Vhalla’s hands twisted in his clothes and pulled him to her. His palm smoothed out her shirt over her hip while the other left a trail of gooseflesh along her neck. The faintest of groans rose to meet his mouth. She had not kissed him enough.
The turmoil, the endless days on the road, the persistent company. It all pushed affections away as trivial. But Vhalla had never felt anything more essential to her wellbeing than his mouth on hers.
“When are you going to wake me up like that, my liege?” Jax quipped, not specifying to whom he spoke, so Vhalla and Aldrik both jumped away from each other.
“By the Mother, Jax, it’s too early,” Aldrik bemoaned.
“It’s too early for all of you,” Elecia echoed venomously.
“We finally agree on something.” Fritz was awake as well.
“We agree on lots of things,” Elecia insisted.
Fritz grinned. “No, we don’t.”
“You’re just doing that on purpose.”
“And you take all the covers.”
And with that, everyone had risen for the day.
Vhalla began preparing an Eastern breakfast—sliced salted pork stuffed into bread left over from the night prior. She may have never cooked much, but she did know how to make some things.
“Rex,” Aldrik began in a tone Vhalla instantly didn’t like. She just knew. “I was thinking that it’s not safe for you to stay here.”
She stilled, leaning against the counter under the window by the hearth.
“The knowledge that Vhalla and I live will spread rapidly. As it does, we will become even more hunted.” He paused to wash down some bread with water. “We will go West, after Hastan. My yet-living family through my mother is in Norin, and my uncle is the Lord of the West. That is where I want you to go also.”
“I see.” Her father rubbed the knuckle of his index finger over his lips in thought.
“You want my father to come with us?”
“Not quite.” Aldrik’s apologetic eyes told her everything before his lips spoke the words.
“Alone?” Vhalla shouldn’t have let the panic slip into her voice. “You’ve seen what’s out there, Aldrik.”
“You know it’s the right decision,” the Emperor insisted.
Vhalla looked away with a sigh. She did, even if she didn’t want to admit it. She knew her father was no one by himself. With her, with Aldrik, he became a target.
“Papa?” She returned from her thoughts, seeking out her father’s opinion on the matter.
“I will be fine, little bird.” Her father crossed over and pulled her in for a tight hug. “Remember, you’re not the only one in this house who’s ridden to war. I’m not that old and rusty.”
Vhalla sighed softly, closing her eyes and resting her face on her father’s shoulder. Having her father home was right. He smelled of the earth under his nails and the soot in the hearth. As long as he remained, there would always be somewhere she could run back to.
If he left, it meant the world had truly changed.
“Take my sword, then. You’ll need a weapon.” Vhalla insisted; there was no point in further argument. Everything had been changing for years, and would continue to change. That was life.
The preparations didn’t take long. Bladders were filled from the well. The remaining bread was split among them with Vhalla insisting her father take the larger of the pieces.
Rex Yarl left first, heading straight for the Western border. He promised her he would only make one stop at a trusted friend’s house before continuing onward. He didn’t bring anything with him that could confirm his identity, in case he was stopped by Inquisitors. That had brought on a debate as to how he would prove his association upon arriving at Norin.
“Aldrik,” Vhalla summoned his attention once they were on the road. “You must think of a new code.”
“What code do you speak of?” he asked, reminding her that he couldn’t read her mind.
“What is most beautiful just before it dies? A rose,” Vhalla repeated what he had told her father to recite for Aldrik’s uncle in Norin. “You told it to me after Baldair’s death.”
“I did.” Aldrik’s voice tightened some at the memory.
“Victor knew it; it’s why I went with him.”
“He would.” Aldrik muttered a curse under his breath. “I’ve only ever used it with people I trust implicitly.”
“Wait, so that means you trust me, right?” Fritz was over eager about the fact.
Vhalla was pleased to have a convenient change in topic. She’d said her peace, and she knew her Emperor’s mind. It would stew in his brain until Aldrik had worked through a new solution and alternate code phrase. She smiled at Fritz. “I think that’s exactly what it means.”
“Technically, Elecia was the one to pass along the knowledge,” Aldrik remarked dryly.
“And I wouldn’t have done so if I wasn’t confident I was passing it along to someone whom you trusted implicitly.” Elecia’s tone was part defensive, part jest. “Fritz, you are quite welcome in the Ci’Dan fold.”
Fritz laughed nervously. “Not sure if I want that.”
That set Elecia off on a long history of the noble Ci’Dan family. Vhalla knew she should listen—it was Aldrik’s lineage and therefore important to her. But all she found herself focused on was the approaching end of her family’s farmland. Her father not bringing identification meant that everything that declared her family remained here.