“He’s courting,” Liam said, sidling up behind Aria with a drink in his hand.
They stared in opposite directions, their lips barely moving as they spoke; around them, nobles alternated between watching Aria with curiosity and dancing, drinking, or gathering in groups to talk. Most of Valtteri’s court had so far shied from speaking with Aria, though she suspected they only kept their distance in order to make a preliminary judgement on her leadership; accepting her claim would mean demoting their king, after all.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, taking a sip of wine.
“By the old gods, Aria, you blushed like a maiden when he bent the knee,” Liam said.
She blinked, her eyes on the court mage across the ballroom. “He’s a handsome man. But I was only surprised that he gave up his kingdom so easily. Who prefers being prince over king?”
“Humble men, I should think.”
“Oh, no wonder you would never consider it.”
“Watch your tongue. I’m not the racist here.”
“Racist?” Aria asked, laughing. “Whatever could you mean?”
Liam grinned. “I’m just being a prick. But I did tell you years ago that you’d end up marrying some pale, light-eyed noble over any man in the west.”
“You’re just offended that I don’t find you attractive. I certainly liked your brother.”
“He’s pale for a man of Iotorath. My point still stands.”
“I never showed interest in my kin from the Whispering Plains. Now your point is stumbling.”
“That proves nothing.”
“Not that this isn’t a stupid discussion, but fine, if you must know—your satellite ruler in Draserune? King Kapriel?” Aria smirked. “He and I spent a few nights dancing around our feelings.”
Liam accepted another drink from a passing server. “Fine, fine. You’re reprieved, for now. In any case—Valtteri is looking for a wife, and he’s quite close with two of the women in this room.”
“Still not relevant,” Aria said.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t consider the political advantages of the match.”
“Oh, stop. Of course I would.”
“Then shut up. Because I saw how nervous he was when he realized you were as beautiful as I said. When I met with him a year ago, I tried to impress upon him the situation he’d be finding himself in. Civil war had been brewing for years, but his father’s assertion of independence was the only real progress. The realm still thought it was hopeless to overthrow your brother in the long run—they needed a figurehead. And you were alive, intelligent, educated in the west long enough for it to make a difference, and absolutely gorgeous. He didn’t seem to think what you were would really matter, but now he knows. He sees what I saw when I found you in Tower of the Moon.”
Aria continued to watch the court mage, frowning. “I understand what I mean politically. That doesn’t mean he’s going to drop his courtships for me. He probably can’t afford the hit to his reputation.”
“I don’t appreciate being the wingman, here, but you two are fooling yourselves if you don’t press pause right now and consider what you could offer each other.”
She let her eyes drift from the mage, who kept his hood up, to Prince Valtteri and his knot of admirers. He looked a little awkward as the center of attention—perhaps even uncomfortable.
“He’s thirty,” she said. “Why hasn’t he married yet?”
“Reports are conflicting,” Liam said. “He has a lot of loyalty from those close to him, but there are rumors—less prevalent with the death of his father. Honestly, I think his father didn’t like him and sabotaged his matches. Since his death, Valtteri seems to be doing just fine.”
“What were the rumors?”
“There was some question of his ability to spill his seed in a woman.”
She took another drink. “I see.”
“He doesn’t look the type, if you ask me.”
Glancing away from Valtteri, Aria noticed the court mage abandoning his position to approach her. She stood a little taller, evaluating him as best she could, until he removed his hood within a meter of her.
“My queen,” he said with a brief bow. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“We haven’t,” she said, inclining her head. He looked a bit like Valtteri—tall, icy blue eyes, wide shoulders—but his features were more severe, harsher.
“I’m Casimir, Prince Valtteri’s court mage,” he said.
“And his brother, correct?”
“His second oldest sibling.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.
Liam slipped away, not without Casimir’s notice—though he turned his gaze back to Aria without comment. “You seemed to be trying to read me from across the room, my queen. I thought I would move us along a bit.”
She smiled. “Very direct. Valtteri must indulge you.”
“He can be a pushover when it comes to me. Have I insulted you?”
“Just chinked my ego. I was supposed to be discreet.”
One side of his mouth twitched up. “The advantage of the cloaking spell on my hood is that no one ever thinks they’re making eye contact with me, and thus stare at me much longer than they might otherwise.”
“Is that the intention of the spell?”
“Perhaps not at its base level, but close enough.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with mages.”
“They’re banned in the west, are they not?”
“Liam doesn’t like them.”
Casimir crossed his arms, glancing over her shoulder. “That’s unfortunate. I had hoped to break into that market, if only for access to their libraries.”
Aria shrugged. “Don’t worry about Liam. He’ll relent if I’m the one asking.”
“Then it would appear we could be of some assistance to each other.”
“Ooh,” she said. “You’re the first to propose an alliance.”
Casimir grinned; it softened his features in a boyish way. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sound so excited to make a connection with me.”
“I was starting to wonder whether I would have to get pushy with this court.”
He shook his head. “They’re only hesitant because of Alistair’s shortcomings. Plenty of the nobles wonder whether his sister will show the same sort of…mental instability.”
“I thought they were reluctant to disinherit their king so quickly.”
“Well, there’s that, but it would have been rectified as soon as he bent the knee to you. Now they’re just making sure they aren’t going to end up handing the throne to a woman who would collapse the kingdom and fold us into the west.”
Aria nodded slowly. “Prudent. I have no such intentions, you know.”
Casimir tilted his head, considering her. “I thought I detected some honorability of that nature.”
They smiled at each other, a few seconds passing in silence.
“What sort of help can you offer me, if I guarantee access to western libraries?” she asked eventually.
“Well, insight into my brother’s mind, if you like. He’s my best friend.”
“Shouldn’t you be trying to make out my character to report back to him instead?”
“I can do both.”
She chuckled. “Fair enough. And what about the war? Have you been apart of the councils?”
“Every one. Valtteri has been planning our strategy since you began your journey from Arramas. It would appear that he’ll be sharing my services with you.”
“So you’ll be my court mage, too.”
“Briefly, until you can pick your own.”
“And what if I’m satisfied with your services?”
Casimir smirked. “I’ll leave that to you and Valtteri.”
Aria swept her gaze over the ballroom, catching about a third of them staring—Valtteri included. He blushed when she caught his eye, and she resisted the urge to beam. In the west, male attention hadn’t been scarce—and yet there was something different about the dynamic now that she was home. Men as highborn as Valtteri rarely considered her anything but a worthy mistress in Arramas, but now—perhaps she could find her equal.
“You should meet Liam, I think,” Aria told Casimir. “He’ll have some things to say to you.”
A crease appeared between his brows. “What kind of man is King Liam, if I can be so bold as to ask?”
She smiled warmly. “Oh, he’s awful. But brilliant, at the same time.” She tipped her head, considering him. “I’m certain you’re smart enough to maneuver how finicky he can be.”
“You have a lot of faith in my character for such a short time,” Casimir said, grinning.
Aria laughed. “We all need someone to blindly believe in our inherent goodness, don’t we?”