The young woman bowed deeply and stiffly guided her future Empress. More than one soldier gave pause and looked at her. Vhalla wondered if it was because she was the future Empress, or as a result of her prior run-in with Jax. She knew how soldiers talked.
The pit was exactly as the name suggested. Recessed into the ground and hexagonal in shape, the large fighting arena had all kinds of people at its edge cheering or shouting suggestions to two Firebearers sparring within. Jax was situated on one side, shouting with the rest of them. But he was one of the last to quiet and turn as her presence was noted.
“Major Jax.” Vhalla swallowed the silence between them before it became far too obvious. “Could I perhaps join in a spar or two?”
He stared at her a long moment, looking her up and down. Where Vhalla expected the average Westerner to look disapproving at her relaxed and more masculine clothing, she found Jax’s stare appreciative.
“If the lady wants a spar, than a spar she will get!” Jax’s voice had not changed at all. It was back to how she’d always heard it: jovial, jesting, and entertained with the nature of existence. “Which one of you wants the honor of going against the first Windwalker in nearly a century and a half?”
No one moved. No one seemed able to look at her. And, most certainly, no one volunteered.
“Come now,” Jax encouraged. “Ren, you’re up!”
The man who Jax tasked with this duty appeared to be of Northern descent. Vhalla assessed him as she was helped into a leather jerkin, coated in something sweet smelling. She recognized the greenish sheen as something the Northerners used to protect against Firebearers.
“Ready?” Jax called. Vhalla gave a definitive nod, but Ren gave a hesitant glance. “Go!”
Vhalla wasted no time, and the man was on his back in an instant. Vhalla stared dumbly as Ren stood, gave a bow, and quickly retreated from the ring.
There hadn’t been a single spark of fire, chill of ice, or rumble of earth. Vhalla frowned. He’d not tried to attack her in any way.
The next soldier Jax threw at her acted much the same. A quick start and quick finish left her uncomfortable. As the dust settled atop the third, Vhalla couldn’t contain herself any longer.
“Why won’t you spar with me?” she demanded of the woman who pulling herself off the ground.
“What was that?” Vhalla persisted. “You didn’t even fight back.”
“I-I-I . . . your prowess is such that none of us could hope to match.” The woman retreated awkwardly, eager to escape the ring.
Vhalla’s arms dropped limply to her sides. They were letting her win. Vhalla had been through war and had trained under a multitude of soldiers, but she no longer had the Bond to draw from, and these people had been soldiers the majority of their adult lives. Vhalla should at least have to struggle against them.
“Oh, this just won’t do,” Jax admonished. “You sorry lot have done the worst thing someone can manage: disappoint a pretty lady.” He pointed across the pit toward something Vhalla couldn’t see. “Fritz! You’re needed.”
Vhalla’s heart soared from just hearing her friend’s name. The second he actually stepped into the ring, Vhalla was nearly tackling him in an overpowering embrace. She wondered if Jax had figured out her mental state upon entering the training grounds.
“Vhal, it’s only been two days since I last saw you,” Fritz laughed.
“It feels like forever,” Vhalla insisted.
“Well, now I’m going to beat you up!” Her friend grinned.
“You can try!” she retorted playfully. “Jax, thank you; this is exactly what I needed.”
“Oh, Lady Yarl, I always give the beautiful ones what they want.” Jax winked.
Vhalla rolled her eyes playfully and returned her attention to Fritz. “I don’t want you to go easy on me.”
“I’ve seen you fight,” Fritz snorted with amusement. “The last thing I’m going to do is go easy on you.”
She was unsurprised when Fritz bested her right away. Vhalla was rusty, and she’d forgotten all the tricks this Waterrunner kept up his sleeve, from ice daggers to illusions. They went two out of three, and Vhalla could only get the upper hand once. It was satisfying. She was certain her losses weren’t just a result of her own lack of training but because Fritz had improved.
Jax scolded everyone watching by pointing out how Fritz hadn’t held back, despite going against their Emperor’s betrothed. Vhalla gave a supportive nod when Jax explained that the best soldiers fought with everything they had, every time. He shot her one wary look from the corners of his eyes. Things had not quite gone back to normal between them, despite how good he was faking it.
Vhalla pulled her friend from the training grounds. They wove up through the palace and made their roost around a table in the library. Along the way, a servant noticed them, and Vhalla sent for tea and candied lemon peels.
“Aren’t you supposed to be doing audiences or some such?” Fritz finally asked.
Vhalla sighed heavily.
“So the afternoon war meeting gossip was true?”
“News travels that fast?” Vhalla gave in without struggle.
“Some majors came to the grounds while you and Aldrik were talking,” Fritz explained.
“I made a real mess of things, I think.” Vhalla collapsed back onto the pillows and stared up at the library that stretched above her. She longed for the days where her biggest decision was what book to read first.