Captain Tasker waved him in. "Yes?"
"I've noticed there's something of a chronic backlog in the matter of filing reports and logging case notes in this peacehouse."
"Are you offering to fix this?" the captain asked, dryly.
"After a fashion, yes," Aunbrel said. Captain Tasker raised her eyebrows, surprised. "My nest-partner has an -- "
"Wait," Captain Tasker interrupted. "Did you just say 'nest-partner'?"
Kinsley had found out two days ago and been teasing Aunbrel about Ember ever since, along with half the peacehouse, it seemed. Aunbrel had assumed everyone knew by now. "Ember. The viper-dragon who lives with me. Yes."
"'Nest-partner'?" Tasker repeated.
"If I may continue?"
Tasker shook her head to clear it. "Go ahead."
"Ember has a knack for organization, excellent penmanship, and an eye for detail. If you are amenable, I'd like to invite her to help with the peacehouse's paperwork."
"Huh. You want me to offer her a job? I don't know that we've the budget for more clerical staff, though you're right that we could use some. Never had a viper-dragon working here before. They can write?" The captain looked skeptical.
"And sort, shelve, file, and pretty much anything you would assume one would need hands for. So far as I can discern," Aunbrel said. "If Ember's willing to do it at all, I suspect she'll be amenable to part-time volunteer work to start." It's not as though I'm paying her to index my books as it is. "If you're happy with her after a few weeks, you could see about finding room in the budget for another clerk. It might be cheaper in the long run than the mad scrambles to produce needed documents at the last moment."
Tasker snorted. "There's that. I'll talk to the Bright Lady about it. It's the sort of thing she likes to be kept abreast of."
Of course. "Thank you, captain."
When Aunbrel finished his rounds several hours later, a message from the captain was waiting for him on his desk: Bright Lady gave it her stamp of approval, send Miss Ember to see me if she's interested.
When Aunbrel returned home, Ember was working on the book project on the kitchen table again. Dinner was in the oven. "Why are you samassas?" Aunbrel asked.
Ember raised her head to give an open-mouthed smile in greeting. "Because I'm tiny," she answered, returning to her writing. "I can't take care of myself."
"You can't really believe that." Aunbrel scrounged about the kitchen drawers for another pen.
"You can cook, clean, and scribe. There's plenty of humans, and elves for that matter, living independently with fewer marketable skills." Aunbrel returned to the table with pen in hand, and took a seat.
"But I can't do that outside the nest."
"Because you're samassas. You do realize that's circular reasoning?" The elf took one of the books from the waiting pile, and one of the blank cards.
"I ... yes. But it's not safe for me, going outside alone. Any larger viper-dragon could ... what are you doing?" Ember asked, a note of horror creeping into her voice.
Aunbrel paused in writing out the author of the volume on the card. "Helping with your project?"
The viper-dragon shrank back. "I'm sorry it's just there's so many and it's slow going I am trying I didn't realize -- " she gabbled, trembling.
The elf blinked at her. "Er? I'm not upset, Ember."
"Yes? I can do it while we talk and I don't have anything else to do with my hands." A flash of inspiration struck him. "It's an elf thing. We don't divide up work, so there's no worries about who does what."
Nicitating membranes flicked over orange eyes. "Ohhh." She digested that, and relaxed. "All right."
They returned to their respective cards and wrote for a moment in silence, before Aunbrel returned to the previous topic. "I understand that you're small, Ember, but it's hardly as though I am invulnerable. Any large viper-dragon could eat me for breakfast and be hungry again by dinner. Any large group of any people could kill me, for that matter if they were so inclined. I am not protected by my physical strength: I am protected by the rule of law. By civilization. Those protections may have ... certain exceptions, as regards nest matters among viper-dragons." Aunbrel made an effort to keep his tone neutral. "But those exceptions only apply to internal nest matters. I checked. You are my nest-partner now. No viper-dragon may assault, detain, abduct, or even harass you without violating that law. And I daresay they know that." Ember nodded, but didn't speak. Aunbrel forged on. "I don't know if that makes a difference. My profession is to keep this city and all its inhabitants safe, and the Air knows we don't always succeed. At protecting people in their own homes, for that matter. But it is a good system, and it works well enough that I do not think you should feel a prisoner here, Ember. I don't want you to be afraid to live in the world outside these walls."
Ember shifted her coil, pensive. At length, she said, "It's ... sort of like the whole city is your nest, isn't it? This is just a little part of it. You're protecting the whole city."
Aunbrel nodded. "I am."
"And the other guardians are your nest-partners in it. They keep the city safe too."
Aunbrel involuntarily tried to envision Kinsley or Captain Tasker in the role of nest-partner. "... I ... that might be stretching the analogy somewhat. After a fashion, perhaps." He gave her a curious look. "Does it help to think of it that way?"
Ember bobbed her head, nodding. "It makes sense. And it explains why you're not here during the day."
"I was wondering about that, after you were talking about samassas not working outside the nest," Aunbrel admitted. "Because ifisith don't either, do they? They stay to protect the nest. It's only the -- the mid-sized ones that work outsized."
"The mashisith. Yes. And you're not mashisith. But you're not really leaving, you're just protecting another part of the nest. And this part is being kept safe by the other guardians. Nest-partners." Ember gave an all-over happy wriggle. "So there's no reason I can't do nest-work at the peacehouse. It's just another part of the nest!"
Aunbrel smiled. "Does that make sense? To your hindbrain, that is."
"I think so? It's ... awfully large, as a nest. And encompasses other nests in a way, which doesn't make sense. But still. I think I can do it."
"Good. Because the Air knows we could surely use your help."
It took a few days to arrive at a good routine. Ember had to be introduced to every member of the peacehouse ("It doesn't feel right if I don't even know them"), although Aunbrel cautioned her against calling them 'nest-partners'. "Especially Kinsley."
After trying a few variations, they settled on going to the peacehouse together in the morning. Ember would work half a shift on filing, deciphering and transcribing notes, and organizing documents. Then she'd return to the flat to tend to home-chores or read, and cook dinner. Aunbrel had once or twice attempted to persuade Ember that he was, in fact, capable of feeding himself. "When I got here, your larder consisted of two tins of chicken, a half-packet of stale flatbread, and the remains of a bottle of wine turned to vinegar," she'd answered.
"I like chicken."
"You didn't have salt."
His heart wasn't really in it.
With her spending part of the day out of the apartment, the place was no longer obsessively immaculate, which was something of a relief to Aunbrel. The elf was inclined by nature to be tidy, but there was something vaguely unnerving about having freshly-scrubbed ceilings. Tonight, she was making a casserole of mushrooms, spinach, crabmeat, and rice when Aunbrel returned home. He sat at the kitchen table while she assembled the ingredients, and took up one of the blank cards and a book. They were still working in desultory fashion on the index project, because it was a terribly beguiling idea once conceived.
While dinner was baking, they talked about the day's incidents; Ember took notes to write up when she was at the peacehouse the next day. When the casserole was ready, they cleared the table to eat; Ember had grown used to Aunbrel's help and no longer took it as implied criticism.
During a pause in the dinner conversation, Aunbrel sipped at a mug of warm spiced cider, watching Ember snap up bites of food from her plate with quick and oddly dainty motions. "When I first invited you to stay, I had no idea what I was getting into. I daresay if I'd had the least notion what it would be like," he paused for breath, and Ember looked up nervously before he finished, "I'd have invited you weeks earlier."
Ember's tailtip wriggled in shy pleasure. "Truly?"
Ember dipped her head back to her plate. "I feel like an awful bother sometimes, with all my irrational impulses that don't make sense to you."
The elf shook his head. "I don't know that all my habits are based in strict rationality either. Not that it's not an adjustment. And more than a bit peculiar at times. I rather feel like I'm taking advantage of you, to be honest." She looked puzzled, and he gestured vaguely around the room. "You don't need to do all of this. Cooking and cleaning and whatnot. You're not my servant."
"But I like doing it." She glanced away. "Maybe because you don't expect me to."
"If you ever change your mind, I promise not to complain if you stop. But I think I am done trying to talk you out of it." Aunbrel smiled. "In any case ... thank you for accepting the offer."
The little dragon ducked her head again. "I think I should be thanking you. This is a very strange sort of nest -- and I love it. All my life, I've been told so many rules, so many codes of behavior, all designed to keep me safe. And it seems like none of those rules matter now. And you know ... for the first time ... I actually feel safe."
Aunbrel raised his mug in salute. "To our very strange sort of nest, then."
Somber, Ember curled her tail around her glass and clinked. "May it never be normal."