“Gods,” Lukas exhaled as he waved his hand to heal Valtteri. Aria sat beside them anxiously. “Well, credit goes to whoever forced the arrow through.”
“Me,” Aria said.
Valtteri scowled up at Lukas. “Is there ever a time you aren’t cheerful?”
“It’s not cheer,” he said. “It’s just a general disregard for being somber.”
“You didn’t learn that from Casimir.”
“Honestly, he needs someone like me. You know how he drowns inside his own head.”
“You’re faking it,” Aria said. “The minute you see something truly heavy, the facade will break.”
Lukas glanced at her, smiling. “And then what will I be, love?”
She smirked. “Somber.”
“Ah, don’t condone me to such a fate.”
Valtteri rolled his shoulder when Lukas removed his hand. Only dried blood betrayed the previous wound—though, with another flick of Lukas’s palm, that vanished too.
“What should we do with the bodies?” Aria asked.
“I’ll drag them into a pile and burn them,” Lukas said. “You two should try to get some sleep. I’ll keep watch until dawn.”
“Wake me when those guards get back,” Valtteri said. “I’m going to have a word with them.”
Lukas nodded, his eyes already on the corpses. Valtteri helped Aria to her feet, guiding her towards her tent.
“I’ll stay with you,” he said. “I’m a light sleeper.”
“We should stay at inns,” she said. They slipped inside the tent.
“Maybe,” Valtteri said. “I’ll send a message to the castle this morning and see what we can do.”
Aria curled up on her bedroll; Valtteri stretched out on the trampled grass beside her. They faced each other in the darkness.
“I like Lukas,” Aria whispered.
“You do? Why?”
“I like that he keeps to himself. But he’s really rather kind beneath the flippant attitude.”
“Yes, he is kind.”
“You sound annoyed.”
“What?” he said. “I’m not annoyed. Lukas does his job, and he does it well. I’ll make him stick closer to camp from now on.”
“No, that’s not it. You sounded annoyed when you asked me why I liked him. And then again when you admitted he’s kind.”
“You’re reading too much into this, Aria.”
“I learned how to read tone in dark rooms from all the times I had to bail Alistair out of gambling debts. You can’t fool me.”
Valtteri reached over in the darkness to pull her furs closer to her chin. “Go to sleep.”
He laughed softly. “Be quiet, Aria.”
“Stop telling me what to do.”
With a snort, he fell silent. Aria drifted to sleep to the sound of his steady, deep breathing, and dreamed of walking through indeterminate palace gardens with him—instead of death, thanks to the calming spell.
The following morning, Lukas shook them both awake.
“The guards are back,” he told Valtteri. “And I got breakfast ready for you, princess.”
“I liked it better when you called me ‘love,’” she said.
He grinned. “Then there’s warm food for you, love.”
Valtteri stretched luxuriously before his face fell into a commanding glower. Aria accepted Lukas’s hand to help her to her feet just as Valtteri swept purposefully from the tent.
The other guards and Katya milled by the river a few meters away. Valtteri stormed towards them; Aria smiled to herself when both men shrunk from him just by his gait.
“Meat or bread?” Lukas asked, sitting beside the fire.
She met his eyes and found him grinning just as goofily as she was. “Bread, for now.”
For a few minutes of silence, they shared a loaf of hard, chewy bread. Lukas kept his hood pulled back.
“How much farther do we have to go?” Aria asked.
“It will take another two weeks. We’ll cross the Westwatch here, then swing a little north so we can cross the Amarimah before a nightbark forest. We’ll follow the roots of the mountains from there.”
“Will you stay in Arramas for long?”
He tore off another hunk of bread. “Well, King Taiseer of the Western Realm outlaws mages from his realm, but one of the conditions of your betrothal was that you’d be allowed to keep one. I didn’t have much of a chance of serving nobility before this, so I’ll stay on as long as I can.”
“What were you doing before this?”
“I was considering putting my name in for Prince Dominik’s court mage, but I didn’t think I’d get it. He doesn’t know the value of potions. And there was no knowing whether or not I’d be up against Casimir.”
“I’ve never met him.”
“No, I expect Valtteri keeps him locked away as well as he can so he can use him as his own court mage when he becomes prince.”
“What do you mean?”
“Casimir is immensely talented, and he’ll be a major asset to a noble house. But it’s not something you would see unless you knew a lot about magic, love. Do you?”
She frowned. “Not really.”
“For those learned in the lore, Casimir is a once in a lifetime kind of talent.”
“It must be difficult to be his friend.”
“For some, I suppose. Not for me.”
“I remember meeting him when we were really young. He was never unkind or sadistic, and when you take boys from their mothers that young…it was common for a lot of them to be cruel. I stayed close to him because he wasn’t, and he was open to making friends as long as they didn’t hurt him.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Why weren’t you cruel?”
Lukas’s mouth flitted up. “My mother had moved on from the lifestyle of a mage follower, and she’d loved my father, wherever he is. She took good care of me and provided me with a stable home to return to every summer. Not all were so lucky.”
Aria glanced towards the river. Katya stood aside as Valtteri shouted and gesticulated at the other guards, who both bowed their heads shamefully in the face of his wrath. With a final dismissive flick of his arm, Valtteri about-faced and stormed back to camp. When he met Aria’s gaze upon reaching the fire, his expression softened.
“Feel better?” she asked.
He stopped, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
All three of them grinned.
“Let’s move,” Lukas said, tossing the last bit of bread to Aria. “I’ll protect us properly when we stop again tonight.”
“I need you to send a message to the Ice Realm first,” Valtteri said. “I’d like to ask Queen Vishnya if she could send us additional funds to use inns along the way.”
“She’s not going to go for that.”
“I know. But it’s worth a shot.”
“I hate my mother,” Aria said, nearly under her breath.
The men both smiled at her.
“It’s true,” she said. “I think she’s the only person in the world I truly hate.”
“That’s only because you haven’t met my father,” Valtteri said. “Who, by the way, has not answered my message.”
“Yeah. But perhaps he’s just researching…”
“I’ll ask Cas,” Lukas said. “Want to help me, Aria?”
She furrowed her brow. “Help you? With what?”
He smirked. “Any bowl of water can become a mirror if you have blood to sacrifice to it.”
Aria’s curious expression morphed to a scowl. “Do it yourself, prick.”
Lukas laughed. “What, love?” he said, feigning hurt. “You don’t like my idea?”