The thought remained with Vhalla for the rest of the afternoon as she watched the houses and fields pass. Egmun’s words returned. She had been the key, something to be used, and he had known it from the second he knew what she was. Vhalla massaged her shoulder. Ten lifetimes would not be enough to fix everything for the world she had so wronged.
Daniel’s home was just outside of Paca, right where he said it would be. It betrayed no signs of turmoil; there was no hint of malice or foul play. Vhalla held her breath as the small home grew larger and larger until they were right upon it, close enough to hear the metallic clang of hearth tools.
He dismounted slowly, and Vhalla did the same, remaining a hesitant step behind him. None of them spoke. The peaceful hum of daily life and the soft clanking of stirrups filled the air. Daniel raised a hand to knock, and the wooden door swung open from within.
A middle-aged woman wearing an apron, flour up to her elbows, stared up at the soldier at her doorstep. The confusion on her face made Vhalla worry that perhaps in Daniel’s current mental state he had brought them to the wrong home. All her concerns were shattered when the woman let out a wail of shock, followed quickly by tears.
“Danny, my boy!” the woman cried, throwing her arms around Daniel’s shoulders.
“Danny boy?” an older man blubbered as he appeared, blinking at the travelers on his doorstep. As soon as his eyes fell on the two embracing family members, he reached out and took them in his arms.
“Ma, Pa,” Daniel let out in a voice that Vhalla had never heard from him before. “I-I deserted my post. I—”
“Shh, my darling child, quiet.” The woman stroked the hair of her son as he clung to her tightly.
“Only the people he had to so that he could return home to you,” Vhalla interrupted.
Her interjection into the conversation broke the moment, and all three turned to look at her. Daniel rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, the one that was missing his gauntlet. Vhalla gave him an encouraging smile. The blood would never wash off his hands; she was all too familiar with that. But he could begin to put it behind him. He could let himself be home.
“Who are your friends?” his mother finally asked.
“They are . . .” Clearly uncertain at how to respond, Daniel wavered.
“My name is Vhalla Yarl,” she answered for him once more.
“Don’t use your real name!” Elecia hissed in disagreement.
“Fritznangle Charem, of the noble Charem clan!” Fritz announced cheerfully, pulling back his hood.
“Elecia, of the actual noble house Ci’Dan,” Elecia sighed in resignation.
“Jax,” the Western man spoke simply.
All eyes landed on Aldrik expectantly. With the smallest of sighs, he released his reins and reached up for the sides of his hood. His hair hung limply around his face, an equal mess to the grime that covered them all. But it didn’t matter. His commanding presence was never powered by his adornments, despite what Vhalla may have thought at one point or another. The very skin of the man before her was fire, he burned with something stronger than all his carefully cut clothes and imposing black armor.
“Emperor Aldrik Ci’Dan Solaris.”
“What?” The woman glanced among them at the odd proclamations. “Daniel, these people, surely you must know what’s happened at the capital.”
“I do.” Daniel jerked away from his mother’s touch. “I know very well what’s happened in the capital.” He sighed heavily, letting out the sharpness in his voice. “But I also know that they are who they say they are. And if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be alive.”
“Then, my lord,” the woman addressed Aldrik. “Thank you for returning my son home safely to us.”
“Do not thank me.” Aldrik motioned to Vhalla. “Thank my lady.”
Whatever gratitude the woman was heaping upon her was momentarily overshadowed as Vhalla stared up at Aldrik. His lady, those words, so publically spoken. They no longer hid their love for the other—they embraced it for all to see.
“Let us give you dinner, somewhere to stay for the night,” the woman offered.
“We can find arrangements in town,” Aldrik said definitively. “I would not want to put your family at further risk with our presence. But my thanks for your offer of hospitality.”
“Anything for the true Emperor.” The woman smiled, and it looked as though her face hadn’t worn that expression in far too long. “And the people who brought Daniel home to us.”
“Will you put an end to this nonsense about the Supreme King?” Daniel’s father asked.
“We will.” There was no hesitation about Aldrik.
“Vhalla . . .” Daniel turned to her.
She looked up at him and staring back was the tired shell of a man she once knew. Coming home had done him good, and the rough edges were already smoothing out around him. But he had been so horribly broken that Vhalla knew his mental shape would forever be altered.
Were it not for her, he would not be in this state. He would still be that man with whom she had sat on a rooftop at the Crossroads. A man who would have been hers if the stars constellated a different design for her heart.
“I’m sorry.” Vhalla struggled to find any volume to her words. “I’m sorry for what I have done.”