Mail Order Bride Chapter 3

(Note:  The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting.  As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)

Chapter 3

ORLA COULD’T KEEP A smile off their face. Samantha was arriving today, and they hadn’t been this excited in years. Neesa would be meeting Samantha and her mother at the spaceport once their shuttle landed, and Orla had spent most of the day checking the arrangements, making sure everything was perfect for their First Meeting. They had paid a hefty sum to have an assortment of human foods shipped in on a rush delivery and had tried to make sure the house was well stocked with everything Samantha had listed on their application, as well as a few things the cultural database had listed as staple foods from her region of the planet. They’d also loaded all of the books, video dramas, and music Samantha had listed into the House library so they would be available for her at a moment’s notice.

Orla wanted today to go well. It was commonly said that the First Meeting set the tone for the entire courtship and marriage, and they very much wanted to show Samantha that they could be a good mate. They were especially worried because the cultural database said that Samantha’s culture did not normally participate in arranged marriages, instead letting individuals find their own mates. On the one hand, it seemed dreadfully inefficient to Orla, laying all of that responsibility on the shoulders of someone so young. On the other hand, the idea was enticing, because of the freedom it offered. But right now, their opinion of it didn’t matter. It was the norm for Samantha’s culture, which meant Orla would have to go out of their way to make a good first impression not just with Samantha’s parent, but with Samantha herself.

They knew that they were, perhaps, being a little ridiculous, but they couldn’t help it. In the time between telling their parents that Samantha was their first and only choice and now, they had spent most of their free time studying humans. They were a strange species, no doubt, but the more Orla learned about them, the more they were convinced that they’d made the right choice in selecting Samantha. Humans were a young and vigorous species from a world that would give most of the Hegemony nightmares. An axial tilt that gave rise to harsh seasons, a frightening number of active volcanoes, massive seasonal storms capable of leveling entire cities, frequent tectonic shifts, and an almost incomprehensible variety of lethal flora and fauna. Earth was, by most species’ standards, a hell world, and yet, humans talked about it as if it were a paradise. Not surprising, really, given that humans seemed to all be a bit mad. Their food alone was proof of that. Orla had been worried that they wouldn’t be able to get any of the food they had ordered through customs, because almost all of it included at last one sort of toxin. It seemed humans used poisons to flavor their food with the same carelessness that they did everything else.

But it was that very recklessness that made Orla think they had chosen well. Talamh was not a world for the faint of heart. By most world’s standards, the gravity was crushingly high, and the metal content in the environment was also extremely high. Samantha would need a few gene tweaks, some cybernetic assistance, and some growth accelerants to adapt, but that hardly mattered. What did matter was that Samantha was already used to living on a world that would kill you without the slightest hesitation and had a frighteningly high number of ways to do it. In fact, humans seemed to enjoy seeking out ways their world could deliver a painful and messy end, and then delighted in tempting their world to do just that.

It was, perhaps, a romantic notion, but humans reminded Orla a bit of the heroes from the old sagas. Fearless people who faced death and danger at every turn and seemed to hardly notice as they struggled towards some goal. They could almost picture Samantha with a spear and shield, standing before some horrible monster, ready to slay it. Orla told themself again and again to rein in their expectations, but they couldn’t help it. They were excited to meet Samantha, to see the person who had submitted such a bold application, the person who smiled and laughed and surfed and played soccer and built robots and would be one of the first of their people to set foot on Talamh.

Sam took a seat at the very front of the landing shuttle so she could see out of the large view port. It wasn’t every day you got a front row seat for landing on an alien planet, and she didn’t want to miss it. Especially considering what she’d given up to be there.

The fight with Jenny had been vicious. She honestly hadn’t expected anything less, but it was still horrible. Jenny had been her best friend since their first day of kindergarten, and Sam had been in love with her almost that long. Hearing Jenny say she never wanted to see her again was probably the worst moment of her life.

Sam barely remembered the next few days. Graduation was a blur, and she’d refused to let her mom take her out to celebrate afterwards. She’d gone home and spent the whole night crying. The next two days were taken up with packing. Not that it actually took that much time to pack. The instruction sheet that came with the invitation specified that she should only pack enough clothes for the trip, and that if the engagement proceeded, she would be provided with a new wardrobe. She would be provided with a new computer as well, so she only needed to bring what she would require during transit. Otherwise, her personal effects would be collected and transported after the engagement was finalized.

Her first clear memory after the fight with Jenny had been seeing the shuttle for the first time. Seeing it had driven home that this was really happening, that she was really traveling to another planet to get engaged to some rich alien guy. The thought still made her sick to her stomach, but she’d marched onto the shuttle with her mom, and she’d picked a seat at the front then, too. She’d watched as the shuttle lifted and flew into space to dock with the transport that would take them to Talamh.

She hadn’t spoken to Beth since they arrived on the transport. She was surprised at how angry she was, once the stupor had passed. Angry with Beth for doing this to her. Angry with herself for not fighting harder, for listening to Beth’s concern and logic, and doing what she always did and doing exactly what Beth wanted. Somehow, when it came to her mom, it never seemed to matter how angry she was or how much she didn’t want to do what Beth wanted. In the end, Beth always got her way, because in the end, Sam always agreed to whatever she asked. This time, more than any other time, Sam hated herself for it.

Not speaking to Beth was made a lot easier by the fact that she had her own stateroom. Her fiancé-to-be was apparently loaded. The ‘transport’ was some sort of luxury liner that would have put any cruise ship on Earth to shame. Beth was in a first-class suite, and Sam was in a diplomatic stateroom. She had a robot at her beck and call that would get her anything she asked for, and the ship was apparently well stocked with human food. The robot took her measurements the first day and provided her with formal wear. She and Beth had been invited to the Captain’s table every night. She had mostly just listened as Beth had carried on a conversation with the Captain, soaking up as much information as possible.

The trip from Earth to Talamh required ten gate transits and took a total of about fourteen days. It wasn’t the most direct route, but the transport had six stops to make along the way. By the time the transport had finally arrived, Sam had seen seven planets from orbit, including Earth. Talamh made eight. She was glad of the time, though. She spent every day going through the cultural database, reading up on everything she could about Talamh and the Sionnach.

Talamh was considered a particularly brutal world by Hegemony standards. The gravity was high, almost twenty percent higher than Earth’s. The planet was locked in a 3/2 orbital resonance with its star, meaning that it had three local days every two local years. The exact length of the day varied based on where in the three two cycle the planet was, but three local days came out to about a hundred and eighty Earth days. The planet had no axial tilt and maintained an average temperature of roughly fifteen degrees Celsius. The environment was contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and uranium, atmospheric oxygen levels were incredibly high, and the whole planet was teeming with megafauna, insects of up to three meters in size, dinosaurs, actual fire-breathing dragons, and all other sort of nightmare creatures, including a large variety of carnivorous plants.

She’d been a bit shocked when she got to the section on what the Sionnach referred to as The Impact. One of their orbital habitats had been hit by an object moving at nearly one percent of light speed. No one was sure what it was. There were theories that ran from a bit of hull plating that had broken off a starship to a stray mass accelerator round, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. The habitat had been almost three hundred miles in length, and over half of it had fallen into the atmosphere. Entire cities had been wiped out, both by the initial impacts, and by the subsequent environmental upheaval. Nearly eighty percent of the Sionnach had been dead within a week, and by the time relief efforts could be organized, another ten percent of their pre-impact population was dead.

The Sionnach government, fearing a genetic bottleneck that would result in a severe weakening of the species, had mandated that one out of every four children would receive what they called a Genetic Diversity Token, which meant they were required to choose a mate from off-world. Either from one of the handful of Sionnach colonies, or from a species that was genetically compatible. It wasn’t much, but it did make her a little less angry at her soon-to-be fiancé, knowing he was just as trapped by circumstances as she was.

She glanced over as she heard someone approaching, and saw her mom, who somehow managed to look both worried and apologetic at the same time.

“Do you mind if I sit with you, sweetheart?” Beth asked.

She considered saying she did mind, that she wanted to be alone, but it seemed small and petty, especially considering that if things went the way she expected, she wouldn’t see her again for at least five years.

“Go ahead,” she said. Beth took the seat next to her, and once she sat down, her mom reached out and took Sam’s hand, giving it a small squeeze.

“I am sorry,” Beth said.

“I know,” Sam said. “I’m just…I’m not ready to forgive you yet.”

“That’s okay,” Beth said. “Take all the time you need.”

It was a nice thought, but the truth was, they didn’t have a lot of time. In a couple of hours, she’d know, one way or the other, whether she was staying on Talamh or going back to Earth. Not that there was a lot of doubt as to which way it would go.

There was a small alarm and an announcement in an alien language. A moment later, the earpiece she was wearing translated it as a warning that the shuttle was about to launch. She reached down and pressed the button to activate her gravity harness, and it felt like the room shifted and she was on her back, the gravity generator in the seat holding her firmly to it.

“Here we go,” Beth said.

Sam didn’t reply, just kept her eyes on the view out of the shuttle’s front window. A moment later, the hangar wall in front of them was suddenly moving up as they were dropped out of the transport. The shuttle nosed down once they were clear, and Sam felt her breath catch at the sight in front of her. Talamh was a beautiful world, but very different from Earth. There were no ice caps, and instead of green, the land was covered with a deep red. The oceans themselves were green, rather than blue, and white, fluffy clouds floated over land and sea alike.

The shuttle’s engines kicked in, and Sam gripped the arms of her chair as they headed for the planet, fear warring with amazement as they plummeted towards the world that was going to be her new home.

The first thing Sam noticed when she stepped off the shuttle was the gravity. She’d braced herself as best she could to feel the heavier gravity of Talamh, which turned out to be a mistake because she nearly launched herself down the ramp when she took her first step. The gravity was much lower even than the transport, which had already been about ten percent less than Earth. It only took her a moment to realize they must be keeping the gravity lower to accommodate aliens. She was impressed by both the technology and the foresight that went into that, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it because the second thing she noticed was the Sionnach themselves.

She had seen a number of pictures of the Sionnach over the last two weeks. One of the first things she had done when she started researching them was look up pictures and anatomical diagrams. The lack of gendered pronouns in any of the information about them had made her wonder if they were hermaphroditic, but they had males and females that were built along the same lines as humans. The pictures, however, didn’t really prepare her for seeing a Sionnach face-to-face.

Overall, the Sionnach were one of the closer species to humans in terms of appearance, which made the differences stand out that much more. The first Sionnach she saw as she exited the shuttle was a tall, wiry woman with a thick mane of lustrous snow-white hair. Person. A tall, wiry person, Sam reminded herself, since the Sionnach didn’t use gendered language. The person had two tall, pointed ears that poked out of the hair high on their head. The back of each ear was covered with short black fur, and the inside was a light shade of pink, and Sam could see thin wisps of hair inside. The nose didn’t flare out like a human’s did, instead simply narrowing down to a tip covered in black, leathery skin like a dog or a cat. Their hands also stood out. They had five fingers, but the fingers were a bit longer than they would be on a human, and there were thick pads on the tip of each finger and the palm, like the pads on a cat’s paw. Then there were the eyes. The irises looked like burnished gold, and closed in slits like cat’s eyes. The person was absolutely beautiful, and Sam was reminded of an arctic fox she’d seen once at the zoo.

Most of the other passengers from the shuttle were filing past Sam and her mom, headed for the customs station, but the instructions they’d been given said to wait once they exited the shuttle and they would be met, and it seemed like the white-haired Sionnach was the one meeting them, because they started towards them as soon as they saw them. They stopped a few steps away and looked right at Sam.

“Samantha Elizabeth Murray?” the white-haired Sionnach asked.

“Yes,” Sam said. “But please, call me Sam.”

“Very well. Welcome to Talamh. I am Neesa Cineal. I come on behalf of my nibling to escort you and your family to meet them,” Neesa said in lightly-accented English. They looked past Sam. “This is your parent?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “My mother, Beth Murray.”

“I am pleased to meet you. I do hope you will forgive my nibling for sending me to greet you rather than their parents. They thought I would be able to make you more comfortable, since I have more experience in dealing with members of other species than my sibling and their spouse.”

“That’s okay,” Sam said, feeling a little bit impressed that her future fiancé would defy what was apparently a tradition in an effort to make her more comfortable. “That’s actually very thoughtful of hi— Of them.” She winced slightly at the last-minute correction, hoping she didn’t offend her future…in-law. Getting used to genderless language was going to be a bit of a struggle. Fortunately, Neesa didn’t seem to notice.

“They are very excited to meet you,” Neesa said. “They’ve done nothing for laethantas but double check arrangements and worry that you will be disappointed with them.”

Sam forced herself to smile, even as she felt a knot of guilt settle in her stomach. The person she was getting engaged to was taking this seriously, wanted this, and Sam was walking into the situation with the intention of not following through. She felt another surge of anger at Beth for putting her into this situation but forced herself to respond with what she hoped was the right answer.

“I hope I don’t disappoint them.”

Neesa smiled at her, and Sam was relieved that she’d apparently said the right thing.

“Come. We have to move quickly if we are to arrive on time.”

Neesa turned and led them in a different direction than the customs station. They approached a guarded door, but the guard simply waved them through. They followed Neesa down a long hallway to a room where six other Sionnach were waiting. One of them greeted Neesa in what Sam assumed was the local language, and Neesa replied before turning back to face Sam and her mom.

“This area of the facility is environmentally sealed to prevent metal contamination. Before we can proceed outside, you’ll need to be inoculated against the environmental contaminants your biology can not process. The inoculation is short term. It will last roughly six of your months. If Sam decides to enter the betrothal, they will receive a more permanent procedure. You’ll also be taught our language, and each be given a gravity nullifier harness which will reduce the felt gravity to that of Terra so that you can move around easily and without fear of gravity related injury.”

“Taught your language?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” Neesa said. “We have devices which allow for the rapid infusion of knowledge and certain skills.”

“Are you sure that’s safe for humans?” Beth asked.

“Of course,” Neesa said. “I checked and it’s been tested on your species and is in regular use for humans who travel off your homeworld. All the procedures the two of you will undergo, and everything that will be done to Sam to allow them to adapt to the environment if they choose to enter the betrothal, has been tested and certified for your species. My nibling would have my ears if I allowed any harm to come to any of you. Especially to Sam.”

Sam felt the guilt gnaw at her again. She pushed it down as she took one of the indicated seats, which looked a bit like a salon hair dryer chair. As soon as she sat down, two of the Sionnach approached her. One of them lowered a large dome over her head while the other pressed a device to her neck. She felt a brief sting, and then the one who pressed the device to her neck flicked their ears at the one who’d lowered the hood. The one who lowered the hood looked down at her.

“This has been known to give members of your species a slight headache. If it does, we have analgesics for you.”

“Okay,” Sam said. The Sionnach must have activated the machine at that point, because the whole world went dark for what could have been just a moment, or several hours. In the dark, she had no way to keep track of time. She was lost and overwhelmed by words and sounds, meanings and subtleties, slang and vernacular, context and inference, tone and stress, rhythm and meter.

When she opened her eyes again, there was a gentle throbbing behind them, and the Sionnach who’d put the hood over her head was standing there.

“Do you need the analgesic?”

Sam nodded, and the Sionnach pressed a device to her neck. She felt a small sting, and a moment later, the pounding in her head subsided.

“Thank you,” she said, except the words didn’t come out in English. They came out in the same Sionnach language she had heard Neesa and the others speaking before. It took a moment before she realized that the question about whether she wanted the painkiller had been asked in the same language, and only a moment later Sam realized she wasn’t even thinking in English.

She looked up at the Sionnach who’d put the hood on them, and they smiled down at her. “You will be able to speak your language again in a few noimeads. When the machine is used, the new neural pathways that are formed overwhelm the mind for a brief time, but the effect should wear off by the time you reach the parking garage.”

Sam nodded and looked over at Beth

“Are you okay?” Beth asked in the Sionnach language. Oriad, Sam’s brain supplied. The language was called Oriad. Beth reached up, touching her fingers to their lips. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“We could use those on Earth,” Beth said. “Can you imagine how much time we’d save, being able to train people for new jobs at the touch of a button?”

“You would be disappointed,” Neesa said. “The teaching machines are very good at imparting knowledge, but one must still take the time to learn to apply that knowledge. Languages are something of a special case, because the words and concepts can be directly mapped to a skill set you already have. Entirely new skills take less time than they otherwise would, but they are not instant.”

Beth still looked thoughtful, but Neesa didn’t give her time for any more inquiries.

“Come, let’s get you fitted for your gravity nullifiers.”

Sorcha sighed as they closed the last spreadsheet and submitted their audit for first labor. They’d flagged two transports for customs inspection based on irregular fuel consumption. Both of them were almost certainly carrying contraband, and they tried their best to focus on the bounties they would pick up for catching them, but all they could think about was the fact that if everything was going according to schedule, Orla and Samantha Elizabeth Murray would be having their First Meeting soon.

They should be happy for Orla, they knew they should, but instead, all they felt was pain. Sorcha tried to tell themself that they were being ridiculous. Even if Orla hadn’t gotten the token, or if they had found someone else to take it, there was no guarantee that Orla’s parents would allow a match. An alliance between House Leargas and House Grasta would be profitable, but Sorcha was a fifth child. A match wouldn’t carry the weight that a first child match would. It didn’t stop Sorcha from dreaming, though.

Sorcha deactivated their Aug as a bot floated into the room, carrying their lunch. They laughed when they saw what the bot had brought. Gabhar skewers with glasfuar sauce, pratamilis strips, and gromtor juice. Orla’s favorite. It was like the universe was mocking them.

They stood up and took the plate from the bot, then headed for their garden. Maybe a little puttering around with their plants would take their mind off Orla and their human. And if that didn’t work, they could always drown themselves in one of the nutrient tanks.

Sam did her best not to gawk as Neesa led them through the halls that connected the air car parking garage with her soon-to-be fiancé’s residence. They lived on the top floor of the tallest building in the city, and each time they passed one of the massive picture windows, Sam felt her breath catch at the view. Chathair was a beautiful city, but what really caught her attention were the forests in the distance. She knew the local flora and fauna were dangerous, but she found herself daydreaming of camping out there under the red canopy, exploring a whole new world.

“How far are we from the nearest ocean?” she asked as they passed another window.

“About a hundred of your kilometers. It’s just a few noimeads by air car,” Neesa answered.

“Are the waters there safe for swimming?”

“As safe as can be. We do have a few aquatic mega-predators in the oceans, but they mostly keep to the deeps.”

Sam caught her mom rolling her eyes, but she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Ocean nearby, no sharks or shark equivalents. She’d need to check for rip currents and wave heights, but maybe she could get a surfboard made up. She’d have to check to see if she needed to get the board made bigger because of the higher gravity, but if the allowance was as generous as her mom made it sound, she could work out the differences, and might actually get some surfing in.

Neesa stopped in front of the doorway and placed their hand on a palm scanner. A moment later, the door slid open, and Neesa led them inside and down a hallway to another room. Three Sionnach were waiting inside. One was another woman with the same white hair and black ears as Neesa, though a bit shorter. Next to her sat a man with orange hair and black ears. The white-haired woman and the orange haired man sat on one of several couches in the room, all of which were arranged in a ring. On another couch sat a woman with silver hair and orange ears, who turned and smiled at Neesa.

Sam gave herself a mental kick as she realized she’d been using gendered language again. Her English had come back to her on the flight to the tower, and she was beginning to wish it had waited a few hours. This was going to be harder than she thought, given how used to thinking in terms of gender she was.

“Fiadh!” Neesa said. “I didn’t know you were back.”

“Things on Jami went more quickly than I expected,” the silver haired Sionnach, Fiadh, said. “I landed shortly after you left for the space port.”

“It is good to see you,” Neesa said.

“Likewise, you,” Fiadh said.

Neesa turned back to Sam and her mom. “Forgive me for my breach of manners. It’s been several of your weeks since I’ve seen my spouse, and I expected it to be several more.”

Sam looked over at Fiadh, trying to hide her shock that Neesa was married to a woman. Then immediately kicked herself for the gendered language. She’d assumed that since the Sionnach practiced arranged marriages, the marriages would be opposite sex only, but if their language didn’t have a concept of gender, it kind of made sense that a person’s sex wouldn’t be a factor in choosing a mate. She glanced over at Beth, trying to gauge her reaction. Beth was clearly surprised, but didn’t seem angry at all, which she guessed was a good sign.

“It’s okay,” Sam said, before things could get awkward. “I’m sorry that this will keep you away from them when you should be celebrating their return home.”

“You’re too kind,” Neesa said. They gestured to the other white-haired Sionnach. “This is my sibling Nuala and their spouse Tadgh.”

“Greetings,” Nuala said as they and Tadgh rose from the couch. “Welcome to House Leargas. You are Samantha Elizabeth Murray?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “Though I prefer to be called Sam.”

“Very well.”

“This is my parent, Beth Murray.”

Nuala turned toward Beth. “We thank you for coming, and for offering your child for betrothal. We hope your journey was comfortable.”

“Very,” Beth said. “And I thank you for the chance to be here.”

Nuala smiled and bowed slightly. “I am glad your journey was comfortable, but I cannot accept your thanks. It should be directed to our child. They were most enthusiastic in their selection of Sam as their preferred candidate.”

A smile spread across Beth’s face, and she gave Sam a hopeful look. Sam forced herself to smile back.

“If you will excuse me,” Neesa said, cutting into the conversation, “I will go let my nibling know you are here.”

“Please,” Nuala said. “Before they make the bots burn out a processor with their fretting.”

Neesa chuckled and gave Sam a small bow before they turned and headed back the way they came.

“Please, Beth, have a seat,” Nuala said, gesturing to one of the couches. Beth accepted the invitation and sat down. Nuala gestured to another empty couch. “And you, Sam, please sit as well.”

Sam took a seat and watched as Nuala sat back down. Nuala was every bit as beautiful as Neesa, though Nuala’s build was less lean and wiry. Sam could see the resemblance in features easily enough, though. Fiadh wasn’t hard to look at either, and Sam wondered if everyone on the planet was beautiful, or if it was just because the family had money and could spend it to keep up their appearance.

“So,” Nuala said, “I am afraid that I don’t know much of your world. I know that it was only connected to the gate network twenty blianas ago, and that you’re not yet incorporated in the Hegemony.”

“That’s right,” Beth said. “Ten of our local years. Things have been a bit strained since contact, if I’m honest. Technology has been pouring into the planet faster than our social structures can adapt. It’s one of the reasons I encouraged Sam to submit an application.”

“That’s always a bit of a problem when the Hegemony encounters less technologically advanced species,” Fiadh said.

Beth nodded and shifted her attention from Nuala to Fiadh. “Neesa said that they were sent to meet us because they have more experience dealing with other species. Do you spend a lot of time off world, too?”

“Yes,” Fiadh said. “Neesa and I run House Cineal’s interstellar trade operations.”

“Not House Leargas?” Sam asked.

“House Leargas doesn’t have any interstellar trade operations,” Nuala said. “That’s the reason Tadgh and I married. House Leargas is primarily focused on research and manufacturing. They needed ships to move their goods off world. House Cineal owns the largest Sionnach merchant fleet. It was a good match. We had hoped to pair our child with a House that deals in mineral extraction, but they received a diversity token at birth, so they were required to seek a bond mate from off-world.”

“Nuala!” Fiadh said. “You’re being rude.”

“What?” Nuala asked.

“Forgive them,” Fiadh said to Sam. “Our people are rather direct, and some of us forget that outsiders are sometimes not used to that.”

“It’s okay,” Sam said. “I know it can be hard when you have to change your plans because of circumstances. I’m sure Nuala simply wanted what’s best for their child and family.”

Fiadh smiled at her. “You are a thoughtful one, aren’t you?” They turned towards Nuala. “I told you Orla would pick well when the time came.”

“You did,” Nuala said.

“You can hardly blame us for worrying,” Tadgh said. “They are impulsive and undisciplined.”

“And Neesa and I have told you that if you’re unhappy with Orla, we’d be happy to have them.”

Fiadh turned back to Sam. “Don’t let them worry you. Orla is a delight, honestly. Nuala and Tadgh are just grumpy because Neesa and I taught Orla what fun is.”

“Fiadh!” Nuala snapped. “You will give them the wrong idea.”

“What wrong idea would that be?” Neesa asked as they walked through the door. A girl followed them through the door a moment later, and Sam felt her breath catch. The girl— The person, Sam corrected, had orange hair, but it was more of a rust color than Tadgh’s hair. Their ears were covered in sleek black fur, with white tufts inside, and their eyes were a deep reddish brown. They had the same black nose as all the other Sionnach Sam had seen, but there was a large pink spot on the left-hand side. They were clearly related to Neesa and Nuala. The resemblance was strong, but where Neesa’s features made them look tough and wiry, and Nuala’s made them look soft and round, this person’s features were fine and delicate, almost ethereal. And the lips. God, the lips. They were so soft and pink and just a little puffy, and Sam dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand to stop herself from whimpering.

This was bad. This was so bad. This person was probably her soon to be fiancé’s sibling. She could not spend the next five years drooling over her fiancé’s sibling. Someone would notice, or she would do something stupid like get drunk and kiss those lips and dear God, she was in so, so much trouble.

She was so stunned by the sight of them that she barely heard the words that sealed her fate.

“Greetings, Sam,” the person said. “I am Orla.”

“Oh,” Sam said. Not her fiancé’s sibling, then.

Orla frowned, and tilted their head slightly, and Sam wanted to kick herself for being an idiot. She stood up as fast as she could and walked over to them.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “You’re not at all what I expected.”

Orla’s eyes turned towards her as the corners of their mouth lifted just slightly. “Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” they asked.

“It’s a very good thing,” Sam said.

The grin on Orla’s face was replaced by a huge smile, and Sam thought for a moment that her heart was going to stop. Orla bowed to them, then turned to their parents.

“With your permission, we’ll begin now.”

“Of course,” Nuala said. “We’ll see you in two uairs.”

Orla turned back to her. “This way.”

Sam nodded and followed Orla out of the room without another word.

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