The green grass gave way beneath soft embroidered slippers as the princess stepped off the path onto the south lawn and made her way toward the wishing well.
She had just passed the hollyhocks when a glint of gold caught her eye. There, along the serpentine edge of the flower bed, a long straight rut of mud cut across the garden as if something had hit the ground hard and rolled across it at great speed.
“It can’t be a croquet ball,” the princess mused. That game only took place on the east lawn, and besides her set was silver.
Indeed, the bright golden sphere nestled among the bellflowers turned out to be even larger than she expected, but surprisingly heavy.
She picked it up between her delicate fingers and sat upon the stone circlet surrounding the wishing well, idly rolling it back and forth along the rim. She watched it sparkle in the summer light, delighted by its beauty, until it suddenly slipped from her grasp and plummeted into the water with a splash.
“Hey!” a deep, throaty voice called out, and a small green creature sprang onto the rim of the well. “What did you do that for?”
“I… did you just say something?” the princess puzzled. “That can’t be. Frogs don’t talk.”
“I’m not a frog, I’m a little green man from Mars and my name is Ranelot,” the creature announced, with as much grandeur as his three-inch height could muster.
“Oh,” said the princess, somewhat taken aback. “But you do swim, don’t you?”
“It’s a poor sort of being who can only survive in one type of atmosphere,” Ranelot replied.
“Well, then… would you fetch me my golden ball?”
“Your golden ball?” the frog sniffed. “That glowing orb you carelessly picked up just so happened to be my spaceship. And you shouldn’t have thrown it in the well.”
“I didn’t mean to!” the princess protested, in genuine distress (more so from having lost her pretty new plaything than from remorse over destroying an alien species’ sole means of transportation).
“Oh, very well. It’s no use to me now anyway, waterlogged as it is…”
As he stood on the edge of the circle of stone and prepared to dive into the water, the little green man from Mars turned to the princess and paused. “If I get it for you, will you do something for me?”
“For you?” the princess repeated, perplexed by the idea of someone not immediately doing whatever she asked and expecting nothing in return.
“Will you let me accompany you today everywhere you go?” Ranelot persisted. “I must learn about life on this planet in order to complete my mission. I can learn about the plants and animals easily enough, but I think for humans, I’d be better off having a guide.”
“What would I have to do?” the princess’s flawless brow furrowed slightly.
“Just do whatever you usually do and let me come along. Promise?”
“I promise. Now are you going to get my ball or not?” the princess pouted.
With a sigh and a small croak, Ranelot dove into the well, leaving only circles of ripples where his lithe green body had broken the surface. Moments later, the blurry glow of the golden ball rose up, up, up until it burst above the water and landed in the princess’s lap.
“Eww!” she shrieked. “My dress! It’s got scummy pond water all over it!” Without another glance at her newfound friend, she snatched up the golden ball and stormed off toward the castle in search of dry clothes.
“Remember your promise!” Ranelot called after her, but to no avail. The princess’s dainty feet had already carried her far beyond the reach of his small stride.
An hour later, as the princess sat before her looking glass in a fresh pink gown, she heard a curious noise coming from her balcony. It sounded rather squishy, punctuated by an occasional plop, and not at all like the sound of roses bushes rustling on the trellis.
“Oh, hello froggy,” the princess said before turning back to her mirror.
“My name is Ranelot!” the little green man from Mars huffed as he dragged himself into the room. “And what happened to your promise?”
The princess looked back at him in surprise. “You told me to just do whatever I would normally do.”
“Yes, but I could hardly keep up with you!”
“What do you want me to do about that? Carry you?” she asked, with perhaps a touch more sarcasm than was appropriate for a princess.
Ranelot’s green flesh seemed to redden. “I suppose you’ll have to, if I’m to find out about human life here. Tricky species indeed!” he muttered.
A knock at the door, followed by the appearance of a small, mousy looking man, interrupted them.
“Pardon me, Princess Amaralys. The Duke Regent wishes to see you,” he announced.
“Tell him I’ll be there momentarily,” the princess replied. She picked up a richly beaded bag from her vanity and headed toward the corridor. “Was there anything else?” she asked, as the man stood still by the doorway.
“Pardon me, princess, but you seem to have a frog in your reticule.”
She glanced down at the small green face and flippered forelimbs peeking out the top of her handbag.
“Yes, it does look that way,” she confirmed, and flounced off toward the spiral staircase.
The Duke Regent, or Uncle Reg as the princess liked to call her godfather and long-time family friend, was not in his study.
“Should we search for him?” Ranelot inquired.
The princess shrugged. “I’m sure we’ll come across him eventually. In the meantime, I’m hungry.”
As they sat down to supper at the royal table, Ranelot hopped from the beaded handbag to a better viewing point beside the princess’s plate.
“What do you eat?” she asked. “Flies?”
“Hardly. When traveling, I usually consume nutritional pellets, but I’ve left them all in my ship.”
“Why don’t you get them?”
“Because they’re probably all wet!” Ranelot reminded her.
“Oh,” the princess said, feeling a pang of conscience. “Then you had better share my meal.” She carefully cut an array of tiny morsels from her own portion and set them to one side of her crystal plate.
“I suppose that if I want to find out about humans, trying their food would help make my survey more complete.” Ranelot took a taste of the paupiette and buttered croissant.
“How is it?”
“Sadly lacking in zinc, and too high in monounsaturated fats,” he replied thoughtfully. “It makes me wonder how a species can survive on such large quantities of something so inadequate. But it is rather tasty,” he added, helping himself to another bite.
After their meal together, the princess carried Ranelot down the corridor, listening to him comment on the various artworks and suits of armor, when they heard voices in the great hall. The Duke Regent much preferred the cozy confines of his book-lined and hearth-warmed study to the drafty throne room, but tonight he was there with another man, who seemed to be admiring the hanging tapestries and richly carved furniture.
“Ah, Amaralys,” the Duke welcomed her arrival. “I want you to meet someone. This is Hubert, nephew of the Baron de Bourbe.”
“How do you do,” the princess gave a perfunctory curtsey. Even with her eyes modestly downcast, she couldn’t help but notice the way their guest’s gaze swept greedily over everything in the room… including her.
“Amaralys…” Hubert’s voice seemed to hiss as he oiled the back of her hand with his lips. “I see the reports of your beauty and no exaggeration. I certainly hope this is but the first of many opportunities to see you.”
The princess cringed inside as his eyes flicked over her again.
“We thought you might care to join us for tea,” Uncle Reg suggested.
“Oh… a courtship ritual,” Ranelot chortled from her handbag. “This should be most informative.”
“Shh!” the princess warned him.
“What was that?” Hubert inquired.
“Oh, um… pardon me, I had a slight sneeze,” she explained. “If it pleases my lord, I should like to retire early.”
Hubert bore a pained look of disappointment, but was all solicitous of the princess’s health.
Once safely back in her own chamber, Maisie set the handbag down on her vanity and let out a long, slow breath.
“Are you really getting sick?” Ranelot asked. “Because if so, I’d like to culture the germs.”
The princess whirled on him, eyes flashing. “Is that all my life is to you? Some spectacle to observe?”
Ranelot seemed taken aback. “Have I said something wrong?”
“If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.”
“Then I shall never understand human women,” Ranelot observed.
“I think I will go to bed early,” the princess decided. “What about you, do you sleep?”
“Yes… I don’t suppose you have an anti-gravitational chamber anywhere about the palace?” Ranelot asked hopefully.
“Since I have never heard of one, I assume not. Here…” the princess set out a square, blush-colored satin pillow. “Try this.”
Ranelot hopped tentatively onto the cushion. “I don’t know how anyone could rest on such a surface,” he pronounced.
The princess turned to say something to him, but he was already fast asleep.
Before she could start getting ready for bed herself, she answered a knock at the door and admitted the Duke Regent.
“Amaralys, I know very well you haven’t got a cold.” he scolded. “You never have anything sick about you.”
“And I’d like it to stay that way.”
“Maisie,” the Duke Regent began in a more fatherly tone. “You know that if the kingdom does not have a legitimate male heir by the end of the year, I shall have to declare the throne vacant and hand it over to the next most suitable line.”
“If Remy returns then I shall be most happy to let him resume his rightful place. But we have to face facts, Maisie. It’s been nearly a year since he left on a pilgrimage to the well at the world’s end, and if he doesn’t come back soon, the Baron de Bourbe’s house is the most likely to take over.”
The princess turned away and put her hands over her face.
“Maisie, I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m trying to take care of you, as I promised your father I would. Don’t you see? By marrying Hubert, you’ll be able to stay in this palace, in your home.”
“I’d rather stay with you.”
The Duke sighed. “Maisie, I’m old, my sons are already married, and having you around would only irritate their wives. Now promise me that when you see Hubert, you’ll try to be a little more cordial?”
“Very well, Uncle Reg, I’ll try.” The Duke Regent beamed and turned to go.
“And Maisie…” he said from the doorway as he adjusted his spectacles. “Is that a frog on your pillow?”
Maisie glanced at Ranelot’s small, green form sleeping peacefully at the head of her bed.
“No, Uncle Reg,” she answered. “It isn’t.”
“I thought not,” he nodded, and muttered softly to himself as he tottered down the hall.
The next morning, after Ranelot had breakfasted alongside the princess’s plate, sampling the eggs Florentine with great gusto, she carried him out to the garden. Although the sky overhead was blanketed in gray, the circle of the hidden sun shone clearly through the clouds, and shafts of golden light streamed down in all directions. Although Ranelot said they were merely crepuscular rays, Maisie preferred to say they looked like stairways for angels.
Their pleasant walk was interrupted by the most unwelcome arrival of a carriage just outside the palace gates, followed by the even more unwelcome sound of gravel crunching loudly beneath the odious boots of Hubert.
The princess tried to outpace him, but with the confines of her long gown, she was no match for his eager stride.
“Ah, Princess Amaralys. The Duke tells me you are fond of gardens. My uncle has practically put me in charge of all the hedges on his estate,” Hubert boasted. “Of course I’ll have an even larger garden once I have my own land,” he continued, in a hint that was not lost on Maisie. “Perhaps you might show me the shrubbery?”
“Of course. I should think you’d be most interested in our knot garden,” Maisie led the way toward the formal gardens on the north side.
“If it has hedges, it’s a parterre,” Hubert corrected in an annoyingly superior tone.
“Yes. With hedges this tall, you might even more properly call it a labyrinth,” Maisie almost smiled as she slipped between the rows of bushes and quickly lost her malodorous suitor among the mallows and chamomile.
“Do you think Hubert will need help to find his way through the labyrinth?” Ranelot mused as the two of them spent a contented hour in the gazebo in the center of the maze, watching the morning drizzle refresh the garden.
“What, and admit he was outpaced by a girl?” she was saying when Hubert finally arrived, dripping wet and covered in wormwood leaves.
“Who were you talking to?” he demanded.
“I distinctly heard voices!”
“A little green man from Mars.”
Hubert grabbed Maisie by the hair and jerked her toward him. “Listen, I don’t know what you think you’re up to, but if there’s one thing I won’t tolerate it’s an impudent woman. I intend to have this kingdom one way another and you’d better give up any hopes you have of it being otherwise. Your brother is dead! Dead, do you hear?”
Just then, Hubert gave out a strangled cry and leaped backward, setting the princess free. “Nasty frog!” he shrieked, prying Ranelot’s webbed toes from the back of his neck. He finally got Ranelot loose and was about to throw him against the wall of the summer house when Maisie intervened, rescuing him with her own hands.
“You’re a princess,” Hubert hissed angrily. “What interest do you have in slimy creatures?”
“I’m surprised you hadn’t thought of that before you came here,” she replied defiantly.
For a moment, it looked as if Hubert might strike her, but instead he turned around and stalked off in a cloud of fury, snapping off pieces of shrubbery in his wake.
“Thank you for saving me,” Ranelot gasped when he had regained his breath.
“Likewise,” Maisie answered. “If only Remy were here…” she sighed.
“You look remarkably alike, for dizygotic twins,” Ranelot noted, recalling the small oil painting he had seen in a gilt-edged frame on the princess’s vanity. “You must have been very close.”
“Yes,” the princess said softly.
For the next few delight filled days, the princess and the little green man wandered the palace and the grounds together, comparing life on Earth and life on Mars, and sat by the wishing well talking of their deepest dreams.
Just after dawn on the morning of the third day, Maisie was awoken by a strange chiming that sounded nothing like the church bells in the village. She opened her eyes to the sight of the golden ball pulsing with an inner light that bounced of the mirror of the vanity and danced around the room.
“Ranelot…” she called softly. “Wake up!” She shook the satin cushion gently, then more urgently.
“What? Oh! I’m getting a transmission!” he leapt from the bed and sprang onto the shelf beneath the looking glass. He pressed one flippered foot against the golden ball, and it whirred open, spiraling apart in the middle as one half-sphere floated above the other. An array of crystals inside dazzled the eyes of the princess, and she crept carefully forward to see what was going on.
All at once, the glowing and pulsing stopped, but the tiny spaceship remained open.
“Hmm,” Ranelot peered inside. “It looks like the data crystals weren’t waterlogged after all. It’s finally been able to get a clear signal.”
“So your ship is functioning again?” the princess asked.
“And you have the information you need?”
“Well… I have got a good start, but there is still plenty more for me to learn here,” he hesitated. “And I can’t just leave at any time. I need the right atmospheric conditions, and I would have to have the right launch window…”
“Good.” Maisie smiled. “Is that a pearl?” the princess reached eagerly toward a tiny white sphere she had spied among Ranelot’s pile of the ship’s contents.
“Don’t touch that!”
The princess drew back in surprise at Ranelot’s uncharacteristic shout.
“I’m sorry,” he remonstrated. “But it’s something I should have been carrying with me all along in case my mission here were to fail. Sort of a poison pill.”
“Is it really poisonous?”
“Not exactly, but it could have devastating affects on you,” he answered, tucking it safely away into a small pouch concealed in the side of his skin.
Just as had he done so, the door banged open and the Duke Regent burst through unannounced. “Maisie! Hubert is here–with a magistrate. I think he’s going to propose!” He turned and hurried excitedly toward the stairs. “Come at once!” he added, just in case.
The princess turned to the little green man from Mars. “About that poison pill…” she began.
Half an hour later, when her maids had finished fussing over her hair, her amethyst gown, and the opal necklace her mother had worn on her wedding day, Princess Amaralys reluctantly strode into the great hall. There, Hubert and Uncle Reg waited, one as serious and dour as the other was merry. And beside them stood a magistrate in a red pointed cap who looked, if possible, even grimmer than Hubert.
“Princess Amaralys,” Hubert spoke boldly. “Before your godfather, the Duke Regent, and Magistrate Bilan, I would like to declare that I…”
Maisie drew in her breath and held it as Uncle Reg let out a small squeal of anticipation.
“… accuse you of witchcraft!”
“What?” Maisie and Ranelot asked at once, his small voice drowned out by hers.
“These are very serious charges,” the Duke Regent flustered. “I can’t imagine…”
“Princess,” Ranelot murmured as the Duke blustered on. “I think I can help you, but you’ll have to trust me, and you’ll have to give me a sample of your DNA.”
“There’s no time to explain. I’ll need something from you… a lock of your hair, for instance.”
The princess loosed a few strands of her long tresses and prepared to hand them to Ranelot, but Hubert snatched them from her hand.
“Witch!” he accused. “Everyone has seen her carrying that frog with her wherever she goes. She talks to it! Eats with it! Her servants say it even sleeps on her pillow. What further evidence do we need that she has a familiar?”
Ranelot hopped to her shoulder. “Kiss me!” he urged.
After a mere moment of hesitation, the princess shut her eyes tightly and planted a sweet, wet kiss on the top of Ranelot’s smooth head. Ranelot hopped to her hands, then sprang out of the great hall and around the corner.
“After him!” Hubert shouted.
“Leave him alone… he’s done you no harm!” the princess pleaded, but Hubert roughly pushed her aside.
“I must say, this is all very confusing…” the Duke Regent babbled as he scurried after Hubert, still protesting there must be some mistake.
“Psst…. princess. In here.”
Quietly, Maisie crept to an alcove just outside the great hall. As she turned the corner, Maisie looked up and saw a face she had so longed to see, with eyes very much like her own.
“Remy?” she whispered.
“No,” he whispered back. “I’m Ranelot.”
“I used your DNA and the poison pill to transmogrify myself into a human. A male version of you, you might say.”
Maisie felt the tears slide from her eyes in a bittersweet mix of hope, disappointment, and confusion. “How will you go back to Mars, to… to your people?”
He put a broad, princely hand on her shoulder. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humans in my short time here, it’s that they’ll sacrifice anything for a friend. I know I can never really replace Remy, but perhaps I could take his official place… until he returns?”
Maisie smiled through her tears and put her arms around him, slowly at first, then enfolded him in a whole hearted embrace.
“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” she whispered.
Just then, the hunting party found their way back down the hall. “There! You see, she’s right there with her… brother?” Hubert staggered back at the sight of what appeared to be the long-lost Remy, with arms around his tear-streaked, smiling twin.
“Remy, my boy!” the Duke Regent stepped forward and slapped Ranelot heartily on the shoulder. “Back from the world’s end. I did so hope we’d see you again someday. You must have traveled far!”
“That is so,” Ranelot-Remy answered.
“You’ll have to tell us about your journeys,” the Duke Regent smiled, “but first, I believe we have some interregnum issues to take care of.”
As the happy family stepped toward the great hall, Hubert’s face turned a sickly shade of green.
“Wait… it was her!” he continued accusing. “She turned her own brother into a frog, hoping she could keep the kingdom for herself. Only her kiss changed him back. She’s a witch! A witch, I tell you!” he yelled as the Duke’s staff escorted him toward the drawbridge.
“Do you think people will really believe that?” Maisie murmured.
Ranelot shrugged and smiled. “Perhaps more easily than they’d believe the truth.”