A pale, distorted sunbeam crept into the room, making the Aelia on my desk glitter. Two quiet days had passed. For now, royal business was halted until the prince returned whole and healthy.
Gale had sent another bird, which arrived earlier today at dawn. Did the man not sleep? Perhaps he couldn’t sleep with all the excitement. Either way, Gale’s missive only contained a concise summary of the situation.
I unraveled the crumpled parchment in my hand again. “Nothing has changed. Will send more news soon.” Impersonal and calm, with nothing satisfying for either Aliasse or me, the letter (if you could call it that) made me feel empty.
What did I expect anyway? For Mr. Beanbutt to write a detailed report about camp conditions and Cal’s activities? I couldn’t expect that. Then again, I had lost family in a similar situation. Back in my own world, a family across the country had shown interest in adopting me. A letter exchange was set up, and the family sent the first letter, giving me a glimpse, at last, of what a family was like. My eager, kid heart took it as a promise that letter-writing would allow me to become like family until they came to pick me up.
I wrote to them every week. After a few months or so, the return letters became less frequent. Yet I continued to write them about my childish accomplishments and joys until the responses had stopped altogether. The orphanage director told me that the family had decided the adoption process was too complicated for them and made more difficult by distance. It was, she said, not my fault.
Even so, I wondered if I had scared them away. Had I not been the sort of child worth going through all the paperwork and travel arrangements for? My kid self continued to write letters to the family until one day, another family decided to take me in for a while. I didn’t settle very well with them either, and so I returned to a foster home, where I stayed with kids who also had trouble adjusting.
Basically, long-distance letter-writing had given me a complex. Gale’s stilted message—considering he had the time and means to write a decent-length letter—made me wonder if I was worth writing to. Then again, I wasn’t even exchanging letters; he wrote to convey vital news to the king. So, why had this unreasonable worry of mine surfaced?
After crossing my bedroom in a few, swift strides, Aliasse snatched the ends of my hair and parted my hair into three sections. Humming a cheerful melody, she began to interweave the strands. Her agile fingers finished in a matter of moments. A flawless braid most likely.
“I was bored,” she sighed before plopping into the wooden seat beside mine with a carelessness that would have broken an older woman’s bones. “So I began to think…”
“That’s a bit dangerous,” I said in an undertone. Her hand curled around my shoulder as a delicate threat. “So, what were you thinking about?”
The flower arched its head proudly from the crystal vase. Not a single petal or leaf had fallen or even drooped. It looked as crisp and fresh as a newly cut bloom. The reflection of light along the porous surface still managed to make my eyes lock onto it with awe. “What about it?”
“How prepared are you for the honest truth?”
For once, Aliasse looked deadly serious. With that expression, she made for an odd picture in that frilly, white maid’s gown and curly, slightly lopsided pigtails. After swallowing a laugh, I said, “I’m not prepared for any brutal truths at the moment.”
She seemed to deflate as she let out a breath. “Well, never mind then. You must be worried for Cal. I wish Gale had sent a more thorough letter!”
We scowled at his thoughtlessness and then giggled for a bit. At last, my wariness of Aliasse’s recent moodiness disappeared. She was the same cheerful Aliasse even though we were both tangled inextricably between what we felt for Cal and Gale’s goodwill.
For lunch, we joined the king in the dining hall. Dark circles under the king’s rheumy eyes emphasized his pale irises. The smile he directed at us trembled like a sick kitten. I wanted to give the pining father a hug, but Otelius really would have had a heart attack then. Besides, it wasn’t my place to comfort the king even though he sat staring at his plate long after I finished inspecting the food.
“Your Majesty, please eat,” Otelius encouraged as Aelius fiddled with the silverware.
“I have no appetite.” The king gave me and Aliasse an apologetic glance. “Perhaps I should have had dinner delayed. Ah, what a mess. What…are we to do with the food?” Head bowed, shoulders shaking, King Aelius gave a low moan before collapsing forward.
His head met the ceramic plate with an ominous chink that made us all flinch. The royal hands gripping the table fell limp as Otelius sprinted—and I had never seen the dignified steward run—to find Jim or anyone who could save the king’s life.
While I stood uselessly, Aliasse darted forward to place two fingers on the back of the king’s neck. “He lives,” she said, easing away the dread at the thought of Cal returning to his father’s death. “His heart is beating much too fast though.”
I hadn’t been as close to Aelius as I was with Cal, but even so, I couldn’t imagine the castle without Aelius’ familiar presence or his unconditional love for Cal. The castle servants would also be bereft of the man who treated them so kindly and could amuse them with childish whims.
When Aliasse gripped my hands, I turned to find her eyes filled with worry, mouth tight. I squeezed her hand to offer some of my calm. I was certain that Jim would ease Aelius out of this faint. We watched over the prone king until Jim dashed into the dining chamber with a giant, white bag in hand.
The manor in full sunlight looked more decrepit than when Gale had first seen it. A man stood in the center of its sole balcony. His flowing blue robes could not hide his tall, stick-thin stature any more than it could put color in that sallow, heavy-hanging face. Jennick Jameson had been senator of Gatha for nearly twenty years now.
His two sons, Wulfren and Lysander, stood a bit behind their father. They were men older than eighteen though their listless gazes could have belonged to bored five-year-olds. Which brother was the elder, a stranger was hard put to tell.
Gale gave the dour-looking three a wave. His prince offered him as a semi-neutral negotiator, and Gale took on the responsibility, as always, without argument. Besides, compared to Letris and Garigus, he was the most competent diplomat.
“If the manor is surrendered, no harm will be done to your followers, Jameson,” Gale called up, trying his best not to shiver in the morning air. Behind the senator, Garigus couldn’t help smiling in admiration at the senator’s self-control. Garigus had been irked when the rebel’s leader agreed to negotiations in this manner. The enemy was above them and out of reach, so they were at the mercy at anything the rebels decided to throw down at them. Gale too had been absolutely livid at the arrangement, but his composure had fooled them all.
“How can I be certain of our safety?” The words rumbled through the air as if spoken by an invisible god. Jameson, hard-pressed to speak even at Assemblies, had not made his voice a common sound in human ears. “When I surrender, will the people of Gatha be treated like human beings by their king?”
“The king has always—”
“He has neglected Gatha,” Jameson continued, interrupting Gale’s reply. The man’s sons huddled closer to their father as if to brace him. “Thieves patrol the king’s roads. Men are rioting in my cities. The people have no trade because the regions around us are suffering. I can do nothing to help them, and Aelius has not done anything to help us, so why should we continue to pay taxes and follow the laws of a man, who cares not a whit for us?”
Gale had never heard the other senator say so much. “Then, what do you expect to gain from these negotiations? The king cannot hand-feed every—”
“Sovereignty. Freedom. Concepts the king’s pet senator would not understand.” Jameson gripped the stone parapet in front of him.
“Though sometimes I am unhappy with the king’s actions or lack thereof, I cannot betray him. We owe a king our loyalty. It is our duty as senators to help him rather than fight him. We can work together. For Gatha. For everyone.”
Jameson straightened, and the sight of the thin man elongating himself further made Gale’s stomach turn. It was like a skeleton leering down at them and jabbing a finger in the prince’s direction.
“Does that irresponsible pup command our loyalty as well?”
The soldiers arranged around Prince Letris all placed a hand to the guns strapped to their belts. Each knew that the insolent senator was out of range, and furthermore, violence at negotiations would tarnish the prince’s reputation.
“As the heir, yes, he does,” Gale said with a nervous glance backward. “He commanded and led all of these men through the ice because he will tolerate rebellion no longer.”
Unexpectedly, the soldiers started up a cheer for the heir to Haiathiel, Garigus bellowing the loudest. “Prince Letris is here! He will tolerate rebellion no more! Letris! Letris!”
“I have nothing more to discuss with you.” Within moments, as the cries only grew more ebullient, Jameson and his kin disappeared, back into the manor that entrapped them.
The king’s chest rose and fell steadily. His Majesty lay in his bed, with a pallet that felt too rough and a bedcover of a solid, unembroidered color: too austere for a king. His blanket had begun to unravel. Almost threadbare, it too was unfit for a king. The pillow supporting the king’s head, at least, had been plump, filled with fresh goose feather.
Seated beside the bed, Aliasse was gripping the king’s hand, though Jim assured us Aelius would recover. I would appear almost uncaring compared to her fervent concern. By far, Aliasse would make a better daughter-in-law.
Beside me, Otelius sighed. When I gave him a questioning glance, he only smiled and shook his head. The way his mouth turned downward with sadness at the sight of his king told me enough.
The king and Cal were out of time. Too many years of worries, for the kingdom and his son, had worn Aelius into a fragile shell of the man he had been. It was inevitable this aging, but when parents became unable to care for a child, the child should be grown and prepared to take care of the parent and the parent’s former responsibilities.
Only, Cal had never been prepared to become a man to take the place of the king. Now, with the king so helpless, the heaviness of the burden about to be placed on my sweet prince become apparent.
Worst of all, if Cal could not bear the burden, not only his family would suffer but also thousands of citizens that called Haiathiel home. Inheritance of a position of power seemed silly; no wonder so many governments in my world had done away with monarchy.
Even so, elected men were fallible. They squabbled and were swayed by biases. At times, they evaded responsibilities and worked for their own ends. These rulers hid it behind charming faces—behind campaigns full of promises. None of it should surprise me, since the world is never clear-cut and full of clashing interests. How could one ever learn to find a balance in a world in which a choice would, for certain, disadvantage a number of people?
No wonder Cal avoided it all and pursued less troublesome hedonism. My prince disliked dealing with arguments, and he reacted badly to men like Holt, who wanted to unravel a mess and lay it out to mend.
If Holt were on the throne...Suddenly, I could have slapped myself. Here the king lay and me thinking treasonously. Cal would learn or risk losing his throne. Perhaps dealing with Gatha was a sign that the prince was finally claiming his throne.
“Miss Avi.” A stout man in a blue messenger tunic hovered in front of me, and Otelius gave me a teasing nudge for spacing out. I held out a hand, and the messenger placed a thin film of paper in my palm.
“Wilem received a message from Senator Holt.” The messenger hesitated, then dropped a bow to me and scrambled out of the room as if his behind were on fire. It could only be due to Cal’s declaration that I was his future queen.
Aliasse smiled at me. “What news from Gale?”
Opening the folded parchment, I proceeded to read it out loud:
“We tried negotiations since the rebels are holding out longer than expected. Jameson rebuffed the attempt at compromise in a matter of minutes. It is a good thing that the prince and the soldiers who serve him are fervent in their patience and in their ache for bringing these rebels to heel. I am surprised at their passion but uplifted by the love these men have for Letris. Please tell His Majesty that worry is for naught. You and Aliasse should not worry either and instead think of preparing a victory feast for the prince!”
The letter sounded too upbeat for Gale. Even Aliasse had raised both eyebrows. “Odd,” she said. “Gale doesn’t write like that.”
What could have happened?
Curled in a tent, covered in a darkness like a blanket, Senator Holt listened to the sounds of the camp. Tankards clinking. Men laughing. Fires hissing and snapping. The dolts were celebrating though victory had not yet been achieved.
They acted as though drunk on the prince’s immense ego. Even Garigus swaggered through the camp telling stories with Letris at his side like a good luck charm. Perhaps Letris’ nonchalance at Jameson’s unwillingness to compromise seemed like strength to them. However, this lack of common ground between sovereign and the people of Gatha made Gale feel uneasy.
While the people of Hamada were unhappy with their standard of living, they also were aware of how Holt stretched his resources and his money to keep most of them from the deepest penury. What Holt had failed to tell Aliasse was that the fortune of the Holt family had dwindled because of his charity. Most were donated to towns and cities to provide services and jobs for the local people. Holt allotted another portion to struggling business and crafters and another for alms to the very poor. His impulsive purchase of the Aelia finished off the little that had remained.
The doctors Gale saw had done him an immense favor by examining his leg and treating his prison wounds for free. Similarly, the servants of Holt’s manor were either underpaid or unpaid through few wanted to leave the service of the Holt family.
After all, Holt had lowered and limited the levy until his own income was become ridiculously small. This winter, he had canceled taxes altogether since the merchants who provided basic needs such as food, drink and clothing had agreed to cut prices in return. That way, most could survive the winter though men would still come to Holt’s manor and show him that they had nothing. Meanwhile, the wealth of Haiathiel had been concentrated, for some time now, in the west end of the Capitol.
Holt shook his head. Before his father’s death, he had contributed to that pooling of wealth. Prostitution and other more palatable pleasures like expensive dining and theatre had swelled the coffers of men who controlled such services.
“Senator Holt, are you sleeping?”
Holt closed his eyes tighter though the prince of Haiathiel, who hovered at the tent’s entrance, could not see him in the pitch black anyway.
“You missed the fun,” Letris said.
Fun and entertainment were not crimes, but for a king of a kingdom in this state, they may as well have been. Holt doubted this prince of theirs would ever understand that.