Vhalla gazed up at her prince. He wore nothing but basic cotton trousers, pulled with a drawstring at the waist. His hair was limp, unfixed from the day’s battle of words and power plays. It curtained around his face and drew dramatic shadows across his angular features. The small flame that flickered loyally at his side cast light upon every scar he bore, telling tales of hardship and trial. Vhalla swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. There was something about his eyes that was totally different.
“Tonight, this past year, especially since the Crossroads, I’ve watched you grow. I’ve watched you find strength no one thought you had, deftly handle matters of state, navigate nobility, pushing yourself beyond every expectation,” Aldrik began.
“I was only trying to help.” The words spilled from her lips hastily. There was something about his mannerisms that elated her. That elated her so much it worried her. Her body knew what it saw in his eyes from the first word he spoke, but her mind rejected the knowledge. She was equal parts terrified at the ideas of him saying everything, and nothing at all.
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Do I enjoy it?” she repeated.
There was no parrot comment. Aldrik remained fixed on her answer.
“I suppose,” Vhalla whispered. “I’ve never been forced to synthesize knowledge like this, to really use it. It’s every piece of theory or history applied. It’s more than I’ve ever done each day, and even if it terrifies me, it often excites me.”
“There is a position which I need to fill. This position requires such things every day. Someone must assume the mantle before I can be Emperor.” The lump in Aldrik’s throat bobbed as he swallowed hard. “It requires someone brilliant, someone strong, and someone kind. Someone who can temper me and remind me of my own humanity even in the darkest hour.”
“That sounds like a lot,” Vhalla whispered ineloquently. The moment was about to crest and with it her whole world would shatter.
“It is, and it will be.” Aldrik curled and uncurled his fingers. “But it is not without rewards. This person’s word would be trusted, respected, admired. She can shape the future of this Empire for good, for peace.” He focused on the floor a moment, a faint blush creeping up on his cheeks. “She could make her office my rose garden, forever, if she so chose.”
He knew just what to say. “How does one apply for such a position?” Vhalla whispered.
“It is not something you can apply for.” Aldrik’s eyes returned to her, and Vhalla’s chest swelled. “You must be asked.”
“By me.” Aldrik knelt before her.
Vhalla struggled for sound. She struggled to breathe. Her toes had gone numb with shock—the world seemed to hang on the prince’s every word.
“Would you want me to?” he asked, taking her hands in his.
“I don’t understand,” her utterance was so faint it was barely heard. Her heartbeat was louder.
“Would you, Lady Vhalla Yarl, like to someday be the Empress Vhalla Solaris?”
“WHAT?” EVERYTHING HAD frozen into a singularity of impossibility, the world focusing on the crown prince, bare chested and on one knee before her.
Aldrik searched her face with so much fearful hopefulness that her chest threatened to explode. He didn’t say anything else. He knew she’d heard his proposal.
The seconds elongated—and Vhalla realized that there was no joke. There wasn’t a caveat. There was only a waiting prince before her who seemed to be panicking the longer she sat in shock.
“Not me, you can’t ... pick me.” Vhalla shook her head.
“I can. I have.” Aldrik tightened his grip on her hands, a fearful edge overcoming his words. “Vhalla, I will not force you into anything you do not want. If you—” His voice cracked, and he paused. “—if you say yes. We would not marry until you were made a Lady of the Court, our engagement would be kept secret until then—though I promise you I will honor it. But, I must know, I must know if that is a road you would walk with me, hands joined.”
Every thought she had competed for attention in her mind: a secret engagement, a life with Aldrik, ruling a realm she was never made to rule, his rose garden, being Empress. They had so much yet to figure out. So much of their lives were in question. Vhalla wanted to pull her hands from him and demand their world to be more secure before she could even contemplate such an outlandish idea.
But, she stilled. What if they didn’t have time? What if she died tomorrow? What if, what if, what if. Those words circled in her mind and tried to obscure the one thing she wanted. The one thing she’d been fighting for from the first moment she knew what it was. The one thing that was waiting right before her.
There would be time later to make sure it was the right decision, time before she swore any vows to him before the Gods and men. If there wasn’t time, then she would indulge the fantasy until her dying breath.
Aldrik blinked, his jaw relaxing and his lips parting. “It won’t be easy,” he breathed.
“You told me that before,” she reminded him.
“You’ll have to learn how to be a lady in the eyes of the Court.”
“I know.” Vhalla wondered if he suddenly regretted his decision. “I want to be with you, Aldrik. You’re my Bond, my fate is laced together with yours. You’re the first man I’ve ever truly loved, and I want to stay with you forever, if you’ll have me.”