Thirty-three
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Waking up in bed, psychically drained and physically aching, was unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in Kisea's life, but doing so in a luxurious bed was. That was Matt curled up next to her, though, she knew instantly.

Emotionally, she still felt numb, which the rational part of her mind considered quite reasonable, all things considered. Eventually that would wear off and she'd need to actually look at and process a couple of ninedays' worth of tumultuous feelings, but there was no hurry, that could happen in its own time.

Matt was still asleep; she kissed his cheek gently, and slid out of bed as stealthily as she could. Tired or not, she needed to use the privy.

She did a quick proximity test to see how many people were within range, which meant within the shielded suite; Kian, but not Shon, oddly, and two unfamiliar presences.

*Who?* she asked Kian.

*My father and Matt's mother.*

She'd met them yesterday, she was fairly sure, the calm practical man who looked like Kian and the small dark-haired woman... who had ranted at Matt about taking chances, hadn't she?

*Where's Shon?*

*Rob made Kalli promise not to go anywhere alone. Shon went with her to the stables. Rob is being helpful, since there is a great deal of chaos and confusion still, and Jai is with him.* The undertone suggested that he wanted her reassured as much as he wanted to pass on information. *All is well. Is Matt awake too?*

*Not yet, but it feels like shallow sleep, he'll probably wake up soon.*

*A good time to request food, then, since you both need to eat.*

Kisea found no sign of her clothes from the hearing, so she rummaged around for something else. *Will anyone care how completely I'm dressed?*

*Your own family, who have called Equals Village home for over three decades? No.*

*The idea of having a family is still going to take a while to get used to.*

*I know. But your family finds it much easier.*

Chemise and drawers and trousers meant she was at least minimally decent, and she didn't feel like the extra effort of bodice or boots right now, so she left it at that.

Privy first, then, feeling oddly shy, she went to the sitting room. There was room on the sofa next to Kian, so she joined him; he wrapped an arm around her in a one-armed hug, and she sighed and leaned against him. Would part of her, she wondered, always associate Kian with safety? Not the sort of association she had any desire to break.

“There's food on the way,” Chris said. He and Alina shared a nearby sofa, both of them still in suggestive but not emphatic Jordan red and gold.

“You look exhausted still,” Alina said sympathetically.

“The students? And the relays?”

“The relays are back up, and busier than ever, because quite a large number of people are demanding to know the whole story and want frequent updates along with the message backlog. I took a turn earlier and promised to again until things get back to more normal levels, and the relay students are helping in quarter-length and half-length shifts. The students in general are back in class in some fashion, although some of the faculty is busy with other things and those left are trying to help the students work through what exactly happened and why and what it means for the future. Which is difficult when they don't really know themselves.”

Well, it's better than before.

“No one was hurt?”

“There were a few minor injuries when the Hall was destroyed,” Chris said. “Enough of us heard your warning to at least be alert for something, and there were enough sorcerers in reach with quick reflexes to contain the worst of it. The lifewitches have that well under control.”

Matt's going to be upset, but that could have been much worse.

“The Assembly?”

“The three lifewitches and two sorcerers verified, publicly and under truthspell to everyone's satisfaction, that they had no idea even that there were more controllers than commonly thought, let alone what was being done to you or about the plan to kill Matt. One other sorcerer will be questioned once he regains consciousness, but he's probably innocent. Doria, publicly and under truthspell, confessed everything. In the cells, one telepath is still unconscious, both sorcerers Matt fought are awake but injured physically and magically both, and the three telepaths you fought are awake and completely unharmed but refusing to speak to anyone.”

Someone tapped on the door, and Chris got up to answer it.

“Despite everything,” Alina said, “the College housekeeping and kitchens have continued to function perfectly. While the world as we know it changes, we'll still have clean laundry and fresh food.”

Chris came back with a platter he set on the nearest table, then he handed Kisea a bowl with a spoon in it and a bread-roll. The bread was the usual light wheat; the bowl turned out to hold vegetables stewed in thick savoury poultry gravy with generous bites of meat.

She picked up Matt's presence a few heartbeats before she heard him yawn. “I smell food.”

“Come eat,” Alina said.

Kian moved farther towards the corner so Kisea could make room for Matt on her other side, while Chris retrieved the other bowl from the tray and another bread-roll.

Matt dug into it hungrily, pausing only long enough to ask, “Situation?”

Chris and Alina between them repeated much the same account.

“Has anyone figured out yet who released all that information to everyone?”

“Yes,” Kian said. “But the two involved want to talk to you personally.”

“Friend or foe?”

“Unquestionably friend. There's no hurry.”

“Good. I really hate duels. I've never even heard of half of what they were throwing at me. Without my whole weird all-magic-is-one thing, I wouldn't have lasted any time at all against either of them.”

“Possibly, moving several hundred people to the other side of a stone wall could also be considered tiring,” Chris said, in a dry tone that reminded Kisea sharply of Kian.

“What? Oh. I have no idea how I did that. It was one of those things that I needed to do and I just did it without really thinking about it. I doubt I could do it again. I don't think it was that, though, as much as it was trying to deal with a lot of magic that can't possibly have any purpose other than hurting and killing living things. Why anyone would spend a lot of time learning that stuff instead of practical or protective types is beyond me, and how they got good at it doesn't lead to very pleasant sorts of thoughts.”

“So much for justice automatically winning the day,” Kisea said.

Matt gave her a puzzled look. “But it did. So far, at least, and what's left of the Assembly should be able to make a decision about your official status and then we can go home and know that no one else is going to have to die or run away just for being born a controller. How is that not winning?”

“It wasn't a matter of good outweighing bad, or what's fair being recognized on its own merits. It took a battle that, as I recall, physically ruined a stone building hundreds of years old and caused some significant injuries and came close to more injuries or even deaths, including yours and mine.”

“I never said that justice and right don't need a little help sometimes.”

At least Kisea wasn't the only one who stared at him in astonishment, though it took Matt a couple more bites to realize it. “What?” he asked.

“When did you actually grow up?” Kisea demanded.

“I...” He started to answer, looked at his startled mother and uncle, and gave Kian a mournful look past Kisea. “Seriously, has nobody been paying any attention? Just before the mess with Kalli and the trap, Shon and I spent five days in Elmford explaining that it is not self-defence for five men to beat a siren-blood woman unconscious just because four of them are married, and neither is her repeatedly turning one of them down—one of the married ones, who also has a new baby at home. We barely got back to the Manor before we had to go the other direction to Owl Hill because a human man died and left everything split evenly between his three children, two of them by his quarter-alasir hand-fast wife of four decades and the third by a human woman he never lived with but he acknowledged her son. Guess which one of the three decided he deserved all of it and the local magistrate was going to go along with it? I stopped believing that justice wins all by itself when Shimai ran away from the College and I couldn't come up with any better options. I just still believe it can and will ultimately win as long as someone tries to make sure it does. Which is why I spend mind-numbingly boring hours reading every damned legal decision in Jordan and frequently racing off at no notice to intervene before the damage is too bad, and why Rob dumped authority on me that keeps me awake every time I use it. If I actually thought justice would just automatically win without any help at all, I'd get more sleep and spend a lot less time eating in the saddle and even less time second-guessing myself. Why is this such a surprise? I thought it was rather obvious.”

“No one is used to you actually being serious and sensible,” Kian chuckled, leaning over to steal a bread-roll from the table and tearing it in half to take a bite of it.

“I'm with Kisea,” Chris said. “At some point you grew up, and we missed it. Well, some of us did. I rather doubt Rob did.”

“I tried to tell you,” Kian said, snaking an arm around Kisea so he could lean past her to dip the bread in Matt's much-meatier stew. “Moving quickly does not necessarily mean moving recklessly. Not even for Matt.”

“Thanks, I think,” Matt said, with a roll of his eyes. “And quit stealing my food unless you're going to go get more!”

“I think a lot of it has probably been in the past few years,” Alina said, and she sounded distinctly abashed. “And we've seen much less of you. Mostly just when we can drop by the Manor, or you have time to stop by the Village when we're even there, and holidays, and second-hand news from Kian. Not much of an excuse, however.”

“Oh, I'm not that worried about it,” Matt said. “It's not like the subject tends to come up when I do see you. Just, well, I'm crazy, not stupid. Incidentally, you,” he tapped the end of Kisea's nose with one finger, “are in no position to talk about growing up. You did too, my love, under much worse conditions. Which are now and forever over, since you are no longer and never again have to be on your own.”

Kian, Alina, and Chris all chimed in with agreement, over top of one another.

“That's going to take time to adjust to,” Kisea said quietly. “I didn't have much of a family even before the College. Being the one siren-blood child in the middle of four entirely human ones, and eventually being abandoned at the nearest temple and sent to the College as soon as possible, doesn't create much experience at being part of a family.” I'm much more broken than many of the people I've healed, and have been for much longer. How long can anyone put up with that?

“You understand the important parts,” Kian said. “You'll get the rest.”

Kisea finished her stew and bread, and Kian took the empty bowl to pass it to the table. She sat back, let herself lean sideways against Kian since Matt was still eating, and looked down at her own hands. Empty, idle hands.

“Is the market back to normal?” she asked abruptly. “And do you think anyone would mind if I went out for a little while?”

They kept up with the subject change more easily than she really expected in retrospect, but then, being used to Matt could do that.

“The market never entirely shut down,” Chris said. “People need to eat. What's left of the Assembly is all friendly towards you, so there should be no problem, though I would suggest not going alone. Why?”

“I ran out of yarn for weaving trim and belts and such days ago, and it isn't something I could really ask a random servant to go buy for me. Since we're back to waiting, well, it helps if I have something to do with my hands.” Other than throwing Matt and Kian and Shon into bed as frequently as my body can tolerate it. I wonder how well they understand siren-blood? Or how well Kallima does? I don't want to mess up whatever's growing between her and Shon.

“That should be easy enough,” Alina said. “Why don't you get cleaned up and dressed, and we'll stop by the stables to collect Kalli, and we'll go visit the market? I'm sure the daughters of the current and previous Lords Jordan should count as a sufficiently respectable escort, in case anyone protests.”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Take Shon too,” Chris said, rising to answer it. “Just in... ah. Come back to that plan later, I think this takes priority.” He backed up a couple of steps, and gestured a gracious invitation.

The woman who came in was very lean, her build almost boyish, though the orange-red damask bodice and skirt did their best to add curves, and the laces at the neck of her blouse were tied loosely enough to give a glimpse of whatever cleavage nature and the tight lacing of the bodice could offer. Blonde hair mingled with blue was caught in a net of the same colour, secured by silver pins adorned with carnelian; the silver was counterpoint to the silver-and-opal six-sided medallion that showed bright against the vivid colour.

“Fala?” Matt said in disbelief.

Their guest laughed and spread web-fingered hands. “In the flesh.” She held out one hand to Kisea as she came farther into the room. “Come here, you, I've been trying to decide whether I wanted to swat you for disappearing and leaving me absolutely frantic or hug you enough to make up for a decade.”

Kisea met her halfway, her doubts about whether she was hallucinating dispelled by the cool solidity of Fala's arms.

“More people cared about you than just Matt,” Fala chided. “Although I don't know what we could have done. Brylain and I certainly would have both tried. Now the relays are back up, I'm supposed to give you a hug from him too, until he can actually manage to see you personally.”

“You're supposed to be in Fenishe,” Matt said, abandoning the last of his food to steal a hug from Fala himself.

“Fenishe?” Kisea echoed. A Southern city?

“I work for the Port Authority,” Fala said cheerfully. “They aren't entirely happy with having to treat me as a real person rather than my husband Lenart's property. But they do like having an amphibious sorcerer and a human seer who can work very well together. We've made a very large impact on the attempted smuggling and contraband near Fenishe. So they put up with it.”

“But what are you doing here?” Matt demanded, catching her hand and Kisea's and drawing both towards the furniture where they could all sit down.

“Ask your stormhawk. She showed up out of nowhere and told me she needed help for your sakes and I was the only one who could and who would listen to her. I told the Port Authority it was a family emergency, the next few days were spent on the road in varying states of discomfort with Jori visibly twitching every time we had to stop—and while I couldn't identify anything specifically, I'm quite certain the trip should have been significantly longer than it was. Once we got here, she handed me a stack of paper and asked me to start copying it so we could share it with as many people as possible. Once I read it, I agreed.”

“That's how it got out,” Matt said. “I hadn't planned to do that yet.”

“You were buying into the secrecy game.” That wasn't Fala; it came from over by the now-closed door.

Jori, human-form, was leaning against the wall, though Kisea would have sworn she hadn't seen her come in with Fala.

“I know you didn't want anyone to look bad who didn't deserve it, but playing the game by their rules put you at a disadvantage. So the rules had to be changed.”

“How, though? Kian left you as a hawk!” Matt said.

Jori laughed. “We made a bargain, which is a lot like an Oath. I just decided that looking out for your best interests was a more important part of it than any of the specific details.” She pulled the door open just far enough to slip out and closed it behind her.

“She said breaking the terms of the bargain would get her in trouble,” Matt said, mostly to Kian. “At best, it would mean she'd have to go home and wouldn't be able to come back. How is she still here? Or are we about to lose her?”

“She says,” Kian said, “it's all a matter of knowing how to explain and who to explain to, and that she had enough support for her decision that she's in no trouble. Beyond that, I doubt we'll ever get another word from her on the subject, she's been unwilling to discuss it.”

“How are you going to get home?” Kisea asked Fala. “Travelling with Jori would be safe enough, but I don't like the thought of you in danger between here and Fenishe.”

“We'll arrange something,” Chris said. “We certainly wouldn't leave any family friend that loyal stranded alone hundreds of miles from home.”

“Trying to get rid of me already?” Fala chuckled. “I'm not going anywhere until I know the Assembly has officially dragged itself out of the muck and recognizes that not only are you not a renegade, the entire College universally and collectively owes you and every other controller that has ever come here and the families of all the ones who never came home an apology the size of the ocean. There are still a few walking piles of eel droppings out there who think the Assembly was in the right, and a larger number who are having trouble believing that the Assembly could act this way, which means a few who think it's all faked and meant to undermine rightful authority. Public opinion is overwhelmingly on your side, though. Killing teenagers, any authority killing in secret, killing on assumption of guilt with no evidence or trial or appeal, people in power mercilessly murdering individuals who never have a chance or driving them into barely surviving... there's a lot of material there for people to be outraged by, even if they're scared of controllers as such, and there's probably more disagreement over what was the most appalling aspect than there is over whether the whole situation was hideous. There are actually more people questioning Matt's motivations and priorities than there are yours, and wondering what he's getting out of it that made it worth taking a risk. Hm, and a few who are rather worried about a Sixth-Level sorcerer being able to pull most of what you did yesterday. So, people are talking, quite a lot, but they aren't rioting in the streets and life is beginning to go back to normal, at least for most people.”

“Feel up to a shopping trip?” Alina asked her. “We were going to get Kalli and Shon and drop by the market. Unfortunately, I have a limited amount of time before I'm expected elsewhere, so it would be best to go soon if we're still going.”

“Shopping? Any day,” Fala said.

“Just let me finish getting dressed,” Kisea said. Having something to occupy her hands even while talking always made her feel better, and she was expecting quite a lot of talking in the immediate future.

Matt curved a hand around the back of her neck to bring her close enough for a kiss, before releasing her to get up. “Have fun. What's left of the money I brought is buried in my pack somewhere. Remember to open it the right way.”

On the way here, he'd showed her the trick to opening the purse of coins without a nasty magical bite. Picking pockets was a hazardous profession in Perifaithe.

She dressed quickly, braided her hair, and fastened the purse to her belt. It was much too warm in Perifaithe for a tunic, so it was in plain sight, but she rather doubted anyone would get close enough to her for that to be a problem. Messing with sorcerers was a bad idea, Alina was a fighter in her own right, Kisea was sure Kalli could do far better than she'd had a chance to demonstrate when kidnapped, and she had no doubt Shon would be paying no attention to what the market offered, only to staying on guard. With the number of Southerners in Perifaithe, simply having at least one man with a group of women would prevent some possible problems.

Back in the main room, she gestured broadly towards the door. “All set. Shall we?”

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