The clink of the teapot lifted Gale’s gaze away from the garden. He scowled as the prince of Haiathiel gave him an empty smile before thanking Aliasse for the tea. In a corner of their garden haven, Avi stood a few meters from their table. The taste-tester would respond to Aliasse and Letris with a cheerful air, but she looked straight through the senator, who felt that the other two were pointedly ignoring him as well.
“So, Jameson has refused to reconcile with your father, Cal?” Aliasse asked.
The prince nodded as he took a cup from her. “I am afraid so.”
Aliasse drifted down to sit beside him with a thoughtful frown. “Gatha can’t accomplish much without an army anyway.”
“Even if they don’t bother with a physical attack on the Capitol,” Gale spoke, “they may recruit other regions to their cause, and the kingdom will tear itself apart.”
An uncomfortable silence fell, and Gale turned to focus on his own cold tea. Only a few days had passed since his disastrous excursion with Avi to the city outside. A door had been shut in his face every time he attempted an apology.
“Avi, come sit.” The prince beckoned, and the taste-tester pulled the wooden seat beside Gale into the space between Letris and Aliasse before taking her seat. Aliasse raised an eyebrow, but the smile on Letris’ face widened.
“In any case, talk of war is best left to the Assembly,” Aliasse began breezily and then hushed as a guard in full armor approached. “Hello, do you require the prince?”
The guard didn’t crack a smile. “Senator Holt, please come with me.”
After draining his tea, Gale went with a polite good-bye to the prince and to Aliasse. The taste-tester didn’t lift her gaze to watch him go. The senator held back a groan as the soldier entered a corridor that had only one exit: the stairs to the dungeon.
“Am I under arrest?”
The soldier placed a hand on the hilt of the sword strapped to the belt that strained against his girth. As if Gale would run... “The king suspects you of treason.”
“Against the prince?”
Resigned, Gale Holt followed the man all the way to his cell. At least, he unnerved his guard by acting so docile. He tapped out a rhythm against the bars until someone descended the stairs. His heart hoped that Aliasse would come, but instead, an unusually grim King Aelius came to stand before him.
“Gale…I…Mativ wanted to question you using his own men.” Aelius exhaled, eyes squinted with dread. “If you tell me the entire truth now, it won’t come to that. You are a good man—”
“In contrast, your son…” Gale hesitated, wondering if he wanted to condemn himself so quickly to death. “I have hopes for him, Your Majesty. I would not see him removed from the throne but capable of ruling. You have to help him.”
The king clasped his hands on his prominent paunch. “He is grown. His decisions are his own. When the crown is on his head, he will take up the responsibility. He is far keener than you might believe, Gale. While Mativ ordered your immediate execution, Cal convinced him to question you first.”
Gale refrained from making a face at the thought of the prince intervening on his behalf. “Who gave Mativ the evidence? A more trustworthy source than rumors, I hope?”
“The source I would trust with my life and my son’s.” The king frowned as Gale swore and kicked out at a cell wall. Aelius brushed the cell bars with his fingers. “Please, Gale, tell me everything.”
Instead, the senator retreated to the end of the cell farthest from His Majesty. He had no intention of betraying Aliasse. He would sit in this dark, dank place until death before that. Even if Mativ’s men drew his blood, nary a word would pass his lips.
I did feel bad. Especially after a week. Aliasse had pleaded with Cal and the king to release Gale. Nothing moved them. Nothing would with Mativ determined to wring a confession from the senator. Eventually, Mativ would uncover Holt’s secrets himself. I wanted nothing more to do with politics. The paper in front of me blurred before I blinked my eyes to clear my vision. I hated hurting Aliasse. She didn’t deserve a treasonous, stubborn brother like Gale Holt.
As a welcome distraction, Cal’s hands floated down to braid my hair. He had entered the room without my notice.
“Avi, are you well?” Finished with the braid, Cal kissed its end and then cupped my face. “You mustn’t feel bad that you were deceived…”
“I hate seeing Aliasse upset,” I admitted. And her continued kindness to me was worse piled on top of that guilt.
“She’ll be fine.” Even as he said it, Cal’s words wavered. Like me, Cal wasn’t much of a liar. “She’s a strong girl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the like.” The affection in his voice nearly made me fall out of my seat.
Instead, I jumped to my feet and pointed a finger at a suddenly amused Cal. “You like her?”
“I love all of my girls, Avi. You know that. Of course, as my dark angel, you have a special place in my heart.” He leaned against my dresser, oozing pheromones all over it. “I still remember the day you dropped out of the sky, the night you saved my life for the first time. You’ve been a blessing, Avi.”
“It’s odd to marry an angel,” I said. “How about a challenge?”
Intrigued, Cal lifted his chin at me in a “go-on” gesture.
“I’ll find you a girl that you love better than you love me. If I don’t, I’ll marry you without any sulking or whining.” The gauntlet had been thrown. Now if Cal would take it…
“Very well. You can try.” He pulled me into a one-armed embrace, and the warmth of it was so different than Holt’s near-rape that tears sprang to my eyes.
“Avi? What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine.” Finished with my blubbering, I gave Cal a smile. We stepped away from each other as a knock came at the door. Cal strolled over to let the person in while I admired his languid grace.
My heart dropped into my other organs as a grim-looking guard entered. “Mativ is asking for you, Miss Avi. He is waiting for you in the dungeon.”
“She can’t be arrested,” Cal defended me.
“She’s not in trouble,” the guard assured us. He held out an arm, which I took with a dry mouth. We ambled through long corridors until we reached the staircase that wound down into darkness.
At the end of the staircase, I waited for my eyes to adjust. Mativ wasn’t here. My guard had abandoned me to find Gale Holt standing in a cell. He was oddly still, and the half of his face that I could see wore a polite mask once again. I missed his smile, which was less scary than Mr. Beanbutt.
“You look ready to cry.”
It was partially his fault! “Where’s Mativ?” I asked trying to quash the flaring anger for this man who caused suffering for Aliasse. Whether or not she was an arsonist, I cared for her as a friend.
“He doesn’t know about this,” he said. “Let’s say this is a dead man’s last request.”
“To see me? You’re disgusting,” I scoffed. “You should have sent for Aliasse and apologized to her!”
Holt sighed. “That girl is the cause of all this trouble. I should have gotten her married off while my father insisted on it.”
“You…” Sexist bastard! However, the concept of sexism didn’t exist here, so the insult would have fallen flat on its face.
“However, I wanted to see you and tell you that I understand why you tattled to Mativ. I don’t blame you, Avi, for trying to protect Letris.”
Gah, he was being too nice!
“I went too far in scaring you, and then I spoke rashly. Perhaps it was a matter of time before I got caught.” Holt sat on the stone floor, cross-legged. “Only I didn’t expect to be caught by you. I didn’t imagine you were using me.”
Of course, he turned his niceness upside down in a matter of moments.
“How long has Mativ been putting you up to it, eh?”
“It’s none of your business,” I returned.
“All those excursions to the Capitol…Did you really want to be free of the castle or was it an act?”
“It wasn’t an act. I wanted to see the Capitol with my own eyes, but you kept restricting me. You wouldn’t let me go where I wanted. Then that filthy behavior when we visited the west end—”
“I almost expected you to react differently.” It sounded like a confession. “Perhaps I wanted you to react differently.”
React how? I inched closer to the senator’s cell to whisper. “How would any girl react?”
“The girl I imagined would have welcomed me into her bed, but that’s not you. And I’m not the man I was before.” Holt sounded choked up, but in the shadows, I couldn’t see his face. “Returning to that part of the city made me feel reckless. I nearly broke my vow, forgot my responsibility. That’s why I never wanted to go back.”
“But I made you,” I realized.
“Even so, I truly am sorry, Miss Avi.”
“And you threatened Cal!”
“It’s not what you think, Miss Avi,” he said. “I only wanted to scare you and convince you that the west end of the city was no place you wanted to be. Secondly, I did not threaten the prince; I merely told you not to trust me with everything. If anything ever placed us on different sides, we would be able to hurt each other tremendously.”
Kneeling on the cold stone, I willed the senator to meet my gaze. “If you’re truly innocent, then Mativ will let you go.”
“Truly innocent,” he repeated with a bit of his old wry tone. “I am mostly innocent if not truly.”
“How can you be—”
He shushed me and then waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s all I needed to say.”
I was no common servant to be shooed away! “What if you’re just trying to manipulate me into freeing you? If you’re not involved in the plot to hurt Cal, then you wouldn’t be here at all.”
At last, the senator glanced up at me. A bloody gash oozed at his temple. The skin around one eye had bruised, making him look half-raccoon. “I don’t expect to be released, Miss Avi.”
“They hurt you!”
“When a criminal doesn’t want to talk…”
“You’re a senator!”
“A soon to be replaced senator,” he corrected. “Letris is going to be king, and any believed threat to the future king outweighs the consequences of having me beaten.”
I had expected Mativ to smooth-talk a confession out of Gale and then send the senator away from court, but this...I held out a hand towards the silent senator. “If I get you out of here, will you tell me the whole truth? I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone.”
“I would rather die, thank you,” he said.
“You don’t trust me?”
“Not when it comes to Letris.”
A soft plink made me jump, but it was only the dampness on the ceiling falling in the form of a murky drop of water. “Die? Mativ wants you dead?” Somehow, I hadn’t pictured the older senator as vindictive. “Do you have a history with him too?”
“I don’t know why he wants me gone so badly. Does he truly believe in Letris that much? Or perhaps I offended him...”
“Who knows? I never will.”
So many secrets! I didn’t know who or what to believe. If there was the slightest possibility that Gale Holt was innocent, I couldn’t allow him to die! I just wasn’t sure how to save him, especially since telling Mativ that I had imagined Holt’s threat to the prince would make me seem, at best, like an idiot.
“You should go. They come around this time to feed me.”
With one last regretful look at the beaten senator, I went. I had to at least try to speak with Mativ.
The advisor had his own set of chambers beside the king’s, a mark of his high favor. I slipped into the wing’s parlor, where Senator Mativ was immersed in a large book. He had a pair of glittering spectacles perched on his nose; it made him look disarming, unlike the man who had tortured a fellow senator.
“Please,” I began, “you have to free Holt.”
Mativ’s gaze made my mouth shut as if he had frozen all my muscles. “Avi, you know he is a danger to the prince and therefore to the kingdom. Isn’t that why you agreed to investigate him for me?”
“Well, yes…but…” Why had I always felt that despite Holt’s dislike of Cal, the senator wanted to help secure the kingdom?
“With your testimony, you acted to prevent treason.”
“What if I made a mistake? Holt’s words could have meant anything.”
“As you said, he spoke of you two having different interests. If you support Cal, then he clearly does not. Perhaps he did not think you smart enough to notice the insinuation, but you foiled him.”
That sounded almost like an insult. “You can’t kill him without better proof. And you had him tortured? Why did you?” I tiptoed on the edge of begging, and it made Mativ more sinister than he was.
“Our investigation won’t kill him outright, Avi. Only when he gives us true proof will he die.”
Not entirely reassuring.
“Go rest. You look exhausted. We can discuss this later as I am a bit busy.” He pointed to the tome in front of him, the scrawls there illegible to me. Mativ turned his attention away and left me no choice but to vamoose.
Scurrying away, I couldn’t help but feel that I had failed both Senator Holt and Aliasse. What could I, a mere taste-tester, do to save that grumpy senator?