“Ask for reinforcements, my love,” she requested.
“An order from the Empress?” His quill paused, but when it picked up writing once more, Vhalla saw he worked in her request.
“If the Emperor permits it.”
“Judging from how you handled affairs during that attack, I have little to worry about permitting,” Aldrik hummed, a relaxed and pleased sound, like the purr of a cat.
“I’m still scared,” she confessed. “Of being Empress.”
“Really?” He sounded genuinely surprised. “It doesn’t show.”
“I’ve just been pretending when I could think of nothing else to do.”
“Then you are more ready than you thought.”
“I’m afraid of losing my friends, of making the wrong decision,” Vhalla admitted. The load was easier to bear when she lightened it with words. “I crave peace, and I fear that I am a creature whose fate is written in bloodshed.”
“More untrue words have never been spoken.” Aldrik rested his quill on the table to look at her. “You spent eighteen years in peace. If anything, it is I who have placed this mantle of death upon you.”
Vhalla shook her head, but he continued before she could object verbally.
“I know what I have asked of you. I was born into it, I was raised for it. Now I expect you to accomplish acts and diplomacy, tasks that were groomed into me for years.” Aldrik pulled her down into his lap, running his hand over her cheek. “But hear me, I say born into, not born for. I may have the advantage of education, but you are as naturally fit to rule as I am, perhaps more so.”
She held her forehead against his, rubbing the tips of their noses together lightly. “Teach me?”
He taught her quite a few new things that night, ones that normally weren’t offered in Empress training. And, afterward, with heaving chests and sweat-dotted bodies, he spent well over an hour telling her the long histories he knew of the kings in the South and West. Aldrik made it a point to detail every failure and what led them to recovery or demise. He highlighted the stories he’d always admired and why, which were usually the tales that encompassed salvation through the admission of one’s shortcomings.
He teased her the first time her eyes fluttered closed. But the Emperor didn’t keep his lady awake. He spoke softly until exhaustion finally claimed her, holding her to him.
The next day, he took charge again. Before they even emerged from their respective rooms, he detailed every plan he had for the day, what he hoped to accomplish, and how he planned to go about doing it. He asked her to watch and learn.
As they met with the senator to discuss additional fortification of the East, it was finally like seeing the man emerge from behind the curtain. Aldrik deftly navigated his goals, accomplishing new plans and securing intangible reassurances of loyalty to Solaris. Knowing his approaches, the silver-tongued ruler was reduced to a parlor magician, and Vhalla knew his every sleight of hand.
He punctuated every decision with a long-term solution that would ensure the East remained bound to his leadership. When Aldrik brought up replacement senators, he did so in such a way that demanded the senator to naturally ask who he thought they should be. Vhalla had no doubt that the names he spouted weren’t off the top of his head, but a planned list of people who had some debt owed or had already passed some prior test of loyalty.
After the meeting, they set out to take lunch with the merchants of Hastan. On the way, he quizzed her on his wording and methodology. He asked her for her thoughts on why he chose one thing over another, how he had turned the situation. He demanded she find imperfections and make suggestions for improvements. Looking for his shortcomings only made Vhalla study the whole affair more closely.
Just before they arrived at the host’s modest manor, he shifted the conversation.
“I want you to lead this.”
“Lead how?” Vhalla was uncertain in what capacity he meant.
“These are your people.” He paused to lovingly brush some hair away from either side of her face. “I have an Eastern betrothed. Why would I not use it to my advantage?”
“I see.” She gave him a conspiratorial grin.
“Will you be my clever Eastern bride?”
“I suppose, if my Emperor demands it,” Vhalla sighed dramatically.
The levity calmed her nerves as they entered. By the time Vhalla sat at the dining table, she was relaxed. These were her people. And while Vhalla had little experience negotiating with merchants beyond the grocers and bakers in Leoul, she understood their wants and needs just as well as any Easterner could.
She indulged their questions of her childhood. Vhalla answered questions about her father’s field rotation and method for using the least amount of water possible. Tales of the Windwalker had spread throughout the East, and they were hungry for knowledge of the woman behind the stories.
The Emperor and Vhalla engaged in a verbal waltz, spinning in and out. Aldrik would steer the conversation to official business, and Vhalla would take the lead. When a lord bristled at Aldrik’s suggestion, Vhalla would act as a balm and drum up fond memories of Eastern festivals. If one of the ladies was put off by Aldrik’s determination, Vhalla took her hand with a smile and shared some of her bread in a gesture of good faith.
Following lunch, they proceeded out to the Western camp. It was still in disarray from the battle, and Vhalla wondered what she could do to help both them and the citizens of Hastan. There weren’t enough resources to go around.