Then, she instructed her AI to respond to interruptions in her voice and with sufficient agitation for the evening. Finally, she got to work.
Her travel gown had only gotten one use, so no one should recognize it. It was a little dated, but with some clever adjustments, she could make it work. She’d borrowed a wig from the stores and fixed it up with jeweled pins that matched the choker she was wearing. As a final touch, she retrieved the asaya bloom from where she’d hidden it, and with tweezers and pins, attached it to the wig. No one would expect a human to wear a poisonous plant in her hair.
A mask and some clever make-up made her eyes seem wider apart, and with the tricks she’d picked up from her artist sister, she was able to alter her cheekbones and the shape of her lips. Body paint under the gossamer fabric of her neckline gave her the sallow tint of a healthy Chatwayan youth.
The corset took almost as long as her hair and makeup combined, but in the end, she got it tightened to almost the point of suffocation. Her eyes may not be popping, but other parts of her anatomy were. She had to admit, it gave her an amazing figure. It probably didn’t hurt that her voice would be light and breathy as a result, either.
By the time she’d finished, her parents knocked on her locked door. “What?”
“Darling, we’re going to visit the Casteens,” her father said. “We’ll lock the doors on our way out.”
“If he wants to kill me, it won’t matter!” she shouted back and had to pause to catch her breath. She heard her father say her name in a pained way, then the footsteps receded.
Speaking of… She picked up the small knife from the tray of snacks her mother had given her and tucked it into a pocket. If Jirek really wanted to kill her, it probably wouldn’t help, but if he was just being a bully, he’d find out the hard way how tired she was of being pushed around.
She looked herself over in the mirror and made a deep curtsey. She had to pause and get her breath before she could make herself rise. Hopefully, the boys would be too busy looking at the curve of her chest to notice.
“So,” she asked her reflection, “Two hundred sixty-three decillion to one for thirty-two boys to match up to thirty-two girls. What happens to the odds when there are thirty-three girls?”
* * *
Ellie emerged from her bedroom wearing one of Jorseen’s shirts and pants. Like women’s fashions, they, too, had strings and buckles so that she could alter them to her figure. She stretched. “This is so much more comfortable than that corset.”
He chuckled. “It seems more natural for you, too. You are very beautiful.”
He rose from his chair and put his arms around her. His hands felt way too nice on his waist.
The voice of her Academy teacher spoke in her mind: “Tactic One: If, for mission or personal reasons, a seduction is unwanted, disengage, make polite excuses, and change the subject.”
She stepped back, or rather, sideways because she was still in the threshold of her bedroom. “Jorseen, you’re a very attractive man, but I can’t. The timeline…”
The memory of her Academy teacher heaved a sigh. “Don’t admit mutual attraction, Doall!”
He didn’t back away, but he didn’t press forward, either. Instead, he took her hand, caressing her knuckles.
“I understand. You could disappear at any time. I accept that, and I accept that I will never be able to tell anyone of our time together.”
He had such a gentle touch. Why’d he have to be a doctor? “But, don’t Chatwayans mate for life?”
In her mind, her Academy instructor threw up his hands and gave her an F.
Fortunately, Jorseen thought she was being funny. “I promise. I have no intentions of tying our lives together permanently. I’m not asking you to taste the asaya root with me.”
“I’d hope not! It’s poisonous.”
He laughed, then realized she was being serious. “Shree, who told you that?”
“Ellie. She’d been getting threatening notes from a boy. One of them came with an asaya blossom. They were warned against going anywhere near them when they arrived on Chatway. She’s a little scared.”
“What did her parents say?”
“They laughed and told her it would all blow over after the Ball.” She hoped she hid some of the bitterness she felt.
He sighed. Still holding her hand, he led her to the couch. “It’s not my place to say, but they could do with applying some of their diplomatic skill to their own daughter. It’s just not conceivable that any noble Chatwayan would threaten the daughter of an ambassador. It simply isn’t. However, for one to court her…”
“Court her? The note said, ‘I will own you.’”
His expression darkened, but he said, “I think that may be like the word, ‘crash’? It is not to be literally understood.”
She smacked her forehead. “‘I’ll make you mine.’ But the flower?”
He sighed. “I think the closest word is ‘aphrodisiac,’ but it’s more than that. It has adaptogenic qualities that spark the feelings of romance and attraction on a biological level for us. It’s something that seldom happens for my species any longer.”
“I don’t understand.”
He bit his lip, hesitating. “It’s not something we often talk about with other species. You have to understand, we have existed for millennia longer than most of the Union races. It shows in our genetics. We don’t experience the same highs and lows because quite often, we can’t. It makes the romance surrounding courtship and pairings difficult to achieve. Left to our own devices, we would simply not take a mate permanently much less casually. We simply lack the sex drive.
“So, to keep our species procreating, each year, communities gather the young of a certain age for a Ball. They imbibe the root, mingle, and when they have chosen a suitable partner, create a permanent bond with what we poetically call True Love’s First Kiss.
“The asaya spice is very potent, even for us. I cannot imagine how a human would react to it. That’s why they would have told her it was dangerous, not because it would kill her.”
Ellie nodded. “But because she’d feel it three or more times more intensely. And that’s what everyone means when they say she’s too young. It’s not Ellie that’s too young, but the whole human species. I wish I’d known. This would have been a lot easier. Why didn’t someone just tell her?”
“It’s tradition. No one is told the full meaning of the Ball or the power of the asaya plant until after the ceremony and a courtship period to ensure the bonding takes. It doesn’t always, and if not caught, it can lead to a miserable relationship.”
Which is what happened to Alternate Ellie. The spice hit her with greater intensity, maybe more than she could handle, but her human metabolism processed it differently and it wore off, so she had to take more. Or maybe she had flashbacks when she was near Jirek which is why she never quite escaped him?
Poor Alternate Me.
Mistaking her sigh for worry, Jorseen leaned forward and set a hand on her knee reassuringly.
“Shree, don’t worry. It has to be a passing infatuation if it wasn’t merely a cruel joke. But her parents are right. All this will be over tomorrow. Everyone at the party will have paired up. If indeed, some of the boys were drawn by her alien exoticness, they will no longer notice. She will no longer be a threat to the girls, either.”
Ellie smiled, “You’re sweet to think that.” She knew better. Ester had resented her even more after the party. Had Jirek confessed to her his secret infatuation, or had she found out? She’d always been interested in him, if not as a suitor, then as something that was hers by right.
We got into a fight that day—today, she suddenly remembered. Jirek had put a note in the stables and she found it. I thought he was going to kill me, and all she kept saying was “stay away from my man.”
“Jorseen, did Ellie mention anything about being afraid for her life?”
He chuckled. “I don’t think her parents were that angry.”
But I was. I was mad and scared and humiliated. I’d wanted to crash the party just to show them they couldn’t intimidate me. But I—Shree—talked me out of it. She stayed with me all night telling me that the best revenge would be to have an awesome life, because then Ester and Jirek would be the unimportant ones.
And now, I’m not there.
Ellie bounded to her feet. “She’s going to the party. Jorseen, you have to trust me on this. She’ll find a way to sneak out and go to the party. She doesn’t understand, and she’s tired of being bullied, so she’s going to confront the problem. But if someone finds a way to make her imbibe the root…”
He stood, too. “No one has to. It’s in all the food.”
She dashed into her room and grabbed the satchel that held her scanner, communicator, and phaser. She’d try to make as small a footprint as possible, but if she had to shoot some people to stop herself from destroying her life and the Union, she would do it.