“How soon?” Vhalla could tell when her prince was avoiding her.
“Perhaps by dawn.” Aldrik shook his head. “Don’t wait for me.”
“Fine,” Vhalla sighed with a glance at the Emperor. She had hovered at Aldrik’s side for long enough. She wasn’t about to push their luck any further by demanding he always disappear with her, that they not so mysteriously retire at the same time.
Aldrik’s shoulders dropped as he became more intensely focused on the work at the table before him. Vhalla stepped away, and the majors who still lingered gave her respectful nods. The Emperor ignored her departure entirely.
Vhalla was opening the door to Aldrik’s room just as a slightly rumpled Baldair was departing his. She’d missed his prior departure from the group. Vhalla paused to give him a small smile.
“Hello, Vhalla.” He yawned.
“Hello, Baldair.” She lingered, noticing how the prince paused.
“Vhalla.” Baldair glanced down the hall. “I may not have another chance to say this ...”
“What is it?”
“Good luck.” The words were simple enough, but they had a depth of meaning. “And keep yourself alive.”
“That’s the plan.” She grinned tiredly. “And you also, Baldair.”
Just when Vhalla thought the conversation finished, Baldair spoke, “I would miss you.” “Huh?”
“I would,” he insisted. “If something happened, I would miss you.”
“Baldair, your affections are a little late,” Vhalla laughed softly.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” He ruffled her hair, his palm resting a moment on the crown of her head. “Over these past weeks, you’ve become a part of the family, and I kind of enjoy having you around.”
“Kind of ?” She couldn’t resist.
“Mother, woman, take the compliment!” He put his hands on his hips and chuckled.
“I enjoy your company too, Baldair.” Vhalla smiled. They had come a long way. “Now that you’ve stopped tormenting me about your brother.”
“Yes, well ...” He ran a hand through his hair. “I thought I was being helpful, for both of you. But you’ve inspired such changes in him. He’s not the man he was just a year ago, and I must admit that we have you to thank for it. I’ve never seen him like this before, and I’m sorry for trying to halt its progression.”
“I’m not upset with you.” Vhalla realized he was waiting for her verdict.
“I’m glad,” the prince spoke earnestly. “I think when we are back at the palace, I would like to get to know you again, Vhalla.”
“Oh?” She arched her eyebrows.
“I have known you as a library girl that made for some amusement at the expense of my brother.” She snorted and he continued, “A soldier, an addition to my brother’s Legion. Then, as my brother’s ... lover.” He coughed over the last word.
“It’s like you have never seen your brother with a woman,” Vhalla teased.
“I don’t normally! It’s—weird! He’s not supposed to be this warm and kind creature,” Baldair protested. The light moment faded quickly as his cerulean eyes fell to her chest.
Vhalla glanced down insecurely, seeing the source of his attention. Her hand quickly went up to the watch that was now a familiar weight at her throat.
“I’d like to get to know you better, that’s all,” Baldair said thoughtfully. “As the woman who my brother has deemed worthy.”
“I would like to get to know you better as well,” Vhalla softly replied. He knew, she was certain of it. He knew Aldrik’s make as well as she did and, even if he didn’t know the watch was an engagement token, the younger prince held a poignant awareness that it was significant. That things had formally changed with it.
“I’ll see you then.” Baldair clasped a hand over her upper arm. “As we celebrate victory.”
Vhalla smiled and nodded, watching as he walked away. The expression didn’t drop from her face until she was in Aldrik’s room alone.
Victory, the word spun in her head. Tomorrow they would battle against the North’s last stand. She clutched the watch so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
Resolved, Vhalla turned to the window. No one could see her; they would stop her if they did. Vhalla donned her chainmail and pulled up the hood. She pushed open the shutter and slipped out into the night, quickly walking away from the camp palace.
She had one night. She had until dawn when her prince would return to bed looking to curl against her. Vhalla had to defend their victory. Somewhere in the darkness, an axe that could cut through souls waited.
VHALLA KEPT HER head down as she traversed the camp. There was a palpable force to the soldiers’ motions, and she slipped unimpeded through the tense bustle. The military knew of the attack, and everyone seemed to gird themselves to face what the next day would bring.
More than once, she saw soldiers stitching painted wings to their clothing, etching the symbol of the Windwalker onto their armor. Vhalla bit her lip, thinking of Tim. What had happened while she was working in the camp palace? Did all these people really think that a symbol could protect them against whatever the North could devise?