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.
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.
“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.