A cup of tea emitted plumes of white between them. The resulting mugginess softened the layered aqua gown Mina wore to hues less blinding to the eye. In addition, it was harder to discern her expression. Gale was grateful, especially as Mina continued their stilted conversation. He had inquired about the performers Mina curried favor with, and she had promised that they would be present at the ball. After that, their words floundered into the sludge of unsaid hopes.
“I am surprised you had the nerve to see me again,” Mina said. Her tapered fingernails tapped the wooden surface of the table. The wood had darkened with age and dust. Years ago, when they had been lovers, the surface had been polished gold.
Gale smiled. “I came back because there is nothing more for me to lose.”
“Pitiful.” She cast a grimace towards his legs, which were extended to the side since they couldn’t be tucked comfortably under the table. “At least, you have become what your father always wanted you to be.”
“Settled. Responsible.” Mina spoke them as curse words. “It’s past time you found yourself a wife…”
“Mina?” The turn of the conversation baffled him.
“Perhaps I…” Her long, dark lashes fluttered as she looked away. A hint of a blush appeared on those smooth cheeks. “When I grow old and feeble, who will want me? I have come to envy those wives with children, those I mocked in my youth as trapped. Sometimes, it feels as though I am the one within a trap.”
“Well, marriage can be trap…” Gale fell silent. The very little he remembered of his own parents contradicted those words. Emil Holt loved his wife, treated her with dignity and respect. “It can also be blissful as my parents showed me.”
“Your mother was happy with Emil, wasn’t she? He was a very kind man.”
“Until the very day she died and years after, he loved her completely,” Gale said, startled to find his throat thick with pain. He had been five, much too young to remember the sickness that had taken his mother.
He felt a sudden urge to return to a grass plot in a bucolic town in Hamada, and there, to lay handfuls of flowers on Emil and Emilia Holt’s grave. Coming home from the war after his injury, Gale had found his father deceased. Emil’s last words to his son were directions to burn the body and lay the remains beside those of Emilia Holt, a woman who Gale had not truly known. Yet he had loved her because Emil had loved her so much.
“Would you marry me, Gale Holt?” Mina’s hand reached out to touch his. “Will you save me?”
“As matters in the kingdom stand, I cannot marry anyone right now,” Gale said. This, he had not expected. On his way to the west end of the city, he had predicted a bullet from Forthwright’s cronies, but no one had even approached him. This was a bullet from an unexpected direction.
“Gale!” The cerulean bangles on her arm gave an inharmonious clinking as she pointed towards the ice-encrusted window. “This city is dying! The kingdom is unraveling. You know that. You’ve been unhappy as a senator. It’s killing you!”
“It’s not,” he said, more sharply than intended. He wasn’t even certain which statement he was refuting. “My duty is to see the kingdom remain united under its lawful king and to see its people happy.”
“People are never happy,” Mina stated. “Not for long.”
“Then, content for a little while,” Gale said.
“You are hiding something.”
He shrugged. “I vowed chastity since our parting. If you are willing to wed a chaste cripple, then I will take you as my wife.”
“There is more truth you hide.”
Gale felt an odd smile touch his lips. Only Mina and Letris had ever been able to deduce the presence of his masked feelings. Were they merely expert guessers? “I also have feelings for another.” He winced, waiting for female claws to rake down his face. He was making up ways to explain the wounds to Aliasse, Avi and the others when he realized that Mina was laughing.
“That Avi girl?”
“Am I so obvious?”
Mina crossed her arms in her lap with a musical jangle. “When you both came to visit, I noticed your familiarity with her. What does Prince Letris think? And whatever happened to Aliasse?”
“Aliasse is fine,” Gale answered. If heartbroken counted as fine… “Prince Letris knows and disapproves, but he hasn’t yet removed my head for it.”
“That’s only because you haven’t bedded the girl.”
“I won’t. I can’t.”
“You want to.”
The noncommittal sound sent Mina into peals of laughter again. Gale found himself smiling despite the desire to appear disapproving. Mina continued, “Has Aliasse then given up all interest in you? I expected you to have married her…”
Gale snorted. “She is like my sister.” Then he twisted in his seat, wincing when his knee hit the table’s bottom. “An interest in me? Since when?”
“When you were first courting me,” Mina confided. “She would give me such scathing looks! I feared for my well-being at times. She was immensely fond of you, Gale. How could you have missed it?”
“She said nothing to me!” That was an odd predicament. After all, up until turning fifteen, he had thought of no other girls but Aliasse.
Mina snatched the tea from the table and sipped at the cup. “She was always a shy girl, afraid to stand up for what she wanted. Has she changed at all?”
“Plenty. She’s her own woman now.”
“But a woman alone in the world without a family is terribly vulnerable,” Mina pointed out.
Gale frowned. “She has me.” Then he smiled at how she had steered the conversation towards her own plight. “You are welcome to stay at my manor as well.”
She pretended to gasp. “A young senator, who has vowed chastity, living with two unwed women? Your reputation would be ruined.”
“Especially considering that one of the women is unbearably beautiful.” The atmosphere of the room had dropped to comfortable with their friendly banter. “What are we to do, Mina?”
With a graceful, twisting movement, Mina stood and waved a hand towards the sunken, wooden ceiling. “You ought to officially undo that vow of yours and marry Avi. As for me, I will manage to survive. I always have.”
“It astounds me that no man has offered to marry you yet,” Gale said, ignoring an ache of discomfort as pain from his leg. Marry Avi? And offer her what future?
Mina gave the senator a mischievous side-glance. “Oh, men have proposed, but none could match you. The you before the war, that is. How attractive and kind you were!”
“Have I…uh, lost those traits?”
“You are bitter as a raw seed, haggard as…well, a senator of the kingdom.” Mina giggled at the man’s dour expression. “My Gale was young, passionate, wild but ever thoughtful. War truly changes people. I speak not only of the injury to your leg, Gale.”
Gale waited for her to continue. What else had changed?
“The people you must have seen die, the hatred in your heart for me and the prince, the becoming of a cripple at your age, the hardships of a senator’s duty…Your heart is full of scars.”
“My duty is not hard,” Gale finally said after a prolonged silence. “If not for that something to do, I would have killed myself.”
“And I apologize. Perhaps I should not have said such—” He finally picked up his cup of tea at Mina’s gentle glance. No apologies were needed between them. “I am glad we spoke again.”
“As am I.”
After a few more cups of tea, she sent him off with startling warmth and a small bag of homemade treats “to share with Avi.” He ate one as he stepped outside and found it too sugary for his liking. The city streets rang with silence as if folk were too cold and miserable to step outside. Perhaps it was even too chilly for Forthwright’s cronies, none of which accosted him on the way back to the castle.
At night, the castle hubbub faltered to a murmur of activities. Which one of these activities had Avi engaged in? Perhaps, she had gone to bed early, considering she had looked unusually exhausted when he had run into her before.
At the door to Avi’s chambers, a tall, handsome man wearing the chainmail of the castle guard greeted the contemplative senator with a cheerful “hello, sir.” They took each other’s measure with a quick glance. Friend or foe? Cooperative or not?
“May I inquire about the location of Miss Avi?” Gale added a perfunctory bow to add more respect to the question.
Jerrid Othing chuckled, saying, “She went to the bathing wing an hour ago. I expect she’ll return soon. Do you wish to wait inside her chambers?”
“No,” Gale said. “I wished to discuss some matters, but they can wait.”
“So you are Senator Holt.” Jerrid crossed his arms.
Gale didn’t even allow a muscle of irritation to twitch. “Yes, that is me. However, I’ve never seen you in the castle before…”
“I was posted in Gatha before the madness with the rebels occurred. Rumors say the ones captured were released without trial. Could you confirm that for me, Senator? And also explain the reason?”
Sympathizing with the hard glint in the other man’s eyes, Gale could only say, “It was not my decision.”
“That was done by Letris.”
“The prince would never allow it! He swore on his father’s sword to serve his country. Releasing them undid all of our work! You senators probably were behind that!” Jerrid touched the black hilt of the sword at his waist. The weapon’s blade was shorter than those of swords worn to war, but easy to draw quickly to deter any hostile intruders.
Gale sighed, wondering if he was going to be stuck in the gut for Letris’ unwise mercy. Then, a female voice erased the immediate possibility. “Jerrid, that really was Cal’s decision.”
In a blink of an eye, the soldier’s hand dropped to his leather-clad thigh. “If you say so, Miss Avi.”
Inside the solar, the senator floated over to sit in front of the guest list. Beside the list lay a stack of creamy, perfectly cut paper: the would-be invitations. The parchment was soft to the touch, sturdy, flawlessly uniform in texture and color. It was probably the most expensive paper in Haiathiel.
“Mhm. Is this everyone?” Gale was tapping the guest list imperiously.
For someone who was supposed to be helping me, he sure caused trouble. First, he agitated Jerrid about the release of Gatha’s rebels. Then, he handed me a bundle of sweets from his former lover to unwrap. Now, with that disapproving tone of voice, he found fault with the guest list the king had compiled.
“Yes.” Wrapped in a thick bathrobe, I plucked at clumped strands of my wet hair. “Is there a problem?”
“No, just confirming. It includes even the senators that haven’t been to an Assembly in years.”
Meaning even the ones who killed Aliasse’s father. “If they come, will Aliasse be okay?”
“She would not take revenge on them at the ball if that’s what you’re asking.” He waved me over. “Now, how will we explain the concept of the ball to the guests? Come closer, Miss Avi, I don’t bite.”
I tiptoed towards him until there were no physical barriers between us but enough distance to prevent touching. “Tell the men to come dressed as servants and the women to indulge in princess gowns. Is there a way to phrase that more…delicately?”
While Gale pondered and scribbled thoughts on a piece of scratch paper found in a drawer in my desk, I decided that my hair needed drying since the droplets seeping into the back of my robe were giving me chills.
As I fumbled through the linens in my closet for a towel, Gale said, “That guard was very upset about the release of the prisoners. Why do you think that is?”
“His name is Jerrid.”
“Well, Jerrid has every right to be upset,” he said, answering his own question. “Those prisoners should have been punished. Do you think the prince’s mercy would make Gatha accept his ascension to the throne?”
The towel I had salvaged from the pile now sat atop my head. I half-hoped the senator found the lopsided sight unattractive. “Gatha is quiet now, though I doubt Jameson’s sons would forgive Cal so easily.”
“Avi, there was no advantage in releasing them. None at all.”
How did writing invitations involve a political debate anyway? “They’re people of this kingdom. How could Cal even start to think of hurting them? Would you have?”
“As I said before, I would have executed the lot of them.” He was beginning to pen a hopefully cheerful invitation as he said so. “Jameson would already be dead and a new senator reinstated in Gatha with extra men to keep it well under heel. I would have soldiers scouring every nook of this kingdom for Mativ. Fitch would be in prison and awaiting trial. Of course, we don’t have the army to do that.”
“You’d be a tyrant as a king.”
“If I were a king, these things would have been taken care of,” he muttered. Then he glanced back at me. “As for you, if I were king…”
“What? You’d force me to…” A heat spread from my face to the very ends of my extremities.
“I’d marry you.” With that, the man returned to writing.
No thank you! “Do you think I’d be interested in such a coldhearted king?”
Instead of answering, he beckoned for me to look at the first completed invitation. Perched on the arm of the chair, I examined the flawless script centered on the parchment. It read:
Letris Calpurnius, son of Aelius Calpurnius and heir of Haiathiel, cordially invites you and your family to attend the Spring Ball on the
Second Day of the First Quarter YG 1924
In the King’s Own Ballroom
Men, come prepared to masquerade as servants to your Ladies
Ladies, come dressed as the princesses you are
All, be ready for love to unfold for your humble servant, Letris Calpurnius
“Perhaps it’s mawkish.” His voice tickled my ear as I said nothing. “Avi?”
Perfection. The request had the directions for the costumes without being pushy and managed to be tantalizingly mysterious. It was almost too much that this guy had a gift with words as well.
“It’s beautiful, Senator.” Strands of my damp hair rested on his shoulder, and he was now fiddling with them, the touch sending shivers up my spine. “I’ll leave you alone to do the others.”
He didn’t take the hint to stop curling my wet hair around the tips of his fingers. “Avi, you smell nice.”
“Huh?” I had expected a dialogue about the ball or the invitations.
“Clean,” Gale said. “You smell so clean.”
“Well, I did bathe. My hair’s still wet, and it’s nearly bedtime! Please, let go of it…so I can…” His hand stroked the length of my jaw. With one flick, he dislodged the towel from my head, so it fell to the floor with a plop. As I thought of snatching it, he pulled me down to steal a kiss. On his lips I tasted something sweet, a shadow of something he had eaten earlier.
Pulling away, I almost screamed at our position. I was in his lap, sprawled in the worst possible way! I would need to put a lot of my weight on him to get up. Worse, he had secured me with two long arms, his hands heavy on my back.
“So, you wouldn’t marry a king?” he said, sounding mournful.
“Not a tyrant,” I said, as tightly strung as a violin string. Most likely, he could feel the thinness of the layers between us too. His breath came a bit fast, and his eyes were murky with lust.
“Am I not the type of man you’re after?” He pressed his lips to my upper throat, and this time, it wasn’t gentle. Relentless kisses with tongue, skillfully placed, made my traitorous body press into the warm one beneath.
“I don’t understand,” I said when he gave me a moment of respite to breathe. How could I be so weak? I had denied Cal, who was literally irresistible, this sort of canoodling. “You were so kind and helpful this morning, and now you’re a lustful, heartless wannabe-king. It’s as if you’re two different people.”
When a lingering bite to my neck was his response, I mustered enough strength to slap him. “You are not marking me! If everyone saw…”
He looked slightly apologetic now, his face a rosy spring pink where I had smacked him. “Understood. Then I’ll place a mark where no one can see.”
Meaning under my clothes? What sort of terrifying compromise was that? Disregarding any fear of hurting him, I struggled out of his grasp. He gave an unhappy grunt at the pressure to the knee of his injured leg, but I didn’t linger long. My towel lay near his feet. I wouldn’t risk my sanity by going to fetch it. “Finish those invitations. I will be drying my hair in my room.”
Now he sat with his hands together in his lap, back straight, legs slightly apart: a senator’s restful pose. “I will do that.” He pointed to the bundle of goodies that Mina had given him. “Perhaps eating those is a bad idea.”
“Why?” I wiped at my neck. At the moment, I couldn’t feel a bruise, but only a mirror could confirm the damage.
He laughed. “Mina probably added an aphrodisiac.” My suspicious glare made him add, “You wouldn’t be able to see it since such things aren’t poison.”
Either way, he could have mentioned he was feeling horny earlier and spared me some trouble! Before I could begin to lecture him, he turned around to face the parchment. Pen in hand, he began to scribble the second invitation.
I snatched a spare pen from the table beside the sofa and threw it at his head. The pen bounced off at an angle and landed near the solar window. “Remember your vow.”
“I remember it,” he said. “I haven’t taken you to my bed, have I? If you want, I could take you in this chair right now.”
“No!” How terrible that I considered that might be interesting.
“Then hush. Dry your hair and then go to bed. You shouldn’t stay awake too late.”
Now, he was lecturing me like a parent? And what would Jerrid think, knowing that the senator and I were in this wing alone? For hours to come? “Good night! I am locking my door!”
I didn’t stick around long enough to hear his response.