“You . . . You come with me.” The man started for the door. “The rest of you stay.”
“Excuse me?” the Lord Ci’Dan balked.
“The senator said no more Westerners, but I will take the Windwalker to her.” The farmer-guard paused at the door.
“The Emperor will come with me,” Vhalla insisted.
“Unnecessary.” Aldrik rested his hand lightly on her arm, summoning her attention. “Once the senator meets with you, I’m confident she will be willing to hold an audience with the rest of us.”
Vhalla paused, stuck in limbo. Aldrik had such confidence in her. It thrilled her. It terrified her. But she was becoming the woman she had hoped—because it was more elating than frightening.
“Very well.” Vhalla nodded. She caught his hand, briefly lacing her fingers against his. “I’ll go, and come back once I’ve gained an audience for you all.”
She followed the guard into an entry room, it arched slightly with the curve of the building. They crossed through it, passing a long hall.
“You believe me?” she asked.
“I do,” the man affirmed with minimal hesitation. “No one in their right mind would admit to being Vhalla Yarl if they weren’t actually Vhalla Yarl.”
Vhalla laughed, unable to argue. Claiming she was Vhalla Yarl was a virtual death sentence in the world they lived. He led her through another doorway into the center of the building. A circular auditorium descended three levels into the earth. Sun shades were pulled back from an open roof, letting in the sunlight. A woman, with brown hair that grayed at the ears, looked up from where she was toiling over some letters spread out at a circular table.
“Who is this?” The question was pointed, but not sharp nor unkind.
The senator looked Vhalla up and down for a long moment, squinting. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I’ve been told death doesn’t suit me.”
“It didn’t suit the Vhalla Yarl I knew, either.” The lines by her eyes deepened as she smiled. “If you are really Vhalla Yarl, tell me what you did to throw the court into disarray during your trial.”
“I stopped Master Mohned from falling,” Vhalla answered easily. “Senator, your Emperor seeks an audience, but he is being refused because you have already had your audience with the West today.”
The woman considered this for a long moment. “Speak honestly; is he truly the Emperor?”
“You will know it to be fact when you see him.”
The senator proved Vhalla correct. The moment she laid eyes on Aldrik, her hesitation vanished. Within minutes, they were sipping cool wheat tea and heatedly discussing plans to implement with the West. By the time they were finished, the sun was low in the sky.
It was easier than Vhalla had expected. The East and West seemed to just fall into place. Without the complication over whose claim to the throne was the strongest and who would likely garner more support across the continent, the East had little hesitation in supporting Aldrik’s assertion.
“This feels too easy,” she remarked to Aldrik as they walked through the curving hallway on their way to where the messenger birds of Hastan were kept.
“Let it be so,” he chuckled. “We have had enough hardship.”
“So it’s what I expect.” Vhalla linked her arm with his, enjoying the quiet. It felt like forever since they had last been alone. Elecia had chosen to sleep in the camp with her father. But Fritz and Jax were joining Vhalla and Aldrik in the government building, so Vhalla expected such times to be limited.
“My father,” Aldrik said thoughtfully. “For all his flaws, he had a vision that takes roots in the hearts of men. A vision of a single banner, uniting us all. Of struggling for a better future rather than against each other.”
Vhalla gripped his arm for a moment, debating if she should bring up the Crescent Continent. She put a quick end to her debate. He didn’t need to be reminded of his father’s ruthlessness. She would allow him a memory colored with fondness.
Aldrik continued, “It’s an ideal people are still willing to fight for. Because we were so close we could taste it.”
“You will end this war and be an Emperor for peace.” Vhalla permitted herself a tiny smile at the notion.
“We will end it. And we will be the rulers for peace.”
The night’s darkness enveloped the last messenger bird. Vhalla’s hands were ink stained and tired. She’d written triple the number of letters Aldrik had, but only a third had been sent. She had never written letters as an Empress before, and it proved more difficult than expected to capture and hold the right tone.
Vhalla had scrapped the first batch on her own and then the second after Aldrik’s critique. Eventually she developed a formula for informing the Western lords and ladies that their Emperor was alive. But by the time she’d mastered it, Aldrik had already finished the majority on his own.
“Come.” He took her hand in his, drawing her attention away from the window. “We should rest.”
Vhalla appreciated the simple elegance of the Eastern government building. It was the original senate hall, and it was as opulent as could be expected of the East without being needlessly lavish. The floors were multi-colored wood, inlaid in a zig-zag pattern of light and dark. A handful of portraits in tasteful frames lined the hall at wide intervals. Candlelight gleamed off the floor polish.