Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Alden slumped outside the barred gates of the Salenth Kingdom castle. He could see the castle so clearly, yet it—along with Princess Serani—was unreachable. He sighed. If he could meet the princess, he knew he could impress her.
“Are you still sulking around out here?” Ropak and Top strolled down the sidewalk.
Alden tried to laugh but only sighed. “I’m sorry. She’s all I can think about lately.”
“Who?” Top asked.
Alden stared at Top. “The princess?”
“The one Alden’s been gushing over lately,” said Ropak.
“Gross,” Top said. “Make sure you clean up your gushing.”
Alden looked back at the castle. Not even Top’s silliness could cheer him up.
“Look, Alden, I know I’ve been giving you a hard time over this,” Ropak said; “after all, it’s making you a real drag, you’ve been out here for like eight hours and it probably looks suspicious, and the whole entire thing is a total pipe dream. But if you really want to meet Serani, why don’t you just do it?”
“I can’t get into the castle,” Alden said. “There are guards all over the place and I’m not allowed inside.”
“Well, don’t let that stop you.” Ropak grabbed Alden and hurled him up. Alden screamed as he flopped over the fence and thumped into a bush on the other side.
Time out, Wally, I want to write this part!
Alden flipped into the air with awesome acrobatics and landed in a tree to hide. He jumped through the air, fluttering his legs all the way into the castle, and he landed on a guard with a karate chop to knock them out. Alden then snuck into the castle with super ninja reflexes and concealment powers, evading all the guards—all of them—until he found Serani’s chambers and entered and met her and they kissed and then there was an explosion of rainbows!
Yeah what’s up?
None of that happened. Alden immediately got caught by a guard and was escorted out. He’s sulking in front of the castle talking to Ropak and Top now.
Aaa fig sorry I got distracted! Quick, get back to writing.
“Maybe you could dig your way through,” said Ropak.
“I don’t think that’s feasible,” Alden said.
“Fly over?” Ropak asked. “Get a hang glider or something?”
“They’ll see me,” said Alden. “If I flew in through her window they’d be up there and on me before I could say a word.”
“You don’t need to say a word,” Ropak said. “Tape hearts to the hang glider, write a big ‘I love you’ on it, put a banner behind it that says ‘Let’s date, it’ll be awesome.’ You’re just being fatalistic.”
Alden gave Ropak a side glance. “I’m trying to be sensible, but I don’t think it’s working.”
“Well, you know what they say,” said Top.
Alden looked at Top. “Er. What do they say?”
Top stared blankly. “I dunno. I thought you knew.” Alden shook his head. Maybe Ropak was right. A big gesture to get Serani’s attention might work—or it might just turn his life into a sitcom.
He turned at a rumble behind and saw a slab of stone from the sidewalk rise. A bird jumped out from below and the slab crashed back into place.
“I can help you get in the castle,” the bird cheeped, as if a helium balloon was caught in their throat. They looked unlike any bird Alden had heard of—half his height, long beak curved like a banana, and blue feathers messy like the bird had just left a tornado. They twirled like it, too. Their eyes looked like they’d stared into infinity and strained trying to see the Magic Eye picture in it.
“Did you come out from under the sidewalk?” Alden asked.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Ropak said. “They want to help you get into the castle.”
“I certainly most certainly do, certainly.” The bird rose a foot encased in a glove. “Hey You, at your service.”
Alden shook the foot. “So you have a way to get me into the castle?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Hey You said.
“Okay, what did you have in mind?”
Hey You grabbed Alden’s tail with a foot and ran through the castle gate, leaving a hole in the metal bars shaped like them. Alden screamed as the bird dragged him behind, laughing as if every one of their feathers tickled them. They tore through the castle gardens at the speed of a rocket-powered frying pan greased up with rocket-powered butter. As Alden scraped along the rocks and pavement he held his shirt to keep it from pulling off.
They zipped past castle guards in light Salenth Kingdom uniforms, and Alden watched them give chase. They ordered the bird to halt but none were fast enough to catch them.
Alden slid onto polished wood as they passed through an open door and into the castle. The hallways looked fancy with paintings and plush carpets and vases, all of which Hey You destroyed as they ran through like a deranged motorcycle. Alden looked at the bird; they still held his tail with a foot, but if Alden didn’t know better he’d say they’d sprouted a third leg, except it looked like it was made of three legs, spinning like a wheel as the bird ran.
The scalago groaned; he hadn’t wanted this at all. Alden yanked on his tail to try and escape, but Hey You flung him up and he smacked onto a hard staircase railing. The bird jumped after him and slid up the smooth wood, pushing Alden with them. At the top they tumbled together and bounced off the hallway walls like a pinball until they crashed in a heap.
“Why did you do that?” Alden muttered. He heard footsteps and looked up—guards rushed to them from the stairs.
“Uh oh! The fun’s over.” Hey You jumped up and removed a leg, which they used like a pencil to draw on the wall.
The wide eyes of the approaching guards suggested they were confused instead of angry. Alden stood and faced them, hoping he could convince them he was as confused as they were.
“Listen, I’m here by mistake, I never meant to–” Hey You opened a door they’d drawn and pushed Alden through. The scalago fell onto the sidewalk outside the castle gate.
“What just happened?” Alden asked.
“Nothing!” Top said, grinning wider than usual. “Nothing happened. I’m the only one crazy here.”
Alden looked at the castle. “Wasn’t I just in–”
“I just threw you over the wall,” Ropak said.
“Yeah,” said Alden, “but some bird–”
“Nope!” Top said.
Alden shook his head. “Maybe I should give up. Even if I got inside, what’s the chance of the princess falling in love with me?” A fleeting moment wasn’t enough, and Ropak’s ideas would make him look like a crazy obsessive. “I need to meet her legitimately to have a chance. Who knows how I could ever do that?”
“Well,” Ropak said, “there was that open door policy–”
“Hey, guys.” Thad and Evelyn strolled to the trio. “What’s going on?” Thad looked from Alden to the castle. His ear bent forward. “You’re still pining over the princess, aren’t you?”
Alden sighed. “Yeah.”
“Okay, I really shouldn’t be telling you this, because we’ll probably all regret it,” Thad said, “but there is a party being held at the castle in a few days. The princess likes to meet with guests at these affairs, so if you attended it you could meet her.”
“Yeah, but there’s no way I’m getting into a party like that,” Alden said. “It’s probably just VIPs and royalty and the like.”
“So instead of that,” Ropak said, “you could just wait until–”
“There are also caterers,” said Top. “Top’s Pizza has gotten so popular that I’m doing some the catering for the party.”
Alden stared at Top. He picked up the ball and shook them. “Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”
“Don’t say it,” Alden said, dropping Top. “This is great. This is great news!” He hugged Top. “Thank you, you may have given me my chance to meet Serani.”
“You’d have a chance,” Ropak said, “whenever the public’s allowed to–”
“You mean thanks to me we get to move the plot forward?” Top asked.
Alden smiled. “Whatever!” Top could say whatever nonsense they wanted; Alden was indebted to them.
“I love whatever!” Top said. They ran to the end of the block, and Alden followed. Thad and Evelyn walked behind, shaking their heads.
“Wait a minute!” Ropak stomped a foot and held a hand forward. “What about that public walk-in policy for when the king and queen are around? Couldn’t you just wait for that?” Ropak dropped his arm. He stepped forward. “Alden? Guys? Hey! Are you ignoring me? Come on!” He ran after them.
* * *
The night of the big party! People from all over Derantu arrived in limos and shiny vehicles, scalagos in the majority. Kanhases both from the Salenth Kingdom and abroad arrived, each different depending on country of origin. Plump ophedes with their light gray plumage and orange beaks arrived, and plump ephodes with their light gray plumage and orange beaks arrived. Or was it the other way around? The two species would inform you that no, actually, they look quite different, but no one else could actually tell.
Famous personages in elegant dresses and snappy suits came—royalty, leaders, popular musicians, artists, writers, and wealthy businesspeople. This fancy party was attended by the most famous, popular, classy somebodies you could find.
For the record, my invitation had gotten lost in the mail. I distinctly remember calling them afterwards and they were like, oh dear Mr. Olec, we missed you, we sent your invitation first one, we’re so sorry this happened, we’ll do a thorough investigation and swiftly behead whichever postal worker caused this error, but I was like, ah you don’t have to do that, you can just slap ‘em around a little, it’s no big deal.
Are you going to resume the story?
What, oh, right.
Also arriving at the party were a few nobodies from outside Derantu. The short one pushed along a big cart with the name of Top’s Pizza on the side. I’m bored of typing, you take over again Wally.
Alden followed Top, dressed in a black suit and tie—it had been expensive, but Alden thought it was worth it. Ropak followed and, like Top, was nude. Nobody cared; it wasn’t a faux pas if nobody knew whether your species normally wore clothes or not.
The castle was lit up like a fireworks display. Alden looked at all the people he’d read about but never dreamed he would see in person. He saw writers whose work he’d read ten times over, movie stars, the armored representatives from Derantu’s undersea community.
Alden tripped and fell over Top’s cart. In front of him towered what appeared to be a dirty-brown stone covered in spikes until he recognized it as a scaly fustornis. He hadn’t seen many of them in the Salenth Kingdom, but with their thick build and armored plates they made strong guards. The fustornis glared down at them, and Alden jumped behind Top—they were the one catering, after all.
“Name?” the fustornis rumbled, looking at a thick computer tablet.
“Top! I’m a caterer,” Top said. “Top’s Pizza. You may have heard of us. We’re the top pizza. Top’s Pizza. I’m Top. We’re top. Top, top, Top.”
“Right, I see you here.” The fustornis tapped the tablet screen with a claw as thick as Alden’s arm. “What about those two?” They pointed to Alden and Ropak.
“They’re my two guests the invitation said I could bring,” Top said.
The fustornis tapped their stubby beak. “No invitation said that. You’re not allowed to bring guests.”
“But, but, but,” Top said, “they really want to–”
“Excuse me.” Alden pushed Top down and slid in front of them. “I’m sorry, Top is a little loopy sometimes. We’re his assistants—we’re here to help with the catering.”
“All right, whatever,” the fustornis said. “Go through the right entrance down that way. You’ll be pointed in the right direction. And don’t go wandering off.”
Alden, Top, and Ropak arrived at a stadium-sized ballroom. The windows were taller than Alden’s front door, and pillars stood throughout with curtains flowing down, crystalline chandeliers hanging above. Many parts of the walls had iconography of Salenth Kingdom history etched into it—nomadic scalagos, fields, the sea, and technology. The portraits on the walls were probably of former rulers, or otherwise some famous personage Alden didn’t recognize. Evelyn probably would have. A thick crowd already milled about, and the trio hurried along the wall to an empty part of the buffet.
“So what are we supposed to do as Top’s ‘assistants’?” Ropak asked.
“Top, you brought the food, right?” Alden asked.
“It’s in the cart,” Top said. “Let’s start pulling it out.”
“How much are we going to unload?” Ropak asked. “I didn’t come along to work.”
“We should help Top out,” Alden said. “They’re the only reason we’re able to be . . . here . . .” Alden stared as Top pulled out pizzas from the cart and shoved them into their maw. “Top. Top! What are you doing? You’re supposed to be catering!”
“I brought food to eat,” Top said, “so I’m eating it!”
Alden stared at Top. He hurried away. “I’m going to go mingle.”
The scalago walked through the ballroom, watching everyone in conversation. He greeted a few guests but said no more than a few words to any.
Someone pulled an arm around Alden from behind and his eyes popped open. “Ah! I thought I recognized that shade of green. Good to see you, sir!”
Alden saw a leathery, sunny face and breathed again. “Oh! General Randolph!” It was only the old general he’d met at Top’s Pizza. His tie and smooth suit were much more prim than the loose jacket from the day they’d met.
Randolph laughed. “None of that General stuff, sir, I’m retired, though I always tell them I’m ready to jump back into action when they need me.”
“‘Always’ is putting it mildly, Randolph,” said the smiling scalago next to him. Her sky blue skin was leathery and her silvery hair was cut short, but her smooth dress flowed to the floor.
“Pah, don’t forget you’re hardly younger than me, General.” Randolph grinned. “If you can keep going, I would be able to.”
“I’m quite certain of it.” The scalago shook Alden’s hand. “Norma; I see you’ve been doing well in our fair kingdom.”
“Wait, Norma—” Alden shook his head. “I remember, I met you when we—a few months ago.” Duval’s advice to keep a low profile drifted through Alden’s mind. I guess trying to meet Princess Serani isn’t a particularly low-profile thing to do, but I’m determined now.
“So where is your short, round, Top pal, anyway?” Randolph asked.
“Oh, they’re here somewhere.” Alden scanned the room for Top. “They’re actually here doing some catering and—” His heart fell against his stomach as he saw Top gorging on everything at the buffet. “I think they’re somewhere in this direction,” he said, moving away from Top. “I don’t see them at the moment.”
“I’ll have to catch up with them later,” Randolph said. “Good to see this party’s getting some food with kick in it.”
I hope the party gets any food with Top here. Alden looked for Ropak to see how he fared. He spied the wrallot telling some sort of story, complete with lots of movement. Alden twitched as Ropak twirled and knocked several guests to the floor. The wrallot cringed and crept away with great strides.
Alden decided against having the generals meet with Ropak, too.
“By the way, do you know where Princess Serani is?” Alden asked. “I haven’t seen her anywhere yet.”
“The princess is still getting ready,” Norma said.
“That honorable lady likes to make a grand entrance for her guests,” said Randolph.
Alden mingled, almost able to ignore thinking about whatever trouble Top and Ropak were getting in. Soon the sound of trumpets pulled the party’s attention to two heralds on the second floor balcony, their Salenth Kingdom robes flowing to the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a herald said, “welcomed guests, it is my honor to present Her Royal Highness, the daughter of our venerated king and queen, and Derantu’s voted number-one hottest scalago alive: Princess Serani.” They opened the doors behind them, and the princess glided to the balcony’s railing. Her hair flowed like a waterfall, a flower nestled atop her shoulder-length sidelocks. Her eyes and ruby red skin sparkled, and her cloudy-blue sleeveless dress billowed behind her. She waved to the guests below her, silk gloves up to her elbows.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said. “I’m honored that you would all come to my little shindig even as my parents are still on their goodwill tour. I hope everyone has a fantastic time tonight and we all go home with wonderful memories.”
Alden’s full attention was on Serani, so eloquent, so beautiful. Then a gasp spread through the room and his skin turned prickly.
Punch. Punch sailed across the room like a burst water balloon. As soon as Alden saw it time slowed down. He looked from where the punch had come and his heart sank: an overturned punch bowl lay over Top, Ropak pulling himself up from the floor. From them he looked where the punch would land and his heart felt like it burst.
With a scream, with a splash, with a shout, with a sputter, the sticky red punch drenched Princess Serani. The punch soaked her crumpled dress, and her gloves appeared to melt. The flowers in her tangled hair squelched to the floor. Now her skin gleamed but in the way a wet road would.
Alden careened past the guests as if he had only minutes to live. He shook Ropak. “Do you have any idea what you have just done?”
Ropak looked up. “I think I just splashed juice into the princess.”
“Technicalamity; I think I did that,” Top said. They yelped as scalago guards seized the trio. Serani stomped up to them, punch dripping from every part of her. Alden only now noticed she stood a full head taller than him.
“Get those three out of here!” Serani screamed.
“No, wait—” In Serani’s voice Alden heard poison-tipped daggers. In her eyes, flaming daggers.
“They are banned from the castle,” Serani shouted, pointing at Ropak. “They think they can make a fool of me?” She looked at Ropak, Alden, and Top in turn. “If they ever come within twenty meters of me, arrest them. Throw them out!”
Alden wailed apologies and claims of faultlessness as the guards shoved them out into the night. That had not gone like he’d planned. That had gone quite the opposite of how he’d planned.
“What the hex was that?” Alden shouted, shaking Ropak again. “What the fig were you thinking? No, you probably weren’t.”
Ropak threw out his hands. “I was thinking I should stop Top from eating all the food.”
“By kicking them into the punch bowl?”
“That was an accident.”
Alden pushed Ropak away. “You were being completely irresponsible. This was a formal ball, not a rowdy bash.”
“Well, you know what they say,” Top said. Alden glared at them. “Um, so there’s no reason to repeat it?” The scalago kicked Top away.
“Look, you’re the one who’s been outside his scope,” Ropak said, crossing his arms.
Alden threw up his hands. “Outside my scope?”
Ropak threw up his hands. “You’ve been gushing over Serani like crazy for the last month.”
Alden leaned into Ropak’s face. “Well maybe you should be more supportive of your friends.”
Ropak leaned into Alden’s face. “I have been supportive.”
Alden grabbed Ropak’s shoulders. “You’ve done nothing but make snide remarks.”
Ropak hobbled backwards. “That’s how I show my support. And I threw you over the gate.”
“That wasn’t helpful at all!”
By now they shouted loud enough that people inside could probably overhear, but Alden didn’t care—his chance with Serani was ruined. He didn’t care what happened now.
Top jumped between them. “Hey! Hey! I want to argue too!”
“Oh, shut up, Top!” Alden yelled, fingers contorted like claws. “Your ridiculous nonsense isn’t funny when actual things are going on. Why don’t you actually pay attention to the world around you instead of just sitting in your own stupid little world?”
Top opened their mouth but said nothing. They frowned as if deflated. “Do you really . . . mean that, Alden?”
Alden stammered. “I . . . I g—” What did he say?
Top wailed. “In that case, I’ll just go and sit in my own stupid little world and not bother you anymore!” They ran away, flailing their arms and crying nonsense.
Alden stared after Top. His mind felt frozen; he couldn’t think of a thing to say. He looked at Ropak. The wrallot sighed and walked away. Alden held out a hand but his throat tightened.
His best friends left him alone in the night. It was over. Everything was over.
No, no, wait, don’t stop reading! The story isn’t over. And we do get back to happytimes, I promise. Or at least not-depressing times. Keep reading!