Her feet moved with the intention of seeking out Fritz, but she paused just before a different friend’s door, the sliver of light stretching across the floor from Jax’s current accommodations.
“. . . worried about me?” She could barely hear Jax’s quiet words.
“I had other things to focus on.” Elecia, Vhalla realized. She took a step toward the open door, relieved to hear the woman was well enough to have the usual sarcastic bite to her voice.
“Aww, you were,” Jax teased.
“Are you all right or not?” Elecia sighed heavily.
“I am.” There was a long pause. “ ‘Cia, truly, I’m fine.”
“You better not be playing hero again,” the woman murmured.
“If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here now.”
Vhalla stilled. Jax had said he sustained his wound while saving a damsel in distress. Elecia wasn’t much of a damsel.
“Thank you.” Elecia’s gratitude was forced and awkward, but it was as sincere as anything else Vhalla had ever heard the woman say. Elecia was often times abrasive, certainly sarcastic, but she was usually sincere in what she said—good and bad.
“Think nothing of it, Lady Ci’Dan.”
“That’s not going to be possible. You know this changes things—”
“I said, think nothing of it.” A nerve was struck.
“Fine, Jax, I won’t.” Elecia’s footsteps neared their door, and Vhalla knocked softly on Fritz’s, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping.
“You know, you’re one of the few,” Jax’s words stopped both women, “who doesn’t still call me lord.”
“Your title was stripped.”
And Vhalla still didn’t know why.
“And it doesn’t stop the Western Court from reminding me of such by using it ironically.” Jax’s voice had changed.
“You know how court is.” Elecia’s voice indicated indifference, but there was a sorrowful and sincere echo that followed her words. “Some of them still take your side.”
“Who knows why,” Jax murmured.
“I still do.”
Fritz opened the door, distracting Vhalla from whatever was said next. She quickly pushed her way into the Southern man’s room before he said anything that Elecia would hear. The Western woman would never let Vhalla listen in on a private conversation. Rightfully so, Vhalla admitted to herself. But she wanted to know about Jax; she needed to know why he was attached to the crown. Why he was practically enslaved and yet so revered by his masters.
“Everything all right?”
These thoughts were shelved for another time the second Fritz asked his question. Vhalla wrapped her arms around his waist, holding her Southerner tightly. He still smelled of battle—sweat and the metallic tang of blood. But his arms wrapped around her without hesitation, without question. He held her silently as Vhalla took a breath and just let the world move without her for a brief moment.
“I’m glad you’re all right, Fritz.”
“Me too,” he laughed lightly.
“Why are you here?” The question escaped her as suddenly as she thought of it.
“I told you when we left my home: Larel would haunt me if I let you go alone.”
“That’s not good enough.” Vhalla shook her head.
“No, you’re still fighting. You’re at war on my behalf. Why are you doing it?”
“Silly Vhal.” Fritz sighed gently, and the sound transformed into a smile. “You were at my house, you met my sisters.”
Escaping the chaos of the Charem family home didn’t seem like a good enough reason either.
“They all have their place in the world. They each know who they will be. Cass is going to inherit the home. Reona will be an amazing wife and mother. Nia will be a chef or baker or something. They all have something. I never did.”
“You had your sorcery,” Vhalla pointed out.
“And it took me away from them.” Fritz had never seemed sorrowful about his magic before. His family was so accepting of it. “I went to the Tower and expected to find my place. And I’m still figuring that out. Grahm, Larel, you, you all know what you want. I want to know that, too. I want purpose.”
Vhalla clutched her friend’s hands tightly. “I don’t really know what I want.”
“Yes, you do.” Fritz actually laughed out loud at the notion. “There was a time when you didn’t, but you found it. Now I’m trying to find it, too.”
“Well . . .” Vhalla sat with Fritz on his bed. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do?”
Talking things through with Fritz was therapeutic. She gave him advice she needed to heed herself. It wasn’t any wonder why her messy-haired friend had stayed around for so long. They were so similar in all the ways they needed.
When Vhalla finally returned to her room, she saw the low glow of a fire coming from the door to Aldrik’s quarters. Her feet dragged forward, compelled by her heart. Aldrik worked dutifully at a small table by the fire, scribbling across parchment.
“Letters?” she asked.
“For my uncle and other Western lords,” Aldrik responded without turning.
Vhalla pulled off her boots, leaving them at the door. On light feet, she padded over to the hunched Emperor. Aldrik didn’t move as she slipped her arms around his shoulders.