When the time arrived to leave, Valek grabbed my bag, insistent on carrying it for me while I changed into my travel clothes - a clear sign that he wanted to see me off.
Before we left the suite he kissed me and took my hand. I could see the strain on his face but I was unsure of what was bothering him; we were almost to the meeting point when I decided to ask him about it.
Studying his eyes carefully I asked, "Are you alright?"
"Fine." he squeezed my hand and smiled in reassurance - I wasn't buying it though I decided to leave him be as I heard Janco calling my name.
Valek and I made our way down to the north gate, deliberating over him perhaps joining me for some of the journey but I had to concede that he was needed at the castle as preparations were to be made for its defence for the duration of his and Maren's absence.
Approaching the gates, we could see a mingle of both Ari and Janco's, and my soldiers with the Power Twins in the centre shouting out orders to the congregation, looks of frustration on both their faces. Eventually, Janco managed to weave his way from the cluster of people and came over, picking me up into one of his bear hugs until I was gasping for air, upon which, he set me down and I turned to the pair before me. "Is everything ready to go?"
Ari frowned and Janco replied, "I wish! With the short notice of the mission half of them are about as confused as a squirrel that's lost his stash."
"What he means to say is," Ari said "that only a small majority – very, very small – have gathered the appropriate equipment. Plenty don't have bed rolls, some have brought equipment for Sitia instead of the ice sheet and all-round, we're lucky if they can find their swords."
A deep frown had appeared on Valek's face and I could tell he expected more from the Commander's men. He briskly stepped forward so he was no longer concealed by Ari and Janco and with his appearance, the soldiers began to notice his presence and silence one another.
"It appears that you men are slacking in your abilities. In regards to the Commander's soldiers, I expect all of you to be prepared and organised when you are sent for; not a crowd of aimless dimwits that can no longer recognise the blunt end of a blade!" Although Valek's voice showed his annoyance and anger at the men, his visage remained perfectly impartial and I was certain by the expressions of the men that this terrified them even more than if his face had turned a plum-red. "I am going to call out the equipment you need and you will organise yourselves so that a pair of you will fetch each piece of equipment with enough for all of you. You will then deposit all of the possessions you are currently carrying that I do not mention. Have I made myself clear to you?"
The soldiers called their assent and Valek reeled off the list of equipment they needed to travel through the northern districts and soon they were all scrambling to gather the equipment but unlike before, they now held the air of purpose and direction.
When Valek came over he gave the Twins a pointed look and they scampered off to ensure no one was slacking while he stood next to me, cupping my cheek in his palm.
I read past his eyes that, for everyone else were a solid and uncaring ice, but for me they melted and I could see his concern for me. He worried over the insufficiency of the men I had been assigned and my safety.
Consoling him with my calmest and most certain voice I said the only thing that came to mind for his comfort, "I'll be fine." Didn't work. He furrowed his brow and brought me in for a tight hug.
"You shouldn't make promises you can't keep." He whispered.
"And I think I deserve a little faith." I replied jokingly.
He pulled away and rewarded me with a rueful smile. "I might actually believe you if not for the fact that you are like a magnet for danger and I only feel that you are safe when you are with me."
"I've handled danger well enough without you. I'm sure I'll be fine this time as well." I seemed to ease his worry slightly but I could still see it in the small lines on his face.
He pulled me close again and gave me a passionate goodbye kiss until we heard an awkward cough next to us. I disentangled myself from him to see Janco watching us, a mischievous grin on his face.
"As much as I love to see Valek sucking you face Yelena, we should be going." I looked behind Janco and saw the soldiers steadily assembling into an organised formation under the direction of Ari.
Returning my attention to Janco, I nodded at him and sent him back to assist his friend. Spinning back to face Valek, I kissed him lightly one last time, and as I turned to leave, I lifted my butterfly pendant so he could see it and tucked it safely into my shirt.