King Aelius and his son had spent the entire day reviewing the information gathered from the estates of Gatherby and Mason. That evening, in the king’s office, the two senators sat and waited for the result. One senator fiddled with his hat, the other stroked the fur of his coat sleeve.
Though the king had grown thinner, his genial manner had returned as if all thoughts of Mativ’s treachery had vanished. Aelius was all beams and smiles as he declared the two senators’ titles restored to them in full. He lifted his spindly frame to offer each man a brief embrace.
“Your Majesty, I am glad we have your trust,” Gatherby said.
Aelius trembled back to his seat and sat for a moment in silence. Then he spoke. “As am I. Then, I will see you two again in the spring! Please send Gale in as you leave.”
Mason and Gatherby bowed before sweeping towards the oak doors. The younger senator, waiting in the corridor outside the office, offered each man a tight smile. Mason sniffed and departed without a word for Holt though Gatherby lingered.
“The king wants to see you. Have you any notion why?” the older man asked.
“I can guess,” Holt sighed. He had yet to show any contrition for throwing breakfast at the prince though Letris himself demanded no apology. In the aftermath, he learned from Otelius that the food had landed in His Majesty’s lap!
“Whatever he says to you, know that you have my full backing, Gale.” Gatherby placed the hat back on his balding head. “Your father would be proud of you.”
“If he knew what a muddle I’m in, he would not. He died remembering me as a promiscuous wastrel. I came home to duty only after being taught a painful lesson. He hated everything I was, Davi. Maybe I haven’t even changed.”
Gatherby shook his head at the heavy words. “He loved you…though I doubt his disappointment would have allowed you to see that. He spoke of you well to me, at least; he said you were thoughtful, resourceful, and intelligent even if you squandered your gift for a while. Now, you know the Capitol like no other senator here. The people sing songs about you.”
“Bawdy songs,” Holt pointed out with a wince.
“In a way, songs of praise. Furthermore, to hear of your bravery in the first war with Gatha is enough to make any man’s knees quake. Ah, but I’ve rambled too long. We shouldn’t keep the king waiting. Stay well, Gale.” Gatherby gave the young man a friendly nudge before pattering off.
Holt felt another sigh build up in his core, but he held his breath until it dissolved. Sighing and moaning wouldn’t do any good. No one would ever know that his “bravery” had been a deathwish. No one would feel Emil Holt’s constant disapproval. Shaking his head and shedding memories, Gale Holt stepped into the threshold of the king’s office.
Aelius waved at him to come closer, and the senator did until he was seated in a chair facing the king. “Gale, how are you?”
“I’ve had better weeks,” Gale said before biting his tongue. He could have considered that the king had a much more harrowing week.
Aelius placed the tips of his fingers together and bowed his head. “Letris has been placing a great deal of responsibility on you. That is why your current behavior has shocked me.”
The senator stood and bowed until he almost hit the king’s desk with his forehead. “My sincerest apologies, Your Majesty, for that ill-aimed throw at breakfast. I cannot explain what came over me.”
“Anger, perhaps?” Aelius was smiling. Holt took it as a good sign.
“Jealousy, Your Majesty.”
“So you do have feelings for the taste-tester. She’s a good girl.”
“Too good for me?” Gale surmised where the king was going.
The desk between them had a neat stack of papers. Aelius began to shuffle them between his slightly arthritic fingers; those papers were, in fact, the information concerning Gatherby and Mason that the royal clerks had rushed across the icy land to obtain.
The king shook his head. “By law, a castle servant belongs, body and soul, to the royal family. You could not marry her without my son’s consent.”
The difficulties of marriage, Holt had never considered.
“Also, your vow would make loving that girl difficult—”
“I don’t have to break my vow to love her, Your Majesty.”
The king’s approving nod made Holt’s strung nerves loosen. “Then, what will you do about Cal? You’d have a rough time of convincing my son to give up his bride.”
Letris’ bride? Holt almost groaned as he remembered the approaching deadline. In the madness that Gatha’s rebellion and his own pathetic pining for the taste-tester caused, he had forgotten their original goal: to find Letris his true love and make a responsible man of him in time for the new coronation. How could he have become so distracted? Wasn’t this a sign already that love was not for Senator Gale Holt?
“I’m not certain what I can do. To pursue this would cause trouble, but to conceal the way I feel, I would indeed be toying with Avi. Hurting her is the very last—”
Aelius interrupted gently with, “I know, I know.” The king straightened his spine and then came to a conclusion. “You cannot be certain unless she loves you in return, Gale.”
“Then what am I to do?” Holt remembered the way she had rebuffed his caress the day before with a wince.
“Unravel her feelings for you,” Aelius stated, “without drawing the attention or ill-will of my son. We can deal with the legal matter and your vow later if Avi does return your affection.”
Holt blinked at this go-ahead. “Is there anything else Your Majesty wishes to discuss?”
The king reached over the desk to take his senator’s hand. “Nothing has been heard from Gatha. Nothing from…Mativ.” Aelius stuttered out the name with a brave face that made Gale want to cheer for him. “I know Jameson must face execution. Twice, he has betrayed Haiathiel…but tell me, is that the right choice?”
“Unfortunately, it is,” Holt reassured him. “As for Mativ, he will show his face in time, but until then, Your Majesty should strengthen his army. I could talk to Garigus for you.” Perhaps at Cal’s insistence, Garigus had been made General of the King’s army, a position unoccupied for many years.
“I’ll have my son do it.”
“Are you certain?”
“Please, go inform him.” Aelius sank into his seat, looking exhausted.
He bit back an argument that Letris would be furious to be interrupted by the likes of Holt. Then the senator only gave another back-breaking bow before asking, “Your Majesty, is Otelius nearby?”
“Always. He is in the next room,” the king returned. “Hurry now.”
Holt left the room with some of his worries at ease. The king, while he would never admit how frail he had become, would not be foolish enough to send away all his personal attendants. As competent a steward as Otelius was, the man was also an unobtrusive bodyguard and nurse to the king. The senator still couldn’t understand how the prince could dismiss such a man.
I presided only to keep an eye on the food. Crumbly cake and sugary pastries awaited eating, which were truly secondary pleasures at the moment. In the prince’s solar, most of his maids gathered. From laundry maids to chambermaids to scullery types, all of them chattered and waited their turn for Cal to bestow his attention on them. At the moment, he had a dark-haired girl named Rosaline on his lap even as he pored over documents from the senators currently under review.
Aliasse sat with her back pressed against mine. What did she think of this impromptu party? I couldn’t ask with Lianne seated on the same sofa; her blue eyes were turned in our direction and filled with amusement.
“It’s so kind of our prince to give us all a holiday,” Lianne commented.
“Nothing will get done today,” I muttered, trying my best not to notice Rosaline fondling my prince’s jaw.
“Sometimes, people need a break.” Aliasse startled me by siding with Lianne. Even so, I didn’t feel as bitter about it as I once would have. “Besides, the entire castle is in an end-of-winter lull.”
Before I could comment that winter still had a few more weeks to vent, the room dropped into a deadly silence. The girls in the room stared as a blue-robed figure strode into the chamber. With his face betraying nothing, Gale Holt crossed the room and whispered to the prince, who angled his head in an I’m-bored-but-listening pose.
After a minute, Cal eased Rosaline from his lap. The shameless girl pouted and only slinked away when Holt gave her a glance that could keep food refrigerated. “Everyone but the senator, leave me,” Cal commanded, his warm voice a balm to the dread suddenly constricting my organs. What dire news did the senator bring?
Aliasse and I lingered long after most of the other maids scampered from the chamber though Callie and Lianne hovered near the threshold and gave us expectant gazes. Aliasse shook her head, and Callie tugged Lianne away.
Neither Gale nor Cal noticed this interplay; the two men were immersed in discussion even as Aliasse and I approached.
“Quite a party,” Holt said, his smile wry rather than disturbingly tender as it had been during his confession.
“Does my father want me to speak to Garigus immediately?” Cal leaned back in his chair with an insolent gaze, like that of a rebellious teen in the face of a parents’ ridiculous demand. Oddly, Holt was the parent.
The senator gave an emphatic nod. “As soon as possible. We have no idea what Mativ is planning.”
“The king’s men need to be ready for conflict,” Aliasse agreed. I hovered behind her, content to listen rather than to throw myself into military matters.
Cal placed a finger to his temple in thought. “Garigus is likely somewhere in the city at this hour. The west end, I’d imagine since I gave him a few days of leave.”
“You gave him leave without His Majesty’s permission?”
From the senator’s tone, it sounded like an act of treason.
“Garigus swore an oath to serve me,” Cal said with a careless air. I read Gale’s horrified face as a sign that our prince had done something unconventional. Beside me, Aliasse looked uncertain. “He said my father had abandoned them. Then he offered his sword to me if I swore to protect the kingdom in return.”
“Can you do that, Letris?”
“Of course. I have your help.”
Gale stepped back as if someone had slapped him across the face. His glare shot to Aliasse, but she only shrugged. He didn’t even glance my way, likely because I was hidden behind Aliasse, who was a good few inches taller than me.
“I will need an escort to the Capitol,” Cal continued.
“At this hour, it would be too risky to travel to the west end with a prince in tow,” Holt objected.
My prince didn’t appear upset at this statement. Oh dear. Forgoing the shield that Aliasse provided, I stepped forward to nip Cal’s mischief in its incipient form. “The senator and I can go find Garigus for you, Cal.” As dangerous as it was to be alone with Holt.
Aliasse pulled me into a one-armed hug. “The west end is no place for you, Avi.”
Cal gave me a mock-stern look and then a nod of affirmation. “Simply too dangerous.” His eyes darted towards the senator with that last word.
“I’m not that innocent!”
“An angel like you exposed to such a place…I can’t even imagine,” Cal laughed, now relaxed in his chair.
The sound brought a blush out on my cheeks, but it didn’t erase my frustration. “If you won’t let us go, how will the order get to Garigus?”
“We can go in the morning, Miss Avi.” Holt smiled. “All of us.”
“Even Avi?” Cal widened his eyes at me.
“Yes!” I stomped my foot for emphasis, and then the senator erupted into laughter. Aliasse punched her foster brother on the arm though I would have kicked him in the shin. My prince gave me a long, measuring look as if asking me how I would like the man punished. Instead, I decided to retreat like an adult. “Anyway, I’m heading to bed.”
“Me too,” Aliasse added. Ever supportive, she looped her arm with mine, and we strolled from the prince’s chamber. Once outside in the corridor, she murmured, “You know, Gale used to frequent the west end.”
“He was as bad as Cal with women, wasn’t he?”
“Worse,” Aliasse admitted. “In spite of that, both he and Cal are the kindest young men I know.”
“Are they the only young men you know?” I had to ask.
Aliasse grinned. “In any case, you couldn’t find a sweeter pair. If only they could get along…”
Then they would be different people altogether. Would they be better for it? Cal more responsible, the senator less uptight. “They both need to change for that to happen.”
“You can’t change a person’s nature,” Aliasse warned me. “Still, I’m sure they’ll come to an understanding.”
“One day.” I huddled closer to Aliasse, and her dreamy expression became bemused.
She poked me. “What’s wrong? You only cuddle when you’re upset.”
“Gale said he loved me.” I shivered, and despite my pride, I clung to Aliasse again. The confession sent unease through every fiber of my being. My chest wouldn’t stop clenching at the sight of him. My treacherous memory replayed the confession at random times.
“Oh ho…so he finally told you.”
I reeled away, almost into a corridor wall. At least, the halls were empty of everyone but us, so no one else saw my flailing. “You knew?”
“I guessed. He tried to force himself on you?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “He kissed my eyebrow.” The actual spot of contact tingled like an oozing wound. Sometimes, the tingle had a touch of pleasantness. Then, at other times, I felt utter nausea as if I had been punched in the stomach.
“He didn’t even give you a proper kiss.” My support buddy appeared to be frowning. I rubbed my eyes to make sure.
“Should he have?”
“Otherwise…well, look at you. You’re a nervous wreck.”
Her joking aside, the eyebrow kiss seemed like a considerate gesture to me. Why had I grown cold at the touch then? Disbelief, perhaps. The man was several years older, several years wiser than me. He had loved another, a woman so extraordinary that I was a blotch on the ground in comparison. Plus, he had his vow and his duty.
“Avi, you don’t have to be afraid of Gale. He’s quite genuine about such matters. Also quite good in bed.” Aliasse blinked. “Ah, I’ve only heard about the second bit.”
“Oh his leg! It’s an excuse not to get close to a woman and get married. Losing Mina destroyed him, but he’s finally put all the pieces back together,” Aliasse began to babble until I held up a hand. “No, even if he went back to her, he’s here now. He can’t go back to her.”
“Why not?” I didn’t want to be a replacement toy. No way!
“She hurt him, even if it wasn’t intentionally.” Aliasse scowled. “He finally told me about meeting her. I can’t believe he used you to serve as his go-between! Well, Gale must truly trust you, and I have a feeling he’s told you more about the issue with Mina than he’s told me.”
For good reason! If Aliasse knew that Cal had been the root of Gale’s heartbreak over Mina, she would feel terribly awkward around the prince. “Well, it’s in the past now.”
Aliasse jabbed a finger at me in triumph. “You said it: the past. Gale loves you now. Mina is stale news.”
“You’re so ready to accept it,” I said, amused despite the weirdness that the senator’s confession still stirred in my mind.
Aliasse froze in mid-step. Her smile had become nostalgic. “I want to see him happy.”
“You think he would be happy…with me?”
“If you can tolerate him, definitely.” She gave me a friendly thump on the shoulder. “Good night, Avi!” One enormous yawn later, Aliasse slipped away toward her quarters. Meanwhile, I decided that sleep was out of the question until I figured out how I felt.
Anger. Uncertainty. Annoyance. All of those I’d had in excess for the strange senator. Even so, I had found friendship and even admiration whenever I saw Gale in action as we wandered the Capitol. My parents would have considered him a responsible young man. But I hadn’t imagined my true love as so politically important and involved.
I whipped around as a tug came at my braid. Trouble this way came…
Holt hobbled to where he could see my face. “You’re taking your time getting to bed.”
Silent, I waited for the suggestive joke to come or perhaps an apology for laughing at me earlier. The quiet stretched until I almost spoke, but I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say.
“What’s your favorite color?” he asked.
“Otelius had informed me your birthday is tomorrow,” he continued. “You’re turning nineteen, aren’t you?”
I had forgotten. When I converted from the calendar of my original world to that of Haiathiel, my birthday would in fact be tomorrow. The year here was divided into four seasons. Each season was split into four Quarters consisting of thirty-four days each.
“I was hoping to wrap your gift in the appropriate color,” Gale sighed, “but that will be difficult if you keep acting like a stunned, gaping fish freshly caught from the river.”
“I’m not a fish,” I said. “Sky blue on a partially cloudy day. That’s my favorite color.”
I resisted the urge to poke his arm. Best not to touch. Especially when my stomach already fluttered at the sight of him. “You shouldn’t waste money on me. Not when times are so hard…”
“Are you sure about the blue of the sky?”
“Well, I do like most shades of blue. Like your eyes, Senator.” I blinked up at him, trying to bat my eyelids in the most repulsive manner possible.
“They’re gray,” he stated.
I desisted with my fluttery eyelids and waved him away. Gray or blue, I didn’t dare to check. “Either way, isn’t it a bit late to find a present? When did Otelius tell you about my birthday?” That sneaky steward! “Well, I don’t need any more rare flowers…” The Aelia still sat in my room, untouched by time.
“Then how about the flowers I find in the bailey?”
“Weeds for my birthday?”
“Surely a gift with the best intention is better than no gift at all?” The senator hid his hands away in his sleeves, looking like some sort of wise guru. “I’ll tie them up with a sky blue ribbon.”
“Are you…flirting with me, Senator?” I asked.
“Would you rather that I’d not?”
“I’m not sure.” That was true enough. We both glanced up, by instinct, as the bell in the heart of the castle softly chimed the hour. The deep sound never woke inhabitants from their slumber; it blended into the soft murmur of the castle like a heartbeat. Fourteen chimes.
The man then took my hand without permission and placed a brief kiss on my knuckles. “A happy birthday to you, Miss Avi.”
“Thank you. I haven’t celebrated a birthday in years,” I said, ignoring the heat in my hand. Then again, I’d had no one to celebrate it with. At the orphanage, there had been too many kids to throw an actual party. At least, the caretakers had wished me a “Happy Birthday.” They had never been cruel, only kind in a detached, dutiful sort of way.
Gale appeared surprised. “Not even in your time here? Letris strikes me as the sort who would celebrate it.”
“At my insistence, he didn’t.” The senator’s hand still held mine. “I’m too old. Who needs to celebrate one year closer to death?”
“Avi, you’re so young.”
“Compared to you, I guess so,” I muttered.
“Yes,” Holt said with a wry side-glance, “I am an old man at twenty-three.”
I shook my head at him until he smiled, and for a moment, I could believe that everything was normal between us. We were friends again. “Go to bed. Aren’t you sleepy?”
“Wide-awake. I do have a method to deal with that, however.”
“To exhaust myself.”
Suspicious, I extracted my hand. He didn’t seem offended. “Does it require a partner?”
He shook his head. “Only a hand—”
“And a book.”
“You’re worse than Cal.” Damn it. My face was warm.
“For reading a tale before bed?” Gale loomed over me. “What sort of novel do you think I am reading?”
“The dirtiest romance novel you can find in the castle library,” I said before yawning so hard that my jaw cracked. Suddenly, I was too sleepy to protest as hands cupped my face, tilting it upward. “Gale?”
“Good night, Avi.”
I feared he would kiss me, but he retreated with a brief bow before shuffling out of the corridor. “Good riddance,” I said though the man was probably out of ear-shot.