The city of Reziva, a shining beacon built into the mountains of the Southern Arm of the Ice Realm, glittered in the afternoon sun like a jewel in a crown; white marble stood out against the dark forest of mountains stretching east and west. The city had three levels, and the palace of the princedom occupied the third, its walls straddling the mountain peak. A lush valley stretched before Aria and Sebastian, and behind them, the deep, twisting Westwatch River carved through the Ice Realm on its way south.
Aria and Sebastian left their legions of Northern Kingdom men behind and rode through the city to curious, albeit cheerful, murmurs and stares; Aria smiled at as many people as she could, feeling very bare atop her horse. She knew she looked young, but with Alistair’s many misdeeds over the years—gambling away the realm’s coffers, closing the moonsilver mines, ruining trade relationships—she thought it might not even matter what she was, as long as she could prove herself a leader. Still, the task settled in her stomach like a hard stone.
Sebastian dismounted his horse in the palace courtyard and strode over to assist Aria from hers. Valtteri, her potential suitor, stood beside his father with his hands shoved into his pockets. His body tapered down from wide, powerful shoulders to a lean waist belted by a sword. While Prince Bohdan’s face had a cruel, sour set to it, Valtteri’s neutral expression managed to look quite kind. He was extraordinarily handsome, really; a closely trimmed beard sharpened his jaw, and his blue eyes sparkled from beneath dark, arched eyebrows.
Sebastian bowed formally, and Aria inclined her head to the men.
“Queen Aria,” Prince Bohdan said, with an abbreviated bow. “An honor to see you safe after all these years. Welcome to Reziva, the capital of the Southern Arm of your kingdom.”
“Your city is stunning,” Aria said. “And I’m happy to finally meet you. Sebastian says you’ve been very helpful in discussing what we can do to right Alistair’s wrongs. I must also commend you on taking your Arm from my brother’s soldiers.”
“Your commendation is incredibly flattering,” Bohdan said. “We planned to make the Southern Arm independent, but then I heard rumors you might be alive in the Northern Kingdom. I felt it my responsibility to make contact. I am no king, my lady.”
“I’m sure you would have done wonderfully,” Aria said. “But I’m happy you accept my claim.”
Bohdan’s jaw rippled subtly before he turned to his left. “This is my son and heir, Valtteri. He captained our armies so prodigiously against Alistair. He would have done it in your name, if we had known you were alive.”
“I suppose we’ll have to settle for doing it in my name from now on,” Aria said. She dipped her head at Valtteri, and he bowed in a way she found rather elegant and attractive.
“A pleasure to meet you, my queen,” he said.
“The pleasure is mine. And you can just call me Aria.”
His mouth quirked in a smile.
“We’ve prepared a dinner for your arrival,” Bohdan said. “You’ll forgive me if the splendor isn’t what you’re used to, in the Northern Kingdom.”
“Nonsense,” Sebastian said. “This city is as beautiful as Tower of the Moon.”
Bohdan opened his arms to invite them inside. He fell into conversation with Sebastian, and Aria walked beside Valtteri; she avoided his eyes, though she knew he evaluated her by the way a blush crept up from her neck.
“You have lovely hair,” Valtteri said. “Where did you learn to style it like that?”
Aria loosed a laugh. “That’s not even close to what I expected you to say.”
He chuckled. “Then what did you expect, my queen?”
“‘Your beauty is greater than a thousand stars.’ ‘My queen, I’m so embarrassed to say, I can’t stop staring at you. Will you forgive me?’ ‘I’m not much of a poet, but you make me want to wax rhapsodic.’”
He grinned. “You have some experience with flattery, I see. Rest assured, I’m not talented in that realm.”
“What a recommendation. Didn’t your father say you were supposed to be courting me?”
“Oh, yes, but I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for my good breeding over my talent with words. It’s never been a pursuit of mine.”
“Well bred, you say? Nothing but propriety?”
“Never a word out of place. Even if they do so lack a rhapsodic quality.”
Aria bit her lip to hold back a smile. “You asked about my hair. I had a friend in the north who taught me these elaborate twists.”
“Was she…” He trailed off, as if afraid to ask.
“She was a courtesan, yes. She trained me in the months before Sebastian freed me.”
“What does the training entail?” Valtteri asked. They slipped into the cool air of the entrance hall.
“Maybe I’ll tell you some other time,” Aria said, as Bohdan turned back.
“Please show the queen to her chambers, Valtteri,” Bohdan said. “Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
Aria and Sebastian met eyes, and he passed her a fond smile before they parted. Valtteri seemed to notice the way Sebastian looked at her, though he didn’t say anything—and for some reason, with Valtteri beside her, Aria found it hard to remember the way Sebastian had tasted when they kissed on the plains.
“I’ve heard some things about you,” Aria said.
Valtteri took her arm to lead her to the east side of the castle. “How terrible are the things you’ve heard?”
She laughed. “Oh, nothing so horrible I’ve taken it to heart. My friend Weston tried to convince me you were impotent, though.”
Valtteri snorted. “So he hasn’t changed at all since the last time I saw him.”
“I’m sorry people say that about you,” she said. “I feel awful to think of you embarrassed like that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“Thanks,” Valtteri said, and she could tell he meant it. “And…thanks for not believing it.”
Aria lifted a shoulder. “Tower of the Moon is full of rumors. Only the worst of them ever turn out to be true.”
“So you’re saying impotency is too believable?”
“Considering the source, it could have been that you had blue eyes, and I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“Weston is an interesting man,” Valtteri said diplomatically. “I’m not sure I can say much more than that.”
“He would certainly have no qualms lying to me to curry himself some favor.”
“Well, that takes care of a conversation we might have had later,” he said. “When I heard Weston was returning with you, I worried how much damage control I might have to do.”
“Very little. He wasn’t very happy with me when he left to see his brother.”
“Speaking of sources, I read what your friend Sebastian said about you in the letters to my father,” Valtteri said. “My father, on the other hand, did not represent you the same way.”
His eyes lingered on a balcony overlooking the gardens. “I didn’t believe him, of course. He said you were beautiful, so likely daft. Inexperienced, so in need of a lot of coaching. Sold to a brothel, so certainly a used up whore.”
She sighed. “Sebastian had some choice words about Bohdan. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected sympathy.”
“Don’t ever expect it—but especially not from him,” Valtteri said.
“What about you, Valtteri? Can I expect any leniency from you?”
He met her eyes, and they slowed to a stop. Aria smiled up at him; she had entertained plenty of attractive men in Tower of the Moon, and Sebastian was his own story, but something struck her about Valtteri. His eyes were clear and soft as he looked down at her.
“I’ve always valued honesty very highly,” he said. “You seem to have an abundance of that, if you can speak so boldly of what flowery words you expected me to say. My father has been trying to marry me off since I was seventeen, and none of them have stuck, because I can’t open myself to a woman I don’t trust, not even for the sake of the princedom. But maybe we could try to trust each other, and see what follows.”
“That sounds alright to me,” Aria said. “I spent ten years in a city full of secrets and falsehoods. I’ve learned to control my face, and lie, and manipulate people. It would be nice if I didn’t have to do any of those things with the captain of my armies.”
“I would appreciate the chance to let you see me as I actually am, rather than as some man just trying to get you into bed.”
She nodded, and they continued walking. “I can arrange for that.”
Valtteri guided her into a right turn. “I don’t want what other people might desire for us to cloud what we have to do. Foremost, with you in this city—we have a war to win. And when Alistair finds out you’re back, who you’re planning to marry at the end of the rebellion won’t mean fuck all. Not until you take the throne.”
“I agree,” Aria said. “I’m not interested in playing any of these games until I know I’ll live to see the end of it.”
“I think we’ll get along very well, then, Aria,” Valtteri said. “And I promise I won’t let my father’s demands to court you affect me while we fight. Not in any disingenuous way.”
Aria smiled slightly. “And if you genuinely wanted to court me?”
Valtteri bit back a grin. “Well, as I’ve already told you—I’m not very talented in that realm.”