“Remind me to castrate the ferryman,” Matt muttered. “Painfully.”

“She can handle herself,” Kian said. “Keep your attention where it belongs.”

“I am. Mostly. It's hard not to get glimpses while I'm scanning the whole building with her as my anchor.”

The connection with Shimai that she'd opened up to him was strong enough to give him a clear doorway into the heavily shielded cottage, right past sorcery-created traps that were watching for any attempt to probe for weaknesses.

As much as he wanted to flay the ferryman's hide off in one blast of icy magical fire, he knew now exactly what sirens faced even when they had relatively sheltered lives, and his beloved's life had never been that; he had to trust that she knew what she was doing and was making her own choices about what she could tolerate to make this work.

With that doorway in, he could use shared blood and familiarity to find Kallima, which led him to the metal collar, and from there he could search for the other metal that matched it via the powerful connection linking them. Lock and key were so perfect an example of that law that they were commonly used for early lessons.

He found the key in the loft, hanging on a nail driven into the side of a slanted beam.

He wrapped his mind around it and gave the world a little twist, changing one detail, just the location of a single piece of worked iron, dropping it down twenty feet or so and nudging it maybe five feet to the west. That was all, such a trivial alteration to the world.

He wasn't a strong enough telepath to talk to his cousin, but he saw her spot the key's appearance instantly. Casually, she shifted position, hiding it under a fold of her badly-soiled divided riding skirt. (What was his sensible cousin doing in a riding skirt instead of the scandalous but practical trousers she generally wore for anything involving horses? It must have been one of the more conventional highborn girls she'd been riding with.) She was too smart to grab it and immediately start fumbling with the lock, with her jailors right there, but at least now she had it. That was a good place to start.

He'd promised to stay away, and he would, but was there something he could do from here that would be subtle and not arouse immediate suspicion? After all, getting Kallima past her guards was going to be difficult: only a trap door for access, which would leave anyone going downwards entirely vulnerable while doing so, and there was no way for Kian to possibly get a shot at any of the guards. Which meant needing to drive them up out of that cellar. They were probably not going to go willingly, since they didn't have Kallima's key and presumably were supposed to keep an eye on her, but there must be a way.

The cottage was built no more than fifty feet from the river's edge.

He grinned to himself. Kallima would forgive him, under the circumstances, especially if it gave her a chance to get that collar off and get out of the cellar herself.

He dug downwards, seeking the water table. The cottage was on a rise, but the level of the water in the ground wasn't all that far below the floor of the cellar. There were multiple ways he could do this. A more traditional sorcerer would forcibly channel water upwards in an eruption that would form a temporary cold-water geyser, or possibly create a point of attraction in the cellar that would draw water towards it. The former would be a dead giveaway, and the latter could be readily identified by another sorcerer and might trigger alarms.

Instead, he spread his awareness farther, testing the structures of the ground, where there was soil, where there was rock, and how the water moved among them.

Then he created waterproof shields, here and here and there, that would block the natural flow and cause the water to seek out new paths. Unable to reach the river so easily, it began to build up beneath the cellar floor. He added more barriers, channelling more water into the limited area he was creating, and reinforced the ones that were holding it back from running down towards the river. It rather pleased him that once they dissolved, everything would be able to go back to the way it should be with no permanent damage, only a brief disturbance. An elegant solution, requiring much less power than a more traditional approach and causing less disruption, but he expected the result to be dramatic.

The pounded-earth floor of the cellar started to show damp areas where water was seeping through, and before much longer, the damp areas were shallow puddles.

Kallima, sitting on the floor, was the first one aware of it. He saw her look thoughtfully at the nearest puddle, reach out to probe it with a finger; the floor was too hard-packed to turn spongy easily, but judging by her expression, something suggested to her that it was more significant than it seemed superficially. Just a hint of a smile crossed her face, under the streaks of dirt and tears.

She knows I'm doing something.

And she knows Shimai's with her.

And she knows there are a lot of people involved and we have a lot to do, which means she'll probably come up with a way to use the water and the key to get herself out of that cellar, if I know Kalli.

“Kalli has the key, she hid it,” he reported to his cousins, careful to keep enough magic just active enough to postpone any prices—if he couldn't function, then very probably, his cousins and his beloved would all die. “I've got something set up that's going to gradually make the cellar a very wet place to be. It will probably flood fairly deep, actually.”

“Good,” Shon said. “Bring them out where we can reach them.”

“That's the idea. But we still have a pair of sorceresses and a couple of other fighters to consider, even if the telepath's safely asleep.”

“We have a new problem,” Kian said, positioned where he could keep watch on the building easily. “A small river flatboat just docked. Two people, one staying with the boat. The other is male, and certainly siren, and I think I see a crystal. Going towards the cottage. I could take him, but it'll announce that we're here. As soon as no one will notice, I'll take the one at the boat.” That was one reason they'd chosen this as a place to lurk: the river's edge lay within the best range of Kian and his bow, some three hundred yards.

“Can you reach Kisea to warn her?” Shon demanded.

Matt shook his head, more in uncertainty than negation. “I can try, but she's distracted, I'm not very strong, and drawing attention is going to be too dangerous to be worth the warning.”

He turned his attention inwards again, gathering magic and his extremely limited telepathy to reach back through the shields along the same pathway.

A cautious attempt at making contact with Shimai failed: she didn't notice, too busy trying to stay out of the way while the ferryman and the two fighters fought, the no-holds-barred bare-handed struggle of animals competing for a mate. All three were bruised and battered, but by this point were much too far gone in both fury and lust to think about what they were doing.

Exactly what the siren telepath who was now asleep had intended for him and his cousins, actually, but she was no match for his brave brilliant Shimai.

The cellar, he noticed, now had a definite layer of water across the entire floor, creeping higher. Kallima was working herself up into full-blown aristocratic hysterics, swearing vehemently that her father had lost the entire contents of a cellar in a river-side property when the water level had begun to rise this way, that much of the ground-floor contents had been damaged because the water reached up through the floor, and alternately pleading and demanding that they not leave her chained here to drown. One snapped at her to settle down, but all four that were awake looked uneasy, and the sleeping pair were stirring in response to the noise. If she could panic them into flight, she could unlock herself and follow, and once out of the cellar, well... she was much less helpless than the typical gently-reared highborn maiden.

Sudden change in the rhythms above, and he checked quickly.



What are those two doing involved in this? Together? And what possible reason could they have for risking their lives and breaking their Oaths in order to make demands on one human Lord, especially when Melienne isn't human at all?

Shimai's right. There's something more going on here than we thought.

“The two sorceresses,” he said, “I know them. One human, one alasir, Ursula and Melienne, both fullblood, from secondary branches of highborn families, and both with independent and substantial incomes. I'm pretty sure they don't like each other. And they're breaking the Oath by being involved in this.”

“I recognize those names,” Kian said. “Haven't you had incidents with both?”

“Yes, but nothing big. A servant tripped and spilled wine on Melienne at a formal event at the College, she was going to retaliate hugely out of proportion and I stopped her because no one else was going to.”

“Thus causing her to lose face, not only from the initial embarrassment but from being thwarted,” Shon said with a sigh. “Do not, ever, cause a highborn alasir woman to lose face publicly. They take it very deeply personally. What about the other?”

“I don't remember. It probably wasn't anything important. Does it matter?”

“Quite possibly, she thinks it was important,” Shon said grimly. “I think Kisea is right, and this is not what it seems. Do you know the telepath?”

He checked. “Trinai? Her father's the third son of Lord, um, Hamond I think, her mother's half siren and was theoretically his secretary and personal relay telepath at the time. Trinai managed to trade on blood connections and being an excellent telepath to get a place in the current Lord's household. I did catch her multiple times playing nasty siren mind-games, which aren't technically breaking her Oath, on her personal employees and on College staff, and after a few repetitions of it I reported her. All she got was a warning.”

“What about the other telepath?” Kian asked. “I didn't get a good look at his face, and siren-blood tend to move much the same way, so I've no idea whether I've seen him before. He's gone inside, you won't have to lose your current focus to see him. Check. Now.”

“I think,” Shon said, “our own siren saved our lives. I think Kalli was bait. This was a trap.”

* * *

“What is going on down there?” Human language, but with a strong alasiran accent.

The other sorceress is awake. Not good.

On the other hand, they aren't going to be doing any scrying. That's good.

But they might wonder why Trinai isn't waking up. Less good.

An alasir woman in vibrant purplish-red that must have cost more than a small farm, a diamond-shaped silver and opal medallion against her chest etched with a four-armed star, descended the steep stairs with quite remarkable elegance, and all three men, the ferryman in particular rather the worse for wear, were jerked forcibly apart by invisible hands.

Behind her came a human woman, dressed just as extravagantly in salmon-pink, deep brown hair caught in a matching net that glittered with threads of gold like those in her clothes. Among the gold jewellery, the five-sided silver-and-opal medallion was very visible.

The human sorceress threw an uneasy glance behind her that was probably at the still-sleeping Trinai, as she stepped off the stairs. Kisea spared a moment to reinforce the sleep that Trinai was in—that siren was the most dangerous of the lot, able to catch Kisea as a telepath, able to fascinate her alasir. Keeping her out of this was worth some risk.

“What are you doing?” demanded the alasir sorceress Melienne.

“Trinai said we could keep her, she's not a telepath or anything,” the alpha fighter said, and paused to spit out a mouthful of blood, heedless of where it landed. “Hugh got ahead of himself.”

“I'm sure you will survive,” Melienne said acidly. She turned her dark-eyed glare on Kisea, who cringed back against the wall.

“I'm sorry, my lady,” she stammered. “I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt, I asked them not to fight over me, really...” She projected fear and shame, not so strongly it was obvious she was doing so, but enough to reinforce her acting job.

Melienne strode over, leaned down to seize her chin and tilt it up so she could see her throat.

“Encountered alasir recently, have you?”

“Thr... three of them, my lady, on the road, they robbed me and...” Kisea reached up to cover the bites with her hand, looking down. “I was feeling all dizzy and weak when I got here, and they were kind enough to give me something to eat and let me sleep a little... I wanted to show them I'm grateful, that's all.”

“Which does not explain why Trinai does not wake,” a new voice added lazily from the doorway.

Kisea snuck a look in that direction, and cursed in the privacy of her own head. Male, slender, his hair pure vivid copper-red, and a telepath crystal glittered at his throat. He was expensively-dressed in highly-tailored close-fitting short jacket and knee-length breeches, rich blue brocade glinting with gilt thread and gold buttons, slashed to display the dyed and embroidered layers beneath.

Given the way he moved, graceful and sensual, she'd have been willing to bet a lot that he was more than half siren, though probably not full if he was a strong telepath.

And he was certainly that, enough so that she was certain he had siren fascination under deliberate control, unless some quirk of nature had left his active all the time.

She didn't miss the way regal Melienne eyed him, visibly contemplating how he'd taste and what else might happen in the process, or the way the human sorceress shifted position a bit as he brushed past her, her legs pressed together under her heavy skirts.

“Oh, good, Alfeo, you're back,” Melienne said. “Trinai wanted to rest, but won't wake up. She did say this one shows no telepathy at all, but...”

He held up a hand, and she fell silent. “I'll take care of it.”

He stopped directly in front of Kisea, who kept her eyes down. She tried to breathe as shallowly as she could, but she could feel heat stirring between her legs despite the lingering soreness there, could feel fantasies struggling to get through her self-control. Siren blood didn't mean complete immunity, only resistance.

“Now, what've we here,” Alfeo said thoughtfully. Siren name, that, not a human one. “Stand up.”

She did, one hand on the wall for balance. Other than her chemise falling to mid-thigh, she was naked, and she licked dry lips, far more acutely aware of her own vulnerability—and accessibility—than she otherwise would have been. Meekly, she stood still, doing her best to keep her eyes down even when he tilted her chin up with one hand.

“You have a lot of siren blood in you, don't you,” he murmured, not really a question.

How much do you want me to have?

She strangled the thought ruthlessly. “I have some, obviously, but not enough to be much use.”

His mind touched hers, testing and probing; she slithered out of the way, as she had with Trinai, and readied herself to make sure he forgot anything he found.

*Naughty girl,* he chided, deflecting her effortlessly, but he sounded far more amused than upset. *That's why Trinai is still asleep, is it? She almost caught you, didn't she, and she's a threat to you. Now what is a pretty little controller doing here, hm? There are none associated with the Jordans, certainly.*

She stared at him in utter shock. *How did you... you can't...*

*Only a controller can block a controller, naughty girl. Did you really believe the Assembly that there are none born beyond a very occasional freak? The gift appears, rarely. They do their best to kill us or Blind us, out of fear and their own weakness, but some of us escape.* His hand slipped from her chin around to seize her braided hair, looping it around a couple of times to hold her securely.

I'm going to cut my damned hair this time, I swear...

*Let's find out just what you're doing here, pretending to be all helpless, shall we? Are you going to let me in, or am I going to have to hurt you?*

Nononono... oh, now what do I do? Please, please, let Matt be watching, because I don't dare reach...

*I don't even know you, and you expect me to open up my mind to you?* she asked flirtatiously.

*You were willing to open up those pretty legs for someone one short step above an animal.*

*Yes, well, you do what you have to, for a hot meal and a bed when you need one.*

*And why do you need one so badly, hm? Lovely marks on your throat. Weakness for alasir-blood?*

*I'm not stupid enough to invite three alasir to feed all at once,* she snapped. *Look, I run the roads, I have no home.* She backed it up with a couple of random memories, carefully well over a month old, from before she encountered Kian. She felt him seize on them, following them. His touch in her mind made her feel far more soiled than any sex with any degree of willingness ever had; she shivered, but let him look, let him see the worst gang-rape she'd found herself in, let him see sleeping outside in the cool autumn rain while she tried to find a place to spend the winter. *I'll do whatever I have to, to survive and stay out of the Assembly's hands. Sometimes it's worse than others. Quick sex with a trio of humans, well, briefly boring and a bit smelly, but nothing that really matters, you know?*

*Maybe,* he mused. *Certainly none of the Jordans would tolerate an ally living that way, and those memories are real.*

*Jordans again. I knew one when I was at the College. He threatened to turn me in. I ran away. Jordans are the last people you're ever going to see me voluntarily around.* Since he was going to find it anyway, she let him see that last fight with Matt.

*And that one in particular. How interesting. How do you feel about him?*

*How do you think I feel about him? He was the only one who knew, and I used it to help him deal with his own weird gift, and then he turned on me! Sure, I'm going to run right to him with hugs and kisses on sight!*

*Hm. So why won't you let me get at your most recent memories? What are you hiding in there?* Alfeo circled around them, stroking her shields with a sensuality that made her shudder to her core. *Are you going to make me break these open, naughty girl?*

*I let you have my whole life, and you want the one bit I'd like to keep private because even I find it embarrassing?*

*There's nothing you need to be embarrassed about. The way Caalden treats sirens, we all suffer, and we've all done things we wish we hadn't. You don't need to run the roads anymore, unless you're hiding something from me that's particularly naughty. You can have a home and not have to be afraid of the Assembly ever again, and have other controllers you can learn from. Hm, and teach as well, you have an interesting knack for healing minds. I hadn't thought of using it that way.* His mindvoice dropped to a purr. *Teach me, and you can have someone else heal you, the way you've healed others.*

She hesitated, genuinely tempted. He was living proof she wasn't the only one, and where there were two, there could certainly be more. It was a far more likely route out of her life on the road than Matt's mad idea, and it would take away the chance of dragging Matt down with her.

*Even if there's something particularly naughty you're hiding,* he murmured, *tell me what it is, and I'm sure we can work around it.* She felt his breath against her lips, then his lips against hers, and hers parted instinctively under what was possibly the most skilled and sensuous kiss she'd ever experienced. She couldn't quite keep her knees from trembling, her whole body from wanting to sag against his and surrender everything. *That abomination of a sorcerer who betrayed you, we're just waiting for him to show up to rescue his precious highborn cousin. Then you can have any revenge you choose, as long as he dies.*

*What do you have against him?*

*Unnatural whelp, with sorcery beyond any sane limits and telepathy and the lifewitch-gift as well. He should've been drowned at birth. Or at least when it became clear how much of a freak he is.* Contempt vibrated through his mindvoice. *And yet he acts like he owns the world and has every right to impose his own will anywhere he pleases, and those in authority in most places have too much fear of Lord Jordan and too much awe for that stunt his parents pulled off to question him. I sent two of my employees after a runaway, a girl who belonged to me, one much like you were pretending to be just now, barely siren enough to be appealing to men, and he stole her without even pretending otherwise. To add insult to injury, he used information from her to try to have me charged with a list of crimes, and it cost me a lot of favours and coin and effort to get out of it. Trinai and Melienne and Ursula have complaints of their own. It all adds up to the conclusion that he's running wild, with no checks on his power or his authority, and he needs to be stopped. It's a wonder he hasn't tracked you down yet. I imagine he's trying. You'll never have to hide from him again.*

This is no choice at all.

Wonderfully, blessedly, she felt another mind brush against hers, a hand offered.

She gave Alfeo her best inviting smile, leaned closer for another kiss, and put everything she had behind it, making sure all his attention was on that alone.

*I'm keeping a very big secret,* she whispered.

*Yes?* He still sounded amused, but there was anticipation there, too. He really didn't want to fight with her directly. That gave her hope.

*I made a decision that I was willing to give my life to keep someone unique and special from ruining his. I think it might be more useful to live and look after him instead. Matt is a thousand times the man you are, and you can't have him!* Psychic claws extended, she lunged at him mentally; simultaneously, she curved her hand around the back of his neck and dug in with her nails to make sure he couldn't break physical contact, feeling wet trickles under her fingertips, as she tangled the other hand in the fabric of his expensive doublet. *Matt! I'll hold him! You'll have to do the rest!*

*On it,* Matt answered instantly.

*Oh, you stupid little bitch,* Alfeo spat, green eyes blazing as they locked on hers. She had no time for pointless games and symbolism, and closed her own eyes to shut out the sudden flurry of activity around them. Above all else, she had to make sure he had no attention to spare for Matt and his cousins.

Psychic blows pounded her shields with all the power of offended fury behind them.

She struck back, choosing openings coolly, thinking of Shon and the silvery-steel dance of his sword in a fight, deflecting smoothly and precisely, flickering out to draw blood and return to parrying without missing a beat, thinking of Kian stalking hares with stealth and patience and choosing the right moment to take aim with his bow for a swift clean kill.

Despite that, the rage feeding her was at least the equal of his.

*You're fighting your own kind for the man who betrayed you, stupid bitch,* Alfeo snarled.

*All your life, you must have seen people hurting, and you never thought to heal it? What were you doing to that poor girl Matt rescued that wasn't as bad as humans and alasir do to us all? You are not my kind. I'm nothing like you!*

*Once he's done with you here, what do you expect? He's sworn to hand you right over to the Assembly! He's your enemy!*

*Oh, I think I'll marry him. And then I'll keep an eye on him and his cousins to make sure people like you stay away from them. All three are mine. Hands off!*

With the suddenness of a slamming door, the pressure against her mind vanished completely.

Kisea swayed, barely kept her balance and enough presence of mind to let go as Alfeo dropped to her feet and didn't move.

Kallima squealed as two of the female fighters turned on her, one wrenching the pottage cauldron out of her hand, the other pinning her arms. The pottage that was slopped all over Alfeo, and some on Kisea, and liberally all over the floor in a wide arc, told the story.

Panting, aching all over from the tension of her body while she'd been locked in the psychic contest, and certain she knew how laundry felt after it had been violently stirred and then wrung out through a pair of rollers, Kisea took a deep breath. Not done yet, enemies remained, though they were eyeing her warily and keeping a careful distance from her. No sign of the sorceresses. She looked around, trying to think of what was in reach that she could possibly use as a weapon—one that wasn't in the hands of any of the fighters who, oddly, were all dripping wet to the waist. Although, actually, not one of them was holding anything more than a knife. Kallima had managed to get rid of not only the collar but her riding skirt, which on reflection made sense since as a sodden weight it would only have tripped and slowed her, but it was a startlingly practical and immodest thing for a highborn girl to do under any circumstances. Kallima kicked at the fighter holding her, and the heel of her riding boot impacted with a low thud against leather-faced quilted armour.

“Give me a hand, here,” the woman holding her snapped. “She's slippery as a damned cat! And she has claws!” That last she added as Kallima lashed out at her face, nails going right for her eyes, the fighter barely ducking aside in time.

The walls around them quivered, and with a low eerie groaning, wood began to warp and twist, boards pulling away from each other, gaps appearing that let in the fresh evening air and widened rapidly.

“Oh, what now,” moaned another fighter, one of the alasir. “Out! Everyone!”

“Orders were...” the one holding Kallima objected.

“There's about to be no building to hold her in!”

Eight women fled, not only through the door but through whatever spaces were wide enough to pass a body. The one holding Kallima, nonetheless, kept a grip on her wrist with what might under other circumstances be admirable dedication. Kallima snatched for one of the contorting boards, maybe to use as a weapon, but was jerked roughly off-balance and through before she could.

Nine women. Trinai stumbled through the door, her expensive skirt snagging on a board; to get free she had to give it a yank that tore a long rent in the fabric, then it caught again at the hem, and needed another pull before she could escape entirely.

The tortured wood groaned again, a long sliding note, and the entire building collapsed inwards with a rather unexpected and violent splash.

Trinai screamed and dropped to her knees, clutching at the arrow that had just glided out of the twilight and driven itself into her upper chest to one side—not a killing shot, but one that was going to keep her far too busy to be a threat.

The only other controller I've ever met was still in there.

Oh well.

So were my clothes. And my boots. And my pack with what was left of what I own.

Damn it.

The fighters spun to track the source of the arrow, though exactly what use any of them expected a knife to be, Kisea had no idea.

“Drop them and lie down.” Kian's voice, with that cold iron tone Kisea had heard when he'd rescued her before. “Let her go. Now.” He had another arrow in place already, bow raised, sighting directly on the fighter holding Kallima.

Loyalty to an employer was one thing, but one didn't live long as a fighter if one made stupid gestures. The one holding Kallima released her, and Kallima ran to Kisea, who pulled her protectively behind her, keeping her own body between the younger girl and the six fighters.

Shon, two strides ahead of Kian, had a sword like nothing Kisea had ever seen, the blade the length of his arm and the point asymmetrical, and in his other hand what might have been a short staff or might have been the sheath. Both the male fighters were down, one in such a wide dark puddle she doubted he'd be alive long, the other moaning and writhing but staying flat with a hawk perched on top of him. The ferryman was down, too, with arrows in both legs, apparently in mid-flight towards the river. Closer still to the water was a motionless shape that might have been a person once, but she picked up no sense of life.

More worrying was that Matt was still facing both sorceresses, in a duel moving too quickly and on too arcane a level for non-sorcerer senses to follow it readily.

The fighter women, one at a time, let knives fall to the ground and laid down.

Shon, keeping an eye somehow on everything at once, beckoned to Kisea and Kallima.

Oh, what a pair we are, Kisea thought wryly, neither of them terribly steady as they supported each other across the open ground as rapidly as they could to the safe spot behind Kian.

Except that it wasn't entirely safe, not while the sorcery battle remained unfinished.

Kisea sat down where she was, wriggling the end of her chemise under her bare bottom, straightened her back, and closed her eyes.

Matt had taken time from his own duel to get her and Kalli out of the cottage where they were isolated and vulnerable, out to where Kian and Shon could act.

She had to help him, in turn.

And besides, if Matt lost, what was the point of surviving?

Fatigue made her tremble, made her psychic touch much less steady and sure than it should have been. The magic being flung around created interference of a sort, which made it that much harder to get through. She had no idea which of the two sorceresses she'd seized on, just whichever offered a better grip for her to dig in mental fingernails and hang onto while she laboriously wormed her way deeper and deeper.

* * *

With Kallima and Shimai safe with Kian and Shon and Jori, who could certainly handle the fighters now they'd broken cover, it was easier for Matt to concentrate on his own battle.

He really hated duelling. There was no goal other than someone getting hurt, and little room for finesse or elegance, only making sure not to be the one who got hurt. Against two who were both respectably strong and more practised at this kind of magic, it took everything he had to keep blocking attacks from different directions and of different kinds. He was sure he could think of something that would defeat one or the other, but with everything moving and changing this fast, it was far more likely to be an instant's decision based on a fleeting opportunity, rather than anything he could actually plan.

All those poetic sorcery battles in the sagas were, as near as he could tell, purely romanticized, because the hero planning some kind of strategy and luring an opponent into it sounded a lot better than the hero having quick reflexes, good shields, obstinacy, and luck. But maybe that was just his own limited experience. He avoided duels as often as possible, after all.

Melienne gathered what he was sure was another of those nerve-wracking percussive blows that, if one ever connected, he suspected would shatter every bone in his body; Ursula began to spin something new.

Gestures might have little to do with magic, but it was still instinct to fling both hands up in warding as Melienne's blow crashed down. He did listen to his cousins, and knew better than to meet force head-on with force; he deflected it sideways, and winced as the ground trembled with the impact only inches from him.

Ursula held out a hand, her fingers curled in what was probably a mnemonic pattern, and light gathered around them, crackling and flickering.

Not light, electricity.

Meanwhile, Melienne was readying her own next attack.

With a piercing shriek, a small shape stooped on Ursula's handful of electricity, sharp talons binding into the sorceress' well-kept flesh. Ursula's scream climbed nearly as high as that of her attacker, though she struggled despite the pain to keep from losing control of the spell entirely.

In the aura of the surging, barely-contained lightning, the raptor no longer looked like a red-tailed hawk. The wings she spread for balance were far too long and graceful, the crest she raised belonged to no mortal bird, and tiny sparks danced along feathers of a thousand shades of grey and silver. Heart-stopping beauty that didn't really belong to the mortal world, as wild as the wind and fierce as a storm and out of reach as the sky.

What were we thinking, even trying to capture that, instead of just being forever grateful to see it?

Glowing eyes fixed on Ursula's as the stormhawk shrieked again, a note that climbed up past what human or alasir ears could hear.

Ursula froze.

The lightning slipped free, and grounded itself via the nearest channel: Ursula herself.

She crumpled; Jori kicked free and took to the sky, suddenly just a red-tailed hawk again, that reminder of her true nature gone.

Matt dismissed Ursula, with considerable relief, as being no longer immediately relevant, and spun back to see what Melienne was about to lash out with, readying an attack of his own that just might get through if Jori had left her sufficiently unsettled.

Melienne knelt on the bare ground, purple-red skirts a puddle around her, hands spread palm-down. “Fight's over, dear,” she said. Melienne's voice, even Melienne's accent, but not Melienne's words. “Don't hit her while I'm in her head, please, I'm having enough trouble holding her. Jori distracted her enough to give me an opening. I think this one and the male siren were the ones who started the whole thing, and he's dead, so best if she survives so we can get answers.”

What he'd have liked to do is release all the energies he was holding and collapse where he was, and whatever price he was going to pay, well, so be it. Or, at the very least, release most of it and check that his family were all safe, though he could see Kallima with Kian, and Shimai sitting on the ground with them motionless... except, of course, that Shimai was currently behind Melienne's eyes. Shon was tying the wrists of the fighter women and checking them for hidden weapons, quietly efficient, and none dared to protest with Kian watching them; they should, Matt thought, be grateful that Shon's hands wouldn't wander opportunistically like those of many would. Trinai who was supposed to make all the difference was just a sobbing huddle of pain, close to the ruins of the cottage. The male fighters were no threat: before the sorceresses had commandeered his attention, he'd seen them try to reach Kian, who was at that moment dropping the ferryman before he could reach the water and escape. Shon, with cool efficiency, had cut down both, untouched by either staff, before they got anywhere near Kian.

Instead, Matt stayed ready, just in case. After all, the chance did exist that Melienne might wriggle free, with Shimai already tired.

He saw Jori dip downwards, far enough away across the river that she was quickly out of sight behind the trees. Good. Lord Jordan should be waiting—probably not very patiently—across the river and far enough away to be undetected. His uncle would recognize Jori and follow her, and he'd have enough people with him to clean up now that his beloved eldest daughter was no longer being held hostage.

“There, that will inhibit any use of magic at all.” Melienne's dark eyes met his with a weary sort of mischief in them. “So, are you interested in this soft pretty body of hers? It might be interesting, experiencing sex through alasir senses. Oh my, that made her scream. Where did such a fine lady learn language like that?” A smile and a wink, and Melienne's body language changed in a heartbeat: she leaped to her feet, her expression twisted into pure rage.

“I wouldn't,” Matt said quietly. “You're completely alone, and now you don't even have magic left to use. My family and I are all still standing.” Barely, in Kallima's case and his own, and technically not at all in Shimai's, but near enough. “I have no idea what this was all about, but it's over.”

“No idea what it's about?” Melienne's fists clenched until her knuckles whitened. “You self-centred uppity whelp! You interfere with the lives of your betters...”

“By which I assume you mean fullbloods. I've heard you rant before about crossbreeds being exterminated as vermin instead of trained to use our gifts, and that the idea of crossing producing the gifts is propaganda.”

“... and you can't even be bothered to notice the consequences of what you're so blithely doing!”

“The consequences of rescuing one poor teenaged siren-blood from Alfeo led to nine others held prisoner in a whorehouse being released. The consequences of stopping you from a disproportionate punishment on someone who just made a mistake was that she went home to her family after work intact. You could have been gracious and forgiving lady and risen above it instead of acting like a spoiled child who just dropped her candy. Don't expect me to feel guilty, ever, for standing up for someone who has no one else willing to defend them.”

He could feel his grip on the gathered energies slipping; he could do something more with them, put off the coming collapse just a little longer at the cost of making it a little worse, but he couldn't do it forever.

“Of course not,” Shimai said wearily. Barefoot and barely dressed, on her feet only on sheer determination and leaning on Kian's staff, she halted where she could see both him and Melienne. Matt fumbled quickly with the throat-clasp of his cloak, and swung it around Shimai's shoulders; she gave him a quick smile of thanks, despite Melienne's strangled noise of outrage, and settled it comfortably so she could slide her arms through the slits. “You wouldn't be you, otherwise, dear. You, move. Over with the others where Kian can keep an eye on you.”

“Mindraping crossbreed slut,” Melienne hissed. “I could have stopped your heart when I had you in my hands.”

“You were too relieved to have a toy to keep the men distracted from you,” Shimai said acidly, and smacked the staff smartly across Melienne's bottom—not hard enough for any damage other than maybe bruises, but Matt figured it hurt, and the indignity was worse. “I said move.”

Mercilessly, she drove Melienne over to Shon and abandoned her to his care.

That was a relief, because the world was tilting alarmingly. He actually had no idea what the combination of magics he'd used would demand as a price. This was almost certainly going to be very bad.

Shimai's arm wrapped around his waist, steadying him against her as she helped him sit down safely.

“I'm not going to be able to help this time,” she said softly. “I just have nothing left. I'm sorry.”

“I know. But we're all alive because of you.” He blinked, realized his vision was gone again. Of course, after all that watching and tracking along with everything else. “Stay here?”

He heard her move, felt her presence shift position. “Lie down,” she said, her hands guiding him. A bit surprisingly, he found himself with his head on her crossed legs, but her fingers running through his hair felt nice. “I'll be right here. I promise. I won't disappear on you.”

That was something to hold onto, as the world twisted inside out.

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