“I knew the day you came out to the Southern Court that you were destined for greatness. I think we all did.”
She smiled as he lied through his teeth. “Is that so?”
“You had such natural grace and elegance, born of the Empire. Only fitting for you to be with our Emperor over that Northern girl.”
“I stand by what I said then. This Empire would have been lucky to have someone like Princess Sehra as its Empress.” Vhalla was not going to tolerate any animosity between the regions. An Empire of peace; she wouldn’t lose sight of that dream as long as she drew breath.
“Of course.” The lord clearly was not equipped with the eloquence to reply to Vhalla’s praise of Aldrik’s former betrothed.
Aldrik brought his lips together in a small smile, enjoying the lord’s struggle at Vhalla’s words. As Vhalla became more adept at navigating nobility, she began to play small games alongside Aldrik. She didn’t think she’d quite reached puppet master status, but she certainly was improving.
“I hear you have plans to wed in Norin. Quite exciting.”
“I am looking forward to making our love official.” Aldrik squeezed Vhalla’s hand lightly.
Vhalla gave him a small smile. He’d invited her to speak any objections she had to wedding in Norin, but Vhalla had never said a word. Everything had been in such turmoil before their escape from the East that she hadn’t had much time to think on it. By the time she could, it had already cemented in her mind as fact.
“The other lords and ladies I keep in correspondence with are also surprised that you will marry before reclaiming your throne.”
Aldrik obliged the lord, answering his unspoken question. “When I return South, it is to reclaim the home of my forefathers and present my bride with her future home. The Empire Solaris is strong still. Why wait to lay the foundation of the future?”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.” The lord seemed satisfied with the answer, and Vhalla wondered how much of the ways of nobility, ways that had led Aldrik to deciding to wed in Norin, she didn’t understand. “While I realize that the Imperial chapel in the capital may be the preferred place for the ceremony, I am looking forward to a Western wedding. Perhaps a new tradition?” he mused aloud. “Our late princess had her wedding to the Emperor in Norin as well.”
Vhalla stole a look at Aldrik. His face betrayed no change in emotion, but she could almost physically feel him withdraw at the mention of his late mother. Vhalla put her glass down on the table, hardly touched out of solidarity for her betrothed.
“Please excuse me.” She stood. “I am weary from the day’s ride.”
“My lady, allow me to escort you.” Aldrik was on his feet as well, along with the Western lord.
“I’m fine, Aldrik, just tired. Please enjoy the company,” she encouraged.
Vhalla knew he needed to mingle with all the lords. Their Empire depended, in no small part, on their unquestioning loyalty and resources. She also knew, justly or not, that some things were more easily shared between men, and she trusted Aldrik to take advantage of the opportunity.
Despite what she said, Vhalla didn’t retire to her room. She hadn’t had much time alone with Fritz since the East. She found her Southerner curled up in a plush chair by the fireplace in his room.
“You look cozy.” Vhalla shut the door softly behind her.
“Quite cozy. Come join me, Vhal.” Fritz lifted up the edge of his blanket.
She was happy to accept his invitation and wedged herself next to him on the oversized chair. “Cozy indeed. What book did you find?”
“Something awfully boring. A collection of family autobiographies. They’re all talking about how amazing they are.”
Vhalla laughed, flipping through a few pages. She shook her head. “Nobility.”
“Hey now, you’re a noble. Soon to be the noblest of them all.”
Rather than laughing it off as she would any other time, Vhalla paused, studying the fire. “Do you think I will do a good job?”
She blinked at him in shock.
“I know it.” Her friend nudged her playfully. “Don’t doubt yourself.”
“If I do, will you be there to reassure me?”
Vhalla closed the book in her hands, leaning on Fritz’s shoulder. “You’re right, this book is boring. You should tell me a story about you instead.”
“Well, I suppose if the Empress demands a story, she will get one.”
“I’m not the Empress yet.”
“Yet,” he agreed only on that one word. “All right, let’s see . . .” He shifted before settling into a more comfortable position. “When I joined the Tower, I was mostly alone. I didn’t really know how to make friends. I’d always had my sisters, and they had to tolerate me. But, well, you know, our home was far from the village, and my family was nervous about my magic freezing another child or something horrible. So I didn’t have much interaction with other kids.”
Even in the best of cases, like Fritz, magic was still a separating force.
“I was finally around people like me, and I had no idea how to bridge the moat that I had unknowingly dug around myself. Larel took pity on me, after one instruction, and went out of her way to sit with me in the library. For three months we met there at the same time, same table, every day. It was never formally said, but we both knew where we would wait for the other.”