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Freeing Luka: Chapter 8

From the name “The Pearl Temple,” Alice had been expecting to be taken to a white marble-columned building on a hill, where they’d sequester her with other unwed women. Looking at the scene before her made it clear she hadn’t been listening to Izzo at all.

The word temple must just be an odd translation of this place because, to her eyes, she could see nothing resembling a temple.

After walking through a towering arched gateway and seeing their new home for the first time, the women had all stopped in their tracks. A shallow body of water, thousands of feet wide in every direction, sprawled out before them. Although expansive, the lake somehow looked quaint, like a koi pond in a giant’s garden.

The two moons, now closer to each other in the night sky, illuminated hundreds of floating blossoms on the water. Some of the pale pink and yellow floating flowers were small enough to fit in the palm of Alice’s hand. Others were as large as a car. But they all seemed to angle themselves toward the soft moonlight.

They must be where that wonderful smell comes from. The delicate scent of sweet flowers hung in the heavy air even without a breeze. Though not as humid as the mountain had been, the air here was still thick and warm.

Glowing creatures in various shades of blue and green were visible just under the surface of the water, swimming lazily and illuminating the thick stems of the watery plants. Their long, eel-like bodies twisted and curved as they swam, delicate ribbons of light trailing behind them.

Hypnotized, Alice followed the progress of one creature as it moved, but it disappeared near the center of the lake where a large, domed building stood. The water must be deeper there.

The round building rose from the middle of the lake like the center of a giant lotus with smaller buildings jutting from its sides like petals. Scattered over the rest of the large lake, hundreds of small, pale homes sat floating on the water. The white sides of the structures shone with a faintly iridescent shimmer, similar to that of a pearl.

Is that where the name comes from?

“Why is this place called The Pearl Temple, Izzo? On Earth, ‘temple’ means a place for worship, not housing.” When he didn’t answer, Alice glanced over and found Izzo watching Daisy take in her surroundings with a contented smile. She stifled a grin. “Izzo?”

With raised brows, he focused on Alice, seeming surprised to find her there. “Oh, uh…” He cleared his throat. “Centuries ago, this lake was used for spiritual purposes. People would come here to pray or meditate or think. The bilom,” he said, pointing at a glowing creature swimming nearby, “are the guardians of Pearl Lake, so when they built here, they named it The Pearl Temple. The bilom are electric and sting anyone who gets in the water.”

Rita leaned over, watching a bilom flit back and forth. “But why Pearl? They don’t look like pearls.”

Izzo shrugged. “I don’t know what pearls are on your planet. Our translators do what they can, but they aren’t always perfect. The bilom produce little stones instead of eggs on occasion. We call them pearls.

“That’s pretty close to what Earth pearls are, I guess. Not the same kind of animal, but hey—” Vanessa smiled, propping her hand on her hip “—who’s to say one animal’s trash isn’t as good as another animal’s trash when it comes to making jewelry? Do you guys gather the pearls?”

“There’s another lake deep in mountains where the majority of bilom live that some people harvest pearls from, but it’s difficult to do without disturbing their environment too much.” A grin spread over Izzo’s face. “It used to be if a person wanted to court someone, they’d try and prove their love by diving into the water and retrieving a pearl. If they weren’t stung, it was meant to be.”

An image of Luka slowly emerging from the lake in a sopping-wet white shirt, with a satchel of pearls in hand, popped into her mind. Well, hello, Mr. Darcy.

“Do people ever do that anymore?” Alice asked.

Izzo laughed and shook his head. “Males do sometimes. On a dare, if they’re foolish or young. But they all get stung nowadays. Usually, they’re carted off to the medbay without so much as a pebble.”

“That’s interesting and all…” Vanessa squinted, scanning the water. “But how are we supposed to get around? Is there a boat?”

“You need a pass. Oh, look,” he said, pointing across the water, “there she is now. Metli will give you passes and escort you over.”

A woman wearing a bright purple coat emerged from the central building and walked to the edge of the floating green platform that surrounded the structure. Then, she stepped off. As one, Alice, Vanessa, Rita, and Daisy took a step forward, eyes straining to see what the woman was walking on. From this distance, it appeared as if she were stepping on the water itself. But that couldn’t be right.

Each foot closer Metli came, the more certain Alice was that there was a platform under her feet, but it seemed to be clear.

“I have to take Luka home now.” Izzo’s eyes lingered on Daisy. Motioning to Metli, only a short distance away now, he added, “She’ll take you to meet the Queen.”

“What Queen?”

“Is the whole world ruled by a queen?”

“What’s Metli’s job?”

Rita and Vanessa shot questions at Izzo while Daisy glanced between them all with raised brows, but all Alice could concentrate on was the fact that the only thing in this world that made her feel safe was about to be taken away from her.

“Maybe I should go with you, in case Luka wakes up.” She glanced past Izzo to the open door of the vehicle, visible through the archway.

Izzo glanced between her and Luka, slumped in the cab, finally noticing her interest in his brother. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to see him after…after the way I found you two together. Did you spend a lot of time with him in the facility?”

Alice decided it wouldn’t do any harm to answer honestly. “Yes. Helas was trying to get him to recognize me as his mate.”

Izzo’s jaw slackened, and his posture straightened even more. He squinted toward Luka, then did a double-take. He mouthed a few unintelligible words then finally focused back to Alice. “He recognized you? His marks appeared?”

She nodded, hoping he’d decide to bring her along.

The woman finally appeared next to them. She was shorter than Alice by a foot at least, but somehow still appeared willowy. It was as if someone had placed a model’s limbs on a petite woman’s body. She wore a magenta coat that ballooned out around her neck and shoulders, then cinched at her small waist and ended mid-thigh. On her legs, she wore one piece of matte-black material that acted as both her shoes and pants.

Although odd, the whole ensemble worked. Metli’s strange frame and coiffed gray-blue hair, along with the stiff geometric clothing, made her look like she’d stepped out of a high fashion spread from a science fiction magazine.

“Hello, human females. My name is Metli. Please take a token and two of these pads.” She raised her arms, hands outstretched, and Alice flinched. Metli’s long arms extended toward them just a little too far, and the subtle alien difference in anatomy scratched at Alice’s senses as if she’d just recalled the sound of nails on a chalkboard.

In one hand, Metli held four small purple tokens. In the other was a small stack of long, oval translucent pads.

Alice peered at the unfamiliar alien woman, then turned pleading eyes toward Izzo.

He crinkled his forehead and shook his head slowly. “It’d be dangerous for him to wake up in this state with you around. It makes sense now that he tried to attack me earlier. I thought it was just because he was drugged, but if he’s newly mated, he’ll be a little more vicious than normal. Stronger too. It’d be better if you stayed away.”

Alice had the urge to sprint to the cruiser and barricade herself inside like a stubborn child, but what Izzo said made sense. Her shoulders slumped, and she nodded. There was no way to be sure how much he’d remember anyway. A sharp pain clenched in her gut. He may not even want her there.

Izzo walked over to Metli, who was waiting patiently. “Please let the Queen know Luka’s mating marks have appeared.”

Metli raised her delicate smoky-blue brows in surprise and followed Izzo’s nod toward Alice.

His eyes lingered on Daisy when he said, “I’ll see you all again very soon. Have a good night.”

Alice watched as Izzo walked away and disappeared into the cruiser. Blue markings on a battered wrist was her last glimpse of Luka before the cruiser door slid closed.

Vanessa approached and handed her a thin metallic purple token and a pair of squishy oval pads. “You’re going to have to tell me more about that later,” she whispered, glancing up at her knowingly.

“The token will register you in the Temple system and allow you to traverse the lake. Place it on your wrist.” Metli displayed her inner wrist, on which the token seemed to be stuck. “Then place the pads on the soles of your feet.” She lifted her foot, which was longer than it should’ve been, considering her frame, and pointed to her own translucent green pad. “Then follow me. Our Queen is very anxious to speak with you.”

Alice placed the ovals on the soles of her feet, the solid gel-like substance somehow sticking easily to her Converse, and then experimentally shifted her weight around. Vanessa and Rita both did the same, then Rita helped Daisy to attach hers.

Alice frowned as she watched Daisy; the dark-haired girl’s intelligent eyes were flashing around, taking in everything.

Apart from a few tears, Daisy hadn’t complained or raged or anything. She’d taken her sudden hearing loss in stride and had adapted so well that Alice had almost forgotten she couldn’t hear. If she were in Daisy’s shoes, she’d have pulled someone aside and asked them to mouth every single thing being said.

Damn, that girl is a trooper!

Once all four women had attached their shoe pads, they examined the token, likely thinking the same thing as Alice. It was one thing to stick something to your shoe, but quite another to willingly attach a piece of alien tech to your skin.

They all peered at her expectantly. A million thoughts of what could happen ran through her mind, but instead of showing the others her anxiety, she decided to be brave and take a leap of faith.

Closing her eyes and clenching her jaw, she held the token against her wrist. The metal was warm against her delicate skin, but the jab of pain or searing burn she expected never came. She started to pull back the token, ready to explain to Metli that hers was defective, but it didn’t move. She pulled a little harder, stretching her skin until finally it released with a pop. Pushing it back again, she felt the familiar warmth, and when she let go, it stayed in place.

Alice gave a thumbs up and puffed her chest with a sense of pride as the three other women attached their tokens to their arms. She’d never been the one people turned to for leadership. They constantly came to her with their problems, that was for sure, but there was always a lack of respect. When she had a group project due, she’d always be the one to do the work but was never the group’s leader. At Molly’s, she often went above and beyond to make sure the tables were cleaned and bussed, even though she was also a bartender. Yet it was Trent, her coworker who sat on a barstool most of the time, who’d been promoted to manager.

“Follow me, please.” Metli turned and began walking on the water again, heading toward the domed central building.

Alice, Vanessa, Rita, and Daisy stood perched on the edge of the lake, not sure how they were supposed to cross the water.

When they didn’t follow, Metli paused and turned back.

“How are you walking on water?” Alice asked.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t think to explain,” she said, quickly returning to meet them at the shoreline. “If you’re holding that coin, a platform will appear under your feet as you walk, see?”

Now that Metli was near and they could examine the water more closely, they could see that a clear flat platform rose to just above the surface of the water under wherever Metli hovered her foot.

“How does that work?” Vanessa asked, stepping onto her own platform in awe.

“I’m not sure.” Metli shrugged, eyes flashing back toward the building anxiously.

I guess it’s not good to keep the Queen waiting.

One by one, they stepped onto the water and slowly trailed behind Metli, the gel on their shoes gripping the smooth material of the platform. Alice could see Metli’s barely contained annoyance shining in her eyes whenever she had to stop and wait for them to slowly catch up.

Although the walkway was probably as ordinary as an Earth sidewalk, Alice and the others walked on it as though traversing black ice. She chuckled as she imagined what they must look like to observers, walking on tiptoes with their arms outstretched like the solid surface was a tightrope.

When they finally reached the speckled green platform circling the domed building and its offshoot buildings, they released a collective sigh.

Moving more quickly and with more agitation than before, Metli ushered them through the large curved sliding doors of the largest building, down a curved hallway, and into an interior room.

About a dozen women of various shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, were milling around the large room. Some were talking to each other quietly, and others were sprawled on low couches or plush chairs. As Alice’s group entered, all faces turned to them. Some of the women broke out in smiles and walked over to greet them.

Humans. Alice couldn’t be sure, because so many of the aliens she’d met looked similar to her, but she had a primal feeling in her bones that these women were human.

Dazed, she accepted hugs and handshakes from a few of them and nodded politely as they told her their names, which she promptly forgot.

After a few minutes of greetings went by, a regal-looking woman with a deeply lined face who hadn’t yet moved to meet them rose from her seat.

She wore a high-collared, long, plain purple dress that complemented her pale lavender eyes. Although simple, especially in comparison to Metli’s garb, her clothing was tailored to perfection and exuded an air of no-nonsense sophistication. The woman looked old in the same way a pyramid or castle might. She was strong and powerful and the sign of age only enhanced that aura.

“Please have a seat.” She motioned to the many chairs and couches surrounding her. When she spoke, her words seem to dominate the room, even though her voice wasn’t raised. This must be the Queen.

Alice looked around at the faces of the new women near her. They all seemed content. Not happy, but not unhappy, either. It gave Alice hope that perhaps this place wouldn’t be that bad.

After the women were all seated, the Queen spoke again. “I am Queen of this city, Tremanta. Located on the planet of Clecania.”

So, there were other kings or queens in different cities? Why hadn’t the woman given her name? Was she just supposed to call her Queen?

Vanessa began to speak, but the Queen held up her hand, silencing her. Vanessa clamped her mouth shut and crossed her legs in annoyance.

“We have very sensitive matters to discuss.” She looked to Metli. “You may secure the room now.”

A cheerful blonde next to her leaned in and said, “Oh, I love this part. It’s so cool.”

Alice had only a moment to ponder what the woman was referring to when the whole room began to move.

She glanced out of the windows lining the right side of the room and saw they were beginning to sink. Her initial shock and fear were squashed when she peered around to the calm faces of the other women. It was obvious they’d done this before without drowning.

As the building continued to sink lower into the water, Alice saw Daisy rise and cross to a large curved window, placing her hand on the glass.

It was as if they were in a submarine, looking out into the ocean, but here they were gazing upon a whole new kind of underwater world. Neon bilom swam around smaller, gently glowing creatures that resembled flowing golden balls of ribbon, illuminating the various underwater plants and the pale ground.

The room finally settled on the lake floor, and the Queen spoke again. “I’m sure you are all very tired. You have been through so much, and I can’t imagine that you could take much more, but I would like you to try and listen.” The Queen’s eyes strayed to Daisy, still staring out the window.

Alice got up and guided Daisy back to their seats. Unsure how to address an alien Queen, Alice said, “Ma’am, this is Daisy. Something happened when she was taken that damaged her hearing.”

The Queen nodded, appearing unfazed by the new information. “We will make sure to repair her hearing tomorrow. I will meet with her again privately to convey the information from today.”

Alice glanced from the Queen to Daisy, and her heart swelled for the girl. If it were true…

She tried to mime and mouth the information that they might be able to return her ability to hear soon, but Daisy just looked confused.

Alice sat and decided she’d find a piece of paper and write it down for her later.

“All of the females in this room, save myself and Metli, are humans who were illegally taken from Earth,” the Queen began once Alice’s attention had returned to her. “All but the four of you—” she pointed at Alice, Vanessa, Rita, and Daisy “—were rescued a little more than five months ago when one of the Insurgents’ locations was discovered.”

“Insurgents?” Rita interjected.

The Queens eyes rested on Rita. “Although they haven’t formally named their organization, we have begun calling the group who took you Insurgents.” She scanned the room again. “A month prior to that, a human female named Jade was found. She had escaped her abductor and made it to our city of Tremanta. At the time, I had my suspicions about the possibility that a group, rather than an individual, had been illegally kidnapping females in the hopes of finding a cure for our procreation problem.”

“What kind of problem?” Vanessa questioned.

Metli glared at the woman briefly, and Alice wondered whether the Queen was normally interrupted or questioned. Perhaps she was being lenient with them because they were alien and unfamiliar with the customs here. Metli did not look as forgiving.

Alice decided to answer Vanessa. “Apparently the men outnumber the women twenty to one, and they are slowly going extinct. Helas’ group…I mean, the Insurgents…were trying to find a race descended from Clecanians to see if they could get us pregnant and solve the problem.”

After she was done explaining, both Rita and Vanessa’s faces were pale.

Vanessa spoke first. “We’re… Humans are Clecanian?”

“I guess so. Didn’t Helas explain why you were taken?” Alice questioned, recalling her many conversations with him over the weeks.

The women shook their heads slowly, confusion clear in their expressions.

“If they wanted women for reproduction, why would they have taken me? I’m not exactly a spring chicken,” Rita said, the normally velvet quality of her voice altered. “I’d only been down there for a few days before we escaped.”

Vanessa nodded, as did Daisy, who’d been focused on their mouths, likely attempting to read lips.

“Us too. We were brought in at the same time, only a few days ago,” said Vanessa.

The Queen spoke then, drawing Alice’s attention. “How did you come to learn this? Did Helas speak with you openly?”

Alice shrugged. “Not completely openly, no, but he was attempting to make Luka recognize me as his mate, so he did talk to me sometimes. I think he was trying to make sure I cooperated.”

The bubbly blonde sitting next to Alice spoke excitedly. “Did he recognize you? Oh, it’s so romantic, don’t you think? The idea of mates.” She caught the eye of a brunette with startling gray eyes nearby and smiled knowingly. “I’m definitely going to participate in the ceremony next time it happens.” Looking back to Alice, she added, “The guys here are sooo hot.”

Vanessa now huffed out an annoyed breath and spoke directly to the Queen, causing Metli to bristle. “Mates? Ceremony? Can you please explain?”

“In Tremanta, females who wish to find a male to marry for three months participate in the ceremony. When Jade first arrived, I required her to participate, as well. Initially, she was averse to the idea, but she came to care for her husband. He recognized her as his mate, and they have chosen to remain together.”

The Queen paused, taking a seat. “When a Clecanian finds their true mate, they will want to be with them until death. It is a physical, mental, and instinctual event that has been lost to us for some time. There has not been news of a newly mated pair for centuries. However, it seems that human females are awakening our people’s mating instincts once again.”

Helas had explained mates to Alice, but she hadn’t grasped the weight of matehood until now. Did that mean Luka would want to be with her forever? Her heart leapt into her throat at the idea.

The Queen’s face became serious. “The news of Theo and now Luka recognizing their true mates must be kept secret until we decide how to proceed. Jade and Theo have been in hiding for months now, claiming their absence is a traditional Earthling custom.” She looked into each of the women’s eyes, willing them to take her words to heart. “If word got out that humans can be recognized as mates, I feel your world, Earth, would be in danger. Clecanians of all genders would flock to your planet, hoping to find their mate, and unless the laws change very rapidly, they would be doing so illegally.”

A flash of weariness crossed the Queen’s face. “Most of our people are good, law-abiding citizens, but I worry the allure of a mate may cause some to ignore our laws and take humans by force.”

It was curious that the Queen wasn’t mentioning the incredible news that Jade was pregnant. The fact that Earth women could become pregnant and possibly solve their extinction issue was even more reason for the Clecanians to venture to Earth looking for partners, but the Queen hadn’t made this point. Did she not know? Or was she keeping it to herself? Izzo had said that Jade wanted to keep it secret.

Rising, the Queen pinned Alice with her stare. “Metli will be available to answer any more questions you have. I have other business I must get to. Alice, would you please join me?”

Alice blinked for a moment, then realized the Queen had, in fact, been addressing her. Vanessa’s curious gaze met hers before Alice rose to join the Queen, who’d retreated through a door on the far side of the room.

She rushed over to Rita and Vanessa and leaned in. “Make sure to ask about how we get Daisy’s hearing fixed, and also I’d appreciate it if they have a spare watch or something that I could have. My head is all messed up from being underground.”

Vanessa nodded. “I’ll get to that, but first I need to figure out when we’re going to be able to get out of here. Hopefully, the next ship to Earth is soon.”

Alice hurried away, averting her gaze from a glaring Metli.

Go back to Earth?

It sounded so obvious when Vanessa said it. They’d been taken against their will; it made sense that they’d be returned. But was that what she wanted? There were so many possibilities here. Alice felt like she’d finally grown into who she was supposed to be. Brave, respected, and confident—mostly confident, anyway. On Earth, she was just a quiet, older-than-her-peers college student with mountains of debt, no family, and a crappy job. Here, she was the woman who’d just broken seven people out of a secret facility and was about to have a meeting with a Queen. And one other problem—Luka was here.

The room the Queen led her into was dark and almost windowless. A round section of glass in the ceiling allowed a beam of refracted light to dimly illuminate two comfortable chairs in the middle of the small room.

The Queen sat in one and waited patiently as Alice sat in the other.

Without pretense, the Queen said, “I need you to tell me everything you remember since your abduction.”

Alice considered the powerful woman before her. Mere weeks ago, she’d have wilted under the intense, confident gaze of a person like this, but not anymore. She refused. “I’ll tell you everything I know if you agree to answer my questions.”

Her chin rose, and she stared down at Alice for long moments, but her gaze was more curious and assessing than angry. Alice waited until finally the Queen gave a tight nod. Mini fireworks erupted in Alice’s mind, and she silently patted herself on the back.

As she recounted everything she could remember from the previous weeks, the Queen listened silently, never interrupting or asking questions. When she tried to delicately describe her interactions with Luka, she felt her face flush.

“And then that’s when Izzo brought us here,” she finished.

The Queen looked skyward for a moment, her eyes darting back and forth, working through all of the information Alice had provided. “You said Helas believed they were running out of time.”

Alice nodded. “Yes, he said when they…you found Jade, they had to make progress more quickly.”

“That is quite distressing,” the Queen said with pursed lips.

Alice thought all of Helas’ actions were distressing. Why was this one so bad?

Before she could ask, the Queen explained, “If what we have learned from your escape along with Jade’s escape, is true, then there are many Insurgent facilities all over our world, all working toward similar goals.” The Queen spoke to Alice but seemed to look through her. “To find a descendant species to procreate with and to eliminate hybrids entirely.

“Izzo informed me you discovered Jade’s secret.”

She already knows about Jade’s pregnancy.

“We have been keeping the discovery of human females and the pregnancy of Jade very quiet, but…” The Queen’s eyes flashed with concern, the first real glimpse of emotion Alice had seen from the woman. “What will the Insurgents do to the countless humans they are currently holding when they discover their theory has proved successful, and what will they attempt to do to all the Clecanians with mixed ancestry?”

Alice’s jaw slackened as she realized what the Queen was getting at. If the Insurgents were attempting to find a descended race that could successfully procreate, then their work was done. Her blood ran cold. They’d no longer need to hold the human women captive, but that didn’t mean they’d release them.

What would they do to all of the illegally obtained humans, and God knows what other species, being held in those facilities?

“I can see from your expression you understand the gravity of this situation.”

Alice could only manage to shoot the Queen a pained look.

“In the coming days, I would like to meet with a select few humans and Clecanians to come up with a plan. Would you be willing to join us?”

“Me?” Alice said, taken aback. Yes, she had gained some confidence recently, but did the Queen really want her to be included in a discussion of this magnitude?

“Your insights thus far have been valuable, but I understand if you would prefer not to see Luka, considering what Helas forced you to do.”

Alice flushed again. The truth was that she desperately wanted to see Luka again.

“It would also be good for you to be part of the discussion concerning our next steps with humans.”

“Next steps?” Alice asked, roused from her thoughts of Luka.

“Yes. When there was only one human, Jade, the decision to make her a bride seemed the most logical. Now, we know that humans are compatible with Clecanians in more ways than one. Once more of our population know that humans can be mated, there will be calls for action. It is likely I will meet with leaders from across our world and vote on our course of action. I would like to consult human ambassadors and hear your opinions on the matter before deciding how I will vote.”

All in all, Alice had to say the Queen was being very reasonable. She wasn’t only taking her own people’s needs into account, but the needs of humans as well.

If I want to be a leader, then I need to act like one.

“I’d like to be a part of that group,” Alice announced, earning her an approving head tilt.

“Very well. I will make sure Metli notifies you of our schedule. I need to be on my way. Ask your questions.”

Alice blew out a slow breath. “Helas said I was taken at the same time as Jade, but I can’t remember anything from before a few weeks ago. Why?”

“Do you recall feeling weak upon waking, but otherwise untouched?”

“Yes,” Alice exclaimed, leaning forward in her chair.

“It is likely you were placed in a stasis pod. Most of the other humans reported a similar experience. Our doctor will be able to tell you for sure when he checks you and gives you an off-worlder health clearance.”

Stasis. Alice relaxed in her chair. A wave of relief built at the back of her mind, but she pushed it away. She needed confirmation from the doctor.

“Is there anything else?”

Suddenly, everything Alice had been intending to ask was gone. Scrambling to find a question for the expectant Queen, she blurted, “Do you have a name? I mean, is Queen your name or your title or both?”

The Queen arched an eyebrow. “In Tremanta, when the people choose a Queen, she accepts the position by abandoning her name and forfeiting mate rights.”

Alice leaned forward, interested. “You mean you can’t have a mate.”

“When I became Queen, I painted my hands.” She held her hands out in front of her, and Alice saw that up to her wrists, the skin was a slightly different shade than the rest. It looked like she had very well-made form-fitting gloves that were nearly invisible. “Even if I recognized a mate, I wouldn’t know for certain until a new Queen was chosen and my paint was removed.”

Alice continued to stare at her hands until she delicately set them back in her lap. The mention of mating marks drew her mind back to Luka. “Would it be possible for me to leave The Pearl Temple?”

The Queen’s eyes grew unfocused, and she remained silent for a moment. “That is a very difficult question, Alice. You, in particular, may leave, but I will ask you to do so sparingly so as not to upset the other females. None of the other humans are allowed to leave the Temple right now. I can’t risk them walking in the markets and accidentally triggering a mating response from a male before we have decided what to do.” She focused back on Alice. “If you’d like to leave, you need to speak with a guard or Metli about arranging transportation and accompanying you until you learn your way around.”

Alice nodded. She could sense that it was special to be allowed to ask the Queen any question she wanted. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So why could she concentrate on nothing except returning to Luka at that very moment?

The Queen stared at her, waiting.

“Do you know of any mates who didn’t want to be together?” How would he feel about her when the drugs finally wore off?

Misunderstanding her, the Queen answered, “You will not be forced to stay with Luka, if that is what you’re worried about. Because humans do not experience matehood in the same way we do, you will not be held to our laws of matehood.”

“It’s not that,” Alice started, feeling heat creep into her cheeks. “I’m worried he might not… The whole time we were together, he was…”

Alice felt herself shrink under the woman’s perplexed gaze. She’s the Queen, for God’s sake. You don’t talk to the Queen of an alien city about your boy problems!

“Never mind. I can’t think of my other questions for some reason,” Alice said, failing to meet her eyes.

“You’ve had a long day. Many long days, in fact. Think on what you’d like to ask me. I’ll reserve time after our next meeting to speak with you again.”

“Thank you.” Alice sighed, overwhelmed and grateful for her understanding.

The Queen leaned toward her and rested a hand on one of Alice’s. “You have been so brave and resilient these past weeks. Now that I have met you, I can see you are also very forgiving, kind, and compassionate. I am sure Luka would be infatuated with you in any state of mind.”

Alice peered up at the woman, a small smile curving her lips. “I hope you’re right.”


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