The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 23

News from Gale was sporadic over the next few days. So we kept busy nursing Aelius back to health. The king couldn’t stand without support; he clung to Otelius wherever he went. Sometimes, Aliasse and I would coax him to try walking alone again, both of us at his side and ready to support him.

After morning exercise, Aliasse would insist on playing Warmonger. I lost terribly every time to the king and also to Aliasse; the latter was excited to find someone even more helpless at the game than herself.

Meanwhile, the king’s thoughtful strategy put us both to shame, and he proved again and again that wisdom, no matter how doddering, could outmatch impulsive youth. When we grew tired of defeat, Aelius would regale us with tales of his youth. He had seen actual battles—where thousands of men clashed on the battlefield with no mercy for the enemy.

Aware of the gory details and the cost of lives, I found the war, though it was for the unification of the country, far from glorious. In the end, Aelius and his father, through bloodshed and diplomacy, brought Haiathiel together.

Before Aelius’ father, the regions existed as warring states. The states, weary of fighting, had been struggling to survive with the exception of the largest, richest state, which contained the Capitol and the traditions of the Haiathiel monarchy. King Rendrant had decided the conflict between the regions around central Haiathiel pointless.

Some regions accepted Rendrant’s rule. Other fought; on the outskirts of the continent, Gatha fought the hardest. The regions all eventually fell under Rendrant’s army, and then, after his father’s death, Aelius had put the finishing touches on the kingdom. The united army of the king of Haiathiel—with men from every former state—had frightened brigands from the country. As trade and wealth flowed into the united country, roads and cities inevitably sprung up. To accommodate the growth, Aelius set up a system of senators that allowed each region a sense of autonomy though the senators would all obey the king of Haiathiel. Three years ago, Gatha had rebelled before quickly being quashed at the cost of hundreds of more lives. Now, Gatha stirred trouble a second time.

After the grim history lessons, King Aelius would speak of his courtship with Cal’s mother. Furtive glances in the library, drama and misunderstandings ended in love and a beautiful baby boy that Dieva never saw grown.

“My Dieva would have raised him to be a king,” Aelius said with an unexpected sigh. We sat at the table in the garden, Otelius not too far away. “I would have liked to lock myself away with my books, but Dieva encouraged me to act like a king. If I were worthy of her love, I would continue my father’s work and lead Haiathiel into prosperity. That’s what she expected of me.”

“Then she forced Your Majesty to do your duty?” Aliasse said. She crunched on a rock candy and then stretched her arms towards the clear sky. The weather had become spring-like; it was only a sign that mid-winter had come, and soon more ice and rain would fall to finish up the season.

“She gave me courage. She gave me a reason,” Aelius said. “Without her, I…” The king of Haiathiel fell into ruminative silence.

He had felt it was not worth it, I filled in the blank. We let the conversation fade into comfortable silence.

In the evening, we were all in the library. Callie had arranged for a comfortable chair and a well-lit corner—a place where His Majesty could read in peace. Meanwhile, Aliasse, Callie, Lianne and I clustered at the other end of the library to gossip. Mostly, I listened and wondered what the future had in store for them. For me. For Haiathiel. It was odd to think of such things when the other three were nattering about trivial everyday occurrences. Well, perhaps they weren’t trivial but merely simple and human and familiar.

Ritha huffed into the human ear beside her and was rewarded with a groan. Senator Holt patted the horse’s inquisitive nose and carefully moved it away from his ear.

With night fallen, most soldiers were drinking around their fires. The ground was dry again, so no one was treading in mud. This encouraged a bit of dancing, and to the senator’s dismay, local women had been recruited to join.

Letris participated in the dances as well, placing his feet and switching hands with graceful flair. His partners had been dazed by the artistry in the body of the man before them. His status as a prince almost seemed an afterthought compared to his beauty.

Panting , the prince escaped a different dance where participants linked arm in arm in a wide circle were going through complicated footwork. Letris loped up to the fire where the senator sat hunched like an old man in the cold.

“Some dancing with pretty women will do you good,” the prince said as he sat on the boulder beside Senator Holt.

The senator gave his injured leg a brusque glance before saying, “I’m afraid my body cannot handle such frivolity.”

“The dance after this one requires more hand gestures and less movement,” Letris continued. “I’m certain you could do it.”

“I will not be made a fool.” Holt pulled his coat closer, allowing his chin to fall into the soft fur of the collar.

Letris sighed. “How in the world did a boring man like you seduce dear Avi?”“I did not seduce her.” He wondered even now if that girl was worried about the prince. In his letters, he reported the situation faithfully without delving into his feelings about the entire matter. Surely Avi would read the letter to His Majesty and Aliasse. He could not afford to betray his true misgivings even if he trusted the taste-tester.

He couldn’t figure out when or how or even why Avi had become so important to him. During his absence at court, he had treasured the letter she had sent but had been too much of a coward to write back. After all, he could find nothing to say to her aside from inquiring about her health and the health of those at the castle.

In truth, Holt knew near to nothing of the girl. Her dreams for the future, other than that impractical goal of finding her true love. Her favorite things. He had asked none of it. Manipulating her to marry Letris had not required him to ask.

“You’re thinking of Avi now.” The prince sounded satisfied, most likely because he had gleaned the truth from the senator’s impassive face.

“How old is she?”

“Eighteen. She doesn’t seem it.”

Holt nodded. “Only sometimes.”

“When she laughs,” Letris added, “it’s a child’s laugh.”

“I’ve never noticed,” Holt lied, hoping the prince wouldn’t call him out on it.

“Too busy pursuing your lust, of course, you would not,” the prince said matter-of-factly.

Holt buried his face deeper into the fur coat. A soft whuff of breath on the back of his head indicated Ritha’s concern for him. “I only cause her discomfort, and sick as I am, sometimes I enjoy it.”

“What a monster,” the prince said to Ritha, who pricked her ears at him in interest. He flinched as the senator launched himself off the rock and landed dangerously close to the fire.

Gale hobbled into the tent where the bird cage had been placed in a corner. Two softly cooing birds remained. This would be wasteful, he realized. Even so, he pulled out a fresh parchment from his pack. With two birds left, he could not send one off with mere personal letters for Avi and Aliasse.

Shouts from nearby roused the senator’s indecisive heart. Holt dropped the quill and parchment to listen. An argument over a woman or a dispute due to excess drink? Then a dull thundering told him it was something much larger and deadlier.

Holt ran out of the tent regardless of his throbbing leg. He found soldiers scrambling to line up while the women who had joined the party ran toward the center of the camp, leaving with the night’s merriment. In spite of the chaos, a formation of men already stood at the edge of camp, facing the darkness opposite the castle of rebels, which lay silent. Instead, the soldiers braced themselves to meet the ground-shaking approach of the enemy.

After weaving through the center of the camp and the chaos of soldiers re-equipping themselves for battle, Holt found the prince with Garigus beside him. Letris did not look remotely shaken though the other commander was trembling.

“A cavalry would have taken us by surprise,” Garigus breathed, “if not for…” The older man’s gaze settled nearby on the man, Mattias—the one who had been punished with laps for his restlessness.

Mattias stood ramrod-straight, perhaps waiting for orders. Holt gave the man a nod. “I thank you for your diligence. You may want to join your squad.” Mattias sprinted off as eagerly as a hunting dog after quarry.

“Your plan, Letris?” Holt paused as the sound of approaching hooves faded. Somewhere, not far, the cavalry had halted. “Who are these attackers?”

“More rebels likely. Somehow, news of this castle’s plight reached an ally.” Garigus frowned. “How?”

“The entire country knows of this army by now,” Holt pointed out.

“Yes, I wasn’t subtle enough.” The prince’s wintry tone made the senator shiver.

In truth, nothing could have concealed such an enormous army. “I was only pointing it out, not blaming you, Letris. Now, what are you going to do?”

“We stand against them,” Letris said.

“Will they stand or flee?” Holt silenced the beginning of Garigus’ protests with a cutting side-glance. “These are men used to peacetime work. If they see horses charging, hooves aimed at their heads, swords slicing near their faces—will they stand?”

Letris glanced between his commander and the senator. “Will they?”

“I have seen more experienced men run,” Holt said. “A direct charge will cost many lives. You cannot allow them to stand there and take it without risking a humiliating retreat.”

“They’re just horses,” Garigus began to move away. At least, he could talk to the men in the front lines to build their courage.

“A horse can kill a man. A sword can kill a man faster. They have both.”

Letris tilted his head. Other than a pair of sturdy leather boots, he was dressed as if he’d forgotten that they stood at the brink of a war. A silk white tunic edged with twisted green crescents and a tight set of black jeans did not appear conducive to battling. “Then what do we do, Senator?”

“You tell me. What can we do? What must we do?” Holt willed the man to think for once in his life.

A glimmer of understanding appeared in the prince’s face. “Their horses must not reach the front lines. Long-distance weapons should be in the front, men on foot behind them. Is that…right?”

Despite the situation, Holt felt a smile lift his face. “Yes, spook those horses so badly, they won’t dare come near us. The men riding them will be helpless. They meant to mow us down using the element of surprise...but if we are ready for them, they have already been beaten.”

The prince nodded and gestured for Garigus to follow. Within a matter of minutes, the low shuffling of dirt shifting beneath hundreds of hooves started up. From the back, Holt could see the order of the prince’s army slowly being reversed as ripples of motion.

Rangers now stood as the first line of defense. Interspersed behind them the group that specialized in guns waited for orders. The common foot soldiers had their daggers out, ready to throw. All waited for the enemy to show its face. Eventually, the first line of cavalry—forty horses abreast—appeared in the dim glow from the king’s camp. They wore no insignia, and most of the riders appeared to be middle-aged or older young men.

Even leaderless, they began the charge as one deadly, cohesive force. Holt felt a ripple of fear go through the prince’s army, a fear that clung to him as well. The horses were almost on them as Garigus finally gave the command to fire.

The collision and gunfire distorted all sound for a moment. A few rangers were kicked to death before the horses, riddled with arrows and bullets, reeled away by instinct. Holt wasn’t surprised as the retreating, wounded horses broke the perfect enemy line. They were now a confused, pained mass of horseflesh and shouting men.

The archers and gunmen marched forward, driving the enemy further from the camp. At last, at some unseen signal, the enemies retreated. Horse-tails flashed the prince’s men—a welcome sight and then, in a matter of seconds, no longer in sight at all.

As order was restored, a count of the dead revealed four losses. The bloodied bodies were dragged to the middle of the camp. A small group of captains gathered, all grim-faced. Holt joined them, standing between the prince and Garigus. The senator had seen crimson blood and death before, but still, it made the contents of his stomach churn unpleasantly.

The prince spoke a thank-you for the men’s service over the crushed bodies—words that Holt missed as he remembered the previous war with Gatha. The men who had fought the battles had not seen these tiny losses but masses of lives extinguished. No one had the time to thank them or even bury them. Instead, the bodies were burned. During the first war, death wasn’t even the worst occurrence.

The loss of peace in the minds of many men and gross disfigurement of the human body were products of war too. Holt walked back to his tent as the dead men were lowered into a hastily dug grave. After the pit was filled with dirt, the site was marked with a stone carved into the shape of the curlicue symbol of Haiathiel.

After figuring out a schedule for patrols, Letris returned to the tent where the senator already lay asleep. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he owed Holt an expression of gratitude as well.

A bird perched on my shoulder, its claws tickling skin. This morning, I rushed to the bird cages but found Wilem absent. When the gray pigeon swooped through the window, I squawked in alarm and earned a bird’s landing on my head. Eventually, after a great deal of nudging with fingers and coaxing words, the bird settled on my shoulder.

An insistent coo made me all the more aware of Wilem’s absence. I didn’t want to read Gale’s message without him. Then the petulant creature dared to peck my cheek, and at last, I relieved the bird of its paper burden.

“What am I to do with you?” I asked the bird, which only gave a slow blink of its eyes. Though my parents had been zoologists, I couldn’t tell if that was a true response or not. Then again, most of my parents’ work concerned mammals rather than birdbrains.

“Miss Avi! I apologize.” Wilem stepped through the metal doors and into the chamber. The sight of him elicited a number of musical coos. Perhaps unaware or accustomed to the greeting, he gave me a bow and plucked the bird from my shoulder and set it gently in a cage containing a softly crooning white pigeon.

“I came too early. It’s no fault of yours.” Unable to fall asleep, I had crawled out of bed before dawn. “Let’s see what Gale has written.”

Wilem dipped his head.

“Miss Avi,

The situation has changed. Last night, we were attacked by an organized cavalry—”Here Wilem drew in a breath. “—but we repelled them, losing four men. Early this morning, the rebels of the castle began to turn themselves in. Jameson has been detained on charges of treason. The other rebels will likely be facing trials in the Capitol. As soon as the castle is cleared, we will be marching straight to Capitol. Give us three days to arrive.

“Avi, I know I haven’t been personable in these letters…”

I stopped reading out loud. The rest of the letter appeared purely addressed to me. Before I could say a word, Wilem tapped my shoulder and gestured that he would be right outside. As the birdkeeper left, I saw the letter continued:

“…but please do not think I do not care for you or Aliasse. Once I return, I would like to spend some time with you. Of course, that is only if you are willing to tolerate my company and if the prince agrees to my stay at the castle. Also, Aliasse, if she can be pulled from the prince’s side, is welcome to join us. See you then in three days.”

My stomach clenched. While I did consider Gale a friend, spending time with him for no particular reason…what could I even talk to him about? He was a senator, unlikely to be impressed by maid gossip or musings of my odd mind. He had already called those “boorish” and “provincial.”

I supposed it didn’t matter if I impressed him. Over time, he would have learned that I was nothing interesting. Only our bickering about Cal had brought us together, and now that Cal had begun to act like the prince he was, there would be little more to discuss.

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