Prince Dominik of the Spine pushed his fork around his plate, avoiding everyone’s eyes. Aria glanced at Weston, on her right, before turning her gaze to Valtteri, across the table. He finished a pull of his glass of wine, his eyes never leaving hers.
“Valtteri’s father is thinking about passing him over as heir,” Weston had told her one night during a fireside dinner. The trees around them had swayed with threat of a thunderstorm, a common summer occurrence in the Spine of the Ice Realm.
“Why?” Aria had asked.
“There are rumors he’s impotent, and Prince Bohdan is concerned his line will fail if he passes to him.”
“I thought the noble houses always took wards.”
“They do, but Bohdan has more pride than that. His line has never broken.”
“Where did the rumors come from?”
“His father tried to make a few matches and the women all said he couldn’t get it up when they tried to fuck him.”
Aria had frowned. “I wonder if that’s what he’s hiding from me.”
“Likely. He’s going to want to throw himself in the ring as much as any other man.”
“So that’s why you’re pushing me for a formal betrothal.”
Weston had shrugged. “Maybe. Mostly I just don’t like him sniffing around.”
In the palace of Bucori, Aria sat to the right of Prince Dominik, her back stiff in an uncomfortable wooden chair. Valtteri certainly didn’t look at her like a man determined to take her to bed—but Aria hadn’t worked up the courage to ask him about the rumors. To Valtteri’s left, his brother Casimir leaned back in his seat, his eyes roving the room as if he catalogued the crevices for future reference.
“The force holding Bucori was smaller than we expected,” Valtteri said, dragging his eyes from Aria to focus on Prince Dominik.
“Indeed,” Dominik said. “Alistair withdrew most of the forces a few days before you arrived. I considered using my own guard to expel the rest.”
“But you didn’t,” Casimir said.
Dominik blinked. “A few more days, and I would have sent the order.”
Casimir smirked. “Sure you would.”
Valtteri lifted his left hand ever so slightly from the table, not glancing Casimir’s way; with an exhaled laugh, Casimir returned to his food.
“Alistair is likely strengthening his forces in the Northern Arm,” Valtteri said. “He would know what progress we’ve made in the Spine and abandoned it as a lost cause.”
“My father is sending more troops to fortify our numbers before we reach the crossroads,” Weston said. “Even with the Wastelander support for Alistair, we should be a formidable force by the time we get to Tiraspol.”
“I worry it won’t be formidable enough,” Valtteri said. “We need more soldiers, and a few thousand from the Forest Realm will only pad us, not round us out.”
“Whatever happened to your idea to write to the Northern Kingdom for support, Aria?” Casimir asked. “You mentioned it when I first found you.”
She fiddled with her fork. “I decided against it.”
“We don’t need them involved,” Weston said. “The Ice Realm and the Forest Realm have always managed their own affairs.”
“Sure,” Casimir said. “But historical precedent doesn’t always lead the way to great innovation.”
Weston sat up, his eyes narrowed. “If you knew what went on up there, you wouldn’t ask her to contact those men ever again.”
“Weston,” Aria snapped. “Enough.”
Casimir let his eyes drift between them, an incisive expression on his face.
“In any case, I do breath easier knowing King Ezra supports Queen Aria’s claim,” Dominik said.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Valtteri asked. “Alistair hasn’t made any friends in the last ten years.”
Dominik set down his fork. “Speaking of friends, I won’t make any if I don’t see to the reinhabitation of the lower levels of my city. Queen Aria, it’s been a pleasure. Anything I have here is at your disposal.”
She dipped her head as he stood from his seat. His daughter, a quiet, dark-haired girl with downcast eyes, followed him from the dining room. Aria, Valtteri, Weston, and Casimir stood when servants sidled in to clear the table.
“No offer of troops,” Casimir said.
Valtteri scoffed. “You notice he didn’t take the bait when I said we needed more. But he won’t escape me tonight. I’ll get them.”
“You should be careful,” Weston said. “We can’t afford to lose his support.”
Casimir cocked an eyebrow in an amused way. “Since when did you become the chief military strategist of this rebellion?”
Weston bristled immediately, but Aria laid her hand on his arm to guide him from the dining room before he could speak. Casimir and Valtteri watched her go with varying degrees of mirth.
“Assholes,” Weston said under his breath.
“You’re too defensive,” Aria said. “Casimir basically sees it as a game.”
“You always make excuses for them,” he spat, shaking off her hand. “Why can’t you just listen to me?”
“Weston, I always listen to you. I’m only trying to help.”
He loosed a breath, shoving a hand through his hair—and in a moment, calmed himself enough to pass her a reluctant smile. “I’m sorry. You know how they goad me.”
“I’ve interceded on your behalf, to no avail.”
He leaned over to kiss her forehead. “Of course you have, you lovely girl.”
“But you know I always listen to you. I listened to you about Cesare and Seb.”
“They wouldn’t have helped you, Aria.” He glanced down the hallway; Casimir and Valtteri stood out of earshot by the dining room doors. “You don’t understand—receiving a letter from a former courtesan would have been considered an embarrassment.”
“But I’m not a courtesan anymore. I’m a queen. I outrank them, even.”
“The Northern Kingdom has no interest in the affairs of smaller, poorer realms. They never would have replied, and if they did, it would have been to mock you.”
“Seb was never like that,” Aria said. “He was kind. Perhaps he couldn’t have done much, but he would have done something.”
“You don’t understand these things like I do, Aria,” Weston said.
“Don’t be patronizing. I can handle this as much as you can.”
“But you weren’t raised in a royal house—not really.”
“So? Casimir thinks it gives me a beneficial perspective.”
“Casimir is barely nobility himself, as a mage.”
Aria glowered at him. “Valtteri agrees with him.”
“Valtteri wants to seem like a desirable match. Come on, Aria, you have to think around these things.”
“You just assume everyone is always lying or manipulating me, all the time.”
“Because they are,” he said earnestly. “Sweetheart, I’m just trying to protect you.”
“I should believe you’re manipulating me too, it sounds like.”
Weston touched her face, his lips twitching into a smile. “Don’t be silly. Look, I need to talk to Braddock about the forces we’re taking on. Can you entertain yourself this afternoon?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Of course I can. Just don’t forget me while you’re being a fancy prince and captain.”
Flashing a boyish grin, Weston pecked her on the lips before striding off. Aria watched him disappear at the end of the corridor, then looked back towards the dining room.
“Don’t bother,” Casimir said, sauntering up with his hands in his pockets. “Valtteri has already scolded me sufficiently for being so mean to poor little Weston.”
“How generous of him,” Aria said.
Valtteri passed them both a mocking bow on his way past. Aria waited until he vanished, too, before turning back to Casimir.
“I need you to tell me the truth about something.”
“He’s not,” Casimir said.
After a beat of shocked silence, Aria shook her head, laughing. “How did you know what I was going to ask?”
“Because I knew Weston would bring it up eventually. He’s playing every angle, trying to keep you interested.”
“So your father trying to pass Valtteri over—”
“That’s true. And Valtteri will need your support.”
“He already has it. Your father sent the presumed heir after me, though, right?”
“Regan. He should arrive tonight, actually.”
She nodded, her eyes drifting to the ground. “And he’ll go right back home. What else do I need to know?”
“Dominik is a coward, and he won’t give you troops unless forced,” Casimir said. “He’s playing every angle, too. If Alistair prevails, and he knows Dominik gave you men, he’ll execute him. Dominik doesn’t want to risk his princedom, but Valtteri will force him to anyway, as gracefully as possible. In exchange, Dominik will end up providing a force small enough to be negligible, if this goes ill for us.”
“Admitting me into the city would be enough for Alistair, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, perhaps, but Dominik will say you forced him to do that, too. It’s easy enough to work around.”
She nodded again. “Weston is talking to Braddock about the new troops.”
“Trying to look important. You’re not planning on continuing to take his advice, are you?”
Aria curled her lips beneath her teeth, and Casimir smirked.
“He tries, Aria, but he was never meant to be king. And it shows.”
“Neither were you, and yet…”
“I can’t settle for mediocrity. I have to prove myself at every turn.”
She rolled her eyes, drawing a laugh from him. A few seconds of comfortable silence passed, and they shifted on their feet, neither willing to break the conference first.
“Are you really going to marry him, Aria?” Casimir asked eventually.
Frowning, she said, “Why do you say it like that?”
“Like it’s the worst thing I could do.”
“Well, it’s not the best.”
She made a face at him. “I love him.”
Casimir gave her a skeptical look. “Do you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you love him, or do you owe him?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but he held up his hands and sidestepped her to walk away.
“Just think about it, Aria,” Casimir said. “Owing someone…it’s no way to take a king. And Weston doesn’t give you the greatest advice. You’ve already seen it.”
She let him take a few steps before she said, “I should have written my friends in the north. Cesare and Seb.”
Casimir stopped to look back. “We need the support. Whether fiscal, or with physical troops on the ground. I don’t think it was ever ill advised to at least ask. If they don’t give us anything, they don’t.”
“What if they took it as a sign of weakness?”
Casimir crossed his arms. “King Sireno is old, Aria. Old and rich. He has nothing to prove by taking over another realm.”
They held each other’s gaze for a long time.
“If Weston asks—I’m not doing anything this afternoon,” she said.
Casimir grinned. “I don’t know anyone in the north to send it to. You’ll have to use a messenger. But come find me.”
“You didn’t even bother to ask what I was doing up there, as you usually do.”
“I’ve accepted the futility. Hopefully this ‘Seb’ wasn’t as terrible as Weston paints him.”
Aria blushed. “He’s not. Not at all.”
Casimir rotated on his heels to walk away again. “Then write him, Aria. And Cesare. Don’t let Weston keep you from knowing your own mind. I’m sure you know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Aria watched him round the end of the corridor, a crease between her brows.