Topaz, sorting through the sun-dried clean laundry on the living room couch for items to hang up immediately, looked up in surprise when the door from the upstairs opened. Zephyr would be working on supper. Was there something he needed and wanted to check whether their kitchen had it?
When he recognized Lady Phyllida, his eyes dropped hastily.
“Go get Andreas,” she said. “We have a situation.”
He nodded quickly, aware that she wouldn't want him punished for speaking but preferring not to antagonize even in small ways, and abandoned the laundry.
In the door of the study, he hesitated.
His master and owner was, as usual, hunched over his desk, the surface of which was barely visible under the books and papers. A little more than twice Topaz's own twenty-one years, with a noticeable amount of grey showing at his temples, against the mid-brown, sensibly short hair. There was nothing really striking about his features, an image Topaz called up in memory since he couldn't see from here, although perhaps his nose was a trifle too large to fit with the rest of his face, his eyes maybe a fraction too deep-set, but he was as ready with a smile as a reprimand. He was nearly as tall as Topaz had considered himself to be, back when he was Jax, and very nearly as skinny, despite never having gone hungry. While he was sitting, there was no way to tell that one leg had been born wrong. Regardless, he enjoyed going for walks, insisted on doing so almost every day after supper, and it kept him reasonably healthy, despite the lack of obvious muscle.
He wasn't sure what his Lord was working on, but he did know that Lord Andreas was considered the foremost expert on mage laws in this domain and several nearby ones, and that other mages came to him when there was a tangled problem that needed to be resolved.
“My Lord?” he said softly.
“Not now, please,” Lord Andreas said distractedly, pulling a different book into reach.
“I'm sorry, my Lord, but...” He winced, wanted to drop back and hide behind the door-frame as Lord Andreas spun his chair around—as though there was any hope of being less visible with skin that was brilliant yellow and orange swirls on a scarlet background. He dared not look high enough to read his Lord's expression, but the rest of his body language suggested irritation. Not fair, flashed through his mind, coloured with resentment. If I don't obey you'll be even more mad. Can't win. “Lady Phyllida sent me to get you, she says there's a situation,” he said, all in one breath and as rapidly as he could.
The irritation faded, at least mostly, and was probably no longer directed at him which was the main thing. “Oh. All right.” He reached for his cane, used that and the desk to lever himself to his feet. He was stiff, Topaz noted—staying in the same position for too long without getting up to move around. He was probably going to want a massage before bed to loosen up achingly-tight muscles; Topaz made a mental note to check on the massage oil and make sure it would be quickly available. Probably it wouldn't stop at a massage, but that was okay: he'd had much less considerate bed partners, and no sex at all would have been worse.
He trailed behind Lord Andreas back to the living room, wondering what the crisis might be.
“Mother's just been taken to the hospital,” Lady Phyllida said without preamble, when she saw Lord Andreas. “They believe she had a small heart attack. Latest report is that she's not believed to be in immediate danger, in part because Luna called nine-one-one so quickly, but they do want to keep an eye on her and do a few further tests. Aunt Pelagia changed Luna to natural human and sent her to the hospital to stay with her. This means, of course, that there is no one to watch Xenia and Elias. Pelagia is bringing them here. Tonight.”
Oh, great. Topaz had met them at a family gathering over Christmas. There'd been half a dozen children, universally self-important and immersed in a more-mage-than-thou attitude that apparently made rudeness to sensitives a competitive sport—other than a girl in her early teens who was smugly vegan and self-righteously above anything but pity and treated all sensitives with a cloying shallow solicitude that was no better. Lady Phyllida's, as he recalled, weren't the eldest, but near to it.
That Lady Phyllida even had children had come as a major surprise, but Zephyr had filled in the details. Female mages were strongly pressured to have at least two children each, to keep the population stable. Lady Phyllida, who was older than Lord Andreas, had stubbornly lived entirely alone for most of her life, intent only on her incomprehensible mathematics. She had, at last, bowed to the pressure and had gotten Zephyr only then, intending to have him do much of the work.
To a mage who loathed noise and distraction, even one child was unbearable to live with. Topaz could believe that. That they were her own didn't necessarily mean that her patience would undergo a magical transformation; it could, he'd seen it happen, but he'd seen it not happen, too. How much worse must it be for any mage, raised to avoid contact and to value control, let alone one like Lady Phyllida? So, accepting that she just couldn't do it, she'd asked her own mother to take over, and had the second as rapidly as possible.
Having them here wasn't going to be pleasant.
“Immediately, and with little time to pack, I imagine, knowing Pelagia,” Lord Andreas muttered. “She will, I assume, call as soon as there's further news on her condition?”
“I would expect so. Only Pelagia herself is as close kin.”
“This is going to be inconvenient, to say the least. They still have school tomorrow, and may still be here Monday as well. Although I'm not certain having them here on holidays would be any less likely to throw this household into chaos. All right. Topaz? The room upstairs that has two single beds in it? Make sure it has clean bedding and is generally clean and ready for use, and that there are plenty of towels and such upstairs. Then see if Zephyr needs a hand with adjusting supper for two more mouths. If nothing else, I'm sure you and I can improvise something for ourselves while the children have our share.”
“I'm sure that won't be necessary,” Lady Phyllida said. “Zephyr will think of something. But the help could be very useful.”
“Go ahead,” Lord Andreas told Topaz, saving him from trying to decide whether that was the full list of orders or if he should wait for more.
“Yes, my Lord.” Topaz circled respectfully around Lady Phyllida on the way to the stairs up.
Zephyr, in the kitchen, with skin currently an impossibly pure white and unruly shoulder-length hair of forest-green with pointed ears peeking through, barely glanced at him. The elder sensitive's expression showed an uncharacteristic intensity of exasperation and resignation that didn't do much to help Topaz' nervousness about this sudden change in the otherwise consistent and stable routine of their lives.
He checked the upstairs linen closet, made a mental note to find more clean towels for up here, and went to check on the bedroom.
Two twin beds, on opposite walls, each with a narrow dresser at the foot, and a single desk between the heads, placed under the window. He knew enough about kids to know that only having one of anything was asking for trouble, but there was nothing he could do about it.
By the time a car pulled in the driveway, Topaz was in the kitchen with Zephyr, providing an inexpert second pair of hands for transferring food into serving dishes and setting the kitchen table for four.
The children in question were a boy of maybe twelve and a girl who looked about the same so he figured she was the younger of the two. They arrived with a suitcase and another bag each, Lord Elias with an expression of profound annoyance and Lady Xenia with one of virtuous nobility that verged on smugness, both dressed in the cutting edge of cool if Topaz were any judge. They had the same lack of distinctive physical traits mages generally shared, maybe from too much interbreeding within a limited pool, brown-haired, medium-skinned, medium build edging towards light because using magic burned calories.
“Go put your things in your room,” Lady Phyllida said briskly. “I believe supper will be ready very soon. The table won't hold six, so Zephyr, Topaz, you'll need to find somewhere else so we can catch up over supper.”
“I believe we can look after ourselves that long so you can eat in peace, however, without waiting on us,” Lord Andreas said. Topaz wondered whether he even saw the incredulous look Lord Elias shot in his direction.
All in all, he was perfectly happy to eat downstairs in Lord Andreas' kitchen rather than upstairs.
He'd learned, soon after Lady Phyllida took Zephyr's voice away again, that Zephyr could still whisper, though with little volume, but preferred gestures and expressions as involving less effort. The amount of talking he'd done in Topaz' first few days had been absolutely extraordinary for him, and spoke worlds about how badly he'd wanted to make it even a little easier. Whether Zephyr had always been relatively quiet or if it was just the same philosophic acceptance that seemed to be Zephyr's reaction to pretty much anything, Topaz remained unsure, but it didn't seem to matter at this point.
Comfortable friendly silence was infinitely more pleasant than being with the mages and probably enduring snide remarks from the younger pair.
“You've got them up there overnight,” Topaz murmured, while they gathered up their dishes to take upstairs and start cleaning up. “Good luck.”
Zephyr rolled his eyes, sighed deeply, shrugged, and shooed him down the hall towards the stairs.
* * *
Topaz, on his loveseat, was close enough to hear the almost-stifled sigh as Lord Andreas lowered the book he was searching through. “Yes?”
Given that this was Lord Elias' fourth interruption today, all of them variations of “I'm bored!” and it wasn't much past lunch, Topaz wondered when his Lord's temper was going to fray.
“I dug out my old Playstation from downstairs like you said and hooked it up to the TV.” His sigh suggested martyrdom. “The games I liked then are mostly pretty lame, but it's better than nothing. I mean, how do you guys live with no Internet or...”
“We have dial-up,” Lord Andreas said. “That's what's available in this area currently, and it's enough for its purposes.” Topaz had heard him repeat variations of that frequently over the past couple of days, getting shorter each time. “What would you like, Elias? I do have work to do.”
“It's Saturday, don't you ever take a day off?”
“When I have no urgent work to do, yes. What would you like?”
“These games mostly suck less with someone else to play them with. Xen's upstairs playing with her new toy, and you and Mom are busy. Can I have your sensitive for a while?”
Lady Xenia's 'new toy' was, in fact, Zephyr, currently a living version of a Barbie doll right down to the unlikely curves and gravity-proof breasts, though at least Lady Phyllida hadn't done anything weird like making his skin—or should that be her skin?—look plastic or anything. Lady Xenia had spent last night, between homework and supper and finally going to bed, playing with Zephyr's now hip-length blonde hair, and had progressed this morning to practising her rudimentary illusion abilities by creating the appearance of clothing. Zephyr tolerated it with more grace than Topaz was sure he would have, even though there was really no choice but to submit to it. At least it was keeping Lady Xenia quiet and busy.
Lord Andreas glanced at Topaz, and nodded. “Go ahead. Have fun.” He sounded less carefully controlled, more indulgent.
“Cool. Well? Come on, already!”
Topaz uncoiled from his usual position and followed the younger mage to the living room.
“You ever play any games?” Lord Elias asked, the scorn in his voice suggesting that he was expecting a negative answer.
“Some, in arcades, my Lord,” Topaz said, keeping his tone carefully docile.
Lord Elias rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, welcome to the twenty-first century. Although a Playstation2 barely qualifies. You see anything you know how to play?”
Topaz warily flipped through the small plastic storage bin of games. A couple he recognized, most he didn't.
Hm, Mortal Kombat. He was used to an earlier version, with arcade controls rather than console ones, but it was the most familiar of the lot, which was what he'd been told to look for.
“Mortal Kombat, my Lord?”
“Yeah, okay.” Lord Elias actually looked moderately interested. “We can just goof around for a bit so you can get used to the controls. I haven't played in a while so I need to remember.”
“Yes, my Lord. Thank you.”
Lord Elias sat on the edge of the couch; Topaz stayed on the floor, though he figured he could get away with sitting cross-legged instead of kneeling.
The scornful look came back when Topaz chose Sonya Blade, a female Special Forces fighter; he chose, for himself, Raiden, who was a thunder god with a variety of blatantly magical moves. No big surprise, really.
“Don't get any stupid ideas like throwing the game by picking a character I can beat too easy,” Lord Elias said. “That's going to be boring.”
“No, my Lord. I'm used to Sonya. I'm not trying to lose.”
“All right, then. But I want this to be a challenge.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“I don't know why he doesn't turn you into a girl and leave you that way for real. That's the first thing I'm going to do when I have a sensitive.”
“That's up to Lord Andreas, my Lord. And up to you.” He wouldn't be the first, from what Topaz had seen. It hadn't been long enough that he didn't still find shapechanging uncomfortable and nerve-wracking, and he tried not to think too much about what his Lord might do—although compared to what he'd seen at family and social gatherings, Lord Andreas had mild tastes. Unless it was just more of that kindness, meant to give him some time to get used to it before getting more creative...
Sonya's strengths lay not with flashy tricks, but with speed and agility. That meant she was often underestimated, but in the hands of someone with the reflexes and coordination to use her well, she could be extremely effective.
They messed around a bit, Topaz learning what moves Sonya had in this version of the game and how to translate what he knew onto a different controller. He made what notes he could about what Lord Elias was concentrating on, and found as he'd rather expected that the young mage seemed fond of the flashy electrical and teleport moves at the expense of basic combat technique.
A lifetime ago, he'd lurked in arcades, watching for young men out with a girlfriend or a group of friends, ones who were winning and easy to manipulate into wagering on a game, with Lila variably his girlfriend or flirting with his opponent, depending on the circumstances. They'd found Mortal Kombat one of the best for that.
Don't think about Lila.
She wouldn't even know you anymore, anyway.
More time would have been better, but he could see Lord Elias starting to get impatient. He'd just have to work out the rest on the fly. “My Lord?” he said tentatively, when they finished that session. “I think I can keep from boring you.”
“Good.” Lord Elias started a new game. “I really hope you can. So far you kinda suck at this.”
“I'll try, my Lord.”
He did manage to keep from being a punching bag, even with Lord Elias pounding on him mercilessly, but continued to puzzle out what worked best. As he caught on, the tide of the game began to turn, and Lord Elias' chiding over a string of victories, by an increasingly narrow margin, became a frown and some muttered cursing. The frown deepened into a scowl and the cursing went silent in fierce concentration, as Topaz began to win enough rounds to make each match's conclusion much less certain.
The first time Topaz' Sonya won two out of three rounds and killed his Raiden, he threw Topaz an incredulous look that was about half shock.
“Luck,” he said curtly. “You can't do it again.”
Feeling a tingle of pleasure and confidence he hadn't experienced in months, Topaz did so. And a third time as well, this time, with the game's trademark gore, gleefully removing Raiden's heart and then his arm and beating him with it.
“What the fuck?” Lord Elias tossed his controller on the floor, twisted to glower at Topaz. “How the fuck did you do that? You could hardly play it when we started!”
“I learn fast, my Lord.”
“No one learns that fast!” The rising volume of his voice made Topaz cringe: angry mage equalled bad thing, no matter who that mage was. He dropped the controller, pulled in on himself, shifted position into the submissively kneeling crouch that would make him as small a target as possible for whatever limited protection that might be.
None, really. Lord Elias stood up, came a step closer, then another, easily within arm's length though he made no attempt at contact. The proximity itself felt like a threat, every bit as much as the torrent of words.
That momentary satisfaction of being able, even vicariously, to thump with impunity on a mage and win was scant comfort. Lord Andreas was going to be angry that he'd upset Lord Elias, and if nothing else, this was yet another interruption in his work.
“Elias?” Lord Andreas said from the doorway. “What I'm hearing doesn't sound like playing a game. Would you care to tell me why you're verbally abusing Topaz? And you will please back at least two steps farther away from my sensitive instead of looming over him like that.”
Topaz closed his eyes, felt sick and cold. Any hope that his own Lord wouldn't be disturbed or drawn into this had just vanished. And of course if it came down to the word of a mage against the word of a sensitive, he was certain to be the one who lost.
He wasn't sure what else he could have done, though. Try to play hard enough to keep Lord Elias challenged without winning? That would have required a level of skill with this game's dynamics he just didn't have. So what on Earth was I supposed to do? How could I possibly have won, or at least not lost, in this whole mess? This isn't fair! Pull me out of what passed for a life, tell me I have to obey mages, then get pissed off at me when I try my best? What was I supposed to do?
Even if the whole situation had been impossible, he nonetheless knew with miserable certainty that he'd failed his Lord and his Lord would be displeased with him, for not keeping his nephew happily occupied and out of the way. It might be easier to bear if he thought his Lord would just hit him or punish him and let it go—and that he was thinking that only made the resentment worse.
“He beat me,” Lord Elias said angrily, though he did obediently retreat the requested distance, which was at least some relief even if it was eclipsed by his own Lord's thinly-masked annoyance. “He started off acting like he didn't know what he was doing, and then just turned around and started beating me every time!”
“Did you tell him to let you win?”
“Of course not. That would be boring!”
“So you told him to give you a challenge?”
“And he gave you what you asked for?”
“I... he wasn't supposed to start winning every game!”
“So there was a maximum percentage of games he was allowed to win?”
“I think he lied to me about not knowing the game very well! He was trying to make me look stupid! He's just a sensitive, he can't be that good! He has to have been cheating somehow!”
“Topaz,” Lord Andreas said. “Have you ever played that game before?”
“Not on a Playstation, my Lord,” Topaz said meekly. “Only in an arcade. I did play it a lot there. The controls are different and the special moves are different.”
“But you're familiar with another version of the same game. Elias, did you ask him that beforehand?”
“Yeah,” Lord Elias said. “It would take forever for it to be fun if he had to learn one from nothing. I told him to find one he knows.”
“Topaz. Did you, in any way, deceive Elias, or cheat, or otherwise win unfairly?”
“No, my Lord!” Topaz said vehemently. “I wouldn't...!” Lord Andreas' raised hand cut him off, and he bit his lower lip hard.
“So, Elias, he did what you said and told you which game he's familiar with, and he applied what he knows from another version to this one to give you a challenge, as you told him to do. And when he picked it up successfully enough to start winning, you got angry at him for it.”
“Does that cover the facts?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.” The answer came out only reluctantly.
“Has Topaz acted in any way inappropriate in anything he has done or said?”
“Well, no, not technically, but he cheated or something!”
Lord Andreas nodded. “You're on your own for the rest of the day.” Lord Elias, in disbelief, opened his mouth to protest, but Lord Andreas continued right over him, without changing the level tone at all. “And if you want to have someone to play against tomorrow, you can apologize to Topaz for scolding him for doing exactly what you told him to do, and you can ask if he would like to play further around his other responsibilities, which will be his choice. Stop there before you even finish saying that. Whose household is this?”
“Yours,” Lord Elias said sullenly.
“Unless Topaz behaves in a way that is inappropriate towards a mage, he is my sensitive in my household, which you are also currently in, and I determine what's right. No sensitive can learn how to please their mage if the rules are changed on them and they're in trouble for doing as they're told to do. It's an impossible trap and it's unfair. Think about how you'd feel if you were told to do something and then punished for doing it. Topaz, come on, up you get and come with me. No more games today.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Topaz said softly, rising quickly and falling into place at his Lord's heels back to his office.
“You look frightened,” Lord Andreas said, his voice unexpectedly gentle, one hand resting on the corner of his desk for support. “Do you honestly think I'd be angry with you when you didn't do anything wrong?”
“I... I don't know whether I did anything wrong, my Lord.” It came out almost as low as a whisper. “You were disturbed again because of it.”
“Not because of anything you did. You did as he asked.” He sighed. “I had hoped you might be able to have some fun playing for a while. I wonder if I was that bad at that age. We can hope he'll grow out of it. Ah well. Come here.”
Nervously, Topaz obeyed.
Lord Andreas gave him a brief affectionate kiss and ran a hand through his hair. “I will not allow you to be treated unfairly. Please believe that.”
“Yes, my Lord.” He tried not to shiver, the relief that he hadn't failed swamped by the flood of warm reassurance that his Lord was pleased with him.
Had, in fact, taken his part against another mage.
Right then, he understood why Veritas had loved their mutual master, even while he hated the fact that it mattered to him beyond his own immediate safety.
“You're mine, and I will protect you as much as I possibly can.” Another sigh. “Now. I do need to get this finished. Supper will take Zephyr longer since it's for six, not four. Suppose you go remind him of that and maybe help out, hm? If Xenia argues, tell her I said so.” A flash of humour crept into his voice. “They may think the world revolves around them, but I don't believe either is likely to interrupt Phyllida when she's working unless they feel like being exiled outside and told to amuse themselves out there. I imagine he could use a break.”
“Thank you, my Lord.” It might actually be good to be away from his Lord for a bit, to let his chaotic feelings settle down.
Lady Xenia sulked over losing her toy, but didn't argue; she just went to the children's shared bedroom to read.
In the kitchen, Zephyr gave Topaz a quick kiss and a smile of thanks.
Topaz shrugged. “Lord Andreas' idea. But I'm glad he thought of it. Very bad?”
Zephyr sighed, gave him a one-shoulder half-shrug and a rueful look that said as clearly as words, could be worse. His—her—expression turned questioning, blonde eyebrows raised.
“Lord Elias got angry that I beat him at Mortal Kombat. Lord Andreas made him leave me alone and said he can't have me to play with any more today. He wasn't mad at me.”
Zephyr shook her head, not surprised; thick blonde hair fell forward over a bare shoulder, and she rolled her eyes and headed for the basket on the counter that held a variety of small useful items including hair elastics.
“And if he wants to play tomorrow, he has to apologize to me.” That was probably not going to make Lord Elias any better disposed towards him. “And Lord Andreas said it's my choice whether I want to.”
Zephyr nodded, gathering up her hair with both hands, a heavy-duty elastic in one.
“I probably don't want to. But I'll do it anyway. 'Cause otherwise, he'll keep bothering Lord Andreas all day.”
Another nod. Zephyr wrapped the elastic firmly around the ponytail, and came back to him. It was a little distracting having her look like that, but it wasn't the first time Lady Phyllida had made Zephyr be a girl, although it was uncommon; more just that she did look an awful lot like a doll brought to life. She pressed a kiss just in front of his ear and whispered, “Exactly.” Briskly, she strode across the kitchen to the fridge and opened the door to rummage inside, beckoning him over so she could hand him a variety of vegetables from it.
Exactly? What did she mean, exactly?
Lady Xenia wandering into the kitchen in search of a drink interrupted the discussion, and once she was satisfied and left with her glass of juice, they concentrated on making supper and another of Topaz' sporadic cooking lessons. Deeper questions could wait. Right now, they just needed to get through this visit with their mages minimally inconvenienced by it.
<-- Back Next -->