Saving Verakko: Chapter 23

“Verakko!” Fejo barked, the deep rumble of his chuckle vibrating the water around his chest.

After Lily had agreed to let Fejo join them, they’d traveled to the lowest level of the old city, changed into their bathing clothes—which were really just stretchy opaque slips—and headed outside to the natural hot spring pools dotting the floor of the Well.

Each pool had swathes of colorful fabric draped over them, creating private tents. Their pool, number seven, was positioned far away from the rest, ensuring a modicum more privacy.

“Why are you laughing?” Lily asked, sipping on her tury.

“Just the idea of that morose, unfriendly male being lucky enough to be engaged to you and potentially mated to you.” He laughed, shaking his head incredulously and gesturing between Ziri and Lily. “Am I missing something, or have females all of a sudden started to prefer males with low communications scores?” To himself, he muttered, “Gotta remember that at the next Ceremony.”

Lily and Ziritha looked at each other, then back to him, their confusion clear.

“Jade,” he said, gulping his dark-green beverage so unlike the bubbly pink liquid in their glasses. “Jade is mated to one of the most temperamental males I’ve ever met. And I believe she loves the brute.” He lifted his shoulders in exasperation. “I can’t get a female to marry me, but two sullen Clecanians have humans fawning over them?”

Fejo’s relentless charm faded, and Lily thought she saw true envy etched in his features.

Ziri must’ve seen the same because she said, “Maybe you’ll have more luck this year. You’re participating in a few months, right?”

“My happy ceremony day will be upon me again in three short months, not that anything will come of it other than some fun during the testing phase. I have that cross-universe trip scheduled right afterward. No female is going to choose to marry me knowing that.”

“Humans might choose to partake in the Ceremony. You never know. There could be a human interested in space travel.” She glanced at Lily. “Do you think humans would view Fejo as attractive?”

Lily snorted at the ridiculousness of the question. “Yes,” she quickly confirmed, seeing the uncertainty that suddenly glinted in his eyes.

 “See?” Ziri said.

Fejo grunted and focused on Lily, changing the subject. “What do you want to know about him?”

“Does he lie a lot? He failed to mention Ziri to me in the forest, and I can’t decide if it was an abnormality or if he lies often.” Lily had made sure to describe only the bare minimum about the time she’d spent with Verakko, and she’d also chosen to keep Alex’s existence private.

“Yes and no.” He smiled. “It’s in character for him to only say what he must to the people around him. Always thinking he’s the smartest person in the room and everyone else is just there to mess things up. I could see him thinking he knew best. But he isn’t a dishonorable male.”

“How do you know him so well?”

Fejo shrugged. “Well, I know him, but we aren’t close. My father used to bring me to Mithrandir often. He was friends with Verakko’s father. They’d force us to play together.” Fejo rolled his eyes. “All Verakko would ever do was tinker with these little electronics.”

Lily smiled to herself as the image of Verakko doing the exact same thing that morning popped into her head.

“Has he recognized you as a potential mate?” Fejo questioned, draping his large arms over the edge of the pool.

“No,” she lied, making sure to school her features. She’d never been the best liar.

Fejo tilted his head and narrowed his eyes on her. Lily’s heart pounded furiously, waiting to see if he’d caught on. His gaze slid to Ziri, who was distracted by a small piece of moss floating in the water, then back to her. Her nerves calmed when his features relaxed once again, and he took another sip of his drink.

“Too bad,” Ziri said, flicking the moss out of their pool. “It would’ve been easy to claim you as his mivassi if the initial recognition had happened.”

An electric zing shot through her body, now at full attention. “What do you mean ‘claim me as his mivassi’?” She leaned forward in the water, eagerly glancing between her two pool mates. “He calls me that. Mivassi.”

Ziri’s lips curled into a knowing smile. “He does?”

Lily grunted impatiently. “What does it mean? In my ear it translates as alternative, but he told me that’s not right.”

Fejo and Ziri glanced at each other, both smiling. “Technically the translation is ‘my alternative,’” Ziri explained. “It’s a very common, but also very outdated, clause in most marriage contracts.”

Lily slid forward in the steaming water, perched at the edge of her bench.

“The mivassi clause is meant for those times when someone already under contract recognizes a mate. Although it hasn’t happened in…I don’t even know how long. You were supposed to go to the queen or king at that time with your prospective partner and claim them as your mivassi, your alternative to your current wife or husband. If there was enough evidence to show that you could be mated, either marks or an account that your eyes had changed, your contract was voided without penalty.”

Lily took in what she heard and recalled when he’d first called her the name. He’d told her from the beginning he’d thought she could be his mate. Did the use of that pet name confirm it? Her heart hammered in her chest. “Is it a common term of endearment here in Mithrandir?” she asked, wondering if it could be the equivalent of “baby” or “honey,” although their surprised expressions told her differently.

“No.” Ziri laughed. “It’s a legalese term. I’ve never heard it used like that before. No wonder you found it strange.” She raised her delicate brows high, creating deep lines in her normally perfect forehead. “And after you learned about me? Ooh, that translation must’ve been infuriating, especially if he didn’t take the time to explain it.”

Fejo shot them both an odd look. “I know why he used it.”

“You do?” Ziri said, puzzled.

“You remember Yerew and Vik?” he asked Ziri, making Lily’s irritation spike. I’m the one who needs to hear about it. Focus!

Ziri shrugged noncommittally. “I remember stories about them. Did you know them?”

“I met them once or twice when—”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” Lily interrupted rudely, “but who are they?”

Fejo grinned at her brusque tone. “They were his aunts. Great aunts, I think.”

Ziri peered up to the pale fabric of their tent ceiling thoughtfully. “People used to tell stories about them; I don’t really remember them, though. Only that they were mated. The last couple to get marks in Mithrandir, right?”

“Yes.” Fejo nodded. “Yerew was Verakko’s father’s aunt. She was a clothier in the garment district. One day she met Vik, and they recognized each other. They knew immediately that they were mates, but their marks didn’t appear, and Vik was in the middle of her marriage. She pored over her contract for days, looking for a loophole, until finally she found the old mivassi clause.”

“Usually marks don’t take long to appear after the initial recognition, you see,” Ziri added. “So the mivassi clause was really just a relic. Thrown in for the rarest of scenarios.”

“Good thing it was.” Fejo grinned. “Vik took Yerew to the Queen at that time and claimed her as her mivassi. The Queen agreed and voided her contract, but even after that their marks didn’t appear for a full year after the initial recognition. I only met them twice near the end of their lives—they were ancient at that point, hundreds of years old. But I remember it. As a loving joke, Vik always called Yerew her pesky mivassi.”

Lily’s throat constricted, and tears welled. “Why wouldn’t he tell me that?” she choked out.

“I don’t know.”

Lily thought about it, and her heart pinched. She knew why. If he’d explained the name in the woods, he would’ve had to admit he was engaged. How else would he have been able to explain the application of such a specific word to her?

Although it seemed like ages ago, it’d been less than a day since he’d taken her back to his home. He’d had so many other things to explain. When would he have had the time to explain the nickname?

 “Couldn’t he claim me as his mivassi now to get out of his contract?” Lily asked, glancing between Ziri and Fejo.

“Not without evidence. That’s why I said it’s too bad his eyes haven’t changed.” Giving her a sympathetic grin, Ziri shrugged. “If that happened, you’d be considered mates, and this would all be resolved.”

Lily’s shoulders slumped. Not a loophole for her. She still needed to give Verakko an answer. She sipped her drink in silence.

“Well, I hope he recognizes you soon.” Fejo winked. “It’s clear how much you love him.”

Lily froze, mouthing at Fejo like a fish. Love?

“That’s crazy. I’ve only known him for a few days. I don’t… I mean, I can’t already… I don’t love him.” Lily’s voice rose progressively higher as she babbled.

Do I?


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