It was the hair-raising feeling of being watched.
THEY HADN’T SAID a word since they both realized the other was awake. The crown prince and his intended rested on opposite ends of the pillow, their fingers intertwining and releasing as the dawn crept upon them. With her free hand Vhalla played with the watch at her neck.
“Vhalla,” Aldrik finally spoke. His tone told her that she wasn’t going to like what he was about to say. “If—”
“Don’t,” Vhalla beseeched softly, pressing her face into his bare chest. She inhaled deeply, imprinting on her memory the smell of smoke and fire and sweat overlaying the faint hint of eucalyptus—the scent of Aldrik.
He shook his head, his nose in her hair. “If,” Aldrik persisted, “if the battle does not go as planned ... If something happens to me.”
“Aldrik,” she pleaded. It was still hours from sunset, and her strength was already beginning to waver.
“Tell Baldair to go to my Tower room. He’s never been there, but he can order Victor to take him. Within, there’s a storeroom that has a large black chest. The key to it is hidden in the rose garden, under a loose stone near the bench,” Aldrik detailed carefully.
“Nothing will happen—”
“Vhalla, please.” His arms tightened around her. “Tell Baldair of this and tell him I want you to have everything within it and anything else he can give you to ensure your life will be taken care of and comfortable. He will believe you; he has given me his word to see you healthy and happy, and I’ve come to trust him to do that.”
Vhalla pressed her eyes closed as if she could ignore where his dutiful words stemmed from. Her mind drifted to the axe from the night before. If she could get it before the fight, could it help turn the tides of war? Vhalla thought briefly of telling Aldrik, of getting the axe and using it in whatever battle was to come. But after all his previous reactions to crystals, the last thing she wanted to do was ruin their moment. Beyond that, she didn’t quite trust the weapon, there was something she didn’t understand about it and that made her leery.
“But do not return to the South,” Aldrik continued.
“What?” Vhalla blinked in surprise, her previous debate forgotten.
“If I am—” Aldrik paused, unable to bring himself to say the words. “If I’m not there to protect you, go West. Get to my uncle. He will keep you as safe as I would. He knows it’s my will.”
“But the Knights of Jadar ...” Vhalla said uncertainly.
“The safest place will be with the man who knows them and already has a pulse on their movements,” Aldrik insisted. “My uncle has been fighting against the Knights since they rose up against my family in protest of my mother marrying my father. With my uncle, you will be taken care of, this is what I want. This is the one thing I want if I am not there to make you my wife, if I cannot protect you myself.”
She took a shaky breath.
“Will you do that?” he asked softly, interrupting her protest.
“Promise me,” he insisted.
“I promise.” She obliged him, and it was like a dagger to her gut. “Don’t, don’t let anything happen to you.” She gripped him around the ears, fearful. “This Empire needs you, it needs your hands to wash away the blood and to heal its wounds.”
Aldrik shook his head. “I am only good at breaking things, at reaping destruction.” His voice was tired.
“Vhalla, you have known me for only—”
“You built this.” She cut him off, and he blinked at her in surprise. “Us, you built us.” Vhalla showed him the watch he’d given her as proof. “And it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever known.”
Aldrik didn’t have words; he simply pressed his forehead against hers and fought for control over his emotions. Vhalla felt the smallest of quivers in the hand that held hers, and she insisted there would be no tears. She insisted through each inhale that was weaker than the last exhale.
“I love you, my lady, my future wife,” he whispered. Aldrik’s fingers shifted around hers, running over the watch at her neck.
“I love you,” she replied. Nothing had ever been truer. “My future husband.”
The words humbled them both into a surprised silence. They’d both said it. It had been secretly official for days, but somehow saying it so openly made it all the more real.
Vhalla stared at Aldrik. They would both make it. Her fingers tightened around his.
Aldrik finally pulled away, almost an hour later. It seemed to take that long for them both to muster the strength for him leave her side. Vhalla sat as well, watching him dress.
“What will happen?” she asked softly.
“We’re going over everything once more,” Aldrik explained as she walked over to him in nothing more than one of his long shirts.
His eyes lingered on her bare legs as Vhalla latched up his plate carefully, reverently.
“You’re much preferred over any other squire I’ve ever had tend to me,” Aldrik said with a small grin.
Vhalla laughed softly. It was the lightest moment they’d had in a long time. A jest that normal lovers would make, not the hushed words of desperation they’d been sharing for weeks.