Equestrian studies had been canceled, since school was letting off early so that the girls could get their hair and dresses done just right for meeting their One True Love. However, they all had to at least tend to their steeds, and Ellie had been invited to stay and ride if she wanted.

“The eldest thirty-two boys and thirty-two girls will make life pairs tonight. That’s an improbability factor of two hundred and sixty-three decillion to one,” Ellie told Lightning Rod, the horse she’d been assigned to this semester, as she brushed its hide. 

Now, of course, this is a Chatwayan horse, which means the hair was thicker, the legs longer, and the nose shorter, plus it had a nub on its forehead where once there’d been a horn. But in essence, it was a horse, and it liked being curried and talked to, even when it had no idea what the pinch-eyed one was saying.

“And the probabilities of a subspace phenomena bringing a truly awesome person like Ensign Crane right to my doorstep…or roadway? At least ten to the fifteenth times more. When you get to probabilities this high, you’d think there has to be someone or something influencing the odds. But who, and how?”

She left Lightning Rod to stew on that while she grabbed his saddle and blanket. As she pulled the blanket from its shelf, a note fell out of it. 

Tomorrow, all will be paired and you will be alone. I pity you, Little Human. Let me put you out of your misery tonight. —Jirek

Her hands shook and she felt bile rise in her throat. Put her out of her misery? Her parents had to take that threat seriously.

A shadow fell over the note, then a hand snatched it out of her grip.

“Hey!” Ellie lunged at Ester, but the other girls stepped between them and blocked her reach.

She read the note, her wide-apart eyes narrowing and her lips compressed with fury. Then she read it aloud. Ellie stood, fuming and shaking and baffled at why anyone would think such a death threat was funny.

Then Ester stepped toward Ellie, the girls parting to let her through, then circling them so that Ellie could not run. Heart hammering, she straightened her back and forced herself to look into her rival’s eyes. “Ester, please give me back my note.”

“Your note? This is Jirek’s note, written in his own hand. And you, Human, have no right to anything of his. Not his words, not his affection, and certainly not his promises.”

“Affection? Are you kidding?”

“I don’t know what game you think you are playing, Pinch-Eyes, but it ends tonight. He will be King of Chatway someday, and I will be his queen. And you will be nothing.”

She spun on her heel and sauntered away. The others curled their lips at Ellie as they followed, even Tilya, whom Ellie had once thought was her friend. They left Ellie standing frozen as scenario after scenario played out in her head, each one worse than the one before, and equations and probabilities singing in her brain. Finally, one thought rose above the rest: Shree. Shree would know what to do.

Forgetting everything else, she ran home.