“Sorry to interrupt...” Matt said from the doorway of the bedroom.

Kisea, who currently had Kian pinned on the bed under her, looked up and behind her. “More questions?” They'd been visited a few times by Assembly members or chosen experts in search of further information: Kisea had spent several hours talking to a pair of senior mindhealers about exactly what she did and more time with a telepath discussing how her gift had developed and how it worked, there were questions for them all about the trap, and all three alasir-blood had been questioned privately about her.

“Not this time. We've been asked to come to a meeting, as soon as possible.”

“What?” She scrambled off Kian and the bed, throttling the conflicting urge to deal with the sudden spike of panic the opposite way. “They didn't give us much warning!”

“I suppose they assumed you'd be available,” Kian said, sitting up and moving towards the edge of the bed.

“This isn't the time for jokes!”

“It's exactly the time for jokes,” Matt said, catching her hands to pull her close for a kiss. “Everything's going to be all right. They're taking it seriously, otherwise we wouldn't have had so many people through here for the past few days. And if they're actually looking at everything, how can they not see how this has to be? But this isn't the actual hearing, it's something less formal, which is definitely unexpected.”

“Hoping to bargain to keep what you found quiet?” Kian suggested.

“Could be, I suppose, but that's not an acceptable option.”

“No one who knows you would really expect it to be.”

“The only way we'll find out is to go.”

Kisea took a deep breath, and nodded. “Clothes would be helpful.”

Kian ran his gaze along the length of her naked body. “That depends on whether you want them able to think or not, but yes, I suppose so.”

Thanks to the efficient College laundry, all their clothes were clean; with hot water readily available, Kisea had been using baths as an intermittent substitute for sex in distracting herself and keeping her stress levels manageable, and knew all three of her companions were keeping clean, so at least the lack of time for bathing wasn't an issue.

Chemise, bodice, trousers from Kallima or her mother—these ones oak-green—and her boots, and she brushed and braided her hair with hands that trembled.

The Jordan colours, she had to admit, suited alasir-blood colouring: Shon and Kian, both in their red jerkins and dark gold trousers, looked wonderful. Matt, in dark grey trousers and a deep blue tunic, his medallion brightly visible, looked every inch the sorcerer as he swung his cloak around him.

An impression he then thoroughly destroyed by grumbling half under his breath about the latter being twice as much fabric as really necessary.

All in all, though, Kisea figured they actually looked reasonably respectable.

In the corridor, a male human guard in College white and red waited. Kisea sensed nothing in particular from him, just a practicality and focus that suggested that he was simply doing his job as ordered with minimal effort to think about it.

He showed them down to the ground floor, but not out of the building. There were, Kisea knew, several rooms for the use of highborn guests, and one of them was a meeting room similar to the one in which she and Matt had met with the two Assembly representatives, though this one was in shades of cream and brown. The great polished table, ringed by ornate chairs, was much like the other, though. Unlike the other, this room had large crystals spaced precisely along the walls in ornate brass settings, creating an energy field that disrupted all telepathy and empathy.

She'd have liked to be able to feel Matt and Shon and Kian, their presence comforting against her inner senses, but resigned herself to being effectively not a telepath. At least it was only temporary, when it was done this way, and left no secondary damage.

The sorceress Honora was there, and the telepath Chimo, flanking the woman who sat at the end of the table. The berry-purple sheen to her dark burgundy-wine hair gave away mixed siren and alasir blood. That was clue enough that she was a lifewitch even without the round star-less gold medallion that showed an oval of clear greenish amber with a leaf frozen forever inside: First Level, the lifewitch version, which used amber rather than opal but otherwise paralleled the sorcerer system. It was hard to judge lifewitch ages, since they could make at least minor alterations to their own bodies and their gifts generally kept them healthy, but Kisea thought she remembered her being active around the College when she was a student here. She was dressed fairly sensibly, but then, lifewitches tended to spend much of their lives active and busy, and elaborate finery would be more inconvenient than it was worth.

The Telepath and Sorcerer Assemblies were each comprised of five people; the lifewitches were so uncommon they lacked their own, but when the Joint Assembly sat, three lifewitches were now always included, and one of them was the Speaker, who took charge of proceedings and could cast the tie-breaking vote. Was this the Speaker?

Along one side of the table were a mismatched trio: a girl in her late teens, her hair deep red, in chemise and leather bodice though her lower body was obscured; another siren-alasir woman, in buttery yellow and a muted blue along with a triangular silver-and-yellow-amber medallion, sharing with the other both dark berry-burgundy hair and those long lean alasir limbs combined with siren curves; a human man with greying hair and lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, his build rounded enough to suggest his physical activity was limited, but the elaborate dying and embroidery of his clothes drew attention from what Kisea suspected was a practical cut, a telepath crystal at his throat.

At the far end was an alasir-blood woman, no silver in her hair, in drab-coloured sensible clothes that served as a form of camouflage, with writing materials arranged neatly in front of her.

“I'm Etanynne,” said the lifewitch at the head of the table. “I'm the current Speaker for the Joint Assembly. One other person requested to be included in anything involving this issue, and I'm sure he'll be joining us in a moment.”

Kisea shivered, groped for Matt's hand. Something very odd was clearly afoot.

“My apologies.” She knew that voice, but even if she didn't, Matt twisting in his chair in surprise would have been a clue. Lord Jordan invited himself into the seat beside Kisea. “Thank you for waiting.”

“You aren't supposed to be here,” Matt said. “This is something I brought to the Assembly on my own, not on your behalf.”

“Hush, nephew. You and your wife are both Jordan residents, and anything off my lands involving you, I have every right to monitor.” Lord Jordan crossed his arms casually on the table, looked at the Speaker. “Milady?”

“Thank you.” Kisea got the distinct impression that the Speaker was amused by the exchange. “I'm sorry for the short notice, but we have a complex situation and your presence was specifically requested.” The Speaker inclined her head to Matt and Kisea. “Which, all things considered, I would have done myself. Everyone present is aware that Matt handed the Assembly a mass of evidence that is difficult to accept and which has left us scrambling to collect enough additional information to make an informed decision. You have both been very patient with the repeated and sometimes invasive questioning, and we appreciate that.”

“It's in our best interests for you to have accurate information,” Matt said.

“I would say we now have more accurate information about how the controller gift works and about the erroneous belief that controllers are born only once per generation or so than we have had in a very long time, if ever. We had planned to keep the information restricted to the Assembly and those acting on our behalf and directly interested parties until we could reach conclusions to share. However, three days ago, copies of the entire collection of evidence originally presented were released to the student body of the College and to the relay telepath network. No one is accusing you of anything. We currently have no idea who released it, and tracking the source is a low priority. Of much higher priority is that the student body is currently refusing to attend classes along with causing significant disruption on the campus and in the city, and the relay telepaths are refusing to work, in both cases until their concerns are addressed. This, therefore, is an informal chance to discuss those concerns, though everything said will be officially recorded.”

Kisea traded quick glances with Matt. Someone released the information? They certainly couldn't have done it themselves.

“The lifewitches collectively,” the Speaker added, “have taken an interest in this and wish to be heard officially as well. So. Which of you would like to begin?”

The trio across the table looked at each other; the lifewitch gestured invitingly.

“Go ahead,” the man said.

The young siren nodded. “I'm Nitarai. To make this as brief as possible, we as students, telepath and sorcerer and lifewitch, accept that accidents and illness happen, and that there is not always a lifewitch nearby and that some things lie beyond even lifewitches. However, even the possibility that the people who are supposed to be teaching and guiding us might be culling us like livestock in secret is making us all feel much less than safe. We're left wondering what sets of criteria might add up to a covert death sentence for any of us. We feel, strongly, that we should be able to trust our teachers to encourage and guide us no matter what gifts we might manifest, and that no student should ever feel so threatened that life as a renegade becomes the safer option.”

Kisea tightened her hand around Matt's, and he squeezed back. Oh, what have we started?

“And the students are asking...?” Etanynne prompted.

“That the entire Joint Assembly, publicly and under truthspell cast by someone not directly affiliated with the Assembly, answer a negotiable list of questions specifying whether students are being murdered in secret. We also want future assurances that all students will be treated equally and judged on their behaviour, not what gift they were born with. Specific assurances are negotiable, but have to include addressing the current Oath being incompatible with some gifts.”

“Those appear to be quite reasonable terms to address quite understandable concerns,” the Speaker said thoughtfully. “Thank you, Nitarai.”

Yes, they are understandable, under the circumstances anyone would feel threatened, but who released all that information to the entire student body?

And who would have thought of a thousand or so teenagers as having the power to make themselves heard and force an accommodation?

“Garrick?” the Speaker said.

“Garrick Thorsten,” said the man. Thorsten was one of the smaller human Lordships; a younger son or a cousin, presumably. “I'm one of Perifaithe's primary relay telepaths. I can't claim that the relays are unanimous, but we do have an overwhelming majority as far as three key concerns. One is much like that of the students. We are not comfortable sending our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, their playmates and friends, or any other child, into a situation where they might be in danger from the people we're entrusting their safety to.”

“Indeed,” Lord Jordan murmured. “My younger daughter, as well.”

“Exactly.” Garrick nodded. “Highborn or low, we won't be sending our children to a place they might be tried and executed in secret. However, it isn't solely about the students. We'll concede it might be negligence rather than malice, that there seem to be far more controllers than we were told but they aren't acknowledged, but that leaves them to survive or not in a world where they will feel like everyone is against them. That opens the way to criminal activity based around a gift not even acknowledged to exist, which means no useful countermeasures. This, we feel, is a highly dangerous state of affairs. We also would like to know for sure whether the Assembly considers itself to have the right and authority to pass sentence of death in secret, without trial, based on highly questionable standards, in which case no telepath and possibly no sorcerer or lifewitch is safe. If there is question whether our children are expendable for showing signs of a particular gift, how can we trust that anyone who is inconvenient is not at risk?”

Oh we really stirred things up badly.

A part of Kisea's mind danced gleefully.

“Obviously the relays are of vital importance to all Caalden,” Etanynne said. “What action would reassure you?”

“There, I'll second the students again. Questioning under truthspell would be, at least, an excellent beginning. If no one on the Assembly has anything to hide on this subject, that should be a quick and easy solution.”

Oh gods, they're going to keep the relays shut down until the Assembly is questioned. The students are bad enough, if they're running wild through the College and the city, but without the relays, Caalden will start to collapse in a matter of days...

They've left the Assembly absolutely no choice.

“Thank you, Garrick. Olisai?”

The Third-level lifewitch inclined her head. “I'm Olisai Liriu, and I speak on behalf of the lifewitches collectively. Until no more than fifty years ago, lifewitches were renegades, seen as monsters interested only in experimenting on the innocent. It cost blood and tears and lives to gain recognition that only a small minority behave in antisocial ways and that the rest of us prefer to live in peace with our neighbours or even devote our lives and our gifts to healing. We see an alarming similarity between our own history and the present situation of anyone born with the controller gift, and we find that deeply troubling. Evidence suggests that they can do for minds what we can do for bodies, which only strengthens the parallel. Any gift can be used for good or ill, the difference being in the choices of the gifted. We do not accept that any gift has an inevitable effect on the mental stability of the gifted, as it has been claimed about us falsely and there is no reliable evidence supporting the idea in regards to any other gift. We feel very strongly that controllers should have the same opportunity any other mage does to demonstrate what choices they will make before being judged, and that they be offered the same support and guidance in youth to help them make those choices without fear. We have, currently, no demands, but we do want our position on the issue to be clear and officially noted.”

Kisea clutched Matt's hand more tightly. She hadn't even thought of the lifewitches as being similar, let alone that they would care. Her own experience with any form of prejudice was that being the target didn't mean one wasn't prone to inflicting other forms of prejudice on others, often even more savagely. That the lifewitches had decided to support her left her too astonished to even formulate a reaction in her own head; it was just too unexpected, and after so long hiding, somehow deeply touching.

She took a slow deep breath, then another. Breaking into tears now would not help. Nor would running to Olisai to hug her and babble her gratitude.

Matt looked sideways at her, smiled, and gave her hand a squeeze.

“So noted,” the Speaker said. “Lord Jordan? You look extremely thoughtful. May we ask the direction of those thoughts?”

“I am thinking,” Lord Jordan said, “of the balance of power within, for example, human lands, where the King and the Lords hold one another in check to some degree. The same occurs in alasir lands, and within each Southern city the ruling families provide the same mutual function. I am thinking that power unchecked leads to unpleasant, if not devastating, consequences, as we've seen every time the balance between King and Lords has failed. And I am wondering what check there is on the power of the Assembly.”

“In theory,” Etanynne said, “the various parts of the Joint Assembly provide balance. In practice, you are correct, in many ways the separate Assemblies are autonomous unless an issue comes before the Joint Assembly. And the Joint Assembly is entirely autonomous.”

“Which means that when accused of wrongdoing, there is no one to point to and say, 'They would know if we did, and would intervene.'”

“That is true.”

Lord Jordan nodded. “I'm unsure whether everyone present is aware of the attack on my elder daughter approximately two ninedays ago, in which she was, ostensibly, held hostage to make demands on me. It turned out to be a trap set for Matt, set up by two supposedly respectable and Oath-bound sorceresses, one supposedly respectable and Oath-bound telepath, and a controller and criminal who was listed as a renegade but was somehow released by the Assembly and by Perifaithe when Matt brought him to their attention. The controller died during the rescue, in which, I cannot emphasize enough, Kisea played a vital role, but the other three remain in my custody. As of my departure, all three had refused to speak, but not long before the relays were closed, my wife sent me a message that I consider highly relevant. One of the three confessed, and confirmed under truthspell, that she had been assured there would be no risk of being condemned as an Oath-breaker. That there was someone on the Assembly who saw Matt as a threat because of the direction of his research and who wanted him dead before it could continue, and they would be not only gaining personal vengeance but performing an act for the greater good and would be protected accordingly.”

Kisea shivered. If that was the case, they had not only generalized resistance against them, but a specific and unnamed and powerful enemy.

Etanynne actually blanched, which was something for someone with fairly light skin to begin with. “Oh my. That's... disturbing.”

“Very much so,” Honora said, frowning.

“That's hardly evidence,” Chimo said dismissively. “Someone was told what would manipulate her into doing what she wanted to do anyway, and believed it.”

“Granted,” Lord Jordan said, his tone still mild. “However, I would like to ask that the questions proposed include knowledge of or involvement in the attack on my family.”

Whoever that is, if they don't piss themselves when they find out he knows that, they're stronger than I am. There's no hole deep enough and no place far enough away to hide.

“I can't see that being a problem,” Honora said. “One extra question, which should be of no fear to anyone honest.”

“We cannot accede to these requests on behalf of the entire Assembly,” Chimo said. “We can, however, present it to them and consider it.”

“The other alternatives being what?” the Speaker asked drily. “Armed force against our own students? Which leaves what against the relays? And how long do you believe it will take for our collective reputation in Caalden to wilt beyond reviving? Or we all answer a few questions under truthspell, clear our collective name, the tension is dispelled, and we can get to work looking at changes for the future.”

“I can think of no grounds to decline other than having something to hide,” Honora said.

“No?” Chimo said. “I can. I believe it's possible our collective reputation is already irreparably tarnished by gossip and rumour, and that after the questioning vindicates us, there will be accusations still of the results being fraudulent. Thanks to this material, much of which can be interpreted in several ways, being released to the public indiscriminately, the Telepath Assembly in particular has already been tried in the popular mind and found guilty beyond appeal. Given that, what is the point of subjecting ourselves to further humiliation? The only way we can preserve any dignity in this comedy may be to step down and retire somewhere out of sight.”

Kisea saw Nitarai and Garrick each take a breath to speak, but Lord Jordan beat them to it.

“I doubt that would be acceptable to anyone. It leaves all activity thus far in doubt, does not establish whether the trust of the students and their families has been violated, and would mean that any individual on the Assembly who is guilty could use the same reasoning to escape being held to account for criminal acts. Rank should not confer immunity, and sometimes personal dignity takes second place to responsibility to the greater good.”

Well, if the students or the relay telepaths were going to accept that argument, they certainly won't now.

Although what it comes down to is that it would allow someone to escape being held to account for attacking his daughter and nephews.

“I believe the Joint Assembly needs to have a long discussion about priorities and goals,” Honora said, and there was a grim undertone that would have worried Kisea had it been directed at her. “Other than the Assembly response, is there anything else to be said?” She turned her gaze to Matt and Kisea. “You are allowed to speak up. I don't think I've ever heard you stay quiet this long with others talking, Matt.”

“There is really nothing I can add,” Matt said. “I didn't intend for it to become public knowledge until there was some further information available, but I did always plan to make sure that the existence of controllers and the degree of misinformation about them was spread as far as possible.” He was, Kisea noticed in relief, tactful enough to not add, and why there appear to be so few. “I think being concerned about it is extremely valid, because it affects everyone, not just controllers. Everyone needs reassurance, but I'll be the first to support anyone who can verify under truthspell that they weren't involved.”

Of course you will.

“But I don't know that any of that is particularly important right now.”

“Kisea?” Lord Jordan said. “This is all more relevant to you than to anyone else.”

“Which might be why I'm finding it a bit hard to process,” she admitted. “After this long trying to be invisible, drawing attention to myself makes me extremely uncomfortable, and Caalden-wide disruptions that all point right back to Matt and I...” She trailed off, shrugged. “I am extremely grateful to the lifewitches for the support, and probably more surprised than I should be. I'm sorry so many people are having their lives upset over this, though. My first inclination is generally to make pain less, not add to it.”

“Sometimes, things do go through an acutely uncomfortable phase before they can heal,” Olisai said gently. “You've done nothing but make a reasonable request to the Assembly, to be judged by your acts and not your gift, and ask that others with the same gift be granted the same. Several lifewitches died tragically in fighting for the same right, and others spent their entire lives on the struggle. We don't know how many controllers have already died or how, but it's more than enough.” She sighed. “And I cannot begin to tell you how many lives lifewitches have fought for and lost that might have been saved with the help of a mindhealer with your skills, which only increases the count of lives lost unnecessarily. As frightening as it is, it is past time this came out in the open to be resolved.”

“One of my classmates,” Nitarai said quietly, “and I'm not saying who, fits that description of the early manifestations of your gift. That classmate is a good person always ready to help friends, and 'friends' sometimes means someone just met, and right now that classmate is terrified, realizing what could have happened in the next year or so and what choices might have come up. But now it will not, and that classmate knows we know and will still be friends. One life already has been saved because of your choices. The older sorcerer students think the description fits a telepath student who was declared to have fallen down the stairs and broken her neck, and it has been pointed out that a telekinetic or a sorcerer could arrange that easily. Whether it's ignorance or malice driving controller students into a corner, it will stop, now. Please don't feel guilty.”

“We're all responsible for our own actions, not you,” Garrick said. “I'm grateful, and I'm not alone in that, to the pair of you for putting the pieces together and having the courage to do the right thing with it.”

But I didn't do any of it, Matt did everything.

All right, so he did it for my sake, and I chose to come with him, but I wasn't the one who gathered all that information and saw the pattern, I wasn't the one who decided to challenge the Assembly with it... I just wanted to survive and maybe stop running. I'm just inspiration and his primary example and his source of real information about controllers.

“Thank you,” she said. “I just hope this gets sorted out quickly for everyone. And well for your classmate.”

“I think that's what everyone wants,” the Speaker said. “I certainly hope it is. So we'll arrange for it to happen, together. Does anyone else have anything to say?”

“We need, among the broader issues,” Lord Jordan said, “to not lose sight of the more personal one. Kisea has been waiting several days for others to decide her fate, which would be nerve-wracking for anyone.”

“Agreed,” the Speaker said. “And I'm sorry. All information gathered so far, to the best of my knowledge, supports granting at the very least the original request of her husband's Oath extending in spirit to her, but I'm afraid I can't give you a formal ruling on that yet. We'll need a full session very soon in which to address all the relevant issues, personal and broader both. I suggest we declare an end to this meeting, and all return to discuss it with those we represent, so we can hasten that hearing as much as possible. We'll see to it that everyone is notified as soon as we have it arranged.”

Chairs were pushed back, and people began to rise.

“You can't have gotten here that fast with any kind of company to speak of,” Matt said to his uncle. “Maybe it would be better if Kian or Shon stayed with you?”

Lord Jordan chuckled. “I think your parents and other uncle are enough protection for Kalli and I, and your cousins are better off with you.”

“What are my parents doing here?”

“I told them, of course. I'd have thought that was obvious.” He offered Kisea a hand to her feet.

With his hand holding hers, she heard him even past the telepathic disruptors, faster than any spoken word: *Whoever released that information has placed the Assembly in a position with as few choices as you've had. Perifaithe is at a near standstill, the relays are completely at a halt, and the students and telepaths appear to be passing on what they know to everyone possible. No one would dare rule against you with all of Caalden watching, and they have to rule quickly before grumbling becomes something more. The worst of this will be over soon, and we can all go home and celebrate.* He released her, all one smooth courteous gesture.

“Lori is probably at the Manor by now and planning a proper wedding celebration with Kara,” he added to Matt, perfectly casually, as though he hadn't just circumvented what was supposed to be heavy security with no trace of effort. “I hope I can afford it.” He sounded more amused than worried. “Off you go and I'll see you soon.”

Kisea stayed silent until they were back in their own suite.

“Your mother is a stronger telepath than your uncle?” she asked Matt, once the door was shut.

Puzzled, he nodded. “Why?”

“Even with physical contact, even to another strong telepath, being able to make contact in close proximity to disruptors shouldn't be possible.”

Matt shrugged. “That's more from their mother's side than their father's, there've been some very strong telepaths in that line, and only relatively weak ones in the Jordan line. Some recent siren blood in there, probably. What did he say?”

She repeated it.

“Whoever released that information,” Shon said, “is brilliant.”

“I was hoping for less chaos and more order,” Matt said, “but I can't argue. It looks like at least some of the Assembly are going to try to weasel out of questioning under truthspell, and pressure on all sides might make the difference. If nothing else, with all of Caalden watching, they certainly can't hide any of this. Every possibly-controller student from now on who disappears will be noticed by thousands of people who will want explanations. This is wonderful.”

Kisea sank down on the nearest sofa. “Wonderful? The whole world is in complete upheaval right now, because of us!”

“No,” Kian said. “Because of the actions of others, which needed to be recognized and evaluated.” He sat down beside her, an arm around her, and she leaned against him. “And now are, finally.”

“Rob's right,” Matt said, taking her other side. “This will be over soon. They can't delay. Try to rest, because I don't think it will take all that long for them to arrange that full hearing.”

“Rest?” Kisea said in disbelief. “Now?”

“Even if we need to help you work off some of that adrenaline first.”

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