As the cold weather intensified, the Assembly of senators began to look more like a gathering of furry pelts rather than one of men. They convened to discuss the grave news from Gatha. Several nights ago, the people of Gatha had driven out the king’s soldiers in every city and rural area in the region. The ousted soldiers had arrived this morning, half-frozen and with news of a united uprising.
“Though not all of them were armed and none had armor, the people were determined to make us leave by any means, Your Majesty.” The commander of the King’s Guard in Gatha—Garigus Celeriter—bowed his head before looking towards Aelius for advice. The king still commanded loyalty in men who remembered the reign of the young King Aelius.
Young Aelius weeded out the threats to the throne and established a method of election for senators for each region. He secured borders and made the roads difficult for brigands to glean any living off travelers. That made Haiathiel a highly favorable place for trade and living. Coin had flowed into the country.
“Are you certain all your men have been forced out of the region?” asked Senator Gatherby, a man known to all for his even temper and love of hats.
Garigus nodded. “I accounted for all of them, even the dead.”
“They’ve killed?” Aelius said. Beside him, Otelius placed a hand on his shoulder in silent rapport.
Many young men preferred to serve in the newly formed King’s Guard because it allowed them freedom and pay without much trouble. Their families had not been prepared to see them die.
“This is my fault, isn’t it, Father?” The prince’s voice rang out like a plaintive child’s.
Aelius’ voice superseded the sudden muttering in the room. “No, it is not. Gatha has been waiting to pick a fight. That you are not fit to be king is a poor reason.”
No one dared refute the king but neither did they raise their voices to condemn the rebels in Gatha as wrong. Senator Gale Holt saw Aelius consider his senators with confusion and spoke out before the king could ask them about their silence. “Your Majesty, Mativ was in Gatha. What news does he have?”
“I have not heard from Mativ,” Aelius admitted. The king pulled the folds of his royal robe closer to his body. His wiry hands trembled. “I fear my dear friend may be dead.”
As Letris scorched him with glare for upsetting the king, Holt said reassuringly, “They would not lay a hand on a senator.” Still, none of them could know for sure. Good riddance if Mativ is dead, Holt thought to himself as his leg gave a reminding throb. Once content to torture him once or twice a day, the leg now pained him continuously. Always, it felt like a dog had sunken its teeth into his leg, moments from tearing it off.
“May I speak to the commander, Majesty?” A senator, with skin as dark as Avi’s, addressed the king, who allowed it with a dispirited nod. Senator Mason twisted his hand in a circular motion, ending with the palm up. Why? it seemed to ask. “How can it be that a band of soldiers could not take care of a half-armed rabble?”
“They are the civilians we are charged to protect. We could not take the offensive against them…without the king’s orders.” Garigus considered Senator Mason, who was wrapped head to toe in silky-gray furs. “I imagine consideration of others is an odd concept to you.”
The senator sprang out of his desk, but before he could make a move, Gatherby, his neighbor, snatched the edge of the other man’s fur and shook his head slightly. Mason exhaled but sat back down. “Then, Your Majesty, you must give these men the command and thus the will to do their duty!”
King Aelius exchanged a glance with Otelius. “Is there not a way to resolve this without force?”
“Until Mativ returns, you must prepare an army, Your Majesty,” Gatherby said. Holt watched the uncertainty of the men around him turn to conviction. If the serene Gatherby was advising war, then it had to be done.
“You must remind them, Your Majesty: you are their sovereign and no other. Not yet.” Gale Holt felt everyone’s eyes prickle him. “Even news of a gathering of an army will be enough to frighten them out of their rebellion.”
“Until Mativ returns,” Aelius began with hesitation, and a few senators sprang to their feet to argue, but the king ignored them. “Until his return, we must prepare for war. Men from every region will be pulled to the Capitol and be ready to march on Gatha, and Garigus shall join them. I will warn the people of Gatha once more before I send the army on its way.”
“They will not heed any warnings,” Mason muttered, but he was drowned out as the other senators intoned their agreement with an enthusiastic, “May the king’s will be done.”
For the past hour, Cal had been brooding over the words at the Assembly. It wasn’t even about the possibility of an upcoming war, but Senator Holt’s words to King Aelius. “What did he say exactly?” I was glad he shut out everyone from his rooms but me. He couldn’t even talk about this to Aliasse, who adored Gale with all her sisterly heart. It was selfish, but my prince was my friend alone again.
Cal wrung his elegant hands so hard I was afraid he was going to break bones. “He said that Father had to remind the people of Gatha that he was their sovereign and no other. Not yet anyway.”
Despite his obvious dislike for Holt, Cal had never been so unreasonable about one uttered sentence. “It’s true that your father is still king. ‘Not yet’ seems to imply that you will eventually take the throne, but it’s your father’s duty to secure it for the moment.”
“The way he said it wasn’t flattering in the least, Avi.”
I frowned. “How?”
“He spoke as if I were a child, and my father had to wait for me to grow up.”
Holt would say it like that and drive Cal crazy! With a wince that I hid from the prince, I shrugged. “Why don’t you ask Holt yourself? Speculation leads to trouble, especially when it comes to that man.”
Cal bounded off his bed and then pulled me into a one-armed hug. “He is such a troublesome person to have at court, but Aliasse is happy to have him around. As for you, gallivanting around the Capitol with him…”
“Hey, that was strictly business!” I pointed out. Then I remembered the way the senator had seen me without clothes, the way he had cornered me that time in the west end. I certainly hoped the senator saw our trips as a trade-off. Then again, what benefit did he get? I got my freedom, and he got an opportunity to show off reasons that I should marry Cal. Still, the marriage-to-Cal boat had capsized a while ago…
I made a shooing motion. “Go speak to the senator. He’s probably in Aliasse’s rooms.”
My prince gave me an adorable smile and glided out of the room. On land and in water, he moved with a breathtaking grace. Maybe I wouldn’t mind having Cal teach me how to swim. Of course, I could have Aliasse teach me instead…
Back in my rooms, I ran straight into someone who was coming out of the wing with an empty basket. Lianne gave me an acid smile. “Avi, is Cal in a better mood now?” Watching him turn her away from entering his rooms had been my guilty pleasure for the day.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. She brushed past me, and I held back an apology she probably wouldn’t hear. Every girl here had to be prepared for the prince’s disfavor as rarely as he showed it.
I stepped into my rooms, into complete silence. For the past two years, the prince, Callie and some other girls always tended to drop by. Now with the coronation so close, no one came to visit. I didn’t count the other maids as friends, but they were always eager to share details about Cal’s habits. I missed being able to tease Cal about those little tidbits I picked up. I missed giggling with girls my age.
I entered my study to find a book I had left unfinished but found a flower shining on my desk instead. It resembled a white rose but with tiny slits on the petals, each slit edged with pink. The bright green stem arched out of an expensive-looking crystal vase, which had been placed over a folded piece of parchment.
The flower felt smoother than even Cal’s skin, soft despite its crystal-like sheen. Carefully, I moved the vase and gripped the edge of the paper. The thickness of it testified to its value. In Haiathiel, paper was a cheap commodity, but this kind of paper could only be afforded by the wealthy. So, no castle servant had put it here…Perhaps Cal had?
Opening up the parchment, I found a letter written in a bold, cursive script that looked as consistent as a computer font. The sight of my name at the top confirmed it was meant for me after all.
“Please accept this flower and my apology if for nothing else but startling you in the Capitol last week. I suppose ‘startling’ is putting it lightly, but even so, I want to assure you I saw nothing but a young lady who will make her true love a lucky man. The flower is for you to give to him. Cut correctly, the Aelia will last for years and symbolizes a persistent and faithful love, which is a meaning as close as I could find to your concept of ‘true love.’
“I hope one day you will be able to make use of the flower. As your friend, that would make me happy, even though I have made an unfortunate habit of causing you discomfort. That was never my intent. If this letter causes you further distress, feel free to burn it and tell me so. Circumstance makes me a fool around you, Avi. Again, I am sorry.”
At the end, he signed his full title. My fingers dropped the parchment. I considered the flower, which continued to reflect sunlight. If anyone had stumbled into my room now, I wouldn’t have been able to speak a word. My heart was too full: of regret but also of something lighter and warmer.
Sister and brother faced each other across a battlefield. Many soldiers had been swept off the field by bold daring maneuvers and by efficient, calculated ones. Aliasse sighed. The set-up of the remaining players left her king in a corner almost bereft of allies. Gale grinned at her expression.
“No!” she retorted. At last, she moved a piece—a tower—towards the king to a safe space where none of Gale’s fiendish soldiers could besiege it.
They both looked up as the prince of Haiathiel strode into the room. “Holt, I need you to explain something to me.” Not quite a request nor a command, the words made the senator smile wryly.
“Can I stay and listen?” Aliasse inquired. The prince peered over her shoulder to observe the playing board.
“Of course.” The prince and Aliasse both watched Gale make his move with alert eyes.
Gale smiled at the calculation in the two most impulsive people he knew. “Go ahead, Letris.”
“What did you mean by your words at the Assembly?”
“The ones about the sovereignty of Haiathiel.”
With a shrug, Gale followed the movement of Aliasse’s encroaching tower and then moved his soldier to block its progress. His foster sister stifled a squeal of frustration and placed her head on the table. “You would have to be more specific. I cannot remember everything.”
Leaning over Aliasse’s gloom, Cal captured the interfering soldier with a piece called the king’s mistress. “You said that he had to show Gatha that he is their only sovereign, yet I am co-ruling with my father.”
“Your father is still the king, and I wanted him to take action before the people of Gatha believe themselves entitled to sovereignty. That is all I meant.” Gale’s soldiers ambushed the king’s mistress and then moved on to the tower. The senator removed the two pieces with a flourish. “That move was not thought out, Letris.”
The prince scowled. “Are you sure your move was legal?”
“Perfectly legal,” Gale assured him. “Your turn now.”
Within a matter of four rounds, Aliasse’s king had no choice but to surrender though Gale lost a few pawns in the process. The senator offered a reconciliatory smile in the direction of the prince, who clenched his fists in frustration. “You persisted and did well, considering that Aliasse didn’t leave you a favorable field.”
“I tried my best,” Aliasse wailed. “I almost never win. Sometimes, I think you let me win on purpose to make me feel better.”
Clearing his throat, Senator Holt stood and offered his seat to the prince. “You two can play. I have to pack my things for my return to Hamada.”
Cal sat and began to re-arrange the pieces of the game in their beginning spaces as Aliasse protested, “You’re going back so soon? Why?”
“There is no reason for me to be here,” Gale stated. “Besides, I have to arrange for soldiers and supplies to be sent here.”
Aliasse almost protested that he could relay the order from the king’s castle, and the soldiers would come. However, she knew that Gale preferred conducting business in person. “Will you come back as soon as you’ve done that?”
“I am a senator, Aliasse,” Gale said with a smile. “I’ve already neglected Hamada for too long.”
“You’re trying to avoid bringing me out into the Capitol, aren’t you?” Cal asked.
“During these times, it would be best for you to stay in the castle.”
“The court will miss you…” Cal began.
Gale forced himself to bow. “I doubt it, but I thank you for the sentiment—”
“Especially Avi,” the prince finished with an upward glance to gauge the senator’s expression. Aliasse laughed nervously and then made the first move of the new game. Her first soldier stepped onto the battlefield.
Without a moment to think about it, the prince moved the large, powerful piece called the equestrian. “You will also miss her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are in love with her, aren’t you?”
Aliasse winced at the raised voices and prodded another soldier forward.
The senator felt his careful mask slip into irritation. “Have you been drinking, Letris?”
“You left that flower in her rooms. This morning, I saw it,” Cal said with triumph. He had almost smashed the vase then and there, but concern for Avi stumbling onto broken shards stayed his hand.
Aliasse glared up at her foster brother. “What kind of flower?”
The senator exhaled and admitted, “An Aelia.”
“Do you know the story of the flower?” Cal continued, the tremble of his hand shaking the game pieces off their correct spaces.
At a time when the queen of Haiathiel had been looking for a husband, Queen Aelia had lamented her lack of desire for her eager suitors. A common man who served the queen as a gardener and fallen in love with her gave her a lovely and long-living bloom. He told her the magic of the flower would point her heart in the right direction.
“Yes, I know the story,” Gale said. Avi, however, would not.
“And how it ends?”
The queen kept the flower in her hair every time she met with a suitor, expecting the flower to signal a man who would love her faithfully. Aelia was disappointed as the flower did nothing. So, she went to ask the man who had given it to her. That day, as she confronted him in the sunny garden that he tended every day, the flower began to reflect light in the way a crystal does. Struck by its beauty, it was then that the queen realized how much she loved the man who served her so humbly. She returned the bloom to him, and they were married. Queen Aelia and King Rem ruled for eighty years, in which Haiathiel flourished and the Capitol expanded to its current size.
Deflecting their accusing gazes with a wry smile, Gale said, “I only meant to encourage that girl to find the one she loves. I don’t expect that bloom to return to me. Not at all!”
“A simple rose would have sufficed,” Cal said. “To track down an Aelia bloom is near impossible.”
“I want her to give it to you, Letris. You are her sun. You are her friend. I can only hope the flower allows her to realize it.” Gale stumbled back as Aliasse lunged to stand in front of him.
In a fierce whisper he could only hear, she scolded him. “You’re still trying that?”
“I would rather have Avi come to that conclusion than lose you to the prince. You would be so unhappy as queen…”
“Gale.” Aliasse considered her foster brother: the lines in his face from stress and pain, the steady gaze, the honest set of his mouth. “I had no intention…”
“You don’t want to marry him? You two have been as intimate as lovers…without all that touching, at least!”
“You don’t trust me?”
“He’s bewitched you.”
“No, he hasn’t!”
They turned back to the prince, whose face had gone rigid with anger. Aliasse wanted to reach out and stroke his soft head, but touching him would do more harm than good. “You’ve been wooing my poor, dark angel,” Cal said.
“I wouldn’t even dare,” Gale responded. “That would be illegal. The penalty for romancing royal servants is death.”
“You do like your life, don’t you?” Cal said. He stood and snatched the front of the senator’s robes, ignoring Aliasse’s gasp. “Then you stay away from Avi, and…tell me about Fitch Forthwright.”
Gale sighed. This would be an easy escape then. He had expected the prince to pummel him without mercy. “I will return to Hamada as planned and come to court only for Assemblies. Aliasse, you can bring the prince out to the Capitol if you wish it.
“As for Fitch, he is the leader of a group that wants control of the throne. They would kill you and perhaps even the king for it. They speak of ideals like redistribution of the wealth and the removal of the frivolity that is the west end, but they are nothing but coldhearted killers who want the power of the throne for their own.”
“Gale!” Aliasse wondered if Gale included her as one of those coldhearted killers.
As Letris released him, Gale gave her a humble bow and then offered an even deeper bow to the prince. “You two are free to do as you will. I am not going to be around to chaperone. I hope you enjoy yourselves thoroughly.” He would have walked out of the room, but Aliasse clung to his arm. He felt his heart soften for a moment and remembered. “Aliasse, later I’ll give you the gun I bought. It should help keep you safe on your ventures to the Capitol. But remember that alert eyes and ears are far more likely to save you, and the gun is a last resort.”
“I don’t want the gun,” Aliasse said. She had not meant to bring so much trouble to Gale or to the prince. “I want you to stay.”
“Your prince likely never wants to see my face again.” Gale turned to face Letris Calpurnius and found agreement there. Perhaps he would not return at all when this man was king.