Weston, Part 6

Aria burst into Weston’s tent, her expression thunderous. He stood from a table in the center, where he composed a letter.
“Aria—”
“We need to talk,” she said. “Quite badly, it would seem.”
“What do you mean?”
She made an incredulous noise. “Were you not in the same council a few hours ago?”
“Aria, I’m your advisor—it’s important I point out issues—”
“That’s not what you were doing, and you know it,” she said. “Weston, we may be casually betrothed, but I’m a queen as we speak. You may not take your throne for many years to come. You can’t question me or act like you know what’s better for me in front of my subjects. You’re undermining me, and the only reason it hasn’t gotten out of control is because Valtteri and Casimir respect me enough not to say anything.”
“What if I do know what’s better for you?”
“You tell me in private! It’s not like we don’t spend plenty of nights together.”
“Less so, these days,” he said bitterly.
Aria shook her head. “And you don’t think maybe that’s related to your behavior? Weston, everyone in this camp keeps telling me how awful you are, because they don’t know you like I do. But the worst part is, you’re starting to make me agree with them.”
Weston stepped closer, his brow furrowed. “What have they said?”
“I know all about your antics before you moved to Tower of the Moon. Killing advisors for insulting you, spreading that rumor about Valtteri. Breaking an engagement with a princess from Stormfall. You said she wasn’t pretty, Wes.”
“Alright, fine. She was gorgeous. But I know what my father was doing. He wanted me to accept my lot as second son and never ask for more. He’d throw that marriage in my face for the rest of my life as evidence he hadn’t always done me wrong, while in the same breath taking everything he can from me. Even now that Ian’s died, he would have used it to justify me not getting equal treatment as prince.”
“You lied to me,” she said. “Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”
“Because I didn’t want you to think the worst of me—”
“Weston,” she interrupted. “You just tried to tell me what I could say to the captain of my forces, and the future prince of the Southern Arm. He’s my captain, Weston. I’ll tell him what I like, as I did after you left. If you don’t want me to think the worst of you, stop trying to control my behavior!”
“I just want you to be careful,” he said. “Valtteri isn’t what you think he is.”
“You’re not what I think you are, either. You’re completely different than you were in Tower of the Moon, and you’ve admitted to lying to me.”
“The pressures I have now didn’t exist up there.”
“What pressures, Wes?” she asked. “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Aria, you’re—” Weston shoved his hands through his hair. “Because it makes me look pathetic! You’re my only chance to have some power over my father. You were even before you were queen, but now? If I go back as heir without you, he’ll marry me off to someone with no cares for what I really want. I had to make the decision, in the pass, whether I wanted to impress him by protecting our people from an ambush—in person—or stay here and keep on with you. If I go back without you now, he’ll make me his puppet so thoroughly, when I do take the throne, I’ll be surrounded by men who would tear me down for trying to rule in my own way. And I can do better than my father! He’s a good king, but he’s an awful person, and his kindness is always political, never sincere. I can be a better alliance for you.”
“I’m sure you could be, Weston. I’ve never questioned that.”
“My father hates me, Aria, and part of me just wants to prove him wrong. If I can bring him back an Ice Queen…”
Aria slid closer to him, frowning. “You’re using me.”
“Aria, I love you. But yes…clinging so hard out of fear of losing you isn’t quite how I’d like to love you. I didn’t think I had another choice, though. I see how you look at Casimir and Valtteri.”
She made an inarticulate gesture. “Weston, as soon as you got close to your home, you stopped acting like yourself. Which version of you is the true one?”
“The one who loves you,” he said. “I’ve never felt as free as I do with you. But I’m scared, Aria. I’m sorry I’ve been so wrong—I’m sorry I act like you need me to direct you. You’re right. You’re a queen right now, and I’m a prince. You have to lead your people, and I’ve been compromising that.”
Aria bit her lip. “Weston, you can’t use me to make your father respect you. You can’t ‘bring him back an Ice Queen.’ I’m not an object.”
He grimaced. “No. But he would respect me, if we marry. And then…he won’t have any power over me. I’d be king of the Ice Realm, and when I take his seat, too, his advisors won’t be able to touch me. I’d be a king the likes of which my realm hasn’t seen in thousands of years.”
They’d moved within a few meters of each other; Aria hugged her torso.
“Why not just be honest with me?” she asked.
“I don’t know how to be that person,” Weston said. “I’ve never been honest—not here. Tower of the Moon was different—no one knew who I really was. No one knew I was House Inialos, the royal line. They would have treated me differently if I was, and I didn’t want that. I was sick of living by that name.”
“I haven’t treated you differently since you told me you were prince, the day you freed me,” Aria said. “You had no reason to keep secrets from me.”
“I don’t know how to keep up with you,” he said. “You make it look so easy…I don’t know how to stand beside you like a man you actually want. So I just became what I already knew.”
“A man I actually want,” Aria repeated. “For starters, you could support me, Weston. Don’t try to claim me like I’m your property. Don’t get jealous because Casimir healed me after a battle and accuse him of sleeping with me. Don’t snap at Valtteri for asking valid questions because you’re afraid I’ll connect with him.”
Weston ran a hand over his face. “Aria—I have so much fear.”
She closed the gap between them, touching his chest. His brows were drawn together vulnerably.
“Tell me,” she said. “Tell me about your fears. Open up all the parts you’ve closed. You know I’ll listen.”
“Yes,” he said. “But what if—Aria, what if you hate me for the things I’ve done?”
“Wes, I’m standing here having heard plenty of shitty things secondhand. I’ve always known there’s some part of you that’s hurt, and I’ve defended that man when Valtteri and Casimir said I was being naive. I can help you, if you’d just be honest with me. Be the man I’ll marry—let me know you. All of you. We can’t keep on like this.”
“I can’t help it, sometimes,” Weston said. “The way you look at him…”
“Valtteri?”
“Yeah. Sometimes the jealousy is there before I can even stop it.”
“That’s just one piece,” Aria said. “I want you to tell me about your father, and your brother, and growing up in the Forest Realm—all of it. You haven’t been honest with me since you became prince. But if you refuse to be honest with me now, I’m going to break the betrothal.”
He swallowed. “Aria…”
“I will, Weston. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been defending you to men who know more about you than I ever have, and I’m sick of being in the dark. Just as I’m sick of you speaking to me like I belong to you—not like I chose you. Why do you act like you have to take care of me?”
“I suppose I did have a bit of a complex about it when I rescued you.”
Her mouth quirked in a smile. “See? That’s honest.”
“Aria, I fear I can’t be your king,” he said. “But…maybe all I’m doing out of fear is only making it so.”
“Yes,” she said. “And maybe I shouldn’t give you a chance to explain yourself. But I think a fair ruler hears all sides. Don’t you?”
Weston searched her face, his hazel eyes worried. “I suppose so, yes.”
Aria grazed her fingers along his soft beard, trimmed close to his jaw. “You have my ear until morning. Want to see what we can make of it?”

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