Aria swallowed back the lump in her throat, staring up at the mountain peak, where she could just see the sanguine leaves of nightbark trees against the dark marble of the royal palace. Arramas, capital of Iotorath, lay at the foot of the mountain, its splendor obvious even at a distance.
“We should get into the city before nightfall,” Valtteri said. “The ambassador said the trek up to the peak takes nearly an hour.”
Aria looked over at him, her hands clutching the reins of her horse like a lifeline. She opened her mouth to speak, then realized she had no idea what to say.
Valtteri met her gaze. “It’s alright,” he said quietly. “It’ll be fine. You’re a guest. They’ll try to impress you.”
“You’ll intimidate them, love,” Lukas said on her left. “Don’t deprive me the entertainment by loitering down here.”
Aria flashed him a shy smile before squeezing the flanks of her horse. Despite the twist in her gut, she wondered what her future husband looked like—how he would greet her, and what books he liked to read.
They passed beneath the city wall, the guards there sending a messenger to the castle when they recognized the standard on Valtteri’s armor. The market had closed perhaps an hour prior, leaving the shopping district eerily quiet; soon, though, they ascended into neighborhoods of courtiers and noble families—fine marble houses with sprawling gardens and intricately pruned shrubbery. The architecture differed from the manors in the Ice Realm; where there could have been austerity, instead there was airiness and splendor, as if the residents neither guarded against brutal weather nor knew the threat of war.
The road cut back and forth until their group approached a gate of black matte metal; it opened upon their approach, and a guard matched pace with their steeds to escort them to the palace. Aria breathed deeply on the long ride up, occasionally making eye contact with Lukas, who always winked at her. Valtteri spent most of the ride observing their surroundings with an intensity Aria supposed belonged to the guardian in him.
After an hour, and one last switchback, Aria’s horse broke into a cobblestone courtyard that opened before the royal palace. She barely had time to register the beauty of the castle before her heart began pounding in her chest; at least fifty people lined the front steps, all in fashionable dress very different from her own. She had taken care that morning to don her best tunic, a smooth frock of silver and icy blue, unworn save for the ride into the city. Loose, flowing dresses of every color draped the women on the steps, dresses that reminded Aria of the depictions of goddesses in mage lore. Shorter hair appeared to be fashionable, as well; she had braided her waist length hair from one side of her head to the other, but the other women rarely wore their hair past their shoulders.
Two dark skinned men of similar height approached as Aria dismounted her horse to land beside Valtteri, who had preceded her. She watched the king and prince stop a few meters away, steeling herself to be political—shaking off weeks in the wilderness in less than a second.
A groom led the horses away, and Aria dropped into a low curtsy.
“Princess Aria of the Ice Realm,” the king said with a heavy accent. “Welcome to Arramas.”
Aria rose and met his eyes. He had a hardness to his features that she didn’t attribute to difficulty in his life. “Thank you, King Taiseer. You have a beautiful realm.”
“You flatter,” he said. “I know Iotorath isn’t much to look at. Farmlands and plains, mostly.”
“A nightbark forest, and these lovely mountains, as well,” Aria said. She glanced at his son; he was tall and disarmingly handsome, with dark skin, striking features, and brilliant green eyes. “I enjoyed the ride once we crossed the Amarimah.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Taiseer said. He gestured to his right. “This is my son and heir, Prince Liam. I hope the two of you will spend the evening getting acquainted once you’ve changed from your ride.”
“I’d love to,” Aria said.
Liam looked her up and down without saying anything.
“This my honor guard, Valtteri, heir to the Southern Arm princedom,” Aria told Taiseer. “My mage, Lukas, I’d like housed near me as well.”
“Already done,” the king said. He turned halfway back to wave away the courtiers gathered on the steps; they began to shuffle inside the palace. “Liam will take you to your chambers. I look forward to seeing you at dinner, princess.”
Aria might have called Taiseer polite were it not for the quick, licentious glance he directed at her just before he departed. Some of Alistair’s associates had looked at her thus when she began to fill out—she knew the expression quite well, and her stomach dropped in that familiar, looming way.
“At your leisure, princess,” Liam said, gesturing towards the palace. His accent was lighter than his father’s.
She nodded for Valtteri and Lukas to shadow them as she fell into step with Liam. “You can just call me Aria.”
“You ask to be familiar so soon.”
She furrowed her brow at the clip in his tone. “I—it’s not really a formality we observe between nobility in my home.”
“You’re not in the east anymore,” he said dismissively.
Crossing her arms as she walked, Aria flicked her eyes in his direction; he strolled along, completely at ease, not even bothering to look at her. Her heart continued to pound.
“I’ll escort you to dinner and the ball, but I warn you that I already have obligations this evening,” Liam said. “I assume you can be self sufficient.”
They entered the palace. Aria trained her eyes on the dark marble floor, confusion and apprehension growing with each minute. If Liam left her on her own their first evening together, she would look dull and undesirable; the entire court would be talking about how odious she was by breakfast.
“Your obligations can’t be pushed off, I’m sure,” she said carefully. “I wouldn’t seek to impede you.”
He stopped suddenly, and she realized they had already reached her chambers; the entire palace sprawled across a singular, expansive level, the south side containing the throne room, royal apartments, and guest lodgings, and the north side nearly everything else. Columns radiated in every direction in endless, repeating patterns.
“Yes, an imposition.” Liam bowed in a somewhat mocking manner. “See that you don’t become one of those. I’ll retrieve you when you’ve changed.”
Valtteri opened the doors for Aria and shut them behind her once she’d passed through with feigned purpose. As soon as the knob clicked into place, she loosened her composure enough to find that she was shaking. A servant had already dropped off her luggage; Katya rifled through dresses for the evening in Aria’s parlor.
Barely a minute passed before the doors opened again and Valtteri slipped inside. Katya looked up from Aria’s clothes, started, and scuttled away through the servant’s exit; Aria greeted him with raised brows.
“Hey,” Valtteri said. “He’s gone for now. Are you alright?”
She shook her head at him, her expression bewildered. “Did you hear?”
“All of it, yeah. He’s not how I thought he’d be.”
“How could he have obligations? They knew we’d arrive today. It’s obviously on purpose.”
“Yeah. I got that impression.”
She hugged herself. “What do I do?”
Valtteri grimaced, staring at the other side of her bedroom. Aria realized the air moved so pleasantly because an open balcony dominated the entire eastern wall.
“He’s going to make you look bad,” Valtteri said eventually. “If you stand in the corner while he does whatever he’s doing, you’ll look unpopular. You need to mingle with the court here as best you can. You outrank all of them—you can insert yourself into any conversation you want.”
“That will work?”
“I think it’s better than the alternative.”
She frowned, but nodded. Their eyes met.
“I don’t have any dresses like what they wear here,” she said.
“You’ll get some in time. For tonight, you’re the new point of interest. No one will expect you not to look different. Don’t worry about that.”
She nodded again. Valtteri tipped his head.
“You can do this, Aria.”
She took a deep breath. “Gods, I know. I just…hoped I wouldn’t have to.”
“I know.” He stepped forward, tugging a letter from his armor. “Have Katya leave your hair down. You’ll start a new fashion trend. And when you have time tonight, read this letter.”
She plucked it from his hand. “What is it?”
“It’s from my father,” Valtteri said. “He has a plan to help Alistair. It’ll be advantageous to him—or he wouldn’t have bothered, of course.”
Aria placed the letter over her heart, her eyes wide. “Really?”
“Yeah. Your brother will be safe—for a few months, at least. My father may demand payment beyond that.”
She stepped into his arms to hug him; he laughed.
“Aria, please. I barely did anything. I’m as lucky as you that he decided to help.”
Peeking up at him, she didn’t reply; she merely held his gaze. Valtteri neither flushed nor balked at the attention.
“You think the women will want hair like mine if I wear it down? I thought they’d ridicule me,” Aria said.
He half-smiled. “You have absolutely gorgeous hair, Aria. Of course they’ll envy you.”
Her grin bloomed slowly. “I can use envy.”
“Yes,” Valtteri said, smirking. “You can use envy.”