“My lady,” the captain of Alistair’s kingsguard said, stumbling through the doors to Aria’s chambers. Her maids all scattered, but she sat up in bed, alarmed, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“What is it?”
“The king, my queen. I think you’d better come with me.”
Pulling her robe on as soon as her feet hit the floor, Aria followed the captain into the hallway without a second thought. Servants, though they paused and bowed as she passed, snuffed out candelabras along the corridors. Alistair’s rooms lay only a few doors down from hers, around the corner from Natalia’s guest chambers; the future princess had been staying in Suvid for three months and was due to leave on the morrow.
“I’m not sure what happened,” the captain said. He swung open both doors to Alistair’s chambers.
The smell hit Aria first. She wrinkled her nose and stepped inside anyway, eyes sweeping the room. Olga sat on a chaise by the windows, sipping a glass of wine, not even bothering to look in Aria’s direction. And on the floor in front of the bed—
“Alistair!” Aria yelped, darting across the room.
He lay on his side, unconscious, surrounded by a pool of vomit. She knelt on an open bit of floor, placing one hand against his neck to check his pulse. The other, she rested on his forehead—it came away slick with sweat.
She searched out Olga, who watched Alistair dispassionately. Cold fury settled over Aria like a dense fog.
“Get her out,” she snarled in the captain’s direction. “Throw her from the castle if you have to.”
The captain obeyed without a word. Olga said nothing as he dragged her to her feet; Aria resisted the urge to scream at her.
“Bring back something to clean the floor,” she said instead, turning her gaze back to Alistair. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Yes, my queen,” the captain replied.
After a few moments, the doors slammed shut. Aria brushed Alistair’s hair back from his face before she attempted to gain purchase on his shoulders to lift him. As she struggled, he stirred.
“A little help?” she asked softly.
Alistair’s eyes flickered opened, and he groaned; nonetheless, though, he helped as much as he could when she hooked him beneath the arms and lifted him to his feet. She couldn’t have managed it had he been complete dead weight.
“Sit here,” she said, guiding him to the bench at the end of his bed. “I have to clean you up before you can sleep.”
Alistair grunted in reply. Aria located a bowl of scented water on one of his nightstands and returned with a cloth with which to wipe him down; most of the vomit had ended up on the floor, though a little had dried on his face and tunic.
“Here,” she said, tugging at his clothing. “Take everything off, my love.”
Eventually, they both managed it; Alistair didn’t help at all when Aria tugged off his boots, and she had to steady him when he stood to remove his tights, but he wiggled out of the rest. She averted her eyes until she could toss a towel across his lap.
Alistair’s eyes remained open for longer bouts of time, now. Aria began to bathe him with the scented water just as the captain returned with the cleaning supplies. He left them by the bed, then stepped back outside to guard the room.
“Can you hear me, Alistair?” Aria asked, washing his hands with the cloth.
“How are you feeling?”
“I feel rough.”
“Think you’ll vomit again?”
“No…I think it’s all on the floor down there.”
She smiled a little, wiping down his other hand. “Do you remember anything?”
He furrowed his brow, staring at his lap. “Uh—a little.”
“Walk me through it.”
He watched her clean his stomach, looking troubled. “We had dinner with Natalia.”
“Yes. I was with you until about ten, and then I left you in the library.”
“I stayed there until…eleven, or so, then came up here to meet Olga. She was done with her duties for the night.”
“Olga was sitting by the windows when I got here.”
He ground his teeth together, trying to remember. “She had…wine. I think it was just wine. A pitcher of it. No matter, I thought—she usually drinks without me. But tonight she kept asking.”
She nodded for him to continue.
“I kept saying no…Aria, I feel like she forced me to drink it or something. Or maybe she just kept asking and I took a sip to shut her up. I don’t know. I can’t say for sure.”
“That’s all right,” she said, toweling his face. He closed his eyes. “What else can you remember?”
“Wine is dangerous for me, Aria. Hard alcohol is okay, even ale. I can resist the pull. But wine…”
“I know. You’ve said. If you had a sip, you probably wanted more.”
“I remember she kept serving me. But at some point, it just goes black. I don’t know what I did.” He glanced at the ground. “Well, besides that.”
Aria finished wiping him down and set the rag aside. Crossing the room, she grabbed his sleeping clothes from the wardrobe and handed them off to him; he caught her wrist before she could turn to consider the floor.
“Aria, I am so sorry,” he murmured.
She met his eyes. “Honestly, I don’t think it was your fault. My gut tells me no.”
“Because when I came in, Olga wasn’t even helping you. She was just watching you, as if she’d intended for you to self destruct.”
“I was supposed to give Natalia my answer before she leaves tomorrow.”
“At dawn. In a few hours.”
He stared vaguely at the clothes in his lap. “I was going to say no.”
“But this way, you couldn’t change your mind. You would have missed her entirely.”
He frowned severely. “It’s not…this problem I have, it’s not a fucking weapon.”
Aria touched his hair again, fondly. “I know it’s not. She’s shown a lot of cruelty, here, if this is what it looks like. Which…I suspect it is.”
His expression forlorn, Alistair rose to dress, and Aria turned away to begin cleaning. She’d already ruined two rags by the time Alistair noticed her on the floor.
“Let me,” he protested, joining her on the marble. “Please.”
“If we both do it, you’ll be able to sleep sooner.”
He acquiesced with a dip of his chin.
They cleaned most of the floor in silence, until the room began to smell of soap and not vomit. Soon, the pile of clean rags vanished, and the bucket became a hazardous slop, which Aria carried across the room to leave outside the chamber doors. Alistair used a towel to scoop up the dirty rags and placed them near the bucket outside; then, they both washed their hands in the clean bowl of water beside the doors, placed there in case Alistair ever wanted to wash on his way out of his chambers.
“I still feel dirty,” Aria said.
Alistair waved her over to his wardrobe, where he procured another set of clean clothes for himself and selected a disused outfit for Aria. They stared at each other for a few seconds before about-facing at the same time and changing swiftly. When they finished, they both tossed their old clothes atop the dirty rags outside the door. The captain nodded to them as Alistair closed the doors and locked them in; Alistair’s gaze had cleared, and though he still smelled of stale alcohol, the cleaning seemed to have sobered him.
Aria touched his arm. “How are you feeling now?”
Without a word, he scooped her into an embrace. She sighed, melting into his arms.
“Seeing you on the floor like that—”
“Was she really just staring?”
“Yeah, she didn’t do a fucking thing. I threw her out and she didn’t even say anything.”
Alistair pulled back a little, then kissed Aria’s forehead with such tender affection that her heart skipped a beat.
“I am so sorry I scared you,” he whispered. “I swear to you, it was an accident.”
“I know. You’ve been too careful for it to be otherwise.”
“I know what I become when I drink. I struggle every day not to be that man.”
Her eyes prickled with tears. “I know, Alistair.”
“Gods, and now I’ve made you cry.”
“No—I’m just so angry that someone would do this to you.”
“I can’t even describe to you what it means that you believe me, without question.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“It’s not rational. It’s just…your mother, she used to think that some of the things I did when I was drunk were on purpose, to hurt the family.”
She shook her head. “I’ve never known that Alistair. And my mother believed the worst of the world. I never have.”
“I know,” he said, running his hand across her jaw. “I love that about you.”
They stared at each other for a long time—so long, in fact, that Aria’s skin began to prickle. Why did it suddenly feel as if Alistair could see right through her with those sharp, icy blue eyes?
“You should sleep a little,” she said, brushing her fingers through his hair one more time. “So we can say goodbye to Natalia properly.”
“I was never going to marry her,” he said.
“I know. You don’t have to explain these things to me.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“Come,” she said, tugging him towards the bed. “I’ll stay with you.”
They both crossed the room and shimmied into bed, Aria relaxing into the down pillows with a groan of pleasure. The thought briefly crossed her mind that she and Alistair had been married for over nine years, now, and yet this was the first time they’d ever slept in the same bed—he had wasted the prime of his life, eighteen to twenty-seven, married to a child. Why had he sacrificed so much to protect her, when she could never repay him?
Alistair found her hand beneath the sheets and entwined their fingers.
“I love you, Aria,” he murmured.
She opened her eyes to meet his gaze. “I love you, Alistair. Can I ask you something?”
“As long as I can have some time to think and answer soberly.”
“Well, the first part is easy,” she said. “Do you like being king?”
He tipped his head to one side, and then the other. “I like being your king, specifically. I’ll confess I didn’t expect it. I thought it would just be a job, for a while—keeping you safe. But then I got used to it—and I do like it now.” He searched her face. “What’s the second part?”
Aria squeezed his hand. “I was wondering if, when I turn eighteen…if you would consider continuing to be my king.”