“That’s where we send the second force?” Aria asked, tracing her hand over a map of the Spine of the Ice Realm.
“We start with the small one—two or three hundred—and then wait until Alistair has recalled the bulk of his troops back to the guard post,” Valtteri said. “Then, we send three thousand down from the peak of the mountain and take the fort itself.”
“Alistair won’t be there.”
“No, I should say one of his commanders. But it will work. There’s no reason they’d commit the time or energy in having two thousand men put down two hundred. But splitting them will make the fort easier to take.”
“You think attacking from the peak will ensure victory?”
“My brother Conall and his archers can pick off an indeterminate amount of men from the high ground while we assault the gate. Hopefully we can take them down by a quarter before we even draw swords.”
Aria nodded, her eyes on the map spread across the table, stuck with little flags. Red indicated strongholds of her brother Alistair, while purple stood for the rebellion; black flags meant the villages remained neutral. Black and red covered the Spine in equal measure, but purple exclusively dotted the Southern Arm.
“How many villages will taking this fort free?” Aria asked.
“Ten to fifteen, depending on the range of the patrols. We could go directly to the towns themselves and force Alistair to abandon his positions, but this will shock him. I intend to make him nervous.”
Aria leaned her hip against the table; Valtteri stood with his hands braced on the edges, an imposing figure in his semi armored black tunic. His father, Bohdan, watched them from a corner of the room, Sebastian beside him. Dusky light shone through a window overlooking the central gardens.
“I’ll defer to your judgement, but it seems like a good plan,” Aria said. “How many troops can we pick up?”
“Hopefully a few hundred. The Spine is historically neutral, so there will be fewer men and women trained to fight. But by the time we sweep through the Spine, we should be at nearly fifteen thousand.”
“Nicoletto thinks we need twenty,” Aria said.
“If we manage to take the capital with fifteen, Tiraspol will fall regardless of our numbers,” Valtteri said. “Alistair would be marooned out on his own, then.”
Aria glanced at Bohdan, who watched his son critically, almost with hostility. In contrast, Sebastian looked chipper and relaxed.
“I trust you,” Aria said. “Win me a fort.”
Valtteri flashed her a handsome smile. “That’s something else to discuss. If you wanted to try your hand at fighting, being part of the smaller force splitting the troops would be good practice.”
“If I fight, I want to be with you,” she said.
“Taking the fort will be more violent. We wouldn’t want to put you at too much risk.”
“But if you keep me on the sidelines all the time, the realm might think I’m weak. I have to fight.”
“You’re backed by the Southern Arm,” Bohdan said. “You won’t be seen as weak.”
“No, I see your point,” Valtteri told her. “Soldiers respect direct involvement. And if you’re throwing yourself into the same danger, they’ll love you more for it. As long as you stay close to me, it won’t be too terribly risky.”
“And if she gets injured?” Bohdan asked.
“Cas will be with us,” Valtteri said. “He’s the best healer I know.”
Bohdan scoffed, though he didn’t say any more. Sebastian stood from his seat.
“Seems like you two make a good team, planning this war,” he said. “When we dive into it properly, who else will be consulting on battle strategies?”
“My brother Casimir,” Valtteri said. “Nicoletto, as well, and Weston just sent word this morning. Prince Ian of the Forest Realm will be captaining his forces for us.”
Bohdan arched a brow. “Will he indeed.”
Valtteri ignored him. “The Forest Realm will join us halfway up the Spine, so our initial victories will be on our own.”
Bohdan stood and bowed to Aria before he moved for the door. “I’m going to change for dinner, my queen.”
Sebastian glanced between Aria and Valtteri, waved cheerily, and followed him. Technically, the action set Aria and Valtteri up for accusations of impropriety—but the palace had emptied of courtiers and nobles in anticipation of the rebellion. Grinning, Aria shook her head at Sebastian’s retreating back; the doors thumped closed behind him.
“Ian will court you,” Valtteri said immediately.
She made a face. “Don’t I have enough to be getting on with?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling. “But Ian won’t be as accommodating as me. He’ll have forced Weston to admit you’re beautiful, and he’ll swoop in like a fiend to claim you. His father is too ambitious not to make the grab.”
“Maybe I can get Seb to keep him away.”
Valtteri raised his eyebrows. “How would he do that?”
“Oh, gods, you don’t understand. It’s like he doesn’t even try. His hand touches something and it becomes exactly what you want. Ian wouldn’t know what hit him.”
Valtteri laughed. “I can see how that would be appealing.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Aria said shyly.
“And I didn’t mean to sound like a jealous fool. But I’m finding it difficult.”
“I thought you said you weren’t good with flattery or words. Instead you’re making me blush.”
“Well, if it’s that easy, this may not be as grueling as my father made it sound.”
She bit her lip when she smiled. “You said you never listen to him. Now I’m thinking you’ve been dishonest with me.”
“Never. Merely incompetent.”
She laughed, and he joined her, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“Since we’re alone, as Sebastian so cleverly set us up to be, I’ll confess I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind since Alistair ambushed us,” Valtteri said. “You said a lot of things I’ve been trying to muddle my way through.”
“Like what, precisely?”
“I already committed myself in not courting you prematurely,” he said. “But when you speak of Sebastian, I get quite jealous. Considering your confession in the streets.”
“Nothing’s happened,” she said quietly. “In fact, I think he’s withdrawn a bit, not wanting to mess things up with you.”
“He’s quite altruistic.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
Valtteri sauntered closer to her, leaning his hip against the table. Aria held his gaze, her lips twitching in and out of a smile.
“Jealousy makes it difficult to be friends,” he said. “I don’t like that. A queen and her captain should be friends.”
“I consider you a friend,” she said. “A distractingly handsome friend.”
His cheeks colored. “By the gods, Aria, you have a forward tongue.”
“Doesn’t the formality of court tire you? I’m a good escape from that.”
“How much training did they give you up there? Or are you naturally gifted?”
“I’m gifted with an overabundance of boldness,” she said. “It’s a bad combination.”
Valtteri shook his head, grinning at his feet. “I’ve met women like you. I’m usually not their type.”
“Reservation, and all that.”
“I bet you’re not reserved where it counts.”
He laughed, a deep, rumbling guffaw. “You just get worse with encouragement, don’t you?”
“I like to make Seb lose his wits entirely. It takes a lot. I’ll try to tone it down.”
Valtteri looked her up and down, his blue eyes bright. “Don’t. Not when we’re alone. I’d like to see all of you.”
She cocked an eyebrow, and he scoffed.
“Fuck, I walked into that one, didn’t I?”
She beamed. “How many women have you courted, Valtteri? I was surprised when Seb said you were unmarried at twenty-six. I know what Weston thinks, but I never believed that.”
“You don’t speak much of Weston, I’ve noticed.”
“I told you, he and I weren’t on good terms when we parted. I assume he’ll return with his brother, though, and we’ll fight some more.”
“He doesn’t like losing, as far as I can gather.”
“Especially not the potential of losing to you, it sounded like. But tell me, how many women have you courted?”
He shrugged. “Plenty, but they never last. I suppose I have high standards.”
“Oh, you know, I expect the woman I love to be kind and honest. I’d like her to not be manipulative, or so self interested she can’t consider my own needs on occasion.”
“What sort of needs?”
“You have such a lascivious way of asking. I only meant if I’m stressed out or unhappy.”
“That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”
“I don’t think so either. But it’s been difficult to find in the noblewomen my father presents to me.”
“Have you found it in a match he might consider unacceptable?”
Valtteri blushed. “I—well, you shouldn’t think I travel the realm courting every bar maiden I find—”
She shook her head, laughing. “Of course I don’t think that. But if we’re to be friends, you shouldn’t fear being honest with me.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I would love to be honest with you, but I don’t know if I want to talk about that right now. It’s…” He frowned.
Aria lifted a hand appeasingly. “That’s quite alright. Another time, then. I’ll rein in my tongue.”
He relaxed immediately, his shoulders loosening. “Thanks. I…we’ll talk about it someday soon. When we know each other better.”
“In the meantime, be honest with me about something else. If I were interested in Seb, would it bother you?”
“I already know you’re interested in him.”
“But I mean, if I took it further.”
“I said I wouldn’t hold you to any standards that would mean we’re courting…”
“I know. But it could still bother you.”
Valtteri held her gaze, his expression soft. “Yes, Aria. It would bother me.”
She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Thank you for telling me, then. I like to be informed in my decisions.”
He tipped his head curiously. “Sebastian seems like a good man. I wouldn’t want to make it a competition.”
“Oh, never fear. Seb makes his own fun in plenty of other ways. It’s why everyone likes him. He doesn’t have a cruel bone in his body.”
Valtteri reached up to brush a stray lock of hair from her face. “Do you?”
“I don’t think so. Will that be a problem when we take this fort?”
“Definitely not. Cruelty isn’t something I accept in my soldiers.”
She smirked. “I look forward to seeing you act as my captain, with that clear sense of authority.”
Valtteri chuckled. “How is everything you say somehow a thinly veiled innuendo?”
“Only with the men I like,” Aria protested.