“Once we finish here on Evlon,” said Queen Edel, Tristan’s mother. “I’ve promised June we will return her to her home.”
Of course she did, Tristan though, supposing they’d been obliged to do that the moment they’d discovered her on that stranded ship. “Fine, but is there a reason she’s here now?” Why not leave her on the ship where she could rest and be guarded? Surely she’d have been more comfortable staying behind.
June’s shoulders tensed only slightly, and he wondered if his questioning made her uneasy.
“She’ll be my guest for the ceremony,” his mother replied.
June hiked her thumb back at the ship. “If it’s a problem, I can just wait back on—”
The screeching wail of a nearby beast rumbled from the forest. June jumped, fear flashing in her eyes, and she clutched Orik’s beefy arm as though seeing him as her protector. Tristan found his hands clenching.
Orik smiled down at her. “There’s nothing to fear here, June. No’ while we’re with you.”
“Because you can transform into dragons?” June’s reply was laced with heavy doubt. “I can believe there are aliens and I’m on some planet called Evlon, because, hello” —she fanned her arm out as if to say I have eyes— “but that one’s a little farfetched.”
Tristan eyed the spot where her hands still gripped Orik’s bicep. Orik’s a-challenge-has-been-issued smile only grew wider. “I can prove it to you now, if you like.”
June gifted Orik with an eager smile.
Tristan found his previous irritation redoubling. “We haven’t the time to validate our existence to lesser beings. Let’s go.”
An echo of his words rang though his head and he wished he had rephased that. Still, best she realized her place sooner rather than later. Just as he turned to take the path that led to the palace, June shot back, “Excuse me. I am not a lesser being.”
He glanced back, intrigued by the fire in her eyes. She was no longer touching Orik. Instead her hands were balled at her sides. “In that case, you can figure out how to build a ship and fly yourself back home.”
Her gaze narrowed, but she made no reply. What could she say to that? He started walking, leading the way. The group was following behind.
“And I suppose you know how to build a ship, then?” she challenged from behind him.
The odd urge to smile crept over his lips, but he suppressed it. “I command a fleet of them.”
“But you couldn’t build one,” she pointed out. “Not on your own. Even I could command a fleet of ships, given the opportunity. That’s the easy part.”
“Oh? And what would you have this fleet do?” She was silent for a moment, and Tristan found himself growing eager for her answer. He resisted the urge to turn and watch the thoughts play out on her face. “Well?”
“Give me a second to think. I’ve only just discovered there’s life on other planets. Some of it might even be intelligent.”
That made him actually smile.
Finally, she said, “I suppose I’d go around exploring the universe, like Star Trek.”
Gravel crunched under his boots. “I’ve heard Earthers have not yet mastered space.”
“So? We’re getting to it. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The defense of her home was admirable, though he’d not heard of this Rome. Or Star Trek, for that matter.
“So then who is this Star Trek you speak of? These explorers?”
Her soft giggle sounded from beside him and he gazed down to find she had moved up to walk at his side. “It’s a show. Like a play. You know, where people pretend to be someone else for entertainment.”
“Ah, so these humans pretend to be space explorers.”
“And you would emulate them?”
“Sure. Because they live in an enlightened future where their main goal is to go where no human has gone before in order to gain knowledge and garner peace in the universe.”
“This play sounds boring.”
“It is not. There’s plenty of trouble for the crew to get into. Harrowing escapes and space battles and such. You might actually enjoy it.”
Behind them, the sound of the other’s boots crunching on the ground suddenly stopped. “Oh, no,” his mother sounded vexed. “I forgot the gift I brought for the Faieara queen. I must return to the ship to retrieve it.” When Tristan indicated he would return with her, she insisted, “No, no. Orik and Belinda will escort me. You two go on ahead. Show June around a little.”
With that she turned to leave, Belinda in tow. Orik waited for his directive, however. Tristan nodded and Orik followed behind the two women.
Chewing on her lower lip, June glanced between Tristan and the disappearing party. “I, uh, I think I’ll go with them.”
An eddy of disappointment swirled in Tristan’s mind. Surprisingly, he’d been enjoying the human’s conversation.
As she turned to head after the group, another woodland beast cried out…and then streaked across her path so fast it was but a blur, even to Tristan’s eyes. She stumbled back in a rush, nearly crashing into Tristan. He lightly gripped her by the shoulders to prevent it, but then suddenly had the impulse to tug her against him the rest of the way. Strange.
Instead, he turned her around to face him. Her eyes had gone stark again, and her skin had drastically paled.
“Come now, explorer. You’re not frightened of a tiny woodland creature, are you?”
“You call that tiny? We have animals smaller than that on Earth that can rip your throat out in a single chomp.” She created the visual with her hand on her throat.
This Earth did not sound safe. “Nothing will get you while you’re with me.”
“How can you be so confident? Didn’t you see how fast that thing moved? It was like a cheetah…if cheetahs had learned the forbidden art of Sonic the Hedgehog.”
Her references were lost on him, but he caught the gist. “Just stick close to me and you’ll be fine.”
She glanced over her shoulder. Still hoping to follow Orik? For some reason that grated. She sighed when she saw the others were out of sight. “I don’t really have a choice.”
He released her. “Then you’d better keep up.”
She rushed to match pace with him, standing much closer now, gaze darting as if she expected the sonic-cheetah-hedgehog to double back and attack any second. The heat of her body brushed his skin. Another of those impulses came over him, the urge to place his arm around her in reassurance, but he squashed it.
“Most of the animals here are benign,” he told her.
“Most, but not all? It only takes one raptor to open your belly with the flick of his talons.”
By the gods, what sort of predators resided on her home world? “Every planet has its beasts of prey, but I would know if any were near.”
He’d meant to reassure her, but she only grew more anxious. He could transform into his dragon form and fly her to where she felt safe, but the encompassing forest hindered him…and she’d likely become panic-stricken if she did. She spoke of talons. His were the size of her head. He could imagine her running from him into the woods, even more terrified of him than the forest.
He decided it best to try to distract her. “What else did my mother tell you about us?”
She put her finger on her chin. “Well, you’re from a planet called…Lego-something.
“You’re the king of your people.” She slanted a glance at him in disbelief. “Your kind practically live forever. Like a thousand times longer than humans. Is that right?”
He nodded. “We are what’s known as a long-lived race.”
“How old are you? Uh, if you don’t mind my asking. Is that a rude question?”
“Not at all. I’ve lived about half a century or so.”
She gasped, her tone raising in pitch. “Or so?”
“You stop counting after a while.”
“Humans count every birthday like it’s a countdown.” Yet again, sounds from the forest made her jumpy, claiming her attention.
“So then how old are you?” he asked.
Her head snapped around. “You don’t ask a lady her age.”
“Oh? Well, you couldn’t be more than a hundred and fifty, give or take.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
He glanced down at her horrified expression. “Is that young for a human?”
“No! I’d be ancient! Let’s just say I’m younger than you and leave it at that, Grandpa.”
He waited for her to continue the conversation, but her worried gaze was back to scanning the forest. “Tell me of the Star Trek. You suggested I would enjoy it.”
Between skittish glances through the trees, she looked him up and down, as though by his bearing alone she could assess his character. “You strike me as more of a Star Wars fan.”
“Is that the better of the two?”
She snorted. “Star Wars fans would like to think so.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“I’m partial to both—” She suddenly halted, her mouth parting in a delicate O. He followed her rapt gaze. An edge of the Faieara palace was now visible above the tree line.
“Is that a castle?” she breathed. “Is that where we’re going?”
“It is. You might be surprised to meet another human there.”
He nodded. “A girl named Zoey.”
“How on Earth did she get here?”
They resumed walking as he told the story. How Cale was sent to Earth to rescue the now Faieara Queen, Kyra, from the Kayadon hunting her. How Zoey, a friend of Kyra’s, had been swept up in the danger and hitched a ride to Evlon, where she decided to remain indefinitely.
“Miss Edel said Faieara could do magic, like witches or something. Is that true?”
“They are nothing like witches,” he corrected in a not-so-benevolent tone that seemed to pique her curiosity. “Witches are abhorrent creatures from my planet who use magic through unnatural means. Faieara are born with magic in their blood. It is a part of them and their world. It’s within them. Witches crave power and domination. Faieara are peaceful beings, or…they were. Fate is forcing them to stretch.”
“The Kayadon, the ones who built the ship you were on, invaded their planet and enslaved them for a time. We helped the Faieara to overthrow them, at great cost—” He bowed his head at the weight of that statement. “But they are still here. In hiding.”
Once more her eyes darted around the surrounding forest, and he wished he had excluded that last part.
“You’ve no need to worry.” He pointed to the sky. “You see how the sky looks warped?”
She nodded. “Look like we’re in a fishbowl, but it’s almost electrified.”
“We’re in a dome that sizzles with magic. It protects what lies underneath from the Kayadon. None can pass through.”
“The Faieara did that?”
“No. It was a Serakian witchling. Uh… a different kind from my homeworld. They too are allied with the Faieara and their magic comes naturally to them.”
“Serakian.” She tested out the name. “How are your witches different? How do they use magic unnaturally?” She suddenly grew excited and faced him with a bouncing sideways walk. “Could I do magic?”
He tripped to a halt, a shiver of disquiet crawling up his back.
She shrank under his gaze. “Is that a rude question?”
Proceeding down the path again, he grated, “The witches on my home world take power from nature, from creatures, and even from us.”
There was a beat of silence. “Did I offend you?”
“You look mad. And you’re walking faster now.”
“I’m no’ mad.”
“I’m only curious. Everyone wishes they could do magic. What do you mean they take power from you? How can they do that?”
Once more he stopped walking and glowered down at her. “They kill us for it.”
Her eyes went wide, and he hoped he’d silenced her on this subject. For a moment, he had, but after walking only a few minutes more, she asked, “Has a witch ever tried to kill you?”
He sighed. “No. My clan is strong, and we have driven the witches away from our land.” For now.
“How did you do that?”
“With tooth and nail and a lot of fire power.”
“Oh, right. The dragon thing. Can I see you turn into a dragon?”
“Why not? Would you eat me?”
“Depends. Are you tasty?”
He’d meant it to be menacing, but she only giggled, a light, pleasing sound that cooled his ire almost entirely. “What do dragons eat, anyway?”
She was a curious thing, wasn’t she? He supposed he couldn’t blame her, and he was enjoying a lighthearted repartee that had nothing to do with politics, arranged marriage, or the duties of his crown. So that was how he found himself teasing, “Aside from attractive female humans?”
Her smile widened. “Hey, just try it. I eat a lot of spicy food. I might not have magic in me, but I’ll still curse you with indigestion for weeks.”
“Months, I bet.”
Her outright laughter sent a zing of pleasure through him. “You are full of questions. I should be the one interrogating you.”
She clasped her hands behind her back. “What do you want to know?”
“How did you end up on that ship?”
“I was hiking and I found the craft in the woods.”
“So, no’ all forests terrify you?”
“I had my knife with me—” She gasped and patted herself down. “Oh no. Where is it?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small tool she’d dropped earlier. “This?”
She sighed with relief and then reached out for it, but he snatched it back and returned it to his pocket. “You expect me to give you a weapon? Even one as ineffectual as this?”
Her eyes flashed with indignation. “It’s mine.”
Ignoring that, he moved on and waited for her to catch up. “Did you really expect to protect yourself with this paltry thing?”
“It wasn’t really for protection.”
“Yet, with only this as your defense, you went hiking where animals could rip out your throat?”
“I wasn’t in an area with those kinds of predators. The worst I had to worry about were squirrels and deer. Can I please just have it?”
“You’ll have it back when we return you to Earth.”
“But like you said, it’s an ineffectual weapon. It’s not like I can hurt you with it.”
He laughed. “I am no’ worried for myself.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
“Poor little creatures like that.” He pointed to a small Knoth, watching them from a low branch, nearly camouflaged by the bark that matched its rough brown skin and twig-like limbs. Their big black eyes were the easiest way to spot them.
June squinted in the direction he indicated and then screeched like a wildling. The sound disturbed a cluster of the tiny creatures that had been tentatively following behind them. When she noticed them gathered at her feet, her screech turned supersonic and she made the only logical escape: by climbing up Tristan’s body. Her arms hooked his neck, her legs clamped his waist. Her skirt tumbled down behind her, the slit nearly riding too high for modesty.
Without thinking, he supported her by cupping her backside…gripping warm flesh. Her body jerked at his touch and they faced each other in tense silence.
Then her eyes flashed dangerously. “Get your hands off my ass.”
“Get your legs off my waist,” he countered roughly.
Her gaze flicked at the cluster of Knoths, cocking their heads cautiously from behind thick leaves. “Do they bite?” she asked.
“Yes,” he shamelessly lied, enjoying her position too much. He hiked her higher up and could swear he felt the fabric of her panties through his trousers. His cock perked up. “Perhaps you are safer where you are.”
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