Nearly four hundred rebels—roped together by the wrists—plodded in the midst of the prince’s gleaming army. The prisoners were skinny, their faces pinched both from days’ lack of food and the bitterness of defeat. Men and women both had been taken prisoner though Holt was glad to find none had brought their children into the dank fortress as part of the resistance.
Though the prisoners trudged through the mud brought by mounds of melting ice, the sun was out to warm their struggling feet. Meanwhile, the soldiers of Haiathiel found themselves roasting as the black metal armor soaked up the sun’s warmth. Even so, spirits remained elevated. How could they not be joyful? Their mission complete, the graceful prince leading them homeward, these men could not, at the moment, have asked for anything better.
At the front of the lengthy procession, Holt rode alongside the prince of Haiathiel, Garigus and an apparently cowed Senator Jameson. Their horses plodded through the sludge road without complaint though Ritha would occasionally shake off a hoof, as if frustrated with the mud.
When Ritha did so, Holt would pat her auburn mane and assure her that she was a “good girl.” Silently, he believed his mount was the most spirited of the four horses present. The other three geldings were rather unremarkable shades of gray and unerringly docile—an army standard.
“I missed the sun,” Jameson commented. Seated precariously on his horse, the senator had arranged his spindly frame in a distorted arc that Holt found alarming. It was true that Jameson almost matched Mativ in age though Mativ, by far, looked sturdier.
“I imagine.” Garigus had always commanded men in open areas. To be shut inside a castle as supplies and hope dwindled was a situation he hoped to never oversee.
Meanwhile, the prince remained silent, content to curl and uncurl the reins in his hands. A less well-trained horse would have been greatly confused by the action. The four horses plodded onward at a stately pace as if there were no risk of attack. Squads of men had already combed the area for any sign of the horsemen that had attacked the prince’s men, but found only tracks that led deeper into the region of Gatha.
The duty of a prince included questioning of the prisoners, and Holt, as a mere senator, could not snatch Jameson by the collar and ask him how he had managed to provide horses and weapons—which were expensive even for senators—to so many rebels. Furthermore, as Jameson implied the coffers of Gatha had been empty or nearly so, Gatha could not have afforded to supply their men. So who had sent those men with horses?
The question continued to torment him until Holt finally cleared his throat. “That cavalry of yours almost took us by surprise, Jameson.”
“It was not mine,” Jameson said.
“Then whose?” Holt felt slightly reprimanded by Gargius’ stare but not enough to stop talking.
Jameson turned his heavy-hanging face upward as if thinking about the answer.
The morning that the prince’s army returned, I overslept. Aliasse would describe to me later the hundreds of people who settled on the lawn sheltered by the king’s castle. The inside of the castle would have, at most, accommodated a hundred of them. Those accommodations were given to the officers of the army while the other soldiers settled for a likely sour reception at the city’s inns.
According to Aliasse, the rebels were men and women ranging from people our age to white-haired elders, but each one radiated the same sense of hopelessness. When a considerable number of them collapsed in hunger and exhaustion, King Aelius ordered them fed some plain bread and given water. That task took all morning, and despite the effort to save them, a few prisoners, Aliasse reported somberly, had died.
With afternoon sun creeping through my window, I sat at my desk and watched the Aelia shimmer. Neither Cal nor Gale had returned to the castle; they were supervising the treatment of the prisoners. At least, it gave me more time to compose myself to face Cal, who seemed mad at me, and to deal with Gale, who would not be impressed by the nattering of a castle servant.
I jumped in my wooden chair as a messenger gave a polite rap on the door to my bedroom. “Miss Avi! The king wishes you present in the throne room; Prince Letris and Senator Holt will enter the castle very soon.”
By the time I had assured the messenger I would go and gathered the courage to do so, the king, Otelius, and Aliasse were already gathered in the room where hundreds of sovereigns of Haiathiel had ruled. The throne room’s ceilings revealed its ancientness with carvings of symbols that had lost all meaning to current Haiathiens. Meanwhile, its marble floor looked remarkably new. Perhaps it had been polished for the prince’s triumphant return.
“Avi! There you are!” Aliasse shook her head. “I’m usually the late one.”
The king chortled at this. In one hand, he gripped the gold knob of a curved black cane. Aelius lifted the supportive piece of wood sheepishly. “Jim insisted I use it. Can you imagine what my son will think of it?”
“Think of what, Father?” Cal’s warm voice floated through the room and touched my skin like a caress. Still in a spotless pair of tunic and jeans, the prince of Haiathiel strode into the room with a careless swagger. A more dignified blue-robed figure followed.
“My son, how could you…” Shaking his head, speechless, the king hobbled over to squeeze Cal into his arms. The prince’s eyes fixed immediately on the cane his father wielded before closing.
“I wanted no trouble for you, Father,” Cal spoke, suddenly smiling over Aelius’ head at me. Perhaps he had forgotten his anger. Likely, the man had. “Avi, did I worry you?”
“Of course, nitwit. You couldn’t have told anyone?”
Cal tilted his head like a puppy wondering at a scolding. “Surely you would have stopped me?”
“No, I wouldn’t have.” Suddenly, I was aware of Gale’s stare. He had received an enthusiastic hug from Aliasse with a smile, but now he turned his attention to the prince and me.
With Aelius still clinging to him, Cal closed the distance between us. “You would have allowed me to risk my life?”
At the question, Aelius released his son to give him a quizzical glance. Honestly, I didn’t understand why Cal was interrogating me all of a sudden either. “Cal, that is surely not what Avi means,” the king said.
“Then what does Avi mean?”
Inside my ears, I could hear blood rushing. My palms tingled. “You…took up your duties without me prompting you for once. Why would I stop you?”
An ardent kiss from Cal wrecked my train of thought. He held me as a man would hold his wife after returning from war. His warmth thawed my icy core, which was frozen by too many fears.
“I was teasing, and you answer so seriously, Avi.” Cal slipped away and then placed a hand under his father’s upper arm. “Whenever did you start carrying a cane, Father? It doesn’t suit you.”
“Bah, I said the same to Jim,” Aelius said before giving me a spry wink. Even Aliasse, who I expected would be upset by Cal’s fickle behavior, grinned at me. The girl bounded over to Cal and threw her arms around him though Otelius gave an audible groan at the impropriety.
“Ah, did you miss me?” Cal already had Aliasse’s lovely, black hair wound around his finger.
“Only as a partner for Warmonger,” she teased. “You’re the only one who matches my skill level. Your father is too good, Avi is too careless.”
“I’m careless?” I had to mutter before turning a tentative smile in the senator’s direction. He had his Mr. Beanbutt face on as he watched Cal and Aliasse chatter with Aelius interjecting every now and then. Otelius watched it all with a resigned smile.
I slunk closer to the senator, who looked almost haggard. Maybe the besieging of the rebel manor had reminded him of the unpleasant days of war. “Hey, can you teach me how to play Warmonger properly?”
Gale peered down at me with a familiar scowl in place. “Teach you all my secrets?”
“Just a few techniques, so I can beat her!” I gave Aliasse a mock glare, which she returned with a dismissive hair flip, so reminiscent of Lianne’s that I had to hold in a giggle. When the senator said nothing, I added, “Anyway, I got your letters.”
“I wouldn’t call them letters.” Gale cleared his throat.
“Messages. I’m so glad you went to find Cal and sent those messages by bird. You saved us so much worry.”
“Yes, I suppose you all would be anxious about your missing prince.”
“Well, he ran off without any warning! I would have gone after him myself if I could ride a horse and navigate the land…and you know, survive outside the castle.”
“You maids are rather helpless.”
“I’m a taste-tester,” I reminded him, “but yes.” With an odd blush, likely because I had never been a touchy-feely person, I said, “I…we also missed you. So, welcome back.” Lifting my arms slightly to find the right angle for an inviting hug, I wondered at how some people could throw open their arms so easily for an embrace. Perhaps if the senator didn’t quite understand what I was doing, I could turn the extension of my arms into a casual stretch.
Before I could withdraw my awkward limbs, Gale wrapped his arms around my shoulders and back, pressing my face into the soft folds of the senator’s robes. “I have bad news for the king, Avi,” he whispered. “However, I cannot bear to spoil his joy now.”
I angled my head to speak without being muffled. In this position, I could hear his steady heartbeat. “Then don’t. Can’t the news wait?”
“Aha!” A laugh made us spring apart. Aliasse wagged a finger in our faces as she approached. “What’s going on here?”
“Nothing,” Gale said. “An embrace between two friends.”
Aliasse rubbed her hands together with an imp’s glee. “You two were so adorable though.”
I lunged to give her a light punch on the arm, but she darted away towards Cal and Aelius, who were already at the threshold of the throne room. I didn’t dare glance behind me to check if the senator’s face turned color like mine. I didn’t want to acknowledge how much I had enjoyed the hug.