“Bleeding heart Easterners.” Elecia rolled her eyes.
“Stay your tongue,” Aldrik warned his cousin. “They are part of this Empire, and we need them for our army.” He turned his attention to the silent Northerners in the room. “We will need your people as well.”
“As long as our deal remains, you shall have them.” Sehra, princess of Shaldan, Child of Yargen, gave an affirmative motion.
Vhalla’s stomach clenched, but her expression betrayed nothing of her uncertainty at those words. If she and Aldrik wed and she bore him an heir, their child would be sent to the North as a gesture of good faith and a promise to look after the people in the recently conquered land. Sehra met her eyes, as if trying to root out Vhalla’s turmoil at the thought.
“Your deal remains,” Vhalla spoke on behalf of her and Aldrik. She would say the words that they needed—that she knew he wasn’t prepared to speak again.
“Come north with us until the Eastern cutoff.” There was a cooling hostility between Aldrik and the Northern women. It was almost tangible in the way he had changed his speech patterns toward them. Now that he was no longer in a forced engagement with the princess, things were more relaxed between them. The deal for his child aside, there were signs of hope for the future negotiations between the Northern clans and their new ruler. “We will all be safer in a group.”
“I protect Sehra,” Za proclaimed in her broken Southern common.
“You will,” Aldrik agreed with a graceful nod of his head, “but it will be easier when you have extra eyes to keep watch at night so that you may rest.” This seemed to satisfy Za, so Aldrik continued, “When we arrive in Hastan, I will send word regarding plans to regroup in Norin.”
“So we are going to Norin then?” Elecia couldn’t hide her eagerness at the idea of returning home.
Aldrik nodded as he confirmed, “We must. If there are no further questions, then we should spend the day prepar—”
“There is something else,” Elecia spoke over Aldrik, eliciting an arch of a dark eyebrow from her Emperor. Her eyes turned to Vhalla. “She should stay here.”
“No.” Vhalla wasn’t sure who said it first, her or Aldrik.
“You can stay hidden among the Charem girls.” Elecia was now appealing to Vhalla. “If Southerners passed for you on the march, you could pass—”
“No.” Aldrik wasn’t hearing another word.
“Aldrik.” Elecia’s attention shifted. “I know you want her to come. But you also want her alive, don’t you? She can’t protect herself.”
“This is not up for discussion.”
“She cannot come!” Elecia finally snapped. “If she does, you are a reckless fool, and your life is worth far more than hers!”
“Don’t you dare,” Aldrik snarled at his kin. Magic flashed dangerously around a clenched fist, red sparking to orange fire.
Elecia remained unfazed and didn’t back down. “If you die, who will the banners rally behind? If she comes, you will throw your life away for hers the first time she needs protecting. And such a need will arise, especially since she’s just a Commons.”
“Elecia, I am your Emperor now—”
Vhalla’s heart stopped at those words said aloud.
“Then act like it!” Elecia clearly was not struck by the same awe. “Think of the people you are responsible for. They need you, Aldrik. They need their Emperor. No one will stand to challenge Victor if not you. No one can unite the banners like you can.”
“Do not assume for a moment that I do not know how many lives I am responsible for.” Aldrik’s voice deepened. “This is not your choice.”
“And it’s not yours either, Aldrik.” Vhalla finally spoke up, silencing the group. “It’s mine.”
“Vhalla . . .”
Her lover’s eyes searched her desperately. Anger quickly turned into fear that she would agree with Elecia. That she would leave him. Vhalla knew that logic defined it as the “right” choice. But what they were, everything she and Aldrik had ever been, defied logic.
“I will go.”
“Are you mad or just selfish?” Elecia snapped viciously.
Aldrik ignored his cousin and gave Vhalla a slow, relieved smile.
“If I stay,” Vhalla began, tearing her eyes from the quiet joy that a smile on Aldrik’s lips gave her to look at the seething Western woman. “What will happen the first time Aldrik thinks me in trouble?”
The woman had no response.
“How will constant worry about my wellbeing impact his focus?”
Elecia still said nothing.
“Who will push him when he needs to be pushed?” Vhalla stole a glance at Aldrik, hoping he didn’t take offense to her words. “Who else is unafraid to say what needs to be said, when it must be said, to him of all people?”
She met Elecia’s disbelief with a challenge. Aldrik and Vhalla had wrapped their lives around the “appropriate” decisions as dictated by the world. They’d hidden their wants and pushed aside what they had known to be true. What had it earned them? A world of death. She’d had enough of doing what the world wanted.
“I am not helpless,” Vhalla insisted. She had been training for weeks with Daniel. “Give me a sword, and I can defend myself.”