Vaelynne was thirteen, bright, curious, clever with her hands, and surprisingly pragmatic for her age. Her heritage was a jumbled blend of human and siren and alasir thanks to multiple generations on both sides living in and finding mates within mixed-blood communities.
Her parents sent her with a small donkey to carry her belongings, which she took care of herself with quiet efficiency; the first night, she watched Kisea setting up camp while Kian went to scout the area and find fresh meat, and on the second began to ask questions and offer her inexpert assistance. She was perfectly willing to add the travel-food her mother had sent, a generous amount of it for a teenager of moderate height and middling-sturdy build, to what Kian and Kisea had and what Kian provided.
She had questions, as well, about things she'd probably not felt comfortable asking her mother or any other siren-blood she'd grown up around; expecting that, Kisea gave her the most honest and complete answers she could—as gently as possible, for some of them, but better for her to know than to find out the hard way.
They delivered her safely to her aunt and uncle, who wanted a few days with her before turning her over to the sister of the former, and spent the night in a private room in an inn reasonable in both price and quality.
“What do you intend to do now?” Kian asked her, over breakfast in the common room.
They were near the coast, though not so near the wharf itself that the sounds and smells were intrusive. Kisea, her gaze dreamily on a ship raising its sails, the white canvas billowing in the wind, answered without thinking.
“Maybe I'll see if I can find a ship captain willing to be convinced to go see what's out there across the ocean. Maybe there's another land out there. One that doesn't have constant tension between fullbloods and all of them looking down on crossbreeds. One with no College or Oaths...” She realized with a start what she'd just said, and shook her head quickly. “Never mind, my mind was wandering.”
“It's an intriguing idea,” Kian said. “I must admit, I'd be tempted, were it not for the complete lack of forest I'd have to endure for an unknown length of time. And a similar period in the close company of a number of people. I like many people, but only for short periods. I would not like to be alone always, but I would prefer to spend the majority of my time either alone or only with the few whose presence does not chafe at all.”
“Then why, more than two ninedays later, are you keeping me around?” Kisea asked. “I've been looking after myself a long time.”
“Because I like your company. Since I have no other particular plans, it's easy enough to adjust my path to whatever might allow a little longer together.”
“People around me too long get hurt,” she said wearily.
“People get hurt many ways. I'll take my chances. So. Were you alone, what would you do now?”
She sighed and surrendered. Why was it so hard to stand against Kian's calm reasonable honesty, anyway? “I'd find a way to let people know I'm a mindhealer and I'll be around for a few days and that I'm extremely flexible about what I ask in return. Usually I'm in smaller inns and just telling whoever's in charge of the common room gets word around quite effectively. While I was waiting to see if anyone wanted me, I'd wander around shopping, which for me means a lot of comparing prices and also seeing who might be willing to barter instead of wanting coin. My skills are mostly more useful in towns than between them.”
“I would say you have skills that are quite useful between towns. You lack only combat skills, which tend to be uncommon in siren-blood beyond perhaps self-defence anyway. The sad truth is that those seeking to hire an escort look first for combat skills, for good reason, but once past that, what you know is certainly useful.”
“Which helps only when I'm working with someone who has combat skills enough to make that not matter,” Kisea pointed out. Spotting the amusement barely beneath the surface, she gave him her best stern look. “Stop that. I told you I never stay with anyone long.”
“Now is not ever. Should I happen to find another escort job or the like, are you interested?”
Say no! You cannot stay with Kian, of all people! The longer you're around him, the higher the chance that you'll run into Matt! Is it worth your safety?
“Better than no,” he said philosophically. “As for the rest, paying for half our room is less than a bed in a common dormitory in any inn where you might feel safe.”
“True,” she admitted. “And there are a lot of ways to spread the word about healing that will still make sure the ones who can't afford a handful of coin hear about it.”
“Your heart is much like my cousin's. What is wrong you want to set right.”
“And you don't, coming to a stranger's rescue alone against nine?”
He chuckled. “Perhaps it's contagious.”
“Besides, it isn't entirely altruistic. Coin isn't always as useful as barter anyway, but a lot of healers won't barter. Sometimes barter means being paid in things I could never buy.”
“That isn't why you do it.”
“No,” she admitted. “It feels good when it works. There's so much fear and sadness in the world already, and life can already be hard enough without something inside your own mind making it worse. Sometimes something small can make all the difference in the world. It did for me, a long time ago. Someone held out a hand when I was feeling alone and scared, and it changed everything. I like knowing I helped drive back the fear and sadness and pain a little.” In a way that only I can. Because it means I'm not a bad person because of my gift.
“And it should be enough for anyone to know that they helped you do so,” Kian said. “So, nothing that means leaving immediately, so that there is time to learn if you are needed and for you to do what you need to do. And I will commit to nothing without talking to you. Fair?”
“Yes. Very fair.”
* * *
The very next day, a message turned up at the inn, asking for her help.
“You might wait for your man to go with you,” the landlady cautioned, having told her how to reach the address given. “It's not a good part of the town for a woman alone.”
“I can look after myself,” Kisea assured her, but practicality forced her to add, “If he comes back before I do, he can come find me, though.”
The address took her to a part of town where most buildings were broken into multiple units, speckled with various services catering to those with limited facilities of their own: public bath-houses, hot food stalls, ale shops, bakeries, laundries. The mixed-blood communities tended to have milder extremes of wealth and poverty than fullblood cities, but there was still a range, and though motivation for criminal acts might be less likely to be racial, there were a host of others possible.
It was tricky to do the exact reverse of what her siren heritage considered natural, but she wrapped herself in a subtle psychic projection of unimportance—not invisibility, that wouldn't work, but one that would make anyone at close range who tried to focus on her feel that there was no reason to pay any attention to her, there was nothing at all to be gained. Now and then that actually drew the attention of a telepath, but usually siren-blood ones who picked up on and chose to investigate the faint discord she could never entirely eliminate, and siren-blood tended not to be physically violent.
Which wasn't to say they couldn't work with those who were.
Still, the odds of avoiding trouble were better when using it than not.
She found the right door, and knocked.
The woman who opened the door had silver in her sienna-red hair and deep lines at the corners of eyes and mouth; her clothes were rough but neatly mended and clean.
“I'm Kisea. I'm the mindhealer.”
The woman's wariness vanished under a virtual flood of hope, swiftly checked by weariness and caution. “You came much more quickly than I expected. Come in.”
Kisea scanned her immediate environment automatically as she crossed the threshold. Single room, small stone hearth, a couple of windows. A single bed in one corner, two chairs positioned under one window with a cluttered worktable and two baskets of clothing next to them, another table with two mismatched wooden chairs at it not far from the hearth.
In one chair was a much younger woman, her medium-brown hair strongly highlighted with red in the sunlight from the window, dressed much like the woman who was probably her mother. What Kisea saw there was neither caution nor hope, but apprehension.
“My daughter,” the woman confirmed. “Rylina.”
“I don't need help,” Rylina said.
Nothing new in this: it was, more often than not, parents or spouses or other close family members who asked her to get involved, and it wasn't all that uncommon for the patient in question to insist they didn't need it.
Kisea crossed the room to the other chair and perched on the edge of it. “Since I'm here, will you tell me what your mother believes you need help with? Your version?”
Rylina shrugged. “I went too near the wharf. Four human men off one of the ships dragged me behind one of the buildings and raped me. I'm siren-blood, it happens. The ship left the next morning.”
“Did you report them?”
Another shrug. “My mother talked me into it. I walked out halfway through. All the questions were about what I was doing there and whether I spoke to them and things that made it sound like it was my idea. You know the kinds of questions I mean.”
“Yes, I do. And I know that living with them in a human or alasir settlement is one thing, but having them thrown at you by someone who should know better hurts much worse. So nothing was done?”
“An alasir-blood friend convinced me to try again, and talk to her brother who's one of the town watch. He made sure it was recorded, but they can't ban a whole ship, only watch for it to come in again and ask if I can identify them.” She made a snorting noise. “I didn't get that clear a look at their faces. I can't.”
“Now?” A heartfelt sigh. “Now I'm scared every time I hear a man laugh, especially multiple men, and I can't sleep right because of the nightmares. So I'm tired a lot, and it's hard to do a lot of mending when you can't keep your eyes open or concentrate.”
“It would be,” Kisea said gently. “How long ago did it happen?”
Most of a year. If Rylina was able to heal properly on her own, she'd be past the worst of it by now. Something in the normal process had definitely failed. She was often hesitant to do as much when someone was still working through the normal process of anger and grief, and preferred in that case only to give it some reinforcement, but when that process halted incomplete, it left broken spirits and minds with perpetually open wounds.
Still, the more she knew, the better. She kept asking questions, kept Rylina talking even when she balked, used her own experiences as much as her inner senses to find the words to gently nudge Rylina into opening up.
It all added up to the same kind of damage she'd healed before, and knew she could heal, and that only she could heal.
“Will you let me try to help?” she asked finally.
“We can't afford...”
“You don't need to pay me anything. One siren to another. Because we're all treated as toys and not people.”
Rylina hesitated, studying her for a long moment.
Then she set aside the skirt she'd been working on without pause through the entire conversation, and slowly nodded.
“You need to understand,” Kisea said softly. “I do this a bit differently than most. My way is fast, and it won't bother you ever again. But I can't make it so it never happened.” Actually, she could, in a way, but not only was that wildly outside normal telepath abilities, it came with too many complications. “What I can do is this. The mind builds connections. That's how memory works. Have you ever smelled something and found yourself suddenly remembering a moment many years ago?”
“That's your mind perceiving a connection between that scent now and that moment when you smelled it long ago. It happens the most strongly with memories that are very emotionally intense. That can be good emotions or bad ones.”
“So because I heard them laughing, my mind made a connection and does the same thing it does with smells?”
“Exactly. It's possible, without a telepath, to learn to change connections like that, but it can take a long time and a lot of hard work, and the stronger the connection the harder it can be to break. Because this was a single event, and not something that happened repeatedly or over a long period, it's going to be simpler to do. However, because it was so long ago, it's going to be harder to break it, because your mind has probably built other connections around that one, and I'm going to have to be very careful not to damage anything else. As for the nightmares... do you know how things feel like they make sense in a dream, even though they just flow from one thought to another? Because that memory is so strong, there are a lot of paths leading to it. Sometimes even right after a bad thing happens, it's impossible to get all the connections that work in dreams, and this has had a while.”
“So I'll still have the nightmares?” She could see the newly-born hope start to wither.
“No, let me finish. What I can do is weaken the memory itself. It will feel far away, like it happened to someone else or like it was a dream, people describe it differently. That means you won't feel very much about it anymore. You'll still feel something, but it won't make you feel all twisted up inside and scared anymore. However, you need to think about that. It will mean you'll remember it much less clearly. A telepath could help you find whatever you do know about them, possibly enough to identify them. I could do that right now. But we both know the value of that depends on them still being on that ship if it ever comes back, because no one will search for sailors who raped a siren, and even then whether it's heard fairly depends entirely on who hears it, and whether the ship's captain decides to honour Malachite's laws.”
“Nothing's ever going to come of it. I don't want to remember it. I've lived through it too many times.”
“It's probably going to make the inside of your head feel a bit odd for a few days. That's normal. It will fade. What you need to do, while you feel like that, is treat yourself gently. For a few days, listen to everything your mother tells you.” Nothing suggested the mother had come looking for help because Rylina wasn't pulling her weight, rather than as a genuinely concerned and loving mother. “You may want to sleep a lot, and that's normal too and you shouldn't fight it. It's only for a few days, and it will help your mind finish the healing. You might find that you cry a lot, but that doesn't mean anything is wrong. Stay away from the wharfs entirely for the next nineday, and from anything that has been making you feel nervous, and then go slowly. Have you ever seen someone get injured and lose the use of an arm or leg for a few ninedays, and need to rebuild the strength in it?”
“Think of it that way. I'm going to make sure the bone is set properly and that it knits back together, but you need to gradually rebuild the strength by exposing yourself to things that have been making you nervous. They won't anymore, but you need to make sure that the first time you encounter each is a harmless or good memory.”
“To build different connections?”
“Exactly. Now, this is going to take time to do. It's probably going to feel like a very long time, and some people find that very uncomfortable. So I want you to understand that if it feels like it's taking a long time, that doesn't mean something is wrong, it's just me being very careful. Try to trust me.”
Rylina gave her a tentative smile. “I think I can do that.”
Kisea smiled back. “Good.” She glanced at Rylina's mother, who had seated herself at the table and was doing a remarkable job of being unobtrusive despite the fervent prayers and half-desperate hope radiating around her. “Please try not to let anyone interrupt. But if an alasir-blood called Kian comes looking for me, he's my friend.”
She nodded silently.
Kisea dragged the chair closer to Rylina's so their knees touched. She unfastened the crystal from her throat, laid it in one palm, and offered both hands, the weight of her arms on her legs. “Just lay your hands over mine. Contact makes a stronger connection. If you pull away, I'll stop as quickly as I can.”
Rylina, with only a moment's hesitation, obeyed.
Kisea closed her eyes, turned her awareness inward. Nudging Rylina into a half-trance, a relaxed and open state in which she wouldn't notice the passage of time so much or get anxious wondering what Kisea was doing, was something she'd done so often it took only a moment.
Most telepaths could only sense what was on the surface; those who made good mindhealers were able to read what lay below that, sometimes even right down below the conscious mind. Then they used what they found there to lead their patient to a new perception of events, which sometimes took multiple sessions over a long period but could be very effective. A few were able to deliberately construct new associations by triggering pairs of memories together, which could be used to connect the details to other situations as well, diluting the power of the negative one. It didn't always work, though. Sometimes, though not often, it created a chain and made things worse.
Rarely, a telepath appeared who was able to break connections.
Kisea tracked down the most obvious connections, male laughter, male scents, the sounds and scents of the wharf, and delicately isolated each from all the other associations Rylina had with them, and cleanly severed only those ones, leaving everything else intact. Carefully, she circled around the memory of the event, seeking out the weaker links and doing the same with them.
A healer she'd talked to once had compared this kind of emotional trauma to a physical cancer, a growth that took root and kept growing and choking off other systems, keeping them from functioning properly. It was an analogy she liked. She could visualize this process as cutting it off from any source of nourishment, gradually separating it from everything else. That in itself made it shrivel and fade somewhat, and it would do so more and more as Rylina's chaotic emotions no longer fed it. Up to this point, she was still doing things that someone else could do, though very few and those few were in high demand.
Kisea alone could do something more.
If she chose, she could erase the memory forever, impossible for even her to recover, and to any other telepath it might just as well have never existed. She'd done it a handful of times, in desperation when nothing else worked against old deep crippling damage, or in fear for her life, and always questioned herself afterwards.
She didn't need to do that, though. She could just... dilute it. Take each sense and make it fainter, more blurred, a tiny bit each time but over and over, like running a tunic through so many washings that the colours faded.
One last thing: she tracked down the memory of Rylina's original humiliating attempt to report it, and linked it to the more sympathetic one with her friend's brother, so thoughts of the first led immediately to the second instead of dwelling on the former.
Gently, she untangled herself.
“Rylina,” she said softly. “Open your eyes.”
Rylina's eyelids fluttered a couple of times before she finally did. The smile she gave Kisea was peaceful and wondering at once. Kisea withdrew her hands, and fastened her crystal back into place with fingers trembling with fatigue. It never felt like long to her while she was intent on working, but the effects of ignoring her body, possibly for several hours, and of the considerable energy she'd used always lurked, always waited to pounce when she came back.
She could feel Kian's presence now, tranquil and steady, and found herself far more grateful for that than she should have allowed herself to be.
“It feels... the fear is gone.”
Kisea nodded. “Remember what I told you about looking after yourself for the next few days.”
“I'm certain my mother was listening just as closely. I'll do as you said.” There were tears shimmering in the eyes she raised to Kisea's. “Thank you.”
“Until we can make it safe for all sirens, we need to look out for each other.”
“I wish there was some way I could pay you for this.”
“Someday, when you get a chance, help out someone else who needs it.”
Kisea got to her feet, making a deliberate effort not to let her own shakiness show. Kian moved so smoothly that he had an arm around her waist before she'd realized what he was doing, and she let herself lean against him. “I'll be in Malachite a few days still, at the same inn, if anything happens that you need me. But I think you'll be all right now.”
“I think so, too. You need to rest...”
“I'll get her back to the inn safely,” Kian assured them. “Better if I can make sure she eats before she falls asleep, and once she sleeps, she may not wake until morning.”
As much good as the thanks from Rylina and her mother did her heart, right then Kisea badly wanted both meal and bed, and hoped she wasn't rude to them.
No more than a block away, Kian guided her to a seat at a hot food stall with a few stools in front of its counter. Over her rather halfhearted protests, he bought her one of the skewers being sold there, mostly root vegetables with an occasional bite of meat she hoped was something respectable. It was a better chance than at any stall selling meat pastries or meat pies, though.
The food helped, as did the maple sugar candy he bought her once they were far enough into a better part of town for such to be available. The treat was such an uncommon one she'd have preferred to linger over it, but her body wanted the sugar immediately.
That got her all the way back to the inn, where he found her a table and went to order a more substantial meal.
“This is too much,” she complained, when she saw it all. “You're eating some of this, right?”
He slid into the chair beside her. “I am not. You are. From the reactions of the girl and her mother, you did a great deal, and I know it took a long time since you'd begun even before I arrived. I will pay for it, but you will eat it.”
Were she less tired, she might have been better able to argue.
Of course, were she less tired, he wouldn't be acting this way.
Damn Kian and his unshakable reasoning!
Meekly, she ate.
Once she started, it wasn't so hard to do. She was used to being hungry afterwards, and used to the supply of food being considerably more limited.
“What would you have done, were I not there?” he asked her as she was winding down.
She shrugged. “Give the mother a penny or two and ask her to get me something to eat, and they probably wouldn't mind if I fell asleep on the bed as long as I left room for them. At that income level, people are flexible. But I'd rather not impose on them. Rylina's probably started crying by now, probably will cry herself to sleep, and she needs to be alone with her mother.” She gave him a smile that was only a little shaky. “And I'd rather be here with someone who knows how to deal with a worn-out telepath.”
“I've dealt with a few,” Kian said, with a hint of humour in his voice. “And one sorcerer repeatedly, which isn't so different. Are you done? Up to bed with you, then.”
In their room, peeling off her tunic and unlacing her bodice, she bit her lower lip, wavering, and finally decided.
“Is there anything you wanted to do right away?”
“Would you... stay here with me? Her memories were... uncomfortably close to some of mine.” And I can't erase my own memories.
His only reply was to unfasten and remove his boots so he could join her on the bed.
She nestled against him, his arm over her, and only then dared relax. Probably there would be no nightmares if she could feel him there, physically and psychically, and know that no one was going to be able to reach her.
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