Resisting Maxu: Chapter 26


Maxu hadn’t been back to Vrulatica for fifteen years. At one time in his life, he’d considered the city a second home. He’d taken numerous jobs from King Sikthand and a few other high-ranking members of the Guild, and after a while, he’d found himself connecting with the Vrulans and their way of life.

They were different. Cut off from the technologies they worked so hard to bring into existence. Vrulatica was not only known for its craftsmanship and export of metal but was also credited as the most effective protectors of the Choke—the dry desert to the north that saw nary an inch of water per year by design.

The magnetic interference of the Askait ore under Vrulatica had resulted in a blind spot to the north that planets across the universe knew existed. Whenever marauding intruders were feeling bold, they’d exploit the blind spot, landing unseen by Clecanian border defenses in the desert and spreading outward to pillage surrounding cities.

Over decades, the Clecanians had devised a plan to deal with the chink in their armor. In addition to ongoing patrols that were sent out from the cities surrounding the Choke, Vrulatica, the city downwind, was in charge of seeding their clouds so no rain fell once the clouds passed their borders.

Trained riders flew winged malginash through storms, pouring chemicals into the clouds and forcing them to drop all of their precipitation into an aqueduct controlled by the city. When the clouds passed over the Choke, they were dry. Plants, animals—nothing could survive out there, including their invaders.

But the Vrulan way of life had created a harsh people relatively cut off from the rest of the world. In between storm seasons, they enjoyed their lives drinking and carousing until the toil of the rains began. Maxu had found camaraderie with many of them, including the king, who had employed him as his personal mercenary.

Until the day Maxu had been sent away.

When Daunet had revealed Vrulatica would be their next stop, Maxu’s insides had frozen solid. He’d debated demanding they not go, but if nothing else, Vrulatica was an incredible sight, full of incredible things. A place even he’d marveled at. His mate would love it. He couldn’t keep her from this experience just to avoid unpleasant memories. The king would just have to accept he was there.

Meg’s soft hand curled over Maxu’s tight fist and, as if her touch had the power to melt him, his forearm relaxed. Would she judge him for the time he’d spent here and the things he’d done? He could have gone his whole life without telling her about certain chapters of his past. He’d intended to. But now he found he didn’t want to.

Maxu wanted Meg to know everything, if only so she could accept everything. He didn’t want to have to choose his words carefully for the rest of their lives, stepping around difficult topics forever so as not to reveal some unfortunate event he’d been party to.

Maxu wanted the kind of relationship she’d described. One where she knew the good and bad. He didn’t need her to like the worst parts of him or approve of them, just accept them and confirm that she wouldn’t be scared away.

 Careful not to squeeze, Maxu allowed her probing fingers to slip into his palm and closed his hand around them. He wasn’t used to his newfound mating strength yet, and he was certainly not used to the exploding emotion that expressed itself in his body without him realizing.

Raising his gaze to her, he spotted her wind-chapped cheeks and scowled. He pulled her face into his chest, recalling the first time he’d ridden a malginash.

The Vrulan sky was a beautiful—yet hostile—place. Cold, harsh, and dry. The first time he’d accompanied Sikthand on a storm seeding, he’d been in awe of the cloud chaser’s skill and the malginash’s ferocity as they dove through hail and bolts of lightning, milking the clouds of every ounce of moisture they contained.

His hold on Meg’s skull tightened as a high offshoot tower of the castle came into view. The rest of the malginash glided far below, toward the reception hall in the middle of the fortified tower. But their carriage rose, soaring to the private landing of King Sikthand.

The king’s landing bay was wide, just like the others, and malginash nests crowded around its entrance. But unlike the other bays, this one was fortified with a gate. Electrified, thick metal bars crisscrossed over the entry.

Drabik, the king’s confidant and Maxu’s one-time friend, forced his mount to hover in front of the gate, awaiting admission. After a few moments, the bars lifted.

Their malginash rose, depositing their carriage onto the extruding platform before landing itself. Daunet jumped out first, then Maxu. Face pale and hands shaking, Meg gripped their outstretched palms and clambered out.

Wind whipped her hair over her eyes, but she didn’t brush it away. Her shaking fingers stayed sunk in the flesh of Maxu’s arm. “I didn’t know I was so scared of heights.” She laughed weakly.

“Only Vrulans are used to this height, vahpti.”

“At least it’s cool up here.” She forced a smile, wide gaze searching every inch of the dark receiving room. The center of the ceiling arched inward as if it were dripping down and formed a point above an enormous roaring fire.

“Wait here,” Drabik commanded, prowling away while tossing a large piece of minata wood toward his mount, who chomped through it, devouring the metal-rich sap inside.

Meg peered up at him expectantly when the male was gone. He pulled her away from Daunet, far enough that the glowering guard wouldn’t be able to overhear.

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Daunet, it was that the guard was annoyingly law-abiding. Similar to his disciplined brother, Auzed, who’d been Daunet’s commander for a while. Over Maxu’s life, he’d learned not to discuss illegal things in front of people like that. It made them uneasy.

“I don’t know what you’ll hear, but my past hasn’t always been something to be proud of. Sometimes people who have hired me have dug their own graves yet blame me, the spade.”

Meg’s brows were furrowed, her gaze flitting over his features. She didn’t understand yet, but she would.

The muscles of his back unclenched when she lifted a hand to his arm. “Are you sure you’re welcome here? Will you be safe?”

“You’re mated.” A deep voice rang through the room, making everyone turn. Sikthand stood in the towering arch entryway, his pale silver eyes glowed. He was covered up to his chin in black, but Maxu was surprised to see the king’s face remained uncovered. Sikthand preferred to keep himself shielded, always wearing his armor and crowned mask. Either rage or anxiousness had pushed the king to rush here.

The bright silver of his eyes was just as uncanny as Maxu remembered. Sikthand’s pale white jaw tipped down, gaze narrowing as he stared at Maxu’s hand still resting on Meg’s cheek. He’d hate him for having found Meg after what had happened with Japeshi.

“I am.”

Meg’s gaze was wide as she beheld the king, a slight hint of sour fear wafting from her, contaminating her lovely scent.

He understood Meg’s reaction. Vrulans were severe in all ways. Their hoods—the colored triangle of skin that spread from their temples to their chin—were usually intense hues of metallic black, gold, or bronze. The hood combined with their glowing eyes always gave their faces a shrouded, treacherous appearance, though most of the Vrulans he knew weren’t like that at all.

Sikthand’s coloring made him even more chilling, though. A stark white chin and hair to match contrasted with his inky-black hood and bright silver eyes.  

Maxu pulled Meg to his side, taking a step in front of her. Sikthand’s narrowed gaze leveled on his. “Out of everyone. You?” the male hissed, the sharp words bouncing around the cavernous space.

“If we’re unwelcome, we’ll leave.”

She is not unwelcome. You are,” the king spat.

Maxu’s fists balled. “What happened was not my doing.”

“That’s untrue and you know it.”

They seethed at each other, this argument having already been played out over and over without resolution. Sikthand was a good king. Fair and firm. He was a soldier and a legendary cloud chaser. The first to soar into the harshest of storms. The first to sacrifice. The first to bleed if needed, and his people respected him for it. But he had his troubles, and they haunted him, hollowing him out until only duty remained.

“Sikthand,” Maxu called, calming his voice and stepping toward the man. The king flinched at the familiarity of the name. “She’s my mate. I won’t leave her. You can understand that.”

Sikthand’s scowl grew venomous, his fangs flashing. “I can’t understand though, can I.” If not for the empty space in the room carrying sound, Maxu might not have heard him.

Daunet, who’d been silent and poised with a hand on her weapon until now, stepped forward, spine straight, chin raised. The picture of a perfect soldier. “Can I have your guarantee that my charge will be safe? That all the humans will be safe while we’re here? I don’t know what this male has done to you, but I will not allow—the Queen will not allow her delegation to stay in a place where they’re treated with hostility.”

Sikthand stared unblinkingly at Maxu. The only sign he’d heard Daunet at all was the familiar scrub of his thumb over his fingertips.

Finally, a cold mask worked its way into place on his face. “You have my word.” His silver eyes slipped to Daunet, then rested on Meg. “But I’d like to have a private word with you.”

“I go where she goes,” Maxu growled.

Sikthand tipped his brow up, holding Meg’s wide gaze. “Your guard is welcome to join us, of course.”

“I’d like my mate to be there,” Meg argued, stepping to the side of Maxu. Her tone was firm, though her words were as polite as they could be, considering she was speaking to a powerful king. The brave set of her jaw and the quick reassuring glance she darted to him were the only things keeping Maxu from pulling her behind him again.

Sikthand scowled. “Let me be clear. Either we speak or I throw him into a cell for the remainder of your visit. Be parted for an hour or days. Your choice.”

Fury blazed to life at the mere threat Sikthand might separate them, and Maxu took a step toward the male.

Suddenly, Meg was in front of him, her pale hands pressed to his chest. His narrowed gaze remained locked on Sikthand, who sent him a taunting smirk in return. The male was goading him. Maxu knew it even as his Traxian side rose to take the bait.

“Stop. He wants an excuse to lock you up—can’t you see that?” Meg whispered, trying to pull his attention to her with a hand tugging at his nape.

“It may be worth a few nights in jail to draw some of his pishot blood,” Maxu snapped.

Sikthand flashed his fangs. His shoulders rounded and his tail flicked behind him, the clawed armor scraping against the stone ground in challenge.

“Maxu!” Meg finally succeeded in drawing his gaze down when she clasped both sides of his face. “It’s not worth it to me.” Her voice dropped low, and she gave him a coy smile. “Are you telling me you’d rather land a punch and wake up in a cold cell than wake up in bed with me?”

He wrapped his palms around her wrists and released a gruff sigh. He met Sikthand’s scowl with a frown of his own. She was right, as always, but how could he let her go off with someone who despised him?

“Are you worried he’ll hurt me?” Meg whispered.

After a moment, Maxu grumbled, “No.” He gazed down at his mate and pushed past the tightness in his throat. “I’m worried he’ll hurt us.” Meg’s brows rose at that.

There were sensitive topics he’d wanted to broach with Meg, but if Sikthand spoke to her before he could…

No. Sikthand wouldn’t hurt her. But he’d do everything in his power to plants seeds of doubt in his mate’s mind. To poison her against him.

“It’s okay.” Meg ran her palms over his forearms. “I understand you have a past. Nothing he says will scare me off. I’m going to meet with him, let him spew whatever crap he wants, and then we can talk about it. Trust me.”

Maxu pulled her into his chest and inhaled her scent. Two glorious days. That was all they’d had before the shadows from his past had come back to tear his happiness away. Perhaps it was what he deserved.

At length, Meg pulled away. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Follow me.” Sikthand swept a pale hand toward Daunet and Meg. To Maxu, he sneered. “You stay with Drabik.”

Even before Meg was out of sight around the corner, Maxu felt her absence. His gut was hollow. His anger simmered back to life. This was the right decision, yet he couldn’t keep himself from setting off after her.

The soldier with golden eyes stepped before him, blocking his path. Maxu’s fists balled.

“Heed your mate. Sikthand’s hatred of you has only festered with time. This punishment is mild compared to what he’ll do if you give him a reason.” The male raised his mask, Drabik’s familiar golden eyes and bronze hood revealing themselves. He hadn’t changed at all.

Maxu recalled when Drabik had argued with his own king in Maxu’s defense. Though the soldier remained loyal to Sikthand, Maxu would always consider Drabik a male worth trusting, someone far better than him.

“Let me show you to her quarters. She’ll be escorted there when she’s done.”

When she’s done, Maxu blustered. Done with whatever manipulation his old friend had in mind.

***

This was bullshit.

For the last fifteen minutes the king had trailed around the large room, pouring himself a drink and reading through papers. Not once had he spoken to them. And now? Now the asshole was sharpening a wide axe on a spinning whetstone.

Arms already crossed, teeth grinding, Meg began tapping her foot on the stone floor. She aimed a furious glare at Daunet, hoping for a commiserative eye roll, but all she got was a warning head shake.

Meg huffed. What was the king playing at?

Finally, after he set down his razor-sharp blade and picked up another, Meg had had enough. “Excuse me, but if you’d rather not speak to me right now, I’d like to leave.”

Without even glancing up at them, the king rasped, “You will stay.”

“What’s the point of us sitting here if you don’t plan on speaking to us?” Meg blurted before Daunet could still her with a hand on her shoulder.

The scrape of sharpening metal rang through the silence before he answered, never taking his eyes off the rhythmic back-and-forth swipe of his blade over the rotating stone. “The point…is to torment your mate. I don’t need to speak to you for that to occur.”

Meg rose to her feet. “Why do you hate him so much?” she demanded.

“He tortured and killed my wife.” Sikthand’s voice rang hollowly through the room. His armor-clad tail flicked behind him, the only sign he was affected by his words.

“That’s…” Meg breathed in a shaky inhale. “Maxu wouldn’t do that.”

The king released a cruel laugh. “He wouldn’t do what? Torture? Kill? Kill a female? He’s done all that and more—and not only to my wife.” His glowing eyes finally met hers. “That’s why you simply being in here with me will rip him open. I do not lie, and your mate knows this. He’ll sweat and shake and crumble knowing that the worst I can do is simply tell his innocent human the truth.”

A swallow lodged in her throat. Was Maxu capable of those things? She’d known he’d been a mercenary and he’d told her he wasn’t proud of some things he’d done, but… Meg’s chin lifted. “I’m sorry you lost your wife, but I don’t believe you. What you’re saying may be a truth, but it’s not the whole truth.”

That got his attention. A dark scowl descended over the king’s face, and he stood. Daunet matched his movements.

“And if he really did do all those things you say, then why wasn’t he already in jail? You’re the king, after all. The only thing I can think is that you must have given him permission. Maybe even hired him. Am I right?” It was stupid to keep speaking, but Meg couldn’t seem to stop.

The flash of outrage in his eerie eyes told her her guess had been spot on. This asshole was a hypocrite who’d hired Maxu to harm. It didn’t make it right, but it made her uninterested in hearing another word from him.

Her mate might’ve had a past she didn’t like, one she’d need to learn how to accept in time, but that was something she and Maxu would work through together. She wouldn’t give Sikthand the pleasure of knowing he’d spooked her—even though, in truth, he had.

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