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.