Despite the pelting hail and the body-numbing cold outside, Gale had decided we would see Mina today. This time, he didn’t invite Cal or Aliasse—the reason being obvious. What I couldn’t figure out was why I had to tag along. Perhaps I would serve as some sort of teddy bear that the senator could cling to as he confronted his past. Of course, I didn’t accuse him of that out loud.
Instead, I wrapped myself in my favorite thick purple cloak and didn’t speak a word as we strode past the much-too-easily-bribed guards. Likely, they knew that though Gale could be deceitful, he had the best intentions. The guards also seemed restless, likely because of the prisoners enclosed within the king’s walls. Another morning of arguments had not determined the fate of the rebels.
Now, as we escaped the castle, the prince and his father were interviewing the senators Mason and Gatherby. Gale admitted it was more of a review orchestrated by Aliasse than by the prince. I saw it this way: she was there to help him to change the kingdom for the better. So I shouldn’t feel guilty about not supporting Cal as he “supervised” the investigations...
“Miss Avi, why be glum? When the weather is better, I shall escort Letris around the Capitol to make up for this deception.”
As much as breaking my promise to Cal to bring him with us to the Capitol bothered me, I was more troubled that I broke it for curiosity’s sake. Finally, Gale would show me the west side of the city properly, though the miserable weather probably drove most of its residents into hibernation. “That’s not it.”
“Is it meeting Mina?”
“Nope.” The ramshackle houses on the Main Road gave way to the stores that Callie and I had seen on our first sojourn outside the castle. A small sideroad was paved around them, brushed the shop that had a hammer on its sign and widened into a much larger road. On each side of this larger street, white, square houses, each shoulder to shoulder with its neighbor, stood. Every wooden door had a different touch; some had wreathes, others banners. A few had a design carved into them. These were the houses, Gale told me, of the relatively wealthy though the quarters still looked cramped.
The street and the houses spiraled outward and ended with the Capitol Square, a flat, rectangular plaza that had been constructed of enormous slats of stone. Four fountains, now frozen, were arranged in a semi-circle containing a few benches. Most citizens had to pass through this area, which provided access to the four sections of the city. Since the king’s castle was in the northern section of the Capitol and we had traveled south to reach this crossroad, I guessed the path to the west side lay to our right. A ragged, wooden sign in the very center of the Square confirmed it.
The friendly greeting issued from a man bundled in furs: the only other person insane enough to travel during such unforgiving weather. I lowered my eyes though the gumball-sized hail had already forced me to scurry along in a hunched position.
“Hello,” Gale returned without any uneasiness. Since it was a stranger, I dared to glance back up. “Isn’t it foolish to trek through such weather?”
After he loped across the Square to stand in front of us, the man said, “Shouldn’t I ask the same of you?”
“It’s urgent business,” Gale said. For him, it truly was. To see Mina was a tremendous quest; he would be seeing once more the woman he would die for, the one he would have married. To think of the senator being so romantic made my stomach turn. Imagine Mr. Beanbutt as a husband! While the bean often disappeared, his stern and exhausted face reminded me that he was a man committed to duty, not to love.
“I won’t delay you then.” The man nodded at Gale and then tipped his cap at me with a rakish grin before heading the way we had come.
I glanced after the man, making sure he had no plans to follow us. “People usually aren’t so friendly.” In the part of the Capitol closest to the castle, people had either avoided us or glared at us unless Gale took the initiative to greet them with a few polite words. It was the way we dressed in the end. My cloak looked expensive to their eyes, unadorned as it was. The senator himself wore a thick, black trench-coat with a fluffy fur collar, which I had petted before he had donned the jacket with a wry smile.
“Considering the number of furs that man had, I imagine he’s wealthy. People are much friendlier towards equals,” Gale said, his tone a bit patronizing.
“I know that firsthand,” I replied. After all, hadn’t a certain senator treated me with contempt knowing I was the prince’s servant? Likely, Gale caught the allusion because he looked away and didn’t speak again.
After minutes of walking, about the time it took for the cold to soak through my boots and make my toes numb, Gale paused. “Are you cold, Miss Avi?” The back of his coat had been covered in hailstones, so I reached out to scrape them off with my fingers.
“My feet mostly,” I admitted. “Why aren’t we there yet?”
“The place we’re headed is secluded from the rest of the city…and for good reason. This road extends for half a mile more before we’ll reach the busiest part. Perhaps we should stop at a nearby inn and get warm?” His breath made enormous clouds as he exhaled; limping all this way probably took more effort for him than for me, despite my frozen toes.
“Hopefully, not the same inn we stopped at before,” I muttered in an undertone.
The senator turned around. “I would not be so tactless.” He reached out an arm, to pat my head I feared, but only brushed the ice from the top of my hood.
“We’re covered in ice,” I realized. “Let’s find somewhere to shake it off.”
We continued the journey in silence, saving our breath for the effort needed to tread through the ice, which had accumulated to a depth of three inches. A few stumbles were inevitable since we were walking over wet, shifting pebbles. Each time, the senator caught me without a single, snarky word about how I couldn’t walk properly. Perhaps with his limp, Gale had learned to be more prudent with his steps.
“Here.” Gale allowed his finger to peek out of his sleeve to point out a small wooden house. The owner had painted the word “inn” beside the door. I dallied on the stairs, which creaked under my feet.
“Is this place safe?” It showed no sign of human inhabitation like the shacks we had passed on this road.
Standing in front of the door, Gale brushed back his hood. “They’re all cozy inside, where it’s warm. Come on, Miss Avi.”
Despite my misgivings, I followed. Inside, the innkeeper—a bearded, middle-aged man—greeted us with pleasantries; his broad smile became real as Holt handed him a large coin. We settled at a table in the empty front room, and soon the innkeeper provided a bucket into which we could deposit the ice accumulated on our clothes.
We filled the bucket three times, the innkeeper scurrying over each time to empty it with an ingratiating smile for Gale. Apparently, the senator was used to such fawning through even watching made me feel like punching the man in the face. I focused instead on my toes, which I had freed from my boots at Gale’s encouragement.
As I winced in pain, Gale ordered two cups of tea, which the innkeeper prepared in a room behind the counter. The man had it ready in a matter of minutes since there was no one else around. After delivering the tea, the innkeeper retreated through a door beside the counter, likely to double-check the readiness of his rooms.
The tea tasted bitter even with the added milk and sugar. I almost complained to Gale, but his strained face changed my mind. He knew it tasted bad, but the senator drained his entire cup without losing the sickly expression on his face.
“Hey, you okay?”
His gaze, which had been pinned on the wilting flowers placed on the inn’s welcoming counter, snapped back to me. “A little nervous.” His mouth curved a little at the edge in a start of a sheepish smile.
“It’s better than not knowing,” I told him. How could he have lived so long without an explanation? I would have returned the next day and demanded to know what had happened. Of course, the senator and I were very different people...
“Yes.” He placed his finger-tips on the rim of the wooden cup in front of him. “I’m just afraid she’ll look at me with revulsion.”
This honesty made my face blaze for some reason. I looked down into the swirly, brown depths of my cup. “For what? You still worried that your leg will drive her away?”
“I am like an old man,” Gale muttered. Perhaps the innkeeper had slipped something alcoholic into the senator’s tea? Why else would he be so mopey?
“Crippled, constantly tired, dry and brittle and cold…” Man oh man, he sounded so dejected.
“You resemble an old man in only that you’re wise beyond your years,” I interrupted.
“I’ve destroyed any hope of having a family,” Gale continued a whisper that carried only to my ears. “I’m going to be a stuffy, old senator for the rest of my life. Ah wait, until Letris realizes that a new senatorial family must be chosen for Hamada.”
“I’m sure you could make a family if you tried hard enough,” I stuttered.
“It would be painful in my condition.” He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
I would have slammed my cup on the table, but it was still almost filled to the brim with tea. “Have you even tried?”
“No, I haven’t tried to find a partner who would be willing to experiment with a crippled man.” His sudden grin made me feel stupid. Had he been angling towards that suggestion all along?
“I see.” I sighed and then bent over to hide an unfortunate blush and to slip my boots back over my slightly soggy stockings. “Mina may be willing.”
“It would be a new experience for her,” continued the senator in an overly cheerful tone.
“What’s made you so deranged?” I wondered out loud. “Something in the tea?”
“Just being with you, Miss Avi, makes me deranged in the best possible way.” Gale stood, smacking his hands down on the table to support himself. “We should go.”
Timid as a field mouse, the taste-tester walked beside the senator without any chattering. After his last words to her in the inn, Holt had expected a biting rejoinder, but she had only covered her face with that demure hood and exited the inn at his side. He had thrown his feelings in her face, as a test. Even all the hints he dropped, inappropriate and guilty as they made him feel, had not shattered the barrier that would lead to Avi’s understanding.
Had he been too subtle? Most women would have picked up on his overture right away. Then again, the taste-tester was not most women. Mina would have laughed at both how obvious and ineffectual his flirting had been. Perhaps he had lost his touch after the war. Perhaps he was not attractive enough, or worst of all, Avi thought he was beyond her reach.
Gale held in a sigh and concentrated on picking the least treacherous path in the ice. He only paused for rest as the tall floridly painted buildings of the west end came into their view. The center of indulgence contained mostly inns and bars, all in competition for customers. Among the buildings, the most recognizable was a theatre with bright-eyed, bigger-than-life characters painted on its outside walls. In the shadow of the more run-down buildings, women of ill repute would linger in the evenings. Other, more wealthy courtesans had their own houses, where they would entertain men who satisfied their more refined tastes.
One of these special houses, Gale knew, contained Mina. Hers had been a humble house, cozy with sofas and brightly colored covers. However, the bed she had kept had not been comfortable, so they usually curled up on the sofa for pleasure. The remembrance of a woman’s warmth huddled against his chest made the senator instantly regret this visit.
In the middle of the icy street, Avi peeked over her shoulder at him. “Having second thoughts?” When Gale didn’t answer, she scowled at the emptiness of the place. Even though the hail stopped, no one poked their head outdoors.
“I didn’t think the west end could be boring from the stories I heard, but you picked the right day, Senator.”
“Letris would destroy me if your innocence were corrupted by such a sordid place,” Holt replied with a smile, and then he cleared his throat. He had not wanted to shatter her ideal of true love by showing her the city in its full depravity. Then again, why had he been trying, if only feebly, to push his feelings on her if that were the case?
“You look like you’re fighting an internal battle.” With a sigh, Avi reached out a gloved hand to pat his shoulder. “Really, it doesn’t matter if Mina doesn’t accept you or if it turns out she did betray you. Nothing will have changed. If the truth turns out that she didn’t mean to hurt you, then that’s great, isn’t it? It can only get better from here.”
As Avi danced from one foot to the other, the senator wondered if the cold had already pierced her toes again. For such an irascible girl, she could be oddly delicate. The thought propelled him to continue onward. “I know.”
He treaded the street that had once been familiar to him, the route ingrained in his mind with vestiges of contentment and love. A faded, sickly green building served as a marker, and Holt turned into the alley beside it, aware that the taste-tester shrunk back with reluctance. However, no one else prowled the cobbled off-shoot though it led to haphazardly constructed shacks that had been propped up against the more colorful buildings.
At the end of the alleyway, an orange, one-story house with a small dome and circular window popping out of its center waited. In front of the oak door, a curtain of beads hung: spots of fiery orange and red vibrant in the frigid, white surroundings. Despite the first daunting impression, the paint was peeling and the circular window had cracked.
Avi moved back her hood to see the place a bit better. “This is Mina’s house?”
The sudden thought that Mina may have vacated this house years ago crossed their minds, and they stared at each other. Then the taste-tester smiled. “We won’t know until you try.”
Holt crunched forward and almost slipped. His perfect control over his body, despite his leg, started to waver. He hated that the memory of a woman could do this to him. No, the many ghosts—of his disapproving father, the careless sixteen-year-old prince, the warm, fierce woman that he had loved—clung to his limbs, made him freeze.
The senator opened his mouth to plead, “Could you check for me?”
How could I say no? “What do I tell her?” Though Cal taught me that being bold made people open up like flowers in the spring, I couldn’t help feeling a crippling bashfulness at meeting the woman that Senator Gale Holt worried about impressing.
“Tell her that I’m here,” Gale choked out.
“I’ll ask if she’ll speak with you,” I decided, ignoring Holt’s heartfelt sigh of relief. I had not expected to talk to this woman, only to deal with Gale in the aftermath of their dramatic reunion. Stepping forward, I felt my ankle bend and foot slip sideways on the treacherous path.
My clumsy self pitched forward, but spreading my weight with my legs, I braced myself against the ice with a hand. Pain and cold traveled up my arm. At least, I hadn’t fallen on my face or hit my head on the door. In this awkward, forward bend, the door was only inches from the top of my hood.
“Avi, are you alright?” Holt whispered.
“Fine,” I grumbled, straightening. My palm, though a glove had cushioned the impact, still throbbed. I could examine the damage later. For now, I had two lovers to reunite. The thought of facing Mina as a mission for love made my back straighten. If I botched the mission, I could blame Gale anyway.
After I pushed back my hood, I knocked on the door: three firm knocks and no more. The response wasn’t immediate, but I resisted the urge to dance in place, just in case the ice tripped me up again. When I glanced over my shoulder, Holt had retreated into the alley, hidden in the shadow there.
“Welcome. What can I do for you?” The voice at the door held a musical modulation, slightly lower and huskier than I imagined it would be. It rang with a note of amusement.
I turned back to scrutinize the owner of the voice. The first impression was of eyes: large, remarkably hazelnut brown, outlined in black as naturally as a wolf’s eyes. The dark lashes were easily twice the length of mine, thick and softly shining.
I couldn’t even articulate, only stare. Her skin was a smooth chestnut where I could see it, showing through the slit sleeves of her gown and of course, her amazingly symmetrical face and graceful neck. An ochre dress covered the rest though the v-neckline dipped a little into what men would find distracting territory. A belt of blue and green stones cinched the dress to her petite waist and marked the change of the smooth fabric to the stylishly pleated skirt that lightly brushed the ground.
She was ornamented, not like a princess of Haiathiel but like a warrior tribe’s princess, with a necklace of colored stones around her neck, multi-colored bangles on her arms, glimmering red stones for earrings and a thin headband that looked to be made of wood and crystal. She had gems—real or fake, it didn’t matter—and even bells embedded in her long black hair.
As she shifted awkwardly, never losing the smile on her face, soft jingling sounded. “I don’t do women, honey, though you look like a real sweetheart.” She reached out to grip my chin and lift my face. “I can recommend friends of mine if you wish.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I managed to say. Where she touched me, my face burned. How could this woman be so attractive? Unless finding my true love had been hindered by considering only one half of the human race? Somehow, that didn’t feel like the case.
She leaned forward, so the few small braids in her hair tickled my face. She smelled faintly of flowers. “Then why?” The sultry whisper evoked a strange burning in the pit of my stomach. My body reacted as she pressed closer, but to shield those areas would be to reveal too much.
“Gale Holt wants to speak with you.” I doubted any other words would have shocked her as much as the ones I blurted. Mina released me, her hands curled to her chest. Then she brushed the soft curve of bangs into her face, hiding a shocked expression for a moment before it became resolute.
“Who are you?” she interrogated, as demanding as a king speaking with someone who had wronged him.
“I am his friend,” I said. “He wants to discuss…everything.” The weight of what Gale had been carrying around may as well have been everything.
“Gale…” This time, she spoke not to me, but for the senator looming behind me. I didn’t dare stare at his face, not knowing if I could deal with the raw emotion likely provoked by a woman who outshone every woman in Haiathiel. Trust the senator to fall in love with a woman like that!
Gale Holt bowed first, trying to convince himself it wasn’t to hide his face but to be polite. When he straightened, his breath caught as Mina shook her head at him. The music of that slight movement dared him to barge into the house and make up for lost time.
“Mina.” She was still so beautiful.
“Who’s this?” Mina reached out to place a hand on the taste-tester’s head. “She’s adorable.”
“Tamed, for now.” Holt allowed the words to escape, his heart moaning at him for the callous words.
However, his dry comment stirred Avi to action. She stepped out of the threshold of the door and gestured for him to go. With a shake of her head, Mina said, “You still haven’t told me her name, Gale Holt.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Avi offered.
“Her name is Avi. She is the prince’s taste-tester,” Gale said, startled that they could speak so casually. None of the tears he expected had poured forth.
A silence fell and then lengthened, broken only when Avi began to fidget and Gale gave her a questioning glance. Mina then laughed. “So, care to explain what you’re here for?”
The senator blinked. “You never wondered why I disappeared?”
“You must have had a reason,” Mina replied. She pushed open the front door behind her back and then gestured for them to enter. Without delay, Avi bounced into the warm living room and plopped onto a sofa at the furthest corner of the room. Gale trailed after her and took a seat on an elongated red couch, doing his best to minimize his limp.
Mina shut the door with her hip and smiled to find the taste-tester examining her palm casually. “Is your leg hurt, Gale?”
If those keen eyes detected his shuffling gait, they would never miss the lines of strain in his face, would single out the shadows of bruises and sleepless nights on his face. “Not hurt. Crippled.”
Mina floated over to place a hand on the knee of his bad leg. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry I came back to you broken,” he returned, wondering at the thickness in his throat. Sobbing like a lost child would not impress Mina. It would earn only her disdain. So, he reined in the impulse and gave her a shaking smile.
He felt the choking feeling ease as she gifted him with an embrace: warm and loving. Never once had Gale Holt regretted falling for this woman; he had never blamed her except when he was truly in an unreasonable mood. The dual hatred for both guilty partners had passed to Letris, oblivious as the man was.
“What happened?” She pushed him away to hear the answer. “Why did you leave me, Gale Holt?” Her luminous eyes brimmed with tears.
Gale related the story as calmly as he told it to the taste-tester. The truth exhausted him, and his leg flared up in its usual angry pain. By the end, Mina was sobbing into his chest, her fingernails stabbing into his skin as she gripped him as though she would never let go.
“I couldn’t refuse the prince’s request. Just once, he said,” Mina said after regaining control of her voice. “I didn’t even see you! You didn’t say a word; you just disappeared! Then I heard you had become senator…” Seated in his lap, she pounded lightly on the Gale’s chest with her delicate fists, bangles jangling in protest of the unfairness.
He brushed a kiss on her forehead. “You never came after me.”
She leaned back to see if the man was serious. “Me run around, asking after a senator? How much more scandalous do you want this?”
“I wish I had seen you earlier,” Gale whispered. “Before the first war with Gatha.”
Mina paused, and the senator felt his happiness drop into cold dread. When her lively body came to such a deadly stop, it never boded well. “Were you…trying to die?”
“Yes, I would have died for you.”
“I’ve never heard such nonsense from you.” Mina scrambled away and onto her feet, her skirts billowing as she fled his grasping arms. Her glare could have boiled water, melted rock and now made the senator shrink back into the sofa.
“He really loves you, Mina.” A soft voice, unheard all this time during their frantic conversation, floated across the room. Avi had her eyes turned to the staircase that led up to the dome-shaped bedroom. “Ah, Senator Holt, if you don’t mind, may I go? It’s probably getting late, and the king will expect me to be present for dinner.”
Holt stood and winced as his shoulder cracked in protest at the sudden movement. “Yes, it’s time we returned.” He glanced at Mina and received a barely discernible nod.
Avi sprang to her feet. “I can find my own way back. I’ll be careful.”
“If it’s dark,” Holt began and trailed off, realizing he could never finish listing the dangers of the Capitol for a young lady in the west end of the city.
“Escort her back and return tonight if you wish, Gale.” Mina crossed the room to grasp Avi’s hands. The taste-tester’s face darkened with color as the other woman kissed her cheek. “Thank you, Avi, for returning him to me.”
As Gale cleared his throat, Mina gave him a wry glance. “What? Jealous? I’ll kiss you in a moment if you wish.”
“Later,” the senator returned, archly enough to raise Avi’s eyebrow. “We should hurry, Miss Avi.” He dipped his head in a polite good-bye to Mina and tugged Avi out the door. The hasty exit onto the ice caused them both to slip before they gripped each other’s arms in a vice to steady themselves. From the doorway of her home, Mina’s musical laughter serenaded the glowering taste-tester and the sheepish senator as they disappeared into the alleyway.
Once I forgave the senator for endangering my life, I said, “She’s gorgeous…and so understanding.” No woman could compete. Not only was she lovely, but charming and kind. In short, Gale Holt had found the perfect woman and given her up because of a measly misunderstanding that he had been too cowardly to clear up. His mistake would have been easier to forgive had Mina been more arrogant. Still, despite her beauty, she treated a plain girl like me with such love, and it reminded me of Cal.
“Yes, she is. But we’re going to be late for dinner,” the senator muttered with a glance for the star-strewn sky. I half-hoped he would fall flat on his face. We were walking at a pace more brisk than the one set on the way to Mina’s house, so my hope wasn’t entirely in vain. Plus, he had shoved me past all the interesting people wandering the streets of the west end, so I wouldn’t gawk at them.
“Maybe Otelius won’t be too mad,” I sighed.
“Don’t you mean Aelius?”
“No,” I said with emphasis. “Otelius. I’ve never seen him brandish a single weapon, but the very thought makes my knees go weak.” As I spoke those fatal words, my feet skidded beneath me on a smooth patch of ice that no human eyes could see in the dark. The senator looped an arm around my shoulders and pressed me to his side.
“You’ll be safer like this than on your own,” he muttered. “How is the hand you fell on earlier?”
“I did not fall; I caught myself.” So close to him, I felt guilty, knowing that this man belonged to Mina. “My hand’s fine.” Actually, with attention called to it, the hand burned and itched with the rough glove against it. I freed myself from the senator’s grip and pulled off the glove. The skin at the palm’s center was torn, now oozing a clear, pinkish fluid.
“Fine?” he questioned.
“I’ll have Jim look at it after checking dinner.” Leaving my hand to be caressed by the cool night breeze, I pointed out, “We’re out of the west end. I can find my way back from here. Aren’t you going back to eat with Mina?”
The senator responded with a motion that signaled “no.” I tilted my head at him. “Sure you don’t mean this?” I nodded emphatically. After reuniting with his true love, how could he stay away?
“I need time to think. So does Mina.”
We stepped into the Capitol Square before he answered again. Both of us had one eye on the drowsy but harmless folk wandering about. “Seeing each other after so long…we were caught up in joy. When we see each other again, will she still feel the same? Is there even a future for her and me?”
“Life is so simple for you, Miss Avi.”Simple? He thought my life was simple? Torn between my first world and this one, between Cal and the kingdom, between duty and sanity, between loving a friend and finding my true love? How could that be simple? “Then you don’t know me at all.”
“Don’t be so extreme.”
Suddenly, I wanted to pull out his voice-box. “You made it extreme when you defined a life as simple.”
“What you meant to say?”
“Perhaps there’s nothing I can say.”
“Then stay quiet.”
“You’re being impolite.”
“You insulted me.”
“I didn’t even mean an insult.”
“How can a senator be so tactless?”
“How can a girl take offense so easily?”
“I’m reactive, remember?”
“Absolutely volatile.” He paused. “That was an insult.”
It wasn’t worth continuing the conversation. I waited to run away from him until we were on safer ground. At least, the Main Road that led to the castle had been mostly cleared of slipperiness. As I sprinted for the warm lights of the king’s castle, I didn’t look back to see if the senator had something else to say.