Three peaceful weeks passed. Cal was swaggering around the castle, Aliasse often never far from him. If Holt had been here, they both would have acted more discreet. Now, news ran rampant in the castle that Cal was going to marry Aliasse instead of me. Whispers never reached Cal, of course, who invited me to his bed every night. Each time, I refused in the strange ritual we established.
I stuck my head into Cal’s study and found the prince at his desk. He finished reading a document and then scribbled his signature on the thick parchment used for the king’s official papers. His lovely eyebrow was bent at an odd angle that I finally recognized as part of a look of concentration.
Seated in a chair behind him, Aliasse brandished a ruler as I entered. “Avi! Look at him! He’s actually doing his work!”
Cal paused and then shook out the hand clutching a black ink-pen. “I’m not to be gawked at.” He looked embarrassed to have been caught.
“I’m glad,” I said though I wondered how Aliasse had done it. While she had been inseparable from Cal, I knew she hadn’t been in his bed. In fact, Cal’s affectionate kisses had been doled out to almost every girl except Aliasse. I wondered at her sudden lack of physical interest in him. Cal’s true love couldn’t be chaste. Not for long anyway.
“It’s only signing a bunch of boring papers.” The prince leaned back in his chair to give me a sensual glance.
Aliasse whacked the desk with a deadly air that brought to mind sadistic teachers. “They are not boring,” she said as he sulked. “These are the laws that keep your kingdom intact!”
“My kingdom,” Cal repeated. “The unrest in Gatha continues even though Mativ went to speak with them weeks ago. Meanwhile, Holt is hiding at his estate.”
Yes, Mativ had gone to negotiate on behalf of the king after Gale’s trial. Still, I felt uneasy about the older senator though he continued to act as if he meant well.
“Gale needed to see doctors for his injuries, Cal,” Aliasse said. “He should be back today to help you interpret these papers properly. I know just the bare minimum.”
Cal made an impatient sound. “Help me with papers? I would rather that he came back, so I can leave this castle.” When Aliasse didn’t ask any questions, my heart twinged. Cal had already told her, though Aliasse already knew thanks to Gale, about our journeys to the city.
Cal never confided in anyone besides me like that…If the king knew that Cal was itching to run amok outside, he would likely force a troop of guards to follow our little party around the Capitol. I supposed Aliasse was the only other person he could trust; most of the other maids, except for Callie, were gossips.
Speaking of Callie…I bowed to Cal and then gave Aliasse what I hoped was a casual grin. “I’ll leave the prince to his work and you to supervise him.” I darted out of the room before either of them could object. Not quite out of earshot, I heard their laughter.
Four staircases and three corridors later, in the darkness of the library, I took a moment to gauge my feelings. Was it jealousy? Of course! How could Aliasse be so close to Cal without wanting him? She was as casual with him as she was with Gale. Before, I had seen her blush whenever Cal spoke to her. Like me, she had been helpless every time Cal blasted his full sexiness.
“Callie?” I called. I seriously needed a girlfriend to talk to. No wonder girls in high school functioned in packs.
Combing through entire rows of bookshelves where Callie usually lurked, I found no sign of my friend. Perhaps she had gone to eat something in the kitchen? I headed towards the library’s other entrance and squawked to find a robed figure seated at a mahogany desk. Senator Gale Holt looked up from the enormous book in front of him to offer me a polite smile.
“Ah, Miss Avi. How have you been?” At least, the marks of his injuries had faded though the angles of his face had sharpened. He looked rather underfed.
“I’m fine. How long have you been here?” I stuttered. No wonder Callie fled the library!
The senator shrugged. “An hour, I’d say. The king told me that Letris and Aliasse were busy, so I, ah…found something else to do.”
Not turning my back to him, I inched towards the arch that led to the corridor and safety. As my back brushed the leather-bound books, a musty smell made my nose wrinkle. Was it the smell of my own unease? I hoped not. “What are you reading?”
“A history of fair Haiathiel.” He almost sang the words, and I vaguely wondered if Haiathiel had a national anthem. “What is Aliasse doing with the prince anyway?”
I smiled at his concern. “Don’t worry, they’re doing paper work. Aliasse has been quite the prude lately, but for some reason, Cal doesn’t mind.”
Holt closed his tome, and the resulting thud made me jump. The senator didn’t notice. He began to mumble to himself before his eyes registered that I was still standing here. “Do you know how she managed that?”
“I haven’t a clue. It doesn’t matter to me!”
“Oh, are you lonely?” Holt smiled an evil, gentleman’s smile. “Did you miss me perhaps?”
“Ha, you wish!” Now that he mentioned it, I had been dismayed when the king announced Holt was returning to his own region. Perhaps it had been reassuring to have an ally to help me find Cal’s true love.
“Is that any way to talk to a senator?” Holt’s voice lilted with seriousness. He sounded as if he were scolding a child.
I backed away until I stood at the threshold of the library. “Is that any way to talk to the prince’s taste-tester?”
“I suppose it’s not.” He retreated and flipped open his book again. The dreary light from the windows barely lit up the tiny font of the history book. Along with his leg, was he trying to cripple his eyes too?
Though this was Callie’s job, I grabbed two oil lamps from the other tables and arranged one to each side of the senator’s book. After a bit of rummaging at the back of the library, I found a thin, tube lighter and set the oil lamps alight. Soon, a beautiful golden glow enveloped the table.
His smile softened from sinister to normal. “Thank you, Miss Avi.”
“The library maid who’s supposed to have done this seems to have gone missing.” I squinted into the bookshelves and then gave up. So much for talking with a friend… Perhaps I would retreat to the roof for the afternoon like a coward.
“At least, it gave me an opportunity to talk to you.”
Ha, to me? “Don’t try to appease me,” I scolded. “You came to see Aliasse and the king. Well, they’re both doing well. I think His Majesty is less stressed, probably because he doesn’t have to deal with you or Mativ anymore.”
Holt suddenly straightened in the wooden chair. “Mativ has left the court?”
“He went to Gatha to frighten and threaten the people there to obey the king,” I grumbled. Who knew the old senator had a violent streak?
“I see.” Holt tapped his finger on the book in front of him. “Has Mativ sent back a report?”
Well, why would I know?
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m not going to get involved in politics. I made that mistake once. I am here to make sure no one poisons Cal and to find his true love. That reminds me: Cal still hasn’t gotten through his thick head that I’m not going to marry him. He also keeps asking me to sleep with him, and I need to stop talking right now.” The last bit was for me, but surprisingly, the senator hadn’t started snickering.
“He invites you, and you refuse?”
I jammed my hands onto my hips and straightened to full height. “Of course, I refuse. Why would I bed him and then refuse to marry him?”
“What if I invited you to my bed?”
Her entire face glowed red. The senator hadn’t even realized her darker complexion could turn that bright of a color. She called Aliasse a prude but…
“You can’t! You’re under vow to never…anyway, why would you even…that question doesn’t even deserve an answer because it’s so obvious!” She turned away, rigid with mortification.
Holt coughed and forced himself to focus on the text in front of him. When he could look at her without smiling again, he spoke. “There are pleasures that don’t break my vow.”
“Huh?” She peeked at him through a curtain of hair. “Stop teasing me!”
“Then stop being so bashful with me,” Holt said.
“Stop trying to be Cal!” Then her face smoothed over as if she had realized something. “You two must have switched bodies. Cal’s being dutiful, and you’re being a pervert!”
The senator finally gave in and laughed until he cried. When he noticed that Avi was hunched in a corner like a miserable, wet bird, he stopped and wiped at his eyes. “I’m glad I came back. It’s more entertaining here.”
“Yes, I am fun to torment, aren’t I?”
“I have never met anyone like you, Miss Avi.”
“Yes, I’m a freak. Thank you.”
Holt closed his book and decided he had reviewed enough history for the day. First, he would put this dour taste-tester back into a good mood. “It sounds as if someone has become cranky without her freedom. Shall we visit the Capitol?”
“We have to drag Cal along,” she reminded him, and the senator smiled. At least, she couldn’t refuse this.
The prince of Haiathiel stood in the plainest, grayest tunic and pants he had ever worn in his twenty years of life. In fact, I had never seen him happier or more deranged. I foisted an oversized cloak on him. When he pulled it on, his face was immediately hidden.
“He can’t walk around like that.” Aliasse burst my bubble of glee. “People will take notice.”
“People will take more notice if he’s not covered up,” Gale commented. I held in a shiver as the senator’s arm brushed mine. Ever since his dirty words about bedding, I had been aware of the man in an altogether distracting and physical way. “Besides, no one will be nosy enough to ask.”
“It’s getting dark. If you attract the wrong kind of attention…” Aliasse began to mutter about muggers and dissolute drunkards. “I’ll come with you.”
Cal, the walking cloak, reached out to take her hands. “I truly don’t need protection, but it will be fun to have you along, Aliasse.”
“If you believe that you don’t need protection, Letris, then you really are the fool you pretend you are.”
My prince staggered back from the senator’s words as if from a sword thrust. “Pretend?”
“You know more about what is going on than you let on,” Holt continued though I elbowed him. I then stepped away as the senator brandished a thick black piece of metal that resembled a gun. “This should keep most trouble-makers away. See? Avi is already backing off.”
I scowled and wondered if it was a jab at me for landing him in prison. “So, are we all really going?”
Aliasse’s fingers wrapped around my wrist. “Oh yes, we are,” she said it pleasantly, but for a moment, she looked more dangerous than the maid Aliasse. I could see the criminal in her: the sudden lithe movements towards the door and the determination in her face as she donned her own unobtrusive cloak. “Let’s go.”
“Maybe,” I said, my throat dry as a desert, “we should wait when it’s not so late in the day.”
The other three ignored me and wandered out the prince’s door, leaving me a straggler to catch up. Outside the castle, at the gate, the guards gave their customary winks to a self-satisfied senator. They didn’t even take notice of Cal, who walked by them with his face lowered. Then, in a matter of steps, we were standing on the Main Street of the Capitol: the senator with a gun, a maid who was a wanted arsonist, the prince himself and a wretched girl who should have stopped this madness.
“Welcome to your Capitol, Letris,” Gale spoke softly. He glanced down at me as I gripped his gun hand. My other hand floated to Aliasse, who wrapped her fingers around mine with a grin.
“It’s darker than I thought it would be. Let’s go.” As if pulled by an unseen force, Cal set off down the twilight-lit street. If any children had been nearby, the sight of his cloaked, faceless figure would have likely given them nightmares. At least, the street was empty, even of beggars. The stone lampposts had not been lit, though the duty was shared among the citizens who lived along the street.
“We’re going to lose him,” Aliasse said, but none of us moved. Even as one resident emerged from a nearby shack with a long pole, we remained frozen as Cal disappeared from our sight. Meanwhile, the citizen lifted the pole and dipped its end into a gap in the closest oval lamp, which was covered with opaque crystal on three sides. When faint light began to flicker, the man withdrew the rod and hobbled back to his house with a wide yawn.
As we snapped out of our trance, Cal appeared again and wandered towards us. He came to a stop in front of the cluster of gray buildings closest to us and nudged his hood back. On this desolate street, his elegance seemed out of place. “There must be more to the city than…”
Gale gave a nod. “This part of the city is livelier during the day. The shops are closed by now, so we must head elsewhere for entertainment.”
I released the senator’s hand to replace Cal’s hood. As we walked on, the sound of human habitation reassured me. Flapping laundry lines hung from shack roof to shack roof. A few children were kicking around a ball in a flat area beside the road. The faint burble of voices came from the warmly-lit windows of a stone tavern.
Aliasse let out a breath. “This place looks worse than I remember.” We continued onward, experiencing our bleak freedom. I spared a glance for the senator and then for Cal, who walked as if he were not there at all.
Our final destination turned out to be a cylindrical white building that stood out like a candle in darkness. A few people—two young men and an older man—had sprawled on the tapering stairs to the metal doors.
The senator gestured for us to wait and then strode forward to address the men. They sprang to their feet and entered the building. Aliasse clicked her tongue as Gale returned. “You abused your power.”
“It is the least I can do.” The three original men returned with a small crowd of all ages and both genders. The only thing they had in common was damp hair. The people dispersed in different directions, all carefully avoiding looking at the senator and at us.
I was still puzzled even as we strode into the building. It was a plain stone room with haphazardly fashioned metal hooks protruding from the walls. Underneath them jutted out a stone bench. At the other end of the room, a tattered curtain hung over another exit to the room. “What is…” I blinked as the senator drew an enormous metal bolt across the door behind us.
“A public bath!” Aliasse giggled as she removed her cloak and dropped it onto a bench.
“Unfortunately, I will not be joining you. I’ll stand guard.” Gale sat near the entrance, his smile polite. “It’s growing dark faster than I thought it would. We should return after this.”
I cursed the senator inside my head as Aliasse stripped down into her under-gown. Was he crazy? Hadn’t he realized putting Cal and Aliasse and me in a bath was practically inviting trouble? Meanwhile, the prince stripped down to his drawers, and I felt my breath catch as I inadvertently looked at him.
“Avi, aren’t you going to relax with us?” Cal inquired. He eased my cloak off with a grin. For a man who had just seen the state of his Capitol, he looked ridiculously unconcerned. Then he loped away to peek through the curtain to the bath. “You two go first. I’ll let you both settle in before I join.”
With a hiss to show that I wasn’t happy, I struggled to undo the buttons on the back of my dress. Then someone plucked at my back; the buttons came undone, and I gaped over my shoulder to find the senator.
“You looked like you needed some assistance.”
Then the man settled back into his cranny to watch me undress. Fine! Ignoring the warmth in my face, I yanked off my dress. The damp air touched my skin through the thin under-gown, giving me goose-pimples. I crossed my arms and glared back at Holt, who mercifully had averted his eyes.
Aliasse nudged my bare arm, distracting me. A silver necklace I hadn’t seen before looped around her neck. At its center, a stone that shimmered both red and blue made my stomach churn. As I reached out to touch it, she darted across the room, past an amused Cal and through the curtain.
Following to escape Cal’s intrigued gaze, I stumbled into a misty room. Beneath the vapor stretched a rectangular pool of blue-green water. Fresh towels and bottles of perfume and soap were laid out on a stone table a few feet from where I stood.
Half-blinded by the steam, I followed her voice and treaded the edge of the pool until I saw Aliasse drifting in the water. Judging by the pile of underclothes nearby, I realized she was naked except for that strange necklace. “Isn’t this a bit risky?”
“Goodness, have you never been to a public bath?” Aliasse swam over and placed her arms and head on the stone edge. Rather than being clear, the water was murky enough to hide bodies underneath the surface. As I shook my head, she explained that the water contained an enchantment that prevented trouble. Most of the time, there was also a male and a female guard patrolling the pool if somehow a person gave the enchantment a slip.
“Cal can’t touch us unless we want him to,” Aliasse finished.
I dipped my foot into the water and found it comfortably warm. “Is it clean?”
She proceeded to outline the cleaning schedule. The bath was drained and scrubbed three times a day. In between, pumps added fresh water and a cleansing powder. The latter accounted for the water’s odd dark green-blue coloring and also allowed for modesty.
“How do you know so much about this place?” I sat to dangle my legs into the pool.
Aliasse grinned. “I used to be a patroller. There was only one incident that I remember, and it was more a matter of someone accusing someone else of looking at them in the wrong way. There’s nothing wrong with looking, is there?”
“If it makes someone uncomfortable, then I’d say so,” I mumbled but quietly, so I wouldn’t seem like too much of a spoilsport. “Why did you stop working here?”
Without warning, Aliasse dunked herself under water and then popped out, spraying me with water. “I got distracted,” she said with a smile that spoke of secrets. I didn’t have time to question her as the distinct splash of someone entering the water came from the other end of the pool.
“Crap, that’s Cal.”
“He’s going to be very surprised.” Aliasse propelled herself away from the edge and sunk into the deeper water until her nose was level with the water surface. She looked like a crocodile waiting for its prey to wander closer.
A golden head appeared in my line of vision. It came gliding in smoothly and stopped about a meter from us. Aliasse giggled as Cal flailed his limbs in an attempt to swim closer. The prince of Haiathiel frowned and pushed at the air. His hands went through the air like it should, but as he tried to move his entire body closer, an invisible wall bumped him back.
“I didn’t expect that.” Cal beckoned me closer. “Avi, come in the water. It’s nice.”
I shook my head even as Aliasse insisted I would be safer in the water. According to her, the enchantment didn’t hold on the area around the pool. “I’ll play guard this time,” I said and watched as Aliasse and Cal splashed each other. When they grew tired, they floated in the water. I was glad neither of them had asked whether I could swim or not.
I started nodding off as they began to discuss dinner. The warmth felt nice on my skin after the cold air of the Capitol. What did my prince think of his Capitol? He hadn’t commented much, which was much different than Holt, who had rambled on and on about the condition of the city. The senator had frustratingly long chats with strangers to learn of local happenings. Then again, this was Cal’s first time being in the city alone. He was probably overwhelmed as I had been the first time outside the castle…
Then, my mind went blank with panic, as I fell forward into the water. Waves of water rippled around me: the flow more powerful than it had appeared on the calm surface. I pumped my arms and legs in an effort to swim even as my gown tangled. Then, a pair of hands on my waist pushed me back towards the pool’s edge. I grasped for solid stone, and I turned around to see Aliasse behind me. We stood in the shallow part at the pool’s edge.
“You scared us,” she said as Cal hovered behind her with concerned eyes.
“I scared myself.” The water was snatching at my soaked undergown, so I stripped myself of the clingy cloth, my undergarments and tossed all of it back onto dry stone. Aliasse grinned.
“How does that feel?”
“Very liberating.” I caught Cal’s eye, and he smiled in a way that made me want to throw a brick at him. Then the man had the nerve to swim right up to me—our naked bodies inches away—and kiss my cheek.
The taste-tester shrieked. “Cal!” Aliasse covered a smile with a hand as the prince hurriedly backed off and drifted towards the center of the pool. “What happened to the enchantment?” Avi questioned, immersed to her chin in the water.
“It only works if you don’t want him to come near you. Otherwise…” Aliasse cleared her throat. Of course, the taste-tester had been compelled to want Cal because of the glamour. If not for the amulet around her neck, she also would have been in the prince’s grasp. She wouldn’t have dared risk a public bath with Cal without the necklace.
Avi crossed her arms. “I didn’t want him near me.”
“Not even for a moment?” Aliasse prodded. Behind them, Cal raised himself out of the water, and the other two stared as glistening water rolled off his elegant neck, broad shoulders and down a tightly muscled back. The prince had done so to wave to Holt, who was standing at the curtain and scanning the room for trouble.
“I heard a scream.” Aliasse grinned at the seriousness in her foster brother’s voice. “Was there someone in here besides you three?”
“No,” Aliasse answered. “Avi just fell into the water. I don’t think she can swim.”
“I can teach her,” Cal offered, and the taste-tester muffled an indignant squeak with her hands. They swam towards the waiting senator though Avi treaded the shallow end of the pool rather than swim.
Holt’s soft voice carried over the water. “Perhaps another time. We should go.” At his words, the prince of Haiathiel stepped out of the pool, not bothering to cover anything. Of course, Holt couldn’t help noticing, the man had no reason to hide such a body. The senator handed him a thick, white towel.
Cal arranged the towel around his waist to his satisfaction and swept the pool with his gaze. Aliasse was blushing, and Avi had disappeared underneath the water, leaving only grumbling bubbles.
“My dear dark angel is so modest,” Cal said.
“And you are not, Letris. You must give her a great deal of trouble every day.” Holt leaned over the pool and handed his foster sister a towel. Aliasse gave a little tug, and the senator wobbled on the edge of the pool before releasing the towel and regaining his balance. He scowled down at her.
The prince tilted his head in consideration. “I do, but Avi manages.”
“That she does,” Holt agreed after a moment.
Aliasse clambered out of the pool, not missing Cal’s brief, longing glance, and wrapped the length of the towel around her. She smiled as Avi’s head emerged from the water with a murderous expression.
“What do you think of the Capitol?” Holt finally asked. It was safer than continuing the conversation about the taste-tester.
“I hope there is more than what I saw. It’s not the Capitol I remember from my childhood.” Cal shrugged and then caught his towel as it slipped. “Perhaps it’s only natural aging.”
Aliasse snorted. “The city has been neglected.” She shut up as Gale raised an eyebrow in warning.
“Neglected…” Cal’s smile flickered into a grimace.
In the sudden silence, the senator waved his hands at them. “Enough talk. We have to be back before the king summons us for dinner! Come on, Miss Avi!”
“You men leave us here to dress in peace first!” However, she spoke without anger. Her expression, a thoughtful, motherly one, made Holt aware that the girl was concerned about Cal’s reaction to Aliasse’s words.
The prince went cheerfully enough, and the senator followed. Aliasse had pulled on her underclothes by the time the taste-tester realized something was missing.
“He took the last towel with him!” Out of the water, I shivered, dripping from every pore. As well as asking questions that upset Cal, Gale had messed with me too.
“He must have forgotten.” Before I could object, Aliasse darted out of the room to hopefully fetch that towel back. I wondered if Aliasse had noticed when I had slipped out of the water. Cal and I had both seen that she had a trim body with curves in the proper places. My body’s shape seemed dowdy in comparison.
I sighed. There was no need to be jealous anyway because Cal didn’t make a distinction between female bodies.
Frozen in front of the curtain, he was staring at me. As every part of me went up in flames, I resisted the urge to dive into the water. I would likely crack my skull if I tried. Instead, I used my hair and hands to cover myself. Then, he trained his eyes on the concave ceiling and held out the towel.
“Don’t try to pretend this was an accident.” Perverted senator!
“It is,” the incorrigible man insisted.
“You knew I would be in here…”
He had pinned his eyes to the floor, but the open horror on his face only pissed me off. Seeing me naked wasn’t that terrible, was it? “Avi, I thought you would still be hiding in the water.”
I snatched the towel from the senator. “How could Cal even allow you to come back here? What happened to Aliasse?” I expected friendship required laying a part of your soul bare, but I hadn’t expected this!
“She’s escorting Letris back to the castle. She’s much faster on her feet than I am.” Holt took a few retreating steps towards the door; now, he barely put any weight on one leg as he moved. Had his limp gotten worse? “You should hurry because your absence at dinner would be very noticeable. I’ll put things to order here.”
Damn him. I couldn’t even be mad anymore. “Fine.” As he exited through the curtain, I dried myself off and hopped into my slightly damp underthings. In the outer room, my clothes and cloak had been folded neatly and placed on the bench. As I entered, Holt swept past me into the room with the pool. Once dressed, I dashed back to the castle and made it just in time to inspect the food and then stumbled away to stand in my corner of the dining-hall. Cal gave me a cheeky grin at my bumbling performance.
“Where have you been?” Otelius asked me as I panted for breath.
“Bath. I lost track of time.” Technically, I didn’t even lie to him.