Roan looked around. The men who hadn't attached or who'd been rejected had left, and most of the other attached couples had already headed for one of the lightless rooms where it was permitted to remove the concealing robes. With only sixteen couples there wasn't a wait, and several stood with their doors open. He stood and led her to the nearest one.
Her hand felt small and soft in his, but there was strength in her fingers. For her size she was strong, this woman who might become his wife.
Roan liked the sound of that, his wife. He liked just about everything about her. This was his future, to be with her, make love, and have children with her. She was everything he'd ever wanted. She had to be. He was attached to her and that made her his match.
His awareness of her grew with every moment, and he knew she was the one he'd been waiting for all his life.
As soon as he closed the door to the small room it was pitch black inside, and he heard her gasp. "It's all right. It is supposed to be dark."
"So we can take off the robes and learn about each other. Touch but not see. It is said that the eyes can fool you but touch never can. That's why we court our mates in the dark." He tried to see it from her perspective. "I guess it seems pretty strange to someone not Gaian."
"You know I'm not from Gaia."
"It was a good guess."
"Doesn't that bother you? I mean it isn't like I can react the way a Gaian woman does."
Roan couldn't help laughing. "You mean like men do with attachment? That's not a problem. Gaian women don't react as severely as we do, at least not physically. When a Gaian woman is with a man she doesn't match she gets queasy. With the right man she doesn't."
A low chuckle erupted from her. "So as long as I don't get sick on you, I'll be acting like one of your women."
"That's right." He reached out to touch her shoulder, caressing it lightly. "I don't care where you are from, I'm just glad you are here. Don't worry, nothing you don't want is going to happen in here."
He knew what a dark room looked like, a padded platform filling most of the room about one meter off the ground and hooks on the wall near the door to hold their robes. He tugged on the hood of hers. "You can take this off."
She fumbled with the fastening, and the hooded robe came off in his hands. He put it on one of the hooks and hung his own robe next to it, leaving him only in his sleeveless shirt and loose pants. By then she'd moved away from him and he heard her scrambling across the platform. She almost sounded scared, and he remembered how she'd been reluctant to give up the knife earlier.
Roan moved cautiously onto the platform. One man had already grabbed her tonight and he didn't want to upset her further. He'd take it slow and easy and get her to accept him that way.
Sliding his hand along the padded surface, he found the fabric of her long, sleeveless dress. He followed the edge until he knew he was sitting in front of her. That's when he found that she'd put her hands flat on the platform in front of her, palms down.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Her hands were in the correct position, where he could easily find them in the dark. Someone had told her what to do, and she knew the ritual at least that far. Roan covered her hands with his own, hoping to soothe her and make her see he meant her no harm.
No harm at all. In fact, he'd move the universe to help her. He meant to woo this woman and bind her to his side, just as he was bound to her through the attachment. He knew she belonged with him. He had to prove it to her, an outsider unbelieving in his people's ways.
He took her hands and lifted them to his lips, planting a kiss into the palm of each. She seemed to shudder with each touch of his lips, and he didn't think it was fear making her tremble. He held her hands against his face, letting her caress his cheeks.
"Am I supposed to see what you look like with my fingers?" She sounded amused, but also like she was breathing harder than usual.
"You can try. Tell me what you think."
Her fingers trailed along his skin, her touch gentle. "You have a square-shaped face, a strong chin, your nose..." Her fingers explored that feature carefully. "Your nose is a little odd. Was it broken?"
He couldn't help a rueful smile. "A while ago."
"You've fought before."
That wasn't something he wanted to talk about. "Most men here have. But what else do you sense about my face?"
She explored the area around his eyes. "There are lines here. You sound young but I think you're older than your voice tells me. Or maybe you just laugh a lot."
He did laugh. "I try to see the humor in most situations."
"You're an inmate in a mining prison but you've kept a sense of humor?"
A chill flushed through Roan. "I wasn't and won't always be an inmate here."
Her fingers stilled. "I'm sorry. I forgot we aren't supposed to talk about things like that."
One of the many rules of a Gaian marriage meet. You weren't supposed to say your name, or talk about who you were, or what you did. He wanted to tell her that he was due for release in six months, his ten years served, and that she wouldn't be marrying a common prisoner without a future. In fact he'd done very well for himself, and soon he'd be heading back to Gaia with funds enough to keep them both comfortable for life.
But he wasn't allowed to tell her any of that. He had to win her with just what he could show her physically and make her commit to him that way.
He took her hands and put them on his shoulders. "Use your touch, my lady. Learn who I am."