Ellie Elder was wishing she could be dismissed. 

Lunch was a standard Chatwayan affair, but less tasty. Her parents (Hiro and Natalia) had never been able to handle the richness and spiciness of most of the world’s foods, and their cook had adapted the recipes to their palate. The conversation was similarly bland, especially since Ellie had to guard every word lest she give away that she knew them better than a suddenly-appearing HuFleet ensign should. 

“Did you sleep well?” Hiro asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Ellie lied. In between intense dreams of Jorseen, she dreamed Enigo had dressed her in targets and tied her to a wheel. He threw tarts at her while making out with Ester and her posse while Ellie spun and tried to convince him she was old enough for donuts. When the tarts hit her, they turned into snakes with space-time equations on their scales that she could hear in her mother’s voice.

That was about the time she’d jerk awake.

Natalia said, “Ellie has asked that you stay the evening with her tonight.”

“Yes. We thought a sleepover might be fun.” She had no intention of sleeping.

“I’ll ask our cook to prepare some snacks. But…are you sure? You’ve been so kind to indulge our daughter, but we know she can be overwhelming after a time.”

Is this how you talked about me when I wasn’t around? Ellie bristled. “I think she’s wonderful company.” 

Hiro set a hand on his wife’s wrist as he expertly changed the subject. “And she’s quite fond of you. It’s fortuitous that you arrived at this particular time. It will be nice for her to have company while her peers are at the Ball.”

“Can you tell me more about this ball? I know that this is where young Chatwayans meet their mates, but is it really all of them? And for life? How is that possible?”

He smiled warmly toward his wife. “We met at a party.”

She nodded. “Granted. But you are one couple among hundreds—thousands—of potential matches. But I’ve been told every attendee will find their perfect match at the ball. Do you know how statistically impossible that is?”

In the back of her mind, she started calculating odds, her fingers tapping out numbers.

* * * 

Ester Cha’mi’an smacked Ellie’s knuckles lightly with her fan. “Would you stop messing with your fingers? It’s distracting.”

Ellie gave her a dirty look as she shook out her hand. “It’s math. I was working an equation, and you ruined it.”

“Math? For twenty minutes? Maybe if you used a tablet instead of your fingers, you’d be done.” She laughed her light, coquettish chuckle, and the girls around her tittered as well.

A deep and purposeful throat-clearing caused them all to stop and look at the teacher guiltily. 

He said, “While giggling is an accepted flirtation, you ladies seem to have that down sufficiently, so let us practice our fan skills for tonight. Pair up, please. Miss Doall, you may sit aside and observe, as this will not concern you. You are…”

“…too young. I’ve been told. What does that even mean? I’m older than Princess Ester.”

Her only answer was a room full of laughter.

After class, however, several of the girls cornered her and reminded her in no uncertain terms that even if she were old enough, she was fat pinch-eyed human with frizzy hair, and that no self-respecting Chatwayan boy would want anything to do with her.

When they released her, she leaned against the wall and sighed. Like she wanted those chauvinistic boors, anyway. She fought the urge to run her fingers through her hair and instead started tapping them together until she caught the thread of the calculations she was trying to make.