“Supper,” Catherine announced, a warning to Lila that she was there more than anything else.
Lila set down her book, and abandoned the chair in favour of the floor, accepting one plate from Catherine without hesitation after over a week's repetitions of this—although also without contact. “Thanks. What's with all the bags?” She nodded towards the trio of plastic shopping bags full of food that had been left just inside the door while she'd slept.
“The day after tomorrow, I'll have to be up earlier than usual, and I will very probably be constantly busy all day until very late. Cookies and granola bars and bottled juice and such won't be much, but at least you shouldn't be hungry.” A frown creased her forehead, as she swept her hair aside and sat down facing Lila, on the other of the two large thick cushions that had mysteriously appeared a couple of days ago. “Maybe if I make some sandwiches tomorrow night and leave them in the fridge until morning... surely I can manage the sixty seconds or so it would take to bring them up here.”
“I can live on cookies and stuff for a day,” Lila assured her. Knowing Catherine, they wouldn't be the cheap brands, and there'd be lots of variety.
“Yes, I'm sure you can, but I don't like the idea. Well, I'll think of something.”
“What's going on day after tomorrow?”
Catherine's expression turned to stone between one breath and the next, absolutely still and flat. Lila winced, wondering if she'd just overstepped herself, but it wasn't anger in Catherine's voice, it was that emptiness she'd noticed hints of now and again. “My cousin Wesley is taking his Master's exam. There's very little chance that he won't pass, so my grandmother is already planning on celebrating here. The entire family will be present, and others are invited, so you're likely to hear quite a lot of noise. No one will come up here, I promise. I'll be occupied all day with preparing finger foods and a proper meal for about thirty-five mages, along with drinks and the cleaning up afterwards.”
“You have to do all that by yourself?”
“No.” It was almost inaudible, and Catherine flushed, lowered her eyes. “My grandmother has a sensitive, and others in the family will send theirs early enough that they can help me.”
She has a... here in the house where I've been hiding for almost a week, there's at least one other sensitive, but they've been caught and belong to a mage...
“There's nothing I can do to help them,” Catherine said miserably. “I can try not to ask anything unreasonable of them and not take them for granted, but there's nothing I can do...”
Lila chewed her lower lip, torn between too many conflicting emotions—one of which, she had to admit, was concern over Catherine's distress. Paranoia was deeply ingrained, but so was the tendency to deal with the immediate now and postpone anything else until later.
“You're only one person,” she said reasonably. “You can't do everything, y'know. You should look at it the other way around. You do whatever you can, when you can, instead of looking away and pretending it's not happening or doing it yourself.”
“But it isn't enough!”
“It's more than there would be otherwise!” Lila made herself lower her voice, keep it calm and steady. “Look, you wouldn't know about panhandling, but it's the best I can think of. When you're panhandling, asking strangers for change, most of them won't give you anything, and the ones who give you something usually won't give you much, just a couple of dimes or nickels. And once in a while, there'll be someone who gives you more than that. But all the nickels and dimes add up eventually, and it can be enough to get you a bowl of soup somewhere to get you out of the cold for a while. If all you have that you can give is dimes and nickels, well, it's something.”
Catherine considered that silently for a moment. “I believe I need to think about that. My experience with life has tended to be much more all or nothing.”
“It doesn't work that way for everybody. Trust me.”
In the quiet that followed, both making a start on the thick rich beef stew, Lila wrestled inwardly with the question she'd wanted to ask for days now but hadn't had the nerve to bring up.
The mage looked up from her bowl immediately. “Yes?”
“What do mages actually do with sensitives who get caught?”
“I thought that was common knowledge. You know you're safe when there's no direct contact.”
“Yeah, but... sensitives who know any more than that don't generally come back and tell the rest of us.”
“I hadn't thought of that.” The colour came back to her cheeks again, and she couldn't seem to meet Lila's eyes. “Mages can manipulate the world in a number of ways. Probability, illusions, condensing energy into matter, moving things without touching them, just as examples. However, any magic requires energy. It's something like physical exertion as far as what it costs the mage. Our influence over anything living is fairly limited. We're virtually immune to each other, and normal people and animals and such are as well in most ways. Sensitives are the one exception. You can't do anything, but you're extremely susceptible to magic. You... you don't have the immunity everyone else has. Along with that, sensitives are channels for power. By drawing power through a sensitive, a mage has access to vastly more magic before growing tired.”
“Oh. At least the more power bit makes sense.” Lila shivered.
“No mage can touch your mind,” Catherine said quietly. “Or make changes to your overall mass. And direct physical contact is necessary, although it's then permanent until changed again. And some basic laws of physics and biology do apply, as far as viability and functionality. But that essentially defines the only limits on what a mage can do to a sensitive.”
“Oh.” Tag, you're it... and “it” could be anything...
The silence fell again, worse than ever. Lila focused on her stew with single-minded intensity, until she felt somewhat collected again.
Then she took a deep breath, and let it out. “Okay, that's bad. But you don't do that, and you're the only one who knows where I am, and right now there's nothing anybody can do to help the caught ones.” Right now there's nothing? Catherine's getting to me.
A tentative smile came back to Catherine's face. “I don't believe I told you, the hunters are very angry. They cannot comprehend how you vanished from the park without leaving a trail. They suspect it may have been with the help of a mage, but there was no... signature, we call it, nothing to show who it was. So they can't even prove that a mage was involved.”
“You're sure they can't trace you? I don't want you to get in trouble.”
The smile turned faintly satisfied, as Catherine shook her head. “Throwing around a great deal of power leaves a vivid signature. Subtle use of a little power, with finesse and skill, can be invisible. They will find nothing they can use.”
Lila relaxed. “How mad are they?”
“Furious. A sensitive is not supposed to be able to escape from them.”
“Cool. We really threw them for a loop. If nothing else, they've just had it rammed down their throats that they can fail.”
“True.” That idea seemed to cheer Catherine significantly. “And we shall see to it that, in this case, they never succeed, and must spend the rest of their lives wondering how you disappeared. Better yet, they'll be in this house day after tomorrow, and will never know how close they are to an answer to the riddle.”
“Here! They're coming here?” Panic surged.
“To my cousin's celebration,” Catherine said reassuringly. “Not up here. The hunters are nomads and it's considered courteous to invite them to any function held while they're present in a city. I promise, Lila, no one will come up my stairs. I promise. They have no call to be in my private quarters no matter what they think of me, by their own rules they can't treat me as property under any circumstances. The protections I have on the servant's quarters will make it impossible for them to sense your presence, or even that I am hiding anything, unless they actually come face to face with you. And I will not let them come up here to find you. I will not.”
The fierce emphasis, the determination that hardened Catherine's blue eyes to ice, reached Lila more than the actual words, and helped her push the fear away. “I believe you.”
The ice melted into the warmth of Catherine's smile. “Thank you.”
That seemed odd to Lila, to be thanked for believing something, but it wasn't worth pursuing just now.
Hunters, here, only yards from her, and only Catherine's word and Catherine's magic to trust in, that they would never know. She should, by rights, be terrified.
Except that, to her surprise, she genuinely believed that Catherine would make certain no one found her, no matter what it took. Which meant that, rather than being terrified, she was both nervous and thrilled at being able to do something no sensitive ever had: cheat the hunters.
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