Aria and Liam dismounted simultaneously, fur cloaks sweeping the snowy ground. Despite the dry flakes falling from the sky, Prince Valtteri of House Milanovic waited for them on the front steps; he descended to meet them in the center of the courtyard as soon as they began their approach. Most of his court remained on the stairs, framing the palace doors—including a conspicuously tall mage in hooded black robes, several brothers, and a group of young women dressed so vibrantly, Aria assumed they sought the prince’s hand.
“I love meeting men who play king,” Liam said, his breath fogging in the icy air. Dark-skinned, as all Iotorathi people tended to be, Liam was tall, lean, and unfairly handsome for one already highborn and rich. His thick, shiny dark hair swept left from his brow, and his incisive, bright green eyes regarded their surroundings with an insouciant edge. No matter the context, Liam was in control—and despite Aria’s best intentions, she had grown to like that about him in the four years they’d plotted political upheaval together.
“Some might say you play a convincing king,” Aria said.
He chuckled. “Only when I’m sober.”
“That’s no joke.”
Prince Valtteri, Aria, and Liam met in the middle of the courtyard. Without missing a beat, the prince took to one knee gracefully in the snow, his head bowed; Aria nearly started at the deference.
“Queen Aria,” Valtteri said. “It’s an honor to host you. And it was a welcome surprise to learn that you are alive and well, despite the usurper’s trickery.”
Aria brushed her hood back from her face, long black hair spilling over one shoulder; her pure white cloak, sewn from the fur of Northern Kingdom snow wolves, disguised the precipitation, though the flakes discolored her hair within seconds. Valtteri was tall—much taller than her—and the old blood was strong in him, judging by his wide shoulders, lean build, and angular, handsome features. A sword hung at the side of his leather tunic, the glass pommel glimmering with some sort of spell. Beside her, Liam watched her with an infuriating smirk blooming on his face.
“Please rise, Prince Valtteri,” Aria said, offering her hand to help him up. “Or do you prefer to be called king?”
Valtteri rose in one fluid motion, regarding her with the big, icy blue eyes common to the nobility of her people. “The title may have appealed to my father, my queen. It never appealed to me.”
Aria resisted the urge to smile, knowing Liam would never let her hear the end of it. The previous week of their ride had been dominated by his proclamations that she would swoon the first time she met this particular member of her own kin, and she hated to give him the satisfaction; Valtteri was attractive, certainly, but she could like him outside of all that.
“You’ve met King Liam of Iotorath before, I presume?” Aria asked, gesturing to her companion.
“Yes,” Valtteri said with a quick bow. “Well met again, King Liam.”
“Nice to see you,” Liam said lightly. “Beautiful city you’ve got, here. That view from across the valley is spectacular.”
“We like it,” Valtteri said. “My queen, would you like to come inside? I don’t think the snow is clearing anytime soon.”
She grinned. “Prince, I haven’t seen snow like this since I was a child. You must indulge me.”
Valtteri exhaled a laugh. “Well, then. We could always sit in the inner gardens, but I fear you’ll be quite wet by the time we finish talking. And my court has worked so hard to prepare a ball for the rightful queen—we should indulge them, truth be told.”
“I like that you’re a servant of the people, Valtteri,” Aria said.
Liam snorted. “I keep forgetting why I’m even here. You’re such a terrible listener, Aria. What have I tried to teach you all these years?”
She winked at him. “Show me your court, Prince Valtteri, and don’t listen to my good friend King Liam. I’ve been anxious to see my realm the whole month we’ve been riding, and especially curious to see the way you’ve been running the Southern Arm.”
“I’m sure our methods differ from the west,” Valtteri said, looping his arm in with Aria’s. “Smaller realms require different things, I should think.”
“At the core, though, some political philosophies are the same regardless of population,” Liam said. “At least, the ones I subscribe to are.”
“And I was always clear that I intended to reserve judgement until I could see more,” Aria said. “I can’t pick an approach when I don’t know the people.”
“You never intended to listen to me,” Liam said, laughing. “Let’s get that straight.”
She made a face at him. “You never said it was a requirement for your support, and here we are.”
“Headstrong,” Liam muttered.
“It’s our specialty in women,” Valtteri said.
Liam chuckled, clapping Valtteri on the shoulder as they mounted the palace steps. “I believe that. Now, prince, I don’t want to rush you, but I had some hopes we could discuss politics tonight.”
“I think I’ll decide that,” Aria said, giving Liam a pointed look. “Wouldn’t want you two talking around me like I’m not even here.”
“Never,” Valtteri said. “I’ve been impatient to speak with you about the realm, my queen. I’m afraid I don’t have much prepared to present to Iotorath, though.”
Liam laughed. “Ah, never mind. I can make my own fun. But I will sit in on that meeting, if dearest Aria will indulge me.”
“So indulged,” she said, with an air of great suffering.
They entered the palace, Valtteri’s court filing in behind them. Vaulted ceilings in the spacious entrance hall reflected the light of numerous candelabras, whose flames flickered in a breeze from the open gallery on the second level. Snow-dusted trees swayed beyond the gallery columns, and though the air carried the bitterness of winter, Aria hardly found it undesirable. The northern staircase opened to the gallery, but marble steps on the east and west sides of the entrance hall led to the rest of the castle.
“Welcome to Reziva,” Valtteri said as his court broke into small groups all around the entrance hall. “I put your rooms together on the west side of the castle, overlooking the gardens.”
Liam swept his eyes over the other courtiers, only pausing on one or two pretty girls. “I’d like to change from the ride.”
“As would I,” Aria said. “Prince, is it all right if eat something before dinner? I’m famished.”
“Of course,” Valtteri said, waving over his steward. “Vlad, could you send a platter up to the queen’s chambers along with some of the spiced wine?”
Vlad, an older man with a grave face, bowed before striding away.
“And you can just call me Valtteri,” the prince added, smiling.
She returned his grin. Liam took her arm.
“We wouldn’t want to take you away from your preparations,” Liam said. “If you could send a servant with us, we can track down our rooms. Should we wait for your call?”
“Yes,” Valtteri replied. “I’ll call on the queen in about two hours. Then…we can begin the show.”
All three of them smirked knowingly. Valtteri dipped his head, gestured to a servant, and departed to rejoin his court, who watched Aria and Liam with unbridled curiosity.
“There’s more to him than meets the eye,” Liam said.
“I suspect so,” she said. “But you know him better than I do.”
“We only spent a few hours together. I thought he was boring.”
“Did you?” she asked idly, undoing the clasp of her cloak. Her lady’s maid and best friend from the Northern Kingdom, Emery, took it from her hands.
He laughed. “Ah, I find everyone boring. But I have this feeling he’s going to prove me wrong.”
“I think so too,” Aria said.
Liam cocked an eyebrow. “Well then—let’s begin, dearest.”