her chest tight with emotion. Turning her head, she stared at the gently moving trees outside the window, opened herself to their song, then lay back and let it soothe away the pain.
“Don’t have what it takes?” she said softly. “Don’t put any bets on that, de Mendoza.”
A manda jogged through the early morning streets of the city, the system’s sun barely a thought on the horizon. It would have been nicer to run under the trees, weaving in and out, listening to the forest come awake, but it was never a good idea to run in the Green, especially unarmed. It made you look like prey—and that was one thing you didn’t want the beasts of Harp to think of you.
Somewhere beyond the trees, the sun crested the planet’s edge and a shaft of light speared through the trees. She’d spent time on any number of planets in her twenty-five years and seen innumerable sunrises. And yet, three months after bidding good-bye to the fleet, she still wasn’t immune to the beauty of a sunrise on Harp. There was just something magical about seeing it through the filter of thousands and thousands of trees. She couldn’t see the horizon from here, the trees were too tall and too thick. She could feel the difference in the song of the Green, though. There was a rustling wakefulness to it when the sun rose, as if the giant trees were stretching their limbs after a long night’s sleep.
She laughed at her own musings. That was an unforgivable anthropomorphism—comparing the trees to a waking human. It was fairly apt, however, because while Harp’s trees were definitely not human, they were absolutely aware of their planet and everything that affected it. She didn’t know exactly how yet, but she intended to find out, which was why she was jogging through the streets at sunrise.
She hadn’t needed Rhodry’s warnings about the physical demands of the Guild trials to know they’d be rough. She had only to look at the shifters she encountered almost daily, especially now that she knew what to look for. They were some of the finest male specimens that she’d ever seen, every one of them taller than human norm, big and beautifully muscled. And, yes, they were all male. No one had been willing to discuss it with her, but there were definitely no female shifters. Apparently, there never had been. She’d gotten that much out of a local shopkeeper, with whom she’d become friendly. He couldn’t tell her much more than that, although it was obvious that the shifter trait was sex-linked. After all, they’d been created in a genetics lab for the sole purpose of defending the colony. A kind of super soldier. It would have made sense to make them male, given the greater potential for strength and aggression.
The Guild trials were designed to challenge even the physical perfection that was a shifter, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t do it, only that she’d have to try harder. Nothing motivated her more than being told she couldn’t do something, and in this case she had an additional reason for pushing. She didn’t believe it was random that the trees had chosen her to be the first non-shifter to hear their voices. There was a reason. And she’d never find out what that reason was if she was confined to the city.
Besides, Harp was her home now. The idea of leaving was…painful. And if the trees needed her somehow in order to defend their shared home, then she would do her best to make that possible.
She reached the end of the narrow street. It dead-ended into a dirt path that ventured into the forest. She paused briefly, bent over, hands on her knees as she caught her breath. She was going to need her strength for what came next. This was the tail end of her morning jog, and she was hot and sweat-soaked. It was early fall, but here in the planet’s equatorial belt, the days were still warm. She started out every morning before sunrise, timing it so that by the time the city was really beginning to stir, she was