Aldrik stared at her wide-eyed, his gaze heaped adoration upon her as though she was the Goddess herself descended upon the earth and made mortal. “Vhalla,” he croaked.
“Aldrik.” Spider-webbed fractures stretched across the ice she’d packed around her heart, shattering under its own weight. She sprinted to him and his stiff muscles prevented him from rising too quickly to meet her. That didn’t stop Vhalla from pressing herself atop him at an awkward angle, half seated at the edge of the bed.
His arms slowly heeded his commands. They worked themselves around her, holding the shaking Windwalker with all the strength the crown prince could muster. Vhalla hiccupped softly, hiding her face in the crook of his neck.
“My Vhalla,” he whispered, gripping her. “My lady, my love. You, you ...” His voice broke and he drew a shuddering breath.
She pulled away, staring down at the prince. “You’re here.” “As are you.” His palm cupped her cheek, and Vhalla leaned into it, savoring his touch.
“You wouldn’t be, Aldrik, if it weren’t for her,” Baldair reminded them both of his presence.
“What happened?” Aldrik glanced between the two of them. “Tell me everything.”
“You shouldn’t tax yourself.” Vhalla was suddenly worried about the smallest thing breaking him. “Tell me everything,” he repeated firmly.
“After you fell ...” Baldair began, obliging his brother.
Vhalla glanced at him askance. She had no interest in hearing of how she had disobeyed the Emperor or her frantic run through the North. She also prayed that Baldair mentioned nothing of the confusion surrounding Daniel. The younger prince didn’t betray her trust.
The crown prince absorbed his brother’s words silently. His eyes shimmered as his beautiful mind began to wake once more. Vhalla allowed herself to be distracted by how wonderful every curve of his face was, and by his thumb running over the back of her hand.
“Vhalla.” He summoned her attention when Baldair had finished. Aldrik opened his mouth, and his words faltered. “You woke me also, didn’t you?”
She searched his face, reading the meaning hidden in the depths of his eyes. It had been real then, what she had witnessed during the Joining. He had been there as much as she had been. Vhalla nodded.
“Thank you,” Aldrik whispered, almost reverently. “Of course, my prince.”
“Now, we must find a way to deal with my father.” Aldrik closed his eyes as if in pain.
Vhalla’s stomach clenched. “If the Emperor demands my death ... there isn’t much hope is there?”
“No. We will win this war and then your freedom—”
“I heard.” She couldn’t handle the flash of hopelessness in his eyes, the flash of truth, when he realized she knew his father’s demands of her death no matter the war’s outcome. “I will fail before I force your hand.”
“I couldn’t.” Aldrik shook his head. “You know I can’t.”
“He hates what I am to you,” Vhalla breathed in realization. “Well, if my crime is love, then I am indeed guilty.”
“I will not let it happen.” Aldrik tried to push himself up into a seated position. He grimaced, and Vhalla quickly adjusted the pillows to try to give him support. “I promise you.”
“Don’t.” Her hands faltered. Vhalla straightened and stood, her arms were limp at her sides. “Don’t cheapen our promises. Some can’t be kept.”
“No!” Aldrik’s voice rose slightly, and Baldair made a shh-ing sound with a nervous glance toward the door. “If I must, I will take you away myself and hide you.”
Baldair leaned forward in obvious surprise.
“Then you’ll be hunted also.” Vhalla shook her head. “Don’t be rash about this. It’s what’s meant to be and—”
“Don’t do this.” Anger flared in his eyes, and it made the timbre of his voice deepen. “Don’t you dare do this to me, Vhalla Yarl.” With more speed and strength than Vhalla thought he currently possessed, Aldrik pulled her back onto the bed. “I told you this would never be easy, I warned you. I begged you to spare my heart if you weren’t ready for this fight.”
She glanced away, unable to bear the burden of guilt.
“Look at me,” he demanded softly. She obliged. “You do not give in. You disobeyed the Emperor himself, you ran alone through the North, you—who was once a library girl! You’re smart and capable and strong and beautiful, and I will not let you forget those things now. I will not let them be diminished.” Aldrik gripped her hand as though he was physically holding onto the scraps of her humanity. Vhalla’s chest ached. “I’m tired of fighting,” she sighed. The memory of the Emperor’s boot on her face was fresh. Vhalla hated that the man could make her feel so little. “I would rather he continue to hate me and spend the end of my days as I choose than fight the Emperor in agony until my final moment.”
“No.” A smile spread across Aldrik’s face. It was tired, but it had a hopefulness Vhalla had never quite seen behind it. “I swear with you and Baldair and the Gods as my witnesses that you shall be at my side. I will think of something, I will find an opportunity. I do not know what that is yet, but I will find something that will be worth more to my father than this foolish notion of killing you. Whatever that thing is, I will threaten him with it. I will show him—the world—the astounding woman who has stolen my heart.”