VHALLA DIDN’T WALK. She drifted through time and space from one location to the next, gravitating toward the only place she could think of to go: Fritz’s bedside. She’d taken the long way, wandering through the wreckage that surrounded her. The battle already seemed like another world and, somehow, it had suddenly turned into a loss.
Elecia was gone and Fritz was asleep, as were most of the people in the large cleric’s tent. Vhalla situated herself on the bare ground next to her friend. It wasn’t long after she’d settled that his eyes cracked open, his head turning slowly to look at her.
Fritz stared at her for a long moment, peering thoughtfully at her face. “What happened?”
Vhalla raised a hand up to her cheek, noticing where Fritz’s eyes had gravitated. The skin near her eye was puffy and tender, likely red or a purple color. A bruise that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen her.
“A lot,” Vhalla whispered.
“It looks it,” Fritz agreed. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She mused over this. Her immediate answer was no; not even by a small margin did she want to talk about her falling out with the man who was supposed to be her intended. The watch almost burned against her chest, and Vhalla thought of all the times Aldrik had kept silent when she desperately wanted him to open up. She thought of Larel, and the memory of the woman reminded her that friends were there to help in moments like this.
“Aldrik and I, we’re over.” Saying it aloud made it all the more real.
Thankfully Fritz spoke and saved Vhalla from being unable to. “Did he do this?” Fritz ran his fingers over her face.
“Yes.” Vhalla didn’t even try to lie, she was done with lies. “He was aiming for someone else,” she continued at Fritz’s frown. “But, yes.”
It was Fritz’s turn to be at a loss for words.
Vhalla shook her head. She didn’t want people to think of Aldrik as abusive. “It was really an accident, I got between fighting brothers.” She laughed weakly. “Aldrik wouldn’t have intentionally hit me.”
“If you say so.” Her friend didn’t seem convinced.
“Truly,” Vhalla assured. “I’m a Lady of the Court now.” She was eager to change the topic.
“What? Really?” In Fritz’s excitement, he spoke a little too loud and moved a little too fast. Vhalla pushed lightly on his shoulder, preventing him from sitting as another patient muttered and cursed at the noise. Fritz scooted closer. “How?”
“Aldrik, he ...” Vhalla stilled. She was tired of having revelations that made her chest ache with how hollow it was. “He traded his freedom for mine.”
Vhalla clutched the watch around her neck tightly. How had she not seen it that way before? The pendulum of her emotions toward the crown prince swung from all-consuming love to raw anger.
“I don’t really get it all,” Fritz sighed. “But this means you can return to the Tower, right?”
Vhalla looked up at Fritz in surprise. She hadn’t thought about it. Returning to the Tower, living a normal life; it all seemed so out of reach that Vhalla hadn’t considered it. Now, it stared her in the face, and it was positively terrifying. She couldn’t go back to the South. She couldn’t march alongside Aldrik and his new bride. She couldn’t pretend everything was normal when she didn’t even know what normal was, when she felt like she didn’t even know who she was anymore.
“Fritz ... I ...” How could she tell him? What was she going to do? “I can’t go back.”
“What?” Fritz’s face fell into a frown.
“I can’t—I can’t go back there. I’m not ready.”
“Vhalla, all you’ve wanted to do is go home,” Fritz pointed out.
“I know.” She sat, running her hands through her hair, angrily combing out snags. The Emperor had given her freedom, but taken away the one thing she wanted to do with it and tainted the joy of everything else. She was certain the wretched man gleaned great pleasure from what he’d done. “But I can’t be near Aldrik right now—I can’t.”
“It’s a long march back ...”
“I know. And I can’t go to the Tower and just be a student once more as though nothing happened. I don’t want to go to the Court and be their lady, their war hero, and prattle off stories. I can’t go home ... I can’t step foot in my mother’s and father’s home as I am.” Vhalla swallowed hard. Her options were running out. How was freedom more confining than servitude?
“As you are? Vhalla, I know your father would love to see—”
“I can’t!” Vhalla pressed a palm over her mouth, being shh’ed by another trying to sleep. “I can’t, Fritz. I don’t want to ruin my memory of that home by returning a confused mess with so much blood on my hands.”
“What do you want, then?” Fritz changed his approach.
“I want ... I want to forget all this for a while and wander, to be lost for just a little while.” Vhalla suddenly knew where she needed to go.
“And where can you do that?” Fritz saw it on her face also.
Vhalla absorbed her friend’s condition, freezing her words in her mouth. She saw Fritz’s bandages, the blood seeping through them. He was in no position to travel, and if she told him, he would push himself to do so. As much as Vhalla wanted her friend with her, she wanted his health more.