The prince of Haiathiel greeted me with a stunning smile. Ignoring him, I darted around the table, looking at the dishes laid out before the diners. Mounds of vegetables steamed in a plate beside a heavy stew. A stack of chicken lolled in a creamy sauce. For dessert, the king had requested a caramelized butter tart filled with red fruit.
“Enough, dear Avi. If you stare at the food any harder, you’ll make it all wilt with fear,” King Aelius teased me.
Finally, I retreated to stand beside Otelius at the threshold of the room. Then, the king, his son and Senator Mativ sat back as serving maids began to place food on their plates.
“I wonder where your senator is,” Otelius murmured.
“He’s not my senator,” I returned in a furious whisper. However, his absence was rather strange. The senator was always prompt, and he had not, to anyone’s knowledge, left the castle.
“Where is Holt?” Mativ wondered as if he read my mind.
Mid-bite of a chicken drumstick, the king paused. “That young man will work himself to death. Perhaps someone should bring food up to him.”
Cal slammed his fist down on the table, making the silver utensils rattle. “Nonsense! Father, that man can come down and eat at our table like the rest of us! He’s not an invalid though he pretends for sympathy.”
I stiffened. Gale’s pain was true, though lately he didn’t complain. Trying to be subtle, I glanced around for anyone willing to check up on the senator. Otelius would not budge from his faithful post and neither would the serving girls, who only had eyes for the prince. The king and Cal could never be called upon to do it, leaving me and Mativ.
“Senator Mativ.” I darted towards the older senator, ignoring Otelius’ sigh. “Perhaps you should check Senator Holt’s room.”
Mativ’s eyes crinkled around the edges as he smiled. “Why don’t you bring up a plate of food to him?” He spoke the suggestion loudly enough to catch Cal’s attention.
I froze at the prince of Haiathiel’s cutting glance. “Go ahead and betray me” had been the petulant message everyone in the room had received.
“Senator, I am asking you to confirm your colleague’s well-being. I have no part to play in this.”
“Ah, you are so earnest to have me check up on Holt.” After Mativ’s words came a prolonged silence as I struggled for words. Did Mativ want me to use this opportunity to get closer to Gale and uncover a plot against the prince? Not like I could tell Cal it was for his own good.
“I’m sure Avi is showing a respectful and due concern for a guest. Please, Avi, bring something up to Gale.”
Cal looked dismayed at his father’s interference. Aelius waved a hand at me to go, and with a heartfelt curtsy, I dashed out of the dining room. Snatching a tray from the kitchen was child’s play, but when I arrived at the senator’s chamber door, it was locked. I knocked until I was pounding on it. Nothing. No opening. No angry words. No sound of movement. Finally, I enlisted the help of the chamberlain of the guest wing. He gave me a copy of the master key and admonished me to give it back before bedtime.
“I’m coming in!” I warned the senator before unlocking his door and throwing it open. When I stepped inside, the door slammed shut behind me, forcing an involuntary squeak from my throat. His window was open and probably responsible for the breeze that had shut it. The scarlet covers of his bed were mussed, but the senator was curled up on the floor.
“Senator Holt!” The guy conked out on the floor didn’t stir. The pained expression on his face compelled me to come closer.
Was it murder? He couldn’t be dead? I propped his head on my lap and held a finger under his nostrils. Was the faint warmth his breath or the vitality receding from his dead body?
“Holt?” I placed my palm against his chest. A heartbeat tickled my fingers. He twitched awake, startling me a few feet away.
The senator sat up and gripped his leg. His half-open eyes fixed on me. “Mina, you shouldn’t see me like this.” Mina? The senator’s face contorted with such hatred that I nearly ran into the door. “You’re laughing at how pathetic I’ve become?” he continued in a growl.
“I’m not,” I whispered. “I would never laugh at anyone’s pain.”
Clarity lit his eyes. “You’re not… No…you’re not.”
When his face settled into its usual stone polite expression, I scurried over to him and straightened the leg he was clutching even as he groaned at the pain. “Don’t touch it,” he hissed. As I forced him to lie on his back, he gave up protesting.
I rolled up my sleeves and then the senator’s pant leg. The scars on his injured leg were inflamed and red. He had pushed himself too hard today, and it was my fault! If I hadn’t asked him to bring me outside the Capitol, his leg would have been fine! A few minutes later, with the senator passed out again, I crawled away to find professional help. A grip on my shoe stopped me mid-crawl.
“I’ll be fine.” His voice was strangely soft.
I glanced over my shoulder and found Holt’s eyes half-open. He sighed and crossed his large hands over his stomach. Hobbling over to sit beside his head, I began to test him. “Do you remember who you are?”
“Gale Holt. Senator Gale Holt.” He drew in a sharp breath. “My leg locks and then hurts like hell sometimes. The only thing I can do is sleep through it.”
“Who am I?”
“You’re Miss Avi.” He managed a wry smile. “My mind is fine, but one day, this pain will kill me. It’s a matter of time, I suppose.”
“Please, Senator, there must be something a doctor can do.”
“I’ve asked several doctors. Not one can figure out how to mend it. Anyway, what brought you up here, Miss Avi?”
I stood and attempted to say in a casual tone, “You weren’t at dinner. Everyone was concerned…”
“Dinnertime already?” Holt huffed, gritting his teeth in an effort to sit up. “Can you pull me up onto the bed?”
I agreed though he and his lanky limbs looked heavy. Gripping each of his arms, I hauled him, inch by agonizing inch, onto the bed. Despite his half-hearted glower, I snatched his legs and placed them on the bed as well.
“Leave me,” the senator panted as he lay back. He watched, perhaps frustrated, as I tucked a pillow under his head, pulled his coverlets around his body and placed the tray with dinner on his night-table. “Stop mothering me,” he grumbled.
“I love you too, son,” I sighed. “In any case, I’m sorry. This is my fault for making you walk so far today.”
“Miss Avi, please be reasonable; I’m the one in pain here,” he said with that typical, stern Mr. Beanbutt face. “This happens without warning. Nothing you did triggered it.”
She still looked so distressed that he finally gave in to a smile. “Go,” he entreated. “Send Aliasse up if you’re still worried. I’ll be back on my feet within a few more hours.”
Avi, her face furrowed into a determined frown, nodded. “I’ll send Aliasse in an hour.”
The moment the taste-taster left, he allowed himself to curl up and cry. The tears eased the pain a little. He shivered, remembering his first night with his leg in agony. To ease the pain, he had turned to drink.
After examining the contents of the tray Avi had brought up, he reached out to grab the wine flask. By the time Aliasse came to check on him, he was still frustratingly sober. His foster sister winced to see the empty jug lying beside him.
“You overexerted yourself again.”
“Maybe.” He pulled the bedcovers to touch his eyelashes, hiding the remnants of tears. It was best not to worry her when she already had the weight of Forthwright’s mission on her shoulders.
“You know, the prince isn’t blind,” Aliasse said. “He’s noticed that you and Avi are no longer feuding. He also asked today about where she’s been running off to.”
“We were not feuding,” Gale mumbled, glad for the cool hand she laid on his forehead.
“Either way, be careful. Cal is used to having his way.”
“He hasn’t had his way twice now,” he said with satisfaction. “First with Avi, and now he still hasn’t lured you to his bed.”
“I hope it’s the pain that makes you spiteful,” Aliasse sighed. “Anyway, remember to glare at Avi or something every once in a while.”
Why would he? Everything was falling into place sooner than even Gale had planned.