The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 4

Moonlight danced through the forest around the cabin, creating slivers of brightness that made the living room mostly visible. Even so, Aliasse couldn’t find the moon in the sky, only dark, craggy shapes that must have been tree branches. Turning away from the window, she shivered on the sofa.

Gale had come home, white-faced. She had prodded him until he told her that his leg was hurting like hell. Stress often made the wound act up, and Aliasse hadn’t probed any further. Instead, she played doctor this time, pressing a hot compress to his leg for an hour or so before tucking him in on the sofa. Despite her pressuring him to go to the only bed in the cabin, Gale had refused.

Aliasse had gone to sleep on the cold bed before waking an hour later and sneaking back into the living room. There, on the other sofa, she huddled under a thick blanket. She missed the days when she and Gale had slept together, as young siblings slept beside each other for warmth.

At thirteen, Gale began to sleep in a different room than hers. Taking pity after a few days of her confusion, Senator Emil Holt explained everything to her. Though she had yet to receive the “blessings” of womanhood (Emil’s words), she still had to accept that she and Gale were growing older.

With a grimace, Aliasse returned her attention to Holt’s relaxed face, barely resisting the urge to pull on his cheeks and make him squeal as he always did. Just because she slept beside him didn’t mean they would become lovers. Frustrated by shivers running up and down her skin despite the thick blanket, Aliasse leapt off her sofa and squeezed herself onto Gale’s.

“You’re squishing me,” he growled, not even opening his eyes. “Why is it so cold?”

Aliasse let her teeth chatter and then wrapped her arms around him to steal his heat. “It was your idea to buy this cabin in the middle of the woods during autumn.”

His breath tickled her cheek. “It was for your own good. You’re a hunted girl now. I can’t keep you at the manor.”

“I know. Thank you for staying and suffering this with me.”

“It’s closer to the Capitol,” Gale returned, “and thus, convenient for me.” With a sniff, he placed his head against her shoulder and fell asleep.

Aliasse felt his heartbeat against hers, her cold shins against his slightly hairy warm ones. A fluttery feeling in her stomach surprised her. She and Gale were nothing more than brother and sister. Would she have felt this way close to any man? Yes, she decided. He smelled masculine under her nose, different from the sweet child smell of a dear brother.

A loud knock made her fall off the sofa. Oblivious, Gale stirred and then turned the other way, leaving Aliasse to stare at his back. The knock came again, more insistent. She jumped to her feet and grabbed her brown cap from the table, stuffing her hair under a hat.

Snatching an umbrella on her way to the door, Aliasse wondered who would visit at such a strange hour. She opened the door a crack. “Fitch!”

Fitch Forthwright placed a finger to his lips, and Aliasse hushed, opening the door to let in the party leader. “I need to speak with Holt.” Fitch matched Gale in height but not much else. A blonde, with bright, intelligent blue eyes, he dominated streets as a figure in white. Had he been more charming, he would have rivaled the prince’s hold on women’s hearts.

“Holt?” Aliasse’s heart drooped, but she said stubbornly, “He’s asleep. His leg has been bothering him.”

Fitch placed his white boot on the threshold. “Wake him. Or I will.”

“Let me join the party! I’ve been doing useful things.”

“Any common brigand can do what you’re doing. If we need an arsonist, we’ll call on you. Our members need political sense…and a brain,” Forthwright said, looking down at her.

She argued, “You need fighters. I can fight.”

“Not right now.” Fitch brushed past her and pulled Gale’s blanket from the unsuspecting sleeper. The senator sat up, his expression murderous; however, he looked more silly than threatening in his baggy night tunic.

“Fitch,” Gale said shortly. “What are you doing in the woods?”

“I didn’t realize you had a taste for commoners.” Forthwright gestured with his chin towards Aliasse. She stepped forward, fists clenched, until Gale caught her eyes, urgent and warning. Looking down, she found a dagger inches from her stomach. The slender, silver blade was grasped between Fitch’s thin fingers.

“She is Aliassendre, the daughter of Senator Motto,” Holt told him. “And not my bedmate. She’s like a sister.” Standing, he shoved Fitch Forthwright, whose ice eyes were filled with satisfaction. The man stumbled into the other sofa while Holt stood over him.

As Fitch tucked the dagger into an unseen pocket in his suit, Aliasse moved to Holt’s side, grasping his arm to help him straighten. “What do you want then, Fitch?” Gale continued.

Forthwright pointed at him. “Fund us.”

“My money is under strict control,” the senator murmured. Aliasse gave him a startled glance. She had thought that Gale had despised Forthwright’s mission so much that he had voluntarily refused to sponsor anything having to do with the party. “Senator Mativ, as the king’s most esteemed advisor, is monitoring every rich man’s accounts to prevent the funding of operations such as yours. I can’t withdraw a significant sum without telling Mativ where it’s going.”

“Lie,” Forthwright said.

“He wants extensive documentation.” Gale’s face had grown strained, and Aliasse nudged him to sit.

“You’ll regret not helping us.”

Aliasse stepped in front of Gale, who was shuddering now. “Isn’t there anything else I could do?”

Forthwright considered the maiden before him: too tall, unfashionably dark-haired, lithe as a street cat…yet pretty. The idea brewing in his head made him smile. “Yes. Become the prince’s maid and a spy for us. When I give the word, you must kill him.”

“What?” Gale said through gritted teeth. “No! Absolutely not!”

Forthwright glanced at the senator, who was grasping his knee as if it would fall off.

“I can do that. A weekly or monthly report?” Aliasse inquired, even as her heart broke at Gale’s gasps of pain.

“I doubt you would be able to escape the castle to do so.”

“We can settle the time and place later,” Aliasse said briskly. She lifted her elegant chin and stared Forthwright in the eyes. “Also, I want to be an official part of the party.”

“You may join after you complete the task.” He smiled as Aliasse clenched a fist. “I will return with the appropriate supplies for you.”

The man adjusted his white hat and strode out of the cabin without a backward glance. After making sure the man had really gone with a peek out the window, Aliasse hurried back to Gale, who had said nothing. His eyes were closed, his lips pursed with pain. “Gale?”

“I’ll be fine.”

She kneeled to look at his leg. As far as she could tell, it looked normal. “We need to find a surgeon…”

“I don’t need one.” She hadn’t seen Gale’s sadness in a while. “Why did you agree?”

Aliasse shrugged. “It’s something to do. Besides, it’ll be less painful than skulking around.”

“You would become an assassin?”

Killing. She had done it before. Only she hadn’t known the faces of the ones who had died in the fires she set. “If the prince deserves it.”

As the agony in his leg subsided, gone as suddenly as it had come, Gale reached out to pull her to sit beside him. “Can you judge him with a clear mind? I fear the prince will entice you into his bed.”

“Ha!” Aliasse scoffed. “No matter how charming or good-looking he is, I won’t let him touch me!”

Chewing on this, Gale gave a reluctant nod. If the taste-tester had managed to avoid Letris’ bed, surely Aliasse could. He scowled up at her. “Go to sleep.”

“Join me?” she pleaded.

“Aliasse?” He gave her an uncertain look.

She snorted. “I’m just using you as a personal heater.”

“Heater. That’s a good idea,” Gale mused. “I’m sure Mativ won’t begrudge me a heater.”

Aliasse grabbed his cheek and made him squawk. “You weren’t lying about that?”

He pried her fingers from his face. “Yes, Mativ’s accountants control what little I have left.” Grumbling like an old man, Gale settled into the curve of the sofa.

“Please, Gale…I’ll be cold. You didn’t buy me a heater! You’re the reason I’m freezing out here!” Aliasse shivered loudly. “Oh, I’ll never be able to sleep.”

She knew she had won when Gale picked himself up from the sofa and began to trudge towards the tiny room with a bed in it. Aliasse followed and found him curled up and asleep in moments. Poor Gale, I abuse him so, she thought before snuggling against him.

A week after Holt’s impromptu but brief imprisonment, word in the town ran that there was a new maid for Cal. Well, the news had not spread into the Capitol…but anyway, a new maid had joined the castle staff. On her first day, she was, as expected, standing awkwardly beside Otelius as the royal family ate.

I had been brought in to inspect the food and drink before being sent out of the room. Pssh. No appreciation for my important duty. I stationed myself at the arched entrance to the dining hall: still within sight and earshot.

The new maid carried herself with a lively, restless air. Her brown eyes roved the gems placed in the walls and the crystal lanterns hanging from the ceiling. I wondered if I had been as goggle-eyed as she was at my first royal dinner. Those eyes of her were startlingly dark in comparison to her hair, which tumbled to her hips in copper layers. She was pretty all right, beautiful whenever she smiled. Cal, of course, couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Eavesdropping?” Holt’s voice grated on my ears as he passed. Wait! He was allowed into the dining hall and I wasn’t? He seemed to sense my dismay and smirked before limping off to take his seat.

Otelius stepped forward to help the senator to his seat, retreating when the man shook his head slightly. As the senator reclined in the cushioned chair, Cal returned Holt’s smile with an acidic one of his own. “The new maid is your cousin, isn’t she?”

Holt nodded. “She is the illegitimate issue of my father’s brother. While I do not approve of her choice, she has a right to her free, foolish will.” The new maid blushed at this. Pah, who cared if Mr. Beanbutt approved?

Cal almost stood but settled back down as the king took his arm. “I see you haven’t ceased insulting my maids.”

“I do apologize for that.” An uncomfortable silence fell.

“I see everyone has arrived. It’s nice to see a fuller table.” Senator Helion Mativ softened the tension as he strode into the room. For a short man, he could fill a room with his buoyant presence. As the king’s most trusted advisor, Mativ was given deference even by Cal, who didn’t care for any of the senators. It may have been because Mativ was the only senator who called Cal “my prince” or “Your Highness.” The others just called him Letris— the stiff, first name that Cal abhorred.

Mativ claimed the glossy, cushioned chair on the king’s other side. He greeted Aelius with a wide smile that crinkled the edges of his blue eyes. Then, folding his hands across his paunch, Mativ settled into his place with the satisfaction of a well-fed cat.

After serving the king and the prince, the maids, including the new one, bustled to put a plate in front of Mativ and spoon the foods the senator requested onto his plate. With tight smiles, the servers did the same for Holt, who settled for maintaining a sour face at this insult to his person. Since Holt was a guest, he should have been waited on first.

After a whole minute of this passed, Holt allowed, “I’m afraid I sometimes speak without tempering my words. I apologize, Your Majesty.”

Aelius waved the matter away. He was a forgiving king after all.

“Ah, rash youth,” Mativ said with a chuckle, tucking a white napkin under his snowy beard and digging into his venison with a silver fork.

Then Mativ scrutinized the new maid with surprise. “She’s a lovely one.”

The girl blushed again and lowered her head. Silent, Cal chewed on his food. He only chewed that slowly when he didn’t want to talk. Perhaps his head had filled of thoughts of welcoming the new maid.

“Can we not make my dear cousin uncomfortable?” Holt asked. Then his face shifted into a smooth, blank expression. “I do wish that Your Majesty would permit me to stay here for a while. Aliasse has a shy nature, and I do not wish for your son to distress her with his advances.”

King Aelius glanced uncertainly at Cal, who swallowed his food. “No,” the prince of Haiathiel said.

“As the sole male in my family, I am her guardian.” Holt gave Mativ a level gaze. “I gave you the written proof of that.”

“He does have the right to ask your hospitality to fulfill his guardianship of a minor,” Mativ said, taking a sip from his wine glass. He looked apologetic as Cal’s face darkened. “According to the papers, she is but sixteen years old.”

While this conversation continued into boring technicalities, I watched the maid’s face. A flash of impatience, then exasperation, appeared on her face. For such a supposedly timid girl, her face seemed ready enough to express her opinion. At one point, she even glared at Holt for a full second.

Puzzled, I sank down to sit on the floor outside the dining chamber. I waited for an entire hour and a half before the royal dinner dispersed. Whispered voices crawled out of the dining chamber, unintelligible. But not for long.

On my hands and knees, I crawled to the threshold of the dining hall entrance, keeping my head ducked. Behind the table, Holt was talking to his cousin, the new maid. Surprise, surprise.

“This isn’t going to work,” Holt was saying.

“Why not? Aah, I hate this wig.” Then, the maid pulled off her chestnut waves to reveal curly, black hair that cut off above her shoulders. She looked much older without the flowing locks.

Holt snatched the wig and placed it back on the girl’s head. “Please, you can’t be caught without it.”

“It’s itchy,” the maid complained. “Why couldn’t I have cut my regular hair a bit neater?”

Beginning to pace, Holt answered, “You are highly recognizable, especially with your description on every street corner.”

“Not every street corner…Anyway, you don’t have to guard me. Go home!”

Cal’s new maid was a dangerous miscreant? Leaping to my feet, I strode into the dining hall. The maid gasped and straightened her wig. Holt’s lips twisted into a sour expression for me.

“You, what do you want?”

“We don’t allow criminals outside the dungeon,” I said, pointing to the new maid, who gave me a perfectly shocked expression. “They don’t stay there long, don’t worry…”

As he moved forward to block my view of the felon in maid’s clothing, Holt took my hand, redirecting my accusing index finger elsewhere. “My cousin, Aliasse, is a hunted woman, yes. I need somewhere safe for her. Please.”

I wrenched my hand away. “Don’t try to play for sympathy.”

“No, I suppose that was foolish of me,” Holt said. “You’re an emotionless being. No wonder Letris hasn’t seduced you.” His glare didn’t flicker as Aliasse punched him in the back.

“Stop it, Gale!”

Emotionless, huh? “Well,” I replied, my voice a growl from the effort to not punch him myself. “It won’t save you from my anger.”

Then, all of a sudden, he whipped around to leave the chamber, leaving the maid to gawk after him. It was better if I didn’t talk to him anyway!

Startling me, the maid took my hands in hers. “I’m sorry about Gale. He’s been so rude to you.” Only her mollifying words prevented me from moving away. Still, her hands were rough with calluses, no doubt from her less than legal activities. I couldn’t figure out what kind of crook she could be to have wanted posters hung.

“I’m Aliasse,” she continued.

“Avi,” I said to be polite.

She grinned, and the friendliness of it almost blinded me. “Avi, I would be grateful if you would keep my secret. You can even watch me and make sure I behave if you wish.”

Looking out for the prince was one thing, but calling out his maids as criminals was probably something even Cal would not forgive. “I’m the taste-tester, not a guard. I’ll keep the secrets about your wig and your shady past for now.”

“Secrets between friends then.”

Leaving me with that odd thought, she loped away, perhaps to find that insufferable senator.

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