“That’s different! There was no alternative. This is so improper.”
“Be improper with me, Lady Ci’Dan.” Jax waggled his eyebrows.
“Don’t give the lady trouble,” Aldrik scolded.
“I’m never trouble!” Fritz pouted.
Jax smirked proudly. “I’m always trouble.”
“Cousin, you are lucky I love you.” Elecia’s sharp glare didn’t have weight behind it, and Aldrik smiled tiredly. “And I get first choice of bed.”
“Second!” Fritz bounded into their room behind her.
Jax didn’t move. “I’d like to stand guard outside your chambers.”
Vhalla blinked in surprise, realizing he was addressing her. She’d almost forgotten that he had been her close shadow on the ride, not only because they were traveling in a pack, but also because he had somehow become her sworn guard.
“Jax, go rest.” The Westerner folded his arms on his chest at Aldrik’s demand. “If something happens to her while she’s tucked in my arms, it will never be blamed on you.”
“Happy to serve.” Jax bowed, pausing before the still open door Elecia and Fritz had disappeared within. “Oh, and if you two need a third, be sure to let me know!” With a wink and a laugh, he popped into the room.
Aldrik shook his head. “That man.”
“Never a dull moment,” Vhalla agreed.
The room was small and tidy. A single rope bed, a small table at its side. The window was drawn to keep out the cool nighttime breezes.
“What is it?” Aldrik asked, closing the door behind him.
“They didn’t have glass the last time I was here.” Vhalla rested her hand on the pane. “But not much else has changed.”
Two warm palms fell on her hips, and Vhalla felt the length of his body behind her. The perpetual heat that radiated off him was a contrast to everything else in the harsh world. She leaned back into that warmth, letting his hands slide around her front to hold her tightly to him.
“You’ve changed,” his breath moved her hair as he spoke.
“I have,” she whispered in reply. If nothing else, that one fact was certainly true. When last in the East, she had been a girl without purpose. Now she had an inkling of what the weight of the world felt like. She knew how the title of nobility fit her shoulders and the greater role she had to play. She wouldn’t return to her father an unaware girl.
He rounded to face her. “And I love the woman you have become, deeply and completely.”
“I love you, Aldrik.” Vhalla savored his touch as he palmed her face. “And I fear I always will.”
“Ah, Vhalla.” He chuckled, pausing just before his lips came into contact with hers. “That is the one thing I do not fear.”
The Emperor had certainly been fearless that night when it came to heaping his adoration upon his lady. He had reminded her of the fire that lived in his veins. He immolated her passion at the altar of their mutual vows. The early rays of dawn peeking through the glass of the window found them still tangled.
A banging on the door interrupted their otherwise peaceful morning, pulling them from slumber. Vhalla groaned and rolled over. Two arms enveloped her, stronger than they looked.
“Aldrik.” She pressed her face into his bare chest. They had found a basic washroom the night previously and, while he didn’t have access to his usual eucalyptus scented soap, he still held the aroma of smoke and steel, a scent all his own.
“What is it?”
“You’re here.” Given the madness that had passed, something about waking up in his arms, skin on skin, was wonderfully impossible. It affirmed that not only had last night been real, but it had been the tiny glimpse of a future they fought for.
“Where else would I be?” He chuckled deeply, laying a sweet kiss upon her.
“Nowhere else, never again.”
“Are you both up yet?” Jax called through the door. “Let me know if you’re naked so I can come in.”
“Jax.” Elecia’s voice was sharp as the daggers her eyes likely were throwing him. “Do not make me think anything of the sort about my cousin, please.”
“We all know what happened. It’s not like they were quiet,” Jax shot back.
Elecia began singing a Western song, loudly, over her companion’s words.
“What did we do, forcing those two together?” Vhalla laughed as she sat up. She didn’t feel the least bit guilty for her passions; there wasn’t even a ghost of a blush on her cheeks.
“Elecia could survive loosening up a bit.” Aldrik stood.
Now, there was a sight that would put color on her face.
Jax began rambling, “Oh my liege, the day has begun, let us start the fun, the time of the sun, has indeed come, so won’t you please—”
“Oh, Mother, don’t talk in rhymes,” Aldrik groaned through the door. “It’s the only thing worse than your sense of humor. We’ll be down in a moment.”
Their illusion of peace dissipated like the morning’s fog over a field. Soon enough, clothes were back on their rightful frames and cloaks were thrown over their shoulders. Vhalla considered Aldrik as they walked down the stairs to join the group. The Emperor was going to be in her home.