Vhalla remembered how Daniel had been elevated to lordship upon joining the Golden Guard. A fellow soldier would likely take such things seriously. “Sorry, I hadn’t meant—”
Jax roared with laughter. “You think I actually give a damn about those crusty old nobles? Reddening their cheeks and pretending their hair still grows in black?” All amusement fell from his face as suddenly as it appeared. “But seriously, some would take offense.”
Vhalla opened and closed her mouth, but words failed to form.
“Well, darling, I’d love to stay and join you, but I need to see those riders off. I’ll find you some fresher clothes on my way back.” Jax made for the door, stopping just in its frame. “You’ll be well enough alone?”
Vhalla brought her hands together, meeting the man’s eyes as he peered down at her over his shoulder. It was a serious question. There was something about his madness that called to her own.
“Yes,” Vhalla said with more confidence than she felt. “I’ll manage. Send the riders.”
Jax nodded, clearly understanding her priorities, and left. Vhalla turned to the steaming tub of water. Jax must be a Firebearer, she mused. He heated the water just as Larel had heated the streams and ponds they bathed along the march. Peeling off her clothes was like shedding the shroud of the other woman. For weeks Vhalla had worn the memory like a shield, Larel’s last gift: her name in the form of Serien Leral.
The water was just shy of scalding hot but Vhalla still shivered. She was alone. Larel and Sareem gone, Fritz far away, and her library with its window seat ... Vhalla’s eyes fluttered closed with the pang of nostalgia. She allowed herself the sweet agony of dreaming, of thinking of returning to the palace in the south. Of sitting with Aldrik once more in his rose garden. Of finding something that was different from all she had known but was still something she could call normal.
Two quick raps on the door was the only warning before it pushed open again. “I brought you clothes.”
“I’m not!” Vhalla pressed her naked body to the side of the barrel, trying to hide it in the curve of the wood.
“You’re as red as Western crimson.” Jax laughed at the color of her face. “What? If you have something I haven’t seen, then that would be a real treat.”
“This isn’t ...” Vhalla was about to die from embarrassment. She’d bathed in group baths before, but with other women.
“I thought you weren’t a lady?” He grinned wildly. “Certainly acting like a noble flower with all this modesty.”
“I don’t know you!” she balked.
“Do you want to?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Out!” Vhalla demanded.
“If the lady commands.” Jax left, unapologetic.
Vhalla dunked her head under the water. This man was nothing like any noble she’d ever met. Any sane person she’d ever met!
But he was thoughtful as well, she discovered. The water steamed at a perfect temperature once more. There was a mostly clean drying cloth waiting for her atop two different options for shirt and pants. Both were oversized on her petite frame, which had been narrowed by a long march and lean food. The shirt wore like a tunic, and the pants needed to be rolled. But with a belt they would sit on her hips rather than slide off.
The major stood waiting for her across the hall when she exited. Vhalla’s face was instantly scarlet again, and she pursed her lips to keep in her frustration.
Jax pushed away from the wall, keenly picking up on her emotion. “What do you know, there was a woman under all that blood and grime.”
Vhalla shifted her chainmail tunic awkwardly in her hands. “Right, this way.” He turned away from the side of the hall that ended with a single door. There was a door on either side of them, and Vhalla quickly realized whose quarters these were.
“Is this Prince Baldair’s or Prince Aldrik’s room?” She paused in the doorway Jax was leading her through.
“Baldair’s. He won’t mind, and you look dead on your feet.” Vhalla stared across the hall, and Major Jax didn’t miss the obvious thoughts floating across her face. “Unless you’d rather stay in the crown prince’s room?”
“I would,” she whispered.
Jax let Vhalla wander across the hall alone. He hovered in Baldair’s doorway, watching the Windwalker as she slowly pushed up the simple wooden latch that held the crown prince’s door closed. His eyes followed her as she comfortably, almost reverently, entered the quarters of the most private man in the Empire.
There was nothing notable about it, a few chests against one wall, a bed opposite, and a desk positioned near a shuttered window. Vhalla stopped to engage in a staring contest with an empty armor stand waiting for its owner’s plate to return.
Aldrik’s mangled face flashed before her eyes, and Vhalla gripped her shirt over her stomach, willing the sickening feeling away.
“Here.” Jax placed a palm on her shoulder, causing Vhalla to nearly jump out of her skin.
She stared down at the vial in his hand. “Only one?” Every time she’d been wounded, half a cleric’s box was forced down her throat.
“Are your wounds severe enough to merit more?” Jax asked earnestly. Vhalla shook her head. “Not the physical ones at least, right?”
Vhalla pulled away from him, squaring her shoulders toward the Western man, defensive of her feelings. He was like wildfire, unpredictable, burning through one emotion and then the next. She squinted up at him and opened her mouth to speak.