Unable to stand still for even an iton, Marohka Taunton scanned the room for the one man who possessed the information she needed. She wove past elegantly clad bodies on her way across the ballroom. The whispers about her ugly purple dress didn’t faze her. Her dress was hideous.
Spirit flowed, and glasses tinkled with a rhythmic chime. Spurts of laughter added high notes to the popular tunes of Lustralia. Young women danced with their prospective husbands. Rich silk rustled with a soft swish.
Marohka wanted nothing to do with the custom of picking out a mate. More important things required her attention.
Adjusting her angle of attack, she worked her way across the room to Almon Pepin. He stood near the staircase. His classic black suit and slicked-back hair held little charm against the beauty of the royal ballroom glowing with decorations.
The two suns of Lustralia sent rainbows of color through the prism glass dome. Light sparked along the crystal columns. A floor hugging fog created an illusion of the guests floating on an invisible cushion of air. Low fires burned in urns around the room filling the air with a spicy aroma of spring flowers.
Reaching her prey, she stood toe to toe with her target and stared him dead in the eye. She raised her voice over the exuberant crowd. “Why haven’t I received my reports?”
“Marohka.” Almon acted surprised to see her. “I really like your dress.”
Disgusted, she shook her head. How could he be so obtuse? His broad smile hit a sensitive spot in her chest, and aversion swam in her stomach. Even after working with him for the past five years, she still distrusted his smile.
“You look like you’re not having much fun.”
“I’m not.” She narrowed her eyes. “I expected those Trisar reports by early afternoon.”
“Yes, well, the mine is having communication problems.” His voice held a condescending tone. “I sent the reports to your dorm room only a few zitons ago.”
“Did you review them? What’s the current output?”
Almon rubbed his finger down the side of his mustache, a nervous habit he liked to repeat whenever she started pushing him for answers.
“Just a quick glance. I knew you’d want to study them first, so I decided to wait.” His gaze darted around the room. “Look, we’re at a party. Let’s review the Trisar deal tomorrow.”
A low growl sounded in her throat. Almon might want to avoid the issue, but she required solid results.
“No.” She knotted her hands into fists at her side. “Something is going on at that site, and I mean to find out exactly what.”
Almon didn’t answer.
She clenched her teeth together.
He waved at someone across the room. “We’ll talk later. I see someone I want to talk to.”
Marohka studied him for an iton. He appeared distracted. A strange occurrence for him, he usually liked to nose his way into whatever project she was working on. She swept her tricolored curls back and turned.
Bigger problems than Almon demanding her attention, she scanned the crowd. Her nerve endings tingled. Exhilarating warmth spread through her limbs. Some sixth sense told her a man held her in his sight.
* * * *
Stihl Fermesium leaned back against the crystal pillar. At the ball for barely a few itons, he already wished for the evening to be over.
Crossing his arms over his black suit, he studied the sea of people milling around the hall. The desire to move or socialize with anyone other than the few men near him held little appeal. Tonight, on the solitary mission of finding a mate, only one person occupied his thoughts. He smiled to himself.
An unwelcome surprise for Marohka Taunton, she’d be more than willing to wait. Because she didn’t even know he existed, and she lacked an interest in a mate, a lover, or a man in general. He scanned the ballroom trying to locate her in the crowd. The clear dome ceiling drew his attention to the sparkling Sky Bridge, which connected the living quarters of the unmated Royal women to the ballroom. He wondered for a moment if she might still be in her room. He shook his head. She couldn’t bail on the event.
The bright ornate tinsel scattered along the rafters forced his attention away from the unique design of the bridge. He examined instead the large clear bubbles floating from the ceiling intermixed with huge wreaths of paper flowers. The room looked like a huge out of control game of hoop ball, with neither team having a clear victory.
“Who devised this setting?” Stihl wondered aloud.
“Oh, you know women. They like the idea of being swept away by some noble hero.” One of Stihl’s ex-classmates answered. He twirled the multipalette ruffles of his shirt.
Stihl noticed the people, like the ballroom, were dressed in an elaborate display of what attracted the most attention. The men, sporting a variety of colored formal wear, wore ruffled shirts, high ankle shoes, and shiny taapit hats with feathers and pins.
The women, not to be outdone, stood around in long dresses in every shade of the season. Feathers and ribbons graced their intricate hairstyles of towering heights. Stihl wondered how some of them balanced the load on their head.
From what he could see, the bright colorful banners hanging from every pillar, post, and railing weren’t needed for the room to be awesome. He stared at the twin staircases, which rose elegantly above the dance floor. The railing carved from the rare oak tree and the ornate lava steps embellished with gold and rubies created a beautiful piece of art.
“Hey, Stihl, glad to see you’re in town,” Tados said in way of greeting.
Stihl turned to the man, who’d just joined the group. “Yeah, well, only until tomorrow. I’m doing this ‘finding a mate thing,’ and then I’ll be heading back to Central City.”
“Got one yet?” Tados waved at the women around them.
A man in a plum suit with ankle high pants answered for Stihl. “Yes, and you’ll never guess who.”
He pointed to Marohka.
Standing a good distance from them, she appeared to be in a heated conversation with a beautiful blonde. The back of her dress flared out from her shoulders with layers upon layers of shimmering purple cloth.
“The girl in the ugly grape dress?”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“No, Stihl just lacks color sight,” the plum-suit guy teased.
Tados stared at Marohka, a puzzled frown on his face.
Stihl shrugged off the comment. Marohka hid her true assets under a disguise. Everyone misread the signs and believed her to be unattractive. He checked and knew better than anyone the attributes of the lady.
Tados’s frown turned into a bright smile. “No, Stihl is brilliant as usual.”
The men laughed at the comment.
“Brilliant?” Another sniggered. “You must be blind too, Tados.”
“No, Marohka works for the mining company who has the Trisar contract.” Tados nudged the guy beside him. “That’s Stihl’s current project, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but . . .” Stihl resented the suggestion, but a quick comeback failed him. He wanted people to be unaware of the truth, not so much for himself, but more for her sake. Marohka didn’t need to know he had to find a mate to secure his inheritance from his grandfather. She possessed other qualities like her intelligence, which justified him selecting her as his wife.
“Why marry a girl for simply one deal?” the plum suit man asked. “After all, once the deal is closed, he’ll still be stuck with her.”
“Yes, but”—Stihl’s gaze slid along the length of her ugly gown—“the lady has a certain style. No one else could pull off wearing such an awful color. She practically glows with charm.”
Marohka turned. Stihl, along with the other men, caught the frown gracing her face. The tight line of her mouth robbed her face of all its beauty. Her hair jetting out in all directions added to the picture of her being a monster to live with.
“Brother, you’re either brilliant or blind.” Tados slapped Stihl on the back. “Whichever it is, you’ll receive a wild ride with that one.”
The other men laughed at the intended pun.
Stihl held his smile in place and decided to make his friends pay for their comments. “Now, guys, I bet after a few months with me, you boys won’t even recognize her as the same girl.”
Tados’s voice held a note of humor. “You’d be giving away your cash.”
Stihl shrugged his shoulders. “It’s only money.”
Excited by the idea of taking his money, the men around him yanked out their remote note cards. Each entered an amount into the small plastic device. They passed their cards to Stihl. He slid his note card over theirs and confirmed their wager. Now both parties had a record of the currency involved.
The large amount entered on his note card created a smile on Stihl’s face. Marohka might be useful in more ways than he initially thought.
* * * *
Several zitons later, Marohka continued to struggle with the issues plaguing the Trisar mine. If she didn’t find the answers soon, her father’s company, Taunton Minerals, would suffer a large financial setback, one the company couldn’t afford. She needed to travel to the mine and straighten things out.
“If not for this stupid Mating Ball, I could be reviewing those reports right now,” Marohka grumbled, searching through her brain for some type of answer.
Frustrated, she surveyed the highly overdress people in the ballroom. “Find a mate. Blend. Produce an offspring.” She hated the idea of taking a mate. No matter what the rules said.
Laughter echoed. Couples danced in a circle on the smooth polished floor. Soft music played in the background. The one party of the year every unmated Royal girl attended, everyone loved the event. Except her.
If some man chose her, she’d lose everything; her life’s work as a mineralogist, her ability to help her father and find an energy source for her country. She lacked the time to play around with a man. The music stopped.
“All right, ladies, please line up for the final event of the evening–The Ladies Parade,” a voice boomed from the speakers. “Give your partner a smile and a curtsy, and then ascend the stairs to the stage area.”
“Right,” Marohka reasoned, “like I need any man.”
Harold, the father presenter, liked to follow the old habit of bowing to one’s partner. The custom to him added romance and grandeur to the evening. She could’ve told him differently, but with him being an old stick from a bygone era and a hopeless romantic, he wouldn’t have listened.
“Now, gentlemen, here are the rules. Although, you might know them, I’ll restate them again so no problems will occur because you forgot what you’re supposed to do.” Harold paused a moment and scanned the crowd. “So listen carefully.”
Marohka and the other girls started up both sides of the twin staircases. Harold stood at the top of the landing, dressed in his usual green plaid suit. His cheeks colored with his excitement.
“Each one of these lovely ladies will be carrying a small placard with a number printed on it.” Harold showed them a sample card. “The number is not how many mates she desires.” The crowd broke into the expected laughter. Harold grinned.
She wished her sign displayed a zero. Even one man was more than she needed. All evening, she’d avoided them. If a man approached, she offered him a rude comment and walked away to prove her lack of interest in catching a mate.
“If you’re attracted to a certain lady and want to meet her in the mating arena, take note of her number. If you write down the wrong number, you’ll be matched with a different girl, which would result in an unwelcome surprise.” Harold released a small cough of humor.
“You can choose three women. In the end, however, you’ll only be mated with one.”
A good-natured roar of disappointment exploded from the men in the hall. Marohka rolled her eyes at the typical male response.
Harold sighed. “Sorry, boys, that’s the rule. The Council of Elders will determine which girl on your list will become your mate. Then it’s up to you to pass the next challenges. The first duel is at three sharp in the battling arena. Be sure to check the schedule. If you miss your fight time, you’ll be out of the running and will have to wait until next year.”
Turning to the girls standing beside him, Harold added. “Ladies, don’t worry. An escort will be sent to your room to make sure you arrive on time.”
As the oldest unmated girl, Marohka stood at the front of the line. Her future suspended on the edge of success. She’d led the other girls down the red carpet, along the edge of the dance floor, through the ballroom, and then back up the twin staircase on the other side of the room many times. She drew in a deep breath, preparing for her final steps to freedom.
Harold glanced at her and nodded. “At the top of the list from the Taunton family is our special princess, Marohka. A smart girl, she’ll offer any man a stimulating adventure, where life will never be boring. She works hard and . . .”
Stepping forward, she cut off Harold’s words by moving off the stage and out of the spotlight. She detested the Royal Presenter selling her to these men. With her job of finding qualtrilium and keeping her father’s company afloat, she had all the challenges she needed in life.
Lustralia’s law might require Royal girls to be present at the charade. But with this being her final year of mandatory attendance, victory stood in sight. All she had to do was navigate the maninfested waters between here and the staircase on the other side of the room. Freedom waited.
She reached the bottom of the staircase. Her path led her past a legion of men. From tall, dark, and handsome to fair-haired wonders, an array of eligible men lined her route. Dressed in fine, silk coats and tight fitted pants, they represented hundreds of Royal families across the great land. All showed excellent breeding and genteel manners. Any one of them would make a good mate to the girls behind her, but none tempted her to lose her freedom.
Staring straight ahead, she avoided eye contact with every man she passed. Moving along the edge of the dance floor, she wove her way back and forth across the assigned path. Her steps, jerky and clumsy, she hid her natural smooth gait. No man, in his right mind, craved an ungraceful wife. At least, she hoped not.
With the stairs a few steps ahead, she tasted victory and allowed herself a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.”
A masculine voice in front of her chuckled. “It’s not over yet, princess.”
Marohka paused to inspect the stranger. The laughter reflected in his warm brown eyes—surprised, the intelligent focus—intrigued, and the dark spark of interest—captivated.
A foreign response slithered through her chest. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Her heartbeat rang in her ears. Her hands turned clammy. Awareness of the man claimed her senses.
His face, framed by dark brown hair, showed rough lines of strength and fortitude. A crooked nose, a square jaw, and a chiseled chin marked his unique personality. Added together, the sum indicated the man rarely backed down from a fight. He’d stand up for his beliefs and defeat his opponents. His lopsided grin with a dimple at the corner of his mouth teased her.
A silly feature on such a stern face. The little mark claimed her heart and spoke of a rare sense of humor, a trait absent in most men.
A tingle ran down her spine. Her toes curled. Either as an appealing partner or a worthy adversary, the man presented a dangerous combination. Right then, without question, Marohka decided never to cross paths with him again.
“It is for me,” she responded to his comment. She lifted her chin a little higher and repaired the chip in her armor with a sassy comeback. “But you’re welcome to any of the girls behind me. I’m sure they’ll enjoy your charm.”
Marohka lifted her skirt and swept up the stairs. The sound of his laughter spoiled her intended snub.
* * * *
The smile on his face widened. Marohka would defiantly add spice to his life. Of course, knowing his father, he’d probably chosen her because of her unreceptive attitude.
His father, a council elder, liked to place obstacles in Stihl’s way or nag him with suggestions on how to improve his life. Even if Marohka resisted him, with a little charm she’d fall into his pocket. Then he’d be one step closer to getting what he wanted.
With her exit, he seized the opportunity to escape and stepped away from the stairs to head for the door. With his father submitting his selection, Stihl was free to leave.
Once Stihl stepped outside the doors, he glanced at the bloodred ball of fire highlighting the horizon. Dark streaks shot up around it like flames. Corolla, the first sun of the planet Vectar, produced a spectacular display when it fell from the sky. Then only the illumination from the second sun, Damion, lit the planet. One of Vectar’s two suns offered light thirty zitons a day.
The buildings surrounding the courtyard of copper and glass reflected the red-gold sunset of Corolla. All light met back at the focal point of the square, the statue of the mother of Lustralia. The beauty of the lady lay at the heart of all Royal traditions.
Stihl paused, and a flash of color caught his eye. At six-eight with shocking neon blue hair, Cyd couldn’t be missed. Waving, Stihl walked forward.
Many times, Stihl had relied on his best friend and business partner Cyd to match his blows in a fight or spot him some money. He’d always come through. The same couldn’t be said for some of the other members of Stihl’s family.
“Hey, Cyd. Let’s get out of here. I’m done.” Stihl slapped his friend on the back. “Luckily, I only had to attend this ball once.”
“You might say it’s sort of like a tavern fight. The crowd stands around the edge until they build up their nerve or gain an advantage. Then they grab someone and join in on the fun.” Stihl wrapped his hands around his neck and rocked his head.
“What about Marohka?”
Stihl smiled. He’d observed her movements all evening. She’d shied away from most of the men and hardly talked to the girls. But even with her ugly dress, she radiated an energy which drew his attention. “Interesting, she has a wild current running through her as wide as a river. Most of the men in the room avoided her, unable to see her beauty.” Cyd frowned. Stihl grinned at his friend’s reaction. “Now where to?”
Cyd walked toward the Individual Public Transportation stop. “I located the trainer listed on Marohka’s data sheet. He agreed to meet you at the workout center soon.”
“How soon?” Stihl undid the top button of his shirt. “I want to change. These clothes are killing me.”
“In about a ziton,” Cyd answered.
“Good, let’s catch the next car.”
They stepped onto the boarding platform. A red IPT car pulled to a stop. The automated doors opened to reveal the padded red interior of a four-person car. Cyd sat down on the bench-seat facing forward, while Stihl settled on the opposite side.
Cyd cleared his throat. He slid his personal note-card through the car’s meter.
“Um,” his friend, working up the courage to voice his concerns, continued, “I know you’re required to claim this girl, but . . .”
Stihl scanned his note-card and entered their depot stop number. He shook his head, guessing Cyd’s problem. “Don’t worry. Marohka won’t hurt me.”
“Right, both your brothers said the same thing before their challenge. If I remember correctly, Tankton came out with a broken arm, and Joha received a black eye.” Cyd knotted his hands into fists. “Royal women are scary—if not downright dangerous.”
“Yes, that’s why they changed the rules. Now only men with Royal blood are allowed to marry Royal women.” Stihl shifted back onto his seat. The IPT car sped along the high beams, which ran over the plazas and walkways below. “Seeing you’re from Periva, you’re out of the mix.”
“Yes, but you, Lukes, let hundreds of Perivan men die before the council figured it out. Perivan men can’t telepathically link with their wives. It’s part of what caused the riff between the two countries.” Unease rang in Cyd’s voice. “Those women killed their husbands because they couldn’t ease their wives’ fears and provide them the fulfillment that they craved.”
“Yeah, but,” Stihl enjoyed a burst of humor before continuing, “Can you think of a better way to go?”
Cyd’s gaze shifted from the large clear dome of the IPT car to stare at Stihl. “You idiot, she could kill you.” With a laugh, Stihl lifted his hands into a fighter’s stance. “Not a chance. Royal blood runs through my veins. I’m safe.”
“That’s no guarantee. Tankton’s been injured by his wife a number of times.” Cyd added, “She almost killed him once.”
“Yes, but Tankton’s a wimp.”
“Maybe so.” Cyd offered Stihl a weak smile. “But tomorrow’s fight is simply the first of many. From what we’ve learned about Marohka, she won’t give in easily.”
“Look, Mother, don’t worry. Dad says it’s normal for royal women to fear commitment. The strong warrior gene in their blood makes them untrusting of men. That’s why the council forces them to attend the royal ball to encourage them to find a mate.”
Cyd shrugged. “If you say so. What time is your fight?”
“Don’t know. Dad is trying to arrange for our match to be one of the first on the docket. He’s aware of our meeting tomorrow night, and he won’t let me miss my duel with Marohka. He’ll call.”
Cyd shifted in his seat. “I guess we don’t have a choice. We’d better head to the gym so you can figure out how to beat Marohka in the first challenge. Then, at least, you’ll be one step closer to your inheritance.”
“Relax.” Stihl anticipated no problems. “I’ll have this thing wrapped up in no time, and we’ll be on our way to Central City.” He snapped his fingers. “Piece of cake.”
* * * * Marohka stood beside her bed packing while she decided what to do. With the dawn of a new day, she longed to be on her way. The morning transporter to Central City departed in a couple of zitons. With a little luck, she’d be at the Trisar camp by early afternoon.
Of course, if it hadn’t been for the silly dance last night, she would’ve already been there. But no, she followed the rules and did her civil duty. Now, nothing stood in her way.
The reports she’d gotten from Almon last night were useless. They’d provided no solution. The core samples in Central City would help her discover the truth. She’d examine the dirt collected and see first hand the minerals listed in the soil. Then she’d head to the mine and discover the real answers.
The soft, even breathing of her roommate, Crystal, broke the silence in the room, but Marohka continued to pack her bag. An iridescent glow from her light-beam lit the way from her bed to her clothing unit. Back and forth, she paced, while her mind battled with endless questions. The first reports from the mine predicted a profitable operation. Yet, it wasn’t. Why?
On her visit a few months ago, everything appeared to be on track. What had changed since then? With the alarming rate of loses accumulating and her father covering all the excavation cost for the operation, she should’ve left days ago.
“If he’d only not listened to my advice,” Marohka muttered under her breath. “But no I had to go and open my mouth.”
All the signs she read indicated the site would produce the largest deposit of qualtrilium in the history of Lustralia. A good reason to lock in with a share the profit contract, instead of the cost plus deal which her father normally signed.
What do you know? her self-doubt argued.
Marohka remembered the impression she’d received when she’d visited the mine. Qualtrilium surrounded her. There had to be some other problem.
A knock sounded on the door. The noise jerked Marohka out of her funk. Crystal must have a challenge from someone to meet her in the mating ring. After last night, every man in the country probably wanted her. She’d flirted with any man who ventured in her path. Luckily, she longed for a mate.
Poor misguided girl.
Marohka stepped to the door, dressed in her thin micro fiber suit.
“Marohka Taunton?” asked the pastel-pink haired matron on the other side.
With no smile or greeting, the woman stuck out her knotted hand and shoved a large violet package toward Marohka. “Inside is the bio sheet on your prospective mate. Your match will be at three ziton. Your escort will be here fifteen itons earlier to guide you to the arena. Please be ready.” Her errand done, the ugly gnome of a woman turned on her heels and marched back down the hall.
“So much for leaving town,” Marohka said to the empty hallway. She fought the urge to slam the door shut and instead relished the tiny click when the latch reconnected. A raging fire burned in the pit of her stomach.
How could the ugly hands of fate delay her again? She walked to the small kitchen in a corner of the room and threw the offensive packet on the counter. It skidded across the surface, knocked over several small bottles of spices, and landed at the foot of her dead rosewood plant. She didn’t need this type of aggravation.
Foolishly, she’d thought she’d never be summoned to a challenge. Now, someone wanted her as his mate. But who? She hadn’t talked to anyone last night.
Hoping some caffleck might help clear her head, Marohka placed a mug under the dispenser. Dark drops sparkled in her cup. She milked the hose for the right amount, and then pressed each button to select the amount of milk, water, flavoring, and supplements to add. After sliding her cup under each spout, she worked to recall who she’d met the prior evening. No one glanced at her twice. Who could it be?
“Can you get out of the way? I want some caffleck too.”
Startled by a voice from behind her, Marohka turned to see Crystal. “Wow, great hair. The frozen curl solution is just what your hair needed.” Marohka shifted out of the way.
Crystal fingered her curlers. “Who was at the door?”
Marohka glared at the dreaded packet. “I received a challenge.”
“That’s amazing.” Crystal poured herself a cup of caffleck and chuckled. “I guess your rude, endearing charm and ugly dress worked their magic on some unsuspecting victim.”
Not amused by the comment, Marohka ripped open the edge of the envelope to burn off some of her frustration. “Exactly. The man has to be a loser.”
She scanned through the data, but didn’t recognize his name. From his address, she determined he wasn’t a resident of Royal City, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t met. She traveled to Central City regularly.
“What’s his name?” Crystal asked on her way to the lily. “I might have met him last night.”
“Elder man Fermesium’s son?” Crystal said in amazement. She stood at the lily door poking at the bubbles in her hair.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“If it is, you’ve scored big time. They’re a wealthy family,” Crystal purred. The green gel from her hair spilled around her fingers.
“Great, you take him.” Marohka sipped her drink.
“Oh, get off it. You want a mate just like the rest of us. Don’t tell me you don’t,” Crystal argued. “You’ve dreamed about having a family of your own, haven’t you?”
Working the lotion into her hair, Crystal continued. “I know the Elders keep harping about us needing more qualtrilium, and that we require a new power source. But, you don’t have to be the one to find it.”
Her friend spoke the truth. The fate of Lustralia didn’t rest in her hands alone. But Morohka’s discovery rate ranked the best in the country, not counting how it helped her father’s business. “Yes, but, even if I met a man—and started a family, it’s no guarantee I’d be happy. I enjoy my job, and I’ve worked hard to gain a good reputation. I’m not willing to throw it all away,” she stated firmly. “Not now, not on a stranger.”
“Who says you have to?” With long spiral curls styled up and around her face, Crystal debated the point. “The girls here think of you as a hero because of the work you do, but why can’t you have both? Some women do.” She tugged on a curl. “Granted, we don’t know any, but there are some.”
“Yeah, well.” Marohka buried that fantasy a long time ago. After the first few mating balls when no man selected her, she decided to seek a career instead. For years now, she’d done whatever it took to discourage any potential mate.
Young and witty, Crystal didn’t understand the pain of rejection. She’d only been through the process once before. Marohka understood the agony and longed to change the future for all royal girls by giving them an option other than having a husband and family. She refused to have her dreams derailed by some man who suddenly decided he needed a mate.
“To be honest, I don’t want to take a chance. With my luck, I’ll get stuck with some caveman who lives in the outback and raises turkins. No thank you. I’ll stay single.”
“I don’t know, Marohka. It might be the perfect life for you. Think of all the time you could spend playing with your precious rocks.”
In a way, living in a cave might be appealing, if the walls didn’t close in on her.