Garyck’s Gift by Rayna Tyler

Chapter One


I settled on the bench beside the long rectangular table in the gathering room of the rebel headquarters, relaxing as I took in my surroundings. The building wasn’t fancy. Like everything else in the community, it had been designed for shelter and efficiency. The wooden walls might be bare and the furniture handcrafted, but the place was home. And after spending several weeks away, I was glad to be back.

I enjoyed staying at the drezdarr’s dwelling in Aztrashar, one of the largest cities on Ketaurrios, but no matter how many times Laria, Celeste, and I made the trip, I couldn’t wait to leave the place and return to the settlement.

The two females and I had been friends even before the Starward Bounty, our Earth exploration spaceship, had crash-landed and stranded its human survivors on this planet. Celeste sat across from Laria at the other end of the table, explaining what she’d planned for her upcoming wedding.

Celeste’s mate Khyron, the drezdarr and ruler of the planet, was sitting next to her. His blue eyes, a paler shade than the scales covering his arms, chest, and tail, flickered with interest as he listened to their conversation.

Thrayn, Zaedon, and his mate Cara, another close female friend, were the only others in the room. Cara and Zaedon were leaning against the wall near the main door. And, as usual, Thrayn had positioned himself not far from Khyron. He was the newest person to join the vryndarr, the elite warriors who served as bodyguards for the planet’s ruler. Thrayn could be a bit overzealous in his duties, which sometimes annoyed Khyron and amused the rest of us.

Ketaurrans didn’t have elaborate mating ceremonies, but now that Celeste was the drezdarrina, the celebration was a gift, Khyron’s way of honoring human traditions.

I thought weddings were overrated and preferred the ketaurran way of doing things, so I was only half-listening to what Celeste was saying while I sipped my cup of freegea. The bitter plant-based drink was the only thing that came close to tasting like the coffee back on Earth.

My thoughts had drifted to the latest challenge facing our team; finding the laser blasters that had been recently discovered in our spaceship’s wreckage and preventing the possibility of another war.

The last and only conflict I’d ever been pulled into had been brutal. It started shortly after Khyron’s father welcomed us to their planet, offered us places to live in the cities, and helped us build homes in several settlements.

Sarus, Khyron’s uncle, wanted to rule. His hatred of the humans fueled his desire and attempt to overthrow his brother. If it hadn’t been for Burke, the rebel’s leader, my friends and I might not have survived. He trained us to fight with our bodies and to wield any number of blades. Survival was difficult enough without having to deal with a planet-encompassing battle.

Many of the planet’s inhabitants possessed excellent crafting skills but lacked the ability to construct advanced weaponry. Designing blades in various styles was the extent of their knowledge, which made confiscating the blasters so critical.

The ketaurran’s weren’t the only ones that produced despicable individuals who lacked respect for another being’s life. A human mercenary named Doyle was responsible for finding the weapons after turning the ship into his personal compound. We’d recently learned that he’d sold the weapons to a ketaurran whose identity we were still trying to uncover.

We’d also discovered that he’d kept some for himself, an underhanded feat that had gotten his throat cut. Not only were we searching for the weapons he’d sold, but we also had to find the ones he’d kept. The males who’d worked for him had gone into hiding and taken the blasters with them, making our job even more difficult.

Worrying about our newest mission wasn’t the only thing distracting me. The other was Garyck, an elite ketaurran warrior, one of the drezdarr’s bodyguards, and another member of our team. The male had stolen my heart, something I hadn’t openly shared with anyone, including my friends. Knowing me the way they did, I was certain they already knew how I felt about him.

Having no idea if Garyck felt the same way or what was currently going on with him was the source of my stress. Unless I’d imagined it, there was definitely chemistry between us. At one point, if asked, I’d been sure I meant something to him. But lately, and for some unknown reason, things had changed, and he’d been doing his best to avoid me.

Unlike humans who got together based on attraction, ketaurrans could actually recognize their mates by smell. Garyck had sniffed me enough times to know whether or not I was his ketiorra. We’d been working together for months. Since he hadn’t said anything to me yet, I was certain we weren’t meant to be together, no matter how badly I wished it were otherwise.

“Are you sure moving forward with the wedding is such a good idea?” Laria asked, tucking a honey blonde strand that had pulled loose from her braid behind her ear.

“Yes,” Khyron said, smiling at Celeste. “Not only will a celebration help alleviate the tensions between the races, but it will show everyone we are serious about uniting everyone.”

It was a good plan, one that would be destroyed if we didn’t find the weapons. Something I was about to mention if Melissa hadn’t opened the door leading outside and marched into the room. The ten-year-old was one of the orphans who lived with Harper and Rygael. Harper might not be a warrior, but she was fiercely protective of her friends and the children in her care.

Since Burke was in charge of the settlement, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone living in the community to stop by the headquarters building without an invitation. The children were regular visitors.

Being in a room full of imposing adults armed with blades and ready to fight never seemed to bother any of them, Melissa included. She scanned the room, her brown eyes sparkling when they reached me. With determined steps, she closed the distance, then climbed on the bench next to me.

“Good morning, Melissa,” I said, sipping from my cup while patiently waiting for her to state what was on her mind.

“Morning,” she said, furrowing her brow, then taking a few seconds to choose her words. “Sloane.” She patted my arm. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, what do you want to know?” I asked.

Melissa pinned me with a stern look. “Did you and Garyck break up?”

Surprised by her unexpected question, I coughed, almost spilling the remainder of my freegea on the table.

“Are you okay?” Melissa got up on her knees and smacked my back.

“Fine,” I rasped after gaining my composure. “What made you think Garyck and I were together?”

“Because you can understand the funny noises he makes,” she giggled, plopping back down on the bench. “And he always lets you take his arm band. He doesn’t let anyone else do that.”

Most people found Garyck intimidating, but the young ones never shied away from him. “We’re not a couple. We’re just friends.” Saying it out loud saddened me more than I cared to admit.

I had a natural gift for obtaining items. Most people would call it stealing, but I preferred to think of it as procuring things without being caught. I didn’t want to receive a lecture from my friends, so I let Melissa believe that Garyck let me take his band, when in truth, he never felt it leave his arm.

“Aren’t you his,”—Melissa wrinkled her nose—“you know, that keti thing?”

“You mean ketiorra,” I corrected.

“Yeah, that.”

“Maybe Sloane is his ketiorra, and he’s too scared to tell her,” Laria said.

“Sure, that’s it,” I laughed. Nothing scared Garyck, or any of the vryndarr for that matter, and Laria knew it.

If Zaedon, Khyron, and Thrayn knew anything about the situation, they weren’t talking. They seemed more than happy to let me handle any questions the child had about the bond between mates. I shot them each a narrow-eyed glare, promising that I’d get even later. Khyron didn’t flinch. Thrayn lowered his gaze, seemingly fascinated with something on the floor. Zaedon’s smile faded, and his tail twitched, gaining an amused grin from Cara. 

“You know how Harper and Rygael have a special connection?” I asked.

“Uh-huh.” Melissa bobbed her head. “Rygael did a lot of sniffing and knew Harper was his mate.”

If Melissa knew that ketaurrans recognized their match by scent, then explaining why Garyck and I weren’t together might be easier than I’d expected. “That’s right, but—”

“Garyck sniffs you all the time.” The child crossed her arms, her gaze accusatory. “I’ve seen him.”

I’d noticed too, but it didn’t change anything. “Yes, and since he hasn’t said anything, it probably means we’re not meant for each other.” I ignored the painful knot forming in my gut.

“Or maybe he needs to have one of your special talks, like the one you gave Khyron to help him win me over,” Celeste said to Melissa.

My friend’s circumstances had been different; a relationship with complications. “Or maybe everyone should mind their own business and leave it alone.” I glared at Celeste, then smiled at Melissa and softened my voice. “I appreciate your concern, but giving Garyck one of your talks won’t be necessary.”

“Okay.” Melissa didn’t sound convinced, and I worried she might interfere anyway, especially if she received some nudging from Celeste and Laria.

Before I could insist the three of them remain neutral, Lily, one of three children Harper and Rygael had adopted while our group was dealing with mercenary issues in the city, opened the door. “There you are,” she huffed at Melissa as she stomped into the room with a chonderra following close behind her.

The adorable creature was rare, their bodies covered in tufts of white fur and violet scales. He wasn’t much bigger than a small Earth dog, which was why the children had turned him into a pet. “Fuzzball and I have been looking all over for you.”

Melissa rolled her eyes and flashed Lily a where-else-would-I-be look, then stuck her hand under the table and let Fuzzball lick her with the forked end of his long orange tongue. Once he was done, he worked his way over to Celeste and snatched the small piece of pytienna, a flat cake made from plants, that she held out for him.

“Harper wants to know what you want to do about the dresses for your wedding,” Lily said to Celeste.

“Nobody said anything about having to wear dresses,” I snapped. The environment could be harsh, so most of the inhabitants wore pants. The last time I’d worn a skirt was when we were still traveling through space. I’d only done it because my father had insisted I look presentable for some event we were attending.

He’d been the only blood relative I’d had on the ship, and he’d lost his life during the war. Thinking about him brought back painful memories. I swallowed past the constriction building in my throat and pushed the unwanted thoughts aside by refocusing my energies on persuading Celeste to change her mind.

It would’ve been easier if she hadn’t already convinced Laria to join her efforts. Normally, I supported Celeste’s decisions and was thrilled to be a part of her upcoming nuptials. But I strongly detested wearing anything that didn’t completely cover my legs, and my friends knew it, which is why they hadn’t consulted me first.

Not one to give up until I’d exhausted all available resources, I turned to Khyron, hoping to gain an ally. “Don’t the ketaurrans have their own requirements regarding ceremonial apparel?”

Always the diplomat, Khyron pondered my question before answering. “We have no official bonding ceremony. Our vows are made in private.” The smile he gave Celeste held a wicked glint. I didn’t need to ask what they’d been doing when they sealed their bond.

“I do not know what a human wedding entails, so I am leaving the planning to my ketiorra,” he added. “I will support whatever Celeste wants.”

Love shone in the look Khyron cast his mate, causing a jealous pang in my chest. I was happy for my friends, and though I would never admit it out loud, a part of me longed for the same thing.

“Good, then it’s settled,” Celeste said, clapping her hands. “Lily, please tell Harper we’ll come by and get her when we’re ready to take a trip to the traders market.”

The market was comprised of vendors who traveled between the cities and settlements, either selling items they’d handcrafted, things they’d derived from plants or objects they’d procured from other places. I couldn’t recall ever seeing any dresses on display, but that didn’t mean Celeste wouldn’t be able to find someone who could design what she was after.

“I will,” Lily said, then turned to Melissa. “Harper said you’re supposed to come home now. You too, Fuzzball.” She made a clicking noise and patted her leg to get the animal to follow her.

“Okay,” Melissa mumbled, then after reluctantly climbing off the bench. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, then whispered in my ear, “Let me know if you change your mind and want me to help you with Garyck.”

I admired her determination and tried not to smile. “I promise you’ll be the first person I ask.”             

After flashing a huge grin, she hurried to catch up with Lily and Fuzzball, who were already on their way outside.

Burke, along with Ryan, one of the males who helped guard the rocky perimeter running along a portion of the settlement’s border, filed into the room at the same time the girls were leaving.

“So, what’s going on in here?” Burke asked, heading toward the counter running along the back wall. He held up a cup and pointed at the container of freegea, offering to pour Ryan something to drink as well.

“We were discussing the wedding and my plans for the dresses,” Celeste said, smirking at me.

“You girls are going to dress up for the ceremony?” Burke asked as he strolled around the table, plopped into the chair at the end, then leaned back and propped his feet on the nearest bench. “Now that’s something I can’t wait to see.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that myself,” Ryan said, glancing in my direction. “I take it you’re one of the fortunate ones.”

Unfortunate was more like it, but I didn’t say it aloud.

The male had been flirting with me since he’d first arrived in the settlement, so I wasn’t surprised when he walked past Burke, then sat in the seat Melissa had vacated.

“There will actually be five of us. I’ve also asked Harper to organize things and Cara to be in the wedding party,” Celeste said.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Cara gave me a mischievous wink, knowing it annoyed me when she sided with our friends.

“Well, it’s a problem for me,” I said. “Where am I going to put my blades?”

Ryan grinned as he lowered his dark gaze to my chest. “I can think of—”

“If you value certain parts of your anatomy, you won’t finish that sentence,” I said, cutting him off and tapping the hilt of the blade attached to my hip.

Even with my back to the door, when it opened again, I didn’t need to look or hear Celeste’s greeting to know that Garyck had entered the room. I’d been able to sense his nearness from the first time we’d met.

For a big guy, the male possessed the stealth of a predatory animal, more so than the other vryndarr. He’d never been much of a conversationalist, so the grunt Celeste received wasn’t unexpected. Nor was the fact that he planned to continue keeping his distance when he leaned against the wall next to Zaedon.