Elecia hesitated for another long moment. “Assuming I indulge this insanity,” she paused to chew on her thumbnail, a tic the woman had never let Vhalla see before, “there is no way the Emperor is going to let you go. I don’t know what you did to cross him, but he will not let you leave his sight.”
“Then I’ll leave tonight while he sleeps.”
“You’re serious?” Vhalla saw a new emotion cross Elecia’s face, one she’d only seen once following the sandstorm: respect.
“What will he do? Send riders after me?” Vhalla smiled; madness and desperation were a calming concoction. “What is the fastest horse?”
Elecia hardly thought about it before answering, “Baston.” “Baston?” Vhalla didn’t recognize the mount.
“Aldrik’s ... but the beast won’t let anyone touch him. We couldn’t even lead him. He just walked obediently behind the horse Aldrik was thrown over.”
Vhalla pushed the thought of Aldrik—bloody, dying, and unceremoniously thrown over the back of a horse—out of her mind. It would all be a bad dream by the time he woke. He would be safe, and he would wake. “I will ride Baston then.”
“Have you lost your hearing along with your mind?” Elecia rolled her eyes. “Baston won’t—”
“He will let me ride him.” There was a calm certainty to Vhalla’s voice that gave Elecia pause. She’d ridden alongside the beast for the length of the continent and part of its master lived in her. “I’ll go after it’s dark. I’ll need some kind of map to find the way.”
“Easier still, I’ll get you a compass,” Elecia thought aloud. “Soricium is due north from here.”
“Wait, you’re agreeing with this?” Fritz blinked at Elecia before turning to Vhalla. “No, Vhal, you can’t.”
“What?” Vhalla glared at her suddenly traitorous friend. “No, I-I thought I lost you, too ... and now you’re okay ... you can’t leave ...” Her friend’s voice weakened to a whisper.
Vhalla realized that she may have exposed herself as the Windwalker in the Pass and cast off the guise of Serien Leral, but she still needed that other persona’s heart. Vhalla still needed the steel and blood-forged emotional armor that she’d crafted as Serien. If she couldn’t find that, she wouldn’t be able to leave. “Fritz,” Vhalla whispered, reaching out to him. She pulled Fritz into a tight embrace. Somewhere deep within, Vhalla was holding herself, holding within the girl who was still shivering, shaking, and crying with all her might. “It will be all right. I must do this.”
“Why?” Fritz sniffled.
“You know why.” Vhalla laughed softly. “I love him.”
“Love has made you stupid,” her friend muttered into her chest.
Vhalla met Elecia’s eyes as she answered, “I know.”
The half-Western, half-Northern, woman assessed Vhalla levelly, as if passing judgment on what Vhalla was about to say.
“But if I’m going to be stupid for anyone, it will be for him. I’ve fallen too far into him to give up now, to let him go.”
“You’ve changed, Vhal.” Fritz pulled away, rubbing his eyes. “I know.” Vhalla had no other option but to admit it.
She spent the rest of the day with Fritz and left him with the promise that she would be waiting for him in Soricium when he arrived. They had no option but to put faith in that promise. Fritz seemed calmer—resigned—when Elecia came for Vhalla that night.
“Where are we going?” Vhalla whispered to Elecia, noticing the tent they were walking toward.
“You think I wouldn’t let you see him before you left?” Elecia glanced at Vhalla from the corners of her eyes, cementing their unorthodox relationship into friendship.
“If the Emperor finds out ...” Vhalla glanced over her shoulder, remembering what Elecia had said earlier.
Vhalla saw the source of the other woman’s confidence standing on either side of the tent. The two soldiers were dressed entirely in black plate, identifying them as members of the Black Legion—sorcerers. They were unfamiliar to Vhalla, nameless, but Vhalla tried to remember their faces as they let her pass silently. These were the faces of good men.
A single flame, hovering over a metal disk in the far corner, barely gave enough light to see by. It was so small that the tent had looked completely dark underneath all the camouflaging brush. The atmosphere was oppressive. It stank of blood and body and death.
Vhalla fell to her knees at the sight of him, a hand covering her mouth to keep from crying out with joy, with anguish.
Aldrik’s eyes were swollen closed with the bruising on his face. Blankets were piled high atop him, but every now and then his body would shudder as if cold. That and the slow rise and fall of his chest were the only signs of life. Every part of him was covered in yellow gauze, stained with puss. But the most concerning thing of all was the large wound on the side of his head that relentlessly seeped blood.
Vhalla reached out and grabbed the prince’s bandaged hand, clinging to it. His right hand, the hand that had written her letters, the hand that had tangled itself into her hair as she slept, the hand that held her face when he kissed her; it was a wonderful hand of endless possibilities that now rested completely limp in her grasp.