The largest sites of food production had to be protected first, alongside Hastan as the head of the East. But there was no choice when it came to sacrificing some smaller towns as a result. It was among the hardest decisions Vhalla had ever made, and she allowed herself to feel pain at it. If she became numb, it would be a disservice to the people whose lives she was deciding.
To save the most lives, more messengers and more reminders were sent to those interested in joining the fight, reminders that they could retreat to Hastan. Vhalla made her will known through letters, sharing with the men and women of the East exactly how and why she was moving them. That it was, indeed, a choice made by the person claiming to be their leader. Vhalla knew she could never accept their loyalty if such facts were ever hidden.
Aldrik fussed over her incessantly. He worried constantly. Vhalla tolerated it, the guilt of Vi’s trade making her oblige Aldrik as recompense for her transgressions against him. But Elecia finally snapped.
The woman began dictating how Aldrik could—and could not—take care of his wife-to-be. She was having none of his doubts over her methods of healing. He finally relented and began running the Empire at Vhalla’s side in earnest.
Jax remained ever present as well, especially when Aldrik disappeared to grant some face time with a prominent lord or lady who ventured to the Crossroads to meet them. Jax’s revelations about his past lingered with Vhalla, but she didn’t give it much thought. There were far bigger concerns facing her than the crimes Jax had committed years ago. She’d sort through it eventually.
Only once had Aldrik pressed for Vhalla to show him where Vi’s curiosity shop had been located. They circled the market several times, but Vhalla couldn’t find the small curtained entrance or anything even remotely resembling it. Her Emperor did his best to hide his frustration, but Vhalla was unbothered. She hadn’t expected to ever encounter Vi again. The woman would only reveal herself on her own terms, not Vhalla’s. And as badly as Vhalla wanted to understand Vi’s actions, she’d felt Vi’s unnatural darkness and the weight of the woman’s eyes seeing more than Vhalla’s physical form too many times to question too deeply. Some things may not be meant to be understood.
The more time that passed, the fuzzier that night became. Vhalla finally stopped fighting it and let the memory hide away into the hazy shadows of the back of her mind. It happened more slowly for Aldrik, but they soon stopped talking about it. By the time a letter from Sehra arrived with the status of the North’s preparations, it had faded away into little more than a dark spot on their journey to Norin.
What had not faded, however, was Vhalla’s elation at regaining her magic. At every opportunity, Vhalla called upon her winds. Things were lifted and pushed, opened and shut. She demanded to sleep with the windows open just to feel the night breathe across her skin.
There was so much to do that the days slipped away from them, and they were late to leave the Crossroads. The last letter they received from Ophain began to question if they had any intention of coming to Norin or if they intended to make the Crossroads their headquarters. Vhalla broached the idea with the Emperor that night.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay?” She pointed to Ophain’s letter.
“Why?” Aldrik glanced up from the other end of the table where he had been working on finalizing troop numbers.
“Because Sehra will bring her army here, to the Crossroads.” Vhalla rummaged, looking over one of the maps that had been marked and crossed one too many times. “If she’s going to start her journey shortly, then we could tell your uncle and the troops from Norin to do the same. They should arrive within days of each other. It would save at least . . . at least two weeks of travel compared to us going to Norin and back.”
“We must wed.” Aldrik paused his quill, giving her his undivided attention.
Vhalla stared at the map for another long moment. She knew he saw it as such, that it was something they must do as a symbol. Even if she was growing more concerned about the timing by the day, Vhalla continued to concede.
“Then we will do it here,” she suggested.
“Are there no Crones who could perform the ceremony in the Crossroads?” She laughed at the ridiculousness of the notion.
“It must be done in the Western Sun Temple in Norin,” Aldrik insisted. “That is where my father wed.”
“Now hardly seems like the time for sentimentality,” she gently pointed out.
“Far from it,” he agreed. “But now is the time for putting on the right display for the lords and ladies, for the world. We are strong, and we do not allow a false king to force us to wed in hiding. Or hint that there is something illegitimate about our union that we should do it in a small chapel on the run.”
“I’m sure we could explain . . . It’s just so much time to lose.”
Aldrik considered it for several slow breaths. Making up his mind on something, he reached forward and grabbed a slip of parchment, beginning to scribble as he spoke, “We shall write to my uncle and tell him a date. We’ll invite the lords and ladies in advance so that the amount of time we must spend before the ceremony is limited to necessary preparations and appearances.”
Vhalla glanced back at the map, thinking of the waste it seemed. “Thank you,” she said finally. It was something.
They replied to Lord Ophain that night with the request of the date along with their promises to depart the Crossroads before he received their reply.