Day two of the senator’s stay. I had expected it to be awkward as the unresolved tension between Holt and Cal swept through the castle. I expected them both to be in a terrible huff, but sometimes, events that twist your guts in dread never turn out as expected. Anyway, the first surprise of the day came during breakfast.
That morning, Mr. Beanbutt walked into the dining room without his robes on. No, he wasn’t naked. In fact, he was adequately attired in a black, long-sleeved silk button-up shirt with classy, silver buttons and white (not to mention rather tight!) jeans. His limbs were amazingly long, which was appropriate considering his towering height but still…I hated the way I noticed how the dark shirt brought out the blue in his inscrutable gaze.
Except for the king, everyone paused to gawk. Even the unshakable Senator Mativ froze, and he, as the king’s advisor, had seen and heard far more shocking supplicants in the king’s reception chamber.
“Your mouth’s open,” Holt said, passing me on his way to breakfast, which I had inspected. No glowing unfortunately. Otherwise, I could have slipped Mr. Tightpants some of it.
“It is not!” I protested, too loudly I realized when everyone turned their gaze to me. I bowed my head, and Otelius placed a comforting hand on my shoulder.
It wasn’t me I was concerned about. Mr. Beanbutt was doing this to antagonize Cal. My prince’s face revealed nothing. He had returned to scarfing down a batch of roundcakes.
“Senator, you look dashing today,” Aelius exclaimed, brandishing a grape as the senator sashayed towards the breakfast table.
Mr. Tightpants grinned and managed a semblance of handsomeness for a moment. Just for a moment. “Thank you.” Settling his crazy long body into a seat, the senator began to serve himself breakfast since the serving maid, Laura, was too busy staring to do it.
The senator robes, I supposed, were loose enough to hide a body’s shape. From Holt’s usual attire, you would only be able to tell his height, not the sensual arrangement of his stupid body parts.
“Why are you dressed like that, Senator?” I interrogated him, ignoring Otelius’ groan. Yeah, servants weren’t supposed to talk while the royals and guests ate. Oops.
Holt flashed me a gentleman’s smile, which didn’t reach his eyes. “I need to have my robes laundered.”
“Ah.” I subsided to my corner as they ate. Cal was diligently focused on his food while his father discussed matters of the kingdom with Mr. Beanbutt and Mativ. Cal should be part of that conversation, not the senators! Cal was supposed to know even more about the happenings of the kingdoms. Only, he didn’t. He had the interest of a five-year-old, who knows nothing of administration or tact, only of play.
After that disastrous breakfast, I followed Cal up to his study. The prince of Haiathiel shuffled the papers on his desk. “Did he impress you, Avi?” Cal asked, sounding as if he had swallowed a particularly astringent food.
“Of course not!” Cal had never had competition before.
Cal’s green eyes flickered, but he managed a smile. “Avi, could you please leave me for a little while?”
“You’re worth twenty of him, Cal.” He didn’t even respond, so I scurried out of the study. No, Cal was worth a hundred Holts. Even if he wasn’t ready to take the throne, the prince still had time to learn.
Exiled once again, I climbed the spiral staircase up to the roof. I had expected company, but the smooth gray surface was empty. I wandered towards my usual spot, where the view of the city was the best. The Capitol’s cobble streets were already filled with carts. People streamed along the road’s footpaths, full of purpose.
I had it good here, but sometimes, I wished Cal would let me leave the castle. “No, no, no,” Cal had chuckled whenever I asked. “There’s nothing out there. All you need is in this castle, and if it’s not, I’ll have it brought in.” But freedom! How could Cal bring that into the castle? How could I be so ungrateful?
“What was that sigh for?”
I knew I shouldn’t have probed him about his clothes earlier. Now he was probing me. Ascending the staircase with a grace I hadn’t noticed before, the senator invaded the rooftop. At least, he had the decency to stand a few feet away.
I surprised myself by being honest. “I want to see the Capitol.”
“There’s not much to see,” Holt said, echoing Cal. “Would you like to gawk at the laborers, who struggle to make a living? Perhaps the deceptive trading of the merchants that goes unchecked is more appealing? Perhaps even the beggars, who have no opportunities, who suffer the weather in silent agony?”
I clamped my hands over my ears. “Why don’t you help them? You have money!” I spat before cringing at my tone.
“I am one man with limited power,” he answered. “I do have alms distributed daily in the town where my manor resides, but there is only so much that one man can give, Miss Avi. It requires a king to force his subjects to re-distribute the wealth, to change the laws and give his people hope.”
For the past year, I hadn’t seen Aelius doing any of that. “I’ll make sure Cal acts to help them once he’s king.”
“You do seem to have a sway over Letris’ thoughts and actions,” he admitted. “Have you ever considered that he might marry you?”
Marry a prince? “No!” I sputtered. “He’ll want a prettier wife, who’s not constantly nagging him.”
“Maybe he needs a nag,” Holt said. “Then he might take his duties seriously.”
The senator did look earnest; it wasn’t a joke or mockery. Still, as much as I loved Cal, I couldn’t marry him. He wasn’t my true love. Plus I didn’t want to be queen. “No.”
The only sound for a minute was the wind whipping past, a wailing that matched the scream of defiance in my heart at the thought of marrying Cal. Holt gave me that deep, unbearable bow again. “It was a stray idea. Forgive me if I offended you.”
I squinted at him. “Are you trying to be nice?”
“Trying?” He twisted his entire body away and then tilted his head back at me. “Generally, I am a nice person.”
“Not around Cal’s sluts, as you call us,” I returned.
Holt’s eyebrows furrowed, and for a moment, I believed he was going to yell at me. “Then allow me to apologize for my rudeness by smuggling you out to the Capitol for an evening.”
That sounded highly suspicious. “How will you manage that?”
He tapped my nose, and I resisted the urge to bite his finger off. “I have my ways. So?”
“Fine! But I’m bringing a friend along.” That way, I wouldn’t be alone with Mr. Beanbutt. After giving a gracious nod, the senator sauntered away, unaware of my flustered thoughts.
He was up to something. I would find Callie! She, of all girls, would appreciate leaving the castle.
“Why are you grinning like a cat that’s gotten into a bottle of cream?” Seated on the floor of her bedroom, Aliasse took in the sight of her foster brother in a way that she knew wasn’t sisterly but couldn’t help. “Where did those clothes come from?”
“I went shopping,” Gale replied with a pluck of a black sleeve. “By the looks I’m getting, it seems I still have my old allure.”
“That tight clothing would make any man look alluring,” she returned. “What happened to the days when you could pull off drawing women in a proper tunic?”
“They’re gone.” He waved her teasing away. “Do you think Letris would settle down with a marriage to the taste-tester?”
She slipped off her wig and shook out her curly hair. “He does reference her quite often in our conversations,” she said. “I would guess…that he has strong feelings for her.”
Gale settled on the sofa. “Then it’s a true shame that the taste-tester doesn’t want to marry him. Somehow, I have to bring those two together, and the kingdom just might survive.”
“You would leave the kingdom in a taste-tester’s hands?” Aliasse grumbled as she joined him on the sofa. The Forthwright party wouldn’t be deterred by such a marriage. “I just realized: in the end, I have to kill poor, sweet Cal.”
There is nothing poor or sweet about Letris, Gale thought, but he reassured her, “Perhaps not, if Avi marries the prince. She seems smarter about Letris than the other maids here, even you unfortunately.” He smiled as Aliasse glared at him. “That girl is constantly drawn to the open space on the roof. She wants to leave the castle…”
None of the maids here wanted to leave the microcosm of luxury. “That’s very strange,” Aliasse admitted.
Gale sprang to his feet and began to pace, his long strides eating up the length of the room in a matter of seconds. He was turning back and forth so quickly that Aliasse felt dizzy just watching. “If Avi married Letris, I doubt she would tolerate him wandering from her bed! He may become more responsible as his playthings are taken from him. Furthermore, it doesn’t clash with the tradition of kings marrying servants.”
Winded, he sat again. Then he noticed Aliasse’s stony expression. “There’s no use in getting fond of the prince. He will never be yours alone, but Avi has a chance.”
Aliasse placed her chin on the pillow in her lap. “I know! So the new plan is: save Prince Letris by forcing Avi to love him. Forthwright won’t understand that.”
For safety, though few would step into a maid’s rooms without knocking, Gale continued in a fierce whisper, “He better! I’ll settle for a way to save the kingdom through marriage than murder. I can’t believe I’m saving the man’s life and likely risking ours.” With Forthwright, one could be certain he would react unpleasantly to the thwarting of his plans. Gale made a mental note to pick out a gun to buy when he visited the Capitol. “Oh, Aliasse…”
“Could you keep Letris busy tonight? Not too busy, mind you,” he added. “Charm him with your conversation or play a game. An innocent one. A board game perhaps.”
Aliasse stood with flourish. “Can do. Remember Mr. Surton?”
“You fended him off for years.” Gale recalled the wealthy merchant who had tried to woo Aliasse before she became caught up in Forthwright’s ideals.
“Where are you going tonight?”
“The Capitol with Avi. I need to show her what’s going on outside the castle.”
“I have to earn her trust before I can persuade her to marry Letris.”
“So, she’s your pawn...”
They were nose to nose until Gale stepped back to bow in deference to her opinion. The humble gesture made Aliasse forgive him a little. “Trust me, I’m not manipulating her to hurt her. This is for the sake of the kingdom, and we’re all doomed to civil war if Letris does not change his behavior. People will die, Aliasse, if this is not done.”
As always, Gale was right. “I thought you gave up on changing the prince.”
“I did, but I don’t want you to become a murderer.”
Aliasse accepted the love behind his concern and asked, “When do you need Cal occupied?”
“Seven to ten.”
“A long time to earn a girl’s trust…”
“Three hours to explore the Capitol and begin saving the kingdom,” Gale said, unperturbed by the insinuation. When Aliasse nodded, he kissed her cheek. “Now I’m going to go and change out of these suffocating clothes.”
Turning away, Aliasse hid a blush. That kiss had been sweet and brotherly and yet… “The sooner you change out of those, the better,” she said.
He chuckled, but as he left, Aliasse doubted he understood the deeper, darker meaning. How could different clothes change her feelings for Gale?