“Lady Mischa to see you, my queen,” Aria’s lady’s maid said from the doorway.
Aria glanced up from a thick volume on political theory, surprised. Afternoon sunlight poured through the windows and her balcony; Valtteri had taken his paramour for a ride through the city not thirty minutes prior.
Mischa stepped into the room with her head bowed, curtsying meekly. “My queen.”
“Lady Mischa,” Aria said. “I thought Valtteri would monopolize much more of your time this afternoon.”
Her cheeks took on a little color. “No, my queen.”
Gesturing for Mischa to take a seat, Aria set her book aside. “What brings you to my chambers?”
“I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“As I’m always reading, it’s hard to consider the real world an interruption, per se.”
She smiled. “I was looking for King Liam. He said he had something to show me.”
“He wasn’t in his rooms?”
“No, my queen. I thought I would try here. You two are so close.”
“I haven’t seen him,” she said. “Not since lunch, anyway. But I’ll tell him you asked after him.”
She stared at her lap. Aria tipped her head, crossed her legs, and jiggled her foot at the silence that stretched between them.
“How is Valtteri today?” she asked.
Mischa flicked her eyes up, startled. “He’s—fine, my queen.”
“And you?” she prompted gently.
Her teeth grazed her bottom lip; she rotated back and forth between peering at Aria as if she teetered on the edge of saying something, and staring at the floor.
“It’s just us,” Aria said. “I hope Valtteri hasn’t been giving you any trouble.”
“I should go,” Mischa said, standing abruptly. “It was a pleasure to see you, my queen. Do please tell King Liam that I was looking for him.”
Aria remained in her seat as Mischa curtsied clumsily and scampered towards the doors. As soon as they opened, though, she stopped dead, turning a brilliant shade of red.
“Ah, Lady Mischa,” Liam said, leaning against the doorframe with a smirk nothing short of predatory. “Lovely to see you this afternoon.”
Mischa, pinned between Liam and Aria, made two attempts to escape awkwardly before she dipped into another curtsy. Liam met Aria’s gaze, his eyes dancing with mirth, then offered a hand to assist Mischa in rising.
“She was looking for you,” Aria said, standing from her chair. “You made some grand promises of a gift.”
“No,” Mischa interjected. “I—I only said you had something to show me.”
“Mmm,” Liam said. “Funny thing, I can’t recall what it was. Let me think about it when I’m in bed tonight and get back to you.”
Her eyes widened. He stepped aside, finally allowing her to flee—and, when the doors had thumped closed, cocked his head at Aria. They both chuckled.
“That poor girl,” Aria said. “She’s older than you, you know.”
“I know. But mihri if she doesn’t blush like a fifteen year old maiden.”
“Valtteri would be cross if he knew how you toyed with her.”
“She never tells Valtteri a thing because she knows he’d be cross. She likes me already.”
“What version of you do you play here?”
“The cavalier and yet endearingly earnest suitor. I show a little edge, then a little insecurity. Make myself look like a project.”
“If only she knew how close it was to the truth.”
“Only you’ll ever know that, dearest.”
Aria crossed her arms, leaning a hip against her plush armchair. They smiled at each other.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Trying not to run into Mischa, unfortunately. I told her at lunch I had something to show her, as she so charmingly confessed, but I’d intended to disappear until she drives herself mad with curiosity.”
“It’s disgusting how good you are at this.”
“I find it a little sad how few women actually see me for what I am.”
Aria pulled her hair from its braid absentmindedly. “She was supposed to be riding with Valtteri until dinner.”
He grinned. “Good. Then I’ve sown the seeds of doubt.” Sauntering over to take a seat in the parlor, Liam considered her with humor in his eyes. “Now, forget about that for a while. Talk me through the war plans one more time. I think I have a suggestion.”
She poured them both drinks. “Well, we intend to strike one of Alistair’s strongest bases in the Spine first. Weaken him more than he already has himself. Then, we ask for a parley.”
“Am I invited to the parley?”
“You’d have to be. We’re counting on you to scare him.”
“But your dear nobles don’t seem very interested in me.”
She sighed as she took a seat again. “They don’t seem very interested in me, either. I feel like they’re so worried I’m either going to turn out like Alistair or fold them into the west that they’re not giving me any chance to show them what I want to do for the realm instead.”
“I wondered. Do you think we should have a falling out?”
“Don’t tell me that’s your suggestion.”
He smiled. “You don’t like it?”
“They’ll feel more betrayed when they realize I’ve played them.”
“Our relationship could always be informal. You have wealth and strength, but no one is quite sure how. That’s how I keep the Dying Isles as a protectorate. Only you wouldn’t even have that title under your belt.”
She tapped her fingers against her glass. “Maybe. Valtteri keeps his distance in the meetings, too. Casimir is the only who with genuine warmth. I think he trusts me.”
“Valtteri will follow. He’s very close with his brother.”
“I have to be more obvious,” she said. “I need the legitimacy to get the rest of the nobles behind me. But I don’t want to steal him away.”
“Why do you think I’m working so quickly with Mischa?”
She pulled her legs onto her seat. “We have to be careful not to make her jealous in case she’s scornful. I think I’m toeing the edge of a knife with the nobles as it is.”
“There are some who like you already. We can start with them and work on the rest in tandem with Valtteri.”
“Conall has thrown behind me with his holdings in the far west—Valtteri’s middle brother, the archer. There are three houses close to the Spine who support me openly. The rest are too concentrated in certain areas of the Arm to have much influence on the nobles around them.”
“You’re not using your sexuality enough,” Liam said. “Although there’s no denying Conall is so supportive because he finds you intoxicating.”
She rolled her eyes. “So what would you suggest? I use my sexuality too much, and Valtteri will find it off-putting. You see how virginal Mischa is.”
“Don’t use it in front of him. It’s not like they’re all going to sit in conference later and discuss how much they want to fuck you.”
She snorted. “Fine. I guess I’ll try. but it’s not really my style.”
“We don’t have time for your style—which I’m sure is very morally upstanding and honorable.”
Aria ran a hand through her hair; it tumbled loose over one shoulder. “I’ll need some new dresses.”
Liam beamed. “Yes, you will.”
She loosed a laugh at the way he raked his eyes over her.
“Eastern fashion is downright skimpy these days,” he said. “I can’t wait.”