The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 42

Letris Calpurnius held his father’s hand, feeling the furrows of angular bones. Removed from his robes, the king revealed much of his weight had wasted away. Otelius had scolded him for not telling Jim earlier, but Aelius had appeased the steward with a, “there was nothing to be done.”

For most of the day yesterday and overnight, Aelius had slept during the procedure to amputate Gale’s leg, but now woke at the touch of his son. He had wept for Jameson, for taking the life of a human being. “Cal.”

“I’m here, Father. How do you feel?”

“Tired,” the king said. “Where is everyone?”

The prince adjusted the height of the pillow beneath his father’s head before replying, “Avi and Aliasse are with Senator Holt as he recovers. Jim stopped by earlier to check on you and assure me that Holt is well. I’ve sent Otelius to fetch some more blankets. You were shivering in your sleep.”

Aelius reached out to embrace his son, who obliged by ducking down far enough to slip into his father’s arms. “My boy, you have dealt with your enemies far better than I ever have. Do not feel ill at ease, but do not feel comfortable either. A king must find a balance between justice and cruelty.”

“I’m not king yet,” Cal said.

“You will be. I see it in you.”

What did his father see because of the glamour? “Father, the amulet that mother gave you. Where is it?”

Aelius chuckled until a dry cough interrupted him. The smooth application of an herb salve on his throat eased the irritation. “It’s the silver amulet I gave you for…your fourteenth birthday, was it?”

Cal perused a mental map of the places he had put the necklace. Of course, he had lost track of it after handing it to Avi. “The one I dismissed as far too feminine?”

With a chuckle, Aelius murmured, “I thought gilding it in silver would improve its appeal to a young boy.”

“It didn’t work. I gave it to Avi.” The prince hesitated. “And why did Mother give it to you?”

The king peered up at his son. How strange for Cal to bring up his mother; they avoided the topic when they could since it seemed to make Cal uncomfortable. “She told me it would protect me from rogue magic. I even kept it on when I was sleeping!” Aelius chortled. “I wanted it to protect you.”

“You protected me too well, Father.”

“Perhaps,” Aelius said with a weak grin.

Then, Otelius’ entrance with an armful of cozy blankets gave the prince the signal to excuse himself from the king’s bedchamber. “Otelius will make sure you’re comfortable. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

The steward gave his old friend a fond smile and then watched the young prince dart away like a startled deer. “I wonder what he’s up to.”

“He asked after Dieva’s amulet.”

“A strange artifact that. Wasn’t it passed down through her family?”

“Yes, she would have wanted her son to have it, but the boy gave it to Avi.” Aelius then laughed as Otelius tucked a blanket around his lump of a body. “Trying to keep the warmth from leaving me? Friend, I fear I cannot last long.”

Otelius shook his head and placed another blanket around the king’s feet. “You will recover, Majesty. This faintness will pass.”

Though the king did not appear convinced, he dared not argue.

Waking to an array of faces, Gale groaned. I hoped that sound of dismay was reserved for the beaming Aliasse and for Jim, who was fussing about the wound. His scowl, however, fixed on me. “Three bottles, Avi! Why did you pick up three when two would have sufficed! My head aches…”

“Don’t whine,” Aliasse scolded him. “She was trying to do you a favor.”

“I was well gone by the second bottle,” Gale said.

His foster sister snorted. “I’m surprised you can’t hold your liquor.”

In response, Gale rolled over to show us his back. He was mostly naked, of course, and this only encouraged Aliasse to poke him. When Gale nearly sat up to poke her in revenge, Jim started shooing Aliasse away from his patient.

“Please, my lady, do not make him so agitated.”

“I want something sweet,” Gale declared and then turned to me. “Avi, won’t you fetch those sweets Mina made us?”

“They…” I could hardly continue with Aliasse and Jim’s ears perked with interest. Hadn’t the senator mentioned that Mina placed an aphrodisiac in those goodies?

Gale bolted upright for a moment, baring the purple, stitched gash on his chest, before Jim gently forced him to lie back down. “Say, you didn’t eat them all, did you?” Gale muttered.

“Are you saying that I am a pig?” The sight of his wound made my heart twinge.

“Merely a glutton for sweets.”

“Why don’t you fetch your own sweets, you one-legged pest?” I crossed my arms, startled to find myself so irritated by him. Since when had he acquired a sweet tooth?

Jim placed himself between me and Gale, arms and legs outstretched in the manner of a disapproving “x.” Behind him, Aliasse was giggling. The reason became clear as Gale hopped towards me, using Jim’s shoulder as a support.

“Return to bed at once!” the dear doctor demanded.

“Jim, I feel much better now.” He hadn’t much on except for his underwear, so his stump—the one he would have to live with for the rest of his life—was visible. He still had his knee, and below that an oval, pink wound. It looked clean and well-healed though Jim had likely cauterized it to make it so. A few black crisps of hair hung off the outer edges of the stump where the iron had burned them.

Gale swung the part of his leg experimentally. “Still mobile. I’ll just need a crutch of some sort, and then I’ll be on my way to fetch those sweets…if they still exist.” He turned a mock severe look in my direction.

“They are in my rooms. If you’ll calm down and go back to bed, I will bring them up for you,” I said, using a tone reserved for a difficult child.

After a moment’s thought, he plopped back into bed—making Jim cry out in protest—and then curled up for a nap. Blankets mussed, legs entangled in the bedding, he had fallen asleep sideways across the bed.

Aliasse removed her fist from her mouth to utter, “That’s the Gale I remember from my childhood. So careless.”

Jim sighed. “I will go now to check up on the king once more. Aliasse, keep an eye on him.”

“Aye, sir.” She saluted the doctor as he departed and then smiled at me. “You should bring those sweets before he wakes.”

Certainly, I did not want to see a tantrum.

Avi’s rooms, like the other maid chambers, had been left unguarded for the day. Most of the guards had come outside to watch the executions and now had to clean up the aftermath. The prince did not envy them that dirty duty, especially the silent burials. Traitors to the kingdom had no final rites read over them. The soldiers would place the bodies of the senators in pits away from the castle, likely in the graveyard reserved for the unknown dead.

Cal strode into Avi’s solar and flinched as the shimmering Aelia almost blinded him. The flower still arched out of the vase with an almost arrogant pride. It reflected the mid-morning sun into the doorway, and the prince turned the vase, so it wouldn’t blind any further entrants to the taste-tester’s rooms.

As much as he disliked the idea of rummaging through a woman’s belongings, he had to find that amulet. He started in Avi’s bedroom with a visual sweep but found that Avi had not been careless enough to leave an expensive amulet out in the open. The girl had likely squirreled it away somewhere secret then, for he recalled that Avi had not worn the necklace since the day he had given it to her.

That, at least, had been fortunate. While Avi had not detected any poison in their food or drink for the past few months, he had tempted Destiny by giving her a necklace that could negate her power. Or was it possible that Aliasse was wrong about the nature of Dieva’s amulet? If that was so, then going through Avi’s wardrobe was both rude and pointless.

The prince decided on seeking out the taste-tester or Aliasse to ask them directly when a voice from the window made him pause. “What are you doing in a lady’s room, my prince? It’s hardly proper.”

In a gray suit, Fitch Forthwright sat on the windowsill. The lack of his unusual white uniform made him look sallow as a corpse. “You don’t look surprised to see me.”

“You can’t depend on anyone else to get the job done, can you?” Cal said. If he died here, the senators would find a solution to hold Haiathiel together. It was with this hope that the prince of Haiathiel approached the man who desired him deceased.

Fitch narrowed his eyes. “The strength of your glamour has faded a little. Or perhaps it merely seems dim compared to that taste-tester’s power? Even the most dilute of poisons, she could detect. All those attempts on your life foiled. She was an obstacle, but here you are now in front of me.”

With a sigh, Cal noted that the frippery in maid’s rooms was not conducive to fighting off anyone. “From the way my heart pounds, I know I am a coward,” he murmured out loud. “Still, could you not find a way to give me a chance as a king? You have judged me without knowing me.”

“All I need to know about you is that glamour you carry around. Such a power is too dangerous in a king.”

“So this glamour is the cause of so much of my trouble?” Cal said. “Were there a way to get rid of it, I would.”

Without a trace of pity, Forthwright continued, “Unfortunately, it is a part of you. Your children will likely inherit it, and your grandchildren as well. The only way to get rid of such a glamour is to end the line that passes it down. Unfortunately for you, that means you must die, my prince.”

“I am your king.” He had spoken the words to irritate the smiling, ice-cold man.

Instead, Forthwright laughed and crossed his legs, perched in the window as comfortably as any other man would be in an armchair. “Aelius is still alive, or did that doddering, old fool die and leave his son unprotected?”

“My father lives, but I am the king in all but name.” In one fluid motion, the prince of Haiathiel snatched a pillow from the bed and lobbed it at the other man’s face.

An explosion of feathers sprayed the room in white. A knife now glittered between Forthwright’s fingers. “How is Aliasse?”

When the prince remained silent, Fitch scraped the knife along the alabaster edge of the window. The resulting groove left no doubt as to the sharpness of the blade. “After I’m done with you, I’ll kill her too. For your sake, I will make it quick. Earlier, I would have gladly given her to my men to—”

“Shut up! Don’t you dare talk about her in that way.”

Forthwright straightened at the edge in the other man’s eyes. It was the most emotion he had seen in the prince thus far. “Your language is abhorrent. Didn’t your mother teach you better?”

Letris hesitated before saying, “She died as I was born, so I never knew her.”

“How curious. The same happened to me. I wonder…if not for your glamour, would your father have hated you like my true father despised me?”

“That’s why I came here to find the amulet. I’m certain it would hide my glamour. Then, I wanted to check if Father would still love me.”

Hysterical, disparaging laughter reverberated against the walls. Fitch was shaking with mirth, a handkerchief against his mouth and nose. “Now I feel almost bad! Does his Papa love him? Does anyone love him?”

“Instead of mocking me, tell me what you want.” The sun slanting into the room had given Letris a yellow halo, a startling contrast to eyes like malachite. He wore a well-fitted tunic of Haiathiel blue embroidered with the pale blue roses beloved by the very first king of Haiathiel. With all fear gone, posture straight, the young man in front of Fitch radiated regality.

Fitch straightened the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. “I wanted to save Haiathiel from enslavement. You are young yet and have no sophistication in manipulating people with your glamour. Now that you know of it, even your word to do no harm, is worthless. For that power will always be there to tempt you and make the path to your own desires easier.”

Moving closer, Letris acknowledged the legitimacy of that fear with a nod. “Yes, Gale Holt even suggested I take advantage of my glamour.”

“He would, that cold-hearted bastard.”

“He is, isn’t he?”

Fitch reached out to give the other man an almost congenial pat on the shoulder.

“Even so,” Letris murmured, “I consider him a friend. If I am gone, he will protect Haiathiel in my stead.” He refused to look down at the blade making the skin of his throat prickle. Instead, the ice-blue eyes of Fitch Forthwright assured him that this was truly for the good of the kingdom.

“What a true shame you have to die,” Fitch said.

Die? The spell, woven by a desire to serve his kingdom and the conviction of the man before him, snapped. The prince of Haiathiel struggled as Forthwright grabbed a fistful of his tunic. “You have a glamour as well!” Letris snapped.

“The gift is much less and more subtle than yours, but yes. I am a rarity in that I come with two gifts: one a glamour, the other an ability to detect those with magic.”

Forthwright’s revelation didn’t make me feel any better about the stranglehold he had on my prince. Through the crack in the door to my bedroom, I had observed them while they were unaware of the peeping eyes, arriving in time to hear Forthwright’s depraved motivation for killing Cal. There were perhaps moments left before Cal was hurt. Could I run for soldiers?

A weapon? Could I find a weapon? The solar had nothing solid enough to knock out a full grown man except for a chair, but I hardly had the strength to throw it with enough force. Perhaps I could help Cal wrestle the knife out of Forthwright’s hand. No, I would only get in the way since my prince would worry to distraction about my safety.

Fine, soldiers it was. Perhaps Cal could keep Forthwright busy with conversation. I could only hope that I did not return to find my prince lifeless in a pool of blood. Then, fool that I was, I stumbled into my desk. The vase with the Aelia wobbled, and I caught it before the expensive crystal shattered to give my presence away.

The vase! Made of crystal, it weighed a considerable amount. Though a vase wasn’t much of a weapon, I removed the Aelia and placed it on the desk. Armed with a vase of water, I walked through my bedroom door. First and foremost, Cal was still alive though he had torn his tunic in order to escape the enemy’s grasp.

“Duck!” I told him, and despite his shock at my appearance, Cal dropped to the floor. To be safe, I threw as hard as I could, aiming a little low for the man perched on the sill. As Forthwright tried to flatten himself, he received an entire faceful of crystal vase. It splintered into a hundred reflective rainbow pieces and threw him backwards, far enough to tip him over the edge of the window and down to the ground below. It happened so fast, Forthwright hadn’t even been able to scream.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I considered Cal, who hadn’t budged from the ground.

“Falling from the height of your chambers, I believe so.” He finally stood, brushed himself off and peered out the window. He returned with a grimace. “What a mess he’s made.”

Fitch Forthwright was now a splotch on the castle grounds. As much as he had deserved it, I couldn’t quite register the fact. Otherwise, I would have felt an indomitable urge to vomit. Cal pulled me into a one-armed hug, scrutinizing me.

“Avi, it’s okay.”

“Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“He talked too much. He didn’t get a chance,” Cal said. He gave me a little shake, and I protested as my stomach clenched. Shards of crystal had lodged in the now soaked carpet by the window. I didn’t look long enough to see if blood darkened the carpet as well.

Cal held me until I stopped shivering. “We should tell the guards where Forthwright fell,” I realized.

He shook his head. “When I looked, a few men had already found him. They’ll clean it up.”

“I hope none of them saw him land…” A sudden vertigo made me stumble, and Cal caught me by the arms. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t look convinced, but then he seemed to change the subject. “Do you still have that silver pendant I gave you?”

A blush warmed my face. In fact, I had stashed it in my drawer for underclothes. While Cal watched, I opened the appropriate drawer and drew it out of the red, lacy underwear I had always been too embarrassed to touch, never mind wear.

When I dropped it into his hands, he made no comment. Instead, he rushed to secure the pendant around his own neck. “Isn’t it a bit girly for you?” I wondered.

“It is,” Cal said with amusement, apparently no longer in shock about his close brush with death. “Do I look any different?”


“Maybe it’s not…” Cal scowled and put on his best thinking face. “Maybe Aliasse can tell the difference.”

“What are you going on about?” I stepped in front of him before he could leave me in the room where I had murdered a man.

Cal gripped my shoulders. “This necklace from my mother may have removed my glamour, but you can’t tell, so perhaps it hasn’t? I want my father to see me for once without this glamour.”

“Magic is troublesome,” I settled for. My prince laughed and then pulled me away to find Aliasse.

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