My shoes made little sound as I strode down the corridor of the testing center.
When I got dressed this morning, I knew there was a chance I was about to be sent to an alien planet, after all. Sensible shoes seemed like a good plan.
I like plans.
My reflection looked back at me as I approached the final room. The woman in the mirror had her ebony hair pulled back into a tight bun, held in place with two pencils.
I’d been studying for my entrance exam right up until I’d had to leave. The tweed blazer and matching charcoal slacks made me look like a sophisticated business woman instead of a grad student.
Then I drew nearer and got a good look at the sour expression on my face. I’d never thought I was anything special in the looks department. Guys didn’t go ga ga over me the way they did, say, over my blonde-haired bubble headed roommate.
Or maybe it was just that they were all afraid I was smarter than them. Either way, I didn’t put up with their nonsense.
I had a plan, and I was sticking to it.
Until 10 minutes ago when my DNA match came back positive.
Now I was just numb.
Time for a new plan, but my brain couldn’t think, running in circles.
I was nervous. I was never nervous, damnit!
Except…who wouldn’t be, if they were plucked right out of their life and sent halfway across the known galaxy?
All because of a stupid treaty I had nothing to do with.
“Shelby Thomas?” A woman dressed as a doctor came forward, guided me through the door. “Congratulations on your match. I know it’s a shock, but so many of our matches fall in love. Let yourself enjoy the experience.”
I wasn’t expecting any such thing. Love was a chemical reaction in the brain.
As real as the delight you get when eating an ice cream cone and gone just as quickly.
“I’ll enjoy the day I get to come home and return to my actual life. This is throwing off my ten-year plan.”
“Ten years?” she blinked. “That’s impressive. I have trouble planning what I’m going to have for lunch.”
Not exactly reassuring to hear from the woman who was implanting my translator.
Finally, I stepped up on top of the teleportation pad while the technicians fiddled with their doodads. Now I was really nervous. I was about to be converted to an energy state and then transmitted like a radio signal across the galaxy.
I had literally nothing to compare it to.
No way to plan for this at all.
I clenched up as the light flashed bright and golden and my eyes closed on reflex. I felt a strange tingle, but then it was over just as quickly as it had begun.
I opened my eyes and nearly freaked out.
“What the hell?”
A whole freaking tribe of aliens stared back at me. Anthropomorphized cat people alien to be exact. The overall effect was doubly disconcerting, considering the way they were dressed.
Elaborate brocade surcoats worn over spun silk shirts, long flowing gowns with lace trim and complex embroidery.
Sort of like you might expect to see at a Renaissance fair, only, it was mixed with bits of high technology that destroyed the illusion of anachronism. Computer tablets were affixed to forearms, and the liveried guards bore plasma weapons as well as curved swords.
One of the cat people took a step toward me. Her pattern of fur reminded me of an earth tiger, only a bit off. She moved with liquid grace, but I got the feeling she was at least middle aged, if not older.
Her green and gold finery glistened in the floating globes of light drifting about the room in a slow, random dance.
“Greetings, Shelby Thomas of Earth.” She offered a sweeping bow. “I am Queen Nala Kastigeer. My son Valloa is your match.”
I stared blankly for a bit until I remembered my manners.
“Hi,” I said, feeling awkward as hell. “Nice to meet you. I’m Shelby Thomas…but you know that, because you just said so.”
A Mahdfel man with purple skin and slightly curved horns stepped up beside the queen. I noticed a silver crown with a single sapphire set near the forehead upon his brow.
“Please don’t be so nervous,” he said. “You may have noticed that I’m a transplant to this world, too.”
His lips curled in a warm smile, but his gaze roamed the room as if searching for something.
I started looking over the other Kagethi and trying to figure out which of them might have been my match.
None of them were looking at me in a way that showed that kind of interest, though.
“Anything you need, Shelby, to make you more comfortable, please let us know.”
“Thank you, but…” I felt bad, but it’s better to be honest, right? “I sort of left a life behind on Earth and quite frankly, I can’t wait to get back to it once my time is up.”
His smile deepened, enough that I could see he had dimples.
“That’s a lot like what I said when I first came here. I hope that in time we will be able to change your mind.”
“I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I hope you’re not investing too much in me emotionally. You might be disappointed.”
A man nearby caught my attention. And by man, I mean another tiger striped Kagethi. His finery was a cut below that of the King and queen, and he was easily twenty years their junior. He smiled at me politely enough, but sort of wanly.
He did nothing for me. Not a damn thing, even though he was sort of handsome for being a cat man.
I looked at him and swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Are you my match?”
The Kagethi blinked and shook his head.
“No, my Lady. I am Duke Vorath. Your match, Valloa, is my cousin and the crown prince.”
“Oh.” I looked around and frowned. Judging by the clothing, it looked to me like the rest of the entourage were either servants or guardsmen. I didn’t see anyone who looked like a prince. “Um, then where is he?”
The King and Queen grew silent, and Vorath avoided meeting my gaze.
“I believe he’s been delayed,” Vorath murmured.
As if on cue, the doors banged open, and a gigantic, furred form strode in the room.
My eyes widened, because he was simply huge. Rippling with muscle obvious even under his tiger fur, he looked like the other Kagethi only bigger. Much, much bigger. He had to be over seven feet tall.
Something in the back of my stomach started to churn.
No. This couldn’t be it. This wasn’t my match. There was no way.
But I knew, somehow, that he was.
He looked even bigger because he had a grotesquely tusked thing on his back that looked like a dead boar. Blood dripped from a wound on its neck onto Valloa’s fur.
Because without a word, I knew in my gut this was him.
“Where is my mate?” Valloa called out boldly, his golden eyes flashing. “I have brought her a feast.”
I stared at him for a long moment, and then shrank back toward the teleportation pad before he could lay eyes on me.
“So much nope,” I said, stepping back on the pad. “Send me home. Now.”
My voice boomed in the cavernous chamber as I cast my gaze about searching for the Earth woman matched to me by the Mahdfel DNA system.
My curiosity had gotten the better of me.
Originally, I had intended to avoid meeting her altogether. A kind of silent protest of the fact that I really didn’t want an Earth woman. It did not matter that my friends Reo and Karr had found so much happiness with the smooth skinned creatures.
All that mattered was my choices were being taken away from me. I’d gone out hunting instead, hoping to upset my match so much with my absence the whole mating thing would be dissolved.
Then, as I’d stalked through the warm, verdant green of the jungles surrounding our keep, I’d developed something of a crisis of conscience. Avoiding the arrival of my match from Earth would upset my parents greatly. It would be a major blow to their public image, not to mention their honor.
To make up for my tardiness, I’d taken a detour into tarsk hunting grounds, and found myself a prime buck. His neck wasn’t swollen with the rutting season yet, so his meat would remain succulent and flavorful, instead of tough and bitter.
But for some reason no one seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness.
“Your match is probably cowering somewhere because of your boorish ways.”
I turned to see my mother stride up toward me. The stiffness in her posture and the fire in her gaze let me know I was in trouble.
Familiar territory, unfortunately.
“I thought it would be impolite not to bring a gift. Look, is it not a fine tarsk, Mother?”
“It would be fine roasting on a spit or laying in chunks on a butcher block. Not dripping blood all over the teleportation chamber. Have some decorum.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but then I spotted her.
I only saw her from behind at first, a long-haired woman with her hair pulled into a tight bun. She was arguing with one of the Mahdfel technicians over the comm screen.
It sounded like she was trying to convince them to send her back.
She stiffened up, and then grumbled as she turned about.
“Who wants to know?”
I could not respond. My jaw had fallen open in awe. I had not expected her to be the loveliest creature I had seen in all my years of life.
Her dark eyes were the color of magic, her ebon hair like spun silk. Her furless skin should have been repulsive, and yet it looked just right on her. I longed to stroke my fingers along her smooth, soft neck.
“Well?” she snapped, drawing me out of my reverie. “I asked you a question?”
“Introduce yourself, my son.” My father sniffed, trying to pretend like I hadn’t insulted everyone in the room with my tardiness.
“But of course.” I swept into a polite bow. “I am Prince Valloa Kastigeer. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Eventually,” she said dryly.
I cocked my head to the side. Though she was little, she was fierce. “What do you mean?” I asked when she did not elaborate.
“You didn’t even bother to show up to greet me on time, and when you do finally show up—late, I might add—you’re dripping blood all over the place from the animal carcass you have slung over your shoulders. I thought you were some kind of sophisticated alien prince, but it turns out you’re Conan the freaking Barbarian.”
“I do not know this Ko Nan, but I am far from a barbarian. I am skilled in philosophy, debate, music, and culture.”
Mother covered her mouth with her hand in a vain attempt to hide a smile. My father didn’t even bother with that. He burst into guffaws.
“My son, there are many words I would use to describe you. Sophisticated and refined do not number among them.”
Shelby smirked, and it raised my ire.
I carefully laid the Tarsk corpse on the floor and turned to regard my mate. I had gotten a bit of blood on my vest, but not very much. I don’t know why she shrank back like she was afraid of it touching her.
“Shelby Thomas of Earth,” I said with stiff formality. “If I were the sort of man who offered apologies, I would give you one right now for my tardiness. Most vociferously and vehemently.”
I cast a dark look at my father so he would know that I was more refined than he thought, then continued.
“However, I consider apologies a sign of weakness. I do not apologize. But if I were to offer an apology, I would offer one to you.”
My mother sighed and rubbed her temples like she had a headache. My father covered his mouth and muttered under his breath.
Shelby stared at me, mouth open.
“Are you kidding me right now? Why would I want to be matched with a jerk who shows up late, flings blood everywhere and then refuses to apologize for any of it?”
“Kageth is superior to Earth,” I said. “You should stay for that reason alone. Plus, I am a prince. You will be queen one day.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
“What makes you think I want to be a stupid queen?”
She turned to my mother.
Then she turned back to me.
“I have my life all planned out. I’m supposed to be taking my grad school exam right now. Instead, I’m stuck in the basement of some alien castle with a giant tiger man telling me how lucky I am to be in his company. Even though he’s a total jerk.”
She made a strangled grunt.
“I have plans, you big jerk, a ten-year plan, and you’re screwing it up.”
“Ten-year plan? What comedy is this? Planning is for those who are too weak to live in the moment.”
“Weak?” The ice in her tone made me want to shiver. I turned to my mother and father for moral support. Father just looked disappointed, but Mother looked angrier than Shelby.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, I suppose I’m sorry for dripping blood around and offending you.”
“You suppose you’re sorry?”
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
“I guess that’s as good as I’m going to get, isn’t it? Well, fine. Just stay away from me. Because this?”
She gestured between the two of us.
“This is going nowhere.”
She pushed through the guards and stormed out of the chamber.
“Somebody better show me where the bathroom is,” she muttered on her way out.
I was stunned. “What did I do wrong?”
My mother scowled.
“You are going to have to navigate these waters on your own.”
She left the chamber as well, as did my father. I stood there alone wondering what in the Void just happened.
Not an auspicious start, to be sure.
Yet, something inside of me was hopelessly intrigued.
I wanted to see more of her.
Only that seemed a vain hope, since she had just declared she wanted nothing to do with me.
It was a good thing I liked challenges.