The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 20

Soldiers from every corner of the kingdom, miserable as conditions in the Capitol were, struggled to find housing close to the king’s castle. Many of the Capitol’s regular inhabitants grumbled about being forced to feed and provide beds for so many men, but with the cold weather, the king had no other choice. Most of the citizens were aware that Gatha had been preparing for war as well.

With no news from Mativ, King Aelius sent out a last ultimatum to Gatha, specifically to the hands of its senator, Jameson. The entire castle held its breath, waiting for the answer. However, Gatha’s refusal to reconcile did not strike any of the castle denizens by surprise.

In the heart of the castle, sweeping Cal’s chambers, Aliasse wondered how Gale was managing. Seeing his doctors and purchasing the Aelia must have put a dent on the family funds. The king, of course, allowed a portion of the kingdom’s tax money to be paid to the senators, but that portion had steadily been shrinking along with the amount of free coin to be found in Haiathiel.

The majority of coin had been swept up by a few senators with their nose the pleasurable pursuits to be found in the west end of the Capitol. Aliasse smacked the broom against the floor. No matter how many times she burned the buildings of the west end, the senators managed to reach into their pockets and find money to rebuild.

She wished the king would call out those wealthy senators for neglecting their duty. Most, if not all, of them missed Assemblies as if ashamed to face their fellow administrators. Her frustration melted away as Avi walked into the chamber.

“You’re cleaning the entire room?” She placed a tray of golden biscuits and fresh milk on Cal’s night table.

Aliasse brandished the broom as proof. After leaning it against the wall, she plopped onto Cal’s freshly made bed and snatched a biscuit. Avi joined her. “My back aches. I’m going to ask Jim for a massage later,” Aliasse muttered. One would think after training to be a patroller and then evading the law as a criminal, cleaning would be no problem at all. However, sweeping and dusting Cal’s enormous chambers had taken the breath out of her. At least, the ache of her muscles felt familiar and satisfying except for one patch on her back, which tingled with pain.

Avi nibbled on the edge of a biscuit. “Why do it by yourself? It requires three people to do what you did in two hours.”

Aliasse curled up into a ball and reached out for a fluffed pillow to place over her head. A faint prod at her leg made her sit upright. “Avi?” Her whining faded as the taste-tester continued to look serious.

“Have you heard from Gale?”

At my innocent question, Aliasse looked scandalized. “I have...”

“How is he?” I had written him a detailed letter when the first soldiers arrived. Those men had been from Gale’s region of Hamada. Soon after, soldiers from other regions started flooding into the capitol.

Hundreds of men remained in the city, waiting for a command for King Aelius. The people of Gatha had rebuffed His Majesty’s offer of negotiation in return for the reinstatement of the king’s soldiers in the region. Despite news of Gatha attempting a takeover of the regions that surrounded it, Aelius used the increasing cold weather as a dilatory tactic. When the weather became briefly warmer, as it did in the middle of the cold season, the king would send his gathered soldiers.

Right now, freezing rain poured from the skies. My beloved rooftop was an icy death-land. Most of the castle residents had gotten snippy and sluggish, though Cal was in an irrepressible good mood.

With a wry smile, Aliasse finally answered, “Gale’s fine, working through papers.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“Not at all. Gale finds paperwork soothing. It gives him a sense of order and peace, I guess, as if everything were normal.”

Perhaps my letter reminded him of the not-so-normal rebellion. There had been no return letter after two weeks. I sighed and then wondered where Cal had wandered off to. I hadn’t seen him properly for a while, which may have accounted to why I felt so restless.

“Cal’s been skulking around,” I said.

“He’s up to something.” Aliasse stretched her limbs towards the ceiling. She didn’t continue the thought.

In the end, Aliasse and I whittled away the day with menial chores, a visit to Callie and gossip about Cal’s recondite activities. As night fell upon the phlegmatic inhabitants of the castle, finally Cal appeared in his rooms.

“You missed dinner.” Then again, perhaps he failed to show up on purpose. The frozen rain made city roads impassable and stranded a few senators. The lot of them had stayed for a meal and upset the king with their arguments about sending men to Gatha right away. Remembering Aelius’ distress made my throat thick. The king had almost left the hall, but Otelius had coaxed him to stay and eat.

Cal hopped back onto his bed and spilled his elegant limbs over the freshly iron-pressed silk. “I ate,” he said. Aliasse settled on the bed beside him, taking his hand.

“Without having me check the food?” I questioned. How could Cal be so careless?

“The food was safe.” With that cryptic assurance, he closed his eyes and pulled the blanket over his lanky body. Days after Gale had told me about Cal and Mina, I had resented my prince’s carelessness and his easy caresses. Now, as he slept, my heart ached with concern for him. Cal never took naps.

Aliasse met my gaze and angled her head towards the door. So, after dousing the lights, we left the bedroom in silence. Outside of the prince’s wing, she suddenly spoke, “He had blisters on his hands.”

Blisters from what? “Is it from poison?”

“No,” Aliasse said and dispelled the guilty quivering in my insides. “It looks like he’s been handling something rough, like a sword…”

In the summer, Cal would join the soldiers in their physical training to keep his body in shape. Still, I had never seen him touch a sword. “You sure it’s not a side effect of some obscure poison?”

We debated the matter on our way to the library, where we found an unusual visitor. At the sight of us, Lianne flipped back a sheet of perfect, blond hair and waved. Around Aliasse, the laundry maid was always on her best behavior. Most likely, she was trying to find a way to get closer to Cal, and she had no hope of currying my favor.

“You are not with the prince?” she asked, eyebrows lofted high into her forehead.

“He’s asleep,” Aliasse said. “Has Callie gone back to her rooms?”

Lianne gave a nod and then twirled a stray piece of hair around her finger. “The weather is so unpleasant that people are heading to bed early. There is nothing else that can be done…Still, I’m surprised Cal didn’t bring someone to bed.”

It was true that Cal enjoyed company in bed on cold, winter nights. Tonight, he had dropped into sleep without any suggestive words to me or Aliasse. “Has he said anything to you?”

“To me, Avi? He hasn’t said a word. After all, he only confides in you.”

“I was only worried about the prince,” I snapped. “He’s been so secretive lately.”

“It was just this week that he began disappearing for long periods of time,” Aliasse pointed out. We settled at a library table and began to complain about Cal’s bad habits. Even Lianne pitched in a few complaints about being in his bed.

“He just lies there after he’s done and drifts off to sleep like a child. He’s not one for bed talk.”

“Not at all romantic,” Aliasse said with a mournful side-glance at me.

Lianne laughed so hard that tears came to her eyes. “And he nips even after I tell him not to! I don’t mind, but sometimes I’m laughing too hard to well…” She drifted off suggestively.

Somehow, I couldn’t believe that Cal wasn’t the king of pillow talk. Perhaps that glamour of his did most of the talking for him. Perhaps that glamour had helped him seduce Mina. Then, I suddenly wanted to ask Cal about that night that had ruined Gale Holt’s faith in love.

Why couldn’t I? After offering the other two girls a hasty good-night, I ran all the way back to Cal’s chambers. Outside, in the prince’s parlor, Jim sat at the table, holding the keys to the prince’s wing and waiting to secure the prince’s quarters. Every night, the wing was locked, partly out of tradition, partly to discourage assassins.

Cal’s chamberlain was a respectable old man. He had served Haiathiel for nearly twenty years as a personal aide to the prince and even longer as the castle’s doctor. Jim gave me a curious glance as I, breathless, plopped onto a nearby sofa. “Miss Avi, are you well?”

“Fine.” I hesitated. “There aren’t any poisons you know of that cause blisters on the hands, right?”

“None that I know of,” Jim answered. As always, the old man gave a cautious answer whenever he was uncertain.

Perhaps I would have the chamberlain give Cal a thorough check-over after all. “Jim, could you make sure the prince is…” How to put it without giving him a heart attack?

“I can evaluate his health though he seemed quite active earlier.”

Yes, the prince had been running around, evading his maids and driving them crazy. “Let me wake him first. I’ll fetch you when he’s up!” I veered away through the study, through the solar and into Cal’s bedroom.

A lazy yawn came from the bed. A poke to the ribs quickly woke him. He looked so forlorn at this interruption of his sleep that I almost decided to leave him be. Then, as I took his strangely rough hands and he pulled away with a wince, I willed myself to stay.

“Cal, I’ve been meaning to ask you…”

“Right now, Avi?” He yawned again, his teeth bright white in the gray gloom. “Can’t it wait until morning?”

In the sudden quiet, the roar of ice pounding the castle walls and window distracted me. “I’ve never heard rain like that.”

Cal reached out to grip my chin with the tips of his fingers. “Are you scared, Avi?”

“Of the weather? No.” I snatched the edges of his hand and opened it to expose the pink, raised ridges on his skin. “What have you been doing?”

He pulled his hand away. “I can’t tell you.”

Those evasive words sounded so unlike the prince. Perhaps an imposter had been placed under our noses? “Cal, why?”

“You wouldn’t like it. I hate worrying you.”

He sounded sincere enough. “I’m more worried because I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Nothing is ‘going on,’ Avi.”

“Besides a civil war.”

“Besides that,” he allowed with a beautiful smile. When my body prickled with longing, I realized how dangerous it was to be so close to him, in a dark bedroom, with no one else around. I had better spit out my question and then have Jim attend to the prince’s hands.

“Cal, do you remember a woman named Mina?”

“Mina? Is there a new maid?”

Sometimes, I wished I had the ability to see a liar instead of poison. “When you were younger and allowed to roam the Capitol…”

Adorably puzzled, Cal looked up at me. “Who told you about that?”

“Holt. He saw you visit a woman named Mina.”

“Well, I do remember encountering him in a less than savory part of the city,” Cal began. “You mustn’t think too badly of me, but I wanted to try out one of the best courtesans in the city. Her name may have been Mina. I ran into Holt in her private residence; he may have been waiting his turn.”

Cal tugged me onto the bed, and I was too busy listening to protest. “You might not believe it, but the senator was very free with his body back then. He was quite tasteless and indiscriminate about his bed-mates.”

So, at least, Cal hadn’t done it out of malice. “He’s different now,” I said, my shoulder against Cal’s.

“Different, indeed. He vowed to never take another woman to his bed! The war changed him.” Instead of the usual mockery, Cal sounded pensive. “I heard he was careless. He volunteered to fight in the front line every time as if he were trying to kill himself…”

I decided against telling Cal how much Mina had meant to Gale. I didn’t want to burden my prince, and Gale probably didn’t want him to know. Then again, if Cal knew, would he make amends or just laugh at the poor senator?

“Did that woman mention she was being courted by another?” I wondered out loud.

Cal shook his head. “Why are you so interested in this woman?”

At this point, I couldn’t imagine why Cal couldn’t connect the clues. “Just curious.”

“She didn’t mention anything of the sort. I can’t even remember her that well.”

Of course, to Cal, she was just another female body. At least, restricted to the harem in the castle, he knew all of our names and faces.

I stood to go though Cal latched onto my skirt to tug me back. “Please, Avi, stay tonight.”

I shoved his hand off, and the prince muffled a groan. “I’ll have Jim take a look at your hands. Good night.”

“Good night, Avi.” His parting grin coaxed me back, but I battled desire until I could shut the door on that handsome face. After telling Jim the prince was awake now, I strode through the empty, chilled corridors to my rooms. Perhaps hibernation was a good idea after all.

Weak morning sun glittered on the ice-plated ground. A faint crunching disturbed the silence of dawn as a gray horse and tawny-haired rider crossed the slush in front of the castle where soldiers gathered in a tight, linear formation. The prince of Haiathiel surveyed the eager faces before him.

“Though the sun has not melted the ice completely, we must head out. My father has left Gatha stir trouble for far too long.”

Garigus Celeriter stepped out of his row to bow. “We will follow if you will lead us, Your Highness.” The old captain felt a tremor shake his body: of fear or of excitement, he did not know. The king knew nothing of this, but the king, as respectable as his accomplishments were, had been too cowardly to discipline Gatha.

Cal’s initiative surprised him, and only after several days of dedicated planning had Garigus been convinced that the prince was earnest about the endeavor and not merely looking to amuse himself. Either way, the soldiers had been cooped up too long, and a handful had gotten into trouble with women and gambling as bored men will.

“I will lead.” The prince of Haiathiel drew his sword—a light, sharp half-length sword that had been wielded by Aelius. He lifted the hilt and allowed the silver metal to catch the morning light. Men cheered, and with the hope of returning to the warmth of their familiar quarters, they set off after their prince on the road to Gatha.

Garigus rode on a gray gelding beside the prince as a guide. He observed that Letris didn’t appear nervous despite being on a war campaign for the first time. As they rode out into the Capitol, soldiers melted out of the buildings, a mass of armored bodies that swelled the flanks. By the time the prince’s army trickled out of the Capitol and onto the road to the eastern regions, their number of men had nearly tripled.

Sparing a glance over his shoulder, Garigus took in the men stepping in time. Along with a suit of newly designed metal armor that could carry multiple blades, each man had a rifle and a short sword. “We have at least a thousand men, Your Highness. I don’t think Gatha will be expecting such an army.”

“I know.” With an absentminded smile for the other man, Letris wrapped his reins around a hand. Gatha would at last see its future king.

That morning, everyone woke late. Even I, responsible for inspecting the king’s breakfast, woke near mid-morning. As I scurried towards the dining hall, Aliasse intercepted me in a corridor. Frantically, she told me that Cal had left the Capitol with an army behind him. Likely, they were headed to Gatha.

“The king didn’t even know!” Aliasse finished.

I couldn’t imagine Cal riding off to war. I wasn’t even aware that Cal knew how to ride a horse. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.”

Aliasse looked miffed by my nonchalance. “That man doesn’t know a thing about war! What if he gets himself killed? King Aelius…he wept as if his heart were broken, Avi!”

“Is the king with Otelius?”

Her racing thoughts seemed to slow as she nodded. “Otelius insisted the king recover from his shock in private. Those rotten senators are happy now. None of them showed any consideration for His Majesty. They just want the problem with Gatha gone, so they can feel safe.”

Even so, I felt relieved. “If he has Garigus with him, Cal will be fine. He’s saved his father a lot of trouble.”

“Garigus hasn’t been in a proper battle. He was made commander of the Guard last year,” Aliasse said. At my questioning gaze, she explained, “Gale always told me about changes in the kingdom, so I could always be ready to take his place if necessary.”

“So, Cal is leading a huge army with no experienced man behind him?” My empty stomach roiled with dread.

“They’re idiots.” Aliasse began to pace.

I knew nothing of war, but still, surely the situation wasn’t as dire as the king and Aliasse were making it out to be? I was almost proud of Cal for taking a step outside of the castle to show what he was made of. Perhaps, like Gale had hoped, an approaching army would frighten the rebels into capitulating. Then, Cal wouldn’t have to worry about strategy or bullets aimed at his pretty head. “Any news of where he is?”

Aliasse froze in her pacing to answer me. “The army should send messengers back to the king at regular intervals, but His Majesty has heard nothing.”

“Maybe Cal will send us a message soon.”

So, we settled on waiting. For late lunch, I entered the dining hall to face the king. Aelius managed a wobbly smile as I inspected the food as if nothing were amiss. Instead of standing in his usual corner, Otelius hovered near the king’s elbow, ready to support His Majesty.

“Avi, how are you managing without my son?”

“I miss him, but he’ll be back soon, Your Majesty.”

“I…hope so.”

Certainly, I fared better than Cal’s poor father. His eyes were blood-shot and watery, his nose glowing red. He couldn’t even lift his fork to eat, and Otelius eventually took pity on him and managed the king’s utensils. Though I wanted to flee the oppressive room, I saw my duty through and was rewarded as the king perked at the sight of dessert.

After Otelius assured me he could escort the king back to his rooms, I left for my parlor where the Aelia greeted me. As promised, the blossom hadn’t begun to droop or lose petals. I wondered if Gale had heard of Cal’s march towards Gatha.

Hours after lunch, no messenger came from Cal, and I put the pen Gale gave me to paper for the king’s sake. I used the light parchment meant for urgent messages carried by bird. The king had no men left to send after the missing army, but surely a senator could help…

In a matter of few minutes, I finished and rolled up the letter. After a trek to a castle tower I had never been to before, I tied the message to a bird trained to fly to Hamada. The bird-keeper assured me it would reach the senator’s estate before nightfall. I couldn’t feel too worried with round-eyed birds filling the air with questioning coos.

“Is there anything else you need, Miss Avi?”

I resisted the urge to ask the bird-keeper, a kindly gentleman who rarely showed his face in the inner castle, if I could pet one. “No, that’s all. Thank you very much.” Walking towards the tower exit, I peered at the round, white birds huddled in their straw nests. Until they were called to work, they were content to sit and preen their feathers with curved beaks that were sharper than the average pigeon’s.

“They were once attack birds,” the keeper told me. “However, with the development of the gun, they are now merely used to carry messages.”

“Would anyone shoot them now?” I asked in alarm.

“I doubt it,” he assured me. “I will have someone find you when the message arrives.”

After thanking him, I hurried out of the very outskirts of the castle to the heart of it, where dinner was being served in the king’s private parlor, rather than the dining hall. As I came forward to look over the food, King Aelius reached out to take my hands.

“Your Majesty?”

“I do wish that Cal hadn’t left you so suddenly.”

I blushed, and Otelius changed a chuckle into a dry cough. Smiling, Aelius released me. I had to inspect the food and then run because the senators were having dinner in the dining hall as well.

After bidding the king farewell, I scurried to the main dining hall and immediately attracted the gazes of five senators. I recognized one as the stout and good-natured Senator Gatherby and another as Senator Mason. The other three were middle-aged men, whose names evaded me. Compared to them, Gale seemed so young.

“Senators.” I gave them a polite nod before scanning the dishes set on the table. “The meal is safe.”

“Isn’t a taste-tester supposed to taste the food?” Mason glared at the food as if someone would actually bother poisoning him.

“You’re the one marrying Letris, are you not?” said another.

I explained how magic allowed me to see poison rather than taste it. Then I addressed the second man with an acid smile copied from Lianne, “His Highness will marry who he wills.”

None of them spoke a word after that and turned to their plates with great interest. I made a mental note to thank Lianne later.

As the day dragged into night, the entire castle waited for news. My patience finally cracked, and I rushed to the bird-keeper’s quarters. At the other end of the circular room, the bird-keeper was standing at the large window through which birds were released. Turning around, he showed me the indignantly peeping gray bird sandwiched in his hands.

“Good timing. It’s from Hamada.”

He held out the bird, and I detached the roll of paper from a scaly, squirming leg. Unraveling the message, I felt the bird-keeper’s keen gaze. A single line was written in Gale’s elegant script:

“I am going to find him. I will send more news soon.”

I blinked, glad to find tears, at last, for Cal’s predicament.

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