“It matters to everyone else.”
“I am not marrying everyone else!” Her patience cracked. “I am marrying you, and your thoughts and my thoughts are the only thoughts that matter on the subject. I am not going to put my own wedding before the lives of our people. How can I look at them when there are innocent people dying, and I am keeping soldiers from saving them so that I may say some vows?”
“I will not have them whisper rumors of you as they did of my mother.” Aldrik pulled away and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I will not have them speak more poorly of this than they already do.”
“Speak poorly of this?” she repeated.
“No.” Vhalla rounded him as he tried to avoid her stare. “What do you mean, ‘Speak poorly of this’?”
“It does not matter.”
“It does,” her voice rose a small fraction with her insistence.
“Fine.” Aldrik scowled. “Fine, you infuriating woman. You want to know of every uncertainty presented by the Western lords and ladies to me or my uncle? How you are too thin, too wild, too risky, to be trusted with carrying an heir? How you have won yourself above your station by giving the lonely prince what is between your legs? How you are too young, too soft, too inexperienced to lead? How I should have taken a Western bride, or even kept the Northern one, to strengthen ties and support my armies? How I am a fool’s Emperor for taking a no-named commoner as my bride? How you are only with me for power and gold?”
Vhalla stared at him in shock. She’d been kept completely unaware. That burned more within her than the shame and embarrassment of the accusations.
“Were you going to tell me?” she whispered.
“Were you going to tell me?” The dam broke within her. “Or were you just planning on keeping me in the dark? Were you going to prove them right, that I am too soft for the truth, that I am ignorant and unfit to be your Empress? Because not even you trust me with what is said!”
“Vhalla, you prove them wrong just by being you. I did not want you to worry and change.” Aldrik’s voice already sought her forgiveness. Forgiveness she didn’t want to give.
“Were you going to tell me?”
“I don’t know.” He withdrew.
“Fine.” Vhalla glared. “Since you clearly have such a handle on managing what I can and cannot hear or think, see or do, then you can just manage your wedding and your war as you want.”
“Vhalla! Vhalla!” he called when she was halfway for the door.
“But if we wait on this wedding, you can make my dress crimson. I will not wear gold if my Imperial nobility is bought with the blood of innocent civilians who died while I had a party.” Vhalla glared back at him once more. She never heard if he said anything else because she slammed the door on his attempt at further words.
Vhalla stormed up the castle alone.
Her chambers in the Western castle were opulent. Low platform beds covered with expertly woven silks complemented endless polished floors that picked up the shine of gemstones and silver embedded into the ceiling. Warm, summer-like breezes flooded the room through open windows, blocked only by chiffon curtains and tall pillars.
It was an exercise in excess by the original architect and decorator. A decadence that Vhalla should have every right to appreciate, an experience that she could never otherwise have.
But now it felt cold.
She hadn’t been spending her days in these chambers; hiding there now only served as a reminder of the harsh words she’d spoken to Aldrik. She’d actually retreated here because she knew it was the one place that he would not come. The lord’s and lady’s quarters were across the hall from each other, and while Vhalla heard his door open and close, he made no effort to seek her out.
Not that she blamed him. Or perhaps she did. The man did an excellent job at making her feel so justified one minute, only to have her feel wildly conflicted the next.
After pacing ruts into the floor, Vhalla decided that lingering wasn’t going to solve anything. She undressed quickly, rummaging through the virtual mountains of clothes to find something simple. Riding leggings that were no doubt intended to be worn underneath a skirt were paired with an oversized shirt that Vhalla fashioned as a tunic. It was certain to horrify the staff and Western nobility. But apparently her existence was already offensive, so she might as well be comfortably offensive.
On the way down to the training grounds, Vhalla walked on air, fluttered pennons, and played with the wind. She delighted in everything that she had taken for granted in the years prior to losing her magic. Things that she would never let be taken from her again.
Fussing with the tail of her braid, Vhalla entered the training ground. Here was another relationship she had ruined with harsh words and pushiness. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to see Jax again—or if he was ready to see her.
“Where is Major Jax?” Vhalla asked the first woman to cross her path on the dusty field.
“Major Jax?” the woman repeated. “I think he’s training with sorcerers in the pit.”
“Can you show me?” Vhalla folded her hands at the small of her back, quickly releasing them when she remembered how imposing Aldrik looked while doing so.