“Good morning, my queen,” Valtteri said when Aria met him outside the second floor dining room for breakfast. His admirer, Mischa, waited one step behind him, wringing her hands.
“Good morning,” Aria said. Liam made a beeline through the doors for one of many bottles of spiced rum dotting the huge wooden dining table; he merely nodded to the prince as he passed.
“That’s…” Valtteri said, as if he would stop him. Liam poured himself a drink with a glass from the nearest place setting. “Okay.”
Aria swallowed a laugh. “It’s for the best. He isn’t pleasant when he’s hungover.”
Mischa nudged Valtteri with her elbow.
“Oh, my queen,” he said, reaching back to place a hand on Mischa’s waist. “This is Lady Mischa of House Sevarov. I realized I hadn’t introduced you yet. It was quite rude of me.”
Mischa curtsied, and Aria dipped her head.
“Lady Mischa,” she said. “You’re in such a lovely dress this morning.”
“Thank you,” she said, blushing. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“You as well. I hear good things about you from the court.”
Liam rejoined the congregation just outside the doors to the dining room; he sidled up to Aria’s side, winking at her when she cocked a brow.
“I tried a new kind of alcohol last night,” Liam said, sipping his drink. “I’m afraid it was stronger than I anticipated.”
“Our home grown rye whiskey is the strongest in the east, or so I’ve heard,” Valtteri said. “I’m afraid I’ve never been much for the taste.”
“It leaves something to be desired,” Liam said. “So, prince, who is the lovely girl on your arm?”
Valtteri introduced Mischa as she turned another brilliant shade of red, leaving Aria to wonder how the girl functioned with so much blood rushing to her face. Liam struck up conversation in his usual affable, charming manner—and, a moment later, had drawn Mischa aside. Valtteri turned to Aria.
“He kind of comes out of nowhere, doesn’t he?”
She laughed. “You get used to it.”
The steward motioned for drinks to be served as the court waited on the gallery for breakfast. Aria accepted a cup of cider, relishing the warmth of the tankard in the crisp air; light snow fell in the inner courtyard, and a few flakes drifted into the palace between marble columns.
“I thought we could talk about the war after breakfast,” Valtteri said.
She nodded. “I’d like to see what you have planned. Liam and I drew up some strategies of our own.”
He glanced at his feet. “My nobles have expressed some…discomfort with allowing Liam to be present in our councils.”
“Oh, I expected as much. It can just be me.”
He shifted. “That’s not really a guarantee of confidence.”
“No,” she said. “I’m afraid I can’t give you that.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t want this to be uncomfortable, or a struggle. But the realm has been without a strong leader for a long time. And there’s a lot of distrust in the nobility.”
“I know,” she said. “I understand, and I expected as much. But there was no mention of objection to the support of the west in this endeavor. I’m afraid the price of that is my relationship with Liam.”
“Which is what, precisely?” Valtteri asked. She had to give him credit—he didn’t sound remotely confrontational. Just curious.
“Liam is my best friend,” Aria said. “He kept me safe from the fate Alistair tried to subject me to—a fate I fully expect Alistair to lie about when he realizes what undermining me could gain him. Liam is the only reason I stand before you today, whole. I won’t sully that by discounting his influence.”
“What will Alistair say about you?”
“He tried to sell me into prostitution. Liam found me before then.”
Valtteri nodded, frowning. “I see we owe him quite a debt.”
“Yes. So you can imagine I don’t intend to treat him as an outsider. This fight is for my throne, but I wouldn’t have been able to come home again without him.”
“I understand,” he said as his steward motioned for breakfast to be served. “I apologize for what I said.”
“No apology necessary,” she said. “Your questions are legitimate. I want us to be honest with each other.”
“I’d like that as well.”
The nobility filed into the dining room for breakfast, casting inquisitive looks at Aria along the way. When they had all seated themselves, she and Liam followed Valtteri to the head of the table, where they sat to his right; Mischa took the seat on his left. Aria tallied the nobles who looked suspicious for later consideration.
“She’ll be easy,” Liam murmured, his elbow brushing Aria’s as he reached for a rum refill. “Insecure and starved for affection.”
“Don’t move without me,” Aria whispered to her lap.
He consented by his silence. Valtteri waved for his servants to distribute the assembled breakfast plates around the table; in the ensuing shuffle, Liam made eye contact with Mischa and winked cheekily. She flushed again.
“How are you enjoying your stay so far?” Valtteri asked Aria, spearing a sausage with his fork.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “This area of the realm is beautiful, and I love this palace. It reminds me of Arramas.”
“The Southern Arm has traditionally been a bit more self sufficient than the other princedoms,” he said. “I was excited for the opportunity to show you how we live before you see other areas of the realm. Some of my nobles worry about their representation in the new regime.”
“I intend to be as fair as possible,” she said. “Not all Arms can be dealt with equally if they face different problems, of course, but we shouldn’t have trouble finding solutions if we work together.”
“How do things operate in the west?” Valtteri asked.
Liam ignored his food in favor of his drink. “The population difference makes it a silly comparison, the Ice Realm and the west. Aria has been studying political theory that applies more directly to her situation.”
“I used to study political theory a lot, too,” Valtteri said. “I find it doesn’t hold much weight in practice.”
“You’re not doing it right,” Liam said.
Aria shot him a quelling look that was nonetheless tinged with amusement. “In any case, I hope our meeting today can allay the fears of some of your nobles.”
“I hope so too. It will be a good setting in which to get to know you.”
“Since I’m not invited,” Liam said, “I was planning on touring the city. Do you know of anyone who might show me around?”
Valtteri shrugged. “One of my brothers, certainly.”
“Ah, you can’t spare anyone fairer? Not that I wouldn’t be interested in a tour from Casimir—I bet he has a lot of interesting stories.”
“I could take him,” Mischa volunteered.
Aria forced back a groan—it was too easy, and Liam grew more arrogant with each effortless ensnarement.
“You’re fair enough, I suppose,” Liam said, leaning back in his chair. “I can ask you scandalous questions about the prince.”
“I’ll send Casimir, too,” Valtteri said quickly.
Liam glanced at Aria. She’d spent enough time with him to recognize when he resisted the urge to smirk.
“Have a nice morning,” he said, tossing back the rest of his drink.
“You too,” Aria said. You admirable, manipulative bastard, she thought.