An auburn horse browsed the ice-encrusted ground and then raised her head to snuffle at the human hobbling nearby. Gale Holt absently brushed a hand along the animal’s nose and then sighed. He lacked both a map and directions though the plains around them looked characteristic of the region. He had been relying on his memories of the previous war in Gatha, but...
Gale pulled his ankle-length fur coat tighter around his body. In truth, he was even more reckless than the prince by going off in the general direction of Gatha with little idea of where the army would be. He had hoped smoke from the large army’s camp would be enough to lead him once he crossed the border. Apparently not.
A faint sound of fluttering and inquiring coos came from the horse’s saddle where a small cage covered in a white cloth had been secured. There was the option of sending a bird to find the closest castle with a plea for aid attached. However, whether the inhabitants would decide to kill him or help him was luck’s choice. At the moment, Gale decided he wouldn’t test his luck. If Mativ truly had been killed, then no senator was safe in this region.
Facing the wind—north towards the heart of the region—he plodded onward with the mare, affectionately called Ritha, crunching closely behind. He had ridden all day but continued on foot. For the king’s sake, he would find Letris and maybe, just maybe, for Avi’s mental well-being as well. The senator laughed out loud, making Ritha snort in consternation.
“I’m a fool to even think—”
An iron-tipped arrow that buried into the ice a finger-length from his foot stopped his next words: “that this act of idiocy would help her.”
“Do not move if you value your life.”
Two grim-faced men in full metal armor came to stand in front of the senator, who was doing his best not to reach down to clutch his suddenly painful leg. Their armor was burnished to the deepest of blacks, and on their breasts, the crest of Haiathiel shone in silver. Gale exhaled in relief.
“You are the king’s men,” Gale said. “I am one of the king’s senators.”
The man who spoke earlier gave him a wry smile. “Julius,” he addressed the other soldier, “take the man’s horse.”
“We’re bringing him back to camp?” Julius lowered the longbow trained on the senator, freed the arrow from the string, and slung the bow in a belt across his back. He then snatched Ritha’s hanging reins, and Gale grumbled to find the usually restive mare not bothered by the change in ownership.
Julius and the other soldier, who was called Melvin, escorted the senator through the woods, taking a circuitous path that seemed to criss-cross back on itself. Finally, as they still hadn’t reached their destination, Gale inquired, “Are we lost?”
Melvin scowled through his beard. “No.” The soldier glanced upwards as if looking for a clue in the sky. “We’re throwing off anyone who might come looking for you.”
After one agonizing hour in which Gale didn’t dare to kneel and rub his aching limb for fear of alarming his escorts, they came upon the prince’s camp. Rows and rows of pitched black tents encircled a two-level manor. The white stone walls had yellowed with age and looked ready to crumble. Gale stopped to stare, not even moving when Julius prodded him with the butt end of a sword.
“How did the king gather so many men?” It was true that the senators agreed to send Aelius men and supplies, but Holt didn’t expect they would do so to this degree.
“The prince gathered these men,” Melvin corrected. “These are from every region but Gatha. You see now the strength of Haiathiel, rebel?”
“I’m not a rebel,” Gale said automatically. Though Avi had written him an earnest letter about the prince leaving on his own with an army to deal with the insurgents in Gatha, he had not entirely believed it. Not until now.
The bird pecked at the black stone of the window-sill before lifting its head and cooing at Wilem, the castle birdkeeper. Attached to the bird’s leg was a thick, creamy parchment that looked too heavy for a tiny bird body to carry. The paper turned out to weigh as much as a feather. At Wilem’s insistence, I held a stray feather in one hand and the paper in the other to feel the similarity for myself.
“You should inform His Majesty that news of his son has arrived.” Wilem wrung his thin hands and bobbed his head a few times for emphasis.
In truth, I bet the birdkeeper was eager to hear the news himself. Apparently, Cal had been kind to the man as a child. I never imagined my prince as an animal-lover, but Wilem had spoken of Cal’s daily visitations of the birds to check up on them.
“I’ll open it now,” I decided. The seal of the folded letter came off at the movement of a fingernail. Gale’s script greeted me, and I read his words aloud.
I was imprisoned once again at the hands of our prince. His men who found me thought me a wandering rebel. Not until evening did Letris deign to visit his prisoner and release me.
“Let me apprise you of the situation now: Letris has the rebels of Gatha at his mercy. Jameson and some number of the rebels have barricaded themselves in a manor and will likely surrender soon. Letris believes it will be a matter of a couple of days plus the time needed to return to the Capitol. The prince has written a few words of comfort for his father. I trust those words to reach His Majesty by your hands.”
Wilem blinked, reminding me more and more of an ancient owl. “The young prince has cornered the rebels. His Majesty will be most glad.”
“Cal was lucky,” I pointed out. The paper with Gale’s letter peeled to produce a page with Cal’s haphazard scrawl. The handwriting suited him: hasty, impulsive but still charming.
After bidding Wilem good-night, I made my way to the king’s antechamber. There Aelius was sitting at the table immersed in a game of “Warmonger”—the name of the board game that was so similar to chess—with Aliasse. Otelius hovered nearby, his face soft with a fond smile.
“Your Majesty.” At the entrance to the circular room, I cleared my throat.
Aelius hopped to his feet with an eagerness that told me his mind had not been in the game at all. “Have you heard from Gale?”
With a nod, I entered to hand the king his son’s letter. Meanwhile, Aliasse stiffened at the king’s words. While the king read Cal’s words greedily, Aliasse flicked a wooden equestrian with a finger, perhaps out of boredom. Somehow, that tiny gesture radiated anger.
She tapped her knuckles against the sleek table surface. “I should have thought of contacting Gale, but he never gave me permission to send emergency missives.”
“I’m sorry I had to make him chase after Cal,” I said. “Maybe he thought you would send too many messages…”
“I do wonder what that man was thinking,” Aliasse grumbled. Behind her, Otelius winked at me. Unsure how to proceed, I stood in silence until the king’s exclamation of joy distracted us.
“My dear boy has done it!” Aelius said with a great heave of his thin bosom. “He says he shall come home as soon as possible.” Then the king removed a third piece of paper I hadn’t seen earlier and held it out in my direction.
I skipped forward to take it, not surprised that Cal had written to me as well. Though I mostly trusted Gale, it would be reassuring to hear the situation from Cal’s hands, just in case he let slip a detail the senator omitted.
“For Aliasse,” the king said as my fingers clutched the paper.
Hopefully not showing my shock, I passed off the letter to Aliasse, whose face adopted a startled smile. I stood there as she read and as the king began to re-read his own letter. Most likely, there would be a fourth piece of parchment with a few words for me, but once Aliasse finished reading, she placed the letter on her lap with a disappointing finality. “Avi, Cal sends his regards to you as well.”
Just his regards? “Well,” I said, “now that we know Cal is safe, shall we eat dinner?”
The king and Aliasse agreed. Very soon, dinner was served, and I did my usual inspection with a smile. At least, the senators who were in the castle earlier had returned to their residences in the Capitol, so I didn’t have to deal with their nosiness.
I only stood in the corner of the dining hall beside Otelius and watched the king and Aliasse chat animatedly. Still, I wondered: why was there no letter for me? What had I done to anger Cal?
Around a crackling red fire, two men perched on a flat, black boulder. They sat angled away from each other, one lounging, the other stiffly straight. One shifted his boots, and the wet earth below his feet made a sucking sound. The lighter-haired man sighed and glanced back at the cloth tent set up behind them.
“I hope they surrender soon,” he said. “Else the mud will…” Letris Calpurnius trailed off as he realized that Senator Holt’s mind was elsewhere.
“Letris?” Holt returned smoothly as if he had not been staring out into the darkness a moment ago. Truly, it wasn’t darkness at all. Flares of red dotted the land around them, marking individual tents that could fit three or four men. Packed together, the glow from the fires made the camp area almost as easy to navigate as in daylight. In contrast, the rebel manor, which the prince’s camp embraced tightly, was a smudge of black as if the people inside hoped to escape their plight by disappearing.
“Is there a reason you called me out of my thoughts?” Holt said as the prince settled his body more comfortably on the rock they shared.
Letris clenched a fist and examined the golden ring on his index finger. “What filled your thoughts?”
“Matters of my estate.”
“I would not dare lie to you.” Holt clutched his jacket closer. In truth, he had been reviewing the low numbers from his account books when the thought of Avi and Aliasse’s reactions to the prince’s escapade diverted him.
“Then you are not telling me the whole of it.”
“You are correct,” Holt said, “but how…”
Letris lifted a finger to his temple. “I have learned from observation. You think I am a fool, but…”
“You are a fool.” The senator waited for the prince to call over and command a few soldiers to drag him and his foolish mouth through the mud.
When Letris merely sighed, the senator asked, “You are not angry with me?”
“Not when you have saved my father some heartbreak.” Letris smiled, remembering Holt’s earnest and prolonged lecture about sending communications back to the castle for the king’s sanity and for other practical reasons.
“Well, you have never been out on campaign before. You did not realize.”
“You were in a war before though.”
Talking civilly with the prince was beginning to make Holt’s stomach ache…or perhaps it had been that terrible slop served for dinner. The prince had almost eaten without having someone test it first. Holt became the honorary taste-tester though Letris complained about the long delay for dinner. “I have served before.”
“How long were you in the field?” Letris continued.
“You wanted to die in the war, didn’t you?”
Holt reached down to rub his leg and gave an ironic smile, to be talking about this to the man who had unwittingly caused so much trouble. “I only managed to cripple myself.”
“Do you not want a wife?”
The question made Holt freeze. “I don’t. It’s much easier without worrying about such commitments.” Holt crossed his arms and watched sparks tumble from the base of the fire and into the mud. “Of course, you’ve never had the problem of commitment.”
The prince snatched a wood piece from the neat pile beside the boulder and tossed it into the fire, which grew taller for a moment before sinking back to its normal height after a spine-chilling hiss. “As I remember, you weren’t a man to commit either.”
“Why do you act so, Letris?”
“What?” the prince returned. “What is wrong with asking questions of you?”
“The way you treat your maids is disgusting.”
“The way you force yourself upon Avi is similarly disgusting. I have turned a blind eye for too long on that matter.” Letris stood. In the distance, settled at a fire of his own, Garigus mirrored the prince’s action. The prince drew a circle in the air to gesture that all was well, and with a nod, Garigus disappeared into his tent.
Holt gritted his teeth at the sudden pain in his leg. “Letris!”
“However, I had not expected her to be charmed by you. Your tricks are even more disgusting than I could ever be.”
“Tricks…” Holt focused on slowing his breath as he fought the urge to choke the life of the arrogance before him.
“She is mine.”
“Keep her! I have nothing to do with her. Just keep your wandering hands from Aliasse!” But for that, Aliasse would have to agree to leave the castle...
“My patience for your lies grows thin.”
“What do you want me to say?” The senator’s voice broke, and Holt huddled under his coat, turning away.
“Admit you love her.”
Was that what this inordinate draw to Avi in his thoughts meant? “You are twisted,” Holt said to the mud pooled around their fire. “I did not expect you to be a callous, manipulating monster of a man.”
The prince’s voice grew soft. “Tell me the truth. For that, I will not punish you.”
“Perhaps I do feel a slight fondness for Miss Avi.” The inadequacy of the words to describe his comfortable relationship with the taste-taster made Gale cringe. “What will you do?”
The prince’s laugh carried far enough for Garigus to stick his head out of his tent. The commander smiled to think that the prince and senator were enjoying themselves and then strode away to gauge the mood of the rest of the camp.
As moonlight caught them, Letris’ green eyes glimmered. With dismissive amusement, Holt couldn’t help feeling. “You can try and win her from me, but you will fail. You haven’t any love in that heart of yours, Senator. I will not allow your ‘slight fondness’ to hurt my angel.”
With that, Letris walked away from the warmth of the fire and into the tent. Holt shivered as he realized the prince was making a valid point. Since Mina’s betrayal, the thought of loving a woman repulsed him. So he had intended to do his duty as senator and die alone until Aliasse had been orphaned. For a while, he had grown fond of her as more than a sister. Even so, she always treated him as a sibling, and eventually, he settled into that niche without complaint. It was, by far, easier to trust a sister than a lover. It was best, perhaps, to leave any romantic affection for a woman forgotten.
As the night passed, the soft sounds of camp almost began to lull the senator to sleep on the boulder. Then, a sudden crack, sharp like glass splintering, echoed in the air. Jolted fully awake, Holt stood and peered west, in the direction from which the sound had come.
The manor, which lay north of the prince’s tent, sat silently: innocent of the cause of the sudden ruckus. Men were shouting—orders or threats, Holt couldn’t tell. After a few minutes, the sound was matched to an accidental gunfire.
In a matter of minutes, Garigus dragged a stocky young man to the prince’s tent and roused Letris, who sleepily joined the interrogation. The soldier faced the commander, the prince of Haiathiel and the senator without any sign of remorse. In fact, his broad chin jutted out in defiance.
“Mattias,” Garigus said wearily. Behind him, Letris yawned.
Mattias placed a clenched fist to his heart. “Yes, sir?”
“I want to know why you left your gun unattended where that fool Blodden could step on it!” The commander’s black eyebrows lifted as the prince chuckled.
“I was scouting, sir,” Mattias answered. “The gun was too heavy to bring.”
“Scouting,” Senator Holt repeated. “For what?”
Mattias gestured out to the artificial twilight. “For rebels. No one is patrolling the area.”
“In short,” Garigus muttered as he stood and brushed off his leather jacket, “anything you could pick a fight with. We do have sentries posted, you realize.”
“Only to one side though, sir. All this waiting…” Mattias shuffled his feet, head bowed like a sheepish child. “I’m used to action.”
“Very well. To burn off that energy, go run laps around the camp. Three of them.” Garigus said. He sighed as Mattias sprang away to do that. With a bow, Garigus turned to his prince. “I hope this doesn’t further lower your opinion of us soldiers.”
Letris laughed. “It’s only because I have no interest in battle. I could never see the beauty in it.”
“There is no true beauty in it,” Garigus said. He had seen his fair share of skirmishes guarding the region of Gatha. The smell, the sight, the sound of chaos of street brawls. He had seen lives taken and saved by all sorts of weapons, many stranger and more deadly than the sword. Perhaps the mad rush of melee could be exhilarating for some, but most of the time, fear festered in the hearts of men who signed up to fight but had never dealt with violence.
“There is merit, at least, for fighting for one’s king,” Letris replied.
“Yes, but we fight for a king, who no longer fights for us. I sometimes wonder if the rebels have the right of it.” In one casual motion, Garigus plucked the blade hanging from his belt, his expression inscrutable.
Before Holt could confront the soldier, Letris merely said, “Put away your sword. We can talk about the matter privately.”
“Very well...Your Highness.”
Garigus and the prince walked away, leaving Holt to wonder what the outcome of that discussion would be.