Gid came back early in the morning, while most of us were still asleep.
I was already awake in the kitchen, arguing with the staff. The cooks were trying to dissuade me from making breakfast as they were already preparing an elaborate banquet. I could already see ten large birds roasting in the open flame while a spit-boy basted the meat with generous amounts of their own drippings sweetened with some kind of syrup. Meanwhile, the pastry chefs were filling huge pie crusts with fruits stewed in sugar and tangy spices to be baked until golden brown. Still others were preparing sweetcakes, and sculpting elaborate structures out of pure white sugar.
Just watching them prepare these foods made my stomach feel queasy. Everything was so rich and fattening that our bodies would surely balloon ten times our current size. I tried to tell the cooks to moderate the calories put into each morsel of food, but they were more interested in preparing elaborate meals that looked as good as they tasted. Catering for the hundreds of guests that resided within the palace was no small order.
And they were expecting many more people coming.
Thankfully, Lala was there to help me. When she appeared, I explained to her what was going on, and she convinced the staff to serve their food to the great hall only, and that we would make our own breakfast.
With the cooks pacified, we settled for a more modest meal of fish okayu stewed with leafy vegetables and a side of tamagoyaki. I poured a big bag of rice into a large copper kettle and filled it with water. Then I hung the kettle over the cooking fireplace to heat until boiling.
Lala emerged from the pantry, carrying a huge egg as big as a watermelon and a three, large fish preserved in brine. We were trying to crack the egg open when Yami walked in on us. With her help, we managed to drill a hole through the thick shell and mix in some salt and sweet wine. I fried the egg mixture in a cast iron griddle, properly rolling the thin yellow sheet into a long fluffy log to be sliced into pillows.
Meanwhile, Yami flayed the fish, using her hair like long slender knives. Carefully, she separated the skin from the succulent meat. Then, she removed the bones and cut the fish into chunks. At the same time, Lala was tending the leafy vegetables, mincing them until they were as small as match sticks. The fish and vegetables were all added into the rice gruel and the whole brew was brought to slow a simmer over the fire.
Queen Selphie was awake when we brought all the food to her solar. She complemented our dishes as we busily set up all the plates and bowels on the modest table.
It was as that moment that we heard a low drone sound growing louder and louder until the window panes were rattling in their frames. A dark shadow passed overhead and briefly blocked out all the light. Lala led us down to the courtyard just in time to see the main gate, a huge wall of golden lattices, open wide to let in a sleek silver spacecraft.
It was three times larger than the average royal shuttle. Its two pairs of landing struts straddled the central canal and squatted down like some chrome-plated toad. A long gangplank extended from the mouth and connected to the apex of the arched stairway. A large gaping hatch opened and a procession of ambassadors and dignitaries marched out along with thousands of spearmen and standard bearers hoisting a vast array of colors and sigils.
Gid emerged last, flanked on both sides by his personal staff. Maul and Smutt walked in front to clear a path, while two serving maids walked behind the emperor, holding giant fans mounted on long wooden poles. Gid looked so handsome, and his eyes were dark and beautiful. Yet their hard stare betrayed the tiniest bit of his power. He was dressed in black robe with a white sash tied around the waist. A long black cape draped across his shoulders, and his tail swayed back and forth, armored tip cracking the air like a whip.
“Daddy!” Lala cried as she glomped onto him. “Welcome home! I’m so glad you’re okay!”
Gid smiled his toothy smile. His ring-studded hand emerged from within his sleeves and ruffled his daughter’s hair.
“You’ve been busy, my little Princess,” he said, “Thank you for keeping my realm together.”
Lala beamed and snuggled against him.
Just then, we heard some loud footsteps, and oni-chan appeared, panting as though he had run down several flights of stairs. He was fully dressed in his starship uniform, and in his hands was the symbol of betrothal. That gold hand ornament snaked around his wrist and ended in a giant orange gem from which five spokes sprouted to cap each fingertip. It was given to him by Queen Selphie, before we went to the evening banquet last night.
I could tell that his whole body was taught like a bow string. His hands were balled into tight fists, and he was trying to not how his fear.
“Your Majesty,” Rito said stiffly, “This is an unexpected pleasure. We are honored by your presence.”
Gid let his hands fall and studied my brother carefully. All of his mirth was gone. “You may dispense with the pleasantries, Yuuki Rito” he said coldly, “I’ve been out cleaning up the mess you’ve made. We’ve nearly had a war thanks to the stunt you pulled.”
He glared at oni-chan, stepping closer so his shadow fell over the boy. “Do you understand how much trouble you have given me?”
Rito swallowed a lump in his throat. “With all due respect sir, Lala was in danger,” he said at last, “I was merely trying to protect her.”
“And why does my daughter need your protection?” he said sternly, “I still don’t get what my daughter sees in you, and I remain skeptical of your betrothal.”
He sighed, “Still, at least you are not a coward nor a bumbling fool. But we will discuss this when we are alone.”
With a wave of his hand, Gid dismissed us from his presence. Rito tried to follow, but Smutt turned around and stopped him.
With the exception of Lala, we were all barred from the throne room. While the courtiers and the diplomats dined together in their great hall, we were forbidden from even setting foot in the palace sections.
Instead, we retreated back to Selphie-san’s solar. The queen was sitting at the head of the table when we came in. Momo and Haruna were already sitting next to each other on the right side, so Rito and Yami and I all sat down across from them. Maul who had come in with us was waiting quietly behind the queen. I felt sorry for seeing him standing there without any food, so I asked him to sit with us.
“If it’s alright with you, Selphie-san.”
The queen beamed. “Of course!” she said.
We brought out another chair so Maul could sit next to Yami. Meanwhile, Rito shifted to the foot of the table and sat across from Selphie-san. He desperately avoided her gaze, even though she had the most beautiful smile for him.
We all tucked into a warm breakfast together. Thankfully, the food hadn’t cooled too much. I bit into the tamagoyaki, and felt my cheeks clench at the deliciousness.
“So, Maul-san,” I started to say, “Tell me a little about yourself. We hardly ever get to know about the people who live in the rest of this galaxy.”
“But of course,” Maul said, “I am a Transylvanian. I come from a planet that orbits a red dwarf star. There is a moon that orbits at a shallower orbital plane than your moon does, so it is always eclipsed by our planet when it is full, so it will always has a rusty look appearance”
“Our planet has a higher iron composition than yours, and it leeches into our body through the water we drink and the air we breathe. Thanks to that, we have higher hemoglobin content in our blood cells, making them more efficient in carrying oxygen.”
“So that’s what makes you so athletic?” I said, “I’ve seen you jump as high as our house.”
“Too much iron in our bodies is a problem too,” Maul said, nodding, “So we get rid of it through our skin, but that also gives us extra protection.
“That’s why your skin is so gray. Essentially, you get to grow your own armor. Right? That also explains why your hair and nails turn red.”
Maul nodded. “It’s very useful when I’m on duty. However, I’ve mostly lost all of that protection, ever since coming to Earth. Meanwhile, your sun is so much brighter than ours, so I have to wear sunblock every day or I will burn up.”
“I see,” I said, “So how long have you been working for Gid?”
“All my life,” he said quickly, “I was taken from my home when I was but a boy. That was how his majesty found his personal guards. After taking over the galaxy, he went to the many vassal worlds and took boys and girls from their families. He trained us personally from a very young age. We were taught to serve him and fight for him forever.”
“Oh, how horrible!” I commented, “Imagine being ripped from your home, never see your family again! To be a prisoner or a hostage in a place where you’ve never been before!”
But Maul shook his head. “On the contrary, it was the best thing to happen to me!”
“It was a privilege to be selected for Gid’s academy. My parents were so happy—so proud—when emissaries came to take me away. At the academy I learned everything from how to command an entire fleet of starships to how to cook every recipe known to the empire. Furthermore, we weren’t barred at all from visiting our family. My homeworld exists in an obscure corner of the empire, so our people remain apart from the cultural influence of the capital. I was encouraged to go home and spread the knowledge I gain to benefit my people.”
I sat there, mulling over what he said. The happiness I felt in his voice and the conviction he displayed, all reassured me that he wasn’t lying or deceiving himself.
“Can anyone apply go to that school?”
Maul thought about it for a second. “You have to get an invite. You may ask the emperor or any of his trusted advisors. But it will be up to him to accept you.”
“Rito-kun, what’s wrong?” Haruna’s voice broke through our conversation. Rito was hardly eating. Instead, he was propping his head with one hand and playing with his okayu.
“I’m just thinking of what Gid said to me,” he said, “Am I really so useless? Am I so undeserving of Lala’s affections? What have I done to make Gid hate me so much?”
Yami spoke first, “If you had asked me those questions a month ago, I would have said that yes. You were not the person you are today. You use to shy away from everything, like any random girls that talked to you. You used to go about your life, not caring about the greater things happening around you. A month ago, I would never have liked you in the way I like you today.”
Her eyes met Rito’s and she smiled. “You’ve changed so much since then.”
Then, Selphie spoke. “My husband doesn’t hate you. He has always been the brash hothead, going out of his way to make the whole universe no his name. When he heard how Lala chose to marry you, I think he was confused. Why hadn’t she picked someone more like him? Why had she gone for an unknown suitor from an obscure corner of his realm?”
Maul nodded in agreement. “You are Princess Lala’s chosen mate. I’ve known the princess all her life. There’s no way she would choose you if you were truly worthless.”
“Honestly, I think Papa is jealous of you,” Momo said next. “You are the polar opposite of him. You are much more reserved than him, and you don’t go looking for a fight like he does. Yet, you’ve managed to cultivate so much loyalty.” She smirked at him. “As it turns out, I don’t even need to lift a finger to build you a harem. You’ve done it all on your own, just by have so much more confidence.”
“He is proud of you, though he tries not to show it,” Maul said, “You showed true courage and strong leadership. You’ve pulled off some spectacular maneuvers to save the ones you love.”
“Yeah, oni-chan,” I said, “Don’t worry so much about how others see you. You yourself know what you’ve accomplished in these past weeks.
Rito looked at all of us, and smiled. “Thanks everyone.”
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door, and a messenger was let in. The deviluke soldier marche in and kneeled before the table.
“Excuse me, your highness,” he said, bowing, “His majesty has called for you, and asks that you join him in the great hall.”
Selphie-san nodded. “Tell my husband that I shall be in his presence soon.”
The soldier bowed again, then got up and left the chamber.
The queen stood up then. “You are free to explore the palace grounds,” She said to us, “Although, you aren’t allowed in the throne room, I shall send for a servant to guide you through the side passageways.”
“Maul-san, if you would please.”
Maul, too rose from his seat and escorted the Queen through the doorway.
That was the last we saw of the queen. Since then, we’ve scattered throughout the palace. Momo and Haruna have gone outside to walk among the gardens. Ever since yesterday, they’ve become much closer to each other. Rito and Yami have disappeared somewhere, too. Meanwhile, I’ve been busy in the library. There are so many books in that room, and there seems to be sort of universal translator that grants me access to the whole mountain of knowledge. I’ve been reading all morning!
Unfortunately for me, there are no windows, and the hot sun has made the whole room like a sauna, and now, I am all gross and sticky!
I think I’ll go for a bath.