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.