“Here we are,” Liam said, guiding Aria by the waist through a set of ornate wooden doors. Two servants bowed them into the parlor.
Aria and Emery met eyes, both conveying a silent sense of incredulity at the splendor of Liam’s accomodations within Tower of the Moon’s royal palace. Midday light flooded white marble floors through gauzy curtains of rich sanguine pulled aside to reveal wide, sweeping windows overlooking a central garden. Dark wooden furniture, polished to gleaming, dotted the room in an unobtrusive way, somehow placed precisely where one might expect to find a table of drinks or a bookshelf, then otherwise absent. A chandelier of white crystal glimmered with orbs of mage light, though the sunlight nearly drowned them out.
“Have a seat,” Liam said, sauntering to a table by the windows to open a bottle of dark alcohol. Two plush red couches faced each other over another table in the center of the room littered with half finished books and a scattered game of cards. Aria perched herself beside Emery, raking her eyes over the titles; none of them were written in the common tongue.
“You have a short attention span,” she said, when Liam handed her a drink.
He passed a glass to Emery and smirked. “I try not to waste my own time. Emery, when you’ve finished that drink, you’ll find an unused room over there.” He pointed to a set of double doors on the west side of the chamber. “You can prepare it for Aria and then use the servants quarters attached on the south side.”
Grinning, Emery raised her eyebrows at Aria, who resisted the urge to laugh.
“Novid can show you everything you need to know,” Liam said, his mouth twitching. “His mother was a lady’s maid for my own mother.”
The man on the right side of the doors bowed. Emery tossed back the rest of her drink and stood.
“I think Prince Liam is signaling that he would like some time alone with Aria,” she said.
Novid gestured her to the west side of the room, where they vanished through the doors; the other servant bowed and slipped into the hallway, closing the doors behind him with a thud. Aria smiled at Liam.
“She wasn’t as expensive as I thought she’d be,” Liam said, settling on the couch across from Aria with his own glass of alcohol. “She’s quite popular—I expected your mistress to extort me.”
“You must have scared her.”
“She was a fool to think no one would ever find out.”
“On the contrary, I don’t think she knew I was from the royal house. I think Alistair told her I was high nobility, nothing more.”
“And we could assume you aren’t the first noble girl sold to save her house.”
Liam sipped his drink thoughtfully. “What is your line’s name, anyway?”
“House Kolenickova. I don’t remember much else about our history, though.”
“Why did you push Emery off?” Aria asked. “Surely you know I’ll tell her the whole story as soon as we’re alone. There’s no need for secrecy.”
Liam cocked an eyebrow. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a few days now, and I wanted to ensure our solitude before I do it.”
Aria set her drink on the table. “Well, you’ll never find me more amenable than now, considering you just saved me from a life of prostitution.”
“Do you remember anything about last night?”
She bit her lip. “A little. What, specifically?”
“Well, you kissed me.”
“And I confessed something to you.”
She looked to her lap. “Yes.”
“It doesn’t have to be the deal. But you’re free, now. Doesn’t it feel a little more organic?”
She flicked her eyes up to meet his. “Not now.”
He laughed. “No, I suppose not.”
“Sebastian found me this morning.”
Liam tilted his head with a playful smile. “Did he now?”
“He wanted to know if he would ever see me again.”
“And will he?”
“I don’t know.”
Liam stood, rounded the table, and sat beside her on the couch. When she inhaled, she detected a trace of the warmth she had tasted on his lips the night before.
“I’ve freed you, Aria, but I’m not a generous man,” he said. “I’d rather you didn’t pursue a relationship with anyone else.”
“So I’m to be your mistress, then?” she asked. “Are we trading one set of expectations for another?”
His smile was wolfish. “I don’t think you’ll object.”
“There’s no knowing yet.”
“We should at least give it a try, don’t you think?”
She bit back a smile. “Liam—”
“A stipulation, then,” he said, lifting a placating hand. “You have more value to me than what’s between your legs since we’ve now discovered you’re actually a deposed queen.”
“Oh, how generous.”
“I told you I wasn’t, ithali,” he said. “But it isn’t just me that senses this between us. You wanted to kiss me, after all. I’d like to see where it takes us.”
“If it doesn’t work—if we don’t like being together—there’s nothing lost.”
“There will be for me.”
“I promise you I won’t turn you aside,” he said. “That’s the stipulation. I’m actually more interested in your inheritance than your body, truth be told.”
She snorted a laugh, and he grinned.
“Is this how you pursue all your relationships?” she said. “Make sure the expectations are known beforehand?”
“Unfortunately not,” he said quietly. “Not everyone is smart enough to ask what my intentions are.”
“Then I will be. What are you intentions for me, Liam?”
He slid closer, nearly imperceptibly. “At this moment? Purely carnal.”
“And in the future?”
“You’ll find me an amenable ally, princess.”
Their faces were just centimeters apart. Aria forced down the giggle welling in her throat.
“I don’t know enough about any of this to refute it,” she murmured. “But I don’t trust you.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “That’s the most intelligent thing you’ve said to me yet.”
In an instant, their lips met. Liam kissed her gently, expertly, and Aria relaxed into him against her better judgement. One of his hands guided her into lying back on the sofa as their tongues explored each other; she rested one hand against his chest.
“Liam,” she whispered, her lips brushing his.
“I have your word?”
He exhaled a laugh. “You must be the only woman I’ve ever had the pleasure to bed that worried so extensively beforehand whether I would perform inadequately and ruin everything.”
“The stakes are high,” she said. “I need your word.”
“I’ll do everything in my power to put you back on your throne, whether you’re my mistress or not,” he said. “Happy?”
“In your power?” she said, arching a brow.
Liam laughed warmly. “Mihri, Aria, you’re going to make a formidable politician.”
She nipped his bottom lip and watched his gaze cloud with lust.
“I will put you back on your throne no matter what we are to each other,” he said. “You have my word.”
“The word of an untrustworthy man,” Aria whispered, leaning in to kiss him again. “I guess it will have to do.”
“Indeed,” Liam murmured, his hand finding the fold of her robes.