Whatever embarrassing conversation might have been due after Liam’s behavior the previous evening, Thallan from the Snowlands skirted it easily by leaving Aria a message early the next morning. She awoke to a note in neat, tight handwriting indicating his intentions to spend the day in Arramas.
Alas, I will be unable to meet with you today, Thallan wrote. Please forgive me, and allow me to call upon you some other time.
Aria knew there would never be another time. Liam would make sure of that.
Her second day in the palace began with an exclusive breakfast attended by the elite of Iotorathi nobles. Liam arrived late, his hair ruffled, and was in the midst of doing up the last buttons on his tunic when he took his seat. He met Aria’s eyes briefly, apathetic, and she knew Lukas had been right—there were no apologies or mitigating circumstances headed her way.
“Nice of you to arrive, Prince Liam,” one of the lords said. “You were absent for the discussion on land prices last night.”
“I had a proposition that needed immediate claiming,” he said.
Several of the lords snickered. King Taiseer swallowed a mouthful of wine.
“You’ll end things with her,” he told his son. “If you’re to have a mistress, she needs to be better than some woman of half common blood.”
Aria watched Liam’s reaction as she cut open her poached eggs. He flicked his eyes to her before replying, “That can be arranged.”
Nearly all of the lords looked to Aria for a reaction. She merely continued to eat, the pit of her stomach burning with humiliation. She couldn’t extricate herself from any of this—so what was the point of showing emotion? Surely these men knew better than to expect foolishness from her.
“Princess Aria,” King Taiseer said, waving a hand in her direction. “Your mother made this match for the benefits it would provide her realm, but I wonder whether she ever told you what your role would be here.”
Aria set aside her fork. “No, your grace. She neglected to provide much relevant information.”
“Liam doesn’t exactly relish his required duties with the common people. But you were reported as a favorite among the peasants. You’ll maintain our good name.”
“Gladly, your grace.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, not unkindly. “I hope I shouldn’t expect any trouble from you, Princess Aria.”
She tipped her head. “Whatever would make you think I would be trouble?”
One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Just something your brother said about you.”
Panic rose in Aria before she could stop it, and yet she maintained a straight face when she said, “Pardon?”
“Your brother. Prince Alistair. Your mother provided a long list of terms for the match, one of which was the imprisonment of your brother in Iotorath. I lament to say that we had to murder an entire honor guard from one of your prince’s retinues—Southern Arm, I gather. But Alistair submitted in the end.” He shrugged. “He mentioned you can be a bit recalcitrant.”
She swallowed. “And did my mother say why she requested such terms?”
“She seemed to think I wouldn’t trust her unless I had her entire house by the throat. She wasn’t correct, but I wasn’t going to dissuade her of that fact, either.”
Aria loosed a dark laugh before she could stop herself. Taiseer and Liam exchanged a look—the former taken aback, and the latter bemused.
“You laugh, princess?” Taiseer asked.
She leaned back in her chair, taking a sip of her drink. Her skin prickled with the heat of fear, but outwardly, she maintained her calm demeanor. She’d been watched since she was a child—she knew how to hide her true feelings. Valtteri and Lukas were the only ones she didn’t hide from anymore.
“I merely forget, sometimes, what an incompetent leader my mother is,” Aria said, setting her drink back on the table. “I laugh because when she does remind me, it’s always in the most ridiculous way possible.”
Taiseer chuckled, and, after a few seconds, the rest of his lords followed suit; Liam, across the table, leaned his chin onto his hand, his expression contemplative.
“Quite so, princess,” Taiseer said, still smiling. “Perhaps I misjudged you.”
“I should hope so, if you used similar parameters.”
“I expected you to cry and beg to see your brother.”
She lifted a shoulder. “You can keep him.”
The men all laughed, some rather cruelly. As if in response, Liam’s consideration of her took on a threatening edge. She remembered Valtteri’s words from the previous evening—his faith in her strength—and tried to be brave.
“You’re free to see him when he arrives,” Taiseer said, gesturing to a servant for another helping of cured meat. “I see I’ll have no trouble working with you.”
Aria smiled coyly. “Of course not, your grace.”
Breakfast ended half an hour later when Taiseer and a few of the nobles closest to him departed to speak of business. Aria left the dining room with the intention of bolting back to her rooms, but Liam caught her arm before she could do so, guiding her to an empty chamber a few doors down. Once, the room might have been a study; now, though, rich red cloth covered the disused furniture, and the curtains over the windows were drawn.
Aria yanked her arm from Liam’s grasp, her skin still hot with fear and anger. In a second, though, she had pushed it all aside, standing a little taller, her posture confrontational.
Liam crossed his arms, his stature menacing in the gloom. “It would seem I didn’t make myself clear enough last night.”
“You made yourself very clear.”
His green eyes bored into her. Even despite her facade of bravery, when he moved closer, Aria retreated a step back.
“No, it obviously wasn’t clear,” he hissed. “I thought I told you I had decided what you would be before you got here. That includes what my father thinks of you.”
His hand came out of nowhere, striking her across the face with such force, Aria collapsed to the ground. She let out a little yip of surprise, and Liam turned to slam the doors of the study closed.
“Make one more noise, and I’ll hit you again,” he said, looming over her. She looked up at him, trembling. “Get back to your chambers, and stay there until your face heals. I don’t want to hear a word from you, or about you, until then.”
She cradled her cheek with one hand, tears spilling from her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” he snapped. “Because if you don’t understand what I’m saying, clearly I haven’t put you in enough pain.”
“Why you hate me,” she said, her voice weak.
Liam ground his teeth together, crouching in front of her with a look of pure loathing. “I hate the idea of you, Princess Aria. I have no interest in getting to know who you really are.”
More tears slid down her cheeks, but she held his gaze nonetheless, shaking.
“Let me know if physical pain isn’t enough,” he said, rising to his full height. “Now that your brother is on his way here, I can hurt you in other ways, too.”
“It’s enough,” Aria whispered.
Liam flung the doors open and stormed away, leaving her alone on the dusty floor.