“That little prick,” Lukas snarled as soon as Aria finished relaying the events of the evening. “He’s barely more than a whelp and he’s already knocking women around? Where did he learn it?”
“Some learn it from their parents, but some have violent urges that aren’t learned at all,” Valtteri said. “Unless we’ve missed something, King Taiseer doesn’t beat up his mistresses. Liam is different.”
“This is atrocious,” Lukas said. “This can’t be the first time he’s done this. How did the queen accept the match? How did they hide it?”
Aria laughed darkly. “Oh, Lukas. If she did know, you think she cared? That’s adorable.”
Grinding his teeth together, Lukas stared at her with his arms crossed, looking extremely intimidating in pitch-black mage robes. His spell hand flexed and relaxed. “This is some serious bullshit.”
She shrugged in an effort to appear nonchalant. “Yeah. But not unprecedented.”
Valtteri paced the length of the room, gaze trained on the ground. “So let’s say she truly did pass off her only heir and the future queen of the realm to a man reported to her as abusive and unstable. How does that further her goals? Once the realm finds out, that’s it. Her credibility was thin on the ground anyway—this will destroy her. You’re very popular, Aria.”
She shook her head. “My mother already got what she wanted out of this match, and Liam and I haven’t even married yet. The treaty was all she cared about—it bought her another decade politically. She’ll squash any rumors coming into the Ice Realm about what Liam actually is and thus protect her gains at my expense. As per usual.”
Valtteri sighed, still pacing. “No wonder you were so worried about Alistair.”
“How does Liam think he’ll get away with this?” Lukas asked. “You’re his equal, not his inferior, Aria.”
“But this is his home, not mine,” she said. “He knows more than I ever will about what he can and can’t get away with.”
Lukas glowered. “I should make him infertile.”
Grinning, Aria abandoned her perch on the bed to wrap her arms around Lukas’s torso. She rested her head on his chest, eyes closed.
“We can’t do anything yet,” Valtteri said. “Liam is too well protected. We can give him the chance to apologize…perhaps he just lost his temper.”
“Liam may be well protected, but our girl isn’t,” Lukas said, stroking her hair. “I don’t feel comfortable using her as bait to see if he does it again. And who cares if he did just lose his temper? That’s no excuse for him to lay hands on our queen.”
Valtteri finally glanced their way, frowning. “You two can’t be intimate like that. I know the trip here was informal, but it’s best to assume we’re always being watched.”
Aria disengaged from Lukas. “He controls everything already. Even the way I act in my private rooms.”
“That’s the price of noble blood.”
Unable to contradict him, Aria sat back down on the bed. So many aspects of her life were beyond her control—and she struggled to gauge how much more she could sacrifice before she broke completely.
“I will always do my duty,” Aria said to no one in particular.
Lukas watched her with a blazing look in his eyes, but Valtteri merely paced, running a hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry, Aria,” he said eventually, very gently. He ceased treading circles. “I don’t want to accept this. I think you got a glimpse of the prince’s true character tonight, and I don’t like what I see. But the deal has been made. He knows it, too. If we give him the chance to repair this, maybe he’ll surprise you.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek. “Maybe.”
Lukas exhaled sharply. “Come on, Valtteri. You don’t believe that. We’re basically throwing her into the sea and asking her to learn how to swim.”
“I think a lot of people can be abusive by accident their first time,” Valtteri said. “It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t know better…”
Lukas gave him such a look of disgust, Valtteri flushed. Aria stood.
“No, Valtteri is right,” she said. “I have a duty here—if not to my mother, than to the realm. This alliance is good for the realm. I can give Liam the benefit of the doubt if it helps our people.”
“And if he hits you harder next time?” Lukas snapped. When Aria and Valtteri didn’t reply, he continued, “I’ve seen dozens of men and women act just like you two are right now. You justify the first time as a mistake because he’ll come back with flowery words and say he didn’t mean it. And then it happens again—the tension builds, and he snaps, just as you feared he would. He hurts you, but then he turns around and says he’s sorry, or that it wasn’t as bad as you think, or he makes up some shit excuse. He’s trying to see how much you’ll take, and every time you say it’s okay is another time he knows he hasn’t gone so far as to scare you away. He’ll push you, over and over again, until it’s as easy to excuse the abuse as it is to clap your hands.” Frustrated, Lukas shoved a hand through his hair. “If you go down that road, Aria, there will be a day when you think you deserve it—because you triggered him, or you missed the signs, or whatever he’s conditioned you to think. And suddenly the burden of staying safe is on you, as if he plays no part in your terror. As if it was always your mistake to fall into such a trap.”
Aria blinked, her throat tight. Lukas held her gaze vehemently.
“What would you have us do, Lukas?” Valtteri asked from across the room.
“What?” he replied, wrong-footed.
“You think I don’t want to protect her every bit as much as you do?” Valtteri said quietly. “You think I want to send her back to her betrothed if it means she ends up with bruises?”
“That’s enough,” Aria said, stepping between the men. She met their eyes one at a time. “You two are all I have, here. Let’s not dissent amongst each other. Not for Liam. He’s a knobhead.”
Both men cracked smiles.
“If I were a common woman, I would show Liam what it means to be from the Ice Realm,” Aria said, her voice low. “But I’m not of common blood. We may both struggle, but my struggles are different. I have more than my own burdens on my shoulders.”
Valtteri’s jaw rippled, as if he stopped himself from saying something. Aria crossed her arms.
“I’m not going to let Liam win,” she said. “I don’t care what he does or what he thinks he’ll achieve. But neither can I extricate myself from this situation. And…we can only forge a life with the materials we have.”
Lukas shook his head at the balcony, took a step towards Aria to kiss her cheek, and retired from the room—holding his tongue, she suspected. Valtteri remained in place; when the doors slammed shut behind Lukas, she met his eyes.
“What else can I do?” she murmured.
With a shake of his head, Valtteri closed the gap between them. “Very little, I should think. Aria…you already know that life isn’t easy for people like us.”
She nodded at her feet.
“You know something, though?” he said softly. “I’m really impressed.”
She looked back up at him, confused.
“When I first met you, you were so angry at your mother, you wouldn’t even speak. You saw how powerless she had made you, and you seemed on the edge of giving up. But still—you kept going. Now we’re here, and Liam just put you through something traumatic, and awful—and yet you only grow more resilient. I’m incredibly impressed with you, Aria.”
She bit her lip. “Words are easy…”
Touching her jaw, he said, “But I know they aren’t just words. I can see it in your eyes.”
Aria swallowed. “You think?”
“I know,” Valtteri said, his gaze tender. “And I can definitively say it’s been a long time since I believed in anyone as much as I believe in you, Aria.”