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Saving Verakko: Chapter 22

“First, I want to introduce you to some hairstylists on the upper level, and then I think we can go down to the basins. After a soak, we’ll work our way back up through the floors. I’ll stick close by since no one will have your language uploaded yet.”

Lily walked alongside Ziri, but every time she thought of something to say, Ziri started on a new topic. They’d left the building Verakko’s house was in and were now waiting under an oddly lush crop of plants. Lily craned her neck and guessed that the shade provided by the overlapping flat roofs of the buildings allowed for a sort of oasis to exist in the sand below.

The air outside the temperature-controlled building was hot and dry. Although she began to sweat, the moisture from her skin evaporated almost immediately.

“Do you know what services you want done?” Ziri asked.

A large silver ball floated toward them, drawing Lily’s undivided attention. When it didn’t seem like it would veer off course, she hastily stepped away.

“It’s alright, Lily. That cruiser is our ride.”

“Ride?” She cocked her head, legs still tensed.

“All the spas are in the old city.” Ziri pointed off into the distance to a grouping of small buildings. Lily had assumed they were storage facilities of some kind. How could it be a whole city?

The large silver sphere stopped in front of them, and a panel slid open, revealing seating. Once they were both in and seated, she felt a slight lurch. Ziri smiled at her from across the cruiser.

Lily’s gut churned at the kindness she saw seeping from the pretty alien’s gaze. “Ziritha, I need to say something to you.”

She arched a delicate silver brow in response.

Lily was momentarily distracted by the faint shimmer glinting from her lifted brow. She studied Ziri’s hair again now that they were in close proximity and saw that it too shimmered as though a spray bottle of glitter had somehow attached itself to the follicles of her hair.

“How do…” Lily stopped herself and forced her mind back to the task at hand. “Verakko told me you know about me and him, and I have to say how sorry I am. I didn’t know he was engaged— Er— I mean, under contract.”

Ziritha grinned at her like she’d just said something adorable. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. Verakko is the one who crossed a line. But if what they say about humans is true, I can’t blame him.”

Lily thought she saw a brief flash of jealousy light Ziri’s eyes. “So, you’re really not upset?”

Ziri sighed and leaned back in her seat, twirling a lock of her hair around a long finger. “Another female might’ve taken more offense and exposed the breach, but I don’t feel that way. In all honesty, I’m curious.”

Curious? The door to the pod suddenly slid open, preventing Lily from questioning her further.

She followed Ziritha out of the floating ball and froze in place. Until that moment, she’d forgotten how Verakko had described the old city as being located in a pit. Before her was a massive, sheer drop-off circling a tall cylinder of land, like a waterless moat around a medieval city.

She imagined that long ago the city would’ve been carved directly into the rock, but now the addition of stained-glass windows many stories high, jutting lavish balconies, and sprawling vines made the column of a city an Architectural Digest’s wet dream.

Colossal ornamental mirrors placed on each side of the divide acted as sun catchers, directing the light from above down into the shaded lower levels of the city. Lily squinted, trying to see the bottom of the perfectly round trench, but could only see layers upon layers of draped fabric extending from a sprawling green balcony that circled the whole base of the column.

“Are you ready?” Ziri said, rousing her.

Lily could only nod with wide eyes.

A single bridge connecting the two pieces of land was bordered on either side by large statues of stern, fanged men and women. As she walked with Ziritha along the bridge, she felt their eyes on her. She focused on the other people crossing the bridge, more out of her depth than ever. A large majority were men, mostly Swadaeth, but many were other races. A few, with their overlarge heads and four arms, looked different enough that she assumed they weren’t Clecanian at all. Any lingering worry that she’d stand out as the only “alien” vanished.

The people on the bridge walked in silence for the most part or chatted seriously to one another. Lily glanced toward Ziri and saw that her expression had changed. The chatty, bubbly woman she’d shared a ride with was now impassive.

A man and woman walking by dipped their heads toward Ziritha and tapped their left shoulders with a thumb. A sign of respect perhaps? As Ziri returned the gesture, then tilted her chin upward imperiously, Lily saw it. A queen in the making. Ziri looked as regal as anyone she’d ever seen.

From the way Verakko had spoken, Ziri would become queen whether or not she married him. How long had she been training for her role?

A few of the people walking in their direction wore clothing similar to her own. White billowy fabric with relatively few accessories compared to the decked-out, fully dressed majority. Lily rejoiced as she examined the odd, intricate makeup and hairstyles sported by not only the women but men. A short woman with a sunflower-yellow structured suit and matching lace mokti caught her attention. Her lids were painted a bright purple, and small objects that looked like pearls dotted her eyes from the inner corner up to and above the brow. Her bright blue hair had a faint shimmer as well.

Alex would have a field day here. Lily smiled, forcing herself to remain positive, and daydreamed about the day when she and Alex could walk side by side, gossiping about all the crazy fashion and alien species they saw in the city.

Lily started to ask Ziri about the treatment she’d need to make her hair sparkle, but then scanned the quiet crowd again and thought better of it. Was it rude to speak in public spaces like this the way it was in some countries on Earth?

Deciding she should take her cues from Ziri for the time being, she remained silent.

After walking through a towering archway, they entered a large public square of sorts. Vendors milled about, projecting holographic signs advertising their wares, which were nowhere in sight. Lily decided they must be the equivalent of those arrow holders on city corners directing customers to shops located somewhere else.

Still silent, Ziri guided them to a long line of large glass tubes. As she approached, a portion of glass slid open, and Ziri stepped in, indicating Lily should do the same. Willing her nerves about entering the small space to dissipate, she stepped in.

“Floor twenty,” Ziri said to the space at large.

A soothing male voice repeated, “Floor twenty,” and they moved downward.

All at once, Ziri’s stoic expression morphed. She faced Lily, smiling, and pointed out through the glass. “You’ll be able to see each floor as we pass them. Tell me if there are any you’d be interested in visiting later.”

Lily’s brows drew together, and she stared at Ziri for a moment longer before looking back out through the glass. The elevator was moving quickly, and she barely had time to register one incredible view before another replaced it. A whole floor of colored glass windows shone a dazzling display of jewel-toned light on a crowded market. A shining black stone restaurant with thick black columns and millions of tiny glittering orbs floating around the ceiling like stars cast the room in a soft glow.

“What’s on those floors?” Lily asked after seeing at least four floors go by that were blocked from view.

“Those are our schools. Early education for all young Swadaeth is near the top, then trade schools are next, and the secondary schools are below.”

Husbandry school, Lily recalled. “What did you learn in your school?” she asked while studying a recreation floor with a gym, a large portion of which was dedicated to people hurling spears at distant targets.

They reached their floor, and Ziri stepped into a large conservatory filled with exotic flowers, bushy trees, and familiar hanging saplings. Lily felt an odd sense of joy at finally recognizing something.

“Emotional professionalism, sexual education, advanced reproductive education, things of that nature.”

Small birds flitted around the towering light-filled space, but Lily’s attention was drawn back to Ziri. Her voice had shifted, becoming tighter and reserved. Her features had hardened once again as well. Was that what she meant by emotional professionalism? Why? What was the point in hiding her sweet personality?

Lily became momentarily distracted when a handsome man clothed in a translucent fitted shirt approached them.

“Hello. Which floor is your appointment on today?”

“We’ve reserved pool seven and have rooms booked on each floor, but we may not be using them all. My companion would like to see a menu. She’s a newly immigrated off-worlder.”

The man grinned at Lily and bowed. “It’s my honor to assist such a lovely off-worlder. Welcome to Mithrandir.”

Lily smiled back. “Thank you.”

The man’s green brows rose.

“Her language is rare and not among the typical uploads.”

“Ah.” The man produced a small white pad from behind him and handed it to Ziri.

He eyed Lily up and down with more interest than she was comfortable with after learning about some of the services provided at the spa.

“Lead on,” Ziri demanded.

The man glanced to Ziri. His grin remained in place, but Lily could tell it had transformed from something genuine to something forced. She’d used smiles like that many times over when speaking to unhappy customers.

He nodded and led them through the artfully planted garden to the large green balcony she’d seen from above, only now Lily realized it wasn’t just green—it was in fact soft, spongy moss. This city sure liked to show off how much plant life it could grow in the desert. She remembered what Verakko had said about his people having a penchant for extravagance.

The man leading them opened his mouth to speak, but Ziri spoke first. “Two turys, please. Also, can you see if Hetta is available? Tell her Ziritha is asking for her.”

A surge of annoyance at the way Ziritha was treating this guy flared. Sure, he’d made her a little uncomfortable before when he’d ogled her, but he didn’t deserve the blunt tone. She shot him an apologetic smile, thinking he’d return it and leave, but he lingered, eyes glued to her.

Ziri looked over her shoulder and caught his stare. She stepped between them while Lily tried to work out what exactly was happening. “She’s new to this city, and her home culture is very different. She’s not interested in you.”

Lily held in a gasp, her cheeks growing hot. Was that what she’d made him think?

Disappointment dimmed his bright gaze as he nodded and turned to leave.

“What did I do? I don’t understand?”

Ziri motioned to a set of chairs, and her features softened into a smile. “You’ll learn. Smiling like that at an unfamiliar unmarried male, as an unmarried female, will give the impression you’re interested in him opening negotiations with you.”

Lily sunk into her chair, weighing her next words carefully so as not to offend. “The way you spoke to him seemed so cold. I was just trying to be nice.” She scrutinized Ziri’s warm, unguarded gaze. “Is that why you…change…when we’re not alone? Your personality, I mean?”

Ziri frowned in thought for a moment. “It’s how most females are taught to act with unfamiliar males. I’m more relaxed around males who know me, but when it comes to strangers, it’s better to be reserved. Lessens the chances of giving anyone false hope.”

Lily studied Ziri’s pinched expression and wondered if she didn’t dislike being “reserved.”

After the spa attendant had returned with two glasses of what Lily learned was the alcoholic wanget beverage Verakko had told her about, Ziri explained all the treatments she could choose from.

When their spa schedule was settled and full of couple’s treatments, since thankfully Ziri didn’t want to stray too far from her side, Lily began her interrogation. Questioning Ziri about marriage contracts, laws concerning broken contracts, the humans already found in Tremanta, and what Ziri expected to happen during her marriage to Verakko, if it occurred.

Lily made sure to keep her queries curious, as if she simply wanted to know what would happen if Verakko recognized her. Ziri’s enthusiastic responses made it clear to Lily that if she found out Verakko had already recognized her, Ziri would report his marks herself. Lily got the feeling Ziri would even consider revealing Verakko’s marks without their permission a favor.

Whenever Lily had hinted that not all humans would find the idea of being bound to a person they barely knew favorable, Ziri had repeated some variation of the phrase “But they’d be mated.” The idea of a human denying the bond appeared to be unthinkable to the future queen.

They talked until Lily had run out of questions to ask. As it turned out, Verakko had told her the truth about everything, including that he and Ziri barely knew each other. To Lily’s frustration, every question about Verakko she asked was met with uncertainty. Ziritha knew off the top of her head what grades he had and how willing he’d been to concede on certain things during their negotiation, but she hardly knew anything about his personality. His fears. The things he enjoyed. His sense of humor. How he could be a little bit cranky in the morning.

This woman, who’d be his wife, didn’t know Verakko at all. A smug heat radiated through Lily’s chest as she realized Verakko had let her see him in a way he hadn’t even let his future wife. It could very well be that Lily knew him better than anyone.

After an hour of conversation and many glasses of tury shared on the reflected, sunlit balcony, Ziri’s friend Hetta had also stopped by. Ziri explained that Lily was a hairstylist back on her home planet and was considering becoming one again.

The rest of the hour or so before their pool reservation was spent with Lily excitedly learning all she could about the glitter treatment from an enthusiastic Hetta, while Ziri sat sullenly translating.

“Can we please speak about something else? At this rate, I’ll never want a glitter coat again,” Ziri complained, a hint of a playful whine in her voice.

Hetta pursed her pouty maroon lips at Ziri. “Alright.” She focused on Lily again. “Think about which color you want for when I see you later, okay?”

Lily nodded with a wide grin, but she already knew what she wanted—her highlights returned and a gold glitter coat.

“Ziritha?” a deep male voice said from behind Hetta.

Lily noticed both women instinctively stiffen, their masks of indifference sliding into place. Lily tried and failed to do the same.

Hetta moved out of the way and revealed a muscled, tanned man who, with only a devilish grin and dark, piercing eyes, oozed charm. He wore a long white garment unbuttoned at the chest. On any other man, the getup might’ve looked feminine, but on his large frame it appeared fashionable and utterly masculine. The attendant leading him down to the pools peered between them. The handsome man quietly said something to the attendant and changed course, walking over to them instead.

Ziri turned, and Lily was surprised to see her features soften. “Fejo,” she exclaimed warmly. “I thought you’d already left yesterday.”

“The ship is ready and waiting in orbit, but you know I couldn’t join the crew until I visited the famed basins one more time. I’ll be hopping on a jumper tonight.” Fejo’s eyes slid to Lily, and he cocked his head, narrowing his eyes.

Lily smiled, then awkwardly scrunched her lips downward and turned away, recalling what Ziritha had said about interacting with men you weren’t familiar with.

“May I join you?” The curiosity in his voice made Lily stiffen.

Before she’d heard Ziri agree, a chair had been plopped down in front of them, and Fejo sat with one hand on his knee, staring curiously at her.

“Fejo,” Ziri warned. “She’s not available.”

Lily glanced up to him, forcing her gaze to remain stern.

He shot her a dashing crooked grin and lifted a dark brow. “Too bad. I’m fascinated by Earthlings.”

Lily’s head snapped to attention, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ziri’s do the same. “You know what I am?” She turned to Ziri, waiting for her to translate, but to her shock the man answered her.

“I do. I’m a Tremantian, you see. I met a delightful human earlier this year.” He donned an expression of utter misery and shook his head at her. “Alas, she was also unavailable. But tell me, gorgeous—” his roguish smile returned in a flash, and he leaned further toward her, “—who has snapped you up? Have you elicited some kind of special response in someone?” His eyebrows lifted suggestively. “I mean other than the obvious.”

Lily blushed and gave a what the fuck look to Ziri.

“Behave, Fejo,” she said while hiding her own grin. “What do you know about the humans?”

He reclined back into his chair with a mock sigh of resignation. “You know me, Ziri.” He slid his eyes toward her. “I know everything.”

“I’m sure.” Ziritha pursed her lips and took a small sip of her wine. “Wait!” she said, her eyes lighting up. She glanced over to Lily, lips pursed as though trying to think of how to say what she wanted to say. “Fejo knows him,” she said, not using Verakko’s name.

“Intriguing,” Fejo remarked, crossing an ankle over his knee.

“Your pool is ready,” came a voice from behind them.

Ziri held up a hand, indicating she’d heard the attendant who was now peering at Fejo with a frown. She leaned toward Lily. “He knows him well. He may be able to answer those questions that I couldn’t.”

Lily scrutinized Fejo. He lifted his brows, amused curiosity shining in his eyes.

“Will the male be joining you?” the attendant called from the edge of the balcony.

“Possibly,” Ziri replied without looking.

“I can only stay for a short while, but I’d be delighted to answer all your questions about…” he leaned forward with a lopsided grin, “Uzad? Bostu? Ooh, or maybe Matten? I know them all well.”

Lily glanced between them. “How do you two know each other?”

Ziri and Fejo exchanged meaningful looks, and Ziri gave a sad smile. “There’s a male I care about who’s worked with Fejo for a long time now.”

A tense moment of silence passed before Fejo said in a voice free of bravado or humor, “He’s doing well, Ziri. He wanted to visit, but…it wasn’t his turn. There wasn’t anything I could do.”

Ziritha nodded, schooling her features and taking a long drink.

“I’m a trader,” Fejo explained. “I travel between the planets that are a part of the alliance and transport goods. I just finished my Clecanian deliveries and am heading back out for short trip tonight.” He glanced sidelong at Ziri. “But then we’ll be back.”

“And you trust him?” Lily whispered to Ziri.

“Very much,” she said seriously.

Lily narrowed her eyes and stared hard, trying to see past his swagger. She’d let him hang around, but she’d make sure to be the one asking questions.


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