Vhalla turned in her saddle, looking at the farmhouse fading in the distance. It was empty and unassuming, waiting for renegades to come ransack it, to steal their few meager things of worth. Or it could be waiting for Victor’s men to come and level it, purely out of spite for her.
She stopped her horse.
“Vhalla?” Aldrik slowed his to a stop a short distance away the moment he noticed she’d fallen from the group.
Vhalla gripped the reins tightly. She wanted to run back and take whatever she could that would remind her of home.
“Is everything all right?” Fritz called.
“Everything’s fine,” Vhalla forced herself to say. Memories were not tied up in things. She turned back to the group. “Let’s go; Hastan is waiting.”
The following days to Hastan passed blissfully uneventful. So much so that it was almost possible to imagine that they were merely five travelers on a trip because they wanted to be. They stayed at inns along the way, keeping their identities a secret. Every night, Vhalla pretended that she was just a woman and Aldrik was just a man, a couple engaged to be wed. She staved off worry with his kisses and quieted the noise in her mind with his blissfully breathy sighs.
The deeper they pushed into the heart of the East, the less they saw of Victor’s hold. People knew what was going on; a few may have even seen one of the abominations Victor had crafted. But for the majority, life still continued with almost relative normalcy.
That normalcy ended the moment they reached the capital of the East. Hastan was the opposite of the towering Southern capital. It was not perched upon a mountaintop, but grew slowly from out of the surrounding plains. All farmland ended and the houses stopped for a long barren stretch before the city began. A no-man’s land that set Hastan apart from the rest of Cyven. Very few people actually lived in Hastan proper; it serving more as an apex for government, commerce, and culture for the people of Cyven.
It was the first time Vhalla had laid eyes on the city.
“Why is the West laying siege to Hastan?” Vhalla scanned the army encampment set up around the whole of Hastan. Crimson pennons bearing the Western phoenix fluttered in the wind.
“I don’t know.” Aldrik frowned.
“I’d venture a guess they might.” Jax pointed at the line of soldiers blocking the road into the city.
“Halt,” one of the soldiers called out to them as they approached. “From where do you hail?”
“Now that’s the question, isn’t it?” Jax sniggered under his breath, glancing at their odd mix.
“We have come to speak with the Senators of Hastan.” Aldrik had put back on his Emperor voice.
“Senator, you mean,” one of the men clarified in a heavy Western accent.
“Senator?” Vhalla looked between them. “There should be four senators from the East.”
“There were, until the Supreme King got his hands on the three that were still in the capital when he usurped the throne.”
“By whose order are you here?” Elecia asked.
“By the order of the only ruler who still holds claim to the throne.” Vhalla glanced at Aldrik from the corners of her eyes as the soldier spoke. “The Lord Ophain Ci’Dan.”
Relief pulled at the corners of the Emperor’s mouth, folding it neatly into a small smile. It exuded confidence and betrayed his ease at the soldier’s omission. Elecia caught Vhalla’s eyes for a conspiratorial look as she pulled them away from Aldrik’s profile. She’d seen Aldrik’s expression as well and seemed to get equal amusement from it.
Aldrik shook his head. “Well, my uncle’s claim is something I cannot argue. Were I not alive.”
The soldier opened his mouth to speak and paused, looking at Aldrik, and then looking at his comrade. They both struggled to put together what Aldrik had said.
“Usually you kneel before your sovereign lord,” Elecia helped them along.
“No, no . . . The nephew of Lord Ophain, of our late princess . . . Prince Aldrik is dead.”
“But there were rumors—”
“You know how people will talk,” one soldier interrupted the other.
“Oh, we’re wasting time.” Elecia sat straighter in her saddle. “Bring us to whomever is running this operation.”
“We will not trouble Lord Sevin for you imposters.”
“Excuse me?” Elecia had gone deathly still. Vhalla expected some form of verbal lashing after being called an imposter. “Who did you say was leading this?”
“The honorable Lord Sevin Ci’Dan.”
Elecia dismounted. She balled one of her hands into a fist, clasping the other hand over it—a motion Vhalla learned long ago was her physical act of opening her Channel. The curly-haired woman stalked over to the unsuspecting guards. The rest of them didn’t move as their Emperor remained still, content to forfeit the soldiers to Elecia like mice to a cat.
“Don’t come any closer or we’ll be forced to engage.” The man drew his sword. “Go on your own way and there needn’t be bloodshed.”
Elecia pressed forward, the man swung for her shoulder and the blade split open Elecia’s shirt, but it stopped hard with a ring against her stone skin. Elecia looked at the offending sword for a long moment, before turning her eyes back to her attacker. The man was startled into silence.