Vhalla saw the bags under his tired eyes, but no one else seemed to. All the other soldiers cautiously admired their prince. Vhalla remembered what Major Reale had said about the Black Legion growing up with Aldrik.
He was trying, she realized, in more ways than one. Aldrik was trying to be their prince, to be a better man, and—if she dared believe it—to be better for her. He was serious about making an effort for her and for them.
“Remember, a Firebearer must always be on the offensive.” Aldrik’s hands were clasped at the small of his back. “Our skills are best for a relentless pursuit.”
The soldiers nodded in understanding, continuing their sparring.
“If you’re magically superior, you can burn through a Groundbreaker’s stone skin or take control of another Firebearer’s flames; if not, you’ll need to go for the eyes like a Commons. A Waterrunner’s ice is no trouble, either, unless they are particularly strong.”
“And what about a Windwalker?” Vhalla called out. Everyone stalled, noticing her presence alongside the Head Major of the Black Legion and the younger prince. Aldrik turned with desperate, searching eyes. Vhalla swallowed and allowed a knowing smile to grace her lips.
“That, Lady Yarl, is not often a problem,” Aldrik replied tentatively, probingly. “There aren’t too many Windwalkers about.”
“Sounds like a nice way to say that you don’t know, my prince,” Vhalla jested boldly.
The soldiers’ collective gaze swung back to Aldrik, looking with nervous concern. They seemed to hold their breath for the usually temperamental prince’s reaction. Aldrik missed their looks, his attention only on the Windwalker advancing toward him.
“Perhaps we should find out, then?” Aldrik smirked.
“For scholarly curiosity, I think we must,” Vhalla agreed coyly.
They had a ring of people in moments, and Jax was to be their mark. Vhalla squared off opposite Aldrik for the first time. She could feel his magic crackling off him in warm waves; the subtle pulse as he commanded it, shifted it, and honed it like a swordsman with a whetstone.
She clenched her fists, and Jax signaled for the spar to begin. Vhalla moved, Aldrik moved, and their magic lit up the small circle. His flames danced along her winds, and Vhalla moved and dodged fast, wearing only her chainmail, faster than he in all his plate.
The prince took a step backwards, raising a wall of flame. It was bold and potentially dangerous move, if his fire could hurt her, if she wasn’t as fast as the wind itself. Vhalla threw out a hand, trying to trip him as he moved backwards. Aldrik shifted from foot to foot, gracefully keeping his balance. She laughed, and he gave a small smile for the sight of her joy.
They were an equal match with his heartbeat in the back of her mind. His combat prowess flowed through her veins, coupled with the skill Vhalla had gained from months of her own training. They both missed the slack-jaw amazement from the other soldiers. That the Windwalker danced toe-to-toe with one of the greatest sorcerers in the world, that she could best Aldrik as often as he bested her, that the prince seemed to find amusement—even joy—and not frustration at that fact.
She was breathless and exhausted. Vhalla didn’t know how long they’d sparred, but she’d reached her limit several gusts prior and finally held up a hand in forfeit. Vhalla panted, gripping her knee with her other palm, trying to catch her breath and to slow the wild heartbeat in her ears.
No one spoke as Aldrik approached her.
“Lady Yarl,” Aldrik folded his hands over his chest.
Vhalla saw the amusement lighting his eyes. She grinned in reply. “My prince?”
“I don’t know if that test was quite conclusive.”
“Perhaps we’ll have to do it again?” she reasoned.
“You try me.” Aldrik allowed his princely tone to overshadow his playful streak.
“Forgive me,” Vhalla straightened. A broad smile plastered across her lips. She heard his meaning. She knew how she tried him. “But I may enjoy it.”
The crown prince snorted, turning to the soldiers. “The lot of you, practice. I expect you to be as skilled as Lady Yarl by the next time I return.” Aldrik turned back to her. “I am famished.”
“Me, too,” she agreed and accepted his invitation as Aldrik began leading her back to the camp palace next to a bewildered Baldair.
“You two move well together,” Baldair said ineloquently.
“Must have great sex,” Jax snickered from Aldrik’s right.
“Jax!” Baldair groaned.
Vhalla’s face flushed redder than the setting sun. Her breath was still quick from the fight. Her fingers suddenly itched to take Aldrik’s.
“Vhalla.” The crown prince summoned her attention with an awkward cough.
“Lady Vhalla!” a voice called, interrupting them.
Vhalla turned to see Timanthia running up from one of the side pathways of the tent city. She heard Aldrik take a sharp inhale of air.
“My prince.” Tim skidded to a halt, giving a clumsy bow. Her attention turned back to Vhalla. “I’ve been trying to find you.”
“Yes?” Vhalla thought of the shredded cape the girl returned to her.
“Since your demonstration, since I saw ...” Tim smoothed some stray strands of dark blonde hair away from her eyes. “I don’t know what happened to your cape. It was fine when I rolled it up, when we returned to Soricium.”