Aria slipped into her silk robe, relishing the crackling fire beside her as icy rain pummeled the window. Still, her stomach knotted with embarrassment, and she stared at her reflection for a while in the mirror. Her onyx hair fell over one shoulder in soft curls, and a glittering black clip gathered the bulk of it at the nape of her neck. She plucked the clip from her tresses, watching her eyes in the mirror. She thought she looked peaky.
“He doesn’t know I’m here?” Weston whispered from beside the window.
Aria glanced at him. “He thinks you left with Cesare.”
Sauntering over, Weston brought a hand to her waist, sliding his fingers over the silk. “So Sebastian has some gathering to make us all play nice together—what do you think it achieved?”
“Very little, based on the way the women were talking to me,” she said. “Seb didn’t say much before he did this, just that he wanted us to butter up the largest noble families so they’ll provide support in troops and in coins.”
“And so they won’t convince Sireno he should abandon you as soon as we walk out of the city.”
“Sireno seemed really favorable to the alliance, if I take the throne. Alistair must have wronged him in some way. I think Cesare knew about it, but he wouldn’t tell me. He was too busy trying to flirt.”
“I would assume Alistair owes the Northern Kingdom a great deal of money,” Weston said. “Since Cesare is treasurer.”
“How did your inquiries go?” she asked.
“Well, I won’t deny how odd it feels to put on the mask of Prince Weston again,” he said. “But the men were grateful that you had some connections to an ancestral alliance, and not merely your birth claim. My father won’t answer my letters, but my brother replied favorably. I think Alistair wronged my kingdom, too.”
“They’ll support the rebellion?”
“They already sent troops to Captain Valtteri for the rebellion in the Southern Arm.”
Aria nodded to herself in the mirror. Weston leaned close to take in the scent of her hair.
“You looked beautiful tonight,” he murmured. “Very regal.”
She closed her eyes and braced her shoulders against him. “It didn’t matter. Sireno is happy to provide me with troops and personally apologize that I was sold to a brothel, but his courtiers don’t trust me.”
“The women? The men were very interested in the riches they could gain, standing on the right side of this conflict.”
Aria almost began to tell him how the women spoke to her, but she bit her tongue. Any sign of weakness, even to him…
“Seb and I will figure it out,” she said. “Besides, I didn’t sneak you in here so we could talk about his political gathering.”
“Then why did you sneak me in here?” Weston asked playfully.
Voices drifted down the hallway; Sebastian spoke with his groom before shutting the doors to his chambers. Aria glanced at her own door, disentangling from Weston.
“If Seb is awake, I need to speak with him,” she said.
Weston sighed. “Aria, are we ever going to talk about this?”
She grimaced. “Wes, my entire life is in flux. I don’t know what I want or what I can even have. The things that mattered to me before—if I’m going to be a queen, like I was meant to be, it’s no longer just about me.”
“You’re not some prize to be bestowed on the best alliance,” Weston said. “You don’t have to guard your virginity like a precious stone.”
She frowned. “And I don’t have to sleep with you if I’m not ready, either.”
“You seemed ready when you came to me the day after you were freed.”
“I thought I was, but I’m not. Why are you pushing me on this, Weston?” She drew her robe closer. “Is it because you want to beat your brother at something? We both know he replied favorably to the alliance because he’s still unmarried.”
Weston scoffed. “That’s a hefty accusation.”
“Then stop whining every time I don’t fuck you,” she said.
“You don’t seem so reluctant when I’m fingering you, or you’ve got my cock in your mouth.”
Aria glared at him. “Don’t be crass. If it’s not an issue whether I do or don’t, then stop asking. Otherwise I’ll assume your motives are impure.”
Weston rolled his eyes, grabbing his cloak from the end of the bed. “Fine, Aria. Whatever you want. It’s always about that, isn’t it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You were too frightened to tell anyone who you were when you were in the brothels, but as soon as Sebastian shows he can help you, it’s all about how you’re a queen, and so above all of this.”
“You’re not making any sense,” she said. “I’m sorry you’re angry, but perhaps we should talk tomorrow.”
Weston flicked his hand at her and turned to tug open her window. Without a backwards glance, he scaled down the side of the house, his cloak billowing in the wind of the storm.
Aria waited a few seconds for her heart rate to slow before she slipped into the hallway. Two candelabras lit the rich wood floors, but the rest of the house rang with the silence before dawn. She knocked twice on Sebastian’s door, a few rooms down from hers.
He answered with a furrowed brow, shirtless, one hand on the lacing of his leather pants. “I thought you were the steward,” he said. “What are you still doing up? It’s nearly dawn.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Aria said. “I’ve been up for hours.”
He stepped aside to let her in and redid the lacing of his pants. She stopped in the center of the room, crossing her arms over her chest.
“How did it go, do you think?” he asked, pulling a thin white shirt over his head.
She glanced over her shoulder. “That’s why I couldn’t sleep. I don’t think you heard what those women were saying to me.”
“What were they saying?” Sebastian asked. “The conversations I had with the men went in exactly the direction I expected.”
“You left me to fend for myself with the wives and mistresses,” she said. “Even coming from the brothels, I haven’t been treated so brutally in a long time.”
He frowned and stepped closer. “What did they say to you?”
She exhaled a laugh. “Well, besides the digs at my past, which were to be expected, it was heavily implied that I’m fucking Sireno for his troops, I’m sucking your cock for the money, and a delicate little thing like me couldn’t possible retake my home realm. I’m too stupid, too slutty, too inexperienced, too naive—and on top of it all, I’m a woman.”
Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “And what did you say?”
“Nothing,” she said. “We need them. I wouldn’t want to insult anyone and lose the troops and the money.”
“I’m sure they could use the shattered egos.”
“Certainly, but still.”
“You just…let them talk down to you?”
Aria’s cheeks reddened. “I didn’t know what else to do, Seb. They all think I’m slow as well as slutty, now.”
“I’m so humiliated,” she whispered. “Honestly, they have me questioning whether they might not be right.”
Sebastian shook his head and stepped closer to her, touching one of her arms. “No, Aria. Gods, don’t let their inane drivel influence you. You’re a queen.”
“The way they spoke to me, I was no better than a washed up old whore. I don’t understand how you could put me in this position. You said it would be easy, because we already have Sireno’s support—but that didn’t feel easy.”
He flushed. “I expected you to speak to them as you speak to me. Really, I hoped you would take some of them down a few pegs. I should have warned you they would be awful. The wives of the courtiers in this court are playing their own game for position, and it mostly involves shoving down the heads of other women who are prettier, smarter, younger, or more self possessed.”
“Why couldn’t you deal with the games and leave me to speak with the men? It’s me they’re throwing their money and armies behind.”
“Because that’s not how it works, here, Aria.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but he grimaced and held up a hand.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” Sebastian said. “I grew up here, but I’ve been to the west a few times. I know what it’s like to be in a realm where women are treated as equals instead of commodities. But that’s not how it works here, and you’re not going to change that. The men needed to think they were making a deal with me.”
“And the women?”
“I swear, Aria, I regret not warning you. I should have realized you would take the abuse instead of fight it—that’s all you’ve done in the brothels, after all.”
“Yes—but still, what benefit would fighting back serve? If I insult all their wives, won’t they be more likely to abandon me?”
“You have no idea how miserable they all are,” he said. “They’d likely double their offers. I should have included you in the planning for this, Aria. I fucked up.”
She didn’t deny him, though the chagrin faded a little. “So what happens now?”
He swallowed. “We see how many withdraw, thinking you’re weak. I’m hoping your extraordinary beauty tempts most of them into staying just to piss off their wives further, but we can only wait.”
Aria dug her nails into one arm. “And in the future?”
“I include you in all my plans, even the subversive ones. I’m sorry, Aria. I’ve played alone with these courtiers for a very long time.”
“It’s not like we’re truly partners,” she said. “I can see why you didn’t think of it.”
“I see us as partners,” he said quietly. “Which is why I regret not outlining this more fully.”
“You really expected me to lay into the people you invited into your home for a gathering?”
“I realize now your lack of reserve with me is due more to our friendship than your nature.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing, Seb,” she admitted. “Politics and courtiers and subversion…”
“There’s only one rule,” he said. “It’s all about perception.”
“Then I’ve failed you miserably tonight.”
“No,” he said. “I failed you. It’s easy to talk around what you didn’t do. It might even be as simple as spinning it like you’re intimidated by such a splendorous court, or something silly that makes them feel like they’re in control. I didn’t treat you like a partner, and this is where we ended up. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Aria nodded at her feet, but the tightness in her chest didn’t dissipate. She realized her embarrassment that night wasn’t the only problem.
“Seb…” she said slowly. “Can I tell you something?”
He gestured for her to take a seat on his bed, and she obliged. He poured her a glass of wine before perching himself beside her.
“I think Weston wants me to sleep with him so he can stake some sort of claim on me,” Aria said. “Some claim over any of the other alliances I might want to make through marriage.”
His eyebrows jumped together. “Hmm. Why do you think that?”
“When he found out you hadn’t slept with me, he looked at me like I still had full value, or something. We’ve been…spending some time together, and he keeps pushing me to fuck him—but even harder now that he’s corresponding with his brother, Prince Ian.”
Sebastian took a drink from his glass. “So you don’t trust him?”
“No,” she said. “I think he’s a valuable asset, and I don’t want to lose him as an advisor—but I don’t trust him.”
“You’re nothing if not observant,” Sebastian said. “I’ve suspected that about Weston since the day you brought him here to meet with me.”
“I keep wanting to tell him things about how I’m feeling, but I always stop myself,” she said. “Like I can’t trust him with any weakness of mine.”
“I know I’ve asked you before, but…do you still trust me?” Sebastian asked gently.
She met his eyes. “Of course I do. I feel like—well, like we’re in this together, and if anyone should know everything, it’s you.”
“I’m honored to hear it,” he said. “I agree that you should consider keeping yourself somewhat shielded from Weston. I don’t know if he’s doing any of this consciously—maybe he’s only possessive because he loves you—but I don’t like the idea of him influencing you too heavily. He’s not only motivated by doing what’s best for you, you see, and that makes him dangerous.”
“And your motives are pure?” she asked, smiling.
He grinned. “Purer than his, I assure you. I’ve told you, Aria, I care about you. I want to see you happy and where you rightfully belong. Beyond that, we play everything by ear.”
“Well, partner,” Aria said, “what should we do about tonight, then?”
“I think it’s time I took you to court with me,” Sebastian said. “If any of those alliances fall through, just having you on my arm will tempt in new ones. You’re quite beautiful, Aria—I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “And Northern Kingdom courtiers are so distracted by beauty.”
“Endlessly,” Sebastian said. “To a fault, in fact.”
“When can we expect to have our armies called up?” she asked.
“Several weeks, at the soonest. I’ve been communicating with Prince Bohdan of the Southern Arm these past few days. His son is the captain of his armies, and with a little Forest Realm bolstering, they’ve taken the Southern Arm and declared independence from Alistair. Unfortunately, this makes Bohdan effectively a king, and he doesn’t seem like the kind of man willing to give up that sort of power.”
“But we need him?”
“You need the realm united, certainly. And once we have some power behind us in the form of troops, I think it will be time to reintroduce you to your realm.”
Aria’s stomach seemed to vacate the premises. “Gods, I never really thought I’d see the Ice Realm again.”
“I know,” Sebastian said softly. “I can’t wait to show you.”