Jax jolted out of exhausted sleep, confused and disoriented. Every inner sense, the ones he knew regular humans didn't have, the ones any sensitive would gladly give up, screamed at him that there was a mage nearby. That took priority instantly over anything else. Even as he forced his eyes to open and focus, he was gathering himself, preparing to bolt.
His clothes were gone, he was lying naked on rough cement, and he could feel weight around his neck. A heavy silvery chain snaked from the general direction of his neck towards an iron support post, where it was securely padlocked. It took him only a heartbeat to establish that it was also padlocked around his neck in a loop too short for him to get it over his head, and there was no more than two feet of slack between the locks.
Not a large space at all, no windows and only a single door. The pole he was chained to was off-centre, farther from the door; in the middle, there was a drain, the floor sloping gently to it, and directly above a single bare bulb cast harsh light over the grey walls. There was nothing else to see except a single hard wooden chair near the door. He was still certain he could feel a mage's proximity, but he couldn't see or hear anyone.
All he could remember was running... for days, constantly running, and spending the nights outside trying to rest his aching body, no food except a couple of snacks he'd shoplifted. Mind-numbing weariness, fear, hunger, the incessant pain of his abused body...
The hunters had finally closed in, they must have, although he couldn't remember the moment they had. Maybe just as well.
The door opened, and a woman came in, closed it behind her.
He knew, with every cell of his being, that she was a mage; he recognized her as having been one of the pair who had chased him for... six days? He hadn't been counting, since he'd known from the first moment that the hunt would have only one ending—although he knew no more than any other sensitive what actually happened to the sensitives who vanished during the hunting seasons.
She was no taller than his five-foot-seven, but considerably more solid, and he thought it was all muscle. It was hard to stay healthy when you lived on cheap instant junk; Lila was always bitching at him that he was too skinny.
Don't think about Lila. You both knew you'd get separated before too much longer. At least she's still out there and free.
This woman had her hair cropped short, sort of like Lila's, but it was reddish-blonde with threads of grey, instead of dark. The khaki denim and camo looked almost like a uniform, although not one that would be recognized by any official organization.
She surveyed him contemptuously, and seated herself on the chair.
“I,” she said coolly, “am Lady Elena. You will refer to any mage as 'my Lady' or 'my Lord.' I don't care what your name was, your master will give you one of his choosing. My task is to make certain that you understand the new realities of your life. You are no longer a wild animal, you are now domesticated property, chosen to serve. Mundane laws will not help you, and would not even if anyone were likely to be looking for you. Mage law places your fate entirely in your master's hands. If you please him by obeying, he may decide to reward you. If you displease him, he can punish you as he wishes, up to and including killing you an inch at a time.”
Trembling, Jax wrapped his arms around himself, huddled into the tightest ball he could, trying not to strangle himself on the chain.
Actually being caught was worse than all the stories sensitives whispered, cuddling together in the night for comfort.
“Why?” He heard his voice break on the word, tried not to start weeping in despair and fear. Hunger and thirst he'd encountered before, fatigue and cold weren't so new, but this...
Lady Elena shrugged carelessly. “That's the way things are. Sensitives exist to serve mages. Otherwise, why would you be so useful to us? You have no ability to do magic on your own, but what makes a sensitive a sensitive is how you respond to magic. There are two sides to that and both make it clear that you exist for our use. Your bodies draw energy from the environment and condense it into a form we can then make use of, and there is nothing you can do to stop us from doing so. When that energy is turned back on you, your forms can be changed to anything that we can dream up, with the sole exception of altering overall mass, and again, you have no natural defences against it. I eat steak without crying for the cow it came from, and believe me, most meat animals are living in conditions that should make you feel lucky. Don't expect me to cry for you, when you can have a long, healthy life and be well-treated if you behave yourself.” She smiled. He hadn't thought he could feel more frightened. He'd been wrong. “Behaviour shouldn't be a problem, however. You and I, right now, are going to make sure you know your place, before I turn you over to my cousin, your new owner.”
There didn't seem to be anything he could say in response to that. He bowed his head over his raised knees, closed his eyes, giving up on trying to stop the leaking tears. Life was over, as surely as if he were dead. It was only that it would take a very long time for it to actually end.
* * *
The door opened behind Lady Elena.
He dared not change position even enough to look up and see who it was, but he sensed another mage. Kneeling on the hard floor, shaking with exhaustion and hunger and disorientation, he tried to make himself smaller without actually moving and drawing Lady Elena's attention.
“Honestly, Elena!” That was a male voice, and it sounded displeased. “Do you have to be so brutal?”
“It's necessary. It makes them pay attention more closely. It's not as though we've had him here for a month, it's been less than thirty-six hours.”
The chain around his throat unfastened, with no hands touching it, and dropped away. “I suppose you know your craft,” the male voice said, with more than a trace of disapproval that wasn't hidden well. “But you know I don't like cruelty.”
“Then take him away and pamper him. I've done my job. He knows the new realities of his life.”
He heard the chair move very slightly on the rough floor, and Lady Elena's presence faded, leaving only the unfamiliar Lord. And the Lord's hands, which were reassuring and not rough.
“Stand up,” the Lord said, gently. “We'll go to my room, and I'll bring you a drink, and then you can sleep. If I try to help you, I'm afraid we'll both end up on the floor. Can you make it, up just one flight of stairs and a little way?”
“Yes, my Lord.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. Already kneeling, it was a struggle to get to his feet, but not impossible. The Lord backed up a couple of steps to give him room, an awkward, limping motion supported by a cane, but reached out to steady him when sudden altitude made him dizzy.
A mage who limped heavily on one leg and needed a cane, a drained and confused sensitive... luckily, the room in question wasn't far, though the stairs were torture.
“Lie down,” the Lord said, indicating the wonderfully large bed that dominated the room. “You can sleep here, but try to stay awake long enough to have a drink. I'll be right back.”
Stay awake, the Lord said to stay awake... Didn't matter how inviting and soft and warm the bed was, he had to stay awake. He curled up on his side, right near the edge, and the tag on the dog choker chain around his neck jingled, making him wince again—Lady Elena had told him, when she joined the two rings with a third heavy one too strong for him to bend, that the tag bore his owner's name, and marked him as property, not person. He waited, fighting each second not to surrender to sleep. Fear remained stronger even than fatigue.
The Lord returned, and sat beside him, braced him against his own body and gave him a cup of cool sweet water.
“Slowly. Don't drink it fast, I don't want you sick. Small sips.”
That was hard, too, but the sips of water tasted so glorious, as they slid down his parched throat, moistened his dry mouth.
The water was gone much too quickly.
“Lie down now,” the Lord said, and covered him with a blanket that felt good against his skin, warm and cozy. “Go to sleep, and sleep as long as you need to, and you can have some soup when you wake up. I can wait a little longer.”
* * *
Slowly, he woke, confused and disoriented. He remembered Lady Elena, her partner Lord Brock, had a blurrier memory of a male mage who had treated him gently... Though he ached all over, he was lying near the edge of a huge soft bed, warm under a thick blanket; it was dark outside the window, but there was light from somewhere behind him, low and vaguely blue. He'd never been in a place so luxurious before, everything simply screamed that it was expensive and high-quality.
He stirred, sat up, and discovered that he wasn't alone on the bed. The light came from a small lamp on a stand on the far side of the bed, and a male mage some years older than him was reading by it. Still dressed rather than ready to sleep, leaning comfortably against the headboard, with one leg outstretched and the other knee partly raised. Or rather, he had been reading; he looked up immediately, and smiled.
“How are you feeling?”
Be respectful, or he'll give you back to the hunters or something. The thought made him quail, so he kept his eyes carefully down and his tone docile. “Sore, my Lord. And hungry.”
“Both easy to fix. Give me your hand.”
Touch a mage? He shivered, but it had been made extremely clear to him that disobedience was not a viable option. He noticed, distantly, that his hand was trembling as he held it out.
The mage closed his own over it, gripping it firmly but not enough so to hurt.
He shivered again at the odd sensation, it wasn't against his skin but it was a touch nonetheless, an awareness of contact being made on some level for which he lacked a name. It didn't hurt, wasn't precisely uncomfortable, but he didn't like it. It was somehow intimate, and uninvited, and felt far more intrusive than physical contact ever could have.
Get used to it.
Then all the aches, the pain from blisters and bruises, from muscles stiff or pulled or simply overworked, faded away.
“There.” The mage released his hand. “One problem solved. Better?”
“Very much, my Lord. Thank you.” Though he wanted to gag on the last two words. Mages had gotten him into that condition, so that he could be given to this one, it wasn't fair he should have to be grateful for having it undone.
“You're welcome. Now. I'm Andreas Nicodemos. Knowing Elena, she and Brock told you nothing that they couldn't use to frighten you, so I'm not sure how much they explained. I was born with a congenital defect in my left hip and upper leg, which allows me to walk but only with a certain amount of difficulty. Because of that, I need a sensitive to be another pair of feet for me, as well as for magical reasons, which I'll explain in more detail later once you've recovered.” He smiled. “Think you can handle that?”
All this gentleness, asking his opinion as if it mattered, was only a mask; he dared not disagree. “Yes, my Lord.”
“Good. Let's go see if we can find you a bowl of soup in this place. Tomorrow,” he glanced at his watch, before setting aside the book and beginning to manoeuvre himself carefully off the bed. “Or rather, later today, we'll be going home to my house. This one belongs to one of the mages who works with the hunters.”
He flinched. A house full of hunters and their friends?
Lord Andreas picked up an ornately-carved wooden cane that had been leaning against the wall, and glanced at him. “You're mine,” he said firmly. “No other mage would dare touch you or harass you. You're now quite safe from the hunters and their allies.”
But I'm not safe from you. Maybe I should be glad that I only have to worry about what one mage is going to do to me, though, instead of all of them.
Meekly, he followed Lord Andreas to the door and out into the hall. No clothes, but Lady Elena had informed him that he wore what his master chose to give him, if anything. It made him feel even more vulnerable, but that was laughable. What difference could it make whether he were dressed, in a house full of mages?
“At least their guest room is on the ground floor,” Lord Andreas said wryly. “I have some trouble with stairs. Upstairs is purely for hunters and their allies, and I would be happier down here even if I could dance up and down stairs with no effort.”
Lord Andreas didn't like the hunters? That was interesting. And he thought he recalled Lord Andreas protesting to Lady Elena about being too rough. Maybe this mage wasn't like the hunters?
Since his life now belonged to this particular mage, it was worth hoping that it just might be true, that Lord Andreas wouldn't do anything dreadful to him as long as he stayed obedient.
Lord Andreas led him, steps uneven but stronger than he had anticipated, to a kitchen. The mage, personally, took a look through the cupboards until he found a can of condensed soup, then a large bowl, and a moment later put it in the microwave to heat.
“There. When that's done, take it out, and come sit down and eat.” Lord Andreas set a spoon on the table and lowered himself carefully onto one of the kitchen chairs. “I've been trying to think of a name for you, and I believe Topaz would work well. It's my favourite gemstone, and I expect to come to value you at least as much.”
I have a name!
No I don't. Lady Elena took it away. At least it isn't as bad as I'm sure it could be.
“Thank you, my Lord,” he said, quietly. Face it, Jax is dead. I'm just something to be remade into whatever my owner wants.
Even knowing that, he still felt remote, distanced from everything, including himself—whatever might pass for his self now. Shock, maybe. Eventually, this would all sink in and the sense of everything being surreal would fade, but he was in no hurry for that to happen.
“I'll have to have a collar made for you. That may take a little time, for an appropriate one, but that one will do for the moment.”
Newly-named Topaz raised a hand to the dog choker around his neck, then let it fall. “Yes, my Lord.”
The microwave beeped; Topaz retrieved the bowl of soup and brought it to the table, but hesitated.
“Sit,” Lord Andreas said. “Eat. For the most part, when we're home, you'll be eating meals with me. I have seen a sensitive eat before.” The flash of humour faded into a kind of muted sadness. “Every day, for twenty-one years, in fact. He died three months ago. Veritas—it means 'truth,' in Latin. I was a bit more pretentious when I was twenty-three.”
“What happened, my Lord?” Topaz asked tentatively. Oh please don't let him say, “He made me angry and I killed him,” or anything like that.
“My house is very old, the ceilings are very high. He climbed up on a chair to change a light bulb, and fell. There was no one else in the room, so I don't know exactly how. But he hit his head on a table made of solid walnut, rather old and extremely heavily built. And died before I ever knew, even though I was only half the house away, and could have healed it if he'd lived even a couple of minutes.” Lord Andreas sounded like he regretted the accident, though Topaz couldn't tell whether it was grief over Veritas' death, or annoyance at the inconvenience it must have caused him. Maybe both.
“That's very sad, my Lord.”
“I've had a vivid reminder, these past three months, what it feels like to live without a sensitive.” The smile came back. “And I'm grateful it's over, and that I now have you to come live with me.”
My life's been torn apart, I've lost my best friend, my name, and my freedom, so that you could have a sensitive. Sorry, but I'm not grateful. He concentrated on his soup, so he wouldn't slip and say something that would get him in trouble.
Soup finished, bowl and spoon washed and left in the rack to dry, they returned to the guest room. Lord Andreas sent him into the tiny bathroom to shower and generally make himself presentable, even had a toothbrush for him.
Still naked, but at least clean and shaved, he obediently curled up in the big bed again, as near to the edge as he dared. Lord Andreas didn't make an issue of it.
“A few hours of sleep will do us both good, then we'll go home.”
It would be a lie to pretend he wasn't still tired, so it was easy enough to close his eyes and drift off.
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