Trisk ran a hand down her Jackie Kennedy dress, not liking how it hampered her motions even if it showed off her curves. Grades and accomplishments were her primary weapons in the battle to attract an employer, but appearance came in a close second. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a clip, and an unusual whisper of makeup highlighted her angular cheekbones and narrow chin in the hopes of finding a businesslike mien. She was dressed better than most on the noisy presentation floor. Not that it matters, she thought sourly.
Anxiety pinched her eyes as she sat attentively at her booth, surrounded by the accomplishments of her past eight years. They suddenly seemed dull and vapid as she smiled at an older couple while they passed, their clipboards in hand as they shopped. “How are we for security?” one asked, and Trisk’s face warmed when the other ran his eyes over her, making her feel like a horse up for auction.
“We could use someone, but how good could she be? She’s in with the geneticists.”
“That’s because I am one,” Trisk said loudly, shoulders hunching when they gave her a surprised look and continued on.
Jaw clenched, she slumped in her chair, shifting it back and forth and frowning at the empty interview chair across from her. It had been four months since graduation, and as tradition dictated, her class had gathered in a three-day celebration in the university’s great hall to say good-bye and decide where they would start their careers. Much like a reverse job fair, past graduates came from all over the U.S. to meet them, assess their strengths, and find a place for them within their companies. Tonight her classmates would part ways, some going to Houston, others to Portland or Seattle, and the best to Florida and the Kennedy Genetic Center to work in the National Administration of Scientific Advancement.
Put bluntly, the gala was a meat market, but seeing as there were only a few hundred thousand of her people left on earth, hidden among the millions of humans, it was a necessity. Especially now. Their population was poised to drop drastically with this generation if they couldn’t halt the ongoing genetic degradation caused by an ancient war.
The best of her people studied to become geneticists or the politicians who would ensure that government money kept flowing into the labs. A few who specialized in security aimed to do the same, though on a much darker, more dangerous level.
At least most of them did, Trisk thought, her gaze rising past the class of 1963 banner to the impressive chandelier hanging above her. The glowing light hummed with power, the crystal containing a roomwide charm policing all but the most innocent of magics. At the far end of the hall, a live jazz band played a snappy rendition of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” though no one danced. Glancing down the long rows of tables, she scoffed at the hopeful smiles and cheerful platitudes of her classmates doggedly trying for a better offer as the final hour to register a contract ticked closer. But inside, she was dying.
Trisk and her father had entertained only three employers at her table, all of them more interested in her minor in security than her major in genetic research. Her doctorate in using viruses to introduce undamaged DNA into somatic cells had been marginalized. Kal, who used bacteria to do the same thing, was getting accolades and offers left and right.
Her attention shifted, seeing him sitting directly across from her. Her stellar grades had gotten her a place under the chandelier with the best of them, and Trisk sourly imagined that was a loophole the administration would plug next year. Her dark hair and eyes among their predominantly fair complexions were obvious and garnered unwanted attention. Olympian gods and goddesses, every single one of them—slim and fair, bright as the sun, and as cold as the moon. Though they didn’t make her a second-class citizen, her dusky hair and brown eyes supposedly gave her a natural affinity for one thing in their class-stratified society: security. She was good at that, but she was better in the labs.
Kal, though, had been groomed for a high position since birth. Majoring in genetic studies and minoring in business, he had the skills to make him justifiably sought after. She hated his smugness. She hated having to work twice as hard for half the credit, and she thought it telling that he went by his last name, shortening it from Kalamack to Kal in order to sound more human. To her, it meant he relied on his family rather than his own self for his identity.
Depressed, she looked down at her dress and the blah shoes the woman at the store had pushed on her. She’d wanted black to match her hair and eyes, a decision she was now regretting. It made her look like security, not business. A pillbox hat sat atop the coatrack her father had insisted on having in her booth, and she fought with the urge to throw it on the floor and stomp on it. I’m tired of fighting this . . .
“Penny for your thoughts,” a pleasantly masculine voice said, and her sour mood vanished.
“Quen!” she exclaimed as she rose, thinking he looked exceptional in his interview suit, as black as her dress apart from a narrow, vibrant red tie. His eyes were a dark green, and his hair just as black as hers, though it curled about his ears where hers was remarkably straight. She warmed as his gaze traveled appreciably over her, and she wished his fingers would follow, but she knew they never would. They were both so damn focused on their careers, and if she got pregnant, hers would be over.
“Wow. I forgot how well you wash up,” she said, her smile widening as she gave him a hug, lingering to breathe him in. His shoulders were comfortably wide, muscular from his daily regimen, and she missed him already. He smelled good, like oiled steel and burnt amber, the latter giving away that he’d been spelling lately, probably to show his skills to a prospective employer. “You shaved,” she said, her fingers tracing bare skin. But then her eyes widened when she realized he was holding himself differently, an unusual pride hiding in the back of his gaze.
“You accepted a position,” she said, grasping his hands. “Where?” He was going to leave in the morning and go to the rest of his life. But finding their place in the world was what the three-day gathering was for.
“I’ve never seen you look this amazing, Trisk,” he said, evading her as he glanced at her contract basket and the three minor offers within, turned facedown in her disappointment. “Where’s your dad?”
“Coffee run,” she said, but he was really campaigning for her. “Who took you on?”
Quen shook his head. His thin hand, calloused from the security arts, felt rough as he tucked away a strand of her hair that had escaped the clip. They’d met in Physical Defense 101. He’d gone on to major in security studies as expected. She had not. Women, even those with hair and eyes as dark as hers, weren’t allowed to serve in anything more than passive security, and after fulfilling her security minor with demon studies, she intentionally flunked out of business to get into the scientific arena. It rankled Trisk that her grades were as good as Kal’s. She had the GPA to work for the National Administration of Scientific Advancement at the Kennedy Genetic Center, but she’d be lucky to get a job in Seattle, much less at NASA.
Kal’s laugh sounded loud, and Quen shifted so she wouldn’t have to watch the NASA representative and Kal’s parents fawn over him. There was an opening on the team that had just recently solved the insulin puzzle, freeing not only elven children from diabetes forever, but also humanity, the species they’d tested it on. Kal’s parents looked proud as they entertained the man. The Kalamack name was faltering, and they’d invested everything in their son to try to find a rebirth. Elitist little sod. Maybe if your family weren’t such snots, you could engender children.
Trisk’s lip twitched. “Did I ever tell you about the time Kal cheated off me?”
“Every time you drink too much.” Quen tried to tug her away, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave, not daring to be absent if someone should seek her out.
“He has to win every time, no matter what. Even a spelling test. You know the worst part?” she said as she refused to move and his hand fell away. “He knew we’d get caught and I’d be the one called a cheater, because the Goddess knows Kal is too smart and clever to cheat.”
“You think?” Quen grinned at her old anger. “I swear, Trisk, you should’ve majored in security. Maybe finished out that demon-study track. I bet you could find a demon name, and with that, they’d let you teach. Didn’t your grandmother teach?”
She nodded as she dropped down into her chair, not caring that her knees weren’t pressed together as they should be. Her grandmother had done a lot of things, not all of them in the light. So had her mother. May they both rest in peace. “Demon summoning is a dead art.”
Quen sat on the edge of her interviewer chair, looking awkward and handsome at the same time. “Security isn’t just guns, and knives, and stealth. It’s technology, and demons, and sneaking around. You’re good at that.”
Her eyes flicked to his. Not to mention security is the only place someone like me is allowed to excel. “I want to help our entire species, not just one or two of us.” She hesitated, astounded at the overdone display continuing across the aisle. “My God. His genetic code is so full of holes, I can smell the human spliced in from here.”
Quen ducked his head, hiding a smile. “I’m going to work for the Kalamack family,” he said, and shocked, Trisk felt her face go white.
“I have my reasons,” he said, not looking up. “It wasn’t the money, though I’ll admit it’s more than I thought I’d ever be able to make this soon.”
She couldn’t breathe, imagining the horror of working for the Kalamack family. “Quen, you can’t. Kal is a prejudiced prick who learned at the knee of his prejudiced dick father. You’ll never get the credit you deserve. They’ll treat their horses better than you.”
The sudden anger in his brow was surprising. “You think I don’t know that?”
“Quen,” she pleaded, taking his hand.
“I don’t need recognition like you do,” he said as he pulled away. “Besides, there are benefits to being forgotten and unseen among your betters.” Finally he smiled. “The chance to sneak around and learn things is unparalleled. I’ll be fine.”
But I won’t be, she thought, knowing her hope of finding a job near enough to him to stay in touch by any method other than letters was now utterly gone. The Kalamacks lived in Portland, and all the really good elven labs were in Florida or Texas.
She took a breath, hesitating when Quen rose, his attention fixed past her. She turned to see Kal, his smirk as he stood before them making it obvious he’d found out about Quen and wanted to rub her nose in it. “What do you want?” she said as she got to her feet, Quen’s hand on her shoulder.
“Hi, Felecia,” Kal mocked, and she bristled, hating her given name. It was why she went by her middle name, Eloytrisk, or Trisk for short.
“It’s Trisk,” she intoned, and Kal smirked.
“Felecia the flea. That’s what we called you, yes?” he said, lifting the lowest contract in her basket.
She shoved him back before he could see the letterhead, her face cold. “Keep out of my space. You stink like human.”
Kal’s cheeks reddened, stark against his fair, almost white hair as he gracefully caught his balance. He’d been in and out of the hospital most of his early life, his parents spending a fortune tweaking his code to make him the picture of the perfect elf in the hopes that he would attract a successful house. He had the slim physique of a long-distance runner, a respectable height that did not stand out, and of course, green eyes. But no children meant no status, and the Kalamack name was ready to fall. Trent was the very last one in a very long line, but he was the last.
“Let it go, Trisk,” Quen said in warning, and she shook off his restraining hand. She’d had enough of Kal, and after tonight, one way or the other, he’d be gone.
Kal drew himself up in the aisle, braver—or perhaps more foolish—with his parents gone, the two of them having escorted the NASA dignitary away for a drink. “I see Quen told you about his new job,” he said as he idly looked at his perfect nails. “If I get my way, he’ll be coming to NASA with me. I’ll need someone to make me breakfast, pick up my dry cleaning. I would’ve asked my father to hire you, but everyone knows women can’t drive.”
“Get out of my space,” she said again, hands fisted. Damn it, he’d gotten that NASA job. Everything was given to him. Everything. She stiffened when he moved closer, daring her to protest as he once more lifted the contracts to see who they were from.
“I got an offer from NASA. They want me to develop new strains of carrier bacteria that can repair a child’s DNA as early as three days old with a simple inhalation. And you,” he said, head tilted as he chuckled at the small-firm letterheads, “the closest you will ever get will be in some research facility’s library, shelving books for old farts who can’t work a Punnett square. Have fun, Flea.”
Smiling that confident, hated smile, he turned to go.
Her anger boiled up, and she shook off Quen’s restraining hand again. “You are a hack, Kalamack,” she said loudly, and the nearby conversations went silent. “Your theory to use bacteria to fix DNA strands into a new host is seriously flawed. Good for a doctorate, but not application. You can’t stop bacteria from evolving as you can viruses, and you will end up killing the people you are trying to save.”
Kal looked her up and down. “Huh. A second-rate security grunt thinks she knows my job better than I do.”
“Let it go, Trisk,” Quen warned as she took two long steps into the aisle.
“Kal?” she said sweetly, and when he turned, she punched him right in the nose.
Kal cried out as he fell, catching himself against his own booth. His hands covered his face, blood leaking out from between them, a stark, shocking color. “You hit me!” he cried as a handful of flustered girls flocked to him, digging in their little jeweled handbags for frilly handkerchiefs.
“Damn right I hit you,” she said, shaking the pain from her hand. Busting his nose had hurt, but casting a spell would have been worse. Besides, the chandelier would have stopped it.
“You little canicula,” Kal exclaimed, shoving past the girls. Wiping the blood off, he stood stiffly before her, his fine-textured hair almost floating as he reached through the wards on the room and drew on a ley line.
People fell back. Someone called for security. Trisk’s eyes widened, her attention rising to the huge chandelier as it shifted to a dark purple in response. A faint alarm began chiming.
“I can’t believe you hit me!” Kal said, and as Trisk stared flat-jawed, he spread his clasped hands apart to show a glowing ball of unfocused energy. It was a lot for a lab rat, making Trisk wonder if he’d been tutored on the side.
“Kal, don’t!” Quen shouted, and Kal sneered.
“Dilatare,” Kal said, shoving the technically white, yet still dangerous spell at her.
Hands warming, Trisk yanked a wad of unfocused energy from the nearest ley line to block it.
Quen was faster, and Trisk started when his aura-tainted streak of power struck Kal’s incoming bolt, sending both energies spinning wildly up and into the chandelier. They hit it with a shower of green sparks, and, with a ping that echoed through her hold on the ley line, the huge crystal-and-light chandelier shattered.
People cried out. Trisk cowered, arms over her head as broken crystal rained down on them in a weird chiming clatter of discord and sensation. With a harsh sound, the band quit.
Shouts rose, and the hall exploded into noise. Trisk straightened from her instinctive hunch, the power she’d pulled from the line still glowing between her hands, colored a golden green by her aura. Her lips parted and fear slid between her soul and reason. The eastern representative of the elven enclave stood before them, his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. Broken crystal crunched under his dress shoes, and with a gulp, she pushed the energy down and away, letting go of the ley line.
“What happened?” he demanded, and the hall became silent. Faces ringed them: her classmates, their parents, prospective employers. It felt like the third grade all over again, and Trisk was silent. Kal stared malevolently at her, his face smeared with blood and someone’s frilly handkerchief over his mouth. His nose was probably broken, and Trisk stifled a smile of perverse satisfaction that he’d have to get it fixed.
“You know there’s no use of ley lines this close to the city,” the bald man said, a tie pin the only show of his enclave status, but it somehow elevated his suit above the surrounding business attire and colorful cocktail dresses. “That’s why we have the place charmed.” His attention rose to the few crystals still holding. “Or at least we did.”
“It was an accident, Sa’han,” Kal said, using the elven honorific, as he clearly didn’t know the man’s name.
“Accident?” the man echoed. “You’re both too old for this. What happened?”
Trisk said nothing. They’d never believe she hadn’t broken the room-wide charm. She’d been the butt of too many jokes, taking the blame for all of them because to do otherwise would only increase the torment. She had a rep, even if none of it was true.
“Felecia?” the man said, and she started, wondering how he knew her name.
“I, ah, punched him, Sa’han,” she admitted. “I didn’t tap a ley line until he did.”
“And yet the result is the same.” The man regretfully turned to Kal. “Your temper is still getting the better of you, eh, Trenton?”
“She has no right to be here, Sa’han,” Kal said haughtily. “There are only three offers on her table. The center is for the best, not slag.”
Trisk’s eyes narrowed, but he was only saying what they were all thinking. Behind her, she could feel Quen’s slow anger building, but it was too late. His contract was binding.
But the man only handed Kal a spell with which to clean his face. “And your tongue still doesn’t check in with your brain before waggling,” he said as Kal used the very blood from his broken nose to invoke the charm, and, in a wash of aura-tainted magic, his face was clean. “You think she copied her way to her grade average?” the man said, and Kal’s face flashed red. “You are drastically lacking in the art of stealth and misdirection. Your emotions and wants are as clear as a child’s. Learn what you lack or forever be the shadow of potential that you are today.”
Trisk felt herself pale as he turned to her. He could see right through her, all her grand hopes looking like a child’s pretend. “And you need to find out who you are before you bring your house any more shame,” he said, his rebuke hitting her hard.
Her chest hurt, and she dropped her head. In the near distance, the loud voices of Kal’s parents became obvious as they tried to force their way through the circle of people.
The enclave member sighed, gathering himself. “Kal? Trisk? As neither of you has signed with anyone, you’re allowed to remain on the floor, but you’re confined to your tables. Quen, you have your placement. Go wait in your room.”
Trisk snapped her head up, suddenly frightened. Quen would go through hell now, as Kal would blame him for everything she’d done. “Quen, I’m sorry,” she blurted.
Quen’s mood softened, and he managed a smile. “Me too,” he said. “Don’t worry about it,” he added as he gave her shoulder a squeeze, but what she wanted was for him to take her in his arms and tell her nothing would change between them. “I’ve dealt with worse. I’m proud of you, Trisk. You’re going to do well. I know it.”
He was slipping away from her, and she could do nothing. “Quen . . .”
He looked back once, and then he was gone, the colorful dresses hiding him as the band started up again. The enclave dignitary had vanished as well, and people began to disperse.
Trisk’s eyes rose to find Kal standing with his parents. His father was trying to straighten Kal’s swollen nose, and his mother was attempting to distract the NASA representative from the shattered remains of the hall’s protection.
No one was venturing across the pile of crystal, and Trisk winced when her father’s tall form stumbled to a halt at the fringes, hesitating briefly as he found her eyes and then turned to make his way around it. “The Goddess protect me,” she whispered, nudging a stray crystal out of her way and collapsing in her interview chair. There was no way to make this look good.
“Trisk? Tell me this wasn’t you,” her father said as he worked his way into her booth.
A surge of self-pity rose, and she blinked fast, refusing to cry. “Quen signed with the Kalamacks,” she said, voice cracking.
Her father’s breath came in, but then he exhaled with a knowing, forgiving sound, the shattered chandelier and rising argument at the Kalamack booth suddenly making sense. “I’m sorry,” he said, his hand warm on her shoulder. “I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”
His quick understanding made her feel worse. “I wish he’d know what he’s doing with me.”
Her father dropped to a knee before her and took her into a hug. Her throat closed, and it was as if she were twelve again as he tried to show her all was not lost, that something good would come from it. “Have you made a choice?” he asked gently.
She knew he wanted her to take a position and move forward, but accepting anything other than what she’d worked for felt like failure. His arms still around her, she shook her head.
Slowly his grip fell away. He stood, silent as a special crew began to sweep the crystal into shipping boxes for off-site decontamination. “I’ll get us some coffee,” he finally said. “You’ll be okay for a moment?”
She nodded, knowing it wasn’t coffee he was after, but the chance there might be someone who owed him a favor. Her breath rattled as she exhaled. There were no more favors to be had. He had spent them all getting her this far. She could probably be excused for the effrontery of trying to make it in a man’s field if she looked like their ideal, her efforts excused by her probable goal of finding a better husband. But she didn’t even have that.
He was gone when she looked up.
Numb, she sat in her chair as the conference took on its normal patter and flow, everyone seeing her but no one making eye contact. “You can’t,” a plaintive voice rang out, and she watched as the NASA rep walked away, Kal’s mother following fast, her steps short and heels clicking. Kal met her gaze with a murderous intent, jumping when his father picked up one of his contracts and shoved it at him.
“Sign it,” the older man demanded. “Before they all withdraw their offers.”
“Father,” Kal complained, clearly not liking that Trisk was seeing this.
“Now!” his father exclaimed. “Sa’han Ulbrine was right. You showed a disturbing lack of control and commonsense over a woman you will never see after tonight. Sign.”
Motions stiff, Kal took the pen and signed the paper. His father all but jerked it out from under him. “Go wait in your rooms,” the tall man said coldly, then strode away to register the contract before midnight, when the gala would be over.
Trisk couldn’t help herself, and she made a mocking face at Kal across the aisle.
Kal’s eyes narrowed. “You cost me my dream job,” he said, his melodious voice clear over the surrounding conversations.
“You went out of your way to hurt me,” she said coldly.
He stood to leave, glancing over his booth as if only now seeing it as the vain display it was. Silent, he walked away. A cluster of young women flitted behind him, ignored.
Trisk slumped, tired. She watched him as long as she could, and then he was gone. The final hours passed, and in groups of three and four, smiling parents and happy graduates left the hall on their way to parties hosted by their new employers, and from there, to a new life. She slowly realized she was alone. The tables were empty, the family banners drooping unattended amid the stray cups of cold coffee and tea. Still she sat, her attention fixed on a glint of crystal missed by the cleaners.
The click of a shutting door roused her. Thinking it was her father, Trisk stirred, muscles stiff as she rose and went to pick up the forgotten crystal. It was cool in her hand, smooth but for one rough edge. There was no tingle of magic left—it was just dead crystal. The time to record her contract had come and gone. It didn’t matter. She had no intention of accepting any of the offers. There wasn’t much available for a twenty-six-year-old woman in 1963, but she’d find something. She couldn’t ask her father to continue to support her.
A pang of guilt almost bent her double. He had tried so hard to give her what she wanted, and she’d failed him. The studying, the practice, the sacrifice—all for nothing.
A scuff brought her head up, and her fist closed tight on the shard. A suited official was moving slowly among the discarded chairs and scattered papers. It was the man from the enclave who had chastised her, and a feeling of defiant guilt rose high.
“What a mess,” the man said as he drew close, and she stiffened.
“Good evening, Sa’han,” she said, wanting to leave but unable to now that he’d addressed her.
“I think we’re going to lose our cleaning deposit,” he said as he wearily sat against Kal’s table, left for others to break down and pack away. “But we usually do.”
She said nothing, waiting for him to dismiss her, but he only leaned back, balancing precariously as he found a copy of Kal’s transcripts, his bushy eyebrows rising as he looked it over. “I didn’t know your GPA was higher than his,” he said in surprise.
She shrugged, not having cared beyond acquiring a spot under the chandelier.
The man slowly bobbed his head, his thin finger tracing a line down Kal’s last eight years. “My mother had dark eyes,” he said softly. “When I complained to my father that she should get them fixed to be like everyone else’s, he told me they helped her see past the crap most of us drape ourselves with. I was never more embarrassed of myself than that day.”
He pushed off from the table, and Trisk backed up, confused.
“I saw what happened,” he said, coming close. “You never used your magic, though you were ready to. I couldn’t hear. What did he say before you punched him in the nose?”
Trisk warmed. “I made an error in judgment, Sa’han. You have my apologies.”
The man smiled. “What did he say?”
She lifted her chin. “He called me a second-rate security grunt, Sa’han.”
Nodding as if unsurprised, the man reached into his suit’s inner pocket and handed her a card embossed with the enclave’s symbol. “As you haven’t accepted any of your fine offers, I’d suggest you put in your application at Global Genetics.”
Trisk took the card, seeing it had his name and a phone number on it. Sa’han Ulbrine, she thought, confused. “In Sacramento?” she said. Global Genetics was a human-run lab, generations behind what any of her people were doing. The enclave was kicking her out, and her heart sank.
But Ulbrine put an arm over her shoulder and turned her to the door. His mood was one of opportunity, not exile, and she didn’t understand. “Occasionally a lab we have no affiliation with makes a breakthrough, and we want to know about it before they publish it.”
They weren’t kicking her out then, but kicking her to the curb, reminding her of her place. “Sa’han . . .” she said, drawing to a stop.
He was smiling when she looked up, his amusement unexpected. “Your excellent grades and background give you a unique ability to infiltrate by taking a job as a genetic researcher. The enclave will pay you a small security stipend,” he said, handing her a contract rolled up and tied with a purple ribbon. “And that is what your title will be on the rolls, but you will have your wage from Global Genetics to supplement your income to the point where you won’t need a spouse to maintain yourself.”
She stared at him, stunned. She’d be free, as few women were in the sixties.
“You will work in a lab,” he said, drawing her into motion again. “It’s where I think you ought to be, and I usually get what I want. You will maintain your job performance for your human employers, but your primary focus is to inform us of any unusual developments.” He chuckled, rubbing his bald head ruefully. “Sometimes the humans get lucky, and we want to know of it.”
“But you said I needed to learn where I belonged,” she fumbled.
“I said you needed to learn who you are. You are a dark elf, Felecia Eloytrisk Cambri. And I’m giving you the chance to live up to your potential. Will you take it?”
Her heart pounded as she realized what he was offering her. On paper, being forced to work outside of an elven lab was a harsh punishment, but in reality, she’d be doing what she enjoyed, what she was good at, and working someplace where she could make a difference.
“Well?” Ulbrine hesitated at the door to the hall. She could see that the contract had been time-stamped an hour ago, legal and binding even if she signed it now. Beyond him lay the world. She could be what she’d always wanted, had striven for. Quen was right. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought.
Her hand trembled as she reached for a pen. “I’ll take it.”