Resisting Maxu: Chapter 19

Alacera emerged before Meg’s eyes, and she sucked in a gasp. Her chest remained expanded as her head tipped up and up and up, taking in the glittering palace where they’d been invited to stay.

Surrounded by a verdant rainforest, the city of Alacera was built on land that was cut through with hundreds of waterways, like a more lush Venice. Except these waterways were all fed by towering waterfalls that spilled over the crescent moon–shaped cliffs—a backdrop to the Alacera palace.

The magnificent building rested at the base of the curved mountain range and was surrounded by a natural moat formed by the water crashing down from above. The vapor rising into the air from the powerful water created a glittering haze strewn with dewy rainbows through which the lapis spires and teardrop roofs of the palace could be seen.

Cruisers weren’t allowed within the Alacera city walls, so the group had been ushered onto boats that now floated to the palace through quiet neighborhoods and manicured gardens. Meg studied the intricate way in which the plants had been trained to create glorious flower-capped temples and grinned when a lime-green toad with fluffy yellow wings fluttered between the flowers.

Through her amazement, a twinge of sadness ate at her. What would Maxu say about that creature? Would he lift a sardonic brow and complain about the pest control here or some such nonsense? The thought almost brought a smile to her face. Almost.

The iridescent glimmer of large wings caught in the sun and drew her attention. The Alacera people had wings in a variety of colors, and Meg was transfixed by the cellophane-like material that bathed the area around them in brightly colored light, like the sun streaming through stained glass.

There were many winged races on Clecania, but in Meg’s opinion, no others were quite as dazzling as the Alacera. They were mythical fairies come to life. Even the burly soldiers who’d come to escort them to the palace had long, elegant wings that gleamed. One guy kept peering back at the group and shaking out his wings to draw attention to them. Meg had to admit, they did appear a bit more vibrant than the others. Maybe he treated them with the famous Alacera oil harvested from the Ibsi nuts that grew in great vines behind the waterfalls.

They reached a set of stone stairs and departed the boat, towing their floating bags, which had grown in number as the humans continued to collect souvenirs. If Meg was going to buy anything from Alacera, she’d have to do it today.

They were fortunate enough to be visiting during the most important holiday of the city. Meg was beyond thrilled, but it meant that all business would be closed for the next few days.

A statuesque woman approached them, holding a staff tipped with gems. She was dressed in an outfit whose material was more like glossy leaves than cloth. The queen.

For a moment, Meg was surprised to see the woman alone. Didn’t all royalty travel with a small contingent of soldiers at all times? But her confusion vanished when an enormous animal prowled forward, planting itself next to the queen.

Lucy hissed, “Is that a fucking lion-bear?”

Camille was the first to get over her shock. “That’s a casican,” she breathed. “They’re the products of thousands of years of domestication. Common pets here.”

The casican was enormous. Easily larger than a full-grown bear and just as round and furry. It was a soft brown with pale mint–tipped fur and a wide, fluffy rose-pink mane circling its neck and traveling down its spine. 

From the queen’s right darted a shaggy baby casican. It let out a collection of squeaks and huffs as it inspected the newcomers. When it got to Meg, it attempted to stand on its back feet and sniff at a printed flower on her pants before toppling over, gripping its toes and trying to stuff a foot into its mouth.

“Are you trying to impress us, handsome?” The cub froze at Camille’s words and scrambled to get to her. Her grin was infectious as she stooped to examine the chuffing creature.

“I apologize,” the queen interrupted in a melodic voice. “Mafapi is a newborn. She must have gotten away from her mother.”

Mafapi just about melted against Camille’s fingers as she scratched the cub’s round ear. The casican let out a wailing groan and her dark lashes slid closed. With a final reluctant pat, Camille stood.

“Welcome. I’m Rhal, the queen of Alacera.” Rhal spread her wings, casting blues, pinks, and greens over the stone walkway, and dipped her head. “I wanted to be one of the first to greet you, but I can only stay for a little while. As you may be aware, Stigalthi Marin begins tomorrow, and there are preparations I need to see to.”

Meg’s translator stuttered out the closest approximation for Stigalthi Marin it could. The emptying and filling.

“Today will be busy for you, I’m afraid. We’ve organized a large reception tonight. But for the next two days of your stay, you’re welcome to celebrate with us in lieu of interviews, as long as you respect our traditions.”

“I’m beyond grateful,” Rita exclaimed. “This sounds like a beautiful, healing holiday.”

“Indeed it is,” Queen Rhal answered and lowered her wings.

The queen explained the holiday a little more as she led them to their rooms in the palace. She also not so casually questioned them about the number of humans back in Tremanta, if they were happy there, and whether or not they were prevented from leaving.

Mafapi scurried along next to them. She ran on all fours up toward each soldier, nudging their ankles with her nose. Every so often she’d get distracted by a plant that had crept onto the lacquered stone walkway. She gobbled up any flowers she came across, then bounded back to the humans a proud grin exposing her blossom-stained teeth.

It wasn’t until a clipped growl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but the annoyed exhalation of a mother that Mafapi’s ears turn down. A full-grown casican growled at her cub from behind a woven vine gate.

Mafapi peered up at the humans with sad wide violet eyes, then dragged her feet over to her mother. With a tsking noise, Queen Rhal used her long elegant tail to scoop up the cub under its arms and plopped her onto her mother’s back. Mafapi stretched, already falling asleep as her mother ambled away.

With a kind grin, Queen Rhal bid their group goodbye, and the remaining soldiers guided them the rest of the way.

“We’re being housed up there,” Daunet pointed at a column that split into three spires near the top like a pitchfork with gleaming mosaic roofs and lush, flowering vines dripping with dew collected from the mist in the air.

“Man, I’m already soaked,” Camille half complained, pulling the fabric sticking to her stomach away.

“No wonder they don’t use cloth,” Tara said, running a hand through her hair until it was fashionably slicked back.

Sophia spun in place, hands raised. “I love it. It reminds me of when my sister and I took a trip to Niagara Falls.”

“It’s gonna get old real fast,” Lucy grumbled, her hair already frizzing.

They reached the base of the tower, but before they stepped onto the spiraling staircase which would take them up to their individual rooms, Daunet and the other guards discussed their schedules for the next few days.

“I’m gonna need to pee every five minutes, I can already tell.” Tara crossed one foot over the other, gazing up at the towers impatiently.

Aqueducts and gutters ran over and through every roof, archway, and walkway, ensuring you were surrounded by the calming sounds of bubbling water wherever you went. 

Lucy sighed, staring at one archway in particular that had been strung with tinted crystal beads that sparkled in the sun. “God, that would be a good spot for a picture.”

As Lucy often bemoaned, the fact that Clecanians weren’t overly fond of photography killed her. Back on Earth, she’d made a career of curating posts across social media and contracting out her services to companies to help them do the same.

Heleax and Lucy had gotten into a few arguments about it so far, and Heleax had continued to argue that to truly appreciate a place you had to visit it—if you’d seen a hundred pictures beforehand, then the joy and awe would be lessened.

Lucy argued the opposite—seeing pictures of people or places only worked to build your excitement so that when you finally experience a place you could marvel over how it was even better than you’d thought.

Meg found herself agreeing with Lucy on this. Perhaps travel was more accessible on this planet, but on Earth, pictures had been all Meg had of the world.

When the patrol arrangements had been set up, the women were scanned so they had entry to their doors. Meg requested her print be added to her mate’s room just in case he appeared again. The reminder that Maxu was either gone or avoiding her tugged at her heart, dimming her cheerful mood once more, but when she stepped into the spacious suite she’d been assigned, she couldn’t hold back her smile.

Aqueducts circled the round towers of her building and emptied into pools inset on the room’s balconies. As the pools filled, water spilled over the edge, creating a mini waterfall, and she was delighted to find a thin chute of water falling from the balcony above into her own pool, splashing droplets over the garden planted around the water’s edge. Tropical blooms sprouted out of every square inch of dirt. Gentle breezes rustled their petals, filling the room with a sweet fragrance.

Rather than one elevated mattress, one entire corner of the room was covered in velvety soft petals and moss. She crashed onto the soft bedding, imagining she was reclining in a fairy garden, and stared up at the hundreds of small solar-powered light bubbles floating around the ceiling.

She had the same orbs in her room on Tremanta, the style of lighting being a favorite among many cities, but here the small glass balls arranged themselves into a spiraling design across the ceiling. Some gleamed brightly, while others flickered in and out. The gently pulsing light reminded her of early summer fireflies back in Indiana.

This place was beautiful. Magical. She couldn’t push away the thought that it would be the perfect place to spend time with someone you loved. She’d been content to flirt and socialize and explore all on her own, but now that she was alone in her room once again, she ached to share the experience with someone. To marvel at the beautiful surroundings. To lie down while holding someone’s hand and listen to the gentle splashing of the water.

She remembered Maxu’s stuffy view of the fossilized coral and wondered what he might say about this room. She grinned. “Seems like a waste of water,” she rumbled in a silly imitation of him. It was a cruel joke that the mere thought of him scowling made her lips curl.

As she got ready for the party, she sorted through all her emotions, looking past the surface feelings of hurt, fear, and defensiveness that shadowed everything else. In the past three weeks, she’d gone from abhorring the thought of having Maxu as her mate to warming to the idea to all-out daydreaming about the man.

Slowly but surely, Meg was figuring out who she really was and what she really wanted. In her old marriage, she’d backed down and given in far too often. It was safer that way, easier. She’d always been too afraid to push back, and maybe if she’d been more open with her family, with Jeremy things might have turned out differently. It probably would’ve been a car wreck, but at least she’d have been honest. Instead, she’d allowed herself to wallow for far too long, but not anymore.

The next time she saw Maxu, she’d be prepared. She’d keep her guard up and her expectations low, but if they failed to make a relationship work, she was determined that it wouldn’t be her fault.

By the time she and the other humans arrived, the party was in full swing. The Alacera people crowded into a gorgeous sunken space where gentle streams winded through the floors and massive flowering trees glittered with dew. The colored light from the Alacerans’ wings combined with the misty air and the calm blue water pouring all around gave the open space the feel of an impressionist watercolor painting of a fantasy world brought to life. Large casicans roamed through the party as well, curling into the sides of their owners and dragging their cubs back with their teeth when they became a little too rambunctious.

Some of their group had gotten used to the constant dampness all around. Lucy, Nirato, and Heleax hadn’t. They stood together, complaining among themselves since the rest of the group was too happy to commiserate.

Meg’s outfit was beautiful, the party was beyond beautiful, but what she loved the most were the artificial wings they’d attached to the back of her dress. Meg and Daunet found a beam of light pouring through the mist and took turns dragging their wings into it so they could admire them.

A delicate shade of green that had emerged behind her lids every time she closed her eyes had called to her when she’d been presented with outfit choices. Her sea-glass colored bodice and skirt paired beautifully with the pinks and purples of her wings. She smiled at the spray of colors glowing on the stone walkway as the light passed through her wings before forcing Daunet to flash hers the same way.

Daunet froze just as Meg clapped at the warm yellows and oranges of her guard’s wings. “He’s here.”

Meg’s hands stilled before her chest, her breath hitching.

On some level, she’d known he’d been nearby all along, hiding in the shadows. But tonight, he was letting himself be seen.

No interest in subtlety or playing hard to get, Meg turned in place, scanning the crowd until she spotted him. Though she was still slightly annoyed that he’d disappeared, she couldn’t help but grin. He didn’t wear wings. His outfit was plain compared to the natural explosions of leaves, petals, and gossamer the rest of them were wearing. But he was still the most striking person in the room.

And he was scowling.

Not an angry scowl—or rather, not angry with her at least. The expression seemed more frustrated than anything else. She took a step toward him, and his body stiffened. Meg stopped. With a frown of her own, she straightened her spine and pushed forward again.

Meg sidled by crowds of cheerful people and stepped around lazy snoring casicans, but when she reached the spot he’d been standing, Maxu was gone.

Exasperation welled in her, though she tried to push it away as a couple of large ethereal men engaged her in conversation. They asked her about Earth, typical things mostly, and she did her best to focus, but half of her wanted to reach out and touch their arms. Laugh a little too loudly at their jokes. Stare for a little too long. Anything to bring her mate out of the woodwork so she could see some evidence that he still cared.

But that wouldn’t be fair to these men, especially not since she wouldn’t put it past her mate to materialize ready to injure. She shouldn’t like the idea of him getting so jealous, but a bitter part of her that wanted him to suffer as much as she had for the past few days bubbled at the notion of him showing a bit of that possessiveness she’d thought she despised.

The golden hour hit, then the moons rose, and as the tipsy Alacerans drained the last of their drinks and trickled out of the party, Meg still hadn’t found him.

Both she and Daunet were silent on the walk back, lost in their own thoughts. She was at risk of pulling a muscle in her neck from craning it all night in search of her elusive mate, so she turned her focus on Daunet. For the first time that evening, she spotted the tightness around Daunet’s mouth and the permanent crease between her brows.

Guilt crawled up her throat. Her friend was upset, and she hadn’t even noticed. Had something happened with Tara?

“Do you wanna talk about it?” Meg asked quietly.

Daunet exhaled a deep breath. “No.” Pressure seemed to build in the air around her, and Meg knew she was going to say more even before she opened her mouth. “Tara spoke with one female all night.”

Fira. Meg recalled how well they’d gotten along when the woman had helped the humans pick out clothes and attach their wings. Her candy apple red cellophane wings matched her fiery hair and complemented her deeply tanned skin. She’d been kind and open, talking to the humans as if they were old friends, revealing the stresses of her job and discussing how excited she was for the holiday.

“I overheard them speaking of all the natural sights she could explore tomorrow. Fira offered to escort her,” Daunet added, voice low with a hint of defeat.

Meg winced. “And you’re upset that they might spend time together? It may not be romantic at all, you know.” She slipped an arm through Daunet’s, locking their elbows.

Her guard turned her face up and peered through the mist that distorted the stars and made them twinkle more than normal. “I have no right to be upset,” she whispered. “I’ve tried to hide my feelings, as I’ve done my whole life, but I’m now realizing I may end up missing my opportunity by refusing to reveal my wishes to Tara.”

Meg was shocked when Daunet faced the ground again and she saw moisture gathering in her eyes. Clecanian women didn’t show emotions out in the open like this. They’d been trained not to. While men went to husbandry school to learn the best ways to please their wives and raise children, women went to their own school and learned how not to feel—and if they did feel, how not to show it to anyone else. Meg had never seen Daunet like this. She squeezed her a little tighter.

Daunet’s whisper dropped even lower, barely audible over the trickling water all around them. “I think I can feel her just under the surface. Like I could recognize her if I really tried.”

“Isn’t that amazing, though? I thought you’d say it was a gift from the Goddess.”

“But what if it’s not true? If I allow myself to hope too much…what if I open myself up and nothing happens?” she asked. “I’ve buried these feelings for so long now.” Daunet winced, a guilty look flashing toward Meg. “I never told you, but I’ve noticed Tara for a long time now. Since she was brought to the temple. I know more about her than is healthy. I always hoped I’d recognize her. And then when I learned she was going on this trip—”

“Wait, that’s why you pushed so hard to be my guard on this tour?” Meg chuckled, tsking at Daunet.

Daunet gave her a sad smile in return. “I hope you aren’t offended when I say yes, absolutely.”

“I told you I wouldn’t push you anymore, Daunet, but do you want my real, honest advice?”

“No.” Daunet grinned down at Meg’s shocked expression. “Not right now. I don’t think I could accept it right now,” she added, patting Meg’s hand. “Just walk in misery with me. It helps.”

Meg chuckled, then did just that. They strolled through winding pathways, over small bridges, and towering stone arches, silently bonding over their confusing love lives.


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