“So you step like this,” Aria said, tapping her left foot against the ground, “and then spin once. Raise your right hand so your partner can meet it when you come back together.”
Natalia, a slight, pretty girl just a year older than Aria, imitated the final move of the dance as gracefully as she could manage. She and Aria both burst into laughter.
“Gods, I’m terrible,” Natalia said, plopping onto a chaise near the windows overlooking Suvid. “My father never invites any courtiers to the castle, and he never hosts any balls. I’ve only ever danced with my maids.”
Aria waved her hand. “No matter. You’re better than you think. It just takes practice.”
Natalia sat up a little taller, smiling. Upon arrival in Suvid, her countenance could have been described as dreary; now, she had a little jump to her step. Aria had started copying the elaborate braids Natalia wore in her hair almost immediately, and Natalia had only flowered in confidence from there.
“You’ll be late to dress for dinner, my lady,” one of Natalia’s maids said. Alistair’s mistress, a maid named Olga, watched the two girls from the other side of the room, frowning. Aria hadn’t seen her with anything but a sour expression since her arrival, but she was quite pretty, if a little weak in the old blood.
“Who are we dining with?” Natalia asked Aria.
“Just Alistair. I told him he’d been very rude not to spend any time with you since you arrived.”
Natalia stood and stepped closer conspiratorially. “You must find a way for us to talk tonight,” she whispered. “I’ve been listening in on my maids.”
Aria giggled; she couldn’t deny how badly she wanted to hear about Alistair’s mistress. The first week of Natalia’s stay hadn’t garnered much information.
“My lady?” one of Natalia’s maids called.
“Coming,” she said. She pecked Aria on the cheek. “See you at dinner.”
The future princess of the Spine’s retinue disappeared through the double doors, leaving Aria alone with her own maids to dress. She had just finished applying her makeup for the evening when a knock came at the door.
“Good evening,” Alistair said to the maid who let him inside. He wore a flattering black leather tunic, his moonsilver crown glittering against the onyx of his hair.
Aria stood from her vanity. “Are those new boots?”
He glanced at his feet, encased in black leather. “My old ones were getting a bit ratty. Since when have you noticed my clothes?”
“Since you started putting so much effort into the way you dress,” she said, gliding over to take his arm. “Olga must be a good influence.”
He chuckled, leading her into the hallway. “Perhaps.”
They made their way towards Natalia’s chambers, just a few doors down from Aria’s.
“She stares at me, you know,” Aria said.
“Olga. She always looks rather sour.”
Alistair frowned as he knocked on Natalia’s door. “I can’t imagine why.”
Olga answered their call. She looked peeved to see Aria wrapped around Alistair’s arm—and when Alistair moved to step inside to retrieve Natalia for dinner, Olga stopped him.
“What?” he said, taken aback.
She glanced over her shoulder, then joined them in the hallway, closing the door behind her. Aria raised her eyebrows; Olga was certainly audacious to address the king and queen in such a manner.
“We need to talk,” Olga said.
Alistair blinked at her. “Surely this can wait. We’re due for dinner.”
A couple of guards patrolling the castle turned down their corridor, and Aria could see that Alistair grew nervous. He may have wanted to be seen with his mistress for a few weeks, but he would never risk putting Aria into an embarrassing or improper situation.
“This is quite irregular,” Alistair said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Please retrieve your mistress.”
“Are you treating me like a stranger?” Olga hissed.
“We are strangers, at this moment in time.”
Olga flicked her eyes to Aria. “Because of her?”
Aria met Alistair’s gaze when he glanced at her pleadingly. The guards drew closer.
“We’re here to get Natalia for dinner,” Aria said quickly, her voice a normal volume. “Can you please let her know?”
Olga stared at them for a few seconds before storming back inside. Alistair let go of a breath as the guards passed.
“What was that?” Aria murmured when the guards were out of earshot once more.
Alistair gazed around to ensure their solitude. “She doesn’t like feeling inferior. She thinks my interest should mean she can do whatever she wants.”
“Well, she could be a bit less dramatic about it. She’ll only start rumors that we’re trying to assassinate Natalia or something.”
“She’s jealous of you,” he said. “She has been since the start.”
“Jealous of what?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. How I talk about you.”
“How do you talk about me?”
He glanced her way, a wry smile on his lips. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Grinning, she shoved his arm just as Natalia joined them in the hallway.
“Everything all right?” she asked. “Olga was acting weird.”
“Tell you later,” Aria said. “You’ve met King Alistair before?”
Natalia curtsied. “A few times at my father’s castle in the Spine. Thank you so much for hosting me, King Alistair.”
“Our pleasure,” he said, abandoning Aria to offer his arm. “I’m sorry I haven’t had time to greet you since you arrived.”
“No apology necessary. I know you’re a busy man.”
They continued to exchange pleasantries all the way to the dining room. Aria followed behind, an odd feeling of envy blooming in her chest. Alistair always spoke to women so naturally…
Natalia laughed heartily at something Alistair said as they sat down for dinner. Aria took a long pull from her wine glass, trying to shake the feeling of discomfort. It was probably just Olga’s impropriety—but then why was she annoyed with Natalia?
Dinner took nearly two hours, during which Aria said very little and ate even less. Alistair gave her an odd look before he departed for his study; she escorted Natalia back upstairs.
“Are you all right?” Natalia asked.
She shrugged. “Fine, I think. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing. Did you want to hear what I found out about Olga?”
Nodding, Aria dragged Natalia into an alcove along the third floor, where they sat on marble benches opposite each other. Natalia nearly trembled with excitement.
“You should hear the way she talks about Alistair,” she said. “My other maids couldn’t claim any sort of chastity after hearing about one of her nights with the king.”
Aria tipped her head. “What do you mean?”
“In bed, of course! She tells them all about what he does to her.” Natalia raised an eyebrow. “Are you…still a virgin?”
Aria directed her gaze out the window, her cheeks warming. She wasn’t about to share such an intimate experience with Natalia in a random alcove.
“I only ask because I thought maybe you’d been with Valtteri from the Southern Arm. That’s what some of the nobles say.”
Aria shook her head. “What does this have to do with anything?”
“Well, just…you might not understand some of it.”
“And you do?”
She giggled. “Don’t tell my father.”
Nursing a very cold feeling in her chest, Aria said, “So what? Olga and Alistair fuck a lot? What kind of information is that?”
“I thought you’d want to hear about it. Your brother sounds like he’s downright common.”
“He’s not my brother,” she replied. “He was a ward.”
Natalia shrugged, grinning. “Well, in any case…he seems to like this Olga, if their sex life is any indication.”
It was anger, Aria realized, bubbling beneath the surface. She felt like lashing out at Natalia—but instead, she sent her up to her rooms for the night, making up something about a stomach ache. Rather than shut herself away in her chambers, though, Aria meandered back downstairs towards Alistair’s study; thankfully the early hour meant that he wouldn’t be in bed with his mistress yet.
“Hey,” Alistair said, standing straight from where he bent over a desk full of scrolls in the study. Aria entered without a word and strode for him without stopping.
“What’s wrong?” he asked gently when she walked right into his arms. He hugged her automatically.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just had a bad day.”
“You seemed off at dinner,” he said, looking down at her as he brushed her hair back from her face.
She stared at the stubble of his beard, her jaw locked. “Yeah.”
Alistair smiled a little, although she didn’t find it infuriating, like everything else. They stood in silence for a long time.
“Want to have a drink with me?” he asked. “It might make you feel better.”
“You started drinking again,” she said. “Why is that?”
“Only with you,” he said. “And only ever one drink. Didn’t you notice? The first time was the night before your seventeenth birthday.”
“I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t notice. I let you pour me a drink and didn’t even think about it.” She glowered up at him. “I’m awful, aren’t I?”
“Never,” he said. “Why are you being so hard on yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
He tucked her hair behind her ear. “I don’t think I’m ready yet. Some nights I have one and all I want is more. I’d have to go get some alcohol from the kitchens to serve us tonight. Can’t keep it close.”
“Will you ever be ready?”
“Maybe not,” he said. “That’s okay too. It was worth a try.”
She rested her head against his chest. “I don’t want to drink if you don’t drink. You deserve my full support.”
“It’s an individual choice. And you don’t seem to have a problem.”
“Alistair,” she said.
Aria looked up at him, but the words wouldn’t come. She merely stared into his blue eyes, her brow furrowed.
Eventually, Alistair grasped her jaw. “You look so worried, Aria. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I’m just so angry.”
He took her chin in his fingers. “Try to get some sleep, Aria. You might feel better in the morning.”
Her shoulders slumped, but she released him to obey. Alistair caught her wrist.
“Aria,” he said when she turned back. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
She grimaced at him. Did she know what she wanted to say? Natalia had angered her so much by reminding her of the day she’d lost her virginity—the day she had told Valtteri she was ready, without truly meaning it. But she’d been angry before then—she’d been feeling possessive of Alistair. Why?
“I know,” Aria answered after a while. She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Goodnight, Alistair.”