Liam led Aria within a sparsely decorated room dominated by a massive bed with plush white sheets. Propped against the headboard and surrounded by pillows, Ilyas read a book; he glanced up at them when they entered and immediately beamed.
“Liam! I didn’t expect you for ages!”
Aria hung back as Liam hugged his brother fondly. The two of them turned to meet her eyes at the same time.
Ilyas was sixteen, according to Liam, and though he may have looked that age by his spindly stature, his face was older, more dignified. Still, he had the kindest smile she thought she’d seen since Sebastian, and jade green eyes full of curiosity and intelligence. With a little weight on him, he would have been as devastatingly handsome as his brother—but the illness Liam confessed in hushed tones kept him very thin.
“This is Aria,” Liam said. He nudged his brother with his elbow. “She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
Ilyas gave her an almost sympathetic smile. “Quite. How do you do, Aria?”
She returned his grin reflexively. “I’m well, thank you, Ilyas.”
“I told him all about you last night,” Liam said, sauntering past to pour drinks. “He was very interested in the history of your realm.”
“So am I,” Aria said flatly.
Ilyas laughed. “Liam doesn’t have much of a mind for history. I hope he didn’t bore you on the journey.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “I will confess I did a lot of reading while he found other ways to entertain himself.”
“Father has already cornered all your companions,” Ilyas told Liam when he returned to hand Aria a glass of clear alcohol. “He’ll know more about the trip than you do, soon enough.”
“There’s very little of interest to tell,” Liam said. “Sireno is aging and ineffective. He was easy to court with the promise of more riches and trade. I spent a lot of my time on more…diverting activities.”
“I can’t believe the brothel districts are true,” his brother said. “We see how flawed the system is just in that you were there for ten years, Aria.”
“There were quite a few girls who came from realms other than the Northern Kingdom,” Aria said. “They often didn’t adjust well…I always suspected I wasn’t the only noble to end up there.”
Liam perched himself at the end of the bed. Ilyas sat up a little taller, observing her with unbridled interest.
“I’ve been banned from speaking of this to anyone,” Aria said, glancing between the brothers. “Does that strategy really work?”
“Well, contrary to Ilyas’s excellent manners and social aptitude,” Liam said, “you’re the first person outside the family to meet him in some time.”
“It must be lonely,” Aria said quietly.
Liam waved his hand as if that fact didn’t matter, but Ilyas held her gaze earnestly. Her stomach clenched, though not with pity.
“Ilyas has always been a lot less social than I am,” Liam said. “There are many nights I envy him his books while I entertain women in the ballroom.”
“Such a tragedy,” Ilyas said dryly.
Aria giggled. “What do you get up to, Ilyas?”
He perked up. “All sorts of things! I do a lot of research, and I’m compiling my own volume on the wars between the Whispering Plains and the Dying Isles, after their natural disaster first struck.”
Aria sank into the bed beside Liam. “Natural disaster?”
“They were connected once,” he said. “All the isles were connected and the largest of them rose out of the sea to meet the mountains of the Whispering Plains. Many of their cities used to be based in the southern reaches of the white grass plains, you see, and fewer nestled into the mountains. The ancestors of the people in the Dying Isles made a greater claim to the south side of those mountainous regions. But then the isles collapsed into the sea.”
“No one really knows,” Ilyas said. “The isles are famous for their sorcerers, men who use magic outside the constraints of mages and the extinct fire priests. Some say they incurred the wrath of Ryaos.”
“The Dying Isles used their magic to adjust,” Liam said, sipping his drink. “They quickly became seafaring, but there were many who wanted to stake their claim on the mainland once and for all. The people of the Whispering Plains moved to defend their mountain range, throwing their once close neighbors back into the sea.”
“The Dying Isles is a colloquial name,” Ilyas added. “Their true name is Lystreva. We started calling them the Dying Isles after the disaster.”
Aria shook her head. “And you’re interested in the history of my realm?”
He smiled shyly. “I’m interested in anything novel.”
“We must think of him as we move forward,” Liam said. “Bring him back books, write him letters when we finally make it to the realm. He’s going to be the greatest historian the west has ever seen.”
Ilyas looked to his lap, shifting awkwardly, but Aria grinned at him.
“Most certainly,” she said. “I think there was some talk of sending me to war before we throw me onto the ground to take back my throne, though.”
“The Ice Realm is matriarchal,” Liam told Ilyas. “Aria’s line can claim purity all the way back to the first Ice Queen, who conquered the realm from mountain men with her own blade.”
“Fascinating,” Ilyas said. “So you’ll learn how to use a sword before you go, Aria?”
“If I’m any good with a blade, I suppose.”
“That reminds me, I need to find a swordmaster,” Liam said. “Alas that my talents lie elsewhere. My wife would have thrown a fit to see me guiding you through physical adjustments.”
Ilyas chuckled. “Still antagonizing our closest ally, Liam?”
“She’s absolutely odious, brother. I don’t know what you expect from me.”
“I expect you to keep her happy enough that she doesn’t let her father lay his claim to the throne,” Ilyas said quietly. “When father dies, we could be in a very precarious position.”
“One you needn’t worry your pretty head about,” Liam said, leaning over to ruffle his hair. Ilyas flushed with pleasure. “I have her under control.”
Aria furrowed her brow, thinking of his flippant attitude in setting her aside a few days prior. Neither of the men noticed.
“Why did you want Aria and I to meet, Liam?” Ilyas asked. “You usually keep me so tightly under wraps, even with the mistresses you like.”
Aria snorted a laugh. Liam beamed at her before he said, “Ah, Ilyas, if only I were good enough to be Aria’s lover. No, she means much more to me than that. I wanted you two to meet because I knew she would like you, and you her. Can my motives not be so pure?”
“No,” Ilyas said with a wry look. “I won’t believe it.”
Liam grinned wolfishly. “Ithralian.”
Ilyas glowered, the dark expression oddly commanding on his face. He replied in Iotorath’s mother tongue, so quickly that Aria couldn’t really distinguish one word from the next. Liam returned the favor; the two of them glared at each other sharply, confrontationally.
“Stop it,” Aria snapped, after a particularly venomous reply from Liam. “If you’re going to argue with me in the room, at least have the decency to speak the common tongue.”
Ilyas crossed his arms, scowling out the window. Liam assumed his light, playful expression.
“Apologies, Aria,” he said. “I’ve been gone for so long, and Ilyas is all pent up with frustration.”
“I haven’t seen anyone but caretakers since you left,” Ilyas said. “Don’t tell me all was for naught.”
Liam passed him a suppressing look. “We’ll continue this discussion when we aren’t being rude to our guest.”
Aria kept her eyes on Ilyas, who breathed a little more quickly after the fight. When he finally consented to meet her gaze, he seemed worried.
“You have a lot to teach me about the history of the west, I daresay,” she said. “And I’d like to be well educated by the time I reach my people. Would you mind if I visited sometimes?”
Ilyas’s expression softened. “Of course not. That sounds diverting.”
“It’s settled, then,” Liam said. “That really was the only reason I brought her along, Ilyas. We both know you’ll be a better tutor than anyone else in the realm.”
Flicking his eyes to his brother, he said, “Yes, of course.”
Liam took Aria’s arm, already focusing on their next task for the day—but Aria filed Ilyas’s look of discontent and anxiety in the back of her mind for later consideration.