“Now is not the time for weddings,” Gale said. Even so, the taste-tester wore his ring, one with the onyx stone and insignia of Hamada. It was the only ring he had left.
Letris waved a hand in front of the senator’s face as he spaced out. “You and Avi may have come to a suitable arrangement—” Gale refrained from blushing at this reference to the way Avi continued to sleep in his bed for the past two weeks. Much to his frustration, he had kept his vow of chastity in spite of that.
The prince tapped a finger on the round table they had gathered around. “But I want to marry Aliasse. With your blessing, of course, Holt.”
Having drooped at Gale’s proclamation, Aliasse bounced back to life again at the prince’s words. Even Aelius, seated beside Garigus, nodded. The elderly king was still unsteady on his feet, but he was alert enough to be aware of the discussion. “A king cannot inherit his throne without his queen.”
“Of course, but this is an emergency,” Gale said. “Until matters are stable with Mativ, our main focus should be the coronation.”
Despite the grumbling of Letris and Aliasse, they began to plan the details of the ceremony. Meanwhile, Callie drifted around the table to serve tea. She also suffered disappointment; her wedding to Jerrid, for which Cal granted his approval, would have to wait. Despite the blossoming of spring, the mood in the castle remained grim, too much so for weddings.
While Garigus and Letris debated the location for the coronation, Gale stood, propping himself on his new wooden staff, and walked as steadily as any normal man to Avi’s side. As Aliasse had predicted, Gale took to one-legged life with a practical set of mind, almost mastering the technique of walking again. His frustrations he vented to Avi, particularly those about poorly built stairs.
“Gale? Why did you leave the discussion?” Avi inquired, grinning as Aliasse joined the fracas about the best location.
He felt his heart swell at his luck. She shared his bed but accepted his vow. She had not objected to the delay in marriage. She had accepted his stump as if it had been a part of him all along. The Aelia had returned to him, and whether she knew or not, that bound them as closely as wedding rites. “The prince will learn best when I’m not available as a crutch.”
“That’s how you learned? Without anyone to lean on?”
“I did have Aliasse to watch over. That responsibility forced me to learn. Your prince has an entire kingdom that depends on him!” Gale said with a dramatic flair that resulted in Avi rolling her eyes.
The ruckus at the round table suddenly came to a halt, and Letris, with Aliasse not far behind, crossed the room to hold out a hand to the taste-tester. “Avi, let’s go see the city. I want to talk to my people.”
“Letris, mind your tongue,” Gale said before striding away to re-join the council table.
The prince looked after the other man and then muttered loud enough for the entire room to hear, “I can speak to my own citizens without fear.”
“Don’t offend them,” Gale singsonged before returning to a batch of never-ending papers.
“If he weren’t so useful, I would already have sent him away from court.” Letris swept out of the chamber, slamming the large, wooden door open, with Avi and Aliasse exchanging amused glances behind him. In the corridor, he took a moment’s time, so brief that no one would notice, to touch the silver amulet at his throat for patience.
Aliasse didn’t wear a disguise anymore. She was no longer a maid in our household. Instead, she served as Cal’s constant protector. Her new costume consisted of a form-fitting tunic and leggings, a red scarf, a thick leather belt secured around her waist and the pouch with Gale’s gun. She had also told me with great relish of the palm-size knives secured against her forearms. The prince of Haiathiel strode beside her on the main road leading to the central part of the city. No cloak or phalanx of guards sheltered him from sight.
That ensured a flood of curious folk came out of their homes to gawk at this handsome stranger. When I, jostled to the edge of the gathered crowd that now spanned across the street, searched for my prince, he appeared shocked. The mass of bodies were pressing closer and closer to the protective circle that a pacing Aliasse carved out.
This had not been a good idea at all.
“I am your prince and future king, Letris Aelius Calpurnius. Though my voice cannot reach the entire city from here,” Cal said, “I hope those here today will spread the news. A new era will begin for Haiathiel with my coronation.”
The crowd did not react. No anger. No joy. Just a sheep-like blankness. Cal could have told them he was going to raze the city to the ground, and they wouldn’t have made a peep. Their worn faces told tales of hardship, hunger, and death. So many untold stories stared down my prince.
“I have reviewed the dependability of the kingdom’s senators. Four of them, including the rebel Jennick Jameson, were put to death for treason.”
The crowd stirred but no emotion came forth. Likely, the senatorship had as little meaning to them as once they had to me. What did they care if a politician died?
“Replacement families will be found, and the senators restored to each region,” Cal continued, his voice stronger but his demeanor uncertain. Aliasse, however, had a firm grip on his elbow. “I came also to tell you of a change to this city. We have plans to rebuild. For that, I will need your cooperation.”
This raised more murmurs among the gathered people.
“The rebuilding will also require the major renovation of the west end. All entertainments found there will be regulated and monitored.”
“You want to take our last bit of joy? How like a king! Rendrant conquered us and pushed us under his thumb! Aelius ignored us and forced us to shelter his soldiers! Now, you want to change everything?” The voice of dissent belonged to a young man with thatched hair. A small girl beside him was tugging his arm, as if trying to stop him from speaking.
“Any personal complaints should be brought to the castle. I will listen and address any concerns at the hours between noon and the evening meal.” The crowd began to trickle away as they realized that the prince had nothing more to say.
After weaving through the remnants of the crowd, I caught Aliasse saying to our downcast prince, “You’re not much of an orator, but I can teach you. I learned from the best.”
“From Gale?” I wondered.
Aliasse snorted. “Ha, not Gale! My father was called Silvertongue in his day. I’ll teach you all the techniques I learned from him.” She placed an arm around Cal’s waist, and he turned to kiss her cheek.
“All of those baleful faces,” Cal sighed. “Nothing I said encouraged them.”
“One step at a time.” The woman with knives up her sleeves engaged the prince in a more involved kiss. While they were busy, I contemplated the changes to the country made during the first Spring Assembly.
The west end, the one I had never really seen, would soon be destroyed. Senators Wright, Othing and Sylvan had relinquished all rights to their properties in the west end. In the manner of a merciful monarch, Cal refunded to each man an eighth of their wealth—which was more than enough for a family of four to subsist on for a lifetime. Their titles had been stripped away, but they had escaped with their lives.
New laws concerning economic monopolies were drafted with the help of Gatherby, who had founded a successful economic model in his region for the production of hats and other accessories. The tax on prostitution passed though the law for adultery had been put aside for further contemplation.
Cal’s renovation ideas for the ramshackle housing closest to the castle came to fruition in the form of drawn city plans and a deal with architects for construction during the Summer Season.
The Senator Assemblies had become mandatory. A senator now risked losing his position for an unexcused absence. By Mason’s suggestion, the Assemblies became open to all citizens to attend. Not that many would attend at first, judging by the reaction of the people today.
Cal had also scheduled for the extraction of the jewels and gold embedded in the castle’s architecture. They would serve to build up the royal treasury, which had been in considerable debt. To be fair, I gave up my tiny stipend. My savings went to Gale, despite his protests. However, he eventually accepted that he had an official and reputable account with the country while I had dropped from the sky.
Would the sky swallow me up again? I didn’t want it to happen. Certainly not now. Not ever once I married Gale. Besides, the king of Haiathiel needed my services. As long as that remained true, perhaps I would never return. Gale had told me that the first queen, who had turned the worst king of Haiathiel into one of the best with her magical manipulation, had dropped from the sky as well and lived out the rest of her days here.
Who she was or where she had come from, no one had recorded. I felt a kinship with the woman even if her abilities were far different than my own. It meant I was needed here, that Destiny had decided that Haiathiel was my home. I, too, had come in a time of change. In fact, the very first law I had learned here had undergone repeal yesterday. By a unanimous vote, the remaining senators had revoked the ancient tradition of the king marrying a female servant in order to inherit his throne.
“Avi?” Aliasse waved a hand in my field of vision. “You’re holding us up!”
I was holding the two lovebirds up? After blowing a raspberry at them, I bolted for the castle. With a yelp of protest, Aliasse pursued me, her slippers clacking on the cobbled road. Cal may have shouted something, but I was too far ahead to hear. At the castle gates, I paused to catch my breath. Behind me, on the end of Main Street closest to the castle, Aliasse was jogging briskly beside Cal. His eyes had narrowed against the wind, but they held a glint of joy I had never seen before. For a man with so many responsibilities, he finally looked free.