The Prince's Taste-tester

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Chapter 5

Late in the evening, the clamor over the new maid settled. After deciding it was safe to visit Aliasse, Senator Gale Holt entered a square room that felt overly large for one female servant. With a sigh, he followed Aliasse deeper into the room, settled on the vermillion silk bed and prodded one of the twenty embroidered pillows sprawled there. A large window, draped in velvet curtains, filled one wall. Two large tapestries and a portrait of the prince decorated the other three walls. A small, glossy desk and a chair sat in the middle of the room, gleaming with the warmth of carefully stained wood.

“This room is so pretty.” Aliasse grinned at him.

“Except for that.” Gale jabbed a finger at the prince’s beaming painted face.

“Hmm, yes.” With her head in the closet, Aliasse examined her new wardrobe of white maid’s gowns. How did maids clean in these? “He’s more handsome than pretty.”

Gale groaned and refused to say anything more.

Finally, Aliasse, who had finished examining her uniform, sat beside him on the bed. “Gale, why did you provoke that girl like that?”

He shrugged and began to count on his fingers. “First, she slapped me. Secondly, she got me thrown in the dungeon for no reason whatsoever. Then, when she came to release me, she nearly took off my finger with her savage teeth.”

“Those are consequences of provoking her in the first place,” Aliasse pointed out. She darted into the closet to change from her maid’s gown to a tunic and leggings.

“The maids are Letris’ whores,” Gale said. “Take care that you don’t become one.”

Waving away the thought, Aliasse emerged from the closet and plopped down beside him. “You already know the taste-tester hasn’t been bedded by Cal, yet you seem to hate her more than you hate all of Cal’s maids combined. At least, though you’re cold with them, you keep a degree of civility.”

After a moment, the senator answered, “The taste-tester is a very violent and discourteous girl. Now we have to figure out how to keep her quiet about your disguise.”

Aliasse took her rumpled, leather supply bag from underneath the bed and proceeded to stuff it into the bottom drawer of the hickory dresser, under multiple rows of lacy, multi-colored underwear. At Gale’s pained gaze, she said, “They look fancy, but they’re quite comfortable.”

She giggled at the way he kept a blush away with an effort. “I already discussed it with Avi.” Aliasse reached down to opened the drawer of new brassieres underneath the underwear drawer. Pink finally warmed Gale’s cheeks, and the senator pinned his eyes to the ceiling. “She won’t reveal that I’m in disguise or that I’m being hunted. For now. I’ll be done with the mission before she figures it out.”

“You mean when Letris is dead. Who would rule after Aelius?” Gale asked. “None of the senators have a right to the kingdom. Actually, there isn’t a provision in the laws regarding choosing a new line of kings.”

“The Forthwright party will take over, of course, which is why I have to join them. You should too. Not all of the party have the interest of the kingdom as their first priority. We do.”

Gale held up a hand as someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” called Aliasse and fixed the chestnut wig back onto her head. Opening the door, the prince of Haiathiel glided into the room. His smile frosted over as he saw Holt.

When she noticed the change in the prince’s demeanor, Aliasse bowed her head. “Forgive me for wearing such vulgar clothes in your presence, Your Highness.”

The gracefulness of the prince’s sudden smile stole her breath. “Please call me Cal. You are free to dress as you will in my castle. I can have more elegant tunics made for you if you wish.”

Aliasse felt her face grow warm. “If it’s no trouble, then that would be wonderful. Thank you, Your Highness.” Green eyes, filled with warmth, caressed her, and Aliasse considered, for a moment, breaking her vow of chastity. She had sworn to never rest, never enjoy the comfort of a lover or a family until her father was avenged.

When the prince turned towards the door, she shook herself, nearly dislodging the wig and began to rebuild the wall that was her vow of chastity.

“My intent is not to make you uncomfortable, Ali.”

Her heart jumped at the cute nickname.

“Please, if I ever ask too much of you, feel free to stop me,” Letris continued. “I would not want to invoke the wrath of your guardian.”

Pushed to the background, Holt held his tongue, knowing this was a battle he couldn’t win. His “cousin’s” eyes already fixated on the perfect skin exposed by the prince’s half-open shirt. From there, it was a matter of seconds before the eyes wandered to his long neck, delicate throat and that damnable, alluring smile.

“Gale?” Aliasse jerked her gaze away from the prince of Haiathiel, who was lounging against the door.

“I shall leave you in his reliable hands,” Holt said as sarcastically as he could. Cal leapt out of his way as Holt stormed out of the room.

Aliasse darted to the door to follow the senator but then paused to address the prince. “I apologize for my cousin’s behavior.” Gale seemed extremely uncomfortable at court for a reason Aliasse couldn’t guess.

“Holt would not be Holt without his tantrums. That man is full of hate,” Cal said.

Hate? Aliasse knew Gale was capable of love. He had treated her as sister, kept her in his own manor until she had been identified as a rebel. To protect her, he had hidden her away in the lonely cabin in the woods outside the Capitol. He had dealt with accusations and doubts cast upon his own loyalty.

Gale was exhausted, she knew. The least she could do was complete this mission without causing him too much trouble. “When he cares for someone, he cares deeply,” Aliasse couldn’t help saying. Likely, the prince would roll his eyes and sniff in disbelief. Instead, Cal’s eyes focused on her with surprising intensity.

She smiled to herself, remembering. “As a boy, he had a cat. He and that cat spent almost the entire day together for years! When the creature died, Gale was heartbroken. He didn’t eat or sleep for days…”

“You mean the death of his cat made him permanently a deranged, bitter person?” Cal inquired.

Aliasse placed a hand to her forehead in frustration. “I only meant to demonstrate that Gale is capable of great love.”

When she opened her eyes, the prince now stood finger-lengths away, his tawny hair looking even softer than before.

“Shall I show you great love, Aliasse?” he whispered. “You may want to remove your wig first.”

Aliasse blinked. Had the taste-tester lied and betrayed her after all? Noticing her reaction, Cal said, “Did you think a wig could fool my eyes? Let me see your real color. Are you ashamed of it?”

His fingers cupped her face before slipping the wig off her head. He ruffled her short, dark hair with one large hand and then kissed her forehead with a lover’s tenderness. Aliasse couldn’t help the ache of desire that ran through her. He was more attractive than she had imagined he would be…

“I can’t, Your Highness.” She pushed his touch away even though her mind screamed it was foolish. What would a man used to being pampered by his maids do now?

Certainly, she hadn’t expected him to laugh. When he had composed himself, the prince of Haiathiel crossed his arms. “Please call me Cal.”

“Cal.” Aliasse found a stupid smile on her face and slapped her cheek to remove it.

“Good night.”

“Night.” Knees weak, she sat as he slipped out of the room. Even running from the city constables, she had never felt her heart beat so hard.

With a sigh, I paused in a corridor. The castle was so large that Cal could hide from me whenever he chose. At the moment, he had positively disappeared. Turning around, I collided with a soft mass. A flash of blue robes caught my eye, and my innards curled with dread.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized before trying to run away—well, trying and failing as he grabbed my arm.

“I should be the one apologizing.”

The words froze me in place, and then, after a moment, I turned to face him—not quite eye to eye but eye to chest.

“I assumed too much when I first met you and regarded you with undeserved disrespect,” Senator Holt continued, his face a polite mask.

I tried to tug my arm out of his grasp. “It’s quite all right. I shouldn’t have bitten you.”

“Yes, that was rather uncivilized,” he said before releasing me.

Uncivilized. Despite the resent hollering at me to tell him off, I said nothing. His dark eyes brushed over me once before he walked out of hallway. It made me feel violated even though that gaze had no particular intensity to it. Perhaps he had expected to provoke me?

“Wait!” I sprinted after him and caught up to him in one of the many open areas of spaces that connected wings of the castle. He turned around so abruptly, I almost ran into him. “Are you really going to stay here and look after your ‘cousin’?” I couldn’t help using air quotes, which, of course, were a completely non-existent gesture here.

The senator responded with mocking air quotes of his own. “Whatever do you mean?”

“She’s not your cousin, is she?”

Holt shrugged. “We grew up together. Her father was a senator, whose reforms threatened the interests of a few, fellow senators. They succeeded in killing him. My father took in Aliasse and reported the conspiracy to the king, but Aelius couldn’t find enough evidence to punish them.” Holt’s serious face twisted with pain.

The deluge of information made me step back. “What reform could bother the senators so much…” I trailed off.

“Senator Motto wanted men to pay a tax for whoring.” Holt gave an unpleasant leer as if forgetting that I was no such woman. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

I managed to bite back a rude response. After all, there was no need to antagonize this guy any more than necessary.

“Motto also called for punishments for any man who wandered from his own wife’s bed as well as more severe punishments for unmarried adulterers. He hoped to instill morality into men with laws, and look where it got him!”

Likely nowhere.

“Affairs are the result of human weakness and lust: inevitable, I know, but Cal’s brand of promiscuity is repeated by most wealthy men. I imagine the statistical significance and the consequences of such behavior are lost on one like you.”

Ugh, the way he spoke down to me was infuriating, but I said nothing back. Instead, we glared at one another. He had to blink first! I wouldn’t allow him to win even something as petty as a staring contest!

“Gazing into one another’s eyes? How sweet!” Entering the hollow, silent room from a side door, Senator Helion Mativ crinkled his eyes at me to show that he was joking. “However, Gale—”

“Senator Holt,” Mr. Beanbutt corrected.

Mativ stroked a corner of his salt and pepper mustache. “Senator Holt, I would advise you against making designs on the prince’s servants.”

Holt withdrew a pen from his front pocket and strolled towards me. I watched, my body frozen, as he inked a seven-petal flower pattern on the curve of my left collar bone. His fingers, as they held the skin taut, felt much rougher than Cal’s silky ones. Then the senator stepped back and tucked his pen away. “I made a design on her,” he told his fellow senator. “What will you do now?”

Mativ grinned. “You are full of surprises, Holt.”

Mr. Beanbutt actually smiled. “I used to do designs more often.”

Crossing the room, Mativ examined the mark on my skin. The ink glistened, still wet. “You marked her as you would a prostitute.”

I reeled to face Holt, and he met my anger with a cool expression. “Sooner or later, you will be Letris’ whore,” was all he said before ambling away. Damn him! And I thought he had been kind to apologize!

Then, a chilly finger on the ink flower made me jump. With an apologetic smile, Mativ removed his finger and crossed his arms. “That symbol once belonged to a quarter of the prostitutes in Haiathiel. Would it surprise you to learn that Holt was a frequenter of brothels?”

The older senator chuckled as I rubbed frantically at the ink flower, smudging it into a dark spot.

“Then, he left the Capitol for his father’s estate with no explanation. During the war with Gatha, he went off to fight and returned a crippled man to take the senatorship after his father’s death.”

“So strange.” The more I learned about the man, the less I understood.

“Holt is quite the mystery,” Mativ agreed. “I would be grateful if you could unravel him for me.”

Me, the one who gets on Holt’s nerves for no reason whatsoever? “I can’t.”

The senator extended his wrinkled hands in a why-not gesture. “Please. At least, befriend him.”

Befriend that man?

“For Cal’s sake,” Mativ said.

“What do you mean?”

“Holt has expressed his displeasure with our prince many times before.”

“Understatement of the year,” I muttered.

Mativ patted my head, and I blinked at the affectionate gesture. “Investigate for me. Find something that changed Holt’s priorities, and we may find a path to lessen his hatred for Cal.”

“Blackmail?” If it would keep Holt from speaking out against Cal…

Mativ gave me a pleasant but confused smile. Sometimes, I forgot that some terms did not translate into this world so well.

“Never mind.” Thus, I promised to do some poking around, and we exchanged typical court niceties before we parted. Hopefully, this investigation could take an edge off my curiosity about the senator who had repeated “Cal’s brand of promiscuity” himself.

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