To everyone, Reiji was glowing and burning up in fire red.
In Aila's eyes though, Reiji bled blue— the bright, electric blue of stars and Plavsky particles— from his core. He faded as if the blue was the only thing keeping him tethered to this earth.
Before Sei and Reiji could exchange their last high-five, Reiji vanished. Aila choked back a sob.
Silence and shock reigned until Nils spoke up to ask, "Where did he go?"
"Back home," Sei said. "He couldn't stay here anymore without a Plavsky crystal. We destroyed the only one."
No, there was still one left.
Aila blinked, thrown off by how everyone else had directed their attention at her. She hadn't realized she'd said that aloud. She drew the necklace that she had been given before her final fight with Reiji from under her dress. "I still have one. How does it work?"
"Reiji said that if you make a wish on it, he'd come running," Sei said with misty eyes.
The little gem rolled around in the palm of her hand. She was seized by the urge to follow— to force Reiji to make good of his promise. But would that be too selfish?
"Here, take this with you." Sei presented her with the Beginning Gundam. "Tell him that we'll surely meet again. I'll become even stronger. We'll definitely battle again."
Aila nodded. She surveyed the people assembled before her. Sei sadly waved goodbye and China had tears glistening in her eyes. For a moment, she wondered what it would be like if she stayed. But she shook her head and strengthened her resolve. With Reiji's Gunpla in one hand, she reached for her pendant with the other hand and took a deep breath.
Her wish was straightforward: I want to go where Reiji is.
She dissolved in a rush of light— her molecules flung to the furthest reaches of the galaxy.
Aila's cheeks still burned as she followed Reiji through a maze of cavernous halls. How could he not get it? She had followed him millions of light years and still he couldn't fathom the depth of her feelings. But when she looked over at him and saw how he cradled his Gunpla like it was the crown jewels, her heart softened.
"Where are we?" she asked.
Reiji tossed a cocky grin over his shoulder. "This is my home."
"Your home?" Aila gawked. The building was as massive as a palace.
Before she could ask him more questions, a woman wearing a maid's outfit careened around the corner. She skidded to a stop in front of Reiji, dropping into a curtsy with shoulders still heaving.
"Prince Reiji! Thank goodness, you're back. Your parents are furious with you for running off," she gasped for air.
Aila's jaw dropped. "Prince?! You mean that wasn’t a joke?"
Reiji rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Ah, Aila, welcome to Arian, my kingdom."
His full name was Aria von Reiji Asuna, son of Queen Aria von Shizu Asuna and her consort, Regulus III. Reiji was also the youngest of the four royal children and unlike any prince Aila would have imagined.
Aila didn't meet the rest of the royal family until almost a week after she came to stay at the palace, and she saw little of Reiji during that time. His rooms were in another wing of the palace with the rest of his family. He showed up once towards the beginning to announce he was being punished for running off without a word. He was dragged off almost immediately by a stern-looking older man to attend his remedial lessons. She'd spent most of it holed up in her assigned room— which was both large and nicely furnished— and the wing around her.
"Mother, this is my friend Aila." Reiji introduced her nonchalantly, like he was having a classmate over for dinner.
Reiji and his three sisters all got their red hair and amber eyes from their mother. And dare Aila admit she felt a bit starstruck meeting the Queen in person? Because the oil paintings in the library didn't do her enough justice. While Reiji might be considered alien, her mother was downright ethereal.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Aila." As Shizu tilted her head, light caught in the giant Arista gem set into her diadem.
Remembering herself, Aila dropped into a hasty curtsy. Her cheeks flushed red as she was sure she was doing it wrong. God, she was going to kill Reiji afterwards. He could have given her more warning than popping out of the blue and saying that she'd be eating dinner with his family right then. "Thank you for letting me stay, your Majesty," she managed to choke out around the lump in her throat.
"It's a pleasure to host a friend of my son, especially one from another world." Shizu replied magnanimously.
Aila slowly raised her gaze from the intricately tiled floor, nearly jumping back when she realized the Queen was leaning forward while flanked by her other three children. She forced herself to stand still as the Queen examined her from head to toe, lingering briefly on the area at the base of her throat. Shizu made a noise of satisfaction before pulling back, which was apparently the signal for the other women to pounce.
"Your hair is so pretty." Reiji's oldest sister, Aria von Reina Asuna, sighed wistfully.
Aila, on the other hand, was rather envious Reina's elaborately coiffed hair.
The callused hand of the second oldest sister, Aria von Yuliyana Asuna, gently stroked Aila's cheek. "Your skin is so soft, just like a baby's!" she squealed.
The youngest sister, Aria von Mika Asuna, refrained from pawing Aila. But she picked at the hem of Aila's dress and asked, "What kind of fabric is this?"
Tongue-tied, Aila froze under the spotlight of their attention. She glanced frantically to Reiji for help, but the dirty traitor had already retreated out of sight.
"You can ask her questions later. Let the poor thing breathe." Regulus spoke for the first time from somewhere near the head of the table. Aila couldn’t see exactly where as she was still enveloped in a sea of red.
The crowd around Aila dispersed reluctantly. Each person went to take their seat at the table with Shizu at the head, her husband to her right and her daughters in descending order to her left. Reiji sat next to his father. When Aila approached the empty setting next to him, he got up and pulled her chair out for her. She bit her tongue and swallowed the comment about him having manners after all.
Dinner was a new experience for Aila in more than one way— having never dined with royalty or a family before. Regardless of their status, everyone at the table acted very much like they were part of a family like the ones seen on TV. Besides inquiring about Aila and her world, they asked about each others' day and traded banter and gossip.
But watching them together, Aila began to understand Reiji's character better. The Queen had raised all her children to be equally outspoken. Reiji, as the youngest, needed to be twice as loud and just a bit brash to be heard over the clamor of his older siblings. It made sense that a family this warm and passionate could produce someone like him, who accepted Aila so readily.
Aila wondered where she fit into this picture— if she did at all.
Arian was a kingdom bordering the sea that spanned some 80,000 square kilometers inland. The soil was fertile, and though the climate was temperate, snow was virtually unheard of. The kingdom's main source of revenue came from taxes generated from its shipping industry. Its chief exports included silky fabric weaved from the webs of a palm-sized spider and a grain crop that resembled millet. Most notably, Arian was also the only known place on the planet where the elusive Arista crystal could be mined. The mines were under the strict supervision of the royal family, the Aria vons, and trade of the gems was highly regulated. All of this made Arian an economic power to be contended with.
But Aila was more interested in the subtle differences in physics between this world and earth— like how gravity seemed noticeably stronger here. It was no wonder Reiji seemed to float on air when they were still on earth. Or the fact that there were always Plavsky particles in the atmosphere. The particles came closest to the surface of the planet on sunny days, until a warm blue blanketed the ground like a transparent ocean. They seemed especially drawn to members of the royal family and the Arista jewelry that each of them wore. Within the royal palace, they seemed to settle and sink into the ground somewhere Aila couldn't follow.
Until the day when Mika, the would-be scholar, came to ask Aila about her special ability.
The cloud of Plavsky particles grew thicker as they descended the spiral staircase leading into the bowels of the palace.
Aila grasped her hands together in an attempt to keep from fidgeting. The long hallway that she was being led down wasn't ominous like the dank corridors of medieval castles. They were well-lit by the oval light fixtures set into the wall. But they had not run across another soul in some time now.
Reiji met them in front of a heavy wooden door.
Mika scowled and placed her hands on her hips, "How did you know where to find me?"
"Because I know you," Reiji responded with a glare, which softened when he looked in Aila's direction. "Someone has to make sure you don't get carried away."
"Aila will be just fine!" she protested.
Warm butterflies fluttered in the pit of Aila's stomach. She couldn't decide if the protective gesture flattered or offended.
When Reiji threw open the doors, a cloud of Plavsky particles swept out through the opening. She could make out a distinct path of blue weaving through the mountain of clutter inside. Mika vibrated with excitement as Aila followed the trail further in. Tucked away in the corner of a small room in the back was the largest Arista crystal that Aila had seen.
"Where are we?" She asked, transfixed by soft light pulsing from the crystal's core.
"These are the royal storerooms."
Aila glanced at the chest overflowing with silver trinkets in the opposite corner. "You mean the treasure rooms? Am I even allowed in here?"
Mika waved a dismissive hand. "What Mother doesn't know won't hurt her."
Reiji approached the large crystal suspended in the golden aperture. "This is how I found my way to earth. But it no longer works." As he placed a hand on its surface, the glow briefly grew stronger and then dimmed.
"That's probably because there's no crystal on earth anymore. The way I figure it works is there needs to be at least two of them to resonate. What do you think, Aila?" Mika turned to her.
Aila couldn't say. She wasn't a scientist and knew little about the physics of the Plavsky particles besides that which she could observe. But she wished she had more insights to share, because the crystal's light illuminated the lonely expression on Reiji's face all too clearly.
"Come with me!" Reiji demanded as he plucked the book out of her hand and threw it down on the table.
"Reiji, you idiot, what are you doing?" she screeched as he pulled her to her feet.
"You haven't been into town yet. I'm taking you out today."
They took off through a section of the palace she had yet to see. She was out of breath by the time they paused by a section of the outer wall. Even Reiji was gasping for air and breaking into a sweat.
Realization dawned on Aila. "You're ditching your lessons again, aren't you?"
"Reiji, get back here this instant!"
The shout sent Reiji clambering up onto a stack of wooden crates, jumping to close the final gap between him and the top of the wall. With a burst of strength, he pulled himself onto the rampart. Alarmed, Aila looked back in time to see Yuliyana storm around a corner in padded leather armor with her sword in hand.
"She's going to kill you!" Aila hissed at him.
"Not if she doesn't catch me. Come on!" Reiji called with a smug grin on his lips.
Aila didn't fancy being left behind to deal with Yuliyana's wrath. She scrambled up, but the crates wobbled under her weight.
"Aila, give me your hand."
Without thinking, she grabbed the outstretched hand and allowed him to pull her over the wall just as the pile collapsed beneath her feet. Yuliyana stood on the ground, fuming and waving her sword manically.
"Sorry!" Aila shouted before she followed Reiji over the other side of the wall.
The town outside of the palace was one of the kingdom's two major port cities. From the palace's vantage point at the top of the hill, Aila could see out for miles— past rolling hills of verdant green, all the way down to the harbor where tall ships were moored. As they got further into the city, the architecture and environment reminded her of the Mediterranean on earth. She had never been to Greece, but she had seen photos. The streets were lined with stalls and merchants hawking wares from different lands.
Outside of the palace, Aila finally began to realize how tense Reiji had been lately. His smile was freer out here and a tad brighter. His shoulders rolled back, and he stood at ease as he haggled with vendors. Perhaps Aila have been much the same way. She felt lighter.
The first thing they did was buy two honey cakes from a vendor who seemed to know Reiji well. The treat left their fingers sweet and sticky.
Aila sighed as they watched another stall roast some type of acorn-like nut, which smelled like baked apples. "I miss meat buns," she said. That had been one of her favorite things about Japan. Her mouth watered at the mere thought of the savory meat filling.
Reiji gave a forlorn nod of his head. "And shumai."
Their gazes met, and they giggled in unison.
The second time that they snuck out to the city, they literally ran into the former Chairman Mashita and Baker in the middle of a wide road.
"You!" Reiji snarled with surprising ferocity.
"No! Get away from me!" Mashita turned and ran. Baker quickly followed on his tail.
Before Aila knew it, she and Reiji were tearing through the streets and weaving through the crowd of merchants and citizens. She pumped her legs faster, not willing to lose either Reiji or the people they were chasing. But Mashita was fast— like the literal hounds of hell were nipping at his ankles. Baker was probably even faster, if she didn't stop now and then to throw obstacles in their way.
"Aila, keep following behind them. I'm going to cut them off!" Reiji propelling himself onto the roof of a stall and onto the top of a nearby house.
"Wait, Reiji! Don't do anything stupid!" she called after him.
"I'll be fine!"
They quickly peeled away from the city's busier streets and into the maze of narrow alleys tucked between houses. Aila started to lag behind. Maybe she need to go easier on all that heavy palace food. Mashita and Baker rounded the next corner, and Aila fully expected to lose sight of them once she followed.
But after taking the corner, she nearly ran into Mashita's back. Reiji blocked their escape from the front and now she'd flanked them from behind.
"Leave me alone!" Mashita curled into a ball and cowered, "I don't want to see you!"
Baker glanced back and forth between Reiji and Aila with narrowed eyes. Apparently, she decided Reiji was the greater threat and planted herself between him and Mashita.
"It's your fault I can't go back!" Reiji roared.
Aila was taken back by the flash of pain that crossed his face. It had been quickly devoured by the more immediate anger. She had known he missed earth and Sei— that he chafed against the confines of palace life and its lonely lifestyle. He didn't get to spend a lot of time with his parents and siblings, who were busy with their own responsibilities. She rarely saw Reiji spend time with any of the other children their age in the palace.
Aila had adjusted accordingly. Given her experiences at the orphanage and the Flana Institute, she was not unfamiliar with a more regimented lifestyle. But unlike Reiji, she had less of an attachment to her home planet and its people. In many ways, it had been easier for her to leave it all behind her.
"Baker-chan, get rid of him," Mashita whined from his place near the ground.
Baker spoke evenly with a hint of steel, "It'd be best to let us pass."
"Not a chance," Reiji growled.
Baker glanced at Mashita over her shoulders, expression soft and protective. When she met Aila's eyes, her face hardened into a cold mask. After turning back to face Reiji, Baker raised her fists and widened her stance. The message was clear: she would try to protect him at any cost.
Reiji responded by dropping into his usual fight stance. Aila remembered the band of red that bloomed across Reiji's wrist, where he had used his metal bracelet to stop their attacker's baseball bat. He had tried to protect her then. Now she could best protect him by preventing the situation from escalating further.
"Wait, Reiji." She ducked under Baker's arms and ran up to him. She placed one hand on his raised arm and forced him to lower his fist. "Don't do this."
Reiji's face screwed into a tight expression. "But they—"
"Fighting isn't going to change a thing. Do you think he'd rather be here without his wealth?"
Compared to the tailored suits he used to wear, Mashita's clothes fell on the plainer side nowadays. He was a far cry from the mighty chairman of PPSE of yore.
Aila continued, "At the very least, you could overlook this because Gunpla battles wouldn't have been possible without him."
The implication should be obvious to someone even as (occasionally) dense as Reiji. Would he and Sei have become such good friends in the absence of Gunplas? One thing was for sure— Aila would not have ever met Reiji otherwise. Maybe it was more that Aila owed Mashita for that.
Mashita pulled his head out of the ground and chirped, "That's right. Be grateful."
She tossed an annoyed glare at him. She wasn’t doing this for his sake. "You should take this as an opportunity to reflect on your past misdeeds. If you hadn't tried so hard to get Reiji kicked out of the tournament in the first place, you'd probably still have your company and your money."
Reiji still appeared conflicted. He clenched and unclenched his hands several times.
"He's not worth it," Aila pleaded and watched as the last of his resistance crumbled.
Reiji’s shoulders slumped as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. He sauntered closer to the duo, stopping short of a distance that would alarm either of them. “Oi, you’re lucky she was here.”
“What does it matter?” Mashita cried. “I already lost everything: my money, my company, my wine collection. I had it all and now it’s all gone.”
“So what? You’re going to give up?!”
Mashita’s sniffles were muffled from behind his hands. “No one believes in me anyway. The townspeople call me useless and talk about me behind my back.”
“That’s not true,” Baker protested.
“Then prove them wrong!” Reiji declared. The passionate response drew everyone’s eyes to him— even Mashita lifted his head. “If you give up, you’re proving them right. If you want something badly, you should fight for it with all your might. You did it once before, and you could do it again if you just tried.”
“That’s right,” Baker knelt down and grabbed Mashita’s hands. “We built PPSE from the ground up. We can do it together.”
Mashita lowered his teary eyes to focused on their interwoven fingers. “Baker-chan, you really believe in me that much?”
“Absolutely,” she smiled and drew him to his feet again. “I’ll be with you the whole way.”
Mashita directed his gaze to Reiji over the top of Baker’s head. “Prince, you’re not going to pursue this matter any further, are you?”
“Hmph, as long as you don’t make trouble. I don’t harass my subjects for no good reason.” Reiji spun on his heel and started to walk away. “Come on, Aila, I heard from the maids in the kitchen that a ship from the Burning Islands came in yesterday. If we hurry, we might still be able to get some dragonsfruit.”
Aila nodded eagerly and fell into pace alongside Reiji. As they hit the main street, she risked a glance back and caught a glimpse of the two walking away hand-in-hand.
The two of them were caught by Yuliyana almost as soon as they stepped over the threshold. Aila could breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that her sword was sheathed for once. Yuliyana took one look at their guilty faces, growled, and grabbed them both by their collars.
“This is all your fault.”
Aila had never known a wooden practice sword could be so heavy. Her right arm strained against the effort of keeping it aloft and her other arm began cramping. But she didn’t dare drop it, because Yuliyana would make good on her threats. An hour of this torture was already more than enough.
Reiji was faring marginally better at holding the stance because he’d had practiced it before. But the tip of his sword— an actual metal one— drooped dangerously. If he dropped it, it was liable to take off his feet.
“How was I supposed to know that she’d figured out my escape route?” Reiji gritted out between clenched teeth. Sweat dripped down the side of his face.
“Reiji, straighten your back! Aila, keep your shoulders up!” Yuliyana barked.
“Yes, ma’am,” they panted in unison and struggled to follow her instructions.
Aila watched Reiji out of the corner of her eye. On the outside, he seemed recovered from their confrontation with Mashita and Baker. Still, Aila worried that he might change his mind at a later time and charge off without thinking.
“Don’t look at me like that.” Reiji kept his gaze fixed on an unseen point on the horizon.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“With that face. Really, I’m fine. I’m over it.”
“Just like that?”
He turned his head and smiled blindingly— showing off his white teeth and that dimple in the corner of his cheek. “Yep, just like that. Thank you for worrying about me.”
Her face felt warm. It was because of standing out in the sun for so long or the exercise, she told herself.
“You two are wasting your breath making chit-chat over there. In few minutes, I’m going to make you run through some drills. So save your breath for that!”
Aila took a deep breath and fought the tension in her muscles to hold the form.
A storm of preparations soon swept up the palace and its inhabitants. Arian was hosting a trade conference with a few other nearby kingdoms. The bulk majority of the work and logistics fell on Reina’s shoulders, and Aila was quickly recruited into helping out as well.
More often than not, she babysat Reina’s sixteen-months-old toddler, Victor (short for Victorious). The servant who usually looked after the child was busy running other errands for the crown princess. But Reina herself was often in the room with Aila, needing someone to distract the overactive toddler more than anything. Aila didn’t complain— she wasn’t familiar enough with the palace or its infrastructure to be of help otherwise.
It did give Aila a front-row seat to the drama that was managing seating arrangements at dinners (under no circumstance was the minister from Orihpec to be seated within three place settings of the Duchess of Caelondia) and drawing up meeting agendas (the Queen’s meeting with the representative from the Republic of Tekmet had to happen early on in the conference, but never too early, because otherwise surprise conditions were likely to pop up right before agreements were to be signed).
Finally, as the host country, Arian would also be throwing a massive ball for the occasion.
Aila already planned to spend that evening in the quiet sanctuary of her room with a few books and dinner begged off from the kitchen cooks. But a week before the ball, the three sisters ambushed her in her room.
"You have to go," Reina insisted.
Mika added, "Reiji needs an escort too."
"You'd be doing all of us a favor by keeping an eye on him." Yuliyana held up a long gown peppered with pink bows, scowled, and tossed it aside.
“But I can’t afford any of these,” Aila protested. Foolishly, she’d hoped that would be enough to put an end to this.
“Nonsense! Think of it as my gift to you.” Reina pushed Aila’s hair back and seemed to be comparing her face to a swatch.
“Don’t worry about it and try this one on.” Yuliyana ordered as she shoved a bundle of fabric into Aila’s hands.
She lost count of how many dresses she tried on— none of which seemed to meet the sisters’ exacting standards. The first one washed out her skin-tone, the second was the wrong cut, and the third was too whatever-Mika-flapping-her-hands-like-a-seizing-bird meant. Aila’s head started to spin by the time they hit double-digits for the dresses. She’d given up on undressing behind the screen. There was no point given the speed that the three princesses were throwing on the dresses and peeling them right back off.
Her door creaked open and another red-head popped out from behind it. Aila felt a moment of panic that it might be Shizu come to join the fray.
“What are you doing?” Reiji blinked slowly as he took in the mayhem.
“Reiji! Get out!” the three sisters screeched as one. Each of them grabbed the nearest object— a book, an empty inkwell, and a cushion— and threw it.
Reiji’s quick reflexes saved him as he ducked behind the door and used it as a shield.
Aila looked down and realized why they had reacted so violently. With the zipper undone, she was half-hanging out of the dress. She fled behind the screen and waited for a hole to open up and swallow her whole.
“I didn’t see anything!” Reiji objected through the door. “And I wasn’t trying to peep.”
“Then learn to knock,” scolded Yuliyana.
Reina joined her behind the screen with another gown. “Last one, I promise,” she said full of sympathy. “We won’t ask you to try on anymore after this one.”
Aila loathed to disappoint.
The silk settled against her skin with a sigh. Despite the sheer amount of fabric there appeared to be, it weighed almost like nothing. At first glance, the bodice was white like a wedding dress and trimmed with clear crystals. But when the sunlight hit it at a certain angle, it shimmered ice blue. Aila gawked at her reflection.
Reina led her out from behind the screen and Aila was beset by the sisters again. She diverted her gaze to the floor and waited for their judgment.
“That’s it!” Mika exclaimed with bright eyes. “How should we accessorize?”
“I think her Arista gem necklace is enough. We want it to be tasteful. But it is missing one thing.” Reina disappeared behind a stack of boxes and re-emerged with a stole that she draped across Aila’s shoulders.
Yuliyana nodded in approval. “Once we have the length altered, it’ll be perfect.”
Reina pressed a finger to her lips and gave a secretive smile. She cocked her head back and asked, “What do you think, Reiji?”
Aila had almost forgotten he was there. She sucked in a lungful of air, which was a little difficult given the confines of the bodice, and raised her head. The three sisters had moved aside to give Reiji a better, unobstructed view.
He stared at her— his lips forming a perfect o-shape and eyes wide.
“What? Does it look weird?” She tried to smooth out the folds in her skirt, which she then realized was a futile attempt because that was how the designer had made the dress. Aila had never worn clothing so elaborate or fancy. The petticoat alone was going to make moving around a challenge.
“No, no. It’s fine.” He turned his head to the side and pressed his hand to his face to hide his burning cheek.
Despite his best efforts, the herald mangled her last name. Aila swore this she would never let the sisters bully her into an event like this again. Everyone was looking at her... She squirmed and her skin crawled under the weight of their collective gaze.
Reiji, on the other hand, was cool as a cucumber. He patted her hand looped around his elbow as they entered the ballroom. The gesture made her want to smack him over the head.
The first order was business was the first dance. As the members of the royal family took to the center of the ballroom, Aila released Reiji and slunk back into the crowd. Thankfully, Reiji already had a official dance partner in Mika. When the guests started joining them, Aila moved further back to where the buffet and tables had been set up.
The staff behind the buffet slipped a dumpling in with her food. She sat at an empty table and watched as Reiji twirled his sister around the dance floor. They were talking and appeared to be having fun with one another.
Aila sighed. The ball and the dress were wasted on her.
After the first song ended, there was a brief round of applause and Reiji was jumped on by a group of girls their age. Okay, so “jumped” wasn’t the right description as they were too polite and too refined to do something like that. They swarmed him as ladylike as possible, like a group of butterflies. Aila half-expected Reiji to brush them off in his usual callous manner, but he smiled (charmingly!) and entertained their requests.
He danced with each of them— one after the other.
Maybe Reiji was only short and insensitive with Aila and his sisters. It was easy to forget that he was a prince when he didn't act like one most of the time. Maybe it was different with these girls who were nobility and came from families with lineage. Despite how relaxed Reiji’s family might appear, there must still be expectations of how he would act.
Or who he would marry.
She pushed her dumpling back and forth across the plate. An hour eventually passed. She hung back and observed the other guests from her safe haven.
“May I have this dance?”
Aila dropped her fork when the man, nearly twice her age, bowed and offered her a pristine gloved hand. She did not appreciate the way his gaze swept up and down her figure while lingering on her breasts. “Ah, no thank you.”
“I would be remiss if I left such a beautiful lady alone by herself.”
She smiled tightly. “No, really, I’d rather not. I don’t know how to dance.” She hoped he would get the message and leave her alone.
But he persisted, “I would be honored to give you a lesson or two.”
Growing more annoyed, she dropped her smile completely. “I said no.”
The hard-ball approach turned out to be the wrong choice. The man’s face twisted into an ugly expression as he spat, “I was being courteous, but it’s obvious now that you’re nothing more than an ill-mannered commoner. I’d heard stories about you, Prince Reiji’s little pet. You’re a good-for-nothing loafer. You’re here only because they find you a novelty. You’ll be turned out as soon as they tire of you.”
Aila seethed. A pet? A pet?! How dare he compare her to a dog or a cat. She was paralyzed in the face of his vitriol and her own rage.
He continued his assault, “You can dress up a pig all you like, but poor breeding always shows through.”
If Aila had parents, she’d punched him on their behalf. She bunched her hands in her gown and took deep breaths. She couldn’t risk making a scene tonight. Reina had worked so hard to put the entire affair together, and Aila refused to be the reason for it falling apart.
Reiji suddenly appeared and grabbed the man’s wrist. “I suggest you take back what you said about my friend.”
“Friend?” the man asked in disbelief and then laughed. “Surely you jest, your highness!”
Reiji squeezed down on the wrist caught in his hold and commanded, “Apologize to Aila now.”
They were starting to draw the attention of other curious guests.
Aila stood and shook her head. “Reiji, forget it.” Then she added in a low whisper, “It’s not like what he said was entirely untrue.”
She was well aware that the generosity of Reiji’s family kept her fed and clothed. Worse of all, she never felt much guilt or shame over taking advantage of that. She wasn’t anybody special— just an orphan that nobody had wanted. She wasn’t important; not like Reina or Yuliyana or Mika. And recent experiences in Gunpla battles had revealed she wasn’t anything special there either. She accepted all of those truths.
Reiji dropped the man’s hand and closed the distance between them. “Stop talking like that. You’re nothing like what he says.”
She crossed her arms and drew the stole tighter around her shoulders. “You don’t seriously believe that.”
(Aila’s head was throbbing— like her helmet was crushing her skull in. But the pain dissipated when Reiji declared—)
“I’m always serious!”
(She smiled softly to herself and replied—)
“That’s true. You’re always deadly serious.”
The man turned his wrath on Reiji. “Insolent, spoiled child. Someone needs to teach you some proper manners.”
Aila was tired of the geezer flapping his mouth. He was the one who not-so-subtly hit on her first. She’d apologize to Reina and the Queen later, but he should have left Reiji out of it. “Better than being a lecherous, old man!”
As if her words had physically struck him, he drew back in alarm. “Lecherous? Old man?” he sputtered.
She and Reiji shared a glance, then chorused together, “Old. Man.” They broke into a fit of laughter afterwards.
“The Queen will hear of this!” The man snarled and stomped off.
After he was gone, she asked, “You’re not going to get into a lot of trouble, are you?” Because now that she thought about it, he had been wearing one of those sashes with state decorations. He might have been someone important from another country or even from Arian itself.
Reiji shrugged and casually placed his hands behind his head. “Mama might lecture me for a little while, but she won’t be too mad. That geezer has a reputation for a reason. He shouldn’t have bothered you in the first place. You want to get out of here?”
Aila looked around. The ball appeared to be in full swing and showed no signs of winding down soon. “You can’t leave.”
“Come on, I’m bored, you’re bored. Let’s ditch this,” he grinned at her.
Without thinking, Aila nodded.
They waltzed out of the ballroom with a tray of finger food. No one tried to stop them. In the end, they found a spot in a secluded part of the gardens. Aila carefully swept her gown up as she sat down on the stone bench. When Reiji snickered, she grabbed an appetizer off the plate and flung it at him.
“Hey, that’s a waste!” Reiji complained.
She stuck her tongue out in response.
They passed the time munching on their pilfered snacks and star-gazing. In Aila’s case, she watched a stream of Plavsky particles flow through the night sky.
After a stretch of silence, he perked up and asked, “Hey, remember the night we met? We were both skipping out on that reception party then.”
Aila wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, they wanted me to wear that awful Embody suit and helmet the whole time.”
“I know! Sei had this monkey suit set aside for me. I ran the first chance I had.”
They traded commiserating looks.
“Well, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad.” She studied his current outfit, which was like a fancier and more elaborate version of his everyday wear. He’d cut a handsome figure on the dance floor tonight, and she could imagine him in a formal black-tie suit easily enough. “But I guess neither of us are big fans of parties.”
“Yeah, I’m usually gone after the first dance. I thought you might like a chance to enjoy the party, but if you weren’t having fun, there was no reason to stay.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “You did that for me?”
He rubbed the back of his head, which she was now beginning to recognize as a nervous gesture. “I mean, you went through the effort of getting dressed up and all pretty like a princess. You should get to, you know, show off.”
“Pretty?” she echoed dumbly. She could almost feel the blush extend into the roots of her hair.
He kept going, “But it was a waste anyway since you were too embarrassed to dance. Are you bad at it or something?” He glanced at her from under his long bangs.
“I am not a bad dancer,” she huffed indignantly. “I just don’t know how to dance.”
His eyes were as wide as saucers. “You don’t know how?”
She folded her arms across her chest and turned her nose up. “It isn’t something they teach normal children on earth.”
Reiji smirked. “I could teach you.”
“I won’t even get mad when you step on my toes. Don’t feel bad if you’re not any good,” he said good-naturedly. “All you need is a little practice. It took me a bit to learn too. Just follow my lead.”
She jumped to her feet. “Oh, I bet I could learn to dance ten times faster than an idiot like you.”
“Yeah, then prove it.”
“Fine, let’s do this right now.”
He slotted their fingers together and pulled her close— but not too close. They twirled around the garden path to the slightly off-key tune that Reiji hummed. Feeling particularly brave at one point, she closed the gap between them and planted a kiss on his cheek.
With flushed cheeks barely visible in the dim lighting, Reiji spun her and Aila laughed beneath the two moons and the river of flowing Plavsky particles.