With his wolf pacing in his head, Valentine left the bed in a state of utter annoyance and walked to the liquor cabinet by the arched window.
Outside, the Fifth Moon shone pale blue against the purple night sky. Sidera Prima, the orbital station, cast a long shadow over the mountain ridge of the Caucasum, reminding everyone on Lupine of their terrestrial origins.
“Are you pleased with me, Sir?” Ronda purred from the tangle of linens.
The dark four-poster canopy took most of the wall opposite the window, dwarfing the redhead at its center. The burgundy drapery matched the long curtains framing the arch. The fabric was heavy damask silk salvaged from his private quarters on Sidera Prima.
“You should talk less.” Lifting the heavy barrel with the black H & M etched on the wooden staves, Valentine poured a good two fingers of Laurum into a frosted glass goblet.
The viscous drink sloshed inside the walls of the chalice, coating the surface with a deep, powdery red. Aged seventy-five revolutions, the Laurum was a wedding gift from House Martelli. After the Brotherhood of the Wolf, his own house, the vampires had been the first to congratulate Valentine.
“Would you require my service after the ceremony?” Ronda moved sinuously on the bed, prowling on all fours like a hungry cat.
“You know I won’t.” With a flick of his wrist, Valentine dismissed the courtesan, who, still naked, jumped off the high bed and scampered toward the back door that led into the servants’ passages.
Hungry, he rang the bell to call his majordomo. Aldo’s steps echoed throughout the main hallway and stopped before Valentine’s bedroom a moment later.
After a polite knock to announce his arrival, the older man opened the door, and asked, “What can I do for you, Master Lobo?”
Lanky and lean, the majordomo was an example of how humanity had adapted to Lupine’s low gravity, whereas Valentine’s massive build was the epitome of a Terran. Although he had not been born and raised on ye olde Earth, Valentine shared all the traits of his werewolf ancestors: tall and muscular, with an unruly mane and a propensity to rage.
“I want to eat something before I leave for the ceremony.” As he walked to the breakfast table by the fireplace, Valentine grabbed the black kimono he had thrown to the floor. He put on the garment, but didn’t tie it around his waist, letting the silky fabric flap around his back.
“Refreshments will be ready in ten minutes.” Aldo bowed, but didn’t leave.
Passing his hand through his long, dark chestnut hair, Valentine made a mental note to ask his barber to trim it to shoulder length. “What is it?”
“If I may say something—” His eyes facing the floor, Aldo bowed lower.
“Say it already.” Valentine plaited his mane in a thick braid.
“Your spouse is young and innocent.” Aldo’s voice trailed as he stepped backward, retreating into the safety of the hallway.
“And?” Valentine asked.
One of the mechanical dusters worked its way through the leather-bound tomes resting on the fireplace shelf. Their spindly, wrought-iron legs and the black, round bodies always reminded him of the spiders that had once populated the space station. Their constant whirring and humming could be heard throughout Lobo Mansion and had become the sound of home to Valentine. He could spend hours watching their inner clockwork gears rotate, intersecting in a constant loop that created energy.
Stirring Valentine from his thoughts, Aldo continued, “And her life will be short compare to yours—”
“And?” Valentine repeated.
If only Aldo knew how short would be his bride’s life… but that was Valentine’s personal burden to bear.
Everyone on Lupine knew what being a Fifth Moon’s Wife entailed. It was an unparalleled privilege for the family who raised the bride, and her sacrifice for the greater good of the Brotherhood was widely recognized. Statues would be erected in her honor. Valentine’s mother had her effigies displayed in the Goddess’ Temple, and every day women lit votive candles under the bronze sculpture.
Only a few people knew that his wife wouldn’t survive the year.
“She’s only twenty-five years old—” Aldo paused as if to gather his thoughts. “And she must be scared. You might remember that… when you are alone with her later tonight—” As soon as Aldo finished his halting speech, he bowed and disappeared behind the door.
Greatly annoyed by his majordomo’s words, Valentine pushed away the chair with more strength than was necessary, sending the furniture against the opposite wall.
Soon after the majordomo left, one of the house servants deposited a light meal onto the breakfast table. The girl kept her eyes low the whole time and retraced her steps out of the bedroom, being careful never to show her back to Valentine.
Still disgruntled, he sat and grabbed a spongy loaf dusted with black sesame seeds. “Bring me more sweetbread.”
The girl nodded and hurried outside, her wooden clogs soon echoing in the hallway. His request was carried out by a second servant.
He had finished his repast when Aldo knocked at the arched entryway. “Doc Balenus is here.”
“Let him in.” Valentine placed the ornate knife on the ceramic plate.
He knew his medicus would visit him before the ceremony, but his most recent appointment was only seven days ago and his health hadn’t changed. Yet, his wedding required a strict protocol to be followed, and even Valentine was to obey the ancient canon of the Brotherhood.
Holding the big leather bag typical of his trade, Balenus entered the bedroom followed by two of his ancillae. The girls carried between them a large bronze vessel that was pearled with dew. Valentine noticed how the chosen nurses seemed to look younger with every visit of the middle-aged medicus. Balenus had a receding hairline and anachronistic paunch. On a planet where gaining weight was difficult, appearing not-athletic was a feat, but his status as Valentine’s medicus clearly gave him social clout.
“Are we ready for the big night?” Balenus asked, voice loud and jovial as always.
“It’s a night like any other.” Valentine didn’t stand but waited for the trio to walk to him.
“Your life is going to change forever, Master Lobo.” The medicus chuckled, then motioned for the ancillae to come closer to Valentine. “Wash him,” he ordered the girls.
Wearing white tunics, the ancillae knelt before Valentine, their heads low, their hands raised high, waiting for him to give them permission to touch him.
“Go ahead.” He relaxed his back against the chair, opening his legs wide to give the girls easy access to his body.
Hesitant hands poured the perfumed water from the vessel into a decorated basin, then the same hands cupped some of the water and dripped it between Valentine’s legs. He suffered through the ceremonial ablution in silence, wishing for the feather light touches to end. But the sooner he gave the medicus his fill of Vital Essence, the sooner he could go through the farce of his wedding night.
When the hands weren’t able to coax the wanted reaction from his body, soft lips took turns on Valentine. Finally, he shuddered his release into a crystal ampule the medicus had promptly produced from his leather bag.
“Excellent.” Balenus raised the flask high, studying its milky content against the amber light from the suspended brazier. “Flawless. As I expected from such a splendid specimen like yourself.” He stored Valentine’s Vital Essence inside a velvet pouch, then nested the pouch on a damask pillow with the Lobo’s insignia—a stylized wolf howling at the moon. “Dress him,” he said to the girls.
Standing, Valentine opened his arms to facilitate the ancillae’s job. The kimono was removed and a high collared, burgundy shirt took its place, followed by black, wide-legged pants with the ceremonial slit on the front. The girls then helped him into a tight-fitting, gilded vest that completed his wedding uniform.
“His hair.” The medicus pointed at Valentine’s mane.
The girls waited for Valentine to sit, then worked dark-violet flower oil through his hair, setting his plait free, only to braid it again, starting from the front and adding thick strands toward the back of his head, creating a big ridged braid.
“Shave him.” Balenus opened his bag and presented the ancillae with a golden razor, shave brush, bowl, and scented soap. The kit would then be cleaned and stored in the Goddess’ Temple alongside the crystal ampule.
Valentine’s clothes would be stored and preserved as well as a memento of the night. He didn’t like all the pomp and ceremony surrounding what would be a procreation ritual, but he could understand the need for it. Far away from Earth, both in years and astral distance, his people clung to the old ways in a desperate attempt not to lose their identities.
Lupine was different from their original planet in so many ways, it was easy after a generation or two to forget what it had meant to walk on grass or swim in the sea. With their obscure rituals and strict laws, the elders made sure to preserve the collective memory of a bygone era. Valentine had never been a religious person and suspected most of tonight’s ceremony was made up by the elders and didn’t resemble its Earth equivalent at all.
Perfumed, anointed with the holy oil, dressed up, freshly shaved, and coiffured, Valentine was ready to do his part as the only remaining descendant of the House of Lobo. He wished he could still shift like his ancestors had done, so he could avoid the spectacle awaiting him.
“Ready?” the medicus asked.
Valentine nodded and followed the trio outside.
Mirella was shaking.
She had woken at the first light of dawn in her bedroom, knowing it would be her last day in her family home, and hadn’t stopped trembling since. Her sisters had fussed over her nonstop, intensifying her sense of doom instead of assuaging her fears. Her mother had entered Mirella’s chamber already crying, which in turn had triggered everyone else’s sobbing. By the time her father arrived to escort Mirella to the Vestal House for the Wedding Supper, she was a shadow of her former self.
In a few hours, she would be wed, and she wasn’t ready for any of the activities required from her as a wife, even though she had been amply prepared for her new life. Mirella had been betrothed to Valentine Lobo at birth, and ever since she could remember, she had been told how special she was because of that. As soon as puberty hit her, her tutors switched from reading and writing lessons to more practical classes aimed at transforming her into the perfect companion for her werewolf master.
“You should eat something,” her mother said, pushing the bowl with the nourishing date soup toward Mirella.
“I feel queasy.” One look at the viscous liquid made Mirella’s head spin.
“You’ll need your strength—” What her mother hinted at terrified Mirella even more, fully eradicating whatever hint of an appetite she had left.
The elders seated at the long, rectangular table looked at her. On the ancient faces, she saw pity and compassion, but nobody would save her when the time came for her to be alone with her husband. Everybody expected her to perform her duty and give Lupine a werewolf heir within the next cycle of the Fifth Moon. Years of lessons in seduction had taught her how to please the wolf in and out of the bedchamber. Hers was the duty of enchanting her husband so that he wouldn’t stray, and kept visiting her apartments until conception was obtained.
In front of Mirella, Mistra Rachel tilted her chin and smiled. “Relax, child. Lobo will be pleased with our choice and he will bestow upon you gifts and favors. You’ll be the most beloved of spouses yet.”
Mirella smiled back, not because she felt like smiling, but because it was expected of her. Since she was thirteen, she had been taught how to be always pleasant, always smiling, always accommodating. Her mother told her she was the perfect child, even in her womb. Mirella had never disappointed her parents or her tutors. Now, she wanted to scream and tell everyone to find another bride.
“You can always ask for food later.” Her sister Lucilla covered Mirella’s bowl with a plate, then helped her up.
Mirella’s dress had a long tail and it was difficult to maneuver between furniture. It covered her from head to toe in layers of colored silk and jewels interwoven in the fabric. As she moved, the hundreds of miniature bells jingled, announcing her passing. The rubies and emeralds dotting the dress sparkled in the candlelight. She was lightheaded and her legs wouldn’t support her weight, but her sisters Lucilla and Vera held her by her elbows, forcing her to put one foot in front of the other as they headed toward the ceremony.
The Wedding Procession would take her from the dining hall to the Goddess’ Chapel within the Vestal House. All her family had gathered alongside the noble houses of Lupine inside the vast chamber where the Ceremonial Tying would take place.
“Everyone is here,” Lucilla whispered to her. “The Prince and his court will be in the front row.”
Mirella’s sisters were hoping that her wedding would facilitate good matchings for them as well. The rare families who had produced a Fifth Moon’s Wife were blessed with exceptional childbearing genes and beauty. Coming from such a lineage was considered an exceptional gift. Her sisters would find their husbands tonight. If only she could exchange places with any of them.
“Raise your chin and smile,” her mother whispered from behind Mirella’s ear.
Automatically, Mirella straightened and plastered a smile on her face. In front of her, the long hallway was filled with statues of the former Blessed Wives—the official title for a Fifth Moon’s Wife. The sculptures depicted beautiful girls, frozen forever in their wedding dresses. Since the beginning of times, the ceremonial clothes had been the same. No transient fashion had ever changed the style and colors of the bridal gown.
Mirella was dressed as the Blessed Martina had been some thirteen hundred years ago. Before a translucent veil had demurely covered her crown, her hair had been bathed with jasmine oil and her tresses had been left loose in soft ringlets, exactly like Martina’s had been styled. Mirella’s body had been massaged with scented oils. A different perfume for a different part of her body to entice her husband’s wild nature. She had blushed when the ancilla reached between her legs with a sponge soaked in rose oil, but everyone assured her it was done for her comfort.
The procession slowly advanced through the corridor leading deep inside the mountain. The Vestal House had been built excavating the hard walls of a crag, seeking refuge from Lupine’s harsh and unpredictable climate. The high, vaulted ceilings complemented the dark, rocky surface that had been polished to a smooth mirror, with ancient hieroglyphs etched at regular intervals. The history of Lupine had been preserved thanks to those inscriptions. When the first settlers had conquered the new planet, they erected temples to celebrate their victory over a hostile nature and started recording their humble beginnings for posterity.
Mirella’s tutors had drilled the meaning of each hieroglyph into her young mind; as a Blessed Bride it was required of her to be the Bearer of the Knowledge. She would recite Lupine’s tales to her progeny, which would start while her child was in her womb.
Until now, Mirella had never felt overwhelmed by the true meaning of her role.
People crowded the walls, leaving only enough space for the bridal court to walk over the mosaic tapestry in the middle. Rose petals were thrown at Mirella and stuck to the silk layers of her dress. Every other step, someone called her name, requesting a special blessing for an ailing relative or for themselves, as if she had the power to grant their wishes.
Her mother gently pressed a hand on Mirella’s back. “Nod to acknowledge their appeals.”
Mirella’s distress had grown in the last few meters of the slow procession. Her steps were hampered by the weight pressing against her chest and shutting down her lungs. She couldn’t see. Her eyes stared at the large marble arch at the end of the hallway, and the white light coming from within the chapel on the other side blinded her.
“Smile,” her mother reminded her, as if she could sense Mirella’s distress even without seeing her face.
Taking a long gulp of air, Mirella relaxed the muscles on her face, and at the same time forced her legs to move. The arch was near. The gilded details of the leaf pattern on the columns sparkled. The air was scented with floral incense burning in the suspended braziers.
“It’ll be over soon.” Her mother pushed her when Mirella hesitated under the arch.
The chapel was filled with people. At first, she thought the crowd was undulating, then she realized it was her lightheadedness playing tricks on her mind. At the opposite end of the chamber, the High Priest and the Medicus of House Lobo waited for her on the granite dais. She looked for her husband, but she couldn’t find him.
Mirella had never met Lobo. A Blessed Bride was presented to the werewolf on the night of their wedding, and no communication was allowed before the ceremony. She had asked about him, but nobody had been forthcoming with useful information. Lucilla had once told her that the werewolf was different from the other men, but when probed for more details, her sister had refused to add to her indiscretion. Even though Lucilla hadn’t said much, she still was grounded by their tutors, and Mirella learned not to ask any more questions.
“Let the Blessed Bride come,” the High Priest intoned, opening his hands to welcome Mirella onto the dais.
Years of etiquette lessons helped her overcome the first moment of panic when she saw the daybed on the dais. She had been told how the ceremony would progress, but hadn’t realized how many people would be present to witness the wedding.
“They are all here for you.” Her mother seemed to have the power to read Mirella’s mind, and with a last push, helped her step onto the dais, then retreated toward the family pew from where she and the rest of the family would attend the service.
The High Priest smiled at Mirella, then motioned for her to kneel and kiss the ring he wore on his right index finger. She was relieved when she executed the formality without stumbling over the long train of her dress. Equally satisfied, the High Priest smiled again, then pointed at the daybed where the medicus was waiting for her. She approached the edge of the furniture, then closed her eyes and lowered herself to the mattress.
“Let the Blessed Bride be examined,” the High Priest called out for all to hear.
The medicus, a middle-aged man wearing a cumbersome tunic, helped Mirella lay on her back, positioning her so that her feet pointed toward him and her head was to the crowd. As she tried to relax, Mirella noticed a third, massive presence on the dais.
Lobo had been there all along. He was hidden from sight by a screen angled to protect him from the crowd’s eyes, but that gave him an unobstructed view of the daybed and Mirella.
The medicus’ gloved hand opened Mirella’s dress, parting the silk layers until he found the knot guarding her virtue. His touch was gentle and clinical at the same time, but Mirella felt the brief invasion and blushed, ashamed that something so private was being broadcast before the entire chamber as her future husband looked at her with impassive eyes. Her only consolation was that the rest of the chapel couldn’t see what the medicus was doing.
From her supine position, Mirella had a partial view of Lobo, who was in the shadow, but she could see his hazel eyes and wished she couldn’t. Even though hazel was a warm coloring, those eyes were cold and chill-inducing.
With a satisfied nod, the medicus folded back Mirella’s dress, then removed his gloves and offered his hand to her. When she was upright and with her back to Lobo, the medicus bowed at the High Priest.
“The Blessed Bride is as pure as the first snow on the Caucasum,” the High Priest said, eliciting a wild applause from the audience. He then bent to retrieve a crystal ampule from a pillow on top of the wooden lectern on his left. “Lupine Master’s Vital Essence is as pure as the Blessed Bride.” He raised the ampule over his head.
Another applause followed.
The High Priest placed the ampule back on the pillow. “The Wolf Groom and the Blessed Bride may now meet.” He granted Mirella a regal nod and she stepped forward.
Lobo rose from his seat, and Mirella stopped breathing. The enormous werewolf emerged from the shadow and walked around the screen, silencing the chamber at once. Taller and broader than any man Mirella had ever seen, Lobo was built like one of those shifters she had read about in her ancient history textbooks. All hard planes, his body looked like it had been carved from Caucasum granite. He had high cheekbones, a full mouth curved in a cruel smile, and his eyes weren’t just hazel. A closer look revealed that his pupils were dotted with green and yellow speckles. Yet, they weren’t warm. His skin tone was fairer than she had imagined though. For some reason, when she had envisioned her future husband, her mind had pictured a dark skinned man with dark eyes and darker hair. Instead, Lobo’s mane was brown-blond with lighter locks, and his skin had a golden tone.
“Valentine Lobo, here is your Blessed Bride.” The High Priest waited for Lobo to step beside him, giving him time to walk the few steps from the screen to the front of the dais. The werewolf moved around her at a slow pace, taking far too long to examine her, in Mirella’s opinion.
Valentine Lobo was seldom seen in public, and everyone in the chapel was enthralled by him.
“Master Valentine, Eleventh Master of House Lobo, do you accept the Elders’ Chosen, Mirella Canalis?” the High Priest asked, and all eyes moved to Mirella, expectantly waiting for her to be judged by the wolf.
Never in the history of Lupine had a Blessed Bride been repudiated at the altar, but for a moment Mirella’s heart squeezed in fear. What if Lobo found her so insignificant that he would shake his head and refuse her? She had been reassured that everything that happened on that dais was a formality. Mirella’s birth was the result of centuries of natal engineering. In a nutshell, she had been created for the werewolf. She would have preferred not to be in that situation in the first place, but since she was already there, to be publicly shamed would be the end of her life. Nobody would ever want her, and her family would be ruined.
The moment it took for Lobo to nod his assent was the longest in her short existence. Blood ringing loud in her ears, she barely heard the roar from the crowd as The High Priest announced the bridal party to be escorted to the Wedding Chamber.
To Be Continued…