Aria dreamed of that day often—the fateful day she became queen at eight years old—though she always blocked a few details out.
She never saw her parent’s bodies again, nor did she see the blood or remember the fright. Often she would just skip over it, as if her subconscious mind recognized that she was too young to deal with their deaths. She would dream of her lesson with the tutor, and then transition smoothly into the evening, when she and Alistair had met in the study. Lately, though, she’d begun experiencing flashes—little details she had long pushed aside. She awoke the morning of her fifteenth birthday feeling as though she could once again smell the sharp metallic scent of blood.
Sitting up in bed, Aria rubbed her face with both hands, her skin prickling. Two of her lady’s maids brought over her clothes for the day and a basin of water to wash her face in. Sunlight streamed through the wide, sweeping windows overlooking the bustling city of Suvid, capital of the Ice Realm.
“Joy on your birthday, my queen,” one of the maids said, grinning.
Aria dried her face, emerging with a smile. “Thank you, Ellia.” She rose to slip into a simple cotton dress offered by her other maid; nearly everything in her room was white, including the gauzy curtains pulled aside to welcome the morning sunlight, but her dress for the day was a bright, icy blue.
“The king sent a note,” Ellia said.
“He’d like you to join him for breakfast.”
“He’s back?” Aria asked, her heart skipping a beat.
“Just last night.”
How long had it been since she’d seen him? Nearly a year, and even when she did see him—for minutes, at most. Aria took extra care to braid her hair into a more intricate style before placing her sapphire and diamond crown atop her onyx locks.
“There are some very important things I need to tell you,” Alistair had said in the study seven years ago. Their parent’s bodies were still in the throne room—they hadn’t even grown cold. “Your tutor says you’re smart, but I know it’s more than that. Aria, do you trust me?”
She nodded immediately.
“Good girl.” He guided her into a chair, making sure she was comfortable before he continued, “I’m not your brother, Aria—not by blood. That’s the first thing you should know. Your parents took me as a ward when I was a baby. I’m from a lesser noble family.”
“I know,” Aria said. “Mother told me ages ago.”
“Out of spite, I assume.”
“She told me to stop hoping for you to spend time with me.”
He shook his head. “That sounds right. Now, listen—there’s some significance in me being taken as a ward. Your mother didn’t want to take a baby girl when it became clear she would have trouble producing one of her own. Do you understand why?”
“Because she was scared to pass the throne to a woman who might outdo her, Aria. One day—I’ll tell you what she was really like, your mother. For now, this should do. She couldn’t have a girl—an heir of her own. So she took a ward, and she adopted me, a boy.”
“But you can’t be a queen.”
“Precisely. And neither are the laws of the realm so forgiving. After your mother announced my adoption, the nobility worked for nigh on a decade to unseat her, unless she could produce a natural female heir. So your parents bowed to pressure—they kept trying. And then they had you.”
“But—then it was all okay, wasn’t it?”
“Your mother never ceased worrying that her legacy would be destroyed by a stronger woman. She lived in this state of perpetual fear that her pitiful accomplishments would be forgotten in favor of a queen more worthy of the title.” He paused. “I worry that this is too much for you to understand all at once, Aria…”
Aria sat up in her chair. “No—I understand. She was scared.”
He clenched his teeth before he continued, “I was ten years old when they had you, and for the first few years, they did try. Your parents forgot about me entirely—told me I was useless, since I was a ward. They sent me away, once, but my family wouldn’t take me back. And, of course, you say your mother told you that I wasn’t truly part of this family. She didn’t need me anymore, and the tide of the realm’s opinion had turned in her favor once again.”
“Hush. I’m all right. But while I had hoped that maybe neglecting me and favoring you would be the end of the story—it didn’t take long for your mother to realize what you were. By the time you were five, the fright had overtaken her completely. Your mother knew you would destroy her—that the realm would beg her to abdicate to you. So she hatched a plan.”
Aria swallowed. “What kind of plan?”
“To send you away,” Alistair said. “I discovered her intentions a few weeks ago. Aria, are you following what I’m saying?”
She held his gaze, confused.
“She was going to get rid of you,” he said. “I don’t know what her plan was for the realm, or for passing on the throne, but the plan to send you off was in its final stages.”
“Where was I to go?”
He grimaced. “Promise me something.”
She shook her head. “What?”
“Promise me that you won’t ask me again until you’re older.”
“I found her plans,” he said over her, “and I decided that the time had come to confront her. I know I haven’t been the most—present, of all of us here, but I do care about you, Aria. I couldn’t allow it. I went to the throne room—hoping, I guess, that perhaps I could make her and your father see sense. But they tried to arrest me.”
Aria’s skin grew cold. “So you…”
“Yes. I had my sword.”
She pulled her knees into her chest, dumbstruck.
“But Aria, you must see—I have no claim to the throne. I’m not even a blood relative. Your mother made sure to hold every provision of inheritance back from me once you were born. The throne has only to pass to you.”
“But I’m only eight!”
He took her hand. “I know. But I can help you. Do you want my help?”
She furrowed her brow, biting the inside of her cheek.
Alistair knelt at the foot of the chair, still holding her hand. “I understand that I’ve put you in a very difficult position. It may feel like you have no choice in what I’m about to ask you. But I promise you, Aria, if you say no, I will find you another regent. This throne will pass to you when you’re old enough to rule. I knew that before I acted.”
She nodded, slowly.
“I have no claim to anything in your life save by the grace of two people who are dead now. And even their grace was lacking. But we can make a contract that gives me the authority to help you and care for you, if you trust me to do what’s right.”
“What kind of contract?” she asked.
He swallowed before he said, “Marriage.”
Aria jerked her hand back from his grasp. “What?”
Alistair lifted a palm appeasingly. “Aria, I’m not your blood relative. By our laws, since your inability to rule is by nature of age instead of illness, I can’t be your regent as we are right now. The only other option for a regent would have been someone appointed by your mother before her death, but your mother never gave you a legal guardian. You can appoint someone who has a legal connection to you after her death, but obviously that assumes you aren’t a baby or toddler unable to assist in such a thing. Your mother is gone, and she left you without provision. And no matter how young you are, I can’t take the queen as a ward in an attempt to seal a legal connection of that kind. You stand alone. However…I can marry you.”
Sitting back in her chair, her mouth agape, Aria said, “Is—is this the only way?”
Alistair reached for her hand again, and she allowed him to take it. “I don’t claim to be as well-educated as you are, Aria, but I’m eighteen years old. I’ve studied the laws of our realm—your parents did still deign to give me a tutor. From all I can see, from all I researched after I found out what your mother was doing—I think this is the only way. But if you don’t want my protection…we can figure something else out.”
Even to one so young, the question had lingered in the air: Did she trust him? If she did, his offer of protection meant more than she could possibly comprehend at eight years old. If she didn’t, she had only to tell him to find her another regent. Aria had hated her mother that night—hated her selfishness and short-sightedness more than anything in the world.
But she had married Alistair.