“You made it.” She beamed from ear to ear. “You made it before the gate. You’re here, in Norin!”
“Did you ever doubt me?” Rex said with mock offense.
“Of course not.” Vhalla shook her head and allowed herself to fully believe her own half-truth. “How long ago did you arrive?”
“Not too long before you.” He motioned to a large recessed area before the hearth. “I hoped to be a pleasant surprise.”
Vhalla took in the room for the first time. The hearths were decorated in mosaic tile and precious gems that went from floor to ceiling and lined the bottoms of the wooden beams that broke up the clay ceiling. The floors were wooden and stained a deep red. Their polish picked up the silver accents throughout the space.
“Papa, you’re limping!” Her attention was quickly restored to her father the moment they started for the sitting area.
“What happened?” Vhalla asked, concern lacing every word as she unnecessarily helped her father sit.
“Oh, I was clumsy.” He laughed the laugh she so loved. “I made it all the way to Norin without problem only to slip on some stairs and bend my ankle oddly.”
Vhalla rolled her eyes and collapsed down next to him. She avoided the lush fabrics of the pillows and blankets in the sitting space and instead chose the hard wood around it. Her armor was likely to snag on fine fabric and her boots would grind in dust so fine it would be impossible to get out.
“You should be more careful,” she scolded, starting on the clips of her cape. “What if you really hurt yourself? You would’ve had me worrying the whole time while I was here.”
“And the last thing I want you doing is worrying during your wedding,” her father interjected.
Vhalla paused and time stopped. Her father had known about her and Aldrik in the East. But something had changed; the way he looked at her now was completely different from any gaze her father had given her before.
Rex picked up her discarded cape thoughtfully. His fingers ran over the emblem of the sun reverently even as he folded it. Her father, the soldier, he’d been the one to instill in her the deep concern and reverence for their Empire and those who stood as its figureheads. Now she had become a person her father would always look to.
It was an odd reversal from the man whom Vhalla had always admired.
“You looked like an Empress out there, little bird.” There was a note in her father’s voice that made Vhalla’s heart want to break.
“It was what she was born to do,” a voice as dark as midnight slid across the room in agreement.
Vhalla turned. Aldrik and Ophain had finally caught up. Elecia was in their company as well and stood beside a woman Vhalla assumed easily was Elecia’s mother. The woman had the exact same rich shade of darkened skin and beautifully curled hair that seemed to defy gravity in its brilliance.
Bringing up the last of the nobility were two more women. They both had straight dark hair and piercing black eyes. One was shorter and carried a little more weight on her form. She wore her hair cut at the shoulders with a side-swept fringe. The other was tall, but sturdy—much like Aldrik’s build—and had a long thick braid running down her back. Vhalla knew who they were without the need for introduction. Their high cheekbones and thin lips marked them of the Ci’Dan stock. Aldrik’s aunts.
“Let me help you.” Aldrik sat next to Vhalla as the rest of the company assumed places around the perimeter of the sitting area before the hearth. His fingers deftly reached for the clips that were in hard to reach places, allowing Vhalla to shed her metal skin.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Yarl,” Elecia’s mother said, breaking the short silence on behalf of the group.
“Likewise, Lady . . .”
“Ioine,” the woman finished for her with a bright smile. “Though no title is necessary.”
“Then I must ask the same, just Vhalla.”
“Are you certain?” The woman had an easy elegance about her. It was quickly apparent who Elecia modeled herself after.
“Of course. We are to be family.” Vhalla put the matter to rest with that simple truth.
“Family, indeed,” added the woman with the braid, as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Vhalla struggled to assess if the motion was hostile, skeptical, or merely curious. “I apologize; I’ve not yet caught your names.”
“I am Lilo.” The younger woman smiled wide enough to make up for her sister’s blank expression.
“An honor to meet you both.” Vhalla gave a small nod of her head in respect. It didn’t matter that she would be the Empress in a short turn of the moon. These women were Western princesses. They had been commanding respect for decades before Vhalla was even alive.
“We have heard much about you.” Tina was as expressionless as Aldrik was when Vhalla had first met him.
“I can only imagine.” Vhalla didn’t let her voice waver. The woman was trying to intimidate her, and Vhalla was determined to disappoint her in that endeavor.
“There is good reason why the West has not had much surprise regarding your betrothal,” Tina spoke as castle help entered the room to serve dark Western tea and rice pressed into shapes. “The Western court has been rampant with talk over the woman who not only earned the first crimson proclamation in years but also earned the prince’s heart.