“But I can.” Wind swirled around her fingertips. “I can do those things. So if you are truly so worried for the stability of the Empire, then keep Aldrik here. Let me fight alone, and should I die, then let him bear the heir you so desire.”
The three women she’d just met stared at her in dumb shock.
“However . . .” Vhalla couldn’t help a knowing smirk from playing on her lips. “Do tell me if you plan on suggesting such a course to him. For, from what I know of my Aldrik, he will not handle the notion of sitting by while I fight as gracefully as I have endured the reverse suggestion. His reaction to such a thought is a sight I would much enjoy being privy to.”
Vhalla looked between the four women, as if daring one of them to speak an objection. The wind slowly fell from her hands, and Vhalla questioned herself briefly. But only as briefly as a breath. She was the Empress-to-be, and Empresses did not doubt. They were confident and graceful creatures full of knowing smiles and organized secrets. Vhalla would soon be of the same rank as the portrait of the woman at her back.
“But please.” She forced her face to relax and was proud when it fell into a sincere smile. “Do not think I will avoid future counsel.”
“Right,” Tina remarked cautiously as Vhalla proceeded to the next statue.
There were no future suggestions or recommendations on how Vhalla should act as Empress. They were quieter when she spoke and more attentive to her words from then on. Vhalla watched, without fully realizing, as the women from one of the oldest and noble families in the West submitted before her. They never did so physically, but they bent knee long before the others who would come to her throne in the days to follow.
Vhalla shifted in her seat. It was the first time she had sat on a throne—though that was a loose term for where she was now located—and all she could think was how uncomfortable it was. She was positioned at Aldrik’s right hand on a raised platform at the end of a long audience chamber. They sat upon legless chairs with their seats flat on the ground, simple compared to the thrones of the South. But what the furniture lacked in its simplicity, the room made up for in its opulence.
The wall behind them was decorated almost entirely in silver and ruby. It had script covering it that told the story of the very first King of Mhashan, written in the native tongue. The silver crept into the wall to their right, running the length of the room and glinting on the highly polished floors. Columns framed wide openings to their left, overlooking all of Norin—the world that they ruled on display before them.
It was certainly a space that had been designed to evoke humility at the might of the two who sat in the most revered spot. Rather than clashing with it, Vhalla blended in. They had dressed her in the traditional clothing of the West. Shining silks and intricate embroidery turned reds and golds into textile artworks.
On her bottom half was a large and flowing split skirt with a band of red trim. A crimson vest was worn atop a flowing shirt of golden silk, fitted that morning to her measurements. Pearl buttons made a line up the middle of her breastbone to the high collar that extended up towards her ears. Her hair had been coiffed and held in place by a delicate golden band, although it was determined to escape.
Aldrik was dressed in the same fashion, and Vhalla kept glancing at him from the corners of her eyes. He wore loose white trousers and a long-sleeved shirt beneath his own fitted tunic that was decorated in crimson suns. A large red scarf had been wrapped many times over his shoulders and it bore a long tail that he folded and carried expertly over his arm.
He’d easily transitioned from the fitted, modern, military fashions to Mhashan’s traditional garb. Aldrik was poised and relaxed, the small golden crown across his brow making no difference in his dealings with the lords and ladies who came before them. Vhalla had not yet been bestowed a crown of her own.
Vhalla struggled to pay attention as the endless rotation of lords and ladies were ushered in and out of the large silver doors at the far end of the hall. Had the discussion strayed to anything that seemed remotely important, she would’ve been eager to lend her insights and opinions. But, for the most part, Aldrik seemed to be on repeat, and the nobility only varied their script slightly.
The Emperor began by giving a court member his thanks for their unwavering loyalty. The lords and ladies would then humble themselves and offer up some empty compliment or blessing on their union. Aldrik would promise that their loyalty would not be forgotten after the war, and Vhalla would chime in with hopes that their families would maintain positive relationships for years to come.
Repeat, again, and again.
It was a tiresome dance for her. Vhalla understood the necessity on paper, but she had a harder time coming to terms with it in practice. Aldrik had insisted on it late the night before and reiterated it that morning. He explained that there was more than met the eye to what was being done, that it served as a visual display of their power as a unified force. That the process inspired loyalty by discouraging others from being the “odd one out”, which could lead to dissention.
Vhalla hoped that the Knights of Jadar would show their faces. They wouldn’t dare bring Jadar’s armed phoenix into the hall, but Vhalla hoped they felt forced to come and kneel before her. The idea of that satisfaction helped sustain her through the first half of the day and into lunch.
“We should resume soon.” Aldrik had hardly touched his food. He’d been focused on the letters his uncle had given him. Vhalla’s plate looked much the same as she’d been engaged in discussing news from the East and North.