“Here’s something,” Sebastian said in Aria’s tent that evening.
The rebellion force had spread itself all over the foothills on either side of the Northern Pass; Valtteri executed a smooth, highly effective pincer move to confront Alistair’s legions, with the result that the battle barely lasted an hour before the usurper king was forced to pull back. Aria got a glimpse of him, perched atop a boulder as her flank surged forward around her; she thought there might have been fear beneath the sour set of his face. Despite everything, the ghost of that expression called to her, making her wonder…could her brother still be reasoned with?
“What?” she asked Sebastian.
“Weston won’t even look at me. I tried to talk to him and he ran away.”
Aria raised her eyebrows. “What do you think that could be about?”
“We got along well enough in Tower of the Moon. We weren’t friends, but I saw him all the time, guarding the castle. I would have considered us friendly acquaintances. But now…I have no idea.”
“Valtteri thinks Weston is concerned about losing our casual betrothal. Maybe he’s jealous I’m bringing another man into the fold. He certainly did fight against contacting you.”
Sebastian poured himself a drink; they sat across from each other in a small traveling tent, a decanter between them.
“The motivation almost seems too simple to be true, but it’s a likely explanation,” Sebastian said. “Why are you making him so insecure, Aria?”
She laughed. “I don’t think I have to try, Seb.”
He chuckled, too. “No, I suspect not. Speaking of men who are being standoffish, though, your court mage is unfathomable.”
“I know—don’t you like that about him?”
“Well, if you have the trust, I suppose it’s alright. I would worry someone like him would stab me in the back in the dark, though.”
“Oh, Casimir isn’t like that. Well, at least, not with me. He keeps his secrets, but I can tell he likes me.”
“If he didn’t have his brother standing beside him, I might not take your word,” he said. “But Valtteri is an honorable man. How did you manage to pick up so many decent supporters in the span of a few weeks?”
She tilted her head. “I guess I’m very charming.”
Sebastian grinned. “Don’t toy with me like a courtesan, Aria.”
“You seemed to like it a few months ago.”
His grin grew wider. “I still like it now, but you’re downright dangerous with those skills. You’ll always have men falling at your feet if you play it right.”
“I don’t think I have that level of dishonesty in me anymore, Seb.”
“Perhaps not, but some of it still comes naturally, apparently.”
She blushed, taking a sip of her drink.
“Why are you still engaged to Weston, anyway?” Sebastian asked. “You could have anyone you want, now, and you don’t seem blind to his faults.”
“I don’t know why no one understands—I do like him. His faults are like bandages covering who he really is. I get glimpses, and I like what I see.”
“But what’s there to guarantee he would ever remove said metaphorical bandages completely? Say you marry him, and he never changes? It’s folly to hope for anything else.”
“I suppose,” she said. “He is a good match, though.”
“Undoubtedly. But there are others, too.”
“My, Seb, are you getting at something here?”
One of his eyebrows twitched up, supplementing a nearly indecent smirk. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
She reached forward to shove his shoulder just as Weston ducked his head into the tent; the sight of them smiling and laughing seemed to irk him immensely.
“Aria, Valtteri wanted to talk to you about Alistair,” he said.
Instead of retreating, Weston watched Aria and Sebastian stand to follow him, his expression hostile. Aria resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Perhaps she needed to consider the evidence mounting against Weston more thoroughly; there was something possessive in his motivations that rubbed her entirely the wrong way, considering her brother had once treated her as property, too.
Valtteri waited by a cooking fire a few meters away, chatting amiably with some of his soldiers. Sebastian joined the conversation cheerily, but Weston lingered behind Aria, frowning.
“Cas is still doing some healing,” Valtteri told Aria. “I’ll brief him later. He said you saw Alistair on the field.”
“I think he was looking for me,” she said. “He was always close to my flank. When things started to go really wrong, he seemed reluctant to abandon me himself. It wasn’t until we’d nearly surrounded him that he fled.”
“What did he look like?”
“Himself,” she said. “Sour, older than he really is. He looked scared for a second. I thought…” She stopped herself, shaking her head.
“What?” Sebastian asked.
He and Valtteri seemed inclined to push more, but Weston said, “So he retreated to Suvid. What next?”
“Aria, you have to tell us everything,” Valtteri said, ignoring Weston.
He bristled. “She said she didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Weston, it’s fine,” Aria said. “I don’t need you deciding what I do and don’t say.”
She raised her hand, and Weston fell silent, fuming.
“He looked scared when he saw me…I wondered if I might be able to talk to him,” Aria said.
Valtteri furrowed his brow thoughtfully. “Aria, I won’t pretend to think it’s a great idea. We’ve tried to parley with Alistair for years. He’s half mad.”
“But I’m his sister,” she said.
She could almost hear Sebastian’s objection in her head—the sister he sold into sexual slavery—but he kept his silence on the matter, as he promised.
“I can’t fully explain why I know what I do, but I know the day he got rid of me—I know he still loved me,” she said. “It was the realm I thought didn’t care for me, for a long time.”
Valtteri eyed her contemplatively. “Then why did you come back so willingly?”
“Because when I met Casimir, and he said there was fighting, I knew Alistair had lied. I took that part of my life, fractured it from the rest, and decided it didn’t matter anymore. Even if it was true in the past, I could make the realm care about me again.”
“Where were you?” Valtteri asked quietly.
She longed to tell him—she longed for the intimacy it would bring to confess to her captain and friend what had happened to her. She knew Valtteri would say the right things—dissuade her fear of what her past truly meant. She knew she could be honest with him, about anything.
“It’s none of your business,” Weston snapped.
Aria blinked, her reverie interrupted. Then anger flared—hadn’t she just told him she didn’t need him deciding what she said?
“You’re dismissed, Weston,” Aria said flatly.
He gave her an incredulous look. “What?”
“I have no more need of your advice today. Please leave me to speak with Seb and Valtteri.”
“You can’t be—”
“Later,” she spat.
Weston looked her up and down darkly before storming off. When she turned back to Sebastian and Valtteri, the former looked vaguely amused, while the latter stared after Weston with a thoughtful look.
“I’ll deal with Weston,” Aria said. “In the meantime, I’d like to more seriously discuss speaking with Alistair. I can tell you what happened, Valtteri, in full—but I need your total confidence.”
He inclined his head. “You have it.”
She looped her arm in with Sebastian’s. “Then let’s go somewhere more private.”