This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever done as assistant planetary agent for Loxton Galactic Trading—standing in as a bridesmaid in a borrowed puce dress because some other girl failed to show up. Andi Markriss sighed, feeling the garment binding too tight across her chest. I didn’t mind representing the company as a guest, but this is way outside the line of duty.
Early afternoon on Zulaire was too warm for an outdoor ceremony, but the Planetary High Lord’s spoiled daughter Lysanda didn’t care to be ready any earlier in the day. Her guests’ comfort wasn’t a consideration.
An inch at a time, Andi shifted from her assigned spot into the shade cast by the towering stone pillars. How did I get talked into this? Oh, yes, Lysanda wept, and her mother made vague threats about her husband reviewing our shipping contracts. As the musicians played, Andi turned, watching Lysanda pace toward the dais in time to the music, smiling for her groom-to-be.
The local priest took a deep breath and launched into a lengthy blessing, invoking the deity and relating the history of the planet’s three Clans—Obati, Shenti and Naranti. Andi chanted along with him under her breath. Overlords, Second Class and Neutrals, as her boss had told her when she’d arrived on Zulaire six years ago. Easy to keep them straight that way, he’d said, but don’t ever slip and use the nicknames out loud.
“This young pair from two of the highest families will cement our peace,” the priest proclaimed, lowering his arms and beaming at Princess Lysanda and her intended. “Their offspring will embody the union of Obati and Shenti blood.”
Applause from the crowd, led by the bride’s mother, made the officiant blush. As he bowed, Lysanda blew her mother a kiss.
That ovation will spur him to more oratory for sure. Andi smothered a sigh, wiggling her aching toes, held too tight in the borrowed silver sandals. I thought the last three weeks of engagement parties, picnics and games out here in the summer compound were endless, but this ceremony tops them all.
“The bride and groom will now light the symbolic candles.” The priest led the pair to the side altar, where a trio of candles—blue, green and ivory—had been set into massive golden holders. Representing the three Clans, the candle ritual reinforced the political symbolism of this ceremony. Everything symbolic on Zulaire came in threes, Andi thought, watching the couple light each candle in turn.
Sneezing violently as the slight afternoon breeze carried colorful but pungent smoke from the burning tapers in her direction, she earned herself a glare and a hissed “Shh!” from the woman standing next to her. After taking a deep, cleansing breath of the fragrant bouquet she’d been clutching, Andi gave the other attendant a faint smile.
Lysanda had argued long and hard with her mother earlier about allowing Andi to substitute for the unaccountably missing handmaiden. Only the fact that without Andi to partner him, an important groomsman would be omitted from the ceremony swayed the decision. Good for Loxton’s business networking that I’m here. The Planetary Lord’s family owes me personally now for preserving the precious symmetry of Lysanda’s wedding party, at the cost of my aching feet. With a flash of amusement at the ludicrous situation, Andi smiled. Lucky for the princess, I accepted the invitation on behalf of Loxton, not my portly boss.
Tuning out the priest’s new recitation of more sacred writings, since the man had a nasal voice and a tendency to repeat himself, Andi studied the intricate carvings in the shiny black stone wall of the pavilion across from her, details brought to clarity by the slanting sun’s rays.
The bas-relief depicted a stylized sun above a giant, multitrunked malagoy tree—each trunk symbolizing one of the three Zulairian tribes—Obati and Shenti locked in an eternal struggle to rule the planet, jockeying back and forth for thousands of years of bloody history. All the while the Naranti stayed neutral, filling a perpetual peacemakers’ role, as their god, Sanenre, had legendarily decreed. Symbolic of their Clan’s allotted role in the planet’s history, the Naranti trunk was at the center of the tree, supporting the other two.
A skillfully carved herd of three-horned urabu grazed beneath the sheltering arms of the malagoy, the alpha buck depicted in a watchful stance, stone face staring at the occupants of the dais. The image of these legendary creatures, with their sweeping triple horns, was found everywhere on Zulaire, even on the Planetary Lord’s seal. Beloved symbol of the god Sanenre, legendary bearers of good fortune and blessings, the gazellelike animals were extinct now, of course, hunted for the ivory of their sweeping horns.
Lysanda and her betrothed were repeating vows after the priest.
Apparently as bored as Andi was, the youngest attendant at the ceremony, just a toddler really, came across the platform with unsteady steps, reaching for Andi, her favorite playmate of the last few weeks. Missing her nieces and nephews, who lived far away in her own home Sector of the galaxy, Andi had been happy to skip a few adult entertainments to amuse the young ones of the house during her stay.
After a quick hug, the little girl plunked herself at Andi’s feet, leaning against her legs. Pulling the flower garland from her glossy curls, she picked the petals off the blossoms while humming the processional tune off-key. The priest began to wrap up, raising his voice to override the toddler’s song. Andi stared out over the crowd.
Quite a few empty chairs. A surprising number of high-ranking Obati guests had failed to arrive, which had driven the bride’s mother into an angry tirade shortly before the ceremony. The failure of the missing bridesmaid and her family to show up had created another firestorm. Lady Tonkiln had a long memory for social slights.
It’s been an odd summer, that’s for sure. Andi would be glad to see fall arrive, when business always picked up and she could get back to the office, dive into the complexities of intergalactic trading and leave the socializing to others. And decide if it’s time to leave Zulaire for another assignment. Six years is too long to stay on one planet, if I want my next promotion. I wish I didn’t love it here so much.
Of course, no one had expected Planetary Lord Tonkiln to leave the important business of ruling Zulaire for his daughter’s handfasting. He’d be at the formal wedding later in the year, held in the massive shrine at the capital, to accept the Shenti groom’s petition for marriage to Lysanda. His oldest son, Gul, had been scheduled to stand in for the ruler today, but in typical Gul fashion, he hadn’t shown up.
His careless attitude to responsibilities had been one of the reasons Andi had never let their casual, off-and-on-again affair become more serious. Charming as he was, Gul was unreliable.
Glancing along the fringes of the crowd where the invited Shenti guests were sitting, she saw everyone attentive, focusing on the glowing bride and handsome groom.
The Naranti servants clustered at the rear of the outdoor pavilion looked bored. I suppose they just want to get this over with so they can clean up.
Well, me, too. I want to get out of this dress. What a wretched color Lysanda picked! Andi sighed. I’m glad I can wear my own clothing tonight at the reception, when I present the Loxton corporate bride gift.
And still the ceremony continued. The bride gazed soulfully at her fiancé while he knelt, serenading her with a traditional Zulairian love song. As if she hadn’t been making fun of this very part of the ritual less than an hour ago. What a little actress.
This was a coolly negotiated union of the ruling Obati family and an influential Shenti house to further cement everyone’s power. Lysanda and her groom are doing an excellent job of portraying lovebirds for the crowd. Both loving the spotlight. How fortunate he can sing—the family didn’t have to hire someone to carry the tune for him. Andi blinked, turning her full attention back to the couple as her own most favorite moment of the handfasting ceremony arrived—the giving of the bridal shawl. In the old days, she knew, these shawls had been hand-woven, selected by the groom with much care to symbolically enfold his chosen one in his love. Lysanda’s shawl followed current fashion in the capital – machine-made, trimmed with three kinds of lace, the two family crests outlined in semiprecious gems—all about the show, not the emotion. Two attendants carried the unfolded shawl to the groom, displaying the embroidery and jewels for the guests to admire.
Still, it was the most romantic aspect of this particular ceremony. Andi suppressed a somewhat wistful mental picture of an unknown man wrapping her in one of the traditional, simple shawls. She took another deep breath of the flowers’ perfume. What is with me today, all this nostalgia for the dreams I had as a kid? Romance, a husband, children… Traveling around the Sectors doing business for Loxton is the wrong career if I want to settle down. I already made that decision, no looking back, no regrets. Maybe after I make Sector vice president, I’ll decide on a different course. No telling how old she’d be by then.