Protected: Chapter One

Rojav

A six-foot, eight-inch slab of light-green-scaled muscle named Toc loomed over me. The sun shone behind him, casting his features in shadow. I squinted against the blinding rays, trying to make out his eyes. I held my breath, awaiting his next words. He spoke in a voice as deep as a bell.

“Today is the day.” Toc tilted his head to one side. “Are you ready?”

I glanced at the iron-barred gate to our large cell.

“I did all the time they gave me.”

The prison of thick stone and iron bars blocked most sunlight beating down on the city of Tahkath. Deep shadows filled our cells most of the day, keeping the prison cool through the heat. When the sun rose, though, rays of her light reached us through the windows set high in the prison’s tall, stone walls.

The sun rose past the high windows, plunging Toc and I into a world of near-perpetual twilight. When my eyes adjusted, I noticed Toc watching me. Concern pulled at his face.

“You served your time, Rojav. Your release comes with King Dojak’s forgiveness. Your work in Mellida’s prisoner rehabilitation programs earned her confidence.”

But do I really deserve it?

I looked away.

I may have completed my sentence, but I doubt I will ever free myself of the guilt.

“She says Zalko has already made some arrangements for me. I’m supposed to meet up with him at the garden.”

Toc nodded and clasped my shoulder in his giant hand. I looked him in the eye.

“Accept all the help you can get, Rojav.”

I was by no means small for a D’Tali but Toc towered over most people.

Few but Mellida’s mate, Jarlath could match Toc for pure size and power. Jarlath worked as one of the prison guards, and had always been fair to the prisoners he guarded.

Then, Jarlath met Mellida. In the six months since, she entirely transformed our lives.

With D’Tali women so scarce, spending time with one of the human women in any capacity felt special.

I wonder what it would be like to have a woman in my life? No, don’t torture yourself, Rojav. I’m more likely to find a talking rock than a mate.

More than that, though, Mellida had created the opportunity for prisoners to develop new skills with our time separated from the society whose rules we had violated. Many who had stolen to eat before prison now had the opportunity to earn a living.

Jarlath and his fellow guard, Kalan, sauntered up to the gate. Jarlath called into the cell.

“Rojav, Olanth, Madar, it’s your day. You know the drill. Step to the left wall. The rest of you, stay to the back of the cell.”

We prisoners divided ourselves into the requested groups without complaint. We had learned early on that causing trouble was a fast way to lose the chance to do more than sit in a shadowed cell all day.

I stepped to the left wall, lining up between the red-scaled Madar and purple-scaled Olanth. Jarlath unlocked the cell, swinging the door open. Madar, Olanth, and I stepped out of the shadowed cell free men. Jarlath closed and locked the cell behind us.

I wish it were so easy to lock away my own darkness. If only I could step out from under the shadow of my own crime.

We three newly free men walked through the prison’s entrance and into the light breeze blowing through the courtyard. An old numa turned her head in my direction and huffed. For a moment, I let my gaze roam, taking in the world outside of the prison.

I had stepped outside this gate many times, while participating in the various programs Mellida and Zalko had made available at the prison—like the garden work or making leather packs for Mellida’s prisoner release kits.

Mellida, herself, walked up and handed me one.  “Here you go, Rojav.”

“Thank you.” I looked the pack over. “I think I made this one, too.”

Mellida smiled.  “That pack is well made. I saved it for you, since your release day was near.”

I had to admit I enjoyed learning to work with the pafu leather and constructing packs for the newly free.

Now I’m the newly free. Does walking out of a cell really change a criminal into something new? How can it, when my crime can never be undone?

“Thank you. That was thoughtful.”

“There are a few coins so you can get some personal supplies, enough preserved food for three days, a cloak, and a token for the King’s new workforce program. Take it to Zalko at the garden and he will find you a bunk ‘til you find our own place. He will also help you find honest work, if you want it.”

Mellida handed packs out to Olanth and Madar, as well. I waved, then set my feet upon the path to the garden. Olanth and Madar fell in beside me.

I had never intended to make friends in prison, but, once Olanth and Madar had found out the three of us shared a release day, I couldn’t get rid of them.

Madar tossed his token high in the air, snatching it with a hand. “The last time I got out of prison, I slept in a ditch for a week, stealing bread ‘til I could find a gang who’d take me in. This time, there’s a bed to go to.”

Olanth laughed, showing the gap in his teeth where someone had punched him in a bar fight.

“Are you going to look for work, too, Rojav? Or do you have a job lined up?”

“Been in prison too long to know anybody to give me a job. I’ll take a sure bet on making coin to keep meat on my plate and Zalko has always been honest.”

Madar nodded. “Yeah. Zalko’s from the streets, like us. He understands how hard it is to get by.”

Olanth grinned. “When did you ever imagine you’d become a King’s man?”

Madar shook his head, laughing. “From criminals to working for the King. Life’s looking up, boys.”

Olanth laughed. I shook my head. We had walked this route through the city many times on gardening detail, but, this time, we walked it as free men.

Life is supposed to feel different, now. Isn’t it? Olanth and Madar act like children finally let out to play. Do I feel the same spring in my step?

Olanth punched Madar in the arm.

“What was that for?”

“Cause you’re so ugly.”

Madar laughed. “You’re just jealous of my gleaming, red scales. I am the perfection of D’Tali.”

Even I laughed with them.

We passed through the open plains between the prison and the city. Crops stood tall and high, birthing a bounty of fresh summer fruits. We wove our way through the outskirts of the city until Mellida and Jarlath’s cottage greeted us.

Zalko, an old, teal-scaled D’Tali—a fierce fighter, with a lifetime’s experience on the streets— reached many of the prisoners in a way no one else ever had. He listened to our stories and understood us in a way others couldn’t.

Jarlath has been a great guard, but he never had to wonder where his next meal came from or if Dad was coming home drunk again…

I pulled my mind back from the brink of my darkest thoughts.

Zalko was about to speak and proclaim our future. “Glad to see all three of you made it here.”

We nodded and Madar laughed. “Where else we got to go, Boss?”

Zalko clapped my shoulder, smiling.

“Not to worry. Grab any free bunk in the bunkhouse.”

Zalko pointed to a building set away from Jarlath and Mellida’s cottage. Several other D’Tali I recognized from the prison played cards at a table on the bunkhouse’s porch.

“We provide three meals a day. Well, we provide anything you can’t grow in the garden and you boys do the rest.”

Zalko pointed to the kitchen, a breezy, stone building set away from all the others to prevent any fiery kitchen mishaps from burning down everything. A few men worked the kitchen, preparing the next meal.

“What about the work?”

Zalko grinned. “I was just getting to that, Rojav. Right now, we have a few options. There are always construction jobs, when you can’t find anything else. The foremen come by at sunrise, if you want hard, hot, honest work.”

Madar chuckled. “It’s all hot and hard work, Boss.”

“Most of the time that’s true…”

Olanth cut in. “What about today, Boss? I know Mellida gave us some coin to get us by, but I’m hoping to save that for emergencies. My problem is, I’ve been dreaming of cheap beer for months, and I’d sure feel better about quenching that thirst with a bit more coin in my pouch.”

I shrugged and grinned up at Zalko. “Can’t argue with that logic, Boss.”

Zalko pointed to the kitchen. “All we have today is kitchen work. If anything comes up, I’ll let you know.”

I nodded.  “Thanks, Boss.”

Zalko pointed at us. “You three think you’ll stick together for a while? It’s hard to find men who can work together.”

I shrugged. “I suppose Olanth and Madar aren’t so bad.”

Olanth grinned and draped his arm over my shoulder.

“Sure, Boss. We’re buddies. Right, Rojav? I mean, if it will get us more work or coin, we’re best friends and no trouble at all.”

Madar grinned and patted my shoulder. “I can assure you, we are reformed. We’ve learned our lessons.”

“Yeah, Boss. Me and Rojav and Madar, we’re good boys now.”

Olath: Chapter Four

Evelyn

I felt sick—as in, physically sick.

I screwed my eyes shut. The white glare from the teleporter still blinded me. I sucked in a deep breath. My stomach tap-danced, my knees wobbled, and my brain turned into mush. If anyone ever tells you teleporting is fun, you go right ahead and knee them in the groin for me.

 I heard loud footsteps and, not wanting to be blindsided, I forced my eyes open. I was standing on a teleportation pad similar to the one at the testing center, but my new surroundings couldn’t be any more different.

Instead of the sterile, pale beige walls of the room I had been in, the new walls were metal. Bright wires snaked across the floor, connecting a myriad of terminals and devices. By the corner were a couple of high-end medchairs.

This must be some sort of lab.

Cautiously, I took one step forward. My stomach lurched as I adjusted to my new surroundings. The thud of footsteps grew louder. Not a second later, I heard the soft whoosh of the door as it slid up into a hidden partition. In the doorway stood one of the most impressive specimens of masculinity I’d ever seen. He stared right at me.

At his height, he dwarfed me in size, his head crowned by an impressive set of horns. They curved slightly into ends as sharp as a dagger’s tip, and they were the color of polished ivory. The man—or, rather, the alien—was as impressive as his horns.

A uniform hugged his muscular chest and powerful shoulders in an enticing way. I’d wondered if it was true what they said of the Mahdfel. According to what I’d heard back on Earth, the most elite specimens among the Mahdfel became Vaznik warriors, their prowess the stuff of legend. Thanks to them, Earth hadn’t become a slave camp for the Suhlik.

I’d always thought people exaggerated whenever they told stories about these aliens. Now that I was face-to-face with one of them…well, judging by how damn perfect he looked, there was definitely some truth to those rumors. This man was like a chiseled block of marble. He was a space-hammer with a brain.

 “Hello there.” His voice flowed over me, soft and kind. Moving fast, he crossed the length of the room and took my hand in his, like an aristocrat of old. He performed a little bow, a grin on his lips, then straightened.

His shadow fell over me. I gulped, suddenly realizing that he could crush my skull between his thumb and pinkie.

“Are you my…?” I wanted to say the word ‘mate’, but I just couldn’t. Had I really gone from a promising engineering student to a breeding companion? The thought sickened me.

“My name is Storgin,” he said, putting a hand to his chest. “And I’m not your mate.”

First, I felt relief. Then, I remembered that didn’t mean anything. Even if this guy wasn’t my mate, I’d been sent here because someone in this place had genetically matched up with me.

“Where am I?” I asked. “What planet am I on?”

“This isn’t a planet. You’re aboard a Vaznik military vessel. We call it ‘Goldie’, but her official name is The Golden Meridian.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearly anxious about something. He cleared his throat.

“I’m terribly sorry about this, but we gotta move. We’re about to depart in a couple of minutes, and we really can’t have any delays.” I said nothing. He just smiled. “Please, follow me. We need to get you inside a flight suit.”

Having no idea what was happening, I followed this Storgin guy into another room. He grabbed overalls from inside a locker and turned his back to me, probably signaling for me to get dressed, so I did. I had no idea what these overalls were made of, but the fabric adjusted itself to my body, gently hugging my curves.

Storgin snuck a glance at me and smiled. “Perfect. Now, let’s get to the bridge.”

Even though I knew I was aboard a military vessel, nothing could’ve prepared me for The Golden Meridian’s bridge. It wasn’t as epically large as a starship bridge in one of those holovid action movies, but it pulsed with an aura of raw adrenaline. Endless information spooled across dozens of terminals spread around the room. The viewscreen mounted at the front offered a breathtaking view of the darkness of space.

“Here,” Storgin said, directing me to a small seat bolted to the wall. “I’m sorry we’re rushing you through this, but…”

He shrugged, and I gave him a nervous nod and took in the rest of the crew. Sitting atop an elevated platform was another imposing alien, who I assumed to be the ship’s captain. He caught me looking, and my breath caught in my throat.

“Welcome to The Golden Meridian,” he said. “My name’s Timcur, and I’m this ship’s captain. Again, I want to apologize for being so abrupt. You caught us right before we uncoupled from our docking platform, so it can’t be helped.” Looking me straight in the eye, a kind smile spread across his lips. “I know you must be confused, but as soon as we’re on our way, we’ll let you get acquainted. For now, you had better strap in.”

“Right,” I muttered, not sure how I felt about getting acquainted with a military crew of aliens. “Thank you.”

“You’ve already met Storgin.”

Storgin waved.

“There are enough seats for you five up here. I’ll strap in at the lab.”

Storgin jogged into the hall. Captain Timcur waved a hand at an alien sitting by a terminal on the side. This one was even more muscular than the rest of them, and he looked exactly like the kind of alien who’d get in brawls for fun. “That’s Thelkor, our gunner.” Another wave of his hand and he pointed at the chair directly in front of the viewscreen. “And that’s Thelkor’s mate, Rachel.”

“Rachel?” I repeated. “I’m not the only human here?”

“Not really,” Rachel said, spinning her chair around so that I could see her. “Nice meeting you.”

Before I could respond, she turned back to her terminal and continued fiddling with the thousand switches and dials in front of her.

“And, finally,” Captain Timcur said, “that’s Olath, my Executive Officer.”

I looked in the direction Timcur was pointing at and…

That’s him.

I had no idea how I could possibly know.

That is the one I matched up with.

Olath: Chapter Three

Olath

“Ten minutes!” Rachel announced, furiously working on her terminal. Even though she was the only human on The Golden Meridian—or ‘Goldie’, as we liked to call her—she possessed the quiet confidence of a seasoned pilot, and the skills to back it up. I didn’t know of any other Vaznik crew with a human pilot, but I was damn glad we had her with us.

“Ten minutes,” I repeated, thumbing a switch that turned on the shipwide comms. “Everyone, report to the bridge. We’re about to leave Diana’s Arrow.”

It wasn’t long before the rest of the crew filtered onto the bridge, Captain Timcur leading the group. Thelkor, our gunner, was right on his tail. He waggled his eyebrows at Rachel before taking his seat. Before those two had become a thing, I hadn’t known the meaning of ‘innuendo’, but now…

“I’ve just come from the engine room,” Storgin announced. Hands clasped behind his back, he strolled onto the bridge. “All systems are functional and ready to go. Unless I’ve overlooked something, I don’t think we’ll need a maintenance stop for at least a couple of months.”

“Perfect,” I said, watching as he transferred all the information on his tablet to the ship’s system. My screen lit up and I skimmed the system’s diagnostics and Storgin’s report. “Good job, Storgin, as always.”

He shrugged.

“I’d feel more comfortable if we had a real engineer with us.” As our ship’s scientific slash medical officer, Storgin’s role aboard Goldie was as vast as it was important. We depended on him to patch us up after a brawl, to fix whatever was broken in the ship, and to do a scientific assessment of…well, of whatever we needed assessed.

“Duly noted,” I told him. We left it at that. We both knew that, with the mission we had been assigned, there’d be no time to recruit anyone else for the crew. The universe had already blessed us once—when we needed a pilot the most, Rachel was literally teleported here. I didn’t believe we’d be so lucky twice.

I pulled the information on Rachel’s screen to my own, confirmed there were still a few minutes before we uncoupled from Diana’s Arrow, the star-ferry we’d spent the last few days on, and decided to make a quick overview of our status.

Much like Storgin had said, the ship’s systems were pristine. There were no leaks, no spots on the hull that needed soldering, nor parts obviously requiring replacement or maintenance. We’d also stocked up on essentials, and we had everything we needed to be self-reliant for quite a while.

“How are things?” I heard Captain Timcur ask.

As Goldie’s Executive Officer, I sat right in front of him. Since the captain’s seat was on a slightly elevated platform behind me and overlooking the rest of the bridge, he could look straight onto my screen and see its contents.

“I think we’re good,” I said. “Now it’s only a matter of finding the right person for the job.”

“You don’t think we’ll find the right person for it on Tehglaish?”

“Who knows, really?” I shrugged, unsure how to respond. “I would’ve preferred to have a reliable technician working with us, instead of having to find some random hacker in the seedy markets of Tehglaish, but we don’t have much choice.”

Our orders were to stop and capture Zarklac, the leader of a Suhlik terrorist cell. We nearly caught the bastard recently. We had tracked him to Diana’s Arrow a couple of weeks ago, but the bastard slipped through our fingers.

We chased the sneaky fucker into a hidden Suhlik base, but…he got away again. Thankfully, we didn’t walk out of that Suhlik base empty-handed. We’d captured a treasure-trove of data packets containing some of Zarklack’s plans for new attacks. We had only been able to access a few files so far.

A portion of those plans were heavily encrypted. No matter which method we used, we just couldn’t crack its key. We needed a hacker to crack the data’s encryption.

Tehglaish, a seedy planet known for its black markets, was our best hope. Home to many of the galaxy’s hacktivists, Tehglaish was a hub of clandestine operations in this sector. With some luck, we hoped to find someone capable of—and willing to—decrypting Zarklac’s information for us.

It didn’t help that we needed to move fast. We all knew what Zarklac was capable of. The monster had tried to blow up Shackleton’s Crater Lunar Base a few weeks ago. Goldie had docked there for a shore leave, and we’d all witnessed his evil and cruel methods.

“It’ll be alright,” Captain Timcur said, his voice that of a leader with a steady hand. “We have a good crew, and I’m sure that—”

He was cut short by a chiming sound that came straight from my terminal. I narrowed my eyes and looked at the screen. There, a short message detailed that some of our ancillary systems had engaged autonomously.

“What’s going on back there?” Rachel cried out, looking back at me over her shoulder. “I’ve just received the green light from Diana’s Arrow Control, guys. We’re ready to uncouple in three minutes. Can I start the uncoupling procedure, or what?”

I hesitated.

“Well, let me just…” I reread the message again, just to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted any of it. “I’m not sure. Power is being diverted from the engine to power up the axial nodes on—”

“Fucking hell,” Thelkor cried out. “Can you translate that for us? Or do I need to pull a dictionary out of my ass?”

“What Olath is trying to say,” Storgin cut in, sounding cool and collected, “is that our teleporter pad has just powered up.”

Damn right, I thought. And if the teleporter pad has been activated, that can only mean one thing….

“Holy shit,” Thelkor muttered, speaking what was on everyone’s mind.

“What?” the captain stared at Thelkor.

Ever the gunner, Thelkor didn’t mince his words, and he hit the proverbial nail right on its head.

“They’re sending us another woman.”

Olath: Chapter Two

Evelyn

“Are you up?” Lauren’s voice came through the door, her excitement more than evident. “We’re gonna be late, Evelyn!”

“I’m coming,” I shouted, but didn’t move. I stood before the mirror, looking at the haggard expression on my face. Stray locks of dark auburn hair escaped from my ponytail, and my lips were so tightly compressed they were no longer crimson. There were faint lines around my eyes, proof of the tension which had taken me over. My fingernails dug into my palms.

“Evelyn!”

“Coming!” I gave myself an encouraging nod and scratched Fluffbutt behind the ears. “Don’t scratch anything before I’m back, you hear me?”

If I’m back, I thought grimly. The tension in my shoulders became almost unbearable. I knew, even if I had been selected for the lottery, it was highly improbable a genetic match would be found—but I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom. The odds were low, sure, but there was a chance this was the beginning of the end of my life as I knew it.

I opened the door. Lauren took my arm. She checked her wristwatch, gave me a frown, then we set off down the hallways of the dorm. There was an aircab already waiting for us outside. The driver flicked the end of his cigarette to the gutter when he noticed our approach.

“G’morning, ladies.” He tipped his imaginary hat at us. “Heading to the testing center, I presume?”

“That’s right,” Lauren replied, already pushing me into the back of the cab. She was handling me like a wild beast needing a trip to the vet. I felt like—if given the chance, I’d turn on my heels and rush back into my dorm room. There, I’d promptly lock my door and pretend none of this was real.

Except, of course, it was all real.

Twenty minutes later, the aircab cut a path toward the testing center, a domed building with gleaming walls of polished glass and steel beams. Even from a distance, I could see hundreds of young girls being herded across the floors, a group of lab-coated employees spearheading the different groups with ruthless efficiency.

Lauren paid the fare and the two of us ambled through the open square of the testing center. We cut through the manicured gardens and stepped into a massive atrium. No more than three seconds later, a young man stood before us, a holographic tablet in his hands. He held the tablet right in front of Lauren’s face, waiting for her features to be scanned. He frowned.

“You haven’t been selected for the lottery,” he said.

“No, I haven’t,” Lauren said, then she pointed at me. “Evelyn Taylor.”

“Right.” Again, he repeated the procedure on my face. A light chime came from his tablet. A grin lit up the man’s face. “Evelyn Taylor, indeed. Please accompany me, Miss Taylor. You’re on…” He glanced at his tablet. “Third floor, testing room forty-three.”

Lauren and I followed the man into an elevator. I half-expected him to turn Lauren away, but he didn’t. I thanked God for that. I was already an anxious wreck. The last thing I wanted was to go through all this alone.

We were led into a large waiting room, where a group of girls roughly my age already waited for their turn to be tested. The man waved at a couple of empty seats by the corner.

“Wait there,” he said. “Someone will call your name when it’s your turn.”

It didn’t take long.

Five minutes later, a middle-aged lab technician stepped onto the waiting room and shouted my name. Sheepishly, and hoping no one would turn her away, Lauren followed after me. The technician frowned at the sight of Lauren, but, much like the man who’d led us here, said nothing.

The test didn’t take long, either.

They drew my blood, putting the sample into some kind of machine for the results to be processed, and told me to wait.

“God, Evelyn,” Lauren said with a chuckle. “You look like you’re on death row. I’ve told you already, the chances of you getting a match are slim to—”

“Oh,” the technician said. “Interesting.” She stood in front of the computer, hands on her hips, and straightened her back once she read the flashing screen. “Seems like we’ve found a match for you, Ms. Taylor.”

What?” Lauren and I said in unison, our high-pitched chorus earning another frown from the technician.

“That can’t be right,” I muttered. “Could you run the test again? I’m sure there’s been a mistake and—”

“No mistake,” the technician continued. She stepped away from the computer and started messing with another terminal. This was a bulkier one, and the wires coming out from the back-panels led straight to some kind of platform that sat at the corner of the room. “Please, Ms. Taylor, prepare yourself for departure.”

“That can’t be right.” The technician just shook her head and grabbed me by the arm. She hauled me up to my feet and, taking advantage of my confusion, led me across the room.

Once I was standing on the weird platform by the corner, she went back to the terminal and started typing on the keyboard again.

Lauren rushed forward and wrapped her arms around me.

“I’m sorry I was so excited for this,” she mumbled, and her eyes started welling up with tears. “It was just a stupid fantasy, but now…I didn’t really expect you’d have a match. God, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I whispered, returning her embrace. “It’s going to be alright, Lauren. Just look after Fluffbutt while I’m gone, alright?”

“I promise,” she whispered back. “I promise, Eve.”

“Would you please step away from the platform?” the technician said, glaring at Lauren. “You’re not even supposed to be here, miss, so don’t make my job any harder than it already is.”

“I, uh, sure,” Lauren muttered, then took a step back. Once her feet were off the platform, I felt a deep thrumming. The platform vibrated under my feet then there was a bright light.

“What the hell is happening?” I shouted, but no one heard me.

I was already gone.

Olath: Chapter One

Evelyn

“I’m busy,” I shouted, trying to ignore whoever knocked on my door. The knocking only became more insistent. Fluffbutt meowed loudly, demanding I stop the noise. I sighed, crossed the length of my dorm room, and opened the door.

Lauren stood in the hallway outside my door, her lips pulled into a wide grin. Her hair disheveled, she breathed ragged, as if she had run the entire way to my door.

Without waiting for my invitation, she marched past. She made a beeline to the bed, flopped back upon it, and spread her arms wide. The ancient, metal bed frame creaked under her weight.

“Sorry, Lauren. Didn’t know it was you.” Even though we’d just met in my first-year of college, Lauren had quickly become my best friend. She was the one person I’d trust with my life, and the one who was always there whenever I needed her. More than a friend, Lauren was family.

“Studying for the midterms?”

She scratched Fluffbutt behind the ears while shooting my desk a glance. There, my terminal was lit up, a few mathematical formulas and Mechanical Engineering exercises littering the screen. A bunch of notebooks were in front of the terminal, the pages filled with enough numbers and equations to drive a mathematician mad.

“Yeah,” I replied with a shrug. “You know how Professor Andrews is with exams. If I don’t know every little thing in his damn textbook, he’s gonna make sure I don’t get a passing grade. And I really need to get a—”

“I’m sorry to say,” Lauren interrupted, “but there are more important things in life than Mechanical Engineering.” She scooted to the edge of the bed. She wiggled an eyebrow at me, like someone about to drop a bomb on my lap. I crossed my arms and tapped my foot against the floorboards.

“Alright, what’s this about?” I asked her, already feeling hesitant. As much as I loved Lauren, she had a tendency to come up with harebrained schemes all the time, such as ditching class to attend some rave in an abandoned warehouse. Granted, her plans were mostly fun. Right now, though, I really needed to study. “C’mon, Lauren, out with it.”

“Well, tomorrow is your birthday and—”

“I’m sorry,” I rushed to say, waving a hand at my desk. “But, I think I’m gonna pass on celebrating it. We can go out next weekend or something. I’m sorry, but I really need to ace this exam, or else I—”

“God, Evelyn,” she laughed, her grin widening. She then made a serious face and rolled her eyes at me. “I know how much Mechanical Engineering and nerdy formulas mean to you, but you gotta take a minute to listen to me.”

“Right,” I sighed, “I’m listening.”

“As I was saying,” she continued, “tomorrow’s your birthday. I’ve just come from the cafeteria, where I was looking at the lottery announcements, and guess who’s name just popped up on the feed?”

I opened my mouth to say something, then clamped it shut. My stomach twisted in knots. I felt all the color drain from my face. The lottery? Shit, this wasn’t good.

“Are you sure?” I sat beside her, my mind working at a thousand miles per hour. “I mean, are you really sure?”

“I’m positive,” Lauren said. “Evelyn Taylor, student number AHC9812, born on the—”

“Fine, I get it.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath. “Damn it, I really wasn’t counting on this.”

“You know, most girls, consider it a privilege to be a part of the lottery, right?” She arched a sassy eyebrow at me. “I mean, Evelyn, what’s there not to like? If you get selected, you’ll have one of those hunky Mahdfel to have fun with it, you’ll get to see the galaxy, and your family will get a cool $1 million.”

I glared at her.

It was true—a lot of girls hoped to be selected on Lottery day.

Unable to protect itself from Suhlik incursions, this galaxy’s evil bastards, Earth had entered into an agreement with the Mahdfel, the alien race responsible for keeping the Suhlik at bay. Mahdfel lacked sufficient numbers of females in their society, so Earth brokered a deal. In exchange for much needed protection, Earth would provide the Mahdfel with Earth women.

“This is the last thing that I need,” I muttered, feeling nauseous at the prospect of being shipped out to some far corner of the galaxy. I was a woman with dreams and objectives, not a breeding toy! Besides, who’d look after Fluffbutt if I had to move to some remote corner of the galaxy?

“It’s not that bad, Eve,” Lauren insisted, putting her hand on top of mine. Again, I just frowned. “I mean, sure, it must suck to be sent out against your will…but there’s a silver lining. Most women who are selected love it out there. And the Mahdfel aren’t that bad. They might be a lil’ rough around the edges, but they don’t mistreat their women. They know how valuable we are. And I can look after Fluffbutt, here. If it came to that. Just so you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure I believed everything she said. Sure, Lauren would have loved the opportunity to explore the galaxy with a hunky alien by her side, and have lots of freaky sex.

That just wasn’t me. I wasn’t asexual, or anything—I just didn’t wanna have it because of some stupid intergalactic arrangement, with an alien I’d never before met.

“I’ll go with you.” Lauren gave my hand a squeeze. “Don’t worry. The chances you’ll be selected are astronomically low. I doubt they’ll find a match for your DNA. More likely than not, you’ll be back from the testing center in time for your exam.”

“I hope so.” My stomach remained tied in knots. What if Lauren was wrong? What if they found a match? Would I really have to abandon the life I’d built? I gritted my teeth and tried to still my mind. It was useless to fret about the future. Tomorrow I’d know for sure, and until then…

Until then, the only thing I could do was wait.

Stolen from her Alien Mate: Chapter Four

Mellida

I peeled my one-hundred-and-tenth pel fruit in preparation of the upcoming Ancestors’ Day festival. I only needed five more for the traditional Ancestors’ Day pel jam. I didn’t mind the tedious work. Peeling fruit came with a stool upon which to rest and plenty of time to daydream about Jarlath.

Bright memories of the time I spent with Jarlath yesterday frolicked through my mind. The look on Jarlath’s face when I had asked if he wanted to kiss me. I realized I’d giggled and looked around to see if anyone noticed. I should have been more careful to at least look like I was paying attention to my task, but the kitchen was so busy preparing for the feast, no one noticed.

I had worked hard since I first found my way down to the kitchens, I thought I deserved a small amount of slack. A woman needs time to fall in love. With an alien. I suppose I am the alien, here. I looked around, dropping peeled pel number one-hundred-and-fourteen into the bucket.

Thulid, the castle’s Master of the Kitchens, stopped by my bucket while inspecting the kitchens. Purple scales aged to a lovely shade of lavender, Thulid leaned his appreciable gut against my worktable and peered into my bucket of peeled pel.

“How are you settling into the kitchens, Mellida?” His deep, rumbling voice rolled over me like a soft, old blanket. Memories of Grandpa floated through my head.

“I’m well, Thulid. I was just finishing up with the pel for the jam.”

Thulid laughed and patted me on the back. “Wonderful. Once we get this jarred, you should go on home. Tomorrow is a long day for all of us.”

“Thanks, Thulid. I will do that. It has been too long since I weeded my garden, and I believe I may have a new crop of billin leaf, too.”

“Just in time for Ancestor’s Day.” He smiled at me and moved on. Thulid maintained a dignified, kind, air most days. Let him catch you abandoning your post at a prep table or oven, and I swore he looked like a scaly Gordon Ramsey.

I was a tiny human, compared to the D’Tali rushing around me. At five-foot six-inches tall, I wasn’t tiny for a human woman, but these dinosaur men surrounding me all towered above six feet. I peeled the last pel and dropped it in the bucket, wiping sweat from my brow.

I set my knife down and grabbed the handle of the full bucket. I hefted it in two hands and waddled over to the cooler, a dark room of stone blocks chilled by water diverted from the river. I was strong, for a Human woman, but everything here was made for people taller than the average Human.

I hefted the slightly-too-large bucket to a shelf next to some aging numa cheese. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. Within seconds my mind drifted back to Jarlath. After yesterday, I dreamt of kissing him, of what it would be like to run my hands over the bumps of his shiny scales.

Arms encircled my waist. I yelped and spun, arm drawn back, ready to fight. My heart pounded in my chest. Jarlath chuckled, drawing his face out of range of my curled fist.

“Oh, you!” I slapped his shoulder, not that he would notice through all that muscle. My hand felt up his bicep until his twitching pecs distracted me. The silly grin on his face and his dancing pecs set me to laughing hard enough to tear up.

“Did you miss me?”

I tried to back away, laughing. I turned and walked to the kitchen.

“Maybe. Ask me tomorrow.”

Jarlath followed me through the kitchen.

“So, you are asking me to join you in the Human Dating ritual, yes? I mean, I can only imagine what human men must be like, but—with as fast as rumors fly after Amber sneaks off to her favorite tavern—I heard Human men were often strange even in the eyes of Human women.”

I laughed. I laughed a lot around Jarlath. I passed under the arch and into the kitchen’s courtyard. The kitchen staff smiled at Jarlath as we passed. He patted backs and snuck appreciative bites of their dishes.

“You have the best job, Mellida, around this delicious food every day. I would eat myself sick the first day.”

I chuckled, grabbing his hand and dragging him to the far side of the courtyard.

“Yes, I am happy to see you.”

He tugged on my hand. I followed along like dancing a waltz. Jarlath drew me close, wrapping his arms around me. His big hands cupped my cheek. His gentle fingers stroked my lips. My heart galloped.

“This is ‘later’, Mell. I have come to collect my promised kiss.”

I gasped. “I made no such promise. I said, ‘I’ll think about it’.”

He grinned, running his hand up and down my back. My fingers traced the contour of his collarbone.

“And? Did you?” The longer he gazed into my eyes, the further in I fell. My entire essence glowed with golden warmth. Each second we were together, those golden threads bound us more tightly.

“Did I what?”

“Did you think about kissing me.”

I bit my lip. A blush crept over my face. “Maybe.”

His strong hand stroked my hair. I stretched up on my toes, yet could not reach Jarlath’s face. I grabbed it with two hands and pulled him down to meet me. Soft and gentle, belly fluttering wildly, I pressed my lips to his.

My lips tingled against his. Warm, golden energy flared to life within me. He slid his hand behind my neck, cradling my skull and returned my kiss as if born to it. My lips parted. Our tongues danced.

A small moan escaped my lips. I drew away. We both drew ragged gasps of breath. Never had I felt a kiss like that. For a moment, the rest of the world stood still around us.

 “I have to go.” My voice sounded hoarse to my ears. I stepped back, but my fingers lingered. Jarlath spoke not a word. He watched me walk to the kitchens. He looked like he might break in two were we to part.

I returned to the pel fruit in a heady daze. I blessed the long hours cooking on the line while chasing my dream of being the chef at my own restaurant, for my hands knew the recipe. My head, well, had no chance of escaping reruns of that kiss.

It turned out I only needed one-hundred-and-one pel fruit for the jam, so I whipped up a quick pel cake. The cake baked while I filled jars. Making the jam filled the kitchen with humidity. Sweat ran down my back and between my breasts. The humidity might have made me miserable, but the cake turned out perfect.

I tidied my stations, washing my tools, utensils, and dishes. Jarvic, a young, orange-scaled D’Tali with a flair for spice, fussed at me for washing my own dishes. The kitchen labor was well divided, and dishes were, technically, Jarvic’s job, but I had spent so much time in commercial kitchens on Earth, I felt compelled to clean up.

Wiped out from my day, I checked the jars of jam one last time, happy they all sealed well. I gathered my things, stuffing them in a leather pack I picked up at the market last month.

I stopped by Thulid’s office and collected my pay. Thulid insisted we all be paid before Ancestor’s day so we could all enjoy the festival. I stuffed the coins in my bra, thankful the other Human women and I had found a tailor who would work with our needs.

We had gone through several unsatisfactory solutions for human breasts, limited, as we were, by available materials, but the tailor found an imported Aetamian fabric with superior stretch.

We settled on a demi-bra design. The tailor made each piece to fit and, I must admit, custom tailored clothes fit so much better than off-the-rack on Earth.

As good as the bra was, the tailored trousers we had talked the tailor into making us may have been the best pants I had ever owned. I had had the pair I now wore made from a lighter fabric to keep cool while working in the kitchens.

I picked up the pel cake and walked to the Auxiliary Barracks where many of the prison guards, including Jarlath, were billeted.

My tired legs felt heavy, but my heart floated in my chest, light and free. I stopped at the barracks’ door and asked the young D’Tali guard stationed there if he would tell Jarlath he had a visitor. The young guard’s eyes about fell out of his head, seeing—and talking to—a Human woman.

“Yes, mi’lady.” He snapped off a quick salute and sprinted inside to find Jarlath. I sighed about the ‘mi’lady’. I was a cook, not a ‘lady’. When other girls asked for dolls, I asked for fake food and a play kitchen.

Jarlath arrived, smiling wide. He stroked my hair, eyes huge. That golden fog between us pulsed more strongly each passing second.

“Mell.” He took my free hand and gazed into my eyes.

“I brought you a cake, since I had to run you off, earlier.” I pushed the boxed cake into his hands.

“Thank you, it smells delicious.”

Kalan popped his head out of the prison gate and shouted at Jarlath.

“Jarlath, we need you in here. Hezric opened his mouth again and Toc’s tossing the old man around like a mad valanx.” Kalan disappeared behind the gate. Loud shouts rang out and I heard the crashing of bowls on iron bars.

“I have to go, Mell…” Jarlath’s head whipped back and forth between me and the door.

I grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him down to me. I planted a hot kiss on his lips then looked him directly in his love-addled eyes.

“Don’t get hurt.”

He smiled at me.

“I promise.” He turned on his heel and ran back through the gate, pel cake in hand.

I sighed and made my way to my small cottage not too far from the kitchens. I apologized to my poor, weedy garden, promising to tend it tomorrow.

Legs leaden and happier than I remember, I found myself in bed, still clothed. I drifted off to dreams of Jarlath and his electric kisses.

Stolen from her Alien Mate: Chapter Three

Jarlath

I ladled out scoop after scoop of stew and soup into prisoners’ bowls, but Mellida dominated my mind. She waited in the prison’s office for us to finish so we could walk the remains of the meal back to the kitchens. I liked to think she awaited my return, as well.

Mellida’s soft curves and quick laugh enchanted me every time I saw her. An imagined lifetime of making her happy filled my dreams. The golden threads of the mating bond slowly binding us together pulsed with each beat of my heart.

I filled the last bowl and Kalan had given each man a flatbread. We gathered up the now empty pots and baskets and returned them to the cart. Tika casually grazed on a sheaf of hay stuffed in a wire cage on the prison courtyard’s wall.

Cart full, and the inmates fed, we returned to the office. Steaming dishes of meats and vegetables in rich sauces filled a wooden table in the corner. A rough grain sack filled with fruits in bright colors. Kalan grabbed a warm, soft roll from a basket and stuffed it in his face while he piled enough food to feed six in a large dish.

“Leave some for the rest of us.” Hurin shouldered past Kalan, filling his own plate.

“Did you eat yet, Mellida?”

“Mell. Call me Mell.” She blushed and shrugged. “It’s my nickname.”

“Did you eat, Mell?” My heart threatened to jump from my chest as she smiled and nodded, her hair shining in the light filtering through the office window.

“I’ve had plenty of time to nibble while you worked.”

Hurin swallowed a mouthful of roll and turned to Mellida. “Mell, tell us more about Earth. Earth stories are the funniest stories.” Zariv grunted his agreement. A sliver of meat fell from Zariv’s full mouth.

Mellida laughed. “What do you want to hear about today?”

“Mammals.” Zariv groaned at Hurin’s suggestion.

I laughed and stuffed a roll in my mouth. “You always say ‘mammals’. No more mammals, Hurin. Mell here is all the mammal we need. I want to hear more about the flying machines.”

“I don’t believe machines can fly. The idea is too strange.” Kalan waved our conversation away then stuffed his face with a golden-hues fruit.

“We all went to see their spaceship when the Humans first arrived.” Zariv laughed.

“I’ve only ever heard of machines crashing, Jarlath, not flying.” Hurin chuckled. Mellida laughed with us.

“Sad, but true, Hurin. Amber’s Rover works, but the spaceship is long gone, now.” The room fell silent.

“Sorry, Mell. I wasn’t thinking how you might not want to talk about being stuck here, now.”

“Don’t worry, Hurin. At first, I really wanted to go back.” Mellida blushed again, glancing at me. “Now, though, I’ve found reasons to make a home here.”

Please, let her mean me. I want to be a reason for her to be happy here.

I know we are mates, but neither of us have had mates before and I don’t know much about Human mating rituals. What if I make a mistake? What if I offend her? Then, will we be miserable, even mated?

“Do you miss it? Earth? With your flying machines and mammals?”

Mell’s eyes grew distant, then she smiled. “I think I will always miss it. The way an adult misses their parents’ home when they grow up and move away.” Her blue eyes turned to me. I thought I would fall into them. She smiled. I nudged her foot with a toe. She blushed but didn’t pull away.

I stood. “Time to head back. If we wait much longer, Tika will start back without us. She keeps a tight schedule.” The other guards cleaned up the dishes, placing the dirty ones in the cart.

Tika shook her head and bellowed. I slipped my big hand around Mel’s, red scales shimmering like fire in the light of the setting sun. We walked in silence for some time, basking in the golden warmth of the bond threading our lives together.

“Jarlath?”

I looked down at her. Tika plodded along the path. The cart creaked and the dirty dishes clanked with each rough cobble. Even surrounded by the cacophony of clanks, creaks, the cries of birds, and the general din of a thriving kingdom, Mellida’s sweet voice soothed my soul.

“Yes, Mell?”

“I…I would like to ask you that question, now, before I lose my nerve.” She chewed on a fingernail, big eyes watching me from under her raven-black hair.

“Ask me anything. I desire to hide nothing from you.”

Jarlath! What if she doesn’t like you and you just can’t tell because you know nothing about Human women? My heart thundered in my chest. Tika slowed her pace as we approached the stock tank. She splashed the water then drank deep droughts of the clear waters.

Mell stopped close to me. She looked into my eyes. Her body shook. With a quick breath, she finally spoke.

“Do you want to kiss me?”

My knees went weak. I planted a hand on the side of the cart to keep from falling on my ass. Mellida’s words darted through my brain like a buzzing szecta in a swamp.

Do you want to kiss me?

My head spun. Do I want to kiss her? Of course, I want to kiss her! I realized I should say the same aloud. What if you took too long to respond and it’s already too late and she runs screaming and breaks your heart, Jarlath?

Sheer terror shot through me. I pulled my shocked mind together as quickly as I could. “Of course, I want to kiss you, Mell.”

Mellida’s eyelids fluttered. She leaned her body into me. Her perfect, curvy, Human body. I cupped her face with a trembling hand. I stroked her shoulder with the other trembling hand.

My eyes searched her face, drinking in her perfection when I detected the disturbing hint of a smile and a glimmer in her blue eyes.

“I didn’t say ‘kiss me right now, you giant hunk of D’Tali, you.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. Words but a husky whisper, I confessed.

“I do want to kiss you. But, if you prefer to start, I will be just as happy for you to kiss me.” Mellida bit her bottom lip then smiled. She patted my arm and sauntered off, leading Tika. She looked back at me over a shoulder.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” This woman will be the death of you, Jarlath. Oh, what a sweet demise.

Heart full and head fuzzy, I jogged ‘til I caught up to Mellida’s side.

“Do you like working at the prison?”

“I thought it was my turn for a question.”

She grinned her devious smile again. “Answer my question first, and I’ll think about answering yours.”

I chuckled. Mell always found a way to keep me on my toes and I loved her for it.

“Very well, yes. I enjoy my job. The inmates earned a place in those cells, but they still must be fed and cared for. We D’Tali have never been brutal the way the Aetamian were before King Kator.”

Mellida leaned her head against my arm. “I never thought of it that way.”

“Some of our prisoners are important to keep an eye on, too.”

She looked up at me. “Like who?”

I searched my mind and remembered Lomav’s disgusting behavior earlier that day.

“Like Lomav, King Dojak’s cousin. He tried to take the throne. He’s a terrible person, but there are always those who will follow a terrible person if he promises them power.”

Mellida patted my arm. Sparks shot through me everywhere her fingers touched. “Now, that does sound exactly like Earth.”

Tika slowed. I looked around and discovered we had already arrived at the kitchens. My heart sank a little in my chest.

“It looks like our stroll has come to an end.”

Neither of us walked away. We gazed into each other’s eyes one last time before parting. I ran a hand over her long locks, playing with the soft strands. Her lips drew close to mine.

Kitchen staff we failed to notice clanged pots and pans as they unloaded the cart. They carried the used dishes to the wash sinks.

She stepped back, slow. “I have to go.” Her fingers fiddled with the straps on my armor.

“So do I.”

We parted. Mellida returned to the kitchen and her duties there. I picked my way back to the prison, thoughts full of Mellida. By the time I returned, the sun had set and my shift was nearly complete.

“Well, thanks for deciding to wander back, where the rest of us were actually working.”

“Ha ha, Hurin. Keep laughing. Nothing you can say will ruin my mood.” I floated through the end of my day, Mellida’s sweet lips haunting my mind.

Hurin sighed. “You’re a lucky man, Jarlath. Finding your mate.”

“Disgusting!” Lomav’s irritating voice rang out from a cell.

“Shut your mouth, traitor.” I placed a hand on Hurin’s arm, holding him back.

“Calm, Hurin. Nothing that comes out of that traitor’s mouth deserves a listen.” Contempt and disgust twisted Lomav’s mouth. He spat a glob of thick mucus in my direction.

“How can you defile yourself with that…scaleless mammal?” Lomav shuddered. “Just the thought of all that hair.” He doubled over at the waist, pretending to wretch.

Guards on the next shift filtered in, stowing their personal gear.

“The worst part? The half-breed mongrels those Human animals pop out.”

Kalan slammed his spear into the bars. All eyes swiveled to him.

“That’s enough out of you, traitor.” Kalan raised the butt of his spear at Lomav. Lomav slunk back into a shadow at the back of the cell, cackling the entire way.

Stolen from her Alien Mate: Chapter Two

Mellida

Sweat poured down my forehead as I hefted the last basket of flatbreads and lugged them outside. Tika, the gentle old numa who pulled the kitchen delivery cart, watched me pass. I nestled the basket atop the cart stuffed with baskets of coarse flatbreads, vats of soups and stews brewed from the kitchen’s trimmings.

The D’Tali castle kitchen looked nothing like the kitchens I worked in back on Earth. Close to two years before, I’d worked as a sous chef at a little gastropub in a trendy neighborhood. Mom said I was born a foodie, but for all her complaints, we spent many wonderful years together exploring little restaurants everywhere we went.

I took my time returning to the hot kitchen. The cart was packed, and until the prison guard escort arrived, I had a moment to catch my breath. I stroked the scaled shell on Tika’s back.

She swung her big head back at me and huffed, leaning into my hand.

I laughed. “Hold on, Tika.”

I fished a rough flour sack out of my apron pocket and scrubbed her scales with it. Her head stretched up like a dog and she snorted her approval. Numa looked nothing like dogs. Like most advanced life on this planet, numa were reptilian.

While I was learning D’Tali at the school Sofia, Camilla, Isabella, and a few of the other women founded after our spaceship crashed for the last time, I’d overheard Janis say she thought the D’Tali were descended from this planet’s version of dinosaurs.

Had anyone told me two years ago I would be part of a group of human women crashing their spaceship on a planet of big, smart, dinosaur men, I would have laughed in their face.

Well, that ship wasn’t exactly ours. It belonged to an alien race called the Skarg.

The Skarg abducted the Human women on this planet from Earth, intending to enslave us. Something happened and their spaceship crashed near Tahkath. I shook my head to clear it from these memories.

We escaped. We are free. The D’Tali have been good to us.

I drew a deep breath and leaned against Tika’s strong neck. I wrapped an arm under and patted the other side. Tika stretched, huffing.

“Good girl, Tika. Soon, we’ll get to see Jarlath, again. Aren’t you excited?” She tossed her snout, jangling her bridle. “I’m excited, too.”

Jarlath’s tall, broad-shouldered silhouette… I sighed.

Now, had you told me two years ago that I would be falling in love with one of those dinosaur men, I would have told you that only happens on YouTube.

I blushed. Well, Mellida, there’s no YouTube here, in Tahkath, or any other kingdom on this planet. You’re just lucky you went to too many renaissance faires.

The inner truth stung, but I smiled anyway. I enjoyed my new life and meeting Jarlath filled me with a warm, golden joy.

Was this how Sofia felt when she met King Dojak? Or the other Human women who came here on that spaceship with me and fell in love with a D’Tali like Queen Sofia?

The distinct ring of a guardsman’s armor chased away my daydreams. I spun to look. Through the kitchen courtyard strode Jarlath. At six-foot eight-inches tall, he towered over me. Most D’Tali towered over me, honestly, but Jarlath was tall even for the D’Tali.

Our eyes met and joy broke over his face. Every time I saw that look on Jarlath’s face, I wanted to run to him and jump into his arms. I restrained myself, smiling instead. Jarlath gripped his chest with a hand.

“You, Mellida, are so perfect, I may die right here.”

I stifled a giggle, rolling my eyes at him. “Ridiculous.”

He stopped in front of me. Gentle eyes gazed into mine. Jarlath’s hand cupped my cheek.

“Sweet Mellida, every time I see you, I lose all sense. Every drop rushes out my ears. What would you have this poor man do?”

I fought the smile on my face and lost. A genuine laugh escaped my lips. “I will have you escort me on our task so I might return in time to enjoy the remainder of my day.”

Jarlath took Tika’s lead rope in one hand and offered me the other. “Shall we?”

I slid my hand into his and we made our way to the prison. I loved the way his eyes flashed when I took his hand.

“How did you end up as my escort?”

“Funny story. A couple of the inmates put on a show earlier, and Kalan took a solid punch to the head. So, Kalan is wobbling around after, he can’t see straight, and is whining. So, being my helpful self, I offered to take on lunch duty.”

“Poor Kalan. Sounds like that hurt.”

Jarlath laughed. “I doubt it. We D’Tali are tough, Mellida. He just wanted to play cards with the other guys. But, how can I complain? It gives me more time with you.”

My heart fluttered. This would all sound wrong on Earth, but the D’Tali were so genuine, I could let myself enjoy Jarlath’s sweet words. Besides, I knew he couldn’t be some player, like the men back on Earth.

The D’Tali, as a people, produced way more men than women.

Due to this imbalance, D’Tali women were rare and precious. There just weren’t enough D’Tali women for Jarlath to have had chances to flirt with.

We crossed the Queen’s Bridge. The wide waters of the river cut through the city, passing by the castle before trundling away into the horizon. The docks lay downriver on the outskirts of town. A wall separated it from the rest of the city. A jumble of buildings surrounded the street where we walked.

“Remember when we first met?” Jarlath smiled.

“Tolvin tripped over a cobble and couldn’t make the trip. You offered to help. Once you saw me, of course, you couldn’t stay away.” Jarlath winked at me and I laughed.

I squeezed his hand. “I only saw you because you dropped all the spears you were carrying.”

Jarlath groaned. “Your beauty stunned me.”

We walked in silence for a while. I watched the city bustle about me, drinking in the golden warmth between us.  Jarlath broke the quiet first. “May I ask you a question?”

“Certainly, but I get to ask you one for each of your questions.” His big hand engulfed mine, his fingers stroking the inside of my wrist. No doubt, Jarlath was strong enough to hurt me, but I knew he would never. Comfort radiated from him on a golden thread.

“Are you happy here?” Jarlath held his breath.

“When…when we first arrived, I was so confused, I didn’t know how I felt about anything. The shock of being pulled from my life, my family, the only world I ever knew nearly overwhelmed me.” I looked up into his eyes. “Now, though, I think I am. I enjoy my job. Learning entirely new ingredients and how to cook over a fire were a challenge, for sure.”

“Do we have nothing like what you knew?” His strong fingers continued their strokes. Little electric shock radiated from where our fingers met.

“That’s what’s funny. Funny-strange, not funny-haha. Everything here is similar, but different.” We stopped for a moment at the last livestock tank on the edge of town. Taki nuzzled her muzzle into the cool water and splashed a few times before settling into long slurps.

“And I am still strange to you as well?” Jarlath gulped.

A smile slowly spread across my lips. “Absolutely.”

Jarlath laughed. Taki swung her head to look at us, water streaming from her mouth.

“Strange and wonderful.” I blushed, took Taki’s lead and walked back to the path. Jarlath caught up to me in two long strides.

“Wonderful, huh?” His big hand stroked my long hair. I shrugged. The prison loomed before us as we drew near. “Your turn.”

I wanted to ask him how he felt about me. I wanted to ask him if he felt that golden warmth, too.

I wanted to ask him a lot of things, but Tika slowed to a halt and I realized we stood before the prison gates.

“I will have to save my question for later. For now, help me unload this food.” We walked to the rear of the cart and filled our arms. I managed a basket of bread on each arm while Jarlath’s huge arms and hands carried the handle of a large stewpot in each hand.

We carried the food through the gates, the courtyard, and through the main doors. Passing the long iron bars of a cell, I placed my baskets of bread on a long table near the office. Careful to remain out of reach of arms grasping at me through the bars, I stepped out of Jarlath’s way as he deposited the stew near the bread.

Inmates lined up, dragging their bowls across the bars and stomping their feet in rhythm. Jarlath ushered me into the office to wait while the guards distributed the food. I peeked around the corner to watch.

Dozens of D’Tali men crowded the bars of each cell, ignoring the guard’s commands to move back. Jarlath was the tallest of the guards, and most of the prisoners. Jarlath approached a cell, unlocking the door over a small, rectangular pass though in the bars.

He dropped the door open. Prisoners thrust bowls through and Jarlath ladled the stew into them. Kalan passed flatbreads into grasping hands. Prisoners pushed at each other. Their grunts and grumbles transformed into shouts, but they calmed quickly as each man’s bowl was filled.

I sighed, watching Jarlath work. Not only did he make me laugh, Jarlath looked like he just walked out of a comic book. The thick, corded muscles of the arms flexed and jumped with every ladleful. I worried for him, too, working here among so many violent prisoners.

I worried that, one day, instead of my handsome D’Tali coming to see me, one of his fellow guards would come and tell me something happened to him and he was gone, dead. I shuddered at the thought.

I realized I never wanted him to leave.

Stolen from her Alien Mate: Chapter One

Jarlath

Memories of Mellida’s breathtaking smile filled my daydream. I leaned back in my chair, remembering how her raven-black hair shone when she tossed it over her shoulder. As soon as I saw her the first time, when she brought lunch from the castle kitchens, she lived inside my heart.

The loud clanging of a metal bowl against heavy iron bars interrupted my thoughts, chasing Mellida’s flashing blue eyes from my mind. I brought my feet to the floor, looking for the source of the noise.

“What do you want, Toc?”

A tall, broad-shouldered D’Tali leaned against the bars, sneering. Dirt smeared his light green scales. A beaten metal bowl dangled from his fingers. “Guard, when’s lunch going to get here?”

“Get back, Toc. Lunch will be here when it gets here. You’re early, anyway. We haven’t even gone to the kitchens yet.”

Toc stepped back from the bars fitted into the hard stone blocks of the prison floor but lingered nearby.

“How’d a good boy like you get stuck with this job, Jarlath?” Toc spat on the ground and grinned at me.

“I won a bet. Now, I get to see your pretty face all day.”

“Aren’t you lucky?” Toc laughed.

Hezric, red scales dulled with age, sidled up. I wondered if my red scales would look like that when I grew old, too.

“Sounds like torture to me,” Toc growled.

“Shut your mouth, old man.” More inmates wandered up, looking for lunch, and found the brewing fight instead.

“You going to let him talk to you like that, Hezric?”

I groaned. Merkor’s comments would turn hungry inmates into combatants any minute. I leaned around the corner and called into the office where Kalan sat filling out paperwork.

“Kalan, you better get over here.”

He looked up, then dropped his pen and hustled around the corner. Inmates shouted and banged bowls on stone and iron. I grabbed a spear and sprinted to the bars.

Hezric spat on Toc’s boot. Toc roared. The gathered prisoners cheered, jeering them on.

“Break it up!” I jabbed the butt of the spear through the bars. I wanted to break up the fight, not have bloody prisoners when lunch arrived.

Toc grabbed Hezric, slamming him into the bars. The gathered prisoners cheered again. Scaled arms of every color hung through cell doors all the way down the halls. More guards rushed in from the prison’s entrance, bearing their own spears.

Hezric swung, landing a punch in Toc’s gut. Toc wheezed. I rushed to the door of the cell in which Toc and Hezric fought, pushing prisoners back with the butt of my spear. Kalan, Zariv, and Hurin rushed in behind me and helped clear the door of prisoners.

Recovered, six-foot eight-inches tall Toc wrapped a thickly muscled arm around the six-foot tall Hezric’s neck. Hezric beat at Toc’s arms and kicked at his legs. Toc didn’t flinch under the blows. Growling, Hezric bit into Toc’s arm and Toc bellowed.

I pulled the large ring of heavy keys from my belt and fit the one for this cell into the lock. I twisted my wrist and pushed the cell door in. The other guards followed me in, holding the crowd back with the sharp end of their spears.

I grabbed Toc’s shoulders, pulling him off Hezric. Kalan pushed Hezric out of Toc’s grasp. Hezric launched back at Toc, throwing another fist. Toc and I ducked the swing and Hezric’s fist landed square on Kalan’s jaw.

Kalan stumbled back, arms flailing. His hand found an iron bar and he leaned against it, holding his spear at the crowd. Hezric stepped back, winding up another swing. Faster than I could see, Hurin jabbed the butt of his spear between Hezric’s feet.

Hezric crashed face-first into the stone floor with a grunt. Hurin spun his spear and jabbed it toward Hezric’s neck. The metallic tip flashed in the light streaming from the windows set high in the walls and stopped less than an inch from Hezric’s throat.

Zariv stepped in, grabbing Hezric by the collar and dragged him from the cell. Toc jerked his shoulders and I let him go. He adjusted his shirt, grabbed his bowl from the floor, and sauntered back into the crowd.

I scanned the inmates faces, looking for the glimmer of more trouble, but they all backed away, laughing and retelling their favorite parts of the fight.

Kalan, Zariv and I backed our way through the door. Kalan shut it behind us, rubbing his jaw. I twisted the key in the lock, locking the door, then returned my keys to my belt.

“I’ll get this one to solitary.” Hurin pulled Hezric to his feet and shoved him along down the corridor, Hezric complaining the entire way.

Kalan held his head. His knees wobbled a bit. I helped him to the office and lowered him into a chair.

“The old D’Tali really got you, didn’t he?”

Kalan laughed, hurting his face, and groaned. “Hezric punches like an angry numa kicks.” He leaned his head back, massaging the purple scales on his scalp with his fingers.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on lunch duty?”

 Kalan groaned. His hand slid over his face. “Oh, no. No, no, no, no. My head throbs, Jarlath. You must help me. I think I’ll vomit right on your boots if you try to make me go.”

I chuckled. “Well, let me take the burden of that task off your hands, Kalan. I will simply go in your place.”

Massaging his head with both hands now, Kalan thanked me and continued to groan.

I pulled the keys from my belt and laid them on the office desk. Kalan slid further down into the chair. I gathered my things. Glancing over at the cell, a blue-scaled D’Tali prisoner caught my eye.

The traitor, Lomav, King Dojak’s cousin, sat in a dark corner.

“You look full of yourself, Jarlath.” His irritating voice rang out into the hall.

“I have nothing to say to you, traitor.” I checked my pack, pouches, and pockets out of habit.

“You look happy. Hmmm. Could you be going to see your…Human?”

I kept my eyes on my work. Lomav had always been a little slimy and rotten. I knew from experience he would keep digging at me, trying to infuriate me, if I let him. I decided long ago to ignore him.

Lomav leaned his face against the bars. “You disgust me. Mating with a Human, a mammal…” He shuddered.

Anger rose up my spine, but I refused to take the bait. I buckled on my sword belt and grabbed a spear.

“You’re a disgrace to the D’Tali, Jarlath. Just like Dojak.” I turned from his taunting voice and walked out the door, pretending like Lomav wasn’t there.

I made my way from the prison courtyard onto King’s Way, a wide lane leading into the city. I walked to town, my step giddy. I would have seen Mellida soon, anyway, when she arrived at the prison with the meals, but now, I’d get to see her that much sooner.

All the moments I’d spent with her danced through my head. My heart fluttered at the memories of her laugh and the warmth of her company. I sighed. When the Human women first arrived on that spaceship, I didn’t know what to think.

The concept of intelligent mammals alone, shocked all of D’Tali. King Dojak falling in love with the Human woman, Sofia…well, no one could have predicted a D’Tali would fall in love with a Human woman.

As shocked as I was to first hear of the Human women, when I heard King Dojak’s mate was one of them, I nearly fainted.

Then, I saw Mellida, her long black hair shining in the sun, bright blue eyes flashing above that smile. Only half-way to the kitchens, and a silly smile already stretched across my face. The castle grew larger as I drew closer.

Homes and shops, neighborhoods and alleyways lined the street down which numa drew carts filled with the kingdom’s bounty. Large, black-spotted, teal-skinned fruit filled one cart. Sheaves of hay bound in twine filled another. People bustled everywhere, selling wares and carrying supplies.

A small D’Tali boy raced by in a streak of blue scales. Three other boys, scales all shades of green, chased after him. I feared one would run in front of an oncoming numa, but all four skidded around a corner.

The blue-scaled boy dared a glance behind himself. Seeing the other three directly on his heels, the boy pumped his legs harder. Looking behind him, he never saw the ale-bellied shopkeeper sweeping the pathway in front of his candle shop.

The boy ran headfirst into the shopkeeper’s gut. The shopkeeper oofed and the boy bounced back into the boys chasing him. All four boys went down in a tangled mess of flailing limbs. One boy rolled into the street in front of an oncoming numa.

I grabbed the collar of his tunic and swung him clear before the numa had time to run him over.

“Thanks!” His smudged face smiled up at me.

I put him on his feet. His three friends run up asking him if he was hurt as loud as possible. “The four of you, take better care.”

Shaking my head, I took the Queen’s Bridge over the River of the Ancestress flowing by the castle. Hundreds of boats floated by or docked at the piers in the distance.

My chest swelled with pride. King Dojak led Tahkath well and the D’Tali people prospered. Mellida’s laugh and enchanting smile filled my head again. Tahkath had prospered since the Human women first came.

I broke into a run. The castle’s kitchens lay but a few blocks away beyond the castle wall and, in them, my Mellida awaited me.

Thelkor: Chapter Four

Rachel

The swirling light blinded me and I shut my eyes as the floor rocked. Nothing actually moved during the process, but it felt like everything solid I could use to balance myself became as fluid as an ocean.

I was struck by a wave of nausea and worried for a moment that I was going to come out on the other side barfing, but the floor steadied again and, the second I found my balance, the sickness passed.

I’d never pilot anything at a decent speed if I got squeamish over being tossed around a little.

I blinked several times to clear my eyes and looked around as I stepped gingerly off the transport pad. There were some big aliens staring at me and I stared straight back.

I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. These guys didn’t look particularly welcoming. I mean, at least they weren’t fighting over me or anything like that, but I sure as hell didn’t feel welcome.

I think I might have walked in at exactly the wrong time. Something is going down here.

The air held the atmosphere of an argument in progress. Almost like the smell of gas, you knew the wrong move at exactly the wrong time would ignite the air.

“Hi, guys.” I tried to sound cheerful. “How are we today?”

Still silence and stares. I blinked and found myself grinning.

Maybe these guys are all big, soft teddy bears.

“I was told that one of you guys is my mate?” I asked, making eye contact with each one.

Their expressions didn’t change. They kept staring at me. I was starting to get worried—weren’t they expecting me?

“Welcome,” the guy in the middle said. “I’m Captain Timcur.”

“I’m Rachel,” I said slowly. Timcur was giving me a nice smile, but the others still just looked confused.

“What is she doing here?” one of them muttered.

He swayed, and I could smell the alcohol from across the room. His face was twisted and intense and that was a pity. He could have been very cute if he hadn’t looked so pissed about everything.

“I signed you up for mates,” the captain grinned. “I was so proud of you all, I thought you would appreciate it.”

“Really?” The most refined-looking one crossed the room in two strides and gently reached for my hand. “I am Storgin, my dear. I am very pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.” I grinned at him as he air-kissed above my hand and gave a little bow. Even though he came close enough for me to feel the tickle of his skin, he didn’t quite touch me.

It was a little weird, but I could tell he was genuine. His eyes sparkled with mischief and I knew he was making fun of his own affected pose. I liked him immediately.

“Who says I wanted to be signed up?” the drunk one asked. “You had no right.”

“Are you seriously complaining, Thelkor?” The one standing by the captain glared at him. “This is a marvelous opportunity. Welcome, Rachel. I’m Olath.”

“Great to meet you.” I nodded his way, trying to evade the glare of the other one.

Thelkor.

“As if this place wasn’t already a fucking circus!” he said angrily. “Now this! Honestly, we have enough problems today without having little girls showing up that we have to babysit.”

“Excuse me—” I thundered, ready to give the guy a verbal blasting that he would never forget. But my attempt was drowned out by the other guys.

“Thelkor, shut the fuck up. If anything, this has brightened the day,” Storgin was still close to me, glaring at Thelkor. It was obvious that the guy was a literal train wreck, and his buddies were used to his difficult nature.

I didn’t think I was going to get used to it.

“I agree, the timing is poor,” the captain said. “We are neck deep in it right now. We have to move out and that means we have to choose a pilot, but—”

“I’m a pilot,” I cut in. They all turned to look at me as if I’d grown two extra heads.

“That is very lucky for us,” Storgin said, smiling. “Let us go to the bridge, and you can look over the controls.”

Thelkor spluttered as he followed, almost dropping his bottle of booze. “Oh, great. She teleports in from who knows where, we know nothing about her skills, but you’re going to just let her fly? Great, this is fucking great—”

Will you shut up!” Captain Timcur snapped, spinning to face Thelkor.

As the captain engaged him in an argument, Storgin quietly left my side and walked smoothly across the room. He pulled a small device from his pocket and stepped behind Thelkor, then pressed it to Thelkor’s neck. Thelkor’s eyes closed and he hit the deck with a loud thud, obviously tranquilized.

“Thank you,” Olath breathed. “I was going to resort to a crowbar soon if he didn’t shut up.”

Storgin shrugged. “A crowbar would have the same effect.”

“But far more fun,” muttered Olath.

I looked around the room, wondering if that sort of thing was usual around here. The guys seemed very comfortable, and Thelkor had started to snore softly.

“Okay, Rachel,” Timcur said. “Let’s get you settled in. We have a mission and it’s vital that we leave now. We can get your match straightened out later. Right now, we have to deploy.”

I nodded. It was a comfort to me that I was going straight to the pilot’s chair. Even though I was in an unfamiliar place, I had a job to do and it was one I knew very well.