More than a few mages inched back from Elena and Brock as they sauntered in the great double doors of the mage-hall. Sensitives, perpetually nervous around hunters, did their best to inch behind owners, their eyes on the floor and limbs drawn close in an attempt to be less visible. Doubly useless: they were entirely too striking to have any hope of hiding, but they were beneath notice anyway.
A mage-hall was a mage-hall, they were all very much alike, though this one was a trifle more pretentious than most; in this case, there were three chairs behind the oval table, and a single one centred in front of it, a short way back, in a circle engraved in the white marble floor. Any privacy for the candidate had long ago been sacrificed for the sake of ensuring that there could be no doubt as to the results.
The chairs were filling up rapidly, sensitives kneeling at the feet of their mages. Catherine Eldridge's failure had drawn quite a lot of attention, and Elena wasn't overly surprised by the large audience. The hunters made their way directly to the front, and though the first two rows had been full a moment before, the first was half empty by the time they got there. The hall had been designed for considerably more mages than currently inhabited the city; they simply rippled back a row or two.
“This is insane,” Brock muttered. “She's giving the Eldridge family a bad name. No one can pass without a sensitive. We didn't sell her one, and there's no word of anyone giving her one. She certainly doesn't have the guts to hunt and train one herself, otherwise Victoria wouldn't have dismissed her from hunter training. This is a joke.”
“It should be,” Elena said thoughtfully, “but the Eldridge family isn't known for lack of intelligence, and certainly not for masochism. She must have something in mind.” She didn't mention that Catherine had, in her youth, dazzled her family with her magical skills, eclipsing the fame Brock himself had held for over a decade as a truly gifted Eldridge mage. Catherine had become the standard others were measured by, not Brock.
Brock didn't need anyone to say it. He knew it entirely too well, himself, and it was visible in his scowl.
It hadn't helped when Catherine had failed spectacularly. Granted, she had claimed it was pride in her skills, her desire to prove herself without reliance on a sensitive; Elena approved of that attitude, but to refuse Master's status over it seemed rather extreme. Most mages forgot her skills, preferring to gossip about her failure and her fate. That a mage superior to them could fail a test they had passed simply made no sense, so they invented explanations or simply disregarded the facts.
The hunters hadn't forgotten. They'd wanted Catherine. Even Brock had to admit she'd be an asset. The senior pair had begun to train her.
Except that something had happened, only she and Victoria and presumably Victoria's partner Faisal Hashim knew what, and that training had ended. Not through lack of ability, certainly. But, over time, as they'd watched her, hoping they might be able to lure her into at least a support position, she'd shown increasing signs of lacking the right attitude. After her failure, Brock had asked a few questions of this city's branch of his family, and discovered that Catherine had never laid hands on a sensitive. Ever. Not to experiment, not to learn her lessons, not to pass her exam. Never. Whatever lay behind that, pathetic soft-heartedness or pride so extreme it couldn't compromise at all, it made her useless to them.
The Elders emerged from the room's far door, behind the table, and took their seats. Elena recognized all three as Matriarchs and Patriarchs, leaders of the three largely autonomous families; they could have sent representatives, and usually did for this, but today they were all here personally.
The room fell silent.
The Gauthier Patriarch stood up. “Catherine Eldridge!”
The girl had planned her entrance well, certainly. She strode in through the great double doors, dressed in one of those impractical archaic long dresses, this one pure black trimmed with silver, that ridiculously long hair cascading loose. Her head was high, and Elena saw no hint of anxiety in her expression or the regal posture, no recognition of the sudden murmuring around her.
A step behind her and to one side, a sensitive followed. Lush curves, the halter and short skirt made of silver-studded black more decorative than modest. Her skin was palest tawny, the thick mane of hair velvety dark brown; the only obvious alterations Elena picked out were the dark-tipped pale gold tail waving lazily in the air, the ears that swept to a rounded point.
Her eyes were properly low, and a black leather collar circled her throat, two tags chiming softly from it, but Elena read no submission at all in the lines of her body. Sensuality, confidence, a trace of nervousness and tension.
Brock jerked upright from his slump. “Look at her aura,” he hissed.
Elena frowned, took another look.
That was the little sensitive bitch who had vanished in the middle of the night!
Had Catherine deliberately snatched her out from under them, or had she simply taken an opportunity that offered itself? No, it had to be the former, the lack of trail had to be due to a mage's deliberate handiwork, and it would certainly be within Catherine's proven abilities to do so. Reluctantly, Elena found herself admiring the girl. It took impressive skill to mask a trail that completely, especially from Brock. Shame they could never trust her.
As they passed the hunters, the sensitive kept her gaze carefully averted, but the tension in her shoulders increased visibly. Elena noted that the dark brown hair grew in a narrowing line all the way down her spine to the base of her tail. Subtle and tasteful.
Catherine halted next to the chair in the circle, and her sensitive stopped docilely behind her.
“State your name and your intentions,” the Gauthier Patriarch said.
“Catherine Eldridge, and I have come to claim my status as a Master.” Her voice rang with perfect confidence through the room, not a shout of defiance, but a statement of fact. A gutsy one, at that, for a mage who had failed once already; a low murmur rippled through the room, but Elena ignored it. There was no chance Catherine would fail again, not with a sensitive.
“Be seated,” the Eldridge Matriarch said, and Catherine sat down on the chair. Her sensitive knelt at her feet without needing a command. Elena saw her expression as she looked up, not all the way to Catherine's face, but enough to watch her mage. Utter devotion, she'd definitely bonded, but no submission, no humility.
A willing sensitive? That was impossible!
Brock traded glances with her, eyes wide, obviously noticing the same thing.
“We've got to keep an eye on this one,” he muttered.
“Agreed,” Elena murmured. Something was definitely up, here, and it could prove to undermine the hunters even more.
The three Elders began to throw questions at Catherine, quizzing her on magical theory, mage history, mage law. Catherine answered them promptly, clearly, and concisely, her fingers toying with her sensitive's hair.
The test on theory was followed by the practical one. The Elders activated the wards built into the circle surrounding Catherine; not much of a shield, really, it worked only against magic, preventing anyone from helping.
Catherine stood up and pushed the chair back, out of the circle, then tucked a straying lock of hair back over her shoulder. “I'm ready.” Her sensitive knelt upright, alertly, tail twitching.
“Begin with creation,” the Ingemar Matriarch directed. “You can do textiles, I presume? Demonstrate.”
Catherine inclined her head, and laid a hand on her sensitive's shoulder.
A shadowy rectangular form took shape on the floor in front of her, gradually filling in and growing more solid, until an ordinary square pillow lay there. It came to Catherine's free hand at a quick gesture.
“Do you need to see it more closely?”
“No, that's sufficient,” the Ingemar Matriarch said. “Can you do materials of higher density?”
“Yes.” Catherine dropped the pillow directly in front of her sensitive. “Here, Sable, that floor is hard.”
Concern for the comfort of a sensitive wasn't unheard of, and other mages had done exactly that, but it did send another wave of ripples around the room.
Of course she's worried about her damned comfort, she's here willingly!
Sable shifted around until she had the pillow under her, in her original position. Sable... well, the hair colour was right, and the tail was at least from a relative, but the weasel family were largely long and thin, not mid-height and voluptuous. Still, somehow, it fit.
The whispers picked up again: Sable leaned against Catherine's leg, one arm tucked loosely around it despite the interfering material, her cheek resting against Catherine's thigh. More than enough, but if she broke contact while her mage was drawing on her, it was very probable it would do serious damage to Catherine. Many mages never considered it until they'd had a sensitive for months.
Catherine, unperturbed, thus had both hands free to gesture, and created in sequence wood, plastic, and glass.
“Can you do metal?” the Gauthier Patriarch asked, expressionless. Not that it mattered; she needed only textiles to pass, and there weren't many mages of any age who could get past soft plastics.
“No, I'm sorry, not yet.”
Telekinesis she passed just as easily. Manipulation of probability. Illusion. Four of the five key mage abilities. There were others, but as long as a mage demonstrated adequate skill with those four, she was entitled to Master's status. Her mastery of the fifth, not required but still considered a core ability, was obvious in Sable's appearance.
The whispers rose and fell like waves. Sable never moved while Catherine was in the middle of a demonstration, though she did pause a couple of times to stretch during lulls. Elena suspected at least some of the whispers were envy of the sensitive's sheer sensuality and what they probably assumed was training and obedience.
The Elders consulted quietly; Catherine waited patiently, stroking Sable's hair.
“Catherine Eldridge, you have proven to us your command of mage lore and mage skills,” the Eldridge Matriarch announced. “You are therefore granted the status of Master. And,” she added dryly, “it's about time.”
Catherine bowed her head. “Thank you, Matriarch.” She turned around, without another word, and walked to the main doors. Sable followed instantly, tail flicking in the air, a distinct hint of swagger in her steps.
A door boomed closed behind her, echoing in the startled silence. The usual routine called for her family to congratulate her, then there would be a celebration party. She wasn't supposed to simply walk away!
Elena gave her points for style and independence on top of the skill and guts.
It really was a terrible shame.
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