“Did you even hear me?”
Alistair tore his eyes from the other side of the gardens, where Aria practiced her swordplay with a chipper Natalia as an audience. “What?”
Olga glowered at him, her eyes slits. “You weren’t listening.”
“I was thinking. I’m sorry.”
“What were you thinking about that’s so much more important than me?”
“I don’t get much time during the days, you know. This isn’t a common opportunity.”
“I know. I really am sorry. I’ve just been distracted.”
“By what?” she asked with exasperation.
He had to admit, it was hard to find Olga attractive when she was so angry all the time. When they’d first met, she’d been flirtatious, mysterious, and carefree—now, she acted like a completely different person. Nothing had changed save the setting, and so part of him had to believe her attitude shift came from within; unfortunately, too, his attention drifted the harder she clung to him.
Olga waited for him to answer, a sour expression stripping her of the beauty that had once drawn him in. A strong, icy wind reddened her cheeks.
“Prince Dominik asked me last night if I’d consider marrying his daughter once Aria sets me aside,” Alistair said. It hadn’t been on his mind at that precise moment, but it wasn’t untrue, either.
Olga clenched her teeth before she said, “And do you want to marry her?”
“Of course not.”
“She’s immature. She’s not even a virgin anymore, but she still acts like a child.”
“Why does everyone act like virginity matters so much? By the gods, I’m sick of the nobility in this realm.”
“Don’t defend her!” Olga snapped.
Alistair shot her a scowl. “Will you lay off?”
She bristled. “What?”
“I can barely keep my head above water most days. I don’t need to manage your feelings on top of it.”
With a screech, Olga threw her arms into the air and stormed away. Alistair sighed with relief; at least her temper was reliable.
The clangs of swordplay ceased. Aria spoke briefly with the armsman and Natalia before navigating the short hedge maze leading to Alistair’s side of the gardens. He waited for her, his shoulders relaxing, a feeling of tranquility settling over him.
“Hey,” Aria said, jumping the last hedge. She wore a pair of slim leather trousers, her loose shirt tucked in at the waist.
“Hey,” Alistair said, grinning.
“What are you up to over here? I thought I heard a scream.”
“Something I said dissatisfied Olga.”
She raised one eyebrow, but didn’t speak.
“I have something I need to confess to you,” he said.
“Now I’m doubly intrigued.” She unlaced the gauntlets she used while training, the tail of her braid blowing in and out of her way with the wind.
“Natalia wanted to come here, but her father wanted it more,” he said. “He proposed a match last night.”
“Me. After you turn eighteen.”
Her brows shot up. “Oh my.”
They both started laughing at the same time.
“He’s having trouble marrying her off,” Alistair said. “He rarely lets her out of that dreary castle. I’m one of her few choices.”
“Perhaps he could marry her off to the nobleman who slept with her two years ago.”
“See, that’s where Olga got really peeved. I said I was sick of virginity mattering in marriage negotiations.”
“Natalia talks about that man all the time. I’m suggesting it out of genuine concern that she may be missing an opportunity for real love.”
Alistair smirked. “So you two have become friends?”
“Friends enough. I do like her.”
Aria shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes she just…annoys me.”
“Have you narrowed it down to anything?”
She looked away. “Yes. Shut up.”
“Ah, come on. You can tell me.”
She met his eyes again. “No, I can’t.”
A moment passed between them during which Alistair suspected he was missing something significant. With admirable affability, though, Aria changed the subject.
“You were watching me practice. What do you think?”
Alistair looked her up and down. “Well, you’ve always had the build of a woman who would be strong in swordplay. That’s the old blood. But you’re in much better shape than you were a year ago, and you’re faster than I ever expected. I’m quite impressed, truth be told.”
She beamed. “So will you spar with me now?”
“I’m no good, Aria. It won’t be any fun.”
“The armsman says you’re lying. He says you’re actually pretty talented.” She crossed her arms. “Please spar with me. You told me if I trained until the armsman had no more to teach me that you would, and now you’re trying to get out of it.”
He chuckled. “I don’t know why you care about it so much.”
“Because I enjoy fighting, and I enjoy you. Combine the two, and it’s the perfect recipe for a good day.”
He sighed. “Fine. When?”
She grinned. “Now.”
Grabbing his hand, she towed him across the gardens, ignoring all his protests. By some devilry of the armsman, his sword waited beside hers in the sparring arena, leaned up against the hedges.
Aria grabbed her blade and tossed him his. “Just a few minutes. Please?”
Alistair flexed his hand around the pommel; the weight and the balance were comfortingly familiar. It wasn’t the sword he had used to kill her parents—it was the sword a twelve year old Aria had commissioned for him as a surprise birthday present. He’d known how observant she was just by the choices she made with the smith.
“Fine,” Alistair said, unsheathing his blade. She followed suit. “Five minutes.”
Aria slid into her stance with one subtle step to the left. Alistair mirrored her to the right. A few seconds passed before Aria flicked her sword towards his side in a testing blow; he parried with ease, the clang of their blades like music in the breeze.
She struck again, this time faster, and followed it with two very quick jabs at his stomach. Alistair alternated between watching her feet and her eyes, as they both often gave away her intentions. She adapted swiftly, though—soon he noticed her feinting her gaze or her feet in an attempt to subvert his expectations, and a few times he barely escaped her blows.
Alistair swung for her right side, then her left, then stepped back to reframe—and in the instant she let her guard down, expecting him to circle her like a predator instead of striking, he lunged forward, batted her blade out of his way, and stopped his sword just before the point met her jaw.
Aria scowled at him, completely helpless. He cocked a brow, a smile tugging at his lips.
“That was dirty,” she said.
“Dueling is always dirty. Anyone who says otherwise has never won a duel.”
They both stood down, Aria sheathing her blade, and Alistair making for the hedges. She stepped up beside him as he slid his sword into its sheath.
“I would be better if I could train with you.”
“Perhaps you would be,” he admitted.
“You don’t like sword fighting anymore.”
He met her eyes. “No.”
“In this realm, they put so much stock in being a warrior. But I think I’ve been a strong king without it.”
“Some could say you wouldn’t be a king at all without it.”
“True. Nor you a queen.”
Aria touched his forearm gently. “What’s wrong, Alistair? Why does this bother you?”
“I’m a caretaker, Aria, nothing more. I’m not a warrior destined to lead our troops. These roles are meant for you.”
“They can be for both of us.”
He shook his head. “We aren’t a partnership. Not in the truest sense. Whatever I do that should technically be done by you is seen as me taking something away from you. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression.”
Aria furrowed her brow, searching his face. “I wish we were a partnership, Alistair.”
He blinked at her, that warm feeling he remembered from weeks ago rising again in his chest. With the slightest smile curling her lips, Aria squeezed his arm before releasing him; she returned to the castle on her own, her braid blowing loose in the wind.