Catherine came into the room she called the library, her hair forward over her shoulder so she could braid the shining mass into a single sleek heavy plait. “I'll bring you the sandwiches I made last night, but after that, you'll be on your own until late tonight. I'll likely be very little company even then.”
“It's okay,” Lila said. “I mean, I'm safe and warm and there's a bed to sleep in and a bathroom and you left enough munchies for a week, let alone one day. Just relax and concentrate on what you need to do, I'll be fine.” Watching Catherine was distracting, the nimble practised motions of her fingers in that silky-looking hair, the unconscious grace in every line. She'd chosen a dress in shades of green today, an extremely simple one with short sleeves and buttons all down the front. Lila had to concede that it would probably be comfortable and leave her free to move, but the subtle way it accentuated the curves beneath was certainly appealing.
Catherine nodded, finished the braid, and coiled it into a bun, fastening it with a handful of bobby pins. “I'll be in the kitchen and within sight of the stairs for most of the day.” That bright smile surfaced, past the concern. “And your guard dog will be on duty, I promise.”
“I'm not worried.” Well, it was almost completely true.
“Good.” She turned away, and Lila watched her disappear downwards—the doorway of this room faced directly down the stairs, though someone would have to be on them and halfway up to see anything.
As promised, Catherine delivered a plate full of sandwiches, neatly covered in plastic wrap, and darted away again.
I couldn't eat that many sandwiches in two days, with nothing else at all to eat, Lila thought, in a kind of amusement. With those and all the cookies and crackers and juice and all, plus clean water to drink, I could be fine up here by myself for a week. Comfortably.
It was probably more sensible to sleep now, while it was quiet, rather than try to later, once the house was full of people. She left the sandwiches on the table, and headed for bed.
Catherine had bought her a night-shirt even, a heavy grey cotton one that fell to her knees and had a kitten and mouse cuddled together in sleep printed on it. It was more comfortable than sleeping dressed, even in the new clothes, and much better than sleeping naked under these circumstances. She snuggled into bed, and thought she could smell the raspberry scent of Catherine's shampoo on the pillow.
Voices near the bottom of the stairs roused her somewhat later, the actual words muffled by the closed bedroom door, but Lila was sure one of them was Catherine. She contemplated staying where she was and trying to go back to sleep, but, well... paranoia ran deep. She believed Catherine's intentions, but the possibility always existed of unanticipated circumstances. And, for that matter, if it came down to saving her own hide, what would Catherine choose? Being up and dressed and able to hear what was going on definitely made a better option.
Back in her jeans and T-shirt, she returned to the library, paused to get a bottle of juice from the bags, and settled in the chair. It was soft and cozy and welcoming; she pulled the afghan off the back and wrapped it around herself. She was near the end of that mystery novel, it was turning out to be pretty interesting. She had a comfy chair complete with blanket. She had juice... hm, tangerine, this time. She had sandwiches... she peeled back the plastic wrap and investigated, discovering without surprise that there were at least four sorts of cold sliced meats, all cut into triangles. She could hear the approach of any danger, even if she really wouldn't be able to do much about it. Life was pretty good, all things considered, even without a radio. She chose one at random, and munched on it while she picked up the mystery where she'd left off.
From downstairs, she could hear Catherine giving brisk directions. “Here, slice this cheese, we need... oh, you might as well do the entire brick, with all these people I imagine it will be useful. And if a few slices go missing before they get that far, I promise not to notice. Trice, you have a better eye for colour and design than anyone I know, could you see about arranging the vegetables on that platter? Oh, yes, thank you, we'd best get drinks out there immediately. You know this routine better than I do, I think, go ahead.”
Sensitives, Lila thought, distracted briefly from her book. She really is trying to treat them like people. Belatedly, the thought snuck up on her, There are sensitives down there who have been captured, they're property now. You'd be like them by now if it weren't for Catherine being crazy.
She buried the thought fiercely, and tried to concentrate on reading. Actually, the enticing smells that wafted up the stairs were harder to ignore.
“You haven't been out of the kitchen since I got here, Catherine.” The faintly mocking male voice made Lila look up again, suddenly tense. “Not going to congratulate me on passing my exam?”
“Congratulations, Wes,” Catherine said dutifully, but there was no emotion behind it at all, that Lila could detect.
“And to think, when we were young, everyone kept telling me, 'Why can't you be more like Catherine?' It's been a while since they said that, hasn't it?”
“They should never have said it.”
“That's for damned sure. Here we are now, I'm a Master, and I'm going to be buying my own house as soon as I find one I like. And you aren't a Master, and you're housekeeper and cook to our grandmother, working out here in the kitchen with the sensitives instead of socializing with the mages.” There was a cruel, gloating edge to his voice that made Lila want to tear his tongue out for using it that way.
“Yes, and you're keeping me from my work. If your celebration dinner turns out overcooked because you were busy flaunting your new status at me, I will not take responsibility for it.”
A pause, a harsh contemptuous laugh, and a moment later Catherine, her voice very nearly its practical self again, said, “How's that sauce coming, Trice? Has it thickened yet?” and everything went back to the previous rhythm of dishes clattering and pots banging and Catherine's calm efficient directions. Lila relaxed, but she wondered all over again what terrible thing Catherine had done.
The next voice to grab Lila's attention, just before she found out who the murderer in the novel was, was that of a woman—an older one, from the sounds of it.
“Oh, leave it for a minute, Catherine,” she scolded. “They're quite capable of washing dishes without your supervision. Put those down, I want to talk to you... here, Dulcimer, come and take these.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” Catherine said, and that obedient inflection, or lack of inflection, was back.
“Good. Now. I had a word with Brock. They've just trapped a new sensitive, a young male, not spoken for yet. I am quite willing to buy him for you.”
A long-suffering sigh. “Catherine, you're nearly twenty-seven. You've been eligible for Master's status for close to two years. It's an embarrassment to the entire Eldridge family, having you living here little better than a sensitive.” A lot better than a sensitive, Lila thought. “It isn't as though you couldn't pass easily. If you would just grow out of this childish squeamishness about sensitives...”
“I will pass my exam on my own skills and knowledge and strength, or not at all,” Catherine said quietly, but Lila heard steel under it.
“It's shameful, a woman your age without her own home.”
“Then let me move out of here and rent an apartment.”
“You know that goes against the law. Every mage household must have at least one Master residing there.”
“You could convince them if you chose. At least do me the courtesy of telling the truth. You want me where you can watch me. You don't trust me.”
“That is part of the reason for that law. This... attitude... could make you entirely too vulnerable to unhealthy influences.”
“Then nothing changes.”
“Catherine! Don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you!”
“I don't believe there is anything more to be said, Grandmother. Neither of us is willing to alter our terms, and they are mutually exclusive, so nothing has changed. I have quite a lot of work to do before I finish, and I would like to return to it, please.”
“Fine, have it your way. But when you get tired of living this way, the offer will still be open.”
Lila stared blankly at the wall, struggling to assimilate what she had just heard. Catherine had been dumped in the servant's quarters of her grandmother's house to live as a glorified servant herself, in disgrace... because she couldn't pass this Master's exam thing without using a sensitive, and she refused to do so? She felt vaguely ashamed of her earlier doubts about whether Catherine would turn her in to protect herself.
It was so stupid, though. Catherine, alone, had so deftly masked Lila's trail that no one was even able to prove a mage had been involved, let alone which one. They kept Catherine here so they could keep an eye on her yet, with no apparent difficulty, Catherine had Lila hidden away practically right under their noses. Catherine was obviously smarter and better at magic than the other mages. But they wouldn't let her be a Master, and treated her, well... not like a sensitive, but not as an equal, either.
She was used to thinking of mages as all-seeing, all-knowing, an unstoppable and malevolent force of nature. That they could do something simply stupid, like utterly fail to see the reality of Catherine when she was right in front of them, brought them down to a more human level. If they could be blind and make mistakes like this, they weren't gods, only people.
She counted no less than four more who came to the kitchen on varying pretexts—a request for something, a compliment on a dish—and each managed to insert a subtle or not so subtle question as to when it would be Catherine's turn. Lila thought she'd have growled a nasty comeback or two at them, or burst into tears and fled, but Catherine bore it all graciously.
“I do believe we're finished.” Catherine's voice sounded loud in the quiet. “Thank you. I couldn't possibly have done all this alone, or if you hadn't worked so hard.”
“For you, gladly, my Lady,” a deep male voice said, and genuine respect rang beneath the words. Two other voices, one female, one that might have been either, seconded it, and the former added, with a hint of mischief, “And all the treats help.”
“You look tired, my Lady,” the deep voice said.
“No more so than you are. Go, rest, you've more than earned it, and with any luck they'll let you.”
“Sweet dreams, Lady Catherine,” said the in-between one.
Lila laid aside the new book she'd begun, and sure enough, Catherine came up the stairs a few minutes later. The mage moved slowly, heavily, and her perfect posture had sagged visibly.
“Catherine?” Lila said tentatively. “Are you okay?”
Catherine focused on her, and gave her a weary smile. “Only tired.” She reached up, fumbling for bobby pins. The ease with which she'd put them in had deserted her; to Lila's utter dismay, tears gathered in Catherine's eyes, and she sank down where she was, face buried in her hands.
“Catherine?” What the hell do I do? Lila got up, took an uncertain step closer.
“I'm all right.” It sounded muffled, but she watched Catherine force the tears back, watched her sit up straighter and start on the pins in her hair again. One of them snagged; Catherine jerked at it in frustration.
“Don't! You're going to hurt yourself!” Without a thought beyond keeping Catherine from tearing out hanks of hair, Lila dropped to one knee beside her and gently untangled the trapped pins. Catherine went rigid under her hands, trembling.
For just a heartbeat, Lila felt her muscles tense for flight. I'm in direct contact with a mage. No, I am not an animal, I am not ruled by my instincts or my fear. I'm not touching a mage, I'm touching Catherine, who incidentally happens to be a mage. She made her hands continue, and after a moment poured the pins onto the table, draping the freed—and frayed—braid forward over Catherine's shoulder.
“There, much better.”
“Thank you.” Lila could barely hear the words, they were spoken so low.
“No problem.” She sat back on her heels, while Catherine untwisted the elastic at the end and began to unbraid it. “Hang on, I'll get your brush.” She dashed off to the bathroom, and returned with the hairbrush, but about five seconds of watching Catherine drag her fingers through her hair with unprecedented roughness decided her. “You're gonna have no hair left by the time you're done.”
“Maybe I'll cut it short like yours.”
“God, no, don't do that, your hair is gorgeous. Come sit in the chair so I can reach you.”
“No! You shouldn't...”
“Why?” Lila retorted tartly, as much against her own fear as Catherine's outburst. “Are you suddenly going to change your spots and do something nasty to me? You're making my head hurt, doing that. Come sit.”
After a pause, Catherine slowly got up and moved to the chair. Lila circled around behind her, slipped her free hand under the wavy mass near the back of Catherine's neck, and ran it unhurriedly along her palm and fingers, revelling in the weight of it, the satin softness of the shining strands. When she let it fall, it lay against the back of the chair, rich brown against dull blue, and to her relief the end was nowhere near the floor. She retrieved the nearest pillow and sat down, so she could start at the bottom instead of turning lots of little tangles into one big one.
Catherine made a funny little sigh with a catch in it, and Lila stopped cold. “Did I pull?”
“No.” Catherine shifted position and leaned back so her head rested against the top of the chair.
Since no further information appeared to be forthcoming, Lila resumed brushing, taking great care not to yank or let the brush snag. The sensation of Catherine's hair against her hands was a pleasure in itself, like the sight of it in even the indifferent lighting, spilling down in a luxurious cascade.
By the time she'd worked her way up, she'd forgotten to be nervous, relaxing into the even rhythm of the brush through Catherine's hair. Catherine herself was still, her breathing slow and steady, so much so Lila wondered whether she might have gone to sleep. Only until she stood up to reach the last bit; Catherine stirred, gave an odd sort of twitch, then sighed again, low and deep.
“Don't fall asleep here, bed will be better,” Lila said quietly, not wanting to startle her.
“I'm not asleep. I had a... a very long, very hard day, and you've somehow made it go away.”
“I know. I kinda couldn't help overhearing.” She divided it into three, and began to rebraid it for the night—Catherine said it left fewer knots in the morning. “It was pretty awful for you.”
“But nothing new or unexpected, and it will happen countless more times. However, the alternative is unthinkable, so,” she shrugged. “Que sera sera.”
“What will be, will be. So it goes. C'est la vie.”
“Oh. I wish I could help.”
“You are, believe me.”
“I mean more than that.”
Catherine chuckled. “Nickels and dimes, remember?”
Lila gave the partly-finished braid a gentle tug. “Hey, no fair using my own words against me.”
“Practice what you preach.”
Lila sat down again to make it easier to reach the lower part. “Where'd the elastic go?”
“It's around my wrist.” Lila thought she heard an undertone of disappointment.
“You need sleep more than you need to sit here all night. Give it here?”
Without looking, Catherine reached down and back on the side opposite the table, holding the elastic so Lila could take it without further contact—a little silly, really, but Lila found herself taking it without touching skin. Well, habits didn't change overnight.
She twisted it around the end of the braid, and inspected her work. Not nearly as smooth and tight and even as when Catherine did it, but it would do. “All done. Go sleep.”
“I suppose I am sleepy. Oh dear. Were you all right today?”
“I was perfectly fine,” Lila said patiently. “I slept for a while, I couldn't eat all the sandwiches, I read. Obviously I survived. Go.”
“Going,” Catherine said meekly, and stood up. Lila got to her feet and stretched, and noticed that the mage was hesitating in the doorway. Blue eyes met hers, shyly, and Catherine said, “Thanks.”
“For trusting me, I mean.”
“You've given me lots of reason to.”
Catherine smiled, left the room.
Lila sank down on the edge of the chair, surprised to find that she was shaking. The time for anxiety was over, and now it caught up with her? Figured.
The warmth of Catherine's body lingered. Lila squirmed backwards and tucked her feet up, resting her cheek against the rough fabric of the back of the chair.
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