Aria stared at her empty tent. The flap swung shut behind Casimir, and she took a deep breath; after ten years of secrecy, the confession lifted a pressing weight from her chest.
“Queen, huh?” Weston asked.
She glanced over her shoulder. Weston stood framed in canvas, his hands shoved into his pockets.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said. “I didn’t think it would matter.”
He laughed. “How would it not matter?”
“Because ten years ago, when I disappeared, the realm didn’t fight for me. There was no reason to think they would now.”
“They thought you were dead.”
“They never found a body.” She shook her head at the bite in her voice. “Look, it doesn’t matter. I thought I could have a fresh start with you, so I didn’t tell you. I didn’t think you would care what I was. Only what I could be.”
Weston sauntered all the way inside the tent. “I sent a messenger to my father about the civil war and the Wastelander battle. He’ll send you troops.”
Aria reached for his hand, and he took it, sidling close enough she could lean against his chest.
“I thought Alistair took the throne so he could be happy,” she said. “Instead, he’s ruined the kingdom. I feel like I have to fight. All they need is a figurehead for the entire thing to catch fire.”
Weston tucked some stray hair behind her ear. “I understand. I didn’t realize I would be coming back to war, but I suppose I can take the mantle of captain as well as prince.”
“With you beside me, I’m not so scared,” Aria said. “Familiarity seems to do that.”
“Don’t be scared. I’ll keep you safe.”
“If I’m queen, I can’t be the courtesan you shove in your father’s face.”
He grinned. “No. But you can be the queen I found in the north and brought back to her realm. Oh, and she’s in love with me, too. Fancy that.”
She gave him a wry look. “What do you make of this Casimir?”
“He’s Captain Valtteri’s brother. I don’t know much about him except that he’s very close with Valtteri, and therefore doesn’t like me.”
“What happened there?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Some people just don’t get along, I guess.”
She never had cause to distrust Weston in Tower of the Moon, and yet, in that moment, she couldn’t brush aside the pang deep within her. A moment of silence lingered between them, but Weston didn’t seem to notice the weight of it.
“You could have gone home,” Aria said, changing the subject. “We could have found each other again.”
“If I left you behind, the tenuous respect I have from my father would disappear completely,” Weston said. “I would have been forced to pretend I never knew you at all.”
“But you considered it.”
He caressed her face, a smile playing at his lips. “Are you accusing me of something, Aria?”
“Not really. Are you being honest with me, Weston?”
He smirked. “Only a fool lies to a beautiful woman. They always find out.”
Aria glanced away. “If Casimir is right about what I can be for this rebellion, I need you to be honest with me. I’ve never done this before, even if I was born to do it.”
“You’ll find yourself developing an advisory council to aid that,” Weston said. “I hope I can be the first member, to represent the needs of my kingdom.”
“It’s never weak to take counsel, but it is weak to play favorites,” she said. “I’ll have to be careful when you have my ear. I hope you’re not planning on abusing your power.”
Weston leaned down to meet her lips. “You’re such a fucking flirt, you know that?”
“Only with you,” she protested.
He laughed. “Yeah, right. I saw you with Sebastian some nights. He was a difficult man to catch, and yet you had his attention in an instant. There’s something very dangerous about how pretty you are, you know.”
“I have other skills,” she said.
Weston flashed a wolfish grin. “Oh, yes. I’m quite familiar with those.”
Aria narrowed her eyes. “Who’s flirting now?”
They both chuckled, and Weston kissed her neck. His arms snaked around her waist.
“You’ll forgive me for wanting to keep you interested in me,” he murmured. “Casimir said Valtteri would come, and I suspect you’ll find him attractive.”
“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, Weston.”
“Then don’t look at Casimir the way you do.”
She rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t we be discussing the needs of your realm, Prince Weston? Come, give me my first lesson in politics.”
His teeth nipped her ear before he drew away. “Very well, Queen Aria.” He puffed up his chest in a comical impression of an arrogant courtier, tearing a laugh from her. “The Forest Realm, while a close Ice Realm ally, has a very different culture regarding the positions deemed suitable for women. Not quite as bad as the Northern Kingdom, but enough that my father might not treat you as an equal. He never really respected your mother. He does, however, have a high opinion of the potential of the Ice Queen. He knows how powerful the Ice Queens of old were, and he knows how fanatically the people of the realm would respect a strong queen, were she to emerge again.”
Aria crossed her arms. “Your father wouldn’t fuck around with support for this war, would he?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. He hates Alistair as much as your people do. Anything looks better, at this point, which is why Valtteri had no trouble freeing the Southern Arm from Alistair’s grasp even without a figurehead. My father will rejoice in your finding like the rest, and like I said, he’ll respect your potential. What we need to do to ensure you live up to that potential is get you properly trained with a sword. The Ice Queens of lore always led their men and women as a captain, and you’ll have to do the same.”
Aria nodded. “I think it’s possible to make me a good fighter. The blade feels at home in my hand.”
“You have a natural touch,” he agreed. “My father will respect you from afar when he hears you fight alongside your people, and your people will swear fealty left and right just to see it. I know how bold you are, and how long you’ve buried it, but it will serve you on a battlefield. It’s best to find it now.”
“Did you tell your father about our relationship when you sent the message?”
“Not in its entirety,” Weston said. “I thought…well, with so many things changing, I thought we might need some time to consider what we are in this sort of context.”
“Very practical,” Aria said. “But you’ll stay here with me?”
“I assume my father’s orders won’t drag me from you. If Casimir is right about the Wastelander battle, I’ll go with you to join those forces as their captain and prince. We just have to wait for Valtteri to have a look at you first.”
“You don’t like him,” she said. “Tell me why.”
“It doesn’t matter, Aria,” Weston said, with a handsome smile. “What does matter right now is we start training you with a sword. Can you be ready in an hour?”
Aria glanced at her filthy arms. “Yes. I need to bathe, like a pampered princess.”
“Me too, actually. I smell rank.”
“I know,” Aria said. “It’s repulsive.”
With a sharp grin, Weston brought one hand to her stomach and tickled her until she yelped.