The emotion in his eyes stilled her. He was waiting for her to put it together. A small smile crossed Aldrik’s lips. Vhalla shook her head and laughed softly.
“Did you see me that way from the start?” she asked.
“No,” Aldrik confessed. “I told you in the chapel all those months ago. Initially, you were just a fascination, an amusement, and perhaps something practical when I learned of your powers. You made yourself into something more than that when I realized that somehow you were willing to tolerate the supreme ass that I am.”
“You’re not a supreme ass.” Vhalla rolled her eyes, shoveling an unladylike amount of food into her mouth.
“I certainly can be,” Aldrik insisted.
“Well, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.” Vhalla went back for more food, surprised to find she finished the whole bowl. It was easier to eat around him, she realized. Her spotty habits when it came to food faded away when she felt so at ease.
A short time later, they both stood and cleaned up their mess. Vhalla crept to the bathroom to tend to morning ablutions as Aldrik sorted out the tray. When she returned, Aldrik had assumed his place at his table.
“You’ll Project again today,” he informed her. “To see if we can get any more intelligence on what’s coming.”
“I think people suspect that you’ve locked me in your room and will never let me leave for more than a few hours at a time.” Vhalla sunk back onto the bed with a laugh.
“I am a healthier man with you around. I can hardly be blamed.” Aldrik returned her mischievous look before returning to his work.
Vhalla grabbed the watch at her neck, peering at the ticking hands within. It was warm to her touch, and the familiar links of the chain confirmed her previous theory when she first saw his watch. Her prince could make intricate devices also.
“Oh, what did the majors decide?” Vhalla asked, shifting her attention from admiring his profile to something productive.
Aldrik sighed heavily. “My father was adamant that he did not want to rush Soricium and burn it. No one seemed willing to risk his disfavor any further.”
“I can’t say I blame them,” Vhalla mumbled, relinquishing any expectation that the Emperor would follow her suggestion. One way or another, it would end.
“The majors are already beginning to organize the troops. Our best scouts have been sent into the forest to locate where the Northerners are amassing. If possible, we will take out some of their groups before they have time to attack. But we don’t want to alert them to the fact that we know of their plans.”
“Well, at least the spy inside the fortress is dead.” Vhalla found some small benefit to the act. Despite the fact that it meant they’d likely never discover the informants on the Empire’s side of the wall.
“Father wants to wait for the Northern attack to fail, then send a final message demanding surrender before putting Soricium to the torch,” Aldrik reported.
“He wants it to be like your uncle and the West,” Vhalla mused aloud, thinking of how the previously ruling family of the West still maintained some power, even if the king had been killed.
“I think so,” Aldrik affirmed. “There is some sense left in his head. He won’t completely kill off the head clan if they swear fealty to him. They can help him contain the North better than a foreign leader. You said yourself that the North is dedicated to their history.”
“Should I scout the forests some?” Vhalla asked.
“No.” Aldrik shook his head. “Our scouts are well-trained and will cover more ground than you can alone. Your time and effort is better spent focusing on the palace.”
“Understood.” Vhalla closed her eyes and slipped out of her body.
They had six more sunsets until what she hoped would be the final battle for the North.
SHE WAS STARVING by the time she pulled out of her Projection, and Aldrik insisted they eat dinner with the majors. Vhalla wasn’t going to object to anything that would put food into her. Eventually, she would be forced to face the Emperor; she would rather that time transpire with Aldrik—with her future husband—at her side.
He had said the majors were not cross with her over the shackles incident, but Vhalla questioned that the moment she walked into the long hall. Whatever meeting had been occurring had broken for dinner, but the food was quickly forgotten. Half the room was on their feet at the sight of her.
“Lady Vhalla.” She was immediately grateful to Erion for breaking the silence. The Western lord crossed to face her, bending into a low bow. “I want to formally apologize for the incident yesterday.”
Vhalla shifted uncomfortably under the weight of all the attention. “It was not your idea, Erion. You’ve nothing to apologize for.”
“Even still.” He straightened. “I do not want you to think that the West feels that way toward you, or any Windwalker alive today.”
“I know it doesn’t.” Vhalla gave an encouraging smile, and it seemed to be well-received by the Western lords.
Her eyes met Jax’s a long moment, and the Head Major of the Black Legion said nothing. The silence, however, was telling enough. There was a remorseful discomfort to it, and Vhalla knew it was the most apology she would get from him. She’d realized it the night the Emperor returned; they were both pawns of the crown. Creatures that barely had free will couldn’t be held responsible for their actions, not really.