Aria stared at the roiling waves of the sea. A storm brewed to the east; lightning illuminated the bruise colored clouds long before thunder rumbled over the palace. The sun glinted one last time before vanishing behind the tempest.
“Princess,” a man said behind her. He had a deep, soothing voice, full of hesitation at addressing her unawares.
“Mother says we won’t delay for the storm,” Aria said, not turning around.
The man joined her on the balcony. His father, Bohdan, was prince of the Southern Arm, a man Queen Vishnya hated and feared in equal measure. She offered his eldest son the captaincy of Aria’s guard begrudgingly, and without the trust usually implied by such an honor.
“We travel with a mage,” the man said. “He’ll keep us dry.”
Aria closed her eyes at a gust of wind. “I’m ready to depart at your whim, captain.”
“Valtteri,” he said softly.
She glanced over. He was much taller than her, nearly a foot, and had the old blood look; striking, icy blue eyes considered her with interest beneath arched brows, and his short black hair dusted his forehead in casually messy locks. Sharp, angular features didn’t detract from the inherent kindness of his face. Their skin was equally pale, almost luminescent in the low light.
“Valtteri,” Aria said. She kept her hands on the white marble railing to steady her trembling. “You’ll be my guard?”
“Yes, although two others will supplement me. Even I need to sleep on occasion.”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “Where are they?”
“Waiting on the steps. Your mother appointed them, then outlawed them from speaking with you. She seems to fear for your purity.”
Aria clenched her teeth before saying, “Yes, that sounds like her.”
Valtteri smiled with one side of his mouth. Aria thought he might have been in his early twenties, certainly younger than her brother Alistair.
“If you’re ready, we should try to be beyond the shore when the storm hits,” Valtteri said. “We’ll ride through until tomorrow night, then travel at a more manageable pace.”
Aria nodded, released the railing, and about-faced. Valtteri shadowed her into her room, his moonsilver armor barely whispering against the pure white fabric of his cloak. Moonstone formed the sigil of the Southern Arm on his chest, like liquid still hardening against the crafted metal.
Aria scooped up her cloak—silver to complement an icy blue tunic—from the bed. Two queensguard flanked the doors already open to the hallway, and Aria’s singular lady’s maid waited just outside. Valtteri lengthened his stride to lead the two women to the front of the palace, where the Ice Queen, Prince Alistair, and two guards stood on the steps. A mage lingered behind them, the hood of his black, cowled-neck robes cloaking his expression.
Aria hugged Alistair, her throat too tight for speech. He kissed her hair.
“Be strong, sister. And write me as much as you can.”
She nodded stiffly. Alistair furrowed his brow, cupped her jaw briefly, and ducked down to peck her forehead. Their mother snorted impatiently.
Jaw clenched, Aria turned to curtsy to Queen Vishnya, who looked her over once, critically, before meeting Valtteri’s gaze.
“Ensure she arrives to Prince Liam of the Western Realm untouched. She’s worth nothing if she’s not a virgin.”
Valtteri dipped his head.
“I’ll be sure your father is rewarded for your service. It will be his choice to recall you. I would make myself comfortable in the west.”
“Yes, my queen,” Valtteri said. Aria thought his voice had an edge, but her mother didn’t seem to notice.
“On your way, then,” Vishnya said.
Aria met Alistair’s eyes one more time, desperately, and felt her heart break at how lonely he looked. She turned to mount her horse, blinking away tears.
Valtteri heaved himself onto a pure white steed beside her. The two guards, the mage, and her lady’s maid, Katya, followed suit on their own horses. Aria glanced at Valtteri, who squeezed his horse’s flanks, coaxing it into a trot. Wind blasted them with sand as they wove through the tiny town of Tiraspol, seeking the road that would take them north.
At sundown the following day, Aria tumbled from her horse with little grace, the hood of her cloak pulled over her face to hide her tears. She heard the rest of the group hit the ground behind her, but she stormed away from them through knee-height jade grass. Stars twinkled in the sky above, though to the west, red stained the horizon, the last vestiges of a sultry summer sun.
Aria stopped walking suddenly, gasping for breath. Every inch of her trembled with anger—and sadness.
“Princess,” Valtteri said quietly, just behind her.
“Go away,” she snapped, glaring at the horizon.
“I can’t. Some man may take your virtue if I do.”
She whipped around to find him watching her with a cocked brow. She ground her teeth together.
“It’s not funny.”
“Only if you’re determined for that to be so.”
“She sold me,” Aria spat.
“I know she did. The whole realm knows.”
“And yet you laugh at me.”
“Not at you,” he said. “I thought you might want to laugh with me at your mother.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Do you know anything about the west?”
Valtteri frowned. “A little.”
“And do you like what you hear?”
“It’s just different. It doesn’t have to mean bad.”
“The prince is a philanderer,” she said. “He’s the same age as me, and they say his lovers are already in the dozens.”
“He’s fifteen,” Valtteri said. “He’s had dozens of lovers because he only lasts a minute inside each one.”
Aria snorted a laugh before she could stop herself. Valtteri grinned at her, slowly—and she noticed he was rather handsome when he smiled.
“Your mother has done nothing of note with her ascension to the throne,” Valtteri said. “She needed to shock the realm into thinking she was worth something. A connection with the Western Realm does that on an incredibly grand scale. My father laughed for days when he heard.”
“A commodity,” Aria said. “That’s all I really am.”
“To her,” he said. “Not to me.”
“Is that why you wanted to be my guard?”
“I didn’t have a choice, but I certainly didn’t regret being assigned the task.”
“You don’t even know me,” she said.
“No. But I hope to learn more than what I’ve heard over the next month.”
The mage conjured a fire for their camp a few meters away. Katya giggled with the two guards outlawed from speaking with Aria; the men had matching beards, and dark eyes marking them as common blood.
“What have you heard?” Aria asked, barely audible.
Valtteri raked his eyes over her, looking concerned. “That you deserve much better than to be sold to the west to bolster your mother’s reputation, to start.”
“Alistair tried to stop her, but she never listens to him.”
“No—I don’t think she listens to many, these days.”
Valtteri stepped closer to her. “I imagine you are. But we have a long way to go, still, and you’re not in his hands yet.”
She swallowed. “You’re the only one who will talk to me. Katya doesn’t care about me, the guards were outlawed, and the mage is a mute.”
“I won’t be the only one who speaks to you. My brother Casimir recommended this mage. He’s a good man, and good men are easily intimidated by the royal princess. But it won’t last forever.”
“I’m nothing, Valtteri,” she whispered. “I have no control. There’s nothing intimidating about that.”
“Perhaps you only need to exercise some control in other ways.”
“‘Yes, seek empowerment in your imprisonment, Aria.’ That’s the only advice people like you ever give.”
For some reason, he smiled. “It’s not entirely off base. We can only forge a life with the materials we have.”
“I shouldn’t have these materials at all.”
“They do fail to provide many options for varying outcomes.”
She crossed her arms, glaring at her feet. “I won’t bother pointing out how unfair this is lest I look too angsty.”
“Anyone could smell the angst on you,” he said. “Or perhaps it’s just that you need a bath.”
Aria jerked her head up, incredulous, but Valtteri had already turned to saunter away through the grass. She glowered at his back for a long time, her mind whirring with replies that always fell just short of clever.