“We’re not participating,” Severance assured him, not bothering to slow down as he headed toward the rear door. “Just looking for a way out.”
But by now the owner had noticed Cidra’s appearance. Everything from the expensive comb of fire beryl in her carefully braided hair to the slippers embroidered with genuine emerald floss spoke of Harmonic wealth and refinement. “What do you think you’re doing bringing her here? She looks like she’s from Clementia.”
“Sweet Harmony, get her outa here.”
“I’m trying,” Severance said, his hand on the door latch. “Saints know I’m trying.”
“There seems to be some misunderstanding,” Cidra began hurriedly as she glanced back at the scowling tavern proprietor. “I’m from Clementia, but I’m not a… a Harmonic.”
“Forget it. We’ll straighten everything out later.” Severance had her outside on the gently glowing fluoroquartz pavement. Maintaining his grip on her arm, he broke into an easy, loping stride and forced Cidra to match his pace.
In the distance the arrogant shriek of a safeguard runner sliced through the balmy night air. Cidra was suddenly very grateful that she wouldn’t have to endure the indignity of being questioned. Kyrene, her mentor, would have been shocked, to say nothing of her parents’ reaction.
The glowing bands of fluoroquartz supplied all the light they needed to follow the path easily in the warm darkness. The pavement was still wet from a recent rain, and drops of w water, illuminated by the natural light of the fluoroquartz, glittered like jewels. Cidra wanted to stop and examine the prismatic effect. Such naturally occurring phenomena, so close to artifice in their beauty, were meant to be appreciated. But her escort clearly had no intention of slowing down, and Cidra felt it was an inauspicious moment to debate the issue.
But as she raced along beside Teague Severance, she found herself instead savoring the rich assortment, of fragrances that floated on the damp, balmy breeze, Clementia was a subtly perfumed delight, it’s odors carefully generated by exotic, hybrid flowers to complement the delicate noses of its inhabitants. But here in Port Valentine, Cidra’s olfactory senses were bombarded by new sensations, causing her to alternately wrinkle her nose or inhale sharply. Here, Cidra had discovered the faint scent of the sea at low tide, complete with a hint of rotting vegetation, and the sour odor that could only be from some tavern’s garbage bin mingling with the rich smell of the recent rain. She thought she detected a waft of fernweed smoke as Severance urged her past a dark doorway. Cidra wanted to stop and find out why anyone would actually smoke the dangerous substance when everyone knew how bad it was for the body, but Severance gave her no chance.
Two blocks later Severance finally slowed to a brisk walk. “AH right, I think we’re clear. The guards will be concentrating their attention on the ones inside the tavern. They won’t be looking for a few who had the sense to leave. You okay?”
Cidra, her breath coming quickly even though she’d had no real trouble maintaining the pace of the last two blocks, nodded. “Yes, of course. I’m fine. Thank you for inquiring.” For Cidra, such polite inquiries had always been expressed in the formal, ceremonial form, but remembering where she was, she tried to use her companion’s colloquial style. “And you? Are you, er, okay?”
“Sure. Let’s get off the street. There’s another tavern up ahead. One that’s usually quieter. We can get something to eat. I haven’t had dinner yet, have you?”
“Well, no,” Cidra said. “It’s only two hours past the evening change, and I eat at three past.”
“Is that so? Me, I’m starved. Nothing like pulling patrons out of tavern brawls to work up a postman’s appetite.” He gave her a roguish smile that made her strangely uncomfortable. “You can sip nectar or whatever it is you folks normally drink.”
Cidra contemplated the situation. “Actually I am rather hungry. Perhaps the unplanned exercise is responsible.”
Severance grinned down at her, his strong, white teeth gleaming, although the glow of the pavement lighting cast his fog-gray eyes into pools of shadow. The rest of his hard features complimented the carnivorous impression. “Perhaps.”
Cidra watched as the quick, feral grin disappeared, and wondered how an expression normally intended to convey laughter and humor could be so totally devoid of either. She shivered mentally. No wonder they called them Wolves, she thought fleetingly. “As a point of general information, I’d like to inform you that we don’t sip nectar in Clementia.”
“Another illusion shattered.”
But Severance seemed philosophical about the matter as he led his patron into a different tavern. According to the illuminated sign over the entrance, this one was called The Valentine; presumably a name coined in honor of the surrounding sprawl of Lovelady’s chief port town. A heart-shaped logo enclosed the words.
Once inside, Cidra glanced around with interest. The room was gently lit with a glowing pink light and was much quieter and far more refined than the first tavern had been. Here a mixed crowd of diners and drinkers occupied booths and a dispenser bar that lined the back of the room. The atmosphere was warm and comfortable and reasonably clean. Humans, both Wolves and Harmonics, still preferred to be served by humans, and the dining room was not automated.
“I take it this meets with your approval?” Severance was watching her expression as they stood in the doorway.
Cidra flushed, sensing his sarcasm. “This will be fine. All I need is a chance to discuss my business with you.”
“Wait till I order my food. I prefer to talk business over a good steak.” Severance pinned a nearby member of The Valentine’s staff with a steady gaze that eventually got the woman’s attention. She glanced at him and then at Cidra. As soon as she took in the sight of Cidra’s formal clothing and quietly regal bearing, she moved forward in an apologetic rush.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Otanna. I have a very pleasant booth available across the room. It’s out of the way. Quite peaceful.”
Cidra inclined her head in polite acknowledgment. “You are very kind.” A moment later she was seated. A waiter materialized out of nowhere, bowing a little awkwardly as he set out utensils.
“I have to admit that you’ve got your uses,” Severance said as he slid into the booth across from Cidra. “I don’t usually get such good service.” He glanced at the holotape menu card only briefly before coming to a quick decision. “I’m going to order the torla steak. Maybe with you here they’ll make sure it’s cooked the way I order it. What suits you?”