The king’s table, laden with sumptuous platters and bowls and full jugs, would have complained of the weight of the food if it had a voice. Even the taste-tester had never seen so many different kinds of food: three types of meat, vegetables—some familiar, more exotic—cooked in dishes that were both colorful and flavorful; freshly baked bread of fine tender grains and desserts that ranged from carved fruits to sweet, milky concoctions. None of it held any trace of poison. Satisfied, Avi retreated to the edge of the dining hall to stand beside Otelius. As she passed Senator Holt’s seat, she was careful to keep her head bowed, so there was no option of making eye contact.
“All this food seems excessive,” Gale said to Aliasse, who was seated beside him as comfortably as a lady of the court. True, she was a senator’s daughter, though the king only knew her as a maid. Gale suspected that the prince’s favor encouraged Aliasse to dine with them. Then, why had Letris greeted his taste-tester so effusively if the man cared for Aliasse?
“The cook has been preparing for the prince’s arrival for days,” she responded, spearing a slice of fruit with precision and popping the entirety into her mouth.
“If confrontation had not gone so well…the feast would have gone to waste.”
“It did go well,” Letris interjected. Having said his part, he returned to his well-stocked plate. Beside him, Aelius considered his son with pride. Sometimes, the king would reach out to grip his son’s arm as if ensuring that Letris had truly returned.
“Now, what are we to do with the people of Gatha?” Aelius directed the question towards his son, who handed off the inquiry to Senator Holt with a meaningful glance.
At this cue, Holt sighed, “As law decrees, the Assembly will decide their fate. The other rebels that remain in Gatha have to be discouraged. Of course, it will be difficult for them now with Jameson in custody. As for Jameson…”
A silence fell as the senator failed to complete his sentence.
“He will be treated well though the dungeon may be uncomfortable,” Aelius said almost to himself. “I will never allow the torture of my senators. I meant to apologize, Gale.”
“It’s fine, Your Majesty,” Gale returned though his leg gave him a reproachful throb.
“Also, have you heard anything from Mativ?” Aelius asked suddenly, anxiety putting a quaver in his voice.
“I have heard nothing from him,” the younger senator admitted. “Though…”
“What is it, Gale?” Everyone in the hall flinched to hear Aelius raise his voice. “Why have you been so evasive? Can I no longer trust you?”
Aliasse elbowed her foster brother, surprised when he remained silent. “Your Majesty, why would Gale betray you? He sent us news because he worried about you.”
“Tell my father the truth, Senator.”
Resisting the urge to jump over the table and strangle Letris, the senator opened his mouth to do so until pain seized his leg. The jolt of agony twisted around his spine and into his head. He rubbed his temple until the headache receded and then spoke. “Before I say anything, I must speak with Jameson again.”
“Please, do so.” It was a royal command from the king.
The halls felt like they had shrunk. Then again, trying not to brush against the senator’s flowing robes left me with enough space to accommodate a stick person. For some reason, Aelius had insisted I accompany Gale to the dungeon. Why couldn’t a common guard serve as a guide? Why me? Still, it gave me an opportunity to find out what Gale wasn’t telling His Majesty. Likely, the news concerned Mativ, whose situation and whereabouts remained a mystery.
“Is it about Mativ?” I asked the senator who was striding down the corridors with the air of a man about to run out of time. I hadn’t realized he could walk so fast with that limp of his. “You’re going to hurt yourself at the pace you’re walking. Plus, do you know where you’re going?”
The senator stopped so suddenly that I almost ran into him. “No, I don’t know where I’m going. Lead instead of dallying!” A faint pressure between my shoulder blades propelled me forward. He had touched me as if the maid’s uniform I wore would burn him.
I turned around to face the senator but continued to walk in the general direction of the dungeon. “What’s happened to Mativ? Is he…dead?”
“Oh, he’s alive,” Gale said. “Alive and supporting the rebels of Gatha.”
The man who had control of the kingdom’s coffers, who was most trusted by the king and who had assigned me to investigate a potential traitor had been a treasonous wretch?
“The king trusted him!” Even I had admired Mativ for his cheerful disposition and the respect with which he treated Cal. Had it all been hollow flattery?
“We all believed he was the king’s man. To think he accused me of treason…”
“It was probably to draw attention from himself!” I crossed my arms, trying to hold in a shudder. Mativ fooled us so thoroughly. “The king has to know, so that he can withdraw Mativ’s privileges. Didn’t the man even have authority over every senator’s financial accounts?”
“Yes, so I’m almost glad I was able to rid myself of most of the family wealth.”
That regretful smile on the senator’s face reminded me of the insanely expensive Aelia. “Did you spend it…all on me?” I was guessing at the truth Aliasse had wanted to tell me.
“Not at all.”
“I spent most keeping the people of my region alive,” Gale said. “Even so, the Aelia wasn’t worthless. Far from it.” The distance between us closed alarmingly, and I placed a hand on his chest just in case he was planning to do something drastic.
“Er, anyway…Jameson told you about Mativ?”
“Yes, though I still have hopes that he was lying.”
“Why would he lie?”
“To reduce his sentence or to make it more difficult for the king to deal justice. I’m not certain, Avi.”
“That’s ‘Miss Avi’ to you. Let’s hurry.”
Instead of snapping at me, he bowed to kiss the hand I had left defenseless in the danger-zone that was the man’s body. At least, I had enough wits left not to jump back and offend the man. “Lead the way, Miss Avi.”
So, I scurried to the dreary dungeon, which really was more a dead-end corridor in which the prison cells had been hastily constructed. The father of the current king had not taken enemies; he vanquished all foes on the battlefield. There was no need for a dungeon until Aelius reigned, and discontent had slowly bubbled up to produce the first war against Gatha and a reason to keep prisoners.
The newest prisoner Senator Jameson sat hunched over on a stool placed in the middle of his cell. He stared out at us dolefully through the iron bars like a resentful bag of bones. In fact, the senator’s skin looked ready to slip right off his muscles.
“Gale, what is it that you want?” His voice sounded like the rumbling of thunder in the tight quarters of the dungeon.
“The truth.” Gale stepped forward to bow. “This is a matter important to His Majesty’s health. As much as you despise him for neglecting Haiathiel, you cannot be heartless enough to joke about Mativ’s involvement.”
“I am not jesting,” Jameson insisted. He pointed at me. “Why is this girl privy to our discussion?”
Gale’s hand came down on my shoulder, freezing me as I tried to tiptoe towards the mildewed stairs. He pulled me to stand in front of him like a human shield. “This is the prince’s taste-tester. She has been trusted with the prince’s safety hundreds of times. Jameson, I dare you to try to lie to her honest face.”
Against my will, my eyes met Jameson’s beady black orbs. “Hi,” I managed even with Gale’s hand cradling my chin.
Instead of turning away or scoffing, Jameson smiled. “Her face is transparent indeed. I’ll tell you all I know, Gale.”
While I rubbed my freed chin, Gale bowed again to the elderly senator. “Please wait while I find the king. He must hear this for himself.” Without any warning for me, he hobbled up the staircase that twisted out of this crumbling cellar.
“So…you are the prince’s taste-tester.” Jameson spoke as if I were a legend.
“I don’t actually taste the food,” I began to explain before shutting up. Likely, the man didn’t care how I did my job.
Jameson leaned forward, his spine bent alarmingly. “Mativ told me about you. He said with a mere glance, you can see any poison. Magic, is it?”
“Well, yes…” Somehow, my magic had never felt extraordinary or grand like the ability to fly or to move objects with one’s mind.
“Ah, thank you.”
A few minutes later, the senator of Gatha rumbled, “Gale seems to be very familiar with you.”
“Familiar!” I squawked the word like a parrot.
“I apologize if I...eh, touched upon a sensitive topic.” Jameson wrapped a spindly hand against an iron bar. Instantly, flakes of wet metal stuck to his fingers. Even the cell bars were dissolving in this dank place!
I shook my head. “No, it’s not like that.”
Then, before Jameson could continue the conversation with an inappropriate twinkle in his eyes, the king, with a cane hovering and unused in his left hand, clattered down the stairs.
As the taste-tester and young senator stood aside, the king listened to Jameson explain the extent of Mativ’s betrayal. Mativ offered Gatha money and men for a rebellion. He promised to join them with men from his own region of Monteler. Worst of all, he claimed that with Gatha’s support, the king could be removed from the throne.
The paper evidence remained in Jameson’s manor though by now, Mativ would have made a move to erase the existence of their contract. Likely, he would have hired agents to take care of it while the senator himself would be in Monteler gathering men to fight the king.
“When did you last see him?” Gale inquired since King Aelius was slowly shaking his head.
“The city of Yvon.”
“The capitol of Monteler,” Gale clarified for the sake of the taste-tester, who only glared at him.
“I know that. I studied a bit of geography. Still…” Avi trailed off to catch the king, who suddenly dropped his cane and wobbled as he stepped closer to the bars enclosing Jameson.
Aelius spoke in a watery whisper. “You are lying.”
“Your Majesty!” Gale said in astonishment. “If Mativ has betrayed us, it is crucial that his power be rescinded by your words. The people of Monteler will not serve him because they are faithful to their king.”
“Faithful,” Aelius repeated, now leaning on the taste-tester for full support. “If Mativ has betrayed us, then I can trust no one.” His bloodshot eyes fell upon Jameson. “My father never approved of the senatorships. I now understand why.”
Gale didn’t protest with Avi’s full scowl on him. She braced the king as he stumbled up the stairs out of the dungeon. Leaving Jameson to turn his back on them, Gale followed Avi and the king through the castle corridors from a respectful distance. He could hear Aelius’ stifled sobs like those of a child who had lost his parents. Only when the taste-tester handed over custody of the weeping king to Otelius did Gale dare approach Avi.
“He took the news as badly as I feared he would,” Holt murmured. The door to the king’s parlor, for once, had been shut, and the burnished sigil of Haiathiel shone at the door’s center, shedding a melancholic silver light on them.
“At least, he knows now.”
“He will do nothing with the knowledge.”
“Cal will,” the taste-tester returned with a certain smile. Indeed, as Avi predicted, the prince called a meeting the next morning, a council to which Gale found himself invited. The others included Aliasse, Avi as well as Gatherby and the senators who had responded to the royal summons even in the winter. Though servants—especially female ones—were not traditionally part of any political meeting, the senators refrained from comment. After all, the two women seated to the right hand of the prince at the table were the prince’s potential wives, and queens had a say in the running of the country.
Gatherby adjusted the fur collar of his jacket, all the while eyeing Senator Holt. He wondered why the younger senator had not contested the prince’s order to gather while the king was indisposed. The ill will between Gale Holt and Letris Calpurnius had been a great yet intriguing mystery to those who visited court. Now, the two young men greeted each other civilly, and it was Gale Holt who sat to the prince’s direct left.
Suddenly, the prince stood, drawing all eyes to his elegant figure. For once, he wore the traditional Haiathiel tunic and trousers, both which were looser and a great deal more modest than the button-up shirts and jeans the young favored. Even the color of the tunic, a shale-blue with silver lining, reflected the royal colors of Haiathiel. His trousers were black and surprisingly undecorated. The choice in clothing had been calculated to put the senators to ease.
“All of you gathered here have likely heard of Mativ and his actions to incite the rebellion of Gatha. That is two senators we have lost. Two men my father trusted with power…” Letris trailed off to stare at each of the men before him. He had memorized their faces if not the corresponding names. These were the faces that continued to show up at Assemblies, men who claimed to care the most about Haiathiel. He remembered there were twenty senators, but here only twelve sat at the prince’s table. As Aliasse had pointed out, where were the others? Six of them were unaccounted for, two known traitors.
Gatherby dipped his head. “Your Highness, the business with Mativ is unfortunate, but he has not yet been stripped of his title. Is there a reason for that?”
In answer to the question, Letris grinned. “That will not be true for long. We will declare Mativ a traitor, and he will lose all rights to his estate, title and powers. With your permission, senators?”
“May it be done,” the senators said with unanimity. The royal clerk seated in the corner of the room scribbled in his notebook.
“I’ll have the news sent to Monteler. Now, I have gathered you all here to address another issue.”
Beside him, Avi gave him a wry stare as he kept the room in suspense with a sudden silence. “Please, do tell us what you have been plotting for a day and a half…” A few senators sucked in a breath, uncertain as to how this callow young prince would respond to such forwardness but then soon relaxed as Prince Letris laughed.
“Patience, Avi.” Letris sat in the only cushioned high-back chair, which had been dragged into the chamber this morning for the meeting. “To get to the point, I have decided that all the senators shall be stripped of their titles until…” He raised an elegant finger as sputtered protests issued from a few men. “After a thorough investigation of every man’s manor, his financial records, and an interview of the servants and as many family members as is seen fit, I shall reward him with his title and my trust. The requirements for the title will not only be loyalty to the king but competence as a ruler.”
Beside Avi, Aliasse could not help writhing in her wooden chair with glee. She had suggested evaluating the aptitude of each senator to Cal, and he had agreed. This purge of profligate senators was part of what her father had wanted, what he had died for. Even so, the expressions on the faces of the senators told her that the prince’s proclamation and the actual taking of action would not happen easily. Even Gale allowed a stricken expression to escape.
“That is nothing more than persecution,” Senator Mason finally choked out.
“If you are all trustworthy, then there is nothing to worry about,” Letris replied with a careless wave of his hand. He noticed his senators stiffen; perhaps they worried about the definition of trustworthy.
Then, as the silence prolonged, Gale Holt asked the question no one else would. “If a senator is found untrustworthy and remains stripped of his title, how would you think to replace him? The election of a senatorial family takes time, especially with announcing the matter, waiting for families to come forward and make their case, setting up the polls in the appropriate towns, counting the votes—“
“Senator Holt, I am well aware of how an election works,” Letris cut him off, and then with a lupine smile, added, “I have already considered the matter.”
Holt felt a shudder run through him. Why had a feeling of foreboding gripped his innards and twisted them? “And?”
“You will take charge of them temporarily, Holt, until a new senator is found for the region. I have decided to abstain from investigating you since your recent actions in dealing with the Gatha rebels have shown me the extent of your loyalty.”
The prince’s confident gaze fell on him like a curse. “Your Highness, I cannot accept your proposition! The rule of the regions should revert to you, the prince, if a senator is unavailable.” Holt stood, every inch of him trembling. Though he once prided himself on keeping his emotions under control, the shock of being given such power and responsibility by a man who had hated him (with the hatred returned in full) tore his calm mask to pieces.
Letris stood and snatched the senator’s sleeve. “Please, consider it, Holt.” In a whisper, he added, “My father has always said you have the heart a king should possess. You are dutiful and thoughtful, disciplined enough to make the best choices even if they pain you.”
“Letris!” Holt snatched his sleeve from the prince, not sure whether he wanted to blush at the thought of Aelius praising him so highly or to laugh at the fact that the words that described an ideal king were coming from the lazy prince himself. “I cannot.”
Gatherby stood and silenced the murmurs of the other senators with a stern glance around the table. “Senator Holt, while that is an astonishing honor, I can think of no other man who deserves it. Besides, it will be a temporary position, will it not?”
The prince gave an emphatic nod, and Holt hovered over his seat, not sure whether a dignified exit was possible. The senator could feel Aliasse’s eyes on him, pleading to accept the prince’s proposal. Avi’s stare, meanwhile, was startlingly inscrutable. Perhaps she was as confused as he felt.
“Avi,” Holt spoke on an impulse, “what do you think? Is Letris in his right mind, offering me such a task?”
The taste-tester jumped a little though Aliasse gave her a grin. “Logically, it’s a fine idea. I only worry that you’ll overwork yourself.”
A chorus of good-natured laughter broke out while Gatherby considered Holt with a fatherly air. “For one so young, you do take much upon yourself. I have heard many praises from the people of Hamada about how you have managed during these hard winter months.”
“Your region is still the most happy, Gatherby, especially since you so nurtured the hat and textile industry,” Holt returned with a smile. Gatherby grinned and gave an acknowledging tug on his broad hat.
After a moment, Mason lifted his hand to make a formal proposal. Letris gave a nod of assent in his direction, and the senator offered, “Why not split the duty as men’s titles are returned to them? Your Highness may assign an ungoverned region to a senator as he sees fit, taking into account the geographical closeness and the competence of the senator.”
“Is that more agreeable, Holt?” Letris inquired.
An escape then. Holt allowed the room to fall into silence and then spoke, “May the prince’s will be done.” The other senators echoed the sentiment before returning their attention to the prince, who had begun to pace the front of the room.
“There is still the matter of who will conduct the investigation,” Senator Winston—a reedy, middle-aged man who governed the region of Welfid—reminded them. “Unless that has already been decided?” The prince had surprised them too many times to shock them again.
“Yes. I will supervise and set a number of royal clerks to complete a check. I will review what they find with my father, and both of us will decide if the senator will keep his title. You who are present here will be investigated first and quickly…with your consent,” the prince added at Holt’s raised eyebrow.
Again, the senators intoned, “May the prince’s will be done.” With that, only one more topic for discussion remained, the royal secretary then announced, one that made the entire room fall into a tense silence.
“The prisoners of Gatha remain outside,” Letris began. “Senator Jameson and his sons’ fates also must be decided.”
“If the prisoners stay out there in the cold, they will die,” Holt interjected. He felt immensely better as the prince turned a disdainful and more familiar glance in his direction.
Letris turned the question of what was to be done with the rebels over to the senators, who mangled the question with several ideas: execute them, force them to apologize and swear fealty to the king, release them, exile them. While the other senators fussed over the advantages and disadvantages of their listed options, Holt remained silent.
In the end, the fates of the rebels of Gatha remained undecided; the topic of fighting Mativ remained untouched. Even so, the prince dismissed the senators for the day, not noticing the brightness of their faces nor their excited chattering. As Senator Gatherby strolled towards the castle’s exit, he smiled to hear the conversation of two senators lagging behind him.
“It’s nice to have a proper and productive meeting at last, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” returned the second senator, “today we dealt with a true prince rather than haggled with a hesitant old man. However, I would not grow too used to this feeling lest you lose your position.”
“Ha, the prince will find my estate impeccable. I couldn’t say the same for the men absent today.”
The two men turned into a different corridor, and Gatherby walked onward in silence. Feeling the stone beneath his steady stride, the senator considered Gale Holt, the man who had been crippled by war, openly despised by the prince and called out for treason twice. Now, the prince treated Holt as an ally; perhaps they had come to an understanding after the foolhardy mission to quash the rebels in Gatha.
Gatherby sighed. He wouldn’t question it too much. So, he tweaked his hat and left the castle in good spirits, certain that the kingdom’s future had been altered by the prince’s actions today.
The altercation over Gatha had given me a massive headache, so while Aliasse loped off, sticking to Cal’s side like a burr, I retreated to my rooms. A moment later, I regretted the resentful simile. Aliasse wasn’t a burr but a blessing. Somehow, she managed to convince Cal to think through political matters and to hold the meeting with the poise of a king-to-be. All without any visible nagging or bribing. Perhaps there was a kind of magic in her. Perhaps she was Cal’s true love, the woman who could change him.
The more I pondered, the more it made sense. She alone had found out about his glamour and resisted it albeit with the help of an amulet. Her fierceness and earnestness more than made up for Cal’s laziness. Cal was still taken with her, never angry that she continued to refuse his bed and his kisses. The only problem was the very protective guardian, who would never want his foster sister married to Cal.
I almost choked on laughter. To think that Gale Holt was the equivalent of the evil stepmother in a fairy-tale love! A knock at the door to my parlor made me jump to my feet, slap the smile off my face and open the door. Lo and behold, the very obstacle to true love stood at the threshold, fiddling with the sleeve of his senator’s robes.
“May I come in?” Holt asked. His face had more color in it than usual…though he couldn’t be blushing?
I leaned across the doorway. “We can talk out in an atrium.”
“If you’re busy, you can say so. No need to be polite with me.”
“Ah, but you’re a senator, and I’m a mere taste-tester. I’m never busy when compared to you.”
“You are the prince’s taste-tester.”
“Indeed, that makes me feel more important than I really am,” I sighed. Perhaps I had been abusing my power. Alas, with Cal’s protection, how could a girl resist? While I was lost in thought, Gale Holt brushed by to perch upon an arm of the solar sofa.
Resigned to the man’s company, I left the door behind me partially open and then considered the senator. “Do you want something to drink? A snack?”
“Merely your company.”
He said it so casually. “You should stop teasing me, Senator.”
“Fine. Why has Letris been so kind to me? It’s frightening.” His disgruntled expression drained my nervousness away. The senator’s visit was not for personal purposes; he merely wanted answers. That I could deal with.
I settled on the table arranged perpendicular to the sofa. “He trusts you ever since that ordeal in Gatha. You did bring him back safely, after all.”
“Somehow, but now…What can be done with the rebels of Gatha and with Jameson? The best course is to show a firm hand and execute them all.” He sounded frustrated, a little flustered.
“You senators couldn’t agree this morning, so how could I ever decide?” Perhaps like a coward, I avoided answering. To condemn people to death, I would have needed a heart a thousand times harder. Was that a heart that Gale Holt had? Or Cal? Or poor Aelius?
Gale slipped from the arm of the sofa to the seat, suddenly closer now. His knees lightly brushed the side of my thigh now, and even that tiny touch made me aware of his rather physical presence. “Sometimes, we need an outside opinion. Ah, Miss Avi, are you cold?”
“It’s been cold for months,” I grumbled, annoyed that my body shivered so obviously.
A sudden smile made him appear years younger, but the skin on his cheeks still burned pink, a color made even brighter by the purple shadows under his eyes. He had remarkable eyes, to tell the truth. At this close range, they shifted from blue to dark gray, a blue ocean underlain with shifting silver.
I finally understood the phrase ‘jumping out of one’s skin’ as fingers gripped my hand. My spirit slithered back into its body as his fingers burned mine, and for once, it wasn’t an over-reaction on my part.
“You’re feverish.” Pulling away, I made a shooing motion. “Please, go to bed. Have Jim take a look at you.”
Holt touched his face and then smiled. “Your concern for my welfare is touching.”
Not sure if sarcasm was in play here, I decided to be honest. “Cal just recently started tolerating you. It would be tragic if you died now.”
He made a dramatic effort to stumble to his feet and then extended a hand to me. “Please, Miss Avi, could you guide me to bed?”
“Your teasing—” I couldn’t finish as the senator pitched forward in a true faint. As I stepped towards him, his chest landed on my shoulder. Once his weight was stable, I eased him to lie on the couch and stared at his face for a moment, waiting for him to proclaim it a prank. When he remained comatose, I sprinted away to find Jim, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu.