Elecia had grown up in the remnants of Western royalty. From the moment Aldrik and Jax had taken a magical shining to each other after Baldair’s “adoption” of the man, he had been in her life anytime she was near the royal family. He was one of the few people left alive who she would tolerate using her childhood nickname, and it was partly because he knew she would flay him if he used it publicaly.
“I’m well,” Elecia replied softly. “How are you?”
“Well enough. The guard here is taking shape nicely once more,” he answered casually.
Elecia glanced up at him. He had taken to wearing his hair loose and down over his shoulders after she had commented once on how it looked nice. She was surprised to see he still did and prayed to the Mother that he did not cite her as the reason for the change in style.
“That’s good. It is nice to know that one even as incompetent as yourself can put together a bunch of men and women with swords,” Elecia hummed.
“I should keep you around more often. Here I was allowing myself to feel proud of my work.” Jax laughed. “You’ll never let me get a big head, will you?”
“It shall be my duty to bear,” she replied. “How was the East?”
A one word response; how she hated those. Elecia bit her cheeks and kept her questions to herself. The last thing she wanted to seem was eager or worried about what non-work related activities he might have participated in with any men or women.
From the moment they arrived at the garden, Elecia’s eyes were glued on the fantastic glass gazebo that she had been in awe over since her grandfather had told her why it was built. Its walls were steamed from the heat of the inside reacting to the thick snow falling around it. Elecia could only make out the green blurs that she knew to be rose bushes.
“Will you tell them for me that lunch will be ready soon?”
“Why don’t you tell them yourself?” Elecia paused, still under cover from the snow.
“I’m a guard; I should do so.” Jax grinned, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the iron of one side of the gate.
“You just don’t want to get cold and wet.” Elecia rolled her eyes before trudging into the snow. She mentally ordered herself not to glance at the pair of eyes she felt on her back as she reached the door of the glass structure.
Warmth hit her the moment she eased open the door and, once she was inside, Elecia shrugged off her cloak. Aldrik was very diligent about the temperature, and she noticed the roses were preparing themselves for another bloom as a result. It wasn’t until she rounded the central pillar she was even certain she was not alone, given that not one sound could be heard.
Aldrik sat with his arm draped around the woman who napped upon his shoulder. He was dressed in a regal white and gold ensemble, fitting of his station. Elecia had never told Vhalla, but she had always been thankful for whatever the woman had done to make Aldrik show the world that he was their ruler.
As striking as black looked on him, he needed to dress to his role. His eyes looked up from the book that was in his lap, and a smile crept upon his lips. Her cousin was handsome with his small smiles. Even Elecia could not deny that.
“My love.” Aldrik rubbed the sleeping woman’s shoulder lightly. “Elecia is here.”
Vhalla groaned softly, blinking her eyes open. She wore a long golden gown that creatively draped her in Southern classical design. Even the blue ribbon that was just under her growing bust was a nice touch. But no trick of cloth could be used to hide or diminish the massive swell of the Empress’s stomach.
“Elecia!” Vhalla struggled to sit up. A palm instinctually rested on the curve of her belly. Elecia wondered what made all pregnant women, regardless of age, class, or location, do so. “You finally came! It is so good to see you!”
“Sit, foolish woman,” Elecia demanded as Vhalla tried to stand to greet her. Aldrik did not even make an effort, his arm fastened to Vhalla’s shoulders.
“I missed you, too,” Vhalla laughed.
“All right, let me see what my cousin has inflicted upon you.” Elecia crossed over to the Empress.
Aldrik glanced away. Men—at least the good ones—always had a touch of guilt for what they were going to force their women to endure on their children’s behalf. As they should, Elecia believed. It was part of the reason why she insisted every man be present for the birth of their child. Not just for support and to see their offspring, but to ensure they understood what it was that their loved ones went through. It was also a direct way to point out the risk it held for mother and child. The truth was that a birthing room could as easily be the last moments of life rather than the first.
“She hasn’t allowed any clerics to touch her—”Aldrik began.
“I didn’t trust them, and I wanted the best,” Vhalla proclaimed as though the fact were obvious.
“So you said in your letter.” Elecia placed her palms on her hips, looking down at the Empress. “Really, Vhalla, it’s dangerous for a woman to go so long without a cleric taking a look.”
“It hasn’t been that long.” Vhalla rolled her eyes.
“When did she start to show?” Elecia turned to the dark-haired man. Hardly anything about him had changed since she had seen him last. It was something Elecia appreciated. Aldrik was consistent. He’d even worn his hair the same length as long as she had known him.