Harris tugs on her father’s sleeve. He pulls a lever and then reaches around to to flip on a monitor screen behind her. It flashes and she watches the lights blink as the screen adjusts and then charts their course. Harris realizes that her father has shifted the ship to auto-pilot and she turns back to see him smiling at her.
“Alright, Harris, now we can speak,” he says. His tone is amused, mocking her excitement.
“Papa, is it true I can’t meet him? Mama says he won’t be there.”
Her father chuckles, “Your Mama has the right of it, Harris. He will not be there, but you can meet his family. His mother and father will be there.”
“But, why not, Papa? Shouldn’t I meet the man I’m going to marry?”
“It’s not so simple,sweetheart.” He swivels in his chair away from Harris and she hears him click a few keys. Above his head, a star chart lights up and a ping appears on the left side of the chart.
“Is that where he lives?”
He looks over his shoulder and gives her a half-nod. “It is indeed, Harris. Now this area,” the star chart fades into an image of a planet and her father indicates a region lit up with blue lights, “that’s where his family lives. And in their culture, much like in ours, they arrange marriages for their children.”
“I could see him if I wanted though...I mean, if I were a boy, my intended bride could meet me.” Her pale features scrunch together in confusion as she works through the thought.
Her father turns his chair back around so he can look at her. “That’s true. But his people believe that it’s bad luck for the bride and groom to meet before the wedding. So they’ll meet you, and we’ll meet him, but you and he cannot meet.”
Harris looks at her hands, disappointment written clearly on her face. “How will I know, Papa? How will I know if I love him if I can’t meet him?”
“Oh, sweetheart.” He pulls her hands into his and leans his head down to catch her gaze with his. When she looks at him, he smiles. “Do you think so little of your Mama and I? Do you think we would marry you to someone you could not love?”
“No Papa, I trust you. I just so badly would like to meet him.”
“I know, Harris. But, I promise that your Mama and I have plans to investigate him for you thoroughly, and we’ll report our findings to you, young miss.” He taps her gently on the nose.
“And how long do you have to wear that?”
“Wow.” Harris looked over her new husband’s grizzly features. “But it’s just a pelt, right?”
The bear head hiding her husband’s own face nods. From somewhere beneath there’s a muffled ‘yes’. Her husband raises his arms, thereby raising the paws of the bear that are strapped to them and he reaches for Harris’ shoulders.
She shrugs away and then immediately bows her head in shame. “I’m sorry, it’s just...not what I expected.”
“Your parents told you about this, didn’t they?”
Harris takes a deep breath and looks back into the bear’s eyes, somewhere near where she hopes her husband’s eyes also are. “Sorta. It just didn’t realize it was going to be this hard.”
“It will get easier, I think. At least that’s what my parents told me.”
Harris nods, her parents own words echoing in her head. It’ll be over before you know it sweetheart.
“I’m sorry, Harris.”
“Don’t be.” She reaches out and softly brushes his arm. “Kells, what happens when the year is up?”
“We can be together completely; consumate our marriage.”
“And this,” Harris gives a gentle tug on the pelt across his arm, “will be gone for good?”
Kells nods. “Until a son of ours needs it.”
Harris takes a deep breath, pulling her hand away from Kells’ arm, and shifts uncomfortably on her feet. After a long moment she says, “Okay”.
“It works, Harris. It’s the way of my people.” He drops one of his arms and points down the hall of their pod, “Your room is down that way, last door on the left. Mine is that door there,” he points to a closed door across from the kitchen. “I’ll be in after dark.”
“Shall I leave a light on for you?”
He shakes his head.
“Mama I don’t know if I can make it another six months!” Harris flails her hands in exasperation. “I love him, I do. But, I want to see him.”
“I understand, love.” She hands Harris a dish to put away.
“Mama, it’s just so frustrating. I feel like I can’t know Kells completely, I can’t know someone I’ve never seen!” Harris shoves the dish into the cabinet and closes the door less gently than she should. She then turns and collapses down into one of the dining chairs around the table.
“It’s their way, Harris. You have made it six months because you’re a strong young woman. I know you’ll be able to see out the year.”
“I really don’t know if I can.”
Her mother takes a deep breath and moves away from the sink. She rifles through a few of the drawers and then starts to move things around in the pantry.
“Mama? What are you doing?”
Her mother steps out of the pantry with a small yellow candle in her hand and sets it down on the table in front of Harris. “Here, dear.”
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
Her mother sighs. “I shouldn’t even be giving this to you Harris, but I want you to be happy. And I think this might be a way for you to make it through the next six months. There’s not much left on it, love, so you won’t get much out of it. But, you can light it one night when you know he’s asleep...”
Harris’ face lights up. “Oh, Mama! I’ll be able to look at him. I think if I can just see him, I’ll know Mama. I’ll be able to make it.”
“I hope so Harris. But be careful. If he catches you, Harris, you could lose him, forever.”
“I’ll be so careful. Thank you Mama.” Harris jumps up and wraps her arms around her mother. “Thank you!”
“Quick now, Harris, hide it. And remember what I said.”
It’s almost two months before Harris breaks the candle out from his hiding place. She bought a simple lighter that afternoon while they’d been on-world to do some shopping. Now, she takes both lighter and candle and shoves them into the storage cubby next to her bed. She tests laying down and grabbing them from the cubby without moving the bed too much and when she is satisfied she goes to meet her husband for dinner.
When it is time for bed, Harris shakes with excitement and she has to sit on the side of her bed for a long time before she is calm enough to switch off the light and crawl under the covers for bed. She hears Kells enter and feigns sleep. She feels the warm comfort of him as he slides under the covers and snuggles against her. Kells feels different without the pelt, freer to move and touch and she lays for a long time appreciating the lightness of him without it.
She waits for what the LED screen across the room tells her has been two hours before she leans forward to grab the lighter and candle from the cubby. With both hands awkwardly hanging over the side of the bed she flicks the lighter and swipes the flame over the candle, catching the flame on the wick. She slowly turns in bed, holding the candle close to her center to steady the flame and looks into the face of her husband.
Kells’ doesn’t move as she turns around and for a moment all she can do is watch as his eyes dart from side to side beneath closed eyelids. When she’s confident that he won’t stir in his sleep, she pushes herself up onto one elbow and holds the candle up so she can take in all the features of his dark skin, close cropped hair and angled cheeks. She did not think it was possible but seeing his face, doesn’t make her feel different about him. It’s as if she knew what it was like all along, only she didn’t trust herself to believe it.
Wax from the candle drips onto her hand and she jerks her arm in pain, which flops her down off her elbow. Kells stirs and in the panic to snuff the candle out, Harris holds it too close to her husband and a small drop of wax falls onto his chest. He jumps from the bed, confused but awake. She manages to get the flame snuffed out before he sees and she turns to hide it. When she turns back, he’s left the room.
In the morning, she finds their pod docked with one of the nearby city starliners and Kells is long gone.
“I did warn you, Harris,” her mother says. “Now, you’ll have to find him.”
“Where do I look Mama? Will he have returned home?”
“Your father says he’ll forward you a navigation schema. Kells was intended before we contracted with his family, Harris. Do you remember what we told you?”
Harris nods. She stares at her mother’s image on the video screen and tries to keep her composure. “Mama, I don’t want to lose him! Oh, I just wanted to so badly to see him.”
“We know, love. Your father and I wish you the best luck in finding him. But, I hope you understand why we can’t do much more than we already have.”
“I understand, Mama. Tell Papa that I said thank you for the nav schema.”
“Call us when you find him, Harris. We love you.” Her mother’s face fades away and after another moment the video screen goes dark.
Harris spends the next several hours comparing the navigation schema from her father with the star charts in the pod’s database. Nothing seems to match up, except for the first section from the Eastern quadrant. She plots the course anyway as not too lose more time. Several hours later, the nav screen beeps to let her know the pod has finished the course she plotted in. She docks the pod with a nearby waystation to try and talk to a nav officer about directions.
She stops for lunch once she’s down on the platform. While she eats, she goes over the charts for what she thinks might be the hundredth time, this time with one difference -- they make sense. After lunch, she finds a nav officer willing to look over the schema with her for a few minutes and confirms that she is indeed on the right track. This time, back on the pod, she charts the next leg of her journey according to the Western quadrant of the schema.
It’s days before the pod’s computer informs her that the course she charted is almost completed. She’s already charted in the next two courses for both Southern and Northern quadrants. Now that she’s figured out the trick, she’s confident that the computer can handle the rest. Eager to save time, and fuel, she docks with starliners and cargo ships when their courses match hers.
She wears a small command screen for the pod’s controls on her wrist when she leaves the pod while it’s docked with bigger ships. She sets up notification commands so she can leave the pod without worrying it will undock without her. Even so, she’s never off the pod for more than an hour or two at a time out of sheer worry and paranoia that she’ll lose Kells forever.
All the time she spends awake and on their pod, she mostly spends cleaning. When the pod’s computer notifies her that the pod is about to land, she’s cleaned every inch of the pod, twice. The remainder of her time is spent on a special gift to give Kells when she sees him again.
She crafts a small bear shaped container out of plastic heated and folded and reinforced with bits of wire and metal. The container is the hardest part, because she wants it to look just right. When she gets the final landing warning, two hours to on-world , she melts down the candle stub from the cubby next to her bed and pours it into the mold.
The wires in the container crack the plastic once it’s set and she pops the wax bear from it’s mold as the command screen on her wrist beeps. Landed. She wraps the wax bear in fabric from one of her few shopping trips. She tucks the bundle into a jacket pocket as she exits the pod. On the other side of the cool metal and advanced computerized pod waits a grass field and small town of wood and glass and stone.
It takes nearly the rest of the day, but with the help of the computer’s nav charts, she’s able to find the address of Kells’ intended. Harris hopes she hasn’t arrived too late, knowing that Kells could’ve only been a day, maybe two at the most ahead of her; not nearly enough time to have one marriage annulled and begin planning another.
Harris sets the shield on the pod from the command on her wrist and then pulls the small bundle from her pocket. “Let’s go find my husband.”
“I only want to speak with Kells. He is my husband.”
“He won’t be your husband for much longer. I think it best you leave.” The caretaker starts to close the door and Harris sticks her foot between them so the door can’t be shut. “Please, I do not want to have to call my employer.”
Harris sighs. “Then can you take a message to him? Tell him that I am here? That I’ve come for him?”
The caretaker shakes her head. “Sorry, miss .”
“Fine. Thank you.” She steps back from the door and watches as the caretaker carefully pushes it shut, keeping an eye on her until the last possible moment.
Harris turns from the house to the small garden on the front lawn. She finds a bench, takes the small bundle from her pocket and sits down. As she unwraps the bear she looks back up at the house to find a small dark-skinned woman watching her from an upper window. She nods and holds up the bear in her hand to the woman, who smiles and then disappears from the window. After a moment the woman appears from around the side of the house and walks towards Harris. She stands, quickly wrapping the bundle again and shoving it in her pocket.
The woman approaches, “Please, I’d like to see that.”
“What?” Harris retrieves the bear and holds it in the center of an open palm, “This?”
The woman nods and almost instinctively reaches a hand forward to touch it, but stops short and look at Harris with deep brown, inquisitive eyes. “May I?”
“Please,” Harris nods and inches her hand closer to the woman.
“It’s beautiful.” The woman picks it from her hand and tenderly turns it over and over in her own hands, examining it from multiple sides. “It looks so like him.”
“I had a long time to work on it. I thought I might give it to him,” Harris looks at the ground nervously, “If I were to see him that is.”
The woman says nothing for several minutes as she continues looking at the wax bear in her hands. Then she impulsively says, “I would buy it from you.”
“Oh it’s not for sale.”
“Anything, I would give you anything for it. Please, just name your price.”
Harris thinks about it, weighing her options for several moments. The woman watches her impatiently, and Harris feels like she must drag out the suspense even after she’s thought of what she could demand from this woman who must be her replacement.
“A night. I want a night with my husband.” Harris pulls the fabric from her pocket and hands it to the woman.
“Done,” she says without any hesitation. She takes the fabric and carefully wraps the bear within it. Before she can put it in her pocket, Harris reaches out and covers it with her hand.
“I will give it to you, when I can see Kells. How shall I get in?”
The young woman points to the side of the house from where she came, “There’s a side door. Be there at midnight.”
“Minimal, but there is a sensor fence there,” she points to a section of the lawn nearest the front door. “It wraps around the house, but I can make sure it is disabled if you are here on this bench so I can see you from my window.”
Harris nods. “Thank you, I will be here.”
“Can I ask you something?”
Harris nods again, “If you like. But chances are that I will not tell you.”
“I so badly want to know. Is he very becoming?”
“I would think you should know the answer to that already,” she grabs the bundle of wax bear and fabric and holds it up for a moment before returning it to her jacket pocket for safekeeping.
The woman smiles and nods. “Then I cannot make this so easy for you.”
Harris leaves the bench only to grab food from the pod. She eats lunch in the garden and waits for dusk. She sees the young woman appear in the window several hours later, just as the sky begins to darken around dinner time. The share a nod of understanding and then the woman disappears.
When her watch beeps to tell her it’s time - Midnight - the sky is dark but between the lights on the house and security floods from the garden around her. Then Harris makes her way towards the house. She probes the fence to make sure the security has been taken down and when she’s satisfied, she crosses the lawn to find the side entrance. The door is easy to find and when she reaches it, the young woman with the dark eyes and darker skin is waiting for her, wrapped in a luxurious robe.
“Thank you,” Harris says as she enters.
The woman nods, “Follow me”.
The woman leads Harris through the house, careful to avoid the caretaker and guests as they make their way upstairs where Kells’ room is. The woman indicates his door from the stairwell. “He will be asleep by now.” She holds her hand out, palm up and then adds, “You will need to show yourself out before first light”.
Harris pulls the bear from her pocket and places it in the woman’s hand. “Again, I thank you.”
The woman wraps her fingers around the bear and gives Harris a smile. “Good night.” She turns and shuffles to her own room, leaving Harris in the hallway.
His room is sparse and there’s a chill in the air but she can see his sleeping form under the covers on the bed. His breathing is deep and steady as Harris approaches the bed. She watches him sleep, guilt and shame washing over her even as she appreciates the time with him. After the better part of an hour, she composes herself and kneels next to the bed, putting her face near his.
“Kells,” she whispers. “Kells, please wake up.”
He doesn’t stir and Harris reaches out a tentative hand and places it on his shoulder. “Kells,” she says again with a little more confidence. “Kells, you need to wake up now.” Still nothing.
Harris looks around the room for something to help her. On the table next to the bed, there’s a nearly empty glass, and Harris picks it up with the intention of pouring it on Kells. But, the LED from the controls on her wrist reflect against a sickening swirl of something on the bottom of the glass.
“No,” Harris whines at the glass. Then to Kells, “Why didn’t you notice this?”
She leans back onto the floor and sits, staring at the glass for several minutes, then at Kells’s steady, sleeping form for several more. There’s a ticking noise from her wrist letting her know that she’s already lost an hour that spurs her into action. She places the glass on the table, stands and pushes the button near the window to open the shade. The window unlatches easily with the shade up, and she pushes the window out and looks over the edge. “That’s not so far,” she whispers.
As quickly as she can, she wraps Kells in a blanket and uses his arms to pull him up off the bed and across the room. She sits him on the floor under the window while searching the room for his pelt, which she finds in the small closet. She does her best to strap the pelt to him as she used to him wearing it, wrapping the leather straps around his wrists, waist and head. There’s a small cap attached under the head of the beast that she slides around Kells’ head and then lays him back against the wall, whispering apologies to him as she does so.
She gathers a bundle of his clothes from the closet and shoves them in the small bag she finds on the floor. Then, with blankets tied around his waist and wrists and then tied to other blankets, and with the careful application of the chair she moves over under the window to assist her, she lowers Kells out the window, using her own body weight on the chair as leverage. She drops his bag of clothes down after him, ties the blanket to the chair and then quickly does her best to climb down after him. She slips and haltingly slides down the rest of the way, grateful his room was only on the second floor.
Kells is still sound asleep, resting awkwardly on the ground as she unhooks the blankets from him and slings his bag over her shoulder. She uses the commands on her wrist to probe the fence and finds that it’s still shut down. She gives a thankful nod to the sky and hefts her husband up and slings his arms around her shoulders.
“I need to go back.”
“No, Kells,” Harris is tempted to fall on her knees to beg if she has to.
“It is only right. I don’t want to,” he gives her a sympathetic smile and reaches across their kitchen table to stroke the back of her hand. “They should know I am safe. And that I have forgiven you.”
“She drugged you Kells. I kidnapped you, I’m sure any minute now, pictures of me are going to show up on the wire! You can’t go back there.”
“Harris, that’s all the better reason to go back. I’ll explain, and apologize, and we can leave the planet safely.”
“Tsk. Reason.” She smiles and covers his hand with her other one. “You’ve forgiven me?”
“How could I not?” He grins, “You flew the Allied System in search of me and then kidnapped me, only so you could apologize.”
“It needed to be done.”
“Not all young wives would have been so persistent.”
Harris shrugs. “I had a good reason to be.”