Rebuilding had progressed nicely. The new stables were erected, and the decorative wood overlays looked to have been receiving their first coats of paint and gilding when the wet part of winter had set in and stalled work. She thought the wings over a certain horse’s stable were a bit much. But Aldrik always had a flair for the dramatic and overt symbolism when it came to the woman. As if he really needed to mark his territory; the woman only had eyes for him. The irony had never been lost on Elecia when her cousin was so secretive on everything else.
“Elecia!” a familiar voice called.
Fritz raced over to her from the palace stairs, darting from a side door. His hair had grown out, and part was pulled back behind his head in a limp ponytail. Elecia tilted her head. Somehow, the weight pulled out the wave and frizz and made it more presentable. It matched the formal clothes they had thrown him into, more befitting of his station than the shaggy cut he wore prior.
“It’s been awhile.” Elecia smiled. She had decided forever ago that Fritz was worthy of her smiles. But only if too many people weren’t looking.
“Too!” He threw his arms around her, and, were it not for Elecia planting her feet to the ground with a small tingle of magic a moment before her reached her, she would’ve toppled into the wet snow. “Long!”
“You are making a scene.” She patted his back nicely before shoving him away with both hands. He could be as bad as an Easterner with his affection. A habit he’d no doubt learned from a certain someone. “Now, let me look at you.”
“Are you coming to see Vhal? You must be, right? I hear she’s refused all other clerics. Wait ‘til you see her! She’s—” Fritz was practically bouncing up and down.
“Yes, yes. I’m here to see our stubborn little Empress,” Elecia cut him off before he got carried away. With a small amount of amusement, she reached up and looked at the broken moon pin he had affixed to his chest. “Don’t you look official, Lord Charem?”
“Stop it.” Fritz pulled away with a laugh. He had been the hardest to convince to accept his new role in Aldrik and Vhalla’s world order. With Victor dead, a new Minister of Sorcery was needed. Once Vhalla got the idea in her head of Fritz filling the role, no one could persuade her differently. The woman was bound to have at least one or two good ideas.
“How have you been settling into it?” Elecia asked, folding her hands behind her back. Aldrik always looked so regal when he did so. She was the cousin of the Emperor and the Lady of the West in training; she had every right to look regal.
“Some bumps, here and there.” Fritz scratched the back of his head as they walked for the palace, Elecia’s baggage being unloaded behind them. “Not everyone agreed with Vhal on my appointment.”
“Power hungry mongrels, Fritz.” Elecia shook her head, sending the snow scattering onto the stone steps leading into the palace. “No matter what, there were going to be people clamoring for prestige in the aftermath.”
“That’s what Aldrik said.” Fritz sent snow scattering off his own shoulders.
“Aldrik.” Elecia glanced down, adjusting her cloak. It served to hide a small grin. It had always grated her cousin that a common born Southerner seemed to have little qualms addressing him by his first name without ever receiving express permission. Naturally, Elecia saw no point in correcting Fritz. Someone had to give Aldrik a hard time when she wasn’t around. “How is my dear cousin?”
“Slowly going crazy.” Fritz laughed. “With Vhalla as she is.”
“Lovely,” Elecia rolled her eyes. Why did men seek to complicate the littlest things when it came to the nature of women?
They ascended the stairs together until they reached halfway to the Imperial quarters. Fritz told her how they had decided to postpone the Festival of the Sun this year. That there was too much left to rebuild to be putting on a lavish festival. Elecia hummed over that; it wouldn’t have been her choice.
She understood why last year’s Festival of the Sun had been cancelled. It would have come only months after Victor’s ultimate demise. But this year, this year she felt the people could use a touch of normalcy in their lives. It was one of the many times that Elecia wondered what kind of Empress she would have been if given the chance.
An Eastern man waited in the hall. His palm was on the stone of a windowsill, and, with a small smile, he watched the snow fall outside. He turned upon hearing them approach.
“Grahm,” Elecia held out her hand.
“Lady Ci’Dan.” Grahm took her hand and shook it warmly. It had taken some time to convince Elecia that Grahm was worthy of the Southerner whom she had claimed as her own—but he won her over eventually. “It is good to see you in the palace once more. How are you?”
The man’s work with the Silver Wings had made him the figurehead of the resistance, someone people looked to. Elecia’s tolerance of him warmed to a quiet appreciation as time dragged on. And the effect he had on Fritz was heartwarming. If Aldrik and Vhalla weren’t bad, these two were almost enough to make her feel lonely.
Elecia’s eyes glossed over the knot in Grahm’s sleeve. She’d managed to salvage that mess of an amputation following the final battle of the war. The amputation, the crystals going dormant, or both had saved Grahm’s life. Though, Fritz still wrote her time to time asking about the dreams that still afflicted his now engaged, fearful of the taint. Elecia reassured him; there were so many reasons for them all to have nightmares.