Hm, this looked like downtown... Lila waited until the bus stopped at a transfer point, which presumably would be in a decently central location, and got off.
A tame sensitive out alone might draw a few odd looks if she encountered a mage, but there was no law that forbade it, as long as she had her mage's permission. The collar and tags, and the signature Catherine said her aura now showed, marked her clearly as already belonging to someone. Her own natural shape, her worn jeans and denim jacket and faded T-shirt, Catherine's well-used canvas bag slung to rest on one hip, should be enough camouflage to allow her to blend in with the free sensitives and see what she could learn. She thought Van honestly believed everything he'd told them about Cornucopia and York House, but she and Catherine had decided that another perspective would be helpful.
As cities went, this one wasn't bad. Reasonably clean, reasonably courteous, people being inclined to ignore or step around each other from what she could see. She got oriented on the direction that seemed busiest, and went that way.
It didn't take her long to find a couple of sensitives nibbling a slice of pizza each on a bench outside a pizzeria and sharing a bottle of pop, both women. Lila greeted them casually.
The short stocky blonde looked at her, and frowned. “We don't talk to dogs.”
Lila blinked. “You... sorry?”
The taller, darker one picked up the bottle of pop they were sharing, and both stood up. “Give it up,” the brunette said scornfully. “You have that same kind of feel the ones with mages have. You're not even pretending you don't wear a collar, for god's sake.”
“Better run back to your owner,” the blonde mocked, and the pair walked away.
This was the fourth city Lila and Catherine had been in, in the past year. Not once had a sensitive spotted her, or even questioned her. She sat on the bench, attempting to work out exactly when this whole encounter had gone off on some totally unanticipated track. There was definitely something weird going on in this city. What had they meant by how she felt? And how they knew about mages and collars was another question with no answer.
Funny how many questions could suddenly arise, in less than a minute.
Did she dare take the collar off? She'd still have her tags on, they were strung on a black silk cord and tucked under her T-shirt, just so no one could ask what the names meant...
Quickly, she unbuckled it, and stuffed it in her bag. Being outside without her collar on made her feel extremely vulnerable, but she had to find out what was going on.
The next sensitive she found was male, scarecrow-skinny, dark-haired and medium dark-skinned, sitting in the doorway of a building with plywood over the door and windows. He reminded her a little of Jax, though there really wasn't much resemblance; she pushed that thought away, afraid to consider where he might be now. She stopped to say hi, a bit warily.
He looked at her, and his forehead furrowed. “Should you be out with no collar on? Randi says that's what makes it safe for you guys to be out alone. I guess it's maybe okay since the hunters aren't in town, but what if another mage thinks you're a runaway?” The frown deepened. “Or are you a runaway for real?”
There was none of the apprehension in the phrase that should have been there at the thought of an escaped sensitive bringing hunter attention down on the whole sensitive population. And how the hell did he know there were no hunters around? And how had he identified her?
She considered saying yes, she was, but wasn't sure what the repercussions of the lie might be. “No,” she said faintly, and let herself slide down the wall so she was squatting next to him. “I'm not. My mage and I just moved here. She knows where I am.”
“You know Randi?”
“No, not as far as I know.”
“But you live with a mage who knows you're a person?”
“She's an angel. She saved me from the hunters.”
“Someone told us about a place called Cornucopia. I've never heard of mages trying to help free sensitives before. Is it actually doing any good?”
“Depends on who you ask. I eat there most days, so I think it does. Some of the others are sure it's some kind of trap and they won't go near it, so I guess it doesn't do them any good at all.” He shrugged. “Nobody's messed with me there yet. Do you want to see it? It's not like it's any kind of secret, I can take you there right now.”
Perfect. Seeing the place, with a free sensitive, is exactly what I need.
“Sure, I'd love to, if you can afford to stop for a bit.”
He laughed. “Don't worry about it, I was planning to drop by there for a meal sometime today anyway. Tell you what, you can pay the dollar apiece if it'll make you feel better.”
He emptied the mixed change from his upturned baseball cap into a sandwich bag that already held about the same again, stuffed bag and cap into a worn nylon backpack, and rose, offering her a hand up. “I'm Jonathan.”
“Lila.” She fell into step beside him. “At least someone is willing to talk to me.”
“Who'd you run into?”
“Couple of girls. A blonde and a brunette.” Lila fished her collar back out and replaced it. Not wearing it obviously was no disguise, and she felt better with it on.
“That explains it. Mostly the girls are a lot more cautious, a lot less willing to take a chance.” He shrugged, flashed her a smile, but she saw resignation in his eyes. “When you're sensitive, male, and into your twenties, anything's worth a shot. It's not like I have a whole lot to lose.”
“I've been called a bitch before, but being called a dog is a new one.”
“The ones who think Cornucopia and York House are traps came up with that as an insult for sensitives who live with mages. Just ignore them. They're scared. It's bad enough, the way we live, but around here, we've been getting the rules changed on us, and that's hard to take. It's hard to see mages as monsters when some of them are offering decent meals and a place to sleep, y'know? And when you see sensitives there who live with a mage but are happy.”
Well, that made sense, given what she knew already, and Van had said the Donovan sensitives provided a lot of the labour, and it certainly looked like they were well-treated. The insult, however, was distinctly ironic, given Catherine's self-identification as guard-dog rather than wolf. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you spot me?”
Another shrug. “You know how you just know someone's a sensitive or a mage? It's sort of like that. If you're around both kinds of sensitives, you start picking up on the difference. You feel all... balanced, I guess. Controlled, and I don't mean on-a-leash controlled. Stable. Free sensitives feel kinda spiky and chaotic. You never noticed?”
“Not really.” She frowned, thinking about that. She'd had the sense before of free sensitives as discordant and out of balance, but had attributed it to constant stress. “Maybe kinda I did. Not enough to really be aware of it much.”
“Around here, we're learning to notice. Turn right here.”
Lila obeyed, and a little over a block later, Jonathan indicated a reasonably large old red brick house. “Here.”
A bit uncertain, almost afraid of the strength of the hope that was stirring inside, Lila followed him up a few steps onto a small porch. A beautifully painted sign on the wall, to one side of the door, said Cornucopia and showed a horn spilling fruits and vegetables and grain; below, smaller lettering announced that it was open noon until six every day, and that a one dollar donation was requested.
Lila reached into her pocket for a two-dollar coin, as they went inside.
It looked as though any interior walls not supporting weight had been torn out, leaving the ground floor relatively open space. A lot of mismatched tables, in a range of sizes, and an equally eclectic mix of chairs had been arranged in an efficient layout that left neither dead space nor crowding that Lila could see. That wasn't a mage's planning, it had to be at least one sensitive, or maybe a mundane. She didn't read any of the dozen sitting and eating as sensitive. One corner held a couch and a couple of chairs, the upholstery of all three mismated and worn but not actually damaged, around a circular coffee table.
The floor was rather bland white and grey linoleum, the walls bland off white, both scrupulously clean, but posters were plastered everywhere, movies and animals and humour and prints of famous artists in a haphazard mix. There were enough windows, with tie-dyed curtains, to allow some light and fresh air. Touches that made the whole place considerably more welcoming, less institutional.
A flight of stairs ran up along one wall, and a couple of long tables had been arranged in an L-shape around the base of them. Lila spotted everything from hot food to bread to drinks, along with neatly-stacked dishes.
Seated on the stairs, reading a paperback, was a strawberry-blonde man who could have been twenty-five or fifty-five, slender and dressed well, if simply. A heavy silver chain circled his throat, tags in plain sight.
He looked up as Jonathan urged Lila over, and rose to greet them with a warm smile, leaving his book on the stairs. “Hi, Jonathan.”
Lila, about to protest that she'd had lunch and didn't need to eat, simply stared, speechless. Pride had been missing many of the signals she expected, but while she was following the rules, it had been subtle. This one was making no attempt at all to hide a self-assured confidence she'd never seen in any sensitive before, ever.
“Heya,” Jonathan said cheerfully. “Got a few minutes? Lila and her mage are new in town. Lila, this is Sage.”
“Oh, we've met,” the blonde sensitive said with a grin, and, at Lila's blank look, “The welcoming party. I was a girl that night. The jewelled look? I'm Aiden Donovan's sensitive.”
Jonathan rolled his eyes. “What do you do, flip a coin? Tails you're a girl, heads you're a boy?”
Lila thought fast, and finally remembered. That look had certainly been memorable. “Sorry, we met an awful lot of people at once.”
“No problem.” Green eyes regarded her measuringly. “You okay, hon? You look like someone just yanked the rug out from under you.”
“Um, yeah... just surprised.”
“Grab a drink, let me get Jonathan something to eat, and we can sit down and talk. For real, without having to play the game. Chicken stew, Jon? Or veggie-beef-noodle soup? Or both?”
“Both, please,” Jonathan said without hesitation, helping himself to a tray and beginning to load it with a buttered roll, a glass of chocolate milk, an apple, and a banana, while he waited for Sage to hand him two filled, steaming bowls.
Sage looked at Lila again. “Help yourself, if you're in the mood for a snack.”
“The soup's great,” Jonathan said. “A bowl of that won't be very filling, but it sure tastes good.”
“Probably not as good as Catherine's cooking,” Lila muttered. “But it does smell good.”
Sage filled a bowl and passed it to her. She offered him the toonie in return, and he accepted it and tossed it into a metal cash box on the stairs. While she explored the pitchers and decided on fruit punch, Sage circled around the tables, and accompanied them to a smaller round table with four chairs.
Jonathan tore immediately into his meal, with all the zeal Lila remembered from years of irregular and usually unappetizing or unhealthy meals. As near as she could tell, the soup and stew were both home-made.
Sage crossed his arms casually on the table, across from her. “Catherine must know you're out and about, I take it.”
“She knows.” Not Lady Catherine, which was odd in itself; a properly conditioned sensitive was never supposed to leave off the title, in theory not even in one's own thoughts.
“That lady of yours has an evil sense of humour. Not that she could have used it on a better target.”
“Sense of humour?” Lila echoed, neutrally. What had she gotten herself into?
“Should I ask?” Jonathan said, between bites.
“The mage who hurt Pride was just about to start dissing Van. Lila's mage, innocent as anything, yanked his chain real good. Said she'd caught Lila herself, and Lila made a fuss for a while but the whole trick was to be firm, and Lila'd never run away now.”
“Yeah, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. Pride almost wet her feathers, and I thought Neely was going to choke, she was trying so hard to keep a straight face. Especially with Lila's perfect obedience act to back it up.”
“Who says it's an act?” Lila asked.
Sage shrugged. “I belong to Aiden, heart and soul, and have for probably longer than either of you has been alive. And I do the very same act in mage-space. That doesn't mean I don't have a perfectly usable brain of my own. And sensitives who are really as broken as that do not go wandering around the city alone asking questions, and they never use their birth-name for any reason, Sable, if they can even remember what it is. And usually can't think of anything to say in a conversation that includes another mage even if given permission to do so.”
“You've been talking to Pride.”
“After she got home last night, yes. Most Donovan sensitives have free use of the phone and Internet, most of us have our own cell phones in fact, and therefore unrestricted access to each other.” He grinned. “Even when we'd best not let mundanes, or the more cautious free sensitives, see us.” He glanced at Jonathan. “Van and Pride took Lila and her mage to the Harvest Queen last night.”
“They're supposed to be giving Catherine and I a tour of here and the shelter whenever we want,” Lila added. “I think Catherine's really considering offering to help.”
“If you can clear it with her, we can use you, even if she chooses not to get involved otherwise,” Sage said.
“I'm no use at all in a kitchen.”
“Neither is Pride. Neither are a handful of others who are here off and on. But we need someone down here to do the serving, and there's always cleaning to do—sweeping the floors, wiping the tables, checking the bathrooms and the clothing room downstairs, doing piles of dishes. And talking.” He gave Jonathan a surprisingly affectionate smile. “The free ones that wander in usually have questions they don't know how to ask but desperately want answers to. You and Pride are both closer to remembering what those questions are, unlike those of us who've been in captivity so long we've forgotten freedom.” He sounded like he was joking, but the essential concept made sense. Could the free ones pass up a chance to find out what really happened?
Slowly, she nodded. “I need to think about that, and see what Catherine says.” Not that Catherine would stop her, if she really wanted to do it, but it needed to be discussed, along with the rest of this.
“No hurry. This place isn't going anywhere. The hunters and the traditionalists are pissed off to no end, but there's not a single law that says Grania and Maya and the others can't do it. And with the city's largest family backing it, the funding might get shaky occasionally but never completely dries up.”
“I hope it hangs around for a while yet,” Jonathan said. “I'm getting used to actually eating. No way am I going back to city-hopping.”
Not that it would matter, Lila thought sadly. Here or wandering, it wouldn't be all that much longer before the hunters noticed him. Healthy meals and a place to sleep would go a long way towards keeping him alive that long. And he could end up with a mage of any kind, then. She thought about meeting him again, in a year or so, after he'd spent six months with one of the abusive ones, and shivered at the thought.
“Good,” Sage said. “You're useful to have around. And you just proved it again, bringing Lila here.” He glanced behind him, and excused himself to go serve a group of three who had just come in. Sensitives, Lila noticed, a woman in her late thirties or so, and a couple of teenagers. The teenaged boy waved to Jonathan, who raised a hand in greeting.
“Is there anything else I should know about?” Lila asked.
Jonathan shrugged. “You're better off asking Sage. I just know I'm glad Cornucopia's here, and York House is a way better place to sleep than outside.”
She knew an evasion when she heard one, and couldn't blame him. He'd brought her to someone with more detailed information about the situation, and she was grateful for it, though she might have preferred a bit more info from a free sensitive perspective. On the other hand, she'd seen and heard quite a lot in the last few minutes.
The question, of course, was what it all ultimately meant. And, therefore, what she and Catherine should do about it.
“I think I'd better head home,” she said.
Jonathan nodded. “See you around?”
“Most likely. We'll be living here for at least three months. Maybe longer, if things are as good as they appear to be. It'd be nice to live in a place where we can do something that makes a difference.”
“Good. Take care.”
“You too.” She dug around in her pocket, and other than keeping enough for bus fare, emptied onto the table all the cash she had. Not that she'd brought a great deal, it amounted to less than fifteen dollars, one lone blue five-dollar bill amid a collection of bi-coloured two-dollar coins, gold-coloured one dollar coins, and a bit of small change. “You need it more than I do,” she said firmly, cutting off a protest. “Buy a meal for as many friends as you can talk into coming here, or something.”
He capitulated. “All right. Thanks.”
“Thanks for talking to me. And bringing me here.” She paused on the way out to say good-bye to Sage, briefly.
A quick consultation of the schedule in her bag told her when and where to catch the bus that would take her home. Not long to wait, then she'd be home, and could talk everything over with Catherine. Evidence was piling up that this city would be a near-perfect permanent home for them, if that evidence all turned out to be accurate. But she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something more, that she hadn't yet discovered.
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