Gentle psychic fingers stroking her shields roused Kisea.

She vaguely remembered her sleep starting out restless, before going deeper; presumably it was during the earlier phase that she'd moved so that she was cuddled close against Matt. In fact, she had her head on his shoulder, and he'd wrapped that arm around her.

He was awake, obviously, but she wasn't expecting to open her eyes to find him watching her. Sorcerer-grey eyes with flecks of the dark brown common to alasir, with no masks behind them hiding emotions. She flinched.

*I don't want to lose you ever again,* he whispered. *I've missed you. And I've been terrified you'd get yourself killed somehow before I could find you. And almost as terrified of what you might be going through.*

*I'm still alive,* she said wearily. *Even though the world has no place in it for a controller.*

*So we'll create one.*

She just didn't have the will to fight right now.

She could ask him what this plan of his was.

But as long as she didn't know, she wouldn't have to look for the flaws it would have to have, the assumption that would shatter under reality or the price that would be intolerable. She could let herself pretend that just maybe, there really was a way.

*Kallima,* she reminded him.

*Kalli,* he agreed, though it was extremely obvious he'd wanted to continue the conversation.

No one on her other side now, so nothing to stop her from rolling away and getting to her feet.

“Well?” she said briskly. “How far?”

Shon and Kian and Jori, who looked no older than she had when Kisea had last seen her, shifted position to make room for her and Matt to join them in a circle.

“Maybe fifteen miles, no more than that,” Jori said. “We can cover that in a couple of hours without magic. There are at least two men there, one that fits what Matt saw before and another one who's wearing a quilted jerkin and has a staff. I hunted a mouse that was in the yard around the building and I got a glimpse in one window, I'm fairly sure there's at least one more around, but the one with the staff chased me off and I didn't dare go back. The road goes straight there, but there are two major curves before it gets there, and one other road that joins this one maybe a mile before the ferry. I think you're right, by yourself you could walk right up to the door without anyone thinking you're there for Kalli, but if there are at least three men around, that's going to be dangerous. How many can you protect yourself against, for how long, so we know how much time we'd have to get there to help?”

“It depends a lot on the situation. I've never been able to really explore everything I can do. If I'm just lashing out, I can put three to sleep for sure, possibly four, with a possibility of damage, especially if I'm trying to do it under pressure. I can definitely take over one and force him to do anything I want. I can't actually control more than one at a time, it takes too much concentration, and I can't do anything else while I do it, but I can leave what are basically commands and then try to take over a second. Doing it quickly and against resistance with no time for finesse, any commands are going to be extremely crude and he might realize that there's a massive inconsistency in his own actions and fight against it, but depending on the person and the circumstances, he may just go with it. Probably some damage but I'm not sure how much. Turning one or two against the rest can be really effective as long as there aren't so many others that they're hopelessly outnumbered.”

At least they assumed it was a siren trick I used, and didn't figure out what I am, or I never would've gotten out alive.

“Which explains nine being too many,” Kian murmured.

“Against that many, the only thing I could have done was get them angry enough to beat me instead, and I might not have survived that.”

“Sorry?” Matt said, though she could feel protective anger stir.

Kisea shrugged. “I wandered off-course and too deep into human territory, and I was alone, and it was raining so I stopped in a human village. It was probably a given that some of the locals would come up with the usual ideas about sirens. I was lucky enough this time that Kian was there.”

And if he hadn't been, they would have had their fun, and I would've limped off, and by now I'd be back to running the roads, alone or otherwise.

“Where?” Matt demanded, and there was a distinct growl in his voice.

“I don't remember what it was called, they didn't succeed, and it currently doesn't matter.”

“I remember,” Kian said. “It's within Jordan boundaries, barely. And I can identify them all. Later, though.”

That village is in trouble. At least Matt will make sure it's only the ones involved who pay, not everyone. She was nice to me, she doesn't deserve it.

“Yes, later. So. How much danger depends on how many I'm up against.”

Jori's forehead furrowed. “So we'd better try to be as close as possible.”

“There's an uncomfortable amount we still don't know,” Shon said. “Whether those shields are a sorcerer directly involved or a charm, since a sorcerer might have a chance of spotting us too early. Whether there's a telepath involved who might catch it if you and Matt are in contact. How many are actually present, and what sort of mood they're in. Even, for that matter, whether they've made specific demands yet and how that's progressing, which could play a part in how on-edge they are.”

“The only way to get that information is for someone to get inside the shields,” Kisea said. “And I'm the only one who can without it being read as an attack. However, yes, it would be lovely if you could make sure you're close in case things get messy.”

“Close without being detected,” Matt mused. “Kian, do you still have Kisea's charm?”

“Of course I do,” Kian said, and fished it out of the pouch at his belt, dropping it onto Matt's palm.

Matt regarded it intently for a long moment, then grinned. “I can stretch that to cover us, although not the horses. And since most of it isn't going to be me, I might even be able to get away with no price on it. It's just tweaking the criteria it uses to something other than direct contact. I already know it's extremely broad coverage, not just specific to scrying, it's pretty much complete invisibility to anything but physical senses to the point of reducing incoming telepathic contact, so no one's going to see us magically.”

“Can Kisea get through it to you if she needs to yell for help?” Jori asked pointedly.

Matt gave Kisea a questioning look.

The charm did create a sort of fuzzing effect that made it harder to focus, but with the tattered remains of their long-ago rapport, with recent contact, and knowing the feel of his mind as well as she did... *Can you hear me?*

Matt nodded. “I can hear you no problem. Will you be able to if you're distracted by anything else?”

She gave him a rather wan smile. “Of everyone in Caalden, I could find and reach you under any conditions.” And have been so tempted to, at moments when everything seemed hopeless. “My distance range is no better than it used to be, though. Maybe half a mile or so at most, and even that only with you.”

They discussed it a bit longer, but ultimately, there was little they could do to plan when they had such limited information.

Shon and Kian went to saddle the horses, and Kisea packed up the little gear they had out in the primitive camp. Jori stretched and moved closer to Matt, waiting.

“You're doing all right, carrying two?” Matt asked her.

Jori shrugged. “I'll be tired later. It's easier for me than Rose or Butterfly. Do it, already.”

Matt laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “Horse.”

Jori's shape melted briefly into nothing but a dense electric blur, then reformed as the dapple-grey with her white saddle and hackamore. She shook herself, more like a dog than a horse, and nuzzled Matt; he smiled and scritched around her forelock.

“I am so grateful for you. Kick me if I ever start to take you for granted.”

She snorted air through her nose eloquently.

It was simpler to lead the horses back out to the road and mount there, Shon waiting again until after he'd helped Kisea up behind Matt.

She'd been on trotting horses before, and while she'd been told that it was comfortable and natural for the horse and more sustainable than a gallop, she found it a very uncomfortable ride. Apparently, a skilled rider could move with the horse and it was all good all around, but riding behind someone else, that would've been impossible even had she known how.

Jori, however, didn't trot; her gait was smooth, rocking a bit from side to side but lacking the staccato up-and-down extremes of a regular trot. She'd said once that it was a natural gait for some breeds of horses, but she lost interest when asked what breeds and where. She had, always, taken her commitment to help Matt seriously and usually beyond what Kisea was sure he'd expected, and a smoother gait that would make it easier on him just demonstrated that all over again.

Alternating walk and trot with occasional brief gallops, they covered a lot of ground rapidly.

Jori veered off the road at a point where they could, barely, see a second road join this one ahead and down a slope. Screened from the road by a bank of lilacs, she halted.

“The horses will be safe here for a little while,” Matt said. “Worst comes to worst, they've both still got tracking charms braided into their tails, so they won't get far.”

All four dismounted, Kisea trying her best to pretend to herself that she wasn't feeling deeply apprehensive about this. It was the best way to get Kallima out of whatever nightmare the poor girl was in, and risk to herself didn't matter.

While Shon removed saddles and bridles and tethered the mares to wait comfortably, Kian unstrapped Kisea's pack from his saddle. The frame he'd built, from a wishbone-shaped branch with others lashed to it, actually supported her much-lightened pack quite well.

She hefted it, and sighed. “Too light to be believable, so I guess I'm going to be claiming I was attacked and robbed. Being a properly helpless siren-blood, that wouldn't take a large enough group to worry them.” She set it down and unfastened her crystal from around her neck, where it was simply too visible a sign that she was a telepath. Not that telepathy provided much defence for most, but it did normally offer some early warning, and besides, the more helpless she seemed, the better. “Two or three could do it.”

“If you weren't with an alasir companion who was killed, then at least one was alasir,” Shon pointed out. “Those are very fresh marks, and it's probably best not to assume that no one present will be able to recognize that.”

Kisea bit her lower lip, considering that. “And we don't want them thinking of mixed-blood groups of any sort. We're a bit far from the border for an alasir raiding party.”

“It isn't impossible,” Matt said. “They've happened even farther west.”

“All right, then, let's go with that. I don't think I can pretend I was robbed by one person plausibly, and there's no reason only one would decide to take advantage of available prey, so I guess I need another set or two and I need to remember that I've presumably lost a significant amount of blood. How much?”

“Three, interested more in satisfying themselves than your wellbeing either way?” Shon considered that. “Certainly enough for you to feel it. The ones who persistently raid across the disputed lands and into human territory frequently do so because they have far too strong a taste for human blood over meat or animal blood, and causing trouble and stealing property are only excuses.”

“That's seriously disturbed,” Matt said.

Shon shrugged. “Worse happens, but it's not discussed. Like sex in human society. So, how much? Enough to kill you would be extremely unlikely. Enough for you to feel somewhat light-headed or nauseous or both, possibly somewhat anxious or restless. I'd expect you to be rather pale, breathing more rapidly and shallowly, with a faster heartbeat, and possibly sweating somewhat but cool to the touch.”

“I don't intend to let anyone check how fast my heart is beating,” Kisea said. “Although it's probably going to be fast anyway. Most of the rest I can fake. Being pale, not so much, but I'm in the sun a lot and it would show less, and unless there's any alasir-blood in there, the light isn't likely to be enough for it to be obvious. That should actually make me look even more harmless. Not just one woman alone, but one who's unwell.” She shrugged, tossed her braid back behind her shoulder, crossed the couple of steps to Shon, and slid a hand around the back of his neck to pull him in reach for a kiss. *Well?* she prompted him, silently.

She felt him kiss the side of her throat, not far from the marks Kian had left there the previous night, which felt like forever ago, and helpfully tilted her head, one hand still holding him. She did feel a little bad about putting him in that position, since alasir culture tended to associate blood with intimacy—in fact, very much the way human culture viewed sex. About the best she could do, as she felt the familiar nudge of teeth just before the two needle-sharp ones broke skin, was give him her own genuine affection for him and her relief that he was content with his very changed life.

But then, his surface emotions screamed that right now, social taboos were a far lower priority for him than her safety and Kallima's.

She thought he didn't actually take any blood at all, or maybe barely enough to make sure the bite was going to look real.

She stole another kiss when he raised his head. “Assuming we all live through this, let's see if we can make time to do that again, properly, as soon as possible.”

“Sounds fun.”

Some part of her mind, a part that had grown up in a rural human environment and accepted human values, gasped in shock, appalled that she'd even think, let alone say, such a thing with Kian and Matt right there. She dismissed it as stupid. All three knew exactly what her relationship with each of them was, and she wasn't human and belonged to no one, she was a siren and who she had sex with was her own choice.

Besides, Kian looked mostly amused and Matt only faintly wistful.

She turned to Matt, draped both arms around his neck, and kissed him, putting behind it every bit of almost a decade of fiercely missing him. Passion and hunger, but it had always been far more than that. He hugged her close, returned it eagerly.

*I don't think there's ever been a day I haven't missed you even when I was furious at you,* she whispered.

*Likewise, only without the being furious part. Mostly. You're about to do something stupid and reckless.*

*I'm going to do exactly what we talked about. That's just in case we've missed something and things get messy.* She freed one hand, caught his, and pressed her crystal into it. *Hold onto that for me. Now, are going to bite me or not?*

*That's only a very small part of what I want to do with you,* he grumbled.

Always different, or maybe to make sure it was more visible, or his way of staking a claim... there could be any number of reasons why he chose to mark the other side of her throat.

She could still taste her own blood when he kissed her; with his hand cupped around her cheek, he drew back enough to meet her eyes.

“I mean it. Don't do anything stupid. You dying is not a useful solution.”

It's the only possible solution.

“Of course not. You worry too much.” She scooped up her pack and settled it in place with the ease of practice, stole a quick kiss from Kian to keep from leaving him out, and headed for the road.

And if a few tears escaped to streak her cheeks, well, there was no one close enough to see them now.

* * *

Behind her, Matt muttered a curse.

“I don't think she has any intention of living through this. She doesn't believe me, and there hasn't been time to explain.”

“That's asking an unreasonable amount, after she's had years of believing that there is no way things can be different,” Shon said. “Hope is a frightening thing when you have none. More frightening than death, by far.”

“So we make sure she and Kalli are both safe,” Kian said, settling his quiver in place and strapping the leather bracer on his arm to protect against the bowstring. He laid a hand on Jori's shoulder. “Hawk.”

Jori's form dissolved, coalesced as a red-tailed hawk; he offered his leather-protected arm for her to sidle onto so he could toss her upwards.

Kian gave his bow a cursory examination, checking the string; that bow was among the best in existence, laminated of multiple kinds of wood to make best use of their varying properties. Though bow was the chosen weapon of maybe twice as many women as men, thus often and illogically associated with women, Kian's had a heavier draw than most women could manage. Matt had long ago added a bit of magical waterproofing to protect bow and string from moisture, about all he could usefully do.

Shon retrieved his own weapon from his gear. Kian's father, who had originally learned sword-play but abandoned it for staff after moving to the Village, had declared Shon too gifted a swordsman to do the same, yet a normal sword both made him a visible target and was impractical on the road. Alina and her brothers and husband had conspired to find an alternative, and had found one in a form that was uncommon but did have its enthusiasts within the road culture in particular. Shon had taken to it with alacrity and finesse.

It looked like a fairly standard metal-bound hawthorn staff, a little shorter than most but its more notable peculiarity being an oval metal disc embedded into it a foot or so from one end. However, it hid a single-edged inch-wide blade the length of Shon's arm, the best and strongest steel Lord Jordan had been able to arrange. Matt would, honestly, not have wanted to be up against him with it, blade in one hand and the staff-scabbard in the other, even with Kian's help and all his own magic.

Matt fastened the crystal around his own throat, by far the safest place for it; it resonated like his Shimai, something that tended to happen after heavy use. He wasn't a master at staff, but he picked up Kian's anyway, since he'd had more motivation than many sorcerers to learn to defend himself in other ways. His cloak was hardly subtle, but the moment of hesitation as someone realized they were facing a sorcerer was sometimes useful; he pulled it on, but dark side out.

Kallima in danger, certainly scared and possibly hurt, was bad enough.

That his Shimai, who had been alone when he'd met her and alone since everything had gone horribly wrong and who was hiding the deep scars behind those green eyes much less well than she thought, was walking into the situation believing that it was a choice between her own safety or his, made it far worse.

He cupped the onyx charm in one hand, the charm his beloved had gotten somewhere and somehow that probably didn't bear thinking about, and had hidden inside her own flesh, all in fear of being tracked by a sorcerer—which mostly meant by him. He'd have preferred to turn it into a small pile of black dust.

Instead, because it might let him be close enough to help both women, he focused on it, working himself into the spell on it, and then changing one small part of that. Now, rather than protecting what it was touching, or even a small area which might be suspicious if someone noticed, it would specifically protect the three related alasir-blood who had all tasted the blood this had been in contact with for so long. The world around them would look the way it was, but they would be missing from it.

“Let's go.”

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