Her knees lost all their strength, they were suddenly world weary and exhausted. Her father gripped her upper arms, following her to the ground. They stared at each other in awe, the rest of the world utterly forgotten.
“I should say that to you, little bird.” He pulled her in for a tight embrace.
“I’m sorry. I should have come home sooner. I should’ve been here. I became a lady. I sent coin. Did you get it?” It all spilled out, uncontrollable. “I wanted to come home, Father, but I did so many things. I didn’t even know who I was. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I know now, I know.”
“Hush.” Her father held her cheeks and smoothed away her tears. “You’re working yourself into a frenzy for no reason.”
Vhalla swallowed and nodded, the last of her tears escaping on a laugh. “I’m so happy to see you.” Worry had given birth to grief, which shattered in the face of joy.
“I am happy to see you.” He pulled her in for another tight hug. “Are you all right?”
“I heard so many stories, tall tales all focused on my little bird. I was worried, but I was proud.”
Vhalla sat back on her heels, rubbing her face. She felt foolish for crying so much when nothing was wrong. But, if anything, she cried because it was right and perfect and everything she hadn’t dared let herself hope for.
“Now.” Her father stood. “I am sure you have much to tell me, but let’s start with your companions.”
“Right.” Vhalla stood as well, having completely lost herself in her father being alive and well. “Well . . .” Her eyes scanned their rag-tag lot. It was actually a humorous sight. The disgraced lord, the Southern Sorcerer, the Western noble, and the Emperor.
“Fritz is my dear friend; we met in the Tower of Sorcerers.” Vhalla introduced her friends to her father in the order they dismounted. “He’s helped me countless times and is a really gifted Waterrunner.”
“Elecia is also my dear friend.” The woman in question looked startled that Vhalla would call her such. “She doesn’t let me get away with anything, Papa. She’s really gifted and strong, also.”
“Her personal guard,” the Western man finished.
Vhalla squinted at him, about to correct him that he, too, was a precious person to her.
But her father interjected, “Thank you for protecting my girl.”
“She’s pretty good at protecting herself.” Jax placed his hands on his hips, assessing her thoughtfully. “Just as good as she is at getting into trouble.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Vhalla remarked dryly.
“Oh, I know.” Jax grinned madly.
“You have certainly found interesting company to keep.” Her father chuckled and turned to the last remaining man in question. “And you are?”
Her chest tightened. Her Emperor? Her lord? Her prince? Her friend? Her lover? Her betrothed? Any of those titles could’ve fallen from Aldrik’s lips.
“My name is Aldrik,” he said simply.
Vhalla stilled, even Elecia looked surprised at Aldrik’s casual introduction.
“M-my lord.” Her father dropped to a knee in surprise.
Aldrik stared down at him for a long moment, before kneeling as well, so he could speak at eye-level. “Just Aldrik is fine.”
“No-no, I couldn’t,” her father protested. He had served in the military for years. Vhalla knew how engrained respect for nobility was in his mind. How he knew his place before his leaders and sovereigns. He knew it so well that he had been the one to teach it to her.
“I’m asking, please, simply Aldrik.” He spoke in a casual cadence and actually smiled.
“Papa, it’s okay.” Vhalla tugged on her father’s arm, urging him to stand. Her father looked greatly uncertain still. “Aldrik is, well, I’m going to marry him.”
Her father looked between Vhalla and Aldrik, clearly struggling to process this.
Even Aldrik looked at her in surprise, but he collected himself quickly. “That is, sir, if you have no objections.”
The Emperor looked even more surprised when the Eastern man before him burst out laughing. “It’s Vhalla’s choice, not mine. I’m not the one you’re asking to wed. If she is happy, then I am happy.” He held out a hand to Aldrik. “Rex Yarl.”
“A pleasure to finally meet you, Rex.” Aldrik clasped hands with her father, and Vhalla had to remind herself that she wasn’t in some dream land. The Emperor was really shaking hands with her father.
“Where should we tie up the horses?” Jax asked.
“Oh, right. There should be enough space in and around the barn.” Vhalla looked up at the sky. “Doesn’t look like rain, so they should be fine on an outdoor tie.”
Elecia, Jax, and Fritz took the horses to tie, tactfully giving Vhalla, Aldrik, and her father some time alone.
She slipped her hand in the Emperor’s, his fingers folding against hers. “Let me show you my home.”
Her father still seemed nervous by Aldrik’s presence. He walked calmly enough at her left side, but he kept making occasional glances at Aldrik. Vhalla tried to gauge his expression from the corners of her eyes, which proved difficult. Just because she knew what she wanted and didn’t need her father’s approval, well, that didn’t mean she didn’t want it.