Aria awoke abruptly, as if she ripped herself from a dream. Her heart thumped in her chest, and her eyes darted around her room—but she couldn’t make anything out in the darkness. The two small moons shone brilliantly through her balcony; their light splashed across her bed in a thick gash, making the rest of the room seem darker by comparison.
Someone groaned, and Aria shot from the bed, grabbing a knife from her night table. Her eyes adjusted to the low light; she noticed a lump of dirty clothes before her door, then blinked again. Alistair.
Abandoning the knife, Aria took a few light steps towards him. Alistair moaned, rolling onto his back, and the moan morphed to a gurgle when he vomited—but he was too disoriented to expel it from his mouth. With a sigh, Aria dropped to her knees beside her brother and rotated him until he puked onto the marble floor.
“What have you done?” she whispered.
Even after voiding his stomach, Alistair continued to groan and whine, his eyes closed. Aria shoved him a few times, but he wouldn’t wake, not even to take the water she offered him. She stood, grabbed her robe from the end of the bed, and braced Alistair against a chair so he couldn’t roll onto his back before she sidled into the hallway.
“Princess?” one of the queensguard asked. “Are you alright?”
“Did you see Alistair come in?” Aria asked.
“I just started my shift, princess.”
“Don’t let anyone into my rooms until I return.”
Aria navigated corridors by the low light of braziers, pulling her robe close to ward off the cool sea wind. She reached Valtteri’s room unwitnessed, though she glanced over her shoulder before she knocked lightly on his door.
Despite the late hour, Valtteri hadn’t retired; he answered her call in a light linen undershirt, unlaced at the chest, and his sturdy sword fighting pants.
“How scandalous of you, Princess Aria,” Valtteri said. “What are you doing here?”
Aria rolled her eyes. “Can you get a message to Casimir?”
“Of course. What do you need?”
“Alistair is passed out in my room. I think he broke in because he’s really ill…I know he’s drunk, but he would have choked on his own vomit if I hadn’t turned him over. Can Cas help him?”
“Likely,” Valtteri said. He stepped forward, closing the door behind him. “Go back to your room and wait for me. I’ll make sure no one sees us.”
“There’s a guard at the door. Come through the balcony, cloaked.”
Valtteri nodded and, when they reached the end of the hallway, touched her lower back delicately before he split from her. When Aria returned to her chamber, she skirted another puddle of vomit from Alistair, covering her nose to dull the smell.
Barely fifteen minutes passed before Casimir and Valtteri appeared on the terrace from thin air. Aria stood from the end of her bed, her brow furrowed.
“I can’t get him to wake up, and I’ve never seen him puke so much,” she said.
Casimir swept past to perch himself on one knee beside Alistair. “I saw him in town earlier tonight. He looked in a bad way then. He may have poisoned himself.”
“Can you help?” Aria asked, her voice high.
“Yes,” Casimir said. “Take a deep breath, Aria. I just need a little time.”
Valtteri snaked his arm around Aria’s waist, and they both sat back on the bed. He smelled of something tangy, like lime, and she let the scent soothe her nerves.
“He’s been avoiding me ever since that meeting we had about Ian,” Aria said. “I shouldn’t have said I didn’t need him. Sometimes I think protecting me is the only thing that holds him together.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Valtteri said. “Alistair has a lot of demons.”
“He thought he was on the edge of one of his spirals,” she said. “I think I pushed him into it.”
“Has he ever done this before?”
“No, not like this. Like I said, he’s never vomited so much, and he usually gets more alert after. I’ve always been able to wake him up.”
Casimir began whispering in the mage language, one of his hands hovering over Alistair’s body. He had vanished the pools of vomit, along with the rank smell.
“Once he wakes up, we can try to get to the bottom of it,” Valtteri said. “I’m sure he would never blame you.”
After a few minutes of tense silence, broken only by murmured words, Casimir finished his work, his hand falling back to his side. He stood and offered his palm to Alistair, who groaned again, rolling onto his back.
“Fuck…” Alistair muttered. “What am I doing here?”
“We’d hoped you could tell us,” Casimir said.
Alistair accepted the help to his feet, raking his gaze over the room. His hand jumped up to rub his face with confusion—and when his eyes alighted on Aria, they grew painfully wide.
“Aria, we need to speak alone,” he said quickly. “Now, right now—”
Aria stood, letting Valtteri’s arm fall away. “Alistair, what’s going on?”
“Please, I need you alone.”
The clink of armor distracted all of them; someone jogged down the hallway outside, skidding to a halt right beside the door.
“Sven, the door to the queen and king’s chamber is barricaded,” the man said. “Daniil tried to check on them and couldn’t get in. When he knocked, no answer. We need to go in through the balcony.”
“I can’t leave the princess.”
“She’ll be fine for a few minutes. Come on, they may be in danger—this is your duty!”
More armor clanked as Sven abandoned his post. Casimir glanced from the door to Alistair with a furrowed brow.
“Aria, please,” Alistair said. “I need you alone.”
Valtteri stood from the bed and waved his hand at Casimir. “Come on, Cas. We shouldn’t be in here, especially if there’s something wrong.”
Aria’s heart pattered in her chest. Valtteri kissed her cheek before Casimir cloaked them to escape from the terrace; Alistair paced back and forth on the other side of the room, his breath fast and shallow.
“Alistair, what’s going on?” Aria asked.
He shoved his hands through his hair, yanking at the roots. “Fuck, Aria…”
“Tell me,” she said. “You broke into my room way beyond blackout drunk. I think Casimir saved your life.”
“He did,” Alistair said. “Fucking gods, I must have come to you because I knew I didn’t want to do it—”
“What?” Aria asked, fear pooling in her gut. “Die?”
“Yes,” he said desperately. “I drank that much on purpose. I wanted to poison myself. Aria, any minute they’re going to find me—”
“Who’s going to find you? Alistair, you’re not making any sense.”
“Aria,” Alistair said, striding over to drop to his knees at her feet. He took both her hands in his and looked up at her face. “Aria, beautiful Aria. I’ve done something awful.”
She shook her head, confused.
“Mother was talking to Ezra the other day, still determined to marry you to Ian. I know you and Casimir were working on paying him back for that rumor, but honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered. She doesn’t give a shit about you, Aria, and she doesn’t care if you love Valtteri or if Ian is absolutely vile. She was going to marry you to him anyway.”
“I don’t know, I thought we were making progress—”
“You weren’t,” Alistair said. “Last night I heard them talking about dowry.”
Aria clenched her teeth. “So she did intend to sell me.”
“Aria, you have to understand, I didn’t think there was another choice, and I had to protect you—”
She blinked down at him, her skin growing hot. “Alistair…what did you do?”
He hesitated to answer, and she raised her voice. “Tell me now! What did you do?”
Alistair’s eyes filled with tears. “Aria…” He brought both her hands to his chest, and she could feel his heart racing beneath his tunic. She lowered down until they faced each other on their knees.
“Alistair, tell me,” Aria said. “Tell me what you did.”
Alistair swallowed; he seemed unable to tear his eyes away from hers. “I killed them, Aria. Both of them.”