“All right,” Catherine said briskly. “We need to talk about the exam.”
“Mmhmm?” Though she wished she could snuggle closer, maybe with her head on Catherine's leg, Lila stayed where she was, lying on her stomach and watching her mice run around in the illusory garden Catherine had created for them. Her mage's hand rested lightly on her shoulder, maintaining contact. Though she was certainly better, most of the time that was all the touching Catherine could bear; that meant Lila needed to watch her own actions carefully, but it was worth it.
Together, they were so good now that the little garden extended to all senses, not just sight. So Sun and Cloud could feel the grass and smell the clover as well as seeing it by illusory moonlight, and they were enjoying it thoroughly. Almost as much as Lila was.
“Specifically, about sensitives around mages.”
“You mean other than run and hide? All right, I'll be serious. What about sensitives?”
“We're going to have to follow conventional rules while we're there.”
“Somehow I'm not sure I'm going to like this. Especially since you're sort of hedging around it. Cath, I'm not going to back out, okay? Whatever it is, I'll deal with it. Now, tell me about captive sensitives.”
She could hear the smile in Catherine's voice. “Yes, my Lady.” The smile faded to seriousness. “According to mage law, sensitives aren't people, they... you're pets. Any mage is always my Lady or my Lord if you don't know that person's name. Or, if you do, you can use Lady Catherine or Lord Wesley. Never meet a mage's eyes directly.”
“Okay.” Not really a surprise.
“A sensitive is required to be collared at all times, at least in public, and the collar must have the mage's full name and should have the sensitive's name, but other than that, it's fairly flexible. Leather, velvet, chain, anything is acceptable.” Catherine sighed. “One of the things I think is cruelest is that they take away a sensitive's name and give him or her a new one. Dulce has an extremely sweet singing voice, Trice got that name because he didn't really fight, he gave in immediately... anything the mage wants.”
“A collar, a new name, eyes down, and Lady and Lord everything. This should be interesting, but I s'pose it's only for a little while. Anything else?”
Another sigh. “Most sensitives are shapechanged to some degree. A few in extreme ways, mostly in moderate ways, but it isn't unheard of for a mage to choose not to do so at all. It's something you can expect to see. It... isn't always pleasant.”
Lila considered that soberly. Was she going to be able to see fellow sensitives, their shapes altered without their will or consent, and not react? Well, she was just going to have to, but it would be hard.
“All right, I can deal with that, I think. Long enough for you to pass. Anything else you aren't telling me?”
“Not that I can think of. Most sensitives are... trained, before they accompany their mages in public. I don't know all of the training. I think you'll have to be extremely alert and judge proper behaviour as you go, but it all revolves around mages being superior, so if you're very respectful to everyone, I don't believe there will be a problem. I know you think fast, you'll be fine.”
“Oh joy, this is getting better and better.” Lila stifled a yawn. “How late is it?”
“Late enough we should probably sleep soon.”
“I think my body agrees. Switching schedules is a bit of a pain.”
“You didn't have to.”
“Yeah, but this way I get more time with you, since we don't have any reason to argue over who gets the bed.” Lila scooped up Sun and Cloud carefully, stroking their little furry backs with a fingertip. “'Night, girls, that's all the outdoors you get for now.” Gently, she returned them to their cage, and came back to offer Catherine a hand to her feet.
Not long later, they both snuggled into bed. It was wide enough for two, as long as they were friendly, and whatever conditioning Catherine struggled against, she seemed to enjoy having Lila next to her while they slept. Lila tended not to move much in her sleep, so she sprawled along one side comfortably, not actually touching, but close. Catherine stretched out beside her.
“It's your choice, what kind of collar you'd like, and what name,” Catherine said softly. “If it's more comfortable, I can buy a reasonably heavy necklace chain and a pendant and have our names engraved on the back of it. That would make it feel more like jewellery, maybe.”
No it wouldn't, not where it counts, not wearing what amounts to dog tags. “I'll think about it, but you should probably think of a name. You have a way better vocabulary than I do, and a better idea what's normal.”
“If you like.”
A vague concern that had been nagging at her finally crystallized, and the form of it was frightening. “Exactly how common is it for mages to not do this shapechanging thing?”
“Not extremely so, but it does happen. Generally because a mage has simple tastes and is happy with that sensitive's natural appearance.”
“Uh-huh. Cath, I'm hardly a raving beauty. Nobody is going to believe that.”
“It isn't grounds for disapproval.”
“Think about it. You've already got people keeping an eye on you. You have less leeway.”
“But I do like you best how you are!”
“You're biased. I mean, come on. I've got big boobs that droop down darned close to my belly button, I've got hips a mile across, I'm definitely getting soft after three months of not much exercise even with the weights you got me, my skin breaks out something awful every month just before my period, my hands are all scars and calluses and the one finger's crooked from getting broken, even my eyes aren't quite even.”
“I'm obviously not the only one who thinks so,” Catherine said reasonably. “Somewhere you learned everything you've been teaching me.”
“Sensitives are sluts. We hop in and out of bed together as a way of saying hello. Not exactly fussy.”
Catherine rolled onto her side and tugged the blankets down, ran a hand lightly down Lila's grey-clad front. “I think you're gorgeous. You have all these curves, and a little softness is... comfortable. The scars and your poor finger are just outward signs of what you've been through that makes you who you are.” She tickled a nipple through the cotton, made Lila eep. “And gravity does tend to have more of an impact on anything heavy. At least you have enough for gravity to get ahold of, unlike some of us.”
Lila blinked. “Say what? You look like a goddess, Cath! All tall and graceful and slender and... and, well, everything!”
“Not to me. To me, I'm built like a boy.”
Catherine shrugged. “Logically, I suppose not, but I do find myself wishing sometimes that I had curves like yours.” Her tone turned thoughtful. “Clothes and hairstyle and jewellery and cosmetics all have an impact on appearance, without changing the reality beneath. They're all a matter of refining what exists, emphasizing some aspects and downplaying others.”
“So, perhaps magic can refine what already exists, without exactly changing it. After all, there's nothing wrong with dressing up for a special occasion.”
Lila pondered that. It terrified her to think of having her body transformed, but Catherine was talking about smoothing out some of the parts she didn't like anyway... “I think it would be a bad plan to experiment with that the day before the actual exam. I think that's something it would be better to try now, so if I freak out, it won't complicate life as much.”
“Now.” Lila laced the fingers of one hand—the one with the broken finger Jax had helped her tape up, since she'd been afraid to go to the hospital—through Catherine's.
She felt Catherine reaching for power; the touch was more confident now, more practised, that of a lover becoming familiar with her body.
Then the sensation intensified, enough to make her gasp and whimper softly.
“Lila?” It stopped instantly; Catherine sounded worried. “Are you all right?”
“Uh-huh... that feels... way stronger. Just do it, I'm okay.”
“If you're sure.” Catherine reached for power again, and Lila braced herself this time, for the steep climb in sensation and pleasure.
It faded, and Lila took a deep breath. She felt all boneless blissful, like she was about to melt into jello.
Catherine released her hand. “Make a fist.”
Lila closed her hand, carefully, expecting the ring finger to be unable to curl all the way, to be curved over her smallest finger. To her amazement, for the first time in a couple of years, she could close into a fist without difficulty and without discomfort.
“It's like it never happened!”
“Good. You should have been able to go to the hospital and get it set properly at the time, rather than being convinced it would be dangerous.”
“Convinced?” The wording caught her attention. Catherine never phrased things accidentally.
“There are at most a hundred mages in this city, and at least a quarter of them are younger than you are. Most of the adults are only concerned with research or their own pleasures, they don't care where sensitives come from as long as the hunters keep offering them. Those who work are mostly in academic fields, business, the hard sciences... one of my aunts has a very successful antique shop. For the most part, mages have little inclination towards the helping professions. The few who prefer to keep a close eye on matters... do you think they could truly keep watch on every single patient in two hospitals and a handful of after-hours clinics? Or every single person arrested by the police? Or every single person in crisis who turns to the shelters? It simply isn't possible, even in a city this size, let alone a larger one, especially since you move around constantly.”
Lila rubbed her mended finger, turning that over in her mind. “But we have to have gotten the idea from somewhere.”
“Yes. It's believed to be in the best interests of mages to keep sensitives convinced that we know everything and that you stay free only because we choose to overlook you at present. So the hunters and those who work with them foster that fear. A sensitive who vanishes from a hospital, because a hunter spotted him going in and marked him as prey, makes all of you afraid, even though the odds were extremely small. The danger is real, I don't mean that it isn't, but it isn't nearly as bad as they'd like you to believe, either. They want you terrified and under-educated and to consider yourselves victims already. Has it never occurred to any of you that a gun, or even a thrown rock, would keep you well out of contact range but could work as well against a mage as anyone else? A rock might possibly be deflected, some of us have very good reflexive telekinesis, but to seize control of something as small and fast as a bullet would be all but impossible. Although I admit, a gun isn't going to be as readily available as a rock.”
“Um, no, I don't think it has. When you see a mage, you don't fight, you run like hell and hope he's busy with something else.”
“Huh. Definitely stuff to think about.”
“And to tell others.” Catherine's voice took on a sad note. “After I pass, and you have no more reason to stay. Well.” She went all practical again. “Back to the matter at hand, at least we know shapechanging in itself isn't an unpleasant experience.”
“You can say that again. But having something fixed isn't the same as looking at me and being different. That's more of a mental thing.” Reminded of her hand, Lila stroked it over Catherine's hair, twining the long braid through her fingers, delighting in the ability to do so more easily.
“True, it could conceivably be a serious psychological shock. So why don't we make that tomorrow's project, once we're both relatively fresh and awake?”
That did make sense, Lila conceded, although it just might make for a long and tense day. Ah well, not the first time. “Okay.”
“And right now, we should sleep.” She stole a kiss. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Catherine said softly.
* * *
“So,” Lila said lightly, to cover her nervousness. Not over the fact that she was sitting here naked—clothes were likely to get in the way for this—but over the sheer magnitude of what she'd volunteered for. “What are you going to turn me into?”
“Emphasizing the best aspects,” Catherine said. “Like I told you last night. Would you like me to tell you, or simply do it? You know I'll undo it immediately if you tell me to.”
“I know. Just do it.” Lila braced herself inwardly, and offered her hand. Catherine clasped it, not tightly, not holding her, simply keeping the contact solid. And reached for power.
And the sensations multiplied, and it lasted much longer this time.
Finally, slowly, it eased and melted away into nothing, leaving behind deep satisfaction and a quiet kind of rapture.
“Give me a sec.” She chased down her mind, somewhere inside, and plunked it back where it belonged, though she had doubts about how well it was going to function. Only then did she open her eyes, and look down. And blink.
Fairly dark skin, complete with blemishes and moles and much paler areas that were usually covered, had been smoothed to an even tawny gold, all over. Her tummy was firmer, though her hips were still wide, and her breasts were still large but didn't sag quite so much. She looked at her hands, found her short ragged nails now longer and neatly kept.
Catherine smiled, and the air rippled into an illusory mirror so Lila could see herself. Awed, Lila stood up, ran her hands down her body. Longer hair, down to her elbows, though it was the same dark rich brown. The lines of her face were just a little more regular, altered only by millimetres in any way, but it made a startling difference.
“I like it,” Catherine said critically. “Still you, but dressed up a bit.”
“Are you sure that's me?”
Catherine laughed, and nodded. “Absolutely. And your appearance would certainly be acceptable in mage society, once we add a collar.”
“There are no modesty rules for sensitives. Whatever you wish to wear, I'll do my best to provide. We should be able to create it, in fact, if I can visualize it well enough.”
“Wow. Maybe I'll get you to leave me this way, then I can go be a stripper. I know a couple of sensitives who do that. They move around lots and make plenty of money doing it.”
“Well, you'd certainly be popular, I'd imagine. Not that I know any great amount about the subject. So, no problems? No shock or disorientation?”
“Not a lot. You're sure that's really me?” She eyed her reflection, arched her back and stretched, torn between amazement and disbelief, and half-turned so she could get some idea what the back of her looked like. Catherine obligingly created a second mirror, at an angle, so she could see a slightly firmer bottom and more of that unmarked golden skin, along with the heavy fall of much more hair than she was used to. “You didn't even really change very much!”
“Very true. In fact, most of it could be done with a moderate amount of work with make-up and the right clothes, I suspect. Especially combined with healthy meals and some exercise. This way is, well, a little simpler. And works while you're naked.”
“Wow.” Lila turned the other way. “Okay, I'm mind-boggled but I'm not going to freak out or anything.”
“That I'm very glad to hear. Would you like me to leave it or undo it?”
“You'd better leave it so I can get used to this. Otherwise I'm going to faint if we walk by a mirror or something.”
“All right. Do you feel up to more practice? With other things, I mean.”
“Sure. We gotta make sure you dazzle the hell out of 'em.”
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