About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
DRUIDA CITY, CELTA
407 Years After Colonization
Raz, Cerasus Cherry, shuffled the oracle cards for his breakfast table mates, a half smile on his face. Of them all, the cards looked best in his long-fingered hands—good tools for an actor, as was his face and his smile.
He had breakfast at the Thespian Club every morning—late mornings for those who were working, earlier for those who were between jobs. The full complement of the group was six, three men and three women, none of them couples. Three of their group had eaten earlier and were gone by the time the rest of them had arrived at their reserved table.
A daily reserved table at the Thespian Club! His smile bloomed. They were all in their late twenties, rising fast in their careers, all talented, all ready to leap into stardom and excellent gilt. Not to mention the fame. Fame brought better, more challenging parts.
“You gonna shuffle all day to look at your pretty hands?” asked Klay St. Johnswort, Johns, with his patented sneer. If you wanted a rough-hewn pure alpha male hero type, Johns was your man.
Raz considered himself elegant . . . and with an edge. More versatile.
“Lay out the cards, me first! “Trillia wiggled in her seat, her voice higher than usual, anxious. She’d gotten bored with the secondary lead in her play and had resigned the night before and was worried that she’d jumped when she should have stuck.
Raz handed her the cards—they belonged to the club—so they’d absorb her energy. Praying under her breath, she shuffled, cut the deck thrice, and laid out a six-card pattern. Her breath whooshed out, then her praying went to muttering as she studied her divination. “Crimson Nuts of Knowledge . . . the six of blazers, Goddess of the Rising Star, the six of wands.”
“Looks good,” Raz said. “New opportunities, gilt, success. But you might have to travel.”
Johns said, “Could go to Gael City.”
Trillia made a moue at the mention of the smaller town. “Gael City.”
Raz tapped the six of wands. “Success.”
“Oh, very well. I’ll go straight to the guild from here.”
“Might want to wipe the egg off your chin first,” Raz said.
She rubbed at her face with her softleaf then flung it at him. “Oh, you.”
“I heard The Rep in Gael City was reviving Heart and Sword in an updated production,” Raz said.
Trillia sat up straight. “Fern Bountry, the Nuada’s Sword’s Captain’s wife! I could play Fern, kidnapped from the cryonic tube by evil mutineers . . . Wait, wait, she was dark.” Trillia grabbed a handful of her hair and brought it in front of her face. It was fading from a blond rinse back to brown; she grinned in relief. “I can do this.”
“Of course you can.” Raz collected the cards.
Johns grunted. “Gonna show us all your fine fortune cards again, Raz?”
Raz quirked a corner of his mouth. The cards had foretold an excellent future for him lately. “What, past, present, and future? I was just going to draw an ‘energy of the day’ card.”
“And he hasn’t had all good luck,” Trillia said. “There was that break-in at his apartment. Have the guardsmen found the thieves?”
“No. I didn’t lose much.” Raz frowned. Putting his space back in order had taken time, and he’d arranged for a decorator. He blew on his hands and the cards to dispel the negativity of the mention of the theft and the images that had trailed through his mind.
Drawing in a breath to center and bring in more positive energy, he shuffled on the exhale, inhaled, and pulled three cards from the deck and laid them out.
“Past.” He flicked it over, the same Goddess of the Rising Star that Trillia had pulled. Trillia sighed. Raz liked it when women sighed, especially if they were in the audience.
Grunting again, Johns said sourly, “Prob’ly gonna be all major named cards, from the GreatSuite, all from the Ogham.” Since their culture was based on the ancient Ogham alphabet, it wasn’t surprising the major suite of divination cards were, too.
“One hopes.” Raz grinned. Fully expecting to flip over The Oak King, solid success for years, as he had every time in the last few weeks, he turned it over.
The Summer Queen. The HeartMate card if drawn by a man.
Surprise flooded him. He’d always focused on his career, no time or inclination for a serious, permanent woman in his life.
“Personal success and the fullness of creative expression.” Johns snorted a chuckle. “Changes are coming for you, man. A Heart-Mate. A love life distracts from a single-minded career climb.”
Raz couldn’t tell if he was envious or not. Johns was taking some delight in the upset of plans a HeartMate could cause. Raz wasn’t pleased. He liked his love life just as it was, full of casual sex and no expectations.
“Future?” Johns jutted his square chin at the cards.
His own jaw flexing, Raz revealed the last card. The Birch Wand. “New beginnings!” caroled Trillia.
He didn’t want a new beginning or a HeartMate. He was doing just fine.
Johns stood, drew a card from the deck, The Oak King, tossed it down, then clapped Raz on the shoulder, grinning. “HeartMate, huh? Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
STEEP SPRINGS, CELTA That Afternoon
Helena D’Elecampane, Del, rode into the mountain town, hot and dusty from the frontier. It had taken all day by stridebeast to wind up the rough road from the plains to the town and was now late afternoon. After two months in the wilderness, she was longing for a soak in a private hot spring, a good meal, and a bedsponge. And her HeartMate.
Not necessarily in that order, though it would be another couple of weeks before she arrived in the capital, Druida City, to meet and claim him.
She’d felt him during his final dreamquest to free his psi power a while back. That made him younger than her, by how much she wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter. She’d liked his mind touch and would no doubt like his physical touch . . .
“Hey, turn down that music!” a man shouted from the street, and she reluctantly thumbed off her saddle music player. From his scowl, the guy didn’t appreciate the sophisticated sound. Del loved jazz. It was a music that only a few enjoyed.
Stup has no taste, said her fox Fam, Shunuk, raising his nose. He was riding on a pad behind her saddle. Smells bad, too. Eats mostly vegetables.
Del snorted. “There are a couple of jazz clubs in Druida. I heard places are admitting Fams. A good reason to visit the big city. We can stock up on new holobooks and vizes.” They’d watched all she had dozens of times. Maybe she could see a play or two. “Druida will be fine.”
Many busy people, Shunuk said, watching a man hurry down a street.
“Yes, and a lot more there,” Del said. “Too many people for us.”
Foxes are doing well in Druida. Shunuk grinned.
Del wondered how he would be accepted there, though he was as able to take care of himself as she was . . . and she’d be walking into a structured society, too. As a GrandLady from a House that had been founded three centuries ago, she could attend any society parties she wanted. If she wanted to be a social butterfly like her parents had been. Which she didn’t.
All she’d ever wanted was to satisfy the itch to explore, to discover or see other places on Celta that no Druida noble even knew about. Most nobles only traveled back and forth from Druida to their country estates if they left the city at all. Oh, she supposed some visited Gael City, which was much smaller and more provincial than Druida, but that was it.
“We don’t have to stay there very long.” Only the time it took her to claim her HeartMate and meld him into her life. “We’ll be back on the road soon.” She’d wanted to see everything, and she’d done a good job of traversing the western parts of the north and south continents. She’d made maps of the continents and refined details.
As a girl she’d apprenticed herself to a cartographer and left on her first trip as soon as she finished her Second Passage—a dream-quest to free her psi power, her Flair—at seventeen. By that time her parents had been glad to see her leave. They didn’t understand her and she was too young to want to understand them. Everyone was relieved the awful arguments were over.
She touched the long, cylindrical security pouch containing her maps that hung from the stridebeast’s withers.
Maps are good. Shunuk gave a little yip. Pretty.
Del smiled. “Yeah, they are.” Her Flair had changed and the maps were now fully three-dimensional. She thought the HeartMate connection during his Passage had sparked that change.
You will take me with you when you deliver the maps to the Guildhall?
Ever since she’d told Shunuk about the great Guildhall in Druida, he’d wanted to visit.
“I said so.” She grimaced. “Sometimes city people move slowly, like in the government. The Councils always take a while to assign a value to the maps.” She rolled her shoulders. “There’s a great amount of paperwork.”
They will like new maps.
“Yes, I’ve fulfilled my annual NobleGilt and more with these.”
Her stridebeast whiffled, then whined. He didn’t like the paving stones under his hooves. Steep Springs was growing slowly, in small increments, as all Celtan towns grew.
More gliders on the streets, Shunuk said. Will we get a glider?
“No.” Del smoothed a tangle of the stridebeast’s long hair, patted him. “Gliders aren’t good if there isn’t smooth, solid earth. They’re too big and take too much energy to power. Spells I don’t need to spend gilt on.” Del shook her head. “More buildings here, too.” More two-story brick and stone buildings rather than wooden, and there were streets, not just one circled drive around the park in the center of town. Two narrow spokes ran along the valley, and houses climbed up the hills. Pretty houses tinted in pretty colors with fancy carved trim. Del scowled. Fancy enough to appeal to some city folk as “quaint.” Steep Springs was definitely growing.
“We’ll stay at our usual place.” The inn with the best private hot springs. She guided her mount to an alley behind the inn. “Unpack first.” She wanted to put her precious maps and the new landscape globes she’d made with her creative Flair into the room’s security no-time. “Then we’ll eat.”
As she swung off her mount, she stared into Shunuk’s yellow eyes. “I’ll bring you a roasted clucker. I don’t want to hear about any missing town cluckers this time.”
He spoiled his innocent look by licking his muzzle. Crackly skin?
“Yes. Better than a mouthful of feathers.”
He shifted his eyes. Maybe. Then he hopped down and grinned. Will be juicy rats in stables. More stables here, too.
Shunuk stretched. See you later.
“Later.” Since she traveled light, the unpacking went fast, though she’d frowned at the new person behind the counter when told the room and spa she liked best was booked.
The stable prices had gone up, as had those in the eatery, which was now called a restaurant. She ordered pasta with spinach in a cream sauce. Vegetarian. She chuckled as she thought of Shunuk, but she was tired of killing and eating animals. The meal was good and the place was playing new, excellent music.
She left a good tip with coin she didn’t often use. Then she strolled back out to the summer day, lingered in the sun, and watched the world go by. How pleasant just to do nothing. That mood wouldn’t last long, she was a restless person, but for now it was good.
There was a jangle of bells on the door of a nearby shop and Del realized it was near closing on Midweekend and most places wouldn’t be open the next day of Ioho.
Which meant if she wished to head out tomorrow or early the next day and wanted good caff to drink and more medicinal herbs, she’d better get moving.
She crossed the street to the Herb and Caff Emporium, which also carried her landscape globes. There she settled at a tiny table and ordered some caff with cinnamon and white mousse.
Her gaze went immediately to the dim corner where she could see the faint gleam of her creative work—glass globes, each on a rock base. Except for a small coating of dust, they appeared to be exactly as she’d left them. No one had held them, felt the energy within tune to them individually. No one had breathed a little Flair upon them or simply shook them to see the bits of plant and soil and other items in the fluid of the globes. Not one had attracted a buyer.
She suppressed a sigh. They were less refined than the ones she had now, but they should have drawn someone who’d look beyond the little bits of wood and stone and plant settled in the bottom of the liquid-filled sphere.
She knew they worked. Her creative Flair was just as strong as her cartographic Flair. A globe should draw a person, someone strong in creative Flair—and wasn’t everyone?—to come and hold it, look inside, shake it.
Then the Flair in the globe would react with the person’s Flair to show them their perfect home.
Del finished her caff, hardly tasting the cinnamon, a rarity. Years ago her survey of a valley that grew cinnamon for T’Hawthorn had been her best-paying job.
Ever since she’d connected with her HeartMate, she’d been impatient with her travels, had an urge to find him. She was pretty sure that he hadn’t sensed her during his Passage, not enough to track her if he’d wanted.
Most people wanted HeartMates, a true soul-binding love. Del was a little uncertain about the whole thing herself, but still there was this pull to him . . . and had been since her own last Passage seven years ago. Now it was stronger, a true link.
She went to the counter and addressed the proprietress. “Hey, Hysa, I’ll have a half a pound of light roast caff and a pound of hibiscus tea.” She always yearned for the ultracivilized drink after time on the trail, a throwback to her childhood. “I got tired of trail caff and chicory a while back.”
The plump, matronly woman smiled. “Some FemCycle Leaf tea as usual?”
“No.” Del leaned companionably on the counter. “I’m going up to Druida City to claim my HeartMate.” She winked. “Or let him claim me.”
Hysa’s mouth fell open. “You? You have a HeartMate?”
Del straightened. She’d known Hysa for years, had thought the woman had known her.
Guess not. Hysa had never paid any attention to more than Del’s frontier woman appearance. What did the store owner consider her, a mule? Some sterile animal? A person without needs or passions? Hadn’t her passion for exploration gotten her to this point? And she wasn’t that old, only thirty-six.
“No,” Del repeated in a clipped tone. “No FemCycle Leaf tea. If I want to get pregnant, I will.” Good boast on underpopulated Celta.
They stared at each other with irritation.
“Hey, that you, Del?” A man walked through the door and let it slam behind him.
She turned to see the town’s communications chief. “Yes, do you have something for me?”
“I’d say so. An official notice from the FirstFamilies Council itself, a big actual papyrus envelope.” He grimaced. “And a holo-sphere from FirstFamily GrandLord T’Blackthorn.”
Probably jobs. Del shook her head. “That Straif, he tracked me all over Celta once. The second payment of my yearly NobleGilt come?”
The man grinned, hooked his thumbs into his belt. “Got a confirmation from your bank right on your Nameday, a month ago, GrandLady D’Elecampane,” he teased.
The title got Hysa moving, which was all to the good. Yes, she’d only bothered with Del’s outer appearance, not considered their talks, Del’s creative Flair, her background. The noble background that Del didn’t much consider, either.
Del said, “Just give me a stock of the standard med herbs, the caff, and tea. I’ll pick anything else up in Druida.” She turned to the comm chief. “I’ll be right with you.” Expression smooth, she gestured to her six landscape orbs. “I’ll take those with me, too.”
Now a hint of a blush stained Hysa’s cheeks. “Of course, of course.” She bustled over to them, set them out two by two on the counter for Del. “They just didn’t sell.”
Del shrugged, pretending she wasn’t sensitive about her work, that the woman’s comments didn’t hurt. Tried not to feel pity for her creations. This one had a glitter of silver snowflakes, that one an interesting, gnarled twig. She knew they could build a person’s dream home—city or country, cottage or castle.
From her bag she took out softleaves and padded pouches she’d made on the trail to fit her hand-sized globes.
“They just didn’t sell,” Hysa repeated with a touch of accusation as Del wiped them clean, wrapped them, and placed them in the pouches.
“That’s all right.” A little spurt of glee ignited inside her. “I got word from a merchant who will handle them.”
Del met her gaze and smiled. “T’Ash, in his shop in Druida. T’Ash’s Phoenix.” The most prestigious jewelry store on the planet.
“Good one.” The comm chief winked and Del’s mind went back to the letters. She frowned as a tingle slithered down her spine. An official notice from the FirstFamilies Council was serious business.