The two small moons illuminated Aria’s steps as she paced back and forth in front of the tent Sebastian and Nicoletto shared. Even in the summer, the night air of the Northern Arm had an icy bite; Aria’s breath burst from her in little clouds. She stopped once before the tent flap, shook her head, and paced again—then repeated the pattern several times with varying degrees of intensity in her grimace.
“Steeling yourself up for something?” Casimir asked behind her.
Aria nearly jumped out of her skin. “By the gods, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
He removed his hood and arched a brow as she clutched at her racing heart. “If you weren’t so self absorbed you might have heard me coming.”
“If you weren’t so self absorbed you would have let me be.”
“So you can destroy the frost moss in peace?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but he squatted at her feet, slipping a dagger from his robes to cut away a swath of the bright blue moss she’d been trampling.
“You were looking for alchemy ingredients?” she asked.
“Some only come out by moonlight.”
She remained in place until he had stuffed a respectable amount of moss into a black leather satchel and risen to his feet. He arched a brow again.
“So what are you up to?”
She loosed a breath; a puff of fog rose between them. “I’m not sure.”
He glanced over her shoulder. “Looking to speak with Sebastian, I’d guess, unless you’ve taken a fancy to Captain Nicoletto.”
“Stop teasing me,” she said quietly.
Casimir grew somber at once. “What’s wrong?”
She bit her lip. “I just wanted to talk to someone. You’re…too biased.”
Smirking, he said, “Ah, I see. What about Valtteri? He’s still up.”
“It must be about Weston, then.”
“Stop deducing,” she said. “You asked what was wrong and I told you. Now move on.”
Instead of departing, he stood his ground. “How close are you with Sebastian, really?” he asked quietly.
“Because I would hate to watch you go from one useless man to another disappointment.”
She frowned. “I don’t know. We mostly flirted when I knew him up north. He’s always been kind, though, and pretty thoughtful really.”
“He’s certainly more neutral than Valtteri or me, but it may surprise you to learn that I can be neutral if I put my mind to it.”
“You just want to know what Weston did wrong.”
He grinned. “Can’t it be both?”
Aria smiled despite herself. “Oh, Casimir. I don’t think it can in this case.”
He tilted his head. “Speak with whomever you wish. But I do have your best interests guiding me as much as possible, Aria. As your court mage and as a friend.”
“And would I owe you for your help?” she asked.
His eyes narrowed. “Certainly not. I would guess that any honest person would consider such transactional relationships beneath them.”
“It is transactional, isn’t it?”
“I’ve noticed behavior like that in men who don’t grow up thinking women are quite their equals. But it applies to anyone, really—anyone with a selfish mode of thinking. It never really finds its footing in decent relationships.”
“It bothers me,” she said.
“As it should,” Casimir replied. “Someone who thinks you owe them will always hold it over your head when they need something.”
She made a face. “You were the one who made me wonder, in Bucori. Or are you merely manipulating me from a distance?”
He laughed. “Gods, Aria, if it were that easy to manipulate you, I’d have no interest in speaking to you at all. Gullible people are boring.”
“You like a challenge when you manipulate someone.”
“I like to keep myself busy, yes.”
They smiled at each other. Aria looked over her shoulder.
“What do you think of Seb?” she asked softly.
“I think he’s entertaining,” Casimir said. “And he’s smarter than you’d give him credit for on first glance. He would be quite worthy of your attention, although if you ask me, he still falls short of Valtteri by some distance.”
She held his gaze, admiring the pale blue of his eyes in the moonlight. “I like Valtteri.”
“Do you? I wondered if he wasn’t showing enough of an edge for your taste.”
“You think I look for that?”
“I think plenty of young women like a touch of forbidden desire.”
She crossed her arms. “Like Weston, who everyone insists isn’t good enough for me.”
“It’s helped me sleep some nights to think that you may keep him around for precisely that reason.”
“That’s a weighty generalization, though, about forbidden desire.”
“And young women, yes. I redact, then, and say it must just be you.” Casimir raised his eyebrows. “Valtteri would suit you still, I assure you.
Aria shook her head, grinning. “Valtteri should be honored to have such a champion.”
“He would be appalled. But I don’t care. I’ve seen him unhappy for far too long.”
“I’m still betrothed to Weston, for all intents and purposes.”
He made a noise of assent. “And a long and healthy relationship it’s bound to be.”
She gave him a look. “Scurry off to your alchemy lab and make some protective potions. I want to contact Alistair tomorrow.”
Casimir made an inarticulate gesture. “Very well. Speaking of transactional relationships, though, perhaps I’ll only do so if you say you’ll swing by Valtteri’s tent on your way back. He could use a pick me up.”
“Who says I would be one?”
“You are, for him.”
Casimir started to turn away, but Aria reached for his arm. “Cas—”
He looked back, his expression unfathomable. She let her fingers rest on his forearm.
“We need the Forest Realm,” she murmured. “We’ll lose them if I hurt him.”
“How do you know?” he replied, equally quiet. “His father wants Alistair off the throne as much as we do.”
“If you tell me Weston wouldn’t find a way around that…”
He searched her face. “I suppose he would, wouldn’t he?”
“He’s already shown a propensity for being vindictive, long before I met him. And I would be refusing the importance of our transaction.”
He nodded slowly. “He would laud you to his father, who’s never given him a single thing he truly wanted. And Ezra would want the glory of the connection to himself just to throw it in his face.”
She nodded. “I need you with me until the time is right.”
“Have you really considered the ramifications?” he asked.
She swallowed. “No. And if I do, I won’t be able to stomach jilting him.”
“Your mistake was in giving him a chance at all,” Casimir said. “Now you know so much about him, you want to protect his feelings.”
“I won’t apologize for that,” Aria said firmly. “Gods—if only the world could be so black and white.”