It was days before I saw him again in the company of Duke Nikola. I smiled when I saw them, and was expecting to speak with Constantine. Instead, I spent the morning speaking with the duke in the sunlit garden that Kieran had managed to cultivate beyond the fortress walls. It was light conversation filled with pleasantries until the topic of Constantine came up. I grew silent, unsure of my feelings toward the man and his position toward the gods. Specifically, toward me being a goddess.
Nikola glanced sidelong at me. “Something bothering you, my lady?”
I bit my lower lip and frowned. How did I explain my concerns? Would Nikola doubt my claim as much as Constantine had? The duke had never said anything of the sort, so there was no way of knowing. “Constantine doubts me,” I blurted out.
“How do you mean?” Placing a hand on my arm to halt me, he waited until I turned to him. “Lady Vaera, I can’t understand your meaning if you don’t explain.”
“He doubts that I’m a Valkyrie. He sees me as nothing more than a shieldmaiden. He probably thinks my claim of being a goddess is outlandish-” I stopped when Nikola held up a hand.
The duke considered something, then gestured for me to follow him as he waved for his guards to keep their distance. He began to speak quietly. “Constantine…. His faith in the gods, in any god, was shaken some time ago. When he needed help most, there came no answer and no miracle.” He paused, waiting to see if I understood. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but it had a profound affect on him. It’s the likely reason why he doesn’t believe you.”
Something happened to him, and Constantine would be unlikely to talk about it. For most, religion was a deeply personal matter. With as little as I knew about him, Constantine was a private man and talking about the experience wouldn’t be something he would be willing to discuss openly.
“What of you?” I looked from the ground to Nikola. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” he said simply.
His answer surprised me and I stared at him openly. I didn’t know what to say; and if I had known, how to say it. I knew why Kieran and Rhys believed me. I even knew why the fae believed me. But Nikola? What reason — what proof — did he have to believe me? None, so far as I knew.
Seeing the confusion on my face and the unspoken questions, he smiled. “My wife, she is like you. She’s otherworldly, although not a battle maiden. She is, in fact, a swan maiden. Despite the legends, I did not capture her by stealing her robes. I rescued her, but she could not stay. As she left for her home, she told me where to find her. I won her hand after an arduous journey and proving myself to her father that I was a worthy man.” He gestured to me. “That is why I believe you and why I don’t find it unusual that you are a goddess in mortal guise.”
“I’m only a minor goddess,” I corrected him. Finding a trellis with a bench hiding beneath it, I sat down. I felt weary all of the sudden. I think the conversation tired me. “I don’t have vast powers like others. There’s very little I have control over.”
“Only men’s lives in battle,” he pointed out. “That’s enough to make any man fear and respect you.”
“Does that include you?”
“That is for you to decide if it is my time to meet my gods.”
I grew silent, and remained so for several long moments. “That’s part of the problem,” I said quietly. “I’ve lost my powers. I can’t access that divine part of myself.” I waited for the duke to respond, to say or do something; anything. When he asked how it happened, I told him my story. He listened in silence until I finished my tale, nodding thoughtfully. When I began talking about Rhys’ theories on what happened in that moment with Lyrac and what may happen afterward, Nikola interrupted me.
“And his majesty believes that your powers will return in time?”
“That’s the hope. Sometimes I’ll see a glimmer of something — lights around someone or a dream of things to come — and this gives me hope.” I looked away, eyes focused on nothing in particular. “One day, my divinity will return. When that happens-”
“You will be leaving,” Nikola finished.
I looked back at him. “Yes,” I confirmed. “I have been gone for some time already. Since I don’t know when things will return to… normal, returning to Ásgarðr would be the best course of action.”
“Will you return?”
“Here. To L’Main or visit Laskanda, or to any world for that matter.” Nikola spread his hands, gesturing at our surroundings.
“If the All father allows it. Our duty comes first.” Bitterness crept into my voice. Resentment of what was required of us and the special privileges that others had in Ásgarðr surfaced. “Did you know that Valkyries have their emotions suppressed? We are unable to feel love or wrath. There’s no true joy or grief. It makes us more loyal to our duty, to our cause. It prevents us from falling in love and taking on mortal form. It’s a way of controlling us because He has lost so many Valkyries to mortal men, and if we could actually feel anything we would make our displeasure of our situation known.”
Nikola’s face was set in a frown. “Then why return? Stay here. You have friends and you will be provided for. You could do whatever your heart desires.”
I sighed quietly, trying to think of the best way to explain to him why. Staying here did sound better. “Because no matter what I do, I cannot escape what I am: a Valkyrie. My powers will return, and with it all of the rules that I agreed to abide by. I swore an oath, Nikola. My Word is my bond. I will not betray that.”
The duke looked away, hmming to himself. “There’s only one thing to do: enjoy what time you have left as a mortal.” He turned back to me and smiled. “Experience as much as you can so that at the least you can remember those strong emotions. We’ll start with food and drink.”
I laughed at his suggestion, but I knew him well enough to know that he was serious. “I’d like that,” I told him. I took his hand when he offered it do me and stood up. “Should we have a feast?”
“No, no, nothing like that. You should sample meats, cheeses, and wines,” he explained. “Try different fruits to see which is your favorite; spend an entire day staring at the ocean or do nothing but lounge about all day. All memories you can take with you.”
I let him carry on describing the different things I should try. I very much liked the idea. I couldn’t remember what my favorite things were from my first life. There were bits and pieces. Nothing truly definitive except for certain key events in my life. Placing my hand in the crook of his elbow, Nikola led me inside to see about sampling some fare.