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The Pride

By Phynx Legion All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Romance


Catarina Gwendolyn, a military veteran and linguist, thought her engagement to alien royalty was the dream come true until she was introduced to her other three alien spouses. Faced with moral and social dilemmas from Earth, Catarina must decide if a group marriage called a Pride was the answer to the hole in her life.

Chapter 1: The Household

Exiting the shuttle from the imperial spaceport Queen-Mother Feorda Goven, Catarina Gwendolen takes her two bags from the conveyor and attaches the shoulder straps to lug them out of the reception hall. With all of her clothes and meager belongings tucked away in the bags, she refused to have them ship them through the mail. Having grown accustomed to living in a pressurized bodysuit from her years onboard military warships, the thirty-eight hour trip was easy. Looking no worse for wear, she adjusts her hair and strides to the secure luggage counter. After providing her ticket and appropriate identification, she retrieves her Samuel’s Model 25 Gauss rifle. Originally her father’s, the rifle was her most treasured heirloom and she refused to let the shipping company transport it. Though their value was insignificant to anyone other than Catarina, the rifle and clothes were all she valued in the galaxy.

Scanning the waiting crowds, her eyes are filled with a wall of Yallarians, desperate to find their friends and loved ones exiting the same shuttle. Often described as Amazon World, Cat felt the extremely tall race was better described as model world, as over ninety percent of the race were fantastically beautiful, and the remaining percentage were just incredibly beautiful. With a planet whose members only resembled gigantic female humans, the first explorers thought they were either clones or some disturbing male-female hybrid. The latter was only partially true, as they possessed both sets of reproductive organs; but they lacked the human male penis and delivered a hearty seminal-like fluid from their clitoris just above the opening of the urethra. Capable of surviving environmental extremes which would kill almost all human reproductive fluids and cells, the cells traversed the great distances of the vaginal opening to the uterus in less than ten minutes, quite an accomplishment by any organism. Most human women describe their first time as alien or surreal, feeling the tens of thousands of reproductive cells migrating up their canal in one cohesive event. The movement of the cells was one of the most bizarre events most humans ever witness or experience.

For Cat, most of the people were gentle and polite; but she was not surprised to run into the occasional pushy and simply foul-tempered traveler like herself. The six to eight-foot tall giant women of Yallaris were hardly the war-like and battle-hardened amazons which the galaxy portrayed them. There were the occasional anomalies which perfectly matched the description and excelled at in even greater heights, to as much as nine-feet tall, but they were truly the rare exception. One of the reasons the myth was kept alive was due to a footnote in their history. For two thousand years after their empire was created, they maintained a mandatory term of military service. Though originally it was eight years, it tapered down to four then two before it was finally revoked. Additionally, to dissolve the future need for mandatory service, Imperial Houses were required train all their citizens in martial arts and two basic weapon skills. Either modern firearms or archaic handheld weapons like staves, swords or blunt weapons, the training had a two-fold purpose. The obvious reason instilled basic combat training the military provided, thus reducing the time to raise a massive military force; and the second was to ensure top physical conditioning from birth to death.

Their height was intimidating at best, but Cat was past the effect after six months living in the empire. Fortunately, the tallest she had to dodge today was an eight and a half foot mother with two infants in a stroller. The toddlers were easily as big as four or five-year-old humans, but their age was unmistakable to Catarina. Having spent the past six months on an imperial port brushing up on her Yallarian, she had quickly mastered the local dialect and could keep up with many of the vernacular irregularities which regional members spoke fluently. As an ex-military communications officer, her duties required her to learn and adapt to numerous languages she was exposed to. Having happily left the United Naval Forces, the galactic peace-keeping force composed of thirty-eight unique species, she could speak six member languages, and prided herself on her ability to learn any language thrown at her, given enough time of course. Struggling to learn the basics of Kryle, the mysterious trader race in the eastern galactic arms, she had mastered two Terran languages, Cantonese and Arabic. Though she had no use for either language in her travels through the galaxy, she was still pleased with herself.

Scanning the crowd for a particular Yallarian just over six feet tall and in her mid-twenties, she is rewarded by finding her holding a small sign in front of her chest with ‘Catarina’ fancifully printed by hand. Dressed in a simple knee-length crimson skirt, black concert tour T-shirt of the now disbanded White Star Memories, and blatantly Terran red cowboy boots, she hardly resembled the stereotype for Yallarians. Waving exuberantly, Catarina lugs her two bags towards the slim giantess and is happy when she liberates one from her left shoulder. In broken Terran (a mish mash of English and Cantonese in the organization of Spanish mostly with the punctuation and adjective placement), the woman smiles as she struggles to speak clearly over the din round them. “I brought vehicle, and it is set up outside?”

Rescuing her host from slaughtering the language further, Catarina bows dramatically respectful and replies boldly in Yallarian. “It’s okay. I speak Yallarian fluently Fasht Horcha.”

A noticeable sigh of relief washes over the gently-curled burnt-haired woman, as she is excused from trying to speak a language she last used in grade school.

“Bless you, but please just call me Lucia. If everything goes well, we’ll all being referring to each other as Xamora this and that. I know Bala said you spoke Yallarian, but you have no idea how many times people have exaggerated that statement in my years. I’m parked in a loading zone, and the officer has a short fuse for parking in her area illegally.”

Laughing, Catarina follows closely behind the woman, letting her plow through the sea of even taller Yallarians massed in the waiting area. Using various tones and short words to push through the impatient and rude crowds, Catarina bites at her lower lip to keep from laughing at the growls and hisses to pass through the crowds uninjured. Though she mastered the verbal and vocal particulars of the language, she heard the sound effects they used in crowds were very animalistic in nature. This was the experience she lacked, and originally brought her to immigrate to the empire. The small gap in her knowledge compelled her to fill it and she couldn’t help but feel awestruck watching it in action. Catarina had heard similar descriptions from Terran city-dwellers who might use the word ‘hey’ and how the British in London would use short words to project their presence and purpose. Without seeing it first hand, she had to make numerous assumptions, but the Yallarians utilized guttural animal sounds and tones to project their direction of movement, pleasure/displeasure with strangers, and to make their personal space known to others. Though never seen in formal situations, Catarina was amazed with it everywhere she went in the cities. It was truly an unspoken language passed on only to their children.

As she described, the red hover car sat casually in the priority loading zone, with dozens of vehicles struggling to find parking to upload the hundreds of pedestrians waiting for their rides. Pausing to wave at the officer on duty, she unlocks the doors and sets Catarina’s bags in the backseat and moves to the right side of the vehicle. Climbing into the flight seat, Lucia waits for Catarina to throw her bag behind her seat and get strapped in. Using a five-point restraint system, Catrina was surprised the flight rules were so stringent in common personal traffic, compared to Earth and most of the galaxy. With the straps latched tight, she nods and lets her host lift the hover vehicle off the ramp and slip into the line of departing traffic.

With a weighty yawn, Catarina tries to keep her eyes open, getting her first glimpse of the Fourth Imperial House’s Capitol city Ramasun.

Laughing, Lucia cannot help but state the obvious. “Stuck on military time still?”

Nodding dramatically, Catarina checks her watch and resets the time. “I’m still trying to break myself of the thirty-hour day onboard the ship. I’ve been a veteran for over six months, but my body refuses to acclimatize to the thirty-six hour day of Yallaris Prime. It’s driving me insane!”

Grinning, Lucia replies. “Not that it’s any help, but it’s just past noon here…meaning its only 18:20 hours here. Have you had a decent meal today?”

Shaking her head negatively, Catarina stretches in her seat before answering. “Not really, just freeze dried and reheated meat and vegetable-stuffed rolls. Tasty, but they just sit in my stomach afterwards.”

Nodding with an understanding grin, Lucia opens the center console between the seats and extracts an insulated lunch box. Handing it to her guest she motions to take it. “I’ve done enough travel in my time to know what to bring when picking someone up from the port. The soup is homemade, and the small crackers compliment the taste.”

The two-inch square crackers were a local favorite, and made in most restaurants up and down the coast from their house. Lucia laughs unexpectedly seeing the “small crackers” are huge in Catarina’s small hands. “Okay, maybe small is a poor choice of words now, but they are very good.”

Finding the spoon, Catarina is rewarded by the best chicken and vegetable soup she had in years. With a unique aftertaste, she has to admit the salty crackers balance the gamey taste of the meat. As she starts to ask, Lucia seems to read her mind.

“It’s a game bird which is prolific on our land and is hunted year-round. We take turns hunting them every couple of days…meaning that I wind up doing all the hunting around the house, along with the cleaning, cooking, fishing, shopping…you get the point. I heard you’re a great shot with a Gauss rifle?”

Fighting another power-yawn as she eats, she nods tiredly and replies. “Been shooting since I was as tall as my father’s hip, and he was a short man. Yah, shooting is one of my passions.”

Grinning further, Lucia continues. “Wonderful! It’s just going to be you and me until the end of the week…three more days…until Daetera, Bala, and Resolia come in from the Imperial Capitol. Daetera is stuck in a corporate retreat…a lock-in of sorts, and she can’t get away. Resolia is confined to their training camp until the weekend…exactly why? I have no idea what they do. It’s athletic in nature? Your guess is as good as any. And well, Bala, well, you know more than I do about why she couldn’t meet you at the port. Not that I mind! I needed an excuse to get out today. I got all my shopping done, and wasn’t looking forward to sitting around that empty house all morning until you arrived.”

Not realizing she was starving, Catarina is amazed she finished the entire thermos of soup in less than fifteen minutes. “Bala said you work from home. How does that work?”

Nodding in affirmation, she adjusts her trajectory towards the coast before answering. “I’m blessed with the kind of work that only needs me to show up at the office once a month. Everything I do is via the computer, to include meetings. As long as I get everything done before the end of the week, I can do this for forever. Saves a lot on employee dining, office overhead and parking headaches; it’s just a great idea. I have counterparts which live in the city which have no problem commuting, but about forty of us live an hour or more away from the city and love this arrangement.”

Settling down in her seat, Catarina struggles to remain awake despite the gorgeous view of the coast and hangs onto the edge of consciousness. After half an hour, when she couldn’t stay awake any longer, Lucia turns the craft towards a large two-story house overlooking the ocean. Snapping her out of her drowsy state, Catarina admires the vast estate. Overcome by the majestic architecture, she mindlessly exclaims, “Who owns this place? It’s beautiful!”

Laughing, Lucia spins the hover car around to the front of the house to give Catarina a better look. “Daetera. She’s the rich one. This has been in her family for as long as I’ve known her. We used to come here for the weekend to get away from everyone when we were still in school. Now it’s hers, and she convinced me to move in to maintain it. No one was living here and I needed a place to stay. It just made sense to her.”

Nodding, Catarina asks, “So you two have been together since grade school or high school?”

Thinking far longer than she should, Lucia brings the craft onto the ground and rolls it into the garage. After she shuts it down, she grabs the bags and leads Catarina out the garage and along the path to the house.

“Daetera and I were never seriously intimate until after we went to college. Before that we were just kids fooling around. We have a lot of history with others, but we eventually came back together. It’s like we were trying to find someone who was as good as what we already had with each other, and it was fated that we would be amalgamated.”

Unlocking the front door, she leads Catarina inside and up the first stairs on the left. Glancing around, Catarina notices an identical set of stairs on the right which lead upstairs as well. Reaching the top, she glances behind her and sees where the opposite stairs land on the opposite wing.

“So this is the plan, for now. You and Bala will be staying in this room in front of me. You’ll be right next door to me and Daetera, and Resolia will be staying on the other side of our room. There’s a balcony to catch the sunset, and you have your own shower and bath. I’ll get into everything else after you’ve had some serious rest.”

Setting the bags down on a bench by the dresser, she shows Catarina the shower and bathroom, before walking back to the door. I’ll start dinner in six hours, and it should be done in eight. Do you want me to wake you?”

Nodding, Catarina begins untying her shoes. “Please. How about before you start dinner so I can give you a hand? I need to start getting into a rhythm.” With a warm smile, she closes the door behind her and Catarina collapses on the bed, just as she kicks off her shoes and socks.

Stirred by a rapping at her door, Catarina pushes away from dreamland and rises looking down at her disheveled attire, she groans that she fell asleep wearing her clothes and answers the door. Lucia grins seeing the small woman tattered and worn from her travels. Having changed into a comfortable black dress of white and red flowers, she felt sorry for Catarina.

“How about you take a shower and change. I have to chop up the Gurda roots and wash the greens. There’s plenty to do, that’s why it takes two hours. When you’re done showering and changing, just come down stairs following your nose.”

With a weary nod, Catarina turns around, and closes the door behind her. Her trip through the shower really helped to dissipate her mental fog, but the sluggishness made her feel like she wore a lead jacket and pants set. In less than half an hour, she drags her exhausted body down the stairs to find Lucia toiling away in the kitchen. With a gorgeous view out the rear of the house overlooking the sea, the sight took Catarina back home if only for a moment. A warm smile creeps across her face.

“That sight will never get old to me. It reminds me of home, well home on Earth. I love the sea.”

Nodding, Lucia fights from grinning excessively. “Then you will love it here. You have to see that sight every day, whether you’re coming or going from here. You have to love it or it will drive you insane.”

After a minute gazing fondly out the back windows, Catarina finally rewashes her hands before diving into the dinner preparation. Working alongside Lucia, she tries to keep pace with the chopping, slicing, and boiling of various fresh meats and vegetables. Only after an hour and all the various food items lay with their respective pots cooking, does Catarina finally satisfy her curiosity.

“Why are you cooking all this if it’s just you and me?”

Laughing, Lucia motions for her to join her at the small dining table alongside the kitchen and waits for everything to cook and simmer. “Simple. I hate cooking when they are all at home. I spend my entire three days before they get home cooking and freezing it all so all I have to do is reheat virtually every meal, except for breakfast of course. I prefer to spend every waking minute on the weekends in their arms or in bed with them. I really value those two days they are in my lair. After all, I plan to be Xamee, head of the household. Then again, if you join us, it will be the two of us; and maybe three if Resolia decides to fully retire. She is playing with an assistant coach job, and it might lead to a head coach position, taking her out of the house more often than not. Lots of uncertainty.”

Catarina soaks up the massive information dump. She never intended to be a full-time homemaker, despite Bala’s insistence. Unfortunately every major corporation, either Imperial or foreign, hadn’t even tried to call her back for an interview, as if she was radioactive or suffered from some contagious disease. Sucked in to self-reflection, she inhales sharply before speaking. “Bala wants me to assume this role and doesn’t want me working. Is that old fashioned here or am I just being silly?”

Shrugging, Lucia rises and goes to check on the various dishes cooking. “Well, if your heart isn’t being here in the house thirty six hours a day, then you’re going to have issues. You have to have that in your heart, but I never knew Bala wanted you to be a stay-at-home mother. She failed to mention that to any of us.”

Confused, Catarina focuses on Lucia as she seems to dodge scrutiny. “You mean that Resolia won’t be leaving her career to be house-bound like we are?”

Lucia coughs out a loud laugh. “I am hardly ‘house-bound’ as you put it. I actually have a job, and it takes me away from the house one or two times a month all day. By forming a pride, we are a large family who centers around a single female leader…our Xamae, and the rest of us are Xamee. Xamae assumes the role of head of the family, and we assume the role of heads of the house. In a pride though, Xamae determines which of us leads all the house, but we are all equals and the position is transient. When I go off for a day or two, one of you others will assume that role until I return; and when that person must be away, another assumes the role, and so on.”

Catarina shifts in her seat. “So you’re the head of the house?”

Nodding, Lucia finishes stirring the pots, pours herself an iced tea, and joins Catarina. “For right now, yes. Resolia is still away too often, and neither you or Bala have been approved to join the pride just yet. Technically, we aren’t legally a pride. You and Bala’s arrival reset our clock.”

Noticing the confusion, she immediately continues. “By Imperial law, we must evaluate a new member of the pride for one year before they can join. We cannot get the Pride’s Amalgamation consecrated and approved until every member has undergone this evaluation. So your evaluation was not started until today. So after one year from today, we can legally request the amalgamation writ from the order, so long as we do not add anyone else. Bala’s began six months ago. Everything is well documented.”

Catarina nods and exhales softly. “Ah. I didn’t know that. This is entirely new to me. I know the language, I learned it when I was in high school; but the culture is something I learn every day I live it.”

Laughing, Lucia sips at her tall glass. “Don’t be hard on yourself. The pride is something which most Yallarians never learn, encounter or know a thing about. It’s a custom from a long ago age, which fell to the wayside about two thousand years ago. Fortunately it’s still on the books as legal, but highly controlled and regulated. It’s antiquated, but still viable in the right situation. I think only one pride a year gets authorized by the holy order. We believe we won’t have any issues getting it approved. Time is the only limiting factor.”

With a deep sigh, Catarina sips at a cup of hot tea with cream. “The only experience I have with this is called polygamy on Earth, and that was outlawed hundreds of years ago. It got ugly both legally and politically, so they finally put an end to it.”

Nodding, Lucia acknowledges the statement and replies. “Well, I can’t say I’m familiar with your world’s history on the subject, but here it is still controversial. It’s abused, misunderstood, and generally frowned upon. Daetera and I have been talking about doing this since when we were still in grade school and even when we were in college. When we graduated we really got serious about it. We met Resolia along the way and we’ve had numerous liaisons, and discussions until finally she’s all for it. I fell in love with the both of them, and they with me. There’s no jealousy in our love, and Resolia and I are passionately in love Daetera. It’s a true amalgamation of love.”

Smiling warmly, Catarina sighs longingly. “A true ménage à trois. It’s French for a three-way love affair. Not necessarily sexual, but a passionate state of love between three people under one household. Like I said, this is generally outlawed on Earth, but still occurs unofficially throughout our history. Personally I find it difficult to believe more than three people can fall in love with everyone and not have resentment or jealousy pop up. It’s like you have to fall in love every one of them, keep any feelings of jealousy and favoritism from cropping up in order to make it work. I don’t mean to sound negative or cynical, but it’s a far fetch for me. Yet, if Bala wants me to make it work, I will not let my opinions keep me from giving it my all. That’s how I am.”

Surprised by her honest tone and body language, Lucia nods and smiles. “Well, I’m happy that you have such an open mind, I can see why Bala fell in love with you. Did you know that our people are taught to expect humans to be strong-willed and obstinate? Yet, you are the exact opposite of what even I would expect, and I have countless first-hand experiences already. Most Humans resist the foreign, strange and unusual; yet you are willing to dive in head first. Oh, not to scare you, but the religious order is sending a counselor over to interview us during your year-long acclimation period. It’s not unusual, but I hate to admit that it’s probably because you are Human. Again, a three-person pride is scrutinized, but a five is probably sending out warning claxons, especially when a human is invited in. There is a huge tax benefit associated with a large pride, so it’s not unusual that some would take advantage of the arrangement. It will be okay for you. Just be honest and speak what’s on your mind, and it will be fine.”

Adding a tidal wave of anxiety to a stressed situation, Catarina sighs even louder before speaking. “How soon until she gets here?”

Lucia taps her data reader and brings up her calendar. “In six days. On the day everyone returns to work, and we are left alone, just you and me, for five days, at 10:30 am.”

Grinning, Catarina shakes her head. “Figures it would be on a Monday.”

After a long and exhausting night of broken sleep and wake cycles, Catarina drags her weary bones through the shower and changes into her favorite lounge pants and t-shirt. Used as sleep pants in colder climates, she reserved a certain fondness for the saggy and loose-fitting pants. An unremarkable pink and grey camouflage pattern, it had been her companion through three years of tumultuous uncertainty and change from leaving the military to failing horribly in finding employment after her departure. Though she was receiving a small stipend for her injuries a year and a half prior permanently scarring back and damaging her spine, the injuries noticeably limited her range of motion. Though physical therapy returned some of it, there was nothing that could return her to full health. With shrapnel permanently embedded in her upper back, there were only a handful of surgeons in the galaxy willing to operate on her, and fewer she’d trust with the difficult procedure.

Finding Lucia making a pot of what passed as oatmeal on the Yallarian home world, she starts to make a cup of tea, only to find the pot made and waiting for her. With a sigh of relief, she thanks Lucia, pours a cup, and finds a seat in the dining room. Gazing out over the vast ocean, she barely registers Lucia sitting down beside her carrying the steaming bowl and spoon.

“I made enough for you too. Rough night huh?”

A heavy nod from Catarina lets Lucia continue. “You’ll get used to it. I hear it only takes six to eight months. Thirty-six hour days aren’t easy to get accustomed to overnight.”

Nodding, Catarina rises and retrieves a bowl of the Maka seed pudding, and returns to the table. “I was used to thirty-hour days while on active duty. I broke away when I was on Digius Eight waiting to get out with Bala and got used to twenty-eight hours. Now my body is resisting the new solar cycle of thirty-six. This pudding is amazing.”

Nodding appreciatively, Lucia wipes her mouth before speaking. “I have to admit that it’s the cinnamon which makes it that good. Without out it, it’s a horribly bland and boring breakfast dish. I suggested it when I was in grade school, and Daetera’s Xamee imported a tree. It cost a ridiculous amount at the time, but it was a good investment. Now I maintain an orchard led by an expert from the city. The whole process is alien to me, but she harvests quite a bit every year, and I get a percentage of the sales. I take about fifty kilos for my pantry. I’m addicted to the stuff.”

Laughing, Catarina dives into the steamy bowl, and soaks up the soothing ocean view. In between each spoonful, she makes conversation. “What do you do to stay in shape? Humans get out of shape rather quickly compared to you.”

Shrugging, Lucia finishes her breakfast and takes the dishes to the washer. “I run in the evenings, and do a bi-weekly workout with my nearby friends. You up for it tomorrow?”

Returning the shrug, Catarina smiles and nods. “I know if I don’t, I’m going to get fat off your cooking. Sure, I’m game.”

Chuckling, Lucia grabs Catarina’s empty dish, and takes it to the kitchen. “How about we go for a jog before lunchtime and see where you stand, and tomorrow you can join me at the fitness center?”

With a worrisome sigh, Catrina nods in approval and takes her cup of tea outside to the salty ocean overlook.

Within twenty minutes of the late morning jog, it was obvious Catarina had a long way to go with getting back into shape. Though she admitted she tried to stay active after leaving the military, nothing prepared her for the grueling hour-long “light” jog Lucia planned. Unprepared for the steep inclinations and dramatic terrains, Catarina was seriously challenged trying to keep up with her soon-to-be Xamora’s pace and stride. With Catarina’s shorter legs, she was struggling to match Lucia. As they rounded the corner to return up to the house, Catarina knew it was all uphill and she was going to pay for slacking off on her training for so long. Unsurprising, she lurches to a walk, halfway up the hill. Lucia, though noticeably tired and worked, reduces her pace only to be urged to go on by her spent partner. Though Catarina eventually returned to a jog, it is only with half the strength and speed as before. Entering the front lawn, a gated courtyard with large trees and fields of soft green grass, she zeroes onto Lucia. Joining her lying flat on the cool lush grass, her past injuries trigger a flash of pain making her wince and cringe until she finds the right position. Finally, with the pain diminishing, she takes a small sip of water and empties the rest over her face.

Laughing, Lucia sits up and lovingly gazes over the small woman. Despite Catarina’s obvious inability to accomplish what took Lucia three solid years of training to overcome, she was seriously impressed with her first try. Not wanting to give away her thoughts, she couldn’t help but become aroused at Catarina’s muscular definition and potential. Clad in a pair tiny running shorts, barely capable of hiding anything but her trimmed modesty, she seriously enjoyed the explicit muscular definition in the small woman’s thighs and calves. Though her record of three years was now in serious jeopardy of being matched in less than one by the small human next to her, her spirits were hardly soured. On the contrary, she was far from disturbed admiring Catarina; and before she got caught, she stands and offers her a helping hand to her feet.

Exhausted with every muscle in her body screaming out in misery, Catarina shakes her head and surrenders to gather enough strength to stand. With her right arm nearly ripped out of its socket, she’s practically thrown into a standing pose. Rubbing her shoulder, she thanks Lucia and stiffly marches into the house, up the stairs, and into her room. Kicking and throwing off her sweaty clothes, she finds enough strength to lumber into the hot shower and sit, letting the pulsing blasts of water relieve the pain radiating across her body. Time stops as she submits to the steamy emanations and she almost forgets where she is. With twenty-five minutes passing in a blink of an eye, Catrina reluctantly leaves the shower to help with lunch.

After throwing on a loose pair of grey shorts and a pink half-shirt, she feels the burn as she wanders downstairs to find Lucia busy in the kitchen. Barefoot, she enjoys the simple pleasure of walking on the granite floor and brushes up against Lucia.

“So how did I do? Am I a total loss, or what?”

Shaking her head, Lucia places a huge tomato and knife in Catarina’s hands and points her towards the cutting board. Using a short step ladder, she stands on the second step and begins slicing. Lucia resumes cutting the purple Homot roots before speaking. “You’re too hard on yourself! You were superb for your fist run, that wasn’t an easy route we took. I can’t wait to see you in the center. We do a lot of upper body mixed with cardio. You’ll feel like you’re back in basic training again. Floragora, our Kalya or fitness leader is prior High Guard, elite Special Forces. Everyone fondly calls her the Mistress of Suffering. You’ll like her.”

Catarina nods as she expertly cleaves the fruity grapefruit-sized vegetable. “So long as she is aware I have limited mobility in my upper back and left shoulder, that’s fine. I really appreciate your kindness, but I don’t want to force my way into your lives. They’re your friends, and I don’t want to over-extend my welcome. You’ve already done more than enough for me, since I arrived.”

Lucia stops and makes a note to send a private message to the center after she’s done. “Not a problem. I’ll take care of it.”

As Catarina brings the slices to Lucia’s area, she lets Lucia take them and puts the majority into a container. Turning to leave, Catarina is surprised by Lucia coming up behind her and giving her a massively warm hug. “Don’t worry Catarina. I think everyone is going to love you. You’ll fit right in.”

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