As true as it had ever been, dawn came too soon. Vhalla peeled herself away after they had both reassured themselves of their plans. His arms were hesitant to relinquish her, and Vhalla was reluctant to plunge herself into the suddenly cold world again.
After slipping out of his room, she drifted through camp, not paying attention to where her feet carried her. Doubt traded places with hope, and her thoughts ranged from horror, to cautionary urges, to elation. Somehow, she navigated back to Fritz’s tent.
“What in the sun?” Elecia exclaimed as Vhalla practically collapsed atop her.
She couldn’t say anything; the magical toll of Joining was mixing with lack of sleep, resulting in a potent exhaustion. Vhalla rolled off Fritz and onto her back, staring up at the lightening canvas with a small grin. No matter what happened, he lived.
“You two are so annoying,” Fritz mumbled from Vhalla’s right, still half asleep.
“He’s awake,” she intoned.
“What?” Elecia sat upright.
“He’s awake,” Vhalla repeated, sitting with a foolish grin. She grabbed the other woman’s hands, beaming. “Aldrik’s awake.”
“You ...” Elecia didn’t even pull away. “You actually did it?” Vhalla nodded and let out a small yelp in surprise as Elecia pulled her in for a bone-crushing hug.
“You’re so infuriating, Vhalla Yarl,” she laughed.
“You’re pretty annoying yourself,” Vhalla responded lightly, and both women shared a moment of sincere elation.
Vhalla had just turned to Fritz, beginning to share with them the broad strokes of what had occurred, when Jax’s voice carried through camp.
“Lady Ci’Dan! Lady Yarl!”
Vhalla exited the tent behind Elecia. “We’re here.”
“Why am I not surprised to find you both together?” the Westerner asked with a smirk.
“You should be.” Elecia placed a fist on her hip, shifting her weight with a familiar grin. “I can’t stand this woman.”
“A new development then?” Jax cocked his head to the side. Elecia hummed, starting in the direction of the camp palace without needing to be told. “I assume our prince has summoned me?”
The Western man nodded. “I’m surprised he brought you out here.”
Vhalla walked curiously behind the two. They spoke like old friends.
“He clearly needs me.” Elecia’s haughty voice sounded hollow to Vhalla’s ears. There was a sense of sorrow there. Elecia didn’t want Aldrik to need her to be there, Vhalla realized. Elecia would rather if he was in a position that didn’t require her expertise as a healer.
“So what is your grandfather up to with this one and her duchessness?” Jax nodded in Vhalla’s direction.
“Far be it from me to know.” Elecia glanced over her shoulder at Vhalla. “I found out after he’d decided to issue the first Crimson Proclamation since the West fell.”
Vhalla avoided the woman’s stare. She really didn’t want to know about the Crimson Proclamation any more than necessary. It made for unwanted attention.
“I doubt he got the Emperor’s permission first,” Jax’s voice dropped.
“He shouldn’t have to.” There was a bite to Elecia’s words that Vhalla liked. “He’s the Lord of the West; he can give them out as he pleases.”
Jax caught Vhalla’s shifting eyes. “Told you some people took it seriously.” He grinned.
All conversation ended as they entered the camp palace. Thirteen men and women surrounded a tall-standing table in the far left corner. They stopped studying the maps before them and turned to the people who entered. At the head of the table was the Emperor, Baldair to his left, and a much stronger-looking Aldrik to his right.
Vhalla’s eyes didn’t miss anything. She saw the slight sway to his movements just from turning to look at her. She saw the way Aldrik’s hands gripped the table for balance. She had to bite her lip to keep from scolding him for leaving his bed.
“My apologies for my delay.” Jax walked straighter, shifting into his role as head major. “I was on an errand for our prince fetching Lady Yarl and Lady Ci’Dan.”
Aldrik gave Jax a nod as the head major fit into the table. Elecia immediately started for Aldrik, her mission clear. Vhalla’s feet stilled a few steps from the table, trapped in the Emperor’s glare.
“Vhalla, to my right,” Aldrik announced, and all heads turned.
Vhalla took a deep breath, gripping her hands over her abdomen. She kept her head as high as possible and walked with purpose. But, even knowing Aldrik’s plans, her breath had a soft tremble to it.
Elecia glanced at Vhalla as she switched which of Aldrik’s hands she was holding. But the Western woman didn’t say anything as Vhalla assumed the place of honor at the prince’s right hand, nudging out a familiar old and grizzled-looking man.
“Aldrik,” the Emperor began ominously, “do you not think the girl would be better served elsewhere?”
“No.” Aldrik brushed off his father’s words as if they were nothing more than a half-hearted musing. “I think it wise to keep her informed on our preparations as the Lady Yarl’s knowledge of our forces will likely prove essential to her success.”
“Do you?” Emperor Solaris’s words practically dripped malice.