Baldair turned to Aldrik, pausing. He took a deep breath, and Vhalla held hers for the younger prince’s words. “Then again, I suppose we always were. We’re hardly what could be called conventional. Do you remember those awful dinners your uncle would take us to when we visited the West, Aldrik?”
Elecia scoffed at the notion.
“Speak for yourself,” Aldrik said haughtily, bumping his side against Elecia’s in silent agreement.
“No, no, there was the one ...” Baldair hummed. “The one when we got into that alley fight.”
“An alley fight?” Vhalla couldn’t imagine the princes brawling like thugs in the back streets.
“Oh, that.” Aldrik’s voice was flat, but not with displeasure. His younger brother grinned wildly. “Ophain thought it’d be good for us because there were boys somewhat near our age.” “When was this?” Elecia interjected.
“You were still a child,” Aldrik elaborated. Vhalla used the information to envision a thirteen year old Aldrik in the story.
“Those two boys were so full of themselves,” Baldair explained to Raylynn. “They were completely asking for it.”
“Why do I have a feeling this ends up being your fault?” Vhalla covered her mouth to hide her half-chewed food when she spoke.
Baldair gripped his shirt over his chest. “You wound me, Vhalla! Why would you assume it was my fault?”
“I can see why you like her,” Jax snickered to Aldrik, tossing his head in Vhalla’s direction.
Aldrik smiled smugly at Baldair, doing nothing to object. Vhalla ran her greasy palms over her loose-fitting pants. She saw Baldair roll his eyes at his elder brother before continuing the story, but Vhalla was momentarily lost.
Was she accepted among this group? Was she accepted at Aldrik’s side?
“... but if they hadn’t said Solaris was a dumb name, I wouldn’t have needed to take them out back,” Baldair was speaking.
“So then I find him, bruised and bloody.” Aldrik’s eagerness to continue the story betrayed his forcefully uninterested tone.
“And he says,” Baldair interjected while pointing at Aldrik, “‘No one can beat my brother but me!’ and charges! He punches the bigger of the two in the face!”
“You?” Vhalla and Elecia gaped in unison.
“A crown prince must demonstrate that he doesn’t tolerate others questioning his command.” Aldrik took another nonchalant bite of his food, which sent Vhalla into more pearls of laughter.
“I don’t think anyone has ever questioned your command.” Baldair rolled his eyes, but his smile betrayed him. It was a smile Aldrik shared, and both brothers paused. The other four at the table were forgotten. “Brother, when was the last time we talked like this?”
The second his sibling mentally reached out, Aldrik withdrew. It was heartbreaking to witness. His expression fell behind the mask that had been crafted as a survival mechanism over the years. But, Vhalla realized, she still didn’t understand why.
Even not understanding, she wanted to bridge that gap more than ever. She wanted them to often smile like they did. Their ease seemed so much more natural than the tense silence currently surrounding them.
“Aldrik.” Her fingers boldly slipped around his, where his hand rested on the table. “Your brother asked you a question,” she encouraged gently.
“Yarl,” the Emperor’s voice slithered across the room, and all levity shriveled up and died.
Vhalla turned slowly with the rest of the group, staring at the Emperor, who had somehow crossed half the distance between their table and the back entry. How long had he been there?
“I believe you meant, Prince Aldrik.”
Her hand slid slowly off her prince’s and into her lap. It was too late, however. The Emperor had seen. His frigid, unforgiving eyes hadn’t missed anything. Vhalla tightened her jaw, trying not to shiver as Emperor Solaris stared her down.
“Now, I think it is best if you leave,” the Emperor commanded.
Vhalla stood, allowing the scraps of her cloak to fall over the opposite side of the bench, accentuating the slash marks. “Vhalla, no, you—” Aldrik turned between her and his father, too caught off-guard to conjure his usual elegance.
“It’s fine, my prince.” She saved him from himself. Vhalla was sure to caress the words, my prince, as she spoke them. She treated them with all the care that his love deserved. She would give the Emperor what he asked for, she would use Aldrik’s titles, but not in the way he wanted.
“I do not expect to find you lingering here again.” The Emperor sat.
Raylynn and Jax were already making for the door. Even Elecia was quick on their heels.
“I would not want it to cause any confusion,” the Emperor explained.
“Confusion?” Vhalla repeated.
“Among the other commoners,” the Emperor said with emphasis. “They may get this mad notion that you are one of us.”
“Of course not, my lord. That’s a rather asinine notion.” Vhalla was unsuccessful at hiding all the bitterness from her voice.
“I think it also.” The Emperor’s eyes shone with malice. “Now, I suggest you spend the day proving to me why it is that I continue to let you live—”
“Father!” Aldrik slammed his palms on the table.