Lila woke very suddenly, opened her eyes in hopes of figuring out why she was in a bed and felt so stiff and sore and hungry and dirty.
The small room was unfamiliar, the walls covered in rather loud wallpaper probably older than she was, the single window heavily curtained. The door was closed. Locked, most likely.
Carefully, she slid out of bed and checked the door. Much to her surprise, it opened. The wallpaper out here was metallic gold on cream, almost as bad as the green and pink stuff in the bedroom, and the railing around the stairwell was none too likely to stop someone from falling, rickety and painted in peeling white. The floors were all wood, sanded and varnished, but in serious need of both being done again.
She prowled warily down two doors to the bathroom—linoleum on the floor, cracked around the edges, and the tub and toilet and sink were all ancient-looking, crowded into a space just a little too small for them. The pale pink paint on the walls was flaking in places.
She was certain she remembered a mage correctly, Catherine her name had been, and that they'd come to a huge house. But mages didn't live like this, they lived in luxury. Why not? They could manipulate the world as they pleased, and they had no one to fear.
Catherine didn't live here, that was the only reasonable explanation. She'd hidden Lila away in a corner of the house that wasn't used.
That theory failed to hold up under a closer look: herbal shampoo, soap, toothbrush... all the signs of someone making steady use of this bathroom. And as shabby as everything was, it was meticulously clean, not a trace of dust anywhere. This made no sense.
Longingly, she eyed the towels neatly stacked on a shelf, but decided that she'd be pushing her luck, no matter how badly she wanted to get clean. To distract herself, she explored.
The room nearest the top of the stairs held two sturdy solid oak bookcases, full—the kind of full that meant the original neat rows were half-hidden behind the overflow—and one good quality, comfortable-looking chair with a small round oak table beside it. There was a threadbare throw rug on the floor, nearly touching the walls, which bore that same gold-on-cream wallpaper as the hall.
The other room, between the bedroom and the bathroom, held a wardrobe and an upright dresser, both of which were again solid oak and high quality. The wallpaper was the green and pink flowered stuff that was in the bedroom.
And that was it, other than the dizzying flight of stairs down to the kitchen below. Three tiny rooms plus a bathroom. Hadn't Catherine said something about not going downstairs? Besides, there could be mages down there, ones that would act more normally.
Lila headed back to the bedroom. Belatedly, she noticed that the canvas bag with the snack in it had been left on the floor just inside the door, though she couldn't recall whether she or Catherine might have carried it here. She brought it over to the bed and took stock. About half the Gatorade remained, along with four of the granola bars. Trying very hard not to think about what might happen to her, she opened one and nibbled on it. Okay, so Catherine hadn't laid hands on her, claimed her, done whatever unspeakable things could only be done by mage to sensitive. But there was no sane reason for a mage to help a sensitive escape mages.
And what was up with the bizarre discrepancy between the rooms and their furnishings?
Feet on the stairs made her tense and look around for a place to hide. There wasn't one.
“It's okay, it's me.” Catherine's voice. “Don't worry, no one else would bother coming up here.” Was that bitterness Lila heard? No, couldn't be, mages had nothing to be bitter about.
Catherine came to the door of the bedroom, carrying a tray. Lila's stomach growled loudly at the scent of soup, and the mage smiled.
“Good timing, I guess. I was getting a little worried, it's been well over twelve hours. Here, this will do you more good than granola bars.” She hesitated, looked at the tray, and at Lila. “Why don't I leave it on the table in my library?”
“I...” Lila licked her lips, mouth watering. “It's okay.” She inched off the bed, cautiously; Catherine held very still, let Lila close her hands around the tray and retreat quickly holding it. Not only a large bowl of soup, chicken rice or noodle or something, but a couple of slices of bread, and a bottle of orange juice. Her stomach growled again, and she sat on the edge of the bed, tray balanced on her knees. The first bite of soup made her close her eyes in bliss. Anything Catherine wanted of her would be worth it, for this.
“I'm sorry it's just canned soup,” Catherine said apologetically. “I didn't want to chance anything too heavy or too rich, without knowing how long it had been.”
“You're sorry?” Lila shook her head, utterly at a loss to find words, and spooned up more soup.
“If you'd like to have a bath when you're done, go ahead, there are lots of towels and such. I... oh, surely I can find you something you can wear. I'm taller than you are, but skinnier.” She spun away, and Lila head her moving in the next room.
Clothes, Lila thought dizzily. A mage can do anything she wants with me, and she's sorry it's only hot chicken soup and fresh bread, and she's worried about finding me clothes to wear after I have a bath. I'm dead and in some weird limbo place. Or I'm in a coma and dreaming all this.
Catherine came back to the doorway, hesitantly. The mage was sort of regal-looking, Lila thought, tall and willowy with the effortless poise of a queen, clad in a simple long dress of varying shades of red. Her hair was brown, and astonishingly long, Lila had seen a moment ago—all the way down to her hips, thick and shining with hints of red and blonde, mostly loose except that the front was pulled back out of her eyes with a red plastic clip. Not a trace of grey; she looked only a bit older than Lila's twenty-three years. She wasn't pretty, her chin was a little too strong and her nose a little too long, and she looked like someone who frowned a lot, but there was something appealing about how it all worked together. Like a medieval lady, strong and capable.
Although, currently, extremely unsure of herself, which amazed Lila.
“I tend to wear skirts a lot, I'm sorry if you don't like them but nothing else I have will fit. I left clothes in the bathroom for you. Is there anything else you might need for a while? I need to get back downstairs before someone notices I'm not there.”
“Um, no,” Lila said dazedly. “Food and a bath just about define heaven right now.”
“I'll be busy for at least a couple of hours downstairs. Help yourself to the books if you get bored.”
Catherine nodded, as if to herself, and was gone again. How she could manage those stairs at the speed Lila heard, the sensitive had no idea. Maybe it was magic.
She finished the soup, wiped the bowl clean with the last of the bread, and had a swallow of the juice.
The presence of the bath tub was a siren song; she abandoned the juice in favour of getting clean.
Across the back of the toilet Catherine had neatly laid a long skirt with a drawstring waist, all in shades of brown and gold, and a plain short-sleeved pullover top. Probably they'd fit, Lila judged, though the top might be a bit tight across her chest. Things tended to be.
The hot water felt wonderful, soothing her sore muscles. She soaked for a while before scrubbing herself thoroughly. Her short-cropped hair, a brown so dark it was nearly black, was a bit of a challenge to wash with the hose that attached to the faucet; she couldn't imagine how Catherine washed all that hair in circumstances like this.
Clean and dry, she pulled the skirt up over her wide hips; it brushed the tops of her feet but was comfortable. The fabric of the top stretched snugly, and actually provided a bit of support. She contemplated her own jeans and sweatshirt, bra and panties, socks and running shoes, in some distaste: constantly worn for days, and slept in outside, they were definitely the worse for the whole experience. But what to do with them? She settled for bundling them up as small as she could, and leaving them in the bedroom beside the bed.
Okay, now what?
Music would have been nice, but there wasn't so much as a radio in the place. For lack of alternatives, she checked out the contents of the bookshelves.
The range impressed Lila: historical fiction, mysteries and the odd bit of romance that both appeared to be historical as well, non-fiction that covered history, religions, mythology, and fairy tales, along with stuff that looked pretty heavy duty about society and racism and sexism. At least, that was all she could identify without deeper exploration. She looked until she found a fairly short mystery, and sat down to read.
“Good book?” Catherine said softly, from the doorway.
Lila yelped, and clapped a hand over her mouth, looking worriedly past Catherine at the stairs.
Catherine smiled. “It's okay, it's all soundproofed. No one downstairs can hear anything from up here.” She had her arms full of something... folded sheets, Lila thought. “You don't have to stop reading, I just wanted to make sure you knew I'd come upstairs. I didn't mean to scare you, I'm sorry.”
Lila decided she didn't want to ask how one soundproofed an area that was divided from the kitchen only by the stairs, she probably wouldn't like the answer much. “It's okay.” She blinked, suddenly registered the meaning of the sheets... and what it meant, that there was only the one bed up here. “Oh my god. I was in your bed! Where did you sleep?”
The smile came back. It softened all the lines of her face and made the corners of her eyes crinkle. “You needed it more. I dozed a bit in the chair. We'll have to figure out what to do about that.”
Lila stared at her in utter shock, speechless.
“What?” Catherine asked, the smile fading into a faint frown that creased her forehead.
“Mages hunt sensitives. Mages treat sensitives like we're animals. Why are you doing this?”
Catherine sighed. “Do all sensitives have the same thoughts and the same beliefs and the same opinions?”
“They do when it comes to mages.” She could sum it up in a single word: fear.
Catherine set the sheets on the floor, and came nearer until she was just out of arm's reach. Absently, she swept her hair forward over her shoulder before sitting down cross-legged, facing Lila. “I can remember being very young and trying to understand why everyone treated sensitives as something less than human. I've never managed to. Everything I've been taught, all my life, about sensitives, contradicts what I've seen for myself. There are a few mages who are starting to speak up and protest the way some mages treat their sensitives, but around here, as far as I know I'm the only one who sees us all as human and equal, mage and sensitive and mundane.”
“As far as you know?”
“It... isn't something one discusses. There are no actual laws against having opinions and beliefs, but there's a huge amount of social pressure not to admit to it if your opinions and beliefs run counter to the acceptable ones, and it's possible to find laws to use, mostly about general disruption. A mage with Master's status can act relatively independently, but I... I don't have that.” She faltered, took a deep breath, toying with a pendant on a long chain. It looked to Lila like a stylized dog. “Anyway, my opinions and beliefs are that the whole relationship between mages and sensitives has gotten twisted somewhere. Mages shouldn't be wolves preying on sensitives.” She smiled fleetingly. “Once a wolf is tamed, what you have is a guard dog. I'm hoping that even the few who are trying to keep sensitives from being abused are the beginning of another movement like women's suffrage or black rights or gay pride.”
“Like what?” Lila said blankly.
Catherine stifled another sigh. “A woman used to be treated as the property of her father and then her husband,” she explained patiently. “It took a huge effort to change, on the part of women and the men who supported us, but we did it, at least in some parts of the world. Being black used to mean being treated as an inferior and, in places, as property of a master. Not any more, in North America. It used to be perfectly legal for the police to harass anyone suspected of being gay, or for gay men and lesbians and bisexuals to be discriminated against. That one still needs some work, but it's changing. Maybe it's time for the mess between mages and sensitives to start breaking down, too.”
Lila's experience didn't exactly mesh with that—she'd seen plenty of discrimination, against sensitives and mundanes alike, for being female or non-white or openly attracted to the same sex. But Catherine's experiences were different, and Lila was willing to concede that the mage might just not have been exposed to it. “But the way things are now, you have everything. Why would you care?”
“It just doesn't feel right, to treat people as property. As for having everything,” Catherine gestured at the room around them. “My kingdom,” she said dryly. “The house belongs to my grandmother. I'm responsible for the meals and the housecleaning, and in return, I get to live here. My reward.” She shrugged, and stood up, paused by the door to gather up the sheets. “I'm going to change the sheets on the bed. You have my sworn word, I won't touch you, and you're safe here. For the moment, I can make sure you have shelter and food. We can talk about the long term in a couple of days, once you've had a chance to recover.”
“I'm not putting you out of your bed again. I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep again for a while anyway.” There was entirely too much here that needed thinking about.
“All right.” An impish grin crossed Catherine's face, bringing a flash of warmth and personality and openness Lila would never have believed possible from a mage. “That would certainly solve the problem, if I get the bed at night and you get it during the day.”
Lila stared after her for a few minutes, her head spinning. A mage who saw herself as a dog to protect instead of a wolf to hunt? Equal rights? And what was with the emotion that was buried in Catherine's voice when she spoke of her kingdom and her reward?
She heard Catherine in the bathroom, and a few minutes later, everything was very still.
The night was very long, and brought no revelations.
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