35 – Lila

They attracted a few glances, walking down the street, Lila noticed: her graceful lady in deep green with her skirt swirling around her ankles with every long confident stride, her hair mostly falling in a loose shining cascade except the little bit Lila had braided to keep it out of her eyes, her only jewelry a silver chain fastened loosely around her hips to make a Y and her necklace with the dog pendant; herself, currently completely human, but a somewhat enhanced version of her real self under a short black leather skirt, heeled boots to just below her knees, a dark red halter, her collar and cuffs without the chain, and enough make-up—or at least the appearance of it—to line her eyes black and turn her lips dark red. She knew exactly what they were thinking when they looked at her, and delighted in it, and knew Catherine was quite willing to indulge her.

Of course, what Van's cousin would say over having her in the restaurant remained to be seen, but as sensitive looks went, this was pretty tame.

The counselling centre where Van worked wasn't much farther. They found him sitting on the front steps, casual and comfortable in khaki cargo pants and a white T-shirt. His sensitive Pride, who was currently a very pretty little blonde in faded blue jeans and a robin's-egg-blue blouse that left her shoulders bare, was sitting a couple of steps above him, which actually just put her head on the same level.

“I hope you weren't waiting long,” Catherine said.

Van shook his head. “I got done a few minutes early. Just enjoying the sun while it lasts.” He stood up. “My car's around back.”

Pride all but danced down the steps after Van; the two mages turned away, and Pride and Lila followed. The little blonde pointedly let her gaze run along Lila's body, licked her lips, and grinned. Sensitive code for, “I'd jump you right here if I could.”

Lila was impressed that Van unlocked Catherine's door first and held it for her, before circling to his own side and flicking the switch that would unlock the back doors for the sensitives. The windows were tinted, Lila noticed. That would make it harder for anyone to see in. Much easier than Catherine maintaining a glamour over Lila on the way to mage functions.

“I'm looking forward to this,” Catherine said. “And I do appreciate it. I'm sure you've already had a long day.”

“A fairly full one,” Van admitted. “We have a policy of making time for crisis situations around the scheduled sessions. If it's a matter of abuse, Hayley usually takes it, since that's her speciality. Otherwise, I get it, if that's at all possible.”

“Your speciality?”

Van shrugged. “I don't exactly have one. In a given week, I'm generally dealing with anger management, low self-esteem, relationship problems, grief and mourning, general stress, addictions... you name it. I did do some extra studies in crisis and suicide intervention.” He chuckled. “Which is the boss' excuse for giving me the bulk of the crisis drop-ins.”

“He must be sure you can do it well.”

“He's very good at making sure everything is done by the one best qualified, I'll give him that, and he created a group of four, him and I and Hayley plus our invaluable receptionist who I swear keeps the place running, who all get along extremely well. Anyone who needs long-term therapy, as opposed to help with a specific problem or situation, he generally sees to himself, since that's what he's best qualified for. I have the qualifications and experience to get a job that pays better, if I really wanted to, but I doubt I'd find one that made me feel as much like I'm making a difference in the world, or that would mean working with people this great. So I believe I'll stay right where I am.”

Lila listened with interest. That said quite a lot about his priorities, if it was the truth.

“You're lucky,” Catherine said. “I don't mean to imply that you didn't work hard for it, I'm sure you did...”

Van laughed. “Oh, I'm the first to admit that I'm lucky.”

“There seems to be more than one unusual tendency in the Donovan family. Every Donovan I met a couple of days ago has a career or some calling they seem devoted to. That's... different, from some of the families, where half or more simply live day to day to enjoy themselves, without trying to accomplish anything.”

“We're an odd bunch. Might be interesting someday to check out the records and find out if there are any genetic factors, but I suspect it's mostly environmental.”

“How so?”

“Donovan children are encouraged to find a field, art, craft, science, hobby, whatever, that we're good at and like, and to pursue it. Even if the interest itself is considered a bit inappropriate for a mage. Say, crisis counselling, or vegetable gardening, or ju-jitsu.”

Lila knew Catherine well enough by now to know what her mage was thinking: I wish I'd been born a Donovan.

Van pulled into a small paved lot next to a limestone building, and parked. “This is it.”

Pride scooted ahead, just a little, to open the door for the two mages; Lila, not to be outdone, slipped between Catherine and the wall to open the inner door for them.

Only then did she really look, and her eyes widened.

The walls were all panelled with pale oak, and the ceiling was the same, supported here and there by wooden pillars from which iron lanterns hung. The room wasn't all that large, really, there were perhaps a dozen tables in the middle, each ringed by four chairs, and a few high-walled booths along the walls. Everything seemed to be genuine solid wood.

Van escorted Catherine to one of the booths, at the far side of the room. Pride slid in first, so she was against the wall with Van on the outside; Lila decided to follow her lead, and wriggled over so Catherine could have the outside. The walls backing the seats were as high as Van when he was standing, which would certainly make it harder to be overheard. About a third of the spaces were filled.

A red-headed woman of medium height, in a long full tartan skirt and white blouse, with a black velvet choker circling her throat and supporting a small silver disc, brought them menus and heavy glass goblets of ice water. Sensitive, Lila noticed, which was extremely interesting.

“My Lord, my Lady,” she greeted them respectfully. “May I bring you something to drink while you decide?”

“Half a sec, Unity.” Van crossed his arms on the table, regarded Catherine seriously. “In a casual situation, it's a Donovan habit to let sensitives get involved in the conversation, and in a restaurant, to let them decide for themselves what they'd like. Will that offend you? Either one?”

Lila blinked, tried not to stare at him; Pride caught her eye and winked.

Catherine smiled in relief. “I'd very much prefer it, in fact.”

Van nodded, and glanced at Pride.

“Coke, please,” Pride said promptly, and the other three requested drinks.

The waitress—Unity?—nodded. “I'll be back with those in no time.” She swirled away in a flash of bright tartan.

“Not everyone is comfortable with allowing sensitives to make decisions at all,” Van commented. “I tend to feel that there are places for proper behaviour, if only to keep from causing a major disruption and getting oneself ostracized, and places where proper behaviour is more of a nuisance than anything else.”

“I'd have to agree, wholeheartedly,” Catherine said.

“Some mages,” Pride said, softly, “haven't realized yet that it's not mutually exclusive, to belong totally to a mage and to have thoughts and feelings.”

“Some have,” Lila said.

“I heard some... interesting stories, about what happened when you two met,” Catherine said. Lila heard the caution in her voice, and had to agree. As promising as this looked, they could get into a nasty situation by relaxing too much too quickly. “Some of them contradicted, and some of them seemed rather implausible. Is it something you'd rather not talk about, or can I ask for the real version?”

“Were any of those versions from Piotr or the other Vladislavs?” Van asked wryly. “Those would be the ones claiming that Pride is psychotic, unstable, dangerous, or something along those lines.”

“Those were the ones I thought were implausible.”

“The hunters sold Pride to Piotr first, last spring. He abused her pretty badly for a couple of weeks. The first chance she had, she hit him from behind—with a cast-iron frying pan, no less, which I'm told gave him a nasty concussion—and ran for it. She came to the counselling centre, hoping for help.”

“I thought if I could get to one of the women's shelters and tell them I was running from someone who abused me, my Lady, that I could buy enough time to figure out what to do,” Pride supplied. Lila regarded her, impressed. A sensitive who'd fought back and escaped, rather than just taking it?

“I took her home, and when the hunters showed up looking for her, I claimed her.” He shrugged, smiled, and accepted his drink from Unity. “Which, of course, gave me two weeks to prove that I could do better than Piotr. Funny how much better gentleness works, hm?”

“Definitely,” Catherine agreed. “Oh, thank you.”

“You're welcome, my Lady,” Unity said. “Are you ready to order?”

“I think we need a minute,” Van said. Unity nodded, and left to see to another table.

Van and Pride were quite willing to offer suggestions on the menu, helping Catherine and Lila choose from the intriguing offerings, some of them completely unfamiliar. With that settled, Van beckoned to Unity, who came promptly and accepted their orders, along with Van's instructions to bring a couple of kinds of appetizers for the four of them to share while waiting.

“So,” he said. “I ended up with a sensitive. Piotr is still rather annoyed with me.”

“That explains a lot,” Catherine said.

What it failed to explain was what Van had been doing before that, or at the very least, how he had passed his Master's exam. He was certainly older than Catherine, and equally certainly hadn't just passed this year. It didn't fit, for him to treat Pride the way he did, and to have had and lost another sensitive previously, and there'd been no mention that Pride was a second sensitive.

“What about you? Or should I not ask?”

Catherine hesitated, colour rising in her cheeks. “Hunters were after Sable. I found her after dark, once they'd left, and brought her home.”

Pride grinned, and Van laughed outright. “I'm sure that impressed the hunters to no end. Technically legal since they hadn't touched her yet, but I bet they were a tad put out.”

“I covered the trail,” Catherine confessed, taking a risk in doing so. “They lost her completely. I'm sure they recognized her a few weeks later, when I took my Master's exam, but they couldn't do anything about it.”

Van raised his glass to her in salute, then startled Lila by including her in the gesture. “Anyone who can outwit hunters I have to respect.”

Open expressions of anti-hunter sentiments were frowned on, Lila knew, but she could see why Van and Pride would have a personal grudge against them.

“Thanks,” Catherine said, her blush deepening.

Conversation shifted to more neutral subjects—recent news in the city that Catherine might find useful, both mage and mundane, for the most part.

Unity brought two large platters, each heaped with a wide variety of appetizers, and quickly made a second trip to deliver four small plates along with silverware.

“Anything else, my Lady, my Lord?”

“I think this will do us nicely for the moment, thanks,” Van said. “I don't think Grania needs to hurry much with the main course.”

Unity smiled. “I'll tell her that, my Lord.” She turned away.

“I don't think I've ever seen a sensitive with a job, before,” Lila ventured, cautiously, having considered it for a moment to make sure it couldn't be taken as disrespectful. For all she knew, he'd be insulted if she didn't say anything at all, after she'd been given the freedom to do so. The lack of a title anywhere in the statement made her nervous, but she wasn't sure exactly who to address it to. Was a title of respect necessary when simply voicing an observation, in this situation?

“Unity waits tables or helps in the kitchen when her mage Lady Grania is working,” Pride explained helpfully. “Lady Grania doesn't pay her, exactly, but she gets to keep tips for herself. Paying her for real would just be more paperwork, with the money going right back to Lady Grania's household, anyway.”

“Sounds sensible,” Catherine said.

“They're a busy pair,” Van commented. “Grania is the main force behind an organization called Cornucopia. Every day they offer decent food, anyone can walk in from noon until six. They ask for a dollar, but if someone doesn't have even that, they'll get fed anyway. The food's the best Grania and her staff can come up with using basic inexpensive ingredients and donations, and there are people who could afford to eat elsewhere who come just because they enjoy the cooking. There's a room for donated clothing, too.” He sighed. “What I find depressing is how many of them are sensitives. Half-starved teenagers, mostly, in clothes as old as they are. Even animals have laws to protect them, and shelters where at least some of them can be kept safe from hunger and weather and disease. It's not really much of a surprise, how terrified they are of us at first, all things considered. And there are ten times as many out there in this city alone who aren't coming to Cornucopia at all, which means we can't even be sure they get an occasional real meal.”

“I have to admit, I hate to think of Sable living that way,” Catherine conceded. “It's wonderful that there are people who are willing to make sure they at least have a meal and something to wear.”

Mages who cared about sensitives, about sensitives who didn't belong to them, even about free sensitives, were a lot more than “wonderful.” If none of this turned out to be exaggeration, Lila figured they'd be staying in this city for much longer than three months.

“It's a short-term solution, but at least it helps reduce some of the suffering,” Van agreed. “I think Grania has talked most of the family into helping out, one way or another, and she's forever borrowing sensitives as volunteers.”

“Are they?”

“Volunteers?” He looked at Pride, who nodded promptly.

“Lady Grania doesn't want us there if we don't want to be, my Lady,” she said, her eyes below Catherine's... but only just, Lila noticed. “And there are a lot of Donovan sensitives, mostly she only needs each of us one or two days a week. That isn't very much, to help feed people who are hungry, sensitives or not.”

Lila finally figured out what was bugging her about Pride. Even the most valued tame sensitive she'd ever met had shown clear signs of being pet, not person. Little things she'd learned to recognize: the heartbeat's hesitation before meeting the eyes even of another sensitive, the tentative edge to a smile, the attempt to take up as little space as possible... they were all missing, completely. Pride followed the rules, kept her eyes lower than those of the mages, spoke respectfully, did nothing she could be called on, but something was definitely different.

“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Catherine said, softly. Lila wondered whether her mage was speculating about volunteering the two of them. “How much of the donated clothing is mage-created?”

Van laughed. “No one asks, but between clothes created by a mage and clothes that were bought with the prizes from lottery tickets and bingo halls, I'd say a fair percentage of it owes its presence there to magic. Which might be only fair.”

Lila took a swallow of her drink, an attempt to cover her nervousness. Every instinct told her they were on shaky ground, that Van was fishing for something, and she hoped devoutly that Catherine would watch her step.

“Fair because mages are responsible for free sensitives living under the conditions they do?” Catherine asked, warily.

Van shrugged, casually, but Lila got the odd feeling it was only superficially so. “It's a way of looking at it.”

“True, but whether it's magic or time and money, I think it amounts to the same thing. Mages helping sensitives.”

“There's a lot of that going around. There's a homeless shelter being run by, believe it or not, a Donovan and a Kalindi. They get a fair number of sensitives, too, especially in the last few months. The two mages try to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, when possible, and let their sensitives—Maya Kalindi has two—and a few volunteers do the front-line interactions. The current scandal about the shelter is that Maya has just enrolled one of her sensitives in evening courses in counselling at the college.”

Lila blinked. Sensitives who worked, now a sensitive going to college? Pride just grinned at her, impishly.

“That makes perfect sense, if this sensitive is to continue working at the shelter,” Catherine said neutrally. “But I can imagine the reactions of some of the traditionalists.”

“The Kalindis are rather divided on the issue. About half see it as sensible, practical, and Maya's choice to make. The other half were horrified when she and Nairn started the shelter, and now they're even more upset.”

“How is Maya taking that?”

“As she sees it, she's doing what she feels is right, and if half her family has a problem with that, the problem is theirs, not hers.”

Now where have I heard of a mage who stood up to her family for what she believed was right...

“Did I meet her at the gathering?” Catherine asked. “I don't recall her, but there are a lot of mages in this city.”

“I gather she was working and didn't make it.”

“She sounds like someone I'd like to meet.” Lila heard the faintly wistful note to her voice, and hoped she was the only one who did. Not likely, though.

“I'd be happy to introduce you to her. There's a kind of unofficial link between Cornucopia, the shelter, and the counselling centre where I work. Not everyone involved knows about mages and sensitives, but between the three, I think we're doing some good on even the most mundane level.”

Okay, so we've got mages who take good care of sensitives and are willing to make use of our abilities besides channelling power. We've got mages and sensitives who are trying to ease some of the suffering sensitives and other poor and homeless people go through. So far, this is the best we've found anywhere, if it's for real. I wonder, though, if there's any other pairs that are really equal, like Cath and I? Probably not, but I can live with that, since everything else looks this good.

“I'll definitely hold you to that,” Catherine said lightly. “Oh, that smells incredible.” Unity's return distracted her.

The tartan-clad sensitive delivered Catherine's and Van's meals, promised to be right back, and returned promptly with Lila's and Pride's.

For a few minutes, conversation lagged, reduced to comments about the delicious, if slightly exotic, food. When it picked up again, it shifted back to the safer, more neutral subjects. Lila made a point of inserting the occasional comment, following Pride's lead. It was a nice change, even if she did have to be careful not to say anything that could be disrespectful or offensive. Just as pleasant was that Van never said anything that put sensitives down, never phrased things in ways that left sensitives out of the human race, made none of the little comments that made Lila wince inside.

Unity approached, to clear away the mostly empty dishes. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Dessert?” Van suggested.

“I'm too full, my Lord,” Lila sighed.

“Home-made ice cream?” Pride teased. “What kind today, Unity?”

“Raspberry,” Unity said. “We make it here. Juice and berries mixed right in.”

“Well, maybe I can eat just a bit more...” Lila said.

Van laughed. “Two ice creams... what else today?”

“Death-by-chocolate cake with fresh raspberry sauce, or cherry cheesecake, or apple pie, my Lord, my Lady,” Unity said dutifully.

Catherine wavered, and requested the chocolate cake; Van asked for cheesecake.

A short while later, Van paid, leaving Unity a generous tip, and the four of them went outside. The fresh air felt good; the restaurant was excellent and comfortable, but there was a certain amount of strain in being around another mage, always.

“Would you like a ride home?” Van offered.

“It's likely to be out of your way,” Catherine said.

“It doesn't matter.”

“That would be much better than taking a taxi,” Catherine admitted. “Thank you. I hope I can remember where the street is.”

“Pride or I will know,” Van assured her, and escorted them to his car.

Van and Pride between them worked out the shortest route in under half a minute—not once did Pride say anything not perfectly respectful, but the brief exchange made it very clear that Van took what Pride said seriously and trusted her knowledge as much as his own. Lila wondered what it was like to know a single place so well.

Not such a long drive, really.

“You have my numbers for home and work still, right?” Van asked.

“Yes,” Catherine answered.

“Give me a call if you want to check out Cornucopia and York House. I'll give you the grand tour.”

“Thank you,” Catherine said. “I think I'll take you up on that. Probably very soon.”

He smiled. “I'm glad you decided to move here.”

“So am I, I think.”

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