3.11 Bigger Mushrooms

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Cherise backed away from Flen's passionate, overeager kiss.

She didn't understand why he was obsessed with touching her. She must be desirable in some unknown way, like a blossom beckoning a hummingbird. But like a flower bud, her default state was curled up tight and hidden. She couldn't fake being a flashy Alashani maiden, even with the jewelry and make-up she wore. She felt too damaged.

Flen looked befuddled. "Have I hurt you?"

He's not a mind reader. Cherise reminded herself that Flen had no way to guess what sort of person she was.

"I'm not ready for kissing like that." Cherise took his hand, to prove that she meant no offense.

Anyone on Earth would have given up trying to date her, but Flen treated her like a celebrity. "Then we shall simply explore," he said, as if enchanted by everything she said or did, no matter what. "Any path you want to take."

They strolled through a forest of gigantic mushrooms. The ribbon-like waterfalls were for irrigation, but to Cherise, it was an alien fairyland. Mottling gave the trunks a zany look. They were toadstools transformed into trees, fat and serene. Golden lamplit filtered down between colorful umbrella caps.

Although the Alashani underworld lacked sunlight, Cherise loved to explore the beauty it did offer. Albino cave fish in crystal-clear streams. Fuzzy little jerboa creatures. And so many gemstones, glittering in random grotto walls or forgotten statues.

"I love your world," she told Flen.

He gave a proud smile. As a high status member of a powerful family, Flen could bring her to many privately-owned parts of the city. His cousin's father-in-law owned a fur farm. Some other cousin owned a gem shop, and seemed excited to make customized jewelry to compliment her skin and hair. And his aunt owned this mushroom forest.

"So," Flen said. "The mushrooms on Earth are piddly little things?"

"Yes." Cherise approximated the size with her hands. "We have other plants that are...."

She stopped herself, not wanting to imply that trees and gardens and fruits were superior to mushrooms in any way. It was best not to go on and on about birds, or the animals of woodlands and grasslands. Mountains. Oceans. Sunset skies.

"Farms on Earth have less color than your farms," Cherise decided to say. It was mostly true. 

Anyway, she really ought to distance herself from the homeworld she would probably never see again. It was time to change the subject. She hated to make Flen feel awkward, but she felt obligated to ask, "How is Thomas doing?"

Flen scowled. "The rekveh is healthy."

That wasn't exactly what Kessa and Margo had said. According to them, Thomas's basic needs were being met, and torture was not involved, yet he seemed desperate and alone.

More desperate and alone than he'd been as a Torth Yellow Rank?

Thomas always chafed under authority figures. He hated being told when to eat and where to sleep. If that was his problem now, Cherise had little sympathy. Slaves in the Torth Empire suffered far, far worse.

Flen studied her. "Is it true," he said, "that you and Margo used to live with that rekveh, in Margo's family palace?"

"It was more like an apartment than a palace." Cherise ambled beneath huge mushrooms. 

"So that thing read your mind a lot?" Flen regarded her with fresh sympathy. "Did it order you around? Did it treat you like a slave?"

"No. He wasn't that bad." Cherise hesitated. Details might make Thomas sound sinister. Everyone knew that Thomas used to masquerade as a Torth, and rumors abounded about his antisocial cruelty. Kessa worked hard to quell those rumors, but still, people whispered that the imprisoned rekveh had tortured slaves.

Thomas had no family. That was bad, in Alashani society. Too many people whispered that he'd attempted to have the messiah murdered ... and that he might have tortured Pung and Cherise, and possibly even the messiah.

At least the Duin refugees had kept their beaks shut about Thomas's powers. The Alashani would execute him for sure, if they knew. 

Anyone might kill Thomas for his part in destroying those two foster parents on Earth. The Gottes had been corrupt, but had they deserved death? 

Two accidental deaths. Apparently, even super-geniuses could make mistakes.

"Wait." Flen stopped walking and faced her. Cherise stopped as well.

"Is this why you don't like to be touched?" Flen had a tone of dawning realization. "Did that rekveh ... did he hurt you, Cherise?"

Her throat clogged with the truth which she dared not speak. She gazed into Flen's purple eyes, and he gazed into hers, searching for confirmation.

"No," she lied.

But she had hesitated for too long. A stormy look entered Flen's gaze. Cherise half-expected lightning to crackle along his slender arms, or debris to rise, like hackles.

"Thomas can't hurt anyone," she hastily assured Flen. "Have you seen him? He's like a baby. He's always been weak."

She pressed her hands on Flen's tense arms, but Flen still looked suspicious.

"Please don't hurt him," Cherise begged. "When I was enslaved, a lot of Torth hurt me, but I was never afraid of Thomas. He isn't a threat."

Her pleas seemed to reach Flen. Cherise's skin prickled as tension left the air. Flen hardly ever used his powers in front of her—at least, not obviously—but he could probably uproot a gigantic mushroom and toss it. His polished mannerisms hid what he was capable of.

"I'm sorry." Flen slumped, as if ashamed. "It probably doesn't help for me to tell you this, but I have mastery over my powers. That is a requirement for warriors who swear the Pact. I am not like your hulking friend Alexander; I would never hurt someone without meaning to do so." He glanced her way. "So I will respect your wishes. I ... well, I have affection for you. If you don't feel the same way? It causes much sorrow in my heart, but..." He looked too miserable to finish the sentence.

He started down the forest path, heading towards the exit. 

Cherise grasped his arm. Alashani hugged or kissed each other at the slightest provocation; no wonder she perplexed Flen. She had seen respectable city councilors make out with their own chambermaids, in public, uncaring who saw.

"I'm interested," she assured him. "Maybe you can teach me to be more like an Alashani?"

She wrapped Flen into an embrace ... and dared to brush his lips with hers.

A strange tingling sensation took hold of her body, like healing sparks, if that magic could be turned into a feeling. She pressed against Flen and allowed him to feel every curve of her body.

Maybe there was more adventure to explore than what she could see with her eyes.

Flen stroked her hair. "Want to go somewhere more private?"

She grinned. Flen lived in a sprawling palace near the top of the city, rumored to have a hot spa. There would be fur-lined blankets and lots of cozy privacy.

"If I ever meet the monsters that hurt you," Flen said, holding her hand, "I will make them pay. No one who hurt you should live."

Cherise thought of Thomas, and then promptly tried to forget him. Because if Flen ever attacked Thomas ... what if Thomas attacked back?

"I'm sorry." Flen nuzzled her forehead. "You are too gentle for such cruel talk. When we arrive at my home, I shall have chambermaids soften the bed with crushed velvet. We can touch, or not. But will you allow me to massage you with oils?"

He was changing the subject, worried about her delicacy. Cherise nearly told him to stop.

But then she realized that she actually liked his concerned protectiveness. It was amazing, to feel so cherished. She had never felt this loved before. Not even with Thomas.

Unlike Thomas, Flen didn't understand her yet. He was exploring. He wanted to get to know everything that made her Cherise Chavez, and it might take years, possibly even the rest of their lives.

That would be fun.

Cherise snuggled closer to Flen, glad to hook her arm around his. This was a new adventure.

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