His arms encircled her for a second time and, for a second time, her hands sought him out. “You did well.” His palm rubbed her back. “It was enough, you did enough.”
She pressed her eyes closed and relished in his words. Maybe they were empty praise. Maybe they were right and maybe wrong. But she still had wanted to hear them.
“Vhalla, I ...” Daniel began to pull away.
“Don’t,” she whispered. He stilled. “No names, no more words. Let me hide for a while, comfort me as you would anyone.”
Daniel straightened just enough to meet her eyes, their faces nearly touching. The sight slowed her heart enough to find peace, enough to ignore the conflicted mess of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. “You’re not just anyone. But, whatever you desire.”
“You have nothing to thank me for.” Daniel timidly rose a hand. Gently, the pad of his thumb stroked across her cheek.
He obliged her wishes and neither said anything for the rest of the night, everything was somehow understood and beautifully simple. Daniel held her and warded away the emptiness that she’d been struggling against for days. It was a selfish comfort, but one she’d so desperately needed.
Erion didn’t seem surprised the next morning when she crept out of Lord Daniel Taffl’s tent. “Breakfast,” he said softly, drawing Vhalla’s attention to the skillet that cooked over the central fire.
The food actually smelled good. It was barely dawn, and she had nowhere else to be yet, so she sat on one of the tree stumps opposite the Western lord. War was an interesting equalizer in the world. It made lords and ladies prepare food like common folk, and the only things that were had were earned or taken.
“How do you know Daniel?” Erion focused on the fire and the food cooking over it.
“We ...” She paused. “We met when I joined the Empire’s army in the West.”
“The West, hmm?”
Vhalla nodded, discovering the guise of Serien no longer fitting as it once had.
“Where in the West are you from?” A pair of cerulean eyes assessed her thoroughly.
“Qui.” She knew a test when she saw one.
“Qui?” Erion whistled low. “How did an Eastern woman end up in Qui?”
She realized he was appraising her amber-tan skin color and not-black hair. “Never asked. Mother didn’t talk much before she died. Father was too drunk to ever bother saying.” Before Erion could get in another word, Vhalla made note of his Southern blue eyes and continued, “And how did a Southerner end up ...”
“In the Crossroads?” Erion smirked and she realized how poorly her attempt at a counter at his parentage had failed. “Certainly you know where I am from.”
Vhalla frowned at herself. The past days’ work with the army had made her dredge up all the military history she’d read, which was mostly on the Western expansion. She’d almost let him catch her. “Of course I do, there’s not a Westerner alive who doesn’t know of the Le’Dan family.”
Erion gave her an approving glance, reaching over to the skillet. “Not a citizen of the Empire who doesn’t know, given the story of Leron Ci’Dan and Lanette Le’Dan.”
Vhalla nodded half-heartedly. The story of the star-crossed lovers was one she’d only consumed once, its romantic tragedy making for a long and exhausting read. Most never used the family names of the ill-fated souls. Ci’Dan, Aldrik’s family ... She focused on the fire. The thought of the crown prince sparked an uncomfortable sharpness on the edges of the memories of the night prior. Suddenly, a night of what had seemed like harmless comfort between close friends felt very wrong.
“Thank the Mother you still cook.” A drowsy Daniel stumbled over, as if summoned with her thoughts.
Vhalla watched the way his shirt moved as he ran a hand through his nearly shoulder-length brown hair. It had ties mostly open down the front, stopping somewhere before his navel. She knew it to be thin cotton, not wool, by the amount of heat that had radiated off his body the night before. She forced her focus on her fingers, folding and unfolding them between her knees.
They’d slept side by side on the march from the Crossroads. He hadn’t thought of her as Vhalla, she’d been no one the night prior. It was a thin excuse for something deeper and more troubling, and she knew it as certainly as daylight.
“Serien, do you want some?”
She blinked at the plate of food being handed before her. “Serien?” Daniel repeated.
“No, no I ...” Vhalla stood with a shake of her head. “I’m not hungry.”
“You must be famished; we didn’t eat anything last night.” Daniel frowned.
“I need to go see someone,” she lied, partly.
Vhalla moved quickly, leaving them behind without further word and heading toward the camp palace.
“Halt!” One of the soldiers on either side of the camp palace’s doors stopped her progress. He assessed her thoughtfully. “What business do you have?”
“I was staying here.”
“I received no mention. Camp palace isn’t the place for you, majors and royals only.” He waved her away.
“No, you don’t understand.” She shook her head, suddenly remembering that her chainmail—the chainmail Aldrik had made for her—remained forgotten in his room. “You must let me through.” She took another step forward, and the soldier stepped in front of her.