Breakfast with a new guest somehow meant I had to inspect four times the amount of food that was normally served. Afterwards, I stood in the corner with Otelius while the actual diners ate without a word. Even King Aelius could sense that words between the two young men would multiply rather than soothe the tension.
While Holt ate with stiff discomfort, Cal helped himself to food with bold, elegant motions. His movements were too graceful for a simple meal. No, it was not that I was so in love with his appearance that every motion of his was, in my eyes, beautiful beyond compare. That would be too easy an explanation. There were men as handsome as Cal without the same appeal.
“What are you staring at?” The whisper hit me like a pebble to the head. Grr, Holt! I had a second to identify the enemy before the senator departed the dining hall.
Otelius grinned with half his mouth. The left side had been paralyzed since his involvement in the war for Haiathiel’s unification. “He seems to enjoy heckling you.”
Yes, he did. Either way, I wouldn’t allow Holt to get to me. After breakfast, I followed Cal to his wing of the castle. The laundry maid Lianne was waiting in the solar. She flashed him a smile and gestured to the silver platter on the table. The tray held tiny, perfectly triangular sandwiches. “I made them for you.”
Outwardly, they weren’t poisoned, but as Cal’s hand slipped from mine, I knew I lost my prince to lust in an instant. Cal glanced back at me with gentle entreaty in his eyes.
“You might not want to stick around for this,” that glance said.
Lianne giggled as Cal pulled her into his arms. “Don’t tell me you neglected your duty for my sake,” he said.
She snuggled her head into Cal’s shoulder. “I finished your laundry before heading to the kitchens.”
As a couple, they looked perfect and beautiful. I could easily see them making pretty, fair-haired babies.
When Cal gave me an inviting smile, I shook my head. Then, they disappeared deeper into the prince’s rooms, likely to the bedroom. With Cal occupied, I had nothing much to do. As a “taste-tester,” my services were required only during meals and snacks. I also did my best to advise Cal even though most of my suggestions entered one of his delicate ears and came out through the other more often than not.
So, I headed up to the castle roof where a rough wind greeted me with a battering. Gray clouds clumped in the sky, signaling rain either for tonight or early tomorrow. Perhaps because of the coming storm, the wind’s caresses were rougher than usual, making my hair ripple and twist. The sensation felt liberating even though it tangled my hair, and I would have to spend the next half hour picking out knots.
“This is your favorite place, huh?”
A jolt of self-consciousness made my face burn as I patted my hair down. I pinned my hands to my sides since the wind was also wreaking havoc with the ends of my skirt. “So, your new hobby is disturbing my peace of mind.”
Mr. Beanbutt snorted. “Trust me, I do not go out of my way to follow you.”
After braiding my hair, I pointed out, “If you guessed this was my favorite place, why come up here?”
“Fresh air,” Holt said. He dared to come closer, almost tiptoeing. “The castle reeks of Cal’s lust. This is the only place that doesn’t.”
“Sure, but it’s my place,” I settled for. “Besides, a number of the brothels in Haiathiel once held the stink of your lust.” My body tensed, ready to dodge.
“Once,” he agreed without any anger. “I changed, so perhaps Letris can. I doubt it though.”
“So you admit it?”
“That Letris is a hopeless case?”
“That you were just as shameless?” I clamped a hand over my mouth, but Holt’s expression held only a touch of sadness. Was he already jaded by insults like those?
“Yes, I was and equally neglectful to the ones around me.”
Neglectful? Cal loved every woman he bedded. He never punished unwilling women. He never made a woman feel unwanted. So, they all flocked to him, clamoring to get into his bed. Maybe he thought himself kind as he satisfied their desires. Even so, once Cal took a girl, she was addicted for life.
Gentle fingers tugged on my braid. Holt’s mask returned as I glowered at him. “What do you want?”
“Please, look after my cousin.” Mr. Beanbutt had a weakness: Aliasse, who, though he continued to call her so, wasn’t a cousin but likely a lover. Yet he acted like a bitter, angry man with no love in his life.
A hiss of pain brought me out of my musings. Holt’s face went pale as he doubled over to clutch at his leg. “Damn this leg.”
“Have you tried physical therapy?” I asked, concerned despite my distaste for this man. Anyone in pain troubled me. It didn’t matter if the person was my mortal enemy. Well, maybe I would care less if the person had hurt me again and again on purpose. Though Mr. Beanbutt fit that description...
“I exercise it every day,” Holt said, clutching at his knee so hard that the tendons in his hands bulged.
Dropping into a crouch beside him, I pried his fingers away from the soft cloth of the formal pants that completed the senator’s uniform. “Have you tried a massage?”
“No.” The senator was panting as hard as a smoker who had run a marathon. “Maybe I should cut the damn leg off.”
“Well, if you cut if off, you can get a pegleg. What happened to it?”
“Nerve damage. Irreparable.”
Since he apparently wasn’t in the mood for jokes, I offered, “Have you considered pain relievers? I know Jim has—”
“Of course I have.” Holt lifted his head to flash me a sardonic smile. “Stop interrogating me. You’re not my doctor.”
Way too nice for my own good, I held out a hand. “Can you stand?” His answer was to grasp my hand, twining his fingers around mine, and pull himself up, nearly pulling me down in the process. Still hunched in pain, his head hovered at the same height as mine.
I tugged his arm, and he staggered like a drunk. “Let’s go find Jim! He gives the best massages.”
Being Cal’s chamberlain and doctor, Jim had to know the art of massaging. The old man was as free with his massages as Cal was with his kisses, but the old man wasn’t a pervert. Guiding the senator, I headed towards Jim’s quarters—a few small rooms connected to Cal’s wing of the castle.
Holt watched the girl drop onto the sofa in the room outside her bedchamber. Her set of rooms was even bigger than Aliasse’s, large enough to house a family of four comfortably. The current chamber held four sofas with embroidered poufs arranged around a twisted block of mahogany that was more sculpture than table. A luxurious, patterned carpet softened the stone floor; the red color complemented the banners and tapestries on the walls.
The prince’s doctor had not been in his rooms or in any part of the castle. Tenacious, the taste-tester had dragged Holt to Aelius, who revealed that Jim had gone out of the castle on an errand.
“What now?” he asked.
Her dark eyes flitted to him and then away. Avi bit the bottom of her lip, charmingly uncertain until her face sharpened into a glare. “I could massage your leg,” she muttered. Her expression convinced Holt that she would rather not. “Unfortunately, I’m not as skilled as Jim.”
Holt turned away, drawing a breath to stifle a groan of pain. Why was his leg acting up now? She pulled him backwards to sit on the sofa. That simple motion made lightning bolts of agony shoot through the limb.
“Damn,” he swore.
The sound of cracking knuckles made him look up. Avi had rolled up her ridiculously lacy sleeves. The maid’s outfits, generally speaking, appeared ridiculous in comparison to austere senator’s robes. The maid’s dress also clung to the woman’s figure as the prince liked it.
“I’ll do it.” Avi settled on the floor next to his leg. “Roll up your pant leg.”
Shocked, he complied, aware of, as his chest brushed the top of her dark head, the sweet, natural smell of Avi. The girl, who insulted him, posed a threat to Aliasse, was now being unbearably kind. Holt grimaced. She was also seated dangerously between his legs. Heat already rose in the pit of his stomach. He twitched at the first touch of cool, feminine fingers.
Meanwhile, Avi examined the leg with a frown. Crooked pink scars showed her exactly where the skin had been patched together. No hair grew where the injury was; it was disturbingly smooth like a burn.
Holt didn’t say a word as she worked with fingers exerting expert pressure. Instead, he entertained himself with thoughts of seducing her. Letris would be furious to find her in this compromising position.
“Why did you go off to fight in a war anyway?”Holt gritted his teeth as the bliss in his lower body disappeared at her accusing voice. It was that physical feeling, he feared, more than the massage that masked the pain. As for why he had joined the war…Most men joined to serve his country, but Holt had also gone to kill or cripple himself. He would never consider a future or marriage. He would never make the mistake of falling in love again.
“What business is it of yours?” he replied. This girl wouldn’t understand.
Avi shrugged. “I was trying to make this less awkward.”
Her laugh startled him. “Fine,” Avi said. “At least, your leg isn’t tense anymore.”
He stared at the dark braid lying along the curve of her back and realized his leg had indeed stopped throbbing. “Hmm. Yes.”
“Of course,” she continued brightly, “the pain might have gone away because of a certain excitement. Despite your I’m-holier-than-thou attitude, you’re as bad as Cal.”
“How so?” Holt pressed his back into the sofa until he felt the wood frame. He had been caught.
“That thing between your legs was going stiff.” She crawled away and stood, brushing off her skirts. Avi gave him a solemn glance. “I’m ashamed that you have proved that all men are the same.”
Holt found he couldn’t give her a proper rebuttal. He couldn’t hide his body’s betrayal or explain the reason for it without making matters worse.
“I may not be a doctor, but I know your cure: a prostitute that’ll give you a nice, long blow.”
Holt sprang to his feet, but the girl didn’t even flinch.
“Have a nice day, Senator.” She ran towards the bedroom and slammed the door shut.
When the words sank in and Holt finally found the anger to pursue, he discovered the door to her bedchamber was locked.
On my bed, I curled into a ball. I had never been this rude to anyone before, but his reaction was so disgusting. A knock. It couldn’t be Mr. Beanbutt? I had expected him to leave, cursing me for revealing how similar he was to Cal.
As the knocking continued, I slunk to the door. “Who is it?”
“Your mother,” he sang back.
If he only were! When I had been jerked off Earth and into this world, I hadn’t been given a chance to pack. Otherwise, I would have brought photos of my parents and the battered copies of books they loved and left to me. It felt strange that Holt of all people brought it up since Cal was the only person I had ever mentioned my parents to.
“My mother died in an accident when I was young.”
Silence fell on the other side of the door and then: “I am truly sorry. Maybe I need to stop being careless with my words.” Holt sounded genuine enough, so I opened the door. Since he had been leaning against the door, the senator nearly fell forward, but he straightened and took in the sight of my bedroom with a frown.
“Why is it so luxurious?”
“Cal insists on it,” I said. If I could have my way, my room would be smaller and less furnished. The luxury of the bedroom was one matter Cal would not be budged on.
As the senator gave me a low bow, I hopped back. When he came up to his full height, his gaze locked onto mine. “Please ignore the words that come from mouth,” he said.
“What was that?” I tilted my head in his direction and cupped my ear.
“I deserve that, don’t I?” He dipped his head again, low enough to honor a princess. “Good day, Miss Avi.”
Miss Avi? As he retreated, I resigned myself to feeling like the bad guy. Closing my door, I strolled over to the bed, on which sprawled two coverlets, three embroidered blankets and more than enough pillows for one head.
“Ah, what do I do?” I asked the mirror. “Apologize maybe.” Setting my face into a pleasant smile, I left my chambers to do that. The castle hummed with its typical business. Maids mostly were scurrying here and there to complete their daily chores, always with an eye out for Cal.
Cal! That idiot! He was probably bedding Lianne. I glanced at the clock placed conveniently in the atrium. It had been hours since I had last seen my prince…Well, according to some, Cal could keep a girl occupied for up to four hours. Must be a ton of foreplay…
My dirty musings were broken by smooth hands on my shoulders. I struggled away from the grip and whipped around to find Senator Mativ with his arms uplifted. When I sighed, the elderly senator gave me a bow. “I apologize to keep startling you.”
Handsy for a senator. “Tap me on the shoulder or arm next time,” I said.
Mativ touched his forehead in a way that symbolized an apology. “Did you find out anything about Holt?”
“Only that if you start talking about your deceased relatives, he acts much nicer.” Judging by the confusion on Mativ’s face, that was clearly not the answer he was looking for. “Oh, do you want dirty political secrets out of Holt?”
“I suppose you could call it that.” Mativ shifted uneasily, still probably unused to my strange way of talking. “His loyalty to the king is suspect.”
Gale Holt, a traitor? I could and couldn’t see it. Holt still seemed deferent to Aelius, but once Cal took the throne...If Cal took the throne... “You think Holt is staying here to prevent Cal from becoming king? I can’t promise anything, Senator, but I’ll try to get him to spill his plans.”
“Thank you.” Mativ swept out of the corridor without even a decent farewell to me. What was his hurry? Either way, I’d had enough of senators today! I dropped by my chambers to pick up a book and then traipsed all the way to the windy roof. Though I couldn’t relax knowing that Holt was plotting something.
The senator paused, blood pulsing in his ears. He shook his head slightly, so he could better distinguish the voices in Aliasse’s room. He placed his head against the door and heard a giggle and the soft sound of a kiss. A few moments later, the door opened, almost hitting Holt.
The prince of Haiathiel shut the door behind him and, at the sight of the white-faced senator, stopped with a grin. Letris tilted his head, faintly inquisitive as Holt flinched at the flare of pain clawing at his leg again. Eyes watering, Holt shook his head and watched the prince amble away.
The door snapped open again and hit the senator’s shoulder with a dull thud. Aliasse drew in a breath, looking guilty. “I’m sorry.” She reached out to rub his shoulder, but Holt stepped away from her fingers.
“You touched him.”
Aliasse hated when Gale whispered like this. Even yelling would be preferable to this cold, immovable fury. “I’ve only kissed him once.”
When he said nothing, she lowered her eyes and held out her hands helplessly. “He’s dangerously irresistible. I admire Avi for holding out for so long. Gale?”
He could see the marks Cal had left on her: the dazed eyes, the collar of her dress torn open with the prince’s careless lust. “Aliasse…”
“I only asked him here to see if he would drink or eat without Avi present. He won’t. He actually distracted me from the food,” Aliasse said, taking his hands, “but nothing more will happen between me and the prince.”
Gale pulled away, but his tone was gentle now. “Make sure of it. The Forthwright party doesn’t take failure lightly.”
Aliasse didn’t have to be reminded of that. She had heard of the horrible fates dealt to members of the party who attempted defection: untraceable drowning and murders in even the busiest areas of the city.
“Anyway, I’m not sure staying here is wise,” Gale said.
Aliasse shook her head, the most earnest assassin. The senator still couldn’t believe that Forthwright had brushed her off so lightly. “We’ll be fine. You just have to start acting civil around the taste-tester.” When he stared at her incredulously, she gave him an apologetic half-shrug. As Gale remained silent, Aliasse retreated back to her room.
Civil? He could act civil. If Aliasse wanted him to act, he would act.