The days that passed held only one cause for hope: Gale had not died the night of the ball. He still breathed, but he wouldn’t wake. Taking the blow meant for Cal, he had lost so much of his body’s blood.
“Recklessly, he threw himself into that sword,” my prince had fumed. Before any of us could register the figure creeping down from the castle roof tiles or the flash of the silver blade, Gale made himself a shield.
The memory made me shudder. At the moment, I was alone in my rooms, facing the gray window. Not too far away, I could hear the murmur of guards. The castle was thick with soldiers. On my rooftop, in Callie’s library, in the laundry rooms, there were guards.
That night, the soldiers hadn’t been able to catch Forthwright. They, at least, had detained Bellus Wright. Otelius requested the other five senators stay on the king’s behalf. Now, like the rest of us, they were enclosed in the castle with a plethora of guardians.
“Avi?” Cal stepped into my study and darted over to sit on my desk. “How are you feeling?”
I couldn’t put the aching numbness to a word. Lonely? Sad? Both inadequate. The man who vowed to never leave me had to break his promise! It would have been better to think that what I felt for the senator would come to nothing using the excuse that my prince objected.
Cal continued, “Aliasse is with him. Jim, too, of course.”
“How is he?” I had visited Gale every day in Jim’s quarters, but today, I couldn’t.
Cal folded his hands on his knees. He spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. “Jim is afraid for the senator’s previously injured leg. However, there is no sign of disease or infection in the wound on his chest. All his organs are thought to be fine. Jim says that’s because of your quick action.”
“What’s wrong with his leg?”
Cal twitched at the question. “It’s beginning to lose the blood flow to it. Jim says he can do a little to help the circulation, but it will likely become lost. Avi…I am so sorry.”
All this time, I had stood like a stone statue at my window. Now I walked over to sit beside my prince. “He may be glad to be rid of it. I hated seeing him in pain. Also, I’m glad he saved you. I just wish there had been another way.”
Cal clasped my hands between his. “If I had moved, instead of standing and gawking, I could have spared Holt this.”
All this blaming would do no good. I was already forcing myself to not think of the disaster of the ball as my fault. I had given Forthwright the opening he needed. But if I thought of it that way, Gale’s predicament would become unbearable. “How are the other senators?” They were probably terrified.
Cal only confirmed it. “They are no longer convinced that Haiathiel is safe. Perhaps my father did allow the kingdom to slip too far out of his grasp…but I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Focus on interrogating the Sinister Six,” I advised him. He smiled morosely at my name for the senators who killed Aliasse’s father. “Then, find and punish Forthwright. We can ask Bellus more about him.”
“Do you love him?”
“Bellus?” I blinked.
“Holt. Do you believe he is your true love?”
My true love? Did the Destiny my parents believed in exist? They had acknowledged that human beings have free will, but that opportunities to make decisions were ultimately bound by Destiny. According to their theory, it was also easy to miss your Destiny and end up unhappy.
“Yes he is.”
“You found the one you were looking for. Destiny won’t let him die.”
Not proof. Not magic. Still, the nervous tingling in my stomach dissolved. “I’m going to go see him.”
Cal gave me a beatific smile on my way out. I almost ran all the way to the chamber reserved for Gale. Outside the door, Aliasse hovered. Instead of her maid’s uniform, she wore a tunic and leggings. A red, knitted scarf wrapped around her neck, and a gun hung from the leather belt looped around her tunic.
At my approach, she whipped around and a moment later, relaxed. “Jim says he might wake soon.”
The woman in front of me looked too dangerous to be Aliasse. “May I see him?”
A smile softened the haggard edge to her face. “Of course.” She rushed forward to give me a quick hug, which I accepted.
Then, I slipped into the small, square room that Jim had arranged. Gale’s body had sunken into the bedding plump with feathers. The luxurious bed was a strange sight in the middle of more types of medical tools than I had ever seen.
Boxes of herbs for poultices lined the wall’s shelves. Scalpels and surgery knives lay in an open wooden box beside the bed. Different types of gauzes and scissors lay on the shelf at the foot of the bed. Tinctures and other medicine bottles filled the set of other wall shelves. At least, there were no leeches.
Tucked under the colorful, cotton coverlets, Gale slept on. His face was blotchy as if fairies had come down to give him lovebites. They were likely bruises from the assassin’s fists.
“You better come back,” I said, seated in the wooden chair facing the bed. “Aliasse will be heartbroken if you die. Who else does she have?”
Gale maintained his silence. The rise and fall of his chest was steady. To see him…was it better or worse? My parents had died, disappearing without me seeing their faces one last time. And I had not accepted it for the longest time.
I came close enough to feel his breath on my face. His shorn hair was soft under my fingers. “I liked your hair longer, to tell you the truth.”
My lips touched his still, warm ones. True love’s kiss to wake him? Perhaps one last kiss? No! Not when he had survived for so long!
I withdrew to my seat. “Guess love doesn’t work magic like that. You’re not much of a sleeping beauty anyway.”
“Hah…I suppose not.” Feeble as it was, his voice made me scramble forward to check I hadn’t imagined it.
“Gale.” He had his eyes shut, but he was alive! “You scared us!”
“Shssh.” His mouth gaped, struggling to work. “Don’t tell…Jim or Aliasse. Otherwise, they’ll fuss…to no end. I just…want to sleep.”
I grasped his hand. “Are you sure they shouldn’t know?”
“Yes.” That was emphatic enough to convince me.
“Anything you want me to fetch? Water maybe?”
He croaked like a damned frog prince, “Kiss me.”
Awkward as my fumbling lips were, he found the strength to return the kiss. I released him when he gasped for breath.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be greedy.” Tucking the disturbed blankets back around him, I stood to go. “I’ll let you sleep and visit later.”
“Mm-hmm.” At the door, I watched the rhythm of his breath settle to a slow, steady rate before walking into the corridor. There, Jim gave me a measuring look.
“You seem happier, Miss Avi.”
I hid my smile. “He looks better.”
Behind Jim, Aliasse tilted her head. “I see.” The elderly doctor entered the bedchamber. Within a moment, Aliasse huddled close to me until I could feel the barrel of the gun against my hip.
“Nothing. I’m happy because his breathing is more even now.” My first, given kiss would have to stay a secret from Aliasse and Callie. Not that I minded. Not extorted, not stolen, not wheedled, I had given away my first true kiss.
“He will wake.” With those words that sounded like a vow, Aliasse slunk away to pace. The raw, vengeful energy rolling off her reminded me that the trial for the Sinister Six was this very afternoon.
Six senators sat in a semi-circle of seats opposite the king’s throne, where Letris, rather than Aelius, reclined. The king of Haiathiel sat in a cushion-furnished chair much more comfortable than the bare wood ones provided to the senators on trial. Shaky and pale since the night of the ball, Aelius plucked at his sleeve as they waited for the room to fill.
The other attendees to the trial stood on the cleared floor in front of the throne: far enough to not be invasive but close enough to be able to hear. These included many older senators who had considered Motto a colleague and their retainers. The sole female presence included Avi and Aliasse, both of whom stood at the edge of the watching crowd.
Dirk Sherwood held up a bejeweled hand to catch the attention of Letris, who gave him a nod granting permission to speak. Though the youngest, his face had a ruddy quality, and his body nurtured a well-rounded paunch. Aliasse didn’t doubt the rumors that Sherwood had monopolized the trade of alcohol. “Might I ask who is accusing us of this ancient crime?”
“Six years is not long ago,” Letris snapped before realizing his mistake. Losing his temper had already given rise to murmurs among the crowd. If he gave the impression that this persecution was a result of spite and not real evidence, the Sinister Six would escape unscathed.
“Have you any evidence?” Jim Sylvan raised a silver eyebrow. At first glance, his dark, well-cleaned suit made him out to be a distinguished gentleman. He owned the majority of theatres in the city, both the small and dowdy and the flashy and expensive kind. Aliasse had given him credit for paying aspiring artists, but Sylvan also prized quantity of work over quality. Furthermore, even worse than the shoddy state of Haiathiel’s culture, Sylvan had reserved the best locations and entertainment for the wealthy only.
Ignoring the senator’s inquiry, Letris said, “Six years ago, Senator Aeigar Motto was found with multiple stab wounds in Gattling, a city in the region of Mycene. His murderer was never found.”
“Why, the Mason family benefited the most from his death,” Will Othing said while he kept a finger curling and uncurling his pointed beard. This man, Aliasse fumed silently, controlled the most popular brothels in conjunction with Bellus Wright. All the profits from the business fell ultimately to their pockets. “Why is Mason not a suspect?”
“If we are under suspicion due to our absence from the king’s court, I declare this an unfair trial,” Sylvan said. His fellow senators all gave brisk nods to this statement.
Letris continued, “The year previous to Motto’s death, the six of you filed a complaint with King Aelius. Here are the papers you filled out.” He tossed a stack of yellowed parchment at the feet of the six senators. “Senator Motto had convinced our king that a tax on prostitution was necessary. He also wrote a law to criminalize adultery. Before being passed, both of these edicts needed a last revision. Father, won’t you explain?”
Aelius looked into the eyes of the men in front of him and found recalcitrant gazes. If they were the men behind Motto’s murder, none of them appeared to recant. “I gave Motto some changes to make, and then I would sign them into law. He was…murdered in his own manor the night I gave him that promise.”
“The papers Motto was working on could not be salvaged from that night. They were drenched in his blood,” Letris said.
Moel Keene—the man who built a fortune providing expensive and exclusive dining experiences to the wealthy—twisted his handsome face into a sneer. “Is that so? How terrible.” He almost fell off his chair as Aliasse stepped out of the crowd in a flash of red. She held out a thick, wrinkled stack of papers to the senators in front of her; once those pages might have resembled substantial, crisp sheets of law parchment. Now, they were crusty with dried blood. Looking closely, one might find Motto’s last signature intact at the end of the last page. However, the inked words of the laws had run and blurred, so the man’s aspirations also disappeared with his death. As his murderers had wanted.
“Alissendra—Motto’s daughter, are you?” Olivier Joplin’s hungry gaze forced Aliasse to exert every bit of courage to remain where she was. This disgusting man, who thought he had an eye for fashions, had a vise-like grip over the availability of jewelry and quality cloth. Small merchants were dependent on him for their supply, and they even paid fees for selling any goods using materials from Joplin.
Aliasse knew she still held power over them if she refrained from speaking. So, she looked to Cal, who had tensed at Joplin’s careless words. At her gaze, the prince of Haiathiel nodded.
“She is Aliassendre, the daughter of Senator Motto. Emil Holt took her in and protected her.” At Cal’s cue, Aliasse placed the papers next to the filed complaints. “She has kept these papers in hope that someday, her father’s murderers would be punished.”
“Why blame us?” Bellus Wright put in. His trembling, blue eyes darted to the listening crowd and then back to the prince. “It very well could have been someone seeking to steal a fortune in a senator’s manor.” For a moment, Aliasse could see that Gale’s cousin believed what he spoke.
Dirk Sherwood gave a hefty sigh. “Your Highness, if this is a ruse to punish us for our absence at Assemblies, we will pay any fine to appease your anger. We have become preoccupied with the running of our estates, but in the end, that is no reason to neglect the duty given to us freely by the people of our regions.”
“You almost speak sense.” A raspy voice from the exit drew eyes towards the back of the room. Gale Holt stumbled into the room; he didn’t care that he looked like a cripple on the verge of death. He only wanted Aliasse to win her revenge, so she could live in peace.
“Gale Holt, what happened to you?” Sylvan said in concern. Gale gave the elder gentleman a wry smile, which immediately softened as Avi darted through the crowd to serve as his crutch.
“You shouldn’t be on your feet, Gale!” Aliasse cried, forgetting her mysterious silence.
With Avi at his side, Senator Holt made his way to the space in front of the six startled senators. The crowd behind them shifted, full of sympathetic eyes. “You think a fine can pay for this?” Holt asked.
Will Othing considered the bruised, limping young man. “You look terrible now, Gale. When you were young, you were the fittest and most scandalous of us all! We were right to stay away from court!” Othing hushed as Senator Keene elbowed him.
“Even if none of you were responsible for Senator Motto’s death, you are all still guilty of killing the kingdom.” Gale didn’t even bother to hide the painful convulsion of his body. The blood in his body could barely perfuse the tissues, and his muscles spasmed in protest. Avi pressed against him, and he found strength to stare down the senators before him. “You snatched both opportunity and coin from your own citizens. I blamed the king at first for allowing such behavior, but how could he fight and discipline phantom senators? You found every excuse to stay away from court, so His Majesty could not reprimand your behavior. However, today, the prince has caught you to hold you responsible for this negligence. You think you can pay such damaging negligence away? This kingdom is dying and falling apart due to your actions. What matters a little charge like murder compared to the destruction of a kingdom?”
“Perhaps the more correct term for your neglectful conduct is treason,” Letris added. With royal poise, he stood from his throne, walked forward and pulled Holt back. He directed the senator to sit upon the throne just in time, for Holt was certain he could not have stood a moment longer.
Letris Calpurnius faced the horror-stricken senators. “However,” the prince said, “you may keep your heads if you speak the truth of Motto’s death.”
Senator Keene stood and almost poked Letris in the chest, but the appearance of two brawny guards made him pause. “You cannot push the blame of the murder on us by threatening us.”
“What threat did Motto pose to us anyway?” Senator Othing waved a dismissive hand. “I should think it more questionable that Motto’s daughter was hidden away by the Holt family. Have you questioned Emil Holt’s motivations? For he was in on the plot as well.”
Aliasse reacted again though her heart screamed at her to stay silent. “Liar!”
“Oh no, girl, Holt was as eager as we were to stop Motto’s law from passing. It was to protect his son, of course,” Othing continued.
“No,” Aliasse said. She glanced back at Gale, whose head was lolling, not so stable, in the air.
The entire hall froze as Keene proceeded to pummel Othing’s face. Othing panicked and floundered, trying his best to protect his beard from Keene’s fists. The guards soon pulled the two men apart. “Idiot, you more or less confessed!” Keene hissed.
“Yes, Emil Holt was in on the plot,” Gale murmured. His whisper pulled attention back to the throne. “Aliasse, I should have told you, but like my father, I wanted to spare you the pain of that knowledge. My father helped them finalize the plans. It was only when Senator Motto was dead that he regretted it. If Emil Holt were here today, he would have been able to confirm the truth. As it is, I can only speak a secondhand version of that truth.”
“Why would he do that?” Aliasse asked. “He was my father’s friend.”
“To protect me. I squandered my life away, and my father destroyed your lives for my unworthy hide! I was an adulterer many times over at that time, and the law, had it passed, would have made my life forfeit. Now, I would rather be dead than see the kingdom like this.”
Gale continued in the empty, shocked silence. “I blamed Letris. I blamed the king. I blamed these six men before us. In the end, I should have blamed myself. If my father had not promised to protect them with his influence, would they have had the courage to kill your father? No, I doubt it.”
Gale laughed at the shocked faces in the room. “Then, I wasted our fathers’ sacrifice trying to get myself killed in the war with Gatha. And the people of Haiathiel…times were hard for them because the business ventures of certain senators were starting to make living more and more expensive. That was when Gatha first rebelled. They believed that the union of the states under a king and twenty senators could not work.”
“The first war in Gatha was caused by economic unrest,” Aelius agreed. “Gale, you cannot think you are the root cause of that.”
“Partially I am, Your Majesty.” Gale pointed at the six senators. “Because of my father and I, they had a free rein; they had succeeded in killing a fellow senator. What else could they get away with? I even took advantage of their services. The clothes, the food, the whores…everything I enjoyed until some man got the chance to shoot my damn leg near off!”
Letris Calpurnius loped up to his father’s throne and surveyed the man wobbling there. The prince slapped his senator so hard that Gale tumbled straight off the throne. Aliasse and Avi rushed to the delirious senator’s side and guided him into a chair; both women glared at the prince of Haiathiel, who gave a helpless shrug.
“I confess.” Bellus Wright’s tremulous voice rang across the king’s hall. “I had a hand in the murder of Senator Motto.”
Sylvan rose from his seat. “I confess as well. The weight of this sin is not Holt’s alone.”
“I may have had a hand in it as well.” Othing pulled his cloak around him and shivered.
An expectant silence filled the room. Keene and Joplin exchanged glances before the former murmured, “I am not guilty of anything.” Sherwood accentuated the statement with a nonsensical nod.
Aliasse left her foster brother’s side to address the prince of Haiathiel. “Your Highness, I do not care if these men are exonerated or punished. My father would have been happy just to have the truth known.”
“You are a most forgiving lady.” The entire room gasped as Letris Calpurnius kissed the maiden watching him with a resolute gaze. “However, the law will not forgive them.”
Letris turned back to face the assembly. “Fortunately for you all, my father reminded me of a practice of justice from ancient Haiathiel. Men on trial were given the right of judgment by their peers. I ask now for those who have heard these things today to raise their hands to approve the punishment of death for the following men. Please, raise your hand as the names are read and keep them up as a count is made.”
A secretary scurried forward from the sidelines with a paper and ink pen. “For the crimes of murder and treason, should Dirk Sherwood be executed?” The entirety of the crowd raised their arms while Senator Sherwood looked on grimly.
Letris repeated the question to decide the fates of the other five senators. At the end, the crowd had condemned three of the six senators to death. While the secretary rolled up his parchment, guards filed into the room to escort Sherwood, Keene and Joplin out of the throne room.