Vhalla attempted to push her resentment for the former Emperor aside. In some ways, he was like her original perceptions of the North. Vhalla had a very limited scope as to who the late Emperor Solaris really was. She’d known him during the final years of his life, the point in time where all he’d seemed to covet was his Empire and his legacy.
But perhaps—behind the weathered, bearded, and scarred face of the Emperor she knew—there had been a young man. A man who had been as attractive as Aldrik. Vhalla saw a woman who was tall, given Aldrik’s family’s propensity to height, looming over a kneeling Emperor. She would make him wait, in Vhalla’s vision. The late Princess Fiera would be one to smile coyly and keep her true wants hidden just long enough to make the man tremble, to remind him that she was in control.
“They must have loved each other very much.”
“So my family tells me.” Aldrik didn’t look anywhere but his mother’s face. “My father took rose clippings and had them transported South for her so that she would feel at home.”
“A garden she never saw,” Vhalla thought sadly.
“My father told me once that he was still glad for building it. That it helped my mother live on. Though, eventually, I think it caused him more hurt than anything.”
“So you took up the mantle of tending to it.” Vhalla reflected on Aldrik’s story, on the history that she had, for so long, barely understood surrounding his family. His mother had given up ever seeing that garden, ever spending time in it, for the sake of saving her son from madmen.
Vhalla’s eyes met the statue’s once more, and she wished she could speak with the woman whose visage she now looked upon. Vhalla understood what had compelled Aldrik’s mother to run to the caverns that night, and it was something they now shared across time and life and death. She had known a truth about the world. Be it of her own insight or of some unknown guidance—like a Firebearer named Vi—Aldrik’s mother had known what the caverns could reap.
It would stop with her, Vhalla vowed. She would end the cycle that they were trapped within, enslaved to the Caverns across time and generations. It would all end with her.
Over the next week, Vhalla tolerated the audiences with the lords and ladies with poise. She smiled and said the expected words, doing what was now the dance of her station. It began to pay off in the war councils that were held in the evening.
She was discovering how strong the West really was and how deep old Mhashan’s pockets ran. Vhalla began to ransack the library for records of famous noble families and began keeping a list of their names, which she reviewed at night. By day, she would smile wide and loudly praise lords and ladies from these houses. Unsurprisingly, it became just that much easier to secure promises for supplies for the war and checks to be cashed when it came time to rebuild the Empire.
Aldrik must have pieced together what she was doing, but he made no comment against it. In the language of the Emperor, his silence was as good as resounding approval. So when the Le’Dan family appeared on their docket for the morning, Vhalla knew she was about to deal with the second oldest family in the West, the only name to rival power against the Ci’Dans.
“I am sure Richard will have much to say regarding your union.” Ophain passed the list of appearances for the day back to Aldrik.
“I’m familiar with how that family operates. You forget that my brother kept a Le’Dan on his guard,” Aldrik replied.
She’d overlooked it. Vhalla had known Erion’s last name, but she’d been so wrapped up in everything else. Her spoon paused on the plate, shuffling her food like the thoughts in her head.
“My Emperor.” A thought had occurred to her. “Let me lead the meeting with the Le’Dans.”
Ophain and Aldrik both gave her shifting stares. Their expressions went from startled, to surprised, to intrigued.
“I’ve been listening,” she explained. “I know what to say and what to do. And I think it would be wise.”
“Why so?” Aldrik didn’t seem to be objecting.
“Because your family holds bad blood with them. Whereas I doubt the Le’Dan name has any distaste for clan Yarl.” Vhalla grinned slyly and was given a similar expression in return from Aldrik. “Beyond that, in the North, Erion said his family stood with the Windwalker. Given light of recent events, I want to be the one to talk to them.”
Comprehension raised Aldrik’s brows a fraction. The Golden Guard had been entrusted to protect her alongside the crown. She wanted to be the one to apologize for the death of their son. She needed to be.
“Very well. You shall lead.”
The contents of Vhalla’s stomach mirrored a spinner’s wheel all morning. Every lord and lady that was marched in was one closer to the Le’Dans. She was just thankful they were the last before lunch, otherwise Vhalla was certain that she wouldn’t have been able to eat a thing.
“The Lords Richard and Erion, accompanied by Lady Cara Le’Dan,” the doorman at the end of the hall announced.
Vhalla was on her feet.
“Vhalla—” Aldrik hissed.
She didn’t hear. All she saw was the doors swing open. A man she didn’t recognize stood alongside a pretty Southern woman. Vhalla’s eyes widened at the cane-wielding soldier standing to the man’s right.
“Erion!” Her slippers made no sound as Vhalla sprinted across the length of the hall. She threw her arms around his waist and pulled him in for a tight embrace, her momentum nearly toppling the unsuspecting and unsteady lord.