*Shimai? Hey, where are you? And do you know where Fala is?*

*We're both in the library,* Shimai said with a sigh. *She's working on law, I'm working on history. Why?* “Matt just called,” she said out loud, quietly. “He wants to know where we are.”

Fala looked up from the book open in front of her, at an angle so she could scribble notes on a sheet of paper. “What does he want? Although a better question might be why he isn't working on this law project too.”

*Fala says you should be doing law,* Shimai dutifully added.

*That can wait. I just saw Jori overhead, which means at least Kian's in the area which means he'll be here as soon as he can. With Jori, obviously.*

Shimai smiled to herself. Matt's excitement bubbled up through his mindvoice even with distance thinning the contact—her range was so limited it was often frustrating, and he wasn't a strong telepath at all. Several ninedays of intimate physical and mental contact tipped the balance enough that they could reach each other anywhere on the College campus, even if sometimes it was only a shaky connection. “Judging from how he sounds, he's practically bouncing off the walls. He saw Jori and he's expecting a family visit at any moment.”

“Well, that would do it. But depending on what's going on, they might be a while. Maybe he could pull us away from working once he actually knows what's going on?”

Shimai hesitated. She did need to finish reading this chapter and make sure she knew the material well enough to discuss it tomorrow in class, but on the other hand, Matt's high spirits tended to be contagious, and she liked being around him when he was in this kind of mood. As long as she made sure she and Matt were in separate beds overnight, she could if necessary sacrifice some sleep, and it would be worth it.

“Sorry, Fala.” She laid a strip of ribbon, one she'd messed up while trying a new tablet-weaving pattern, in her book to mark her place and closed it. “I'm going to go find him. But I'll come back and tell you when they get here.”

Fala sighed and shook her head. “For the girl who told me she wasn't going to let anything personal get in the way of learning, you spend a lot more time around Matt than's really good for your classwork.” Her smile took the sting out of it. “At least he's good at helping you catch up, and you smile a lot more than you used to. If it's only Kian, don't be in too much of a hurry to come get me. I would like to meet Jori, but spending a lot of time around Kian, well, I'd rather spend it getting this done.”

“You don't like him?” Shimai gathered up her books, but gave Fala a puzzled look.

“I don't think he's dangerous to be around or anything, and I know Matt loves him a lot. But I find him extremely hard to read, even though I'm usually pretty good with most people. I can't tell what he's thinking or how to take anything he says. I'm sure sometimes he's joking but I don't know when. I just find him rather uncomfortable to be around much. But you'll be fine. Maybe I'm just spoiled by spending so long around Matt, and I'm expecting them to be more alike instead of complete opposites. Don't worry about it, all right?”

Shimai nodded slowly. “All right.” *Matt? Where are you? I can work on this later.*

*Halfway to the library. I'll meet you out front.*

*I think we'd better let Fala work. She's putting a lot into this project.*

Outside the front doors, she perched on one of the half-dozen wide steps down to the pathway, waiting.

She could identify Matt from a distance just by the way he moved, like all that energy was constantly spilling out in every motion: he tended to walk fast, make broad dramatic gestures, couldn't seem to talk without his hands involved, and his expression mirrored his mood so clearly that it didn't take a telepath to read him effortlessly. That made it easy to see him coming, and she stood up and went to meet him.

He wrapped both arms around her for a fierce hug with her books squashed between them, and kissed her as well. “You're sure you'll be able to finish your work?”

“Yes. As long as no one's keeping me awake all night.”

He sighed theatrically, then laughed. “Every night would be bad for you anyway, your body's not used to it. But I have that evening class today, remember? Since apparently the best available teacher for scrying is alasir. While I don't mind at all finding you by touch instead of sight, and you don't seem to mind either, I'll probably be tired. Look.” One arm still around her, he pointed skywards.

Shimai squinted at the blue sky and drifting clouds. “There's a hawk or something circling. That happens all the time.”

“That isn't a hawk, it's Jori. Jori being a hawk, I mean. Watch.” With his free hand, he waved vigorously, completely ignoring the odd looks from passersby. But then, most of the College was used to Matt doing things that made no apparent sense.

The hawk circled lower with each pass, and within a few circuits was scarcely higher than the buildings. Instead of a further loop, it glided down and landed on the nearest perch, which was the lowest branch of a small tree.

Matt urged Shimai over to the tree and reached out with his free hand. The hawk rubbed one cheek against his hand, a strangely affectionate-looking gesture for such a fierce and beautiful bird, and Matt smiled.

“Human,” he said.

Electric-pale light rippled over the hawk's barred feathers, and it hopped off the branch to the ground, its form blurring and shimmering.

Then the hawk was gone, and a girl who looked like she was in her mid teens was standing there instead.

The girl was so slim that a human of that build would probably be extremely frail; she was, however, emphatically not human, not really. Her skin had a peculiar pallor, lacking any hint of tanning or colour or even of pink showing through from beneath; the tousled hair falling just short of her shoulders was countless shades of stormy grey, cloud-like, with streaks of a very pale blonde. Though she was dressed, it was only a simple darker grey dress with sleeves that stopped above her elbows, narrower at the waist, the calf-length skirt flaring out somewhat, with her feet bare.

“Jori, Shimai,” Matt said.

The grey girl tilted her head to one side inquisitively, then gave Matt a questioning look.

“I know, you've heard about Fala and Brylain and not Shimai,” Matt said. “She just got to the College this year. Which I'm really glad about, 'cause that means I've been here long enough to help but not so long we missed each other. We've been, hm,” he paused, considering words, then grinned at Shimai and used the mixed community noncommittal phrase, “keeping company a lot. And she's really important to me.”

“All right,” the grey girl said equably. “I was only curious.” She smiled at Shimai. “Whether I was expecting it or not, I'm glad to meet you.” Her voice was a clear light soprano, extremely precise and pronouncing every single sound with no slurring.

“Um, hello,” Shimai said shyly.

“Kian?” Matt asked.

“Coming, of course,” Jori said. “Lord Jordan needed someone in Perifaithe he could trust to speak for him, and his first choice is always your parents and Kian's. Since it's to do with horse-trading and bargaining and not particularly dangerous, Lori's with them, and Kallima as well. They're all getting settled at the inn right now, but Kian asked me to come tell you they're here. He wants to come as soon as you'll have time.”

“There's a part of the garden that has three relatively big trees, big for here anyway, in a triangle, on the campus but towards the city,” Matt said. “It's a good place to stay more or less out of the sun and sit outside. He can meet us there as fast as he can get there, we'll go there now.”

Jori nodded. “I'll tell him. Your parents and his and Kallima want to see you too, but they're expecting to be busy. Kalli is supposed to be observing at least some of the time, and staying with Kian the rest.”

“Well, yes, Lord Jordan's eleven-year-old eldest daughter in Perifaithe, I would hope she'll never be alone.” Matt held out his hand to Jori, who laid hers over it. “Hawk,” he said.

Much the same as the previous change, like lightning gathered and contained in a single small space, fading to show a hawk who spread her wings and leaped upwards, beating heavily at the air as she gained height.

Shimai watched her as Matt urged her towards the triangle of trees he'd described; the hawk stayed above them until they'd reached their destination, maybe making sure she knew the right place, then swept off towards the city.

“Her mind feels like a thunderstorm,” Shimai said. “Just the edges. I wasn't really trying to read her. Or maybe more like petting a cat on a very dry day, all static but not as intense as a storm.”

“I'm staying away from telepathic contact,” Matt admitted. “She's just too different. Mom asked Jori if she could try, and Jori agreed, but Mom says it's like being in a hurricane with too much noise and activity to make any sense of anything.” He settled down with his back against one of the trees. “It might take a bit for Kian to get away and get here. What are you working on?”

“History,” Shimai said with a sigh, sitting next to him. She couldn't resist the inviting pose, and snuggled herself against him to lean on his shoulder.

“Which history? That's a big subject.”

“Magic history, or magic-user history anyway. That as near as anyone can tell, none of the races had anything we consider magic, on their own. Sirens had the usual projection, but there were no telepaths or sorcerers or lifewitches. Something in the crossing is what produced the gifts.”

“Siren and human produced telepathy,” Matt agreed. “At least, within the strictest definition of telepathy, but probably not the seers and telekinetics and the other unusual ones. Alasir and human produced sorcery. And siren and alasir produced the lifewitches, but they're less easily cross-fertile than humans with either and the lifewitch gift is less persistent. And the odd gifts probably came from the minor races.”

“Which is why the South has so few magic-users of any kind,” Shimai said. “They're pretty much entirely human. Even the Northerner fullbloods who are the most proud of being fullblood almost certainly have a little of the others in them, and if they're telepaths or sorcerers they certainly do. Specifically, we're supposed to be discussing the lifewitches tomorrow. I know their history was pretty bad and a lot of people still have prejudices against them, but I only just started reading the details.”

Matt sighed. “Pretty bad doesn't begin to cover it. It was really horribly unfair. They can do some scary things, but so can a sorcerer. That's the whole point of the Oath, so people know what kind of ethical limits they can count on being enforced by everyone else with the same gifts.”

“Someone being able to make changes to your body and turn you into something different or combine parts of your body with parts of an animal or things like that is more personal than someone being able to injure or kill you in a variety of ways or alter your property or create illusions that alter your perceptions,” Shimai pointed out. “Although that someone can spy on you without you knowing can be a little creepy.”

“I'd rather be right there in the room with you than spying from somewhere out of reach,” Matt chuckled, then sobered. “I know, but what they can break, they can also fix. Now that they aren't being hounded and killed on sight anymore, we're finally realizing that lifewitches can heal injuries and illnesses that no one else can do anything at all about. And most of them are perfectly happy to, especially if they're treated with some kind of basic respect and appreciation in return. They're just people, with the same mix of good and bad. A few rogues, a few saints, and mostly somewhere between.”

“There is a theory that some kinds of gifts can affect someone's mental stability. It isn't being applied to lifewitches as often these days but there are still people who believe that no lifewitch can ever be entirely stable just because they're lifewitches and it goes with the gift. The usual example given as evidence is the controllers. Especially the one your mom fought. Supposedly, the gift that allows someone to dominate another person's mind and force them to obey absolutely anything is paired with mental instability that means anyone born with that gift will automatically be dangerous. And so we're lucky they only turn up once a generation or so.”

“But we don't really know anything about the controller gift,” Matt said. “For all we know, most of the controllers ever born were perfectly decent people. The ones who end up as the villains in scary bedtime stories are the worst of the worst, but they don't always sound very plausible to me. Sometimes there's just no obvious reason for the things they're described as doing. So I can't help wondering whether they didn't do it, or they did it but they had some reason that no one bothered to pay attention to. After all, we were wrong about lifewitches.”

“You,” Shimai said fondly, “are so obsessed with being fair to everyone and making sure that everyone is treated with respect that you'd walk right up to a controller and ask how they are and you'd listen.”

“They're people,” Matt said. “Of course I would. Unless the controller, or anyone else, was a threat to you or someone else I love. Then, they have to be stopped, no matter what.” He kissed her forehead, tightened his arm around her briefly. “I'll always keep you safe, any time you ever need me I'll be there.”

Shimai smiled, let her head rest against his shoulder. Fala was her friend and accepted her and was someone Shimai felt comfortable with, and her friendship with Brylain was growing warmer as Shimai let go of much of the nervousness she'd learned about males.

But with Matt, she never doubted that he loved her as she was. He knew her more deeply than anyone else, and far from rejecting or mocking her, only wanted to spend more time with her and learn more about her. She couldn't remember ever in her life feeling like she mattered to someone, her personally as a unique and irreplaceable individual, not just someone who happened to be there. She didn't need to weigh every word and watch her back and try to analyze what he wanted from her. She knew exactly what he wanted: for her to be her and not hide from him, and to accept him and his moods and his peculiar gift. And that was so easy to do.

“So how did the lifewitches get from being reviled and despised to being accepted, at least legally, with more and more people gradually learning that there's more to them than those occasional rogues?” she asked, just because hearing Matt talk was always more pleasant than reading dry words on a page, and because it was the kind of subject that interested him so he was sure to know more than was in the book.

“They fought for it. They asked, over and over, to be recognized. A few were murdered while trying to negotiate some sort of peaceful solution. Others spent their entire lives struggling to convince people, specifically the Assembly but also the College as a whole, that they deserved to be treated as people. It must have been exhausting and humiliating and discouraging for them to be repeatedly refused and told that they were a threat to the greater good. Some of them were remarkable folks, if you can believe the biographies, and they sound pretty plausible to me. Not saints, not monsters, just people who wanted desperately to be acknowledged and to have the freedom to be them. Or, in a few cases, for their loved ones to have the freedom to be themselves, because a few weren't lifewitches themselves. One was a siren whose daughter had been a lifewitch murdered by a mob and she devoted the rest of her life to trying to keep it from happening to anyone else. Even three of them teaming up with a couple of sorcerers to take down a renegade lifewitch who was kidnapping children from some of the more overcrowded temples as experimental subjects didn't help, they were told that the renegade was the reason why no lifewitch could ever be trusted. It took years, decades actually, of persistence and patience and passion before they finally got enough of the Telepath and Sorcerer Assemblies firmly in support to be able to sway the ones who were undecided.”

“And that's when they restructured the Joint Assembly.”

“That took a little longer, but more or less. There weren't, and aren't, enough lifewitches to need a formal Assembly of five senior members the way the others do. You could fit all the living lifewitches in one large hall, and the majority cluster around Perifaithe and the College where they're less misunderstood and less feared, but they're starting to spread gradually as people realize how useful they are to have around.”

“But the Joint Assembly for all mages now includes three lifewitches along with five telepaths and five sorcerers, and one of the lifewitches is the Speaker who directs proceedings and votes last.”

“Exactly. You should probably read what's actually in the book, just so you aren't missing anything specific tomorrow.”

“I will.” But it could wait. If necessary, she could get through the discussion using as much as she had and by reading her teacher's nonverbal cues, but she did intend to learn it. She wasn't going to be able to get the kind of job that made mixed blood not matter if she didn't pay attention to basic studies.

As much as she loved Matt, a lifetime of being just someone's shame, someone's responsibility, someone's inconvenience, or worse, convenience, lingered. Nothing in his mind, and he no longer held any shields against her, suggested that he had any plans to abandon her; in fact, everything said the opposite, that to him, they fit together perfectly on many levels and he liked that and loved her and wanted them together. But she couldn't count on that never changing. Even if it never did, even if they were together forever, she couldn't expect him to support her. His family connections and versatile upbringing even before the College would inevitably mean an excellent job despite the inconvenient aspects of his gift, but that didn't make it acceptable.

Right now, though, with his anticipation at being able to see his beloved family for the first time in months tingling warm and sparkling-bright against her mind, the only thing that mattered was being right here.

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