“We can do something small, say our vows and be done.” The war was more important than a grand ceremony. “Or, we could even keep up the wedding for appearances, making our attack even more of a surprise.”
“Vhalla, there are certain expectations,” he replied with a careful glance at those assembled. “The ceremony is not an option.”
“I am sorry, but I did not realize my wedding was dictated by the nobility of the realm,” Vhalla snapped. Aldrik’s eyes widened slightly, and her face instantly relaxed, apologetic. She hadn’t meant to be so sharp, not to him.
“My lords and ladies, please excuse us a moment.” Aldrik’s eyes didn’t leave hers as the entire room shuffled out, leaving the Emperor and Empress alone. “Vhalla, what are you doing?”
“Aldrik, it makes perfect sense.” She motioned to her play with the tokens on the map. “This is an advantage; it’s a chance at deception. If we wait, Victor will only become stronger, and we’ll be playing into his expectations.”
“In theory.” Aldrik spoke before she had finished exhaling the last word. “But I can tell you what is not theory—the fact that those lords and ladies, whom you seem so ready to insult, give us their gold and supplies to pay for our army’s needs. We cannot shun them.”
“They should look at what we are doing and understand that we are trying to put their gold and loyalty to good use, rather than losing what could be a key advantage to formality,” she countered.
“We have already announced one thing; nobility and people will lose faith in our word if we do anything different.” Aldrik frowned.
“Not if we win.” Vhalla shook her head. “All will be forgiven when Victor is dead.”
“So you hope.” Aldrik leaned on the table with a sigh. “Vhalla, you don’t understand. Noble families hold grudges like no other. Nothing, no slight, no matter how small, is ever forgotten.”
“If we go on as planned, we may not even have subjects to be angry at us.”
“You do not know war,” Aldrik muttered.
“I know war better than most, Aldrik Solaris.” She rounded in front of him. The insult had lit a tiny flame in her that Vhalla struggled to keep under control. “I have spent the past three years of my life at war. I have been utilized as a weapon and coveted as a tool. I have killed countless men and women. And while I may not have made as many hard choices as you for as many years, do not tell me I do not know war.”
Aldrik stared at her in surprise before pulling his eyes away with a touch of shame. Vhalla hadn’t intended to make him feel guilty for his role in the events that had put her in a position to experience war. Reaching out, she took his hand gently in hers, trying to soothe the tension.
“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you well enough to know you think I’m right.”
“Were things not as they are, yes, yes, your theory holds merit.” Aldrik sighed heavily. His hands held her face, underscoring the tenderness. “But there are so many forces at play here. And, sometimes, the safer course is the best one. Let us do this one thing right.”
“One thing?” She didn’t understand.
“I-I took you to bed for the first time on sweat-stained sheets in a war camp. I took you because I promised myself that I would make you mine properly one day.”
“I had not thought poorly of our first time together.” Vhalla stepped away, pulling her face from his palms.
“Then I shamed my love for you by allowing myself to be engaged to another. By allowing that engagement to push you away.”
“You saved my life with that engagement.” Vhalla wondered if he had somehow forgotten the sword at her throat when his hand was forced to sign that fateful paper. “And I acted harshly towards you that night as well. It’s forgiven and forgotten.”
“I let my family and those beneath me witness my stealing you away when Bal—” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat to continue, “—when Baldair died. I let you become the other woman, the prince’s whore.”
“There was hardly enough time for anyone to know with all that happened after,” Vhalla contested. “Any who would remember are friends or will long forget when your throne is restored.”
“I asked you to remain mine when I had no future for you, and I vowed to do things right.” He reached for her hands, holding them tightly. “I have yet to live up to that vow.”
“Aldrik, you have not wronged me.” She tried to smile encouragingly.
“Then, the baby.”
She bristled at the words. A chill ran up Vhalla’s spine, triggering uneasiness in her mind. It was like magic across her flesh, reminding her of what happened, of the murky night that was being lost to time—that she wanted to lose to time.
“I know it was the Mother giving us a chance to do things right. To not harbor a child in secret or rush a marriage to make it a legitimate heir.”
“Our marriage was already rushed.” Ice water ran through her veins. “It was not the Mother who lost our child, it was—”
“Hush. Please, Vhalla, just listen to me.” He squeezed her fingers encouragingly. “I want to see you as my bride and do this one thing right. I want this wedding.”
“Aldrik, this wedding is nothing more than a formality of something that already lives between us.” Vhalla sighed in frustration. “It doesn’t matter when and how we marry; we know our bond.”