“How many more are there?” she attempted to ask casually.
“Not too many,” Aldrik encouraged.
“You’re certain this is more important than reviewing troops?” Vhalla motioned to the letters.
“I am.” The Emperor stood. “My uncle can review the letters and help the East, but he cannot sit for us in the audience hall.”
“It is my honor to see the East protected,” Ophain encouraged.
“Thank you.” Vhalla relented with a tired smile.
“Endure this a little longer.” Aldrik stopped her before they crossed the threshold back into the public chambers. “I have something special for you when we finish.”
“Yes, assuming my aunt granted my wishes of not taking you to the castle library.” Aldrik removed his crown and adjusted his hair, soothing any fly-aways from its slicked-back perfection.
“I wondered how long you could keep it from me,” Vhalla teased.
“Not very long, clearly.” He cupped her cheek, caressing it with his thumb. “Would it please you?”
“How is that even a question?”
They shared a knowing grin and were off again. Vhalla continued to dutifully play her part as both future leader and respecting wife. Some of the friendlier noblemen specifically asked her questions, and Aldrik remained silent so that Vhalla could establish herself as their Empress. Unsurprisingly, he later had critiques on her approach.
She listened as dutifully as possible, but the second dust and parchment hit her nose, all hope was lost. The library was at the top of the castle, not far from the hall that held their quarters. Vhalla clutched Aldrik’s arm in heart-pounding anticipation. But nothing could have prepared her for one of the most beautiful sights she’d ever seen.
The hexagon extended upward five floors, managing to be both intimate and expansive. Blood red carpet covered the usual hardwoods of the West, muffling her footfalls. The furniture was a mix of lower Western styles for lounging and higher Southern styles for studying. Two fireplaces crackled opposite each other, filling the bottom level with warmth and an inviting glow. Flame bulbs carried the glow upward, positioned on the six red beams that stretched up through the rows of bookcases at each of the hexagon’s points. A massive iron chandelier lit the upper two floors and washed the room in a pleasant ambient light.
Despite the library’s size, each shelf was crammed full. Narrow walkways outlined each level, giving access to the plethora of knowledge. Vhalla tried to assess how many books this library contained in comparison to the library in the Southern capital, and added the two together to gage the size of the entire Imperial collection.
“Do you like it?”
Vhalla didn’t know if her head spun from the wondrousness of it all or his voice rumbling at her back. “It is amazing.”
“And it is all yours.” His hands smoothed over the silk covering her shoulders.
Vhalla felt like a princess. It hit her all at once. Like a fairytale come true. She was garbed in foreign finery, revered as nobility, preparing to marry the Emperor. It was more than she could’ve ever dreamed—and it had come at a cost that was far greater than she could’ve ever imagined.
“Mine,” she repeated softly.
“Every book in our Empire will belong to you. It will be your choice if you share them or keep them.” He intertwined his fingers with hers, beginning to lead her up a side stair.
“Knowledge should always be shared,” Vhalla decreed thoughtfully.
“I don’t know if I agree.” He surprised her as they rounded the second stair. Aldrik continued, “If we could have kept the knowledge of the caverns from Egmun, Victor would have never known to pursue them.”
“But,” Vhalla followed his logic, “if I had known the full truth about the caverns from the start, I may have done some things differently.”
“A fair point,” he conceded.
All talk on the failures of the past and what knowledge—or the lack of—had wrought ceased as Aldrik led her through a small door wedged between bookcases. Vhalla blinked against the bright unfiltered sunlight in contrast to the dim light of the library. A wave of heat hit her cheeks, followed by the quiet whispers of wind through leaves. A familiar scent greeted her nose.
Her senses adjusted, and Vhalla took in the garden before her. It was familiar, yet different, from the smaller glass greenhouse in the Southern palace where she had read with Aldrik. This was its own room, tucked into the walls of the castle tower. Glass replaced stone on two of the walls and above. Roses, giant and beautiful, wound up trellises that arched over the pathway cutting through the modestly sized space.
“This way.” Aldrik hooked her arm, offering no further explanation.
Vhalla was well aware of where they were. It was as though the wind itself here had been trapped by time, weighted in the scent of roses. There was the hum of magic around them, different and yet so very similar to the man who was leading her toward a marble obelisk. The figure of a woman sat atop it, a ruby sun at her back. She recognized it from a dream of Aldrik’s she’d viewed so long ago.
“This was her garden,” Vhalla stated.
“It was.” Aldrik looked only momentarily surprised at Vhalla’s ability to piece together where he had taken her. “My father proposed to her here, asking the youngest of three princesses to take a throne that she was never meant to have.”