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Resisting Maxu: Chapter 28

When the interview turned interrogation was over, the humans were guided into an enormous feasting hall. Long communal tables were set up in rows. Rowdy metal-garbed Vrulans drank and ate, the glittering jewelry that studded their ears and lower jaws clinking from all directions.

Meg watched the table across from her, alternating between feeling exhausted, numb, and worried since Maxu hadn’t appeared at the dinner yet. An older man and a beautiful young woman with a gold-plated piece of jewelry covering the bottom half of her jaw laughed at something the man said. The effect of the sculpted metal malginash jaw piece covering the woman’s chin made it look like her lower mandible was that of the animal itself. When she grinned, it was fierce and powerful and oh so creepy.

Reigning above it all on a dais were the king and six other people, his Guild. Meg didn’t know exactly how they worked together. Either the king had final say and the Guild was included in every decision, or the Guild had final say and the king oversaw the Guild. In any case, no one was more of a spectacle than King Sikthand.

He was the only one in the room wearing a mask, his shining silver eyes glowing from beneath the slits in the black carved metal. Unlike the other masks she’d seen, antlers sprouted from the head of his, the fine silver protrusions glinting in the firelight.

Elbows on the arms of his weighty seat, one hand clasping a large tankard, Sikthand oozed authority. Every so often, he lowered the flexible jaw of his metal mask and took large swigs before raising it up again.

Had he done something with Maxu? Locked him up or commanded he not come? Meg’s toes curled in her shoes.

“Do you think he’s trying to intimidate us with that getup? Or does he always dress that way?” Sophia whispered, matching the direction of Meg’s gaze.

He was covered in black from chin to toe. Even his bright white hair was bound and covered by his helmet. His width was made larger and more imposing by rigid sheets of metal that ran over his collar and tipped into points at the ends of his shoulders and elbows.

“I wouldn’t be surprised by either answer,” Meg commented distantly.

For the majority of their dinner, he’d unnerved the women at her table by focusing on them. She supposed it made sense. After all, she was the person in the city he hated second most. The rest of the invited Vrulans didn’t seem to notice their king’s brooding, though. Perhaps this was his normal state.

Citizens continued to visit the humans, greeting them by dropping a gift onto their laps and asking them to walk in a circle around the perimeter of the room. It was odd to see such a simple, innocent custom in a place that felt so harsh, but Meg liked it.

A short stroll through a partially hidden route around the large room where you could talk and nobody would interrupt you. It was a wonderful way to meet someone without becoming stuck in a never-ending conversation. She’d kill to take a walk around the room with Maxu right now. Damn! Where was he?

Meg pushed the tankard filled with a weaker version of mott away.

“What is going on with you?” Tara asked from her left. “Is it Maxu again? It’s like hot and cold with you two, I swear. Can you just get it together?” Sophia chuckled across from her.

Meg had already had a shitty few hours. She was confused and tired and annoyed that all she wanted at that moment was to go for a silly walk with Maxu and ask him what circumstances had led him to murder the queen. Maybe that was why she blurted, “I don’t want to hear it from you. I see you and Daunet haven’t been talking.”

Not at all offended, Tara lifted a brow and gave Meg a once-over that communicated “watch it,” better than words ever could. “Not that it’s your business, since we haven’t been making our relationship everyone else’s problem,” Tara began, causing Meg’s neck to go hot, “but Daunet is…upstanding and hardworking, and I respect that. When she’s ready, I’ll be ready.”

“Just like that? That easy?” Meg sighed.

“Yeah, that easy. I told her how I felt. After a little prodding, she did the same, and we came up with a plan. Done and done. I don’t mess around when I like someone.”

“Must be nice.” Meg didn’t feel guilty about her bitterness. If she told them the whole story, she knew they’d feel differently about the supposed unnecessary drama that was her and Maxu’s relationship, but she didn’t feel right disclosing what Sikthand had told her. She didn’t want for anyone to look at him differently when he wasn’t here to explain himself.

“Just tell him how you feel like I did,” Tara urged.

“And what did you tell her, exactly? That you’ve been dreaming about her ass in that blue dress since Cribus?” Sophia chuckled, drinking deeply from her tankard. “Leave Meg alone—she’s fine.” Her ex-tattooed, horror movie–loving friend was besotted with the aesthetic of Vrulatica, not at all creeped out by the terrifying malginash or the muted color scheme seemingly inspired by the lyrics from “Paint It Black.”

Tara pursed her lips and tipped up Sophia’s cup as she drank so it splashed over her front. “No, asshole. I told you that in private. I told her that I noticed how well she took care of everyone and asked who took care of her.” A sheepish smile forced its way onto Tara’s face. “And for good measure, I also told her how much I dreamed about her ass in that dress.”

Meg and Sophia laughed, Sophia patting down her wet chest with a cloth. Tara glanced over her shoulder toward Daunet, who stood with shoulders back, hovering by the table. The guard noticed Tara’s attention and quickly looked away, but Meg saw the faintest hint of a blush light on her cheeks, and something gooey broke open in her chest.

A warm breath by her ear made her jump and squeak out an embarrassing sound. “Just me, vahpti,” Maxu’s voice whispered. She slapped her palms against the table, heart still racing.

“Would you stop doing that?” she snapped, face heating at the few chuckles rising from the Vrulans. “Where have you been?”

“Walk the room with me?” he asked, holding out a hand. As if the last few hours had never happened, her heart sped up and a wide grin split her face. Meg savored the warmth and strength of his large hand as she let him pull her up.

The Vrulans shot glances toward them as they walked, leaning their shoulders together to whisper about the miraculously mated couple. Their glowing gazes were so focused on Maxu’s hands that he stuffed them into his pockets.

She bit the inside of her cheek. “Why do you do that? Are you ashamed of them?”

Maxu stopped mid-step, and she was forced to halt as well. He’d found himself a typical Vrulan outfit, black with formfitting leather-esque cloth and a stiff-shouldered cape that climbed up his neck and made his muscled frame appear even larger. Over his thighs, arms, chest, and abs were decorative plates of metal. Not quite armor, but not quite not armor. God, she wanted to just forget about today, pull him into a dark corner, and feel the hard metal of his outfit crush her against a wall.

His hands emerged from his pockets, and he brushed them over her arms. She regretted the metal detailing of her long-sleeved shirt preventing her from feeling the rough warmth of his hands, even if the interior gel layer of the garment kept her temperature perfectly consistent.

“I don’t like others seeing them.” A muscle in Maxu’s jaw pulsed before he continued, urging her to keep walking forward. “When Sikthand saw them today, the first thing he did was take you away from me. They’re a sign to every enemy that a piece of my heart exists outside my body.”

Meg bit her lip to hold back her smile. Then she shook her head to clear away the fluttering hearts that had filled it. “Wait, we need to talk about what happened today.”

They rounded a hidden corner, and without a word, he swept her against a wall. With one slap of his palm to a sculpted malginash tail spike, a door slipped open, and he silently pulled her inside.

“What are you doing? Daunet’s gonna kill you. And me.”

“I told her I’d be taking you off her hands for the evening,” he said, pulling her down a narrow hallway behind him. Faint light glowed in the distance, and she couldn’t help the thrilling beat of her heart, or her grin.

They emerged in an open landing bay where Debrik waited, holding the reins of a shaggy malginash whose fur was grayer than the gleaming white mounts they’d rode in on. Meg stopped, dragging her heels, but Maxu pulled her forward as if she weighed nothing.

“Get in the carriage, Meg,” he demanded, pointing at the metal bowl sitting before the beast.

“No.” She watched on, horrified, as Debrik held out the reins to Maxu. “Do you know how to ride one of these? When was the last time you were even here?”

“Quickly, or I’ll get in trouble,” Debrik barked with an impatient jangle of the reins. Suddenly, the creature let out a keening, clicking sound, its nose rising to sniff the air. It spun in place until it faced Maxu.

The malginash emitted a small screech and pounded toward them. Meg tried to pull away from Maxu’s hold again, and he let her. The creature whined a little louder, clumsily jogging over to Maxu and knocking Debrik in the head with its wing. The man grunted in annoyance and rubbed his scalp.

“Hello, beautiful,” Maxu crooned as the beast came to rest its head against Maxu’s chest, face down with its deadly charcoal antlers bracketing his body. He scratched the long hair on the creature’s neck and let his cheek rest against the top of its head. “I missed you too.”

Meg’s insides fluttered at the unexpectedly affectionate display.

“A love story for the ages.” Still rubbing his head, Debrik whispered out a curse and lifted a dismissive hand. “You deal with her, then; I’m heading back to the party. You owe me,” he added, pointing a finger.

Maxu grinned, his eyes slipping closed as he stroked the creature under its chin and their purrs synced together. He pulled away, lifting its head to his face. “Shall we go for a ride?” he asked. The malginash seemed to rejoice, hopping on its front feet and waddling to the edge of the platform while stretching its wings.

He held his hand out to Meg. “Come on. I want to show you something.”

Meg’s mouth was open, and she stared between him and the malginash. “I don’t know. It’s terrifying enough with somebody who drives these every day. I’m not sure we—”

Before she could finish her sentence, he’d thrown her over his shoulder, dumped her into the bucket, locked a belt around her waist, and whispered for her to hold on.

When she finally righted herself, it was too late. He’d thrown himself onto the mount, reins in hand. A little more jerkily than the malginash this morning had, Maxu’s mount grabbed the rings of Meg’s carriage and swept her into the sky. She shrieked as the creature dove and her body went weightless.


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