Excerpt

Chapter 1

The scrape of the blades against the ice was familiar and comforting. Her muscles obeyed her mental commands flawlessly. Left. Right. Left. A little more speed. Now. Metal collided with ice, and the figure skater rose gracefully into the air, the ground falling away from her skates as naturally as if she was an eagle taking flight.

“Janna!”

Startled by the slam of the door, and her mother’s ear-piercing shriek, Janna flubbed the triple lutz, caught herself on the inside edge, and barely managed to stay upright.

“For crying out loud!” she exclaimed. “Can I not have two hours to myself to practice?”

“Don’t be such a drama queen. I can’t handle your attitude right now,” her mother replied shortly.

“I’m an Olympian—”

“I know full well what you think you are. You get plenty of practice time. I would know. I pay for it.”

Janna watched her mother cross the room at a brisk pace. Today she was wearing a gaudy red pants suit with white pin stripes. Money was always an issue when it came to paying for Janna’s skating, but new clothes never seemed to be a problem for her mother. Unwilling to get into the same old argument again, Janna wisely shut her mouth and started a slow free skate around the outside of the rink.

“Don’t skate away from me, young lady. I have some very important good news for you.”

Janna sighed and turned back. Maybe if I humor her, she’ll go away. Being in the same room with her for more than a few seconds was downright painful.

“What’s the news?” Janna asked disinterested.

“Your father and I have found you a husband.”

Janna’s skates slipped out from under her well-trained legs, and she found herself looking up at her mother with her rear end flat on the cold ice. She couldn’t have heard that right. “A what?”

“A husband. You know full well that we can’t continue to pay for your skating. It was bad enough when the travel costs were limited to earth, but now that you’ve joined the intergalactic circuit, it’s not feasible—”

“So you’re selling me off to some—”

“We’re not selling you to anyone,” her mother interrupted. “We’ve arranged a relationship that will be rewarding to all parties involved. This young man has a very successful career on Kalter, and it makes sense for you to live there anyway, if you’re really going to be serious about trying for the IO. He’s agreed to pay for your skating, in exchange for your hand in marriage.”

Janna stood on legs that didn’t feel very steady and glided slowly to the break in the boards where she could exit the rink. Her stomach rolled uneasily, and she fought the urge to vomit.

It was true that she had been pushing for a move to Kalter, the ice planet. It was where the figure skating portion of the Intergalactic Olympics, or IO as most people referred to it, would be held in the coming year. Anyone serious about competing in the pre-trials would be moving there over the next few galactadays—only a couple of weeks in earth time.

But a husband…

“You know that we didn’t have any choice,” her mother continued. “You’re not bringing in enough sponsorship offers to support your own career. If you want to skate, you need to find a source of income. We’ve been over this.”

“I’m too young to be married,” Janna protested. She knew that it wasn’t really true, but it was the only argument, no matter how weak, that she could come up with. A giant flashing HUSBAND sign was blinking on and off in her brain, taking up all of the useable thinking space.

“You’re twenty-two. It’s about time that you married anyway. You won’t be able to figure skate forever, you know. You won’t keep that body forever either. Hit thirty and everything starts to spread.”

What her mother said was true, well maybe not the part about everything spreading, but ever since the Community of Habitable Planets had discovered planet earth, sports funding, as well as everything else, had been dramatically changed. Sports Illustrated no longer had an interest in barely photogenic, bronze medalists. Once upon a time being the third-best figure skater on earth had meant something. Now it wasn’t enough to get you a spot in the IO trials. The ability to travel across light-years instantly really made an impact on a planet.

All that Janna had wanted her whole life was an Olympic gold medal. She’d squeaked by with the bronze last time, which was an amazing accomplishment, considering she was only eighteen years old at the last Olympics. She knew that if she could avoid injury, she’d get one more shot. There should have been a winter games just after she turned twenty-two, but they’d canceled all of the traditional earth competitions in favor of joining the multi-planet games, and her childhood dreams had gone down the tubes.

So instead she’d started to prepare for a sport that looked like figure skating but had an entirely different scoring system to accommodate the variety of alien species that participated. It just wasn’t fair when they changed all of the rules on you. The whole world had gone nuts over the alien fad.

Keeping up with the new rules and different techniques was enough to worry about. Adding an arranged marriage into the mix simply wasn’t going to work. She was just going to have to make that clear to her mother. She opened her mouth to protest again, but her mother beat her to it.

“He found you a coach too,” the elder woman added. There was a detectable hint of smugness in her voice.

“An IO coach?” Janna asked, surprised. Just the thought of it cut her complaint off mid-thought. Good coaches, who were well versed in the rules, were very hard to come by. Literally no one on earth could coach her; it had to be someone from an IO planet. She thought about that as she ran her fingers over the familiar icy surface. Pushing down with her palms, she decided that her legs could once again hold her weight, and she stood up.

“Yes. It’s part of the deal,” her mother continued. “His family has lived on Kalter for generations, and they are very good friends with someone who is a retired IO skating judge. You couldn’t find a better coach when it comes to knowing the ins and outs of the circuit.”

“Lived there for generations?” Janna asked abruptly. She turned so sharply that she nearly lost her balance again. Maybe it would have been safer to stay seated. “He’s not human? You want me to marry an alien!”

“Calm down. Of course he’s human.” Janna’s mother looked down at her outrageous purple shoes. “Mostly.”

“Mostly? You can’t be serious, Mom.”

“He’s human. All of the anatomy is the same; they just grow them a little taller on Kalter. Think of him like a Viking.”

“A Viking? So not only an alien… you’re marrying me off to an alien Viking? Unbelievable.”

“Grow up, Janna. You want to skate in the Olympics? You want to pursue your dreams? You’re just going to have to deal with a tall husband. It could be a lot worse.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” Janna protested.

We’re not doing anything to you,” her mother insisted. Janna was once again reminded how she always used inclusive language to suggest that she and Janna’s father always shared a united front. Speaking for other people was an annoying habit that her mother had mastered. “You don’t want to marry him? That’s fine. Stay here and find enough sponsorship to pay your own way to the IO. It’s your dream. You can flush it down the toilet if you want to.” With that, Marge Barker turned on her heel and walked down the short ramp to the outside door. It slammed behind her with a thud of finality.

Janna sat down on one of the slim wooden benches that were bolted to the floor between the lockers and the ice on this side of the rink. She took a deep breath and tried to think logically. It was so like her mother to just drop a bomb like this with no warning.

Sure, she knew that her parents were looking into funding options, and she knew that a move to Kalter was being considered, but she’d assumed that it would mean corporate sponsorship, maybe even a work-study kind of deal where they coached you in exchange for information about earth customs. Scholarship programs did exist, even if they were nearly impossible to get into. She’d been working her butt off applying for programs of that nature for months between training and competing.

Her parents weren’t the first to consider an arranged marriage, however. In fact, a fourteen-year-old gymnast from China had just become front-page news when she’d accepted an arranged marriage to a non-human, who was nearly one hundred years old, on an IO planet. Some reporters were calling it barbaric—all out child abuse. The variety of species now known about made for some questionable partnerships, and there were no inter-species age limit laws where marriage was concerned. Even the length of time around the sun, or “host star” as many people called them, varied from planet to planet. So what was a “year” anymore anyway?

Think of it as temporary, she instructed herself. You only have to stay with him until the IO next year. When you win, you’ll get all the sponsorship you need.

That’s how it would be in her mind. They could just be roommates until the big competition. She was going to be spending so much time at the rink anyway. She’d hardly ever see him. Maybe if she was lucky they could be friends. It would feel like being a foreign exchange student. She’d think of him as her host husband.

Viking-host-husband that you’ll be required to sleep with.

Pushing that thought from her mind, Janna went back to the ice. She’d missed enough of her practice time as it was. It seemed as if she was always being pulled off the ice for one reason or another. Sometimes she could swear that her mother was deliberately trying to sabotage her career, and she wasn’t going to let that happen.

She spent the next half an hour distractedly trying to work her way through the list of intergalactic approved jumps, but it was really an exercise in futility as her only understanding of the requirements came from videos that weren’t even in English. She needed a coach. Badly.

 

 

Chapter 2

Marquise Hagan paced the front room of his apartment. Despite the sturdy construction, the floor shook with every drop of his huge, heavy boots. His downstairs neighbor rapped her cane against the ceiling: a not so subtle reminder that he needed to control his foot falls. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d had a discussion about that.

He’d been pacing for more than half an hour, waiting for a phone call from his father. They were supposed to hear back from Jana Barker’s parents with an answer to his proposal this afternoon, and the wait was killing him. Why weren’t they calling? Not normally prone to fits of impatience, he didn’t like the feeling.

He’d been watching the figure skating footage of the last earth Olympics on continuous repeat for the last two days, as if watching her on the vid would somehow make her more likely to say yes. There wasn’t that much footage of her, not nearly enough, in Hagan’s opinion. Most of what was available through the interplanetary learning network was footage of her actual skating, but his favorite parts were the interviews. There were only two very short clips where she had been stopped by reporters and asked for a statement. Each time those parts came up in the continuous loop, Hagan would pause his pacing and stand captivated in front of the large screen. She had a sweet-as-honey voice that could catch his attention away from the deepest of focus.

The com rang, and even though he had been expecting a call, it startled him. He crossed the span of the room in three long strides and nearly ripped the receiver from the wall.

“Hello?”

The background noise gave away the caller immediately. His mother had a recent affinity for classical earth music. Ever since the planet had been discovered, she’d been playing these orchestral pieces that were created by odd stringed instruments that never sounded quite in tune to Hagan. His father took a deep breath before speaking over the odd music.

“Hello, Son. I expect you’ve been anxious for my call,” his father said.

“I have indeed, so perhaps you could put me out of my misery,” Hagan replied in a clipped tone.

His father chuckled before responding. Hagan tried not to be irritated at his lackadaisical attitude. “They’ve agreed to meet with us.”

“Meet with us? But what of my proposal?”

“They have requested to come to Kalter and spend a few days getting to know us before making a decision.”

“But why? Plenty of earth brides have made the decision sight unseen. Was my offer lacking in some way? Did you fail to communicate my willingness to accommodate everything that Janna may need?”

“Take it easy, Hagan. They did not indicate that they thought the offer was unfair. If anything, they sounded impressed by your generosity. Not all earth humans have the same customs–”

“It’s a tiny planet,” Hagan interrupted. “How many different cultures can there be?”

His father was laughing again. “Do you really think it so unfair to ask to see your mate in person before being expected to spend the rest of your life joined to them? Our unions have been facilitated between parents, on behalf of the offspring, for generations. It is in your genetic makeup to believe that this is the right course of action, but your young earthling has spent her early years believing that she would choose her mate for herself. She is being tossed into an arrangement that is foreign to her. Not only is the idea of marrying a stranger new, but also the place where she will be living, and the sport in which she will be participating. On top of that, her parents informed me that they will not be relocating with her, so she’ll be doing it all alone.”

“She won’t be alone. I’ll be–”

“Son, you need to be patient. She’s only requested to meet you.” His father’s tone left little room for argument, and deep down Hagan knew that he was right anyway. It was just so hard to be left wondering.

“How soon will they arrive?” Hagan asked, defeated.

“The day after tomorrow, in the late evening. I imagine that they will only want to rest when they arrive, so I’ve arranged for them to come here for the night. You may join us for first meal the following day.”

Ever mindful of his manners, although he wasn’t thrilled about having to wait three more days, Hagan responded, “Thank you for making the arrangements, Father.”

“You are welcome. Now try to rest. We will have much to prepare before they arrive.”

“Yes, sir. Goodeve.”

“Goodeve.”

Hagan replaced the com, a little more gently this time, and crossed the room to look out the window. Through the heavily reinforced double-pane window he could see the snow beginning to fall, which was very common for this time of year.

Kalter had four seasons: first a warm time where much of the planet was a mixture of flowing rivers and ice. For a brief period, there would be green areas dotted with short-lived wild flowers and hearty vegetation. A few months later the snow season would begin, and the green would be replaced by a blanket of white. It would continue to snow until the temperature dropped below the precipitation margin, and then the ice period would begin. Little moved out of doors during these frigid months. Eventually the snow would begin again, adding additional feet to the thick layers of ice until the snow turned to rain, and in great floods, washed the ice flows away, restarting the cycle.

Many earth humans did not like the bitter cold times on Kalter. Would the long months of dark winter scare Janna away too? Surely not. She was a lakaya, a figure skater, as they called them on earth. She spent hours by choice on the ice. She must like the winter—she had better—as she would be arriving just in time for the snowiest part of the year.

Lakay was an honorable art. Literally translated to earth English it meant something like ice flow, or graceful movement of ice. And graceful she was. Even in the vids, young Miss Barker’s fluidity of movement was clear. Hagan had always been clumsy by intergalactic standards, as were most of the males of his kind. It was difficult not to be when a single arm or leg weighed more than the entire body of many other species. He was warrior, healer, protector, the embodiment of strength and security. Graceful wasn’t really his thing. Perhaps that was why he found her so attractive.

He could not wait to have her in his arms, to feel the soft skin of her lips, to finally know what she smelled like. He let out a short groan of frustration. If he continued to think along those lines, he’d never get to sleep. Resolving to at least try, Hagan undressed and slid into bed. He would be busy the next few days making preparations for her. If she refused to marry him without seeing him, then he had best make an excellent first impression.

 


Chapter 3

Janna loaded her last bag, the important one with all of her skating gear, into the back of the van. If they didn’t get moving right now, they were going to miss the shuttle. Her stomach rolled uneasily. She wasn’t sure if it was the thought of space travel that had her all in knots or a certain space man that would be waiting on the other side of the galaxy. Either way, she was fighting a strong battle against throwing up. Her nerves hadn’t been this bad since her Olympic short program.

“Let’s go!” she yelled.

“We’re coming,” her father grumbled. He was lugging yet another one of her mother’s suitcases. Janna would have sworn that her mother packed three times as much as Janna did, and her mother was coming back to earth after only a few days, the equivalent of less than two weeks on earth, while Janna was possibly staying permanently.

“Honestly, Dad, if she doesn’t get down here, we’re not going to make it.”

“We’ll make it. Just get in the car. I’ll get your mother.”

Fifteen frustrating minutes later, they were on their way to the spaceport. Three hours after that, Janna found herself strapping the seat harness over her chest. The transport would take approximately fourteen earth hours.

No matter how she tried, she just couldn’t seem to get used to the intergalactic standards. The standardized version of the minute, which was composed of one hundred seconds, rather than sixty, was much longer than an earth minute, as was the hour (one hundred minutes), and the day (one hundred hours). Most of the other people on earth had an easier time of it, because with a few exceptions, the intergalactic standards worked much like the metric system. Everything was always a multiple of ten. It made sense, for a standard that was not based on the spinning of any one planet, the sleep cycles of any one species, or the size of any particular solar system, but that didn’t make it any easier to adjust to.

The experts all suggested the same thing when it came to space travel: try to sleep. There was apparently nothing to see when moving so quickly. Despite the fact that you couldn’t actually feel any g-force, and the body was spared any damage or discomfort by modern technology, something inside your system could still be disoriented, as if some base instinct was rebelling against the idea of traveling so far so fast. Janna’s stomach was definitely rebelling. It didn’t help that she had very little understanding of how this space travel thing worked. Everyone assured her that it was safe, but her high school physics tutor hadn’t exactly covered this.

Unlike an airplane, there were only about twenty seats in the circular craft, and only thirteen of them were currently occupied. Lucky number thirteen. There were apparently no layovers in space travel, and no need to change aircraft. This pod would take them directly from earth to Kalter.

An announcement came over the intercom system in the small pod and everyone looked up at the voice, although the speaker was not visible. Janna closed her eyes and listened to the announcements. The flight generator, or pilot, as she preferred to think of him, verified that she was on the correct ship, that she would be arriving at the correct spaceport, and that three meals would be served, without additional cost, during the travel period. Should she desire, she could make food selections via the computer in the armrest of her seat at any time.

Heavy shutters came down over the windows, effectively sealing the passengers inside the pod. With a simple “enjoy your transport” they were launched into space.

The experts were right. Janna felt almost nothing, it was as if they weren’t moving at all, but her stomach was queasy nonetheless. Opening her eyes, she looked at her father who wore a calm and amused expression. Obviously, he found the similar expressions of terror on his wife and daughter’s faces amusing. He seemed to be enjoying the ride.

“You okay?” he asked, half teasing.

“Fine,” Janna ground out. “I’m just going to get a ginger ale.”

She glanced at her mother who still had her eyes squeezed shut. Marge’s knuckles were white, and it looked as if her fingernails might leave permanent indentations in the leather upholstery. Janna refused to behave like that, even if her insides felt that her mother had the right idea.

Turning her attention to the armrest menu, she found the drink selections and requested the soft drink. A moment later, a hidden compartment in the back of the seat in front of her slid open and a container of ginger ale appeared.

“This alien technology is quite impressive,” her father said.

Janna had to agree. She might be pissed off at the way that earthlings had adopted the intergalactic mentality so quickly, but they did have some really neat toys. It was hard not to get swept up in the new trend when it put you hundreds of years into the future in terms of science and technology.

One of her favorite alien technologies was the translation device. The number of languages in the universe was astronomical. No one could be expected to translate or learn all of them, so the vocabulary was simply uploaded into a massive intergalactic database. This process could take up to a few months, but once it was complete, you could purchase a listening device that would allow you to hear any language as if it was translated into your own. The voice that you would hear would be true to the speaker, and in real time. It was a little disorienting, though, because the movement of the speaker’s lips didn’t quite match up. It was a lot like watching an old foreign film that had been dubbed over in English—effective, but not quite genuine. Janna had been wearing hers for a few days, trying to get used to the feel of it. It would most likely be a permanent fixture in her life as long as she stayed on Kalter. She wouldn’t have time to learn the language.

The transport time passed slowly, and Janna spent most of it reviewing her routines in her head. It made her feel better, regardless of the fact that she would be leaving these old routines behind with her old coach. Still, when she was focused on the precision of her skills, she didn’t have quite so much mental space to focus on him.

How had she ever gotten into this situation? She was on her way to interview a marriage candidate—an alien Viking marriage candidate. She couldn’t help but wonder what he might be like. Would he be nice? What if he had the mental capacity of a caveman? She kept picturing him as this giant Russian man with a thick accent and a drinking problem. That was unfair, but it was what frozen climates and large men naturally brought to her mind.

There was some information available on the Internet about men like him, and if the pictures were anything to go by, she was in for incredibly broad shoulders, muscular arms, and long legs. They looked like big lumberjacks. There was no denying that the species had a rugged appearance, but if she was honest with herself, she did find them attractive. The thought of his massive body stretched out over hers was enough to both arouse and terrify her.

Admittedly, she’d never done much dating. While other girls her age might have been cooing over the neighborhood hunk, she was focused on perfecting her sport. She’d never really had time for anything but the ice, but that didn’t mean she’d never looked… or fantasized.

There had been a fellow figure skater, of the male variety, that she took an interest in for a short period. They shared a coach, and the coach thought that pairs skating might better suit the two singles. For three months, Janna had submitted herself to being manhandled, squeezed, stepped on, and repeatedly dropped before finally conceding that she was not destined to be a pairs skater. Her slight build and natural grace made her a good candidate, but her fierce streak of independence apparently did not.

She’d been fifteen at the time, and her athletic body was still developing. The time spent in such close proximity to an attractive male had been both humiliating and exhilarating. Jordon, her partner, had been a good-looking man, a few years older than she, and much more confidant. Pairs skating required a certain comfort level with your own body and sexuality, and Janna didn’t have that. Every time Jordon would brush against her still developing breasts or put a hand on the inside of her thigh for a lift, she would be overcome with hormonal emotions that had no place in professional skating.

She’d never let on that the problem was more chemical and emotional than physical, but she was pretty sure that Jordon knew. He’d done his best to make her more comfortable by flirting and joking with her, but it had only made matters worse. She was better off as a focused singles skater.

What if this new relationship was as awkward as the last one? There would be no getting out of an arranged marriage by pretending that the skating wasn’t going well. Thinking about it was enough to make her crazy.

She never did manage to get to sleep, but after the fifth or sixth hour, her stomach had settled enough to eat. Janna’s mother, finally content to relax her death grip on the armrest stood up to use the bathroom, and Janna decided to order a snack. Space food, it turned out, was better than airline food. By the tenth hour, she was so bored and exhausted from worry that she actually did doze off for a few minutes, but when she woke up in a near state of panic, she decided that it was better to just stay awake.

Several hours after that, a slight tremor in the space pod alerted Janna and her fellow passengers that they had arrived. The window shutters slid up as smoothly as they had gone down.

It was dark, nighttime on Kalter, so there wasn’t much to see. All the same, under the glow of the spaceport lights Janna could make out a gently falling snow. The voice from the loudspeaker wished her a pleasant stay, and then the pod door slid open in invitation to the planet.

The customs process was surprisingly easy. Advanced finger printing, face scanning, and DNA typing made identification instantaneous. The ship itself had confirmed their identities when they got on and verified them as they walked off. Their luggage had been scanned as it went into the cargo hold, but the computers were looking for invasive plant life, undomesticated animals, and other things that could destroy the ecosystem of a planet, rather than weapons. Earth weapons weren’t considered to be much of a threat when put up against the intergalactic alternatives. There was no additional paperwork or security scan necessary. Overall, it was much easier than international earth travel had been.

The spaceport here was much like the one at home, only better insulated. Every window was made of thick, double pane, glass, and the walls and doors were notably thicker too. The roof of the building was a dome shape. According to the documentary that she’d watched, this was so that the snow would not collect and collapse the roof. It wasn’t a big surprise, as this was a very cold planet, but still the unfamiliar architecture drew the eye.

“Help your father with the luggage, Janna. I need to use the restroom. The one in the pod was simply dreadful, don’t you think?” her mother asked.

The pod restroom had been spotless, if a little cramped. As far as Janna was concerned it was far better than what you got on an airplane and nothing to complain about. Rather than arguing with her, Janna just nodded and moved in the direction of the conveyer belt. An attendant was unloading their luggage from the space pod, so Janna began to make a small pile of their suitcases while her father went in search of a baggage cart.

“You must be Janna,” a warm masculine voice spoke behind her. Startled, she spun around quickly, dropping the heavy bag, and nearly colliding with the mountain of a man. If she looked straight ahead, she was staring at a point near the bottom of his ribcage. Craning her neck upward she tried to look him in the eye, but had to step backward in order to do so comfortably.

“Uh, yes,” she stammered uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry to have startled you. I’m Marquise Bard. I’m Hagan’s father.”

“Of course. You didn’t startle me; I’m just a little disoriented,” she mumbled, embarrassed. If she couldn’t even meet her proposed father-in-law with grace, how could she ever survive under the media scrutiny at the IO?

“That is to be expected. Space travel takes some getting used to. The first flight is often uncomfortable. You are not alone are you? I was under the impression that you would be escorted —”

“Yes. No. I mean my parents are here. My mother is, uh, using the ladies room and my father went… over there. Here he comes now.”

The two men shook hands and made introductions, which gave Janna a moment to recover. Seeing the man next to her five-foot-eleven father, made him seem even taller. Hagan’s father was still a head and shoulders above her own dad. He was easily seven feet tall with the build of the Incredible Hulk. Viking alien indeed.

The two men had the luggage loaded onto the cart before her mother returned. Unable to refrain from embarrassing Janna, she attempted to hug Mr. Marquise, rather than shake his hand like a normal person, and he nearly had to kneel in order to accommodate her.

After that awkward moment, Mr. Marquise, or Bard, as he insisted she call him, led them to his car—well, it was kind of like a car. In truth it looked more like a big, enclosed snowmobile. It ran on skis, rather than wheels, but had a sleek sports-car kind of appeal. He held the door open for her and her mother before going around the back with her dad to load the bags.

“Finally,” her mother sighed once they were out of earshot in the roomy back seat of the vehicle.

Unwilling to take the bait, Janna didn’t respond, but her mother continued anyway. “This is a much more acceptable way to travel. You’ll see, Janna. These people have money. Old money. And they are classy. You’re going to love it here.”

“I want to meet the coach and see the rink before I make any decisions,” Janna stated, for what felt like the millionth time. “Those things are the most important.”

“You could do a lot worse you know. It’s a wonder that he offered at all. You really have nothing to offer him in return.”

Luckily, Janna was spared the rest of the lecture about how fortunate she was to be a mail-order bride. The men piled into the front seats, and they were soon zipping through a series of ice tunnels.

“I’m sorry that you are arriving in the dark,” Bard said. “Our city is quite lovely and the ice streets frequently make a dramatic first impression.”

“I appreciate your coming to get us so late. I hope that we aren’t too much of an inconvenience,” Janna responded.

“Not at all. Did they feed you en route? I had planned to take you straight to your rooms, where you can sleep off the trip, but we could stop for food, if you would prefer.”

After a brief discussion, they decided to go straight to the rooms. Food could wait.

Janna had expected a hotel-like arrangement, and in a way, that’s what this was, but there were very obvious differences.

“We do not have hotels, as you do,” Bard explained. “We live in towers that, if I am not mistaken, are similar to your apartment complexes. There are always open rooms on every floor of each building which are reserved for guests.”

With a little more prodding Janna was able to determine that these were not exactly vacant guest rooms. When studied a little closer, it seemed as if the more wealthy members of this society actually lived on an entire floor of a building. One side of the floor was a single large apartment, and the other side was broken into smaller living spaces that were occupied by guests or adult children, until they could afford a floor of their own. So yes, there were often vacancies on each floor, but that was because they were privately owned floors. It was an odd combination of hotel and guest room, a little like a bed and breakfast apartment complex.

In the circular elevator, each floor was labeled with an engraved strip showing the name of the floor’s occupant. Some of the lower floors had two or three occupant families, and some as many as six, but the higher the floor, the more likely it was to have only one occupant. Many of the names repeated and Janna wondered if some families owned more than one floor, or if it was common for offspring to merely move up or down a level when they left the nest.

“Does Hagan live in this building as well?” Janna asked.

“Yes. This one,” Bard said, indicating the floor that had been chosen, “is where my wife and I reside, and also where you will be staying until after the marriage ritual is complete. My son lives here.” He slid his finger up four floors to another label that read Marquise.

As they stepped out of the elevator, or lifter, as the translator referred to it, Bard gestured down the hall to his right. “Our apartment is just there. Please feel free to ring the com by the door should you have need of us. This will be your place,” he said, indicating that Janna’s parents would stay in the room. “Janna, you will be across the hall from your mother and father, unless you would prefer to stay together.”

“No,” Janna answered before her mother could get a word in. “Across the hall would be perfect.” She wanted as much time as possible to be alone while she was here. It was hard to think while her mother was within hearing distance. Bard gave her a knowing smile before unlocking the door to her separate room.

A few minutes later the bags were all unloaded into the appropriate rooms and Janna’s parents declared themselves done for the night. The door to their room closed behind them with a definitive click.

“Can I get you anything else?” Bard asked Janna as they stood in the hall.

“No, you’ve been very helpful, thank you.”

“It’s nice to have you here, Janna. My son is very much looking forward to meeting you. I forbid him from coming to the transport station as I thought you might want a little time to adjust before being introduced, but you should know that he fought me on the subject.”

“I appreciate your foresight, and your honesty. I’m a little nervous about meeting him.” Janna hoped that Hagan took after his father. Aside from the obviously intimidating height of the man, he seemed to be very sweet natured and thoughtful. Janna liked him a lot.

“That’s only natural,” Bard said.

“Will I be able to see the skating area tomorrow?” Janna blurted out. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be pushy. I just… my skating is very important to me, and I’ve already lost a whole day, what with the travel and all, and I feel as if my legs are itchy, because you know, I didn’t use them. It’s been a while since I’ve been away from the ice for even a day, and it makes me feel restless.”

Bard considered her in silence for a moment. “Can you keep a secret?”

Janna shifted her eyes around the hallway to verify that they were alone. “Of course.”

“If you promise not to tell your mother, or my wife, I suppose I could walk you down to the rink now. You could skate for a little while, but you have to promise me that after one half hour you will quit and come right back up to bed. Agreed?”

“You mean it?” Janna resisted the urge to hug the big man in gratitude. She bounced on the balls of her feet instead. “I promise. Half an hour. Thank you! Let me get my skates.”