Iced, page 9part #10 of Valos of Sonhadra Series
We climbed the flight of stairs, and I gasped in wonder at the mesmerizing vision that sprawled before me. A true winter wonderland, the city boasted buildings vaguely similar to Aztec architecture with a large plaza before which a giant step pyramid rose. Various houses and pillars, all built in the same white stones, surrounded the plaza then continued down wide streets shooting off from it. Stunning stone and ice statues embellished the city, but it was the intricate patterns carved into the upper part of buildings and around their doorframes that took my breath away. The inner part of the latticework glowed with soft pastel colors, as if illuminated from within.
Duke puffed his chest, a pleased expression softening his sharp features in response to my reaction. It then dawned on me that, as a Builder, he’d probably erected those buildings.
“You made this?” I asked, waving a hand at the city.
“If you mean the buildings, then, yes,” Duke said, beaming at me. “I had a hand in pretty much all of them. The decorative sculpting, though, came from Qaezul, Lydia’s mate.”
I nodded in understanding. “I’m guessing he made that statue of her, too?”
“Yes. It was one of his mating presents to her. Qaezul is very talented.” Duke placed his hand on the small of my back to coax me forward, towards the plaza. “Come. We must gather with the others for your introduction and to discuss the tribes.”
The unpleasant type of fluttering took flight in my stomach, making me queasy. As if summoned by his words, a tinkling sound resonated throughout the city. Moments later, a swarm of valos, coming from every direction, congregated in the plaza.
“It will be fine,” Duke said, sensing my distress.
His hand grabbed mine, and I latched on to it with the energy of despair. Half-coaxing, half-dragging, Duke led me to the large open space where some of the valos built icy benches in a spread out half circle, others sat down directly on the floor, and the rest stood loosely scattered behind those sitting. There had to be close to—if not more than—one-hundred-and-fifty valos, ten times the number of Fire Valos.
No sweat, right? Nothing to be stressed about...
Duke had told me what Lydia had to do in order to save him and his people. It had been daunting. I never imagined she had saved that many people. My respect and resentment grew in equal measure, but my anxiety kicked them both to the curb when Duke led me to the front of the gathering where Jaan and Traxian already stood waiting. Toerkel stood behind a female valo holding a very fidgety ice-blue baby, no doubt the little Teo Duke had previously mentioned.
My gaze roamed over the assembled tribe, trying to ignore the countless—but thankfully non-threatening—stares trained on me. It took seconds to find the one I sought, her dark skin making her stand out among the dusky-blue skin of the rest of the crowd, not to mention her colorful burnished-gold tunic. The other valos, females included, only wore a loincloth in various pale, pastel colors. However, unlike the females in the cave that had been bare of any ornament, these all wore rows of beaded necklaces that dropped just below their flat chests.
Human habits die hard.
Like Lydia, I would wear tunics to hide my girl bits. I couldn’t picture myself walking around bare-chested with only a loincloth, even though it was custom here. At least, the tunics Lydia and I wore didn’t seem to bother the valos.
It struck me then that the one on my back probably belonged to her. From where I stood, she seemed to be approximately my height but with bigger bones than my wee, bird-sized ones. She was sitting on the lap of a valo I assumed to be Qaezul, himself sitting on an ice bench. I couldn’t quite read her expression from this distance, but Lydia seemed to give me an assessing look. Although I would have liked to study her further, doing so would have required me to twist my neck over my shoulder as we walked past them.
We stopped next to Jaan and stood to her left while Traxian stood to her right. I’d never been much of a public speaker. Having so many eyes on me—alien eyes at that—made me wish that blizzard would return and force me back into hiding somewhere, alone with Duke. Except, this time around, I didn’t think we’d be doing something as innocent as building a snowman.
Trying not to cringe, I quickly chased that thought from my mind before my stupid face decided to take on some shade of crimson.
Reassuring pressure around my hand reminded me that Duke was still holding it... in front of everyone. That explained why so many valos had looked down as we walked past them, not giving me a once over as I had assumed, but wondering at the possible meaning of us holding hands.
“Thank you for gathering so quickly, my brothers and sisters.”
Jaan’s voice projecting loud and clear snapped me out of my random musings. The fluttering went into overdrive, and I fought the urge to press myself against Duke and hold on to his free arm like I had done in the lab. He made me feel safe, which was silly considering I hardly knew him.
“We have just returned from the Luxlan Cave where we had the chance to speak to one of our long lost brothers, Coelvek’dak Uur U’gar.”
Holy crap! That’s a mouthful!
While the crowd erupted in cheers, I cast a furtive glance at Duke who gave me a sideways one, a knowing smile stretching his lips. I found myself silently thanking Lydia that they had introduced themselves with the short version of their names.
“We owe this joyous moment to this human female named Kira,” Jaan continued when the noise subsided.
The valos all turned their eyes to me and, as one, touched two fingers to their heartstones, Lydia touching her heart instead. Even the three by my side, Duke, Jaan and Traxian, turned towards me and repeated the gesture of gratitude. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, and I muttered some lame thank you that nobody—not even me—could quite make out. To my extreme relief, Jaan didn’t allow the awkward moment to drag on and resumed talking.
“As we suspected, she’s another survivor from the Concord. What we didn’t know is that, like our beloved sister Lydia, Kira was also a victim of the human Creator called Dr. Sobin.”
Eyes wide, Lydia gasped and pressed her hand to her chest. The other valos frowned, some of them growling in discontent. Although their anger wasn’t directed at me, I instinctively took a step closer to Duke.
“Unlike our Lydia, who is attuned to ice and fire, Kira is attuned to frost like the rest of us. Heat damages her, even the normal weather of the plateau indisposes her,” Jaan continued. “She has therefore traveled from The City in the Caldera, where she had taken refuge after the crash, all the way to our beloved E’Lek to request asylum as our climate is better suited to her needs. It was during said journey that she stumbled upon our brothers. What say you?”
My stomach dropped. I hadn’t expected this to be a vote. Duke ran his thumb over the back of my hand. It did little to assuage my fears, but I welcomed it nonetheless. Heart pounding, I cast a glance towards Lydia who was looking questioningly at her mate.
Had she not gone through a similar process?
One valo sitting on the ground rose to his feet. I held my breath while awaiting his sentence.
“Welcome to E’Lek. May you find joy and fulfillment in your new home.”
My eyes pricked, and my throat tightened as, one by one, the other sitting valos rose to their feet.
“Welcome to E’Lek,” they all said with one voice.
I pressed my free hand to my chest, my heart full to bursting. “Thank you,” I said with a choked voice.
They smiled compassionately at me as I made a spectacle of myself.
“Welcome home, Kira,” Duke whispered in my ear.
I peered up at him, and the look in his eyes told me that his words came from a much deeper place than the others. In that instant I knew that, whatever was happening between us, I didn’t want to fight or question it anymore.
Duke glanced over his shoulder at his sister, who blinked her assent to whatever silent communication had passed between them.
“Come,” he said, turning back
As the others resumed their seats, Duke led me by the hand near Lydia and her mate. She was even more beautiful in person. Slender, with long, perfectly-shaped legs, her burnished-gold tunic flattered the rich brown color of her skin—dark mahogany came to mind. But her elven face was arresting. Framed by long, curly black hair, tamed into a single thick braid, she had the kind of full lips any woman would die for. And her eyes, almond-shaped, the same dusky-blue color as her mate’s skin, seemed to pierce all the way into your soul.
Although I’d taken the time to make myself as presentable as possible before our departure from the secret lab, with the hour-plus trip here at high speed, who knew what kind of a mess I currently looked like. I suddenly felt even more self-conscious and lacking.
Her mate definitely ranked high on the scale of steamy-hot eye-candy. While he shared all the valo traits with the ice-blue skin and eyes, and the bald head with the single braid in the back, his features were harmonious with a narrower jaw than Duke’s strong, square jaw. There was a certain softness about him... No. Not softness. A sense of peace radiated from him which immediately made you at ease, despite his muscular body.
Lydia’s eyes sparked with curiosity as we stopped next to them. She smiled with such genuine warmth, I found myself instantly liking her.
Well, damn. So much for hating on Ms. Perfection.
“Welcome to E’Lek,” she said, while Duke created an ice bench for us.
My eyes widened at her words spoken in English. I realized then, for the first time since that morning Duke had been teaching his language to my translator, I had been speaking his alien language. By the broadening of her smile, and mischievous glint in her eyes, she’d guessed what epiphany I’d just gotten. It also gave me the first answer to my many speculations about her; Lydia was indeed playful.
Unable to resist, I smiled back and took a seat on the freshly fabricated bench; Duke settled next to me. When he took my hand in his again, I didn’t challenge it.
A large pair of dark eyes on a tiny, dragon-looking face peeped at me from around Lydia’s foot. I gasped in surprise and the valos around me chuckled.
Lydia grinned. “Don’t be afraid. That’s Cutie, a sekubu. Technically, she’s my pet, but according to her, I’m her sugar mommy. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
Jaan and Traxian talking reclaimed our attention. They went on to explain the health situation of the iced tribes, and the challenge of recreating the casings. The valos discussed multiple options but none seemed even remotely viable.
Lydia stood to request the right to speak. Her mate immediately frowned, his body tensing.
“I understand and agree with your concerns about me going back to the lava room in my current condition,” Lydia said, putting a hand on the discreet bump of her belly. “But what if we build a forge here on the plaza or right outside the city? I’d be able to melt the xorkeb ore and pour it in the casing mold.”
A male valo rose from his seat.
“Assuming we let you take that risk which, from the expression on your mate’s face, I doubt will happen, what would you cast the liquid metal into? Wood will burn. Ice will melt. Even before the change, we didn’t work metal. We traded with other cities.”
A female valo rose and the male resumed his seat.
“You are our sister, Lydia,” the female said, “and we love you for once more rising to the aid of our kin. But you are four moon cycles into your pregnancy. Until we know that you have passed your fire affinity to your offspring, we cannot take any risks. We worry enough about those hot spring baths you are so fond of. A pure blooded Northern Valo would not survive.”
Mutters of agreement rose from the crowd.
“Do not forget that every child conceived is the responsibility of everyone in the tribe,” the female continued. “While you get the last word as the parent, it is our collective duty to see to the welfare of the child, and that means to yours as well. If we fail to find other alternatives for the casing, we will wait until after you have delivered your offspring, and are fully recovered, to attempt it. We will not put either of you at risk.”
The rumbling sound of the valos tapping their right foot on the ground startled me. It took me a second to realize this was their way of applauding.
“Your words are wise, Lorvek. I will defer to them,” Lydia said before settling back down onto her mate’s lap.
I felt a pang of envy at the affectionate and protective looks the valos cast towards Lydia. She had truly earned her place among them. They considered her as one of theirs, a valo, and I wanted the same. Lorvek had spoken to Lydia like a mother to a daughter, or like a wise, older sister. My chest tightened, thinking of the close bond my mother and I once shared, and what I wouldn’t give to have something even half as strong today.
Chasing those somber thoughts, I turned to Duke, feeling confused. There was an obvious solution to their problem.
Maybe if I point it out to them, I could earn some brownie points.
“Why don’t you just ask the Fire Valos?” I whispered. “They could make the casings with their eyes closed.”
Every valo turned towards me. Apparently, whispering didn’t get past them. Good thing I hadn’t said something raunchy or rude. Feeling self-conscious, I swallowed and tucked my hair behind my ear.
“A valid question,” Jaan said, thankfully pulling the attention away from me. “We haven’t had any contact with the Fire Valos since the departure of the Creators. And even back then, our interactions with them were limited. Until your arrival, we had no confirmation of their state.”
“I believe they would gladly help considering they are coming here to ask for your help with their own heartstones,” I explained.
“But can we trust them with the lives of our tribes?” Toerkel asked. “Both before the change and after, some of the other cities were warmongers. They battled each other for dominance and conquest. They left us alone because our frozen north had nothing they wanted. However, this is a new era. We can be controlled by our heartstones. Whoever builds the casing will have a great deal of power in their hands.”
“The Fire Valos wouldn’t do that,” I argued. “They’ve given us shelter for the past five months—seven helpless humans, and never asked for anything in return. Amber, the woman that was travelling with me on our way here, is romantically involved with two Fire Valos. Lucie is mated to three of them and expecting their child, which is why she didn’t come herself. She knows I’m coming here seeking refuge. She wouldn’t let her mates harm those who could grant me asylum.”
My voice died as I realized the mood had shifted for the worse. Even Duke had stiffened by my side. A chill ran down my spine as about one-hundred-and-fifty valos leveled me with hard, glowing stares.
“Lucie?” Lydia hissed. “As in Dr. Sobin’s Lucie? Or should I say Lucky?”
Gone was the warm, playful glint in her eyes. I hadn’t meant to bring up Lucie, knowing there was bound to be bad blood there. After casting a nervous look around, I turned back to Lydia and nodded.
“I saw her burning!” Lydia said through her teeth. “She was dead!”
I swallowed despite my constricted throat and shook my head. “She might have been unconscious, but she didn’t die. Lucie believes she injected herself with the serum meant for you when all hell broke loose. She’s immune to fire now.”
“The Fire Valos have aligned themselves with a human Creator? And this is who you would have build our heartstone casings?” asked a male valo I didn’t know.
The aggression in his voice echoed the one etched on every face.
Duke squeezing my hand he still held stopped me from sticking my foot any deeper into that stupid mouth of mine. I didn’t love Lucie, but I certainly didn’t hate her. Above all, I owed her for saving our lives. But for all that, her battle with Lydia and, by extension, the Northern Valos, wasn’t mine to fix. Least of all at the cost of getting m
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize there was so much bad blood between you. I just wanted to help save the tribes.”
“We appreciate the sentiment,” Jaan said with a voice cold enough to freeze the nearby river, “but we will not entrust the lives of our kin to one who has behaved like a Creator.”
Qaezul carefully lifted Lydia off his lap and gently placed her on the bench before rising to his feet. He caressed her cheek before addressing the attendance. I couldn’t be more grateful to have the attention shifting away from me. The damage was done though. I would need to find a way to fix this.
“For lack of a better solution, I would like our Builders to make a furnace, as Lydia suggested, but I will operate it,” Qaezul said.
The general gasp rose from the valos.
“As you all know, since my mating with Lydia and our blood exchange, I have developed a great tolerance to heat. I do not promise success, but it is worth trying.”
Excited and approving murmurs welcomed his statement.
“We will start gathering the stones at once for the furnace,” a female valo said.
She touched two fingers to her heartstone and headed off, followed by a dozen other valos. I assumed they were all Builders. For one panicked moment, I thought Duke was going to join them, but he glanced at me, and then remained seated.
“We will need to create molds from the sturdiest materials we can find,” Qaezul said. “Anything you can think of, bring it.”
After a few more discussions, the valos scattered. Those who had made ice benches unraveled them before setting off, leaving me alone with Duke in the middle of the plaza.
Confusion swirled around my mind as I escorted Kira back to my house. She had never mentioned Lucie to me before. Only another female named Amber. Considering the wrong she had done to Lydia—and likely to Kira herself—how could she have kept that secret? What else was she hiding from me?
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