“Well, I didn’t know it was him for the longest time.” Vhalla smiled faintly at the memory of their first notes exchanged. “I called him a phantom then.”
“He did have a liking for all things dark,” Lilo agreed. “Though he seems to have finally taken to the color of his station.”
“The color doesn’t matter.” Vhalla strolled onward as she mused. “Underneath it all, he will always be Aldrik, the man who was born to lead us.”
“And . . .” Tina stepped into Vhalla’s personal space. Her voice dropped to a hush, glancing pointedly at the guards positioned at the far ends of the room. “Do you know clearly what that is? What lies underneath the clothes he wears?”
“What?” Vhalla spun, frowning up at the much taller woman. Elecia sniggered, and Vhalla felt a flush on her cheeks. All hope of denial was gone, and Vhalla shot her friend a frustrated glare.
“My dear.” Tina wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pushing Vhalla along to the next painting. “Do not be shy. We have our suspicions already. Your secrets are safe with us.”
“We would never hurt our little Aldrik.” Lilo linked her arm with Vhalla’s open one, effectively pinning her between the two sisters. “Remember, he’s all we have left of our sister.”
They stopped at a large portrait, and Vhalla’s breath caught in her throat. The woman sat, swathed in an Imperial white robe with a golden trim. A crimson shawl about her shoulders pooled on the floor. One hand held a mote of flame, the other a golden scepter with a sun at the top. The fire that lived in her eyes existed beyond death and time. It was complemented by a familiar curl at the corners of her mouth, betraying an air of confidence that could easily border on arrogance. Angular eyes and high cheekbones were framed by long black hair that fell under her shoulders unbound.
The woman looked like authority incarnate. She looked as though she could kill the person who stood before her—or save them for a heaven that man had never known. She was everything Vhalla would have expected Aldrik’s mother to be, and more.
“Would she have liked me?” Vhalla murmured, the thought escaping her mind as a quiet musing.
“For what you have done for her son, she would have loved you,” Lilo answered before Tina could.
“She looks just like him.” Vhalla realized that Aldrik was already older than the woman in the painting. That idea carried a new weight to his mother’s death. Vhalla was nearly the age at which his mother had died.
“The Ci’Dan blood is strong,” Tina said proudly. “I am sure your children will look much like him also.”
Vhalla couldn’t speak. She grabbed her shirt above her stomach where a phantom pain rippled through her at the thought. Elecia looked on with silent concern as Vhalla struggled to find the right words. She’d already failed once; she had traded the future where an heir was assured. Now she carved her own path, and no one knew what that may hold.
“Do not be nervous, dear!” Lilo sensed the right emotion but for the wrong reasons.
“Listen to my sister,” Tina agreed. “After all, your greatest duty will be producing an heir.”
“What?” Vhalla freed herself of the women’s grips so she could read their facial expressions. She’d always known such to be a fact of their union. But, her greatest duty?
“Surely, Aldrik has spoken on it . . . As soon as you are wed, you will need to bear him an heir.”
“After the war,” Vhalla whispered.
“That won’t do.” Tina shook her head and spoke as though she was leading a child into the world for the first time. “We live in uncertain times. You will need to leave the fighting in the South to him and the armies.”
“But—” Vhalla wasn’t even allowed protest.
“If he dies, the Solaris name will then live on. You can rule in his stead until the heir is of age,” Tina continued. No matter how much love she spoke of her nephew, the words rang heartless. “This will ensure the future stability of the Empire. We can keep you safe here as you bring the child to term.”
“No.” Vhalla repeated herself before the softness in her objection could be mistaken for weakness, “No.”
“Vhalla, this is—”
“This is for the best? Is that what you will tell me?” Vhalla stared intently at Aldrik’s aunt and, for once, the woman held her tongue. “Forgive me, but you know nothing about our history—not really. So I am uninclined to entertain your opinions. Separating me from Aldrik has only ever led to heartbreak and misfortune.”
Vhalla paused, choosing to speak another truth, a deeper truth. “I may be a woman and I may be his lady, but I am capable of doing something that even he cannot. It is something beyond crowns and titles, and it cannot be given or passed along.” Vhalla stood tall with the portrait of Aldrik’s mother at her back.
“Aldrik can produce an heir with any woman who is healthy and of age. He can share the seed of the Empire so long as that one functional requirement is met. He cannot bring down the tyrant which spills the blood of our people. He cannot touch crystals as I can. He does not know them as I do. He has not been taken to the Father’s halls and brought back for the purpose of saving this world, of breaking the vortex that spins outward from the Crystal Caverns. He cannot destroy the monster that has been wrought from greed and put an end to it once and for all.