I snorted awake late in the day as someone slipped into bed beside me rather roughly. That same someone nuzzled the back of my head like an affectionate cat. “Go away, Cal!” I groaned, rolling away from his curious hands.
“I arrested him for you.”
“What?” I sat up and floundered off the bed. Cal watched with amusement.
The prince of Haiathiel, dressed in a white button-up shirt and tight jeans, gave an expressive shrug as he lounged like a sort of sex god on his bed. “He threatened you, and therefore, me.”
I glanced at the clock above the door to the prince’s bedroom. Nearly noon. He arrested a senator? Without an edict—a proclamation outlining the suspected cause for arrest—the senator’s imprisonment wasn’t legal. The rest of the senators would have their pantaloons in knots, metaphorically speaking.
“Did you get an edict? Did your father approve?”
“No to both. My father doesn’t even know.” Cal winked. “Holt’s imprisonment is our secret.”
I face-palmed, and Cal’s expression turned from mischievous to anxious in a millisecond. “Get Holt out of the dungeon!”
“I took the trouble to put him in. You can let him out.” Cal started fiddling with the necklace on the marble table beside his bed. He stood, grabbed it and took the trouble to walk to me and press the pendant into my palm.
I shook my head. “That’s yours.”
A red-blue stone shaped like a flower hung from a silver chain. It looked expensive. “It’s a protective charm, but the design is not my style. Keep it, Avi.”
“Okay,” I said, placing the pendant into a pocket. Did he look at all his maids like this? With such love? Even when I rebuffed all his advances, he only laughed. On the night of my first Invite, we had stayed up most of the night, him telling stories of his childhood and me listening. I had felt, for the first time, the happiness of a new friendship, but with Cal, could it stay way?
Cal nudged me towards the door with his hip. A quiver of pleasure ran down my stomach at the unexpected touch. “Go. Free him.”
“You have to be more careful,” I said, hovering at the doorway. “You’re a prince, but you can’t have everything.”
The prince of Haiathiel made a dismissive noise. “I’ve already learned that.”
“Cal?” Why did he sound sad?
Suddenly, he was laughing. “Avi, you really must lighten up a little!”
“Right. I’ll see you at dinner.” I stepped out and then closed the door mostly, leaving a small gap. Then I stuck my head back in his room. “If I chose not to warn you about poison, would you be offended?”
“Gravely.” Cal’s eyes twinkled at me. “I would come back as a ghost to lament your betrayal.”
“You shouldn’t put too much trust in one person!” I told him.
Cal sashayed closer and gripped the edge of the door. “Did mistrust keep you safe in your original world?”
“You once said there was magic in this world, but there’s nothing magical here,” I started off on a tangent.
“Compared to the past, it seems that magic manifests less often in this world. There is your magic though, the one that continues to save us.”
“It’s not that impressive.” Maybe I should have just taken the compliment and run because Cal’s face now loomed too close to mine for comfort. The ends of his feathery hair brushed my face. Close enough for a kiss.
“I’ll see you later,” I said hastily before slipping away.
And now…I had to face Mr.Beanbutt and apologize for all of this fuss over a stupid insult. The castle was built in a series of chambers—wings—interconnected with numerous corridors and a few sets of stairs. The prince’s lair lay in the upper part of the castle and my destination in the dregs of it.
When I entered the dungeon—a dark, damp stone cellar with a number of cells enclosed by black bars—I saw Mr. Beanbutt had only grown more sour and recalcitrant standing in the cell closest to arched doorway. “Come to laugh at me?”
When I came forward, he gave me an ugly glare. Perhaps he had a reason to be so angry, but the force of his hatred made me want to punch him. “No,” I answered. “I came to free you.”
The senator’s glower didn’t relax one bit. “What was the point of this confinement?” He turned away from me. His blue robes were torn at the edges as if he had bothered to put up a fight against the king’s burly guards.
I dared to come close enough to touch the bars of his cell. “Please don’t tell the king. I’ll compensate you for all the trouble. Just name your price.” Cal would give any amount of money to a maid who asked. Therefore, whatever sum Holt named would be manageable. The servants of the castle didn’t have any regular wages except for me.
At my request, Cal was pouring 100 Stals—those being the currency of Haiathiel—into my hands every week. An average, middle-class merchant—the sort that came to complain to the king—made 500 Stals a week, 200 if trade was not going well. I had 2,300 Stals saved up. Though the amount wasn’t much, I didn’t want higher wages. I wanted…To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my earnings. The stals tucked under my bed were only ever used for a sense of financial security.
Holt’s sarcastic “hah!” jolted me out of my musings.
“How much?” I repeated, trying my best not to flinch as he pierced me with that look of disgust.
“I’ll reveal to the king what Letris has done,” Holt said.
It took all of my self-control not to pinch his vulnerable nose, which was currently sticking out between two of the cell bars. Holt continued with vicious pleasure, “The king and the senators will not overlook this breach of justice. Cal will be put aside and another heir will be named. Letris does have a cousin, but…”
Cal did have a cousin: Eli. I had a brief glimpse of Eli once. They looked eerily alike, yet Eli sent out bad vibes while Cal sent out sexy ones. While I wondered at the pause, Holt ranted on, “At least, Eli managed his own estate. He could have been the leader we’re looking for. Only there’s one problem.”
“Problem?” I asked.
Looking less angry and more exhausted now, Holt settled onto the cell cot. “Eli is as vicious as Letris is promiscuous.”
“What do you mean?”
“We issued an edict for his arrest almost a year ago. We found dead bodies in his manor, all grotesquely dressed up. That sort of man cannot rule. Unfortunately, Letris isn’t much better.”
“Did you try to kill him a year ago?” I blurted. Unfortunately, now he knew I suspected him. Way to be subtle, Detective Avi. “With poison in his wine cup?” I added, now that the damage was done.
Holt held his chin where a fine layer of dark stubble had begun to grow. “Let me think back…” Though I really wanted to throw my shoe at him, I waited until he replied, “Killing him won’t help one bit, girl. An empty throne is worse than one with Letris on it.”
I growled at the insult to the man who had been so kind to me. In the end, I had to admit, Holt had a point. Cal didn’t strike me as the type of man who would rule well. He did have his heart in the right place; he would never hurt anyone on purpose (aside from those who had offended him), but he loved his luxuries above all else.
“I hate politics,” I grumbled and began fumbling in my pocket for the key to the cell door, which I had coaxed from the keeper of the lower castle.
“It’s a mess,” Holt said softly. When I looked up, his eyes were more contemplative than hostile. “You say that you’re his taste-tester? Not his maid?”
“Yes.” Pleased that Mr. Beanbutt was getting it, I unlocked his cell door and stepped back to let him through. A mistake.
Looking down at me (huh, he was fairly tall to do that), Senator Holt wondered, “How has he managed to keep his hands off you?”
The mirror always told me that my looks were average at best. With my olive skin, black hair and brown eyes, I was not at all the ideal beauty in a kingdom that prized amber hair and pale coloring. As for my facial features, they were nothing special, not seductive nor exotic. Perhaps I judged myself too harshly?
Holt snickered then, and my face went from hot to cold in less than a second. “That’s no compliment to you, girl. Only my surprise that Letris hasn’t bedded every female in his castle. You must be irritating to him: the only girl he hasn’t managed to seduce.”
“He’s my friend,” I told Mr. Beanbutt. Ugh, I regretted not leaving him in the cell to rot. If King Aelius had ever asked, we could have said that we had nothing at all to do with it and that Mr. Beanbutt had started snooping around and gotten himself locked in a cell. Too late for that now!
Holt gave me a pitying look. “That man doesn’t have friends, child.”
“I’m not a child,” I snapped. The senator’s rough fingers covered my lips.
“Letris has only his father, his enemies…and his sluts.”
I bit his index finger. He jumped away with a yelp. Feeling no sympathy for the reddening finger he held out angrily in my direction, I crossed my arms. “I fall into none of those categories. I’m his friend.” This time, I had gotten the best of him, and he couldn’t do a thing. “So, will you tell the king?”
Senator Gale Holt looked pissed. “Hmph.” With that articulate sound, he started walking away, and I did a little victory shuffle dance. I won a battle again! If he wanted to wage war, he’d have to do better than that!
“Damn you,” I heard him say at the bottom of the stairs leading out of this dark dungeon.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I replied with a classic of my own.
“Never? The truth of your life might be painful,” he said with unpleasant lilt. I braced myself for battle. “You may not be his slut yet, but you will be. Once he has taken what he wants, I believe Letris will cease being your ‘friend.’ Does he share stories with you? Does he look at you with loving eyes? All of that is little more than a path to your body...You have lived in this castle for all of your life, correct?”
Well, that was true for all of my life in Haiathiel. “I have…”
“Then what do you know of the real world?” Holt asked. “Have you seen the suffering of the people while the wealthy give their mistresses lavish gifts? While the prince concentrates not on helping his father with matters of the kingdom but on sleeping with every girl within his grasp? He thinks he’s such a handsome, irresistible guy…but one without a will for leadership or any charisma! He allows his senators to squeeze the money out of the pockets of the less fortunate. ”
“You are a senator, you hypocrite,” I pointed out, hurt despite the barrier I had built against cruel words. “King Aelius governs now. Why should Cal be blamed for his father’s irresponsibility?”
“I am not the one committing crimes under the king’s nose. Furthermore, I don’t blame His Majesty. He is a frail old man. The prince should be aiding his father, instead of allowing the kingdom to slip out of his hands,” Holt said. “Even so, His Majesty loves his useless son with careless abandon.”
“Everyone has a few failings,” I returned with dignity.
“His faults are many.”
“You probably have more.”
“Did I ever say that I was fit to rule?”
Silent, I considered Gale Holt. We stared at each other until an unexpected smile—a signal of retreat from battle—appeared on his lips. “Well, I should leave before I strangle you.”
He hobbled up the stairs. I wondered if his leg still pained him, and then I hoped it did. Strangle me? The nerve…
Minutes later, returning to Cal’s study, I sighed to realize that Mr.Beanbutt had given me a headache. Then, as if by cue, the prince of Haiathiel swept into the room. His friendly smile made my heart thump harder than usual. Now I couldn’t even help thinking of his bed, so much warmer than my lonely one.
“I let him go.” I grinned at Cal. “We should have kept him there a little longer.”
Cal nodded in grim agreement before sitting beside me with a smile. I pointed to his desk. Paperwork awaited his signature. Technically, he was co-ruling with his father at the moment. So, Cal had to sign everything his father did.
I spent the next few hours helping Cal shuffle through papers. He was a dear friend. Being his lover—or one of his lovers—would change too much.