The princess stood tiredly, swaying slightly.
“Are you all right?” Aldrik took a step toward the young woman.
“I am, but time is short,” she answered cryptically. “I’m no longer meant for this world.”
Sehra started for the door. Aldrik looked between Vhalla and the Northern princess.
“Sehra, we can seek out another cleric.”
“No need.” Her hand paused on the door knob. Vhalla sat slowly, trying to make out the familiar glint in the woman’s eyes. “You did well, but things are only beginning now. The vortex still spins.”
“Sehra!” Vhalla was on her feet, not realizing how quickly she could suddenly move, how strong she felt.
“If that is the name you choose.” With those words, the woman vanished through the fogged glass of the door.
Vhalla looked to Aldrik. He was confused. Which meant it hadn’t been a dream or hallucination. He’d heard those words. That had been real.
“Sehra!” Vhalla cried. She threw open the door. “Sehra!”
A cleric looked over from the gate leading into the Imperial hall, confused at the Empress’s cries.
“Tell me,” Vhalla called. “Have you seen the Northern Princess Sehra?”
“I haven’t seen the lady for hours,” he answered uncertainly.
“Did you miss her?” Vhalla walked over quickly, Aldrik on her heels. “Could you not have seen her?”
“I have been here since the Emperor took you-you . . . Shouldn’t you be resting?”
“Just now, someone left.” Aldrik looked through the garden.
“My lord, lady, I-I . . .” The man was clearly at a loss for words, incapable of giving them the answers they wanted. “I suppose, it’s possible, that I missed someone.”
“Vhalla?” Elecia’s voice called. Sehra, Za, Jax, and Fritz were in tow. The group that was to be Vhalla’s mourning party. “You should lie down!”
The Western noble crossed to her in a few hasty steps. Her hands were on Vhalla, but she barely felt them. Vhalla stared at Aldrik, and he met her eyes with equal confuson. There was no explanation that she could give him. Trying to explain the full details of her last, tragic encounter with Vi would be impossible now.
Magic glowing around crystals that had looked like feathers.
Fire that had saved her life by burning wheat.
And a final encounter in a garden of roses.
If that is the name you choose.
It was a series of dreams connected by an impossibility. Something beyond her world. A force greater than everything Vhalla had ever known. Something that would fade with time into a vague dream-like memory.
“Vhalla.” Elecia forcefully grabbed Vhalla’s face, pulling it back toward her. “What did you do? What did you take?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Then how do you explain this?” Elecia grabbed the front of Vhalla’s shirt and pulled it up without concern for propriety. There, on Vhalla’s stomach, was soft pink flesh where a mortal wound had been moments before. Elecia turned to Aldrik. “You were with her.”
“It-it must be something you did,” Aldrik inserted, grasping at any explanation.
“I didn’t do anything.”
Vhalla’s eyes met the princess’s. It was as though the Northern woman somehow knew. Her mouth curved in a telling smile, all the information the Empress would ever be able to worm from her.
“Maybe there was a cleric. We may have been misinformed,” Aldrik mumbled. He turned back to Elecia with conviction. “Elecia, is Vhalla—”
“She’s amazing!” Elecia had eyes as wide as a child in a pastry shop. “I must find who did this. They may be the best cleric in the world. She should be dead; there’s no reason for her to be alive and healthier than ever. I must find out what they did!”
Elecia dashed off, asking the same cleric Vhalla had just spoken to. She moved down the hall, one person to the next. But she wasn’t going to find anyone, Vhalla simply knew it to be fact. There was never anyone to find after.
“So, you’re not actually dying?” Jax leaned against the iron gate with a dramatic sigh. “And here I had the best farewell speech planned.”
“I guess it has to wait.” Vhalla gave him a small smile.
“Good, I couldn’t handle any more death.” Fritz threw his arms around her shoulders, and Vhalla clutched him tightly. “Thank the Mother.”
Perhaps they had more reason than they all knew to thank the Mother, Vhalla thought to herself, briefly. One impossible and unlikely explanation of what had happened was just as good as any other.
“Grahm?” she whispered into her friend’s ear.
He just shook his head. Vhalla couldn’t translate his shining tears. Were they joy? Were they telling her not to worry now? Or were they world-crushing sorrow?
Whatever it was, Vhalla would be at his side to shoulder those emotions as well.
“My lady.” Aldrik’s voice was heavy with something that she couldn’t quite decipher.
She turned back to her lord. He held her gaze with every bit of adoration the world had been capable of producing. Vhalla’s arms slid from around her friend’s.
Vhalla turned to stand right before the Emperor. The man who she’d met as the Fire Lord, the aloof and distant prince. The man she’d fallen in love with. The man who’d been constant while she’d grown—side by side and even when apart.