“Good,” the swordmaster said as Aria parried his latest blow. “Now become faster.”
She laughed, dancing out of the way of his next strike. “Sound advice.”
“You must listen. It’s smarter to slip away than to fight until you make mistakes.”
“I can certainly try to wear my opponents down.”
“Speed over brute force. That is the kind of teacher I am.”
Their swords clanged in rapid succession. Weeks of training had gone smoother than Aria expected; she had picked up swordplay like it was second nature, the blade a welcome weight in her hand. Liam, who watched the battle from the perimeter of the yard, stood up and crossed his arms.
“Don’t get all righteous with her,” he called to the swordmaster. “She only happened to pick your weapon.”
“He fights with a warhammer to mask his fragile masculinity,” the swordmaster told Aria between strikes.
She giggled, raising her left hand to cease their match. Liam sauntered over with his hands in his pockets.
“What did you say, Zathir?”
Sheathing her sword, Aria glanced towards the castle, where Ilyas watched her from the bench Liam had recently abandoned. Liam and Zathir exchanged barbs as Zathir strode to the other side of the yard to select a new sword; Ilyas perked up when Aria caught his eye. She jogged over.
“You’re very graceful,” he said.
“And you’re very flattering,” she said, skidding to a stop. “It’s not often I see you outside.”
“The family likes to pretend like I don’t exist, but when I do, they ensure I look lonely and hated.”
“So that’s why Liam wasn’t speaking to you.”
“All part of the ruse.”
She glanced at the courtiers milling on the edge of the palace gardens; many of the women wore bright, western style dresses in hopes of catching Liam’s eye. The older courtiers, in more subdued tones, watched Aria with expressions ranging from curious to downright hostile.
“It must be exhausting,” she told Ilyas. “I’ve been watched every minute since I got here.”
“And your exploits will be a topic of discussion even long after you return home to take back your throne.”
“Liam keeps telling me I’ll feel like I belong in the west, soon, but I don’t believe him.”
“Do you want to feel like you belong here?”
She raked her eyes over the splendiferous flowers hanging from the eaves of the castle, the glittering orbs of magelight floating in midair throughout the gardens, and the sparkling jewels adorning the hairstyles and necklines of every woman, as well as the doublets of every man. When she turned back to Ilyas, he was smiling.
“Is this what it will be like for me when I go home?” Aria asked softly. “I feel so separate from what the world is really like, up here.”
“Opulence is our style,” Ilyas said. “Can you remember overwhelming opulence from your home?”
“I hardly remember anything at all,” she said. “But…things like that would probably stick out, wouldn’t they?”
“We have diamond dust in the floors.”
She snorted a laugh. “You’re right. I don’t remember anything like that from the Ice Realm.”
“It makes you a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it?” he asked, not unkindly.
She grimaced. “I hate to admit it, but it does. I thought, for the first few weeks—maybe it was something I would get used to. But I don’t think I’ll be a monarch like Liam.”
“I don’t think you will be either,” he said.
Aria smiled at him with such genuine feeling that Ilyas flushed. Out of the corner of her eye, a few of the courtiers watching them leaned in to discuss the scene.
“Queen Aria!” Zathir called. “If you delay any longer I’ll think you’re quite lazy!”
She grinned once more at Ilyas before about-facing. “And what will you do about that?”
He brandished a curved sword. “You won’t hurt until tomorrow, my lady, but you will hurt.”
Liam trotted back over to take his place beside Ilyas, though he stopped when he intercepted Aria halfway.
“Don’t speak to Ilyas when so many people are around,” he murmured. “If we’re allies, as they all perceive, you would treat him as I do—with indifference.”
Aria furrowed her brow. “I’ll speak to him as I wish, Liam.”
“You’re making him a weapon when you do so.”
“A weapon against whom? You? Your father?”
He glanced around before answering. “Our dissenters use him to say our line is weak. If we ostracize him, it means we’re shunning that weakness. If we embrace him, it means we’re flaunting our weakness before the entire west.”
“Then flaunt it,” she said. “Ilyas isn’t someone to be ashamed of.”
“Ilyas agrees that this is the best approach. You don’t know my court, Aria, not truly. You’ve only been here for three months.”
“I won’t have you dictate how I speak to him, Liam.”
He rolled his eyes. “What is it with you and being told what to do?”
“What is it with you and your need for total control? I technically outrank you, and yet you insist on treating me like a pet.”
“You wouldn’t have a rank at all if I hadn’t found you.”
“And how long will you hold that over my head?”
He smiled. “Well, since we weren’t what I would call compatible in bed…probably much longer than usual. I’ve had to find such mundane things to be interested in. You owe me.”
“I’m a queenmaker,” he said. “I get to be whatever I like.”
Aria ground her teeth together, holding his gaze. His eyes danced with amusement.
“Where is the kindness from the north?” she asked. “I miss the way things used to be.”
“I brought you to my home,” he said. “The man you met in Tower of the Moon had less cares than who I am here. But he’ll still get you where you want to go.”
“I should mourn my friend’s loss.”
“You should resume your training,” Liam said. “I won’t take you into battle until Zathir says you’re not a liability.”
“And when will you take me home?” she asked.
Liam cocked a brow. “When it’s advantageous to me, dearest Aria. You know that.”
He sidestepped her to return to Ilyas. Aria flexed her right hand beside her sword, anger coursing through her. Liam had such an infuriating way about him, but the longer she lived in the west, the more obvious it became that she was missing something. Generosity wasn’t a trait of Liam’s, nor a sense of justice; he helped her because it would eventually help him. What she couldn’t pinpoint was Liam’s end goal, and until she knew…well, she couldn’t return home with a snake at her back.
“Don’t hold back,” she told Zathir, unsheathing her sword. “I don’t have time for subtlety.”
He chuckled. “Then you will never be a true jewel of the west, my lady.”
“No,” Aria said. “So we can thank the gods I’m an eastern queen.”