He was radiant, every bit of the leader Vhalla had always known he could be. He was a seedling that had been transplanted from the dirt in his father’s shade and placed in the sun for the first time. He greeted the assembled masses and waved to merchants and lords alike as the Emperor’s company wound its way out the main road. Vhalla witnessed their people finally seeing what she had known all along: he was born for this.
On their way out of the Crossroads, Fritz had his first opportunity to comment on her armor. “Your symbol changed.” Fritz fingered a corner of the cloth that went down to her waist, somewhere between a cape and a cloak with a slit in the front for mobility. It was fixed by the sun and wings at her collarbone. Vhalla touched the new symbol, the same one that was emblazoned in gold on her back.
“I suppose it did.” Vhalla glanced over to Aldrik. He wore a similar garment, though his only had the sun of the Empire on its back.
“Why?” Fritz mused aloud to no one in particular.
“A second wing, because the Windwalker has been born again,” Aldrik answered. “The whole Imperial sun because she will wear this armor after she has formally become my Empress.”
“No longer cutting it in half and pretending it’s not obvious?” Jax grinned.
Aldrik rolled his eyes.
“He has a point,” Elecia teased her cousin. “It’s unlike you, Aldrik, to have given her something so overtly Imperial.”
Vhalla remained silent through the teasing. It hurt. Her friends didn’t mean for it to. But they didn’t know that her watch, the one Aldrik had given her, was gone forever. Judging from the long look Aldrik gave her, he was thinking much the same.
Then the wind shifted and, with it, her Emperor’s expression.
“This is what is obviously Imperial. It’s a new dawn for us both, and she wears my craftsmanship upon her once more,” Aldrik spoke only for her.
“As I should,” Vhalla replied gently.
They set a good pace through the desert. The East-West Way made an easy path from the Crossroads to Norin, and they once more found themselves spending time in the company of lords and ladies along the way. The further West they went, the stronger the culture of old Mhashan became.
Vhalla was on-edge the first time she saw the Western phoenix with a sword in its talons. No one questioned her decision to ride hard into the next day for the next opportunity for shelter. Like the scar on her shoulder, there were some wounds that could be mostly forgotten day to day, with enough time and healing, but would always be tender when probed.
As summer came early to the desert, Vhalla and Fritz used their magic in tandem to keep them from cooking alive in their armor. Fritz applied thin layers of ice atop the metal, which Vhalla’s winds quickly evaporated. At first, they were wet and windswept. But Vhalla and Fritz managed to get the hang of it enough that soon the five of them were not only kept cool, but they were comfortable as well.
The ride progressed without problem, and they woke before the sun on their final day of their ride into Norin. They’d stayed with one of Aldrik’s distant cousins, sending word ahead to Ophain that they were only a few hours from the city proper. Vhalla had wanted to keep pushing, but Aldrik was insistent that certain conventions must be observed, and their arrival would be one of them.
Normal butterflies were replaced by a whole flock of birds in her stomach as the city began to grow around them. Sunlight sparkled over their recently polished armor, and they had all washed properly at the lord’s home before the final leg of the journey. Elecia was all smiles at the idea of returning home, but Jax had grown quieter and quieter as the days progressed.
The man had reduced himself to nothing more than a silent shadow. The lords and ladies along the route had maintained only the bare minimum of etiquette toward the man. A select few treated him with as much respect as the rest of his noble company. However, there was a moment when the lords and ladies first saw his face, a moment where they had to check their reactions at the sight of him.
All thoughts of Jax’s odd mood vanished like pennons flapping in the wind. Sand changed to a more soil-like consistency, and large palms appeared in the growing density of the city. Norin waited before her.
It was a city unlike any she had ever witnessed before, and it had surely been built by giants. The outer wall of Norin was so tall that Vhalla wondered how they had engineered mechanisms to carry stones that high. The houses within the outer wall were constructed of clay and wood, simple structures packed one atop the other in a mission to rival the wall with their height. Vhalla remembered Master Mohned’s history, and she wondered if this was the place that he had grown up. The thought was quickly accompanied by a pang of sorrow at the fact that her master likely met an untimely demise at the hand of Victor.
The inner wall of Norin separated the squalor of the slums from the working and middle classes. At present, men and women lined the streets in the first section of the city; common folk, lords, ladies, merchants, dignities, and all shades between them encroached on Vhalla and Aldrik’s forward progression. Vhalla would have felt uneasy by the mass had they not been happily crying her name alongside Aldrik’s.
They threw rose pedals from rooftops and sent tongues of flame into the sky. They waved small pennons, all crying for her attention. Men, women, children, all reached for those who had returned from the dead to lead them. Vhalla was thankful for the strong legs of the horse beneath her.