Her mother clucked her tongue. Of the outfits laid out for her selection, Aria chose the only one of color—a sleeveless, icy blue lace dress with a high collar and a diamond cutout over her chest. A dainty coronet of sapphire and diamond weaved through her simple updo, knotted at the nape of her neck.
“I didn’t approve that one,” Vishnya said. Her mother’s long, black hair flowed nearly to her waist; the crown of the Ice Queens glittered atop it, the diamonds and sapphires mimicking the pattern of waves. Her dress, of sparkling white, had little shape but where it gathered at the waist. Beside her, Aria looked almost immodest in a dress that clung to her every curve.
“It was hanging by my mirror,” Aria said. “I didn’t feel like wearing white.”
Her father, with no interest in the proceedings, stared idly at the sea. Vishnya waved a hand dismissively.
“Well, it’s too late to change. The prince is about to arrive.”
“Where’s Alistair?” Aria asked.
Her father snorted, and Vishnya said, “Long gone, I should hope.”
Aria glowered at both of them, though they ignored her.
“Now,” her mother said. “Prince Bohdan and his son Valtteri are the first of the men we’ll entertain for your hand in marriage, so I want you to be careful about giving him any signals that might make him think you’re overly interested. His father is a sneaky bastard, and I don’t particularly feel like playing games with him.”
“What if I don’t like any of these men?” Aria asked. “They’re all a lot older than me, and Alistair says Prince Ian is an asshole.”
“Your brother would know,” Vishnya snapped. “What have I told you about listening to Alistair?”
“Nothing I’ve heeded,” Aria replied.
Vishnya sighed, as if she didn’t have the patience to respond. “Just run along to the entrance hall, Aria, and wait for your father and I.”
Aria turned on her heel with a scowl. The hallways bustled with last minute activity to ready the palace for the arrival of their guests; she replaced her glower with a smile for the servants who looked particularly harried, hoping it would calm their nerves.
Alistair leaned against a pillar in the shadows of the entrance hall, watching the steward direct grooms and maids in various tasks. When he spotted Aria, a warm smile crept across his face.
“No white, then,” he said at her approach.
She laughed. “Gods, no. It was too obvious what mother was doing.”
“I got a look at this Valtteri,” Alistair said. “He was riding up when I came back from paying my debt.”
He didn’t meet her eyes, though in a playful way. “Oh, you’ll see.”
“Alistair,” she whined.
He cocked an eyebrow. “He’s very much a man of the Southern Arm, is all I’ll say.”
“I don’t even know what that means. You know mother and father never let me travel.”
Alistair spotted their parents and sank back into the shadows without another word. Aria gave him a sad smile before she returned to the center of the entrance hall. The steward threw open the front doors, bathing them in sunlight that did little to cut the humid air after the morning storm. Aria’s mother shoved her in the small of the back to force her through the threshold, with the result that the first time Aria met her suitor’s eyes, she glared maliciously.
“Prince Bohdan,” her mother said behind her. “What a pleasure to host you in Tiraspol.”
Aria flicked her eyes to the prince. Gray flecked his black hair, and the set of his face had a cold, ungiving hardness to it, like the edge of a knife. His tall, lean build followed after the typical old blood features, as did the sharp angles of his face, but Aria would never call him handsome—not with the way his lip curled at sight of her. He bowed at her mother’s address, as did his son.
Aria glanced back at Valtteri, taking care to soften her expression to neutral. Unlike his father, the old blood lended Valtteri striking beauty—his stunning, icy blue eyes crinkled in a kind way when he smiled at her. He had an angular face with a closely trimmed beard, onyx hair a little longer on the top than the sides, a lean, muscular body, and unblemished, pale skin. Prince Bohdan mounted the steps to kiss Vishnya’s hand, and Valtteri followed a step behind; his eyes drifted to Aria a few times, only to flit quickly away.
“Princess Aria,” Bohdan said, stepping before her. “A pleasure.”
She dipped her head, and he touched his lips to her hand. Vishnya guided him away immediately, mentioning something about trade, and leaving Valtteri and Aria alone; the servants around them scattered to complete their assignments, as if by some design.
“Well met,” Valtteri said, bending to kiss her hand as well. His voice had a deep, soothing quality to it.
“The pleasure is mine,” Aria said. “How was your trip?”
“Tolerable,” he said. “Quite a bit of rain in the Spine, but that’s to be expected in the summer.”
Aria, not entirely certain of this claim, merely nodded and offered her arm. “I’m supposed to show you to your room.”
“Is that why you were glaring?”
She grimaced. “No. I’m sorry. My mother shoved me through the door. She’s lovely like that.”
Valtteri smirked. “Ah, I’ve heard as much. Where’s your brother?”
The entrance hall plunged them into shadow. Alistair had vanished from his outpost by the throne room.
“I’m not sure,” Aria said. “He was here a few minutes ago.”
“I’ve been warned to keep away from him,” Valtteri said. “Naturally, this only makes me curious.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “There’s nothing wrong with Alistair.”
“I wouldn’t claim to think so,” he said politely. “My father hears things, is all.”
Aria ground her teeth at the implied accusations. “Alistair isn’t treated very fairly in this household. I’d hate for that to extend to people he doesn’t even know.”
“You misunderstand me, princess,” Valtteri said. “I have a temperament similar to my brother Casimir. Being told I shouldn’t do something only makes me more curious. I’d love to meet Alistair, especially if you could introduce us. I swear I’ll be very polite.”
They wandered through hallways crowded with courtiers and servants, though most disappeared from their path as Aria led Valtteri to the north side of the palace. She glanced up at him.
“Sure,” he said, smiling. “You seem fond of him, if your defensiveness is any indication.”
She blushed at the teasing edge to his words, and he laughed. They reached his chambers, the doors already thrown open wide to welcome him, and Aria released his arm; Valtteri swept his gaze over the room once before turning back to her.
“I assume you have some idea of why I’m here,” he said.
She nodded. “My parents told me to make a good impression on you, but not to indicate any overt interest until all the options are on the table.”
The smile that split Valtteri’s face was nothing short of amused. “You must not like politics, princess.”
“Please, call me Aria. And I don’t mind politics—but I don’t like dishonesty. Certainly not with a man I’m expected to share a life with.”
Valtteri shoved his hands in his pockets, still grinning. “I agree, Aria. My orders were to seduce you so thoroughly, you would never consider another man. But my father is already convinced I’ll fail.”
He shrugged. “He’s never had much faith in me, really. But especially not with women.”
Aria looked him up and down. “I find that claim surprising.”
Valtteri loosed a laugh, flushing. “By the gods, Aria, that’s the most genuine compliment I’ve gotten in ages.”
She crossed her arms over her ribs, smiling at her feet. “The least we could do during this little dance is enjoy ourselves.”
“I agree completely. I’m happy to see you’re a little sharper than my father reported you. It’ll make this much easier.”
She narrowed her eyes, but he laughed so genuinely, she couldn’t help snickering too.
“I’m supposed to escort you to dinner,” Aria said. “Do you want to get changed?”
“Yes. I’ll wait right here for you.”
They grinned at each other. Aria closed the doors behind her when she stepped back into the hallway; she had barely taken a dozen steps before Alistair emerged from the shadows to intercept her.
“Oh, there you are,” she said. “Lurking again, I see.”
“It’s a specialty of mine.”
“Valtteri’s already been asking about you. Apparently you’re infamous.”
Alistair tore his eyes from the closed door at the end of the corridor. “So?”
“Valtteri. What’s he like?”
“I hardly know,” she said. “We just met. He seems nice enough.”
Aria shook her head at the agitation in his words. “It’s not relevant to you, is it?”
“Don’t be fooled by handsome men, Aria. They’re often the cruelest.”
“That’s a pretty weighty generalization,” she said.
“Mother and father never allowed you to see much of the world,” Alistair said. “I wish you would heed my words, since I have.”
“I’ll heed your words,” she said. “But I’m not a rock. If I find something to be suspicious of, I’ll reconsider. For now, he seems quite kind.”
Alistair’s face subtly shifted from anxious to sad. Aria’s heart hurt to witness it, as she had so many times before.
“I’m not allowed at dinner,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
She reached for his hand before he turned away. He looked down at his wrist, confused.
“I want you to stay,” Aria said. “If you listen to mother and father, where will you go? To gamble or whore? Stay here and help me.”
Alistair swallowed. “I could really use a drink.”
“I could use your clear head.”
He glanced at their entwined hands again, his brow furrowed. The lines around his eyes made him look older than he was.
“I told you I couldn’t watch this,” he said.
“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to protect me. Can you be my eyes and ears? You know I can’t see everything. Valtteri’s father seems particularly sneaky.”
Alistair met her eyes. His own, so similar in shape, had lost their cold undertones; something like fear flickered there instead.
“Mother and father will either ignore me entirely or try to humiliate me,” Alistair said. “I’ll need your help too, if it’s the latter.”
“I never let them do that,” Aria said. “You know I don’t.”
“Yeah, I know. Well…let’s see what we can do,” Alistair said.
Aria smiled. “And remember—I need you to have a clear head.”
“Whatever you ask, Aria,” he said. “You know I can’t say no to you.”
“I’m counting on it,” she replied.