Rain poured from the eaves of the castle. Aria wrung out her hair; she’d been caught on the other side of the gardens when the storm blew up suddenly, and the nearest terrace placed her on the north side of the palace. When she’d stared at the sky long enough to admit defeat, she turned around and peered through a window to gain her bearings.
By some luck, Aria found herself looking in on a roaring fire in Ilyas’s room. While most of the balconies around the perimeter of the castle opened to the grounds, Ilyas’s chamber had only windows—a privacy measure by his father. Nearly a month in Iotorath taught Aria much about the west, and even more about Liam’s family; Ilyas was their dirty little secret, a secret Liam revealed to her in a convoluted bid for power.
She hadn’t figured it out, at first—if Liam’s father didn’t want anyone to know about Ilyas, why reveal his existence to a newcomer? But soon she realized Liam was weaving a web that grew more complex by the day. She knew the Iotorathi throne’s darkest secret, the genetic flaw in their line that was incurable by magic and manifested through the generations in no distinguishable pattern. But she owed Iotorath—for her freedom, for the armies she would bring the rebels in her home realm, for the rich trade she could replenish the Ice Realm’s coffers with. There was no way she could use the knowledge against her greatest ally, and Liam drove the point home by introducing her to Ilyas as if he were any other noble. She could see it in his eyes sometimes, though it went unspoken between them: “You have no power here. I can give you the means to destroy me, and yet you will do nothing.”
Aria was starting to realize how much Liam liked playing games. It hadn’t been a flight of fancy, in Tower of the Moon—games were all he knew.
She lifted a finger to tap on the window. Ilyas sat crossed legged on the bed, his chin propped on his hand as he turned the pages of a large book. He started and glanced up when she rapped the glass; she made a face at him, and his confusion morphed to joy.
A few minutes passed while he crawled out of bed and grabbed his cane to brace his right leg. Limping to the window, he undid the catch and swung one of the panels open.
“Hi, Ilyas,” Aria said.
He grinned. “What are you doing out here?”
She gestured down at her white dress, soaked through with rain. “I challenged the weather and it defeated me.”
“Come sit by the fire,” Ilyas said. He offered a hand for her to grasp while she sat on the windowsill and swung her legs inside as gracefully as possible. When she alighted on the marble floor, he closed the window behind her. His room was pleasantly warm.
“I hope you don’t start breaking into my room by night now that you know how to get in,” Ilyas said.
Aria flashed him a smile, scurrying over to sit in front of the fire. “You don’t sound like you mean that.”
“Well…I suppose it would make my life a little more exciting.”
Pulling her hair over her shoulder, she twisted it into a quick, wet braid. Ilyas crossed the room with a few quiet clacks of his cane.
“Can I stay until I dry?” Aria asked. “If Liam catches me like this he’ll make the snarkiest comments.”
Ilyas sat in a chair just an arm’s length from her. She suspected he would have trouble rising from the floor if he joined her on the rug.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m delighted to see you.”
“What are you reading?”
He glanced at the bed. “Oh, just a historian’s take on the first trade routes between Draserune and the far south.”
She fiddled with the straps of her dress. “And here I spent the morning in the gardens for nothing other than pleasure.”
“I like reading history,” he said.
She looked up from adjusting her bodice and smiled at him. His cheeks reddened.
“Would you like me to call for something for you to change into?” Ilyas asked. “Only…”
His eyes flickered to her chest. “It’s a bit see-through.”
She tangled her arms over her breasts with a laugh. “Oh, gods! Ilyas, I’m so sorry.” Shooting to her feet, Aria crossed the room to grab a cloak from a rack by the door.
He chuckled. “It’s a silly thing to apologize for. Although…” He paused as she wrapped herself up. “It was even more transparent from the back.”
She shot him a look over her shoulder. “Don’t sound so delighted.”
“Are you mad? I haven’t even seen a woman sans clothing. You must indulge me.”
Sauntering back to her spot by the fire, Aria bit her lip, grinning at him. “Are you flirting with me, Ilyas?”
“Mihri, I hope not. My father would give me a grand lecture about knowing my place.”
She remained standing in front of the grate; he looked up at her cheerfully.
“Liam decides to flirt with precision,” she said. “You can see him make the decision, and your father is the same way. But you’re not like either of them.”
“Has our month together been instructive as to my character, then?”
“Did you want it to be?”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “I have no talent here, Aria. I prefer when you’re straightforward.”
She hugged her torso, holding his gaze. “I wouldn’t mind if you flirted with me. I like how honest you are. How little there is for you to hide. After spending all day with your brother, it’s pure pleasure to see you.”
Ilyas blushed. “I asked for it, and now you’ve struck me dumb.”
She slid a little closer. “There’s something I wanted to ask you, Ilyas.”
“The day I met you…what did you and Liam talk about in your native tongue?”
He furrowed his brow. “Aria…”
“What? Can you not tell me?”
“He’s my brother. I’ve always kept his confidence.”
“You didn’t look happy, though.”
“I’ve only grown unhappier the more time I spend with you. But it’s not my place to say.”
“What does it cost to betray him?”
“He’s all I have, Aria,” he said softly.
She sank to her bottom on the rug at his feet. “Then I won’t push you. I know some of what Liam is doing with the power dynamics between us, in any case.”
“He likes that game,” Ilyas said.
“I didn’t realize. I thought he actually cared for me.”
“Oh, he does. But he knows only his nature, after all.”
“Why aren’t you like them?” she asked. “Just because you spend most of your time in this room?”
He frowned. “I…didn’t want to be like them.”
“Was it that easy?”
His dark skin looked especially pale in the firelight—at least in comparison to Liam, who spent so much of his time outdoors. Aria let her eyes drift over the contours of Ilyas’s face, the sharpness of his shoulders born by his lacking weight. Ilyas didn’t blush, this time—his eyes roamed her with equal curiosity. They had spent three or four afternoons a week together for the month she’d been in the west, and yet each time, they seemed to bare more to each other. In the back of her mind, Aria wondered how much of what she said ended up in Liam’s ear. She purposefully kept the deepest things hidden away as a protective measure, though her instinct was to trust Ilyas.
“Is your dress drying?” he asked quietly.
She slipped from the cloak to check, though her skin was still damp. Even in the warmth, the wet fabric made her shiver.
“Not much yet,” she said.
Ilyas snuck an unpracticed glance at her bosom, and she resisted the urge to giggle. He wasn’t like any man she’d ever met—he hadn’t learned to hunt women like game.
“I might be here a while,” Aria said, pulling the cloak back over her shoulders.
Ilyas grinned, meeting her eyes. “Well, then. Do you want to play cards?”