Liam and Ilyas met eyes across the ballroom. The former glanced at Aria with an exasperated expression, and yet he heeded his brother’s silent call; abandoning his most recent flirtation, Liam edged around the ballroom to exit through the grand doors on the western side. Ilyas and Aria shadowed him, Ilyas using Aria’s arm for support. They passed the royal library and the king’s study before turning left into a smaller, lighter room filled with books, glass bottles of alcohol, and little models of varying sizes, which Aria took to be cannons—the western technological advancement Liam prided himself on most.
“What is it?” Liam asked, annoyed, as he poured himself a drink without offering them anything.
“Liam, listen,” Ilyas began.
He lifted a palm. “I don’t want to hear it, Ilyas. Not from you.”
“No,” he interrupted. “Does she even know what she did, or did you warn her and promise to patch it up for her?”
“What is it with your family and talking about me like I’m not here?” Aria snapped.
“You might as well not be,” Liam spat back. “Not with the way you behave. You act like you know what you’re doing, but you might as well be a newborn fawn stumbling into tree trunks while a wolf hunts you.”
“I’m not completely useless at this, Liam. It’s not like I’ve had any trouble grasping political theory or making connections. You obviously saw some potential, or you wouldn’t have freed me.”
“Yes, and what is that phrase they use to describe what you’ve turned out to be? I’ve found a girl who ‘bites the hand that feeds.’”
“Fine,” Aria said, exhaling sharply through her nose. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started this thing with Ilyas. It’s just—”
“What?” Liam said, raising his brows. “Tell us what your intentions were, Aria.”
She glanced at Ilyas, who watched her as if he already knew what she would say.
“I guess…” She grimaced. “You’ve been so slippery about whatever it is you’re doing behind the scenes, Liam. I guess I wanted to show you that I can do things like that, too.”
“So you used Ilyas,” Liam said. “How kind.”
“I wanted to help him,” she said, her voice small. “You keep him cooped up in his room all day, and when he’s out, you ignore him. He’s so smart, Liam—he could be an asset to you.”
“Don’t tell me what he is,” he hissed.
“The two things became intertwined,” she said sadly, meeting Ilyas’s eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
The corners of his mouth turned up. “Don’t worry, Aria. After that day in my room, I could see that your intentions with me were pure.”
“Don’t give me that,” Liam snapped. “Don’t forgive her for using you just because she’s pretty.”
“Don’t use her to infiltrate the east just because you know her beauty will make her an easy installation,” Ilyas said.
The men glared at each other. Aria crossed her arms.
“I’m sick of the dishonesty, Liam,” she said. “If you tell me what you’re planning, I’ll stop playing games with you.”
“You’ve already taken Ilyas away from me,” Liam said. “There’s little else you could achieve that would hurt me.”
“I don’t yet have the true authority to make the order, and Ilyas hasn’t yet accepted the position.”
Liam glanced at his brother. “But he will. You treat him with the dignity he’ll never be afforded here. Especially not since my father took away his holdings—he doesn’t even have a private residence to retreat to anymore.”
“It could be good for us,” Ilyas said softly. “Me being ambassador to the Ice Realm. It could be good for your future throne and the realm.”
Liam’s jaw rippled. “Perhaps.”
“I know I’m new at this,” Aria said. “Figuring out how to help Ilyas is the first properly political thing I’ve done outside the training you’ve given me. I thought it would be a good idea to stretch my legs before I go home to rule a kingdom. But I’m not ready. I spent ten years in a brothel, and the things I learned there—well, I’m sure some of it will help, especially manipulating people, but I can’t lead a realm. Not without your help. I only ask that your help not be cryptic, Liam.”
He considered her for a long moment before he said, “Fine. I’ll tell you what my plans are. I only ask—whose side are you on?”
“The Ice Realm’s,” she said.
He smirked. “Then you won’t hear anything from me worthy of objection. And I suppose I can adhere to your plea for the truth if it gets us officially on the same side.”
“I met a man I didn’t trust in Tower of the Moon,” she said. “I still don’t, if we’re being honest.”
“You shouldn’t,” Liam said. “But perhaps you will when I’ve said my piece.”
He gestured for Ilyas to take a seat in the nearest plush armchair, ruffling his hair once he’d done so; Aria remained standing. Liam finally offered her a drink.
“I want to take over the Plains Realm,” he said, leaning his hip against Ilyas’s chair.
Aria raised her brows. “That’s ambitious.”
“My father had the plan ages ago,” he said. “Haakon is weak, and the Plains Realm used to be part of Iotorath. I want to execute the plot my father decided he didn’t have the time to achieve. But I need to be careful. I need more information, and allying with you can get me on the ground in a realm bordering the one I want to topple.”
“The Ice Realm has few political connections to the Plains,” Aria said.
“I’m aware. That’s why you’re perfect for this. Your other eastern allies can’t exactly call it a betrayal—you’re not involved enough to care, and I don’t have to answer to you before I do it just because I helped you take back your seat.”
“What else will my allegiance provide you?”
“Moonsilver armor and weapons, mostly. That’s basically all your realm has to offer, but it’s lucrative.”
She took a sip of her drink. “And what was that about my beauty making me an easy installation?”
Liam laughed. “Don’t be coy. The men of your realm will fall over their feet to serve you. And the women will respect you once you show them your prowess with a blade. It will be easy to get your throne back—it’s only a matter of timing.”
“And once you’ve taken the Plains Realm, assuming all goes to plan—then what?”
“You share a border with a satellite of Iotorath,” he said. “And your realm will already have an incredibly favorable alliance with the kingdom that satellite answers to, if we can stop nipping at each other’s throats.”
Aria nodded slowly. “I suppose that’s not nearly as bad as I thought. So why keep this a secret, Liam?”
“You seem like a honorable sort of person. Honorable people don’t tend to like the way Iotorath does things.”
“And what recourse would I have, were that the case?”
Liam flashed her a cheeky grin. “Well, you could always take Prince Ilyas hostage, since he’ll be our ambassador to your court.”