But the beauty had a certain darkness tainting it at the shadows. This place stood for a government created by the people, to serve the people—the East’s great experiment. As long as Victor was alive, it would only be a shade of its former glory, its growth stinted by the shade of a madman.
She rubbed her shoulder absent-mindedly. The scar no longer ached to the touch. It had healed over to an ugly, but otherwise harmless, mark.
They passed Jax and Fritz’s temporary chambers on the way to their rooms. Vhalla would have stopped in to spend time with her friend, but no light peeked out from under his door. Vhalla hoped that he was getting some much needed sleep in a real bed.
She and Aldrik had separate rooms, as was deemed chaste and appropriate for their standing. It made Vhalla roll her eyes at the notion. Apparently the senator thought similarly, as the rooms had a connecting door. It fit the East’s lax mentality when it came to physical affection. The notion of sacred chastity was a loose construct placed upon them by the West rather than an important tenant of their culture.
Vhalla naturally found her way into his bed most nights. Their proximity was impossible to fight and, in some ways, she needed him now more than ever. His arms reassured her that she had a place in his world, that she wasn’t a girl pretending to be noble.
Vhalla listened to his slow and steady breathing, debating the words that were burning her tongue. They both needed rest, and he was nearly asleep. Vhalla nuzzled her Emperor’s jaw gently.
“What is it?” Aldrik uttered into the darkness.
“Norin?” she replied.
He sighed softly, pressing his cheek into her forehead. “I did promise we would speak on it.”
“And I will hold you to that promise.”
“We absolutely must have the full support of the Empire,” he began. “Standing against Victor will otherwise be impossible.”
She didn’t disagree.
“Our Empire is in disarray, threatened by being torn apart and scattered. My life is enough to rally the West. Your becoming Empress helps cement the East’s support. But the North depends on the deal we have struck with them.”
Vhalla held her tongue as, technically, the deal Sehra had made was for Aldrik’s heir, irrelevant of which woman produced said heir. Vhalla had no guarantee she would make it to the end of the war.
“Beyond that, the people need a display of strength. That their leadership is whole, united, concrete. A wedding will do just that.”
“Are you certain?” She was unconvinced. “Wouldn’t a wedding look as though we are focused on ourselves when we should be focused on our people?” It was odd how phrases like “our people” were becoming easier to say.
He chuckled and pressed his lips firmly to her forehead. “I adore your compassion for our Empire. But I beseech you—have faith in me on this. I understand the workings of the court and the displays the people expect.”
“I do have faith in you, but that doesn’t exempt me from feeling uncertain.”
“My Vhalla.” His arms tightened around her. “Grant it to me. If something should happen to me—”
“Don’t say it.” She twisted to find his face in the darkness, stealing the words from his lips with a firm kiss. “Don’t you dare say those words, Aldrik Solaris. We’ve been through too much to entertain morbid possibilities.”
Vhalla knew where his heart lay. It was in the same place that had told her to go West if he fell in the final battle of the North. It was the truth, but Vhalla did not want to give it the credence of words. She knew the title of Empress would ensure her protection. She knew Aldrik desired nothing more; he didn’t need to say it.
“Very well,” Aldrik sighed, gently kissing her back for a long moment. “If it is truly something you do not wish, then we won’t speak on it. But consider the notion, come to terms with it, before you outright reject it.”
“That I can do.” Her words were a hushed whisper, but a cacophony of noise filled her brain as her mind tried to think too many thoughts over top each other.
A few hours later, she had almost quieted the noise in her mind when her restless sleep was interrupted by a screech ripping through the sky. It sounded as though the heavens were being torn asunder, and it awoke both of them with a start. Another cry echoed the first. It was pure agony given form, as though a thousand men and women cried all at once.
She was out of bed and to their window in an instant, throwing open the shutter and looking skyward.
“What do you see?” Aldrik asked, trying to look as well.
“Nothing from here.” Vhalla squinted into the darkness of the night.
Another screech came. Creatures zipped through the night air and gusted wind against her cheeks. Vhalla’s eyes caught a glint of something unnatural descending upon Hastan. The brief outlines of hulking abominations were visible, glowing faintly in a familiar turquoise shade.
“Monsters,” she breathed. “Victor’s attacking.”
“Did you see him?” Aldrik took one more look out the window before starting for the door.
“Not him, but one of his crystal experiments.” Vhalla wasn’t actually sure what banked through the sky, but it was unlike anything she’d ever seen before. The creature they had encountered on the road with Daniel seemed child’s play compared to this. Even just as a shadow in the night, it was a nightmare given form—a monster that one wished to remain in the void from where it came.