Elena Nicodemos circulated through the yard, always alert, always aware of the positions not only of those in her immediate proximity but of her hunting partner Brock Eldridge as well. The simple elegant black dress was a form of camouflage different from that she preferred, but it was appropriate for the situation. People spoke more freely when they weren't reminded of the fact that they were in the presence of a hunter.
Today's social was the offering of the local Nicodemos Matriarch, ostensibly a celebration of Midsummer, but Elena had learned in her childhood that the Matriarch did nothing for only one reason, and never for the reason that showed on the surface.
As was appropriate, since one of the local hunter teams was in Enville, they'd been invited, and would have been even if neither were from the Nicodemos family. That was tradition, that the hunters surrendered normal family rights and obligations, but were always invited to any event.
The other traditions might be dying, Elena thought sourly, the authority of the hunters might be stolen from them an inch at a time, crippling their effectiveness more and more. But they were the elite, and they had power still, and could demand at least the appearance of respect.
With the authority hunters had wielded even fifty years ago, she could have made certain that the respect was real, born of fear if nothing else.
Most of the eighty or so adult mages in Enville were present, roaming around the Nicodemos grounds or settled somewhere to talk. Perhaps one in five kept their sensitives near them, pets that trailed along docilely. The rest had been left in their own area, with water and simple snacks to keep them quiet. Against the simple humanity of the mages, the sensitives who stayed with their owners were a brilliant contrast—all variations on standard themes, with scales, feathers, fur, wings, tails, some more skilfully altered than others.
She spotted Andreas with the new sensitive she'd caught for him a month ago. Tawny fur and tiger-stripes, not uncommon, but she grudgingly conceded that Andreas had obviously put quite a lot of effort into that intricate stripe-pattern. A collar of heavy silver, a yellow gem winking at the front, circled his throat. Still male, too, as far as she could see. Andreas had always kept his previous sensitive near him, to fetch and carry for him and save him the need to stress his bad leg; it looked as though he intended to continue the practice.
For a moment she watched, critically. The preferred way was to capture them exhausted and hungry and terrified. Sensitives were pathetically weak; show gentleness and kindness to one in that condition, and he was yours for life, devoted through any amount of treatment no mage would tolerate, all for the reward of an occasional word of praise or affection. They never fought back, simply bent and adapted to whatever happened to them. Worse than dogs; at least most dogs would eventually bite if handled too harshly.
She knew the look the sensitive turned on his owner, gaze kept carefully below Andreas'. As far as that sensitive was concerned Andreas was God.
She paused at the small outdoor bar, staffed by one of the Matriarch's two sensitives, for another glass of wine. The taste was pleasant, and it was a simple trick to neutralize the alcohol to keep her mind clear. The sensitive looked rather like a naiad might, skin tinted with blues and greens, all slender curves and long hair, otherwise not such a great change at first glance—unless you knew that, like three-quarters of sensitives the hunters chose, this one had been male.
The other, presiding over the nearby table of finger-foods to make certain nothing ran short, looked more like a dryad, brown-skinned and green-haired and more solid than the naiad; it was a common combination for pairs, executed at some times with more creativity and art than at others. Elena took her wine and paused at the table to pick up a devilled egg, then sighed to herself and found a group to mingle with.
* * *
Elena waited for Brock to bring the dark red mini-van to a halt, and hopped out. Obedient to the implied command of having the side door opened, the two sensitives in the back emerged, eyes on the ground, and stood still and silent to wait for directions from their mages. A pair of males, captured together, trained together, their anguish at each other's suffering helping to speed the process of breaking them without lessening the force of it at all. Currently, both looked human at a glance, but that was only convenience for travel; beneath the clean but well-worn clothes was another matter. Neither would survive long if they ever managed to break their conditioning and run, and Elena and Brock had made very certain they knew it—but then, they'd spent enough time on that conditioning that it was unlikely they were even able to think about escape anymore.
They'd arrived early at the mage-hall, before the great wooden doors were opened to observers. Every city had a hall like this, neutral ground for Master's exams and trials, generally the legal property of the Matriarch or Patriarch of the family which had come to the city first. Layers of glamour, applied repeatedly over the decades, masked it from mundane notice.
The hunters circled around to the smaller back door, the sensitives following like shadows that were pale rather than dark, and Brock unlocked it—as hunters, they were entitled to keys to every mage-hall within their domain. Approached from this angle, the hall was practical, functional: the corridor they stepped into was floored with institutional cement tile, lit by fluorescents in a row along the ceiling, painted a pale coffee-colour broken only by a framed aerial photograph of the city, a map in a matching frame, and the crest of each of the city's families: Nicodemos, Fontana, Alexeiev, Yasuo.
None of which mattered; it was all more or less standard, following the traditions. The partners ignored it.
The door of the room reserved for the Elders, the Matriarch or Patriarch of each family, was closed; Elena scowled at it in annoyance. “I suppose we might as well go sit while we wait for them.”
“Might as well,” Brock agreed.
The corridor's far end opened, via a heavy door of carved wood, on to the main hall: a huge space with an arched ceiling. In keeping with tradition—though it was one Elena wouldn't have minded losing—the inner walls were faced with limestone, matching the outside of the building and creating a distinctly medieval feel. Banners adorned the side walls, showing the family crests again. The oak floor had darkened with age, and not all the marks on it were from chairs sliding across it.
Directly in front of this smaller door was an oval table, with chairs behind it along the longer side for the Elders, facing the rest of the room. The hunters made themselves comfortable on a random pair of chairs, and waited. The two sensitives dropped instantly to kneel at their feet, regardless of the stone under them.
“Idiocy,” Brock grumbled. “They don't need us here. She said it in front of half a dozen witnesses, and it isn't even the first time. We weren't even present.”
“It's as much our job to be the voice of law and tradition as it is to hunt sensitives,” Elena pointed out.
“Yes? Then why do they keep tying our hands more and more tightly? Even if we know perfectly well that someone is breaking law and tradition, we now have to have concrete proof before we can even charge them with it. You know as well as I do that the Donovans have broken just about every one of the laws involving sedition, immorality, and the proper behaviour of sensitives, but they're too sneaky to do it in front of anyone willing to testify. The Alexeievs and Kalindis are picking up way too much from them, god knows what they're going to start doing, and we can't do anything to prevent it. The Ingemars are practising forbidden magic, but we can't bloody catch them out on it, so they get to keep right on doing it. Half the damned Vladislavs are inventing ways that mages, specifically Vladislavs, can rule the entire world, but we can't prove that, either. There's not much left of our job except hunting sensitives.”
Their teachers had been trained while hunters still had power, and had watched it fade; they had retired some years ago, but only after having taught their successors not only their skills, but about the proud history they shared, which was being stolen from them an inch at a time.
“We need to hold onto whatever power they leave us,” Elena said grimly. “Once they take our right to speak for the law in a trial, whether we personally witnessed it or laid charges or were uninvolved, we'll lose a huge amount of ground. And I will not be reduced to nothing more than a source for sensitives, not without a fight for every step.”
“We'd best stay involved in the concept of reservations for sensitives. As little as I like the idea of being a farmer and breeding them rather than hunting them, I prefer it to losing our standing altogether if others begin to supply sensitives. Ones that have been raised from birth to be obedient, no less.”
“Hush,” Elena said. “Not here.”
“I wish they'd get on with it. We have better things we could be doing than sitting here waiting.”
A few minutes later, four sensitives, those of the Elders, emerged; they carefully avoided even looking towards the hunters or their mute and motionless sensitives as two headed for the great double doors at the far end to throw them open and the other two arranged chairs into the proper configuration. One to the left, for the accused... only one? She'd chosen to stand alone, then. That or no one was willing to support her. Two to the right, for the hunters. A row behind the hunters, six chairs for the six witnesses.
Brock stood up and stretched. “Looks like about time for us to go collect the party girl.”
“There,” Elena said, as she rose, and gestured to their places in front of the hunters' chairs. “Kneel and wait.” She and Brock didn't waste time making sure their sensitives obeyed; they would.
Just through the rear door and to one side was a flight of stairs down.
There were two cells in the basement, though it was uncommon for even one to be needed. As a prison went, they were comfortable, each a small room with a bed and a table and chair, an alcove to the side with toilet and sink and shower stall.
Lera Alexeiev opened her eyes when the door swung aside. She was seated on the hard chair, facing towards the door, her hands laced together in her lap and her expression serene. “It's time?”
“Let's go,” Brock said bluntly.
Lera rose calmly, and walked out of the cell; she hadn't changed her clothes, though she would have been offered the chance, and still wore faded loose pants with a large flower print, sandals, and a tank-top, her shoulder-length brown-blonde hair neatly brushed and loose, no trace of make-up on her tan skin. She'd made Master less than three years ago, on her twenty-fifth birthday, Elena recalled. Nothing about her appearance would ever make her stand out among the interbred mage families, no more than Elena or Brock, their genes mingled and muddied into a single pool and only names lingering to recall the varied origins. Only her actions marked her as... different.
They didn't have to make her come; if anything, they had to keep up with her.
Stupid girl, Elena thought scornfully. Believe things that would undermine mage society, then be foolish enough to say them in public, then do it again after getting off easy the first time, and now she goes swaggering into the room like she's the queen?
The chairs for spectators were filling, somewhat, though Elena doubted it would be a full turnout. In the first row to the left were two other Alexeievs, sensitives kneeling at their feet, and between those two was a third, Lera's, who wasn't shapechanged at all. Asking for trouble. Flaunting the fact that she doesn't have him under control, as though this is a good thing. Lera seated herself, without urging, on the lone chair to the left, but not before her eyes met those of her sensitive in brazen disregard for the law of respect stating that no sensitive must ever meet the eyes of a mage. Her sensitive's gaze dropped, properly, only when Lera turned around.
The hunters took their seats to the right, Brock glancing over the witnesses to make sure they were all present.
Once everything was settled, the four Elders emerged, through the rear door, and arranged themselves behind the oval table.
“Lera Alexeiev,” the Fontana Patriarch said gravely. “You have been charged with sedition and immorality, specifically, encouraging beliefs and behaviours which are detrimental to the peace and stability of mage society. Have you anything to say?”
Lera stood up, her back straight and her head high. “By the outdated and narrow definitions of mage society, I'm guilty of exactly that,” she said, her voice carrying clearly. “Those beliefs and behaviours challenge the stagnation of mage society, which is falling far behind the social and moral development of the mundane society we live within. Prejudice on grounds of sex, colour, religion, orientation, or disability is no longer acceptable to them, and they're fighting to root it out. We consider ourselves better than them, yet we tolerate outright slavery, which has never been allowed in this country and was even abolished south of us over a century ago. I admire what they're trying to achieve, and I believe in it, and I agree with them. And it would go counter to that for me to treat Evan as though he were an animal, simply to keep from scandalizing those who still find slavery to be acceptable. There is genetic evidence,” she paused as a rising murmur behind her threatened to drown her out, and repeated more forcefully, “genetic evidence, not speculation, that mages and sensitives diverged from the same root several millenia ago, even though most mages refuse to acknowledge it or even evaluate it fairly. There is overwhelming evidence from Europe and Australia that somehow, in North America over the past two to three centuries, we have gotten things horribly wrong. There's no need for witnesses, I do not deny that I expressly stated that sensitives are people and should be treated accordingly, and that the conditions they are forced to live in while still free are appalling, and that considering sensitives to be no more than property is a short-sighted, unconsidered, unethical, and immoral belief. Nor do I regret it or retract it. I only challenge the validity of the laws that make it a crime.” She sat down.
“She's as soft-headed as the damned Donovans,” Elena murmured under her breath, and Brock nodded. That was the problem with living in mundane society: some mages picked up ideas from it and thought they could be applied to mages, as well. That so-called evidence had come from a group of scientifically-inclined mages, mostly Alexeievs with their fondness for animals and plants and the natural sciences; the conclusions had been presented in far more cautious terms, acknowledging the possibility of error and the need for further research and warning against drawing current conclusions from it. Even then, she'd have preferred they'd found other subjects to research, more useful and less easily twisted to the personal agendas of people like Lera.
The soft whisper running through the room faded to silence, when the Nicodemos Matriarch raised a hand.
“You are aware that, as this is a second offence, the punishment will be correspondingly more severe?”
Lera nodded. “I am.” Elena saw muscles tighten in her neck and shoulders and upper back, though her voice stayed steady and she kept her gaze on the Matriarch speaking to her.
“And you still admit to this?”
“May as well,” Brock muttered. “No point in denying it.”
The Elders exchanged glances, each one nodding in turn.
“Lera Alexeiev,” said the Yasuo Matriarch. “You are hereby stripped of your status as Master, including the right to possession of a sensitive in your own name and to having your own household, though you may choose which member of your family you will live with. You are not eligible to stand for Master's status again for two years from today. You are hereby sentenced to sixty days in prison, beginning immediately, your sensitive to stay for the duration in the care of whichever member of your family you will be residing with upon your release. And for the second time, give that sensitive a proper name and teach him to behave properly in public, or we will ask the hunters to do so. You will not be given a third warning on this. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Matriarch,” Lera said steadily.
“Hunters? If you please?”
The pair rose, almost simultaneously, to escort Lera back downstairs. Lera stood up, calmly, but her expression as she looked behind her to her sensitive was full of pain, just for a heartbeat. Elena didn't bother looking at the sensitive; he was probably doing something that would only irritate her further.
Lera went quietly, stepped back into her cell without fuss.
“Go ahead,” Elena added, just before she swung the door closed. “Keep it up, until they give your sensitive to us to train. I remember catching him, he stayed on his feet and moving for a full seven days.” She grinned. “He was fun to give basic lessons to, he fought so hard. Next time, I'll make damned sure he's broken completely, so he never even thinks of stepping out of line again. I expect to enjoy it quite a lot.”
Lera turned a glare of pure icy hatred on her. “You will not get your hands on Evan, Nazi, no matter what I have to do.”
“Threats from someone who ends up in prison and gives up her Master status over a sensitive? I'm terrified.” Elena gave Lera her very best smile. “Not as terrified as your sensitive will be once I have him, I promise. Not that, legally speaking, he's even yours any more.” She closed the door, and waited for a moment, listening; she nodded to her partner in satisfaction when she heard the sound of heartbroken sobbing, muffled somewhat by the sturdy wood despite the small metal grating. “Idiot girl. Maybe this'll teach her a lesson about creating her own weaknesses that can be used to hurt her.”
“She's better off crying a bit now than ending up in worse trouble later, when she's up on sedition and immorality a third time,” Brock conceded. “But I think you just wanted her to cry because of that little speech she gave upstairs, and because she called you a Nazi.”
The partners turned towards the stairs and the outside world. Making sure Lera ate was someone else's job.
“I can't say I'm impressed,” Elena admitted. “I mean, Nazi? Give me a break. It isn't as though we're rounding up millions of people and murdering them. That's just obscene. I hardly think capturing half a dozen sensitives a year and maintaining tradition and stability qualify us as Nazis.”
They emerged back into the main room, found that the Elders had left but spectators lingered, many of them in little groups around the witnesses to hear the whole story. Their own sensitives had moved not an inch, accustomed to being left where they were until they were needed.
Andreas sat alone, leaning back in his chair with his legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed; Topaz knelt at his feet on a flat cushion Andreas must have provided for him, currently human except that his skin was a rich blue, darker at his extremities and lighter on his nearly-naked body, reminding Elena of a Siamese cat. Elena left Brock to talk to someone else, and made her way over to him.
“You look thoughtful,” she observed, straddling the chair in front of him backwards.
“I am thoughtful,” Andreas agreed. “I'm thinking about laws, and reasons for them.”
“To protect a group from others outside the group, and from each other within it. Isn't that how it goes?”
“Yes. But what about censorship laws? When it comes right down to it, that's what Lera broke. Sedition and immorality is a euphemism.”
“Censorship laws also protect.”
“Who, against what? What's so dangerous about some ideas that they have to be silenced, instantly and severely? If the ideas in question are so unthinkable, then why doesn't everyone else simply ignore them? We have to put up with people saying any number of things every day that we don't consider to be correct or worth listening to. Why are some ideas so frightening to people that simply to voice them is to be punished?”
“Because some ideas are just pointless and it doesn't matter if they spread, but others are detrimental to society as a whole and need to be stopped before they spread. Like a disease.”
“If an idea is so appalling, then why would it spread, rather than exhausting itself in its own time with no harm done?”
“Do you want the mundane courts to make white supremacist propaganda legal? Wouldn't that nonsense simply exhaust itself after a while?”
“The analogy doesn't hold, Elena. The supremacists are advocating a return to long-standing highly destructive beliefs that still exist, despite all attempts to uproot them, and they encourage violence. What Lera was saying is the opposite, closer to the first few voices who spoke out in favour of women's suffrage, for example, against a society convinced that women were automatically inferior.” He stood up, and Topaz rose swiftly so Andreas could steady himself on his sensitive's shoulder until he had his cane in position. “Not all those first voices were women, either. It's something to keep in mind. Thank you, by the way, I couldn't be happier with Topaz.”
“Glad to hear it,” Elena said. Only half her mind was on the pleasantries of saying farewell, since the hunters were leaving the city the next day; she was busy thinking about what Andreas had just said. She'd thought Andreas understood the necessity of laws to protect peoples' minds as well as their bodies and property!
She rejoined Brock, and felt somewhat better after a Yasuo made clear his utter disgust of Lera's mad beliefs, but before long, they collected their sensitives, and left.
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