Duty came hard knowing a nearly undressed woman was one door away. Still, Gale completed the invitations, tailoring them to each individual guest. The first one written had been for Gatherby and his family of five: a wife, two daughters and a son. Some senators had no children; others no longer kept in touch with them. All but Gale had been married at least once. Even the senators who had murdered Senator Motto were invited to the festivities. Likely, they would come to see the first ball hosted by the king since Dieva’s death nearly twenty years ago. In fact, they wouldn’t be able to resist. Perhaps Letris had a reason in waiting and not persecuting them. He would wait for them to walk into the trap. Meanwhile, the prince had latched onto Mativ as the next problem on the royal agenda.
“Letris, you are smarter than you look,” Gale said before sighing. Whatever Mina had put in the sweets had given him a headache similar to one after consuming alcohol. It was almost as painful as the pangs of disappointed lust in other body parts.
Using pre-cut envelopes, he slipped the invitations into their proper coverings and even addressed them. Perhaps Avi would take the extra step as an apology for his inappropriate behavior. Even so, he was not entirely sorry it had happened. To feel her arching against him in his arms… After tidying the desk, the senator scurried out of the taste-tester’s chambers as if ghosts were chasing him.
Outside, Jerrid stood, ready to give the exiting man a sarcastic salute. He had remained to interrogate the senator about his relationship with the prince’s taste-tester. The gaunt, pained look on Gale’s face stopped him. “Was she rough with you?”
“None of your business,” Gale said. The innuendo made his everything ache all over again. Jerrid bowed his head in pretend meekness.
“I apologize. Also, I was hasty earlier in assuming…”
“That everything was my fault? Yes, you were, but right now, I am too damn tired to care.”
“Well well,” Jerrid said, “she did tire you out!”
Gale gave him a dismissive wave and tottered back towards his rooms. There, he found only restlessness and no sleep. So he stared at the stars outside his window, mindful for unusual shadows on the castle grounds. Likely, assassins would not try their luck. The bobbing lights in the courtyard meant night patrols were out, Aliasse among them. Her advice to him had been to be straightforward with Avi, but….
When his mind refused to stop racing, he left his room to wander the castle. This late in the evening, no one remained awake but a few maids, who were finishing the chores of the day. Most of them avoided him, except for one.
In a half-lit corridor, the senator came upon Lianne with an empty laundry basket. “Senator? You’re still awake at this hour?” This young lady was gorgeous, with generous curves. Why had he never noticed? More importantly, why had he not yet taken advantage of her interest in him?
“I could not fall asleep.”
“Oh?” Lianne dipped a curtsy. “I am very sorry. Perhaps I can help?” A coy smile. An invitation?
For one moment, Gale considered it. What meaning did his bitter vow hold anyway? All his past pains had been a farce, built upon an untruth. Mina had not betrayed him; he had betrayed her by not listening or asking. Instead, blindly, he had run away—into duty, into danger, into anything that could make him forget.
Avi had unraveled the foolishness of that.
“That’s very considerate of you to offer,” Gale murmured, “but perhaps I’ll read a book instead. Something like a lineage of the kings of Haiathiel might do it.”
So, leaving the maid with her empty basket, he hobbled towards the library. There, faint light emanated from the main chamber where Callie was immersed in sorting a shelf of books. At the sound of footsteps, she whipped around to give him a radiant grin. It faded a moment later, and the maid dropped a quick but well-formed curtsy.
“Senator, I was expecting Avi…Is she already abed?”
“Did you expect me to know?”
The maid’s face flared pink, and she bowed her head. “I did not mean to imply anything improper, sir.”
Stepping closer, the senator examined the books in front of them. Their yellowed pages reminded him of the history text he had been hoping would put him to sleep. Somehow, in the presence of so much vast knowledge, that thought seemed disrespectful.
“I scared her again,” he sighed. “She won’t return my affection at all.”
Callie hid a smile as she turned to replacing books. “Did you know about her obsession with her true love?”
“Yes, she told me. Many times.” The senator snorted.
“She wants to find him.” With the last of the shelves in order, Callie settled in a nearby wooden chair.
“That desire makes her a frightened rabbit! She’s too afraid to find him.”
“Or are you afraid, Senator, that she would never consider you her true love?”
“I am starting to feel that there is no such thing. If anything, I’d believe in a best-fit love. Surely there is not just one person that you must find to be absolutely happy? Besides, we…we’re never truly happy.”
“Perhaps that’s because nearly all of us never find our true loves. Avi might have the right idea.” Callie couldn’t help teasing the senator. Something, perhaps the events of the night, had overturned his usual uptight demeanor.
“No, I refuse to believe that.”
“Believe what? Why are you even here?” The sudden entrant in the conversation appeared behind them with a scowl. Callie stood and then stepped towards Avi with an apologetic air.
However, the words that were flung from her mouth were far from conciliatory. “The senator and I were about to head to bed together.” A sharp glance at Gale quickly silenced the beginnings of his stuttered protest.
Avi’s glare made him want to disappear. “So, you’re taking advantage of the maids while Cal is upset.”
“You blame the senator entirely for this then, Avi?” Callie continued. Gale considered this friend of Avi’s. For all her bashfulness, she had just interrupted a senator.
“Yes!” Avi hesitated. “Well, he is drugged…”
They both peered at me with confusion. “Ah, never mind.” It wasn’t as if Callie went out of her way to make that offer. Likely, the senator had intimidated her with his authority. The more I thought about it, the odder the situation appeared. Gale wasn’t that type despite a chemical-induced libido.
“So, what is going on?” I finally settled for asking.
“How did you feel when I said it, Avi?”
“Said what?” I could tell Callie was itching to make a point. I wouldn’t make it easy though.
She gave me a severe look similar to those my mother used to give me when I touched the brownie batter. The resemblance made my resolve to be difficult crumble. Plus, the senator looked ready to collapse.
How had I felt? Betrayed and astounded covered it after his earlier display of affection. Also, a niggling feeling I couldn’t describe lingered: something made me want to pull the senator away and protect him from himself.
Callie had made her point. In fewer words than usual.
“I’m sorry, Senator.”
He bowed. “Not at all. I should apologize for my earlier rashness.”
“Don’t do that.”
He gave me a questioning glance. Then we both became aware of an emptiness due to Callie’s absence. The last glimpse I caught of my friend was a flash of a white skirt around the bookshelf.
“Don’t kiss me and apologize,” I clarified.
“What do you want from your true love, Avi?” He settled into a library chair backwards. Pfft, so casual for a senator. It didn’t suit his heavy question.
“I don’t know exactly what I want. When I see him…” I’d know it. I was sure of it. This weirdness between the senator and me wasn’t true love. Not with such uncertain, unequal feelings.
Gale plucked himself from the chair and turned away. “You keep waiting then until you see him. I won’t get in your way any longer.”
“Wait…” The finality of those words trickled a chill down my spine.
“In any case, I’ve done the favors you’ve asked of me. The invitations are finished—”
“Yes, thank you, Gale.” He hadn’t needed to address the envelopes; I was hoping to nudge Cal into doing it. “What you mean ‘get in my way’?”
“The entertainment has been arranged for,” he continued, plowing on as if he hadn’t heard. “If you need any further help, please send Letris to find me. Good night, Miss Avi.”
The vague hostility beneath the words made me freeze. Then, surprisingly fast, the senator loped over to me. With one finger, he lifted my chin, examined my neck and pronounced, “No damage done.”
“I saw in the mirror. Gale, why…”
Then he withdrew from the library, his retreating back as cold as his initial attitude towards me.
Brow furrowed, the prince of Haiathiel urged his soldier forward. At the reaction of his opponent, who was seated across the wooden board, Letris scowled. “Did I make a mistake already?”
As he leaned back in the armchair, Holt eased the frown from his face. “Not at all. I was merely thinking…”
Letris allowed the other man to leave the sentence unfinished. The prince’s eyes were on the opponent’s charging equestrian. The board had been re-arranged for a third game—the current one. Even with two losses, the prince insisted they continue playing. Holt wondered at this persistence and then cursed Aliasse for it.
“Warmonger…it’s as if a child named it,” Letris said to fill the silence. He brandished a soldier in the air for a moment and then plopped it in front of Gale’s equestrian like a challenge.
The equestrian skirted around the soldier, evading potential unhorsing. “Ruefus Wright invented this game. That was many generations ago, of course, but we still have a bit of history on him. Ruefus was intelligent and innovative but didn’t have a bit of understanding for social norms. In self-isolation, he spent his days devising games to entertain his clever mind. This game—Warmonger—was one of the simpler games he designed by modeling from battle tactics.”
“Simpler!” Letris repeated and prodded another piece forward.
“However, the way war is fought now would horrify Ruefus.”
“How is it different now?”
Gale gestured to the models of miniature men. “In times before King Rendrant united Haiathiel, each king of a region would have a small group of highly skilled, specialized fighters who would engage in duels for his honor—much like the pieces on this board.
“That was no longer possible after Haiathiel encompassed all the regions. The first war in Gatha became a large-scale slaughter of soldiers who wielded their swords with not even a quarter of the skill of those legendary men. Guns made strategy a charade. Now battle is won with sheer overwhelming numbers and a touch of tactics, timing and luck.”
“Say, do you think the kings of old had their mistress fight for them as well?” The most incongruous piece on the board, the king’s mistress, had the strangest movement pattern of all the pieces. Letris slid his king’s mistress sideways three paces, almost teasing a nearby soldier with the curves of her body.
Holt shook his head. “On a battlefield, I would think not. Perhaps a few were involved in political maneuverings, but I’m not sure.”
“That was a joke. You should laugh.” Letris stretched his orange tunic over his knees, which he had brought up as he rested his feet on the edge of his own armchair. “However, I thank you for the history lesson.”
The senator moved his equestrian forward to evade the neat row of enemy soldiers. He didn’t blink as Letris lunged to take out the unfortunate horseman with a tower. “Hmm. Before, I could have slipped that piece by you.”
“I have learned,” the prince declared.
“It seems you are capable after all.”
Though Gale had spoken gently, Letris gave the other man a displeased look before muttering, “Yes, capable enough. I do wonder when Cousin Eli will arrive.”
Last night, torrents of cold rain had coated the ground in fresh gray ice. With horses unlikely to be driven through such conditions, Eli’s coming was delayed. The prince continued to keep his distance from the maids. Thus, deprived of any source of entertainment, the prince sought out Senator Gale Holt.
Despite their sudden companionship, Letris did not reveal what had passed the night he had wept. Holt decided not to prod though he felt tempted to complain about his frustration about Avi. He had avoided her with amazing success. Now, Avi inspected the food in the kitchens, so she would no longer have to stand in the dining hall as they ate. Furthermore, it seemed she hadn’t complained to Aliasse about him, which meant…He had truly and completely messed up.
“Eli will come when the roads clear,” Gale said, finally responding to the prince’s statement.
“I hope he comes before the ball.”
Holt made his next move on the board.
“Perhaps his reputation will keep everyone away. That would be best.”
“I cannot marry until I understand what I am.”
“What you are?”
A careless soldier swaggered forward. “Cursed or blessed…”
“Speak clearly. I don’t understand what—”
“I carry a glamour. That’s…what Aliasse called it. Could she be wrong? Is there any way to remove it?” Letris sprawled forward and across the board, scattering the game pieces and ruining Gale’s plan of flanking the ever troublesome tower.
Holt held up his hand—both in a soothing gesture and to keep a shield between him and the frantic prince. “I cannot say. Either way, you are still repulsive to me.”
“That’s not true! The longer you linger here, the more you treat me with kindness. The glamour must be why anyone cares for me!” Letris clenched his fists. “Do you understand how cheap any love for me is now? This magic even affects my father.”
Meanwhile, Gale considered the man before him. Stripped of arrogance and a title, he found a small, insecure child looking for reassurance. “My prince, you fool, Aelius likely loved you long before any glamour exerted an effect on him. That magic might explain his negligence in forcing you to learn anything of duty, but Aelius would have loved you regardless.”
“I caused the death of my mother. How can you be sure he would not have hated me?”
Holt hesitated. He had not expected carefree Letris to be carrying such a dark thought. “We will never know the truth of that. I am too young to know how Aelius reacted to the first sight of you. I only know that you have an obligation to put aside your personal misgivings and act like a prince, a leader of his people. If anything, I would use that glamour as a political tool.”
“Do you consider taking advantage of an array of serving girls any better?”
“You do not understand.”
“Please, I understand perfectly. Your world has been shattered. You are not beloved by all not because of your own personality but because of this strange magic. Letris, it does not change who you are; the king, your maids, your soldiers will continue you treat you as they did.”
Letris threw himself back into the armchair with a dull thud. “You realize there is no meaning in it.”
“Still, for some reason beyond my understanding, Aliasse sees you without your glamor and likes you well enough.” At the senator’s exasperated words, the prince frowned at the game board.
The soft chime of the hour stirred them both to stand. “If I were as cold-hearted as you, this wouldn’t be such trouble.”
“Cold-hearted! Avi said the same…yet every time I show any affection, she runs away. The whole thing frustrates me.” The senator froze. How could he be so stupid to remind the prince of his overtures?
Instead, Letris surprised him with a laugh. “Has she given you a lecture on what she calls ‘sexual harassment’ yet? Our dear dark angel is adamant about avoiding the touch of any man but her true love.”
“Damn true love.” He cleared his throat when Letris considered him with amusement. “Let’s go eat.”
“Fine,” the prince said, sidestepping the senator on his way out of the solar room. “We should speak more of wooing women later…maybe for the Spring Ball.”
To Gale, that sounded like a fine idea.