I’m entering an uncharted part of my own history, and it’s making me nervous.
I vaguely remember that I went to school today, and that I was annoyed by everyone talking about the Ball. I’m pretty sure I got teased for not being allowed to attend. I clearly remember a teacher telling me I was too young and then being told I wouldn’t understand. At any rate, I know I did not see “Shree” until that evening.
So what did “Shree” do all day? Did she meet with my parents as invited? What did they talk about? Obviously, I did not say anything that convinced my parents that joining Hufleet was a good idea—or, if I did, I completely failed at it.
I really wish I could just stay here until it was time to meet myself for the sleepover, but Jorseen has only a half-shift at the hospital and will be at home. After last night, that’s an even more uncomfortable option than spending the day with my parents.
Goynee came to pick her up, saving her from an awkward half hour in a car with Jorseen. She was not ready to face him, especially after the parts he’d played in her dreams last night. Her Common Mission Complications course at the Academy had spent two weeks on “unexpected romantic entanglements,” yet she still didn’t feel ready to deal with it.
She hadn’t been quite ready to see her old home, either. Castle Fairway looked like something out of an Earth fairy tale—tall, bright, with a drawbridge and banners flying from the each of the fifteen narrow towers. She didn’t bother to hide her excitement to see it again—any visitor would be impressed—but she did have to steel herself against making her own way to the Ambassador’s wing.
Goynee took her on a roundabout path to show her some of the more remarkable parts of the castle. When they came to the grand ballroom, it was bustling with activity as servants and nobles alike cleaned light fixtures, arranged tables, and set up decorations.
“It’s going to be beautiful! And I can smell the food cooking,” Ellie said. For just one moment, she felt a pang of envy for her alternate self.
Goynee chuckled and wagged his finger. “The Bonding Ball is our most important tradition. The food is special, for this day only. But it is not for you. You are too young.”
Fear clutched her heart. Had he mistaken her for her younger self? But no, he then addressed her by her fake name and said he would take her now to the Ambassadors and “food you may eat.” He laughed as if he’d made a great joke, and she remembered again that Chatwayan arrogance was not limited to the noble classes.
Well, they are a founding member of the Union, she told herself with the same sarcastic tone she’d used at fifteen, the one that had gotten her slapped down at HuFleet Basic Training.
“If you want to be a stuck-up little snot, you have to earn that right,” her drill sergeant had yelled into her face, actually spitting the words. “And maybe, if you do, by that time you’ll be past that particular pettiness. Until then, you stow that attitude, got it, Princess?”
Sir, yes, sir, she answered her memory, then walked through the door Goynee opened and greeted Hiro and Natalia.
* * *
Ellie Younger had skipped breakfast to get to class early. She needed to talk with Tilya in private, and her friend was always at the stables before first bell.
Rather than in the barn caressing the nose of her favorite mount, she was outside by one of the fences. Ellie gathered her skirts and ran to her.
“Tilya! There you are. Why didn’t you answer any of my calls yesterday?”
“What do you want?”
Ellie took in the narrowed eyes and nose wrinkled as if smelling something bad, then discarded the information. She’d stop being mad when she heard the good news. “If you’d have answered, I could have told you then. The woman you hit with the car—”
“I didn’t hit anyone!”
Cover story. Maybe someone was listening. “We hit, then.”
“Whatever. The point is, she’s fine, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Her ship was investigating a space-time anomaly and it flung her across space right here. She was literally not even on this planet until you—we—until she got hit by a car. There was nothing any of us could have done. It was a freak incident.”
“Freak is right,” Tilya sneered at her. “I should never have let you convince me to dr- ride in that car with you. Do you have any idea how much trouble I’m in? If this Ball weren’t the most important one of my life, my parents would forbid me to attend. As it is, I’m restricted for the rest of the semester, and I have to apologize to the Queen after classes. Unlike some people, I don’t get excused for being an alien.”
Every muscle in Ellie’s body froze while her mind ran through a thousand thoughts. Tilya didn’t care that Shree was all right. Tilya hadn’t felt guilty about hitting another person. She hadn’t been up all night crying with worry. She didn’t feel gratitude that Ellie had lied and told everyone she was a driver so Tilya wouldn’t get into as much trouble. She was concerned about a party and making a token speech of subservience.
Another part of Ellie’s mind was reviewing the text of the possible speeches Tilya could make, something she’d read on the way to Chatway in case she ever got to meet the queen, but her parents kept her out of official circles. Instead, she had to make speeches to her own mother, who had also grounded her, not that she ever did anything social anyway.
Omigosh, how angry was Tilya? Had she lost her only friend?
What were the odds of a subspace anomaly placing Shree at just the right place at just the perfect time?
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Tilya shouted.
Ellie shut her eyes, forcing herself to focus. Her head had started to pound, and she was suddenly very, very angry.
“At least you get a Ball. You get a chance to see the queen and to be a part of something. You may be apologizing for riding in the car, but at least you’re not just being dismissed out of hand.”
She turned and ran.