Saving Verakko: Chapter 10


“Stay near the trees! We talked about this,” Verakko barked.

Lily frowned and sidled back toward the tree line. This female was going to send him to an early grave. He’d decided to let them hike along the river again today. Well, decided may be the wrong word. More like he’d surrendered at the mere idea she may never speak to him again.

Luckily, he’d convinced her to stay under reasonable cover at the edge of the forest while he walked in the open, searching for signs of Alex. For the last few hours, his attention had been so divided and his emotions in such upheaval, a Swadaeth child might’ve managed to sway him without trouble.

Search for Alex, watch out for the Strigi, make sure Lily stays safe, argue with Lily when she doesn’t stay safe, think about Lily, work through how to be with Lily, remember to search for Alex. And on and on the day went.

He should’ve kept his mouth shut this morning, should’ve allowed her to believe he was uninterested in her. But he couldn’t stand the idea. Instead, he’d omitted information and told a partial truth, surmountable to a full lie.

There’d been so many opportunities to push her away. He could’ve told her he was already under contract. That would’ve shut down all questions as to whether they could be together. Or he could’ve told her he was uninterested. Or that he wanted to be with her after his marriage to Ziritha was over, and would she kindly wait for him for an unknown period of time? If he understood Lily as well as he thought he did, she would’ve halted any budding relationship that may have formed then and there. But he just couldn’t bring himself to tell her the truth. It would have meant permanently closing the door on the possibility of being with her, and, ashamedly, he was too selfish to do that. Not yet. Not before he’d thought through every possibility.

Crouching, he scooped up a bright blue item half buried in the sand of the river bed.

Lily rushed toward him.

Scanning the sky, he yelled, “It’s nothing but a rock. Go back.”

Shoulders slumped in defeat, she returned to the safety of the tree line. Verakko tossed the rock into the river and continued along the shore. Lily was loyal, annoyingly so. How might that translate into a relationship? From what he knew already, humans tended to prefer long-term monogamous relationships, but he had to take that knowledge with a grain of salt. For one thing, Jade and Alice, the two humans he knew who had relationships like that, were mated. For another, it was only two humans. He couldn’t assume they all thought the same. Lily herself had told him she didn’t want to get married. Where did that leave him? Marriage was all he had to offer, and he couldn’t even offer that at the moment.

His mind kept revolving around the same problem, always leading back to the same disheartening conclusion. He couldn’t have her. At least not for a long while.

He’d signed a marriage contract. If he backed out, he’d be punished. Sent away to work on a Clecanian space barge, transporting goods to and fro. The length of his off-world assignment would be dictated by the spurned female and local authorities.

How severe would Ziritha be? She was a reasonable female, but she was also in the public eye, and it’d color Mithrandirian’s perception of her if she were slighted by a male and then went easy on him during sentencing. He’d likely be sent away for years.

Aside from his off-world service, the real issue arose from city laws surrounding a breached marriage contract. If he broke his agreement without cause, he would never be eligible for marriage again. The Tremantian Queen had been kind to the humans, allowing them to not participate in the marriage ceremony unless they chose to, but he wasn’t so sure his people would feel the same. And he was only eligible for marriage with a citizen of his own city. If he led Lily to anywhere but Mithrandir, she would be out of his reach entirely.

But was taking her to his home too risky? Lily didn’t want to get married, yet they had the right to force her to participate. The question was, would they? And if they did, would he be able to handle watching her with another male? The throb of his fangs said no.

Maybe he could convince his city to give her enough time to acclimate to the planet before negotiating a marriage. That way, he’d be done with his marriage by the time she chose someone, and she could choose him.

He peered over to her. Her gaze was trained on the river and surrounding land, and her eyes were squinted so tightly he could barely make out any white or iris at all. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn she’d expect her unwavering loyalty to be returned in a relationship. He ground his jaw and scanned the clear blue sky again. She won’t wait.

There was one other possibility, but it was out of his control. If he recognized her as his mate, everything else would work out. Even a change of his eyes indicating a recognition of a potential mate was enough to be released from a marriage contract with no consequences. He sighed, trying to stifle the hope that slithered into his chest. To have a mate? To never have to enter into temporary marriages? It’d been a fantasy out of reach to Clecanians for centuries before the humans had appeared and turned their world upside down.

He glanced toward her again, and his heart constricted, as it had begun to do whenever he looked at her. He needed to learn more about her life and human courting in general, then go from there.

Lily’s eyes widened a moment before she sprinted away from the tree line. Verakko’s gaze shot to the sky and he bolted after her. “Lily, that’s it! We are traveling in the forest. That was my last warn—”

She halted at the edge of the river and removed her shoes. She began to lift the corner of her top over her head, but he reached her just in time, halting her movements. Hints of her flesh were enough. Seeing her clothed only in her thin undergarments in the daylight might be his undoing.

“Let go,” she said, struggling in his grip. Her eyes never strayed from a spot across the river. Verakko followed her gaze, and to his utter shock saw what looked unmistakably like a small, torn piece of fabric, waving in the wind like a flag.

He swayed without thinking. “Let me go across.” The current seemed to be calmer here, as the land had leveled out, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

She blinked up at him, unaffected, but nodded. “Hurry.”

Undressing fully, he held out his clothes to Lily and smirked at her turned head and crossed arms. He pulled at her hands, drawing her attention, and dropped the clothing into her arms. Her unblinking stare stayed glued to his face. “I don’t mind you looking.” He grinned.

She bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Just hurry, please.”

He let out a noncommittal grunt, then waded into the water. When he reached the other side, he examined the small flag propped into the crevice of a tree, amazed.

“What is it?” Lily called from across the river; the hope in her voice was like a living thing.

He hadn’t done anything at all to cause it, but the fact that he’d be the one to deliver such good news to her made him happier than he could remember. “Someone made it, and there’s writing.”

Lily sank to her knees, tears of relief springing from her eyes. Her smile was wider than he’d ever seen it, and she let out a sob, then another. He grabbed the flag and the flat log with the foreign, carved writing, also wedged into the tree, and waded back over to her.

He couldn’t seem to cut through the chest-high water fast enough. When he finally reached the shore, he plopped down next to her, uncaring about his current state of dress, and pulled her into his arms. She dropped his clothes onto his lap, then reached over to the log and read the jagged, carved symbols silently.

“What does it say?”

“It says, ‘Alive. Hit my head. This sucks. Alex.’” She grinned at the writing, her eyes scanning and rescanning the text.

She beamed at him and wiped her tears away, then wrapped her arms around his neck. Goddess, this felt right. His purr started in his chest again. And as he had the night before, he let it rumble through him. Lily didn’t seem to mind it the way he feared she would.

Pulling away, she said, “We should cross to the other side, right? Walk along the forest on that side.”

In an instant, he recalled the Strigi threat. Shooting tense, he nodded. “Hold my clothes. I’ll carry you across on my shoulders.”

She sprung to her feet, snatching his clothes as she went. “Ready.”

Verakko was slower to move, surprised by the lack of argument she gave concerning being carried. She scooped the woven bag from the ground and waited. He knelt before her so she could perch on his shoulders, but she paused.

“Are you sure? It feels so silly for you to carry me when I’m perfectly capable of swimming.”

He craned his neck to grin at her. “By all means, take off all your clothes and swim with me, then.”

She stifled a smirk and draped her legs over his shoulders without another word. He rose, clenching every muscle, not because carrying her was difficult but to prevent himself from thinking too hard about her supple thighs cushioning his ears. He crossed the river, moving a little slower than needed. When the shadow of a large bird passed over the sky, he reluctantly picked up his pace. Rather than letting her go on the shore, he strode to the edge of the forest, stealing any extra moments he could.

When he knelt again and she got back on her feet, she held out his clothes and boots.

“Thanks.” She lifted to her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

His only thoughts were of the soft feel of her lips against his skin. Unable to stop himself, he clutched her neck gently, holding her in place. Lily stilled.

What now? Verakko was lost, his instinct to keep her close warring with the knowledge that he couldn’t be her male right now. Not in the way she deserved. Let her go, you pishot.

It was a battle, but gradually he removed his hand, letting it fall at his side. She lowered until she was standing on the ground again and peered up at him through dark lashes. Her lips twisted into a knowing smile. Resting her hands on his shoulders, she stretched toward his other cheek and planted a soft, lingering kiss there.

Verakko’s lids slid closed and his rattling purr, so foreign to his ears, vibrated through him. He felt the whisper of a smile against her lips. Then, she moved away again, leaving him cold.

“We should keep going,” she said softly.

They gazed at each other for a moment, understanding passing between them. She began walking downriver once again, and Verakko quickly dressed.

I’ll find a way for us, mivassi. I promise.

***

Lily couldn’t wipe the smile from her face. It felt like a fifty-pound weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Alex had survived, and they were on their way to find her. Suddenly, all of her problems seemed surmountable.

She took in the sight of Verakko walking along the river, as alert and thoughtful as he’d been all morning. She’d had a while to think through their predicament on the long walk and had decided two things. One, she wanted to get to know the real Verakko. Initially, he’d held himself with an air of irritating superiority, but Lily could see it was just a superficial layer. Underneath it all, he was caring and attentive and honorable.

He also had a carefree, flirtatious side that had reared its head a few times now. Like her, he seemed to reveal more of himself the more comfortable he became with a person. This led to thought two—a far more involved and difficult thought, to say the least. Despite his claims that morning, Lily wanted to work things out with Verakko. If she needed to become an established member of his society to qualify for consideration by his mother, then she’d do just that.

Back on Earth, when she’d wanted to emancipate herself from her parents, she’d done it. When she’d wanted to get a diploma without ever having stepped foot in a classroom, she’d done it. Lily always accomplished her goals, no matter how seemingly impossible they appeared. And now on this new planet, she had new goals. Help Alex. Make a life. And give a whirlwind, out-of-the-blue relationship with a literal alien a try.

Finding that note from Alex had restored her confidence, her drive, and a small portion of her happiness. Verakko’s fleeting moment of vulnerability earlier proved to Lily that he was just like any other creature. He wanted love and comfort, and even if she could only give it to him for a short while, she would.

There was no question about what her primary concern continued to be. Alex, of course. She still wanted to make sure they were both safe. But, in the meantime, she’d learn as much as she could.

Back on Earth, there hadn’t been many things she’d missed about the wilderness. At night, she’d missed the sounds. When the litter and smog from the city had been too much for her, she’d missed the tranquil scenery. But most of all, what she’d missed was the honesty. Something about being alone with another human in nature cuts through all of the facades people wear. There was never enough energy left to be disingenuous.

Lily ducked under a low branch and marveled at the scenery anew. They’d been heading steadily downhill for the past few days until today, where the elevation had leveled out. The forest was more crowded here. Bushes and saplings battled for resources, making it almost impossible to walk through the brush itself.

The ever-evolving scenery made sense to her, though. What didn’t make sense was the temperature. Higher altitudes always equaled colder temperatures, so why was it becoming chillier the farther downriver they traveled? It had to be a cold snap of some kind.

A small gust of wind blew, punctuating her thoughts, and she shivered. How much farther were they from the fork Verakko had mentioned?

“Look down there on the right!” he called, pointing into the distance.

Lily squinted and saw what looked to be another makeshift flag on the opposite side of the river. Had she decided the other side was better for some reason?

 Come on, Alex. Give a girl a break. She suppressed a guilty grin. Although, being carried by a naked Verakko again might not be so bad. She snickered to herself like a schoolgirl, recalling her stealthy glances down to Verakko’s glorious chest as he’d carried her.

She surveyed the scenery in front of her and waved Verakko over. “I vote we cross down there.” She pointed to a stretch of river nearer to where Alex’s leaf flag fluttered. “I’m also going to climb that tree and get a lay of the land. See if I spot any more flags or maybe the fork in the river.” Lily gestured to a towering olive-green tree a few yards away.

Verakko eyed the tree in question, and she could’ve sworn his face became a lighter shade of teal. “That isn’t necessary. I’m sure the fork isn’t too much farther.”

“It’ll only take a few minutes and will give me peace of mind. I mean, what if she changed her mind again, and we’re planning to cross for nothing?” Lily canted her head and studied him. “Are you worried about me climbing the tree? It looks sturdy.”

His gaze shifted away, and he strode forward. “I just don’t think we should be taking any unnecessary risks. You could fall.”

Lily thought for a moment before following him. “Are…are you afraid of heights?”

The instant bunching of his shoulders told her she must be right. To be fair, he had fallen out of the sky only a few days ago. That would leave anyone with a lingering concern about being high up.

“I’m not afraid of heights,” he hissed. “I just prefer to stay on the ground.”

She reached out and gripped his hand; the tight corners of his eyes relaxed, and his vivid green irises locked on the connection. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t do well in small spaces myself.”

In a softer tone, he explained, “The height isn’t the issue. I’m wary of the pain that follows a fall from a great height.”

Something in Lily told her he was speaking from past experience, and not only from the tumble he’d recently taken. His thumb trailed over the back of her hand before he released it and continued forward.

“It sounds like you know what you’re talking about,” she urged, trying to sound casual.

“I do,” he said simply.

Lily rolled her eyes, trailing behind him. Subtlety isn’t working. “Will you tell me about it? I promise I won’t climb the tree if you do.”

He gave her a perplexed look over his shoulder. “Why do you care?”

She shrugged. “Can’t I want to know more about you? We’ve been walking for days, and I don’t know anything about your personal life.”

He ran the tip of his tongue over a fang in thought. “Alright. When I was a boy, I had a nasty fall.”

When he didn’t continue, Lily huffed out an annoyed, “And?”

“Are you sure you want to hear this?” He peered down at her curiously and shifted the woven bag on his shoulder. “It isn’t pleasant.”

“As long as you’re okay talking about it, I want to hear it.”

The corner of his mouth twitched as though he’d almost smiled. “When I was young, I loved to build things. Tinker with electronics. My father didn’t like me using my inventions in the house, so I’d go out to the empty towers in the new city.”

Lily listened intently and watched as Verakko spoke while scanning the shore and sky.

“They’d begun building the towers as a way to bring increased sustainability and housing to the people of my city, but Swadaeth aren’t very welcoming of change.” He snorted as if that was an understatement. “Most of the citizens have now moved into the housing, but early on, a lot of the buildings were deserted. The perfect place for me to be alone. I would tell my father I was going to the desert, but really I’d override the security systems and work in one of the towers.

“One day I was testing out a new flying gadget. It had a hidden compartment on the underside with a programmable fingerprint scan.”

Lily smiled, picturing a small Verakko quiet and stoic among a pile of springs and cogs. “What were you trying to hide?”

A wide grin transformed his features. Lily attempted to regulate the sigh building in her at the sight.

“Sweets from the kitchen.”

Lily laughed out loud. “You built a flying machine from scratch when you were a kid to sneak candy?”

“I was told I couldn’t have them.” He shrugged. “And I love sweets.”

Lily shook her head. The priorities of a kid are the same everywhere.

The shore along the river had narrowed and risen until the space between the forest and water was barely wide enough for one person. Verakko motioned her ahead, and she shuffled forward, grabbing branches and vines along the way to keep herself steady. The small, slick patch of grassy earth rose a few feet above the water. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but she’d already fallen into a river once this month, and that had been enough.

Warmth spread through her belly at the sight of Verakko’s large hand, outstretched and ready to snatch her back if she slipped.

“I had intended to transport a piece of candy from the top floor to the ground on its first test flight, but something went wrong and it stopped responding a few floors up,” he continued from behind her. “When I found it, it was hovering just outside a window on the third story. I reached for it and slipped.”

Lily veered her upper body around. “You fell from three stories up?”

Verakko’s hand was on her waist in an instant, holding her in place. When he was sure she wasn’t in danger of falling, he released her and grimaced. “I broke fifteen bones, most of them in my legs. The worst part was no one knew where I’d gone, and I couldn’t move. It took them hours to find me.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Now whenever I have to deal with heights, I always remember that pain.” Verakko let out a low chuckle, relieving some of Lily’s sympathetic distress. “My father said it ended up being a blessing in disguise because I never snuck off to those buildings again.”

The path widened once more, and a bend came into view around the corner. “Too bad you never got to sneak those sweets though,” she teased, knocking her elbow against his.

He flashed her a smile that displayed even, white teeth and a set of oddly alluring fangs. “I’ll have you know the Super Bandit version two was my preferred candy-smuggling device during my formative years. That is, until my father caught on and cleansed the house of treats.”

In an instant, Verakko’s body became rigid and his pointed ears twitched. His hand shot out, wrapping firmly around her bicep and wrenching her against him a moment before a shrill, piercing whine like nails on a chalkboard echoed behind her. The ground began to vibrate as if something were running toward them—something large.

Without a word, Verakko lifted her into his arms and leapt. Her breath caught on a scream as they became weightless. They slammed into icy water, knocking the air from her lungs. Once they surfaced, Verakko loosened his hold but didn’t let go.

She shoved the tangle of hair from her face and sputtered, “What was that?”

Verakko’s eyes were still trained on the shore they’d just come from. Rather than let her go, he slowly maneuvered her until she faced the shore as well, then he pulled her tight against his chest and paddled backward toward the opposite shoreline.

Lily’s heart stopped. A creature…no, a predator prowled on the far bank in the exact area they’d been standing. Black shimmering plates lined a thick, four-legged body, as tall as a horse. Its massive head and squashed face were wide and displayed a gaping, perfectly round mouth filled with rows upon rows of needle-like teeth. Around its neck, a glowing frill of yellow flesh flared in a display of aggression. Three large black eyes curved over its cavernous mouth.

The muscles in Lily’s legs tensed to sprint or kick or swim. Her grip on Verakko’s forearms, locked around her waist, was so tight that her knuckles were white.

“We must be closer to Sauven than I thought. It’s a sefa,” Verakko rumbled into her ear. “It won’t cross the water.”

The creature widened its mouth even more and let out another ear-splitting shriek, making every one of Lily’s hairs stand on end. The sudden feeling of ground under her feet made her jump. Verakko released her and clapped his hands over her ears.

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the screeching creature. Despite Verakko’s solid hands, the noise thrummed through her, making her insides roil. The noise emanated from its yawning black maw. Was it shooting some kind of pulsing sound wave at them?

Verakko let out a thunderous sound, overpowering the high pitch of the sefa. The volume and depth of the throaty rattling was almost as terrifying as the sefa’s shriek. She’d never heard anything quite like it before. The closest sound she could think of was the unsettling bellow territorial alligators made, except this was much louder and harsher. Although she felt safe with Verakko, the deafening percussion made her want to cower.

The sefa seemed to feel the same. Flaps of skin surrounding its face, which she’d taken for deep wrinkles, narrowed over its wide mouth and teeth, the opening shrinking until it looked like a smooth charcoal surface. The sefa’s glowing yellow collar of skin folded and flattened against its neck and back. Two of its shining obsidian eyes blinked at them, while the third stayed trained in their direction.

Verakko let out another terrifying roar. The sefa crouched low and scuttled into the dense forest.

Heat pooled in her core. It was a completely inappropriate and unwelcomed reaction, but she couldn’t help it. That creature had obviously judged Verakko to be the apex predator, and something about having him at her back, protectively covering her ears while scaring a literal monster into retreating did things to her she couldn’t suppress.

She felt him still behind her, and the scent of cedar wafted through the air. Lily faced him. The muscles in his arms and shoulders were bunched, and a tendon ticked in his jaw again. His glowing gaze, now a darker shade of emerald, hungrily slid over her body. Her sopping clothing clung to her figure, doing nothing to preserve any remaining modesty she may have had. Lily shivered.

His rapt gaze lingered on her neck before returning to her eyes, the heated air between them crackling in the silence.

“You’re cold.” His tone was low and firm, almost as if he were convincing them both of the fact, even as they understood she’d shivered for an entirely different reason.

Lily swallowed. Verakko’s gaze snapped back to her neck, and a quiet, softer version of his roar rattled through him.

“We should make camp early so we can get your clothes dry before night.”

They walked without speaking, the silence between them dominating her senses. When they reached the small flag, she found another carved message left by Alex.

“‘This side looked easier,’” she read. Her brows knit. “Do you think one of those things, the sefa, might’ve gotten her?”

Verakko shook his head. “Not if she was over here.” The second lid slid over his eyes, and he searched the skies while motioning her to continue forward. “They live deep in the Sauven Forest and hate water. They’d never cross the river. I’m surprised we saw one this far out in the open, actually. It must’ve been struggling to find food.”

“So, we’re safe over here?”

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “From them, at least.”

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