Shortly after, Aldrik started the task of making them new armor. It was a good distraction from the worry that blossomed in her chest by the fact that Lord Ophain had yet to make any mention of her father. Vhalla kept her fears in check and her hands busy with helping Aldrik in the smithy. Just like she couldn’t allow Jax’s presence to distract her, she couldn’t allow fears over her kin to distort her priorities. Her father would be all right, she assured herself. He’d been a soldier once and knew how to handle himself. There was nothing else for her to believe.
Vhalla’s first experience with the craftsman habits of her Emperor was enlightening. Aldrik tested and felt each piece of steel before he began working with it—he was nothing if not particular. Not one smelter denied him, naturally, and he was finally satisfied with his base materials.
They worked together to make flames hotter than he could alone. Aldrik worked in simple clothes, and Vhalla appreciated the look of the man with his hair pulled back from his face and soot rubbed into his nose. It was an elegant orchestration of their magic, but it was one that held melancholy notes. Had they still been Bonded, his flames wouldn’t hurt her and they could’ve been far less careful. His magic was no longer in her, but there was still something different about it. Vhalla knew it like an old friend. She recognized every spike, every subtle flux in his power and could account for it.
They were not Bound, but they were not separate either. They had become something new yet again.
Aldrik finished the armor the day before they were set to leave. He put on the final touches alone while Vhalla spent the day bidding farewell and reaffirming the loyalty of the lords and ladies in and around the Crossroads. When she returned to the room that night, the matching sets waited on stands. Aldrik smoothed over portions with his thumbs, unable to stop working the metal.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked, finally.
Vhalla tilted her head. Sitting cross-legged on one of the chaises, she studied the pieces on the stands. Something was off, and it took her too long to put her finger on what it was. “The color.”
“You don’t like it?” Aldrik sat down at her side.
“It’s not that I don’t like it.” Vhalla struggled with how to encapsulate her feelings.
The armor was indeed lovely, very identical in craftsmanship and style to her prior suit with some additional embellishments. Smaller shoulder pauldrons matched his, gold detailing lining their edges. The scales were more angled, giving it a sharper and stronger look. The outer steel had been layered with an alloy that shone white, setting off the gold detailing—like the pair of wings that sat with a sun in their center at the armor’s collar.
He laughed, but it sounded forced. “White is the Imperial color.” The man was nervous by her reaction.
Vhalla knew he understood her statement, but she played along. “You’ve never worn white, on anything.”
“That’s not true,” he objected.
“I’m not counting in private,” she hastily clarified. “Why not black?”
“Because—” He paused, abandoning the quick remark he’d been readying. Aldrik turned back to the two suits of armor and took a deep and slow breath. “Because that time is over.
“I need to lead my people—our people. I must be someone they look to, and I must look like that person.” Aldrik waged an internal battle with the armor. “I have no more family, so I am no longer a black sheep. I no longer have my life overshadowed by my father’s missions and visions for his Empire. I cannot afford to let a personal tantrum, or bitterness, distance me from the subjects whose trust I so need. I need their loyalty, and I would rather earn that through admiration than fear.”
He peeled his eyes away from the simple thing that had caused him so much introspection. He looked to her, and the man still managed to look uncertain at the exact moment that Vhalla thought he had attained clarity. He was no longer a wildfire burning with rage. He was now the fires of the forges he’d stoked. He burned for a purpose and remained focused on that singular goal.
Vhalla rested her hand on his, initiating touch for the first time since the night she had traded with Vi. Aldrik’s eyes darted over her face. It had been so long since she was nervous around him that the butterflies in her stomach were awkward, though not unwelcome. She reached up to touch the face of the man she adored, to pull it toward her. To hook his chin and guide his lips to where they belonged—against hers.
Delicate exploration paid quick dividends as a breathless chorus filled the room when they pulled apart. Neither of them were ready yet, Vhalla realized, to be as intimate as they had once been. But the fact that something was still there, given all that had happened, the fact that he was still capable of wanting her and that her body had not forgotten how to want, it returned to them a level of closeness that had been woefully missing.
For the first time in nearly two weeks, the Emperor and Empress slept peacefully through the night—completely folded in the other’s arms.
Despite knowing the armor’s color and the reasoning behind it, nothing could have prepared Vhalla for the next morning when Aldrik strapped himself into it for the first time. His hair was combed back and his helm had been attached to a saddlebag so that the people could see him on their ride out. Vhalla did the same, following his lead in their departure from the Crossroads.