“So what would this crystal look like?” Elecia asked.
“It could be in any shape, but you wouldn’t find it with regular sight. If I—If I still had my magic sight, I’d look at the magic on the gate and then find a spare crystal that matches it. These men and women must be half mad with taint; Victor couldn’t have made it too hard for them, so I imagine it’s somewhere fairly obvious.”
They were all silent for a long moment.
“Fritter,” Elecia said suddenly.
“Fritter?” That name was new.
“I’m going to need illusions. And yours are just wonderful.” She flashed Fritz a brilliant, toothy smile.
“Mine are all right,” Fritz replied with modesty.
“Elecia?” A marked concern had set up shop in Aldrik’s voice.
“What?” she sighed in exasperation, giving her cousin a hard look. “It’s not as though you can go. You’re our Emperor and you don’t have magic sight. You wouldn’t let her go—” Elecia motioned to Vhalla, “—even if she still had her magic sight.”
“I have magic sight and am not the Emperor or Empress,” Jax said suddenly. “Let me go.”
“No, the fewer people the better,” Elecia insisted. “Plus, you have your own obligations: you need to protect our Empress. Isn’t that your responsibility now?”
Jax didn’t argue. He sidestepped closer to Vhalla.
“Fritz will make an illusion just after nightfall to send them on a wild goose chase. I’ll use the confusion to sneak in and find this key. How do I make the gate open once I have it?”
“You should just need to make contact with the gate.” Vhalla rubbed her shoulder absentmindedly.
“I don’t like it,” Aldrik announced. “It’s too risky.”
“Ah yes, and shall we sit here and wait for it to become less risky as the world is spiraling into chaos around us?” Elecia shot back in all her snarky glory. “Aldrik, I am going home. I want to see my mother and grandfather. I want letters on my father’s status.” In Aldrik’s silence, Elecia turned to Fritz. “Are you in?”
“I, um . . .” His blue eyes darted between the two nobles.
“You are,” Vhalla encouraged her friend, placing a palm on his shoulder. She addressed Aldrik, “It’s the best chance we have.”
“Is this what you choose?” the Emperor asked her.
Vhalla smiled tiredly at his sad eyes. He knew what he was doing. More training, more grooming, more assurances that she would be ready for the crown that he would place upon her brow in Norin. If she said no, her friends would remain safe for a while longer. Perhaps, with enough time, they could conceive a new plan.
“It is.” There wasn’t a trace of doubt in her voice. No matter what turmoil brewed within her, she didn’t let it show. Aldrik never betrayed his uncertainty; she wouldn’t either. “We will move tonight.”
Elecia gave her an approving nod before immediately launching into a conversation with Fritz about the type of illusions she needed. Vhalla tuned them out for a moment. She watched the sun set over the gate and knew it would set on their fates all too soon.
Come nightfall, Elecia had almost completely changed and reequipped herself. Her father had not let her leave Hastan without a good set of leathers and an even better set of steel. She had two blades strapped inside her boots, a small dagger on her hip. The woman checked the weapons ten times over, militant that they were just so.
The rest of them followed suit. The Western army had been honored to spare weaponry for the Imperial company. While they didn’t wear heavy plate for ease of mobility and wanting to remain inconspicuous, they all had some leather and steel. The five of them left their threadbare travelling cloaks at the roadside; once they passed into the West, it mattered less to keep a low profile.
Vhalla, Jax, Fritz, and Aldrik mounted as the stars winked into existence. Elecia remained on foot, hidden by the tall grasses.
“Start the fog,” Elecia commanded Fritz. “Slowly at first, let it thicken when I’m halfway.”
“You got it, boss.” Fritz failed in his attempt at levity.
“The rest of you, don’t forget my horse.” She tilted her head toward the rider-less steed. “I’m running through the gate, but I want to ride to Norin.”
“Be careful,” Aldrik ordered.
“Don’t be foolish enough to start doubting me now.” Elecia grinned and took a couple steps away. “You, both of you,” she pointed to Vhalla and Aldrik. “Just focus on getting through. Especially you, Aldrik; our world needs you to rally behind. No one else can fill that role.”
Vhalla knew what Elecia was really urging Aldrik to do. So did Jax, judging from the way he inched closer to her. Their Emperor couldn’t be reckless on her behalf. Vhalla patted the dagger on her thigh thoughtfully. One way or another, she wouldn’t let that happen.
“Stay close to me,” Aldrik whispered softly to her.
“I will,” she promised.
The dim light of the half moon was fading. Elecia crouched low, almost on her hands and knees, and began her slow trek through the fields leading up to the gate. It was a longer distance than Vhalla had originally thought, since they had stopped far enough out that they wouldn’t raise suspicion.