The shackles had chafed Gale’s wrists until the skin turned glistening pink. Still, the appearance of his wrists must have been less shocking than his face. He could feel everyone’s stare on the purpling bruises and the gash, which grew worse with time and didn’t heal as cleanly as he hoped.
In the Assembly chamber, Senator Gale Holt faced his fellow senators before giving them a deep bow that elicited a number of gasps. Safe behind their desks, his colleagues considered him with wary eyes. Then, Gale swiveled on his heels to face his king and offer a deeper, more heartfelt bow. Aelius gave him a sad shake of his head. The sight of it made Gale want to scream. His king had rebuffed the gesture, like he would reject a traitor’s.
Finally, Gale turned to face the prince of Haiathiel and Mativ, who stood like a statue. “You finally have what you want, don’t you, Letris? My death.”
The prince stood, his once polite face now less than pleasant.
“Cal…” Aelius began but stopped as Mativ held up a hand. The king subsided though he continued to look worried as Mativ stepped down from the dais. Seemingly content to let the other man do the work, Cal plopped back onto the chair beside his father’s.
“You have been charged with treason.” Mativ came to a stop in front of Senator Holt. “Specifically you have threatened the safety of the prince.”
“I am less of a threat to him than the region of Gatha,” Gale replied. “You all are fools for not seeing that.”
An indignant round of murmuring echoed in the hall until King Aelius lifted a hand for silence. As the hall quieted, Mativ circled the senator. Even now, a pleasant smile graced the advisor’s face. The king wasn’t the sort to ask probing questions, but Mativ…
Holt wondered if he could bypass the truth spell laid on him with vague answers. The truth spell came from the administration of a potion before the trial; only kings of Haiathiel knew the thousand-year-old recipe. Aelius had brewed the senator’s potion by his own hand even without assistance from Otelius. The vague hope (and admittedly unkind thought) that the king had somehow erred in the making of the truth-compulsion potion was dashed as Mativ asked the first question.
“So, you do know of a plot to kill Letris Calpurnius?”
Holt bit his lip and drew blood before blurting, “Yes.” Not a single whisper of noise at that. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the next question.
“Who is in charge of this plot?”
“A traitor,” he sputtered. He only needed to speak the bare minimum of truth until Mativ’s questioning became more specific. Holt’s attention shifted as two figures in white gowns appeared beside Cal. The taste-tester and Aliasse were huddled together, each looking anxious and uncertain.
“Who is this traitor?”
As Gale tried to find an answer, pain wrenched the back of his head like angry fairy-tale sprites trying to kick the truth out of his mind. “Someone I do not get along with.”
Mativ’s eyes strayed to the only movement in the chamber. The taste-tester had appeared beside the prince to poke at him for some reason. Perhaps she came to be a witness at the trial; Gale had said too many condemning words in the girl’s presence after all. He fixed his grimace when Mativ’s gaze returned to him.
“Where does this traitor reside?”
“Have they been in close proximity to the prince?”
A sigh of relief swept through the chamber. Of course, if the danger wasn’t close, they wouldn’t care much about it. Then, Mativ struck out at him, wiping the smirk straight from his face.
King Aelius lifted a hand for silence again as the other senators began to protest. Each of them knew that a mistreatment of one senator could lead to the same for them. “Please, Mativ, such methods are not necessary.”
The older senator offered his king an apologetic bow before continuing. “Tell me, Gale: what is the name of this traitor?”
Mativ frowned and turned to his king. “We have heard that name, have we not, Majesty? The leader of a small faction who wish to overthrow the monarchy? Holt, have you been plotting against the king with Forthright? Is his threat significant?”
“No, I have not plotted against the king with him. And I don’t know how much of a threat he is to the throne,” Gale said. It all depended on his foster sister after all and how far she would go to gain Fitch Forthwright’s approval.
A new voice startled the occupants of the chamber into jumping. “I think it’s clear the senator only knows a bit more of Forthwright’s continued activities than we do. Perhaps, if he had been more prudent, he could have warned me instead of spouting dire words in the presence of naïve ears.” Drawing himself to his full height, Letris Calpurnius gave the gaping Gale Holt a gracious nod. “I grant him full pardon as a co-sovereign of Haiathiel.”
Mativ’s grandfatherly smile fell away.
From beside the prince, Aliasse gave her foster brother a reassuring wave while he stared back at her in disbelief.
“This hearing is over,” Cal said. “Release Senator Holt and administer the antidote to the truth spell.” He sounded like a bona fide prince, and the nearby guards rushed to do as he said.
Holt looked dazed as he sipped from a silver cup offered by the king to undo the truth spell. I stood back as Aliasse, King Aelius and senators crowded him. Mativ, meanwhile, had disappeared from the chamber. I wondered what the old senator was up to. Was it a fervent wish to protect Cal? Or something else entirely?
I flinched as Holt walked toward me. “I’m…so sorry.” I kept my head bowed, partly because I felt so bad and also because I couldn’t bear to see his face.
As the senator failed to respond, I lifted my head to find that he had walked past me and now the hall was almost empty. Only a few old senators remained, and as I passed, I noted that they were discussing hat prices. The hallway leading out of the Assembly hall was similarly vacant. Oddly, I felt forgotten. So, I wandered the corridors of the castle, which had been filled earlier with people who considered themselves the posse of various senators.
Making my heart jump, Cal loped into the atrium I had paused in. He held out his hand, and I took it. Instead of pulling me to him as he usually did, he squeezed my hand. “The senator has gone to have his wounds treated, and Aliasse has set up a party for the four of us in the garden. Are you coming or…?”
“I don’t know if I can,” I said.
“If Holt says a single word against you, I’ll lock him right back up,” Cal promised in what seemed like an attempted joke. “Please, Avi, do not become so upset on a mere senator’s account. No true harm has been done.”
They had tortured him...“Have you seen what they did to him?”
“Cuts and bruises heal. Avi, tell me what is truly bothering you.”
I couldn’t put it into words. I had trusted the wrong person, had said the wrong things. “What are you going to do about Mativ?”
“Mativ was looking out for me,” Cal said with utmost certainty. “I freed Gale for your sake and Aliasse’s. I can only hope I didn’t free a would-be murderer.”
“You should ask Gale about Fitch Forthwright. It might be important,” I said. No matter how badly I had failed Cal, I would continue to look after him. Yes, for a taste-tester, I was overstepping my boundaries, but the prince never minded. Otelius even approved.
Cal nodded and then dragged me outside to the garden. The bright sunlight made me want to retreat, and then I straightened my back and told myself to suck it up. I was not a mole-person. I was not afraid of facing Aliasse or Gale. A side door of the castle led to an open, grassy space where flower beds and bushes had been strategically planted to form the crest of Haiathiel. Around the garden, a hedge twice the height of a person grew. Brambles intertwined in the verdure of the hedge deterred most sensible robbers.
When we approached the center of the garden, Aliasse and Gale were already seated at a white marble table covered in plates of sweets and jugs of drinks. I froze though Cal’s hand on my back pushed me forward until I came to a stop in front of the other two.
“Miss Avi.” Gale smiled at me. Bandaged around the head and temples, he looked less like a senator and more like a little boy who had cracked his head open. His bruises, which looped around one eye and then skipped to his jaw, appeared less swollen, likely thanks to the green poultice he was holding.
With a beam, Aliasse stood and squished me into a hug. “I don’t blame you, Avi,” she whispered into my ear before stepping back as if she had said nothing. As I hesitated and wondered which seat to take, Cal began his usual antics.
“Aliasse, don’t I get a hug as well?”
Behind her, Gale sighed as his foster sister threw herself into Cal’s arms. The prince lifted her by the waist and swung her around once before placing her back on the ground. To be literally swept off your feet by a hot prince…Aliasse was a lucky girl.
Then, feeling reckless, I sat beside Senator Holt and asked, “Did Jim have that poultice ready for you?”
Gale gave a gloomy nod. His eyes were on Aliasse and Cal, who were whispering together. “It helps with the achy pain…but only because whatever is in this—” the senator lifted the mass of green pulp. “—stings. I ended up with some in my eye.”
“I see. I’m sorry.” I then busied myself in pouring wine and water from the available jugs into the four, slender goblets in front of me. Not forgetting my duty, I examined each cup and then the sweets before settling down.
Gale snatched a wine cup and then lifted it in my direction in some sort of weird toast. He smirked and then winced. “I don’t need your apology.”
“Don’t need or won’t accept?” I mumbled to the blocks of fudge-like dessert in front of me. For some reason, I had a feeling this “party” was only an excuse to force me to face the senator. Cal and Aliasse had strolled to an edge of the garden, arm in arm. In appearances, they were polar opposites, but something in their personalities clicked. Maybe it was just wishful thinking…
“I was hoping you would accept my apology instead,” he said.
I returned my gaze to Gale, who looked terrifying with his face an odd assortment of purple, green and pale. “I won’t because you don’t need to apologize.”
“Then we’re stuck. We both made mistakes, Miss Avi. If we had been honest—”
“We would have hated each other.”
The senator paused mid-sip to smile down at me. “Perhaps we were only destined to hurt one another.” He fell silent then, and I couldn’t figure out if that was his idea of a resolution.
So, I turned to watch Cal and Aliasse. “What is Aliasse to you really?”
The senator turned his attention to the two figures gliding towards a gaudy bunch of perennials. “I’ve told you before: she’s my foster sister. Even if we aren’t related by blood, she’s family to me. I wish I hadn’t gotten her involved in this.” The senator’s smile faltered.
“Aliasse is part of the plot?”
“Going to report me again?”
“No. I won’t report to Mativ again.” I eased the mushy poultice out of his hand and pressed it against the damaged skin of his chin. “I wish I could have stopped Mativ from hurting you like this…”
He blinked both from the shock of her words and the unpleasant tingle from the herbs Jim had expertly mixed together. “It looks worse than it feels.” Compared to the pain his leg had been putting him through those days in prison, the bruises felt like tickles. His tormentors had found out about the leg…Gale shuddered, and the girl who had been moving the poultice along his jaw paused.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No, I’m cold.” The lie, while unbelievable thanks to the two layers he was wearing, seemed to assure the taste-tester. He wondered if he could also shield his now more pronounced limp like he had hidden it from Aliasse. One of them would murder Mativ for it if he wasn’t careful.
“I can get you another cloak,” she offered, standing and eager to go.
He wouldn’t allow her to escape that easily. “It’s fine. You should stay for all these sugary confections.” Gale wondered if the prince had a wicked sweet tooth.
They sat in silence for some time until the taste-tester suddenly peered up at the sky. “I wonder if it’ll snow this year?”
Gale frowned. “Snow?”
She wilted like a flower in early winter. “I guess not, since no one here has heard of it.” As she went on to explain how cold air high in the sky froze water particles into six-sided crystals of ice and then fell to blanket the ground in white, he pulled her hand towards the bruise around his eye. She scowled, perhaps at being nursemaid, but obligingly pressed the herbs to the blemished skin.
“These snowflakes sound like magic. Each unique but in keeping with a pattern,” he concluded.
“It is a little like magic,” she admitted with a smile. “Is it magic that made humans?”
“God made everything, of course. Some say magic is the remnants of God’s power in our world.” Despite his dislike for sweets, Holt popped a rock candy shaped like King Aelius into his mouth. The kitchen staff had cut the candies into likenesses of the king and the prince. One day, when Letris married, the candies would come in the shape of the queen as well.
Once she finished patting the poultice around the senator’s eye, Avi examined a slender piece of sugar that could barely emulate Cal’s handsomeness and bit off his head. Gale snorted. “Letris would be heartbroken to see you do that.”
“Well,” she muttered, “he deserves it.”
“He said if he agreed to free you, he had to be allowed to come on our jaunts to the Capitol.”
Holt moved his hand to rub his face in frustration and then let the hand drop. “I’m surprised he pardoned me after learning about that.”
“Perhaps he’s become distracted,” she said.
“By?” He didn’t dare glance in the prince’s direction and confirm the answer. If prince did court Aliasse, it would lead to complications he didn’t want to think about.
The taste-tester jabbed a finger over her shoulder to where Cal was braiding small, white flowers into Aliasse’s now shoulder-length hair. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“How long will that last?” Holt said.
The return of the prince and his maid put the conversation to an end, and Cal cajoled everyone to enjoy the sweets. The prince couldn’t help but notice that the senator seemed to enjoy the rock candies a bit too much. Even so, he raised a silver cup and said, “To the senator who cheated death.”
In an odd display of civility towards his prince, Gale lifted his cup as well. “Also, to the prince who allowed him to escape.”
The two men drank to each other. Glancing at the taste-tester, Aliasse found uncertainty. Was this a truce? Or an odd declaration of war?