Aria stared at the bodies, her eyes wide. Vishnya and her father, Elkin, had been dragged from their bed with their throats slit. Brilliant crimson blood pooled around the wood frame of the bed, and the skin of the corpses had grayed, smelling of death.
“Are you alright, my queen?” Daniil of the queensguard asked.
She started, so unused to her new title. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“We’ll get them prepared for burial in the crypt. Some of us thought you should see what Alistair did before we cleaned it up.”
She jerked her head in a nod. “You’re sure it was Alistair?”
“He knew our rotations and snuck in through the balcony. They didn’t make a sound when they went—I think he got them both too fast.”
“You have him in the dungeons. Did he say why?”
“Said he was protecting you, my queen.”
Aria knew the answers before she asked. She dipped her head at Daniil and turned to flee the room, her breath shallow. Seeing them on the ground like that—
Aria found a balcony a few meters from the royal chambers and braced her hands on the railing. The cool, crisp morning air filled her lungs until she could think straight again. Alistair had thrown his life away just to ensure Aria didn’t have to marry Prince Ian of the Forest Realm. Part of her knew she should be horrified by the lengths he went to—but there was no love lost for her mother or father. She understood why it would seem like so little to kill them.
Still, Alistair had forced her to take action. His failed suicide attempt meant he would face trial for his deeds and ultimately lose his head. Her stomach pooled with nausea just thinking about it.
“Tragic, isn’t it?” Ian said, behind her. Aria stiffened. “And just as the marriage negotiations were coming to a close.”
“Get away from me,” Aria spat.
Ian ignored her, leaning his arm against the wall of the balcony. “I suppose there’s nothing to stop me now from spreading the rumor far and wide. Prince Alistair killed his parents so his darling Aria wouldn’t be married off, and he could keep fucking her in secret.”
“You’re lucky Alistair is in the dungeons, or he might have offed you too.”
Ian laughed mockingly. “I’d like to see him try.”
“So brave,” Casimir said from the hallway. Both Aria and Ian turned back. “Is it your mediocre sword skills that make you so arrogant, or perhaps your many failures with women?”
“I’ve had more women than would ever even look at you,” Ian snapped.
“Yes, I do find the measurement of my masculinity depends heavily on how many women I’ve fucked,” Casimir said. “It doesn’t ring pathetically at all when you brag about it in company.”
Ian clenched his fists. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I’m here to report to my queen the interesting rumor I just heard,” he said. “About a prince in a nearby realm and an illegitimate child by a prostitute.”
“It wouldn’t be that exciting—commonplace, really—if the man didn’t send her funds from the royal coffers every month. I think he might be in love with her, actually, and using his father’s money—the realm’s money—to buy her silence.”
Scowling, Ian said, “You have no way to prove it.”
“Oh, yes I do,” Casimir said. “I tracked down the woman. Lovely girl. She didn’t even take any coercing to admit what was going on, despite all your money, and your love.”
Ian cursed, and Aria grinned.
“Nice work, Cas.”
He winked at her.
“What do you want?” Ian growled.
“We want you to lay the rumor about Alistair and Aria to rest, and stop trying to undermine her,” Casimir said.
“And, of course, I won’t be marrying you,” Aria added.
“I didn’t want you anyway,” Ian said. “It was my father’s idea.”
“Well, as his darling eldest son, I’m sure you know some way to make this whole thing disappear,” Casimir said.
Ian met Aria’s eyes. “Fine. But when I’m king, don’t think you can get away with this kind of shit.”
“Who has the time?” Aria said. “You see I delegated to a man who isn’t even my court mage. It’s not like I can be bothered, unless it’s quite desirable to shut you up.”
Ian glared at them both before storming off.
“You know, if you marry Valtteri, he might ask that I am your court mage,” Casimir said.
Aria smiled. “I might have to marry him just so I’m not stealing you away.”
He reached over to ruffle her hair affectionately. “So, that’s taken care of. What next?”
She sighed. “Alistair, I suppose. I just saw the bodies.”
“He did a remarkably clean job with their throats,” Casimir said. “He had to have been sober.”
“He was,” she said. “The thing is, Cas…” She glanced down the hallway, but luckily, it was deserted. “He was just trying to protect me. I don’t feel right about taking his head for doing me the greatest favor of my life so far.”
“No,” he said. “I understand. I’d heard some stories about your mother and father—they may even have been worse than mine.”
“They were awful,” she said. “Absolutely vile, on some occasions, and tolerably odious on others. I don’t even think they wanted children, and it certainly became Alistair’s problem long before it became mine. I’m not surprised he has no remorse for killing them.”
“I’m not surprised you don’t seem bothered by it.”
“The scene was bloody, but I felt more for that than them.”
Casimir nodded. “So what are you saying?”
“The realm will demand I kill him for treason and murder, Cas. And the Ice Queens were supposed to execute by their own blade. I can’t kill him—but neither can I leave it to anyone else.”
Casimir guided her back into the balcony, watching the corridor for witnesses. “Look…I don’t think you’ll find any sympathy for Alistair, anywhere in the kingdom. Maybe Valtteri, but only because he’s about as kind as you.”
“I know Alistair has a lot of enemies,” she said. “And he isn’t great about repaying his debts. But he isn’t—why am I the only one who knows he isn’t evil?”
“Because you’re the only one he shows it to. Everyone else sees a drunkard who wastes his money on prostitutes and cards. Few have sympathy for men or women like that, especially nobility—and you’re the only one who ever saw that Alistair had more depth.”
“Stop speaking of him in the past tense.”
He tilted his head with a sympathetic look. “Aria…”
“I can’t,” she whispered. “No one understands what he’s done for me. He gave me the kingdom years ahead of schedule so I could rule it properly—and rule it better than my mother. And he saved me from marrying a man I hate over Valtteri.”
“I know,” he said quietly. “But I’m not sure you have a choice.”
She stared at the swaying juniper trees in the gardens. “I’m the queen. Shouldn’t I always have a choice?”
Casimir raked his eyes over her face without reply. The sun touched the western mountains, throwing long shadows across the ground.
“Can I ask you something that could get me into a lot of trouble?” Aria said.
“I insist you do,” he replied.
“Do you have a talent for illusion?”
Casimir furrowed his brow. “Perhaps. Why do you ask?”
“Because…” She shook her head and crossed her arms, her eyes still on the gardens. “Because I wonder if I could give Alistair the thing he’s always wanted, as he tried to do for me last night.”
“What has he always wanted?”
She met his gaze, taking a second to admire the icy blue of his eyes, so similar to Valtteri’s. “Freedom.”
In the distance, the crashing of the sea upon shore could have drowned out their conversation; they both spoke barely above a murmur. Casimir leaned his hip against the balcony railing.
“What you’re asking could be dangerous for a nascent queen,” Casimir said. “But…I wouldn’t particularly object to trying it. I could use the challenge.”
“I love Alistair more than anyone has ever understood,” Aria said. “He wasn’t a traditional sort of brother, but I’ve always felt it my duty to protect him. If I can’t sully my reputation openly as queen, then I can at least use my power and resources to save him where others couldn’t, right?” She tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’ve always thought Alistair deserved sympathy, not pain—but I’ve never been able to give it to him. Not until now.”
Casimir considered her for a few seconds before inclining his head respectfully. “As you wish, Queen Aria.”