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Divine by Choice, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  Alanna chose a different strawberry from the artistically displayed setting, sniffed it, then nibbled carefully.

  “Mmm…” She licked her lips and threw me a quick, cream-filled kitten smile. “It must have just been that one—this one tastes wonderful.” She popped the rest of it into her mouth.

  “That figures,” I grumbled. “The one I grab is the only yucky one on the whole damn plate.” I picked around the platter until I found an especially lovely, plump chocolate-dressed berry, then I bit carefully into the delicious-looking end of it.

  “Ugh!” The half-chewed tip joined the other piece of mush in my hand. “Okay, this is getting ridiculous! This one is nasty, too.” I offered the unchewed part of the offending fruit to Alanna. “Please taste this and tell me I’m not crazy.”

  Alanna, being a good friend and, coincidentally, the person who was in charge of the upcoming gala celebration, gingerly took the strawberry from me, sniffed it and nibbled a bite from its sun-kissed side. I waited for her expression to change and for her to spit the berry into her own hand (I pulled my yuck-filled hand out of her range of fire).

  And waited.

  And waited.

  She swallowed and looked at me with doe eyes.

  “Don’t tell me it tastes fine.”

  “Rhea, it tastes fine.” She offered it back to me. I got one whiff of the rich chocolate/berry smell and cringed.

  “Uh, no, keep it.”

  “Obviously you are still unwell.” Alanna’s eyes were filled with concern. “I am pleased that Carolan returns with ClanFintan tonight. This stomach sickness of yours has gone on entirely too long.”

  Yeah, I’d look forward to our “doctor” checking me out—sans penicillin, blood tests, X-rays, etcetera, etcetera. Of course, I couldn’t share my trepidation with Alanna because not only was Carolan this world’s leading doctor, he was also her husband.

  A little nymphet-servant scampered up to me.

  “My Lady…” She dipped down in an adorable curtsy. “Please allow me to clean your hand!”

  “Thank you,” I took the wet linen cloth from her, “but I think I can clean my own hand.” Before she could give me a look that said I had just crushed her little ego, I added, “I would really appreciate it if you could run and get me something to drink.”

  “Oh, yes, my Lady!” Her face radiated pleasure.

  “Bring a goblet for Alanna, too.” I shouted at her back as she (literally) ran across the room to do my bidding.

  “Of course, my Lady!” she shot back over her shoulder before she disappeared through the arched door that led to the kitchens.

  Sometimes it was just damn nice to be Goddess Incarnate and Beloved of Epona. Okay, I’ll admit it—it was more than sometimes nice. Please—I was surrounded by opulence and loved by the populace. I had a veritable herd of eager handmaidens whose sole purpose in living was to see that my every need was met, not to mention wardrobes filled with exquisite clothing and drawers brimming with (be still my heart) jewelry. Lots of jewelry.

  Let’s face it—I was living well beyond the means of an Oklahoma high school teacher’s salary. Big surprise.

  I finished wiping my hand and turned back to the table to find Alanna watching me closely.

  “What?” My tone said I was exasperated.

  “You have been looking decidedly pale lately.”

  “Well, I’ve felt decidedly pale, too.” I realized I sounded grumpy, and attempted a smile and a lighter tone. “Don’t worry about it, I just have a touch of the…the…” (think Shakespeare) “the, um, ague.” I finally finished, pleased with my grasp of the vernacular.

  “For two seven-days?” I swear she sounded more like a mother than a best friend. “I’ve watched you, Rhea. Your eating habits have changed. And I believe you’ve lost weight.”

  “So, I’ve had a cold. And this weather hasn’t helped.”

  “Rhea, winter is almost upon us.”

  “And to think when I first arrived here I thought that it must never get cold.” I looked pointedly at the wall closest to us, whereon a lovely painting depicted someone who looked exactly like me riding a silver-white mare, breasts bared to the world (mine, not the mare’s), while a dozen scantily clad maidens (or at least they were supposed to be maidens) cavorted around me, indiscriminately strewing flowers.

  Alanna’s good-natured laughter tinkled. “Rhiannon always chose the frescoes to be painted from scenes of spring and summer rituals. She reveled in the lack of clothing.”

  “She reveled in more than that,” I muttered.

  I hadn’t been here long when I realized that even though many of the Partholonian people who mirrored people from my old world were alike in personalities (like Alanna and my best friend, Suzanna), Rhiannon was, quite frankly, not a nice person. Alanna and I surmised that one of the reasons she and I were so different could be because Rhiannon was raised as an indulged, totally spoiled High Priestess, and I was raised to act right by a dad who would have knocked the Oklahoma crap right outta me if I’d acted like a brat. So I’d grown up to have some self-discipline and a pretty decent set of morals. Rhiannon, to put it in twenty-first century terms, had grown up to be a raving bitch. Everyone who knew her either loathed her or feared her, or both. She had been self-indulgent and amoral.

  And, yes, it had been a mess to step into her friggin ruby slippers (so to speak).

  There were only three people in Partholon who knew I was not the original Rhiannon: Alanna, her husband, Carolan, and my husband, ClanFintan. Everyone else just thought I’d made an amazing personality change several months ago (about the same time I’d adopted Rhea as the shortened version of my name). I mean, it really wouldn’t do to let the masses know their object of worship had been snatched from the twenty-first century. And not only that, to my utter and complete surprise this world’s Goddess, Epona, had made it clear that I was, indeed, her choice as Beloved of the Goddess. Huh.

  The delicate clearing of a throat swung my attention back to the present.

  “The maidens said you spent more than your usual amount of time at MacCallan’s tomb again last night.” Alanna’s voice sounded worried.

  “I like it there. You know that.” Thinking of the skittering, inky darkness, I couldn’t meet her eyes. “Alanna, do you remember that you told me that Rhiannon’s lackey, uh, I think his name was B-something.”

  “Bres,” Alanna said distastefully.

  “Yeah, Bres. Didn’t you say something about him worshipping dark gods?”

  Alanna’s eyes narrowed with concern. “I do remember. Bres had powers granted him by evil and darkness. What would make you think of him?”

  I shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. “I don’t know. I guess something about the cold, cloudy night must have creeped me out.”

  “Rhea, lately I have been concerned that you—”

  Thankfully, Alanna was interrupted by the sound of approaching feet pattering against the marble.

  “Your wine, my Lady.” The nymphet had returned bearing a tray on which rested two crystal goblets filled with what I assumed was my favorite merlot.

  “Thank you,” I mentally searched for her name as I took one of the goblets and handed the other to Alanna, “Noreen.”

  “You are most welcome, Epona’s Beloved!” She skipped away—her red hair flying in a breeze of her own making.

  God, she was perky.

  “To our husbands returning.” I offered the toast, hopeful that it would change the subject. Alanna clicked her glass to mine as she blushed a sudden, dazzling pink.

  “To our husbands.” She smiled softly at me over the top of her glass as she took a drink.

  “Ugh!” I could barely swallow my own sip. “This stuff is awful!” I sniffed at the glass, and cringed as the scent of rancid wine met my nostrils. “Does being Beloved of Epona not mean anything anymore? Why do I keep getting everything that’s rotten?” I realized I sounded uncharacteristically petulant, and somewhere inside my mind I was shocke
d at my own outburst. Why in the hell did I constantly feel on the verge of tears?

  “Rhea, let me taste it.”

  Alanna took my goblet, smelled the wine, then took a long drink.

  And another.

  “Well?” My voice reflected my frustration.

  “It is fine.” Alanna’s eyes met mine. “There is nothing wrong with the wine.”

  “Oh, shit,” I collapsed onto a chaise that sat near the laden banquet table. “I’m dying. I have cancer or a brain tumor or an aneurysm or something.” There was a burning in the back of my throat that signaled I was close to tears. Again.

  “Rhea—” Alanna sat next to me and took my hand gently in hers “—perhaps you have become choleric. You have gone through much in the time you have been in our world.”

  Oh, sure, “choleric.” What the hell was that? Next she’d want to bleed me or drill holes into my skull to let out the “bad humors” or something equally medieval. My mind frantically tried to recall how penicillin was made from bread mold.

  “Carolan will know what to do to help you.” She patted my hand, trying to comfort me.

  “Yeah, Carolan will know what’s wrong.” Like hell. There was no technology in this world. That meant no medical schools. He would probably want to chant some kind of off-tune song over me and make me drink something made from frog snot.

  I was friggin doomed.

  “A long bath always makes you feel better.” She stood, pulling me up with her. “Come, I will help you choose a lovely gown—with matching jewelry.” She paused as I got reluctantly to my feet, then added, “The jeweler was here this morning while you were busy with Epi. I had him leave all of his new pieces. I think I remember seeing a lovely pair of diamond earrings and a gorgeous golden brooch.”

  “Well, if you insist.” We smiled at each other as we left the banquet room. Alanna knew my weakness for jewelry and knew that it could coax me out of just about any dreary mood, almost as easily as could spending time with my extraordinary mare, Epi, who I had nicknamed after the Goddess, Epona, and rightly so. Epi was the horse equivalent of me. She, too, was Beloved of the Goddess. She and I had a connection that was as magical as it was strong.

  “Hey!” Inspiration hit me halfway to the bathing chamber. “Maybe I’m having a bizarre reaction to what’s going on with Epi.” The mare was going to be bred on Samhain night, the eve of the first day in November, as was traditional each third year. In Partholon three is a “magic” number, as Alanna had explained to me, and when the third year rolled around, the equine incarnation of Epona was bred to insure the land’s fertility in the coming harvests. November first was in a couple days, and Epi had been acting fretful and uncharacteristically temperamental ever since the arrival of her future mate the week before.

  “Rhiannon never behaved any differently during Epi’s breeding cycles.”

  “I wonder if that was the norm for Epona’s Chosen, or was Rhiannon such a selfish hag that she wasn’t sensitive to the mare’s moods?” Before Alanna could answer, I continued, “Or maybe since Rhiannon was always in heat herself, she didn’t notice a difference.”

  We both laughed and I felt a little of my tension release. The door to the bathing room was guarded by two of my scrumptious warriors. There were several positive things about the Goddess I’d begun to serve; the fact that she was a warrior goddess and had a hundred handsome, virile men “on staff” was just one of the perks of my new job. I noticed that the guards had added leather tunics to their hot-weather uniforms of, well, virtually nothing except well-filled loincloths. I couldn’t help sighing in disappointment at the thought of all of those muscles being covered.

  Yes, I’m married, but I’m not a corpse. Jeesh.

  The warm-mineral smell of the candlelit room enveloped me. Steam rose invitingly from the deep, clear bathing pool. The bubbling of the water as it continually filled the bath, and the gentle sound of the waterfall as the overflow left the pool coupled with the moist warmth, beckoning me to relax in its depths and soak away the soreness in my unusually achy body.

  I ducked my head out of the cowled robe I wore to keep out the prewinter’s damp cold, and winked my thanks at Alanna as she unwound me from my silky underwrap. Slowly, I immersed myself in the warm mineral bath, reclining against the smooth sides of my favorite rocky ledge. I closed my eyes and listened to Alanna send another nymphet for a cup of herbal tea—then felt my face grimace in self-disgust at my sudden unfortunate aversion to wine—until recently, a glass of rich, red wine had been one of my favorite things.

  Maybe I was getting old.

  No, thirty-five and a half couldn’t be old, and anyway, I had always planned on being one of those eccentric old ladies who wore lots of big jewelry, had chic, funky hair, drank wine knowingly and died suddenly of an Old White Woman’s Disease (preferably a painless aneurysm after an especially sumptuous dinner). I enjoy practicing for my future golden years.

  I tried to convince myself for the zillionth time that I just had a stubborn flu. It was making me depressed and making me imagine things. Of course, now that it was daylight, last night’s dark images seemed distant and more than slightly ridiculous. ClanFintan would be home tonight. Just thinking about being with him again made me feel better, or at least that’s what I told myself. He’d been gone almost a month, and this world’s lack of telephones and e-mail had really worn on me. We’d been married less than six months, but with him gone I felt strangely hollow, like a bell without a clacker. Which was a disconcerting feeling for someone who had changed worlds recently. Actually, it made me feel a little like I was trapped in one of the alternative-dimension Star Trek episodes (minus Kirk and whatever alien bimbo he would be boinking).

  “Try this.” Alanna handed me a thick mug filled with fragrant tea. “It will settle your stomach.”

  I sniffed at it hesitantly, waiting for it to turn rancid in my hands (kind of a twist on the Midas touch thing), but the soothing scent of herbs and honey thankfully stayed enticing. I sipped at the mixture and let it comfort my rebellious stomach.

  “Thanks, girlfriend, I feel better already.” If I said it, it would be true…If I said it, it would be true…If—

  “The maid said the sentries have spotted ClanFintan’s warriors,” Alanna’s chatter was comforting. “They should arrive soon. I knew they would be on time. Carolan said they would return within the days that prelude Samhain—it is two days before and he will be here today.” Her voice was washed with the expectation of a newlywed.

  I knew exactly how she felt. I let visions of my husband’s strong, sexy torso drift through my mind as I soaked.

  “Man, I’ve missed him.”

  “As I have missed Carolan.”

  We shared girlfriend smiles.

  “Better hand me that sponge. I want to be sweet smelling and well dressed when they arrive.” Well, for a little while I wanted to be dressed.

  I poured my favorite vanilla nut-scented soap from its delicate bottle, and started scrubbing with the thick sponge. Alanna began rummaging through one of my overfilled wardrobes.

  “It’ll be nice to see Victoria again, too.” I had missed the Lead Huntress the past couple months. Her nomadic duties caused her to travel almost constantly, and I was happy to hear (by way of centaur runner—a little like the Pony Express, only with the rider built in) that she had joined with my husband’s band of warriors and would be returning with him. We had become close friends, and I was hoping that Epona’s Temple would be a second home to her.

  “Perhaps we will see Dougal smile again.” Alanna’s eyes sparkled with mischief.

  “He’s smiled, you bad thing.”

  “Is that what that expression was?” Her musical lilt intensified as she teased. “And here I was sure he must have caught part of your stomach upset.”

  “Poor Dougal, between you and ClanFintan teasing him about his thing with Vic it’s a wonder his face isn’t permanently pink from blushing.”

  “Which reminds me,
what exactly do you think happened between the two of them?”

  “Well, I thought it was just a crush he had on her, but before she left I noticed they were both absent from the temple quite a bit—at coincidentally the same time. Add that to his misery since she’s been gone, and his pink face whenever Vic is mentioned, and I do believe we have a pair of lovers.”

  Alanna giggled. “He really is a sweet blusher, isn’t he?”

  “Oh, look who’s talking!” I splashed some water at her, which she neatly sidestepped.

  “I do not blush.”

  “You don’t blush like I don’t cuss.” We giggled at each other. “Toss me that towel, please.” I began drying myself vigorously, determined that tonight, surrounded by my friends and my husband, I would feel well again. “I’m glad ClanFintan had Dougal stay here and take charge of the construction of the new centaur quarters. It’s kept him too busy to do much moping.” Dougal had lost a brother a few months earlier, and then the centaur he had apparently fallen for, Ms. Lead Huntress Victoria, had broken off their budding relationship and left him to go back to her old life. He was definitely a young centaur who desperately needed diversion.

  “You know, Rhea, perhaps it is not a coincidence that Victoria just happened to meet up with our warriors. Perhaps she was looking for a reason to return here—” she raised her eyebrows suggestively (which made her look like a blond bunny) “—to Dougal.”

  “I hope so.” I finished drying myself and ran my hands appreciatively over the shining length of fabric Alanna presented to me. “I think they make a great couple, and who cares that he’s younger. Something tells me any centaur who Victoria loves is going to need to be young and highly athletic.”

  We laughed in agreement. I wrapped the towel around myself and sank down onto the padded seat of my vanity chair, relaxing into Alanna’s expert hands as she tried to tame my wild red hair.