Buried in a disused study somewhere in Suvid, a scroll existed in broken, childish handwriting granting Alistair the authority to act as regent to Queen Aria of House Kolenikova until she turned eighteen. He didn’t like to think of that day—the morning he’d killed her parents in self defense, though with a lingering feeling of satisfaction as they bled out—and thus he kept reminders to a minimum. The noble houses had long accepted that his marriage to the eight year old queen hadn’t been the beginning of a coup—nothing drove him so genuinely as the desire to protect her from harm. No, the scroll served only as a physical reminder of how he’d struggled the last seven years. More so at the beginning, of course, but things had never been easy.
As soon as Aria burst through the doors of the dining room, though, he forgot those difficulties entirely.
They met halfway around the table in a warm embrace, and Alistair couldn’t help but grin at her excitement. True, they’d been parted for nearly a year—his duties kept him away, most of the time, but he also stayed distant in an attempt to give Aria space. He wanted her to become her own woman, uninfluenced by his opinions or traits; he always thought she deserved to find her own voice. Luckily she’d been young enough that her atrocious mother hadn’t yet ruined her perception of the world. He wouldn’t taint her with his.
“By the gods, Aria,” Alistair said, pulling back from their embrace. “You look different every time I see you.”
“So see me more,” she scolded. “You look the same. Haven’t you aged at all?”
“I can’t see how I haven’t. The nobles never let me sleep a full night.”
She pinched his arm, then brushed her hand over his jet black hair. She’d nearly reached her full height, just a few inches shy of him.
“Still in shape, I see,” she said. “So they haven’t kept you from sword fighting.”
“Speaking of, there have been inquiries as to who’s going to teach you.”
Her big blue eyes widened further. “Seriously? I can start learning?”
“I’m a bit delayed. It should have been a year ago.”
“Will you teach me?”
He smiled. “I should think not. I’m mediocre. You need a true master.”
She deflated, then plopped down into the chair next to his. “So you’re not staying.”
“Have some patience, at least. I’m here for your birthday. Fifteen is an important age.”
“Apparently. My tutor finally started teaching me the interesting stuff.”
“Tonight I want to hear all about what you’ve learned. First, though, will you eat something? You’ve gotten so tall…”
“I eat enough,” she said. A servant brought her a plate of fruit. “You should get a haircut.”
“You don’t like it overgrown?” he said, joining her at the table.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Does anyone?”
He rolled his eyes. “Is that your kind way of asking me where my mistress is?”
“’These women play an important role,’” Aria said in a crude imitation of his voice. “’One day, when you need an heir, my long and documented history of infidelity will allow you to set me aside with ease.’”
“Shut up,” he said, taking a bite of his breakfast. “I need some advice from you on this lovely summer morning.”
She swallowed a bite of apple. “What kind of advice?”
“Political, I’m afraid,” he said, taking a sip of tea. He hadn’t touched alcohol in eight years.
Tipping her head, Aria said, “I was just thinking that you probably know more than I ever will about politics.”
“Not even close. I had to learn a lot as soon as we made our arrangement. The only reason I did so well was because I knew it wasn’t an option to let you down.”
She made a face at him. “What’s going on, then?”
“The prince of the Southern Arm is being his usual bullheaded self. He needs troops to explore the Wastelands.”
“He’s trying to be proactive. They assault every summer and fall, so he figures if they run across some camps out there, they can execute the inhabitants before they attack.”
“He does take the brunt of protecting the realm from them on his own Arm.”
“He’s threatening that if we don’t send troops, he’ll stop defending the realm entirely.”
“So we send troops.”
He smiled indulgently. “We can’t give in to the demands of a man like this without getting something back, or he’ll win.”
“Gods if I know. But I made the mistake of simply acquiescing years ago, and he made me regret it. You’re getting older, and he’s beginning to test your strength.”
“Giving him troops for this is condoning genocide, is it not?”
“In a sense. We’ve always considered our position against them defensive. And going on the offensive doesn’t really make sense, since their economic damage is minimal and they rarely come out ahead.”
She tapped her fingers on the table as she considered. He couldn’t help the smile blooming on his face—two years ago, she wouldn’t even have known where to start.
“What if we send him new recruits?” she finally said. “He’d have to train them, then, and basically absorb them into the Southern Arm. We’re not giving him nothing, but he’s not getting it for free.”
Alistair snapped his fingers. “Now that’s a decision a politically savvy queen would make.”
Aria grinned to herself before returning to her food. They ate in silence for a while, Alistair glancing at her on occasion; he knew she would be ecstatic at his next confession, but he wanted her to understand the significance, too.
“Aria,” he said, when they had finally finished eating, and the servants had taken their plates away, “I’m planning on staying longer than usual this time.”
He could hear the hope in her voice. “Yes. I thought permanently.”
She perked up. “Oh, Alistair—really?”
“I know I haven’t been around as much as you wanted. I swear I had my reasons. But now, I feel it would be irresponsible for me to stay away. You’re only three years from ending my regency. And…we have a lot to discuss.”
Aria bit her lip. “I know. I’ve been thinking about it lately.”
“Are you still having dreams?”
She looked to her lap. “Yes.”
His chest constricted. “I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t ever taken you into that throne room.”
She shifted in her chair. “Alistair, if you’re staying permanently—does that mean we’ll be able to figure the rest of this out?”
So she did understand. He found himself relieved at her levity. “Yes…it’s time to tie up the rest of our loose ends. Are you ready for what that means?”
Aria nodded without hesitation. “I’m ready for whatever it takes. I’m ready to be queen.”