Aria hopped to the right to parry a blow from Weston’s sword. With a peal, their blades danced apart, and Aria took a step back to reframe her position.
“Good,” Weston said. “You have a bit of a natural touch for this, you know. You don’t struggle to pick things up.”
“It feels okay,” she said, flicking her sword up to block his next strike. “The sword seems at home in my hand.”
Weston swung at her legs, and she flitted away. Their next strikes flowed together gracefully; she’d gotten the hang of Weston’s style during their journey south, and she kept her eyes on his feet, as they often gave away his intentions.
“Alright,” Weston said, when Aria parried another blow with enough force to stagger him. He laughed a little, sheathing his blade. “That’s enough for tonight.”
“I’m not tired yet,” Aria said.
“Not all of us have the prowess of the Ice Realm.”
“Have I worn you out?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Weston shook his head, his eyes narrowed playfully. He stepped closer when she sheathed her sword.
“It takes more than that to wear me out,” he murmured. “I could show you sometime.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “Very charming. I told Seb I’d have dinner with him, so we’ll have to save it for another time.”
“To talk about Valtteri?” Weston said. “I suppose you’re coming up with some sort of strategy.”
“Seb’s just giving me some tips. He thinks I’ll do alright, though, after the brothels.”
“I just think you should be careful with any promises, Aria,” Weston said. “I know things about Valtteri.”
“I’m not interested in rumors.”
“You might be, if they affect his ability to court you.”
Aria blinked at him. “What do you know?”
Weston glanced around the camp, but the closest eavesdropper likely couldn’t hear them over the crackling of the fire. Aria found her feelings for Weston strongest when she was certain they wouldn’t betray her; in that moment, she let her eyes freely rove over Weston’s handsome features, the warm tone of his skin, and his sharp hazel eyes. His expression softened when he looked back at her, but she ignored the heat it brought to her skin.
“Look, I heard a few years back that Valtteri had some trouble with a girl his father brought to Reziva as an intended wife,” Weston said.
“What sort of trouble?”
“He couldn’t fuck her. Couldn’t get hard.”
Aria frowned. “And?”
“Well, it wouldn’t mean much unless it repeated itself—maybe she’s a massive twat. But it did repeat itself, with the next three women Valtteri courted.”
“So you’re telling me he’s impotent.”
“That’s the rumor. His father intended to strip him of the princedom in favor of his younger brother, but I’m not sure if it’s just not official yet, or what. Maybe Prince Bohdan thinks you marrying Valtteri would free him up to do so. There has to be a prince seated in Reziva, and Valtteri would be your king in Suvid.”
Aria crossed her arms. “You’ve never mentioned this before.”
He shrugged. “I just want you to be careful.”
“I think you want me biased in your favor.”
Weston raked his eyes over their surroundings again. “Aria, I’ve been very clear about my feelings for you. I thought you felt the same.”
“I do,” she whispered. “But I don’t appreciate the way you’re pressuring me about it, and it makes me rather leery of taking it any further.”
“Oh, don’t be coy, Weston. Everything changed as soon as you realized I hadn’t slept with Sebastian, and that I was a queen.”
“Aria, it’s a massive development—”
“One you planned to take full advantage of.”
He clenched his teeth and shoved his hands into the pockets of his tunic. Between the tents around them, the jade grass of the Plains Realm swayed in a gusty breeze.
“I wasn’t the only one everything changed for,” Weston said. “As soon as Sebastian got his hands on you, you couldn’t consider me anymore—not solely. There was too much else at play.”
“Seb has been nothing but kind and helpful.”
“And you think he has no ulterior motive?”
She shook her head, glowering. “You think he wants nothing but to fuck me, too? He’s just more subtle about it?”
“That’s exactly what I think,” he hissed.
Aria considered responding until she realized she had nothing remotely kind to say. Instead, she threw up a hand and stormed off. Weston watched her go, his eyes dark; they had devolved into this argument too many times to count.
Outside his tent, Sebastian chatted with a friend of his, though Nicoletto ducked away before Aria reached them. Sebastian raised his eyebrows at her approach.
“You look like Weston’s just beaten you in swordplay,” he said.
She scoffed, slipping into his tent. “No. It’s just the usual shit between us.”
Sebastian followed her inside. “Ah. What was his strategy this time?”
“Well, Valtteri might be impotent, and you’re obviously helping me just to get me into bed.”
Sebastian poured her a glass of wine. “I’ve heard the former, but I don’t think it’s true. The latter—well, I think I’d have sorted that out a long time ago if it were my only intention. Though I can’t deny I find your beauty very striking, Aria. All I am is a man.”
She laughed. “At least you’re honest.”
“We promised we would be. It’s refreshing to spend time with you, as a result.”
She leaned back in a chair at the table, her eyes on the rippling fabric of the tent above her. The force had held at this camp for three days to rest before the final march to Reziva in the Southern Arm of the Ice Realm.
“Am I missing out on something by not having sex, Seb?” Aria asked.
He laughed. “It depends. If you’re with a man you truly desire, it’s good. If you’re doing it to get something out of the way, it’s usually awful.”
“It seems like I’ll know when I’m ready.”
“You will,” he said. “Follow your instincts.”
“They tell me to stop giving Weston any consideration at all,” she said. “He’s getting worse, the closer we get to the Ice Realm. He wants to lock me down before he meets his brother.”
“It would give him a stronger position. If it matters, though, Aria, I don’t think he intends to use you as his sole purpose.”
“No, I think he has feelings for me. He’s just…clouded.”
“Don’t believe him about Valtteri, though,” Sebastian said. “That’s a rumor I think can be easily explained away. His father is an intimidating figure, and the women weren’t of his choosing.”
“Weston thinks Bohdan would offer me Valtteri to get him out of the Southern Arm so he could give the princedom to another one of Valtteri’s brothers.”
“I wouldn’t put that past him, unfortunately,” Sebastian said, joining Aria at the table. He fiddled idly with his glass of wine. “Bohdan is cunning.”
A breeze continued to ruffle the tent, though the air as the night drew on carried no hint of a summer thunderstorm. Aria let the wine warm her stomach, her thoughts drifting between Sebastian and Weston in equal measure.
She and Sebastian drank in silence for a long time, until Aria said, “Seb?”
“Can I tell you something silly?”
He chuckled. “I love silly things, Aria.”
She sat up to meet his eyes. “It’s properly silly. I—I’ve been thinking about it for a while, actually.” She swallowed, heat creeping up her neck. “I…like the way you smell. When we’re close, I find it distracting.”
One corner of Sebastian’s mouth flitted up. “You smell rather appealing yourself.”
“I always notice it with you. It’s like this…instinct.”
“Instinct for what?”
“I’m not sure. To be in your arms, perhaps.”
Sebastian grinned. “Such honesty, Aria. It’s admirable. And—I’m incredibly flattered.”
“I know your motives are much purer than romance,” she said. “But…have you ever thought about it?” She shifted in her seat. “Us?”
Sebastian’s cheeks colored, just a little. “Of course I have, Aria. We’ve known each other for nearly a year, now, and I’ve never found myself bored of spending time with you.”
“You said you bid on me to find out what I was hiding, but did it ever cross your mind that I might have been relieved it was you who won?”
“Relief isn’t quite as strong an emotion as, say, love.”
She laughed. “I know—but under the circumstances, it felt very similar to fondness. Did you think about what would happen if I had wanted to be with you, that day?”
He glanced away, fighting down a smile. “Of course I thought about it, Aria. Of course I considered what it might feel like if you’d wanted to be my mistress.” He ran a hand over his close, golden-brown beard. “I always hated that term. Mistress. It’s not like I’m married.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
He laughed lightly. “Because I’m not Weston. You’d have to throw yourself at me before I’d believe you truly wanted me, Aria. Your choices are very important to me, and I wouldn’t want to influence them in some untoward manner, after you’ve spent most of your life at the mercy of others. But if you’re asking me directly—yes, I find you attractive, and yes, I’ve thought about it.”
Aria bit her lip and stood to pour another glass of wine from the decanter on Sebastian’s side of the table. He continued to toy with the base of his glass, and only when she sauntered over to stand beside him, setting her newly filled drink on the wood, did he meet her eyes.
“There are plenty of things I haven’t done,” Aria said. “I’ve never fought in battle, I’ve never led people, I’ve never traveled before, with legions of troops like this…” She took a deep breath. “I’ve never even been to a shop. I’ve never made a decision I knew my heart desired. I’ve never lived a life that couldn’t be described as sheltered. I’ve never kissed a man besides Weston. I’ve never had sex.”
Sebastian watched her pensively. She leaned her hip against the table, and her fingers drifted perilously close to the wrist he rested on the wood.
“I have a lot to learn,” she said. “But I hear so often that one can’t learn without experiences, and the mistakes to go along with them.”
“I have a feeling you’re working yourself up to do something you’d like to keep noncommittal,” Sebastian said, his voice amused.
Aria, suddenly shy, smiled at her feet. “Does it make any sense, or am I incredibly naive?”
Sebastian touched the hand she rested beside his on the table, sending a thrill through her.
“It makes sense,” he said. “We’re all a sum of our experiences, and you have very little to claim in your life that truly belongs to you. Your own agency has always been important to me for that reason. Now, you’re returning to your home to take up a mantle that belongs to you, but one you’ve never had any experience with. You want to have some idea of what you’re doing, in all aspects of your life, so you don’t feel so unworthy to take the crown. It would hardly feel right to lead an entire kingdom when you’ve had so little experience leading your own heart. To know what we’re doing is an elusive concept—but it begins with making choices, and owning up to them, whether they’re right or wrong. You’re ready to start making your own choices—as a queen, not as a courtesan. Is that about it?”
“Yes,” Aria said. “And…we’re always honest with each other. I trust you. There are some choices I’d rather make with you on the other side, because I know…I know it won’t hurt me, or you, or us.”
“Trust is a beautiful thing,” Sebastian said. “Much like you, standing so close to me.”
In the brothels, Aria had been called beautiful more times than she could count—but when Sebastian said it, she didn’t brush it off as superfluous. His honesty conveyed something much greater than the empty words of men hoping to bed her later.
Aria leaned down until her hips found Sebastian’s lap; he looped an arm around her waist. Their faces were just centimeters apart. So close, she nearly lost herself in admiring the bright green of his eyes.
“Weston was your choice when you were a courtesan, and any genuine love seemed like an extraordinary thing,” Sebastian said. “Now, you can have anything you’d like. I’m happy you’re ready to try it out.”
Aria parted her lips, her breath catching. “Can I kiss you, Seb?”
A grin flitted across his face. “Oh, Aria. I imagine it’s quite a lovely thing to kiss you. I’d be honored.”
“And if you weren’t acting like such a well trained courtier?”
His gaze shifted to sultry, smoldering. “Then I’d beg you to kiss me, Aria.”