They’d been pushed to the brink and pulled back again. Throughout it all, they’d managed to keep a few friends alive, but had lost so many along the way.
“What do we do now?” she breathed.
“Now?” He took a step toward her, crossing her personal space. Aldrik hooked her chin, guiding it upward. “Now, we rule, we live, and by the Mother, we get a bit of time to love.”
“Do you promise?” Vhalla’s hands curled around his armor.
“More than anything, this I promise.” The corner of his mouth pulled up into a one-sided grin.
He couldn’t look at her like that. Vhalla tugged him and kissed him before friend and subject alike as dawn broke upon the Solaris Empire.
Winter fell heavy in the mountains. Snow painted a thick white carpet across the barren earth, save for the hoof-prints and wheel ruts left behind the carriage. It was a large and unnecessarily lavish contraption, even by her standards; it creaked and moaned as it bumbled up the rocky mountain roads. A wheel snagged momentarily in a particularly large divot, which sent everything within the cabin lurching, a curly-haired Western woman included.
“Watch where you are driving!” Elecia stuck her head out the window, instantly regretting the decision as wind whipped about her face, blowing snow into her eyes.
“Apologies m’lady! It’s difficult to see with all this snow!” the driver called back.
Elecia sat back down in a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. An Imperial summons. It had finally come to that. Her cousin and that crazy Eastern woman he had taken for a wife had been all too determined for months to get Elecia back South.
She plucked the letter from where it had slipped onto the floor. The words were hard to read amidst the jostling, so she quickly folded it, stashing it into the small leather purse at her side. Resting her elbow on the small shelf built upon the tiny door of the carriage, Elecia looked out at the winter world surrounding her. If they were going to be so stubborn, then she would dig her heels in as far as she could.
“I hate snow,” Elecia muttered to herself.
After the battle, Elecia had eventually returned to the West. She had stayed through the last Southern winter to help heal the remaining wounded soldiers and, upon Aldrik’s request, to help reestablish a clerical program in the palace. Elecia had, of course, bemoaned her sacrifice the entire time she remained there. But she kept it to herself that she actually had enjoyed having full control of how she thought clerics should be trained. When she left things were running smoothly in the capable hands of a particularly talented healer named Luzbelle.
It hadn’t all been smooth. Dissenters were still rampant through the winter and Jax, who had been made head of the guard, was busy trying to get the city—and Empire—back under control. Aldrik was often busy with Jax in that respect, and many nights Elecia had found the two men deep in argument over how best to ensure the continent was once more safe and loyal. It had pleased her to see that, even as things returned to normal, her cousin still avoided the bottle. She saw how he looked at it on long days, but Aldrik never touched it. Even when Jax gave in and sipped from his own glass.
The last she heard, Jax was being sent off to the East to help rebuild there. It was an equally personal mission as he went hunting for Daniel. But their last correspondence had painted a bleak picture on that front. It made her contemplate how he was doing on many an occasion. She wondered if he was back in the South, or if he had just decided to take up residence in Hastan. Elecia wondered, but she had a pretty good idea already.
Eventually, as what often occurred, people tired of fighting. The crystals had vanished, remaining as mysterious as they’d ever been. They had fractured and broken down, shattering under their own weight before turning to dust. It was as though all the magic had been exhausted, and Elecia couldn’t fathom how no matter how hard she tried.
The caverns had been crystal-free and filled with dust when Vhalla and Aldrik had sent Groundbreakers to check. Even still, they left nothing to chance. The Groundbreakers had collapsed the mountainside. One of their first Imperial decrees was striking the infamous place from all maps and records.
She hummed to herself, and a little smile crept upon Elecia’s face. She was looking forward to seeing them all once more. She allowed herself to enjoy life and be excited now. The last thing she wanted any of them to see was her enthusiasm at the idea of a reunion. Mother forbid they got the idea that she would stay longer than necessary. She had an image to upkeep.
However, the luggage strapped to the back of her carriage may betray her. Even her father had questioned the quantity of possessions she had brought. Elecia scolded him for thinking a woman could need anything less. He said little else, his focus fraying with her mother leaving for the North.
Things had actually progressed smoothly on that front. Last Elecia heard, Vhalla and Aldrik were struggling with breaking the news of the deal they’d struck with Sehra to their advisors and quickly recovering Senate. But the princess seemed ever patient, poised, and unworried. She was not a scheming ruler waiting at Vhalla’s bedside for a child. It reassured Elecia and her mother, who was the newly appointed ambassador. Despite the turmoil, things were moving toward peace.
Elecia stretched her legs, glancing out the window. She may have been able to walk to the capital faster.
The carriage door swung open as the wheels ground to a halt. Elecia hardly acknowledged the man who had driven her halfway across the continent. He had been so-so at best, she mused as she drew her cloak about her. It was a wonderful garment that had been specially made at her request, lined with thick fur, an inner layer of wool, and an outer layer of rich red velvet to keep out the chill—function and fashion. It kept her warm, she determined as she stepped off the metal rung onto the snow-covered ground of the stables.