“You will be the Emperor of Peace.” Saying it sent a small shiver down her arms and into the hands that were wrapped tightly around his. He was going to be the Emperor. This man, her love, was going to be the Emperor. “Start cementing your place as such now.”
“If I call for leniency in battle, I will lose the respect of all the soldiers.”
Vhalla glared at the corner of the room, frustrated at his truth. “I know. But when the war is over, commit to rebuilding the North, their homes.”
“The cost of that, Vhalla—”
“Did your father and brother not bring spoils back with them from the warfront?” She straightened, rubbing her eyes with the heel of her palm. “Has the Empire not profited in land and pillaging?”
Aldrik was silent.
Vhalla was tired, beyond tired, but resolute. “Return that wealth to them and rebuild this land. Show them that the Empire they have every reason to hate is not purely evil.”
Aldrik stared at her as though he had never seen her before. His hands were on her face, cupping her cheeks. “Yes. Yes, my lady, I will.”
“What?” Vhalla hadn’t expected his acceptance with such ease.
“You’re right. I promise you I will see this done.” “Truly?” she asked skeptically.
“Have I ever broken a promise to you?” The corner of Aldrik’s mouth curled upward. Vhalla shook her head, his thumbs still caressing her cheeks. “And I never will.”
Aldrik brought her face to his, and Vhalla met his mouth with a firm, waiting kiss.
“You will return the heart to this Empire, my lady.” Aldrik pressed his forehead against hers. “I will try to see this war end as quickly as possible, and when it is done, I will speak for the North and its people.”
“Thank you.” She pressed her lips against his in gratitude.
It was a cheap demonstration. Vhalla knew it didn’t absolve them. It was like trying to wash the blood off their hands with mud, no matter that they were filthy with the acts they were performing. But it was all that could be done.
It was better than nothing, she insisted to herself. There would be time after the war was over to figure out how else she could help. For now, she would focus on ending it as quickly and cleanly as possible. “Let me tell you where the food stores are.”
Aldrik spent the next hour hunched over her shoulder as Vhalla drew lopsided diagrams of what she’d seen. She did her best to label everything, from livestock pens to where the densest collection of civilians was. The quill paused.
“There’s something else,” Vhalla began slowly, unsure of how to proceed.
“What?” Aldrik could infer a good deal by her tone. “I found a Western man among them.”
“Likely a prisoner of war.” Aldrik rested a palm on her shoulder. “We were probing Soricium for months before we could cut a path to lay siege.”
“No, he was not being held against his will.” Vhalla stared at the paper before her, and Aldrik’s grip tightened. He was too smart not to instantly understand what she was saying. “He’d made a deal with them, on behalf of the Knights of Jadar, that if the North gave me to them alive, they’d kill the family Solaris.” Vhalla gazed up at Aldrik. The prince had a murderous stillness about him. She held her tongue, letting him formulate the best response.
He whirled in place, fire crackling around his fists, starting for the door. Vhalla was on her feet as well; the room spun from exhaustion and she gripped the chair for support. Aldrik stopped, assessing her tired form. He was back at her side, scooping up her messy drawings.
“When was the last time you slept?” Aldrik half supported her, turning for the bed.
“Some, the night before last,” Vhalla admitted. “With you, yesterday.”
“You must rest,” he whispered over her lips, sealing his demand with a kiss.
“It’s evening, I should—”
“You’re staying here now.” Aldrik pulled back the covers on the bed.
“What?” Her face had gone scarlet at the idea.
“It’s not safe, not with the Knights making an organized play. I won’t have you far from me again. As far as my father is concerned I will be staying with Baldair.” Aldrik paused, helping her under the blankets. “But I will come as often as you’d like.”
She was too tired to fight him and the pillows were already casting a spell on her. Vhalla gripped his hand tightly. “Your father,” she gave her objection.
“Vhalla, I am not going to ask him for this. I am going to tell him,” Aldrik spoke in a tone she hadn’t heard before. Vhalla stared, stunned, as he straightened away. “I’ll be back later, to check on you at the least, but rest for now. No matter what, I won’t be far.”
Vhalla nodded and Aldrik disappeared out of the room. He stood taller, he walked with a sort of confidence she’d never seen about him before. Vhalla didn’t know what exactly was changing her prince, but there was a change—she’d heard it in his words.
He hadn’t spoken like a prince. He’d spoken like an Emperor.
SHE STIRRED AS the door opened. Vhalla remembered the day in panic, immediately envisioning a dagger-wielding cloaked figure coming for her. Taking a breath she sat, her muscles taut—ready to fight or flee.