Only moonlight lit the inside of the shack. With Gale around, it would have been cozy, but now the light exposed her. It made her aware that anyone could come upon this shack in the woods and report her to the king. Still, Aliasse had no choice.
The expected knock came: two quick taps and then three deliberate, slow ones. Darting off the cold bed, she stumbled through the two rooms to pull open the door. Fitch Forthwright entered without even dusting off his shoes though the two cloaked men behind him had the decency to do so.
“Gale’s in prison.”Aliasse hadn’t the energy to play word games with Fitch today.
Forthwright whistled and then removed his hat. “I didn’t expect him to be so careless.”
“Will you help him?”
A heavy silence filled the room, and the two men accompanying Forthwright began to shuffle from foot to foot. It seemed even Aliasse, whom Gale always deemed impulsive, had more patience than Fitch’s cronies.
“Well?” she finally asked.
“If you kill the prince, then you may be assured that I will free Gale.”
Aliasse stumbled back as if she had stepped on brambles. “You need Gale alive, don’t you?”
“To play with Letris’ maid?” Forthwright turned suddenly to face her, and his cronies flinched. “I’ve seen him gallivanting around the city with that girl.”
“Without Gale, you won’t get any of the funding you need.”
In a sudden movement, Fitch flipped a knife out of his pocket. Startled but not yet frightened, Aliasse met Fitch’s cold gaze. She had seen how Gale dealt with this man by not showing any fear. “I don’t need him anymore,” Fitch said. “If not for you, I would gladly allow him to die. Without you, all the work I put into securing the poison and your paperwork is destroyed.”
If she was more important than Gale, then... “How did you and Gale even come to know one another?”
“Why, he’s family.”
“Yes, and he refused to aid his cousin like a brute. I’ve been too kind to Gale and risked too much. Perhaps it is best that he dies…”
At the idea, her knees went weak, and she backed away to sit on a sofa. Fitch’s blonde head looked ghostly in the dark, and she belatedly realized that she had forgotten to light a candle. “Every time I get near the prince…”
“Yes, his glamour would be hard for a woman to resist,” Fitch interrupted. At her questioning glance, he deigned to give an explanation. “Whether he placed it on himself unintentionally or not, the prince has a glamour upon him, a magic that makes him overwhelmingly attractive. Such magic is toxic. It’s nauseating.” A wrinkle appeared in Fitch’s slender nose.
Aliasse had not considered magic before; such gifts were rare and often left undiscovered. Still, she couldn’t allow it if the prince knew about his glamour and was using it to manipulate the court. “Without the magic, what would he be like?”
“He would still be an attractive man, but certainly not irresistible when one recognizes how spoiled he is.”
“How did you know about the glamour?”
Fitch scowled and placed his hat in the hand of one of the men lingering behind him. “Am I to tell you all my secrets?”
“If I am to kill him,” Aliasse said, “I need to know.” If all her feelings for Cal were false, then the task would be easier.
A sudden rattle as the roof tiles overhead shook in the wind made all of them but Forthwright jump. “I knew years ago when Aelius officially named his son successor and paraded his boy down the streets of the Capitol. I saw the aura around him. You do not have an inkling of how dangerous he is.”
Aliasse considered. “Dangerous how?”
“Such an irresistible man can get anything he wants, but at what cost? As king, he would start to exert influence on the senators, who already follow his example if unconsciously. Men who spend too much time near him succumb to his charms. A man such as Letris should not exist, should not be allowed to exist.” Forthwright drew out a silver chain from his front coat pocket and held it out. Aliasse stood and took it with shaking hands. The chain sported a small, multi-faceted stone that glimmered red turned one way and blue when shifted the other. “This should cancel out his magic and that taste-tester’s too.”
Aliasse quickly fixed her shocked expression.
“Yes, I’ve seen the glow around the girl Gale has been dragging around. For a man with such an expensive taste in women, he picks an odd one to court now. Perhaps the war didn’t only damage his leg…”
“The taste-tester is a decent girl.” She hoped Fitch wouldn’t notice her clenched fists at this ignorant insult to Avi.
“Decency? Why would Gale want such a quality in his bedmate?” Forthwright laughed. “Mina, as I remember, was a wild one, a fire to warm that man’s cold soul.”
And Mina broke Gale’s heart. Aliasse had never asked the identity of the man who Mina had betrayed Gale for even though she offered many times to track the man down and kill him (or at least maim him). For some reason, she felt that Gale would never tell her.
“Gale isn’t courting her, Fitch. He’s trying to convince her to marry the prince.”
Forthwright flicked his hand at the men behind him, and they hobbled out of the hut obediently. “To what end?”
Aliasse fumbled for the right words. “Gale trusts that the taste-tester has the ability to change Letris into a responsible king. She’s bold and straightforward with the prince, and always encourages him to do his duty. Really, Gale has been trying so hard to save the kingdom without bloodshed, and he found the solution. Only now he’s in prison, accused of trying to kill Cal, But who knows how that happened...”
Fitch laughed. “Only one person could have betrayed him: the one person Gale has allowed to be close to him that isn’t you.”
“You mean Avi.”
Aliasse flinched as the party leader grasped a lock of her hair and gave a playful tug. “Gale protected you too well. Deception and false friendship are not rare things at a king’s court. Furthermore, surely this Avi would do anything to protect her prince?”
That was true enough. Avi, of all the people in the castle, was the first person Aliasse would trust to keep Cal safe. Similarly, Gale was the first person in the world who would fight hardest to keep her, Aliasse, safe.
“Then Avi caught wind of our plot to poison the prince…”
“Gale must have allowed himself to get careless,” Fitch commented.
Aliasse shook her head. Careless? Many senators had complained of Senator Gale’s secrecy and taken it as an excuse to accuse him of treason. Gale cleared his name, of course, by renewing his oath of fealty to King Aelius. Still, without the king’s knowledge, he acquired a contractor to build this shelter and hide Aliasse—at the time, a wanted criminal—in the forest outside the Capitol. “No, Gale’s not careless.”
“He is not perfect. Perhaps the taste-tester charmed it out of him.”
Aliasse laughed. “Avi would never resort to ‘charming’ Gale to uncover information. That’s not the type of person she is.” She had to admit that even if Avi tried, the taste-tester didn’t have the dangerous ability to seduce men.
“Then,” Aliasse continued, “Gale must be in prison because he’s protecting me. He won’t reveal your plot.”
Moving towards the door with impatience, Fitch pierced her with icy smile. “Make use of that amulet and complete your job before it is revealed! I will free Gale for you in return.”
“And how can I guarantee that you will free him?”
“You can’t,” Forthwright replied. “You will have to trust me. Show me your resolve.”
To remove the system that allowed her father’s murderers to go unpunished. That had been her goal. No, it remained her goal. Nodding, Aliasse slipped on the charm that would nullify Cal’s magic. Without another word, Forthwright strode out the door, leaving the room colder than before. Did she dare believe that Forthwright would hold up his end of the bargain?
Seated at Cal’s empty desk, I wondered why I reported Gale to Mativ at all. Straight after Gale had escorted me back from the west end, I had scurried to Mativ’s rooms to tell him everything. With fear putting a bitter taste like poison in my mouth, I had wanted, at that moment, to have Gale Holt as far away from me and the prince as was possible.
“Avi! You’re still in here?” Cal’s footsteps crossed the room, and then his hand settled on my head, which was firmly against the cool surface of his desk.
Yesterday, Aliasse had stopped talking to me as if she knew that I had betrayed Gale. Perhaps she knew I was the only one who could access both Holt and Mativ. I barely stopped myself from apologizing to her and making this more of a mess. “Cal, I made a huge mistake.”
He drew my head away from the desk with delicate fingers and turned me to face him. “Perhaps I can rectify this mistake of yours.”
Rectify? “You used a big word,” I teased him, and he drummed on my head with his knuckles as revenge.
“You have no idea how many times the senators used that word during the Assembly this morning. Rectify this. Rectify that. Why fix what’s not broken?” Cal sighed and then turned his attention back to me.
Still, despite his joking tone, he had given me an idea. A prince could grant a full pardon to a criminal if he wished it. The only problem was convincing Cal to show clemency to a man accused of plotting his death! Perhaps if I appealed to him as if it were a personal favor that would save me from this overwhelming guilt?
“Cal, I’m the one who accused Holt of threatening you, but now I’m not so sure…”
The prince of Haiathiel considered me and then spoke with a regal air that scared the crap out of me. “Tell me everything.”
Perhaps it would be best to come clean about the excursions to the Capitol. So, I explained, placing as much of the blame on me as possible. I had insisted that the senator sneak me out to see the city. I had prodded him to bring me to the west end. I had provoked him by not listening to his warnings about that part of the city and forced him to scare me. I had mistakenly assumed that Gale wanted to hurt me and also the prince of Haiathiel. I was an idiot, who didn’t deserve to serve the prince.
At the end of my explanation, though he couldn’t meet my gaze, Cal continued to stroke my hair. I took it as a sign that he didn’t hate me. “You dealt with the senator for my sake,” he said with an unexpected kiss for the top of my head. “Avi, sometimes…”
“Part of it was selfish,” I pointed out. “I wanted to escape the castle like a rebellious child.”
“This was my fault. I pushed you towards Holt.” Cal sounded oddly remorseful. “I didn’t know you were unhappy here, Avi.”
“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “More like restless.”
Cal plucked at his gold embroidered sleeve. “You want me to pardon the senator then? Are you sure you don’t want me to punish him for touching you?” I had been circumspect about describing Gale’s actions in that luxurious inn, but Cal fixated on that tiny detail like an owl on a mouse.
“He barely touched me,” I said with a wave. Since that unfortunate night, I hadn’t dwelled on the feeling of being beneath the senator.
“He scared you by barely touching you?” The prince arched an eyebrow, and I knew that my effort to lie was useless.
Even so, it wasn’t any feeling for me that had led to that moment. Holt had wanted to return to the past where he was a healthy, young man with a lusty appetite for women…“Anyway, he doesn’t have any feelings for me.”
The truth of those words made Cal perk up a little. “Then,” he began, “I’ll free Holt on one condition.”
Yes! Even Mativ couldn’t defy his prince! “Anything.”
“The next time you go out to the Capitol with Holt, I want to come with you.” He spoke as if he weren’t a prince but a child. There was no way I would bring Cal to the Capitol where virtually anyone could harm him.
“Noo!” Ignoring my death-wail, the prince stood and crossed the room to the window. The sunlight made his hair glitter, and as fabulous as he looked, my prince looked oddly melancholic.
“I haven’t been out of this castle for years, Avi.”
“The parade every year,” I began, but Cal interrupted me.
“Yes, I’ve been outside with a guard. I never realized how much my freedom has been lacking. I want to come with you!” He strode back towards the desk and grasped my hand. “Promise me.”
I shrugged. “If you take up all your duties, then maybe.”
Instead of agreeing, he continued to give me that unbearable gaze. His pout deepened as I turned away. Honestly! Even he was too old for such childish expressions! “No, Cal!” His sudden laughter took me by surprise.
“I’m sorry, Avi,” he said as I stared at him. “Why not? Do you not wish me to intrude? Perhaps you and Holt…”
I shoved my prince, and he continued to laugh that gloriously warm laugh. “It’s not like that at all. You’re a prince. What if something happened to you?”
“Maybe it’s time something happened to me. Besides, I trust you to protect me.”
My very bones shivered; to bring the prince of Haiathiel out into his discontented Capitol was a terrible idea. As for the protection I could offer him… “If you come with us, you’ll have to go in disguise.”
Perhaps understanding that I had given in, Cal snatched my hands to kiss them. “I will give no one a reason to believe I am a prince.”
I placed a hand against his smooth, freshly-shaved cheek. “That might be difficult, but we can try and cover you up with some plain clothing.” I laughed as he tackled me into a hug, and then we sprang apart as someone brushed into the room.
In the doorway, King Aelius clapped his hands together with a grin. “What have we here, Cal? Shall we marry you two off now?”
I shook my head vehemently as Cal embraced his father. Though Cal had been irresponsible so far, he showed nothing but love for the king. I just wished Cal would register how much Aelius wanted him to become a proper leader, a true prince.
The elderly king then surprised us with serious words. “I don’t like this business with Gale, but…the senators are holding a hearing for him. Tomorrow, it will be decided whether he is guilty or not.”
“Father, why don’t you pardon Holt?”
Aelius twitched like a startled rabbit. “Mativ and the other senators would not approve. If he really is trying to kill you, my son, we cannot free him.”
I gave Cal a warning glance, which he returned with a caressing smile. “Well,” Cal said, “we’ll settle it tomorrow.”
The king took his leave after lavishing a bit more attention on his son and bade us a good-night with a wink. Somehow, I got the feeling he expected Cal and I to be already bedding each other voraciously.
“Join me tonight, won’t you?” Cal’s finger tickled my ear, and I drew away. He would not catch me off guard by doing this favor. I would not allow him a single bit of my body even if he was erasing my mistake. Not even erasing.
The amity between me and Holt couldn’t last, especially since he disliked Cal so much. After this ordeal, I imagined the senator would never trust me again. Well, I had betrayed his trust. I had hurt Aliasse. Maybe I didn’t deserve friendship. Perhaps the people in my world sensed it before I had: my propensity for being socially stupid. I could have killed a man…
“Avi?” Cal seated himself at my feet. “You look unwell.”
“Could you leave me for tonight?” I probably didn’t deserve Cal’s friendship either. After all he had done for me, I continued to push him away. The sudden negativity oozing from every train of thought made me realize that I wasn’t fit to be around Cal tonight. “I’m not going to be great company,” I warned him.
“Don’t feel too much guilt on Holt’s behalf. Good night.” The prince of Haiathiel rose and strode out of my room with an odd sense of purpose. I wondered where he would go at this hour and then decided it was none of my business. Crawling into bed early, I curled up for a hopefully dream-less sleep. Too bad I couldn’t fall asleep at all with my gut clenched with dread.
Aliasse sat at the small desk and fiddled with Forthwright’s amulet. The guards in front of Gale’s cell had turned her away. Then the king had told her that Gale could still prove his innocence in the hearing tomorrow.
However, with Gale being unlikely to talk…She blinked away useless tears. Gale had always been there; she couldn’t imagine a world without him. Even before she was adopted, as very young children, they had played together as their fathers had discussed senator business. How could she sit around and allow her foster brother to die?
She stood and pulled open the bottom drawer of the oak dresser. Nested underneath neatly folded layers, a round, silver bottle beckoned the eye. Inside whirled the vilest poison known to mankind; it could kill within minutes.
Forthwright had emphasized its deadliness until Aliasse had wanted to throw the bottle he handed her away. She would have much preferred her old useless matches and coal. Poison felt cowardly. Fire, at least, allowed for a little bit of forewarning.
Aliasse chided herself. Setting fires only brought her trouble. The poison would act quickly, and Cal wouldn’t suffer for long. Burning, on the other hand…She did regret the suffering of the people caught in the fires set in the west end of the city though they cared for nothing but pleasure.
At least, Gale kept the ghosts away; his continued presence made her feel as if she wasn’t the terrible person she sometimes dreaded she had become. A knock at the door forced her to shut the drawer and then, after a moment’s thought, tuck the red-blue stone under the neck of her gown. “Come in,” she said.
The prince of Haiathiel entered, carrying a white, wicker basket full of clean laundry. She tilted her head in question, but Cal only winked and placed the basket at the foot of her bed.
“A prince who carries laundry?” Aliasse asked. As he came closer, she became aware of the emptiness in the air. The usual, irresistible draw to Cal had disappeared. Free of his glamour, she took him in without the painful longing she usually felt. Yes, he was handsome but ordinarily so.
Cal grinned. “I grabbed it from Lianne on the way.”
“I imagine she snatched a kiss from you in exchange.”
“One I can give back to you if you want.” He settled on her desk. “I came to check that you are all right.”
Aliasse felt a smile lift her face, which still stung with salt from evaporated tears. It would be ridiculously easy to poison such a man. “Will Gale die tomorrow? Will the senators convict him on so little evidence?”
The prince of Haiathiel exhaled and watched a bit of hair that had fallen in his face flop upward. “He won’t be convicted of anything. I’ll pardon him.”
Aliasse felt the tightness in her chest dissipate into flutters. “Why?”
After digging through a desk drawer, the prince pulled a multi-colored board onto the desk. She had introduced Cal to the highly addictive strategy game and found he was a quick learner.
The prince upturned a sack over the board, scattering the game pieces. “It was a misunderstanding.”
Aliasse picked up the tiny, carved king in her fingers. “Was Gale imprisoned because Avi—“
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Cal interjected. He began to place the wooden pieces in their appropriate places. “Your cousin will be fine.”
She smiled at his no-nonsense tone. “Thank you…Cal.”
“You’re welcome. Now, let’s forget this sadness and play a game?” His grin, even deprived of glamour, made her cheeks grow warm. This beautiful man was now Gale’s only hope. The poison would have to lay in that drawer a little longer.
“Fine, I’ll play your game, but I’ll show no mercy,” she said and gestured for him to go first. Without taking his eyes from her, the prince of Haiathiel picked up a carved horse and rider and plopped it onto the board. Aliasse laughed, and Cal tilted his head in question.
“Is that how that piece moves?” She nudged the prince’s equestrian two squares over.
“Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I’m with you.”
“I imagine you say that to all the maids,” Aliasse said. She picked a soldier to move towards the center of the board. Before he could protest, she changed the subject. “Tell me about your childhood. How does a prince grow up?”
His usual infallible composure disintegrated into uncertainty. “My childhood?”
“If you don’t mind.” She wondered if it was a mistake to ask as the silence between them lengthened.
“I was left mostly to my tutors. When I wasn’t with them, I was with my cousin, Eli. He was my only playmate for some time, and he was much smarter than I was.”
“I doubt that.” Aliasse grinned as he furrowed an eyebrow in mock seriousness.
“Certainly, my tutors liked him better. So I gave up my studies and occupied myself by causing mischief in the castle with Eli. Stealing things. Setting traps. Aliasse, you’re laughing at me?”
She clamped a hand over her mouth and then removed it when her lips were straight. “What else, you royal miscreant?”
“The traps didn’t hurt anyone,” Cal protested. He moved another soldier one space forward. “All the things I stole I returned, only in a place different than the original location. I think the castle servants thought they were losing their minds. They were fine, in the end.”
“No need to justify your actions to me.” Aliasse had never seen him so animated. He was more gorgeous this way than as his usual seductive self. “Did anyone ever tell you to pick up your studies again?”
“No. I was left entertain myself, which I did.”
“With your maids?”
“They are not my entertainment. They are my treasures.”
Were they not even humans with emotions to him? Aliasse took out one of his soldiers with a soldier of her own. It gave her an odd satisfaction. She did not expect the prince to take her chin and force her to look at him.
“You’re angry now,” he said. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
“It sounds as if you consider your maids possessions.”
“Is that how it seems?”
“Sometimes, but you’re never unkind. Still, a kind master is still a master, isn’t he?” She wondered if the maids were as good as enslaved by the prince’s glamour.
“Perhaps I am selfish.” The prince moved a game-piece absentmindedly. “I grew used to so much affection, and now I can’t imagine living without all of them.”
“Are you lonely?”
“It’s your turn now.” He evaded the question, still smiling sweetly. This man was hard to crack—still two dimensional despite all the time Aliasse spent with him. Without taking her eyes off the pleasant prince, Aliasse made her move.