Aria dismounted her horse beside Valtteri, who handed his reins off to a groom before striding forward to greet his younger brother. The camp around them bustled with activity, and Aria found her eyes drifting over the unfamiliar fauna of her home when her gaze wasn’t drawn by a man tending a fire or a woman sharpening her sword. Massive pine trees the size of small bridges jutted forth from the ground in twisted, gnarled clumps, their trunks skirted by brambly bushes. A canopy of pine needles shaded the camp, through which slivers of sunlight slashed the springy ground. The air smelled fresh and crisp, and a light breeze tousled Aria’s long hair from beneath the hood of her cloak.
By the time she looked back at Valtteri, he and his brother had both turned to her, the latter with his expression still hidden by the hood of his black mage robes.
“Aria, this is my brother, Casimir,” Valtteri said. “He’s thrown his name in for the position of your court mage.”
Aria dipped her head incrementally. The mage didn’t acknowledge her in any way until Valtteri nudged him with his elbow—less subtly than he likely intended.
“My queen,” Casimir said, sounding peeved. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I can’t say the same,” Aria said. “I haven’t exactly had easy dealings with your kind.”
“Casimir will do his best to rectify that impression,” Valtteri said pointedly. He offered Aria his arm. “Come, I had my soldiers prepare a briefing on the fort. We plan to strike at dawn.”
Aria glanced over her shoulder at Casimir as Valtteri led her away; he watched them go with his arms crossed. She felt his gaze on her, though his robes carried a cloaking spell that masked his face.
“He seems…pleasant,” Aria said.
Valtteri laughed. “He’ll watch you from a distance for a while until he makes a judgement. Don’t worry about him, though. I know he’ll like you.”
“Does my court mage have to like me?”
“It certainly helps. I told him to try to be more social since he won’t by the only one vying for the position, but he never listens to that sort of advice.”
They passed a clump of tents flying the standard of the Forest Realm, a white tree with green leaves on a bed of cloth of gold. Aria had barely opened her mouth to ask the question when Weston emerged from the largest tent, followed by a smug-looking man with similar hazel eyes.
“Oh,” Valtteri said, slowing to a stop. “I suppose I’ve been quite rude not to introduce you immediately. Aria, this is Prince Ian of the Forest Realm.”
Aria spared a brief glance for the brown-haired man giving her a formal bow before her eyes snapped back to Weston. He raked his gaze over her, looking melancholy.
“Queen Aria,” Ian said. “It’s an honor to meet you. I want to apologize on behalf of my realm for the ordeal you’ve been through at Alistair’s hand.”
“Thank you, Prince Ian,” Aria said. “And it’s good to see you again, Weston.”
He dipped his head without reply; concurrently, his brother shot him a sharp look.
“Weston is here as my advisor,” Ian told Aria. “He’ll be sending periodic reports to my father. I suspect he’ll be too busy to be as good a friend as you’ve come to expect.”
Aria blinked, but she resisted the urge to arch a brow in challenge. The dismissal was evident. “Well, that’s certainly a disappointment. Good luck to you, Weston.”
He refused to look at her. Ian smirked at nothing in particular, fiddling with one of his gauntlets—and then, with trained surreptitiousness, his eyes swiftly darted over the curve of Aria’s waist and the low cut of her tunic.
“Aria and I have a prior engagement,” Valtteri said. “Excuse us.”
Ian bowed, Weston inclined his head again, and Aria locked her jaw as Valtteri coaxed her into moving north. When they had ambled out of earshot, Aria said, “We didn’t part on good terms, but Weston’s been outlawed from speaking to me. He’s not angry with me as I suspected.”
“No,” Valtteri said. “I told you Ian would court you.”
Aria sighed heavily. Silence stretched between them for a few long moments before she murmured, almost to herself, “Would it surprise you to learn that being pretty is exhausting?”
Valtteri smiled sadly. “Not in the slightest. In fact, I’ve been wondering what Tower of the Moon was like.”
The two of them skirted a large cooking fire in front of an even larger tent on the north end of camp, above which the Ice Realm standard fluttered in the breeze. Soldiers had begun to notice Aria; knots of men and women whispered behind their hands as she passed. Her cheeks colored.
“I don’t like to be cruel,” Aria said. “I tried to give every man who approached me a bit of my attention. But it wasn’t ever a few men a night—it was dozens, and sometimes the way they’d posture to prove themselves wasn’t comical, it was aggressive. I felt like a jewel dropped in the middle of the slums down along the city wall. By the time I went home, everyone had grappled for me, gotten a finger on me, scratched me with their nails until I was raw. I wasn’t a woman to them, just an object worthy of possession. The prettiest girl in the room. I learned to see it in their eyes—whether they liked me, or what I represented. You can imagine how important that skill has become.”
Valtteri stopped them before the entrance to the large tent. He frowned at her in a way that made her feel like he could see right through her.
“I misjudged you,” he said. “I thought you accepted my attention from a position of naivety. I know you were trained to make a man think you love him…”
“We can be naive in some ways and not in others.”
“Yes. For some reason I assumed you would like any of the highborn men who vied for your hand simply because you weren’t used to actually having a choice in the matter. Or you’d be excited by the novelty of all the attention. You are young, Aria. I had no idea you could sound so jaded.”
She swallowed back a vague burn in her throat. “You looked at me like you actually saw me. So did Weston. So did Seb. I’m not tempted by the men who want to possess me. I don’t remember them. I don’t think of them. I don’t let them get close.” She shook her head. “I could be surrounded by players in a crowded room and only see you.”
Valtteri considered her for a long moment, his blue eyes sharp. “So what you’re saying is, if you wrote your story for others to consume…I might actually make it onto the page.”
She smiled. “And the three men behind you staring at me like a piece of meat wouldn’t even get a footnote.”
A slow grin split his face. “Your storytelling sounds biased in favor of the good things.”
Aria laughed. “Gods, wouldn’t you be, if you’d lived a life like mine?”