Kethlun Warder was on the road home and hating it when the news reached him.
For a few seconds after the unusually friendly Trader finished her tale - with a hint of smugness about the crinkled corners of her single remaining eye - she received back only silent disbelief.
Four adolescents had drawn on so much power that it made his bones ache just imagining being in Ladyhammer's position.
"But she's all right?" Keth snapped out of his haze to press. "The fourth mage, with lightning?"
The Trader nodded. "The last time I saw her."
He bit back a sigh of relief, then let it out once he remembered that she was not there to witness it. The thought brought little comfort. Keth would much rather confirm himself that she was safe than escape the tongue-lashing brought by her presence.
'But you deserve it each time,' the sharp, almost mocking voice in his head answered, so clear that, for an instant, an expectant shiver rolled up Keth's spine despite another self-reminder that his tormenter was long gone. The attempt failed, as always, leaving his heart racing.
"And the Empress just let them leave?" one of the other travellers demanded, warming his hands by the fire.
"What was she supposed to do?" Keth asked sensibly. "She couldn't MAKE them stay without a major diplomatic incident."
'As if anyone could MAKE me do anything.'
It was Tris's voice again. When, Keth wondered, had he last heard that voice while awake, and what had he done to deserve it? And had he really been so terrified of her that an accompanying image - she would be pushing her spectacles up her nose, cross, but somehow replete with stubborn pride - blossomed behind his eyelids without his consent?
"I wouldn't be so cheerful if I were you," the same traveller told him. "That girl who sparked lightning seemed mighty familiar, and if a newcomer like me knows it..." He grinned as Keth shook his head slowly. "You shouldn't talk so much about her if you don't want your very Namornese relatives to get the wrong idea. Though it's probably too late now."
"Know what?" the Trader asked, deep, pleasant voice like smooth honey.
"Thanks," Keth said sourly. He stopped. "What do you mean 'too late'?"
His friend refused to answer. The Trader watched them, firelight dancing over the deep scarring on one side of her face. It was very difficult to read her expression. "In every way, I expect."
Only later that night would the implication sink in, and he would grin in the darkness, the address from which her most recent letters originated floating in his mind. Keth now had an excuse to visit - avoiding displeased family members who could, possibly, question his association with her. He could not, after all, admit aloud that he had been worried.
Or maybe he could, if it made her red and cross, but secretly pleased, like how Keth still heard her voice in her letters.