The days of summer dwindled, but the dread of coming winter dulled to merely an inconvenient, future consideration for most residents of the Ice Realm; the coronation revels for the new Queen Aria lasted weeks, in every corner of the kingdom. Aria took Valtteri as her king on a warm, breezy day beside the ocean, marking the first alliance between the Northern and Southern Arms in a thousand years.
Twelve queensguard in silver tunics surrounded Aria at all times, though any threat to her life had been addressed, in the eyes of the realm, by tossing the murderous Prince Alistair into the dungeons. Queen Vishnya, always considered a rather weak leader, and King Elkin, the man she married from an inconsequential noble house, decidedly against the needs of the kingdom, were mourned for not a day longer than the required amount of time. Aria had been the first to dispense with black clothing; she hoped, too, that the short grieving period would cause some of the nobles calling for Alistair’s head to realize how silly they sounded, defending a deceased queen most of the realm agreed they would be better off without. The day she married Valtteri, though, and Casimir shook his head at her from the crowd gathered to witness the union—she knew she had run out of time.
“It has to be done,” Casimir told her that afternoon, at the feast celebrating her marriage. “You’re coronated, married, and ready to rule—but you can’t leave him in the dungeons without it being perceived that you made a play for the throne with his help. The nobles who suspect you will collapse your rule from within, and if you want to make a difference in this kingdom—”
“I know,” she murmured heavily. “They all wanted her gone—thought her weak, and didn’t respect her—but it’s too dirty for them to think the prince and princess disposed of her.”
“Honor and loyalty are valued highly,” Casimir said. “Sometimes it’s a right pain in the ass.”
Valtteri chatted with a few of his friends from the Southern Arm at another table some meters away, and Aria watched him, frowning.
“Should we tell him what we’re doing?” she asked.
“Maybe not tonight,” Casimir said. “But I know he wouldn’t fault you.”
“So what do I do?”
Casimir let his eyes drift across the room, so they may not have been speaking to each other, to an outside observer; his lips barely moved. “Nothing, yet. I’ve tracked down a suitable criminal to cast the spell on, and I can break Alistair out of the dungeons to make the exchange tonight. We’ll need a few hours to get away from the castle, and then you can see him—but he needs to be out of the realm by dawn.”
“And I’ll tell the queensguard to have the other man ready to be beheaded at midday, once you’ve made the switch. What was his crime?”
“Rape and murder, if you must know.”
“I suppose it’s too morally gray to justify, but it may help me sleep at night.”
“Yes. The plan should be foolproof.”
Aria took a deep breath, finding a smile touched her lips at the way Valtteri laughed with his friends. “I can never really repay Alistair for what he’s done for me, but leaving him alive by illusion should be a decent start.”
“Enough of a start for him, I should think. I hope you’ll consider what I said about financial support, with his illness.”
“Part of me hopes having mother and father out of the picture will help him heal, and maybe he won’t need alcohol as such a crutch.”
“It may,” Casimir said. “Unfortunately, his penchant for depression will always be his worst enemy.”
“When he takes a new name, I hope we can exchange letters. It may help that.”
“I’m not sure why you couldn’t.”
The feast broke apart as some courtiers moved for the ballroom. Valtteri caught Aria’s eye and sauntered over.
“I think we’re expected to lead the dancing,” he said.
Aria beamed. “I only hope I’m a suitable partner.”
“I think we both know I should be the one worrying about that.”
Aria laughed, taking his hand to rise to her feet; Casimir remained seated.
“I’ll see you soon,” he told them.
“What are you up to?” Valtteri asked. “I thought you’d be here longer.”
“I will be,” Casimir said. “I just have something to take care of. Enjoy your wedding dance. I’m quite happy for you, you know.”
Aria guided Valtteri away. At the doors to the ballroom, she glanced over her shoulder; Casimir winked at her, a smirk on his lips.
The following morning, in the hour before dawn, Aria shrugged into a smooth, luxurious cloak, pulling the hood over her face. Valtteri breathed deeply, sprawled across their bed; she smiled softly before sneaking from the room. Casimir fell into step with her.
“You alright?” he asked.
“In almost every way.”
He nodded, his eyes on the end of the hallway. “I’ve never seen Valtteri so happy. It’s oddly off-putting.”
Aria muffled a laugh. Casimir cloaked them, leading her from the palace into the low reaches of the mountains behind Tiraspol, where the shrine of Isarus, the god of winter, stood between two trees. Beside a clear pool of water, Alistair paced with his hands shoved in his pockets.
When Casimir uncloaked them, Aria ran forward to embrace Alistair. He kissed her hair; Casimir retreated into the darkness to give them some privacy.
“You have to leave before dawn,” Aria said. “We can’t risk anyone recognizing you.”
“I know. I’ll be gone.”
They searched each other’s faces; Aria caressed his cheek tenderly.
“You could have killed me, you know,” he said. “I expected it, after I woke up in your room.”
“I think we both know I’m not strong enough for that, Alistair.”
He shook his head. “You’re strong enough for anything, beautiful.”
Aria ran her fingers over the clasp of his cloak. “I’m sorry you can never come back.”
“It was worth it,” he replied. “Now you’re free of them, and free to rule. But we’ll see each other again.”
“You promise?” Aria said.
Alistair smiled; he looked kind, and content—and for one moment, his age. “Yes, Aria. You know I can never say no to you.”
“Anywhere you go, any name you take, you’ll always be my brother.”
“I count myself lucky that even after everything I’ve managed to fuck up, you still feel that way.”
“We never had much of a chance at normalcy,” she said. “I know that now. But we can do better in the future. I had to give us that chance.”
“Always my protector,” he said. “You deserved better. At least now I know you’ll have it.”
Aria brushed his hair away from his face. “I can never truly thank you for what you’ve given me. I hope the lands outside our home give you the freedom you desire.”
The corners of Alistair’s mouth quirked up. “I don’t regret the choice I made for you, Aria, no matter what the rest of my life looks like. I only regret the choices I’ve made when I didn’t think of you at all.”