Crystal Crowned Page 2

 “We will leave tonight,” Aldrik announced the moment his unorthodox council was settled.

 “Tonight?” Fritz was reluctant to even consider the notion. “It will be absolutely freezing. Cass said she saw the makings of a storm on the horizon when she was getting wood this morning.”

 “All the better. The moonlight will guide us; it’s full enough, and the storm will hide our tracks.”

 Had Aldrik been looking at the horizon for storms? Had he woken so early to see if they could make headway in the darkness? Vhalla wondered in surprise. She had no doubt as to the sincerity of the grief that piled on his shoulders. But her prince—no, Emperor, she corrected mentally—remained ever focused. In the end, his nature and upbringing won over his grief.

 “Fritz,” Vhalla interrupted her friend before he could protest again. “We need to go. We’re a danger to your family if we stay.”

 “What?” The blonde’s expression changed dramatically.

 “Victor is announcing that the whole of the Solaris family is dead, that I am dead. His monster demanded that all kneel before their new king so Victor could bear witness to their loyalty. Those who did not met a horrible fate. A fate I would never want to see brought upon your family.” She spoke gently, but she wasn’t going to spare Fritz the truth. He had been to war, he knew horrors, and he needed to know that it would be at this doorstep if they didn’t leave.

 “But . . .”

 “She’s right,” Elecia interjected. “If—when—Victor finds out Aldrik is still alive, it will turn into a manhunt. What do you think will happen to anyone who is known to harbor or help us?”

 Fritz slumped.

 “You can stay.” Vhalla reached out, lightly touching her friend’s knee. “We have to go, but you don’t have to. They’re not hunting you, Fritz, and you can lie about your involvement. I will understand if you stay.”

 “Don’t be stupid, Vhal.” Fritz squeezed her hand. “The Charems aren’t a bunch of weak flowers. We can protect ourselves. By the Mother, Cass can be more frightening than anything I’ve ever seen Victor create.”

 Vhalla tried to maintain an appropriate expression in the face of Fritz’s determined smile, but she was certain she fell short. Her friend hadn’t seen what Victor had created. He couldn’t comprehend what type of magic the former Minister of Sorcery was capable of now.

 “If I leave you now,” he continued, “Larel will come back from the dead and haunt me ‘til my dying breath.”

 She squeezed his hand in reply. Vhalla felt genuinely guilty about taking her friend from his home when he had just returned, especially when the world was so uncertain. But she also felt relief that he would remain by her side. Fritz was a man; he could make his own choices, and, as his friend, she had to let him.

 “Now that that’s settled,” Elecia gave Fritz an approving nod, happy as well that he’d be joining them, “the fastest route to Norin from here would be the old roads. But if we took the Great Southern Way through the—”

 “We’re not going to Norin,” Aldrik stated, reclaiming the conversation.

 “What?” Elecia asked in confusion that mirrored Vhalla’s.

 “My uncle will raise the banners at the first word of what Victor has done, with or without me.”

 “Mhashan will never support a tyrant who has murdered their prince and seeks to oppress them.” Jax gave Aldrik an approving nod.

 “However, the East is not so simple.” Aldrik’s eyes fell on Vhalla. She straightened, trying to grow into the role he was not so subtly placing upon her. “The East is uninterested in war. They’ll side with the victor—” Aldrik grimaced at the word, as realizing the brutal irony at the same time as everyone else, “—with the winner, if they think it means preserving the peace and government for their people.”

 “Bleeding heart Easterners.” Elecia rolled her eyes.

 “Stay your tongue,” Aldrik warned his cousin. “They are part of this Empire, and we need them for our army.” He turned his attention to the silent Northerners in the room. “We will need your people as well.”

 “As long as our deal remains, you shall have them.” Sehra, princess of Shaldan, Child of Yargen, gave an affirmative motion.

 Vhalla’s stomach clenched, but her expression betrayed nothing of her uncertainty at those words. If she and Aldrik wed and she bore him an heir, their child would be sent to the North as a gesture of good faith and a promise to look after the people in the recently conquered land. Sehra met her eyes, as if trying to root out Vhalla’s turmoil at the thought.

 “Your deal remains,” Vhalla spoke on behalf of her and Aldrik. She would say the words that they needed—that she knew he wasn’t prepared to speak again.

 “Come north with us until the Eastern cutoff.” There was a cooling hostility between Aldrik and the Northern women. It was almost tangible in the way he had changed his speech patterns toward them. Now that he was no longer in a forced engagement with the princess, things were more relaxed between them. The deal for his child aside, there were signs of hope for the future negotiations between the Northern clans and their new ruler. “We will all be safer in a group.”

 “I protect Sehra,” Za proclaimed in her broken Southern common.

 “You will,” Aldrik agreed with a graceful nod of his head, “but it will be easier when you have extra eyes to keep watch at night so that you may rest.” This seemed to satisfy Za, so Aldrik continued, “When we arrive in Hastan, I will send word regarding plans to regroup in Norin.”

 “So we are going to Norin then?” Elecia couldn’t hide her eagerness at the idea of returning home.

 Aldrik nodded as he confirmed, “We must. If there are no further questions, then we should spend the day prepar—”

 “There is something else,” Elecia spoke over Aldrik, eliciting an arch of a dark eyebrow from her Emperor. Her eyes turned to Vhalla. “She should stay here.”

 “No.” Vhalla wasn’t sure who said it first, her or Aldrik.

 “You can stay hidden among the Charem girls.” Elecia was now appealing to Vhalla. “If Southerners passed for you on the march, you could pass—”

 “No.” Aldrik wasn’t hearing another word.

 “Aldrik.” Elecia’s attention shifted. “I know you want her to come. But you also want her alive, don’t you? She can’t protect herself.”

 “This is not up for discussion.”

 “She cannot come!” Elecia finally snapped. “If she does, you are a reckless fool, and your life is worth far more than hers!”

 “Don’t you dare,” Aldrik snarled at his kin. Magic flashed dangerously around a clenched fist, red sparking to orange fire.

 Elecia remained unfazed and didn’t back down. “If you die, who will the banners rally behind? If she comes, you will throw your life away for hers the first time she needs protecting. And such a need will arise, especially since she’s just a Commons.”

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