“Cousin,” Elecia walked away as she spoke, “however completely idiotic I think you both have clearly been . . . However much I believe this could be interpreted as a blessing in disguise . . .” There was a long pause. “I am sorry.”
The other woman left, closing the doors once more behind her and resigning her room to the Emperor and his lady. The couch sighed softly as Elecia settled upon it, and Vhalla couldn’t help but remember she had slept on couches in this hotel the last time they were in the Crossroads, spending her night hours healing.
Aldrik hovered for several long breaths before finally returning to the bed. Her love settled on the bed next to her but did not touch her, the small distance between them feeling like the world.
The silence crossed the threshold into agonizing when he finally spoke. “Look at me.”
“Do not fight me, not now.” His hand pulled on her shoulder. “Please.”
It was the please that called through to her. Vhalla rolled and looked up at her Emperor with red and burning eyes. Her face was twisted in grief and glistening with snot and tears. Aldrik caressed the expression, replying with tenderness.
“I am . . .” He took a deep breath, “Relieved you are all right.”
Vhalla squeezed her eyes shut. He didn’t even understand a fraction of how she’d wronged them.
“I was so worried.” His lips ghosted against her forehead. “I woke, and you weren’t there. I went to Fritz, and when you weren’t with him . . . If I’d not found you, I was ready to burn down the Crossroads in a rage to find you.”
“Don’t say that,” Vhalla hissed in agony.
“It’s the truth.”
“You said it before.” She remembered him bidding her farewell at a secret door the first time they were at the Crossroads. “Do not say it again. We have to be different than before.”
“I traded fates. We must break the vortex. We must do better.” Vhalla felt sick at herself all over again for what she’d done. The night was becoming a messy blob of memories that were distorting with time. Did she really have any idea what the truth was? Or was she just slowly losing her mind?
“What are you talking about?”
“There was a Firebearer.” Vhalla struggled to collect herself to say what needed to be said. “I met her the last time I came. She . . . then she told me. . . She told me I would lose you. She told me of Victor. I didn’t understand. I was worried, so I went—”
“You went out? Tonight?” The tender tones were fading from his words.
“I wanted to go alone . . .”
“To some curiosity shop? To a Firebearer with some smoke and mirror tricks? Why didn’t you tell me?” Justified agitation furrowed his brow.
“I didn’t want you to tell me not to go.”
“So you knew I would disapprove?” His touch vanished, and Aldrik withdrew. “You couldn’t respect my wishes. No, not even enough to try to talk it over with me?”
“I should’ve explained.”
“You should have. You don’t keep secrets from me, not you.” There was genuine pain now in his voice. His old insecurities flared brightly, and the wounds that had scarred his heart saw light once more.
“You know I don’t.” Vhalla looked at him for a long moment, challenging him to object.
He cursed softly and looked away.
“I’m sorry, I handled this poorly. I just wanted to know if . . . if we would really make it.”
“You shouldn’t have to ask a Firebearer to know that,” he mumbled.
“It isn’t as though we haven’t been on the run for weeks! I was scared, Aldrik. I thought that I could find something, some small reassurance to sooth the worry in my heart but . . .” She’d talked herself to the threshold she’d feared all along. How could she summarize what had transpired in a way that he would take seriously?
“But?” Aldrik pressed. “This Firebearer, did they touch you?” he growled. There was a protective dangerous gleam in his eyes. “Is it because of them that we lost . . .” Aldrik couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“No.” This was her responsibility, and Vhalla would accept it. “That was my fault alone.”
“It’s not your fault,” he mumbled.
She had to take a second and brace herself for what had to come next. Vhalla wanted to put the night behind her so badly, but she couldn’t do that if there were truths left unsaid. Through the slowly thickening haze in her head, she forced herself to carry on.
“I gave away the watch you made.”
He was so silent she wondered if he somehow hadn’t heard her. “You . . . what?”
“I had a reason!” Vhalla freed her hand from the blanket, thrusting her silver trophy before him. “This, Aldrik, with this—”
“Another pocket watch? Did you tire of mine so you wanted something more—”
“It’s a vessel!” Their pattern of interruption ended with that. His mouth hung open on the unformed word she had stolen from him with the truth. “It’s a vessel.”
“It’s an unintentional vessel I made back when the Firebearer last looked into the flames to answer my question,” Vhalla explained quickly. “With this . . . With this I should be able to . . .”