“Where is your lovely suitor?” Alistair asked, leaning his hip against the balcony railing. They stood on the palace steps overlooking Tiraspol, waiting for King Ezra of the Forest Realm and his son, Prince Ian, to ride up through the city. Not a single cloud marred the sky above, and the rush of the sea hitting the rocks on the beach drowned out the gentle hiss of the wind.
“He’ll be here,” Aria said. “He knows Ian from Wastelander battles, apparently.”
“Does he say he’s a twat, too?”
Aria laughed. “Oh, stop, Alistair. He can’t be that awful.”
“You’re much too altruistic. Where did you get it from?”
She giggled, and Alistair looked away, his eyes dancing. Without the constant dose of alcohol slowing his system, his wit grew much sharper, and his face much kinder.
“Move over,” their mother said, ramming into Aria’s side to split her from Alistair. “We can’t have your disaster of a brother be the first thing Ezra sees. He’ll think you’re a problem, too.”
Aria glowered at her. “There’s nothing disastrous about Alistair, if you keep your mouth shut around him.”
Vishnya narrowed her eyes. “Watch your mouth, Aria, or I’ll send each of these men home.”
“Go ahead,” Aria said. “I didn’t ask for them to come in the first place.”
“Brave words. I see the way you look at Valtteri.”
Aria’s cheeks heated, but she ignored her. Alistair caught her eye and shook his head knowingly.
“You act as if I’m doing you some disservice, trying to make you a match,” Vishnya said. “I’ve a mind to let you handle it on your own.”
“I’d prefer that, if you’d let me talk to Alistair,” Aria spat. “I don’t need you controlling my behavior as well as my relationships.”
Vishnya sighed. “Children are so exhausting. I wish I’d had a younger sister to abdicate to, you know. Then I never would have had to deal with this.”
Aria and Alistair exchanged dark looks.
“Yes, and I suppose it’s our fault you didn’t want us,” Aria said.
Valtteri emerged from the entrance hall, cutting Vishnya’s next sour remark short. Aria sidled over to him gratefully.
“Your mother seems particularly vitriolic today,” Valtteri said. “Does that mean our time may be coming to an end in favor of some Forest Realm man?”
Aria snorted. “Not a chance. Her threats are always idle.”
“That she threatens at all says a lot about why my father doesn’t quite respect her as a leader. And I’m not one to take his opinions seriously.”
“Threats are all she has,” Aria said. “Her wits left her long ago, and her care for the realm was tenuous at best. She’s a weak queen.”
“She must have really pissed you off.”
Aria let out a long breath. “It’s just—she’s always so cruel to Alistair. She always has been. And I’m worried about him, lately.”
“Worried about what?” Valtteri asked gently.
She glanced up at him. “Alistair isn’t like other people. He goes into these spirals, where his mood is so black, you can hardly pull him back up. The drinking only makes it worse.”
Valtteri ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve had a friend or two like that. You mean to say you think he might be on the edge of one of these moods?”
“Yes. And mother and father only make it worse. But I can’t seem to keep him around me without them interfering.”
His blue eyes rested on Alistair, who pointedly ignored Vishnya on the steps a few meters away. “It’s admirable that you care about him so much, you know. I wish I had relationships like that with my family.”
“Didn’t you say you have a brother you’re fond of?”
“Casimir. He’s a mage. My father has no interest in him, unless it’s to sharpen his teeth, so we’ve always gotten along rather well on mutual dislike.”
“A mage,” Aria said. “Will you make him your court mage when you’re prince?”
“Absolutely. He’s incredibly talented, though he would deny it.”
“I’d like to meet him,” Aria said. “He sounds interesting.”
Valtteri smiled. “Of course, my lady.”
King Ezra of the Forest Realm and Prince Ian finished their weaving ascent through Tiraspol and dismounted their black horses in the courtyard. The men both took after the traditional features of the kingdom—they had matching dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and stout builds. Ezra’s hair grayed, but Ian looked to be in his prime. He had a soft sort of face, with smooth, kind features.
“Ezra is a well respected king, and so is his son,” Valtteri whispered. “But I wouldn’t call either of them honorable men. Ian runs through women on a nightly basis, and Ezra seems to have little respect for women at all. I’d be careful of your mother marrying you to Ian—I think you’d be miserable, Aria.”
She flashed him a smile before descending the steps alongside her mother to greet the men. Ian passed her a flourished bow, and she heard Alistair bark a laugh behind her.
“Princess Aria,” Ian said. “I’ve heard a lot about your beauty. I’m glad to see the reports weren’t exaggerated.”
“Thank you, Prince Ian,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you to Tiraspol.”
Ezra raked his eyes over her, as if evaluating a piece of meat, and she wanted to squirm.
“Queen Vishnya,” Ezra said, turning back to her mother. “I’m happy we meet again.”
“As am I. How is Queen Lily?”
“The same as always,” he said. “Dreary.”
Vishnya laughed. “Oh, you can’t mean that.”
By the way they smiled at each other, Aria knew exactly why Lily would be dreary about her husband visiting the Ice Realm.
“Let me show you to your room,” Aria told Ian.
He took her arm and glanced up at Valtteri, at the top of the steps. “How long has he been here?”
“A few weeks. Why?”
“Just wondering how much catching up I’ll have to do.”
Aria let the comment pass her by, looking instead at Alistair, who had joined Valtteri at the top of the stairs. He eyed Ian disdainfully.
“Is that your brother?” Ian asked. “I hear he’s a drunken bugger.”
Aria stopped dead on the steps, ripping her arm from his grasp. “Excuse me?”
Ian held up his hands with a mocking laugh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it would be so sensitive.”
“I certainly find you insulting my brother insensitive. What other interpretation could there be?”
“Don’t worry, Aria,” Alistair called. “Prince Ian is just trying to get the upper hand. Last time I saw him, he lost so much money he had to suck a donkey’s cock to absolve the debt.”
Valtteri’s facial control rivaled Aria’s, in that moment; they both resisted the urge to burst out laughing. Alistair smirked down at Ian, who flushed violently.
“Well, at least I’m not some depressed little prick,” Ian spat back. “Crying over my sister, dreaming of fucking her.”
Alistair morphed from amusement to anger in a second flat, and with remarkable foresight, Valtteri grabbed his arm to drag him into the castle before it came to blows. Aria flexed her hand—she had considered slapping Ian in the face, though she knew she could never recover from the insult.
“You’ll have to excuse me, Prince Ian,” Aria said, her voice controlled. “I’m afraid I can’t show you to your room.”
Ian scowled at her, the kindness of his face lost entirely. “Don’t think I haven’t heard the rumors. He talks when he’s drunk. I only came here to see if you were already used up. Everyone calls you a whore.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Aria said. “Excuse me.”
Ian glared after her as she scurried up the steps, her breath fast and shallow, and strode inside in the direction of Alistair’s room. She caught up to Valtteri and Alistair halfway.
“What the fuck was that?” she asked, grabbing Alistair’s arm.
He glanced down the hallway in both directions before yanking her into a balcony overlooking the back gardens. The knife-sharp peak far above the castle glittered with everlasting snow.
“Ian is a fucking bastard, that’s what,” Alistair said. Valtteri slid into the balcony too, frowning.
“He said he only came here to see if I was used up,” Aria said. “Is there something you need to tell me, Alistair?”
“Ian made up that rumor,” he said. “We drank together one night, years ago, and got to talking about you, and how you were the heir and I wasn’t, and whatever else. Look, Aria, I learned that night that some people would make the worst of the way we are together. I don’t want to fuck you, but the way I feel about you is apparently not cold enough for a sister.”
Valtteri crossed his arms. “I’d heard the rumor, too, at least that you wanted to fuck her. Considering the source, I never believed it, but this could get out of control quickly if we don’t do something.”
Aria hugged her torso. “What would happen?”
Alistair glared at his feet, and Valtteri said, “Depending on how much Ian wants to make up, it could ruin you, Aria. Virginity in the noble houses is considered a rather special commodity. You can’t insult him, if he’s determined to keep on with the story.”
“I had no idea,” she said. “It—gods, it was only a few words.”
“Nobility are like wolves,” Alistair said. “And Ian smells blood, now. It only takes a second.”
“I figured if he was coming here to make the match…” Valtteri grazed a hand over his beard. “Well, it’s clear he hasn’t given up, if he sees some advantage in it. It might strengthen him in the eyes of his kingdom when you’re both on the throne.”
“That’s years from now,” she said. “Why would he bother?”
“Things like this don’t die down, even with time—not when it’s the royal house in question.”
“And you know mother fucks King Ezra, don’t you?” Alistair said. “She does it so he doesn’t weaken her position more, not because she particularly likes him. And father looks the other way.”
“I’m not fucking Ian to keep him quiet,” Aria said.
“You won’t have to,” Valtteri said. “Look, Aria, I can help you.”
She widened her eyes. “You could?”
“I won’t say my father hasn’t managed to sully my own reputation a bit, but I got out of a tight spot with him a few years ago when the rumors said I couldn’t get it up to fuck a woman,” Valtteri said. “If I’m interested in you, Aria, it looks good politically and socially. I’ve spent the last five years or so rebuilding whatever reputation that incident destroyed. My interest says you’re not what Ian might claim you are, or I wouldn’t bother.”
Alistair shoved his hands in his pockets. “By the gods, I hate this political bullshit. We shouldn’t have to protect you like this, Aria. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
She shook her head, her eyes on Valtteri. “I can’t be a queen like my mother. I won’t be weak. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
Valtteri looked her up and down, his expression contemplative. “You know…I think we might have need of my brother, Casimir. He’s good at this sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Insidious political gestures.”
“I’m good at them, too,” Alistair said, a little impetuously.
Valtteri glanced at him, a smile playing at his mouth. “It’s much deeper than whether I’m interested in you, though, Aria. Ian’s pride has been honed relentlessly. He won’t give up easily.”
“What if he does nothing, though?” Alistair asked.
“He won’t,” Valtteri said. “He wouldn’t have brought it up at all if he intended to do nothing with it. I swear, Aria, Casimir could help us with this.”
The three of them fell silent, and Aria fiddled with the lacing of her dress, her eyes on the gardens. Her heart beat furiously. Keeping her from traveling to other courts or spending much time with nobility around her age—it was just another way her parents had put her at a disadvantage. So what if she could kill a man without remorse? Politics could be deadly, too, whether physically or psychologically, and she didn’t have a handle on any of it.
“Send for him, then,” Aria said eventually. “I can’t let Ian win, if he’s determined to play.” She crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing in the direction of the southern hedges. “You were right, Alistair. He’s a prick.”
“Mother never should have brought him here,” Alistair said. “She would have heard the rumors, too, if she has an even halfway decent man to keep his ear to the ground for her.”
“Mother has never had our best interests at heart,” Aria said. “If she knew, she’s thinking of her own reputation above mine. She brought him here to marry me and put an end to it.”
“Ah,” Valtteri said. “So that’s why my father can’t make any headway with marriage negotiations.”
Aria blushed, somewhat unexpectedly. “They spoke of it?”
Valtteri grinned shyly, but before he could answer, Alistair said, “Sometimes I don’t think people like Ian are the enemy, you know. Sometimes I think our mother is the worst of them all.”
When Aria met Alistair’s gaze, a familiar darkness wreathed his eyes.