“Don’t you ever find it strange,” Aria said, passing her empty wine glass off to a waiter, “that we spend all this time dancing in ballrooms and eating feasts in preparation for war?”
Liam didn’t look at her, as he was in the midst of making smoldering eye contact with Mischa, a few meters away; out of the corner of his mouth, though, he said, “Are you calling the nobility frivolous, Aria?”
“I’ve only ever called you frivolous, Liam.”
“I take it as a compliment.”
“Gods, of course you would.”
He flicked his eyes to her for the briefest of moments, a look of amusement upon his face. “You’re making it very hard to execute this plan of ours.”
“Fine, fine. Go distract Mischa. I just saw Valtteri come in—I’ll ask him to dance.”
They exchanged facetious smiles before splitting in opposite directions. Valtteri noticed Aria’s trajectory and stood a little straighter, his attention drifting from his brother Conall and another noble.
“Prince Valtteri,” Aria said, smiling with as much radiance as she could muster. “Are you dancing this evening?”
“I could be persuaded,” he said, as his companions melted away into the crowd.
“Maybe you’ll find what I say less tedious than Liam did. I asked him if he thought it was strange that we spend so much time dancing and feasting before we go to war.”
Valtteri took her arm to lead her towards the dance floor. “It’s certainly jarring to be home one day and in a war camp the next. I still haven’t gotten used to it.”
“It’s almost like the woes of the realm feel more distant in here.”
“That’s certainly an issue I think many noble houses face. How to connect with the peasants when opportunities for contact are discretionary?”
“How do you do it?”
The orchestra struck up a slower tune that excluded the brass musicians, who generally played upbeat, high-energy pieces. Aria and Valtteri found a place in line and began to dance a graceful, flowing set with the rest of the court.
“I see myself as relatively empathetic,” he said. “I don’t struggle to put myself in their place. I try to think of what they might say before I take an action that would affect the entire Arm. Even so, the tyranny of Alistair can feel distant when we live courtly lives as we always have. I’m beginning to find it grating—I want us to find a way to end this, and soon.”
“But when it’s over, will we not simply return to this?”
“Yeah…but maybe I’ll feel less guilty.”
They smiled at each other. A few couples down in the line, Liam danced with Mischa, who giggled uncontrollably. Valtteri didn’t seem to notice.
“He knows you’re here,” Valtteri said as he and Aria rotated in a circle. “Alistair. He sent me a message about an hour ago.”
Aria stopped dancing abruptly. “What did it say?”
He glanced at the couples around them and caught sight of Mischa, who clung to Liam’s arm as he whispered in her ear. His posture immediately tightened; Aria grasped his wrist.
“Valtteri,” she said urgently. “What did the message say?”
He met her eyes again, reluctantly, but Aria wasted no time in guiding him towards the edge of the ballroom. When she halted and turned to him, Valtteri’s attention had returned to her fully.
“Alistair,” Aria said.
“It was just a threat. He said if I didn’t hand you over, then he would take my head. But he can’t reach us here. We’re too well protected.”
“You’re sure?” she asked. “He said you had to turn me over, and threatened violence if you didn’t?”
He furrowed his brow. “Yes…wait, why do you look so nervous?”
“I need to see the letter,” she said.
She ground her teeth together. “I just need to. Can you get it?”
“I burned it, Aria. I promise you, it was just a threat. He’s sent plenty since I seceded.”
She touched her hair, biting her lip. “How did he say it? What were the words he used?”
“I don’t know…I only glanced over it. Why are you asking? What do you know?”
Aria shook her head and turned her back on him in an attempt to catch Liam’s eye. The dance had ended, but not his dalliance with Mischa, who fiddled with her hair, cheeks flushed, as he smirked at her. Regardless, Liam’s eyes flicked to Aria in an instant, as if he heard her silent plea through whatever elemental connection they’d developed in their years together; he sidestepped Mischa mid sentence, leaving her completely bewildered.
“What is it?” Liam asked as soon as he reached her.
“You,” Valtteri spat behind them.
Aria and Liam ignored him.
“There’s something important I need to tell you,” Aria said. “We need to go upstairs.”
“Of course, dearest,” Liam said. He glanced at Valtteri and rolled his eyes. “Oh, what, prince? Spit it out.”
Aria looked over her shoulder. Valtteri was thunderous.
“Don’t flirt with her,” he snapped. “You know she’s mine.”
Liam cocked a brow. “She may be. But are you hers?”
Valtteri blinked, his eyes finding Aria and flitting away just as quickly. “That’s a ridiculous assertion. You—you humiliate me when you flirt with her like that. I won’t allow it in my own house.”
One corner of Liam’s mouth slid upwards. “Mmm. And yet it took you so long to notice.”
Aria placed her hand on Liam’s chest as Valtteri bristled. She gave Liam a quelling look, to which he grinned.
“Upstairs,” she said.
Liam passed them both a cheeky bow and departed without another word. Aria glanced back at Valtteri.
“Next time you get a letter from Alistair, don’t burn it. Give it to me.”
He frowned. “Will you at least tell me why?”
She swallowed. “That, prince, is a level of trust I don’t think we have yet.”
Mischa joined them, her flush from Liam no longer visible. Aria met her gaze, and then Valtteri’s, the faintest tinge of sorrow in her expression. She knew Valtteri clocked it by the way his frown grew more pronounced.
“Goodnight,” she murmured, leaving the ballroom in a manner that could easily be interpreted as fleeing. Liam met her outside her chambers, his cheeky facade completely gone—replaced instead by worry.
“You’re pale,” he said, opening the doors for them to slip inside. “What did he say to you?”
Aria shook off the mask of a woman who manipulated Valtteri’s emotions with a flick of her chin. “He got a letter from Alistair.”
Liam perked up. “Gods of old. Where is it?”
“He burned it,” she said, plopping down on her bed and burying her face in her hands.
“Mihri,” he spat. “And so he carelessly disposed of our first opportunity for an easy peace. You think it held the message we’ve been waiting for?”
“Valtteri said it was a threat,” Aria said. “It couldn’t have been anything else. That was the code we agreed on.”
“Why couldn’t he just send a messenger? We could have met one in the city, secretly.”
“I’d like to see us get away with that—the nobility watch me enough as it is. I’m not sneaking out of the castle anytime soon, and any obvious communication with the madman who runs this realm would only reflect poorly on me. And so we made the code—something in-character that he could send to whomever I was staying with.”
“But now we can’t be sure.”
“Precisely. But…maybe we can still find a way to reply.”
Scowling, he said, “Casimir?”
She nodded. “Casimir.”
They both sighed.
“Trust is such a delicate thing…” Liam said.
“I know. But this changes everything,” Aria said. “All our plans here…they were predicated on Alistair ignoring that letter I sent him before we left Arramas. I never thought he would respond, but it would appear we were wrong about him. I can’t be certain, but I feel certain enough.”
“Not all plans have changed. You still need Valtteri.”
She grimaced. “Yes…I still need him.”
“But the rest of it,” Liam said. “This means Alistair may want to consider our terms.”
“This means there might not be war. This means you and I could end this before it even starts. Or it did—before Valtteri burned the letter.”
Liam shrugged. “I suppose we’re lucky then, dearest, that we’ve spent so much time planning for every inevitability. What’s another one thrown into the mix?”
Aria laughed. “I’m glad one of us is thinking positively.”