Need to catch up?
Despite the thirty-five years they’d had to adjust, humans still couldn’t seem to get used to the presence of astral beings in their cities and lives. Marcaeus, son of Demedon, chosen of Chiron, frowned at his glamoured reflection in the mirror and practiced his posture. That had taken the most time to learn when he’d decided to stop appearing in his centaur form in the human world. On two human legs, he ceased to be a curiosity. With a bland name from the mortal dominion, he didn’t have to suffer through embarrassed mortals trying to remember the proper form of address. But standing the way the humans did? That took considerable work.
He donned his jacket—a color they called “navy blue” but which looked more like the night sky than the crystal blue sea—and straightened his matching kilt. Bare bodies were strangely taboo among mortals; he conceded to covering his tan skin and keeping his dark hair short, but encasing his glamoured legs in itchy human fabric was a step too far. He tapped the screen of his watch. Ten-thirty. Impossibly early. The humans still placed too much value on time, probably because they had so little of it themselves. Slipping a hand into his collar, he rubbed his thumb over the selenite amulet hidden beneath his shirt. The surface of the mirror wavered and he stepped into the lobby of Chiron Corp.
The young, pale human male who ran the reception desk rose and smiled. “Good morning, Mr. Johnson.”
The portal closed behind Marcaeus, resuming its appearance as a mural of Elysia. “Good morning, Kevin.”
“Mr. Hobb asked me to inform him when you arrived.” Kevin’s dark brows rose mischievously.
“It’s unfortunate you were in the restroom when I arrived.” Hobb was a valuable asset to the company, but oddly high-strung for a faun. “If he mentions it, I’ll tell him I snuck past you.”
Kevin sat down again with a relieved nod, and Marcaeus strode to the large white double doors to the inner office.
And directly into Hobb.
The Faun blinked his silver eyes in an expression some might take as a look of surprise but was simply his default expression of anxious bewilderment. His thin brown face seemed even longer than usual. “We must speak.”
“This sounds dire,” Marcaeus attempted to joke.
Hobb was not moved to humor. “Come with me.”
Marcaeus followed him through the opulent corridors, past the individual workers’ offices. When Chiron Corp had first moved into the building, it had been a terrible open-plan that hadn’t been conducive to anyone’s comfort. The winding halls with their gilt-trimmed, framed white wall paneling and golden candelabras were, according to the human staff, desperately out of touch with a modern office environment. The decor had been Chiron’s choice, but how would he have possibly known that three-hundred years was considered a very long time? He’d simply liked the look of it.
The click of Hobb’s hooves on the marble floor slowed as they reached his office. He pushed the wall panel to spring the hidden door and stood aside to allow Marcaeus to enter. Unlike Marcaeus’s office, there were no low cushions to lounge upon; it was furnished for a creature with two legs. Despite the high quality of his human glamour, Marcaeus hated sitting in human form. He paced calmly around the floor instead.
“We were right. Trasket’s planted a mole.” Hobbs moved behind his desk and whipped the cover off a large obsidian scrying mirror. With a wave of his hand, the surface shimmered and conjured the image of a striking young human woman. Her hair hung sleek and straight down to her waist and shimmered a spectral orange shot through with glittering gold. Her large eyes were too vibrantly green to be real.
“This is our new intern,” Hobb went on. “Flicka Starr.”
Marcaeus didn’t understand why Hobb sounded so skeptical over a name.
“It’s not a normal human name,” the faun explained with barely restrained condescension. “Not that I expected you to know that, John Gayheart Johnson.”
Marcaeus sighed through gritted teeth. “I picked the name because it made the most sense. John. Son of John and merry of heart.”
“That part is a lie. And why you make so many concessions to the mortals, I’ll never know.” Hobb gestured to the mirror and the image changed. The woman’s delicate face shape and the size of her large, innocent eyes remained the same but her dark hair and light blue eyes made her alabaster face startlingly recognizable. “Fiona Trasket. Progeny of Trasket the Elder.”
“She can’t be.” Marcaeus braced his hands on the desk and leaned over the mirror. “They’re anti-astral. She couldn’t use a glamour.”
“And what are the mortals if not hypocritical?” Hobb asked, erasing the image with a swipe of his hand.
Marcaeus quirked his lips in amusement. “When did you become so cynical?”
Hobb’s shoulders slumped. “I am a creature whose only purpose in the astral is spreading joy and pleasure, thrust into a world where both of those things have been perverted into a force so destructive it threatens all mortal life. I’ve been cynical since the moment I stepped into this realm.”
Straightening to walk the length of the room, Marcaeus considered the situation. The pictures were inarguably the same woman but the ruse was clumsy. Surely Trasket wasn’t that jealous or desperate. Could it be part of some larger trick? How would being caught in corporate espionage be used to his advantage?
“Have we run this past the trickster department?” Marcaeus asked, turning back to the desk. The image of the woman was gone.
“The tricksters are baffled. They all agree that this is too obvious, but they can’t figure out what the end game is.” Hobb paused. “She’s waiting in HR. Should I have security escort her out?”
Marcaeus shook his head. “Who else knows about this?”
“Just us. And the trickster department.”
The tricksters were bound to secrecy by voluntary enchantment as a term of employment. They couldn’t share information if they wanted to. Marcaeus rubbed his hand over his chin. “Don’t tell anyone else. And have HR send her to my office.”
Hobb gave him a surprised blink and said nothing.
What could the Traskets be playing at? Marcaeus wondered on the walk to his office. Surely, the human didn’t think he could so easily fool ancient beings? Sending such an obvious mole was as absurd as if he’d donned a disguise and tried to infiltrate Chiron Corp. himself. A spying intern? Trasket wasn’t so foolish.
Marcaeus went to his standing desk and woke the computer. The low vibration the machine created assaulted his senses for a moment, before the obsidian pyramids gridding the work station intercepted the excess energy.
A soft knock on the door drew his attention. “Come in.”
The moment she stepped into his office, the intrigue became clear.
It was impossible that a bloodline so foul as the Traskets’ could have produced such a wonder. Marcaeus did not often find humans attractive, and he would have worried he was under an enchantment if he’d had such a powerful response to anyone else. This woman would have tempted a eudaemon to ethically questionable acts with a crook of a finger. The mirror had shown him that her face was beautiful. It had not revealed the curves of her lush breasts. The breadth of her hips. The roundness of her thighs in her fitted skirt. Her lips parted at the sight of him, and her aura flared with instant desire as wild and warm as the fire of her glamoured hair.
They’d sent her to appeal to him, to inflame his lust and rob him of his wits.
It may have worked on a mortal, but centaurs were far too clever for that.
“Mr. Johnson?” she asked, her voice trembling. Did she know that she had been caught in her lie already?
He gestured to the comfortable leather chair near his desk. “Ms. Starr. Please, have a seat.”
Her eyes meekly downcast, she followed his direction and sat, every movement halting and awkward.
“You don’t have an assistant.” It wasn’t a question.
He shrugged it off. “I don’t see the need for one. You were perfectly capable of opening the door by yourself. I’m perfectly capable of pouring my own coffee.”
She looked up, eyebrows drawn together in pleasant surprise. “You drink coffee?”
“No.” He suppressed a chuckle. Humans usually reacted strangely to the presence of an astral but hers was a refreshing sort of strangeness. He wouldn’t have expected such from someone from a family as bigoted as the Traskets.
Her gaze flicked to his legs. “I’m sorry, I was under the impression—”
“That I would have more appendages?” He turned in a slow circle so she could inspect him fully. “I find my true appearance unnerves humans. Glamour is such an underrated magic, is it not?”
She cleared her throat. “I was going to say that I was under the impression that CFOs didn’t handle things like hiring interns.”
“They don’t. Usually. But your resume caught the attention of my colleague, Mr. Hobb. He believes there’s a project that might benefit from a fresh young mind.” What are you doing? He should send her away, but her presence intrigued him. If she’d been instructed to seduce him, she was doing a poor job of it. She was alluring, but certainly not under her own power. She possessed none of the mannerisms mortals affected in their mating rituals. No bold self-assurance. Not a trace of practiced remarks or flattering laughter. Instead, she behaved like…
Well, she behaved like a mortal on a job interview.
This threw Marcaeus back to his original dilemma. Was Blayde Trasket truly foolish enough to believe he could send so obvious a mole into Chiron Corp? How desperate were things over there that he would stoop to such a silly plan?
Does it matter? A devious part of Marcaeus’s mind awoke. Not that it had been dormant for long. Perhaps it was cruel of him, but he couldn’t help imagining how Trasket would react to his human sister getting caught up in a passionate affair not just with an astral, but with one of his business partners, as well. It would be making the woman before him a pawn, but she’d allowed herself to become one by participating in whatever game the Trasket brood seemed to be playing. Her presence was the opening gambit, so she was clearly willing to play.
She shifted in her chair and crossed her legs; he’d piqued her interest by dangling the “new project.” He turned to the windows to hide his self-congratulatory smirk before he continued. “I assume you’re familiar with bioluminescence?”
“Of course. I assume that’s what’s used in this building?”
He nodded and turned back to her in time to see her gesture to the softly glowing overhead lights. “Yes, it is. Do you have bioluminspheres in your home?”
“Yes,” she replied. Obviously, it was a lie, given how publically the Traskets had rejected sustainable energy sources. “My apartment building converted last year.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Not everyone has embraced the new technology,” he said, studying her expression for a reaction. Not a ripple of fear showed in her. At least, she’d studied schooling her reactions well. “But we’re working to improve the cost and stability of bioluminescent products. Eventually, we’ll be able to dismantle the four remaining nuclear power plants.”
“I can’t believe they’ve made it this far,” she remarked, then looked immediately chastened. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted.”
“On the contrary, I enjoy conversations with my employees.” Especially ones that kept him on his toes, as he suspected she would. The mystery surrounding her was too intriguing to let it go. “You’ve never worked for an astral company, have you?”
“I’ve never worked for any company,” she said, then quickly added, “the gap in my resume is due to…personal reasons. I did have some job offers directly after college but my mother was quite ill. And then, my father.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” That was what humans said, wasn’t it?
She blinked. “How did you know they died?”
“Your aura. I see their loss like a hole in you.” And that hole was there, a wound at her midsection, where she would have been connected to her mother in the womb. Her pain wasn’t a lie, but it was absent for her bigot father.
“I’m not concerned about your employment history,” he reassured her. “My concern is that the culture of a mortal workplace and the culture of an astral-run workplace is very different. You may have some trouble adjusting.”
“With respect, Mr. Johnson, I can adjust to anything. Especially when something important to me is at stake.”
“This job is that important to you?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral. This was too delicious; he couldn’t spoil the game by letting her know he’d stepped onto the field of play.
“The planet is important to me,” she stated firmly. “I grew up in a family that didn’t appreciate the hard work and sacrifices astral beings made to tear the veil and come to our aid. A family that rejected your gift. Humans have a second chance to save the Earth. I won’t be stubborn enough to refuse it.”
Marcaeus searched her aura for any sign of deception and saw none.
Was she truly there by her own choice?
He made the decision from curiosity alone. “Yes. I think you are the perfect fit for this project. I’ll let Mr. Hobb know. In the meantime, return to HR. They’ll get you an employee ID and give you more information about payroll and parking.”
She stood and put out her hand. It trembled. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate this opportunity.”
When he took her hand, her unease, fear, and deception wound up his arm like a vine. So, she was hiding something. He would have to clear his energy as soon as possible, or her jumpiness would plague him all day. Yet, another feeling grew as she released him. Remorse. Nothing about the lie felt just to her.
What on earth was “Flicka Starr” hiding? And for whom?
She left the room, bright white relief fizzing around the edges of her aura. Marcaeus pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and called Hobb. The faun predictably answered on the first ring. “I’m putting her on the bioluminsphere project.”
“So…she isn’t a spy?” Were Hobb in the room, his default bland expression would not have changed but for a few rapid blinks.
“She very well could be.” Marcaeus admitted. “But I’m not sure what the endgame is. This project is so boring and public, however, she’s unlikely to gain anything.”
“Then why keep her on at all?”
“Because we can learn her motives, or at least, Trasket’s motives. Remember what the humans say about keeping their enemies close,” he reminded Hobb.
And after his encounter with Fiona Trasket, Marcaeus couldn’t deny that he would like to keep her a bit closer than the idiom intended.