Iced, page 5part #10 of Valos of Sonhadra Series
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, I tucked my hair behind my ear and rose to my feet. “I’m going to freshen up.”
Duke nodded, and I felt his eyes following me out. I hurried to go wash the sleep off my face. When I stepped into the bathroom and found a comb with a wooden handle and teeth made of small, blunted bones, I almost melted into a puddle. That valo was shaping up to be a keeper. I untangled my hair and finished freshening up before hastening back to the kitchen room.
By the time I returned, the sizzling sound of searing meat, and its rich aroma, welcomed me. Taking a seat near the door so that I could watch Duke, I stole furtive glances at him, once more impressed by the perfection of his muscular body that his loincloth utterly failed to hide.
“Thank you for that unexpected gift in the bathroom. It’s beautiful and quite thoughtful of you. My hair is especially grateful.”
Duke’s fingers twitched and I suspected that, had he not been busy plating my food, he would have scratched his navel again. He mumbled something incomprehensible before turning his attention back to his task.
“Doesn’t the heat bother you?” I asked, intrigued.
While Pel and Mishal had been able to regulate their temperature, they bitched and moaned to no end about the cold weather. It made sense for two Fire Valos. Even for me, cooking felt uncomfortable, although not so much with this device.
“Normally, yes. However, this cooking plate is well designed and holds most of the heat over the cooking area.”
Completing his tasks with efficient movements, Duke walked towards me with my plate. The divine aroma made my mouth water. I licked my lips in anticipation as he served it to me and almost felt bad getting pampered like this.
I tucked in, refusing to be defeated by the oversized utensils. The juicy meat melted on my tongue. I closed my eyes, almost moaning at the perfection of dish, done exactly the way I liked; just shy of well-done. Duke sucked in his bottom lip again and clasped his hands in front of him when I complimented him on his culinary skills. Taking a couple of steps back, he stood near the table, watching me as I ate.
With his towering height, I had to crane my neck to look up at him. Gesturing with my chin, I pointed at the chair on the side of the table.
“Sit,” I ordered. “You’re making me dizzy.”
He raised an eyebrow that started twitching as he sat down with a smirk. I wondered if it was a nervous tick but decided to leave it alone.
“So where did your friend, Zak, go?” I asked.
“To E’Lek to get the Elders and warn the tribe of your companions’ possible arrival. If they fail to arrive soon after the blizzard has ended, we’ll send scouts to search for them.”
“Thank you,” I said with genuine gratitude.
Amber and I hadn’t been close, and I knew her valos even less, but she was a good woman. We’d been such a mess after the crash. Without her, we’d all probably be dead. But she rounded us all up and kept us going despite the many hardships this planet threw at us. I hoped she and her boyfriends would make it safely to E’Lek, and then back to Caldera.
“Can your Elders help the frozen valos? I didn’t dare touching anything for fear I would make their conditions worse.”
Duke looked at me with warmth. “We will do everything in our power to aid them. Thank you for revealing them to us. We had been searching for them for five moon cycles.”
“I’m glad to have been of assistance, even if I found them by pure luck.” And I meant it. I couldn’t picture these poor people remaining this way forever. “So, how do you know humans?” I asked before forking another piece of meat into my mouth.
He frowned slightly, his gaze flicking to my less-than-half-eaten plate, before returning to my face. Had I been done with my meal, I believed he would have shrugged off my question to give me the third degree instead. In his shoes—not that he wore any—I would want to question me as well. Grateful for the reprieve, I slowed down the pace to postpone the inevitable a little longer.
“Five moon cycles ago, we were like them, although not stuck in ice.” Duke gestured towards the door, but I knew he meant the sleeping valos beyond. “After the Creator’s departure, we lost our purpose. I was a Builder with nothing to build. Zak was a Miner with no more ore or gems left to extract, the Hunters and Crafters had no one left to feed or to craft goods for. We’d all gone into hibernation, until Lydia arrived.”
The way his face softened and the affection, almost reverence, in his voice when he said her name stirred an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“What did she do?” I asked.
“We were dying, and she saved us,” Duke said, his voice thrumming with that same tone of wonder. “She repeatedly put her life in danger to keep my people from dying and brought our city back from the brink of extinction. She’s our iwaki: the giver of life. In more ways than one.”
His eyes and heartstone glowed with greater intensity as did the emotion in his voice. Lydia instantly annoyed me. I’d never met her or even talked to her, but she sounded a little too much like the poster child for Ms. Perfect.
“In a few more moon cycles, she will give us a young. Even though her belly is already swelling, she refuses to let me build anything for the child. Lydia claims it’s too early and that if I start now, there will be no room for us to move around by the time the baby comes.” He shook his head in annoyance. “Silly female,” he whispered affectionately to himself.
A lump lodged itself in my throat, and an irrational jealousy slowly tied a metallic coil around my innards. For some stupid reason, I’d been thinking all the kindness and consideration he’d shown me stemmed from some kind of personal interest—not that I was looking for any type of relationship. Pel and Mishal had told us of the Northern Valos hospitality. I’d been an idiot for reading more into his considerate behavior.
My appetite suddenly gone, I pushed away my plate, leaving the last couple of bites sitting there.
“I’m full, but it was very good, thank you,” I said at Duke’s questioning look. “So you’re going to be a father? Congrats!” My attempt at sounding jovial and lighthearted failed miserably.
“No, Kira. I am not, nor am I mated. Lydia has decreed I will be an uncle to her child, even though I have no blood link with her mate, Qaezul. However, he and I are best friends.”
I didn’t want to admit how much that pleased me. And it pleased me far too much that he had felt the need to specify that he wasn’t mated. I tucked my hair behind my ear, the gesture a bit more coquettish this time than I intended... at least consciously.
“Kyzul,” I said wistfully. “That matches more closely what I would expect for an alien name. Yours and Zak’s sound incredibly human.”
This time, Duke burst out laughing. “That’s because we introduced ourselves with the human-friendly version. Lydia had been quite distraught when we first introduced ourselves the formal way.”
Duke rose to his feet and touched two fingers to his heartstone while bowing his head.
“My name is Duekeln’vir Uur A’zuk and my friend is Zaktaul’dak Uur E’Lek. Pleased to meet you.”
I felt my eyes all but pop out of my head, and my jaw dropped. Duke threw his head back to laugh out loud. The light from the ceiling glow stones shimmered on the crystalline shards on his shoulders as they shook with mirth.
“Right. I like Duke and Zak just fine,” I said, bewildered.
“I thought you would,” he said, sitting back down. His teasing and amused grin gave me a peek of his shark teeth. Unlike the first time, they didn’t scare me, but they gave him a dangerous edge that had something sexy and forbidden about it.
My hand unconsciously reached for the lonely small piece of meat lingering on my plate and I threw it into my mouth, my good mood having suddenly returned.
“I would like to hear more about you,” Duke said. “I assume you also arrived on the Concord. What pu
So much for that good mood.
My stomach knotted. There had been no aggression in his tone, only genuine curiosity. I thought of lying, not knowing how they would feel about granting refuge to an ex-convict. However, he knew of humans and of the Concord. That meant he’d likely catch me if I lied. Plus E’Lek already granted refuge to humans who might out me if I did.
Taking in a deep breath, I took the plunge.
“Like most of the humans who survived the crash, I was a prisoner on the Concord. I’d done something kind of stupid and got punished very harshly for it.”
I told him about the sordid events with James. He frowned at my poor judgement handling that situation but continued to listen in silence. The absence of condemnation in his eyes gave me the strength to continue. When I got to the part about Dr. Sobin, he stiffened. His heartstone flared a darker color than when triggered by happy emotions.
“So you volunteered?” he asked, his voice thick with tension.
I shook my head vigorously. “Hell no! In the end, she promised me a reduced sentence if I cooperated with the experiments AND agreed to work as a surgical nurse. I told her to go fuck herself.”
Duke’s eyebrows shot up. For a brief instant, I wondered if he was taking my words literally.
He probably does.
Under different circumstances, I’d probably chuckle and lay it on thick to see how far I could push things before he realized I was pulling his leg. But laughing couldn’t have been further from my mind. Thinking back on those days, I could almost feel the searing burn of Sobin’s serum coursing through my veins, turning me into something that nature had not intended.
“As you can guess, she didn’t like my answer. Sobin didn’t need my consent to experiment on me. All inmates on the space penitentiary lost any type of human rights. They could abuse and kill us, and no one would raise a finger. The population on Earth had no idea of what was really going on up there.”
I exhaled a shuddering breath and ran shaky fingers through my hair.
“My experiment turned out to be a failure... for the most part.”
“How so?” Duke asked in a soft voice.
“I was meant to withstand extremely cold temperatures. That part was a success. So much that it became a failure because now I can no longer stand normal temperatures. That’s why, when the Fire Valos said they were coming to E’Lek, I jumped at the opportunity. The heat of Caldera was slowly killing me. Even the regular temperature of the plateau is stifling for me. The only time I’m happy is in the cold. Heck, I wouldn’t even have minded the blizzard if not for the lack of visibility and the hail that was skinning me raw.”
“So you are now a being of ice and snow, like us.” Duke tried to repress a smile, but his expression betrayed how much that pleased him.
Warmth flooded through me. Duke was growing on me a little too quickly.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, feeling bashful. “But like I said, the experiment didn’t meet expectations. On top of my temperature problem, I was supposed to be able to manipulate moisture in the air to turn things to ice or even fire shards like those superhero movies, but I can only turn things I hold into ice.”
“Dr. Sobin was trying to make you like us, Northern Valos. You are perfectly adapted to the frozen lands of Sonhadra. It is trickier for Lydia with her dark hair and complexion. Camouflage can be a matter of life and death. With your affinity for cold, your white hair and skin, you will blend easily with the environment, but not with this outfit.”
The barely veiled disdain in his voice almost made me laugh. Even the Northern Valos thought Sheenika’s tastes in fabrics were abysmal.
“It is strange that Dr. Sobin would have made you ice, and then tried to make Lydia fire,” Duke reflected out loud. “Either way, she can no longer harm you. She’s been punished for the harm she’s caused.”
My brain had stopped listening when he mentioned fire.
“Fire? Lydia was Dr. Sobin’s fire project? She was Prisoner 2012?”
“Yes,” Duke said, sounding slightly surprised. “That is how they had labeled her. You’ve met?”
I shook my head, flabbergasted. “No. I just heard of her. When Sobin failed to regulate my temperature, she gave up on me and cast me aside in favor of 2012... I mean, Lydia. Last I heard, the final procedure had been expected to be a full success.”
“It probably would have been, but the ship crashed before they could complete the procedure,” Duke explained. “But it worked enough to allow her to be attuned to both fire and ice, and save my people.”
With much effort, I managed to repress the urge to pinch my lips in annoyance. Perfect Ms. Lydia was back. Selfless, heroic, and an experiment success. I bet she was also beautiful, smart, and charismatic. I wondered if Lydia knew that Lucie had ended up accidentally stabbing herself with the rest of the serum meant for her during the crash, making her attuned to fire instead.
“That’s nice,” I said, proud that my voice didn’t sound too bitchy. “Either way, my inability to withstand normal temperatures for extended periods of time turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When I stopped being useful to her as a test subject, Sobin tried to get me to work as a surgical nurse again. But I wasn’t functional unless they’d set the room to near freezing level, too cold for her to perform.”
“Well, you are in the plains of E’Lek now,” Duke said with a gentle smile. “You will never suffer from heat again.”
I smiled back, and for the first time in the two years since that nightmare had begun, I believed things could work out for me after all.
She fascinated me in a way I never would have dreamed possible for one who resembled the Creator so much. When Lydia awakened us, I had struggled with understanding Qaezul’s protectiveness of the foreign creature. Gratitude and hospitality made sense, but his possessiveness had been so contrary to his normally gentle disposition. But now, Kira stirred the same reaction from me.
It worried me because I didn’t know to what extent we could trust her. Yet, every time I laid eyes on her or thought of her, my heartstone warmed. My fingers itched to comb through the ivory strands of her hair and to feel the texture of her skin, almost the same color as freshly fallen snow. Unless my own desires misled me, I believed she felt a similar attraction for—or at least curiosity about—me. I’d caught her stealing appreciative glances at my body a few times, but that didn’t mean that she felt anything towards me specifically.
According to Lydia, and to Qae’s greatest dismay, the Northern Valos apparently had ‘out-of-this-world-sexy’ bodies that would have human females drooling buckets. The thought of Kira ‘drooling buckets’ over Zak, or any of my valos brothers, set my teeth on edge. My physical attraction to her didn’t trouble me half as much as my urge to claim her did.
I questioned her moral compass. The reason that got her sent to that prison suggested a severe lapse in judgement or at least a propensity towards irresponsible behavior. Granted, it had been a one-time occurrence and, unfortunately for her, she got caught. But, should a similar situation arise again, would she act with more wisdom? The punishment had been too severe, especially if she was being truthful about the patient having been doomed from the start. Still, between that and her eerie resemblance to the Strangers and our Creator, the tribe might be reluctant to welcome her.
My heartstone burned at the thought.
Tradition demanded we show hospitality to those seeking shelter or asylum within our walls. However, the invasion of the Creators had made us more wary of foreigners. With Lydia, it had been easier because she saved our lives without prompting from us. She knew it to be the right thing, so she simply did it. Her selfless and playful nature, not to mention her obvious affection for Qaezul, made her easy to love and embrace. In contrast, Kira struck me as a loner who kept zealously to herself. Since revealing the existence of this lab to us, Kira had shown very little interest to
For the remainder of the day we talked a great deal about both E’Lek and Earth. She described her city with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants with mechanical vehicles of all sizes and shapes. Lydia has spoken of cars before but, coming from a small town with ‘only’ a few thousand people and no underground cars, her life there had been more comparable to life here. I wondered if Kira would find E’Lek too small and boring.
I wanted Kira to stay with us, as had been her goal, and knowing some of my brethren would show reservation towards her. While we waited for their arrival, I tried to find out all that I could about her so that, if necessary, I could have arguments in her favor. But like with teaching her our language, Kira didn’t make it an easy task.
“Do I understand correctly that you worked as a healer for your people?” I asked.
“Hmm, not exactly,” she answered, her brows slightly drawn as she pondered the question. “A doctor would be the equivalent of a healer for you. As a nurse, my role was more to administer the medicine, look after the patients during their treatment and recovery period, and assist the doctors and specialists with any medical task that didn’t require a certain level of expertise. But what about you?” she asked quickly, when I opened my mouth to question her further. “You said you were a builder, right?”
I silenced my groan of frustration at yet another attempt to deflect the focus from herself. For now, I’d let her get away with it. In her position, I would likely show caution as well in revealing too much about myself to a stranger.
I let a couple of seconds pass, my eyes boring into hers, to let her know I was aware of her tricks. Her throat worked, and she averted her gaze.
“You are correct. I’m a Builder. The Creators divided us into four classes: Miners, Builders, Crafters, and Hunter/Gatherers. Zak was a Miner. After the Creators left Sonhadra, we all continued with our usual tasks until we no longer could or when it stopped making sense. Since we no longer ate, hunting and growing food became pointless. Now that the mines have been stripped bare, Miners are learning new trades.”
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