Royal guards lived in a ramshackle cluster of little wooden houses tucked away on the east side of the palace wall. Sebastian’s groom escorted Aria along the cobblestone street, and though she kept a hood pulled over her face, she still attracted stares. Her silver cloak covered her all the way to her feet, hiding the tunic Sebastian had custom made for her the day after he freed her from the brothels.
“Seb, please,” Aria had pleaded when he presented her with the box. “You just spent five hundred thousand coins getting me out of that wretched place. I’ll never be able to repay you.”
“I don’t want you to repay me,” he said, pushing the box into her hands. “I want you to remember who you were supposed to be.”
Aria looked from him to the box several times before letting out a heavy sigh. “I still don’t understand. You spent thirty thousand or more to buy a virginity you didn’t take, then five hundred thousand to free me, after the mistress paid Alistair no more than fifty. I know you have a lot of money, Seb, but—”
“I’ll be spending a lot more than that once I figure out how to talk King Sireno into providing you with an army,” Sebastian said. “I knew you were different, Aria—I thought I could at least place you as nobility. But a deposed queen? I don’t think there’s a nobleman or woman in the east who wouldn’t help you. Or, well—the men, at least,” he said, winking. “The court up here is pretty harsh for pretty girls like you.”
“We never really talked about the problems,” she said. “So you didn’t take my virginity—”
“—nonsensically important to noble families everywhere—”
“—but I still can’t have children, Seb. A mage sterilized me. The Ice Realm will have no use for a queen who can’t continue her line.”
Sebastian waved his hand. “Don’t worry about that, just yet. Will you open the present I got for you? I’m rather proud of it, you know.”
As Aria navigated the cobblestone street with Sebastian’s groom beside her, she buried a smile at the way Sebastian had grinned; the tunic, made of a thin, clingy material, not only looked more expensive than any of the robes she wore in the brothels, but it suited her in a way she didn’t expect. The soft material moved with ease, and the icy blue and silver accents clung to her body in a way that flattered not only her coloring, but her build. After years trying to forget her past, Aria felt both out of place and oddly proud to walk the city streets again as a girl with noble blood.
Weston lived in a two bedroom house with a man named Otello, a native resident of the Northern Kingdom. The groom knocked on the door, and Aria waited until she could hear footsteps on the other side before taking off her hood. She spared a glance at the royal palace of the Northern Kingdom, looming over the wall behind her; the white marble towers glittered in mid afternoon sunlight. Tower of the Moon radiated from the faces of three different mountains, and its streets weaved around haphazardly, often cutting through at an angle, ending abruptly, or rising and falling with the natural elevation changes of the mountains.
The door opened, and Weston’s eyebrows shot towards his hair. “Aria—by the gods, what are you doing here?” He scanned her clothes. “How did you get out of the brothel district?” He paused, frowning. “You haven’t run away, have you?”
“Would you not let me in if I had?”
Weston’s short, dark brown hair threw his light hazel eyes into sharp relief; the set of his face had a soft sort of kindness to it, but his eyes might have been cunning. His middling height made him rather stockier than someone like Sebastian, whose Western Realm ancestry lended itself to tall, lean men; Weston originally hailed from the Forest Realm to the southeast. With an arched brow, Weston leaned out to glance up and down the street before tugging Aria through the threshold.
She laughed. “I haven’t run, Weston. Don’t you see I have an escort?”
He glanced at the groom. “He’s wearing Sebastian’s colors.”
“Yes. Caino, can you wait outside?”
“Of course, my lady.”
Weston watched her close the door, his brows drawn together. He hung her cloak on a peg by another threshold.
“Is Otello here?” Aria asked.
“On duty.” Weston raked his gaze over her again, taking in the expensive clothes. “Aria, what’s going on?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “Can we sit and have a drink while I tell it?”
Weston nodded. He had turned halfway towards the kitchen before he paused and looked back, as if confused. Aria flashed him a small smile, and the tension seeped from him at once. They met halfway, tangling together as they had dozens of times before; his lips found hers, and she grasped his jaw hungrily.
Weston scooped her waist against him; his light cotton tunic betrayed his arousal, and she touched his chest.
“You should hear my story first,” Aria said. “Then, after, if you’re still interested…”
Weston blinked a few times to clear his head and then brushed a hand over her face. “Of course. Whiskey?”
She nodded. Weston led her to a small table cleared of all but a few decanters of alcohol, and when she had a glass of whiskey in her hand, and had taken two sips, she took a deep breath.
Weston watched her speak like he’d never really seen her before; she told him an abbreviated version of her confession to Sebastian, covering Alistair’s murder of their parents, his theft of the matriarchal throne that rightfully belonged to her, his betrayal in selling her to the mistress, and a little of her first few years in Tower of the Moon—her fear, anger, and eventual defeat when it seemed no one from the Ice Realm would ever come looking for their true queen.
When she said Sebastian had freed her, and that he intended to help her go home, Weston held up a hand.
“So you mean to tell me you’re the true queen of the Ice Realm?” he said slowly. “Your brother insisted he’d killed you, even though no one ever found a body. We all thought you were burnt up in a cave somewhere.” He shook his head, his eyes wide. “Aria—you were a tragedy. My tutor told me your story once, and she couldn’t even get through it without crying. But I never thought—meeting a girl who looked like you, with the name Aria, I still never thought—”
“You knew about me?” she asked, shocked.
“Of course,” he said emphatically. “Everyone knew your story—the little girl murdered by her ambitious brother, burned so no one would ever find her. No one truly knew what he did to you, only that your life ended too soon at his hands.”
Aria swallowed—somehow, she had never considered what her tale might mean to anyone besides herself.
“There are songs about you,” Weston said. “The bards sing them when everyone is drunk and sad at the end of the night. Not up here, but back home. I’m not surprised no one ever wondered, here—I mean, it’s a long journey. Alistair must have known no one would look for you up here. Did your mistress know what you were?”
“Seb asked her when he freed me. She thought I was just nobility, not royalty. She said even she wasn’t stupid enough to mess with royalty.”
“You never told your mentor, either?”
“Emery?” Aria shook her head. “There’s nothing she could have done for me, Wes. She had enough on her plate trying to keep herself afloat. I did wonder, though…maybe I could free her, too.”
“I don’t know,” she said, a little defensively. “Seb says I should use a lady’s maid. Maybe that. Anything to get her out of there, really, after everything she did for me. She was one of the few who didn’t seem to hate me automatically.”
Weston lifted a shoulder. “And Sebastian—he freed you because he wants you to fight your brother?”
“Well, it’s all very rudimentary, as far as that,” Aria said. “He’s feeling out the political climate right now. I think he freed me because he felt it was his obligation to, but I suppose he might see it as an injustice to know the story and let it go unaddressed. I told him he couldn’t tell anyone, though—not without my permission.”
“Why wouldn’t you fight Alistair?” Weston asked. “It’s your throne.”
Aria balked. “By the gods, Weston, I don’t know anything about politics or war—”
“It’s nothing,” he said, waving a hand. “Learning all that—you already know how to read and you’re incredibly intelligent. It’ll take you no time at all.”
“I don’t know, Wes…”
He leaned back in his chair. “Well, like you said, it’s rudimentary. You don’t have to think about all of it right now. But, you and Sebastian are in luck—because I know all about the political climate in the Ice Realm.”
Her stomach leapt. “You do?”
“Yes,” he said. “My father is King Ezra of the Forest Realm.”
Aria widened her eyes, then laughed. “You’re joking.”
Weston grinned boyishly. “I’m not. I’m the second son. The useless one. I’m up here because I hate my father, but I still have friends in the realm who keep in touch.”
“Weston…” Aria laughed again, uncertain of what else to do. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It wasn’t really relevant until now, was it?” he said. “My father is a tosser. I ran here to get away from him, not to use his name to gain me favor.”
“But you’re a prince.”
He shrugged. “And you’re a queen recently freed from a brothel.” They both snickered. “I have neither the fortune nor the position to claim the title as anything but an empty moniker.”
Aria grinned at him, and he returned the favor before finishing his drink. Somehow, her confession had ended an awkward dance between them; the ease in his movements relaxed her like a cup of warm mead.
“The political climate in the Ice Realm is volatile,” Weston said. “The Southern Arm was fighting for independence from the crown, last I heard. With Valtteri, son of Prince Bohdan at the helm, I’d be surprised if they haven’t won by now. He’s young, but he’s a talented military man. I don’t much care for him, but he gets the job done.”
“So there’s fighting against Alistair?” Aria asked, her voice breathy and hopeful.
“Alistair is a tyrant,” Weston said. “He’s bankrupted the kingdom, and the people are suffering for it. The Southern Arm is wealthy and powerful, so they’d be the first to revolt. I bet they’ll liberate the Spine, too, if it looks viable.”
“How do you know for sure?”
“My brother Ian likes to write every so often. It’s all very pompous and self important, but he provides the relevant news.”
Aria took a deep breath. “Gods, Weston, if that’s true—Seb will see the opportunity for what it is.”
“Did he say why he wants to help you get your throne back?” Weston asked.
“Not really,” she said. “Just that he felt an obligation to help.”
A suspicious look passed his face, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. “He won the bid, then. I’m sorry I couldn’t afford it, Aria. By the time I sent a message, it was way out of my league.”
She bit her lip. “It’s okay. I knew you wouldn’t win. But Seb didn’t buy it for that purpose, you know. We didn’t sleep together. He wanted to know what happened to me, and that was it.”
Weston noticeably perked up, and Aria shifted in her seat. When he looked her over, she felt almost like a prize he realized still held full value.
“I know this isn’t really the time, but you—” Weston began.
“I haven’t been with anyone,” Aria said quietly.
He opened his mouth to say something, but then he smiled instead, handsome and warm. Aria crossed her legs.
“Did you come just to tell your tale?” Weston asked. “Because, with your freedom from your mistress purchased…”
Aria let the leading statement hang in the air, wondering whether she had the gall to say it, until she blurted, “You seem more interested now that it’s clear I’m a virgin, you know.”
Emery had always told her to never speak her mind to a man; one of the first rules of entertaining as a courtesan was to ensure the client dictated everything. A talented courtesan knew how to balance the man’s feeling of control with her subtle attempts to make him laugh, or demonstrate how much she might want him (or disguise how little she didn’t). Aria always thought she could provide much more than a pretty canvas for a man to eventually fill with his seed; she had opinions on current affairs in the Northern Kingdom, and she read novels, poetry, and philosophy. Despite her mistress employing a tutor to keep her intelligence honed, though, Aria never found an instance in which it mattered who she might be, or what she thought—a courtesan belonged to the man who paid for her time, and he wanted to relax, not debate. But if she were a queen…surely that meant the time to bury her thoughts and feelings had ended.
Weston shook his head, very deliberately. “It’s not your virginity, Aria. It’s that I love you, and I want you to be mine.”
She sat up in her chair. “I don’t belong to anyone, anymore.”
Weston smirked; it brought out the cunning glint in his eyes. “I suppose that makes sense. Forgive me, Queen Aria.”
She let out an incredulous laugh. “Fuck, that sounds odd.”
“When I go home and people call me Prince Weston, it feels the same.”
“You lied to me when I asked you why you were in Tower of the Moon, you know.”
“You lied when I asked where you were from, too.”
Aria inclined her head, and Weston tipped his glass at her.
“Do you have a lot of secrets, Weston?” she asked. “Where I was, and who I was in the brothels—I didn’t think about it before. But now I have to be much more savvy than I’ve ever been. Sebastian told me to keep my wits about me, because nobles are all playing some sort of game for position or favor. Whether it’s more or less consequential than the game I might begin with Alistair, it matters to them all the same.”
Weston sat up, as if facing a true opponent. “I see. Well, I’ve always thought you were observant, even if you never got to use it properly in that place. Do you think I have a lot of secrets?”
She looked him over and nodded. Weston seemed amused.
“I don’t want to make any assumptions,” Aria said. “I want to know if you’ll be honest with me, if I ask it of you. I do have feelings for you, you know—strong ones.”
“I have feelings for you too,” he said quietly.
“This thing I’m about to do…I don’t know anything about winning back a throne. I need you to be honest with me. If you love me, I need your help.”
The slightest tinge of a triumphant smile crossed his face, before it faded into neutrality—and Aria decided, in that second, that though she loved Weston, she couldn’t trust him. Not yet.
“If we’re being honest,” Weston said, “you should know I can be an asset to you. I’m here now, but I grew up in the Forest Realm court. I know enough about the alliance between our two realms to help you when you need to make decisions.”
“So if Sebastian figures out how to take me home, and we somehow join this rebellion of the Southern Arm—you’ll advise me?”
“Gladly. I can be your emissary to the Forest Realm, if need be.”
“You would serve me, not your kingdom.”
“Easily done. I don’t care much for home.”
Aria strummed her fingers on the table. “Very well, then.” She glanced at the window; the glass began to tinge red with late afternoon sun. “It’s getting late. I told Seb we would have dinner together.”
Weston stood and offered a hand to lead her back to the door. “I’m on duty tonight, but free again tomorrow. Could I see you again?”
His words carried a touch of desire that warmed her to her toes. “Yes, I think so. I’ll tell Sebastian everything you said. He might want to speak with you, too.”
Weston helped her back into her cloak. “Be careful of him, Aria. I don’t know if I trust his motives.”
Aria thought she trusted Sebastian’s motives more than Weston’s, but she nodded all the same. Weston, the second son of a father he hated—Sebastian would laugh at her if she missed the obvious benefit of Weston placing himself beside the true queen of his father’s closest ally.
Regardless of her suspicions, when Weston leaned in to kiss her cheek, Aria turned her head to meet his lips instead. He kissed her gently, tentatively, and she tried to forget for a second how complicated their lives had just become.
“I hope we can get to know each other better, now that the truth is out,” Weston murmured.
Aria opened her eyes, taking a second to admire the beautiful hazel of his irises. She wanted to tell him how scared she was—how uncertain, and how thoroughly she felt like an imposter, taking the name of queen. Just as Alistair had intended, by sending her north. But she bit her tongue; the confession would be safer with Sebastian.