“I am in the South in the winter; how well do you think I am?” Elecia bemoaned once more, drawing her cloak tighter about her for effect.
“Shall I have a Firebearer appointed to your chambers again to ensure they are properly warmed before bed?” Grahm asked.
With that offer, Elecia knew instantly who was the real Minister of Sorcery. “You thought that would even be a question?” She sniffed at the cold air about her.
“It will be my pleasure.” Grahm smiled.
“Join us for dinner?” Fritz asked, tugging on her hand like a little brother.
“If the Imperial family does not demand me.” Elecia nodded.
“I haven’t seen Vhal in forever!” Fritz whined. “If they demand you, then bring me with you!”
“It’s only been three days.” Grahm chuckled, adjusting the knot at the bottom of a limp sleeve.
“Forever!” Fritz repeated, exasperated.
His friendship with the Eastern woman had intrigued Elecia at the beginning. It took some time before she realized what drew people to Vhalla Yarl. As much as she tried otherwise, she, too, was eventually ensnared by the woman’s determination and general optimism. Elecia would likely die before she let the Empress know. Someone had to make sure their Windwalker did not get haughty.
“She’s busy with the library,” Grahm reminded Fritz.
“Oh, who was appointed Master of Tome?” Elecia asked. It had not been decided when she left. The last master had not made it through the war, and the news had hit Vhalla hard.
“Vhal’s old friend, I think her name is . . .” Fritz chewed it over. “Roan, it’s Roan.”
Elecia remembered Vhalla going through multiple conversations with the woman. They’d seemed tense. She hadn’t understood at the time; anyone would be ecstatic to be elevated beyond their status. But the Empress had refused to speak on it, handling it entirely between her and the Southern woman. Well, whatever it was had clearly been worked out.
Time was what they all needed. People moved away as soon as they were free to do so. For the first months after the end of the war, the capital felt like a town of facades, beautiful outside but empty on the inside.
Too many people had seen too much and experienced such horrors that the streets would never be the same again. It led to a decline in the normally steep price of capital homes, and Aldrik had been smart enough to raise taxes before people took advantage of the low prices and started buying. Thus, the crown’s coffers were replenishing.
Even now, the castle seemed understaffed to Elecia. After saying goodbye to Fritz and Grahm, it was too long before she saw another staff or servant. Time would heal this, too, of that she was certain.
Elecia had not been immune. She’d had to leave and return for the West. It was all too much to still be in the place where there had been so much blood and death. She needed to see her family and simply relax, but she hadn’t told anyone else that. The last thing she wanted people to think was that she was weak. Others would be like her. Once they breathed, they would come home.
The Imperial halls were almost back to normal. Once all the crystal debris had been cleared, they had put a low priority—comparative to all which needed to be done—on restoring the artistic nature of the palace. She was surprised at how far they had come in one year. As she rounded the staircase up the main atrium that housed the Emperor and Empress, she was impressed at how normal it all seemed.
She paused briefly and looked down the hall that she knew led to Aldrik and Baldair’s old rooms. What were they being used for now? Perhaps Vhalla’s father had been put up in one. It seemed a shame to let them sit empty. Though, the Imperial living area was so large and room-filled that there was almost always going to be something that stood vacant.
The door to the Emperor and Empress’s chambers was a large portal at the highest point in the atrium. It was an arched double doorway cast entirely in gold. Aldrik’s father had been so gaudy in his choices for decor. She gave the knocker a solid rap, wondering if they had truly not heard of her arrival yet.
A minute dragged by, and Elecia began to feel offended by lack of greeting.
“They’re not there,” a male voice echoed up from halfway down the stairs—through the entire hollow of the room.
Elecia stilled, turning slowly. She didn’t allow for one crack in her usual demeanor. She pretended to ignore the tingle on her skin as she turned to look at the frustratingly stunning specimen of a man. Jax gave her an easy smile in reply.
“Would you like me to escort you to them, Lady Ci’Dan?” He ascended a few more stairs, holding out a hand.
She noticed immediately the golden bracer that adorned his wrist. Elecia wondered if he’d managed to start the Golden Guard once more in Baldair’s honor, if he’d created a new charter dedicated to the defense of the whole Imperial family. But she didn’t ask. Her tongue had turned to lead in her mouth.
“That would be acceptable.” Elecia nodded and took his hand as casually as possible.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, her hand shifted safely to the crook of his elbow. They continued through the palace in silence. Elecia’s stomach felt awkward. Were they going to talk about last winter at all?
“How are you, ‘Cia?” Jax’s voice shifted from the laughing playboy to the dangerously broken man she knew lived beneath.