When they finally rode up to a manor, the lord was all too honored to put up the Emperor, future Empress, and their company. He welcomed them with open arms the moment they made their identities known. Over breakfast, he prattled off a long-winded explanation of how he was some distant relative of Aldrik’s. Thankfully, he finished just in time for them to be shown their rooms. Aldrik had his own, Elecia paired with Vhalla, and Fritz with Jax.
It was the first time Vhalla had really found herself alone with Elecia, Vhalla realized as she dabbed her face dry with a washcloth. She’d known the woman for over a year, and she had never spent much time one on one with her.
“So, is he really related to your family?” Vhalla struck up conversation, using the lord’s story as an easy starting point.
“Who knows?” Elecia yawned, collapsing into the bed. “The West is old, and the branches of the family trees are wide-reaching.”
Vhalla thought about this for a long moment. She vividly recalled her prior experiences with Western nobility. Vhalla sat heavily on her edge of the low bed.
“What is it?” the curly haired woman asked tentatively, clearly unsure of offering her ear.
“I won’t trouble you with it.”
Elecia rolled her eyes dramatically. “Poor Vhalla, shouldering her burdens all alone when she has so many people wanting to help.”
“You can be rather sharp, you know that?” Vhalla grinned faintly.
Elecia shrugged. “I’m honest. I can’t help it if you take that harshly.”
“I like it about you.”
“You like something about me?” Elecia gasped dramatically. “And here I had been thinking we were enemies.”
“I didn’t know what to think of you for a while.” Vhalla reclined, settling the covers over herself.
“Well that much was mutual. I had no idea what Aldrik saw in you.”
“Had, past tense,” Vhalla pointed out.
“Past tense.” Elecia didn’t try to scramble away from her word choice. “I still think you’ve a long way to go, but you’re making strides.”
“Thank you, truly.” It meant a lot coming from the Western woman.
“Yes, well . . .” Elecia was clearly uncomfortable. “That wasn’t what had you sighing earlier.”
“Are you sure we can trust this lord?”
“Has he given you indication otherwise?” The question was serious when it could’ve been skeptical.
“He hasn’t, but . . . how do we know he’s not a Knight of Jadar?” Vhalla knew better than to think the Knights of Jadar were gone just because she’d thwarted Major Schnurr. He had certainly been one of their leaders, but the organization had survived over a hundred years, and she suspected it would survive a lot longer.
Elecia considered this for a long moment. “Even if he was, the Knights would be unlikely to make a move right now.”
“Because of Aldrik?”
“In part,” Elecia agreed with a nod. “If it’s between having one of Western blood or a Southerner sit on the Empire’s throne, I have no doubt which they’d choose. Even given their loathing of our family.” There was bite to the last remark. “Beyond that, their goal has always been the crystals. With the caverns opened, they sort of lost that race. I’m certain they’re in the middle of a crisis of purpose and, since my grandfather is smart, he’ll use it to his advantage to regain that loyalty.”
“I don’t know if I’d want their loyalty.”
“Bitterness is unbecoming, Lady Empress,” Elecia teased.
“So is that,” Elecia laughed. “You’d think you’ve never been to a finishing class in your life.” Vhalla rolled her eyes at the face Elecia made. “Now, I am tired; snuff the light and let me sleep.”
“But of course, Lady Ci’Dan,” Vhalla proclaimed with dramatic flair, obliging the request.
“Lady Ci’Dan, don’t you forget it,” Elecia murmured. “For I expect to be appointed the next Lady of the West for my service when this is all over.”
“Deal,” Vhalla replied easily and honestly.
For the next two nights, Vhalla and Elecia shared a bed. On the third, they were able to find an inn, and Vhalla relished being in Aldrik’s arms once more. Elecia wasn’t a bad bedmate; in fact, Vhalla was beginning to enjoy the woman’s company more with each passing day.
But nothing was better than the feeling of Aldrik’s breath on her skin, the way he moved, the way he whispered in the dark. Vhalla relished it all. It was one of the many things that reaffirmed she had made the right decision—to stay with the man she loved—in spite of the chaos in the world around her.
It was easier with each passing day to stand gracefully at his side as he introduced them as a couple. Grabbing her stomach to try to quell the butterflies was still a regular occurrence, but it happened less and less. It was all practice for a new life, she reminded herself, one that would begin in Norin.
“It’s been a pleasure to have you this evening,” a lord praised them after dinner one night over drinks. Aldrik had reluctantly accepted a glass out of pure etiquette. Though he hadn’t touched it after the obligatory sip with the lord’s toast to them, his eyes did dart to the glass from time to time in silent debate.