They remained until the sun crested the horizon, tucked against each other, the silence speaking louder than any words could. Aldrik hoisted her, carrying her halfway back to the Charem home, a happy trail of smoke emitting plumes from the chimney. Vhalla saw it only as a beacon. If Victor’s tainted monsters had any sentience left at all, they would know to come in this direction soon.
Or, far more likely, Victor would drive them in logical directions. The creature had demanded people kneel so the new king could see their loyalty. Clearly, the crystals created a magical connection between Victor and his abominations.
Back inside the house, no one said anything about the return of the Emperor and the woman who was once the Windwalker. Cass, the eldest Charem daughter, kept the conversation going throughout breakfast. But it wasn’t nearly as lively as Vhalla’s first meal with the brood. Reona sat listlessly, moving food around her plate as though the face of the tainted monster they’d witnessed in town was beneath it and she wanted to keep it hidden. Elecia alternated between concerned glances at Aldrik and hushed whispers with Jax. Fritz tried to remain his bubbly self, but even that seemed hollow. There was a deeper, somber current that tore its way across the world, and the table had been swept up in it.
When the food was mostly finished, Aldrik cleared his throat lightly, more to prepare himself to speak than to gain the attention of anyone. “I require a word.”
There was no confusion as to who he required a word with and, shortly thereafter, the seven of them were crammed into the smaller back room. The Firebearers conjured thin motes of fire to hover harmlessly in the corners, warming the room to a comfortable temperature—but their efforts did little to warm Vhalla. She sat next to Aldrik, so close they were touching.
“We will leave tonight,” Aldrik announced the moment his unorthodox council was settled.
“Tonight?” Fritz was reluctant to even consider the notion. “It will be absolutely freezing. Cass said she saw the makings of a storm on the horizon when she was getting wood this morning.”
“All the better. The moonlight will guide us; it’s full enough, and the storm will hide our tracks.”
Had Aldrik been looking at the horizon for storms? Had he woken so early to see if they could make headway in the darkness? Vhalla wondered in surprise. She had no doubt as to the sincerity of the grief that piled on his shoulders. But her prince—no, Emperor, she corrected mentally—remained ever focused. In the end, his nature and upbringing won over his grief.
“Fritz,” Vhalla interrupted her friend before he could protest again. “We need to go. We’re a danger to your family if we stay.”
“What?” The blonde’s expression changed dramatically.
“Victor is announcing that the whole of the Solaris family is dead, that I am dead. His monster demanded that all kneel before their new king so Victor could bear witness to their loyalty. Those who did not met a horrible fate. A fate I would never want to see brought upon your family.” She spoke gently, but she wasn’t going to spare Fritz the truth. He had been to war, he knew horrors, and he needed to know that it would be at this doorstep if they didn’t leave.
“But . . .”
“She’s right,” Elecia interjected. “If—when—Victor finds out Aldrik is still alive, it will turn into a manhunt. What do you think will happen to anyone who is known to harbor or help us?”
“You can stay.” Vhalla reached out, lightly touching her friend’s knee. “We have to go, but you don’t have to. They’re not hunting you, Fritz, and you can lie about your involvement. I will understand if you stay.”
“Don’t be stupid, Vhal.” Fritz squeezed her hand. “The Charems aren’t a bunch of weak flowers. We can protect ourselves. By the Mother, Cass can be more frightening than anything I’ve ever seen Victor create.”
Vhalla tried to maintain an appropriate expression in the face of Fritz’s determined smile, but she was certain she fell short. Her friend hadn’t seen what Victor had created. He couldn’t comprehend what type of magic the former Minister of Sorcery was capable of now.
“If I leave you now,” he continued, “Larel will come back from the dead and haunt me ‘til my dying breath.”
She squeezed his hand in reply. Vhalla felt genuinely guilty about taking her friend from his home when he had just returned, especially when the world was so uncertain. But she also felt relief that he would remain by her side. Fritz was a man; he could make his own choices, and, as his friend, she had to let him.
“Now that that’s settled,” Elecia gave Fritz an approving nod, happy as well that he’d be joining them, “the fastest route to Norin from here would be the old roads. But if we took the Great Southern Way through the—”
“We’re not going to Norin,” Aldrik stated, reclaiming the conversation.
“What?” Elecia asked in confusion that mirrored Vhalla’s.
“My uncle will raise the banners at the first word of what Victor has done, with or without me.”
“Mhashan will never support a tyrant who has murdered their prince and seeks to oppress them.” Jax gave Aldrik an approving nod.
“However, the East is not so simple.” Aldrik’s eyes fell on Vhalla. She straightened, trying to grow into the role he was not so subtly placing upon her. “The East is uninterested in war. They’ll side with the victor—” Aldrik grimaced at the word, as realizing the brutal irony at the same time as everyone else, “—with the winner, if they think it means preserving the peace and government for their people.”