I was sitting on the edge of the prince’s bed and studying my toes. The longer I stared at them, the stranger they seemed. “You’ve been quiet.” Crawling onto the satin bedcovers, Cal placed his head on my shoulder. It was odd to be in his bedchamber at this hour.
“I wasn’t looking forward to this,” I answered. I could always be honest with Cal. He took almost everything we said with a smile; of course, that indulgence didn’t apply to men other than the king.
Cal’s soft kiss on my cheek made me want to forget my true love. The prince would be mine for the night. They had an enormous stock of powder here that would prevent pregnancy, which most of the maids quaffed like daily vitamins. It would be terribly ironic if the plant the powder was extracted from became extinct because of Cal. Surely I couldn’t contribute to the extinction of a plant species?
Still, what if I gave in and enjoyed my second Invite in a year? What would be waiting for me if I ever returned home? Certainly not my parents.I had nothing waiting for me.
When I didn’t object, he sat up against me, taking my shoulders and stroking circles on my exposed skin with gentle fingers. “Don’t…” I said. It took all my self-control, but I had said it. Now I wished my night-gown covered my arms. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
Cal lay back on the bed. “You can go back to your own room if you wish, my dear angel. I’ll just have to entertain myself tonight.”
I gaped back at him, and he reached over to shut my open mouth with an elegant finger.
The man rarely slept alone. At the tender age of thirteen, he learned just what he could do with women. At thirteen! So sleazy. Yet somehow, I always found a way to forgive him.
“I could teach you how to pleasure yourself,” he added.
“Cal!” Then, diving, I snuggled into his shoulder and heard his breath catch. The sound surprised me as much as the pure pleasure of his hands threading through my hair.
As he spoke, I felt his words tickle. “When you were first here, you screamed when I touched you.”
How embarrassing that he remembered. I tried to change the subject, and the best topic I could come up with was Mr. Beanbutt. “Tell me about Senator Holt.”
Cal stiffened. “Why?”
“He hates me. That’s all you need to know.”
“What about his family?”
“His parents are both dead, I believe. He refuses to find a wife,” Cal related, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t notice the hand slipping onto my thigh. I brushed the hand away. “Hmm…he fought in the war against the rebels of Gatha three years ago. The region of Gatha, being further from the Capitol than any other region, tends to resent my father. After the war, the senator from the region, Jennick Jameson, offered a formal apology and sat through a reconciliation.”
“I remember hearing about that. So, what did Senator Holt do in the war?”
Cal’s elegant lip curled with distaste. “He served as a common soldier. He got shot in the leg, nearly shattered the bone.”
“Ah, so I wasn’t imagining that limp,” I muttered.
“Why were you looking down there anyway?”
“At his legs? With innocent curiosity.”
“I hope so.”
“I wanted to know what kind of man we’re dealing with.” By the sound of it, Holt was alone in the world, meaning he had no one to live for. That could be dangerous. I snuggled a little closer to my prince.
“Has he threatened you?” Cal asked.
“Yes,” I whispered, three-quarters asleep. The senator had promised me a war. Ironic, considering his past…
I missed Cal’s last words to me.
A few matches and tinder. She sighed, sitting cross-legged and placing her elbows on her bruised knees. She had unpacked the paltry contents of her leather pack and admitted that she had lost.
The oak trees around her rustled softly, benevolently as if to comfort her. The wilderness seemed more welcoming than the city at the moment though the boundary of the Capitol lay only meters away. She had no desire to see the misery of the citizens or the rich that paraded their mistresses to and from theatres and restaurants.
She tensed, wincing as her knees throbbed. The voice calling her name sounded like her father’s. However, her father was dead, murdered by the senators who had been his colleagues and supposed comrades.
Now, she had decided to join the Forthwright party, which was run by the party’s namesake and creator, Fitch Forthwright. Then Fitch’s cronies had laughed in her face when she arrived for the interview that would have begun her initiation into the party.
She jumped to her feet. That voice was too substantial to belong to a ghost. Gale Holt, the only senator she could abide, crossed the city boundary and hobbled over to stand beside her in the knee-high grass.
“You’ll get your robes dirty,” Aliasse pointed out.
“Just being in the king’s castle makes me feel dirty. Letris is frolicking with his maids when there is less than a year until his coronation. What will the kingdom do when that day comes?” Gale smoothed his rumpled white collar. “Yesterday, his taste-tester slapped me, and when I complained, he told me to take it like a man!”
After gathering her supplies into a dilapidated leather shoulder-bag, Aliasse gave him a reconciliatory pat. “My friend, you probably deserved it.”
“That’s what he said…minus the ‘my friend’ bit.”
“What did you say to the taste-tester?” Aliasse asked.
His stony silence told her not to prod any further. Their fathers had been best friends, so she had known Gale since she was five. After her father’s murder, she had been taken under Senator Emil Holt’s wing, and only three years ago, with the old senator’s death, Gale had taken up his father’s position and resumed the role of Aliasse’s protector.
Aliasse crossed her arms behind her back to undo the aching knots there. Running from the city constables had taken its toll. “You should join the Forthwright party!”
“No thank you,” Gale said. “There must be some sort of legal way to keep Letris from the throne!”
“Only the Forthwright party can stop him!” Aliasse argued. They had debated the issue over and over again, neither of them budging from their positions. “The people have to take responsibility for their own rulers. I just wish Fitch would let me join! Since you won’t give me any funds, I’ll just have to find another way to make myself useful to them.”
Stern now, Holt placed his hands on his hips, and Aliasse smiled. In the city, Gale was so uptight, trying to keep a dignified image. Out here, he was a young man of twenty-three, trying to find a way to save his kingdom from the corruption of the government while attempting to keep her safe at the same time. She knew she worried him when she ran off to collect information for the party and vandalize places where the rich found entertainment.
“What were you going to do with matches and kindling anyway?” he scolded. “Set the forest on fire or burn the Capitol to the ground?”
“If it comes to that…I’d be willing to do it.” Wincing, she bent to touch her painful knees. Evading the authorities had led to their skinning. She started to protest when Holt picked her up effortlessly.
With Aliasse grumbling, he waddled onto the obscured trail leading through the woods. When she fussed about his hurting his leg, Gale put her down. Together, they walked deeper, taking a linear path through the concentric arrangement of trees. Parched, orange leaves trembled above them, preparing for the journey to the ground below.
During the walk, Aliasse took the time to analyze his face. Pale, it lacked its usual touch of good humor. Understandable, considering that he didn’t sleep well anymore. The strain was making his already stern face even more pinched and severe.
“You need more sleep,” she commented.
The senator didn’t deign to give her a reply. After a bit of zigzagging to avoid clusters of tangled shrubbery, they reached a small, wooden cabin. The shadows of the tall trees encircling the cabin made it nearly invisible in daylight. A person wandering the woods would be compelled to walk further from the hide-out with the reek of the swamp behind the cabin.
Wrinkling her nose, Aliasse followed Gale through the inward-swinging cabin door. “So, what did you say to her?”
He shut the door firmly to seal out the earthy scent of rot and dirty water. Every so often, they would have to air out the cabin when the wind was blowing the swamp smell away. “She told me that she was a taste-tester. I asked her what she tasted…”
“Oh, Gale, you didn’t mention the prince’s…”
“She slapped me before I finished my sentence!” Gale said.
Aliasse stifled a giggle.
“Usually, I can control my temper. Yesterday, I just loathed the sight of her.” Gale turned to survey the simple kitchen: a table with two chairs, a ceramic white basin of mostly fresh water under the small glass-pane window, shelves of dry goods along the walls and a sealed icebox in one corner. “She lives in luxury while the common people suffer.”
Aliasse grasped his well-worn hands and examined the severe lines on his palms. “You can’t blame her, only Aelius and the prince. If the Forthwright party takes the throne…we can force them to see the state of the kingdom.”
He pointed for her to go into the living room. With a sigh, Aliasse went and plopped down onto the sofa. She gingerly rolled up her pant-legs and waited for Holt to return from the kitchen. He returned with a wet cloth and a menacing-looking, metal box—a medicine kit.
Gentle as a mother cat with her kitten, Holt dabbed at the torn skin on her knees with a cloth seeped in antiseptic. “If Aelius can ignore his son’s behavior, then he will not see the disgrace his country has become even with Forthwright blades at his throat.”
Aliasse started to protest, but Gale gave her a shut-up-or-else look. “The Forthwright party is no better than the rebels of Gatha were. Violence only brings more violence. We need to reform Letris somehow. To make him see there are more important things than bedding his maids.”
Holt began to wrap gauze around her knee with more gentleness than in his words. “I do believe, however, that changing Letris’ attitude is impossible. If Fitch gathers enough support and comes up with a sensible idea, everything may yet turn out all right.”
“So you are joining us?” Aliasse asked as Holt began to wrap up her other knee. When he was done, she tested the flexibility and found her legs perfectly mobile. A perfect job as usual. “I wish I didn’t make you play doctor so often.”
His dark eyes met hers with genuine humor, a change from the sarcasm that had plagued him for the past few weeks. “No, I won’t join until they allow you in. If you want to spare me some trouble, why don’t you stay home like a proper woman?”
“Gale! No one in Haiathiel holds such an inferior view of women anymore.” Aliasse crossed her arms and then shook her head. “I’d go mad sitting in here.”
Gale packed up the contents of the medicine kit. “Hopefully, that restlessness will pass. These kits are expensive, you know?” He stepped a few paces away into the kitchen.
“Sorry!” she called after him.
“I’ll be back late!” he called back. “I ended business with the king prematurely yesterday! So I have to go again!” Before she could answer him, the door shut with a faint click.