I wake up abruptly from a deep sleep, staring around at first in confusion and then fear.
Instead of the familiar dingy walls of my apartment in Minneapolis, I see the soft lighting and sleek surfaces of the cabin I’ve been traveling in for the last three months: the guest quarters of the Callum Morris. With a single word, I can turn the lights on, request food, or raise and lower the temperature as I wish.
I am not on Earth. Slowly, my heartbeat slows to normal, and my pulse rate drops.
I no longer have to be afraid.
Of course, I’m still trembling. Who wouldn’t be scared? Arietus is on the outer rim, far from the planets who regularly trade with Earth. It is a journey of three months to get there. From what I have been told, passage to the rim is much easier to arrange than the return flight. Once I am dropped on Arietus, I will be there for the long haul. There isn’t anyone on Earth who could help me if everything went wrong.
I sit up in my narrow cot, calling for the daytime lights. I should eat and go through the stretching exercises recommended for staying limber during deep space travel. Instead, I walk over to the dresser in the corner, opening the top drawer to reveal a small wooden box resting in the center.
I open the box and remove the small metal pendant inside. Dangling from a golden chain, the sleek charm is about the length of my thumb and only slightly wider than a pencil. Engraved along one side is a series of curving characters. It is the native script of Arietus.
It spells out the name of my soon-to-be husband.
The matchmaker told me to wear the pendant at all times when I’m on Arietus. It is a mark of pride, and an essential accessory for married and betrothed women. I study the curves of the alien’s name. Is he going to love me?
“I hope so.” Desire, a feeling I thought had vanished from my life, glows sweetly inside me.
* * *
Back on Earth, I had thought a husband was the last thing that I needed. My relationship with James left me bruised in both body and spirit, and I wanted out. I ran as fast and as far as I could, all the way to New York.
I found TerraMates. They promised me a new world where I would find a man perfectly matched to me. A plague fifty years ago had left all the women barren on the planet Arietus.
“Are you telling me they need broodmares?” At the time, the notion was unattractive.
Mrs. Lynch’s eyes shone bright, piercing me with a sharp look.
“Let’s look at this from a different perspective. They need wives. They are men who need women. It is as simple as that. It is not a dishonor. It is a privilege. If you are suitable, an Arietan man will cherish you as his for the rest of your life.”
The image of a possible future tugged at my soul in a way I hadn’t felt for ages, waking up an old longing. I had loved James so much at the beginning of our relationship. The memory made my heart ache. Now that our love was burned down to ashes, I was finished with men. I had no more prospects on Earth.
“Don’t be afraid. You came here for a reason. Take a chance. Take a journey.”
The matchmaker guided me through a dozen tests, some designed to test my genetic suitability, others to test my intelligence. One to test my flexibility. She made encouraging noises throughout the process, telling me I would be matched with someone wonderful. I imagined someone who deserved me.
It was a new idea, thinking someone must be worthy of me. Deep in my heart, I started to dream about the future again.
The name she whispered from her mouth, the one inscribed on the pendant she gave me at the end, echoes in my head.
Rasulus Valorum, prince of Arietus.
At first, I thought it must be some kind of joke. I was going to be sent off-planet for a money laundering scheme. The only saving grace was the matchmaker seemed as surprised as I was.
“How extraordinary!” Her face beamed with pleasure. “TerraMates will receive quite a commission if we find a bride for the prince himself. The tests don’t lie. Make sure you remember me after you are blissfully wed.”
I shivered. I was only twenty-five years old, but sometimes I felt like I was over a hundred. The thought of being happy, being cherished, and by a prince no less, pulled at me. I signed the papers and climbed aboard the starship, leaving Earth at 7 a.m. on a Thursday.
I feel myself changing as we pass the far edge of the solar system. We start racing toward the planet that will be my new home. I’m not losing myself. Instead, I remember who I was and who I can be. I’m no longer the cringing girl who cried because James had struck her again.
I am Perri Coren, and I am having an adventure.
* * *
The Callum Morris lands on the dark side of the planet close to the brilliant lights of a large city. I walk down to the cargo bay, where the crew is working to unload Earth trade goods from the cargo section. I am the only bride on this trip. I step out into the night, taking my first breath of Arietan air.
I don’t have a guide and decide to ask the captain a question. He’s looking over inventory sheets with a frown on his face.
“What happens now?”
He glances at me with irritation. “Your transport will be here in a minute. Stay out of the way while we unload everything. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
I don’t like being pushed aside like a useless container. I wander out into the yard to look around. Beyond the tall wire fence, I see Talis, Arietus’s capital city. I try to remember what I have learned about the planet. Talis is the capital, but there are several other cities almost as large scattered across the continent.
The files from TerraMates told me Arietus is technologically similar to Earth. They are starfarers, scientists, and explorers. Socially, they adhere to a rigid caste system. The royal family is at the very top with nobles, gentry, and the tradespeople below. The aliens are considered civilized, but they also have a strict code of honor and are prepared to fight to the death if necessary.
Remembering the passage made me shudder.
The book did not mention there is something strangely medieval about Arietus. From where I stand, underneath the shadow of the Callum Morris, I see a cart being pulled by what look like two enormous birds wearing hoods. The woman driving the cart wears dark robes with a loose cowl over her head. As I watch, she turns away from me with disinterest before driving on.
A crew member passing by senses my confusion.
“It looks a little rough, doesn’t it? The tradespeople do all right. The more well-off folks do a lot better. Where are you headed?”
“Sounds fancy. You should be fine. Most of the girls we deliver are for the nobles anyway. Don’t worry too much.”
I can’t help feeling concerned, but I smile at him anyway. I rub my hands up and down my arms. It is a good thing I wore my long wool coat. There is a distinct chill to the air. It occurs to me that I don’t know anything about the seasons here.
A whispered conversation behind me gets my attention. I turn to see the captain talking with a tall man in a blue jacket. The man is the first Arietan I’ve ever seen, and I can’t believe how fit he looks. When he turns his eyes to me, his gaze is friendly and kind.
“Miss Perri Coren?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“May I see your authorization, please?”
His request puzzles me for a moment. I tug out the pendant I put on just a few hours earlier. The alien studies it for a moment without touching and slowly nods.
“Greetings, princess-to-be. Follow me.”
The captain pushes a form in front of him which he quickly signs before pulling me away. I take a few steps before I realize, with a hint of unease, that I have been accounted for like a load of beef or mushrooms.
He brings me to another vehicle drawn by hooded birds. It is grander than the woman’s cart, black with silver chasings and a curling silver mark on the door. I recognize the insignia. It matches the topmost character on my pendant. It’s a part of my future husband’s name, and the world becomes more real than it was a moment before. The driver on top of the coach nods deferentially to us as we enter. Before we can sit down, the vehicle moves forward with a jerk.
I can’t help staring out the window as we drive through the streets. The architecture reminds me of Renaissance towns. The buildings are narrow and close together. Lanterns hung high above on posts give the roads a romantic quality, but they cannot compensate for the hunger and dirt I see in the streets. People watch our passing coach with eyes that make me feel twin stabs of compassion and discomfort.
They need help. They mean me harm.
Can both of these things be true?
The alien man sees me looking and yanks down the blind. “Talis has some beautiful sights. We are in an older part of the city, a bit poorer and coarser than where we are going. You must understand something. The palace is nothing like this.”
“Is anything done to help these people?”
The alien speaks quickly. “The king of Arietus is generous to everyone. He cares for their needs and gives generously from his vast wealth.”
There’s something rote and rehearsed about his speech, and my unease ramps up. I am marrying the prince, not the king, but I wonder if I can do anything to make the edges of Talis less cruel.
The alien does not open the blind for some time. When he does, it is with a flourish. “We have arrived at your new home.”
My jaw drops as I peer out the window, looking up and up at the palace we are approaching. It makes me think of fairy tale castles from my childhood books, all stone and stained glass. Globes of light are floating everywhere and make the palace shine. I see aliens who look well-fed and well-armed patrolling the battlements. They’re soldiers, recognizable on any world.
“This is the ancestral home of the Velorum family.” The alien beams with obvious pride. “It will be your home as well.”
The word rings like a bell in my head, making me smile a little. Some of the unease from the bad parts of Talis fall away from me. I am home. Soon I will meet my husband.
I walk into the palace through doors easily twice as tall as I am. We pass through a hall lined entirely with stained glass. The palace is as imposing from the outside as the inside. My escort speaks quietly into a communicator pinned to his shirt collar. Finally, he nods at me.
“I am to present you to the king.” He leads me further into the twisting halls.
“The king? My husband’s brother? What’s he like?”
“It is better if you form your opinions yourself.”
I’m still wondering what he means when we come to a wide door guarded by two soldiers. He speaks with them briefly before nodding at me.
“I cannot accompany you any farther.”
One guard sweeps the door open for me. I walk in, feeling my heart rise into my throat.
The first thing that occurs to me is the temperature of the room. It’s warm and humid. The only illumination comes from soft blue lights above me. The lights give my surroundings a hint of water. At first, I can’t see what’s going on.
There’s a low hum of activity all around. Soft words and laughter fill the air. I hear a moan, and I realize what I thought was an odd sculpture is actually a man and a woman writhing together on a low couch. They are naked. When he reaches up to fondle her breasts with a rough hand, it is altogether too clear what they are doing.
Shocked, I look away, but it doesn’t help. Now I am facing a woman straddling a man’s hips as she rides him. Another woman comes to kiss her, hands buried in her long hair. I start moving back to the entrance.
My back hits the closed door, and I tug at the handle, wanting to go back to my only friend on Arietus so I can ask him what the hell is going on.
“Look, everyone! It’s Rasulus’ bride!”
The cry of exclamation brings all the activity to a halt. I feel dozens of eyes turn toward me. The room is enormous. Everyone is watching as a man wearing only a black kilt stumbles in my direction. He is tall and broad-shouldered with a beard. He reaches for me. Something about him is terrifying. I ball up my fists instinctively.
The alien approaching me calls out to the room. “She looks like a pretty one, doesn’t she?” He’s handsome, but there’s a hint of cruelty and carelessness in his eyes as he looks me over.
“Raise the lights. I want to see her.”
I stifle a cry when the white, bold spotlight hits me. During the moment when I’m blind, a hand comes out of the darkness to tear away my long black coat. I feel it slipping from my shoulders. I can’t stop revealing the thin shirt and skirt I’m wearing underneath, but when a hand comes up to grab at the collar of my shirt, I can’t take it anymore.
There’s no way for me to retreat. Instead of pulling back, I decide to step forward. I still can’t see, but my fist comes up, striking at the place where I last saw my attacker. When I connect with something hard, the hand lets go of my shirt. For a moment, I feel victorious.
A distressed murmur goes up from the crowd. “She’s struck the king!”