The courtiers at the huge stone dining table all watched Aria with varying expressions of curiosity. She smiled as pleasantly as she could muster when she caught them, pretending to be dazzled by the diamond dinnerware and the extravagant paintings lining the walls. In truth, she was a little dazzled—but only because the splendor of this kingdom seemed too overwrought to be real.
To her right, the king mostly ignored her in favor of chatting with the stately looking man on his other side. Aria continually glanced at Liam, to her left, who stared vaguely across the table.
“Do you like to read?” she asked, taking a sip of wine.
Liam looked at her like he had recently wiped her off his shoe. “Excuse me?”
Her cheeks colored. “Reading. Do you enjoy books?”
He narrowed his eyes.
“History? Politics? Novels?”
Liam scoffed, but said nothing further. Aria turned away to find half the table watching them, even if none of them could hear over the din of other conversations. She smiled awkwardly and continued with her dinner.
King Taiseer eventually dismissed the evening meal to lead the court to the ballroom. Liam took Aria’s arm, though he made eye contact with nearly every pretty girl they passed on the way to the southwestern side of the palace, his expression much more animated than anything he could muster with Aria. Humiliation burned in her gut, but she remained composed and aloof.
Liam danced the first set with her, and she found him quite talented on his feet, almost amusingly so. Having always been an excellent dancer, she had no trouble keeping up with him—but even this didn’t catch his attention. His eye wandered incessantly to every other young woman in the room, and a few of them must have had prior relations with him, judging by the familiar way they flirted from a distance. Mortification soon morphed to shame, and a distant burn in Aria’s throat convinced her that her composure was running short.
“Please forgive me, prince,” Aria said as the first set ended. “I’m quite tired from my journey. Perhaps we could take a break?”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to dance the second set,” he said, dropping her hand.
“Of course not,” Aria said lightly. “There are too many others who deserve a turn.”
He met her eyes, shocked. She wanted to laugh that he assumed her so meek—but she was too humiliated to find much amusement in the scene. Still, she knew how to maneuver such situations.
“The red haired girl has the build of an excellent dancer,” Aria continued, pointing her chin in the direction of the woman with which Liam seemed the most familiar. “Surely you agree she should be next.”
Liam furrowed his brow slightly. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“It would be a pity for me to take up more of your time. I would rather get acquainted with all I can around me, for I fear you’ll find me dull if I don’t. Goodnight, Prince Liam, if we don’t encounter each other again.”
With some confusion, he bowed to her curtsy. Aria about-faced to find that a group of courtiers stood close enough to easily overhear them—just as she’d hoped. She smiled radiantly.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Aria. I’d be grateful if I could make your acquaintance—this is all so new to me.”
They fell over themselves to make introductions—three men and two women, all perhaps in their mid twenties. Two of the men had red hair and identified as courtiers from the Snowlands; the other man had coloring similar to Aria and told her he hailed from the Whispering Plains; the two women were sisters from Draserune, with hair and skin darker even than Iotorathi natives.
“How was your journey, princess?” one of the sisters, Ramina, asked.
“Long,” she replied. “Although this palace is a lovely end to weeks of travel.”
“It’s quite splendorous,” the other sister, Ishtar, said. “Nothing like the castle in Daliraaq, though. On the southern seas, we never have winter. The palace is open to the elements completely.”
“We have a castle like that,” Aria said. “Of course, we do have winter in the Ice Realm, but the seat of the princedom in the Southern Arm is open to the elements. It’s quite pleasant in the summer.”
“I find the concept of princedoms very interesting,” Ishtar said.
“The heir to the seat came here with me as my honor guard.”
She widened her dark eyes. “Indeed? I’d love to meet him.”
“Be careful,” one of the red haired men, Thallan, said. “Ishtar can be a predator when it comes to men with titles.”
Ishtar glared, but Aria laughed.
“I’m sure Valtteri is quite used to that.”
“I’m not a predator,” Ishtar said insolently. “Who said he was handsome?”
“We all know it wouldn’t matter if he was or wasn’t,” Thallan said.
“Then why hasn’t she gone after you?” Ramina asked.
They all laughed. Aria felt eyes on her and glanced to her left; Liam was watching her from across the ballroom, frowning.
“Tell us about the Ice Realm, Princess Aria,” Thallan said. “I’ve only ever heard it mentioned in books, and even that wasn’t very specific.”
Aria looked back at him, her smile growing wider. “What would you like to know?”
Thallan grinned; he had kind eyes, eyes of the sort Aria couldn’t help trusting. “The king only advertised the trade advantages of the match, but I assume once the marriage is signed and sealed, your realm will get some curious visitors who may never have considered it a travel destination before. I’d like to know what they might encounter insofar as culture.”
“You just want to see what the ladies look like,” Ishtar said.
Thallan shot her a quelling look. Aria chuckled.
“As to the culture, I can make a general report,” she said. “The Northern Arm, where I’m from, is probably the most reserved. The Spine is industrious, and the Southern Arm rather more informal and fun. Valtteri could tell you plenty of stories. Generally, though, my court isn’t as large or grand as this. And most of the noble families are very involved with their peasants.”
“We are like that in Draserune,” Ramina said with her heavy accent. “The informality of class division is a sticking point with King Taiseer. He doesn’t like it.”
“He fears his peasants,” Thallan said.
“You’re one to talk,” the man from the Whispering Plains, Nikolaj, said. “The caste system is alive and well in the Snowlands.”
“That’s different,” Thallan said. “It’s tradition.”
Aria made a noise. “What a weak premise for continuing to do something.”
Thallan grinned at her again. “Indeed? What are your thoughts, princess?”
Aria had just opened her mouth to reply when the group all dipped into curtsies and bows announcing the approach of her future husband. She turned to greet him; he wore a smirk that carried a threatening edge.
“Princess,” Liam said. “I wouldn’t want to take you from your new friends, but you said you were tired from your ride, and I worry at you staying up so late.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Aria said. “I find talking to new friends much less taxing than dancing, though.”
“I insist on escorting you to your chambers,” he said. Beneath his accent, his tone certainly carried warning.
“Call on me on the morrow, princess,” Thallan said. “I would like to hear more about your realm.”
They met eyes briefly, and she knew he conceptualized some of what occurred before him. Aria dipped her head in acknowledgement.
“It was lovely to meet all of you,” she said. “Goodnight.”
Their goodbyes blended together as Liam offered his arm. He navigated the ballroom with a loose grip—but once they had gained the solitude of the corridor, his hand wrapped around Aria’s elbow like a vice.
“Ow!” she yipped.
He ignored her, dragging her along the hallway more quickly than she could walk. Aria resisted him at the beginning, whining her objection—until Liam found a bare expanse of wall and threw her into it.
“Shut up,” he hissed.
Aria cowered, the right side of her body burning where it had impacted the marble, and kept her mouth shut. Liam loomed over her like it took all his strength not to smack her in the face.
“You think I want to be here?” he snarled. “My father never even asked me if I wanted you, just threw you at me like the scraps you are. An alliance with the east strengthens this throne—and your usefulness ends there. I don’t want anything to do with you. But don’t you dare flounce around my court like you can choose what you are here. I decided before you arrived how you would look, and I’m not going to let you mess it up.”
Aria shrank from him further at the venom in his words.
“You’re not smart enough to outdo me,” Liam said, dangerously quiet. “If you see Thallan tomorrow, I’ll give you a bruise that’ll keep you from leaving your room for a week. Now go to bed.”
He released her elbow, shoving her once more into the wall, and strode away, shoulders hunched with anger. Aria trembled in place, too shocked to shed a tear.
Somehow, she found her way back to her room, where Valtteri stood guarding her door. Lukas had emerged from his chamber nearby to chat with him; the two men laughed at some joke. Aria approached them slowly, still shaking; Valtteri turned to her first.
In a second, he abandoned his post to meet her a few meters from her door. He stopped in front of her, but she walked right into his arms, releasing the tears she knew would come. Wrapping his arms around her like a cocoon, Valtteri held her tight.
“Aria—gods, what happened?”
She shook her head into his chest. Lukas joined them, his expression severe.
“It’s so early—why are you back already?”
Valtteri touched her chin to coax her into looking up at him. She did so, still crying.
“Tell me,” he said—not harshly like Liam spoke to her, but with extraordinary tenderness.
Aria swallowed in an attempt to steady her voice. “Valtteri…”
“What is it, love?” Lukas asked softly.
She held Valtteri’s gaze. “This is worse than I could have guessed.”