Given the choice, virtually the entire Donovan family would have gathered at Kerry and Shvaughn's house to greet the Nicodemos mage who was supposed to defend Van.
The Matriarch Elspeth had laid down the law, however, sternly limiting the number of bodies who were to be present. Obviously Kerry and Shvaughn, since it was their house. Elspeth herself, and Brennan.
She clearly hadn't been ready for Catherine to come in the door beside Brennan.
“Consider me a representative of the non-Donovans who are equally determined to win this,” Catherine said. Lila, hovering protectively close to Randi, heard the steel under her mage's soft tone. That same edge had made Brennan choose not to argue with her.
Maybe the Matriarch heard it, too; she sighed and inclined her head. “I have no authority over you, and there's a certain logic to that. If it matters so much to you, then stay.”
“Thank you.” Catherine looked to Kerry first, though, before sitting down.
Kerry gave her what was more or less a smile, though tension and fatigue both showed around her eyes. “I know better than to argue with you if you're set on something. Make yourself comfortable.” She rubbed at her eyes, wearily. “Can't hurt to have one more person around who can think. God, I've never been good at mornings, even decent ones, let alone with this going on.”
“You aren't alone,” Rich said, quietly, shifting just enough that she could feel his shoulder against her legs. None of the sensitives had changed from the tattoo-patterns of the previous day: they were enough to keep them from getting in trouble, and none were in any mood for adventure or pleasure right now.
Catherine chose to share the couch with Brennan, which made it a lot less obvious that Lila and Oblique were staying carefully on either side of Randi; the little sensitive more or less collapsed to the floor at Brennan's feet, huddled in on herself in utter misery.
If anyone ever doubted how much we can love our mages, Lila sighed to herself, arranging herself next to Randi, depressingly aware that her presence was little help. Oblique was at least staying outwardly more composed, but it didn't take a genius to see the pain in her eyes. She'd known Van even longer than Randi had. Quite a lot longer.
“So when is he supposed to be here?” Oblique asked.
“Roughly noon,” Elspeth said. “I devoutly hope that the directions I gave him are clear enough that he won't get lost, but I tried to think of everything I could.” She shifted restlessly in her chair, and her sensitive, who currently was female, even more full-bodied than Lila, and had short glossy feathers that hugged her skin, rather subdued shades of grey unlike the bright fiery colours of yesterday, looked up and snuggled close. Sage had told Lila once that Elspeth, who was Aiden's mother, had already long since learned to depend on Angel as a partner by the time he'd come to live with Aiden.
“I listened, they were good directions,” Angel said calmly. “He'll find his way here. If not, it will have nothing to do with the directions you gave.”
“Van has eaten?” Shvaughn asked.
Brennan nodded. “Grania took him a rather late supper last night, and promised me she'll see to it he has three meals a day every day. This morning I took him clothes and a couple of novels to read, he has a pile of them he's been meaning to get to. Randi called in sick for him this morning and warned them that it may be a few days before he's back. Whatever can be taken care of, has been.”
“Least you and Grania get to see him,” Randi said forlornly. “Wish I could stay with him.”
“No you don't,” Lila said. “You'd go crazy in just one small room. And drive Van crazy on top of that.”
“I'm going crazy out here!”
“Randi, honey, we'll get him out,” Azure said firmly.
“He's not chained in a dungeon or anything of the sort,” Elspeth said, gently. “It's just a room, admittedly without windows and with a locked door, but it isn't so very terrible. There's a decent bed and a rather small bathroom complete with a shower, and a table with a couple of chairs. And he knows that you're out here where Brennan can take care of you, so he doesn't need to worry about you. He won't be there long.”
“I guess.” Randi didn't sound convinced, but then, nothing was likely to help except being back with her mage.
The sound of tires on gravel was clearly audible, caught the attention of everyone in the room.
Rich and Azure rose simultaneously, Rich headed for the front door, Azure for the kitchen. Lila looked at Randi, who had pulled away from Oblique's hug and was trying in vain to compose herself properly, sighed privately, and followed Azure to see if he needed extra hands.
He glanced at her as she joined him, and gave her a fleeting smile. “We decided that he'd likely be ready for something to eat after a long drive.” He retrieved a platter from the fridge and handed it to her, took out a second one. Once the plastic wrap was removed, one proved to have fruits and veggies and a quartered round dish with four kinds of dip, and the other cheeses and crackers and cold sliced meats. A bag of fresh rolls went in a basket. “There. Anyone really hungry can make a sandwich, anyone else can nibble. Besides, it's a social thing, gives everyone something to do with their hands.”
“You're going to have to stay in-game for days,” Lila said softly.
Azure shrugged. “Not the first time, probably not the last. I'm more worried about whether we'll have to feel sorry for his sensitive.” He handed her the plate of veggies again. “Here, take this out?”
Lila nodded, paused long enough to make sure she was in her Sable role completely and wouldn't slip, and returned to the living room, Azure a step behind with the other platter.
Two steps into the room, she stopped in utter shock. The platter dipped wildly, in danger of spilling veggies all over the floor, then straightened itself with no help from her; Catherine, keeping her out of trouble, as usual. Azure slipped past her, gave her a nudge to recall her to what she was supposed to be doing.
Get it together, right now, or you'll get everyone in trouble and Van'll never be free...
Oh god. Jax.
Automatically, she set the platter on the coffee table next to Azure's, and retreated to kneel at Catherine's feet. Eyes carefully low, she watched the sensitive who stayed docilely a couple of steps behind the unfamiliar mage. He actually looked perfectly human right now, maybe that had been easier for the drive here; standing there, in jeans and a T-shirt, he was simply the best friend she'd missed so much and feared for so often. Except for the ornate silver collar, set with a single yellow stone, that circled his neck.
And, though his attention stayed largely on his mage, alertly, while Kerry welcomed him, his gaze kept flickering to the side, to Lila.
Andreas, that was the mage's name, the mage who was Elena's cousin and Jax's master and Van's hope.
She blinked, startled, as Andreas took a few limping steps forward, weight supported by a cane she hadn't seen on his far side, and settled into the chair Kerry had apparently just invited him to take. “A snack would be a wonderful thing, while we talk about what's going on.” He glanced at Jax, who hadn't moved. “Come eat, I know you're hungry too. Nothing in the car can't wait a little.” Jax immediately knelt at his feet.
“Can I get you something to drink, my Lord?” Azure asked, eyes respectfully low.
“Please. Anything you can bring two of.”
Well, that's a good sign, at least he's concerned about Jax being hungry and thirsty.
It didn't help, not really. She knew all the signs by now, of a feral sensitive, and of tame sensitives, cared for or abused. And what she was seeing told her that Jax was property, not partner. Valued property, but property nonetheless.
It was just as well that sensitives were expected to stay silent; she doubted she could have said anything. Concern for Van combined with this made her feel more than a bit ill.
Maybe it showed; Randi pulled herself out of her own dejection to give her a covert, worried look. Her eyes flicked to Jax and back to Lila, with a question in them; just enough for Randi to see it, Lila nodded, and curled herself a bit closer against Catherine. Randi winced, barely, in clear sympathy.
How much worse for Jax, without friends around him who could be trusted to offer hugs at the first opportunity, and a mage who would cuddle and listen and try to understand?
Azure brought two glasses of fruit punch, gave one to Andreas and waited for a nod before handing the other to Jax.
“That'll do nicely. So.” Andreas sat forward so he could reach the coffee table, took one of the small plates Azure had left neatly stacked, handed it to Jax, and began to fill a second one himself. This mage, Lila thought, knew exactly how valuable his skills were, and it showed as confidence that could probably be read easily as arrogance. “I have only a rough idea of the situation, and I'm going to need excruciating amounts of detail before I can come up with the best defence.”
My, he doesn't waste time. What happened to all the social chit-chat about his drive here and the weather and the state of mage society today?
Randi looked a bit brighter, anyway, maybe relieved that Andreas was taking this seriously and getting right to it.
“Ask anything,” Brennan said. “And what we know, we'll answer.”
Lila listened closely, so much so it took her a couple of seconds to realize that Catherine was offering her a piece of her favourite cheese. She took it absently, though her stomach wasn't entirely certain it wanted intruders just now.
Andreas started with a general overview of the situation. Brennan's confession that Elena had a personal grudge against him, which was exacerbating the whole mess, only made him grin wryly.
“Be glad you only had a year with her. You are, however, not alone in that. I know of at least a dozen other grudges Elena is nursing, and I'd lay money that at least half wouldn't be able to even guess what they did to upset her. I imagine I'm about to become the newest on the list. But I also know how tenacious she is when she thinks she's found a form of payback, which means she's going to dredge up charges from every possible source no matter how obscure and outdated the law and how circumstantial the evidence is.”
Most of the other mages present winced.
“Oh, that won't be a problem. I know how she thinks, and knowing that, I simply have to come up with everything she will, and a counter against it.” Lila thought he was looking forward to the challenge; his voice, and from what she could tell his expression, held strong animation. “Where's... oh. Topaz, could you get my notebook from the car?” He handed Jax a ring of keys.
Jax didn't look the least bit surprised as he set his plate carefully aside and rose. If anything, Lila suspected he'd been waiting for that. “Yes, my Lord.”
Topaz, huh? That's not so bad.
Except that I bet he took Jax's real name away.
Jax returned quickly, with a brown leather briefcase; he opened it, gave his mage a pad of yellow paper on a clipboard and a pen. Andreas seemed unaware of where they'd come from, just began scribbling notes while still asking questions.
Jax closed the briefcase, set it leaning against Andreas' chair, and resumed position and plate as smoothly as if he'd never moved. Lila searched his face, saw no hint of resentment or disappointment or anger, that there'd been no acknowledgement at all.
Oh no. Is he that used to being ignored and forgotten?
Andreas questioned them closely about Van's education, where he'd studied, exactly what he'd taken, how his marks had been. And that was followed by his job, how he'd gotten it, how long he'd had it, how successful he was at it, had they ever heard any comments by his co-workers regarding his performance. And personal opinions, how good was his ability to judge people, how accurate were his observations of everyday events.
“I'm going to need to see a copy of this book,” he said. “It's going to be easier to argue this if I know what I'm arguing, and that there honestly is nothing in it Elena can sneak in an extra charge on.”
“I read it before it was printed, to look for exactly that, and found nothing,” the Matriarch said mildly. “But I'm not as informed on obscure old rulings. That should be easy enough to arrange. It isn't an overly long book, either, it shouldn't take long to read.”
“Azure,” Shvaughn said. “My room. Bring the better copy.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Azure went quickly upstairs, but by the time he returned, Andreas was already on a new subject. Unwilling to interrupt, Azure hesitated; Jax held out a hand for the book, and Azure gave it to him, relieved, before he knelt at Shvaughn's feet again. As far as Lila could tell, Andreas didn't even notice, intent on hearing about Van's involvement with Cornucopia and York House.
“Let me just make sure I'm perfectly clear on this. You're giving copies of a book that describes mages, sensitives, and the interactions between, to free sensitives?”
“Yes,” Catherine said. “We are.”
“Why?” He sounded honestly curious, and Lila saw Jax shift position ever so slightly, listening closely.
“Because the general theory of the Donovans, which a few others like myself share, is that emotional violence is unnecessary to the process of a sensitive bonding to a mage,” Catherine explained calmly. No one ventured to interrupt her. “We have, in fact, recent proof suggesting that a lack of emotional violence initially can have extremely beneficial results. We can arrange for you to meet the pair involved, if you like. We have every intention of repeating the experiment until we have sufficient proof one way or the other. Beyond that, the conditions under which free sensitives live are appalling and their numbers are dropping alarmingly. Any small thing which changes those conditions, whether that is decent meals, a safe place to sleep, or information so they can stop living in blind terror every moment, is an improvement.”
“Numbers are dropping? Is this something you can prove?”
“Since for the most part free sensitives have no legal existence and migrate constantly and make themselves deliberately hard to keep track of, hard proof is impossible. However, given what we've been able to conclude from what we've seen via Cornucopia and York House and what the more recently tamed sensitives tell us when asked, it appears to be true. Free sensitives are, for the most part, badly malnourished and endure a wide range of health problems due to their fear of hospitals, and live and work in extremely unsafe conditions. Sexually transmitted diseases are running rampant. So are highly destructive addictions and suicide. Miscarriages and child deaths are even more common than adult deaths.”
Lila braced herself for anger or ridicule, wondering what on earth Catherine was doing bringing up these details.
“You asked sensitives.” To her surprise, Andreas sounded even more intrigued.
“They were living those conditions. And they're the ones who do most of the front-line work with the current free sensitives.”
“Hm. Apparently the Donovan reputation for doing things in different ways isn't exaggerated.” He went on from there, and Lila relaxed, aware of a lessening of tension in the room that she'd scarcely noticed building. She must not have been the only one worried about what Catherine was doing.
But they'd trusted her enough to let her do it.
“I seem to recall having heard Elena ranting about Donovans and runaways in the same breath not very long ago, is this relevant?”
“It's relevant,” Brennan sighed.
“That's his sensitive to your left?”
Brennan summarized the story neatly; Lila saw what might have been a grin flicker across Jax's face, just for a heartbeat, at the mention of Randi and the frying pan.
“Oh, I can just imagine Elena's reaction,” Andreas muttered, still scribbling. He sat back. “Now. This book...”
Jax laid it in his hand. Andreas, again, seemed oblivious to where it had come from, simply laid down the notes and flipped through the book.
Does he think things just materialize by magic? Lila thought in disgust. Would it kill him to say “thanks”? A smile, a touch, anything at all?
“Looks well-organized. So. I need to read this, consider these notes, and probably think of a few dozen further questions. A visit to the mage-hall to talk to... interesting that one Donovan in particular has developed a nickname from your family name... to talk to Van in person would also be in order, but not just yet, I need time to decide what I need to know from him.”
“All the bedrooms are on the second floor, I'm afraid,” Kerry said, a trace of discomfort in her voice. “There is, however, a room on this floor we normally use as a library, which you're welcome to as a place to work. Tinker, Azure, go clean out anything that's been tossed in there and straighten it up, please. There's a half-bath near it, as well.” Rich and Azure both obeyed promptly.
“That will do nicely,” Andreas said. “Stairs aren't impossible, especially with Topaz to help, but they are uncomfortable, and once a day is enough.” He glanced down, ran a hand affectionately over Jax's hair; Jax nuzzled against it, expression turning blissful.
Okay, so he adores Andreas, and Andreas at least sometimes remembers he's there. It could be a lot worse.
Could be a lot better.
“Done your lunch?”
“A long time ago, my Lord.”
“Then suppose you go get everything from the car? Take your time.”
Lila nudged Catherine's leg, as subtly as she could, then again, harder, when Catherine didn't respond instantly.
“An extra pair of hands would make lighter work of it,” Catherine suggested. “Or would you rather only your own sensitive carried your belongings?”
Andreas shrugged, and chuckled. “No matter, and I'm sure Topaz would appreciate the help.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Lila jumped to her feet immediately, and led the way outside.
They barely cleared the door before she pounced on him for a fierce hug, which he returned so tightly all her breath was forced out at once. But who cared?
“I missed you so much,” she whispered.
“Missed you, too. I was hoping you'd manage to stay free...”
“I got lucky. My Lady is an angel.”
“That's good.” The words were fairly neutral; the tone wasn't, made clear the real extent of his gladness.
Jax shrugged, without letting go of her. “He needs me, he doesn't do anything nasty to me.” His smile held a sad edge. “He had one before me, and I think he's still getting over that. Sometimes he sees Veritas instead of me. But when he actually sees me, he cares about me.”
Lila tightened her arms around him. “That's just not fair!”
“Since when is life fair? I can wait, until he stops seeing Veritas. And I wouldn't leave him for all the world even if I could.”
In the privacy of her own thoughts, Lila sighed. Seriously bonded, and like Van says, that need for approval makes us so easy to manipulate and control... “I know the feeling,” she said lightly. “Not for anything in the world.” She let go, reluctantly. “But I suppose, before they get mad at us...”
Jax nodded, unlocked the back seat of the car, and handed her two soft vinyl suitcases. There were two more bags, both made of heavy canvas; Jax hefted them, nudged the car door closed with his hip.
“Books,” Jax agreed, with a sigh. “And by tomorrow, he'll be grumbling because he needs one of the ones he decided not to bring, but he'll figure it all out anyway. Most of it is in his head. People are always coming to him for answers. We don't normally go to other people, though. He's absolutely fascinated by this whole thing.”
“Just as long as he can beat the hunters.”
“He will.” He gave her a searching look. “That matters to you, that he does. Why?”
“A mage got himself in trouble for trying to see us as we are instead of how mage society wants us to be, of course it matters. And my Lady cares about him, on top of that.” And he's my friend, she thought, feeling guilty for hiding it. “And his sensitive's my friend, and she's crying for him.” All truth... just not all of it.
“Hm. Well, don't worry. The hunters don't have a chance.”
Lila wondered whether the absolute confidence came from loyalty or observation, but didn't argue.
Indoors, Kerry directed Lila upstairs and told her which room to leave the suitcases in, and gave Jax directions to the library, where Andreas was waiting. Lila had been in the library, lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling except where a couch was nestled against one wall and a desk opposite it, under the sole window; reaching the books tended to be tricky, as one had to climb over and around the junk that always collected in there for lack of anywhere else convenient. Rich and Azure must have made an amazingly efficient job of clearing it out, but she wondered where they'd put everything. Unaware of Andreas' trouble with stairs, Kerry must have been expecting him to make use of the desk in the guest room—standard furnishings for mages. Well, at least there was a solution.
Randi and Oblique pounced on her at the bottom of the stairs.
“What's wrong?” Randi asked, keeping her voice low. “You know him?”
Lila nodded, mutely, and felt tears sting her eyes. She looked away fast.
“Oh dear,” Oblique said softly. “Come on, back upstairs. We have a little time while Andreas gets settled. Come tell us.”
The upstairs porch, at the far end of the hall, bore an artistic and unsubtle sign on its door: “Sensitives Only.”
The floor within was covered with mattresses and pillows and blankets, turning the whole space into an indoor version of the lilac glade. Oblique closed the door completely, and joined the younger pair sitting down.
“Now,” she said, reaching to the windowsill behind and above her for a box of tissues to offer Lila. “Tell us.”
Safe with new friends who understood, certain that the mages downstairs would be on guard, Lila let herself cry for an old friend whose luck hadn't, quite, been as good.
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