“Let me see her,” Weston demanded, his voice carrying inside the tent.
“What are you so worried about?” Casimir asked. “She’s just sleeping.”
“In your tent. I suppose you’ll tell me you didn’t find your hands wandering while you healed her, either.”
“She’s sleeping in there because she broke her fucking ankle and she’s exhausted. I think we both know she’d sooner punch me in the face than let me touch her without her consent. Our women are a little different than those docile broodmares you beat down in the Forest Realm.”
“Fuck you,” Weston hissed.
“What’s going on?” Valtteri asked, joining the fray.
Aria blinked a few times to clear the fog from her head before she sat up. Following the Wastelander battle, Casimir had healed her various injuries—the worst of which was her broken ankle—and allowed her to bathe in his tent while he prowled the battlefield for other survivors. Afterwards, she had passed out on his bedroll, too tired to move. She glanced down at herself; wrinkles marred her soft, clean tunic, and her hair had taken some damage, as she slept on it wet. Aria used her fingers to brush out the tangles before twisting it into a quick braid.
“Weston’s heavily implying I sexually assaulted our queen when I healed her after the battle,” Casimir said. “He wants to burst in there and wake her up.”
“Why is she sleeping in your tent?” Valtteri asked.
“I don’t know. I just came back and found her there. I’m sure she was just tired.”
Weston scoffed. “Or you fucked with her mind, forcing her to stay with you. I swear, if she feels differently about me after this—”
“By the gods, Weston, why would I even bother? You’ll fuck it up on your own.”
There was a thump and a snarl, and then Valtteri said, “You’re going to have to be faster than that if you want to punch him. Can we reserve the ridiculous posturing for another time, though?”
“Posturing?” Weston yelped. “She’s to be my wife, and he’s had his hands all over her!”
“You’re not betrothed yet,” Casimir said smoothly. “And she didn’t seem to mind me healing her.”
With another, louder thump, Weston cursed. “You can’t just knock a prince to the ground!”
“I just did,” Casimir said. “Perhaps you should brush up on your hand to hand combat.”
Aria resisted the urge to laugh at Casimir’s cheeky tone and rose from the bedroll to join the men. Weston sat on his bottom in the dirt, glowering, but shoved himself to his feet quickly when she slid between the canvas. Valtteri glanced at her, his expression neutral, but his eyes dancing; Casimir watched Weston haughtily.
“Is there some problem?” Aria asked.
Weston flushed. “Casimir wouldn’t let me in to see you—”
“I was sleeping,” she said. “Perhaps he was just being kind, after yesterday.”
“I’d appreciate it if you could clear me of the charge of sexual assault Weston has levied against me,” Casimir said. “He seems to think I used my hands in some untoward manner while healing you.”
“Casimir is my court mage,” Aria told Weston. “He would never do such a thing.”
“You’ve only known him a few days—”
“Long enough,” she said. “Why were you on the ground when I came out?”
Weston turned a brilliant red. “Casimir shoved me.”
“He tried to punch me for the second time,” Casimir said.
“I can bear witness,” Valtteri added.
Aria tilted her head at Weston, a crease between her brows. “I think you may owe my advisors an apology.”
Weston ground his teeth together before spitting, “I’m sorry.”
“So genuine,” Casimir said. “We should all take lessons from you.”
Aria met his eyes when he turned to duck into his tent and nearly burst out laughing at the look he gave her. Valtteri, as if he knew, brushed her subtly with his hip to keep her from giggling.
“We should talk, Weston,” Aria said, laughter barely touching the edges of her voice. Casimir had a way of speaking to her with his eyes that made her lightheaded with pleasure. “And in the future, you should trust me in Casimir and Valtteri’s hands.”
Valtteri winked at her before striding off. Weston shoved his hands into his pockets, staring at the ground, until Aria took his arm to lead him across camp.
“Valtteri likes you,” Weston said, his voice low. “So does Casimir.”
“I’d hope they like me, since I’m going to be their leader,” Aria said.
“That’s not what I meant. They both like you as a woman.”
Valtteri’s smile and Casimir’s dark, thoughtful expression flashed through Aria’s mind; something stirred in her stomach before she could force it down. “Well, I’m not sure how much it matters, since neither of them found me in the Northern Kingdom and brought me back home.”
Weston sighed. “We both know that’s not why I brought you back, Aria. There’s no point acting like I did something noble.”
“No, but I do owe you, regardless. And neither of them have history with me, like you do.”
Weston met her eyes, looking a little relieved. “We haven’t had a perfect history, Aria, but…”
“I’d be too suspicious if everything was perfect from the start,” she said. “With the way my life is these days, that’s just asking for something to go wrong.”
They ducked into Weston’s tent, and he tugged her into an embrace, his lips against her ear.
“I don’t want to lose you to men like that, Aria.”
“Men like what?”
He shook his head. “People say Valtteri is so honorable and kind, but put him together with Casimir and they’re assholes as much as anyone else. And Casimir…well, he doesn’t even have to try.”
“Wes,” Aria said gently. “Are you sure it’s not just because you’re jealous?”
“Of what?” he asked, with a mocking edge.
Aria held up a hand placatingly. “Nothing, Wes. I just thought I’d mention it.”
“Valtteri isn’t as good with a sword as they say he is.”
Aria, having witnessed Valtteri’s fighting in the Wastelander battle, bit back her disagreement.
“And Casimir—he’s just a mage. They’re all slimy bastards, as a rule.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Aria said. “I’m sorry they were goading you. Would you mind terribly if I went to talk to Valtteri, though? It’s about the civil war.”
Weston pulled her in to kiss her passionately, and Aria let herself relax in his arms. As days passed, she saw a little more of the person Weston had managed to hide from her in the Northern Kingdom; insecurity seemed as much a part of him as his sense of humor, or the way he toyed with his beard when deep in thought. Aria tried to be sensitive to it before Weston could shut his vulnerability down completely, as he tended to do; she hoped it would encourage him to open up to her. So far, though, she had only managed to make him more defensive. Some deep seated fear kept him from revealing his true self, even to her—but as she spent ten years in a similar scenario, she couldn’t exactly fault him.
“Go see Valtteri,” Weston said. “Then come back here. I didn’t get to hold you last night.”
“You say hold like you had pure intentions,” Aria said.
He laughed. “You always see right through me, don’t you?”
She held his gaze for a fraction longer than normal, and Weston furrowed his brow before she could scuttle from the tent. In truth, she couldn’t see right through him, and the obfuscation of his intentions bothered her.
“I thought Weston would be busy claiming you as his property,” Valtteri said, when Aria strode into his tent. He sat at a table covered by a map of the Ice Realm, his fingers grazing various directions of travel for their first excursion into the kingdom.
“You weren’t helping,” Aria said, taking the seat across from him.
“He’s a tosser, Aria. I don’t know what you expect from me. I begrudgingly accept that he’s gained your favor, but he’s not someone I strive to interact with on a daily basis.”
“You told me the first night we arrived here that he was misrepresenting himself, but I’m not sure you’re right. I think he’s hiding something, but I think it’s a deeply personal set of fears that he can’t seem to overcome. He’s not trying to trick me into thinking he’s someone else.”
“He’s afraid of looking a fool. He’s constantly protecting himself, and he’d protect himself over you, any day. If you think he’s not tricking you into thinking he’s much more secure and self assured than he is, then you’re not very observant.”
“You’re pissy today,” Aria said.
Valtteri clenched his fist against the table. “I just had to argue with my idiot brother Eamon. Forgive me.”
“Valtteri,” she said.
“Look, it’s a long story, and I’d rather not tell you at all. So there’s no way you’re getting it out of me right now.”
“I’ll just ask Casimir.”
“He won’t tell you either.”
“Are you certain of that?”
Valtteri met her eyes and shook his head, defeated. “No. He does seem rather taken with you.”
“I’m very influential,” she said.
He laughed, shoving a hand through his hair, and leaned back in his seat. “Can we at least save it for another time? I assume you came here to talk about strategy.”
“Yes, but now I’m distracted.”
“Me too, actually. What’s this about Weston’s deeply personal fears?”
She chuckled. “Like I’d tell you. You’d probably use them against him.”
“Oh, not me. But Casimir might. You’ll remember I wasn’t in favor of killing Weston, no matter how much he bothers me. Casimir jumped at the opportunity.”
“Very altruistic of you,” she said dryly. “Could you and Casimir consider putting this goading of Weston to rest? I know you may not understand, but I am rather fond of him.”
“And he’s using it to his advantage wherever he can,” Valtteri said bitterly.
“I’m not going to try to turn you against him. I’m sure you’d just be angry with me. Just…promise me you’ll keep your eye on him.”
“I already am.”
“And don’t let him act like you’re his property. You’re our queen, not his princess.”
Aria frowned. “I wasn’t aware I was doing that.”
“You’re not,” he said. “It’s just something to keep in mind.”
“Why does it bother you so much?” Aria asked.
Valtteri looked her up and down, his icy blue eyes weighing whether he could be honest with her. “It bothers me because the last few Ice Queens we had were considered weak in comparison to their ancestors. I don’t think you’re anything like that, but it’s easy to become weak with the wrong advisors, and the wrong interests at heart.”
“I asked why it bothered you personally,” she said. “I know why it would look bad to let the Forest Realm influence my politics too much.”
Valtteri crossed his arms, his gaze focused over her shoulder. “It doesn’t bother me personally.”
Aria barked a laugh. “Every single thing about your posture, your face, says otherwise. Come on, Valtteri—aren’t we friends?”
His mouth flitted into a smile. “Yes, we are, I suppose.”
“Weston isn’t good enough for you,” he said. “You’re too beautiful, too strong, and too smart to be roped in by a man like him. And he fucking knows it. That’s why he’s so afraid to lose you.”
“Who would you suggest as a suitable alternative?”
Valtteri shook his head. “Don’t toy with me, Aria.”
“It wasn’t my intention.”
“I don’t believe you for a second,” he said, his voice amused.
Aria grinned at him, and he returned it.
“I’ve known Weston longer than I’ve known any of you,” she said. “Forgive me if I take all your ominous warnings with a degree of caution.”
“I’d expect nothing less. But don’t ask me to keep my mouth shut about it. I lost my respect for Weston a long time ago, and to see him sniffing around you, acting like you belong to him—I can’t hide how much it bothers me.”
“Fair enough,” Aria said. “I can tell it angers you, and you don’t seem to be an angry man. It must be very serious, what he did to you.”
“I’m still not going to tell you about it,” Valtteri said. “Not today.”
She rested her chin on her hand, raking her eyes over his face. “Then will you tell me another secret? In exchange for the one you’re keeping from me.”
Valtteri loosed a laugh. “Why would you want to know any of my secrets?”
She smiled, biting one side of her lip. “I’ll tell you one of mine in return.”
“Well, that’s certainly an appealing offer. You’re so mysterious, Queen Aria.”
Laughing, she said, “And you’re so reserved, save for when you speak of Weston. Tell me something light.”
Valtteri considered her for a few seconds before he said, “One of the soldiers in my camp once asked me to be his lover. I was so shocked, I didn’t say no quickly enough, and he kissed me.”
Aria grinned. “How was he?”
“Pretty good,” Valtteri said. “He took it alright when I said I wasn’t inclined that way.”
Both their shoulders shook with laughter.
“Alright,” Aria said. “I suppose I can tell you a secret in the same vein. I shared a room with a girl my age for a while when I was about eleven, and one night, I woke up and she was in bed with me. She said she wanted to know what I smelled like, so I let her sniff my hair. Then she tried to kiss me, and I knew we’d both get in trouble, so I shoved her away. I’m afraid I may have upset her quite a bit, because she never spoke to me again. I’ve always felt awful about it, but I’ve never told anyone.”
“She was just confused,” Valtteri said. “I think it’s very hard when you first discover you’re a little different from the others. Her entire life was much more difficult from that moment on.”
“I know,” Aria said. “You’re only making me feel worse.”
“I’m sure she was just embarrassed, and not totally appalled by you. You did less than others might have.”
“There’s the kindness I’ve come to expect.”
Valtteri had a handsome smile—an easy sort of grin that brought heat to her skin. Against better judgement, Aria flushed and looked to her lap; she had been flirting with him, and he knew it. Her stomach fluttered nervously when she thought of what Weston might say.
“Did you get a lot of male attention in your previous home?” Valtteri asked.
Aria met his eyes, smiling slightly. “More than I ever wanted. It was always nice to come across someone I chose for myself who was interested in me, though.”
“It’s an extraordinary feeling, one I haven’t found an equal to,” he said. “I think we all find ourselves swept up in it.”
“Too bad some people have so many secrets,” Aria said. “I value honesty in a man.”
One corner of Valtteri’s mouth quirked up. “Then what the fuck are you doing with Weston?”