The situation with Cal and Aliasse grew more stagnant as the days passed. At least, the king had given permission for a ball to be held on the second calendar day of spring. Aelius confided his hopes that the festivity would lift Cal’s flagging spirits in time for the royal wedding. The ball held hope for me as well: specifically that Aliasse and Cal would come together as the lovely couple that they were despite this rut in their relationship. Was I terrible to try and manipulate that into happening? Still, I had to!
Aliasse had been in anguish without Cal’s friendship. These nights, she barely slept, her grief far more heartfelt than a mere girl rejected by a crush. If I hadn’t nagged her, she wouldn’t have even eaten. Instead, she worried about Cal’s safety, declaring the threat of assassins her fault. I had tried to say that she hadn’t sent the assassin, but I could have told a rock the same, and the rock would have been more responsive.
I sighed and pored over the guest list in front of me. The invitations were to be hand-written, of course, but somehow my pitiful scrawl felt inadequate. The memory of Gale’s lovely script flickered in my mind, but I bit my lip against the desire to go and find him. I could do this without him! I couldn’t rely on him for everything!
After a while, the names of the senators blurred in front of me. A headache shot through the back of my head and jogged a new train of thought. I still had to meet with the seamstress and have her take measurements and figure out colors and dress styles for every single one of Cal’s maids. Not that he had been treating them like his lately…
The behavior of my prince almost tormented me as much as Aliasse’s state. His love had evaporated, leaving him dry and dead. The only person he allowed any sort of love was his father. With me, Cal had been at turns needy and then irritated. He clung to me and then pushed back whenever I brought up his less than gentlemanly behavior towards the other girls.
As the door behind me swung open, I tensed. At Gale’s public insistence, more guards—their number drawn from the prince’s army—had been placed in every nook and cranny of the castle. The king even agreed to place guards in Cal’s chambers at night. After all, Mativ was out there, gathering strength, along with Forthwright, an unexpected shadow that sometimes kept me awake at night. Was Cal truly safe from assassins? After all, common guards could die and leave Cal vulnerable. I longed to sleep in his chambers, if not in his bed, though I couldn’t fend off a well-paid and armed master of murder either.
By the time I had turned around, the invader of my solar had plopped onto the sofa. My prince, glorious and graceful as ever, was staring at the Aelia. As usual, the flower was flawless, and just as usual, I couldn’t read past Cal’s reflective expression. “This ball is more troublesome to plan than I thought it would be,” I said. A neutral, slightly hopeful topic, was safest.
“A wedding and coronation are more troublesome,” came the unexpected response. So, Cal had been keeping track of the months? I had never thought to ask him about his feelings about being wedded and then made king. His fate, I believed, was inevitable, something he had already accepted. Certainly, Cal had never protested.
“Yes, that’s upcoming too.” I felt a lurch in my stomach. “Perhaps the ball was a bad idea. After all, will the king be able to afford to hold so many events so close to one another?”
“I do not know,” he said in a voice dripping with ennui.
“Perhaps I should ask Otelius how much we can splurge on this ball,” I chattered, feeling too bright, too false. “After the coronation, you’ll want money to start your renovations.”
“The senators likely won’t approve them,” Cal stated, sounding as if he didn’t care. He had put hours into those plans!
I shook my head. “They might like a fresh beginning for the city—That’s it!” Cal’s startled chuckle was like sunshine breaking from cloud-cover, but it didn’t distract me from my sudden outpouring of thought. My fingers began to tap the desk in front of me, my hand’s equivalent to pacing. “A ball of new beginnings and the hope of spring, where every woman is a princess hoping to find her true love.”
“And the men?” Cal’s spine had straightened, and the dullness in his eyes had vanished to be replaced by a spark of affection.
Walking over to face him, I placed my hand on my hip. “Suitors, of course…but perhaps of the common variety.” To add to the scandal.
“Do you mean…” Cal said with amusement, “Servants?”
“Yes!” The idea was growing on me. “Perhaps you, as well as the invited senators, can serve the food. Your father can act as the steward, and Otelius masquerade as the king for the night, with the maids as his daughters.”
“I never imagined Otelius fathering so many lovely daughters,” Cal reflected, but a true grin stretched his face.
“Imagine the scandal of one of the princesses falling for a common servant!” I tapped him on the shoulder. “You can be the handsome and dashing taste-tester.”
“And you a princess.” He bowed and brushed his lips across my knuckles. It tickled, and I laughed at that as much as the thought of the seamstress’s face in response to an order for twenty-eight princess dresses for twenty-eight maids. “My queen rather.”
Urk. “Don’t decide that too hastily now.” Perhaps my words were as much for my sake as his. That humble bow reminded me of Gale and his affections.
“For now, I stand by that decision. You are the only one who ever loved me.”
How does a girl react to that? I started with denial. “I’m far from the only one! The other girls love you so much that when you ignore them—” As he turned away, his elegant profile came into sharp relief. “Cal…”
Then, he slunk out of the room like a cat with a once-too-many-tugged tail. Abandoning my guest list, I trailed him all the way to the outer door to my rooms where a soldier regarded us with a cheeky grin.
“All clear,” he said at Cal’s measuring glance. Then, the impertinent young thing inclined his head in my direction. “Miss Avi, how are you today?”
“Fine,” I said. “You keep watching these corridors.”
“Like a hawk, as you said,” he promised.
“What’s your name?” Cal looked between me and the soldier as if gauging the extent of our two-day relationship.
I pretended disinterest as the soldier said, “Jerrid Othing.” He was considerably handsome and maybe just a bit older than Cal. He also towered over his prince by a head and carried more muscle under his leather armor than most of the men I was acquainted with. Not bad.
“Is this your only assignment?” Cal interrogated.
Jerrid related that he had been designated to guard the quarters of various maids. I put on my best doleful look when Cal inquired about the frequency of Holt’s visits to my rooms. The senator actually refrained from visiting since he and Cal had slept together. I smirked again at the thought.
“Of course,” Jerrid continued, “I haven’t been here all day, so I cannot say for sure how often the Senator drops by.”
“He doesn’t!” I stated, giving Cal a sharp jab with my elbow. He dodged the half-hearted attempt at puncturing him and considered me with a hint of self-satisfaction.
I left him standing with Jerrid. Let them talk! I headed straight to the library, half-hoping to run into Holt. Instead, I found my dear friend Callie dusting the top shelves of a bookcase devoted to history. Her slippered feet rested on the lower shelves, arched and balanced like a dancer’s. She waved a gray rag at me in greeting.
“You look none too cheerful.”
“I need help,” I admitted, and she hopped from the bookcase to totter towards me. Her supportive smile hadn’t faltered even with Cal’s indifferent treatment. Callie steered us towards a cranny where we—including Lianne—conversed so often. There, the nostalgia of simpler times hit me like a hammer. My friend released me and backed away, perhaps at the crazed I’m-going-to-squeeze-you-into-a-hug expression on my face.
“Tell me,” she said, gesturing for me to sit in a creaky, library chair. While I explained my idea for the ball and the difficulty of it, Callie paced around me. In the end, my friend only said, “You’ll have to ask around and pull some favors. I’d start with your senator, then with the other girls.”
Was that the only solution? The one I had been avoiding?
So, with a good book in hand to give me courage, Callie sent me on my way to find Holt. With so many soldiers around, I didn’t dare go directly to the man’s rooms lest they report to Cal about it. I was wandering in circles when Destiny handed me a boon. I had stepped into the atrium in front of the guest chambers for the fifth time when a figure at the other end of the room caught my eye.
He leaned against the doorway, tall in a button-up shirt and a pair of black jeans. His jacket, the one with the fluffy ruff, lay draped in his folded arms. Something in his stare, an intensity I hadn’t seen before, made my face grow hot.
“Going outside?” I said.
“I have some errands to take care of,” Gale answered. “Were you, perhaps, looking for me?”
A soft laugh from him later, I was shaking. Why had I wondered how such a laugh would feel against my skin? “Avi, are you sick?” He walked forward with a hand outstretched to place on my forehead.
“Terribly.” I contrived a dry cough. “You may want to stay away.”
“You should be in bed,” he said.
I shook my head, wanting to bring my book down on his head. He sounded too concerned. “I’m just tired. Anyway, how’s your leg?”
“Your concern for my limb is touching,” he sighed. “It’s the same as usual. Now what frustrates you?”
It came out in a flood of despair. The lack of funding despite my inspiration. The short time-span. The unlikelihood that the senators would ever agree to dress up as servants. The dresses. The decorations. The feast. The entertainment. The invitations.
He stopped all my frantic outpouring with a step that closed the distance between us. “Avi…” His fingertips brushed my shoulder, a tender touch that sent waves of flames down the length of my body.
“We will find a way to make this ball happen. We must, given such an entertaining concept; that cannot go to waste.” His practical voice lulled me into a calmer state. “If you would like, I can pen the invitations myself. I can also inquire as to whether Mina knows anyone who could provide music for the classic Haiathien dances—Avi, what is it?”
“I…don’t know how to dance.” Then another realization hit me. “You’re seeing Mina again?”
“As a friend,” Gale assured me. “Do you mind?”
Before I could control the impulse, I threw my arms around him, perhaps to make up for the glomp I missed with Callie. He held me like one would hold a child, and I nuzzled into the lovely hollow at the base of his neck. As predicted, quite cozy. Against his chest, I could feel his unhurried inhalation and exhalation. I matched my breathing to that pace until an utter contentedness cradled me.
“You should go,” I said, slipping away. “Thank you for the hug. I needed one.”
With a serene air, he plucked my abandoned novella from the floor and handed it to me. “Callie would be upset to see you treating this book as you did.”
“She would,” I said. My five seconds of foolishness could have damaged its spine or crinkled expertly cut pages. “Are you disappointed in me?”
“The book will survive,” Gale determined before brushing a dust mote off its cover. “You, however, might not recover if you take on too much at one time. As you already have.”
“Callie told me to ask you and then the other maids for help with the preparations.”
“Good advice. Now, Miss Avi, please excuse me.” He bobbed his head in a bow, touching my nose to his before walking away. Ah, I had to focus…on anything but my idiotic, thumping heart.
A hunt for help among the maids, traumatized as they were by Cal’s sudden coldness, consumed the rest of my day. Lianne agreed to send for a cousin, who arranged flowers for parties held by wealthy families. Rosaline had four sisters, all of whom were passable seamstresses. A few maids offered the cooking services of their mothers, who had both experience and traditional Haiathien recipes to share. One laundry maid had a brother who owned a fabric store, and she daringly offered to wheedle some cloth for the dresses. Most of the girls, in peals of excitement over the idea of the ball, agreed to help with the physical task of decorating and preparing the celebratory banners. By the end of the day, with the news spread and the castle lively, I decided that Callie could not escape without a hug.