Yin-Yang by Steph Shangraw - Read Online
Yin-Yang
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Summary

An urban fantasy novel about power and freedom and trust

Mages in North America seem to have it all – typically from well-off families, and able to manipulate their environment in ways most of the world would never believe. They don’t even have to bother with the mundane details of life like housework, thanks to their sensitives, who also make a useful source for extra magical energy. After all, sensitives have no use for it themselves, and if mages weren’t meant to make use of it, then the sensitives would obviously have some way to prevent that. That a mage can transform a sensitive physically, with no restrictions beyond overall mass and basic biological viability, whereas magic tends not to work directly on any other living thing, is only further proof. And look at the way they live on their own, barely a step above animals. It’s better for them to belong to a mage.

Sensitives in North America live on the edge of society and survival – typically so paranoid they avoid hospitals and anything else that could lead to being tracked, many of them with little or no education and no legal identity or existence. Mages exist, and mages want sensitives for some reason, but no one ever comes back to explain what that reason is. Waiting every day for the hunters to notice them doesn’t lead to much motivation or hope for the future. And once they’re captured, they’re the property of someone with a terrifying amount of power over them. Anything is better than capture.

Mages are born to be the masters, and sensitives are born victims. Or are they?

Jax's life is turned upside-down when he's caught by the hunters and sold to a mage. Andreas is still mourning for his previous sensitive, though, unconsciously creating a difficult standard for Jax to live up to, all the more so while still struggling to come to terms with this new reality as Andreas' sensitive.

A runaway sensitive isn't what Van expects at the mental health centre. Is this a hunter trap, set for him and the rest of the Donovan family by the hunters? The hunters would, after all, love to see them cross the line openly and finally do something they can be charged with. Either way, Miranda's genuinely in trouble, and he can't just abandon her to it.

Snatching a sensitive out from under the hunters and hiding her is odd behaviour for a mage – but then, Catherine is an odd mage, living in disgrace in the old servants' quarters of her grandmother's house, responsible for cooking and housework. Lila owes Catherine her freedom; is there a way to help Catherine achieve her own, and at what price?

Tension is building between traditionally-minded mages and those advocating change; the Donovans and their allies are increasingly active in trying to improve life for free sensitives and protect tame ones. Then hunters find a copy of Van's book about mages and sensitives... in the hands of a free sensitive. With charges of sedition and immorality against Van, for writing unbiased observations rather than accepted "truth" and for allowing it to reach free sensitives, the outcome of this hearing is going to have consequences far beyond his own fate.

*** Yin-Yang includes a small amount of profanity and no graphic sex or violence. However, sex and gender roles and relationships within the mage/sensitive subculture are non-traditional in mainstream North American terms. The key criterion in a primary relationship is not relative sex or gender, but the pairing of mage and sensitive; given the transformation of sensitives by their mages, physical sex is non-absolute for a sensitive, and gender identity can vary as in anyone else. ***

Published: Steph Shangraw on
ISBN: 9780993805707
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Yin-Yang - Steph Shangraw

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absent!

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?

Yes.

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