"I was not going to kiss Aaren," I hissed.
Lakan hummed with skepticism, and pushed me aside to adjust his cuffs in the mirror. The governor had been kind enough to send for Montressor clothes - not all the way to the trading planet, of course, but to one of the local stores. We bathed and pulled on clean, white collared shirts and black slacks. There were black shoes in the corner, newly buffed. Lakan remarked that we looked like we'd be waiting tables that night, not sitting at them.
"I was leaning over to look at the - the - what-do-you-call-it - gazelle," I insisted lamely. I pushed him back and recaptured the mirror.
"I'll bet," Lakan said, grinning. He sat down on one of the beds behind me and pulled a shoe over his socked foot. "Graceful little thing, am I right?" He laced up the first shoe and reached for the second. "Makes you want to follow the creature around all day, just to see how long you can go without scaring it off." I mumbled some acknowledgment, preoccupied with a patch of my hair that wouldn't lean the right way. "With those huge, shy eyes..." The tone of his voice was transporting me back to that afternoon, when we'd been on the steps. I tried to ignore him. "...and soft goldy fur."
"Hair," I answered absent-mindedly.
"What's that?" Lakan asked.
"Aaren doesn't have fur, it's hair." The words had flown out of my mouth before I knew what was happening. My hands stopped fussing with my collar, and I stared at my reflection, refusing to look at Lakan. He slapped me heartily on the back before strolling out the door of our room.
"Ah, Marko," he tossed back over his shoulder, "I thought we were talking about the gazelle."
I sighed in exasperation and stepped deliberately toward him, and once in the doorway, I said, "Listen, Lakan, if you say anything tonight that embarrasses me, or puts me on the spot in any way, I swear, I'll - "
"Are you all ready?"
I faltered as Aaren appeared in the hall, just to my left. She was dressed in a simple white shift and had a string of black beads resting on her collarbone. She smiled. "Is it just me, or do these clothes make us look like a couple of waiters?"
"Oh, definitely a couple," Lakan said. "Of waiters." I threw him a dirty look.
Aaren didn't seem to notice and turned to disappear again at the corner. "Anyway, Dad's been waiting several minutes now, so you guys better hurry if you aren't ready yet..."
I ducked back into the room to grab my shoes, and Lakan stood leaning in the doorway. "Lakan," I began.
"Oh, Marko," he interrupted, "it's all out in the open now... I can put you on the spot all I want." I roughly thrust my foot into my shoe. In a more serious tone, Lakan asked, "Are you going to formally court her now?"
I snorted. "What makes you think she wants to be courted? And by me, after everything I put her through?"
He shrugged. "Well, you have been on your best behavior since Lalita 1. I know everyone else appreciates that. I certainly get the feeling that she had to rethink her impression of you while we were there..."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Did she say anything?"
He only grinned and checked his watch. "Come on, Marko," he said, pulling his shirt cuff over his wrist, "we can't keep Tito Jim waiting."
We were seated by the governor at dinner. Governor Zafia had his wife to his right, and Tito Jim sat next to her. The eldest son was to the governor's left, and Lakan sat next to him. I sat next to Lakan, and across Aaren. She had been placed next to her father.
I had to apologize for not eating as I didn't have much of an appetite. My great-grandparents, who were kind and queen of Mirandus before my parents, would have told me that the dinner was an excellent time to meet all kinds of dignitaries and establish connections for the future. But I was almost rudely quiet that night, not paying attention to the conversation and picking at my food. The general next to me gave up trying to hold a conversation with me after a few minutes.
Aaren, Tito Jim, and Lakan, however, had charmed the entire party. As spacers, they talked of how life was at the academy and how the journey had gone from Montressor and Mirandus to Lalita and to Asimov Red. Lakan and Tito Jim described life on Mirandus in great detail as well. And, of course, there was a retelling of Tito Jim's discovery of Treasure Planet. They seemed so dazzled by them that I felt like withdrawing even more - some Crown Prince of my planet I was if I couldn't hobnob with the diplomats. And, I had to admit, I was jealous that Aaren had spoken to everyone at the table but me...
I looked up, shaken from brooding, and saw Aaren giving me a questioning look. She said, "The governor's son, Zafia II, would like to give us a tour of the palace grounds. Would you like to come with us?"
Zafia II, Lakan, and the general who'd sat next to me were already standing up. I nodded absently and quickly stood up, banging a bit into the table and causing my plate to jump. I felt the blood rush to my face as I quietly excused myself and quickly moved to join the tour. As we left the hall, I heard the governor's wife say albeit hushedly, "For a prince, that young man seems quite clumsy, doesn't he?"
I shook my head as I caught up with the others outside. Thankfully, the night air was quite cool. I loosened my collar and rolled the cuffs of my shirt up to my elbows. I stuck my hands in my pockets and tried to relax. I walked slowly behind the group, following their pace, but just far behind enough to collect myself.
The gardens were within the walls of the palace grounds; outside those walls was the hot yellow grassland. Here, however, the grass was green, and there were all kinds of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Tame animals gamboled about, some of them on leashes. Set in this miniature forest were narrow rock paths, wooden bridges, and several ponds and fountains. There were little golden lanterns set along the path and among the bushes.
Lakan whispered something to Aaren over Zafia II's description of the fountain in the frog pond, and she stopped, turned, and waited up for me.
"Lakan wants to know if you're feeling all right..." she said quietly.
I frowned. "If he wanted to know that, he'd ask me himself," I muttered.
"Then you aren't all right," she said. "In fact, you haven't been all right since Lalita 1."
I raised an eyebrow and smiled a little. "Oh? But I've been on my best behavior, Aaren." In front of us, Lakan sneezed. "Though for old time's sake, I'm sure I can arrange for one of these frogs to accompany you to bed tonight." I pointed toward the pond, and she laughed. Then her laughter receded into a shy smile, and she looked absently at the pond. The golden lantern light was bouncing off the water and onto our faces.
I found that I couldn't take my eyes off her face, and her eyes went back and forth across our path, as if searching for something. Then, she looked up at me, took a breath, and said, "We need to talk."
"Oh, dear," I said. "Whatever about?"
She gave me a pointed look. "Don't give me that, Marko. This isn't supposed to be funny." Actually, I was a bit surprised at myself. Since Lalita 1, I'd been quiet and withdrawn; more serious than ever before. Aaren apparently brought out the arrogant beast in me.
"I'm sorry," I offered. "Force of habit?" She sighed and didn't answer. I spotted a bench hidden in the shrubbery and sat down, motioning for her to do the same. She hesitated before finally sitting down, but you could have fit Long John Silver between us on that bench. And you could cut the tension with one of his cyborg knives.
"We need to talk about... everything. Mirandus, the book, Lalita..." she left off, and I knew she was uncomfortable.
"You want to talk about my being in love with you," I said bluntly. "Is that it?"
She flinched, and I regretted saying anything immediately. Her expression hardened, and she stared at the rock path in front of us. I stared at her, strangely fascinated by how anger slowly crept into her eyes... I suppose since childhood, I had always been intrigued by the way I made her feel, though I realized it only then in the garden. It was almost sick to say to myself, but my bullying her had not only been my way of getting her attention, but also my way of seeing how much I could affect her. And I was drawn more strongly than ever to this game.
"I wish you weren't so direct, Marko," she said at last. She still stared coldly at the ground.
I pressed on. "Why shouldn't I be? I should be as direct as I like, Aaren, and you're going to listen to me, whether you wish it or not." She opened her mouth to say something, but I cut her off. In plain, firm tones, I told her, "You wanted to talk about this, so don't be such a girl about it and let's get it all out in the open. I love you. I'm in love with you. I've been secretly after you since we were four, and don't you dare think that I will stop after this, Aaren. You have no idea what I go through every time I see you, every time I don't see you, every time you speak, every time you are quiet, every time you laugh, and every time you kick me in the gut, only because I'm just as unbearable as you are. I'm in love with you, Aaren Hawkins, and I don't think it can get any more direct than that."
She abruptly got off the bench, turning her back to me. "What's wrong with you?" she asked, softly but vehemently. I had moved to get up, but I sat down on the bench again, surprised. As she spoke, she kept her back toward me, yet by the quaver in her voice that seemed to run throughout her body, I could tell that she was crying. Shaking only very slightly, she pushed back a few tendrils of her hair, and her hand stopped delicately on the curve from her neck to her shoulders. Her other hand was drawn across her waist. Both hands were in short gloves, to cover her bandages.
"I wish you wouldn't say things like that, Marko. Especially when I can't believe them."
Now, my mouth fell open. "What do you mean, when you can't believe? What's so hard to believe about my being in love with you?" I asked. Suddenly, I was angry at how fragile she looked and how terribly I was handling things - how I didn't know when to quit.
She turned and waved a hand at me, stepping backward. Her face was streaked with tears, turned into golden drops in the lantern light. "Everything! Everything is hard to believe when I'm afraid!"
"What are you talking about?" I stepped closer to her, desperate to close the gap she kept widening with every step she took backward.
"You've played terrible games with me all these years, Marko Simaun. After all this - the longboat ride, Lalita, the book, how you bandaged my hands - how you've behaved this whole bloody summer... I'm afraid that this is still a game to you."
My eyes widened, and I raised an eyebrow. I stepped closer toward Aaren, and she found that she could no longer move backward; there was a pond right behind her. I moved slowly until my face was inches away from hers, and I sneered down at her. "Why would you be afraid of believing me, Aaren?" I said softly. "Why does it matter so much that you don't want to be played?" I took hold of her hands and held tight, no matter how they squirmed against my fingers. "Why does it matter, when long ago, I believed that I didn't matter to you?"
Her tears kept rolling down her cheeks, and as I had her hands fast, there was nothing either of us could do to wipe them away. "Marko," she whispered, frightened, "please. Let go of me."
"I won't," I said angrily, "not until you tell me that you believe me."
She tried even harder to pull away, but I held fast. "Marko," she said, her voice getting frantic, "I can't."
"Fine," I said. I released her hands, and she darted out from in front of me, to my side. But before she could move farther away, I grabbed her elbow, pulled her even closer to me, and kissed her.
Aaren struggled, but I wouldn't let go. I held her close; I finally had her in my arms, and I was not planning on letting go soon. I'd been wondering for years what it would be like to hold Aaren Hawkins like that, and it was more than I had ever dreamed of. And miraculously, she stopped struggling, finally giving in to the kiss. Her hands found their way to my back, and she held me close just as I wanted to hold her to me forever. I heard her murmur my name, and it had never sounded so wonderful to me. There was nothing that could ruin this moment - our moment - in the golden evening lantern light...
I pushed her away suddenly, breaking the bond. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't bear the sight of her, of the passion that had rushed to color her cheeks, of the tears that until now, had not stopped flowing... She looked surprised, and I rudely swept my hand across my lower lip as I stared at her.
"Now, Aaren... Now I know that you believe me."
I roughly jerked at my collar and turned to storm out of the clearing. It was, however, Aaren's turn to pull me back to her. And there was a ringing slap that seemed to echo across the garden. I immediately put my hands up to cover my face from another attack, but she punched me in the stomach instead, throwing me off balance. She then pushed me into the pond and disappeared among the trees.