Pubs along the shoreline in Tiraspol often sported balconies overlooking the sea. In the middle of the day, few crowded the tables, as most of the nobles confined themselves to the castle with multiple highborn visitors. As a result, the man lounging at a table set for four, the hood of his black mage robes concealing his face, stuck out from a few meters away. Valtteri opened the patio gate for Aria, and she fiddled with the hem of her tunic nervously as she approached Casimir. She could feel his eyes on her, though the cloaking spell of his hood hid his expression.
Casimir stood but didn’t bow, as a lowborn man might; he dipped his head and sank back into his seat concurrently with Aria. Alistair slid into the chair next to her, and Valtteri took up residence beside Casimir.
“Well, Aria, this is my brother, Casimir,” Valtteri said. “I call him Cas, and I think it might annoy him if you do, so go for it.”
She stifled a grin. “Could you take your hood off, Casimir? Only it’s a little intimidating to speak to someone without seeing their face.”
He obliged, and Aria almost regretted it; Casimir’s features followed after his brother, but they had a harsher, more striking tinge to them that brought color to her cheeks. Stunning, light blue eyes evaluated her incisively beneath dark arched eyebrows, and the sharp angles of his face were somewhat softened by his messy black hair, and the shadow of stubble along his jawline—though not enough to make him look what Aria would call kind. His expression had an almost haughty set to it, but not in a strictly arrogant manner; she would never question his ability, but she might question him in other ways.
“I don’t see what a mage could help us with,” Alistair said as a barmaid brought them a selection of drinks. He immediately went for a glass of strong wine, and Aria watched him take it with the lightest furrow of her brow. When she glanced back at Casimir, she flushed—he had been watching her.
“Well, as I said, Cas has an affinity for the darker side of things,” Valtteri said. “I think, if we consider what Ian might be able to do even with a false rumor, we have need of his services.”
“I suppose you have some experience,” Alistair said. “Didn’t Ian spread the impotency rumor, too?”
Aria tried not to look at Casimir; she felt his eyes all over her, but his inscrutable expression made it impossible to tell why he evaluated her so thoroughly.
“Ian tried to make it stick long after my father gave up,” Valtteri said. “I’ll confess I’m a little biased in terms of getting revenge on him. He’s well respected in his realm, but only because their court is a bunch of rumor mongers, too.”
“His brother Weston is worse,” Casimir said. He had a deep, elegant voice that Aria felt to her toes. “So in terms of who is good for the realm, Ian looks good by comparison. And his father is well loved, if not very desirable on the personal side of things.”
“Didn’t stop mother from fucking him,” Alistair said under his breath.
“Ezra is suited to the Forest Realm,” Casimir said. “Women aren’t quite so equal as they are here. He can bat them around without raising any eyebrows, and that’s mostly where his focus lies. Ian is quite similar. They look like assholes in our realm, but in the Forest Realm, it’s a common set of behaviors. There’s nothing to disrespect in something so fundamental to their culture.”
“What does this have to do with what Ian is spreading about Aria?” Alistair asked.
“And you,” Casimir said. “I think we would be remiss to disregard the role you’ve played in this whole thing, Prince Alistair.”
Alistair glowered over his drink, and Aria said, “If Ian is respected, it means we can’t do anything that might harm the alliance between our realms.”
“Precisely,” Casimir said. “Which means, whatever we do to get him to shut his mouth can’t be traced back to the royal house. That’s where I come in.”
Alistair started on a beer, draining most of it in one pull. His gaze flitted between Valtteri, Casimir, and Aria, though he lingered longest on Aria—and his eyes darkened with each pass.
“What do you suggest?” Aria asked Casimir.
He met her eyes, and she felt that to her toes, too. He looked at her like he could see right through her.
“It’s best if you’re ignorant to most of the plans, princess,” Casimir said. “That way, when Ian inevitably confronts you, asking what you know, you’ll be telling him the truth. Your face says some of what you think, and I wouldn’t trust intimate knowledge to stay hidden with you.”
She sat up taller at the gentle rebuke. “What am I thinking now, then, if you know so much?”
“You’re indignant that I would criticize you.”
“You know nothing about me,” she said. “It seems presumptuous.”
“I know what Valtteri has told me, and he’s a good judge of character.”
“Don’t act like you don’t make wild assumptions on occasion, Cas,” Valtteri said. “I swear, Aria, I haven’t told him anything negative.”
“Of course not,” Casimir said. “Because Princess Aria couldn’t deal with negativity, could she?”
Aria narrowed her eyes. “You’d be surprised.”
“I doubt it.”
“Casimir,” Valtteri said sharply. “Could you hold off for one day on insulting everyone in your wake?”
“You asked for my help,” Casimir said. “This is what I do. Take it or leave it.”
“We’ll leave it, then,” Alistair said. “You have no right to speak to my sister like that.”
“You have no right to use her as you do,” he replied. “Why do you get to decide what she can handle?”
Alistair set his glass down with a thump. “I don’t use her.”
“Then why are you drinking right now, if it isn’t because you know she’ll take care of you, regardless of your behavior?”
“That’s not using her,” Alistair said.
“I doubt she finds the thought of nursing you back to health comforting or rewarding, and yet, despite many requests for you not to drink, you continue.”
“You know nothing about it,” Alistair snapped.
“I know she watched you take that first glass of wine like you were about to put a knife to her throat.”
Before Alistair could open his mouth, Aria laid her hand against his leg. He glanced at her, confused.
“Don’t,” she said quietly. “He’s right.”
“I’ve asked and I’ve asked,” she whispered. “You say it’ll change, and it never does. Your drinking is what got us into this mess in the first place.”
“Let us fix it,” she said. “Like I have so many times before. I can’t let this ruin me.”
Alistair searched her face vulnerably. Part of her bristled at what Casimir said about her refusing to deal with negativity, but in truth, he was right. Her parents kept her sheltered so extensively, the only dark things she’d ever seen came at Alistair’s hand. The fault in perception exposed by the rumor Ian spread, and even the implication that her face gave her away—she needed to verse herself in all sides of her character, even the failing parts of her, if she wanted to become stronger than her mother. Casimir knew it just by looking at her, and she nursed a feeling of trust in him as a result. He might protect her, but he would push her, too—and that meant she needed him more than Alistair right now.
“Aria, I’m sorry, I—” Alistair began.
“Please,” Aria interrupted, her throat tightening. “Can you go back to the castle and let me fix this? I’ll come see you tonight.”
He looked at Valtteri and Casimir, who both watched Aria with contemplative expressions. When he turned back to her, pain clouding his face, she swallowed away the urge to comfort him.
“I can protect you,” Alistair said.
“I know you could,” Aria said. “But most of the time, you forget how. Mother is going to make me marry Ian, and maybe this way, we’ll have the time to embarrass him enough that she sees him as a bad match. It’s my only hope, Alistair, to get rid of the rumor and have some control over who I marry.”
“I can help,” he protested. “You would trust these men—these strangers to protect you, over me?”
She grasped his hand. “No one has to protect me, Alistair. I can take care of myself. I just want a little help, is all.”
He swallowed. “Aria—”
“She doesn’t need you nearly as much as you need her,” Casimir said.
Aria threw him an icy stare, and he seemed to find it amusing more than intimidating.
“Alistair,” Aria said gently, bringing her eyes back to her brother. “Please go back to the castle. Okay? And I’ll come see you later.”
“You don’t need me,” Alistair repeated. Anger lingered behind the declaration, drowning out the sadness of a few moments earlier.
“No,” Aria said. “I don’t need you. Not for this.”