“Come,” she whispered over his lips.
“Vhalla . . .” his voice was low and dangerous in a way that made her knees weak.
“Come,” she repeated, guiding him with a tug on his hands.
The book fell from the Emperor’s lap as he rose to meet her. It may have been the first time in her life that Vhalla let a book fall without frantically checking to see if any pages were bent. Aldrik’s arms pressed her against him. One kiss, one step, and they made their way toward the bedroom.
They were perfectly imperfect. Vhalla knew they would fight again. She knew fire and air had a tendency to burn hot. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. For tonight, she would beg for their flames.
Vhalla rolled over, groping at the bedside table. Her fingers searched for something wooden, round, and heavier than the rest. It rolled away, and she stretched with a groan.
“Trouble?” Aldrik shifted, loosening his hold on her waist.
Picking up one of the vials, Vhalla inspected its lack of stopper and cast it aside with a hollow thud. “I wouldn’t have trouble if half of them weren’t empty,” she muttered. “Why are they all still here?”
“We can’t really discard so many without raising suspicion.”
“You’re a Firebearer.” Vhalla rolled her eyes, even though she couldn’t see her face in the dim light of the room. “Burn them.”
“You and your logic.” Aldrik finally gave up on the unspoken idea of going back to sleep and sat up, burning every empty vial she tossed into the air. Vhalla scattered the ashes with a gust of wind.
Elixir of the Moon had been something that Elecia was all too prepared to provide since the events of the night at the Crossroads. In the eyes of the court, they were still playing the role of proper man-and wife-to-be, keeping their separate sleeping quarters until their wedding. But more often than not, Jax slotted himself for the night shift, a shift he made sure was scheduled until late mornings. Even more mysterious was the fact that he didn’t show up half the time, which was noted without comment.
Downing the foul liquid in one quick gulp, Vhalla tossed the vial with a grimace. It exploded in a final burst of flame before hitting the floor. She barely had time to scatter its remnants when an arm pulled her against a very naked man.
“Are you pleased?” he hummed. His voice was deep and throaty with sleep.
Vhalla thought for a long moment before replying, as was their morning ritual. “As pleased as I can be until we finish with our wedding and can march once more.”
“Soon.” He nuzzled the base of her neck, his lips brushing over what must be the makings of a bruise. “Tell me what it looks like.”
“My answer was no last night, and it is still no this morning.” Vhalla laughed breathily at the way his morning stubble rubbed against her chin.
“I will see it tomorrow.” He was making every attempt to convince her to spill the details of her wedding gown. And if the revelries of the night before couldn’t, then his kisses in the morning certainly wouldn’t.
“Yes, you will.” Vhalla wiggled beneath him and freed herself.
“Stubborn.” He rolled onto his back with a small grin.
“You love me that way.”
Vhalla was the first to escape the bed, which ended their escape from the world.
Following their small tiff about their wedding, they had discovered that no matter how bleak the world was, if they wanted to survive, then they had to savor the things that gave them joy. So each morning they woke and pretended they were nothing more than two lovers enjoying the dawn. Vhalla had felt guilty about it at first. But it made them stronger as a unit and put them in a better place to lead their people.
The second part of their new morning ritual was to go through the letters and notes that multiplied in the night while they slept. They would alternate reading them aloud over breakfast, once more just the two of them, and would decide together where they stood on matters. At the same time, Vhalla would go over her notes from the previous day’s council. They were regularly corresponding with Sehra now, which gave Vhalla hope that their support from the North would arrive in time.
Her efforts to speak less to and silently smile more to the nobles were paying off. She wore out her quill with notes about what to discuss with Aldrik in private. This habit didn’t stop her from interjecting her thoughts into those public discussions, but it was improving her diplomatic relationships. She also found it helped her organize her thoughts better, so that when she did speak she did so with more tact.
Aldrik had taken to doing the same, which surprised her, and it helped them present a unified front on all matters. The first comment of praise had come through Elecia, saying Vhalla seemed more reflective in meetings.
But the time Vhalla could spend in meetings had been shortening as Lilo and Tina began to buzz more with wedding preparations. They were frustrated on more than one occasion by her lack of opinion, but Vhalla told them that she was content doing things in the traditional Western fashion. The things that mattered most to Vhalla was that she and Aldrik wed, that Aldrik was content, and that they could move onto fighting their war.
However little it had mattered to her, Vhalla still woke on her wedding day with a small family of butterflies in her stomach. Music wafted up from the streets, and the revels began long before the ceremony. Vhalla woke alone so that there was no risk of the wedding preparation crew discovering her in Aldrik’s bed—she was really growing tired of that fa?ade.