I’m about to do something pretty damn stupid.
Fluffy is missing. Viola thinks she saw her last night sleeping near the greenhouse doors, one eye half-open, ever hopeful that someone would wander by and let her in. “But I can’t be sure,” she adds. “I was busy hurling my brains out. Morning sickness my ass. I’m sick twenty-four hours a day.”
It’s oddly refreshing to hear Viola talk about something as normal as puke. For the past week, the only topic of conversation has been the Zoraken outside our mountain home, and the mysterious shield that prevents them from entering, and as a fun side-effect, prevents us from leaving.
War is on our doorstep, and we’re trapped.
The shield seems to interfere with the communicator.
The Draekons are on high-alert. The women are freaking out. It’s clear by now that the soldiers are not only looking for Raiht’vi, they’re also looking for us. The nine human women that crash-landed on the prison planet.
Six months ago, if you’d told us that the possibility of rescue was imminent, we’d have cheered from the rooftops.
Six months later, things are very, very, different.
Eight of us have Draekon mates. Two guys for every girl, in fact, because that’s Draekon biology for you. Or is it physiology? Don’t ask me, I’m not a science major.
Two of us are pregnant. Felicity’s about to give birth any minute now, judging from the size of her belly—I’ve seen smaller whales off the coast of Maine. And Harper’s already given birth to an adorable baby girl, Kaida.
(You’re probably doing the math right now and wondering how she could have already popped one out if we’ve only been here for six months. Evidently, Draekon babies come quick.)
Guess who the only person without mates is? Me. Yup. On a planet filled with men—almost fifty of them—everyone’s managed to find a pair of partners.
Not going to be bitter about that.
Even though I knew that there would be no electricity in space, I brought my laptop along for the journey to Zoraht. (I was teaching myself to knit, and I had thirteen tabs open on my browser, all pointing to Ravelry.) I can keep track of Earth time, sort of, as long as my battery doesn’t run out of juice.
Today’s the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death.
Look at you, trying to couch that in passive voice. Let’s be brutally honest here, Bryce. You killed Liam. You might not have forced him to take the pills, but you did everything else.
For weeks, I’ve been trying to distract myself with Energizer-bunny level activity.
Brewing beer? Check.
Helping Ryanna make fruitcake with alien fruit and syn-made flour? Check.
Going on two disastrous dates with Draekons who were painfully disappointed when no mating magic happened? Check.
Salting fish? Feeding Kaida? Taking over Viola’s greenhouse chores? Check, check, and check.
Nothing has worked. Time ticks on, uncaring.
I could drink myself through today. I could drink glass after glass of kunnr wine, and sink into blissful numbness. But booze is an abyss, and I know it. Kunnr wine isn’t the answer.
Fluffy McCutie hugs, on the other hand, might be the kind of warm comfort I need.
You know, because I don’t have a mate.
Not that I’m bitter or anything. Really.
Maybe the Draekons can instinctively sense the ugliness inside. The same ugliness that kept you from helping Liam. For arguing with him about rehab instead of being there for him. Being a loving, supportive presence in his life.
Guilt and self-loathing are familiar presences. I push them away to the background. Right now, Fluffy needs me.
I think my pet escaped. There’s a weak spot in the shield, in one of the ventilation tunnels near the greenhouses. Everywhere else, the shield feels like a solid wall, and pushing through it is impossible. But in that one, hidden, spot, if you try hard enough, you can get through.
My damn karvil really hates being trapped. She misses the great outdoors. She misses the warmth of the sun on her fur. The smell of fresh air, free of pollution. She misses grazing in her favorite fields.
I caught Fluffy trying to get out two days ago. Crawling into the shaft, I’d pulled her out, sucking in my stomach to fit, and muttering curses under my breath at the tight squeeze. Then I’d told Arax about the vulnerability, and he’d assigned guards around the clock near that tunnel, even though the odds of the Zoraken finding the one weak spot in our defenses are low.
What my pet doesn’t realize? The great outdoors, especially on the prison planet, is a pretty dangerous place. The terrifying dwals—about the size of a pony, and raptor-smart—are one of many predators here. There’s also the swarms of hairus at night. The ahuma’s bite is venomous. Herds of argangana could trample her.
On a different day, I might be sensible, but today? Today, my chest is tight, and my eyes are itchy with remembered tears. Today, I can’t leave my orange fluff ball to fend for herself.
Today, I’m going to find my goddamn pet.
I put the book away in a drawer. It had been a therapist who’d suggested keeping the diary. “You might find it helpful,” he’d said.
It’s not particularly helpful. Some people find journaling cathartic. Not me. It’s just a habit, that’s all. Something to do. It’s not like there’s Netflix on the prison planet, and unlike the other women, I can’t use sex to pass the time. No threesomes for me. Not when every Draekon is desperate to find their mate.
Cock-blocked by biology. Or rather, twat-blocked.
The Draekons aren’t going to come looking for me. A few days ago, Rorix and Ferix, in the grip of the mating fever, had walked out of camp, and the Draekons hadn’t chased after them. They’d accepted their decision. It had been Sofia, Rorix and Ferix’s mate, who’d gone to find them, accompanied by Dariux.
I don’t have a mate. Nobody’s going to risk their life to come in pursuit.
Not that what I’m doing is dangerous.
Okay, it’s a little dangerous.
Fluffy is a creature of habit. I know where she grazes. Dariux’s skimmer is, fortunately for me, outside the Dsar Cliffs, stashed in a cave at the base of the mountain. Before he left with Sofia, he’d been sneaking out too, looking for Raiht’vi. “She’s a friend from childhood,” he’d said when I’d asked him about his search. “I can’t bear to think of her, alone and lost.” His lips had twisted. “Of course, she’s betrothed to Lenox now. Our past is old history.”
It didn’t sound like old history, but hey, if Dariux wanted to lie to himself, who was I to stop him? I’m an expert at burying my head in the sand myself.
Hopefully, Dariux found Raiht’vi.
Hopefully, Sofia found Rorix and Ferix.
Hopefully, they’re all okay. Safe and unharmed.
Hopefully, they’re not prisoners of the Zoraken.
Hopefully, I’m not walking into a trap.
Of course you’re not, I tell myself, forcing a note of cheer into my voice. If all goes well, it’ll take you less than an hour to find Fluffy. You’ll be back before anyone even notices that you’re gone.
As I’m giving myself a pep-talk, I’m also packing. Tent. Bed-roll. Supplies. Hairus-repelling paste. All of that goes into a crude pack.
Liam thought I was impulsive. You always act before you think, he’d scold me. I can’t always be there to pick up the pieces, Bryce.
It’s so vivid, the memory of him saying that to me. I’d been sixteen. My friend Jyoti and I had gone to a house-party on the outskirts of town with a couple of guys we’d just met. One of the guys—Brad Kettle—had tried to stick his tongue down my throat. I’d kicked him in the groin and jumped out of the car, and I’d called Liam for a ride back home.
He’d rescued me, of course. And then he’d proceeded to give me the older brother lecture all the way back home.
He was my big brother. The person who groaned at all my corny jokes yet tried to top them with even worse ones. He was my rock.
And now he’s gone.
I blink away the tears. It’s been a year, but the wound is as raw as ever. Today of all days, I can’t let myself dwell. Swinging the pack on my shoulder, I head toward the karvil-bait tunnel.
Haldax, my least-favorite Draekon, is standing guard. He frowns when he sees my pack. “What are you doing, Bryce MacFarland?”
“Going after Fluffy,” I reply, giving Haldax a cheerful smile. “I think she got out through the ventilation pipe.”
Haldax doesn’t hate us humans, but he definitely sees us as lesser. It’s not personal; he’s obsessed with blood status, and anyone who isn’t Highborn is inferior. He’s fun company, Haldax. Not. “Does the Firstborn know?”
“Sure,” I lie shamelessly. “Would I leave without telling Arax?”
Yes, of course I would. I like Arax—he’s a bit serious for my tastes, but he’s not a bad sort. But come on, I’m not a child. I refuse to ask for permission to leave.
“I don’t believe you.”
I shrug my shoulders. “You could ask him,” I suggest. “Of course, he’s been up all night, watching his mate puke her brains out. He’s probably tired and cranky and freaking out. I’m sure he’ll love to know why you’re bothering him with trivial stuff.”
Haldax wavers, and then yields. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Too late, buddy. Too damn late. I’m already wriggling my way outside.
Fluffy McCutie, here I come.