Somehow, they left Malachite still together.
As jobs went, it was short and simple: deliver a sealed money pouch and letter to a farm two days outside of Malachite, which they got mainly on grounds of Kian being a Jordan. Since they'd already been in Malachite quite long enough to make both restless, they came prepared and simply kept travelling.
With no destination in mind, they took their time, choosing routes randomly but moving approximately in the direction of Eyrie. They stopped for three nights at a particularly pleasant site next to a quiet lake. They stayed in a village overnight when Kisea picked up on the fringes of someone's panic attack—she found phobias relatively easy to fix, and neatly severed all the associations linking heights and fear, with much milder effects than she'd experienced with Rylina. They got their trail food replenished generously, for that one.
Not a day passed that Kisea didn't remind herself that this had to stop... when they got close enough to Eyrie again.
She came back with a bowl filled with wild raspberries one afternoon, and found Kian watching the sky thoughtfully. Following his gaze, she saw only a hawk circling high above, visible through the partial gap where an old tree had died but not yet fallen.
“Is there open ground near here?” she asked.
“For the hawk. I know they have excellent vision, but seeing right through dense trees and spotting prey through a few breaks in the forest seems unlikely. I assume it's hunting.”
“Probably.” He shrugged and returned to gathering deadwood for a fire, nipping at her fingers when she fed him a raspberry. “I imagine distance is very different for those with wings. Something near enough for it to see could be a long walk away for us.”
Something felt out of place in his surface emotions, something vaguely troubled, but a tentative question about whether everything was all right got her only a shrug and a quick kiss. She let it go; being a telepath and a mindhealer didn't give her automatic license to probe behind every change of emotion. It was, otherwise, a normal evening and night.
She jolted sharply out of an extremely vivid dream about being at the College, found she was reaching out mentally and jerked her gift firmly back under control.
But Kian's mind wasn't the only one she'd brushed against.
No, that has to have been my dream...
Except that it wasn't; not far away, and coming closer, were two other minds she knew very well. She felt one begin to sense her, open to search, and fled back within her own shields, wrapping them tightly around her.
Have to go, have to run, I knew this was going to happen... leave everything, just run!
Kian caught her wrist before she got halfway up, pulled her back down.
“Let me go!” she demanded, heard how high her voice was, heard it crack on the last word as she tried to pull free. His hand reached all the way around her wrist, and he was stronger than her, but reason had no part in the frantic struggle.
“Why?” he asked gently. “Where are you going to go?”
She froze, staring at him in the moonlight. “You knew! You set me up! Oh, I should've known better...” Betrayed by one, betrayed by the other, and both times because I let myself feel safe, I let myself care...
“No. Matt sent Jori to find me earlier today. I know something must be wrong for them to come looking for me, no more. I doubt Matt knows you're here. Whatever you've been using to block scrying presumably still works.”
“Then let me go! I'm a renegade, he'll have to take me back or break his Oath! And I am not going back!”
“Do you think Shon or I would allow even Matt to do anything to hurt you?”
It was a ridiculous idea, that huntsman and swordsman could possibly stop a sorcerer, but Kian had always been the one person Matt most counted on, and the one person who could be a voice of reason that Matt would hear. But this wasn't about Matt's own choices. The Oath left no room for interpretation or personal feelings.
“I'm a controller,” she flung at him. “Every story will tell you, controllers are always evil and selfish and heartless. That's why the Oath outlaws it, no exceptions. I can take over minds and make people do things. I can erase and change memories. This is where you get scared.”
“You are one of the least evil or selfish or heartless people I know. You frighten me no more than Matt does.”
Virtually anyone else of any race would have shrunk instantly from contact; it matched her usual luck that the one holding her was one of the very small handful who wouldn't. But then, he'd grown up with Matt and his then-uncontrolled gift.
The panic melted into despair. Where was she going to go? In a forest at night, with three alasir-blood who could see better than she could, one an expert tracker and one a sorcerer, plus a supernatural stormhawk? Even if Kian released her and didn't follow, either Shon would recognize her gear or Matt would start asking questions.
She curled herself into the tightest ball she could, felt Kian cautiously free her wrist.
“You have no idea what you've done to me or to Matt.” She heard her voice break again, tears nearly closing her throat. “You should have told me...”
“Nothing is as bad as you think.” He sat up, ran a hand over her hair. “Please. Trust me. Just a little.”
“Trust was my biggest mistake ever!”
“You were both very young and made mistakes. That wasn't one of them.”
“I'll kill myself before I go back.”
“You will not need to.”
Terrified as she was, there was a kind of relief under it. No more watching behind her, no more keeping secrets, no more running.
He brushed her hair back from her face, gently. Always gentle with her, this lover who had just destroyed her life again with the same good intentions his cousin had when doing the same. “I'd offer my word as a Jordan, but that, I think, would be no help. Will pride work better? Will you face my cousins half-dressed with your hair in your eyes?”
“Nothing they haven't both seen,” she snapped, but as usual, he did have a point. She forced her fear-locked muscles to loosen, to go through the motions of finding and lacing her boots, finding and lacing her bodice, finding her comb. Kian, who bothered only with his boots, winced repeatedly as she dragged it roughly through her hair, but let it go when she ignored his offer to help. He'd done it before, and she'd found it wonderfully relaxing, the sensation of strong sure hands carefully untangling the knots that vigorous activity with him had created, but she wasn't currently feeling very receptive.
She sensed, on the very edges of her shields, telepathic contact that wasn't her own; Matt talking to Kian, obviously. It was extremely brief, quite possibly just establishing relative location.
Hands shaking, she braided her hair and tied it off, then tucked her comb neatly back into her pack. Putting everything away to keep from losing it had become reflex, and right now, only her reflexes seemed to be working, because her mind had simply shut down. She sat down again on the edge of the blanket, the edge of the bed where only a few hours ago she'd fallen asleep feeling safe and sated, hugging her knees to her chest, her forehead resting on them. What else was there to do but wait, with her fate now in other hands than hers?
Motion, getting nearer, though less sound than there'd have been from two humans even in the day; two familiar minds other than Kian's, one stronger and brighter and no longer twisted with grief and guilt and despair, the other blazing brilliant as a glass prism in the Southern sun casting colour everywhere. Farther off, faintly, she could just barely sense the electric mind that was the stormhawk now called Jori.
“Kian, why can't you ever camp near the road like a normal person instead of miles from it?” She knew that voice, even knew the half-teasing, half-complaining tone, in alasiran.
“Because it's more private,” Kian said, rising to greet each of his cousins with a rough embrace.
“Which you need why?”
Darkness meant she could see only shapes with scant detail, but darkness was no protection from alasir eyes.
Kisea forced herself to raise her head.
Dead silence for all of three thudding heartbeats, before Matt's disbelieving “Shimai?” and Shon, so close behind the sounds overlapped, “Kisea?”
Under just about any other circumstances, it might have been funny.
“Wait, how... what?” Matt said.
Kisea sighed. “Catch up, dear. We're obviously travelling together. And Kian obviously decided not to tell me you were coming, since I'm still here. Thus turning a rather pleasant trip into an absolute catastrophe. Good evening, Shon, it's nice to see that the selective messing about with your mind I did without technically asking your permission helped long-term.”
“Apparently, she's evil, selfish, and heartless,” Kian added.
“What, for keeping me from killing myself and eventually helping me not want to anymore?” Shon asked, perplexed.
“So she says.”
“Part of the Oath,” Kisea said, glaring in their general direction, “is to take any renegade back to the College, by force if necessary. I'm a renegade, he took the Oath. This is a problem.”
“Less than you think,” Matt said. “At least, I think it's less than you think. I've been working on it and I think I have a solution except that I couldn't find you. But it doesn't matter because even if I desperately wanted to instead of desperately not wanting to, I wouldn't have time right at the moment anyway. Kallima's been kidnapped, they're holding her hostage and making demands on my uncle Rob, and since he's really rather fond of his oldest daughter, very soon he's going to have to make a decision I wouldn't wish on anyone unless we find her first.”
Kian swore softly. “Any idea where?”
“A fairly good idea, following more scrying than I really want to think about.” Kisea heard the wince in his voice even though she couldn't see it. Not so much the scrying itself, as the equivalent hours he'd have spent blind afterwards. “Feelings aside, I can't let Lord Jordan be cornered into handing over concessions that would probably affect hundreds if not thousands of lives for the sake of trying to capture a renegade who has yet to even be charged with anything specific. Take whatever you need from Kian's gear and go. Sooner or later I'll find you again and we can try to sort everything out.”
“Especially if I have anything from Kian's gear on me,” she said drily. There was no way she was going to fall for that one.
“But a real telepath would probably be extremely useful in rescuing Kalli. My mother's too far away, Rob's too personally involved, and this isn't the time to have someone along who might not be good enough or is going to complain if things get rough or is going to let us down.”
“Let you...” Fear that had become despair bubbled back up, this time as rage. “Let you down?” She stood up, crossed her arms, glowering at him. “How dare you? Who in all the hells do you think you are, that you can threaten to betray something I only ever told you to the people who would never understand, destroy my life, and then expect to be able to count on me to help you?”
“Did you leave the horses by the road?” Kian asked quietly, and Shon answered affirmatively. “Help me pack?”
“I told you why,” Matt protested. “I thought they were starting to figure it out! And they were, they have suspicions but no proof which is why there are no actual charges! If you'd stayed there and kept hiding, they would've worked it out!”
“What, so chasing me out of the damned College to survive on my own was a better option?”
“I didn't want that! Do you really think I did? Do you really think I wanted anything that happened?”
“Oh, you didn't want it. That's nice. That's been a comforting thought, in almost ten years of always moving and not daring to trust anyone! Except that I was stupid enough to feel safe with the one person I should have run from like a rabbit the minute I realized who he was, because where he is, you're bound to be before long. Stupid me, walking right into it a second time, letting myself trust a Jordan and letting myself believe a Jordan cares what happens to me!”
“What did you want me to do? Say nothing and stand there silently while they figured it out and accused you of hiding it because you were misusing it instead of because you were scared half to death? Go after you, and make absolutely sure they tracked us both down? There's absolutely no way they would've let me disappear without a massive all-out hunt, you know that! Kill myself or go live in some cave as a hermit or ask them to Blind me as some kind of penance?” The defensiveness faded, and his voice dropped, softened. “I didn't make the rules. If I'd had any way to fix everything, I would've done it, no matter what.”
“I didn't ask you to fix anything! I needed to know that there was one person who knew everything and trusted and loved me anyway and would stand beside me no matter what!”
“You always had that! You're a thousand times the telepath I am, and I stopped holding any shields at all against you before we started sleeping together! How is there even any way you could not know that?”
“Great way to show it!”
“Call a truce,” Kian said. Both turned on him for the interruption, but he kept right on calmly taking down the lean-to. “It was a terrible situation, and forced choices no one that young should face. Possibly you both handled it in less than the best way. Or not, there is no way now to know. You are both alive and largely intact, Matt may have a long-term solution which is better than no hope at all, and we have a highly urgent short-term goal. Are you coming with us to find Kallima?”
Self-preservation told her to take only her own things and run, get lost, change her name again and stop doing mindhealing and make sure there was no way they could track her.
But she'd break the resolution to avoid mindhealing the first time she met someone suffering, and that would eventually leave a trail, a way to identify her, a weakness they could use to find her again. And she had no doubt that as soon as Kallima was safe, at least one would be on her trail, relentlessly.
Could Matt really have come up with any kind of resolution to the dilemma? It was unlikely, to say the least. For anyone else, she'd have called it impossible. The Joint Assembly were more likely to listen to Matt than to most. Matt was very good at thinking in unconventional ways, and in almost ten years...
“Have you seriously been thinking all this time about ways to solve an unsolvable problem?” she asked, more quietly.
“Of course I have,” Matt said, outrage and indignation strong in his voice. “I was hardly going to just shrug and forget everything. And it isn't unsolvable. Just difficult.”
She sighed. “I wish I could do mindhealing on myself. I obviously have a very deep urge towards self-destruction. Nothing nearly as straightforward as wanting just to die.”
“Which means you're coming?” Kian asked patiently.
“Which means I'm coming. I'm not leaving poor Kalli to you lot.” That was bravado, and she knew it, and they almost certainly all did as well but she wasn't going to loosen her shields enough to find out. She turned her attention instead to gathering up the last few of her personal things and stowing them in her pack, pulling her tunic on and her coat because it was easier than carrying it. She glared at Shon when he made a gesture that looked like he was thinking of taking her pack himself, and he backed off quickly.
With the fire well-buried and everything else cleaned up, they turned back towards the road.
“Explain something for me,” Shon said, holding a branch out of her way that she hadn't even seen. “How long ago did you realize Matt and I were coming?”
Kisea shrugged. “Half an hour?”
“Most telepaths could have put Kian to sleep in that time and run away. I assume a controller might have some trouble with Matt but not with forcing Kian or I to attack either Matt or each other, which would certainly be enough distraction to keep us all busy for some time. There are probably other possibilities I don't know. If you were expecting Matt to immediately force you to go face a situation likely to be very bad for you...?” He left it hanging.
“It never crossed my mind,” she admitted. “I wouldn't do that even if it had.”
“Not even to protect yourself?”
“I've hurt people badly before. Effectively destroyed their minds. But only when I was attacked directly and was afraid for my life. I've taken over someone's mind and made him fight his friends and untie me when I had no other choice.” She shrugged, sighed. “Is it wrong to do something to someone who likes raping sirens that will make him less of a threat? I've done that a few times. But mostly, I really don't like hurting people. You and Kian don't frighten me badly enough that I'd ever do that.”
“I'm not fond of slicing people open and doing possibly lethal damage, but if they attack me or someone I'm protecting or someone important to me, I'll do it with no regrets,” he pointed out. “I can't make anyone less of a threat other than hoping they've learned something or killing them, nothing in between. And a sword can't be turned to healing instead of combat. I'm reasonably certain being a swordsman by choice doesn't mean I'm evil. How does being born with an unusual and I suspect very misunderstood gift and using it occasionally in self-defence but primarily to heal make you evil?”
Kisea rolled her eyes. “You're as bad as Kian.”
“I have to consider that a compliment.”
“It's obviously some sort of magic-user logic that mere fighters are not privy to,” Kian called back. “They must use some words in different ways.”
“Keep it up,” Kisea said. “I will make you believe you're a horse all day.” She wasn't sure she could, especially without damage, but she wasn't feeling very logical just now.
“That might solve one problem,” Shon reflected. “Matt has Jori and we have two real horses.”
Kisea heaved a sigh. Riding behind one or another, however long it took to get to Kallima. Better by the moment.
At least it would probably not take long, with Matt highly motivated to hasten travel as much as possible.
By the side of the road, with two taller horses, waited a medium-sized dappled-grey mare who, on seeing Kisea, snorted and flicked her ears back and forth, her flaxen tail twitching.
Kisea stroked her nose in greeting, let the mare snuffle at her inquisitively. She probably shouldn't be surprised that the stormhawk had recognized her immediately. She was, as before, wearing a saddle and a hackamore with the reins fastened to a loop on the pommel, but they were somewhat more elaborate now, the leather white that almost glowed in the moonlight with more shiny bits and decoration than she remembered.
Matt eyed Jori and the two other horses, one very dark and the other lighter-bodied with darker mane and tail, and then Kian and Kisea. “Lose as much weight as you can. Anything that isn't absolutely impossible to replace. I'm going to be stretching to get us there fast with extra weight. Repacking now will lose us less time than being slowed down while we move.”
“It's only everything I own,” Kisea muttered, but she'd had a feeling that was coming right from the mention of being one horse short. She let her pack slide off her shoulders and knelt beside it, pulling everything out of it and sorting through it hastily, more by touch than by sight with only the moonlight to go by.
“Can I help?” Shon asked quietly, kneeling across from her.
“The food goes, I suppose,” she sighed. “That's a lot of it.”
“Keep the pemmican and the jerky,” Kian said, a short distance away, where Matt was similarly helping him go through his pack. “Hunting takes time, and with two of you possibly using a lot of power, we'll need it. The rest has less value for the weight.”
The moonlight, she realized after a moment of extricating extra clothing and dumping it to one side, was definitely brighter than it had been when she started this. She glanced up sharply, found a tiny sphere hovering in the air a short way overhead, casting a glow very much like concentrated moonlight over the grass and her strewn possessions. Not bright enough to be a problem for alasir night-vision, apparently, since Shon showed no discomfort, but enough that she could see.
“Thank you,” she said shortly. She hoped there weren't going to be consequences that would interfere with anything else he needed to do.
She refused to consider her weaving replaceable, but it didn't weigh much anyway, which was part of its appeal. Not for anything was she going to surrender her coat or small necessities like her fire piston and the waterproof box of dried mushroom tinder. Most of her extra clothing went on the discard pile, though, since it was summer and she didn't need it currently, along with all the food other than the pemmican and jerky, and the majority of her camping gear as well, including her blanket and her hatchet.
“Well, someone is going to have the windfall of a lifetime,” Kisea sighed, regarding the double piles in the fading glow of the tiny light. Some of Kian's, in particular, was worth more than many travellers ever managed to acquire.
“Sorry,” Shon said apologetically, flipping her pack over and slicing through the rock-solid knots securing it to the mostly-willow frame.
Without the frame, it could be lashed to Kian's also much-reduced pack to create something that could be secured across the back of a saddle, akin to the ones already on Jori's and one of the real horses'. All in all, it was extremely minimal for four people in the wilderness.
Shon hesitated before slinging it over the one that had none. “Who are you riding with?” He sounded wary, like he wasn't sure how she'd react to the question.
“Jori can carry two the most easily,” Matt said, a distinct note of caution in his voice.
She'd have preferred Shon, actually, as the one of the trio who had never betrayed her, but she wasn't about to risk Kallima's safety or make this harder for either of the real horses because of that.
“Fine,” she said coolly. “Maybe we should go? Tonight?” Before I really think about the fact that I'm staying with them instead of bolting into the forest and hoping I get myself killed before they find me again.
Kian unfastened the pack from Jori's saddle, including what was obviously a rolled-up cloak, and added it to the one already carried by the lighter horse, while Shon slung the improvised one over the back of the other's saddle. Matt swung himself into Jori's saddle, and Shon offered his own linked hands as a stirrup to boost Kisea up behind him.
The low cantle of the saddle made for very little distance between them. If this ride was going to be what she expected, she was going to have to hold onto him, not just hope she could keep her balance with minimal contact. And while Jori was very good at keeping Matt in the saddle under any conditions, if she could leave that to Kisea it would free her to concentrate on other things. She reached around either side of him, groped along the pommel until she found what she'd hoped was still there: a sturdy leather strap across it, that she could hold with both hands.
Jori, unasked, began to walk, and the other two fell in line behind her.
“All right,” Matt said, taking a slow deep breath. “Let's see if I can get us across two hundred miles or so before either the horses or I drop from it. I'll increase their stamina as much as I can, but a straight gallop will still kill them so set whatever pace you need.” Even with her shields closed, she could feel the shift in his mind, turning elsewhere, seizing hold of the energies of the world around them and twisting them. No dramatic gestures, no verbal mnemonics like some used, just his own will and imagination. As natural for Matt as manipulating a ball of soft clay, and presumably his skill had increased as much as hers had.
Still... two hundred miles? Her experience with horses was extremely limited, but she was certain that even the finest Jordan horses in the best possible condition couldn't readily cover a distance like that quickly.
Not that normal rules tended to apply once Matt started reshaping the world to his desires.
The moonlight rippled faintly, gained a stronger blue tint in front of them, but a faintly red one to either side and, when she glanced back, behind as well, except around Kian and Shon and their mounts. The trees themselves, to what extent she could see individual ones, blurred together, and the effect increased rapidly. What had been a fresh breeze picked up significantly, coming from directly ahead, though since Matt was still at least half a head taller than her, his body blocked most of it.
“They're fresh enough for a bit of a gallop,” Shon said.
Jori flicked her ears backwards, and moved smoothly from a walk to a trot to a gallop.
That made the blurring effect worse—to say nothing of the wind. Kisea decided it really didn't matter whether she was watching or not, so she closed her eyes, made sure she had a secure grip on the leather strap, and braced herself to just go along with whatever happened.
And she was absolutely not going to admit just how many times, in the bad moments, she'd wanted desperately to be right here, feeling Matt's body against hers, and fantasized about Jori being able to take them somewhere Oaths didn't matter.
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