No wonder most mages don't bother to work, Van thought irritably. If you took all these damned gatherings seriously, they'd amount to a full-time job and you wouldn't have time for anything else. Skipping most of them is about all you can do... but all we need right now is to piss off the hunters even more by not coming to one with them as guests of honour, since Victoria decided finally to announce their presence.
“Pride? Get me a drink.” He handed her his empty wine-glass. He'd best make this one last, he'd be no use to anyone if his mind weren't clear. He and Catherine and Brennan had spent time dutifully circulating through the main room of the mage-hall, including greeting Victoria and her protégé, but they'd drifted together. Shared misery, Van though wryly. None of them wanted to be here.
Randi bounced to her feet instantly from her usual position kneeling beside his chair, nodded, and left in search of whoever was serving. Being a mouse suited her, Van decided—she had the same quick energy as Lila's beloved tiny pets, though her colouring was that of a wild mouse, reddish-brown back and white belly and extremities, darker stripe all the way down her spine to the end of her tail.
For reasons known only to themselves, the feral sensitives looked rather like a decent representative sample of local small mammalian wildlife tonight. Oblique made an extremely regal skunk, her white-striped black tail held in an elegant curve as she knelt at Brennan's side; Lila, at Catherine's, was the world's most sensual raccoon. So far, he'd spotted Azure as a black squirrel and Rich as a lynx, Unity as a rather adorable tawny cottontail and Maya Kalindi's Karma as a beaver. A show of solidarity, maybe, a hint that they'd stand together?
No sign of Aiden and Neely yet, though. He hoped they'd come soon; he was sure Jonathan was all right, but he hadn't seen him since before the events a couple of nights ago. Or would Neely even bring him? Seventy-two hours was, under normal circumstances, unthinkably fast to bring a new sensitive to a public gathering, and Jonathan could probably use a bit more time to adapt.
Of all the family, Aiden and Neely and Catherine most needed to be here tonight, themselves and their sensitives all on best behaviour.
Catherine took a sip of her wine, decorous as ever outwardly, but Van knew her well enough by now to know it was a mask. “Did you get your garden entirely ready for next year yet, Bren?” she asked, the previous subject—minor news about a Donovan cousin who had revealed tonight that she was pregnant—having been thoroughly exhausted. There was so little they could talk about in mage-space, easily overheard.
Brennan nodded. “There are a few things I'm going to plant that'll be new to me, but it's worth a shot. I'm still going with the basics I've been doing, potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, tomatoes, and all, but I'm going to plant a few watermelons, and try for some strawberries.”
Translation: Randi adored both and had talked him into it.
“Along with broccoli and cauliflower, and different varieties of the things I've been growing all along.”
Randi returned, gave Van a new glass of wine, and resumed her position.
“I didn't realize until this summer how great a difference it honestly is, between vegetables from the store and vegetables fresh from the garden. I think you have me spoiled, I'm never going to want to go back to cooking with commercial vegetables again.”
“Then I'll do my best to make certain you have plenty of them.”
“There's Aiden,” Van said, since he was the only one at an angle to see the door clearly. Catherine and Brennan both turned to look.
Neely was beside him, half a step behind, perfectly proper for a mage not yet a Master when accompanying the head of her household. Van noticed something subtly different about the way she was moving, and realized that she was keeping her weight forward just slightly, on the balls of her feet, every motion carefully controlled, and her gaze never stopped flicking across the immediate area measuringly. Expecting trouble? Even her clothes looked like she'd chosen them with that in mind, though her black dress pants and snug green top looked formal enough to pass, especially given the touches of jewellery and her hair being loose.
There were definitely two bodies behind them, but Van couldn't make out details beyond a flash of gleaming russet fur until they'd come farther into the room.
Sage, always striking, had chosen red fox, or rather red vixen, hands black to mid-forearm and legs to mid-thigh, the shape of the white stripe down her belly drawing attention to the curves of her body—all visible, under the briefest possible black halter and loincloth.
The chipmunk at her side was less spectacular only in comparison to Sage. Judging from the way his tail kept twitching, he wasn't quite sufficiently accustomed to shapechanging to feel comfortable with it yet—not that anyone could have really expected otherwise. The black and white cord around his neck was bright against his sleek striped fur; his black shorts must have had an opening at the back to allow for his tail. Neely had done a really wonderful job, Van thought, catching every subtle shading of a chipmunk's markings. That must have taken hours, even given that Sage had probably volunteered a long time ago to help her learn shapechanging before she needed to use it on an inexperienced sensitive.
“Already?” Brennan murmured, frowning slightly.
“Looks like you get to see the results of that experiment right now, Van,” Catherine said brightly. “The initial results, at least. I'm sure there are a number of people who would like to hear what conclusions you reach.”
Van had little doubt that he could spin something that a hunter would accept, but the time to think was nice. Hm, point out how little time it's been, and the obvious success...
Neely nodded in their direction, and the newcomers wove their way through the room, pausing to greet various people casually, Kerry and Maya for longer.
“Glad you could make it,” Brennan said dryly. “We were wondering where you were.”
Aiden shrugged, pulled another chair over. “We were running a bit behind. You should worry less, it's not good for you. See, we're here.”
Catherine moved sideways to leave room for Neely between her and Van, which put a wall almost directly behind; Neely dragged another chair into the circle and sat, leaving Jonathan to follow Sage's lead and kneel. Oblique looked up just enough to catch Jonathan's eye and wink at him; Van couldn't see what Randi or Lila did, but it was a given that each would find a way of greeting him as well. Any mage who bothered to pay attention knew that sensitives had developed their own subtle form of communication, right in front of their mages.
“So all's going well?” Catherine asked.
“Pride, go get two more glasses of wine,” Van said. She rose and immediately went in the direction of the kitchen.
“All goes very well,” Neely confirmed, some of the wariness fading into a hint of a smile, as she reached down to run her fingers over Jonathan's short fur. He shifted just enough to rub against her hand, but kept his eyes down. Sage must have had a long talk with him about how to behave, right? Surely there was no way Sage or Aiden would let this happen otherwise. The leeway the thirty days law allowed for a new sensitive was going to be considerably less under these conditions, and small slips that would otherwise be overlooked would be judged ruthlessly. And unlike in Randi's case, there'd been no time for a practice run.
“That I'm very glad to hear,” Van said.
“I'll take that to mean that the whole experiment is working?” Catherine said. “Victoria already mentioned to me that she's looking forward to hearing about it. Did you decide on a name, yet?”
“I decided I like Chance.”
Or Jon did.
“As for conclusions... sorry you got left out the other night, Van, but we were in rather a hurry. You'll just have to make do with untrained observations from then, and your own now.”
“I can do a lot with that,” Van said. “I already talked to Catherine about it.” And Lila. “So everything's working okay?” C'mon, guys, you got me into this position to buy time, give me the information to get us all out of it...
“Incredibly so,” Aiden confirmed. “We've been completely spared the usual hysterics, along with all the normal testing of limits, and we haven't had to hide the frying pans.” Van barely managed to keep a straight face at that one, but he heard an almost inaudible noise from Lila's general direction; Catherine nudged her with one foot, her own expression still betraying nothing save courteous interest. “It's quite a pleasant change, having a new sensitive around who doesn't cringe every time a mage walks in the room, and who tries to do what will make Neely happy.”
“A sufficiently intimidated and cowed sensitive will do that too,” Catherine pointed out. She's playing devil's advocate, Van thought, bringing up the points she thinks Victoria will.
“Granted, but in less than three days, with no time wasted on waiting while he recovers from exhaustion and hunter basic training?”
Van wondered, briefly, how Jonathan was handling this discussion, but he looked remarkably relaxed, much of the earlier tension fading. Maybe Sage had warned him about this, too. Or maybe it was being shielded from the room by four familiar and trusted pairs. “Well,” Brennan said, “I believe I'm going to circulate a bit and catch up on news from the, oh, all of ten days since the last gathering. We can't have it said that we're unfriendly to the other families, can we?”
Aiden glanced at Neely, then at Catherine, and nodded slowly. “I believe I'll come with you, I've been meaning to catch Lars to ask him about an investment he suggested I make.”
“I'll stay here with Van and Catherine,” Neely said. “I'm sure Van has plenty of questions, anyway.”
Aiden simply nodded again, and he and Brennan left, along with their sensitives.
Had Neely not understood how precarious their situation was with the hunters and how easily any wrong word could be overheard here, Van very much doubted she'd have cooperated with discussing Jonathan as though he weren't present. As it was, she did her best. Much of it Van could have predicted, but the sheer speed and ease with which Jonathan was adapting impressed him. The conversation was interrupted occasionally by mages pausing to say hello and, in some cases, congratulate Neely on having her first sensitive.
“Oh, you did come, Neely,” Victoria said, resting both hands on the back of an empty chair. Strong hands, at that, nails cut functionally short, much like her grey and white hair, and the body beneath her elegant blue silk pant suit was hard and lean. Still, he could see what Lila had meant when she'd described the hunter as moving like Catherine. “You must be feeling very confident, to bring such a new sensitive to a gathering of so many mages.”
“Since I have no reason at all to doubt that Chance will behave as he should, it seemed proper to bring him with me,” Neely said, with just the faintest trace of ice in her voice.
“You're that certain? This experiment must have been a good one.” She moved around the chair and sat down, gave Van a questioning look. “Your professional opinion?”
'I'd have to call it an unqualified success,” Van said. “In roughly seventy-two hours, without having had to wait while he recovers from exhaustion and shock, Neely has a sensitive she can use magically and shapechange at will without causing hysterics and who is sufficiently well-behaved that she feels safe bringing him here—with Aiden's approval, of course. There've been none of the small rebellions and resentment, not even the inconvenience that arises when a sensitive obeys his own mage but panics in the presence of any other. Neely doesn't have to keep threatening or reprimanding him, because he's trying on his own to do what will make her happy.”
“But how long will that continue?” Victoria looked honestly intrigued, if a bit sceptical; Van found that rather alarming. “Without the consequences of improper behaviour or disobedience having been demonstrated initially, what's to keep him from deciding that he no longer needs to obey? Once the thirty-days grace is over, Neely will be entirely responsible for the behaviour of a sensitive who obeys out of nothing more than choice and habit.”
“I'd say they... he is well on the way to bonding.” He cursed himself for the slip, saw Victoria's eyebrows go up but she made no comment. “It's been a Donovan belief for a long time that fear isn't necessary for an obedient sensitive, that their own nature makes them seek approval from the mage they've bonded to and that they will do whatever they have to, in order to gain that.” Too true, and too easy to abuse. “We've had no opportunity to test that in full before.”
“Hm, yes, even a sensitive you caught personally would have experienced at least some of that fear, which would make it impossible to be certain. In this case, I'm afraid we may have spoiled your results.”
“Not really. Knowing what hunters are and what was happening, and with the hope that we'd intervene, he seems to have gotten through that day with minimal trauma. But if nothing else, it's considerably less than in any other case so far.”
“True. So it will simply be a matter of time, to see whether the Donovan philosophy is in fact accurate. In this one instance, at least. One is hardly a fair representative sample.”
“Oh, we're planning to try it a few more times,” Catherine interjected. “There are a few rather promising sensitives who have been frequenting Cornucopia. For it to work properly, it needs to be a mage they're familiar with, so we'll need to bring a few more of the younger Donovans into the experiment and encourage them to spend time where the sensitives can grow accustomed to them.”
“Fascinating. But it's been accepted doctrine for decades that a sensitive bonds most strongly when vulnerable, which is of course why we make certain they're exhausted, hungry, and frightened. They attach themselves immediately to the first mage who feeds and shelters them.”
“I'm not convinced it's strictly necessary,” Van said. “It seems to make the bonding process happen more quickly, but I suspect that in the long run, it's simply time and trust that build the most intense bonds. But, again, it's something I haven't had the opportunity to test yet. At this point, I'm only extrapolating from what I do know.”
“The way free sensitives live, they're usually already hungry and vulnerable,” Neely said. “They mostly don't have homes or jobs, they just live scared waiting to be caught or to die. It's probably redundant to make it any worse by running them.” Judging from the undertone of resentment, Van guessed she'd been asking Jonathan about his life.
Victoria nodded slowly. “A valid point, granted, and one I've been considering myself, in a way. We obviously need a stable population, and I'm not convinced we have one any longer. I've been following this whole matter of feeding them and providing shelter, and in ways, I think it may prove to be more efficient than the reservations currently being discussed. A reservation requires a great deal of land, a great deal of expense to construct, the effort of keeping it concealed from mundanes, and the necessity of mages being present at all times to supervise. What you've been doing is considerably simpler, and I'm waiting to see how effective it is. If it works, I intend to suggest it in other cities, as well.”
Van and Neely both stared at her outright; Lila and Randi both started. Catherine only smiled.
“It's effective,” she said, with absolute certainty. “And it will be more so, as more take the chance of coming.”
“I'm looking forward to the results. Of all your experiments. I've read your book, Van, I must say I'm impressed, although there are a few points I'd like a chance one day to discuss, since they don't entirely mesh with my own observations.”
“Any time,” Van said, shaking off his shock.
“Good. But, I think, this is enough on the subject for the present.” She rose. “Good luck, Neely.”
“Thank you,” Neely said numbly, and Victoria walked away.
“A hunter just expressed tolerance of my book and of Cornucopia and York House?” Van hissed to Catherine. “What the hell...?”
“Obviously you haven't spent much time around Victoria,” Catherine said. “She believes as wholeheartedly in keeping the traditions as you believe in changing them, but she isn't a sociopath like Elena.”
“I tend to avoid getting into conversations with hunters on the subject of sensitives. Or much else, whenever possible. Besides, Elena and Brock seem to be the ones around here all the time.”
“Well, Victoria will seriously consider anything she encounters, if only to decide how much of a threat it is and how best to refute it. That doesn't, however, make her any less dangerous.”
“I'd take an opponent who's angry any day, over one who actually thinks calmly,” Neely said. “Anger clouds your judgement and creates a vulnerable point.”
Catherine gave her a warm smile. “Exactly. However, I believe I can handle Victoria, as long as she's only curious and questioning. Which, thanks to Van's skills, she is. If she ever comes to believe what Elena's been telling her, we're in a lot of trouble.”
Van sighed. “I suppose we should mingle, now that we've done our duty to the hunter.”
Randi followed obediently when Van stood up and walked away.
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