Kisea wasn't sure what it was that changed, but something prompted her to open her eyes for the first time in what felt like forever; she found that the red-and-blue-light and the blurring effect were both fading.

Matt swore. “We're still short of what I was aiming for, but I'm losing it.”

“We can't be that far short,” Kian said. “The sun will be up soon. Let it go, you and the horses can rest. It will do Kalli no good for you to drain yourself past reason now.”

You should've left me behind. Kisea bit off the words before they escaped. It was possible that the inclusion of a strong telepath in the party might make all the difference, more than the problems it created.

“Can't let go until we're wherever we're staying for a while. I pushed right up against limits hard. As soon as I release any one thing, it's all going to fall apart.”

“Can I dismount and scout without throwing you off too badly?”


Kian loosened the lead-rope from his saddle and tossed the end to Shon, made sure the reins were safely knotted, and jumped off his mount's back without stopping. He vanished into the forest to one side of the road.

“What should I be expecting?” Kisea asked, forcing her voice to stay calm and practical.

“I'm combining that little bit of lifewitch healing with sorcery to give the horses extra stamina, which is going to leave me hypersensitive for a while. I don't just get lifewitch senses for a while when I do combinations, I get them ridiculously strongly and even at normal strength they're confusing and disorienting. Lightening weight all around, us and the horses and the gear, might give me a nosebleed since I'm playing with direct physical force and gravity. Playing with time and distance is complicated, I see and hear things that aren't here right now but were or will be, and I've just warped a lot of time and space all at once. More than in theory should've been possible, although most people can't layer in the stamina and reduced-mass effects to help. Definitely more than I've ever done all at once. The whole mess together is probably going to add up to serious disorientation and sensory distortion and confusion, which is possibly the scariest set of side-effects. I might panic, or at least get really agitated, it's happened before.”

Keeping her shields adamantly closed took energy and concentration, and she'd let them loosen back to normal state somewhere on the ride; in contact, and with the tattered threads of an old deep rapport lingering between them, the exhaustion and resignation and apprehension were clear to her as primary colours in summer sun.

“I can probably help.”

“In your hands,” he said softly.

Kian reappeared before long, beckoned them off the road a short way to a cluster of cedar trees; nearby Kisea glimpsed open sky.

“There's a stream and a bit of open ground with grass over there,” he told Shon, as Jori halted under the cedars. Shon nodded, swung off his own horse, and led them both in that direction.

Kisea felt Matt slump, the last of the spell he'd woven fraying and melting away; hastily, she slithered off, and she and Kian between them helped Matt slide down. He dropped to the ground there, too drained to even sit up under his own power.

*Cold,* she heard Matt say shakily, though she doubted any non-telepath would have heard it. *I forgot to mention the bit about being cold.*

Not that he really needed to, since that was one of the most basic consequences. Kisea peeled her coat off and wrapped it around him, doubting it would do much good but at least it was something. Kian added his own, and left briefly, returning with a dark coat that was probably Shon's and a reversible cloak that was brilliant opalescent white on one side and dark on the other. The latter made her wince, since it was a visible symbol of a sorcerer and she'd been strenuously avoiding them for so long it had become a reflex. She helped Kian tuck first the coat, then the cloak around the shivering sorcerer as well, shifting him to get some of the wool between him and the ground. She could feel muscles flex as he instinctively tried to help, thwarted by the weakness.

“Try to eat,” Kian said gently, but he handed the bar of pemmican to Kisea, so she could shave off thin slices and feed them to him; there was no way he was going to be able to chew the gummy dense mixture of dried powdered meat and berries mixed with fat and, in these ones that had come from her healing of the phobia, a touch of honey as well. Far more concentrated than most foods, even a little would be some help in replacing what he'd used.

All most people saw and understood was that Matt could do things that went beyond the limits of even the most talented sorcerers, turning magic to new uses that no one had ever considered and usually couldn't replicate. He could take something others did, but do it to a degree that left even the strongest sorcerer speechless with envy.

This was what they seldom saw, and even more rarely grasped.

How, Oath or not, could he ever abuse his gift, when so often the aftermath was a forceful lesson in humility and dependence?

She felt his growing confusion, but held off on intervening until he'd finished the pemmican.

By which point there were definitely hallucinations, or what resembled hallucinations, creeping in as well. Under the circumstances, she figured they were echoes backwards or forwards in time, perceptible because he'd deliberately interfered with his own fixed location in time and space.

Remarkable how much theory she still remembered.

She laid aside her knife to clean later, and stroked a hand over his hair gently before flattening her palm against his forehead.

At her mental touch, all shields collapsed immediately, far too quickly for it to be deliberate choice. That was instinct, recognizing her as welcome and not a threat.

Trusted, in fact.

Damn it, Matt...

She shoved her own tangled feelings aside to deal with later.

Completely aside from being unpleasant, some sorts of side-effects also made it difficult or impossible to rest and recover, and others were emotionally exhausting. It was a given that they would need Matt functional to rescue Kallima, so the faster he recovered, the faster they could get her safely out of wherever she was.

Of course, once Kallima was safe, there was no longer any excuse for Matt not to take her to the College, and he was going to have to make a decision.

Kallima couldn't be more than twenty-two or so, and had more or less lived the sheltered life of a Lord's daughter despite her alasir-blood cousins. To leave her even an hour longer than necessary in the hands of anyone who saw her as a pawn would be unforgivable.

Hallucinations were always complicated, and Matt had senses she lacked, which made it that much harder to untangle what was around them here and now from what wasn't. Periods of blindness were so regularly an after-effect of anything involving extended senses of any sort that he hadn't mentioned that either. Though the blindness should be in full force by now, she compared what his mind was still insisting he could see when he opened his eyes against what was actually there in the present; it was immediately clear that he wasn't seeing the latter at all, only images coming via other channels.

She tried focusing on a lynx stalking through the underbrush, its gaze fixed on a small herd of deer browsing where Shon was currently caring for the horses, and with a touch popped it like a soap bubble. Another promptly replaced it, and this one was far more disturbing: staff cracking against staff, a man and a woman back to back ringed by half a dozen men in patched motley. She flicked that one away quickly, but obviously one at a time was going to be far too inefficient, and it completely failed to do anything at all about the disconnected and bewildered thoughts running at the same time, or the bone-deep cold.

The only thing that was going to work was something only she could do.

Though it was far more intimate than she was really comfortable with right now.

Which didn't matter.

She wrapped her mind around his, cutting off anything his slight telepathy or lifewitch senses or the extended senses of a sorcerer might tell him, since she couldn't be sure they were any more reliable.

Then, carefully, she started on his material senses.

Since he already couldn't see, and he was so used to periods blind that there was nothing inherently frightening in seeing nothing anyway, she switched off his sight her way very firmly and deliberately. To her relief, the visual hallucinations went away.

Taste didn't matter either, and could be safely disabled for the moment as a precaution, though she picked up no hallucinations involving it.

Cutting off all senses entirely could have terrible consequences, though.

Alasir-blood tended to have a better-than-human sense of smell, in particular for people in close proximity and especially if the people in question were either frightened or sexually aroused; though Matt's was less acute than Kian's, she couldn't replicate that. It didn't matter, though. She could substitute her own awareness of the scent of the scaly cedar twigs under them, of the horsey scent of the coats wrapped around him, of a faint thread of woodsmoke on the breeze. She switched his off, gave him her own instead. The part of his mind that was unstuck in time balked, certain that it could smell recently-spilled blood and worse, but she insisted that he could smell only what she gave him, and it lost out.

She repeated it with sound, replacing the shrill cry of a dying hare and the crash of a falling tree and the sound of voices speaking unintelligibly with the sounds of Kian moving quietly nearby to set up a sketchy camp, of Shon and the horses not much farther away, of the soft burbling of the little stream and the whisper of the wind in the trees, but nothing else. She repeated that, and against resistance forced it to be real: nothing else, only what she gave him, the existence of anything from any other source was unacceptable and she would not allow it.

Most of the hallucinations being successfully banished, she felt the tension in him begin to loosen, felt the delirious confusion losing ground. She was still sensing thoughts that didn't belong, most of them involving a lack of differentiation between past and present and future, but she could get to that in a moment. There were still odd little sensations slipping through, cold and heat, wet and pressure and the crawling feet of insects, layered over the chill already present. She pondered that, trying to decide what to replace it with. The single most problematic aspect was awareness of temperature, and lacking that short-term wasn't dangerous, so she removed that. The bugs and the dampness she made go away individually, and she'd need to watch for anything new appearing, but that was at least feasible. Pressure, to some degree, actually matched the weight of three heavy long coats and a cloak.

Her memory offered up a scene from long ago, of holding a crimson-hearted golden flower cradled in her hands, like a small fragile piece of the sun, a gift she could reject simply by closing her hand and crushing it. It suggested a parallel: that she was currently holding Matt's mind in her hands in much the same way, and since she was already inside his shields, he was every bit as vulnerable.

Which meant only that she needed to handle this with just as light a touch.

Without the conflicting sensory info, the delirium was much weaker, and it was easier to follow each thought and delicately straighten out the tense that it belonged to.

Without the disorientation and the understandable alarm that went with it, he relaxed past it into a semi-doze, largely beyond thought, and the few that remained were mainly wordless ones of relief and safety and peace. That was a much more useful state, one that would let him rest and start to recover instead of wearing himself out emotionally and mentally.

If she let go, it would all start to build back up again. She needed to hold onto it, just as it was, until this passed. That was, in a way, harder to do: her mind kept wandering, with too much of her own pounding at the door and demanding to be at the forefront of her attention immediately.

So, she sang songs to herself, nursery rhymes and lullabies and popular ones that she liked.

*Shimai?* he said, still a bit fuzzily, but quite coherently. *I heard you singing.*

Shimai died when I walked away from the College. She swallowed her immediate response, and said, as gently as she could make herself, *That hasn't been my name for a long time.*

A sort of mental shrug, though no attempt at all to escape her hold—if anything, the impression she had was of him curled up, unafraid and comfortable, trusting her to have a reason for anything she did. *Always, to me. Thank you. I was expecting this to be very bad.*

*We have to save Kallima.*

*That's all?*

*What do you expect? What happened, happened. I suppose it doesn't matter now. There are no options other than you keeping your Oath and taking me back and I would rather die, or breaking it far enough to let me run again, which is marginally better for me but it'll ruin you.*

*Shon did point out a third option.*

*Never. Not outright, and not all the nasty little ways I could get the three of you at odds. Not over me.*

*I really do have a fourth one that doesn't involve broken Oaths or Blinding or running away or anyone dying. It's taking a risk, I can't be absolutely certain that it will work, and if it doesn't, it would be bad. But I can promise that, no matter what, I'd be right beside you, and nobody would do anything to you without doing the same to me.*

*Damn it, that's not possible! Holding out something like that is just cruel!*

*It's quite possible. Obviously, you could grab it out of my mind right now and I can't stop you, but you might want to choose a moment when you're less likely to turn my mind into oatmeal if you react without thinking about it.*

*That's not fair! Gods, do you have any idea what you're actually asking?*

*Maybe too much. Probably too much. But since I'd never forgive myself for even letting them hurt you, let alone helping, and it doesn't take all that much to put together pieces and get some idea how you've been living and I don't like it and I'm pretty sure you don't either, I don't know what else to do that I can live with afterwards.*

*Why am I the only one who remembers that you swore an Oath?*

*Twice. Again when I got my Sixth. I do remember. I just consider the bit about justice more important than the bit about renegades.*

*You are insane.*

*According to half the people who have ever met me, I have been for years. According to the other half, I was born that way.* A sudden flash of mischief. *Maybe I just need the right mindhealer.*

*You aren't taking this seriously at all.*

*I'm taking it extremely seriously. Much more so than I can really explain right now. So much so that I badly need to look for the humour in it.*

She didn't have an answer. What answer could she possibly give? She had very little left to lose. He meant every word, she could hear the truth under it, and he wasn't a strong enough telepath to lie successfully to her. It was absolutely impossible. The facts were what they were. As a controller, she would be presumed guilty of everything she could do, regardless of whether she'd ever done it and under what circumstances. No loopholes.

But... could he? He'd done the apparently impossible before.

The physical laws of the world were more malleable than the Assembly.

There hadn't been a tactile manifestation of the out-of-time hallucinations for at least three songs. Experimentally, she gradually released her restraint of his temperature sense. A lingering chill, but it lacked the fierce intensity, and the conflicting heat was gone. One step at a time, she drew back, untangling her own senses from his, ready to step back in if anything tried to recur, but there were only faint ghosts now, easy to identify and ignore. Smell and then sound, and finally she released her hold on his sight.

Not until she broke first mental contact and then physical as well did he move at all. He was still shaky, and his eyes were still not focusing, but at least he could push himself up to a sitting position, the piled coats and cloak sliding away.

Kian handed each a bar of pemmican. “That was much faster than I expected.”

“Me too.” Matt coughed, clearing some of the hoarseness, wiping with the back of his hand at the dried blood that had trickled from his nose, and bit hungrily into the bar.

Kisea got up and walked away. For lack of any better direction, she went towards Shon and the horses.

He'd had long enough to give both a thorough rub-down; the brighter one was nuzzling at the remains of grain on a scrap of worn canvas, and Shon was just offering the darker a liberal handful similarly, murmuring to her softly. He had them tethered to separate trees, far enough apart that the ropes wouldn't cross, but near enough to be able to interact, and they were wearing only their halters now. The packs had been moved, but the saddles and pads and bridles were nearby.

“They're all right?” she asked.

He glanced up, smiled. “Yes. Matt's too much a Jordan to let any harm come to them. They're used to working hard and to magic. In theory, the chestnut is Kian's, but it's so often so difficult to get him to ride rather than walk that both tend to fall to me.”

“What are their names?”

“The buckskin is Butterfly, since she moves so smoothly you'd think she's floating on the breeze. The chestnut is her half-sister Rose. She can be sweet, but watch her hind feet, she can be thorny. They've always been together, they don't like being separated.”

“A good excuse for Kian to leave her behind when he goes off alone?”

“One of them,” he agreed.

She shied away from what she most wanted to know, reluctant to linger any longer on the subject even though it dominated every second thought. At least there was another one available. “What exactly do we know about Kallima?”

She felt the shift in his mood, picked up on intense worry and anger and frustration. “Much less than we'd like. She went out riding with a visiting friend and an escort of two. They did not come back on schedule, and a search found both guards dead and the friend too injured to walk or catch any of the horses. One of the farm children showed up not long after with a note he'd been given a penny to deliver, stating that Kallima was alive and safe but would be held prisoner until her father agreed to demands that would be delivered soon. A warning, as well, that any attempt to find or rescue her would mean her death. Matt was the obvious person to contact, although we were in Hope-of-Luck at the time. He searched while I packed, and as soon as he had a location we left without waiting even for his sight to return. We were rather relieved to find Kian only a short detour from the path we needed. And more than a little surprised to find you as well, but you know that.”

She pondered that, chewing on a bite, stroking Butterfly's velvety muzzle with her free hand; the buckskin nudged her inquisitively, snuffling at the bar of pemmican, but lost interest in it and settled for attention in place of food. Finally, she swallowed. “Then Matt's right, and having me with you might make a difference. I'm extremely vulnerable physically while I do it, but it's going to be hard for someone holding Kalli to hurt her, even with a knife at her throat, if I'm in his head.”

“Anything that might keep her safer is an advantage we need badly.”

Shon's father was an alasir Lord, and Shon had been raised to see things in terms of advantage and cost, though his surface emotions suggested less of rational evaluation, more of personal emotion. The Equals Village Jordan family seemed to be collecting lost children of two high Houses that, traditionally, were supposed to be at odds because of the difference in race.

“You're all right, living in the Village and Jordan Manor?” she asked abruptly.

“Yes. If anything, in many ways I like both better than Felorton. Less pretence, less political manoeuvring, less of treating others as counters or tools or status symbols. Some ways it's hard, sometimes very hard, and without a family to count on, I would likely by now have made all your work pointless. I think I'm less strong than you are, to survive alone. But I have a family, who welcomed me without a heartbeat's hesitation. I have a job to do that truly makes the world a better place. While Kian would do anything for Matt and I'd not care to be the one to threaten Matt in his sight, dealing with local politics and legal matters and paperwork is more within my skills and experience than that of either.”

“Mm, yes. I've been wondering since I first heard, how Matt ended up with a job like that. He saw something wrong and just had to step in, didn't he?”

“Exactly. One of the usual siren-rape mockeries of hearings. He went to Rob, who was I gather not pleased that his instructions were being ignored. While investigating, it became clear just how often there were still situations like it, most commonly racial issues but sometimes of bias against women or those in some occupations or those who are poor. There is resistance to change, but less than I believe I would have faced trying to do the same in Telsea. Maybe Jordan can set an example for the world.”

“And yet, because of other laws, you're officially a personal guard and everyone overlooks you.”

“One can actually accomplish quite a lot while being overlooked. Especially when lurking behind someone that people tend to forget is a telepath.” She picked up amusement shivering across the more dominant emotions of anxiety and tension—how much of that was for Kallima, and how much was for Kisea, anyway? “It works well enough. I already proved how little one can count on status for anything, and anyone who matters knows how things really are. I'm quite content with that.”

“Good, I'm glad.” One less pointlessly-ruined life in the world.

“I would not, however, have made it that far, without you.”

She shrugged, and remembered to take another bite of pemmican and chew it, though Butterfly nudged her for more stroking. “If I'd realized who you're related to, I probably would have just told you immediately to go to the Village and then run the other way and changed my name again.”

“While I was on the edge, every moment, of ending my own life because I saw no future at all? I'm less than sure of that.”

Actually, so was she. Could she possibly have walked away from that kind of pain, even driven by her own fear?

She'd stayed with Kian for far less reason and at greater risk.

On some level, had she been hoping for an end to running and hiding, one she could pretend wasn't her choice? She found self-delusions too often as an integral function in minds with old scars to believe she had none; she certainly had worse emotional scars than many of those she healed, with no one who could heal her in turn.

“The three people you most fear right now,” Shon said softly, “are the three who least ever want you hurt, and who would face down anything to protect you.”

“And that isn't something to be afraid of? Especially knowing that because of the laws Matt and I can't both walk away from this?” Wasn't it possible at all to stay off this subject right now? Everything led back to it.

“I would not say he is obsessed, but he does think of you often. He asked me a thousand questions, and both illusion and telepathy became involved, and once we were sure we meant the same person, he started asking questions of others. He has a list, with details, of at least twenty people you've healed of crippling mental hurts, many of whom will swear that either no one else cared enough to try or that others who tried failed or both. A year and some ago, when he got his Sixth, he came up with his idea for how to subvert the system so you can stop running, and what had been listening for rumours became a search in truth. I've seen him experiment with different approaches to scrying and spend hours in the College library and elsewhere trying to find ideas, but he's never been able to get past whatever way you found to hide. Which has been driving him half-mad with frustration.”

“Then Kian knew me on sight and had ulterior motives for staying with me all along.” Why did that thought hurt so much?

“Kian generally has multiple reasons for everything he does. He just doesn't discuss them readily. That doesn't make any of them less valid, or mean that he'd trick you into anything any more than I would.”

Which was, she had to concede, probably true.

“Do you know what this plan of Matt's is?”

“Yes. As does Kian. There isn't all that much he doesn't tell us. We did, however, have to promise never to tell anyone, ever, until he talks to you about it.”

Which meant she could, of course, find it in his mind or Kian's, probably quite easily, because under the circumstances it would be near the surface. She couldn't make herself even really consider it seriously, though.

Too much, this whole subject hurt too much.

“Where's Jori?”

“Kian changed her to hawk and she's scouting.”

“Does she have enough specifics to be able to find the right place?”

“Matt did tell her and I both everything he'd been able to gather, while we were riding. It should be detail enough for her to make a very good guess, at least.”

“What specifics?”

“I think Kian should probably hear those, too.”

Kisea shrugged again. “All right.” She helped him gather up the remaining horse gear and take it back to the clearing under the cedars.

Matt definitely looked more alert, though she could still see signs of fatigue, and his eyes were actually focusing now.

“We need to make sure we all know everything possible about the situation with Kallima,” she said firmly. “After which, it probably would be a good idea to stay here for a few hours. You need to sleep, and Kian and I are operating on less than a full night's sleep. Mistakes could get Kallima killed.”

No one argued.

Over a less-than-satisfying but nonetheless nourishing meal of pemmican and dried meat and water that at least was cool and fresh, Shon got Kisea and Kian caught up, with occasional help from Matt.

Roads mostly led to fords across rivers, or to bridges, but sometimes neither was feasible and there was, instead, a ferry. On a busy road near a major town there might even be two, but more often it was a single ferry well away from any other signs of civilization. Kisea, in her travels, had found some ferrymen surly and unfriendly, and others who enjoyed having company for a night or two—and one who had decided to try to bully her into sex with him and discovered that she wasn't as helpless against one attacker as she was against nine.

Matt had tracked Kallima to one such, but there were defences around it that kept him from seeing inside. However, he knew which river and approximately where on it, and someone could easily have used that river and one of its tributaries to reach a point near the Jordan Manor. He hadn't watched it long, but had seen only one person outside it, a human man in his thirties or so with broad shoulders and rough commoner clothes, quite plausibly the ferryman.

The simple fact that anything was set up to block scrying was suspicious. Such charms weren't technically illegal, but weren't readily available and typically were expensive, and they did tend to prompt questions about why someone felt the need for the considerable extra effort and expense.

“Think one of you clever boys can do something about my pack that will make it look plausible again?” Kisea asked.

“Yes,” Kian said. “But why?”

“Because we need to know what's inside. No matter how much digging these people might have done into the Jordan family and possible rescuers, I won't be on the list. I'm rather obviously not one of the runaway Jordans who might be looking for their brother's daughter and not alasir-blood at all. There should be nothing to make them suspicious about me walking up to the door looking for a place to sleep overnight before crossing the river. I've done it before, more times than I can count. They have to be expecting normal road traffic, and there's probably more of that around here than there is in some areas.”

“Which could put you in danger,” Shon said. “They're likely to be extremely nervous at present.”

“What's the worst that happens? They attack me? They will probably seriously regret doing that. They throw me in with Kallima, wherever she is? That just gives Matt something to focus on that, at short range, nothing is going to block.”

“Except that I couldn't focus on you with you holding my hand,” Matt pointed out drily.

Kallima sighed. “I forgot about that.” She picked up her knife from the ground near Matt, handed it to him. “Sterilize that for me, please.”

He took it, but gave her a wary look. “Why?”

“Because if you do, I'll make sure you can find me from now on.” Why not? It wasn't like it was going to do her any more good at this point.

“I don't think I'm going to like this.”

“Just do it!”

He balanced it across both palms, stared at it fixedly; when he lowered his hands a couple of inches, the knife stayed where it was.

Kisea pulled off her tunic, untied her belt and laid it aside, unlaced her tooled leather bodice and removed it entirely, then her chemise. It was, as she'd said to Kian, nothing all three hadn't seen, and she couldn't afford to get blood all over them. The scar was easy enough to find by touch, lengthwise down the inner surface of her left breast, currently haloed by the yellow and red of a healing deep bruise.

“Oh, gods,” Shon said, putting pieces together. “You didn't.”

“Where else was I supposed to put it that it couldn't be stolen or lost and would always be in direct contact with me?” she asked shortly. “And where else on my body that I could reach alone and it wouldn't be visible or interfere with muscle? Three alasir are going to be squeamish about blood?” Probing the area found it without difficulty, since she knew what she was looking for: a thin disc inserted edge-outwards under the skin.

“Not about blood,” Kian said softly. “About pain. I think we have nothing with us to help with that.”

“I can after it's out of contact,” Matt said, his gaze still on the hovering knife; no trace of grease or pemmican fragments remained, presumably burned away by intense heat.

“Any of us can, after,” Shon said. “The problem is before.”

“Telepath,” she reminded them. “I can reduce it.”

And at least it's only physical pain. That kind, I've learned how to deal with.

Maybe I've learned to deal with the other kind too. Otherwise, why is it that even with psychic self-control, my proximity and my voice aren't making all three think only about sex with me? I am, after all, more than a little stressed.

The thought stirred intense interest from the more siren side of her mind, involving three lovers who were very different but all considerate and caring. The longer and stronger her stress, the harder that was going to be to fight—after all, not only would it relieve much of the stress, but the siren ability to fascinate could be very effective for self-defence under the right conditions.

Too many thoughts. Too many feelings she just didn't want to deal with right now. Or ever, given the choice, but she wasn't going to get that. The best she could hope for was to put it off a little longer.

Matt caught the knife and offered her the hilt, careful not to touch the blade. “It's clean. Do I want to know what you did before?”

“Campfire, the strongest wine I could get, and the glue healers use for some wounds.” Several large swallows of the wine had, as she recalled, gone down her throat as well, but she couldn't drink enough to make her hands shaky. She moved so she was kneeling in front of Matt, her knees apart both for balance and so any blood that dripped would miss her. She would, right then, have preferred either of the others, but Matt recovering remained a priority. “Since it's probably going to bleed a lot, why waste it? Sorry the bruising might mess with the taste. Some people have strange ideas about foreplay.”

He paused in pulling his cloak back around himself, his eyes seeking hers; rather than meet them, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then another, centring herself and setting up the mental tricks that would shunt much of the pain out of her conscious perception.

Something rippled against her inner senses, something that wasn't actual telepathic communication but still somehow felt unified. She felt Shon kneel behind her, a little to her left; his hand against her bare back was tentative, until she shifted her weight fractionally, leaning into the touch, acknowledging and accepting it. Kian knelt to her right, close enough that she could feel his knee against hers. Dominant in all three was frustration, helplessness that didn't sit well at all.

The three who least ever want you hurt...

This isn't the time for that!

Even with telepath tricks and silent support, it still took all the willpower she'd developed over the years walking the roads alone to slice through thin skin and the tissue beneath. She heard her own breath catch, tried to swallow the sound that came right behind it, but only partially succeeded. Less blood than she remembered, but still running freely. She pressed on both sides of the cut so that an onyx disc a bit larger than her thumbnail popped into sight, allowing her pull it out the rest of the way; she let Kian take both it and the knife, and gave Matt an expectant look. “Well?”

She didn't think that ever-so-brief hesitation had nearly as much to do with the blood as it did with unresolved emotions. Nonetheless, he took her up on it, wrapped an arm around her bare torso to steady her or himself and ran his tongue along the cut.

Alasir bites never itched, never festered, and after the initial bite itself, never hurt; it had been established generations before that it was due to the properties of alasir saliva. For many people there was a mildly euphoric effect as well, though not for all, with a multitude of possible factors. For Kisea, sufficiently intense fear or anger could destroy any pleasant feelings.

Apparently, mere stress and conflicted feelings were less powerful.

It was probably just as well Shon was there to steady her, really.

She felt Matt's mind touch hers, testing surface emotions, but didn't bother to block him right then; only then did he lick away the blood that had already run.

Both being telepaths made telepathic contact stronger and clearer. Physical contact made telepathic contact stronger and clearer. For alasir, blood made telepathic contact stronger and clearer. Even though Matt's telepathy was extremely limited, with it enhanced by contact and blood, it was harder to keep shields up than it would have been to release them and let their minds twine together. No walls, no deception, no need for either...

She was certain her shields trembled more than once, but she resolutely held them in place. Over a third of her life spent in fear wasn't going away on the word of the one person she'd most feared. And whose touch, physical and mental, she'd most longed for when things got bad.

“You taste good,” Matt told her, raising his head and licking blood meticulously from his lips and teeth.

She must be feeling less stressed: she was barely irritated with him for that. Or when she felt, rather than saw, the other two exchange glances before they agreed.

“Can you find me now?” she asked.

He looked thoughtful, forehead furrowing, and she felt that mental shift that meant magic, though only the briefest flicker of it. He nodded. “Perfectly. And would be able to through shields across half the length of Caalden, right now.”

“Good. We need to sleep, I assume the horses need to rest, and I can't believably show up early in the day anyway.” It finally occurred to her that she was still sitting here half-naked, though no longer blood-streaked, and looked for her clothes. Kian handed her, not only her chemise, but a folded strip of bandage smeared thinly on one side with thick greenish ointment. Rather gingerly, to keep from pulling the fresh cut open again, she pressed the bandage over it, and let Shon help her wriggle back into her chemise and bodice. Once the latter was laced, it offered enough support to keep everything in place, and she adjusted the drawstring neck of her chemise to make sure the bandage was covered securely.

“Once Jori comes back,” Kian said, “we'll have some idea how long it will take to reach the river. If we plan to get back on the road at a time that will put us near it as it's beginning to get dark, we can rest here a little while.”

“And replace the frame for my pack. No one carries a full pack far with no frame.” She pulled her tunic back on over the rest.

“That won't be hard to do.”

“I've improvised repairs before, but I've never had to build one from nothing.”

“I can keep watch until Jori gets back,” Shon said.

“And you can wake me, and we can work out the timing,” Kian said. “We need you two as rested as possible.”

Kisea wasn't entirely sure how she ended up lying down on Matt's spread cloak beside him, with her own coat over her and Shon's long split riding-coat over him, and with Kian's warm presence close on her other side. She didn't need to see Shon to feel his proximity, settling himself leaning against a tree close to them.

Despite everything, it felt... safe.

The three who least ever want you hurt...

Even though that includes the one who can most easily do so and if he doesn't he's going to destroy himself.

He'd rather break his Oath than take me back there. But I knew that, didn't I? At least, I should have. He hasn't changed, not really. Less than I have.

Kian and Shon will help him do it, too. I think they really would do everything they could to protect me from him if he actually decided to be sensible for a change.

He isn't my doom. I'm his.

And I can't let that happen. Too many people need him. He's barely started and he's going to change the world.

How? I'm just not strong enough, even for Matt, to face the Assembly and let them Blind me or kill me. I don't think I'm strong enough to deliberately kill myself, either. Maybe I'll just die helping to rescue Kallima and the whole problem will be solved forever.

She wanted to cry herself to sleep, but there was no way she could possibly explain why, so she ruthlessly locked it down and used telepath tricks to force herself to fall asleep.

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