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Barbarian’s Mate

By:Ruby Dixon




1





JOSIE


I’m the last single woman in the entire ice planet. I watch Tiffany and her new mate Salukh head off to their cave as everyone celebrates, but I’m not really in a celebratory mood. I’m worrying. I’m not a big fan of stressing about things I can’t change, but this is something that concerns me. Being the singlest single woman that ever singled? It’s concerning. Am I going to have a cave by myself? Am I going to be stuck in someone else’s cave like a reject? Am I going to have to listen to everyone else make out and know that I’m never going to have a mate because Harlow can’t fix the stupid surgery machine?

I stare glumly at the fire, thinking about my stupid, stupid IUD that won’t come out, even though it’s been over a year and a half since we landed and my cootie’s supposed to fix that sort of thing. Around me, everyone’s happy and celebrating but I don’t feel like sharing in their enjoyment. It wasn’t so bad when I wasn’t the last human alone. I didn’t feel like a total reject then.

Now? The cheese stands alone and I do feel like a total reject.

It’s a feeling I’m kind of used to, after being dumped from a half-dozen foster homes growing up. I’ve never had family to call my own, and the people that wandered into my life wandered right back out again just as quickly. But I don’t dwell on the past. Shit happens to everyone.

Here on the ice planet, though, I felt like I was part of a family, at least for a while. There were twelve human women and the sa-khui only had four women to their thirty-something men. To them, we were special, a gift from the stars to be cosseted and taken care of. I was part of a group for once, a family. Then one by one, the girls started to pair off with mates. First Georgie, then Liz, then the others - Stacy, Nora, Ariana, Harlow, and all the others. One by one, they paired up with big, hunky, utterly devoted blue guys who think that their fated mates can do no wrong and dote on them at every turn. And now they’re all popping out babies and having the bestest time ever on the ice planet.

It’s kinda hard not to be jealous. And it wasn’t so bad when it was me, Claire and Tiffany left out of the humans after the initial rush of matings. That was all right, because it wasn’t just me being rejected by my cootie - the symbiont that keeps me alive and plays matchmaker.

But then Claire got a mate.

And then Tiffany got a mate, too.

I’m the only one whose cootie has gone out to lunch. The cootie’s supposed to be looking out for me. It’s supposed to keep me healthy at all costs, fixes up my body so I can withstand the harsh environment on the new planet, and it’s supposed to find me the perfect mate. Once it does, I’ll resonate - my cootie will vibrate once it gets near the perfect male so I can know that it’s chosen, and then we can have really intense, repeated sex until we make a cute, fuzzy blue baby. But I don’t resonate, and I know it’s because of the stupid IUD stuck up in my you-know-what.

You can’t get pregnant if you’re on birth control, and you can’t resonate if you can’t get pregnant.

It sucks to know the exact reason why you’re warming the bench and not being able to change it.

I stare into the central fire pit. So much for not being a gloomy Gus. It’s hard when you see everyone getting everything you’ve ever wanted - a mate, family, babies - and you keep getting passed up.

A small movement catches my eye and I look up from the flickering fire to see a familiar face scowling in my direction. Haeden. Ugh. My least favorite person in both of the sa-khui caves. He looks pissier than usual, which is kind of a feat for him. If he wasn’t such a dick, maybe he’d be handsome. Maybe. He’s big, of course, and heavily muscled like all sa-khui men. He’s got the big, arching, curling horns jutting from his forehead like a ram on crack. He’s got pale blue skin and his forehead is covered with thick, platy ridges that should make him look like a mutant but only emphasize how strong the rest of his features are. And he’s got the long, black hair of the sa-khui, but he wears his shaved on the sides and in one extra-long braid over the top of his head and down his back. He might be someone’s type, but he’s not mine. His tail flicks angrily at the sight of me, as if just looking in my direction pisses him off.

Our eyes lock and he crosses his arms over his chest, as if daring me to get up and confront him.

Whatever. I make a face at him. I don’t know why he’s got a hate-boner for me but I’m tired of it. I’m a little pleased - and weirdly disappointed - when he stalks away. I’d almost welcome a fight with him, except he doesn’t really fight. He mostly spits out a few choice words, glares a lot, and then storms away when I irritate him enough.

I nudge Farli, who’s settling in next to me with her paint pots. She’s doodling a festive red line down her arm. “So what’s with Haeden lately?”

“Hmm?” She dabs a brush in red and then paints a dot on my arm.

“He looks more angry than usual,” I tell her, and obediently turn my arm toward her so she can paint an accompanying blue dot next to the red one.

“Oh. He was very…sour…when he found out you went to the main tribal cave alone. He yelled at Taushen for many hours.”

My eyebrows go up. “Why? He hates me.” He should have been glad that I’d taken the scary, dangerous journey so recently. He’d probably been hoping that I’d fall into a snow drift and never come out again.

She shrugs and holds my arm, painting a ticklish circle on it. “He is protective of females. He thinks it is foolish to risk them.”

Oh barf. So he’s a chauvinist. “I was perfectly fine.” Sure, it was a little scary, but I handled it. I went because we didn’t have a choice. Tiff, Taushen, Salukh and I were visiting the elders’ cave - a crashed sa-khui spaceship from several hundred years ago - when Tiff noticed a big storm coming in. We’d decided to send out runners to warn both the South cave (my home) and the main cave. Tiff had hurt her ankle, so Salukh stayed behind with her. Taushen took the longer walk back to the South cave, and I headed to the main cave to warn them, despite the oncoming blizzard and despite the fact that I’d never traveled by myself before.

I’d been pretty proud of the fact that I made it and saved the day, darn it. Sure, I could have died in a snow drift, but I didn’t. I found the cave all on my own and showed that I’m not useless. I’m happy and I’d do it again.

Farli draws a bigger blue circle on my arm with her paintbrush. The sa-khui like to paint their bodies with bright swirls when they celebrate, and I love it. It makes me happy just to look at it, and Farli knows she has a willing canvas with me. She doodles on my arm a bit more, then holds onto my wrist to keep me still. “Yes, but humans are weak. He says that risking your life means risking more than just one life. It is potentially robbing another male of his mate and kits.”

I gape at her, then realize she’s parroting Haeden’s words. “Good thing I’m only worth my vagina to him.” Joke’s on him, my girl parts have a permanent no-vacancy sign on them, alas.

“What is va-shy-nuh?” Farli asks. “I do not know this word.”

“Never mind.” I probably shouldn’t be teaching Farli inappropriate human words. She can’t be more than fourteen years old. “He’s just a jerk. Always has been and always will be.”

“What is yerk?” She draws another circle on my arm, this time a sickly green. “You’re fun to paint on, Jo-see. You are white like Cham-phee’s belly. The colors show up nicely.”

Greeeaaaat. I’m being compared to her pet dvisti. “A jerk is a man who thinks with his male parts.” It totally applies for scowly Haeden, I don’t care what the others say.

She giggles at my words. At least someone finds me amusing.

Nope. I can’t go down that path, mentally. I need to think about happier things. Things like the baby Tiffany and her mate are rather noisily making back in our cave. I do love babies, and Tiffany’s my best friend here on the ice planet, so I’m totally going to volunteer to godparent the crap out of that poor kid. I stare at the fire, contemplating living circumstances. If Salukh and Tiffany are getting it on twenty-four seven, they’ll need a cave of their own.

Farli finishes decorating my bared arms and picks up her paint pots, heading toward someone else. I remain where I am, the paint drying. No one comes over to talk to me. It’s not like there’s a lot of us left in the South caves. Half of the cave has already moved back to the main caverns. The ones left are probably not feeling that celebratory, if Taushen’s sad mood is any indicator. I don’t blame him. He lost out on the girl and the only one left is me.

Or Farli, but she’s a kid still. So he’s either got to put the moves on me, or wait for Farli to grow up. No wonder he’s depressed. I’m kinda bummed myself. I don’t want to go back to the cave, because I’m afraid I’m going to see a lot of Salukh and Tiffany…which would be awkward. Maybe I’ll go borrow a blanket from Kira and hide in one of the now-empty caves.

I get to my feet. Something soft clinks against my leather boot.

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