Tempting Auzed: Chapter 25


The light glowing from the ceiling in the nest hallway told him it was morning, but it might as well have been the middle of the night. The passing of time no longer felt normal.

His eyes were swollen and itchy as he stared at her door, working up the courage to hand her the container she’d need to pack up her things. They were scheduled to leave soon. Back to Tremanta. Back to isolation.

Should he knock? His fists clenched around the soft packing cube. He could just barge in and drop the cube onto the floor. He’d be in and out before she had a chance to say anything, which was preferable. He didn’t feel capable of listening to her voice at the moment.

He hadn’t slept a wink. Only tossed and turned until his skin was sore from the friction. His boiling rage would occasionally settle into a sour gurgle, but the pain constricting his throat melded with the fury. It was easier to be angry.

He held on to it for dear life, knowing when the anger subsided, only grief and crushing loss would remain in its place. The worst part of all was that he understood where Alex was coming from. She’d been abducted. Had had her whole life ripped from her. It made sense that she felt an obligation to return home to her family. Her career. Yet he couldn’t stop the bitter jealousy from invading his mind.

It was selfish and arrogant to a sickening degree, but the knowledge that he wasn’t more important to her than anyone or anything else tore at him. More so because she was the most important thing to him.

Bile rose in his throat. The most important person, and yet he’d hurt her. The look of anguish on her tear-streaked face from the night before flashed in his mind.

Her accusations of his hesitancy to quit his job and be with her came back to him. She hadn’t been wrong about that either. But somehow being the one who was confused, the one who needed to make the call about whether or not they could be together had been preferable to this. At least when it’d been his decision to make, his career to sacrifice, his reputation to tarnish, he’d had control. Now he was powerless. If the laws changed and she was allowed to go back to Earth, he couldn’t stop her. Not legally anyway.

His baser half, the half that was currently reveling in his emotional turbulence, locked on to that idea. He had money. He had knowledge. Hell, he could pilot a small ship and take her off-world if he really wanted to. Settle on some barren planet and hope she’d come to accept it over the years. But he’d never do it. She’d hate me, and I’d hate myself.

Steeling himself, he pushed her door open without knocking, praying to the Goddess that she’d be asleep. His breath whooshed out of him when her puffy, bloodshot eyes met his. She sat on the bed, stroking Wilson, who was curled in her lap and whose flattened ears and droopy eyes made her look just as tormented as Alex.

Her gaze widened and brimmed with tears as he walked in. His whole body clenched in an effort not to cross to her and pull her into his arms. He dropped the cube onto the ground. “Pack your things. We need to leave within the hour.” His voice sounded strained to his own ears.

Her mouth parted, but before she could speak, he bolted through the door, like a coward. His chest rose and fell, not able to take in enough air.

***

Alex choked back her sobs as she packed up her few belongings, mostly clothing. Remorse and shame had battered her until she felt lower than dirt. She knew that everything she’d said was perfectly reasonable, but she couldn’t help feeling guilty for the part she’d played in this situation. Auzed had made some fair points. If she’d held back instead of flirting and pushing, none of this would’ve happened.

She’d treated him like a boyfriend on a planet where boyfriends didn’t work. And though she hadn’t been plotting her escape back to Earth like some mustache-twirling villain set on breaking him, she couldn’t deny that leaving was her goal. Not because she didn’t want to stay. She did. The urge to remain on Clecania and forget everything else was so strong, she almost wondered if she could do it. Almost.

It wasn’t just the pull of her family and all the things she loved back on Earth that kept her from agreeing to be with him, though. It was also this world. A cowardly part of her didn’t know if she could handle being a demskiv. And what if he grew to resent their life together?

What if he didn’t? How could she ever have a child with him here? Could she watch their child be subjected to the demands of this place? Watch her little boy go to husbandry school or her little girl grow reserved and distant the way they’d teach her to be? She’d always imagined her children surrounded by love and family.

She’d only known Auzed for a week, and though she trusted her feelings toward him, she also knew intensity like this often fizzled out over time. Going back was the safest option. And if she planned to go back at all, she couldn’t spend any more time leading him on.

Hefting the cube stuffed with clothing, she waited for Wilson to hop on her shoulders, then took a deep breath. When she lowered to the first floor, she spotted Auzed already waiting on the porch, arms crossed over his chest and shoulders bunched up to his ears.

A piece of pink bread waited for her on the counter, and her chin wobbled. She clenched her jaw to stop it, then joined him. Her stomach was in too much chaos to eat anyway.

“Meg and Daunet will be arriving shortly. They went to retrieve a cruiser from the sky stop.”

She didn’t know what a “cruiser” or a “sky stop” were and couldn’t bring herself to care. His expression was hard again. Impassive and stony. No emotion, good or bad, lit his eyes, and his voice was professional…civil. Was he trying to act like nothing was wrong? Or was he simply trying to become the man she’d met a week ago? The man who didn’t let silly emotion dictate his attitude or his choices.

She held in a sigh. She supposed it was for the best. He’d had years of practice feeling nothing and remaining distant. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for him to revert to a normal life. Alex would never go back to normal. She’d think about Auzed every single day of her life and what could’ve been. Wilson nuzzled her head under Alex’s chin, and her little claws tightened around her messy braid.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed people floating toward them, but neither Meg nor Daunet were among the group. Ice sluiced down her spine. Fierad led. The king traveled behind, flanked by two soldiers. And there was one other person…Relli?

“What do they want?” she whispered to Auzed.

He stared in the direction of the quickly approaching group with furrowed brows and a tense jaw. “Nothing good.”

“Oh, good! We caught you before you left,” Fierad said, stepping off his platform in a flourish. His grin was wide, his white teeth flashing dangerously.

Alex focused on a confused Relli, who gave a small shake of her head, indicating she didn’t know why they were there either.

“Let’s get this done with, Ranger,” King Bet drawled as he too stepped onto the nest porch.

Fierad plastered his hand to Relli’s back and all but shoved her toward Auzed.

“Ranger!” the king barked. “Do not dare touch a female like that again.”

He barely flinched at the king’s scolding tone. “Apologies, I’m just excited to see justice served. Auzed, I have a signed order here to have you swayed.”

Silence reigned as Auzed glared. He didn’t appear perturbed or anxious. Had he known this was coming?

Fierad continued to speak, seeming to find joy in explaining the situation. “See, when the regents confirmed your resignation papers were in order, I realized that since you aren’t head guard anymore, there’s nothing stopping us from swaying you.”

“I have places to be, Ranger,” King Bet grated from behind them.

He shot a glance over his shoulder. “Yes, of course.” Fierad caught Alex’s eye. “I wanted to make sure he was here as a witness. Relli.” He just stopped himself from pushing a furious-looking Relli toward Auzed again. Instead, he waved forward, urging her to start.

Back turned to the king and Fierad, Relli raised her brows at both of them, and Alex knew. Relli was going to try to lie. Going to fake the sway. Would Auzed go along with it, though? He hated lying, but surely he’d do it now. Sweat gathered in the small of her back. Was he angry enough with her to throw it all away and tell the truth? She didn’t think he would, but she’d also never seen him as enraged as he’d been last night.

“Auzed.” Relli began swaying from side to side. “Look at me.” Her voice, smooth as velvet, held a surprising amount of power. Enough so that everyone on the porch shifted their gaze to look at Relli.

Just as she had before, Alex shook the sway off as soon as it curled around her mind. She saw from the small head shakes of the king and of Fierad that they’d experienced the same thing.

“You will answer Fierad’s questions.” Relli swayed in front of him for a moment longer, but her gaze grew worried.

Pushing his way past Relli, Fierad placed himself in front of Auzed. “Now you’ll see, Majesty. They’ve been lying from the beginning.”

King Bet crossed his arms, and his gaze darkened. “I’ll give you one more minute before I leave, Fierad.”

Alex tried to catch Relli’s gaze. Relli gave a small shake of her head. Had Auzed not broken out of it?

“Did Alejandra say she’d marry you?” Fierad asked with a wide smile.

Alex sucked in a breath. What could she do? Was there some kind of diversion she could make?

“Yes, Alejandra said she’d marry me,” Auzed answered in a monotone.

Fierad’s jaw dropped. Alex just stopped her own jaw from dropping. Was he faking it? He must be.

“Alright. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s let our guests leave in peace,” the king grumbled as though being dragged here had been the last thing in the universe he’d wanted to do.

“No. Wait!” Fierad found his voice. “I don’t understand…” He spun on Relli. “Is this your doing? I’ve had my reservations about you, demskiv, but if you’d stoop to that level—”

Relli let out a squeak as Fierad lunged at her. Fury flared through Alex white hot, and she stepped forward too.

“Ranger!” the king boomed, directing his guards toward Fierad as well.

But before any person could reach him, Wilson had propelled herself off Alex’s shoulder and buried her tiny claws into Fierad’s face. She scratched and blasted shrill trumpets into his ears.

He tried to pry her off, clawing at her and swatting her with his tail while stumbling around. All hands reached toward him as one as he took one step too far and toppled off the nest porch with a bellow.

Alex raced to the ledge. “Wilson!” Her heart resumed beating when she spotted the tuey gliding toward a tree to their left. Fierad continued to fall away from them until a bright-blue electric current illuminated in a wave all around him and caught him. He bounced into the air once, then settled. He was too far away to hear clearly, but she’d bet he was down there turning purple with the string of curses he was letting out.

“Well, perhaps that was for the best.” King Bet sighed, staring down at Fierad, who kept attempting to rise only to fall back down again.

“Auzed, wake up,” Relli gently called, pulling him from the sway.

Like a shot, Auzed’s body tensed. With an emotionless nod to the king, he turned on his heel and strode back inside the nest.

The way he avoided her gaze while brushing past was like a kick to the gut.

“You’d better go retrieve him.” The king got back onto his travel platform and waved toward Fierad far below with his tail. As his guards took off to do as he’d asked, he faced Relli. “Relli, is it?”

“Yes, Majesty.” She nodded with wide eyes.

He gave her a small, restrained smile. “A superior treating a subordinate like that is unacceptable. I assure you, Fierad is in for a demotion as well as relocation. As I’m in charge of the rangers in Sauven, I’d like to formally apologize for his actions as well as his bias toward you.”

Relli let out a shaky breath, but a small smile appeared on her face and her tail swished from side to side. “Thank you, Majesty. I appreciate it.”

“Would you mind joining me so we can discuss who a suitable replacement may be?”

Relli inhaled a large breath and beamed while trying to keep her grin at bay. She gave an excited nod, then ran over to Alex and wrapped her in a tight hug. “I don’t know what happened. I tried to distract everyone so he could break out of it, but I don’t think he did. Get out of here while you still can,” she whispered with a final squeeze and a smile.

“Go nominate yourself, girl!” Alex whispered back, then watched her hop onto Fierad’s vacated travel platform.

“Have a safe trip back to Tremanta,” the king said with a quick nod toward Alex. He and Relli glided away, not waiting for the guards, who were far below retrieving Fierad.

Alex let out a relieved breath. It was done. King Bet didn’t believe Fierad, and Relli was finally rid of him. Wilson glided over from the tree she’d been climbing and landed in Alex’s outstretched arms. “Good job, you little hero.”

Steps behind her told her Auzed had emerged from the house. She turned to look at him, and any bit of good mood she’d gained from watching Fierad make a fool of himself faded. He stared ahead, refusing to meet her gaze. Wilson let out a sad whine that matched the choked whimper clogging Alex’s throat.

“How did you do it?” she asked.” Did you break out of the sway?” Her attention caught on a large floating silver orb approaching them.

Auzed seemed unperturbed by the enormous ball, so she relaxed. She looked back at him, waiting for an answer. His Adam’s apple bobbed. Gaze shifting to the ground, then back to the orb, he cleared his throat. “I was under the sway. I didn’t lie.”

“But—”

He focused on her, and his green eyes hardened. “You did offer to marry me. Once. You may not remember, since it clearly wasn’t sincere, but I do. A Clecanian male would never forget an offer like that.”

Alex remained still as he strode past her to meet the large orb pulling alongside the porch. Memories of their time together flew through her mind. In the kitchen of the nest on their first night here. She’d been a moment away from breaking down, and she’d offered. But he’d turned her down. If I married you, it wouldn’t be to get out of a lie. And it wouldn’t be because you pity me or feel indebted or because you’re desperate. His words replayed through her mind, and they stung all the more because he’d asked her to marry him last night and she’d refused.

A long section of the shiny ball slid open, revealing a comfortable, cushioned interior. Meg waved from inside, as did Daunet. Their expressions faltered as they gazed between her and Auzed. She could only assume what the two of them looked like. Not to mention the pulsing tension between them.

Since Daunet and Meg were seated next to each other on one side of the cruiser, Alex and Auzed were forced to crowd in on the other. The confined quarters made it so the sides of their bodies touched and, selfishly, Alex was grateful. While it might have been the last thing in the world Auzed wanted, the simple press of his thigh against hers was electric. She greedily luxuriated in the heat of his body and his scent, knowing she’d never be this close to him again.

The reminder had her throat closing up, and she held in a swallow to keep the sob from pouring out of her mouth.

“Happy to be leaving?” Meg asked awkwardly, gaze ping-ponging between them. She’d been present when they’d left the party last night and could probably guess what had happened.

Alex knew she looked terrible. Puffy eyes and pale skin from crying all night instead of sleeping. It made her feel fractionally better to see that Auzed wasn’t looking his best either. His green eyes had dulled and, though she could’ve been imagining it, it seemed like the markings that decorated his body weren’t shining quite so brightly today. 

Daunet, who’d placed her hands on her knees and locked her arms in the most stiff, unnatural way, was doing nothing to ease the awkwardness in the confined cruiser. The door slid shut, and a gentle shift told Alex they were moving. “Sir, I’ve gotten word that a house has been prepared for Alex at the Temple. We should be arriving in about an hour. They gave her a house on the far East, but, as I told the Queen—”

“I’m not your superior anymore, Daunet. You don’t need to address me as sir. Whoever the Queen assigns as Heard Guard can deal with whatever the problem is,” Auzed interrupted in a clipped voice. Not impolite, but not soft either.

Alex stiffened. Her jaw grew sore from grinding her teeth. Meg caught her eye and raised her brows in question, trying to have a silent conversation. It was a conversation Alex couldn’t handle at the moment, so she dropped her gaze to her lap, head hanging.

Daunet’s jaw was still hanging open midsentence. She studied Auzed with disbelief. Then stammered, “N-no. That can’t… But, sir,” she implored.

He raised a hand to silence her. “Not now, Daunet.”

She snapped her mouth closed and glared into the floor of the cruiser.

Alex peeked over at Auzed’s lap, not brave enough to sneak a glance at his face, and found his fists balled tight on his thighs. God, how she wanted to reach for his hand, grasp it, and soothe him. But that would be cruel.

She squirmed in her seat, attempting to give him a bit more space, but all she managed was to make their legs not press together quite so tightly. His knuckles turned white.

After a moment, Auzed shifted. If an outsider looked at the microscopic movement of his legs, they’d assume he was simply getting comfortable, but the pressure that returned to her thigh made her wonder if he’d done it on purpose. Needing the contact as much as she did before they said their goodbyes.

Meg and Daunet both took the hint and remained silent for the entire ride. Daunet had said the trip would take an hour. It felt infinitely longer than that.

The heavy air in the cab of the cruiser was muddled. Across from her, Meg pulsed with curiosity and concern. Daunet with irritation. Waves of grief, doubt, and barely contained longing rolled off Alex. But from Auzed? Nothing.

He didn’t appear to feel anything at all. Which was the reason the cruiser felt so crushing. Like walking into one of those scientifically soundproofed rooms. She’d watched videos of people trying to remain in those places. None of them could for very long. The oppressive silence was so unnatural, it could drive a person crazy within hours.

That was what Auzed’s aura added to the mix. Nothingness that was louder than anything else and made each of the women in the cruiser itch with stress. Alex twirled her ring around her finger, polishing the inside with the repeated motion.

When they came to a halt and the side of the cruiser slide open, Meg released a harsh, “Oh thank God,” and all but dove over Daunet to get outside.

“I brought a token and pads for Alex,” Daunet said softly, dropping a small purple circle into Auzed’s outstretched hand, along with rubbery thin ovals. “I’ll wait by the lake to take her to her house.”

“I’ll see her off, then take the cruiser to my lodging on the West end,” he rumbled.

 It seemed like Daunet wanted to say more as she stared between them. Instead, she resolutely set her jaw and climbed out.

Alex and Auzed remained frozen. He was blocking the exit. She watched the vein in his neck pulse while he stared into the empty seats across from him. His thigh twitched.

Finally, with a deep inhale, he stood and climbed out of the cruiser. She and Wilson followed, the tuey still wrapped tightly around her neck, attempting to contain the waves of sadness with her little body. They rounded the large orb, and she spotted Meg and Daunet speed-walking toward an incredible sight. A lake topped with blossom-like floating houses glittered in the sun before her. The Pearl Temple. He’d described it to her. How the water was guarded by glowing creatures, and how only those with a token and approved access could cross it.

She couldn’t seem to appreciate the beauty of the Temple, though. Everything felt wrong. The ground under her feet was too firm, giving her the odd impression that her legs hurt. And Auzed was wrong too. He wasn’t himself anymore.

They stood facing each other, but their gazes were both shifted away. She should say something. Anything.

“I…” She cleared her throat. He lifted his eyes to her, and tight lines formed around his mouth. She tried again. “I want you to know I didn’t always plan to try to go back to Earth.”

He studied her face, his spine straight and his shoulders impossibly solid.

“I didn’t even know it was an option. It was only three days ago that Meg told me the Queen here was working toward it and that it might be possible,” Alex said in a rush. She gulped. “Leaving you isn’t something I want to do. You know that, right?”

He flinched as if she’d slapped him. “I do,” he whispered, almost too low for her to hear. Reaching forward, he gently lifted her wrist. The contact sent a bolt of heat up her arm, goose bumps breaking out all over her body. He swept her long, baggy sleeve up and turned her wrist over until her inner arm was pointed up. With an odd suctioning motion, the purple token he placed on her inner wrist attached to her skin.

Though the token was in place, he didn’t let go. His thumb swept over the sensitive skin of her inner arm just above her wrist, and he gazed into her eyes. “I hope you get back to them, Alejandra. And I hope you’ll be happy.”

Tears burned behind her eyes. She choked on her own words and could only nod.

Suddenly, Wilson squeaked. With a small leap, she jumped the short distance to Auzed and wrapped herself around his neck, sliding her eyes shut and squeezing.

Alex draped an arm around her belly, the hollowness in her stomach gnawing at her. Even Wilson knew this was a mistake. Maybe the biggest of her life. The sudden urge to plead for more time built in her. But that wasn’t fair. More time would only mean more pain down the road, and the last thing she wanted to do was cause either of them more pain.

Auzed let out a sigh and stroked the little animal’s fur before peeling her off despite trumpeted objections. He placed her in Alex’s arms.

With a stilted nod, he held Alex’s gaze for a tense moment, then turned and strode away.

She remained stuck in place, lead seeping into her soles. As he climbed into the cruiser without looking back, the tears came.

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