“If it were not for her then—” Aldrik scowled at his brother, readying some insult. “Then—” He swung his eyes back to her, and his voice caught in his throat. Aldrik stared at the woman to whom he had promised his future. Aldrik closed his mouth and swallowed his words.
“What happened?” The question was made with the sounds of her fracturing heart crackling up through her throat.
“My father wanted it to be neat. It was as you said, the North would never completely bow to a foreign power. They’re too loyal to their old blood.” Aldrik’s voice varied between rage and exhaustion. “The head clan’s Chieftain has a daughter who will be of age in a year’s time. Since I am, was, conveniently un-promised ... It sweetened the surrender for them to know one of theirs would be our future Empress.” Aldrik turned and smashed his fist into a table with a cry.
Vhalla gripped the watch around her neck. “But you-you’re not. You weren’t un-promised.”
“What?” Baldair blinked.
Aldrik breathed heavily, his eyes accusatory as if she’d dare speak the words.
“Aldrik, you’re not. You asked me and I said—”
“Quiet, woman!” The crown prince glanced away, running his hands violently through his hair. “My father did not know that. Even when I—” Aldrik swallowed. “He’d hear nothing of the idea. He wanted one of theirs under our control, to inspire loyalty through the pain we could afflict on them if nothing else, and because it will make the North loyal. He’d planned this all along, and we were stupid and blind.”
He was speaking, but it was a different language. Nothing seemed to make sense. Nothing added up. It wasn’t possible that what she was facing was real. “So, what do we do?”
“What do we do?” Aldrik stared down the bridge of his nose at her. “What do we do? I told you, there is no we, Vhalla. There is you, and there is me. You go off and be a lady. I have the stunning privilege of watching you safe and sound about the Court. I marry this girl and fulfill my duty.”
“No.” She shook her head. “No!” Her voice cracked. “You always have a plan, an out, a silver tongue, a clever half-truth or way around.” She picked the paper off the floor and held it before him. “Look! Look! You-you made me a lady. Me! A farmer’s daughter is now worthy to be the love of the crown prince. If you can do that—”
He swatted her hands away as though the paper was nothing, and Vhalla gawked at him in shock.
“It is over!” Aldrik alternated between frustrated anger and desperate pleading for her to understand and take pity on his plight. “I fought all day. When I told him I would refuse any woman but you, he countered like a coward. He brought you here to threaten me, to force me.”
Vhalla’s eyes widened, thinking of the unheeded warnings of Lord Ophain: she was the chink in the crown prince’s armor.
“I tried everything I could to formulate an alternative surrender, up until the moment he had you here with a man who was going to kill you if anyone other than my father walked out.” Aldrik stared down at his bloody knuckles, injured from where he’d smashed them against the table. “I traded my hand for your life. The best I could do was to insure your safety as a lady, to see you set for life with my family’s gold. That was my play.”
She stared at him in slack-jawed shock. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t had half an idea of what had been occurring. Vhalla gripped the bottom of her tunic. It was her fault.
“If I, if I’d worn my armor.” Her shoulders quivered. “Then, then—”
“No.” Aldrik sighed, involuntarily softening at her apparent turmoil. “Schnurr would have put the point of his blade as soon through your eye as anywhere else, and I knew you were in no condition to fight after last night.”
“There has to be something else we could have done.” The volume of her voice was inconsistent, changing with each shaky breath.
“Vhalla, enough. It’s over.” Aldrik turned away from her tiredly, his shoulders hunched.
“No!” she cried and scampered in front of him. “No!” She shook her head furiously. “What about everything we said? All we planned?”
“Gone.” Aldrik couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eye.
“How can you be like this?” she snapped.
“How can you?” He turned it back on her. “I thought you knew so clearly how this would end.” Aldrik sneered down at her.
Vhalla’s world stilled briefly from a memory that she had let herself forget, a memory of a woman, a curiosity shop, fire, and red eyes. A future telling that she had shoved away. Tears welled up in Vhalla’s wide eyes. She had known: she would lose her dark sentry. How could she have been so foolish to believe she’d beaten fate in the Pass?
Vhalla absorbed her prince’s face, still handsome to her despite brimming with anger and pain. It was as though all she was to him now was torture. Vhalla shook her head once more, as though she could wake from this living nightmare. Her face dropped into her palms and Vhalla sobbed.
It was broken, all was broken around her. The beautiful yet delicate thing that had been built between them was torn to shreds. She heard the ripping sound of her heart over her tears.
“No,” she repeated, her eyes closed. “No, no! This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen! We—” It was a physical pain, it was an awful wrenching deep in her gut. “I can’t, what do I do now?”