“Was that the table where I found you?” Vhalla thought back to the first time she had laid eyes on the messy haired Southerner. It felt like a lifetime ago.
“It was.” He rested his cheek against her forehead. “I met Grahm there as well . . . One day, I walked in, and my table was taken. Now, the old me would’ve just sat somewhere else. But that was my table, and my friendship with Larel had made me bold. Plus, he was really, really cute.”
Vhalla laughed softly and closed her eyes. She wondered how often Fritz thought of Grahm. Right before she dozed off, she wondered if the Eastern man she had befriended was even still alive.
Just a handful of weeks after leaving her home, Vhalla found herself once more in the Crossroads. It couldn’t have been a happier sight. The hustle and bustle of the market, the shades of every type of person strolling about. Victor’s tyranny and Vhalla’s last, less than favorable, experience at the Crossroads couldn’t diminish her fond memories or the good energy that was palpable in the air.
It was the center of the world. It was where she had confessed her love for the man she would marry. It was where she had made and lost friends. It was where she had found strength. She had dreamed, cried, laughed, and—it dawned on her in short order after arriving—gained a glimpse of the future.
Her gaze was locked on the main market as they passed, headed toward the standard Imperial hotel. Vhalla was suddenly very curious.
That night, Aldrik’s breathing was slow and consistent in her ear. He curled around her back, as had become their habit. It had been an hour since he’d last moved and, for once, Vhalla had outlasted him when it came to the race of who would be the first to slumber. The prince who was once unable to sleep was now an Emperor who slumbered mostly through the night and fell asleep relatively quickly after his head hit the pillow—so long as he wasn’t kept awake engaging in any activities with his future Empress.
With small wiggles over a painfully long period of time, Vhalla freed herself from his grasp. He stirred, a soft murmur in disapproval, but she had waited long enough that he was well and truly asleep. He was barely visible in the darkness, but with the slit of moonlight streaming between the curtains, Vhalla could make out his face.
His brow was relaxed, and he looked almost peaceful. Tonight, she had gone to bed with a very different man than the last time they had curled together in the Crossroads. His skin had a healthier glow, and the circles underneath his eyes had lightened. The journey in the West had been easy so far, and it felt like they were thawing out after an impossibly long winter.
Vhalla stood slowly, easing her weight off the bed. His fist curled around the blankets where she had just been, but Aldrik showed no other signs of waking. She retreated into the bathroom, easing the door silently closed behind her. The tile was cold on her toes as Vhalla began to rummage through the wardrobe. Word of the Emperor’s eminent arrival had spread, and the hotel had stocked the closet with clothing in advance, welcoming them with much pomp and circumstance.
She massaged her scarred shoulder after slipping a tunic over her head, thinking of their praises. The Western lords and ladies aplauded what a smart match the Windwalker was for their Emperor. They never seemed to hear her when she corrected them, that she was just a Commons. It was no easier to bear the misplaced mantle now than it was when they first set out in the West.
Dressed, Vhalla poked her nose out into the dark room. Aldrik hadn’t moved and remained still as she crept past the sliding door. Vhalla ran a hand through her hair, teasing out the knots Aldrik’s eager hands always left in her tresses. She knew she should feel guilty, sneaking away from him as she was, but some things demanded answers.
She avoided the main lobby, staffed all hours of the day, slipping out a back door. No one paid her any mind, her hood drawn and her head down. She wanted to remain as inconspicuous as possible. She willed herself to fade into the shadows.
The late hours of the Crossroads were a very different place. Most stores were shuttered for the day, save for the more creative establishments that were just opening for halfway drunken and seedy-looking patrons. Men and women leaned against the corners of alleys with come-hither stares, beckoning those who came and went with promises of dreams and pleasure.
Vhalla drew her hood tighter; now was not the time to be the future Empress Solaris.
As one particularly shady-looking character beckoned to her, forcing Vhalla more into the middle of the road and out of the shadows, she wondered again why she had left the hotel. There was a touch of shame about what she was about to do, shame for the doubt that still lived in her heart despite all her friends’ assurances. Aldrik swore that their future was one of love, prosperity, and happiness. But he did not know what the next day held, more or less what would come in the years before them.
A familiar storefront seemed to materialize out of nowhere, interrupting her thoughts. It was completely dark, save for the light of a single candle on a table. Vhalla’s hand slipped from her shoulder to her neck, and she silently begged Aldrik to forgive her for her doubts.
The drapery in the doorway was drawn to the side, as if inviting her, and Vhalla entered boldly. Some unseen force pulled the curtain shut behind her, and Vhalla turned in surprise, her eyes trying to adjust to the sudden darkness. When her gaze swept back within once more, a face—illuminated by the candle—peered back.
“I knew you would come.” The woman’s voice was as smooth as silk and more melodic than any instrument Vhalla had ever heard. It beckoned. It beseeched. It hinted at promises that people wanted to give but were too afraid to make.