Heavy doors behind her shut with an ominous thump. Aria relied on her captors to guide her across the throne room, the marble floor cold through the worn leather of her boots. The canvas sack on her head was decidedly coarse, and the ropes binding her hands caked with mud. She came to a stop at the prompting of the man on her right, and the throne room, already quiet, fell completely silent.
Aria looked to her feet as the canvas sack slipped from her head. Blinking at the candlelight, she allowed the guard on her left to flatten her hair, pushing it back from her face so she was more recognizable. When her sight had adjusted, she flicked her gaze up to the man on the throne.
Halfway between sitting and standing, Alistair stared at her with wide eyes, his chest rising and falling with quick breath, and his hands clenching the white marble arms of the throne. He hadn’t gotten word of her exploits in the Southern Arm, then.
Aria blinked at Alistair, expressionless, as he collapsed back into his seat. She’d been eight years old the last time she saw him—she expected him to look different. But this was something else. The cloudiness of his gaze was gone—his big blue eyes, a touch darker than hers, now had a sharpness behind them that she’d never known. Once stockier than most men of the Ice Realm nobility, Alistair had grown thinner, leaner, and harder—and where he had previously been almost perpetually disheveled, an aura of control now defined his appearance and his demeanor.
“She was caught in the Southern Arm,” the guard on Aria’s right said. “Prince Valtteri gave her up. She claims to be your sister, Aria—our exiled queen in the north.”
“Leave us,” Alistair said, lifting one hand dismissively.
“My king?” a guard behind him asked—captain of the kingsguard, by his silver tunic.
Alistair glanced back at him, brow furrowed. “Go. That’s an order.”
“An imposter—she could be dangerous.”
“She’s nothing of the sort. Now get out.”
The few courtiers in the throne room scuttled away first, followed by Alistair’s council and the guards. Aria’s captors left her bound.
Rising from the throne, Alistair looked Aria over with his head tilted slightly, his expression one of uncertainty and wonder. The doors slammed closed behind Aria, once again, in an equally ominous manner.
She took a deep breath as Alistair descended the steps. He approached her cautiously, like a wounded animal, his gaze never leaving hers. When he had padded within a meter of her, she lifted her chin.
“Can we speak a little more humanely?” she asked, voice raspy from disuse. She lifted her bound hands and raised an eyebrow.
Alistair untied the rope delicately and deftly, even despite the mud clogging the knot. Once he had freed her wrists, he tossed the rope aside; Aria continued to hold his gaze as she ran her free hands through her hair to tame it.
“You’re back,” Alistair said.
“I’m back,” she said.
He looked her over, one hand rising to cup her jaw. Aria stepped closer to his warmth, still staring up at him almost defiantly.
“You don’t look anything like her,” he murmured. “Or him. You transcended them. I should have known.”
She tipped her head more deeply into his palm. “The first few years of your reign were marked by turmoil. But now they say you’re just and true. I wouldn’t know; my brother never wrote me.”
“I’ve never been much for letters…you knew that when you left. But I stopped drinking. For us.”
“What a difference sobriety makes.”
His eyes raked her again. “I may not drink anymore, but I never stopped hating mother for what I found out. Him, too.”
“So you still hate King Ezra as much as you hated my father?”
“More. They were lovers, but he raped her, you know. She carried me to term out of spite for him, and then hated me on his behalf as well.”
“Ah. Then I can see why you didn’t tell me the whole story when I was eight.”
Shaking his head, Alistair embraced her. Aria melted into his arms, closing her eyes when he kissed her hair.
“When it began, my motives were weak, but my intentions were pure,” Alistair said. “I hated mother so much, I wanted to destroy her legacy.”
She nodded absentmindedly. “They found me quickly, as you anticipated. I was only in the brothels for a few days before the king came for me on your information and placed me with a noble family.”
“I told the realm that mother was the one who sent you away because she didn’t want you to succeed her. With all her other faults…the fact that I killed her, and your father, and took the throne for myself was forgiven more quickly than we guessed. Especially when I said I held it in your name while you recovered from the betrayal in the north. But I hope you can forgive me, sister, for the years of turmoil while I sobered up.”
“Half sister,” she said with a small smile. “And you’re forgiven. You did as you promised—you united the realm. Prince Valtteri is your man through and through, judging by my arrest.”
“And you—did you do as we planned?”
Aria peeked up at him. “The family’s son was ten years my senior, and I rarely saw him before I turned sixteen. But after that…I only had two years to infiltrate the king’s inner circle, and the son was courting me the entire time. By the time I left, it was getting hard to reject his advances.”
“We might have swung it,” Alistair said. “The nobility accepted that you may have northern influences when you came back. You could have married him.”
“I didn’t want to without asking you first,” she said.
Alistair kissed her forehead in lieu of reply.
“I did everything you asked,” Aria said. “I lived by my title as the exiled queen of the Ice Realm. I built a strong political relationship with King Sireno on the basis of the trade I could offer upon my return to the throne. When I came back here, I went first to the Southern Arm to test their loyalty. Valtteri turned me over as an imposter for all the mistakes I made on purpose under his roof. Ten years, and we’ve ended up precisely where we planned.”
“For the briefest moment, I doubted that you and I could be a team like this. I thought perhaps I would have to do it all on my own…and we both know I would have failed, in the end.”
“I was young. But we were best friends, Alistair. I never doubted you.”
“I had to kill,” Alistair said. “Witnesses who knew mother hadn’t ordered you away. Guards, maids, cooks. Until our story was the only plausible explanation. Our mother’s reign has crumbled—she looks as weak and ineffectual as she truly was. Only one thing remains.”
Aria nodded. “And I assume you’re still determined.”
“Oh, yes. I’m going to kill him. I hated her, but I loathe him.”
“Well, at least you planned for the political implications. And back in your drunken days, no less.”
He tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through.”
“It was a breeze, Alistair. I didn’t have to run the kingdom as well.”
He smirked. “I think you’ll be impressed with the seat you take at the end of this. Are you ready to begin?”
“I’m ready to fulfill the grudge you’ve been holding for ten years. When it’s done, it’s time to move on, dearest.”
“Ezra is a decent king, but a disgusting man. When it’s over, I’ll be at peace. I swear to you.”
“I knew his son, Weston, in the north. He wanted him dead too, you know, and would give anything for his brother to lose the throne.”
“We’re not giving it to him, either.”
She laughed. “No. The Forest Realm is primed to fall—we’ll take it with our new military strength from the north, and we’ll rule it ourselves. Weston will step aside for me.”
Alistair shook his head with an indulgent look. “You did quite a bit of maneuvering up there, didn’t you?”
“Oh, Alistair. I had ten years. I did much more than you know.”
“All hail the queen,” he said. “This seat wasn’t made for me—I can’t wait to hand it back.”
Aria grinned. “Don’t be too hasty. You’ll have to be one of my advisors for the rest of your days, after all.”
Alistair chuckled. “It may have been my plan, but you were the main player. If only this realm knew how little advice you actually need.”