Aliasse allowed a sigh to escape. “How did this happen, Avi?” The taste-tester examined the hand that Jim had bound in white bandage.
“I fell on the rooftop,” Avi declared. “It was still icy.”
They were seated in Avi’s solar though Aliasse could sense something amiss in the room. Whether Avi had done some re-decorating or if it was merely a possible tension from Avi herself, she couldn’t tell.
“How did interviewing Senators Mason and Gatherby go?” Avi asked.
“They passed the test. They are good men though Mason is too flamboyant for my tastes,” Aliasse muttered. “The clerks Cal sent to the senators’ manors will be back soon with the report on their estates and management, but for now, both senators are in good standing.”
“With you or with Cal?”
Aliasse grinned. “With Cal and the king, of course. What does it matter what I think of them?” If she was a puppeteer, she was one with a light hand. Cal would never allow himself to be manipulated, or so Aliasse had convinced herself.
“Cal is doing this for you, isn’t he?”
“No, for his father and for the kingdom.” Aliasse curled into the sofa, her chin resting on her collarbone, arms around her knees. “Hey, want to play Warmonger?”
The other girl’s eyes flashed in warning, and Aliasse subsided in her teasing. Usually, Avi would just groan, but tonight, after being mysteriously late to dinner, Avi had been downright jumpy.
“Did something happen today?” Aliasse softened the interrogation with a hand on Avi’s dark head. The taste-tester pushed into the hand like a cat, snuggling until she lay pressed against Aliasse’s side.
A long sigh issued from Avi, and Aliasse waited, admiring the length and sheen of Avi’s hair meanwhile. Her own hair, curly and regularly in need of taming, still reached only to her shoulders. Lianne had confided that Cal liked long hair the most, long enough to curl around his throat or splay across his chest. The imagery of Cal in bed made her shiver.
“Tell me what happened. No matter how silly it is, I will never laugh. Except in secret if it’s that awful,” she added.
Avi blinked up at her. “Promise not to ask Gale about what I’m going to tell you.”
“Fine, promise. I keep my vows.”
“He met Mina again. She didn’t betray him at all. Well, she didn’t have much of a choice, but I can’t tell you much more than that.” Avi’s words came out in a desperate flood. “Have you ever seen her?”
“Once.” Aliasse had never forgotten the inferiority complex seeing Mina had given her at the tender age of seventeen. “Ah, I know.”
“You think she’s perfect, that you can never compare to her.”
“I shouldn’t care,” Avi pointed out, “yet I do. And I squabbled with Gale over nothing because of it.”
“Still, it mangles the hope that any man might turn eyes your way when a woman so damn perfect exists. Remember, my dear: there’s only one of her and more of us.” Aliasse smiled. “At least, Gale will be happy. He’ll finally lose that stern look.”
“The one as if he has a bean up his butt?”
For a few moments, Aliasse couldn’t breathe at hearing such a suitable way to describe Gale’s sour expression.
“Oh…I’m going to die here and now!” Aliasse gasped between laughter. “Pray for Aliassendre Motto—the soul you have sent to an early death!”
“Aliassendre,” Avi said with a grin. “Your full name?”
“Stuffy, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. I think it’s pretty.”
She shook a finger in the other girl’s face. “You sycophant.”
“Well, do you mind if I bring you back some biscuits to bribe you further?”
Aliasse waved her away. “Please do.” She watched the taste-tester bustle away to do just that and wondered if she should tell Avi the entire truth of her past jealousy. Back then, Aliasse had thought of Gale as her future husband. Her conviction faded when she discovered that Gale was safer to deal with as a brother.
After all, he had been a fickle lover, who had searched for a woman that matched his prowess. Aliasse turned warm even just thinking of it. Mina had teased Gale for months, promising everything and nothing, until they had followed the path to falling completely and wildly in love. For a young girl like Aliasse, who had no experience with men, pleasing such a man wasn’t worth the worry or the trouble.
The winter sky hadn’t exhausted its supply of ice, subjecting the rebels of Gatha to its cruelty. But I couldn’t dwell on their situation as I inspected the king’s breakfast. With the king and the prince immersed in quiet discussion, I frowned over the food in pretend concentration. Despite my expectation that the senator would give me his usual Mr. Beanbutt face, he hadn’t. Instead, seated a few seats from the prince, he wore a weary smile, which he focused on Cal.
“Are we meeting today to decide the fate of Jameson?”
Cal nodded and then turned to gaze at me. “Avi, are you well?” His question made me straighten my back as I slunk back to stand beside Otelius. The steward had not scolded me yesterday for being late, but just remembering his downturned mouth made me tear up. Now he just sighed at Cal’s inappropriate address.
“Ah,” I finally said after a moment’s silence, “yes, I’m fine.”
“We don’t blame you for losing track of time, Avi,” the king added. “The food is easier to eat after it cools, you know.”
Grinning at His Majesty, I offered, “Perhaps I’ll be late more often in that case.”
“But that would worry Cal needlessly,” Aelius said with a wink. “He was ready to have soldiers search the castle and the Capitol for you.”
The evident truth of that appeared in the form of a blush on my prince’s angelic face. Cal busied himself with his cup though I felt instantly loved.
“Thank you, Cal.”
My graceful prince sputtered out water at that. I raised an eyebrow at the reaction to a simple thank-you. Had I been that ungrateful lately? Otelius stepped forward to wipe the drops of water from the table while Cal turned the full force of his sexy grin on me. I waved him away and returned to my dutiful corner.
When I dared to look back at the table, I found Cal’s eyes still on me. Meanwhile, a few seats away, Holt looked like the bean had made a violent return.
“Avi, please come with me.” I pushed away curiosity at the senator’s reaction as Otelius prodded me outside the chamber.
“I’m not sure what you did wrong, but I win,” Letris said.
“What game is this?” The king of Haiathiel glanced between his son and the senator with an expression of mild interest. “Surely not one with Avi’s heart?” Both the prince and Senator Holt fumbled for utensils, their simultaneous guilty action enough to confirm the answer for the king.
King Aelius drew himself to full height. “I cannot believe that both of you would be so cruel to Avi.”
“Father, please, I have it under control. Avi knows I have her best interests at heart. She knows I love her while this man…” Letris jerked his head at Holt, “He has been toying with her like a cat with a mouse!”
Holt gripped the table hard enough to hurt his knuckles. The pain, he hoped, would distract him from wanting to rip the prince’s hair out. “I am not toying with her.”
“Then what indeed are you doing?” Letris stood and ensured that Otelius and Avi were not returning. “Your heart has never loved a single human being. At times, I wonder if you were made for duty alone.”
“Meanwhile, your sense of duty is severely lacking. Here have some of mine!” Holt snatched a waffle from his plate and tossed it at the prince’s face. He strode out of the dining hall without checking if it had made contact.
As a matter of fact, the waffle had missed, instead landing in the king’s lap. Aelius considered the ruined breakfast. “I hadn’t expected so much drama to unfold underneath my nose…or end up on my lap. Heavens, I expected Gale to be much more responsible.”
“Father, that man has yet to realize how dangerous he is to Avi,” Letris said in a whisper. Even so, a smile stole onto his face as Otelius entered the room, gave a breathless scream and scurried forward to brush the lump of food off the king’s knees.
Otelius sighed so hard he appeared to deflate. “The craziness that occurs when I am gone for a second…”
Letris stifled a chuckle in light of the steward’s despair. “Have you sent Avi to do what I asked?”
“She was most glad to do it.”
My heart and political sense began a war at the back of my mind. This task was a relief, yet doing it could set back the goal of the kingdom’s peace and prosperity. As I drew closer and closer to the castle’s entrance, my heart won. After all, politics had never been my strong suit. I had time to run back to the dining hall and ask Cal to reconsider the consequences of this mercy, but I didn’t.
Outside, the world swirled with gray. It wasn’t snow, just floating crystals of ice that had no particular form. I caught some on my palm to confirm the shapelessness of the flakes. Besides, it didn’t settle on the ground like snow, which was fluffy and bright white. Instead, the flakes coated the ground in a heavy slush.
The atmosphere of the bailey made me step lightly. Some people peeked out of their white tents as I scurried down the half-cleared walkway. Hardship had leeched their faces of color and vitality. To not know whether they would live or die…the days must have passed agonizingly for them. A soft clinking came from a few standing outside as the wind shook their chains. The guard, standing in front of the sprawled tents, looked bored. Soon enough, he would have plenty to do.
“Sir,” I said to catch the man’s attention. “The prince has ordered we free these people. Please help me unshackle them.” I handed the gaping guard a key similar to my key, which Otelius had handed me almost ceremoniously.
As we worked to free them, I didn’t expect any thanks. Once their ankle bindings were gone, the people of Gatha fled to the castle gates without a word. I didn’t know what to say to them. Sorry? Please forgive the prince? The guard watched them go with narrowed eyes, eventually losing the distrustful expression as he realized they were too exhausted to cause trouble.
An hour later, as the line of prisoners waiting their turn felt neverending, the guard grabbed my arm. “My lady, go inside. Prince Letris won’t forgive me if you become sick. I’ll find some others to help me.”
As much as I wanted to stay and see it done, I decided the guard didn’t need my popsicle fingers in the way. Back in the castle, I thawed myself at a fireplace and decided to find Aliasse and tell her the good news. But in the antechamber to Aliasse’s room, the familiar silhouette of Senator Holt appeared as an unexpected obstacle.
Facing the tall glass window, the man had his back to me. I could have walked away. Still, I owed an apology, and since the prisoners were being freed, I felt more inclined to act pleasant. “Senator Holt…”
“Don’t come any closer.”
So, I stood where I was. “I’m sorry.”
So bossy. “Can I breathe?”
“Of course.” When he turned, the ground lurched beneath me. Eyes swollen and pink with misery, he had never looked so terrible.
“I should stop snapping at you.” Though my words came out mumbled, he chuckled.
In a matter of a few long strides, he loomed in front of me. “I should stop deceiving you.”
“I...” He was shuffling from foot to foot like a shy kindergartener trying to find a way to tell his teacher he needed the bathroom.
“What is it?”
“I will not be returning to Mina.”
“Why not?” How dare this man defy the pull of true love!
He offered an explanation in his usual calm manner. During the visit, he had dissected Mina’s behavior, citing her willingness to allow him to leave a polite dismissal. The Mina who loved him would have sent Avi back to the castle on her own.
In addition, while the two of them had cleared up their misunderstanding, the past could not continue as if nothing had changed. The senator had his duties to both the king and Hamada, and Mina had her own obligations within the city.
“The war in Gatha put us in very different worlds, Avi. I loved her. That was true.” Gale gestured towards his feet. “Besides, this condition of mine puts a wedge between Mina and me. A woman like her won’t take half a man, but she’s far too polite to say it, of course. She couldn’t speak honestly with you in the room.”
“Gale…” How could he even think that?
“Perhaps you’re thinking I’m taking this all too well,” he continued. “It’s true. I’ve considered the love I had for Mina lost for years. Now, with this senator’s duty around my heart like a cage, I can’t love anyone, just as Letris said. It’s just taken me a damn long time to confirm it.”
“Then why did you cry if you don’t love anyone?” I said. “True love doesn’t care about a difference in worlds. If you want, you can bring her into your so-called separate world. In the end, this is one world. Just one. And Cal is wrong this time!”
When the senator stared at me, I continued, “You care so much about Aliasse. You take care of the people of your region because you love them. You’re loyal to the king because I’m sure you love him as your sovereign. A man without a heart couldn’t act for the sake of others as you do.”
As I shut my now dry mouth, Gale placed a soft kiss on my uninjured palm. “You have given me much to rethink. Now, Miss Avi, for your kindness, name a price, and I’ll pay it.”
I considered. “Don’t be mad when I tell you the news.”
At last, the senator drew back, tucking his hands into the sleeves of the robe. “News?”
“Cal decided to free the prisoners of Gatha.”
He impressed me by only allowing a flicker, a twitch near his temple, to ruin the mask he had assumed. “Ah…well. What about Jameson?”
“Cal hasn’t decided yet.”
“The other senators will make a fuss,” Gale pointed out. “I hope your prince knows that.”
“I would think they’d be relieved.” After all, the discussion over the rebels had always held the weight of the death of citizens. They might have felt differently if the prisoners had been foreigners, but the people of Gatha belonged here. “Mativ is the greater problem.”
However, even Cal didn’t dare bring up Mativ within his father’s hearing. The talks concerning the traitor would have to be done in secret though Cal didn’t dare to call such clandestine meetings.
“Avi, I just realized…you forgot one other love I have.”
At this tangent in our discussion of matters of the kingdom, I lifted a finger to force him to give me a moment to think.“Yes, your love for paperwork. I didn’t find it relevant to my inspiring speech.”
“No, it’s someone I love.”
The senator placed his head in his hands as if praying for patience. “Perhaps it would be cruel to continue to dally around the truth.”
“Beat around the bush?”
“Torturing greenery,” I agreed with a sigh. No matter how many times I used Earth idioms, the residents of Haiathiel never picked it up.
“Avi, I don’t understand.”
“Never mind that. What is your grand confession?”
“If I make my intention clear with an action stronger than a casual touch,” he began after a lull, “will you please not run off screaming to Letris and order him to have my head chopped off?”
I crossed my arms. “Depends.”
“Then I may risk it,” the senator said, almost to himself. He leaned forward until his lips brushed the side of my forehead. I felt more than heard him say, “I love you.”
Love? When I didn’t run off screaming, his lips pressed more firmly over my eyebrow. A soft, shocked sound reverberated in the room. Was it from my throat? His finger-tips brushed there, inquisitive, warm yet discomfiting.
“What do you feel?”
“A little itchy on the eyebrow front,” I admitted. He released me, and I scratched at the troublesome spot with an index finger. “So, all those invites to bed weren’t just terrible jokes?”
“It’s your choice.” He cleared his throat and dipped his dark head in a bow.
My choice? Choice to…No, I couldn’t even finish that thought. “I’ve already said ‘no’ before.”
A slow, awkward smile crept onto his face. “I understand. Only I did not want to continue to hide it from you. If you’ll excuse me…”
I allowed him to run away with his shattered dignity. Perhaps, as a friend, I could have played along a bit better or been less blunt. This frozen body of mine had scrambled my brain as the word “love” floated in the air between the unlikeliest matching of souls. What had just happened?