44 – Elena

Hunters needed to stay in touch; cell phones and roaming plans were a blessing for that. Elena scrolled through her list of contacts, found the one she wanted, and tapped to dial.

One ring, two... in the middle of the third, she heard Felipe's sullen, “Hello. Not in the mood to chat, Elena. Is this important?”

“I heard what happened. I wanted to tell you that Victoria was wrong.”

“Thanks heaps. Now tell her that.”

“I've tried. That obsession of hers with following the laws to the letter means that she's not thinking about the intent behind them or the broader consequences of her actions. Like encouraging the damned Donovans and letting them get away with things that the laws very clearly were intended to prevent. The people who wrote them weren't counting on people devoting their whole fucking lives to looking for ways to get around them on technicalities. While Victoria and Faisal are still senior, my hands are tied. Once they finally retire, we can get some things straightened out in this domain.”

“Not a whole lot of help right now. He was supposed to be mine. Not just to catch and give to someone. I was going to keep him, if I didn't break him too badly training him.”

“Broken is actually a good thing. Especially for a hunter. We don't have time to waste on checking that they're doing what they were told and you can't keep an eye on them when you're out hunting. It's safer all around if they're past ever thinking about anything but obedience.”

“Yeah, you've said that before. I think there's probably a fine line between broken just right and too broken to use. Not sure I'll get it right the first time. Although when I'll get to try is kinda up in the air. Victoria's not even letting me start again. She says it'll have to be after the gathering day after tomorrow. I don't know if the weather's going to hold long enough.”

“Victoria chose this one, didn't she?”

“Yeah. We came to this city, she disappeared for a while, came back and took me downtown and pointed to him, and told me to go get him. Like a freakin' dog.”

“Do you think it was just coincidence that she came specifically to Trebury and chose that one in particular?”

“She set me up? Oh man. You're right. She fucking set me up! She used me!”

“Now you're getting the idea. She set you up to test what the Donovans would do if one of their pet free sensitives was threatened. Very likely had every intention of letting them get away with it, too.”

Felipe swore viciously for a moment. Elena moved the phone a couple of inches from her ear and waited, though the fact that he was so outraged was encouraging. At least Victoria hadn't succeeded yet in brainwashing him into complacency. There was still a good chance that she could pass on to him enough of what she and Brock had been taught, about the glory days of the hunters when they had real power and respect.

Sensitives existed for mages to use, first and foremost for magic but by extension for any other purpose they chose. Anything else was stupidly weak and completely missed the obvious: if they were meant to have a say in their own fate, sensitives would have a way to fight back. That damned book had even spelled out the ways they were hardly above animals: far better at physical skills than intellectual ones, living entirely in the present. They survived simply to survive, made no impact on the world in any way until they were in the hands of a mage, and even then were only as useful as their mage made them. Free ones had no value other than breeding more who could be tamed. It was self-evident in any observation of sensitives.

Somehow, far too much of the world believed differently. She could only assume that they were trying, possibly with good intentions, to extrapolate mundane ideas about equality to a situation in which those ideas did not apply.

Mages were hugely outnumbered by the mundane population, thousands of them for each mage. Limited as they were, mundanes nonetheless had moments of brilliance as well as moments of extreme aggression. If they found out that mages existed, every evil in the world would be dumped on their doorstep. Mage strength and mage self-discipline were their first line of defence—if not individually, then at least collectively. As the elite, it was up to the hunters to maintain that.

And that meant enforcing the laws and keeping mage society stable and consistent. At any cost. It also meant they needed the power and respect to do the job properly.

As long as attempts to restrain the rot that was undermining that were sporadic and selective, targeting isolated offenders like Lera Alexeiev who represented potential but limited danger, yet allowing the far more dangerous Donovans to get away with anything they chose, about the best she could do was keep slapping band-aids on the damage done and wait for her chance to do some proper repairs.

If Victoria and Faisal refused to see that, that made them enemies of mage society. The problem was, for the junior hunters to depose the senior ones would shatter the structure that hunter authority depended on. Moving too fast would lose them far more than they could gain. At least, as things currently stood. The way things were breaking down, that might not always be the case.

Thus, all she could do was try to avoid Victoria and Faisal, do what needed to be done, and wait with gritted teeth for the senior pair to vacate the post one way or another. And she intended to make sure that the junior pair she had to deal with would be with her, not against her. Yvette was proving more resistant, but Felipe was smart enough to hear what she was telling him and see through the irrationality and the lies.

Why couldn't everyone just understand that if they all played by the rules, everything would work out best all around?

“So what do I do?” Felipe demanded finally.

“Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do. Victoria has too much power and we're under oath to honour that even if we don't agree. Even if she humiliates us publicly.” Her free hand clenched so tightly her nails dug into her palm, at the thought of how many times Victoria or her partner had yanked Elena's leash, forcing her to heel, forcing her to go against her conscience and her best judgement. Victoria even refused to see the inherent danger in that damned book, choosing instead to get a copy of it for herself and read it in detail—as though anything in it could make allowing it to fall into the hands of free sensitives acceptable. “We have to keep the laws before all else, and right now, Victoria's ruling is effectively law. She's a superb hunter in a lot of ways, and there's a lot to learn from her, but watch your back, and be careful how far you trust her. She doesn't have your best interests in mind, or mine, even though mage society needs to perceive all hunters as strong and united and not to be questioned. Every time she makes one of us lose face in front of other mages, it harms all hunters and therefore all mages. Her priorities have been corrupted by that fixation on wanting to be fair to each individual instead of looking at the big picture.”

“How the hell am I supposed to just pretend everything's okay, knowing that she set me up? And she handed my sensitive over to a Donovan!”

“You're a hunter. You're one of the best. The elite. You'll manage. We need to be patient, but we also need to never forget.” Patient, while watching everything that mattered go to hell around them. She forced herself to unclench her fist before her nails could break skin.

“Patient? You've got to be kidding.”

Had he been using an older phone, she thought he would have slammed it down; as it was, she heard the line go silent.

“Felipe? Damn.” She tried calling him back, but he wouldn't answer.

So she sent him a text: Don't do anything stupid. Think before you act.

At least he was thinking for himself, and not just going along with the destruction of everything important.

She put her phone on the bedside table and sprawled on the bed, hands under her head, to ponder what the best path to take from here might be.

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