Callie and I were making our way to the castle atrium, cloaks in our arms, when we ran into the senator. He had donned a black woolen jacket with a fluffy ruff, which fitted him as tightly as the black shirt underneath.
“I’m Callie.” My fellow maid offered a hand to Gale, which he took and kissed with a pleasant smile that lingered. No doubt he noticed Callie’s general loveliness, her prized auburn hair and kind, blue eyes.
“I am Senator Gale Holt. Please call me Gale.” He swept his eyes over us. “You both may want to put on your cloaks. It’s chilly outside.”
I pulled on my purple cloak and nudged Callie, who was taking in the senator’s lanky figure. As a library maid, she probably read too many romance novels with tall, dark and handsome men for her own good…not that the senator was that much of a looker. “Oh,” she said, pulling her own cloak around her with a sheepish smile.
“How are we getting past the guards at the gate?”
Holt only placed a finger to his lips. Somehow, the senator managed to make Cal disappear, but how could he make the guards at the castle gate vanish? The guards would hardly allow a senator to kidnap two of the prince’s maids.
Senator Holt slipped through the castle doors into the darkness of the bailey. We soon stood in the shadow of the castle. The king’s castle had four floors, with towers jutting out at odd angles at each level. It was as if a child had taken a still drying painting of a gray castle and smeared parts of the castle upward with eager fingers.
Firelit lampposts lined a stone path that divided the lawn into two. The path led to the only opening in the walls surrounding the castle. The senator had already reached the metal gates and gone through them with an inappropriate swagger. The guards standing watch saluted and winked as we scurried through the open gate.
“How?” I asked out on the quiet Capitol street.
The senator smirked. “A bribe, of course.” The self-satisfaction on his face deepened as Callie giggled. Of all the maids in the castle, I considered Callie the most sensible, since she had only slept with Cal once and didn’t moon after him.
I crossed my arms. “That money could have gone into a beggar’s pocket.” Callie grabbed my arm, shaking her head. No maid would dare admonish a senator, but I was a taste-tester. Ha!
“Beggars don’t have pockets,” Holt said in what he apparently thought was a morose tone. Making fun of the people he was supposed to look out for…I turned my thoughts away from the incorrigibly rude senator and to the Capitol.
A few people wandered along the cobbled street: two mothers with young children, a father with a tiny child on his shoulder, a group of young men with secretive grins. The buildings that lined the street were simply built and wooden, uncomfortably cramped next to each other. A few carts, pulled by petite horses, rattled on the road, going one way or another without regard to any rules, visible or otherwise.
“Most of them are going home now,” Holt narrated. “Shops are closing, and laborers are returning home. But every day they return to less and less.”
“So sad.” Callie gripped my arm. “I’m grateful that we’re in a better place.”
Even so, I observed, at a shack nearby, a man with a gaunt face greeted his waiting family cheerfully enough. His wife, standing at the threshold, was waiting with two small boys in her grasp. The woman kissed the returning man warmly, and then he scooped up the two boys, one in each arm, before striding into their tiny house. The wife followed, shutting the door behind them.
“They deserve better,” I stated with a glance back at our castle, which had too much room and luxuries for its number of occupants.
Without saying anything more, we headed down Main Street, where some shops remained open. The only street labeled was Main Street itself, a wide cobbled path that wound its way from the center of the city to the outskirts. Smaller streets branched out from the Main Street, leading beyond my vision.
The shops looked desolate, almost abandoned, though the occasional person strayed in and out. Missing shingles gave the roofs a gap-toothed look. The wood of the buildings around us had faded with age, though some larger buildings toned down the bleakness with wood stain or paint.
“This city needs renovation,” Holt stated, “but it’s too expensive at the moment.”
We both flinched when Callie screamed. A beggar had crawled out of nowhere to tug beseechingly at her skirts. He looked like a fleshy skeleton; his eyes were sunken into his face, his teeth black and yellow. His tunic and pants were tattered and grimy. Of course. He couldn’t afford to change clothes or even to wash them.
“Release the lady’s skirt,” Holt commanded like he would command a dog. Much to my surprise, the beggar listened and slinked back to stand and face us with a forlorn gaze. After a moment, the senator rummaged in his pocket and offered a coin to the man. “Eat something.”
Without sparing a moment for a thank-you, the man stumbled away.
“Don’t waste it on drink!” Holt called after him, but the guy headed, almost as if by habit, into a larger wooden building labeled “The Main Street Tavern.” The senator turned to us. “Yet another problem with handing out money freely. We need to give people opportunity.”
Then, Holt gestured for us to continue onward. Deeper into the city, I saw the same: flashes of happiness and misery, but always people who lived humbly, in dilapidated areas that belied my impression of Haiathiel as a country of wealth. Even the streetlamps were starting to crumble here and there, though Holt carefully steered us away from unlit areas.
The senator finally stopped outside a building of clean-cut stone. “Go look around,” the senator suggested.
Callie, whose eyes had fixed on the board for the clothes shop, nodded eagerly before curtsying to Holt. “Thank you, Senator, for escorting us out here.”
“If you need me, I’ll be in that shop.” He pointed to the black building a few doors down from the clothes shop. A sign with a hammer hung above the shop’s door.
I had no time to question him as Callie pulled me into the cool darkness of the clothes shop. Ha! Piles of jeans were stacked on the square tables at the front. My arrival in Haiathiel and Cal’s copying of the style had kicked off the new trend. The traditional Haiathiel tunic robe and leggings were still in stock of course.
The designs on the jeans, for both men and women, were embroidered with everything from flowers to ancient Haiathien letters. Some even had glittering jewels, which looked like the real kind to me. I wondered how Holt managed to find his pair of simple, white jeans.
The walls of the shop were covered in shelves that held button-up shirts and tunics. Handmade dresses hung in the hundreds near the middle of the shop, by the table where the shopkeeper himself sat. As far as I could see, not one item of clothing was alike.
“This shop is amazing!” Callie told the shopkeeper, who considered our dazed gawking with fatherly amusement.
His black moustache fluttered upward as he smiled. “Thank you, my lady. Is there anything I can help you find?”
I shook my head, and after hesitating, Callie did the same. Neither of us had money at the moment. “We’re just exploring,” I said.
“Are you new to the city?” The man gave off an air of polite interest, not the expected disdain for customers without coin to spend.
“In a way,” I admitted. For a year, I had been cooped up in the castle…and I been content to stay there.
“Then welcome. If you want any fashion advice, that at least, is free here. Please excuse me, ladies.” The shopkeeper rose to cater to the needs of an approaching customer. The customer, a woman in a glittering, red gown, began chattering to the shopkeeper, her fingers dancing in gestures particular to rich folk, and Callie pulled me away into a corner of the shop to emit a squeal of excitement. I hushed her, but she had only just begun.
“Avi, how did this happen?” Callie was flushed with excitement. “Every girl in the castle will be so jealous. Not only to be out in the city but to be escorted by a young, unmarried senator!”
This did not seem to be the time to bring up the idea of ulterior motivations.
“Being out of the castle is great, isn’t it? Wait until the other girls hear about this…”
Well, our escapade had been rather depressing. Callie nudged me. “Does the senator like you, Avi?”
“Huh? No!” I protested. “We can’t tell anyone about this! More than likely, we’ll be in trouble when we get back into the castle.” I blinked at my stupidity. “No wonder he was so nice! He’s trying to stain my reputation!”
Callie tilted her head. “Why?”
“To make Cal distrust me perhaps.”
Holt, hidden by a stack of pants, watched his plan backfire with dismay. If she disliked him so much, how could he persuade her to marry Letris? He didn’t like her per se, but he certainly wasn’t trying to discredit her in Cal’s eyes. At least, he had come back in time from the blacksmith’s shop to catch this important remnant of conversation.
He circled around, making enough noise for them to stop talking before he was within earshot. “All done?” he inquired.
Avi gave a slow nod. “Yes. Thank you for bringing us here, Senator.” Her voice rang out cold. Similarly, Callie wouldn’t meet his gaze anymore. Earlier, the maid had stared at him in a disconcerting yet somehow flattering manner.
“Let’s go then,” he said as the silence grew. On the way out, the shopkeeper stopped them with a raised hand to scrutinize Holt. The senator straightened, almost self-consciously.
“Very stylish,” the man said with approval.
With a faint blush, Senator Gale Holt stepped out onto Main Street. He froze as he came face to face with a person he least wanted to see—aside from the prince of Haiathiel. The tall, blonde man in front of them appeared perfectly polite as he doffed his softly-domed white hat.
“Senator.” Fitch’s eyes touched upon Avi and Callie before snapping back to the rigid senator. “Out with girls again? I see you’re starting to recover now.”
Holt felt the curious gazes of the women on him, so he gave none of the reaction Fitch had been aiming for. “Be careful what you say, Fautus, or you might find my tongue slipping in front of the king.”
Fitch Forthwright, known as Fautus Wright, to the people outside his scheming party, shrugged one shoulder. “Do so, and you will regret it.”
Callie drew in a breath at the threat and then clamped her hands over her mouth as Fitch glanced at her again.
“Yes, girl, I just threatened your senator without fear of punishment. Doesn’t that tell you how far the government has fallen?”
“Please, leave us.”
“So civil!” Fitch laughed. “That’s not your usual attitude with me, Gale. Does one of these strumpets mean something to you?” He took a step forward, fingers outstretched to take Avi’s face in his hands. Holt caught both of his limbs in an iron grip.
Fitch drew back, and the senator released him. “Very interesting.”
“I will not respond to so petty a provocation.” Holt smiled to himself wryly. There was only one person who could anger him for seemingly no reason at all, and she was standing beside him. “Leave the women out of this.”
“Everyone is involved in this mess, Gale. No one will be left unscathed.” With those ominous words, Fitch straightened his hat and strolled into the clothes shop they had just left.
The senator exhaled. “Let’s hurry and see what other surprises the Capitol has to offer.” Hopefully, they would be more pleasant surprises than Fitch Forthwright.
“Who was he?” Avi asked. Her coldness had disappeared.
“An unpleasant acquaintance. He speaks without thinking. Don’t mind a thing he says,” Gale said before ushering them toward another line of shops.