“Mages,” Liam sighed, pouring himself a drink. He and Aria stood on a balcony overlooking the palace’s inner gardens; a cold, crisp breeze rustled snow from a weeping willow. One of Valtteri’s courtships and a few of her friends gathered conspiratorially around a frozen fountain at the center of the courtyard.
“I like him,” Aria said.
“Casimir is likable enough,” he said, his Iotorathi accent more noticeable with foreign names. “Very shrewd. But I don’t trust mages.”
“Is it a lack of trust, or just dislike? I know you sought out a hundred mages in hopes they could heal Ilyas.”
“Most of them barely put in an effort. I asked for research and they denied me outright. Their precious archmages wouldn’t even respond.”
Aria touched his arm. Liam struggled to carry the burdens on his shoulders, often expressing himself through fits of rage; she recalled vividly the first night he had ever lashed out at her over a trivial disagreement. As quickly as it had flared, though, his fury had flickered out when she refused to cow to him. He’d never scared her—and that seemed to be the truest thing he needed in a friend. Still, she’d learned the signs of his escalating temper, right down to the tightening of his shoulders.
Liam loosened at her touch. “We don’t have the healthiest relationship,” he said softly.
“We really don’t,” she agreed.
They both took a long pull of their drinks.
“In any case, Casimir is a good ally,” Liam said. “He’s one of the few mages with full power since that magical anomaly two years ago. And Valtteri seems as clean as he looks. We’re lucky you didn’t have to sweet talk his father.”
“I think I could have done it.”
“Perhaps not with your usual wiles. He was a political man. And not easily distracted by beauty. I think he mistrusted it, judging by the way he treated his wife.”
“Do you think Valtteri is easily distracted?”
“Mmm…no. Not in a brainless sort of way. It may be easier to gain his trust, is all.”
Aria watched the women below break from their conference, leaving Valtteri’s admirer alone for a few moments before he entered the gardens himself. The girl lowered the hood of her cloak to let her black hair fly loose in the wind.
“How much time do we have?” Aria asked.
Liam shrugged. “If you want your throne back by the end of the year, not much. Winter is a harsh time for rebellion, but Alistair doesn’t expect us to strike in winter, either. He’ll have gotten word of your movements, but we can still surprise him.”
She exhaled against the fur lining of her hood, watching Valtteri somewhat inexpertly flirt with his future wife. “Is she the only serious one?”
“Yes. The other two have all but given up.”
“Who is she?”
“Lady Mischa of House Severov. Eryavo is the seat’s richest ally. She’s the youngest daughter.”
“And what are your thoughts?”
He leaned his hip against the marble railing, his brow furrowed with consideration. “Cast them all aside and marry me.”
She snorted. “Hush.”
With a grin, he said, “In all seriousness, we have to be careful. We need a match that will bolster your claim as well as lock in your legitimacy. Valtteri is a fine candidate because his reputation is mostly intact. The only other possible match would be a Forest Realm prince, and even that could be met with backlash from your nobles.”
“What about one of Valtteri’s brothers? Does it have to be him?”
He tipped his head. “Eh, any of his brothers would work insofar as connecting the bloodlines—but none of them are as respected or clean cut as the prince.”
“There are rumors the youngest is interested in men anyway—the one above him is an alcoholic—and then we have a relatively normal captain of an archery legion. He is closer to your age, but he’s done little of note. Eamon is already married, Casimir is a mage, and Regan is such an idiot, Valtteri basically outlawed him from meeting you.”
“A captain and archer could be a good connection for the war.”
“Not over an accomplished and respected captain, swordsman, and military strategist like Valtteri.”
“Noted. So there’s no one else?”
Liam looked her up and down. “What’s wrong? What don’t you like about him?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that. I just…don’t want to steal him away from someone.”
“Why not? You certainly can.”
“I’m sure I can,” she said. “But I don’t like the idea, not even a little bit.”
“You were not suited to be a courtesan.”
“Luckily I’m not one anymore then, huh?”
He laughed. “Yes, indeed. Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. It would seem you’ll have to make yourself a little uncomfortable. Otherwise you’ll have to marry me.”
She crossed her arms. “You can’t keep playing that off as a joke. We agreed, Liam. After Ilyas…it’s not a good idea.”
“And I told you that it doesn’t have to be like you think. We’re already friends, we trust each other—there doesn’t have to be anything sexual about it.”
“Forgive me, but I suppose I still hold onto girlish ideas of romance with my husband.”
“Lives like that don’t belong to us, Aria. It’s too much like simple happiness.”
“I haven’t given up,” she said. “If it didn’t happen while I was a glorified prostitute…well, I won’t give up for a while yet.”
Snow began to fall; Liam donned his fur-lined hood to keep his perfectly coiffed dark hair dry. “I expected to be happy when Ilyas told me the two of you slept together, you know. I suppose I was happy—for him.”
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “But you know I loved him. For years.”
“I know.” He focused on the swaying willow branches, his emerald green eyes distant. “It felt wrong to be jealous. He deserved to know what it was like to be with a beautiful woman. I hated myself. And yet—I couldn’t stop feeling that way. I guess I thought I deserved you more.”
“And therein lies the true reason we’ve always been no more than friends,” she said. “I’m not an object to be possessed and discarded.”
“No,” he said heavily, his breath a puff of fog in the air. “And Ilyas never coveted you. I envy his temperament.”
“I’m not sure where he got it.”
Aria bit her bottom lip before she said, “Don’t you think it would be silly for us to even try? Four years, and we never crossed the line. Even after your wife died. I didn’t know it still plagued you.”
“‘Plagued’ isn’t the right word.”
He met her gaze, his mouth twisted in a grimace. “I’ve never felt the way I do about you. I don’t know what else to do except wish, with every fiber of my being, that I could be a man you loved uniquely in return.”
“I do love you uniquely.”
“But it’s not enough.”
“Because what we are isn’t healthy, Liam. I won’t spend my life tiptoeing around your mood swings, and you’d grow bored of me eventually, especially as my beauty fades with age. I love you, but we don’t work. And—that’s not even to mention that you never took me seriously as a romantic prospect until I had already fallen in love with your brother.”
“I did,” he said quietly. “I just…didn’t know what to say. The mourning period for my wife hadn’t ended yet.”
“You never observed that in private.”
Liam sighed. “All we are is dead ends and problems, Aria.”
“Which is why we agreed that our alliance should remain strictly political.”
His jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth. “Valtteri will make his own inquiries. I’ve disposed of all evidence of your past before Arramas, and that matter of your infertility was mysteriously cured a few years ago. But he will find out about your liaisons.”
“No one knew about Ilyas.”
“But your minor flirtations. King Kapriel of Draserune, that courtier Thallan from the Snowlands. And he would be a fool not to question our relationship.”
She swallowed. “What will you say?”
“I’ll protect you, as I always have. I’ll say I think nothing of you; I’ll take another lover while I’m here. Perhaps I’ll even help you and seduce Lady Mischa away.”
Aria stepped closer to him. “What will it cost us, Liam?”
He met her eyes a little facetiously. “What do these things cost? What’s the difference between living one lie and another?”
She frowned. “That depends on the nature of the lie, I should think.”
“The noble Ice Queen, who values honesty above all else, admits to some morally grey areas, then?”
“I admit that your existential philosophy will always be a special case.”
Liam smirked. “Sometimes I have these moments of complete clarity, where I feel like my true self. They’re always with you. But I’ll let you go if it gives you the chance at your misguided desire for simple happiness. With me…things would always be tangled, and dark, and broken.”
Aria closed the gap between them, nestling herself against his side. He wrapped one arm around her waist automatically.
“I can’t save you, Liam,” she whispered.
“No,” he said gently. “And I love you too much to beg you to reconsider.”
She closed her eyes, inhaling his scent. “So we agree, then. Valtteri.”
Liam rested his chin atop her head. Aria could feel the tension in his jaw.
“We agree,” he said. “You should take Valtteri as your king.”