Topaz half-drowsed comfortably, curled up on the loveseat in his master's study. The soft rustling of paper, the occasional creak of Lord Andreas' leather chair, were comforting sounds, reassurance that all was as it should be.
A lifetime ago, or something like a year ago which amounted to the same thing, he knew he'd had a different name and lived always afraid, frequently hungry, too hot all summer and too cold all winter. There was no soft-cushioned loveseat, draped with a furry-feeling blanket, to lie on while the morning sun made warm golden puddles on the floor. No bellyful of bacon and eggs and sausage and toast. No big house, well, half a big house, full of antiques and art and books, to roam around in.
Of course, there had also been no silver collar permanently around his throat. No fur, silvery-grey with the striking white and black markings of a husky, his tail arranged carefully behind him. No need to be ever-alert in case his master needed him.
But for the most part, it took no genius to see how well he was treated, compared to some sensitives.
It just wasn't the life he would have chosen, had he been given any say in the matter at all.
He stirred, opened his eyes, and sat up—wincing as he moved the wrong way and bent his tail in a direction it didn't like. Cat tails were easier, more flexible. “My Lord?”
Lord Andreas half-turned and held out his empty glass. Topaz rose quickly and padded across the small room to take it, startling himself briefly with the sight of his own hands, and the blunt claws that had replaced human fingernails. “More of the same, my Lord?”
Topaz nodded and left the study for the kitchen. He rinsed the glass and, careful not to get fur on them, he dropped a couple of ice cubes in it before refilling it with lemonade.
Very quietly, he slipped back into the study and set it on the desk.
He curled up on the loveseat again—drat that curly tail, anyway!—and waited, certain that he'd be needed again soon.
If his master kept hunching over his desk like that, he was going to wreck his neck and back. At the very least it would take some work to loosen him up tonight. The book and video on massage techniques that Lord Andreas had bought was turning out to be helpful, and he was sure his Lord was pleased with what he was learning. They were getting low on massage oil again, though.
“Bring me the book on the third shelf down, somewhere towards the left side... reddish cover, title's something about inheritance laws but I can't recall exactly what.”
That was a normal kind of description. Topaz promptly got up and circled around his loveseat to the wall behind it, searching out the correct volume to bring to Lord Andreas.
“And these two can be put away, they didn't have what I was looking for.”
He'd taken care to remember which went where, since he'd be putting them away, so he returned each to its place, waited briefly, but when no further instructions were forthcoming, went back to his patient half-doze. Given no other form of expression, his imagination provided him with ever-more-exotic images and fantasies, a tangle of his present life and his old life and elements that had belonged to neither.
“I think I'm just about ready for some lunch. Why don't you go make us something?”
“Yes, my Lord. Which kind?”
“Whatever takes your fancy will be fine.” He ran a hand affectionately over Topaz's hair, or rather head-fur currently. “You know what I like and what I don't, by now. Make something you're in the mood for.”
Topaz nuzzled against his hand, felt his tail waving in instinctive response to emotion. It was weird how that kind of thing happened, his body altering its reflexes along with its shape. “Yes, my Lord.”
He padded away, back to the kitchen. 'Lunch,' habitually, was basic, a can of condensed soup split between them and a sandwich each. He looked in the cupboard to see what kinds of soup they had, and looked in the other cupboard and in the fridge to see what kinds of ingredients for sandwiches there were. As freedoms went for most people, choosing what to make for lunch might be a small one, but as freedoms went in his new life it was a significant one. Hm, cheese slices, he could do grilled cheese, that would be nice, and have vegetable soup.
Oops, got fur in the butter on one of the sandwiches. He'd make sure he got that one.
He decided that his Lord wouldn't mind, and plugged in the kettle to make a pot of tea, as well, before he took the food to the study.
Topaz set the food down on the little table just inside the door. Lord Andreas didn't even look up, which gave Topaz plenty of time to scoot back to the kitchen, pour the water in the teapot, set the pot on the second tray that held cream and sugar and two teacups, and return to the study more slowly.
“My Lord?” he said, quietly.
Lord Andreas looked up from his books. “All done? Oh, you made tea, too!” He swept the books and notes off a corner of his desk so Topaz could set the tea-tray down. “So what are we having for lunch?” Now that he'd been distracted from his work, his voice had more animation, more of the warmth and affection Topaz found himself craving constantly.
“Grilled cheese and vegetable, my Lord.”
“Good idea. The breeze is nice, but there's a bit of a chill to it today. A reminder that cool weather will be along for real before too much longer, I suppose. A good day for hot sandwiches and tea.” The approval in his words, his tone, his expression, were purest pleasure.
“Thank you, my Lord.” He served his master a bowl of soup and a plate of sandwiches—not the one with the sandwich he'd had to pick the fur out of—before retreating to the loveseat with his own. “I poured the water in the teapot just before I brought it in, my Lord.”
“So it'll be ready in another, oh, three or four minutes. Good.”
“Are you having much luck with what you're working on, my Lord?” He already knew the answer; when frustrated, Lord Andreas had no hesitation about showing it, though he trusted his Lord not to do anything more than yell.
Although that could be the worst thing of all.
“Quite a lot, actually. After lunch I'll give the Fontana Patriarch a call, and he can come by and pick up my conclusions. It's really fairly straightforward. Inheritance on the paternal side happens very rarely, and only in extraordinary circumstances. There is simply no precedent for a mage to inherit the property of his father, unless the son petitions to join the father's family and surrender his place in his mother's, and unless the father's will was extremely explicit. The son is making the motion partially on emotional and moral grounds, but even that's rather flimsy. Half the mages alive neither know nor care who sired them, and leave it quite happily to the Matriarchs and Patriarchs to check the records and tell them whether a suggested mating is safe or not. The other half know mostly out of curiosity. Fathers do not participate in raising their children.”
That still seemed odd to Topaz. Okay, so even fewer sensitives knew who their fathers were, given sensitive promiscuity, but he'd seen a lot of males who adored children. Still, each family had different traditions and philosophies, and raising children in the mother's family simplified things a lot.
Unfortunately, it also meant that as Lady Phyllida's brother, probably Lord Andreas would take a more active and direct role as mentor and teacher for Lord Elias and Lady Xenia once they got a bit older, possibly including one living here for several years, and much more intimate contact with them on his part than he liked the thought of.
There was nothing he could do about it, though, and that wouldn't be for a few years yet, so there was no point worrying about it now.
“I'm not certain I agree with it, but then, I don't have the background in psychology I'd need to be able to decide whether it's healthy or not. Frankly, and don't ever repeat this or you'll get me some extremely nasty looks, there are any number of aspects to mage life and society and tradition that I have serious doubts about as to how healthy they are in the long run. But there's nothing I can do about it, except try to do my part to make sure that the laws are applied consistently. That's important, that the laws are the same for everyone.”
They aren't the same for sensitives as they are for mages, a little voice whispered, somewhere in Topaz's mind. He squashed it firmly. Thoughts like that got him nowhere.
“If you're going to have company, my Lord, should I make sure the living room is perfect? And wash up the tea things after we've finished, so I can make more?”
“Oh, take a quick look around the living room, that'll do. Not tea, not for the Fontana Patriarch. Put a bottle of wine in the fridge to chill, and make sure there are no spots on the wine glasses. That's all. Once you've done that and washed up from lunch, you can go out in the back yard for a while, if you like. I won't need you to fetch books for me, at this point it's primarily a matter of organizing and summarizing my research.”
Topaz already knew better. His master believed that, but it would inevitably be inaccurate, and he would think of just one more detail to check. The freedom to lie in the sun and play on the swing, followed by Lord Andreas being irritable, was a poor choice compared to staying inside and being ready when his master needed him, followed by his master being in a good mood and possibly praising him. “Thank you, my Lord, but I'd rather stay here with you when I'm done.”
“All right, if that's what you want to do.”
They finished eating in silence, and had a cup of tea while Andreas told him more about the situation he'd been researching—thinking aloud, more than talking to his sensitive, really. He did that sometimes, to get his thoughts into order. With nothing else to do, no mental exercise after years of him and Lila surviving by their wits, he listened intently, and ventured occasional questions. When Lord Andreas was in this kind of mood, he was usually willing to explain.
Then Topaz gathered up the tray and the dishes, leaving Lord Andreas the tea tray so he could have another cup, and took them to the kitchen. Compared to jobs he'd had, back-breaking labour for long hours in summer heat or bitter cold, or dirty cleaning jobs no one sane would want, laundry and dishes and light housework were easy—possibly too easy, since they left a lot of empty hours.
The afternoon progressed much as he'd expected it to: tasks complete, he made himself comfortable on his loveseat, and not half an hour later, his master asked for another book. Engrossed in his work, Lord Andreas didn't seem even to recognize the fact that Topaz was present rather than outside as suggested, but he certainly would have noticed Topaz's absence.
Lord Andreas sat back, stretched, and sorted through a neat stack of pages before tucking them in a large envelope. “There, that's what he needs. And he should be along within the hour. With any luck he won't stay so long that we're late for supper. Sensible man, but likes to talk.”
It wasn't discussed openly, but Topaz knew by now that his master would be well paid for his efforts, as always.
Carefully, Lord Andreas pushed back his chair and stood up, his weight on his right leg until he had his cane in hand. Topaz followed him to the living room, where Lord Andreas settled into his favourite chair. Since company was coming, Topaz wasn't to be on the couch. Next to Lord Andreas' chair was a large thick pillow with a comforter over it; that was where he curled up, close enough that Lord Andreas had no difficulty reaching down to stroke him lightly, fondly.
I'm not an animal, not a dog!
But the bliss of his master's hand on head and back was real. It frightened him, how desperately he needed Lord Andreas' touch, his approval, his affection... any kind of attention, even, if he couldn't have that. Frightened or not, torn by ambivalent feelings about this mage who owned him, he'd given up on fighting that need, and did whatever it took. Memories stirred, now and then, of Lila's mother who had hungered obsessively for any kind of drug she could get her hands on, never satisfied, willing to do anything necessary for more. Had she resented it and needed it at the same time, the way he resented and needed this?
Don't think about Lila.
The doorbell rang; Topaz looked up at Lord Andreas for permission before getting to his feet and padding out to the hall. He peeked through the peephole, just to make sure it wasn't Jehovah's Witnesses or something—wouldn't they get a surprise!—but it was a mage he'd seen before, with a sensitive by his side, a rather fragile-looking fairy with delicate gossamer wings. Topaz opened the door quickly, and stood aside.
“My Lord Patriarch,” he said respectfully. “Lord Andreas is waiting in the living room.”
The Patriarch of the Fontanas nodded, and strode past him, already familiar with the layout. Lord Andreas had visitors frequently, and the local Elders were among the most common. Topaz waited for the fairy to follow, and trailed after them.
“Welcome,” Lord Andreas greeted the Patriarch. “Make yourself comfortable. A glass of wine?”
“That would be appreciated,” the Patriarch said, settling heavily onto the couch and leaning back. “It's been an extremely long week.”
“Topaz?” Lord Andreas glanced at his sensitive, who nodded and left, while the fairy sat on a smaller pillow on the floor, at the end of the couch near her master. “Problems other than this one?”
“Piles of them.”
Topaz hurried, carefully, about getting the wine from the fridge and setting it on a tray with two glasses and the corkscrew. Odds were good that there'd been nothing of interest to him, but every once in a while, a visitor said something that caught his attention and gave him something to think about, or ask Lord Andreas cautious questions about.
The Fontana Patriarch was describing the heated debate over a business matter two mages were involved in, which was kind of boring. He opened the wine and poured it, offering one first to the Patriarch as guest—he accepted it without making contact, as was proper—then the second to Lord Andreas, before curling up on his pillow again. He listened anyway, because he had nothing else to do and because next time he heard about it there might have been an interesting twist.
“And on top of that, the damned Donovan madness is spreading into other cities. Now there are half a dozen mages in this city who are demanding that laws be passed to prevent the abuse of sensitives.” He took a healthy swallow of wine, and Topaz felt his ears perk up—odd sensation, that—though he was careful not to otherwise move and draw attention. Laws to protect sensitives?
“I can see a certain amount of sense in that,” Lord Andreas said mildly. “Anyone who needs to resort to violence, whether physical, magical, or psychological, to keep a sensitive in line is obviously incapable and incompetent. Anyone who enjoys doing so I believe needs professional help. There are mundane laws against the mistreatment of animals, without ever implying that animals are the equals of humans, so why not laws against the worst excesses?”
“That's about what they're saying, although in stronger terms. I have no objection myself, but it would be virtually impossible to enforce. The hunters are the ones who enforce the laws.”
“And some of them are among the ones guilty of some of the worst excesses,” Lord Andreas sighed. “Yes, I know. Obviously it's a complicated issue, and I don't know of any precedent for it, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth considering.”
“We're considering it. And ways to enforce it. As for precedent, no, there doesn't seem to be any. Just in the last couple of years, the bloody Donovans have started pushing openly and vigorously for anti-abuse laws, and they don't seem to be inclined to drop it. Every city they're in has been just insane with all the arguments. I'm surprised Elena hasn't mentioned it.”
“I try to see Elena as rarely as possible,” Lord Andreas said dryly. “I do, however, recall her complaining, vehemently, about the Donovans and their lax handling of their sensitives and their immoral attitudes and more along the same lines. She appears to feel that the Donovans are the source of all that is evil in mage society, and the sole cause of the deterioration of tradition. I've met a few of them. If they want to indulge their sensitives in private beyond what any other family would tolerate, that's their business; their sensitives are perfectly well-behaved in public. Better so than some, in fact. The Donovans themselves tend to be level-headed and sensible, as near as I can tell.”
“I agree. Individually, I usually quite like them. But as a whole, they're a nuisance, and they're entirely too large a family to ignore—in every city they're in, they're somehow also the single largest family.” The Patriarch sighed. “Well, I suppose progress is inevitable, changes always come, and the force behind it is usually the ones making a nuisance of themselves. But I'd be happier if mages from other families weren't picking up the whole idea and continuing it in other cities. This one, say.”
The conversation drifted, but Topaz turned that over and over in his mind, treasuring it. There were mages who wanted to at least make sure that sensitives weren't to be abused? It wouldn't affect him, he didn't really consider himself abused as sensitives went, but it would be a blessing for the poor broken ones he had to see when they went to mage events or had visitors. And Lord Andreas thought it was a good idea! That didn't altogether surprise him, but it delighted him to no end. The fairy dared raise her eyes to Topaz's, shyly, and smiled at him, obviously as pleased with the thought as he was, though she was treated no worse than Topaz, as near as he could tell; they'd had odd moments before to talk alone and cuddle, just enjoying a stolen moment's contact with someone who understood.
The Patriarch stayed through a second glass of wine, then Lord Andreas had Topaz retrieve the envelope from his desk and farewells were said.
“Just in time,” Lord Andreas sighed. “Supper should be just about ready.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Topaz headed for the door that led to the stairs up, and ventured upstairs.
The door at the top was open; Zephyr usually did that, when expecting him.
Zephyr was just setting a square ceramic dish on a tray. As he had been for the past week or so, he was a goat from the waist down—Topaz had seen a picture like that in one of Lord Andreas' books, it was called a satyr.
Zephyr greeted him with a casual smile, and waved to the tray in front of him on the table, as he added a plate of garlic bread. Lasagna, tonight.
“Thanks. You make awesome lasagna.”
Zephyr inclined his head in acknowledgement, and gestured to the tray and the stairs, before turning back to whatever he was doing at the counter.
“I just heard something great,” Topaz added, dropping his voice, though Lady Phyllida never came in the kitchen except as a route down to Lord Andreas. “There are mages in a lot of cities who are trying to get the Elders to pass laws that sensitives can't be abused. A family called the Donovans started it. It's all tricky 'cause lots of mages don't want it, and the hunters won't enforce it right if it passes. But they're trying. Can you imagine them trying to decide what abuse is?”
Zephyr glanced over his shoulder, eyes wide and startled, then smiled again, a half-rueful grin that said as clearly as words that he understood that very well. He abandoned the counter long enough to give Topaz a quick hug of thanks for the news—fur on fur, fur on skin. Then he made a shooing motion again, glancing meaningfully towards the door to the rest of the upstairs. Neither mage was guaranteed to be angry over the two sensitives talking—sort of—for a moment, but it was possible.
Topaz took the tray downstairs, so he could have the table all set properly before Lord Andreas arrived. But he couldn't stop thinking about what he'd heard.
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