The sun broke on an abandoned village overrun by moss and weeds. Four buildings had once formed a little square; the main thoroughfare ultimately led to a crevasse that served as a mine entrance. In happier times, makeshift housing would have supplemented the permanent structures, but Alistair had closed the moonsilver mines many years before.
“Where did the people go?” Aria asked Valtteri quietly.
“I don’t know about the Northern Arm,” he said. “My father provided our workers with basic income until they found work again, to keep them from starving.”
“Ah,” she said, crossing her arms.
Across the square, brush rustled as Alistair and his escorts emerged from the forest. The entire clearing was surrounded by archers from the rebellion, though Alistair had agreed to the parley so reluctantly, Aria didn’t expect to be assassinated.
The men stopped within a few meters. Aria blushed when she met Alistair’s eyes, though she wasn’t sure why; he looked her up and down with something like shock on his face. Neither of them spared a glance for the other’s companions.
“You came,” she said, stepping away from her line of protectors.
He edged forward, too. Behind Aria, Weston shifted with a rustle of armor, but she gave him no consideration.
“You grew to be really beautiful,” Alistair said.
She furrowed her brow. He, in turn, didn’t look much different than she remembered. He’d always seemed older than he was by the sour set of his face; his muscular and powerful frame, stouter than those of the old blood, had barely changed. Dark hair verging on brown dusted his forehead, and his big blue eyes were a shade darker than hers.
“You look the same,” Aria said.
Alistair glanced at Casimir, Weston, Sebastian, and Valtteri behind her. His bulky and dirty-looking kingsguard lingered in the shadows of trees and broken wooden frames.
“I wish we could have spoken alone,” Alistair said.
“What would have been different if we had?”
He stepped closer, his eyes raking her from head to toe. “I suppose then I’d be speaking to my sister, and not the rebel queen.”
“I don’t know if I’ve been your sister since you could call yourself king,” Aria said. “But it should make no difference now. We’re blood.”
Alistair reached for her face. Behind her, she heard Valtteri shift, his hand going to his sword; she lifted her fingers from her side marginally in a halting signal. Even so, Alistair abandoned the movement.
“I let you live,” he whispered. “I didn’t have to.”
“You know what you did instead,” she said.
He glanced over her shoulder, one corner of his mouth twitching up. She had revealed her past to Valtteri, and Weston knew, of course—but to speak of it openly invited mass dissent. She could never carry a child, regardless of how good she might be for the realm; Southern Arm and Forest Realm support existed for her merely by virtue of Valtteri’s fondness, and Weston’s discretion.
“And you know what it meant, it seems,” Alistair said. “So tell me why you’re here to parley with me, sister.”
“Alistair…” she said gently.
He met her eyes again, frowning. This time, when he reached for her, his hand cupped her jaw for a brief moment.
“When we were young,” she murmured, “you were kind to me. You loved me—that’s why you couldn’t kill me. I just wanted to know…”
They both spoke so quietly, Aria knew the men couldn’t hear them.
“Alistair,” she whispered. “If there’s some way we could discuss peace…”
He exhaled a laugh. “Peace? After all I did for this seat?”
She lowered her voice even further. “We both know you could destroy me in an instant with what you know. Why haven’t you?”
Glancing at her companions, he scowled. “At first, I didn’t expect you to gain such support. Then I assumed Prince Bohdan would find out and withdraw. Now…perhaps I should end you.”
“Do it, then,” Aria said. “What do you have to lose?”
Vulnerability flickered in his eyes before he closed it away. “You didn’t come here to push me into destroying you.”
“I came to sue for peace between us. Let me have the throne, Alistair. Let me fix what you’ve broken.”
He laughed mockingly, his voice back to a normal volume. “So you can behead me in front of the realm? No thanks.”
“What if I could give you your life back?” she asked.
His eyes shot to Valtteri. “There’s no way that was what you discussed with your advisors.”
“Don’t look at them. Look at me, brother.”
He did—and once he met her gaze, seemed unable to look away.
“I know what I have to do to claim this throne,” she said softly. “You know the sort of…maneuvering it will take. How much more effort is it, really, to do some in your name?”
“I killed for this,” he said.
“And you found it above your head, Alistair. I can see it in your eyes.”
He drew his brows together. “What are you saying?”
“I can save you,” she murmured. “I can give you the things you wanted—money and power—and send you somewhere where you’ll be safe. But you have to give up the throne—the throne that proved to be too much for you. Our people are dying. Our borders are weak. In a few years you won’t have your seat anyway, if this keeps up.”
She could see she spoke to his deepest fears. He shifted on his feet.
“I don’t trust you,” he said. “Not with a Southern Arm ponce on your arm and a Forest Realm prince as your casual betrothed.”
“You don’t have to trust them,” she said. “Or their positions at my side. You just have to trust me. Do you remember?”
Alistair clenched his teeth, his expression melancholy. Aria touched his arm.
“Remember what we were before your ambition drove you mad,” Aria said. “I was young, but you’re still my brother. Let me help you.”
He shook his head. “You would be the queen, but you’re at the mercy of the people. You know that.”
She smiled sadly. “The people who didn’t fight for me when you sent me away.”
“I told them I killed you.”
“You paraded our parent’s bodies and left the heir’s death to chance? Sure, Alistair.”
The shadow of a grin touched his lips. “Nobility can be so mindless, as long as their interests are accounted for.”
“And that’s where you lost them—when their money started to vanish.”
“What do you propose?”
She smirked. “Morality is flexible, is it not? As long as they have their coffers.”
Alistair blinked as if trying to clear his head. “I had all these plans to outwit you, scare you—I didn’t expect you to ask me for peace.”
Aria lifted a shoulder. “Didn’t you wonder how I got them to follow me? I’m not anything like they expected.”
Weston’s armor rustled when he shifted again. “What are you discussing, Queen Aria?”
She smiled at Alistair before turning around. “Nothing of consequence, Prince Weston. Alistair and I were just catching up.”