1 year later
Strangely enough, I found my place in the king’s castle the night I landed in the prince’s tub. After a bit of debate, I was taken in without asking how I felt about it—something I was used to as a foster child—as part of the castle’s staff.
King Aelius—Cal’s father— had acknowledged my existence with a kindly but distant smile. To honor my entrance into the king’s service, I stood in a corner of the dining hall during my first royal dinner. The steward—a thin, old man named Otelius—positioned himself beside me. Despite having earlier reproved my clothing with one skin-piercing look of disapproval, he now gave me, now dressed in a flowy white gown, a gracious nod as the king and his son entered the hall.
Sweeping by me to take his seat, Cal stopped for a moment to place his lips nearly on my ear. Not daring to test my luck and offend the prince, I froze and listened to him whisper, “Welcome to Haiathiel, my dark angel.” Then, without waiting for a response, the prince left me to join his father at the table.
I didn’t understand at that moment; if I were that attractive, some guy in high school would have asked me out. Well, it wasn’t a matter of my beauty or personality, I found out after a year at the court of Haiathiel. For Cal, it was a matter of pride.
Anyway, at this first dinner in a foreign world, I tried to keep myself from freaking out by examining the dining hall. Every time I passed my eyes around the small room, I found a new detail that had escaped me. The room could have belonged to any middle class family except that the pearly walls were—surprise surprise—gilded and engraved with intricate patterns.
Halfway through the dinner, or about a whole hour’s of standing, I glanced at the table and found the silver goblet sitting in front of Prince Cal emitting a familiar red glow.
The king was tucking into his food without a care in the world. Watching his father, Cal picked up that fatal goblet and started swiveling the liquid inside it in the manner of a perfectly bored and blasé hot guy. Maybe, I hoped, he wouldn’t drink it. He was just fiddling with it. Then, as he lifted the goblet to his lips, my feet rushed me to the prince’s side. The sight probably gave the steward Otelius a heart attack.
“Don’t drink that!” My voice echoed in the tiny chamber.
Cal hesitated. “Why not?” The king had paused in mid-bite to stare at us in bewilderment.
“It’s poisoned…I think,” I stuttered as Cal’s gaze undressed me. For some reason, the glow was even stronger than it had been on that cafeteria chicken. When had I learned to see poison?
The king stood, looking the most serious he’d been all evening. “Bring Luca!” he commanded. The steward hesitated for an infinitesimal moment before nodding and heading out of the room. Within a few minutes, the king’s guards dragged a sickly-looking young man into the dining room and placed Cal’s goblet into his hands. “Wait,” I protested feebly, unheard. The point of the warning was that no one would die.
Luca, the king’s own taste tester, drank the contents of the cup in one gulp. Then he died. I wish I could forget how he’d turned maroon as if all the blood in his body had flooded to his face, the way he collapsed and curled into fetal position before drawing his last, ragged breath.
Later that evening, goblets of different colored liquids were placed before me. Each piercing red glow or lack of it allowed me to detect poisons at astonishing dilutions, according to the men who tested me. That was how I became Cal’s personal “taste tester.”
At times, I wished that I hadn’t interfered, even if saving the guy’s life had been the right thing to do. It also paved a path to my life in the castle of Haiathiel, and admittedly, a life cushier than my previous existence. Here, maids were treated with an unusual deference. I asked Otelius about it, and he told me the legend of the very first king of Haiathiel—a figure of ancient lore—who ruled as a despot until a laundry maid asked him to marry her.
For reasons unknown, he accepted her request. They ruled together, and the country flourished. Some say the maid had powerful magic, potent enough to bend wills to her whim. Therefore, the king became her puppet albeit a much better king as a puppet. So, in a way, everything had ended well.
Now, tradition required every heir to the throne marry a maid before he became king. Generations later, it seemed the system had worked. Cal’s mother, Dieva, had been a maid who kept the library in order. As a young man, Aelius had spent half of his life in the library, which would explain how Dieva caught his eye. Dieva died giving birth to Cal. As far as I could tell, Cal didn’t miss her in the least.
The lack of a non-beddable woman in his life would have done Cal good. Then he might have had an ounce of respect for women. It wasn’t that the prince of Haiathiel mistreated his maids. In fact, all his maids adored him. He had taken all of them to his bed except for one, lone, defiant female servant: me.
Deep in thought about my first few days in Haiathiel, I was sitting at Cal’s desk—a sad, nonproductive place—when he entered the study. He frowned. “What could you possibly be doing in this stuffy room?”
“Waiting for the prince to do his duties,” I said.
With a sigh, Cal turned his back on me, and I tried not to ogle the graceful contours of his butt. Since I had arrived, younger wealthy men of the kingdom had started wearing jeans instead of loose robes or tunics. Mostly, they had picked up the idea from the prince himself, and the prince, in turn, from me.
“First, join me for some fun? You need to loosen up a little.”
At this old argument, I relaxed my tense shoulders. You had to watch for his cajoling words; a girl’s common sense could vanish without warning. “I’m saving my virtue for my true love.”
Cal whipped around and raised his hands to the sky. “Is that a concept from your Earth?”
“From my parents,” I said.
Cal sidled up to me, moving with an otherworldly grace. “You’re angry with me? I didn’t mean to insult them.”
How could I be angry? I had told him about my parents’ deaths, and he had been genuinely sad on my behalf. “No. Never,” I assured him. “I’m just…”
“Pining for your true love?” Cal flashed me a disarming smile and stepped away with obvious effort. Ever since I had lectured him about sexual harassment, he’d been a bit better about not grabbing for me playfully.
Meanwhile, the maids of the castle harem seem to spend their days and nights trying to run into him, so they might get a quick kiss or many kisses, depending on his mood and the willingness of the girl in question. Most of all, they anticipated getting an invite to his bed that night.
“I don’t know who he could be,” I told him. Cal was considering me seriously now. His forward posture indicated a willingness to listen. Maybe I would never find my true love in Haiathiel. What if he was in the world I had once lived in?
“Why don’t you come to my bed tonight?” he said.
Those fatal words always signaled an Invite.
“You know nothing will happen,” I warned him. The last invite had ended with me sleeping on the floor of his room. “Your bed will be frosty, cold as ice!”
Cal laughed and shrugged, a gesture as elegant as a professional dancer’s movement. It wasn’t fair that he was so sexy! If he had been less of a prince, less of a promiscuous, jaded man, I might have married him.
“Once I break the ice, I think I’ll find fire,” he replied, cupping my face. “My little angel, you have to eventually give your virtue away.”
“Not right now,” I said as I nudged his fingers away. “Isn’t there work for you to do?” I pointed at his wooden desk.
Cal scowled. “You nag more than Otelius does.”
I crossed my arms. “You’re welcome.”
“I didn’t thank you,” he returned as he sat at his desk. I stood to go and bit back a groan as Lianne entered with a jug of sweet water, a questionable concoction that tended to act as a relaxant.
Lianne gave Cal a curtsy. As a new laundry maid, she hadn’t gotten an Invite yet. Cal hadn’t touched her either, perhaps savoring the desire that now came up instantly on his handsome face.
“Shouldn’t you be doing laundry?” I had to comment.
Lianne’s white skirts flared out as she turned to look at me. A peek of her ankles, and Cal was inches away from slavering like an idiot. Okay, so Lianne was the ideal beauty: pale, blond, well-proportioned, busty and delicately featured. Still, he didn’t have to be such an idiot. He had more important things to look after!
“I am off duty,” Lianne said. “I thought the prince would be thirsty at this hour.”
“If not thirsty, I am kind of peckish,” Cal agreed with a provocative smile towards me. I felt the sudden urge to be in his lap, undoing the buttons of his shirt. I fought the urge, stumbling into the study door.
“You’re always hungry,” I said before making an undignified exit. Cal will do it anywhere. Floor. Wall. Chair. Desk. Meadow. You name it.
“Ack!” In the corridor, I collided with someone, like in comedies. When I stumbled back, I found a senator who, on the rare occasion that I saw him, looked like he has a bean up his butt. If I remembered correctly, he was also one of the senators to question Cal’s worthiness for a throne. Senator Holt considered me for a moment with disgust before he put on a mask of politeness.
“I apologize,” the man murmured. “I was in a hurry.”
“Same,” I offered. “I’m sorry as well.”
Senator Holt gave me a curt nod of his dark head and an “excuse me” before continuing onward. Up close, he had looked so young—about Cal’s age. Well, the twenty, elected senators of Haiathiel came in all shapes and sizes. They visited the castle for Assemblies over which the king presided, though few stuck around afterwards. While they were likely an interesting bunch, they were not my concern.
After contemplating my options, I made my way through winding corridors and multiple staircases to the castle’s rooftop. From a distance, this part of the roof would look like a hollow, upside-down dreidel. The rest of the “roof” of the castle was comprised of spires with the banner of the royal house of Haiathiel. The winds up here often gave the impression that they’d blow you off your feet and into the air. However, they had yet to do that.
In my hideaway, I felt closer to my parents. But today a dark haired man in formal blue senator robes was lurking on my precious rooftop. The man’s pointed chin was lifted towards the sky, his eyes closed.
“Senator Holt.” Again! He wasn’t one to linger after Assemblies usually.
“Did you follow me here?” he accused me. As if I would follow Mr. Beanbutt!
“This is my spot,” I responded.
Senator Holt appeared taken aback. Then again, most servants didn’t talk back to high-ranking government officials. “I was not informed that this area was reserved for you.”
“Still, it’s mine,” I continued. “Also, rudeness to royal servants…”
“Is forbidden,” he interrupted me, his glance cold and cutting. I had wondered who had tried multiple times to poison Cal over the past year. I foiled the person every time. Was Holt the man? Was Holt the man who despised Cal’s debauchery so much that he would resort to murder? I had no proof.
“I don’t care,” he continued.
“You will once the prince hears of it.”
“Go run to him then. You have no other way to make me leave, do you?”
“I’ll push you off the roof,” I warned him.
“I’d like to see you try.” Holt stepped towards me. Compared to Cal, he was a bleak-looking, awkward man even if he towered over me height-wise.
“Cal would punish you if you hurt me.” Abuse of power? Maybe. Still, as a castle servant, I had the right to royal protection.
Holt began to pace, and I took my rightful corner on my roof. “Letris will bring the kingdom to ruin.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked even though I knew that Cal never concentrated on his duties. I hadn’t considered the future of Haiathiel in Cal’s hands.
“He doesn’t do anything for his kingdom,” came Holt’s voice, a flood of desperation. Ah, very true. “All he does is jump his maids.”
“He prefers them flat on their backs. He finds doing it from behind rather distasteful,” I found myself saying. Holt’s face turned pale as the moon. His mouth twisted even more into that pained expression. “I’m just…”
“His slut. I know.” Holt began to walk away.
Whoa there. I grabbed a fistful of the senator’s robes. “I’ve never slept with him. I’m not his maid; I’m his taste-tester,” I protested.
“Taster of what? His--”
I slapped him. Then, I cursed my carelessness. “Sorry! So sorry!” I blurted as the Senator raised a hand to his cheek. I had become too accustomed to slapping Cal away. Cal always came back like a not-so-intelligent dog. This guy, however, was an official of the state whom I didn’t know a thing about.
The senator then gave a half-bow. “You’ve won the battle, girl, but not the war.”
War? Frozen, I watched as Senator Holt strode away, stepping as if he had a burr stuck under one foot. Did I start a war?
Later that night, I stood, along with Otelius, in the corner of the dining hall and watched as Senator Holt dined with the king and Cal. Holt spoke with unerring yet somehow biting politeness while Cal openly spoke with contempt. The king seemed bewildered by the hostility, especially since they were talking about the funding of a new orphanage.
“I see you have your taste-tester at hand,” Holt then remarked. His eyes burned into me, and I stood straighter, not meeting his gaze directly. Why had this senator suddenly decided to stay for dinner? He had thrown off the routine of my day with his odd presence.
“Avi, yes,” Cal drawled. “What business do you have with her?”
“She assaulted my person earlier,” Holt began, but Cal cut him off.
“A sweet girl like Avi would hardly attack a decent person,” the prince said. He took a gulp from his wine cup. “You, sir, obviously deserved it. You should take it like a man.”
Holt’s expression didn’t change. “Of course. I still felt I ought to bring it up. Perhaps it is acceptable that a senator can be insulted by the prince’s maid.”
“Not a maid,” I mumbled, and the three sitting at the table stared at me. I blushed, feeling warmth crawl up my neck as Cal’s eyes caressed me with tenderness. The man cared for every maid of his. He ensured their well-being, indulged their whims, satiated their craze for him but always avoided involving them whenever he was in a temper. I had never met anyone with so much love.
Cal finished off his wine and nodded. “No, she is not a maid. Avi makes sure the food and drink are safe. Plus, she nags me to do my work. So, she is a taste-tester and perhaps governess in one.”
I winced at the bad reference. Unknown to either Mr. Beanbutt or King Aelius, Cal had tumbled his governess at the youthful age of fourteen. The poor woman was nineteen, but she fell for his charm.
Except now, Cal was twenty and almost old enough to accept the throne for Aelius. The coronation ceremony would take place on his twenty-first birthday. He would be wed beforehand, of course. The question remained to whom.
“That is a strange arrangement,” the senator said.
“Treason, Holt. Remember that word well.” I’d never seen Cal look so scary.
King Aelius made a helpless sound, but Holt only nodded. “I would never dream of treason. The throne belongs to your line, no matter which idiot is next in succession.”
“Gale!” Aelius reprimanded, but apparently, Mr. Beanbutt had had enough. The senator pushed back his chair with a screech, stood and swept away, his blue robes rippling behind him.
Glad to say, the rest of the dinner proceeded smoothly, and Senator Holt was forgotten.