Sudden pounding jarred me into wakefulness. It sounded as if hordes of soldiers were rattling the door to my rooms. The bedroom and the surrounding chambers were pitch black, since I covered all my windows with drapes at night to keep away bad dreams. My mother was the source of that particular habit, but it worked every time.
Even now, the faint memory of a pleasant dream lingered as I tossed my blankets off. They landed with an unfortunate thump on the other side of the bed. Following the rough edges of the carpet between my bed and the door with my toes, I felt my way to the threshold. The knocking at the farthest door in the chambers grew fainter but no less unrelenting.
“I’m coming!” I growled and navigated through my solar more by avoiding blobs of darker black than by seeing. The knocker, likely hearing me, desisted.
The outer door’s latches were hooks that clinched around metal cylinders buried in the wall. A determined thief would probably shake them out of place, so this too early-morning visitor was benign enough. I wrestled the hooks off and then pulled open the door to find Gale Holt and my prince slumped against him.
Were they hurt? Had the assassin pursued them? Without me needing to yank them inside, Gale hobbled inside, dragging Cal with him. “What’s happening?” My heart began its unhelpful racing. “Is he hurt? Is Aliasse?”
“No, Aliasse is fine. As for the prince, I have to check.” Gale fumbled around and found the closest lantern to light. Cal lay deposited on the sofa, comatose and vulnerable. I kneeled beside him and touched his cheek where it was wet: with water, not blood. “When he stumbled up to me, I asked him about her and confirmed she wasn’t hurt. He was…crying, Miss Avi.” Gale shuddered as if at seeing a monster.
If not weeping for Aliasse, why was Cal upset? After turning Cal over and checking him for blood or any other sign of injury, Gale and I settled into chairs facing one another. Cal had fallen asleep and didn’t stir as we had examined him. He seemed unharmed except for the tracks of tears on his face.
The story went like this:
After having fallen asleep in the bath and then waking, the senator had been slinking back to his rooms at this unholy hour. Then, he had collided with Cal, who was running through the halls like a madman.
Once he overcame the surprise of seeing the prince’s face ugly and wet with tears, Gale managed to ask if the prince were in danger and if Aliasse was unhurt before Cal collapsed. Cal had spoken one word before losing consciousness: my name.
“So, there aren’t any assassins in the castle?” I sighed after Gale’s concise account.
“No, Avi, no assassins.” The words were curt, but I forgave him since sleep-deprivation went hand in hand with crankiness.
A horrid thought sunk its claws into my brain. “Did Aliasse try to kill him?”
I trusted that vehement word for some reason.
Meanwhile, on my sofa, Cal looked peaceful if a little awkwardly curled. His breathing was even and deep. I placed my head against his chest and reaffirmed the reassuring beat of his heart. “Then I wonder what happened between him and Aliasse.” If she were his true love, could she cause Cal such pain?
“She must have been honest. That girl…”
“About Forthwright’s threat? About why she’s here?”
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” Gale said with a sigh. Much to my surprise, he reached out to touch the top of Cal’s head in a gesture reminiscent of a caress. “Aliasse often forgets that not everyone is as strong as she is.”
“Cal is strong,” I protested and stood as Gale doubled over to touch his knee. “Does it still…”
“It’s always a little painful, Miss Avi. I can cope. On the other hand, the prince…I worry for him. Forthwright has been difficult to track down, and Mativ even more so. He’s in so much danger.” Gale straightened with effort.
“What about Aliasse?” I ran my fingers through Cal’s much-too-long hair. Why hadn’t the royal barber attended to him?
“I always worry for her,” Gale said. “As I do for you.”
“Me?” I waved him away, and he caught my hand. With the deftness of an expert, he unwrapped the white cloth binding my palm to examine the skin there. “Just a scrape. It’s healing well and doesn’t hurt at all,” I told him.
As he redid the binding, a yawn overcame me. The sooner sleeping arrangements could be determined, the sooner we could sleep. Eventually, we decided that Cal be placed in the nearest available bed. I supported my prince while the senator prodded him out of sleep, and even then, the half-asleep Cal weighed heavily until we guided him to my bed.
Eyes closed, Cal didn’t mind me tucking him in and kissing a tawny eyebrow. His hair always darkened in the winter and then lightened to gold in the summer. Even if winter dampened our spirits, spring and summer followed close behind to raise them up again.
“Oh, Cal…” No matter his sadness now, I would ensure his future happiness one way or another.
“You love him.”
“Like a mother lion loves her cubs,” I said, using a simile my father once favored. Why was I thinking so much of my parents tonight? “Someone should stay with him in case he wakes.”
“You can, Avi. He would prefer it.”
“Don’t walk all the way back to your rooms,” I found myself saying. “Stay with Cal. There’s room for two.”
“Where will you sleep?”
“The sofa. You won’t fit there.” His legs would dangle over the edge, and with his injury, I couldn’t allow it.
He gripped my wrist as if testing its frailty. “I don’t want to treat you any more shabbily than I already have.”
“You haven’t,” I said, surprised that he held onto those words still. “I was just being difficult.”
“I keep making you uncomfortable…though it is fun to watch you squirm.”
Charming. “Did Mina have to put up with your inappropriate jokes?”
Gale trapped my other wrist. “Truth be told, she’s the one who made me squirm.”
“With pleasure, of course.”
Wait, was he talking to me about another woman? How dense! Perhaps he was trying to make me jealous? It wasn’t working! “Well, I have no desire to please you.”
“I know.” He placed a warm, rather rough kiss on my lips before sinking into the bed beside Cal. The touch spoke of confidence that I was his, as if I were bound to him! His eyes touched me with an incongruous tenderness. “However, I want to please you.”
While I blushed, he tucked a companionable arm over the prince as if Cal were a younger brother come to bed after a nightmare. Responding to the touch, Cal snuggled his head into the senator’s tunic. With a smile, Gale allowed his head to fall until his chin rested in Cal’s hair.
After putting out all the lights, I stumbled into the solar and curled up into a tight ball on the sofa. My prince and the senator looked adorable together, but come morning, Cal would be either insanely furious or heartbroken. Falling asleep, I trusted the senator would wake me if he couldn’t manage Cal’s temper.
The prince’s razor gaze made the three senators in front of him twitch. While all three had been declared loyal to the king, they suddenly felt like condemned men. “You are free to go.”
Before the senators departed, they each bowed to the king, who sat in a poufy chair to the side of the proceedings. The shortest one came forward first. The second was slightly taller, the third a greater height than the second. The sight of the staggered senators toddling from the room made Aelius smile.
“Rest now, Cal. We’ve done much work today.”
Prince Letris of Haiathiel shook his head. “I won’t rest until Mativ is brought to the Capitol in chains.”
The king flinched. “What does Garigus report?”
“There has been no news of Mativ. It’s as if he’s disappeared.” Letris swept back a lock of hair; he had asked the barber trim it to a few inches, but now it curled insufferably, much like Aliasse’s wild hair. The unexpected thought of Aliasse made him suck in a breath.
She had been avoiding him, and he had evaded talking about what had occurred that night. No matter how much Avi begged him, he sealed the discussion away. He rebuffed his maids’ adorations with rudeness that bordered on cruelty. Avi had scolded him for that as well.
“When is Eli coming?” Aelius switched to a more pleasant topic.
“Within the month. My cousin is bringing his caretaker with him,” Cal said. “From his letter, I believe he’s eager to be here.”
The king shook his head. “If only I had known what kind of men Eli was sent to…They don’t tell an old man these things!”
“No, Mativ didn’t bother telling us.” The prince sighed as Aelius’ mouth trembled. “I apologize, Father. I feel unwell.”
With more of his old spirit, the king hopped to his feet and brought his cane down on the prince’s desk. “That is why you must rest! Where is Avi? Aliasse?”
“I can manage without them.”
Aelius twirled the cane and then dropped it. “Oh?”
“I will find them anyway,” he lied to erase the worry on his father’s face. On his way out, Cal nodded to the faithful steward waiting outside the office. Otelius gave him a deep bow that made the prince cringe away. Unwilling to face the dead atmosphere of his chambers, the prince wandered until he found a door outside to the garden.
Ice pelted him, uncaring of the rank of the man pacing the courtyard. Slipping and sliding, he found his way to a bench. Despite the icy layer on it, he sat and gritted his teeth as the hard surface jarred his pelvic bone.
“You’ll get stuck.”
From a shadowy corner of slumbering rose bushes, Gale Holt traversed the icy ground with a grace unusual in a crippled man. Letris gave him a grudging glance and then peered over the senator’s head, ignoring him.
When the senator didn’t move, he snapped, “Go away.”
“My, my, your cool exterior has finally cracked and revealed the man-child beneath,” Holt muttered. “I am not going to explain to Lianne how her prince sealed his ass to an icy bench and tore the seat of his trousers to escape.”
“Making yourself familiar with my maids? Take them. Take them all. At least, have mercy and leave Avi to me.” Letris hunched over and rubbed his arms to keep them warmer.
The senator plucked a handkerchief from his robe pocket and laid it beside the prince. Then he sat. “Rather, Lianne has been approaching me. This time, I didn’t initiate the trouble.”
“I’m glad. Now take your spying foster sister and leave!”
Gale pulled one of his cloaks from his shoulders and draped it over the sulky prince. He disregarded the other man’s distrustful glance. “Aliasse has not spoken of what passed between you two. The mystery of it keeps me up at night, you know.”
“Some of the maids will as well.” The raunchy joke escaped the prince’s lips before he could purse them in anger.
“I hope only lust is what keeps you awake. You look like you’re losing sleep.”
Indeed, twin clouds of darkness had settled under the prince’s jewel-brilliant eyes. “Your concern disturbs me. You’ve always sneered at me.”
For Gale, it was harder to hate a man when you had seen that man cry. A point best not brought up at this time. “And you’ve always looked down your nose at me. Imagine how I felt when you were being civil towards me and handing over undeserved honors.”
Letris pulled the black cloak tighter around his shivering body.
“Aliasse did tell me that you spared her virtue as repayment to me,” Gale continued. “Did she scold you for disappointing her?”
An attempt to stand ended in a wincing prince. At least, the bench relinquished the cloth of his trousers though now his bottom throbbed with the cold, and the fabric had stretched beyond repair. “I ought to have you killed for concealing her age and her purpose.”
“Yes, for attempted murder. Under your brand of justice, I wonder about the fate of the senators who never attend the Assembly.”
“You speak of the ones who murdered Senator Motto.”
“Aliasse told you?” Gale didn’t bother to hide his astonishment.
Letris watched him with an odd intensity. “Who are they? Name them for me.”That way, he could confirm they were the same as the ones who never attended the Assembly.
“Dirk Sherwood. Bellus Wright. Will Othing. Jim Sylvan. Olivier Joplin. Moel Keene. You are going to punish them?” Hope began to simmer, rekindled at the thought of those murderers finally facing royal displeasure. By the time Gale had come into power, the case of Senator Motto’s death lay cold and forgotten.
The prince shrugged. “Once I learn the truth, then I will deal with the wrongdoer. Perhaps Motto provoked them. After all, what kind of dour man puts a tax on pleasure?”
“He was someone who wanted to change the morals of men…but it seems we are doomed to fall to one vice or another. Gluttony. Lust. Foolhardy pride.” The last word stung Letris, who reeled to place a fist in the senator’s face.
“Violence and anger.” Calm as the warm breeze easing the frost from the garden bushes, Holt had snatched the other man’s wrist.
“Treat me as badly as you want. It would be a relief from your nauseating benevolence.” Letris pinned his gaze to the head-high hedges that trapped them on the castle grounds.
Gale released him. “Please, once or twice I may have had the impulse to strangle you, but you are the prince of Haiathiel, and I am a senator. It would not be proper.” Brushing off his robes, he began to stand and then grunted as the bench did not release him.
The prince watched, a smile cracking at the edges of his lips. “Stuck?”
“These are new robes too.” He reached out, willing Letris to take his hand.
After a tense moment in which the senator feared he would have no assistance, Letris grabbed him by the arms. In one wrench, Gale was free, and the prince assured him that other than a few stray strands, the back of the senator’s robes were unblemished. The handkerchief they left in the ice as the two men meandered towards the castle.
Gale had the last word as they entered the warmth of halls heated by torches. “If it is pride that keeps you from speaking to Aliasse, then re-consider the cost of such foolishness. She and Avi are very anxious about you.” He loped away, crippled and yet whole in a way that Letris was no longer. Gale doubted the prince would give his advice any consideration, but he had tried for Aliasse’s sake.