The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 26

Gale woke underneath a heavy, stifling blanket, but the bed that cradled his sore body felt remarkably soft, filled with compact goose-feather. He had always wondered how the king had managed to find enough bird feathers to furnish all the beds in the castle. When the area near his feet sunk, Holt lifted his head and found Aliasse seated there.

Noticing him, she grinned. “You’re awake.”

“What happened?” Holt asked though he had an inkling.

“You collapsed on Avi, scaring her half to death,” Aliasse scolded. “You probably haven’t been eating or sleeping properly, so of course, you got sick. Instead of going to Jim, you ignored all the symptoms and decided to pay a visit to Avi.”

Gale allowed his head to fall back on the pillow, which was also sinfully soft. “That sounds almost right.”

“What did I miss?”

“I didn’t realize I was sick,” he stated.

Aliasse considered him with more forgiving eyes. “Perhaps in all the excitement of your return and important meetings, you didn’t mind it.”

The room, the senator then recognized, belonged to a maid’s. The walls were a soft white tinged with pink, the carpet a luxurious red. Across the bed, extraneous pillows had been piled up on a chair. The tall dresser, its doors pinned open, contained mounds of neatly folded white gowns. Next to the dresser, there was a small desk clear of everything but a vase containing a shimmering flower.

“I’m in Avi’s bed.” The very thought propelled him to sit up though his body felt heavy as if he were moving through water.

Aliasse gave a dry laugh. “No need to run yet. Avi is keeping the prince occupied until you feel good enough to move. She won’t let him come here and find you in Avi’s bed.”

“Please,” Gale muttered, “don’t say that.”

“You said it first,” Aliasse said, and he had. “How are you feeling?”

“Terrible.” He dragged his body to the edge of the bed, bracing himself to stand. The leg that remained his parting gift from the first war with Gatha began to tingle with pain; it was enough to bring tears to his eyes. “I can’t stay here.”

Aliasse stood and pushed him back to lie against the rumpled bed. “You’re not in any shape to move. Even if the prince saw you now, he would pity you.”

Gale startled even himself as he snarled, “Do you pity me?” His foster sister didn’t even blink; she only shook her head and brushed a hand across his forehead. The gesture immediately doused the briefly kindled anger. Of course, Aliasse would not pity him; she empathized with him.

After all, after Senator Motto’s death, Aliasse had fallen into a grief-wrought fever, which broke only after days of Gale’s attentive care. She hated the feeling of being weak and helpless, but Gale had assured her that there was no shame in being vulnerable at times. After all, she had people who would protect her.

“I will protect you, so rest,” Aliasse said, glad to see Gale’s eyes soften and then close as he fell back to sleep. His gaunt face still had patches of unhealthy red, and his breathing sounded unusually raspy. However, Jim had assured her that his body was just rebelling after being exposed to the rough and cold camp conditions. Furthermore, the fever alone was the potentially dangerous symptom, and now the worst of the fever had already passed. Aliasse glanced back once to check that Gale was indeed sleeping with no trouble before leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.

By the next morning, Gale was strong enough to slip from the taste-tester’s chambers to his own without any aid. Then, he slept for the entire day, not knowing that Letris postponed another meeting with the senators to decide the fate of the rebels of Gatha for Holt’s sake.

While the senator slumbered, Prince Letris attended to his father, who remained inconsolable, and then to the former rebels camped outside. He confirmed their comfort, making sure they had food and water before returning to the castle and lounging in his quarters as if nothing had disrupted his usual routine.

Aliasse marveled that he could be so casual after seeing the prisoners, who were, despite all the prince’s efforts, suffering. Then again, she believed the man hid more than he revealed. He could pretend ignorance or indifference, and she wondered still why he had learned to feign these feelings.

When Aliasse entered the prince’s solar as per daily routine, Avi was shaking her head at something Cal had said. They greeted her with matching grins, and Aliasse plopped onto the sofa’s arm: a motion that made Avi blush.

Since the prince made no mention of Avi’s reaction, Aliasse did not dare to tease her about it. Instead, she suggested with an iniquitous smile, “How about we play Warmonger?” The prince of Haiathiel chuckled as the taste-tester groaned, already knowing the outcome.

After being beaten in multiple rounds of Warmonger, I slinked down to dinner with the smile of a courteous loser. Cal had already taken his place beside his father, and Gale Holt, less flushed and looking more alive, sat to the king’s left. Aelius gave me a feeble grin as I curtsied. Aside from looking as frail as usual, the king appeared composed. Cal had told him about the testing of each senator’s loyalty, and Aelius had agreed with wholehearted vehemence.

I glanced over the rather conservative meal laid out before the king and gave a nod of approval. Tonight, it was humble fare: a watery soup, loaves of bread, a venison dish with sautéed green vegetables, a soft vegetable akin to a potato buttered, sliced and cooked into oval crisps, and a boiled fish with a sweet sauce. None of it glowed; none of it was dessert. Why would the king go without dessert?

Standing beside Otelius, I was tempted to ask until I realized that the king’s trusted steward looked faintly worried. Likely, Otelius already knew what troubled the king, and an inquiry from me wasn’t going to change it. It was remembering Mativ that tormented the king. Surely Aelius wondered that a man who had acted so faithful could turn out so treacherous. Still, there had been signs of his untrustworthiness, signs the king missed and that I ignored as an old senator’s eccentricity.

“I think I’ve gotten better at Warmonger,” Cal began in the silence that had enveloped the dining hall.

“Oh?” For once, Holt continued the conversation with his prince in a not-at-all-hostile tone. Somehow, they had bonded during Cal’s brief campaign to Gatha. Either way, that would make Aliasse’s path to marrying Cal much easier.

Perhaps I had blushed with guilt since Otelius nudged and questioned in a whisper, “Avi, are you well? You’re quite pink.”

“Ah no,” I replied, “Just had a stray thought.”

“About the senator?” For a moment, just a moment, Otelius allowed a glimmer of mischief in his smile. Then it became fatherly concern.

I face-palmed. “No.” Then a thought, one I had been pushing to the murky depths of my mind in which I placed things best forgotten, came unbidden. If Gale had not been ill during his visit, what would have happened? Would we have discussed state business? What had been the man’s intentions? Agreed, in that letter sent so long ago, he had wanted to spend time with me. As a friend, I had assumed, but to assume was dangerous around a man like Holt.

After dinner, Cal kidnapped me, steering me towards Aliasse’s chambers. “No,” I groaned, “No more Warmonger. Haven’t you both grown tired of trouncing me?”

Cal kissed the top of my head. A small comfort. “Ah, but Holt is going to teach us some strategy.”

“Getting trounced by the senator. Even better,” I muttered, feeling less grumpy when Cal squeezed me into a one-armed hug. When we arrived in Aliasse’s recreational room, where most maids would be demurely sewing or chatting, Aliasse was hovering over the game board with Gale beside her.

She gestured for us to sit at the two seats across from them and then danced over to her side of the table to plop into the empty seat beside Gale. Ever since we had entered the room, Cal’s gaze hadn’t left Aliasse’s leaping, gleeful form. I wondered if he truly loved her or if he only longed to test out her spirit in bed.

“You want my help with strategy, hmm?” Gale spoke, distracting me with a mild tone.

After confirming that was indeed why Aliasse had dragged him here, my prince fixed his eyes on the game pieces in front of us. I had never paid enough attention to completely understand which piece moved which way: most likely the reason I was awful at the game. A man like Gale, who knew the rules and who calculated consequences and maybe even manipulated his opponent a little, could destroy me in a matter of minutes.

“Avi, you make the first move,” Aliasse encouraged though I gaped for a moment. Were they pitting me against Gale?

Perhaps reading my unease, Gale said, “Don’t worry. I’ll move pieces at random. Just try and corner my king.”

“At random?” I repeated. I wasn’t that awful at the game, was I? Despite the insult, I pushed a soldier forward. Across from me, Gale pushed forward the soldier at the very edge of the board. We took turns, me hardly knowing what I was doing, Gale moving at random. Random didn’t mean he gave up the opportunity to take out a piece I had unwittingly placed in danger. Eventually, as the game continued, I moved pieces with more prudence, always checking that Gale’s pieces could not touch the one I planned to move.

Piece by piece, Gale’s king lost his supporters. With one elusive tower and the king left, Gale didn’t appear to be in a good position. Even so, it ended in a stalemate since I could find no way for my lone equestrian and king’s mistress to corner the king. I made a face and then waved at Gale to reset the board.

The senator pronounced my diagnosis with a faint smile. “The problem with you is that you’re very reactive…though we all knew that.”

Funny. “So?”

“Instead of carving a way to my king, you play defensively. Therefore, you’re one step behind me. At least, you’ve started protecting your pieces and learning how they move,” Gale added in a way that he must have thought was gallant. “That enough might serve you against less knowledgeable opponents.”

“It won’t even work against randomly placed pieces,” I pointed out.

“That’s because you’re running instead of fighting.”

“This is why I’m not a soldier or strategist.” With yet another humiliating defeat under my metaphorical belt, I stood to leave. Before Aliasse or Cal could find words to compel me to stay, I managed to flee, getting as far the atrium outside the wing before a hand caught my arm and pulled me back.

Turned around, I was face to face with the senator again. Without the board and a table between us, my body prickled with warning: danger, he’s much too close. I stepped back to restore a polite distance, and Gale gave me a wan smile as he noticed.

“I was ensuring you weren’t in tears.”

“Why would I cry over losing a game I already know I’m terrible at?” I snapped.

“It’s been an emotional few days for everyone, Miss Avi.” The kindness in his voice made me want to buckle my anger on like a shield, but instead, it melted away. “I feared even this minor loss could trigger tears.”

“Ha,” I muttered, “No way.”

“Good.” Gale gave me a swift bow. “Then you won’t mind joining us again?”

Trapped once more, I followed him back to Aliasse’s rooms. This time, Aliasse and Cal were playing. To me, watching from the outside, they appeared to be moving randomly. Seated across from Gale, I couldn’t help watching the senator’s mouth, which went from a straight line to a crooked, wry curve to a downward grimace as the game progressed.

“Heavens, I can’t imagine how you had the patience to sit down and come up with the plan to review all the senators’ loyalty, Letris,” Gale finally sighed.

The prince confided, “It wasn’t my idea.”

“It was mine,” Aliasse said. “You two look surprised. Honestly…” She grumbled a bit before moving a soldier forward, and I gave my prince a severe look.

Cal redeemed himself a little as he spoke again. “While Aliasse did give me the idea, I finalized the details. This ordeal is worthwhile if only to put my father’s mind at rest and to fix up the kingdom.”

I didn’t allow my jaw to drop though I glanced at Gale to commiserate with the skepticism there. Instead, Gale looked thoroughly amused.

“Was it your idea to hand over the regions to me, so I could take care of them?” Gale interrogated his foster sister.

The prince lifted a hand to take credit for it.

“How terribly lazy,” I sighed, and Cal gave me a stunning grin.

The game between Aliasse and Cal came to an end as Aliasse cornered the opponent king with a tower. My prince exhaled in disbelief and then vaulted over the table like a madman to embrace Aliasse. The ruffled senator beside them brushed off a sleeve and then limped over to take the seat beside me.

While Cal and Aliasse argued about fulfilling a wager they had made, Gale rearranged the game board. Who was going to play again? Certainly not me. To my relief, the senator did not insist that we play. Instead, with a hand on my shoulder, he steered me out of the room.

“Did they forget we were there?” I muttered though deep in my heart, I couldn’t help hoping that Cal and Aliasse would turn out to be true loves.

“I couldn’t watch it another moment,” Gale sighed.

In the corridor, we sat on a bench near a ceiling-high window. The icy weather had returned, angrily pelting the castle as if it wanted entrance. The warlord Winter was no kind master here. That reminded me of the rebels of Gatha, who were, despite the sturdy tents set up to house them, still subject to the ice flying outside.

“Do you think the people of Gatha will be okay?”

Gale tilted his head. “Why concern yourself?”

“I may be selfish…but even I feel guilty about leaving people outside in such weather.”

“Do you remember the beggars in the city?”

Of course, I remembered them in a flash of haggard faces, beginning with the first who had tugged on Callie’s skirt, desperate for help. “They’re out in this weather too.”

“This country is as fair and prosperous as any over the seas, but there are still those who suffer: the people of Gatha, the poor here in the Capitol. Perhaps there is no way to accommodate them all. I must say…I do not envy our prince’s position, Miss Avi.”

“There has to be a solution! Once the senators who have been piling wealth are taken care of…” Then what?

“The wealthy will be furious to have the funds for their entertainment lessened,” Gale predicted. “Without jobs, without a will to work, the people have no hope.”

“Then, why did you agree to this purging of the senators?”

“One step at a time, Avi. One step at a time.”

“What’s the next step then?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

His nonchalance, false as it was, confirmed that even Senator Holt couldn’t figure out how to fix a kingdom. “If we go out into the Capitol…” Then my mind latched onto another matter. “Oh, we still haven’t seen Mina.”

Gale flinched back at the name. “Why would we go see her?”

“To find the truth. Perhaps,” I added, “if she loves you still, you can marry her. You deserve some happiness, Gale.”

“My vow.” He said the words as neither a question nor statement, only a gloomy reminder.

Remembering that royalty were not above breaking the rules, I said, “Aelius has the authority to free you from that vow.”

“He does, but I begged him not to,” Gale said. “Besides, would Mina accept this?” The senator lifted his bad leg and made such a bizarre, pained face that I giggled.

“If she truly loves you—”

“When do you know that you’ve found true love?”

This time, I had prepared for the question. Time to time, I had contemplated the conditions though scientific methods were ill-suited for defining a feeling that came so much from intuition.

“If fate keeps throwing you together with a person, that could be a sign,” I said. Cal and Aliasse had been nearly inseparable. “I think my true love would be someone I don’t have to struggle to talk to; even silence would be comfortable with him. I would never feel obliged to flatter him or force him to do anything.”

Gale sank back, shivering as his back brushed the cold window glass. In truth, it was how he had felt around Mina until Letris had wrenched them apart. He could read her moods, in her eyes, her body, her very movements. Often, there was no need for words.

“Just being with the person is enough for the world to seem complete,” the taste-tester finished.

After a moment, the senator teased, “Do you have an image of your true love stored away?”

“Not at all,” Avi returned. “It doesn’t matter what he looks like. Just what he feels like.” After a moment, she said, “Not in that way, you perverted Senator.”

Gale stifled a laugh. He didn’t mind too much as the taste-tester left him in the atrium to sort out his overwhelming nostalgia.

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