“Come on,” Aria said gently, coaxing Alistair through the doors to her room. She had refused help from Daniil and Halar of the queensguard; they saw enough of Alistair’s antics without living through the clean up process, as well. She could hardly stand to think what they would say then.
Aria kept Alistair talking the entire walk home, though little of it made any sense, on his end. Since turning down the hallway to her chamber, though, he’d gone quiet—and she knew the signs better than anyone. She guided Alistair towards the chamber pot beside her bed and set him on his knees before it. He burped—and not a second later, vomited explosively into the copper basin.
Grabbing a few towels from her bathtub, as well as a bowl of water, Aria waited out Alistair’s heaving before kneeling beside him. He fell back onto his bottom with a groan.
“It’s alright, sweetheart,” Aria cooed. “Come here so I can clean you.”
Alistair obeyed; he became almost like a rag doll, allowing her to wipe his face, remove his gauntlets and boots, and brush her fingers through his hair. Voiding the vomit cleared his mind, as usual—he watched her clean him with a severe frown.
“Where did you find me?” he asked. His voice rasped.
“The Sailor’s Rest. You were in with a rough crowd.”
“Well, the man who sounded like he was going to rape me had his throat slit. The rest backed down. I’m sorry about your knife—I’ll clean it in the morning.”
Aria’s parents may not have let her travel, or gain much life experience throughout the realm, but she had learned a few skills in her own way, watching over Alistair. She tugged at his arms to get him to stand so he could strip off his tunic.
“I’m so sorry, Aria” he said, very quietly.
“You smell repulsive,” Aria replied. “I’m going to throw these clothes out.”
In the desk at the end of her bed, she kept spare underclothes for nights like this; she tossed Alistair another pair of tights and turned around so he could change. He splashed himself with some of the lavender water to dispose of the rest of the stench. When he touched Aria’s arm, and she turned around, he looked and smelled like he might have been fresh from a bath.
“How much did I lose?” he asked.
“Those men won’t be bothering you about it, after what I did to their friend. You lost eight hundred to some mercenary at Sandy Shore Inn, and you owed Eva fifty for wine.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “That’s not bad, considering.”
Aria tipped her head to one side, her mouth twisted in a frown. “What happened, Alistair?”
He blinked a few times, the moonlight reflecting from his blue eyes. He glanced down at the chamber pot.
“Let me get rid of this for you. It’s the least I can do.”
Aria stepped aside, and he disposed of the chamber pot outside the room before tossing his clothes into the fireplace. It had burnt nearly to embers, but stoked up with the additional fuel. When he returned, Aria curled up cross-legged against the headboard of her bed.
“You should sleep here tonight,” she said. “It’s nearly dawn, and mother and father have a guard watching out for you to come back like this. I got us past him, but you have to walk by him to get to your room.”
Alistair joined her on the bed, pulling her silky sheets over himself. He rested his head against the pillows, closed his eyes, and sighed.
“I don’t know what happened, Aria. I just—couldn’t take it anymore.”
“The snide comments from mother and father, that Prince Bohdan wanker watching me like a specimen, and in the middle of it all, you getting courted by some overbred Southern Arm ponce.”
“Valtteri isn’t a ponce,” she said. “He’s actually rather lovely, I think. Much kinder than I expected.”
“I don’t trust it,” Alistair said. “Mother is selling you off like a commodity, and he’s playing into it, no matter what he says.”
“Of course he has to play into it, in some capacity. But he doesn’t have bad intentions.”
Alistair turned on his side to meet her eyes. “You really think so?”
“I really do.”
His gaze fell to the pillows. “I guess…maybe I was wrong, then. Every time I think about it, I’m seeing it like he’s taking you away just to end up hurting you. After everything you’ve done for me, Aria—I can’t stand to think of you in pain.”
“I wish you would stop doing things like this,” she said. “It pains me to see you here.”
He swallowed. “I’m sorry, Aria. It just feels like ever since I was eighteen, and you found that journal from one of my spirals…I don’t know, I always think I’m trying so hard not to be the man I was when that happened. But I keep ending up there anyway. I never would have hurt you—I know that now. I couldn’t have killed you. You’re the only thing that stands out to me as good and true.”
She reached for his hand. “You’re scared that I might change when I get married.”
“I’m certainly terrified of not having you around to save me.”
“Alcohol isn’t a bandage, Alistair. It creates more problems than it solves.”
“Rationally, I know that. But when I have a drink…”
“I told you I needed you to have a clear head.”
“And I want to do that for you. It’s the execution that seems to lack.”
Aria closed her eyes and squeezed his hand, feeling very tired, suddenly. “You said you hadn’t gone through a low in a while. What does your journal make these days look like?”
“The beginning,” he said, barely audible.
“I’ll promise you something, Alistair,” she said. “Ever since I was eight years old, and I realized what life was like for you, I’ve been at your side. You’re my brother, and I love you. Whether I marry someone mother throws at me, or I’m finally given permission to travel, or any number of changes occur in my life, the one constant is that I love you, and I’m here for you. I promise you, you have nothing to fear. I will always save you.”
Alistair pulled her closer, until they embraced. She rested her head against the plane of his shoulder, her breath slowing as sleep drew her in.
“When you were a child, if you hadn’t found me out—I wouldn’t have given you a chance to prove yourself,” he whispered. “I would have assumed you would wrong me anyway. Now, I always assume you’ll be taken away from me, and I’ll collapse. I’m such a fool, Aria. A desperate, confused fool.”
She clenched her fingers against his chest and released. “We’ll work through it all. You just have to keep talking to me.”
“Yes,” he murmured. “I promise I will.”