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Tempting Auzed: Chapter 17

Auzed scanned their section of the arena a final time before settling. While most of the stadium was near bursting with all manner of Clecanians, the area in which they’d been seated only had a few occupants.

“I didn’t realize this many people even existed in this city!” Alex commented while staring around the jam-packed arena. She looked lovely in the pale-purple ensemble he’d helped her select. The fabric shifted and flowed in time with her movements.

Unsurprisingly, their lap around the walkway circling the arena had been exhausting. The regents hadn’t pushed Alejandra to be out for long the past two days, content with a few hours here and there at the market tree, and now he understood why. It seemed as though every single Sauvenian and hordes of other Clecanians from different cities were at the games today. If Alex were to be recognized by someone, the regents had a pretty good shot of it happening here.

Alex took it in stride, politely greeting everyone who introduced themselves to her before moving on. But now things were different. He was different, and they were different. Even though their tryst was not meant to last, all the possessive instincts raging through him since the day they’d met now felt justified.

She had given herself to him, and if her sly hints were any indication, she would continue to seek him out for companionship and pleasure. She was his, for whatever time they had together. And his insides fumed at the looks the Sauvenians kept directing toward her.

Whereas before, he’d encouraged minimal touching in order to mimic a typical couple, he now found himself sliding his hand across her lower back whenever he got the opportunity. Her quick intakes of breath both encouraged him and calmed him. She liked his touch. The smiles she gave him were genuine. That was something he could hold on to when it felt like the itch to grab her and leave was too much.

They settled into their assigned area, and Auzed relaxed a bit. At least the regents had been kind enough to give them deluxe seats. In this section of the ring, spectators were placed much farther apart. Far enough that he wouldn’t be concerned about curious onlookers ruining Alex’s enjoyment of the game.

“What are these?” Alex asked, pointing down to the control pads hooked to the tables in front of them.

“It’s so you can control what you watch.” He activated her viewer and showed her how to navigate between the many cameras hovering around the playing area. “The contestants all compete at the same time. You can either watch from here, or you can scroll through different views. Often the cameras will focus on favored players.” With a few more flicks of his fingers, he brought up a different screen. “And this allows you to order any food or drink. Shall I pick something for us?”

Alex grinned and brushed her fingers over his knuckles. “You know me so well.”

Activity from behind them drew her attention, and she removed her hand. Auzed flexed his knuckles, the loss of her touch oddly distressing.

Under her breath, she mumbled, “Oh great.”

He turned and found the regents floating down the steps toward them. They were being followed by a hovering camera. The reason they’d been seated in such a nice area was now clear. A murmur swept through the crowd like a wave, then the frenzied chatter began. Alex was being filmed. Broadcast to the audience at large as if she were also part of the opening day festivities.

She must’ve realized the same, for she brushed a hand over her hair, smoothing it, and her warm expression hardened.

“Hello, Alejandra.” After a long moment, Queen Dasa added, “And Head Guard Auzed. How are you on this fine day?”

Since Auzed remained still, saying nothing, Alex spoke. “Great. Thanks for inviting us.”

The queen of Sauven was wrapped in an intricately knotted ivory gown today. It cinched against her body and created rolls of gauzy pale fabric. The knots grew more ornate as the fabric traveled down her tail.

The king’s outfit was drab in comparison. He’d chosen a loose-fitting cream tunic and sandy-brown pants, though his tail was wrapped and knotted in the same delicate fabric as the queens.

“We’ve had word that you’ve been exploring the city a bit. How are you enjoying Sauven so far? Is everyone treating you well?”

Alex’s mouth thinned almost imperceptibly. Zed felt a rush of warmth in his chest. Was he the only one who noticed it? Could he see changes in her mood that no one else could? Why did it also ache to think that might be true? It came as no shock when she began twirling that gold ring around her finger. Zed had to distract himself from the urge to force the regents and camera away. He busied himself with ordering food instead.

 “Yes. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the market tree, and I’m excited about whatever is going on here today.” Alex gestured to the empty air inside the enormous circle of seats.

“Marvelous,” King Bet intoned. “We have another surprise for you that should help elevate your mood even more.”

Zed tensed.

With a commanding wave of the king’s tail, an attendant near the entrance to their section ushered two females through the doorway. He recognized one of the females instantly. Daunet, a guard under his command. The other was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place her. The female gazed around with wide, sparkling blue eyes as though she’d never seen anything better.

Realization hit. Mm…something. What was her name again? She was human. One of the humans under his care at the Pearl Temple. If he remembered correctly, she was the female who talked incessantly about seeing the rest of Clecania. She was odd too. Not once had she bemoaned the fact that she’d been taken from Earth. Quite the opposite. She was overjoyed.

She’d been rescued from the same facility Jade, his sister-in-law, had been over six months ago. A tenacious little thing, she’d learned to read their language on her own in a matter of months and had combed the archives for information on each and every city, intent to travel this new world as soon as she was allowed.

As far as he knew, this was the first time she’d left Tremanta. But why? And how? Had she requested this visit? Or had the regents brought her here?

“We spoke with the Queen of Tremanta, and she thought you may want to spend some time with another human.” Queen Dasa waved the human female—Migs, was it?—through and gave them both a kind smile. The camera hovering overhead zoomed in on the two humans as they greeted each other. “This is Meg.”

As Meg and Alex clasped their hands together and moved them up and down, both their eyes continued to stray to the camera hovering nearby.

Auzed still couldn’t understand this. They’d allowed the Queen to send a human into the city though they weren’t on the best terms at the moment? As the camera hovered closer still, he understood. It made perfect sense. The downsides of doing the Queen of Tremanta a favor like this paled in comparison to the potential. Another unmated human female was now gliding through the trees of Sauven. Another opportunity for one of their citizens to recognize a mate. And another way in which they could legally steal an earthling away from the Queen who they believed to be hoarding humans.

The deep whistle of traditional Sauven woodwinds sounded from all around. He caught Alex’s uncomfortable gaze, and they both looked back to the regents, praying to the gods they wouldn’t be joining them.

“Enjoy the day one bout. I prefer the complexity of day two myself,” Queen Dasa said while taking the arm of the king and lifting her tail in farewell.

As soon as the regents and their camera were gone, Alex and Meg broke into excited chatter. True enthusiasm was visible in both their grinning faces, so Zed decided he’d give them privacy and instead rose to greet Daunet.

She was waiting by the exit and gave him a cursory glance as he approached. Was that judgment shining in her eyes? How much had they told her? Renewed annoyance surged in his gut. He’d allowed himself to forget his current predicament the past few hours, but now, face-to-face with one of his guards…it pushed through the semi-relaxed fog layer in his mind full force.

“Daunet.” He nodded, keeping his posture straight and his shoulders back.

“Sir.” She tilted her chin down respectfully.

There was an awkward pause before he found words to use that wouldn’t be out of place. “How are things running at the Temple? Who has taken up my post in the meantime?”

“Boriq, sir. They’re running well enough.” Her mouth twitched downward. “He gives the humans much more leeway. It’s causing disruption among the guards, in my opinion.”

And just like that, a weight was lifted. She was trying to tell him that Boriq, a senior guard he didn’t particularly like, was doing a poor job. She’d implied she preferred Zed’s leadership even now. Even with the rumors surely floating around the Temple that he’d broken multiple laws in another city.

Why was he continuing to drive himself crazy with guesses as to what rumors were being spread about him, though? “I’d like you to speak freely, Daunet. What are they saying about me back home?”

She shifted from side to side, and the corner of her mouth twitched down again. “Are you sure?”

The mere question was like stone through his veins. He tensed and nodded.

“Well, many—myself included—believe there was simply a misunderstanding, but others…” She took a deep breath. “They say you purposefully went off on your own during the search to find the human so you could claim her for yourself. They say you have a friend here who you colluded with. That’s why you were given leave from your duties and are staying with the female. To force more time alone together because supposedly that’s the way to make marks come out.” Half of Daunet’s face lifted in a wince. “They say you are trying to steal a female away as your father did.”

Zed, who so often clenched his jaw when angry, now found his chin had dropped. He’d expected outrage over his actual crimes, but never had he thought his own guards would think such things about him. Or his father. That he would intentionally deprive his fellow Tremantians the opportunity to meet a female because of his own selfish interests… How could they think that?

“I don’t believe a word of it,” Daunet said again, staring seriously into his eyes. “But maybe if you told me what happened, I could try to set the record straight back home.”

Controlled breaths in and out were the only thing keeping him from throwing a heavy chair over the railing. Finally, he deflated. “I don’t want you troubling yourself. If I haven’t proved myself an honorable male throughout all my years of service, both off-world and at the Temple, there is no way you’ll convince them with a relayed message. But know that none of what you told me is accurate.”

Her expression grew pinched, an argument still brewing in her throat.

“When I return, I’ll tell everyone what happened. For now…let them believe what they want.”

They continued talking for a while, but Auzed’s mind was only half aware of the conversation. Daunet was there to escort Meg around Sauven.

Auzed ambled back toward Alex and Meg, who were leaning close and speaking happily. He paused. Most of his guards had lost respect for him and not even for the reasons he’d assumed. Petty gossip and hearsay had taken the place of actual dishonorable behavior. And his father…

It was common knowledge his mother had pushed to remain with one male in accordance with her Traxian culture. It was a well-known fact. Yet now, in the wake of the last four days, they were doubting his father’s honor as well? Had they always believed his family to be duplicitous under their guise of respect? Or were their opinions so fickle they could so easily turn rotten?

If his reputation could be swayed within a matter of days, then why was he holding back at all? He could take what he wanted now and work to win their respect when he arrived home and made it clear he would not be marrying Alejandra. She wasn’t his for long, after all, so why not take advantage of her warmth while he could? Why continue to cling to codes of conduct he seemed to be the only one to care about?

He gazed at the soft brown waves falling over Alex’s shoulder and recalled how those curls had felt in his fist the night before. Why care? Why try? Especially when the alternative had proved so much more gratifying.


“How many of us are there?” Alex whispered.

Meg waved her hand. “Planet-wide? Who knows? But at the Temple, hmm, maybe two dozen or so?”

The woman was pretty in an odd sort of way. Her features were all exaggerated. Almost like she was a cartoon character. Her large lash-framed eyes were a startling shade of steely blue, and her lips were puffy and rosy but not very wide. With her short curly hair and pixie nose, Alex imagined her features would’ve been the ideal back in the 1920s. Yes. She could easily see her starring alongside Louise Brooks and Clara Bow.

Out of nowhere, she wondered if Auzed found Meg attractive. Chancing a glance over to him, she saw he was still talking with the woman who’d brought Meg. She was beautiful too and a Clecanian. How well did Auzed know that new woman?

When she glanced back, Meg was sweeping her gaze around the treetops. She sighed. “Isn’t it amazing here? I mean, Tremanta is incredible, but…wow…just wow.”

The look on her face was so peaceful. Like she’d just won the lottery and had not a care in the world. Alex could only hope she felt the same way in six months. Out of curiosity, she probed, “How did you get past the shock of it? When did you get over the fact that we can’t go home?” Since her emotional realization the other day, Alex had not been able to push the nagging depression to the back of her mind. She’d never see her family again. How could anyone get over something like that? How was she supposed to move on and live a normal life?

Her gaze slid to Auzed, and she bit her lip to keep her small smile at bay. He’d been helping, that was for sure. But she couldn’t go on forcing herself not to think about the bad stuff forever. One day soon, she’d need to actually come to terms with what her life would be. Despite her growing attachment to Auzzy, he was temporary. He had a life of his own. Her chest tightened at the idea of not seeing him every day.

Meg’s dark brows drew together, and she shrugged. “Honestly, I never had that stage. My life on Earth…well, it wasn’t the best. On top of that”—she bit her lip, and her eyes strayed toward the ground—“some things happened, and…”

Meg cleared her throat, and Alex wondered if there weren’t other women who might see their abductions as a sort of salvation. She covered Meg’s hand with her own and gave her an encouraging smile.

“Let’s just say being here and seeing all of this and knowing I’ll never have to worry about my past ever again…” Meg’s grin returned in full force, illuminating the pink undertones of her skin. “It’s a fresh start.”

A fresh start, huh? Alex leaned back in her seat and pondered that. Would she ever come to think of it that way? She’d been in a dark place back on Earth. Her parents were both dead, and she’d let her grief overtake her for far too long. Being here on this new planet had done something odd to her. Almost divorcing her from the realities of her life back home. She could imagine her life and her family on Earth, but there was so much distance.

It was like when they rebooted a movie with a new cast. The main character was generally the same. Had the same mannerisms for the most part. The same backstory. But they felt different. She wouldn’t call this opportunity a fresh start. But maybe she could think of it like a reboot. The ache she felt at the loss of her family that rang dull and constant in her chest would never go away but instead become part of her character.

For most of her life, Alex had clung to her comfort zone. Her hometown, family, and friends. She’d gone off to college for a few years, sure, but at the first opportunity, she’d jumped at the chance to move back home, where things were warm and safe and consistent. But then, after her parent’s death…all of that had changed.

If she wanted to make it here, she needed to change her ways. Glancing back toward Auzed, who was staring at her from a few feet away, she had a sudden tug of fear. Was she turning him into her safety net? Was his strong, unflinching demeanor something she’d gravitated toward because she liked him? Or because she wanted to feel protected again? What if something happened to him? What if he was taken away from her too soon?

The rich, sonorous sound of wood instruments echoed around them with more fanfare than they had the first time. The sound of thousands of people excitedly speaking at once built before mellowing.

 Across from them, one triangular section of stadium seating rose above the rest, jarring Alex away from her downward spiral.

Can our section rise too? Now that she thought about it, it was obvious the floating seating could move. Why wouldn’t it be able to? It wasn’t as if it were attached to the trees. She marveled at the realization all the same, and a flicker of the awe that lit Meg’s eyes every other moment reverberated through Alex.

Auzed settled into a seat next to her. His warm thigh brushed hers, though he had plenty of space to avoid it. She peered over to him and found his gaze soft and assessing. It seemed he was working through something as well.

“Who do you think that is?” Meg all but squealed while squinting and pointing to the raised section across from them.

Auzed leaned over Alex and used Meg’s control to bring up a close-up view. “Those are the regents, obviously,” he said, pointing to the king and queen standing and waving. “And this”—he pointed to a gorgeous pale-green woman with rose-colored hair—“is the bride.”

Both Meg and Alex shot confused glances toward Auzed.

“The marriage games have three rounds. Today the entrants will battle one another, and the half who remain will move on to tomorrow. The same occurs then. On the final day, the last fifteen or so males will race. The male with the highest score at the end marries the bride.”

Alex scrunched her brows toward the beaming woman on the screen. “And she’s okay with that?” It was clear the woman wasn’t unhappy. Alex couldn’t recall ever seeing a Clecanian woman showing that much emotion before, besides Relli when they were in private.

“Yes, she volunteers for it. It’s a great honor to win the games, and there are usually many females vying for the position of bride. They compete in games of their own throughout the year. If I remember correctly, the games are ancient and were played before we left our first planet. They’ve updated them, of course, to apply toward the current state of the world, but Sauvenians love them.”

As the woman posed and waved at the cheering crowd, Alex felt a flutter of anticipation herself. On the one hand it felt barbaric to “win a bride,” but on the other…why not? She was going to have to pick a guy anyway. Why not have fun with it?

An instrumental bellow deeper than the others sounded, and Alex had to blink at what appeared in the playing area.

“Is that…” Meg waved a hand at Alex, trying to tap her without tearing her gaze away from the sight before them. She missed slapping her in the face by a millimeter.

Alex brushed her away, giggled, and leaned forward.

A stream of maybe a hundred shirtless oiled-up men had flowed into the airfield all on their own transport platforms. The men, with their glistening muscles, hooted and shouted toward the bride, who batted her lashes and made a show of eyeing the men.

“What exactly do they do in this bout?” Alex asked, attempting to pick out Gosten among the sea of bulky Sauven men.

“They fight, trying to knock each other off their boards and into the netting below. The last half to remain move on.”

Meg released a small squeak, then an incredulous chuckle. “They fight like that? With their bare hands?”

“Out of all of them, only one will win? ‘There can only be one?’” Alex said in her best impression of Sean Connery.

“There are five winners, but only one gets a bride. The rest have points added to their husbandry-school scores. It allows them to stand out and be more desirable during the Sauven marriage ceremony.”

A high-pitched flute sounded, and the men began stretching and eyeing each other. Their joyful calls grew silent.

“Look, there’s Gosten!” Alex turned to Auzed and pointed down into the crowd.

Her smile faltered when she noticed the fire in Auzed’s gaze. He’d caught how enraptured she was by the brutish spectacle about to unfold before them. In a move that left no room for analysis, he placed his large palm possessively over her upper thigh. Her body began to vibrate all over.

Finger still hanging in the air and pointing, she eyed his hand as he reclined and looked on in dark silence. He didn’t move his palm or squeeze her thigh, he just left it there. Scalding and heavy.

Clearing her throat, she turned back to the game.

Meg, who missed nothing, leaned over and whispered, “Damn.”

Alex mouthed, I know, and widened her eyes.

Meg shot a pointed glance toward his hand resting on her leg, then tilted her head and pursed her lips in a look that seemed to say, “I don’t hate it, though.”

Alex had to agree.

Her attention was torn away when a second flute sound whistled through the stadium, and all hell broke loose. Slamming fists, flashing tails, elbows. It was difficult to make out what was happening, but here and there men let out cries and tumbled from their floating platforms.

She pointed out Gosten to Meg. “We’re rooting for him!”

They cheered and clapped, getting into the frenzied excitement of the game and doing their best to pretend like the floating camera nearby wasn’t broadcasting them to the whole stadium. Both on the edge of their seats, they watched in awe as one burly man grappled with five others, jumping over tail swipes and landing smoothly back on his board.

They both inhaled sharp gasps when the man crouched, gripped his board, and spun upside-down one hundred eighty degrees, surprising his attacker with a kick to his shins. At some point in the madness, the food Auzed had ordered arrived. He passed around drinks while Alex and Meg booed the men hovering near the sidelines, attempting to squeak through without fighting at all.

Gosten, Alex realized, was a formidable opponent. As she and Meg watched, enraptured, he sped toward a chartreuse man who’d been excelling by playing dirty—sneaking up behind players, hooking his tail around their ankles, and then speeding away. After a few minutes of sparring, Gosten roared, startling the other man momentarily. Before he recovered, Gosten lifted his tree-trunk thigh and kicked the chartreuse man square in the chest, knocking him off his board.

Meg and Alex looked at each other with dropped jaws half curled in exuberant smiles. Without any prompt, they both yelled, “‘This is Sparta!’”

Alex actually choked out a sob then. Something about the shared knowledge filled her chest with painful happiness. “You know movies,” she croaked in a weak voice.

“Yeah, girl!”

Alex turned to Auzed wordlessly and saw he was heckling one of the players himself, tracking their movements on the screen in front of him. He threw his fist in the air while muttering something about underhanded play. The muscles bulged under his white shirt, and she ogled him.

“I don’t know about you,” Meg whispered while eying the savage opponent who’d flipped his own board, “but this ridiculousness is making my weakness for himbos flare up real bad.” She bit her lip and watched as the man made a show of lifting a struggling guy bodily, raising him over his head, and tossing him away with a bellow.

“Salud!” Alex shouted and raised her glass, letting the light, joyful comradery of watching a sporting event with new friends wash over her. Things were okay. She’d be okay. And no matter what her future held—whether in Sauven or Tremanta or somewhere else, with Auzed or without—there would still be shining moments of levity and happiness. Moments when her future seemed bright.


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