Saving Verakko: Chapter 8


Two hours later, and Verakko still hadn’t returned. Lily peered through the leaves to the sky and silently promised if he wasn’t back by the time beta moon—as she’d started calling the smaller of the two moons—disappeared from sight, she’d go search for him herself.

Lily topped off her last canteen with the water she’d spent hours purifying and huddled closer to the fire. The morning and afternoon had been hot, but the gray clouds from earlier had brought in a cold front and what she expected was the warning sign of a storm.

Where are you, Alex? Lily hated to think about it, but maybe it was time to give up her solo search. She should at least talk to Verakko about it.

Guilt swamped her again. She drew her knees into her chest and shivered in her damp clothes. The mere thought of giving up on Alex sat like a leaden weight in her gut. How could she even consider it? What if Alex was waiting and injured only a day’s hike away and Verakko convinced her to turn back and head toward the people he’d mentioned before?

Tears leaked down her cheeks. Her chest expanded and the pressure begged to be released with a sob, but she held it in. Shudders wracked her body despite the warmth of the fire. No matter what she chose, it’d end up being the wrong decision.

She should send Verakko away. That way, one of them could continue on while the other went for help. Lily thought back to her week alone and wondered if she had the courage to do it again. I’m such a coward.

The sound of rustling echoed behind her, and she quickly wiped away her tears. She kept her eyes trained on the fire and worked to compose herself. In. Out. In. Out.

Verakko stood in front of her for a moment, then lowered his spear in front of her eyeline. She just about burst into tears again. Meat.

A huge chunk of rust-colored meat, already skinned and cleaned, was skewered on his spear. She shot to standing and took in the devastating grin on his face. His chest puffed out with pride. Then his keen eyes scanned her face, and his grin fell.

She tried to look away and inject her words with a lightness she didn’t feel. “This is amazing. Thank you! I—”

He propped the spear on a nearby tree and took her face in his hands, forcing her gaze to his. Her chest tightened, and she cursed how close she was to crying again.

Choking back a sob, she plastered on a smile. “I’m fine. Really. Just had some smoke in my eyes. Sitting too close to the fire.” Another tear leaked out. His thumb brushed it away.

Verakko’s forehead creased as though he were the one in pain. “I can help if you allow it.”

Lily sighed and held on to his wrists. Half of her wanted to tug his hands away. The other half ached to accept the comfort his warm palms on her cheek provided. “What do you mean?”

“I can sway you. Use my voice to help. If you open yourself up to it, I can convince you to let this guilt go.”

She recalled the way he’d calmed her with his words earlier in the day. How much easier would it be to simply not care anymore? Lily shook her head as much as she could between his large palms and sniffed. “That isn’t the answer. It’d be wrong.”

His lips thinned. Just when she felt he would argue, he pulled her in close and wrapped his arms around her, enveloping her in his warmth. She remained stiff for only a breath before relaxing into his embrace. The low, rattling purr she’d heard that morning vibrated through his chest again, but he didn’t try to quell it. The rumble against her cheek and the soft crackle of the fire soothed her.

They stood there in silence for a while before Lily finally pulled away. Verakko’s arms tightened around her, and for a moment she thought he might not let her go. But then he did.

“What did you catch?” she asked, her voice strong once more.

His eyes tracked her as she examined the meat. “A hougap.”

Plastering a smile on her face, she clapped her hands together. “Hougap feast it is.”

Before long, they’d built a rudimentary stone stove top over the fire and were waiting for their thin strips of meat to brown. Lily’s stomach would not stop rumbling.

“It smells great,” she said inanely.

Verakko nodded. He’d been watching her in a way that heated her to the core despite the chilled night air. “I’ve had hougap a few times before. Mostly on trips to Sauven.”

“Sauven?”

“A town downriver.”

He now had her full attention. “Is it close? Do you think Alex might’ve made it there?”

Verakko casually flipped the pieces of meat on the stone before answering. “If we are where I think we are, the river will split in two before too long. One branch leads to Sauven, deep in the forest, and the other leads to another city.”

Ice slid down her spine. Two cities. Two options. What if I choose wrong? “I’ll have to see which direction seems like the one Alex would’ve picked when we get there.” She drew her knees to her chin and gazed at the sizzling pieces of meat again.

“Who is Davy Crockett?”

Davy Crockett? Lily blinked at Verakko’s thinned lips and tight jaw. Then realization dawned on her. She hid a smirk. “King of the wild frontier. Why do you ask?”

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “His name came to your lips so readily. I was curious.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “Maybe he’s the one you dream about at night?”

“Excuse me?” Lily had been having crazy dreams lately. Did Verakko somehow know?

“You make noises in your sleep, and you put off scents. Sometimes fear, other times”—his eyes glowed brighter in the darkness—“other smells.”

Her entire body heated with embarrassment. “We were having a nice night. Why do you have to say stuff like that? Do you like to make me uncomfortable?”

Verakko shrugged and fiddled with the strips of meat, now brick red. “I prefer your face flushed, not pallid.”

Warm coals glowed in her belly. Was he trying to distract her from her worry?

She swallowed. “Davy Crockett is an old folk hero. His was the first name that popped into my head. That’s all.”

“Folk hero?”

“Yeah. A person who existed a while ago, and their life has become something of a legend. Usually super-exaggerated. Davy Crockett was a frontiersman. I think there’s a story about him fighting off a bear when he was three.” At Verakko’s confused look, she explained, “An enormous animal very unlikely to be fought off by a grown man, let alone a three-year-old.”

Verakko gave a grunt, then replaced the cooked meat with raw and held out a leaf to Lily. She took the green plate and peered down at the arrangement with a raised brow. Thin slices of wanget fruit were fanned out around a pile of guren nuts and neatly arranged strips of meat. If she focused on only her plate, she might’ve been able to pretend she was in a trendy restaurant in Portland.

Lily lifted a piece of meat to her lips and hesitated.

“What’s the matter?” She found Verakko’s eyes on her again, a twinge of annoyance lacing his voice.

“Nothing. I just haven’t eaten meat for a while. I’m normally vegetarian. I mean, I love meat. I’ve hunted for most of my life, but when I hunt, I make sure the animal has a good death and no part of it is wasted. You can’t be sure of those things in the city, so vegetarian it is. I also feel a little bad that the animal is so large. I’m worried the meat will go bad before we can eat it all,” she rambled.

The muscle twitched in Verakko’s jaw again, and Lily inwardly cursed. She didn’t want him to think she was ungrateful.

“I killed it quickly. It felt no pain.” Verakko loaded his leaf with a pile of cooked meat, a little more raw than she would’ve liked. “And as for the quantity, I assure you, I’ll finish whatever you don’t eat.”

Lily eyed his large exposed biceps. He must eat a ton to keep up that physique.

Without another word, she popped the piece of bright red meat in her mouth and failed to stifle a moan. The texture was warm and buttery, and the flavor was mildly salty. God, I missed steak.

Her stomach gave a painful clench, and all at once, her hunger hit her. Not caring that she likely looked like a starving dog, she shoveled the meat into her mouth, chewing so quickly she grew dizzy from lack of breath.

When her stomach was full of the delicious meat, fruit, and nuts, which tasted surprisingly similar to a bitter chocolate, Lily reclined onto the soft fallen leaves and stretched. The protein was like a shock to her system, lifting her mental fog and raising her spirits.

She closed her eyes and listened to the humming of the forest. The sounds were so similar yet so different from the white noise playlist that put her to sleep every night on Earth. The chorus of buzzing and chirping from unfamiliar creatures, mixed with the soft rustling of the leaves in the wind, had been her lullaby for as long as she could remember. As an adult, it was the only remnant of her bone-deep ties to nature.

“And you were worried about having too much left over?” came Verakko’s satin voice from across the fire. He was still working on his food, eating it slowly rather than inhaling it, and had a curiously satisfied look on his face.

She wondered with a passing thought how unattractive she must appear but then promptly decided not to care. There may be grease on her chin and stains on her white shirt, but she was full and relaxed for the first time in weeks. And it was all because of him.

A slimy feeling of guilt that had been wriggling around her mind all day returned. “Verakko, I need to say something.”

He shot her a curious look and nodded.

“What I said before…when I said I didn’t want you here… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’m grateful you’re here, and not just because you caught us some food. It was…” Lily’s voice caught in her throat, and she swallowed before continuing. “It was really hard being alone.” She held his gaze, hoping he could see her sincerity. “I’ve been struggling with a lot, and I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

Verakko silently held her gaze for a moment. “I know. You don’t need to apologize.” He said with a crooked smile. “I was trying to rile you up anyway. I shouldn’t have.”

Relief washed over her, and she let out a chuckle, shaking her head. “Well, you succeeded. When you told me you could smell my…” Lily’s face flamed as she realized what she was saying. Why would she bring up the fact that she’d gotten aroused and that he’d smelled it? Not the time, Lily!

Verakko’s gaze on her darkened, nostrils flaring. His tongue, slightly more pointed than a human tongue, ran across his full lower lip. Lily’s heart picked up speed, and she darted her gaze around the camp, looking for any way to redirect the conversation.

“Let’s play a game,” she blurted, hastily clearing the leaves in front of her. With a stick, she drew a rudimentary checker board.

Verakko popped some meat into his mouth and followed the progress of the stick skeptically. “What game?”

Lily rolled her eyes at his suspicious tone. “It’s not like I’m asking you to play Russian roulette. It’s just checkers. It’s a board game I used to play with my dad when we had free time.”

She collected a pile of husks she’d discarded after cracking the guren and instructed Verakko to break up a twig into twelve small pieces.

Lily explained the rules of the game to a comically serious Verakko. Then made the first move. He stared at the hand-drawn board like it was a the most complex strategy game he’d ever encountered. She bit her lip to keep from laughing. Someone is competitive.

“My mom hated checkers,” Lily mused while Verakko continued to concentrate on the board. “She said it was the poor man’s chess.” He reached out to move a piece, but then froze and pulled his hand back. “It’s not like we could’ve found chess pieces in the forest, though, right?”

Verakko glanced up at her briefly, irritation clear in his glowing eyes. “You’re trying to distract me.”

Lily cocked her head and pursed her lips at him. “No, I’m making small talk while I lose a year of my life waiting for you to make a move.”

The corner of Verakko’s mouth twitched upward, and he moved a piece. “Do you miss your parents?”

“In a way I do. But we weren’t very close.” They took their turns as they talked, a pleasant ease settling between them. “Despite what you’ve told me, I’m still holding out hope I’ll be able to see them again one day.”

Verakko stilled while placing a stick segment in an unwise square and leveled a somewhat confused look at her. He frowned, and his eyes glimmered with pity.

Lily chuckled. “You’re so quick to assume things will never change, I see. You said a Class 4 planet is labeled Class 4 because they haven’t traveled far enough into space yet. Well—” she looked down at herself pointedly, “—I’d argue that if enough human women are found on your planet, that means a good many of us have traveled into space. And even if that isn’t enough, who knows…” Lily shrugged. “I mean, if me sitting on this planet playing—” she moved her piece hopping over two of Verakko’s, “—and winning checkers against a blue alien I’m somehow the same species as isn’t proof that anything is possible, I don’t know what is. Also, if we are the same species, then shouldn’t we technically be classified the same?”

Verakko’s furrowed brows softened a tad, and a thoughtful smile curled his lips. He stared at her like he was admiring a beguiling painting, the meaning behind which he couldn’t quite articulate.

Lily’s face heated, and she glanced away. She moved a piece into place, forcing Verakko to jump it and leaving her goal spot open for the taking. “King me!”

Verakko muttered something under his breath and topped her bit of husk with another.

“What about your family? Do you see them much now that you live in another city?”

“I used to see my father often, but he died a few years ago, and my mother is very busy.”

Lily’s heart clenched at the brief wince she saw on his face. “I’m so sorry. How did he die, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“He chose it, in a way. Most Clecanians take a medication known as the elixir. It extends our lives many years past what’s otherwise natural, but a few people choose not to take it. He wanted to live in the way he believed the Goddess intended and let nature take its course.”

Lily remained silent, not sure what to say. Although her heart ached for him, Verakko seemed more or less at peace with it.

“Queen me!” he exclaimed, grinning and revealing his even white teeth and fangs.

“It’s ‘king me,’” Lily corrected, laying another small stick next to his piece.

“Not in my city.” He shook his head and stared at her again, his playful gaze settling on her lips.

She focused on her next move and attempted to quell the butterflies in her belly.

“We have a figure like your Crockett,” he said suddenly.

Lily glanced up and found him still watching her. “Oh yeah?”

“Daera.” He nodded. “When the city was first settled, she explored the desert, taking note of the plants and animals she found. There are many tales about her, but at the end of her life, it’s said she wandered so far that she found the crystal mountains at the edge of the desert. The sight was so beautiful that she knew she wanted to rest there forever. She begged the Goddess to protect her body so she could always see the mountains, then she covered herself in a shroud and laid down to sleep. When a Swadaeth finally found her, he said it looked as if a thousand lightning bolts had hit, burning the sand and encasing her in glass, perfectly preserved forever, facing the mountains.”

“Wow,” Lily remarked, resting her head in her hand. “Have you ever been there?”

“Like you said, she was a real person yet most of her story was embellished. I’ve been there, though. Many times.” Verakko chewed on the last pieces of meat while they sat and took their turns before continuing. “That place is where we bury our citizens. Of course, they’re not buried in glass like Daera, but once a year during the storm season, we visit the graves of all those who’ve died and use metal rods to attract lightning. It’s said that if the soul of the person has moved on, lightning will hit and create a glass grave marker. If not, we try again the following year. My father’s grave was struck last year.”

“He’s moved on?”

Verakko smiled and shrugged. “If you believe the legend.” His gaze turned serious, and he pointed down to the board. “I think you’re letting me win, and I won’t have it.”

Lily’s face broke out into a grin. “I assure you, I’m only letting you think you’re going to win.” She moved her piece. “And when I win,” she said, watching him fall into her trap, “I have a question for you.”

“Another question?” He sighed sarcastically.

Lily used her king to jump Verakko’s remaining pieces and smothered a cocky grin while he scowled. “Yes. Another question.”

Verakko crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against a tree. He popped a few nuts in his mouth and leveled his annoyed gaze at her, waving impatiently to indicate she should ask her question.

“What is sway?”

Verakko’s eyes darted, and his jaw began to work slower than it had before.

Is he trying to think of a lie?

“It’s what I do when you say I’m messing with your head,” he said finally, after swallowing.

Lily rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I figured as much, but how does it work? Mind control is just so…alien.”

“It’s not mind control. It’s difficult to explain, but I can’t make you think anything I want. I can only push you to think of something you already have.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Verakko let out a sound of exasperation and peered up at the sky in thought. After a moment, he said, “I can’t, for example, sway you to take off all your clothes right now because that’s likely not a thought that crossed your mind. If I tried to sway you to do that, it would ring untrue, and you’d discard it. But if I swayed you to go to sleep, it might work, because you’re tired and may have already thought about going to sleep.”

Lily wondered if there wasn’t a small part of her that wanted to take off all her clothes. Verakko was incredibly sexy. She couldn’t deny it. And although he was a bit temperamental and irritating beyond compare, he’d held her when she’d cried and tried his best to take care of her. He’d made her a delicious meal, done all the heavy lifting, built the fire and, most importantly, she realized, he hadn’t complained about what they were doing. He hadn’t tried to convince her to go back or to give up on Alex. He’d supported her, as if knowing this was something she needed to do.

Lily recalled the feeling she’d had when she’d allowed his sway in earlier that day, and warmth dripped down her scalp, making her shiver and grow hot at the same time. “Why don’t you try now?” She had to stop herself from making her voice a purr.

He stared at her, and the bright peridot of his eyes darkened a touch. The veins in his corded forearms bulged. “Try what?”

For a moment she considered asking him to try to get her clothes off, but then her senses returned to her. “To sway me. I’m curious about it. I want to know how it feels so I know how to shake it off.” Not a complete lie.

“It doesn’t work on everyone. The calmer you are, the harder it is. It’s easiest when a person is emotional or distressed. When their mind is distracted. The more intelligent a person is, the harder it is to sway them as well.”

“I bet you could do it.”

“You, my little anomaly, have been able to brush off my sway every time I’ve attempted it.” Verakko snorted. “I think it may have something to do with the fact that you’re human.” He shot her a sidelong glance. “Or possibly your stubbornness.”

Lily chose to ignore his jab. “You were able to sway me earlier today, though.”

“I’m pretty sure you let me, and you were very upset at the time.” Verakko held her gaze, sincerity shining in his eyes. “I meant what I said before. Sometimes I can’t help it. It just comes out.”

Lily considered that. “I believe you,” she said slowly.

Verakko’s tense shoulders relaxed a fraction.

“But I still want to try it.” Lily shifted onto her knees and inched through the checkerboard before settling in front of him. “Give it your best shot.”

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