The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 32

Lianne, of all people, told me first. The news made my knees weak, and I leaned against a library bookshelf as Lianne told Callie and me of the unusual arrangement.

“When did she change her mind?” Lianne looked hurt; part of the reason she liked Aliasse so much included Aliasse’s nonchalant rejection of the prince’s advances. Somehow, that grace didn’t extend to me, likely since Cal hadn’t been deterred by my refusal. Only Aliasse had fended him off. I still couldn’t figure out why.

“Will he marry her you think?” Callie wondered.

“If he doesn’t tire of her,” Lianne said. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

This evening—a cold, icy one like the past few days—Cal had taken Aliasse to his bedroom and locked the door. Nothing in Cal’s manner at dinner foreshadowed this decision. Aliasse hadn’t said a word to me. Even Gale revealed nothing; he had continually steered the conversation towards the business of the kingdom, never even looked in my direction. Like an idiot, I had wanted to find him sneaking me glances.

In any case, the threat of an assassin still hung in the air, so maybe Aliasse had been sent in to protect Cal. That made the most sense, but I didn’t dare voice that to Callie or Lianne. Plus, why would Gale place his own foster sister in that situation? Why not send a male bodyguard? Even if Cal regarded that as suspicious, he should have been told rather than have Aliasse secretly protect him. The deception bothered me the most. Or so I convinced myself.

Callie’s enormous yawn jerked me away from my thoughts. “Sleepy?” I asked. “Go to bed.”

“If I had a nice man to snuggle up with, I would gladly,” Callie said with an uncharacteristic wistfulness. Then, she pried me away from the bookshelf—acting once more the guardian of the books—when a messenger stumbled into our cranny. Lianne gave him such a caustic glare that he flinched back.

“I heard female voices,” the messenger said quickly, “and I figured some maids would be awake. Senator Gale Holt needs assistance in drawing a bath.”

“Most people are asleep,” I stated as Callie and Lianne poked me in the back. “Besides, none of us are maids of the bath. Tell him to fix his own bath.”

The messenger shook his head. “The senator is in pain. He’s in no condition to do it himself.”

Before I could come to terms with the sudden shame filling me, Callie waved the man away. “We’ll go and assist him. He’s in the bathing wing?”

“Third door,” the messenger said with relief.

He turned to go and then I blurted, “Did he send you himself?” Was this some sort of perverted ploy of the senator’s? Or was he truly…

“Jim sent me, my lady.” With a bow towards us, the messenger disappeared. If Jim was attending to him, what condition was Gale in?

Lianne prodded me with a smirk. “That senator angers you quite a bit. Is there something going on?”

“He kissed me,” I said, suddenly a blurter of truths. My ears braced themselves for a squeal from Callie, which came in a higher pitch than expected.

My friend danced on her toes in front of me while Lianne regarded me with a look that made me realize how unlikely that seemed. “So you won’t be lonely tonight, at least,” Callie giggled.

“You can have him,” I said.

Lianne gestured for us to start walking. We had a duty to do, after all. When we exited the quiet mustiness of the library, she said, “Isn’t Holt the crippled senator?”

Of all the things she could have brought up about Holt, was that the only thing people knew about him? “He’s not just that!”

“Oh?” Lianne said. “What’s so great about him? That uptight windbag?”

“He’s responsible if anything! He’s also intelligent and savvy about political matters. On top of that, he truly cares so much about the king and his people! The kingdom would be lost without a man like that,” I said, wondering if this praise would ever reach Gale’s ears. I could imagine his smirk at that. “He’s manipulative though…and that polite smile of his is dangerous. That’s why I thought this bath-drawing ordeal was a trick of his.”

“She’s lost,” Lianne said, not to me, but to Callie, who was humming on my other side.

“What do you mean lost?” I muttered.

Callie grasped my hand and shook her head, eyes glittering as if she knew a secret I didn’t. “Don’t worry, dear. Although, your senator does have an injury, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.” Gale had joked that the leg would kill him one day. Lately, he hid his worries and pain from me…from everyone. “Let’s hurry.”

At the third door into the bathing wing, Jim waited outside. He grasped a bloodied rag in his hands. Perhaps noticing my gaze, the old man assured us, “I took some blood from his swelling leg. There was nothing else I could do. Anyway, he’s sitting inside. Please be respectful, and do not ask questions of him.”

“Of course,” Lianne said. She was the first to slip through the door, into the room that held memories for me. It was this bathroom where I had fallen from my world into Cal’s. I stumbled in after her in time to see Lianne offer a polite curtsy to the senator. He was seated, a bit more stiffly than usual, on the wooden bench built into the wall.

Senator Holt gestured to the empty bathtub. The tub itself was porcelain and looked like it might fit three people at a time—not that I had tried.

“I’m sorry to trouble you so late in the evening. It was either this or drown myself in drink.” His words startled Lianne into action. She loped past a curtain leading to a backroom that held the items needed to prepare a bath.

Sluggishly, the senator’s gaze moved to me and Callie, huddled in the doorway. “Miss Avi, and Callie, was it? Thank you for attending to me.” We both bowed our heads reflexively while he huddled there like a wounded beggar. One leg of his trousers had been slashed open and stained dark—with blood, most likely.

Callie pushed me towards him and then scurried off to join Lianne in the backroom. I would have approached him anyway, but the nudge from a friend made my steps steadier. “What happened?”

“A flare-up of my leg.” He shrugged. “I’d like to bathe quickly, go to sleep and forget about this.” His face, haggard as it always was, hadn’t improved in pallor or in the level of strain. If he kept this up, his dark hair would go white in a matter of a decade.

“Is there anything I can do?” Anything to help him.

“Fetch me the hottest water you can,” Holt said, “so I can boil the feeling out of my skin.”

“Why are you so intent on hurting yourself?” Despite my hopes of being supportive, I was just pissed off.

Holt reflected my anger back with a smoldering glower. “When everything is already in chaos, Aliasse is forced into that man’s bed…and my leg swelled up as if to punish me! I tried to protect her—”

“Maybe she doesn’t need your protection if you think she can fend off assassins but not deal with Cal,” I interrupted. “I’m sensing a double standard here.” An assassin or Cal? Which was the most dangerous really?

Holt tried to stand. He trembled so violently I thought he would fall but instead, he plopped back onto the bench with an expletive I had never heard from him. After a moment, Gale said, “I sent her into a double danger. If my father knew how badly I’ve been taking care of Aliasse—”

“I think you’ve done a fine job.”

He grabbed my wrist. “Don’t you lie to me, Avi! Thanks to me, Aliasse is considered a criminal. Now, because I couldn’t think of a better way, she caters to the demands of a promiscuous prince instead of being married to a good man.”

“Do you think she would be happy that way?”

“Not at all. She still wants to avenge her father,” he said, subsiding into a sullen silence.

“It was her choice to come here,” I reminded him, and his expression softened from a glare to simple exhaustion. “You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“But I helped her come here,” he whispered. “And now I’ve suggested that she should be present in the prince’s bedroom to protect him!”

So… he really had sent his own foster sister? I leaned over to kiss his forehead. “Thank you.” Then, I stepped back by instinct before any reckless grabbing could be accomplished. However, the senator sat motionless, his hands folded together. Had I offended him?

No, he was radiating serenity like a Buddha statue, his gaze for me stupidly soft. I missed the return of Lianne and Callie with buckets of steaming water until the senator gave an exaggerated cough. “So…how is your leg now?” I inquired, trying to do my best Jim impersonation.

Callie tapped me on the back of the head. “Easing the senator’s discomfort, are we?” She brandished her lobster-red hands at me. “I don’t envy the maids of the bath.”

“They usually wrap a thick cloth around the bucket handles,” Holt offered, and Callie heaved a sigh. With a smile, he added for me, “My boisterous limb hurts very much, but if you would hurry with the bath, I am sure I’ll be feeling better soon.”

That smile pierced me, mocking. While I stood there, befuddled by the sudden tone change, Gale bestowed upon me the gift of more dry words. “Miss Avi, perhaps you could assist them? Do fetch me soap, one with the soothing aroma. Don’t forget the towel!”

I scurried into the backroom, which contained the water pump, a stove to heat the water, stacks of buckets, and shelves of enough soap, perfume and towels to bathe a good hundred people. I picked out the correct items and returned to find the senator half-naked. His discarded tunic lay crumpled on the bench.

In front of him, the tub steamed, half-filled but already burbling with bubbles. Lianne and Callie, empty buckets in tow, rushed past me, heads down. Approaching the angular, pale creature before me, I plunked the soap into his hand and draped the towel on the edge of the tub.

“I’ll go get more water now,” I said with a sniff. “You know, this is such a shabby way to treat the woman you love…Treating her like a common servant.” Before he finished reaching out with that elongated arm of his, I strolled into the backroom, where Lianne and Callie were giggling.

Lianne handed me a bucket, which I nearly dropped—the cumbersome thing being forty pounds and sloshing wildly enough to throw off my balance. “Have you seen him naked before, Avi?” she asked. I let a glare be my answer to that remark.

Even with a rag around it, the bucket’s metal handle sunk immediately into the flesh of my palms. Still, I didn’t let a smile waver as I re-entered the bathroom, where the senator continued to pose. The water poured into the tub with an impact that would have sent a lighter person tumbling forward. The maids of the bath probably built muscles doing this every day…

“Avi, be careful, or you’ll fall in,” he admonished. The words made me look up. The fact that he didn’t have abs hit me first, then the sparse field of dark, curly hair on his chest; it almost made me laugh. His collar bones jutted, forming cozy hollows at the base of his neck.

“You be careful too. The water’s hot,” I returned before heading to the backroom. Callie watched me expectantly, for the senator’s orders maybe. “Let’s finish up here.” It took another few minutes before the tub was filled. In that time, Gale had retreated to his bench, hands in his lap, hunched over, so we could admire the curve of his smooth back. Not that he meant to give us such a view…his leg was probably paining him again.

As we pronounced his bath ready and apologized for our slowness (Callie and Lianne nudging me all the while), the senator slowly unfolded to full height. His trousers had slipped down to reveal the tantalizing curves of his hips. He hitched them up with the casualness that didn’t suit him and then bowed his head. “I thank you all for your efforts.”

“It was no trouble at all,” Callie said.

“Is there anything you might want? Perhaps one of us should stay to attend to you,” Lianne continued with a nudge for me.

Gale reached up to tug a lock of hair that had been plastered around his neck due to the increasingly humid atmosphere and, much to my surprise, shook his head.

“I need a barber but otherwise, I can manage. Please, have a pleasant night, ladies.” He waved us away with an aristocratic twitch of the hand, and I practically dragged Callie and Lianne out of the room.

Outside, in the dry air, I wiped the sweat from my face and the back of my neck. Then, turning on the two girls peering at me, I extracted vows of secrecy to stop them from babbling about the senator and me to the other girls. After that, I headed to bed, hoping that Gale would be okay.


Warding off a sneeze with a wrinkle of his nose, the prince of Haiathiel perched cross-legged on his bedspread. The room was ensconced in shadow except for the glow of a small candle, which Aliasse would soon put out once she had readied herself for bed. Faint, aggravated grunts came from the closet where she was changing from the maid’s uniform into a tunic and leggings.

“Do you need help?”

A squeak declined the prince’s languid question, and a moment later, Aliasse tumbled into the room wearing a truncated form of the usual Haiathien tunic and legs. The orange sleeves crinkled at the crooks of her elbows while the trousers’ cuffs fit snugly around her slender ankles.

Aware of Cal’s growing amusement, Aliasse almost ran to the bed to take refuge under the bedcovers. She settled for sitting on the bed’s edge since the prince remained perched on the covers like a watchful guardsman.

“Cal, I can’t get into bed…” She tugged at the blanket playfully.

“Why are you here?” He sprawled forward and rested his weight on gleaming, alabaster forearms. Instead of an irresistible prince, a handsome stranger gazed at her with obvious suspicion.

Aliasse crossed her arms. How much to hide? However, when she opened her mouth, lying came too hard. “To protect you.”

“Protect?” The prince tasted the word, and a corner of his mouth curled into an almost smile. “From?”

“Assassins.”

“Sent by?”

“Forthwright.”

The conversation broke into a silence that made Aliasse cringe. When she dared to glance through the black curls hanging in her face, he was sitting beside her, no longer looking so unfamiliar.

His hand slipped into hers. “Thank you for your honesty.” The prince of Haiathiel, suddenly on his feet, glided to the arched alcove encompassing the room’s sixteen-pane window. “Well, no one is outside.”

“That you can see anyway,” Aliasse pointed out. She had already concealed Gale’s handgun under the circular table closest to the bed and tucked knives under the bedstead. “Is no one else honest with you?”

“They all treat me differently. Is it pity? Holt certainly feels no pity for me since he mocks me when he can. I suppose he is in the right since I am a pampered pet that only lacks for freedom!”

Aliasse considered the passionately heaving chest of the man before her. It would have been more impressive if it wasn’t part of a childish pique. “You wallow in this luxury, carry the title of ‘prince’ and still expect to be treated as an equal? You have the responsibility to protect the people’s ability to survive; that is your burden!” She held her breath and waited for his royal wrath.

“Who are you really? Most of the maids would never dare to speak to me so…with the exception of you and Avi.”

With one secret out, why not give up all of them? Certainly, the sheer amount of lies to be unraveled would pass the time. Cal returned to sit against the headboard, clutching the carved edge with one hand. His head was tilted to one side: ready to listen.

“Then let me be entirely honest with you: I am Aliassendre Motto, daughter of a deceased senator from Mycene. Gale and I grew up together since our fathers were friends; we’re not related by blood at all, but by now, we may as well be. When my father was killed by a group of senators for a law he suggested, my care fell to Gale’s father.”

His casual lounge became stiff. “Your father was killed by a group of senators?”

“The group that never appears at Assemblies. They were outraged that my father would ever impose a tax on prostitution,” Aliasse clarified. By the prince’s astonished tone, it seemed he had never considered senators to be threatening in the least. “I wanted them punished. For my sake, Gale’s father did try to bring enough evidence to the king to take action against those senators, but he never succeeded.”

Aliasse felt the renewed ache for Emil Holt, who had died without finding justice for his friend and without seeing Gale as the capable governor he now was. “Gale cared for me in his father’s place. To keep me from being restless, Gale told me to find a job, so I began working in the city’s public bath. But I disobeyed his wish to leave the senators be; I decided to try to punish them. I razed the center of the west end to the ground twice; I spied on the men who killed my father, trying to find ways to hurt them. Eventually, I came across rumors of the Forthwright party…”

Frustrated by easy rebuilding and rekindling of the west side, Aliasse spent weeks terrorizing the senator’s homes—causing one man’s wife to break into a permanent hysterics—but soon lost the appetite for it. She began an effort to contact the Forthwright party, which promised its followers a change from the careless hedonism of the senators and neglectful royalty. Forthwright had reached out to her and Gale first, but her foster brother had told her off vehemently for catching the party leader’s attention. Then, as a few senators began to question his loyalty to the king, Gale had been forced to hide her away.

“Why would they doubt Holt’s loyalty? Didn’t he fight in Gatha for my father?” Cal asked.

Aliasse hesitated. “Gale spoke out against you. He suggested another heir be found, and that’s when the investigations of Lord Eli began. Of course, Eli turned out to be less than suitable.”

“My cousin may be a murderer, but I wish he hadn’t been sent away.” The prince lifted his knees and placed his chin between them. “Perhaps I should call him back to court. My father tells me he lives in a manor in the countryside with no one for company.”

“Perhaps he could serve you…as a personal companion and guard.”

“Do you hope that the assassins would mistake him for me and kill him instead?” Cal’s smile carried a touch of sadness.

“You are the heir, you know,” Aliasse pointed out. “Your life exceeds the value of his and that of mine as well.”

Cal pressed his forehead into her hair. “I would never ask you to sacrifice your life nor would I wish cousin Eli to do so.”

“No, you wouldn’t ask that.” She wrapped her arms around his torso. For once, the prince ignored the invitation of a warm and willing female body. Instead, he nudged her to continue.

“How did you end up here, Aliassendre?”

In the past, when introducing herself, Aliasse often needed to repeat her name until the other person could remember all the troublesome syllables. The prince had pronounced it perfectly, almost with a musical nuance. Just as Avi had. Perhaps, she pondered, the many others had simply not listened to her, had dismissed her as a senator’s daughter and mere goods.

In any case, once the investigation of Gale proved fruitless, Aliasse was set loose to wreak more havoc: little fires, vandalism and petty thefts. By that time, the senators had complained to the constables, who put up sketches of her and scoured the streets for a girl of her description. The sketches hadn’t been very life-like, considering that Senator Sherwood, who had glimpsed her, saw her for but a moment. However, that she allowed even that second of discovery put a dent in her ability to torment them.

Aliasse had been running out of supplies and opportunities when Forthwright asked her to infiltrate the king’s castle and pose as a maid. Despite Gale’s misgivings, he helped her set up a way into the king’s service and used her age as an excuse for staying at the castle to supervise her.

“Of course, Gale lied about my age since I’m much too old to need a guardian.” As the story unfolded, she had entwined her body with his, and now, she was in his lap and close enough to feel the tremble of desire in his body.

He gave the side of her ear a playful kiss before asking, “I thought so, but how old?”

“I was born in YG 1903.”

“The same year as me.” He brushed hands down her thighs, each of which was pressed against his ribs as though she were trying to crush them. “You’re old enough for me to treat you as a woman.”

“You don’t mind that I was sent by Forthwright? To kill you?” She hated to remind him, but his green eyes were filled with such marvelous affection that any hateful truth might be drowned and destroyed in the wake of it.

The man’s answer came in a series of kisses that numbed Aliasse to anything but pleasure. “A strange assassin you are…” His voice came from near her throat. “Even if his other assassins come for me, I don’t even mind since you’re here.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Aliasse managed, not protesting any further when he rolled her towards the center of the bed and under his graceful form.

“You had your chance to kill me. Multiple chances. None of which you took. Why is that?”

“This is a cruel interrogation method.”

“Am I hurting you?” His warm weight disappeared, and Aliasse resisted the urge to pull him back.

“No, but I won’t be able to keep watch if you—” An insistent kiss hushed her.

“I want the details of your father’s ordeal later,” he said, “but for now…”

The prince’s hand slipped under her shirt and began to stroke the curve of her waist. “Cal, I have to keep watch...”

“I think we’re safe. The coming blaze will keep them away.”

Aliasse laughed. “When were you ever poetic?”

“Never,” he admitted with a frown and withdrew his wandering hand. “What have you done?”

“Enchanted you,” Aliasse teased. “As was part of Forthwright’s plan.” At first, she had hoped to escape with her virtue intact; she was certain that she had lived too chastely to suffer Cal’s bed without consequences. Now, she changed her mind. This prince’s touch was gentle, welcoming and warm.

Suddenly, Cal yawned and collapsed beside Aliasse, allowing the casual overlap of their limbs. “Go to sleep, love. We can speak more tomorrow.”

Aliasse blinked. “Sleep? What happened to the blaze?”

He shifted, turning his back on her. “It would upset Holt too much and therefore pain you. That I will not do, Aliasse.”

She made an impatient noise. “I already said I wanted your touch. As much as I love Gale, he is not my master. I am my own.”

“That is true, but his opinion matters very much to you. I will not see you in contention with your…foster brother.” Cal flopped over to face her, his face alight with a smile, and Aliasse uncharitably thought him ungraceful. “Tell him this is repayment for Gatha.”

“Repayment?” Aliasse repeated. The sudden refusal made her wonder if he did think her a seducer sent by Forthwright after all.

He nuzzled under her jaw and wrapped a possessive arm across her breasts, but Aliasse rolled away and sat up, meeting Cal’s puzzled expression with a glare. “I am offering you everything, and you just push it away?”

“Aliasse, come here.” He reached out and then retreated with a chuckle at her nipping his hand.

Still irritated, she pulled out Forthwright’s charm and toyed with the stone at her sternum. The charm was shapeless and gave off a faint throbbing, perhaps due to the closeness of magic. As Aliasse lifted the crystal to touch the stream of moon flooding through the window, the light glinting off the facets of the stone covered Cal’s face in a flickering mosaic.

Cal bolted upright. “My father once wore such a crystal! My mother gave it to him to wear.”

Aliasse moved away as he reached out to touch it. Instead of dangling awkwardly in the space between them, the hand came to rest in her hair. “Your mother may have had a magic then. This stone repels all magic.” Had Dieva too possessed an aura that charmed all who met her?

The prince of Haiathiel watched her wordlessly. Aliasse said, “Cal, you have a glamour that charms everyone you meet. Did you know of it?”

“My father never…” Cal looked as rattled as if someone had assaulted his royal person.

Aliasse took his hand, her heart softening at the realization that he had not known or even suspected. “Your father didn’t know, Cal. No one else was aware of it until I told Avi and Gale.” She almost began to babble about the odd subtlety of his magic when his cold glance cut her.

“Please leave me for tonight.”

“I can’t! It’s not safe.”

Cal laughed, a bitter sound that made Aliasse’s skin grow clammy. “Is it my glamour that makes me so attractive to assassins?”

“Cal, no!”

“Is it my glamour that has made my father love me?”

“Not at all. His Majesty would adore you anyway.”

“I will never know the truth of that.” The prince enveloped himself in the blanket like a child hiding. “My maids act like they love me because of it, don’t they? Except Avi. Avi never…”

Before Aliasse could protest, Cal abandoned the bed, throwing the blankets back to fall on her hapless head. After untangling herself, she followed until the wing no longer reverberated with the soft footfalls of the distraught prince. He had escaped to the castle corridors, an easy target for assassination. Aliasse only prayed he would make it safely to the taste-tester.

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