55 – Van

Van expected Elena to come personally to fetch him for the hearing, so he made sure he was ready early, and sat at the table to wait, trying to read. It would be like her to try to surprise him, to catch him off-guard.

“Van?” Victoria's voice made him look up.

“I'm decent,” he said, as lightly as he could, with his guts tying themselves in small tight knots. With any luck, this whole matter would be resolved today, since hearings rarely lasted longer. What worried him was what the resolution would be.

He wanted, badly, to hug Randi for about an hour. Then maybe this would be easier to face.

Victoria unbolted the door and gestured an invitation. “Your audience awaits. And quite a large one it is. I think every mage in the city old enough to understand is out there, along with a substantial number from other cities. Including virtually all the Elders of every city in this domain, and some from outside it.”

Well, at least a lot of people will hear this, and maybe it will make some of them think. Does that make it worth it, no matter what happens? “Including Catherine's Matriarch?” he asked, following her upstairs. That was easier to think about, less frightening.

“Her included. Last I saw, Catherine was informing her that she intends to petition your Matriarch for permission to join your family. Andreas reminded her that she's been out of her home city for a full year. There are details to take care of, but your Matriarch was, well, delighted might not be too strong a word, so I don't imagine there will be any real problems. I doubt any Eldridge will bother contesting it.”

“Even you?”

She glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “She would have made an excellent hunter, certainly an asset to mage society, and I'm fairly sure I could have convinced her to stay if I'd tried. I know her too well, there are buttons I could have pushed, and all her strength and intelligence and skill would have been no defence. But she would never have been happy, so I let her go. She's certainly never felt like she belonged with our family. If she's happy with yours, then I'm in favour of it, regardless of what personal reservations I may have about what you've been doing. I still intend to catch you for that talk you promised me, once the timing is a bit more appropriate.”

He thought he might be beginning to understand her, and the sense of honour that currently had her walking a very fine line as she tried to stay impartial. Empathy with a hunter was an odd idea, but he was getting used to it.

Even after Victoria's warning, the sheer number of people present made him stop in his tracks in amazement. Under normal circumstances, there were more than enough chairs for all the Masters in the city, and they were arranged comfortably, with plenty of space left over; at the moment, every chair was full, more had been added to fill up the empty space, all had been compressed about as much as traditionally-raised mages could bear, and there were others on their feet around the edges.

Brennan was at the front, with Oblique, and Catherine beside him, with Lila, and Randi knelt between the other two pairs. It surprised him a little, how good it felt to see Catherine there with Bren, but mostly he was glad he could at least see Randi. She looked pale and unhappy, but not actually frightened, and it was comforting just to know she was present. Neely and Jonathan were beside Catherine, Aiden and Sage beside them, then Kerry and Shvaughn with Rich and Azure. Grania was behind, with... her sister Ysolde? Ysolde, a biologist and ecologist, and her sensitive Willow were usually busy up north trying to save forests and wildlife. Their brother Connor, a research scientist who rarely left his job in the Maritimes, was with them, alone; Connor had decided ages ago that he would never take responsibility for a sensitive. Maya, Aiden's brother and sister Nairn and Oona, Oona's younger teenaged children Calum and Emer.... The first few rows on that side had been claimed unequivocally by his family and their allies, in a rather blatant show of support and unity.

It took him a second to realize that every one of the feral sensitives was in everyday human shape, whatever version of that had been self-defined as “normal.” A reminder that they were, in fact, human under all the shapechanging?

Two chairs waited to the right, behind a smaller table, and Andreas was there already, looking calmly through his notes. His sensitive, no more shapechanged than the feral ones though probably not for the same reason, knelt patiently at his side on a cushion, one hand resting lightly on Andreas' now familiar brown briefcase. Much to Van's relief, he showed none of the subtle signs of constant abuse; his body language suggested alertness and attentiveness but no anxiety. To the left were three chairs and a table, in one of which Elena sat and glowered, Brock at her side, his expression dark. Two sensitives knelt at the end of the table beside Brock; a third knelt at the other end.

Between the two sets and also facing the long oval table of the Elders was a lone chair, a place for a witness to sit while questioned. That one rested within a simple chalk circle drawn on the floor, a visual shortcut to help provide a bit of magical acoustic help so anything from inside it was more clearly heard.

Van, without needing to be told, took the one beside Andreas. Victoria nodded and made her way to her own, with the other hunters. The sensitive beside her chair, he couldn't help but notice, was a contrast to the pair kneeling beside Brock and Elena—still and silent, of course, but there was a subtle difference in body language despite that, and none of that terrible sense of absence he got when looking at a sensitive who had shattered under worse abuse than even they could bear. And hers had a flat pillow to kneel on, protection from the hard bare stone.

“Good morning,” Andreas said. “Did you sleep?”

“Not well,” Van admitted.

“This should be far simpler and more straightforward than you're expecting. It will all be over today, and you can go back to Pride and your own bed.”

“I hope so.” Desperately, in fact. He shifted position on the chair. To all appearances it was the same one that he'd sat in during his Master's exam, with Oblique at his feet; he'd found it uncomfortable then, and it was no better now. There was just no position that didn't feel unnaturally stiff, make bits of him hurt, or both. How was he supposed to concentrate on the fact that his entire future was about to be decided?

“You are innocent unless Elena can prove either malice or negligence leading to harm to mage society. That sensitive of Neely's is, in himself, sufficient evidence to cast doubt on Elena's claims. And I believe the current number of witnesses will protect you from any possibility of being sacrificed to expediency.” He flashed Van a brief smile. “It seems somehow appropriate that a sensitive should be your salvation.”

Van wanted to ask how that was going to save him from perjury charges, among others, but didn't get the chance.

The Elders emerged via the same door Victoria had brought Van through, and took their seats, each with a sensitive who dropped to kneel on the flat cushion beside his or her chair. Normally, the Donovan Matriarch, as head of the largest and oldest family in the city, had the central seat, but today she'd relinquished it to the Kalindi Patriarch, the second-largest. At least it wasn't the Vladislav Patriarch, as head of the second-oldest family; that would only have resulted in bias the other way.

“Be seated and be still,” said the Kalindi Patriarch, and frowned. “Well, be seated as best you can, at least, given the situation.”

The whispers and murmurs faded out into silence.

“Thank you. Rory Donovan. You stand accused of a considerable list of offences against mage society and hunter authority. However, Andreas and Victoria and I met earlier, in the interests of saving us all a great deal of time and aggravation while still seeing that justice is done, and it has been agreed that the minor charges will be dropped.”

“What?” Elena sat bolt upright in her chair. “All charges are required to be heard!”

Van was very nearly as surprised, but it was coloured with relief. No wonder Andreas was so confident!

“Not always,” Andreas countered. “If there are numerous charges, any minor ones which can be considered as subsumed by major ones can be dismissed if both sides agree. That ruling was passed to prevent hearings from being bogged down by endless lists of trivial charges that make it more difficult to focus on the primary issue.”

The look Elena threw her cousin was positively venomous. “I laid the charges, and I agreed to no such thing.”

“No,” Victoria said, and her voice had a warning edge to it. “I did, and I rank you. It's in no one's best interests for this hearing to be complicated any more than necessary. All evidence will be presented, but only in support of the remaining charges.”

“Quite,” the Kalindi Patriarch said dryly. “Now that we've established that... Rory Donovan, you stand accused of seditious and immoral acts, in the following forms. You created a book claiming to be observations regarding mages and sensitives. Said book has been distributed to mages, thus encouraging beliefs which undermine tradition, to tame sensitives, thus encouraging beliefs which undermine their acceptance of their proper place, and to free sensitives, thus granting them access to inappropriate information and undermining their acceptance of their proper place. Do you have anything to say?”

Van glanced at Andreas, who gave him a nod and a reassuring smile. They’d discussed this on Andreas’ last visit, so at least Van didn’t need to worry he’d say something that would be a problem.

He stood up, facing the Elders. The Donovan Matriarch met his gaze, not with a smile but with encouragement in her eyes, and he took what strength he could from that, drew a deep breath. “For as long as I can recall, I’ve been writing down observations about the abilities and behaviour and interactions of mages and sensitives. Those observations for more than a decade have been recorded as a trained and practising mental health professional. Recently, I compiled them into a book, along with my own preliminary analysis of the material I had, based on my skills and experience, although I haven't yet reached any conclusions worth putting into print. To the best of my knowledge, every word in that book is simply factual information about a subject fundamental to our lives but that we tend not to look too closely at.”

He heard voices some way behind him, whispers that climbed rapidly, and stopped, licking dry lips.

“Quiet,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “We need to be able to hear without interference.” He paused, nodded when the whispers subsided. “Thank you. Continue.”

“As for distributing it... I've done that, yes. Mages do share information gathered, discoveries made, and conclusions reached, do we not? I haven't forced my observations on anyone, only made them available to those interested. I have given copies to free sensitives, although copies read by tame ones have always been given to their mages and passed on by them to their sensitives if they so choose.” More whispering, until the Kalindi Patriarch stilled it with a scowl. “Is our power over them such a fragile thing that it threatens us for them to have a little real information? Does our strength depend on keeping them ignorant and helpless?” Actually, Van rather thought it did, but rhetoric was such a useful thing. “I have neither seen nor heard of any instance in which access to my book has caused any tame sensitive to behave inappropriately. I have evidence of my own, admittedly a small sample size so far, that it may actually be easier to tame a free sensitive who understands.” He hated to drag Neely and Jonathan into this, but Andreas had checked with Neely and she had assured him that she was quite willing to speak. “I don't believe I've done anything immoral, as uncomfortable as some may be. I don't believe I've done anything detrimental to mage society as a whole, though perhaps some see a threat in anything that can potentially alter our collective views on sensitives and our relationship with them. My calling is to heal and comfort, the last thing I have any desire to see is increased suffering.” Aware that he was trembling slightly, he sat down again.

“That's all?” the Ingemar Matriarch said, eyebrows raised.

Van shrugged, trying his best to look calm and casual and certain that he was failing. “I don't deny my actions. I only deny that they were in any way seditious or immoral. I don't believe I have anything more to say at present that will help.”

“Proceed, hunters,” the Kalindi Patriarch said.

Van listened in numb silence as the hearing progressed. Elena offered herself as first witness, and she brought up everything she could think of to prove his real intent, from Van's long lack of a sensitive of his own while living with his uncle and a sensitive who frequently wore no collar, through the whole mess with Randi, to her personal knowledge of the book in question. She even dragged in having spotted two free sensitives—Claire and Kirk, presumably—who showed his signature on their auras; not the consequences he'd feared would arise from that night, though he would have yielded to Randi's insistence anyway.

He wondered whether this was honestly how she saw everything that had happened, and if so, whether it would be unthinkable to feel some degree of pity for her. Even if she was doing her level best to make him out as being some mutually contradictory kind of perverted semi-intelligent deviant and malicious manipulative genius, as near as he could tell.

When she fell silent, the Kalindi Patriarch glanced at Van and Andreas. “Your response?”

Van rose, hands resting on the table for whatever support that was. “No law says one has to have a sensitive by a certain age, or at all, so I fail to see how that's relevant. The laws do allow for using a mentor's sensitive during teaching and testing, if one doesn’t have one's own, obviously with the consent of that mentor and Brennan can confirm that. My behaviour was never called into question at the time when I had no sensitive, to the best of my knowledge. I caught Pride as a runaway, and proved to Elena and Brock within the granted minimum time limit that she was under my control, which makes her legally mine—if the hunters now retract their own judgement, I'm quite willing to be tested again. As far as I know, there's no law that says a free sensitive can't be used magically, it's generally just not an option—in this case, the pair in question were in serious danger of death, so I intervened even though I had no intention of claiming them. One is a young healthy mother who can now raise her child and very probably more, the other a young male who will, I imagine, make a very good sensitive for someone.” I'm so sorry, Claire, Kirk. “As for my book.... As I said, I admit to writing it and distributing it. I'm sorry to have given the hunters such a shock when they found a copy on a free sensitive they'd just caught in another city, especially after having that sensitive throw rocks at them,” he hoped the one who'd had the nerve to do it was with a mage who appreciated spirit, “but I'm curious as to how that sensitive reacted to training.” He didn't need to look to know that every sensitive in the room flinched at the final word.

Van saw Elena's near hand curl into a fist. “More or less normally,” she said tersely.

“More or less?” Andreas echoed.

“Accurately and completely, please, hunter,” the Santiago Matriarch said.

“He stopped running after only two days, and stood there waiting for us,” Elena said unwillingly. “Given that, I expected training to take much longer than usual before we got the proper responses. It didn't. We warned the Alexeiev we sold him to that he should keep a very close eye on him, that there were unusual circumstances involved, but the last we heard, he was satisfied with his new sensitive.”

“Seems like this sensitive being in possession of this book caused you no difficulty, hunter,” the Santiago Matriarch observed.

“Having a sensitive fight back and attempt to claim control of the situation is hardly normal, Matriarch.”

“Have either of you anything further to say?” the Kalindi Patriarch asked.

Van shook his head and sat down. “Too bad that Alexeiev isn't here,” he murmured to Andreas, as Elena returned to her own seat.

“I've seen at least four Alexeievs from Enville,” Andreas whispered back. “Though I don't know whether any have recently acquired a new sensitive. There may be others from farther afield that I don't know. He might be here. Especially if he knows his sensitive had your book. Would you like to try?”

“It's a gamble, isn't it?” Van considered that, and nodded slowly. “Let's.”

Awkwardly, Andreas rose. “May I ask a couple of questions?”

The Kalindi Patriarch nodded. “Go ahead.”

“I'd like to know whether the Alexeiev in question is currently present, and if so, whether he would be willing to give us his evaluation of his new sensitive.”

The room went quiet; in the stillness, a tall man, no older than Van, in brown jeans and a short-sleeved dress-shirt of green and beige, stood up.

“I'm Teodor Alexeiev, and I'd be more than happy to.”

The Kalindi Patriarch's forehead furrowed. “It's a bit out of order, but it makes more sense to hear your perspective now rather than waiting until later in the proceedings. And it's certainly relevant information.” He glanced at the other Elders; the Donovan Matriarch nodded firmly, the others more slowly.

Teodor Alexeiev took his place in the centre, greeting Andreas with a nod as he passed that Van took to mean they were acquainted.

“Teodor,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “You understand that you are under oath to speak truth, as accurately and completely as you can?”

“Yes, and I don't expect that to be difficult.”

“Would you tell us, then, how your new sensitive behaves?”

“Amazingly well,” Teodor said promptly. “I wanted a second sensitive to keep my first one company and to help around my greenhouses. The contrast between the two was a bit of a shock. Larkspur, when I got her a few years ago, went through what I gather is a normal stage of confusion and fear. The information I was given by the hunters when they brought me Foxglove was exactly what was said already, that there were unusual circumstances and I should watch him carefully. Fox, however, seems to have skipped the fear and confusion stage for the most part. No panic, no hysterics. I admit I tend to be fairly gentle, but I think it's a given that a sensitive with no real knowledge of mages or magic will be terrified regardless of how gentle the treatment. Fox was clearly cautious and apprehensive, and he did spend a few days testing limits, but that passed quickly. Since new sensitives generally are completely ignorant of magic, and since I'd been warned about possible trouble, I was rather curious as to why he knew a surprising amount—including understanding the basics of why we need sensitives and how shapechanging works—and was so little trouble. So I asked him directly. I had every intention of tracking down a copy of this book for myself, and was looking into it when I learned about this hearing. All in all, it was a pleasant surprise, to say the least.”

It helped, Van thought, in utter relief. It works. This mage was open and receptive, but even with one less so, it would have made a difference. Oh please, let us win this so we can get more copies out there... It works, it helps, we have to keep going...

“Questions?” the Kalindi Patriarch asked.

“No,” Elena said curtly.

Van shook his head. “Thank you,” he told Teodor.

The Alexeiev mage grinned, as he returned to his seat. “Come talk to me afterwards, and I'll give you some material for the sequel.”

Technically, the comment could probably be considered out of line; Van tried hard not to smile, but he definitely felt better than he had in days.

“Let's let sequels wait, shall we?” the Santiago Matriarch said, but she didn't sound annoyed.

“Hunters,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “Your next witness?”

“Olaf Ingemar,” Elena said.

A man, his short-cropped hair entirely silver and countless creases marking his face, stood up from the front row behind the hunters and moved towards the centre chair. In his grey slacks and immaculate white dress shirt, he could have passed for, say, a peer of Van's boss Zach. The overwhelming difference was that Zach's life was devoted to easing pain.

“Olaf,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “You understand that you are under oath to speak truth, as accurately and completely as you can?”

“Yes.” His voice was a not-unpleasant baritone.

Van wondered how many sensitives had died or shattered completely hearing that voice. No one would count, only Olaf's research notes held that information. Their names, he was certain, were lost forever.

Elena shifted forward on her chair, arms crossed on the table in front of her. “Olaf, could you please tell everyone your qualifications and your evaluation of the impact of Rory Donovan's book?”

“I am a biologist,” Olaf said. “And I have spent over forty years exploring the most efficient way to properly break a sensitive to obedience.”

It was an effort of will to keep listening—and to keep from showing his utter revulsion while Olaf calmly and clinically described how ignorance, fear, and abuse put and kept sensitives in their proper place, and how Van's book interfered with this. It, always it, never he or she, denying his victims even that much humanity. Using mundane techniques of psychological and physical terrorism, but maybe worse, using magic and shapechanging to underline their helplessness. It sounded more like a bad mad-scientist movie, Olaf calmly describing shapechanging urethra and anus out of existence and leaving the sensitive in question to suffer for a day or two, with a clinical passing mention of the best food and drink and medication to speed up the process, and reversing the change only as a reward for obedience. How could he ever play with Oblique and Randi again, hearing echoes of that kind of monstrous torture? And that was only one of Olaf's recommended methods, one he considered mild.

“Don't panic,” Andreas murmured, close to his ear. “This will work against them.”

Van glanced at him, startled. How could it possibly, when what Olaf was saying supported a couple of centuries of tradition? Andreas' far hand, he noticed, was stroking the hair of his sensitive reassuringly, and the sensitive had shifted to lean more towards him.

Andreas gave him a small smile, and said, very softly, “Listen.”

Van blinked and obeyed. Olaf's voice... but there was a rising mutter behind them, as well, that he hadn't noticed.

The Elders were trying to stay completely expressionless, but Elspeth wasn't the only one who wasn't entirely succeeding. In fact, only the Vladislav Patriarch seemed completely unmoved. Van wasn't sure it was any stronger than distaste in some, but nonetheless, it was there.

Olaf finished his report, and fell silent.

The Kalindi Patriarch took a sip of water before speaking. “Are there any questions for Olaf?”

Elena shook her head. “I believe that establishes that while the content of this book could be seen generously as inaccurate, it is unquestionably harmful to mage society. Distributing it to free sensitives can undermine the effectiveness of training, regardless of a single instance of no apparent damage. Giving it to tame sensitives can only undermine the ability to keep them under control, and since any mage is responsible for the behaviour of his or her sensitive, this means it's harmful to the mage whose sensitive reads it. If mages read it and take it seriously they may be more reluctant to be as firm as necessary in order to keep their sensitives in line, and again, that has the potential to be harmful to our entire way of life as well as to the mage whose sensitive discovers that they can disobey with minimal or no consequences. It may even be harmful for sensitives, since there is considerable evidence that sensitives, like some kinds of animals, need to have a clear dominance order for their own wellbeing.”

Van looked at Andreas again, hoping desperately that he had some idea how to deal with this one.

Andreas turned his own attention to Olaf. “So the only way to keep a sensitive completely under control is with the methods you've described?”

Olaf frowned. “I didn't say that. I said it was the best way to train them to obey, according to a lifetime of research. It's the method the hunters use on each new sensitive, so other than the occasional self-caught sensitive, all sensitives present have been trained this way in some version, even if it hasn't been maintained.”

“So anyone who doesn't maintain this training along similar lines does not have complete control over their sensitive?”

There was a louder mutter from behind, and it didn't sound happy.

Andreas smiled, charmingly. “If I'm misunderstanding the gist of what you've said, please correct me. If the method you described is the best way, then does it not follow that other methods lead to inferior results, which presumably would mean less than complete control?”

Olaf's frown deepened. “It may be control equal to everyday life, but it will never be quite as absolute. Some sensitives yield readily and don't test limits under ordinary conditions, which may become a completely unexpected problem under extraordinary conditions if the sensitive hasn't been thoroughly taught its proper place and reminded of it regularly. It will also take longer to get to the point of being able to count on them to obey on an everyday basis.”

“Hm. What would you say is the average length of time, then? Being able to trust one's sensitive to maintain contact alone during straightforward magic is generally acknowledged as a baseline marker of obedience and training. Suppose we count from, oh, first contact with a mage, to that point?”

“It does take a bit of time to get across to a sensitive that there will be dire results for misbehaviour like that...”

“How much time? Days, weeks?”

“To maintain contact? I wouldn't start on that for the first four weeks, say. It's necessary to make a variety of things very clear before taking steps towards training that can be risky to a mage.”

Andreas nodded. “Four weeks, even to begin working on that. Thank you. I believe we have no other questions for Olaf, but I do have a question for Victoria, if that's acceptable.”

The Kalindi Patriarch glanced at the other Elders, then nodded, looking puzzled. “Olaf, you can have a seat. Andreas, go ahead.”

Olaf, looking offended and confused, resumed his previous seat.

“Victoria, could you please confirm how long Neely Donovan has had possession of her current sensitive?”

“Eleven days,” Victoria said calmly. “Since just past sunset, more precisely.”

“Thank you. I intend to ask Neely to speak later in these proceedings, Elders, but I would like to point out that I have personally seen Neely on multiple occasions doing practice exercises, including creation, while allowing her sensitive to maintain the contact. The sensitive in question read Van's book while free, and has never been trained by any of the techniques Olaf has mentioned. He has, however, by all reports been extremely well behaved and obedient both privately and publicly. This includes while at a gathering in this room after he'd been in Neely's possession no more than seventy-two hours. I think the question of the most effective and efficient means of training and controlling a sensitive remains in doubt, and therefore, the question of how much damage is actually caused by sensitive access to information.”

“Noted,” said the Santiago Matriarch, and Van thought she looked relieved.

Elena half-rose in her chair, and shot a murderous look in their general direction, though Van wasn't sure whether the target was him or Andreas. Possibly both. “Elders, this is turning into a game of semantics and ignoring the core issues here!”

“I disagree,” Andreas said. “We have four key questions. Can the research on which this book is based be considered reliable? Is distributing it to mages against the best interests of mage society? Is allowing tame sensitives to read it against the best interests of mage society? Is distributing it to free sensitives against the best interests of mage society? Professionally speaking, Van's qualifications are impeccable. If there's any question of that, I'm quite prepared to share the results of my own research since I was contacted regarding this hearing. I certainly can't find any grounds for questioning those qualifications, even though I was looking for exactly that. Personally speaking, he has never broken any law or behaved unacceptably in public, and nothing he does in private can be considered relevant. There are no grounds for dismissing the entire book as being fabricated to support a personal belief. Given that there are quite substantial grounds for considering it to be factual and reliable, it is difficult and dangerous to claim that mages should be forbidden to read it, since the only grounds for doing so would be outright censorship and highly subjective, setting a precedent that could have terrifying ramifications in future hearings. It's a long-established North American tenet that each mage has absolute power over one's sensitive as long as said sensitive behaves in appropriate ways in public and towards other mages. That premise has been used repeatedly as the reason why anti-abuse laws should not be passed. If it is acceptable for mages to read this book, it would be a violation of mage autonomy to state that one is not permitted to allow one's sensitive to read it, and that I think would be a virtually impossible crime to ever pursue, far more so than abuse. That leaves only the question of allowing free sensitives to have access to it. Teodor's experience corroborates the more recent experience with Neely's sensitive and suggests strongly that quite a lot more evidence is needed before that question can be answered with any degree of certainty.”

“Elena,” Victoria said quietly. “Sit down. Now.”

Resentfully, Elena obeyed, slouching in her chair with her arms crossed, tension visible in every line of her body, her expression furious. Van watched her warily. The last time he'd seen body language like that, it had been displayed by one of his rare clients who turned physically aggressive.

“Thank you, Andreas,” the Vladislav Patriarch said dryly. “Good to know we can always count on your ability to strip any issue down to its fundamentals.”

“Those are, in fact, the questions at the heart of this,” the Ingemar Matriarch pointed out. “Anything else is distinctly secondary.”

“Anyone else, hunters?” the Kalindi Patriarch asked.

Victoria stood up, without even a glance at Elena. “Catherine Eldridge.”

Van blinked. A hunter was calling Catherine? But Catherine wouldn't say anything to support the charges... would she? No, there was no earthly way she was a hunter plant, he'd spent far too much time around her and Lila to be wrong about something like that.

Hadn't he?

Catherine got gracefully to her feet and strode to the centre chair in a swirl of soft scarlet fabric, her expression perfectly neutral.

“Catherine,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “You understand that you are under oath to speak truth, as accurately and completely as you can?”

Catherine inclined her head graciously. “Of course, Patriarch.”

“Catherine,” Victoria said. “Could you explain your qualifications as an observer?”

“I began training as a hunter some years ago,” Catherine said, her expression never changing. “I learned hunter observation techniques and studied the laws, among other things. My training was discontinued when it was decided that it was not the most appropriate calling for me.”

“I can confirm,” Victoria added, “that her training ended due to a mutual decision, rather than any lack of ability. I am aware of the rumours, and I would also like to add that you have my own word that Catherine's honesty and integrity are beyond any reproach.”

Elena bolted to her feet. “She stole a sensitive out from under Brock and I, and hid her tracks! That is not honesty or integrity.”

Victoria's eyes never left Catherine. “Unless you have proof that it was deliberate on Catherine's part, rather than coincidence that the sensitive she hunted for herself was one you'd already chosen, then that is not relevant.”

“She hid the damned trail! That is not coincidence!”

“Under the circumstances,” Catherine said calmly, holding Victoria's gaze with no apparent unease, “I did not wish anyone to know that I had acquired a sensitive. Sable was already tired and easy to catch, and I admit, I did not pause to ask why. Therefore, I could take her home quickly, cover the tracks, and shield my apartment. My relationship with my grandmother was... not a positive one, and I did not wish to have to discuss the matter with her.”

Elena took a breath to speak, but Victoria finally looked away from Catherine and down at Elena. Whatever she said was too low to carry, but Elena didn't voice whatever protest had been next. She crossed her arms again and glowered malevolently at Catherine.

Catherine showed no signs of noticing at all, waiting courteously for the next question.

“Catherine,” Victoria said. “You've spent time around Rory Donovan, and the other Donovans. You were involved in the incident Andreas mentioned, regarding Neely's sensitive. You have read the book in question yourself. Correct?”

Catherine inclined her head again. “All correct, hunter.”

“Could you please tell everyone if you have seen any evidence in favour of the charges?”

“None,” Catherine said without hesitation. “The book itself is a very different viewpoint from the traditional one and the one that hunters have adopted, but some of the information in it I can verify from my own training and experience, and I find the rest plausible, if unorthodox.”

Van felt guilty for ever doubting her, even for an instant.

She described what had happened with Jonathan—the official translation, at least—and asserted that she had yet to see any trace of inappropriate behaviour in the other Donovan sensitives or in Jonathan. Van heard more soft murmurs behind him as she reported, coolly and clinically, everything that had happened the first time Jonathan had accompanied Neely in public—what Felipe had done lay somewhere between attempted theft and attempted assault on Neely's own person.

Judging by the look in Elena's eyes, her hatred for Catherine was now on a par with her hatred for Brennan and Van.

Though they hadn't really begun all that long ago, Van's own nerves made it feel like they'd been at this for days already. Of course, he reminded himself dryly, he'd played this through in his imagination so many times that in a sense, he'd been in this hearing for months.

Elena said something to Victoria, who gave her a glance and a brief response before turning her attention back to Catherine.

Who completed her account, and waited quietly.

“Questions?” asked the Kalindi Patriarch.

Elena got as far as, “Did...” before Victoria interrupted with, “No questions, Elders.” Elena gave her an incredulous look, and Victoria added with clear emphasis, “Everything relevant has been covered.”

She's protecting Catherine, Van realized suddenly. She's doing it within the letter of the law, by forcing everyone to stay strictly to the issue, but she's nonetheless protecting Catherine from questions. Which suggests that she believes it could be detrimental to Catherine to be questioned, which it could... and that she sees a reason to protect her, despite what Catherine's family put her through.

There's something old and complex and personal between those two.

“No questions,” Andreas echoed. “That was quite comprehensive.”

Catherine returned to her seat and Lila, somewhere close behind Van—not close enough for him to touch any of them, of course, but just knowing they were there helped.

“Van, Andreas,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “I think we need to consider Teodor your first witness. Your second?”

Andreas, carefully, rose. “May I clarify something first, Elders? In the interests of keeping this hearing as focused as possible?”

“Please,” the Ingemar Matriarch said dryly. “The more clarity and focus the better.”

“I'm not asking for your verdict overall, only to get some sense of what can be taken as established rather than going over it at further length. Are Van's professional qualifications in any doubt? If so, I'd like to offer the results of my own interviews with Van's co-workers and teachers and clients along with the transcript of his post-secondary grades. His GPA of three-point-seven wasn't the highest in the class but it was higher than the class average and the overall program average.”

“I believe we can consider that established,” the Kalindi Patriarch said, glancing to either side in search of the nods of confirmation he received. “Intent and consequences are not necessarily synonymous with ability, but the qualifications are not in doubt.”

“Would there be any purpose to my discussing the various points in history when scientific observation has been banned and persecuted because it conflicts with the dominant social philosophy, or the effects of this on the progress of knowledge? This includes, of course, not only sciences like astronomy and evolution, but also any evidence disproving popular belief that women have the minds of children or that darker skin colour equates to a lower form of humanity—ideas that were popular because they reinforced the social status quo. I'm certain the Elders are familiar with such and that the majority of those present, of any age, could think of at least an example or two.”

Oh, god, Andreas, be careful, getting yourself charged because you went too far won't help anyone...

“I believe we are aware of that, yes, and you can dispense with the long list you could undoubtedly give us if we requested it.”

“Then what remains in question is the effects of access to this book on tame sensitives and free sensitives. Van's hypothesis is that rigid control is unnecessary and that a sensitive treated reasonably well will put far more sincere effort into pleasing their mage out of an internal drive for approval than any external force could possibly produce. We've established that Van's mental health qualifications are excellent, so that hypothesis has to be given at least the benefit of the doubt, and if it's true, then a sensitive having access to information not only cannot interfere, but if anything it may lead to greater acceptance on the part of the sensitive of their own nature and therefore less resentment and less rebellion. I'd like to challenge every mage in this room who has a sensitive to ask that sensitive, right now at this moment, what the single worst feeling that sensitive can imagine is. Don't guess what it is. Ask. And I'd like to ask every sensitive in this room to tell the truth, no matter how frightening it is to do so.”

For a moment, no one moved or spoke; then the sound began, rose, faded out again.

“Show of hands,” Andreas said, without turning around to look behind him at the audience. “Was the reply you just got some variation of failing you, disappointing you, letting you down?”

Aware of the answer, and that any exceptions were highly likely to be sensitives terrorized and abused into an unnatural state of fear or apathy, Van couldn't resist looking behind him. Sure enough, there were a lot of hands showing.

The Elders weren't among them, but that meant nothing except that they were keeping their own counsel at the moment.

“We have the evidence of Teodor Alexeiev's new sensitive,” Andreas said, “to suggest that there is more to the transition of a sensitive from free to tame than force. I would like to point out that Catherine Eldridge, though hunter-trained, caught and tamed her own sensitive without using violence of any sort, psychological or physical, and her sensitive Sable is respectful and obedient and absolutely devoted to her mage. Sable did not, before that, have any more knowledge of mages than any other sensitive, but I do think it should be considered further evidence that violence is not necessarily required, which suggests further reason this book should be taken seriously rather than banned. I think, however, there is a single piece of evidence that proves beyond any doubt that this book cannot be simply dismissed as dangerous propagandizing fiction, and that piece of evidence is Neely Donovan and her new sensitive. I would like, therefore, to call Neely to speak.”

Neely, outwardly calm, in the kind of dressy slacks and top that left her free to move while still looking reasonably formal, strode forward to take the witness chair. Jonathan stayed a stride behind her, eyes carefully low—not normally acceptable, but they were still covered by the thirty-days law, and no one would try to tell her to leave her sensitive out of reach among so many mages. Jonathan dropped to his knees at her side without needing to be told.

“Neely,” the Kalindi Patriarch said. “You understand that you are under oath to speak truth, as accurately and completely as you can?”

“Yes, of course,” Neely said.

“I'd like to ask that we do something unconventional,” the Santiago Matriarch said slowly. “Neely, would you be agreeable to your sensitive answering some questions?”

Neely gave Andreas a puzzled glance over one shoulder, but shrugged. “That's fine. Chance, answer whatever they ask, and tell them the truth, not anything you think I want to hear. I'm not going to be upset with you no matter what, this is important, and you're covered under the same oath I am.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Jonathan said quietly.

“What's your name?” the Santiago Matriarch asked.

“Chance, my Lady.”

“What would the answer to that have been a month ago?”

“Jonathan, my Lady.”

“Your thoughts on the change of your name?”

“I'm not the same person I was before, my Lady.”

“How so?”

Van could see the tension across Jon's shoulders and upper spine, and wished there was a way to avoid this—but at the same time, was all the more awed by the young sensitive's courage as his voice stayed steady.

Do they really expect him to say anything, truthful or not, that could support torturing sensitives? Well, probably they don't expect much of anything, anyway. But I thought Benita Santiago and Vasanta Kalindi knew better than to underestimate sensitive intelligence.

Hm, or maybe they aren't underestimating him at all.

“Before, I believed that mages were... I'm sorry, my Lady, but I believed mages were all alike and only cared about their own desires, and I believed that I had a limited time to live free and that when I was captured by a mage it would mean my life was effectively over. I didn't know what mages want sensitives for or what I could expect. I didn't know whether a mage could change my mind and memories, or about channelling energy, or about shapechanging, or about how sensitives are expected to behave, or, well, anything that would happen. All I knew was that sensitives vanish and don't come back and that it had something to do with mages wanting us. Lord Van was extremely accurate in his book about how free sensitives view life. It's a very hopeless way to live, sort of... bleak. When I came to this city, I met the Donovan sensitives who belonged to their mages but were happier than any free sensitive I'd ever met, and then I met Lord Van and Lady Grania and the other mages involved in Cornucopia and York House. Being able to read about mages and sensitives made it easier to not be afraid all the time and to see things as they are. Once I knew what I could expect, it was much less scary to think about a future beyond just surviving today and hoping to stay free for a bit longer. Then I could see that mages are all individuals and can be very good people. That's a really huge concept for a free sensitive to come to accept and understand, my Lady. And I met Lady Neely, and I thought a few times that belonging to her wouldn't be a terrible or scary thing at all. I think... I think with more time, I would have asked Lady Neely if I could be hers, all on my own.”

Utter silence in the hall. How much was sheer shock at the thought of a willing sensitive, Van wondered, and how much was fear of missing even one word of this?

Andreas leaned down to whisper something to his sensitive, who got up and left in the direction of the hall's kitchen, though it meant making his way through various standing bodies between him and his goal.

“You honestly believe you would have voluntarily given up your freedom,” the Kalindi Patriarch said, intrigued.

“My Lord, freedom isn't that straightforward a concept. Living in fear, watching behind you all the time and afraid to plan for even a few days ahead, and sometimes not knowing where you'll sleep or what you'll eat, is technically freedom, but there really aren't very many choices you can make that amount to anything. Mostly it means being free to choose whether to take an unpleasant and usually unsafe job or sit on a street corner panhandling or have sex for money or not eat. When I was afraid of what mages wanted sensitives for, I was like any other sensitive, I thought absolutely anything that kept me free was worth it and was better than belonging to a mage. Sometimes I thought killing myself might be a good idea, because it would mean never being not free. But once I understood, that wasn't true anymore. And... I knew from Lord Van's book and from the Donovan sensitives that helping with magic is a lot like sex, it can feel terrible if it's forced but it can be wonderful if you're open to it, and I knew that none of the tame sensitives I'd met would ever have been willing to lose that, and that made me even less afraid and more, well, open to the idea. Since I've experienced that for myself, I'm not the same person I was before it, either. I'm not the free sensitive who first came to this city or even the free sensitive who read Lord Van's book. I'm Lady Neely's sensitive, and that's an amazingly awesome thing, not a bad thing at all.”

“By our laws, Neely is responsible for your behaviour in public around other mages. Yet she's never given you any reason to fear the consequences if you behave badly and she gets in trouble for it. Is that not an extraordinary amount of trust to expect her to place in you?”

Say nothing of the extraordinary amount of trust Jon places in her every time she touches him, of course...

“Yes, my Lord, but I would never willingly do anything that would cause trouble for Lady Neely. Helping willingly with magic feels wonderful. Shapechanging feels even better. But the thing that feels better than either is Lady Neely's approval and praise, and for that I'll do anything.”

“And maintaining contact yourself during magic?”

“I know there are lots of kinds of punishments that are possible, my Lord, but the thought of Lady Neely being hurt because she trusted me and I failed her is more than enough reason to be very careful that never happens. The thought of that feels at least as bad now as the thought of being caught by hunters used to before I understood anything. Maybe worse. Betraying my Lady's trust would be...” He faltered, shook his head. “I couldn't.”

“You realize that by mage law, which is the only law relevant, you are property,” the Vladislav Patriarch said bluntly.

“Yes, my Lord. But I think a mage would feel very different from a sensitive about being valued and useful property rather than being free but of no value and no use to anyone at all including yourself. Sensitives are... flexible, my Lord. And I would belong to Lady Neely in some ways even without that law.”

What still couldn't be said, of course, was that Neely belonged to him in an equally real sense that had nothing to do with laws. But that particular battle was far in the future, and they had to win this one first.

“You've been here and heard this entire hearing so far,” the Santiago Matriarch said gently. “I'd like to hear your thoughts on it. Truthfully. You have my word, nothing you say will get you or Neely into trouble.”

And what he's said so far, and what he says right now, is going to be an immense part of what influences the verdict in this hearing, and determines what happens to me and to my book and to the future of sensitive rights in this entire domain.

And Jonathan knew it, he was sure of it—Van saw him shiver, saw him fold his hands more tightly together.

“My Lady, I...” Jonathan hesitated, then swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Neely's hand moved, the beginning of a gesture of support and reassurance Van was certain, but she stopped herself and closed that hand into a white-knuckled fist. Making certain no one could lay accusations of her having influenced anything her sensitive said. But every instinct wanted to encourage him, her body language simply screamed it.

“Take your time,” the Kalindi Patriarch said kindly.

“I... my Ladies, my Lords... Lord Andreas said there were four questions. There's nothing I can say about Lord Van's qualifications, but I do know that there's nothing in his book that I know of that isn't accurate. Anything I've experienced myself is true, and sensitives who have been around a lot longer than I have have told me that I can trust what's in it because they've found the same thing. I definitely can't say anything about mage society being harmed or not. Since I read that book before becoming Lady Neely's sensitive, I can only go by what other sensitives have told me about reading it after being with their mages for a while, and you could get more useful answers from pretty much any tame sensitive who's read it.” He paused again. The silence of the hall was so absolute Van couldn't blame him for being nervous—he was the centre of attention of easily a couple of hundred mages, if not more, and their sensitives.

Andreas' sensitive wove his way back to them, respectful of the mages he needed to get past but firm about his need to do so. He glanced at Andreas, who nodded; without a pause, he went to Neely and Jonathan, dropped to one knee to give Jonathan the glass of water he held. Both being sensitives, it was inevitable that hands touched in what was almost a caress, wordless sympathy; Jonathan's eyes flickered upwards to meet those of Andreas' sensitive, and anyone not looking for it would probably have missed the ever-so-brief smiles, one encouraging, one grateful.

There was, superficially, some resemblance between the two in appearance and age, though that disappeared after a closer look.

Jon reminds Lila of someone who was caught... nah, it couldn't possibly be, that's seriously pushing probability. It's just a couple of male sensitives who both grew up undernourished and perpetually scared. Given Andreas' age, his sensitive is probably not as young as he looks.

“Thank you, Andreas, Topaz,” the Donovan Matriarch said quietly.

Topaz? Van had heard much worse.

Jonathan took a couple of sips of the water, wrapped both hands around it and rested it on his legs, while Andreas' sensitive Topaz resumed his position. “As far as free sensitives reading that book, my Ladies, my Lords... information, even without contact with friendly mages, will make free sensitives less frightened and less easily panicked by being hunted. But that won't mean there'll be no sensitives to belong to mages. If free sensitives are less frightened, there will be some who will choose to belong to a mage. Without the fear, it's a choice to go with the unsafe jobs or panhandling or hooking or not eating. And it won't mean sensitives who don't belong to their mages, because that has nothing to do with force or laws. I... I hope Lady Neely will let me help at Cornucopia sometimes still, so I can help sensitives who are free right now to understand and to decide what will make them happiest. Because being happy doesn't have to be something different from belonging to a mage, like they think. And the ones who don't choose to belong to a mage will have a better chance of surviving instead of dying from work accidents or health problems they're too scared to get help with or being reckless because it just doesn't matter. More sensitive children will survive to grow up, so there will be more who can make that choice. Right now, an awful lot of sensitives die without ever belonging to a mage or having children who survive, and there aren't infinite numbers of sensitives. More sensitives staying alive seems like ultimately a good thing for everyone.” He faltered, stopped to take a deep breath. “You don't have to scare us or hurt us to make us do things,” he said, more quietly, but in the dead silence it still carried. “Just tell us when you're happy with us. Or not. That's all.”

Elena bolted to her feet. “This is ridiculous! Since when is the opinion of a sensitive considered relevant in any way?”

“Elena,” Victoria began, tersely.

“No! You might be senior, but you're supposed to be upholding the laws, not helping to undermine them!” Elena shoved the table hard enough to send it a good three feet across the age-smoothed stone, and strode out to the centre of the floor; Neely instantly dropped a hand to Jonathan's shoulder, urging him to his feet so she could keep him behind her, backing them both towards Van and Andreas and away from Elena. “Elders, do you really think a sensitive is going to tell the truth?”

“You'll have your chance to question what he says, in turn, hunter,” the Kalindi Patriarch said coldly.

“Question a sensitive. You seriously expect a hunter to question a sensitive. And that's supposed to prove what?” Elena spread her feet and crossed her arms, standing just behind the witness chair. “That his mage and the other Donovans and their out-of-control sensitives have coached him thoroughly on what to say to do the most damage? Who are you listening to who support this? An Eldridge who stole her sensitive out from under Brock and I and got away with that. A Donovan who stole her sensitive out from under Felipe and got away with that. A Donovan who rescued a renegade sensitive who attacked her own mage and got away with it. The whole Donovan family, whose sensitives are permitted to act far above themselves and interact with free sensitives!”

“Everything which has occurred,” Andreas pointed out to his cousin, “has occurred within the laws that you are supposed to understand and support.”

“Only if you believe all the lies!” The sheer venom in her voice was chilling, and the tension in her stance worried Van more than a little. She was about to explode, and there was nothing he could do about it, including predict how that explosion would manifest.

The most ironic thing, Van reflected, was that Elena was actually right in ways—they did lie to subvert the laws to their own ends.

“Perjury is not currently on the table, hunter,” the Santiago Matriarch snapped. “You caught and trained Van's sensitive yourself, by the currently approved methods, and she nonetheless broke that training. You confirmed yourself that she was under Van's control, using his own methods, within the time limit. Are you rescinding your own judgement? Or claiming you were coerced?”

“Olaf could have tamed that little bitch, and should have been given the chance to do so, but any proper behaviour she shows now is all an act.”

The explosion Van had seen coming wasn't verbal, or even magical, it was physical, the last thing anyone would expect from a mage. Elena's abrupt motion caught them all unprepared, but the direction of it even more so.

As soon as Van connected her move with Randi's location, he shoved his chair back and spun around.

Oblique was closer. Her arm pushed Randi back against Lila, as she interposed herself; Elena's reaching hand seized Oblique's wrist instead, jerking her forcibly to her feet with a mixture of physical strength and telekinesis. The hunter dragged her out into the middle of the room. “You're no better than the little bitch,” she snarled. “Won't admit a sensitive exists only for one purpose.”

Lila and Randi fell over each other in a desperate scramble to not trip Brennan or be stepped on as he went after his sensitive, and given his expression, Van would not have wanted to be the one threatening Oblique.

Oblique's face showed, not the fear that anyone would expect of a sensitive who couldn't get free from the grasp of a hostile mage, but something Van could only call hatred, and she raised her eyes to Elena's with no trace of submission.

The sudden spike of energy was unmistakable to every mage in the room.

Oblique's voice was icy-cold as she snapped, “Not yours, hunter.”

Sudden as the flicking of a switch, the power was simply gone. Not used and channelled, not dispersed, just no longer there.

Elena crumpled bonelessly where she stood, Brennan very nearly stumbling over her.

Oblique... of course it was, that aura was familiar, but the shape under now poorly-fitting jeans and white T-shirt was male. Oblique dropped to her knees, buried her face in Brennan's thigh, one dark-skinned arm around his leg, the other around her own head. Brennan immediately ran a soothing hand over much shorter curly black hair; his expression hardened again when he looked up and realized that every mage in the room was watching—and in an alarming number, Van saw the beginnings of fear under the confusion.

“You touch my sensitive over my dead body,” he growled. “Anything she does, I'm responsible for.”

“What just happened?” Victoria demanded. “Oblique, what did you do?”

“May I explain instead, my Lady?” Sage said, one shoulder against Aiden's leg and his hands folded tightly in his lap, forcing his worried gaze away from Oblique and towards Victoria and the Elders. Brock abandoned his chair to kneel beside his partner, examining her; the Donovans closest all edged back, urging sensitives well out of his reach, and other shifted backwards to make room.

“If you have an answer, then yes. It might be more clear than hers just now.”

“I think Lady Elena was beginning to draw power through Oblique.” There was really no need to point out how profoundly inappropriate that was, or that Elena's intentions could hardly have been benign. “And Oblique just stopped her from reaching it. I think you'll find Lady Elena in the same kind of shock that comes from breaking contact at the wrong moment.”

“Just stopped her,” Victoria echoed three innocent-sounding words in the deafening shocked silence, and then asked the question on the mind of every mage present and probably most of the sensitives as well. “ How?”

Sage closed his eyes. Van was certain he'd never seen Sage look frightened before—but with good reason. Fear created mobs. “It's... it's common knowledge among sensitives in Western Europe and Australia. Sensitives there learn about their abilities. Including how to consciously channel more power for their mages to use. And... and how to cut it off completely.”

Which, apparently, snapped her back to the original form her genes had given her, undoing all shapechanging, desired or otherwise. Van wondered how many had noticed that bit. He had no intention of pointing it out. A sufficiently enormous can of worms had already been opened, and there was just no way they could be stuffed back inside.

A small voice said, Oblique's known she could stop us cold if she chose to?

Both he and Bren had trusted her countless times to maintain contact herself, no longer thought anything of it. Why was it vaguely unsettling to know that she could do the same thing without physically breaking contact? Or was it unsettling not knowing what else she might have learned?

I trust Oblique. She and Sage made a reasonable decision not to say anything. The more people that know a secret, the less secret it really is. Why the hell is it unsettling at all?

It's because the rules just changed.

And people get very nervous when the rules are changed, especially suddenly and unexpectedly. And very nervous people, en masse, can be a very very bad thing...

“Sensitives can't do that,” someone said incredulously from somewhere across the room, in the face of current evidence.

“And you know this how?” Victoria asked Sage, ignoring the interruption and the subsequent rumblings.

Van was much less sanguine about that background noise, and judging by Catherine's expression, the crease that had appeared between her eyebrows and the way she was biting her lip, her eyes never still, she shared his misgivings.

“Oblique and I have been talking on the Internet with sensitives from other places. For a few years now. Our Lords knew that. We didn't tell anyone that sensitives there learn control. Not our Lords or any other mages, not sensitives tame or free. It seemed like a really bad idea for lots of reasons. Neither of us has ever had any reason to want to use it before, it was just an abstract bit of theory. I think Oblique was scared and angry because of what Lady Elena did, and because she knows it's possible, she just did it.”

Van doubted Oblique had been scared at all at that instant, that wasn't what he'd seen, but it was a motivation that would soften the whole thing a little.

But those rumblings were getting louder anyway.

“Brock, how bad?” Victoria asked.

“Pretty bad,” Brock said. “Like running headfirst into a wall at full speed. She was pulling a lot of power fast, obviously. It's going to be a while before she wakes up. And I don't know how long after that before she's able to use magic again.”

Victoria turned to look at the Elders. “Obviously this bears further investigation. However, regardless of how Elena was stopped, she was injured while doing something unforgivable for anyone, let alone a hunter—attempting to use a sensitive belonging to another mage, against that mage's wishes. Brennan and his sensitive are well within the law using any method available to prevent that.”

“Agreed,” the Kalindi Patriarch said swiftly. The Elders probably saw the same risk of riot that Van did.

“May I suggest that Elena be moved to one of the cells for the time being?” Elspeth said, her voice deceptively calm. “It would be a better place for recovery than the middle of a stone floor. And we'll know where she is when she wakes.”

Victoria nodded. “Brock? Can you and your sensitives handle that? With some telekinetic support, a blanket will work adequately as a stretcher.” She barely waited for his acknowledgement. “Everyone resume your seats, please. We were in the middle of a very important hearing before this unfortunate incident. That has yet to be concluded. Back to your seats now, please.”

Oh, she definitely saw the danger.

People grumbled, but hunter authority was deeply ingrained: they drifted back towards their previous locations.

Van figured he was justified in taking a few seconds to drop to one knee in front of Randi, cup a hand around her cheek, and ask her if she was okay. She assured him, a bit shakily, that she was.

“It was me she was reaching for,” she whispered.

“I know. Hang in here. It'll be okay. And it'll be over soon.” He hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt.

Brennan, who had coaxed Oblique back to her feet long enough for a hug and to cross a few feet of floor, sat back down beside Catherine; Oblique fell to her knees again, never breaking contact. Under Brennan's gentle stroking, her form fluxed back to her chosen normal, which seemed to help a little, but she was still trembling. Randi moved towards her, cuddling close with some disregard for propriety, but under the circumstances, Van doubted anyone would be surprised or take offence. Quite possibly, no one would even notice.

Neely and Jonathan were back in their spot, and Lila looked torn between Randi on one side, Jonathan on the other; the latter won, she edged nearer to lace a hand through his, and on his other side Sage, also badly shaken, shifted closer so he could catch Jonathan's other hand, the best he could do while still leaning against Aiden.

Reluctantly, Van left his family and went back to his seat.

Jonathan's water glass had found its way onto the table, presumably abandoned when Neely urged Jon back to their seat. Just as well she'd gotten him out of the way so quickly, he could easily have been an alternative target for Elena.

The Kalindi Patriarch looked at his peers questioningly. “Are we able to continue the hearing effectively?”

“We've just had a very large item dropped in our laps,” the Santiago Matriarch pointed out drily. “If, in fact, sensitives are able to learn to do things like increase available power and deny it to a mage in contact, then we clearly know less than we believed we did about sensitives.”

“I think any practical research should stay on hold for the time being, don't you?” the Ingemar Matriarch said, a bit uneasily. “I'm not certain we want to encourage tame sensitives. And the thought of free sensitives learning this is... disturbing.”

“I fail to see how we could sweep this under the rug,” the Donovan Matriarch said. “I'm not terribly happy with this situation myself, but unless you plan to kill every sensitive present and coerce the mages into an oath and then trust that none break it out of resentment if nothing else, the fact is that there are several hundred people in this room. Few sensitives are kept entirely isolated. There will be no possible way to track the source of any leak. The facts exist. If it's an innate sensitive ability, then it was bound to turn up sooner or later.” Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “In fact, it seems improbable that it has never been triggered previously by fear and anger, and those tend to be greatest within the first few days.”

“There are accounts,” Victoria said, “not many, but a few, of recently-captured sensitives injuring their mages magically. It has always been assumed that the aftereffects left the mage unclear as to the details of the last few moments before blacking out, or that they were unwilling to admit to allowing the sensitive to maintain contact too soon or otherwise being careless. Clearly those accounts need to be reassessed.”

“And we're continuing to discuss this subject in the hearing of hundreds of sensitives!” the Ingemar Matriarch said nervously.

“I don't think we're in for a sudden insurrection,” the Kalindi Patriarch said firmly. “I doubt any reasonably well-treated sensitive would be able to muster the level of fear and anger that appear to be required to do this instinctively. Elspeth is correct, we are going to have to acknowledge this and deal with it.”

“This is proof that allowing sensitives to learn is dangerous,” the Vladislav Patriarch protested. “If Brennan's sensitive had been trained and handled properly and knew her proper role, instead of being allowed unsupervised conversations with god-knows-who...”

“Then Elena would be conscious and in extremely deep trouble anyway,” Victoria said acidly. “I consider this sufficient reason to look into her contact with the novices as well, on grounds of similar behaviour that may have been influenced by her. I believe I'm going to extend that to all support staff. She's unstable and should have been dealt with years ago, but within the limits of the law I couldn't.”

“This goes beyond one hunter! Sensitives who can, on a whim, deny access to power are fundamentally destructive to mage society!”

“So,” Andreas said, “we're back to that? The only way to control a sensitive is with methods along the lines of Olaf's? You're advocating every single mage in this room isolating their sensitives absolutely from all outside sources of information? No TV, no radio, no books? No allowing them to do the grocery shopping alone or wait for the cable tech while you do something more interesting? No allowing them library or Internet access to teach themselves how to cook better, how to knit, how to keep your computer running, how to grow a garden for you? No allowing them to take massage classes to use on you? No thinking out loud to them while you're trying to work out a problem? Keep them absolutely silent and terrified at all times, never allow them a single moment of being playful or affectionate? Punish every tiny show of intelligence or individuality with irrational levels of ruthlessness? Is that seriously what you're telling every mage in this room, and in fact every mage in North America, to do?”

“The alternative is the breakdown of the current structure!”

“Then,” Andreas said softly, “the current structure is fatally flawed and doomed, and as frightening as it is to realize that, and I'm including myself in that, we're all just going to have to figure out what that means and what to do about it.”

“Do we proceed?” the Kalindi Patriarch repeated. “Is there any further ground to cover?”

“I would say there is not,” Victoria said calmly. “You are aware already of the consequences of a verdict in Van's favour. I have no evidence to add and I believe we've gone far beyond rhetoric. Anything further is a waste of time. The hunters will accept your judgement as fair and valid, whatever that judgement is.”

“Andreas? Van? Do you have anything further to add?”

Van looked to Andreas.

“I would suggest,” Andreas said in an undertone, “that we follow Victoria's lead.”

“Is an emotional reaction to what Oblique did going to bias the result?”

“It's hard to imagine anyone not having an emotional response, but they also know to watch for exactly that. I very much doubt anything we say at this point will have any useful impact. I doubt we could have come up with anything with more of an impact than Neely's sensitive made, honestly.”

Well, Andreas had been right so far.

“Nothing further to add,” Van said.

“We will return with a decision, then,” the Kalindi Patriarch said, as all five rose to return to their own room in the back.

Van tried, very hard, to keep himself physically relaxed. Since not only his own future but the fate of every sensitive in the domain rested on what the five Elders concluded, it didn't work very well.

“They're going to find in your favour,” Andreas said quietly.

“You sound very sure of that.”

“Oh, I think Vladislav is going to persist for a while yet, but realistically, the overwhelming majority of mages are never going to be comfortable with even a watered-down version of Olaf's techniques. Why do you think everyone lets hunters do initial training? So we can all pretend it isn't so bad and that our own hands are clean. The alternative is going to have mages terrified and bewildered, but most would prefer that to savagely and constantly disciplining their sensitives, if those are their only options.” He ran his hand through his sensitive's hair affectionately, glanced down. “And for the average mage, who is more thoughtless than actively abusive, I think there might be less ground to surrender than it appears at first glance. But they're going to need some idea of what to do, especially with this newest revelation about sensitives. I suggest you get started on a new book that includes practical recommendations for how to relate to one's sensitive if one is forced to acknowledge them as individuals. And that you do so quickly. And I'd appreciate a copy as soon as you do.”

Van glanced over his shoulder; Oblique was still too shaken to look up, but he caught Rich's eye, tilted his head in the direction of Andreas' sensitive. Rich gave him a smile, a quick wink, and a very small shrug.

“You don't need it,” Van said. “Your sensitive's already happy. As long as he feels safe telling you if that changes, you're fine.”

“Now you're psychic?” Andreas asked archly.

“Much better. I pay attention to sensitive information gathering. Give them an inch, and they'll know everything there is to know before their mages can pick up the phone. I just wish they had an answer for how this is going to turn out.”

“Kalindi and Santiago are both going to rule in your favour, for different reasons. So is your matriarch. Ingemar I'm uncertain about. She was wavering even before Elena's theatrics, and now she's frightened. Vladislav is going to rule against you. Van. Trust me. I rarely get involved directly, but advising on legal issues and attending significant hearings is what I do. I can't read everyone, but I keep track of who has taken what stance in the past and I can tell which way a verdict is swinging.”

“Honestly? I want to take your word for it, but I'm bloody terrified.”

“Stop worrying and start planning your next book. Teodor should have some interesting material for you. There's an Alexeiev by name of Lera, also in Enville, who would, I think, love to help in any way she can.” He glanced down again. “If the experiences of another sensitive might be of use, and of a mage who lost one sensitive to an accident and needed a second, I think we might be able to help with that. If Topaz decides he's comfortable talking.”

“For that, of course, my Lord,” his sensitive said softly.

If that was the case, then his sensitive might actually be as young as he looked.

And a situation like that, an unusual one since a mage could heal pretty much anything wrong with a sensitive and tame sensitives usually had lives of minimal risk of harm from anything but their own mages, could include some valuable clues about the bond between mage and sensitive, how it formed and the consequences of it being forcibly severed...

“Damn it, you do have me thinking about what to write,” he sighed.

They waited quietly for the Elders to return. Van heard ripples of quiet conversation behind him, but nothing clear enough to understand.

The temptation to leave his chair, or at least to turn around and invite Randi close so he could hold her, or make sure Oblique and Jonathan were both all right after their respective ordeals, was a powerful one, but so were the lifelong lessons in self-control in public. He tried Andreas' advice, doing his best to distract himself with planning a new book, though worst-case scenarios kept trying their best to intrude.

Andreas said his name, just loudly enough to draw his attention to the return of the Elders.

Elspeth, though to all appearances suitably sober, caught Van's eye long enough to give him the briefest of reassuring winks.

“Rory Donovan,” the Kalindi Patriarch said, as soon as they were seated.

Van, respectfully, rose, though he kept both hands on the table, not sure of his own steadiness. “Elders.”

“Four issues were raised, with all other charges dismissed as secondary. We cannot find any reason to question your qualifications as an observer of behaviour, and therefore you are within your rights to write about those observations, obviously with the assumption that you do so in a professionally unbiased and factual manner. We cannot, therefore, challenge the right of any interested mage to read your book, although you might consider a warning that it will very likely have a profound and possibly uncomfortable effect on the reader's perception of mages and sensitives and the relations between. The choice to do so is the responsibility of the reader. We cannot challenge the right of any mage to determine what information sources they permit their own sensitives access to. The choice to allow it, or for that matter the carelessness that allows it without permission, is the responsibility of the mage. There appears to be reasonable grounds that distributing your book to free sensitives is at least not detrimental to mage society and may in fact be beneficial in the long run. Unless evidence appears to the contrary, you are free to continue to do so. However. We have all been confronted not only by a new and unsettling perspective in your book, but a new and even more unsettling revelation about basic sensitive nature, which we assume you were also unaware of and have no doubt you will be among those investigating. We're acutely aware that we've just set a precedent that will have long-term and widespread ramifications, although we stand by that decision. While we can't label your work as seditious or immoral, we can ask for you to please keep in mind that an overnight dismantling of mage society as we know it is not going to be beneficial for anyone. Please try to limit the social earthquakes until we've all had a chance to come to terms with and pick up the pieces from this one. You are free to go.”

Part of the sudden wave of sound was cheering, part of it protest; Van didn't even try to work out the percentages, just stayed where he was, head bowed and letting the table take his weight.

“Congratulations,” Andreas said. “I believe Pride might squirm entirely out of her own skin if you don't give her a hug.”

Van turned around, though still leaning against the table, and held out a hand to Randi; she bolted to her feet and across the short distance to him instantly, hit him with enough impact that he was grateful for the table behind him. He wrapped both arms tightly around her, not caring she was hugging him back so fiercely she was making it harder to breathe. And, a few heartbeats later, Oblique was there as well, though oddly hesitant until Van freed one arm to include her. Propriety could go find a cliff to jump off, right now. Andreas, tactfully, left his things for his sensitive to gather up and moved away to talk to someone, Van didn't waste attention on who.

“Since when do you hang back from hugs?” he asked Oblique.

She shrugged, gave him a shaky smile. “Keeping secrets, my Lord. Wasn't sure you'd forgive me.”

“I love you and I trust you. And it's a big concept to introduce, even just to us, let alone everyone.”

Brennan's hug enclosed all three.

Van gave Randi and Oblique each a quick kiss. “Where's Chance? I think he saved my ass.”

Brennan and the two sensitives let go; Catherine and Neely were waiting, their respective sensitives a step behind to either side. Van knew Lila well enough to see that she was all but twitching, trying to contain her joy; Jonathan looked tired, but there was still a smile there—and still enough presence of mind to keep his eyes below Van's in public.

“Thank you,” Van told him quietly. “I'm really not sure the outcome would've been the same without you.”

“I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have much of a life without you,” Jonathan retorted. For just a heartbeat, his control slipped and his eyes met Van's, before he caught himself and lowered them again, adding belatedly, “My Lord.”

“Chance was a very important and unexpected part,” Catherine said. “So was Teodor Alexeiev. However, you very much need to thank Andreas. He and I took a look at Elena's full list of charges. As she had them listed and phrased, it would have been difficult for the Elders to clear you on any of them even if they unanimously wanted to. Andreas found logical and legal grounds to dismiss most of them and twisted the phrasing on the rest into a form that turned the burden of proof around and made it very difficult for the Elders to reach any other verdict.”

“He promised me, my Lady,” Andreas' sensitive Topaz said quietly, stacking his mage's notes and book neatly into Andreas' briefcase, his gaze never leaving his task. “Because my Lord believes this is very important, but also because Sable and I have a long history and it mattered to her so it mattered to me, he promised me he'd find a way to make sure the verdict was the right one.”

There were mages who would have been furious that a sensitive spoke up uninvited, or that a sensitive believed it made any difference what he felt; obviously he'd learned enough about the Donovans to know he wouldn't get his mage in trouble, though.

“He definitely kept that promise,” Catherine said. “Sometimes having personal reasons gives you extra inspiration. Without him, we would have lost.”

“Yes, my Lady. Thank you for writing that book, my Lord. Sometimes understanding, even with no other changes, can make a big difference.” He snapped shut the built-in combination locks on the case and caught hold of the handle. “Excuse me, my Ladies, my Lords.” He left, presumably in search of Andreas.

“Obviously he got hold of a copy of the book,” Van said. “Cryptic comment of the week. You know him, Sable?”

“We were best friends for a long time, my Lord,” Lila said. “Until the hunters caught him. I'm glad he belongs to someone who values him.” The faint tremor in the word belongs suggested she hadn't exactly embraced that particular detail. “I think we've both changed. But Lady Catherine and Lord Andreas promised we can stay in touch.”

Mages broke promises to sensitives every day, but Catherine wouldn't, and Van had a feeling Andreas would keep it as well. “Good. I don't suppose we can go home now.”

“Are you kidding?” Neely said. “You really think you're going to escape without five dozen people wanting to talk to you? But I want Chance out of here, now. And it might not be a bad idea to get Oblique and Sage out of here, too.”

“All of you go,” Catherine said. “Van, you're exhausted, quite understandably. I'll stay, I can answer questions and collect contact information.”

“And how are you going to get home?” Van objected.

“I've been staying in your old room since Andreas arrived. I'm sure I'll be able to get a ride there with someone. I'll call you tomorrow. Go on, off you go.”

Van considered resisting, but the thought of home, of being able to hug Randi and Oblique as much as he wanted with no rules to worry about, was just too strong. “I need to go get my stuff. It's pretty much packed up already. I figured if I was leaving, I wouldn't want to waste time, and if not, I wouldn't care about the time to unpack it again.”

“I'll go get it, my Lord, and meet you out front,” Randi said, and dashed off.

Andreas spotted them near the door; he only flashed them a smile and a nod, never really interrupting his discussion with someone Van didn't recognize. Topaz was a step behind and to one side, his eyes low, but keeping track of what his mage might want or need.

Outside wasn't really any quieter; good-byes and thanks had to be brief and formal. Thanking Jonathan properly would have to wait.

A lot of things would. They'd won this step, and it was hugely important, but there was still so much to do.

But the first thing was going to be an extended period of holding Randi, preferably with some intermittent hugging of Oblique involved.

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