“My lady,” he whispered in awe. “My lady!”
Aldrik pulled her off the bed, standing. His hands shifted from hers to tightening around her waist, and Vhalla’s body swelled to press against his. Aldrik captured her mouth firmly in a kiss that left no room for further questioning.
“I have something for you.” He pulled away, breathless.
“What?” Vhalla blinked in surprise.
Aldrik moved like a man who had years shaved off his life. “It should be cast in gold, more befitting of a future Empress. But silver seemed oddly appropriate, and I’ve more experience with the metal for this.” Aldrik rummaged through a chest, taking out a bag, which held a box, which held a smaller silken bag. The prince returned, presenting the white parcel to her. “I’ve been told that men in the East will offer a token to their bride to be as a promise of future prosperity.”
Vhalla took the bag gingerly, her fingers shaking. This was happening, she reminded herself as she pulled it open. She had just said she would marry the crown prince. It assumed an impossible number of things that would have to go their way. But, if it all did ...
The token he had decided to gift her with must be enchanted, as it stole all her breath and attention.
The pocket watch was smaller than his in size, but was also cast in silver. Strung by a fine chain, it held a hook that could clasp around the top of the watch to be worn as a necklace or in the traditional fashion. Its back was polished to a mirror finish. Embossed upon its front was the blazing sun of the Empire, cut in half by a wing—the same wing that had been on the back of the Windwalker’s cloaks.
“You wished for time,” Aldrik explained. “I heard each utterance when you beseeched time to stop, for mornings not to come. I want you to know I shared your every sentiment. I wanted to give you the promise of my minutes, my hours, my days.” His long fingers curled around hers, around the watch. “My future is yours, Vhalla Yarl.”
“You have a plan.” She could see it in the way he moved.
Aldrik was beaming from ear to ear as he pulled the watch from her hands, reverently unclasping it and circling it around her neck. His fingers lingered on the silver, right above her breasts where it fell. “I do.”
Vhalla found herself quickly lost in the perfect black of his eyes.
“But it is a plan that hinged on your response.”
She raised a hand, feeling the weight of the necklace as he pulled his fingers away. “How?”
“First, we must win the war and earn your freedom—but we both knew that.” The churning of the prince’s mind was suddenly written on his face. “But in the process, we will make you a Lady of the Court, which must happen for our future together not to be questioned. With each passing day, seeing you among the majors, I’ve been more confident that such will happen with ease.”
Vhalla sunk back onto the bed in shock.
“The majors are enamored with you. They admire your strong and ‘noble nature’, your grace, your poise, your stunning intelligence and eloquence, and—after tonight—your inspiring loyalty.” Aldrik sat next to her. “My father excused himself over dinner, likely to hide his face, and the moment they were free of his presence, all they spoke about was you.”
“But they can’t make a lady.” Vhalla’s hands were still passing the watch back and forth, learning it’s every curve.
“No, only my father can,” Aldrik agreed.
Her heart sank. “It’s hopeless then.”
“My love, did you think I would ask you to marry me if I thought it hopeless?” Aldrik grinned. “Think. His majors will ask for your appointment to the court. His people will cry your name as the hero of this war. The East and West both look to you.”
“That still will not make him.” Vhalla was certain of the depth of the Emperor’s hatred for her.
“And that is why my plan hinged on knowing your willingness to be my bride before I put it in action.” Aldrik took her hands in his, grounding her once more with his touch. “I told you, my father wants to abdicate the throne to me when I am thirty, if I’ve met my obligations. Those obligations include taking a wife and producing an heir.”
She nodded, but she wasn’t sure if she really understood. Her world was up-side-down, and Vhalla just had to hold onto his hands until she knew which direction the sun would rise.
“After the war has ended, I will tell him that I have given you my heart and my word as a man. He will only have two options: to raise you to a ladyship and let me marry you; or to lose the picture-perfect succession he’s been fighting toward. If he doesn’t grant me this, I will refuse to see all other women. I will honor my vow to you in silence, forever. I will wait until he dies of natural causes and then succeed to the throne and elevate you myself.”
Vhalla ran it over in her head. It was stupid. It was insane. And she kissed him for it.
“Are you happy?” He pulled away breathless.
“How can you ask that?” Vhalla laughed softly. “Aldrik, you’re nothing I expected—and everything I never knew I needed.”
She kissed him like he really had given her all the time in the world, like the dawn would never come. She allowed herself to melt into his heat and just believe, to ignore the pain and live in the fantasy. Aldrik pushed her backward and they collapsed, tangled upon the bed.