“There,” Aria said soothingly. She spooned a mashed paste of warm water and an herb called irashil onto each side of Valtteri’s shoulder, both where the arrow had pierced him and where she had forced the head through. He groaned in relief.
“Fuck, that’s better. I’m going to kill that mage.”
“Not one-armed, you aren’t.”
“He was supposed to ward us before he left. Those bandits shouldn’t have been able to see us.”
“I agree it was an oversight. It won’t happen again. But you can’t beat him up until he’s healed you.”
Valtteri frowned as she wrapped his wounds with a clean bandage. “You seem calm.”
“I had to force the shock down, as you’ll recall.”
“It was really impressive, Aria.”
She met his eyes, grimacing. “Don’t tease me.”
“I’m not,” he said gently. “Absolutely not.”
They stared at each other for a long time, much longer than normal. Eventually Aria blushed and resumed his bandaging. Before she had forced the arrowhead through, he had looked at her similarly—like he’d never really seen her before. She wasn’t sure what it meant, except that it made her stomach feel absent.
“There,” she said, tucking away the extra fabric. “That should hold you for a few hours.”
“He’ll cast you something for the shock,” Valtteri said. They sat together in the dirt by the barely burning fire. “You’ll need it to sleep tonight.”
She hugged herself. “They were going to rape me, weren’t they?”
His expression blackened. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Glancing at the dead bodies, she said, “What do we do with them?”
“Burn them. But we need the mage for that too.”
Stars had blossomed fully in the sky in the time it took to address Valtteri’s wound. Their horses grazed much closer to camp in the darkness.
“Why didn’t we stay in towns, at inns?” Aria asked.
“Your mother deemed it an unnecessary expense.”
“She probably got half a million coins off me in this match.”
He shook his head. “Yeah, probably. But she insisted we camped.”
Aria shook her head, too. “Who do you think will come back first?”
Valtteri leaned back against his pack, and she scooted closer to him automatically, curling up to his right side.
“The mage, I expect,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see Katya and the others until dawn.”
Aria pulled her cloak over his torso to warm him. He passed her a small smile, opening his right arm.
“Come here. We can keep each other warm while we wait.”
“I can get you the bedroll—”
“It’s alright. It’s still summer. And I don’t want you to have to turn around again.”
The smell of blood tinged the air. She nodded and cuddled against his right side, where he lay back on his pack; Valtteri adjusted her cloak to cover both of them like a blanket.
“You’re trembling,” he said.
In truth, she felt like crying. Her hands were caked with blood.
“They aren’t the first dead bodies I’ve seen,” she said instead.
Valtteri scowled at the sky. “Alistair’s doing?”
“One of his gambling games went very awry. I had to bail him out. He doesn’t remember.”
“I’m sorry, Aria.”
“It’s alright. In truth, I’d do anything for him. He has his flaws, but I love him.”
“I wish I could be so selfless with my siblings.”
“You seem to admire Casimir quite a lot.”
“He’s different. I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“Your youngest brother must be younger than me.”
“Well…I’m reserving judgement on him, at least. I think he has some potential.”
“What about the archery prodigy?”
“I don’t see him much, to be honest.”
“Maybe it isn’t all your brothers’s doing, then.”
He turned his head to meet her eyes where she peeked up from his shoulder. One corner of his mouth twitched. “Perhaps.”
Aria nuzzled deeper against him. “Valtteri…”
“Were you scared?”
He followed her train of thought and glowered at the sky once more. “No. I don’t fear men like that. But I was scared for you.”
“Imagine how silly I felt when I watched you take down one of them with a knife. You have good aim.”
“I don’t need a caretaker,” she said. “My mother doesn’t know anything about me, so of course she thinks I do.”
“I don’t think she ever considered your safety. Just the purity of your cunt.”
Aria smacked him on the stomach, and they both laughed quietly.
“It’s such a gutteral word, cunt,” she said. “It almost seems as if nobility shouldn’t speak that way.”
“Words are just words,” Valtteri said. “They only have the connotations you ascribe to them. Sure, some men use that word like an insult, but anyone who grew up knowing women were their equals, not their lessers, don’t see it the same way. It’s merely a description of anatomy.”
“Very philosophical,” she said. “Were you educated in the north?”
He chuckled. “By my own hand, mostly. But Casimir could get quite philosophical. And he has a filthy mouth if you let words have power over you instead of the other way around.”
Aria smiled. “If I ever meet him, I’ll have to ask him for some recommendations. Most of the philosophy I read was deadly dull.”
“Let’s check out the library in Arramas when we get there,” Valtteri said. “I’ll see what I can find for you.”
The fire sputtered out with a dying wheeze. Now only starlight and the largest moon illuminated the camp, though the two small moons had begun to peek over the eastern horizon. Aria closed her eyes.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” she whispered. “I think this would have been much worse without you.”
“I’ve never been so honored,” he murmured.
They lay in silence for a long time, until the two small moons had nearly peaked in the sky. Neither could sleep. Dawn crept closer, and they both perked up; the ground shook as if beneath thundering horse hooves. Valtteri kept his arm around Aria’s shoulders and guided them into a seated position to greet the mage.
He dismounted his steed a few meters from camp. With a flick of his hand, an orb of magelight burst into life, floating high into the air until the entire camp was alight. He passed one sweeping glance over the devastation before he removed his hood and met Valtteri’s gaze.
“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” the man called Lukas said.
Valtteri raised his eyebrows. “What do you think?”