Vishnya paced back and forth before the white marble throne. Aria’s father was nowhere to be found—he rarely participated in anything so uninteresting as parenting.
“Prince Ian has been here for a week, and it’s been nothing but ice between you two,” Vishnya told Aria. “Bohdan is pushing me hard to formalize something with his son, but Ian is clearly the better match.”
“Does it matter at all what I want?” Aria asked. “I don’t like Ian. He’s been calling me a whore since his first day here.”
“And I suppose you think your behavior precludes you from such implications?” she snapped. “You’ve had Alistair at your side for every second, and when you’re not with him, you’re walking through the gardens with Valtteri, giggling like some commoner.”
Aria glared. “None of those things make me a whore. You already know why Ian calls me that, though, don’t you?”
Vishnya looked away with a sigh. “Of course I know.” She slid her gaze over Aria’s shoulders. “Anything to say for yourself?”
Alistair stepped up to Aria’s right side. “There’s nothing to say. Ian was the originator of the rumor in the first place.”
“And he’s spread it prolifically, true or not,” Vishnya said. “Half the Forest Realm court thinks you’re fucked up in the head—in love with your sister like she’s a woman, not a sibling. I’m not certain I disagree with them, really.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Alistair said.
“Oh, you’ve always been a little bastard,” she spat. “Ever since you were a child, you’ve been a problem. Then came the drinking, and the gambling, and the whoring—you’re an embarrassment to this house.”
“How dare you,” Aria said. “He does those things because of the way you and father treat him!”
“Pathetic,” their mother said, waving a hand. “You need to grow up, Alistair, and quit blaming me for your mistakes.”
Aria glanced at Alistair, expecting a vicious reply, but he merely blinked; she could see by the way he swallowed that the comment hurt him deeply. Her kindling rage turned to an inferno.
“If you didn’t want me to get attached to Valtteri, you never should have brought him here,” Aria told Vishnya. “You were never clear with your intentions—just that I shouldn’t make any solid declarations of love. Now it seems you always intended me to marry Ian, and you’re angry I didn’t follow the plan you never fucking told me about. So leave Alistair out of it—he’s done nothing wrong.”
“Being seen with him was a massive mistake!” Vishnya said. “Ezra is demanding twice the dowry to take the scandal off my hands!”
“There’s no scandal!” Aria shouted. “Alistair and I have never done anything, and I won’t marry Ian just to clear your name!”
“It’s not just my name. You will never outrun this, even when you’re queen.”
“I suppose you think me fucking Ian will stop it? He would hold it over my head every day for the rest of my life. The only solution is to outwit him.”
Vishnya scoffed. “And how do you suppose you’ll do that, if I haven’t figured it out?”
“Well, certainly with no help from you, now or ever before,” Aria said. “I’m sixteen years old and I don’t have a single idea of how to navigate shit like this. If you had your way, you would have set the crown on my head only for me to embarrass the entire realm over and over again as I learned how to behave. You’re lucky, frankly, that I’m smarter than that.”
“You have a plan?” Vishnya asked disdainfully.
“It doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t,” Aria said. “I’m not marrying Ian, though. He’s vile. And you can tell his father that while you’re sucking his cock.”
Vishnya stepped forward and raised a hand to smack Aria across the face—but Alistair grabbed her wrist and shoved her back.
“Don’t touch her,” he snarled.
“You’re lucky the queensguard isn’t in here,” Vishnya said. “They would have your dirty head for that.”
“No they wouldn’t,” Aria said. “They like their princess much better than they like their queen.”
“Then I’ll dismiss every one of them.”
“Are you drunk?” Alistair asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t be able to hire another guard. Half the realm thinks you’re a joke, and firing your queensguard will only seal your fate.”
“You’re marrying Ian,” Vishnya said, ignoring Alistair and instead scowling at Aria. “I don’t care what your plan is, what your feelings are, or anything else. You’re marrying him in a week’s time, in front of the court, and I won’t hear another word about it.”
Aria opened her mouth, apoplectic with rage, but Alistair beat her to it.
“You can’t make her marry that prick,” he said. “I won’t let you.”
“What do you think you can do, Alistair?” Vishnya said. “What do you truly think you have the power to do? You’re drunk half the time, and inside a prostitute the other half. Oh, wait—I forgot to include all the time you spend losing the money I pay you, and your sister’s besides.”
“I’ve known since I was a child that if you ever hurt Aria, I would repay you twice over,” Alistair said, his voice low and dangerous. “That asshole will rape her, beat her, and use her like she’s lower than a common whore, all because of some rumor he himself made up. If you intend to make her marry him, I’ll stop you, by any means possible.”
“Alistair…” Aria said.
He ignored her. Vishnya held his gaze with nothing short of loathing in her eyes.
“They never tell you when you birth a living child, what a burden it ends up being,” Vishnya said. “They never tell you that your children can be loathsome, disgusting creatures that you hate with every fiber of your being. They never tell you that even the child you adored could grow up to be such a disappointment, as soon as she opens her mouth.”
“You hated her because she was smarter than you, and endlessly more beautiful,” Alistair said. “That was obvious by the time she turned twelve. You’ve waited a long time to take your revenge, I see, but now you’ll sell her to a man who would abuse her and weaken her until she’s nothing but a shell. All because she had the audacity to be more than some pet—to be better than you.”
“Then why haven’t I had you killed?” Vishnya spat. “You’ve done nothing but make my life more difficult since you took your first breath.”
Before Alistair could lunge forward, Aria touched his arm; he met her eyes, his own filled with malice. Still, his expression softened when she squeezed his forearm; she grasped his hand, turning them towards the throne room doors.
“This conversation isn’t over,” Vishnya said.
“Yes it is,” Alistair called back. “Don’t take my threat idly, mother. I have no qualms.”
“Fuck you, you piece of shit,” Vishnya shouted after them. “I wish you’d suffocated in the womb!”
The doors slammed closed behind them, and Aria let go of a breath. It did nothing to calm her beating heart, nor the nausea in her stomach. The things her mother said…
Alistair hugged her, unprompted. “I’m sorry, Aria.”
“Alistair, you can’t threaten her like that…”
He ran a hand over her hair. “Yes, I can. I mean it, Aria. If she doesn’t back off and let you marry Valtteri, I’ll…well, I’ll take care of it.”
She peeked up at him. “You’ve come around to Valtteri, then?”
“I’ve come around to how you feel about him. And…I suppose he’s nice enough to me.”
Aria smiled a little at that, and Alistair brushed his thumb over the line of her jaw affectionately. Concurrently, Valtteri emerged from the south side of the palace; Aria disentangled from Alistair, her heart still thumping.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” Valtteri said. “My brother Casimir arrived in town last night. I wondered if you could find some time to meet him?”
Aria nodded. “His arrival is a bit fortuitous, it would seem.”
Valtteri grinned. “I won’t ask what that means, after you’ve been speaking with your mother.” Alistair laughed, and Valtteri shook his head. “Casimir is staying in an inn by the shore. Do you have time now?”