Every morning, Fritz woke up and told himself he wouldn’t cry. Every morning, Fritz lied to himself.
Larel was dead and Vhalla was gone. Well, Vhalla wasn’t gone. He knew she was somewhere close. She was still owned by the crown and there was no way the Emperor would let her out of his sight. And, if not the Emperor, Fritz knew that the crown prince certainly wouldn’t.
Then again, it seemed Aldrik already had. Which only confused and upset Fritz all the more.
He walked up to the crown prince’s tent immediately following the day’s march with determination. Fritz had finally managed to catch the eyes of the woman who rode under the black hood at the crown prince’s side and it was certainly not Vhalla. Fritz rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, taking a deep breath.
“Prince Aldrik,” he announced from the doorway. The man’s eyes darted up from the short table at which he sat in momentary surprise. Eyes that Fritz had been raised to fear and respect narrowed at him. “I request a moment.”
“You?” The prince’s mouth pressed into a thin line.
“Yes.” Fritz was terrified. But he wouldn’t be ignored, not when it came to his Vhal. He boldly entered without invitation. “I have questions.”
Aldrik leaned back and straightened. Somehow, even sitting, the man could command a presence as though he was twice Fritz’s height. “You think you can make demands of me?”
“No,” Fritz wavered. “No. Yes. Yes I can. I am. I will. I want to know where Vhal is.”
“I owe you nothing.” Fritz was actually surprised that he hadn’t burst into flames with the way the prince was looking at him.
“I can help you.” He tried a different approach that quickly failed.
“You?” Aldrik scoffed, telling Fritz exactly where he stood in the prince’s eyes.
“Then. . . Then tell me where Vhal is or I’ll tell everyone that the girl at your side isn’t her.”
The prince considered this for a long moment before speaking slowly, “Let us say, I do not tell you. You leave here and tell the men that their suspicion of the girl at my side being the Windwalker is not true. And, let us say, they believe you.” The prince finally stood, as if unfurling himself like a sailcloth made of shadow. He folded his hands at the small of his back, staring down at Fritz. “What would that achieve other than endangering the woman who you claim to be so fond of?”
Fritz opened and closed his mouth. The boldness that had possessed him vanished before the Fire Lord and he struggled to summon again the strength that had consumed him enough to put him in the tent in the first place.
“Fritznangle.” The prince crossed the distance between them, staring down his nose at him. For all Fritz loved Vhalla, he struggled to see what the woman saw in the overbearing and ruthless man. “To threaten me is idiotic.” His voice dropped to an ominous whisper. “To threaten, no, to even suggest something that would harm her, in my presence, is suicidal.”
Fritz swallowed his discomfort and shifted his thinking. The crown prince no longer seemed to loom above him or stand apart. Suddenly, he was a man, a man not unlike Fritz himself. They no longer stood on opposite sides of a ring as opponents, but were on the same team. The tightness in his shoulders that Fritz had seen as agitation, could also be interpreted as fear. Passion and anger sparked a similar tension.
“What can I do to protect her?” Fritz whispered.
Aldrik’s eyes raked over him, as if searching every corner of Fritz’s soul, corners that Fritz didn’t even know existed.
“Let me help you, Aldrik.”
The prince’s eye twitched at Fritz’s bold lack of title. But it felt right. This was the man Vhal had chosen and Fritz loved Vhalla like he would one of his sisters. If Vhalla had chosen the prince, then Fritz would as well.
Aldrik opened his mouth to give what promised to be a verbal thrashing, judging by his expression, when his attention shifted. In the tent’s entry stood one of the two women in question – the doppelganger. The girl’s eyes shone a bright cerulean, not unlike Fritz’s own. She looked like a doll, primed into beauty rather than the unpolished lovely nature of Vhalla.
“You summoned me, my lord?” The doppelganger shifted slightly in a way the real Vhalla never would around Aldrik.
Fritz sighed softly and his mouth resigned itself to a smile. He’d been hurting, and pain had bred selfishness. But the woman before him was clearly struggling as well. She was wrapped in the guise of another, unable to associate with anyone she once had. If she was to be Vhalla Yarl, then she needed Vhalla Yarl’s friends.