She didn’t want to die.
“Sit,” he repeated.
Vhalla turned and made a dash for the door. His hand closed around her wrist. She heard steel on steel as Schnurr’s weapon was halfway drawn. A strained panicked noise came from the back of Vhalla’s throat. She twisted but his hand held fast. She opened her mouth to call for Aldrik, to shout for her life, to fight with every last ounce of strength she possessed.
The Emperor’s door slammed open. Multiple pairs of heavy footsteps were heard. The major paused, but he did not release his grip, even by a fraction. The Emperor was first around the corner, followed by Aldrik—who was instantly full of rage at the scene—and a wide-eyed Baldair. As Aldrik took a step with murderous intent, the Emperor held out his arm across his son’s chest.
“Major Schnurr.” The Emperor stepped forward. “What is the meaning of this? Unhand the Lady Yarl.”
The major released his grasp and Vhalla shrunk away. She rubbed her wrist and looked frantically at the men who surrounded her. Baldair appeared as though he had seen something more horrific than the battle the night prior. Aldrik did not even try to meet her eyes.
“I was merely keeping her safe inside these walls. She has foolishly forgotten her armor today.” The major’s grip on his sword relaxed, and it slid back into its scabbard.
Vhalla stared at him in shock.
“She has indeed,” the Emperor agreed. “Thank you for your extreme loyalty. I trust you to know that certain things can be overlooked for those who show me such diligence,” the Emperor gave his dismissal, and Major Schnurr left.
The Emperor walked forward, and Vhalla braced herself. His eyes were shining with malice, with pleasure, with pride, and with the thing that made her blood curdle: victory. He held a piece of paper, another letter to send back to the Northerners. Vhalla wondered what was taking the surrender so long.
“Lady Yarl.” She noticed the Emperor using the title for the second time and was confused. “I would not recommend walking around a military camp without your armor. You never know who may take advantage of such,” he cooed with loathing. He turned for the door. “Now, to finish my Empire.”
The Emperor strode out the doors, and Vhalla stood dazed and confused. She turned back to the princes, who seemed completely lifeless. Baldair’s eyes were filled with sorrow. She turned to Aldrik; he had not moved. His head was hung, and his eyes were fixated upon the floor.
“B-Baldair?” She tried to find her voice. The younger prince turned away sharply. Vhalla took a step forward. “Aldrik?” she whispered.
Her prince’s eyes came up to meet hers, and Vhalla felt her heart stop, turn to lead, and lodge itself into her throat. She swallowed hard, but nothing made that damn lump disappear. Aldrik was tired, worn, and utterly hopeless.
“Aldrik,” Vhalla repeated, taking another step toward him. He raised a hand slowly, a crumpled piece of parchment in his fist. Vhalla closed both hands around his, and he jolted away at her touch, leaving her to catch the paper mid-air.
Neither prince had said anything, but they both stared at her expectantly. She carefully straightened the parchment in her hands, smoothing it to read the writing upon it. Her heart stopped.
She scanned the writing, once, twice, three times. She blinked up in shock. Her hands tightened about the official document. She looked down in awe at the signature and seal of the Emperor on the paper declaring that she was made an official Lady of the Court with all privileges, honors, and a tidy sum of gold from the Imperial coffers for her services to the crown.
“We did it.” A smile tugged at her cheeks. “We did it!”
When she looked at Aldrik again, her smile fell from her face—and all joy with it. Vhalla had expected happiness. She had expected him to sweep her up into his arms. She had expected him to kiss her as the woman who could now be his bride. She did not expect the shining tears that threatened the corners of the eyes.
“Aldrik, what is it?” Vhalla dared.
He focused on a corner of the room, taking a breath.
“What has happened?” She walked closer to him.
His eyes pressed closed, and he took a shaky breath. The paper slipped from her hands and fell on the floor with a rustle.
“Tell me,” she pleaded softly. Vhalla took his hands gently in hers.
Aldrik pulled away from her a second time. He retreated a step.
Vhalla’s chest tightened. “Tell me!” she cried suddenly, her voice breaking from the sudden volume.
His face jolted back to hers, and it twisted with agony. “This is over!” he snapped. “We are no more. I belong to another!”
Vhalla felt her world stop as she looked into his eyes and saw a horrible truth.
SHE COULDN’T BREATHE. It was as though she had completely forgotten how. Vhalla fought for air, but none seemed to enter her lungs. She stood with her mouth stupidly open, trying to feel less dizzy. “What?” She finally managed.
“I am engaged to be wed,” he announced roughly.
“What?” Vhalla repeated. Everything else had vanished from her head.
“Do not parrot words like a simpleton!” he seethed.
Vhalla physically took a step back, reeling from his rage.
“Brother, this isn’t her fault.” Baldair placed a hand on Aldrik’s shoulder.