Liam offered Aria a shot of clear alcohol with a cocked eyebrow. She shook her head, though she accepted it anyway, welcoming the burn in her stomach. Two of the men at the cards table slumped over the wood, passed out, while another cheered Aria and Liam on.
“I’m going to get you into so much trouble,” Liam said. He mirrored her shot, as he had for the past hour; one of his guards, unconscious at the table, started the drinking game nearly three hours prior.
“I know,” Aria said. “You’ll have to escort me back to the house so I don’t get attacked.”
“You won’t be going back to the house,” Liam’s groom said.
Liam waved his hand, sliding another shot across the table for Aria. “Speaking of, Saabiq, it’s time you returned to the castle. I trust I can be on my own for a few hours with dearest Aria here.”
Saabiq glanced at the unconscious men. “They should be awake by dawn.”
“And I’ll be safe until then. Off you go.”
Aria smiled at him, across the table, as his groom bowed obediently and scuttled off. Liam waited until he’d vanished from the gardens—now empty of conscious patrons, save for them—before meeting her eyes.
“You’re quite the drinker,” he said. “I find myself continually surprised by you.”
“I’m going to feel it when I stand,” she said. “Can you help me up?”
Liam rose to his feet gracefully and proffered an arm; Aria barely stumbled into him, though the alcohol left her dizzy.
“Come,” Liam said gently. “I booked the room hours ago.”
None but the mistress of the gathering house witnessed them exiting the gardens, turning right, and padding down a long hallway to a room at the end. Most of the other small chambers were occupied, their inhabitants long since asleep; dawn lay not far off. Liam slid aside a paper screened door and helped Aria through the threshold, then used a match to light a few candles. Aria lay back on the plush white bedroll, her head spinning.
“I have to remember to tell Emery I don’t like her approach,” Aria said.
Liam knelt beside her, tucking her into the warm sheets. “She does get drunk quite a bit. Sebastian had to carry her out tonight.”
“He wasn’t doing much better.”
“No. He’s taken your drifting attention rather hard. Have you spoken to him?”
“Only a little. I kept my word.”
“He’s too intelligent to blame you for entertaining me. That guard is a different story.”
“Weston? He gave up on me after Cesare won the bid. I think he saw me as tainted. Any annoyance now stems from that.”
“He was a fool,” Liam said quietly. He shuffled down to lay beside her, his head resting close to hers; she opened her eyes, finding the room had stopped spinning.
“Have I won the game yet?” Aria asked. “I don’t think I can drink like this again.”
“The drinking game, or our game?”
Liam smiled. “Despite my best attempts at hatred, I find you endearing. Yes, when I leave in a week, you’ll have your freedom. And for tonight, I think you would concede that I beat you in lucidity.”
“I was more surprised to find I liked you, you know,” she said.
His grin softened; he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I have something to ask you, but I wonder if you’ll be insulted. You have quite the tongue on you, after all.”
She laughed. “Just ask. Maybe I won’t remember.”
“I want you to remember.”
She nudged him with her nose. “What?”
“I think I’d like to sleep with you,” he murmured.
“What?” she asked, giggling. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not, unfortunately,” he said. “At first it was assumed I’d have you just for your beauty, and then we started our game, where it seemed unimportant. But in finding I did really like you…”
“You know I was being honest with you,” she said. “I always was.”
“I know,” he said. “I could see it. What scared me was that I started to be honest, too.”
“I know,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “Your eyes are different when you don’t lie.”
Their foreheads touched, and then their noses. Aria rested a hand on his chest.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Ask me again tomorrow.”
“You would be amenable?”
She grinned. “Maybe. You’re very handsome, after all, and I feel as if I might know a few things about you. I don’t like my men hidden in shadow.”
“Aria, if we were together, truly, and you came to Arramas with me, you’d only be a step below a queen. I could give you a life you might not otherwise have.”
“A step below is closer to my actual birth than courtesan is,” she mumbled.
Liam took her chin between his fingers. “What was that?”
“You said something about your birthrank. Didn’t you?”
“A step below a queen,” she said, snorting a laugh. “It’s too dark.”
“How is it dark?”
“Liam?” she asked softly, ignoring his inquiry.
“Would you kiss me, before I fall asleep?”
“If you’d like.”
“I want to know what it’s like.”
He met her lips, and she sighed; he tasted warm, like spiced cider, and his kiss had a confidence to it that she could recognize as uniquely him, if she ever had to guess him from another.
“Mmm,” she said. “You taste nice.”
“I’m going to sleep.”
“I gathered that.”
“Will you stay with me?”
“Until you wake, yes. I’m looking forward to speaking with the more lucid version of you.”
“If I were your mistress, my brother would die laughing,” Aria murmured, just before she fell asleep.
Birds chirped outside the window, and Aria awoke to a room flooded with sunlight. Liam sat cross legged beside her, reading a book with one hand draped around a drink. Aria shifted in the bedroll, and he met her eyes.
“Good morning, dearest,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“Fuzzy,” she said. “And I must be keeping you from many important meetings.”
“Boring meetings,” he said. “You’re much prettier than those men.”
She sat up, running her hands through her hair to flatten it. “I kissed you.”
“You asked me to kiss you, if I recall.”
“Yes. You taste like spiced cider. Or maybe rum.”
He tipped his head. “That’s flattering, if I’m reading you correctly.”
“Yes.” She bit her lip. “You wanted to sleep with me.”
“Not drunk like that. Another time, obviously.” Liam smirked. “Answer something for me, though. You seemed to find the idea of being my mistress very funny. You said your brother would die laughing, and it was in some way related to your birthrank.”
Aria felt her entire body lock up. “That was nothing.”
He closed the book he read, gesturing to the title: Modern History of the Eastern Realms. “Is it? For being a step below a queen seemed particularly amusing to you, and the reference to your brother, alongside your coloring—”
Aria shot to her feet and immediately regretted it. Liam stood, as well, catching her arms when she swayed.
“I’m—” Aria covered her mouth and took a clumsy step to collapse over the chamber pot.
To his credit, Liam laughed. “Oh, ithali,” he said, while she voided her stomach. “I’m sorry.”
A few seconds later, Aria sat back on her heels and wiped her mouth. “What does that mean? Ithali?”
“Sweet,” he said. He crouched beside her, his hand rubbing her upper back in soothing circles. “I seem to have found a subject of some sensitivity.”
“Liam, please,” she said. “Just drop it.”
“No, you see—I like you too much to drop it.”
She groaned. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I was drunk. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does,” he said. “Because I think I know what you’ve been hiding.”
Aria met his gaze, frightened. “Liam—””
“I think you’re from the Ice Realm, Aria. And I think King Alistair stole your throne.”