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His golden-eyed bride comes to the Duke of Fifth Dawn from the Colony of Jade With Honeysuckle, bought by great expense in hand-pressed uranium coins. With due honor, she is received and quartered for seven days with her father in a bark of shining metals and orion fuel. Patiently, and in the manner of a humble man, the Duke courts her with the Five Noble Forms. Though she is paid for, he considers himself a romantic soul.

The first gift is a maiden of the lower botanic firms, who, kneeling before her silk-veiled eyes, sheds the wide-sleeved robe veined with gold. Her skin has been replaced with fine china in places; celadon and Ming Dynasty patterns gleam from her arms as she performs a dance of alluring movements before the bride. When she finishes, she kneels and performs the tea ceremony there, upon the floor of the luxury rocket ship.

A scroll of nothing more than common nanopaper is returned with his drone, an understated expression of gratitude and acceptance. It is so simple, so humble, so rustic and unaffected that his breath catches in his throat to imagine how untutored and raw his bride must be. How innocent, this silk-wrapped bride from the backwater colony.

He selects for the second gift a child's toy, a block of hand-polished bastard teak and crystalline logic. It plays for her the poems of the Night Lady illustrated in coruscating rays of prism-formed watercolor hues. For a return message, he receives only a brief acknowledgment via a common line of text on one of his terminal accounts.

He is galled. Infuriated. Insulted. This bride ought be thanking her ancestors, returning even a glimpse of propriety. Dashing the rough red teacup his artisans have crafted from coils against the silk carpets of his office, he calls for his drone and scrawls out his offense, a list of demands, threats, and demands of identity. Has the Matchmaking Database and his investment been for naught? Has this backwater colony sent him a lower drone from their reclamation plants, or worse, a clone of Lord Jade With Honeysuckle?

The response returns swiftly, within hours, wrapped within the stasis field of the drone. It is tested for a full day and night before it is revealed: a box of pressed seaweed and gilt, scented with lotus blossom and sage. Within, on a lining of rough tan linen, he finds the treasure.

His mouth goes dry, his eyes go hungry. Within the box is a folded card of raw paper veined with honeysuckle blossoms. Slipped into a slit at the center of the card are five strands of hair suspended in a slender glass specimen vial. A tiny pink clip, a silken bow, holds them in a neat loop: infinity.

His assistants extract and test the sample, returning with verification. The Duke unfolds the card, and regards the visage within.

His bride has been rendered in true watercolor, meticulously, by the hand of a master of the paints. She is seated, unmistakably, before a port gazing out over Fifth Dawn, and her robe has slipped halfway down her arms, exposing the ivory line of her shoulders, the small black tattoo denoting her genetic lineage at the back of her neck. Her hair is swept up and covered in emerald satin, veiling all but the delicate architecture of her neck and the skin of her shoulders.

The Duke calls for three members of the harem, and disports with them mercilessly. In the morning, one is dead of a snapped neck, the other is bruised and bloody, and the third is with child. The servants who clean his quarters whisper quietly of his virility as they feed the dead and injured to the reclamation pods. The third, they confide in each other, will never walk again.

He dispenses with a third gift, but hurriedly closes the negotiations. They are wedded within a standard week.

His bride enters the Fifth Dawn with the company of the agent of the Matchmaking Database, who is severe in an old-style suit. The shrewish officer, unformed by geneknives and untouched by even crude alterations, wears her frown like a nun's habit. The Duke cares not. His eyes are for the mass of silk under which his love, the bride, moves. With pleasure, he regards the gliding walk, the gesture of her gloved hands, the gentle pressure of a gravity shield against his fingers as he takes one hand. The ivory sliver of wrist that gives up blood for the verification of her identity.

It is she herself, and he trembles with desire that cracking bone and breaking skin has not satisfied. The genemother of his heirs. The ivory aspect of a noble and untainted lineage. Pure, uncloned humanity, more real than the dolls he sports with. It is beyond belief.

Beneath his handwoven robes, he is harder than he ever remembers being.

The ceremonies, the spiced smoke, the reed mats, all are inconsequential. The words flow easily from his sub-brain. Her voice lilts and falls like silver chimes. Her movements are pristine, trained. She is flawless, an idol in glorious, verdant silk.

The vows are said, the contracts are sealed. Her father rises without a word, as does the agent of the Database. There is a low bed before the ancestral altar, piled high with pillows. Rising, he begins the dance of their wedding night, murmuring the words as he sheds his robes with precision, exposing his perfectly formed body to her eyes.

She sits as if stunned by his immaculately tanned skin, or by the physique of a Grecian idol he reveals without shame. For a moment, he dares to believe he has shocked an untried innocent, a naive girl. Nearly, he reaches for her, heedless of the forms, needing to rip the veil from her face, needing to see the shocked, fearful reaction.

Finally, she rises, like a graceful swan, his wife, and turns, her silk slipping and shifting as, like an automaton of flesh and blood, she rotates with minute, gliding steps. The sheer artistry shocks him.

Her hands, gloved in supple lambskin, rise to the back of her neck, sweeping aside a sheer scarf. The suggestion of that unshielded skin has him breathless.

Then she begins to unwind the sheets of her robes, the silk, and he is taken aback, enraptured.

The suggestion of a smile eddies from beneath her veil, as bit by bit, the Duchess of the Fifth Dawn turns. With each shrug and delicate motion, the fabric pools at her feet. With each pass of a hand, he sees less and less of the ivory and less and less of her figure. Veils of gossamer and slubbed fabric, circling spools of nano-aura, all float about her like sheets of fog. Her movements, this dance, this unfurling, twinkles with the under-robes, an inlay of gilded thread sparkling in the light of the ruddy braziers.

As a veil pulls loose of her arm, another billows from beneath, unloosed from the pressure of the knots. Her wrist flashes ivory, briefly, then is concealed in shifting fabric. She is a sandstorm, a maelstrom, a slowly-evolving cloud of suggestion. Even as he catches a glimpse of her perfect hair falling, honeysuckle-scented, from confinement, it drifts about, yet another filament to the veiled dance, obscuring her neck. Her eyes, perfectly golden, are gone even as the veils of her face vanish: the aura of sparking energy fields and nano-rings surround her yet again.

There is less fabric, then, and even as he thinks to raise a hand, to move forwards, the last of the wedding robes comes free. For a single moment, the curves of her hip, the suggestion of lips, the billowing curtain of her hair, are revealed amidst glimpses of uncovered flesh. With a final susurrous gasp of cloth against cloth, the slip next to her skin melts to nothing.

As the backs of his fingers brush her soft, perfectly fleshy cheek, she fades away into a phantom and a dream.