On the planet Celta, accepting a HeartMate can be the greatest challenge in the universe…
Antenn, an architect hired to build a cathedral in Druida City, dares not think of his HeartMate. Even though he yearns for her, he’s taken steps to ensure she will be forever unknown to him. After all, how could he, a commoner who grew up in the slums, the brother of a murderer, be worthy of any woman?
Tiana, a priestess, has her own fears about being a HeartMate. She's watched her friends struggle with such a stormy destiny. She's sure her HeartMate has never claimed her due to a terrible scandal involving her Family, and she's set aside hopes for love.
Antenn's gotten the commission of his life. The cathedral will make him famous, but more, it will last for ages and prove to others he can contribute to Celta...if the controversial structure isn't destroyed while being built. Tiana, too, is an integral part of this process, but the villain who wrecked her Family is ready with firebombs. Can they trust each other in dangerous circumstances to succeed...and to love?
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“I keep telling myself that she just can’t get much better, but with every book she amazes and surprises me!” —The Best Reviews
Robin D. Owens
Antenn Blackthorn-Moss: Hero, architect, Fam Pinky (a cat who became a Fam).
Tiana Mugwort: Heroine, FamCat Felonerb.
The Turquoise House (TQ): Intelligent House.
Mitchella Clover D’Blackthorn: Adopted mother, interior designer, FirstFamily GrandLady (heroine of Heart Choice).
Straif T’Blackthorn: Adopted father, FirstFamily GrandLord, tracker (hero of Heart Choice).
Ilex Winterberry: Cousin by marriage of Trif Clover Winterberry, Chief of all the Druida City guards (police), (hero of Heart Quest).
Draeg Betony Blackthorn: Adopted cuz, warrior (upcoming hero of Heart Legacy).
Camellia Darjeeling D’Hawthorn: GreatLady D’Hawthorn, businesswoman/cook, owner of teashops (heroine of Heart Search), FamCat Mica.
Glyssa Licorice Bayrum: FirstLevel Librarian (heroine of Heart Fortune).
Artemisia Mugwort Primross: Sister, Healer (heroine of Heart Secret), FamRaccoon Randa.
Quina Mugwort: Mother, devotee of the Intersection of Hope religion, Healer.
Sinjin Mugwort: Father, former judge, writer of legal articles.
Garrett Primross: Brother-in-law, private investigator (hero of Heart Secret), FamCat Rusby.
High Priestess GrandLady Ulmaria Meadowsweet D’Sandalwood: Of GreatCircle Temple.
High Priest GrandLord Alb T’Sandalwood: Of GreatCircle Temple.
Lucida Gerania of GreatCircle Temple: FirstLevel priestess and rival of Tiana Mugwort.
Chief Minister Younger: Reflecting the childlike self.
Chief Minister Foreman: Reflecting the vital adult.
Chief Minister Elderstone: Reflecting the older, wise guide.
Chief Minister Custos: Reflecting the inner guardian spirit.
GreatLord Muin (Vinni) T’Vine: Friend of Antenn, the prophet of Celta.
GraceLord Hymale Equisetum: Enemy of the Mugworts, founder of the Traditionalist Stance movement.
Mica: FamCat to GreatLady Camellia D’Hawthorn.
Brazos: FamCat to GreatLord Laev T’Hawthorn.
Rusby: FamCat to Garrett Primross.
GreatLord Rand T’Ash: Jeweler/smith (hero of HeartMate), Fam-Cat Zanth.
GreatLady Danith Mallow D’Ash: Animal Healer (heroine of HeartMate).
Arvense Equisetum: Farmer, cuz to GraceLord Equisetum.
GraceLord Majus T’Daisy: Newssheet owner and editor.
GrandLord Walker T’Clover: Statesman (hero of the novella Noble Heart in the collection Hearts and Swords).
GentleLady Avellana Hazel: Daughter of a FirstFamily House, artist, fiancé to Vinni T’Vine.
GreatSir Tinne Holly: Owner of The Green Knight Fencing and Fighting Salon (hero of Heart Fate).
GreatSir Nuin Ash: Eldest son of T’Ash and D’Ash, fire mage.
DRUIDA CITY, CELTA
422 Years after Colonization
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three explosions shook the narrow two-story house, followed by an ominous whoosh and crackling.
Pinky, Antenn Moss’s cat, yowled in terror. Antenn used all his twelve-year-old speed to snag the cat and run from the kitchen.
Trif Clover met him in the hallway, her face pale with fear. “Fire. We can’t get out. Fire blocks both doors, windows, stairs.” Wrapping her arms around herself, she said, “I don’t know how to teleport.”
“Me, either,” Antenn said. His voice was high but didn’t shake or crack. Good. “You have Flair, psi power. Yell mentally to EVERYONE. I will, too. Neighbors will call.” The space between his house and others was narrow.
“I know the best place, this way.” He grabbed her hand and ran with her to a far corner of the mainspace, then put Pinky down. “There’s a little foundation crack here. Maybe we will be under the smoke.” He yanked Trif and tried to put her next to Pinky, but she was twenty and bigger and stronger. She pushed him down and curled around him like he did around Pinky.
Using a little Flair, Antenn widened the crack, hoping to pull more air in just for them, and he prayed, and yelled with his mind.
And listened to the fire eat its way to them.
This was no natural fire. Must have been firebombs. Though he was only twelve, enemies wanted him dead for what his brother had done. Was this revenge?
His home was gone. If he survived, he knew gut deep, bone deep, everything would change.
* * *
A rough tongue rasped over his face, prickling his beard, and Antenn’s eyelids whipped open to see too-close Pinky whiskers and teeth. He grabbed his plump Fam and sat, panting from the nightmare that had been the past.
Bad dream, Pinky sent telepathically. He could do that now. The cat had transformed to a Fam.
“Yeah.” Not surprising. That had been one of the most memorable experiences of Antenn’s life, and today, hopefully, would be another. He kicked off the covers and put Pinky down, not wanting any kneading paws on his lap. “Heading into the waterfall now.”
The small Fam’s nose wrinkled. Time for breakfast!
“Not quite,” Antenn said, but saw his Fam trot to the door in the wall and out.
Padding to the waterfall room in his Family home, T’Blackthorn Residence, which he’d moved into the day after the fire, Antenn passed the tunic and trous he’d laid out for the day. Very professional cut, but sturdy enough and bespelled enough to handle tramping all over the site of the cathedral on the Varga Plateau.
The cathedral. He dragged in a deep breath, caught the smell of panic-sweat the dream had coated him with, and grumbled. Not a good way to start the day.
Very big day. If his clients signed the contract for the cathedral, Antenn would prove to all he was a valued member of Celtan society. His name would go down in history, Antenn Blackthorn-Moss, a FirstLevel Architect. He’d finally settled on Blackthorn-Moss instead of Moss-Blackthorn. Knew himself better.
Knew bone deep that today, everything could change.
* * *
I know you desire my position, dear,” the High Priestess of GreatCircle Temple, the main priestess on the planet, said to Tiana Mugwort.
Tiana stumbled over a small rock in the meditation path. Her mentor’s comment caught her off guard. She’d been concentrating on keeping her new, expensive, and white formal robe from catching on some of the twiggy bushes along the trail instead of watching where she was going.
“Most FirstLevel Priestesses would be honored to have your position,” she said. No help for it, she’d have to use psi power, Flair, to coat her gown. She’d anticipated this career review would take place in an office instead of one of the winding paths near GreatCircle Temple.
With a huge, hopefully discreet breath, she used nearly the last of her Flair to'protect'her robe for a half septhour. Surely that would be enough. She’d spent her psi energy recklessly this morning with several teleportations before the meeting.
She’d thought there’d be tea and flatsweets. Instead she needed to catch up, both on the path and with the conversation.
Of course she shouldn’t have expected her own ambition to become the High Priestess—no matter how masked behind a quiet manner—to have been overlooked by the savvy woman.
“And despite the rumors, I am not ready to retire within the next few years.” The older woman, GrandLady Ulmaria D’Sandalwood, paused in their trek and smiled with good humor plumping her round cheeks, kindness showing in her sparkling dark-brown eyes. “I may never be ready to retire. Nonetheless, it is time to evaluate you for your next step up this career ladder you wish to pursue, yes?”
Warning! Tiana began to sweat even in the shade of the thick trunks of blossoming trees blocking the morning sun.
Ambition and spirituality didn’t often mix well, and everyone who’d chosen to become a priestess or priest knew it.
With great care, Tiana smoothed her gown away from the wild underbrush, hoping her spell would work to keep her gown from tangling. The robe had cost a full month’s salary and was appropriate for her work in formal rituals more than anything else.
Seeing the lady’s gaze on her, she straightened one of her long rectangular sleeves embroidered in gold with her rank as FirstLevel Priestess and her Family designation, mugwort leaves.
The High Priestess’s robe showed embroidery of her birth Family and her HeartMate’s Family. Both of those Families had much more clout than Tiana’s disgraced one.
That disgrace was a thorn in Tiana, spurring her need to reach the greatest pinnacle in their religion, one of the highest positions in their culture. She had to prove that she—and her Family—were honorable people. Her eyes stung as she glanced around the area that she wanted for her own—a permanent place in GreatCircle Temple. She’d wanted this ever since the Lady had come to her as a child, had walked with her in dreams, had called her to serve.
Now she and the High Priestess walked along one of the looping trails in the Temple environs, this one outside the manicured lawns and gardens, just beginning to show color. She knew the seasons of GreatCircle Temple and cherished them.
Soon the tall trees overhead and the hearty bushes would give way to a broader path through tall, dense hedges that would accommodate three, though Tiana didn’t think the High Priestess’s HeartMate, the High Priest, would be joining them. Tiana hoped not; she felt more unprepared than she’d anticipated.
Looking to her right she could see the Temple itself, her sanctuary, her heart’s home. “I don’t want to leave GreatCircle Temple and be transferred to another temple.” The statement spurted from her lips without passing her brain first, appalling her.
GrandLady D’Sandalwood’s plump hand swept over a bush full of tiny spring flowers, releasing a gentle scent that soothed, as it was meant to, even as Tiana’s mind raced to amend her words and mitigate her mistake.
But the High Priestess continued, “There have always been two paths to the top ranks of the priests and priestesses of Celta. One way is to stay here in GreatCircle Temple; the other is to prove your worth by rising as the priest or priestess of small to medium temples, then graduating to more influential ones. Then when the time comes to choose the next High Priestess your name is known.”
“I understand,” Tiana said, pushing her impatience with this conversation down, down, down. This was the next step on her life plan.
“Something you should also consider is that due to our rituals, the High Priest and High Priestess are sometimes mates. Either husband and wife or HeartMates. We find ourselves drawn to those in our profession.” The High Priestess paused delicately. “I believe you have a HeartMate.”
Tiana dredged up the expression she put on and the words she said every time that particular issue was raised. “Yes, but he hasn’t come looking for me.” She fought hard to keep the bitterness from her voice. She’d tried several times to connect with him emotionally and hadn’t been able to do so. “Because of the disgrace of my Family, perhaps.”
“Perhaps.” The other woman flicked her hand as if that event, the most influential and disastrous event in Tiana’s life, were of absolutely no matter. Tiana bowed her head to keep her irritation from showing, watching the trail they walked. Oh, yes, this extremely intelligent lady tested her.
“You don’t anticipate looking for your HeartMate?” the High Priestess asked, smiling and waving at some picnickers, then back to Tiana.
Tiana’s gaze shot to her mentor’s. “No . . . I didn’t . . . no!” Too forceful, dammit!
“A HeartMate is one of the greatest blessings of life, yet you turn your back on it? This concerns the High Priest and me.”
“I don’t know who he is. He doesn’t want me!” Tiana burst out. “He’d have come if he’d wanted me!”
The priestess’s curved and groomed brows lifted. “You know his mind and heart so well, then? You have such a strong bond you know this?”
“So it is your mind and hurt that prevent you from searching for him.”
“I . . . I had not thought so.” Eyes prickling, fingers twitching with the need to fist them, sweat slithering down her spine, Tiana said in a low voice, “But you must be right. I will have to meditate on this.” She’d just given up on him, concentrated on her career. There weren’t really many couples, even HeartMates, that became priests and priestesses.
“And,” Tiana swallowed, adding in a tiny voice, “I will need more mentoring on this matter.” She faced an awful truth she hadn’t known inside her. “I will need a . . . steadier mind and emotions with regard to my HeartMate before I proceed with any search for him.” She’d need the support of not only her mentor, but her two best friends.
“I see.” The High Priestess gestured to the right-hand fork in the path that avoided the hedges and led back toward the Temple. Tiana wasn’t sure what that indicated. Her pulse bumped hard through her body. Had she just ruined her career?
The path had widened, and she moved to walk next to the High Priestess between garden beds showing shoots of green, tiny spears of hope that Tiana could no longer match.
A long moment of silence passed before Tiana raised her eyes, needing to see more of D’Sandalwood’s reaction. And found quiet contemplation . . . not at all what Tiana had expected.
“Lady?” she croaked.
“I am not She, not the goddess,” the priestess said. “Not today at this time. Her aspect is not within me. But I think we can leave this HeartMate matter to Her and Her Lord.”
That wasn’t a notion that sat well with Tiana, that the main deities of Celta might mix in her personal life. They had so many others to care for.
“They care for us all,” the priestess said. “And we Celtans believe in destiny in some things, do we not?”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
D’Sandalwood inclined her head. “Very well, we shall set aside the concern regarding interacting with your HeartMate for the moment, but you do know it is a point of growth that must be addressed in the future, don’t you?’
“Yes, GrandLady D’Sandalwood.” Tiana began to feel like the veriest novice instead of a priestess who’d been accepted into the highest rank, FirstLevel. She’d been an apprentice at the Temple: a journeywoman, third-level, then second-level priestess. Still she had more personal problems than she’d anticipated before she could progress in her career.
“So let us touch on the matter of your wish to become the highest priestess in our land . . . eventually.”
Tiana swallowed. The floral scent of spring blooms dried on her tongue like the sharpness of dying flowers.
“I don’t think you are ambitious in the right way, or for the right reasons.” The High Priestess sounded more severe.
Though all Tiana’s muscles clenched and her mind scrambled, she projected a relaxed manner as they strolled.
“You are very good at seeming serene,” said the priestess, a hint of admiration in her tone.
“Thank you.” Tiana managed not to croak out the response.
Then D’Sandalwood’s face folded into sternness. “You have ambition, but I believe the fire that burns in you to become High Priestess is because you want to prove to everyone that you are a fine woman who is deeply spiritual in our Celtan culture.” She paused, eyes intense. “Though your mother is a member of the Intersection of Hope Church, popularly known as Cross Folk.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a member of the Intersection of Hope religion. We welcome all religions here on Celta.”
“That’s true.” GrandLady D’Sandalwood nodded but continued inexorably. “But you want to prove to all that it was wrong for a Noble enemy of your father’s to accuse your Family of being a part of the Black Magic Cult, to have your title ripped from you, to exhort a mob to set fire to your home, and to force your family into hiding.”
Tiana repressed a shudder at the litany of the destruction of her life, at the desperation and despair that had followed. The High Priestess had slammed her with that list for shock value, of course.
Then the High Priestess stopped and turned and took Tiana’s hands, and Tiana realized she’d allowed her eyes to blur with scenes of the past; she blinked and met the older woman’s steady gaze. “But, Tiana, we all know that all those events that happened were wrong.”
“He’s still in power, GraceLord T’Equisetum,” Tiana ground out. He was the lowest level of a Noble, “Grace,” as her father, her Family, had been.
“But his power has been checked. He was a rising star in the NobleCouncil until he let his hatred of your father, of your mother’s religion, make him act impulsively and wrongly by requesting that the NobleCouncil strip your Family of their title and wealth in perpetuity.”
He’d done it from calculated greed, not from wrongheadedness as most people thought, used the quick fear the NobleCouncil had had about the Black Magic Cult murders to spearhead that effort. Furthermore, Tiana deeply believed that he’d been behind inciting the mob that firebombed their home and drove them away.
But the High Priestess continued. “He had hopes of being Captain of All Councils, you know.”
Tiana wasn’t surprised; her nostrils pinched at the thought. But unlike the High Priestess, Tiana still believed, felt, the man was dangerous. He remained an enemy.
“You are still angry at GraceLord T’Equisetum, and don’t open your heart to forgiveness.”
Lifting her brows, Tiana said, “One can forgive after the wrongdoer acknowledges his or her harm and regrets the harm they caused. Despite what you said, GraceLord T’Equisetum has never stated he was wrong, never acknowledged in a public manner that he did my Family wrong. Just goes on spewing hate for anyone and anything he doesn’t consider good.” She stopped herself from adding that the man was a canker.
“He has a right to hold his own beliefs.”
“The main tenet of our religion, of our culture, is to harm none! He hurt my Family,” Tiana said quietly, when she wanted to shout it. They had never recovered the lost title, the Family estate, the home. Justice had not been done. Her parents had retreated to the secret sanctuary of Druida and were only now taking first steps out of it, years later, since her sister, Artemisia, had married.
“Yes, he hurt you and your Family.” Lady D’Sandalwood squeezed Tiana’s hands, and she felt the boundless caring from the woman. “And that is the root of your ambition, dear Tiana, not that you want to serve the Lady and Lord, give yourself over to the Lady in selfless service, let her speak to you and through you.”
“I am a good priestess!”
“Yes, you are, but you will be a better one if you understand what you truly want, and I don’t think it is becoming the High Priestess of Celta. You serve best when you perform rituals with small groups and intimate circles. And your crafting of new rituals is better than that of anyone else in the Temple with your years. Those are the skills that High Priest Lord T’Sandalwood and I believe embody your calling.”
Not rising to the top of the pyramid of success, but creating rituals for those at the top to use. Working with small circles. Hurt speared through Tiana.
But she wouldn’t quit, wouldn’t modify her plan right now. She could still become High Priestess. She had years to try.
“You love your mother.” A final squeeze of the hands by D’Sandalwood before she loosed Tiana’s fingers.
“Of course I do!” Tiana replied instinctively.
The GrandLady began strolling again toward GreatCircle Temple. “And your mother believes truly in the tenets of the Intersection of Hope, that there are four parts to one divine being.”
“Yes, it is a religion based on good to others, also. A religion that is a derivation of a major religion of old Earth but developed in the starships during the long voyage here.”
Lady D’Sandalwood finally smiled with great approval, the smile everyone near her wanted to see. Tiana relaxed.
“We teach of the other religions in our programs, and most people, including our priests and priestesses, understand, intellectually, what they are. But you, Tiana, have an open heart in this matter, and truly understand and accept those who worship in other ways than our own.”
This was no idle conversation; the woman was leading somewhere.
“Let us proceed to my office,” D’Sandalwood said.
Office for official business. Tiana’s back, her whole gait, stiffened, but the High Priestess didn’t seem to notice as she picked up her pace and Tiana matched her. And hoped that the birdcalls overrode the gurgle of her stomach. She’d been too nervous for breakfast.
They entered GreatCircle Temple through the huge eastern doors of rock quartz carved with designs of wind and air. These doors were the closest to the city and the ones most people used.
There was a short hallway the depth of the priests’ and priestesses’ offices with walls covered in a mosaic of crystals that caught the light from the armorglass ceiling and reflected prisms in the small space. Tall, pale pine doors led to the corridor that curved through the round building.
The High Priestess turned left, toward the southern curve of the circle. Just beyond the due-south door, they entered the High Priestess’s suite and passed through the sitting room and into the office, an inner room with no windows.
Tiana sat with the High Priestess in the gloom for only an instant before the woman waved a hand and the roof glass thinned to nothing, letting in the scents of turned earth ready for flowers. A slight breeze ruffled the stray papyrus on D’Sandalwood’s desk, nearly lifted the covers of the thick deep turquoise of Tiana’s personnel file and a new, thinner folder of heavy cream-colored papyrus edged with gold. Did that cream and gold indicate her next position? Tiana’s eyes sharpened. What did those colors mean?
The moving air swept around her head, lifting her hair and cooling the perspiration on her neck. It felt good. The sun slanted in, touched a wall lined with plaques of their faith—a pentacle within a leafy circle, the green man, the antlered Herne, the face of the Lady. Those soothed Tiana. She was still in the Temple, the place she loved, a building imbued with positive energy.
She sat in the deeply cushioned seat with just the right amount of springs to keep a person comfortable and watched GrandLady D’Sandalwood sink into her comfortchair, one that conformed to her body.
“FirstLevel Priestess Tiana Mugwort.” The woman’s voice plucked chords of obedience and deference in Tiana, no mistake, that. “You have stated that you will abide by my and High Priest Lord T’Sandalwood’s decision with regard to your next assignment.”
Tiana bowed her head. “I will.”
She had no choice if she wanted to continue in her career, and she knew now that what they asked of her would be tough.
The duty we assign to you must be fulfilled in an acceptable manner for you to continue to rise in the ranks of the priestesses of Celta. Of course you can choose to stay at your current level and you will be assigned a permanent temple of your own.” The intensity of the High Priestess’s gaze had Tiana looking up and matching it.
D’Sandalwood smiled. “We would be pleased to grant you the CircleTemple and Sacred Grove in Landing Park.”
One of the premier small temples in Druida City, the temple nearest to the great starship Nuada’s Sword, a gem of a temple, a plum of a job. Tiana’s until she retired. But it wasn’t GreatCircle Temple. It wasn’t here.
She swallowed with a dry throat.
“If you do not take the offer of Landing Park CircleTemple, it will be offered to another and you will miss your chance to have it.”
“Your other choice will have you remaining here, but with a suite of two rooms instead of one. Your counseling will diminish and your leading ritual circles will remain the same, and you will take on a new assignment.” The High Priestess watched with sharp eyes and Tiana thought the woman had seen her concern, then her pleasure that her circle work would continue as is. Tiana loved leading circles.
She didn’t speak, but waited, and the silence between them filled with the chirp of birds—always continual and melodic around the Temple. A hint of floral fragrance swirled around them from the High Priestess’s personal meditation incense.
Calm trickled through Tiana and her mind began to subside into a meditative trance. The priestess nodded and smiled. “Well done. I thought you might never relax during our time together, and a priestess must always be able to reach for serenity . . . and joy.”
Tiana smiled back.
Lady D’Sandalwood opened the cream and gold folder. “We have been approached by one of the Chief Ministers of the Intersection of Hope to give our approval for them to build a cathedral on the Varga Plateau outside the Druida City walls.
“We stated that they did not need our approval or blessing for such an action, of course.
“Chief Minister Custos informed us that they have the land and the permits and the architect already, and wanted our support. We told them that they have it, and that we would assign a liaison to work with them and their architect, Antenn Blackthorn-Moss.”
The words jolted Tiana from her peaceful state, reverberated in a near scream in her head. She’d distanced herself from her mother’s religion since the scandal, the firebombing of her home. Now she was being pulled back into it. Rumor and gossip would buzz around her again; her old wounds would reopen.
“Tiana, if we, the High Priest and High Priestess, find your efforts at completing this assignment worthy, you will be accepted as one of our main assistants here in GreatCircle Temple and regularly write and perform ritual circles for the benefit of all Celta.”
“I . . . I . . .” She shouldn’t have started to speak, because she floundered, showing herself near panic. Being an assistant to the High Priest and Priestess was a prize. But to do that, she’d have to work through all her pain from her Family’s losses. Of course, that was the reason she was being given the experience.
“This will be a high-profile project, which will cause a great deal of . . . discussion,” D’Sandalwood said.
She really meant outcry.
The High Priestess continued, “There is no room in our world for religious prejudice. That tore apart old Earth on more than one occasion. We will not tolerate it here, and we will make that clear to the All Councils, the twenty-five FirstFamilies who rule, those who are devout in our faith in the Lady and Lord. We will stand firmly behind the Intersection of Hope, this undertaking to raise their own beautiful and substantial place of worship. We will completely support you as our liaison, Tiana. You have our blessing.”
Which came close to a dismissal.
“You have an appointment at MidAfternoon Bell with my HeartMate, High Priest Lord T’Sandalwood, to discuss this matter, also. After that, we will give you two days to decide.”
Tiana’s mind whirled; she couldn’t even manage a nod.
GrandLady D’Sandalwood raised a finger. “Though we allow you two days for your decision, we have no control over the timing of other events. The project will be announced, and the Chief Ministers of the Intersection of Hope will be giving interviews to the newssheets and viz press tomorrow morning.”
“Before the time I make my decision,” Tiana said, grasping the point most pertinent to her.
The High Priestess inclined her head. “We would, of course, like to confirm you as liaison at that time, during our own interviews.”
Tiana steadied her breath and began breathing deeply to calm herself.
With a glance at the wall timer, the High Priestess said, “Though we had not anticipated such a task for you, the High Priest and I are pleased that one arose. And though, of course, you do have two days to contemplate the matter, events march on and we have had to make definite arrangements to handle the situation. We have set up an appointment with Antenn Blackthorn-Moss for you in half a septhour at his office in CityCenter.”
“Will you abide with our decision and deal with the arrangements we have already made?”
Sternness lived under the soft aspect of the High Priestess’s face. Her plump hands had gestured with sharp movements.
Despite what her mentor had said, Tiana knew she had to decide.
Stay at this level, or go forward. She bowed her head to hide the resentment filling her. Though she believed the High Priestess and High Priest hadn’t manipulated her, the situation had done that; she hated that she had to make a life-changing decision on a few moments’ notice.
Pretty much anything but “Yes, High Priestess,” would poorly influence the career she loved, had worked at for years. One she wanted to rise in.
She took another long, long breath and raised her head. “I . . .” Dammit, she couldn’t get the words out in one sentence! Had to clear her throat. “I don’t need to take two days. I agree to your task.”
A fast, beautiful smile came from D’Sandalwood, one that lit her eyes, and an open expression of great approval . . . with a touch of surprise. “Excellent.” She paused. “A Temple glider is waiting to take you to your meeting with the architect.” Several heartbeats’ pause. Definite dismissal.
“Thank you for this opportunity,” Tiana mumbled as she stood and fluttered the folds of her elegant, richly formal robe slightly. She’d worn the garment to honor the High Priestess.
Tiana suppressed tears as Lady D’Sandalwood came and embraced her in a soft and caring hug.
“You need to work through your anger, dear girl. Think how you might take steps to release that, more than you have done.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
Holding her at arm’s length, GrandLady D’Sandalwood smiled in sympathy. “You can do this, Tiana. This is an extremely important situation to us, and we know you will represent us well.”
Pride had Tiana’s shoulders straightening, and the tears coating her throat drying.
“We know this will be a personal trial to you.” The priestess searched Tiana’s face. “But we think it will serve your soul’s growth well.”
Tiana was just fine with her soul as it was. “Yes, Lady Sandalwood.”
“Good. You will do fine.” She dropped her arms and stepped back, tucking her hands in the long sleeves of her equally formal gown. At least hers was shifting shades of blue; Tiana’s was white.
“Go to your appointment with GentleSir Blackthorn-Moss, and don’t forget your meeting with my HeartMate this afternoon.”
As if Tiana could. Again she bowed her head, and words came from deep inside. “I appreciate your confidence in me.”
“Honor your mother and her religion, and us and ours, and yourself, Tiana. Blessed be.”
“Blessed be.” She concentrated on steady steps to the door and down the hallway, turned to one of the four main entrances, the southern one, and saw her rival, Lucida Gerania, smiling as she left High Priest GrandLord T’Sandalwood’s chambers, obviously happy with her assignment.
Tiana had to squelch envy hard.
Lucida beamed at Tiana, and then her smile took on a hint of glee. “You don’t seem pleased with your new assignment.”
A good thing that irritated words stuck in Tiana’s throat. She rearranged her expression, lifted her chin a little. “It’s a challenge,” she said, and, to her discredit, liked the beginning of the frown she saw. “And I’ve been named an assistant and graduated to a two-room suite.”
The other’s nose lifted. “So have I.”
Of course she had.
Lucida said, “I’m just going to check my new offices out. See what furnishings they might need . . . or whether I should tint the walls first . . .” She lifted blond brows.
“A Temple glider is waiting to take me to a pressing appointment,” Tiana said. The amount of gilt she could spend on any refurbishment of her new offices was nil.
Envy flashed in Lucida’s eyes. For now. Tiana knew the woman would be crowing when she heard of Tiana’s duty.
“Blessed be,” Tiana said.
“Blessed be.” Lucida nodded, then hurried down the wide and curving corridor.
* * *
A long, sleek, dark-blue glider with the sigil of the GreatCircle Temple sat under the portico. As Tiana advanced, the door opened upward and she slid into the luxury of soft furrabeast leather. The door whispered shut and the glider accelerated. No driver sat on the front bench, so the vehicle had already been programmed to take her to the offices of the architect, Antenn Blackthorn-Moss. Just from his name, Tiana knew he was adopted by one of the twenty-five FirstFamilies, the Blackthorns, a GrandHouse.
Everyone knew the Blackthorns had problems with sterility and a vulnerability to some common sicknesses, so the couple had adopted several—many?—children. She thought Antenn was the first, but T’Blackthorn hadn’t chosen an Heir, from either his children or a cuz and a secondary line. She’d do some research later.
Now she concentrated on resting since she hadn’t slept well the night before, nervous about her meeting with High Priestess GrandLady D’Sandalwood. And she’d teleported to a couple of stops from the hidden sanctuary where she lived to GreatCircle Temple. Then she’d had to add spells to her dress. Weariness pressed on her.
Still, it wasn’t often she’d ride in such classy comfort. One of her best friends, Camellia D’Hawthorn, had married into the FirstFamilies, but Camellia’s HeartMate and husband preferred small and jazzy sports vehicles. Tiana’s Family had no vehicle at all.
Stooopppp! Let me IN! screeched a mental voice.
Reacting instinctively, Tiana snapped, “Stop the vehicle immediately.”
The glider whooped a warning to others, jerked still, deployed the landing brackets, and rocked back and forth on them.
Windooww! yelled something. Tiana turned toward the sound and jolted as something dark and furry showed beyond the tinted window.
“What are yo—” she began, but saw a whippy cat tail. All right. She commanded, “Thin the back windows to air.”
The spell took hold, and the furry animal bolted through, landing close to her. She put out a hand to keep the cat from tumbling onto her and thought she saw drool or spittle flying toward her, too.
Yay! Look at Me! I am with My FamWoman! I have CATCHED her!
Tiana stared at the brindled cat of drab shades of brown and gray. One of his ears was half gone. Obviously not a pampered Fam, but a feral.
He smiled ingratiatingly, showing a broken fang, too, and then his loud and rumbling purr filled the glider.
“FamWoman?” Tiana asked faintly.
His head bobbed. A white scar showed the length of his head and'disappeared'into the fur near his neck. I am your Fam.
“Do you even know who I am?”
The Fam snorted. Acourse I do. You are the priestess who lives in the secret place that welcomes the really scared or sad.
Her heart thudded and her mouth dried. That was true.
You are not the Healer who lives there and who has a raccoon Fam. The tom lifted a paw and flicked it as if dismissing such a creature. But Tiana’s sister’s Fam was young and pretty, especially compared to this one.
So was everyone else’s Fam.
Light-green eyes fixed on hers. I am a good fighter. Like you.
He preened and turned his head and licked a mat by his shoulder. We will be good together. I have been smelling you for the last two weeks, and knew I had to find you.
That simply appalled Tiana. “Smelling me?”
He sniffed. Yes. You are my FamWoman.
Well, he had no doubt about that.
“I take it you haven’t come from GreatLady Danith D’Ash’s Fam Adoption Rooms.”
The tom made a disgusted noise. Bunch of soft pussies.
“We are now ten minutes late to the appointment,” the mechanical voice of the glider said.
“Oh! Resume driving!” Tiana ordered.
This is a nice glider, the tom said, looking around, flexing his claws. I have always wanted to ride in a glider!
“Don’t you dare put your claws in the leather seat—”
But in went the claws and Tiana bit her lip as she watched the cat knead, but when he pulled out his claws, his whiskers turned down at no holes in the leather. A very good trick.
“Ah,” she said. “What’s your name?”
The cat sat proudly. I am RatKiller. All the Fams in the world know RatKiller!
Tiana just stared.
But you may give me a human-gift name, too. A Mugwort name. That will be good. Then I will be Something RatKiller Mugwort.
“The destination is in one block on the right,” the vehicle said. “Prepare to disembark.”
I will ride around in this for a while and see you at your home when you are done.
I am going to T’Hawthorn Residence after the meeting, she replied. To celebrate . . . or at least tell her two best friends how the morning had gone. Everything was already arranged.
The cat stopped licking his foreleg and grinned at her. Yes, one fang definitely had a jagged top. Even better, he said. Tell this glider to go there.
“I don’t think so.”
Then I will! GLIDER, AFTER YOU LEAVE CITY CENTER GO TO NOBLE COUNTRY!!
“What!” Tiana sputtered.
“Orders acknowledged,” the glider said. Apparently it had spells set to receive Fam telepathy.
Every portion of this day had spiraled out of Tiana’s control.
* * *
The Turquoise House hummed to himself, happy with his existence as much as he’d ever been since his HeartStones had wisped into awareness twenty-two years ago. The tune wafting through his walls was one of the latest that Trif Winterberry had composed for him. He was beloved of the FirstFamilies and had had many wonderful guests.
But he was impatient and it was time to gather in his Family.
He was no longer an adolescent, but a mature adult. He was wealthy from his leases and the belongings his previous Family had gathered over two and a half centuries, but most of all, he was beautiful, with a gorgeous, shiny light turquoise exterior.
No one, not even the person he’d been luring and who had not come back, could resist him now.
And TQ was brilliant. He’d set his plans. Soon he would have his Family, and everything would be perfect.
* * *
The priestess was late. Annoyingly unprofessional.
Antenn Blackthorn-Moss wanted to pace the flagstoned sidewalk in front of his business, a nicely elegant building with tall rectangular windows set in rough-cut red sandstone that he’d recently redesigned and rehabbed. But he couldn’t show his impatience or tension because his client, a Chief Minister of the Intersection of Hope, a stocky man but with an innate elegance, remained serene.
Antenn couldn’t even look at his wrist timer, though his preliminary engineering crew awaited them at the building site, a dusty piece of land at the edge of the Varga Plateau, the geographic area Druida City was built on. His forewoman knew what to do, so hopefully they had started without them.
Finally a glider stopped near them and the door rose. A woman gathered a formal robe and stepped out before Antenn could take the couple of paces to offer his arm. When she turned to them, her face seemed flushed with irritation, which immediately annoyed him. They were the ones waiting on her . . . but his frustration simply dropped away as he got a good look at her. She’d made an attempt to tame curly brown-black hair by putting it in a bun that might have once been smoothly elegant, but tendrils wisped in fine strands around her oval face.
As she’d exited the vehicle, the fabric of her gown had tightened here and there and he’d seen she was slender but with nice, and nicely proportioned, breasts and hips. Her fine-boned features eased into a standard priestess pleasant expression.
Elegant, dainty. Out of his league. And exasperatingly late.
Chief Minister Custos moved toward her, stopped, and bowed four times. “We of the Intersection of Hope had requested you be our liaison but had not hoped you’d agree. The High Priest and High Priestess stated it was your decision.”
The priestess’s emerald eyes flickered and Antenn guessed that the Powers-That-Were in the Temple hierarchy had put pressure on her. Yet her manner held the strength and serenity of most priests and priestesses he’d met, along with steely determination.
She inclined her torso. “My deepest apologies, Chief Minister and FirstLevel Architect Blackthorn-Moss, for keeping you waiting.” Her lips twitched up. “I was only offered this experience this morning.” She pivoted toward Antenn, and he searched for her name, dredging up the knowledge that she traveled in a pack of three: Camellia D’Hawthorn, Glyssa Licorice Bayrum . . . , got it! He gave her his best bow. “No problem, Priestess Mugwort.”
Her eyes narrowed as if she heard the hint of his lie. With an automatic smile, he continued, “My team is already at the land at the edge of the Varga Plateau that belongs to the Cross Fo—Intersection of Hope. Perhaps we should teleport?”
She whirled to look at the glider that had taken off a few seconds before, and flushed again. The pink tinting her cheeks added lovely color to a pale complexion that showed she worked inside.
The Chief Minister offered his beringed hands to both of them with a smile. “I have visited the land often and can visualize it in any light, so I can handle the teleportation of the three of us.”
Antenn shrugged and took the minister’s right hand, leaving the man’s left for Mugwort. For some reason he didn’t want to touch her—if her touch was as stunning as her looks, she’d be a major distraction for him. He said, “I’ve got a pretty good image of it, too. The center point with the brass inset, right? I’m contacting my crew mentally to make sure the area is clear.”
Chief Minister Custos smiled placidly. “I can send a mental claxon noise also to warn everyone.”
Nodding, Antenn said, “Please do.”
FirstLevel Priestess Mugwort—what was her first name, something pretty—said, red deepening her cheeks, “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to contribute much Flair to our teleportation.” Her breasts rose. “I’ve used a lot of psi power this morning.”
“Both I and the boy”—Custos gestured to Antenn—“have sufficient Flair for this.”
“Thank you,” she said, but Antenn knew she gritted her teeth.
A few seconds later the three of them landed on the edge of the plateau where Druida City was built . . . but outside the city walls. A wind had picked up and flung gravel and dirt around, tugging at Tiana’s hair despite the spells. She bit her lip to stop a cry of protest at tromping around in the empty field full of dead brush and rocks.
She’d better focus on serenity, on clearing her mind and the irritation from her manner. Chief Minister Custos was as knowledgeable as the High Priest and Priestess with regard to people. Tiana was a FirstLevel Priestess and able to order her emotions, so she should act like one. Custos was probably already aware of her feelings. She had to shape up.
The three of them walked around much of the jut of land, significantly higher on this southwestern edge than Druida City. The architect and minister discussed the area and the views.
The Chief Minister and she were introduced to Blackthorn-Moss’s small crew. Tiana knew her new shoes, at least not nearly as expensive as her gown, would be ruined.
Blackthorn-Moss stated, “The site and the underlying rock is such that I don’t think we can give you the cathedral in the exact spot you and your Elders wished within the budget you wanted. Heavy-duty Flaired building-mages would have to be used, or we would have to rent the old Earthan machinery from the starship Nuada’s Sword and its Captain.”
Chief Minister Custos frowned, lines snaking across his wide forehead. “Is that so?”
“Yes. If we progress with the original plans, due to the composition of the land, the cathedral would have to be angled several degrees from the northeast-southwest axis you prefer.”
“That is not acceptable.” Chief Minister Custos tilted his head toward Tiana and said, “Absolutely one of the reasons I wanted FirstLevel Priestess Mugwort to work with us. I’m sure you have reviewed your notes on our religion, FirstLevel Architect Blackthorn-Moss, but you would not have a feeling for us as Priestess Mugwort does. Can you briefly explain our religion to the FirstLevel Architect, Tiana? And may I call you Tiana?”
Another test! Tiana dipped a tiny curtsey. “I’m honored, Chief Minister.” More stiltedly than she wanted, she said, “Pursuant to the Intersection of Hope beliefs, there are four parts to one divine being.” She cleared her throat, calmly crossing her arms so her hands'disappeared'into the opposite sleeves, a more formal pose. “It’s a religion concerned with the individual, and compassion to all. A belief system set in terms of a journey that rose during the long voyage here.” She smiled at the Chief Minister and saw approval in his kind eyes, and the architect seemed to be actually listening to her. “The four aspects of the divine are the childlike self always open to possibility; the mature individual full of vitality and purpose; the older and wise guide; and the inner guardian spirit. All four points of a cross that meet in the middle to form the perfect human being, the ideal spiritual person whom each member of the religion strives to be.”
“Very good!” Chief Minister Custos said. Glancing at Blackthorn-Moss, the cleric spread his hands. “The northwest-southeast axis must be precise, because it is the absolute symbol of our hope, first the stars in the sky in relation to the original voyage, then the direction the starships lifted off.” He shook his head. “It is impossible to change the axis.”
The architect smiled, and Tiana finally realized he was an attractive man when he wasn’t scowling. She thought his resting face wasn’t flattering since his expression seemed to shade toward melancholy and older than his years. She couldn’t quite gauge what his age was.
His features were even and pleasant. He had pretty brown-green hazel eyes, defined brows, and a stylish professional cut to his thick brown hair the color of rich earth in the summer. He held his lean body with the toughness that came of a very physical man.
But his facial structure showed no hint of any FirstFamily Noble line like his adopted father’s would. The highest Nobles tended to breed among themselves unless HeartMates were involved.
She shifted from foot to foot. Some pointy rock had been close to piercing the thin sole of her shoe.
Blackthorn-Moss said, “If we can’t change the axis, I have a workaround for you.” He opened his hand and a meter-long roll of papyrus appeared in it. He turned to look at his crew at the edge of the plateau, no doubt to gesture to one of his workers to hold the other end. Tiana sighed, then offered, “I can help you with that.”
“Thank you. It’s a Flaired plan, so we can see the building in both two dimensions and three.”
“Naturally, you would have a workaround,” Chief Minister said.
Tiana took the end of the plan and walked backward a pace or two . . . and right into a prickly bush that snagged the embroidery on the gown she’d saved for a year to purchase, a work robe to wear during formal rituals at GreatCircle Temple. She stiffened, but the men didn’t seem to notice, both of their gazes fixed on the plans.
“It looks to me as if you have also shrunk our cathedral,” the Cross Folk priest said.
“I have, to match the dimensions of the best ground on the plateau,” the architect said, “but what you might lose in the extreme grandeur of your building, you can use for more elaborate craftsmanship, more details, in the stonework outside and inside. The actual building would be four-fifths the size that you wanted. Unless you wish to consider one of your two alternative sites.”
The Chief Minister hummed in acknowledgment, then pleasure as two holographic models of the same equal-armed-cross building rose: one larger and plainer, the second smaller and prettier.
Tiana stopped trying to carefully pluck her embroidery off the bush to study the images as they rotated; then the first'disappeared' leaving the smaller second, and the outer walls thinned to show the exquisite sculpting of carved stone inside.
They all studied the holo for a moment, and Blackthorn-Moss’s body relaxed from the tension Tiana now realized he’d carried. The Chief Minister lifted his stare from the papyrus plan to scan the ground. “Yes,” he said slowly, “I can visualize this revised building.” Equally slowly, he shook his head. “I’m not sure I want to move to another site. This one resonates with the proper energies for me.”
Antenn Blackthorn-Moss tapped the plan and it snapped shut with Flair, taking Tiana by surprise, jerking her forward with a ripping sound.
Her formal robe!
“Oh, my dear!” The minister stepped forward, stared, like her, at the jagged thirteen-centimeter tear in her gown.
Tiana forced back tears. “It’s not much.”
The canny old man’s brows winged up at that, but he nodded.
Blackthorn-Moss strode over, shook his head. “Dam—” He cleared his throat. “My apologies.”
“An accident,” Tiana managed.
He nodded, then turned back to his client.
Her gown wasn’t totally ruined, but it would take a substantial amount of gilt to repair it so she could wear it in rituals at GreatCircle Temple.
Not to mention how she’d have to scramble to look presentable before her meeting with the High Priest this afternoon. She didn’t have the Flair to teleport home and back.
Chief Minister Custos gave a little cough.
“Yes, Chief Minister?” Blackthorn-Moss asked attentively.
The cleric gestured to the people working on the far edge of the plateau. “Could I ask you to dismiss your crew so that I might, once again, get a feeling for this area now that the dimensions and the layout for our cathedral have changed?”
“Of course,” the architect said. He stared across at the forewoman, who turned her head, nodded, and relayed Blackthorn-Moss’s orders. The workers all teleported from the site with nearly embarrassing quickness. Those who didn’t have the Flair or skill for the transportation linked with others who did. Tiana was impressed.
“Thank you,” Chief Minister Custos said, strolling away to the mark that showed the center of his cathedral.
Tiana stood where she was, chanting a few couplets that might calm her. This day, which she’d anticipated, which she’d thought would have her climbing a few more rungs on the ladder of her career, which she’d thought would be triumphant, had turned disastrous.
She was quite sure that her mind wouldn’t settle down until she was in bed tonight. All the pleasure she’d felt in her vocation seemed smirched by the events of this one day. Perhaps the Lady and Lord themselves had sent this day to test her. Maybe her life had seemed too smooth to fate. But the inner peace she’d built over the last few years now felt like a shell encompassing a seething mass of emotions that she’d suppressed, or that she’d hidden from herself . . . or something. Definitely not time to think about that now.
She stood in the chill wind of spring and watched the Chief Minister stroll around. Antenn Blackthorn-Moss had drifted over to where his team had been, apparently scrutinizing their work or what might need to be done. Still, his body showed a tautness in his muscles and movement that cued her in that this client was extremely important to him. Important enough—or the challenge of the building was important enough—that he didn’t care about any controversy that might hit him. She only wished she could be as casual.
The moment her name was linked with this project, GraceLord T’Equisetum would rev up his hate machine. She knew that if no one else did, and hoped the others were taking security seriously.
Closing her eyes, she breathed with the wind, letting it tease more hair from her pins . . . she’d stopped the Flair holding it nicely the minute she’d entered the glider.
Sage and dust and the hint of spring flowers budding teased her nostrils, and underneath the flow of the wind she could feel the slow beat of the land, and its sense of the movement of the ephemeral creatures—humans—atop it.
Chief Minister Custos was right about this place. It held a . . . pristineness that she hadn’t often experienced. Neither the early colonists, the Earthans, nor the Celtan people had put their mark on this land. The touch of humans lay very lightly on this edge of the plateau.
It was harder to live in the moment, this moment of this day, than she’d anticipated. The interview with the High Priestess had been so wildly different than Tiana had anticipated.
An atavistic cold whispered down her spine. Something in the wind, now. Not natural. Perhaps a smell; sniffing delicately, she turned in place as if examining the view, glad the men had left her alone. The tinge-taste of rot came from the city along with a whiff of malice. Not something, someone. And she’d been wrong; greed and anger and fear and other negative emotions were all too natural. Yes, this project made her uneasy.
Because it brought back wrenching memories. Because she knew that others of her rank in the Temple would see it as low status, a setback in her career.
Because her memories and emotions would not be the only ones stirred up, and there were people who had mobbed her house, driven out her Family because her mother had been a member of the Intersection of Hope, who had never paid.
Her spiritual beliefs told her that they’d paid thrice for that cruel act, for breaking their own religion’s rule of “harm none.” They should have suffered physically, emotionally, spiritually.
But what would happen to the cathedral if people like GraceLord T’Equisetum remained bitterly convinced that the Intersection of Hope folk were bad?
No, despite what the High Priestess thought, Tiana didn’t think this project would be good for her.
The wind shifted and she smelled the men, heard their footsteps coming toward her. Chief Minister Custos smelled of the incense that sometimes wafted around Tiana’s mother, and of an older man.
Antenn Blackthorn-Moss smelled . . . virile. Sexy. Tiana frowned as she tried to break down the scent into components. And then they were there and that particular moment was lost.
She opened her eyes to see the architect walking side by side with the cleric.
Chief Minister Custos said, “I am quite pleased at all the thought, work, and creativity you have already done for our building, GentleSir Blackthorn-Moss. I have been given permission to tell you that we accept your bid and will sign a contract today or tomorrow. I will speak to our Elders and we will schedule a date to begin the construction.”
“Thank you.” The architect offered his arm. The Chief Minister grasped the man’s arm at his elbow, and Blackthorn-Moss returned the grasp. Then they both bowed.
“Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again,” said the younger man.
“Truly, I hope so.” The Chief Minister beamed at the architect. Then he turned to her. “Go in peace; may you journey to the center and find your joyful self.”
“Go in peace; may you journey in the light,” she responded automatically to Chief Minister Custos.
He smiled benignly and teleported away.
“Sorry about your formal gown,” Blackthorn-Moss said, in the offhand tone of a man who could buy ten robes like hers that flicked her on the raw.
“You . . . you . . . man. You think I wore this for you? I wore this gown for my career-level review with the High Priestess of GreatCircle Temple. I saved for a full year to afford this robe!” With the energy surging from her anger, she teleported away to somewhere she knew she’d be cherished, to her good friends who awaited to hear how her interview had gone. They would be as disappointed as she.
And she went to another of the FirstFamilies Residences, T’Hawthorn’s.
* * *
Antenn was in deep trouble. When—not if—his mother, GrandLady Mitchella Clover D’Blackthorn, the interior designer and a very feminine female, heard this story of him ruining a broke woman’s expensive dress, even accidentally, his goose was cooked.
So he damn well needed to tell her himself.
He’d let his hormones get the better of him, and he was old enough to know how to control them. The minute the gorgeous woman had stepped from the Temple glider, his body had reacted, and only the old-fashioned loose and blousy trous that he wore had enabled him to disguise the semiarousal that had plagued him throughout his time with her and the Chief Minister.
He’d had to drag his gaze away from the motion of her hips as she’d walked, the graceful gestures of her hands, the curve of her cheek, to pay attention to his client and this massive job that would bring him fame and respectability.
He’d gotten the impression that the Chief Minister, as a man, had noted his condition and had been amused, thank the Lady and Lord. But Antenn must keep ironclad control of himself if he’d be working with the delectable FirstLevel Priestess Tiana Mugwort. This project was too important to him and every person in his small architectural firm for him to be distracted by a lovely woman.
Checking his wrist timer, he saw it was NoonBell and lunchtime. The consultation had gone a full septhour, seventy minutes, longer than he’d anticipated, but he’d kept the whole day free.
He reached into his pocket for his scry pebble, flicked it with his thumb, and saw the cheerful freckled face of his assistant, Bona Vervain.
She grinned at him, her newly tinted purple hair almost glowing. “How’d it go? The crew said you dismissed them with full pay for the day.”
Yeah, that had given him a qualm but the client had wanted a privacy of three—too bad Custos hadn’t asked the woman to leave, too—and Antenn had complied.
Antenn let his shoulders ease from a tight, straight line. “I think he went for the revised plan.”
Bona and the other two of his office staff whooped. An increase in pay for all of them if they could pull this off.
“I translocated the plans back to my desk,” he said.
“We noticed. It has some gold thread on it. Really, Boss?”
Antenn winced. “Accident with the FirstLevel Priestess who’ll be the liaison from GreatCircle Temple on the job.”
Bona’s face showed sympathy. “Oh, that’s not good.”
“I’m taking lunch now. I’ll be back in the office in a septhour or by MidAfternoon Bell at the latest.”
“All right, we’ll save the champagne until then.”
“We’ll save the champagne until the client signs the contract.”
Bona saluted. “Right, Boss.”
“Later.” He cut the scry, stuck the pebble in his pocket, stretched, and examined the site one last time. A good place, outside the ancient city walls erected by the original colonists, but the parcel never developed.
The Earthans had constructed buildings in the innermost city and near the starship Nuada’s Sword, and spread out mostly north and east, since to the west was the Great Platte Ocean. The highly psi-powered, Flaired, FirstFamilies had built castles in the NobleCountry part of the city.
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