Aria slithered between tents with her hood up and her hair tucked back. Light from a torch spilled into her path, but she shrank into the shadows until two patrolling soldiers had passed. Weston’s tent stood right next to his brother’s, and she bit her lip when she thought of getting inside undetected; someone was bound to see her.
“Good evening,” a voice said right behind her.
Aria jumped and whipped around, her hand leaping to her mouth to muffle a yelp. Casimir stood a few meters away with his head cocked.
“You’re not very sneaky,” he said.
“Were you following me?”
“I noticed you leave your tent like you didn’t want to be seen. I thought I’d ask if you needed my assistance.”
Aria pulled her hood back from her face. “What kind of assistance?”
“I’m a mage, my queen. Diversions, cloaking, illusion…my talents are at your beck and call.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of more soldiers approaching. “I need to get into Weston’s tent.”
“Cloaking, then. Can I assume your motives are impure?”
She scoffed, looking back at him. “Gods, nothing like that…” She frowned. “Oh. You’re teasing me.”
He smirked. “Maybe. Hang on.”
Lifting his hand, Casimir whispered something—and with a tiny rushing sound, Aria felt herself vanish by a burst of cold air against her skin.
“Now you can find him,” Casimir said. “I’ll follow. When you’re inside, I’ll lift the spell, and I’ll give you the all clear when you can come back out. How long do you need? Ten minutes?”
“Make it twenty,” she said. “I haven’t seen him in weeks.”
Casimir tipped his head. A few seconds passed before she followed his thought—but then her jaw dropped in a scandalized way, and she shoved his shoulder.
“You are disgusting. That’s not what I meant.”
His boyish grin reminded her strikingly of Valtteri. “Get going. I’m the only one who can see you now.”
Aria scurried away towards Weston’s tent—only a quarter the size of his brother’s—and brushed aside the canvas to step inside. Weston poured over a letter at a small table beside his bedroll; when a cold flash of air told Aria the spell had been lifted, he looked up.
“Aria!” he said, shooting to his feet. The parchment and ink bottle went flying. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”
She closed the distance between them, ignoring the fallen letter. Her hands came to rest on his chest, and Weston searched her face, looking curious and apprehensive in equal measure.
“Were you outlawed from speaking with me?” she whispered.
“Gods, of course. Ian isn’t exactly secure in his masculinity.”
“When you left—”
“Aria, I’m sorry,” Weston interrupted. “I was out of line. Questioning Sebastian and trying to turn you against Valtteri…you were right. I wanted you biased in my favor.”
“I know,” she said. “I came because I want to put it behind us.”
He lifted a hand to touch her jaw. “Put what behind us?”
“The…I don’t know. The romance. The inane flirting. Every eligible man in my life is nipping at my heels, Weston. I need a friend. A true one.”
He tucked her hair behind one ear, a slow smile curling his lips. “Aria, there are things about me that I haven’t shown you…”
“Don’t smile. I know you can be a rat.”
He arched a brow at her indulgent expression. “Indeed. So you’ve done your research.”
“Sebastian did. I don’t like it, Wes. I thought you had more honor.”
“My house isn’t known for honor.”
“What if you could be, though? One day, when this is over?”
“It takes a lot to reframe a reputation.”
“Work for me,” she said. “Be my advisor—under the table, so we don’t have your brother messing things up. And I’ll make you the highest marriage in the Ice Realm that I can afford.”
“I have feelings for you, Aria.”
“I have feelings for you too.”
Weston narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. “Ah, so you’re not discounting it—even now. But you want to play the whole table.”
“I have to,” she said. “They say Alistair is withdrawn and half drunk. But after we take this fort, and he knows I’m back in the realm, he’s going to play too. I know him…or at least I did. I need every advantage.”
He nodded with a contemplative expression. “You learned from Sebastian while I was gone.”
“He’s good at what he does. But let’s give me some credit too.”
“Always,” he said, exhaling a laugh. “You are intelligent and clever, more so than you have any right to be. Of course you saw what you would have to do in time to play this right.”
“I’m naive,” she said. “I have no leadership experience and I don’t have anyone at my table who thinks honor is fluid. Bohdan isn’t really on my side—I can’t trust him. He’s the one who made me realize what I was up against. Sebastian can get his hands dirty, but he always comes up clean. I need someone who can do more than that. Alistair is worse than dirty. I have to be one step ahead of him.”
“Then allow me to make my first suggestion,” Weston said. “Gain your mage’s trust.”
“Casimir? He’s not really mine yet…”
“Then make it so. He hates me and I hate him, but he’s good, Aria. We need him.”
She clutched his chest where her hands had rested lightly a moment before. The candles burned low.
“Weston, what would you have done if I didn’t ask this of you?”
“Pined for you, probably, and screwed everything up,” he said. “You see, the one thing I can never get right is how to treat a woman like a partner instead of a piece.”
“I’ll be sure to let you know when you’re failing.”
He smirked. “It’s nice to meet you, Queen Aria.”
She grinned. “Charmed, Prince Weston.”
A burst of white light illuminated the tent briefly before burning out.
“That’s my signal to go,” she said. “I’ll see you again when we’ve taken the fort.”
“Watch yourself, Aria. Stay beside Valtteri.”
She stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and Weston brushed his fingers over her jaw once more before she turned on her heel to depart the tent. Ducking through the canvas, she slammed head on into Valtteri; Casimir lingered a meter away with an amused expression.
“Oh,” Aria said. “Casimir told me it was clear.”
Valtteri let his eyes drift over the surrounding alleyways between tents—empty—before he looped their arms together. With uncertainty, Aria allowed him to coax them northwards; Casimir disappeared into the shadows.
“What is it?” Aria asked, when they had walked beyond the borders of camp and into the forest.
“How much control do you have over Weston?” Valtteri asked softly. He stopped them in the middle of a copse of trees.
She held onto his arm. “Enough, I think. Why?”
“Because he’s a more volatile ally than Ian, but he’s better for the Ice Realm in the long run. Ian played all the right notes when he was younger, but he’s shown his true colors in the last year. His father restrained himself from sullying the throne with his own character failings, but Ian isn’t so forward thinking. Weston could benefit the realm if we could truly have him on our side. But…I know him, and I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“Why did Casimir tell you what I was doing?” she asked. “Are you keeping tabs on me or something?”
“Of course not,” he said. “He only told me because it was Weston. We’ve been going back and forth on whether to approach him for some time. Mutual dislike hasn’t smoothed the process. But you have a connection with him.”
“Everything with Weston is. Will he listen to you?”
“Will he spin things to our advantage in your name?”
“I think so.”
“Then you’ve gotten further than Cas or I could,” Valtteri said. “Do you have to take Weston as your king in exchange?”
“I promised him a high marriage, but not strictly with me.”
Valtteri searched her face; her cheeks burned.
“I like him, but I don’t think it’s in the cards for us,” she said. “I was going to play it by ear.”
“I liked how honest we were with each other back in Reziva,” he said. “Can we keep doing that as we fight this war?”
She nodded emphatically. “I’d like that, Valtteri.”
One corner of his mouth tugged up. “Then you just opened a door for this rebellion, my queen.”
“I don’t really know how to play dirty, but I have a strong feeling it’s going to be necessary.”
“I’m just glad you’ve decided to let Weston sully his name instead of yours.”
Aria laughed. “Be nice, Valtteri. You said he’s an asset—I haven’t forgotten already.”