His tundra hound, Razi, bounded through snow banks in the palace gardens, snapping at the air. Liam watched him with a smile, his arms crossed over his chest. Tundra hounds came in a variety of colors, but he had always preferred gray, or sometimes the dark purple that bordered on black in the dead of night. Razi rolled onto his back in the snow, revealing a splash of white on his stomach, the most accepted sign of pure breeding. Hounds that mixed with other dogs often ended up with spots all over their fur, but a solidly colored belly.
“She’ll be here in the morning,” his brother Ilyas said, behind him.
Liam glanced back. Ilyas had been sick since childhood, plagued by some genetic flaw incurable by magic. It was a rare occurrence indeed that he had enough energy to join Liam in the gardens.
“Father wants the betrothal sealed by dinner,” Liam said. “Do you know what she looks like? I’ve only ever written her these three years.”
“If her father’s face means anything, I hope she takes after her mother.”
Liam smirked. “It won’t matter, really. She’s just a wife. She’ll give me an heir, maybe two, and then I’ll be done with her.”
He turned back to watch Razi. “It’s nothing, Ilyas. This is what father needs to strengthen the throne. He needs these distant claimants of ours to shut up. They say your illness will show up in my children, but hopefully I can prove them wrong within the year. And even if it does show up—” He shrugged. “Well, there are always bastards I could claim.”
“The whispers of weakness will only get stronger if you do that,” Ilyas said.
“When conventional means of control don’t work, we take drastic measures.”
“You wouldn’t kill the whole family,” Ilyas said. “You can’t, married to their only daughter.”
“Father would, not me. I don’t think he’s dying on us anytime soon. He’d better not, anyway—a sixteen year old king would only invite more dissent.”
Ilyas sighed, his eyes on the snow sprinkling back to the ground from Razi’s latest disturbance.
“What if you don’t like her?” he asked. “You shouldn’t have to marry some girl just because father tells you to. Just to protect us from…” He grimaced. “Well, to protect us from the dissent I’ve brought.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Liam said firmly. “Your illness is a fluke, and you’re barely any worse for it. If it was just for father, maybe I’d balk—but this is for you. I’d do plenty of things to protect you.”
Ilyas ran his hand through his hair, his gaunt face pale in the sunlight. Sometimes Liam forgot he was only thirteen; his struggles made him look older, though he had stopped growing in height.
“I’m sorry,” Ilyas said. “I fear it will be like the other arranged marriages people speak of.”
“Even if it is, I have plenty of opportunity to step outside,” Liam said. “I’ll be king, after all. I don’t have to confine myself to one woman.”
“That doesn’t mean your wife couldn’t still make your life miserable.”
“No, but less so.”
Ilyas shook his head. “I hate that father is selling you to protect us from me. Liam—”
“Ilyas,” Liam said. “You have nothing to fear. I’m walking into this with my eyes wide open. If it’s horrible, I would never blame you.”
Ilyas furrowed his brow, his gaze on his hands, clasped in his lap. “It’s only a temporary solution. What will he do with me when I get older?”
“When I’m king, you’ll stay with me,” Liam said.
“But that could be ages from now. Father isn’t exactly unhealthy. He may think it prudent to make me disappear completely.”
“You’ll stay here, in your home,” Liam said, nearly a growl. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Leaning back in his chair, Ilyas frowned at Razi, galavanting through a clump of frozen lavender. “And what do I do, here in my home?”
Liam met his eyes. “Ilyas…”
“You have too much bravado sometimes, Liam. You say I’ll stay with you for the entirety of my life and then lack conviction when I ask what my purpose would be. You shouldn’t say things without thinking it all the way through.”
With a sigh, Liam shoved his hands in his pockets. “You’re right. Have you been reading political theory again?”
“It’s one of the things I do.”
He laughed warmly, and Ilyas followed suit.
“Ilyas, when I marry this woman, I want you to forget about your role in it. I’m doing it for father, and I’m doing it for you. But when the marriage is sealed before the gods, I’m on my own. I won’t blame you for what it ends up being.”
“And if it’s good?”
“Then I’ll probably forget I ever said this, and thank you.”
Razi abandoned the piles of snow and trotted over to Liam, panting. Ilyas reached out to pet his head, and Razi accepted the offer enthusiastically. Liam tried to ignore how weak his brother’s hands looked.
“Married at sixteen,” Liam said, almost to himself. “I thought I’d have a few years of fucking around in battle camps to look forward to.”
“It sounds like you still will,” Ilyas said. “Since you’re going into this planning to be unfaithful.”
“I wouldn’t be, if I could respect her. But somehow I doubt I will, for the trouble her family is causing us.”
“You’re a hypocrite,” Ilyas said. “You would punish her for her family’s transgressions, and in the same breath, ignore the trouble I cause our own family.”
“My family is more important than hers,” Liam said. “We’re the royal line. That’s always been the case.”
Ilyas snorted. “I hope you meet a woman someday who makes you feel weak and impotent. A woman so much better than you, you can hardly stand to look at her. Maybe then you’ll stop being so arrogant.”
Liam crouched to pet Razi’s flank. “I’m going to be king of an empire, Ilyas. Arrogance will serve me well.” Razi licked his jaw affectionately, and Liam grinned. “You’ll see.”