The ride grew weary, but still Valtteri pushed on, determined to make it to Jancova by sunset. Regan had been nothing but a useless distraction—Prince Bohdan never had any intention of tying his son to the Spine. Making the introduction, though, and allowing Regan the space to humiliate him further…
“A delight,” the pretty heiress had said, dipping into a low curtsy in the front courtyard of her manor. She flicked her eyes up to Valtteri first, then Regan. “I hear great things about your house.”
“I’m Regan,” his brother had snapped when the girl’s gaze lingered on Valtteri. “My brother Valtteri is here to escort me, as he no longer meets the qualifications for the prince’s seat.”
Valtteri’s jaw had locked, his cheeks flaming red. The heiress smiled at Regan in a conspiratorial way.
“Indeed?” she said, her attention shifting fully from Valtteri. “Well, as the virile brother, may I take you inside the house? Your escort can wait in the stables until we prepare his lodging. Your father did say not to give him welcome befitting his previous station.”
Stars bloomed against the deep black veil of evening by the time Valtteri galloped into Jancova, his breath grown short with fury. The stable master set aside his pipe to relieve him of his horse.
“Half coin a day,” the man said.
Valtteri tossed him a full coin purse, his vision fuzzy with rage. “Just make sure she’s rested when I return.”
“As you wish, captain.”
Ripping off his cloak in disgust, Valtteri strode towards the village; unfortunately, the tunic beneath displayed his rank just as well. Part of him wanted to strip himself of everything his father had ever touched, run away while the pyre of it still burnt behind him, and forget this life. He wondered if Casimir would help him if he did.
Jagomir and his family had retired inside for the evening, curtains drawn to emit no light; within Sofia’s little shack, though, a few candles illuminated the window beside the door. Valtteri knocked a little more forcefully than he intended.
Sofia peeked through the window, eyes wide, and started at the sight of him. She flung the door open immediately.
He stepped inside, his blood boiling. The anger lingered just beneath the surface, so barely contained that he expected it to explode from him at any second. He’d never been livid like this—he’d always been the steady, calm one, while Casimir drowned in emotion. But the humiliation Regan had foisted upon him…
Sofia took one look at his face and furrowed her brow with concern.
“You’ve been gone for two months,” she said softly, without accusation. “No note. And now you come back looking like you’re ready to start a brawl.”
Something about the gentleness in her tone, a tenderness where he had expected questions and frustration at his absence—the fight went right out of him. Valtteri collapsed into the chair at her table and buried his face in his hands.
“Hey,” Sofia said gently. She knelt at his feet, one palm placed soothingly on his knee. “What’s happened?”
She sighed. “Gods, I missed the way you say my name.”
He emerged from his hands. “What?”
She grinned. “Hush. I’ll tell you later. Right now you need to get out whatever you’ve been burying. Tell me everything, and then we can work through it all.”
He thought she looked a little pale when she said it, as if she had her own burdens to shoulder. He cleared his throat.
“Sofia, it’s…” He shook his head. “My brother, as it always is.”
“Regan. The heir, now. He showed up at my camp right after I left you.” He ground his teeth together before continuing, “I was required to escort him to meet a potential fiancee, an heiress to a house here in the Spine.”
Sofia frowned “Someone who should have been meeting you, technically.”
“Among other things,” he said. “And when she was clearly more attracted to me at first sight than Regan…Sof, I’ve basically been held hostage for two months. I was well fed and entertained, but nobility have developed more sophisticated means of torture for each other.”
“As opposed to oppression, poverty, and the like.”
She squeezed his knee. “What happened?”
Running a hand over his face, he said, “My father wasn’t going to tie our house to the Spine, not ever. And he knows how quickly Regan becomes unmarriable once he opens his mouth. It’s like they had nothing better to do than torture me. I wonder what the girl got out of it.”
“But what did they do?”
“Made me the laughingstock of the town, of course. I couldn’t even go get a drink in the pub without the bard writing songs about my limp dick. But staying inside the house was only asking for the heiress to invite over her highborn friends to have a look at me like I was some sort of specimen. And I couldn’t leave until Regan was ready or I’d be incurring the wrath of my father, which I assure you is what I’ve been trying to avoid while I’m out here leading soldiers.”
Sofia grimaced. “I’m sorry.”
“I can’t deny the rumors without looking like a desperate liar, and I can’t prove them wrong because no woman will touch me now. I’ve worked for years just to gain the respect of my legions. But every time I go back to what is supposed to be my element—nobility and ballrooms—I lose all the progress I’ve made. I’m so angry, because I’m so humiliated.”
She nodded. “I know, Valtteri. I know it hurts. Tell me what you need right now.”
He stared at her for a long time. “What do you mean?”
“Something that would make you feel better,” she said. “Maybe we don’t talk about it at all and just sleep together again. Or maybe you want to go for a walk to clear your head? I can make us something to eat…”
Valtteri tilted his head before taking her face in his hands. Her skin was warmer than his, softer. His large palms made her look delicate. Still, there wasn’t only sympathy in her violet eyes, but fire. She was angry in solidarity.
“By the gods,” he said. “You’re lovely.”
She flushed. “Oh, stop it. I’m doing what anyone would. I hate to see you hurt…”
“No, Sof. You don’t understand. I don’t think anyone but my brother Casimir has ever asked me that question, and certainly not a woman. Vulnerability was punished in my house, not accepted and nurtured back to confidence.”
“You make me hate my parents less,” she said.
They held each other’s gaze for a beat of silence, and then they both burst out laughing. It felt wonderful to do anything so light; Valtteri soon doubled over with mirth, finding it entirely uncontrollable, just as his anger had been a few minutes prior. Sofia clung to his legs, giggling.
“Oh, Valtteri,” she eventually choked out, wiping her eyes. “I hope I’m not about to make things worse.”
“What?” he asked. “How could you possibly?”
Sofia bit her lip, looking worried. “Valtteri…I’m pregnant.”