An urban fantasy novel


Steph Shangraw

Yin-Yang Cover

Prysmcat Books



Steph Shangraw

Copyright 2013 by Stephanie Shangraw

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Cover by Robin Collet

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Street scene by Sam Howitz/aloha75

Running figure by bark/barkbud

Prysmcat Books

Kingston, Ontario, Canada




It's impossible to list everyone who, over a lifetime, has helped to encourage my writing in general and assisted with this book in particular.

However, I do need to mention:

My parents
Jackie LaRonde
My cats

Of course, my awesome beta-readers:

Benita Burger
DaraLynn Hill
Kathleen R.
Kristine Hannah
Ré Rosch
Wendy Zdrodowski

who made this a better book

And Robin Collet for the wonderful cover art!


Autumn in Enville

1 – Jax

Jax jolted out of exhausted sleep, confused and disoriented. Every inner sense, the ones he knew regular humans didn't have, the ones any sensitive would gladly give up, screamed at him that there was a mage nearby. That took priority instantly over anything else. Even as he forced his eyes to open and focus, he was gathering himself, preparing to bolt.

His clothes were gone, he was lying naked on rough cement, and he could feel weight around his neck. A heavy silvery chain snaked from the general direction of his neck towards an iron support post, where it was securely padlocked. It took him only a heartbeat to establish that it was also padlocked around his neck in a loop too short for him to get it over his head, and there was no more than two feet of slack between the locks.

Not a large space at all, no windows and only a single door. The pole he was chained to was off-centre, farther from the door; in the middle, there was a drain, the floor sloping gently to it, and directly above a single bare bulb cast harsh light over the grey walls. There was nothing else to see except a single hard wooden chair near the door. He was still certain he could feel a mage's proximity, but he couldn't see or hear anyone.

All he could remember was running... for days, constantly running, and spending the nights outside trying to rest his aching body, no food except a couple of snacks he'd shoplifted. Mind-numbing weariness, fear, hunger, the incessant pain of his abused body...

Then nothing.

The hunters had finally closed in, they must have, although he couldn't remember the moment they had. Maybe just as well.

The door opened, and a woman came in, closed it behind her.

He knew, with every cell of his being, that she was a mage; he recognized her as having been one of the pair who had chased him for... six days? He hadn't been counting, since he'd known from the first moment that the hunt would have only one ending—although he knew no more than any other sensitive what actually happened to the sensitives who vanished during the hunting seasons.

She was no taller than his five-foot-seven, but considerably more solid, and he thought it was all muscle. It was hard to stay healthy when you lived on cheap instant junk; Lila was always bitching at him that he was too skinny.

Don't think about Lila. You both knew you'd get separated before too much longer. At least she's still out there and free.

This woman had her hair cropped short, sort of like Lila's, but it was reddish-blonde with threads of grey, instead of dark. The khaki denim and camo looked almost like a uniform, although not one that would be recognized by any official organization.

She surveyed him contemptuously, and seated herself on the chair.

“I,” she said coolly, “am Lady Elena. You will refer to any mage as 'my Lady' or 'my Lord.' I don't care what your name was, your master will give you one of his choosing. My task is to make certain that you understand the new realities of your life. You are no longer a wild animal, you are now domesticated property, chosen to serve. Mundane laws will not help you, and would not even if anyone were likely to be looking for you. Mage law places your fate entirely in your master's hands. If you please him by obeying, he may decide to reward you. If you displease him, he can punish you as he wishes, up to and including killing you an inch at a time.”

Trembling, Jax wrapped his arms around himself, huddled into the tightest ball he could, trying not to strangle himself on the chain.

Actually being caught was worse than all the stories sensitives whispered, cuddling together in the night for comfort.

“Why?” He heard his voice break on the word, tried not to start weeping in despair and fear. Hunger and thirst he'd encountered before, fatigue and cold weren't so new, but this...

Lady Elena shrugged carelessly. “That's the way things are. Sensitives exist to serve mages. Otherwise, why would you be so useful to us? You have no ability to do magic on your own, but what makes a sensitive a sensitive is how you respond to magic. There are two sides to that and both make it clear that you exist for our use. Your bodies draw energy from the environment and condense it into a form we can then make use of, and there is nothing you can do to stop us from doing so. When that energy is turned back on you, your forms can be changed to anything that we can dream up, with the sole exception of altering overall mass, and again, you have no natural defences against it. I eat steak without crying for the cow it came from, and believe me, most meat animals are living in conditions that should make you feel lucky. Don't expect me to cry for you, when you can have a long, healthy life and be well-treated if you behave yourself.” She smiled. He hadn't thought he could feel more frightened. He'd been wrong. “Behaviour shouldn't be a problem, however. You and I, right now, are going to make sure you know your place, before I turn you over to my cousin, your new owner.”

There didn't seem to be anything he could say in response to that. He bowed his head over his raised knees, closed his eyes, giving up on trying to stop the leaking tears. Life was over, as surely as if he were dead. It was only that it would take a very long time for it to actually end.

* * *

The door opened behind Lady Elena.

He dared not change position even enough to look up and see who it was, but he sensed another mage. Kneeling on the hard floor, shaking with exhaustion and hunger and disorientation, he tried to make himself smaller without actually moving and drawing Lady Elena's attention.

“Honestly, Elena!” That was a male voice, and it sounded displeased. “Do you have to be so brutal?”

“It's necessary. It makes them pay attention more closely. It's not as though we've had him here for a month, it's been less than thirty-six hours.”

The chain around his throat unfastened, with no hands touching it, and dropped away. “I suppose you know your craft,” the male voice said, with more than a trace of disapproval that wasn't hidden well. “But you know I don't like cruelty.”

“Then take him away and pamper him. I've done my job. He knows the new realities of his life.”

He heard the chair move very slightly on the rough floor, and Lady Elena's presence faded, leaving only the unfamiliar Lord. And the Lord's hands, which were reassuring and not rough.

“Stand up,” the Lord said, gently. “We'll go to my room, and I'll bring you a drink, and then you can sleep. If I try to help you, I'm afraid we'll both end up on the floor. Can you make it, up just one flight of stairs and a little way?”

“Yes, my Lord.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. Already kneeling, it was a struggle to get to his feet, but not impossible. The Lord backed up a couple of steps to give him room, an awkward, limping motion supported by a cane, but reached out to steady him when sudden altitude made him dizzy.

A mage who limped heavily on one leg and needed a cane, a drained and confused sensitive... luckily, the room in question wasn't far, though the stairs were torture.

“Lie down,” the Lord said, indicating the wonderfully large bed that dominated the room. “You can sleep here, but try to stay awake long enough to have a drink. I'll be right back.”

Stay awake, the Lord said to stay awake... Didn't matter how inviting and soft and warm the bed was, he had to stay awake. He curled up on his side, right near the edge, and the tag on the dog choker chain around his neck jingled, making him wince again—Lady Elena had told him, when she joined the two rings with a third heavy one too strong for him to bend, that the tag bore his owner's name, and marked him as property, not person. He waited, fighting each second not to surrender to sleep. Fear remained stronger even than fatigue.

The Lord returned, and sat beside him, braced him against his own body and gave him a cup of cool sweet water.

“Slowly. Don't drink it fast, I don't want you sick. Small sips.”

That was hard, too, but the sips of water tasted so glorious, as they slid down his parched throat, moistened his dry mouth.

The water was gone much too quickly.

“Lie down now,” the Lord said, and covered him with a blanket that felt good against his skin, warm and cozy. “Go to sleep, and sleep as long as you need to, and you can have some soup when you wake up. I can wait a little longer.”

* * *

Slowly, he woke, confused and disoriented. He remembered Lady Elena, her partner Lord Brock, had a blurrier memory of a male mage who had treated him gently... Though he ached all over, he was lying near the edge of a huge soft bed, warm under a thick blanket; it was dark outside the window, but there was light from somewhere behind him, low and vaguely blue. He'd never been in a place so luxurious before, everything simply screamed that it was expensive and high-quality.

He stirred, sat up, and discovered that he wasn't alone on the bed. The light came from a small lamp on a stand on the far side of the bed, and a male mage some years older than him was reading by it. Still dressed rather than ready to sleep, leaning comfortably against the headboard, with one leg outstretched and the other knee partly raised. Or rather, he had been reading; he looked up immediately, and smiled.

“How are you feeling?”

Be respectful, or he'll give you back to the hunters or something. The thought made him quail, so he kept his eyes carefully down and his tone docile. “Sore, my Lord. And hungry.”

“Both easy to fix. Give me your hand.”

Touch a mage? He shivered, but it had been made extremely clear to him that disobedience was not a viable option. He noticed, distantly, that his hand was trembling as he held it out.

The mage closed his own over it, gripping it firmly but not enough so to hurt.

He shivered again at the odd sensation, it wasn't against his skin but it was a touch nonetheless, an awareness of contact being made on some level for which he lacked a name. It didn't hurt, wasn't precisely uncomfortable, but he didn't like it. It was somehow intimate, and uninvited, and felt far more intrusive than physical contact ever could have.

Get used to it.

Then all the aches, the pain from blisters and bruises, from muscles stiff or pulled or simply overworked, faded away.

“There.” The mage released his hand. “One problem solved. Better?”

“Very much, my Lord. Thank you.” Though he wanted to gag on the last two words. Mages had gotten him into that condition, so that he could be given to this one, it wasn't fair he should have to be grateful for having it undone.

“You're welcome. Now. I'm Andreas Nicodemos. Knowing Elena, she and Brock told you nothing that they couldn't use to frighten you, so I'm not sure how much they explained. I was born with a congenital defect in my left hip and upper leg, which allows me to walk but only with a certain amount of difficulty. Because of that, I need a sensitive to be another pair of feet for me, as well as for magical reasons, which I'll explain in more detail later once you've recovered.” He smiled. “Think you can handle that?”

All this gentleness, asking his opinion as if it mattered, was only a mask; he dared not disagree. “Yes, my Lord.”

“Good. Let's go see if we can find you a bowl of soup in this place. Tomorrow,” he glanced at his watch, before setting aside the book and beginning to manoeuvre himself carefully off the bed. “Or rather, later today, we'll be going home to my house. This one belongs to one of the mages who works with the hunters.”

He flinched. A house full of hunters and their friends?

Lord Andreas picked up an ornately-carved wooden cane that had been leaning against the wall, and glanced at him. “You're mine,” he said firmly. “No other mage would dare touch you or harass you. You're now quite safe from the hunters and their allies.”

But I'm not safe from you. Maybe I should be glad that I only have to worry about what one mage is going to do to me, though, instead of all of them.

Meekly, he followed Lord Andreas to the door and out into the hall. No clothes, but Lady Elena had informed him that he wore what his master chose to give him, if anything. It made him feel even more vulnerable, but that was laughable. What difference could it make whether he were dressed, in a house full of mages?

“At least their guest room is on the ground floor,” Lord Andreas said wryly. “I have some trouble with stairs. Upstairs is purely for hunters and their allies, and I would be happier down here even if I could dance up and down stairs with no effort.”

Lord Andreas didn't like the hunters? That was interesting. And he thought he recalled Lord Andreas protesting to Lady Elena about being too rough. Maybe this mage wasn't like the hunters?

Since his life now belonged to this particular mage, it was worth hoping that it just might be true, that Lord Andreas wouldn't do anything dreadful to him as long as he stayed obedient.

Lord Andreas led him, steps uneven but stronger than he had anticipated, to a kitchen. The mage, personally, took a look through the cupboards until he found a can of condensed soup, then a large bowl, and a moment later put it in the microwave to heat.

“There. When that's done, take it out, and come sit down and eat.” Lord Andreas set a spoon on the table and lowered himself carefully onto one of the kitchen chairs. “I've been trying to think of a name for you, and I believe Topaz would work well. It's my favourite gemstone, and I expect to come to value you at least as much.”

I have a name!

No I don't. Lady Elena took it away. At least it isn't as bad as I'm sure it could be.

“Thank you, my Lord,” he said, quietly. Face it, Jax is dead. I'm just something to be remade into whatever my owner wants.

Even knowing that, he still felt remote, distanced from everything, including himself—whatever might pass for his self now. Shock, maybe. Eventually, this would all sink in and the sense of everything being surreal would fade, but he was in no hurry for that to happen.

“I'll have to have a collar made for you. That may take a little time, for an appropriate one, but that one will do for the moment.”

Newly-named Topaz raised a hand to the dog choker around his neck, then let it fall. “Yes, my Lord.”

The microwave beeped; Topaz retrieved the bowl of soup and brought it to the table, but hesitated.

“Sit,” Lord Andreas said. “Eat. For the most part, when we're home, you'll be eating meals with me. I have seen a sensitive eat before.” The flash of humour faded into a kind of muted sadness. “Every day, for twenty-one years, in fact. He died three months ago. Veritas—it means 'truth,' in Latin. I was a bit more pretentious when I was twenty-three.”

“What happened, my Lord?” Topaz asked tentatively. Oh please don't let him say, “He made me angry and I killed him,” or anything like that.

“My house is very old, the ceilings are very high. He climbed up on a chair to change a light bulb, and fell. There was no one else in the room, so I don't know exactly how. But he hit his head on a table made of solid walnut, rather old and extremely heavily built. And died before I ever knew, even though I was only half the house away, and could have healed it if he'd lived even a couple of minutes.” Lord Andreas sounded like he regretted the accident, though Topaz couldn't tell whether it was grief over Veritas' death, or annoyance at the inconvenience it must have caused him. Maybe both.

“That's very sad, my Lord.”

“I've had a vivid reminder, these past three months, what it feels like to live without a sensitive.” The smile came back. “And I'm grateful it's over, and that I now have you to come live with me.”

My life's been torn apart, I've lost my best friend, my name, and my freedom, so that you could have a sensitive. Sorry, but I'm not grateful. He concentrated on his soup, so he wouldn't slip and say something that would get him in trouble.

Soup finished, bowl and spoon washed and left in the rack to dry, they returned to the guest room. Lord Andreas sent him into the tiny bathroom to shower and generally make himself presentable, even had a toothbrush for him.

Still naked, but at least clean and shaved, he obediently curled up in the big bed again, as near to the edge as he dared. Lord Andreas didn't make an issue of it.

“A few hours of sleep will do us both good, then we'll go home.”

It would be a lie to pretend he wasn't still tired, so it was easy enough to close his eyes and drift off.


2 – Topaz

Early that afternoon, Topaz carried Lord Andreas' things out to the car, and climbed into the passenger seat next to him. He wasn't sure where the clothes, track pants and T-shirt and sweatshirt and underwear, had come from, but the clothes he'd had on before were probably unsalvageable; the running shoes were his own old ones, and they certainly looked to be on their last gasp. But it was better than nothing.

They drove for more than half an hour, while Lord Andreas alternately asked Topaz questions about his skills—could he read? cook?—and told him about his own calling, analysis and interpretation of mage laws, which meant that other mages came to him when they were unsure what a law meant or how it applied.

Home turned out to be a huge house in the country.

“We have the ground floor,” Lord Andreas said. “My sister Phyllida and her sensitive Zephyr live upstairs. Zephyr does all the cooking, he's become rather good at it. Breakfast and supper you'll go upstairs to get for us. For lunch we're on our own.”

Topaz, of course, carried everything inside, to Lord Andreas' bedroom as directed.

“We can unpack later. First I want to check for phone messages. You can explore, if you like, so you'll have some idea where everything is.”

“Yes, my Lord.” It sounded like an offer, but it wasn't. He wondered which of these rooms was the one where Veritas had died, though it didn't bother him. Sensitives died, that was simply reality. Lila's mother and his own had both died while he and Lila were present; compared to that, the scene of a death three months ago was nothing.

The ground floor made a large apartment, though not too large for two. Master bedroom with its own bathroom. What appeared to be a guest room. Main bath. Living room, with a door he unbolted and peeked through, to find a flight of stairs up and a second door at the top, closed. Kitchen, with a door which turned out to lead to the basement, though he was too uneasy to go down. All centred loosely around a hallway that ran to the front door. Everything looked expensive, much of it old. He finally found Lord Andreas again in a wood-panelled room at the back of the house, mid-sized and comfortable-looking, two walls lined with books, a large desk against a third.

“Done exploring?” Lord Andreas asked indulgently.

“I think I know where all the rooms are now, at least, my Lord.”

“Good.” He waved to the loveseat across the room, standing a couple of feet out from one of the walls of books. “Have a seat. Once I'm finished returning these calls, we'll go put everything away and then see about lunch.”

Silently, Topaz settled himself on the loveseat, to wait however long it took.

Having nothing to do except sit and think was bad, but it could have been much worse, so he closed his eyes and tried hard not to see Lila in his mind.

* * *

Still drained from the hunt, and with the constant nerve-wracking presence of a mage in arm's length he dared not flinch from, Topaz was already worn out by the time they'd made a simple lunch of canned soup and tuna sandwiches. Washing the dishes took only a few minutes; while he did, Lord Andreas picked up the cordless phone from the wall and tapped a single button.

After a brief pause, he said, “Hi, I'm home. Yes, I thought Zephyr would hear the car, even if you didn't. Want to come down and see my new companion?”

Check out your new pet, you mean, Topaz thought wearily. Oh, now what?

“Leave those to dry,” Lord Andreas said. “Come to the living room.”

Obediently, Topaz followed him back down the hall.

The door he'd noticed, that had the stairs behind it, opened to let, well, someone through—Topaz had a confused impression of complex geometrical designs in a chaotic tangle, overlaying a human shape. Whoever that was, they held the door aside for a woman, one dressed in neat grey slacks and a pale rose short-sleeved blouse, her body language screaming confidence and self-care so strongly that would have told him what she was even without instinct recognizing her as a mage.

“Phyllida, Topaz,” Lord Andreas said. “Topaz, my sister Phyllida. And her sensitive Zephyr.”

At a loss for what to say, Topaz kept his eyes down and settled for, “My Lady.”

“Welcome to the house,” Lady Phyllida said, and somewhere under her brisk precisely-articulated words Topaz heard something like kindness—though one could be kind to a dog, without seeing it as anything but property. “Zephyr, come here.”

The one holding the door stepped forward immediately. Topaz dared raise his eyes just a little, decided that it was just a man, probably older than him, whose entire skin was covered with a repeating pattern of multi-sided interlocking shapes in shades of grey and green. If those were tattoos—and they must be, right?—it must have taken years to complete. Eyes respectfully low, he still looked attentive and alert.

Lady Phyllida laid a hand on his upper chest, and Topaz saw a small shiver run through him. “For the next few days, so you can help Topaz adjust, you have your voice.” She ran a hand over his hair affectionately.

“Thank you, my Lady,” he said softly.

“Off you go. I'll be here.”

Zephyr inclined his head, and gestured towards the hall; Topaz hesitated until Lord Andreas said, “It's all right, go with Zephyr. There are things I imagine he can explain better than I can, and there are things I need to do.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

Back in the kitchen, Zephyr stopped him with a hand on his shoulder; as soon as he turned, grey-and-green-patterned arms wrapped around him in a tight hug.

“First days are worst,” Zephyr said quietly. “It gets better. Less confusing. Less scary.”

Automatic response, already so on edge, was to pull away, but sensitives by nature and culture relied heavily on connections and contact, and there was nothing threatening in the touch of another sensitive. If anything, it was an immense comfort to lean against Zephyr and feel, at least for the moment, like someone might actually still see him as a person.

“How can belonging to someone get better?” he whispered, not really expecting an answer.

“It does. Not hungry or homeless. Not watching behind always. No dangerous or nasty jobs. My Lady, your Lord, not cruel like some. Veritas loved Lord Andreas very much.”

The tremble in the low voice on Veritas' name made Topaz look up. “He was your friend.”

“Yes. Very close. He helped me at first.” A tear glittered in one eye, slid down a patterned cheek.

“What...” Topaz stopped, unsure whether he was getting into something personal.

“Ask. Anything.”

“What did she mean about having your voice back?”

“My Lady hates distractions. She likes everything quiet. It's a small shapechange. I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me now.”

But the last word suggested that at some point, it had. Topaz shivered and closed his eyes. Lady Elena had gone into the ability of mages to alter a sensitive's form at sometimes gruesome length: anything they chose, restricted only by the sensitive's mass. Fundamental biological laws might mean a form wasn't able to sustain life, in which case the sensitive died, but from her descriptions, that was sometimes not a quick occurrence.

“Look at me,” Zephyr said, freeing one hand to tilt his chin up gently. “Listen to me. The first time will terrify you. So will the second. It gets less scary. Remember. Most mages will do nothing to hurt or harm their sensitives. Most mages want to keep us alive and intact. Mages are people, some good, some bad, most between. Even the hunters are different. Lady Victoria and Lord Faisal are less cruel than Lady Elena and Lord Brock.” Topaz flinched at the latter pair of names. “Most mages are thoughtless but not heartless. They do not question but also do not like to see us miserable. They need us for magic. They have limited power alone. They need us many other ways. Lord Andreas needs even more than most. He does not move around easily. He needs you for that. You would be no use broken or dead. You will have no choice but he will keep you safe. In that and everything else. It is not right, but it is how things are. There is nowhere to go and no way to fight. We are luckier than many, I promise. I know it doesn't feel like it now. It will.” He smiled, gave Topaz a fleeting kiss. “They do not need us every minute, and I'm always upstairs.”

“You must've been awfully lonely lately.” His mind shied away from most of that, but tucked it aside to think about later. The parallel of a dog kept coming back to him: you might want it to be safe and healthy and enjoy seeing it happy, but that wouldn't stop you from making decisions for it. The difference being, the dog didn't understand and couldn't survive any other way.

“Yes. I would still rather no sensitive ever went through what you have and will in the next few days. I think every sensitive, even if they love their own mage, feels that way. But there is nothing we can do except help each other when we can.” Zephyr released him. “If we keep them happy with meals and clean clothes and a clean home, we get more leeway and more free time. Veritas did most laundry like I do most cooking. Let's do a proper tour. Starting downstairs in the laundry room.”

Topaz nodded and went with him to the door downwards.

“They cannot,” Zephyr added, even more quietly, on the stairs, “make any change to your mind. What you think and what you feel are your own always. What you cannot escape, you can still decide how to see.”

With a lot to think about, as though he really needed more, and not at all sure whether to feel reassured or more frightened, Topaz tried to concentrate on Zephyr showing him where things were and how the semi-divided household typically functioned.


3 – Elena

Elena Nicodemos circulated through the yard, always alert, always aware of the positions not only of those in her immediate proximity but of her hunting partner Brock Eldridge as well. The simple elegant black dress was a form of camouflage different from that she preferred, but it was appropriate for the situation. People spoke more freely when they weren't reminded of the fact that they were in the presence of a hunter.

Today's social was the offering of the local Nicodemos Matriarch, ostensibly a celebration of Midsummer, but Elena had learned in her childhood that the Matriarch did nothing for only one reason, and never for the reason that showed on the surface.

As was appropriate, since one of the local hunter teams was in Enville, they'd been invited, and would have been even if neither were from the Nicodemos family. That was tradition, that the hunters surrendered normal family rights and obligations, but were always invited to any event.

The other traditions might be dying, Elena thought sourly, the authority of the hunters might be stolen from them an inch at a time, crippling their effectiveness more and more. But they were the elite, and they had power still, and could demand at least the appearance of respect.

With the authority hunters had wielded even fifty years ago, she could have made certain that the respect was real, born of fear if nothing else.

Most of the eighty or so adult mages in Enville were present, roaming around the Nicodemos grounds or settled somewhere to talk. Perhaps one in five kept their sensitives near them, pets that trailed along docilely. The rest had been left in their own area, with water and simple snacks to keep them quiet. Against the simple humanity of the mages, the sensitives who stayed with their owners were a brilliant contrast—all variations on standard themes, with scales, feathers, fur, wings, tails, some more skilfully altered than others.

She spotted Andreas with the new sensitive she'd caught for him a month ago. Tawny fur and tiger-stripes, not uncommon, but she grudgingly conceded that Andreas had obviously put quite a lot of effort into that intricate stripe-pattern. A collar of heavy silver, a yellow gem winking at the front, circled his throat. Still male, too, as far as she could see. Andreas had always kept his previous sensitive near him, to fetch and carry for him and save him the need to stress his bad leg; it looked as though he intended to continue the practice.

For a moment she watched, critically. The preferred way was to capture them exhausted and hungry and terrified. Sensitives were pathetically weak; show gentleness and kindness to one in that condition, and he was yours for life, devoted through any amount of treatment no mage would tolerate, all for the reward of an occasional word of praise or affection. They never fought back, simply bent and adapted to whatever happened to them. Worse than dogs; at least most dogs would eventually bite if handled too harshly.

She knew the look the sensitive turned on his owner, gaze kept carefully below Andreas'. As far as that sensitive was concerned Andreas was God.

She paused at the small outdoor bar, staffed by one of the Matriarch's two sensitives, for another glass of wine. The taste was pleasant, and it was a simple trick to neutralize the alcohol to keep her mind clear. The sensitive looked rather like a naiad might, skin tinted with blues and greens, all slender curves and long hair, otherwise not such a great change at first glance—unless you knew that, like three-quarters of sensitives the hunters chose, this one had been male.

The other, presiding over the nearby table of finger-foods to make certain nothing ran short, looked more like a dryad, brown-skinned and green-haired and more solid than the naiad; it was a common combination for pairs, executed at some times with more creativity and art than at others. Elena took her wine and paused at the table to pick up a devilled egg, then sighed to herself and found a group to mingle with.

* * *

Elena waited for Brock to bring the dark red mini-van to a halt, and hopped out. Obedient to the implied command of having the side door opened, the two sensitives in the back emerged, eyes on the ground, and stood still and silent to wait for directions from their mages. A pair of males, captured together, trained together, their anguish at each other's suffering helping to speed the process of breaking them without lessening the force of it at all. Currently, both looked human at a glance, but that was only convenience for travel; beneath the clean but well-worn clothes was another matter. Neither would survive long if they ever managed to break their conditioning and run, and Elena and Brock had made very certain they knew it—but then, they'd spent enough time on that conditioning that it was unlikely they were even able to think about escape anymore.

They'd arrived early at the mage-hall, before the great wooden doors were opened to observers. Every city had a hall like this, neutral ground for Master's exams and trials, generally the legal property of the Matriarch or Patriarch of the family which had come to the city first. Layers of glamour, applied repeatedly over the decades, masked it from mundane notice.

The hunters circled around to the smaller back door, the sensitives following like shadows that were pale rather than dark, and Brock unlocked it—as hunters, they were entitled to keys to every mage-hall within their domain. Approached from this angle, the hall was practical, functional: the corridor they stepped into was floored with institutional cement tile, lit by fluorescents in a row along the ceiling, painted a pale coffee-colour broken only by a framed aerial photograph of the city, a map in a matching frame, and the crest of each of the city's families: Nicodemos, Fontana, Alexeiev, Yasuo.

None of which mattered; it was all more or less standard, following the traditions. The partners ignored it.

The door of the room reserved for the Elders, the Matriarch or Patriarch of each family, was closed; Elena scowled at it in annoyance. “I suppose we might as well go sit while we wait for them.”

“Might as well,” Brock agreed.

The corridor's far end opened, via a heavy door of carved wood, on to the main hall: a huge space with an arched ceiling. In keeping with tradition—though it was one Elena wouldn't have minded losing—the inner walls were faced with limestone, matching the outside of the building and creating a distinctly medieval feel. Banners adorned the side walls, showing the family crests again. The oak floor had darkened with age, and not all the marks on it were from chairs sliding across it.

Directly in front of this smaller door was an oval table, with chairs behind it along the longer side for the Elders, facing the rest of the room. The hunters made themselves comfortable on a random pair of chairs, and waited. The two sensitives dropped instantly to kneel at their feet, regardless of the stone under them.

“Idiocy,” Brock grumbled. “They don't need us here. She said it in front of half a dozen witnesses, and it isn't even the first time. We weren't even present.”

“It's as much our job to be the voice of law and tradition as it is to hunt sensitives,” Elena pointed out.

“Yes? Then why do they keep tying our hands more and more tightly? Even if we know perfectly well that someone is breaking law and tradition, we now have to have concrete proof before we can even charge them with it. You know as well as I do that the Donovans have broken just about every one of the laws involving sedition, immorality, and the proper behaviour of sensitives, but they're too sneaky to do it in front of anyone willing to testify. The Alexeievs and Kalindis are picking up way too much from them, god knows what they're going to start doing, and we can't do anything to prevent it. The Ingemars are practising forbidden magic, but we can't bloody catch them out on it, so they get to keep right on doing it. Half the damned Vladislavs are inventing ways that mages, specifically Vladislavs, can rule the entire world, but we can't prove that, either. There's not much left of our job except hunting sensitives.”

Their teachers had been trained while hunters still had power, and had watched it fade; they had retired some years ago, but only after having taught their successors not only their skills, but about the proud history they shared, which was being stolen from them an inch at a time.

“We need to hold onto whatever power they leave us,” Elena said grimly. “Once they take our right to speak for the law in a trial, whether we personally witnessed it or laid charges or were uninvolved, we'll lose a huge amount of ground. And I will not be reduced to nothing more than a source for sensitives, not without a fight for every step.”

“We'd best stay involved in the concept of reservations for sensitives. As little as I like the idea of being a farmer and breeding them rather than hunting them, I prefer it to losing our standing altogether if others begin to supply sensitives. Ones that have been raised from birth to be obedient, no less.”

“Hush,” Elena said. “Not here.”

“I wish they'd get on with it. We have better things we could be doing than sitting here waiting.”

“They will.”

A few minutes later, four sensitives, those of the Elders, emerged; they carefully avoided even looking towards the hunters or their mute and motionless sensitives as two headed for the great double doors at the far end to throw them open and the other two arranged chairs into the proper configuration. One to the left, for the accused... only one? She'd chosen to stand alone, then. That or no one was willing to support her. Two to the right, for the hunters. A row behind the hunters, six chairs for the six witnesses.

Brock stood up and stretched. “Looks like about time for us to go collect the party girl.”

“There,” Elena said, as she rose, and gestured to their places in front of the hunters' chairs. “Kneel and wait.” She and Brock didn't waste time making sure their sensitives obeyed; they would.

Just through the rear door and to one side was a flight of stairs down.

There were two cells in the basement, though it was uncommon for even one to be needed. As a prison went, they were comfortable, each a small room with a bed and a table and chair, an alcove to the side with toilet and sink and shower stall.

Lera Alexeiev opened her eyes when the door swung aside. She was seated on the hard chair, facing towards the door, her hands laced together in her lap and her expression serene. “It's time?”

“Let's go,” Brock said bluntly.

Lera rose calmly, and walked out of the cell; she hadn't changed her clothes, though she would have been offered the chance, and still wore faded loose pants with a large flower print, sandals, and a tank-top, her shoulder-length brown-blonde hair neatly brushed and loose, no trace of make-up on her tan skin. She'd made Master less than three years ago, on her twenty-fifth birthday, Elena recalled. Nothing about her appearance would ever make her stand out among the interbred mage families, no more than Elena or Brock, their genes mingled and muddied into a single pool and only names lingering to recall the varied origins. Only her actions marked her as... different.

They didn't have to make her come; if anything, they had to keep up with her.

Stupid girl, Elena thought scornfully. Believe things that would undermine mage society, then be foolish enough to say them in public, then do it again after getting off easy the first time, and now she goes swaggering into the room like she's the queen?

The chairs for spectators were filling, somewhat, though Elena doubted it would be a full turnout. In the first row to the left were two other Alexeievs, sensitives kneeling at their feet, and between those two was a third, Lera's, who wasn't shapechanged at all. Asking for trouble. Flaunting the fact that she doesn't have him under control, as though this is a good thing. Lera seated herself, without urging, on the lone chair to the left, but not before her eyes met those of her sensitive in brazen disregard for the law of respect stating that no sensitive must ever meet the eyes of a mage. Her sensitive's gaze dropped, properly, only when Lera turned around.

The hunters took their seats to the right, Brock glancing over the witnesses to make sure they were all present.

Once everything was settled, the four Elders emerged, through the rear door, and arranged themselves behind the oval table.

“Lera Alexeiev,” the Fontana Patriarch said gravely. “You have been charged with sedition and immorality, specifically, encouraging beliefs and behaviours which are detrimental to the peace and stability of mage society. Have you anything to say?”

Lera stood up, her back straight and her head high. “By the outdated and narrow definitions of mage society, I'm guilty of exactly that,” she said, her voice carrying clearly. “Those beliefs and behaviours challenge the stagnation of mage society, which is falling far behind the social and moral development of the mundane society we live within. Prejudice on grounds of sex, colour, religion, orientation, or disability is no longer acceptable to them, and they're fighting to root it out. We consider ourselves better than them, yet we tolerate outright slavery, which has never been allowed in this country and was even abolished south of us over a century ago. I admire what they're trying to achieve, and I believe in it, and I agree with them. And it would go counter to that for me to treat Evan as though he were an animal, simply to keep from scandalizing those who still find slavery to be acceptable. There is genetic evidence,” she paused as a rising murmur behind her threatened to drown her out, and repeated more forcefully, “genetic evidence, not speculation, that mages and sensitives diverged from the same root several millenia ago, even though most mages refuse to acknowledge it or even evaluate it fairly. There is overwhelming evidence from Europe and Australia that somehow, in North America over the past two to three centuries, we have gotten things horribly wrong. There's no need for witnesses, I do not deny that I expressly stated that sensitives are people and should be treated accordingly, and that the conditions they are forced to live in while still free are appalling, and that considering sensitives to be no more than property is a short-sighted, unconsidered, unethical, and immoral belief. Nor do I regret it or retract it. I only challenge the validity of the laws that make it a crime.” She sat down.

“She's as soft-headed as the damned Donovans,” Elena murmured under her breath, and Brock nodded. That was the problem with living in mundane society: some mages picked up ideas from it and thought they could be applied to mages, as well. That so-called evidence had come from a group of scientifically-inclined mages, mostly Alexeievs with their fondness for animals and plants and the natural sciences; the conclusions had been presented in far more cautious terms, acknowledging the possibility of error and the need for further research and warning against drawing current conclusions from it. Even then, she'd have preferred they'd found other subjects to research, more useful and less easily twisted to the personal agendas of people like Lera.

The soft whisper running through the room faded to silence, when the Nicodemos Matriarch raised a hand.

“You are aware that, as this is a second offence, the punishment will be correspondingly more severe?”

Lera nodded. “I am.” Elena saw muscles tighten in her neck and shoulders and upper back, though her voice stayed steady and she kept her gaze on the Matriarch speaking to her.

“And you still admit to this?”


“May as well,” Brock muttered. “No point in denying it.”

The Elders exchanged glances, each one nodding in turn.

“Lera Alexeiev,” said the Yasuo Matriarch. “You are hereby stripped of your status as Master, including the right to possession of a sensitive in your own name and to having your own household, though you may choose which member of your family you will live with. You are not eligible to stand for Master's status again for two years from today. You are hereby sentenced to sixty days in prison, beginning immediately, your sensitive to stay for the duration in the care of whichever member of your family you will be residing with upon your release. And for the second time, give that sensitive a proper name and teach him to behave properly in public, or we will ask the hunters to do so. You will not be given a third warning on this. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Matriarch,” Lera said steadily.

“Hunters? If you please?”

The pair rose, almost simultaneously, to escort Lera back downstairs. Lera stood up, calmly, but her expression as she looked behind her to her sensitive was full of pain, just for a heartbeat. Elena didn't bother looking at the sensitive; he was probably doing something that would only irritate her further.

Lera went quietly, stepped back into her cell without fuss.

“Go ahead,” Elena added, just before she swung the door closed. “Keep it up, until they give your sensitive to us to train. I remember catching him, he stayed on his feet and moving for a full seven days.” She grinned. “He was fun to give basic lessons to, he fought so hard. Next time, I'll make damned sure he's broken completely, so he never even thinks of stepping out of line again. I expect to enjoy it quite a lot.”

Lera turned a glare of pure icy hatred on her. “You will not get your hands on Evan, Nazi, no matter what I have to do.”

“Threats from someone who ends up in prison and gives up her Master status over a sensitive? I'm terrified.” Elena gave Lera her very best smile. “Not as terrified as your sensitive will be once I have him, I promise. Not that, legally speaking, he's even yours any more.” She closed the door, and waited for a moment, listening; she nodded to her partner in satisfaction when she heard the sound of heartbroken sobbing, muffled somewhat by the sturdy wood despite the small metal grating. “Idiot girl. Maybe this'll teach her a lesson about creating her own weaknesses that can be used to hurt her.”

“She's better off crying a bit now than ending up in worse trouble later, when she's up on sedition and immorality a third time,” Brock conceded. “But I think you just wanted her to cry because of that little speech she gave upstairs, and because she called you a Nazi.”

The partners turned towards the stairs and the outside world. Making sure Lera ate was someone else's job.

“I can't say I'm impressed,” Elena admitted. “I mean, Nazi? Give me a break. It isn't as though we're rounding up millions of people and murdering them. That's just obscene. I hardly think capturing half a dozen sensitives a year and maintaining tradition and stability qualify us as Nazis.”

They emerged back into the main room, found that the Elders had left but spectators lingered, many of them in little groups around the witnesses to hear the whole story. Their own sensitives had moved not an inch, accustomed to being left where they were until they were needed.

Andreas sat alone, leaning back in his chair with his legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed; Topaz knelt at his feet on a flat cushion Andreas must have provided for him, currently human except that his skin was a rich blue, darker at his extremities and lighter on his nearly-naked body, reminding Elena of a Siamese cat. Elena left Brock to talk to someone else, and made her way over to him.

“You look thoughtful,” she observed, straddling the chair in front of him backwards.

“I am thoughtful,” Andreas agreed. “I'm thinking about laws, and reasons for them.”

“To protect a group from others outside the group, and from each other within it. Isn't that how it goes?”

“Yes. But what about censorship laws? When it comes right down to it, that's what Lera broke. Sedition and immorality is a euphemism.”

“Censorship laws also protect.”

“Who, against what? What's so dangerous about some ideas that they have to be silenced, instantly and severely? If the ideas in question are so unthinkable, then why doesn't everyone else simply ignore them? We have to put up with people saying any number of things every day that we don't consider to be correct or worth listening to. Why are some ideas so frightening to people that simply to voice them is to be punished?”

“Because some ideas are just pointless and it doesn't matter if they spread, but others are detrimental to society as a whole and need to be stopped before they spread. Like a disease.”

“If an idea is so appalling, then why would it spread, rather than exhausting itself in its own time with no harm done?”

“Do you want the mundane courts to make white supremacist propaganda legal? Wouldn't that nonsense simply exhaust itself after a while?”

“The analogy doesn't hold, Elena. The supremacists are advocating a return to long-standing highly destructive beliefs that still exist, despite all attempts to uproot them, and they encourage violence. What Lera was saying is the opposite, closer to the first few voices who spoke out in favour of women's suffrage, for example, against a society convinced that women were automatically inferior.” He stood up, and Topaz rose swiftly so Andreas could steady himself on his sensitive's shoulder until he had his cane in position. “Not all those first voices were women, either. It's something to keep in mind. Thank you, by the way, I couldn't be happier with Topaz.”

“Glad to hear it,” Elena said. Only half her mind was on the pleasantries of saying farewell, since the hunters were leaving the city the next day; she was busy thinking about what Andreas had just said. She'd thought Andreas understood the necessity of laws to protect peoples' minds as well as their bodies and property!

She rejoined Brock, and felt somewhat better after a Yasuo made clear his utter disgust of Lera's mad beliefs, but before long, they collected their sensitives, and left.


Spring in Trebury

4 – Van

“Van?” Beth tapped on the half-open door of his small office, pushed it open. “I know you're getting ready to leave, but we've got one out here who came in while you were with your last one, and she looks like she's right on the edge. I've never seen her before.”

Rory Donovan sighed, weighing options. The counselling centre's director discouraged pushing too hard, worried about them overdoing it in a job that had a high stress and burn-out rate. On the other hand, abandoning someone in crisis—and Beth would not have brought it up unless she judged it a true crisis—went against everything the centre stood for. Maybe it would be a simple issue, and he could direct her to the local women's shelter or something.

His family would be expecting him for supper, and he'd been looking forward to a relaxing evening. But he'd never be able to enjoy it knowing he'd walked away. They'd understand.

He deposited his backpack beside the desk again and nodded. “I'll see what I can do. Do me a favour? Call home and tell them I'll be late?”

Beth echoed the nod, sympathetically, and vanished from the doorway. Ever since Zach had founded the centre, she'd been here, doing all the thousand and one clerical jobs that kept them open, along with reception duty which sometimes included clients who were hysterical or aggressive. She knew what it cost, sometimes.

Van sank back into one of the two comfortable chairs he'd bought—the two of them, plus the desk that faced the opposite side wall, and a single bookcase, filled the room nicely without cluttering it. Atmosphere mattered.

“Right in here,” Beth's voice said, and she escorted Van's newest client through the door, then closed it behind her on her way out.

Just as well she had, or the little sensitive would have bolted. As it was, she froze, trembling violently. He knew that look of exhaustion and hunger and despair: she had hunters after her. She looked to him like a terrified mouse, slender almost to the point of being gaunt, all big eyes and tousled dark hair, and she couldn't possibly have been more than an inch away from five feet. She lacked the dishevelled, dirty, disreputable look sensitives tended to have after a couple of days of running, but though her jeans and sweatshirt were reasonably clean, they'd certainly been well-worn.

“Everybody's right,” she whispered, and sank down where she was, huddling into a ball. “You are everywhere.”

“No, I'm right here all the time,” Van said. Carefully, he leaned to one side so he could open the bottom drawer of his desk and fish out one of the protein bars he kept there. “Catch, you look like you need this.” He waited until she uncoiled a bit, mostly in surprise he thought, before he tossed it to her. She snatched it out of the air and tore it open, but she had enough control left to take it in small bites. Nibbling like a mouse, tiny bits but rapidly. “My name is Van. I work here, I have for years. I'm not a hunter, I have nothing to do with them. I won't leave this chair, I won't touch you. What's your name?”

What am I going to do with her?

Big dark eyes widened, and she stopped eating long enough to stare at him in amazement. He waited, and after a moment she said, “Miranda.”

“The hunters are after you, Miranda?”


“How many days?”

“A lot.” She licked the last crumbs from her fingers, and regarded him warily. Trying to decide what to do? No, there was something more there. He'd had a few others stumble in here, over the last eight years, and he'd learned to recognize the look of a sensitive confronting a mage for the first time. Whatever was going on in this one's head, it wasn't the usual mix of blind panic, imagination, and despair. Fear, yes, but that gaze that seemed to be measuring him and what she could get away with was unprecedented.

At least, in free sensitives.

He took a closer look, checking her aura. She'd definitely had a mage drawing power through her, violently and recently to judge by the raw channels. That didn't fit. Hunters didn't catch sensitives, rape them magically, and release them.

“How many is a lot? It must be at least four or five, the weather's changing and they wouldn't start a hunt they couldn't be sure of finishing before it breaks.”

“Something like that.”

“I see. I take it you'd like to be safe from them.”

“Nowhere is safe. I came in here for help and found another mage. Somebody I know got arrested and never came back. Someone else I know knew someone who went to a hospital and never came back. Thanks for the food. Are you keeping me here until the hunters come?”

She was rather astonishingly articulate for someone who had supposedly been run for four or five days.

“No. If they want you, they'll have to do it themselves. They think they're superior to the rest of us, I'm sure they'd see it as an insult that I could ever think they'd need me.”

“Then what are you going to do?”

“What would you like me to do?”

Any normal sensitive's response would have been an instant, “Let me go.” Miranda, however, stopped to think about it.

“What I'd like you to do or what I think there's any chance of you doing?”

“Either. Or both.” Under other circumstances, he would've enjoyed the challenge of fencing with her, but not while wondering if she were a threat to him and Brennan and Oblique.

“What I'd like is to leave here with the name of a place where I can sleep for one night without getting caught by hunters. I have to get out of town as fast as I can, and money would help, but I think that's really unlikely to come from you. I think the odds are a lot higher that the best I can really hope for is that you'll let me walk out of here and forget you saw me. And I'm not even so sure about the odds of that.”

Okay... is she working with Elena's crew, and trying to catch me out on charges of interfering with hunter business and maybe some kind of admission that half the Donovans have been doing stuff that's borderline illegal? Or is she for real? Hunters and the Donovans shared only a mutual antipathy, and it wouldn't be the first time a hunter had tried to trap a Donovan into giving them grounds for charges. Elena, in particular, had a personal grudge she indulged without hesitation.

Throwing Miranda out to fend for herself wasn't an option, she was in real trouble, whether she was telling the truth or not. He couldn't take her to York House, the mage-founded shelter on York Street, since that could get them all in charged with interference if she was bait for a trap.

He didn't much like the only option he could see, but sensitives were amazingly resilient; she'd get over it. He hoped.

The tricky bit would be to get himself into contact range without spooking her or saying something she could repeat to a hunter.

“Hm. Maybe we can manage something better than my just pretending you never came in here. How about if I call and order a pizza, or Chinese, or chicken, and you can have something to eat?”

She considered that. The hunger was real, he was certain of it, and was voicing its opinion vehemently in contradiction of the ingrained sensitive phobia of mages.

“Yeah, okay.”

“I need to stand up, I'll have to go get the phone book from Beth. Mine keeps disappearing.” Slowly, he rose, keeping an eye on her; she didn't panic, but she did go tense. “Which would you prefer?”


“What toppings?” If he could just keep her distracted, keep her focused on something ordinary for long enough... He stood up, turned towards the door while she thought.

“I like all the meat ones. Or extra cheese.”

Illusion definitely wasn't among his strengths, but to blur the direction of motion was a small thing. Before Miranda had a chance to panic, or even to notice that he wasn't going to the door after all, he laid a hand on her shoulder and shoved her into a trance. With no resistance, it wouldn't hurt her any further; she'd simply lose some time.

He left her sitting there, vacant-eyed, while he gathered up his backpack again. Then he dropped to one knee in front of the sensitive.

“Miranda,” he said gently. “I want you to come with me. Stand up.”

Mechanically, she obeyed; he moved back to make room.

“Stay with me,” he repeated. This kind of state took away any will, but it also interfered with other mental functions. He hadn't had to shove her deep enough to mess with motor control, luckily, since Beth was likely to ask questions about his being followed by a shambling zombie, and the deeper the trance, the less long he was going to be able to maintain it. “Be polite to Beth, say thank you and good bye to her.”

Beth was at her desk, doing something on the computer. Probably something important, but odds were good she'd stayed in case Miranda felt nervous being alone with a man. She greeted them with a smile.

“Got it figured out?”

“I'm going to give her a ride to the women's shelter,” Van improvised. He hated lying to Beth, but the truth was not an option. “It's not that far out of my way home, it's cheaper than billing the centre for a taxi, and we can make sure she gets there safely.” The last phrase was a sort of private code, that someone with malice in mind could be looking for Miranda.

Beth nodded. “Good plan. You go ahead, I want to finish this and then I'll lock up.”

“Okay. Thanks. See you in the morning.”

“Thank you,” Miranda said obediently. “Good bye.”

“Good bye, and good luck,” Beth said.

Van led Miranda out to the little parking lot in the back, and directed her into the passenger side of the compact car. It was just too weird, having the tranced sensitive physically present but mentally not there; he turned on the radio to break the silence and distract himself.

At least home was only about twenty minutes' drive away. But that was a long way, while wondering whether he'd done the right thing, and how upset Oblique would be.

He pulled up in front of the mid-sized house Brennan had bought, an improvement over the large apartment the three of them had shared when Van first got back from school.

“Miranda, get out of the car, lock the door and close it, and wait for me.”

That done, and his own door locked, he led her to the front door and opened it.

They stepped into a small hallway, with the stairs to the second floor along the right-hand wall, the living room to the left, and a hall down which a glimpse of kitchen could be seen between them. Nothing fancy about furnishings or decor, but comfortable and simple.

Oblique was lounging on the couch more like a cat than the spectacular dragon she currently resembled—delicate jewel-toned scales glittered on all skin, there was semi-transparent webbing between her fingers and linking her arms to her sides like wings, and a serpentine tail lay in a lazy curve across one thigh. The complete lack of clothes showed every inch of it. Odds were about three in four that she'd been male when the hunters caught her, but it had all happened while Van was away at school; she refused to discuss it, said only that she was happy, and he was inclined to leave it at that.

She rolled from her belly to her side, and her smile of greeting froze.

“Oh, Van, what have you done?”

Van held up both hands palm-out in defence. “Whoa, truce, let me explain before you crucify me. It's complicated.”

Brennan appeared from the direction of the dining room linking this room directly to the kitchen, with a glass of something dark. “This doesn't sound good. Van, what... oh.” He spotted Miranda, and both eyebrows rose questioningly.

“Let me get her up to the guest room so she can sleep off the rest of it and wake up in her own time, okay? Then I'll come explain.”

“So thoughtful of a mere sensitive, my Lord,” Oblique muttered. Van winced. When she said things like that, it generally meant she was prepared to be furious.

Brennan perched on the arm of the couch and laid a hand on her shoulder, pacifyingly. “Let him explain. Then, if he's done something stupid, you can tell him off for it. But let's find out what it is, first.”

“That's fair,” Oblique decided.

Van left his backpack there, and took Miranda upstairs. The fourth room had the household computer in it, but also an extra bed. He had her lie down there.

“Now, go to sleep,” he told her. “Wake up whenever you're ready to.”

Her eyes closed and her body went limp. He closed the door quietly, and went back downstairs.

Oblique had rearranged herself sitting up, her feet tucked beside her—a position she'd worked out years ago as more comfortable when she had a tail. Brennan was in the chair at a ninety-degree angle to her. He and Van resembled each other more than passingly, same reddish-brown hair, same tall healthy build, similar facial features. Brennan was the youngest brother of Van's mother, and barely six years older than his favourite nephew; Van had spent his life looking up to Brennan more as an older brother than an uncle, and Brennan had taken to his shadow immediately. Brennan's T-shirt showed more visible muscle, though, and he was tanned darker—results of spending his time outside gardening and raising hens rather than in an office. Unlike Van's shoulder-length hair, drawn back in a tail for work, Brennan's was cut short.

“Well?” Oblique prompted impatiently.

Van slumped into the other corner of the couch, and described the last hour for them. No, not even an hour, and most of it had been the drive.

“What do you think the odds are?” he asked Oblique, at the end.

She frowned thoughtfully. “The odds that a sensitive, having been caught and raped in a demonstration of power, would be willing to help trap one mage in hopes of buying her freedom from the rest? I would say it's very possible, in some circumstances. But I think there may be other reasons that account for your observations, too.”

“Such as?”

“Let's wait and see what she says, shall we?”

Which meant he'd get no answer out of her on that point.

“Well. I suppose, rather than terrify the poor girl, one of you had better make me look a bit less exotic. Not entirely human, but closer.” She offered Van her hand—he read it as acceptance, forgiveness, and an offer of reaffirming trust. Fingers laced through hers, he reached for the power that bubbled like a spring within her, and gathered it up. He built the image in his mind, the delicate scales lingering only on her hips and shoulders and down her back before blending into smooth skin the black of the sky between the stars, the webbing and tail gone, but her nails and her lips and eyelids glittered with the colours of the scales. A mental push, superimposing that image over Oblique's extremely malleable morphic field and pouring power into it... that was all it took.

He let go of her hand, let her examine herself.

Satisfied, she nodded. “Much less likely to frighten the poor child out of her wits. I rather like all the scales, though, don't forget that one.”

“Wouldn't dream of it,” Brennan said, amused.

“I'm going to go find some clothes.” She slid off the couch, and headed upstairs.

A moment later, she called, “Van, I'd say she's awake,” over the railing.

Van got hastily to his feet and darted back upstairs. Oblique, now in a simple sarong tied at her hip and a cropped tank top, moved out of his way.

Yes, there were definitely sounds of movement from the guest room. Tentatively, he knocked on the door, said, “Miranda?” and opened it.

Reflexive telekinesis shunted the ornamental vase aside before it connected with his skull; it shattered into millions of porcelain shards against the door-frame. Van flattened himself against the wall, heart pounding, and escaped most of the shrapnel. Seconds later, it was followed by a shriek of utter rage from within the room and a small clock-radio, cord trailing.

“You couldn't just fucking invite me? You just had to lie to me and kidnap me? I couldn't have gotten away anyway, you couldn't even just tell me?”

At the far end of the hall, Oblique began to laugh—not a small chuckle, but full-out, one hand on the railing to support herself.

“What?” Van demanded.

“Big bad mage,” she said breathlessly, using her free hand to brush her hair back from her face, “just got scared half to death by a sensitive half his size.” It carried, there was no way Miranda could have not heard it.

Van scowled at her, but Oblique's mirth showed no sign of abating, and after a moment he had to grin. And then laugh. As usual, she was absolutely right.

“All right, Miranda, I deserved the scare and every word you said, and I apologize. This isn't something I normally do. Will you let me explain? Oblique's a sensitive, too, and she's known me a long time, she can vouch for me.”

Silence, then Miranda growled, “Like I have a choice?”

“Well, I suppose we could come up with something else if necessary, but this seems like the simplest option.”

Another pause, then, “Are you going to lie to me again?”

“On my gifts, my family, my personal honour, or anything else you like, I will not lie to you this time.”

“All right, I'll listen.”

Van had his telekinesis ready before he moved away from the wall and into the doorway, but Miranda was sitting on the window-seat, and her hands were empty. There were a few throwable objects in her reach, however, so Van made a mental note to stay alert. Miranda watched him, anger still visible in every line of her body, while he sat on the computer chair.

Oblique's entrance distracted her, and her eyes widened, raking over the tall gorgeous sensitive. Van noticed that they flicked to Oblique's bare throat more than once. Hm, that was interesting.

She greeted Miranda with a warm smile. “Hi. I'm Oblique.”

“What's your real name?”

Curiouser and curiouser. I didn't think free sensitives knew about collars or renaming.

“Oblique. Brennan, Van's uncle, chose it for me back before I taught him better, but I've grown rather fond of it. And since I much prefer who I am now, safe and happy and loved, to who I used to be, scared and homeless and alone, as far as I'm concerned, it's my real name.” She sprawled casually on the bed, facing Miranda, bare feet in the air. “Van says your name is Miranda?”

Miranda nodded silently.

“Was the other name they gave you pretty bad?”

Miranda jerked, nearly fell off the window-seat—a neat trick, with wall on both sides, but Van was too busy staring at Oblique to pay much attention. In perfect unison, both he and Miranda demanded, “What?”

“The hunters caught you and sold you to someone, and whoever it was hurt you badly, didn't he. She?”

Gaze fixed on Oblique, expression stunned, Miranda whispered, “He.”

“He hurt you badly, and showed you no kindness at all, or at least none that you could believe in. And you did what we've all dreamed of at one time or another, you beat the odds and you got away. How?”

“He...” Miranda licked her lips. “He let me out of the room he had me locked in and told me to make supper. And I hit him. With the frying pan. A big black one. There was blood all over...” Tears gathered in her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around her knees. “He hurt me...”

“Poor baby,” Oblique said softly. She rolled neatly off the bed, picked up the box of tissues from near the computer, and looked at Van. “Leave.”

So much for apologizing and explaining. Why could he never get used to Oblique pulling surprises out of nowhere? Probably too much conditioning too young. Besides, it was part of what made her who she was. But he knew better than to argue with that tone; he retreated downstairs, carefully avoiding the remains of the shattered vase, to Brennan who commiserated with him over the inexplicable behaviour of sensitives.

Oblique came down, briefly, rattled around in the kitchen, and vanished back up the stairs. When she returned, she paused in the archway linking hall to living room.

“So, are you two going to come have some supper?”

“How's Miranda?” Van asked, but he got up and went to the kitchen with her and Brennan.

“Exhausted, half-starved, and more than half burned out,” Oblique said succinctly. “You two are not to go near that room, understand? I explained to her why Van did what he did, and she understands. Fear and the need to hide are familiar to a sensitive. But she desperately needs peace and safety and sleep and food. She's been through utter hell for something like a month without a pause.” The roast was already out of the oven, the rest waiting to be served; Brennan fetched plates while Van collected silverware, and all three got settled in the living room with food.

“We'll stay clear of Miranda until you think she can handle it,” Brennan promised. “I have a lot of work to do outside, so I'll be out of the house all day tomorrow. I can use the half-bath off the kitchen if I need to. Van will be at work. So she won't need to feel trapped in a cell.”

Oblique simply nodded. “What else are you planting this year?”

Both her mages knew a change of subject when they heard one. The conversation shifted to Brennan's garden and the hens, and Miranda was let be in fact and in discussion for the rest of the night.

But not in Van's thoughts.


5 – Van

Somehow, Van made it through the next day without his thoughts turning to Miranda during sessions, scheduled or otherwise. Between sessions, well, that was another matter, but not as bad as being distracted while trying to help someone would have been.

He got home, and ventured cautiously in the front door. “Oblique?”

“Kitchen,” she called back.

That sounded safe. He followed the hall down to the back of the house. Not altogether surprising to find her there at around this time; she did most of the cooking, and it was getting towards supper time.

She glanced at him and smiled, then went back to making... hm, brownies, by the scent and the pan she had out. “How was work?”

“About like usual. Only one unscheduled crisis drop-in, and I got it. Otherwise, just standard stuff. How's Miranda?”

“Doing well enough. She's taking a bath right now, and we found her enough of my clothes to wear for the time being. She'll be joining us for supper.” She poured the dark thick batter into the pan.

“You don't mind having another sensitive around?”

“No, even if she is nearly young enough to be my daughter. All sensitives are one family, to us.”

“Is there any chance she is?”

“My daughter?” She regarded him for a moment, weighing options. Van expected her to tell him it was none of his business, but she sighed, and the smile came back, affectionately. “I suspect I was about ten or twelve when she was born, and she hasn't said anything about the Vladislav mage who bought her altering her skin colour, so I would say it's extremely improbable. Leave it at that.”

Van nodded, leaned against the counter. “Actually, I'm surprised he didn't do any shapechanging.”

“Did I say he didn't? I imagine she'll eventually ask you or Bren to undo it. If a mage did to me what he did to her, I'd take the first chance to hit him with something heavy, too. But don't bring it up, let her decide. She's still worn out emotionally and physically, so treat her accordingly, and let her set her own limits.”

“I'd do that anyway.”

“Do it even more carefully. But I think she'll be fine in no time, she's intelligent and strong and independent. After all her life knowing that her choices consisted of constant motherhood or constant paranoia, the most traumatic and terrifying possibility has already happened, and she's discovered that while it can be very bad, she's still alive, and there's much more to it than she thought. Just try to give her some space, while you can. Now, go tell Bren that supper will be ready soon, and he's to clean up before he comes inside.”

Van gave her a playful salute, and went out via the laundry room door in search of Brennan.

He found his uncle on his knees, weeding the garden, and passed on Oblique's message.

Brennan nodded, and sat up, arching to work the kinks out of his back. “As if I'd dare track dirt in the house,” he said, amused. “Look, the tomato plants are starting out well, we should have a good crop of them. That'll please Oblique.” He got to his feet, stretched.

“Always a good thing.” By every custom and every conditioned belief, two Master mages should not be able to share a sensitive peacefully. Brennan would be entirely within his rights to demand that Van never come within arm's length of her. But Oblique had chosen to help Van pass his Master's exam, which the laws allowed for since Van had already been living with Brennan and learning from him, and Brennan had decided to allow her to make that choice for herself; it had simply grown deeper and richer from then on. Without the lifelong bond between Van and Brennan, it probably wouldn't have worked even within the uncommonly tolerant Donovans, but as it was, they had a stable and reasonably serene family.

“Is she still acting like a hen with one chick?”

“That's a good description. Maybe she's identifying with her?” He laughed, following Brennan back to the house. “Maybe we should worry she's identifying with a sensitive who brained one mage and threw things at another one?”

Brennan chuckled. “Nah, if Oblique wanted to whack either of us with a frying pan, she would've done it by now.” He pulled open the door, and paused by the sink to scrub his hands and lower arms.

“Good point.”

“I wonder if I'll be allowed to go upstairs to change my clothes.”

“Yes,” Oblique answered from the kitchen. “Miranda is here with me, and if you're as dirty as you usually are, you are most certainly going to change your clothes before you sit down to dinner with the rest of us.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Brennan teased her, drying his hands before stepping into the kitchen, Van a stride behind him. “Immediately, my Lady.”

Oblique simply pointed in the direction of the stairs, her other hand on her hip. Van wondered whose idea it was for Miranda to be perched on that particular kitchen chair, where the elder sensitive could keep herself in the middle. One of the sarongs Oblique was fond of had been wrapped and tied into a dress in a way that Van could never have duplicated even with magic, over a short-sleeved top. She looked much better, but was watching the two mages warily.

“Van, could you set the table, please, while Brennan changes?”

Van nodded, collected plates and silverware and glasses, and made a second trip for juice and butter and the like while Oblique began to arrange things on platters and in big bowls.

“That smells really good,” he heard Miranda say, shyly.

Oblique chuckled. “Thank you. I've had a long time to learn. Brennan's idea of cooking is basic at best, and Van is too impatient. Someone has to keep us all fed. Besides, I rather enjoy it.”

“How'd you learn?”

“Books and practice, in large quantities of both, and some lessons and advice from a couple of family sensitives, and a few classes here and there. I'm going to start taking this in the dining room, I'll be right back.”

“I'll help.”

Van made sure he was on the far side of the table arranging place settings when the two sensitives came in, and kept himself as far from Miranda as he reasonably could, while the pair made a couple of trips to fill the table with food.

“And Bren gets away with not helping,” he joked. “It's not fair.”

“Bren grew the chicken and most of the vegetables,” Oblique pointed out. “Of course, you paid for the rest, and I did all the rest of the work, so you may be right.”

Van eyed the rectangular old table, big enough for six comfortably, and the four chairs around it—the other two, seldom used, flanked the china cabinet, but he didn't know where the leaf to add to the centre had gone—and wondered where Miranda was likely to feel safest sitting. One way or another, she was going to be in arm's length of at least one mage. As little as he wanted her to feel isolated or singled out, he wanted even less for her to feel threatened.

“Both of you may as well sit down,” Oblique said. “I'll be back as soon as I take the brownies out.” She vanished back into the kitchen.

Van gave Miranda a questioning look. “Any preference?”

She considered the table, with that measuring look he'd seen yesterday, and chose a seat on one of the longer sides. Habitually, Oblique sat at the end nearest the kitchen, and Van and Brennan sat on either side of her; adding a fourth body shifted the dynamics completely. Van decided on the chair opposite her.

“Feeling better?”

Miranda nodded silently.

“Fresh home-grown food, Oblique's cooking... I think that could help brighten anybody's day.”

“It's a lot better than I'm used to,” she conceded.

“It's a lot better than what I got used to while I was away going to school,” he said ruefully. “My mother got around one of the laws by arranging for me to have my own apartment in the house of a Master mage in the city where the college was. I really didn't like living alone, and having to eat my own cooking was only one of the reasons. It's a wonder I graduated, living on canned soup and canned spaghetti and sandwiches. I'm spoiled, now.”

“Mages have laws?”

“Mages have a lot of laws. This particular household is a tad peculiar, but technically it counts, so the most anyone can do is give us funny looks.”

“For what? Not having another sensitive here?”

“Oh, according to most mages,” Oblique said lightly, joining them, “Bren should be insanely jealous and never let Van near me. But they're Donovans, so the other families expect a certain amount of strangeness from them. The Donovan family figured out the big secret.” She sat at the end of the table, and poured herself a glass of juice.

“What secret?” Miranda looked intrigued.

Oblique took a sip of juice, and smiled. “Horses and dogs have always performed much better when they are happy, healthy, well cared for, and not abused. It occurred to some brilliant Donovan that the same might hold true for sensitives, too. Officially, that's why sensitives who belong to Donovan mages tend to be better taken care of than most.”


“Unofficially, quite a lot of them have discovered, while being responsible and considerate Lords and Ladies, that astonishingly enough, sensitives have minds and feelings and personalities, and that it can be worth it to allow one's sensitive a certain amount of freedom to express that.” The smile became a grin. “Amazing how observant they can be, hm?”

Miranda snuck a wary look at Van—maybe expecting him to be angry at Oblique's disrespectful comments about mages?

“Donovans,” Van said dryly, “are widely regarded as softhearted. And a tad soft in the head, too, depending on who you ask. And possibly weak, because as far as I know, there has never been a Donovan who joined the hunters, and they're supposed to be superior to the rest of us.”

“But there are a hell of a lot of us,” Brennan said, taking the fourth seat. “So as long as we don't overtly break any laws, they leave us alone and whisper about us behind our backs. Mm, that chicken looks delicious, Oblique. You certainly do them justice.”

Attention turned more towards food than mage society. Van and Brennan were both very careful to avoid touching Miranda when passing her a dish or accepting one; she seemed uneasy, but not actually frightened, which was a relief.

A vehicle pulled in the driveway.

“What on earth...” Brennan got up, and went through the living room, reaching the front door just as someone thumped the knocker imperiously. Van placed himself in the doorway from living room to dining room, protectively.

Brennan opened the door, and inclined his head to the pair of mages who stood there—a muscular woman of middle height with short-cropped hair, a man of about her height with broad shoulders and small eyes and dark hair greying in streaks at his temples. Both were in semi-military camo and denim, but Van didn't need the hint to recognize them. Elena Nicodemos, Brock Eldridge. The junior of the two local hunter teams. Van felt his heart speed up, felt his stomach turn queasy, even though he'd been expecting this.

“Can I help you?” Brennan asked calmly.

“You could invite us in,” Brock said pointedly.

“I could, but I would prefer that you come to the point quickly so I can get back to my supper.” One law to which the hunters had never been given immunity was the one that forbade entry uninvited into a mage household. What happened in a household was up to the Master—or senior Master if there were more than one, although that was only common among the Donovans—and that space could not be violated.

“We tracked a renegade here,” Elena said. “She assaulted the Vladislav mage who was her lawful master, and fled.”

Brennan glanced over his shoulder. “Van?”

Van came closer, leaned against the edge of the living room archway. He'd spent quite a lot of today figuring out how to handle this when it came; as much as the hunters scared him, he could use the laws against them. “He failed to control her.”

Elena frowned. “Yes.”

“I claim her.”

“No Donovan is going to be able to master that one. She attacked him with a cast iron frying pan and gave him a serious concussion. That goes quite a long way beyond simple rebellion.”

“I claim her,” Van repeated steadily. “He failed to control her, I caught her, therefore I have the right to try.”

“Always trying to save them, aren't you?” She shrugged. “He had her for fifteen days. Given the age of the trail, I'm guessing you caught her yesterday. You have fourteen days left to tame her and prove it, otherwise she's officially a renegade and we'll take care of her personally.”

The thought of what it would mean to Miranda, to be “taken care of personally” by the hunters, gave Van chills. For Miranda to end up like the poor broken pair who belonged to these hunters... He nodded, though.

Elena's gaze flicked to one side, and Van picked up on the sense of Oblique's presence, not touching, but in arm's length—he glanced back, found her expression docile and her eyes properly low but her body spoke instead of alertness and wariness. “Just what the world needs,” Elena said in disgust. “Another sensitive who doesn't know her place, to go with a couple of mages with no idea how to put her in it. I'm going to come myself to make sure you have the renegade under control, and you can damned well expect to prove it.” She smiled, but it was cold. “After all, we can't have sensitives around who think it's acceptable to assault their masters. And she'd better have a collar by then.” Her gaze rested pointedly on Oblique's bare throat.

“Oblique wears her collar when she's not on my land,” Brennan said, and there was steel under the softness. “If I choose not to have her wear it at home, that is my concern. Van's new sensitive will have one at the appropriate time, and will wear it when Van chooses. Now, unless there's a law we've broken or further business to discuss, you will please stop disrupting my household, take your opinions, and leave.”

Elena shot Van a venomous look. “Two weeks, and if I have any reason to doubt your control over her, I'll declare her renegade and take her.”

Van shrugged. “Fine.”

The two hunters strode away, back to a sleek dark-red mini-van parked next to Brennan's truck. Brennan stayed where he was, and Van moved up beside him, trying very hard not to let his thoughts focus on the shadowy outlines in the back seat. Both watched until the van had pulled out of the driveway and was gone.

Only then did Brennan close and bolt the door, and shoo Van and Oblique back towards the dining room.

Miranda was just inside the doorway, where she could listen unseen.

“I should've known they'd find me,” she said miserably. “Now I've gotten you in trouble, too, just for helping me.”

“Nonsense,” Brennan said briskly. “We aren't in any more trouble than usual, and we aren't out of options yet. Sit down, there's no point in wasting excellent food. Nothing more is going to happen tonight.”

Van obediently sat, but he picked at his meal with little interest. Okay, so he'd just bought them two weeks. So what?

“Don't play with it, eat,” Brennan commanded. “Your brain will function better with fuel.”

“I think I've lost my appetite.”

“We'll manage,” Oblique said. “Right now, we have two weeks of safety, in which the hunters will make no move against you or Miranda. Quite a lot can happen in fourteen days.”

Everything can change in less than that,” Miranda muttered.

“Precisely. Now eat your supper, or you'll be living on sandwiches for a week. I don't go to all the effort of cooking for you to sit and push it around the plate.”

Van obediently took a bite. “All right, I'm eating. But we still need to figure out what to do.”

“I don't see very many possibilities,” Miranda said. “I could run away, and you can tell them whatever will keep you out of trouble. I bet I could get a long way in two weeks. Or I can stay and we can convince them that you can keep me under control better than he could.”

Van stopped with his fork halfway to his plate, staring at her, vaguely aware of Brennan's startled expression.

Miranda shrugged. “What? Is there another one I don't know about?”

Oblique laughed. “No, dear, those would be about the only two options that come to mind. Which of those would you prefer?”

A pause, while Miranda thought about that. Tired and vulnerable she might be, but Van could almost see the same quick mind that had surprised him yesterday coming back into play. “I don't know how much longer I can keep running, and I'm not sure what the point would be, because eventually they'd track me down and all I'd be doing is delaying it. And it might make them wonder even more about you, if I'm gone. If I stay, it might win you points for being able to control a sensitive someone else couldn't, and it would mean that I could be somewhere I have a bed and meals and don't have to be scared every minute.”

“The proof she expects will include my pulling power through you,” Van said gently. Coercion didn't have to involve literal force; an untenable situation and a lack of options amounted to the same thing. He just wished he had something to offer her besides gentleness.

Miranda swallowed, hard, but her expression never changed, and her voice stayed steady. “Oblique says it's like sex, it's awful when it's forced but it's okay when it's with someone you trust.”

“These are hardly ideal circumstances for you to learn to trust me.”

“Neither is having been hunted, captured, bought, and told that you now have no rights and belong to a well-meaning but rather misguided man who has absolute power over you,” Oblique pointed out dryly. “At least you don't have peculiar ideas about the necessity of obedience.”

“I was young and stupid,” Brennan laughed. “I got over it.”

Oblique gave him an affectionate smile, then turned her attention to Miranda again. “You don't need to decide right now.”

“I don't think it's really much of a choice,” Miranda said. “Being safe, and pissing off the hunters, and getting my own body back, are worth some chances, and it can't be any worse than what I've already been through.” She tilted her head a little to one side, watching Van intently. “Would you stop me if I decided to leave afterwards?”


“Will you promise not to lie to me anymore?”

Van hesitated. “I can try, but if it comes down to lying to keep any or all of us safe, I'll do it.”

Miranda nodded. “I don't know if I would have believed you if you said you never would. But that I believe.”

“It would seem,” Brennan said, “that we'd best find another place for the computer, and see about buying you a dresser. And some clothes. Oblique must mass at least half again what you do, there can't be much of hers that fits.”

“This Friday is my usual day to myself,” Oblique pointed out. “That gives Van time to get Miranda a collar of some sort so we can't be caught out on a technicality, and she can come with me and we'll go shopping. As long as Miranda's collared, they can't mess with her.”

Van looked questioningly at Miranda.

She shrugged. “I'll have to have one sooner or later anyway.”

“Any preference? Style or the name to put on it?”

Another shrug. “I like simple stuff. And I don't think you'd pick anything that's mean. Whatever.”

Van sighed to himself. Okay, so normally it was up to a mage to choose collar and name, but he'd have preferred to let Miranda choose them herself. On the other hand, if she didn't feel comfortable doing that, then the best thing he could do was spare her that. Collars were easy enough to change, he knew sensitives with whole collections of them, and a sensitive's name not much harder, if she thought of something she'd prefer later. “I'll see what I can do tomorrow, so you and Oblique can do whatever you want on Friday.”

“Thanks.” Miranda paused, frowned, and shook her head, as though clearing it. “I just thanked someone because he said he'd buy me a collar and think of a new name for me. This is going to take some serious adjustment.”

“It does,” Oblique agreed. “But it isn't so hard. At least, not for us. A mage could never do it.” She laid her knife and fork on her empty plate, neatly crossed, and glanced around the table. “All done? Are we having dessert now, or shall we leave that for a snack later?”

“I'd say later,” Van suggested. “It'd be a little too much, on top of everything else.”

Oblique nodded. “They're in the kitchen, help yourselves whenever.” She stood up, began gathering plates. Miranda rose quickly, and with all four helping, it took no time at all to clear the table—Brennan and Van both took care not to come too close to Miranda, who accepted the proximity of two mages with surprising calm.

“I'll do the dishes, since I didn't do anything else,” Brennan volunteered.

“And putting away the leftovers only takes one pair of hands,” Oblique said. “There are too many bodies in this kitchen.”

“Going,” Van said, and retreated to the living room. Hm, maybe curling up with a movie would take his mind off current problems he could do nothing about.

Distracted, he didn't hear Miranda's bare feet on the carpet behind him.

“I heard that one's pretty good,” she said, reaching past him to tap one. “Is it?”

Van tried not to jump. “If you like science fiction with a fair bit of action, it's a good way to spend a couple of hours. As long as you don't think too closely about the plot.”

“I like science fiction.”

Van pulled that one out, popped it in the DVD player, and picked up the remote, then hesitated. Miranda was already extremely close, any move he made to stand up was highly likely to result in direct contact.

Which she has to know. Why do I get the feeling this is a test?

“Move back a bit?” he requested, keeping his tone carefully casual.

She retreated to the couch, and curled up in one corner of it, tucking her sarong-dress over her legs. Like her jeans and sweatshirt, nothing showed, Van mused, not even general proportions, only head and lower arms and lower legs. He took the other end, and fast-forwarded through the coming attractions at the beginning.

The movie was well underway by the time Oblique paused in the hall archway, fastening a heavy gold necklace-chain in place around her neck so the knotwork-patterned round pendant rested at the hollow of her throat. On the flip side, Van knew, it had been engraved with Brennan Donovan and below that, Oblique. “Will you be all right alone with Van for a little while, Miranda? It's a nice evening, Bren and I were thinking we'd go for a walk.”

Miranda nodded, her gaze on the collar. “I'm okay.”

Oblique smiled. “I thought you would be.”

“You've, um, still got scales showing.”

“We aren't likely to run into anyone out here, and if we do, there are no streetlights. It isn't a problem.” She glanced behind her. “Ready, Bren? Enjoy your movie, you two.”

Van noticed that Brennan locked the door behind him, not a normal act as long as any of them were awake and home. Bren must be more worried than he was letting on. He kept that to himself, simply rewound the movie a little so Miranda could see the part she'd just missed.

Cautiously, Miranda rearranged herself so she was lying down, her head toward him and resting on her arm. Van doubted anyone any larger could have achieved that position on only half the couch.

“Do you want the whole couch so you can stretch out?”

“No.” She hesitated, then it came out in a rush, all on one breath. “I grew up in a really big family where we're... we were always touching a lot and I've been away from them for a month and no one's touched me except to hurt me until Oblique yesterday and today and I'm just feeling... kind of... lost...” It trailed off, forlornly.

There are so many different sides to her... I wonder if I'll ever see all of them.

“If you're feeling inclined to be forgiving for yesterday,” he said, choosing words carefully, “I've been used as a pillow before, and at the moment, I can promise no mage tricks.”

Miranda considered that. “Oblique said you were worried that the hunters were using me to trap you.”

“It seemed like a possibility at the time.”

“You could have just tossed me back outside on my own, or handed me over to them.”

“I couldn't do that without knowing for sure.”

“You scared me, bad, but you didn't hurt me, and I can understand doing things because you're afraid. And I scared you right back.”

“Oh yeah, you definitely did that, believe me.”

“Hm. Which makes us even, I guess, so we can forget yesterday happened?”

Startled, Van looked down, and found himself smiling. “Fair enough.”

Miranda wriggled into position with her head resting on Van's leg. Van stayed very still, letting her settle herself however she was comfortable.

“Okay?” he asked, once she stopped moving.

“Mmhmm. But I missed some.”

Van obligingly rewound the last few minutes, and relaxed against the back of the couch. It felt good, having her there. Just somehow right.

Not until the movie ended did he realize that he'd been running his fingers through Miranda's jaw-length dark hair. “Oh, hell. I'm sorry...” Great, no mage tricks, but uninvited and fairly personal contact... Now there's a great way to give her space and make her feel safe.

“Hm? Oh. It's okay. I would've told you to stop if I minded. It felt nice.”

Well, that was a good sign, at least. “Always tell me to stop, if I do anything you don't want, all right?” At least if he could trust her to do that, he could worry less about whether he was doing the right thing.

“All right.”

Since Miranda showed no signs of being inclined to move, Van used the remote to turn the stereo on, and reduced the volume to a comfortable background level. He glanced down when Miranda chuckled. “What?”

“Seems funny, a mage using a remote control like anybody else instead of just waving a hand and making it change.”

“I suppose I could use telekinesis to press the buttons, but that would be a lot of unnecessary work when I can use the remote instead. There are very definite limits on what a mage can do. Especially alone. Any mage who tries to tell you differently is lying.”

“I know mages can get hurt and bleed just like anybody else.” Her voice shook, and Van ran a hand soothingly over her hair.

“That too.”

Silence, for a moment.



“Can you... undo what he did to me? Please?” The quaver was back in her voice again. “I don't like it, and it keeps reminding me of him...”

“You don't need a reason. Anything you want to be, you can be.”

“I just want to be me again.”

“Well, that's easy to do.” He laid his hand on her shoulder, and closed his eyes, concentrating completely. This wasn't familiar Oblique, and with Miranda already torn open magically, it was going to take extra finesse to keep from hurting her. Delicately, he found the spring where power bubbled up, gathered from air and light and everything else around her, and dipped a mental hand into it. It had a different taste than Oblique's, but it was tangy and fiery and altogether pleasant.

Now... whatever a mage might lay over it, her own genetic code lay beneath, immutable. That was one thing Oblique had never asked him to use even as a foundation for a change, but he knew how to find it, even if he did have to draw on slightly fuzzy long-ago memories of his mother's sensitive Richard patiently helping him learn. He looked deeper, seeking out the shapechange that had been imposed on her...

Bloody Vladislav pervert, he snarled to himself. I think he was just getting warmed up, getting ready to turn her into his own little twisted sex doll. No, calm down, she's away from him and safe now, and you can fix this.

Miranda shivered, once, under his hand, then he heard her whisper, “Oh.”

Van moved his hand away, brushed her hair back from her face. “You're all right?”

“Yes. I didn't exactly believe Oblique, that it doesn't always hurt. But she's right.”

“She usually is.”

Miranda ran a hand down her front, over her clothes. “I'm me again.” It sounded like a prayer, and there was a suggestion of tears there, too. “Thank you.” She sat up, and Van expected her to move away, but instead she shifted closer so she could hug him and bury her face in his shoulder. Automatically, Van wrapped both arms around her to hold her steady, then wondered why she felt so good there. “Thank you,” she repeated.

That kind of sick behaviour is exactly what we're trying to get laws against. And if I had a way to ram it right back down his throat...” Van throttled his anger again, firmly, but it wasn't easy. He kept his attention on Miranda, on stroking her hair and keeping her close and being ready to let her go instantly if she seemed to want that. She felt so very small and fragile, though the latter directly contradicted available evidence.

A key in the door made both tense, Miranda twisting around just enough to see.

Brennan held the door for Oblique, and followed her inside. “Good movie?” he asked noncommittally.

Miranda nodded, and slithered neatly free, arranging herself sitting next to Van—but still very near, he noticed. With the shapechange undone, she didn't look terribly different, except that the fine lines of her face were a little stronger, more androgynous. Back in her jeans, she could have passed for male or female equally easily, most likely. “Good walk?”

“Extremely pleasant,” Oblique said. “The mosquitoes and flies aren't out yet, but it's mild enough to be comfortable for walking. And I think I've worked up an appetite for chocolate.”

“Chocolate sounds good,” Miranda said, and looked up at Van.

He shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

He didn't miss Oblique's faint, satisfied smile as she watched him... or, more accurately, he suspected, watched him and Miranda together. Hoping for exactly what she was seeing?

They all had brownies, the conversation centred around a stag and a couple of does Brennan and Oblique had seen, and scattered to their respective rooms for the night—Miranda with Oblique.

Van stretched out in bed, mulling over the events of the evening.

The counsellor part of his mind nagged at him, that there was something going on here and it was unprofessional not to take a closer look at it, but he shoved it away, too tired to care at the moment. Whatever it was, it could wait.


6 – Van

Van parked his car in its usual place, and went inside, musing over the drastic changes that could happen in a couple of twenty-four-hour periods.

Oblique greeted him in the kitchen with a smile. “I expected you to be later, shopping for Miranda.”

“Actually, I had a sudden inspiration, and all I had to do was find the right one. Where is she?”

“She's been out helping Brennan all afternoon.”

Van frowned. “She's been through a lot, are you sure she's in any condition for hard physical work?”

“She didn't wake up until ten or so, and she didn't go outside until after lunch,” Oblique said patiently. “Do you think Brennan would let anything happen to her? Being active is good for her. Come on, let's go so you can give her her present.”

Miranda, in overly large cotton shorts and a T-shirt that was much too big for her knotted at the front, crouched in Brennan's vegetable garden weeding what Van thought might be carrots. Brennan was nearby, hoeing something or other.

“Heya, Van,” he said equably.

Miranda looked up, and smiled. “Hi. How'd work go?”

“One very bad crisis, a couple of standards sessions, a cancellation that gave me some time to start preparing for the talk I got asked to do for a college class. About like usual.” More than a bit confused by his own mixed emotions, he toyed nervously with the chain hidden in his jacket pocket. What if she didn't like it, or thought it was a way of making fun of her? And why on earth was he jealous of the fact that Brennan had been with her all day?

“Van has something for you,” Oblique said.

Miranda stood up, wiping her hands on her T-shirt—one of Oblique's old and somewhat ragged work shirts, Van noted irrelevantly—and picked her way carefully between the rows to him. She looked uncertain, too, which made Van feel both better and worse. Brennan paused to lean on his hoe and watch.

He pulled the silver chain out of his pocket, and held it out to her. Like Oblique's, the chain was heavy; instead of looking like a twisted rope, though, it was trios of small links alternating with a single longer one.

Miranda accepted it, smiled when she saw the silver hawk pendant, and flipped it over to read the other side.

And read it again, her eyes wide.


“Now that's appropriate,” Brennan said.

“And could have a number of interpretations,” Oblique murmured.

“I can replace it, if you want,” Van said, hesitantly.

Miranda shook her head, vehemently, and a tear slid down one cheek. “Just... after what he...” She gave up and hugged him hard, with more strength than he'd have expected in that slight frame—her head came not even to his shoulder—and he returned the hug with care. Just as suddenly, she let go and pressed the chain back into his hand, spinning around so he could reach the back of her neck. “Put it on?”

“You don't need it around the house.”

“I know.”

Still at a loss but not inclined to argue, Van fastened the chain in place for her. Miranda twitched it straight, and turned around again to show him, her eyes bright and happy despite the fact that another tear was sneaking down her cheek. “Thank you.”

Okay, obviously I did something right, here. “You're welcome.”

“It suits you,” Brennan said, and got back to hoeing.

Miranda glanced at the row of maybe-carrots, then at Van. “I don't like leaving this half done...”

“If you want to keep working, then go for it. If you're tired, stop. You don't need my permission.” He smiled, hoped his own tangled feelings didn't show. “What you do need is lots of energy to go shopping tomorrow.”

“I think I'll finish the carrots, and then stop,” Miranda decided.

“You've done a lot already,” Brennan said. “It's nice to have help. Oblique's more of an indoors kind of person, and Van has been banned from my garden since he pulled up all the cucumbers and left the weeds.”

Miranda grinned. “He didn't really. Did he?”

“I was about twelve,” Van protested.

“Kerry, my older sister and Van's mother, was distinctly not impressed,” Brennan chuckled. “She doesn't like getting her hands dirty, but she adores fresh cucumbers.”

“Maybe you should've done a better job of showing me which ones were the weeds.”

Anyway, Van is not allowed to do weeding, and there's certainly enough to keep a second pair of hands busy, anytime you're bored.”

She's not Brennan's, she's mine!

Van forced the sudden resentment down and away, firmly. What was with him lately? He was certainly no saint, but getting angry and possessive like this just wasn't normal.

“Have fun,” he said lightly. “Did you guys leave me any brownies, or are they all gone?”

“I made chocolate chip cookies,” Oblique said. “They'll have to do.”

“I can live with that.”

Inside, Oblique offered him a platter heaped with cookies. “Now, go keep yourself busy for a while, I didn't expect you home for at least another hour and supper will be late tonight.”

“No problem. Zach just finished reading an apparently very thorough book on addictive personalities and behaviour, and he loaned it to me.” He helped himself to a handful of cookies, poured himself a glass of juice, and retired to curl up on the couch and read.

He heard Miranda and Brennan come indoors, heard water running in the laundry room, and a moment later both headed upstairs. Van paused long enough to look, but Brennan was keeping just out of reach, and they were talking about the hens, a safe sort of subject, so he went back to reading.

Clean and once again sarong-clad, this time without the shirt underneath, the silver chain lying clearly visible over the multicoloured fabric, Miranda joined him on the couch. “What are you reading?”

Van laid his bookmark in place, closed it, and handed it to her. “One of the other counsellors thought I might find it useful. So far, I think he's right.”

Miranda nodded slowly, as she studied the cover. “Some sensitives have problems like that. They start drinking a lot or doing drugs so they don't have to think about hunters. They're even more of a mess than the rest of us.”

“There's a long list of problems that tend to be combined with addictions, causes and effects and just associated behaviour. Sometimes people come to us because they want to get straightened out and don't know where to go, or they're looking for ways to deal with short-term problems that sometimes are connected with addictions. Suddenly being unemployed because they missed too many days at work due to hangovers, say. Or someone running from an abusive and alcoholic partner. But sometimes the addiction itself is a symptom of having been abused, or of growing up in a family where it was normal, or of psychiatric problems... or of feeling trapped in a situation with no way out and no hope for the future. It's a pretty complex issue.”

“It sounds like it.” She frowned, thoughtfully. “The ones who come to you are the ones that don't have lots of money, but it can't be just them.”

“No, but people with more money tend to have more options open to them when the world starts falling apart. If Bren and I started fighting all the time, I could move out and get a place of my own, and we'd all be okay. Lonely, but the bills would get paid. Take away the big well-off supportive family, the educations paid for by our family, and the mage tricks...”

“... and you couldn't get away from each other and still survive,” Miranda finished for him. “Because it would take combined resources to make ends meet. My mother and aunt rent a house together, and sometimes other sensitives stay there for a while when they need a place to go. It works because what keeps sensitives together is stronger than the arguments and annoying things that happen. Take that away, because I don't think normal people have it mostly, and the whole thing would be awfully shaky.”

“Oblique's mentioned stable sensitive households before, but I gather they aren't common.”

“The instinct to keep running is pretty strong, even for women with children who are logically safe,” Miranda explained. “But there are a few exceptions. My mother and her sister grew up in the same kind of house. They arranged shifts so one of them could always be home to watch the kids, until a couple of us were old enough to watch the younger ones, and we didn't move all the time. Most of us actually finished high school or are still in school, and we all have legal ID and stuff, and I had a better job than most do. Just cash and stocking shelves in a corner store, but it was a lot safer than the stuff most sensitives end up doing. My next youngest sister and my almost-sister both have babies of their own, so they should be safe and it'll keep going.” She sighed. “I don't know why I bothered with school, though.”

“Why? It sounds like you were doing pretty well, and had a reasonable chance at a fairly stable life.”

“I got born wrong. I'm a girl, but... not totally. I can't get pregnant, I never started, um...” She shrugged. “Anyway, by the time I was sixteen or so, I'd figured out that my chances of the hunters overlooking me were about zero. I don't even really look like a girl, I can run around with no shirt on and everyone thinks I'm a boy.” Her gaze dropped. “No wonder he wanted to change me.”

“There is no excuse for the way he treated you,” Van growled. “Creative sexuality is one thing, but he's seriously disturbed.” Miranda looked up, eyes wide and uncertain, and he reined in the protective anger firmly. “Not being able to get pregnant is very likely caused by something a mage can fix,” he said, keeping his tone carefully calm. “There's a lot more to shapechanging than dramatic visible effects. It's another option, if you decide you want to leave.”

“Oh. That's... something to think about.”

“Supper,” Oblique called from the dining room.

“Nice timing,” Van muttered, but got up and, without thinking, offered Miranda his hand. She did hesitate, but not even long enough for Van to realize what he'd done and let his hand fall; she accepted it and the help getting to her feet, and let go with no particular haste. All things considered, Van took it as an immense compliment. They joined the other two in the dining room, and there Miranda paused, one hand resting on the back of the chair she'd taken the night before.

“Do you need extra hands?”

“All under control,” Oblique said. “Have a seat.”

It seemed odd to Van, that after Miranda having been present such a short time, she fit so neatly into a household that had remained fixed for something like a decade, since after he'd finished college but before he'd taken his Master's exam. Yet, somehow, she simply seemed to belong, as though she'd always had the fourth place at the table.

“It might not hurt for you to head for bed early, Miranda,” Oblique suggested. “You did a fair bit of work outside, and you'll need to be up in the morning if we're going shopping.”

“My friends usually call me Randi,” Miranda said, a bit shyly. “It's shorter and easier. Although if you use it most places, people tend to think I'm a boy.”

“So who cares what people tend to think?”

“No one around here, that's for sure,” Brennan said. “Pass the rice, Van? Thanks. Popular opinion is highly overrated, and personally, I like the way Randi sounds. It fits you.”

Miranda blushed, just a little. “Anyway, going to bed early is probably a good idea, I'm kind of tired.”

“Van, quit glaring at Bren,” Oblique said. “Being tired is not dangerous.”

“So I worry,” Van snapped. “Since when is being concerned a crime?”

“It isn't,” Brennan said equably. “Although you might keep in mind that you don't have a monopoly on it.”

Van had to admit, there was no way Brennan would allow Miranda to work hard or long enough to interfere with her recovery, or that Oblique wouldn't step in to protect her if she saw any reason to. As much as he'd prefer to personally look after her, make sure she had everything she needed, make sure she healed from the exhaustion and stress and trauma, make sure nothing like it could ever happen again... it was insane to believe that she wasn't perfectly safe with Brennan and Oblique. “Sorry.”

“It's been a tense couple of days.”

“I do know my own limits,” Miranda pointed out. “I did survive for twenty-four years all by myself. Well, not all by myself exactly. But I do know when to stop, I promise.” It sounded more like reassurance than annoyance, so Van chose to take it that way.

“I'll try to remember that.”

“One of you will need to change me to normal,” Oblique said, adroitly shifting the subject. “I certainly can't spend a day in town with scales no matter how much I like them. Tonight would be easier, to save the extra rushing around in the morning.”

“Not a problem,” Brennan said.

“And my credit card is all paid off from last time, so we should have no trouble at all paying for things.”

“Promising that Van and I will pay for them, you mean.”

“Same thing. And I need to get my library books together to take back, although I don't know if we'll have time for me to look for more. I'm expecting this to be a very large shopping trip.”

“I imagine so.” Brennan sounded amused and indulgent.

“If you run out of hands, stop by and drop some of it off,” Van said. “I'll leave the car keys with Beth, in case I'm with someone when you come.”

“Good plan,” Oblique said approvingly.

Miranda did, shortly after supper, choose a shower and her bed over staying up. Van sprawled in the chair in the living room to read, leaving the couch to Brennan and Oblique, but close enough to offer opinions on the playful shapechanging games, and to occasionally reach over to clasp Oblique's hand himself and show them ideas of his own. Oblique, as usual, enjoyed the attention and sensation and creativity immensely.

Much later, Brennan returned her to her chosen “normal” look, and they all scattered to bed.


7 –Van

Towel-wrapped, Van tapped on Miranda's bedroom door. “Miranda? Are you awake?”

“Randi,” came the response—it might have been sleepy, or just muffled by the door. “Sort of.”

“We need to be out of here in about forty-five minutes so I won't be late for work.”

“Okay.” He heard motion, and retreated to his own room to get dressed.

He beat Miranda to the kitchen, but not by much; the younger sensitive stopped in the doorway, eyes wide, as she spotted Oblique.

Oblique laughed, and set another plate of eggs and bacon and toast on the small kitchen table. “Still me, dear.” Van rather liked her this way, all milk-chocolate skin and lush curves set off perfectly by, this time, a form-fitting white dress slit up one side to show long legs that were guaranteed to get the attention of most men and a few women, her long dark hair gathered up casually but with curly tendrils escaping to frame her face. The heavy gold chain simply looked like jewellery, a match to the dangly earrings and the watch that circled her left wrist.

“That's how you really...?”

“In the same sense that Oblique is my real name.”

Miranda caught on fast. “What's real is what you want it to be.”

“What's real for me is,” Oblique agreed. “What's real for you is up to you. And it can change.” She refilled her glass of orange juice, took a sip, and gave Miranda a mischievous grin. “We're much luckier than anyone else, that way. No one else can change their body the way most people change their clothes, to suit their mood and mental state and situation.”

“True, I s'pose.” Miranda finally shook herself back into motion, and joined Van at the table. “Where's Brennan?”

“He's already outside feeding the hens.”

“Bren is definitely a morning person,” Van grumbled, and took a swallow of his coffee.

Right on time, they left the house and headed for the car—Brennan, messing around with the front flowerbeds, waved—Van with his knapsack holding book, lunch, and sundry such items, Oblique with her white leather purse and a larger cotton bag holding her library books, Miranda empty-handed. Knowing Oblique had already checked, Van nonetheless made sure both sensitives were safely collared before they got in the car. Miranda's looked out of place with her now-clean but badly worn jeans and a too-big T-shirt. Oblique, he was sure, had her cell phone in her purse so she could reach him easily if anything came up.

Van dropped them off at the library, wished them much fun shopping, and headed for work.

A little past four, which was when they generally tried to close, he escorted a client through the empty waiting area to the door, wished him luck and reminded him that they were always there if he needed them again, and retreated to his office to collect his things. On the way out, he retrieved his keys from Beth.

“Oblique says she'll be waiting in front of the library, and she had a great day shopping.”

The unusual location and the lack of reference to Miranda puzzled and worried Van briefly, until realization struck: Beth had seen Miranda, would recognize her as having come here for help, and that she'd left with Van. Taking a client home did not normally fall within acceptable professional ethics. Silently, he blessed Oblique for having thought of that in time to avoid serious repercussions. “Thanks. Enjoy the weekend.”

“I intend to,” Beth laughed. “Got a hot date lined up for tonight. If I don't make it in on Monday, that'll be why.”

“Lord, don't abandon us, we can't function without you.”

“Amen,” Hayley chuckled, emerging from her own office. “Have heaps of fun over the weekend, but make sure you get here Monday.”

Beth tapped her lips thoughtfully. “I bet I could hold out for a big raise, just by going on strike.”

“We'd all end up giving you a chunk of our pay,” Hayley laughed. A physically unassuming woman of no readily identifiable age, overweight and plain-featured, something in her smile and her aura made her co-workers depend on her without hesitation and even the most frightened client open up. Not mage-magic, but a kind of magic of its own.

Zach joined them. “Who's giving who their pay?” The centre was his brain-child, born of many years of counselling in other organizations. He could have set up his own practice as a psychologist, he had the qualifications—and looked the part of the dignified scholar, Van thought—but had chosen instead to help those who couldn't afford high hourly fees, and those who were in crisis now. Funding was always a little precarious, but somehow—aided subtly at times by a nudge of a probability here, an anonymous donation from a Donovan there—they stayed open. And Van and Hayley, who had graduated from different colleges, stayed instead of looking for better-paying jobs elsewhere. Zach had chosen them personally, years ago, insisting that their skills were of more use in this kind of front line work than a university degree in psychology.

“Beth's threatening to go on strike,” Hayley explained.

“Terrifying thought. Don't even joke about that, Beth.”

Beth laughed. “I wouldn't really do that. I just need to remind you now and again, so you don't take me for granted. You guys go ahead, this is personal stuff I'm working on.”

“Shame on you,” Zach said, in feigned severity. “Personal matters at work. We'll lock up on the way out, so no one bothers you.”


Hayley bid them farewell out front and started walking, since she had an apartment not far away. Zach headed for the nearest bus stop, and Van circled around back to the small parking lot shared by the row of buildings.

Oblique and Miranda were sitting on the front steps of the library when he got there, a collection of bags around them. He pulled up to the curb, and the two sensitives tossed everything in the back seat before getting in.

“Did you leave anything in the stores?” he teased. Miranda, he noticed in approval, was wearing new blue jeans that fit her much better, a russet-coloured shirt embroidered with darker russet around the neck and hem, and new running shoes instead of her battered ones.

“Nothing in Randi's size unless it was in bad taste,” Oblique chuckled. “We took the bus and went to all the second-hand clothing stores, the cheaper new stores, and some other places. And I still had time to collect enough new books to keep me busy for a little while.”


“It was lots of fun,” Miranda said enthusiastically, from the back seat. “I think I tried on more clothes than I've owned my whole life, and we bought all the ones that looked good, and we went out for lunch. Everybody kept looking at Oblique. The waiter in the restaurant was flirting with her, and I thought one guy working in a shoe store was going to drool on the floor. I think he was disappointed we were looking for shoes for me, not for her. All I was thinking of was another pair of jeans and a few T-shirts my size, I was not expecting jeans in four different colours and a pile of T-shirts and sweatshirts and a few dressy kinds of tops and three pairs of shoes and lots of underwear and stuff.”

Van glanced sideways at Oblique; she simply smiled and leaned back against the seat, closing her eyes. “I'm glad the two of you had such a good time. Thanks for saving my job, Oblique.”

“If you get fired, how will you pay off my credit card?” she asked lightly.

“It would get paid, and you know it.”

Her tone turned affectionate. “I don't want to see you lose something that matters so much to you, over an oversight and a situation mundane laws and ethics have no provisions for. So. There's a dresser for Randi's room on layaway in a fairly inexpensive furniture store, along with a proper computer desk instead of the table we've been using. I told them we'd pick them up this weekend. Tonight or tomorrow I think we should do some rearranging, and put the computer somewhere else. Down in the dining room, maybe, I think we can shift the table a couple of feet towards the living room and have enough space near the door to the kitchen, the new desk should fit perfectly. That would actually be convenient, having it close to the kitchen. The bed in Randi's room is only a single, but there isn't much of her, so she fits okay.” The tone of the last sentence was playful.

“There are advantages to being small,” Miranda giggled.

“Do we need a new computer desk?” Van wondered.

“Yes,” Oblique said firmly.

“Okay. You use it more than Bren or I, if you want a new desk, you get a new desk. What about the chair?”

“No, I'm keeping the chair.”

“She promised to teach me how to use the computer,” Miranda added. “Especially how to go on the Internet and talk to people from all over the world. It sounds extremely cool.”

“Just hold off on the shopping online until we get this paid off,” Van laughed.

They found Brennan relaxing in a lawn chair with a glass of lemonade, when they pulled in.

“Slacking off?” Oblique teased him, as she got out of the car.

“Making sure I'm sitting down when I find out how much you bought today,” he chuckled, but stood up and joined them, while Van popped the trunk open and got out. Miranda opened her door, and gathered up as much as she could of what was in the back seat with her, Oblique collecting the rest, while Brennan and Van emptied the trunk.

Van noticed, abruptly, that Brennan was easily in reach of Miranda; without a thought, he interposed himself, and stayed between them across the driveway to the door, which clicked audibly and swung wide just before they reached it.

“Magic?” Miranda asked.

“A little bit,” Brennan agreed. “Worth it, since none of us has a hand free.”

Van glared at him, but his uncle seemed not even to notice.

They trooped upstairs, Oblique joking about parades, to deposit everything in Miranda's room. The room wasn't large, to have four bodies in it; despite Van's efforts to stay between Miranda and Brennan, it didn't work.

“Mine,” he snarled at Brennan, pulling Miranda behind him.

Brennan made a noise that might have been a muffled snort of laughter, but his expression was bland and neutral as he held up both hands at shoulder-height. “I didn't touch her.”

“Good. Don't.”

“All right. Can I get by so I can go downstairs?”

Miranda hopped up on the bed and knelt there, which meant Van could back up a couple of steps and make room for Brennan to get past him, while still keeping himself in the middle.

“Both of you out,” Oblique said. “We may not have the dresser yet, but we can at least sort it out and put away what goes in the closet.”

Van considered refusing, but Oblique was no threat, and even three people in this room was too many. He conceded, and went downstairs to collapse on the couch, shaken. Where on earth had that come from?

Brennan joined him, handed him a glass of lemonade, and sat in the chair, setting his own on the end table next to him. Automatically, Van took a swallow.

“I have no idea why I did that, Bren, but I'm sorry.”

“According to official mage lore, sensitives bond to an individual mage.”

Van frowned. “As an instinctive response to gentleness or compassion when they're emotionally vulnerable. And, according to the same lore, it's a one-way bond, but we both know that's bullshit, Donovans have always known better. But after so long with Oblique, my tie to her isn't all that much weaker than yours. And I didn't start getting mad all the time when I got back from school.”

“No? You could hardly try to stay between Oblique and I, but I very clearly remember watching you edge in between her and other mages more than once. Close family included.”

Van didn't recall doing it, but if Brennan had noticed it, he must have. “Okay, but she's only been here for, what, not even seventy-two hours!”

“I haven't noticed time being a factor. You know human behaviour, not so much animals, but we aren't really all that different from them. In general, when an animal or a bird starts to court a mate, there's specific behaviour it's expecting to get as a response, and if it doesn't get it, nothing more will happen. When it does get the proper response, there's no hesitation. For the record, that's a gross over-simplification, but the principle holds.”

Van groaned. “Great. So much for her freedom. She got the right responses from me, and I'm getting them from her...”

“This is something that very much needs to go in your book. Think. What responses are you each getting? Why don't sensitives bond constantly to other sensitives? They all look out for each other. Odds would be fairly high of Miranda bonding to Oblique, don't you think?”

Van took another sip of lemonade, turning the puzzle over and over in his mind. Brennan had thrown questions at him all his life, making him work out the answers, and Van had always enjoyed the challenge. He'd thought he and Oblique had done a fairly thorough job of coming up with general patterns for mages and sensitives, but somehow, he hadn't taken the psychological effects of bonding on mages, or the whole process, very seriously. Obviously a major oversight.

“Okay, to bond, a sensitive needs... let's see. Flashes of intense possessiveness? No, that would probably exclude bonding to other sensitives but there are certainly mundanes out there who are capable of that. Mages don't go outside the normal human psychological range, we just tend to be bunched up on one end of it, and sensitives on the other. So it can't be that. The only thing that's unique to mages is magic, but it can't be just seeing magic... it would have to be giving a mage power. Can't be that alone, or Miranda would be with that Vladislav pervert still. Giving power combined with gentleness, maybe. That would be a clear indicator that the other person is a mage and will take care of you. For a mage it depends on... what would the trigger be? Magic, definitely. Vulnerability? Submissive behaviour?” He paused to reflect. “Need to think about that one.”

“So what exactly does bonding mean, to a sensitive? In one word. Oblique to me, for example.”

Van considered and discarded a few, found one. “Loyalty?”

“That works. Now, what do you suppose it would mean, hypothetically, to a mage? Say, me to Oblique. Or, if it makes it easier, you to Oblique. What comes to mind when you think of her, in general?”

“Protectiveness,” Van said slowly, quietly, understanding beginning to dawn. “Making sure she's safe matters more than anything. Which can take a lot of different forms.”

“Especially with the threat of a pair of mages who are known enemies taking away your sensitive.”

Van looked down in amazement at the glass that had just shattered in his hand, spilling lemonade liberally over his lap and splattering the couch and floor. “Ow.”

“Must remember not to mention that again. Here, let me see.” Brennan sat forward, and turned Van's hand palm-up so he could check for glass in the cuts—telekinesis was useful for delicate work like that. Van very much doubted he could have held still under the touch of any other mage, right then, even his own mother or his aunt Shvaughn who was all but a second mother. “Conclusions, expert?”

“That you're smarter than I am.”

“Other than the blindingly obvious,” Brennan laughed.

Van tried to distract himself from the pain beginning to tingle in his hand, by concentrating on the intellectual puzzle. “We already knew that it's perfectly possible for multiple bonds to form, although I can't think of any examples that go beyond two of each, and it's not common outside the Donovans except in the form of a mage with two sensitives—except in the damned hunters sharing their sensitives. Mom and Shvaughn and Rich and Azure are definitely bonded every-which-way. Hm. We figured the root of the traditions about avoiding each other's sensitives had to do with forming clear mutual bonds but it's gotten out of hand, but we forgot to consider that the root of the thirty-days law limiting mage responsibility for a new sensitive's behaviour also limits consequences for the mage's behaviour if the sensitive is in... Ow!

“Sorry, that one was pretty jagged.”

“Individual variation being what it is, and with a lot of factors involved, there are going to be mages who form a deep bond but do it slowly, who would probably not show any more dramatic behaviour than you can reasonably blame on socially-encouraged possessiveness, and mages who bond shallowly who if possessive would be for all the wrong reasons. And mages, probably ones that are fairly receptive with some degree of empathy, who are going to bond hard and deep as fast as their sensitives do. Crap. All things considered, my behaviour is likely to stay erratic for a while. Great, that'll go a long way towards helping Miranda trust me.”

“Oblique must have figured it out and explained it to her. Otherwise, I think her reaction upstairs just now would have been a bit stronger.”

“Well, that's something. Ouch!”

“There, I think that's all the glass, and none of the cuts look serious. Too bad mages can't heal ourselves. Or each other. We'd better do something with this mess before it gets sticky.”

The two sensitives came downstairs to find the mages, with a mixture of magic and manual labour, cleaning lemonade off couch and carpet, and collecting glass.

“What happened?” Oblique asked.

“Broke a glass,” Brennan said.

“Then why is Van not using his right hand?”

“That's what broke the glass.”

“You got hurt?” Miranda darted around the coffee table to Van. “Let me see.”

“Bren got the glass out, it'll be fine,” Van assured her.

“That isn't what I asked. Let me see.”

Van straightened, still on his knees, and could read nothing save stubborn determination in her expression and body language. Meekly, he offered his hand, which was definitely starting to hurt. Like he needed another source of frustration in his life right now.

“Behind the mirror in the half-bath,” Oblique told Miranda. “Go fix him, I'll help Bren finish this.”

“It's not that bad!” Van protested.

“Surrender gracefully,” Brennan advised.

“For me?” Miranda said.

Well, if it would make Miranda feel better about it... Van got up, and went with her to the kitchen. Miranda's hands were gentle and practised, as she cleaned the cuts thoroughly with peroxide, which stung and made his hand twitch as it bit deep, then smeared the inner surface of his hand with ointment that soothed the discomfort considerably.

Brennan stopped in the laundry room to toss the paper bag of glass in the garbage; Oblique deposited sodden rags in the kitchen sink and began to rinse them.

“Verdict, doctor?” Brennan asked.

“It's going to hurt using that hand for a couple of days, but that's all,” Miranda said with absolute certainty.

“Thanks,” Van said.

Miranda shrugged. “Sensitives get hurt a lot. At work, mostly, or in rough sports, stuff like that. You get good at fixing it after a while, if you can't go near doctors.” She flashed him a smile. “But you're welcome.”

“So,” Oblique said briskly. “Supper can be either something fast, like soup and sandwiches, or we can do take-out.”

“We could have pizza delivered,” Van teased, and grinned when Miranda pretended to hide behind Oblique in terror. “For real this time.”

“I think that's actually a good idea,” Oblique mused.

“I have those occasionally.”

“Occasionally,” Brennan agreed.

The evening ended comfortably, with pizza devoured while they watched a movie, and generally catching up on the day, before they scattered to various pursuits for an hour or two before bed.


8 – Van

Saturday morning, over breakfast, they debated logistics and plans. The truck would be much better for picking up the dresser and desk; while Van could drive it, Brennan was considerably more familiar with it. The very thought of Miranda going with Brennan gave Van another bout of possessive anger to battle; the other three must have read the sudden silence correctly, no one commented on it or made the suggestion out loud.

So, Brennan and Oblique would make the trip to town.

Van stopped feeling useless and in the way long enough to appreciate the rear view of Oblique, in snug jeans and a stretchy top, walking down the hall after Brennan.

“She's gorgeous,” Miranda agreed. “Whoever came up with that look has great taste. Don't look so gloomy, we have stuff to do here.”

“What, exactly? I'm one-handed and most of the furniture in this house out-masses you.”

“Well, to start with, we can clean up from breakfast and do the dishes from this morning and last night.”

That done, she coaxed him into the dining room with her.

“Oblique's right,” Miranda decided. “If we move the table towards the living room as far as we can and still leave room for that chair, there's space for the desk we picked out against the wall right next to the doorway here.”

“Most likely.” Van sighed, as Miranda scooted around the table, pulling the chairs back out of the way. “But no way can the two of us shift that table. It's solid maple, it's heavy.”

Back at his side, Miranda looked up at him. “You're a mage and you can't move a table?”

“Not if you want me to be any use the rest of today. I told you, there are limits.”

“Did I say you should do it alone?” She laced her fingers through those of his left hand, securely. “Move the darned table, already.”

Van glanced down, but saw no trace of fear or reluctance. Besides, they did need to learn to work together. Carefully, he reached for power, and noted that the damage was healing quickly and cleanly.

With that to use, it was simple telekinesis to lift the table just off the floor—both to keep from scratching the hardwood and to reduce friction—and give it a mental shove in the right direction. A couple of lighter nudges positioned it properly, and he let it settle to the floor again.

“See?” Miranda laughed. “Much easier. Wow, that feels good.”

“Good. He did some damage, and I was trying not to hurt you.”

“You didn't. Okay, we need to bring the computer down here, we can leave it on the table for right now.” She let go of him and did another circuit, replacing the chairs. “And the chair, too. Then we can figure out what to do with my room.”

“Which is going to be cramped no matter what we do.” Van trailed her upstairs.

“I don't mind. I'm used to sharing a bed with two other girls. Even a little room all to myself is something special. It's all relative.”

“As near as I can tell, everything is, to sensitives.”

“Pretty much. How does the computer come apart?”

More than a bit bemused by all this energy and decisiveness, Van disconnected the various cables. He balked at allowing Miranda to carry any of the heavier components, and took them and the chair himself, using just a touch of TK to spare his sore hand.

After multiple trips up and down the stairs, Van sank down on the edge of Miranda's bed to catch his breath and rest.

Without a pause, Miranda dropped to one knee to look at the underside of the table. “Ha, I thought so. Screwdrivers?”

“Huh? Bottom drawer at the end of the kitchen counter. Why?”

“So I can take the table apart and get it out of the way, of course.” She darted out of the room, and two minutes later, the table lay on its side, while Miranda deftly removed the screws that held the legs on. Van simply watched, speechless. Granted, what to do with the table had been a problem that needed to be solved, but that solution would never have occurred to him.

With the table top against the wall in the hall, the legs leaning against it, they would have no difficulty at all manoeuvring a dresser into Miranda's room.

“I'm impressed,” Van said.

Miranda gave him a confused look. “By what?”

“I never would have thought of that, to get it out of the way.”

She shrugged. “Seemed obvious to me. The dresser goes mostly up, not sideways, so it'll probably take up even less room than the computer did.”

“Pretty bland, though.” Van surveyed the room. Off-white walls with a couple of small oak-framed prints of garden scenes, curtains that were white with tiny lemon and green flowers, bare hardwood floor, even the comforter on the bed was cream with buff and grey and lemon flowers and leaves. What had they been thinking? Well, neutrality, largely, rather than a place for anyone to live in for an extended period.

“I can live with that. Maybe I can pick up a couple of posters or something.”

“If you don't mind more magic, or having things here made by magic, we can do something right now to give it some colour.”

Miranda looked interested, and joined him on the edge of the bed, twining her hand into his again. “What are we going to do?”

The we made Van smile. “Creating textiles, cloth, is basic. I was thinking, curtains, maybe a rug, a brighter blanket for the bed. What's your favourite colour?”

“For most things, red, but that might be a little much for this.”

“Colour psychology would suggest blues and greens for cool sleepy colours, or soft browns and dark yellows and oranges for warm safe colours.” Inspiration struck: he cast a small glamour that altered the colour of the curtains gradually through the spectrum.

“Hey, that's handy,” Miranda said enthusiastically. She half-turned so she could see more easily, and leaned back against him; instinctively, Van slid his right arm loosely around her waist. He changed the colour repeatedly, sometimes small adjustments and sometimes total shifts, while they considered the merits of each.

They decided on red, but softened it. The curtains would be thin fabric, deeper red at the top but paling towards the bottom; the blanket would have three shades of red along with black and white in a simple pattern; the braided oval rug for the floor would have pretty much every possible variant of red.

“I need to concentrate for a few minutes.”


Creation wasn't complicated, really, it was just compressing energy into matter and imposing onto it the shape he wanted. The first step was already done, he had the glamour-images, though he had to move them so they didn't overlap with mundane matter. Like filling in an outline, he poured power into each in turn, forcing it denser and denser, until it reached a point of stability and reality. Curtains, blanket, rug... and he was finished.

“All done.”

She looked up. “You sound tired.”

“There's a certain amount of effort involved. I have to press energy together extremely tightly to turn it into matter. I'll be fine in a minute.”

“It's safe to let go?”

In answer, he released her, wondering who had told her that, the Vladislav mage or Oblique. Somehow, he could more easily visualize Oblique warning Miranda how badly she could hurt him by breaking contact at the wrong moment than he could the Vladislav mage revealing a vulnerability.

Miranda immediately stood up and straightened out the rug that had crumpled during its six-inch fall immediately after its creation. “Move your feet? Thanks.” Once she was satisfied with the position of that, along the side of the bed, she headed for the window, and the curtains that had landed in a red heap a few inches from the wall. She picked them up, shook them out, laid them on one side of the window-seat, and hopped agilely up onto the seat so she could unhook the curtain rod.


“Randi. What?” She jumped down, and tugged the white curtains off the rod.

Van sighed. “Never mind.”

“I'm not the one with the messed-up hand,” she pointed out, with ruthless logic.

Van winced. “Touché.”

She dropped the white curtains on the floor, and started feeding the red ones onto the rod. “Try to worry less, okay? It isn't good for you.”

“Worry less about whether I'm worrying,” Van retorted.

She just grinned and climbed back up on the window-seat to rehang the rod. “There. That's much better.” She bounced down again, and scooped up the white curtains, took them out to hang over the railing around the stairs. “Stand up so I can put the blanket on?”

With the blanket over the dull comforter, they stood back near the doorway to look over their work.

“That looks wonderful!” Miranda said in delight, and hugged him. “Thanks. That was a great idea.”

“You're welcome.” Van hugged her back, carefully. “Anything else you want to do in here, or shall we head downstairs and wait for Bren and Oblique?”

“I don't think there's anything more we can do, there's just the dresser and then putting the rest of my clothes away and that's it.” She snuggled close, and looked up at him. “Life can change so fast. A month ago I was with my family and I'd never seen a mage and I figured I didn't have much of a life to look forward to. A week ago I was with him and I knew there was nothing good to look forward to. Now I'm here with you and I think there might actually be an awful lot to look forward to.”

“I hope so,” Van said softly. “And I'll do anything I can to make sure of it.”

“Like remembering to call me Randi?” she asked impishly. “Miranda's for strangers and unfriends.”

He laughed. “I'll try.”

They waited in the living room, with the stereo on. A song Miranda exclaimed was one of her favourites came on, and she bounced to her feet to dance to it, singing along happily in a soprano voice that didn't wander too far off-key. Van watched in appreciation and amusement, sprawled full-length on the couch.

The song ended, and she dropped to the edge of the couch, giggling to herself.

“You're a good dancer.”

“Nah, I just have fun doing it, that's all. It feels good.”

“Maybe that's why it looks so good.” Absently, he reached up to gently work a tangle out of her tousled hair.

“Or maybe you're just biased.”

“A definite possibility.”

Tires crunched on gravel, and Miranda dashed to the door to open it. Van toyed briefly with the idea that she was actually using some of the energy she was absorbing from her environment, to fuel this kind of activity level. Impossible, of course, but he could have believed it right then, with very little effort.

Brennan pulled to the side, then backed the truck up towards the door before parking. Miranda scrambled immediately into the back of the truck before Van could even drop the tailgate.

“What did you feed her this morning?” he asked Oblique, when she got out.

Oblique laughed. “The same thing I fed you. Why, is she running you ragged?”

“I'm getting tired just watching her, let alone keeping up with her.”

Oblique swung herself up into the back of the truck with Miranda, and began to shift the dresser towards the two mages, leaving it lying flat the way it was. Unasked, Brennan got the other end.

“Move back,” Brennan said. “This only takes two.”

Reluctantly, Van retreated to give them room.

“Which do you want, Oblique? Up the stairs backwards, or up the stairs frontwards but having extra weight?”

“Either one,” Oblique said, jumping down and picking up her end again.

Miranda looked at Van expectantly; Van frowned in confusion for a moment, then smiled, and held out his good hand to her. She hopped down and, hands clasped, they hastened after the other pair.

“Funny,” Oblique said. “I could have sworn this dresser weighed more than this.”

“Must be fairies helping,” Brennan chuckled.

Van didn't even try to take the entire weight of it telekinetically, not up an incline and then through the manipulations it would require at the top of the stairs, but part of the weight was another matter altogether, leaving control to Brennan and Oblique. Miranda wrapped her other hand around his, too, as if worried about accidentally breaking contact, and stayed close beside him up the stairs.

All in all, getting the new dresser, a pleasant light oak, into Miranda's room wasn't so difficult.

“Thanks,” Brennan said. “Looks good in here, you two have been busy.”

“Of course we were,” Miranda said tartly. “Did you think we were just going to lay around and do nothing?”

“If it were up to Van? Probably.”

“I like it,” Oblique said. “All the reds are very warm, but it isn't overwhelming. Maybe you can do a runner for the top of the dresser, or something, later.” She stole a kiss from Van and a hug from Miranda, simultaneously. “That helped a lot. Now, let's go get the desk put together.”


9 – Van

The desk came in a rather large and heavy box, but the same trick worked a second time, to get it to the now bare end of the dining room. Oblique fetched a knife from the hardware drawer to open it, and she and Miranda pulled out all the pieces.

Van retrieved the assembly instructions. It was a fairly elaborate desk, with shelves up around and over the monitor.

“Let me see for a minute?” Oblique borrowed the instructions, took a long look at the diagram, Miranda looking over her shoulder since the taller sensitive was kneeling. Miranda scooped up a small plastic bag with screws and such in it, tore it open, spilling them onto her palm so she and Oblique could see them, and pointed to part of the diagram. Oblique nodded, and returned the paper to Van.

While Van and Brennan were puzzling over some of the creatively-translated directions and indistinct sketches, Oblique and Miranda started laying out the various boards in roughly the right order and position and sorting out the screws.

“What on earth is that supposed to be?” Brennan wondered.

Oblique paused to look. “Which?”

“That.” Brennan indicated a rather fuzzy sketch of something, near one corner.

“It's the tracks for the drawer.”

“Are you sure?”

“I'm sure.” She went back to whatever she and Miranda were doing.

“There's a drawer?” Van asked, perplexed, looking at the drawing again. “Oh, I suppose that's what that is. Which means the tracks are around here somewhere.”

“To your right,” Miranda said, holding a board steady while Oblique used an Allen key to screw it to another one lying flat on the floor. They repeated it at the other end and flipped the whole thing over.

Van looked at the diagram, looked at the two sensitives who were efficiently assembling the desk without the instructions, and looked at Brennan. “I'm getting the feeling we'd be most useful staying out of the way and not interfering.”

“You aren't interfering,” Oblique said cheerfully, as they started on the drawer that went at one side, above a little cabinet with a door if Van read the sketch accurately.

Van perched on the computer chair, while Brennan straddled one of the others. “I think I could write a whole chapter on sensitive manual-spatial abilities.”

“On what?” Miranda asked.

“He means sensitives are good at concrete sorts of things,” Oblique translated. “Things we can do with our hands instead of things that are abstract and mostly thought. We put things together and can catch a ball nine times out of ten and tell if something will fit by looking at it. Mages... um... there's something they do, but I can't quite place it at the moment. It'll come to me.”

“We think, wench,” Van said sternly.

“Oh, right, that's it.” She laughed, and Miranda giggled.

“A chapter in what?” the younger sensitive asked.

“Van's writing a book about mages and sensitives. The truth about how we all tend to think, skills we tend to have, and our combined abilities.”

“Oh, cool! Who are you going to let read it?”

“Most Donovans and a few friends have expressed some interest,” Van said. “And maybe it can get a few middle-of-the-road mages thinking. If we can think of a way to get some copies out to free sensitives and have them take it seriously, that would be better still, but given the history so far of attempts to get them to listen, I have some doubts.”

“As soon as they realize I live with a mage, or that the other Donovan sensitives do, they start to treat us like mages,” Oblique sighed. “As though we're out there to lead them into a trap. I can understand it, but it makes us all extremely sad.”

Miranda grinned. “Oh, I bet I can take care of that problem. We just make 'em available through my mom's house.” The smile wavered. “I miss her and my sisters and brothers and aunt and all.”

“Can you call her?” Van suggested.

“Could, but that'd be cruel, in case... something happens after. I'll call her once I know everything's okay.” She shrugged, and the sadness vanished, at least on the surface, behind practicality. “Anyway, they'll listen to me, no matter what, and they'll get your book out.”

“That would be wonderful,” Oblique laughed. “I think we're going to be extremely grateful to have you here for more than one reason.”

“Yeah, well, anything that'll help them, so they don't have to go through everything without knowing what's going on. Some'd read it. They'll be too curious not to.”

Van hated to say it, but he'd hate it more if he had to watch Miranda hurt later. “If the fear of anything connected to mages runs deep enough, they might not listen to you,” he said tentatively.

“Not my mom or my sister Claire or my almost-sister Denise,” Miranda said, with perfect certainty. “My mom and Denise's mom Jenny get a lot of respect, and Claire and Denise are thinking of starting their own house as soon as the babies get a little older. People listen to them. And they'll listen to me, they'll be glad I'm okay and they won't care if I'm living with mages or not. You'll see. They'll get your book out to lots of people. Just make sure it's not all full of long words like manual-whatsit.”

“Whereas most mages would prefer all the technical details,” Brennan said, amused. “You'd better ask Oblique and Miranda—excuse me, Randi—to make sure it's in sensitive-language.”

“Not everybody is like you said, though,” Miranda pointed out. “One of my brothers can't catch a ball even one time in ten, he's just no good at this stuff. And Brennan does stuff with his hands all the time.”

“So does Van,” Oblique said, and licked her lips pointedly.

“It's more a matter of tendencies than absolutes,” Van said, pretending he hadn't heard that last comment. “Odds are much higher that a sensitive will have excellent coordination and mechanical skills, and that a mage will be more inclined to intellectual subjects.”

“Makes sense,” Miranda decided. “Hm, this goes... aha, there we go.”

“Of course, the possibility does exist that the hunters will try to charge me with sedition and immorality,” Van said.

“What's sedition?”

“Disturbing the peace of the state. Or, in this case, mage society. Immorality includes any statement that sensitives are equals.”

“Hm. Can they make it stick?”

“Doubtful,” Brennan supplied. “But I'm sure Elena will do her best to try. She always was vindictive and obsessive.”

Miranda glanced over her shoulder at him. “Who's Elena? The hunter?”

“Yes. We went to school together when her mother lived here for a year, we were the only mages in our class. There were a handful of people who tended to get the highest marks, and Elena and I were among them. For some reason, she got pissed off at me every time I beat her by even one percent, which I did roughly half the time. The other half of the time, she beat me. She was convinced it was some kind of contest. More than twenty years later, she still hates me, which strikes me as taking it to ludicrous lengths even if it had been a competition.”

“So she's more likely to pick on you and the people close to you.”

“Exactly,” Oblique said. “Although by everything I've ever heard about her, she just generally wants all of mage society to conform to her image of order and tradition, and holds unshakable grudges against anyone who interferes with that. Pass me... thanks.”

“The hunters in general are none too happy that there are more limits to their authority than there were fifty years ago,” Van added. “The kinds of people the hunters choose to join them strongly resent loss of power.”

“What kind of people?” Miranda asked sourly. “Ones who like beating up on anyone who can't fight back?”

“Anyone that I've ever met who works with the hunters has been emotionally dysfunctional to some degree.”

“Are what?”

“Screwed up,” Oblique translated.

“The senior pair are more into enforcing law and tradition consistently and impartially,” Brennan said. “They are much less extreme than Elena and her partner Brock, although to the best of my knowledge, they will not deviate from the letter of the law.”

“It was Victoria and Faisal who caught me,” Oblique said softly. “They were much less brutal than I've repeatedly heard about Elena and Brock.”

“As for the junior pair,” Van said, sliding the topic away from that before it could get into anything too deep, “they're obsessive control freaks with defective empathy. They can't get inside someone else's head even for a second, to understand that they're causing pain or that the other opinion might be valid. Extensive psychotherapy and the right medication might help, but I doubt it.”

Miranda shivered. “I can believe it. So the same hunters who were here will try their best to get you in trouble for anything they possibly can.”

“And if they can't find anything, they'll try to create it,” Brennan added. “So far they've failed, but I don't think that makes Elena like us any better than she did to start with. Odds are good they'll charge Van, and the Elders will tell them to get a life. The laws about freedom of thought and expression are extremely clear, and as long as Van isn't advocating violence or prejudice against mages or mundanes or being explicitly immoral, and can back up anything he claims is a fact, he can write what he wants.” He sighed. “That'll be the next thing, after we get the anti-abuse law passed. Change the limitations of freedom of expression laws to include advocating violence against sensitives and get rid of that damned immorality clause.”

“We'll get there,” Oblique said firmly. “But the most immediate goal is to make certain that Randi is safe permanently. We can get back to working on the others once that's established.”

“The hunters will not have you,” Van said flatly, aware of anger stirring again, just at the thought.

“I know,” Miranda said calmly. “So if the hunters are losing power, how did they get it to begin with?”

“Long story, and there are a lot of holes in it where we just don't know,” Van said.

“In Western Europe and Australia, it works differently,” Oblique said. “No hunters. No laws that sensitives are property. A mage forcing a sensitive can be charged with, basically, rape. Europe has had a hugely long time to get it right, and Australia, well, the non-aborigine people who settled there originally were all convicted criminals. Mages learned to respect sensitives the hard way. Other parts of the world have different laws, but in those areas, everyone's equal.”

“Wow. That's a big concept to swallow.” Miranda and Oblique abandoned the lower part of the desk in favour of assembling the interlocked upper shelves. “So, what happened here?”

“We think,” Van said, “that it was a combination of factors. As near as we can tell from European history, female sensitives were considered valuable to male mages because, by the mundane laws at the time, a husband for all intents and purposes owned his wife—she couldn't charge him with rape or assault, couldn't do legal stuff in her own name. There's a more subtle subtext suggesting that female mages chose to marry male sensitives because they were effectively safe from abuse, since they had so much of the real power in the relationship. They got over that. We developed other problems to go with it, instead. Mainly in the US, but here in Canada some, there was a concept called Manifest Destiny, which essentially said that God wanted white settlers to take over North America and make it a Christian nation.”

“They still haven't gotten over that particular belief, south of us, that they're meant to remake the world in their image,” Brennan muttered.

“Let's not go there just now.”

“I've met some very nice religious people and also some really scary religious people,” Miranda observed.

“Yep.” Van nodded. “The same basic mythology gets used towards some drastically opposite ends. Mages tend not to be very religious these days around here, but that isn't universal, and there's this Biblical thing about having dominion over the world that mages have had a bad habit of taking personally. I think mages got tangled up in religion and Manifest Destiny. Native mages were killed on sight by mages among the white settlers, and Native sensitives were snatched and basically used, and no one thought twice about it since the general assumption was that the Natives were inferior to whites anyway. Black mages born into slavery were killed on sight, and for that matter, there are still white mages in the southern US that will kill any non-white mage they can gang up on. But black sensitives born into slavery were valuable property, and sometimes bred deliberately. That plus the Native captured sensitives fed into an idea of sensitives as useful tools rather than people.”

“Ugh. That's horrible.”

“Very much so,” Oblique sighed. “When you think of how many mages died for being mages, who might very well have seen us as people, and how many sensitives suffered absolutely ghastly fates, it's sickening. But then, it's sort of lost in the rest of the mundane mess, I suppose.”

“Yeah, well, mundanes weren't in danger of being transformed into nasty shapes. But it's not just black or Native or whatever sensitives, it's all sensitives now.”

Van nodded. “There were a lot of small communities far from each other, and it would be very easy for a mage to quickly become the biggest fish in a small pond, and from there it's depressingly common for people to start thinking they're entitled to take whatever they want. As near as we can tell, it was just all of this rolled up together that create a slippery slope we all started to slide down, and now we have the mess we have. Contact between mages from Western Europe and Australia and mages in North America tends to be limited and rather strained. The two philosophies are just too incompatible and make everyone on both sides deeply uncomfortable. So we're pretty much on our own, really.”

“Fixing something that took this long to go wrong isn't going to be easy.”

“And that's the problem in a nutshell,” Brennan said. “We've been struggling to find an angle to tackle an enormous mountain of misinformation and ignorance. We thought we had one in Van's book, but we were missing a vital piece. Which it sounds like you're going to supply.”

“Good.” The two sensitives heaved the shelves up onto the rest of the desk, manoeuvred that piece onto the pegs anchoring it to the other piece, and shoved the whole thing against the wall.

“There,” Oblique said. “It fits perfectly, just like I said. It'll be nice, being able to chat online in odd moments while I'm cooking.”

“Who do you talk to?” Miranda asked inquisitively.

Oblique smiled. “Oh, people from all over. There are mundane people who want to feel like they belong to others, sometimes or always, and some who want someone to be a willing pet, and there are places they tend to gather. And a few individual people, from Australia and the UK and Germany mostly, that I enjoy spending time with.”


“Very.” Her gaze went to the two mages. “Can you put the computer back together while I go see what can be done about lunch? It's been a long morning and we've accomplished a lot, we all deserve something good.”

“I'll come help,” Miranda offered.

“Start thinking about being creative, too. Surely we can come up with something more interesting than my out-in-public look.”

So, Van and Brennan set about reassembling the computer, the sounds of the two sensitives in the kitchen a cozy background.


10 – Van

The four of them, somewhat later the same evening, settled in the living room—Van and Brennan at either end of the couch, Oblique leaning against Brennan but with one hand twined into Van's and a long leg, as bare as the rest of her, draped over his lap. Miranda curled herself into the chair, watching with interest.

“Well?” Brennan asked. “What kind of mood are you in?”

“A furry wildlife kind of mood,” Oblique said. “Stripes and spots and tails.”

“It's getting harder all the time to come up with new variations on that, but let's see what we can do.”

“There's the extremely simple one,” Van said, and gathered power from Oblique, used it to darken her skin to midnight with a faint shadowing of black-on-black spots, alter the lines of her face to make them more feline, give her green cat's eyes and a black kitty-tail.

Oblique made a purring noise, running her free hand down her body. “I always did like this one, but I'd rather something new for today.”

Not much of a surprise; getting there was half the fun, and even if she wanted to keep the first idea one of them had, there were generally a lot of other changes before she was satisfied.

Brennan, one hand resting lightly on her belly, changed the colour pattern to a dazzling creamy white with mist-grey spots, and added short dense fur along her outer arms and legs, probably down her back too. Miranda made a soft, “Ooh,” of appreciation.

They went through a variety of animals, Van standing briefly at one point to get a book from the shelves so that he could check on the exact markings of the various species of skunk, but Oblique decided she was feeling feline and asked them to go back to cats.

Miranda, through all this, observed and occasionally gave opinions and once or twice voiced suggestions. Van made sure to check frequently that she was handling this okay, but she showed no signs of distress or concern at all—possibly because of Oblique's obvious pleasure and encouragement and control.

“Cats,” Brennan mused. “Well, what big cats are there? Tigers we've done before, lions aren't very striking. Leopards, jaguars, cheetahs. Black leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards.”

“What's a clouded leopard?” Miranda asked.

“Pass me that book, Van? I can't visualize the facial markings clearly enough.”

Van handed him the book, and watched while Oblique's skin and fur shifted to the distinctive oblong splotches, with a longer and bushier tail than most other cats.

“That's really pretty,” Miranda said. “But the white and grey one back at the start was prettier.”

Van glanced at her, worried, picking up a note to her voice that hadn't been there before. Wistful, and trying hard to hide it?

Oblique opened her eyes, green-gold and slit-pupilled though that didn't technically match her current form, to look at Miranda, and said, very quietly, “Your choice, always.” Then, at normal volume, playfully, “I think she's right, that was rather striking, go back to that one so we can fix the details. Pay attention, please, Van.”

Van tried to obey, but concern for Miranda nagged at him. What was wrong?

Much to his surprise, Miranda abandoned the chair and wriggled herself onto the couch, mostly on his lap—Oblique moved her leg to make room. Automatically, Van slid his free arm around her to steady her, and gave her a questioning look.

She rested her head against his chest, angled so she could see Oblique, and said, “I don't like feeling all alone and left out.”

He let go of Oblique so he could hug her. “You aren't alone.”

“When I'm over there and you three are playing over here and I'm not part of it I am. And Oblique's having so much fun and I don't get to.” The unhappiness in her voice made Van cringe inside, not sure whether it were mage instinct or the empathy that had sent him into counselling that made the need to fix it so imperative.

“That's backwards,” he said softly. “This isn't something anyone else has any right to tell you to do. It isn't trying to leave you out, it's just trying not to push you into anything you don't want.”

“As opposed to refusing anything you do want,” Oblique said, white and grey again, and smiled. Her lips were now outlined with black that shaded inwards, a match for the black that circled her turquoise eyes and made tear-stripes; long wavy raven hair made a striking contrast to the white and grey. “It helps if you lose the clothes, though, it's harder with them on.”

“You don't have to, but you can,” Van said firmly, holding her tight, protectively.

For a couple of heartbeats, Miranda stayed very still, almost rigid.

Then she wriggled, and Van let go so she could get up. It didn't take her long to shed her T-shirt and jeans and panties. She hadn't been exaggerating; she had no more curves to her body or fullness to her breasts than a girl who hadn't yet reached puberty. She snuggled back onto Van's lap with no particular sign of modesty, only a shyness he thought was connected more to magic than nakedness.

“Matching kitty?” Oblique mused, her tail twitching.

Miranda shook her head. “Big cats like you like don't fit for me.”

Van smiled, hugging her close again. “There are lots of kinds of cats, not all big wild ones. May I?”


Delicately, he reached for power, and formulated a clear image of a tabby. Skin colour only, go slow and gentle and don't give her a shock...

Miranda made a soft noise, and all the tension drained away; she sagged against him bonelessly, her breathing accelerating.

“Very pretty stripes,” Oblique said, when Van finished.

Miranda opened her eyes. “Stripes?” She held out one arm so she could see. “Oh!”

Both hands were white, though on one it extended farther than the other; her upper arms were soft brown-gold, with fine black stripes circling them, broken on the inside. She looked down, found the white V down her chest, the same brown-gold to either side with the stripes tapering to nothing on her belly, and all the way down to her legs and feet, one white to mid-thigh, the other to mid-calf.

Brennan made a glamour-mirror for her to see her face, the tabby M on her forehead, the black around lips and eyes, the white that covered her lower face. She stared, wide-eyed, and Van held his breath, hoping she wouldn't react badly.

Slowly, she smiled. “Definitely pretty stripes. But that's all?”

“What else do you want?”

“Hm. I think I need a tail and stuff, so I match Oblique.”

Van obligingly reached, and felt her go blissfully limp again.

Oblique laughed, low in her throat. “Feels good, doesn't it?”

“Mmhmm,” Miranda said. “Doesn't hurt like him, feels wonderful...” She pulled herself together again, and inspected her hands, experimenting with the sharp claws that extended when she flexed the muscles near her fingertips. “Hey, neat.” The fur fascinated her; Van had followed Oblique's preferred pattern, and left chest and stomach and the inner surface of her limbs bare, if patterned, skin. It took her a minute to figure out how to control her tail, but she found the right motor controls without much difficulty.

“Happy with that, or more changes?” Van asked. “You can be fussy, I promise not to get annoyed. I'd rather you look exactly how you want to.”

Miranda considered that. “A bit more like a girl, maybe? Not a lot, just some?”

Hm, which meant adding, mostly. He had to do another general shift of overall proportions—if she measured herself, she'd be a fraction of an inch shorter—to give himself the leeway to add small breasts and some curve to her hips and bottom, much as he'd had to for the tail.

“How's that?”

“Perfect,” she said happily, and cuddled against him. The low rumbling deep in her throat startled her, but not Van. “Hey!”

“Small cats purr,” Oblique chuckled, and moved so she could give Miranda a kiss that was definitely not sisterly; Miranda returned it enthusiastically. “You look fantastic.”

“You too.”

“And we get to enjoy the view,” Brennan laughed. “Quite a spectacular view it is, too.”

“Definitely,” Van agreed.

Miranda glanced down at her clothes. “Hm, can't wear jeans with a tail.”

“Part of why I wear sarongs and skirts a lot,” Oblique said. “Sarongs are infinitely adaptable. When I wear clothes at all, that is. Even short fur is amazingly warm, and who's to see? But we can find you something.”

“Or make you something,” Van said. “If you want.” With Oblique, he would've simply done it, knowing she wouldn't mind or feel used; with Miranda, he thought it best to ask before drawing on her, every time. At least, until she was more familiar with this.


Van mentally constructed all the details of a pair of worn-soft blue jeans, changed them to shorts, and slit the back middle seam most of the way down, adding crisscrossed lacing along it. Metal buttons and zippers weren't an option, that was too dense for him to create even with Oblique, let alone the risk of hurting Randi; the back lacing should suffice, so he made them solid across the front. The tricky bit would be making sure they were the right size; reflexively, he laid both hands on her waist. That size, though he couldn't have put into concrete terms for anyone else.

Oblique's hand flashed out, cat-quick, to snatch the materializing shorts before they fell, and she handed them to Miranda. “Let's go upstairs for a minute, and we'll see what we can do. Unless you want to do more changes?” Van knew that tone, the languorous way she moved: thoroughly sated and content.

Miranda shook her head. “I like this.” She kept looking at her reflection in Brennan's mirror in wonder, but she wriggled off Van's lap.

“Are you going to make it back anytime soon?” Brennan asked in amusement, watching Oblique stroking her hand down Miranda's hair and back and shoulders.

Oblique smiled. “Maybe.”

As they left, Van heard Miranda giggle, “Black scales, brown skin, white fur... you're like a chameleon,” and Oblique's laughter and a reply he couldn't make out.

Alone with Brennan, Van let himself slump against the back of the couch, eyes closed. “I was not expecting that.”

“I can't say I was, either,” Brennan said. “But all's well, and I'm sure in no time she'll be as bad as Oblique and the rest. You didn't force her, hurt her, or frighten her, and she appears to genuinely like how she looks, although I expect it will take her a little time to get used to it. She more or less matches Oblique, which gives her a role model. Nothing to panic over.”

“I shouldn't have left her out, I should've just let you and Oblique play...”

“Van.” It came out almost as a growl. “Stop it now. Randi is perfectly fine, and has just had an extremely pleasurable, if short, experience. Which will go a long way towards combating any associations she may have picked up from the Vladislav she was with. If she changes her mind and wants you to undo it, I have no doubt at all she'll ask. Enough with the second-guessing.”

Van sighed, nodded, and sat forward. “You make too much sense. What do you figure the odds are they'll both end up in Oblique's bed?”

“High. Which means there's probably no point in sitting around waiting. Willing to let me see what you've done lately on your book?”


11 – Topaz

Topaz, sorting through the sun-dried clean laundry on the living room couch for items to hang up immediately, looked up in surprise when the door from the upstairs opened. Zephyr would be working on supper. Was there something he needed and wanted to check whether their kitchen had it?

When he recognized Lady Phyllida, his eyes dropped hastily.

“Go get Andreas,” she said. “We have a situation.”

He nodded quickly, aware that she wouldn't want him punished for speaking but preferring not to antagonize even in small ways, and abandoned the laundry.

In the door of the study, he hesitated.

His master and owner was, as usual, hunched over his desk, the surface of which was barely visible under the books and papers. A little more than twice Topaz's own twenty-one years, with a noticeable amount of grey showing at his temples, against the mid-brown, sensibly short hair. There was nothing really striking about his features, an image Topaz called up in memory since he couldn't see from here, although perhaps his nose was a trifle too large to fit with the rest of his face, his eyes maybe a fraction too deep-set, but he was as ready with a smile as a reprimand. He was nearly as tall as Topaz had considered himself to be, back when he was Jax, and very nearly as skinny, despite never having gone hungry. While he was sitting, there was no way to tell that one leg had been born wrong. Regardless, he enjoyed going for walks, insisted on doing so almost every day after supper, and it kept him reasonably healthy, despite the lack of obvious muscle.

He wasn't sure what his Lord was working on, but he did know that Lord Andreas was considered the foremost expert on mage laws in this domain and several nearby ones, and that other mages came to him when there was a tangled problem that needed to be resolved.

“My Lord?” he said softly.

“Not now, please,” Lord Andreas said distractedly, pulling a different book into reach.

“I'm sorry, my Lord, but...” He winced, wanted to drop back and hide behind the door-frame as Lord Andreas spun his chair around—as though there was any hope of being less visible with skin that was brilliant yellow and orange swirls on a scarlet background. He dared not look high enough to read his Lord's expression, but the rest of his body language suggested irritation. Not fair, flashed through his mind, coloured with resentment. If I don't obey you'll be even more mad. Can't win. “Lady Phyllida sent me to get you, she says there's a situation,” he said, all in one breath and as rapidly as he could.

The irritation faded, at least mostly, and was probably no longer directed at him which was the main thing. “Oh. All right.” He reached for his cane, used that and the desk to lever himself to his feet. He was stiff, Topaz noted—staying in the same position for too long without getting up to move around. He was probably going to want a massage before bed to loosen up achingly-tight muscles; Topaz made a mental note to check on the massage oil and make sure it would be quickly available. Probably it wouldn't stop at a massage, but that was okay: he'd had much less considerate bed partners, and no sex at all would have been worse.

He trailed behind Lord Andreas back to the living room, wondering what the crisis might be.

“Mother's just been taken to the hospital,” Lady Phyllida said without preamble, when she saw Lord Andreas. “They believe she had a small heart attack. Latest report is that she's not believed to be in immediate danger, in part because Luna called nine-one-one so quickly, but they do want to keep an eye on her and do a few further tests. Aunt Pelagia changed Luna to natural human and sent her to the hospital to stay with her. This means, of course, that there is no one to watch Xenia and Elias. Pelagia is bringing them here. Tonight.”

Oh, great. Topaz had met them at a family gathering over Christmas. There'd been half a dozen children, universally self-important and immersed in a more-mage-than-thou attitude that apparently made rudeness to sensitives a competitive sport—other than a girl in her early teens who was smugly vegan and self-righteously above anything but pity and treated all sensitives with a cloying shallow solicitude that was no better. Lady Phyllida's, as he recalled, weren't the eldest, but near to it.

That Lady Phyllida even had children had come as a major surprise, but Zephyr had filled in the details. Female mages were strongly pressured to have at least two children each, to keep the population stable. Lady Phyllida, who was older than Lord Andreas, had stubbornly lived entirely alone for most of her life, intent only on her incomprehensible mathematics. She had, at last, bowed to the pressure and had gotten Zephyr only then, intending to have him do much of the work.

To a mage who loathed noise and distraction, even one child was unbearable to live with. Topaz could believe that. That they were her own didn't necessarily mean that her patience would undergo a magical transformation; it could, he'd seen it happen, but he'd seen it not happen, too. How much worse must it be for any mage, raised to avoid contact and to value control, let alone one like Lady Phyllida? So, accepting that she just couldn't do it, she'd asked her own mother to take over, and had the second as rapidly as possible.

Having them here wasn't going to be pleasant.

“Immediately, and with little time to pack, I imagine, knowing Pelagia,” Lord Andreas muttered. “She will, I assume, call as soon as there's further news on her condition?”

“I would expect so. Only Pelagia herself is as close kin.”

“This is going to be inconvenient, to say the least. They still have school tomorrow, and may still be here Monday as well. Although I'm not certain having them here on holidays would be any less likely to throw this household into chaos. All right. Topaz? The room upstairs that has two single beds in it? Make sure it has clean bedding and is generally clean and ready for use, and that there are plenty of towels and such upstairs. Then see if Zephyr needs a hand with adjusting supper for two more mouths. If nothing else, I'm sure you and I can improvise something for ourselves while the children have our share.”

“I'm sure that won't be necessary,” Lady Phyllida said. “Zephyr will think of something. But the help could be very useful.”

“Go ahead,” Lord Andreas told Topaz, saving him from trying to decide whether that was the full list of orders or if he should wait for more.

“Yes, my Lord.” Topaz circled respectfully around Lady Phyllida on the way to the stairs up.

Zephyr, in the kitchen, with skin currently an impossibly pure white and unruly shoulder-length hair of forest-green with pointed ears peeking through, barely glanced at him. The elder sensitive's expression showed an uncharacteristic intensity of exasperation and resignation that didn't do much to help Topaz' nervousness about this sudden change in the otherwise consistent and stable routine of their lives.

He checked the upstairs linen closet, made a mental note to find more clean towels for up here, and went to check on the bedroom.

Two twin beds, on opposite walls, each with a narrow dresser at the foot, and a single desk between the heads, placed under the window. He knew enough about kids to know that only having one of anything was asking for trouble, but there was nothing he could do about it.

By the time a car pulled in the driveway, Topaz was in the kitchen with Zephyr, providing an inexpert second pair of hands for transferring food into serving dishes and setting the kitchen table for four.

The children in question were a boy of maybe twelve and a girl who looked about the same so he figured she was the younger of the two. They arrived with a suitcase and another bag each, Lord Elias with an expression of profound annoyance and Lady Xenia with one of virtuous nobility that verged on smugness, both dressed in the cutting edge of cool if Topaz were any judge. They had the same lack of distinctive physical traits mages generally shared, maybe from too much interbreeding within a limited pool, brown-haired, medium-skinned, medium build edging towards light because using magic burned calories.

“Go put your things in your room,” Lady Phyllida said briskly. “I believe supper will be ready very soon. The table won't hold six, so Zephyr, Topaz, you'll need to find somewhere else so we can catch up over supper.”

“I believe we can look after ourselves that long so you can eat in peace, however, without waiting on us,” Lord Andreas said. Topaz wondered whether he even saw the incredulous look Lord Elias shot in his direction.

All in all, he was perfectly happy to eat downstairs in Lord Andreas' kitchen rather than upstairs.

He'd learned, soon after Lady Phyllida took Zephyr's voice away again, that Zephyr could still whisper, though with little volume, but preferred gestures and expressions as involving less effort. The amount of talking he'd done in Topaz' first few days had been absolutely extraordinary for him, and spoke worlds about how badly he'd wanted to make it even a little easier. Whether Zephyr had always been relatively quiet or if it was just the same philosophic acceptance that seemed to be Zephyr's reaction to pretty much anything, Topaz remained unsure, but it didn't seem to matter at this point.

Comfortable friendly silence was infinitely more pleasant than being with the mages and probably enduring snide remarks from the younger pair.

“You've got them up there overnight,” Topaz murmured, while they gathered up their dishes to take upstairs and start cleaning up. “Good luck.”

Zephyr rolled his eyes, sighed deeply, shrugged, and shooed him down the hall towards the stairs.

* * *

“Uncle Andreas?”

Topaz, on his loveseat, was close enough to hear the almost-stifled sigh as Lord Andreas lowered the book he was searching through. “Yes?”

Given that this was Lord Elias' fourth interruption today, all of them variations of “I'm bored!” and it wasn't much past lunch, Topaz wondered when his Lord's temper was going to fray.

“I dug out my old Playstation from downstairs like you said and hooked it up to the TV.” His sigh suggested martyrdom. “The games I liked then are mostly pretty lame, but it's better than nothing. I mean, how do you guys live with no Internet or...”

“We have dial-up,” Lord Andreas said. “That's what's available in this area currently, and it's enough for its purposes.” Topaz had heard him repeat variations of that frequently over the past couple of days, getting shorter each time. “What would you like, Elias? I do have work to do.”

“It's Saturday, don't you ever take a day off?”

“When I have no urgent work to do, yes. What would you like?”

“These games mostly suck less with someone else to play them with. Xen's upstairs playing with her new toy, and you and Mom are busy. Can I have your sensitive for a while?”

Lady Xenia's 'new toy' was, in fact, Zephyr, currently a living version of a Barbie doll right down to the unlikely curves and gravity-proof breasts, though at least Lady Phyllida hadn't done anything weird like making his skin—or should that be her skin?—look plastic or anything. Lady Xenia had spent last night, between homework and supper and finally going to bed, playing with Zephyr's now hip-length blonde hair, and had progressed this morning to practising her rudimentary illusion abilities by creating the appearance of clothing. Zephyr tolerated it with more grace than Topaz was sure he would have, even though there was really no choice but to submit to it. At least it was keeping Lady Xenia quiet and busy.

Lord Andreas glanced at Topaz, and nodded. “Go ahead. Have fun.” He sounded less carefully controlled, more indulgent.

“Cool. Well? Come on, already!”

Topaz uncoiled from his usual position and followed the younger mage to the living room.

“You ever play any games?” Lord Elias asked, the scorn in his voice suggesting that he was expecting a negative answer.

“Some, in arcades, my Lord,” Topaz said, keeping his tone carefully docile.

Lord Elias rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, welcome to the twenty-first century. Although a Playstation2 barely qualifies. You see anything you know how to play?”

Topaz warily flipped through the small plastic storage bin of games. A couple he recognized, most he didn't.

Hm, Mortal Kombat. He was used to an earlier version, with arcade controls rather than console ones, but it was the most familiar of the lot, which was what he'd been told to look for.

“Mortal Kombat, my Lord?”

“Yeah, okay.” Lord Elias actually looked moderately interested. “We can just goof around for a bit so you can get used to the controls. I haven't played in a while so I need to remember.”

“Yes, my Lord. Thank you.”

Lord Elias sat on the edge of the couch; Topaz stayed on the floor, though he figured he could get away with sitting cross-legged instead of kneeling.

The scornful look came back when Topaz chose Sonya Blade, a female Special Forces fighter; he chose, for himself, Raiden, who was a thunder god with a variety of blatantly magical moves. No big surprise, really.

“Don't get any stupid ideas like throwing the game by picking a character I can beat too easy,” Lord Elias said. “That's going to be boring.”

“No, my Lord. I'm used to Sonya. I'm not trying to lose.”

“All right, then. But I want this to be a challenge.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I don't know why he doesn't turn you into a girl and leave you that way for real. That's the first thing I'm going to do when I have a sensitive.”

“That's up to Lord Andreas, my Lord. And up to you.” He wouldn't be the first, from what Topaz had seen. It hadn't been long enough that he didn't still find shapechanging uncomfortable and nerve-wracking, and he tried not to think too much about what his Lord might do—although compared to what he'd seen at family and social gatherings, Lord Andreas had mild tastes. Unless it was just more of that kindness, meant to give him some time to get used to it before getting more creative...

Sonya's strengths lay not with flashy tricks, but with speed and agility. That meant she was often underestimated, but in the hands of someone with the reflexes and coordination to use her well, she could be extremely effective.

They messed around a bit, Topaz learning what moves Sonya had in this version of the game and how to translate what he knew onto a different controller. He made what notes he could about what Lord Elias was concentrating on, and found as he'd rather expected that the young mage seemed fond of the flashy electrical and teleport moves at the expense of basic combat technique.

A lifetime ago, he'd lurked in arcades, watching for young men out with a girlfriend or a group of friends, ones who were winning and easy to manipulate into wagering on a game, with Lila variably his girlfriend or flirting with his opponent, depending on the circumstances. They'd found Mortal Kombat one of the best for that.

Don't think about Lila.

She wouldn't even know you anymore, anyway.

More time would have been better, but he could see Lord Elias starting to get impatient. He'd just have to work out the rest on the fly. “My Lord?” he said tentatively, when they finished that session. “I think I can keep from boring you.”

“Good.” Lord Elias started a new game. “I really hope you can. So far you kinda suck at this.”

“I'll try, my Lord.”

He did manage to keep from being a punching bag, even with Lord Elias pounding on him mercilessly, but continued to puzzle out what worked best. As he caught on, the tide of the game began to turn, and Lord Elias' chiding over a string of victories, by an increasingly narrow margin, became a frown and some muttered cursing. The frown deepened into a scowl and the cursing went silent in fierce concentration, as Topaz began to win enough rounds to make each match's conclusion much less certain.

The first time Topaz' Sonya won two out of three rounds and killed his Raiden, he threw Topaz an incredulous look that was about half shock.

“Luck,” he said curtly. “You can't do it again.”

Feeling a tingle of pleasure and confidence he hadn't experienced in months, Topaz did so. And a third time as well, this time, with the game's trademark gore, gleefully removing Raiden's heart and then his arm and beating him with it.

“What the fuck?” Lord Elias tossed his controller on the floor, twisted to glower at Topaz. “How the fuck did you do that? You could hardly play it when we started!”

“I learn fast, my Lord.”

“No one learns that fast!” The rising volume of his voice made Topaz cringe: angry mage equalled bad thing, no matter who that mage was. He dropped the controller, pulled in on himself, shifted position into the submissively kneeling crouch that would make him as small a target as possible for whatever limited protection that might be.

None, really. Lord Elias stood up, came a step closer, then another, easily within arm's length though he made no attempt at contact. The proximity itself felt like a threat, every bit as much as the torrent of words.

That momentary satisfaction of being able, even vicariously, to thump with impunity on a mage and win was scant comfort. Lord Andreas was going to be angry that he'd upset Lord Elias, and if nothing else, this was yet another interruption in his work.

“Elias?” Lord Andreas said from the doorway. “What I'm hearing doesn't sound like playing a game. Would you care to tell me why you're verbally abusing Topaz? And you will please back at least two steps farther away from my sensitive instead of looming over him like that.”

Topaz closed his eyes, felt sick and cold. Any hope that his own Lord wouldn't be disturbed or drawn into this had just vanished. And of course if it came down to the word of a mage against the word of a sensitive, he was certain to be the one who lost.

He wasn't sure what else he could have done, though. Try to play hard enough to keep Lord Elias challenged without winning? That would have required a level of skill with this game's dynamics he just didn't have. So what on Earth was I supposed to do? How could I possibly have won, or at least not lost, in this whole mess? This isn't fair! Pull me out of what passed for a life, tell me I have to obey mages, then get pissed off at me when I try my best? What was I supposed to do?

Even if the whole situation had been impossible, he nonetheless knew with miserable certainty that he'd failed his Lord and his Lord would be displeased with him, for not keeping his nephew happily occupied and out of the way. It might be easier to bear if he thought his Lord would just hit him or punish him and let it go—and that he was thinking that only made the resentment worse.

“He beat me,” Lord Elias said angrily, though he did obediently retreat the requested distance, which was at least some relief even if it was eclipsed by his own Lord's thinly-masked annoyance. “He started off acting like he didn't know what he was doing, and then just turned around and started beating me every time!”

“Did you tell him to let you win?”

“Of course not. That would be boring!”

“So you told him to give you a challenge?”

“Well, yeah!”

“And he gave you what you asked for?”

“I... he wasn't supposed to start winning every game!”

“So there was a maximum percentage of games he was allowed to win?”

“I think he lied to me about not knowing the game very well! He was trying to make me look stupid! He's just a sensitive, he can't be that good! He has to have been cheating somehow!”

“Topaz,” Lord Andreas said. “Have you ever played that game before?”

“Not on a Playstation, my Lord,” Topaz said meekly. “Only in an arcade. I did play it a lot there. The controls are different and the special moves are different.”

“But you're familiar with another version of the same game. Elias, did you ask him that beforehand?”

“Yeah,” Lord Elias said. “It would take forever for it to be fun if he had to learn one from nothing. I told him to find one he knows.”

“Topaz. Did you, in any way, deceive Elias, or cheat, or otherwise win unfairly?”

“No, my Lord!” Topaz said vehemently. “I wouldn't...!” Lord Andreas' raised hand cut him off, and he bit his lower lip hard.

“So, Elias, he did what you said and told you which game he's familiar with, and he applied what he knows from another version to this one to give you a challenge, as you told him to do. And when he picked it up successfully enough to start winning, you got angry at him for it.”


“Does that cover the facts?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.” The answer came out only reluctantly.

“Has Topaz acted in any way inappropriate in anything he has done or said?”

“Well, no, not technically, but he cheated or something!”

Lord Andreas nodded. “You're on your own for the rest of the day.” Lord Elias, in disbelief, opened his mouth to protest, but Lord Andreas continued right over him, without changing the level tone at all. “And if you want to have someone to play against tomorrow, you can apologize to Topaz for scolding him for doing exactly what you told him to do, and you can ask if he would like to play further around his other responsibilities, which will be his choice. Stop there before you even finish saying that. Whose household is this?”

“Yours,” Lord Elias said sullenly.

“Unless Topaz behaves in a way that is inappropriate towards a mage, he is my sensitive in my household, which you are also currently in, and I determine what's right. No sensitive can learn how to please their mage if the rules are changed on them and they're in trouble for doing as they're told to do. It's an impossible trap and it's unfair. Think about how you'd feel if you were told to do something and then punished for doing it. Topaz, come on, up you get and come with me. No more games today.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Topaz said softly, rising quickly and falling into place at his Lord's heels back to his office.

“You look frightened,” Lord Andreas said, his voice unexpectedly gentle, one hand resting on the corner of his desk for support. “Do you honestly think I'd be angry with you when you didn't do anything wrong?”

“I... I don't know whether I did anything wrong, my Lord.” It came out almost as low as a whisper. “You were disturbed again because of it.”

“Not because of anything you did. You did as he asked.” He sighed. “I had hoped you might be able to have some fun playing for a while. I wonder if I was that bad at that age. We can hope he'll grow out of it. Ah well. Come here.”

Nervously, Topaz obeyed.

Lord Andreas gave him a brief affectionate kiss and ran a hand through his hair. “I will not allow you to be treated unfairly. Please believe that.”

“Yes, my Lord.” He tried not to shiver, the relief that he hadn't failed swamped by the flood of warm reassurance that his Lord was pleased with him.

Had, in fact, taken his part against another mage.

Right then, he understood why Veritas had loved their mutual master, even while he hated the fact that it mattered to him beyond his own immediate safety.

“You're mine, and I will protect you as much as I possibly can.” Another sigh. “Now. I do need to get this finished. Supper will take Zephyr longer since it's for six, not four. Suppose you go remind him of that and maybe help out, hm? If Xenia argues, tell her I said so.” A flash of humour crept into his voice. “They may think the world revolves around them, but I don't believe either is likely to interrupt Phyllida when she's working unless they feel like being exiled outside and told to amuse themselves out there. I imagine he could use a break.”

“Thank you, my Lord.” It might actually be good to be away from his Lord for a bit, to let his chaotic feelings settle down.

Lady Xenia sulked over losing her toy, but didn't argue; she just went to the children's shared bedroom to read.

In the kitchen, Zephyr gave Topaz a quick kiss and a smile of thanks.

Topaz shrugged. “Lord Andreas' idea. But I'm glad he thought of it. Very bad?”

Zephyr sighed, gave him a one-shoulder half-shrug and a rueful look that said as clearly as words, could be worse. His—her—expression turned questioning, blonde eyebrows raised.

“Lord Elias got angry that I beat him at Mortal Kombat. Lord Andreas made him leave me alone and said he can't have me to play with any more today. He wasn't mad at me.”

Zephyr shook her head, not surprised; thick blonde hair fell forward over a bare shoulder, and she rolled her eyes and headed for the basket on the counter that held a variety of small useful items including hair elastics.

“And if he wants to play tomorrow, he has to apologize to me.” That was probably not going to make Lord Elias any better disposed towards him. “And Lord Andreas said it's my choice whether I want to.”

Zephyr nodded, gathering up her hair with both hands, a heavy-duty elastic in one.

“I probably don't want to. But I'll do it anyway. 'Cause otherwise, he'll keep bothering Lord Andreas all day.”

Another nod. Zephyr wrapped the elastic firmly around the ponytail, and came back to him. It was a little distracting having her look like that, but it wasn't the first time Lady Phyllida had made Zephyr be a girl, although it was uncommon; more just that she did look an awful lot like a doll brought to life. She pressed a kiss just in front of his ear and whispered, “Exactly.” Briskly, she strode across the kitchen to the fridge and opened the door to rummage inside, beckoning him over so she could hand him a variety of vegetables from it.

Exactly? What did she mean, exactly?

Lady Xenia wandering into the kitchen in search of a drink interrupted the discussion, and once she was satisfied and left with her glass of juice, they concentrated on making supper and another of Topaz' sporadic cooking lessons. Deeper questions could wait. Right now, they just needed to get through this visit with their mages minimally inconvenienced by it.


12 – Van

The alarm clock on the nightstand began to beep.

Not quite awake, Van automatically started to reach for it, only to discover that his arm was pinned to the bed. Irritably, he gave the snooze button a mental slap, and the beeping fell silent.

Miranda stirred sleepily, and opened feline eyes to look at him. “'Morning.”

She felt so good, all curled up against him with her head on his shoulder, scarcely any weight at all but so warm and comfortable. That she'd asked if she could come sleep with him, earlier in the week, hadn't really surprised him beyond the initial moment of being caught off-guard; that what she had in mind was quite a lot more active than sleep definitely hadn't been unexpected, given everything he knew about sensitives. But he'd still been more than happy to welcome her, surprised or not.

He pressed a kiss to the tabby M on her forehead. “Good morning. Maybe I'll just call in sick and stay here with you.”

“You can't do that. People need you. Other than me. 'Sides, it's Friday, after today you've got two days off for playing.”

“True, I suppose. I'd better get up and shower, then. If someone will let me up.”

She chuckled, and rolled away, freeing him. “I'm going to wait, I promised Bren I'd help him with a bunch of stuff outside, and I'm bound to need one afterwards.”

“Very likely.” He stole a quick kiss, and headed for the bathroom.

Mornings were becoming a comfortable routine. Brennan was almost invariably up first; he made coffee along with breakfast for himself, and headed outside. Oblique usually got up about the same time as Van, but since she left him the bathroom, she beat him downstairs, and Miranda now generally did as well, healthy and well-rested and completely recovered physically. By the time Van got to the kitchen, clean and dressed, Oblique usually had breakfast of some sort waiting and the three of them ate together. It was, Van thought, a wonderful way to start the day, if the day simply had to start in the morning.

He stole a kiss from each, gave Miranda's stripy tail a gentle playful tug—she mrowled in outrage and spun on him, claws out, which made Oblique laugh—and left for work.

The morning went quickly, a couple of scheduled appointments, a chance to catch up on some notes and the like. The second appointment was a regular, a man who had learned a number of anger and control reactions from his own father and grandfather and was genuinely trying to change it. That he adored his current boyfriend and was afraid of driving him off was a part of it; Van had met the boyfriend and heard a great deal about him, and the support from that quarter certainly helped. It was a positive sort of way to end the morning, unlike the frustrating earlier session with someone who seemed simply to want someone to complain to, yet showed no willingness at all to act to change any of the things that made her so unhappy.

Alone in his office, he leaned back, thinking. One concern that he still had, about Randi and the hunters, involved the official proprieties of sensitive behaviour in public. Probably she'd be all right, but the thought that Elena and Brock could take Miranda from him because of a slip or a hesitation, due to uncertainty or unfamiliarity, terrified him. He'd mentioned it to Brennan last night; Brennan had simply said, “Call Kerry.”

What his mother could do, Van wasn't sure, but Brennan presumably had a reason. By this hour, she'd be up and awake—calling Kerry in the morning tended to mean catching her in a grumpy mood. She was even less of a morning person than Van was. He could hear Beth and Hayley and Zach out in the waiting area, which was where they all normally ate lunch, for the company and the chance to talk; he got up, closed the door, and seated himself at his desk so he could reach the phone.


Male voice, a pleasant baritone; his mother's sensitive. “Hey, Rich, it's Van.”

“Hi!” The neutral tone warmed considerably. “Oblique told me you have a new friend.”

Van rolled his eyes. Sometimes he was sure the Donovan sensitives had a better idea what was going on than the mages did. “Yes, and I'll do whatever I have to, to keep her safe from the damned hunters.”

“I wish we could help.”

“Might be possible. Is Mom around?”

Richard laughed. “Yes, and she's even awake enough not to be grouchy. I'll go call her.”


A pause, and in the background he heard Rich calling Kerry's name and telling her who was on the phone, then his mother's voice. “Good morning, Van.”

“I have a problem, and Bren suggested I ask you.”

“Mmhmm? Something involving Miranda?”

Then again, any mage with the sense to listen to one's sensitive stayed pretty well informed. “They're coming back on Wednesday. Randi's adapting incredibly quickly, she's in tabby stripes right now, and amazingly comfortable with magic. But the only mages she's ever been around are that Vladislav sadist, hunters, and Bren and I. None of this is great for learning sensitive social skills in mage society.”

“Hm, yes, one doesn't put on a play without rehearsal even if everyone has read the script. Suppose I have a small private gathering on Sunday, just a handful of close family. We can all play the game for two or three hours, for a good cause.” She chuckled. “Rich is nodding. That will give her a chance to get accustomed to the idea under controlled conditions, where if she slips, there won't be any consequences. I'm sure Oblique and Rich and the others can teach her what she needs to know. It'll be useful to her afterwards, too, she'll need it.”

“That would be perfect,” Van said in relief. “What time do you want us there?”

“Let's make it a barbecue and beach-party. Come around three or so, and expect to be here for the evening. We'll give Miranda her practice, then we can all relax and have fun. Shvaughn and Azure will be free, probably Aiden and Sage and Neely, maybe Grania and her pair. That's a large enough group for her to get the idea, we don't need to go outside immediate family. You might not want to tell her exactly how safe she really is, though. It's a more realistic rehearsal that way.”

“She's going to kill me,” Van sighed. “I'm lying to her again. All right, roughly three on Sunday.” He didn't bother asking if they should bring food. It was a given that the sensitives would arrange between themselves what needed to be brought by whom to make everything work properly, and it had been made gently but firmly clear to him before by the sensitives in question that they could work out the logistics more easily without well-meaning interference. “Sounds good. Thanks. I appreciate this. A lot.”

“You're very welcome. Now, aren't you supposed to be at work?”

“Lunchtime. But I'd better go eat. Bye.”

Feeling much better, he collected his lunch from his backpack and went out to join the others and find out what Oblique had sent him today.

He got home later than usual, having stopped at the grocery store with a list from Oblique of things they needed.

Brennan met him at the door to help carry the boxes—Van was still favouring his right hand a little, though it had mostly healed, and there were quite a lot of groceries. Oblique and Miranda were in the kitchen already; with four pairs of hands, putting things away progressed rapidly.

“Mom's having a barbecue on Sunday,” Van told them, while he stacked frozen juice in the freezer. “She's still working out the guest list, but just the usual immediate family, from the sounds of it.”

“Wonderful!” Oblique said in delight.

“My middle sister Shvaughn lives with our oldest sister Kerry, Van's mother,” Brennan explained to Miranda. “Tinker and Azure are theirs. Sage belongs to my cousin Aiden, and Unity and Meta to Shvaughn's daughter Grania. Except that Meta mostly looks after Grania's children, and doesn't always make it at the moment. Neely is Aiden's niece and has been living with him for something like a year while he's teaching her. That's what we consider to be the immediate family, although that may not be precisely who's present.”

Miranda nodded, finished putting cans away. “Are you sure I should be there?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Van said firmly. That she was so nervous made him ache, knowing he could end it with a few words but that it would in the long run be the wrong thing to do. “Word's spread by now that I have a sensitive, and it would look extremely odd if I left you at home.”

“Along with implying that he doesn't trust his control over you,” Brennan added, and vanished briefly into the laundry room with an armload of meat to put in the chest freezer.

“You'll be fine, I'll be with you,” Oblique said reassuringly. Van prayed she wouldn't say too much—maybe he should have called earlier, while Randi and Bren were outside? No, Brennan had probably told her about Van's concern, Rich might even have phoned her, and if nothing else, Oblique was frighteningly good at figuring things out. “It's always a little scary, the first few times, but you get used to it. You already know the accepted rules of sensitive behaviour in public.”

“Yeah, but hearing about them and actually doing it aren't the same.”

Well, yes, that's the whole point... please don't let her work it out alone.

Oblique caught his eye, behind Miranda's back, and winked. Yep, as usual, Oblique knew exactly what was going on.

“You have to do it sometime.”

“I suppose. It's just... of the five mages I've ever seen, three were being nasty to me.”

“And these ones will be close relatives of the ones who never have. We'll look after you, sweetheart, you'll see.”


13 – Van

Sunday turned out to be a perfect day for a barbecue: sunny and warm, not hot, with just a hint of a breeze, a few fluffy clouds drifting lazily overhead.

Oblique had demanded a return to her dragon-form, with a small modification or two, largely the absence of the webbing linking arms to sides. But, otherwise, she was back in tiny scales, black that shimmered with every colour of the spectrum, especially in the sunlight. She'd found a rather short skin-tight strapless white dress to wear, with a slit up the back to allow her serpentine tail more freedom; it did a lot to emphasize the scales, along with curves that were definitely not reptilian.

Miranda preferred to keep her tabby stripes, and Van made no effort to convince her otherwise. She did look cute, in her back-slit denim shorts and a red tank-top.

Oblique picked up the huge bowl of potato salad she'd made the night before. The trunk of the car already held the other part of their contribution, a liberal assortment of cans and bottles of juice and pop. “I think we're all ready. Is there anything else?”

Van slung his backpack—with towels, swimsuits, and the like, plus sunblock for him and Brennan—over one T-shirt-clad shoulder, and shook his head. “I think that's it.” He gave Miranda a one-armed hug, reassuringly. “Relax, Randi, you'll be okay, I promise.”

“If you say so,” she said doubtfully, but she came out to the car with them.

The sensitives had the back seat—Miranda obviously suddenly realizing why the car windows were tinted as dark as legally possible in the back. Oblique grumbled a bit about getting comfortable with her heavy tail caught under her, but squirmed until she got settled. Miranda stayed very quiet during the ten-minute drive; Van worried about her, wished he could make her feel better, but said nothing. Which left Brennan and Oblique to fill the silence, which they did.

The house Van and Brennan had grown up in was very large and very old, and had been in the Donovan family for a long time. Kerry, her sister, and their mother had lived here as long as Van could remember; he missed his grandmother badly, but she'd proven a few years back that no mage power could fight cancer, no matter how great the strength of will. To add to the grief, her sensitive who had been with her for almost fifty years suicided immediately afterwards.

But the house still stood, next to the lake, screened from the road by distance and a wall of trees.

Van parked next to a car he recognized as his cousin Grania's.

“Finally.” Oblique was out of the car in a heartbeat, her tail swishing as she worked the kinks out. “The things I go through to look good...” But she said it mostly under her breath, so Van and Brennan could pretend not to have heard. Miranda passed her the salad, and got out; Van popped the trunk before he and Brennan followed suit.

The front door opened and Richard came out. No... Van did a small mental shift. Tinker, not Rich.

Miranda stared at him, eyes wide. Van tried to see him as Randi might, and thought he could understand the amazement: Rich was big, larger even than Van or Brennan, and at the moment, he was a muscular tiger, quite a lot furrier than Oblique usually preferred, black stripes and white belly and brilliant golden-orange, and completely naked except a wide studded leather collar. Not that anything showed, since cats had everything tucked away neatly inside. The massive humanoid cat was definitely impressive.

“Lady Kerry is in the back yard, my Lords,” he said, eyes low, perfectly respectful. “My Lady sent me to bring inside what you brought.”

“Thanks,” Van said. “It's all in the trunk, except the bowl Oblique has.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Tinker relieved Oblique of the heavy bowl, and picked up one of the cases of pop with his other hand. Van didn't miss Oblique's admiring look, or the way her tongue ran along her lips. Or Tinker's wink in return. But he pretended he hadn't seen.


Miranda shook herself, and hastened to join him. “My Lord?”


Brennan simply glanced at Oblique, and she came, as well, around the house to the back yard.

The picnic table was near the gas barbecue, but currently was bare; half a dozen lawn chairs and a couple of blankets had been arranged on the grass, not far away.

Kerry was in one, her greying hair pinned up, the body under her swimsuit and robe softening noticeably these days. Aiden, who was first cousin to her and Shvaughn and Brennan, was nearest her, long thin legs stretched out in front of him, long thin fingers wrapped around a glass. Shvaughn herself, hard and fit, and her daughter Grania, slightly overweight but voluptuously curved, with long wheat-gold hair, were relaxing in two of the others.

Kerry greeted them with a warm smile. “Perfect day for a picnic, isn't it?”

“Absolutely,” Brennan said, claiming a chair; Van took the last. “Hi, all. How are the kids, Grania?”

“Doing wonderfully, thank you.”

“They're home with Meta?” Van asked, already sure of the answer. Grania had two sensitives, but one of them stayed home to raise her beloved small twins. Usually, the entire household came, but if Meta and the little ones had been present, there'd have been no overlooking them.

Grania nodded. “They have a new wading pool, with a slide, and they're having a grand old time. Meta just never seems to get tired, I'd be lost without her. How could I concentrate on everything else if I had to worry about them, instead of knowing they're in the best of hands?”

“Glad to hear it,” Brennan said. “And I can just imagine how much fun they're having splashing around. How's your newest play coming, Kerry?”

“I think it has a lot of potential, although we'll have to wait and see, we've barely started.”

“Make sure we get tickets, hm? Oblique? Get me, oh, a can of root beer, and a glass with ice in it?”

“Yes, my Lord,” Oblique said, but she waited a heartbeat, her gaze flicking from Miranda to Van.

“The same, but orange,” Van told her.

“Yes, my Lord,” Miranda echoed softly, and followed Oblique in the direction of the house.

The mages chatted about Kerry's theatre, Shvaughn's art, Brennan's garden, Aiden's studies in European history and recent trip to Scotland, Van's counselling, Grania's restaurant and children, Neely's absence due to a ju-jitsu tournament. Oblique and Miranda returned, with the requested drinks; Van accepted his with an off-hand, “Well done. Sit,” and returned to the conversation. Miranda obediently knelt at his feet, just a little to one side so she wasn't in the way if he chose to move. Oblique must have given her some of the finer points to go with the technical rules. Normally, Brennan would have sent Oblique to the kitchen, to help the other sensitives, but that would have left Miranda alone with six mages; Van was grateful he didn't.

Kerry stretched, lazily. “Is anyone else getting hungry?”

“I think I could go for some good food,” Aiden conceded.

Grania echoed the stretch and stood up. “I imagine Unity's finished making hamburger patties by now.”

“Your way?” Van asked, with interest. Grania mixed something into the meat she refused to divulge, but it made her burgers, especially barbecued, heavenly.

“Of course my way. There are hot dogs, too, for anyone with no taste. Or for the sensitives, if we run out of burgers.” She grinned, and departed in the direction of the kitchen, her long strides making her colourful cotton skirt swirl around her ankles.

Grania being by far the best able to take charge of the food, the others left her to it. Brennan got up and went for a walk with Kerry to take a closer look at the flowers he'd planted earlier that spring, in and around the rock garden he'd started designing back in his teens and had been perfecting ever since; Oblique was told to stay where she was.

Shvaughn leaned back in her chair, took a sip of fruit punch, and looked Miranda over thoughtfully. “Cute little thing,” she told Van. “You've had her, what, a couple of weeks?”

“Two weeks this Wednesday.”

“You're doing a good job training her, she's well-behaved for a new one.”

“Thanks. Oblique's a good example for her, that helps, I think.”

“I imagine having had a taste of harsher treatment would also help.”

Van felt Miranda wince slightly. Yet, in public, most mages felt free to make comments far more callous. It was one of those things they had to get used to until changes could happen. “Oh, probably. She's smart enough to figure out when she has it good.”

Unity began to bring condiments and dishes out to the picnic table, while Grania carried a platter heaped with burgers to the barbecue and opened it to reveal foil-wrapped potatoes already inside. The sensitive was all sleek glossy feathers today, her chest white, her back black intricately marked with white, her head black and her eyes red. That looked familiar from somewhere; it was the white on the sides and back of her neck that triggered sudden recognition. Loons were a familiar sight on the lake, he should have identified her more quickly than that. The collar around her neck was black suede, almost invisible except for the metal plaque riveted to it; otherwise, she wore no more than Rich.

The sound of a vehicle coming up the driveway startled all of them, mage and sensitive alike; Kerry gestured to everyone to stay, and circled the house to the front. No one should be here, uninvited. Mundanes meant sending the sensitives all in the house in a hurry; the response to other mages depended on who they were.

Kerry came back around the house with four people. Shvaughn and Aiden both half-turned to see; Van didn't need to, he could see from where he was, two in khaki denim, two behind who were silent and visibly tried to take up as little space in the universe as possible. He saw Brennan, by the rock-garden, go very still. Grania simply glanced over her shoulder, and went back to piling potatoes in a shallow bowl.

“I'm sure we have enough food for guests,” Kerry was saying, her tone artificially bright.

“We were in the area and thought we'd stop by,” Brock said casually. “A good dinner is an unexpected bonus.”

Van felt both fists clench, and fought the instinct to bolt to his feet. Miranda shivered and inched a little closer, but didn't otherwise move. Trusting him to protect her, he thought, and felt sick at the thought that he might not be able to. Oblique bent a rule and shifted position so she was closer to Miranda, but dared not actually touch.

Shvaughn got to her feet, gave Van a quick reassuring smile while her back was to the hunters, and made a gesture, blocked from them by her body, that he interpreted as stay. At least he wasn't alone; his family would do everything in their power to keep him and Miranda safe. Van didn't think any of them had any doubts exactly why they'd really chosen to appear here and now. She turned away, strode across the grass to the hunter team.

“We didn't think busy folks like yourselves would have any interest in a small family dinner,” she said. “Of course you're welcome to join us, Grania always makes far too much food. It comes from running a restaurant, I suppose, she's used to thinking in bulk. I suppose you didn't bring anything to swim in, the lake's lovely today.”

“Now that I have you alone and we won't bore the others,” Aiden said, his tone light, “maybe I can get your thoughts on the social dynamics in Ireland and Scotland as Christianity was introduced. There's a considerable difference between knowing the facts and knowing why people acted the way they did, and frankly, I trust you more than any of the works I've read on the subject.”

Van forced his attention away from the hunters, fixed it on Aiden instead, grateful for the distraction. Staring at the hunters like a cornered rabbit was dangerous in itself. “I don't know that much about the subject, you'll have to tell me what it is I'm giving you thoughts about.” It was a subject they could keep going on for hours without ever straying into heretical ground—they'd had similar discussions before—which was probably why Aiden had suggested it. Brennan abandoned the rock garden in favour of rejoining them, listening intently and asking questions to clarify details and offering a thought or two of his own. Oblique, properly, shifted position again so she was near him.

Elena left Brock with Kerry and Shvaughn, and strode over to the circle of chairs, sitting down without invitation or greeting. One of the mute, shattered sensitives knelt at her feet without ever acknowledging the presence of the Donovan sensitives, even via the subtle non-verbal signals that Van knew most mages never noticed; he looked human, from what could be seen under the loose nondescript clothing, but Van cringed from the thought of how much leeway that still left. Worse, seeing the hunters' sensitives was terrible even for the more experienced sensitives who knew they were safe; what was going through Randi's mind right now, confronted with what could too easily be her fate if Van couldn't protect her?

“It takes a certain amount of nerve, to take that one out in public, after what she did,” Elena said.

“Doesn't look to me like she's terribly dangerous,” Aiden said critically. “She hasn't moved or made a sound except when Van's sent her to get drinks for us, she keeps her eyes down, when she does speak she's respectful... what more do you want after ten days or so? And, I mean, really, a tiny little thing like that shouldn't be a threat to any mage who has half a clue how to handle a sensitive. She's awfully cute. The kitten look is appropriate, I think.”

“Cats,” Elena said, in obvious distaste, “are cunning, treacherous, deceitful, arrogant beasts that will, with no remorse, bite the hand that feeds them. They have none of a dog's straightforward loyalty and honesty and obedience.”

“Yes, well, everyone has different tastes. I know someone who has a pet snake, which I can't say would be a pet I'd want. Especially the part about feeding it mice. I'm not especially squeamish, I'd say, but I don't believe I'd want to do that on a regular basis. And what on earth would be the point of a pet you can't pet, go for walks with, count on to catch vermin, or use as a guardian? How would one play with a snake?”

“Depending on the size of the snake, very carefully, I'd say,” Brennan said dryly.

“Good point.”

“I don't believe I know many mages who actually have pets,” Elena mused. “Other than sensitives, that is. Of course, the variation one can achieve with only a sensitive can be considerable, depending on the mage.”

“I don't think anyone here is unaware of that,” Aiden said. “Oblique and Sage are rarely the same from week to week. I'm sure Van will be waxing creative before long, as well.”

Elena smiled, and Van flinched inside. No cat was ever as deliberately cruel as she. “I was thinking of the truly creative mages. You come up with some attractive, artistic looks, I'll grant you, and there's a lot to be said for subtlety, but I've never heard of any of you pushing the limits. Not so long ago, I had to find a new sensitive for a mage who decided to experiment with the possibility of turning a sensitive, not into an anthropomorphized bear, but into a living bear rug. No bones, just fur and internal organs.” She shrugged. “As it turned out, he made a mistake in trying to adapt the heart and lungs, and found himself less a sensitive. But I find it difficult not to admire the mind that asks such questions. Don't you?”

Only a hunter would say something like that to a trio of Donovans, Van thought, nauseous. Oblique's expression had turned to stone; he couldn't even imagine Miranda's reaction, though she hadn't moved. He'd wanted practice, not an ordeal like this!

“Elena,” Brennan said, his voice steady but his eyes gone hard, “I would appreciate it if you would spare us the gory details. I'm looking forward to Grania's burgers, and after much more of that, I'm afraid I won't have any appetite left.”

She inclined her head in acknowledgement. “I'd think that some experiments would interest Van. We're told that we can't influence a sensitive's mind directly, but what happens if you alter the brain structure to that of a lower mammal? Or even a bird or a reptile? What about leaving it human but reshaping it without one part or another, to find out exactly what each does?”

“Elena!” There was an edge of outright anger in Brennan's tone, this time. “You will be granted the respect due a hunter here, but that does not extend to listening to descriptions or speculation about matters you know very well no Donovan would ever consider.”

“I've always thought it might be interesting to try some of the more extreme variations myself. If one were very careful, it should be possible to keep a sensitive alive through multiple experiments, or at least learn quite a lot from the exact reason for death.” That smile came back, and her gaze flicked to Miranda. “Maybe one day I'll get the chance.”

“Elena! No more!” Aiden said flatly. “You're overstepping any possibly bounds of courtesy.”

“Not on my sensitive,” Van growled, only half aware of both hands clenching into fists, utter rage surging. “ Keep away from her. Don't threaten her, don't even fucking look at her.”

The smile didn't waver at all. “Until Wednesday. Then we'll see.”

Every instinct screamed at him to attack, that she was a danger to Miranda and to him; only Brennan's quick head-shake stopped him. He wasn't sure what he'd have done, anyway. Attacked her physically? Magically?

“Van, take Pride, go sit by the lake, and get your temper under control,” Brennan said firmly. “Oblique, go see how dinner's coming along.”

Van rose, said curtly, “Pride, come,” and strode towards the lake. Miranda ran after him, had to half-jog to keep up. Behind him, he could hear Brennan's voice, low and cold, but couldn't make out the words.

He followed the shoreline until they were out of the direct line of sight, and let go of the barely leashed fury. One fist slammed into a dead tree; telekinesis snapped into play a fraction of an inch before he connected, keeping his hand in one piece, but the tree splintered and cracked. Brennan, even barely out of contact with Miranda, was no real threat; on some level, he always knew that. Elena was something else altogether, and there was nothing he could do.

Miranda looked nervously behind them, and said, very softly, “Van?”

He hugged her, tightly, felt the tension in her body. “She can't have you,” he said fiercely. “I won't let her.”

“I know.” Her voice shook, just a little, but she snuggled close. “She wanted to scare me so I'd do something I shouldn't.”

“Or so I would. Or just for kicks, knowing her.”

“Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?”

She looked up, and smiled. “Well, I know exactly where I am on the okay-not-okay scale. Which is somewhere in between but more towards okay. She's awful, but I'm staying with you. Where are you?”

“Closer to okay every minute.”

She pulled away, gently. “It would be bad if someone came looking for us. I think we should go back to where they can see us.” She took a couple of steps back towards the beach, and paused to wait for him so she could follow a step behind.

Van sank down on the edge of the grass, his feet on sand, and crossed his arms on his raised knees—it was a place he'd spent many hours, both while he lived here and since. Since no one else was close enough to tell whether he'd given her a command or not, he left Miranda to choose where she wanted to be.

That turned out to be curled up at his side, not quite touching, making full use of the more flexible spine that matched her feline markings. Together, they watched the rippling waves, and the loon that lived in a nearby cove. Van heard Miranda whisper, “Oh, that's what she is.” The anger and frustration and helplessness faded somewhat, down to manageable levels at least.

He hoped Brennan had kept his head and not said anything to Elena he shouldn't. He was well within his rights to call her down for continuing a subject she'd been told was disturbing, violating hospitality laws she was supposed to enforce. But, knowing Elena, it would only make her more determined to hurt Bren, and if he said the wrong thing, she'd have him up on charges in heartbeats. Much like either hunter would do if any of the sensitives slipped, even once.

“My Lord?”

Van glanced behind him. “Yes, Unity?”

“Lady Grania sent me to tell you that dinner is ready, if you'd like to come join the other Lords and Ladies.”

“I suppose I'd better.”

“Lady Shvaughn says to remind you that the thirty-days law applies to mage behaviour as well as sensitive behaviour, my Lord.” It was delivered in the same perfectly innocent tone, but one crimson eye closed in an unmistakable wink. “And that there are times to react, not think, and that you did the best thing you could.”

“Thanks.” He stood up, and stretched. “Go with Unity, I'm sure there's something they can use extra hands for.” The others would keep themselves between her and the hunters as best they could, he was sure of that.

“Yes, my Lord,” Miranda said dutifully, and uncoiled. Behind him, on the way back towards the house, he heard Miranda whisper, “You look like the bird in the lake. It's pretty,” and Unity murmured back, “It's a loon, and thank you. I like your stripes, too.”

Grania handed him a plate with a burger on it. “Potatoes and salad and all are on the table, and I'm starting the second round of burgers.”


The lawn chairs had been moved closer to the table, as an alternative to trying to fit eight mages along a picnic table with no contact. Donovans, influenced by their sensitives, were considerably less obsessive about it than others, but it was all part of the game—and who'd want to sit next to a hunter? Van sank into a chair between Shvaughn and Brennan, and felt a bit safer, until Brock took the one on Shvaughn's far side in the loose arc. It could easily have been the same sensitive who sat at his feet, with no command from Brock spoken or unspoken, that had been at Elena's earlier: there was no trace of personality or individuality left in either.

“Feeling better?” he asked Van courteously.

“Calmer, yes,” Van said shortly, and took a bite of well-dressed burger. It seemed a shame, wasting Grania's cooking on an atmosphere like this.

“Glad to hear it. Elena's a damned good hunter, but she's not exactly subtle, and she takes things much too personally. I got distracted, and the next thing you know, she's making not-very-veiled threats against your sensitive.” He shook his head, sighed. “If you stay near me, I can yank her chain if she gets carried away again.”

Do you honestly think I can't recognize good cop/bad cop when I see it? Van snarled in his own mind, but Brock's false sympathy was marginally less grating than Elena's overt malice, so it was probably worth playing along. “Thanks. I don't know why I lost my temper like that.”

Brock shrugged. “Happens to some mages when they first get a sensitive. It's a possessive thing. That's one reason why we have the thirty-days law, after all.” He bit into his burger, and his eyes half-closed in bliss. “Oh, this is good.”

“Grania's very talented,” Shvaughn said, allowing a touch of pride in her elder daughter to creep into her voice.

“I'll say. Anyway, it doesn't look to me like you're having any trouble keeping... what did you name her?”


Brock was good, there was hardly a flicker of reaction. “Cute name. Keeping Pride under control. If she acts on Wednesday like she has today, there shouldn't be a problem.”

The pause simply invited Van to confide any difficulties he was having; he knew the technique, used it himself.

“Good, because she's learning fast and hasn't kicked up a fuss at all.”

“Just be careful, okay? You can never completely trust them after they've gone as far as physical assault. Once they've done it once, they're likely to do it again, and what they see as a good reason isn't necessarily one any mage can predict. Or understand. I know Piotr Vladislav, I can imagine what he did that made her break once, but it won't take something that extreme for it to happen again.”

Van frowned. “You think so? I suppose I see a variation of it all the time, at work. As soon as someone hits his or her partner the first time, it's much more likely to be repeated, and it usually escalates.”

Brock nodded seriously. “They're never completely reliable.”

“I guess we'll both have to keep a close eye on her,” Brennan said. “I'm at home during the day while Van's at work, so it isn't as though she's ever unsupervised. Usually she either helps me outside or Oblique inside, depending on where she's most useful that day.”

Brock's expression grew even more sober. “You might want to keep the two of them from being alone together. If they get to talking about it, she could corrupt yours, as well. Give her the idea that attacking a mage is something a sensitive can get away with.”

“Oblique? Nah. She's been with me for, oh, years now, and she hardly ever misbehaves at all. She wouldn't turn renegade.”

“Don't be too certain of that. It's happened before.” He shrugged. “I don't mean to be depressing, I'd just hate to see anything nasty happen to the two of you at the hands of your own sensitives.”

“We'll keep it in mind,” Brennan assured him. “Hm, I think I need a drink to go with this.”

“Azure, come,” Shvaughn said, normal tone; Azure must have been very close, because in a couple of heartbeats, he was there.

Van blinked, took a second look. Slender, mid-height Azure made a stunning... what were they called? Bettas, that was it, fighting fish, the males bred to have long diaphanous fins and brilliant colours. Azure was as scaled as Oblique, but his shaded from intense scarlet at his head through vivid purple to rich blue. Arms and legs trailed long colourful veil-like fins that must weigh virtually nothing, from the way they floated in even the faintest breeze or at the slightest motion; it gave the fascinating impression that he was moving underwater. The golden band around his throat, engraved with his name and Shvaughn's, contrasted beautifully.

“My Lady?”

“What was it you wanted, Bren?”

“More root beer, with ice.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Anyone else?”

Van requested more orange pop, Brock cola, and Shvaughn ginger ale, then she sent him off. There was another fin down his back, too. His own natural grace only added to the illusion of gliding through water.

Conversation stayed light and, at least on the surface, friendly; Van kept an eye out for Miranda, but he didn't see her. He finally stopped Oblique, on her way by, and asked where she was.

“In the kitchen doing dishes and generally being extremely helpful, my Lord. Shall I tell her you want her?”

“No, I was just wondering.” That was probably a good place for her, out of sight and hearing, away from both the hunters and the constant reminder embodied in their sensitives—and now that he looked, he still hadn't seen Aiden's Sage, so he doubted she was alone. If Sage was with her, she'd be all right.


14 – Van

The hunters stayed long enough to share the ice cream Aiden had brought, but finally excused themselves.

“Go watch,” Shvaughn told Azure, quietly. He nodded, and went in the house, presumably to watch through one of the front windows that both hunters had indeed left. Without that confirmation, they dared not relax. They all heard tires on the gravelled driveway, and a moment later, Azure came back.

“All were in the van, and it's gone past the end of the driveway.”

“Finally,” Kerry sighed, and all but collapsed onto the picnic table bench. “Rich, go get Sage and Miranda, would you?” Her tiger nodded and padded away.

“What do you want to bet they've been tracking me?” Van asked angrily. “Their showing up coincidentally is pushing belief a bit too far.”

“It's very likely,” Kerry agreed. “It should make no difference to the hunters either way, they've been paid and as long as they have proof that a sensitive isn't going to be dangerous, it doesn't involve them. I think the more power they lose, the more obsessive they are about using what they still have. And Elena's grudges don't help.”

Miranda and an extremely sensual pseudo-mermaid followed Richard back outside. Hm, apparently Sage was being female today, with emerald and jade scales down her legs, webbed hands, and long greenish-blonde hair, her throat circled by a thin silver band and a longer strand of mixed shells; unlike the others, she was dressed, more or less, in a green two-piece swimsuit with shells on it.

Miranda looked extremely uncertain. Van sat down on one of the blankets, legs crossed. “C'mere, sweetheart. It's okay, they're gone. No more acting.”

She came, snuggled into his lap as invited, but looked up at him. “And before they came?” she asked. Something in her tone and her expression made Van suspect she'd figured it out. He'd halfway expected she would, she'd heard enough about the Donovan family's efforts.

“It's hard, being out in public the first time,” Azure explained, stretching his elegantly-scaled body full-length on the grass. Shvaughn sat next to him, stroking his back lightly. “Let alone being on trial for absolutely perfect behaviour, and after being abused. It's scary being around lots of unfamiliar mages, and being out where people can see you shapechanged when you're hardly used to it yourself. I think we all could've used a chance to get used to it in a safe environment, before having to do it for real.”

“Oh yeah,” Unity sighed, arranging her feathers carefully as she sat down in the chair next to Grania's. “I wish.”

Miranda echoed the sigh. “You lied to me again.” She sounded exasperated, but not angry.

“Don't be mad at Van,” Sage said—voice currently a clear light soprano. “He was worried about you.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess this falls into the category of 'keeping any or all of us safe,' so I suppose I can forgive you.” She leaned against Van, purring softly. “But nobody was expecting them?”

“Hunters are, traditionally, welcome at any mage gathering,” Shvaughn explained. “A small family dinner like this is definitely pushing it, but right now we don't dare get them any more resentful than they are.”

“Even when they're telling bloody scary stories to children,” Aiden growled. “Miranda should not have had to listen to that.”

“And, oh, god, their poor sensitives,” Unity said softly. “That just doesn't get any easier, seeing that, even without having the hunters threaten to take you away from your mage.” It didn't take much empathy to see the pain and anger aroused by any thought of the sensitives of the junior pair, universally in those present.

“Anyone who fights back like Miranda did, isn't going to panic over a nasty story or two,” Rich rumbled. He was sitting at Kerry's feet, while she ran her fingers through the fur covering his shoulders and head. “But you're right, even a gutsy little kitty shouldn't have had to hear it, or have it thrown in her face what the hunters would just love to do to her.”

“Can the rest of us eat now?” Sage asked plaintively, playing with her necklace of seashells. Van was willing to bet that it was a deliberate change of subject, and a useful distraction.

“Sage is right,” Azure seconded. “It smells so good, and we haven't had any.”

Grania got up. “They messed up my estimates, but I think there's just enough left for a couple of burgers apiece.”

“That'll do,” Azure and Unity said together.

“There's a bit of an aquatic theme going, here,” Oblique observed, looking over the other sensitives. “Loon, mermaid, fish...”

“Tigers like water,” Rich informed her.

“What else, to go swimming?” Azure laughed, and sat up, his gauzy fins fluttering wildly.

“Not immediately after you eat,” Shvaughn said sternly. “You have scales and fins, not gills.”

“I'm sure we can keep busy for a while after we eat,” Unity said. “Talking on the phone and by email isn't the same as actually being together, and when we see each other at Cornucopia, we're usually busy.”

Six sensitives had no reservations at all about crowding around the table to eat, three on each side, and Van thought their conversation was a great deal more animated and full of laughter than what the mages had endured while eating. Typical sensitive ability to live entirely in the moment—the threat was over, and they'd been looking forward to this, so they threw themselves into it wholeheartedly.

Van and Grania helped the sensitives clean up and do the dishes. Even here, Van couldn't help noticing yet again, there was still and always a difference, a separation between mage and sensitive.

That done, the sensitives drifted off on their own to sit by the lake and talk. Oblique had told Van that, among the Donovan sensitives, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry over who came to a gathering with the most spectacular appearance. Whatever else they were discussing, he'd probably never know, but at least Miranda looked relaxed and happy. That the six of them were constantly in contact probably helped. Even in the moment Van watched, Sage was playing with Rich's tail, while Oblique used the big tiger as a pillow so she could stretch full-length in the sun, and Unity traced patterns lightly on her dark scales. Azure was petting Randi as though she were a real cat, and getting much the same reaction, including occasional inquisitive batting at the trailing fins.

The mages talked, too, about the things they preferred not to mention in front of the hunters, about everything the Donovan family and their allies were doing to try to improve conditions for sensitives, and how much they were really accomplishing. Not nearly as much as they'd like—the push to have laws passed to protect tame sensitives from abuse was being strenuously debated, which at least was attracting notice and forcing people to think. Miranda's certainty that her family could be a contact point to get Van's book and real information to free sensitives was met with a mixture of hope and scepticism, but it was generally agreed that it was worth trying.

Two of their major efforts were so far useful to mundane homeless and poor, but had been totally ineffective as far as helping free sensitives, proving their fears right. One was Cornucopia, which offered healthy meals for a dollar, or for free if even that was out of reach—Grania was technically in charge, but for all practical purposes, primary responsibility was shared between Sage, Oblique, Azure, and Unity, with most of the other Donovan sensitives helping out at least occasionally with the work. The other was York House, basically a safe place to sleep and have a shower, which had one Donovan and a Kalindi friend as administration, with a few sensitives and some mundane volunteers taking care of the direct contact. Random chance should have meant at least a reasonable percentage of the people using both were sensitive, given normal sensitive lives; somehow, even though the mages took great care to stay away, there hadn't been a single free sensitive making use of either facility.

Randi insisted that if she got word to her family that they were in fact the safest possible places for a sensitive to go, since both buildings belonged to mages and were therefore off limits to uninvited mages, that would change and they'd start seeing sensitives there. It might work... it probably wouldn't... but it was worth the attempt, even if it was woefully inadequate as a method of alleviating the appalling living conditions of free sensitives.

Shvaughn vanished indoors briefly, returned with her sketch-pad, and angled her chair a little so she could see the sensitives more easily.

“Is that an hour yet?” Azure called.

Shvaughn checked her watch. “Yes! You can go in now.”

Azure bolted for the water; Sage beat him, but only just, and Azure made it to the raft before her. Both laughing breathlessly, they pulled themselves up.

Oblique pulled her dress off over her head and dropped it on the grass, then paused to say something quietly to Miranda—presumably telling her Van could make her a swimsuit if she preferred not to swim naked, but Miranda shed her clothes and splashed out into the water beside her. Rich waded out just behind them, and Unity ran out as far as she could, then did a neat shallow dive and came up near the raft—rather like a true loon, Van thought.

“Shall we join them or let them play?” Aiden wondered.

“Let them play for a while, then we can join them after they've worn each other out a bit,” Kerry laughed, and the mages went back to their own discussion, Shvaughn only halfway paying attention while she did touch-ups on her sketches and kept looking towards the lake.

Miranda's squeal made Van look sharply towards the water, worried, but the squeal blurred into helpless giggles: Rich had scooped her up and was wading back into the water carrying her, to toss her in. She came up shaking water out of her eyes, and came after him; Rich laughed and fled. Even from here, Van heard him say something about being chased by a dangerous little kitty. It took all four of the others to pin him to the raft so Miranda could sit on him and tickle him; occasionally, one or another fell off, but immediately climbed back into the fray.

The next time he looked, Azure and Oblique were all tangled around each other, sprawled on the raft, sunlight shining on scales of iridescent black and brilliant scarlet and purple and blue, her tail around his hips and his fins trailing along her body. Rather a pretty sight, really, and he saw Shvaughn pause briefly, then flip to a new page and start sketching like mad again. She was getting quite a reputation locally for her exotic fantasy art, for which Azure and Rich had been the models more often than most people would ever believe, and the other sensitives irregularly but frequently.

Once the rough-housing eased off, the mages ventured into the water for a cool swim.

And, inevitably, the sensitives wandered off to a lilac-sheltered nook, with a couple of blankets. Van tried to visualize coordinating fins, tails, fur, feathers, and scales, on six different bodies in a wide range of sizes; it boggled the mind, but he hoped they had fun.

And, much later, Van and Brennan collected Oblique and Miranda from the drowsy pile of sensitives.

Amidst various farewells, which were complex with four pairs of six leaving, Shvaughn handed Van a neatly-rolled sheet of paper. Eventually, they got sorted out and into the appropriate vehicles with the correct empty dishes and belongings.

Before he started the car, Van curiously slipped the elastic off the paper and unrolled it.

Randi, snuggled against Rich cozily; Oblique was on his far side, her tail intertwined with his. Azure had his head resting on Oblique's lap, and Sage was in the midst of stroking Azure's scales, and Unity was playing with Sage's long hair. All neatly portrayed in Shvaughn's efficient strokes. He chuckled, passed it to Brennan, and started the car.

“We'll have to pick up a frame,” Brennan said.

“For what?” Oblique asked. “Shvaughn was busy?”

“Yes.” He handed it over the back of the seat to them.

“Oh, cool,” Randi said, in utter fascination.

“You have that something's-bothering-you look, Van,” Oblique said, more seriously. “What are you thinking?”

“In the one group in this city where there should be the least division between mage and sensitive, it still exists,” Van said quietly. “Most of the time after the hunters left was spent in two separate groups. And the automatic assumption was that you'd do all the cleaning up.”

“And how often do other sensitives get to wander off in a group alone? Not very damned often. There are things that it's easier to talk about with people who have been through similar experiences and see the world in similar ways, and it's wonderful to have that. Freedom is being able to do what you choose, not what you should do to fit one ideal or another, and different isn't the same thing as unequal. We love you like crazy, and know we're loved back just as much. But it's nice to be around just other sensitives for a bit.” She chuckled. “Besides, you could've come to join us when we were playing in the water.”

“We love you so much we leave you to do all the work?”

“Grania did all the barbecuing,” Miranda pointed out. “And you and Grania helped us clean up.”

“It's habit,” Oblique said. “Things being as they are, we depend on our mages for shelter and food and clothes. Since we're generally home and have time, virtually every sensitive I know, even the ones who were never told to, does most of the general housekeeping, just because it seems fair. Compared to what most of us were doing to stay fed before, it's light duty. And Donovan sensitives usually have plenty of time left over for our own interests. Rich and Azure and Sage and Unity and Meta are all extremely happy with their lives, trust me. As much so as I am, and Randi's getting there.”

“Mages spoil sensitives by giving us presents and protecting us and changing us to good shapes and giving us as much freedom as mage laws allow,” Miranda observed. “Sensitives can't do that. But coming home to find supper already waiting, or always clean sheets, things like that, are a different way of spoiling someone.”

Oblique laughed. “Absolutely true, sweetheart, although I don't think any of us have put it into so many words before.” Her tone softened. “That you care means everything in the world, Van, but I promise, I'd tell you. Belonging to our mages isn't the problem. It's the way we live before that, and the way we're hunted, and the way we have no rights at all no matter what's done to us. Political correctness is sudden death for any revolution, and getting equal and same confused. Everything's okay. Other than the hunters, it was a good day for everyone, I think, and next time we do this, hopefully we can do it without the interruption.”

“Hope so,” Miranda muttered. “And with no lies next time. But the last part of it was really good.”

“We do need another get-together soon, so we can get serious about what exactly we're doing about York House, Cornucopia, the laws, and your book. Sage had one of her usual brilliant flashes of inspiration, by the way.”

“Oh?” Van asked.

“We'll each write a description, from our own perspective, of life before getting caught and then being hunted and afterwards. You can include them as an appendix or something. It would've been nice to have, back before we were caught, but there was no wonderful counsellor-mage to write a book so we'll do it now for others. And maybe it will give sympathetic mages some idea what it's like for us. Maybe you can get the same kind of thing from the mages, so the other perspective is there.”

“Mine kinda has the extremes,” Miranda said wryly. “And a different background before. None of the others came from a house like mine.”

“Reasonable range chronologically,” Brennan mused. “From Rich being with Kerry since before you were born, up to Randi. Thirty-five-odd years to a few weeks. Male and female both, originally, and with varied histories beforehand and varied experiences in the first few months.” He chuckled. “We've definitely gotten smarter and a lot less secretive within the family in the last few decades. No more trying to hide what most adult Donovans knew was the truth.”

“I'm not entirely thrilled with the concept of digging back to before I was Oblique,” Oblique said. “But for a good reason, I will.”

“Sage is smart,” Miranda said. “Even if she acts silly a lot of the time. I think it'll make it more real for free sensitives who read it. The ones who won't read the rest might even read just that part.”

“And you're worried they feel inferior?” Brennan asked Van dryly.

Van parked next to Brennan's truck, and they all went inside, making themselves comfortable around the living room. The light on the phone was blinking; Brennan picked it up, brought up the voicemail, and put it on speaker.

“Van, I need you to call me.” That was the Donovan Matriarch's unmistakable voice. “The Vladislav family is making very clear their opinion of your claiming a sensitive who attacked one of them, and they're directing it at the Donovan family in general. We need to repair relations, and we do have a way. Irenka Vladislav has decided she wants to have a child. Consider yourself volunteered, since it should mend the problem nicely.” Her voice softened. “I sympathize, you know that, but we do need to stay on reasonably good terms with the other families, and we do not need a feud. Call me when you can, sooner would be better.” Beep. “To delete this message...” Brennan switched it back off speaker and took care of it.

Van groaned. “Up, down, up, down, what a day.”

“I'm confused,” Miranda said.

“Mages are always part of the mother's family,” Oblique explained. “Normally, the woman gets a baby, and she or her family give the father or his family some form of payment or favour in return, negotiations can get fairly complex. Pretty much everything is done artificially these days, Van won't have to sleep with her. Most mages will go to great lengths not to touch each other, I hate to think what it was like before artificial insemination.”

“We all do,” Brennan muttered.

“Under most circumstances, it's purely voluntary.”

“But they want Van to pay for taking me,” Miranda said.

“Essentially,” Van sighed. “Elspeth, that's the Matriarch, she's pretty much the head of all the Donovans in this city, wouldn't have mentioned it at all if blood ties were too close, they'll have checked the records. Which leaves me no diplomatic way out. Ah well, if I have to, I have to. It's worth it, to have you here. It's fairly late, I'll call in the morning. Right now, I want my bed.”


15 – Elena

Elena scanned the area, even as Brock drove up the Donovans' driveway. No signs of anyone, and it was nearly suppertime. Waiting inside? She certainly wouldn't object to a chance to get in the house and take a look around, although it was unlikely they'd leave anything lying around that she could make use of.

She had every intention of leaving here with the little renegade. And if Rory Donovan attacked her or Brock over it, that would be a pleasant bonus.

“I very much hope he goes for one of us,” Brock said, paralleling her thoughts. “Considering that display on the weekend, I think it's highly probable he will.” His tone went from anticipation to disgust. “Typical damned Donovan. Bonding that deeply to a sensitive? That's indecent. No sense of propriety at all.”

“The whole situation was just asking for it,” Elena said. “But I think it will actually work to our advantage. He put himself in a rather nicely vulnerable position, bonding to a sensitive we still have a claim on. We take her, he assaults hunters which even the thirty-days law doesn't excuse, she gets the treatment she deserves for attacking her master, he gets a trial on a charge we do have proof for, and we get grounds for a much closer look at his life.” And it would destroy Brennan, Elena knew.

Brock parked the mini-van, and they got out, leaving the sensitives where they were. They wouldn't need additional power for this.

In the quiet, voices were faintly audible from the side of the house; Elena glanced at Brock, and followed them.

That was more than four bodies. Quite a lot more.

Van himself was sitting on a blanket, his back against an ornamental boulder; the little sensitive was curled up between his legs, leaning against him, his arms around her possessively. She had a collar on, at least. Not a very original look, her skin all softly-blended water shades, her hair longer and greeny-blue, fingers webbed, dressed in a short skirt and halter that looked like washed-up seaweed and sea-foam.

Nearby, Brennan sat on another blanket, with his uppity sensitive a dryad to match, her skin shaded browns and golds, her hair leafy-green, her skirt and halter leaves and flowers. Observers she didn't want, but Brennan could be discredited as biased.

Four lawn chairs were arranged in an arc, a little behind Brennan—he could turn around and be part of the group, though on a level with the sensitives rather than the mages. Of course a Donovan wouldn't care about such niceties. Elena identified the mages in them with dawning rage: Van's mother Kerry, Shvaughn, Aiden... and Aiden's mother, the Donovan Matriarch Elspeth.

Van nodded a greeting. She thought she could see triumph in his eyes, but it didn't show in expression or voice. “Hunters.”

“You need an audience?” Brock asked, acidly.

“It's my right to have witnesses present, if I so choose.”

That was the law, and there wasn't a damned thing they could do about it. With the Donovan Matriarch and three other senior Donovans present, claiming the renegade was going to depend on her or her mage actually screwing up. And there was, Elena was dead certain, no chance of that. This whole test was a formality... no, a farce.

This isn't check-mate yet, Donovan, she snarled, inside her own mind.

“Oblique, go get two more chairs,” Brennan said. The dryad rose gracefully, and crossed the grass to the side of the house to fetch lawn chairs for the hunters. She unfolded them and set them up, as well, in a mirror arc facing Van, then returned to her mage.

The hunters sat down.

“Obviously you've been doing shapechanging with her,” Elena said, trying to keep the sour note in her voice from being too obvious. “You've been using her?” She knew that already—otherwise there was no way they'd have bonded tightly enough for Van to throw that tantrum on the weekend—but it was in the rules.

“Yes.” Very pointedly, he let go of the little renegade—laid his own hands on the ground to either side, in fact. She shifted position a little, but stayed leaning against him, maintaining contact herself. The world rippled and blurred, and they were sitting underwater, the house a decaying castle; a brilliantly-coloured fish with long trailing fins swam by. The glamour faded, and though Elena watched closely for any wavering of control, there was none. Mage senses followed the flow of power with no difficulty. He was, undeniably, drawing power through her, and with enough finesse that it was highly likely he'd been getting a lot of practice with her.

Light rippled again, this time into a simple flat cushion of the kind some mages gave their sensitives to kneel on. It went transparent, briefly, then more and more substantial. Losing contact or control during a glamour was only uncomfortable; losing it in the middle of creation was actively dangerous, to gifts and mind and life. Yet his hands remained on the ground, leaving it to the little renegade to maintain that contact. She stayed exactly where she was, her eyes low, curled up against him. A sensitive beaten and terrorized into submission, with the threat of worse from others hanging overhead if her misbehaviour brought harm to her mage, would do that. The pair of sensitives Elena and Brock shared would never have dared to break contact, even if the hunters needed both hands free. But Elena very much doubted the fear she saw in the sensitive's tension was directed at any of the Donovans.

“Anything else?” Van asked, wrapping his arms around the renegade again. “I believe you need proof of her behaviour. You saw her on Sunday, you're seeing her now. Do you have any reason to doubt that she knows and displays proper respect? Or is there anything I should do to show you again?”

Elena glanced at Brock. There had been nothing in the little renegade's behaviour, Sunday or now, that was anything other than exactly what it should be. And to claim otherwise would lead to a challenge, involving the Matriarch, which could damage their standing in this city badly.

It was infuriating. There was no way the renegade was truly broken. Yet, by the current laws, there was nothing at all they could do. Van and Brennan had done nothing that violated the letter of any law and left any proof. They flouted custom and tradition, but for Donovans, that was almost a tradition itself.

On top of that, all that resourcefulness that had kept her going for ten days of hunting, all of whatever-it-was that had left her alarmingly able to break her training and attack her master, was now virtually guaranteed to be channelled into the nonsense the Donovans were behind, undermining hunter power even more, passing idiotic laws, charity work.

We would have had him today, she thought bitterly. And made sure that, however clever she is, she could never do any harm to another mage. I wonder whose idea it was to have witnesses.

“No,” Elena said, hating every word. “Everything we've seen has been appropriate. She belongs to you.” She stood up, inclined her head. “Matriarch.”

The Matriarch nodded in return. “Hunters. Your diligence and your duty are appreciated.”

Not around here. Elena turned around and stalked back to the van, aware of her hands curling into fists, and of Brock following.

“Fucking smart-ass,” Brock snarled. “Just had to have Mommy and the rest there. Smug little son of a bitch is so sure he can do whatever he wants... god, I want his head.”

“Eventually,” Elena said. “Sooner or later, we'll have them. Just not today, it would appear. I promise, we'll have them.”


16 – Flora

Flora closed the front door of her house behind her—quietly, so as not to wake the babies. Her grandson and almost-granddaughter would be safe enough with her younger children and a nineteen-year-old visiting nomad, until Claire was finished work in another hour or so and came home. Meanwhile, her pay cheque should be waiting at the bakery, and she had groceries to pick up.

No point in locking the door, with all the coming and going of her own children and those of her sister, along with the nomads who needed a couch to sleep on for a few days. There was always someone awake and home.

She started along the street, and paused, as the slighter of two figures, sitting on the steps of the church two doors down, stood up.


Flora closed her eyes, opened them to look again. No, that was still her oldest daughter. “Randi?” she whispered.

Miranda nodded, smiling. She was well-dressed, her clothes new and clean, and she herself looked strong and healthy. Around her neck was a heavy silver necklace with a hawk pendant. She closed the distance to Flora, and gave her a hug that took away any fears that she was seeing a ghost. Flora held her tight, felt a tear slide down her cheek.

“Oh god, Randi, where have you been?” One miscarriage, one daughter who died not even a month old, then Randi, and she'd loved her without reservation, certain that she'd be safe. Knowing that her oldest daughter was no more safe than her sons had been terrible to accept, and her disappearance over a month ago had been worse.

Miranda took a step back, and gazed up at her with dark eyes that held more depths than Flora had ever seen there before. “You aren't going to find it very easy to believe. Come meet my friend Oblique.”

The woman sitting on the steps still, watching with a faintly wistful smile, was stunningly attractive and astonishingly healthy for a sensitive, dark-skinned with long loose dark hair, in a loose cherry-coloured skirt and white tank-top, and a heavy gold rope-chain around her neck, holding a gold pendant at the hollow of her throat. She rose, descended the steps gracefully to offer her hand. Even stronger than her physical beauty was the overwhelming sense of... of balance, stability, like nothing Flora had ever seen in a sensitive before.

“Oblique, my mom Flora. Mom, my really good friend Oblique.”

“It's definitely a pleasure,” Oblique said warmly. “I've been hearing quite a lot about Randi's family, and you especially.”

“I know you have a lot to do,” Miranda said. “Since it's payday and all. But can I have you for a little while? So we can go sit somewhere and talk? I'm thinking the park would be nice and private, and we can get an ice cream cone at the store on the corner.”

“Randi, honey, you've got me for as long as you want me,” Flora said. “I never thought I'd see you again...”

“Yeah. I know. But you will.”

“You're all right? You certainly look it.” Which made no sense. She'd known from the first time someone had told her they'd seen Randi with hunters following her that it was hopeless and she'd lost her forever. She'd known her clever and loving daughter would stay as far from her family as possible to protect them and there'd never even be a chance to say goodbye. She'd known that she'd never even know what happened to Randi. So how could she be here?

“I'm perfectly fine,” Miranda reassured her, and urged her in the direction of the park. Oblique fell into step just behind them. “I live with Oblique and two other people, in a house in the country. I even have my own room, and Oblique is a great cook, we always eat well. I help Oblique around the house and Brennan outside with his garden and the hens. Van works in town, he's in every day, and if Oblique or I want to spend the day in town, we just go with him in the morning and go home with him when he's done. Or we all go places together, or whatever. I really am okay. Now I'm with Van and Oblique and Brennan, anyway.”

Flora frowned. That didn't sound like any sensitive household she knew of. Stable, with two males and two females? “Sensitives?”

“Well, no, actually. Van and Brennan are mages.”

Flora stopped in her tracks. “They're what?”

“Not all mages think the same way about us. Some of them know that we're real people, too, and they like us that way, and they want to help us.” She closed a hand around Flora's, and tugged her into motion again. “They can't do as much as they'd like to, because mages have laws, and the hunters go after mages who break the laws. So they do what they can, quietly, and they make sure their sensitives are treated properly.”

“Spoiled,” Oblique murmured.

“And they're trying to get organized and get the laws changed so we won't have to live scared all the time anymore, and so mages aren't allowed to do nasty things to us. We are trying, I should say, 'cause Oblique and I are just as much a part of it as Brennan and Van are. And it isn't just in this city, it's happening in other places, but not as strongly in some. We've got all kinds of things we're hoping we can do, but the very first thing we decided on was getting real information to the streets. What hunters and mages and magic and sensitives are all about.”

They reached the store at the corner, just before the park. Randi lingered outside, since she'd worked here until being torn from her life with no warning and trying to explain her abrupt disappearance to mundanes was only going to lead to awkward questions. Oblique paid for a trio of large ice cream cones with a twenty-dollar bill she pulled out of the white leather purse at her side, and they retreated outside to the shade of the park, where they could sit on the grass far enough from anyone that they could talk without being overheard. It struck Flora sharply that she'd never before seen a sensitive who carried herself with confidence, not caution, but both Miranda and Oblique did. The changes ran deeper than new clothes and looking healthier—Randi felt balanced the same way Oblique did, though Flora had no idea exactly what the feeling she was picking up was.

“This is all very nice to hear,” Flora said quietly. “But I'm much more concerned with where you've been all this time.”

Miranda sighed, nodded, and began.

Flora listened silently. Miranda skipped briefly over both the hunt and the immediate aftermath, but the thought of what her daughter could have, must have, suffered made her ache inside. Randi clearly preferred to describe how she'd met Oblique and this pair of mages who, by her descriptions, acted most unmagelike. She was fairly certain there were parts Randi was leaving out, but then, she was also fairly sure that Randi was trying both to express a huge amount in a hurry and to not throw any more alien concepts at her than necessary.

“So I'm really okay and safe and happy now,” Miranda concluded, and touched the silver hawk. “By their own laws, other mages can't touch me, only Van.” She glanced at the watch on her wrist, a moderately expensive sports one. “We should let you get back to what you need to do. Oblique? Do you have...?”

Oblique nodded, reached into her purse again, and drew out a business card, which she handed to Flora. “I had these printed this morning,” she said. “It has the numbers and addresses for Cornucopia, which is somewhere to get a good meal, and for York House, which is a shelter. Cornucopia and York House are both being run by mages and sensitives, with some mundane volunteers, but free sensitives are safe there.”

“Safer than other places,” Randi added. “Other mages won't mess with anyone who's in either place. There are laws about going on another mage's property. And the mages running them wouldn't ever hurt a sensitive. They started both places hoping to help sensitives. Oblique works at Cornucopia a lot, and I'm going to be helping there too. Anyone who wants to know what it's really like can just ask any sensitive working at either place.”

“It also has the counselling centre where Van works,” Oblique said, having paused long enough to let Randi finish. “He will do anything he possibly can to help a sensitive in trouble—as Randi discovered. All someone has to do is go inside and ask for Van. The number on the back is our home phone number, you can call any time you want, whether it's because you need help or because you want to say hi to Randi. We're going to be getting Randi her own cell phone, like the rest of the Donovan sensitives, and we'll let you know but mine is on there too in case you'd feel safer with a line that there's no chance of a mage answering.” She produced a couple of dozen further cards. “Those are extra copies, but without our home number or mine. Give them to anyone you want. We're going to make sure there are more of these at all three places, just ask the first sensitive in reach, or you can let us know if you need more.”

Flora thought she'd never heard a sensitive sound so, well, educated, simply the way she pronounced words, the way she used them. It was almost disconcerting.

“Tell everybody,” Randi said earnestly. “Tell them to watch for sensitives wearing collars, of one sort or another. We'll be around, and we'll make sure everyone has facts, not just fear and speculation. That won't be enough, on its own, to keep anyone safe from the hunters...”

“It's better than the fear and the wondering,” Flora said softly.

“And it's only a beginning,” Oblique said firmly. “We will win this.” She ran a hand fondly through Randi's hair. “And I have a feeling our extremely brave, extremely clever kitten here will be right at the heart of it, all the way.”

“Not the safest place to be,” Flora commented, though, knowing Randi, it surprised her not at all.

“Nowhere is safe,” Oblique said. “Free sensitives live in constant fear. Captive sensitives live under constant threat of unimaginable abuse. Donovan sensitives, and those of our allies, live praying that the hunters won't come after our mages. Donovan and allied mages choose to accept the necessity of walking the line very carefully, which sometimes seems to me to be even harder, since they always know they could make themselves safe at our expense. But, together, we'll make it safe for all of us, and until then, the best place to be is with friends around you who will stand by you.”

“And friends I have lots of,” Randi said contentedly.

Oblique reached into her purse again, and pulled out a handful of folded bills. She offered them to Flora. “Please? I've been with Brennan over a decade, but I remember what it's like. Buy your family a good meal.” She smiled. “Before much longer, we'll have fresh vegetables from the garden, we'll bring you some. Brennan loves sharing them, that's why he always plants far more than we could ever use.”

Flora hesitated. Sensitives shared whatever they had, that was simply a fact of life, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that, ultimately, this money came from a mage. Or two of them.

Yet Randi had done the unthinkable, had come back after being hunted, and was here and was still very much herself, admittedly with a few differences.

Slowly, she reached out, and accepted the money. At a quick glance, it was all green twenties, none of the purple or blue of tens or fives, and there were quite a few of them. “Thanks.” She tucked the handful of cards, and the money, into the pocket of her jeans. Even on her daughter's word, she had no intention of recommending these places without checking them first, but she was willing to consider the possibility.

“You're very welcome. Now, I think we should let you get back to your plans, before we disrupt your day any worse than we already have, and also let you have a chance to assimilate everything we've just thrown at you. It was a lot, and it's going to take time to sink in.” Oblique stood up, and Randi and Flora followed suit.

“Take care of Randi, okay?” Flora said softly, to Oblique.

The tall sensitive laughed. “We'll take care of each other,” she agreed.

Randi pounced on Flora for another hug. “Things've changed in a big hurry in the last few weeks, but I'm still me, and I'll still be around. This isn't bye forever, or anything, just for right now. So stop that crying.”

Flora wrapped both arms around her, squeezed hard, wishing she never had to let go. “I was so sure it was forever, and that I'd never even know...”

“Now you do know. Everything'll be okay.”

Reluctantly, Flora let go of her eldest daughter, and backed up a step, and farewells were duly said. Oblique offered a hug, which Flora immediately accepted.

Walking away hurt.

But not as badly as the nightmares that had haunted her, grim visions of what Randi could be enduring.

Feeling happier than she had in a very long time, and with a great deal to think about, Flora resumed her walk to the bakery where she worked nights, to pick up her pay and get on with her errands.


Autumn in Dewfield

17 – Lila

Gotta run, keep running, don't stop, don't look back...

It was like a chase dream, Lila thought, more than a bit deliriously. You just kept running and running because something worse than anything was right on your heels and there was no way to lose it.

Except that, for her, right now, it was real.

She hadn't been in this city all that long, but she was sure she remembered a park, one with small hills and groves of trees, a block from here if she turned right at the next corner. The change of direction made her stumble, but she caught herself, got her long steady stride again. Sunset, the sun was going down, if she could just stay out of reach a few minutes longer she could have the night to rest as best she could. All that mattered was staying free just a little longer.

Once, when she'd been small, she'd been invited to join a game of touch-tag at school. Such invitations were rare for the perpetual new kid, the one who moved from city to city every few months. She'd come home excited to tell her mother; to her bewilderment, her mother had cut her off harshly and forbidden her ever to play the game again. Not until much later had she begun to understand.

The ground under her running feet changed from grey pavement to black asphalt, one of the paths that meandered through the park. It wasn't large, but it did offer places to duck out of sight, and each of those could buy her just a few more minutes. Lila circled around to the back of a great weeping tree of some sort, and slipped through the curtain of branches, crouching behind the trunk and praying the shadows would hide her.

Footsteps, slow and deliberate, along the path. Two sets, Lila knew, from having looked back once. A man and a woman, in casual military, denim and camo. She flattened her back against the tree, with it between her and them, as the hunters paused in front of the tree.

“Shall we end for tonight?” the man said. “I could use a break and some supper.”

“But what if she gets away from us in the night?” the woman asked, in mocking horror. The comment elicited laughter from the man, and she joined in; there was no joy in it, but a cold kind of amusement that made Lila wish she could melt into the tree trunk.

“Let's go,” the woman said. “It's not like we can't pick up her trail in the morning. I'm looking forward to supper, I hear your cousin's a good cook.”

“Quit rubbing it in.”

The hunters walked away.

Lila didn't move immediately. The hunters made their own rules, there was no reason at all why they couldn't suddenly double back, except that it would be less entertaining. The sounds of voices and laughter gradually faded into the distance.

Only after long moments of silence did she relax. One more night of freedom.

Fatigue had taken hold, even in the short rest; it took all the willpower she had to force herself to her feet. Near the centre of the park she remembered a water fountain as part of a memorial. It wasn't much to fill her growling stomach, but it would be something.

The fountain could have been cleaner, but she was long past caring. She reminded herself to sip it slowly, but it was hard not to gulp it as fast as she could, after the long day of constant running.

Wearily, she returned to the shelter of the weeping tree. Fall and spring, those were the danger times when the hunters appeared. Not in the winter, when their prey was likely to die of hypothermia, nor in the summer when heat-stroke and dehydration threatened. They wanted their prey alive.

This was the former. The height of summer was well past, the nights cool, but that only felt good after the exertion of the day. She curled up under the tree, and tried to think of tactics for tomorrow. Tactics that wouldn't actually save her, of course, but might amuse the hunters enough to make them prolong the hunt a little longer. Sometimes she lost her train of thought, probably sliding in and out of shallow sleep; that had been happening at night.

There was little moon, and the nearest of the park's lamp-posts was some distance away. So even had she been fully awake, she couldn't have been expected to see the shadow outside the curtain of branches. As for sound, well, the park was full of those, even with the squirrels and most of the birds settled for the night.

“Oh, there you are.” A female voice, probably young, and very gentle.

Lila bolted back to some version of alertness, and scrambled to a crouch. There was no sense she could name that let each side identify each other, but instinct somehow always knew. “Mage,” she hissed. She could run... maybe, if she could get her rubbery muscles to hold her up a little longer... but where to? She'd trip over something, running headlong through the park in the darkness, and that would hardly keep her free.

The owner of the voice sighed. “Unfortunately. But I'm here to help.”

“Yeah, right,” Lila said acidly. “Mages only help mages.”

Another sigh. “Watch your eyes.”

The trunk of the tree began to glow with a faint luminescence, not unlike moonlight, which gradually strengthened to a comfortable, if dim, level. Lila drew away from it mistrustfully, but the light seemed to be nothing but light.

The newcomer settled herself on the rough ground in a graceful sweep of skirts—Lila couldn't quite make out colour in the odd light—and laced her hands together in her lap. “My name is Catherine. I came looking for you because I wanted to offer you a place to hide.”

“There's never anywhere to hide,” Lila said bitterly. “You make sure of that. We can't go to the police for help, you control them. Being arrested means being turned over to you. We can't go to hospitals without being flagged as sensitives. Or homeless shelters. Or anywhere. You control all of them.”

“I don't,” Catherine said, without a trace of annoyance. “I control very little, including much of my own life. But the one place they will never look for you is with me.”

“I knew it. It's just a new kind of trap.”

“It isn't a trap. I don't use sensitives. Not all mages do.”

“I ain't going anywhere,” Lila said stubbornly.

Catherine shifted position—slowly, as if trying not to startle Lila—and rested her elbows on her knees, her chin on her laced hands. “I'm curious to hear what your other options are that are so much better it isn't worth the gamble.”

Lila considered those options, which essentially extended to nights of sleeping in parks and days of running until she fell down. The only uncertainty at this point lay in how long it would take the hunters to close in. And she was so very tired and hungry... How many days had it been, of heart-thumping terror and scant food and even less true rest on top of never dropping below a walk between sunrise and sunset? Three days? Four? She couldn't distinguish separate sources of pain any more, they all blurred together into a single ache.

“I suppose what it boils down to is that I can't run much farther before I collapse, so I haven't got anything to lose,” Lila said heavily. She'd wondered what it would be like, the moment when she finally and absolutely lost her freedom. Handing it over on a crazy risk hadn't been one of the possibilities she'd thought of.

Catherine nodded briskly. “There are no other mages around, I checked. Why don't you wait in the middle of the park where the paths meet? You don't need to try to stay out of sight, I promise you the hunters are asleep in their beds right now. I'll be there in a few minutes.”

“Why?” Lila asked mistrustfully.

“Because to keep them from picking up the trail in the morning I need to use magic, and I thought you might feel safer with some distance.” Lila hadn't noticed the strap that crossed Catherine's chest until now; the mage unslung a small dark rectangular bag from her shoulder, and set it on the ground before standing up—still slowly—and moving as far away as she could without leaving the canopy of branches. “I also thought something to eat might make the wait less long, and the walk to where I live easier.”

Lila inched closer, never taking her eyes off Catherine, and scooped up the bag. “In the middle, where the paths meet,” she repeated.

“Exactly. I won't take any longer than I have to, but it won't do any good if they just follow you.”

“True.” The bag was fairly heavy; Lila slung it on one shoulder, and retreated from the weeping tree.

Back in the direction of the memorial, in the heart of the park, half a dozen paths joined into a star-shaped nexus. She sank down on the knee-high stone wall that mostly surrounded the statue pedestal and the fountain, and fumbled with the buckles on the bag, flipped the top open. Nothing elaborate, just a bottle of Gatorade and a sealed box that proclaimed itself, after a little squinting, to hold marshmallow-chocolate chip granola bars. The seal on the Gatorade was intact, too, although whether that meant anything when dealing with a mage, Lila had no idea.

Even if she'd had reason to believe the food drugged, Lila lacked the willpower at this point to refuse it. She tore one bar open with hands that shook. So hard, to remind herself to take small bites.

She wasn't sure how long it took before Catherine joined her. Lila blinked, thought for a second that the mage looked unsteady on her feet, but that had to be imagination.

“It's about a fifteen minute walk,” Catherine said. “Will you be able to make it?”

Lila sighed, got up. “You do what you have to. Fifteen minutes of walking I can do.” She didn't add that she probably couldn't do much more. Why else the insane chance of believing a mage? It was like walking into a lion's den and expecting not to be eaten.

It took no conscious thought to keep distance between her and Catherine; the mage seemed to be, on her part, trying to maintain that same distance. Not worth thinking about right now. The snack helped, but it couldn't do anything about the intense fatigue, and it was an effort of will to keep moving after so little rest. Catherine walked a little ahead, out of reach but where Lila could see her, with frequent worried checks that Lila was still there.

Catherine paused in front of a massive limestone house, and gestured. “This one. Come on.” She led the way along the driveway and around to the side. “Wait here, I need to be sure no one's around.” She unlocked the door, slipped inside, and returned in seconds to beckon to Lila, holding a finger to her lips for silence.

Warily, Lila stepped into a large, clean, and obviously expensive kitchen. Catherine gave her no time to look around at the unaccustomed luxury, but indicated a steep, narrow flight of stairs in the corner, and pointed upwards. Lila stifled a groan, but Catherine was already on her way up, her long skirt gathered neatly in one hand.

One last trial, Lila reminded herself. They were in a mage's house, but so far she was okay, and Catherine had said she'd be safe... hadn't she? Hard to recall exactly what had been said. She started up the stairs, slowed by the effort and the need to be quiet, but finally reached the top.

Crowded, was her first thought, as she stepped into a small hallway that was nothing more than an access point for a quartet of doors, all of them ahead or to the right. Catherine waited outside the farthest one.

“In this one,” Catherine said, at a normal volume. “You can get some sleep, and I'll bring you some better food tomorrow. The bathroom is the one there,” she waved in the direction of one of the middle doors. “Please, don't go downstairs, or you'll get caught and I'll get in trouble. If you want to leave, tell me, and I'll get you out without your being seen.” Catherine moved out of the way, into the other middle room, to let Lila pass. Just as well, because there'd be no way to get by her to the indicated room without contact, in the confined space.

The room held a single brass bed, one of the odd ones that was between double and twin, three-quarter she thought it was called. In fact, that was all it held, all there was space for.

Lila ventured to the bathroom—there was no sign of Catherine, maybe she'd gone down to the kitchen—and returned. She felt her muscles finally give out as her brain registered the meaning of the bed.


18 – Topaz

Topaz half-drowsed comfortably, curled up on the loveseat in his master's study. The soft rustling of paper, the occasional creak of Lord Andreas' leather chair, were comforting sounds, reassurance that all was as it should be.

A lifetime ago, or something like a year ago which amounted to the same thing, he knew he'd had a different name and lived always afraid, frequently hungry, too hot all summer and too cold all winter. There was no soft-cushioned loveseat, draped with a furry-feeling blanket, to lie on while the morning sun made warm golden puddles on the floor. No bellyful of bacon and eggs and sausage and toast. No big house, well, half a big house, full of antiques and art and books, to roam around in.

Of course, there had also been no silver collar permanently around his throat. No fur, silvery-grey with the striking white and black markings of a husky, his tail arranged carefully behind him. No need to be ever-alert in case his master needed him.

But for the most part, it took no genius to see how well he was treated, compared to some sensitives.

It just wasn't the life he would have chosen, had he been given any say in the matter at all.


He stirred, opened his eyes, and sat up—wincing as he moved the wrong way and bent his tail in a direction it didn't like. Cat tails were easier, more flexible. “My Lord?”

Lord Andreas half-turned and held out his empty glass. Topaz rose quickly and padded across the small room to take it, startling himself briefly with the sight of his own hands, and the blunt claws that had replaced human fingernails. “More of the same, my Lord?”


Topaz nodded and left the study for the kitchen. He rinsed the glass and, careful not to get fur on them, he dropped a couple of ice cubes in it before refilling it with lemonade.

Very quietly, he slipped back into the study and set it on the desk.

He curled up on the loveseat again—drat that curly tail, anyway!—and waited, certain that he'd be needed again soon.

If his master kept hunching over his desk like that, he was going to wreck his neck and back. At the very least it would take some work to loosen him up tonight. The book and video on massage techniques that Lord Andreas had bought was turning out to be helpful, and he was sure his Lord was pleased with what he was learning. They were getting low on massage oil again, though.

“Bring me the book on the third shelf down, somewhere towards the left side... reddish cover, title's something about inheritance laws but I can't recall exactly what.”

That was a normal kind of description. Topaz promptly got up and circled around his loveseat to the wall behind it, searching out the correct volume to bring to Lord Andreas.

“And these two can be put away, they didn't have what I was looking for.”

He'd taken care to remember which went where, since he'd be putting them away, so he returned each to its place, waited briefly, but when no further instructions were forthcoming, went back to his patient half-doze. Given no other form of expression, his imagination provided him with ever-more-exotic images and fantasies, a tangle of his present life and his old life and elements that had belonged to neither.

“I think I'm just about ready for some lunch. Why don't you go make us something?”

“Yes, my Lord. Which kind?”

“Whatever takes your fancy will be fine.” He ran a hand affectionately over Topaz's hair, or rather head-fur currently. “You know what I like and what I don't, by now. Make something you're in the mood for.”

Topaz nuzzled against his hand, felt his tail waving in instinctive response to emotion. It was weird how that kind of thing happened, his body altering its reflexes along with its shape. “Yes, my Lord.”

He padded away, back to the kitchen. 'Lunch,' habitually, was basic, a can of condensed soup split between them and a sandwich each. He looked in the cupboard to see what kinds of soup they had, and looked in the other cupboard and in the fridge to see what kinds of ingredients for sandwiches there were. As freedoms went for most people, choosing what to make for lunch might be a small one, but as freedoms went in his new life it was a significant one. Hm, cheese slices, he could do grilled cheese, that would be nice, and have vegetable soup.

Oops, got fur in the butter on one of the sandwiches. He'd make sure he got that one.

He decided that his Lord wouldn't mind, and plugged in the kettle to make a pot of tea, as well, before he took the food to the study.

Topaz set the food down on the little table just inside the door. Lord Andreas didn't even look up, which gave Topaz plenty of time to scoot back to the kitchen, pour the water in the teapot, set the pot on the second tray that held cream and sugar and two teacups, and return to the study more slowly.

“My Lord?” he said, quietly.

Lord Andreas looked up from his books. “All done? Oh, you made tea, too!” He swept the books and notes off a corner of his desk so Topaz could set the tea-tray down. “So what are we having for lunch?” Now that he'd been distracted from his work, his voice had more animation, more of the warmth and affection Topaz found himself craving constantly.

“Grilled cheese and vegetable, my Lord.”

“Good idea. The breeze is nice, but there's a bit of a chill to it today. A reminder that cool weather will be along for real before too much longer, I suppose. A good day for hot sandwiches and tea.” The approval in his words, his tone, his expression, were purest pleasure.

“Thank you, my Lord.” He served his master a bowl of soup and a plate of sandwiches—not the one with the sandwich he'd had to pick the fur out of—before retreating to the loveseat with his own. “I poured the water in the teapot just before I brought it in, my Lord.”

“So it'll be ready in another, oh, three or four minutes. Good.”

“Are you having much luck with what you're working on, my Lord?” He already knew the answer; when frustrated, Lord Andreas had no hesitation about showing it, though he trusted his Lord not to do anything more than yell.

Although that could be the worst thing of all.

“Quite a lot, actually. After lunch I'll give the Fontana Patriarch a call, and he can come by and pick up my conclusions. It's really fairly straightforward. Inheritance on the paternal side happens very rarely, and only in extraordinary circumstances. There is simply no precedent for a mage to inherit the property of his father, unless the son petitions to join the father's family and surrender his place in his mother's, and unless the father's will was extremely explicit. The son is making the motion partially on emotional and moral grounds, but even that's rather flimsy. Half the mages alive neither know nor care who sired them, and leave it quite happily to the Matriarchs and Patriarchs to check the records and tell them whether a suggested mating is safe or not. The other half know mostly out of curiosity. Fathers do not participate in raising their children.”

That still seemed odd to Topaz. Okay, so even fewer sensitives knew who their fathers were, given sensitive promiscuity, but he'd seen a lot of males who adored children. Still, each family had different traditions and philosophies, and raising children in the mother's family simplified things a lot.

Unfortunately, it also meant that as Lady Phyllida's brother, probably Lord Andreas would take a more active and direct role as mentor and teacher for Lord Elias and Lady Xenia once they got a bit older, possibly including one living here for several years, and much more intimate contact with them on his part than he liked the thought of.

There was nothing he could do about it, though, and that wouldn't be for a few years yet, so there was no point worrying about it now.

“I'm not certain I agree with it, but then, I don't have the background in psychology I'd need to be able to decide whether it's healthy or not. Frankly, and don't ever repeat this or you'll get me some extremely nasty looks, there are any number of aspects to mage life and society and tradition that I have serious doubts about as to how healthy they are in the long run. But there's nothing I can do about it, except try to do my part to make sure that the laws are applied consistently. That's important, that the laws are the same for everyone.”

They aren't the same for sensitives as they are for mages, a little voice whispered, somewhere in Topaz's mind. He squashed it firmly. Thoughts like that got him nowhere.

“If you're going to have company, my Lord, should I make sure the living room is perfect? And wash up the tea things after we've finished, so I can make more?”

“Oh, take a quick look around the living room, that'll do. Not tea, not for the Fontana Patriarch. Put a bottle of wine in the fridge to chill, and make sure there are no spots on the wine glasses. That's all. Once you've done that and washed up from lunch, you can go out in the back yard for a while, if you like. I won't need you to fetch books for me, at this point it's primarily a matter of organizing and summarizing my research.”

Topaz already knew better. His master believed that, but it would inevitably be inaccurate, and he would think of just one more detail to check. The freedom to lie in the sun and play on the swing, followed by Lord Andreas being irritable, was a poor choice compared to staying inside and being ready when his master needed him, followed by his master being in a good mood and possibly praising him. “Thank you, my Lord, but I'd rather stay here with you when I'm done.”

“All right, if that's what you want to do.”

They finished eating in silence, and had a cup of tea while Andreas told him more about the situation he'd been researching—thinking aloud, more than talking to his sensitive, really. He did that sometimes, to get his thoughts into order. With nothing else to do, no mental exercise after years of him and Lila surviving by their wits, he listened intently, and ventured occasional questions. When Lord Andreas was in this kind of mood, he was usually willing to explain.

Then Topaz gathered up the tray and the dishes, leaving Lord Andreas the tea tray so he could have another cup, and took them to the kitchen. Compared to jobs he'd had, back-breaking labour for long hours in summer heat or bitter cold, or dirty cleaning jobs no one sane would want, laundry and dishes and light housework were easy—possibly too easy, since they left a lot of empty hours.

The afternoon progressed much as he'd expected it to: tasks complete, he made himself comfortable on his loveseat, and not half an hour later, his master asked for another book. Engrossed in his work, Lord Andreas didn't seem even to recognize the fact that Topaz was present rather than outside as suggested, but he certainly would have noticed Topaz's absence.

Lord Andreas sat back, stretched, and sorted through a neat stack of pages before tucking them in a large envelope. “There, that's what he needs. And he should be along within the hour. With any luck he won't stay so long that we're late for supper. Sensible man, but likes to talk.”

It wasn't discussed openly, but Topaz knew by now that his master would be well paid for his efforts, as always.

Carefully, Lord Andreas pushed back his chair and stood up, his weight on his right leg until he had his cane in hand. Topaz followed him to the living room, where Lord Andreas settled into his favourite chair. Since company was coming, Topaz wasn't to be on the couch. Next to Lord Andreas' chair was a large thick pillow with a comforter over it; that was where he curled up, close enough that Lord Andreas had no difficulty reaching down to stroke him lightly, fondly.

I'm not an animal, not a dog!

But the bliss of his master's hand on head and back was real. It frightened him, how desperately he needed Lord Andreas' touch, his approval, his affection... any kind of attention, even, if he couldn't have that. Frightened or not, torn by ambivalent feelings about this mage who owned him, he'd given up on fighting that need, and did whatever it took. Memories stirred, now and then, of Lila's mother who had hungered obsessively for any kind of drug she could get her hands on, never satisfied, willing to do anything necessary for more. Had she resented it and needed it at the same time, the way he resented and needed this?

Don't think about Lila.

The doorbell rang; Topaz looked up at Lord Andreas for permission before getting to his feet and padding out to the hall. He peeked through the peephole, just to make sure it wasn't Jehovah's Witnesses or something—wouldn't they get a surprise!—but it was a mage he'd seen before, with a sensitive by his side, a rather fragile-looking fairy with delicate gossamer wings. Topaz opened the door quickly, and stood aside.

“My Lord Patriarch,” he said respectfully. “Lord Andreas is waiting in the living room.”

The Patriarch of the Fontanas nodded, and strode past him, already familiar with the layout. Lord Andreas had visitors frequently, and the local Elders were among the most common. Topaz waited for the fairy to follow, and trailed after them.

“Welcome,” Lord Andreas greeted the Patriarch. “Make yourself comfortable. A glass of wine?”

“That would be appreciated,” the Patriarch said, settling heavily onto the couch and leaning back. “It's been an extremely long week.”

“Topaz?” Lord Andreas glanced at his sensitive, who nodded and left, while the fairy sat on a smaller pillow on the floor, at the end of the couch near her master. “Problems other than this one?”

“Piles of them.”

Topaz hurried, carefully, about getting the wine from the fridge and setting it on a tray with two glasses and the corkscrew. Odds were good that there'd been nothing of interest to him, but every once in a while, a visitor said something that caught his attention and gave him something to think about, or ask Lord Andreas cautious questions about.

The Fontana Patriarch was describing the heated debate over a business matter two mages were involved in, which was kind of boring. He opened the wine and poured it, offering one first to the Patriarch as guest—he accepted it without making contact, as was proper—then the second to Lord Andreas, before curling up on his pillow again. He listened anyway, because he had nothing else to do and because next time he heard about it there might have been an interesting twist.

“And on top of that, the damned Donovan madness is spreading into other cities. Now there are half a dozen mages in this city who are demanding that laws be passed to prevent the abuse of sensitives.” He took a healthy swallow of wine, and Topaz felt his ears perk up—odd sensation, that—though he was careful not to otherwise move and draw attention. Laws to protect sensitives?

“I can see a certain amount of sense in that,” Lord Andreas said mildly. “Anyone who needs to resort to violence, whether physical, magical, or psychological, to keep a sensitive in line is obviously incapable and incompetent. Anyone who enjoys doing so I believe needs professional help. There are mundane laws against the mistreatment of animals, without ever implying that animals are the equals of humans, so why not laws against the worst excesses?”

“That's about what they're saying, although in stronger terms. I have no objection myself, but it would be virtually impossible to enforce. The hunters are the ones who enforce the laws.”

“And some of them are among the ones guilty of some of the worst excesses,” Lord Andreas sighed. “Yes, I know. Obviously it's a complicated issue, and I don't know of any precedent for it, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth considering.”

“We're considering it. And ways to enforce it. As for precedent, no, there doesn't seem to be any. Just in the last couple of years, the bloody Donovans have started pushing openly and vigorously for anti-abuse laws, and they don't seem to be inclined to drop it. Every city they're in has been just insane with all the arguments. I'm surprised Elena hasn't mentioned it.”

“I try to see Elena as rarely as possible,” Lord Andreas said dryly. “I do, however, recall her complaining, vehemently, about the Donovans and their lax handling of their sensitives and their immoral attitudes and more along the same lines. She appears to feel that the Donovans are the source of all that is evil in mage society, and the sole cause of the deterioration of tradition. I've met a few of them. If they want to indulge their sensitives in private beyond what any other family would tolerate, that's their business; their sensitives are perfectly well-behaved in public. Better so than some, in fact. The Donovans themselves tend to be level-headed and sensible, as near as I can tell.”

“I agree. Individually, I usually quite like them. But as a whole, they're a nuisance, and they're entirely too large a family to ignore—in every city they're in, they're somehow also the single largest family.” The Patriarch sighed. “Well, I suppose progress is inevitable, changes always come, and the force behind it is usually the ones making a nuisance of themselves. But I'd be happier if mages from other families weren't picking up the whole idea and continuing it in other cities. This one, say.”

The conversation drifted, but Topaz turned that over and over in his mind, treasuring it. There were mages who wanted to at least make sure that sensitives weren't to be abused? It wouldn't affect him, he didn't really consider himself abused as sensitives went, but it would be a blessing for the poor broken ones he had to see when they went to mage events or had visitors. And Lord Andreas thought it was a good idea! That didn't altogether surprise him, but it delighted him to no end. The fairy dared raise her eyes to Topaz's, shyly, and smiled at him, obviously as pleased with the thought as he was, though she was treated no worse than Topaz, as near as he could tell; they'd had odd moments before to talk alone and cuddle, just enjoying a stolen moment's contact with someone who understood.

The Patriarch stayed through a second glass of wine, then Lord Andreas had Topaz retrieve the envelope from his desk and farewells were said.

“Just in time,” Lord Andreas sighed. “Supper should be just about ready.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Topaz headed for the door that led to the stairs up, and ventured upstairs.

The door at the top was open; Zephyr usually did that, when expecting him.

Zephyr was just setting a square ceramic dish on a tray. As he had been for the past week or so, he was a goat from the waist down—Topaz had seen a picture like that in one of Lord Andreas' books, it was called a satyr.

Zephyr greeted him with a casual smile, and waved to the tray in front of him on the table, as he added a plate of garlic bread. Lasagna, tonight.

“Thanks. You make awesome lasagna.”

Zephyr inclined his head in acknowledgement, and gestured to the tray and the stairs, before turning back to whatever he was doing at the counter.

“I just heard something great,” Topaz added, dropping his voice, though Lady Phyllida never came in the kitchen except as a route down to Lord Andreas. “There are mages in a lot of cities who are trying to get the Elders to pass laws that sensitives can't be abused. A family called the Donovans started it. It's all tricky 'cause lots of mages don't want it, and the hunters won't enforce it right if it passes. But they're trying. Can you imagine them trying to decide what abuse is?”

Zephyr glanced over his shoulder, eyes wide and startled, then smiled again, a half-rueful grin that said as clearly as words that he understood that very well. He abandoned the counter long enough to give Topaz a quick hug of thanks for the news—fur on fur, fur on skin. Then he made a shooing motion again, glancing meaningfully towards the door to the rest of the upstairs. Neither mage was guaranteed to be angry over the two sensitives talking—sort of—for a moment, but it was possible.

Topaz took the tray downstairs, so he could have the table all set properly before Lord Andreas arrived. But he couldn't stop thinking about what he'd heard.


19 – Lila/a>

Lila woke very suddenly, opened her eyes in hopes of figuring out why she was in a bed and felt so stiff and sore and hungry and dirty.

The small room was unfamiliar, the walls covered in rather loud wallpaper probably older than she was, the single window heavily curtained. The door was closed. Locked, most likely.

Carefully, she slid out of bed and checked the door. Much to her surprise, it opened. The wallpaper out here was metallic gold on cream, almost as bad as the green and pink stuff in the bedroom, and the railing around the stairwell was none too likely to stop someone from falling, rickety and painted in peeling white. The floors were all wood, sanded and varnished, but in serious need of both being done again.

She prowled warily down two doors to the bathroom—linoleum on the floor, cracked around the edges, and the tub and toilet and sink were all ancient-looking, crowded into a space just a little too small for them. The pale pink paint on the walls was flaking in places.

She was certain she remembered a mage correctly, Catherine her name had been, and that they'd come to a huge house. But mages didn't live like this, they lived in luxury. Why not? They could manipulate the world as they pleased, and they had no one to fear.

Catherine didn't live here, that was the only reasonable explanation. She'd hidden Lila away in a corner of the house that wasn't used.

That theory failed to hold up under a closer look: herbal shampoo, soap, toothbrush... all the signs of someone making steady use of this bathroom. And as shabby as everything was, it was meticulously clean, not a trace of dust anywhere. This made no sense.

Longingly, she eyed the towels neatly stacked on a shelf, but decided that she'd be pushing her luck, no matter how badly she wanted to get clean. To distract herself, she explored.

The room nearest the top of the stairs held two sturdy solid oak bookcases, full—the kind of full that meant the original neat rows were half-hidden behind the overflow—and one good quality, comfortable-looking chair with a small round oak table beside it. There was a threadbare throw rug on the floor, nearly touching the walls, which bore that same gold-on-cream wallpaper as the hall.

The other room, between the bedroom and the bathroom, held a wardrobe and an upright dresser, both of which were again solid oak and high quality. The wallpaper was the green and pink flowered stuff that was in the bedroom.

And that was it, other than the dizzying flight of stairs down to the kitchen below. Three tiny rooms plus a bathroom. Hadn't Catherine said something about not going downstairs? Besides, there could be mages down there, ones that would act more normally.

Lila headed back to the bedroom. Belatedly, she noticed that the canvas bag with the snack in it had been left on the floor just inside the door, though she couldn't recall whether she or Catherine might have carried it here. She brought it over to the bed and took stock. About half the Gatorade remained, along with four of the granola bars. Trying very hard not to think about what might happen to her, she opened one and nibbled on it. Okay, so Catherine hadn't laid hands on her, claimed her, done whatever unspeakable things could only be done by mage to sensitive. But there was no sane reason for a mage to help a sensitive escape mages.

And what was up with the bizarre discrepancy between the rooms and their furnishings?

Feet on the stairs made her tense and look around for a place to hide. There wasn't one.

“It's okay, it's me.” Catherine's voice. “Don't worry, no one else would bother coming up here.” Was that bitterness Lila heard? No, couldn't be, mages had nothing to be bitter about.

Catherine came to the door of the bedroom, carrying a tray. Lila's stomach growled loudly at the scent of soup, and the mage smiled.

“Good timing, I guess. I was getting a little worried, it's been well over twelve hours. Here, this will do you more good than granola bars.” She hesitated, looked at the tray, and at Lila. “Why don't I leave it on the table in my library?”

“I...” Lila licked her lips, mouth watering. “It's okay.” She inched off the bed, cautiously; Catherine held very still, let Lila close her hands around the tray and retreat quickly holding it. Not only a large bowl of soup, chicken rice or noodle or something, but a couple of slices of bread, and a bottle of orange juice. Her stomach growled again, and she sat on the edge of the bed, tray balanced on her knees. The first bite of soup made her close her eyes in bliss. Anything Catherine wanted of her would be worth it, for this.

“I'm sorry it's just canned soup,” Catherine said apologetically. “I didn't want to chance anything too heavy or too rich, without knowing how long it had been.”

“You're sorry?” Lila shook her head, utterly at a loss to find words, and spooned up more soup.

“If you'd like to have a bath when you're done, go ahead, there are lots of towels and such. I... oh, surely I can find you something you can wear. I'm taller than you are, but skinnier.” She spun away, and Lila head her moving in the next room.

Clothes, Lila thought dizzily. A mage can do anything she wants with me, and she's sorry it's only hot chicken soup and fresh bread, and she's worried about finding me clothes to wear after I have a bath. I'm dead and in some weird limbo place. Or I'm in a coma and dreaming all this.

Catherine came back to the doorway, hesitantly. The mage was sort of regal-looking, Lila thought, tall and willowy with the effortless poise of a queen, clad in a simple long dress of varying shades of red. Her hair was brown, and astonishingly long, Lila had seen a moment ago—all the way down to her hips, thick and shining with hints of red and blonde, mostly loose except that the front was pulled back out of her eyes with a red plastic clip. Not a trace of grey; she looked only a bit older than Lila's twenty-three years. She wasn't pretty, her chin was a little too strong and her nose a little too long, and she looked like someone who frowned a lot, but there was something appealing about how it all worked together. Like a medieval lady, strong and capable.

Although, currently, extremely unsure of herself, which amazed Lila.

“I tend to wear skirts a lot, I'm sorry if you don't like them but nothing else I have will fit. I left clothes in the bathroom for you. Is there anything else you might need for a while? I need to get back downstairs before someone notices I'm not there.”

“Um, no,” Lila said dazedly. “Food and a bath just about define heaven right now.”

“I'll be busy for at least a couple of hours downstairs. Help yourself to the books if you get bored.”


Catherine nodded, as if to herself, and was gone again. How she could manage those stairs at the speed Lila heard, the sensitive had no idea. Maybe it was magic.

She finished the soup, wiped the bowl clean with the last of the bread, and had a swallow of the juice.

The presence of the bath tub was a siren song; she abandoned the juice in favour of getting clean.

Across the back of the toilet Catherine had neatly laid a long skirt with a drawstring waist, all in shades of brown and gold, and a plain short-sleeved pullover top. Probably they'd fit, Lila judged, though the top might be a bit tight across her chest. Things tended to be.

The hot water felt wonderful, soothing her sore muscles. She soaked for a while before scrubbing herself thoroughly. Her short-cropped hair, a brown so dark it was nearly black, was a bit of a challenge to wash with the hose that attached to the faucet; she couldn't imagine how Catherine washed all that hair in circumstances like this.

Clean and dry, she pulled the skirt up over her wide hips; it brushed the tops of her feet but was comfortable. The fabric of the top stretched snugly, and actually provided a bit of support. She contemplated her own jeans and sweatshirt, bra and panties, socks and running shoes, in some distaste: constantly worn for days, and slept in outside, they were definitely the worse for the whole experience. But what to do with them? She settled for bundling them up as small as she could, and leaving them in the bedroom beside the bed.

Okay, now what?

Music would have been nice, but there wasn't so much as a radio in the place. For lack of alternatives, she checked out the contents of the bookshelves.

The range impressed Lila: historical fiction, mysteries and the odd bit of romance that both appeared to be historical as well, non-fiction that covered history, religions, mythology, and fairy tales, along with stuff that looked pretty heavy duty about society and racism and sexism. At least, that was all she could identify without deeper exploration. She looked until she found a fairly short mystery, and sat down to read.

“Good book?” Catherine said softly, from the doorway.

Lila yelped, and clapped a hand over her mouth, looking worriedly past Catherine at the stairs.

Catherine smiled. “It's okay, it's all soundproofed. No one downstairs can hear anything from up here.” She had her arms full of something... folded sheets, Lila thought. “You don't have to stop reading, I just wanted to make sure you knew I'd come upstairs. I didn't mean to scare you, I'm sorry.”

Lila decided she didn't want to ask how one soundproofed an area that was divided from the kitchen only by the stairs, she probably wouldn't like the answer much. “It's okay.” She blinked, suddenly registered the meaning of the sheets... and what it meant, that there was only the one bed up here. “Oh my god. I was in your bed! Where did you sleep?”

The smile came back. It softened all the lines of her face and made the corners of her eyes crinkle. “You needed it more. I dozed a bit in the chair. We'll have to figure out what to do about that.”

Lila stared at her in utter shock, speechless.

“What?” Catherine asked, the smile fading into a faint frown that creased her forehead.

“Mages hunt sensitives. Mages treat sensitives like we're animals. Why are you doing this?”

Catherine sighed. “Do all sensitives have the same thoughts and the same beliefs and the same opinions?”

“They do when it comes to mages.” She could sum it up in a single word: fear.

Catherine set the sheets on the floor, and came nearer until she was just out of arm's reach. Absently, she swept her hair forward over her shoulder before sitting down cross-legged, facing Lila. “I can remember being very young and trying to understand why everyone treated sensitives as something less than human. I've never managed to. Everything I've been taught, all my life, about sensitives, contradicts what I've seen for myself. There are a few mages who are starting to speak up and protest the way some mages treat their sensitives, but around here, as far as I know I'm the only one who sees us all as human and equal, mage and sensitive and mundane.”

“As far as you know?”

“It... isn't something one discusses. There are no actual laws against having opinions and beliefs, but there's a huge amount of social pressure not to admit to it if your opinions and beliefs run counter to the acceptable ones, and it's possible to find laws to use, mostly about general disruption. A mage with Master's status can act relatively independently, but I... I don't have that.” She faltered, took a deep breath, toying with a pendant on a long chain. It looked to Lila like a stylized dog. “Anyway, my opinions and beliefs are that the whole relationship between mages and sensitives has gotten twisted somewhere. Mages shouldn't be wolves preying on sensitives.” She smiled fleetingly. “Once a wolf is tamed, what you have is a guard dog. I'm hoping that even the few who are trying to keep sensitives from being abused are the beginning of another movement like women's suffrage or black rights or gay pride.”

“Like what?” Lila said blankly.

Catherine stifled another sigh. “A woman used to be treated as the property of her father and then her husband,” she explained patiently. “It took a huge effort to change, on the part of women and the men who supported us, but we did it, at least in some parts of the world. Being black used to mean being treated as an inferior and, in places, as property of a master. Not any more, in North America. It used to be perfectly legal for the police to harass anyone suspected of being gay, or for gay men and lesbians and bisexuals to be discriminated against. That one still needs some work, but it's changing. Maybe it's time for the mess between mages and sensitives to start breaking down, too.”

Lila's experience didn't exactly mesh with that—she'd seen plenty of discrimination, against sensitives and mundanes alike, for being female or non-white or openly attracted to the same sex. But Catherine's experiences were different, and Lila was willing to concede that the mage might just not have been exposed to it. “But the way things are now, you have everything. Why would you care?”

“It just doesn't feel right, to treat people as property. As for having everything,” Catherine gestured at the room around them. “My kingdom,” she said dryly. “The house belongs to my grandmother. I'm responsible for the meals and the housecleaning, and in return, I get to live here. My reward.” She shrugged, and stood up, paused by the door to gather up the sheets. “I'm going to change the sheets on the bed. You have my sworn word, I won't touch you, and you're safe here. For the moment, I can make sure you have shelter and food. We can talk about the long term in a couple of days, once you've had a chance to recover.”

“I'm not putting you out of your bed again. I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep again for a while anyway.” There was entirely too much here that needed thinking about.

“All right.” An impish grin crossed Catherine's face, bringing a flash of warmth and personality and openness Lila would never have believed possible from a mage. “That would certainly solve the problem, if I get the bed at night and you get it during the day.”

Lila stared after her for a few minutes, her head spinning. A mage who saw herself as a dog to protect instead of a wolf to hunt? Equal rights? And what was with the emotion that was buried in Catherine's voice when she spoke of her kingdom and her reward?

She heard Catherine in the bathroom, and a few minutes later, everything was very still.

The night was very long, and brought no revelations.


20 – Lila

Lila didn't realize she'd fallen asleep in the chair until sounds of motion roused her. She heard water running in the bathroom, and a few minutes later, Catherine looked in the doorway, running a brush through her hair rhythmically. She was wearing a high-waisted blue dress today.

“Good morning,” the mage greeted her. “I realized something last night. I, um, forgot to ask your name.” A hint of a blush coloured her high angular cheekbones.


“Lila. That's pretty. I'll bring you up some breakfast as soon as I make sure my grandmother has hers. How are you feeling? Would you rather more light food, or bacon and eggs?”

“I think I'm okay now, I can eat anything. I wish I could help, or something, to pay you back for this.”

Catherine's smile was warm and pleased. “It's all right. I appreciate the thought, but it would put us both in danger. Make yourself at home, although heaven knows, there's not much.”


Lila picked up the book she'd started the night before, for lack of other options. There were certainly opportunities here to sit and watch the paint peel, but that would drive her crazy, and there wasn't really anything else to do, except go to bed, and that could wait until she'd had something to eat.

Catherine darted up the stairs, set a plate and a glass on the little table, said, “Can't stay to talk,” and was gone again, all in something like sixty seconds. Lila barely had time to realize that the mage was close enough to touch her before she no longer was.

She retired to curl up in the bed with a full stomach, though she left skirt and top on. Her gaze fell on a long brown hair on the pillow; thoughtfully, she picked it up, and rolled onto her back, coiling the strand around her fingers. Until last night, it had been part of Catherine, but now it was only a hair, differing from her own only in the length and shade. Touching it yesterday would have meant touching a mage, but there was nothing frightening about it this morning.

Lingering exhaustion cut off her reflections for some time, but she still woke before Catherine returned. Or had she? The pile of dirty clothes no longer lay next to the bed.

Oh, calm down. She did something with the dirty sheets, she probably took my clothes the same time. She doesn't need you to be asleep to do anything she pleases with you, anyway. Cool it.

She got up, visited the bathroom, and wandered aimlessly around to try to stretch stiff muscles. The blisters and chafed spots would heal, but she borrowed a tube of ointment from the bathroom and made use of it on all broken skin. That killed a fair bit of time.

Catherine came upstairs carrying two plates, and smiled at her, rather shyly. “I thought you might like company for supper. I'll just set these down, and go get us something to drink.”

Lila nerved herself, remembering how many opportunities Catherine had had, and reached for the plates. Catherine froze, not a single muscle moving—not even breathing, Lila thought, and found the thought flitting across her mind that she wasn't sure which of them was more frightened. She took the plates, and backed up a step; only then did Catherine move, and the mage looked distinctly flustered.

“I, um... I'll be right back.” She fled down the stairs.

Lila chose the room with the bookshelves, and set one of the identical plates on the little table before sitting on the floor with the other. Company to eat? How long had meals been simply fuel for her body? Not since Jax had vanished months ago had she actually sat down with anyone to share a meal. She didn't start on it, no matter how her stomach rumbled. She was no animal, ruled by instinct and hunger. She could wait a few minutes, out of consideration.

Catherine returned with a pitcher and two glasses. She didn't sit in the chair, but settled herself across from Lila, and left the pitcher and glasses in the middle between them, then reached behind and above her for the other plate. “I hope you like pork.”

Lila looked down at the plate again, at the neatly arranged boneless pork with some dark sauce on it, the rice and veggie mixture. She contrasted that with the starchy, salty, fatty cheap stuff she'd been able to afford, that had contributed to the softness around her tummy—well, granted, vegetables and rice and such weren't so expensive, but she wasn't the only sensitive who completely lacked domestic skills. “This is the best meal I've seen in a really long time. Maybe the best ever.”

“Oh.” Catherine's gaze dropped.

The sudden tension confused Lila. “You must be a really good cook,” she said at random, hoping to get Catherine talking again.

“I enjoy it, I always have.” The mage looked up, and a shadow of the smile returned. “I don't experiment as much now as I used to, my grandmother prefers her meals tried and true. It might be just as well for everyone, some of my experiments got a bit peculiar. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn't.”

“Wouldn't be much fun if you knew it would turn out no matter what you did, would it?”

“I suppose not. I hadn't thought of it that way.”

Awkward silence for a moment, which Catherine broke. “I need to go out tomorrow and do the grocery shopping. I can take a little time and stop to buy a few things for you, underwear and such. The clothes you were wearing are in the dryer with some of mine. I'd offer to go to wherever you've been living and bring you anything you like, but the hunters most likely have someone watching for you to return there, and they'd certainly notice me.”

“It's okay. There isn't much there. Just a few clothes and things.” You didn't collect much when you moved around all the time, hopping on a bus to move to a new city in hopes of avoiding mage attention for a little longer. “Nothing I need.” What on earth do you say to someone who has absolute power over you and insists that she doesn't want it?

Judging from Catherine's expression, it was no easier to figure out what to say to someone you had absolute and unwanted power over. The mage stirred her rice and veggies with her fork, gaze on her plate.

“So how did you know where I was?” Lila asked. Maybe that would give Catherine something to say, and banish the uncomfortable silence.

“The hunters were here for supper, Brock and Elena. I listened.” She shrugged, and gave Lila a lopsided smile. “No one pays the slightest bit of attention to what I'm doing, as long as meals are made and the house is clean and the laundry and shopping are done. It was easy enough to wait a little, until they left. They have somewhere else they prefer to sleep. Once they were gone and everyone else was in bed, I came looking for you. I followed their trail backwards, and once I was in the park, finding exactly where you were was no trouble at all.”

“And they can't just follow this same trail back here?”

“No. I made sure of that. The other local pair might have guessed at my being involved, if they were here, but these two won't.”

“Are you going to get in trouble if they do find out I'm here?”

“There's very little risk of that. No one will come up here. They prefer to forget my existence, as long as I do my job.”

“That isn't what I asked.”

“I have very little left to lose that they can take away,” Catherine said quietly. “What they will do to me if they find you here is less than the least of what will happen to you. I choose to consider it worth the small risk involved.”

Lila chewed her pork, thoughtfully, not at all sure that she liked the idea of Catherine putting herself in any danger at all, but there really wasn't much she could do about it. “I can't hide up here forever.”

“If you stay here until the weather turns and the hunt ends for the season, that will at least give you the winter to decide what you wish to do.”

“That could be months!”

Catherine cocked her head to one side, as if listening to something, and shook her head. “No, the cold will come early this year, and the heavy snow not long after. Three weeks, maybe four at the outside.”

“For a month you're going to have me underfoot here?”

“It will be worse for you,” Catherine pointed out. “At least I leave here during the day. You won't be able to leave the servant's quarters.”

“Oh, is that what this is?”

“It used to be, yes. Appropriate.”

Lila gazed into space, chewing thoughtfully on a bite of rice, wondering fleetingly what all the veggies in it were. Hide out here, trusting in a mage, for a month. Cramped into three small rooms. Or go back outside, and pray that the hunters wouldn't find her again over the next month. Her job was already gone, her rented room being watched. Neither was much to speak of, but they were all she had. She could find another sensitive to stay with, but what sensitive had the resources to deal with that? Material or magical? Insane as it was, she was safer with Catherine than with one of her own kind.

“You honestly don't mind?”

“I honestly don't,” Catherine assured her. “It's rather pleasant, having someone to talk to, in fact. A little extra food will be no trouble at all.”

Lila sighed. “Then I guess I'm staying. Although how I can ever possibly pay you back what I'll owe by the end of this, I don't know.”

“You don't owe me anything.”

“I don't have anything you need, you mean.”

“You have quite a lot to offer that I need,” Catherine corrected quietly. “But none of it means anything if it's given out of duty or fear or taken by force or manipulation.”

“That doesn't make any sense.”

“No, maybe not.” Catherine scooped up the last of her rice, and laid her knife and fork neatly on her plate before setting it aside. “I have never pretended to be sensible, however.” Her tone turned brisk and practical. “So. If I'm shopping for you tomorrow, I need some idea of sizes and preferences. And are there any foods you're allergic to? I know some people react very badly to lactose or nuts or wheat gluten or some other fairly common things.”

“Um, no, I can eat pretty much anything, no allergies or anything. I'm not even very fussy.” Lila went along with the subject change, more than a bit astonished to be sitting here sipping grape juice with a mage and doing, well, girl talk, about clothes and favourite foods. On the other hand, it was no less unexpected than anything else since Catherine had found her.

As though it were a normal conversation, the subject even wandered, from clothes to how Catherine intended to pay for everything—by manipulating probability and choosing scratch-and-win lottery tickets that would give her moderate amounts of ready cash. Lila wasn't entirely sure how she felt about benefiting from magic, but had to admit she already had, and how else did she expect Catherine to keep her fed and hidden?

And, somewhat later, Lila realized they were chatting about everyday sorts of things, encounters with guys yelling rude comments at them, and the peculiar image of the female body that so many clothing producers appeared to have, and an unexpectedly shared feeling of being both part of and apart from the mundane city around them that saw only one dimension of them.

Lila blinked, looked around for a clock, but didn't see one. “Oh no, it must be getting late, and you've gotta get up in the morning.”

Catherine's eyes widened. “Oh dear, I completely lost track of time.” She smiled. “It was worth it, but I should probably go to bed, or I won't be able to concentrate tomorrow.” The smile turned mischievous. “I might bring you clothes that are all frilly pink and lace, if I shop while I'm sleepy.”

“God, no! Torture!” Lila laughed.

“Do you need anything else before I go to bed? There's still grape juice in the pitcher, in case you get thirsty.”

“I'll be fine.”

Catherine nodded, and stood up. “I'll see you in the morning.”

Lila sat still for a few minutes, until everything went quiet. Mages weren't supposed to be real people who had ordinary things happen to them. Mages were supposed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, arrogant. Mages and sensitives weren't supposed to be able to sit down and talk and enjoy each other's company.

But Catherine was, and wasn't, and they had.


21 – Elena

It should not be necessary to be out a second time in search of a sensitive to fulfil a contract, Elena reflected in disgust. She would have given quite a lot to find out how that little bitch had vanished out of the park in the middle of the night. That one had been strong, too, would have gotten them a good price and won them points with the Gauthier Patriarch; it was deplorable that they had to concern themselves with the opinion of the Elders, but that was a reality of life these days.

Now, having wasted days on the hunt and a couple more on top of that trying to unravel the mystery, with no success, they had to start all over again.

They simply walked down the main street of the city, watching, their own sensitives left behind as unnecessary for this. Any number of sensitives were likely to be out during the nice weather, begging for spare change. The odds of finding another female that age who had no children was low, and besides, Elena doubted Brock was any more willing than she was to spend a day watching to make sure. So, it would be a male this time.

Elena spotted one sweeping the walkway in front of a building whose front window advertised pitas and wraps; he paled, and vanished back inside. Hm, no, not worth hanging around waiting for him to get off work, and it would create too much of a scene to follow him in. They kept looking. A block ahead, a panhandler, perhaps more perceptive than usual, perhaps just lucky, chose that moment to get up and leave; from here, Elena couldn't see where he'd gone, though he was definitely a sensitive. A female, with one child in a stroller and a slightly older one toddling along beside her, froze, eyes wide with fear, and hauled both children inside the first business that came to hand, a bookstore—as though a sensitive would have any idea what to do in there, Elena thought scornfully. Cowards, running even when they knew they were safe, that they'd be spared to breed more.

“Park to the right?” Brock suggested, and they turned at the next corner.

In the park, two male sensitives, both hovering around twenty or so, had settled themselves comfortably on the grass to share what appeared to be lunch for one: sandwich, apple, a can of pop, a couple of things less easily identified. Both looked up at the same instant, saw the approaching hunters. Traded despairing glances, and Elena saw hands clasp, just for a heartbeat. In the next, both were up and running, in different directions.

“They both look strong enough to run for a while,” Brock said thoughtfully. “Which one, since we'll have to choose one or the other?”

“The one on the left,” Elena said at random, and they veered in that direction, following the sensitive. Now that the hunt had begun, she felt much more relaxed, more focused. Hunting was challenging, it meant they had to be in much better condition than their prey, able to alternate wolf-like lope with steady walk all day, while maintaining the subtle glamour that prevented mundanes from taking any notice of what was happening. Of course, it became easier with each passing day, as the sensitive began to suffer from fatigue and hunger.

“Maybe we should've let him eat first,” Brock mused. “He might've lasted longer.”

“Oh well,” Elena shrugged. “He's getting a little far ahead.”

They settled into the familiar routine of maintaining a more or less constant distance between them and the sensitive, just close enough to make certain he'd be aware of them every instant. That should be all the goading necessary to keep him moving.

As sunset approached, they herded him in the direction of a vacant lot overgrown with tall brush, and left him there, turning towards the home of one of their allies. Supper always tasted so wonderful, while they were on a hunt, and sleep was so sweet.

Elena woke immediately, just before sunrise, alert and eager to get on with the day. A brief shower, breakfast provided by a silent terrified sensitive, and they went in search of their prey again.

He'd moved, not that it mattered. Once fixed on a single aura, they could track it indefinitely. They found him sleeping in a back doorway, down an alley. Not for long. He roused as they neared, sleepy confusion turning to fear, and he fled again.

This one was only moderately creative: he tried losing them by weaving through a department store in the direction of another door and then doubling back to the one he'd come in. He even tried to steal a rest, in a different, busy store, where any disturbance would be noticed, but his nerve broke before they were in range to touch and he bolted. He'd been well-conditioned, he made no attempt to seek help from mundane authorities of any kind.

They left him for the night, of course.

On the sixth day, in the middle of the afternoon, he stumbled, went to one knee; he lurched to his feet, made it a couple more strides before he fell again, this time to both knees. The hunters waited a moment to see whether he'd get up or not.

Elena always found this moment a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment: satisfaction that they'd succeeded in their job, disappointment that the chase was over. She wouldn't mind if the sensitive managed to make it a little farther, on sheer willpower.

He wouldn't. He collapsed where he was and curled into a tight ball, half-sobbing for breath.

“Whose turn is it to go get the van?” Brock asked.

“Yours,” Elena said, as they closed the last few yards, unhurriedly. She crouched, laid a hand against the sensitive's shoulder, too experienced to wince from the dirt and sweat, and shoved him into sleep.

“I'll be here,” she said, unnecessarily.

Brock nodded and left; Elena sat on the curb to wait, a glamour wrapped around her and the unconscious sensitive to keep mundane eyes from landing on them. She'd need to recharge from her own sensitive when they got back, but she had enough energy stored to take care of it. Occasional passersby stepped around them, without ever registering their presence. Skills other mages might learn casually, if at all, the hunters had refined and mastered; illusion and weather-sensing and tracking were high on that list.

Another hunt successful. Tomorrow they could deliver him to the Gauthier Patriarch for his favourite grand-nephew, and complete the contract. There remained time before bad weather came, they had almost three weeks left before it turned, enough for another hunt with no risk of it running too late. If no one in this city wanted that one, they could ask around for anyone interested. There was always someone wanting a second sensitive to play nanny or housekeeper or sex-toy, if no one needed one for magical uses.

As much as she loved the sheer wild joy of the hunt, the sense of power it gave her, she knew it was inefficient to be able to hunt only a few weeks twice a year. Anyone who needed a sensitive between those times had to wait. More and more, she could see the advantages of the euphemistically-named “reservations,” where healthy sensitives could be raised and trained right from birth, available any time of year. The Donovans' madness might be spreading and growing stronger, but so was the faction that supported the future construction of the reservations.

And there was no law to prevent a group of mages from collecting and breeding sensitives, unlike the laws against the Donovan obscenities.

The familiar red mini-van pulled up in front of them and Brock got out; together they hefted the limp sensitive, tossing him onto the rearmost seat and the thick blanket draped over it to keep it clean. Elena hopped up to get him arranged so he wouldn't roll off, while Brock slid the door closed and circled to the front.

“We could hunt a lot of them at once,” she murmured. “Build a place to keep them, three buildings and a lot of high fencing, one for each sex and one for the children. Hunt them fast and dirty, take the females with children as long as they're still young enough to breed more...”

“It'll take a few years to establish,” Brock said, though it was more a continuation of her thought than disagreement. “And close to two decades before the first bunch are ready to go. But if we get a few friends to do the everyday part, with it made very clear that we still own the sensitives, we can keep up our usual job while that happens.” He sighed. “That is, if we really want to personally kill the hunt, and turn hunters into farmers forever.”

“That's where it breaks down,” Elena sighed, too. “I don't know that any mage really wants to have anything to do with sensitives who are too young to be of any use, and if we want them properly conditioned, we wouldn't be able to leave them too completely with the adults. But I don't know that we're going to have much choice. There are fewer of them wild all the time, and we get complaints because we don't always have half a dozen ready to choose from at any given moment.” Her fists clenched. “And it would keep sensitives we've invested time in from simply disappearing into thin air.”

“That would be a big plus.” He was still annoyed, she knew; in a family known for magical skills, he'd broken records through much of his youth, and resented his inability to unravel this particular mystery. How one clear strong aura could simply vanish, with no trail and no sign of it anywhere, even the lingering traces left after death... that a sensitive could escape was a disturbing idea. “All set?”

Elena moved forward to the passenger seat. “Let's go.”


22 – Lila

“Supper,” Catherine announced, a warning to Lila that she was there more than anything else.

Lila set down her book, and abandoned the chair in favour of the floor, accepting one plate from Catherine without hesitation after over a week's repetitions of this—although also without contact. “Thanks. What's with all the bags?” She nodded towards the trio of plastic shopping bags full of food that had been left just inside the door while she'd slept.

“The day after tomorrow, I'll have to be up earlier than usual, and I will very probably be constantly busy all day until very late. Cookies and granola bars and bottled juice and such won't be much, but at least you shouldn't be hungry.” A frown creased her forehead, as she swept her hair aside and sat down facing Lila, on the other of the two large thick cushions that had mysteriously appeared a couple of days ago. “Maybe if I make some sandwiches tomorrow night and leave them in the fridge until morning... surely I can manage the sixty seconds or so it would take to bring them up here.”

“I can live on cookies and stuff for a day,” Lila assured her. Knowing Catherine, they wouldn't be the cheap brands, and there'd be lots of variety.

“Yes, I'm sure you can, but I don't like the idea. Well, I'll think of something.”

“What's going on day after tomorrow?”

Catherine's expression turned to stone between one breath and the next, absolutely still and flat. Lila winced, wondering if she'd just overstepped herself, but it wasn't anger in Catherine's voice, it was that emptiness she'd noticed hints of now and again. “My cousin Wesley is taking his Master's exam. There's very little chance that he won't pass, so my grandmother is already planning on celebrating here. The entire family will be present, and others are invited, so you're likely to hear quite a lot of noise. No one will come up here, I promise. I'll be occupied all day with preparing finger foods and a proper meal for about thirty-five mages, along with drinks and the cleaning up afterwards.”

“You have to do all that by yourself?”

“No.” It was almost inaudible, and Catherine flushed, lowered her eyes. “My grandmother has a sensitive, and others in the family will send theirs early enough that they can help me.”

She has a... here in the house where I've been hiding for almost a week, there's at least one other sensitive, but they've been caught and belong to a mage...

“There's nothing I can do to help them,” Catherine said miserably. “I can try not to ask anything unreasonable of them and not take them for granted, but there's nothing I can do...”

Lila chewed her lower lip, torn between too many conflicting emotions—one of which, she had to admit, was concern over Catherine's distress. Paranoia was deeply ingrained, but so was the tendency to deal with the immediate now and postpone anything else until later.

“You're only one person,” she said reasonably. “You can't do everything, y'know. You should look at it the other way around. You do whatever you can, when you can, instead of looking away and pretending it's not happening or doing it yourself.”

“But it isn't enough!”

“It's more than there would be otherwise!” Lila made herself lower her voice, keep it calm and steady. “Look, you wouldn't know about panhandling, but it's the best I can think of. When you're panhandling, asking strangers for change, most of them won't give you anything, and the ones who give you something usually won't give you much, just a couple of dimes or nickels. And once in a while, there'll be someone who gives you more than that. But all the nickels and dimes add up eventually, and it can be enough to get you a bowl of soup somewhere to get you out of the cold for a while. If all you have that you can give is dimes and nickels, well, it's something.”

Catherine considered that silently for a moment. “I believe I need to think about that. My experience with life has tended to be much more all or nothing.”

“It doesn't work that way for everybody. Trust me.”

In the quiet that followed, both making a start on the thick rich beef stew, Lila wrestled inwardly with the question she'd wanted to ask for days now but hadn't had the nerve to bring up.

“Um... Catherine?”

The mage looked up from her bowl immediately. “Yes?”

“What do mages actually do with sensitives who get caught?”

“I thought that was common knowledge. You know you're safe when there's no direct contact.”

“Yeah, but... sensitives who know any more than that don't generally come back and tell the rest of us.”

“I hadn't thought of that.” The colour came back to her cheeks again, and she couldn't seem to meet Lila's eyes. “Mages can manipulate the world in a number of ways. Probability, illusions, condensing energy into matter, moving things without touching them, just as examples. However, any magic requires energy. It's something like physical exertion as far as what it costs the mage. Our influence over anything living is fairly limited. We're virtually immune to each other, and normal people and animals and such are as well in most ways. Sensitives are the one exception. You can't do anything, but you're extremely susceptible to magic. You... you don't have the immunity everyone else has. Along with that, sensitives are channels for power. By drawing power through a sensitive, a mage has access to vastly more magic before growing tired.”

“Oh. At least the more power bit makes sense.” Lila shivered.

“No mage can touch your mind,” Catherine said quietly. “Or make changes to your overall mass. And direct physical contact is necessary, although it's then permanent until changed again. And some basic laws of physics and biology do apply, as far as viability and functionality. But that essentially defines the only limits on what a mage can do to a sensitive.”

“Oh.” Tag, you're it... and “it” could be anything...


The silence fell again, worse than ever. Lila focused on her stew with single-minded intensity, until she felt somewhat collected again.

Then she took a deep breath, and let it out. “Okay, that's bad. But you don't do that, and you're the only one who knows where I am, and right now there's nothing anybody can do to help the caught ones.” Right now there's nothing? Catherine's getting to me.

A tentative smile came back to Catherine's face. “I don't believe I told you, the hunters are very angry. They cannot comprehend how you vanished from the park without leaving a trail. They suspect it may have been with the help of a mage, but there was no... signature, we call it, nothing to show who it was. So they can't even prove that a mage was involved.”

“You're sure they can't trace you? I don't want you to get in trouble.”

The smile turned faintly satisfied, as Catherine shook her head. “Throwing around a great deal of power leaves a vivid signature. Subtle use of a little power, with finesse and skill, can be invisible. They will find nothing they can use.”

Lila relaxed. “How mad are they?”

“Furious. A sensitive is not supposed to be able to escape from them.”

“Cool. We really threw them for a loop. If nothing else, they've just had it rammed down their throats that they can fail.”

“True.” That idea seemed to cheer Catherine significantly. “And we shall see to it that, in this case, they never succeed, and must spend the rest of their lives wondering how you disappeared. Better yet, they'll be in this house day after tomorrow, and will never know how close they are to an answer to the riddle.”

Here! They're coming here?” Panic surged.

“To my cousin's celebration,” Catherine said reassuringly. “Not up here. The hunters are nomads and it's considered courteous to invite them to any function held while they're present in a city. I promise, Lila, no one will come up my stairs. I promise. They have no call to be in my private quarters no matter what they think of me, by their own rules they can't treat me as property under any circumstances. The protections I have on the servant's quarters will make it impossible for them to sense your presence, or even that I am hiding anything, unless they actually come face to face with you. And I will not let them come up here to find you. I will not.”

The fierce emphasis, the determination that hardened Catherine's blue eyes to ice, reached Lila more than the actual words, and helped her push the fear away. “I believe you.”

The ice melted into the warmth of Catherine's smile. “Thank you.”

That seemed odd to Lila, to be thanked for believing something, but it wasn't worth pursuing just now.

Hunters, here, only yards from her, and only Catherine's word and Catherine's magic to trust in, that they would never know. She should, by rights, be terrified.

Except that, to her surprise, she genuinely believed that Catherine would make certain no one found her, no matter what it took. Which meant that, rather than being terrified, she was both nervous and thrilled at being able to do something no sensitive ever had: cheat the hunters.


23 – Lila

Catherine came into the room she called the library, her hair forward over her shoulder so she could braid the shining mass into a single sleek heavy plait. “I'll bring you the sandwiches I made last night, but after that, you'll be on your own until late tonight. I'll likely be very little company even then.”

“It's okay,” Lila said. “I mean, I'm safe and warm and there's a bed to sleep in and a bathroom and you left enough munchies for a week, let alone one day. Just relax and concentrate on what you need to do, I'll be fine.” Watching Catherine was distracting, the nimble practised motions of her fingers in that silky-looking hair, the unconscious grace in every line. She'd chosen a dress in shades of green today, an extremely simple one with short sleeves and buttons all down the front. Lila had to concede that it would probably be comfortable and leave her free to move, but the subtle way it accentuated the curves beneath was certainly appealing.

Catherine nodded, finished the braid, and coiled it into a bun, fastening it with a handful of bobby pins. “I'll be in the kitchen and within sight of the stairs for most of the day.” That bright smile surfaced, past the concern. “And your guard dog will be on duty, I promise.”

“I'm not worried.” Well, it was almost completely true.

“Good.” She turned away, and Lila watched her disappear downwards—the doorway of this room faced directly down the stairs, though someone would have to be on them and halfway up to see anything.

As promised, Catherine delivered a plate full of sandwiches, neatly covered in plastic wrap, and darted away again.

I couldn't eat that many sandwiches in two days, with nothing else at all to eat, Lila thought, in a kind of amusement. With those and all the cookies and crackers and juice and all, plus clean water to drink, I could be fine up here by myself for a week. Comfortably.

It was probably more sensible to sleep now, while it was quiet, rather than try to later, once the house was full of people. She left the sandwiches on the table, and headed for bed.

Catherine had bought her a night-shirt even, a heavy grey cotton one that fell to her knees and had a kitten and mouse cuddled together in sleep printed on it. It was more comfortable than sleeping dressed, even in the new clothes, and much better than sleeping naked under these circumstances. She snuggled into bed, and thought she could smell the raspberry scent of Catherine's shampoo on the pillow.

Voices near the bottom of the stairs roused her somewhat later, the actual words muffled by the closed bedroom door, but Lila was sure one of them was Catherine. She contemplated staying where she was and trying to go back to sleep, but, well... paranoia ran deep. She believed Catherine's intentions, but the possibility always existed of unanticipated circumstances. And, for that matter, if it came down to saving her own hide, what would Catherine choose? Being up and dressed and able to hear what was going on definitely made a better option.

Back in her jeans and T-shirt, she returned to the library, paused to get a bottle of juice from the bags, and settled in the chair. It was soft and cozy and welcoming; she pulled the afghan off the back and wrapped it around herself. She was near the end of that mystery novel, it was turning out to be pretty interesting. She had a comfy chair complete with blanket. She had juice... hm, tangerine, this time. She had sandwiches... she peeled back the plastic wrap and investigated, discovering without surprise that there were at least four sorts of cold sliced meats, all cut into triangles. She could hear the approach of any danger, even if she really wouldn't be able to do much about it. Life was pretty good, all things considered, even without a radio. She chose one at random, and munched on it while she picked up the mystery where she'd left off.

From downstairs, she could hear Catherine giving brisk directions. “Here, slice this cheese, we need... oh, you might as well do the entire brick, with all these people I imagine it will be useful. And if a few slices go missing before they get that far, I promise not to notice. Trice, you have a better eye for colour and design than anyone I know, could you see about arranging the vegetables on that platter? Oh, yes, thank you, we'd best get drinks out there immediately. You know this routine better than I do, I think, go ahead.”

Sensitives, Lila thought, distracted briefly from her book. She really is trying to treat them like people. Belatedly, the thought snuck up on her, There are sensitives down there who have been captured, they're property now. You'd be like them by now if it weren't for Catherine being crazy.

She buried the thought fiercely, and tried to concentrate on reading. Actually, the enticing smells that wafted up the stairs were harder to ignore.

“You haven't been out of the kitchen since I got here, Catherine.” The faintly mocking male voice made Lila look up again, suddenly tense. “Not going to congratulate me on passing my exam?”

“Congratulations, Wes,” Catherine said dutifully, but there was no emotion behind it at all, that Lila could detect.

“And to think, when we were young, everyone kept telling me, 'Why can't you be more like Catherine?' It's been a while since they said that, hasn't it?”

“They should never have said it.”

“That's for damned sure. Here we are now, I'm a Master, and I'm going to be buying my own house as soon as I find one I like. And you aren't a Master, and you're housekeeper and cook to our grandmother, working out here in the kitchen with the sensitives instead of socializing with the mages.” There was a cruel, gloating edge to his voice that made Lila want to tear his tongue out for using it that way.

“Yes, and you're keeping me from my work. If your celebration dinner turns out overcooked because you were busy flaunting your new status at me, I will not take responsibility for it.”

A pause, a harsh contemptuous laugh, and a moment later Catherine, her voice very nearly its practical self again, said, “How's that sauce coming, Trice? Has it thickened yet?” and everything went back to the previous rhythm of dishes clattering and pots banging and Catherine's calm efficient directions. Lila relaxed, but she wondered all over again what terrible thing Catherine had done.

The next voice to grab Lila's attention, just before she found out who the murderer in the novel was, was that of a woman—an older one, from the sounds of it.

“Oh, leave it for a minute, Catherine,” she scolded. “They're quite capable of washing dishes without your supervision. Put those down, I want to talk to you... here, Dulcimer, come and take these.”

“Yes, Grandmother,” Catherine said, and that obedient inflection, or lack of inflection, was back.

“Good. Now. I had a word with Brock. They've just trapped a new sensitive, a young male, not spoken for yet. I am quite willing to buy him for you.”


A long-suffering sigh. “Catherine, you're nearly twenty-seven. You've been eligible for Master's status for close to two years. It's an embarrassment to the entire Eldridge family, having you living here little better than a sensitive.” A lot better than a sensitive, Lila thought. “It isn't as though you couldn't pass easily. If you would just grow out of this childish squeamishness about sensitives...”

“I will pass my exam on my own skills and knowledge and strength, or not at all,” Catherine said quietly, but Lila heard steel under it.

“It's shameful, a woman your age without her own home.”

“Then let me move out of here and rent an apartment.”

“You know that goes against the law. Every mage household must have at least one Master residing there.”

“You could convince them if you chose. At least do me the courtesy of telling the truth. You want me where you can watch me. You don't trust me.”

“That is part of the reason for that law. This... attitude... could make you entirely too vulnerable to unhealthy influences.”

“Then nothing changes.”

“Catherine! Don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you!”

“I don't believe there is anything more to be said, Grandmother. Neither of us is willing to alter our terms, and they are mutually exclusive, so nothing has changed. I have quite a lot of work to do before I finish, and I would like to return to it, please.”

“Fine, have it your way. But when you get tired of living this way, the offer will still be open.”

Lila stared blankly at the wall, struggling to assimilate what she had just heard. Catherine had been dumped in the servant's quarters of her grandmother's house to live as a glorified servant herself, in disgrace... because she couldn't pass this Master's exam thing without using a sensitive, and she refused to do so? She felt vaguely ashamed of her earlier doubts about whether Catherine would turn her in to protect herself.

It was so stupid, though. Catherine, alone, had so deftly masked Lila's trail that no one was even able to prove a mage had been involved, let alone which one. They kept Catherine here so they could keep an eye on her yet, with no apparent difficulty, Catherine had Lila hidden away practically right under their noses. Catherine was obviously smarter and better at magic than the other mages. But they wouldn't let her be a Master, and treated her, well... not like a sensitive, but not as an equal, either.

She was used to thinking of mages as all-seeing, all-knowing, an unstoppable and malevolent force of nature. That they could do something simply stupid, like utterly fail to see the reality of Catherine when she was right in front of them, brought them down to a more human level. If they could be blind and make mistakes like this, they weren't gods, only people.

She counted no less than four more who came to the kitchen on varying pretexts—a request for something, a compliment on a dish—and each managed to insert a subtle or not so subtle question as to when it would be Catherine's turn. Lila thought she'd have growled a nasty comeback or two at them, or burst into tears and fled, but Catherine bore it all graciously.

“I do believe we're finished.” Catherine's voice sounded loud in the quiet. “Thank you. I couldn't possibly have done all this alone, or if you hadn't worked so hard.”

“For you, gladly, my Lady,” a deep male voice said, and genuine respect rang beneath the words. Two other voices, one female, one that might have been either, seconded it, and the former added, with a hint of mischief, “And all the treats help.”

“You look tired, my Lady,” the deep voice said.

“No more so than you are. Go, rest, you've more than earned it, and with any luck they'll let you.”

“Sweet dreams, Lady Catherine,” said the in-between one.

“You too.”

Lila laid aside the new book she'd begun, and sure enough, Catherine came up the stairs a few minutes later. The mage moved slowly, heavily, and her perfect posture had sagged visibly.

“Catherine?” Lila said tentatively. “Are you okay?”

Catherine focused on her, and gave her a weary smile. “Only tired.” She reached up, fumbling for bobby pins. The ease with which she'd put them in had deserted her; to Lila's utter dismay, tears gathered in Catherine's eyes, and she sank down where she was, face buried in her hands.

“Catherine?” What the hell do I do? Lila got up, took an uncertain step closer.

“I'm all right.” It sounded muffled, but she watched Catherine force the tears back, watched her sit up straighter and start on the pins in her hair again. One of them snagged; Catherine jerked at it in frustration.

“Don't! You're going to hurt yourself!” Without a thought beyond keeping Catherine from tearing out hanks of hair, Lila dropped to one knee beside her and gently untangled the trapped pins. Catherine went rigid under her hands, trembling.

For just a heartbeat, Lila felt her muscles tense for flight. I'm in direct contact with a mage. No, I am not an animal, I am not ruled by my instincts or my fear. I'm not touching a mage, I'm touching Catherine, who incidentally happens to be a mage. She made her hands continue, and after a moment poured the pins onto the table, draping the freed—and frayed—braid forward over Catherine's shoulder.

“There, much better.”

“Thank you.” Lila could barely hear the words, they were spoken so low.

“No problem.” She sat back on her heels, while Catherine untwisted the elastic at the end and began to unbraid it. “Hang on, I'll get your brush.” She dashed off to the bathroom, and returned with the hairbrush, but about five seconds of watching Catherine drag her fingers through her hair with unprecedented roughness decided her. “You're gonna have no hair left by the time you're done.”

“Maybe I'll cut it short like yours.”

“God, no, don't do that, your hair is gorgeous. Come sit in the chair so I can reach you.”

“No! You shouldn't...”

“Why?” Lila retorted tartly, as much against her own fear as Catherine's outburst. “Are you suddenly going to change your spots and do something nasty to me? You're making my head hurt, doing that. Come sit.”

After a pause, Catherine slowly got up and moved to the chair. Lila circled around behind her, slipped her free hand under the wavy mass near the back of Catherine's neck, and ran it unhurriedly along her palm and fingers, revelling in the weight of it, the satin softness of the shining strands. When she let it fall, it lay against the back of the chair, rich brown against dull blue, and to her relief the end was nowhere near the floor. She retrieved the nearest pillow and sat down, so she could start at the bottom instead of turning lots of little tangles into one big one.

Catherine made a funny little sigh with a catch in it, and Lila stopped cold. “Did I pull?”

“No.” Catherine shifted position and leaned back so her head rested against the top of the chair.

Since no further information appeared to be forthcoming, Lila resumed brushing, taking great care not to yank or let the brush snag. The sensation of Catherine's hair against her hands was a pleasure in itself, like the sight of it in even the indifferent lighting, spilling down in a luxurious cascade.

By the time she'd worked her way up, she'd forgotten to be nervous, relaxing into the even rhythm of the brush through Catherine's hair. Catherine herself was still, her breathing slow and steady, so much so Lila wondered whether she might have gone to sleep. Only until she stood up to reach the last bit; Catherine stirred, gave an odd sort of twitch, then sighed again, low and deep.

“Don't fall asleep here, bed will be better,” Lila said quietly, not wanting to startle her.

“I'm not asleep. I had a... a very long, very hard day, and you've somehow made it go away.”

“I know. I kinda couldn't help overhearing.” She divided it into three, and began to rebraid it for the night—Catherine said it left fewer knots in the morning. “It was pretty awful for you.”

“But nothing new or unexpected, and it will happen countless more times. However, the alternative is unthinkable, so,” she shrugged. “Que sera sera.”


“What will be, will be. So it goes. C'est la vie.”

“Oh. I wish I could help.”

“You are, believe me.”

“I mean more than that.”

Catherine chuckled. “Nickels and dimes, remember?”

Lila gave the partly-finished braid a gentle tug. “Hey, no fair using my own words against me.”

“Practice what you preach.”

Lila sat down again to make it easier to reach the lower part. “Where'd the elastic go?”

“It's around my wrist.” Lila thought she heard an undertone of disappointment.

“You need sleep more than you need to sit here all night. Give it here?”

Without looking, Catherine reached down and back on the side opposite the table, holding the elastic so Lila could take it without further contact—a little silly, really, but Lila found herself taking it without touching skin. Well, habits didn't change overnight.

She twisted it around the end of the braid, and inspected her work. Not nearly as smooth and tight and even as when Catherine did it, but it would do. “All done. Go sleep.”

“I suppose I am sleepy. Oh dear. Were you all right today?”

“I was perfectly fine,” Lila said patiently. “I slept for a while, I couldn't eat all the sandwiches, I read. Obviously I survived. Go.”

“Going,” Catherine said meekly, and stood up. Lila got to her feet and stretched, and noticed that the mage was hesitating in the doorway. Blue eyes met hers, shyly, and Catherine said, “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“For trusting me, I mean.”

“You've given me lots of reason to.”

Catherine smiled, left the room.

Lila sank down on the edge of the chair, surprised to find that she was shaking. The time for anxiety was over, and now it caught up with her? Figured.

The warmth of Catherine's body lingered. Lila squirmed backwards and tucked her feet up, resting her cheek against the rough fabric of the back of the chair.

Poor Catherine.


24 – Lila

“Lila? My grandmother just told me she's going out for lunch, so I can have breakfast with...” Catherine's eyes widened as she took note of Lila's rapid, random pacing. “Are you all right?”

“Just restless,” Lila said. Just restless. Like an animal in a cage in a zoo.

“That isn't an answer.”

All the pent-up frustration and tension picked that moment, faced with Catherine's concern, to break down the door she'd been hiding it behind, even from herself. “I'm used to being active and doing things, working and being able to go out, and I have no one to touch, every sensitive I've ever met needs to touch lots, brushing your hair for you every night helps but it just isn't enough, and I don't know anything outside these rooms except what you tell me, no radio or TV or anything, and I've spent as long as I can remember moving around between apartments and shelters and new cities and now I've done nothing for more than two weeks other than look at this godawful ugly wallpaper and I'm scared to even look out the windows in case someone looks up and sees me... and... and... oh shit.” She sagged against the wall, struggling with tears. “It's stupid. I'm safe, I shouldn't be bitching about this stuff.”

Catherine let her wind down without interruption, but her dismay made Lila immediately feel guilty for the outburst.

“I'm sorry, it isn't your fault, you've been doing everything you can...”

“No, I would say I haven't,” Catherine said, her forehead furrowed. “I've been thinking in the wrong frame of reference.”


“Come sit down? I believe we need to talk. Besides, the toast will get hard.”

Confused now, Lila followed Catherine to the library, and joined her on the pillows, accepting a plate that held a couple of slices of toast, each with a poached egg sitting neatly in the centre.

“If a mage were confined for a time in a limited space,” Catherine said, slowly, as if working out the concept even as she spoke, “what she would need to be reasonably content consists largely of good meals, a comfortable bed, and plenty to read along with a place to do so and minimal interruption. Feeling isolated would not be an issue. We're trained from the time we're very young to avoid contact. Some mages enjoy or prefer company, but it's not usually unendurable to lack it. Scrying, calling up images in a mirror or in water, is a fairly straightforward ability. A glamour to make a space look different or larger requires a little more effort, but it's certainly possible. A limit to physical activity, for anyone save the hunters, would in most cases not be noticed. I completely failed to consider whether any of that is universal, and I'm sorry. Some of this I'm certain can be changed. So. Tell me what will make it more comfortable for you. Everything. Then we can see what I can arrange.”

“You're doing enough!”

“Humour me.” Catherine smiled. “I'd prefer to see you under as little stress as possible. No radio or TV, you said. I imagine I can buy at least a radio with no trouble at all. What else was there? Having nothing to do but read, and being unable to escape the decor. What are you used to doing?”

“Working jobs that mean ten or twelve hours a day of physical labour, or being out scrounging and panhandling in between jobs, or hanging out with other sensitives when we run into each other.”

“More detail?”

Lila sighed. “Shit jobs, the kind no one else wants. The only kind you can get when you haven't finished high school and never stay anywhere long and don't have any legal ID or a resume. Loading and unloading trucks. Janitor stuff. Helping someone clean up a lot of brush and garbage. Washing dishes. Whatever. When we go out, we go dancing, usually, or wander and see what's going on, or blow a few bucks in an arcade or on a movie.” And have sex... wonder what she'd think of how casually sensitives take sex with other sensitives? “Not very intellectual stuff, but hey, sensitives are usually pretty physical.”

Catherine's frown deepened, thoughtfully, and she looked at the walls as though seeing them for the first time. “Do you know anything about getting rid of old wallpaper?”

“Sure, that's easy,” Lila said automatically. “All it takes is a paint scraper from the dollar store and a kettle for steaming the old paper off. Easier if there's an extension cord so you can reach the whole room.”

Catherine nodded decisively. “Good. Then I'll get those for you, and you can solve one problem by working on solving another one. Surely I can find more pleasant wallpaper.”

“Could just paint it,” Lila said dazedly. “You're going to redecorate 'cause I don't like it?”

“I don't much like it either. I was throwing a simple glamour over it whenever I was up here and thought about it. I haven't been because you aren't comfortable around magic. A perfectly ordinary physical change would be easier for me in the long run, I simply haven't bothered to. You are, however, quite welcome to do so. Let me know what you need, and I'll bring it here. Or would you rather not?”

“No, that'd certainly keep me feeling busy and useful for a while. You do realize this will mean a lot of shifting furniture around and general inconvenience while I do it?”

“I'm quite good at functioning around obstacles. If you think you can handle a little magic, telekinesis—moving things magically—makes rearranging solid oak furniture much easier. So. A radio, a kettle, an extension cord, and a paint scraper, for the moment, correct?”

“Um... yes.”

Catherine nodded again. “I'll take care of it after breakfast. I have some free time before I need to start preparing supper. What will you need for painting?”

No point trying to divert a force of nature. Lila obediently gave her a list of the supplies that would be necessary or useful.

Catherine took the empty plates away with her, and Lila sat alone in the library, head spinning while she tried to figure out what had just happened in the last few minutes.

Then she gave up on the effort—it was just more of Catherine being crazy—and went to bed.

* * *

Catherine wandered around her small kingdom, gazing at the rooms in delight. “Oh, Lila, this is so much better, it doesn't even look like the same place!”

Lila regarded her week's efforts critically. The walls behind the old paper had proven to be plaster, soft and crumbly, hard to work with. But, despite that and her limited experience with this sort of thing, she thought she'd done quite a tolerable job. Each room was painted a different almost-white tint, and the hall in a fifth, creating a subtle shift in atmosphere between them. The bedroom was tranquil blue, of course, and the library a warm peach, the bathroom sea-green and the dressing room a simple cream, the hall an inviting lilac. The stair railing and the trim around the windows had been redone in glossy white, and she'd managed to repair the railing so it wasn't quite so wobbly. “Looks pretty good.” It had taken multiple layers of paint in each, but what else did she have to do?

“Not just pretty good. This is wonderful!” The pleasure turned to thoughtfulness. “Perhaps if we change the curtains to something lighter...”

“Then someone might see if there are lights on at night,” Lila pointed out.

Catherine's thoughtful frown creased her forehead. “I might be able to devise a glamour to cast on the windows, it wouldn't need to be a complicated one, so I shouldn't need to concentrate on it to keep it in effect. One that makes the windows look empty and dark all the time. Then we could exchange the curtains for much lighter ones, which would make it even brighter in here. As for the floors... they really are dreadful, aren't they? It shows up terribly against these nice walls. A long runner should cover most of the hall... something colourful, but not gaudy. And a throw rug each in the bedroom and dressing room should be enough, there isn't much bare floor in those rooms.”

Protesting would do no good at all, Catherine would do what she chose to do and there was nothing Lila could do to change that. So she gave in. “One by the bed would feel nice when we get up.”

“I agree. Could you measure the floors when you get a few minutes? I'll buy the rugs right away, and see what can be done about the windows.”


No matter what happened to her when she left here, at least she could know that Catherine was living in more pleasant surroundings. It wouldn't necessarily be much consolation if she got caught, but at least she'd done something to repay Catherine's generosity, and she could remember Catherine's sparkling eyes and brilliant smile.

For the first time she could remember, she found herself praying, not for the bad weather that ended the hunt for another season, but that the good weather continue a little longer.


25 – Topaz

The glossy brochures on Lord Andreas' desk made Topaz's heart sink as he crossed the room with the lunch tray. “My Lord?”

“Hm? Oh, good.” Lord Andreas cleared off the corner of the desk with one hand, gaze never entirely leaving the brochure in his other hand.

Am I about to disappoint him all over again? Topaz wondered unhappily. The last time he'd seen that many brochures on his mage's desk, it had been followed by questions about what Topaz knew about computers and what help he could be if Lord Andreas bought a newer one than the elderly laptop he used for checking email once a day. The honest answer, that he currently knew next to nothing but would do his best if his Lord wanted him to, had too obviously not been what Lord Andreas was hoping for, though there'd been no response beyond a sigh and a decision to put it off for now.

“My Lord?” he asked tentatively. “You're considering buying something?”

“No, these are for places to travel to. I was thinking of the two of us taking a vacation and going away somewhere.” His forehead furrowed. “Not Western Europe, I think, I gather they have some extremely odd ideas about sensitives there. Australia as well. But that still leaves quite a lot of the world, much of it tropical with interesting sights to see. I must admit, getting out of Canada for two or three weeks during the worst of winter is a bit of a relief.”

“Don't... don't you need a passport to go to other places, my Lord?” He perched in his usual place in the chair, watched Lord Andreas finally lay aside the brochure in order to draw a bowl of soup closer and add crackers.

“Generally, yes. It also helps for getting back into Canada afterwards. We have plenty of time to track down a copy of your birth certificate and take care of it.”

Topaz winced, eyes on the other bowl of soup. “I don't have a birth certificate, my Lord.”

Lord Andreas actually paused in what he was doing, for a full couple of seconds, before resuming. “Hospitals keep records of births, we can use that to apply for one belatedly, then.”

“I... wasn't born in a hospital, my Lord.”

That pause was a bit longer. “I assume you aren't referring to some form of midwife-supervised alternative, either. That is extremely atypical of Western society. Explain, please.”

“It's... actually, most sensitives aren't born in hospitals, my Lord. Sensitives who go to hospitals disappear. A woman having a baby would probably be safe enough, but the fear goes too deep to be logical like that. Having a baby at home with a friend or two there, maybe a sensitive woman who's already had one or more, is less scary and feels less dangerous.”

He remembered, far too clearly, Lila miscarrying because she'd overdone it working when they'd desperately needed the money, too badly nourished to be pregnant anyway and not even out of her teens; her terror of bleeding to death was less powerful than her terror of going to the emergency room and not coming back. She hadn't gotten pregnant again after that, despite being as sexually active and as unprotected as any other sensitive.

“And we move around all the time and don't have regular doctors to take a baby to for checkups and things. So most of us who actually survive long enough to grow up don't legally exist at all. So no ID even if we wanted to go to a hospital anyway. And the whole cycle just keeps going.”

“Zephyr has a birth certificate, although I believe Phyllida had to go via hospital birth records. Veritas had one, we only needed to request a copy of it.”

Topaz winced, fighting the feeling of having failed, coming up inferior to Veritas yet again, though Lord Andreas' tone was mild and not accusatory. “Both were born before me, my Lord. Maybe things are worse now. Everything's more computerized and universal records and things. Maybe they were unusual. I don't know.”

“School? Jobs with no Social Insurance Number?”

Topaz shrugged. “Sensitives mostly will go to great lengths to avoid any way of being tracked or identified. If you move every few months, it's easy to just tell schools that records are still coming from the last school, and you're gone somewhere else before it's an issue. That's mostly how we grow up, and mostly what we keep doing. One woman or maybe two women with their kids moving from city to city every few months. A sensitive that has an apartment or a room or something will usually let someone without one sleep there for a while, 'cause everyone is the one with nowhere to go eventually. Some just give up and don't bother sending their kids to school at all. Jobs sensitives get are mostly unskilled labour and a lot of the time it's under the table, or it's the same kind of thing, promise it later but disappear first. Or stuff like hooking or panhandling or shoplifting. Unless you're just going to kill yourself, and some do, you survive however you can.”

“That,” Lord Andreas said softly, “is a very harsh way to live.”

No point in denying the obvious truth. “Yes, my Lord, it is.”

“Is it worth it? For all sensitives to live that way, when only a few are chosen by the hunters?”

Again, he shrugged. “Everyone is afraid of being one of those few, my Lord. No one understands how hunters choose. No one understands what happens afterwards. And how do you change it when you grow up in the middle of it?” And understanding wouldn't make them any happier about being one of the few caught.

“A good question, that, and obviously one without an easy answer. Well.” Lord Andreas' tone turned brisk. “I haven't previously had any need to, but I'll look into what can be done. Even if we can't manage it for this winter, I do enjoy travelling now and then, and I certainly wouldn't do so without you.”

“I'm sorry, my Lord,” Topaz said miserably.

“You haven't done anything wrong. It isn't your fault.”

“But I'm making more work for you, my Lord. And maybe stopping you from going somewhere warm where your leg will bother you less.”

“It's worth it. We'll get it sorted out. Meanwhile, we can think about where we'd like to go. Maybe a cruise. Or a resort somewhere.” He flipped through the brochures. “Eat, please, don't just stare at it. Here, how does that place look?”

Obediently, Jax took the brochure and picked up half his sandwich with his other hand. The food tasted dry and he almost choked, and the glossy brightly-coloured picture of people around a pool felt superficial and meaningless—but having disappointed his Lord once already, he threw everything he had into not doing it again right now.


26 – Lila

Lila sat on the floor near the top of the stairs, leaning against the railing—carefully—while she listened to the chaos downstairs.

“Advance warning that I'd need to make supper for nine would have been helpful,” Catherine said. Lila wondered whether the edge beneath it was audible to anyone else. “Plus making sure eight sensitives are fed, as well.”

“Surely you can come up with something,” her grandmother said dismissively. “Nothing with soya, now, you know how that upsets Wesley's stomach.”

Catherine sighed. “Yes, I know. Am I expected to create loaves and fishes alone, or will I have assistance?”

Her grandmother's voice sharpened. “Mind your tongue. You'll have Dulcimer to help immediately, of course, and Trice and Zeus when your aunts arrive. I'm expecting a proper meal.”

“I'll think of something.”

“Yes, do.”

Quiet for a moment, and a low female voice ventured, “Lady Catherine?”

“Relax, Dulce, I'm not angry with you. Or angry at all, really, only exasperated. So. What do you suppose we can conjure up to feed nine mages and eight sensitives? Trice's tossed salad is excellent, we can put him to work on that when he arrives. That will do to begin. Entree... steak? No, if I buy the boneless chicken at the butcher shop, and if I can find the recipe for that sweet sauce with the maple syrup that Grandmother liked so much, that will save us quite a lot of time.” Sounds of motion. “Aha, there it is. Rice, I think...”

A few minutes later, Catherine left the sensitive to make the sauce while she went out to buy what they needed. Lila abandoned her post and returned to the library, curling up in the chair with a book Catherine had specifically suggested. It was called Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl, and it was about a Jewish girl during World War Two who lived for a long time hidden in someone's attic, along with her family. It was something Lila could relate to, although the thought of being confined for so long gave her shivers. The radio as background made her feel much less alone, she had music and the announcer's voice to keep her anchored to the outside world.

Catherine didn't come upstairs until much later than usual. Lila was on her feet and out of the chair almost before she'd consciously registered how heavily Catherine moved, how weary she looked.

“Bad day?”

“I'm sure you heard. Impromptu dinner party. Sorry, I couldn't do much for a meal for you, it's only peanut butter.” She set a plate with two sandwiches and an apple on the little table. “I created something to satisfy them, of course. That would only have tired me, but... they were on their favourite subject. When will I grow out of this silly phase and decide to face life as an adult. Do I intend to spend the rest of my life living here and cooking meals and doing laundry.” She sank down in the chair. “If they'd only leave me alone, the rest I could accept.”

“Sit back.” They'd started leaving a second brush here in the library; Lila retrieved it and waited for Catherine to arrange herself properly. Her hair had been twisted back hastily with nothing but an elastic into an odd bun; Lila took time and care in freeing it, puzzling out exactly what Catherine had done, before starting to brush it. “Tell me?”

She listened while Catherine described, with acid in her voice, the snide comments and outright insults she'd been forced to bear tonight, while the others devoured the luxurious meal that had been devised by Catherine herself with the wholehearted aid and considerable experience of three sensitives.

The mage was much calmer by the time she ran out of words and Lila had her hair braided for the night.

“Go have a hot bath and relax,” Lila suggested. “Then go to bed. You're worn out.”

“A very good idea, I think.” Catherine stood up, and waited until Lila was on her feet before meeting her gaze. “I'm glad you're here. It will be lonely, without you.”

“Yeah,” Lila said softly. “But we both knew I can't hide up here forever.”

“I know. Dulce told me once that sensitives take whatever good they can, and use it to make it through the bad times.” She smiled, though there was a sad edge to it. “Sounds like good advice, too.” A couple of those long strides took her to the doorway.

Lila slumped in the chair, counting days while she absently picked up half a sandwich to bite into. Catherine had said maybe four weeks of good weather. She'd been here a little over three weeks. The weather could change at any time, and then there'd be no hunters, no reason to stay here dependent on Catherine any longer. No home or possessions or job, either, but it wasn't the first time. She could find another sensitive and sleep there for a while.

But the scales weren't balanced. Lila had redone the walls. Catherine had kept Lila safe and reasonably comfortable, fed her well, treated her as a friend and equal, respected her limits.

Given Lila freedom, at least for the moment, and that was all a sensitive could really ask.

Lila shivered, dropped the sandwich back onto the plate, and huddled into the chair, terrified of her own thoughts, even while she recognized the rightness of them.

Catherine had given Lila freedom. Lila could give Catherine the same.

All night, while Catherine slept, Lila turned the concept around this way and that in her mind.

“Good morning,” Catherine greeted her, and stifled a yawn. “You're looking very serious.”

“I'd really like to talk. It's important. Can you get away after you do breakfast?”

Catherine frowned, instantly worried. “Yes, I can juggle chores a bit and make time. Is something wrong?”

“Not exactly. We just... need to talk. Soon.”

“All right. I'll see to Grandmother's breakfast, something that doesn't take long to make, and I'll come directly back.”

“That'll work. Thanks.”

Catherine nodded, though the frown stayed. “The sooner I get downstairs, the sooner I'll be back.”

Lila closed her eyes and listened to the rather silly morning show on the radio, ordinary people calling in for a contest and answering trivia questions in return for free movie passes. That would be nice to win, it would be easy to find three other sensitives to go to a movie with.

“Lila?” Catherine said tentatively, settling herself on the other pillow. “Dulce is going to cover for me, if necessary. What do we need to talk about?”

“They'll let you move out of here and have your own life and your own apartment and everything if you pass this Master's exam, right?”

“Yes.” Just that, one syllable, no emotion behind it.

“And you can't pass it because you have to have a sensitive, right?”


Lila hoped Catherine couldn't see how tightly clenched her hands were, nails biting into the palms. “I'm a sensitive.”

Catherine simply stared at her for a moment, then blue eyes clouded into anger. “I did not bring you here so that I could trap you and force you! Or out of any expectation that you would feel obligated to me!”

“It's not that. Just that, anyway. It isn't fair, what they're doing to you. And this is something I can do to make it right.”

“Lila, I can't do that to you!”

“You aren't forcing me. It isn't rape if I'm willing.”

“It would mean staying here for, oh, I don't even know how long, weeks most likely, while I learned a set of skills I've carefully avoided my entire life. It would mean helping me with magic, not just watching it, but being involved. It would mean walking into an assembly of mages with me while I take my exam.”

“I kinda figured all that, more or less. No one else would be able to touch me if I'm with you, right? And staying here longer... maybe I can take up a hobby or something to keep myself busy. Winter's coming and that's a good time to stay inside a lot anyway.”

“And the isolation? The magic?”

Lila shrugged. “I can deal with that. Could be lots worse. Look. I'm not afraid of you, and I want to do this. To help you.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She looked to Lila like she was in pain, torn between two impossible paths. “Lila... If I fail again, I have no legal right to claim you as mine. My grandmother can take you away.”

There was a scary concept. “Do you really think she would, when she offered to buy you a sensitive?”

“No, probably not.”

“Do you really expect to fail? I thought you only failed because you were alone. Was there any other reason?”

“No, I can't see that I'd be likely to fail.”

“Am I or am I not a person?”

“Of course you are.” Blue eyes snapped open.

“And doesn't that mean I have a right to make my own choices, rather than having someone else decide things for me? This is my choice, that I choose to make. And what I choose is to help you pass your exam so you'll be free. I don't know what after that. Sensitives suck at planning ahead. But right now, I choose.”

“It's my decision, whether to accept that offer or not.”

“Yeah. But it's not right to base it on what you think is good for me.”

Catherine gave a kind of half-strangled laugh. “I think I'm losing this battle.”

“So surrender gracefully,” Lila suggested. “Don't you know how to accept a gift?”

“Apparently I need to learn how. Although no one has ever offered me a gift of quite this size.” She bowed her head. “Thank you.”

Lila blinked, saw a shining drop fall to vanish on Catherine's russet skirt, then another. “I didn't mean to make you cry...” she said helplessly.

“It's all right. Truly.” Catherine looked up, and it was hope, not grief, Lila saw. “I'm almost afraid to think it might work, that there might be a way out.” She blinked, wiped her eyes with the hem of her skirt. “To be free of this, it's worth it.” Her smile was shaky. “I'll even try not to feel ashamed.”

“You aren't going to do anything to be ashamed of,” Lila said firmly. “If anything, I'm starting to feel like I'm forcing you.”

“I'm sorry.” Catherine composed herself. “I'll try, but there's so much conditioning. The beliefs mages are taught about contact, that it is always a matter of establishing power and dominance. And my own feelings about you.”

“We'll work on it. Are you going to be okay? Now, I mean.”

Catherine nodded. “I think so. Dulce will do what she can to help, if I should slip, she's much more observant and resourceful than my grandmother gives her credit for.”

“Good. I'm exhausted by all this thinking, I'm going to bed now.”

“Oh dear. I forgot your breakfast.”

“I'm too tired to eat. You go act normal, and I'll go sleep, and we can talk about this tonight. I just really needed to say it now, or I wouldn't have been able to sleep.”

Another nod, and a warm smile. “Pleasant dreams.”

“I hope so.”


27 – Lila

“I want something absolutely clear,” Catherine said, without warning, as she brought supper upstairs.


“If you change your mind and want to leave, at any time, you're free to do so, and I will not be angry or try to stop you. You have not just locked yourself into a cage.”

“I knew that already. And that's why I won't.” Supper was potatoes cooked with onion and some sort of spices, and string beans, and steak. Simple, solid food. Having skipped breakfast, she tore into it hungrily.

Besides, it was something to concentrate on, other than her own fear. If she showed it, Catherine would refuse. So she couldn't let herself show it.

“What exactly does this exam involve?”

Catherine shrugged. “A representative of each family is present, generally chosen from among those best known as teachers. They have the right to question the candidate in theory and history until they're satisfied that the candidate has an acceptable level of knowledge. The other half is a practical test. They name tasks to perform, by magic, to prove control and skill. In theory, there is no rule stating that a mage must have a sensitive in order to pass the practical test, but in practice, it is impossible to do so with the finite levels of power a mage has alone.” She smiled ruefully. “Believe me, I tried. It created a public scandal, in fact. I passed the theory with no real difficulty, and I was doing well enough on the practical until I, well, ran dry.”


“Yes. My mother stopped acknowledging me as her child, my grandmother spent something like three hours lecturing me on duty and propriety, most of my relatives made time to give me shorter versions over the next week or so. And I was given this place to live in.” She shrugged. “My family allowed me try, believing that the humiliation of failure would bring me to see that sensitives are necessary tools. They were rather displeased that I didn't change my mind.”

“Hm. Well, you're going to pass this time, and you're going to do it without giving in to them. Not that they'd be likely to believe that I'm there willingly instead of being forced even if we told them.” I don't believe it myself. I'm crazy.

“I'm not certain I believe it,” Catherine said, echoing the thought.

Lila gave her a sharp look. “We covered that this morning. Don't start again.”

Catherine shook her head, smiling. “I mean that it's such a wonderful thing, that you want to face something that frightens you for my sake, that it's almost... too big to believe.”

Damn. So much for not showing fear. “Yeah, so, I've got generations of the most paranoid sensitives being the ones who stay free long enough to have kids. I can deal with it.”

“I know. But that's what makes it... incredible, in every sense.”

In silence, they finished eating.

Catherine set the plates near the top of the stairs, to take down in the morning, and returned to her pillow.

Lila eyed the distance between them—close enough to reach, but not comfortably—and moved herself and her pillow forward on the threadbare rug before offering Catherine her hand, palm up. It was trembling only slightly, she observed. No more than Catherine's was as the mage laid hers over it. Not gripping, only touching. All the pressure was up in Catherine's shoulders, in fact, turning her entire upper spine to rock.

“Catherine. Relax. It can't be that hard. You can run circles around other mages, and they can do it.”

Catherine gave her a quick smile, took a deep breath and closed her eyes, forehead furrowing in concentration.

“Oh!” she said suddenly. “That's not very complicated at all!”

Oh god, Catherine, please don't give me a long explanation right now, just do whatever you need to do...

She felt... well, didn't exactly feel, because it wasn't on any part of her body, but was aware of a touch, somewhere that didn't exist as she knew it.

And the world twisted inside out and melted away into pleasure. Rather like the explorations of a new and inquisitive lover, Lila though dazedly, roaming gently across her skin... no, it wasn't her skin, there was only her hand against Catherine's, but she could think of no other way to grasp the concept. Braced for discomfort, prepared to forgive it, this caught her utterly off guard. She let her eyes close, simply experiencing this, not trying to analyze it.

“There's nothing to that at all.” Catherine sounded pleased. “It'll mostly be a matter of refining my control with all that extra power.” A pause, then, “Lila? Are you all right?”

“Mmhmm. Feels good.”

“Really? That's interesting, I've never heard of that before.”

“Maybe 's like sex. Feels awful when you don't want to, can feel great when you do.”

“A definite possibility. Consent isn't something that's ever been studied, that I know of.”

“So it'll work?”

She could hear the smile in Catherine's voice without bothering to open her eyes. “It will definitely work. To mage-senses, you're drawing in raw power from your environment constantly, and... do you know how maple syrup is made? The sap from the trees is very thin and watery, but they boil it until it thickens and condenses. Somehow you're doing something like that. It's all pooled inside you, and spilling over because it isn't being used for anything. Mages can barely sense it in the raw form, but in the condensed form... I haven't tried yet, but a mage with access to that while doing magic can make use of it. You have the strength, I have the ability to focus and shape it.”


“Hm, no, I'd say more like two halves that make a whole. Let's see, what's something harmless, in case I lose control. I know.”

The stroking sensation intensified. Lila opened her eyes so she could see what was going on... and felt them widen. The familiar library wasn't any more. They were sitting in a glorious fairy tale palace, the walls hung with shimmery metallic draperies that glowed from behind with the warmth of sunlight. Bookcases, chair, table, were all gone, replaced by a small sparkling fountain that seemed to be made all of glass or ice or something, shaped like a naked winged lady pouring water from a vase. The worn rug had become shining white marble.

“Catherine!” This was just too weird, what was going on?

Catherine laughed. “It's all right, it's only a glamour, an illusion, and only for one sense. Close your eyes, reach out, and you can touch the chair still.”

Lila obeyed, felt the rough fabric of the chair under the fingers of her free hand, right where it should be, but when she looked again, her hand rested against thin air.

“That's just spooky.”

“I'm sorry,” Catherine said contritely, and the fairy palace faded away, back to reality. “I didn't mean to startle you. I needed to try something that couldn't hurt us if I couldn't control so much more power. That one was pretty small. Can I try again, or should I try to think of something different?”

Lila shook her head. “It's okay, I just wasn't ready for that. Go for it.” That stroking sensation, somewhere inside or around or... or something, was soothing, made it easier to let go of fear and anxiety and uncertainty.

Catherine nodded, and frowned in concentration.

She's barely started, this is nothing yet. There's no point in getting freaked all the time, just relax and go with it. So what if it's seriously bizarre? Catherine's good, and she'll make sure we're both safe. Trust her.

It felt like a long time, though she didn't think it had really been all that long objectively, before they both tired.

“It's been about an hour,” Catherine confirmed, untangling her fingers from Lila's gently. “It's not terribly surprising, it's a new form of exercise for both of us. That will change with practice.” She hid a huge yawn behind her hand. “I'm exhausted, and I think I have the beginnings of a headache.”

“I'm not sleepy, just kinda tired, but then, it's getting close to bedtime for you anyway. Maybe we should be doing this in the morning, so you're the one who's wide awake? You're the one actually doing stuff.”

“Hm. Something to think about. But not right now.” Catherine arched backwards in a long stretch, and got to her feet. “Right now I feel like I've been pushing rocks up a hill.”

“Go get some sleep, then. I'll still be here in the morning.”

The smile Catherine gave her was sun-warm and bright. Funny how blue was usually considered a cold colour. “I know, and I'm glad. Thank you.”

Lila shrugged. “If it always feels like that, this isn't going to be hard to take at all.”

“Good. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Lila wrapped her arms around her knees, thoughtfully. Right now she felt... how did she feel? Comfortably relaxed and satisfied, sort of like after decent sex. Not like she was drunk or stoned or out of control, just peaceful and content. And tired, yes, she wouldn't have wanted to do much right now, so it was just as well she had nothing more strenuous to do than listen to the radio and read. Unexpected, but if this continued, it would make this whole business much less unpleasant than she'd feared.

She'd be much happier, though, if she could snuggle against Catherine and share it, instead of being here by herself.


28 – Lila

“Lila? Close your eyes, and don't peek, all right?”

Lila obeyed, and tracked Catherine's movements by sound, coming up the rest of the stairs and into the library, stepping carefully around the low, square table that was a recent addition, and stopping beside her. She caught the scent of Catherine's shampoo as the mage leaned closer, set something carefully on the table—with any luck avoiding Lila's most recent experiments with the origami book and paper Catherine had given her a couple of days ago. Faint noises from the direction of the table, even after Catherine moved a step away... huh?

“Can I look now?”

“Hm...” Catherine pretended to consider that, and laughed. “Yes.”

Lila opened one eye, then opened both very wide.

In front of her was a cage, a fairly elaborate one with two levels and a little ramp to the higher one.

Running around in the lower part, on the bedding, were a pair of tiny mice, one a soft misty grey with a white face, the other all-over pale wheat-gold.

“I thought they might keep you company,” Catherine said shyly, dropping her gaze as Lila looked in her direction. “They're both female, the woman at the pet store was very helpful and told me they're cleaner and usually friendlier, and they're sisters from the same litter so they shouldn't fight or anything. They're still young, they left their mother not long ago. I, um, don't think we have room for a kitten or a puppy, but the cage won't take up that much space...” She trailed off, looked up anxiously. “Do you like them?”

“Like them?” Impulsively, Lila bounded to her feet and pounced on Catherine for a hug. “They're perfect!”

Catherine froze, utterly rigid; Lila throttled her first impulse, to back quickly away, though she did make herself stop squeezing so hard. And, after a couple of rapid heartbeats, Catherine tentatively returned it.

“You can hug harder than that, I don't break,” Lila told her, careful that her tone was light and teasing. In the last few days, she'd started to realize exactly how deeply mages were conditioned against contact. Especially casual contact. It was a miracle they somehow managed to make baby mages. But, if she gave Catherine a minute, her mage usually got past it. “Sorry, I shouldn't have surprised you like that, but they're so cute!”

Catherine's arms tightened, for a moment, her entire body trembling slightly, then she let go; Lila released her and backed off, shoving deep into the back of her mind her own longing for more prolonged connection. “I guess you do like them,” she said, with a smile that was a trifle shaky around the edges. She enjoyed the contact, Lila had checked that the first time Catherine had gone all tense on her, but getting used to it was another matter. “I wasn't sure, but I thought it would mean you aren't alone. The woman at the pet store says they can become extremely tame if they're handled frequently and gently. I have lots of other things for them, too, I'll be right back.” She made a quick trip downstairs, and returned with a couple of bulging plastic shopping bags.

Lila left her mice to calm down, and explored the bags. Food, bedding, more kinds of treats than she could count, toys and houses and stuff... She must've bought half the pet store.

“She said they like to be active at night, too,” Catherine added.

“I never had a pet before. Always wanted one.” The mice were calmer, settling down now that their world wasn't moving and rocking and changing. Lila could relate. They had a dish of food already, and a water bottle attached to the side of the cage; she watched in delight as the grey one went up on her back legs to drink from it. “They're adorable!”

“I thought the corner there might be a good place.” Catherine gestured towards a space left between the end of a bookshelf and the wall. “They might feel safer if they aren't directly in the line of traffic, but they'll still be close.”

“Perfect.” Gently, trying not to alarm the mice, Lila moved the cage to the corner, and sat down in front of it to watch them, fascinated. They were so tiny, with their bright black eyes and long tails and little pink feet.

Catherine chuckled. “I'm never going to be able to hold your attention again, am I.”

“Of course you are, don't be silly. I get much less time with you than I'll have with them.” She got up and moved away, back over to the table. Catherine was examining a blue and white paper swan.

“I don't think I could do this, at least not without using magic,” Catherine said. “Other than cooking, I'm not at all good with my hands. You've only been practising for two days, and you're already very good at. I'm impressed.”

Lila shrugged. “It's easy, to me. Most sensitives I know are pretty good at hands-on stuff. This is a bit more delicate than I'm used to, but it's the same thing.” She grinned. “We're probably going to be up to our eyeballs in origami animals and stuff in a week.”

“Silly,” Catherine said affectionately. “I need to go back downstairs and start supper. Have fun with your mice, until suppertime.”

“I think I can do that.”

* * *

“Families,” Catherine growled, slumping in the chair, “suck.”

“Such language from you,” Lila teased. “They must have done something truly terrible today. Sit up straight.”

Catherine sighed, shifted position so Lila could reach to free her hair. “No more so than ever. Only the usual hints and comments and remarks from my grandmother and two of my aunts. Including one about how nice it will be when my mother is willing to join them for supper again. Which she refuses to do while I'm present.”

“Not for much longer. We're getting pretty good. You can create a fair bit of mass now, without tiring either of us out, you'll get the denser stuff eventually, and you do some really awesome glamours, and you can move a lot of weight.”

“I know. And in ways, that makes it easier. But in other ways, it makes it harder to listen and accept than it was when I had no hope at all.”

“Tell me.”

“I just did.”

“All of it, I mean. You aren't going anywhere for a few minutes anyway, and I can listen while I do this. Tell me about today.”

Uncertainly at first, Catherine heaved a sigh, and began to describe the day. Lila smiled to herself as the rational account of events became only the foundation for Catherine's reactions to them, all the frustration and disgust and pain and anger. She took even longer than usual about brushing Catherine's hair shining-smooth, and didn't start to braid it until she thought the mage was winding down.


“Yes, actually, I do feel much better.”

Lila chuckled. “Sensitive magic. Telling someone who cares while getting some personal attention.” She twisted an elastic around the end of the long braid, and circled around the chair to drop to one knee in front of Catherine. “I can do more sensitive magic and make it go away completely, if you want.” Oh god, what if she tells me no? What if she takes it the wrong way? What if... oh, shut up.

Catherine tilted her head to one side, eyebrows raised questioningly. “Oh?”

Lila smiled, rocked forward, and kissed her gently.

Catherine made a small, startled noise, and jerked back, eyes wide. “I can't!”

“Why not?”

“I'm a mage, I haven't... I...”

Lila shrugged, and grinned. “It's everybody's first time sometime. But I'm not going to try to make you. If you choose to, the offer is there.”

Utter stillness, for what felt like forever. Lila could hear her own heart pounding. Sensitives bounced in and out of one another's beds with no commitments, no ties, and for the most part a complete disregard for inhibition and often for safety. The more she'd come to see Catherine as a person, not just a mage, the more she'd longed to share a more physical kind of pleasure with her.

Catherine ran her tongue over her lips, swallowed, and gave Lila a smile that was more than a little shaky. “I choose yes.”

Yes! She said yes!

Calm down, girl, you've gotta take this slow, or you'll spook her and wreck everything.

Lila returned the smile and moved back, tugging the other pillow into place so it was directly below Catherine. “Slide down.”

Catherine obediently slithered out of the chair to the pillow. Yes, having her on the same level would help, for the moment, although there could be possible uses for the big comfy chair later. Lila kissed her again, taking her time to savour the taste and the scent and just the delicious knowledge that Catherine trusted her. Uncertainly, Catherine tried to return it, puzzling this out, but she got the idea quickly and enthusiastically.

Time and again, Lila reigned in her own hunger, keeping the pace slow, keeping contact to hands on bodies, lips on lips. Catherine wanted to, she had no doubt of that, there was no way the shy curiosity, the pleasure even in a simple touch, was feigned.

Neither was the way Catherine's body suddenly went rigid beside her, trembling, her heart racing so hard Lila could feel her pulse hammering right through her fair skin. Immediately, Lila drew back, hoping that breaking contact would also ease Catherine's fear, but the mage made an inarticulate sound of protest and clung to her. Blue eyes closed, and Lila watched Catherine force her breathing slow and deep, felt the stiffness ease.

“Are you okay?” Lila asked softly, stroking that long hair soothingly.

Catherine nodded, but turned her face aside, and it struck Lila that she was... ashamed? “I'm sorry,” she said, almost inaudibly.

“You can't help it,” Lila said, as gently as she could. “It's all right. What can I do to help?”

“Just... be patient? I want to, I really do, I just...” The colour of her cheeks deepened, and her voice turned pleading.

Lila nodded, and leaned forward to kiss her again, lightly. “There's only us here. There's no hurry. We can play all night, or stop any time you like. There's no right or wrong, and anything we do, I'm happy with, believe me.” Delicately, she ran a fingertip slowly from the hollow of Catherine's throat, down between her small breasts, bared by the undone buttons of her sage-green dress, and continued right down to her navel, despite Catherine's quivering and catch of breath. Part of her still couldn't believe this was happening, that she had actually initiated sex with a mage, that she wanted a mage so very badly, that a mage was frightened of contact with her. No, not a mage. Catherine. Just, always, simply and wonderfully, Catherine. And that she was here with Catherine was enough all on its own to try to get her head around. “Being patient just means enjoying the moment longer. And this moment I'd love to stay in forever.”


29 – Lila

“All right,” Catherine said briskly. “We need to talk about the exam.”

“Mmhmm?” Though she wished she could snuggle closer, maybe with her head on Catherine's leg, Lila stayed where she was, lying on her stomach and watching her mice run around in the illusory garden Catherine had created for them. Her mage's hand rested lightly on her shoulder, maintaining contact. Though she was certainly better, most of the time that was all the touching Catherine could bear; that meant Lila needed to watch her own actions carefully, but it was worth it.

Together, they were so good now that the little garden extended to all senses, not just sight. So Sun and Cloud could feel the grass and smell the clover as well as seeing it by illusory moonlight, and they were enjoying it thoroughly. Almost as much as Lila was.

“Specifically, about sensitives around mages.”

“You mean other than run and hide? All right, I'll be serious. What about sensitives?”

“We're going to have to follow conventional rules while we're there.”

“Somehow I'm not sure I'm going to like this. Especially since you're sort of hedging around it. Cath, I'm not going to back out, okay? Whatever it is, I'll deal with it. Now, tell me about captive sensitives.”

She could hear the smile in Catherine's voice. “Yes, my Lady.” The smile faded to seriousness. “According to mage law, sensitives aren't people, they... you're pets. Any mage is always my Lady or my Lord if you don't know that person's name. Or, if you do, you can use Lady Catherine or Lord Wesley. Never meet a mage's eyes directly.”

“Okay.” Not really a surprise.

“A sensitive is required to be collared at all times, at least in public, and the collar must have the mage's full name and should have the sensitive's name, but other than that, it's fairly flexible. Leather, velvet, chain, anything is acceptable.” Catherine sighed. “One of the things I think is cruelest is that they take away a sensitive's name and give him or her a new one. Dulce has an extremely sweet singing voice, Trice got that name because he didn't really fight, he gave in immediately... anything the mage wants.”

“A collar, a new name, eyes down, and Lady and Lord everything. This should be interesting, but I s'pose it's only for a little while. Anything else?”

“Not really.”


Another sigh. “Most sensitives are shapechanged to some degree. A few in extreme ways, mostly in moderate ways, but it isn't unheard of for a mage to choose not to do so at all. It's something you can expect to see. It... isn't always pleasant.”

Lila considered that soberly. Was she going to be able to see fellow sensitives, their shapes altered without their will or consent, and not react? Well, she was just going to have to, but it would be hard.

“All right, I can deal with that, I think. Long enough for you to pass. Anything else you aren't telling me?”

“Not that I can think of. Most sensitives are... trained, before they accompany their mages in public. I don't know all of the training. I think you'll have to be extremely alert and judge proper behaviour as you go, but it all revolves around mages being superior, so if you're very respectful to everyone, I don't believe there will be a problem. I know you think fast, you'll be fine.”

“Oh joy, this is getting better and better.” Lila stifled a yawn. “How late is it?”

“Late enough we should probably sleep soon.”

“I think my body agrees. Switching schedules is a bit of a pain.”

“You didn't have to.”

“Yeah, but this way I get more time with you, since we don't have any reason to argue over who gets the bed.” Lila scooped up Sun and Cloud carefully, stroking their little furry backs with a fingertip. “'Night, girls, that's all the outdoors you get for now.” Gently, she returned them to their cage, and came back to offer Catherine a hand to her feet.

Not long later, they both snuggled into bed. It was wide enough for two, as long as they were friendly, and whatever conditioning Catherine struggled against, she seemed to enjoy having Lila next to her while they slept. Lila tended not to move much in her sleep, so she sprawled along one side comfortably, not actually touching, but close. Catherine stretched out beside her.

“It's your choice, what kind of collar you'd like, and what name,” Catherine said softly. “If it's more comfortable, I can buy a reasonably heavy necklace chain and a pendant and have our names engraved on the back of it. That would make it feel more like jewellery, maybe.”

No it wouldn't, not where it counts, not wearing what amounts to dog tags. “I'll think about it, but you should probably think of a name. You have a way better vocabulary than I do, and a better idea what's normal.”

“If you like.”

A vague concern that had been nagging at her finally crystallized, and the form of it was frightening. “Exactly how common is it for mages to not do this shapechanging thing?”

“Not extremely so, but it does happen. Generally because a mage has simple tastes and is happy with that sensitive's natural appearance.”

“Uh-huh. Cath, I'm hardly a raving beauty. Nobody is going to believe that.”

“It isn't grounds for disapproval.”

“Think about it. You've already got people keeping an eye on you. You have less leeway.”

“But I do like you best how you are!”

“You're biased. I mean, come on. I've got big boobs that droop down darned close to my belly button, I've got hips a mile across, I'm definitely getting soft after three months of not much exercise even with the weights you got me, my skin breaks out something awful every month just before my period, my hands are all scars and calluses and the one finger's crooked from getting broken, even my eyes aren't quite even.”

“I'm obviously not the only one who thinks so,” Catherine said reasonably. “Somewhere you learned everything you've been teaching me.”

“Sensitives are sluts. We hop in and out of bed together as a way of saying hello. Not exactly fussy.”

Catherine rolled onto her side and tugged the blankets down, ran a hand lightly down Lila's grey-clad front. “I think you're gorgeous. You have all these curves, and a little softness is... comfortable. The scars and your poor finger are just outward signs of what you've been through that makes you who you are.” She tickled a nipple through the cotton, made Lila eep. “And gravity does tend to have more of an impact on anything heavy. At least you have enough for gravity to get ahold of, unlike some of us.”

Lila blinked. “Say what? You look like a goddess, Cath! All tall and graceful and slender and... and, well, everything!”

“Not to me. To me, I'm built like a boy.”


Catherine shrugged. “Logically, I suppose not, but I do find myself wishing sometimes that I had curves like yours.” Her tone turned thoughtful. “Clothes and hairstyle and jewellery and cosmetics all have an impact on appearance, without changing the reality beneath. They're all a matter of refining what exists, emphasizing some aspects and downplaying others.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, perhaps magic can refine what already exists, without exactly changing it. After all, there's nothing wrong with dressing up for a special occasion.”

Lila pondered that. It terrified her to think of having her body transformed, but Catherine was talking about smoothing out some of the parts she didn't like anyway... “I think it would be a bad plan to experiment with that the day before the actual exam. I think that's something it would be better to try now, so if I freak out, it won't complicate life as much.”


“Now.” Lila laced the fingers of one hand—the one with the broken finger Jax had helped her tape up, since she'd been afraid to go to the hospital—through Catherine's.

She felt Catherine reaching for power; the touch was more confident now, more practised, that of a lover becoming familiar with her body.

Then the sensation intensified, enough to make her gasp and whimper softly.

“Lila?” It stopped instantly; Catherine sounded worried. “Are you all right?”

“Uh-huh... that feels... way stronger. Just do it, I'm okay.”

“If you're sure.” Catherine reached for power again, and Lila braced herself this time, for the steep climb in sensation and pleasure.

It faded, and Lila took a deep breath. She felt all boneless blissful, like she was about to melt into jello.

Catherine released her hand. “Make a fist.”

Lila closed her hand, carefully, expecting the ring finger to be unable to curl all the way, to be curved over her smallest finger. To her amazement, for the first time in a couple of years, she could close into a fist without difficulty and without discomfort.

“It's like it never happened!”

“Good. You should have been able to go to the hospital and get it set properly at the time, rather than being convinced it would be dangerous.”

“Convinced?” The wording caught her attention. Catherine never phrased things accidentally.

“There are at most a hundred mages in this city, and at least a quarter of them are younger than you are. Most of the adults are only concerned with research or their own pleasures, they don't care where sensitives come from as long as the hunters keep offering them. Those who work are mostly in academic fields, business, the hard sciences... one of my aunts has a very successful antique shop. For the most part, mages have little inclination towards the helping professions. The few who prefer to keep a close eye on matters... do you think they could truly keep watch on every single patient in two hospitals and a handful of after-hours clinics? Or every single person arrested by the police? Or every single person in crisis who turns to the shelters? It simply isn't possible, even in a city this size, let alone a larger one, especially since you move around constantly.”

Lila rubbed her mended finger, turning that over in her mind. “But we have to have gotten the idea from somewhere.”

“Yes. It's believed to be in the best interests of mages to keep sensitives convinced that we know everything and that you stay free only because we choose to overlook you at present. So the hunters and those who work with them foster that fear. A sensitive who vanishes from a hospital, because a hunter spotted him going in and marked him as prey, makes all of you afraid, even though the odds were extremely small. The danger is real, I don't mean that it isn't, but it isn't nearly as bad as they'd like you to believe, either. They want you terrified and under-educated and to consider yourselves victims already. Has it never occurred to any of you that a gun, or even a thrown rock, would keep you well out of contact range but could work as well against a mage as anyone else? A rock might possibly be deflected, some of us have very good reflexive telekinesis, but to seize control of something as small and fast as a bullet would be all but impossible. Although I admit, a gun isn't going to be as readily available as a rock.”

“Um, no, I don't think it has. When you see a mage, you don't fight, you run like hell and hope he's busy with something else.”


“Huh. Definitely stuff to think about.”

“And to tell others.” Catherine's voice took on a sad note. “After I pass, and you have no more reason to stay. Well.” She went all practical again. “Back to the matter at hand, at least we know shapechanging in itself isn't an unpleasant experience.”

“You can say that again. But having something fixed isn't the same as looking at me and being different. That's more of a mental thing.” Reminded of her hand, Lila stroked it over Catherine's hair, twining the long braid through her fingers, delighting in the ability to do so more easily.

“True, it could conceivably be a serious psychological shock. So why don't we make that tomorrow's project, once we're both relatively fresh and awake?”

That did make sense, Lila conceded, although it just might make for a long and tense day. Ah well, not the first time. “Okay.”


“And right now, we should sleep.” She stole a kiss. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Catherine said softly.

* * *

“So,” Lila said lightly, to cover her nervousness. Not over the fact that she was sitting here naked—clothes were likely to get in the way for this—but over the sheer magnitude of what she'd volunteered for. “What are you going to turn me into?”

“Emphasizing the best aspects,” Catherine said. “Like I told you last night. Would you like me to tell you, or simply do it? You know I'll undo it immediately if you tell me to.”

“I know. Just do it.” Lila braced herself inwardly, and offered her hand. Catherine clasped it, not tightly, not holding her, simply keeping the contact solid. And reached for power.

And the sensations multiplied, and it lasted much longer this time.

Finally, slowly, it eased and melted away into nothing, leaving behind deep satisfaction and a quiet kind of rapture.


“Give me a sec.” She chased down her mind, somewhere inside, and plunked it back where it belonged, though she had doubts about how well it was going to function. Only then did she open her eyes, and look down. And blink.

Fairly dark skin, complete with blemishes and moles and much paler areas that were usually covered, had been smoothed to an even tawny gold, all over. Her tummy was firmer, though her hips were still wide, and her breasts were still large but didn't sag quite so much. She looked at her hands, found her short ragged nails now longer and neatly kept.

Catherine smiled, and the air rippled into an illusory mirror so Lila could see herself. Awed, Lila stood up, ran her hands down her body. Longer hair, down to her elbows, though it was the same dark rich brown. The lines of her face were just a little more regular, altered only by millimetres in any way, but it made a startling difference.

“I like it,” Catherine said critically. “Still you, but dressed up a bit.”

“Are you sure that's me?”

Catherine laughed, and nodded. “Absolutely. And your appearance would certainly be acceptable in mage society, once we add a collar.”

“Huh. Clothes?”

“There are no modesty rules for sensitives. Whatever you wish to wear, I'll do my best to provide. We should be able to create it, in fact, if I can visualize it well enough.”

“Wow. Maybe I'll get you to leave me this way, then I can go be a stripper. I know a couple of sensitives who do that. They move around lots and make plenty of money doing it.”

“Well, you'd certainly be popular, I'd imagine. Not that I know any great amount about the subject. So, no problems? No shock or disorientation?”

“Not a lot. You're sure that's really me?” She eyed her reflection, arched her back and stretched, torn between amazement and disbelief, and half-turned so she could get some idea what the back of her looked like. Catherine obligingly created a second mirror, at an angle, so she could see a slightly firmer bottom and more of that unmarked golden skin, along with the heavy fall of much more hair than she was used to. “You didn't even really change very much!”

“Very true. In fact, most of it could be done with a moderate amount of work with make-up and the right clothes, I suspect. Especially combined with healthy meals and some exercise. This way is, well, a little simpler. And works while you're naked.”

“Wow.” Lila turned the other way. “Okay, I'm mind-boggled but I'm not going to freak out or anything.”

“That I'm very glad to hear. Would you like me to leave it or undo it?”

“You'd better leave it so I can get used to this. Otherwise I'm going to faint if we walk by a mirror or something.”

“All right. Do you feel up to more practice? With other things, I mean.”

“Sure. We gotta make sure you dazzle the hell out of 'em.”


30 – Elena

More than a few mages inched back from Elena and Brock as they sauntered in the great double doors of the mage-hall. Sensitives, perpetually nervous around hunters, did their best to inch behind owners, their eyes on the floor and limbs drawn close in an attempt to be less visible. Doubly useless: they were entirely too striking to have any hope of hiding, but they were beneath notice anyway.

A mage-hall was a mage-hall, they were all very much alike, though this one was a trifle more pretentious than most; in this case, there were three chairs behind the oval table, and a single one centred in front of it, a short way back, in a circle engraved in the white marble floor. Any privacy for the candidate had long ago been sacrificed for the sake of ensuring that there could be no doubt as to the results.

The chairs were filling up rapidly, sensitives kneeling at the feet of their mages. Catherine Eldridge's failure had drawn quite a lot of attention, and Elena wasn't overly surprised by the large audience. The hunters made their way directly to the front, and though the first two rows had been full a moment before, the first was half empty by the time they got there. The hall had been designed for considerably more mages than currently inhabited the city; they simply rippled back a row or two.

“This is insane,” Brock muttered. “She's giving the Eldridge family a bad name. No one can pass without a sensitive. We didn't sell her one, and there's no word of anyone giving her one. She certainly doesn't have the guts to hunt and train one herself, otherwise Victoria wouldn't have dismissed her from hunter training. This is a joke.”

“It should be,” Elena said thoughtfully, “but the Eldridge family isn't known for lack of intelligence, and certainly not for masochism. She must have something in mind.” She didn't mention that Catherine had, in her youth, dazzled her family with her magical skills, eclipsing the fame Brock himself had held for over a decade as a truly gifted Eldridge mage. Catherine had become the standard others were measured by, not Brock.

Brock didn't need anyone to say it. He knew it entirely too well, himself, and it was visible in his scowl.

It hadn't helped when Catherine had failed spectacularly. Granted, she had claimed it was pride in her skills, her desire to prove herself without reliance on a sensitive; Elena approved of that attitude, but to refuse Master's status over it seemed rather extreme. Most mages forgot her skills, preferring to gossip about her failure and her fate. That a mage superior to them could fail a test they had passed simply made no sense, so they invented explanations or simply disregarded the facts.

The hunters hadn't forgotten. They'd wanted Catherine. Even Brock had to admit she'd be an asset. The senior pair had begun to train her.

Except that something had happened, only she and Victoria and presumably Victoria's partner Faisal Hashim knew what, and that training had ended. Not through lack of ability, certainly. But, over time, as they'd watched her, hoping they might be able to lure her into at least a support position, she'd shown increasing signs of lacking the right attitude. After her failure, Brock had asked a few questions of this city's branch of his family, and discovered that Catherine had never laid hands on a sensitive. Ever. Not to experiment, not to learn her lessons, not to pass her exam. Never. Whatever lay behind that, pathetic soft-heartedness or pride so extreme it couldn't compromise at all, it made her useless to them.

The Elders emerged from the room's far door, behind the table, and took their seats. Elena recognized all three as Matriarchs and Patriarchs, leaders of the three largely autonomous families; they could have sent representatives, and usually did for this, but today they were all here personally.

The room fell silent.

The Gauthier Patriarch stood up. “Catherine Eldridge!”

The girl had planned her entrance well, certainly. She strode in through the great double doors, dressed in one of those impractical archaic long dresses, this one pure black trimmed with silver, that ridiculously long hair cascading loose. Her head was high, and Elena saw no hint of anxiety in her expression or the regal posture, no recognition of the sudden murmuring around her.

A step behind her and to one side, a sensitive followed. Lush curves, the halter and short skirt made of silver-studded black more decorative than modest. Her skin was palest tawny, the thick mane of hair velvety dark brown; the only obvious alterations Elena picked out were the dark-tipped pale gold tail waving lazily in the air, the ears that swept to a rounded point.

Her eyes were properly low, and a black leather collar circled her throat, two tags chiming softly from it, but Elena read no submission at all in the lines of her body. Sensuality, confidence, a trace of nervousness and tension.

Brock jerked upright from his slump. “Look at her aura,” he hissed.

Elena frowned, took another look.

That was the little sensitive bitch who had vanished in the middle of the night!

Had Catherine deliberately snatched her out from under them, or had she simply taken an opportunity that offered itself? No, it had to be the former, the lack of trail had to be due to a mage's deliberate handiwork, and it would certainly be within Catherine's proven abilities to do so. Reluctantly, Elena found herself admiring the girl. It took impressive skill to mask a trail that completely, especially from Brock. Shame they could never trust her.

As they passed the hunters, the sensitive kept her gaze carefully averted, but the tension in her shoulders increased visibly. Elena noted that the dark brown hair grew in a narrowing line all the way down her spine to the base of her tail. Subtle and tasteful.

Catherine halted next to the chair in the circle, and her sensitive stopped docilely behind her.

“State your name and your intentions,” the Gauthier Patriarch said.

“Catherine Eldridge, and I have come to claim my status as a Master.” Her voice rang with perfect confidence through the room, not a shout of defiance, but a statement of fact. A gutsy one, at that, for a mage who had failed once already; a low murmur rippled through the room, but Elena ignored it. There was no chance Catherine would fail again, not with a sensitive.

“Be seated,” the Eldridge Matriarch said, and Catherine sat down on the chair. Her sensitive knelt at her feet without needing a command. Elena saw her expression as she looked up, not all the way to Catherine's face, but enough to watch her mage. Utter devotion, she'd definitely bonded, but no submission, no humility.

A willing sensitive? That was impossible!

Brock traded glances with her, eyes wide, obviously noticing the same thing.

“We've got to keep an eye on this one,” he muttered.

“Agreed,” Elena murmured. Something was definitely up, here, and it could prove to undermine the hunters even more.

The three Elders began to throw questions at Catherine, quizzing her on magical theory, mage history, mage law. Catherine answered them promptly, clearly, and concisely, her fingers toying with her sensitive's hair.

The test on theory was followed by the practical one. The Elders activated the wards built into the circle surrounding Catherine; not much of a shield, really, it worked only against magic, preventing anyone from helping.

Catherine stood up and pushed the chair back, out of the circle, then tucked a straying lock of hair back over her shoulder. “I'm ready.” Her sensitive knelt upright, alertly, tail twitching.

“Begin with creation,” the Ingemar Matriarch directed. “You can do textiles, I presume? Demonstrate.”

Catherine inclined her head, and laid a hand on her sensitive's shoulder.

A shadowy rectangular form took shape on the floor in front of her, gradually filling in and growing more solid, until an ordinary square pillow lay there. It came to Catherine's free hand at a quick gesture.

“Do you need to see it more closely?”

“No, that's sufficient,” the Ingemar Matriarch said. “Can you do materials of higher density?”

“Yes.” Catherine dropped the pillow directly in front of her sensitive. “Here, Sable, that floor is hard.”

Concern for the comfort of a sensitive wasn't unheard of, and other mages had done exactly that, but it did send another wave of ripples around the room.

Of course she's worried about her damned comfort, she's here willingly!

Sable shifted around until she had the pillow under her, in her original position. Sable... well, the hair colour was right, and the tail was at least from a relative, but the weasel family were largely long and thin, not mid-height and voluptuous. Still, somehow, it fit.

The whispers picked up again: Sable leaned against Catherine's leg, one arm tucked loosely around it despite the interfering material, her cheek resting against Catherine's thigh. More than enough, but if she broke contact while her mage was drawing on her, it was very probable it would do serious damage to Catherine. Many mages never considered it until they'd had a sensitive for months.

Catherine, unperturbed, thus had both hands free to gesture, and created in sequence wood, plastic, and glass.

“Can you do metal?” the Gauthier Patriarch asked, expressionless. Not that it mattered; she needed only textiles to pass, and there weren't many mages of any age who could get past soft plastics.

“No, I'm sorry, not yet.”

Telekinesis she passed just as easily. Manipulation of probability. Illusion. Four of the five key mage abilities. There were others, but as long as a mage demonstrated adequate skill with those four, she was entitled to Master's status. Her mastery of the fifth, not required but still considered a core ability, was obvious in Sable's appearance.

The whispers rose and fell like waves. Sable never moved while Catherine was in the middle of a demonstration, though she did pause a couple of times to stretch during lulls. Elena suspected at least some of the whispers were envy of the sensitive's sheer sensuality and what they probably assumed was training and obedience.

The Elders consulted quietly; Catherine waited patiently, stroking Sable's hair.

“Catherine Eldridge, you have proven to us your command of mage lore and mage skills,” the Eldridge Matriarch announced. “You are therefore granted the status of Master. And,” she added dryly, “it's about time.”

Catherine bowed her head. “Thank you, Matriarch.” She turned around, without another word, and walked to the main doors. Sable followed instantly, tail flicking in the air, a distinct hint of swagger in her steps.

A door boomed closed behind her, echoing in the startled silence. The usual routine called for her family to congratulate her, then there would be a celebration party. She wasn't supposed to simply walk away!

Elena gave her points for style and independence on top of the skill and guts.

It really was a terrible shame.


Spring in Enville

31 – Topaz

Running, how long had he been running, it felt like forever. Every stride was its own eternity, each might or might not be the final one when his exhausted body betrayed him. It would take too much concentration to remember what he was running from, to remember why he had to keep running, there was room only for the absolute certainty that he must not stop. But whatever was behind him had the taste of metal chain and cold cement and a scornful voice... He stumbled, tried to catch himself, made it another couple of steps before his legs simply gave out. He collapsed where he was, and looked up in terror at the two shadows looming over him, one of them smiling a smile that he cringed from, shaking uncontrollably...

“Hush, Topaz.” The drowsy voice was familiar, the hand stroking his back gentle and reassuring. “It's only a dream. It's all right.”

That isn't my name! a small voice screamed, in utter grief.

He didn't wake, but the dream shifted.

Looking down at his arms in shock, unable to wrap his mind around the fact that the sleek white fur covering them, covering all of him, was actually a part of him. That couldn't be, he didn't have fur, just bare skin. And then he'd found the rather feline tail growing from the base of his spine, and the disorientation had increased. It was undeniably his, touching it sent sensation-messages to him, and after a moment he figured out how to control it, but it was a long time before he could stop shivering. Whoever that was in the mirror, it wasn't him, wasn't Jax. He bowed his head, felt tears gather in eyes that were a soft warm yellow, the colour of the stone in his collar. No, it wasn't Jax in the mirror, it was Topaz, and there was no more Jax. Maybe it was intended as a kindness that Lord Andreas had given him another day or two in which to rest, but that meant that his mind was clearer and he'd begun to rebuild his world only to have it crumble again.

No certainty at all, nothing was constant, not even his own body. Except Lord Andreas, his master was the one thing that was rock-solid in a world that bewildered and frightened him, a world in which he had a terrifying lack of control. Lord Andreas needed him, Lord Andreas would take care of him...

But there won't be anything at all left except his pet, that small voice wept. I survived for five years after Mom died, just me and Lila, we did what we had to and we survived, and this is what I did it all for?

He jolted awake, in the darkness, and felt tears on his cheeks. Despite Lord Andreas' body warm beside him, the thick soft blankets over them, and his heavy brindled fur, he felt cold and alone and so sad it hurt.

Once morning came, and he was up and active, it wouldn't hurt so bad. The distraction would let him push the sense of loss somewhere far away into the back of his mind. Somewhere that it faded slowly, along with the memories that now came to him mostly in dreams.

He sighed, and snuggled against Lord Andreas, desperate for contact; not really awake, his mage tucked an arm over him.

He closed his eyes and tried to will himself back to sleep, praying that the morning would come quickly.

* * *

Topaz lay coiled on his pillow next to his master's chair, listening to Lord Andreas and Lady Phyllida talking. It was only about a couple of family members and what they were doing, nothing Topaz really needed to know or found interesting, but it was something to do while he waited.

Lord Andreas paused, and Topaz glanced up, not as far as his master's eyes, but enough to get some sense of what was going on.

“It's a bright, warm day,” Lord Andreas mused. “And I know you've been restless, with all the rain lately. Why don't you go play in the yard? Phyllida's here, I won't need you anytime soon. Is Zephyr busy with anything, Phyllida?”

She chuckled. “No, not particularly. You may as well go get him, I suppose, and the two of you can do as you please outside for a couple of hours.”

Topaz sat up immediately, the silvery-green of his scales shimmering. “Thank you, my Lord, my Lady.” He didn't even try to hide his delight in the idea, as he bounced to his feet and scooted upstairs in search of Zephyr.

The other sensitive was dusting—not that the immaculately clean apartment needed it, but it was one of those things to do to keep from going crazy with boredom. Currently, he had the blue and white and black feathers of a blue jay.

“Lord Andreas and Lady Phyllida say we can go outside for a while, since they're talking and don't need us. It looks really nice out. Coming?”

Zephyr brightened instantly, and nodded. He replaced his cleaning stuff in the broom closet in the kitchen, on the way by, and they went downstairs and outside. This far out in the country, no one would see them.

They simply wandered for a bit, looking at the colourful leaves, the birds, the flock of geese that flew over. On a higher, drier bit of grassy ground, they stopped to play, Topaz being careful not to bend any feathers the wrong way, grateful at the moment for his own sleek scales. At least day-to-day life kept either mage from doing anything really extreme: without hands and mobility, Topaz lost his primary usefulness, and Lord Andreas preferred him male and able to speak—most of the time, in both cases. Zephyr needed to be able to move around the kitchen and cook, and Lady Phyllida mostly liked him male. So, generally, they could count on a few basics staying the same.

Snuggled together, they relaxed in the sun, watching the robins hopping around.

“Lila would like this,” Topaz sighed. “I miss her.”

Zephyr nodded sympathetically, and made a gesture towards himself.

“Yeah, and you miss Veritas. I think Lord Andreas does, too. He got mad at me yesterday because I screwed up. He said Veritas would've known what he meant. Of course he would, he was here for as long as I've been alive! He had time to learn it!”

Zephyr hugged him tighter, pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“He was really mad, too. He made me sleep in the living room.” He felt Zephyr wince. “And then, this morning, it's like nothing ever happened and he never yelled at me. I want so badly to make him happy, I just wish he wouldn't get so upset when I can't. Although I don't know why I want to so much. I mean, it makes sense to try to, but I need to, sometimes it's the only thing that matters. Even when he yells. And that doesn't make sense.”

Zephyr touched his own chest, Topaz's, and made a broad, all-inclusive sweep of the arm not holding Topaz.

“All sensitives are like that?” Zephyr nodded. “Great, we're all crazy.” That made Zephyr smile ruefully and nod again. “They treat us like they do, and we still want more than anything to make them happy.”

Zephyr traced a heart in the centre of Topaz's chest.

“Love? Oh... we want them to love us?” Nod. “Yeah, like that's going to happen.”

Zephyr nodded, gestured in the direction of the house, traced the heart shape again, then laid his hand over his eyes.

“They can't see... that we want them to?” Zephyr shook his head. “That they do?” Nod. “Oh, come on. No they don't.” Zephyr nodded again, insistently. “Well, I guess you've been around longer than I have, you'd know,” Topaz conceded, doubtfully. “But it doesn't feel like it most of the time.”

Zephyr sighed, softly, and pressed a kiss just in front of Topaz's ear. “They aren't taught to express feelings,” he whispered. “Not even to themselves. They don't understand. He misses Veritas still, I think, and never even knew that he loved him. Mages hate being unable to control what's around them, and Veritas died two rooms away from him.” He shrugged. “He should take it out less on you, but he doesn't know any better.”

For Zephyr, that was a very long speech. Topaz thought about it seriously.

“When he yells at me, it's partly because he's mad at himself that he couldn't keep Veritas safe,” he said slowly.

Zephyr nodded.

“That helps. Thanks.”

Zephyr shrugged. “Compared to many, we're lucky. You weren't always happy when you were free, either.”

“No, I guess not.” He chuckled. “I sure eat better now.” He didn't bother to bring up the nightmare he'd had, night before last; Zephyr had told him ages ago how common they were.

Silence, for a time, just enjoying the company and the warmth of the sun.

Then Zephyr gently untangled himself, and gestured towards the house, touching mouth and stomach briefly with the other hand.

“Gotta go make supper? Yeah, we have been out here for a while, haven't we? And they'll be happier if they don't have to call us back.”

Zephyr nodded, and they went back to the house, Zephyr upstairs to start supper, Topaz to see whether his master needed him yet.


32 – Elena

The sensitive at the counter of the small corner store glanced behind him uneasily as Elena and Brock approached, but held his ground long enough to pay for a handful of small items before bolting.

“Can I help you?” the woman behind the counter asked, trying not to sound as bored as she was.

“No,” Elena said curtly, already on her way after the fleeing sensitive.

“Great,” Brock muttered. “It's not much but it's food. And he snatched them quick, but there was some thought behind it, not just grabbing what came to hand. Energy drink, protein bar, and a chocolate bar full of nuts?”

“The last one we had that kept her head was that little bitch the Donovans stole,” Elena said, watching a short distance ahead while the sensitive opened the bottle and began to take swift swallows she suspected were small ones. “Something worries me more, though. He's letting us get closer every time. Closer than I've ever seen, especially this early. How the hell is he keeping from panicking?”

“There's something weird with this one. And getting weirder by the moment.”

“Agreed. Just as well we're getting him out of the population before it can spread.”

Their current prey was just one more young male sensitive, this one strikingly blonde but as scrawny and undernourished as the rest, in ragged dark cargo pants and a well-worn blue hoodie, a stained and patched nylon messenger bag at his side. He stayed primarily at a rapid walk that kept him just far enough ahead to feel safe—not running in a vain and irrational attempt at losing them. Combined with the food and drink now and whatever he might have come up with last night and might over the next few nights, this hunt might take longer than usual.

Elena thought he was choosing his route with a goal in mind, but couldn't think of anything in this direction that might even look useful to a sensitive.

On a quiet residential street, in front of a fairly ordinary house that certainly was too well-kept to be a sensitive den, he paused and looked back. Elena saw fear there, but something else, something she couldn't read; puzzled, she traded glances with Brock, and they spread out, Brock out into the middle of the street. It was a move they used frequently, the pressure from multiple angles forcing a sensitive back into motion.

The sensitive dropped to one knee, reached for something on the ground. Elena shifted her attention to the landscaping of the small front yard. A miniature wilderness of plants, a few just beginning to flower, planted among rounded water-tumbled rocks, mostly a bit bigger than a golf ball.

Reflexive telekinesis snapped into play a fraction of a second too late—the first thrown rock hit her shoulder glancingly before being shunted away. With that much warning, Brock avoided any damage at all.

“What the fuck?” Elena snarled, one hand on her throbbing shoulder.

The sensitive darted to his feet and ran.

“Are you hurt?” Brock demanded.

“Just a bruise, I think, but that was aimed right at my head! With no TK deflecting it and if I hadn't seen it, that would've brained me! What the fuck? A sensitive fighting back?”

“If you're okay, let's keep him in sight, huh? I'd rather he didn't spring any surprises on us that might be harder to deal with.”

“Oh, hell, yes. And when I get ahold of him...” She fell into stride with him, the effortless lope that they'd learned to sustain for long periods if necessary, so they could close the gap again. Not too close; neither of them was certain whether he'd picked up any extra rocks.

He settled back into his earlier pace, and stayed in quiet areas, instead of the more common tactic of trying to lose himself in a crowd. Stayed away from areas where there were other sensitives, for that matter. He finished both the protein bar and the candy on the move, finished his drink and tossed the bottle in a trash can.

As the sky darkened and the spring air chilled, he veered towards the darker spaces behind a strip mall, presumably looking for a place to go to ground for the night. That was common enough. They lost sight of him briefly as he went around the corner, and they followed a bit cautiously—Elena bitterly resentful that a sensitive could make them wary but self-preservation won out over pride.

In the middle of the driveway for picking up trash from the dumpsters and for deliveries, the young sensitive had stopped and turned to face them. Arms crossed, and as they drew nearer Elena could see him shaking, he stood his ground.

“Run, little mouse,” Brock growled, already closer than any wild sensitive should be able to stand without their nerve shattering.

“Why?” the sensitive retorted. “I can't really get away. I know that. You know that. So what's the point?” He spread both hands. “Here I am. You caught me.”

“You have got to be joking,” Brock said incredulously.

“Yeah, huge joke. Hilarious.”

The bravado, Elena thought, was a way to fight off his very visible fear. That it had any hope of doing so was, or at least should have been, impossible.

She seized his wrist, and his eyes met hers, steady despite the shimmer of one tear, as she shoved him into sleep.

He crumpled, no longer any different from any other sensitive.

The hunters looked at each other.

“Maybe we should think about turning this one over to Olaf to study?” Brock said finally.

“It's a thought, if we could convince him to focus on getting information out of him about what makes him different. We did promise Teodor, though, and he already paid us. It's going to look bad if we don't deliver.”

“We've only lost two days on this one. We could find another.”

“That's true. Let's see what happens as far as training and what kind of responses we get. There are other ways to make sure he's vulnerable.” She frowned. “Where's the bag he had?”

“They lose what they're carrying all the time.”

“Yes, but he still had it just before he came back here. Everything else he's done has had an alarming amount of thought behind it. So why did he ditch it just before giving up? I think we need to find it. Go grab the van. I'm going to take a look around.”

“If you want.” He shrugged, though he clearly wasn't entirely happy with the idea, and left the alley. Elena wasn't particularly worried; she'd always been the one to take the lead in their partnership, and she trusted him to trust her reasons.

Keeping one eye on the unconscious sensitive, she searched the area for the pale flash of the nylon bag; with a sigh, she concluded that it wasn't on the ground or behind anything in range, and therefore he must have managed to toss it into one of the dumpsters. Only two were placed where he could have done so in the amount of time he'd had unobserved.

She planted a foot in a protrusion on the dumpster and heaved herself up, flipped the lid back. The smell was revolting. Summoning a small ball of light to illuminate the contents revealed only black and clear plastic garbage bags. He couldn't have had time to bury it, so it should be readily visible.

She spotted it in the other one, right on top. She nudged it into reach telekinetically, but the angle it was at spilled the last of the contents out loose as soon as it moved. Cursing, she grabbed the bag and snatched up the contents, one item at a time, as she could get a grip on them.

A book? What the fuck is a sensitive doing with a book? They can usually barely read.

It was a trade paperback, not terribly thick, the cover a plain deep green with a black and white yin-yang symbol, and the font was simple.

Mages and Sensitives. Rory Donovan.

What. The. Fuck?

As she flipped through the book, the question of the sensitive's unheard-of behaviour began to make sense, and her rage grew.

I am going to take that man down. No matter what it takes. Before he destroys us all with this poison, he has to go down.


Autumn in Trebury

33 – Lila

Lila twisted an elastic around the end of Catherine's braid, and sat back to look it over, pleased. She'd bought a book, a couple of months ago, that had instructions and diagrams for more elaborate braids and styles, and had been experimenting on her patient mage ever since. Some of them were just odd, or didn't suit Catherine, but this one did.

“All done.”

Catherine picked up her hand-mirror from her lap to inspect Lila's handiwork, while her sensitive straightened and circled around the wooden chair.

“I like it. You're definitely getting good at that.”

Lila grinned. “You know I like doing stuff with my hands.”

Catherine blushed, just a little, as she always did when Lila said anything that could be taken as a sexual tease; it delighted Lila to no end, so she did it deliberately.

“Ready to go?” Catherine asked, standing up and looking Lila over. She straightened Lila's leather collar, the tags jingling softly.

What a pair we make, Lila thought in amusement, not for the first time, while she nodded affirmatively. Catherine all regal, that delicious body hinted at by her current dress, shades of brown and amber, and herself in faded blue jeans and matching vest, over a black t-shirt, with her collar on.

The apartment wasn't great; it wasn't easy to find a place on short notice, and harder to find one that didn't demand a year-long lease, although with a mage nudging probabilities around, it was at least possible. Catherine had given the landlord quite a convincing story about being in town to do some research for a book she was writing, and that it would only take her at most three months. Three months' rent, in cash up front, had gone a long way towards dispelling any doubts. Renting a hotel room by the week as easier, and they'd done it elsewhere, but at best that included a tiny kitchenette and that got frustrating and expensive quickly.

Indifferent as it was, a basement without enough windows, inconveniently far from downtown, it was still better than the servants' quarters had been.

Most likely, in a couple of months they'd once again pack up the few belongings they hadn't left in a storage unit back in Dewfield, rent a van, and move on to another city. Unless they finally found a place where they could feel comfortable and useful. Not so different, superficially, from the way Lila had lived for as long as she could remember—but being with Catherine made all the difference in the world.

Lila stole a hug, just because she could, and called a taxi, tucking their cell phone into Catherine's battered canvas messenger bag at her own side along with money and keys. There was a bus route nearby, but the possibility of close contact made Catherine too anxious for it to be worth it. Together, they headed upstairs to wait in front of the house.

The taxi pulled up, and Lila opened the near door for Catherine, closed it behind her with care for hair and skirt, and scooted around to the far side to get in.

“Where to?”

“Where's the nearest grocery store?” Lila asked. “Preferably one that doesn't charge an arm and a leg for everything.”

“There are two about the same distance from here, but I think one's a bit cheaper.”

“That'll do, thanks.”

He pulled away from the curb. “New in town?”

“Just moved,” Lila confirmed. Catherine had never had to learn the trick of casual talk with strangers, so Lila generally took care of that side of things. “Take-out and restaurants are losing their appeal fast. Definitely time to fill up the kitchen, so we can have some real food.”

“Yeah, eating out's nice once in a while, but it's a bit much every night. Nothing like a good home-cooked meal.”

He fell silent, and Lila didn't bother sustaining the conversation; she leaned back, watching scenery flit by.

Maybe this city would be different...

Catherine's status as Master gave them the freedom to move around as they pleased. Even had there been a law that would allow the Eldridge Matriarch to keep her within the same city, Lila doubted it would have been invoked; the Eldridges were just as happy to be rid of her.

The first time they'd moved, as rapidly as they could and several hours' drive from Dewfield, Catherine's cousin Wesley had moved to the same city at the same time, with his abused and broken sensitive.

Feeling more free, even in a room rented by the week, Catherine and Lila had slowed down to plan where they wanted to go to, rather than what they wanted to escape from, and how they were going to make all this work. When they decided to move on, following up on news of a group of mages concerned about the welfare of free sensitives, Catherine claimed their destination to be a different city from the one they actually intended; Wesley had arrived a couple of weeks later, not doing a very good job of hiding his irritation. Catherine waited, and having caught him following her around the city for the third time, had gone to the local Elders, and that had been the end of that. There were very definite laws regarding the privacy and independence of a Master. Not likely to do much for goodwill between Catherine and Wesley, or for that matter Catherine and the hunters whose idea it probably was, but being stalked was intolerable.

The victory had certainly cheered Catherine and Lila immensely. But their real quest remained unfulfilled: they still hadn't found even one other pair who were equals, not master and slave.

Lila hadn't realized, until she started accompanying Catherine to mage events, exactly how pervasive the traditional attitude towards sensitives truly was. It lay in the small things, in turns of phrase, in assumptions that had never been questioned, in the subtle derision towards mages who didn't keep absolute control over their sensitives. She no longer wondered why the more open-minded mages hid; now she wondered how many of them were laughing at jokes that made them want to vomit.

Add in the laws of responsibility, respect, and immorality, and the mystery was that any mage could ever think past it all. Lila had read through them, complete with all the subclauses spelling them out in excruciating detail, though it had needed considerable time and a dictionary and sometimes asking Catherine to explain things. The mages pushing, with greater or lesser success in various cities, for anti-abuse laws were definitely risking charges of immorality and sedition. Lila couldn't blame them for being cautious about sticking their necks out any farther; they must feel awfully strongly about it to push it even that far.

The taxi pulled up in front of a large grocery store, part of a familiar chain, and Catherine paid, leaving him a reasonable tip.

This whole business of grocery shopping was still novel to Lila. When she'd had an apartment, she'd bought frozen and instant foods, fast simple things that required minimal skill. Between apartments, she'd visited grocery stores to buy foods she could eat right out of the can, or to get bread and peanut butter, even simpler things.

With Catherine, it became something completely different. She followed her mage around the store, pushing the cart, while Catherine chose just the right head of broccoli, inspected the bacon for the leanest, compared the ingredients on two kinds of spaghetti sauce. These trips generally took a while, but it was hard to argue, when they sat down together with Catherine's delicious cooking.

Well, usually delicious. Catherine had started experimenting again.

Lila was not at all expecting to encounter another sensitive perusing the pasta. Catherine noticed the same time Lila did, and immediately backed up, putting Lila between her and the other sensitive.

Oddly, there was no fear reaction at all. Okay, so the other sensitive was female, and looked like she was in her early forties or so, which would mean the hunters would have no interest in her, but the presence of a mage should still have triggered the usual instinctive and conditioned response.

Instead, this sensitive inclined her head in cautious acknowledgement, finished choosing pasta without haste, and moved on.

“That was... odd,” Catherine murmured, sliding an arm around Lila's waist. “As much as I hate the usual reactions, I can understand them and I expect them. What was that?”

“I have no idea,” Lila said. “Can you take the cart and, hm, head towards the dairy section? Maybe if I catch her alone...”

Catherine nodded, and they parted ways, towards opposite ends of the aisle.

Lila scanned the shoppers in the aisle to one side, didn't see the sensitive, so checked on the other side. Aha, there she was. As casually as she could, she ventured into that aisle, contemplating all the endless varieties of cookies, most of which she knew tasted like grainy cardboard, and waited for the older sensitive to pass.

“Lost your mage?” the other said amiably.

“She's getting milk, I wanted to see if there are any decent cookies.” She took a chance. “Why aren't you scared?”

The woman shrugged. “She's no hunter, and they wouldn't want me anyway. She's obviously treating you pretty well. What's to be scared of?”

Lila had never heard a free sensitive discuss mages so calmly. About the most she could formulate was a dazed, “I see,” before she made her feet start to walk again.

“I'm glad you got lucky,” the woman called, before she'd gone far. “My oldest daughter did, too.” She grinned, waved, and headed for the check-out.

Lila tracked down the dairy section, and found Catherine browsing through the cheese.

“Whoa, that was bizarre.”

“How so?” Catherine looked at her, and her forehead furrowed, the familiar crease appearing between her brows. “Are you okay?”

Lila repeated the exchange for her.

“Well. I must say it's nice not to be considered a monster on sight, but where on earth did all that come from? This oldest daughter, maybe?”

“Maybe, but since when do mages let their sensitives tell their mothers what's happened to them?”

“She could be crazy,” Catherine mused. “I believe emotional trauma can cause someone to go into denial of reality and convince themselves that something is true. Say, that one's daughter, who has vanished, is in the hands of a mage who treasures her. Or it could be that she ran into her daughter in a grocery store or on the street, and her mage was having an indulgent moment. Or there might be someone in this city who isn't following the traditional patterns.”

“The second one is the most likely, I'd say. But maybe we've finally hit pay dirt, and it'll be the third one. I mean, the Donovans are supposed to be the crazy ones, right? And there's a huge number of them here.”

“I hope so,” Catherine said softly.

“Well, we'd better finish shopping, instead of standing here all day.”

But Lila couldn't help looking for another glimpse of the sensitive woman, and wishing her own mother still lived and could know she was safe and happy with Catherine.


34 – Van

Van and Brennan walked up the steps to the Vladislav Patriarch's house side by side; there was no need to look back to know that Randi and Oblique were in their proper places behind them.

It just had to be the Vladislavs hosting this one, Van sighed to himself. Piotr was sure to say something about stealing sensitives, and Van would have to bite his tongue to keep from asking Piotr how his head was; Irenka would inevitably be present as well, and he would have been just as happy to avoid her altogether. Randi would have to fight off old memories, though at least this wasn't Piotr's house. All in all, not his first choice for how to spend a Saturday afternoon.

He was, however, grateful that it was only an afternoon drop-in get-together for the purpose of introducing and welcoming a mage new to the city, sparing him and Brennan the debate of whether it were worth more formal attire. Brennan was in his version of casual-dressy, which meant his best black jeans and an indigo silk shirt; Van preferred his russet cotton pants and the unbleached cotton top with the laces at neck and wrist. Comfortable, and not too hot; it was only mid-September, and the weather was still fairly warm.

They could have declined to go, some would, but the chance, however remote, did exist that the newcomer would be worth meeting. They didn't have to stay particularly long, even if it turned out to be someone of no interest.

They were greeted at the door by a sensitive, more moderate in appearance than the Vladislavs tended to like. Other than having four arms like a Hindu goddess—which Oblique had once, in an adventurous mood, decided to try herself—she looked fairly normal, dark and pretty.

“My Lords,” she said respectfully. “The other Lords and Ladies are this way.”

Thank you,” Brennan said. At least courtesy to a sensitive wasn't outright illegal.

They followed her down a wide hallway to a large room, or rather, two of them, linked by a pair of sliding wooden doors that were currently open. A reasonable portion of the city's hundred-and-some adult mages were present already, in either room and out on the patio beyond. The mages stood and talked, or sat and talked; their sensitives followed meekly, or knelt at their feet, or waited obediently in a corner to be summoned. A few sensitives circulated through the rooms, carrying trays of drinks or finger-foods.

Van doubted, given the circumstances, that it would come as much of a surprise if he chose to keep Randi next to him.

As usual, she and Oblique matched—in feathers, today, long drooping elaborate ones that would have been more appropriate to a male in most species, complete with a suggestion of wings from wrist to waist. Randi's were scarlet highlighted with purple, and her tail-feathers trailed nearly to her ankles; Oblique's were dark green that gleamed with iridescent gold, and her tail spread and fanned like a peacock's, to shoulder-height.

Van thought they were insane, and that there was no way they'd be comfortable for the next few hours without sneaking outside to perch on a tree-limb, but they'd been over that, and the pair had insisted. Who were he and Brennan to protest?

Brennan paused to greet an acquaintance; Van kept moving, scanning for other Donovans in the crowd.

“Van!” Aiden hailed him. “Come meet Catherine.”

Van joined them, drawing a chair closer, and glanced at Randi. “Go find me a glass of wine.”

“Yes, my Lord,” she said softly.

Next to Aiden, and drawn back just a few inches, sat another Donovan cousin, Neely, who would be up for her Master's exam in little over a year. She'd moved in with her mother's brother Aiden, which was more or less traditional but she probably would have anyway; she was permitted to all mage gatherings, even the ones normally restricted to Masters, so she could learn, but would be expected to stay quiet and observe. Not something that came naturally to Neely, but she had the self-discipline, honed by her love of yoga and ju-jitsu, to do it.

“Catherine Eldridge, my cousin Rory Donovan, better known to everyone as Van,” Aiden said.

Catherine inclined her head, gave him a friendly smile. “Hello.”

Van returned the smile. “Hi. Welcome to the city.”

“Thank you. I think I'm going to like it here. Especially once I know more people.”

“True, loneliness is rough. I can't imagine moving away from my family.”

Her smile faltered, so briefly that it would probably have been overlooked by anyone less experienced in watching body language. “I very much doubt they miss me any more than I miss them. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a black sheep. I'm rather hoping to find friends whose company I enjoy.”

That got Van's full attention. What was it that made her a black sheep?

Randi returned, with a glass of white wine; Van accepted it and told her to kneel. She dropped to her knees promptly, careful of her tail-feathers. Sage knelt already at Aiden's feet, female today. She must've felt his gaze: without ever raising her topaz-yellow eyes to his—quite—she shifted position a little to give him a better view. Every bit of skin glittered as though imbedded with countless tiny diamonds; that long fall of wavy hair was sapphire blue, lips and nails and bare nipples garnet-red, all sparkling like jewels. She was wearing only a sort of skirt made of jewelled strands, long ruby ones in the centre shading through the prism out to short amethyst ones at the sides, and a necklace that echoed it down her chest, along with a simple gold band for a collar; neither really hid anything at all, but the effect was rather dazzling. And about as practical as elaborate feathers. It must have taken Aiden hours, and Van had no idea how they'd created that sparkle. But then, Sage was notorious for a sense of both adventure and aesthetics.

At Catherine's feet was a sensitive who was, at least presently, also female—extremely so—with bat-like black wings on her back, small black horns peeking out through her long thick scarlet-red hair, creamy-white skin, and a black tail with a barbed end. The scanty black tatters she wore did more to draw attention to than to cover. A black leather collar circled her throat, with a matching cuff at each wrist, linked by a long narrow chain that passed through a ring on the collar. Lacking context, Van didn't even try to read anything into the chain; some sensitives enjoyed physical restraints, real or symbolic. But there was quite a lot he could read in the sensitive's body language... or rather, quite a lot that he didn't read that he expected in captive sensitives, and it intrigued him.

“So, what do you usually do?” Van asked.

Catherine shrugged. “Currently? I read, I practice and experiment with magic, I visit museums and art galleries and things of that sort, I cook elaborate meals simply for the pleasure of cooking, though there's usually only Sable and I to eat them.”

“Another mage who likes to cook personally, rather than leaving it all to the sensitives!” Aiden said. “We'll have to introduce you to Grania. She started a small restaurant, in fact, it's designed to look like a medieval English tavern, and the menu is more or less consistent.”

“More or less?”

“She does include a few common modern-day foods for the faint of heart, and even the more exotic dishes frequently involve some substitutions to make them more palatable to the modern tongue and stomach. But the overall atmosphere works quite well. It's a remarkably small place to be so successful. She doesn't have more than a handful of staff, along with doing a lot of the cooking herself.”

“Maybe I can take you there some evening soon,” Van suggested. It was impossible to talk about anything serious in a crowd like this, let alone trying to figure out exactly what the mystery here was. Alone, on the other hand, in a quiet place like the Harvest Queen, he could get a much clearer sense of who she was.

“That might be a very nice way to spend an evening,” Catherine said, with just a hint of colour in her cheeks again.

“Van,” Aiden said, in an undertone, though his body language changed only marginally. “Piotr. Coming up directly behind you.”

Van sighed. “D'you suppose I can avoid him all night? No, he'll corner me eventually.”

“Trouble?” Catherine asked, her glass raised for another sip of wine and conveniently obscuring her face, but Van saw her turn alert, before she lowered her lashes to hide it.

“Piotr was Pride's first master. He failed, she ran. It's a long story.”

“One I'd like to hear one day.” She looked up, and her expression shifted instantly to a charming smile, her attention fixed just behind Van. “Hello. Won't you join us?”

Aiden duly introduced Catherine to Piotr, and the Vladislav mage pulled another chair close, Neely shifting hers back a bit more. Van didn't like the way he looked at Catherine's sensitive in the least; he might have attributed it to his own bias, but Sable, who had been blatantly showing herself off no less than Sage and Randi, edged closer to Catherine. Van saw no fear, but definite discomfort. Her wings fluttered a bit, as though she wanted to wrap them around herself, but she folded them back firmly, settling for changing position to cover more of herself.

“I do appreciate the effort your family has gone to, hosting this lovely gathering,” Catherine said, reaching down with one hand to toy absently with Sable's long scarlet hair.

“We couldn't do less,” Piotr said smoothly. “To be in a new city, without family or friends, is to be vulnerable.”


“To loneliness, if nothing else.”

Catherine laughed, lightly. “Some mage families must be a great deal more social than my branch of the Eldridge tree. I was taught never to admit that such a thing might be possible. I must admit I do enjoy moving around, seeing new places, meeting new people. I'm considering, perhaps, making a trip overseas to tour Europe one day, and see some of the ancient places. I'm sure it would be fascinating.”

“Very likely, but who knows whether the mages there would acknowledge your ownership of your sensitive?”

“I've never had a problem,” Aiden pointed out mildly. “The risk isn't that they'd steal your sensitive, only that if yours runs away while you're there, local laws are on the sensitive's side.”

“How immoral,” Van said dryly.

“Oh, that wouldn't be a problem,” Catherine said, with a noticeable purr to her voice. “I caught and tamed Sable myself, and she's very obedient. She kicked up a bit of a fuss at first, I'm sure you know the way they do that until they learn to accept reality, but I took care of that. Setting clear boundaries and never wavering makes it very clear to them exactly where they stand and how little they can get away with. I don't believe it would ever cross her mind to want to run away. Would it, Sable?”

“Why would I want to run away from you, my Lady?” Sable asked, her tone bewildered. “I belong to you.” She stirred, just enough to make her chains jingle.

“You simply have to be firm,” Catherine concluded, and sipped her wine, with a rather feline smile.

Van didn't dare look at Piotr; he was certain the Vladislav's expression would make him double over laughing, thereby destroying any goodwill that Irenka's pregnancy had restored. He knew Sage well enough to know the sensitive was smothering a grin, and saw amusement in Aiden's eyes if nowhere else. Neely bit her lip hard, nails digging into her palms—presumably to help fight her mirth. “I hope you aren't planning on running off to Europe immediately, before we've had a chance to get to know you.”

“Oh, no, not right away. For one thing, it means getting a passport not only for me, but for Sable, and that could be difficult, since to the best of my knowledge, she doesn't exist legally. Definitely a long-term project. But one day, I'd very much like to.”

“I'm sure there must be a way,” Piotr said, recovering his composure. He must have decided to at least pretend Catherine had spoken in all innocence, whether he believed that or not. “Even in this age of computers and endless documentation.”

“Aiden managed it,” Van said. “He does study European history, so it's a bit of a necessity, and who would want to spend a week or two with no sensitive?”

“Sage did have a birth certificate I only needed to track down,” Aiden said. “I'm sure someone will have some idea what to do about not having one. Maya might, since she's looked into the whole issue of homelessness intensively and I imagine it's a problem not restricted to sensitives. It's well worth visiting Europe if you get the chance. They have some interesting ideas, if you're willing to actually discuss the subject of sensitives instead of declaring it improper and indecent. I'm not sure I agree with some of it, personally, and a large part of it would be considered absolutely unthinkable here, but it's certainly educational.”

Van strongly suspected that Sage found it every bit as interesting and educational, and that a lot more leaked into the pool of Donovan sensitive knowledge via that particular channel than anyone except maybe Oblique had yet realized.

The conversation stayed casual and polite; Van had to remind himself only two or three times that he'd promised Randi he wouldn't make any references at all to Piotr's head or cast-iron frying pans.

Given the situation, it was expected that Catherine's immediate circle would change frequently; Van eventually excused himself and dutifully mingled a bit longer, Randi at his side and a step behind.

At least he did manage to avoid Irenka, who had cornered Grania and another woman... what was her name? He couldn't recall off-hand, but thought she was a Kalindi with multiple children.

He and Brennan excused themselves as soon as they politely could, but not before Van located Catherine again to exchange contact info and confirm her interest in visiting Grania's restaurant.

“I think you're right, about wanting to take Catherine and Sable out,” Randi said, in the car. “There's something up, there. Sable's definitely, totally, Catherine's, did you see how fast she moved any time Catherine wanted anything? But I really don't think she's afraid of her mage at all.”

“She doesn't have that paranoid cowed look that usually goes with that kind of behaviour,” Oblique agreed. “And given the way she was showing herself off and obviously enjoying the attention she was getting, I'm inclined to wonder whether she had a hand in her appearance, because it didn't seem like insecurity at all.”

“Catherine seems pleasant enough,” Brennan offered his opinion. “She's a little cool and reserved, but there are any number of possible reasons for that.”

“I'll call her in a day or two,” Van said. “The four of us having dinner at the Harvest Queen should answer quite a lot of questions.”


35 – Lila

They attracted a few glances, walking down the street, Lila noticed: her graceful lady in deep green with her skirt swirling around her ankles with every long confident stride, her hair mostly falling in a loose shining cascade except the little bit Lila had braided to keep it out of her eyes, her only jewelry a silver chain fastened loosely around her hips to make a Y and her necklace with the dog pendant; herself, currently completely human, but a somewhat enhanced version of her real self under a short black leather skirt, heeled boots to just below her knees, a dark red halter, her collar and cuffs without the chain, and enough make-up—or at least the appearance of it—to line her eyes black and turn her lips dark red. She knew exactly what they were thinking when they looked at her, and delighted in it, and knew Catherine was quite willing to indulge her.

Of course, what Van's cousin would say over having her in the restaurant remained to be seen, but as sensitive looks went, this was pretty tame.

The counselling centre where Van worked wasn't much farther. They found him sitting on the front steps, casual and comfortable in khaki cargo pants and a white T-shirt. His sensitive Pride, who was currently a very pretty little blonde in faded blue jeans and a robin's-egg-blue blouse that left her shoulders bare, was sitting a couple of steps above him, which actually just put her head on the same level.

“I hope you weren't waiting long,” Catherine said.

Van shook his head. “I got done a few minutes early. Just enjoying the sun while it lasts.” He stood up. “My car's around back.”

Pride all but danced down the steps after Van; the two mages turned away, and Pride and Lila followed. The little blonde pointedly let her gaze run along Lila's body, licked her lips, and grinned. Sensitive code for, “I'd jump you right here if I could.”

Lila was impressed that Van unlocked Catherine's door first and held it for her, before circling to his own side and flicking the switch that would unlock the back doors for the sensitives. The windows were tinted, Lila noticed. That would make it harder for anyone to see in. Much easier than Catherine maintaining a glamour over Lila on the way to mage functions.

“I'm looking forward to this,” Catherine said. “And I do appreciate it. I'm sure you've already had a long day.”

“A fairly full one,” Van admitted. “We have a policy of making time for crisis situations around the scheduled sessions. If it's a matter of abuse, Hayley usually takes it, since that's her speciality. Otherwise, I get it, if that's at all possible.”

“Your speciality?”

Van shrugged. “I don't exactly have one. In a given week, I'm generally dealing with anger management, low self-esteem, relationship problems, grief and mourning, general stress, addictions... you name it. I did do some extra studies in crisis and suicide intervention.” He chuckled. “Which is the boss' excuse for giving me the bulk of the crisis drop-ins.”

“He must be sure you can do it well.”

“He's very good at making sure everything is done by the one best qualified, I'll give him that, and he created a group of four, him and I and Hayley plus our invaluable receptionist who I swear keeps the place running, who all get along extremely well. Anyone who needs long-term therapy, as opposed to help with a specific problem or situation, he generally sees to himself, since that's what he's best qualified for. I have the qualifications and experience to get a job that pays better, if I really wanted to, but I doubt I'd find one that made me feel as much like I'm making a difference in the world, or that would mean working with people this great. So I believe I'll stay right where I am.”

Lila listened with interest. That said quite a lot about his priorities, if it was the truth.

“You're lucky,” Catherine said. “I don't mean to imply that you didn't work hard for it, I'm sure you did...”

Van laughed. “Oh, I'm the first to admit that I'm lucky.”

“There seems to be more than one unusual tendency in the Donovan family. Every Donovan I met a couple of days ago has a career or some calling they seem devoted to. That's... different, from some of the families, where half or more simply live day to day to enjoy themselves, without trying to accomplish anything.”

“We're an odd bunch. Might be interesting someday to check out the records and find out if there are any genetic factors, but I suspect it's mostly environmental.”

“How so?”

“Donovan children are encouraged to find a field, art, craft, science, hobby, whatever, that we're good at and like, and to pursue it. Even if the interest itself is considered a bit inappropriate for a mage. Say, crisis counselling, or vegetable gardening, or ju-jitsu.”

Lila knew Catherine well enough by now to know what her mage was thinking: I wish I'd been born a Donovan.

Van pulled into a small paved lot next to a limestone building, and parked. “This is it.”

Pride scooted ahead, just a little, to open the door for the two mages; Lila, not to be outdone, slipped between Catherine and the wall to open the inner door for them.

Only then did she really look, and her eyes widened.

The walls were all panelled with pale oak, and the ceiling was the same, supported here and there by wooden pillars from which iron lanterns hung. The room wasn't all that large, really, there were perhaps a dozen tables in the middle, each ringed by four chairs, and a few high-walled booths along the walls. Everything seemed to be genuine solid wood.

Van escorted Catherine to one of the booths, at the far side of the room. Pride slid in first, so she was against the wall with Van on the outside; Lila decided to follow her lead, and wriggled over so Catherine could have the outside. The walls backing the seats were as high as Van when he was standing, which would certainly make it harder to be overheard. About a third of the spaces were filled.

A red-headed woman of medium height, in a long full tartan skirt and white blouse, with a black velvet choker circling her throat and supporting a small silver disc, brought them menus and heavy glass goblets of ice water. Sensitive, Lila noticed, which was extremely interesting.

“My Lord, my Lady,” she greeted them respectfully. “May I bring you something to drink while you decide?”

“Half a sec, Unity.” Van crossed his arms on the table, regarded Catherine seriously. “In a casual situation, it's a Donovan habit to let sensitives get involved in the conversation, and in a restaurant, to let them decide for themselves what they'd like. Will that offend you? Either one?”

Lila blinked, tried not to stare at him; Pride caught her eye and winked.

Catherine smiled in relief. “I'd very much prefer it, in fact.”

Van nodded, and glanced at Pride.

“Coke, please,” Pride said promptly, and the other three requested drinks.

The waitress—Unity?—nodded. “I'll be back with those in no time.” She swirled away in a flash of bright tartan.

“Not everyone is comfortable with allowing sensitives to make decisions at all,” Van commented. “I tend to feel that there are places for proper behaviour, if only to keep from causing a major disruption and getting oneself ostracized, and places where proper behaviour is more of a nuisance than anything else.”

“I'd have to agree, wholeheartedly,” Catherine said.

“Some mages,” Pride said, softly, “haven't realized yet that it's not mutually exclusive, to belong totally to a mage and to have thoughts and feelings.”

“Some have,” Lila said.

“I heard some... interesting stories, about what happened when you two met,” Catherine said. Lila heard the caution in her voice, and had to agree. As promising as this looked, they could get into a nasty situation by relaxing too much too quickly. “Some of them contradicted, and some of them seemed rather implausible. Is it something you'd rather not talk about, or can I ask for the real version?”

“Were any of those versions from Piotr or the other Vladislavs?” Van asked wryly. “Those would be the ones claiming that Pride is psychotic, unstable, dangerous, or something along those lines.”

“Those were the ones I thought were implausible.”

“The hunters sold Pride to Piotr first, last spring. He abused her pretty badly for a couple of weeks. The first chance she had, she hit him from behind—with a cast-iron frying pan, no less, which I'm told gave him a nasty concussion—and ran for it. She came to the counselling centre, hoping for help.”

“I thought if I could get to one of the women's shelters and tell them I was running from someone who abused me, my Lady, that I could buy enough time to figure out what to do,” Pride supplied. Lila regarded her, impressed. A sensitive who'd fought back and escaped, rather than just taking it?

“I took her home, and when the hunters showed up looking for her, I claimed her.” He shrugged, smiled, and accepted his drink from Unity. “Which, of course, gave me two weeks to prove that I could do better than Piotr. Funny how much better gentleness works, hm?”

“Definitely,” Catherine agreed. “Oh, thank you.”

“You're welcome, my Lady,” Unity said. “Are you ready to order?”

“I think we need a minute,” Van said. Unity nodded, and left to see to another table.

Van and Pride were quite willing to offer suggestions on the menu, helping Catherine and Lila choose from the intriguing offerings, some of them completely unfamiliar. With that settled, Van beckoned to Unity, who came promptly and accepted their orders, along with Van's instructions to bring a couple of kinds of appetizers for the four of them to share while waiting.

“So,” he said. “I ended up with a sensitive. Piotr is still rather annoyed with me.”

“That explains a lot,” Catherine said.

What it failed to explain was what Van had been doing before that, or at the very least, how he had passed his Master's exam. He was certainly older than Catherine, and equally certainly hadn't just passed this year. It didn't fit, for him to treat Pride the way he did, and to have had and lost another sensitive previously, and there'd been no mention that Pride was a second sensitive.

“What about you? Or should I not ask?”

Catherine hesitated, colour rising in her cheeks. “Hunters were after Sable. I found her after dark, once they'd left, and brought her home.”

Pride grinned, and Van laughed outright. “I'm sure that impressed the hunters to no end. Technically legal since they hadn't touched her yet, but I bet they were a tad put out.”

“I covered the trail,” Catherine confessed, taking a risk in doing so. “They lost her completely. I'm sure they recognized her a few weeks later, when I took my Master's exam, but they couldn't do anything about it.”

Van raised his glass to her in salute, then startled Lila by including her in the gesture. “Anyone who can outwit hunters I have to respect.”

Open expressions of anti-hunter sentiments were frowned on, Lila knew, but she could see why Van and Pride would have a personal grudge against them.

“Thanks,” Catherine said, her blush deepening.

Conversation shifted to more neutral subjects—recent news in the city that Catherine might find useful, both mage and mundane, for the most part.

Unity brought two large platters, each heaped with a wide variety of appetizers, and quickly made a second trip to deliver four small plates along with silverware.

“Anything else, my Lady, my Lord?”

“I think this will do us nicely for the moment, thanks,” Van said. “I don't think Grania needs to hurry much with the main course.”

Unity smiled. “I'll tell her that, my Lord.” She turned away.

“I don't think I've ever seen a sensitive with a job, before,” Lila ventured, cautiously, having considered it for a moment to make sure it couldn't be taken as disrespectful. For all she knew, he'd be insulted if she didn't say anything at all, after she'd been given the freedom to do so. The lack of a title anywhere in the statement made her nervous, but she wasn't sure exactly who to address it to. Was a title of respect necessary when simply voicing an observation, in this situation?

“Unity waits tables or helps in the kitchen when her mage Lady Grania is working,” Pride explained helpfully. “Lady Grania doesn't pay her, exactly, but she gets to keep tips for herself. Paying her for real would just be more paperwork, with the money going right back to Lady Grania's household, anyway.”

“Sounds sensible,” Catherine said.

“They're a busy pair,” Van commented. “Grania is the main force behind an organization called Cornucopia. Every day they offer decent food, anyone can walk in from noon until six. They ask for a dollar, but if someone doesn't have even that, they'll get fed anyway. The food's the best Grania and her staff can come up with using basic inexpensive ingredients and donations, and there are people who could afford to eat elsewhere who come just because they enjoy the cooking. There's a room for donated clothing, too.” He sighed. “What I find depressing is how many of them are sensitives. Half-starved teenagers, mostly, in clothes as old as they are. Even animals have laws to protect them, and shelters where at least some of them can be kept safe from hunger and weather and disease. It's not really much of a surprise, how terrified they are of us at first, all things considered. And there are ten times as many out there in this city alone who aren't coming to Cornucopia at all, which means we can't even be sure they get an occasional real meal.”

“I have to admit, I hate to think of Sable living that way,” Catherine conceded. “It's wonderful that there are people who are willing to make sure they at least have a meal and something to wear.”

Mages who cared about sensitives, about sensitives who didn't belong to them, even about free sensitives, were a lot more than “wonderful.” If none of this turned out to be exaggeration, Lila figured they'd be staying in this city for much longer than three months.

“It's a short-term solution, but at least it helps reduce some of the suffering,” Van agreed. “I think Grania has talked most of the family into helping out, one way or another, and she's forever borrowing sensitives as volunteers.”

“Are they?”

“Volunteers?” He looked at Pride, who nodded promptly.

“Lady Grania doesn't want us there if we don't want to be, my Lady,” she said, her eyes below Catherine's... but only just, Lila noticed. “And there are a lot of Donovan sensitives, mostly she only needs each of us one or two days a week. That isn't very much, to help feed people who are hungry, sensitives or not.”

Lila finally figured out what was bugging her about Pride. Even the most valued tame sensitive she'd ever met had shown clear signs of being pet, not person. Little things she'd learned to recognize: the heartbeat's hesitation before meeting the eyes even of another sensitive, the tentative edge to a smile, the attempt to take up as little space as possible... they were all missing, completely. Pride followed the rules, kept her eyes lower than those of the mages, spoke respectfully, did nothing she could be called on, but something was definitely different.

“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Catherine said, softly. Lila wondered whether her mage was speculating about volunteering the two of them. “How much of the donated clothing is mage-created?”

Van laughed. “No one asks, but between clothes created by a mage and clothes that were bought with the prizes from lottery tickets and bingo halls, I'd say a fair percentage of it owes its presence there to magic. Which might be only fair.”

Lila took a swallow of her drink, an attempt to cover her nervousness. Every instinct told her they were on shaky ground, that Van was fishing for something, and she hoped devoutly that Catherine would watch her step.

“Fair because mages are responsible for free sensitives living under the conditions they do?” Catherine asked, warily.

Van shrugged, casually, but Lila got the odd feeling it was only superficially so. “It's a way of looking at it.”

“True, but whether it's magic or time and money, I think it amounts to the same thing. Mages helping sensitives.”

“There's a lot of that going around. There's a homeless shelter being run by, believe it or not, a Donovan and a Kalindi. They get a fair number of sensitives, too, especially in the last few months. The two mages try to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, when possible, and let their sensitives—Maya Kalindi has two—and a few volunteers do the front-line interactions. The current scandal about the shelter is that Maya has just enrolled one of her sensitives in evening courses in counselling at the college.”

Lila blinked. Sensitives who worked, now a sensitive going to college? Pride just grinned at her, impishly.

“That makes perfect sense, if this sensitive is to continue working at the shelter,” Catherine said neutrally. “But I can imagine the reactions of some of the traditionalists.”

“The Kalindis are rather divided on the issue. About half see it as sensible, practical, and Maya's choice to make. The other half were horrified when she and Nairn started the shelter, and now they're even more upset.”

“How is Maya taking that?”

“As she sees it, she's doing what she feels is right, and if half her family has a problem with that, the problem is theirs, not hers.”

Now where have I heard of a mage who stood up to her family for what she believed was right...

“Did I meet her at the gathering?” Catherine asked. “I don't recall her, but there are a lot of mages in this city.”

“I gather she was working and didn't make it.”

“She sounds like someone I'd like to meet.” Lila heard the faintly wistful note to her voice, and hoped she was the only one who did. Not likely, though.

“I'd be happy to introduce you to her. There's a kind of unofficial link between Cornucopia, the shelter, and the counselling centre where I work. Not everyone involved knows about mages and sensitives, but between the three, I think we're doing some good on even the most mundane level.”

Okay, so we've got mages who take good care of sensitives and are willing to make use of our abilities besides channelling power. We've got mages and sensitives who are trying to ease some of the suffering sensitives and other poor and homeless people go through. So far, this is the best we've found anywhere, if it's for real. I wonder, though, if there's any other pairs that are really equal, like Cath and I? Probably not, but I can live with that, since everything else looks this good.

“I'll definitely hold you to that,” Catherine said lightly. “Oh, that smells incredible.” Unity's return distracted her.

The tartan-clad sensitive delivered Catherine's and Van's meals, promised to be right back, and returned promptly with Lila's and Pride's.

For a few minutes, conversation lagged, reduced to comments about the delicious, if slightly exotic, food. When it picked up again, it shifted back to the safer, more neutral subjects. Lila made a point of inserting the occasional comment, following Pride's lead. It was a nice change, even if she did have to be careful not to say anything that could be disrespectful or offensive. Just as pleasant was that Van never said anything that put sensitives down, never phrased things in ways that left sensitives out of the human race, made none of the little comments that made Lila wince inside.

Unity approached, to clear away the mostly empty dishes. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Dessert?” Van suggested.

“I'm too full, my Lord,” Lila sighed.

“Home-made ice cream?” Pride teased. “What kind today, Unity?”

“Raspberry,” Unity said. “We make it here. Juice and berries mixed right in.”

“Well, maybe I can eat just a bit more...” Lila said.

Van laughed. “Two ice creams... what else today?”

“Death-by-chocolate cake with fresh raspberry sauce, or cherry cheesecake, or apple pie, my Lord, my Lady,” Unity said dutifully.

Catherine wavered, and requested the chocolate cake; Van asked for cheesecake.

A short while later, Van paid, leaving Unity a generous tip, and the four of them went outside. The fresh air felt good; the restaurant was excellent and comfortable, but there was a certain amount of strain in being around another mage, always.

“Would you like a ride home?” Van offered.

“It's likely to be out of your way,” Catherine said.

“It doesn't matter.”

“That would be much better than taking a taxi,” Catherine admitted. “Thank you. I hope I can remember where the street is.”

“Pride or I will know,” Van assured her, and escorted them to his car.

Van and Pride between them worked out the shortest route in under half a minute—not once did Pride say anything not perfectly respectful, but the brief exchange made it very clear that Van took what Pride said seriously and trusted her knowledge as much as his own. Lila wondered what it was like to know a single place so well.

Not such a long drive, really.

“You have my numbers for home and work still, right?” Van asked.

“Yes,” Catherine answered.

“Give me a call if you want to check out Cornucopia and York House. I'll give you the grand tour.”

“Thank you,” Catherine said. “I think I'll take you up on that. Probably very soon.”

He smiled. “I'm glad you decided to move here.”

“So am I, I think.”


36 – Lila

Hm, this looked like downtown... Lila waited until the bus stopped at a transfer point, which presumably would be in a decently central location, and got off.

A tame sensitive out alone might draw a few odd looks if she encountered a mage, but there was no law that forbade it, as long as she had her mage's permission. The collar and tags, and the signature Catherine said her aura now showed, marked her clearly as already belonging to someone. Her own natural shape, her worn jeans and denim jacket and faded T-shirt, Catherine's well-used canvas bag slung to rest on one hip, should be enough camouflage to allow her to blend in with the free sensitives and see what she could learn. She thought Van honestly believed everything he'd told them about Cornucopia and York House, but she and Catherine had decided that another perspective would be helpful.

As cities went, this one wasn't bad. Reasonably clean, reasonably courteous, people being inclined to ignore or step around each other from what she could see. She got oriented on the direction that seemed busiest, and went that way.

It didn't take her long to find a couple of sensitives nibbling a slice of pizza each on a bench outside a pizzeria and sharing a bottle of pop, both women. Lila greeted them casually.

The short stocky blonde looked at her, and frowned. “We don't talk to dogs.”

Lila blinked. “You... sorry?”

The taller, darker one picked up the bottle of pop they were sharing, and both stood up. “Give it up,” the brunette said scornfully. “You have that same kind of feel the ones with mages have. You're not even pretending you don't wear a collar, for god's sake.”

“Better run back to your owner,” the blonde mocked, and the pair walked away.

This was the fourth city Lila and Catherine had been in, in the past year. Not once had a sensitive spotted her, or even questioned her. She sat on the bench, attempting to work out exactly when this whole encounter had gone off on some totally unanticipated track. There was definitely something weird going on in this city. What had they meant by how she felt? And how they knew about mages and collars was another question with no answer.

Funny how many questions could suddenly arise, in less than a minute.

Did she dare take the collar off? She'd still have her tags on, they were strung on a black silk cord and tucked under her T-shirt, just so no one could ask what the names meant...

Quickly, she unbuckled it, and stuffed it in her bag. Being outside without her collar on made her feel extremely vulnerable, but she had to find out what was going on.

The next sensitive she found was male, scarecrow-skinny, dark-haired and medium dark-skinned, sitting in the doorway of a building with plywood over the door and windows. He reminded her a little of Jax, though there really wasn't much resemblance; she pushed that thought away, afraid to consider where he might be now. She stopped to say hi, a bit warily.

He looked at her, and his forehead furrowed. “Should you be out with no collar on? Randi says that's what makes it safe for you guys to be out alone. I guess it's maybe okay since the hunters aren't in town, but what if another mage thinks you're a runaway?” The frown deepened. “Or are you a runaway for real?”

There was none of the apprehension in the phrase that should have been there at the thought of an escaped sensitive bringing hunter attention down on the whole sensitive population. And how the hell did he know there were no hunters around? And how had he identified her?

She considered saying yes, she was, but wasn't sure what the repercussions of the lie might be. “No,” she said faintly, and let herself slide down the wall so she was squatting next to him. “I'm not. My mage and I just moved here. She knows where I am.”

“You know Randi?”

“No, not as far as I know.”

“But you live with a mage who knows you're a person?”

“She's an angel. She saved me from the hunters.”

“Huh. Cool.”

“Someone told us about a place called Cornucopia. I've never heard of mages trying to help free sensitives before. Is it actually doing any good?”

“Depends on who you ask. I eat there most days, so I think it does. Some of the others are sure it's some kind of trap and they won't go near it, so I guess it doesn't do them any good at all.” He shrugged. “Nobody's messed with me there yet. Do you want to see it? It's not like it's any kind of secret, I can take you there right now.”

Perfect. Seeing the place, with a free sensitive, is exactly what I need.

“Sure, I'd love to, if you can afford to stop for a bit.”

He laughed. “Don't worry about it, I was planning to drop by there for a meal sometime today anyway. Tell you what, you can pay the dollar apiece if it'll make you feel better.”


He emptied the mixed change from his upturned baseball cap into a sandwich bag that already held about the same again, stuffed bag and cap into a worn nylon backpack, and rose, offering her a hand up. “I'm Jonathan.”

“Lila.” She fell into step beside him. “At least someone is willing to talk to me.”

“Who'd you run into?”

“Couple of girls. A blonde and a brunette.” Lila fished her collar back out and replaced it. Not wearing it obviously was no disguise, and she felt better with it on.

“That explains it. Mostly the girls are a lot more cautious, a lot less willing to take a chance.” He shrugged, flashed her a smile, but she saw resignation in his eyes. “When you're sensitive, male, and into your twenties, anything's worth a shot. It's not like I have a whole lot to lose.”

“I've been called a bitch before, but being called a dog is a new one.”

“The ones who think Cornucopia and York House are traps came up with that as an insult for sensitives who live with mages. Just ignore them. They're scared. It's bad enough, the way we live, but around here, we've been getting the rules changed on us, and that's hard to take. It's hard to see mages as monsters when some of them are offering decent meals and a place to sleep, y'know? And when you see sensitives there who live with a mage but are happy.”

Well, that made sense, given what she knew already, and Van had said the Donovan sensitives provided a lot of the labour, and it certainly looked like they were well-treated. The insult, however, was distinctly ironic, given Catherine's self-identification as guard-dog rather than wolf. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you spot me?”

Another shrug. “You know how you just know someone's a sensitive or a mage? It's sort of like that. If you're around both kinds of sensitives, you start picking up on the difference. You feel all... balanced, I guess. Controlled, and I don't mean on-a-leash controlled. Stable. Free sensitives feel kinda spiky and chaotic. You never noticed?”

“Not really.” She frowned, thinking about that. She'd had the sense before of free sensitives as discordant and out of balance, but had attributed it to constant stress. “Maybe kinda I did. Not enough to really be aware of it much.”

“Around here, we're learning to notice. Turn right here.”

Lila obeyed, and a little over a block later, Jonathan indicated a reasonably large old red brick house. “Here.”

A bit uncertain, almost afraid of the strength of the hope that was stirring inside, Lila followed him up a few steps onto a small porch. A beautifully painted sign on the wall, to one side of the door, said Cornucopia and showed a horn spilling fruits and vegetables and grain; below, smaller lettering announced that it was open noon until six every day, and that a one dollar donation was requested.

Lila reached into her pocket for a two-dollar coin, as they went inside.

It looked as though any interior walls not supporting weight had been torn out, leaving the ground floor relatively open space. A lot of mismatched tables, in a range of sizes, and an equally eclectic mix of chairs had been arranged in an efficient layout that left neither dead space nor crowding that Lila could see. That wasn't a mage's planning, it had to be at least one sensitive, or maybe a mundane. She didn't read any of the dozen sitting and eating as sensitive. One corner held a couch and a couple of chairs, the upholstery of all three mismated and worn but not actually damaged, around a circular coffee table.

The floor was rather bland white and grey linoleum, the walls bland off white, both scrupulously clean, but posters were plastered everywhere, movies and animals and humour and prints of famous artists in a haphazard mix. There were enough windows, with tie-dyed curtains, to allow some light and fresh air. Touches that made the whole place considerably more welcoming, less institutional.

A flight of stairs ran up along one wall, and a couple of long tables had been arranged in an L-shape around the base of them. Lila spotted everything from hot food to bread to drinks, along with neatly-stacked dishes.

Seated on the stairs, reading a paperback, was a strawberry-blonde man who could have been twenty-five or fifty-five, slender and dressed well, if simply. A heavy silver chain circled his throat, tags in plain sight.

He looked up as Jonathan urged Lila over, and rose to greet them with a warm smile, leaving his book on the stairs. “Hi, Jonathan.”

Lila, about to protest that she'd had lunch and didn't need to eat, simply stared, speechless. Pride had been missing many of the signals she expected, but while she was following the rules, it had been subtle. This one was making no attempt at all to hide a self-assured confidence she'd never seen in any sensitive before, ever.

“Heya,” Jonathan said cheerfully. “Got a few minutes? Lila and her mage are new in town. Lila, this is Sage.”

“Oh, we've met,” the blonde sensitive said with a grin, and, at Lila's blank look, “The welcoming party. I was a girl that night. The jewelled look? I'm Aiden Donovan's sensitive.”

Jonathan rolled his eyes. “What do you do, flip a coin? Tails you're a girl, heads you're a boy?”

Lila thought fast, and finally remembered. That look had certainly been memorable. “Sorry, we met an awful lot of people at once.”

“No problem.” Green eyes regarded her measuringly. “You okay, hon? You look like someone just yanked the rug out from under you.”

“Um, yeah... just surprised.”

“Grab a drink, let me get Jonathan something to eat, and we can sit down and talk. For real, without having to play the game. Chicken stew, Jon? Or veggie-beef-noodle soup? Or both?”

“Both, please,” Jonathan said without hesitation, helping himself to a tray and beginning to load it with a buttered roll, a glass of chocolate milk, an apple, and a banana, while he waited for Sage to hand him two filled, steaming bowls.

Sage looked at Lila again. “Help yourself, if you're in the mood for a snack.”

“The soup's great,” Jonathan said. “A bowl of that won't be very filling, but it sure tastes good.”

“Probably not as good as Catherine's cooking,” Lila muttered. “But it does smell good.”

Sage filled a bowl and passed it to her. She offered him the toonie in return, and he accepted it and tossed it into a metal cash box on the stairs. While she explored the pitchers and decided on fruit punch, Sage circled around the tables, and accompanied them to a smaller round table with four chairs.

Jonathan tore immediately into his meal, with all the zeal Lila remembered from years of irregular and usually unappetizing or unhealthy meals. As near as she could tell, the soup and stew were both home-made.

Sage crossed his arms casually on the table, across from her. “Catherine must know you're out and about, I take it.”

“She knows.” Not Lady Catherine, which was odd in itself; a properly conditioned sensitive was never supposed to leave off the title, in theory not even in one's own thoughts.

“That lady of yours has an evil sense of humour. Not that she could have used it on a better target.”

“Sense of humour?” Lila echoed, neutrally. What had she gotten herself into?

“Should I ask?” Jonathan said, between bites.

“The mage who hurt Pride was just about to start dissing Van. Lila's mage, innocent as anything, yanked his chain real good. Said she'd caught Lila herself, and Lila made a fuss for a while but the whole trick was to be firm, and Lila'd never run away now.”


“Yeah, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. Pride almost wet her feathers, and I thought Neely was going to choke, she was trying so hard to keep a straight face. Especially with Lila's perfect obedience act to back it up.”

“Who says it's an act?” Lila asked.

Sage shrugged. “I belong to Aiden, heart and soul, and have for probably longer than either of you has been alive. And I do the very same act in mage-space. That doesn't mean I don't have a perfectly usable brain of my own. And sensitives who are really as broken as that do not go wandering around the city alone asking questions, and they never use their birth-name for any reason, Sable, if they can even remember what it is. And usually can't think of anything to say in a conversation that includes another mage even if given permission to do so.”

“You've been talking to Pride.”

“After she got home last night, yes. Most Donovan sensitives have free use of the phone and Internet, most of us have our own cell phones in fact, and therefore unrestricted access to each other.” He grinned. “Even when we'd best not let mundanes, or the more cautious free sensitives, see us.” He glanced at Jonathan. “Van and Pride took Lila and her mage to the Harvest Queen last night.”

“They're supposed to be giving Catherine and I a tour of here and the shelter whenever we want,” Lila added. “I think Catherine's really considering offering to help.”

“If you can clear it with her, we can use you, even if she chooses not to get involved otherwise,” Sage said.

“I'm no use at all in a kitchen.”

“Neither is Pride. Neither are a handful of others who are here off and on. But we need someone down here to do the serving, and there's always cleaning to do—sweeping the floors, wiping the tables, checking the bathrooms and the clothing room downstairs, doing piles of dishes. And talking.” He gave Jonathan a surprisingly affectionate smile. “The free ones that wander in usually have questions they don't know how to ask but desperately want answers to. You and Pride are both closer to remembering what those questions are, unlike those of us who've been in captivity so long we've forgotten freedom.” He sounded like he was joking, but the essential concept made sense. Could the free ones pass up a chance to find out what really happened?

Slowly, she nodded. “I need to think about that, and see what Catherine says.” Not that Catherine would stop her, if she really wanted to do it, but it needed to be discussed, along with the rest of this.

“No hurry. This place isn't going anywhere. The hunters and the traditionalists are pissed off to no end, but there's not a single law that says Grania and Maya and the others can't do it. And with the city's largest family backing it, the funding might get shaky occasionally but never completely dries up.”

“I hope it hangs around for a while yet,” Jonathan said. “I'm getting used to actually eating. No way am I going back to city-hopping.”

Not that it would matter, Lila thought sadly. Here or wandering, it wouldn't be all that much longer before the hunters noticed him. Healthy meals and a place to sleep would go a long way towards keeping him alive that long. And he could end up with a mage of any kind, then. She thought about meeting him again, in a year or so, after he'd spent six months with one of the abusive ones, and shivered at the thought.

“Good,” Sage said. “You're useful to have around. And you just proved it again, bringing Lila here.” He glanced behind him, and excused himself to go serve a group of three who had just come in. Sensitives, Lila noticed, a woman in her late thirties or so, and a couple of teenagers. The teenaged boy waved to Jonathan, who raised a hand in greeting.

“Is there anything else I should know about?” Lila asked.

Jonathan shrugged. “You're better off asking Sage. I just know I'm glad Cornucopia's here, and York House is a way better place to sleep than outside.”

She knew an evasion when she heard one, and couldn't blame him. He'd brought her to someone with more detailed information about the situation, and she was grateful for it, though she might have preferred a bit more info from a free sensitive perspective. On the other hand, she'd seen and heard quite a lot in the last few minutes.

The question, of course, was what it all ultimately meant. And, therefore, what she and Catherine should do about it.

“I think I'd better head home,” she said.

Jonathan nodded. “See you around?”

“Most likely. We'll be living here for at least three months. Maybe longer, if things are as good as they appear to be. It'd be nice to live in a place where we can do something that makes a difference.”

“Good. Take care.”

“You too.” She dug around in her pocket, and other than keeping enough for bus fare, emptied onto the table all the cash she had. Not that she'd brought a great deal, it amounted to less than fifteen dollars, one lone blue five-dollar bill amid a collection of bi-coloured two-dollar coins, gold-coloured one dollar coins, and a bit of small change. “You need it more than I do,” she said firmly, cutting off a protest. “Buy a meal for as many friends as you can talk into coming here, or something.”

He capitulated. “All right. Thanks.”

“Thanks for talking to me. And bringing me here.” She paused on the way out to say good-bye to Sage, briefly.

A quick consultation of the schedule in her bag told her when and where to catch the bus that would take her home. Not long to wait, then she'd be home, and could talk everything over with Catherine. Evidence was piling up that this city would be a near-perfect permanent home for them, if that evidence all turned out to be accurate. But she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something more, that she hadn't yet discovered.


37 – Van

The phone on Van's desk rang.

He blinked, glanced at his watch. Ten after twelve? He hadn't thought he'd been working on this for more than half an hour or so.

He picked up the phone, braced it against his shoulder while he attempted to bring some kind of order to the chaos. “Hello.”

“Van? It's Catherine.” She sounded oddly shy.

“Hi!” He forgot about presentation notes, sat up straighter. “How are you?”

“Doing well, but I'm more and more curious. Is that offer of a tour still open?”

“Visiting York House and Cornucopia? Absolutely. We can do it today, if you like. Pride is running around on her own right now, doing heaven knows what, but she's going to meet me here at four. We could come pick you up, or you could meet us here like before.”

“Today would be wonderful, and I think it will be simpler for everyone if we come to you.” She sighed. “I suppose I should learn to ride the bus, taxis every day add up to a lot.”

“Go slow,” Van cautioned, wincing from the sudden mental image of a traditionally-raised mage having a panic attack on a moderately-filled bus.

“I will. Well, I imagine I should let you get back to work, or lunch, as the case may be.”

“I had lost track of time working on a presentation I'm giving next week. I should definitely be eating lunch. See you here at four?”

“We'll be there.”

Van hung up, sent Randi a quick text message to tell her what to expect, and reached for his backpack to find out what he had for lunch today.

Hm, a kaiser roll stuffed with three types of meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Randi must have made it, since the bread barely fit around the filling. Three home-made peanut-butter cookies, a small plastic dish of fruit salad, a can of pink lemonade.

He started on the sandwich, while he got back to work on his notes for a presentation on workplace communication skills.

At four, he escorted a client out to the waiting room, and found Randi perched on the edge of the desk, chatting happily with Beth. Dark blonde, more clearly female, with subtle changes to her features, she looked just different enough that Beth gave no indication of connecting her with the runaway who had stumbled briefly into the centre that spring. Free sensitives Randi had known before had been startled, but had rapidly adjusted to this as Randi's in-town look.

The preference for jeans, the hazel eyes that missed nothing, the jaw-length haircut that meant it sometimes fell across those eyes, those were all the same. So was the silver chain with its hawk pendant.

He wasn't sure what Beth and the others believed him and Randi were to each other, but whatever it was, it couldn't come close to the real infinitely-complex, infinitely-simple nature of it.

“All done?” Randi asked.

“Just let me grab my stuff. Catherine and Sable aren't here yet?”

“Not yet. I've been watching for them.”

“I'll be right back.”

He doubted he'd have time tonight to get any work done on his presentation; he left books and notes on his desk, slung his backpack on his shoulder, switched off the light, and closed the door behind him. With due farewells to his co-workers—who might have been truly friends, were it not for the gaping abyss between mage and mundane—he and Randi left.

Good timing: Randi pointed out the other pair half a block away, and coming closer. Van studied them, picking out more details every second.

Sable was in the same form as before, rich dark brown hair loose to her shoulders, pale tawny skin, sensual curves to which the heavy knit fabric of her short-skirted short-sleeved black dress clung. Same collar and wrist-cuffs, the ones she'd worn to the party but without the chain, same boots as last time, similar make-up but her lips were a dark purple instead of red. If it was actually make-up at all, which he doubted. The sway to her hips suggested she knew how many eyes were following her, and that she loved every instant of it.

The contrast with Catherine was acute. The mage wore a long, simple, sleeveless lilac-coloured dress, embroidered with deeper purple, and flat black sandals, and neither make-up nor jewellery except a strand of amethyst beads around her throat and amethyst studs in her ears and a silver chain with a pendant that had dropped down out of sight under her neckline. That amazingly long hair lay forward over her shoulder, neatly braided with a lilac ribbon threaded through it. She carried herself with the poise of an aristocrat, paying no attention at all to those around her.

He caught a hint of insecurity sneaking into his mind, that he was somehow shabby, in his oyster-coloured cargo pants and forest-green t-shirt, that there was probably dirt under his nails or something caught in his teeth. Recognizing it was enough to deflate it, but he could understand why he'd heard people at the Vladislav's party call her aloof, and why some of the rumours Kerry picked up had called her arrogant and cold, sure of her superiority. He was inclined to think it to be learned behaviour turned into a defence. There was more there than she was letting on, and he had a strong suspicion as to what it was, and every intention of confirming it today.

Van greeted Catherine with a smile. “Wandering around downtown?”

“We thought we'd check out a couple of stores we noticed last time but didn't have time for then,” Catherine said.

“I'll show you around someday, Lady Catherine, if you want and if my Lord will let you have me for the day,” Randi offered. “Good places to buy things and neat things to look at and everything.”

“That could be extremely helpful, thank you,” Catherine said, surprise making her pause only for a heartbeat. No sign of annoyance that Randi had offered on her own.

“If you don't mind more walking, it would be simpler than trying to find somewhere to park,” Van said. “York House and Cornucopia are both reasonably close.”

“Walking is fine,” Catherine said.

“Two minutes to toss this in the car.”

“It'll only take me one minute, my Lord,” Randi pointed out, and held out a hand for the keys.

Van gave her keys and backpack, and she darted away around to the back of the building. And, of course, she was back much more quickly than Van would have been.

“Which one first, my Lord?” Randi asked.

“York House is quieter, and likely a better place to start,” Van suggested, with a glance at Catherine.

She smiled. “You're the tour guide.”

The two sensitives, perfectly properly, waited for the mages to start walking, and fell into step behind them.

York House was some five blocks away, on York Street. Not enough time to fish for the information he really wanted, but enough for him to get her talking about what she'd been doing since he'd seen her at dinner night before last, casual social stuff that helped her relax noticeably. She did mention that she was seriously considering offering anything she and Sable could do to help at Cornucopia, which was one more scrap of information that suggested he was right.

Van pressed the doorbell, and they waited.

“It's safer, with the door locked,” he explained to Catherine.

A mundane man Van had met a few times, a volunteer in his late thirties or so, opened the door to admit them, with a friendly greeting. He certainly knew Randi, who accompanied free sensitives here for their first visit at times. Van had brought or referred a few mundane clients, as well.

“Catherine and Sable are thinking about volunteering some time,” Van explained. “Probably at Cornucopia mostly, but they were curious about this place, and it helps to know it's here to refer people to.”

“True. Come on in. There's only two staying here at the moment, and they're watching a movie in the living room, it's a good time for a tour.”

“Van and I'll stay here, if you'll be okay,” Randi said, with a questioning look at Catherine and Sable. The lack of an honorific would've made most tame sensitives highly anxious, but in front of a mundane, it was the sort of thing that raised questions that were hard to answer. She did keep her eyes below Catherine's, though.

Catherine nodded, and the two of them followed their guide deeper into the house. Randi peeked into the living room, glanced at Van and shrugged, indicating that they weren't sensitives, and vanished around the corner. He heard her voice and that of another girl... discussing the movie, from the sounds of things.

Van checked the table of pamphlets, cards, and the like, with information on various organizations and services and events that might be of use or interest to those staying here: free food and clothing, other shelters, addiction services, where to turn in a crisis, counselling services, support groups. He spotted an unfamiliar one for assertiveness training workshops to be held regularly, if there turned out to be enough interest, and took a copy of that one. A few of his regular clients could benefit a lot from it, and Hayley and Zach could likely think of some as well. Maybe in return for the referrals, Zach could arrange for a discount for their clients, since many of them couldn't afford the full price.

It wasn't like he needed the tour around York House. Ground floor: living room, dining room, office, half-bath, and slightly small kitchen—which was all they needed, since lunch and supper came from Cornucopia. Basement: one room for laundry and furnace that was also used for storage, plus a full bathroom and two bedrooms, each with a single window and a pair of single beds. Second floor and attic: more bedrooms and another full bathroom. There was nothing fancy about the place, but Maya and Nairn and their sensitives had managed to make it feel comfortable and casual.

Catherine and Sable eventually returned, and Van managed to attract Randi's attention long enough to tell her they were leaving. That girl made friends at any hint of an opportunity; it simply boggled the mind, how she could always find something to talk about with absolutely anyone.

“Well?” Van asked.

“Fascinating place,” Catherine said. “I assume it's quite a lot busier in poor weather.”

“Very much so. In the worst of winter, it's usually full. Mostly mundanes, a few sensitives. Sable? Any thoughts?”

A brief pause. “I can think of times when I would have been grateful for a place like that, my Lord,” she said finally. “But I also think it would have been terrifying to take the chance of going there, knowing that it was run by mages, and it would have been an extremely difficult decision, to go or sleep outside.”

“That's exactly the worst problem we're having,” Van admitted ruefully. She'd answered honestly, not just trying to give him an answer that would please him, he noted. There was definitely an active mind somewhere under that mask of submissiveness. “But we're getting there, a little at a time.”

“Some have very little to lose,” she said, very quietly, and added almost as an afterthought, “my Lord.”

“Also depressingly true.” He kept on straight, instead of turning at the corner that led most directly to Cornucopia.

“I believe you mentioned that the mages try to stay behind the scenes,” Catherine mused. “Which would help somewhat. That would, I assume, leave quite a lot of the day-to-day management in the hands of the sensitives? Which would certainly require quite a lot of faith in their loyalty and their abilities. And a very accurate evaluation of what those skills are, collectively and individually.” She didn't sound scandalized, only thoughtful.

“We don't usually point that out to the ones who think we're doing something wrong,” Van admitted. “It's one more example of the Donovans giving our sensitives freedom and responsibility that, traditionally, are considered inappropriate.”

“Loyalty isn't a problem, my Lady,” Randi said softly. “We know where we belong. And Cornucopia and York House matter to us, too.”

“Yes, I imagine they do,” Catherine agreed.

They passed a park, one barely large enough to deserve the name, just a small bit of grass with a couple of benches between two houses. Van paused there, and looked at Catherine. “Can we wait a minute before we go to Cornucopia, and talk?”

Catherine's expression turned cautious. He regretted the loss of her increasing comfort with him, but unless he was drastically wrong, it would be stronger than ever in a few minutes. “All right.”

The two mages settled on one bench; Sable, with care but without hesitation, sat on the grass, and Randi got comfortable beside her, raspberry-coloured jeans more practical for this than the short black dress. Sable looked alert, he thought, but something else as well... expectant? No, couldn't be.

“I have to confess something,” Van said, carefully, praying he could find the right words. It was a familiar prayer, though usually it was during formal counselling sessions.


“I got nosey. I asked my mother Kerry to ask a few questions, and one of the answers involved the first time you stood for your Master's exam. And what happened afterwards.”

“That must have been quite the question.” The temperature of Catherine's voice dropped several degrees.

“Not really, it just left me wondering even more. And I think it's worth the risks involved, to ask you something directly, because I've put together enough little pieces to be reasonably sure of the answer.”

“And what question might that be?”

Van met Catherine's cool blue eyes steadily. “By mage law, Pride is my property. But that's the only way she is. I've never forced her into anything she objected to, whether that means magic or shapechanging or sex or anything else. She has all the freedom I can give her without putting us both in danger, and we are very much partners and equals. Are you?”

Sable started; Randi closed a small short-nailed hand around Lila's tawny, purple-nailed one, and squeezed. Van left Sable to Randi, kept his attention largely on Catherine.

Never breaking Van's gaze, Catherine nodded, slowly. It was a dangerous thing to admit, for either of them, but some things were worth the risk.

Van smiled, gently. “I am very glad to hear that. I was hoping I'd guessed right. Standing your ground like that, with no support anywhere, took an incredible amount of courage, but it has to have been frightening, and extremely exhausting and wearing. I'd wish you'd been born a Donovan, or at least in a city we're in, so you wouldn't have had to, but then you wouldn't have been there for Sable.”

“For that, everything was worth it,” Catherine said, flatly, then her voice softened. “I was so afraid I was the only mage who couldn't help but really see sensitives as people...” A tear slid down one cheek. Hastily, she wiped it away. “I'm sorry,” she said quickly, and laughed, shakily. “After working all day, the last thing you need is to have me start crying.”

“It's okay,” Van said, still keeping his tone as sympathetic as he possibly could.

“You really mean it.”

“He really does,” Randi assured her, all hint of deference suddenly absent from her voice. “Van honestly does see me as an equal and a friend and a partner, not as a pet or a possession. When we aren't playing the game in front of other mages, I pretty much do whatever I want. Run around the city for the day by myself, play on the computer, work in the garden, whatever I feel like. And what shape I'm in is always up to me.”

Catherine took a deep breath. Van watched her closely; mages weren't as good at withstanding emotional shocks as sensitives were. “Two cities ago, we thought we'd found someone who understood, and we very nearly told him everything. Then he started talking about what he called reservations for sensitives.”

“I don't think reservations normally include ten-foot electrified chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top,” Sable muttered.

Van nodded sympathetically. “There's at least one book and two computer files in circulation describing in detail variations on the theme. I read the book to see what we're up against, and it frankly scared the shit out of me. It's all so nicely reasoned, full of explanations of why it would be better for sensitives and mages both... and it amounts to even worse slavery than we've got now.”

“That's what fooled me. All the talk about how we need to do something about the conditions free sensitives live in,” Catherine said, her voice and expression both going distant.

Randi mirrored the shudder. “Concentration camps crossed with puppy mills.”

“I was beginning to believe that I was the only one.”

“Are you okay for another shock?” Van asked. “It's a good one, not a bad one.”

Catherine nodded, a bit shakily.

“Most of the Donovan family, along with a few allies like Maya Kalindi, feel exactly the same way. Since the Donovan family is easily the largest in the city, that adds up to quite a lot of households where the sensitives do as they please whenever possible.”

“That many?” Sable said, in utter amazement. “Even with all the laws and the peer pressure and crap like that?”

“Even with all that. We claim we treat them well because, like any other domestic creature, they perform better. In actual fact, we've been treating them as partners in private for well over a hundred years, but it wasn't discussed even within the family, even though pretty much everyone else in the family knew what was going on. In the last forty years or so, it's been coming out in the open within the family, and we've been giving them more and more freedom, everything we can.”

“In a lot of ways,” Randi mused, “Donovan sensitives are more free than the so-called free sensitives. We have mages who let us make decisions for ourselves and encourage us to be who we are, and we don't have to make those choices based on fear of being hunted or where we're going to sleep or what we're going to eat.”

“You aren't alone,” Van said. “And we're making progress, a bit at a time. It means the other families tend to look down on us, but then, I don't think much of them, either. Randi and I will gladly introduce the two of you to the others. If you don't have any other plans for Sunday, you're both quite welcome to join us at my mother's house for what might be our last barbecue and swimming party for the year, depending on the weather. There are usually anywhere from five to ten pairs.”

“Randi?” Sable said.

“Me, of course,” Randi said cheerfully. “Miranda, but my friends say Randi. Did you keep your other name at all?”

“Lila,” Sable said automatically. As far as Van could tell, she was adjusting with the usual sensitive speed, most of her concern for Catherine. Even as he thought that, she pulled free of Randi, and moved so she could close both hands around Catherine's. “Are you okay? You don't look so good.”

Van had to agree. Catherine was pale, except the flush along her cheekbones, and she was trembling very slightly; at least one more tear had gotten away, he could see the track of it still bright, not yet dry.

“I'll be fine,” Catherine said, wrapping both arms around herself. “Just... give me a minute.”

Van abandoned the bench in favour of joining Randi on the grass. Sable took the implied invitation instantly, moving up to sit next to her mage and slide an arm around her, pressing close.


“I'm all right. Tell me I'm not crazy. We're really here and awake, right?”

“We really are.”

“And there is no possible way this is some sort of weird elaborate trap set by the hunters and their allies?”

“I don't see how it could be.”

Slowly, Catherine nodded, and took a deep breath. “Okay. I think I'm getting a grip on this.”

“That's good. You had me scared for a minute there.”

“Sorry. It was just... too big to assimilate. I'm fine now.” And, when Sable drew back a bit to take a close look at her, insisted, “Really I am.”

“Yeah, okay, I'll take your word for it.”

Any lingering doubts about whether this pair were truly equal vanished, during that exchange. Van glanced at Randi, and she gave him a triumphant smile, twining her fingers into his. Somehow, they'd just done something good.

“Better?” Randi asked sympathetically.

Catherine nodded, her composure restored. “Much. Thanks.”

“We just don't adapt as well as they do,” Van said ruefully. “Ah, well, we are as we are. That's why we need each other. It takes one of each, together, to balance properly. Which do you prefer, by the way? Lila or Sable?”

“Doesn't really matter to me,” Sable said.

“I'm usually Randi unless I need to be Pride,” Randi explained.

Catherine brushed back a straying tendril of hair. “So. Anything else, or shall we go visit Cornucopia?”

Van got up, held down a hand to Randi. “If you think you can handle it, we can go.”

“I'm all right.”

Van had a feeling it would all catch up with her in a few hours, once she was home and alone with Sable, once everything had stopped happening around her and she had time to think. But, for the moment, she did seem to be dealing with the revelation.

So, they left the park and got moving again, this time more directly towards Cornucopia, somewhat more raggedly rather than mages followed by sensitives.


38 – Van

“Cornucopia might be kind of busy, Catherine,” Randi warned, as they walked. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But Sable and I won't let anybody touch you, even if it is.”

Having a sensitive—other than her own, because he had a feeling Sable was highly protective—offer to protect her was probably a new experience for Catherine, but she accepted it with grace. Accepted the lack of an honorific, too, come to think of it. “Thank you. It would be embarrassing if I were to over-react to someone simply trying to get by me.”

“You wouldn't be the first. With all the government cut-backs, there are a lot of people on the streets who are really not very stable, and now and again something happens that sets one of them off.” Randi's eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

Catherine, far from being offended, laughed; Van snuck a peek at her, and discovered that she looked absolutely delighted. Now that was something for which he lacked a ready explanation. “Sometimes I'm convinced that I'm not really very stable, either.”

Randi lowered her hand, bit her lip in embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn't mean that to sound the way it sounded.”

Catherine waved that away. “So. When we get there, there will be Donovan sensitives in charge, possibly with mundane volunteers as well. And potentially quite a lot of mundanes there to eat, possibly with a few sensitives?”

“They were virtually all mundanes until Randi convinced her family that it's safe, and they started spreading the word,” Van said. “There are a lot still too afraid, but the ones who've had a few meals at Cornucopia and survived, or slept a few nights at York House, bring others. It's a slow process, but then, we're fighting generations of fear and ignorance.”

“You're still in contact with your family?” Sable asked, startled. “You have a family?”

“Yep. A big one,” Randi said.

Randi's cheerful description of her mother's household, who struck Van as a perfect illustration of the adjective “colourful,” kept Sable and Catherine enthralled the rest of the way to Cornucopia.

Randi darted up the few stairs to the small porch, and turned to wait for the rest to join her. Van saw Catherine pause to appreciate the sign next to the door, Shvaughn's work.

Better than half the seats were filled, and there was a background buzz of conversation. Automatically, Van checked, spotted a couple of sensitives over near a corner, a trio in another corner, a very young pair who were waiting their turn to be served, and Jonathan was here, wiping down tables. Van was finding himself, like others in the family, growing rather fond of the young sensitive. Whenever he could, he found errands he could pay Jonathan to run for him—to the post office, to the book store to pick up a special order, anything that came to mind. Sometimes he helped out here instead of paying.

He'd known Oblique was on today, but had expected her to be upstairs directing the chaos in the kitchen, not downstairs serving. She flashed them a smile, without missing a beat.

“I'll go give her a hand,” Randi decided, and scooted away and around the tables without waiting for a reply. She was up the stairs to wash her hands with barely a quick greeting to Oblique, almost before her companions realized what she was doing.

After this long, Van was used to that. He simply found an unoccupied table for four that they could claim. He rather thought Catherine could use a minute to rest and have a cold drink.

Jonathan wandered over. “Hey, Van. Hi, Lila.”

Van did a double-take, stared at him. “Pardon?”


“When did you met Lila?”

“Yesterday. Why?”

Sable looked at Van, calmly. “We wanted more information. So I went exploring.” Her tone turned dry. “I'm surprised Sage didn't mention that, since he'd heard about dinner the night before. Jonathan, my mage Catherine.”

Jonathan gave Catherine his usual amiable smile. “Hi. How's it going?”

“Better all the time, I think,” Catherine said. Van glanced at her, wondering from the faint quaver in her voice if she were about to cry.

She was here yesterday...?

Van shook himself mentally. Okay, so she'd done the sensible thing and gone looking for information from other sources. “I don't know whether Sage told Randi, but no one told me,” he said, keeping his tone light.

Jonathan let his gaze run along Sable's body. “Man. Nice look. I'm going to have to get myself caught so I can come play with all the sexy girls.”

“Get caught and you might end up being a sexy girl,” Sable retorted.

He shrugged and grinned. “Sage seems to deal with it okay.”

“How do you two feel about a drink or a quick snack, and then you can see the rest of the place?” Van suggested.

“That's fine,” Catherine agreed, and Sable shrugged, looking perfectly relaxed here.

Randi reappeared long enough to set a tray on the table, with four glasses and four homemade cookies on napkins, and looked at Jonathan. “I'm helping Oblique, you sit and be me for a minute.”

Jonathan gave her a doubtful look. “I don't think I have that much bounciness. And I sure can't scrunch down that small.”

She rolled her eyes, pointed to the chair next to Van, and commanded, “Sit.”

“Yes, mistress,” Jonathan laughed, and sat down—easily within Van's reach, which both Catherine and Sable very visibly noticed. “What? Van's had tons of chances if he wanted to do anything nasty. I'm always underfoot, running errands for him or whatever.”

“Winter's coming, I'll put you to work shovelling snow,” Van teased, which got him another shrug and grin combination. Jonathan helped himself to one of the cookies, nibbling on it absently.

Catherine's gaze, Van noticed, kept coming back to Jonathan. There was something peculiar about her reactions to sensitives. He couldn't accept even the possibility that she might be lying, but it puzzled him. “There are a lot of people here,” she observed. “That's a lot of food disappearing.”

“I don't ask about the details,” Van said. “But I gather Grania gets everything fairly cheaply, in some cases for free.”

“Nobody minds the little cut corners like two-day-old bread,” Jonathan said, on behalf of those who regularly ate here. “It's a couple of days old, big deal, it's not like it's turning blue. And okay, so it's usually one-dish stuff like stew or spaghetti, except for holidays or because someone donated a lot of something. Who cares?”

“And they're very efficient about using everything possible,” Van added. “They don't waste anything up there that can be eaten.”

“That would take a lot of very careful organization,” Catherine mused.

“It does. And that part's mostly up to Oblique and Sage and the others.” He smiled. “I'm sure they'd love to have another pair of hands who know what to do in a kitchen.”

“That's extremely tempting,” Catherine said softly, and took a sip of juice, gazing around the room thoughtfully.

Sable shifted position a bit. “Maybe no shapechanging would've been better. I get the distinct feeling that every free sensitive in this room is staring at me.”

“They don't know you,” Jonathan said reasonably. “And you look awesome. Of course they're looking, they're trying not to drool in their soup while they wonder who you are. Do you want to meet them? I know all the sensitives here.”

Sable hesitated, glanced at Catherine—not for permission, Van was certain of that.

“I'll stay right here with Van,” Catherine assured her. “There's nothing to worry about. Go ahead.”

“Okay,” Sable said, a bit doubtfully, but got up, and went with Jonathan to meet the others.

“Doing all right?” Van asked.

Catherine nodded. “It's a lot of people, without mage conventions to prevent contact, but it feels... safe, I suppose.”

Oblique left serving to Randi, and joined them. “I only have a minute,” she said apologetically, “but I wanted to come say hello for real. I'm Oblique. Brennan's sensitive.”

“You live with Van and... and Randi.”

Oblique nodded. “We'll have to invite you two out for dinner some night. It's beautiful out where we live, the leaves are all turning gorgeous colours right now. And I hope Van told you about the family get-together on Sunday, it'd be great if you'll both come.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Catherine said, and that faint quaver was back. “I imagine Lila would love to. She's been rather isolated, for the last year.”

Oblique nodded understandingly. “Hasn't fit with any other sensitives? Brennan says the Donovan sensitives are feral. Feral animals, ones that were tame but have gone wild, are much more dangerous because they aren't afraid anymore, the way a wild animal that was never tame is. It's getting harder and harder to call ourselves the Donovan sensitives, because there are some who aren't, and there seem to be more all the time. So we're thinking of starting to call ourselves feral sensitives, as opposed to free sensitives or tame sensitives.”

“I like that.”

“The chaos in the kitchen is slowing down a bit now, if you'd like to come take a look around.”

Catherine nodded. “Please.” She smiled. “But I promised Lila I'd stay here. She worries, she knows I don't like crowds.”

“I'll tell her you're upstairs,” Van assured her. “Although she'll likely see where you're going for herself.”

Catherine wavered briefly, then nodded, and departed with Oblique. Van scanned the room, spotted Sable—not hard—and discovered that she was indeed keeping an eye on Catherine, watching her climb the stairs.

They weren't upstairs all that long; when he saw them, he wove his way over to the serving tables. Sable came, as well, though Jonathan stayed where he was, deep in conversation.

“Well?” Oblique asked. “Heaven knows, we can always use extra hands, especially hands that know what they're doing.”

Catherine tilted her head to one side, and smiled. “You can have me, as many days a week as you want me, on one condition.”


Her voice dropped, enough that a couple of approaching mundanes wouldn't catch it. “You do not, any of you, ever, call me Lady Catherine unless it's absolutely necessary.”

“Us, be disrespectful and impertinent?” Randi pretended to faint against the stair railing.

Oblique laughed. “I think we can do that. Shoo, all of you, there are too many bodies back here, and there's work to do. You too, Randi, you've been covering for me long enough. You don't need to wait for me, Azure has Shvaughn's car and he'll drive me home once we're finished.”

Randi ushered Catherine out from behind the tables, and pulled a folded sheet of paper out of one pocket. “Okay, this is Friday... Oblique thinks we should get you in here for a day or two so you can get some practice before we toss you in for real...”

Van caught Sable's eye, and nodded to one side; she slipped away from Catherine to join him, a few feet away.

“I don't know if I should ask, but why does Catherine react to sensitives the way she does?”

Sable shrugged. “They're treating her like a person,” she said simply. “Not just as one of the masters. She's not used to just being accepted as who she is.”

That wasn't a possibility that had occurred to him, and it was going to need some reflection, but it was a relief to know that it was that easily named. “There's probably going to be quite a lot of that in the immediate future. She'll be okay?”

“Yes.” Sable smiled, and rejoined her mage. Van followed.

Randi and Catherine decided that Monday, when Grania was here personally, would be the best day to start, and Randi explained that they came in at ten to get ready for noon. Catherine promised to be there.

“Had enough for today?” Van asked.

Catherine glanced at him, and the sparkle in her eyes, the joy in her smile, made him glad he'd taken a chance on getting to know her. To be able to make someone so happy, by offering her a way to help others...

“I think I'm going to be tired soon,” she admitted. “Although I confess, I don't want to go home and go to sleep tonight and find out this was a dream.”

“It's for real,” Randi assured her, leading the way towards the door. “Everything will still be here tomorrow. Us too. Well, not here, exactly, I don't usually do weekends, but you get the idea.”

“And this concludes our tour of mage-founded social services,” Van said teasingly, once they were back outside, and walking in the direction of the counselling centre. “Not the extent of mage attempts to change the conditions sensitives are living under, however. There are a couple of Donovans and an Santiago pushing for more money for government-funded social services, although so many sensitives are terrified to use them that will be rather limited help to them specifically. And, of course, the anti-abuse laws, and trying to teach the free sensitives the reality of what's going on. But we are pushing one damned big rock up an extremely steep hill. We need all the help we can get.”

“You can add one Eldridge to the list,” Catherine said firmly. “Wholeheartedly.”

“Do you have enough to live on, while you're helping us save the world?” Randi asked sensibly.

“An uncle who was pleased with how good I am at magic set up a small trust fund for me, starting as soon as I passed my Master's exam, and he died before I became an embarrassment so it was never changed. It isn't much, a thousand a month, and it runs out after five years, but it's enough that I can supplement it and we do well enough.” She shrugged. “In another four years, it could become a problem, however.”

“We can work something out,” Van said. “I think this whole sensitive philosophy of sharing everything is contagious, most of the Donovan family has caught it. If you're pouring time and energy into the same goals we're all fighting for, we'll make sure you have secure ground to stand on, as much as possible. Not because anyone thinks you can't survive perfectly well alone, but just because we're all in this together.”

“Together is a huge improvement over alone,” Lila said. “I'm no use at all when it comes to cooking, but anything else I can do, I will.”

“Whoever's serving at Cornucopia doesn't need to cook, just to be able to be friendly and sometimes talk to scared or curious free sensitives,” Randi pointed out. “And it has to be kept clean. Trust me, there's work to do that doesn't involve cooking. Talking to free sensitives is hard work in itself, they aren't all as easygoing as Jonathan. Some of them look at you like you're practically a hunter and as soon as they give you an inch, you'll grab them and drag them off in chains. Don't worry, we can put you to work.”

“Good,” Lila said. “I am so bloody bored and restless... Cath tries, but I just don't have enough to do.”

“In a month, you'll be saying there aren't enough hours in the day,” Randi laughed.

Probably lonely, too, given the social creatures sensitives tended to be. Belonging neither with free sensitives nor tame ones, able to be herself only when alone with her mage, must be a terrible thing for a sensitive. And there must be others, who thought they were the only ones...

Van sighed to himself, recognizing where his own thoughts were leading. Right now, they didn't have the resources to go looking for more problems to solve.

They got back to the counselling centre, and circled around to the parking lot at the rear. Van unlocked the doors, and only then noticed that on each seat, on the passenger side, an oversized paperback lay. The simple green cover, adorned only by a black and white yin-yang in the centre—Neely's idea—and white-and-black text in the understated font Randi had chosen, was familiar.

“What's this?” Lila asked, picking hers up as she slid in. “Mages and Sensitives. By Rory Donovan.”

Catherine settled gracefully into the front seat, and studied the volume in her hand before glancing at Van. “You write, too?”

“It's mostly a more coherent version of notes I've been making for as long as I can remember,” Van explained. “We only got it printed and bound a few months ago, and we're trying to get it out to free sensitives and mages both.” He started the car, backed carefully out of the parking lot. “A dozen sensitives and mages wrote their own stories or told them to me to write down, for a more personal slant. I imagine I'm going to get in quite a lot of trouble over it, but it's worth it.”

Catherine flipped through the book. “Comparison of psychology, magic, social structure and behaviour... this looks thorough. Can I read this?”

“Consider it a gift from the book fairy,” he said wryly, and heard Randi giggle. “I had intended to give you a copy if you were interested. Some sneak seems to have grabbed two copies out of the trunk and left them for you.”

“You and Brennan have the only keys to the car,” Randi said innocently.

He drove Catherine and Lila home, and due farewells were exchanged, along with promises that he would come pick them up on Sunday for the barbecue, and Randi telling Lila to be sure to be something creative and comfortable that could swim. Randi moved from the back seat to the front, to make it easier to talk.

“So, how long is it going to take you and the others to get Lila behind the lilacs if she looks anything like that on the weekend?” he teased.

Randi grinned at him. “I dunno, how long do you think it will take us to all get away from our mages? About that long.”


39 – Van

Van left his car in one of the two spaces next to Cornucopia, waited while a rather ragged young couple went in—mundane, he noted absently—and followed them inside. With any luck, Jonathan would be here, and he wouldn't have to go searching through his other usual hang-outs. Randi insisted that when Lila was working, Jonathan was usually around right from open to close, however, so if she was right...

It took him only seconds to spot Jonathan, clearing the empty trays off a table. Lila, in what was probably more or less the form her genes had given her, paused long enough to give Van a smile and a nod, and turned her attention to the couple who had just come in. He knew sensitives learned fast, but in less than a month, she'd made herself so completely a part of the regular routine on Cornucopia's main floor that it was hard to remember a time she hadn't been.

To say nothing of how many people he'd heard praising Catherine's skill and imagination with limited resources. And the pair were visibly thriving on having a place to belong and something to do. Win-win all around, and he'd take any victory they could get.

A couple of sensitives gave him a wary look as he passed, though he took care that he didn't come too close to them. Neither panicked, which was certainly an improvement. One of each sex, probably right around twenty, and the girl's belly was noticeably swollen under her loose top. The boy's right arm was in a rough sling, but he was doing well enough with his left, devouring the food in front of him. It must not be too bad, or Lila would have hauled him off to the hospital emergency room by now.

He hailed Jonathan once he was close enough, and the young sensitive straightened from wiping down the table, smiled.

“Hey, how's it going?”

“Goes pretty well. You?”

Jonathan shrugged. “Can't complain,” he said amiably. “Just saying hi, or is something up?”

“Passing on a message from Randi and Brennan. There's a rather large patch of brush they want to clear, so they can expand the garden for next spring, and they could use all the help they can get. You'd get Randi's bed, Oblique's cooking, and we'll pay you whatever you and Bren work out as fair. But if you'd rather not be out at our place for a couple of nights, it's okay.”

Two tables behind him, he heard the pregnant girl's breath catch, and her one-armed friend muttered something under his breath.

Jonathan simply regarded him thoughtfully, showing no panic, though an understandable amount of caution. Van wouldn't have suggested such a thing to any other free sensitive in the city, except some of Randi's family, and they were all working or in school. “Just a couple of nights?”

“I believe they want to start early tomorrow, so it'd help if you came with me tonight. If you want to come home tomorrow, Bren or I will bring you, no argument, or you can wait and come in with me the next morning. I don't think they're expecting it to take more than one day.”

“It could, though, so that'd be three nights.” Slowly, he nodded. “I'd better tell a few people, so they don't think I've suddenly vanished or anything. Can I have half an hour?”

“However long you need. I'll go see if Lila can find a use for me. Take your time, Oblique's planning supper for later than we usually eat.”

“Shouldn't take me all that long.” He flashed Van a grin, but Van thought it was only on the surface. “Hey, Trey told me about him and the rest of Randi's clan spending the odd weekend at your place and how great your house is, I can't pass up a chance to see.”

Van smiled, and made his way over to Lila. Jonathan finished clearing the table, and headed for the garbage can in the corner.

“Recruiting Jon for another errand?” she asked.

“Out to the house to help Bren and Randi clear some brush. They want a bigger garden for next year, god help us.”

“He's okay with that?”

“He said yes, and I have every intention of being extremely careful not to scare him. Brennan will, too.”

Lila considered that, her forehead furrowed. “Well, if anyone would say yes, it'd be him. How much of this is real and how much is that you're hoping it'll convince more of the free ones that guard dogs are not wolves in disguise?”

Van rather liked Catherine's imagery, though he thought referring to the hunters as wolves was an insult to true wolves, who hunted only for need. “The work is definitely real. I suppose they could have tried to recruit Rich and Azure, but they're busy enough as it is, and Jonathan could use the money.” He smiled. “And if it helps our collective image, that doesn't hurt.”

She returned the smile. “Whatever works, hm? Take good care of him, okay?”

On impulse and a hunch, Van asked, “Who does he remind you of?”

“Someone I hope is with a mage who takes good care of him,” she retorted.

Jonathan set the empty trays, the dishes neatly stacked, at the end of the table, and the rag beside them. “I'm going to leave my stuff here for a bit, okay? I need to go talk to a couple of people.”

“Sure,” Lila said. “And since Van is stealing you, he can do your job.” She tossed Van the rag; he caught it, saluted her playfully, and went in search of tables to clear. Now that Lila wasn't playing the game around him all the time, he rather liked her, above and beyond the fact that he had high respect for her courage right along with Catherine's strength and determination. They struck him as well-matched, though he was extremely certain that he didn't want to be in range when they had a disagreement, or to have either one angry at him.

Jonathan, true to his word, was back in slightly less than half an hour. He retrieved his battered nylon backpack from upstairs, and presented himself to Van with an open-handed gesture and a grin.

“All yours. For a couple of days, anyway.”

Van didn't miss the way the trio of sensitives who had recently come in winced in unison at the statement. Jonathan rolled his eyes, shook his head, sighed, and led the way outside.

“They all think you aren't going to let me go, y'know,” he said wryly, while Van unlocked the car. He slid into the passenger seat without hesitation, deposited his bag on the floor at his feet. “Right, like you haven't had a hundred chances if you wanted to do anything to me.”

“They're scared,” Van said. “Generations of fear aren't going to go away overnight just because a few mages are trying to fix it. I'm surprised we've gotten as far as we have, and that's mostly because of Randi and you.”

“It's easier to listen to somebody you knew before.” Jonathan wriggled around to grab the seat-belt and snap it into place, as Van pulled out. “The others are watching to see what happens to me and Randi's family and Hal. If you need another pair of hands, I could probably get him to come.”

“I think one extra pair's enough. Besides, he doesn't know me as well as you do.”

“True. He knows Grania pretty well by now, though.” Jonathan shrugged. “So why on earth do they want a bigger garden? As it is, they seem to have more veggies than anybody can eat.”

“More they can give Cornucopia, for one thing, and more to give Flora. I think Randi wants to make sure the little ones especially get a lot of fresh vegetables.” With enough healthy food, and less fear of the hospital, just maybe both Claire's and Denise's children would beat the frightening sensitive infant mortality rate. “Lots to have around when we have company. I think Oblique and Catherine want to do a lot of canning and such. Would you believe they're trying to decide whether to plant a few apple trees next spring? It takes a few years for them to start producing, and they're thinking ahead. At this rate, every inch of our land is going to be producing some kind of food.”

“Are they going to run out of land?”

“It'll take a while for them to find uses for all ten acres.”

“Depends how enthusiastic Randi gets,” Jonathan laughed.

It had been a few days since they'd seen each other; they had enough to catch up on to comfortably fill the duration of the drive.

Randi pelted out of the house at high speed, before Van even had the car turned off, and threw herself at Jonathan for a hug as soon as he got out of the car. The rather bright rainbow colouring she'd had this morning lingered only faintly on her skin, turning it to soap-bubble moire when the sun hit it properly, which it did irregularly under her t-shirt and cut-offs. Stronger traces of it showed in her hair, which looked sometimes blonde but more often not. Considerably more subdued, although still a rather pretty effect. She must have asked Brennan to do it, after she'd called Van to request Jonathan's presence if he could arrange it.

“Hi! I'm really glad you decided to come, I know that's gotta be kinda scary but don't worry, Oblique and I'll make sure Bren and Van behave themselves. We're going to make you work really hard, though.”

“Working hard's not a problem,” he assured her. “And I couldn't pass up a chance to come see you, could I?”

“Flattery will get you nowhere in front of my mage,” Randi said primly, and laughed. “C'mon, Oblique's inside. Brennan went to get chicken feed, he should be back any time.”

I guess I don't rate a hug, right now, Van thought in amusement, collecting his things from the car. Not that it mattered, he could wait. For right now, it might be just as well for her to concentrate on Jonathan. Van hadn't just placed himself in an extremely vulnerable position, entirely on trust and faith.

The house was full of good scents—Oblique must have been baking, quite possibly in hopes that Van could indeed bring Jonathan here.

Oblique—whose skin was currently utter black and whose dark hair shone faintly purple, but otherwise she was her “normal” self, unlike this morning—greeted Jonathan with a warm hug. Van saw no hesitation as the hug was returned.

“I'm glad you're here, hon.”

“Me too, I keep getting hugs,” Jonathan said cheerfully. “And here I was all braced for you two to look seriously strange, after everything I keep hearing.”

“We decided we didn't want to give you a heart attack, and made Brennan tone it down a lot,” Randi laughed.

Van circled around the little tangle of free and feral sensitives to the counter. Pie with dark reddish filling of some sort and another that was clearly apple... the large plastic box Oblique kept for cookies was full... and the oven was still on, the source of the savoury meaty smells. Maybe Oblique had caught a little of Randi's energy and enthusiasm.

“Well, I did my part, he's all yours to do with as you will. I believe I'm going to leave you to do whatever it is you do when I'm not looking, and go collapse on the couch.”

“Anything we want?” Randi mused, eyeing Jonathan speculatively.

The couch was soft and welcoming; Van sprawled full-length on it, and mentally nudged the remote control along the coffee table to where he could reach it. Most television was mind-numbing these days, but right now, that was what he wanted.

“Van? You okay?” Randi asked, from the archway to the dining room.

“Just tired,” he assured her. “Long day, and a bad session. I'll be fine. Go on back to Jonathan, he needs you more right now.”

He didn't hear her bare feet on the carpeting behind the couch, but she leaned down over the back of it to kiss his cheek. “If you're sure. Want me to bring you a couple of cookies and a drink?”

“I'll wait for supper.”


Brennan came home before much longer; he stayed in the kitchen long enough to welcome Jonathan—Van heard the sensitive go a bit shy, less familiar with Bren than Van—then joined Van in the living room, draping himself into the chair comfortably.

“I wasn't entirely expecting him to come,” he observed. “Randi thought he might.”

“Randi also told me exactly where to find him. I think it's fairly clear who's in charge around here.”

Brennan chuckled. “Superficially, this looks very old-fashioned... men in the living room relaxing, women in the kitchen. Until you add in Jonathan, that is, and the interesting colour scheme out there. And rather than watching, oh, hockey for example, we're watching... what are we watching? It looks rather old.”

“Seventies sci-fi B-movie. It roughly matches the level of mental effort I want to put into following a plot.”

“Oh, okay.”

Silence reigned, until Randi reappeared.

“Oblique says supper is ready, and we're eating in the living room because the dining room would be crowded, so you should come and get it.”

“What on earth is this world coming to, when you can't even expect a sensitive to bring you your supper?” Brennan complained to Van, and ducked as Randi grabbed a pillow and threw it at him with her usual accuracy. He laughed and got up from the chair, offering Van his hand. “And why don't we make them dress like that, the Barbarella, space-princess look?”

“I'm guessing it's because neither of us is masochistic enough to try.”

“Hm. That could be it.”

Van, like Brennan, took extra care to not touch Jonathan at all, while they were filling a plate each in the kitchen with roast pork and vegetables from the garden. At least a mage within arm's length didn't alarm him.

Somehow, everyone got comfortable in the living room. Randi settled on the floor at Brennan's feet, leaning against the arm of his chair; there was room for Jonathan on the couch, with Oblique between him and Van, but he chose the floor was well.

One B-movie was followed by another, much to the delight of the three sensitives, and watching bad science fiction with two energetic young sensitives and one normally quieter who appeared to be catching the mood was certainly an experience.

Randi snuggled cozily against Van in his bed, leaving hers for Jonathan, and wished him good night with a teasing warning not to turn her into an alien while she was asleep.


40 – Van

Van came home to find a familiar Honda motorcycle parked next to Brennan's truck.

He left everything in the car, and circled around the house, curiously.

Sure enough, Neely was there, adding her efforts to what was already a considerable accomplishment. As mages went, she was uncommonly athletic; swimming, martial arts, and yoga kept her in good condition. For the most part, mages in an area interbred to the point where racial traits vanished, but Neely's hair was a startlingly bright copper-red, cut to her shoulders but currently tied back, and her skin lighter than normal, with freckles across her nose.

But then, like many other Donovans, there was some question, never spoken even within the family, as to whether her father was in fact the mage the records said, or her mother's sensitive. Occasionally, like in Brennan's case, it was really not much of a question at all.

What he didn't see was Randi.

“Hey, what'd you do, steal my sensitive?” he asked her teasingly.

Neely heaved another load of brush off to the side, then paused to pull off a heavy glove and wipe ineffectually at the hair escaping its confinement. “Nah, she's around here somewhere. She's in better shape than the rest of us, actually.”

Motion, just inside the tangle of brush, and Randi wriggled out. Van compared the sleek, pale-creamy scales covering her to the scratches and welts that mottled Neely's lower arms. “Hm, I see what you mean.”

“I'll get you all icky if I hug you,” Randi said mournfully, setting down the hedge clippers so she could stretch. “Oh well, I'll hug you twice once I get clean.”

“Take a break for a minute,” Brennan told Jonathan, and they joined the other three.

“How much more do you want to clear?” Van asked. “That's a lot of space already.”

“We were hoping to double the garden,” Randi said. “Since there are two of us to look after it, not just Bren alone, and there's certainly demand for the results.” She surveyed their work. “I think we're getting pretty close to that.”

“Looks like,” Jonathan agreed. He and Brennan showed the same kind of damage Neely had taken, above where work gloves could protect—Jonathan's was easily the worst, without even the partial protection of reflexive telekinesis. There was probably a clue in there somewhere as to why sensitives and mages had evolved as they had, and Van stored the idea to think about later.

“Need anything, or should I go away and let you finish?” he asked.

“Go away,” Randi said cheerfully. “We'll see you inside in a bit.”

Van nodded, and left them to it.

Less than two hours later, the quartet came inside; Van, at the computer with Oblique while she showed him pictures on the Internet of some fascinating tattoo designs, heard them scrubbing as clean as they could in the laundry room sink.

“Jon's arms are a mess,” he said, quietly. “Want to take care of him, and I'll look after Bren and Neely?”

She nodded. “Scales have practical uses. We do have advantages no one else has.” Graceful as always, she rose, and they ventured to the kitchen.

Randi had stripped off her dirty clothes entirely and was perched on a chair to rub at herself with a wet facecloth, removing most of the grime easily. The scales covered her pretty much completely, though it was her own boyish outline beneath them; that she still had short dark hair seemed impractical, but that and the colour of the scales softened the alien effect quite a lot, which presumably was why she and Brennan had decided on it. It probably also explained why she'd left her clothes on to work, though the branches must have been snagging on the fabric. Still, it seemed a reasonable compromise.

“I feel so sorry for the others,” she said. “They're all scratched up something awful.”

“There were a couple of moments there that I was wondering whether it might not be worth it,” Jonathan said ruefully. “But it's not really so bad. It's all just shallow scratches.”

Oblique fetched the ointment from the downstairs bathroom, and pointed to one of the kitchen chairs. “Sit so I can make sure of that. Take the T-shirt off now, so it doesn't drag through it afterwards.”

Jonathan obeyed meekly, and offered each arm in turn for Oblique to smear liberally. It was frustrating, Van thought. In a matter of seconds, he or Brennan or Neely could have repaired all the damage, making use of a simple trick of evolution, but there were any number of reasons why that wasn't going to happen.

“I'll do Bren,” Randi volunteered.

Van gave Neely a questioning look. “Would you rather do it yourself, or...?”

She smiled wearily. “Please, help.”

So the ointment was passed freely around while various scrapes, scratches, and welts were seen to, which emptied the tube.

I'll have to pick up more tomorrow, we need to have it around.

“Jon's going to stay another day,” Randi informed Van and Oblique. “There's more stuff we can use help with.”

Pick up lots tomorrow, he amended.

“I can talk Aiden and Sage into letting me out of lessons tomorrow,” Neely suggested. “I won't be in any shape for my yoga class tomorrow night, but that's okay, I'm reaching a point where I can't learn much more from this teacher anyway. I think I'm going to ask if they need someone to teach the basic classes, to tell you the truth.”

“You're already teaching beginner ju-jitsu classes,” Brennan said. “You're going to have your own school before you know it.”

“I know, cool, huh? Probably just after I pass my Master's exam. While you've been planning to rearrange mage society, did you happen to stop and think of a way those of us without sensitives are ever supposed to find 'em? It's a good thing Sage offered to help. Calum and Emer are still farther from needing it than I am, but the three of us were talking about it the other day and it really isn't looking all that great.” She added in an aside to Jonathan, “Calum and Emer are my brother and sister. They're a lot younger, they're sixteen and fourteen. Mom got distracted.”

“I know,” Jonathan said. “Well, I didn't know Calum's your brother, but he's been at Cornucopia a few times. Talking to Randi's brother Trey and a couple other guys around that age about movies and music, mostly, and video games, and stuff like that. I think they might be hanging out together in other places. Haven't seen your sister though.”

“He has? I've been missing him, then. Cool. He doesn't tend to make many real-life friends, so if he's actually got a social life that isn't online, that is awesome.”

“He's corrupting Trey,” Randi chortled. “Trey wants a computer at home now. Or at least a smartphone. I think I'll get him one for Christmas.”

“Here's an idea, Neely,” Oblique said dryly. “Keep spending time around Cornucopia being useful, get to know as many sensitives as possible, and hope that you can convince one that you have something to offer.”

“I already do, and apparently Calum is. I don't think we can give probability that much of a push.”

“It's not impossible anymore,” Jonathan countered. “Thinking anything is better than being with a mage only works when you see mages as all the same and all like the worst ones. Once you know better,” he shrugged. “I don't think it's going to be anybody's first choice anytime soon, honestly, but it's not everybody's absolutely last choice anymore, either.”

“Well, that's encouraging,” Neely said. “Not promising, exactly, but encouraging. Because I will not be responsible for setting the hunters on somebody.”

“So sue me,” Brennan said, without heat. Oblique, finished doctoring Jonathan, left him so she could perch on her mage's lap and slide an arm around his shoulders. He wrapped both arms around her waist, heedless of getting ointment on her sarong.

“That isn't what Neely meant, and you know it. There was no Cornucopia then, and no other options short of going hunting yourself. It's a valid point, we're not going to get much support from young mages if all we can offer is the possibility that eventually a sensitive will consider them the lesser of two evils.”

“Add it to the list of problems to solve,” Van sighed. “What's one more? But we aren't going to solve it tonight, and I'm hungry.”

“Just how dirty are the bunch of you?” Oblique looked Jonathan and Neely over. “Hm, maybe I should have checked that before I had an affectionate moment. We do not need little prickly bits spread all over the house. Neely, I'll find you something to wear. Are you keeping the scales, Randi?”

Van saw Jonathan start slightly—had he grown so used to the sight he'd forgotten?

“I don't need them now,” Randi said, a bit doubtfully. “I'd rather have something else, but I don't want to freak Jon out.”

“You won't,” Jonathan assured her. “Don't not do stuff 'cause of me.”

“What in particular?” Van asked, as Randi relocated her small naked self onto his lap. The analytical part of his mind wondered whether Jonathan might be curious, and concluded he very likely was.

“Oblique showed you that website with the tattoo pictures?”

“Yes, some of them.”

“Did you see the butterfly one?”

“Don't ask for anything easy,” Van grumbled, but closed his eyes, creating the images he needed. Make the scales go away, that was simple. So was altering skin colour to just about anything, but creating the details took time. Randi whimpered softly and sagged against him, supported by his arms, her breathing accelerating; he knew the expression he'd see if he opened his eyes would be pure ecstasy.

It would take a long time to make this as complete as she was sure to want, eventually. For the moment, he gave her a butterfly-wing mask across her eyes, another across her chest with her nipples like eye-markings in the pattern and swallowtail-like wings extending towards her belly, one on her back, all in the vivid colours she was so fond of.

He left it at that, stopped drawing power, and waited for her to collect herself.

Brennan and Neely were gone, he'd been too distracted to notice, but Jonathan was watching in fascination, and Oblique was watching Jonathan.

“Okay, I'm here,” Randi said, a bit breathlessly. She wriggled off Van's lap, and he obligingly created an illusion-mirror for her so she could see. “Hm... not as much as I wanted.”

“I figured that, and those ones could stand to be more complex, but we can work on that. It should take hours to get it exactly the way you want it.”

“Oh, that's going to be hard to take.”

“Good luck getting her to ever be satisfied,” Oblique laughed. “She'll keep changing her mind so you'll keep making changes.”

“And you've never done that,” Van teased.

“Who, me?”

Randi finished inspecting herself, and turned around to give Jonathan a questioning look. “Going to bother you?”

“Nope. That looks really cool.”


“Show's over,” Oblique said briskly. “Jon, upstairs, Brennan and Neely will leave enough hot water for you to have a quick shower and get changed. Are you all right, alone upstairs with the two of them, or would you rather I came?”

“I need to find something to wear anyway,” Randi said, before Jonathan could answer.

Van waited until the two younger sensitives were out of sight, then let himself lean back in his chair. “I keep expecting one of us to go just a little too far and make him uncomfortable.”

“Sensitives adapt,” Oblique said, turning away to start setting out supper. “He's not being confronted with any new ideas, just the practice of ideas he's been hearing about for months. He's had time to learn to trust you, and he's met Bren and Neely often enough that they're familiar to him. Given that we're capable of adapting to far worse under far more terrifying conditions in a matter of days or weeks, I'm not surprised he isn't having trouble. I was only unsure of whether he'd choose to come at all.” She handed him a large, covered bowl from the oven, sliding her hands out of the way so he could take the potholders as well. “Go put that on the dining room table? It's another serve-yourself night.”

Six made the living room feel rather full, once they were all settled with food, but somehow they got themselves arranged comfortably. Randi flipped through channels until she found a movie Neely said she'd been told was excellent, so they watched that while they devoured pretty much all of the food Oblique had made, including most of the baking that remained from yesterday.

The four who had been working outside all day were tired enough that, when the movie ended, they decided to call it a night. Brennan glanced at the light switch, and it flipped itself on, while Van and Oblique got up to collect empty plates and glasses.

Oblique's midnight skin, Van noticed, now had butterflies to match Randi's, but rather than being brightly coloured, they were subtle silvery-iridescent. It looked like he and Brennan both were going to be spending a lot of time in the immediate future designing butterflies.

Neely went upstairs to change back into her jeans for the ride home, and said good-night. Brennan, Randi, and Jonathan headed for bed, and Van lingered in the kitchen to help Oblique clean up and do the dishes.

All in all, he reflected, as he curled up next to his soundly-sleeping sensitive in bed, not a bad day, and an enjoyable way to spend an evening.


41 – Flora

In a household the size of Flora's, there was rarely true quiet. Someone was always coming or going, getting up to go to work or feed a baby, heading for the kitchen or a place to sleep. Her own work hours at the bakery being what they were, two in the morning until ten, five mornings a week, meant she'd had to learn to sleep through the evening activity. The house still seemed to always be full to capacity; she and her sister Jenny had seven surviving children between them, so far, of whom only Randi lived elsewhere. There were always friends and lovers—not that there was any real difference for sensitives—around, and nomads passing through or needing a home until they could find a job and get an apartment or a room for a few months.

But there was something distinctly wrong with the chaos that pulled her reluctantly out of deep sleep and contented dreams. Was one of the babies sick? She glanced at the clock next to her bed: a little past eleven-thirty. Jenny should be home, she finished work at eleven. Maybe she could go back to sleep and let Jenny handle it while she stole another hour of sleep before heading to work for two?

No, she couldn't do that.

With a sigh, she pulled herself out of bed and reached for the robe Randi had given her, warm heavy terrycloth that would keep the night's chill out of her. Still tying the belt, she left the twilight sanctuary of her and Jenny's room and ventured downstairs.

Jenny looked up as Flora came into the living room. “Oh, good, I was just going to send one of the kids to get you. Claire's sick. Kirk too.”

Flora brushed past the knot of alarmed children, from teenagers down to Jenny's ten-year-old Gloria, and nomads to the couch.

Claire, a taller, more curvaceous version of Randi, lay coiled in a tight ball in one corner of the couch, her arms across her stomach, sobbing helplessly. Her current lover Kirk was at the other end, moaning softly, tears streaking his cheeks.

“Only these two?” Flora demanded.

Jenny nodded. “They came home about an hour ago. They were okay then.”

Emily, Jenny's middle daughter, appeared from the direction of the kitchen, and set a plastic pail in front of each of the sufferers. “Claire said a minute ago she thought she was going to throw up,” she explained, at Flora's questioning look, straightening with a hand on her lower back—she was starting to show unmistakable signs of her first pregnancy, the contours of her rounded belly shifting from simply a healthy layer of fat to a pronounced bump. Familiar though that was in the household, it was still new to Emily, and Flora saw her often with a hand resting on it. “Food poisoning, maybe?”

“That would be my guess.” And a logical one; they tried to keep standards a bit higher here, but most sensitives ate whatever they could afford or scrounge, and few knew anything at all about contamination or bacteria. It was a common problem. She crouched in front of Claire, and took her daughter's hand gently. “Claire, honey, what have you eaten today?”

“Breakfast here,” Claire said, between gasping breaths. “With Denise and Trey.”

“I'm okay,” Jenny's eldest Denise said. She had Claire's fourteen-month-old daughter in one arm and her own twenty-one-month son in the other, nursing both, which was keeping them blessedly quiet and distracted from the tension around them. “Just toast and cereal. It wasn't that. And Jon was here for lunch, we all had noodle stuff, so it wasn't that, either.”

Seventeen-year-old Trey, Flora's third child, only nodded silently, hugging his frightened brother Dex and Jenny's youngest Gloria, one with each arm, reassuringly.

“Kirk and I made supper at his place... fries and roast chicken.”

“Chicken?” Emily echoed.

“That's probably it,” Flora said. “These two need to be in the hospital.”

“No!” Kirk protested, his words slurred. “No hosp'l...”

“Would you rather die?”

“I don't want to go to the hospital, Mama,” Claire said brokenly. “Mages...”

“There are no mages there, and they wouldn't want you anyway.” This was not the time to argue, food poisoning could be extremely serious. She'd seen sensitives die before, refusing any kind of medical help, more terrified of being caught by a mage than of anything else. And she had no intention of losing her second daughter, having regained the first.

“No hospital. Not 'less Randi and Van are there.”

Flora seized on that, gratefully. “If Randi and Van take you, will you go? Both of you?”

“'F they come,” Claire agreed.

“Kirk? Will that be okay?”

“Guess,” he mumbled. She chose to believe that he'd dropped a pronoun at the beginning and took it as agreement. Quickly, she rose and headed for the kitchen and the household phone.

There was no answer at Randi's house. Swearing softly under her breath, she tried Randi's cell phone; since there was no answer there either, they must be out at one of the mage events where sensitives couldn't bring or use phones. Not a good time to interrupt, but she heard the miserable sounds of Claire beginning to vomit. Too late for that to be much help.

She called Van's cell phone. She got voicemail, unsurprisingly, but he'd have his on him; she said only, “It's Flora, it's urgent,” and waited impatiently. She grabbed the phone in the middle of the first ring. “Van?”

“What's wrong?” She could hear a lot of noise in the background, though at a bit of a distance. Voices, laughter, music.

“Claire and Kirk are down with food poisoning, bad. They won't go to the hospital without you and Randi.”

“Two minutes to get out of here, maybe ten minutes tops to drive there. We're coming.”

“Thanks.” She hung up, and went back to the living room.

“Well?” Jenny asked.

“Ten minutes or so.”

Jenny nodded, and sent Gloria upstairs to the linen closet to get a couple of facecloths, Dex to the kitchen to fill a large bowl with cool water. Jenny took the pail away herself, presumably to empty it into the toilet and wash it out; safer than having any of the kids doing that job, since it might be possible to pick up the same bacteria if not handled carefully.

Then all they could do was try to make the pair comfortable. One of the three nomads currently staying here, she couldn't think of his name just now, helped Kirk to the bathroom when he insisted he needed to get there immediately. The rest tried to stay out of the way, though none were willing to leave the room unless sent on specific errands. Afraid, Flora thought, and piling together for whatever comfort contact and sharing could bring. Denise stayed where she was, torn between the babies and her fear for Claire. Emily stayed near her, ready to offer a helping hand as needed.

A car pulled up out front, and seconds later rapid footsteps thumped on the tiny porch, then the front door banged open. Flora would have known that sound anywhere: Miranda in a hurry.

Except that what ran into the room looked like a not-quite-five-foot bipedal Siamese cat, clad only in a skimpy halter and long wispy skirt both made out of rather sheer scarlet gauze, tail lashing in agitation through one of the many slits.

Although, on second thought, the lines of her face had been altered only subtly, to contribute to the illusion, and other than the fur and the tail, her body appeared to still be essentially normal, if a bit more curved. Startling, but then, Flora and the rest of the family had spent the occasional night out where Randi lived now, and had seen a little, if nothing quite to this extent.

“Oh, get a grip,” Randi snapped, at the ones who recoiled. “I wasn't about to waste time on shapechanging with Claire sick.” She oriented on the couch, and darted around a couple of the kids to Flora's side. Dex simply looked fascinated as Randi's tail flicked just in front of his fourteen-year-old nose. “How bad?”

“Bad,” Flora said simply. “Kirk's in the bathroom. Claire's hardly even conscious anymore.”

Randi laid a dark-furred hand against Claire's cheek, and glanced up as Van caught up with her. “She's burning up.” Her hand slid down to Claire's throat. “And her pulse is too fast. Claire? Can you hear me?”

The lack of response seemed to frighten Randi as much as it did Flora. She sat back on her heels, tail swishing and occasionally smacking against Flora—the two nomads in the room both looked utterly taken aback and stayed well out of range.

“Hospital?” Van asked. “It's safe, right now.”

“Heal her.”

Van fell back a step, his expression alarmed. “What?” He looked, Flora thought, rather like a sensitive who had just been told how much of the food here came from a mage's garden.

“Heal her! You can do anything except change mass or mind, right? You've fixed things for me before. So fix Claire!”

“Without her consent, I could hurt her bad, you know that, better than anyone! And she's in no condition to give consent!”

“She's in no condition to be hauled out to the car, dragged into emergency, and god knows what when she gets there! I don't know whether she's dying, but I do know that she's suffering a whole lot and that you can make it stop without our having to make it worse by forcing her to move!”

“And then what, tomorrow? It's not that simple!”

Randi stood up and turned around to face Van directly, arms crossed, her jaw set, dark-tipped tail lashing back and forth violently and feline ears flattened. “Van, my sister is hurting, possibly dying, while you stand here throwing bullshit at me. We can deal with the damned consequences. Now do it!”

Neither moved, for what must have been only a few seconds, but felt like a very long time.

“Flora?” Van said finally, much more quietly. “If I can't get Claire's consent, can I at least ask your permission?”

Flora looked down at her semi-conscious, pain-wracked daughter. Well, Van treasured her firstborn and took good care of her. If he could ease Claire's suffering, even save her life, it was worth it. Tomorrow they could think about what it would mean. She nodded. “Please.”

“What?” yelped one of the nomads. “A mage right here is bad enough, but you're going to let him have Claire?”

“Shut up,” Denise snarled. “You don't know what you're talking about.”

“Any more outbursts like that, and you can leave this house,” Jenny said flatly.

“Van's Randi's mage,” Dex agreed loyally. “He's not like the hunters and all.”

“I can't watch this, it's obscene,” the same nomad said in disgust, and walked out, pausing long enough to scoop up his few belongings. No one tried to stop him, even the remaining nomad, who looked distinctly uncertain, but she stayed where she was, well out of reach.

Van crossed the room to the couch, paying no attention to the debate, though Flora knew him well enough by now to know that he noticed it. He dropped to both knees next to Flora, and laid a hand lightly over Claire's.

“Randi, c'mere, I might be able to reduce the chance of damage if I'm pulling most of it through you.”

Randi placed herself behind him without hesitation, hands resting on his shoulders, her tail still now except the very tip.

Utter silence, absolute stillness, none of the watching sensitives daring to move. Flora hoped they were at least remembering to breathe.

Claire stirred, uncoiled from the tight ball, and blinked dazedly at Van and Flora. Van quickly moved his hand away. “Mom? Van?” Her gaze wandering a little higher. “Oh, hi, Randi... am I delirious or are you a cat?”

“I'm a cat right now,” Randi assured her, and stepped around Van to sit on the edge of the couch and hug Claire tight. Claire snuggled into it, heedless of the fur.

“What happened? I was sick, then I felt good, and now I just feel tired and awfully thirsty.”

“Van fixed your food poisoning.”

“Oh. Oh my god, Kirk. Is he okay?”

“We're getting there,” Randi said.

Van sighed. “Randi, at least Claire knows me, and I hope trusts me somewhat. I've only met Kirk a couple of times, rather briefly.”

“Do I look like I care? Somebody go get him.” Dex ran off in the direction of the bathroom.

“And someone get Claire a glass of water,” Jenny added. “Are you okay, honey?”

“Just tired and thirsty,” Claire repeated.

“Why?” Randi asked Van.

“Because I was trying to keep it to bare minimums,” Van said. “I don't think I did any damage, but I didn't want to risk any more than necessary.”

Gloria brought Claire a glass of water, and ran a hand down Randi's arm. Randi smiled at her. “Yeah, it's real fur, Gloria. We were at a mage birthday party. Maya from York House, actually. And I was being Van's perfectly well-behaved pet, 'cause not all of Maya's family are quite as open-minded.”

“Hard to imagine you being obedient,” Gloria giggled.

“Only in mage-space,” Van said.

Kirk stumbled back into the room, supported on both sides; the helpful young nomad gave Van a wary look and faltered, unable to reach the couch without putting himself in arm's length.

Trey slid himself under Kirk's arm and braced him against his side the rest of the way to the couch, easing him down gently next to Claire and in Van's easy reach.

“Since he doesn't have any family present, that we're aware of,” Jenny said, “to give permission, will mine do?”

Van sighed, clearly unhappy with this whole situation and even more so with this aspect of it than he had been over Claire, but nodded, and reached out. Randi freed one hand from hugging Claire, to lay it on Van's shoulder.

A second time, they waited.

Kirk, rather than becoming more coherent, sighed deeply and fell asleep.

“Seemed like a better idea,” Van said, before anyone could ask. “Give him a chance to sleep before you tell him he's had a mage he hardly knows rearranging his energy and body both.”

“I think I need to sleep, too,” Claire said ruefully, and yawned. She hesitated briefly, then leaned forward and gave Van a fleeting kiss. “Thank you.”

Van's eyes widened in surprise, then he smiled; Flora had to hide a grin of her own at the hint of colour that showed along those aristocratic cheekbones. “You're welcome.”

“I promise I'll thank him properly when we get home,” Randi assured Claire, and gave her a last, fierce hug. “You're okay now?”

“Yes. I should have double-checked that the chicken really was safe, instead of taking Kirk's word for it. I suppose he thought it was. I'm sorry you had to come running.”

“Not a problem,” Van said lightly. “I like Maya, and a fair number of Donovans are there, but I have no objection to a break from the rest.”

“But we'd better get back,” Randi said. “The others'll be worried, and some of the other Kalindis might start asking questions. Get some sleep, Claire. I'll come in with Van in the morning.”

“I will,” Claire promised. “And I'll see you tomorrow.”

Due farewells were said, and Van and Randi left, with a final flourish of that dark-tipped tail.

“That was so cool,” Dex said enthusiastically, reminding Flora briefly of his eldest sister. “It's just like Claire and Kirk never got sick.”

“I can't believe a mage just walked into a house with more than a dozen sensitives, healed two sick ones, and walked back out,” the nomad Heather murmured, thoughtfully. “I honestly didn't think you could possibly be telling the truth about all this.”

“You can talk to Randi tomorrow,” Denise said. “She'll answer anything you can think of to ask. Right now, we need to get Claire up to bed. Sorry, Heather, Gil, but I think Kirk gets the couch for tonight.”

Flora watched in approval as Denise got everyone moving, Claire to the room she shared with Denise and the babies, Emily and Gloria to their shared room and Dex to the one he shared with Trey, Trey and the wanderers to clean up and get Kirk settled.

When Claire and Denise and possibly Emily moved out, in a year or two, and had their own house, it was good to know that it would be well-run. And that would mean two established houses in the city, havens for nomads, and places sensitives could learn about the reality of mages.

Well, it was too late to go back to bed now. Content that Claire was being looked after by Denise, she headed upstairs to shower and get dressed before she left for work.


42 – Lila

Lila nuzzled at Catherine's throat, loving the feel of her mage's lithe body trapped under hers against their double bed. Catherine squirmed, made a sound halfway between a whimper and a giggle, and pulled halfheartedly at her pinned wrists. Hm, where were the long silky scarves they'd made... there, draped over the headboard, in easy reach if she decided to tie or blindfold Catherine... or both... She toyed with ideas and possibilities, trying to decide what she felt like doing, and what Catherine's current mood might allow.

Out in the living room, the phone rang.

“Let it ring,” Lila murmured, working her way up to Catherine's ear, enjoying her scent thoroughly.

“No, answer it,” Catherine countered, suddenly serious.

Lila sighed, but she'd learned to trust Catherine's feelings about things. Reluctantly, she moved aside to free her mage, and ran to the living room to grab the phone.


“Lila? It's Jon.” He sounded exhausted; her heart skipped a beat.

“Something's wrong, what happened?”

“I really really need help... I just spent all day on the run.”

“What? But... no, nevermind. Um... let me think. Where are you?”

“Downtown. Couple of blocks from Cornucopia. Payphone.”

Have him come here, or meet him there, Grania wouldn't mind us using the place after hours for a good reason... “Hang on.” Her mage emerged from the bedroom more decorously, twitching her blue and grey dress into place and tucking an escaping lock of hair behind her ear. “Cath? Jonathan's got hunters on his tail, we gotta do something. He's near Cornucopia. What's going to be easiest, in terms of trails and hunters getting pissed?”

“Less trail to cover if we go there,” Catherine said immediately. “We can get him fed and think about what to do next.”

“Right. Jon? Head for Cornucopia, Catherine and I will be there as fast as we can. Don't worry, okay? We're not going to let them have you.”

“I trust you. 'S why I called,” Jonathan said, with a shaky sound that might have been meant as a laugh. “See you there in a bit.”

Lila hung up, and called for a taxi.

“Let's go.”

Catherine nodded, silently, and followed Lila upstairs. The door locked with a click behind them, without wasting time fumbling with keys.

The taxi delivered them to Cornucopia; Lila left Catherine to pay, and hopped out, slowing to a prowl as she neared the building. She found Jonathan on the porch, huddled into a tight ball, hidden by the shadows. He raised his head as she approached, and gave her a crooked smile.


“It'll be okay,” Lila said gently. “There won't be any more, we'll make sure of that. C'mon, let's get you something to eat.” She offered a hand to help him up, which he accepted; she slid an arm around his waist to steady him when he swayed alarmingly, but he caught his balance again.

Catherine paused at the foot of the steps.

“Well?” Lila said. “Come open the door.”

“It isn't you that scares me,” Jonathan added, quietly. “I'm not going to freak out. I know the difference between you and a hunter.”

Catherine nodded, and only then joined them to unlock the door. Only a couple of lights were on, leaving the whole large space in deep twilight.

“Sit and rest,” the mage said briskly. “I'll see what the kitchen has to offer.” She flicked on more lights as she passed them, at the bottom of the stairs. Not all, though; the ones towards the front she left off.

Jonathan obediently sank down on the nearest chair; Lila took the seat at right angles to him, and closed a hand around his.

“Thought you guys said there were no hunters around,” he said wearily, but he squeezed her hand.

“We honestly thought there were none. They usually announce it when they come into a city, and they don't normally move this late in the season anyway. I'm sorry.”

He shrugged. “At least I knew what was going on, and that I could phone for help after dark. And you guys all lived through days of that, without knowing?”

“Yeah, we did, and that's why we want so bad for no one else to have to.” She winced from the memories of exhaustion and terror and hunger, forced them down and away. Not Jonathan, not anymore, at least they could save him from it. Even if there'd been nothing she could do to help Jax.

Silence, for a few minutes, until Catherine came down with a tray to set in front of Jonathan. Lila sneaked a peek, as she let go of his hand: Cornucopia staples, stew that looked and smelled like beef, a couple of slices of bread, a glass of milk and another of water. Jonathan had the water raised to his lips almost before Catherine's hands were off the tray.

“There's more, if you want it, but go slow,” Catherine cautioned, as she took the seat across from Jonathan.

“At least he hasn't been mostly starved for days,” Lila said wryly. “Eat, you'll feel better. And while you do that, Cath and I will try to think of a way to fix this.” Jonathan set the empty glass down, and dug into the stew hungrily.

“Options are rather limited,” Catherine said, her voice gentle. “And what they boil down to is a choice of which mage to belong to. Any of the Donovans you know, or I, could claim you as a second sensitive. Or, in Neely's case, as her only sensitive. Grania or Maya would have some difficulty justifying a third, however. Calum could get away with it, I think. There's a chance of age becoming an issue, since sixteen is rather young to have his own sensitive, but I'm sure his mother Oona and his uncles Nairn and Aiden would be supportive. Whichever mage you prefer, the hunters would lose all claim. Or we could hide you until hunting season is well past, and then you can get out of this domain entirely and take your chances elsewhere. I'm afraid I can't think of anything else.”

“Oblique's friends in Europe and Australia would probably help,” Lila said. “Y'know, these options really suck.”

“At least I have options,” Jonathan retorted, between bites. “Which must be some sort of record for this part of the world.”

“Other than me, it's pretty unique,” Lila conceded. “Anyway, relax, and eat. This isn't something to decide in a couple of minutes.”

He shrugged. “It's just a choice of which mage. There's no way I'm going away and never seeing any of you guys again, and I can't help if I'm not here. Y'know, everybody keeps telling me hunters come in pairs.”

“There weren't two?” Lila thought Catherine wasn't aware how sharp her voice suddenly became.

“Nope. Just one, no older than me.”

Catherine's expression, just for a couple of heartbeats, went flat and unreadable. “I see,” she said slowly. “Well, that goes some way towards explaining hunter presence where there should be none. The senior pair has the novices out practising.”

“Oh, great, I'm somebody's lesson.”

“Were. And the results would have been entirely real in a few more days. I still don't understand why they would switch cities this late in a season, there isn't more than two weeks of good weather left. However, it makes a little more sense.”

There was something more here that Catherine wasn't saying; Lila decided to wait and ask later. Maybe it was something that would scare Jonathan.

For a few minutes, Jonathan concentrated on eating, and the room went quiet. Catherine reached over to close a hand around Lila's, a reminder that there were no hunters chasing her any more, but neither needed to speak, and Jonathan seemed content with the food and the company and the chance to recover.

Finally, though, the bowl having been wiped clean of stew with the bread, milk gone, he stacked everything neatly and ran a hand through his hair.

“Do you have Neely's phone number?”

“Yes,” Catherine said. “Do you want her here?”

Jonathan shrugged, found a crooked grin somewhere. “She said something, when we were at Brennan's house, about it being hard to find a sensitive. How 'bout one who's in trouble?”

Catherine nodded. “I'll call her. That would mean living in Aiden's house for the moment, until Neely passes her Master's exam. Legally speaking, it puts you under Aiden's authority.”

“So? I like Sage and I've met Aiden a few times.”

“All right.” She rose. “Would you like anything else, while I'm up there?”

“Mostly I'm just thirsty now.”

Another nod, and Catherine went back upstairs.

“What's Neely's reaction to this going to be, though?” Jonathan asked.

“Well, most mages operate on the assumption that one sensitive is as good as another. We can be trained and changed at will, according to them. But Neely's grown up with a lot of sensitives who are definitely individuals, so there's not much danger of her thinking like that. On the other hand, they need us, and the Donovan attitude actually gives us a lot of power. We have something they want, and they could take it by force but that isn't as good, and some of them refuse to act that way. Which means they're awfully grateful when we offer. I know Catherine was, and I bet Neely will be.” This is what I get for reading Catherine's books on sociology, she thought ruefully. I sound like a bloody mage.

“Good, 'cause I don't want to live with someone who just sees me as a responsibility. I don't really think Neely would, just...” He sighed.

“You kinda have to learn to see things in a whole new way, when you're around mages lots. Reread that book of Van's, it might help.”

Another sigh. “I lost my backpack somewhere. Can't remember when. It had the copy Van gave me in it.”

“Don't worry about it, we'll get you another one. Hell, there are probably a couple lying around Neely's house. Anyway, mostly it's not so hard to get used to, if you're with a mage who cares.”

“Hope so.”

All things considered—being familiar with mages in general and Neely in particular, having read Van's book, the support of the feral sensitives as well as their mages, a mage who was probably going to treat him like an invaluable treasure as well as an equal—Jonathan was probably going to have the easiest time of adapting to captivity that any sensitive in this part of the world had had in a couple of centuries.

Catherine brought a pitcher of orange juice downstairs with her, and reclaimed her seat. Jonathan immediately filled his water glass and took a gulp.

“Neely's at the pool swimming,” she reported. “Sage is going to track her down and get her here as quickly as possible.”

“What difference is an hour or two going to make?” Lila objected. She nodded towards the corner that held a battered couch and a couple of overstuffed chairs. “Jon could take a nap until then, or something, and we'd still have heaps of time before morning.”

Catherine sighed. “At the risk of frightening both of you, this smells funny. Atypical hunter behaviour, with the target one of the few sensitives who openly spend a great deal of time around the Donovans, makes me extremely nervous. My apologies, Jonathan, and please don't take this in the wrong spirit, but I will feel much happier about this situation once you're safely Neely's and the hunters no longer have any claim at all. Sage agrees, which is why he's going to the pool to find her immediately.”

Lila frowned. “You think it's a trap?”

“I have no idea what to think, given the information that I have. However, it's entirely possible that I'm simply paranoid.”

Not if Sage thought it was important enough to pull Neely out in mid-swim. If Sage had thought Catherine was over-reacting, he'd've left it until Neely came home in her own time.

“Well, that idea of a nap isn't a bad one,” Jonathan said. “I'm worn out.”

“Then go curl up,” Lila told him. “We'll wake you up when Neely gets here.”

He nodded, finished his glass of juice, and refilled it to take with him.

Catherine and Lila remained at the table.

“Well,” Catherine said briskly. “Best we follow all the rules, which means we need a collar. Shall we?”

Lila nodded, offered her hand, and let her eyes close as the now-familiar bliss tingled along every nerve, a lover's hands that knew the right places to touch... no need to look, no need to do anything except relax and be here and trust in Catherine to use their combined gifts.

The sensation faded, and Lila collected herself, opened her eyes to look. Lying on the table was a simple silver-coloured disc threaded on a heavy cord that was two strands, white and black, twisted together with a simple metal clasp. She reached out to pick it up; the disc bore a silver-and-gold-coloured yin-yang symbol on it, which seemed appropriate. The flip side said Neely Donovan, in neat script that looked a lot like Catherine's handwriting, with a blank space below it.

“There, one more detail taken care of,” Catherine said in satisfaction. “Now we just need Neely herself.”

“She'll be here soon. Can you see her passing up a chance at a willing sensitive?” Lila joked, then sobered. “Nah, she knows Jon too well to be willing to let hunters have him, at any cost.”

They waited, quietly, Lila toying absently with the new collar. Officially, a mark of slavery and helplessness. To the feral sensitives, a much more complex kind of symbol, involving freedom from hunger and cold and fear, submission to the laws of mage society, loyalty to and trust in one particular mage.


43 – Lila

A car pulled up, into the small space beside Cornucopia, and a moment later they heard feet on the steps. A key rattled in the lock, and the first person Lila saw was Sage, in the female version of her everyday blonde form. Neely was the first one in the door, though, pushing past her and crossing the room with long swift strides. Her hair was still wet, and her T-shirt and jeans looked to have been thrown on in a hurry. Was Sage currently female purely by chance, or because it had been easier to reach Neely?

“Where's Jonathan?” Neely demanded.

Lila nodded towards the couch; Neely's entrance, or maybe the car, had woken him already. He stretched carefully, winced, and twisted around so he was sitting up. Neely strode over, but stopped behind one of the chairs across from him, her fingers digging hard into the worn brown upholstery of its back. “Are you okay? You aren't hurt or anything? How early did they find you?”

“Ease up, Neely,” Sage said, moving out of the way to let Aiden enter behind her, then locking the door again.

Neely gave her an irritable look, and turned her attention back to Jonathan.

“I'm okay,” he assured her. “I was just hungry and tired. And extremely thirsty. And kinda scared.”

“Only kind of?” Sage said. Catherine and Lila abandoned the table in favour of joining the others in the corner; Lila grabbed the pitcher of juice and the new collar to take over.

Jonathan shrugged, refilling his glass. “I figured out what was going on pretty quick. And that I only had to keep going until dark, so I could call. That's not so bad, I guess.” Sage and Lila took the spots on the couch to either side of him, leaving the chairs to the mages; Neely stayed where she was, behind the chair Catherine chose, shifting her weight from one foot to the other uncertainly. It was a good thing she kept her nails short, or they'd be breaking under the pressure she was putting against the back of the chair.

“True,” Sage conceded. “Comparatively, not bad at all, but in absolute terms, no picnic. But it's over now, we're not going to let them have you.”

“I know.” He smiled at Neely, and it was only slightly shaky. “Think you can put up with me?”

She stepped around the chair and the circular coffee table in the centre, to drop to her knees in front of him, her eyes searching his. “You're sure about this?”

“As sure as I am of anything right now.” Shyly, he offered a hand; after a pause of a couple of heartbeats, Neely closed hers over it. Both, Lila observed, were trembling.

“I'll keep you safe from them,” she promised. Something in her voice made Lila think of Catherine when she'd offered to stay and help her pass; she smiled at Catherine, and her mage smiled back, obviously thinking much the same.

“Under any other circumstances,” Sage said, “it would be awesome if we could just take you home and let you two work things out in your own time. But all things considered, I think you'd better make absolutely sure there are no loopholes, Neely.”

“Which means a collar and my signature on his aura?” Neely said, doubtfully, letting go, but staying close. “But what if I hurt him?”

“You won't,” Jonathan said. “You've had Sage and Aiden teaching you, haven't you?”

“I suppose.”

“I trust you.”

Slowly, Neely nodded. “I definitely don't want any possibility at all that they can take you.”

Lila held out the yin-yang necklace to Neely. “Brand new, Cath and I just made it while Jon took a nap.”

That got them startled looks from Aiden, Sage, and Neely. “You made that much metal?” Aiden echoed. “I'm impressed.” He sounded like he meant it.

Catherine simply shrugged, but Lila spotted just a hint of colour in her cheeks. It was nice to be somewhere Catherine's talents were appreciated.

Neely accepted it, and looked at the back of the tag. “No name,” she observed. “We'll have to come up with one soon.”

“As long as your name is on it, it's legal,” Sage said.

Jonathan gave Neely an expectant look, but Lila saw him shiver when the mage leaned forward to fasten it around his neck for him. It was a frightening moment for any sensitive, being claimed as property forever, whether you chose or were forced. Your mage might be one of the ones who treated you as an equal and granted you as much freedom as possible... but the awareness always lingered on some level that it was a gift rather than a right, your mage's choice, that it could be taken away, and that there were limits on that freedom. Love and trust, no matter how strong, couldn't change that.

Lila tore her gaze away from Jonathan and Neely, found a sympathetic ache in her own mage's blue eyes, and had to smile again. Okay, so love and trust didn't take away the power the mages had. But they were enough to make some mages use it to protect, not to own.

“Thanks,” Jonathan said, softly.

Neely smiled, and gave him a fleeting kiss. “Thanks for trusting me,” she answered, no more loudly. She sat up straight, though still on her knees in front of him, and her tone turned practical. “Okay. Magic stuff.”

“Wouldn't shapechanging be the most proof?” Jonathan asked.

“It would,” Aiden admitted. “But strictly speaking, as long as Neely actually draws power through you, it'll leave her signature visible on your aura to other mages, and that's been considered an automatic and indisputable claim for as long as anyone knows.”

“So anything at all will work,” Neely mused. “As long as it's enough to leave my signature extremely clear.” She held out her hand, and Jonathan accepted it without hesitation. “If you tell me to stop, I will.”

He nodded. “I've watched Lila and Randi and half the others go all blissed out I don't know how many times, I'm not all that scared.” His grin came back, almost its usual self. “I'm kinda curious.”

Lila glanced past him at Sage, and shared a grin of their own.

“Okay.” Neely's hand tightened visibly, and she closed her eyes, her expression betraying absolute concentration.

The exact second she made contact was extremely obvious: Jonathan made a soft pleasure-sound, and all the tension-knotted muscles loosened, his eyes closing as he sagged against the back of the couch.

Sage laughed softly, and glanced at her mage, who smiled.

Neely stayed motionless, doing nothing anyone else could see, for a long few moments; no one made any effort to hurry her.

“I can't fix being tired,” she said finally, not opening her eyes. “But I can fix a bunch of bruises and strained muscles and such, if I'm allowed to.”

Jonathan made a noise that sounded like an affirmative, without moving.

Another pause, and she reported, “All done. But that didn't really take all that much. Hm. Open your eyes?”

“As long as you don't make me move or stop doing that.” He obeyed, either missed or ignored the chortle Lila tried to stifle.

The room rippled, like a reflection on water, and stabilized again at an outdoor scene. Lila frowned, recognized it after a moment as the back yard of Brennan's house, not far from the garden, with a sunny blue sky above. For some reason, that made Jonathan laugh.

Catherine regarded Jonathan thoughtfully. “Keep going. That's fairly clear, but a bit more would be better.”

Another ripple, this time to Brennan's living room, wrapping around them warm and twilight.

“That should do it,” Aiden said. “I don't believe anyone could argue with that.”

Neely nodded acknowledgement, and a moment later, released Jonathan's hand. He blinked, looked vaguely disappointed.

“Take it easy,” Sage said, amused. “It's like a new kind of exercise, and it's perfectly possible to do the equivalent of pulled muscles and tendons.”

“I guess. Whoa. Suddenly I think I understand an awful lot I didn't.”

This is how it should be, Lila thought. Well, except for Jonathan being forced to choose right now. This is what Randi wants so bad for her brothers.

I hope it wasn't too awful for Jax, the first time.

She hugged Jonathan, tightly. “Welcome to the family.”

“Hey, cool, that means I can come play with the sexy girls.” He snuggled into the hug; she could feel him still shaking a little, but otherwise, he seemed to be fine.

Sage chuckled. “It's getting a bit late in the year for swimming in the lake, but I imagine we'll have to have at least a family barbecue sometime soon. I'll call Azure when we get home, he and Rich can plan it. Congratulations, you're now perfectly safe, by mage law no mage other than Neely can touch you, except Aiden if he has a damned good reason while Neely's part of his household.”

Catherine stood up, and picked up the pitcher of juice. “Oblique will be none too happy with us if we leave a mess here for her to clean up in the morning.”

“Under the circumstances, she'd forgive us,” Sage said. “But since we can, we should.” She fetched the tray, and went upstairs with Catherine.

“Shouldn't take them long,” Aiden commented. “Hm. A three-bedroom house seemed like more than enough for Sage and I, at one point. It seems we're going to have to do some thinking about arrangements, since I'm not going to have you sleeping on the couch. And we need to go shopping for clothes and such.”

“Do you like motorcycles?” Neely asked hopefully.

Jonathan shrugged. “Never been on one, but it sounds fun.”

“Awesome. We need to get another helmet and a proper jacket, too, Aiden.”

“Of course,” Aiden said. “This is one of those special occasions when I don't feel at all guilty about using every possible source of money to cover it. You'll have to come up with a name, too, and we'll have it engraved.”

“Hope,” Lila said, without thinking.

Neely smiled, but stayed silent, only gave Jonathan a questioning look.

He laughed. “Hard to think of myself as anybody's hope of anything.”

“You are,” Neely assured him quickly, and lowered her eyes, blushing. “I, um, was kind of hoping, since out at Brennan's house. Maybe even before then, but that's when I realized it. I just wish they hadn't cornered you like this. I was going to wait and just sort of hang around. I think Oblique knew that,” she added, as an afterthought. “She knows everything.”

Jonathan's eyes widened, startled. “Me?”

The blush deepened. Lila looked from one to the other, glanced at Aiden, and they both got up and went across the room, to let Neely and Jonathan talk alone.

“Not that I think they care,” Aiden murmured. “Or remember that there's anyone else around, at the moment. Hope would be perfect, since this is exactly what we're hoping will become normal.”

“Without the being chased all day,” Lila amended, hopping up to sit on a table. “Did you know Neely was thinking...?”

“I had no idea. As far as I know, no one did, except Neely, and she's probably right about Oblique figuring it out. It's a pleasant thought that given a bit more time, they might have ended up together anyway, purely because they both chose.”

“Oh yeah.” Not so hard to imagine, really, and promising for the future.

Catherine and Sage came back downstairs, Sage pausing to flick off the lights, turning the room back to twilight.

“Did you call a cab?” Lila asked.

Catherine nodded. “It'll be here soon.” She looked at the new pair, and smiled. “Think we can get their attention?”

“Hey, you two!” Sage said, more loudly. “Do you think you can join the rest of us, so we can all go home?”

Both started slightly, but Neely rose, in one smooth gesture, and Jonathan only a heartbeat behind.

“What about your bike?” Lila asked Neely.

She looked torn. “I should probably go get it, but...”

“We can detour that way,” Aiden said firmly. “It won't be safe in the parking lot overnight, and nothing's going to happen to Jonathan while he's in a car with Sage and I.” He shooed everyone out, and Catherine locked the door. The small porch was crowded with six; Neely and Jonathan went down the steps, Lila just behind them.

“Oh shit,” Neely whispered, and stepped in front of Jonathan, protecting him behind her own body.

Leaning against Aiden's car, half-visible in the shadows at the side of the building, were two people. Mages, instinct screamed.

Lila licked her lips, found her voice on the second try. “My Lady? We have... visitors.”

Catherine and Aiden came at, well, not quite a run, but certainly in a hurry, with Sage half a stride behind Aiden and close enough to touch.

“Victoria,” Catherine said, her voice absolutely neutral. Lila inched back a bit so she was within her mage's reach.

“Catherine,” the elder mage acknowledged, with a nod. “This city seems to suit you well, even without family present.”

“I prefer it here.”

“Aiden, and... Neely, I believe.” She favoured each with a nod. “My student, Felipe Santiago.” She gestured, and the younger hunter nodded silently.

“Is there something we can do for you?” Aiden asked.

“You could give me back the sensitive Felipe chose to hunt.”

“We can't do that,” Catherine said. “He's Neely's. Sorry.”

Victoria, who looked no more like Catherine than any other mage but carried herself with something of the same bearing, sighed, regarding them in what might have been disappointment. “I didn't believe Elena, before now. She's been telling us over and over that the Donovan family and their supporters are attempting to undermine mage society in general and hunters in particular. It sounded rather paranoid, and between us, she is prone to taking things excessively personally and exaggerating them. Given that you've chosen to interfere with the lawful hunt of an unclaimed sensitive, I'm afraid I'm forced to wonder whether she might not be right this time.”

Oh no, not good...

“I suppose there's no way you would have known,” Aiden said calmly. “You haven't been around recently, and even if you had, it's not the sort of thing we wanted to announce to mage society in general. Neely's had her eye on this one for a while now—Van suggested it, actually, as a compatible combination of personalities. As an experiment, Van being forever curious about such things, Neely agreed to be patient so we, or rather Van, could find out what happens when a sensitive is exposed to mages gradually and is claimed without the usual initial trauma. Felipe's choice, purely at random I'm sure, has made it necessary for us to either speed matters up quite a lot, or start over and hope for another sensitive with potential.”

Lila thought that was a fairly impressive line of bullshit, the kind of distorted truth the Donovans were so good at. And he'd even managed to suggest, without saying it, that he knew what she wasn't saying.

“I see,” Victoria said. “And there's no chance that you'll change your mind, Neely? As a gesture of goodwill?”

“No,” Neely said flatly, with a perceptible hint of growl to it. “He's mine.”

Aiden shrugged. “I'm sorry, Victoria, but I see no justification for overruling her.”

Slowly, Victoria nodded. “I see,” she repeated. “I can see the collar from here, and he's obviously showing your signature, Neely, so I suppose Felipe will simply have to start over tomorrow. Have a good night, all of you.” She moved away from the car, and Felipe fell into step beside her.

Lila made it to Jonathan in about two strides, a heartbeat before Sage; she wrapped both arms around him, and Sage wrapped hers around them both, with Jonathan safe in the middle. He needed it: he was trembling, badly.

“It's okay,” Lila said, softly so it wouldn't carry. “See? They don't dare break their own laws.”

Our mages have to twist the truth a lot, to keep us safe,” Sage said, her voice just as low. “It takes some getting used to, to believe that it honestly is twisted and not the way things really are.”

“I'm all right,” Jonathan said shakily. “It just...” He trailed off.

“I know,” Lila said. “But Neely won't let anything happen to you. And there's one huge advantage to a whole family like the Donovans, over one pair alone: all the mages will protect each other's sensitives, too.” Carefully, she let go, felt Sage's hold loosen as well.

“They're gone,” Aiden said. “Well. It appears you were right, Catherine.”

“I know hunters,” Catherine said, with a bitter edge to her voice that Lila hadn't heard in a long time. “They wanted me to be one.”

“Now that,” Sage said, “is a genuinely terrifying thought. I feel much better having you on our side.”

Lila left Jonathan to Sage; Catherine obviously needed a hug, too. So, she gave her one. “Me too, what Sage said.” Catherine hugged her back, with a fierceness that left Lila a bit breathless, but that was okay.

“Amen,” Aiden agreed. “For the moment, the crisis is over, and life goes on. So far, we've weathered this one rather well.”

Catherine nodded, briskly, letting go of Lila. “Our cab should be along any time, and you look like you're about to fall over, Jonathan.”

There was a brief tangle of good-nights, and the other four piled into the car and departed.

Lila sank down on the steps, in the sudden quiet. “Whoa. What a night. And all I intended to do all evening was ravish you.”

Catherine joined her, a step below, leaning against her. “We have plenty of nights for that. Every night, always.”

“Yeah. I know, and I'm glad.” A sudden thought made her smile. “Oh, man, I hope Sage makes sure Jon is in her bed. The last thing the poor boy needs is the shock of waking up next to a mage when he isn't used to it.”

“Sage will take care of it, I'm sure.”

Finally, a taxi pulled up to the curb in front of them, to take them home.


44 – Elena

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

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

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

“Thanks heaps. Now tell her that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Patient? You've got to be kidding.”

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

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

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

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

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


45 – Van

No wonder most mages don't bother to work, Van thought irritably. If you took all these damned gatherings seriously, they'd amount to a full-time job and you wouldn't have time for anything else. Skipping most of them is about all you can do... but all we need right now is to piss off the hunters even more by not coming to one with them as guests of honour, since Victoria decided finally to announce their presence.

“Pride? Get me a drink.” He handed her his empty wine-glass. He'd best make this one last, he'd be no use to anyone if his mind weren't clear. He and Catherine and Brennan had spent time dutifully circulating through the main room of the mage-hall, including greeting Victoria and her protégé, but they'd drifted together. Shared misery, Van though wryly. None of them wanted to be here.

Randi bounced to her feet instantly from her usual position kneeling beside his chair, nodded, and left in search of whoever was serving. Being a mouse suited her, Van decided—she had the same quick energy as Lila's beloved tiny pets, though her colouring was that of a wild mouse, reddish-brown back and white belly and extremities, darker stripe all the way down her spine to the end of her tail.

For reasons known only to themselves, the feral sensitives looked rather like a decent representative sample of local small mammalian wildlife tonight. Oblique made an extremely regal skunk, her white-striped black tail held in an elegant curve as she knelt at Brennan's side; Lila, at Catherine's, was the world's most sensual raccoon. So far, he'd spotted Azure as a black squirrel and Rich as a lynx, Unity as a rather adorable tawny cottontail and Maya Kalindi's Karma as a beaver. A show of solidarity, maybe, a hint that they'd stand together?

No sign of Aiden and Neely yet, though. He hoped they'd come soon; he was sure Jonathan was all right, but he hadn't seen him since before the events a couple of nights ago. Or would Neely even bring him? Seventy-two hours was, under normal circumstances, unthinkably fast to bring a new sensitive to a public gathering, and Jonathan could probably use a bit more time to adapt.

Of all the family, Aiden and Neely and Catherine most needed to be here tonight, themselves and their sensitives all on best behaviour.

Catherine took a sip of her wine, decorous as ever outwardly, but Van knew her well enough by now to know it was a mask. “Did you get your garden entirely ready for next year yet, Bren?” she asked, the previous subject—minor news about a Donovan cousin who had revealed tonight that she was pregnant—having been thoroughly exhausted. There was so little they could talk about in mage-space, easily overheard.

Brennan nodded. “There are a few things I'm going to plant that'll be new to me, but it's worth a shot. I'm still going with the basics I've been doing, potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, tomatoes, and all, but I'm going to plant a few watermelons, and try for some strawberries.”

Translation: Randi adored both and had talked him into it.

“Along with broccoli and cauliflower, and different varieties of the things I've been growing all along.”

Randi returned, gave Van a new glass of wine, and resumed her position.

“I didn't realize until this summer how great a difference it honestly is, between vegetables from the store and vegetables fresh from the garden. I think you have me spoiled, I'm never going to want to go back to cooking with commercial vegetables again.”

“Then I'll do my best to make certain you have plenty of them.”

“There's Aiden,” Van said, since he was the only one at an angle to see the door clearly. Catherine and Brennan both turned to look.

Neely was beside him, half a step behind, perfectly proper for a mage not yet a Master when accompanying the head of her household. Van noticed something subtly different about the way she was moving, and realized that she was keeping her weight forward just slightly, on the balls of her feet, every motion carefully controlled, and her gaze never stopped flicking across the immediate area measuringly. Expecting trouble? Even her clothes looked like she'd chosen them with that in mind, though her black dress pants and snug green top looked formal enough to pass, especially given the touches of jewellery and her hair being loose.

There were definitely two bodies behind them, but Van couldn't make out details beyond a flash of gleaming russet fur until they'd come farther into the room.

Sage, always striking, had chosen red fox, or rather red vixen, hands black to mid-forearm and legs to mid-thigh, the shape of the white stripe down her belly drawing attention to the curves of her body—all visible, under the briefest possible black halter and loincloth.

The chipmunk at her side was less spectacular only in comparison to Sage. Judging from the way his tail kept twitching, he wasn't quite sufficiently accustomed to shapechanging to feel comfortable with it yet—not that anyone could have really expected otherwise. The black and white cord around his neck was bright against his sleek striped fur; his black shorts must have had an opening at the back to allow for his tail. Neely had done a really wonderful job, Van thought, catching every subtle shading of a chipmunk's markings. That must have taken hours, even given that Sage had probably volunteered a long time ago to help her learn shapechanging before she needed to use it on an inexperienced sensitive.

“Already?” Brennan murmured, frowning slightly.

“Looks like you get to see the results of that experiment right now, Van,” Catherine said brightly. “The initial results, at least. I'm sure there are a number of people who would like to hear what conclusions you reach.”

Van had little doubt that he could spin something that a hunter would accept, but the time to think was nice. Hm, point out how little time it's been, and the obvious success...

Neely nodded in their direction, and the newcomers wove their way through the room, pausing to greet various people casually, Kerry and Maya for longer.

“Glad you could make it,” Brennan said dryly. “We were wondering where you were.”

Aiden shrugged, pulled another chair over. “We were running a bit behind. You should worry less, it's not good for you. See, we're here.”

Catherine moved sideways to leave room for Neely between her and Van, which put a wall almost directly behind; Neely dragged another chair into the circle and sat, leaving Jonathan to follow Sage's lead and kneel. Oblique looked up just enough to catch Jonathan's eye and wink at him; Van couldn't see what Randi or Lila did, but it was a given that each would find a way of greeting him as well. Any mage who bothered to pay attention knew that sensitives had developed their own subtle form of communication, right in front of their mages.

“So all's going well?” Catherine asked.

“Pride, go get two more glasses of wine,” Van said. She rose and immediately went in the direction of the kitchen.

“All goes very well,” Neely confirmed, some of the wariness fading into a hint of a smile, as she reached down to run her fingers over Jonathan's short fur. He shifted just enough to rub against her hand, but kept his eyes down. Sage must have had a long talk with him about how to behave, right? Surely there was no way Sage or Aiden would let this happen otherwise. The leeway the thirty days law allowed for a new sensitive was going to be considerably less under these conditions, and small slips that would otherwise be overlooked would be judged ruthlessly. And unlike in Randi's case, there'd been no time for a practice run.

“That I'm very glad to hear,” Van said.

“I'll take that to mean that the whole experiment is working?” Catherine said. “Victoria already mentioned to me that she's looking forward to hearing about it. Did you decide on a name, yet?”

“I decided I like Chance.”

Or Jon did.

“As for conclusions... sorry you got left out the other night, Van, but we were in rather a hurry. You'll just have to make do with untrained observations from then, and your own now.”

“I can do a lot with that,” Van said. “I already talked to Catherine about it.” And Lila. “So everything's working okay?” C'mon, guys, you got me into this position to buy time, give me the information to get us all out of it...

“Incredibly so,” Aiden confirmed. “We've been completely spared the usual hysterics, along with all the normal testing of limits, and we haven't had to hide the frying pans.” Van barely managed to keep a straight face at that one, but he heard an almost inaudible noise from Lila's general direction; Catherine nudged her with one foot, her own expression still betraying nothing save courteous interest. “It's quite a pleasant change, having a new sensitive around who doesn't cringe every time a mage walks in the room, and who tries to do what will make Neely happy.”

“A sufficiently intimidated and cowed sensitive will do that too,” Catherine pointed out. She's playing devil's advocate, Van thought, bringing up the points she thinks Victoria will.

“Granted, but in less than three days, with no time wasted on waiting while he recovers from exhaustion and hunter basic training?”

Van wondered, briefly, how Jonathan was handling this discussion, but he looked remarkably relaxed, much of the earlier tension fading. Maybe Sage had warned him about this, too. Or maybe it was being shielded from the room by four familiar and trusted pairs. “Well,” Brennan said, “I believe I'm going to circulate a bit and catch up on news from the, oh, all of ten days since the last gathering. We can't have it said that we're unfriendly to the other families, can we?”

Aiden glanced at Neely, then at Catherine, and nodded slowly. “I believe I'll come with you, I've been meaning to catch Lars to ask him about an investment he suggested I make.”

“I'll stay here with Van and Catherine,” Neely said. “I'm sure Van has plenty of questions, anyway.”

Aiden simply nodded again, and he and Brennan left, along with their sensitives.

Had Neely not understood how precarious their situation was with the hunters and how easily any wrong word could be overheard here, Van very much doubted she'd have cooperated with discussing Jonathan as though he weren't present. As it was, she did her best. Much of it Van could have predicted, but the sheer speed and ease with which Jonathan was adapting impressed him. The conversation was interrupted occasionally by mages pausing to say hello and, in some cases, congratulate Neely on having her first sensitive.

“Oh, you did come, Neely,” Victoria said, resting both hands on the back of an empty chair. Strong hands, at that, nails cut functionally short, much like her grey and white hair, and the body beneath her elegant blue silk pant suit was hard and lean. Still, he could see what Lila had meant when she'd described the hunter as moving like Catherine. “You must be feeling very confident, to bring such a new sensitive to a gathering of so many mages.”

“Since I have no reason at all to doubt that Chance will behave as he should, it seemed proper to bring him with me,” Neely said, with just the faintest trace of ice in her voice.

“You're that certain? This experiment must have been a good one.” She moved around the chair and sat down, gave Van a questioning look. “Your professional opinion?”

'I'd have to call it an unqualified success,” Van said. “In roughly seventy-two hours, without having had to wait while he recovers from exhaustion and shock, Neely has a sensitive she can use magically and shapechange at will without causing hysterics and who is sufficiently well-behaved that she feels safe bringing him here—with Aiden's approval, of course. There've been none of the small rebellions and resentment, not even the inconvenience that arises when a sensitive obeys his own mage but panics in the presence of any other. Neely doesn't have to keep threatening or reprimanding him, because he's trying on his own to do what will make her happy.”

“But how long will that continue?” Victoria looked honestly intrigued, if a bit sceptical; Van found that rather alarming. “Without the consequences of improper behaviour or disobedience having been demonstrated initially, what's to keep him from deciding that he no longer needs to obey? Once the thirty-days grace is over, Neely will be entirely responsible for the behaviour of a sensitive who obeys out of nothing more than choice and habit.”

“I'd say they... he is well on the way to bonding.” He cursed himself for the slip, saw Victoria's eyebrows go up but she made no comment. “It's been a Donovan belief for a long time that fear isn't necessary for an obedient sensitive, that their own nature makes them seek approval from the mage they've bonded to and that they will do whatever they have to, in order to gain that.” Too true, and too easy to abuse. “We've had no opportunity to test that in full before.”

“Hm, yes, even a sensitive you caught personally would have experienced at least some of that fear, which would make it impossible to be certain. In this case, I'm afraid we may have spoiled your results.”

“Not really. Knowing what hunters are and what was happening, and with the hope that we'd intervene, he seems to have gotten through that day with minimal trauma. But if nothing else, it's considerably less than in any other case so far.”

“True. So it will simply be a matter of time, to see whether the Donovan philosophy is in fact accurate. In this one instance, at least. One is hardly a fair representative sample.”

“Oh, we're planning to try it a few more times,” Catherine interjected. “There are a few rather promising sensitives who have been frequenting Cornucopia. For it to work properly, it needs to be a mage they're familiar with, so we'll need to bring a few more of the younger Donovans into the experiment and encourage them to spend time where the sensitives can grow accustomed to them.”

“Fascinating. But it's been accepted doctrine for decades that a sensitive bonds most strongly when vulnerable, which is of course why we make certain they're exhausted, hungry, and frightened. They attach themselves immediately to the first mage who feeds and shelters them.”

“I'm not convinced it's strictly necessary,” Van said. “It seems to make the bonding process happen more quickly, but I suspect that in the long run, it's simply time and trust that build the most intense bonds. But, again, it's something I haven't had the opportunity to test yet. At this point, I'm only extrapolating from what I do know.”

“The way free sensitives live, they're usually already hungry and vulnerable,” Neely said. “They mostly don't have homes or jobs, they just live scared waiting to be caught or to die. It's probably redundant to make it any worse by running them.” Judging from the undertone of resentment, Van guessed she'd been asking Jonathan about his life.

Victoria nodded slowly. “A valid point, granted, and one I've been considering myself, in a way. We obviously need a stable population, and I'm not convinced we have one any longer. I've been following this whole matter of feeding them and providing shelter, and in ways, I think it may prove to be more efficient than the reservations currently being discussed. A reservation requires a great deal of land, a great deal of expense to construct, the effort of keeping it concealed from mundanes, and the necessity of mages being present at all times to supervise. What you've been doing is considerably simpler, and I'm waiting to see how effective it is. If it works, I intend to suggest it in other cities, as well.”

Van and Neely both stared at her outright; Lila and Randi both started. Catherine only smiled.

“It's effective,” she said, with absolute certainty. “And it will be more so, as more take the chance of coming.”

“I'm looking forward to the results. Of all your experiments. I've read your book, Van, I must say I'm impressed, although there are a few points I'd like a chance one day to discuss, since they don't entirely mesh with my own observations.”

“Any time,” Van said, shaking off his shock.

“Good. But, I think, this is enough on the subject for the present.” She rose. “Good luck, Neely.”

“Thank you,” Neely said numbly, and Victoria walked away.

“A hunter just expressed tolerance of my book and of Cornucopia and York House?” Van hissed to Catherine. “What the hell...?”

“Obviously you haven't spent much time around Victoria,” Catherine said. “She believes as wholeheartedly in keeping the traditions as you believe in changing them, but she isn't a sociopath like Elena.”

“I tend to avoid getting into conversations with hunters on the subject of sensitives. Or much else, whenever possible. Besides, Elena and Brock seem to be the ones around here all the time.”

“Well, Victoria will seriously consider anything she encounters, if only to decide how much of a threat it is and how best to refute it. That doesn't, however, make her any less dangerous.”

“I'd take an opponent who's angry any day, over one who actually thinks calmly,” Neely said. “Anger clouds your judgement and creates a vulnerable point.”

Catherine gave her a warm smile. “Exactly. However, I believe I can handle Victoria, as long as she's only curious and questioning. Which, thanks to Van's skills, she is. If she ever comes to believe what Elena's been telling her, we're in a lot of trouble.”

Van sighed. “I suppose we should mingle, now that we've done our duty to the hunter.”


Randi followed obediently when Van stood up and walked away.


46 – Van

Van kept half an eye on Neely, for a while; they didn't need a scene if she got protective over a comment, innocent or malicious. He soon realized that she was deliberately staying near Catherine, which was interesting. He'd known for some time that Neely admired and respected her, but he would have guessed she'd stay close to Aiden. Well, either way, he didn't need to worry about her, and he could immerse himself in his public persona, feigning sincere interest, as he had over and over to the same people ever since he was old enough to attend these things. Which wasn't to say he didn't scan the room for the two women, now and then.

“Pride?” He glanced around for her, found her exactly where she should be, kneeling beside his chair, her tail tucked neatly close out of harm's way. It had been a long day at work, and these gatherings were tiring. It was a relief to be able to simply trust her to keep them both out of trouble. “See if you can find me something to drink that isn't wine or otherwise alcoholic. Preferably coffee.” There should be; not all mages wanted wine, and those who needed to be able to drive were likely to choose non-alcoholic drinks, cold or hot.

“Yes, my Lord.” He didn't think anyone else would hear the sympathy in her voice, just before she hastened off.

“Tiny little thing,” commented Indra Kalindi with whom Van had been discussing meditation techniques. “She obeys well, for not having been around long.”

“She tries hard to make me happy,” Van said simply, and left it at that. Randi returned, carefully holding steady a rather large mug, as she wove her way through the room to his side. “Oh, thank you,” he said sincerely.

“My duty and my pleasure, my Lord,” she said innocently, and knelt again, wrapping her tail around her.

Bold chocolate and cream stripes against honey fur caught his eye: Jonathan, on his way to the kitchen, with a silver tray bearing a delicate porcelain teapot and its matched accessories. Alone, this time, without his raccoon escort from the first trip. Van knew both Catherine and Neely had limited taste for alcohol, so he was probably off to get more tea for them.

Van watched for him, and before very long, he came back into sight, still with the tray but carrying it now with care for weight and spills.

Victoria's protégé Felipe detached himself casually from the group with whom he'd been chatting, and approached him.

Randi darted to her feet and wove her way through the intervening bodies, before Van even had time to set down his cup on the nearest table and rise. He glanced to where he'd last seen Catherine and Neely, saw Lila all but running and ignored by most of the mages, and the two mages some way behind her—though Neely not by much. Jonathan backed away a couple of steps, tail twitching spasmodically, all too obviously uncertain what to do or how to respond to whatever Felipe was saying, wincing from the stronger gestures.

While Randi was still ten feet away and Van half again that, one of Felipe's gestures, or maybe his steadily rising voice, alarmed Jonathan into cringing away and falling back another step; the tray fell, though he snatched desperately for it—but it stopped in mid-air and steadied itself, having dropped only a few inches.

Felipe took two long strides forward and grabbed his upper arm.

Jonathan folded completely, all the self-possession he'd shown at Neely's side deserting him. Some mages he might be comfortable around, but this one's intentions were obviously no better now than they had been during a day of chasing him. There was more panic than reason in his attempt to get free, and possibly pain as well, given how tightly Felipe's fingers looked to be dug in under the sleek fur.

The tray finally hit the ground, as whoever was holding it, probably Catherine, abandoned it. Porcelain shattered, spreading tea, sugar, and milk liberally around the floor. The sound drew the attention of virtually the entire room, rather than just a few nearby who were watching in shock.

Neely's hand slammed upward, just below Felipe's armpit, and he yelped and let go, shaking his arm. Furiously, he threw a punch at her with his left hand; she stepped sideways, seized it, twisted, and in about half a second, had him face-down on the floor with her arm across his throat and her knee on his back. That didn't look like a healthy position for Felipe at all.

“Mine,” she snarled. “He's mine!”

Randi and Lila reached Jonathan, almost simultaneously, pulling him back farther from the fight—not that it really was much of one, it being rather clear who was in control. Van picked his way around the sugar and porcelain.

“Neely, let him go.”

“He had his hands on my sensitive!” Van couldn't recall ever seeing Neely lose control before; she was energetic and outspoken, granted, and too impulsive at times, but the sudden rage and violence were rather disconcerting, and probably as horrifying to those watching as Felipe's breaking a fundamental law. Familiar, though, he'd felt much the same, not many months ago.

“Let go now. Chance is safe, he's with Pride and Sable.”

“No. He'll just try again. I'm going to make sure he doesn't.” Her arm tightened, and Felipe made a gargling noise, straining against her; she eased up, and he sucked in a long gasping breath. “I should fucking kill you. I could do it right here, just hold on a little longer, so you black out completely instead of just enough to get your attention, and then a little longer than that. And the world would be rid of you. I'd be rid of you.”

“And right now, under the circumstances, you'd be forgiven for it,” Catherine admitted, tucking her skirt around her so she could squat near Neely. “But would you forgive yourself for using your skills to kill when you've already disabled the threat?”

When did Catherine learn about ju-jitsu philosophy?

“He could be a threat again. I don't want to have to worry about Chance every time he's out of my sight. I definitely won't forgive myself if this ever touches Chance again.”

“He will not interfere with you or your sensitive again,” Victoria said firmly. “I saw Felipe holding Chance, and he is under my authority, with no need to go through the local council. I will personally see to it that he faces the appropriate consequences of a hunter breaking one of the laws we're responsible for enforcing.” She winced in sympathy as Neely tightened her arm again. “Although I'm not sure how I'm going to devise any punishment that will stay in his mind longer than this will.”

Neely looked up at Victoria, measuringly, then glanced at Catherine. “You believe her?”

Catherine nodded, without hesitation.

Slowly, Neely released the pressure across Felipe's throat and stood up. She was shaking, Van noticed. “Where's Chance?”

“This way.” Careful not to touch her, Van urged her towards her sensitive; Catherine fell into step on Neely's other side, protectively.

Lila and Randi had hauled Jonathan back behind everyone, near a wall, and had probably had to make him sit; he was shivering at least as badly as Neely. But he came to her instantly when she held out her hand, and Van didn't think it was simply obedience. She wrapped both arms around him, hugging him close, snuggling into his hold.

“You're okay?

“Just got scared. I'm all right now.”

Van glanced at Catherine. Neither was in any shape for acting; they would just have to keep everyone else from getting too close. Aiden joined them as well, said nothing, only positioned himself casually to one side, alert beneath the nonchalance. Sage knelt at his side, as Lila and Randi had done with their own mages, three pairs forming a loose ring.

Van was, more or less, aware of Victoria picking Felipe up off the floor and taking him away, and of three or four sensitives hastening to clean up the mess.

Elspeth made her way over to them. “They're both better?”

She was Neely's grandmother as well as head of the Donovans; Van was surprised only that Neely's mother hadn't beaten her to it. “I think so, they just need a few minutes to calm down.” He glanced at them again. “And hopefully no one is going to start screaming about improper behaviour.” Neither one had let go yet, though their voices were low enough that no one else could hear.

All things considered, it didn't take the pair all that long to untangle themselves.

“All right,” Neely said briskly. “I think everything's pretty much back to normal.” She let herself collapse into the nearest chair; Jonathan dropped instantly to kneel at her feet. “I've heard enough that I was ready for some level of irrational protective impulses, but I wasn't expecting to lose it like that. Which isn't to say he didn't richly deserve every bruise and the sore neck he's going to have in the morning, but it's rather scary to think about the combination of eleven years of primarily ju-jitsu combined with a loss of control.”

“You wouldn't have lost control to that extent if he hadn't acted the way he did,” Van said, choosing words carefully in hopes of forestalling another burst of anger. “You were doing extremely well all evening, until then.”

“Granted, but killing him would have been a bit extreme. On the other hand, that training has all been towards using the minimal force necessary and intimidation when possible, which is probably why I was talking to him instead of killing him outright. Score one for reflex over emotion and instinct. Aiden? Can we go home?”

Aiden nodded. “It's thinning out anyway, and I don't think anyone could be surprised if you don't want to stay.”

With the guests of honour gone, and the shattering of what had been at least superficially a peaceful atmosphere, many were indeed trailing off homewards.

“We might as well all go, I think,” Van said, with a questioning look at Catherine. He'd picked her and Lila up on his way home from work, the six of them had supper together, and they'd used both car and truck.

Catherine nodded. “I believe we're all too tired for any more socializing. It's just as well we planned for me to stay at your house, you don't look awake enough for that long a drive.”

“I'm happier not having to do it,” Van conceded.

There were only a few farewells to be said, and they all ventured outside.

“One question,” Van said, once they were well away from the building and into the paved parking lot. “Neely, why did you bring Jon tonight anyway, instead of leaving more time?”

“She didn't bring me,” Jonathan retorted. “I decided I was coming. To prove to them that this way is better. I was doing pretty well, 'til he scared me.”

“No one would have expected any other reaction to that,” Sage said quickly, as Neely frowned. “And you weren't doing pretty well, you were doing extremely well. A couple of mages commented to Aiden about that, actually, and wanted to know what the secret was.”

“You sure got the hunter-lady's attention,” Randi giggled.

“See?” Jonathan said. “Really well-behaved sensitive without any of the stuff they all thought was necessary. Maybe it'll make them think.”

Brennan chuckled. “That took some guts, but you pulled it off perfectly.”

The sensitives traded quite a lot of hugs—Van was fairly certain that some of them were repeated, not just one from each—with Neely keeping one careful eye on Jonathan and the other on the four mages, all of whom equally carefully kept plenty of distance from him.

“Oh god, what a night,” Lila sighed, as Van pulled out of the parking lot, following Brennan's tail-lights. “I didn't think a hunter could be that stupid. I mean, they have to be pretty intelligent to get to be hunters, right?”

“Intelligence and common sense are not the same thing,” Catherine pointed out.

“And both tend to get forgotten when someone feels he's lost face,” Van added. “Which Felipe may feel over having to give Jon up.”

“Well, he just lost a lot more,” Randi said. “And in public this time. And he's lucky Neely listened and let go, or he would've lost more than face. But it's over, and we made it through another crisis.”

Van didn't bother to voice his concern that the consequences of these crises were piling up and were, before long, going to cascade down on them. Sensitives tended to live in the now, not so much in the future, and he saw no reason to worry them or distract them from their enthusiastic discussion of what Neely had done.

Beside him, Catherine was silent.


47 – Lila

“I'm starting to think I should just trade my car in for a mini-van,” Van laughed, slowing the car to turn in the driveway of his mother's house.

“Or I should see about Lila and I getting a car,” Catherine retorted. In the back seat with Randi, Lila grinned to herself. It was nice to see her mage not guarding every word all the time.

“Or that. But a van would be easier next time Randi and Oblique go shopping.” He pulled up next to Brennan's truck. Lila noted that Catherine said nothing about Van going well out of his way to pick them up; either Van had finally convinced her that he didn't mind, or she'd decided that it was pointless to protest. “Today should be fun. I bet most of the family drops in to say hi to Jonathan.”

Lila distinctly remembered the one Donovan gathering she'd been to already. The Donovan family was easily the biggest in the city, the handful who were less open-minded balanced by the allies like Maya Kalindi. Oblique's estimate had been that some four dozen feral sensitives had been present that day for at least long enough to greet Lila and give her a hug. And it had trailed off, down to just what Oblique called “immediate family,” Rich and Azure, Unity and Meta both, Sage and Randi and Oblique, and they'd found a quiet little clearing in the heart of a wall of lilacs.

All of whom had conspired on the phone, over the last couple of days, wanting a look that would make Jonathan feel included but take into account the fact that he'd had only a few days to get used to quite a lot.

She and Randi were both in the kinds of brief halters and shorts that the other female sensitives were likely to wear variations on; Randi's pale blue skin bore a riot of intricate vividly-coloured butterflies that must have taken Van hours; Lila's was darker, a soft brown, and serpents coiled around arms, legs, torso, in lazy, delicately-patterned spirals. Otherwise, both were in their natural shapes.

Lila glanced at Randi, and they shared a grin and abandoned the car in favour of seeing who was already here. The gravel driveway made little crunching noises under sandaled feet. Okay, so September wasn't exactly the time of year for wearing next to nothing, but it was a mild day and besides, what could you show off under too many clothes?

“Oh, sure,” Van grumbled halfheartedly behind them. “Leave us to carry everything. Brats.”

Catherine laughed, and said something Lila didn't catch, but it sounded indulgent.

More laughter was clearly audible from the side of the house, and Jonathan's teasing, “Go right ahead and try.” Puzzled, the two sensitives followed the sound.

Along the side of the house the driveway continued, but it had been paved a long time ago—to create a space for Kerry's mother's sensitive to work on cars, Oblique had said. Not that it had been used for that purpose for years.

A post had been set up at the edge of the pavement, with an unpainted backboard and a new orange hoop bolted to it. Jonathan, in blue denim cut-offs and the remains of a severely altered black t-shirt, with Asian dragons twining along much of his exposed skin, waited between Neely and the basket; Neely, in similar shorts and a grey tank-top, feinted to one side with the basketball and came back towards the other, in vain.

“Oh, cool,” Randi said, eyes wide. “It's been ages since I played basketball!”

Jonathan glanced towards her, and grinned; Neely straightened and turned around. “Now that's hard to visualize,” Jonathan teased. “Basketball's for tall people.”

“Oh yeah? Bet Lila and I can beat you two!”

“Neely's just learning how, so I guess that evens up the odds a bit.” He gave Neely a questioning look; she laughed and nodded, and tossed Lila the ball.

Lila paused to throw her sandals on the grass, saw Randi do the same—lacking a decent pair of running shoes at hand, bare feet would be better traction. She wasn't at all sure that Randi was going to be able to live up to her claims, but it should be fun anyway, and what difference did it make who won?

Randi might not have much height, but she was fast and agile, and easily able to duck under arms and snatch the ball. Her aim was no better than Lila's, however. Neely might be new to the game, but she was picking it up in a hurry, and her reflexes were extremely good—although given what they'd all seen her do a couple of nights ago, that wasn't much of a surprise.

“Oh, that explains why Randi and Lila never made it as far as saying hi to the rest of us,” Azure said, his tone strongly amused. Jonathan caught the ball, and Lila looked in Azure's direction.

All basically human form, the rest of the “immediate family,” none wearing any great amount, each with a different design: Azure with multicoloured footprints in wandering trails that looked like many tiny animals had tracked through numerous puddles of paint, Rich with silver and gold and copper chains punctuated by occasional locks, Unity with incredibly detailed knotwork patterns in black and strong primary colours, curvaceous Meta with thorny green vines and deep red roses in bud or full bloom, Sage—currently in the female version of his usual shape—with fanciful soft-hued birds and trailing feathers, Oblique with silvery spiderwebs shimmering on her midnight-blue skin.

All together, Lila thought, they made quite a sight.

“That or they just don't love us anymore,” Sage said mournfully.

“Time-out for hugs,” Neely laughed, and leaned against the post to watch nine sensitives tangle themselves into a complex knot of hugs.

“So how come you aren't playing?” Randi asked, snuggled in Rich's arms—a picture in itself, given the drastic size difference.

Rich chuckled. “I haven't played basketball since before you were born, I'm a bit out of practice.” Not that it showed; age became irrelevant when confronted with shapechanging.

“So what?” Lila countered. “It's just for fun.”

“Five on five?” Jonathan suggested, though he didn't appear to be in any hurry to escape Oblique's arms.

“I have to go help Grania...” Unity protested, obviously torn.

Sage gave her a wicked look. “Ah, I'm sure she and Catherine can survive in the kitchen without us for a bit. And Kerry's playing with the twins. So how are we going to do teams?”

“Girls vs boys doesn't work, too many girls,” Randi mused, and gave Sage a stern look; Sage just grinned and shrugged. “How come so many sensitives are born male and switch to female, huh?”

“Because it's more fun,” Sage said impishly, and eeped as Azure tickled her. The others went on planning teams while the pair chased each other around the yard.

“Jon?” Neely glanced at him, and without hesitation he took a couple of steps closer, laying a hand on her shoulder. No fear at all, Lila noticed, pleased. Neely created five short lengths of fluorescent pink cloth and five of equally bright green—about the only colours that didn't show on one sensitive or another right now.

“Get back here, you two,” Rich commanded, and Sage and Azure returned to the rest, still breathless with laughter. Spirits were definitely high today, Lila thought. Maybe sheer delight that they'd been able to keep Jonathan safe and had, with any luck, set a precedent that would be followed? Each with one of the bright scarves knotted around an arm, they launched into a game that was as much teasing and laughter as it was actual basketball.

Lila noticed, peripherally, when the mages relocated from the part of the yard where they normally gathered; they settled themselves where they could watch the game, while Grania kept a close eye on her three-year-old twins. Obviously they'd managed without Unity and the others in the kitchen.

A car pulling in out front distracted most of them—long enough for Randi to sneak past Rich and Jonathan and gain her team another point. The newcomers turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a couple of Donovan mages and a trio of sensitives. Randi declared a time-out for greetings.

Neely made no effort at all to disguise how closely she was watching Jonathan with other mages nearby; the mages in question stayed carefully out of arm's-length while expressing their welcome and their relief that he was safe. Lila rather doubted that anyone who'd been at that last gathering was likely to forget Neely's response to a threat to her sensitive. But the sensitives gave him warm hugs and much enthusiasm with no reservations. Though Jonathan went a bit shy around the mages, maybe over being the centre of attention, he returned hugs from sensitives willingly enough.

For the next couple of hours, the game was interrupted frequently by Donovans and friends, many of whom stayed only briefly. Some stayed long enough for sensitives to get in on the game and their mages to join the others on the grass; at one point, Neely and Jonathan took a break, so a couple of teenaged mages could play, without fear of accidental contact with Jon.

But the visits tapered off, back down to just “immediate family.”

“Feel like taking a break for a bit and having some supper?” Shvaughn called.

The sensitives and Neely paused to discuss that, and concluded that they were all tiring, despite trading off with newcomers periodically. Azure set the ball on the ground next to the post, on the way over to sprawl next to Shvaughn.

“You look worn right out,” Aiden said affectionately, making space for Sage and Lila on the blanket he and Catherine were sharing.

“Getting there,” Sage laughed. “I believe someone mentioned supper?”

“I think maybe a few minutes to rest would be good, first,” Rich said, curling up next to Kerry.

Grania glanced in the direction of the front of the house, as tires crunched on gravel. “Someone must be running late.”

“Must,” Unity agreed, tickling her mage's daughter while the toddler squealed with laughter.

Catherine's hand, idly working tangles out of Lila's short thick hair, stilled; Lila looked up, saw Catherine's expression, and shivered. “Cath?” she asked, very softly.

Three people circled the house, all mages. The junior hunter pair, and Victoria with them. Lila felt more than saw or heard the wave of motion, subtle shifts of position, sensitives sliding into the game instantly in the presence of hunters.

“Yes?” Kerry asked. “You seem to have excellent luck in choosing when to drop in, Elena.”

“This isn't a social call, I'm afraid,” Victoria said gravely.

“Rory Donovan,” Elena said, not at all grave—triumphant, in fact. “You have been charged with seditious acts which threaten the peace of mage society and the authority of the prevailing laws, the creation and distribution of propaganda encouraging immoral beliefs intended to undermine the stability of mage society, and other charges, including perjury to a hunter, are being considered.”

Lila blinked, looked towards Van, who was watching Elena in calm resignation. It was Randi's stricken expression, Oblique's mercilessly tight grip on her hand, that drew her attention, though.

Victoria threw a glance at Elena of mingled distaste and disapproval. “I assume Brennan will be willing to look after your sensitive for a few days?” she asked Van, with considerable courtesy.

“It's going to be longer than that,” Elena muttered.

“Elena! Charges or no, Van remains innocent unless and until a proper hearing reaches a decision.”

Van nodded, and stood up. “Brennan will take care of Pride for me, yes. And I have no intention of resisting.”

Lila shivered, instinctively pressing closer to Catherine. Even knowing that Van had done everything aware of the probable consequences didn't help when those consequences were here.

“I'll be there in a minute,” Victoria told Elena.

Elena's nod was more just a curt jerk of her head, and she and Brock escorted Van around the house, towards the front.

Victoria strode over to drop to one knee in front of Catherine, and held out a folded slip of paper. “Elena will pursue this to any extent,” she said, quietly enough that only Catherine, Aiden, and their sensitives could hear. “I will do all I can to see that the laws are followed properly, but even if I had made a personal decision regarding the matter, it would not be right for me to take sides. I can suggest a way to even the scales. Andreas Nicodemos has the most brilliant legal mind in the domain. His time doesn't come cheaply, but he's the one best able to counter his cousin, and if it's possible to establish that Van has broken no laws Andreas will do so. My advice is to call him.”

Catherine closed her hand around the paper. “Thank you.”

Victoria inclined her head, straightened, and followed the other hunters and Van with long strides that didn't look rapid but covered a great deal of ground quickly.

The sound of the unseen vehicle, probably that damned red minivan, pulling out of the driveway, broke the paralysis. Randi moaned softly, and curled into a tight ball, body quaking with sobs; Oblique gathered her up, rocking her gently.

“What did she say?” Neely demanded, one hand twined into that of her white-faced sensitive.

Catherine repeated what Victoria had told her.

“We'll come up with it,” Kerry said grimly. “I don't care what price he asks, if he can help.”

“We'll win this,” Brennan said quietly. “For Van's freedom and every sensitive in this domain. Whatever it takes.”

Which pretty much said it all.


48 – Topaz

Topaz heard the phone ring while he was cleaning up after supper, but that was hardly unusual; he paid no real attention, went on about the familiar routine of washing and drying, putting away the ones that belonged down here and taking the others back upstairs to Zephyr, wiping down the table and counter. That done, he put the kettle on and took out the teapot and all the other stuff necessary for tea—at least his current sleek fur, a rather attractive colour that looked gold in some light and greenish in others, didn't tend to get into things.

By the time he returned to the study, tea neatly arranged on the tray, Lord Andreas was finished with his phone call, and simply sitting at his desk, gazing into space.

“My Lord?” Topaz ventured.

“Hm? Oh, good.” He cleared a corner of his desk for Topaz to set the tray down. “I assume the tea shouldn't be long?”

“No, my Lord, only a couple more minutes.” Topaz perched on the chair next to the desk, where visitors with questions were permitted to sit while Lord Andreas grilled them for the information he needed in order to find answers. He picked up one of the cookies Lord Andreas liked to have with tea and nibbled on it, though his appetite for dessert came second to wondering what was going on.

“Would it make you extremely unhappy if we were to be away from home for a few days?”

Topaz winced—the passport issue remained a thorny one, which had dropped to the bottom of Lord Andreas' list of things to do multiple times, and he felt bad every time he thought of his Lord spending another winter without going anywhere warm. This must be within Canada, though, given that, which was something entirely new and different.

“I think that would depend on where, my Lord,” Topaz said, cautiously, “but it's hard to imagine that you'd want to go anywhere that would be likely to be so bad.”

“A Donovan has managed to get himself charged with sedition, immorality, and a collection of related charges, generally built around treatment of sensitives from what I gather. That was the Donovan Matriarch of his home city. She just promised me that I can set my own price if I can clear his name.” He smiled. “Just between us, this case sounds fascinating enough that I suspect I'd want to do it even without that.”

“Mages have been charged with that before, my Lord. Like Lady Lera Alexeiev.” He remembered the trial very well, remembered the way she'd looked at her sensitive and her assertion that he was an equal... and the way she'd been treated in return. He remembered, too, Lord Andreas' reflections on censorship afterwards, which had continued long after they'd come home. “This one is different?”

“He's a trained and practising mental health counsellor, works with a couple of mundanes. He used that training to collect observations about mages and sensitives, put them together into a book, had it printed, and has been distributing it. Not only to mages, but to free sensitives.”

Topaz choked on the bite of cookie he'd just taken.

“Breathe, please.” Lord Andreas handed him a napkin, waited until he had his breath back.

“He's giving a book on mages to free sensitives, my Lord? How? They should all be too frightened, there should be no way to get it to them!”

“The Donovans there have, apparently, also set up both a shelter and a kind of soup kitchen, staffed largely by Donovan sensitives and mundane volunteers who are unaware of the other aspect, and are using them as education and distribution points. I don't know the details, I only asked for enough to be certain that this should be an extremely interesting case. And a landmark, at that.”

Topaz forced his shock away, made himself think this through as rationally as he could. “He's a trained observer, my Lord,” he said slowly. “This book should therefore be full of facts, not opinions. And to ban it because some people don't like those facts is outright censorship.”

“Provably so, in fact, by mage law.” Lord Andreas sounded pleased. “Since the laws are extremely clear regarding the freedom of any mage to collect and express information as long as it doesn't advocate violence. I'm going to need to see this book, and hear the rest of the details before I know for certain what I can do. We've been promised a place to live—with this counsellor's mother and aunt, apparently they have a rather large house. And all expenses paid, and as I said, I can name my price. Sounds like his family values him rather highly, hm?”

“Definitely, my Lord.”

“So will it make you utterly miserable, if we're living in someone else's house for a little while?”

Topaz wondered whether, if he said it would, Lord Andreas would actually decline the case. It was possible. But he liked seeing his mage excited about something, and this had clearly caught his interest. Even if he honestly thought he'd hate being away from home, he would have pretended otherwise. And, well, this was going to be immensely important to every sensitive, free or otherwise, maybe for a long time.

“No, my Lord. It might be interesting.” He poured tea into both cups, thoughtfully. “My Lord? Did the Matriarch say which hunter is laying the charges?”

Lord Andreas sighed. “Elena.”

Topaz nodded. “I thought it might be, my Lord. Shall I start packing after tea?”

“This is likely to take at least a few days, so... about a week's worth of clothes, and you can figure out the rest. I'll have to decide which books the Matriarch might not have that could be useful, although she offered me access to her library. It will be about four hours' drive, I'd like to leave first thing in the morning after breakfast, if we can be ready. Hm, head upstairs after we're done eating and tell Phyllida, I'm sure she'll want to come downstairs and discuss it but tell her what you know.”

“And Zephyr will need to know to make meals only for two, my Lord.”

“Hm? Oh, yes, tell Zephyr too, breakfast will be the last meal we'll need for a while.”

Topaz made a careful mental list of things to do, both the things Lord Andreas had mentioned, and other sensible sorts of things: checking the fridge for anything that would spoil in a week, watering those plants that needed water fairly frequently, making certain that all windows were closed in case it rained while they were away.

This should be an interesting trip for him as well as for Lord Andreas. The Donovans were the ones who wanted the anti-abuse laws passed; it would be good just to be able to spend more than a couple of hours with any sensitive save Zephyr, but on top of that, given everything he'd heard, he could hardly wait to see how the Donovans treated their own sensitives.


49 – Lila

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?”

“Pride. Yes.”

“What happened?”

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.

“Your Lord?”

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.


50 – Topaz

Funny how they could be hours from home, but things stayed the same anyway.

Topaz curled up on the couch, acutely conscious of Lord Andreas' presence at the desk, going through gathered notes. He should probably, himself, be going back through the rather long interview, looking for anything he had noticed that Lord Andreas might not, but his thoughts kept drifting.

Lila was here and happy. He reflected on the word, and decided that it was the right one. He hadn't seen much, but from her description of her mage as an angel, and the way she moved, how healthy she looked... she was definitely happy.

He hadn't expected, knowing her independent streak, that she could possibly be happy without being free. Lila had always been too strong, too wild, the one who took the lead. But at least she was safe and loved. There was an awful lot to be said for that. And given the way her Lady followed hints, maybe she had enough freedom to make it okay.

“Topaz?” Lord Andreas sounded puzzled. “Are you all right?”

“My Lord?” Topaz hastily sat up, found that Lord Andreas had swivelled the chair around to face him.

“That's the third time I said your name.” No anger, which was a blessing. “Is something wrong?”

“No, my Lord. I was... just thinking.”

“About something uncommon, given how intent you were.” Topaz heard the thoughtful frown in his voice. “No, I'm not going to start insisting on knowing what you're thinking, but if it's anything I can help with...”

He cares about me, he really does, a voice inside sang joyfully. He really means that, that I don't have to tell, and that he wants to help. I'd know, after all this time, if he didn't.

“It's... Lady Catherine's sensitive Sable, my Lord. We knew each other. A long time ago.”

“Hm. I think it must have been more than a passing acquaintance, to make you think so deeply about it.”

“We were very close, my Lord. We... both of us lost our mothers.” Not even to Lord Andreas in a receptive mood was he going to talk about that, about the deaths of both mothers, a few months apart. “And we stayed together after that. Until I, um, just didn't come back one day.”

The silence worried him; he dared look up, not quite to his mage's eyes, but as high as he felt it safe to chance. “My Lord?”

“It had not, in fact,” Lord Andreas said slowly, softly, “occurred to me that there might be someone out there who missed you when you came to live with me. Which, now that I think about it, is more than a little ridiculous. Well. Would you like to have free time to spend with her?”

The instinctive response was, yes, oh yes, please!

Topaz considered that for a moment. “It matters to her, that you win this case, my Lord,” he said, thinking it out even as he said it. “The best gift I can give her is to be of as much help to you in that as I can.”

“You always are.” The gentleness in it made Topaz shiver and long to slide off the couch to kneel at Lord Andreas' feet, to feel his Lord's touch... “And I'm sure I can arrange some time when I don't need you present.” He chuckled. “Somehow, I think Catherine will be agreeable to anything that makes Sable happy. So that's why Sable wanted to help you bring everything inside, hm?”

I shouldn't be surprised that he noticed that.

It isn't like Lila was all that subtle about it, anyway...

“That would be... beyond wonderful, my Lord. Thank you isn't enough.” Time to spend with Lila, to hear how she's been, how she ended up with her Lady, just to be together for a little while before I have to go home...

“I'll see what I can do,” Lord Andreas said, and it sounded like a promise. “For the moment, do you remember where Dimitra Nicodemos' analysis of rights and responsibilities under the laws is?”

“That's the blue one, my Lord?” Topaz slid off the couch and headed for the bags, rummaging swiftly.

“Is it? I thought it was grey...”

Topaz handed him the—blue—book requested.

Lord Andreas laughed. “I stand corrected. You do realize that I'd never be able to find anything without you.”

Topaz smiled to himself, went back to the couch. “That's why I'm here, my Lord.”

With Lord Andreas' approval and a promise of time to spend with Lila, and even his own shape for the moment for simplicity while travelling, there really wasn't much more he'd have asked right now.

Not nothing more, just... not much.


51 – Van

Van laid his book beside him on the bed—narrow, but of reasonable quality, and the bedding was clean—and got up to wander around the small room, giving his muscles a chance to stretch. Not very far, in a room that was some ten feet on a side, but enough. The quiet felt odd, he was used to being in a house filled with the presence and energy of his family. Not exactly unpleasant, just... odd.

Not so bad, on one level. Victoria had made it very clear to Elena that she would be coming by periodically to check, and that if Elena was acting inappropriately she, Victoria, would have her up on harassment charges. From what Catherine had said of her, he could count on Victoria to see to it that the law was followed precisely. Which meant that, although he knew Elena or her partner or one of those who filled hunter support roles was lurking just down the hall at all times, he was left in peace to read, except when Grania brought him meals. Brennan had been by, once, to drop off clean clothes and such, and promised to return tomorrow.

Unfortunately, he was forbidden contact with any sensitive, which meant Bren couldn't bring Randi even for a brief visit. He hoped she was dealing with this better than he very much feared she was. The other sensitives would be there for her, though, and Brennan would keep her safe, Van could trust in that much.

“Elena?” Brock's voice. “Visitor.” It carried clearly through the small iron grate set in the heavy wooden door.

A heartbeat's pause, then, “Andreas?” That was Elena, and she sounded angry. “What are you doing here?”

“Talking to your captive, as soon as you unlock the door,” an unfamiliar male voice said calmly. Clearly highly educated, Van thought, and unimpressed by Elena's reaction. Grania and Brennan had both mentioned that they'd brought someone in to help, that he was the leading expert on the domain's laws, but they had neglected to mention that he was related to Elena. Not altogether unsurprising, however, the Nicodemos reputation was towards the academic. Maybe that explained why Grania had been so cheerful when she'd brought supper a couple of hours ago. “He has every right to my services, you know that. His family contacted me last night.”

“Since when? You dig around in old books for precedents, you don't actually take part in hearings!” Hm, not just anger... outrage, as well, he suspected.

“I choose to take part in this one.” Van heard a faint edge creep in under the level tone. “Open the door. And I trust you know better than to stay close enough to overhear.”

A key rattled in the lock, and the door swung open, outwards, admitting a man in his upper forties, a cane in one hand, a leather briefcase in the other. Van quickly pulled out one of the small table's two chairs for him, gesturing an invitation.

“Thank you.” He settled onto it, laid the briefcase on the table. “Did your family tell you they had contacted me?”


“I'm Andreas Nicodemos. I studied mundane law and then turned my attention to ours. Normally, I simply research precedents and rulings that may be relevant to a question, but this time, I appear to be taking a more active part in matters. Ultimately the choice is yours, not that of your family, even your Matriarch. If you prefer to face Elena alone, I'll go.”

“Oh, god no,” Van said, sinking down on the other chair in relief. “I'll take whatever help I can get. This goes way beyond just what happens to me.”

Andreas studied him for a moment. “Yes, it does. I spent part of the afternoon talking to some of your family, and part of it reading through your book. It was, admittedly, a fast read, I intend to go through it in more detail later, but it's fascinating. And unique. And I gather you were expecting this to come of it.”


“And you did it anyway? Why?”

Van shrugged. “Because someone had to do it, and I'm the only one with qualifications that can get it considered seriously. Because I know that everything I wrote down is the truth, and that it isn't right for that to be ignored for mage convenience. Because it will have a hundred times as much power after it's been acknowledged in a hearing. Take your pick.”

Andreas nodded, took a clipboard of yellow paper out of the briefcase, and consulted it.

“So. You wrote a book about the abilities and tendencies of mages and sensitives, disregarding whether aspects of that are considered proper and acceptable or otherwise. This book includes first-person descriptions from no less than seven Donovan sensitives of their experiences going from free to tame and the corresponding descriptions from six Donovan mages, the experience you and your ex-renegade had being among them. You had, I gather, a fair number of copies printed, and have been distributing it to as many mages and free sensitives as possible. The bulk of the charges revolve around the existence of your book and who has access to it, and the possible repercussions of this. If any significant number of mages reads and believes your book and acts accordingly, it will cause a major restructuring of mage society. Given how fundamental the existence, presence, and place of sensitives is,” a frown flickered across his face, “even to those of us prone to forgetting that, there's a certain validity to the charges.”

“I'm not denying that I think mage society needs a few changes,” Van said. “It's no secret that I'm backing the anti-abuse laws, for example.”

Andreas nodded again. “Changes are a fact of life. A rather young Alexeiev, who persisted in standing up for her beliefs until the Elders threatened to give her sensitive back to the hunters, made quite a valid point some time ago, that the mundane society we live within is changing, and we're falling behind. So. That, I think, is going to boil down to a direct interpretation of the right to research any subject you like and distribute the results, against the sedition and immorality laws which are supposed to maintain the stability and peace of mage society. Since you aren't advocating violence, and haven't claimed sensitives are our equals...”

“I've never said they are,” Van said. “I collected observations and put them together. Since I'm still working on what conclusions to draw from them, there are none in that book, just the observations themselves.”

“Yes, I noticed that. The lack of conclusions is so blatant it practically forces the reader to start coming up with their own,” Andreas said dryly. “Other than that, there are charges along the lines of the commission of immoral acts—distributing this book to free sensitives, hiring free sensitives to work for you, free sensitives reported as showing your signature on their auras, instigating a research project which directly interferes with hunter prerogatives—Catherine explained that one to me in detail, I think Victoria is likely to have that one dropped. Elena is also claiming perjury and a violation of the law of responsibility, specifically that you do not and never have had your sensitive under proper control, despite claiming her on those grounds.”

“That's ludicrous. Pride would do anything for me.” And I pray I never abuse that.

“Having just spent some time around a handful of extremely well-behaved and obviously well-treated sensitives, I don't find that at all hard to believe. For the moment, that's all she's come up with, although knowing Elena, she's sitting at the far end of the hall right now with half a dozen books on old rulings. The lesser charges we'll need to acknowledge and counter, but I don't believe that'll be much more than a minor distraction around the central issue. A number of questions come to mind that will make any arguments I create more reliable.”

“Ask,” Van said, without hesitation. Every instinct and all his training screamed at him that Andreas could be trusted. His family and Catherine would never have allowed him to get this far otherwise, so they agreed. “Anything.” He smiled. “I don't have anywhere else I need to be, so ask as many as you like.”


52 – Topaz

Being left behind when Lord Andreas went out felt strange and not quite right, after so many months more or less constantly in his Lord's presence.

There didn't seem to be anything he was needed for; this wasn't his house, and he was distinctly nervous that he might anger one of the mages who lived here. He didn't think they'd do anything, all these sensitives seemed to be treated well, and anyway, they needed Lord Andreas too much to risk angering him, but, well... And Lila was with her Lady, who had apparently been invited to stay here as well. It must not have been planned, though, because the other mage, Lord Brennan, had offered to drive them home to get what they'd need for a few days.

So he reverted to familiar behaviour, and retreated to the library to wait for Lord Andreas to come back.

Like a dog waiting for his master to come home from work, he sighed to himself, curling up on the couch, legs tucked up automatically in the position he was used to from his loveseat at home.

The thought didn't make the feeling of being lost and alone go away.

This was silly. He was surrounded by books on all sides. Surely he could find something to distract himself while Lord Andreas talked to Lord Rory Donovan—everyone might call him Van, but that sounded uncomfortably familiar, even in the privacy of Topaz' own mind, even if he added the honorific to it the way the Donovan sensitives did. There were Lord Andreas' books, but he found the intricate language of them an effort to follow; something lighter would be better. He got up, scanned the shelves that lined the walls. Fiction of every imaginable sort, a whole shelf of what turned out to be plays, another of books on art, one wall that was a mixture of non-fiction on just about every imaginable topic.

His gaze fell on the desk, and stayed there. The book that was the heart of this whole case lay there, simple and innocent, with a couple of Lord Andreas' law books.

Should he?

Well, free sensitives were reading it, so it couldn't be so bad for a sensitive who lived with a mage, right? What could really be in it? Besides, if he knew what all the controversy was over, he might be more use to Lord Andreas, and to Lila... Lord Andreas hadn't ever told him not to read something, didn't mind even if he looked through books on mage laws while waiting to be needed, surely he wouldn't be angry.

He picked it up, made himself comfortable on the couch. Maybe just a quick look through it, so he'd know what was going on. He opened the book at random.

It is a fundamental aspect of sensitive nature to feel a deep need for approval and affection from a mage they have bonded to. As a result, a sensitive will typically go to great lengths to please their mage, with no need for threats or punishment, simply for the sake of a moment's praise or a brief demonstration of affection.

Hey, I guess it isn't just me.

He flipped the page curiously.

Accepted theory is that mages do not bond to sensitives, but all available evidence directly contradicts this. It is acknowledged fact that a mage with a new sensitive will be extremely possessive. This is normally explained as being a result of a social system that subtly encourages each mage to see all other mages as potential threats to their ownership of their sensitive. That doesn't adequately explain the degree of irrational protective behaviour some mages experience. The moment a mage takes possession of a new sensitive, the thirty-days law comes into effect. Among other things it protects the mage in question from the normal consequences of acts against another mage, if the first mage perceives the other as a threat to the safety or ownership of the newly-claimed sensitive. At any other time, while a mage is permitted to protect one's own sensitive, an act against another mage would require reasonable proof of an actual threat.

Topaz went back to the beginning of the book, and started there. If the whole book was like this, he didn't want to miss any of it. Probably he couldn't finish it now, but surely he'd have other chances.

It really wasn't a very thick book, and the way it was organized made it easy to read and understand. The tone was formal, but he found no unfamiliar words except for a few that were clearly explained; it might be a little hard for some sensitives with low literacy levels, but certainly not impossible, especially give the strong motivation they were likely to have, and it seemed like a reasonable compromise with the complex and convoluted language mages mostly, in his limited experience, preferred. Absently, he reached up behind him to flip on the light, as the gathering shadows began to make it difficult to see, and kept reading.

Somewhere inside, the pieces of the puzzle he'd been finding for himself meshed with these new pieces, and they all began to fit together to make a whole picture. The mage who wrote this really understood sensitives, and that made it easy to believe that the parts about mages and the parts about how they interacted were true as well.

And somewhere underneath the words, hidden on some level where it was never stated but was there nonetheless, was the idea that each was half and incomplete alone, that together they made a whole the way nature had intended, that neither had better abilities or tendencies but that each needed those of the other.

That felt right, and he didn't think it was wishful thinking.

Much to his surprise, he finished the first part of it, right up to where it changed to individual stories, without interruption. That conversation must be taking longer than expected. He laid the book beside him on the couch, gaze fixed on nothing, lost in his own thoughts.

No wonder the hunters are so freaked by this. They don't want any sensitive to ever question that we're anything but property. They don't want mages to start asking questions.

No wonder the Donovans are trying so hard to pass that anti-abuse law, if this is the kind of thing they believe. It never actually says that sensitives are equals, but it sure makes it clear they don't think it's right to treat us badly. It doesn't claim that we're equal people, but it does say that we are people.

They've read this. The Donovan sensitives. Lila too.

Well, it was a safe bet that no one was going to get mad at him for going to the bathroom or getting himself a glass of water. He got up, returned the book to its place on the desk, and ventured out into the hall.

The little half-bath was across the hall and down a little, but he paused, hearing voices from the opposite direction, probably the living room. That was Lila's Lady Catherine... and Lord Andreas?

Anything else forgotten, he headed in that direction. Quickly.

Lila was curled up at her Lady's feet on a large pillow, comfortably, listening to the debate above her with interest. The two mages were discussing... history?

Lady Catherine finished a sentence and paused, her attention going to him, with no sign of annoyance.

Lord Andreas glanced behind him, to Topaz, and smiled. “All done reading?”

“My Lord? Why...?” This wasn't right, Lord Andreas should have come looking for him or asked Lady Catherine to have Lila find him, something like that, not just leave him to read something he wasn't sure he was supposed to read to begin with.

“I didn't have the heart to interrupt. If you were on your way to get a drink or something, go ahead, and take your time. I'll be in the library.” He turned back to look at Lady Catherine. “I very much hope we can pick this up again sometime tomorrow.”

“I don't see why not, especially since Kerry was gracious enough to offer me the other guest room. Living in the city, and not driving, would have made it an extremely frustrating week, otherwise.”

“Yes, I can imagine.” Lord Andreas levered himself carefully to his feet.

Lila met Topaz' gaze squarely, and closed one eye in a slow, unmistakable wink.

He shook himself, hastily resumed his trip to the bathroom, and fetched a glass of cold water from the kitchen. That wasn't how things went, either, mages didn't halt conversations because of a sensitive.

Lord Andreas, true to his word, was in the library already, on the chair.

“Close the door?” he said, as Topaz came in.

Puzzled, he obeyed, and perched on the edge of the couch, setting the glass on the floor safely to one side.

“My Lord?”

Lord Andreas leaned back, regarding him thoughtfully—amazing how good you could get at reading body language, even if you weren't permitted to look high enough to meet your Lord's eyes.

“You got through the whole book?”

“All the general stuff at the beginning, yes, my Lord, I didn't get into the stories in the second half. I thought it would be something to distract me while you were away...”

“I'm not angry, relax. If I hadn't wanted you to read it, I would have told you not to or taken it with me. I am curious to hear your thoughts on it. Truthfully. And I promise not to get angry, no matter what those thoughts happen to be. I'd honestly like to know.”

What on earth is going on? And how the heck do I answer that?

With the truth, I guess, and hope he keeps that promise.

“It matches with what I know, my Lord,” he said, cautiously. “And explains some things that I've noticed but didn't really understand. A lot of it is new and I can't be sure about it, but it... it feels like it's true.”

“What matches?”

Topaz shrugged. “Sensitives being good at physical sorts of things.” Like video games. “Being adaptable and getting bored easy without something to keep us busy, being very social and needing to touch lots and be around people, all that kind of stuff. Most of the sensitives I've ever met aren't very good at thinking about long-range effects of things, we mostly live in right now. And some of the feelings he mentions.”

“Which feelings?”

Topaz hesitated.

“Tell me? Please?”

It was the please as much as the gentle tone that made him answer despite all misgivings—aware for the first time of exactly what was going on, that the risks didn't matter if it might make his mage happy with him and that was just part of what he was. “Things like magic and shapechanging feeling good, sometimes.” He saw the next question coming, and answered it unasked. “Times when I'm feeling all relaxed and happy beforehand. Things like how, even back at first when I was scared...” You're being honest, say all of it. “...and angry all the time, it still felt good when you were happy with me. Still does, it's just stronger now, and there's not so much to get in the way of it.” He knew he was shivering, anxiety and adrenaline both running high. Bad enough that Lord Andreas had absolute power over him physically and an alarming amount emotionally, without handing him the rest, but what else could he do? “He even got the other side of that, that it feels so awful when I can't.” He faltered, hating just the thought of that, the terrible desperate frightened emptiness it created.

“And yet there are any number of mages convinced that they need threats and punishments,” Lord Andreas murmured. “We're taught that. And it explains a lot?”

“Why I react like that, and that it isn't only me. And why...” Some instinct screamed, not that one! at him, and he bit his lip, hard, eyes firmly on the floor somewhere around Lord Andreas' feet.

“Why...?” Lord Andreas prompted. “I promised not to be mad. I intend to keep it.”

“Why... a lot of the time... you still see Veritas... and not me at all.” Instinct wanted him to pull away, coil himself into the corner, as though that would really be any kind of defence at all; he made himself stay where he was, though he felt a tear slip down his cheek.

Lord Andreas stayed very still for what felt like forever, but was probably only a few heartbeats.

His mage sighed, heavily, and got up from the chair, moving carefully to the corner of the couch instead. The small part of Topaz' mind not frozen with shock and confusion noted that he'd have to help his Lord up from the soft deep cushions.

“Come here. Don't look so scared, I'm not mad at you.”

Obediently, he snuggled comfortably against Lord Andreas, felt some of the fear and anxiety fade, losing the battle against the reassurance of that contact. Lord Andreas' arms tightened around him.

“That book,” he said, with another sigh, “is dangerous beyond anything I've ever seen, I think. And the resistance to it is going to be phenomenal. After this long firmly convinced that I've always taken such good care of Veritas and now you, and to realize how far short of that I've fallen out of ignorance and thoughtlessness, is extremely disconcerting. There are a great many others who will take a stand against it not so much because they don't believe it as because they'll be terrified of having to confront their own behaviour if they accept it. And there are those, like Lera Alexeiev, who are going to welcome it with open arms and defend it fanatically at any cost.”

“You do take good care of me, my Lord,” Topaz insisted.

“Ah? You're still being honest.”

“Um... mostly, my Lord.”

“Hm. Hypothetically speaking, if you could have anything in the world, what would it be? I'm not going to be upset or use it against you, no matter what it is.”

Topaz considered that. He certainly spent enough time on daydreams, but were any of them what he really wanted, as more than a way to amuse himself while waiting for his Lord? In all the world, what did he honestly want? He felt Lord Andreas' hand stroking his hair and back lightly, his mage waiting patiently while he worked out the answer to that one. “More to do,” he said finally. “I can do more than just finding the right books and making lunch and doing laundry. Sensitives don't survive unless we're smarter than that. And being able to say no sometimes, not all the time, just sometimes.”

“That's all?” Lord Andreas sounded distinctly startled. “This is a daydream, anything at all. Including freedom.”

Topaz shrugged. That he couldn't truly say he wanted to be free wasn't much of a surprise, he was too familiar with his own hunger to be with his Lord and please him. But maybe that was okay, just part of being sensitive and part of being who he was, and not something to resent. “Try to remember I'm me and not Veritas? Being able to keep in touch with Li... um, Sable sometimes? That's, um, all that comes to mind that I'd wish for, my Lord. Being free mostly means wondering where your next meal's coming from and where you're going to sleep, or having a really awful job, and watching for hunters all the time, and sometimes seeing your friends get sick or badly hurt or die. I'd rather stay with you.”

“After I'm responsible for taking you away from your best friend and taking away even your name...”

“You didn't.” It was an interruption, which he shouldn't do, but that line of thought had to stop. It was just too un-Andreas-like, too disturbing. “The hunters did that, my Lord. They would have noticed me anyway and given me to someone else. They took everything.”

“Hm, to a point I'll concede that, but I haven't exactly made an effort to give it back. And you'd still rather stay with me than anything?”

“Yes, my Lord.” I'm too much his, I couldn't leave. Maybe if he treated me really awful all the time or hit me or was into nasty shapechanging or something, then I bet I could. But not the way things are.

I have an awful lot to think about, and I wish I'd had a chance to do it before this talk, 'cause I think my perspective on everything just got changed.

“Speaking of names...”

“Topaz, my Lord.”

“Before that.”

It was almost amusing, and strangely reassuring: even in the middle of a conversation like this, his mage still made requests that were really commands. But that was all right; if that suddenly changed, he'd probably find it extremely disorienting. “Jax, my Lord.”

“As wishes go, those ones are extremely reasonable. I rather doubt that almost five decades of habit are going to change overnight, but I'll try.”

Privately, Topaz was fairly sure that things wouldn't really change all that much. He knew his mage too well by now to believe otherwise. But, well, he hadn't lost anything at all in this conversation, and maybe there'd be the odd small improvement, even if it was just Lord Andreas realizing now and then that he wasn't feeling overly receptive to shapechanging, or a few extra jobs to do. It was a treasure just to know that right now, Lord Andreas loved him enough to at least intend to do things differently. “No one else's master even tries, my Lord.”

“I'm not entirely sure,” Lord Andreas said dryly. “I'm beginning to see where these Donovans got their reputation. Hard to believe an Eldridge is just as bad as they are. I wonder if it's contagious or something in the air or the water. And we're going to be setting possibly the most dangerous of the bunch free to wreak havoc on mage society with nothing but observation, truth, and the willingness to speak up about it. Life is certainly interesting these days.”

All in one day, I'm farther away from our house than I've been since I came to live there, had a reunion with Lila, read a book that rearranged my whole bloody worldview, and we just had this conversation, and you're telling me about interesting? “Yes, my Lord. It is.”

“It's also late, and we have a lot to do tomorrow. How do you feel about bed?”

“It's been a long day, my Lord. But I haven't heard about how your talk went.”

“The one with Van, or the one with Catherine? I think I'd put her at the head of the list of Van's competition as the most dangerous threat to mage society as it currently stands, she just hasn't really gotten started yet. I'll tell you about both of them, on the way upstairs.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Topaz took it as a hint, when Lord Andreas let go of him; he got up quickly, helped his Lord up from the couch, carefully. Sounded like Lila's Lady was... interesting. But that would suit Lila perfectly.

Listening to Lord Andreas think aloud to him, describing something and clarifying his own perception and evaluation of it at the same time, was familiar and rather soothing, and as always, he paid close attention, offering comments of his own now and then. A mage who could write something that could provoke a reaction like that in Lord Andreas was definitely dangerous, and one that needed to be free.


53 – Oblique

Losing herself in her own personal world in the Internet was running away, an escape from stress, and Oblique knew it. But she stayed where she was at the computer anyway. Randi was with Sage and Jonathan, they could cuddle her and comfort her without their own too-great feelings getting in the way, and meals for just her and Brennan didn't take all that much time. Maybe she should have gone with Randi, rather than staying here alone, but somehow the thought of being so far from Brennan was unbearable.

Bad enough moments like this, with her mage off to take Van more books and see if there was anything he needed. The silent empty house was depressing, even the radio was only a thin substitute for all the busy life that normally filled the space. Fear was a habit she'd lost long ago, secure in her home and in the knowledge that she was safe and loved now, but it was stirring again, little whispers: what if Andreas can't out-argue Elena, no matter how confident he is? What if the Elders decide that one mage is a reasonable sacrifice to keep mage society from upheaval? What if they don't give Van back to us? How many more sensitives will live their whole lives in fear and unhappiness if the precedent is set that the whole subject is forbidden? For the most part, sensitives might not be good at thinking about the future, but she'd never been able not to.

In Europe, mages and sensitives had been equals a long time. Even there, mages tended to dominate, simply by nature, but the fundamental North American certainty that they were the masters and sensitives had no rights at all was missing. In Australia, according to their traditions, the sensitives had stood their ground right from the beginning and fought back, and the mages had learned a healthy respect. And the laws of both reflected that, protecting each from the other, defining the very outside edges of acceptable behaviour and leaving pairs to negotiate the details, and then the laws provided options if either suddenly changed the rules. Sensitives existed legally, could live all their lives independently if they chose to, although Oblique wasn't sure that would be any better, never feeling the utter joy and completion of sharing with a mage in love and trust.

One of the European sensitives had set up a private mailing list online, for a group of a couple of dozen from Europe and Australia, mostly sensitives but not entirely, and a handful of North American sensitives and a couple of mages, spread all over the continent. Others like Lila and Catherine, who had believed they were alone in being partners. Exploring, back when Brennan and Van first bought the computer, she'd wandered into chat rooms and mailing lists for the BDSM community, finding a certain amount of camaraderie there with mundane submissives; one of the Australian sensitives had picked up on something and cautiously established who she was, and introduced her to the group. Sage, in contact with some of the Europeans he'd met in person while travelling with Aiden, had introduced her to a second circle of acquaintances, and she'd shown him the group she'd become a part of.

Oblique had shared it with Randi, the only other one in the immediate family particularly interested, but for the most part, it was her private world, away from this house and Cornucopia and all the things that filled her everyday life. Brennan and Van respected that, had never asked, and as far as she knew had never so much as opened the program she preferred for email.

She heard the truck pull in, tracked her mage by sound as he came in the front door and followed the hall to the kitchen. He paused there, and came to the doorway to the dining room.

“What are you doing?”

She shrugged. “Email and a private chat with a couple of friends.”

“That's what you were doing last night, too, and this morning before I left.” Something in his voice that shouldn't have been there made her look up; he was frowning as he contemplated her. “What on earth have you been writing about all this time?”

“I've been telling them what's happening here, of course. None of them are from this domain at all, and some of them have been asking questions. Mostly it's just good to have someone to tell.”

“And what have they been saying back?”

“That they're worried about me, about all of us, and that they're there to listen. That they wish they could help directly and they're hoping everything will be okay. They're my friends, what else would you expect them to say?” It occurred to her that Brennan was, well, not exactly looming over her, but she was still sitting down and the arms of the chair would make it impossible to get out of it before he could stop her... and the simple fact that the thought crossed her mind made her shiver. Why was she feeling cornered all of a sudden? Looking for ways out?

“That's all?”

“That's all.”

He regarded her measuringly. “Then why are you acting like you have something to hide?” He didn't wait for an answer, came closer so he was behind her; Oblique felt herself wince away, and that she could react in fear to her mage only made her more afraid. She let her hands fall to her lap, stayed very still, while the mouse moved with no hand on it, flipping through the window that held the chat room, then to her email.

“An offer of a way to England and a home there is an interesting kind of help.” There was ice in Brennan's voice.

“She's been saying that for years, that if I ever decide I can't stand life here she and her mage will find a way to get me there and let me live with them. She knows that there's no way I'd take her up on it! By now it's mostly just her way of reminding me that she cares!” She had to half-twist to look behind her and up, but Brennan's expression was cold and flat, told her entirely too much. He doesn't believe me, she thought, numbly. “Bren, do you honestly think the only way I would stay here is because I have no other options? I belong here with you, I wouldn't ever leave you!”

“No? Not to go live somewhere with no collars and no game?”

“No!” Arguments happened, they were inevitable, but whatever this was, it wasn't just a disagreement; frightened, instinctively, she reached for the hand he'd laid on the back of her chair. To her utter shock, he took a step backwards, out of reach.

Whatever this was, she'd already lost. She looked down, felt her shoulders slump. At least she had enough room to get out of the chair and away now. She stood up, gestured generally in the direction of the screen. “I've kept quite a lot of my email, my Lord,” she said quietly. “The chats I'm afraid I don't usually bother to log.” The friends currently in the room would be alarmed by her sudden absence, but there was nothing she could do about it. Arms wrapped tightly around herself, half-blinded by tears, she walked away, upstairs to the tentative sanctuary of her own room.

Somewhat larger than Randi's, it had been her private space for something like ten years, since Van had come home from school and Brennan had bought this house. She'd chosen the wallpaper and put it up, with the inexpert assistance of her mages, a soft blue-on-blue abstract pattern. She'd chosen the handful of framed prints that hung on the walls, landscapes mostly, a seagull in silhouette against the clouds. She'd chosen the daybed where she'd rarely slept, preferring the company of one mage or the other, until Randi had come, and now sometimes they shared it; mostly, it was a comfortable place to curl up and read.

The pillows in one corner fit comfortably against her back; she grabbed another and hugged it close, aware of the tears running down her cheeks, but too dazed even to cry for real. This was insane, Brennan just didn't act like this.

They were well out in the country; there were neighbours to either side, but she could hardly turn up on a mundane doorstep with midnight-blue skin patterned with silver spiderwebs. Her cell phone was next to the computer, and there was no extension for the house land-line upstairs, and anyway, if Brennan kept acting crazy, there was nothing even Aiden and Sage could do to help her. If she'd had a phone in reach she'd have called them regardless, just in hopes that maybe Brennan would listen to Aiden.

Magically, she was sure she could defend herself, she had a much better idea of what a sensitive's abilities truly were than probably anyone else in this domain except Sage. But that was only one way he could hurt her, and by far not the most painful.

This can't be happening. After all this time, I can't be sitting here thinking of ways to protect myself from Brennan. How can five minutes turn me back into a scared animal all over again?

Because I still have the instinctive responses to a mage showing aggression, even if I haven't needed them for a long time, I suppose. I can't believe Brennan would actually act in a way that triggers them, not now, not any more...

The clock on the dresser told her, eventually, that she should be downstairs making lunch. Which would be worse? Facing Brennan, or taking a chance on making him even angrier by staying here?

She stayed where she was. A couple of times, she heard the phone ring, but it just kept ringing, unanswered. She heard the ring-tone of her cell phone as well, both the one she'd set for voice and the one for texts.

She hadn't closed the door all the way, an old reflex she'd thought forgotten, so she could hear if anyone approached. The sound of feet on the stairs jerked her out of a kind of stunned trance, made her heart start pounding and every muscle tense. There was no one it could be except Brennan. Coming to demand that she get back to her responsibilities?

She saw his shadow, just before he tapped on the door. “Can I come in?” Softer tone, more like it should be, but she wasn't sure that meant anything.

“It's your house, my Lord. And your sensitive.”

Brennan sighed, pushed the door open, and came in to sit on the edge of the bed—out of reach, Oblique noted, without looking up. “I deserved that. I'm sorry. That was so far out of line that I'm probably never going to forgive myself for it, and I'm not sure I should expect you to.”

“Then why...?” She took a chance, raised her eyes, though not quite to his, she didn't feel quite that safe.

“Fatigue, and I don't think I'm the only one who hasn't slept right the last couple of nights. Stress, wondering what's going to happen, and having to see Van locked in a damned cage waiting for someone else to decide what will happen to him.” Maybe he'll understand how it feels, then, Oblique thought, but that wasn't fair, Van of all mages—except possibly Catherine—came closest to really understanding. “Elena giving me her extremely disturbing view of past, present, and future. I don't know. Probably a combination of all of them.”

He was just upset, god knows what Elena said to him, he didn't mean to scare me like that.

“If I could just forgive and forget like it never happened, I would,” she said quietly. “God, I wish I could. Bren, everything is yours. The house, the computer, the food I make, me,” she waved at the gold chain that hung from a corner of the dresser mirror, “everything. Usually it doesn't matter, I don't have to think about it, but it's something that on some level I can't ever not be aware of. The only reason I have as much freedom as I have is because of love and trust and your sense of what's right, and for the last hour or so that's felt like an awfully fragile thing to depend on. My friends online... that was mine.”

“I know. And I promised you a long time ago that I wouldn't pull this crap on you ever again, and I just did. And I wish I had some idea how to fix it. Van probably would. I don't.” He sounded, and for that matter looked, absolutely miserable.

Which was a kind of power in itself, one that she held, one he'd given her freely. Resentment that he'd done this to her stirred, urged her to hurt him back, she could tear his heart to shreds right now so he'd know exactly what that awful empty despair felt like...

And utterly destroy everything they'd been building since Victoria and Faisal had handed her over to him, a scared confused teenager who was certain that nothing in the world was ever going to be right and that there was no such thing as happiness. With a few false starts and some misunderstandings, Brennan had made as much right as he could.

“A hug would be a really good place to start.” She pushed the pillow she'd been holding aside, made room beside her. Brennan didn't hesitate at all—waiting for the invitation, possibly. In seconds, she was snuggled against him, not the pillows, his arms around her.

“I'm so sorry,” he whispered.

“We fixed everything once, we can do it again.” She felt like crying all over again, just in sheer relief. “But if you ever scare me like that again...”

“You'll move to England?” She thought he was honestly afraid she'd do exactly that.

“The frying pans in the kitchen are a lot closer. And Randi already proved that even reflexive telekinesis doesn't work if a mage doesn't know it's coming.”

He was silent, startled, for a couple of heartbeats, then he laughed and hugged her tighter. “Fair enough.”

There was an awful lot that still needed to be said, but there was so much of it, it was hard to find anywhere to start. For right now, it was enough just to be together.

The phone started ringing again.

Oblique sighed. “It might be important.”

“More important?” Brennan muttered, but he let go of her so she could slide off the bed. She was better coordinated and faster, but she didn't make it down to the kitchen before it stopped.

“Missed it,” she reported unnecessarily, as he caught up with her. She picked it up anyway, heard the beeping that meant there was a message. She pressed the button to see who had called, and Sage's cell phone number came up repeatedly. There were three voicemail messages, Sage each time, sounding increasingly worried. Probably there were more on her cell phone.

“The friends I was chatting with emailed Sage to see if he knew why I disappeared on them, and now Sage is freaking out because no one's been answering the phone. I guess everyone's more on edge right now.”

Brennan sighed. “So call him. I can find something to do outside so you can talk alone.” He hesitated, couldn't quite seem to make himself meet her eyes. “If it helps at all, it didn't take me very long to start wondering what in hell I was doing. I didn't really read all that much, and it was all from the last day.”

Oblique considered that, nodded. “It helps. There's nothing in there that I'm ashamed of or think I have to hide, only...”

“Only it's yours and private and I won't forget that again.” He stepped close enough to kiss her cheek, and a moment later the back door banged shut behind him.

Oblique dialled Sage's number, wasn't surprised he picked up halfway through the second ring. “Hello?”

“It's me. Everything's... not exactly okay, but I think it will be.”


54 – Lila

“Everybody certainly jumps and runs when that Lord of yours says so,” Lila chuckled, shooing Jax up the stairs to the front porch. All it had taken was a comment at lunch that he'd be interested in meeting the pair Catherine had mentioned, and some two hours later, Aiden and Neely and their sensitives were here. With Randi, who had apparently spent the night with them. “It was nice of him to say that you could go, though.”

Jax shrugged. “He promised me he'd make sure I had some time to spend with you while we're here.” He settled himself comfortably on the cushioned floor, while she closed the door. “Sensitives only? For real?”

“For real. I haven't been around here much, but Sage says none of the mages come in here, ever. They could, of course, they just don't.” She sat across from him, legs crossed. As worried about him as she was, there was no way she'd been able to pass up the chance for the two of them to have time together. For all she knew, in a few days Andreas would take him away and she'd never see him again. For real, this time. Although at least she'd know, instead of having to wonder.

“Seems to me that's pretty common around here. Mages not doing things that they could do.” It took him just a heartbeat longer than it should, but he met her gaze steadily enough, smiling. “You're really happy?”

Talking was hard, having to walk the line between outright lies and giving away information that could be dangerous if it got to Andreas. She had to choose words carefully, thinking about each, but luckily, she knew how to do that already. She gave him edited descriptions of how she'd come to live with Catherine, and what life was like right now. And he told her about Andreas and Zephyr and Phyllida, and Veritas who was dead but whose shadow lingered. Lila tried not to wince too obviously too often, but wasn't entirely sure she succeeded.

“It's not that bad,” Jax said mildly. “You're going to give yourself whiplash if you keep flinching like that.”

“I've been watching how he treats you. He takes you totally for granted. Would it kill him to say thanks when you get something for him?”

Jax sighed. “It would be nice, but if he didn't get focused the way he does, he wouldn't be who he is. He isn't one of these half-insane Donovans who always stop just inches shy of actually saying mages and sensitives are equals. And it isn't all that hard to figure out why your Lady fits in so well with them. There are a few changes I'd make if I could, but they're all things I can live without.”

“That's the point of the anti-abuse laws and trying to get Van's book recognized and all! So things'll change!”

“What things, exactly?”

What did he mean, what things? “Oh... no forcing shapechanges, no nasty shapechanges, none of the stuff that some mages pull that's outright torture...”

He halfway smiled. “And this will make what difference in my life? That I can say no to shapechanging? He's never done anything that was more than mildly inconvenient anyway. I eat what and when my Lord eats, I sleep in the same bed. That hardly counts as torture.”

“If they all have to see all of us as people, maybe eventually we'll get to choose. Who we want to be with, what we want to do...”

“Did you choose your Lady?”

“Not exactly... well, sort of.”

“How many of the sensitives you know got to choose?”

“Um... two?” Jonathan definitely, and Randi more or less.

“And how many of the sensitives you know regret who they're with?”

Lila frowned, thinking of Aiden and Sage, Brennan and Oblique... “Okay, point, but it still isn't right, that they hunt us like animals and can do anything they want to us!”

“No, it isn't. That they can do that to us is wrong. What passes for freedom for sensitives is wrong, that we ever have to live that way. That it's okay for a mage to starve or beat or kill his sensitive and no one can do anything is wrong.”

“That's what we're trying to do something about.”

He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then shook his head slowly. “You thought I'd read that book and it would make me see things the same way you do, didn't you? Because what it really says is that we're all human and should be treated that way, and that's not a concept we usually come up with on our own after spending our whole lives thinking of ourselves as victims. While we're free we hate and we fear and we resent the way things are, but it just doesn't occur to us that they aren't automatically superior. And then it's made very clear to most of us that we're property.”

Well, she was in this deep... “But we are all human. And we need to get that idea to as many people as possible.”

“You want to change the system, and you don't even understand what it is you're changing,” he said softly. “You want to change the lives of all the tame sensitives in the city, and the domain, and probably the continent, but you never even stopped to wonder whether the changes you think are necessary are the ones that the rest of us might want.”

Lila stared at him in disbelief. “He treats you like a damned pet!”

Jax shrugged. “And?”

“And it's... it's degrading!”

“A year ago, I would have agreed with you totally.” That soft tone never varied; his eyes weren't quite focused on her, attention turned as much inward as outward. “And a week ago, I think I would have at least a little. I couldn't fall asleep for a long time last night, I was thinking too much, and again this morning. And I realized some stuff.” He blinked, looked directly at her again. “Are you going to actually listen if I try to explain it, or are you just going to try to convince me I'm wrong?”

“I'll do my best to listen,” Lila said. This was rather disturbing; she hadn't had much close contact with tame sensitives, only free and feral, and the changes in her friend were unsettling. It might help if she had some idea how he saw things, though, and if nothing else, maybe it would give her some idea how tame sensitives would react to Van's book.

“What are the basic beliefs that all free sensitives share? That mages have absolute power over us, and that we can't do anything about it. And we all resent that, wondering when we'll eat next. Or watching someone die.” He twined his fingers into hers, words and touch a reminder of everything they'd lived through together. “Then the hunters tear the world apart—for most of us, anyway. What are the basic assumptions about belonging to a mage? That everything of value is lost and nothing of value is gained, that anyone would hate and resent that or simply break and really be less than a person, that anyone would of course choose to be free again if they could. Any happiness is just some sort of adjustment and acceptance of what can't be changed, not ever the real thing, just some sort of second-rate version. Or it's all emotional manipulation, because they can do that to us so easily. Hostage syndrome, bonding to a captor we're dependent totally on. Right? Did I forget any?”

“None that come to mind.” Whatever this was, he obviously felt strongly about it.

“Every last one of those assumptions is wrong.”

“Um... how?”

Jax shrugged. “I used to hate the way I needed his approval so badly, no matter what. It felt, for a really long time, like proof that we're weak and they're strong. And I hated this,” he touched the silver and topaz collar with his free hand, “and shapechanging, and magic, because they were just more reminders of that, having it thrown in my face constantly that I couldn't control anything. Sensitives adapt, and I did. But something's been bothering me all along, and I couldn't quite figure it out. I thought I was unhappy because I belong to someone else. Know something? That isn't it at all. What's been keeping me from being happy is all the damned assumptions that I didn't even realize I believed. You can't really feel happy, no matter what, if you're sure that you aren't supposed to be able to be happy. Like I said, I can think of a couple of things I'd change if I could, and the biggest one is to have more to do, but I don't need that. I already have everything I actually need to be happy.”

Lila couldn't come up with any kind of response to that, it went directly against everything she'd been sure of.

“Lila... I live in a gorgeous house, I get good meals three times a day, I have a warm bed to sleep in, I don't have anything awful to do ever. I even have a Lord who's pretty considerate during sex. He needs me. He loves me. He takes care of me the best way he knows. And I need him and I love him. And I take care of him, too, just... quietly.”

“You could have all of that without being seen as property!”

“Not seen as,” he corrected. “I am. And I have no desire at all to change that. And you and your friends have no right to tell me that's wrong, or that I have to feel any other way. I know there are sensitives out there who are going to want what you're trying for, I'm not arguing that. Some of them need it desperately. But not everyone.” He smiled, taking some of the edge off the flat declaration. “Besides, whatever name you give it and however you define the boundaries, you aren't free either, y'know.”

“Catherine lets me do pretty much whatever I want and make my own choices. Sounds like freedom to me.”

“Is it? If one of your choices was to leave her, do you think she'd let you walk away? Or that you honestly could, knowing that she didn't want you to, even if she made no move to stop you? Maybe she would, I suppose, but I bet there's not more than one or two in all the Donovans and their friends who could actually get away with that. It's fairly obvious that what she wants isn't a pet, it's a partner, and acting that way is what gets you all that approval and affection we need. That suits you, it's the way you naturally act anyway. Remember when it was just us? You usually decided, and I went along with it. What my Lord wants is different. He needs someone who can get things for him, and just fade into the background and wait to be needed, and anticipate what he needs, and make sure that all the little everyday things get done while he's lost in his books. And that suits me. If we were the other way 'round, we'd both be miserable, but the way things are, it works.”

That's crazy, Cath made it clear I don't know how many times that I could leave any time I wanted. She hasn't in a long time, but then, why would she, as long as she thought I knew that and wanted to be with her? And I don't change how I act to be what she wants! Even the thought of anyone being unhappy belonging to Catherine was a hard one to get her mind around. “I guess,” she said, trying not to sound as doubtful and confused as she felt. She needed to talk to one of the older sensitives about this, the ones who had come to live with their mages the normal way and had been around for a while.

Jax leaned forward and hugged her, tight. “Just take my word for it, okay? I don't need or want to be rescued, and I'm not the only one. And the ones who are more like me could probably be a lot happier if they understood themselves better, and that would be an awesome thing too. That doesn't mean I won't do what I can to help, 'cause there are lots who do need to be rescued. I promise not to tell anything that'll get you or your Lady or your friends in trouble. Just try to remember that not everyone necessarily feels the same way, all right?”

She snuggled into the hug, returned it, just as hard. “I'll try. That's an awful lot to absorb, though.”

“You're telling me? So, let's try this again. What didn't you tell me about how you ended up with your Lady? Because there are big holes in the version you gave me that I don't think anyone would spot if they didn't know you.”

They curled up together, leaning against the nearest wall; Lila wasn't entirely sure what understanding they'd just reached, but as near as she could figure, it was an acknowledgement of differences that had always been there and were now more visible. Since he already knew enough to sink them all, and she believed him, she told him what had really happened.

A knock on the door made both fall silent, some time later; Sage, currently male and everyday blonde, opened it, and leaned against the doorway.

“Hate to interrupt, kids, but life goes on. Your Lord's off to the Matriarch's house to look something up, and he wants you.”

Jax nodded, untangled from Lila—without haste, but also without hesitation. “Thanks.”

Sage simply echoed the nod, and moved out of the way to let him by.

“You okay?” he asked Lila, quietly, while she got up.

“I think so. Confused. Trying to understand what he meant. How can someone be happy not having any freedom at all and not want to change it?”

Sage smiled. “Freedom and power are relative concepts, hon. As long as he honestly is happy belonging to Andreas, and I would say he is, why argue about terminology and technicalities? Just be glad that he is happy. There are any number of people in this world who are theoretically free and utterly miserable. Remind me to teach you how to use the Internet one of these days, okay? There are some places and some people who might help you figure that one out. Coming downstairs?”

“Yeah, I'd better.” She paused, while Sage closed the door behind her. “If you told Aiden you wanted to leave, would he let you?”

“The odds that he would let me walk away from him are about the same as the odds that I would choose to do so, so I'd say that works out just perfectly, doesn't it? I imagine we'll be heading home very shortly, Neely has a ju-jitsu class in a couple of hours.”

“What about Randi? She's staying with you all day?”

“I don't want to send her home until Brennan and Oblique have a little time to work out a... misunderstanding they had this morning.”

“How bad a misunderstanding?”

“They're both tired and under a lot of stress. It's nothing they won't be able to fix, especially if they can be alone together for a bit.”

“Poor Randi's really getting the worst of this. Bad enough she misses Van, but to keep being the odd one out with no mage, and now her other mage is having problems...” Lila sighed.

“Cuddle her every chance you get,” Sage advised. “That's what Jon and I are doing.”

“Oh god, and I haven't had a chance to check with him in a couple of days. How's he handling this? On top of everything he was already getting used to?”

“Jon's fine,” Sage said firmly. “I'm keeping an eye on him. Neely is also fine. Right now, the only thing we need to concentrate on is getting through this hearing with the family intact.”

Much later, Lila snuggled cozily against Catherine in the second guest room—Van had grown up in this room, long ago, Rich had told her, though it had been redecorated since.

“Cath?” she said finally.


“Just purely hypothetically, if I ever told you that I wanted to leave, would you let me?”

Silence for a long moment. “I think my first reaction would be to find out why, and whether I could possibly do anything to fix it so you wouldn't want to. If you still did... I would like to think that I'd make sure you had everything you'd need for a while and let you go, but I think that it would be a very hard thing to do. I think the temptation would be there to hold you, but I hope I wouldn't give in to it.” A pause. “That's with things as they are now. If our relationship changed somehow, the answer might be different, I don't know.”

“Always life-long,” Lila reflected. “There's no divorce if things go bad between a pair.”

“In most households, either a sensitive isn't permitted to disagree, or it's permitted only within limits. Since sensitives are legally property, there are provisions in mage law for giving one away—which I imagine could be used by Donovans in case of a relationship going sour—or stating who will inherit one on the mage's death.”

Lila shivered. “I definitely wouldn't want to belong to your next of kin.”

“Would you like me to talk to Andreas? We can make sure that if anything happens to me, you go to live with Van or Neely.”

“I'd rather nothing happened to you. Ever.”

Catherine snuggled closer. “I have no intention of having anything happen to me. But now that we've thought of it, it's a smart thing to do, and I don't think it will take long. I'll mention it to him. What got you thinking about this?”

“Jax. Just something he said. It's no big deal.” She shrugged, stole a kiss. “I like Sage's take on it: him wanting to leave and Aiden letting him are about equally likely, so it really doesn't matter. I wouldn't leave you for real, I love you way too much, I was just curious. It's been a really long day, and I don't think the next few are going to get any better. We'd better get some sleep.”

To her relief, Catherine let it go. She just wasn't ready to talk about this in detail yet, she still had too much thinking to do. “Sweet dreams.”


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.


56 – Topaz

“Is that everything in the car?” Lord Andreas asked, when Topaz knelt in front of his chair. Lila, who had been helping, looked puzzled by the absence of her mage but sat on the floor in front of the chair Lady Catherine had been in, while Pride and Chance returned, technically, to the feet of their respective mages; of the three, only Pride could be considered kneeling at all, and that was probably because at her height it made it easier for her mage to reach down to touch her. But then, even that much was probably a combination of his and Lord Andreas' presence and the limited number of seats on furniture in the room.

Lord Aiden and Lord Brennan had sent their good-byes via the others; Sage and Oblique, badly needing to feel normal and to shake off the feeling that they should somehow be kept away from other sensitives, were at Cornucopia working, and just in case of trouble, their mages were lurking quietly in the vicinity. Lady Kerry had an appointment she couldn't change, and Topaz had missed the details on Lady Shvaughn's not being here, but their sensitives were around somewhere.

The sheer size of this close-knit circle of family and friends and their sensitives took some getting used to, after so long with everything quiet.

“Yes, my Lord. I checked your room and the library twice each myself.”

Lord Andreas laid a hand on his shoulder. “We'll be back, forgetting something wouldn't be the end of the world.”

No, but Lord Andreas would be annoyed. Better to just avoid that altogether. Four sensitives combing through it should have gotten everything.

“Sable, Catherine got a phone call from Victoria,” Lady Neely said. “She wanted to talk alone.”

“Thank you, my Lady.” Lila's forehead furrowed—worrying about her mage, Topaz thought—but she left it at that.

“Would you like anything before you go?” Lord Van asked Andreas, and then his attention shifted to Topaz. “Either of you?”

Topaz shook his head. “No, thank you, my Lord.”

“I believe we've both been to the bathroom,” Lord Andreas said, with a hint of humour. “We can stop partway for a drink if we need. But thank you.”

“I'm still working on ways to thank you enough for everything,” Lord Van said.

“You're free, and able to keep going with the frightening but I think also vitally necessary work you feel called to do. You know how to reach me when you need legal help again.”

Yes, it was pretty much certain that was a when and not an if.

“Please do remember to keep me updated. This case may have been an earthquake, but I foresee future aftershocks in plenty and an avalanche of hearings as a consequence of this one, and I strongly suspect I'm going to be asked at least for advice.”

“Absolutely. I have a long list of contact info from people wanting to be involved that Catherine collected. I'll be working on that for a while. Whatever I get, I'll send your way.”

Lord Andreas ran a hand over Topaz' hair; he nuzzled into the affectionate touch happily. “I think my policy of trying to stay uninvolved directly is about to suffer major revisions, at least as far as one very important issue. I don't believe I could live with myself at this point if I chose not to act and a ruling passed that did harm to sensitives or those trying to protect them.”

And that, Topaz knew, was at least in part because his beloved Lord loved him. More time travelling would mean more for him to do in order to help, and periods without shapechanging that would make the times between that did involve shapechanging less dreary. He was allowed to stay in touch with Lila, and Lord Andreas would be visiting here now and then, and Lord Andreas had said something after the hearing that made Topaz think he was going to be encouraged to make and maintain contact with other sensitives. He understood enough to accept himself as he was.

Compared to before the hunters, or the first few months he'd been with his Lord, or even a few days ago, it all sounded extremely promising.

But just wait until Zephyr heard about all this! To say nothing of Lady Phyllida...

“Anyway.” Lord Andreas' somewhat rueful tone turned more practical. “Any trouble for Brennan and Aiden over Oblique and Sage is an extremely high priority, and I'll be here immediately—and you can tell whoever causes the trouble that. There is not a single law, no matter how obscure, that they've broken. People are just going to have to accept the idea that there's more to sensitives than some of us ever thought. Unfortunately, people being people, I expect some of them to scream and fight tooth and nail for every inch.”

“People being people,” Lady Neely said, “a lot of them just didn't bother to think about it, and are going to be just fine with it once they get used to the idea and realize that for most people it's not going to be all that big a change in practical terms.”

Lady Catherine rejoined them, her long blue skirt swirling around her legs like water reflecting sky, and reclaimed her chair.

“Is everything okay?” Lady Neely asked.

“That was a very interesting conversation,” Lady Catherine said. “With Elena not only badly injured but under severe disciplinary actions, Brock under serious doubt because of his closeness to her, at least one novice's training ended on bad terms, and the other novice and all support staff being investigated and re-evaluated, that leaves only Victoria and Faisal responsible for several cities and towns. They're suspending all official sensitive hunts for at least two years and expect to be doing it on a very limited basis for at least three years after that. That won't stop individuals who decide to try on their own, and there will be a few, but without hunter training the odds of a sensitive successfully escaping go up quite a lot. I think alternative methods might suddenly look more appealing to a number of younger mages.”

“Oh god, young mages who were looking forward to getting sensitives of their own are going to be freaking,” Lady Neely said. “They'll probably try anything they're told will give them a decent chance.”

“And their best chance,” Lady Catherine said, “is drawing sensitives to them, by creating the equivalents of York House and Cornucopia. She's very interested to see what happens, and is hoping Van, as the expert, and Grania and Maya and others directly involved will be willing to talk to those from other cities who are considering doing so.” She took a deep breath. “She also asked if I'd be willing to reconsider being a hunter.”

The room went very quiet for a couple of heartbeats. Lila, completely breaking tradition, looked up at her Lady and reached up to close a hand around hers. “But without the hunting sensitives part, right, my Lady?”

“Yes, without that. Focused entirely on the laws and maintaining them. Since the parts of my training I never completed were largely about sensitives, and with the proviso that I take some time to refresh my memory on mage law, she and Faisal are willing to skip any further training and consider me a full hunter immediately.”

“Hunters have partners for a reason,” Lord Andreas said. “With the probability of anti-abuse laws being passed in the near future, you'd need someone to watch your back all the more.”

“Yes,” Catherine said. “And under the circumstances, she has no one to suggest, but she agreed to my request, with some conditions attached. Neely? Until you pass your Master's exam and have time to learn more details about mage law and a few other things, you'd be effectively a part of my household, not Aiden's, and responsibility for making decisions would be up to me. But I can't think of anyone I'd rather have in reach when possibly dealing with mages who are doing things they shouldn't be.”

“Say what?” Lady Neely said; she sounded stunned.

“Think about it,” Lady Catherine said. “I told her I couldn't make a decision like that at a moment's notice and that it was also dependent on what you want. Obviously I didn't point out that Sable and Chance get a say in this too, since it would be an enormous change for all four of us.”

“A Donovan hunter,” Lady Neely muttered. “What a concept.”

“Maybe it's about time,” Lord Van said. “I think the two of you could make a huge difference in a lot of lives. But it's definitely a big decision to make.”

“I must admit,” Lord Andreas said, “my first reaction is to hope you choose to accept. But it would be understandable if you chose otherwise. Let me know when you decide, hm? Meanwhile, we should be getting home.”

Topaz rose quickly to help his Lord up from the chair.

“Thank you. I'm going to go to the car. I think you have some good-byes to say. Take your time.” Lord Andreas gave him a fleeting kiss on the forehead, and turned towards the door.

Topaz thought the three mages remaining exchanged quick glances, then all left the room, Lady Neely starting to speculate about what accepting the offer would mean.

Topaz found himself the centre of a tangle of hugs—one that grew when Tinker and Azure realized what was going on and joined in.

As it wound down, Lila gave him a last fierce kiss, which he returned more than willingly.

“Stay in touch and stay happy,” she said sternly.

“Right back atcha,” he retorted. “Try to stay out of trouble. If you can.”

“Not likely,” Chance chuckled.

“But we'll be watching out for her,” Azure said.

“And for you if you need us,” Pride said.

“Go on,” Lila said, more quietly. “Your Lord's waiting for you.”

It was Pride who walked him to the door, and just before it, she picked up a large sealed envelope and handed it to him.

“What's this?”

“Printouts of some stuff Oblique and Sage's overseas friends thought would be useful. There's a copy at home for Van, he just doesn't know it yet. Since your Lord seems to have decided to plunge into the middle of the mess, we figured he should know everything available. I haven't read it yet, but I gather it's basically an overview of how sensitives and mages relate in Western Europe and Australia, plus what they understand about sensitive abilities. They seem to have less of an understanding about how we bond to each other,” she added thoughtfully, “and some non-magical aptitudes and stuff, so maybe we have stuff to teach them, too. Anyway. You can tell him Van forgot to give it to him, unless you think he'd be okay with the fact that Oblique and Sage and Lila and I basically are responsible.”

“I don't think I want to lie to him, but I don't think I'll tell him the details unless he asks directly. Thanks.”

Lord Andreas gave him a warm smile when he joined him in the car and snapped his seat-belt on. “All set?”

“Yes, my Lord. It'll be nice to get home and rest.”

Lord Andreas chuckled. “They are an exhausting bunch, collectively. What's that?”

Topaz repeated Pride's description of the contents, though not who had provided it; his Lord didn't ask, just thought about that for a few minutes, while they pulled out of the long driveway and got oriented in the right direction.

“We have a long drive,” Lord Andreas said finally. “Why don't you pull those out of there and start reading them out loud?”

“But... it's...”

“I'm not worried about you abusing anything you learn. And we do need to understand as much as possible before someone thinks of charges to call Brennan and Aiden on or some other sensitive figures out how to do it.”


Topaz smiled, tore open the envelope, took out the couple of dozen pages inside, and settled in to read to his Lord through the trip home.


Thank you for taking the time to visit one of my worlds! If you enjoyed it, please consider leaving me a review at your favourite site, telling your friends, or dropping me a line to let me know. Keep your eyes open for more of my work!

~~Steph Shangraw / prysmcat



In Enville (resident families: Alexeiev, Fontana, Nicodemos, Yasuo)



Lera's sensitive (formerly Evan)

Teodor, greenhouse owner

Larkspur, Teodor's sensitive

Foxglove, Teodor's sensitive

the Enville Alexeiev Patriarch


the Enville Fontana Patriarch


Andreas, legal expert

Topaz, Andreas' sensitive (formerly Jax)

Veritas, Andreas' sensitive (deceased)

Phyllida, Andreas' sister, mathematician

Zephyr, Phyllida's sensitive

Elias and Xenia, Phyllida's pre-teen children, living with their grandmother

Luna, Andreas and Phyllida's mother's sensitive

Pelagia, the Enville Nicodemos Matriarch, Andreas' aunt


the Enville Yasuo Matriarch

In Trebury (resident families: Donovan, Ingemar, Kalindi, Santiago, Vladislav)

free sensitives:

Miranda, Randi to friends, a sensitive with a big family

Flora, mother of Randi, Claire (who has a baby), Trey, Dex, works in a bakery early mornings

Jenny, Flora's sister, mother of Denise (who has a baby), Emily, Gloria, works swing/second shift

Kirk, Heather, Gil, and others, nomadic sensitives

Jonathan, an ex-nomadic sensitive who runs errands for Van

Hal, an ex-nomadic sensitive who runs errands for Grania


(note: partial family tree shown below)

Rory, better known as Van, a mental health professional

Brennan, Van's uncle, who likes getting his hands dirty

Oblique, Brennan's sensitive

Aiden, who studies European history, Brennan's cousin

Sage, Aiden's sensitive

Neely, Aiden's niece, living with him until she achieves Master status, uncommonly physical

Elspeth, the Trebury Donovan Matriarch, Aiden's mother

Angel, Elspeth's sensitive

Grania, Shvaughn's youngest daughter, who runs a restaurant and Cornucopia

Unity, Grania's sensitive, who helps with the restaurant

Meta, Grania's sensitive, who looks after Grania's young twin children

Kerry, who enjoys theatre, Van's mother and Brennan's eldest sister

Tinker, her sensitive (formerly Richard)

Nairn, Aiden's younger brother, co-founder of York House

Oona, Aiden's youngest sister, Neely's mother

Calum and Emer, Oona's teenaged children, Neely's siblings

Shvaughn, who enjoys visual arts, Grania's mother and Brennan's middle sister

Azure, Shvaughn's sensitive

Trebury Donovan family tree


Lars, a mage interested in investments

Olaf, a mage biologist with an interest in sensitives

the Trebury Ingemar Matriarch


Maya, a mage who co-founded York House

Karma, Maya's sensitive

?, Maya's sensitive


Vasanta, the Trebury Kalindi Patriarch


Benita, the Trebury Santiago Matriarch


Irenka, a mage who wants a baby

Piotr, a mage with a concussion

the Trebury Vladislav Patriarch


Zach, a psychologist who founded a counselling clinic and hired Van

Hayley, a behavioural science tech who works at the clinic and deals with abuse cases

Beth, the office manager of the clinic

In Dewfield (resident families: Eldridge, Gauthier, Ingemar)

Lila, a nomadic sensitive



Wesley, Catherine's cousin

Catherine's grandmother

Dulcimer, the sensitive of Catherine's grandmother

Trice and Zeus, the sensitives of Catherine's nominal aunts

the Dewfield Eldridge Matriarch


the Dewfield Gauthier Patriarch


the Dewfield Ingemar Matriarch

Between cities (hunters)


Victoria Eldridge

Faisal Hashim


Elena Nicodemos

Brock Eldridge


Felipe Santiago

Yvette Gauthier


Connor Donovan, Shvaughn's son, a marine biologist who lives in the Maritimes

Ysolde Donovan, Shvaughn's daughter, an ecologist and activist in northern Ontario

Willow, Ysolde's sensitive


About the Author

Steph Shangraw lives in southeastern Ontario, Canada, with three rescued cats and their other human minion. In the limited time spent not writing fantasy, she makes handmade cat toys, runs a lolanimals website for her friends to play on, and of course serves her feline overlords. She started writing over 25 years ago, offered several novels on her website for her friends, and is finally venturing into “real” self-publishing.

For more info, other work, or to contact her, visit: www.prysmcat.com