A bell tolled in the distance, signaling sundown and the closing of the gates—but the gates to Tower of the Moon would not close tonight. Aria took a deep breath as she scanned the endless legions spanning the jade grass of the Plains Realm. Tens of thousands of men lined up at the roots of the Northern Kingdom mountains, their moonsilver armor glinting in the setting sun. Atop the city wall, Sebastian stood on her right side, smiling slightly.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” a man behind Aria said.
She turned back to meet Cesare’s gaze; he stood with a gaggle of courtiers from the palace. The Northern Kingdom’s treasurer had the common blonde, curly hair and brown eyes of the realm, though his height made him a bit uncommon; he came nowhere close to Sebastian in stature, but he still stood taller than most men of the north. Rather than distinguish him, though, his height seemed a burden—he always hunched his shoulders forward slightly, as if to distract from it. His lanky face had a pinched look about it, too, as if it resented being as long as his body.
“King Sireno is sending roughly half the population of the Ice Realm to help you fight the usurper Alistair,” Cesare said.
“King Sireno is generous,” Aria replied with a winning smile. “As are you, dear Cesare.”
He glanced at Sebastian, color rising in his cheeks, before he said, “I’m glad I could provide you something worth having, in the end.”
“Nonsense,” Aria said. “The bid left a sour taste in my mouth. I’m happier to think of you here as my friend.”
“Of course,” Cesare said, with a little bow. “Queens should not be subjected to such things.”
“Nor anyone, really, but we never talk about that,” Sebastian said.
Cesare scowled at him. “I wonder if you might dine with me tonight, my lady. It’s your last night in the realm, and I’d like to show you what else I have to offer as an alliance.”
“I would be awful company,” Aria said. “My mind is a mess, with everything going on. I beg you to save our dining together for a time when I can be fully present.”
Cesare bowed again. “I would be honored, Queen Aria. Even for you to ever grace me with your presence.”
“As would I,” another courtier, Libero, said. “I’m particularly interested in your views on the war in your home realm, and what you plan to do after you take the throne.”
“I will heal the wounds of the realm, first and foremost,” Aria said. “And my only opinion of the war now is the justification in it, after what Alistair stole from me.”
The men murmured in assent.
“My troops need a strong leader,” a courtier named Piero said. “I hope you’re prepared, Queen Aria.”
“I am,” she said. “I plan to learn the sword by my own hand as we go south, so that I might be a more appealing leader to my own people. But I doubt those skills will apply only to them.”
Piero nodded. “I’ll be following your progress with interest.”
“Speaking of progress, if you’d like us to make any, you’d best get back to the castle,” Sebastian said. “Aria and I have some things to discuss before we march.”
The courtiers dispersed, Cesare with a lingering look nothing short of longing. To Aria’s left, Weston paced back and forth on the wall, his eyes distant. He wore the colors of his kingdom—white and green—and paid no attention to the dismissal of the Northern Kingdom men.
When they were alone, Aria turned to Sebastian and said, “I have no way to thank you for this.”
“No need,” he replied. “Sireno will accept payment in moonsilver, and a little bit of a military boost if we ever go to war.”
“I meant I don’t know how to thank you.”
He tilted his head.
“You made this possible,” she said. “You forced me to tell the truth. You did the research, the influencing of courtiers, everything.”
“Ah,” he said, waving a hand. “It was easy, really. A beautiful girl like you, and to find out she had been so wronged—those men were tripping over themselves to help you. The Northern Kingdom is a particularly romantic culture.”
“The ease doesn’t matter. It was still a complex task. And here we are, as if it were nothing at all.”
“Games,” Sebastian said. “Nothing but games.”
She swept her gaze over the legions again. “And we seem to have won. Prince Bohdan heard the rumors and invited me to Reziva before we could even ask. King Ezra is asking for reports from Weston, as if they never had a falling out.”
As if on cue, Weston ambled over to join them. He didn’t meet Aria’s eyes; they hadn’t spoken of their disagreement in weeks.
“My father is sending my brother Ian to meet me on the southern border of the Forest Realm,” Weston said. “He wants a full report, preferably when I’m separate from you. Then, Ian wants to meet you.”
“He’ll have to wait for Aria to meet Valtteri, the heir apparent,” Sebastian said, with the shadow of a wink in Aria’s direction.
“Until I take the throne, I’m not interested in marriage,” Aria said. “It’s pointless anyway.”
Weston crossed his arms, his gaze on the hazy horizon. “I’ll report it to Ian, but it won’t make a difference.”
“You might be careful not to insult anyone beyond repair, is all,” Sebastian told Aria. “But I’ll leave the games up to you.”
She smirked. “Very well. My first lesson in politics.”
“Not nearly the first,” Sebastian said. “The other aspects just came naturally to you.”
“Is that true, or are you just flattering me?” she asked.
Weston glanced at Sebastian, his expression dark. Sebastian didn’t notice; he watched Aria with an amused glint in his eyes.
“I’m good at flattering, my queen,” he said. “I’m good at propriety, and social maneuvering, and countless other silly things.”
“Are they silly?” she asked. “When you can influence so much?”
“Well…” He looked her up and down, as if sizing her up. “I’ve thought about this quite a lot, actually. To a man who spends his life in the fields, or chipping away at ore in a mine, what I do is less than useless. And I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to be him, would I? But at the core, a man like that and a man like me could find something we agree on—some belief we find fundamental, or some philosophy we try to live by. Right now, my strongest belief is that you’re the right leader for your people. Everything you’ve told me convinces me so, and everything I hear about your brother…well, the signs are damning. Not only are you a lovely girl, but you have a true touch for what we’re doing, if I provide you with the right resources. When you spend some time with a military man like Valtteri, it might seem like my flattery is useless in comparison. But hopefully, a man like Valtteri and a man like me can agree on one thing—which is that we believe in you. With that at the base of what we do—well, we all have varying talents. But they can all be of some use to you, too, in the end.”
Aria grinned, and one of Sebastian’s eyebrows twitched up humorously. Weston exhaled sharply through his nose and stalked off along the marble wall.
“He thinks I’m flirting with you,” Sebastian said, bracing his forearms against the wall. “He thinks any man that speaks with you these days is flirting with you.”
“Your intonation always does sound like flirting, you know.”
Sebastian chuckled. “One of my talents—making women feel desired.”
“Did you mean what you said?” Aria asked quietly. “That you believe in me?”
He met her eyes. “Of course. The thing about my flattery is that I don’t bother wasting it. It’s too good, you see.”
She made a face at him, and he laughed.
“Really, Aria. I know you’re not truly insecure. Why do you keep asking these things?”
“I’m not insecure about the things I know are part of me,” she said. “But this throne hasn’t felt like it was mine since I was eight. I’ve never felt like a leader, and when you say this Valtteri might believe in me like one—”
“He’d be a fool not to. My sources say he’s much kinder and more reserved than his father. He’ll give you a fair chance to show him what you can do.”
“You took me into Sireno’s court for two weeks and act like I know all there is to know about politics.”
“Don’t you?” he said, arching an eyebrow. “It’s all about give and take. Letting the right people take from you, so they can give you something you need later. There’s not much more to it than that, although that doesn’t cover the execution by half.”
“I gave most of the people in this court little but vapid conversation.”
“You gave them a taste of how you can work a room,” he said. “These positions are all about perception, Aria. In the brothels, you learned as much as any royal princess about keeping a powerful man happy if you need something from him. You never really stopped playing a game, and the one you played here was only subtly different.”
“Sometimes I feel like there’s no room for me to be anything but a mask.”
Sebastian shrugged. “The distinction is, as a queen, you call the shots. As a courtesan, you always moved for someone else.”
She leaned her hip against the wall, close enough to Sebastian that she could smell him. It hit her the same as before—oddly enticing. Just as she questioned her ability to lead a realm without any experience, though, she didn’t quite trust her feelings for Sebastian.
“I wonder where I might be if Weston had won the bid,” she said, her voice barely carrying. Weston skulked to and fro a few meters away, throwing them furtive glances. “Or Cesare.”
“Cesare would have been too far up his own ass to even notice you needed helped, and Weston doesn’t seem like the man you thought he was when you fell in love with him.”
Aria found Sebastian’s emerald green eyes and shook her head. “He’s not. He wants something from me. And if I never give it to him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he betrayed me in some way.”
“Me either,” Sebastian said. “And the instinct to not trust him—it does you credit in this game. If you’re continually looking for reasons why I have faith in you, that’s one of them.”
She brushed her hair back from her face absentmindedly. “So we march tomorrow for the Southern Arm. Prince Bohdan seems like an interesting character.”
“He’s a manipulator,” Sebastian said. “We’ll want to be careful he doesn’t manipulate you into anything detrimental to your queendom. His son did just make him effectively a king.”
“I hope Alistair is the only one I disabuse of any notions. I’m not sure I have the fortitude to topple two kingdoms.”
Sebastian laughed. “The Southern Arm would never stand on its own. Not truly. It’s Alistair we’ll focus on.” He paused. “You never really speak of him, you know.”
Aria sighed, her stomach knotting. “Alistair stole my inheritance and did nothing but abuse it. When I think of becoming someone I should have been—when I think of how often I question my own ability to be a queen—I remember how angry that makes me. And I can’t speak of Alistair when I’m angry. It’s not productive.”
“Anger is useful, if you can control it,” Sebastian said. “But not if it overtakes you.”
“I’ll be sure to keep it in check for you, then.”
“Not just for me,” he said, smiling. “Your people are angry, too. You can lead them with your own, but never lose sight of the goal.”
She nodded. “It’s not even truly about Alistair. It’s about the throne, and the realm, and the people.”
He stood straight, running a hand through his hair. “It is indeed. I wish more of those in positions of power could remember that.”
“Well, if they’ve never been humbled, perhaps it’s more difficult.”
He exhaled a laugh. “I think you’re ready to meet the captain of your forces, you know.”
“These forces?” Aria asked.
“No,” Sebastian said, grinning. “Your potential suitor—Valtteri.”