by Marian Allen
Brinna and Jamal threaded the dark, narrow streets, lit only by the candles and firelight from the buildings they passed.
As the building they sought swam into view through the gloom, Brinna gasped and said, “I forgot the password!”
“I didn’t. Don’t worry, Sweetheart.”
Jamal winked at her and knocked at the door.
A peephole slid open. Jamal spoke the password and a proboscis poked out through the circle. The young people raised their free hands for the proboscis to explore.
“Too young, Soft Ones,” a voice squeaked from the other side of the door.
“Our birthdays are tomorrow,” Jamal wheedled. “Mine is in two hours and Brinna’s is in seven.”
“Is close,” the voice admitted. The proboscis withdrew and the peephole clacked shut.
They stood in the growing chill.
The peephole snapped open again.
“No until tomorrow.”
“But you don’t understand! Our families cast us out for declaring our heartbond before time. We have nowhere to go!”
A flake of white fell, then twenty, then icy wetness descended in a million relentless kisses. Jamal pounded on the door. “A blizzard is coming! It’s snowing! It’s just a few hours! Please!“
Brinna pulled her cloak more tightly around her. “Let’s ask for shelter somewhere else. Surely, somebody will take us in.”
But the first place would not, nor the second, nor the third. They worked their way down one side of the street and back toward their original destination, growing colder and wetter and more exhausted. Before they heard their last refusal, the bell in the clocktower tolled the hour twice.
“It’s your birthday,” Brinna said. “Blessings, Beloved! You can go in.”
“Not without you.”
He wrapped her in his cloak as well as hers. Shivering in his shirtsleeves, he went back around, giving his new age. Always, he was welcomed but his betrothed was not. Always, he refused the welcome, then requested and received a handful of kindling or a stick of wood. He kept himself warm by running these back to the door where Brinna arranged the wood and sheltered it from the snow.
At last, he took his tinderbox and struck a spark that caught and spread.
The peephole flapped open and an eyestalk protruded, then jerked back at the heat of the rising flames. The door swung wide and a bucket of water doused their fire.
An extremely cross grachnid motioned them inside. By the orange coloration, she was a female of the highest caste they’d ever seen.
“Few hours, more or less, what matters?” She motioned for others of lower caste to take Brinna’s and Jamal’s cloaks. “Welcome to grachnid embassy. Hold hands. Now you married by grachnid law. Congratulations. Stay here until young one is old enough to count with your people. Happy? Follow that one to a warm room. Will be food.”
Brinna and Jamal tried to thank her, but the Ambassador only walked away.
Before she closed the sphincter to her office, she said, “Try not burn place down, agreed?”