Gale had pulled Raiel from her brother’s head for the umpteenth time when Aelius called him over to serve dessert. Though the other men were full to bursting with sumptuous food, they trudged over at Gale’s gesture to carry plates of sugar-topped cake and fruit tarts to their wives and daughters.
Since the children had raised a clamor to rival Epsin’s singers, Gale served them first. An array of sugar frosted faces chorus of “thank-you”s followed Gale as he set dessert in front of the collective brood of senators’ children.
“You like kids, huh?” The female voice made Gale jump. Arms crossed, Callie was staring at him. Her pinned-up hair hung a little more limply now, and her face was flushed with emotion. More astonishing was the soldier who had an arm looped with the lady’s.
Gale made a quick survey to ensure all the children had received a portion before bowing. “They are very open to anyone who will lend an ear.”
“I would never have imagined you a family man.”
Callie elbowed Jerrid (for that was the soldier’s name, Gale recalled) and then smiled at the hesitant senator. “Were you planning to sit and eat? We can talk after you eat.”
“Not at all,” Gale said. “I had my fill of dinner.”
“Then you should dance,” Callie said. “Teach Avi for us!”
Jerrid removed his eyes from the lady beside him to give the crowd in the room a languid scan. “Where is she?”
“I thought she was seated at the king’s table.”
Gale found the taste-tester by the vermillion gown sweeping in and out of the dancers. “She’s with Letris. He appears to have convinced her to dance.” He turned his face away and did his best not to think of the slight ache in his leg.
“That girl,” the library maid huffed with an equal mixture of approval and reproof.
“Her head is snug against the prince’s shoulder.” Jerrid gave a full-bellied laugh of a man unafraid of judgment. “King Otelius would surely be furious.”
That spurred Gale to find the elderly ‘king,’ but instead, he found Letris piercing him with a stare. He almost uttered, “what?” right there, though the prince was too far to hear.
Keeping Gale transfixed with a stare, Letris led Avi closer and closer until he released her. Avi floundered to a stop, skirts flaring, shoes peeping, and waved a hello since she seemed breathless.
“Your hair,” Callie clucked. She smoothed escaped wisps of the other woman’s ebony hair into their proper place. Then, she gestured for Jerrid and Letris to follow her. As if she were queen, the two men did as she bade and flanked Callie as she glided away.
Gale could not explain a sudden tightness in his chest. He adjusted his vest (it was slightly crooked) and waited for Avi to speak. When she did, she sounded much like the cantankerous maid that he had first met.
“I can’t dance at all! Cal shouldn’t have pulled me into it. What if I had disrupted the entire party by stepping on his foot and breaking his royal toes?” She was smiling though, so sweetly that Gale’s heart sputtered.
“Well,” he began, “it is only fair that he dance with all suitable maidens.”
Her hair had been pulled into a high ponytail, which had drifted downwards as the night progressed. In the process, her hair had become unruly and curly. He had the fleeting hope of untangling it with his own fingers.
“Huh.” Avi placed hands on her hips. The move accentuated her figure, and Gale found it all the more charming since he knew the motion hadn’t any calculation behind it. “Well, I am not suitable anymore.”
“What?” Gale snapped back to reality with a shake of his head.
“Cal gave me permission to…” She hesitated a moment. “To court whomever I want. I assume he’s no longer set on forcing me to be his bride.”
“I’m so glad.”
“Ha, I bet you are. It’s strange though…” She crossed her arms as if to protect herself. “You are a senator, and your duty will always come first. I can live with being second, if it’s a very close second—Not in public!” Her cry of alarm had been for the rough way he had pulled her close.
He whispered in her ear, “You are first, Avi. Though I may not give the impression, those I love are always foremost.”
“Then you must be concerned for Aliasse. Those senators that murdered her father are here. Eighteen senators, right? Just Mativ and Jameson missing.”
He drew away to find her looking serious. “Letris will take care of it. For now, I want to make you happy.”
Avi laughed. “I am already happy, Senator.”
“You will always be my Senator.”
“That is an affectionate term then?” Gale turned and rummaged through the cart to pull out a small circular plate. A rainbow array of sliced fruits made up a castle in miniature, its foundation a thick, milk pudding. Avi accepted the desert with a shy smile. Then her gaze snapped to something behind him. Gale turned and barely stifled an oath.
Fitch Forthwright, in a full white suit, was considering them with the interest of a cat judging the distance of a bird. “Gale, how are you?”
“How dare you show your face here!”
The man didn’t have a speck of warmth in his gaze. His blue eyes may as well have been black pools of nothingness. Worse, he seemed disinclined to blink and spare the world that detached scrutiny.
“She shines bright.” The man in white, who had passed us so long ago in the Capitol, flashed me a smile. “This must be the taste-tester. Her ability to see poison must come in handy.”
A sudden warmth encircled my waist as Gale looped an arm around me. It also placed him between me and Forthwright, the man who wanted Cal dead. How had he made his way past the front gate guards?
As if reading the dismay on my face, Forthwright said, “I am a family member and guest of Bellus Wright. However, I am torn that you all would leave me out of such a grand ball.”
Gale smiled tightly. “Surely parties were not in your sinister plans?”
“Don’t give this girl the wrong idea about me.” Forthwright took a moment to give a lazy wave to a lean, dark-haired man lingering at the edge of a cluster of women nearby. He had a hint of Gale in his features.
“How is your brother?” Gale said. Every muscle in his body was corded with tension. He was definitely referring to the dark-haired man, who had slipped into the sea of moving bodies once he registered that we had noticed him. The music had stopped, but people stayed on the dance floor to converse.
Forthwright laughed like ice cracking. “Ever so polite. Do you fear to show this girl what you truly are?”
“Ah, and she still allows you to touch her?” Forthwright wrinkled his nose. “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t come any closer to you than Bellus has tonight.”
For some reason, the blonde hair peeking out from Forthwright’s white hat bothered me. Perhaps it was why I blurted, “You and Senator Wright don’t look at all alike.”
“I was adopted, my lady.”
Was that so? Well, Gale didn’t deny it.
“After Gale’s father had a little fun—oh, he was young, and the young are prone to indiscretion—my mother gave birth to me. At that time, Jacob Wright owned my mother’s brothel, but since he liked her spirit so much—” Here he allowed an ominous pause. “—he adopted me as his own son, Fautus Wright. My true name, however, would have been Fautus Holt, senator of Hamada.”
Gale hadn’t twitched. Instead, he spoke, in monotone to his half-brother. “Your point is?”
“Don’t fret. I care not for the stolen title,” Fautus murmured. “I just thought the lady should know what kind of relatives she would have if she married you.”
Forthwright was baiting Gale for a reason. Hopefully, it wasn’t to keep our attention away from Cal. I almost slipped away to ensure my prince was safe and near trustworthy soldiers, but Gale beat me to it.
“Leave this place.” Then, Gale steered us away from the man. A short, humorless laugh echoed after us.
“It ends tonight.”
The words made me jump. After alerting the closest guards to find and detain Forthwright discreetly, Gale led me to a place not far from Epsin’s singers. They were seated in chairs placed in a cozy circle. Even the flutist and drummer were on break. After giving Gale a visual appraisal, Epsin winked at me. A hot blush warmed my cold skin. However, now was not the time for distraction.
“We have to find the king and Cal.”
Gale gave a curt nod. He seemed to be watching the crowd. “Where has Letris disappeared to?”
Indeed, the prince’s magnificent form was missing from the ballroom. Then a sliver of pale blue from beyond the glass doors to the balcony bobbed into view. “He might be outside.” Picking up my skirts, I scurried towards the night-time sky peeking into the room. Silent, Gale trailed after me.
The prince of Haiathiel—safe and in one piece—was leaning against the balcony railing. Right next to Cal, King Aelius was gesticulating and chatting more at his son than with him.
“Ah, Gale, Avi! Were you two perhaps looking for somewhere private?” Aelius chortled.
A cold breeze turned my indignant retort into a shiver. Gale sighed. “Not at all. Letris, Forthwright is here. I wish I had seen him sooner—”
“Fautus Wright,” Cal corrected. His father peered between the prince and senator with concern. “His own brother told me all about his activities.”
“Then,” Gale said, “you will bring him to trial?”
Cal returned the question with a wicked grin. “Him and the six senators. They’re as insects that flew willingly into a spider’s web.”
I couldn’t help a frown. “This ball was to find your true love, Cal, not for catching your enemies.”
“Shame you haven’t caught anyone, Your Highness.” That cold, ironic voice did not belong to any one of us.
A scream jolted Aliasse away from a tart conversation with Lianne. Leaving behind the maid, who still thought Cal would make her queen, Aliasse scrambled towards the back of the ballroom. She elbowed and squirmed through the crowd near the balcony doors. Then, a dark figure of a man thudded into the glass. It sent most of the gathered people careening towards the center of the room. Like sheep run into a wolf, they panicked.
“Protect the children!” came Gatherby’s distinctive roar. Aliasse ignored Otelius’ grab for her arm and came upon the receding edge of the crowd. In front of her, the glass door was open. On the balcony stood Aelius and Avi in a frozen huddle. The taste-tester was shielding the king with her body even as Aelius reached out weakly towards the sound of wrestling on a startlingly dark patch of balcony floor.
It took Aliasse a moment to realize Cal and Gale struggled to pin down a man dressed in gray to the ground. Rather, they already pressed to a pool of spreading blood. Their struggles had splattered the balcony railing with streaks of crimson. Aliasse had never seen so much blood, not even when her father had been murdered.
“Go, you damn fool! You’re bleeding to death! I can hold him,” the prince almost snarled at the white-faced senator beside him. The man underneath them gave a violent buckle, but they both clung on, keeping him down with their weight.
“Gale!” Finally, Aliasse could move. She slid the glass door shut behind her. The crash of glass against stone startled even the assassin, who froze. Then she pulled her foster brother from the dark figure and focused on driving her knee into where the man’s chest was exposed.
The would-be assassin jerked, moaned and then fell still. Cal gave a nod as Aliasse sat on the prone body, and then they both startled at the sound of ripping cloth.
Pressed against the castle wall, Gale had begun to protest as Avi tore strips of cloth from the bottom layers of her gown. Then, he felt the pain of the gash opened on his body; it ran from the left collar bone to the right part of his hip. How had he not felt it before?“It looks deep.” Avi was in tears. Gale felt a moment’s warmth for her genuine concern until a wave of nausea flooded him. His organs lurched, precarious in position. Before he could move away, Avi proceeded to wrap bands of red cloth around his torso. She pulled it so tightly that Gale swore at her. His anger spurred Aelius into action.
“I will find Jim,” the king said. He found strength enough to pull open the bloodstained balcony door and enter the ballroom.
“No!” Avi wheeled around to stop him, but the elderly king was gone. “What if there are more assassins?” She reached up to touch Gale’s face and flinched when she spotted it with her blood-covered hands. “You’re so cold.”
“He lost too much blood.” Cal placed a firm arm to support Aliasse, who was shaking like an autumn leaf.
Gale watched them all mutely. The pain signals arcing through his body came from every mote of his being. He was aware that he was shivering as badly as Aliasse but helpless to do anything about it.
Stepping forward, he made a splash. His oxygen-depleted body crumpled. With a gasp, Avi caught him around the waist. With Cal and Aliasse’s help, she eased the senator to lay on a part of the balcony that had not yet been stained dark crimson. The taste-tester sunk to her knees beside him and then watched in horror as the vibration sent the pool of blood expanding towards the ballroom.
“Don’t die on me,” Avi pleaded. Gale lay unconscious. She struggled for his arm and found the pulse.
“Avi, he might not…” Aliasse nearly gave in to tears at the other girl’s fierce “no!” So, Aliasse settled for giving a vindictive jab to the assassin’s ribs. It was worthless since the man was dead and would feel nothing. “I caved in his chest. I should have kept him alive, so we could have questioned—”
Cal placed two fingers against her lips. “No, you did well.”
Aliasse nodded and then turned her eyes to Gale’s prone body. The prince held her in silence. They waited, wary of another attack, until the blood pool touched the balcony doors. That was when Jim threw them open to attend to the dying senator.