Van and Brennan walked up the steps to the Vladislav Patriarch's house side by side; there was no need to look back to know that Randi and Oblique were in their proper places behind them.
It just had to be the Vladislavs hosting this one, Van sighed to himself. Piotr was sure to say something about stealing sensitives, and Van would have to bite his tongue to keep from asking Piotr how his head was; Irenka would inevitably be present as well, and he would have been just as happy to avoid her altogether. Randi would have to fight off old memories, though at least this wasn't Piotr's house. All in all, not his first choice for how to spend a Saturday afternoon.
He was, however, grateful that it was only an afternoon drop-in get-together for the purpose of introducing and welcoming a mage new to the city, sparing him and Brennan the debate of whether it were worth more formal attire. Brennan was in his version of casual-dressy, which meant his best black jeans and an indigo silk shirt; Van preferred his russet cotton pants and the unbleached cotton top with the laces at neck and wrist. Comfortable, and not too hot; it was only mid-September, and the weather was still fairly warm.
They could have declined to go, some would, but the chance, however remote, did exist that the newcomer would be worth meeting. They didn't have to stay particularly long, even if it turned out to be someone of no interest.
They were greeted at the door by a sensitive, more moderate in appearance than the Vladislavs tended to like. Other than having four arms like a Hindu goddess—which Oblique had once, in an adventurous mood, decided to try herself—she looked fairly normal, dark and pretty.
“My Lords,” she said respectfully. “The other Lords and Ladies are this way.”
Thank you,” Brennan said. At least courtesy to a sensitive wasn't outright illegal.
They followed her down a wide hallway to a large room, or rather, two of them, linked by a pair of sliding wooden doors that were currently open. A reasonable portion of the city's hundred-and-some adult mages were present already, in either room and out on the patio beyond. The mages stood and talked, or sat and talked; their sensitives followed meekly, or knelt at their feet, or waited obediently in a corner to be summoned. A few sensitives circulated through the rooms, carrying trays of drinks or finger-foods.
Van doubted, given the circumstances, that it would come as much of a surprise if he chose to keep Randi next to him.
As usual, she and Oblique matched—in feathers, today, long drooping elaborate ones that would have been more appropriate to a male in most species, complete with a suggestion of wings from wrist to waist. Randi's were scarlet highlighted with purple, and her tail-feathers trailed nearly to her ankles; Oblique's were dark green that gleamed with iridescent gold, and her tail spread and fanned like a peacock's, to shoulder-height.
Van thought they were insane, and that there was no way they'd be comfortable for the next few hours without sneaking outside to perch on a tree-limb, but they'd been over that, and the pair had insisted. Who were he and Brennan to protest?
Brennan paused to greet an acquaintance; Van kept moving, scanning for other Donovans in the crowd.
“Van!” Aiden hailed him. “Come meet Catherine.”
Van joined them, drawing a chair closer, and glanced at Randi. “Go find me a glass of wine.”
“Yes, my Lord,” she said softly.
Next to Aiden, and drawn back just a few inches, sat another Donovan cousin, Neely, who would be up for her Master's exam in little over a year. She'd moved in with her mother's brother Aiden, which was more or less traditional but she probably would have anyway; she was permitted to all mage gatherings, even the ones normally restricted to Masters, so she could learn, but would be expected to stay quiet and observe. Not something that came naturally to Neely, but she had the self-discipline, honed by her love of yoga and ju-jitsu, to do it.
“Catherine Eldridge, my cousin Rory Donovan, better known to everyone as Van,” Aiden said.
Catherine inclined her head, gave him a friendly smile. “Hello.”
Van returned the smile. “Hi. Welcome to the city.”
“Thank you. I think I'm going to like it here. Especially once I know more people.”
“True, loneliness is rough. I can't imagine moving away from my family.”
Her smile faltered, so briefly that it would probably have been overlooked by anyone less experienced in watching body language. “I very much doubt they miss me any more than I miss them. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a black sheep. I'm rather hoping to find friends whose company I enjoy.”
That got Van's full attention. What was it that made her a black sheep?
Randi returned, with a glass of white wine; Van accepted it and told her to kneel. She dropped to her knees promptly, careful of her tail-feathers. Sage knelt already at Aiden's feet, female today. She must've felt his gaze: without ever raising her topaz-yellow eyes to his—quite—she shifted position a little to give him a better view. Every bit of skin glittered as though imbedded with countless tiny diamonds; that long fall of wavy hair was sapphire blue, lips and nails and bare nipples garnet-red, all sparkling like jewels. She was wearing only a sort of skirt made of jewelled strands, long ruby ones in the centre shading through the prism out to short amethyst ones at the sides, and a necklace that echoed it down her chest, along with a simple gold band for a collar; neither really hid anything at all, but the effect was rather dazzling. And about as practical as elaborate feathers. It must have taken Aiden hours, and Van had no idea how they'd created that sparkle. But then, Sage was notorious for a sense of both adventure and aesthetics.
At Catherine's feet was a sensitive who was, at least presently, also female—extremely so—with bat-like black wings on her back, small black horns peeking out through her long thick scarlet-red hair, creamy-white skin, and a black tail with a barbed end. The scanty black tatters she wore did more to draw attention to than to cover. A black leather collar circled her throat, with a matching cuff at each wrist, linked by a long narrow chain that passed through a ring on the collar. Lacking context, Van didn't even try to read anything into the chain; some sensitives enjoyed physical restraints, real or symbolic. But there was quite a lot he could read in the sensitive's body language... or rather, quite a lot that he didn't read that he expected in captive sensitives, and it intrigued him.
“So, what do you usually do?” Van asked.
Catherine shrugged. “Currently? I read, I practice and experiment with magic, I visit museums and art galleries and things of that sort, I cook elaborate meals simply for the pleasure of cooking, though there's usually only Sable and I to eat them.”
“Another mage who likes to cook personally, rather than leaving it all to the sensitives!” Aiden said. “We'll have to introduce you to Grania. She started a small restaurant, in fact, it's designed to look like a medieval English tavern, and the menu is more or less consistent.”
“More or less?”
“She does include a few common modern-day foods for the faint of heart, and even the more exotic dishes frequently involve some substitutions to make them more palatable to the modern tongue and stomach. But the overall atmosphere works quite well. It's a remarkably small place to be so successful. She doesn't have more than a handful of staff, along with doing a lot of the cooking herself.”
“Maybe I can take you there some evening soon,” Van suggested. It was impossible to talk about anything serious in a crowd like this, let alone trying to figure out exactly what the mystery here was. Alone, on the other hand, in a quiet place like the Harvest Queen, he could get a much clearer sense of who she was.
“That might be a very nice way to spend an evening,” Catherine said, with just a hint of colour in her cheeks again.
“Van,” Aiden said, in an undertone, though his body language changed only marginally. “Piotr. Coming up directly behind you.”
Van sighed. “D'you suppose I can avoid him all night? No, he'll corner me eventually.”
“Trouble?” Catherine asked, her glass raised for another sip of wine and conveniently obscuring her face, but Van saw her turn alert, before she lowered her lashes to hide it.
“Piotr was Pride's first master. He failed, she ran. It's a long story.”
“One I'd like to hear one day.” She looked up, and her expression shifted instantly to a charming smile, her attention fixed just behind Van. “Hello. Won't you join us?”
Aiden duly introduced Catherine to Piotr, and the Vladislav mage pulled another chair close, Neely shifting hers back a bit more. Van didn't like the way he looked at Catherine's sensitive in the least; he might have attributed it to his own bias, but Sable, who had been blatantly showing herself off no less than Sage and Randi, edged closer to Catherine. Van saw no fear, but definite discomfort. Her wings fluttered a bit, as though she wanted to wrap them around herself, but she folded them back firmly, settling for changing position to cover more of herself.
“I do appreciate the effort your family has gone to, hosting this lovely gathering,” Catherine said, reaching down with one hand to toy absently with Sable's long scarlet hair.
“We couldn't do less,” Piotr said smoothly. “To be in a new city, without family or friends, is to be vulnerable.”
“To loneliness, if nothing else.”
Catherine laughed, lightly. “Some mage families must be a great deal more social than my branch of the Eldridge tree. I was taught never to admit that such a thing might be possible. I must admit I do enjoy moving around, seeing new places, meeting new people. I'm considering, perhaps, making a trip overseas to tour Europe one day, and see some of the ancient places. I'm sure it would be fascinating.”
“Very likely, but who knows whether the mages there would acknowledge your ownership of your sensitive?”
“I've never had a problem,” Aiden pointed out mildly. “The risk isn't that they'd steal your sensitive, only that if yours runs away while you're there, local laws are on the sensitive's side.”
“How immoral,” Van said dryly.
“Oh, that wouldn't be a problem,” Catherine said, with a noticeable purr to her voice. “I caught and tamed Sable myself, and she's very obedient. She kicked up a bit of a fuss at first, I'm sure you know the way they do that until they learn to accept reality, but I took care of that. Setting clear boundaries and never wavering makes it very clear to them exactly where they stand and how little they can get away with. I don't believe it would ever cross her mind to want to run away. Would it, Sable?”
“Why would I want to run away from you, my Lady?” Sable asked, her tone bewildered. “I belong to you.” She stirred, just enough to make her chains jingle.
“You simply have to be firm,” Catherine concluded, and sipped her wine, with a rather feline smile.
Van didn't dare look at Piotr; he was certain the Vladislav's expression would make him double over laughing, thereby destroying any goodwill that Irenka's pregnancy had restored. He knew Sage well enough to know the sensitive was smothering a grin, and saw amusement in Aiden's eyes if nowhere else. Neely bit her lip hard, nails digging into her palms—presumably to help fight her mirth. “I hope you aren't planning on running off to Europe immediately, before we've had a chance to get to know you.”
“Oh, no, not right away. For one thing, it means getting a passport not only for me, but for Sable, and that could be difficult, since to the best of my knowledge, she doesn't exist legally. Definitely a long-term project. But one day, I'd very much like to.”
“I'm sure there must be a way,” Piotr said, recovering his composure. He must have decided to at least pretend Catherine had spoken in all innocence, whether he believed that or not. “Even in this age of computers and endless documentation.”
“Aiden managed it,” Van said. “He does study European history, so it's a bit of a necessity, and who would want to spend a week or two with no sensitive?”
“Sage did have a birth certificate I only needed to track down,” Aiden said. “I'm sure someone will have some idea what to do about not having one. Maya might, since she's looked into the whole issue of homelessness intensively and I imagine it's a problem not restricted to sensitives. It's well worth visiting Europe if you get the chance. They have some interesting ideas, if you're willing to actually discuss the subject of sensitives instead of declaring it improper and indecent. I'm not sure I agree with some of it, personally, and a large part of it would be considered absolutely unthinkable here, but it's certainly educational.”
Van strongly suspected that Sage found it every bit as interesting and educational, and that a lot more leaked into the pool of Donovan sensitive knowledge via that particular channel than anyone except maybe Oblique had yet realized.
The conversation stayed casual and polite; Van had to remind himself only two or three times that he'd promised Randi he wouldn't make any references at all to Piotr's head or cast-iron frying pans.
Given the situation, it was expected that Catherine's immediate circle would change frequently; Van eventually excused himself and dutifully mingled a bit longer, Randi at his side and a step behind.
At least he did manage to avoid Irenka, who had cornered Grania and another woman... what was her name? He couldn't recall off-hand, but thought she was a Kalindi with multiple children.
He and Brennan excused themselves as soon as they politely could, but not before Van located Catherine again to exchange contact info and confirm her interest in visiting Grania's restaurant.
“I think you're right, about wanting to take Catherine and Sable out,” Randi said, in the car. “There's something up, there. Sable's definitely, totally, Catherine's, did you see how fast she moved any time Catherine wanted anything? But I really don't think she's afraid of her mage at all.”
“She doesn't have that paranoid cowed look that usually goes with that kind of behaviour,” Oblique agreed. “And given the way she was showing herself off and obviously enjoying the attention she was getting, I'm inclined to wonder whether she had a hand in her appearance, because it didn't seem like insecurity at all.”
“Catherine seems pleasant enough,” Brennan offered his opinion. “She's a little cool and reserved, but there are any number of possible reasons for that.”
“I'll call her in a day or two,” Van said. “The four of us having dinner at the Harvest Queen should answer quite a lot of questions.”
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