“But your mother wouldn’t give you up. She read and heard as many tales from old Cyven as she could, learning what she could about the Windwalkers. She loved you, Vhalla, and she wanted to raise you.”
Vhalla rested her chin on her knees. She debated internally if it would’ve been better to have been sent off. To know what she was. If she had been, if she had never been removed from the East, perhaps none of the current events would’ve happened.
But Vhalla didn’t know what it felt like to have a child and be faced with the choice of giving up that child. She tightened her arms around her knees. She never would. Because if and when she did give birth to her first child, he or she would be taken to the North—it was already decided. There would be no opportunity for conflict.
“Don’t harbor any anger toward your mother,” her father sighed.
“I don’t,” Vhalla replied back before he could misinterpret her contemplations. “I just, wish I’d known sooner. I wish someone had told me.” So she wouldn’t have had to be pushed off a roof.
“If I’d known what would’ve happened, I would’ve done things differently,” he confessed.
“What’s done is done.” Vhalla shrugged it away. “I know why you and Mama tried to hide me. I know what the East teaches about Windwalkers and magic.” Vhalla considered it for a long moment. “But in the end, while I wish I had done a few things differently . . . I wouldn’t change all of it.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I stopped reading and started doing.” Vhalla smiled faintly at the memory of Aldrik’s words at their first meeting. “I messed up so badly. I didn’t love some friends enough. Sometimes I focused on myself more than others. But if I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t be strong enough to look to the future now and not be afraid.”
“A future that involves you being Empress,” her father probed.
Vhalla relented easily. “I should’ve written you more. I should’ve found a way to tell you sooner. I should’ve come home.”
“You were off ending wars.” He laughed his hearty laugh. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, little bird.”
She sighed. “Papa, do you think I will make a good Empress? I’ve done so many horrible things.” Vhalla wanted to confess her sin of unleashing Victor upon the world. But some guilt was too heavy to share with her father.
“The best,” her father said without hesitation. “I have no doubt in you; I know the sort of Empress you will be. But about our young crown prince, I know little more than the rumors from the soldiers during the War of the Crystal Caverns. Tell me the sort of Emperor we will have.”
Vhalla obliged her father. Words spilled from her mouth as though she were the font from which they were created. In telling her father about Aldrik, she had to tell him how she came to meet Aldrik, how she came to know the man that had the reputation for being one of the most shut-off, cold people on the continent.
She didn’t make him out to be perfect. Vhalla knew Aldrik was horribly flawed. But so was she. He was prone to anger and she prone to selfishness. But they strove together to be better, for themselves and for each other.
In it all, she told her father of everything that happened since she had last seen him. Years were summed up in minutes and hours. He frowned at her pain, and praised her for overcoming her trials.
Vhalla and Rex Yarl sat in the breeze until the dawn.
Her chest ached at the smell of the air, at the way the dust settled in the early light, at the sweet scent of wet earth from the morning’s dew. It all pained her. Each sensory input filled her with the heaviness of longing for a world that was long gone.
She’d only crawled back to her place near Aldrik an hour or so ago, but she couldn’t fall asleep. She listened to her Emperor’s slow and steady breathing and let it lull her into a heavy-lidded doze. But she didn’t sleep. She wanted to savor every last moment in her home.
The dawn was insistent, and Vhalla eventually sat up. She glanced at her father, who was thankfully sleeping. He wasn’t a young man any longer, and she’d kept him up until the first light.
On light feet, she tip-toed over to the pile of wood that was kept indoors. Her mother had always performed the ritual of lighting the hearth first thing in the winter months. Now it would fall to her, Vhalla’s heart told her.
“Let me help you with that,” Aldrik whispered in her ear.
Vhalla nearly jumped out of her skin, dropping the small log of wood she held in the process. His hand reached around her and caught it deftly.
“Thank you, my phantom,” she teased coyly, having not heard him so much as stir.
“What’s the cause for the old pet name?” Aldrik hummed, nuzzling the hair by her ear.
“I didn’t realize it had become a pet name,” she breathed in hushed amusement.
“Perhaps it was just my wishful thinking early on.” The corner of Aldrik’s mouth tugged up into a grin. Fire lit in the hearth next to them, summoned by his passing thought.
“Was it?” Vhalla hummed, resting her palms on his chest. “A prince thinking wishful thoughts about a library girl?”
“What magic you’ve woven over me.” Aldrik leaned forward.