Vhalla was the one to summarize their tale. She had earned the floor, and she kept it. Even Elecia kept her interjections minimal to only when Vhalla omitted an important detail.
“Terrible,” the lord breathed in horror when they had finished listing the events that led them to his tent. “We knew it was something wretched, but—this?”
“It will only worsen.” Vhalla balled her hands into fists. The phantom sensation of magic washed over her, her body creating the illusion of a Channel to meet her need for strength. “We must unite, and we must fight. Shaldan will fight on our side.”
“Shaldan?” He turned to Aldrik with his confusion. “How? I assumed that if—” Sevin’s eyes darted to Vhalla, struggling to make sense of what was before him, “—if your lady sat before me, then the Northern Princess had perished.”
“She did not.” Aldrik’s jaw was tight. “We made a deal for the sake of the continent.”
“I see.” He clearly did not, and he was deeply curious about the details, that much was apparent. But the lord’s upbringing won out, and he did not press. “Well, I am certain the West will praise your union with our Duchess with much fervor. And, for the time being, having an Eastern Empress will help us all.”
Vhalla swallowed hard and tried to make sense of the emotions that rushed through her at the thought. She’d barely become accustomed to Aldrik outright calling her his lady, and now she was to be called Empress. She was not groomed for the title, but Vhalla would do whatever she must to fit it.
“Not quite Empress, cousin,” Aldrik corrected, sensing Vhalla’s struggle.
“We have yet to speak our devotion before the Mother Sun.”
“You wait for your throne to be restored?”
Vhalla stared on in confusion as Aldrik shook his head. His words echoed in her ears. “We will wed in Norin.”
In Norin? He planned for them to wed not in months or years, or when his rule was restored, but mere weeks away? She’d been his lady openly for days, and now she was to be Empress by Gods and law in mere weeks?
“There will be a later time to speak nuptial details.” Aldrik stood, keenly aware of her turmoil and acting before it could burst from her. “For now, we will go speak with this Eastern senator.”
Fritz, Elecia, and Jax all opted to relax in the lord’s tent during Aldrik’s and Vhalla’s mission. Elecia reluctantly picked up on the notion that it was a matter better served by allowing the rulers to rule, but Fritz and Jax seemed all too eager to finally be out of the saddle and stuffing their faces with as much food as they could.
It suited Vhalla because it meant that the Lord Ci’Dan walked a few paces behind with his men, leaving Vhalla and Aldrik alone. She had to physically bite her tongue to keep the questions from spilling out. They didn’t get more than a few paces into camp toward Hastan when they came rushing forth.
“Norin? We will wed in Norin?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to run it by you.” He at least sounded honestly apologetic.
“You didn’t think running it by your bride would be important?” Vhalla gave her Emperor a small glare.
“Vhalla, now is not the time.”
“When will the time be? The next time we are speaking to a member of your family?” she muttered.
“Tonight.” He leaned forward, making it impossible for her not to meet his eyes. “Tonight, my Vhalla—”
“Your honeyed words have no effect on me, Emperor Solaris,” Vhalla lied.
The arrogant royal knew it, too, judging by the small smile he gave her. “I promise we will speak on it tonight.”
“If you promise,” she sighed, letting the topic go for the time being.
Hastan was quiet. Despite having more people, more shops, more buildings, more everything than all the small farm towns they’d travelled through, it was so quiet that the wind sounded loud. Vhalla stared back at the men and women who looked upon them, curious but reserved. She tried to smile reassuringly, but it didn’t seem to help. At least it didn’t hurt.
The main government building of Hastan was a large, circular structure at the end of the East-West Way. The builders had chosen a circle to signify that all was made equal in that there were no sides. It had only one floor for much the same reason. The fact had never stuck out to her in all her reading, but after seeing so much of the world, she had never appreciated her own history or culture more.
“Back again?” A farmer who had been dressed up to look like a guard—and was failing—yawned from the doorway. “She’s not going to see you twice in one day.”
“Inform the senator that the Emperor wishes to meet with her.” Vhalla made mental notes about how Aldrik put strength behind his words. How he could make a statement, said calmly, seem like both an order from a friend and a threat from a ruler.
“The Emperor is dead.”
“The father, but not the son,” Vhalla clarified.
The man looked at her, as if for the first time. “You’re not one of them.”
“I am. As are you. We are all the Solaris Empire. An Empire of the Sun for its people, for peace.”
“Who are you?”
By the way he reacted, she would’ve thought she had told the man that she was the chaos dragon, burst free from the Father’s prison in the night sky. The man stumbled back, holding his shirt over his chest in surprise. He stared at her for a long moment, ignoring the presence of the man who had proclaimed himself the true Emperor.