Within sight of the College, they paused.
Kisea gazed at the no-longer-familiar buildings, her fingers twined into Honey's mane as she fought down her own instinctive fear. Honey shifted restively under her, maybe sensing her mood.
Shon unhooked a skin of watered wine from his saddle, took a swallow and passed it around.
“Anything they want to do to you, they'll have to do to me first,” Matt said quietly. “And I won't be cooperative.” He pulled his medallion out from under his shirt, where she suspected he'd been keeping it largely so she didn't have to look at it, and let it rest against his chest in plain sight against the dark wool. He unstrapped his cloak from behind him, tossed it around his shoulders white-side-out, and fastened the throat-clasp.
That easily, he changed from her lover—no, her husband, that was still hard to really grasp—to a Sixth-level sorcerer.
“Stay by Matt,” Kian said. “Being officially Matt's private guards allows us a rather broad scope for being protective without repercussions.”
“And I'm currently Matt's responsibility,” Kisea said wryly. With anyone else, I'd be a prisoner.
“One I like more than most of my responsibilities,” Matt said. “Please trust me that I know what I'm doing.”
“I'm here,” she pointed out.
Trust didn't stop her stomach from twisting into painful knots as they rode past the ornate sign declaring this to be the College.
I will not throw up. I will not.
Honey fell obligingly into step with her head level with Matt's leg; Kian and Shon flanked them alertly, Kian on Kisea's other side but a little farther away, Shon immediately behind but towards Matt's side, with Bear trailing amiably.
The College was as much alasir as it was human, so day or night made little difference in the number of people active—though perhaps sirens tilted it somewhat towards daylight. No one really paid any attention to them, though. Alasir-blood sorcerer, siren-blood telepath, and a couple of guards were too ordinary to create a stir.
Matt stopped in front of a large building she didn't immediately recognize, but the ornate crest carved into the double doors was indication enough. He swung off Jori's back, moved over to help Kisea down—she landed a bit stiffly, still not entirely accustomed to all this riding instead of walking, but his hand steadied her until she caught her balance.
*I'm right here, I love you, and I will keep you safe,* his thoughts whispered in hers.
Is it that obvious that I'm terrified half out of my mind?
He kept ahold of her hand, led her to the door and through it.
The room beyond was large, the walls lined with benches, on which a number of people were waiting, and in the centre was an imposingly elaborate desk with a single man behind it.
Matt made directly for the latter, who raised his head and gave him a questioning look that was threaded with boredom and disdain.
“I need,” Matt said, “to address at least one representative of each Assembly. Immediately.”
“Do you, now,” the alasir-blood man behind the desk said, his tone clearly calculated to remind importunate upstarts of their place. “Those waiting need a variety of things, as well, and they're all more likely to happen.” A telepath crystal glittered at his throat, almost invisible behind the ostentatious jewellery.
“No.” Matt didn't raise his voice, but somehow, everything in his body language simply screamed that he was someone who had both power and authority and that he would be heard. Had he learned that from Shon, maybe? “I'm Matthian Jordan, I'm Lord Jordan's High Warden of the Peace, and the lady beside me is both my wife and in need of the Assembly giving an accounting of its treatment of her as born with the controller gift. I will see Assembly representatives. Right now.”
He didn't threaten to get their attention personally.
He didn't have to.
Oh, I do hope you know what you're doing, being this aggressive...
The man behind the desk actually, physically, turned pale even for an alasir, and Kisea caught the fringes of telepathic contact, as every other sound in the room drowned in the sudden total silence. She wasn't sure which part of the statement it was that prompted that response, although maybe it was the combination.
Awareness of Shon's proximity was intensely comforting, because the utter stillness behind them made her back itch, waiting for an attack.
“I've, uhm, passed on the message to the appropriate people.”
“I can find you somewhere to wait.”
“To get us out of sight?”
“Somewhere more comfortable, I mean.”
“This isn't going to take that long.” There was no compromise at all in his voice.
“It will be arranged as quickly as possible, but most are involved in other business at the moment.”
“None of which has waited for almost ten years to be resolved, I assume.”
A period of quiet that felt like it lasted forever, while the crystal of the telepath behind the desk shimmered and flickered, telepathic messages darting back and forth rapidly.
“One representative from each is willing to see you immediately,” the extremely nervous telepath said. “I'll show you where.”
“Which room?” Matt asked.
“The blue meeting room.”
“Thank you, I know the way.” Matt glanced at Kisea, gave her hand a squeeze. “The archway to the left.”
The broad, stone-floored halls were lined with portraits, men and woman, a mingling of races, though universally shown in expensive clothing and aristocratic settings: past Assembly members, those not born accustomed to highborn life adopting it as soon as possible, at least in image and frequently in spirit. The whole place positively reeked of complacent self-satisfied luxury.
Matt paused, tapped on an open door, and urged her inside. Shon stayed with them, to her relief, closing the door and placing himself silently near it with his staff-sword grounded on the floor and his hands around it. It rather reminded her of Kian's pose when he'd rescued her from her would-be rapists.
The room was dominated by a large table polished to a high gloss, surrounded by great carved chairs, though the blatant wealth didn't end with that.
Two other fighters were present, interestingly, both in the white-and-red uniform of the College, but like Shon, they were making themselves unobtrusive.
Not so the other two people present. One was a woman with creamy-white hair neatly caught in a golden net, her rounded body garbed in an elegant skirt and bodice of deeply-dyed intricate brocade highlighted with gold jewellery, her face marked by deep creases from age but, Kisea thought, little from exposure to the elements. A golden medallion rested against her chest on a heavy chain, one with no star at all and the opal-set disc was circular: First, the highest level for a sorcerer, and gold for the Assembly. The other was a man whose copper hair was silvering, in plainer though still expensive clothes and a few pieces of gold jewellery, none of which detracted from the crystal at his throat or the medallion he wore: gold as well, and a circle, but set instead with a star-ruby. Only telepaths who sat in the Assembly had those as symbols of office.
The sorceress had seated herself at the table, though the telepath remained on his feet.
“This is all extremely dramatic and not at all like you, Matt,” the sorceress said. “What's this about?”
“Honora Drazen, Chimo Efisu, my wife Kisea, who was Shimai some years ago when she was a student here.” Matt drew her gently over to the table, pulled out a chair for her across from the sorceress, and took the one beside her; the other telepath sat down as well.
“Well?” the sorceress, Honora, prompted.
“This is going to take some explaining,” Matt said. “And I know the Assembly isn't going to be comfortable having to deal with it.”
“Which won't stop you,” Chimo said.
“Not given the alternative, no.”
“You have us for as long as necessary,” Honora said. “Explain.”
“There are two related issues, one personal and one broader, but I think the easiest approach is chronological. Kisea and I were extremely close when we were both at the College as students. While she was trying to help me with the after-effects of magic use, we discovered that she has what's generally called the controller gift, although that really doesn't describe it well. Current laws and public perception being what they are, she ran away before graduating, and has been hiding since then. That technically makes her a renegade, but taking the Oath would have meant the Assembly learning about her gift. We were unclear what the consequences would be of coming forward then, but nothing suggested that anyone would be particularly impartial about what we thought was a unique gift, despite her never misusing it. Obviously, we lost contact.”
“Illegal, but I suppose understandable,” Honora conceded.
Chimo's expression stayed utterly neutral, though attentive; while Kisea picked up fragments of thought from Honora that reassured her the older woman was receptive, his shields were up so tightly she could sense nothing at all. Fear because he was in the same room with a controller? Honora showed no particular nervousness, though.
“Approximately five years ago, I went to Lord Jordan, my mother's brother, because I was concerned about a situation I'd encountered on Jordan lands that involved a legal verdict made more on race than evidence, and asked his permission to investigate. In the process it became clear that despite Lord Jordan's standing edicts, there remain serious inconsistencies in the way justice is handled. He hired me to look into it and gave me authority of summary justice and superior justice.”
“Yes, we're aware of that,” Chimo said, with a hint of a sigh.
“For the past five years, I've been investigating, not laws as such, but their effects on individuals and how they're applied. Along the edge of Jordan lands and into the disputed territories, I started hearing about a mindhealer who helped those that other mindhealers had been unable to cure, and I started asking questions. I have a substantial collection of sworn accounts, under truthspell, from people who were healed personally and from their loved ones, from all over the disputed lands and along the borders, collected whenever I could arrange time off from my primary responsibilities. They all described the same woman, who frequently refused payment or accepted it only in barter-goods that could be spared. Even though I was digging for it, I found no suggestion at all of a controller gift being misused in the same places and times.”
He paused, took a deep breath. “What I did find, however, is evidence of other controllers. Some of them clearly abused their gifts, although in some cases I have to question the degree to which they were forced to for lack of any other options. I also talked to families of College students who were told that they had died by accident or illness, siren-human halfbreeds or close to it, and in several cases, they mentioned details that I recognized from Kisea before her gift fully manifested. I don't know how to interpret that, but I do think it needs to be investigated.”
Honora frowned. “Yes, and I'd like to take a much closer look at everything you found. You have it here?”
“One copy of it, yes, and you're welcome to make as many copies of it as you like.”
Chimo's silence and complete lack of perceptible reaction, in contrast to Honora's apparently genuine concern, worried Kisea. She wondered whether she could get away with reading him, but concluded that it would be a bad idea to even try. He'd be watching for that, and no telepath made it to the Assembly without a high level of skill and experience; being caught would only look terrible.
“In more recent developments,” Matt said, “a few days ago, Lord Jordan's daughter Kallima was kidnapped.”
“We heard,” Chimo said noncommittally.
“It appears that it was actually a trap set for me. Kisea and I crossed paths by chance while I was on the way there, and she agreed to help in the interests of keeping Kallima safe. Despite the risk to her own safety, both from me and from the people holding Kallima.”
“Noted,” Honora said.
“As things turned out, without her, Kallima and I would almost certainly both be dead. One of those involved was a telepath I had a history with. He was operating an unlicensed brothel in Perifaithe with siren-blood girls and boys both who were not there by choice. Their behaviour when released was odd enough to make me wonder, but I had no evidence. I was right, he was a controller. Kisea fought him directly, among other things. Lord and Lady Jordan are extremely grateful. So am I.”
“Noted,” Honora repeated. “And yet now you're here together?”
“We are married, fully and formally, by Lord Jordan's hand. It is an extremely long-standing precedent that formal marriage includes some forms of shared legal responsibility for criminal acts. Conversely, therefore, it can and should include the opposite. She is, therefore, no longer in any sense a renegade, unless someone has grounds to question my Oath, and the Assembly needs to recognize this publicly and formally.”
The room was quiet for a moment.
“You're certainly correct about this being something it would be more comfortable to sweep aside,” Honora said finally. “You won't settle for persuading the Assembly to make a single-case exception and just quietly acknowledge your wife without making a precedent of it, will you?” She didn't sound like she really expected it.
“No.” Matt's tone left no question about whether he'd even consider it.
“Of course not. This evidence that you've collected...”
Matt glanced towards Shon, who crossed the room to hand him the leather satchel of paper.
“These aren't leaving my hands,” Matt said firmly, opening the satchel and taking out the larger box. “You are, however, quite welcome to copy it, and now that we're no longer on the road I'll work on doing further copies for others in the Assembly.”
“You're very quiet,” Honora said to Kisea. “Do you have anything to add?”
“Not really. I don't want to spend the rest of my life running and hiding all because of something I was born with and have only ever used to heal or in self-defence. I just want to have an ordinary life, badly enough for it to be worth taking some risks. Or letting Matt take them.” Kisea shrugged. “Well, as ordinary a life as being married to Matt allows.”
She saw just the briefest flicker of sympathy and humour in Honora's eyes. “Hm, yes. All right. Properly speaking, you should be in a shielded cell...”
“No,” Matt said flatly.
“... but, as I was about to say, I think we can make other arrangements. It will take time to gather the entire Joint Assembly, and for everyone to have a chance to assess the evidence you're offering. There may be some further investigation into both the immediate situation and these findings of other controllers, and there will probably be further questions. Although it won't be in a cell, I do think it might be best if the two of you were to not wander around the College and city.”
“Understood,” Matt said. “But both my cousins stay with us.”
Honora's eyebrows rose. “You expect to be in danger?”
“I don't know what to expect right now. If nothing else, I'll feel safer, I know Kisea will, and you won't have to find somewhere else to put them.”
“True. Stay here, please. I'll send one of the clerks to copy that, and make arrangements for somewhere for you to stay until we can convene the full Assembly.”
“Thank you,” Matt said. “For the record, we have every intention of cooperating, as long as this is treated honestly and honourably.”
“I expected as much from you. Chimo? Have you anything to add?”
“Not currently,” the telepath said. “I'll be very interested to read this evidence, however.”
Both Assembly representatives left the room.
Matt closed a hand around hers again for another brief squeeze, gave her a quick smile, and opened the box to start sorting through the thick stack of paper.
A lot of that is my life, Kisea thought. Personal histories from a lot of people whose paths crossed mine and, I hope, were better afterwards, or at least no worse for it. Far more information about me than I thought anyone knew. And we're handing it over to the Assembly. Willingly.
Oh, I hope you're right about all this... and that it all turns out to be an oversight, a blind spot, nothing worse.
A young alasir-blood man with a seven-sided silver opal medallion came in the room, a considerable stack of paper cradled in the crook of one arm; Matt greeted him with a smile, gestured invitingly to the paper. “Help yourself.”
“Thank you.” The younger sorcerer sat at the end of the table, set down the stack of what turned out to be blank paper, and drew the nearest pile into reach.
As he flipped through each page, slowly and deliberately, an exact duplicate appeared on the next blank sheet, which he then moved aside with one hand while turning to the next page with the other. It was, Kisea thought, not a task requiring a high degree of power, but it did need meticulous attention to keep errors from creeping in. So, she watched, distantly, concentrating on keeping her breathing slow.
A woman whose black hair was white at the temples, neatly but not extravagantly dressed, with a telepath crystal at her throat, came in while the sorcerer was still working, but waited quietly until he finished and gathered up his own copy.
“We can work from this one,” he said. “But of course working from copies of copies...”
“Send me paper,” Matt said. “I'll do more copies from the originals.”
“If you'll come with me,” the woman said, “we have quarters ready for you.”
“Thank you,” Matt said. “The horses?”
“Already taken to the stables, and your belongings are waiting for you.”
Whatever else one could say about the College and the related administration, in some things you could hardly fault the efficiency.
There was no sign of Kian, but presumably he'd gone with the horses.
The woman showed them to another building, up two flights of stairs, and opened a wide door. “There's a rope just inside to pull if you need anything. Three alasir-blood and a siren-blood, as far as meals? Nocturnal schedule?”
“Yes, probably,” Matt said. “The schedule might change, but that's fine for now.”
The woman nodded and closed the door behind her.
Kisea looked around at the luxuriously-appointed sitting room. “I should be in a cell, but they put us in a highborn suite?”
“They're shielded,” Matt pointed out. “As far as living quarters, the suites and the cells have the strongest shields in the College. As long as they know we're in here, they don't need to wonder what we're doing, so they can concentrate on the actual issue. The shielding goes both ways, so at least we know we can have some privacy.”
“Even if the door isn't locked,” Shon said, “I have no doubt someone will be watching.”
“Several, I would think, some of them via scrying or seeing.”
“Any individual or minority group that seeks to simplify the problem by removing you two will have no hope of being unobserved. Not that they could get past your loyal guards, but a deterrent to try is better yet.”
“I don't think anyone's likely to try to kill us in our beds,” Matt objected.
Shon shrugged. “Exactly, for many reasons.”
Their gear was in a pile a short way from the door; it was generally not a good idea to start opening bags and baskets belonging to a sorcerer, since they might bite.
Flanking the sitting room were two sumptuous bedrooms, against the outer wall, and two smaller plainer ones that lacked windows, clearly for personal servants the occupants wanted nearby, and even a private bathroom complete with a copper boiler.
“At least we'll be comfortable, waiting for the sentence,” Kisea murmured to Shon, who had come up behind her in one of the larger rooms, carrying the packs Kallima and her mother had put together so thoughtfully for Kisea.
“Try not to think that way,” Shon said gently. “There is quite a lot in your favour.”
“And generations of fear and ignorance, to say nothing of the Assembly's convenience and pride, against me.”
“Have hope. Sometimes, right really does win.”
“The three of you are probably going to regret being in a confined space for days with a scared and anxious half-siren.”
“Anything that helps you get through this.”
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