In the grand Assembly hall, thirteen senators sat in silence as the prince took the center stage. King Aelius dabbed a silk handkerchief against the sweat at his temple. The room was over-hot and stifling especially with the intent eyes of the senators darting back to him occasionally.
Letris, resplendent in a traditional golden tunic, bowed to his father. He stood in the middle of the naked marble floor that lay between the raised platforms of senatorial desks.
“Less than seven months remain until your coronation, Your Highness.” From beside the king’s high-back chair, Mativ dipped the top half of his body in a deep, respectful bow to the prince. “Your father is asking you to name a potential bride or risk forfeiting the throne.” Mativ turned to incline his head towards His Majesty.
Aelius allowed his eyes to rove the still deadly silent hall. Every face, young and old, was unyielding. For once, his senators were in full agreement and had demanded that the prince come before them to declare his choice for queen.
“Cal, even a short list would be enough,” Aelius finally said as the shushing of restless senatorial robes began.
Letris turned a beam on the gathered men, one that seemed rather demented to a particular Senator Holt. “I’d gladly marry Avi, my sweet dark angel.”
The hall burst into murmurs, and one senator tapped his knuckles on the desk for silence. “Your taste-tester, you mean?”
“A fine choice!” Aelius roared with laughter. He shook his head at the petty fears of his senators. His bright, beautiful son had made his choice.
Aliasse poked at the forlorn taste-tester, who was curled up in a tight ball on her bed. With a sigh, Aliasse walked towards the door. News of Cal’s declaration spread rapidly through the castle. Many of the maids had started treating Avi coldly until Letris proved that nothing had changed when it came to his distribution of kisses and caresses.
“His dark angel…It’s very sweet what he calls you,” Aliasse ruminated, lingering at the threshold of the room. The bump on the bed that was Avi remained uncommunicative. “Avi?”
“Damn him to hell.”
“Avi! Cal loves you!” She struggled with the urge to pull the covers off the taste-tester and shake her.
At last, Avi sat up, allowing the silk white covers to slip off her head. “Not Cal. Senator Holt.”
They had ceased to discuss Gale when Avi started taking measures to avoid him—since the Assembly. Now, the taste-tester appeared ready to rant. Something had happened between the senator and Avi, but neither of them would tell Aliasse.
“Did Gale say something?”
“I played his game…and now…I’m going to marry Cal.”
“His game?” Aliasse questioned.
“He pretended to be friendly to make Cal jealous.”
Aliasse turned on her heel to go track down Gale, but the taste-tester’s soft voice stopped her.
“It’s not that I don’t love Cal, and he has mounds of affection to spare…but I don’t want to marry him like this! Being tricked into marriage by the man I was supposed to investigate wasn’t in my plans!”
“Ah, don’t tell Holt I said that. I just wanted to know more about his past and how he came to hate Cal so much. For our prince’s sake.”
Aliasse flinched at the word “hate” as she walked to the threshold. Her own hate for the royalty who allowed her father’s death had brought her here. For now, she wanted to see how matters unfolded, but Gale had interfered too much. “I’ll go talk to Gale.”
She didn’t have to walk far to find the senator. Gale’s pinched face was relaxed in a smile as he lounged in one of the many castle parlors. Finished with his dastardly plots, the man had returned to wearing modest senator robes full-time. Aliasse approached the man she had once been proud to call her brother. Now she saw it in his self-satisfied expression: the manipulator who encouraged Letris to cling to his taste-tester.
“How could you?” She loomed over him, ready to verbally tear apart his coldhearted methods when he lifted a finger warningly.
“I did nearly nothing to sway the prince’s decision: just spent a bit of time being civil to the taste-tester, as you suggested. Look at it this way. Letris is happy. Avi is miserable. The kingdom might be safe from Letris, but neither you nor I are safe from the Forthwright party. All in all, it’s a fair trade.”
“No, it’s not!” Aliasse protested. “Avi, the poor girl…”
“Pure histrionics!” Gale shot back, uncrossing his legs with a wince. He placed a hand on the knee of his bad leg. “Letris will love her…well, please her at the very least. Avi will come to accept it, and she will save us all. One day, when she’s not so mad at me, I will thank her profusely.”
The words, sincere to all ears, made her anger disappear. Even so, she tried one last attempt. “If you care at all for her, you would console her now.”
“Care for her?” Gale sputtered. True, Aliasse had always teased him about spending so much time in the Capitol with the taste-tester, but still…
With the man’s calm successfully shattered, Aliasse continued, “If you care at all about any human being, you would apologize to her now!”
Then, Gale began to fidget with his sleeve. “She’ll probably bite a finger off this time.”
“A finger for a forced marriage. All in all, it’s almost a fair trade.” Crossing her arms, Aliasse stared him down until Gale forced himself to his feet. She led him east towards the taste-tester’s chambers.
The man strode into the bedroom, looking far from sorry. Though it was childish, I turned my back to him. Where was Aliasse? This would be a much easier meeting with her support. Now that the senator was awkwardly standing at the door, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t even put into words the feeling of realizing that I was just a puppet.
“I’m sorry, Miss Avi, even though I did not force Letris to make the decision he did,” he stated. So formally! So toneless! What kind of stinky apology was that?
I held silence like a weapon until he sighed. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Vengeful curiosity prodded me to say, “Tell me about the person named Mina.” That name had been rattling around in my brain for ages. Besides, perhaps asking would aid Mativ in his quest to unravel the mysterious, scheming senator, whose guts I hated.
“No.” There was a hollow thud as the senator collided with the wood dresser beside the room’s entrance.
“If you tell me, I’ll forgive you.” I peered over my shoulder to see the damage done to my furniture.
“If Letris finds me here…” Senator Holt backtracked to the doorway. He’d probably be punched again. Good.
He froze as she turned haunted eyes towards him. Only then did the senator notice the dark circles of sleeplessness under her eyes. He had dismissed her refusal as frivolous, but if she lost sleep over it…
She was so young, so helpless in Letris’ grasp. So smart… “Don’t try to manipulate me!” he barked. “If you would accept this marriage to Letris, you will be much happier. He does not, for all his faults, mistreat women.”
“He’s not my true love,” she said with a glare
“Well, he cares about a woman’s comfort and well-being. He will ensure all your corporeal comforts.” He scowled to imagine the attentions Letris would lavish on his new bride.
Suddenly, she was looking at him as an affluent lady would look at a rank, flea-infested dog. “Do you think that’s what I want?”
“Isn’t it enough?”
“I want more.” The taste-tester sniffled in a way that reminded Holt more and more of a petulant child.
“What else is there?” he snapped.
“Someone who considers my words with respect and seriousness, a person who will always be there. I want someone who treats me like an equal, not a conquest! My true love.”
He spoke softly as if to cushion the deadly blade of the truth. “True love? Not here in Haiathiel.”
Avi huddled once more under the silk blanket, and much to the senator’s astonishment, gave a casual nod as if confirming a fact she already knew. “I shouldn’t exist here.”
Holt blinked at the sudden acceleration of his heart. “Don’t you dare kill yourself over something so trivial as marrying Letris!”
“Does it matter if I die? You don’t care a bit about me, do you?”
Before he could recover from the unpleasant lurch in his stomach, Avi continued, “That’s not what I meant anyway. I wasn’t originally from this world, remember?”
“Why did the world’s magic bring you here?” Holt frowned. “In the past, it has only done so in times of instability. Perhaps…”
She gave him a wan smile. “I guess it put me here to protect Cal. Maybe there is no other destiny for me. I should marry Cal and get over myself. You can go now.” Avi buried her face into the bed.
Hovering at the door, Gale felt like the cruelest man alive. “I will help you with Letris, Miss Avi,” he promised. Then, knowing that Aliasse would approve, he said, “Neither Aliasse nor I will leave you alone to keep Letris in line.”
The senator was out of the room before I could respond. His promise had eased the tightness in my chest. “Now…I just have to find the courage to go through the ceremony.” I traced the flowery embroidery on my blanket with the tip of a finger.
I sat up and surveyed the senator suddenly standing in the doorway. His mouth had twisted into a strange expression.
“Mina was a prostitute.”
I sat up straighter. “And?”
“She promised that I was the only man she loved, that I was the only one she would ever be with and gave up her…occupation. And I thought I loved her.”
The desperation and longing in his voice sounded so unlike the Senator Holt I knew. “Where is she now?”
He hesitated. “This may be a tad unpleasant to hear.”
“I’m an adult,” I reminded him. I would even be one legally in my own world. What horrific fate had befallen his love?
“You’re an innocent still. A child.” With a sigh, Holt leaned against the gold-plated doorway. “I suppose it’s time someone discouraged that silly notion of love for you. On the day I was going to ask her to marry me… I walked in on one of her adventures with another man. I haven’t seen her since.”
“I’m…sorry.” I crossed my arms, not quite sure what to say. “That doesn’t mean true love doesn’t exist.”
The senator scowled at me. “You are such a violent, incorrigible girl, and yet you believe in true love?”
It was nice to believe I had a destiny, a part to play in the story of life. Our decisions, of course, build up to that destiny. If I married Cal, if would be like stepping off the perfect path laid out for me. That was what my gut and my head screamed at me.
“Cal isn’t the one,” I said despite his incredulous gaze. “If I go through with marriage to him, I won’t ever find who I’m looking for.”
“Would you waste your life looking for him?”
“I lost my parents, but I won’t lose him.”
Her passion reminded him of Aliasse, and he struggled to find words to damper her dream. “Let’s find another way then. Another woman for Letris.” Even as he spoke, Holt wanted to bite off his tongue to stop the foolish flow of words. “You can remain his taste-tester. Let’s find Letris’ true love!”
Avi slipped from the bed, looking very much like the “dark angel” Cal likened her to in that ridiculously decorated white gown. “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”
“Because it’ll be damn near impossible.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Holt coughed. “Miss Avi, how shall we do it?”
“Wait, I thought you had an idea.”
They stared at each other until approaching footsteps jarred them into action. While Avi dived back under the bedcovers, Gale crossed the room to hide in the closet. The gowns and tunics suffocated him until he retreated into an emptier part of the closet. In the pitch dark, he could still hear the reverberations of the conversation.
“Avi!” the prince called out. “Don’t sulk!”
With a glance at the closet, Avi emerged from her bed sheet cocoon to face the prince of Haiathiel, who examined her with renewed interest. Disheveled, she looked as if she had come running from a tumble in bed.
I curtsied and then lifted my face to meet Cal’s intrigued gaze. He had that air of a man thinking lascivious thoughts: parted lips, a smile that spoke of secrets. My hands itched to strangle him.
“Cal, you named me as you future wife, but I still don’t know why!”
“War is coming.”
I froze, and Cal hid a beautiful smile behind a hand. Something must have happened if Cal was talking about the kingdom. “What do you mean?”
“Father says there’s been unrest in the region of Gatha. They refuse to have me as king.” As Cal turned away, I became distracted. A silver tunic clung to Cal’s graceful form today, under which he wore a pair of pearly-white jeans.
“War is…” Silly. As the outermost region of the kingdom, Gatha had tried before to break away and establish its own sovereignty: an effort akin to a tiny dog trying to launch itself onto a sofa.
“Today, Senator Jameson withdrew his allegiance to my father. He sent a letter.”
I wrenched my eyes from Cal’s shapely behind to ponder this. A rebellion of civilians could hardly stop the king, who could call thousands of soldiers to his command.
“So,” I began, “what’s the plan?”
Cal turned back to smile down at me. The dazzle of it made my heart churn and wonder: why not marry this man? “You’re talking to me again, Avi? You ignored me for an entire week!”
“Well,” I muttered, “you named me to an assembly of senators, who now think I’m going to marry you—all without my permission!”
Cal took my wrist, pulled the attached hand up to his mouth and unfolded my fist to plant a kiss on the exposed palm. My skin shivered with delight, but I managed a glare. “The senators wanted me to name the woman I would marry.”
“The first name to come up in your head just happened to mine,” I began.
A touch of sadness dropped the usual tilt of his lips. “Avi, I know you are looking for your true love, but for now, let me fill in that role.”
My heart sputtered. Could I ask him if he would be faithful? That seemed rude even to a prince who never took offense at a single word I said.
“Either way, Gatha will see that I have made my decision and will settle down. That’s what Father said anyway.”
As I mused the likelihood of that happening, he plopped down at my desk and began shuffling through the papers I had sorted selflessly this morning. As he began to destroy my handiwork, I rapped on his soft head. “Avi?”
“I organized them, so you could read and sign them. Hey, don’t fold—” I sputtered as Cal began to fold official law parchment into halves and then fourths. His dancing fingers produced a paper rose, which he flourished in my direction. I took it, wary of papercuts.
“I want to rule this kingdom with you, Avi. It would run perfectly if you were queen.” His goofy beam told me he held that as a scientifically proven fact.
I had lived here for a year. Not a senator, not royalty, I didn’t know a thing about politics. Being responsible was no good when you didn’t know what the hell you were supposed to do!
“I can’t run the country for you, Cal.”
“Luckily, you seem to have a better head for politics and responsibility than me. My father will teach you in time. ” He stood and stole a kiss from me. I was breathless and for once, not because of the kiss.
Once my prince had bounced out of the room, the senator crawled out of my closet. He shook the dust bunnies from his robes and came to stand beside me. “You look like someone bled to death in front of you.”
Did I? Around us, sunlight began to paint the room a tender orange, a peaceful color that had first encouraged me to pick this bedchamber. When the sun drifted down to the horizon, the white room would fill with uncountable hues of orange and gold.
“My room gets the best sunlight,” I said as the senator gawked at the shifting colors. Outside, a cloud moved across the sinking sun, darkening the room to a gray before it returned to apricot orange.
At last, Senator Holt straightened his back and observed me from his greatest height. “Letris is a fool. Even you can see it now. He’s a spoiled brat, who wants others to take care of his duties. I didn’t imagine he would have the nerve to leave you to rule and then go off to chase women!”
I shivered. “I still haven’t asked him if he would stop chasing skirts.”
“Either way, if he doesn’t, it won’t change that he’s useless.”
“No one taught him responsibility.”
“Letris is a full-grown man! Furthermore, he can learn from a model now if he would take the time.”
“A model? Like who?”
Holt opened his mouth to reply. Truthfully, Aelius wasn’t much of a responsible man. “Otelius…” the senator began.
“Cal doesn’t have an ounce of respect for him.” The steward’s obsequious behavior could be discomfiting, especially for Cal.
Then, I stomped a foot, and Holt actually flinched. “That man!” I fumed. “He left me without saying what the king is going to do about the rebellion in Gatha!”
“There’s nothing to tell. His Majesty Aelius plans to do nothing, leaving Letris’ engagement to you as an answer to Jameson,” Holt said.
“I wouldn’t take the idea of war so lightly!” I began to pace in the limited space between the bed and my desk. “Especially you.”
“You fought in the first war.”
“Do you want another war?”
Holt shrugged. “Either way, the kingdom will fall apart. At this point, war might spur Aelius to do something about his son. Even if the threat of it hasn’t budged him yet…”
“Did Cal care about the first war?”
“Well, no. Considering that he will inherit the kingdom very soon, one must harbor the hope that he cares a little more now.” The senator placed a hand over his heart and closed his eyes. “Civil war is such a troublesome inheritance.”
I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny. “We need to find the woman Cal loves. She’ll set him straight. That always happens.”
“In stories,” he coughed before turning away to examine my fluffy bed pillows with exaggerated disgust. I decided to let that comment go…
“What if we invited eligible women from Haiathiel to a ball?”
Mr. Beanbutt made a show of counting on his fingers. “That would be too many girls! He should pick from his maids.”
I shook my head. “He knows all of them, but I don’t think he would marry and stay faithful to any of them.”
“To think I was convinced he would be faithful to you.”
In the end, was I no more important to Cal than Lianne? Or Rosaline? Or Jennia? Somehow, he had lavished all his girls with attention. If anything, I was the one he sometimes set aside but only because I refused to join him for any sort of activities that involved a bed.
“I should leave before anyone finds me here.” He gave another quaint bow before starting towards the exit. Moving backwards, with a fake, genteel smile, he looked as if he had something up that billowing robe sleeve of his!
“Bring me to the Capitol,” I demanded. Outside the castle, he was much more open and more likely to spill secrets.
He laughed at me! “So you can run away and avoid marrying Letris? No.” Before I could throw a barrage of complaints at him, the senator slipped out of the room.