Saving Verakko: Chapter 17

“I can’t leave!” Verakko shouted, stabbing his fingers through his hair. He stared at Lily, lying peacefully in the medbay bed.

“You need to go speak with the Queen. You have marks! She needs to be notified,” Desy countered. “She’s stable. I’m only keeping her under for a little while longer to ensure her blood has been fully cleansed.”

He stepped toward the door, but a knot twisted in his gut, halting him. “I can’t reveal them to my mother, Desy. She’ll force Lily to stay with me.”

Desy, the doctor assigned to work in his building, scanned the room with wide eyes as though searching for someone who’d talk sensibly. “As well she should! This human is your mate. The whole city should be alerted. Don’t you understand how momentous this is?”

Verakko barked out a laugh and felt a muscle in his eye twitch. “Obviously I do! I want to carry her through the streets and tell everyone who’ll listen that she’s my mate, but it isn’t that simple.” Verakko rubbed a hand over his neck again and stared at Lily. “You didn’t see the way she looked at me. She isn’t ready to be mated. Humans don’t feel the bond the way we do. I’m not sure they feel it at all. To her, I’m just a male. One who kept things from her.” He studied the blue marks crisscrossing over his wrists and hands. “She doesn’t understand the significance of these, and if my mother forces her to remain with me before I have time to ease her into the idea, she’ll resent me.”

Desy crossed his arms over his chest. “And what if she never wants to be your mate? What will you do then?”

Verakko’s throat worked past the painful lump forming. What will I do? He didn’t know. “I won’t force her to be with me. It wouldn’t be right.” He said the words without conviction, a hiss in his mind telling him he wasn’t selfless enough or strong enough to ever let her go.

“Oh really? What then? Live your life without your mate? You’ll grow more and more ill. You won’t ever be able to be with anyone else. No children. No marriages.” He stepped toward Verakko and gripped his shoulders. “Your mind will rot, Verakko. It’s unnatural. I can’t think of any instance in recorded history where a mated pair willingly remained apart for more than a few years. Not while both of them lived. It can’t be done. There will come a point where you won’t be able to stay away.”

“Maybe not,” Verakko argued, though he knew Desy’s words were true. He could feel the intensity of the pull even now. “The fact is, we aren’t a mated pair. I’m mated; she isn’t. Maybe the effects won’t be so bad for me because of that.”

Desy stared into Verakko’s resolute gaze for a long time before his hands dropped, and he let out a huff of frustration. “Fine. But you still need to go see her. You need to tell your mother…something. You know how much the people love Ziritha. If you and Lily are seen together in a way that appears at all improper, they’ll take it as an offense against their future queen. You’ll be reported for breach of contract, and then you’ll be forced to reveal your marks to avoid punishment.”

“No,” Verakko countered. “I’d take the punishment instead.” When Desy only shook his head in disbelief, Verakko held out his hands. “Do you have any paint?”

Grumbling, Desy crossed to a high compartment on his wall. He stopped in front of Verakko, holding an ancient-looking bottle of hand paint. “I’ll keep your marks a secret for now. Even though it goes against everything I believe. But I can’t keep her existence secret. As a new citizen, I’m required to report her existence to the Queen.”

“I’ll go speak with her now and ask to be assigned as Lily’s guardian.” Verakko inhaled deeply. “At least that will allow her to stay with me until I can convince her to accept the bond.”

Desy painted Verakko’s hands, the thick substance melding to his skin and changing color until it was indiscernible from his own complexion. “I’m somehow both envious of you and glad I’m not in your position.”

Verakko could only muster an insincere half grin. He shuffled to the door after his paint had dried, shooting furtive glances over his shoulder at Lily. Before leaving, he said, “Don’t wake her up before I get back unless you have to. I don’t want her thinking I left her with a stranger.”

Desy sank into the chair near his desk and waved him away.

Only a few steps from the medbay, Verakko froze, his feet unwilling to carry him any farther. He ground his teeth and forced his body to move forward.

Once outside the tower, he climbed into a cruiser, directing it toward the palace, and rehearsed what he was going to say. He’d spoken to the Queen of Tremanta once while Lily was being healed by Desy, and now knew that his mother was aware of the humans but had decided to wait to announce their existence to her people. He didn’t know why, though. The Tremantian Queen had also acknowledged that his mother didn’t feel the humans should be granted the same right to decline their mate if they were recognized. That meant if she learned about his marks, or even that his eyes had changed in recognition, she would force Lily to stay with him.

Verakko groaned and fidgeted in his seat. Asking to be assigned as her guardian, the citizen who’d slowly introduce her to the culture and customs of this world, would be a stretch. A male on the verge of his marriage wouldn’t have time to be anyone’s guardian. How could he convince his mother to allow it? If Ziritha found out about his request, she may even take offense that he’d put another female’s needs above his own. If she saw it as a breach of contract, not even his mother could stop him from being shipped off-world.

He dropped his head into his hands and let out a bellow, injecting all his frustration into it.

The cruiser door slid open, revealing the colossal staircase leading up to the palace entry. He’d always hated climbing these stairs as a boy, never failing to become winded by the time he reached the top. All the stairways in Tremanta moved, carrying their passengers to their destination. Even the spiral stairways in the antiquated bunker Lily had been held in were mechanical. But not the Mithrandirian palace.

Verakko’s mood soured further as he climbed the steps, baking in the sun. No, in his hometown, they wanted a grand entrance that tired its visitors so when they finally arrived at the top, they had to pause for a breath. Their strength symbolically leeching into the queen’s domain to remind them of who was truly powerful here.

Two guards, armed with razor-sharp shade spears and magnetic shackles, guided him out to a balcony and instructed him to wait.

Verakko stood on under a canopy and stared into the distance at the crystal mountains to the west. The glimmering crags of crystal the mountains were known for glittered in the setting sun. He tipped his head, a sign of respect for them and for his father, now buried at the base of the mountain alongside his ancestors. He rarely thought of his father anymore, but when he did, it always made him smile.

His mother had been elected Queen when he was very young, but he still had memories of him and his father visiting her here. Verakko would always marvel at how powerful and stoic she appeared, towering over him in her glittering frocks. But his father would chuckle and comment on how nervous she’d seemed.

Verakko had never understood it, but his father had always had a way of reading her like no one else could. And as he’d grown older, Verakko had come to realize that she’d let him. Even though they hadn’t been married for years, they had still shared a bond. He tried to think about how his father had acted with her. The type of words he’d used to get her to agree to let Verakko focus on technology instead of politics. What gifts he’d brought her to convince her Verakko didn’t need to be monitored after his accidental fall from the vacant new city building. He couldn’t recall anything specific.

Then how had he persuaded her so often? Verakko thought about Lily and realized what it must’ve been. They’d cared for each other in their own way. Maybe his mother wasn’t as heartless as he thought, after all. 

“Verakko,” a light voice called from behind him.

He turned, and his blood ran cold. Ziritha glided toward him, a polite smile curling her lips. “Ziritha,” he choked out.

“Ziri will be just fine. We’re about to be married, after all.”

Verakko licked a fang and wondered if it would be wise to explain why he was there before speaking with his mother. She was wearing a dazzling dress of pale pink that complemented her deep navy complexion beautifully. A gauzy bright peach fabric mokti draped over her throat and down her shoulders, morphing into the sleeves of her dress.

“Your mother should be along shortly. She asked me to greet you while she finishes her meeting.” Ziritha looked him up and down with a raised brow. “I was going to say how happy I am that you’re home and well, but you look rather ill. Is everything alright?”

Did Ziritha know about the humans as well? Verakko studied her silently. His mother did trust her. Would she have told her? “I’ve had a difficult few days,” he hedged.

The delicate clicking of shoes made them both turn.

“Son,” said his mother from the doorway, appearing as regal and reserved as always. Her deep teal skin, so like his own, was covered completely by a chin-to-toe vibrant purple cape. Verakko’s dread deepened. His father had always claimed he could asses her mood based on her clothing. Shapeless capes, no matter how fine the embroidery and ornamentation, meant she was struggling with something.

“Mother.” He dipped his head.

“I’m very glad you’re alright. After the Queen of Tremanta notified me of your abduction, I was unsettled.” She said the words, but her expression revealed no evidence of any emotion of the sort.

No use dragging this out longer than necessary. “I need to speak with you privately, Mother,” Verakko said, shooting an apologetic glance toward Ziritha, who appeared to take no offense.

“Anything you need to discuss, you may do so in front of Ziritha,” said the Queen with a lift of her chin.

Arguing wouldn’t help his case, but if he was to have any success, he’d need to get his mother alone. “It’s a sensitive topic, and I’d feel more comfortable speaking to you privately about certain information I’ve been entrusted to keep confidential.”

“Are you referring to the human in your care?” Ziritha interjected.

Verakko froze, and all the blood seemed to rush from his face. He turned to Ziritha, eyes wide. Had it been Desy?

“No need to look so upset, son. I was alerted as soon as her doctor began administering care. I programmed an alert based on the Tremantian Queen’s suggestion. The humans have been through so much already. But I can understand why you felt the need to keep her out of sight until speaking with me. I’ll have her transported here as soon as she awakens.” Ziritha nodded along as his mother spoke. “She can stay here until she settles in and finds a husband. You needn’t be responsible for her any longer.”

“A husband or a mate! This is all so exciting.” Ziritha beamed. “A new race of Clecanians who can be mated and conceive children. This may change our whole world. Your mother and I have been discussing the repercussions since we first learned of their existence, and now one of them is here, a Swadaeth citizen. Remarkable.” Ziritha tipped her head and added, with a stern look, “The way they were obtained is despicable, to be sure, but I’m confident we can provide a good life for her and convince her to stay after her one-year transition period is up. Unless, of course, she meets her mate.” She grinned.

Verakko swallowed and forced a mask of calm back onto his features. His mother hadn’t talked to Desy personally. She still didn’t know about his marks, or this would have been a very different conversation. Verakko clasped his hands behind his back and fidgeted. His paint was still in place, but the instinct to hide his marks from view remained.

He studied Ziritha with renewed curiosity. He’d only met her a handful of times before, and this conversation was the most he’d ever spoken to her. She had a lightness to her that surprised him. When his mother had selected Ziritha as her protégé, he’d assumed she’d be distant and aloof just like his mother was. Their personalities couldn’t be more dissimilar.

“That is very kind of you,” Verakko began, choosing his words carefully, “but I’d like to continue to watch over her myself, as her guardian.”

“Her guardian? But you won’t have time. You need to take these few weeks to prepare for your marriage, do you not?”

Verakko stared and tried to mentally explain to his mother that this conversation would best be had without his betrothed present.

The Queen’s eyes bore into his, and he feared she might just be able to read his thoughts. She lifted a brow, as though understanding something distasteful. His mother aimed her unblinking gaze at Ziritha, and they seemed to have a silent conversation all their own.

To his surprise, the first to speak was Ziritha. “Have you recognized her, then?”

Verakko faced her, readying to stifle a wince at the emotion he’d surely see. Outrage or offense or possibly disgust. But all he could see was curiosity. He swallowed. “No.” Gaze darting between the two powerful females who held his future in their hands, he quickly added, “But I believe I will if I had a bit of time where we aren’t struggling to survive.”

He needed to win back Lily’s trust and convince her they were meant to be together. And for that, he needed time.

“You’re under contract, Verakko,” his mother said, a chilling severity ringing in her voice. “Are you asking to break it?”

“No,” he lied. “I’m asking to delay it. I don’t know how much you’re aware of, but humans don’t recognize mates, and many believe their isolated evolution has affected their ability to be recognized in a timely manner. It took Theo months for his marks to appear.”

“Yes, but from the reports I’ve received, he recognized her as a potential mate long before then. He himself admits it may have happened during the Testing, though there’s no way to be sure,” his mother argued reasonably.

Verakko ground his teeth. He’d hoped she hadn’t learned that yet.

“If you haven’t recognized her as a potential mate by now, then how is it fair of me to give you this advantage? You don’t even have enough evidence to claim her as a mivassi. Why should I take the chance of finding a mate away from my other citizens who may very well recognize her immediately?”

“I feel she’s mine,” Verakko said numbly, his instincts screaming to claim her and end this once and for all.

Ziritha and the Queen frowned at each other silently.

Verakko’s heart thudded in his chest. His mother would never allow something like this. What had he been thinking? He should return at once, steal Lily away, and hope his mother still cared about him enough to not send her guards after them.

He thought about his father again and wondered. He’d always told Verakko his mother wasn’t as hard as she presented herself to be, but was that true?

“Mother,” Verakko said, letting his desperation and ache show on his face. The Queen held his stare, and he could’ve sworn he’d seen the ghost of worry in her eyes at his tone. “I know this in my soul.”

She studied him for what seemed like forever, her expression unreadable. “Our world will be changing very soon. Wars may start. Our people will call for the humans to be gathered. Our laws and our traditions are sacred, Verakko. And they need to remain so. I cannot break them for anyone.”

Nausea roiled in his stomach, and he had to quell the answering snarl that rose in his throat. He shot his gaze to the ground. We have to leave.

His mother continued, raising her voice above what must be his obvious anger. “In three days, I’ll be announcing the existence of the humans and their unique traits to our people. If you can make your eyes change or your marks appear before then, you will have legal cause to break your contract.”

Verakko’s eyes shot up, not trusting his own ears. His gaze darted between the two females before him, and he saw a gentle smile curving Ziritha’s lips.

“Hear me, son.” Verakko blinked as his mother’s sway demanded entry. He looked at her, breath caught in his throat. “I cannot make you her guardian, so in public, you’ll treat her as a betrothed male would any female who wasn’t his future wife. If it’s reported to me that you’re in violation of the exclusivity clause in your contract, I’ll have no choice but to send you off-world. Do you hear me? I will not have the public’s respect for Ziritha or myself affected because of this, not now when we need their support and loyalty more than ever.”

Verakko grinned, nodding. “I understand. Thank you. Thank you both.”

“And if you don’t recognize her—”

“I’ll honor the terms of our contract,” Verakko finished for her.

His mother peered at him for a moment longer. Before spinning and walking away, she said, “Return in three days.”

When she was out of sight, Verakko glanced nervously at Ziritha.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.” She reached out and gripped his shoulder. “I’d hate to see you throw your future away on a female who may not deserve you.”

“I think it’s more likely I don’t deserve her.” Verakko’s brows furrowed. “I’m sorry, Ziritha. I see now I don’t deserve you, either. You should be angry with me. I’ve dishonored you, yet you seem so willing to violate our laws to help me.”

“It’s Ziri.” Ziritha smiled and gave a delicate shrug. “What can I say? If you have even the slightest chance to find a real mate, I’m not going to take that away from you.” She leaned in close and whispered seriously, “Don’t mess it up.”

Ziritha strode away through the same door his mother had.

Verakko’s smile drooped lower and lower until it wasn’t a smile at all. Three days?

Fuck, I’m gonna mess it up.


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