When Constantine and I were able to meet again, I realized I was happy to see him when I was invited to the midday meal. It would be a private meal, per the request of Duke Nikola. I was curious to meet the man that Constantine served and admired, so I readily agreed to the invitation.
He wore his ever present uniform when he came to collect me from my apartments. When he asked about an escort, I laughed and told him there was no need. “Isn’t it expected of all of the women of marriageable age in L’Aquitaine?”
“I am not of L’Aquitaine. It makes little sense to me to follow all of their customs. Besides, I am no longer of marriageable age. I am far too old to be married off.” I looked at his arm blankly when he offered it to me. “Is this a custom of your people?”
Constantine looked from me to his arm, then back again. “It is considered polite to offer your arm to a lady when a gentleman escorts her somewhere,” he explained. He looked meaningfully at me, offering his arm to me once again. “It’s a custom of my people.”
“Aren’t you doing that now by walking with me?” I didn’t understand and began walking. I stopped and turned to look at him when he didn’t follow. “Is everything alright?”
He dropped his arm and frowned. “You really aren’t from L’Aquitaine, are you?” Walking up beside me, he began to lead the way. “Where are you from? How did you meet you their majesties?” He kept a respectful distance from me but made sure to direct me to where we needed to go.
I almost told him the world I was from originally, but stopped myself. “I met them at Kaer on Caselien,” I said, deciding to answer his last question. With luck, he would forget that he asked where I was from. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell him about Ásgarðr, but he had already indicated that he didn’t believe that I was a Valkyrie. “I interceded during an elaborate ritual, which saved their lives and many others. But it drained me of all my strength. They brought me here to recover.”
“Why in mortal form? Why not return to the realm of the gods and be healed divinely?” He glanced at me, his face unreadable. He gestured for me to follow him down a corridor and through a door. “Why stay here?”
So he did remember our earlier conversation. “I recover faster in mortal form.” I was guessing. I had no idea if that was true, but it was convenient to tell him as much. “It’s not as draining and allows me to heal without the aid of magic. Returning to Ásgarðr would not allow me enough time to rest. I would be required to return to my duties as quickly as possible.”
Was it all a lie? Probably, but I wasn’t about to tell him the real reason why I was still on L’Main. While I had no problem telling others that I was a Valkyrie. The knowledge intimidated most and they were more than happy to steer clear of me. But others… I had heard stories about death maidens on this world and how they could keep your death away if you captured them. If I hadn’t already established myself as capable of defending myself in the first attempt to capture me, and if Kieran hadn’t dealt swift and harsh punishment on the offender, there was no doubt in my mind there would have been more attempts. The fae recognizing my status as a Valkyrie and offering their protection also helped.
But something about Constantine, whatever it was, compelled me to trust him. Compelled was the wrong word. It was that moment on the beach when he told me that not everyone wanted to be my friend because I had the ear of the queen. I wasn’t completely sure of him, but that conversation did make me want to trust him more.
He opened a door and gestured for me to enter. Closing the door behind us, I saw Nikola pouring over some documents, a heavy frown on his face. He was about the same height as Constantine but he was broader in the chest and his dark blonde hair was streaked with the barest hint of gray. He had the look of someone who was more comfortable sitting on a horse with a sword in his hand than sitting behind a desk. He was a man that led his army from the font and fought with his men. I saw a glimmer of something around Nikola’s head, and I stopped to see if the lights around him would solidify into images. Were my abilities returning?
“Is something wrong?” Constantine paused to look at me, a slight frown creasing his face. His question caused Nikola to look up from his work. Constantine seemed to become more aware of his surroundings and he looked around. “I assure you, Lady Vaera, we bear no ill intention toward you. His grace expressed an interest in meeting with you. There are so few shieldmaidens in comparison to knights and when he heard about you-”
I held up a hand to cut him off. “No, nothing of the sort. I don’t feel threatened. I…” I what? Saw faint lights floating around Nikola’s head that might be images of each of his possible futures? “I wasn’t sure how I should greet the duke. I don’t want to offend anyone.” On a whim, I added, “I would hate to cause a war between L’Aquitaine and Kóbor.”
At that Nikola laughed, pushing his seat back and rising to his feet. “Nothing of the sort, Lady Vaera.” He crossed the short distance between us and held out his hand to me. “Please think of me not as a duke but as a fellow knight. It’s not very often I meet a shieldmaiden. Although, I had expected you to come in armor and armed to the teeth.”
I had decided to wear clothes that closely resembled those that I had worn in life. I wore a torque about my throat and cuffs on my arm and wrist. The ornate blue wrap that Kieran insisted I take was twisted about my form and over the simple white dress, tied at the waist with a girdle and pinned at my right shoulder with a gold brooch. The slippers I wore were simple and matched the wrap. The only thing I had on me was a drinking horn I had insisted on buying from traders to the south.
I took his hand and shook it, then offered him the drinking horn. “A gift,” I told him. I noted that Nikola made no mention of me being a Valkyrie. “I saw no reason to arm myself if we’re only sharing a midday meal.”
Nikola took the drinking horn carefully, turning it over in his hands. “Is this customary?” he asked, looking from the horn to me. “Giving a gift, I mean.”
“Drinking horns have been used for centuries on my world. I thought you might like something to use at feasts or show guests something from another world.” I don’t think he had ever seen one before, or at least seen one up close. He was delighted with the gift and intrigued by their use, and I explained that they were used mostly for ceremonies. The one I had given him was from a bovine and capped in silver.
Placing it on the table, Nikola gestured for me to join him. “How long have you been a shieldmaiden? And is this the first world you’ve to?”
“Since I was one and twenty,” I replied. “My father and elder brothers trained me.” Did I tell him that I was a Valkyrie? Would I be met with more doubt or would he believe me? He would want proof wouldn’t he? “I’ve been to a couple of worlds since becoming a shieldmaiden.” I decided to leave it be for now. Maybe, when I had regained more of my abilities, I would reveal myself to him. “What of you? Is this your first trip to another world?”
“I hope the first of many,” he told me. The duke led me to an adjoining room, Constantine trailing behind us. “While travel does take me away from my family and home, this — seeing new worlds, establishing trade between our world and another — is far more preferable.”
“Don’t you miss you them? Your home and family?” I sat down in a chair when he gestured for me to and watched as he motioned for our meal to be brought in. The room we were in was bathed in light, the windows having been added by the serens. Other than this one feature, the room was unremarkable. It was functional, decorated with cloth, tapestries, and furniture to make it look more welcoming.
“Every day,” Nikola admitted. “My wife would rather have me stay home and by her side, but I seem unable to stay in one place for very long. I’m too used to traveling, to sleeping on the road. While war was my trade, I didn’t miss battle. It’s the travel and the adventure I miss. As my wife likes to tell me, it’s the wanderlust that seems to run in my family that takes me far and away. It’s probably why my brother is better suited to rule than me.”
I glanced over at Constantine, who only shook his head with a small, amused smile on his face. “Constantine tells me that you were a leader of men. Does that not make you suitable-”
“To be a general of an army? Absolutely. To lead an empire? I lack the particular patience needed and the quick hands to deal with all the liars and sycophants.” Nikola leaned back in his seat and as the table was set, fruit that was abundant at this time of year, fresh game, bread, and wine. “I have difficulty insulting someone while masking it as politeness.”
I smiled. “I think my father would have liked you. My people, while some diplomacy is needed, are blunt and open about many things. We believe that everyone helps and everyone has a say in what happens in the community. There is a chieftain, but he listens to the input of others before making a decision.”
Constantine had a look on his face as if my explanation suddenly made sense. “And the women help just as much as men in these things?”
“Not in all things, but in a great deal of them. We fight alongside our men and we are known to be just as fierce as them. I fought alongside my brothers and sat with them in my father’s great hall. We help make decisions in practical matters as well as in honor.” I stopped before I could say more. Memories of my home, of my first life, swirled about in my mind. I didn’t want to think of other things, of the home I had left behind and the circumstances surrounding my death. I reached for a goblet already filled with wine and swigged some of the drink down to rid myself of the lump in my throat.
“Is that what led you to becoming a shieldmaiden?” Nikola asked.
“Yes.” I was surprised by how steady my voice sounded in my ears. Not a tremor betrayed me. I didn’t think that mention of my family would have such a powerful effect on me. “It was my wish to become one as I wanted to be like my brothers.” I looked over at Constantine, hoping to change the direction of the conversation. “What of you, Constantine? Did you always want to be the personal guard of a duke?”
Constantine gave me a rueful smile. “The position fell into my lap. I made a name for myself in the ranks of the royal army and I came to the attention of his grace.” He looked over to Nikola and inclined his head to the man. “I apparently made such an impression upon him that he saw that it would be best if I were to be made part of his unit. Somehow, miraculously, I was promoted to his personal guard due to some tomfoolery and an attempt to save his grace’s life during battle.
“Once word reached the emperor, I was given a title and land in gratitude for saving his brother’s life. And now I’m saddled with courtly politics and taking care of him.” At this, Constantine jerked his head to Nikola, who rolled his eyes in good nature.
“You didn’t complain about the reward at the time.” Nikola gave his friend a level stare. “In fact, you were quite happy about it.”
“If a man knew what gaining a title and land would entail, less men would be eager for such things,” Constantine retorted.
“You are… nobility,” I said, although the slight inflection with which I said the last word made it almost sound like a question.
Constantine paused, eyes searching my face. “Yes. My apologies for not mentioning it earlier. My status is secondary to my duty of protecting Duke Nikola. Does it bother you?”
“No, just unexpected.” I gave him a smile, and to me it seemed tight lipped. I couldn’t say that I was angry. I didn’t feel anything close to that emotion. Surprise was there, but it was mixed with disappointment. But I shouldn’t have been disappointed. I didn’t tell him everything so there was no reason to believe that he would be honest with me. “Although, now I’m having a hard time believing that men such as yourselves would want to consort with me.”
Nikola waved my comment off. “We are soldiers first. Always have been, always will be.” He gestured to the windows, indicating the fields beyond. “Rank, titles, status… It all means nothing on the field of battle. You are but one among many fighting your life before the other bastard kills you.”
I nodded as I listened. “I see why Constantine admires you so. You don’t put yourself any higher than the men you lead.” I gave him a genuine smile, and as I looked at the duke, I saw the same glimmering light around him again. I still couldn’t make out what they were, but I was sure that in time that they would become images. “I think you have a great deal of work before you, your grace.”
Nikola sampled the cheese and made a noise in the back of his throat. “Sounds ominous. Are you a seeress? Can you see into the future and tell me my fate?”
I laughed as I said, “No, not at all; however, one would have to be blind to not see what a good man you are. I am sure that you will do much to help your people.”
The conversation was more relaxed after that. Most of the meal was spent answering what questions Nikola had for me and of the duke telling me stories of his exploits. Constantine interjected with clarifications and occasionally the truth when Nikola exaggerated his stories. It was an enjoyable meal and a delightful afternoon. Constantine escorted me back to my chambers afterward.
“I hope he didn’t bore you,” he said. “The duke enjoys telling stories as much as he enjoys listening to them. I know he liked hearing your stories about your home.”
“Faerie tales I was told as a child.” I shrugged. “Stories I grew up with to inspire us to greatness. All children are told these tales.” I stopped awkwardly at my door, unsure of what to do. Did I invite him in or give my thanks for the meal and the afternoon? What sort of signal would an invitation mean to him? I began to fidget and twirled a strand of hair about a finger. Realizing what I was doing, I stopped and dropped my hand down to my side.
Constantine followed the movement and kept his gaze lowered. “Still, I know the duke enjoyed them. I think being around a fellow knight — a shieldmaiden — means a great deal to him. Ranks aside, you and he are part of a select group that many aspire to. Not many are capable of becoming knights or shieldmaidens.” He glanced up at me and gave me that crooked smile of his. “Besides, I think he’s tired of telling me and my men the same stories over and over again.”
I gave him a smile and a chuckle. “He did seem to enjoy a rapt audience.”
“That was because we held you hostage with promise of food and drink.”
“Food and drink is always a good way to ensure that someone will listen to your stories,” I pointed out. “They make listening to outrageous stories more bearable.”
Constantine arched an eyebrow, attempting to look serious. “Are you calling my lord a liar?”
“Not at all, but he certainly likes to exaggerate details,” I replied, amused. “He’s a very good storyteller.”
We lapsed into silence and I awkwardly looked everywhere but at him. I felt my pulse quicken and I damned myself for it. Things were far simpler when I couldn’t feel things so strongly. I wouldn’t be tempted by the things around me and stay true to my duty. Yet here I was, my body and my thoughts betraying me.
I think he sensed it, too. Very slowly he reached for my hand and half bowed over it. Brushing his lips over my knuckles, he looked up at me. “I shall see you some other time, Lady Vaera,” he said quietly.
I remember that I told him I hoped to see him again faintly. He bowed one more time and quickly turned away. I fumbled for the door handle and eventually opened it, stumbling into my chambers. What was this I was this feeling? My heart was pounding and felt as though it would burst from my chest. I threw myself onto my bed and lay there, willing my heartbeat to slow. I couldn’t remember a feeling that came close to this and wondered if it were one of the more base emotions, such as desire or lust. But the thought of him made me happy, and the thought that what I was feeling might be something else.
Rather than torment myself, I decided it was best that I went to bed and tried to forget those last few moments at my door. If I wasn’t careful, I would lose my way because of that man. But there was a tiny thought in the far back of my mind. A voice whispering that perhaps the distraction that Constantine brought wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I was mortal, and I could be this way for a very long time.