An sat at the table with her friends and family a few weeks later. Mattan sat by her, holding her hand.
“So,” Tolly asked. “How has your mother taken the news?”
“Better than I thought,” An said, tightening her grip on Mattan’s hand. “She tried to get me to commit to seeing some more doctors, but I did manage to impress her with the names of all the doctors I’ve already seen.”
“Expect her to try again,” Mattan said. “She cornered me after our little talk, and tried to get me to promise to persuade you.”
“She must like you,” An said.
“Quite a formidable woman,” Tolly said in a tone of some admiration. “Always has been.”
An smiled as she shook her head. “To be expected. She’s as stubborn as the rest of us.”
“Maybe more so,” Jasin said.
“Fortunately she likes Mattan,” An continued. “Though she didn’t remember ever having met him before.”
“I’ve told you,” Mattan said to her with a smile, “most people find me rather forgettable.”
“She will be here for the wedding,” An said. “And kept trying to pay for a honeymoon trip for us.”
“We’ll take any sort of trip you want, after the Organ Festival,” Mattan said.
An laughed. “Maybe we will, later. But for now, I’m just so happy to be myself again.”
“Mom can’t imagine not going on a honeymoon for any reason than not having money,” Jasin said.
“Everything would be easier to explain to her if she believed in magic,” Mattan said. “She kept hinting to me that I should stop dying my hair. I wish I could. But that’s not dye.”
“She’ll get used to it,” An said. “We also went to see Grandma,” she told Jasin.
“Did you?” Jasin said. “How is she?”
“She won’t come to the wedding, so as not to upset Mom. But she’ll probably move to town later, we’re going to be working on compiling our notes, and writing a Telish history. And she really let me have it for not not coming to see her earlier. She thinks she could have help.”
“She probably could have,” Mattan said, shaking his head. “Talking about formidable women.”
An laughed, then turned serious. “Mattan,” she said.
“What is it, Anilyne?”
“There’s something I need to know. Tell me about Valeesa.” She turned to Mattan and Tolly. “I carried her around in my head . . . or arm, I guess, but I know so little about her.”
Mattan curled his hand around his cup. “We talked about her before. She’s dead,” he said bluntly.
“When did she die? Or live?” Jelana asked. “The name meant something to both of you, but nothing to me.”
“You were hibernating at the time,” Tolly said. “One of the times that you didn’t surface for years.”
“She was a musician,” Mattan said, staring into his cup. “Very accomplished. Not quite world renown, but she had played before kings.”
“We should have known that something was up, that such a performer would have been willing to settle in our little town in the middle of nowhere,” Tolly said. “It was even more so back then. After the merchant train collapsed.”
“Did you check out her history?” Jasin asked. “She was who she said she was?”
“Oh, there’s no doubt about that. Mattan went out and talked to people in several towns, cities, and beths about her.”
“I was really researching how to make a pipe organ,” Mattan said. “Never struck me how odd it was that people where she had lived and studied were glad to hear she settled down elsewhere.”
“Mattan was making the organ for her. I financed it. Didn’t realize that she was playing both of us for fools.” He shook his head. “Should have. After all, it’s not the first time someone tried.”
“I made the organ for Valeesa, the musician, not Valeesa, the woman. She wouldn’t tell the difference.”
“She often gave recitals in the park on other instruments she brought with her,” Tolly said. “Everyone was awed by her playing.”
“Yes, she worked hard on her music,” Mattan said. “I admired that.”
“I realized she was after me while you were away on one of your trips,” Tolly said. “I think right after she realized that I was the one paying for the organ. I probably should have stopped it earlier, but it was flattering, even if I knew it wasn’t real. She was very beautiful.”
“Not that beautiful,” Mattan said.
“I let her follow me up to Jelana’s pond one day. She probably thought she was being sneaky. Jelana was hibernating at the time.”
“You said that already,” Jelana said. “I probably was still angry at you, at the town, for–“
“And we didn’t even know about Daved yet, of course. So she saw me talking to the waterfall. And then when she ‘surprised’ me, I explained the waterfall was my sister. She decided it wouldn’t be worth it to catch someone crazy, so she started going after Mattan instead.”
“You could have warned me,” Mattan said. “I came back from that trip, and found she suddenly was paying all sorts of attention to me. It was rather frightening. I hadn’t even noticed that she’d been chasing after Tolly. I was enjoying figuring out how to build the organ too much.”
An laughed as she put her hand on Mattan’s arm. “You do tend to forget everything else when you’re working on a new problem.”
“And she wouldn’t take a hint. Wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I tried to let her down gently, really I did, but she wouldn’t let me. I finally had to be cruel.”
“They eventually had a fight the whole town heard,” Tolly said. “A few days later, she vanished, but all her stuff was still there.”
“We found her body sometime later at the *WhateverCave*. I brought it back myself. We thought she had killed herself.”
“I kept telling you that you had nothing to feel guilty for,” Tolly said.
“I should have been able to find some way for her to come out of it, lived on happily.”
“She didn’t want to be happy.”
“We didn’t realize until this came up that she had found one of the few spots around that had residual magic. Well, the whole Ringgelf Forest had more residual ground magic in it than most of Tel, but it was more concentrated.”
“The unicorns have burned those thorn bushes that got you back then, An. Her essence went into it, and had also infected some of their younger fillies. They thanked you for letting them find this before it could grow and take one of them over.” Tolly shook his head. “Though it seems that her essence has even more trouble taking over a unicorn than it did you, An.”
An shuddered. “It just seems like a nightmare now.” She paused. “I wonder how many people she has infected over the years.”
“I doubt it was that many,” Tolly said. “You saw how overgrown the place was. And not just with thorns. Back away from everything. And anyone who did want to visit that cave usually used the larger, easier to get to entrance, not the little one, far up the hill.”
“Right,” An sighed. “Was she pretty, Mattan? Prettier than me?”
“Not prettier than you, Anilyne,” Mattan said. “Why would you ask that? You are beautiful. The most beautiful woman I’ve known.”
“Don’t you believe Mattan?” Tolly asked with a little chuckle.
“I believe what he means, not necessarily what he says,” An said.
“Then, yes. She was beautiful. If you didn’t look too closely at her expression. Most people wouldn’t.” He considered. “Younger men than Mattan or I might have been in more danger from her.”
“It was bad enough,” Mattan said.
“The unicorns found a magical talisman near the roots of the largest thorn bush. Old enough to be left over from before the magic left. Perhaps it was a family heirloom. They figure she didn’t know what power she was messing with.”
“The magic had been gone for so long,” Mattan said. “It might be that without the residual power there, it wouldn’t have done much damage at all.” He shook his head.
“It couldn’t have been your fault, Mattan,” Jelana said. “She chose her course of action.”
“Yes,” Tolly said. “Every step. She’d been following that course for years. Every town she went to.”
An shook her head. “I still can’t help wondering, was it really necessary to kill her? The thorn bushes, everything? Couldn’t we have found some way for both of us to live?”
“No!” Mattan said, looking up.
“She would never have settled for that, An,” Jelana said. “I’d been warning about that for years.”
“And the Other wasn’t really Valeesa,” Mattan said. “She didn’t give you any of her interest in music, for instance? Or cooking. She was an excellent cook.”
Tolly stirred at that, but didn’t say anything.
“She could have recorded any portion of her personality. And what did she choose to record? Nothing but hatred, pettiness, and spite.” He looked into her eyes. “Valeesa died one hundred and fifty years ago, Anilyne.”