Ander was enchanted by the way Princess Lambswool moved so easily, like the pounds of her layered sweater dress didn’t weigh her down in the slightest. The sweater dress was a light burgundy color and it looked very warm. Lambswool had very long fingers tucked into very nice gloves, but these things did not match the grip she had Ander in at all. She was very strong, and at least to Ander, this was unusual.
She was pulling him along beside her while the alien boy Chucklehead bounced along and Banner Amzi’s pool on wheels rolled right along. They wound down a hallway, to a large court lined with tables of wild foods. Ander was the type of boy who ate very well, but also who liked to eat the most bland types of food, like rice and beans with chicken and a tall glass of milk. It kept him lean and tall and solid as a mint chip brick wall, but he certainly couldn’t be called an adventurous eater. Luckily for Ander, that wasn’t the challenge he was going to face.
“Boys, kindly sit.”
The boys kindly sat, and the merboy flopped a bit. Lambswool smiled; she thought he was charming.
“Why do you think I should choose you as the next king of Larttleight?” She asked, and then settled into a mountain of sweater dress as it billowed, as she sat down.
Chucklehead spoke first, in a voice you’d expect only to come from a large Jupiter resident. “I think I’d be a good future king because I have your best interests in mind.” He smiled and showed a grimy mouthful of tentacle tongues. “The tentacles could be an interesting asset to the relationship as well.”
Ander blinked. That kid was mildly pervy, wasn’t he? To mention any, well, Ander didn’t find that too classy. Kind of freaky, actually. He was so wrapped up in thinking about ways he would answer so much better than Chucklehead that he almost didn’t realise Banner Amzi was talking now.
“We’ve been friends for years, Princess, and why not secure the alliance? We get along, we’re both attractive enough, and more than that, you’re smart and I know how to read people. It makes the most sense, doesn’t it? We’re the galaxy’s favorite couple even if they don’t know it yet, Lambsy.”
Ander gagged. Lambsy? What a terrible thing to call a girl, even if her name was Lambswool. She let a slight smile play on her lips, but didn’t answer the merboy. Instead, she turned to Ander.
“And you, earth boy?” She brushed a piece of soot off of Ander’s sweater in a way both intimidating and intriguing, like she’d rip his throat out and he’d stick around to see if she’d take his eyes, too. “Hm? What do you say?”
“Um.” He sneezed again. Lambswool grinned again, more at Banner Amzi than at Ander as if to say, “Get a load of this kid!” Ander was glad the sneeze wasn’t particularly snotty, because he didn’t want to use the sleeve of his shirt to swipe his nose. “I think it would be fun.”
“To get married and rule the planet?”
“Yeah, I think I’d do okay at it, you know. And you seem like a neat person. Also the designer girl I was working with, she’s wanting the big prize and I think the least I could do is…”
Lambswool up a hand. “No.” She shook her head. “Don’t talk about her. This is me.”
“Well, right. I’m done now. I think you’re neat, I think it would be fun and I do things well when I think they’re fun because there’s like, less pressure so.” Ander was sweating so badly now he almost wished Cable Knit would swoop down and steal his clothes again.
Lambswool stepped too close to Ander and put her hands on his chest. His heart beat too fast. Her lips were orange and looked soft and so darn close. He knew it was a test, though, and kept his hands in his pockets. He almost sneezed again, to be honest. She sniffed, almost offended, and slid over to Chucklehead. When she set her gloved hands behind his head and tilted his eyes towards her, he immediately tried to close the gap between them.
“Ha, you fail.” She pushed him into the arms of guards standing at attention and shrugged. “Bye, Chucklehead.”
She didn’t bother with Banner Amzi, and Ander figured, thinking of how the air between them seemed full of memories and jokes, that Lambswool had kissed the guy plenty before. This was weird, but at least he gave Easialla a fighting chance for the prize. Ander didn’t even know why he wanted her to win so badly, but he felt like she was a person who made others want to root for her no matter what.
“Good job, boys. You’ve made it this far. I’ll see you tomorrow for breakfast; we’ll talk more then.” Lambswool said, and then rose up into the air and floated back to wherever she was supposed to be. Ander nodded to Banner Amzi.
“Congratulations! I think we can tell who she likes best, though. Good for you, man. I think you’d be a good husband.” The merboy smirked snidely. “I meant a good husband to her, and a good king, too. I don’t know how I made it here anyway. It’s funny, huh.”
“Sure, earth boy, very funny. We already decided we’d get married but we have to go through the rituals and stuff. She likes sneezing, I guess. And tentacles, perhaps?”
“Sounds like it. And she likes whatever you have going on.” Ander made the same flippy gesture the princess had before. “Swimming.”
“Where are you staying? You got here late. I have to roll back to dorm seven. If you don’t have other arrangements you can come too. Some of the guys from Dimension DEVO(30) are having a party later.”
“They like to Whip It? Whip it good?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It’s a song. And I think I’ll pass. I want to find Easialla. I have to tell her how this thing went.”
“You like her?”
“Better than the princess, for sure, but I met her about four hours ago, so it would be silly if I did. Like her a lot, I mean.”
The merboy splashed some water on his face and yawned. “I don’t know. I knew from the first time I met Lambswool we’d be together for a while. Long as I live. Which could end up being a long time. Merpeople, especially space merpeople, live for hundreds of years and love for thousands.”
“Dude,” Ander marveled, “You and the princess are now officially my OTP.”
“Old tortured pigs?”
Ander rolled his eyes. It was beginning to be a medical level concern, all the eye rolling was. “No, my one true pair… like, I think it’s cute. You and the princess.”
“We are a fiercely strong alliance, I don’t see the cuteness of that.”
Ander saw Banner Amzi smiling through his serious facade. “Yeah, right. Fiercely strong is exactly how I would describe the relationship.”
“My motives are pure, earth boy.”
“Not like Mr. Chucklehead.”
Banner Amzi choked on stale air and rolled in the water, still laughing. The boys continued to talk for a while; boys seemed to be the same all around the universe, and maybe even the other dimensions. They both were slightly enthralled by themselves and had fragile egos, but they’d grow up to be fine men, regardless of how much time they spent in front of the mirror each morning.
Eventually, Banner Amzi and Ander rolled and walked back to dorm seven. Ander found a different sweater, not Cable Knit or Mohair, and wandered back outside to see if he could find Easialla. It was probably illegal to leave the dorm, especially when Ander was already a finalist, but he had to find her and thank her, tell her he thought she did great but that he couldn’t take Banner Amzi and Lambswool apart.
He saw her at the end of the hallway, sitting with her back against a girls dorm door. “Easialla!” Ander whispered to her. Her ears flopped up.
“Ha, yeah, hey. Do you have time to talk?” Ander moved closer to the end of the hall. Easialla stood up.
“Uh, yeah. But not for too long. I have to get started on your clothes for tomorrow. We can walk to the gardens for a second though.” She pointed to another door towards the left of the building. Ander agreed the gardens would be good and they headed that way. Once they were in the garden, a quietly bustling place blooming with moonlit flowers, they sat opposite each other in the dirt.
“I don’t think you’re going to win the big prize.”
Easialla frowned, her nose twitching in discomfort. “So you’re giving up already?”
Ander pulled at a loose string on his sweater. “You saw how the princess looked at Banner Amzi. She’s in big love with the guy. You can’t ask me to split that up. It wouldn’t even matter if I did want to, there’s no way I can.” Ander bit the loose string off and tossed it aside. “They already made an agreement.”
“I don’t think you understand how badly I need this to work for me. My family lives in a cage with seventeen other families and we have giant families because, you know…”
“Rabbits like to multiply.”
“Yeah,” Easialla tugged at her left ear, “Yeah. So it’s a pretty cramped space and it’s too easy to get sick. We may be part rabbit, but we aren’t animals and no one on this planet seems to understand that! I was let out of that cage because I showed potential. Potential enough to save the people that matter most to me. I’m not letting anyone get in the way of that.”
Ander didn’t think she was getting the point. “Look, I can tell you need this and I’m pretty sure you deserve it too, but the competition is already off balance. She didn’t go into this completely unbiased. It’s all for formalities, and for the ladies of the court. I’m sure there are other ways to be a successful designer around here, Easialla.”
“How would you know? You’re no part animal, you don’t have ears like mine, you don’t hear what people say about you when they think you aren’t listening, or worse, when they know for sure you are. You have more friends than you know what to do with and your family is ridiculously supportive of what you do, probably. We don’t even speak the same language.” She turned the translator bug over in her palm. “Maybe you don’t want to, either.”
“This is a little irrational…”
“No! No, it’s not. You don’t even want to fight. You don’t even want to try.”
“That’s not true. And I have problems of my own. This isn’t my home. I don’t know why I’m here out of all the guys on my planet and…”
“Dude!” Easialla clenched her fists, almost crushing the translator bug to pieces. “Check your privilege! It’s,” she made large spilling motions in the air, “Cascading through the air!”
“Would you calm down? This wasn’t supposed to make you mad. I just wanted to say thank you for getting me this far. I wanted to say thank you for being a good friend in the last half day. We have like, a connection.”
“Huh, that’s really funny. The only connection I want to make right now is my fists to your nose, buddy.” Easialla shook her head at the ground. “Good thing you’re outfit is pretty fantastic for breakfast.”
Ander shrugged. “You know, I’ve been told I have a pretty fantastic designer?”
“No dip, Sherlock.”
(She didn’t know who Sherlock was, obviously, but that was the equivalent of what she said in the variation language of Lapine.)
“I’m sorry Banner Amzi and Princess are so madly in love. I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Just, maybe, don’t act like everything’s so set in stone; so definitely finite. Think outside the cage.”
“The box, you mean?”
“Nope,” she shook her head, “I mean the cage. Think of getting me and my family OUT of the cage neighborhoods.”
Before Ander could answer, Cable Knit appeared from behind the bushes of blooming Paraphernalia flowers. “What do you think you’re doing outside the dorms after curfew, boy?” It floated out and snatched him by the arm. “Good day to you, Miss Easialla. We must be getting back. Hope you have been working hard on your outfit for tomorrow.”
“Ahm, yes. Very much so.”
Ander bobbed his head agreement. “She works the hardest of all!”
“That’s… I’m sure you’d know, Ander.” Cable Knit arched its back and tugged his arm again.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Easialla.”
“Bye, Ander.” She pulled one of her ears out of her face. “Hope you like the cold.”
Ander was guessing he wouldn’t be so lucky as to have a shirt the next day, and it turned out he guessed spot on, because in the morning when he went to Easialla’s work station, there was no shirt to be found.
“No shirt today?” Ander asked her, and she shook her head. The translator bug was nowhere to be found. Easialla took out a pen from her apron and wrote on her table,
“They didn’t want me talking to you anymore.” It was English writing, surprisingly enough. “Please take your shirt off so we can do the pants fitting.”
Ander sighed and pulled the sweater over his head. Easialla took his arm and wrote something in the Lapine variation language on it. Then she handed him the pants, long and woodenly patterned but very complimentary, and pointed towards the closet behind her. Ander went and got dressed, but he was sad that he couldn’t talk to Easialla anymore. He really didn’t know her that well (at all) but he did think they were quasi friends. Ah, back to square one, he supposed. He promised to do his best; writing it on the table beside her writing.
“I’ll still try my best, you know.”
She vetoed the table and wrote again on his other arm, again in her own language. Maybe she only knew that sliver on English she had written before. It was time for breakfast after that, and Princess Lambswool was already at the table.
“Hello, princess.” Ander did a little bowing stance. Banner Amzi rolled in and tipped an invisible hat to him. “Hey, Banner Amzi.”
“So, I’m guessing you already know about the, ah, arrangements we’ve already made?”
“With you and Banner Amzi? Yeah, no worries, I know this is just formalities. Totally get it. Also, the girl that designed for me? Easialla? Can you make sure her family gets out of the cage neighborhoods, I think she called it?”
“Well.” The princess said, “Of course I can do that. In fact, I’ve been meaning to disband those wretched places as soon as I’m the legitimate queen, which hopefully will be sooner than later thanks to Banner Amzi.” Ander saw her heart swell with pride to mention her future king’s name no matter how much she tried to quell it.
“Yes!” She laughed loudly. The guards laughed loudly. Banner Amzi looked confused, but she had such a contagious laughter that he laughed too. “Of course. I’m not a liar.” She kissed Ander softly, more a sign of promise than affection. “And I know it means a lot to you.”
“Not just to me, princess.” Ander looked back to where he guessed Easialla would be waiting. “Not just to me.” He finished his breakfast, for formalities of course, and then stood up. It was amazing how much he had felt in the last few hours. He didn’t think it possible, but then again, maybe time worked differently on the underground planet.
“Easialla!” He ran to the edge of the balcony at the back of the palace; Cable Knit and Mohair had pointed him that direction when he asked where he could find his designer. He thought about getting a shirt first, but went ahead and found the balcony instead. “Easialla, hey, we did it. It’s weird and it didn’t turn out to be nearly as complicated as I thought, but it’s okay!” He resisted hugging the designer he had grown strangely close to in the last half day or so. It would be too soon, too strange. He was just happy to help.
Easialla didn’t answer. For a minute, Ander thought they still had her translator bug, but they didn’t. Easialla just had no idea what to say. Finally, she turned from the balcony. Tears shone in her round, dark rabbit eyes. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I could do.”
“Why? I didn’t do anything for you.”
“You gave me a shirt in the first show. That was something.” Ander reached out and touched her wrists lightly, barely tapping them with his fingertips. “You covered me, I’ll cover you.”
Easialla tilted her head and her ears tilted with it. “Like a sweater, huh?”
“Yeah, like that, only this is more difficult to take away because like I said... connection.”
She knocked his fists together hollowly. “And like I said, don’t get cocky.”
“Who? Me? Never. I’m from earth. We’re not cocky at all.”
“Said no one ever.” They started walking back inside. “How long do you think you’re going to stick around?”
“Until the wedding at least and who knows after that but, uh, I’ve heard the planets been some kind of crisis where there aren’t enough boys to go around so maybe I’ll stick around, make it easier for the ladies of Larttleight?” He linked his arm through hers.
“What a strange creature you are, Ander.” Easialla said.
Ander instinctively patted his hair down. “A fine specimen, I’ve been told.”