I didn’t want to have a moment in front of the Kardoval, but stars… never mind. I wasn’t going to ignore this need to touch Garjah for them or anyone. I slid one hand across his far cheek, turning his head toward me, then pulled him down for a brief kiss. As hard as it was to resist, I didn’t part my lips and drink in his scent to taste him further. This was enough.
A flurry of movement and murmurs broke through my distraction. I leaned away from Garjah. He blinked at me several times, and I waited for him to get upset. He didn’t; I should have known better. Garjah picked up my fork from where I’d set it on the table and held it out to me. “Food?”
I speared the noodles and twirled them around my fork, then brought them to my mouth. I was chewing energetically, enjoying the firm pasta and thick, tangy sauce when the attention on us grew sharper. The Kardoval had stopped muttering among themselves.
“Is that what you do with those?” Mereval asked.
“You made the food but have no idea how to eat it?” Then again, none of them had plates.
“It was made for us. We do not eat it; the intention was to help you feel more comfortable.” She nodded toward my plate where I had twirled up another small nest of pasta on my fork. “That device is fascinating.”
“It is very useful for the way he eats.” Garjah had pulled out his knife and was flicking off pieces of meat, placing a few on my side of the plate. The others he swallowed whole.
“Yes, of course.” One of the males came back to the table, plates in both of his upper hands. He pulled out a chair, then offered one plate to Mereval. She thanked him.
They all had gotten food after Garjah filled out plate, and they sat together on the other side of the table facing us. Like judges facing off against supplicants. My stomach started to churn, and I swallowed hard. Garjah’s nostrils flared, and he glanced down at me. “What’s wrong?”
Leaning in close, I pressed my shoulder against his chest and rested my face near his ear. “They’re over there, we’re here. Feels… judgey.”
His chest bounced, a chuckle. “Sometimes I forget.” His voice carried, deep against my neck but also loud.
“Shh.” I glanced at them, and of course they were watching us.
“It’s okay, Essell. They are giving us space because we are newly bonded. Mereval is no threat to us, but another male could be. My instincts are known, but yours are not.” Garjah picked up my fork and speared a small piece of the purple meat he’d cut for me. He held it out, not giving me the fork handle but offering me the bite.
I took it, pulling the meat off the tines carefully as I thought. “They’re giving me space because they’re not sure if I freak out on them because they are interested in you?” Which one was interested in Garjah? I swept a glance across the table. Was it the one who gave him the armbands?
The ones he never took off?
Mereval laughed, that odd sound I’d heard a few times from Timok even higher from her. “No, no. The pheromones coming off you are outrageous, dear one. Fear, caution, possession, anger, it’s all a riot against our senses. They are keeping their distance out of respect, both for Garjah’s service and for your bond.”
Cranking my head to one side, I considered that. “Is that why they haven’t introduced themselves by name?”
The three males all lightened, and Mereval laughed again. “Oh no, that’s just them being males.”
“We forgot,” the one who’d always been sitting said. The other male who sat on his far side had brought him a plate. “Please accept our apologies. We’re so used to everyone knowing who we are.” He rubbed at his creased forehead. “It is strange.”
“You hide from the entire universe. It can’t be that strange.”
“But among our people, we are unique. Known from nearly birth.” The confrontational one gestured with his knife. “I am Sloval.” Maybe he had a good reason for being so cranky. Still, he quickly bit into a piece of fruit and couldn’t speak anywyal
“My name is Lenveval.” Bowing from the waist, the next to introduce himself was the one who had stayed seated. I nodded back at him, not sure of the protocol. That left the youngest Kardoval. The one who’d seemed awed by Bouncer.
“My name is Quixoval.” He leaned forward, dipping his head quickly. “Is your cerops hungry?”
I snorted. “He is always hungry.”
“Could I prepare a plate for him?”
Hesitating, I glanced at Garjah. Would he take food from them? “There are tongs. He can touch the food without getting his scent on it.” His reassurance helped. I nodded my agreement to Quixoval, and he jumped up immediately.
“I didn’t mean right now. You could eat first.”
“Nonsense. This will also give us a chance to study this phenomena.” Quixoval was up and over at the table before I could protest again.
“You won’t be able to stop him,” Sloval warned. “So don’t try.” Was that supposed to be an order or a commiseration. His glare was certainly pointed at Quixoval instead of me.
“How do you want to do this?” Quixoval asked as he handed over the plate of meat.
“Essell finishes eating before anything else,” Garjah said firmly. “Then he can show you.” He slid the plate aside, then nudged my fork back toward me.
The most confusing aspect of the whole meeting so far was the way they actually listened to him. Quixoval returned to his seat, and everyone started eating quietly, like they wouldn’t even ask me questions. Just who was in charge here?Want more flash?