“Well of course I did. He’s a human.” Mereval narrowed her eyes at Bouncer. “We know all about cerops.”
“Really? Including why one would docilely follow a human? And stand in a room with a predator who stunned him once before and has caged him several times without attacking?” The male who was circling them as he spoke paused when he was standing to my right and stared at Bouncer. “Did you do something to him?” he asked.
I blinked. “Like what?”
“Chemicals? A mechanical control device of some sort?” he guessed.
“No.” I bit the word off. “That would be cruel. Not to mention unethical considering I was on the planet to study the natural flora and fauna. He was hungry, I fed him, he followed me.”
“Ahh, imprinting.” The male nodded.
“No. Anyone who knows anything about animals knows they imprint up on their mother almost instantly; I am not his mother. He is a juvenile but nearing adult status, that’s way too old to imprint. It’s why he was driven off, but he wasn’t quite able to take care of himself.”
“So not his mother. It’s something else about you that caused the bond.” He crossed his lower arms while he tapped his chin with one of his fingers of an upper hand. “Perhaps the same thing that forced a bond with Garjah.”
My mouth dropped open and then I snapped it shut. I took a breath and started to protest, my teeth clenched while I tried to stay calm. “I didn’t for—”
“He did not force anything on me. I followed him for some time before I approached him. He did not approach me, in fact, he was trying to hide.” Garjah stood ramrod straight but he kept ahold of me. “He didn’t initiate touch, breathe on me, hit me with anything… and I could not have let him go even if he didn’t pose a threat to reveal us to his academy.”
I blinked, my anger at the other guy gone in a second. “You never told me that.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “It didn’t come up.”
Elbowing him, I hissed, “It should have.” Now was not the time or place to have this conversation though. I rolled my eyes, huffing out a breath. “See, Garjah says I didn’t do anything to him. So clearly I didn’t do anything to Bouncer either.”
“Bouncer? Is that his name?” Mereval asked. “What does it mean, exactly?”
“Um, to bounce?” I raised and lowered my hand a few times, mimicking bouncing a ball or a hop.
“He is not very bouncer.”
I eyed the contrary male. One he didn’t say it right. Two, who was he to judge? Maybe it was time to turn this around. “He’s protective. I was nervous because I am being brought before the rulers of an alien species who are hiding from the rest of the universe, who could do anything they want with me, to me.”
“We’d never do anything harmful!” Mereval’s markings lightened. The black ridges curving outward from her forehead like a crown stood out in contrast to her now pale green skin and gold robe.
“How would I know what you do?”
“You wouldn’t.” The calm voice was deep, reminding me of Garjah’s. It came from one of the two males sitting at the table. “I expect you’re feeling very vulnerable.”
That word resonated inside me. I would have staggered if Garjah didn’t have such a tight grip on me. No one had put it that way before, but it was exactly how I felt. “I need to sit,” I whispered. Bouncer was pressing so hard against my leg, I was going to go down if I didn’t find a chair soon anyway.
“Please, take any seat.” The table had identical chairs all around the elongated oval. Garjah pulled out one in the middle of one long side and urged me into it. Bouncer lay his head across my thighs. I ran my hand between his ears, scrubbing the skin with my nails, and he rumbled in pleasure.
“Want something?” Garjah nodded toward the trays of food and drinks.
“You’re really not afraid of Bouncer? They are venomous, you know.” This came from the last male at the table, the youngest of the group. His face was lean, eyes bright, and he had distinctive drops and stripes across his forehead and down his nose.
I shrugged. “Many beautiful things are deadly,” I said absently. I was lost in my thoughts, not really paying attention to everyone’s movements. My gaze strayed to Garjah. He was piling food high on a single plate. It looked like a mash of human food and their dishes; I hoped they’d made me a fork to go with the noodles.
“Indeed. You seem young to have much experience with this, Essell.”
Mereval frowned at the confrontational male. She’d taken a seat next to the others, but he was still standing, watching me and Garjah.
“I do. My parents are scientists; I often experienced new cultures on worlds and stations. Many more than most children.” I kept my voice neutral. “Four Arms do not travel far beyond this quadrant, though, do they…?”
They’d rocked my world, exposing my emotions so casually with one word, but I was used to feeling out of sorts. Conversational targeting was a norm in the academic world, and his verbal jabs were keeping me from sinking too deep into my nerves.
It also hadn’t escaped my notice that Mereval was the only one to offer to greet me physically or offer her name. As open and welcoming as they were pretending to be, it was glaring that there was more to what met the eye here.
Garjah offered me my fork and set the plate down.
“You brought it?” I asked, surprised.
“I will always take care of you,” he said. The words had more impact every time he said them.Want more flash?