“We didn’t grow up together,” Aria explained as she practiced her swordsmanship with Valtteri, eldest son of the prince of the Southern Arm. “I only saw him a few times when I was a child, but he was always kind to me. The day my parents died, he asked if I trusted him, and I did. That’s how the marriage came about.”
For three weeks, Aria had been staying in Reziva at the invitation of Prince Bohdan, who offered her an extended residency in his capital as a gift for her sixteenth birthday. At first, she’d only wanted to go because she’d traveled very little in her life, leaving most of those duties to Alistair—but then she’d received a letter from Valtteri, who offered her his guidance in swordplay and expressed an eagerness to meet her in person. She hadn’t realized it was the beginning of a courtship until Alistair had pointed it out with a humorous smile on his face.
“Everyone knows what I’ve been doing,” he’d told her. “And they know one day you’ll need to bear an heir for the realm. It’s time you started looking for the man who truly deserves to be king. The sooner you have a child, the sooner your seat is secure.”
And so, on a late summer evening in the courtyard of the palace in Reziva, Aria parried perfectly placed strikes from Valtteri. She’d been mediocre with a sword when she arrived in the city, but now she thought she could actually boast a talent.
“I always wondered how the arrangement came about,” Valtteri said, stepping back to sheath his blade. They’d been fighting for hours. “The first time I heard about it, we thought for certain something bad was about to happen. But then Alistair came to see us.”
“I know there were questions,” Aria said. “But for him to commit regicide without consequences…that says all I need to know about the state of the realm in those days. I think he did the right thing.”
“He claimed it was in self defense, too, which would have been difficult to disprove. We were shocked, to be sure. But your mother…she wasn’t the kind of queen any of us felt compelled to protect. Ruling the realm always seemed somewhat beyond her.”
Aria shook her head. “The Ice Realm is a harsh place to grow up.”
“I think it’s just the nobility who create such a brutal environment.”
She flashed him a facetious smile. “I don’t think Alistair has any darkness left in him since he stopped drinking, though. At least, that’s what he told me once. But I could see why you might have been worried about him taking the regency.”
“Yeah, I remember when he still drank. He was different then. Perhaps protecting what was left of your family gave him purpose.”
“He really did care about it more than my mother, and he’s not even blood.”
“And you trusted him after he’d killed your parents, having not even grown up together—not even knowing him well. I think that says as much as our lack of outrage at her death.”
Aria and Valtteri returned to the palace as the sun set. She glanced back to take in the oranges and yellows staining the sky over the jagged, snow-capped peaks on the southern side of the valley. Things looked so different down here.
Valtteri touched her lower back, and her stomach swooped.
“Can I come get you for dinner?” he asked.
She turned to him, color rising in her cheeks. “Yes. I’d like that.”
They were alone in the courtyard, the doors to the castle still closed. Valtteri leaned down to kiss her, and she accepted with an eagerness she knew revealed too much of her own desires. But no man had ever looked at her before—and Valtteri drew her in like a moth to flame. He was devastatingly handsome in the old blood way: tall and lean, with light blue eyes, an angular face, and a harshness of countenance only softened by the kindness in his voice.
“Are you really leaving next week?” he asked when they drew apart.
She nodded. “I miss Suvid. I didn’t plan to stay a whole month, even.”
“I had hoped we could spend more time together.”
“You could come up north,” she said. “Besides, I’ve been away from Alistair too long. He and I have been making plans for my transition.”
“When the time comes, and you find yourself in need of a husband…” Valtteri brushed her hair back from her face. “I hope you think of me. I’ll keep writing.”
She smiled. “I hope you do. I’m sorry to leave so soon. I didn’t expect to like this so much.”
He kissed her again in a way she felt to her toes.
“We’ll be late,” she whispered.
Valtteri pecked her lips one more time before releasing her.
On the front steps of the palace in Suvid, Alistair awaited Aria’s return with a grin on his face. He was of the old blood, like her and Valtteri, but while he was lean and hard, with sharp blue eyes, pale skin, black hair, and a harsh, intelligent face, he was shorter than the typical Ice Realm noble, his build less graceful.
Aria dismounted her horse and ran for him, meeting him halfway to the palace in a tight embrace. They spun in a circle to dispel her momentum.
“Hey,” Alistair said cheerfully. “How was it?”
“I missed you,” she said. “How were things here?”
“Not nearly as interesting, I’m sure. I got plenty of reports that you were being courted by the heir.”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “I suppose so.”
Alistair smirked. “You must have liked him, then. You’re always reserved about what you like.”
She made a face at him. “Get a life, Alistair. What’s for dinner?”
“Your favorite, of course. I didn’t want you to go traipsing off to the Spine next and end up married to Prince Dominik. He’s too old for you.”
“Valtteri is only two years younger than you! Every eligible bachelor in this kingdom is too old for me.”
“Well, there’s no denying that. And they’re all lecherous and vile, if you ask me.”
They both laughed. Once inside the castle, Alistair accompanied Aria to her chambers.
“Did you get a chance to look at what I mentioned while I was gone?” she asked.
“Yes. And I’ve looked at it a few times before. I think we can ensure no one is put in as vulnerable a position as you were if we make it a legal requirement to always have a guardian named.”
“How would that be enforced, though? Who has the authority to tell the queen what to do?”
“Well, originally, the princes were intended as a balance of power. That’s why so much authority has been delegated to them—they’re kings of their Arms in their own way. We could insist that the houses always check each other in such matters.”
“There should be some punishment, though, if the law isn’t followed. We can’t count on the honor of the queen.”
Alistair sighed. “Not anymore, no.”
“My mother proved that.”
They stopped at the doors to Aria’s chambers.
“The magistrate system is an option,” he said. “Traditionally, the queen never answered to them, but the princes have always used them to settle legal matters in their Arms. We could require the same of the queen.”
“That would be a legitimate check on her power, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes. But it may be a pain to have to answer to the magistrates on some matters, as well. I suppose we could give them power in some areas, but not others.”
“I just want to make sure no other child is put in the position I was,” Aria said. “I’ll give up power from this seat if it ensures that. I don’t much like the idea of absolute power, anyway.”
Alistair nodded, almost to himself. “Me either. We’ll figure something out. I don’t fancy putting anyone else in my position, either.”
She tipped her head. “It’s been horrible for you, hasn’t it?”
He met her gaze, his brow furrowed. She could see pain in his eyes, but also fear. “Aria, don’t think—”
“No,” she murmured. “I’ve never doubted you.”
He relaxed a little. “I just—I don’t regret it. It’s been difficult, yes, but I would do it again if the situation called for it.”
She touched his forearm. “I can never thank you properly. Not really.”
“Your words are always enough.”
She crinkled her mouth in an expression of ambivalence. Alistair smiled a little.
“Don’t worry, Aria. I didn’t do this because I sought recognition or glory. In fact, sometimes I think I did it because I knew what those things would do to me. It’s always been better for me to be checked by something, or someone. And this way I always knew that someday, I would have to answer to you. I’m not certain my mind can be trusted with too much freedom.”
“Do you want to know something, Alistair?” she said.
His raised his brows inquiringly.
“My favorite thing about you is that you recognize your weaknesses. And that you’ve always been so open about them. I hope that when I’m queen in my own right, I can bring half your awareness to the seat.”
While she hadn’t expected him to be flattered at the statement, she also hadn’t expected him to frown. Alistair considered her for a few moments with something like worry in his eyes.
“I’ve always admired you,” Aria said. “That’s all.”
He loosed a breath. “Well, thank you, Aria. That means a lot.”
“I wish we knew each other better,” she said quietly.
A corner of his mouth twitched at that. “I’ve been living here a year and I’ve still managed to disappoint you. That sounds about right.”
She laughed. “Oh, shut up. Will you get me for dinner?”
“I’ll wait right here for you.”
With a grin, she pecked his cheek. Her time in the Southern Arm had taught her more about the traditions of the nobility, and so she followed it up with a curtsy; Alistair snorted.
“How endearing,” he said. “Remind me to thank Bohdan.”
“Don’t thank him for anything,” Aria replied. “He’ll find some way to turn it against us.”
“Then you learned exactly what I’d hoped you would down there.”
She shook her head, smiling slightly. “And I think I also learned that I can’t possibly take his son as my king.”