To make a long story short, we found Garigus, bleary with the after-effects of alcohol, in the second inn we tried.
Coaxed by our prince, Garigus stumbled back to the castle to sleep off his intoxication. We took our time following him back. As for the notorious west end, no one on the frosted streets caused us any trouble except for a theater aide, who heckled us about tickets to an early morning show.
I didn’t implode at the scandal of it, even if the play was called “The Senator’s Bed.” After all, I wasn’t that innocent. Poor Gale seemed much more affected as the play’s title was screamed through the still air. He turned bright pink and didn’t even snap at Aliasse for teasing him about how the play was homage to Gale himself. I even gave the senator a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. Cal had refrained from any comments and remained content chatting with Aliasse.
We came back in time for the king’s breakfast. However, as I inspected the food for an increasingly cheerful Aelius, the hair-clip Gale had given me grew heavier. I still hadn’t thanked him properly.
Late in the morning, with a groggy Garigus and twelve senators present, a motion to execute Jameson, at a time convenient to the king, was passed. All the rebels of Gatha had disappeared from the castle grounds, even Jameson’s sons. Perhaps they were too afraid to stay and too bitter to accept charity from the king, who had not presided over the earlier meeting. Instead, the prince guided the discussion and signed the edict to keep Jameson imprisoned.
After the meeting, Garigus cornered his prince about an increase in the recruitment, training and drilling of the king’s men. Aliasse saved him by interrupting Garigus, and they both returned to the prince’s chambers. Now, Aliasse stood behind his chair, braiding sections of Cal’s shoulder-length hair. A week ago, he had mentioned cutting it, but Aliasse protested. The prince had not spoken of lopping off his wavy locks again.
“Where’s Avi?” Cal was looking over his outline of renovations for the area around the king’s castle. Another plan, this of the original city, had been pinned beneath his elbow.
“She ran away when I asked to play Warmonger,” Aliasse admitted. “I was kidding, of course.”
Cal reached back to take her hand and pulled it to rest on his shoulder where she caressed the embroidery there. “Avi takes most words to heart. In that, she is like Holt.”
Aliasse shrugged, not slipping away her hand as she usually did. “Most of the time, she’s receptive to jokes, but today, she’s been distracted.”
“Do you think she’s upset I didn’t give her a gift?” Cal’s lips tickled the knuckles she was using to stroke his jaw-line. She had never seen a man with such lovely bone structure. Despite the lack of magical glamour, he looked too kissable.
“No,” she said. “Avi never said a word about that.”
“You’re distracted also.” Cal laughed. He began placing light kisses on her wrist. When Aliasse remained immobile, if not insensate, he paused. “You won’t stop me? Then I won’t continue.”
“Why?” Self-imposed restraint from Cal?“You’ve made it clear my touch is unwanted.”
“Oh, I want it,” she said through clenched teeth, “but Gale would have a kitten!” Without daring to gauge the prince’s reaction, she strode out of the suddenly small study.
Almost blinded by panic, she navigated the corridors as haphazardly as she had done in her nightmare. She had enough sense left to knock before entering Gale’s solar.
“Come in!” The practical voice encouraged Aliasse to enter with a mostly cheerful grin. An exhalation of annoyance escaped as she saw Gale huddled over a pile of papers.
“Complaints from ministers of Monteler,” Gale explained. He gestured for her to sit. She sat cross-legged on a wobbly, wooden chair while Gale began to pen responses to the anxious administration left by Mativ. After a few minutes of silence, he paused.
“The king finally rescinded Mativ’s authority over the bank wealth of the senators.” The senator stopped his gloating as he recognized the downcast aura around his foster sister. “Something happen?”
“I told the prince I want his touch.” Aliasse scowled. “That’s what happened.”
“Did you also tell him I would object if anything of that nature were to happen? Well, more so than it already has…” Grumbling, Gale returned to the parchment before him.
If Gale had returned her admission with cold silence, she wouldn’t have known how to mend it. Since she had a listener, she decided to untangle the mess out loud. “He’s the epitome of someone I should hate. Without a doubt, my father would have chosen treason if he knew the luxuries Cal enjoys! I came here to kill him. Yet…”
“You find yourself attracted to him?” Gale finished without looking up. Then he made a disgusted sound, scratched the pen on a stray piece of parchment and then tossed the instrument. “Out of ink…”
“Exactly so.” She knotted her hands and squeezed, hoping the pain would return her to rationality. “Am I a hypocrite?”
“Technically, yes,” Gale said. “You’re enjoying the excesses of the castle yourself. Perhaps that itself is more hypocritical than loving a man who drowns himself in hedonistic pursuits.”
Had she heard wrong? Aliasse tipped dangerously forward in the chair. “Loving…”
“Did I say ‘love’? I meant lusting for, of course.”
Aliasse gave his recalcitrant back a smile. She uncrossed her legs and sat properly. Even if she had feelings for the prince, he would hardly single her out and make her queen. “Gale, does this dress make me look ill?”
He glanced back briefly. “That maid’s uniform always has made you look peaky. Red and green are your best colors.”
“You think Avi looks better in it than I do,” Aliasse huffed.
Since he couldn’t find another pen, the senator wrenched himself from the paperwork. “Your birthday is coming up. Perhaps I’ll buy something to add color to your current uniform. A red scarf, perhaps, to add modesty to that absurd neckline.”
“That defeats the purpose of a uniform,” Aliasse replied though she was pleased that he had remembered. She was a first day, first Quarter of Spring baby.
At a knock to the solar door, Aliasse tensed like a wary cat. She held a single finger to her mouth for silence and then padded into the adjacent bedroom. Wondering if the prince had come to ask after Aliasse, Gale said, “Please come in.”
Though I steeled myself to face him, I felt my bulwarks shatter at his welcoming tone. Slipping into the room, I observed the senator sitting, still in his sky-blue tunic, at a desk he must have pulled from the rather cramped guest study. True to its name, the solar was flooded with sunlight, perfect illumination for the cramped writing that filled the pages lying in front of the oh-so-busy senator.
“Ah, hello. If you’re occupied, I can go.”
“What is it, Avi?”
Acting all blasé, he roused my itch to strangle him. “It’s only a stray idea, but…I thought we could hold a ball to find Cal’s true love.” Instead of dwelling on the senator’s behavior, I had begun to brainstorm ways to make Cal pick among his maids. A dance, if done right, could do the trick.
“Why tell me?” In truth, the castle hadn’t hosted a ball since the marriage of Aelius and Dieva. The king’s court steadily emptied of people and merrymaking after the queen’s death. Gale had only ever known the quiet, disorganized nature of Aelius’ court. He had heard stories, of course, about the scores of servants employed by the king’s late father, Rendrant: of scribes, clerks, statesmen of the long-neglected religion, stablemen, men of the treasury, ambassadors, chamberlains, maids, pages, valets, squires, household knights, senator’s aides, animal keepers, buffoons, singers and storytellers; even the families of senators and their servants had been drawn to the whirlwind atmosphere of the king’s court.
“I wanted your opinion,” she said, hands folded in front herself, defensive, tentative. Still, her feet were apart and planted firmly on the ground. “I’ll ask the king about it if you think it’s a good idea.”
Gale sniffed. “As you might guess, I’m not someone to consult about fun.”
“It’s not fun! It’s manipulation!” the taste-tester admitted as if confessing a crime. Then she smiled. “You’re good at that at least.”
“Who would be invited?”
“The maids, I suppose…” From her frown, the senator surmised she hadn’t thought that far yet.
“Perhaps it would also be prudent to invite senatorial families,” Gale offered. “They would be able to meet and greet their prince, and maybe one of their daughters will catch his eye?”
“That wouldn’t be within tradition. It has to be a maid.”
The senator waved a hand. “Tradition. Who gives a damn?” The more important task was to find Letris a wife, not cater to rules.
“Then why not let Cal ascend the throne without a wife?”
“Why not let Haiathiel fall apart?”
“You’re so dramatic, Senator.” She tiptoed to his desk and scanned the documents there. “That looks tedious.” A soft touch at the end of her braid made her turn around, so Gale was soon staring at the embroidery on the front of the maid’s uniform.
He took a moment to admire the royal seamstress’ work, which gave a distracting elegance to Avi’s figure before averting his eyes. “In any case, this ball of yours will require extensive planning...First, let’s set a possible date. Then we’ll look at the guest list,the food for each course, decorations, the theme of ball, entertainment…”
Avi clamped a hand over his mouth. “I asked about the concept, Senator, not the details! Is it a good idea or not?”
Piqued that she continued to address him so formally, he kissed her palm. The resulting flailing from the taste-tester gave him an opportunity to draw her into his lap.
“You almost sat on my work, Avi.”
“Being on your lap isn’t much better.” The taste-tester squirmed.
“A ball for the prince is a great idea, even as just a way to make up for the negative impressions the senators keep of Letris,” he said, dismayed as Avi bolted from his grasp. She brushed off her dress as if sweeping away particles of him. “Now, Avi, let’s talk about you and me.”
“No!” She stood poised to run to the door, only Gale had pushed his chair backward to block her path to freedom.
“Avi…” Gale wanted to hold her again, childish fit and all.
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“You’re afraid of me. I want to know why.” He tilted his head. “No, perhaps you’re afraid of yourself.”
“Making a fool of myself, actually,” I muttered. My poor heart was thumping so hard that it felt as if a frantic rhino had trapped itself in my chest. Touching him had been on my list of Not-To-Do, never mind sitting in his lap.
“So, the problem lies with you, not me?”
In a way, it always had. My parents had loved me, and I them, but after they had gone, I hadn’t entrusted myself to anyone. Even to Cal, I hadn’t. “Yes, I can’t open myself to anyone. Probably why no one liked me…”
“Indeed, you are always holding something back. Why can’t we talk about it?”
I glared at him. “Are you my psychologist?”
Gale sighed, perhaps recognizing the use of one of my Earth-terms. “The only time you come alive is whenever you grow passionate with emotion. You are the most eloquent wielding anger, I think.”
“Otherwise, I’m dead?” Was I more dead than alive, spiritually speaking?
“Not dead, merely existing with a fear of the future. You don’t have goals or passions. You’re as empty as I am.”
“You’re not empty.” I could believe it of me though.
“I disguised it well then. That’s all.” Gale twiddled with the fringe of his tunic sleeve and pulled off a stray blue thread. “Now how will we set upon filling this emptiness?”
“First, let’s focus on realistic problems,” I said, not liking the way he drawled “filling” in the least. “Will you help me plan the ball if I get approval from the king?”
“Of course, I will. Meanwhile, we can discuss what we both lack.”
“Now I sound like I need a doctor.” Was this emptiness a problem? I had lived most of my life with it, and I still functioned.
“I can inquire around for a doctor…one willing to fix your ferocious temper. I myself could try.” He was teasing me now though with his stern face in place.
“Ha! I don’t have a temper except when it comes to you!”
“Am I special then?” His voice grew honeyed, seductive. I wanted to pound the sound out of my ears.
“Specially irritating perhaps.”
“I’m glad I stand out, at least.” The senator dragged his chair back to where it had been before trapping me. “Avi, could you fetch me a pen?”
I considered telling him to go fetch his own freakin’ pen—was it some sort of innuendo?—but somehow mumbled, “Sure.” It would be a relief to escape the room, but would I have the courage to return?
Seated on the desk minutes after the taste-tester had fled, Aliasse looked down upon her foster brother with disapproval. “You were oozing lust…all the while provoking her and tearing down her self-confidence. What kind of monster are you?”
“She hasn’t a smidgeon of self-confidence,” Gale returned. He couldn’t deny the lust, which seemed even a little depraved to him. The taste-tester was yet a girl, younger than Aliasse, whom he considered barely of the age to wed. “She has been in this castle for a whole year, imprisoned by the prince’s will.”
“And his glamour.”
As Aliasse expected, Gale lost his mawkish tone and became alert. “Glamour? Magic?”
“The prince has a glamour on him,” Aliasse admitted. “That’s what Fitch told me.”
“Fitch told you about his ability?”
“Yes, he did,” Aliasse said shortly. “In any case, I can’t tell if the prince cast it on himself or if he was born with it. I’m guessing the second. Does he even realize that he has one? If only he would tell me…”
“He will tell you,” Gale said. If the prince had a glamour on him, it would explain his ability to entrance people, particularly women. It even explained the prince’s confidence that no one would find fault with him. “That’s a very dangerous ability. To think he’s been exerting that power on you…”
“I have an amulet to ward against it.”
“Then you see him as he actually is.”
“He’s not that different, and he’s not dangerous.”
“We make exceptions for him, overlook bad behavior.” Magic had left the kingdom a mess this time around.
Aliasse scowled. “He has some redeemable qualities, you know.”
“Perhaps. You know better than I do. Now, how long does it take to fetch a pen?” The open door behind them creaked as if at someone’s approach, but no one entered. Still, the senator’s hair stood on end, prickling at danger, and he stood to take a stance in front of Aliasse as a castle messenger entered.
The man wore the blue uniform of a messenger, but his face, unshaven and haunted, made him look like a ruffian. He handed a piece of parchment to Gale with a mechanical bow and made an unobtrusive exit.
Aliasse leaped to the door to look after the leaving messenger. “Odd. Most messengers would say something…”
When she returned to Gale, he had opened the letter and was reading. The script was looped and tight, unrecognizable to Aliasse. She could, however, guess the writer by the initials at the end of the message: F.W. “From Fitch,” Gale sighed. “He wants the prince dead. Or else…”
Aliasse felt her heart race. She had persuaded Fitch to give her a few months to earn the prince’s favor, but now those months had come and gone. “Else?”
“He will have it done himself,” Gale finished. “If that was possible, I imagine Letris would be moldering in a grave right now.”
“What did he write about my mission? He must have said something for you to look that pale.”
He turned away to hide his face. “Nothing.”
They both heard the light, uneven tone of a badly told lie, and Gale muttered, “He has no plans to make you a member of the party, whether or not you see the mission through. Apparently, he considers you unreliable and untrustworthy. Reading between the lines, I sense he would be glad to be rid of you and me both.”
Aliasse covered her hurt with a wry smile. “His party? I don’t need to be part of it. They are just a bunch of thugs, after all.” Once, they had been her only hope of avenging her father. To her, they seemed a group with an idealistic vision of removing the men currently in power and setting a new elected group in their place. She had agreed that a ruler who neglected his duty should be removed; men in power were bound to serve those who were not.
“Aliasse, I did warn you.” He ignored her scowl. “In any case, we should tell the king who Fitch is. I doubt he lives where he used to, but we can track him with his real name—”
“You are his cousin,” she interrupted, wide-eyed at Gale’s willingness to sell out his own family. “Would you want him killed?”
Gale blinked. “How did you…?”
“Fitch told me that too.” She shuddered to remember his cold sneer as he had revealed Gale’s relationship to him. There had been no familial love there.
“If I had not been potentially useful to him, I would be dead,” Gale said. “Being family will not hold Fitch back. He would not hesitate to kill me or you, but we’re mostly safe here in the castle,” he added. “That messenger though…”
“He won’t dare anything in full daylight. So, what do we do? Cal is a much more likely target if Fitch decides to risk sending an assassin. We should tell the king to increase the castle security.” Aliasse began to pace.
King Aelius, despite his cheerful outer appearance, had become even more physically fragile. Would telling him that an assassin or even multiple could infiltrate the castle shatter his peace of mind? Already, the thought of executing Jameson weighed on the king. By far, Aelius had too gentle a heart for a king, so unlike his father Rendrant, who bent every enemy to his will with a beam.
Gale writhed with indecision before exhaling. “We must protect the prince, whether or not his father knows. I’ll tell Jim to have more guards posted in the prince’s chambers.”
“Do you have that kind of authority?” Aliasse asked. It wasn’t an insolent question but rather a curious one.
Gale smiled. “No. Still, if we ask, Jim would do it to protect his prince. Perhaps I’ll have a word with Forthwright myself before he can send assassins.”
“I think not.”
“Absolutely no!” Aliasse clung to the senator, burying her face into the clothes that smelled like parchment and fresh laundry. “If he hurt you…”
“Would it satisfy Fitch’s bloodlust, I wonder?” Gale tried to keep his tone light, but it grew darker as he said, “I should have explained to you that I knew Fitch personally and how twisted he is. Perhaps I made a mistake allowing you to become involved in all of this.”
Aliasse stiffened and then drew away like an offended feline. “I am not helpless! I chose to join the Forthwright party and to betray them for my purposes. I’m not empty like some people.” She gave her foster brother a teasing smile. “There’s another way to change the kingdom for the sake of my father. I don’t have to set fires and hurt people. That never worked anyway. I should tell Fitch that.”
“He would kill you before that truth could ever leave your lips,” Gale said. He glanced towards the door as the taste-tester crossed the threshold, froze and then uttered an apology.
“Avi!” Aliasse said with delight. “We have some news.”
Before Gale could protest, Aliasse explained Fitch’s threat, skipping her role as the prince’s would-be assassin. Somehow, the senator had known that Aliasse would never rise to fulfill that role. She was too honest, too forthright. The ironic play on words made Gale grin, and Aliasse gave him an absentminded cuff on the shoulder for it.
“You were beaming like a fool,” Aliasse said. She placed a hand on Avi’s shoulder. The other girl had floated down to sit on the desk and now fiddled with a pen. “Are you all right, Avi?”
“Why did Fitch send that letter to you?”
Someone wanted my prince dead, someone the senator and Aliasse had known personally. At my question, Holt shifted in his chair: like someone with a guilty conscience, likely a partaker in this treason. “He’s my cousin,” he said, leaving that as the explanation.
“You were part of his plans?” I asked. To be fooled not by one senator, but by two? Were there no honest senators?
Gale locked his hands together and then released them. Definitely guilty. “Forthwright has been threatening the king for years now. His group is there, but they’ve taken no definitive action against the king. He has built a network of spies and allies…but he’s all talk. So, I thought.”
Spies and allies? “Are you his spy?” Without Gale and Aliasse on the sidelines, I doubted Cal could be so motivated. Even the senators trusted Gale wholeheartedly. He was the one that they looked to for direction, even if Holt didn’t realize it. How could they be traitors too?
“Never!” Holt said with a dismissive wave. My fear eased a little at how genuine he sounded, but then again, he could act, couldn’t he? Perhaps his show of love for me had been to throw me off his treasonous tail? It would make more sense if his feelings were an act. I had no traits to attract such an important man.
I turned my gaze to Aliasse. “Are you…”
“I was,” she said. “Not anymore. Not for a long time. I didn’t tell Fitch much in the beginning anyway.”
“What changed your mind?” Slowly, I stepped towards the door, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
“Cal did. I adore him.” Her eyes met mine, genuine and guileless. “I would never hurt him. I want to keep him safe. And the king. And you. And all the maids. I couldn’t hurt any of you.”
Dear Aliasse got me with that. I accepted her embrace. Even if I got a dagger in the back for it, I couldn’t have rejected that hug anymore than I could force myself to stop breathing. As it was, no knife embedded itself in my flesh.
As Aliasse withdrew, I glared back at the senator. “We met Fitch once, didn’t we? That man in white?”
“Yes, the one who threatened me.”
In my memory, Fitch had reminded me of an ice block for some reason. “You said not to mind him…”
“To me, he has always been a secondary threat compared to Letris’ current incompetence,” he said. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
The leader of a group who would kill the king and Cal was a secondary threat? Perhaps I didn’t understand politics as the senator did. “What do you mean? Now we need to worry about three dangers to the kingdom: Mativ, Fitch and Cal’s own lack of knowledge! Even after all of this, it seems that Cal is going to lose his throne!” What was the point with so many things pushing my prince off the throne while we feebly tried to push him onto it? My voice had risen alarmingly, and the senator hopped out of his seat and rushed towards me.
Instead of placing his hands on my shoulders and saying, “Calm down, Miss Avi, before you have a kitten” (that idiom was all his), he crushed his mouth to mine. In less than a moment, his left hand rested on my neck, the right braced my back as he kissed me. I felt my heart kick, my entire body burn, as his lips moved across mine; he nibbled, he sucked as if on a succulent fruit, the kind that gets stuck in your teeth. It sounded unpleasant; even the thought appalled me, but my body enjoyed it a little too much. These treacherous lips of mine returned the kisses awkwardly until I couldn’t breathe, only feel him entwined around me.
We broke apart panting. After pulling his hands from my hair, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The senator actually pouted. “Drool,” I said to put him off. “What the hell was that for?”
“Your remarkable anger compelled me to sedate you,” he said. Behind him, Aliasse let out a whistle.
“So you’re turned on by anger. Just great.” The sensation of passion and fire had already faded, and the back of my mind wondered where I could get more. The answer stood in front of me, radiating self-satisfaction. “By the way, your lower lip is chapped.”
“Was it too rough?” he asked with a false sympathy that made me want to push him off my rooftop.
Aliasse slipped between us before I could grab the senator by the front of his tunic and rattle him until his brains fell out. “Ahem. In any case, we have to protect Cal and make sure not to alarm him or the king. Posting guards might not be enough. If they come through his bedroom window—”
“Up three floors?” I said, skeptical that even this world had wall-climbing assassins.
“With proper tools, a person could make it,” Aliasse said. Well, she had more experience with criminal behavior than me, whatever she had been for Fitch Forthwright. What use could he have for an arsonist?
Then a niggling idea made me ask, “Were you an assassin?”
“A very bad one,” Aliasse said with a weak smile. She stepped back when I unconsciously growled. “Hey, you don’t want Gale to kiss you again, do you?”
“No,” I lied. Aliasse an assassin! I tossed the now slightly crushed writing utensil I was clutching to the senator and strode towards the door. “Take your pen! I’m going to go and figure out how to protect Cal! From both of you! From Forthwright too!”
Forcing Cal to keep bodyguards would bring up too many questions. Perhaps finding Cal a devoted servant, as Otelius played the part for Aelius, wouldn’t be too strange. Someone to keep close to him at all times, who was equipped to deal with danger…
“Does her protectiveness make you feel warm inside?” Aliasse said to her foster brother, who was standing oddly still with so much to be done and a pen in hand.
Gale then sat to face his work. “Warm everywhere. Now…the prince will be most vulnerable at night.”
“You mean, he needs someone in his bedroom,” Aliasse said.
“I’m afraid so.” Gale’s ominous tone didn’t match his dazed expression in the least. “None of his usual bed-mates can fend off assassins. In fact, I can think of no other option but you.”