The soldiers built pyres for the three senators on the outskirts of the castle. There, the smell of burning flesh on the stacks of wood would drift towards the less populated section of the city. It was a horrible punishment, made even more terrible when I realized that Aliasse had requested to light the fires with her own set of matches. So, instead of watching, I sat at Gale’s bedside and watched the smoke rising outside the window.
Like a coward, I avoided Jameson’s execution. King Aelius would bring the blade down on the senator’s neck himself, and I couldn’t even stomach the thought of watching such a kind man go through with a punishment that upset him as much as it upset the people of Gatha.
Today, four men would die. It was, as Otelius had said, for the sake of the kingdom’s stability, but still, strange tears flooded my eyes. What had I expected? That the men who had committed such crimes would go free? Well, Senators Wright, Othing and Sylvan had survived and performed a public apology to their king, prince, and the daughter of the man they had conspired to murder.
A caress in my hair alerted me that Gale was awake. He was smiling as if none of the raw pain he had unleashed in the throne room yesterday had been his. “Avi.”
Instead of asking him if he wanted water, since he would refuse to prevent troubling me, I grabbed the jug from the table behind me and filled the wooden cup that was nestled into a spot beside him. Without protest, he sipped from the cup I held up to his lips.
When the water was gone, he placed a cold hand on my cheek. Under his fingers, I could feel his pulsing heartbeat. “You were crying,” he said.
“For the senators. I don’t understand why.”
“You have such a tender heart, I’m not surprised.”
I snorted. “Tender? But the executions…” I trailed off, not sure how to put my uneasiness to words.
“They refused to save themselves. What else could we have done for Haiathiel?”
“Now, we’ll nurture Haiathiel back to health, like we did for you.”
Gale laughed. “That is an apt comparison. The kingdom is a mirror perhaps of my own broken body. I fear…we’ve lost a part of the kingdom today, as I have lost a piece of me.”
I threw back his blanket to expose his body. He was still in his senator robes though we had left him in a tunic and trousers before the trial. How hard he had struggled to dress I couldn’t even imagine.
“I can’t feel it anymore.” He sounded more speculative than worried.
When I rolled up his left pant-leg, dead white skin glowed in the dim light of the room. He couldn’t even wiggle his toes anymore. The tissue was purple on the back of his leg where the dead blood cells had congealed. “Gale…”
“No matter. I’ll just have Jim chop the lower part right off.”
“It doesn’t hurt?”
“Not in the least.” He pulled me into an embrace, and my head found the cozy hollow below his chin. “I hope that my one-legged status does not repulse you.”
Ha, repulse me? I kissed him and felt his body press against mine with desire. A light punch to his shoulder made him pause. “You’re in no condition for that right now. Besides…we’re not married.”
“Would you marry me then, Avi?”
With death all around us, he had proposed. Perhaps that was why it made my heart swell and ache. He wiped my trickling tears away with tender precision before leaning back to hear my answer.
“Yes. I will.”
“Don’t marry me out of pity,” he warned with a stern look that reminded me of Mr. Beanbutt.
Shaking my head, I laughed. “What Cal needed wasn’t a wife. He needed you as a role model and Aliasse to motivate him. You both changed the spoiled prince of Haiathiel’s attitude.”
“And you. If you had not befriended Aliasse and seduced me, your prince would likely be dead…”
I shook my head at the thought. Aliasse would have found another way. She was that type of person. Wait…seduced?
“Still, Letris has some work to do,” Gale continued. “All of us will need to aid him.”
“When do you think he’ll be ready?”
“When he can beat me at Warmonger.” He laughed and then began coughing. I poured him another cup of water and made him drink it. “Ah, stop mothering me!” He flailed until I locked lips with him again. For a man half-dead, he still made the returning kiss spread fire to every fiber of my body.
Once I had persuaded him to let me go, we sat huddled against each other in silence. Then, I wondered out loud a question that had bothered me for a long time. “How did the other kings of Haiathiel manage assassins?”
Gale had the answer, of course. “Before Aelius and his father Rendrant, each region had its own king. The regional kings each had a score of men with extraordinary skills to protect him. Furthermore, few of them stayed in any centralized location to tempt any endeavor to kill them. Meanwhile, Rendrant was simply terrifying with his huge army at his command. Imagine an army let loose upon the kingdoms once you killed their leader!”
He grew more animated and flushed as he continued the history lesson. “Aelius inherited that enormous army and was thus protected in his youth. As he settled and distributed the army among the twenty senators, peace had taken hold of Haiathiel. Then, as the king’s grip on Haiathiel grew lax, there was no reason to bother with His Majesty. Don’t give me that look! That was likely the villainous train of thought that protected His Majesty. It wasn’t until now with Letris, an unknown king-to-be without the power of an army of thousands behind him, that we’ve had such a worry.”
I offered him a third glassful of water, but he shook his head with vehemence. “Well,” I said, “maybe assassins should still be careful. Cal has Aliasse by his side, after all.”
“That’s very true. He also has his taste-tester.” Gale gave me another eyebrow kiss. “Now, instead of trying to drown me, why don’t you go find Jim?”
I gulped down the water to fix my dry mouth. If Gale wasn’t worried about losing his leg, then why was I? “I’ll go do that.”
Outside, the corridor was chilly, though it was well into spring by now. Perhaps it was simply because most of the castle inhabitants were either outside watching the executions or hidden away in their separate rooms. In the main castle atrium, I ran into Callie and Lianne, both of whom looked peaky.
Lianne wrapped her elegant arms around her body. “The burnings were horrid. And Jameson’s head—”
We ended up in one big embrace, my head against theirs. They wept while I stayed dry-eyed. Likely they had never seen such a horrific execution during the reign of gentle King Aelius. What kind of king would Cal be with so many enemies trying to wrench him from the throne?
When Lianne and Callie composed themselves, I inquired, “Do either of you know where Jim is?”
Apparently, the old doctor had wandered off to the garden. Callie and Lianne trailed me outside where the air smelled faintly smoky but not unpleasant. Jim stood before the dead pale blue rose bushes; he had one of the last full blooms between his fingers. We navigated the maze of bushes to speak to the elderly doctor.
He turned around to give us a sad smile. “His Majesty Aelius ails now.” At our stricken gazes, he added, “I put him to bed with a tonic. Otelius watches over him. Now, is there anything I can help with?”
I told Jim about the need to amputate Gale’s leg. With a new air of urgency, Jim walked back to Gale’s chamber after dispatching me to find pint bottles of wine. In the kitchens, the cook only relinquished those precious bottles once I told him of Gale’s plight.
I had lost track of Callie and Lianne, but they wouldn’t have liked to join a nervous looking Gale and a grave doctor in a room suffocated with tension. I handed over the bottles of wine, which Jim handed directly over to the startled senator.
“Swig them down, my boy,” Jim said with a creaky laugh. “I would have liked to have done this when you had recovered more, but dead flesh shouldn’t be left for long.” As Gale inspected the vintage of the pint bottles, the doctor washed a scalpel, a jag-toothed saw and a circle of iron with a clear, sharp-smelling liquid—likely an antiseptic of some sort.
After a grisly grin for me, Gale twisted a cork off with his teeth and placed the bottle’s rim to his lips. He guzzled the contents of the first bottle in a matter of seconds. The second followed easily though he struggled to finish half of the third. By then, he had dropped into an alcohol-induced stupor.
“Do you need any help?” I asked. Poor Gale was muttering to himself.
Jim shook his head, ushering me out. “Only your prayers. He’s young. He’ll make it out fine.”
Then I was shunted out of the chamber, where my love would have his leg summarily sawed off. The only bright side was that it would stop hurting him. As I lingered in the corridor, Aliasse appeared at the other end.
The whites of her eyes were pink either from tears or the smoke of the senators’ judgment. Perhaps she guessed what was happening behind the closed door from my face. Still, she addressed me with a bold Aliasse smile. “He’s going to live, Avi. He’ll live better without that leg.”
What if something goes wrong? That silent doubt couldn’t be erased.
“Aelius even had a staff made for him. Gale will be walking around with it in no time. Stairs might be a problem, but Gale will figure it out.”
“He will,” I agreed. “A man stubborn enough to stick with me would survive this.”
Aliasse gave a delighted twirl of the trailing end of her red scarf and then enclosed me into a hug. “He can’t leave you.”
“Yes, especially since he’s going to marry me.”
She squeezed me even tighter until I squeaked. “Sister-in-law, welcome to the family! Gale didn’t pressure you, did he?”
“I love him.” That, I hoped, would bind him firmly to life.