“Aria,” Liam said, poking his head through the doors to her chambers. “Can we talk?”
She looked over her shoulder—bare in her dress for dinner that evening. A knot at the back of her neck held the whole flimsy thing up; her robes as a glorified prostitute had been less revealing. Emery closed the doors to the parlor when she saw Liam saunter inside.
“What about?” Aria asked.
Liam leaned against the doorframe. “I found myself unhappy with how our conversation went earlier.”
“In what way?” She slipped a circlet onto her arm before turning around.
“I want us to be friends, Aria,” he said. “The longer we’ve been here, the more we seem to be at odds.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘at odds.’”
“The more suspicious of me you seem to be, then.”
“You can’t blame me for that.”
“No, but still—I want us to be friends.”
“You basically said my friend is dead.”
“I said he has different obligations here. I’m still me, and though my altruism in freeing you isn’t a common trait of mine—I know how you value that side of me.”
She crossed her arms. “I don’t like how Ilyas is treated.”
“Nor do I, but it’s somewhat essential. I promise I make it up to him in private. I love my brother.”
“I don’t want to play along,” she said. “I want to treat him how I would were I in my own kingdom.”
“Fine.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll be sure to circulate explanations for such.”
She narrowed her eyes. “When am I going home, Liam?”
Pushing away from the doorframe, he stepped closer. “We agreed it would be beneficial to put you in a few battles before we bring you back to lead a rebellion.”
“So when are those?”
“You’re quite good with a sword. Soon. There are rumblings on the southern border.”
“And then, when we go to my home—what will you do?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
“I’m asking what your intentions are.”
Liam laughed heartily. “You know, when I proposed our little game, I had no idea what you were. You act as if I have some grand plan in mind, while in reality I’m figuring this out as I go.”
He didn’t quite meet her eyes when he said it.
“Liam,” Aria said. “I’m not stupid.”
“I would never say such a thing.”
“If we’re to be friends, you can’t be up to anything. You said you wanted to help me. You said you cared about me, even.”
His eyes flicked to hers. “Of course I care about you.”
“Then what game are you playing?”
“None at all, dearest,” he said, sounding exasperated. “Come, can’t you take my arm and look pretty on our way to the dining room without stirring up a bunch of baseless accusations?”
“Ilyas knows, doesn’t he?” she asked. “What you’re doing.”
He scowled. “Mihri, Aria, you’re starting to piss me off.”
“That’s what he said to you that day you were arguing. He told you not to do whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Oh, have you recently become fluent in high Umsari?”
“Contextual clues exist.”
Liam pushed away from the doorframe. “You know, I don’t think I feel like taking you to dinner anymore. Why don’t you escort yourself?”
“Because it’s bad manners and your courtiers will treat it as a scandal.”
“Mmm,” Liam said, flashing her a quick, tight smile before slipping into the hallway.
Aria ground her teeth together. The conversation had determined one thing, though—Liam wasn’t telling her the whole truth. And the only person who knew the whole truth had already rebuffed her once. Maybe, though, if he had grown fond enough of her friendship…
Abandoning her jewelry, Aria shrugged a cloak on over her dress and drew up the hood to hide her face. Most of the court hurried to the west side of the palace for dinner, and few passed her a second glance as she scurried towards Ilyas’s room. Silence blanketed the north side of the castle; even the usual servants were all occupied by dinner. The guard at the door admitted her without question.
“Aria,” Ilyas said, surprised, when she removed her hood. He had been reading a book comfortably in bed. “What is it? Shouldn’t you be at dinner?”
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said, perching herself beside him on the bed. He looked paler than earlier in the day; the outdoor excursion had tired him. “About Liam.”
Ilyas closed his book, his brows twitching together. “Is it similar to what we discussed previously?”
“I know I said I wouldn’t push you, but I need the truth,” she said. “I asked him directly and he wouldn’t admit anything. I know there’s something going on. Please, Ilyas—what’s he up to?”
With a sigh, Ilyas clasped his hands in his lap. “Oh, Aria. I don’t know…”
She grasped his hands, holding his gaze. “Please, Ilyas. I won’t ask you for anything else.”
He stared at their tangle of hands for a few seconds, and his cheeks took on the slightest hint of red. Aria’s heart beat furiously in her chest as his eyes drifted up to meet hers once more. The color of his irises was softer than Liam’s, more jade green than emerald.
“Please don’t manipulate me,” he said quietly.
She withdrew her hands like she’d been shocked. “No, I—Ilyas, it isn’t like that—”
“You know what my life is, don’t you?” he interrupted, his voice still remarkably soft. “I’m a fifteen year old man confined to a bed most days. Confined to a room for weeks on end. My only visitors are caretakers who won’t even look at me—and Liam. I’ve never known the touch of a woman besides what Liam tells me. If you want me to do something for you, you can ask, but don’t touch me like you care about me, Aria. Perhaps you do like it when I flirt with you, but in truth, you’re much too beautiful to look twice at someone like me. I’m not an idiot.”
Tears burned in the corners of her eyes. “Ilyas, I never meant—”
“Please go,” he said. “I’m tired.”
She blinked, and a stream of tears tumbled down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry. That wasn’t my intention at all. Of course I’ll go—”
Rising to her feet rather clumsily, Aria turned away, her chest hollow. Her hands found the door handle just as Ilyas said, “Aria?”
She rotated back, swallowing against the burn in her throat even as a few more tears fell. The way he’d spoken to her, like she meant to hurt him—
“Wait,” he said, brow furrowed. He stared at her for a long time without elaborating.
“Yes?” she asked raspily.
Ilyas sat up a little taller. “You—can I ask you something?”
She nodded, confused. Her tears began to dry on her cheeks.
“When you look at me, what do you see?” he said.
“Today?” she replied weakly. “I noticed that your eyes are like jade. A soft green. I hadn’t realized how lovely they are before.”
Ilyas frowned. “I meant…more generally.”
Aria clenched her hand against the door handle to keep from hugging herself. “I don’t really know how to answer that. I guess when I look at you I see a man who’s been hidden away to protect his family when he has a lot to offer the crown.”
“You’re so intelligent and well read. You’re not arrogant or braggadocious like Liam is, or your father. You would be deliberate, a voice of reason. And yet they pretend like you don’t exist.”
“There are so many whispers,” Ilyas said. “The throne is ripe for an overthrow, they say, because this illness manifesting means the line is getting weak.”
“So they hide you away instead of proving them all wrong.”
“How on Eineria would we do that?”
Aria released the door handle. “You don’t play into their expectations. You make them see that it was their own judgements of what is and is not strength that were wrong. You show them what you have to offer and stand against their rumors. At least…that’s what I would do, were you in my court.”
Ilyas shifted. “If it didn’t work, there could be war.”
Aria laughed. “If you tell me Liam wouldn’t find a way to put that down…well, I’d never believe you.”
He stared at her for a long time, a frown playing at his mouth. Aria wiped the last of the moisture from her eyes.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” Ilyas told her. “I…well, I got defensive.”
“I didn’t intend to manipulate you, I swear.”
He swallowed. “I know. I think I know that now.”
“I’m used to touching people,” she said. “Physical affection has always been normal to me.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” He reached out a hand. “Come here.”
She closed the distance with a few light, tentative steps. Ilyas took her hand and squeezed it.
“Forgive me,” he said. “The last thing I want is to drive you away. You’re the only women who’s ever looked at me without pity.”
“I see nothing worthy of pity,” she said.
Ilyas searched her face, his green eyes wide again, instead of narrowed. Innocent.
“Tell me about this life in which I’m not hidden,” he said.
Aria smiled. “It could be reality sooner than you think.”