Alistair slipped into the chamber just off the throne room—a small study situated behind the thrones themselves—and closed the door gently. Aria awaited him beside the fireplace.
“I didn’t think you could pull it off,” he said. “I swear, I fought the nobility for years, and every time I did something even decidedly mundane, they would wonder amongst themselves if I was planning to steal your throne.”
“Because I never had any agency in the decision before,” Aria said. “Now all I have to do is say that I want to extend the arrangement, and they believe I’m old enough to make that choice.”
“I could be influencing you.”
“There are a few who think that. We won’t worry about them yet.”
Alistair stopped near the fireplace, letting the crackling flames warm his feet.
“It’s not permanent,” he said, more a statement than a question.
Aria lifted one shoulder. “I’m not ready to marry. Until then, we do a good job running this realm together. There’s no harm in extending that.”
“Olga is gone,” he said. “I just had her thrown out.”
“Well, we gave her nearly a month to figure herself out after she didn’t go home with Natalia. She doesn’t deserve our hospitality any longer. I didn’t think she deserved it to begin with.”
Something about Aria had changed in the last few months—she had the harsh, angular look of the old blood, of course, but there was cunning in her gaze now, an understanding of things Alistair had hoped she’d never have to navigate. Her kind, icy blue eyes searched his face in a penetrating manner.
“I have this deep feeling of guilt about everything I’ve put you through,” Alistair admitted.
She shook her head, a smile tugging at her lips. “Of course you do. Thank you for telling me—but I hope you know that you can be gentler to yourself in regards to me.”
“I wanted you to be carefree, and happy,” he said. “Two things you never would have been if your parents had lived.”
“I am those things, Alistair. But a queen can’t always be carefree. Sometimes I have to make tough decisions and deal with the fallout of unsavory situations. You can’t do it for me forever.”
“You’ve really grown into this,” he said quietly. “I’m so proud of you.”
She tipped her head, one corner of her mouth lifted. “I don’t want you to look at me as some sort of project, anymore. I want us to be true partners, as we never had the luxury to be.”
“Why?” he asked, voicing a concern that had been eating at him. Why did she want him around so much? Why hadn’t she turned away from him?
“I’ve stolen a lot from you,” Aria said. “Years of your life. I want us to build something that isn’t just focused on me, now—because you deserve someone who would put you first.”
“You don’t have to—”
She lifted a hand, grinning. “Please, Alistair. Don’t push me away unless you’ve never wished someone would take care of you, for once, in the dead of night.”
“The daylight is fine, too.”
She smirked at him. He smiled back, that inexplicable feeling of warmth rising once more in his chest. Since he’d settled permanently in Suvid, he’d only felt truly calm, at peace, and seen with Aria. Through it all, they’d forged an incomparable bond.
“That brings me to my next point,” Aria said. “If you still feel you want to take mistresses—”
“No,” he interjected.
She blinked at him. “No?”
“If this is what you want—a partnership—I’m not going to keep manipulating perception so you can get rid of me,” Alistair said. “I’ve done enough over the years to foment that already.”
For a split second, she looked pleased—but it vanished so quickly, he wondered if he’d imagined it. He’d made the decision almost instinctually after Olga’s betrayal; he didn’t want to be in a position where someone could hurt him like that ever again. He couldn’t deny, too, that some part of him had already made peace with the loss of physical fulfillment; he no longer expected it to bother him as much as he’d always assumed.
“I suppose there’s nothing more I want to discuss, then,” Aria said. “It seems like we’re on the same page.”
“I think so. We’ve always been good at communicating.”
Aria joined him on his side of the fireplace, her gaze at her feet. She fiddled with the ends of her loose hair, the bulk of which hung over one shoulder.
“Something else on your mind?” Alistair asked.
She flicked her eyes up to his, and he felt a lurch that originated somewhere in his gut. A smile bloomed on her face, shy and vulnerable.
“It’s nothing, Alistair,” she said. “One day, maybe I’ll sort it out enough to know if it’s something.”
“I feel like the older you get, the more secrets you keep from me.”
“Isn’t that a benefit of age? Now I’m experienced enough to hold my tongue until the right moment.”
“What moment has ever been wrong, with me?”
She laughed. “I’m not talented enough to mince words with you yet, and so I stay silent.”
“Very wise. But I have no particular talent in verbal sparring.”
“Even after nine years fighting with nobility?”
“Especially then. They leeched all the intelligence out of me.”
She touched his arm when she laughed. “Are we ready, then? I’ve been dying to travel to Tiraspol.”
“I could use some ocean sounds, myself. It’s too sterile here, and it was a long winter.”
Her giddiness apparent, Aria took his arm to lead him back through the throne room and out into the entrance hall. Only a few servants awaited them; they always traveled light.
“Race you there,” Alistair said.
“You’re so immature, King Alistair.” She released his arm and, a second later, bolted for the front doors. “Loser has to sleep at the shrine!”
Stars bloomed in the sky as Alistair mounted the steps to the palace in Tiraspol. Behind him, the sea crashed in a rhythmic crescendo. The castle was his favorite in the realm for its setting, climate, and architecture; it was difficult to be anything but tranquil in Tiraspol.
Aria awaited him atop the stairs, hands on her hips.
“I win,” she said, grinning. “I hope you enjoy your time at the shrine of Isarus.”
Alistair ruffled her hair just as the front doors boomed open; the steward scurried towards them, running even despite his bad leg.
“My queen,” he said, out of breath. “My king.”
“What is it?” Aria asked, alarmed.
“Prince Bohdan, my queen. He arrived late last night and demanded accommodation. I sent a messenger, but he’s obviously missed you. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Housing him was the right call,” Alistair said. “Did he say what he wants?”
“No, but his son, Valtteri, was more forthcoming.”
Aria met Alistair’s gaze, looking anxious.
“It’s about your tenure as king,” the steward said. “Prince Bohdan requests a private audience to discuss your intentions.”