Need to catch up?
- What is The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp?
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp prologue
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp chapter one
Though she retained her composure until she left Johnson’s office, Fiona’s legs wobbled like, well, a newborn foal’s the moment the doors closed behind her. She groaned inwardly at the comparison and took a moment to catch her breath.
Had she done it? Had she really fooled him into believing she was there for the good of his company? His cause?
But you do believe in his cause, she reminded herself. She hadn’t spoken a word of a lie to him, but sharing a common goal wasn’t justification for her subterfuge. It was just another layer of cover. No matter how much good she might contribute to the preservation of the planet, she was still a liar.
And he was…he was…
Maybe if her new boss would have appeared in his true form, he wouldn’t have been so unnervingly attractive.
She’d seen centaurs before. On the street, TV, even fashion shows. The fact that Mr. Johnson had met her on two legs had almost been more disconcerting than the sight of a human torso on a horse’s body.
Um, yikes. Her brain screeched. Describing a centaur that way was beyond offensive. It sounded like something her father would have said. Besides, it hadn’t been just her boss’s body that had affected her so, though the spell on him had been exceedingly kind. Even in his true form, the strong features of his profile would have been enough to catch her eye. He didn’t look any CEO she’d ever met before. His dark brows seemed perpetually pulled down in concern. His short, dark hair had a slight wave to it that had made her fingers ache to run through it. And she did not often ache for a man on sight.
Not a man, she reminded herself as she wandered the claustrophobic labyrinth of hallways. At least, not a human man. And that involved a lot of complicated thoughts she didn’t need to explore at work, about her brother’s mortal enemy.
What if I went back in and told Mr. Johnson the truth? She didn’t have any particular loyalty to her brother. He wanted to keep on destroying the planet and exploiting the astrals to clean up his industrial messes. It was more appealing to be on the right side. Johnson’s side.
Word would get back to Blayde. It would always get back to him. And Larkin would face the consequences.
The rumors that had dogged their friendship for years had never bothered Fiona, in part because they’d been somewhat true. Though she’d never gone public, she and Larkin had dated, for a time, but pixies didn’t understand the meaning of going slow. Their incompatible sexual boundaries hadn’t gotten in the way of maintaining a close platonic relationship.
Then came the addiction. The scandals. The passing out in the gutter outside a sex club. If their relationship had been romantic for much longer, their friendship would not have survived. Blayde accused Fiona of attempting to cultivate a goody-goody image, but the truth was that after a lifetime in a family that craved the political spotlight, she didn’t want the tabloid spotlight, as well. It was more difficult to avoid. She supposed helping Larkin helped her, too.
Maybe that’s the only reason you’re doing it.
No. Larkin had already been warned that her label no longer felt their investment in her work was safe. Why mount a world-wide tour for someone who would miss half the dates while she hopped in and out of rehab? And the old adage about all publicity being good publicity wasn’t true; fans and tastemakers had tired of Larkin’s misadventures.
How long had she been standing there, one hand on the wall to regain her stability? The faun who’d introduced himself as Mr. Hobb during her HR appointment approached warily, his serious face taking on an extra layer of concern.
“I’m so sorry,” she began, wondering if her tone struck him as suspicious. “I think I stumbled over something.”
“These halls are so winding and similar, I’ve gotten dizzy in them a time or two.” He put his hands behind his back and rocked a bit on his cloven hooves. “May I help you find your way?”
“Thank you. Mr. Johnson told me to go back to HR for an I.D.—” Oh no. Some newer cameras removed glamours in their images. Trasket owned the patent; all their surveillance equipment utilized the technology. What were the chances that a major company like the Chiron Corporation would have similar devices?
Of course, astrals didn’t have the prejudice and fear of magic that her brother did. They probably didn’t care about glamours.
“Right this way,” Mr. Hobb said and gestured down the hall behind him. “So, Mr. Johnson put you on bioluminescence.”
Was the faun impressed? “Yes…is that a good thing? I hope?”
He shrugged his thin shoulders. “Any opportunity is what you make of it.”
“That’s very profound.” It was also a phrase she’d heard often from her father, both at home to shame his children and in his public statements about poverty.
Mr. Hobb knew. He couldn’t have used the phrase accidentally.
“It’s not mine,” he admitted. “I must have heard it somewhere.”
She gave him her most guileless smile. Though her brother might accuse her of being too good, Fiona was still a Trasket. Lying was in her DNA. “Well, I’ll be sure to remember it.”
Though she had just come from the human resources department, she couldn’t have found her way back without Mr. Hobb’s help. She breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the door. “This is my stop.”
The faun blinked at her.
“It’s a human expression. About public transportation.” Not that she had ever used public transportation even once in her entire life.
“Ah. Astral humor is…less micro-observational. Humans joke about oddities in daily, unquestioned occurrences, whereas fauns, for example, find humor in the age of the cosmos and the unchained, malicious whimsy of fate.” He paused. “We also find flatulence quite amusing.”
Fiona pointed to the door. “I’m going to go inside.”
Mr. Hobb bowed at the waist. “It was a pleasure to be of assistance.”
The human resources department was an octagonal room with doors on all sides. Not at all confusing. Fiona picked the one labeled “New Hire.” Inside, she filled out form after form on their nearly-obsolete tablet. A middle-aged human woman took Fiona’s company photo—without any glamour-related snafus—and issued her a company handbook data chip and an identification card with a silvery holosigil.
“This is compatible with all warded doors of a level four or less,” the woman explained cheerfully. “Bioluminescence is on the seventh floor, wing b. Now, that’s a liminal floor, so you’ll have to present your I.D. to the security system.”
“I’m sorry, what’s a liminal floor?” Fiona asked.
“It’s in a liminal space. It exists half on this plane and half in the astral.”
If Blayde knew of such a thing, Fiona would have heard about it. What her brother wouldn’t give to know a place between the worlds existed.
“And don’t forget your sprite.” The woman lifted her plump little hand and a ball of blue light rose from it. “The building is a little confusing. Just tell your sprite where you want to go and it will get you there.”
“Oh. Thank you. It is confusing,” she agreed, eyeing the sprite warily.
The HR woman’s rosy cheeks fell a little as her smile turned from professionally friendly to truly empathetic. “It’s overwhelming to be a human suddenly thrust into their world. I understand. I was there in Central Park for the first veil tearing, and it was almost mind-altering. But for the most part, we’re still so sheltered from each other…” She drifted off sadly. “By tomorrow, everything will seem a little less strange. And the next day, even less. And then it becomes the new reality.”
Fiona didn’t know how to respond. She followed the eager ball of light hovering near the door.
“Welcome to your new reality,” the woman called after her.
The unnerved feeling those words inspired haunted Fiona all the way to the elevators. The sprite bounced along happily, like an airborne, featureless puppy. Although, when she thought of it that way, it sounded a bit horrifying.
The elevator stopped and the screen above the buttons illuminated. A quick scan of her I.D. zipped the car upward. Just as her ears popped, the chime announced her arrival and the doors opened onto a world Fiona could never have imagined.
She stepped from the marble floor of the elevator and onto a pebbled path bordered by lush, green moss. Swirls of gleaming steel rose overhead in impossibly intricate arcs, dividing an iridescent bubble of ceiling into a pattern of prismatic domes. The path split into three and led off into a forest of unearthly willow trees with swaying, emerald-colored leaves.
“You must be Flicka.”
Fiona startled at the voice. A silver-tinted woman walked toward her across the moss, clad in what appeared to be a fur dress. Her long white hair cascaded down her back in soft tendrils. She offered her hand for a shake; a black claw topped each finger. “Sorry. I forget that mortals can be overwhelmed on their first trip to our floor. We’re a little unconventional here. “Ealusaid. Director of bioluminescence.”
“Ealusaid,” Fiona repeated, shaking the gray woman’s hand. “Is that your first name, your title…I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ask an offensive question—”
Ealusaid held up one hand to stop her. “Selkies only have one name. And we’re very informal here.”
“That will take some getting used to.” Fiona laughed despite her nerves. “I’ve never worked for a company that’s so…relaxed.”
“It’s why we’re so successful. Happy workers are productive workers. Your human capitalism is designed to be its own worst enemy.”
Fiona could only blink in response.
Ealusaid beamed. “Let me show you to your office.”
It took Fiona a moment to get her feet working. The shock that such a place existed momentarily froze her to the spot. For one perfect instant, she forgot why she was there. That she would have to betray all this beauty.
The sprite followed Ealusaid down the path and into the forest of familiar, yet totally alien, vegetation.
“What kind of trees are these?” Fiona asked as they passed beneath a branch glistening with dew like diamonds.
“They’re willows,” Ealusaid explained. “Liminal spaces do strange things to creatures who spend a lot of time in them. These trees would look exactly the same on the mortal plane as they would on the astral but existing between the two changes them.”
That sparked an alarm in Fiona’s mind. “What do you mean, it does strange things to creatures who spend a lot of time here? I’m going to spend whole workdays here.”
“Yes, and in a week or two, you’ll notice the effects,” Ealusaid stated as though it weren’t the most horrific thing Fiona had ever contemplated.
“Right, but what kind of effects?” she asked, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
“Nothing major. We’ve noticed slight telepathy, ability to communicate with the elements. The tiniest horns. Really, nothing to be alarmed about.” The selkie stopped in front of one tree. “Here we are. Your office.”
“It’s a…tree.” Fiona could almost hear her brother’s sneering tone. “Well, isn’t that quirky?”
“More of a pod, really.” Ealusaid motioned to the tree and the leaves drew back, revealing a snug space outfitted with a desk, chair, and computer, exactly as one would see in any office.
It was just that the walls were vibrant, gently throbbing vines.
“You can log in with your badge,” Ealusaid explained, gesturing to the computer. “The first thing you’ll want to do is check your interoffice messenger app. Every morning, you’ll find daily assignments and schedules there. Unfortunately, you’re going to spend most of your day working through new hire questionnaires and videos about policy and procedure. But we do have a daily lunch meeting at around one, so feel free to join us in the conference pod.”
Sure. I’ll just…join you in the conference pod. That was a completely normal thing to say.
“Great. I’ll just…sit down and get to it,” Fiona said, with a little bounce on the balls of her feet to transform some of her nervous energy into feigned enthusiasm. The thought of being alone inside a tree unnerved her, but Ealusaid left her there, all the same, the vines zipping closed behind her.
“Okay.” Fiona breathed, bracing her hands on her workstation. At least, something about the place was normal. If she’d had to balance on a toadstool and type on a hollowed-out log or something, she would have officially backed out.
“Backed out of what?”
The voice startled her and she scooted backward, nearly colliding with the wall of vines.
“What the fuck?” The voice had clearly come from inside her head, reverb like water ripples surrounding every syllable.
“You’re hiding something,” the voice whispered, sibilant and sinister. “What could it be… Trasket?”
She sat up straight.
“That’s an important word. Certainly got your attention.”
“W-who’s there?” she rasped.
The vines rustled, as if in a little dance.
“No.” She shook her head. “Not possible.”
“It’s possible. And I can do it to other creatures here. Even the other trees.” The tree seemed almost gleeful. “Should I keep that a secret? Trasket? I mustn’t think it too loud—”
Was she being blackmailed by a tree?
A telepathic tree.
What the hell could it possibly want? It was a tree!
A tree that wanted candy.
“You’re blackmailing me…for candy.”
“Chocolate, preferably. If I’m busy enjoying my candy, I might just forget the word ‘Trasket’ altogether.”
Very slowly, Fiona put her head down on her desk.