Sebastian owned his own multi-level brick house in the courtier district of Tower of the Moon, just outside the palace gates. Caino peeled Aria’s cloak from her shoulders in the comfortable stone entryway; outside, bells began to toll for the closing of the gates at sundown. Sebastian exited his study, crossing the main hallway with an apple at his mouth, but he stopped when he spotted Aria.
“How was Weston?” he asked.
She waited until Caino had ducked away towards the servants quarters before she said, “Well, he’s a Forest Realm prince.”
Sebastian grinned, his usual reaction to anything others would find shocking. “By the gods, is he really?”
“He said his father is King Ezra, and he knows all about the political climate in the Ice Realm.”
“What a stroke of luck.”
Aria shifted on her feet. “Seb, can we talk about what we’re doing, here? You only freed me yesterday, and I’ll confess I’m operating mostly out of shock.”
He abandoned his apple on a table in the hallway and waved Aria towards his study. “Of course. I’m sorry. I suppose I’ve been working a bit from shock too.”
A wall of windows overlooked a little gap between Sebastian’s house and the next, between which someone had planted clumps of greenery not dependent on endless sun. Aria took a seat beside one of the windows and accepted a glass of whiskey from Sebastian; he sat across from her, resting an ankle over one knee.
“When I went to Keiko’s, I had this feeling I’d end up freeing you,” Sebastian said. “I didn’t expect your mistress to be so easy, but she certainly balked when she realized you were a queen.”
“I suppose she didn’t want the liability.”
“Certainly not. Of course, the part of her that didn’t really believe us, but took the money anyway—she won’t keep quiet for long. Soon, the rumor of what happened to you will be all over the city.”
Aria frowned. “Wouldn’t that mean—”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry,” Sebastian interrupted. “No one here, knowing the industry, would consider you a whore. You trained for it—you never really lived it. The latter half of the story—the story of the deposed queen forced into sexual slavery—now that will be a tale we want spread far and wide.”
“Even in the Ice Realm?”
“Especially there, if we can keep the whore part to a minimum,” he said. “Think about it—if we marched down there right now and demanded Alistair return your throne, what leverage do we really have? We wouldn’t have your people on our side, whether it’s your seat or not. They might fear their king.”
“Weston says there’s been fighting in the Southern Arm—for independence.”
Sebastian smiled a little. “Ah, that’s music to my ears. Still, though, I can’t stress enough the importance of rumors in a position like yours. You want to be a figure who’s endured massive hardship and still come out the other side with strength and power. Your backstory only adds to that, and even if only half of your people believe you never became a full courtesan, it’s still a win for us, with the mystique it gives you.”
Aria nodded. “But Seb—how do I fight Alistair?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’ve never touched a sword.”
Sebastian grinned. “Oh, Aria, I’m not sure you’ll have to.”
She put her drink down and leaned forward in her seat. “But the history of the Ice Realm—the queens were warriors. The people might expect me to be the same. They might demand me to be the same, if they fight for me.”
“We can deal with that when it comes up,” Sebastian said. “For now, it’s most important that your realm finds out their true queen is in the north, alive and well. I’ll ensure this story spreads like fire.”
“And then we make contact with someone?”
“The leaders in the south, it sounds like. If they’re already fighting, they’ll have great need of you.”
“But I have nothing to offer except my title,” she said.
“Currently,” he said. “But we have weeks to get you more. Armies, namely.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “Seb…”
“What is it?”
She wrung her hands. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Sebastian set aside his drink with a thoughtful look. The bells had ceased tolling, and the last dredges of sunlight seeped from the windows. “Why don’t you?”
“Because—Alistair disposed of me in exactly the way he intended,” Aria said. “I’m scared, and weak, and I don’t know if all the armies in the world would help me fight him. I don’t know what I’m doing—I can’t be a queen.”
Sebastian waved his hand, as Weston had. “Being a queen isn’t easy. I won’t lie to you. But Aria, do you really think I’d throw myself behind a woman I think is doomed to fail? It’s not only your life riding on this—it’s mine, if we fail.”
“Then why would you?” she asked.
“Because I believe I’ve only scratched the surface, with you. You hid an entire life that never should have been torn from your hands. I won’t be surprised if I find out a great many other things you’ve buried.”
His words calmed her, slightly; she leaned back in her seat again. Sebastian smiled.
“Now, Weston. He must be the second son. As far as I know, Prince Ian is the heir to the throne in the Forest Realm.”
“Yes. Weston offered his services to me as an advisor, though.”
He took a sip of his drink. “That would be beneficial—and perhaps garner some support from the Forest Realm. I think I can remember the two realms are close allies?”
“Very close. Thousands of years.”
“Good. And Weston—he’s interested in you romantically?”
She blushed. “Seb—”
“We have to be honest with each other, Aria,” he said firmly. “We’re in this together.”
She met his eyes; somehow, the emerald green compelled her more than Weston’s hazel. “Yes, he’s interested in me.”
“Did you sleep with him?”
“No,” she said. “Not yet. I don’t think I entirely trust him.”
Sebastian nodded, slowly. “I see. Do you trust me?”
“Yes, I do,” she said immediately.
The sunset had plunged the study into shadow, and Caino drifted in to light a few candles. Sebastian toyed with the edge of his glass until he left again.
“I have an appointment in the morning with King Sireno to discuss your situation,” he said. “Sireno likes me, so I expect it to be favorable.”
“What will his support get us?”
“All the money you could ever want, and roughly the Ice Realm’s population in troops,” Sebastian replied. “If some of the nobles to the east can be compelled to give up a portion of their forces, that is. That task will belong to the two of us. You’ll have to play the part of queen and get these people to like you. But at the end, the Ice Realm will stand with you on the throne, and a powerful ally at your back.”
Aria tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m a little intimidated by the scope of this, you know.”
Sebastian flashed her a handsome smile. “It’s no matter, Aria. We all stumble through the unknown from time to time.”