By: Viola Grace

Chapter One

“So, Miss Fisher, you have an aptitude for service?”

Lilia Fisher sat and smiled politely at the alien in front of her. “I have been a personal assistant for one person or another for the last decade.”

“Why do you feel you want to leave the Earth for alien worlds?”

“My current employer is retiring, and I have no urge to find another situation here on my home world when there is the possibility of so much more out there.” Lilia tilted her head.

“Well, your scores are excellent, and your amenability to leaving immediately is a definite bonus. I will be in touch later today.”

“Thank you, Recruiter. I look forward to the call.” Lilia got to her feet and inclined her head again. With her shoulders back and her hand on her purse strap, she headed out into the afternoon sun, and she nodded to the chauffeur who opened the door to the town car. As perks went, having a driver was convenient, but with her client retiring from public life, she was soon to be out of a job and the perks would dissolve away.

It was time to start the next part of her life, and hopefully, the Volunteer Project would assist her to find it.

Six months later, Lilia got up before dawn, rolled out of bed and got into her exercise gear. She had an early-morning workout appointment with one of her employers, and if she were late, she would hear about it for the rest of the day.

Lilia trotted out to the rear gardens, and Briel came out of the main house a moment later. “Are you ready?”

In answer, Lilia bolted down the path that they took every morning, and Briel laughed and chased after her.

The morning workouts were part endurance performance and part martial arts and survival skills. Between swinging from trees and pummelling each other at the fords in the streams, they were both exhausted, muddy and bruised when they staggered onto the patio where breakfast was being served.

The matriarch of the Zel clan was sitting with the morning data and working through the appointments.

“Lilia, the moment you finish eating, I want you to go over the schedule and make time on six-day. I need the whole day blocked off, but keep Briel on her schedule.”

“Yes, Madame Zel.” Lilia finished scrubbing her hands and face on the towels held by the household servants.

Briel made a face at Lilia across the table, and Lilia responded. They consumed their breakfast, with Lilia eating in record time.

“I will return in a moment and business as usual may begin.”

Lilia left the table and sprinted upstairs. A solar shower and a change of clothing and she was ready for a day of managing the business of the owners of the Zel Design House.

With her data cuff on her wrist, she returned to the breakfast table for a cup of tea and the morning briefing.

“Madame Zel, you have the late afternoon blocked out with no details. Is there somewhere you need an escort to?” Lilia smiled politely at the much older woman.

Briel spluttered and blotted at her lips with a napkin. “Is that today?”

Madame Zel nodded. “Today is the selection. The actual hunt is in ten days.”

Lilia cocked her head in surprise. “Hunt?”

The Wralik were nature lovers. The Zel family was the custodian of several thousand acres of untouched forest. They leased access to other families under strict supervision. It was one of the things that Lilia most enjoyed on a world where she stood out like a sore thumb. Respect for the world they walked on was everything to everyone.

Madame Zel scowled; her pewter-grey skin pulling as she frowned. “The forest is almost up for a new guardian, and we only have one chance to keep it under our control. Today, we find out if we are the hart or the hound.”

Briel smiled, “She is still confused, Grandmother. Today, Grandmother will go into the forest and meet at the standing stones with the head of the Almoss family. They draw lots, and one of them will draw a coin with the head of a hart, and the other will draw the head of the hound. Each family chooses a representative, and they meet at the standing stones ten days from the day of the draw.”

Briel suddenly looked a little green instead of grey, but she pushed on. “The hart runs into the woods and has to remain uncaptured for three days. The hound gives chase after two hours, and its goal is to capture the hart.”

Lilia cleared her throat. “What happens if the hart is captured?”

“Three days of service and their family loses all chance at the guardianship of the forest. If they are successful, it goes the other way. Three days of service and their family wins the rights to the forest for a decade.”

“So, Briel will be your representative?”

Briel had a weak smile for a moment before she bolted to the side and threw up in the bushes.

Lilia winced. She had suspected that Briel was pregnant a few weeks ago. Apparently, the Wralik went through morning sickness just like any other species.

Madame Zel tutted. “It is just nerves. Her father was the hound that won us the forest rights a decade ago. When we had larger families, it was easier to choose the best for the purpose.”

“What happens if a family doesn’t have any suitable members for the challenge?”

Madame Zel waved it away. “That never happens. There is always family.”

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