Twenty-four
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Kisea woke up tangled cozily with Matt, no haziness left in her mind, only a vague sense of surreality: somehow, in only two days or so, she'd gone from hiding from Matt and the Assembly to marrying Matt and preparing to challenge the Assembly.

It was insane, of course, but for herself, for Matt, for every controller out there hiding or who would in the future, it had to be done.

Matt opened his eyes and gave her a happy, sleepy smile. “Ha. Mine. Gotcha.”

She rolled her eyes, kissed him, and got up.

Judging by the angle of the light, it was late afternoon. There were clothes draped over the chair again. Were the servants around here supernatural, that they could slip in and out without waking her after so many years staying alert even in her sleep?

She had no idea how Lady Jordan and Kallima had found or arranged these, but she was intensely grateful: unbleached chemise and drawers of somewhat sturdier linen than yesterday's, though still fine and soft and with no stains from use like her old ones; trousers of strong wool twill dyed a pleasant but unremarkable deep brown, with an additional layer of leather covering the seat and inner thighs. Her own leather bodice was draped neatly over them, though with new cords threaded through it.

She cleaned up quickly in the bathroom before getting dressed, not sure when she'd next have access to hot water.

Matt, she had to admit, looked positively delicious, in muted grey-blue. But she still couldn't quite control a flinch as he dropped the chain of his medallion over his head and tucked it under his shirt. He picked up the flat leather satchel, a larger pack that was obviously designed to fit behind a saddle, and his cloak. “Ready?” He offered his free hand.

She took a deep breath to steady herself, nodded, and slid her hand into his.

“I am never going to be able to find my way around this place,” she sighed, a moment later.

“I don't think about it much. I've been in and out of here all my life, and I've been mostly living here the past five years or so.”

“And therefore your loyal shadows as well. I can't see Kian caring much for that.”

“He wanders off sometimes to get back out where he'd rather be for a while. Much more now, since he trusts Shon to keep an eye on me, and Shon's good at the job and seems to like it. Other than the day-night thing being a bit of a nuisance. Of course, I forget to go to bed so often when I'm busy with something that it isn't that unusual for us to be up most of the night anyway. Everyone's used to it.”

Oh, I'm so surprised.

He led her back to the dining room.

Lord Jordan was in one of the chairs, with a bronze goblet of something, and he was cutting an apple into neat slices and eating each as it came free; he looked extremely casual, leaning back in the chair with his feet stretched out under the table.

Kian was beside him, and Shon directly across the table, each working on a bowlful of something dark and rich-looking and meaty-smelling. The two children Kisea had met briefly were on either side of Shon; even without Kallima's description of how her siblings felt, it was quite obvious that Shon had most of their attention. Shon, in turn, seemed more indulgent and amused than discomfited by it.

Kisea tried to remember whether Shon had ever mentioned having siblings. Surely they couldn't have disowned the only child of an only remaining child with the inheritance of a high House at stake, could they? Or would they be willing to let the title go to a cadet branch of the family, or disappear, for the sake of being rid of an Heir with inconvenient and deeply held values? She remembered part of his grief being over the enforced dissolution of his marriage: despite it having been more political than personal, genuine affection had developed there. They'd had no children that Shon knew of after some two years together, so the title couldn't be simply transferred to an infant son or daughter—alasir being more flexible about sex when it came to inheritance. Surely he had younger brothers or sisters?

“Good evening,” Lord Jordan greeted them. “Kara's checking that nothing has been left out, and Kallima's getting Jori and the horses ready. Have a seat. Not everything is entirely carnivore-feed, although it may not be precisely traditional for breakfast.”

“I'm not fussy,” Kisea said, a bit nervous still. Ten years of running from authority and the law, and I'm at a table with one of the most powerful men in Caalden and married to his High Warden of the Peace. “I don't remember ever eating as well as here.”

“There are some perks that go with responsibilities. A good cook with a generous food budget is high on the list.”

Rather like his daughter the previous day, he kept the conversation deftly away from the sorts of subjects that would be sensitive or awkward. Instead, he described for them the most outrageous wedding stories he'd ever heard and speculated about what his wife and daughter would devise in revenge for having to do it apart from their actual vows, especially once Kian's mother got involved, interspersed with reflections on what his sister was going to do to him for conducting a formal marriage for her only child without her present.

The meal could only last so long, though.

To Kisea's utter astonishment, before they could leave the dining room, Lord Jordan pushed back his chair and circled around the table to catch both her hands in his. She dropped her gaze automatically, then made herself look up into telepath-green eyes.

“You deserve better than the world has allowed so far,” he said gently. “Anything I can do to help make that right, I will do. The more mad my nephew's ideas look, the more often they seem to succeed. Once this one does, come back and help me make sure that at least under Jordan jurisdiction, being born with siren blood does not mean anyone is treated as public property.”

She blinked, both at the sympathy and the rather blunt phrasing, then had to smile. “That's a lovely thought.”

“Good. Hold onto it.” He gave her a chaste kiss on her cheek, and turned to pull Matt into a rough embrace. “Watch your step and get through this intact, please. You matter to a great many people. And your mother would be devastated if anything happened to you.”

“My parents understand about some things being so important that you have to do them no matter what,” Matt said.

“More deeply than almost anyone, but understanding isn't much consolation.” Lord Jordan let him go, looked at Kian and Shon. “Try to keep them out of trouble.”

“I've been trying a long time,” Kian said, accepting a similar embrace. “I'm unsure how successful I've been, but Matt's still alive, so I must not be doing too badly.”

“We will continue to do our best,” Shon said; he shared, instead, a nonetheless warmly affectionate arm-clasp with his not-really-uncle.

Lord Jordan retrieved a familiar sheet of heavy paper from a sideboard cabinet and gave it to Matt, who tucked it into the leather satchel. “Off you go.”

Kian and Shon, she noticed, were both in only unbleached short-sleeved linen shirts and wool trousers the colour of goldenrod. Interestingly, the jerkins both picked up and shrugged into were rose madder red, and on one front panel of each, a rearing horse had been embossed into the leather in drab gold.

“Technically, I'm doing this on my own, not as part of my job,” Matt pointed out to them. “So why the house colours?”

Kian shrugged; Shon tilted his head towards Lord Jordan.

“Because,” Lord Jordan said, resting his weight against the sideboard, “whether this is on your own or not, it will do no harm for people to have a reminder that you hold, for very good reason, an office of high trust. If they remember what that is and can make the connection, so much the better. I don't need details. I trust you.”

You know more than you're saying, Kisea thought. More than you should know. More than you're safe knowing.

But you don't care, do you? Not for your sister's son.

“Thank you,” Matt said quietly.

Lord Jordan smiled and made a shooing gesture.

Outside the front door, Jori was waiting patiently in horse-form beside Butterfly and Rose and Honey and another horse, this one about Honey's height but a deep brown with yellowish highlights, mane and tail virtually the same shade. Other than the new one, all had small but bulging packs strapped to the backs of the saddles, including rolls that might have been blankets or canvas or coats or some combination; other things, like waterskins, were hanging farther forward. The new one had a very different sort of saddle, which supported several leather packs that might be personal gear, as well as large baskets on either side and several rolls that might be blankets or canvas or both.

Kallima was waiting for them, checking over the fit of the tack and the balance of the packs, but she left off when she saw them.

“You should have plenty of road food and everything for at least a basic camp, but there's money too so you can buy food if you happen to pass an inn and can stop that long. There are pastries in the front bags on all four, so you can eat them first.” She patted the neck of the brown horse affectionately, while Shon took Matt's pack and added it to its load, apparently with some care for where and how. “Bear will make sure no one's carrying too much, and he and Rose and Butterfly are used to each other. So, enough wasting time. You're all going to come back safely as soon as possible, so there's no need for farewells, right?”

“Right,” Matt agreed.

There were more hugs, first, though—even though Kallima hugging Shon, a technically unrelated male, would have been scandalous in many places. Kisea, watching, thought it was actually more intense on both sides than even relatively liberal propriety would approve of.

I wonder how Lord and Lady Jordan would feel about a half-alasir grandchild or two? Race and politics and what must be a substantial age difference aside, I think they'd be better matched than many couples.

And I'd rather see Shon happy than reserve the right to toss him in bed now and then.

Kisea, thanks to her lessons, mounted without Shon's help, though Kallima was at Honey's head and knotted the lead-rope to the saddle for her. Shon untied Bear and fastened his rope to a ring on Butterfly's saddle before mounting, himself.

“Honey's used to being around other horses and they're herd animals, so she'd rather stay with the others than wander off alone,” Kallima said. She patted Honey's neck, and backed away, up onto the broad front steps of the manor.

Kisea was aware of all of her companions keeping an eye on her as they started out to the road.

“Relax,” Shon said. “Try less hard. Feel the way she moves, and then let her lead, while you match her rhythm.”

“Think of it like sex,” Matt said mischievously.

It got easier as she and Honey grew more accustomed to one another.

After a while, more to give Kisea a break than the horses, all dismounted and walked for a while. That was far more the kind of exercise Kisea's body knew, although she was usually carrying her own gear instead of having an accommodating animal do it, and it helped quite a lot. Another stretch riding, then a briefer walk just so she didn't stiffen up, and a pause to let the horses drink from a stream and graze a bit while the two-legged members of the party had a meal of cold, but still delicious, meat pastries.

They kept alternating until the sky began to grey in the east.

Kian halted Rose, dismounted, handed Shon her rope, and headed into the dense greenery that flanked the relatively bare verge of the road.

The others dismounted but Shon insisted that they not halt immediately and that they walk while waiting for Kian.

It took him some time, but he returned to beckon to them.

“It isn't ideal, but for us to rest and eat, it will do.”

What he'd found turned out to be one of the small cottages that dotted the wilderness, homes permanent or seasonal to those whose occupation or personality took them outside settlement life. It was in good repair, though currently no one was there. The usual resident might be less than welcoming to a group of intruders. Still, there was a stream, and some open ground where the horses could graze, so they decided to stay there but sleep outside at the edge of the trees.

Kisea left any security precautions to her companions; she ached too much to care.

“Come on, out of the clothes,” Matt said, flipping a magically-thin canvas sheet so it spread flat on the ground. “From the waist down, at least.”

“Now?” she complained, a halfhearted attempt at a joke. “That's all anyone wants me for.”

“Muscle liniment,” he said patiently. “I'll help.”

She needed assistance even with getting undressed, rather embarrassingly.

He had her lie down on her front so he could rub something thin into her lower back, bottom, hips, and thighs. It felt cold at first, then warm, but it soaked in and took the edge off the pain wonderfully. She rather suspected he was adding whatever magical healing he could do, but the prices on that were mild ones, and probably easier for him than feeling helpless.

She fell asleep snuggled cozily between Matt and Shon, with Kian on Matt's far side.

* * *

They didn't get moving again until early dusk, in part because it took Kisea some time after waking, and more liniment, to even consider getting back on Honey.

Still, alternating the previous day had probably helped quite a lot—she couldn't imagine how bad it would be if she'd been on Honey all night. Walking for a while helped loosen her up, and before the sky was completely dark, she was back astride.

“There's a stretch of road ahead that's good for playing with time and space,” Matt said, late in the night. “I won't hold it long, so the effects shouldn't be all that bad or last all that long. We can cover more ground with less effort along that stretch than most other areas.”

“And we can make up lost time?” Kisea sighed.

“You're hurting and not used to this. It's not your fault. Doing a short section tonight will also give us a chance to see how Honey handles it and give her a chance to get used to it before anything longer.”

“I might be able to help, especially if it's mild, but I can't promise.”

Matt shrugged. “Don't push yourself. I'd rather you had time to heal. I'll survive, and it won't be as bad. I've done worse lots of times so we'd have time to get to places like Malachite and back without being gone too long.”

Which you went through to track me.

The one positive thing about the physical discomfort was that it was distraction from the emotional issues.

The peculiar blue-ahead-red-behind lighting effect made Honey skittish at first, and Shon stayed close, but the golden mare decided that it wasn't hurting her, and by the time Matt called an early warning, she was ignoring it. Bear, clearly, was too used to it to care.

As usual, it was Kian who scouted around and found them a campsite, and Shon who looked after the horses.

This time, Kisea shoved all thought of her complaining muscles aside to sit down heavily on the ground next to Matt. Cautious testing of her gifts had reassured her that she was in fact healing with comfortable speed, and though not at full strength, she should be able to help.

Matt curled up next to her, shivering, despite coats and cloak.

He was right, though: it wasn't even remotely as intense.

And once she got him through that, he gave her another thorough rub-down with the liniment.

“You look after me, I'll look after you,” he chuckled, pressing a kiss to one bare shoulder.

“While Kian and Shon look after us both. And we'll get to the College eventually.”

“We're moving as fast as we reasonably can. We'll get there.”

* * *

It feels like we've been on this road forever.

We've camped, what, seven times now? Matt's tricks are more than compensating for my being dead weight, and we're making better time than most. I can keep the side effects from being so severe, especially since he's not pushing himself as hard as to reach Kalli, so I don't feel quite as bad.

While we're riding, I can not think about where we're going, and just enjoy the company. The three of them are so different, and they make such a wonderful team, and I don't think I could stand the pain if anything broke them up or anything happened to any of them.

They'd fallen into a comfortable routine, always walking for a while at the end of the ride to let the horses cool down and prevent muscles from stiffening—mostly Kisea's. Kian found a campsite and began to set things up, while Shon took care of the horses; once Matt was down, Kian changed Jori to her hawk-form to scout the area, and sometimes she returned with small prey as fresh food. Kisea would help later with the camp, but first, she stayed with Matt while the prices of playing with time and space came and passed, doing everything in her power to protect him from them.

*How could I ever let go of you?* Matt said, tired but his tone still cheerful, effectively helpless in her hands. *Your gift makes you the only thing anywhere in the world that can do anything about the consequences of mine.*

*The College isn't much farther,* she said quietly. *No more than three hours riding straight, Jori told Kian.*

*That sounds about right, and it's roughly what I was aiming for. Far enough for no one to trip over us, close enough that we can get there easily with no more magic. Make sure you're as rested as possible before we get back on the road, because things are going to get interesting as soon as we get there.*

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