When Sahnassa returned, Vanarra eyed her slipping down the hall from Flint’s office, where she was standing beside him looking at their recent bookings. Noticing her gaze and connecting it with the image he’d seen passing in the hallway out of the corner of his eye, he asked, “Everything okay there?”
“Wasn’t moving funny; tail was pretty decent; ears about halfway,” Van said softly as she puzzled it out. “Maybe not horrible. Family stuff, but I suppose it wasn’t so bad.”
“In the past, I used to accuse you of worrying about her; now, you worry for her. You want to go talk to her?”
“Don’t want to pounce her right away,” Van told him. “Kit needs time to just sit and get her head back into this stuff for a bit. Let’s finish up, and I’ll go peek in on her.”
“Peek in on her, maybe Digger. He’s been down this sol, wouldn’t tell me why, just passed it off.”
“Purebred avowed coming off of being disavowed, maybe. I’ve known some who had sols that when they thought they were over it, it hit them all over again. Okay, I’ll check in on him, too. Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s the boss or the pretty face that gets them talking.”
“Can’t it be both?” Flint asked, and Van stuck her tongue out at him. “Yeah, totally brother and sister vibe here.”
“Well, brother,” Van told him, “care to explain where thirty five hundred in revenue disappeared off to?”
“I found it, and you’re not going to like it – fees. Our three favorite hotels decided to get together and all agree on a surcharge for bunches of items that only they can provide.”
“So, they are having us line their pockets. Well, not my favorites, anymore. Two new ones went up, nearby, and a very polite inquiry showed me they are hungry to have anyone in those spaces who is decent and will pay the room rent up front. I’ll meet with their business managers and spin it to them just how attractive they could be if they undercut their competition on, oh I don’t know, fees!”
“Well, there are six bookings just waiting for a venue, so it’s not like you’ll walk in with empty paws,” Flint told her. “Oh, and here – look what I found.”
Van took the item he dragged out of his pocket. “Weird little gold ball with a swirl on it. Feels heavy, not a cheap thing. Think its gold?”
“Yep, but I’m betting its plated. Can’t be sure of it. Little doodles on it if you look close enough, but I can’t read them.”
“Wonder if our resident Nephti might have a clue on it. Mind?” Van asked, and Flint tossed it to her. “Found where, exactly?”
“Lobby of the government recreational center. No one there had a clue, either.”
“Alright, fee problem solved, and little ball problem added. I’m still no better off,” Van complained with a smirk. “Send a polite note to our three former favorites indicating that because of the increased cost, we regret that we will not be able to recommend them to our clients. Let’s see if that gets us any response. That thirty five hundred extra is the very last they’ll see from us.”
“You got it, boss,” he told her, and smiling in response to his statement, she stepped away.
Walking up to Sahnassa’s office door, holding the little ball between her paw fingers, Van didn’t say anything but just waited for Sahni to recognize that she was there. “It went fine, Van. Really. We … kind of made up, a little bit. Some progress.”
“You didn’t have to tell me, but I’m glad you did, kit,” Vanarra offered warmly. “You think anything’s really changed?”
Sahnassa sat back and just thought for a moment. “Do I think my mother values me and my place in the world more than her dame or matron? She’s still scared of them, I think – that’s the real answer. Does she love me and is she sorry about the relationship? Maybe, in as much as she can.”
“Can?” Van asked, shaking her head.
“I think she may be more willing than my father to forgive; it’s something. We spent time together, and it wasn’t hateful afterwards.”
“I’ll take it, I suppose. Hey, any idea what this is? I’m not a jewelry expert, but it doesn’t feel right, I mean – doesn’t feel cheap. If it’s expensive and someone lost it…”
“They’ll want it back. Where did you find it?”
“Flint found it at the lobby of the government recreational center. I’m not surprised he held onto it; I don’t trust the Vulpi that runs that place anymore than I’d want to hunt him.”
Sahnassa shuddered and stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Nightmare bait,” she complained. “Can I have a look?” Van tossed it to her, and she eyed it very carefully. “These little squiggles. I’ve seen those somewhere before, like in a library or my house archive growing up. It’s heavy.”
“Yeah, noticed that. Any idea what it might be a part of?”
“Matron Astalla in my house knows a few things about ancient Nephti. I’m up for my moon cycle meet up with her in a few sols. If no one claims it, I could run it by her, see if she knows anything. Hold on a tick,” Sahni told her and took a picture of it with her PawLink. In a moment, she had the image up on her viewer and was running a search. “The squiggles are ancient Nephti. This … looks kind of old, too.”
“I’ll put it in our safe,” Van told her, “and when you go for your little family meeting I’ll haul it out. Can you put an note on your calendar?”
“I will, Van, and … thanks for checking up on me. I was surprised at how well it went, how much we shared. There were a lot of … misunderstandings that could have been avoided.”
“Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out,” Van sighed, taking the item back from her friend.
“Something has been digging on me a little,” Sahnassa admitted. “You said that you thought I was … well rounded or nature graceful or something?”
“It means you are a nice looking, kit, Sahni, that’s all. I’m not calling you an overfed grazer ripe for the kill,” Van teased her.
“Oh, thanks,” Sahni replied showing a little blush fur. “You are, also – far more than I am.”
“Maybe that’s my problem!” Van said softly with an air of epiphany. “All this time, I’ve dabbled in mixed bloods, played around with the Faelnar, Vulpi, Perratti, Lupar – never tried a Nephti, before. That’s kind of stupid when you think about it. I get on well with Nephti, always have! Hey, maybe, I need to pounce on a Nephti pelt for a change. Got any brothers you’re on good terms with?”
Sahnassa chuckled and shook her head. “Sorry, Van, only kits in our lair!”
“Eh, I’ll be on the prowl then,” Van answered nonchalantly. “Maybe my fitness instructor has a line on a good one. I’ll ask.”
“Glad to have helped, Van,” Sahni replied, embarrassed, and just shook her head as Van left, the mixed blood obviously giving the idea some degree of serious thought.
“Good evening, Sahnassa de Orturu,” Matron Astalla said warmly as she invited the young Nephti into one of the conversation rooms at the Pinnacle Center archive. “This continues to be a good place for us to meet, I trust?”
“Very good, Matron. It’s so great to see you! Oh, and I brought something with me that I’m hoping you can identify.”
“Really?” the black-furred matron with lovely white stripes asked as they sat. “What is it?”
Sahnassa proffered the small golden sphere in her paw and explained, “Someone in our office found it in the lobby of our local government recreation center. They were a little distrustful of the staff there, so they left a note with contact information and put it in our office safe. However, so far, no responses or interest.”
“May I?” Astalla asked, and at Sahnassa’s nod, she took the item and looked at it. Shuddering, she almost dropped it. “You … don’t know what this is?” The young Nephti’s head shake drew out a long exhaled breath as the matron tried to center herself. “Your instincts, and those of the one who found it, serve you well. This is a piece of jewelry from the de Fantar matriarch’s shoulder piece. I think it’s one of several that line the neck, if I’m remembering correctly. Oh, this is a very bad thing.”
“I don’t understand. We found it, and we’re returning it. Shouldn’t that make her happy?”
“No, kit. We are another house holding onto a part of the physical manifestation of de Fantar’s honor and history. For the less scrupulous among houses, this would end up in their private halls of honor – a trophy against an enemy. For those who find it and return it, they would be imposing a humiliating debasement on that matriarch – an insult not soon forgotten.”
“What if someone … not of a house returned it? Would it matter then?” Sahnassa asked, now a little unnerved by what she had been carrying around.
“Cast out? Anati? I shudder to think,” Astalla confided. “Might be the last thing they ever do. De Caterra is maddening about their adherence to certain forms, but they are not the only ones. No, a de Fantar must find this and a de Fantar must return it.”
Sahnassa scratched just under her chin for a moment and offered, “We have a reception with some de Fantar coming up in two sols.”
“If you could anonymously – and I do mean that, Sahnassa, slip this into their possessions with a note explaining what it is and who it needs to go to and the honor it will bring them – what?!”
Sahnassa’s eyes were almost shining with happiness. “The … the bride! She’s so sweet, but she has suffered some dishonor because her parents weren’t happy with the match!”
“How does that court dishonor?” Astalla asked, confused.
The younger Nephti’s expression went sad and bleak. “They … they actually contested it in the family courts, and lost.”
“What is the house of the male?”
“Ours,” Sahnassa answered, a little grimly. “Not a bad one, as far as I can tell.”
Astalla nodded shrewdly. “I like it. I like the idea of bestowing this to the pair in a box amongst the gifts with instructions to open in private. They open it, and read a computer-printed note that tells them what this is. The pair asks for an audience with their matron, and they present that lovely item. They are whisked into the matriarch’s presence where she commends them for their diligence – maybe even an official commendation. They receive honor, their union is affirmed, and even though she now bears his family name, ours in point of fact, she is a daughter of their house. Yes, very nice. Very nice.”
“But in no way,” Sahnassa affirmed, “are they to know that I gave it to them or that you or I had this conversation – ever.” The matron nodded, seriously. “I will do as you say, Matron, and I will be careful.”
“Will anyone else in your office have a problem with this, or with keeping it quiet?”
“No. I will tell them that I met with you and showed it to you, which they already knew I was going to do. I’ll tell them it’s return has to be a secret and absolutely confidential. I’ll tell them that lives are at stake if it is managed improperly. They’ll believe me, and they trust me. I will take care of it.”
“Then let’s put it away so it doesn’t cause a problem. We’re after normal intervals here, but the cleaning crew could still walk by.” Sahnassa did as she was told, and Astalla added, “I will pass up through Dame Prethia, newly assigned to us by the way, what you did and the care you took bringing this to our attention. Dame Prethia is … very interesting, and I mean that in a good way. She has a lot of insight, thinks things through. I’ve mentioned you to her, already.”
“Is … that a good thing?” Sahnassa asked, a little nervous.
“Very. I explained everything that happened between you and your parents, and how I don’t believe a forced reconciliation serves either party. She readily agreed, and confessed to similar problems growing up, herself. I think you’ll find a sympathetic ear there, if you need it.”
Sahnassa ducked her head a bit and confessed, “I hope I never do.” Her memories of Dame Rothnerra were still very much in her thoughts.
“Well, you might if you keep making errors in your family dues payments,” Astalla baited her.
“What?! I … I’m caught up! I’m sure of it!” The PawLink was immediately whisked out of its pouch and furiously bombarded with key-presses frantically trying to bring up the information.
Not willing to let her tease cause a meltdown of the poor young kit, the Matron touched her arm. “You paid too much, dear. You are paid at least two paychecks ahead, if my math is right.”
That brought Sahnassa up short. “Oh. No, I still … don’t think that’s right, Matron.” Sahnassa looked back down and keyed through a few more screens of data to reach the answer. “Line sixty, sixty one … here they are. I have two bonus payments that I recently received from large events. The bank is holding the deposit for ten sols, but I had enough in my account to pay house dues, so I just went ahead with it. I’ll pay the government taxes as soon as the funds are released. Your reports should sort out in a moon or so.”
Looking at the PawLink at Sahnassa’s behest, Astalla’s eyes widened. “Some impressive bonuses, surely! What were those for, if I may ask?”
“There are a few events we support that are very high value, and they involve working very long intervals in preparation – two all-nighters, actually, and many intervals beyond. These were big wins for my client, and as a boss, she’s quite generous. I actually helped with the technology side, as well as the catering.”
“A most interesting life. Well, any idea what you’re going to be applying those funds to?”
“I want to save some of it, and I need to invest in some updated equipment in my lair. My … lair is pretty small and … kind of old. The oven needs work and the washer, also. Necessities of life, and beyond that, there’s an orphanage I donate to. I’m putting aside about a third for them.”
“Commendable, kit,” Astalla congratulated. “Thoroughly commendable. You have a very level head about such things. Do, however, consider something small – a new dress or a piece of jewelry, to memorialize the achievement. Although, I suppose new appliances are something of that stripe.”
“I hope so. Good sales coming up, I think. The timing will work out nicely.”
“Very good. Now, is there anything else you needed from me? Any other way I can help you?”
Sahnassa thought about the conversation with her mother and looked away, nodding. “I’m glad you told our new dame that it wouldn’t be helpful to force a reconciliation with my parents, but … I need to tell you something. I’ve spoken with my mother.”
“How did this happen?”
“She recently won the Chouler Prize in the Archival Arts, and my firm … where I work at … they were catering it. I … was there, catering it.” Astalla looked at her, concerned, and Sahnassa nodded. “Serving apron and all – that’s where I meet her. She found me in a hallway, and we talked. It wasn’t bad. She … was nice to me. She’s still hurt, but she was willing to talk. So, we did. I met with her for lunch, and a lot of the past, both of our pasts, got a lot clearer.”
“Are you in a better place with her, now?” Astalla asked, cautiously.
“I think I am. There’s still pain there, issues there, but … she’s willing to call me daughter, again.”
“And are you willing to call her your mother?” Sahnassa nodded in answer to the matron’s carefully delivered question. “That is very good, for both of you. I take it you haven’t had such progress with your father.”
Sahnassa shook her head. “From what my mother tells me, it isn’t likely, not for awhile. It appears that while I’ve settled a few differences with my mother, the argument between me and my father remains.”
In response to the fatalistic statement by the kit, Astalla put her paw on Sahnassa’s shoulder. “In time, perhaps. I give you credit for being willing to discuss with your mother anything regarding what happened. Was there anything that came out of that discussion that I should know about?”
Sahnassa looked at her, her mother’s prodding tickling her thoughts. “As it happens, there are a few things I wish the matriarch actually knew about. You, Matron, have done nothing but treat me with respect and help – not tried to goad me or influence me too drastically. I have come to realize that my prior matrons … didn’t restrain themselves as you have. It makes me wonder if she knows that there were so many places on the path of that argument breaking us apart where either one of those matrons could have made a different choice. Between my parents and one matron, I felt like they were competing, in a way, for my loyalty. They influenced me, I think partly, out of a desire to best the dame.”
“Dame Rothnerra,” Astalla noted darkly.
“But … it was my life, Matron. It wasn’t a contest! From the discussions my mother and I had, I’m not at all sure that they didn’t see it that way. I used to think of my mother and father and Dame Rothnerra as the ones who were to blame for everything I went through. In talking to her, I’m finding I had some share of that blame, but I’m surprised by how my mother and I now believe it was our matrons who also…”
“Didn’t act in your best interests, either for you or your parents,” Astalla noted, grimly. “It is part of a matron’s duties to influence, but always to the right, to the good of the member of our family we are trying to help. I have influenced you, but to your credit, these were just directions you would have likely gone in anyway. You needed background information or to see an opportunity. I understand this, Sahnassa; I do. You know, the matriarch asks after you from time to time, and I meet with her as part of Prethia’s assumption of her place as our dame. With her agreement, I will attempt to orchestrate time with the matriarch, if her schedule permits. She remembers, with surprising clarity, the events around your claiming and renouncing the Compact.”
“I remember them, too. Of anyone, you and our matriarch … brought me through that time. Thank you, Matron Astalla. You were very good to me.”
“That is how a matron should act. You may hear from me in the next few sols if there is time on the matriarch’s calendar. If there is not, don’t take offense as there is quite a lot happening right now.”
“Just make sure she doesn’t lose any jewelry because of it,” Sahnassa slipped in, a little shyly.
“Oh, good point. I had better tell both our dame and matriarch what we’re up to and soon. If it goes well or goes poorly, tell me immediately. Call my PawLink. I don’t mind.”
“I will do that. Thank you, Matron. I’m very grateful for the time you’ve spent with me.”
“As am I. I’ll walk you out, my dear.” The two stood, and Sahnassa followed the matron as they went for the door.
“Morning, Sahni,” Van called when she saw the Nephti walk through the hallway.
“Hi, Van. Flint’s here, too?” Sahni asked quietly, her expression more urgent and worried than Van had seen in a long time.
“Yeah, yeah – knock on his door. What’s up?!” Van whispered harshly.
There were others in the office that sol because of an early function, and Sahnassa looked down the hallway. Turning back to Van, she shook her head. “I’ll be back. Let me get him.”
Van’s eyes widened as she quickly finished the task she was working on, coming to a stopping place just as Flint closed the door. “Okay,” Sahnassa told them, “I want you to come here for a moment.” Van did as Sahni asked, a little curious. She took out the golden, ornamental ball and placed it into Flint’s open paw. “Now, please give it to Van – I want you both to hold it.”
Taking it, Vanarra started to understand. “You … know what this is now, don’t you?”
“Now, let me take it back before I tell you,” she told them, placing it back into the small cloth jewelry bag.
“Okay, I’m game,” Flint asked, “what is it?”
“It’s part of the matriarchal jewelry of the de Fantar family. You always joke about the family jewels – this is an authentic one,” Sahni told them, warning in her voice.
“You’re not making it sound like a good thing, kit, and if it is what you say it is, why do you still have it? Wouldn’t your matron have just taken it and mailed it back or something?”
“Yeah, about that. If someone from our house gave it back to the de Fantar, it would be seen as extremely humiliating to de Fantar’s matriarchy. So, no one from another avowed house can give it back.”
“Well, that makes it easy, I would think,” Flint replied, confused. “We have an office full of mixed bloods and cast outs, here. We could return it.”
“Only if you wanted to die for that privilege,” Sahni told them, holding it up in front of her. They both backed off a step at her tone. “See, if you think they’d be unhappy with another house giving it back, just think how they’ll react when someone who officially has no honor and no status paws the very embodiment of their house’s glory and honor.”
“I’m … feeling a little sick, now,” Vanarra confessed.
“Oh, mange,” Flint rumbled, shaking his head. “I’ve left contact information to call back to me if someone claims it.”
“Did anyone else get a really good look at it?”
“No, Sahni. I just told the guy. I didn’t show him.”
“Okay,” she told them. “Let’s do this. First, we need to find some piece of jewelry that is round, about the same size, and is gold.”
Van rubbed her chin fur. “I’ve got something … a little like it.”
“I think you should bring it in and give it to Flint to put in the safe. If anyone, especially a Nephti anyone, asks to see what you found, simply pull out Van’s jewelry and show them. That, Flint, is what you found. You didn’t find this.”
Vanarra was with her, now. “I can swing by after the event and pick it up. We can have it in the safe this afternoon, but what do we do with the real thing? Throw it in a dumpster?”
“Well, my matron and I discussed that, and we have an idea. You know that joining we’re doing this morning?”
“De Orturu and … de Fantar,” Flint realized, his mind clearly trying to work out where Sahni was going.
“Well, they are having to hold their joining so early, in part, because her parents contested the two of them getting together and didn’t help. They saved some funds by doing it that way, and they made it more difficult for her parents to attend – a little message there, I think. We give this as an anonymous gift with instructions printed by computer so nothing linking it to us is evident.”
Van studied the small jewelry sack. “Something about that size would fit in one of the little gift boxes Tellenos sends the sweet spread samples in. We don’t actually use those in our catering, so no one else would recognize them.”
“I’ll check and make doubly sure,” Flint assured them.
“I’ll write up the instructions, and we’ll put it among the gifts, wrapped nicely. They’ll take all of the gifts home and open them tomorrow. When they open this, they’ll be just the right sort to return this to its rightful owner.”
“But … they’re both going to be de Orturu after this sol, Sahni, right? Doesn’t this just make things awful for them?”
The Nephti shook her head. “Families never really give up their own, and although the accountability for a female or male who chooses to switch their house changes, she’s still seen as a daughter of de Fantar. They can lay claim, for example, to her accomplishments and honors. What’s better, though, is that because she’ll be presenting it back to her matriarch, the matriarch will owe that couple in a huge way. What her parents did, shaming her by dragging their union through the family courts, will shame her parents and bring honor to the couple. It’s likely to make them amazingly happy.”
“Happy equals good reviews, possibly repeat business,” Van commented, thoughtfully.
“Yeah, and I don’t die. Important point, Boss,” Flint complained.
“There is that, yes,” she replied lightly, toying with him a bit, but then she looked at her dear Nephti friend. “Thank you, kit. We owe you, seriously for this. Flint, as a rule, don’t pick up jewelry, okay?”
“Yeah – going to have nightmares about this one,” he offered, shaking his head. “Had no idea. Let me go get that box and get that thing wrapped up.”
“Flint, please,” Sahni bade him, “let me do the wrapping. I’ll use the clean-room protocols I learned in school to make sure that nothing from us is easily detected, especially on the inside.”
“You heard her, Muscles. I’m with her on this.”
“No argument. I’ll go get the materials, then,” he told her and left.
That afternoon, Sahnassa’s subterfuge was put to the test when two dames of the de Fantar arrived in Vanarra’s office inquiring after the jewelry, a surprisingly large contingent of their vehicles in the lot. Politely, Vanarra offered them her golden charm for inspection, and such was placed back into her paw immediately. At that, the dames left the office without speaking and every one of their vehicles simply drove away. The entire time, Sahnassa had stood right with Vanarra and Flint, her family name clearly spoken so that both dames understood who and whose she was.
As they looked at the last vehicle leaving, Vanarra put her paw on Sahnassa’s shoulder. “You … kind of act like a shield for us, sometimes, kit. Thank you.”
“Really, really thank you,” Flint piled on. “I’ve met lots of de Fantar; they’re alright. Those were … dangerous.”
“I’ll pass along our success to my matron. Being that the newly joined couple is de Orturu, we’ll know soon enough if they return the item.”
“I just hope it isn’t tied back to us,” Flint said, anxiously.
“It was the perfect set-up, Flint,” Van told him. “There were two hundred plus at the reception. Anyone of them could have been the mystery giver.”
“Although they might grow more suspicious if they actually questioned everyone,” Sahni observed, “it’s not practical for them to do that, however, because then they’d have to broadcast to the world that their matriarch lost her family jewels!”
That made all three of them laugh, heartily.