“No,” Sofia groaned, dragging him back to bed by the waist. “Don’t go.”
Valtteri laughed softly. Mid morning sunlight flooded the shack through the curtains, and the rhythmic sound of chopping wood punctuated singing birds.
“My legion is going to be wondering where I am,” he told Sofia, who peeked from the blankets with a pleading look on her face. “Niklaus will only cover for me until the afternoon, and then he’ll start to worry, too.”
She frowned. “I’m never going to see you again, am I?”
He furrowed his brow before leaning down to kiss her gently. She touched his chest, her fingers tentative.
“If you want to see me again,” Valtteri said, “I could probably find a way.”
“It’s just that you’re so…” She crinkled her nose. “I never meet men like you.”
“I definitely don’t meet women like you.”
She grinned. “Promise me you’ll come back. A few weeks, maybe, no more than a month.”
He searched her pretty violet eyes, beseechingly widened. His father would kill him—but then again, hadn’t his father already passed him over?
“Alright,” he said.
She sighed in relief. “Oh, Valtteri. I slept better last night than I have in ages.”
He bit back his reply. She narrowed her eyes.
“You were going to say orgasms will do that, weren’t you?”
A bashful grin split his face. Sofia giggled.
“So inappropriate for a noble,” she said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Sofia…” Valtteri said, brushing her hair back from her face.
“What does this mean for us?”
She took his meaning as he intended, though it made her grimace. “I just thought, if I could count on you to come back…maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about men for a while.”
“Worry about them making passes at me or following me home. Worry about finding one worth marrying one day. I could tell them all I’m too busy waiting for my sweetheart.”
Valtteri smiled. “Knowing the men of my legion, they’d say any man who would leave you behind is a fool.”
“Maybe he is,” Sofia said. “But I like him.”
The noise outside the shack grew in volume. Valtteri suspected he was about to be judged quite harshly by the family upon whom’s kindness Sofia relied.
“Do you have herbs, or do you need money for them?” he asked.
She made a face. “No and no. I’ll get them myself.”
“I didn’t know if you could be seen purchasing such a thing around here.”
“Who said I would do it around here?”
“The road isn’t safe these days, not since Alistair stopped punishing his subjects for transgressions.”
“I can take care of myself,” she said gently. “Please, don’t worry about me. Just come back as soon as you can.”
“That’s already a given.”
She released his waist so he could stand and slip into his tunic; then, he belted on his sword.
“Your cloak?” she asked, pointing to where he’d abandoned it on a chair the night before.
“Keep it,” Valtteri said. “So you believe I’ll actually come back.”
Sofia beamed—and with a final, gentle kiss, Valtteri moved to depart.
“Jagomir will see the seal on your tunic and leave you be,” she said. “He has great respect for military men, although he took an arrow to the knee ages ago and can’t serve himself.”
“Good to know,” he said. “I’ll send you a message when I return to Reziva in a week. We’ll have to make sure your messenger never reaches my father’s ear.”
Sofia waved her hand, smiling. “That should make it more fun. I look forward to it, Valtteri.”
They both blushed. He paused for a fraction of a second before opening the door to slip away.
Two finches who had perched on the eaves of Sofia’s shack fluttered into the air, their songs blending together in opposing notes. Across the yard, stout, dark-haired Jagomir paused in chopping firewood to wipe his brow; a window behind him stood open, a pie cooling on the sill.
“You there,” Jagomir called loudly to Valtteri. “Where’s Sofia?”
Valtteri had turned right in hopes of sneaking away, but now he rotated back, one hand at his sword hilt out of habit. Jagomir took in the posture as well as the standard of the Southern Arm carved into his tunic and immediately stood down.
“Ah, a legion man,” he said, setting aside his wood axe. “I apologize.”
“No matter,” Valtteri said. “Sofia is just making breakfast.”
“She’s a bit like a daughter to me,” he said. “I try to keep an eye on her.”
“You have my thanks for that.”
Jagomir crossed his arms; his wiry musculature made him look quite imposing. “Don’t see many Southern Arm men in the Spine.”
“King Alistair has failed to keep the peace on the roads in most of the kingdom, but it was getting especially bad here.”
He scowled. “King. Yes, and quite a leader he’s been. Four years on the throne and our borders are already weak.”
“Fortunately the Wastelanders will be settling down soon,” Valtteri said. “Our last skirmish with them was only half of what we expected. They’ve backed off for another year.”
“Did you take care of those roving bandits?” Jagomir asked. “They scared my wife half to death last time she used to road to get some more cheese. Would have done more if I hadn’t been behind her.”
“We disposed of them yesterday,” he said. “Your roads are safe for now.”
“I thank you doubly, then.” He took a closer look at him. “That’s better quality armor than I usually see. You from Reziva?”
“Near there,” Valtteri said evasively. “Forgive me, but I’m expected back.”
“Yes, of course,” Jagomir said. “Cheers, mate. I’ll watch Sofia for you.”
Valtteri dug in one of his pockets for a small coin purse. Jagomir’s eyes widened when he tossed it over.
“For your trouble,” Valtteri said. “Have a nice day.”
The forest had engulfed him by the time he heard Jagomir shout excitedly for his wife. He hadn’t counted it out, but he’d probably given the man half a year’s salary. If Jagomir was sharp, he would quickly put together that few common foot soldiers, even the ones from Reziva, could afford to be that careless with their funds. He hoped the promise of more off-handed donations would keep Sofia comfortable in his absence; she gave him this feeling in the pit of his stomach that he barely recognized, so often was it overshadowed by apprehension and worry.
Sunlight faded in and out as a thunderstorm bubbled over the nearest peak. An icy wind picked up in gusts by the time Valtteri arrived at his camp on the eastern side of the main road through the Spine. The horses hitched beside the cobblestones shifted restlessly at the impending weather.
Valtteri strode towards his tent, nodding at a few of the men who battled to keep a cooking fire lit long enough to finish lunch. Most of them wouldn’t have noticed his absence, but when Niklaus emerged from his tent, he expected some sort of embarrassing welcome. Instead, he was greeted by wide blue eyes and a warning look.
“We have a visitor,” Niklaus said.
Valtteri’s brows jumped together, though his confusion was soon replaced by disgust. His brother Regan ducked between the canvas, his long black hair swept back from his brow by the wind.
Valtteri resisted the urge to groan. “Brother.”
Regan sneered. “Valtteri. Father sent me to check on your progress.”
“How thoughtful of him. Alas, there’s nothing interesting for you to shove your greasy nose into. We disposed of the bandits yesterday.”
Regan smirked. “Then you won’t be bothered by the new assignment I was asked to give you.”
He set his jaw. “What?”
“Father has determined I’m to be married. You’re supposed to escort me to her, as the roads are so dangerous. Especially for the heir to the princedom.”
Niklaus looked utterly repulsed. Regan didn’t notice, though—too busy was he studying Valtteri’s expression.
“If father commands it,” Valtteri said lightly. He braced his right hand on his sword hilt to keep it from shaking with rage. He could hardly see straight. “I live at his whim.”