Aliasse woke at a prod to her lower ribs. Normally, she would have snarled at the poker, but exhaustion from a nightmare stifled her reaction. Senator Mason, the man elected to govern what originally had been her father’s region, had been gambling in the west end. He had steadily lost money in card games against faceless men: all while Aliasse watched in horror from the sidelines.
With her self-control whittled to nothing, she had rushed into the smoky chambers, where the parlor games had taken place, to restrain Mason. He had swatted her away like gnat, adjusted his many furs and exited the card room. Chasing after, Aliasse roamed the corridors of the king’s castle. Mason had disappeared, but Aliasse had fixated on the blatant wealth displayed in the castle’s bejeweled walls. How could she have become so jaded to regard such walls as normal?
Every step deeper into the castle caused her ears to become attuned to a variety of moans. Hands clapped over her ears, she had run to find an exit, her luxurious slippers soundless on the marble floor.
She had stumbled into a room, where a man who resembled Prince Letris lounged. Shadowy, female figures had pressed against the futon on which the apparition lay. The facsimile of Cal had beckoned, wearing a sadistic smile. “I had your father killed. He was such a suppressor of fun, after all. Come now. Let us at last enjoy ourselves.”
Aliasse would have spit at him, but her legs, wooden in sensation, propelled her towards the prince. She had come enough to reach out and stab the sneering prince and his shadow harlots when she had woken to find Gale hovering over her.
“You jumped as I woke you,” he said. Instead of his senator robes, he wore a light blue shirt, its collar trimmed with white velvet. “Were you dreaming?”
Blinking, Aliasse noted the dark sky outside her window. “Yes, but badly. Isn’t it a bit early? The sun’s not even up yet.” Then, she flipped to her other side and stretched before nestling under the covers again. Eyes closed, she winced to find the prince of her nightmare imprinted on the back of her eyelids. Gale’s pat of comfort distracted her from the image.
“Sorry,” Gale murmured, “but the earlier we visit the west end, the safer it will be. In the morning, almost everyone is hungover from the night’s exertions.”
Aliasse resisted the urge to butt Gale’s hand and muttered, “Do I have to come?”
“Leaving me alone with the prince and Avi is a bad idea.” The senator sat on the bed and pressed his back against Aliasse. She felt frail, thinner than he remembered when she had been a terrorist. “Are you eating?”
“Too well,” Aliasse replied. Recalling the sumptuous castle dinners made her curl up as if to squeeze out the guilt. “Besides, you’re the one who picks at food during meals.” She opened an eye to peer at him. As usual, her foster brother looked stern and tired. “Summoning the courage to tell Avi your feelings must have destroyed your appetite.”
“She…uh, mentioned me to you?”
“Yes. Eyebrow kiss and all.” She giggled to see him raise an eyebrow at that.
“I didn’t want to alarm her.”
“Your words already scrambled her,” Aliasse said. “So, you may as well have given her a passionate kiss. I imagine you’ve been wanting to for ages…but I still can’t figure out if it was after you gave her the Aelia or right before.”
“Being cautious might make you appear uncertain.”
“May I remind you that I am the expert at wooing women, not you?”
“However, she talks openly to me.”
Conceding the point with a sigh, Gale watched the sheer, white curtains flutter over the chamber’s only window. Soon, the sun would rise, along with the people lurking in the west end.
“For now, there are more urgent matters to take care of.”
“Like wishing Avi a ‘happy birthday’, you mean?”
“No,” the senator retorted. “I mean the matter of finding Garigus, tracking Mativ’s movements and executing Jameson.”
“Kingdom business,” Aliasse confirmed. “Just don’t let that prevent you from showing Avi how much you love her.”
“I’ll think about it.” Gale gave her calf a less-than-gentle slap as if he were once more thirteen years old and waking her on a late summer morning in Emil Holt’s manor. “Get ready! Meet me in the dining hall. I have already asked Otelius to have the kitchen prepare us an early breakfast.”
“Ow…that hurt. Wait, that old man is already up at his hour? Gale?” When Aliasse lifted her head, she found her foster brother gone.
Someone patted my head. Struggling towards wakefulness, I wiped away at the blot of embarrassing drool at the corner of my mouth. The room was pitch-gray, and Senator Gale Holt was perched at the foot of my bed like a watchful gargoyle.
“You! Who gave you permission to enter my bedchamber? And at this hour!” My head was ringing with the heavy desire to fall asleep, but I didn’t dare with this man in my room.
“I asked the wing’s chamberlain for the key to your quarters,” he said. He placed a hand on my blanket where my knee was. The touch made my entire leg tingle. “There was nothing nefarious in my intention, Miss Avi. I came to wake you and request that you join us for breakfast before we head to the Capitol.”
“Will Garigus even be awake?”
“By the time we reach our destination, the sun will be up and Garigus with it,” the man assured me with a smile.
Then, I pointed out, “Unless he’s hungover.”
Gale’s smile widened, just short of becoming wry. “Then we will wake him. A general of the kingdom cannot afford to take any days off, especially with Mativ lurking.”
“Let him lurk for now. We’ll stop him,” I growled. Cal would make sure of it.
Gale scooted closer, unmindful of the bunching blanket, until we were face to face. So close, he could have kissed me without any chance of me evading. “You seem certain.”
“What other end is there? Mativ as king? No one would follow him.” I shut my mouth then, hoping my morning breath hadn’t repulsed him too much. Oh wait! Would that be so terrible? “Besides, Cal won’t let him get away with upsetting His Majesty.”
“I won’t allow Mativ to escape either,” Gale vowed. “He betrayed all of us, his kingdom. He accused me of treason…”
“Which I still think you may have in mind. Treason against Cal anyway,” I clarified.
“I’m not that petty,” the senator said. “Not anymore.”
“Cal’s wedding is three months away.” And we still hadn’t found a wife for him.
“Let’s not dwell on that date and focus on today.” His lips were too damn close. I focused my gaze on his cheek. Why did I want to close the distance myself?
I grappled for another change in subject, something to make him draw back. “Shouldn’t you go wake Cal as well?”
“I will.” His voice had dropped to a whisper. “As soon as I give you your birthday gift.”
“You didn’t have to…” I closed my eyes and rolled away, glad of the distance even if it left my back exposed. He pressed a small item into my hand. The shape was roundish, a package with some edges.
I heard him ease himself off the bed. He shuffled towards the door, the limp in his gait noticeable. Was it cruel to deny a man, who was in pain every day? He hadn’t even complained of the pain lately.
When my ears judged he had arrived at the exit, I managed, “Thank-you.”
“You’re welcome, though it’s nothing compared to what Letris can give you.”
Riches and luxury, warmth and love. How could a penniless senator give any woman that? Gale Holt saw the trepidation on the taste-tester’s face at his closeness. The one he loved feared him!
Clearly, Letris had won even though the prince hardly stirred his pinky finger. Slapping the prince awake was a tempting idea. In the end, Gale sent Jim to wake the prince and asked him to meet them posthaste.
In less than half an hour, they were huddled in the dining hall. Aliasse and Letris greeted the taste-tester—the last to arrive—with hugs and kisses.
The senator, seated at the table alone, watched Avi disentangle herself from the affectionate pair. She inspected the food with a critical eye and gave a nod of approval.
“I didn’t give you your nineteen birthday kisses,” the prince complained as he sat and fiddled with the empty ceramic plate in front of him.
Avi, much to Gale’s surprise, settled in the chair beside the senator. “Between the two of you—” She pointed a finger at Letris and then at Aliasse beside him, “—I think I’ve gotten fifty kisses.”
“Make it fifty-one, Gale,” Aliasse said with a wink.
“Eat,” he replied. “We don’t have time to dawdle.”
“Yeah, hurry up,” Avi agreed. As she leaned over her waffles, which were drenched in syrup, Gale almost choked on his food. A glittering butterfly clip—in a color the merchant called “celestial blue”—pinned the end of Avi’s dark braid. “You okay, Senator?” Her sour gaze held a blunted knife’s challenge.
“Fine,” Gale said, too quickly it seemed since Aliasse gave him a questioning look. He hid a grin behind a hand.
Soon, his odd behavior lay forgotten as Avi and Aliasse picked out the plainest outfit—a dull maroon wool tunic and cream trousers—for the prince. Rough, leather boots had been borrowed from a chamberlain that matched Cal’s shoe size. To complete the ensemble, Avi and Aliasse tucked a faded black cloak around him with motherly murmurs. Meanwhile, Gale stood aside, already wearing a nondescript gray coat.
Through a silent castle and out the front gates, the senator lingered behind to admire the clip in Avi’s hair. Besides, the taste-tester seemed content with the prince on one arm and Aliasse on the other.
The sky was a deep hue of purple, empty except for the cluster of three small moons. The morning sun softened the ground under their feet, and Avi was especially delighted to find it was not slippery.
The Capitol of Haiathiel had always been quiet during winter; this year, the silence became oppressive, a reminder of the financial strain on the city inhabitants. Likely, the noise of their footsteps would carry farther than they normally would. Even so, they reached the Capitol Square without running into trouble or a single soul.
“At this point, disguise is excessive.” The prince’s cat-green eyes roamed the empty plaza. “Maybe…” His hand lingered at the edge of his hood.
“No,” Gale said. “People will be awake in the west end.”
Letris heaved a dramatic sigh and glanced back at the two women for sympathy. He found none. “I would like to see my city properly,” the prince muttered, “rather than half-blinded.”
“Cal, don’t complain. It’s not becoming,” Avi said as they trailed after the senator. Gale had taken the lead since he knew the direct route best.
“Still, if renovations are to be done,” Letris continued with a wave of a hand, “I need to see where and how much.”
“Renovations?” Aliasse allowed a sliver of happiness to escape into a smile. “You would need to do a lot of organizing.”
“A lot of work,” Avi echoed and elbowed the prince. “It would leave you with no playtime.”
“Oh? I’ll find a way.”
“Will you find the money to pay contractors? And sketch out a plan for the new buildings? Where would the people of the Capitol go as you decimate their homes to renovate?” The barrage of questions from the senator didn’t scratch the prince’s polished smile.
“The castle walls have gems and gold to spare. The kings of Haiathiel always kept it as a reservoir of wealth for emergencies. Now is as good a time as any to make use of them.”
“The walls of the bathroom especially,” Aliasse murmured.
The prince laughed at her wry face. “When the warmer weather comes, the people can stay on the castle grounds. Just as the rebels of Gatha did, they will receive food and water. Their number shouldn’t exceed two hundred if the restoration is done a few blocks at a time.”
“What about business owners? Would they pack up their merchandise and huddle in a donated tent for weeks?”
“If I paid them enough,” Letris said, “they might. A free re-building may appeal to them more than you may think.”
“Do you have a plan sketched then?” If ears did not deceive, Gale sounded mildly approving.
Letris tapped the top of his hooded head. “All in here.”
“It would be best to have it down on paper.”
“In a few days, I will have it written. The senators would have to approve of it, I imagine?”
“Indeed. Some of them are terribly old, so you would be doing them a kindness if you had the plan inked on paper.”
The prince’s expression grew grave, too quickly to be anything but theatrical. “I would not want to be inconsiderate of the elderly.”
“I never imagined you would be considerate of anyone but yourself, Letris. I was wrong.” With a smile for the way the prince froze, Gale ambled onward.
Before the conversation could escalate, Aliasse hooked her arm with Cal’s, and his face softened. “I can’t tell if I’ve been complimented or insulted,” he said.
“Gale has a way of making compliments sound like insults,” Aliasse said. The cold made Cal’s cheeks a becoming pink, and she reached out to tug his face. His large hand caught hers. “Sorry. I just…”
“Wanted to touch me?”
“To pinch you,” Aliasse said. “There’s a difference.” Beside her, Avi rolled her eyes and scurried away to catch up with Gale, who was barely visible on the horizon. As they walked, the Capitol air had fogged with moisture.
The prince followed the taste-tester with his eyes. “Avi seems to enjoy Holt’s company more and more.”
Aliasse considered him. “And?”
“I’m worried for her.”
“Worried for her? Or just jealous?”
A flicker in his eyes—light glancing off emeralds. “No, I want to protect her. You know Holt’s history with women as well I.”
“You don’t want to lose her,” Aliasse said. “Especially not to Gale.” She waited for the words to bring down Cal’s rarely seen wrath.
“Whether I lose or not, it’s more important that it’s Avi’s choice, isn’t it?” The prince caught her elbow as Aliasse stumbled at his words. She pulled away as if she had been scalded.
To be envious of Avi… She shook her head at herself and picked up her pace, letting her boots slap the pavement through the thin layer of slush. “Let’s hurry. We’re going to lose those two.”
Cal followed without questioning her further.