Sweet smelling smoke curled into the air, obfuscating the western horizon. Aria watched her lady’s maid, Katya, giggle with the two bearded guards on the other side of the fire. The mage had disappeared as soon as they stopped to make camp. On her left, rhythmic scraping from the portable whetstone in Valtteri’s hand lulled her into a false sense of peace as he sharpened his glittering moonsilver blade.
“You said you would rotate watching me with those guards,” Aria said quietly. Valtteri continued to sharpen his sword. “But every night, you’re the one in my tent.”
“They have greater concerns,” Valtteri said.
She glanced at him, her brows knit together. “What do you mean?”
“I mean your mother didn’t vet them properly when she hired them, and now they’ve found a distraction they consider more worthy than protecting their princess. They have no sense of duty towards you, so they don’t help me.”
The mage slunk back towards camp through a path in the high jade grass. His hood cloaked his expression, and he ignored his companions in favor of extricating a small traveling alchemy lab from his horse’s saddle pack. Carefully he placed three sets of mortars and pestles on a flat wooden board glowing with multicolored symbols from the mage language. He conjured a bright blue fire beneath a glass contraption in which he would combine his ingredients.
“He’s making me potions to keep me awake,” Valtteri told Aria softly. “I sleep for a couple hours while we ride during the day, and the potions take care of the rest. My brother suspected something like this might happen, so he picked a man he knew could help.”
“Why don’t you say something to them?” Aria asked. “They’re getting paid to flirt with my maid.”
“I’ll take care of them once we get to Arramas,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not worth the trouble. I don’t have the authority to dismiss them, but your future husband does.”
Aria shifted uncomfortably. “What do they do instead of guarding me?”
Valtteri flicked his eyes towards her, then looked away. “Nothing interesting.”
“Will my future husband, as you say, expect me to know?”
“He expects you to be a virgin,” he said. “I should think he’ll want to be the one to teach you those things.”
“Do kings really sleep with queens?” she asked, barely audible.
He frowned. “I hate that you fear his indifference already. You haven’t even met him yet.”
“But he has all those liaisons…surely he’ll never be satisfied with just me.”
“You’re beautiful,” Valtteri said. “Certainly the most beautiful woman this side of the continent, if the ambassadors are to be believed. I have hope he’ll be so struck by you that he might change his ways.”
“My father never did,” Aria said. “He slept with my mother all those times to get her pregnant, but he always had mistresses.”
“Your father was never worthy of the marriage he made.”
She raised her eyebrows. “How scandalous of you to say, Valtteri. I should have your head.”
He smirked. “Casimir would love for me to lose my head to treason. He doesn’t think I have it in me.”
“You’ve already made treasonous comments about my mother once. I thought it was your lot to say such things.”
“I suppose I play my position in high nobility a little fast and loose.”
“What do you think of Alistair?” Aria asked.
Valtteri narrowed his eyes at the fire, still sliding his whetstone over the same blade edge. “I don’t think I know him well enough to make a judgement. We don’t hear much about him in the south.”
“By design, I’m sure. My mother considers him a disgrace.”
“There were rumors…” he began.
She turned to watch the side of his face. “What rumors?”
He grimaced. “Nonsense, I’m sure. Rumors he would make a play for the throne.”
She let her eyes drift to the fire. “Ah. I see.”
“He might have been better than your mother, but the realm would have balked at usurping the matriarchal line, too.”
“I stopped him,” she whispered.
Valtteri set aside his blade and whetstone. The murmur of voices from the other side of the fire and the grinding of ingredients by the mage nearly drowned out their low tones, even to each other.
“He was shoring up allies,” Valtteri said. “It never got much beyond that, but he had some idea of the promises he had to make to the Northern Arm legions to ensure their loyalty.”
“It would have been a bloodbath,” Aria said. “My brother doesn’t know how to rule. He would have killed the dissenters rather than reason with them. He wanted to get rid of my parents and he wanted the wealth, that’s all. I told him I would ensure money always flowed to him and I would keep my parents at bay.” She swallowed. “But now…”
Valtteri scooted a little closer. It was her turn to stare into the fire instead of meeting his eyes.
“What do you think will happen?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. But I fear Alistair will find himself cornered.”
“He needs an ally.”
“He needs me.”
Katya burst out laughing at something one of the other guards said. She reached up to touch his beard, the lust in her eyes quite plain.
“If he gets rid of them, and I’m in the west, I fear the realm will collapse,” Aria said. “My mother wanted King Taiseer’s protection through this match, but she doesn’t know the sense of foreboding she feels is internal. She thinks she can push Alistair around, but I know what he’s capable of.”
“Your mother overlooks so much,” Valtteri said, somewhat to himself.
“She doesn’t understand,” Aria said. “Politics, history, even social niceties are all odious to her. Alistair doesn’t truly understand either—what it takes to rule. I feel like I’m the only one who can lift us out of the hole my line has been digging for generations, but then she sends me away to be some broodmare for a prince in the west. By the time I come back to the throne, I’m going to be a foreigner to our people. And if Alistair snaps when I’m not there to protect him, I might lose everything.”
Valtteri scowled. “Gods, so it wasn’t just marrying him you were resistant to…”
“She sold me,” Aria spat. “Of course I’m resistant to marrying him. But she sold me with no idea of the danger it presented, too. Valtteri, I’m not sure I’m ever going to see my realm again.”
He grasped her forearm, his expression severe. “I can help you, Aria.”
She shook her head. “How?”
“My father is tied to the Ice Realm through more than just his inherited princedom. He won’t allow the kingdom to collapse on you if it saves him too. But we must warn him.”
“He sent his eldest son to the west,” Aria said. “It’s an honor, I’m sure, but wouldn’t a prince want to protect his heir?”
“My father and I don’t really see eye to eye,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean he won’t help me if I prove myself of some use to him.”
Aria stared at him for a long time, feeling her throat grow tight.
“Gods, Valtteri,” she said after a lengthy silence. “Our parents are atrocious, aren’t they?”
Valtteri smiled sadly. She didn’t think she’d ever seen anything so beautiful.
“But we aren’t atrocious,” he said. “Not yet, anyway.”