"Thanks, Fallon. I don't know how I'd get everything done without everyone's help."
I smile at Kate, shaking my head as I pick up the stack of place settings. They’re made of a variety of multi-colored reeds, natural stones with earth-toned striations, and Errol's delicate meteorite glass. They glimmer and shine subtly, beautiful works of art in their own right. They also feel quite sturdy, so I have a feeling they'll be borrowed for other ceremonies and events in the future.
It's a nice feeling, knowing we're likely creating traditions that future generations will follow. There was just so much sameness, first on the ship, and then in those tunnels we found ourselves in. It never really felt like we were carving any kind of a path, to be honest.
"I'm happy to help," I say sincerely. "And let me know if you need anything else," I add, adjusting my hold on my pretty burden. "I mean it."
And I do.
With all Kate has done for me and the other women from our group, helping out with her mating ceremony feels like so little to give back. To her and Errol. I really don't think we could ever repay him fully for saving us while we were stranded in the desert, let alone for reuniting us with the rest of the people from our ship.
Kate and Errol are the reason for this new life we have, this life that actually has room for more than survival. A life that's so much better than anything I could have dreamed of just weeks before in those tunnels.
Kate's smile grows at my response, her face glowing with happiness. She's definitely head over heels for Errol, and it shows in the best way possible.
"I'll definitely take you up on that offer," she murmurs. "But you might regret giving me that blanket go-ahead," she warns.
I grin back, shaking my head as I turn to go. "I know I won't," I say confidently.
She laughs as I leave the corner of Errol's workroom that she's commandeered for ceremony preparations. Though, honestly, much of the cave system has been taken over with the preparations, from the main cave where we have our communal gatherings and dinners, to the individual caves along the valley walls and the other natural corridors and offshoots leading out.
Life is hard here on Tajss, even in this new and better version of it.
I'm fully on board with seizing any opportunity to add some fun and good feelings where we can. And the others feel the same way, which is why the prep is taking over a lot of our space with no one complaining about it. Everyone is so excited at the prospect of the celebration that we're happily going all out.
Though maybe everyone isn't exactly completely accurate. Not when I consider those in the city. Many of the Zmaj there aren't so gung-ho about the celebration, about any return to what they call the "old ways."
As far as I can tell, their reservations aren't so much about the mating ceremony itself, but about the other traditions that fell by the wayside after the inter-planetary wars that led to The Devastation here on Tajss. An end to the technologically advanced, thriving society that once existed here before the war that ended it all.
When our small scouting group first crash-landed on Tajss, the only inkling we had that there might be more on this planet—or at least that there might have been more at some point—were the tunnels that Gomul was kind enough to allow us to live in after he rescued us from the monsters that attacked us while we were out in the open desert.
Gomul—another Zmaj that we owe our lives to.
Those underground tunnels we lived in for years were clearly created and not natural, with well-engineered supports to prevent cave-ins, and a clearly ordered plan to the straight, wide corridors.
Tunnels like that indicated some kind of society, some kind of technology to dig so much so precisely, and to know how to ensure it was safe and supported. Those tunnels were actually the perfect place for us to stay, protected from the sun and patrolled by Gomul. However, as practical and safe as those tunnels were, they'd become almost unlivable.
All because of Annabel.
As important as physical needs like food and shelter are, they aren't everything. We found that out the hard way. As time passed, it became clear that Annabel wasn't fit to lead, but nobody knew what to do about it. Her grip on all of us was stifling. Petty, lazy, and dictatorial, she'd gotten worse every day, the power plainly going to her head.
I don't know what damaged her, what made her the way she was. She was definitely on the fast track to her brain imploding—and still is, most likely, which really is a shame. There was a time when I respected her forthrightness, her push forward and take no prisoners attitude that got things done, cut through bullshit. That time is long ago now. It’s buried under the resentment and disgust I feel towards her. I couldn't be happier to have left her "guidance."
We lived in fear of angering her and having to deal with retribution. She'd become the dictator of our small group. Nobody can truly thrive in such a toxic environment.
So, yes. I am glad that Kate had the guts to take a stand against Annabel, to leave what we thought was the only safe place on this planet. She took a chance for a better life and gave us an avenue to hope. It paid off in a way I could never have predicted. I never thought there could be more survivors from our ship, or that they'd be working with the Zmaj native to Tajss.
But that was what we found. A possible future.
I liked the city we first saw, the marvel of engineering left over from the height of Zmaj civilization.
I like the community here in the small cave system even more. The smaller group feels like a real family, one that wasn't even present on the ship, if I'm honest. There were too many people and too much regulation to foster a real sense of community there, every day too scheduled, our lives too clinical.
This place...I feel like a part of something real. Something that isn't held together with rules and regulations or a clear hierarchy, but rather with personal relationships and a sense of cooperation.
We're all in this together.
Despite my hard-won defenses, the prickly exterior that developed over the course of my less-than-perfect childhood, I feel like I'm part of a whole. A gentle feeling that I never thought I would feel, not with how I was raised, anyway. My father was more an impersonal ship commander than any kind of parent to me. I learned to divorce my feelings early on. Well, all the softer feelings. Anger held on just fine, thank you very much. It's a good fuel when you need it. And I needed it.
I push thoughts of him away. I hated him, but he's gone now. And just to put some messed-up icing on that cake, I now feel a twisted sense of guilt about the hard feelings I had towards him while he was alive.
Life. Isn't it grand?
I shake my head at myself. Negativity isn't really all that productive, though I can find myself sinking into it if I'm not careful. It's like a pair of comfortable, old shoes. Fits like a glove.
But the reality is, I feel like I belong somewhere now, and I don't need those defenses as much. I have people to turn to, people who care about me, not just as someone who is necessary in a practical sense, but on a personal level.
That feels...good. Really good. I've never felt as close to anyone as I do to the women here.
And sure, some of the dragons are just as boneheaded as human men can be, like my dearly departed father, but...not quite in the same way. Their arrogance and domineering personalities seem more rooted in their prowess as warriors, in the traditions they've held on to.
Mating ceremonies not included, apparently. Not for all of them.
I look up at a sudden round of cheers, and I slow my walk to take in the scene in the flat, open space next to me.
The Zmaj of the Tribe have been participating in various warrior contests of skills, from hand-to-hand combat, to footraces, distance jumping (even more impressive than it sounds because they can use their wings to propel them forward farther than human men could), accuracy with a lochaber (a massive staff-like weapon held in two hands with a sharp blade at the end) that involves moving targets, and a few more events that I've seen but don't fully comprehend.
The scene before me now is another bout of hand-to-hand combat. Bashir stands over Melchior, who is flat on his back—and clearly unhappy about it.
I falter a little as I walk by, feeling the celebratory mood of the games start to turn. They're supposed to be a fun time, something for the competitive bunch to do to add to the festivities leading up to the mating ceremony itself. However, I can see as well as feel the shift in the mood as Melchior slowly gets to his feet.
Maybe they would have been better off with a nice, safe test of skill.
Like a chess tournament.
Melchior's snarl and the clenched fists at his sides show that he’s fighting the bijass, that primal part of the Zmaj that wants to dominate. The part of them that is almost pure animal instinct.
"One, I am myself," Arawn says clearly into the tense silence, his voice firm.
A ripple of reaction shudders through Melchior, halting the slow progress he was making towards Bashir.
"Two...together we are stronger," Bashir continues, his eyes locked with the opponent he has already beaten, his voice clear and strong.
Melchior takes a deep breath, rolling his shoulders.
"Three," he starts hoarsely, his fists slowly loosening. "Three, survival of the group matters."
The tension immediately drops.
I breathe out a sigh of relief along with everyone else watching.
When I first heard of the Edicts, the Creed of the Tribe, an echo of their core values, I didn't truly understand how important they were for the very survival of the Tribe. But after living with them for a longer period of time, I now understand all too well. This isn't the first time I've seen the mantra help control the bijass, and I'm sure it won't be the last either.
And still, despite displays like this, and many of their often domineering and arrogant personalities, none of that has prevented the numerous human-dragon matings.
Even as I have that thought, Penelope hurries over to Bashir, who smiles at her, the interruption fully breaking the last bit of lingering tension. She says something to him that has him chuckling and shaking his head as she grins back.
The couplings seem to work—both the dragon men and the women are thriving as partners.
I can appreciate that, appreciate that people are happy. Even if I don't ever see myself mating or in any romantic relationship of my own, for that matter. It just isn't for me. I like the other women, but apart from that, I prefer to keep to myself. Make my own decisions without worrying what someone else will think.
Even though I'm not looking for any kind of partner, I'm still glad we followed Kate here. Maybe the others will be happier in a relationship like that. To each their own.
I'm so deep in my thoughts on the matter that I don't even notice there's a large, dragon-man-shaped obstruction in my path until I'm nearly on top of him.
I yelp as I quickly take a step back, rebalancing the stack of mats in my arms and glare up at Arawn.
He looks way too pleased with himself, as usual. He's obviously put himself in my path on purpose. The standard ridiculous seven feet tall and lithely muscled for a dragon, he's impressively cut for his main role as the tribe’s leatherworker.
He's not terrible to look at, with a masculine face set off with neat horns, bright orange-red scales, and striking aqua-green eyes that contrast nicely with the warmth of his scales. Added to the leathery wings and the sinuous tail, he really is a sight. He's also quick and clever. Intelligent.
Too bad he's so overly impressed with himself. And expects everyone else to feel the same way about him.
"Excuse me," I mutter, stepping to the side to go around him, but he just matches my step. Blocking my path. Again. Grunting, I step to the other side. But he matches me again.
I’m just getting irritated now. You know what? Fine. Rather than trying to go around, I change strategy and march straight at him next.
He's clearly not expecting it. Eyes widening, he steps back automatically before he catches himself and stops yet again.
I scowl, really annoyed now. I do not have the patience for this. I look back up at him, meeting his mischievous eyes.
"Arawn, I am not in the mood," I bite out. I lift up my burden and give it a little shake. "I need to get these to the others."
The glimmer in his eyes softens and he nods slightly. He finally catches the drift. Though it took actual words to get through his thick skull.
"My apologies," he murmurs, stepping to the side, this time out of my path. He gestures to the open way. "Please."
I incline my head, moving past him, now that I have a chance. Before he changes his mind and decides to mess with me some more. As I walk away, I can feel that tingle along my back that lets me know he's still watching me. I suppress the shiver of awareness, annoyed at myself now at my response to his attention.
I breathe a silent sigh of relief as I turn the corner and the line of sight is broken, my shoulders dropping. Shaking off my irritation—and that uncomfortable awareness—I deliver the mats and go on with the rest of the tasks I have to get done.
We all have to work together here, or we won't survive. It's as simple and as serious as that. I don't mind. I like feeling productive.
By the time it's time for the pre-ceremonial communal meal, I'm ready for a break.
The food laid out across the large table looks delicious, and I'm happy to see there's a large bowl filled with Delilah's special sauce. It's just as much of a hit here as it was on the ship.
"Man, I'm so glad you figured out how to recreate this," I murmur appreciatively as I ladle some onto the meat and vegetables I already have on my plate. "It makes anything and everything taste amazing."
Delilah chuckles as she refills the bowl from the pot she made the sauce in.
"I'm glad everyone enjoys it. It's a good recipe to have in my pocket for bribes," she adds with a wink that makes me chuckle.
"Very true," I agree.
The first time we had a communal meal here, I was blown away by the spread. Not only was there meat, there were also vegetables and fruits. Along with the herbs and other spices for flavoring. The food was simple, but varied and good. Even without the introduction of epis to our small group, I really think we would have been healthier overall just from the better diet.
Though, admittedly, not nearly as healthy as we are now that we have that plant in our lives. The difference is night and day between before and after taking it. I actually feel like day-to-day life is no longer a struggle. Before the epis, I would always be soaked in sweat no matter my physical activity level, constantly fighting weakness.
Now that we're on a dose of it, I've put on weight, along with Kate and Nora. And it looks good on us! I like seeing them healthier. I'm sure Lanie, Ashlee, and Addison have put some on in the city as well. They seem just as happy there as we are here.
Plate now full, I wander around to chat with everyone gathered. The communal meals are a good time to decompress from the day, let go of worries. While I'm moving, I feel that familiar tingle, that sense of being watched, even though I'm distracted by the conversation around me. I move my head casually, scanning out of the corner of my eye.
Arawn is sitting next to a few other Zmaj, but his eyes are focused on me rather than his companions. Why is he always watching me? And why is it so damn distracting every time?
I turn at Errol's voice, smiling at him as I step closer.
"I was wondering if you could give me an opinion on the design of this cloth..."
I listen, giving my two cents as he describes the design, all the while conscious of the fact that Arawn is still watching me. My eyes are inexorably drawn to him once more, but when I accidentally make eye contact, I quickly look away again.
Trying to shut out my fascination with the Zmaj craftsman, I attempt to focus on the conversation. I don't want Errol to think I'm an idiot. I'm no fashion designer, but I give him my opinion, figuring it will balance out with everyone else's. It's honestly really adorable how completely into this ceremony he is, how he wants every detail to be perfect, from the place mats, to the clothes, to the decorations.
It shows how much he cares. It's really refreshing how the Zmaj men don't hide how deeply they feel for their women. As long as it isn't directed at me anyway.
Our conversation is already winding down when Bashir calls out to Errol, taking his attention.
"Excuse me," he says politely.
I nod, stepping back, almost bumping into Nora. "Oops, sorry," I say, changing direction.
She smiles. "No problem," she says in that quiet voice. "Hey, would you like to play a game of chess with me? There's a board free over there."
I turn at her gesture, my eyes seeking Arawn out automatically as I do. Damn it. What is this draw he has for me?
I force myself to turn away, happy that at least his attention had been diverted so he didn't notice me looking at him.
"Sure, let's play," I agree, determined to distract my betraying eyes.
Errol, Ormarr, and some of the others worked together to create actual boards and pieces for checkers and chess, fully taken by the games that we humans introduced to them. Not surprising considering the competitive drive they all seem to naturally have.
As if on cue, Arawn growls, deep in a game next to us. Rolling my eyes at the sound, I sit down across from Nora, taking another bite of my food.
She grabs one of the pawns and holds it behind her back. "Black or white?" she asks.
She opens her fist, revealing a black pawn.
"Damn," I say good-naturedly. "Guess you're white."
She smiles. "You always pick white."
"I do?" I ask, surprised at that. "Good to know."
We set up the board quickly, and Nora makes her first move. The first time we sat down and she beat me, I have to admit I was surprised. I've been giving her a run for her money every time since. It's usually a toss-up over who will win any game between us—we're so well matched. So the game should capture all of my attention. Emphasis on should. Unfortunately, even the rousing game of strategy isn't enough to capture the entirety of my focus.
I find my eye wandering over to Arawn multiple times.
"He just stopped looking at you."
I quickly turn my eyes back to the game. "What?"
"Arawn," Nora says, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "He just stopped staring at you." She looks in his direction. "Update—he's looking at you again."
I feel that tingle that would have let me know that even if Nora hadn't.
"He's probably watching our game," I mutter, the reasoning sounding lame even to my own ears.
Nora chuckles as she makes another move, taking my knight. I frown at the board.
"Well, him watching the game seems to be distracting you. Maybe I should make sure he's always around when we play," she teases.
I shake my head.
Beneath that quiet exterior lies a sharp mind that sees a lot more than people think.
"Just play," I order, making the best move I can on the current board. Nora's right. I have been letting Arawn distract me from the game, and it's showing.
The worst of it is, I'm not just looking at him to see if he's watching me.