Aria pulled on a soft black tunic and shrugged into her cloak. The agitation in her chest didn’t match her mood; dinner with Valtteri had gone swimmingly, as well as the ball afterwards. They danced five sets together, and every minute she found herself more drawn to him. Handsome, kind, and funny, his behavior reserved but charming—she could hardly believe her luck, in that her first suitor seemed to fit her so well. Still, she could only wait; her mother would never listen to her without every option on the table, and Aria suspected revealing her own desires in the match would only go poorly.
No, she felt agitated because Alistair had watched her from across the dining table, and across the ballroom. At first, he turned down drinks—but once their parents spent a few terse minutes at his side during the ball, he began downing glasses of wine like he could somehow drown himself in them.
Aria tiptoed through the deserted hallways of the palace. When she reached the front doors, Daniil of the queensguard grinned at her.
“Secret trip again?” he asked.
“It’s Alistair,” she said. “At dinner with Prince Bohdan and his son, and the ball afterwards…well, I invited him, because I wanted his opinion. But it seemed to spiral out of control pretty quickly once we got into the ballroom. He was so agitated when he left…I just worry he isn’t safe.”
“I can cover for you until dawn, and then you’re on your own. I’ll alert the city guard to keep an eye out for anything.”
“Thanks,” she whispered.
Daniil opened the doors with a creak and ducked his head out to address his partner.
“The princess will return before dawn. She asks for your discretion while she cares for her idiot brother.”
Halar inclined his head. “At your command, princess.”
“Is your sister alright?” Aria asked as she passed.
“She’s feeling much better, thank you.”
Two or three guards patrolled the streets of Tiraspol, but Aria mostly avoided them by ducking through dark, deserted alleyways. Alistair divided his time between Sandy Shore Inn and The Sailor’s Rest, two of the grimier pubs tucked away from the beachfront. Aria kept her hood pulled over her face.
A muscular giant of a man watched the door of Sandy Shore Inn to prevent any mischief. He recognized Aria and flashed her a grin; somehow, his missing teeth didn’t detract from it.
“He left an hour ago, Princess Aria,” Mikhael said. “The owner had to throw him out after he pissed on the bar.”
“Lovely,” Aria said. She stopped to pass him a coin. “Any idea on his direction?”
“Almost certainly Sailor’s Rest. The bartender will always serve him.”
“Does he owe anyone inside?”
“Eight hundred to a mercenary passing through.”
“Let him know I’ll send it over in the morning, before anything gets heated.”
Aria continued east; the frequency of human contact increased, though most of the men, and the occasional woman, had long passed out on the street. The Sailor’s Rest didn’t have a gatekeeper, and the doors hung wide open to air out the smell of pipe smoke.
Two more drunkards stumbled out, their hands still wrapped around a shared bottle of ale. Aria faded into the shadows until the men staggered away, singing out of tune.
The pretty, slight maiden behind the bar recognized Aria immediately and waved her over. Aria navigated rickety wooden tables packed with patrons to reach the only well maintained area of the pub—a gleaming, solid slab of wood stretched in front of shelves upon shelves of alcohol.
“He’s upstairs,” Eva said. “He’s pretty far gone. Not sure who his companions are tonight. Are you sure you’re alright to fetch him?”
“He always recognizes me,” Aria said. “I’m just worried about him. He stormed out earlier after my parents spoke to him.”
“That must be why he’s in such a foul temper. He owes me fifty coins already—he wanted the top shelf wine.”
“I’ll settle in the morning.”
Eva lifted a hand in assent. Aria located the stairs to the right of the bar and removed her hood as she ascended; the deep rumble of many male voices met her ears.
The door at the top of the steps was closed, but not locked. Aria slid through the threshold into a large room with a massive table, surrounded on all sides by dirty, unshaven men. Alistair looked positively innocent among them, though his ruffled hair and the pallor of his skin gave away his awful state.
“Who called for a whore?” one of the men demanded. “She’s out of my price range, by the looks of her.”
Aria narrowed her eyes, her gaze on Alistair. “Let’s go.”
He took a few seconds to focus on her. “You…what?”
“Come on, Alistair. It’s time to go home.”
He swayed in his chair. The man next to him, the one who called her a whore, laid a hand on Alistair’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, but who are you? We’re not done with Prince Alistair just yet.”
The men all laughed, and Aria felt vaguely queasy.
“I can settle his debts in the morning,” she said. “For now, I want to take him home.”
The man’s eyes widened with recognition. “By the gods, boys—this is Princess Aria, come to retrieve her brother.”
The men stared at her, some so lasciviously she grew nervous.
“Yes, I’m who you say,” Aria said. “Please let me take my brother back to the palace.”
The man stood and sauntered over to her. Aria held her ground, though even the stench of him made her want to draw back.
“I’ve been hearing for years how beautiful our future queen is,” he said. “I bet you’re still a virgin, too.”
“You could lose your head for speaking to me like this,” she said. “Let Alistair go, and I’ll forget all about it.”
His sharp grin grew wider. “Now, why would I do that? Alistair owes me a great debt, and I see he’s provided an easy way to pay it.”
He took Aria’s chin between his fingers, but she jerked away with a hiss.
“What, you don’t like me?” the man said. “I’ll be gentle, princess, since you’ve never felt the touch of a man before.”
“It’s not the gentleness of your cock that concerns me,” she said. “It’s the pus and boils.”
The men at the table sniggered. Her assailant glared for a few seconds before he raised a hand and smacked her across the face.
Aria didn’t make a noise, nor did she balk; she stood straight again, ignoring the burning of her skin. “Alistair,” she called.
She heard his chair scrape back, and a few bumps as he stumbled. The man in front of her shook his head.
“You’re not hearing me,” he said. “You can’t leave.”
“Yes we can,” Aria replied. “And if you value your life, you’ll let us go without another word.”
With a snort, the man’s expression morphed from a glower to a smirk. Alistair staggered towards Aria like a lost child, and she reached out an arm for him; he stabled against her right side, leaning heavily into her. She used the hand she braced on his waist to find his semi-concealed moonsilver knife and slid it from the sheath.
“We’ll be going, then,” Aria said.
The man shook his head again. In response, Aria lifted her left shoulder dismissively.
“Very well,” she said. “You’ve made the wrong choice.”
“You’re staying right here, princess,” the man said. “And you’re going to spread your legs for me, too.”
With an assassin’s precision, and blinding speed, Aria released Alistair’s waist and flung her right arm through the air. The man sputtered and grasped at his throat. For a second, nothing happened—and then, with a thud, his knees hit the floor. Blood soaked the wood at Aria’s feet, neither the first nor the last; the man gurgled through the slit in his throat.
She made eye contact with the rest of the table. “Anyone else?”
When none replied, she snaked her arm back around Alistair’s waist to lead him down to the pub.
“Alistair’s debt is cleared, if any of you want to get out of this city alive,” Aria called over her shoulder.