Aria rolled over in bed, stretching luxuriously. Her black hair splayed out to one side, and she wiggled her toes until they poked from the end of the bed. Sunlight poured through the balcony overlooking the beach and the sea, but she didn’t open her eyes yet; she listened to the caws of seabirds mixed with the soothing ebb and flow of the waves. Tiraspol, the summer retreat of Ice Queens since the inception of the Ice Realm, was her favorite place in the world.
A man coughed, and Aria shot upright with a squeak; Alistair leaned against the white marble of her balcony, the sun warming his shoulders.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Aria said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What the fuck are you doing in here?”
Alistair smirked. Ten years older than her, his face had begun to show the wear of drinking heavily and sleeping little; unlike other twenty-six year olds she encountered, Alistair could have passed for a man in his mid thirties, merely by the consequences of his lifestyle. He looked little like her; his build was stouter, and his hair a dark brown more than pure black. The smirk on his face brought a sharpness to his icy blue eyes.
“Your head lady’s maid is fucking one of mother’s guards,” Alistair said. “She wasn’t even watching the door. Is that how we protect our royal princess?”
Aria slithered from bed, grabbing her abandoned robe from the night before to join him on the balcony. Even so early in the morning, a storm brewed to the east.
“Well, you didn’t slit my throat in the night,” Aria said. “I guess we should all be thankful.”
Alistair’s laugh had a cruel edge. “Mother wouldn’t pass to me anyway. You could kill yourself and she’d take a ward or something to keep me away from the coffers.”
“Don’t sound so bitter,” Aria said. “You know it’s because of the way you act.”
“I wasn’t like that at ten,” he said. “I didn’t start drinking until I was fourteen, and they didn’t even notice for two years. Their daughter was such perfection.”
Aria shoved his arm, though as usual, she ran into solid muscle. He didn’t budge, but he reached over to ruffle her hair with a calloused hand.
“I can’t wait for them to die, already,” Alistair said. “At least when you’re queen, you’ll be productive.”
“Is that the stance you’ve taken now?” Aria asked. “No more midnight plots to depose me?”
“I was drunk,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Get over it.”
“Alistair,” she said rebukingly.
He passed her a soft look. “I’m sorry, Aria. You know how I was those days, though. It doesn’t quite feel like me.”
“Did any of the herbal remedies help?”
He shook his head at the town below them, bustling with early market activity. “The court mage says it’s something incurable. I’ll go through highs and lows. He suggested finding other things to focus on besides my anger with our parents. And, of course, I need to stop drinking.”
He moved his gaze to the sea and shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’s not so easy.”
“I could help,” Aria said.
Alistair laughed. “You’ve done enough, Aria. If you hadn’t found my journal when you were eight, I don’t know where we’d be. The only thing that seems to get through to me is your silly pleading.”
“Exactly. So let me plead with you to stop drinking.”
“I’ll just gamble more,” he said. “I think I’m destined for vices.”
Aria stuck her tongue out at him, drawing a genuine smile. It warmed his features until he nearly looked his age.
“So why are you here, really? Watching me sleep again?”
Alistair scoffed. “Fuck off. No, I need money.”
She cocked her head. “Alistair…”
“It’s not what you think. I just forgot my coin purse last night. Only fifty.”
“A prostitute, then? The guards are starting to talk, and you know mother will find out soon enough.”
“She already knows,” he said. “She just hasn’t chosen to berate me for it yet. She’ll wait until I’ve really fucked up to lay it on.”
“If you only forgot your coin purse, why are you borrowing from me?”
“Because I spent the rest of what I had this morning on breakfast for my mates.”
Aria crossed her arms. “You’re such a liar.”
Glancing over at her with an almost indulgent look, Alistair said, “Yes, I am. I spent my allowance too early this month.”
“I can’t keep enabling you.”
“Come on, Aria. You know mother doesn’t give me enough. She wants me to die in a back alley somewhere, beaten up for gambling debts because I ran out of her too-small allowance.”
Aria sauntered back into her room and dug through the desk at the end of her bed until she found a full coin purse. She tossed it to Alistair, and he grinned.
“Thanks, beautiful,” he said. “You should mention to mother about your lady’s maid leaving you unattended, you know. You don’t like her anyway, do you?”
“I think she steals,” Aria said. “I’m always missing my least worn jewelry.”
Alistair pocketed the money and ran a hand through his slightly overgrown hair. It stuck up in all directions. “So, the prince of the Southern Arm.”
“Yes, he should be here today,” Aria said. “Mother thinks sixteen is old enough to marry.”
He nodded at his feet. “Who’s the heir, again? Prince Bohdan has way too many sons.”
“His name is Valtteri. The king of the Forest Realm is here in two weeks, too—I think that’s the one mother is hoping for.”
“Prince Ian is a prick behind closed doors,” Alistair said. “Tell mother she can keep hoping.”
“It won’t matter what he acts like to me,” Aria said. “You know mother can’t be bothered caring about my actual well-being.”
“I can’t figure it out, you know,” he said. “They spent all that time trying to have a girl, and when they finally did—now they don’t treat you much better than me, since you learned how to talk and think for yourself. When you were a baby, it was like there was nothing more sacred in the world than you. And now, if it weren’t for your inheritance, I bet mother would have married you to a pig farmer just to get you out of the palace.”
“I don’t think they wanted children, and all that comes with it,” Aria said. “I think they just wanted an heir.”
Alistair abandoned the balcony to perch himself on the end of her bed. She turned to the outfits laid out for her meeting with Prince Bohdan and his heir, absentmindedly stroking her hair with one hand.
“You look good in white,” Alistair suggested.
Aria laughed. “Mother is trying to make me look virginal. Valtteri is eight years older than me.”
“Southern Arm nobles often marry when they’re fifteen,” he said. “There must be something wrong with this one.”
“I don’t pay attention to rumor.”
“I don’t remember the good ones because I’m usually too drunk.”
They both snickered. Aria slipped out of her robe to sit before the mirror and brush her hair; Alistair lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
“It’s been a long time since I went through a low,” he said quietly. “Half a year, at least.”
Aria frowned, her brush midway through her tresses. “What do you think it means?”
He tucked his hands behind his head to feign casualness. “Sometimes I hope it means I’m better. But I know it really just means I’m due for another.”
“What should I do, this time? You never let me help once you’re in the midst of it.”
“Just keep an eye on me,” he said. “Make sure I know you love me, so I don’t off myself.”
Aria paused in the middle of twisting her hair into an updo, her eyes on him in the mirror. “I do love you,” she said. “I don’t care what mother and father say about you—I think things would have been different if they were better parents.”
“And they would still maintain I’m nothing but a blight upon their happiness.” He exhaled a laugh. “She asked me to make myself scarce with the visits, you know. Called me an embarrassment.”
Aria rotated on her stool to face him, abandoning her hair. “Well, you are, if you’re drunk. But I’d like you to be involved. You see a lot of stuff I wouldn’t notice, just because I don’t know enough about…darker things.”
Alistair sat up to meet her eyes. “I don’t really think you should marry anyone, Aria. I’m not a good resource. You can see I don’t mind lying to you.”
“Why don’t you think I should marry? Because I’m sixteen?”
“No,” he said firmly. “Because you’re too beautiful, too kind, and too gentle to let some man paw around your underwear and turn you into a broodmare.”
“I’ll be queen, not some breeder for his children,” Aria said.
Alistair scoffed. “You say that now. Mother isn’t a strong queen because she spent most of her reign in childbirth, whether they lived or not.”
“I’m not her,” Aria said. “She’s the furthest thing from what I strive to be.”
Alistair looked her up and down, his harsh features almost handsome when tinged with affection or concern. “Aria, just be careful. Mother won’t let you pick—in fact, she’s likely to choose the opposite of what you want. So make sure you know how to play all of them.”
“That’s what I need you around for. The dirty secrets I can use as armor.”
He sighed. “I can’t watch this process, Aria.”
Shaking his head, he slid his gaze to the balcony, where wind picked up from a rapidly approaching storm. “None of these men deserve you, Aria.”
“Then who does?” she asked. “I have to marry, you know.”
With a dark expression, Alistair glanced back to meet her eyes, though he didn’t speak. They stared at each other for a long time—so long, in fact, a warmth began to bloom in Aria’s chest, as if she could guess why he always dismissed other men. The storm finally reached Tiraspol, plunging her room into shadow, and a clap of thunder made them both jump.
“I have to go pay off my debt,” Alistair said, standing. “This one will ram down the palace doors if he has to.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “Alistair…”
He paused in adjusting the neckline of his tunic. “What, Aria?”
“Do you really not mind lying to me?”
He let out a heavy breath; she might have called the look he gave her ashamed, if it weren’t riddled with patronizing affection.
“It’s a good thing you can always tell when I’m lying, isn’t it?” he said.
The question hung in the air, unspoken, but Aria could barely admit it aloud to herself; she let Alistair go, and smiled in her usual manner when he passed her a mocking bow.