The castle of Norin appeared before them, stretching up in defiance against the sky. In the sunlight, the clay and stone used in the construction seemed to glow scarlet. A red castle that skewered the sky with its flat-topped spires and arched walls. It was set apart from the most affluent section of the city by a wide, dry moat, a single drawbridge spanning the distance.
Vhalla understood how the West had nearly taken a decade to fall.
“My lady.” Aldrik pulled her from her thoughts by offering her his palm.
Vhalla shifted Lightning’s reins into one hand in order to take his hand. In the light of the sun, before all their subjects, the Emperor and future Empress rode together. Vhalla wondered if the people had ever seen the man with a wider smile across his lips.
She doubted it.
A man waited for them at the end of the drawbridge, a man who was the spitting image of Aldrik, plus a few years, gray hairs, and darker skin. The courtyard surrounding the drawbridge entrance was filled to the brim with people, so much so that the newcomers could barely cross. Lord Ophain met them halfway atop his massive War-strider.
“The Emperor Solaris has returned home to the West!” Lord Ophain announced proudly.
“It is my honor to be among so many of my kind once more,” Aldrik replied. Despite being close to each other, they shouted in an attempt for all to hear.
“But you have not come alone.” The lord’s verbal dance for the people’s sake was obvious.
“No.” Aldrik raised their joined hands slightly, putting them on display. Vhalla swallowed any discomfort, reminding herself that this was now her world and her duty. “I have come with the first Windwalker in nearly a century and a half. She is the hero of the North, a lady of two courts, a woman who has not only saved my life countless times but is one whom I have found to be peerless.”
For being a man who had a reputation for not being well loved, Aldrik had a natural talent for working the people into a frenzy. The cries of the masses nearly deafened her as he rose her hand to his mouth, kissing its back.
“I present to you all the woman I have chosen to be your Empress, the Lady Vhalla Yarl!”
After that, all hope for further announcement was lost as the raves for an Imperial wedding drowned out everything. Lord Ophain said a few more things to Aldrik as they began moving once more, but Vhalla couldn’t hear the words. Her free hand had been lost to the outstretched palms of the people surrounding them. They reached for her as though she was the hope by which their lives depended.
Vhalla would do all she could to not let that hope be in vain.
The cries echoed with them as they started down the drawbridge, finally free to move once more. They steered their mounts toward waiting stable hands, who stood immediately within the castle. Aldrik relinquished her hand for his reins once out of sight of the people, and Vhalla breathed a small sigh of relief at no longer being on display. As proud as she was to be his, there were some feelings that Vhalla knew would take time for her to become accustomed to.
“It is truly good to see you, Uncle,” Aldrik said as he dismounted.
“I prayed to the Mother every day for your safe arrival.” The two men briefly embraced as the horses were led away.
“I did not think I would ever have the opportunity to see you again,” Vhalla said as she dismounted and adjusted the cape about her shoulders.
“I confess, there was a time where I, too, was uncertain.” The lord rested both hands on her shoulders in a familial motion. “But I should have known the Mother would not intertwine two people so carefully, only to deny them.” Ophain released her and moved toward the castle. “Now, there is much to be done.”
“We will need to organize a careful timeline,” Aldrik agreed.
“Indeed, but first,” the lord of the West paused and gave a conspiratorial smile to Vhalla, “there is someone who I think very much wishes to see you.”
Vhalla stared at the lord while she mentally reminded her heart to beat. “Where is he?”
“Just up the stairs to the right when you first enter. We’ll all go together.”
She couldn’t wait. Vhalla bounded away as fast as her feet could carry her. Her heart pounded, and she felt dizzy. Every feeling that she had suppressed about her father traveling alone to Norin came rushing to her all at once. She prayed she hadn’t misunderstood the lord’s unspoken meaning about who waited to see her.
Vhalla skidded to a stop at the wide open doors to a parlor. They framed a man who stood looking out over the window at the city below. The trellised glass perfectly framed the street she had just rode upon.
Her father’s Eastern hair and complexion looked odd in the bright colors of Western fashions. She’d never seen him in a vest before, and it fit him so well that it nearly took years off his appearance. The man turned at the sound of the panting woman.
“Papa!” Vhalla cried.
“Little bird.” He didn’t quite share the same shock at her existence as she did for his.
Rex Yarl opened his arms and accepted his daughter—windswept, sun-kissed, sandy, armored—into his embrace. Vhalla held him fiercely, her face pressed into his shoulder. She hugged him as though he would disappear the moment she let go, like nothing more than a wishful illusion.
But he was still there as her arms finally slackened and Vhalla took a step away. Vhalla studied him carefully, looking for the smallest thing amiss. But her father was as he’d always been. Sun-leathered, burnished skin folded around his gentle smile.