At last, the senators had approved the title of Chancellor, and more importantly, Letris legally approved of his marriage to Avi. Gale adjusted his jacket in front of the mirror. He and Avi had been fine just signing the set of marriage papers since Mativ could return at any time, but Aliasse insisted on an additional ceremony. He hadn’t been this nervous since his first Assembly as a senator. He jumped as the door slammed open.
“Look at what they did to me,” said a voice full of tragedy. Avi hobbled into his bedroom, stopping to pose. It was an ordinary wedding dress at first glance: a gold-embroidered bodice, long sleeves, and a sweeping skirt. The carmine color flattered her warmer skin tone. Then he noticed the train which extended out of the doorway of his chamber.
“That’s different,” he observed.
“New seamstress,” Avi said. “She’s absolutely crazy about dresses.”
“It suits you still.” He took her hand and brought it up for a kiss. She had become better at not blushing at unexpected touches. A shame but at the same time, it encouraged him that she was comfortable with his affection.
“Thanks, you’re looking fancy too.” Ignoring his sigh, Avi clasped his hand in both of hers. “Gale, I hate to bring it up today, but there was poison in today’s lunch. Aliasse is trying to hunt down the person responsible. No luck so far.”
A faint sense of dread twisted his gut. “Mativ’s work?” They couldn’t afford paranoia or fear. Avi had none in her resolute expression, so he wouldn’t worry for now. “He knows you’re here, so it must have been a threat.”
“His Grace Aelius thinks that too.” She looked contemplative, and Gale wanted to kiss her and distract her from heavy thoughts. And why not? He would be her husband in a few hours.
He leaned forward and then froze as someone yelled the taste-tester’s name. Aliasse had foiled him, as Avi darted out of the room with a grin. He resisted the urge to step on the slowly retreating end of the gown and pull her back for the missed kiss. By the time he made his way to the bed with the support of his staff, someone had popped up in the doorway again. There, Avi was smiling in a way that made him feel as if he were privy to a precious secret.
She bounded over to join him on the bed, and he tilted his head in question. “Didn’t Aliasse call for you?”
“Yes, but I want to show you something first.”
For some reason, I felt nervous. Silently, Gale considered the two graves in front of us. Was it morbid? I wanted my parents to meet the man I was marrying. But underneath these stone plaques in the ground, in the shape of the sigil of Haiathiel, there were no bodies. Even so, in this corner of the courtyard, I lit candles each year. As long as they were in my memory, they still existed, even if their physical bodies weren’t here.
“Freya and Cai,” he said.
Gathering my never-ending skirt, I knelt to touch the graves. Both were warm from the sun. “Hippie names, right? That’s what the coroner said when he told me about their deaths.”
“Avi, I am not sure what a hippie is…”
Dear Gale looked so serious. “The point is that they weren’t hippies at all. Maybe they were what you might you call eccentric, believing in true love and Destiny and all that.” Already, he overturned the words that had been hurtful in my memory into something I could smile about.
After a moment, Gale came to kneel beside me. Placing his silver staff across his knees, he bowed his head. “Thank you, Freya and Cai, for raising your daughter with love. She lost you both too soon and lost her way. But I assure you that she has to search no further for her Destiny. It is to stay with me and protect her king, unless she grows tired of me, in which case—”
He looked indignant as I laughed. “I won’t ever grow tired of you…in moderation.”
“Moderation, you say.” He was eyeing me in a way that made my skin prickle, a gaze that said that moderation was out of the question for a while. To desire someone, to love them wholly was a frightening, wild emotion. Yet I couldn’t have picked a better person to navigate it with.
The garden had been decorated with lanterns. They showered the area with warm, golden light. Seated at the table beside his son and the maid Callie, Aelius lifted a wine glass in a toast. Despite his weakening strength, Aelius had forced himself out of bed to see them married. It was the greatest honor from any sovereign that Gale could begin to imagine.
He sipped from the goblet, until nearly half of the wine was gone. With its heady scent and burning taste, the wedding wine almost seemed a test in self-control. While he cleared his throat to avoid coughing, Avi gulped down the other half. Her nose twitched, her mouth half-opened, but she managed to hold the incipient sneeze at bay.
She was too cute. Gale pulled her into an embrace until her head was buried into his chest, not letting go when she squeaked a protest and punched him. The clerk of the state who had administered the vows gave them a bemused glance, but Gale enjoyed the warmth of the woman he had made his wife too much to mind it.
A tap on his shoulder turned his attention to Aliasse, and he finally released his wife. “Congratulations, you two. Now we should celebrate!”
Avi looked as wary as he felt.
“To Gale and Avi!”
They sat through the toasts and the wedding night jibes and the well-wishes. With every word, Avi grew more and more flushed even though she hadn’t touched any wine. When she ran off to take a stroll in the garden with Callie and Aliasse, Gale recognized his precarious situation. He was stuck between Aelius, who was babbling at Otelius with happiness, and Letris, who was sipping at his goblet in silence.
“Any advice for me, Letris?” He wondered if that was too bold of a question as the king of Haiathiel raised an eyebrow.
“Treat her kindly, or I’ll have your head.” Letris smiled. “But then…you feel the same way regarding me and Aliasse, don’t you?”
Gale could describe it as a jealousy born of protectiveness. Aliasse had always confessed her hopes and fears to him. She had been in his household, present always in his daily routine. Now he would have to trust another to take on that role. Perhaps Letris was better suited to it anyway. “You can’t hurt Aliasse any more than I have.”
The king gave him a mildly curious look. “Hmm?”
“She hasn’t said anything about my father and his crime.”
Letris drained his wine cup. “Yes, she wanted to punish all of her father’s murderers. She never knew Senator Holt was involved.”
Trust him to rub it in deeper, but when Gale looked into the king’s face, he found no maliciousness. “I kept it a secret to protect her. Also, to protect our memories. My father loved her like a daughter, and I couldn’t—”
“Then you were right to keep it a secret,” Letris interrupted, “until her heart became clear of the desire for revenge. You and your father were her anchor to sanity, Holt, and to dislodge that would have been the worst cruelty.”
Perhaps further discussion was of no use, but he still muttered, “If he wanted to protect me, why didn’t my father just talk to his best friend?”
“Because my father was stubborn.” Aliasse popped up in front of him, making Gale clutch for his staff reflexively. She had padded over to them as quietly as a cat. “He stuck to his principles, and no words from a friend would have changed his convictions. I don’t blame you or your father, and Avi doesn’t either.”
As Gale tried to come up with a response, Letris gestured for Aliasse to join him on his chair. She slipped into the proffered space, almost in the man’s lap. “An irreconcilable difference,” Letris began. “Just as the situation between Mativ and the kingdom stands.”
“It’s strange that men reach to kill each other when words aren’t enough,” Aliasse grumbled, making the king smile. She looked on in alarm as Gale stumbled out of his seat.
“Aliasse, I am sorry.” He straightened from his bow to catch her as she threw himself at him, squeezing him into a breath-stealing hug. She embraced him with full consideration of his balance, supporting him as they had always supported each other. Even without words, he knew he was forgiven. He released his foster sister as Letris cleared his throat.
“It seems you’re sturdy enough for the wedding night,” Aliasse commented as she stole his chair. “So Avi won’t have to worry about hurting you.”
Letris choked mid-sip and recovered to widen his eyes at Gale. Resisting the urge to cuff the king since the king’s father suddenly tuned into the conversation, Gale asked, “Where is my bride?”
“She’s gone back to hide in the castle, asked me to send you her way.” Aliasse grinned in a way that came close to lascivious, but Gale was too embarrassed to consider it further. He offered them a good-night and hobbled towards the castle.
His new bedroom was in the wing that belonged formerly to the prince of Haiathiel. It became the Chancellor’s quarters, mostly because it required the least number of stairs to climb. Gale realized his arm no longer ached at the end of the journey to his rooms. Slowly but surely, his strength was coming back.
All of his newfound strength was barely enough to keep him upright as he entered the bedroom. Avi was undoing her braid, clothed in a nightgown that revealed more than it covered. He drank in the soft curves of her skin, feeling as if he were ogling her wrongly. The taste-tester was nineteen, but she was very much a woman.
“Gale, come here.” She shook out her hair, as if entirely unaware of how intoxicating the sight was for him.
Leaving his staff at the door, he scrambled to the bed with the dignity of an overeager dog, but he didn’t care a moment later as Avi kissed him. There was something more carnal in her kiss today, a feeling that only increased as her hands undressed him. The vest and pants came off followed shortly by her nightgown.
They broke apart to breathe. Avi pushed her head under his chin, and she held him, using a finger to gently trace the scar across his body. “You’re making me nervous. You haven’t said a word.”
“I love you.” The words felt inadequate, so he kissed her until she broke away laughing.
“I love you too, but...you harassed Cal to end your vow to just kiss me?”
Bringing up Letris! He would be sure to make her forget that name. Gale pinned her against the bed. “Avi, you shouldn’t agitate me in your position.”
“Well, something is already agitated…” Her hands wandered, and he pressed closer until he was no longer sure which part was him and which part was Avi.
I woke and saw the Aelia, in a new vase, glittering from near the window. If the sunlight had been any brighter, I would have been blinded. The spot on the bed beside me was warm but empty. Where was Gale?
Almost as if my question had summoned him, he stepped through the door, fully attired in his senator’s robes. “You’re probably wondering why I left the marriage bed the moment I woke.”
I sat up, the vestiges of pleasure still lingering. He had been tender, skillful in ways I hadn’t expected. “Why did you?”
“I would have disturbed your sleep.” Gale looked rueful that he hadn’t.
“You also have a morning meeting, don’t you?”
He sighed. Ha, I knew his new schedule as Chancellor better than he did. “Yes, but the moment it’s over, I’ll come back for you.”
“Please, I’m worn out.” Aches in places I hadn’t even considered. My words were enough to make him hobble closer, concern in his face. “Hey, I’m not hurt. Don’t worry.”
Gale sat on the bed and then placed his face against my shoulder. “Are you happy?”
Hard to say. I felt kind of loopy. “If you are, then I am.”
His laugh made my core warm. There was something immensely sexy about those vibrations against my skin. He straightened to meet my eyes. “To be married. To have a future with you. That’s beyond happiness.”
“Better hope Mativ doesn’t come invading to end all of it,” I pointed out.
His face had fallen. “Mativ is not…”
“A romantic topic?” I finished. “So long as you are Chancellor, your first responsibility is to the kingdom. So long as I am taste-tester, my first responsibility is to the same. We have to protect them.”
Aliasse and Cal. Aelius, Otelius, Callie, all the inhabitants in the castle whom I had grown to love. And this man who I had fallen in love with had the same burden.
“I know, Avi.”
“Maybe I’m a bit scared too,” I said. “To consider losing you and the others. That’s why I can’t be a distraction to you.”
Gale thumped me on the back with an open palm. “Then better get up to inspect the royal breakfast. Letris and Aliasse are attending the meeting too.”
I peered at the wane light coming through the window, the pink sky. “The sun’s barely risen! Noo!” I rolled back into my blankets, growling when Gale yanked them away. Naked and cold, I lunged for the warmer covers.
Releasing his staff, he looped an arm around my back, then widened his eyes as he realized his mistake. A moment later, as we collapsed on the bed in a sprawl of limbs, his lips hot on my neck, I wondered if it had been a mistake at all.
“They scheduled an early meeting the day after our wedding night on purpose.” Gale voiced his complaint while his hand moved between my legs. Indecently, I rubbed against the pressure until I felt a delicious tingle shoot up my entire body. His other hand had found another place, working at it until I whimpered.
That sound jumpstarted his mischief.
And thus the Chancellor was extremely late to his meeting, and I, the taste-tester, was late to breakfast. Just that once.