In the garden alcove behind the castle, I sat at a tiny table while Cal paced in a space formed by a cluster of rose bushes. “Don’t give me that look,” he pleaded.
As he slid into the seat beside me, I channeled even more energy into maintaining my stony face. Instead of going to the Assembly, where the senators and the king gathered biweekly to talk about laws and matters of the kingdom, Cal had gone frolicking with Lianne. Worse, he had tried to hide that particular occurrence from me. That hurt. Deeply.
Well, he had his secrets, and I had mine. My trips to the Capitol only emphasized how important it was for Cal to change his behavior. After a couple of weeks, the senator’s sinister motivations became clear: I was to become a chastity belt for Cal and persuade him to focus on becoming a king. And as much as the senator tried to pretend it was only a possible option, I could sense how desperate he was to see it done. As for me, I continued to dread the idea.
Me, the plain, short-tempered taste-tester marrying beautiful, affectionate Cal? Okay, maybe it wasn’t just the differences in our looks. Maybe it was fear too: fear that Cal wouldn’t be loyal to me. And if I said “yes,” I would never be able to deny Cal anything.
I wanted my true love my parents spoke of to be a man I could deal with rationally. Call me cold and calculating, but I had never enjoyed the way girls made themselves fools for the prince.
However, here in Haiathiel, I would never find a guy, especially cooped up in the castle. The trips to the city outside weren’t even freedom, not with Holt nagging us to not stray too far. He wouldn’t allow us to go to the West side of the city, declaring the slums and brothels beyond our delicate sensibilities.
I suppose I saw enough for Holt’s purposes. From inside the castle, I had known nothing of the inequality and bleak situation of the people of Haiathiel. Meanwhile, King Aelius did not have the energy or the courage to bring his senators together as a coalition and piece a solution together. Worse, a good chunk of senators—the ones that never appeared at Assemblies—had been reaping and spending wealth for themselves in their corners of the kingdom. The king had not made a single move to rein them in either.
That left the burden on Cal, if only he would put the kingdom first instead of pleasure.
“Avi?” The prince’s face loomed in front of mine. Our noses touched for a moment before I sat back against my chair to restore my personal bubble. “You were lost in thought again.”
Cal raised an eyebrow as I placed a hand over my mouth. How could I ask him about the city’s condition when I had supposedly never been outside the castle?
“Ah, there you are! Aelius needs you to test a snack.” Aliasse saved me. She was lingering at the garden gate. Wig gone (no one had asked questions), her curly, short black hair framed her face charmingly. Cal’s eyes lit up at the sight of her.
Problem number bajillion with marrying Cal: Aliasse adored him, and I hated to admit it, but Holt’s foster sister was truly a nice person. She found my ability to see poisoned food amazing unlike Holt who accepted it with a dismissive wave. Aliasse had informed me that some people in Haiathiel went their entire lives without realizing they had magic. It didn’t help that magic was rare and that abilities varied greatly. Judging by most people’s reactions, my ability was extremely handy but nothing impressive or threatening.
“The snack,” Aliasse reminded me with a side-grin for Cal. He winked at her, despite his earlier sulking about her rejection of his Invite. Aliasse probably made it into history books when she flat-out said, “No thanks” to Cal’s summons to his bed.
Anyway, at times, the king wanting a snack equaled a code meaning: Holt wants to speak with you or sneak you out of the castle. Other times, the king just wanted a snack and needed me to take a glance at it.
As I exited the garden, I couldn’t help looking back. Cal and Aliasse, huddled shoulder to shoulder, were whispering together. She always managed to distract him from my often unexplained disappearances. Lucky for me, but still…how would I manage as his wife if my prince’s attentions could be so easily diverted?
Deep in the castle, inside the Assembly chamber, Senator Holt was pacing impatiently. Thank goodness he was in his robes today. “We don’t have time to waste, Avi,” he began, as always fixated on his political scheming. “Letris has to marry before he takes the crown. For once, the senators are in agreement about forcing him to take a wife.”
I skipped up two platforms to sit at one of the twenty senator desk-chairs. Holt frowned, and then I noticed his name on the thin plate on the wood in front of me. It was his seat and desk. Oops. “What did the king say?”
“He offered a name, though he may have spoken to stave off the other senators.”
“Who did he suggest?”
“Lianne, I believe.” Gale turned a pleading look my way. He’d better stop that, or I’d puke. “She’ll be Letris’ paramour for a little while before he finds another girl. No, a queen chosen by a man’s whim will not do.”
“At least, she’ll make beautiful babies,” I muttered, turning away from the epitome of desperation.
“Why can’t you make beautiful babies?”
I must have flinched, and my glare made the senator snort.
“Don’t worry. Letris will make up for any aesthetic deficiencies you possess,” he said.
“What about my mental deficiencies?” I asked despite the stab that went through me at the senator’s casual words.
Holt pulled off his robes to reveal form-fitting clothing again. It always signaled a trek into the city, but I hadn’t gotten used to such an alarming signal yet. “Your stubbornness is your particular mental deficiency, but…”
“But what?” I challenged.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said with a chuckle as he folded his robes under his arm.
“What is it?”
“I seem to have come to like you despite that.” The senator’s smile disintegrated a moment later into a frown. “Well, once I became used to your boorish and provincial attitude, strange idioms and childish logic.”
I sighed. “You know how to pay a girl a compliment.” Sheesh.
“It comes with practice.” The lightness in his tone made the fine hairs on my skin rise. Then he cleared his throat. “Anyway, would you care to come with me—”
“No.” I didn’t feel like going into the city today.
He looked so surprised I had to laugh. “I want to go farther. What’s beyond the city?”
A smile settled on his face again. I really liked his smile, which came and went within minutes, but at least made the bean up his butt disappear. “I’ll show you.”
A two hour’s walk from the center of the Capitol, where the Castle lay, the outer edge of the city abruptly transitioned into forest. They had walked the way in silence, but Holt couldn’t help wondering why she wanted to come here where the people had refused to expand into the wilderness and instead crammed themselves into available space in the city.
They stood at the edge until Avi sprinted forward towards the trees and launched herself into a pile of dead leaves. When the startled senator caught up, she was still sitting in the soft sea of gold and orange. “This reminds me of the suburbs where I used to live,” she said.
“Where you used to…”
“I’m not from this world,” she answered the unfinished question.
Holt smiled. “Right, I heard rumors that you dropped out of the sky.”
“That’s the truth actually.” Avi suddenly grinned. “Hey, have you ever jumped in a pile of leaves?” When the senator, pulled from his thoughts, shook his head, Avi hopped to her feet and dragged him several meters back. She turned him to face the leaves piled against the tree trunk in front of them.
“What do I do?” Holt peered between the strange girl and the leaf pile with bemusement.
“Just run and jump in!”
“Why?” he asked, but she pushed him forward. He found himself obeying and hurling himself at the pile. The impact was softer than he had expected. And itchier. The senator sat, buried to the waist in dead leaves, pondering what he had just done as Avi tentatively approached him.
“Was that fun…at all? Do you know what fun is?” She tilted her head and squawked as Holt pulled her face-first into the leaf-pile beside him. Avi sputtered to the surface and gaped at him.
“Pointless,” he began, “but somewhat entertaining.”
She began to pick leaves from her hair with exaggerated meticulousness.
“What are suburbs?” Holt asked as he helped pick out the debris in her dark hair. The senator flinched back as Avi suddenly sprang to her feet.
She brushed off her tunic and leggings—a nice, modest change from the maid’s uniform—and then explained. “It’s a place outside a city or right next to one usually. There are homes and shops separated by green stretches of grass. There are usually trees everywhere that lose their leaves like this.”
“Houses in the woods?”
“No, there are still roads and places to shop and other public places. It’s a mix of the city and the woods. I miss it…except for the schools.”
“It’s an institution with a few tutors for a large number of children. The children are in groups called classes organized by age and later in subjects.” Avi had been gesturing wildly until the senator caught her hands.
“A few tutors for many children,” Gale reiterated, smirking when she pulled away testily.
“Far more people are educated where I come from,” she continued. “So many of the maids can’t even read! I spent my first year here learning the Haiathiel alphabet!”
“Oh?” Holt started off towards Aliasse’s cabin. The taste-tester likely wouldn’t remember the way. She was too busy railing about the lack of education for servants.
Avi fell silent as the cabin appeared a few meters away. “So, there are people living in these woods?”
After unlocking the door, he gestured for her to enter. Avi hesitated for a moment before stepping inside. “No,” Holt answered the question after stepping in after her. “This is the only cabin. I had it built. Beyond the forest lies the open countryside, which is covered in crops this time of year.”
“So, no suburbs. This place is…”
“Small?” he supplied.
“Homey,” she finished, elbowing him lightly. She scurried away to inspect the other rooms. Past the atrium was a small living space with two sofas. Two doors led out of the room, one into a kitchen, the other a cramped room with a bed.
In the bedroom, two sets of clothes had been scattered. One set belonged to a female, the other to a guy or a girl who favored men’s tunics. Gliding back to the senator, who had sunk onto a couch and closed his eyes, I inquired, “You own this place?”
“This is your manor?”
His eyes snapped open. “Not at all. When I want to stay close to the king’s castle, I stay here.”
“Why not in the city?”
The senator became oddly quiet at that and turned to examine the rusting door hinge.
“Is it because you live here with your lover?”
“No, Aliasse was living here.” The man was unshakable despite my deluge of questions.
Cautiously, I sat on the couch beside him, flinching when our shoulders touched. He then lazily reached out to touch my hair. His fingers sifted the locks on the side of my head with deliberate slowness, and my poor scalp burned.
“Leaf,” he murmured as he retracted his fingers to show me the tiny piece I had missed.
I scooted away to the other end of the couch. “You should warn me before you do that.”
“Warn you? To pluck a leaf from your hair?”
Mean, dastardly man! “When Cal touches me…”
“He wants more,” Mr. Beanbutt finished. “Well, Miss Avi, don’t worry. If that is my intention, you will know it.”
“By actions stronger than a casual touch.” He left me to blush on the couch, calling over his shoulder. “Would you like some tea?”
“Sure,” I mumbled. Tea would make things better after realizing how compromising my situation was. Alone in a small cabin with a man, I placed my reputation at stake. If Cal knew, he would certainly be angry, and all that anger would re-direct to the senator. And then…
As Holt returned with two cups of steaming tea, already sweet with sugar and milk, he paused. “Miss Avi, you look as if you’ve seen a monster.”
I took the proffered cup and wrapped my jittery hands around the cup’s decorated rim. “After this, I should hurry back. If Cal ever found out about this, I’m afraid, Senator, that your life would be in danger.”
The man just shrugged and took a sip of his tea. He had taken the seat across from me, on the other sofa, to perhaps better scrutinize me. Somehow, I felt the senator was always analyzing me, as if waiting for me to discover my (non-existent) deep, romantic love for Cal.
“You risk your life,” I repeated. “I should have stopped coming on these trips long ago.”
“Yet you haven’t.”
Was he accusing me of putting his life in danger? “While I’ve come to appreciate this freedom, I just realized its price.”
“Relax.” Holt gave me an almost gentle smile. “Even if Letris orders my death, the king and the other senators will never allow it.” He bowed his head and continued, “Besides, I have told Aelius about these excursions.”
The words made me bite my tongue. Holt was not the person to ask about the danger to my reputation. What did King Aelius think of me now? “Did His Majesty have any objection?”
“Not at all.”
“Why would I lie?”
“How can the king overlook…” I held my tongue and glowered at the very composed senator.
“How can he overlook the fact that we’re alone, unchaperoned,” Holt finished. “First of all, the king trusts me to keep a vow of chastity I made. Secondly, neither of us have motivation for such an activity.”
Even though I knew scant about politics, the senator’s vow sounded counterintuitive. “Then,” I started, “you won’t have a family? Who will you pass your title to?”
“The people of the Hamada region will elect a new senatorial family long before my death. In fact, I’m due to lose my position within a few years.”
Won’t you be lonely then? Without family or duty? I wanted to ask, but it seemed much too personal. “So you’re prepared to accept that.” When I finished the last of my tea, I stood. “Let’s head back?”
Was that reluctance in Holt’s face? Then his face became a blank, his eyes distant. “Yes, I’m sure you’re eager to get back to Letris.”
It was not so much that I wanted to see Cal; I saw him almost every moment of every day. I just wanted to prevent someone from suffering Cal’s wrath. Even if he couldn’t have Holt executed, Cal would find ways to make life unpleasant for the senator.