Both Vhalla and Elecia turned as the tent pole vibrated from a few knocks.
“‘Cia,” Jax said softly. “Is Vhalla there?”
“I am.” Vhalla moved to repack her clothes when a glint of silver caught her eye.
Jax stuck his head into the tent, crouching on the outside. “You have someone worried about you.”
“I bet I do,” Vhalla agreed tiredly.
“Where were you?” It suddenly dawned on Elecia that Vhalla wasn’t where the other woman had assumed her to be: Aldrik’s bed.
“I got put on patrol.” Vhalla rolled her eyes, fishing out the dark fabric at the bottom of her pack.
“Who put you on patrol?” Elecia seemed surprised.
“Doesn’t matter.” Vhalla shook her head, deciding it was best to ignore the Western major who seemed to hold a grudge against her for no reason. The man was likely just trying to glean favors from the Emperor. Their leader’s distaste for Vhalla was becoming more apparent by the day, and she had no doubt that a sum of gold may be given to someone who made Vhalla’s life miserable.
She ran her fingers over the silver stitching that affixed a piece of the wing design sewn onto the back of the cloak her doppelganger had worn. This was the last cloak; the other two had been lost when their wearers had fallen.
“Well, he’s called you for breakfast.” Jax didn’t need to explain who he was.
“I’ll come too.” Elecia was quick on Vhalla’s heels as they left the tent.
Fritz groaned and rolled over, sleeping on.
“He’ll likely need another round of potions. And if he was worrying ...” Elecia glanced between Jax and Vhalla, biting on her thumbnail lightly. “Likely something for his head, too.”
“It wasn’t too many cups. I already took care of that.” Jax waved the notion away.
Vhalla stared at the rolled up cloak a moment longer, debating if she should put it back or not. It would be a rather bold statement to wear. But there was a deep satisfaction at the idea of the Emperor seeing her wear it. She would don the thing he had used to take her name.
As the cloak unrolled, Elecia let out a soft gasp. Jax’s eyes narrowed. And Vhalla gripped the garment tightly.
A deep gash started from the middle of the silver wing that was emblazoned upon it. It tore through the fabric before being joined by other slashes. It was as though someone had taken a dagger to the cloak, tearing it to ribbons from the chest downward.
“Where did you get that?” Jax asked darkly.
Vhalla stared in dull shock at the strips of black. Had it been Tim? The girl had seemed so friendly. She’d walked and chatted with Vhalla for half the night.
“Someone is trying to send you a message.” Elecia finally gave words to what they all were thinking.
Vhalla absorbed the situation for a moment longer, before throwing the tattered cloak over her armored shoulders. She tied it in the front and let the shredded fabric fall to her ankles. It gave the appearance that she had endured some violent assault. “Good.” Vhalla tightened her hands into fists, letting her Channel cut through her exhaustion. She hadn’t slept more than a few hours the last two nights, and something told her it was going to be another long day. “I have a message of my own to send.”
She started for the camp palace, leaving Elecia and Jax to catch up behind her. Vhalla squinted in the morning sun, steeling herself for whatever the day would bring. It didn’t matter who was threatening her now, Emperor or otherwise; they’d all end up disappointed when the battle was done and she was still standing.
A surprisingly chill wind swept through camp, sending the remnants of the robe fluttering around her like the wings of ravens.
THE CAMP PALACE was empty inside, save for one man. Aldrik turned from where he had been pacing the room, his face crumpling into relief at the sight of her. Vhalla gave him an apologetic look, any verbalization cut short by being pressed into his chest.
She panicked, quickly squirming to step away.
“No one else is up yet,” he whispered into her hair, soothing her worries over his father seeing them.
Vhalla relaxed slightly, watching Jax from around Aldrik’s arm. He stared with interest, but there wasn’t the same shock as all the others who had discovered her and Aldrik’s relationship. There was a sorrowful understanding to his shoulders. It unsettled her more than anyone else’s reaction toward the relationship ever had.
Aldrik pulled away, his palms resting on her shoulders. “What happened?”
“I got stuck on patrol,” Vhalla explained.
“Patrol?” Aldrik frowned. “I would have thought it explicitly clear that you are not to be put on any sort of patrols. It’s too dangerous for you.”
“Hardly,” Vhalla protested the ridiculous notion.
“Vhalla, I don’t want anything happening to you.” A frown tugged at the corners of his lips.
“Aldrik,” she said stubbornly, “I survived the Night of Fire and Wind, an assassination attempt, a fall from the Pass, a run alone through the North.” Vhalla took a step away and pulled his hands from her shoulders. “I’ve killed more people than I have fingers. I’m not the girl you found in the library, and I can protect myself.”
He stared at her in disbelief, but the glimmer in his eyes began to ignite with admiration. Aldrik focused his attention upon her to the point that Vhalla felt herself glow. She smiled bravely up at him, squeezing his hands lightly.