"Have you ever seen a pearl? A real pearl, not just a picture in a book."
Drake didn't look surprised by the strange question. He merely shook his head. "No. I never have. They're rare in this province, Jag. I would guess only the Vargas family has any in their possession. And they certainly wouldn't flaunt the fact. There's also supposed to be one in the Temple. A special gift from the Goddess, but I have never seen it."
Jag nodded. The ring in his hand wasn't just a token. He couldn't believe anybody, even his betrothed, would offer such a gift. He struggled to remember every single detail his mother had told him about the ceremony, certain she never mentioned anything about rings.
"Drake, I'm not sure what to do."
Jag held his hand out and opened his fingers, revealing the precious stone. It looked darker against his skin, and he had been gripping it so tightly the silver band left deep marks in his palm. Drake inhaled between pursed lips.
"Is that from Rivers?"
"I think so."
"Nobody mentioned it would be something so dear..." He spoke under his breath.
"So you were expecting this?"
"What?" Drake tore his attention away from the ring and met Jag's curious eyes. "You don't have to keep that."
Jag blinked. "What?"
"You don't have to keep it. You can send it back. Or you can sell it."
"I can sell it? That's...acceptable?"
"Of course it is. It's a gift. It's yours now. You can do whatever you want with it. I can arrange the sale for you, if you'd like."
"Just like that? Brace won't mind? I can just...sell it? And use the money any way I like?"
"Yes. It's a sort of good-faith gesture. It's perfectly acceptable to sell the gift."
"And then I wouldn't have to marry."
"Yes." Drake's voice dropped. "But there's a time limit. You have until the beginning of the second ceremony."
While the first ceremony was all about sorting the business, the second ceremony involved the personal vows and declarations of fidelity and love. That part made sense to Jag, though it was about the only thing that did. A marriage involved the union of two people and two families; the terms for each partnership needed to be dealt with. Especially since it wasn't unusual for the betrothed to be meeting the first time on their wedding night.
"That doesn't seem fair. I mean, that hardly gives me enough time to do anything."
"You have until tomorrow night. Then you either keep the gift and complete the ritual, or you use it to buy yourself out of the obligation."
Jag wasn't sure if his legs would support him. Hope and shock, and even fear, made him weak. He took a few stumbling steps back and slumped against the wall. "Why didn't anybody tell me this?"
"I wasn't supposed to."
Jag looked up with questioning eyes to the man who had always been so patient with him. "What?"
"It's a test, Jag. It's meant to prove your fidelity, though it's becoming more and more of a gesture, rather than an actual rite. Traditionally...the temptation is not quite so extreme. This ring won't just settle your family's debts, it could very well make you the wealthiest person in the area. If you find the right dealer."
Jag didn't need Drake to point that out to him. The weight of this understanding was still settling on his shoulders and back, working into his skin, burrowing into his flesh. "Why would he give me something like this? Surely he can't think I'll marry him if... Does he not want me to marry him?"
Drake shrugged. "I couldn't tell you. And nobody is going to ask about the gift, or try to influence your decision. It's entirely up to you."
Once again, Jag wanted to protest that it wasn't fair. How could they force him into this decision when the only decision he had been allowed to make in this whole affair was what gender he wanted to marry? From his father: Do you want to be betrothed to a man or a woman? We have appropriate suitors either way. From his mother: I'm sorry, Jag. He hadn't been given names or pictures or even the chance to speak to his potential suitors. He had pledged his troth to a man he'd never met, and now he was expected to weigh his freedom against his family's word of honor?
Why even bother with all the preliminary steps or the first ceremony? What was the consequence for choosing to sell the gift? There had to be a consequence. Something horrible, no doubt. This choice would have strings attached.
"When will they be coming for me?" Jag asked, his lips numb.
"Midnight. Two more hours. Then you'll be taken to the marriage suite." It was actually his parents' master suite, but they moved out a week before the ceremony and had it transformed. Into what, Jag didn't know yet. He hadn't been allowed to see it.
"But we won't officially be married until...after I decide whether or not to keep the gift?"
Jag turned back to his room, then paused and looked up to Drake once again. "What would you do?"
"I'd sell the pearl."
Taken aback by Drake's blunt declaration, Jag wondered if he was bound to a troll or an ogre of a man. "Have you met Brace?"
"What's he like?" Which wasn't the question he wanted to ask at all. He wanted to know if Brace was handsome, or at least attractive. He wanted to know if Brace had all his teeth. If Brace ever smiled. He wanted to know if Brace Rivers was cruel, or shy, or indifferent. He wanted to ask if Rivers would make him happy.
"He's lonely. I don't think he ever expected to be married."
"Why?" Jag could hear the trepidation in his voice. "Is he some sort of monster?"
Drake shook his head. "No, but he wouldn't accept a woman. And most families would not agree to marry their sons to another man. There's no chance for grandchildren or carrying on the family name. Your parents were an exception because they were sorry they had to do this to you at all."
Do this to you. Like it was a punishment. Or a crime. His parents were committing a crime against him. A criminal act inflicted on Jag's passive body; they had promised him the priesthood, and then they took it away because they had the right and the need to do so. He knew that's how the household viewed the situation, but Jag couldn't quite see it in those terms. "Thanks, Drake."
"You've always been a good kid, Jag." Now his grim face and stiff posture softened, and for a moment Jag thought Drake was going to embrace him. But the moment passed, and Drake stepped back, maintaining the same professional distance between them he always kept.
Jag shut the door behind him and returned the ring to its box. He didn't have time to think about it right now. He needed to dress himself. The wedding costume was elaborate and he would need Drake to help him get it on. Brace would have to help him undress. Which only brought up more questions about his bridegroom. Would he have the patience to unbutton what seemed like a thousand tiny gold buttons? Would he have the dexterity? It was too easy to imagine a man with huge paws, bent, chubby fingers and rough skin. He worked with horses, didn't he? It seemed possible that he would have mangled hands.
Jag needed to meditate. But meditating just reminded him that he needed to prepare himself for his wedding night. If he understood Drake correctly, it didn't matter what Jag decided to do with the pearl, there would still be a wedding night, a chance for the couple to meet, to talk, to decide if they were compatible. It was generally perfunctory, but Brace's gift changed everything. Their night together was the only positive thing about the whole situation. He didn't know if he would even be attracted to Brace when they met, but he did know it would be good to feel a hand on his body that wasn't his own. Even if the hand might be rough and twisted.
Jag had wanted to be a priest since the day he understood who the men were in the Temple. He had been fascinated by the richly attired men, watching as they paid alms, bowed in prayer, lit incense, and most importantly, aided the visitors in their worship. A large, perfectly sculpted, divinely crafted image of the Goddess oversaw everything from her lofty perch. His parents had encouraged his fascination with the Temple, taking him to visit often, and allowing his education to emphasize the mysteries of the Goddess' existence. Despite his devotion, he had dreaded the vows of celibacy. He understood he could not be distracted with the worldly concerns of the flesh. Even so, he had spent countless nights imagining what another man must feel like. A hard body. A hairy chest. Large hands. A full mouth. Another erection, with smooth, velvety skin and a wet tip. He always imagined a masculine body very different from his own form. Jag was not muscled or rough. He was protected and soft.