“So what’s the plan?” Emery asked, plopping down on Aria’s bed.
Brushing her hair at a vanity near her balcony, Aria snorted a laugh. “I wish I could speak of my actions so confidently. I think I’m in over my head with Liam. Planning is basically irrelevant.”
“Men like him are all the same,” Emery said. She pointed to her chest. “Pull your dress down a bit.”
Aria obliged, smirking. Though some might balk at such familiarity with a lady’s maid, she still barely felt like royalty—and there was safety for her in the easy amiability Emery possessed in droves. Despite the deference those in the Iotorathi court showed Aria due to her stolen inheritance, she took a measure of comfort in the knowledge that she could retreat to her chambers at the end of the night to find Emery lounging in the parlor—Emery, who would treat her like she always had in the brothels of Tower of the Moon.
“I’m going to take Ilyas as my escort to the ball tonight,” Aria said.
Her eyes widened. “Liam is going to be livid.”
“Do you know—the other night, he said he could outmaneuver the issues that would arise from it with ease, and then he implied that he wouldn’t have any trouble doing so because my political connections are so useless, he can basically make me look like a country bumpkin at will.”
Emery snorted. “He’s such an asshole. I know he freed me…but he’s an asshole.”
“Agreed,” Aria said, running the brush through her hair one last time. She watched Emery’s reflection in the mirror. “But he has his own methods, and I’ll have mine.”
“He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get you home.”
“I think he’s right, though, that I need battle experience. Everything I’m reading about the Ice Realm shows that they’ll respect a warrior more than a diplomat.”
Emery shrugged, fiddling with the neckline of her simple grey dress. “That, or you’re right that something else is going on. Something that takes time.”
“It could be both.”
“Do you think things would be different if you kept having sex with him?”
Aria snorted. “Indubitably. But it’s not worth that.”
“It’s a skill others might not have. I’m sure his mistresses try to control him, but you could actually do it. You were trained to.”
“Maybe I could. I don’t want to, though. We’re free now.”
“It’s different when it’s your choice,” Emery said. “It always has been.”
Aria smiled. “That’s true. Hey, where were you today, anyway?”
Flushing, Emery pulled her legs up onto the bed and crossed them beneath her. One hand went to her curly blonde hair. “One of the kingsguard has taken a fancy to me. I’m humoring him.”
“You don’t like him?”
“He’s nice, I suppose, but he doesn’t bring much else to the table.”
Aria shook her head, smiling. “Oh well. At least it seems like you’re adjusting well to our new home.”
“I like it here,” she said quietly. “Maybe it’s just the freedom talking, but I think the west is different. I don’t miss the Northern Kingdom at all, and I was born there.”
“I don’t miss it either,” Aria said. For some reason, she thought of Sebastian, and her stomach clenched. “Not all of it, anyway.”
Emery’s knowing smile was tinged with pity. “One day, maybe things will be different. You could see him again.”
“I hardly think of him at all, here, and it scares me.”
“It’s okay, Aria. Your life has been insanity since that night. Seb would understand.”
She frowned at her reflection. “Maybe.”
“What scares me more is that we can’t go three seconds without talking about men.”
Aria barked a laugh. “Gods, with our past, I hardly blame us.”
Emery grinned. “Me too. But I had something I wanted to discuss with you, actually.”
“Yeah.” She sat up a little taller. “When Liam takes you to war to learn how to fight, I want to come with you.”
Aria raised her brows. “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” she said earnestly. “If what you say about the Ice Realm is true, I want to fit in when we get there.”
She smiled. “Well, I can’t fault your reasoning. Are you planning on fighting in the war with me, if it comes to that?”
“I have a feeling it won’t,” Emery said. “But even if it does, I’ll fight.”
Aria nodded absentmindedly. “Alistair won’t expect me to come back with another realm at my back. I think he’ll parley with me.”
“I don’t know much about strategy, but I think so too.”
A knock came at the door. Emery stood, adjusting her dress on her way to answer it; Aria rose from the vanity, slipping a circlet onto her upper arm.
“Good evening,” Ilyas said when Emery opened the door. “I’m here to escort Queen Aria to the ball.”
Emery stepped aside, grinning broadly, and Ilyas sidled inside; he wore a stylish red and silver tunic that mostly hid how bony he was. He had even eschewed his cane for the evening. When he caught sight of Aria, he flushed crimson.
“I’m so happy to see you with some strength,” Aria said before he could open his mouth. “You look great.”
Ilyas flicked his eyes to the ground and then back up to her. “Thank you. You look…incredible.”
She smiled, her teeth scraping her bottom lip. She wore a flowing silver dress that was tight in the bust, with thin halter straps tied at her neck; her hair hung loose over one shoulder, accessorized by a dainty diamond coronet.
“You flatter,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“The best I have all week,” he said. “If you’d like to dance, I might have one in me.”
Aria grinned. “That sounds lovely.”
He offered his hand. “Liam is angry, but I think he might be civil.”
She entwined their arms to walk closely at his side in case he needed support. “I know you don’t think it will make a difference.”
“I’m reserving judgement.”
“You reserve a lot of what you think, don’t you?”
Emery closed the doors behind them when they turned into the hallway.
“Once,” Ilyas said, “when I reacted without thinking, I hurt your feelings. Being reserved is a virtue if it stops things like that.”
“I certainly think it’s an admirable quality. But we should be honest with each other, don’t you think? We’re in this together now.”
Ilyas smiled, watching his feet. “I suppose that’s true. So I should tell you that Liam thinks this will undercut his work, and he’s going to do his best to nullify it.”
“I already know that,” she said. “It only means we have to work harder.”
“And how will we do that?” Ilyas asked as they reached the ballroom doors. Plenty of courtiers crowded outside in luxurious gowns and tunics, either waiting for their partner or breathing in the fresh air; more than half of them noticed Aria and Ilyas immediately upon approach.
She looked up at Ilyas—he only stood an inch or two taller than her—and flashed him a small smile. “Do you want to see?”
Half puzzled and half amused, Ilyas allowed her to guide him through the ballroom doors, where Liam waited for their arrival. A group of pretty girls surrounded him.
“Ah, Queen Aria,” he said when he spotted her, giving her a little bow. “I see you’ve found a lookalike for my invalid brother.”
“Is it so hard for you to believe that Prince Ilyas is well enough to attend a ball?”
“I find it hard to believe he would bother showing his face in front of the entire western court after everything he’s done to this family,” Liam said lightly, winking at one of the girls fawning over him.
“You won’t have to worry about such things much longer,” Aria said. She gazed around the ballroom as if the conversation barely interested her.
“Oh?” Liam asked. He disguised the falter in his voice well—she nearly missed it.
“Oh, yes,” Aria said. “After some consideration these past weeks, I’ve decided to offer Prince Ilyas a permanent position in my future court.”
Liam dropped his feigned apathy in an instant. “What position?”
“A new one,” she said. “But one I’ve found precedence for in a few of those texts you gave me about eastern culture.”
His jaw rippled at her disinclination to explain. Beside her, Ilyas stilled.
“Please elaborate,” Liam said.
“As you know, between friendly realms, ambassador positions are often given to high ranking family members of other monarchs,” she said. “But often, the pay for work as an ambassador isn’t tempting enough for a noble who already has holdings of his own. The Ice Realm especially—small as it is—doesn’t have much to offer insofar as titles; but in the past, when my realm made a connection with a particularly influential kingdom, the ambassador was granted an internal title on top of the usual position of Console to the Queen. This way, you see, the queen could guarantee that the ambassador would make his home in the realm, since he would be expected to manage the holdings attached to the title. Unfortunately, the ambassadors in this position were sometimes held hostage—but with our friendship, I don’t think we have to worry about that.”
Liam’s expression darkened. “And what is this title you speak of, set aside specifically for a high ranking foreign ambassador?” He swallowed. “A title tempting enough to keep him housed in your realm?”
She met his gaze. “We don’t have dukes, you know, because the princes operate like dukes. But it was essential that the console holding the title answer to none but the queen—who is, by nature, both the leader of the realm and princess of the Northern Arm. A title directly below her would put a foreign ambassador on level, influentially, with the princes.”
“And would rival his title back home,” Liam said tightly.
“Of course,” Aria said. At her side, Ilyas looked anxious. “When I formalize the title, your brother will be Ilyas, Prince of Iotorath—and Marquess of the Northern Arm of the Ice Realm. It’s the highest honor the realm can bestow on a foreign dignitary, short of marrying into one of the princedoms.”
Liam sized her up with bridled hostility. “What an honor,” he said through his teeth. “My, Ilyas, you must be astounded to have caught the eye of the Ice Queen so thoroughly with your talents.”
Ilyas flushed as all eyes turned to him. “I am, of course, humbled by the offer.”
“It will certainly do me a favor if you’d scamper out of the west for good,” Liam said. “If you’ll excuse me, Queen Aria, I have matters of state to attend to.”
She watched him go, scattering his group of admirers, with a feeling of warm satisfaction in her chest. Ilyas shifted nervously on his feet.
“Aria…” he murmured, once the area around them had cleared.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
“Won a game,” she said. The band struck up a dance in the distance. “He wouldn’t give you the respect you deserve because he’s scared your presence will undermine him—even though you’re one of his closest advisors in the dark of night. I don’t think you should be locked away for the sake of his ego. If he has as much power as he says, he can protect you and his throne in other ways.”
Ilyas grimaced. “Perhaps that’s true, but Aria…my father is the one who decided on this arrangement.”
“Your father left me to my own devices under the assumption that Liam could control me like a pet. At least now he’ll know he can’t.”
“Liam isn’t a graceful loser, and my father isn’t a gracious opponent.”
“I didn’t expect them to be. That only makes it better.”
“No,” he said. “It makes it worse. You need to be on their side—Liam’s side—if you want the seat he brought you back to take.”
Aria frowned. “Liam and I are only at odds about you, not my inheritance. He made me a promise.”
Ilyas exhaled a laugh. “Aria…you haven’t been in the west long enough if you think the promise of the Iotorathi royal family means anything at all once you’ve wronged them.” He touched her elbow. “You’re to be a queen, but how good are you at taking advice?”
Aria furrowed her brow; gone was his hesitancy, replaced instead by grim determination and a soft-spoken sense of power. “Well, I don’t…I was born to this, but it’s all new to me, too. Better than Liam, I should hope.”
Ilyas nodded. “Then come with me. I won’t pretend to be an advisor worthy of your inheritance, but I think I can help you save it from Liam’s raging ego.”