The summons found Kisea curled up asleep between Matt and Shon.
They had an hour to get ready, instead of rushing, but that actually made it worse, having extra time to wait.
This time, they were joined by a second white-and-red-clad guard at the outer door, and taken to another building altogether.
The College campus was eerily quiet, the air filled with a tension that was all but palpable. Fewer people were visible than she expected, and they all seemed to be in their mid to late teens, and all were watching them. Kisea's small group picked up an additional escort, in fact, though all stayed well back, only watching.
Oddly, the sense she got was protective, not hostile.
*They don't trust the Assembly,* she told Matt. *I think they're trying to watch out for us.*
*That's rather kind of them, when they're already worrying about their own safety.*
*None of this bothers you at all, does it?*
*I'm absolutely certain that everything will work out fine in the end, even if it's rocky going for a while. There's only one resolution that has any justice at all, and that will win.*
I don't know whether that faith is infuriatingly naive or one of the most charming and lovable things about you.
There was a much larger cluster of students outside the Assembly Hall: Kisea guessed wildly that there must be at least a hundred, all combinations of race and sex and probably gifts, sitting on the grassy area in front of the Hall. Though there was no indication of aggression at all, eight nervous white-and-red-clad guards were positioned between them and the doors.
As though you could do anything even if there weren't telepaths and sorcerers and lifewitches involved, eight against so many, Kisea thought scornfully.
But then, that was how the Assembly thought, wasn't it? That a few could control the many, and didn't need the compliance of the many to do so.
Some of them, at least. She was sure the Speaker Etanynne and the sorceress Honora knew better, though she was less confident about the telepath Chimo.
As they stepped through the ornate stone archway, the double doors opening to admit them, Kisea felt shields brush past them as well like a curtain, dividing inside from outside, and worse but not unexpected, the distinctive feel of telepathic disruptors.
The Assembly Hall should more properly have been called the Assembly Halls, since there were in fact three: the Telepath and Sorcerer Assemblies each had a chamber where they heard matters relevant only to their own discipline and witnessed Oaths. Each had limited space for spectators, though there was some.
The Joint Assembly Hall, however, was immense.
A two-tiered arc, currently vacant, provided seats for the Assembly members, with an oval area of bare stone floor in front of them, though it did have two curved wooden benches. Much of the rest of the room was tiered seats for spectators, though a railing behind the first tier made it clear that the front rows were reserved.
At least they were coming in from the side and so didn't have to walk through the spectators, because there were a lot of them.
Shon and Kian were pointed firmly to one end of the first tier; properly, neither could give her or Matt any last good wishes, but Kian met Kisea's gaze and flashed her a quick reassuring smile, and Shon managed a surreptitious wink.
After which, it was just her and Matt. She groped for his hand, and he gave hers a squeeze, drawing her towards the oval area.
“Sit,” he murmured. “Stand when they come in, but then we can sit again.” With a rather dramatic flip of his cloak, he seated himself on the curved bench, and she had to either let go of his hand or join him.
“I love you,” she whispered.
He looked sideways at her, smiled. “I know. I love you too. And I'll be right beside you, no matter what.”
There were a handful of other people getting themselves efficiently arranged—the alasir woman they'd seen before, once again taking notes, seated just below the two raised tiers; a red-headed telepath who settled herself to one side in a raised seat that gave her a clear line of sight of the entire room, the only location that allowed contact outside so she could relay events; several people, among them one of the mindhealers she'd spoken to and a telepath who had asked for further information on her gift, taking seats on the first tier; enough guards around the periphery to make at least a fair attempt at quelling a riot, she was certain.
Nitarai and Garrick settled themselves on the other curved bench, Nitarai smiling at Kisea and inclining her head in greeting.
“Right beside Rob,” Matt murmured. “Second tier up, behind us. My parents and Kian's father and Kallima are here too.”
Kisea twisted to look; Kallima caught her eye and smiled at her. She was next to her father, and on her other side was a woman about her size with much darker brown hair silvering in locks; beside her was a male alasir-blood of similar age. Beside Lord Jordan was another man who more than passingly resembled him.
Alina had battled a controller, and won at a price; another had plans to kill her son and niece and nephews. Kisea wondered how she felt about her son taking risks to protect one.
Then the Assembly members themselves came in, and she rose quickly beside Matt, unsure just how respectful she felt but unwilling to antagonize. All were in full formal cloaks—opalescent white for the sorcerers, metallic red for the telepaths, warm gold that shimmered green for the lifewitches, all colours no dyer or weaver could ever produce without considerable magic. Medallions showed, all of them gold which only the Assembly had, round with no engraved star, set with white opal and star-ruby and green amber with a leaf inside.
Everyone settled themselves again.
One of the telepaths, a siren-blood woman, was one Kisea recognized as one of her teachers, who had been recently appointed to the Assembly at the time.
“Thank you,” the Speaker said. “We have had a complicated issue presented to us, approximately a nineday ago. I expect everyone present is aware of its nature, but in the interests of clarity and completeness, allow me to summarize.”
Kisea listened quietly while Etanynne, using notes in front of her, neatly and concisely went through all the relevant events, including the informal meeting and the concerns of students and relay telepaths and the position of the lifewitches and Lord Jordan's thoughts on balances—and the confession from one of the conspirators, which sent a low rumble through the spectators.
“Which brings us to the present, in which we need to regain your trust, make a binding ruling regarding the status of those born with the controller gift, and specifically rule on the legal standing of Kisea Jordan.”
Hearing her name phrased that way made her start. Naming conventions could be complex, but since she lacked a surname at all, taking her husband's was unarguably the most common option.
“Still my Shimai to me,” Matt whispered in her ear.
She smiled, felt herself relax a bit.
“In order for the latter two to be resolved beyond doubt, we need to first take care of the former. Unfortunately,” Etanynne said with a sigh, “we have a difference of opinion within the Assembly. Olisai Liriu for the lifewitches, Garrick Thorsten for the relay telepaths, Nitarai for the student body, and Lord Jordan have devised a carefully-worded brief list of questions for the Assembly to answer under truthspell. All three lifewitches and three of the sorcerers are quite amenable to this, as a simple way to reassure everyone. However, two sorcerers and all five telepaths have another perspective. They feel that even if proven innocent this way, we, and especially the telepaths, will be viewed as guilty and that fraud will be assumed. They feel as well that it is a dangerous precedent to set, that the Assembly must vindicate ourselves rather than everyone trusting in the additional Oath we swear to, that we will place our responsibilities ahead of personal gain or feelings. Thus they believe their only viable course of action, given the pressures being placed on us, is to resign their posts immediately.”
“No,” Nitarai said, completely out of turn, but her tone left no room for compromise. “The student body will not return to class. We will continue to obstruct the daily business of city and College until all Assembly members are questioned, publicly, under truthspell. That is not negotiable.”
“The relays stay down until all thirteen individuals who comprised the Assembly when this issue was brought forward have been questioned,” Garrick seconded.
“Resign if you wish,” Lord Jordan said, “but those questions need to be answered, publicly, under truthspell.”
“By law, no one can be questioned under truthspell without consent,” Chimo said.
“That is true. However, there is a long and solid precedent for refusal being considered supporting evidence in favour of a guilty verdict.”
“The relays will pass on no messages,” Garrick said, “but we can answer all complaints with the names and likenesses of those who are responsible and why. No pricing and availability messages from merchants, no urgent summons to a loved one in poor health, no job offers, no bargaining, no remote contact while loved ones are away from home, no news to family of a new birth, no rulings from higher authority on complicated local issues.”
“If your Oath is to responsibility over personal gain or feelings,” Matt said, “then it seems straightforward. Your responsibility is to reassure the relay telepaths and students as swiftly as possible of your innocence so normal operations can resume. Meeting reasonable demands towards that end would therefore be necessary for the sake of keeping your Oath. To step down without satisfying their demands would also be violation of that Oath. Oath-breakers are, by definition, renegades.”
“You be silent,” one of the male sorcerers, an alasir-blood, spat. “This whole mess is your fault, for getting so fixated on that siren tart instead of just finding yourself another one.”
“I beg your pardon?” the Speaker said frostily. “Gossethien, that was inappropriate.”
A mouthful like that was high alasir, Kisea noted. Fullblood or at least probably acknowledged by an alasir family.
“If all I did was correct mistaken information,” Matt said, his voice tightly controlled, “then while I can see not being grateful, I don't see that I did anything anyone should take issue with. If what I did has brought institutionalized covert murder into view, then I'm not the one who created the situation. Either way, I would appreciate it if you were more respectful of my wife and every other siren-blood. Including those sitting on the Assembly with you, though I can't imagine why they aren't taking exception.”
“Oh, we are,” Kisea's once-teacher Biserai, a woman with faded copper-and-white-mingled hair, muttered, glowering at Gossethien.
“I believe,” the Speaker said thoughtfully, “Matt might be correct and there might be grounds for considering a refusal to verify innocence under truthspell to be a violation of Assembly Oath.”
“Oh, enough already,” groaned one woman on the telepath side. Her hair was so white the original colour could no longer be guessed, and her wizened body within her rich clothing was no clue. “We'll be here until the ice comes back down from the far north, going on like this, and I don't have that long. No one is going to leave a way out gracefully, but allowing truthspell means guilt confirmed by our own words rather than by assumption, which is why those objecting will never consent.”
“I don't know if that's senility or madness,” Chimo began, drowning out her further words.
“Be still,” Etanynne said sharply. “Doria is entitled to speak without being interrupted.”
“Not if she is going to accuse other Assembly members of crimes!”
“Especially then, I should think,” a male sorcerer who was probably human, or at least mostly, said drily.
“Continue, please, Doria,” Etanynne said. “Any further interruptions will lead to those responsible being silenced.” She caught the eye of two of the guards, nodded towards the telepath side; they stepped forward, though did nothing more. Not that they needed to. Chimo and the other three telepaths all gave Doria baleful looks, as did two sorcerers, aggressive Gossethien one of them and the other an alasir-blood woman, but none interrupted her again.
“In our defence,” elderly Doria said wearily, “malice has never been a factor. Every time Caalden has suffered through a controller, it has been demanded of all telepaths why we did not prevent it or at least stop it once it had begun. The simple fact is that we can do neither where an adult controller is concerned. All telepaths are ultimately as vulnerable to controllers as anyone else. Thus, in the interests of safety, it was decided long ago that the only option was to do everything possible to make certain there would be no threat, at the regrettable cost of a few lives, and to do it quietly so as not to burden anyone else with the knowledge. It has never been a perfect system, a few always slip through and some do engage in antisocial behaviours, but typically at a lower level than they might otherwise.”
“You knew,” Kisea whispered, as the meaning of the old woman's words seeped through her half-numb shock. “You really knew all along that controllers are born more often!” All the resentment and anger that she'd been dismissing as useless for so long bubbled up somewhere inside, and spilled over. “You knew! You were one of my teachers, Biserai Gevinu, and you would have knowingly let me be killed and the whole thing called an accident, just because of my gift? You don't understand anything about controlling or how it works or what it can actually do. But instead of making any effort to understand, you would have let me be killed.” She realized she'd bolted to her feet, taken two steps close to the Telepath Assembly, was aware of Matt a step behind her but not trying to stop her, just being there and watching her back.
“And because of that, because of your ignorance and your fear and your refusal to look at what you were doing, I've spent the past ten years with no home, terrified to trust and carrying literally everything I owned, I've been beaten and raped repeatedly, I've slept outside in dangerous weather and I've eaten things you wouldn't consider food and I've done things that I hate to even remember doing in order to survive. I had an anti-scrying charm inside my own flesh to hide me! You forced Matt and I into a situation that should have meant the destruction of one or the other of us.” The room looked blurry... no, she was crying, both hands clenched so tightly she could feel her nails digging into her palms. Matt's hand was against her upper back, silent support and reassurance. “All over a gift I was born with and have tried never to abuse!”
“And yet,” Matt said quietly, “the Assembly has the nerve to demand that we all swear an Oath that includes the word justice in it.”
She backed up a step towards him, and he let his hand fall so he could wrap his arm around her waist and steady her against him, halfway enfolding her in opalescent white. She turned to bury her face in his shoulder, shaking. No matter what, no matter she'd seen enough to know that any terrible thing could be rationalized, she'd never really believed deep down that the Assembly was deliberately killing students who might be controllers.
“We've all had a recent reminder about what a controller can do,” another telepath protested. “There was almost a war between human and alasir because of one!”
“The Jordans,” Matt's mother Alina said drily, “are rather aware of that. Thanks to your strategy, what a controller or two like Kisea could probably have put a stop to easily nearly became a bloodbath and did cost lives. Matt's rather odd gift is probably a result of that, which puts him in a rather unique position where controllers are concerned, don't you think? If he can tell the difference between the one he loves and the one responsible for the prices he pays when he uses magic, why can't you?”
I guess that answers what she thinks of Matt protecting a controller.
“There have also been rogue lifewitches,” the male of the lifewitch trio pointed out acidly. “And, for that matter, rogue telepaths of all sorts, rogue sorcerers, and a wide range of criminal behaviour with no gifts involved at all.”
“It was done for a reason,” Gossethien snapped. “A reason that still stands as a valid one. One whelp with a defective version of the sorcerer gift decides that it's his place to pass judgement on decisions made and upheld for generations...”
“There is nothing remotely defective about Matt's gift,” Honora said. “Nor is he alone in passing judgement. I am appalled that my colleagues and friends would behave this way and try to justify the murder of children entrusted to our care!”
Even without access to her gift here, Kisea had been paranoid for too long to be entirely oblivious to her surroundings, and the sounds she was picking up from the spectator's side of the hall worried her more than a little.
“They're going to riot,” she whispered. “Most people didn't truly believe it any more than I did, they just wanted to be sure. Now they're scared and angry.”
“The controller gift,” Chimo said, “cannot be monitored the way any other gift can. They have a particularly insidious ability to change memories and manipulate people without those people even knowing it.”
“And people get hurt in riots,” Matt muttered. “I'd rather they weren't lynched or torn apart before we can get the full story, either. All right, how do we stop a riot?” It wasn't really directed at her, just thinking out loud.
“Non-telepaths,” the Speaker said, and there was winter chill in her carefully measured voice, “have no way of knowing whether any telepath is taking a walk through our minds, though we are expected to trust to telepath ethics and courtesy. By that logic, all telepaths should be executed for being telepaths as young as possible.”
“This is ridiculous,” Gossethien snarled. “You've destroyed more than you can understand, whelp! I can't fix it but I can stop you from doing any more!” He rose from his upper-tier seat and made a flicking gesture in Matt's direction.
Matt turned in place enough to shelter Kisea behind him, and held out a hand palm-out, fingers spread.
The fist-sized ball of livid red light froze in midair a finger's breadth from touching his palm, suddenly clearly visible; the rapid whirling slowed and stilled in the space of a couple of rapid heartbeats, and when he closed his hand, it vanished.
The utter silence in the Hall wasn't so much fear as profound shock.
And maybe, for those who understood sorcery, some degree of amazement that Matt had not deflected the attack, which would have been quicker and easier to do, but had effortlessly caught and dispelled it.
Matt would never deflect something if anyone innocent could be hurt by it. That's so much a part of him that his reflexes even act that way without thought.
“If you want that badly to fight,” Matt said, with all the ice of the far northern winter in his voice, “then at least extend your pretence of caring about others as far as not including the defenceless in it.”
“Goss!” The probably-human male sorcerer who had spoken earlier looked horrified. “You're involved in this too?”
“Sorceress, lower tier,” Kisea said urgently, spotting one whose white-streaked black hair had faintly golden highlights—some odd mix of races, there—making surreptitious gestures with her fingers. She was sure that one had been glaring at Doria.
Matt, rather than trying to catch the bluish streak of crackling light, split it before it reached them, and bounced it upwards.
It grounded itself through the crystals that disrupted telepath activity in the Hall; at least two fractured, the sound sharp as the crack of a whip, but all of them burned out simultaneously. Having her gift snap back to full force so abruptly made Kisea shake her head hard, briefly dazed.
“It's too dangerous in here,” Matt said. “Too many bystanders.” She felt power gather, felt him wrapping his mind around it and shaping it to his desires.
She'd rarely even seen Matt truly angry.
All she could sense from him right now was rage. Not hot and blind, though; superlatively lucid, so frigid it burned.
Everything that matters to him, everything he loves, everything he believes in, they've desecrated and threatened and injured.
The Hall, between one breath and the next, felt much emptier.
Kisea glanced around. The full Assembly remained, and the two of them.
Everyone else, including Kian and Shon, Nitarai and Garrick, even the recorder and the relay observer, was simply no longer there.
The sheer disbelief, not that Matt would do such a thing but that he could do what should have been impossible at all and do it quickly, cleanly, and still on his feet, froze friend and foe alike.
That anyone had any doubts at all who was responsible, Kisea thought highly unlikely.
“That's better,” Matt said to Gossethien. “Nobody else to get hurt. The doors are sealed, so nobody leaves and no one interrupts.” He unfastened the clasp of his cloak, let it slither off his shoulders, and kicked it aside, never entirely letting go of Kisea. Apologetically, he looked at the lifewitches. “Sorry. Too close to the others for me to get you out too. Keep yourselves safe. So, my love, think you can handle five telepaths long enough for me to deal with the sorcerers? There are only two, it shouldn't take long.”
“Telepaths who would have sentenced me to death, in my teens, just for existing? Oh, I think so.” Unfortunately, she wasn't going to be able to stay on her feet; she retreated towards the bench, and Matt kept pace with her, his gaze never leaving the two hostile sorcerers. He caught and dispelled a second ball of light, this one a sickly rot-green she was just as happy not to come into contact with, as readily as the fire. Did they really think he could only do that trick a limited number of times, or only with limited types of attacks? It would be true of anyone else, but if they assumed it about Matt, then they no more understood his gift than they did hers.
“Four,” elderly Doria said. “I will not fight.”
“Traitor,” one of the other telepaths, a human woman, said furiously. “You think anyone will be any gentler with you for confessing?”
“Parvynne,” pleaded one of the other sorcerers—a man who might be human or might be a mer who kept his hair cropped short to hide the coloured tips because his hands looked like they might be webbed—of the alasir-blood sorceress. “Please...”
She hissed a curse and flung a spell at him. Though Matt cried a warning, the other sorcerer crumpled and slid off his seat bonelessly.
Etanynne bolted from her own to kneel beside the fallen possibly-mer sorcerer.
The human woman who had called Doria a traitor glowered at them, and any object not bolted down or absurdly heavy began to tremble. The other three shifted position to bring themselves close enough together, hand clasping hand, which would let them communicate faster than words and unite their abilities. Kisea deflected a cautious exploratory touch easily, her own shields constructed over long years of fear and much too strong to yield readily even without conscious reinforcement, and began to turn her awareness inwards and more focused so she could retaliate.
“Get over by Etanynne,” she heard Honora say quietly, probably to the other two lifewitches. “I'll protect us all.”
She does know Matt, she knows very well he'd rather have her keeping the vulnerable safe than actively helping him.
And she knows he doesn't need anyone's help.
Except maybe mine.
“Baldwin,” Honora added. “I suggest you see what you can do about Idella.”
“This is insanity,” human Baldwin muttered.
“It is,” the human woman, presumably Idella, agreed sweetly. “So why don't you stay out of it? Or better still, help Goss and Parvynne put the whelp in his place?”
Kisea could feel Matt weaving shields around them both, barriers to protect her from sorcery even if he was distracted. Through her eyelids, she saw a flash of light.
“I'll stay out of it if you will,” Baldwin said.
Kisea felt the shift in power just before something crashed from the direction of Baldwin's voice.
“Not a good enough offer,” Idella said.
To Kisea's inner senses, her opponents, Chimo and Biserai and a human man she didn't know but guessed as a Southerner since he was blonde and tanned, were all armoured in mirror-bright plates of steel from head to toe, leaving nothing exposed to the world. Positioned back-to-back and guarding all directions, they were busy adding rows of barriers around themselves.
She prowled around the perimeter, allowing them to see her. No turtle-like armour for her; her defences were constructed mainly from instinct and fear and need, and made her think more of something organic, built up from bone and horn and leather around herself, extra layers added to reinforce places that had been damaged or weak.
Their defences were strong ones, she had to admit, well-crafted and sturdy. She might be able to hammer her way through, but it would take time and it would mean a risk of causing damage to her opponents, and she wanted them alive with memories intact.
Had they read the information she'd offered her interviewers? Did they think that a few words could really measure and define her abilities?
She laid a mental hand against the outermost barrier and shoved experimentally; she might have been trying to push against a stone wall, for all it yielded.
She circled around them a few more times, eyeing the outer barrier, testing it here and there. This bit had a dominant feel of Chimo, that bit of Biserai, this other bit was unfamiliar.
Stone walls generally had doors of some sort, though, if you knew where to look and how to open them.
Around, and around, probing... even though the barriers, she had a faint sense that they were getting nervous, a trio of hares smelling a lynx in the darkness and knowing they had nowhere to run.
Even hares could kick or bite viciously; telepaths generally didn't fight directly, because most lacked offensive gifts of any kind, but she knew Biserai was a strong projective, knew nothing about the others, and there were crude blunt attacks that any reasonably strong telepath could attempt that might do damage if they got very lucky. And hares could kick hard enough, in a panic, to break their own spines, which she couldn't allow.
She chose the spot she wanted, but kept going, around once more, gathering herself.
Shon and Kian, sparring with staves, on the way here: sitting and watching them, she'd been impressed and delighted by Shon's graceful control and by Kian's speed and precision. She needed both right now, to hit exactly the right spot too quickly for them to reinforce it and do it with enough power to break through but enough control to go no further. Like a staff in her hands, and she needed to snap the metal-capped end hard and fast right... there.
Before they could seal the hole she'd made, she darted through it.
The psychic equivalent of a second staff swung in her direction, and she recognized Biserai as the driving force behind it; she blocked it, deflecting it away, and retaliated with the follow-through though she really didn't expect to connect.
Biserai parried and retreated, back inside the layers of shields, and the apprehension Kisea had sensed was clearer now.
The second layer of protection was more like a flexible tough membrane that yielded to some degree under her touch. Her previous approach would simply be absorbed and bounce back harmlessly.
Shon, years ago, driven away from everything he'd ever known because he stood up for someone even in the face of the King's disapproval, against his father and Lord's orders.... he still had his sword, though, his father had left him that, and she'd watched enthralled as he poured all the despair and grief into a mixture of improvised shadow-sparring and the ritualized patterns of moves that had begun as a way to teach and become an art of their own.
She visualized his old sword, the hilt long enough for two hands but the whole sword light enough for one, the blade always kept shining-bright and razor-sharp, as she circled back around to the point that felt thinnest.
One swift slash upwards at an angle tore through the membrane, left a gaping hole she stepped through.
This time, the attack crashed down on her the instant she was through, and she barely had time to deflect it; it struck her glancingly, slid off her armour without damage beyond an instant's alarm and discomfort.
I need to be more careful.
She didn't bother striking back, just turned to the next barrier.
They did learn, she had to give them that. This one was a precariously balanced composition that her inner senses translated as leaning outwards at the top, looming over her as she circled it and tested it. It was prickly, too, not enough to really hurt but enough to sting when she touched it.
That was almost amusing, given the analogies she'd found inspiring thus far. Bring it down from far enough back that she wouldn't be injured—or, more accurately, so distracted that she'd be vulnerable to a real threat—as it fell?
She ignored the prickly feeling as trivial and irrelevant, searching for the right spot. Once she had it, she spiralled outwards, still circling but putting a bit of psychic distance between them. They were too canny to relax, though that might have made this easier.
Kian with his bow, careful to never loose until he was certain of a clean kill, except when his family had been threatened and he wanted nonlethal damage. With a static target for practice, loosing arrow after arrow in a smooth rapid rhythm and placing them all close together in a tight cluster, making it look effortless and as natural as breathing.
A small and tightly focused ranged attack at a single spot in the barrier might not bring it down in a single shot, but a series of them would, she was sure.
She visualized Kian's bow, his arrows with the drab fletching and the bright red-and-yellow bands on the shaft, colours that should have told her how closely his life was tied up with the Jordan House if she'd actually allowed herself to think about it. Around, and around, and at the right spot she aimed and loosed. Another arrow appeared the instant the first was away, and she sent it off as well, and a third and a fourth...
She lost count, didn't really care, intent only on repeating it as quickly as possible to bring it down before they could repair it. She had a sense of some attempt at that, but they couldn't keep up. The whole thing crumbled and collapsed into a jumble that melted away.
She abandoned the image of the bow and ran across the space, just before they slammed a replacement barrier, a simple one like the original outermost one, in its place.
There were three of them, but all these elaborate and complex shields took energy to build and energy to maintain. How many more lay ahead?
Not that it mattered. Nothing they threw at her could do more than slow her. With her own emotional energy and Matt's feeding her, adrenaline and fury pulsing with every heartbeat, her awareness that she could keep going even exhausted and injured for less reason than her life and Matt's both, she would not be the one to falter first—even if they were fighting for their lives.
So many years afraid of them.
They don't scare me now.
But they always feared me.
We could have been on the same side. Because of their choices, we can never be.
So I'm going to show them why they should fear me.
Now that's an interesting barrier.
It translated as a broad shallow ditch coated with ice, strewn liberally with knife-like ridges that she had no doubt were sharp enough to cut painfully, even if the damage was minimal. The sheer depth of the cold was of more concern. It might not be technically an offensive attack, but a barrier that could drain all the energy from her would leave her helpless.
She circled it, thoughtfully, looking for the narrowest spot.
She'd met people who had been drained of the strength to keep fighting a war they felt doomed to lose, of the drive to keep trying, of hope.
And she'd helped them, she'd given them back their lives.
She glanced down, not just visualizing her boots but remembering the grateful cobbler who had given them to her, calling up the memory of the tormented brother of the leather-worker who had made her bodice, the weaver who had her beloved husband back and had given her a warm coat that had saved Kisea's life multiple times. Others who had nothing to give but thanks, like Rylina and her mother; some who had offered hospitality, coin, much-needed provisions, things that made it possible for her to keep going but were ultimately symbols. Each time, she'd faced down their fear, their pain, felt it herself in the process but each time she'd won against it.
All with the gift that these three had wanted her to die just for having.
She wrapped herself, not just in the memory of her coat and boots, but a cloak woven of all the other memories, and simply walked across the ice-field.
She could feel the bitter chill beyond, feel it trying to reach her, trying to sap her of energy and will and motivation, to turn her into a hollow shell, but against her confidence that she had battled emptiness repeatedly and won, it failed.
She stepped out of the barrier.
Biserai's attack had the force of desperation behind it, a projection of raw emotion, rage at and terror of multiple things all braided together into a whip that snapped against Kisea's armour and skated across it, tearing loose fragments.
*Oh, please,* Kisea flung at them. *I've lived with anger and fear every day for the last decade. You think those are going to stop me? That isn't even worth the effort to counter.*
*You are exactly what we killed controllers to try to prevent,* Chimo said bitterly.
*You are, I suppose, what we made you,* Biserai said, in much the same tone.
*How dare you claim any credit for what I am?* Kisea snapped. *What you almost created was a corpse. What you could have created was another self-serving twisted parasite like that bogslime that attacked Matt. What I am, I am because even after I ran, I knew what trust and love and gentleness felt like, and even if you tried to make sure I could never have them again, I could at least try to help others reach solid ground to look for them. What I am is because of Matt and my own choices, despite you, not because of you. I've done things I'm not proud of, but I have never tried to rationalize it as having some exalted purpose.*
*And you don't think,* said the third telepath, *your whole superior attitude is any different from any other controller? What you want, the world has to roll over on its back and give you. What you think is right is what's going to happen. No matter how many lives you destroy in the process.*
*I don't destroy lives. I save them. Unless I'm attacked first.*
*And just what makes your life so valuable?*
*Ask anyone I've healed after their hearts and souls have been torn apart by people who think like you.*
*Oh, yes, we read that. A bunch of crossbreeds, mainly, most of them not even able to pay what a healer normally earns. Siren sluts wailing about being raped when it was their own fault, villagers whining about being afraid of the dark, one stupid alasir who tossed aside a title for no good reason.*
She hadn't realized she could be more angry.
*It cost every one of them more than you'll ever understand just to keep going day after day!*
*And Caalden would be so much poorer a place for losing them, wouldn't it?*
*I'd rather share the world with them than you!*
*I'd rather,* Chimo mocked. *Because what you want is all that matters, isn't it? Because that's what controllers are. Twist the world and everyone around them into what they want, and what others want doesn't matter.*
*All these people you supposedly healed,* Biserai said contemptuously. *Did a little rearranging while you were at it, did you? Convince them that you've created a miracle, and that you'd done something no one else could? Just to make sure that they're grateful enough to satisfy your ego and give you things that you want, whether they otherwise would or not?*
Her visualized combat zone trembled, the ground under them shaking with her fury.
I'm going to kill them. Horribly, and listen to them scream, and wring a hundred tears from them for every one I've shed because of them.
No. I can't. That would make me what they think I am. How could I ever ask even Matt to trust me after that?
*How many lives,* the Southerner said, *of good men with families have you ruined because those men had inaccurate information about sirens and you threw a tantrum? It isn't like you haven't had plenty of men between your legs if you're like any other siren. You're oh-so-noble, but you'd rather rip their minds apart?*
*Are you seriously telling me that fighting back against being raped is unethical?* Kisea said in disbelief. *Right. Man, and Southerner. No clue about anything outside your own monochrome little reality. How many sirens have you raped? You have a quarter-siren bedroom toy, one with no gift to help her fight back? Or are you just hoping for one? The world will be so much poorer a place without another overly-privileged bigot with a small mind and smaller heart.*
*Which, of course, is your right to decide, unilaterally,* Chimo mocked.
What are they doing? They aren't attacking, don't have much left by the way of defences, they can't really think that words are going to make me turn tail and run!
*You want me angry,* she said slowly. *You want me to lose control and kill you or wipe your minds. That's it, isn't it? You know that you have absolutely no escape. There's nowhere for you to run or hide. But if I kill you, then you get to look justified in at least a few eyes. That isn't going to happen. Unless you can kill or disable me first, I'm going to strip you defenceless and hand you back to the part of the Assembly that values life.*
She began to circle around them again, examining the barrier in front of her. Every instinct told her it was the only one left, that on the other side they had at most their personal shields.
*Matt wants you alive and intact because he believes in justice. He believes that no one should do you any harm until you've had a fair trial and if you're guilty then someone with the legal authority to do it gets to decide what to do with you.*
This barrier was simply... darkness. A dense roiling darkness so thick she could all but feel it, so bitter it stung her skin like acid. She kept circling, contemplating the best approach.
*I want you alive because I don't want you to get out of the consequences of your actions that easily. I want you to pay. I want to ram everything down your throats until you choke on it. Every parent and sibling and friend who cried because someone who should have had a bright future never came home. Every controller who's been living on scraps in the shadows and kicked like a Southern street mongrel. Everyone hurt by a controller who believed the whole world hates them and that they must be monsters and so they acted the part. If there was a way to name all the people who could have been mindhealed by someone like me and give you all the pain and fear and despair they could have been spared, and their loved ones, I'd do it. I'm a much less nice person than Matt is, and what I believe in is much less abstract. But then, his life has been relatively sheltered and safe. Something like yours, but there's an enormous difference: he doesn't think he's entitled to it and somehow innately superior because of it. He thinks absolutely everyone deserves safety from violence and want and injustice.*
Somehow fitting, that this final barrier should be vulnerable to imagery drawn from Matt.
In the dark, when he and Kian and Shon could see, he still created light for her. Because her biology was different, but different didn't mean inferior, just something to acknowledge and accommodate. If he could do the mirror version for Shon during the day, he would.
But light wasn't just light. Fear had driven her to flee from Matt as much as from the College and Assembly; fear had kept her in hiding, had guided her hand as she hid the onyx charm in her own body. In her first few months alone, she'd been too blinded by fear to be entirely rational, and the fear had urged her into actions she'd come to regret deeply. Fear clouded the mind and wrapped the spirit in darkness, shutting out everything in order to stay safe but at the same time shutting out the light that could break down the fear itself.
That light, Matt and his cousins were doing everything they could to spread.
She held up her hands, thought of long ago, when he was still learning, creating fanciful illusory flowers for her that glowed with their own radiance to make her smile. She thought of being out on the road, on the way here, and Matt holding in his hands a tiny version of the blue larger moon before setting it free to shed its light gently over the night.
Neither was as bright as his spirit.
Nor was either as bright as the light in Rylina's eyes when she realized the fear was gone, the same light she'd seen so often. She'd tried, the first time, with a siren-blood boy much her own age who had been raped and even his human family refused to believe that he hadn't initiated it, and he was beginning to believe it himself but the conflict was tearing him apart. It hadn't been a smooth job, not like she'd learned to do later, but she'd broken the spiral, at least, and they'd left that village together. She'd seen him once, in Malachite, but had made sure he didn't see her; he'd been with a siren-alasir woman, the two obviously very close, and he'd shown every indication that he was prospering.
She'd only done it at all because when she'd felt alone and lost, Matt had held out a hand to her. Once she'd seen that light come back to pain-darkened eyes the first time, she'd known she'd do it again.
There was light in Matt's, too, often coloured by a mischievous satisfaction, when he found a way to make her laugh even in her most despondent moments.
The small moon in her hands strengthened and grew, dazzlingly brilliant, scintillating with countless colours.
She held it up, let its rays dance across the murk, which melted away under it, ice under summer sun.
The gloom was deep, a thick wall wrapped around the three telepaths, far more than just a few steps as the outer barriers had been, broader even than the icy ditch. Tentacles of it reached towards her, but always drew back, unable to penetrate the light she cradled in her hands.
Between one step and the next, she was out of the murk.
The light in her hands still glowed, though, and by it, she saw the three telepaths cringing away from her.
Three adults in shiny armour, reflecting the light away from them instead of allowing it to reach them, empty-handed because all their defences had failed and what they had for weapons had always been bluff and show.
And, at the same time, three terrified children.
Terrified of what they don't understand.
So terrified they never allowed themselves to even look at what they don't understand. They just hide from it, and if it's forced in front of them, they lash out blindly in fear. Throwing rocks into the darkness and hoping it will all go away.
I can hate choices, and actions, and consequences, and refusal to face the consequences.
I can't hate anyone for being afraid. I can only hate the fear itself.
She balanced the light in one hand, offered the other palm-up and open. *The world is a scary place sometimes,* she said gently. *No one should have to live in fear all the time. Hiding from it and denying it only feeds it. Let me help. It would be more harm than good to just make it all go away, but I can fix the connections that are damaged and I can show you the way out of the fear.*
*Then what?* Chimo spat. *We go free, now reformed and acceptable and forgiven, different people?*
*No. I can forgive you, because I understand fear. But not everyone will, and there's nothing I can do, nothing it would be right for me to do, about facing the results of your own choices.*
*Then what's the point?*
*Understanding why it was wrong and why it had to stop. I don't know whether it's mercy or not to even offer a way to see what you've done without the fear to filter it through. That might be the worst punishment of all.*
*Stay out of my head, mindraper,* snarled the Southerner. *Enough with the mind-games. I'm not letting you in. Anything you want, you can show the world what kind of monster you are and take it.*
Kisea sighed, paced towards him. *If you insist.*
He struggled, trying to deflect her with mirror-metalled arms, but she could still see the other image, the frightened child, and reached past to lay her palm against his forehead.
He slumped in place, briefly, and his psychic presence faded away.
*He's only asleep,* Kisea said, tossing the light upwards to hover above her, protecting her still from the murk.
Biserai lunged to her feet, gathering all her projective power into what Kisea's mind translated as a club, raising it to bring it crashing down.
Kisea stepped to the side, gave the blow a further nudge towards the side with her re-summoned image of a staff. Two more strikes she blocked and bounced aside before she could touch Biserai's forehead and push her into sleep despite Biserai's frantic resistance against the loss of consciousness.
*Only you left,* Kisea said to Chimo. *You knew right from that first meeting that you'd been caught. You didn't run then, although you could have gotten away clean.*
*And abandon everything to live like an animal somewhere? If it had stayed within the Assembly like it was supposed to, it could have been dealt with. You should have died like the other monsters, and then that other nuisance either would never have started asking questions or would at least have died like he was supposed to. We still could have salvaged everything and continued to keep Caalden safe if someone hadn't decided to tell everyone! And the sheep have no idea that they're asking wolves to protect them from the shepherd.*
*Shepherds,* Kisea pointed out, *manage flocks for their own purposes, not the good of the sheep. Shepherds wear wool and sheepskin and eat mutton and lamb. People deserve better.* Though he flinched away from her, there was nowhere to go, and like his partners, he collapsed.
Wearily, Kisea looked around at the setting that was already fading as her mind stopped trying to visualize anything.
Matt. I need to make sure Matt is safe.
She pulled her attention back into her own body, wishing for time to rest and catch her breath, and opened her eyes.
Honora was protecting a tight cluster still—Doria had been included in it somehow as well, and the second limp body, next to the unconscious possibly-mer sorcerer, looked like telekinetic Idella. The sorcerer Baldwin who had been fighting Idella was now closer to the three fallen telepaths, all his attention on them. For good reason, because the telepathic battle would have ended in universal casualties without protection from the sorcerous battle. Too many attacks, many of them with lingering effects, and Matt no longer had the luxury of dispelling each when he was doing well just to keep himself and her safe from rapid-fire and highly-varied spells. Ice coated walls and furniture here and there; other places showed scorch-marks and scars that made her think the target had partly liquefied and melted, and some looked like they'd been struck with immense force. Several patches glowed with luminous dust or ooze of varied colours and qualities.
Despite that, the Speaker had already abandoned her sanctuary to work her way around the tier towards the fallen telepaths. Kisea held her breath, hoping she'd make it. Etanynne ducked out of the path of a yellowish streak of light that glanced off an invisible obstacle uncomfortably close to her and into the wall above her, leaving a melted and bubbling welt, but she kept going. Once she reached the telepaths, Kisea let herself breathe. Baldwin could shield her there.
Which still left Matt alone against two. A single Sixth-level sorcerer against two First-level sorcerers should have been insane; even Ursula and Melienne had only been Fifth and Fourth.
But since when did Matt or his gift pay any attention to what should be possible?
“Done,” she said quietly.
“I saw them go down,” he said without turning to look at her, a bit breathlessly, but nothing suggested real distress. “This is turning out harder than I expected. They know some really nasty tricks.”
Given what that streak of light would probably have done to a person instead of a wall, she couldn't even remotely imagine Matt being willing to use such a thing.
“I got one good shot in on her and she's weakening, like blood loss. So I think...” He broke off, and pale light shimmered into a wide oval disc in front of his raised hands; something gooey with a lot of flailing tendrils smacked into it, and he wrapped the pale light around it and heaved it over their heads backwards into the vacant spectator area. “Don't even want to know what that...” He yelped, dropped to his knees and pulled her down with him, shielding her with his own body while the other hand made a sweeping gesture of warding. She could feel the tension of every muscle as he fought to hold off whatever-it-was; she dared not move, since that might be the miniscule distraction that made all the difference. What she should be doing was trying to get to Honora or join Etanynne, let one of the other sorcerers shield her so Matt could focus on the duel instead of trying to keep her safe. From there, well, she was tired but sorcerers had fewer defences against her than telepaths did, as Melienne had demonstrated previously, and if she could make sure one of them was out of the fight, Matt could finish the other, she was sure.
“Felt that. Stay.” The strain was audible in every word.
“That's stupid,” she hissed.
“Trust me.” He met her eyes, gave her a quick smile and a quicker kiss, and twisted in place so he could face the attack more directly.
No time to explain didn't mean there was no reason.
She drew her knees against her chest and wrapped her arms around them, scrunching herself into the smallest target she could. Even from here, she could still...
He was still close enough against her that she felt the physical shudder run through him the same instant her inner senses picked up the flash of searing pain that ran from his fingertips up towards his shoulder, spreading swiftly.
She abandoned her preliminary testing of the two sorcerers' defences, reached through the familiar connection and seized hold of the pain, shunting it away from his conscious mind.
Still linked to him, she knew as soon as he did that his opponents knew they'd landed a blow and expected an opening, and that they were pressing the attack hard.
To Matt's extended senses, the other sorcerers in the room glowed with brilliant and vividly-coloured auras. The inner hues were harder to make out, swirling together and overlapping, but the outermost of each was a wide clear band. Honora's was a dazzling blue, deeper than the sky, and Baldwin's a more greenish blue; the collapsed sorcerer was violet but it was narrow and much less bright. Gossethien's was pure yellow, and Parvynne's was orange. The light around Matt himself, though, was radiant white. There was probably some kind of important information in that, if she had any idea what it meant.
Both opponents, believing him vulnerable, were pouring immense power into their separate attacks, and they were different enough that no single defence should work against them simultaneously. The air around them pressed inward, squeezing with steadily increasing force, turning every breath into a battle; at the same time, it was warming even more rapidly, passing the hottest day she'd ever experienced at the College and still climbing.
She could feel the strain as he fought the multiple distractions, both physical discomfort and apprehension, to twist power into what he needed. The convulsive magical effort was mirrored in a physical spasm, as he did the equivalent of digging his fingernails into the middle of the smothering mass and tearing a hole immediately around them. That eased the pressure and heat, but left them with air too thin to breathe, and only growing more so as Matt forced it back, making the bubble around them larger.
“Goss, Parvynne, stop!” Honora cried. “That's a dangerous combination even if it implodes, and when Matt breaks it...”
“When?” Gossethien said contemptuously. “Don't be...”
“Idiots! Baldwin, you need stronger shields! Kisea, if you can, warn anyone in range outside!”
Dizzy though she was from scant air and excessive heat, the alarm in Honora's voice still reached Kisea. Unsure what she was warning them about, she reached outwards, flinging a wordless sense of impending danger at everyone she could readily make contact with.
Something for which she had no name shattered around them, giving her a fleeting impression of pottery flung with wall-shaking force in all directions at once, and cool air rushed in to fill the space around them, wind surging through an opened door. Someone shrieked, and she heard a sustained crash that reminded her of thunder, but the only thing that mattered right now was being able to breathe. She took a couple of shallow, gasping breaths, then forced herself to take slower and deeper ones; beside her, she could hear and feel Matt panting hard.
It took a moment for it to sink in that no one was attacking them.
She raised her head, looked around.
Honora and Baldwin and their respective groups looked intact, though to Matt's senses, Honora was now haloed by a much more greenish shade of blue and Baldwin's was emphatically green edging towards yellow.
Parvynne was lying on the floor, outlined in red, and it was only thin and not very bright.
Gossethien was on his knees, his aura showing orange, and deepening as she watched towards dull red.
Every wooden object was, at best, scorched black; much of it was only splintered and burned wreckage. The light pouring down was neither sorcery nor firelight, but sunlight: most of the slate-shingled roof was missing, and directly ahead, all the stone blocks in one corner had collapsed outward, leaving a massive V-shaped gap.
She reached frantically for Kian and Shon, found them both safe, but before she could make a proper connection, Lord Jordan stepped in and seized the other side.
*No one is badly hurt, thanks to your warning. If Matt is able to, would you tell him to remove the seal on the doors?* She could feel anger from him, but had no idea what the target was; in her experience, anger was frequently at her, but she was too tired for that to feel as worrying as it probably should.
*He was trying to keep everyone else safe,* she said, a bit fuzzily. *It's over. I think.* She tried to say Matt's name out loud, found her throat painfully dry, and coughed. *Matt, open the doors.*
*Doors. Right.* He sounded as dazed as she felt, but she sensed the mental shift of him shaping power. Shakily, he got to his feet, offered her a hand up.
Etanynne pushed them both down to sit on the bench, which was somehow relatively unscathed, maybe because it was so close to them. “Stay there, let me see what I can do. Gods, the injuries if there'd been anyone present unshielded...” She looked over her shoulder. “Olisai! Come help me!”
Kisea held meekly still while Etanynne ran sure light hands, only her fingertips making contact, from her head down her torso and along each limb. Instinctively, she groped for Matt's hand, holding it tight. They were both still alive. His family were safe. So everything would be all right—at least, for them. Wouldn't it?
“Nothing too bad, I'll have everything fixed but the tiredness in no time,” the lifewitch said reassuringly. “Olisai?”
“Some nerve damage, right arm,” Olisai said. “I wish someone would ban that spell. The beginnings of heat exhaustion and asphyxiation both?”
“Yes,” Etanynne said. “Do what you can fast before all that magic use catches up, because it's probably not going to be over quickly or easily this time.”
“I can help,” Kisea said hoarsely, and coughed again, painfully. “I'm not so bad.”
“You just fought three telepaths alone.”
“They wanted me to win. Wanted me to kill them or wipe their minds. I didn't hurt them.”
“I know,” Etanynne said gently, and sighed. “This whole situation is a horrible one.”
“What for?” Olisai asked.
“It's all my fault. If I'd just kept running...”
“Then more students would die,” Etanynne said. “And the spirits of Assembly members would continue to be warped into murderers of children. Healing sometimes hurts. Now, close your eyes and try to lower as many shields as you can so I don't need to work around them, please. No reaching to Matt just yet, or you'll interfere with Olisai and I.”
Kisea obeyed, though every nerve itched to check on Matt and get ready to hold off what might be the worst she'd seen yet. She could feel him shivering against her, though, the chill setting in, and figured it was a given that his sight was already gone.
“Out of time,” Olisai said.
“Floor's safer,” Etanynne said, letting her hands drop. “It's harder to fall off.”
Honora handed Etanynne an opalescent white cloak folded into a makeshift cushion, which the lifewitch tucked underneath Kisea so her bottom came down on it and not the bare stone as she slithered to the floor. The two lifewitches helped steady Matt as he moved forward to kneel, then curled up with his head on Kisea's lap.
Honora tucked over him not only another white cloak but a golden one that shimmered green as well, and wrapped a second golden one around Kisea.
“Look after Matt,” the sorceress said. “We'll take care of everything else. I imagine this will be bad, since much of it would have been outright impossible for anyone else.”
Kisea nodded, stroking Matt's hair reassuringly as he grabbed for her hand. *I'm right here. I always will be.*
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