Heart Thiefby Robin D. Owens
“A wonderful, gripping mix of passion, exotic, futuristic settings, and edgy suspense.”—Jayne Castle
In HeartMate, Robin D. Owens swept us away to the planet Celta, where psychic talents are the key to life—and love! Midwest Book Review predicted that “readers will want Ms. Owens to return to Celta for more tales.” And/b>
“A wonderful, gripping mix of passion, exotic, futuristic settings, and edgy suspense.”—Jayne Castle
In HeartMate, Robin D. Owens swept us away to the planet Celta, where psychic talents are the key to life—and love! Midwest Book Review predicted that “readers will want Ms. Owens to return to Celta for more tales.” And the prophesy has come true—with Heart Thief…
Ruis Elder never asked for his unusual trait—the ability to neutralize others’ psychic talent. Because of it, he has always been hated in his own homeland, destined to roam the harsh planet alone. But trouble finds him in front of the ruling Council—and face-to-face with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. There’s only one problem: Ailim is on the opposite side of the bench…
Ailim has never before felt such passion coursing through her as she feels in Ruis’s presence. And she never thought she would—at least not with a man so far beneath her station, a man who does not even have psychic powers. But even on the planet Celta, love is blind to such details. Separately, Ailim and Ruis must forgo their old lives. But together, they can take on the world…
Read an Excerpt
Robin D. Owens
Copyright ã 2003 by Robin Owens
Druida City, Celta,
400 Years After Colonization, Autumn
Ruis Elder stared out windows that faced the street, checking as he did several times a day that no strangers loitered nearby. No assassins or guardsmen hired by his uncle Bucus.
Ruis's birthright had been denied himhis rank as the Heir and ensuing Lord of a GreatHouse, and the estate itselfsomething he strove to forget. To remember made him feel worthless. All he chose to recall was that he must always be on guard.
He went to his bedroom and reached through the open window. The wooden drying bar that extended into the courtyard from the rusty brick wall held his last good shirt. He plucked the red silkeen from the hanger.
The chill autumn air made him catch his breath. The deep blue of the sky with the distant small white sun dazzled his eyes. He savored the sweet-sharp tang of turning fall leaves as he turned from the window. The air felt good, and the silkeen shirt sliding over his skin felt better.
He'd moved into this apartment in the heat of late summer, and it was time to leave. He frowned. The intervals between his moves were getting shorter and shorter.
Stamping into new black boots, Ruis let his gaze linger on the Earth Soil Analyzer, brought with the colonists to Celta. The machine would take more time, money, and knowledge to fix than he'd expected. He stopped himself from picking up tools to tinker with it once more. When he worked on ancient machines, he lost himself in the moment, able to forget his wretched past and ignore his precarious future. His fascination with artifacts that no one else cared about was his salvation.
He tore his gaze from the analyzer. Two Earthsun gems shone in the sunlight on the table. Ruis grimaced. Stealing was a fact of his life since his defect in Flairpsi powerprecluded any normal work on Celta. When he was able to find a job, it was as a common laborer. And laboring didn't pay enough to rescue the past.
He took the jewels, placed them in a wall crack, and brushed flaking grit from the surrounding bricks to cover the gems. One Earthsun was for emergencies, for bribes and survival if his murderous uncle Bucus found him. The second was to acquire parts for Earth mechanicals, which Ruis collected from the corners of abandoned warehouses. Ruis thought he, alone in every other way, was the only one on Celta who was interested in saving and restoring the old machines.
The door burst open.
Guardsmen poured into the room; two stumbled over each other, sprawling. Ruis lunged, aiming for a beefy man twice his weight. Ruis slammed a fist into the guard's jaw. The man staggered back.
“Get him!” cried a guard with chevrons on his shoulders. The one in charge. Ruis spun to jump at him.
The two on the floor staggered to their feet. The one he had punched lifted his staff.
It whistled through the air, hitting Ruis's head. Pain exploded into white streaks, then darkness claimed him.
Sometime later the blackness receded and the buzzing in his ears solidified into actual voices.
“Just a tap. It was just a little tap,” the slack-faced guardsman said in a whining grumble, rubbing his chin. “He'll wake up soon, a minute or two”
Someone grabbed Ruis's hair and yanked his head up. He grit his teeth against the roiling pain. Sweat coated his body.
A stink of liquor and tobacchew swept over him, making his senses whirl even more. He blinked and saw he was still in his rooms.
“Don' worry, Toady, he's comin' 'round. He's jus' a little more delicate a guy than you're used to tappin'. He's got noble blood in him, ya know.”
Ruis was dragged to his feet with a clanking sound that hurt his head. He looked down in horror. Iron manacles clamped his wrists. He'd never seen such shacklesthings from the ancient past. The smelly guard held a length of chain as a leash.
Ruis took a step and found himself hobbled by leg irons cutting into his new boots.
Bound and helpless again! His greatest fear. He shuddered, but reminded himself he wasn't a helpless boy anymore. Would the NobleCouncil torture him as Bucus had?
The fact that he even existed, a Null without the psi powers that every other Celtan had, infuriated Bucus. If Ruis had been normal, he would be GreatLord T'Elder, not Bucus. All the status, the power, and the estates should have been Ruis's. So Ruis had always been a painful thorn in Bucus's side. A thorn he'd tried time and again to remove and destroy.
Red-hot anger overwhelmed Ruis's pain. He lifted his hands to strike and was jerked off balance by the smelly one.
“None a' that.” The guard grinned evilly, dropped the chain, and raised his fists. “Or mebbe so. You wanna fight some more? There are only four of us. Surely a noble like you can win against four. And I'd like to break that straight nose of yours, mess up that classy noble face.” When he smiled, his teeth showed uneven and stained.
Ruis clenched his jaw and pushed the fury awayhe couldn't indulge himself, not now.
Crashing erupted from the other room of his hideaway. He straightened to his full height despite the pain, several centimeters taller than the guards.
The other guards strolled into the room. The Petty Guardsman with chevrons on his sleeves scowled.
“Ya didn't find nothin'?” Smelly asked.
“Not the stuff they said he'd tooken.” Petty scrutinized the room, then glanced at his wrist timer and swore. “I forgot my timer don't work around him. No spells work around him.” Petty snorted, cursed, looked around again, scratched his big belly that hung over his guardbelt. “We gotta go. They only gave us a septhour to bring him to the Guildhall. Afraid we'll hurt the poor boy, mebbe.” He passed Toady and Smelly and picked up the length of chain to use as a lead. “Let's go.”
Two guards left. Petty tugged on Ruis's chain. He ground his teeth and followed, picking his way amongst the wreckage of his belongings. He'd seen his things gleefully destroyed before, especially as a child. Hiding his physical and emotional pain from his uncle Bucus had been the first lesson he'd learned.
Crash! He glanced back. The Soil Analyzer, so carefully cleaned and assembled, lay in a broken heap on the floor. Ruis fisted his hands, but kept hot, useless words to himself.
The last guardsman grinned. “Didn't like that, did you?” His voice held the trace of a good education.
Ruis kept his face expressionless as he battled rage. After a moment he shrugged and turned back to the door.
Surrounded, Ruis shuffled down the stone-paved streets of Druida. The NobleCouncil had caught him. It had sent louts for him, the lowest of guardsmen, ignoble bullies of brutish intelligence, with little innate Flair.
He stumbled, brought up short by his chains, forced into regarding the world around himthe stones under his feet, the squat old buildings of brick or stone set among mid-sized trees, and most of all, the people stopping and staring. The four guards pushed and prodded him, calling him filthy names.
Where had they found the manacles they'd slapped on his wrists and ankles? Ruis hated the constriction of his stride and the clanking that fascinated passersby.
He hid his anger and humiliation behind a casual, insouciant manner, and held his head at a jaunty tilt as if the chains were merely accessories to his fashionable clothing.
“The notorious Ruis Elder,” one of the guards sneered, then belched. “Thief of T'Ash's HeartGift, thief of the Captain's Chalice, thief of Earthsun gems from Stickle's Shop, thief of the T'Birch emerald necklace, you think you're so smart, don't you?”
Ruis wondered which of the thefts had prompted his arrest, probably the T'Birch necklace, since he'd returned T'Ash's HeartGift. Rumor said T'Ash was downright affable now he had HeartBonded with his mate. Besides, T'Ash would have preferred to skewer his liver with a broadsword than have him hauled before a FirstFamilies Council for trial.
The guardsman hacked. “I spit on you.” And he did.
Ruis flinched as the brown spittle hit his flesh exposed by the vee of his shirt. He straightened, glad the spit hadn't landed on his last good shirt and ruined the material. He wouldn't be getting a new shirt any time soon, and he wanted to appear before the most powerful nobles on the planet dressed as his former station deserved, dressed in the materials and styles they themselves wore.
Petty wrenched at the lead-chain. Ruis stumbled. The guard puffed out his chest as bystanders cheered. “He's worse than a thief,” Petty imparted in a hoarse shout, “he's a Null.”
Onlookers shrank from Ruis in horror. He ignored that, too. He was used to disgust and contempt, used to burying the insults deep inside.
“Yeah, this here Ruis Elder was once a GreatHouse Heir. Can you believe that? Thinks himself something special, he does. Thinks himself still noble, though his Family threw him out. Thinks himself more clever than guardsmen. Thinks he can steal all those treasures and not get caught.”
Ruis clamped his jaw shut. He'd give no reaction to their words, wouldn't tempt the guards to abuse him, nor confirm their belief that he was subhuman. Despite what everyone thought, having no Flair didn't make him less than a man. Or even less than an honorable man.
True, his sense of honor had an unusual skew, but it was as strong and vital as anything elseexcept the smoldering rage that sometimes overwhelmed everything.
From under lowered eyelids, Ruis scanned the area, slowing his steps. The guards didn't object to his speed, no doubt thinking to extend their importance. The little parade moved from the narrow streets near the slum “Downwind” to the wider streets of middle-class commoners paved with squares of granite. Here houses and shops looked sturdy, respectable, and had more than narrow, stinking alleys between them. Tall trees lined the streets with rustling leaves edged in the orange and purple of fall. Public Carrier plinths stood at intervals. Traffic hustled with more people. A few personal gliders flowed by, but more often stridebeasts, long fur flying, headed toward NorthGate and out of Druida.
Ruis unobtrusively stretched the muscles in his arms and legs, rolled his shoulders, tested his neck with a wince. His head still hurt, but he could work through it.
He couldn't run, but he could fight. He'd take out a couple of guards and scrabble his way to a close hiding place. Maybe. He eyed the spectators again and took a step toward a cluster of them. They backed up as if he were diseased.
So, he just had to think of a bolt-hole near the route they marched to the Guildhall. He mapped out several pathways in his head. Perhaps there was a chance...
He jerked the chain from the loose grip of Petty but kept walking. The officer glared at him, then around at the crowd he'd been boasting to. Ruis gauged that the man wouldn't make a scene and show he'd lost control of his prisoner. Ruis smiled at him, baring his teeth, and reeled the chain leash up over his hands, feeling the weight, the use it might be as a weapon.
Petty darted looks at his fellows, two with guard-issued short swords and blasers, and the other with a staff. Petty loosened the haft of his own sword, glared at Ruis, then turned back to stride with out-thrust chest before his infamous captive.
A mistake. Ruis's smile widened into a grin.
Gold flashed at the edge of his vision. He glanced back. Narrowing his eyes, he recognized the jeweled pommel of a broadsword and the silver-gilt hair of the man who carried it. Ruis swore. Holm Holly, the best fighter on Celta, followed them, primed to thwart any escape. Holly hadn't forgotten that Ruis had stolen the HeartGift of Holm's best friend, T'Ash. Holly wouldn't underestimate Ruis, or take a chance he'd escape.
Holm was the Heir to the Hollys, a FirstSon, as Ruis himself was a FirstSon. But Holm was accepted and valued by his Family.
Then Ruis noted another blond head on a slighter form, keeping pace a block aheadTinne, the younger Holly son. He looked armed to the teeth, fast on his feet, and ready to fight if Ruis gave him an opportunity. There was nothing the Hollys liked better than to fight.
Damn! No out. No way out. Caught and trapped.
The surge of fury blinded him, made him stagger with its force. Shock sizzled through him at the realization of the depth of his corrosive ragerage at the world for denying him his due, at his Family for shunning him, at others for not even treating him as human. That the burst of anger actually blinded him and stole his wits, shook him to his core.
He had to keep control.
Petty proceeded with his gloating spiel. “Yeah, this thief thinks he can steal and not get caught 'cause he's a Null.”
Toady looked furtively around and lowered his voice. “What's a Null?” he asked.
Petty snorted. “A Null's a creature that don't have no magic, no Flair. And no magic will work on him or around him.”
Toady's mouth dropped as his eyes widened. “No magic will work? Not even a 'light on' spell? Not even an 'open door' spell? Not even a 'protect house' Word? Not even”
“Nothin' means nothin’.” Petty shoved Ruis, who danced to keep his balance. “That's why we were sent to get him. He riles folk with good Flair somethin' awful. They's hair stands on end or somethin'.”
As far as Ruis knew, he was the third Null in the history of Celta. Based on his own experience, he wouldn't have been surprised if others had faded away or committed suicide.
“Doesn't bother me.” Smelly thumped his staff into Ruis's back with bruising force. Ruis was glad it missed his kidney. “I got little Flair, can just do the standard spells. I'm getting paid good gilt to pick this one up and haul him to Guildhall dungeon. Think they'll kill him after his trial?”
“Heh. Heh. Heh.” Petty chuckled. “Mebbe.”
“How do you think they'll do it?” Toady asked. “I've heard of no Council killin'”
“Execution,” Smelly corrected.
“I've just seen some gang fights. And ten noble duels,” Toady added with relish. “How will the Council ext, exek, kill him? Use some of those old ways in stories? Behead him? Hang him? Cut him up? Fry”
“Turn here,” Petty ordered. “Mebbe they'll banish him instead. Some o'those FirstFamilies are mush-hearts, an' that's who'll be tryin' him, those FirstFamilies.”
Toady gulped. “Those great folk with lots of Flair are strange. Big and powerful and strange and weird”
“Yup. The Council's gotta wait a coupla' weeks till all the FirstFamilies are there, but then he gets it.”
“I shure wouldn't wanna be in this guy's shoes.” He glanced at Ruis's boots. “Shure are pretty boots, though.”
“Mebbe you'll get them after he's dead.”
“You think so? Really? Really?” Toady got so excited he bumped into Ruis, pushing him off-balance.
Petty grabbed Ruis and jerked him upright. Manacles scraped his wrists, and blood stained the red cuffs maroon. How appropriate. The T'Elder GreatHouse color was bloodred. The leg irons slashed past the black dye into the leather, leaving white gouges in his boots.
“Hey, get smart,” Smelly said. “Your feet are too damn big for his boots.”
Ruis smiled ironically. Soon he'd be in the Guildhall dungeon. His concern to find a place to live was gone. No more worrying that the generational spells of old buildings would crumble at his long-term presence, that his neighbors would turn on him when they realized what he was, or about the ever-
present threat of his uncle Bucus finding him to make him permanently disappear. Bucus, along with the rest of the NobleCouncil, now had him.
Some of the GreatLords and Ladies were out of town. As soon as the FirstFamilies Council had a quorum, he'd be tried. No doubt they'd take care of it before the Autumnal Equinox in a couple of eightdays. He wondered if he'd be executedanother rare occurrence in Celta, where duels were customarily used to settle differences. But he'd sinned against the FirstFamilies.
Anger stirred, then subsided. Whatever happened, the life he'd known for thirty-five years was over. The crash of his world had been inevitable. The way he lived and his fury-fueled recklessness had guaranteed that. Though he'd stolen for survival and for objects to power his Earth machines, stealing from nobles had been enough to warrant death. Perhaps just being a Null was reason enough to kill him.
His anger had been just, but even justifiable anger was something he couldn't afford. He must master it, since it had determined his fate.
He hadn't seen this coming.
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