Valtteri reached the pub last, slipping through the door just as his men began a round of raucous singing. The song told the story of a girl who traveled the continent using kisses as currency—though her kisses were just a euphemism. In the beginning, a kiss only got her to the next town over.
The first time Valtteri ever heard the song—he was fifteen, training in a battle camp near the southern border of the Forest Realm—he’d blushed furiously; now, the song happened to be one of his favorites.
The men cheered at his entrance, calling for another round of drinks. Valtteri grinned, taking a seat at the head of the table, and accepted a slap on the arm from his second in command, Niklaus. They patrolled the extreme southern reaches of the Spine as a favor to Prince Dominik, who struggled to give proper budget or consideration to his military; Valtteri had arrived late so he could return a messenger to his father, reporting on his mission. A roving group of bandits had terrorized the nearby villages for nearly three months, but Valtteri and his men had disposed of them earlier in the day.
Two barmaidens passed around flagons of ale, and a third, behind the bar proper, spoke in a low voice with a man slumped over the counter. Valtteri took a sip of his beer, watching her; she shook her head at the man and, when he thumped his glass on the counter, refused to serve him any more. The man shot to his feet, knocking over his barstool, but the girl crossed her arms, tipping her chin towards the door.
The man stormed out—well, drunkenly stumbled, more accurately—and the girl glanced at Valtteri. She had long brown hair bordering on a dirty blonde, and she’d braided it over her shoulder like the women in Valtteri’s legions often did on the battlefield. Her warm, golden skin tinged pink at the cheeks before she looked away.
“Will you have a warm bed tonight, sweetheart?” one of Valtteri’s men asked a barmaiden collecting empty glasses.
“I expect so, since I won’t have to worry about you vomiting in it,” she said.
The soldiers jeered at their comrade, who shook his head and finished his drink in one mouthful. Valtteri strummed his fingers against the table.
“What did your father want?” Niklaus asked.
“Just a report, though he managed to get a few jibes in.”
Niklaus shook his head. “He’s such a prick. Isn’t he happy now that you’ve left Reziva so he can train his favorite son?”
“Nothing I ever do is good enough, even running away. I can’t decide if I should return to take the seat back, or if I should keep wandering with you lot.”
Niklaus lowered his voice. “Don’t you have to prove you can continue the line before he’d give you back the inheritance?”
Valtteri loosed a breath. “Technically.”
Toying with the base of his glass, Niklaus said, “The barmaid keeps glancing at you. Could start there.”
Another group of locals filed in through the door, and the two serving girls ambled over to get them drinks. The girl behind the bar rounded it bearing a decanter of clear alcohol for the men on the other end of Valtteri’s table. Her hair might have given her away as Plains Realm, but her eyes, a light violet, confirmed it. Valtteri didn’t often see features like hers in the Ice Realm.
She set down the decanter, her eyes flicking up to meet his. She was quite pretty, really—in a softer way than most women of the old blood tended to be. A splash of freckles dotted her small nose, and she had full, red lips. She bit the bottom one when she noticed Valtteri watching her. He couldn’t help but feel a little confused and hesitant at the attention, as women rarely approached him with interest outside his inheritance.
“Go on, mate,” Niklaus said, when the girl wandered back behind the bar. “She’s begging you to speak to her. She wouldn’t even look at any of us when we got here.”
Valtteri finished his ale, a crease between his brows. Niklaus watched him expectantly.
“Oh, fine,” Valtteri said.
Niklaus thumped the table with his fist. “That’s the spirit.”
In truth, Valtteri only obliged because he knew he’d never hear the end of it from his men. They respected him, but they seemed to take an almost motherly interest in his love life. None of them believed the impotency rumors, but they always pushed him harder than others to approach women.
Valtteri took his empty glass with him to the bar, figuring he might as well be helpful while he flirted. He’d always felt so awkward about it—surely women didn’t appreciate thinly veiled attempts to get them into bed at every turn?
The girl looked up from wiping down the bar and blushed furiously. Valtteri took the seat opposite her, sliding his glass across the wood.
“Could I get something stronger?”
“Of course,” she said. She had a soft voice. “What would you like?”
“Do you have any scotch?”
“Two kinds,” she said, ducking to grab some bottles beneath the bar. Her dress was laced tight across the chest, and he averted his gaze when he realized he’d been staring at her cleavage. “One is imported from the Forest Realm, and one is made by a nearby distillery.”
“Do you have a preference?” Valtteri asked.
“I like the Forest Realm one,” she said. “The owner says I’m not allowed to say that, though, because the distributor asks for a higher cut of the profits.”
“I’ll take your secret preference,” he said.
She smiled and poured him a glass. “What brings you to town?”
“Some bandits nearby. We were dispatched to dispose of them.”
“Did you succeed?” she asked.
“I killed the leader this afternoon.”
She cocked her head. “No grand story to tell me about it? Did you gloriously behead him in front of all his men?”
Valtteri smirked. “No. I stabbed him through the gut when he tripped. No one noticed because they were too busy fighting the others.”
The girl grinned. “That’s more like it. A real story. You should hear the men in here boasting. I don’t think any of them have ever felt proper glory.”
“War isn’t that glorious, anyway,” Valtteri said. “It’s bloody and harrowing, and victory always comes at a cost.”
She watched him take a drink, not bothering to divert her gaze from his face. Valtteri made a concerted effort to avoid blushing at the attention like some preening teenager—although, he kind of felt like one.
“Good?” she asked, when he set his glass down.
“Quite,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Valtteri,” he said. “I’m from the Southern Arm.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Doesn’t the prince have a son named Valtteri?”
“I think so.”
She grinned at him, though she didn’t press him. “I’m from the Plains Realm. Panyamur, actually.”
“What brings you to the Ice Realm?”
“What do we all run from?” she said. “Family. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I came here. I managed to get lucky and find a job in the third town I tried.”
“I know all about running from family,” he said. “Do you like it here?”
“I do, actually. It’s beautiful, in the winter.”
Valtteri tossed back the rest of his drink and had opened his mouth to reply when Niklaus clapped him on the shoulder.
“The lads and I are off,” he said. “Sven is too drunk to walk again, so we’re going to trade off dragging him back.”
Valtteri sighed. “Let me know if he’s up late again tomorrow. It might be time he took a leave of absence.”
“Yes, captain.” Niklaus winked at him. “See you later.”
“Captain, eh?” Sofia said, when Valtteri turned back. “You look young for that.”
He laughed. “And you look young to be working in a pub.”
“I just turned seventeen,” she said, blushing.
“Well, you were right about me, at least,” he said. “I was invested captain at nineteen, the youngest in the Southern Arm in a century. But I’ve met fifteen year old barmaids.”
Sofia refilled his glass. “They must not be very interesting company.”
“I don’t make it a habit of drinking with them,” he said, chuckling.
She grazed her teeth over her lip, smiling shyly. “How long have you been a captain, then?”
“Still trying to place my age?”
Sofia propped her chin on her hand, one elbow rested on the bar. “My mother always told me I wasn’t allowed to flirt with a man more than five years older than me.”
“You should write your mother immediately, then, and let her know I just turned twenty.”
She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. “She’d scold me for being too forward, anyway. She always thought my eyes made me look like a prostitute.”
Valtteri laughed. “Gods, she sounds awful.”
Sofia’s gaze had rested on the bar, briefly, but she flicked her eyes up to meet his, sending a thrill through him. A thrill he’d never experienced meeting the gaze of a prostitute.
“I like your eyes,” Valtteri said.
Pink tinged her cheeks. She looked so innocent—nothing like the women his father always threw at him.
“I’m done in an hour,” Sofia said, refilling his glass once more. “It’s been a slow night. Would you keep me company?”
“If you’d like.”
“I would,” she said. “And maybe you could walk me home after, if you have time.”
Valtteri couldn’t stop his cheeks from tinging red. “I could.”
Sofia fluttered her eyelashes at him, though she managed to look lovely and shy, rather than predatory and comical. “I like your eyes too, Valtteri.”