Sascha returned to the Duncan building and made a quick visit to her apartment before heading up to her mother's office. She'd begun repairing the fissures in her inner shields the moment she'd left DarkRiver and by the time she walked into the office, her heart was locked behind so many layers of power that she betrayed nothing, even when she found Santano Enrique ensconced with Nikita.
"Come in, Sascha." Nikita looked up from the computer screen where she was showing Enrique something. "Hello, Sascha. I haven't seen you for a while."
"Councilor Enrique." Sascha bowed her head in a respectful nod. Night-sky eyes met hers.
Belying his Latin name, the other cardinal was a tall blond with almost too-pale skin. Nothing about him said he was sixty years of age but Sascha was well aware of the time he'd had to hone his considerable powers.
"Nikita tells me you're running your own project."
Sascha wasn't surprised that her mother had shared the information with the other Councilor. Enrique was an academic, not a business rival. That made him no less deadly. None of the Council were people you'd turn your back on. "Yes, sir."
She'd always been uneasy around Enrique. Maybe it was because he was an off-the-scale Tk-Psy with so much telekinetic power that he could crush her without blinking. Or maybe it was because he had a way of looking at her as if he could see inside her skull. She wanted nobody in the confines of her mind.
"I have every confidence in you - you are Nikita's daughter, after all." Walking out from behind the desk, he looked her up and down. "Though the genetics seem to have taken an unexpected direction."
"She has no genetic deficiencies," Nikita stated. "I chose her father with great care to the mixing of our genes. And I produced a cardinal."
Sascha tried to understand the conversational undercurrents between them without success - the Psy were great at keeping secrets and she was talking to two masters of the art.
"Of course." Enrique smiled the cold smile of the Psy. "I have a lecture to prepare so I'd better be going. I look forward to seeing more of you, Sascha."
"Yes, sir." She kept her tone robotically flat, not saying another word until he'd walked out and she'd closed the door behind him. "It's not like Councilor Enrique to visit you here."
"He wanted to talk away from prying eyes." Nikita's tone said that that was the end of the discussion.
"I need to know, if I'm going to start taking on more responsibility."
"You don't need to know this." Her mother put her arms on the desk. "Tell me about the changeling."
Sascha knew it would do no good to push. The woman who was sitting in front of her was part of the most closed and secret society in the world, the Psy Council.
They are Council. They are above the law.
It had taken a changeling to make her see the truth. The Council were a law unto themselves. When they spoke, the PsyNet trembled. And when they sentenced an individual to rehabilitation, there was no Court of Appeal.
Looking into her mother's cool brown eyes, Sascha accepted that if the moment came, Nikita would vote to put her own daughter in the Center rather than lose her position of power.
Those who felt emotion were the enemy... and enemies were to be shown no pity.
"He's extremely intelligent," she said, amazed at her own understatement. Lucas was one of the smartest, coolest negotiators she'd ever met. "Each and every unit has been pre-sold."
"So he gets his ten million."
"Our profits will be substantial despite that - there's a huge shortage in the market."
"Are you suggesting we do another deal with them?"
"I'd wait a while. We don't know if we can work with them in the long term." All she knew was that she'd betray herself if she dealt with Lucas and his people for any length of time. Today she'd had to change her boots. Tomorrow she might have to change her entire personality. It was impossible to be around the vibrant life of the leopards and not hunger to live like them.
Then there was Lucas.
He was the first male she'd ever met who sent her hormones into complete overdrive. Her years of Psy training felt like nothing when she was with him. The worst thing was, she didn't care.
"I agree," Nikita said. "Let's see if they deliver."
"I have little doubt they will. Mr. Hunter doesn't strike me as the kind of man who leaves things unfinished."
"I found out something very interesting about our new partners while you were gone." Nikita's slender fingers pulled up some data using the computer's touch screen. "It appears that the DarkRiver-SnowDancer pact goes much deeper than is common knowledge. The SnowDancers have a twenty percent stake in a lot of DarkRiver projects."
Sascha wasn't surprised. In spite of his lazy charm, Lucas was iron-willed enough to impress even the most ruthless. "Is it reciprocal?"
"Yes. DarkRiver owns twenty percent in a commensurate number of SnowDancer projects."
"An alliance based on shared territory and shared business profits." It was a unique situation for the predatory changelings, notorious for their turf wars. That weakness made it easy for the Psy to manipulate them. All they had to do to create conflict was manufacture a territorial transgression. But Sascha had a feeling that things were changing - and most of her people were just too caught up in their sense of superiority to notice.
"Don't let your guard down around Hunter."
"Yes, Mother." Sascha had every intention of following Nikita's advice. Lucas was not simply an alpha leopard, he was a highly sensual male. It was the latter that terrified her. Something in her flawed psyche reacted to him on the most visceral level.