“Tell me about Valtteri,” Sebastian said.
He and Aria sat beside a merrily crackling fire in the parlor of his rooms. Rain pattered against the balcony, and the sheer curtains swayed in a breeze. Thunder clapped in the distance.
“I hope you don’t mean to trap me into a fight,” Aria said.
Sebastian laughed. “I’m not Weston, am I? I thought I was doing quite well.”
“Not being obvious about how incredibly jealous I am of the way you look at Valtteri.”
She grinned at her hands, tangled in her lap. “He’s really lovely, Seb. Nothing like his father. He’s funny, and kind, and he has no temper to speak of, or anything I hated in the men in the brothels. He doesn’t drink too much, or gamble, and he speaks to me as if he values my opinion as much as those from people a lot more informed than I am.”
“He’s an honorable man,” Sebastian said. “He treats you better than I ever could have hoped. I’m not surprised you find yourself drawn to him.”
She bit her lip, flicking her eyes up to meet his. “You’re being honest?”
“We’re always honest with each other.” Sebastian flashed her a handsome smile and finished his drink. “By all logic, Valtteri is exactly the sort of match you need, and a good man to you besides. I’ve already admitted I’m incredibly jealous.”
Aria stood to refill her wine glass from the table beside his chair. Her hip brushed his arm, and when she turned to sit back down, Sebastian caught her waist and tugged her onto his lap.
She giggled. “What are you doing?”
He ran his fingers over the collar of her dress. “I miss touching you. The first few days here you still snuck into my rooms, but now you don’t.”
“Valtteri and I are friends, for now,” she said. “We both agreed it would be futile to act on anything before I take my throne. He’s not courting me. But he doesn’t know about the extent of us, either. I didn’t want to give him reason to think I’m not available.”
Sebastian drew her closer; his nose grazed the column of her neck, and goosebumps erupted all over her skin. Aria closed her eyes contentedly.
“I’m not possessive,” he murmured. “I would never try to influence your choices. Tell me what you want.”
She laughed. “Right now, I can’t even think straight.”
“You should tell him about us.”
“Yes. I will.”
“The full extent is nothing scandalous.”
“If he doesn’t court you soon, though…I won’t pretend like I can’t be a good match.”
Aria touched their foreheads together, so their lips brushed when she spoke. “For me, you’d be perfect. But maybe not for the realm. I don’t want them to consider me a foreigner.”
“Maybe not. I’m not thinking straight either.”
Aria whimpered when Sebastian dipped his head to nip her neck with his teeth. One of his hands rubbed her waist in slow, lazy circles.
“The first time you kissed me, I remember thinking I had no idea it would be that good,” he said. “I always thought I had control, but after that…I lost a little bit.”
“We’re on dangerous ground, Seb,” she said. “I don’t know Valtteri well enough to be in love with him, and my body aches for you.”
“Aches?” he repeated, his voice low in her ear. His fingers drifted between her legs, and she gasped.
“You do, don’t you?” he said, feeling the wetness of her dress. “You lovely girl. Do you want me?”
“Yes,” she breathed. “Gods, yes.”
“How,” he said, more a demand than a question.
She met his eyes, her own heavy with pleasure; he swirled his fingers between her legs deftly.
“Seb,” she said. “Would it matter here that I’m a virgin, or does everyone already assume I’m not?”
“I left the rumor ambiguous,” he said. “Some would care and some wouldn’t. Valtteri wouldn’t, I deem. I’ve felt him out about it.”
“But not to influence my choices,” she said, grinning.
She had never seen Sebastian smirk; his natural state strayed far from arrogance. But in that moment, he looked at her with the sort of desire made full by assurance; his smile bloomed like a night flower beneath moonlight’s caress.
“Do you want me inside you?” Sebastian asked.
His kiss spread through her like fire. She opened herself to him, flicking her tongue across his bottom lip, and exhaled when Sebastian grabbed the nape of her neck hungrily. She shifted to straddle his lap—until someone pounded on the doors.
“The city is under attack!” Nicoletto called through the wood. “There’s a force of men sent by Alistair burning homes on the first level.”
Aria shot to her feet, and Sebastian leapt up, too; they both knew who the attacks were meant for. He tossed Aria a long cloak to cover her dress.
“Valtteri is waiting at your chambers, my lady,” Nicoletto said when Aria and Sebastian emerged.
They ran along the three or four corridors separating Aria and Sebastian’s rooms until they located Valtteri; he flagged them down, already armed with his sword.
“I was looking for you,” he said. Aria and Sebastian skidded to a stop. “Alistair sent men in days ago disguised as merchants, and now they’re wreaking havoc on the city as revenge for housing you.” He touched the blade belted at his waist. “I’m going down to put an end to it.”
“I’ll go,” Aria said.
“It’s dangerous, Aria. They’re looking for you.”
“This is all because of me. Give me a sword—I can keep myself alive.”
Valtteri raked his eyes over the length of her body once before nodding. “Very well.”
Aria glanced at Sebastian, who looked as if he wanted to object—but he closed his mouth at the look on her face.
“I’ll stay, then,” he said. “You’re safe in Valtteri’s hands.”
They gave each other a significant look before Aria took Valtteri’s hand to jog to the entrance hall. He grabbed a sword from one of the guards as they passed and shoved it into Aria’s hands.
“I’ll bring it back!” he called over his shoulder.
They sprinted to the second level of the city across cobblestones slick with rain, though the thunderstorm had ceased. The main road took a direct route to the front gates, but side streets curved and twisted with little rhyme or reason, following the development patterns over the years. Screams echoed in the distance.
“Stay behind me,” Valtteri said when they passed beneath the gate to the first level. “I’m sure you can fight, but now isn’t the time for bravery. It must be mage fire they’re using—it’s too wet for anything else.”
Aria panted, unable to catch her breath, and slowed to a stop, her knuckles white on her sword.
“Valtteri,” she said uncertainly.
He glanced back from several meters ahead and halted when he noticed how far behind she had fallen. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t go any further,” she said, gasping for air. “Just…don’t.”
His question answered itself immediately. Though most of the fires burned near the front gates, a group of men emerged from an alleyway; dirt covered their torn clothes, as if the journey to get them there didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Still, most of them brandished knives or swords.
Many residents of the city had locked themselves inside their homes, and several families watched through their windows as Valtteri raised his blade.
“Just give us the queen,” one of the men snarled. “There’s no need for any fight.”
“This Arm doesn’t answer to Alistair anymore,” Valtteri said.
The fear and breathlessness holding Aria back faded, and Valtteri met the group of men with a graceful arc of his sword. His body moved in an extraordinary way when he fought, like something out of a storybook; he disposed of three of Alistair’s men with inhuman ease, and met the next three without breaking a sweat.
Aria still held her sword, but watching Valtteri, she knew her skills were less than mediocre. One of Alistair’s men, clutching a knife, spotted her in the shadows and abandoned his companions to run for her. Valtteri, occupied by four men at once, couldn’t do a thing.
Raising her blade, Aria swallowed back a surge of fear and tried to remember what Weston taught her—but before the enemy reached her, a man burst from his home with a screech.
He tackled her assailant, and they rolled around on the stones with grunts and snarls; Aria ran forward, hoping to plant her sword in the attacker’s gut, but the man’s knife found her savior before she could manage it. With a long, sickening hiss, the Reziva man flailed onto his back, holding his stomach.
Before the other man could rise to his feet, Aria reached him; she jabbed her sword at his throat, landing a messy, non-fatal slit, and followed it with another thrust through his chest. The man screamed, and Aria felt it to her bones; she released the pommel of her sword with a whimper, leaving the moonsilver embedded in his body.
Valtteri’s final two opponents hit the stone with thuds, both missing their heads. Sweat coated Aria’s skin as she turned to the man who had jumped in to save her.
He groaned again, weakly, and she dropped to her knees beside him. He met her gaze, his eyes cloudy.
“Queen Aria,” he muttered. “They say…you’ll do better than your brother.”
“I will,” Aria said, finding her voice very high.
“I couldn’t let them kill you. Not like that.”
“No,” she said. “You saved me. I can never repay you.”
“You won’t need to.”
“A mage could heal you,” she said. “Let me—”
“No,” the man said. “A mage can’t heal this. I already know that.”
He lifted his tunic from his stomach, and Aria tried—and failed—to keep her face neutral. She could see his inner organs. Panic began to rise in her like a sea swell.
“Nothing to be done,” the man breathed.
Aria shook her head, her eyes burning with tears, and placed her hands against the man’s torso in an attempt to stymie the blood spreading across the cobblestones. He took in a breath sharply, but his eyes cleared, just a little.
Valtteri had vanished, only to return with a mage in tow. Aria ignored him, her hands buried in the man’s guts.
“You should have stayed inside,” she said.
“You were in danger,” he said. “We just found out you’re alive, my queen. I couldn’t stand aside.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
“I know what your brother did to you. I know what he’s done to this realm. That’s all the information I need.”
The mage Valtteri found knelt next to Aria, but the man groaned.
“Don’t bother. I’m close.”
Waving his hand, the mage said, “I can ease the pain, at least.”
Aria peered into the shadowy void of his hood—traditionally, mages cloaked their faces—before turning back to her savior. The only mage she ever knew had no sympathy for her pain.
“I don’t have any family,” the man whispered. “No one to pass my fortune to, as meager as it is. Absorb it into the crown, my queen, and use it to take back your throne.”
A few tears slipped down Aria’s cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t fear death,” he said. “Let the gods take me and be done with it.”
As if by command, the man only sucked in a few more labored breaths before his eyes glassed over. Aria withdrew her hands from his guts to find them shaking violently. The mage stood, offering his hand to help her to her feet, but she stumbled away from him.
“Aria,” Valtteri said gently. He had been watching from a few meters away.
She backed up until she bumped into the stone wall of the man’s house, trembling from head to toe. At least ten corpses littered the street, and blood covered her arms up to her elbows. Valtteri sidled closer to her, one hand raised placatingly.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s terrible—”
Aria wrung her hands, curling inward on herself as if she could disappear entirely. “He came out to save me and he doesn’t even know—I can’t do this, I can’t do anything—”
“Aria,” Valtteri said soothingly. When he touched her arm, she jerked away.
“No,” she said, more loudly than she intended. “These men are dead, but I’m not what you think I am, I can’t lead people—I’ve never even made my own decisions, I don’t know how to issue orders—these men want to fight for me and they don’t even know how little I can really offer them—”
Valtteri grasped both of her arms, pinning her lightly against the wall as she wept and shivered. The mage he brought for the dying man lingered just out of earshot.
“I can’t handle myself,” Aria said. “I say I can, but watching you fight—I don’t know anything, Valtteri, and I’m not the person you think I am—no, no, no—”
Valtteri crouched alongside Aria as she sank to the ground. He took her face in his hands, scooping her against him gently; her head came to rest in the curve of his neck.
“I’m sorry. This is what death looks like, Aria. I’m so sorry.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” Aria said. “I can’t be what you want me to be, not like this.”
“The fear is normal,” Valtteri said. “It fades, in time.”
“I’ve never led anyone,” she said, her voice growing high again. “I was always deferential. I’ve never made my own decisions. I kissed Seb on the way here because it felt like taking control over my own life, and tonight I was about to sleep with him, just because it would be mine, and mine alone. I followed you for the same reason, because it was a decision of my own making, but I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t—”
Valtteri pulled back to meet her eyes. Aria held his gaze desperately.
“You knew they were going to attack,” he said. “How did you know to tell me to stop?”
She shook her head frantically at the change in subject. “I don’t know—Valtteri, I can’t be your queen. If I have to watch them die like this, and order more to die for me—”
“I know this is a lot,” Valtteri interrupted softly. “It’s a lot to process. Your brother sent men in the night to terrorize us because he knows you’re in the realm. You were trapped for ten years in a situation hardly fit for anyone, much less a queen. Of course death terrifies you. Of course all of these secrets and tricks are overwhelming, when you don’t feel like you’ve ever had the chance to be genuine. What you just saw, and this right here—you’re exactly what I expected. It’s okay, Aria. Everything is alright.”
She shook her head. “I’m not who you think I am—”
“I barely know you,” he said. “Not in a way I’d consider telling. Of course you’re not who I think you are. The point is that we can navigate this together and learn about each other in the process. I serve you, Aria, as a captain and a friend. As soon as my father told me your story, I knew how this might be. You’re not tricking me.”
Aria swallowed, and her breath slowed. She realized she had babbled her way through quite a few half formed thoughts, some of them scandalous.
He brushed her hair back from her face with both palms. The city around had quieted; screams could no longer be heard, and the harsh orange firelight had faded.
“What do I look like?” Aria asked quietly.
“Someone who just had her hands buried in a dying man,” Valtteri said. “The first time it happened to me, I panicked just as thoroughly.”
“Yes. It was terrifying and awful, Aria, and it never stops being so. You just become more numb to it.”
She held his gaze and nodded. “I—I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
“I said a lot of things.”
A smiled tugged at his mouth. “Yes, you did. But nothing I find too surprising.”
“Why are you so kind to me?” she asked, the words tumbling out before she could stop them.
His eyes roved her face. “Because I suspect kindness has been absent from your life as long as honesty has been absent from mine. And because I see a little of myself in you. You’re brave, but this is scary, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to think it so.”
“I’m a fool,” Aria said. “I’m supposed to be playing like I know what I’m doing. All of this—fighting, courting, being a queen. But I don’t know what I’m doing, Valtteri.”
“You can rest assured, Aria—you never have to play that game with me.”
“I don’t play it with Seb, either.”
“Then I’m not surprised you want to be with him.”
They stared at each other for a long time, the city around them growing as silent as a tomb. The blood dried on Aria’s arms, and she loosened her body from the tight ball she’d collapsed into against the wall; Valtteri released her face and tucked a lock of stray hair behind her ear. She touched his chest, feeling his beating heart beneath the leather of his tunic, and he watched her do it with a tender, contemplative expression.