Any maid in the castle would have been thrilled to be with Cal morning, noon and night. For me, it kept my body in constant fight or flight mode: always wary for his intentional and unintentional lures. I exhausted myself avoiding him and trying to come up with an idea to bring his true love to light.
At last, with Aliasse’s aid, I had a moment’s rest on the castle roof. From my vantage point, the streets and buildings of the city looked like a maze in an ancient ruin. As a habit, I looked not at the gray civilization below but the green horizon. If I were queen, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to fix the Capitol. In my tiny circle of acquaintances, the only people who knew the city inside out were Holt and Aliasse.
Another invader! This one stood at my height, his face carved with laugh lines, hairline receded to reveal a shining scalp. As he came to lean on the roof wall beside me, Mativ smiled with grandfatherly warmth.
“Have you discovered anything more about our senator?”
I answered, “He fell in love with a woman…with a prostitute. He was going to propose to marry her! Then…”
“Then?” Mativ prodded with a lack of sympathy that made me re-consider handing over Holt’s secrets. Only for a moment though.
“She betrayed him. I imagine that’s why he stopped visiting brothels and took up his father’s duty. As for his plans for Cal, he’s trying his best to help the prince and not to hurt him.” Holt was already compiling a list of potential brides from outside the castle.
“Help the prince?” Mativ slapped his hands on his knees, doubled over with mirth. “The man can’t stand him. He challenged Letris publically and called him out for not attending Assemblies but a day ago.”
I couldn’t help pointing out, “Now Cal has plans to attend every Assembly.” Well, with a bit of prodding from Aliasse and me, he agreed.
Mativ crossed his arms. “Then I am stumped.”
“I’ve heard whispers of a plot to kill the prince. It’s not by poison. With you around, they have no hope of it. Holt’s continued presence at the castle struck me as suspicious. Especially if you consider he is ‘cousin’ to the terrorist who set fire to several buildings in the Capitol and then disappeared without a trace.”
Aliasse? An arsonist? I stared at the senator until he laughed.
“Yes, that maid Aliasse is not Holt’s cousin at all. She’s the daughter of the late Senator Motto and the one responsible for much of the previous destruction of the west end of the city.”
“The part of the city where senators find both lowly and refined entertainment,” I muttered. As Mativ flashed me a puzzled glance, I said, “That’s what Holt told me anyway.”
“Wait…” Something in my stomach twisted. “If you knew about Aliasse, you didn’t even warn the king.” That didn’t strike me as the action of a trustworthy advisor.
Mativ bowed in agreement. “I did not want to alarm Holt and trigger any of his plans prematurely. Besides, that girl is harmless enough unless she means to burn the castle down.”
“The castle’s mostly stone and metal, so even if she tried…”
“It would be pointless.”
“So, we’re safe.”
“If Gale isn’t hiding something from you, that is. Have you earned his deepest confidences?”
“Not yet?” I gave a helpless shrug. Every time I tried to cajole Holt to confide in me—beyond his fears about Cal’s coronation and the state of the country—I ran into a wall of steel.
Instead of the scolding I expected, Mativ nodded. “I suppose he’s slowly warming up to you. In time, he may reveal everything. I can only hope it will be before His Highness becomes king.”
As the wind swooped by, I felt my fear swept away and into the breeze. “I’ll do my best, Senator. If I find out anything, I’ll seek you out.”
“I know you will.” The older senator left me to my peaceful perch. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering if I would confide in the older senator again. Mativ had concealed information from the king! He hadn’t even bothered to tell me about Aliasse, who had gotten close to Cal on multiple occasions. What if Holt had lured me into the Capitol to give Aliasse the opportunity to poison Cal? If that was so, then Cal would be dead by now.
“Why is this so hard?” I asked the wind. It stole the sound of my voice and whisked it away, uncaring of my frustrated words.
A leather ball dropped into the dusty road, moments after bouncing off the dark head of a lady in a purple cloak. Two boys, one half the height of the other, came to a stuttered stop and began winding towards the fallen ball like wary cats. Though the boys’ clothes weren’t patchy, they looked well-worn from too many washes. Their sooty faces flickered from the scowling woman to the tall, smiling man beside her.
The man watched as the woman scooped up the ball and extended it towards the frozen children. “Here. Be more careful next time,” she said.
“Sorry, lady.” The older boy dropped a quick bow before snatching the toy from her hands. The smaller boy gave the woman a brash hug before being tugged back by the older one, who must have been a brother.
“It was an honest mistake.” She reached out to ruffle the little one’s hair and was rewarded by a giggle. The two boys went off, punting the ball as hard as their little bodies could manage.
Holt coughed into his elbow as Avi rubbed her head. “That must have hurt,” he commented when he was certain his laughter was contained. “Those balls are made of a durable leather.”
“I figured.” Avi probed the swollen lump above her ear with a finger. “Maybe I should take a break from these trips.” She took a step forward, wobbling unexpectedly, and the senator caught her by the shoulders.
He steadied her until she could stand straight. “We should head back. If you are well?”
“Just a bit dizzy. It’ll pass.” With a gasp, she stumbled again. Holt caught her under the arms and propped her back up with the side of his body. “Hey…if I died, what would you do about Cal?”
The question immediately seemed calculated, but Holt didn’t dare risk moving away even if this were an act. “I’ll find Letris’ true love. Haven’t I said that?”
“You did, but you don’t know how.”
“How can you know if you’ve found the right person, Miss Avi?”
“I’m figuring that out still.”
The quiet streets of the Capitol offered no answers. At night, most of the city headed to bed except for the wild, west end. Seemingly recovered, Avi straightened and then tugged on the senator’s sleeve. “I want to see the nightlife of the Capitol at least once. Let’s go to—”
“No. We were headed back to the castle before…”
“Before a ball nearly killed me,” Avi completed. “Please, Gale, let’s go!”
“That’s your name, ain’t it?” she said with the odd twang she sometimes adopted. “Or am I not allowed to be so familiar with you?”
Gale shook his head. “I don’t mind.” He had only been surprised to find it so pleasant coming from this girl.
“Let’s gooooo.” She was hopping up and down, with a grip on his arm.
“Stop acting like a child!” He placed his hands on the sides of her head and blinked at the size of the bump there. “Hmm, maybe you weren’t faking that at all.”
Avi glowered up at him, and he released her. “Faking? Trust me, I wouldn’t have faked that. I’m not a silly, swooning damsel.” She made jabs at the air with her fingers as if battling the very idea.
“You are not a very good liar, are you?”
“I can be,” she muttered. “If I wanted.”
“Mina was very adept at lying,” he said. “She had me completely fooled.”
Avi placed a hand on his shoulder. “You always want to believe your loved ones even if they’re spouting lies.”
They wandered to sit on the stairs leading to a nearby clothes shop. Yellow lights flickered from the windows, shedding a warm glow on them. “So,” Holt began, “someone you loved deceived you?”
After tugging her cloak to cover her head, Avi hugged her knees. “I was talking about general human nature. Anyway, besides my parents, I didn’t like anyone back in my world. No one paid any mind to me. Perhaps they disliked me.”
“If you would stop being so violent…”
“I wasn’t violent!”
Holt grasped her hand. It lay in his, cold and lifeless, until she returned his grip so tightly that her nails pierced his skin. “Listen, Miss Avi. Most of the people we meet in our lives don’t mind us one way or another. Very few bother to take the time to hate us. You were an ordinary person back in your world, right?”
“Being ignored is worse than being hated. Trust me.”
“You must have had at least one friend.”
Avi laughed. “That’s the thing. I never had a friend. Cal was my first friend. Then Callie and then Aliasse. And also you…maybe. I still don’t know about you.” She squinted at him and then blushed as Holt brought her hand up to his lips for a demure kiss.
“Being used, is it worse than being ignored?”
“No. Being shut away from everything…” She shuddered. “Not being able to take an interest in the people around me, I hated myself. I was different. No matter what I did, I was pushed away. But here…Here I can do something. I can protect Cal.”
“Yes, with that magic of yours.”
“I don’t understand why I have it. When I first noticed it, that’s when I was pulled to Haiathiel. All I know is that the magic is connected to this world.”
“Pulled? Against your will?”
“At first, but I’m glad I could start again…that I could find people who I could care for.” She bristled and then snatched her hand back. “You still haven’t denied or confirmed if you were my friend or not.”
“You must have been lonely.” Holt allowed his gaze to be drawn to the passing cart and horse before she saw his pity. “What did happen to your parents?”
“They passed away when I was young. I grew up in a foster home and then was shunted from family to family. None of them warmed up to me. And no, I wasn’t as mean to them as I’ve been to you.”
Holt managed a smile. “Yet I’m still here for some reason.”
“Yeah, why is that?” She suddenly shrank back until their shoulders no longer touched. The senator sighed. He imagined she had answered the question for herself.
“At first, Miss Avi, I wanted to show you what a mess this country has become. I wanted you to change Letris. It was imprudent of me—”
“Fine, selfish,” he allowed. “Now, I would gladly help you change Letris instead of leaving that to you alone.”
“I know.” She stood, brushing dust from her cloak. From her rigid stance, Holt couldn’t help feeling as if he had said something wrong. “Now, let’s go to visit the wild west end! I might go by myself!” Without warning, she bounded away down the street.
Struggling to his feet, Gale chased the bobbing shadow to a small plaza with a fountain, where Avi paused. She laughed at him, her skin glowing with exertion and cold, and slapped her thighs in an unladylike manner. “Getting old, Senator?”
“Well, considering my leg…”
She dropped into an apologetic bow. “Ah, I forgot.” A squeal echoed in the night as he sprinted forward and snatched her ear. Then, she screamed as he hauled her off her feet and tossed her into the gurgling fountain.
“That should make your head feel better,” Holt offered as she emerged from the icy, black water with a murderous look.
Avi reached up to touch the injury and scowled to realize he was right. “You did this on purpose! Now I have to go back to the castle and—” She sneezed and sputtered as water dribbled out her nose.
He laughed so hard that tears began to run. Despite her chattering teeth, Avi smacked water out of the fountain onto the senator who was howling with mirth. “You’ll wake up everyone in this neighborhood!” she huffed as cold water drenched them both.
After wiping his face with a handkerchief, Senator Holt schooled his expression into a serious one. “Now you see what happens when you try to disobey a senator!”
Before I could inform him that this purported punishment would fail to keep me “obeying” him, he rushed forward to lift me out of the water by the waist and deposit me on the ground where I leaked water. The cold wrenched the breath out of me, and I pushed him away as he tried a hug.
“You should get dry,” he said.
“I will, and then I want to see the west side of the city!” I demanded with a stomp of a sodden foot. My shoe squelched unpleasantly. “You let me see every other ugly thing. Why not—” Suddenly, my teeth were clattering too hard for words as the wind pierced my waterlogged clothes.
Then, throwing away my pride, I huddled against his proffered chest, and he draped his cloak over me; it felt like fire against my skin. “You’re going…to kill me, Senator,” I sniffled.
“Let’s find an inn where you can change clothes.”
Blindly, since my head was furrowed into warmth, I followed him. From the number of steps we took, it seemed we were crossing into another side of the city. I dared to peek through the slit in the senator’s cloak and saw lights. Yellow, red and white glinted out of buildings, and even from the cobbled street, I could hear the faint murmur of people.
Holt stopped us before a neat, polished wooden building that had a youthful aura, probably recently rebuilt. He dropped his cloak over my head with a “wait here” before striding through the carved door. I waited, numb from head to toe, until he returned to pull me up the few steps and through the door. The bright light made me blink stupidly, and in my haze, I made out a desk and then tables full of chattering people in brightly colored attire.
Holt hauled us past the flock of humanity and up a set of stairs. He shoved me into a room, and then suddenly, hands divested me of every piece of clothing with frightening efficiency. I protested until I realized a number of middle-aged women were massaging the cold out of my skin with fluffy, warm cloths.
When they saw I was fully conscious, the women nudged me into a steaming bath that made me want to jump out more than jump in. Despite my pathetic whimpers, they had no mercy. They scrubbed every inch of me until I relaxed and gave in to the rough pampering.
Finally, without even offering their names, they escorted me out of the wooden tub. They toweled me dry with a mother’s tenderness, and then, as promptly as they had been foisted on me, they disappeared out the door to the ornate bedroom I was in.
A dry, simple tunic and leggings had been left on the plumped bedcovers. My wet clothes were gone though a dark cloak similar to my original was hung on a gilded hook near the door. Still naked, I shuffled over to the window and feasted my eyes on the few figures traipsing along the road, among the lights of what must have been the west part of the city. These people wore flashy colors and moved as if they were dancing to a song I couldn’t hear.
Eventually, I dressed and then sat on the bed to admire the polish of my dry hair. Holt had brought me here despite his punishment, which could have killed me. I gave a loud snuffle that I wish the senator had been around to hear. Where had he gone?
A knock on the door jolted me onto my feet, and I scurried over to open it. Holt’s expression told me to back up, and I did. He shut the door behind him.
“This place is pretty swanky,” I said. “I mean, those women were kinda touchy-feely, but they were very efficient.”
Gale tilted his head. “Not sure I understand even half of that…but anyway, I hope you enjoy the only glimpse I’ll give you of the west end.”
“The only glimpse?”
“I’m taking a risk coming here, but one night…what are the chances of running into someone I knew?” Holt allowed the sarcasm to wash over me.
“Just keep your face covered! Since we’re already here, can’t I see the rest of the west end?”
He flashed me a strange smile, and I backed away. “If you really want to see profligate lust, I can show you that here.”
Even I, who was so used to Cal’s grace, couldn’t believe the deftness with which he moved forward. His icy finger slipped around my wrists, and he pulled until my head hit his chest.Too close!
I twisted out of the grip and like a fool, stumbled into the bed. He followed like a hunter chasing prey and pinned me against the silky bedcovers. His thumbs tickled my pulse. Did he feel my terrified, thudding mouse heart? Did it make him feel powerful? This intense, calculating gaze was unlike any of his usual expressions, and that scared me the most.
“If Cal knew,” I began to snarl. At least, though the rest of me had frozen at his proximity, my mouth could move.
“He would be most displeased, I know, Miss Avi. I apologize.” The atoms of his nose touched a few atoms of mine.
Being polite in this situation? How twisted.
He had trapped my legs between his knees. Without even trying, I knew I couldn’t match his strength. He continued, “You should be more careful about what you entrust me with, considering that we may come to have different interests.”
Different interests? The threat frightened me even more than the compromising position. “Get off me!”
After clambering away, the senator took a seat in the chair beside the bed. Holt’s smile belied any harm meant. “Shall we head back to the castle when your clothes are dry? Or would you like to stay the night?”
I think my disgusted look answered the question for him, and he, suddenly donning a mask for a face, left the room. Within a matter of an hour, my dry clothes were returned to me, and we returned to the castle, silence as thick as a wall between us.