I left the table with the others, but my destination was not the dance floor. There, the straw prince William lay abandoned in a nearby chair, and Maura was now dancing with Cal, the taste-tester. How typical of him to have already displaced his rival.
The food thief, Aliasse, was dancing with one of the soldiers. They were doing double-duty tonight: both guards and gentlemen escorts. Callie, too, had fallen into the arms of none other than Jerrid.
In a casual, unhurried manner, I crossed the room to a space just beyond the children’s tables. One survey told me that all the food carts were—my stomach drooped—empty!
I had expected the encounter since he was in charge of food, but my heart still sped up. “Your foster sister stole a quarter of my appetizer!”
“Aliasse does like her food,” Gale said. When I dared to look at him, I found a child with a dark complexion and wide, brown eyes clinging to the senator’s leg.
“Hello,” I addressed the kid. It was much easier than talking to Gale.
“Hi, pretty lady!” Forgoing his shyness, the boy collided with my skirts. He was so small I doubted he was more than four years old. He ran the soft pleats of the gown’s skirt through his finger and then ran back to Gale.
“He has a point. You are very lovely.”
“Thank you, but it’s just the dress,” I said. “Whose child is this?”
Gale grinned. “He is one of Mason’s, and his name is Halloren.”
“That sounds almost foreign.” Of course, I had yet to come across all Haiathien names.
“It is,” Gale said, scooping up Halloren. “Mason finds the history of Helenth fascinating and so named his children after their royalty. The kingdom used to exist as a neighbor to this continent. Now it lies in ruin.”
“Was it a war?” Hopefully, not a civil war…
“No, the land betrayed them. Lava consumed and broke apart their island.” Gale stepped forward. “Not to scare you…”
“I wasn’t scared. Give me my food and go, you troublesome servant.”
“You’ll have to wait until dinner. They cooked just enough appetizers for a plate for all and a few extra guests.”
My stomach screeched at this. Halloren pointed a finger at me. “Loud tummy.”
“Hungry,” I told him.
Then Gale bowed. “I’ll bring you to the kitchen.” Without consulting me, he walked away to return Halloren to the care of his older brother before bustling back to me. How could I decline now? Hopefully, no one would notice our absence and draw inappropriate conclusions.
With Gale leading the way, we slipped through the side entrance. All the while, I kept a respectable distance between us. Still, I was glad we were alone in a corridor since at last, the façade could be dropped.
“Senator, did you plan the script for tonight?”
He froze and then turned an almost anxious expression my way. “You don’t like it?”
“I do.” That made him smile.
“It’s not over yet,” Gale reminded me. “Furthermore, Letris and Otelius also helped me. I wanted the night to be a ball unlike any held before in this castle.”
“So far, the drama has impressed.”
“It’s only because Letris improvised a bit on that table. Reckless of him.” Gale smoothed his ruffled cravat. “Of course, he is a taste-tester.”
“What are you saying?”
“I am merely saying that someone with the ability to see poison, to predict that danger so infallibly, is one of the most important members of the king’s court. That sort of taste-tester can afford to be bold because he has immense power and responsibility.”
The corridor was cold and badly lit: probably not the best place for a discussion on political importance. Before I could start speaking, the man interrupted.
“I know, I know. I’ll be quiet and bring you to food.”
I sighed. “That wasn’t what I was going to say. Why…did you ignore me for so long?” My throat seized as soon as the question hovered between us.
His voice came out tender, equivalent to a caress. “I was mad, Avi.”
“Mad? I eventually figured out had given up on me because I was being stupid about finding my true love. I thought you had forgotten me. And easily too! Why would you need me when you have Aliasse as family and your job as senator? You have enough to worry about. Why trouble yourself with someone like me?”
Blurred as my vision had become, I took a step back as he came closer. “Avi, you are the most unique person I’ve ever met. Thrown into this mess, you flourished.”
“Then why am I so unhappy?” That hard feeling, lodged beneath all the love everyone had given me, ran deep.
“That you must look and find for yourself. Then, we can find a way to fix it.”
“If it can’t be fixed?”
“We’ll figure it out together.” He looked so sincere. Aliasse had told me, but I’d run away from his honest feelings and from my own.
I sniffed hard to keep my nose from dripping. “My problems are nothing really. Sorry for blubbering.”
He moved forward and managed to grab my hands in a vise that felt less than friendly. “They’re not nothing. Avi, if you are unhappy, how can you do your duty? How can you help anyone? Honestly, you are a burden as you are.”
A burden! My emotional retardation had ruined Cal’s future for the throne. If I hadn’t been so unwilling to love him, to trust that he loved me, I could have married the prince and avoided the drama with Gale altogether. Then, Mativ would have had an incentive to stay at court and see how affairs would turn out with Cal and me on the throne.
“Yes, I am the cause of some of Cal’s trouble,” I said, feeling shaky and weak from that earlier admittance of my abandonment issues. “And now I’ve pushed you away.”
“The prince created his own trouble. But let me be clear about this much: Avi, you are allowed to choose your own destiny, and so long as you wish it, I will be part of that destiny.” After a moment of hesitation to check whether I would move away, he placed a warm kiss on my forehead.
A risky promise! “What if I…ran off with another man or looked at your leg with disgust?”
He pulled me closer. “I am certain those things would never happen.”
My heart was doing gymnastics in my throat. “How can you be sure?”
“Because you are my best-fit love.”
He wasn’t joking. The senator said the words with the same seriousness with which he spoke of history and law. I gave his arm a light punch. “Y-you shouldn’t shock a person with that kind of statement, Mr. Beanbutt.” Really, he could kill a girl that way…
Gale looked indignant, but I couldn’t tell if the reaction was to the nickname or my punch. He clarified by muttering, “What did you call me?”
I explained about the expression that was reminiscent of someone with a legume up his butt. “Now you must want to forget me.”
“How about you pull out the bean instead?”
I laughed. “Ugh! That’s repulsive.”
“Well, how did it get there in the first place?”
“I didn’t do it!” I protested.
“Maybe I put it there myself…in a manner of speaking.” He grasped the edge of my scarf and wiped it under my eyes. “There, now you look as if I didn’t make you cry. We can go to the kitchen now.”
I mumbled an apology, but he objected, “No, pride made a fool of me even after I told Letris to let go of his own ego. In the end, I caused you pain.”
“You didn’t want my touch, Avi. I thought I was undesirable.”
“Not until I’m sure,” I said.
“That I am your true love?”
I pulled my shawl tighter around me. “I want to be sure I can love you back. You deserve that much.”
His smile eased the ache in my chest. “Then I can wait.”
With no need for further words, we entered the kitchen. An array of warm and drool-inducing smells greeted us. As Gale dictated my need for food, a cook set up a place for me to eat at a wooden table where the kitchen staff usually took their breaks. There, a small bowl of stew and a bread roll eased my stomach’s ache. All the while, the young women in the kitchen gave me and Gale reproachful looks. I couldn’t imagine why.
Aliasse’s new partner stared straight into her face. The probing gaze felt violating, but she did not comment. Then, as his green eyes continued to bore into her a few minutes later, she muttered, “For a servant, you have surprising audacity.”
Cal made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh of relief. He bowed as was required of the current dance and then stepped back. Aliasse mirrored the action, replacing the bow with a curtsy. They moved forward, and Cal looped an arm around her waist again. “What a wonderful princess you make.”
They promenaded towards another dancing couple before retreating and reeling apart. When they came together again, Aliasse sighed. “You should have heard Avi earlier. She was demanding food like a true royal.” Again, speaking to this man was too easy. Like the sun, he felt vital to a soul cast in darkness. How could she have even considered putting out such a brilliant light?
“That girl can be very demanding. I almost pity Holt.”
Aliasse’s throat closed, but she said, “If you want, I will tell my brother to stay away from her.”
“No, only if she wishes that.” Cal drew his partner closer without losing the four-step pattern that had them swaying to the music. “I am learning that even a prince does not get everything he wants, but I would be a fool to allow another woman I love to slip out of my grasp.”
Aliasse glanced over his shoulder, but avoiding his gaze only increased her awareness of him. “You should pursue her then.”
“I would, but she gave me a shock. Then I reacted…badly. Aliasse, I want to untangle the mess between us, so our minds can have some semblance of peace. I apologize.”
She touched her forehead to the soft cotton of the uniform he wore. “It’s my fault. There must have been a better way to tell you.” He did not push her away, and that gave her hope to fill the cavernous emptiness she had been dragging around the castle. “No matter your glamour, I still care for you. If you gave an amulet, which snuffs out magic like mine, to everyone who shows love for you now, I guarantee they will act the same.”
Cal’s gaze brushed the contour of her neck, lingering a moment too long to be appropriate. “Where is that amulet?”
Aliasse smiled. “Nowhere you’ll be seeing soon.”
“Is that so? Perhaps I can change your mind.”
Before his voice could snuggle any deeper into her skin, she released him, saying, “It would be cruel to dance with one woman longer than the others, taste-tester.”
His lascivious scrutiny, which would be alarming on most men, felt like the greatest compliment any man could give a woman.
“My lady, I have found a taste to my liking.”
Aliasse pointed out Lianne, who waited partner-less for the prince to turn her way. “You should try all the flavors first and see if I am still your favorite.”
With a laugh, Cal capitulated and took up Lianne’s graceful form into the next round of the dance.
“I’d never have guessed you could be a flirt,” came Gale’s voice. He had sidled up to Aliasse as Cal disappeared into the crowd of dancers.
How could she explain this light, warm feeling? She found the word, tasted it and found she did not give a damn if anyone approved. “I love him, Gale.”
“You must indeed, since during the days leading up to tonight, you spoke not of revenge but of whether Letris would live to enjoy the ball.”
By instinct, Aliasse focused upon the closest killer: Dirk Sherwood. He didn’t look much different than from when she had been a child. If anything, he looked fatter and more content.
“Will you speak with Dirk?” she asked.
Gale gave a one-shoulder shrug. “He has avoided me all evening like the other five. He won’t even acknowledge me. Too bad none of them can avoid Letris.”
Aliasse forced herself to cast away the anger that made the back of her throat taste metallic. “Where is Avi? Have you spoken with her?”
“By the children’s table.” Indeed, a woman enwreathed in a flame-red gown was listening to one garrulous child relate an incident. “I did speak with her at length.”
“We have settled matters. You and Letris?”
Aliasse eyed her foster brother. He did indeed have a new bounce to his step and a true smile on his face. “We have also ‘settled’ things.” If he could be vague, so could she.
“Will he marry you then?”
He didn’t flinch as Aliasse cuffed him. However, as Otelius approached, he made a quick retreat towards the other end of the ballroom. Baffled by the other man’s departure, Otelius stated, “I wanted to discuss dinner with him.”
“Oh, he must have feared your roaring at him for consorting with one of your daughters.”
Otelius grinned. “I was going to do that as well.”
The evening slipped away, and I couldn’t help but be grateful that nothing had gone terribly wrong. No one had argued. No woman had ended up in tears. No dancers had collided. None of the senators had raised a fuss about serving the food. Perhaps it was because their women were quite taken by their unusual behavior.
The senators’ wives must have felt the warmth that burned in my chest—not indigestion—but wonderment at how a man could humble himself and serve others. Gale especially was forever bustling since he serviced both our table and the children’s.
All the while, he took care to conceal his limp, so no one would feel self-conscious about his serving them. The children, in particular, would call him over to have him nearby to chat to.
Cal, meanwhile, spent most of his time either dancing or conversing with his guests: a servant too but a more political one. Could it be that he had become a responsible prince while I hadn’t been paying attention? The icy reservation with which most of the senators treated Cal had melted.
Suddenly, as if he knew of my thoughts, Cal careened towards the center table, where I sat. He held out a hand. From the beginning, he had been so warm and welcoming. I daresay I’d not have done so well in this world had it not been for his kindness. There was no terrible judgment from him, only acceptance. Even when Gale had overstayed his welcome and begun to keep company with me, my prince had blamed Gale for bothering me.
“Avi, why are you laughing? Dear dark angel, you of all women should understand the significance of my job.”
“Yes, taste-tester, you have indeed saved many lives.” I shook my head as he held out his hand more insistently.
“You saved a life when you could have chosen to stay silent. That first time, in a world you didn’t know anything about, you showed courage that I loved right away.”
I grasped his hand and allowed him to pull me to my feet. “Please, you’ll make me blush.”
“If not for you, I would have died.”
“You did have the king’s taste-tester,” I reminded him. From my heart, I sent a silent thanks to the man who had died for his prince and in doing so, proved that I was valuable.
When I didn’t budge, Cal continued, “Luca tasted only my father’s food. I would have died.”
“Would have,” I emphasized. “Now, you’re alive.”
“Then, dance with me!”
His enthusiasm almost persuaded me, but I had to try one last tentative protest. “I wish I could, but I don’t know how.”
Disregarding my statement, Cal pulled me into his grasp. One hand at my back, the other in mine, he steered me across the floor at alarming speed. I stumbled trying to copy the movement of his feet, but soon, I gave up and merely followed him. Besides, no one could tell how my feet were moving under the skirt.
“You could have attended the dance lessons I held,” Cal said.
We spun around once, and I waited for a sudden lightheadedness to pass before saying, “I didn’t think there would be a need for me to dance.”
“No need to dance at a ball?” Cal’s keen gaze focused over my head. A quick glance pinpointed Gale as the target. The senator was laughing at something (King) Aelius had said. “Perhaps you chose not to for Holt’s sake?”
“That was not my original intention,” I said, so primly that Cal looked amused.
“Good.” Then he gave a scowl so fearsome I had to fight the urge to laugh. “No! That is not what I ought to say! Ah, this is more difficult to say than I thought…”
“Spit it out.”
“I give you leave to…”
Was he dismissing me? “To?”
“This is too damnably hard.” His hand squeezed mine, and the pace of our twirling across the floor (it was a miracle that we had not stumbled into another pair) slowed. His confident smile faltered to show a hint of insecurity. “You may—if you wish—court any man you find attractive, even Holt. If he is not a gentleman or uses sexual harassment—”
“Sexually harasses me,” I corrected.
“Yes, that,” Cal said. “If you have complaints, tell me or my father. However, I shall not keep you here if you are unhappy. Nor will I stand in the way of your heart or that which you call true love.”
With his blessing, I could do near anything. “I’ll take you up on that promise. Regardless of who my true love is, I love you too. You were my first friend.”
He touched the edge of my lips and then withdrew his hand. “My angel, you were my first love, and to make you smile like this is enough. I am content with even your friendship.”
His first love! “Your most chaste love perhaps.”
He laughed and leaned closer. “That definitely. For some time, I shall envy Holt for having the first and last taste of you.” His words whispered against my ear made me shiver. This was more like the Cal I remembered.
I prodded him to provide a bit of space between us. “Once you married… You wouldn’t have…well, slept with other women?”
“Of course not! My heart and body are for my queen.” After giving me a quick embrace, he tugged me back into the rhythm of the dance. Then and there, all my past fears seemed frivolous. Still, considering now and here, I didn’t feel an iota of regret.
“Thank you, Cal.”
He didn’t ask for what. I placed my head against his shoulder and enjoyed the warmth of true love. Maybe there are more kinds of true love than I thought. Perhaps all love is true.