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And a name wasn’t all that small a thing when all was said and done.

But when Tess brought the mugs of coffee to the table and he saw the way Meg cupped the mug to warm her hands, he let it go.

He thanked Tess, then turned his attention back to Meg Corbyn. “You know what being a Human Liaison entails?”

“No,” she said.

“So you don’t have any experience with a job like this?”

“No. But I can learn. I want to learn.”

He didn’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but he did wonder if she wouldn’t die of pneumonia or something else before she had a chance to learn anything.

Suddenly he remembered the scarred old woman sitting in the sun, offering to read her cards and tell people their fortunes. But she didn’t use her cards that day, not for him. What she had done was the reason her words had whispered through his thoughts for the past twenty years. And now her words rang in his memory as clear as if he’d heard them yesterday.

Be a leader for your people. Be the voice that decides who lives and who dies within your Courtyard. The day will come when a life you save will, in turn, save someone dear to you.

His being the leader of the Lakeside Courtyard hadn’t saved his sister, Daphne, two years ago. But thinking about the old woman when this shivering young woman was waiting for his decision made him uneasy.

Tess set one of her earthenware soup bowls on the table, along with some crackers.

“Last bowl in the pot,” Tess said.

“Thank you, but I can’t pay for it.” Meg’s voice was barely above a whisper—and full of longing as she stared at the food.

Giving Simon a hostile look, Tess said, “On the house.”

“Eat it,” Simon said when Tess resumed her cleanup. “It’s hearty and will warm you up.”

He turned his head and drank his coffee while he watched Tess go through her closing routine, giving Meg a little time to concentrate on the food in front of her.

Tess was a worry. Tess was always a worry, because there was too fine a line between her being amused by humans and being unwilling to tolerate their existence. He didn’t know what she was, only that she was terra indigene—and she was so dangerous even other species of terra indigene feared her. But when she arrived at the Lakeside Courtyard a few years ago, there was something in her eyes that made him certain that if she didn’t get some kind of companionship, she would become an enemy of everything that lived.

Inviting her to stay had been his first official decision as the new leader of the Lakeside Courtyard. Watching her change from a brittle loner to an individual capable of running a public business, he’d never regretted that decision.

That didn’t mean he always trusted her.

“What does a Human Liaison do?” Meg asked.

Simon glanced at the bowl. Half gone. He wasn’t sure if her question meant she couldn’t eat anymore or just needed to pause.

“By the agreements established between humans and the terra indigene, every city in Thaisia has a Courtyard, a tract of land where the Others reside. These Courtyards are also places where products manufactured by humans can be acquired. But humans don’t trust the Others, and we don’t trust humans. A lot of the products are delivered by humans, and there were enough incidents early on to convince the human government and our leaders that it was prudent to have someone receiving the mail and packages who was not inclined to eat the messenger. So a receiving area was built at each Courtyard and is manned by someone who acts as the liaison between the humans and the Others. Each Courtyard’s Business Association decides on the pay and perks. By the agreements, the human government is required to penalize any delivery service that refuses to deliver merchandise to a Courtyard. On the other hand, there is a limited window of time when the position of Human Liaison can be unoccupied before companies can refuse to enter our land without penalty. Those kinds of interruptions tend to fray the tolerance each side has for the other—and when tolerance frays, people tend to die. Sometimes a lot of people die.”

Meg ate another spoonful of soup. “Is that why you allow humans to shop in your store? To build up the tolerance between humans and the Others?”

Smart woman. Her conclusion wasn’t accurate—most terra indigene weren’t interested in being tolerant of humans—but it did indicate an understanding of why a Liaison was needed. “The Lakeside Courtyard is a kind of experiment. While the shops in our Market Square are exclusively for our own people and our human employees, the businesses facing Crowfield Avenue have hours when they’re open to humans in general. The bookstore and coffee shop are two of those businesses. There is also a fitness center that has a few memberships available to humans, the seamstress/tailor shop, and a gallery on Main Street, which is open to anyone when it’s open at all.”

“But human law doesn’t apply in those stores?”

“That’s right.” Simon studied her. He didn’t trust Asia Crane. His reaction to Meg wasn’t that simple. Because of that, he decided to hire her. It wouldn’t hurt the Courtyard to have her around for a few days, especially if someone kept an eye on what she was doing, and it would give him time to figure out why she made him uneasy. But before he told Meg, he needed to say one more thing. “Human law does not apply. Do you understand what that means?”

She nodded. He didn’t believe her, but he let it go.

“If you want the job, it’s yours.”

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