“And then,” she continued. “It was rampant with the Knights of Jadar howling foul against that same woman. Crying wrongs against them. You can see how it could be difficult to know what to think.”
“Actually, I cannot.” The woman arched a dark eyebrow at Vhalla’s remark. “I would think that you should know exactly what to think of anyone who displeased the Knights of Jadar. Those who have so wrongfully cast aside your noble lineage in exchange for madness and fools’ missions.”
The corners of Tina’s mouth tensed briefly. Vhalla would have missed it had she not just spent years of her life breaking down the subtle mannerisms of the most private man in the Empire. Acceptance flashed across her face as she reveled in the momentary amusement Vhalla had provided her.
“Speaking of families and upsetting the Knights of Jadar,” Lord Ophain interrupted as he set his glass aside with a chuckle, “we have a wedding to plan. The false king’s seat has been successfully thrown into question with our current successes against his forces and the truth that both of you live. To meet your aggressive date, there are quite a few details to be formalized.”
“I think a wedding will be just what the people need,” Lilo chimed in brightly. “Take their minds off decay and death, and give them a reason to be happy. Your wedding will be such a joyous reminder that the sun still burns brightly.”
“Speaking of, let us show you our home, Lady Yarl.” Tina stood. “This is not where the ceremony would be, but the audiences leading up to the wedding and the revelries following would occur within these halls. You should know the place that is to become your home as well.”
“A wonderful idea, sister!” Lilo was on her feet as well. “Then we can show you your chambers, as I’m sure you’re tired from the day’s ride.”
“Very well.” Vhalla would agree to anything if she felt it would make things go faster. Her wedding was evolving into more of a chore than she’d ever expected. Every mention of it brought back memories of the decisions she had to make about the East’s defense. Her people were dying and she was planning a party. “Father, would you like to come?”
“Leave the men to chat,” Tina spoke before her father had a chance.
Elecia and Ioine stood as well at the subtle command.
Vhalla raised her chin and looked the Western woman in the eye for a long, hard moment. She had just reunited with her father after fearing for his life. Being told to dismiss him didn’t sit well with Vhalla, and the words slipped her lips before she could stop them. “Father, would you like to join me as they show me the castle?” Vhalla asked again slowly, ignoring Tina’s order.
Aldrik tore his eyes away from the exchange, hiding his face in the process. Vhalla could’ve sworn she saw a satisfied smile escaping across his mouth.
“My ankle still pains me,” her father refused gently. “Plus, I have had a few days to explore. You enjoy it now.”
“Take dinner with me later.” Vhalla knelt to kiss both her father’s cheeks. “I want to catch up with you.”
“I won’t refuse that, little bird.”
“Good, I didn’t want to have to beg you,” she teased lightly.
“Enjoy the home of my forefathers.” Aldrik caught her hand, holding it for a long moment before relinquishing her once more. His eyes shifted to his eldest aunt. “Do not show her the library.”
“There’s a library?” Vhalla gasped.
“Call me selfish.” His mouth curled into an irresistible and utterly unapologetic smirk. “Take care of her, Aunt Tina.”
“Yes, my Emperor.” Tina revealed the most expression Vhalla had seen from her when the woman referred to Aldrik as such.
Vhalla was led out of the room, with Elecia and her mother following. She barely contained a belated eye roll at the thought of Tina’s previous suggestion. Perhaps outlawing the notion of “words amongst men” would be her first decree as Empress. As far as Vhalla had ever experienced, men and women spoke the same words and there was no reason why men couldn’t say certain things in her presence.
Her ire quickly faded to awe as she marveled at every wonder the castle held. In the richness of its history, the home of Mhashan’s ruling family rivaled the palace in the Southern capital. In architecture and art, they could not be more different. There were countless rooms to sit and lounge within. Steel rang out on steel from well-fitted training grounds. Hundreds of years of history were packed into every hall.
“How did you and Aldrik meet?” Tina asked as they strolled through a large room of statues and paintings.
“Through notes in a book,” Vhalla answered vaguely. She tried to make a show of studying the sculpture before her to avoid further questioning. It didn’t work.
The woman arched a dark eyebrow. “Notes in a book?”
Vhalla briefly wondered if the ability to do so was passed down in the family or if they were tutored in it. She’d seen Aldrik give her the same inquisitive look countless times. Her palm rested on her lower stomach without thought. Would their children make such a look?
“They were notes that were ultimately of help to him.” Vhalla didn’t want to give up much more than that, as the thought of their lost Bond hurt. “He reached out to me after that.”
“That was forward and most unlike our nephew.” Tina may as well have screamed that she suspected there was more to Vhalla’s story than she was being told.