“There’s something up ahead, my king,” one of Weston Amaris’s outriders said, pulling his roan to a stop at the front of the traveling party. “Near the gates to the Northern Pass. Bandits are fighting with a party smaller than ours.”
Weston drew his gaze from the stars splattering the sky. On either side of him, six meters apart, two massive white marble statues jutted forth from the ground. Each sculpture portrayed a famous emperor from the Almad line, and each emperor gripped a warhammer, an intimidating expression carved upon his face in intricate detail.
Major trade routes leading from the city-state of Stormfall, the Northern Pass of the Ice Realm, and the southern reaches of the Forest Realm were adorned with these “Gates to the Empire,” denoting the transition between the independent kingdoms and the Seven United Realms of Northern Cerulis. The landmarks were new, only constructed in the last ten years or so and not yet weathered by storms.
Similarly, the fortifications at the mouth of the Northern Pass, two domed obsidian towers connecting a high wall and a heavily guarded gate, had only been erected five years prior. Weston wondered whether Queen Aria Kolenikova had commissioned the project in direct response to Emperor Liam Almad’s new “gates.” It certainly sounded like something that would amuse her.
“We can help,” Weston said. “Let’s scare them off.”
All three moons crossed the sky, bathing the jade grass plains in more than enough light by which to see. Weston spurred his horse, and the rest of the party followed suit, some drawing their bows. The bandits had surrounded a group of less than ten people halfway between the marble statues and the mouth of the Northern Pass.
“Archers, hold your fire!” Weston called over the thundering of his horse’s hooves. “Loose when they flee! Infantry, dismount and engage! Cavalry, sweep around!”
The group split to follow orders. Within a few meters of the fight, Weston guided his horse to a stop and flung himself from the saddle, unsheathing his sword the moment he hit the ground. A dozen infantrymen mirrored and flanked him.
Before the bandits could react, Weston’s cavalry had swung by once, taking out two or three outliers. Weston charged in, foot soldiers on his heels, to engage the rest of the aggressors. None had yet fallen from the defending party, who ringed a woman wearing a hooded cloak that plunged her face into shadow.
Reinforcements made quick work of the bandits. Barely five minutes passed before the last one died with the cloaked woman’s sword buried in his guts. She yanked the blade free and swept the hood back from her face.
Weston nearly dropped his sword. Aria Kolenikova was grinning at him on the other side of a pile of dead bodies.
“What are you doing out here?” Weston exclaimed before he could stop himself. “You don’t have enough guards to fend off bandits! What were you thinking? Where’s Casimir?”
Aria tipped her head, one corner of her mouth twisting. “Is that worry I hear?”
“Oh, come off it—there aren’t even ten of you! What were you doing?”
“It is!” she said, grinning more broadly. “Weston Amaris, are you being protective of me?”
“Don’t tease me,” he growled.
Aria held up her free hand in a gesture of surrender, mirth staining her features, and indicated a spot in the distance with her chin. Once they were out of earshot of the closest guards, who cataloged the dead to report to their respective monarchs, Aria turned to Weston, absolutely beaming.
“What are you doing out here?” she said.
“You first,” Weston said.
“I’ll admit it was a bit reckless of me. A couple of my guards fell ill before the journey, so I left them behind. Casimir wouldn’t have advised traveling anyway, but he’s in Reziva with Syllian.” She flashed him another smile. “We had it under control, but you sped things along. Thank you.”
Weston stepped closer. “Are you all right? You don’t look hurt.”
“No, I’m fine.” She raked her eyes over him. “You?”
With a brisk nod, Aria sheathed her sword. Weston followed suit.
“So,” she said. “It would appear we’re safe for now. What are you doing out here? I didn’t know you were traveling.”
“I’m trying to get back,” he said. “Esiyae is due to have our son any day now.”
“Oh, of course. I sent a gift before I left. How has she been with it?”
“Not too bad. A little moody, but that’s to be expected.”
“Indeed.” Aria seemed in a constant struggle with her own smile; it returned to her face without any prompting. “It’s really nice to see you, Weston.”
Warmth bloomed in his chest. Aria Kolenikova was stunningly beautiful—always had been. Big silver eyes, easily the most striking feature of her ethereal face, glimmered in the moonlight. She wore a slim, well-fitted tunic made from angular leather panels as black as the hair that fell to her waist. An intricate braid began at her right temple, though the plait eventually blended back into her tresses seamlessly.
It was somewhat infuriating to Weston that a thirty-two year old woman could still outclass every pretty girl he’d ever laid eyes on. Being near Aria made him jittery, as though he were twenty-one again and could hardly think straight in her presence.
“Where were you coming from?” Aria asked.
“Aeglivar,” Weston said. “And … it’s nice to see you too.”
She beamed. “We didn’t leave things on great terms last time, did we?”
“We did not. I wonder that you’re even speaking to me.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
“My ambassadors have mentioned that you’re a remarkably forgiving person.”
“My ambassadors say you’re quite a good king. Better than your court gives you credit for, anyway.”
Heat rose in his cheeks. “Now you’re the one being silly.”
Aria glanced at the bodies littering the plain in the distance. “I didn’t realize bandits were such an issue this close to my borders. I’ll fix this as soon as I get back to Suvid.”
“You’re not being helped along by the Empire. Liam pays very little attention to Ucconia.”
“One might wonder why he bothered annexing it at all,” she said. “Maybe it was just to erect vainglorious statues. Do you hear much from Liam?”
“Not really. I think you’re the monarch he truly cares for in the East. Good relations with the Forest Realm go mostly unnoticed.”
Aria tossed her hair back from her face with a flick of her chin. “Gods, it’s so odd to run into you. I was just thinking about you the other day.”
“Yeah, sometimes I like to relive embarrassing moments in my life.”
He breathed a laugh. “I should have known you were setting me up for something.”
She grinned again. “Are you staying here tonight or continuing on?”
“Moving on,” he said. “I’m running out of time. I fear I’ll miss the birth already. Why?”
“We’re riding through the night too. I’m hoping to have a quick meeting with King Ezekiel in Stormfall. If you were stopping here, though, I thought I could set aside a couple hours.”
“Old time’s sake.”
This time, it was Weston who smiled. “You have every reason to hate me. Now you’re inviting me to stop for roadside revels?”
“Hate you? Weston, it’s been fourteen years.”
“Yes, but I was particularly … ungallant.” He furrowed his brow. “As you said, it was embarrassing. But not just for you.”
“We don’t have to prattle on about it,” she said. “What’s done is done.”
“I thought you’d have something to say. I heard you’re talented at giving speeches about topics that anger you.”
“Even if I did, would now be the time for it? You ignore all my letters asking you to visit, and that’s where I imagine we’d have the time to rehash the stupid decisions we both made when we were young.”
“I was worried,” he admitted.
“If I visited … I don’t know. I was afraid you’d find some way to get back at me, and I’d be at your mercy.”
Aria’s brows jumped together. “I don’t want revenge, Weston. And even if I did, you think I’d invite you to my palace to humiliate you?”
“Do you want anything at all?” he asked.
“I’m not even sure what you mean.”
Weston had imagined the moment of their reunion a thousand times. But for all the hours he’d spent agonizing over how he’d treated Aria—rehearsed apologies that would convey the depth of his guilt and regret—she didn’t seem to have given it much thought. His jaw tensed.
“I called you a whore in front of an entire legion of soldiers who’d just found out you were their deposed queen.” Weston spoke in low tones, though the guards continued to keep their distance. “And then I tried to get Casimir to buy you at a profit.”
“I know what happened,” she said.
He searched her face. “Do you not … care?”
Why did the pit of his stomach feel so empty?
“Weston—” Aria began.
“I can’t believe you,” he bit out. “Gods, did you even care about me? Or was I just some tool to get you within striking distance of the Ice Realm? How foolish did you think I was every time I did something stupid because I genuinely loved you?”
“Weston,” Aria said softly.
He didn’t raise his voice, but his whispers grew strained. “I’ve been beating myself up for fourteen years! I’ve tried to get your attention over and over again in court politics just so you’d see how guilty I felt about what I did—”
“I know about your policies,” she said. “Regulating brothels in the Forest Realm and working with courtiers in Aeglivar to shut down the districts in Tower of the Moon. I saw what you were doing.”
“I didn’t do it just for you,” he said. “It was the right thing to do. You’re very open about what you think is right and wrong, and I’ve tried to follow your example. But you—”
“What?” she interrupted. “What, Weston? Did you not get what you think you were owed out of it?”
He blinked, and anger dissipated. The tension in his shoulders melted away all at once. Aria had clearly not forgotten him.
It took the fight right out of him.
“See how easy it is?” Aria said, moving closer. “We can be who we were forever if we don’t try to stop it.”
Weston ground his teeth together before he said, “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are,” she murmured. “And not just for this.”
With a sigh, Weston shoved his hands into his pockets, his gaze drifting to his feet. “I thought you didn’t care.”
“Of course I care, Weston. I loved you. But it has been a long time.”
“I don’t hold what happened here against you. I’ve been watching your court since the beginning. I know who you are now.”
He looked up; her eyes traced the angles of his face in a way that made him feel exposed.
“Will you come see me sometime?” she asked. “Once Esiyae can travel again? I’d love to meet her.”
“She wasn’t a romantic match,” Weston said. He didn’t know why, except that saying it to the first woman he’d ever loved felt like closing a circle. “My advisers were demanding an heir, and I picked the most practical woman they suggested. I haven’t … I’m not sure I know, even now, how to be a partner. Not like what you and Casimir have.”
“Look at you, speaking to me like you used to,” Aria said.
“You were always easy to be open with.”
“You care about her, don’t you?”
“Then that’s all that matters. Just come to Suvid, Weston. We can lay the whole thing to rest. Officially. Finally.”
“Aria,” he said hesitantly.
“I still … when I see you … ”
She smiled once more, this time knowingly. “I thought I told you not to be silly, Weston.”
A long moment passed in silence. Eventually, though, Weston mirrored her expression.
“You must bring it out in me,” he said. “Next time I’ll leave you to the bandits.”
“We were doing okay without you.” Aria stood with her arms akimbo. “Someone insisted on being chivalrous, though. I don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”