“Did he—does he—feel sorry for it?” Fritz asked.
“Somewhat,” Elecia conceded.
“Why does he lie about it?” Vhalla quickly corrected herself, “Or tell half-truths.”
“To save her memory.” Elecia looked out the window, avoiding eye-contact for what may have been the first time in her life. The woman’s voice was soft, almost gentle, contemplative. “He loved her deeply, and he would rather endure people scorning him than try to clear his name at the cost of letting the world know how she had been violated. And the only one who knows the real truth of what happened that night is Jax; he’s the only one alive to tell the tale. The rest of us who know certainly won’t violate his trust by doing so.”
“Do you believe him?” Fritz stole the words out of Vhalla’s mouth.
“I do.” Elecia returned physically and mentally to the group. “When I first found out, I went to Aldrik, who pointed me to Erion. He told me how Jax had hand-picked through the char for her bones, carrying them in a box along with his confession, begging for a proper Rite of Sunset.”
“What would you do if you were me?” Vhalla outright asked Elecia. She didn’t bother explaining herself further because she knew she didn’t really need to; Elecia’s expression told her as much. The woman was smart; she knew full well the power and nobility that Vhalla was marrying into.
“I am not you, Vhalla Yarl,” Elecia said after a long second of contemplation. “I have grown up in a world of rules and regulations. I have been taught what can and cannot be done from the moment I could speak my first word.
“You, you are not so chained. And so you see the world with eyes that I could never have. You have hopes that no one else would allow themselves to even dream of.” Elecia gave the tiniest of smirks. “Forgive me, but I wish not to sway your actions in this matter. I want to see what you will do. I want to know what kind of Empress you will be.”
I want to know what kind of Empress you will be.
The words repeated, again and again, in Vhalla’s mind the closer the wedding neared. She would be Empress. There was no more denying, dodging, or burying the fact under obligation. Her calendar soon became filled with as many wedding planning details as it was with audiences and war councils, and it drove her mad.
At least with the audiences, Vhalla could smile through the necessities knowing that she was working toward strengthening their army. When it came to picking one fabric or another for a dress, Vhalla couldn’t care less. She felt as though it did nothing but take her away from actually being useful.
It put Vhalla on edge, and her annoyed, frayed nerves didn’t do anyone any favors.
“What do you mean, we can’t do anything?” She couldn’t stop the words, just like she couldn’t keep herself from glaring at the map before her.
The continent was covered in multi-colored figures, each representing civilians, military, Victor’s forces, and just about every other factor that could be an influence in the happenings of the world. It reminded her of all the times she had mentally thought of nobility as a game. Well, now the pieces were spread out before her.
“It simply doesn’t make sense,” a lord answered. Vhalla had forgotten his name already, and she could imagine quite a few colorful titles to fill in the blank.
“We are to just ignore them? To forfeit? That is no small portion of the East. Victor’s hold will go from a quarter to nearly half.”
“But they are just farmers; they don’t offer anything with regards to military strength or stalling the false king’s army. They are already lost,” a different major remarked, almost casually. It wasn’t until her sharp inhale and cold stare that he realized where he had just placed his foot.
“Forgive me, major.” Vhalla tried to keep her voice even. She did not want to sound like a petulant child, but a noble lady. “They are certainly not just farmers.”
“Lady Yarl, I did not mean to offend you or any of your noble kin.” He gave a small bow of his head.
Vhalla wanted none of it. His fake sincerity was as valuable to her as coal in the face of diamonds.
“Very well. Lord Ophain,” Vhalla began boldly, pointing to the West’s border with the South. “If I understand your major’s logic correctly, then these towns should be considered lost.”
“M-my lady!” the major balked.
“They are just some mining towns, no?” Vhalla knew the West’s terrain by now like the back of her hand. She could possibly list more cities and towns than even some of the nobles in the room. So she continued, not letting her rhetorical question hang too long. “Do they offer anything to our military strength?” The twenty or so nobles around the table were silent. “Then let us pull back any defense that is currently there.”
“That is the West!” Another joined the conversation with his impassioned declaration. “The West protects its own. I will not stand for this.”
“And neither will I.” Vhalla silenced the murmurings of the table, her words quick as a whip. “It’s easier if it is not your own kin; I understand that truth.” Vhalla paused, staring at the map for a long hard moment. “But the real truth is this.”
She plucked a quill from an inkwell and began to cross out and scribble over the lines on the map between the East, West, South, and North. Vhalla triumphantly retuned the writing instrument to its place. She smiled briefly at the map that the majority of the room now considered ruined.