Autumn in Trebury

33 – Lila

Lila twisted an elastic around the end of Catherine's braid, and sat back to look it over, pleased. She'd bought a book, a couple of months ago, that had instructions and diagrams for more elaborate braids and styles, and had been experimenting on her patient mage ever since. Some of them were just odd, or didn't suit Catherine, but this one did.

“All done.”

Catherine picked up her hand-mirror from her lap to inspect Lila's handiwork, while her sensitive straightened and circled around the wooden chair.

“I like it. You're definitely getting good at that.”

Lila grinned. “You know I like doing stuff with my hands.”

Catherine blushed, just a little, as she always did when Lila said anything that could be taken as a sexual tease; it delighted Lila to no end, so she did it deliberately.

“Ready to go?” Catherine asked, standing up and looking Lila over. She straightened Lila's leather collar, the tags jingling softly.

What a pair we make, Lila thought in amusement, not for the first time, while she nodded affirmatively. Catherine all regal, that delicious body hinted at by her current dress, shades of brown and amber, and herself in faded blue jeans and matching vest, over a black t-shirt, with her collar on.

The apartment wasn't great; it wasn't easy to find a place on short notice, and harder to find one that didn't demand a year-long lease, although with a mage nudging probabilities around, it was at least possible. Catherine had given the landlord quite a convincing story about being in town to do some research for a book she was writing, and that it would only take her at most three months. Three months' rent, in cash up front, had gone a long way towards dispelling any doubts. Renting a hotel room by the week as easier, and they'd done it elsewhere, but at best that included a tiny kitchenette and that got frustrating and expensive quickly.

Indifferent as it was, a basement without enough windows, inconveniently far from downtown, it was still better than the servants' quarters had been.

Most likely, in a couple of months they'd once again pack up the few belongings they hadn't left in a storage unit back in Dewfield, rent a van, and move on to another city. Unless they finally found a place where they could feel comfortable and useful. Not so different, superficially, from the way Lila had lived for as long as she could remember—but being with Catherine made all the difference in the world.

Lila stole a hug, just because she could, and called a taxi, tucking their cell phone into Catherine's battered canvas messenger bag at her own side along with money and keys. There was a bus route nearby, but the possibility of close contact made Catherine too anxious for it to be worth it. Together, they headed upstairs to wait in front of the house.

The taxi pulled up, and Lila opened the near door for Catherine, closed it behind her with care for hair and skirt, and scooted around to the far side to get in.

“Where to?”

“Where's the nearest grocery store?” Lila asked. “Preferably one that doesn't charge an arm and a leg for everything.”

“There are two about the same distance from here, but I think one's a bit cheaper.”

“That'll do, thanks.”

He pulled away from the curb. “New in town?”

“Just moved,” Lila confirmed. Catherine had never had to learn the trick of casual talk with strangers, so Lila generally took care of that side of things. “Take-out and restaurants are losing their appeal fast. Definitely time to fill up the kitchen, so we can have some real food.”

“Yeah, eating out's nice once in a while, but it's a bit much every night. Nothing like a good home-cooked meal.”

He fell silent, and Lila didn't bother sustaining the conversation; she leaned back, watching scenery flit by.

Maybe this city would be different...

Catherine's status as Master gave them the freedom to move around as they pleased. Even had there been a law that would allow the Eldridge Matriarch to keep her within the same city, Lila doubted it would have been invoked; the Eldridges were just as happy to be rid of her.

The first time they'd moved, as rapidly as they could and several hours' drive from Dewfield, Catherine's cousin Wesley had moved to the same city at the same time, with his abused and broken sensitive.

Feeling more free, even in a room rented by the week, Catherine and Lila had slowed down to plan where they wanted to go to, rather than what they wanted to escape from, and how they were going to make all this work. When they decided to move on, following up on news of a group of mages concerned about the welfare of free sensitives, Catherine claimed their destination to be a different city from the one they actually intended; Wesley had arrived a couple of weeks later, not doing a very good job of hiding his irritation. Catherine waited, and having caught him following her around the city for the third time, had gone to the local Elders, and that had been the end of that. There were very definite laws regarding the privacy and independence of a Master. Not likely to do much for goodwill between Catherine and Wesley, or for that matter Catherine and the hunters whose idea it probably was, but being stalked was intolerable.

The victory had certainly cheered Catherine and Lila immensely. But their real quest remained unfulfilled: they still hadn't found even one other pair who were equals, not master and slave.

Lila hadn't realized, until she started accompanying Catherine to mage events, exactly how pervasive the traditional attitude towards sensitives truly was. It lay in the small things, in turns of phrase, in assumptions that had never been questioned, in the subtle derision towards mages who didn't keep absolute control over their sensitives. She no longer wondered why the more open-minded mages hid; now she wondered how many of them were laughing at jokes that made them want to vomit.

Add in the laws of responsibility, respect, and immorality, and the mystery was that any mage could ever think past it all. Lila had read through them, complete with all the subclauses spelling them out in excruciating detail, though it had needed considerable time and a dictionary and sometimes asking Catherine to explain things. The mages pushing, with greater or lesser success in various cities, for anti-abuse laws were definitely risking charges of immorality and sedition. Lila couldn't blame them for being cautious about sticking their necks out any farther; they must feel awfully strongly about it to push it even that far.

The taxi pulled up in front of a large grocery store, part of a familiar chain, and Catherine paid, leaving him a reasonable tip.

This whole business of grocery shopping was still novel to Lila. When she'd had an apartment, she'd bought frozen and instant foods, fast simple things that required minimal skill. Between apartments, she'd visited grocery stores to buy foods she could eat right out of the can, or to get bread and peanut butter, even simpler things.

With Catherine, it became something completely different. She followed her mage around the store, pushing the cart, while Catherine chose just the right head of broccoli, inspected the bacon for the leanest, compared the ingredients on two kinds of spaghetti sauce. These trips generally took a while, but it was hard to argue, when they sat down together with Catherine's delicious cooking.

Well, usually delicious. Catherine had started experimenting again.

Lila was not at all expecting to encounter another sensitive perusing the pasta. Catherine noticed the same time Lila did, and immediately backed up, putting Lila between her and the other sensitive.

Oddly, there was no fear reaction at all. Okay, so the other sensitive was female, and looked like she was in her early forties or so, which would mean the hunters would have no interest in her, but the presence of a mage should still have triggered the usual instinctive and conditioned response.

Instead, this sensitive inclined her head in cautious acknowledgement, finished choosing pasta without haste, and moved on.

“That was... odd,” Catherine murmured, sliding an arm around Lila's waist. “As much as I hate the usual reactions, I can understand them and I expect them. What was that?”

“I have no idea,” Lila said. “Can you take the cart and, hm, head towards the dairy section? Maybe if I catch her alone...”

Catherine nodded, and they parted ways, towards opposite ends of the aisle.

Lila scanned the shoppers in the aisle to one side, didn't see the sensitive, so checked on the other side. Aha, there she was. As casually as she could, she ventured into that aisle, contemplating all the endless varieties of cookies, most of which she knew tasted like grainy cardboard, and waited for the older sensitive to pass.

“Lost your mage?” the other said amiably.

“She's getting milk, I wanted to see if there are any decent cookies.” She took a chance. “Why aren't you scared?”

The woman shrugged. “She's no hunter, and they wouldn't want me anyway. She's obviously treating you pretty well. What's to be scared of?”

Lila had never heard a free sensitive discuss mages so calmly. About the most she could formulate was a dazed, “I see,” before she made her feet start to walk again.

“I'm glad you got lucky,” the woman called, before she'd gone far. “My oldest daughter did, too.” She grinned, waved, and headed for the check-out.

Lila tracked down the dairy section, and found Catherine browsing through the cheese.

“Whoa, that was bizarre.”

“How so?” Catherine looked at her, and her forehead furrowed, the familiar crease appearing between her brows. “Are you okay?”

Lila repeated the exchange for her.

“Well. I must say it's nice not to be considered a monster on sight, but where on earth did all that come from? This oldest daughter, maybe?”

“Maybe, but since when do mages let their sensitives tell their mothers what's happened to them?”

“She could be crazy,” Catherine mused. “I believe emotional trauma can cause someone to go into denial of reality and convince themselves that something is true. Say, that one's daughter, who has vanished, is in the hands of a mage who treasures her. Or it could be that she ran into her daughter in a grocery store or on the street, and her mage was having an indulgent moment. Or there might be someone in this city who isn't following the traditional patterns.”

“The second one is the most likely, I'd say. But maybe we've finally hit pay dirt, and it'll be the third one. I mean, the Donovans are supposed to be the crazy ones, right? And there's a huge number of them here.”

“I hope so,” Catherine said softly.

“Well, we'd better finish shopping, instead of standing here all day.”

But Lila couldn't help looking for another glimpse of the sensitive woman, and wishing her own mother still lived and could know she was safe and happy with Catherine.

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