Bounding into Aliasse’s recreation room, I found more company than expected. Faces grim, they looked as if someone was going to die. Aliasse had one fist wrapped around the arm of Gale’s robe. Cal was seated, in a rather dejected manner, at the table. The table was covered in the wooden board and pieces of a game that evolved parallel to the game chess from my world.
I scurried over to clean up. “Lunch is almost ready. You all should probably head down.”
“Avi.” Cal’s voice came out hoarse, and I gave him a look-over. His nose wasn’t red like it usually was whenever he had a cold. “What did you think of the flower?”
He knew about that? Then again, Cal had a habit of lurking in my chambers when looking for me. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” I turned to Gale, who looked a bit peaky. “Thank you. That flower has erased every mean thing you’ve said to me. Your letter was also very considerate.”
“Letter?” Aliasse repeated.
“A sincere apology,” I told her. “Now, we can all get along because we all owe each other. Right, Cal?”
“What do I owe him?” Suddenly sulking, my prince angled his head towards the senator, who, now that Aliasse had released him, plopped into a chair.
“He’s the reason you’re going to Assemblies, and he’s the one who escorted us out into the Capitol.” Then I wagged a finger at the senator. “Cal saved your life…even though I was the idiot who put it in danger in the first place. Well, never mind that.”
Then the stormcloud over Aliasse’s head distracted me. What had these two said to her? Or perhaps they had argued? “What did you two do?” I scowled at them. “I can’t believe the insensitivity of men. At this rate, I’m not sure I want to meet my true love.” Leaving the mess on the table, I placed my arms around Aliasse.
She clung back so hard, I almost fell over. “What did they say?”
“Nothing,” Aliasse said. “Gale’s leaving the court and not coming back.”
“I don’t think he could stay away.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cal stand, odd anger painted on his face. “I mean, you’re here, and he’s always tangled up in the business of the kingdom.”
Gale’s expression struggled between relief and protest. “I am a senator, after all.”
I nodded. “You have to return to the Capitol sometimes, especially now with the war…Is Hamada near Gatha?”
“Another region separates them,” Cal answered. He strode over to take my chin and angled my head up for scrutiny. I felt my skin burn, as it always did, at his tender touch. “Did you say lunch was ready?”
“Yes! Let’s go!” I shepherded them out of the room and down to the dining hall. The silence could have suffocated. Outside the dining hall, Aliasse paused and shook her head. The prince and senator strode in as bold as could be, but I suppose Aliasse had it right that servants shouldn’t eat with royalty. “We can eat together as soon as I finish inspecting the food,” I promised her.
“Of course,” she said, though she still looked upset. I felt guilty leaving her, but duty called. Inside the hall, the seat to the king’s left was empty as it had been for a week. No one could take Mativ’s place, not even Gale.
Cal, of course, sat on his father’s right hand. He was staring at his empty plate as if he were thinking hard. Usually, his gaze wandered, caressing everything with a smoldering stare. Gale sat at the far end of the six-person table though the king was cajoling him to sit a bit closer. The senator refused with a polite bow, and then the dishes for lunch were brought in and placed on the table.
I inspected the broiled venison and the sauce accompanying it. The vegetables and fruit did not escape my scrutiny. The bread and butter seemed innocent enough, but I took a good look at the breaded cones of cream that were a sweet lunchtime dessert. No glowing. No poison.
I did the same for the drinks and then bowed to the king, who thanked me with a gentle smile. Otelius, still in his corner, allowed me to slip out of the dining hall to meet Aliasse, who was pacing in the corridor outside.
Now, time for some questions. “What were you guys discussing earlier? When I came in, the room was so...unfriendly.”
Aliasse crossed her arms behind her back. “We were discussing the flower Gale gave you, and its significance.”
“He told me in the letter what the flower symbolized,” I said and looped my arm with hers. She smiled and relaxed, looking more like herself.
“You don’t think it’s odd that Gale gave you such a rare flower?”
I hadn’t actually. “It’s rare?”
“Near impossible to find or grow.” My stomach rumbled, and a moment later, so did Aliasse’s.
We giggled like idiots until we reached the kitchen. Once the cook had handed us bowls of vegetable soup and bread, we settled in a nearby parlor. We continued the discussion only after most of the food disappeared down our gaping gullets.
“How rare are we talking? Is an Aelia expensive?”
“Thousands of stals.”
Thousands! I almost choked on the bread. “He must feel that he has a lot to make up for.” Then again, he did see me naked, scare me in the west end, so on and so forth…I wasn’t about to explain the details of that last part to Aliasse though. “I didn’t think he would feel so bad.”
“Is it only an apology, you think?” Aliasse sunk back into the sofa.
I shrugged. “I can’t imagine what else.”
“Do you know who you’re giving the flower to?”
Well that was a bit of personal question. “No one yet,” I replied. “There’s no guarantee I’ll tell you if I do know.”
She grinned at me in a not so completely reassuring way. “When you know, I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“Fine.” I waved her away. “Now explain what upset you so much earlier.”
“They were fighting over you, Avi. Cal thought Gale gave you the flower as a token of his…affection, I suppose. But Gale, he…you can’t get mad at him for it. Please.”
“I won’t get mad.” There was nothing the senator could do to make me angry anymore. We had already hurt each other too much, and I wouldn’t continue the chain of self-destruction.
“He expects you to give the flower to Cal. It was supposed to move you into realizing how much you love the prince.” Aliasse must have noticed my blank look. “This doesn’t make sense without the story, does it?”
Then Aliasse told me the story of Queen Aelia. At its end, I raised an eyebrow. “So the queen chose her gardener. Even though I might believe in things like true love, I don’t want to be manipulated by a flower.”
“True love, hmm.” Aliasse seemed to shake herself. “It’s not so much about the flower, Avi. It’s about noticing the one who has been at your side and yet gone unrecognized.”
“Not notice the prince of Haiathiel?” I snorted. “I’ve noticed him plenty, enough to know he’s not my true love. Anyway, is that all? I can clear up the misunderstanding with Cal easily enough.”
Aliasse was like the wind, always moving. Now she sat still, dragged down by thought. “Gale is angry because I’ve been spending so much time with Cal.”
“As expected,” I quipped, but she still had a rain cloud over her head. “Of course, he would object. He’s your foster brother and protective of you. You just have to keep showing him that you’re responsible, that you can handle Cal like none of us can.”
At the end of my speech, Aliasse squeezed me into a suffocating hug. “By the way,” I squeaked, “how do you manage to keep your wits around him?”
Sitting back, she stated, “He has a glamour on him, Avi.”
“Like an attractive magic?” That explained his irresistibility to his maids, the pull I fought all the time.
“Exactly. He may have been born with that ability, or someone may have placed it on him.” Aliasse stood and began to straighten up our plates on the parlor table. “But it wouldn’t last long if it were placed…”
Two years ago, curiosity about my magic and Cal’s recommendation led me to the castle library. There, buried in books that seemed more like fables than history, snippets about magic turned up. Random and rare. Unpredictable but sometimes abilities ran in families. That was magic.
“What else do you know?” I asked.
“It works on both men and women to some degree. In the case of men, Gale is immune to our prince’s charm, but on the other hand…” She left me to fill in the meaningful silence.
“His Majesty is affected,” I realized. Poor Aelius, who had loved his son from the beginning, had become an overly doting father. “How can you resist a glamour? Just by knowing it’s there?”
Aliasse reached behind the neck of her dress and pulled out the strange necklace. The stone glittered a poisonous purple, and bile rose in the back of my throat until I looked away. “This amulet cancels out magic. All magic. Please don’t touch it.”
Else I might lose the ability to detect poison. Leaning away a little from that noxious aura, I asked, “If we placed it on Cal…”
“The glamour would be gone.” Aliasse fiddled with the silver chain. “He doesn’t like necklaces. He told me.”
“Yeah, not wearing one leaves his neck open for his little, manipulative games,” I muttered even as Aliasse’s eyes widened.
“Ha, and I’m supposed to be the modest one.”
Shaking her head, she tucked the necklace away, and my entire body sighed with relief. As handy as that amulet was, I felt some bad vibes from it. I wanted to ask where she had gotten the thing, but Aliasse looked exhausted and not in the mood for any more questioning.
I placed a hand on her wrist. “Go rest. I’ll bring the tray back.”
“Thank you.” Aliasse kissed the side of my forehead on the same spot that Gale had kissed so long ago. I wondered if it was a familial thing, but I let her go without asking. After dropping the tray off at the kitchen, I felt a sudden urge to see Cal, to look at him again now that I knew about his glamour.
I found the prince at his desk. Somehow, it was reassuring to find him napping with his head on a mound of paperwork. The ink stains on his hand beckoned me closer. The papers looked like law proposals. To think that Cal had gone through them and marked corrections, even scribbled suggestions. Before I could tell my hand “no,” my fingers weaved through his soft hair.
“Avi?” His eyes snapped open, an affectionate, bright green. He kept his head on the paperwork, the most handsome paper weight I’d ever seen.
“You shouldn’t sleep out here,” I said. Before I could withdraw my hand, he slipped his hand into mine. “Cal?”
He didn’t say a word, only watched me.
“I see…you’ve done some work,” I continued.
“Just like Holt. Is that what makes him attractive?”
I flicked the prince’s forehead, ignoring his over-exaggerated grimace. “That flower was an apology, Cal. Nothing else.”
Then, he sat up straight and tipped back his chair. “My dark angel, your feelings are your own. But if Holt is bothering you…”
“He’s not! He wanted me to return that flower to you,” I finally admitted. A flicker of surprise from Cal. “But I want you to find your true love.”
My words only fed his mischief. “Then that flower will be mine after all?”
“I apologize…but really, you are too easy to agitate,” he said, standing to turn me around, so he was no longer speaking to my back. I couldn’t help that every ounce of frustration melted away at his grin. “I won’t harass you any further. Good night, Avi.”
“Good night.” For the first time in a while, he had not invited me to join him. He slipped deeper into his chambers, leaving the stack of edited papers as the only evidence that he’d been at his desk at all.
Gale Holt collapsed back on the bed. The entire length of his body bent, spine buckling, diaphragm tensed, in an effort not to scream. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. After a while, the pain dimmed to a burning.
Managing to sit up, he surveyed his packed bags with satisfaction. He had spent too long on his feet in an effort to prepare everything for departure, and like an old man’s body, his body reproached him for it. He didn’t care.
A sudden knocking on his door didn’t budge him. Likely, it was Aliasse, who would plead with him to stay. One way or another, she might convince him to do so, but it was too dangerous now, especially with the prince ready to kill him over Avi…
“Knock! Knock! I know you’re in there.”
“No, I’m not,” he muttered. At this point, he would have much rather have had Letris pay him a visit.
“Fine, I’ll talk at you from out here,” said his door petulantly.
A smile lifted a corner of his mouth. “You can come in, Miss Avi. It is unlocked.”
The door creaked open, and the taste-tester stepped inside. The nine large leather bags on the floor diverted her accusations into curiosity. “That’s quite a bit of stuff.” Her gaze swept the barren desk and shelves of the room. “You’re bringing everything back?”
“I am not returning to the Capitol since the Assembly is on recess until mid-winter. If the king requires me, he will summon me. Until then, I will stay in Hamada.”
Avi pulled a string from the end of her white-laced sleeve. “With the war, will you be safe? You’re not planning to fight, are you? If you did, you’d finish yourself off for good.” Then she gave him a sheepish smile. “That sounded terrible, but if you died, Aliasse…”
“I am not fighting,” Gale returned before she could complete her sentence. “Aliasse doesn’t need me. She is a grown woman. I cannot choose her husband for her. I cannot control her.”
The taste-tester strode forward into his personal space. “Why don’t you try trusting her? She’s smart. If she does end up marrying Cal, would it be so terrible? Only for you, right? You would hate your brother-in-law.”
Gale dipped his head. He had been selfish. He always had been, though Aliasse seemed oblivious to it. “As you say, I am not fond of Letris.”
“You could have changed that,” Avi continued. “Why don’t you work together?”
The argument stirred up his leg again, and he hunched over on the bed, tightening muscles and willing the pain to go away. “He…” The truth would shatter Avi’s respect for the prince. Could he do that? More than likely, she would take Letris’ side as she always did.
“He was the man whom Mina betrayed me for.”
The silence lengthened until Avi shook her head. She sat on the bed, drew a handkerchief from her dress-pocket and dabbed at the senator’s face. “You’re in pain. You don’t know what you’re saying, do you? Cal couldn’t have been there. He hasn’t left the castle for years.”
When the senator choked, Avi sprang away towards the door, intent on fetching Jim. Gale reached out as if he could pull her back. “Please, I am perfectly lucid.”
“Well, if you can speak fancy like that, then maybe.” She tiptoed back to sit on the bed beside him. “Are you certain?”
He could remember the day, one etched into his memory after years of re-living it in distorted night-mares. Walking into the bedroom, he had found Mina interlocked with the prince. They, far too pre-occupied with each other, hadn’t even stopped when he had burst into the room.
His eyes had not accepted the sight until he stood there for what felt like years. Then, clasping the ring he had been hoping that Mina would accept to his cracking heart, he retreated to wait in Mina’s personal parlor until the ruffled prince emerged.
A young Letris, full of boyish charm at sixteen, had grinned down at him before leaving the cozy house in the west end. For Letris, it had only been another casual encounter. Gale hadn’t waited there long enough to confront Mina. He retreated to Hamada and immersed himself in his father’s affairs, which led him to find solace with Aliasse, someone as broken-hearted as he was.
“Avi, it was Letris. Before the first war with Gatha, Aelius allowed his son to run rampant in the city. Then, as a concerned father, he began to tighten Letris’ rein. I imagine it’s upsetting to learn that Letris did not mention his past to you.” Weary from the confession, the senator leaned his head against the wall.
Avi huddled closer. “I’m not the one who’s been hurt.”
Even so, Gale felt the ache accompanying the memory fade a little. No one had known—not the king, not Aliasse, not his late father—about the wound that the prince inflicted. Now, one other knew and could help him shoulder the burden.
He half-wondered if the hand now covering his own also contributed to the lessening of his pain. “Avi…”
“Please don’t hate Letris on my account.”
He felt his body stiffen. “You don’t?” How could she find an excuse for what Letris had done?
“Well, I can’t,” she corrected. “He’s shown me too much kindness, though what he did to you is unforgivable. I’ve been thinking…”
The senator snorted. Letris certainly had not been thinking when he had tumbled Mina. The prince was a creature of urges and passions. Perhaps Mina had grown tired of Gale’s courtship. He had romanced her instead of using her as what she had once been: a whore. Of course, a woman like that would prefer Letris!
“Maybe Mina regrets it. You haven’t talked to her since then, so you don’t know what she feels. Maybe something beyond her control made it too hard for her to refuse…” Avi held out her palms in a contemplative gesture.
Her irritating words multiplied the pain coursing down his leg. He gripped her arm in warning, but she didn’t notice. “What the hell do you mean?”
“Senator, your language!” Avi shrugged. “You know how women are about Cal, and he’s a prince. How could Mina refuse him? Maybe she truly loved you, and you walked in at an unfortunate time! You should ask for the truth, at least.”
All those years of brooding on the memory, he had never come to that particular conclusion. As he sat, stunned, Avi untangled herself from his grasp and stood. “I almost forgot. I’m supposed to be angry with you.”
“For what?” To avoid her gaze, he reached down to place pressure on the jutting bone of his shin. If Mina still loved him…
“You expected me to give Cal the flower?”
Senator Gale Holt stood, glad to see the girl step back a little. At least, he could still inspire a healthy fear in this stubborn taste-tester. “I expect you to give it to the one you love, Miss Avi. That is all. Now, would you please leave me before my foul language sets your ears bleeding?”
“You need to have an expert look at that leg,” Avi said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“There is one temporary cure.” He slunk back to the bed and gave her an inviting grin.
“Ha,” she said weakly, “you’ll have to find some other girl for that!” Then she fled, shutting the door behind her.
The next morning, we came to the front of the castle to bid Gale Holt farewell. Even the king and the other senators came to see him off. The only major absence was Cal’s. Aelius and the others had left after being assured that the senator would ride in comfort in the horse-drawn carriage all the way from Hamada. Now only Aliasse and I remained.
“I’ll be back soon,” Holt said.
“Two months is not soon.” I didn’t know if Aliasse could last that long without going crazy with worry for him.
“Just…stay warm. Stay safe.” Perhaps unconsciously, Aliasse reached to touch the pouch at her waist. The pouch contained Gale’s gun, which had been locked to prevent misfire. Still, the fact that such a deadly weapon was necessary made me certain that something more sinister than Capitol muggers haunted the two foster siblings.
Gale cleared his throat: a nervous habit. “Aliasse, may I speak with Avi?”
His foster sister crossed her arms and nodded for him to go ahead.
With a sigh, Aliasse kissed him on the cheek and then backed up to whack his arm. “Don’t say anything inappropriate. Or anything about protecting me. See you!” She sprinted towards the castle doors, and I saw she had been holding up her smile with the frailest bulwarks.
I turned to face the senator, who considered me without a trace of mischief. He pulled a sheaf of paper from his robe pocket and handed it over. On top of the pile was a paper with what looked like an address.
“If anything happens to Aliasse or to you or to the kingdom…Please feel free to write to me. Otelius can you assist you with the sending of it.” Then, with an artistic flourish, he drew a tapered ink-pen from his pocket. He pressed it into my numb hand. “If you need me, I will come rushing back.”
That sounded almost romantic. Of course, he probably didn’t mean it like that.
“I hope your writing is legible?” he continued.
“Not as beautiful as yours, but people can read it.”
His fingers brushed back a troublesome curl of my hair. “Beautiful?”
“It is,” I stuttered before backing away.
The man’s graceful bow seemed fit for a king. Straightening, he met my stupefied gaze. “Unless anything urgent comes up, I will see you in two months. Good-bye, Avi.”
He began hobbling down the steps towards the carriage waiting at the open castle gates. “Wait,” I called, and he paused. “Can I write even if nothing bad has happened? I’ll keep you updated on all the castle gossip.”
“Of course.” With a smile and a wave, the man steadily made his way, despite the pain he must still be in, to the carriage. I didn’t move to return to the castle until the horses had pulled the senator’s carriage past the gates and onto the streets of the waiting Capitol.