Narrowing his eyes on the male, he considered Dreth.

His cousin, to all appearances, was earnest and possessed a subtle air of anticipation around him that was quite unlike the calculated attitude of most Argurma. That alone was a point in his favor when it came to the truth of his words. He had no doubt that Dreth could be formidable. The younger male was nearly as tall as Veral and thick with muscle that came from years of battling the harshness of the Great Dunes and the mastery of the sand serpents. To have six lines agree to mate-trials meant that he was considered worthy by neighboring households over the dunes. Winning such approval was accomplished by demonstrations of strength and ferocity that would earn admiration and prove himself desirable for siring strong offspring. He would be a good ally to have to protect Terri.

These things together did not mean that Dreth was not sent to get close to Veral, but the request to be made ganshar was not an idle thing to play with. Even if Featha attempted to reverse it in Veral’s absence, being declared such had a long-reaching consequence. It would be difficult to secure a mating contract with another esteemed household.

In the end, that was what swayed Veral that he could trust the male with Terri.

Shifting his mate closer to him on his lap so that she rested belly-to-belly against him as his civix finally slipped free from her hot, wet channel, he glowered at his cousin forebodingly.

“Agreed,” he growled. “Now leave.”

Dreth nodded curtly, his vibrissae puffing out around his head. “The hour to stand before the household will come soon. You and your mate will require rest. Featha is not one to face without optimally functioning processors.”

Veral inclined his head, holding back his mirth as the younger male spun around regally and stalked from the room. Gone was the unsure male now that he had secured Veral’s agreement. When the door slid shut behind him, Veral allowed his lips to quirk as Terri laughed in his arms.

“I think you have an admirer,” she observed as she leaned back and met his eyes.

Veral glanced down at his mate without comprehension. “I do not follow your meaning.”

Terri snickered and tipped her head toward the door. “The moment he earned your agreement, he fluffed up in front of you. You do that whenever you want to seem impressive. I doubt he would be interested in impressing you if he didn’t admire you,” she teased.

Veral had noted the action but dismissed it as foolish dominating behavior from a male not yet old enough to know better. He would not have come to the same conclusions as his mate. He did not recall if he made such gestures when he was a young male, although he did recall following males around whom he wished to learn from and observing them obsessively.

He huffed in annoyance.

“He willnotfollow me around,” he growled. “I will make certain of it. His duty is to guard you only.”

Terri chuckled and brushed her fingertips over his brow, up to the edge of the small horns that rested just below the bony plating that framed his fore-vibrissae. The tissue beneath the plating was incredibly sensitive, and the light pressure from her fingers made him sigh in pleasure and lean into her touch. He indulged for several minutes but withdrew to see to it that they were wiped clean with a damp cloth and settled comfortably in bed. Once he had her in his arms again, he rested his jaw on top of her head, his hands stroking her arms and back until he felt his mate relax and eventually succumb to slumber.

Although he joined her, he remained partially alert. He did not bother to reset the locks if there was any chance of anyone else being able to hack the system. Instead, as he rested, he monitored his surroundings for any intrusion. Although there was a chance that his aunt would welcome him without contest, it was not significant enough for him to surrender his safeguards. Especially not with the new information presented to him. Featha appeared to be determined to keep control of the household, and that did not bode well. From what Navesha said, his aunt had been working to turn the household against his choice of mate, no doubt with the goal of striking his direct line from that of the household. What more might she do if that failed?

More than anything, Veral desired to take his family and leave.


The gathering room of the household was massive. With the long, cushioned benches and chairs around a central hearth she might have compared it to a living room on Earth, except it had the size and grandeur of a castle from a fairytale. An Argurma with dark charcoal scales on her body and vibrissae sat in a large throne-like chair before the rest of the household, her face set in ruthless lines as Terri neared at Veral’s side.

Every Argurma assembled in the room ranged from black to dark gray, each with the same glowing cybernetic scarring on their bodies, though there seemed to be some variety in where it appeared. Like Veral, much of it was facial, no doubt due to the implants in their brains and skulls, right down to their glowing eyes.

Terri’s eyes ran over the crowd until they rested on Dreth’s stoic face from where he stood just off to the side of the throne. Standing at attention a short distance from him was Navesha, a sort of mechanical spear at her side which she gripped with one large hand. This wasn’t the casual, mocking female from the night before. Instead, every muscle was stiff with tension.

It was a bit much for a family reunion.

She glanced warily at her mate, but Veral’s eyes were locked on his aunt with a sort of a predatory stillness about him despite his long stride. He didn’t stop until he came just several feet shy of where she sat. She fought back a proud smile as she observed just how regal and strong her mate looked. Spine straight, he had abandoned his tunic and pants for the black leather armor of a warrior, giving him an air of deadly power as he faced them.

Terri wore the same attire, her flexible armor clinging to her like a second skin, although it emphasized her swollen belly. It had seemed strange at the time when he insisted that they wear it, but now she was glad for the extra protection, and the fact that they had Dreth, and possibly Navesha, in their corner—even though she could easily believe otherwise with the blank, cold way they now regarded her and Veral.

It didn’t mean anything.

Her skin prickled as Featha leaned forward on her throne, elbows braced on the armrests as she clasped her hands in front of her. The female’s eyes were penetrating as they narrowed on Terri—more specifically on her rounded belly—before they pierced Veral with a look of distinct disapproval.

“Now that I see with my own eyes that you have mated and bred an offworlder...I ask you why you have come and brought that…primitive beasthere?”

Terri’s head whipped back with shock at the chilling vehemence in Featha’s voice.

“Do not address my mate without respect,” Veral hissed, his vibrissae rattling violently enough that the older female stilled, her eyes widening as her sole indication of her surprise. “I expected my mother-kin to greet my mate as continuer of my line when we arrived… not this insult.”

Painted red lips peeled back from Featha’s sharp teeth, her vibrissae puffing around her dominantly. “You insult us by mating her. You should have returned home to be matched by your mother-kin when you felt ready to mate. I would have secured a profitable contract for you, instead of being disgraced by a female who brings nothing with her addition to our house.”

Tags: S.J. Sanders Argurma Salvager Science Fiction
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