you are able to get a breeding population, you could probably sell them as pets. I think children would adore them." Frown. "They might become terrible pests? Although I suppose they are likely to be somewhat fragile. Gryphons are, they have all sorts of weird medical problems. I went back and read one of my books on them." 

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"Oh dear. What kind of weird medical problems?"

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"The ones I recall off the top of my head are that they run into serious difficulties with their flight feathers if they do not have someone to help clean and oil them - birds can reach all of their own feathers, but gryphons' bodies are not flexible enough. They have frequent problems with the oil glands too, and I think their digestion is known to be finicky? I am not sure why the wings affected that, but perhaps the bird and mammal components were adapted for different diets, and the intermediate digestive system is sort of worse for either." 

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"Hm. Well, get me an omnivorous monkey, but I'm planning to have good range of motion with my hands. Plus a tail. And - I've been assuming that this won't necessarily allow me to keep my Gifts, do you know if there's a way to do it -"

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"There is definitely a way to set up Mindspeech potential! Tayledras bondbirds have it. I am not sure if anyone has ever tried to create an animal or a species with Healing, but it does not seem so different in principle." 

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"Fetching, too? It's not as essential for research but I'd miss it and it'd also be a good safety feature when I learn to fly."

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"–It will be an additional chunk of research but it should not be harder in principle. Are you going to do the wings, then? You should perhaps select a relatively small and lightweight monkey species - although not too small or I will feel very weird about it. Maybe we can figure out how to cheat at flight with innate magic instead, the way gryphons do, and then you would not be so weight-limited." 

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"It would be disappointing to move into a new body I had a long time to design and have it not be better! Anyway, I can almost fly now, just not quite enough to be safe doing it for fun. I was imagining I would be close to my original size, and if I can keep Fetching then I especially don't have to be tiny."

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"Oh! You know, I think there may be a species native to the Pelagirs that has something akin to innate Fetching. And of course Suncats do but we are unlikely to find one to cooperate with us studying it. It would probably not work exactly the same as human Fetching, but I see no reason why you could not transfer that capability to another species." 

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"What's the species?"

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"...I would have to look it up," he confesses. "At one point I knew all of sort of thing by heart but then I was murdered." He still sounds faintly miffed about it every time he mentions not knowing things that he did before. 

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She squeezes his hand. "You'll build it back up."

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Somewhat shaky nod. 

Leareth looks it up in the library. They want Changesquirrels, which apparently hunt in packs and are actually quite dangerous. 

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"Sounds annoying to study."

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"A little, yes. Though mostly annoying to capture specimens, they will not be as dangerous once they are separated and in cages warded against Fetching. And they are not going to be terribly dangerous to skilled mages, mostly they are a threat to farmers in the area and such. I am not sure why people try to farm in the Pelagirs but they do." 

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"I guess if I'm not trying to give them wings, them being in a place warded against Fetching isn't such a big deal."

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"...No, they sound very inconvenient with wings! Unless you can domesticate them and make them friendly, I suppose. I was thinking that you could transfer the Fetching ability to a monkey, or perhaps a breeding population of monkeys, and then give them the wings." 

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"A breeding population of winged monkeys would be good, it'd let me weed out any dicey changes that only crop up with bad luck."

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"That is a good idea! Should I work on getting you monkeys, now, or do you plan to practice more with the sparrowmice until you have all of the techniques perfected?" 

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"I'd feel worse about messing up on a monkey, so I think I need more practice, but if they might take a while to source and get a good environment set up for, you could start early."

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"I think those parts could take some time, yes, so if you are thinking you will have it down in six months, I should start setting it up nowish." 

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"I might! I'm making good progress."

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Then Leareth will get started on arranging a population of monkeys for her, imported from the south, several different species, and a nice big laboratory so they can live pleasantly while they're being experimented on; monkeys need a lot more than mice, to be healthy and not too stressed in captivity. 

Leareth is oriented enough now to be working in earnest on researching alternate power sources, ones he gave up on a while ago. He's not getting anywhere, really. Diplomatic relations with Valdemar are stable and on pause. His army doesn't need much him to quietly prepare in the background. 

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It's a little anxiety-inducing but while she does feel better lifebond-wise she doesn't expect to have any miraculous breakthroughs till she can actually devote her entire brain to something without any of the something being "chronic deceptive emotional pain".

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Her strange-coloured mice are reliably having matching babies, nowadays. (If she tries pairing up mice of different colours, the inheritance patterns are pretty interesting, some colours seem to reliably 'cover' others so that all the babies come out one parent's colour; some come out half-and-half; for some reason blue mice and green mice reliably produce teal babies.) 

Wings seem trickier for some reason. Her next mating pair of sparrowmice produce a litter where half of the babies have small and nonfunctional wings and half just have a spine deformity that looks like it was maybe trying to be wings and failing. 

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Sad but interesting! She puts the deformed ones out of their discomfort and studies them, but lets the others grow a bit in case the wings will get bigger later - baby birds aren't hatched with flight feathers.

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They do get bigger! It seems a little out of sync with the rest of the mouse's development; the tiny baby mice grow fur and open their eyes and start exploring their cage, and the wings are still nubby and covered in down. At a month, though, they start growing in flight feathers. 

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Neat. Now if she can just get them some non-siblings who are also born with wings she's in business.

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(Her book warns that most attempts at creating species, especially combining two disparate animal lineages like mice and sparrows, result in a much higher rate of birth defects than was present in either group previously, even when the researcher does everything perfectly.) 

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Leareth is always happy to take a break from his own work and do the mage-work parts of putting together more sparrowmice.

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It's fun. She's working in parallel on other stuff that will be more directly applicable to turning a monkey into something that looks more like a human - the result isn't aesthetic at all on mice but she does want to practice getting them to be furless and have long hair on their heads for this reason.

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It's really not aesthetic at all! Amshalan thinks it's absolutely hilarious, though. She really enjoys watching the sparrowmice, and all of the various results, through Belrun's eyes. 

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The first batch of imported monkeys turn up. Leareth had an entire new cellar area excavated and added to the building, so they can have lots of space. They've got toys to play with too. His people who went south to buy monkeys weren't able to find a convenient species that was both anywhere close to human size and also non-aggressive and practical to keep in captivity, so these are still fairly small monkeys, but Leareth points out that changing a species' size is, per the book, one of the easiest things to do. It can be done without magic, even, dogs have been bred into all sorts of different sizes. 

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All right, she will try gigantifying some mice.

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The first few tries tend to come out with very odd proportions but it is, in fact, very easy to gigantify mice. 

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Well, she'll fiddle with proportions too, she doesn't want monkey-length arms or toes.

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:It'd be kind of neat to have feet that could work as hands, though?: Amshalan points out. :Extra hands. Make up for my lack of any hands. And you could still put shoes on if you didn't want people to notice: 

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:I'd have to get custom shoes, and monkeys don't actually walk on their feet, much, they get around in ways that involve all their limbs more, so I'm not sure it'd actually be comfortable:

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:Oh, that's true. Still think it'd be neat to be able to climb like monkeys can, but - I guess if you have wings it's not as practical anyway, and also you won't actually want to live in a tree: 

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Fiddling with exact proportions and then making it heritable is also pretty straightforward. 

The winged baby mice are in general developing more slowly and taking longer to reach maturity than normal mice litters, but their feathers are mostly in and they're starting to flap about the cage.  

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Adorable.

Once she has a breeding population of her most interesting mouse strains she falls back to working on infectious disease research with much of her available energy and just looks in on the mice occasionally and teaches the friendliest winged ones tricks.

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Leareth grows some more! He's nearly her height, now. His voice is usually deeper, now, rather than cracking at random. His face still looks very young, though, it seems to be out of pace with the rest of him, or maybe it's just that fourteen-year-olds look reasonably grown up when you're yourself fourteen, but like babies when you're twenty-three. 

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She starts working on the monkeys, trying to figure out how to adjust their faces so they look like - different monkeys, to begin with, she doesn't want them to be rejected by their cagemates, they're social animals.

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The monkeys are more interesting to spend a lot of time with than the mice, just because they have personalities and clear likes and dislikes as individuals. Now that she's had the practice with mice, it's quite straightforward to change their faces. The monkeys find this confusing! But they adjust quickly. 

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Ideally she'd like to be able to do it without it hurting them, since ultimately she does maybe want to fiddle with Leareth's eye color and such.

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She can pretty easily get to the point of doing it skillfully enough that there's no uncomfortable recovery; it's still nicer for the monkeys if they're anesthetized while she's actually molding their facial bones and cartilage into a new shape. (Also, it's hard to coax an awake monkey to hold still while she gets her Sight properly situated.) 

Her book doesn't actually have any instructions for modifying eye colour, but it's not hugely different in principle from changing other pigmentation like fur, and if she spends some time studying the structure of eyes very closely, she can figure it out easily enough. It's also noninvasive enough that the monkeys can handle it fine awake, though if she wants to do it that way she'll need someone to hold their heads still for her. 

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She's mostly interested in how squirmy various interventions make the monkeys for the applicability to whether Leareth will need to be unconscious; there's no real reason not to have them out for practice once she has that information.

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Leareth thinks that he'll be much better at holding still than monkeys even if it's a little uncomfortable. He dislikes the idea of being made unconscious - not nearly as much as she hates Mindhealing, but it's a not dissimilar shape of dislike. He'll trust her to do it if she thinks it's best, though. 

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"Ideally you'd be awake both for that reason and so I don't have to learn to do a meld with a different person."

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"Very reasonable!" 

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"I think you'll be fine with some painkillers if I work in small increments, though, which I'd want to do anyway, because unlike eventually giving some unfortunate monkey my face where I'll have a mirror, I'll be working off memory."

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"That makes sense. Is it going to make a big difference to you, that my eyes are the same colour as before?" 

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"It's not so much any one thing as the gestalt but that bit I'm particularly confident I can get right without a reference closer to hand than 'saw you in a dream the night before'."

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Nod. "That makes sense. Are you going to try to make your next body look very much like your current self except for the wings and tail? I think I would get used to it either way, but I suppose you might prefer your own face to stay the same as well." 

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"Wings, tail, otherwise I like how I look fine and would sooner keep it."

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"Fair enough." 

He goes back to his work. 

A few weeks later he comes to her with pages of notes in his hand. "It occurs to me that if we could get Valdemar on our side, they have a Heartstone. Which does not solve the problem of a power source in its entirety, but it does make it significantly easier." 

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"Yeah. It does let on that we're looking for a power source and that might let them connect more dots unless there's something else you can do with Heartstones. Though if your diplomats finessed it especially well maybe whatever relationship let Valdemar get the one could get them another? If the Star-Eyed isn't too on her guard to let that work, at any rate."

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"...I am somewhat concerned about that part. The Star-Eyed can work through a Heartstone if She chooses - it gives Her some territorial advantage in Haven. And I assume that She would want to disrupt our talks with Valdemar if we are making progress on convincing them of anything that helps us, whether or not we tell them the true reasons."  

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"...if she can work through it why do you think you'll be able to use it at all instead of having it, uh, crumble to dust or zoom into the air and smack you in the face, or something?"

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"It is a complication that makes the plan less feasible in general. Her power to work through it is not unlimited, though - I do not think she could crumble it into dust or turn it into other things, it simply gives Her more ability to nudge coincidences Her way, like in the Tayledras lands. Her attention is also not infinite - I do not think that She would necessarily know exactly what I was going to do. If I discussed it with the Senior Circle only somewhere outside Haven and came to an agreement, I do not think that She could, through the Heartstone alone in a different location, do anything to sabotage that." 

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"So it might make sense to ask the diplomats to set up somewhere outside the probable range of the Heartstone effect, before anything more sensitive comes up."

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"Yes. And on reflection, I should definitely not personally visit Haven, even if the rest of Valdemar seems fairly likely to be safe." 

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"That makes sense, though nothing has actually happened to us in Haven."

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"That is true, and I think it is unlikely anything would happen on a return visit, but still. It is not that costly to ask to do it elsewhere instead, if we do end up visiting." 

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"It's probably costly enough to be apologetic about - makes it inconvenient for most of the people we're talking to to simultaneously do their normal jobs and access their normal lives, if nothing else."

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"That is a fair point. Anyway, I am not sure things changes our immediate next actions. I will consider ways we could mention the usefulness of Heartstones without giving too many hints about the rest of the plan." 

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"What are the Valdemarans using theirs for?"

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"My understanding is that it is mainly a power source and spell-anchor for the Web, a preexisting set of wards and defences on the entire kingdom that Vanyel extended. It is also how they provide energy to bring in the vrondi - the same elementals that detect intent for Truth Spell, but they also detect magic and are set up throughout Valdemar to trigger a Web-alarm and then hang around and watch, which is also rather distracting for the poor foreign mage. I called a vrondi-alarm onto myself deliberately to attract the Heralds' attention, when I was trying to find you again. In hindsight it was a very reckless thing to do, and unlike me, but I was not thinking especially clearly at the time." 

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Pat pat.

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"It is a brilliant work by Vanyel but is rather overkill for the problem it is addressing; I could show Vanyel some non-god-reliant solutions that would serve the same functions, if we ended up wanting to take over the Heartstone." 

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"I bet they'd like that."

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"Well, hopefully someday we will get to that point." 

Leareth goes back to his other research, including a side project on alternate setups for the Web in Valdemar, if they end up negotiating to nab the Heartstone for other purposes. 

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They are so busy and if they are having emotional phantom limb issues at least they are temporary and not enough to stop them in their tracks.

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A month or so later, a letter arrives from Leareth's current ambassador in Haven. There's been a sudden, somewhat worrying increase in the amount of bickering amongst the Council. It seems to be mainly focused on the issue of King Randale not having an heir. (It hasn't even been announced publicly yet that, in addition to this, the King is terminally ill.) 

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"I probably should not seriously pitch the 'suppose you make me Queen' thing because that would seriously complicate staying out of Haven. But it's sooooo tempting. Amshalan, do you get to know in advance who other Companions are going to Choose, is anyone related to him coming down the pike there?"

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:Sometimes we know months in advance, usually not years? I hadn't heard anything. Not that I've been in Haven lately. I would expect the Groveborn to maybe see further but, um, who knows if Rolan's being helpful these days. –As far as I know he hasn't Chosen again, which given the givens is some amount helpful: 

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:It's probably better than the alternative. I wonder how Dara's doing, was she ever sent her scholarship money? I think I remembered to send her letter of recommendation:

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:I think Leareth took care of that, yes. Or someone on his staff at least, they're quite organized. Haven't heard what she's up to or anything, though: 

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:Hopefully we'll hear eventually:

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Wordless acknowledgement. Amshalan seems to be deep in thought about something.

:...I am honestly also tempted by the Queen plan: she sends eventually. :You'd be a damned good Queen - I mean, I might be biased here, but I still think I'm right. I don't have the faintest idea how we'd bring it up with them, though: 

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:I should probably not try to jump into it till I can give it serious thought without lifebond problems distracting me and even then yeah, I don't know how to propose it, let alone work around appropriate paranoia about proximity to the Heartstone. It'd be so fun though:

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:Do you have any guesses at how long it'll be before, er, he starts seeming - attractive - to you, and the lifebond forms fully?: 

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:Uh, if I were inclined to let it happen organically probably at least another two or three years unless he has a heck of a growth spurt but as long as I'm going to be messing around with his biology to get an approximation of his old face back anyway I can probably speed that up, which feels very weird but he is of course actually two thousand and not fourteen, so:

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:Right, I don't think it should feel that weird, at this point. He - sort of didn't seem two thousand in practice, at first, when he barely had any of his memories, but he seems a lot more like his old self now, he just needed six months to get up to speed: 

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:Notes help a lot even when you haven't been murdered and moreso when you have, I guess:

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:Makes sense: 

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More news trickles in from Haven over the next couple of weeks, which turn to months. The Council's near-term worries seem to have been soothed; it's quite possible this is in part because Queen Karis is reported to be pregnant, and various Council members are muttering that she sure took her time about it but at least she's working on an heir now. (It's sort of unclear that this helps Valdemar's immediate situation, since Karis' child will be the presumptive heir to Karse and also there's no way to know whether an unborn child is even going to end up Chosen - and also, unbeknownst to the Council but known to the Heraldic Circle and Leareth's diplomants, Randi is unlikely to live until the child is old enough to take the throne - but nonetheless people feel reassured about something.)

There's still unease and whispers and it's sort of unclear what's prompting them, aside from 'generic politicking', but it seems like the situation will keep for a bit. 

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Then Belrun will mostly do mad science. She starts trying to shove Gifts into monkeys.

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It is not immediately apparent how to do this! It's not like an existing limb or organ that can be enlarged or shrunk or moved around; monkey brains just do not have the same functionality. And it's not really something that can be taken off a different subject and grafted on wholesale, given that the 'different subject' would be a human who presumably wants their brain and Gifts intact. 

Permalink Mark Unread

Leareth's books don't offer much help here; this work has been done in the past, but he's never tried to create a fully sentient race and give them humanlike Gifts as opposed to some form of native animal magic.

He suggests they take a step back and spend some time just studying Gifts - in particular, the various developmental stages of Gifts might be helpful. Some of his mage-scholars in the north have children. Some of those children have potential Gifts that show up to the usual mage-sight check but aren't yet doing anything, and probably their brains already look different from control children without any potential Gifts. And of course there are plenty of adults with all sorts of different Gifts, and they can find volunteers with Mindspeech, Healing, and Fetching who are willing to demonstrate while Belrun watches their brains very closely with Healing-Sight and Leareth provides mage-sight to sense their Gift-channels. 

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She'd like those Changesquirrels he mentioned if some can be obtained to study.

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Some of Leareth's foreign spies were previously dispatched on a rather unusual mission to locate some Pelagirs border-land in the north where they can find said squirrels. If now is a good time, they'll ask for extra mages so they can have a go at capturing some specimens without being hunted themselves by a pack of bloodthirsty squirrels with Fetching. 

A week later, there are six Changesquirrels in separate, Fetching-proofed cages being carried into her lab. They're bigger than normal squirrels, their canines are a lot larger, and their eyes, larger and more forward-facing than usual for squirrels, glow ominously in dim light. (This isn't magic, it's just a reflective surface behind their eyes that normal cats and dogs have, though squirrels usually don't.) Their cages are large enough that they can Fetch themselves about inside, though they do that less furiously once they've had a day to get used to the lab. 

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She is occupied at first with training them to hold still and to, when necessary, take their knockout drugs, since she can't insist with