Weston, Part 4

“Alistair has a force of men waiting for us before we get to the Northern Pass,” Valtteri told the council, standing in a circle just off the main road. “About three thousand. The troops from the Northern Kingdom are trapped where they are, and Alistair has already sent messengers. We have to make contact with them.”
“What do you suggest?” Weston asked.
“They’re here for Queen Aria,” Casimir said. “If they think Alistair has already disposed of her in their isolation, they’ll go home. We need to send her in.”
“No,” Weston said. “It’s too risky.”
Aria stood up straighter. “We don’t have a choice. They’re already packing up to leave, thinking I’m dead. If Casimir cloaks me and gets me into their camp, we can make sure they stay. We need the numbers.”
“If they’re packing up to leave, it means they believed Alistair,” Weston said. “What else will they have believed him about? That they should kill you?”
“We’re not throwing her to the wolves,” Valtteri said. “By the gods, Weston, stop acting like you’re the only one who cares about her.”
“That’s Prince Weston to you,” he snapped.
“This is folly,” Kasia said, stepping up beside Aria. “They have to see her or they’ll turn around, and we can’t take Tiraspol without them. The queen is right—we don’t have a choice.”
“I’ll keep her safe,” Casimir said. “But we have to go now. We can’t let them leave.”
Weston crossed his arms and met Aria’s eyes. “You think this is a good idea?”
“I think it’s the only idea,” she said. “Seb is with them, and he won’t hurt me. But they have to know I’m alive.”
“Your faith in Sebastian isn’t well placed.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Weston, you’re out of line. This is my decision, and it’s final.”
Weston stormed off. The rest of the council watched him go with furrowed brows, though Casimir managed to look amused.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you, my lady?” Kasia asked, touching her sword. “I would gladly guard you.”
Aria smiled. “You’re very generous, Kasia, but I’m sure Casimir can handle it. We’ll be back before you know it.”
Kasia inclined her head, her hair flopping over her shoulders.
“We’ll cut through the mountains until we reach the pass,” Casimir said. “Alistair has another mage, so if he attacks before we return, you’d be better to try to slip from his grasp than fight.”
“Understood,” Valtteri said.
Aria and Casimir met eyes, and he lifted his hand to cloak her.
“Let’s go, then.”
The sun set as they ascended the mountains from their position in the foothills, orange beams highlighting their feet against the forest floor. Casimir muffled their movements from scouts, and so they ran as quickly as they could, cutting back and forth across the rocky face to lighten the ascension. Aria panted, a stitch in her side, but every so often, Casimir cast something to numb her pain; in an hour, they covered nearly twelve kilometers, and soon descended again on their way towards the Northern Pass.
Aria stumbled down a ledge close to the sheer rock wall on the west side of the pass, the largest moon bathing her in purple light. Though she and Casimir were cloaked, a copse of pine trees still masked them from the cobblestone road below, where thousands of men marched north, towards the Plains Realm.
Aria grabbed Casimir’s arm when Sebastian came into view, riding a pure white horse. He spoke with a curly-haired man in armor, whose hand rested on a moonsilver blade.
“That’s Seb,” Aria said. “Uncloak me.”
“I’ll stay up here and keep watch,” he said. “Don’t make the jump without asking me first.”
She nodded, her eyes on Sebastian’s short, golden brown hair. Casimir whispered something, and she stepped to the edge of the cliff.
“Seb!”
He started on his horse and glanced back, his eyes raking the road behind him before they lifted to the ledge. His mouth slightly agape, he yanked the reins to turn his steed against the tide of soldiers, coming to a stop sideways in the center of the road.
“Seb, it’s me,” Aria called.
Sebastian lifted his fist, and within a few seconds, the troops ceased moving. Most of them tipped their heads up to stare at Aria.
“Aria,” Sebastian said incredulously. “What are you doing on a cliff?”
“You mean alive?”
“Well, that too,” he said, grinning.
She beamed. Sebastian dismounted his horse, and she glanced back at Casimir.
“Go for it,” he said, flicking his hand.
Aria jumped from the ledge, her stomach vacating the premises—but she landed lightly on her feet at the bottom, as if she’d merely hopped. Sebastian shoved his way past soldiers gaping at her, only hesitating for a second before sweeping her into his arms.
“He did lie, then,” he whispered in her ear. “Thank the gods.”
“You met Alistair?”
“He sent three messengers, and then came himself. I never believed him until he was standing right in front of me.”
Aria peeked up at him; he lifted a hand to touch her face, but let it fall away before it reached her skin. He looked just the same as he had in the Northern Kingdom; a close, golden brown beard sharpened his jaw, and emerald green eyes twinkled with near constant humor, rounding out a devastatingly handsome face. Nearly a foot taller than Aria, he was lean and muscular beneath her fingers, even despite his rather soft occupation as a courtier. Instead of inheriting the dark skin of his Western Realm blood, only his eyes betrayed his ancestry.
“You look very different from the last time I saw you,” Sebastian said.
“I feel different,” Aria said. “I couldn’t believe it when Cesare said he was sending you.”
“Me either,” he said with a laugh. “I think it was only because he’s been too ill to ride. He picked up something from a common prostitute in the Plains Realm.”
Aria raised her eyebrows. “I can’t believe he would stoop so supposedly low, at his station.”
“Absolutely scandalous,” Sebastian agreed. “Can you tell me how you’re not dead after that jump?”
She laughed. “Oh, I have a court mage. His name is Casimir. He’s keeping watch from the cliff.”
“Greetings, Casimir!” Sebastian called.
“It really defeats the purpose of protection if you tell people where I am, Aria,” Casimir called back.
“He’s tetchy,” Aria told Sebastian. “Seb, Alistair told you I was dead so you’d retreat. But I’m not, and we have need of you.”
“I see that,” he said, smiling. “Thing is, Alistair is blocking us from leaving the pass on the Forest Realm side.”
“The rebellion force is positioned on his other side,” Aria said. “If you’ll still fight for me, we can crush him between us.”
“Of course we’ll still fight for you,” Sebastian said. “Or, well—the men who are trained to, anyway. We can turn around tonight and be there by dawn, surely.”
“Long before that, but dawn will be the time to strike. Afterwards, perhaps we can speak more, but for now—”
“Yes,” he said briskly, looking over his shoulder. “Nicoletto, we were misinformed. Queen Aria of the Ice Realm is alive and in great need of us. We need to turn around to attack Alistair at dawn.”
The man Sebastian had ridden beside upon Aria’s arrival dipped his head and moved to coordinate the march. Sebastian raked his eyes over Aria, shaking his head.
“By the gods, you look different,” he said. “We do have a lot to catch up on. Is Weston still with you?”
“Yes. He’s back with the force, waiting for our return.”
“Is he your betrothed, then? Prince of the Forest Realm?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. Not until I win the throne.”
“Hopefully never,” Casimir said lightly from atop the ledge.
Aria rolled her eyes at him, though she wasn’t certain he could see her; Sebastian laughed.
“I suppose I’ll have to catch up with Weston, too,” he said. “Who knew the guard always letting me sneak in and out of the castle at all hours was above my rank?”
“Weston keeps trying to tell me not to trust you,” Aria confessed. “He told me not to write you—he said it would be a social embarrassment.”
Sebastian frowned. “Have I ever given you any reason not to trust me, Aria?”
She held his clear, steadfast gaze for a few seconds before she said, “No. You haven’t. You came here just liked I hoped you would. I’m starting to think Weston may not have my best interests at heart.”
“About time,” Casimir called.

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