Crystal Crowned

Page 71

“These are your kin.” She motioned to the whole continent. Vhalla looked at the assembled lords and ladies, most of which were twice her age and possibly had three times her experience on the field. Almost all had olive-hued skin and darker Northern tones. She had to speak to her audience and make them understand. “Each of you are part of this Empire. I witnessed every person in this room kneel before our Emperor and swear your lives and your futures to his hand. He is not your Western King, but our Emperor. Your brothers and sisters are here in the West as much as they are in the South, East, and North. If you truly believe that the West looks after its own, then that should extend to all those under the light of Solaris.”

Vhalla glanced at Aldrik from the corners of her eyes. He’d let her lead through the majority of the exchange, as he had done when it came to anything involving the East. But his expression was difficult to read.

“I want to assure you that I understand the sacrifices war can, and will, demand of those engaged in the bloody business. I know that not everyone can be saved.” Vhalla tapped on the map. “But I will not stand by and allow lives to be written off carelessly—no matter where those lives are—because it is more convenient when it is not a place that you were born into.”

“Bleeding heart Easterner,” someone mumbled.

“Out,” Aldrik snapped suddenly. Given the fiery stare he was giving one particular major, Vhalla suspected he knew the source of the insult.

“My Emperor, I—”

“Out.” Aldrik’s voice took on a dangerous quiet that Vhalla knew well. “I will not have you speaking to my intended that way.”

“Aldrik,” Vhalla interjected. “It’s all right.”

“Vhalla, he should not be permitted to say such to you.” His eyes darted between her and the major.

“If he is to say such things, then let him say it where my ears can hear, rather than as a coward behind my back.” Vhalla spoke loudly enough for the table to hear, only pretending to be speaking to Aldrik. “But I want him to stay so that he knows I ask nothing of him that I am not prepared to give myself. I will protect the East, South, West, and North as though they are all my family. I only ask the same of those I fight with.”

Vhalla appreciated the few nods of approval she received. The man in question had the sense to look at least moderately ashamed by his outburst. Under the table, Vhalla felt long fingers curl around hers in support.

“Shall we continue?” she prompted the group.

“The question remains, how to manage our troops?” Another major pointed back to the map.

“We can send some additional aid to the East; granted, it will weaken our own borders.”

“If we spread these out here,” Aldrik moved some red soldiers along the West’s southern line, “it should give enough to spare.”

Vhalla stared at the black figures indicating Victor’s forces. They were fewer, but they were spread wide, and growing. Every time a soldier fell, Victor leveraged the corpse by turning it into a crystal-walking abomination. Vhalla tried to put herself in the mind of the madman: what would he do next?

“If we move those troops, we can expect at least these two towns to fall.” Another set of hands moved the pieces.

“We could send some from Norin,” another suggested.

“No, he will likely make an attempt on the Imperial wedding.” The idea was shot down. “What’s the word on the North?”

“The North is just now marching. Princess Sehra has moved ahead to show her support for our union, but the main forces will not reach the Crossroads until just before we are set to arrive,” Aldrik answered.

“We’re keeping troops here for the wedding?” Vhalla thought aloud, her introspective considerations slowing her response.

“Certainly,” Aldrik responded. “It is a public affair. There should be little doubt that Victor knows of our pending nuptials, and he will use it as an opportunity to strike us down or remove all joy from the people’s symbol of the continuing Empire.”

You are a symbol. Baldair’s words from long ago returned to her, and Vhalla loathed them. She was tired of being a symbol. Symbols were stagnant, frozen, representative, and spurring of action but never the action itself.

Vhalla looked at the map with new eyes. They were playing the part that was expected of them by nobility, and while they did, they were a predictable target for their enemy. The wedding kept troops from moving.

“This could be the chance for us to strike first,” she said suddenly.

“What?” Aldrik spoke the surprise of the table.

“Victor expects us to be rendered immobile for the ceremony. It makes more sense for him to use the wedding as an opportunity to pick off half our forces spread across the Empire than strike us directly.” Vhalla moved some of the dark wooden sculptures and tokens along the East and pushed them into the West.

“However, if we attack in force now, when he least expects it . . .” She quickly shifted their tokens of war, pushing them down through the Southern border and into the weak point of Victor’s army at the bottom of the West. “We can move before he has time to react. We can punch a hole straight for the capital.”

“We cannot change the date of the wedding now.” Aldrik turned to her. “There are still arrangements to finalize, lords and ladies who have yet to arrive.”

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