The Iotorathi princess waited for the return of her husband on the front steps alongside the king. Aria glanced at Liam, her cheeks coloring, but he merely winked.
“Your father will assume you’ve brought back some whore,” she said quietly.
“Didn’t I, technically?”
She glowered at him. He barked a laugh.
“Don’t worry, Aria. I’m rather proud of digging you out of the dirt. I won’t let them play too rough with you.” He lowered his voice. “You have my word, remember?”
She smiled. “And I suppose your word was already tested quite strenuously.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it like that,” he said, grinning. “I wasn’t that bad, and neither were you.”
“Just mismatched,” she said, chuckling.
Liam’s smile widened. “In a sense.”
The king of Iotorath was slightly shorter than his son, but their arrogant features could have been interchangeable, save for the gray flecking the king’s hair and beard, and the belly protruding beneath his stylish doublet. The princess’ eyes never left Aria as she pulled her horse to a stop and allowed Liam to catch her waist on her dismount.
Arramas’s palace, constructed of swirling gray marble that sparkled by the light of magical, floating orbs, sprawled outwards instead of upwards. Columns, terraces, and copious greenery gave the castle an airy, open feel; the low altitude of the Iotorath mountains lended well to the design even despite the palace’s exposure on the peak.
“Father,” Liam said, tugging Aria to the bottom of the steps. “Darling wife. You’ll never believe what I found in the Northern Kingdom.”
“A new mistress?” the princess asked scathingly. She had dark skin of a reddish tone. Short black hair dusted her shoulders, gleaming burgundy at points when it caught the light. Rich, deep brown eyes, also flecked with red, regarded Aria with intense scrutiny.
“A mistress?” Liam asked, laughing. “You’re quite mistaken if you think I’d present a mistress to you with such aplomb, darling wife.”
“You flaunt them like you take pleasure in me knowing.”
“You seem to take pleasure in me taking them, too, so I don’t see the harm.”
Aria glanced at the king, who watched them argue with a resigned sort of civility. The princess crossed her arms, a sour look on her face.
“I only like to see you fail,” she said.
“Noted,” Liam replied. “Aria, this is my darling wife, Lena. She’s from the Dying Isles, originally. And it’s my honor to introduce you to my father, King Taiseer of House Sarpara.”
Aria dipped into a low curtsy, the skirts of her dress, commissioned by King Sireno of the Northern Kingdom, swishing against the ground. When she emerged, she noticed Taiseer’s gaze had turned evaluative. He lingered longest on her chest.
“I hope you managed some diplomatic relations in your time in the Northern Kingdom,” Taiseer said, looking briefly to Liam.
“Much,” Liam said. “With more than one kingdom, potentially, as Aria is not what she might seem. Can I tell you about it in the throne room?”
Taiseer waved his hand indulgently. With a huff, Lena stormed inside before Liam and Aria could mount the steps.
“Where would you like her housed, Liam?” Taiseer asked, falling into step with them at the top of the stairs. “You’ll have to displace another whore to have her near you.”
“She needs better accommodations than that, father. Aria is royalty.”
Taiseer swept his gaze over Aria once more, noting the way Liam guided her fondly by the elbow, as well as how close she lingered to him out of familiarity.
“Does she speak?” Taiseer asked.
Aria scowled at him. “Gods, I didn’t expect the two of you to be so similar.”
Liam laughed. “She’s rather mouthy, father. You might prefer this short time of silence.”
The palace plunged them into shadow. Aria tried to keep her expression neutral as splendor practically hit her in the face; dark gray marble inlaid with diamond swirled beneath her feet, shimmering in touches of magelight. The three of them strode into a sea of columns radiating in all directions; in the distance, interior gardens peeked between stone, populated by some of the strange black and red trees Aria had already encountered on the journey to Arramas. Mostly, her head swiveled in every direction, trying to make sense of the corridors.
“I’ll make sure you don’t get lost,” Liam murmured in her ear.
She smiled at him. King Taiseer led them along the outer rim of the palace to a room on the southwestern side decorated with comfortable looking chairs and windows hidden by thick curtains. A fire roared in the hearth.
“The throne room is being readied for the ball,” Taiseer said. “My study should suffice.”
“There’s not a lengthy discussion to be had,” Liam said.
A valet hurried over to serve them drinks while they seated themselves in a ring of plush chairs. Liam waited until the heavy doors of black, matte metal closed behind the valet before he said, “I found Aria in Tower of the Moon and realized she was the victim of that coup we heard about a while back.”
“Which one?” Taiseer asked.
“Ice Realm. Matriarchal line overthrown by the firstborn son.”
“Ah,” Taiseer said, taking a drink. “So I speak to Queen Aria, technically.”
“Technically,” Aria said.
He raised his glass to her. “I apologize for my assumptions, then. How old were you when you were overthrown?”
“Eight. He killed our parents.”
“Indeed. And the nobles accepted the transition?”
“Many assumed me dead, despite my missing body. But they didn’t put up too much of a fuss even at that.”
Taiseer grinned. “I sense some bitterness. That may serve you well.”
“In taking it back,” he said. “I assume that’s why Liam brought you here.”
She glanced at Liam. “Well, yes, but—”
“Aria thought you’d need more convincing to back her,” Liam said. “She’s just shocked by how quickly the conversation turned.”
“Stop telling him how I feel,” Aria snapped. “It’s really annoying.”
Liam laughed, but he lifted a hand appeasingly.
“Then how do you feel, Queen Aria?” Taiseer asked.
“Well, Liam’s certainly convinced me of the merits of taking the seat back,” she said. “I feel better knowing I won’t be alone in it. But I’d like to know what exactly your support would end up costing me.”
“There’s no way of knowing, yet,” Taiseer said. “We’ll have to gauge what all we have to commit before we can say what the debt is.”
“My realm is small,” Aria said. “I looked into the most recent records of it the last few days we were in Tower of the Moon. It shouldn’t take many troops.”
“Mountainous, though. We’d need an experienced captain from within on our side.”
“There’s already been fighting in the Southern Arm,” Liam said. “We can get them to join us.”
“I do hear whispers every so often that King Alistair is a tyrant, but mostly, the Ice Realm remains relatively isolated,” Taiseer said. “It’s generally known as a splendorous kingdom, though.”
“Moonsilver,” Liam said. “It’s the only place on the continent you can get it.”
“Then that means we could make a very favorable treaty,” Taiseer said. “Did you mention this to Sireno?”
“He knows the gist of it,” Liam said. “He’s looking to provide a little support, too, as Alistair has defaulted on enormous debt, as well as moonsilver shipments.”
“It should be quite easy to sweep in and outflank the usurper, then.”
“The kingdom might not want me,” Aria said.
Both men raised their eyebrows.
“They didn’t fight for me when it wasn’t even clear I was dead,” she said. “They just took Alistair’s word. They didn’t care.”
“We can easily make them care,” Taiseer said with an inarticulate gesture. “A pretty, young girl, and with their history of following powerful women—all you’ll need is a sword in your hand.”
“I don’t know how to fight,” she said.
“We have plenty who could teach you,” Taiseer said. “Not Liam, as he prefers a warhammer, but I have expert captains all over the west.”
“What we’ll have to consider is the timeline,” Liam said. “We don’t want to throw her in green. She’ll have to have some experience in battles elsewhere for them to accept the legitimacy. We can say we’ve been housing her for all this time until she was ready.”
Aria swallowed before she blurted, “Yes—but what’s your angle?”
Taiseer smirked, and Liam beamed.
“Moonsilver, to start,” the king said. “All my satellites are installed at the beginning with trade treaties.”
“I can’t be a satellite,” Aria said. “I haven’t been in the realm since I was a child, but I already know that wouldn’t go over. They’ll want their independence, and I don’t want to take the seat back only to rip it away.”
“The support of the west is a guarantee that you’ll win,” Liam said. “After that, I suspect we can settle for a few favorable treaties and a mutual defense clause.”
“With the assumption that we wouldn’t actually bother to honor the clause unless you were in some way directly threatened,” Taiseer said. “It would look on paper like you maintain your independence but pay due diligence to the west for our support.”
“You won’t draft these treaties without my eye on them,” Aria said.
“I wasn’t under the impression you were educated enough to understand them.”
“I had a tutor in Tower of the Moon,” Aria said. “I’m not an ignorant peasant, either.”
“I could take the lead,” Liam said. “Work closely with her over the course of our preparations, so that when she finally does sweep in for the throne, everything is already in order.”
“That would be welcome, since she’s your pet,” Taiseer said.
Aria stiffened. “I’m no one’s pet,” she spat.
Liam leaned forward in his seat, clasping his hands. “Forgive my father, Aria, as he’s very sexist.”
Taiseer snorted a laugh before finishing his drink. “If it won’t be strictly a satellite treaty, despite our help, then we’ll need some assurance of the connection. I leave that to you, Liam.”
He inclined his head.
“With that settled, then, I have an appointment with my mistress.”
Aria opened her mouth, her brow furrowed, but Taiseer stood and strode from the room without another word. The door slammed shut behind him.
“That…” Aria gaped at the door. “I mean, how was it that easy to get him to agree to war?”
“We’re all bloodthirsty savages in the west,” Liam said. “Haven’t you heard?”
“Liam, you have to promise me he’s not going to trick me.”
“He absolutely would. That’s why I offered to take the lead.”
“And you won’t?”
“I’ll at least let you see the treaties. He might have backed out at that request if I hadn’t taken the burden of the work from him.”
Aria shook her head. “Gods, I thought it was just you…”
“Who you couldn’t trust?” Liam said with a laugh. “Power isn’t acquired and maintained honorably, Aria. Not strictly, anyway.”
She curled her legs onto her chair and hugged them to her chest. Liam abandoned his seat to take to one knee at her feet.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I have this feeling you’re going to either destroy me or use me as a puppet.”
Liam smirked. “My father will expect me to do so. But, in many ways, you’re making this alliance with me, not him. For he’s on his way out as king, and I’m just getting started.”
“What did he mean when he said he needed an assurance of our connection?”
“He’ll want you tied to us for this support, preferably through marriage to me.”
“You’re already married.”
“It’s easily put aside. She’s not even pregnant.”
“When we were on our way here, you told me you married her for resources…”
“And I’d be putting her aside for better ones. Her idiotic family would bow to that wisdom eventually and stop acting like rabble about the strength of the throne.”
“Liam, I don’t want to marry you.” She grimaced. “When we slept together back in Tower of the Moon, I thought we both agreed…”
“That it didn’t feel right? I know. And not that I wouldn’t like my wife set aside, but I don’t want to force you into marrying me. Father was just trying to get a feel for our relationship.”
She touched his arm. “And what is our relationship?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to figuring it out.”
She bit her lip before she said, “Will you still support my claim, even if we don’t marry?”
“Of course, Aria. I made you a promise. We’ll find some other way to assure the connection.”
“I don’t think promises mean much to someone like you,” she said.
“Not really,” Liam said. “But you do. Oddly enough.”