“Even if you did, Aldrik is still over the sun for you and you know it,” Fritz spoke while chewing through a lemon peel. He was on his fourth one. “That means everyone has to love you.”
“I don’t want forced love.” She couldn’t help but think of Jax, still strapped to his obligations with the crown. What if his display on the grounds was because he had to tolerate her? What if he hated her but was still obligated to protect her? The notion made Vhalla sick.
“You’re going to have it—and don’t give me that look.” Fritz flopped next to her. “You won’t ever have everyone love you, just as you won’t have everyone hate you. Find the right people to love you and return the hatred of others with ambivalence or hatred of your own.”
“Since when did you become so philosophical?” Vhalla twisted to consider her friend.
“I’ve always been brilliant, and you know it.” Fritz kissed her nose lightly.
“You have been.” Vhalla’s eyes fluttered closed, and she enjoyed Fritz’ simple closeness. “Thank you for staying with me.”
“If you ever had doubts, I’ll scold you.” She could feel him considering her thoughtfully without needing to see his eyes running over her face. “What is bothering you, really?”
“I’m going to be married so soon,” she whispered. “What if I am not meant to be Empress?”
“Who is meant to be anything?” Fritz sat. “Are you worried because of the mutterings of a few crusty nobles?”
“You sound like Jax.” She opened one eye to grin up at her friend.
“There are worse things. Jax is cute.” Fritz gave a little smile at the idea.
Vhalla kept her mouth shut, wondering where his heart would lead him after Grahm. Surely, the man he had known and loved had died with the fall of the Tower. There wasn’t any other likely scenario. Vhalla couldn’t imagine Grahm kneeling to Victor.
Fritz didn’t say anything about his love either, and they let the memory of their friend rest like so many others who were at the capital during Victor’s takeover.
“I think,” Fritz hummed, “that you should leave the castle.”
“What?” Vhalla sat as well, stuffing two lemon peels into her mouth at once.
“You and me, let’s go out.” Her friend was on his feet. “No one has to know; that way they won’t make a fuss.”
“Fritznangle . . .” Vhalla cautioned. It wasn’t as though she was trapped, but she was already publically shirking her duties for the day.
“I think it’ll do you good,” he encouraged. “When was the last time you were around real people? Not soldiers or nobles? Those are the people whose opinions really matter, Vhal. Sure, nobles are important and support the crown. But you know who supports the nobles? The common man. So stop hiding in your literary roost and come out onto the street.”
Vhalla allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“Plus, I really want to see the Port of Norin, and Elecia still hasn’t shown me.” He gave her a conspiratorial grin that was too infectious not to return, and they were off.
The main street stretched out from the castle, the street that they used to enter the city and reach the castle. It looked far different without the masses crowding it. With the normal ebb and flow of people, it reminded her of the Crossroads as merchants and patrons alike lingered under large sun shades.
They’d barely made it off the main street when she was finally noticed. Every peddler and shop owner wanted her to try something, wear something, or simply “bless their shop” with a breeze. Vhalla obliged with smiles and did her best to accommodate everyone. If Fritz was frustrated by the slow going, he didn’t let it show. He seemed equally enamored by the dried dates, strawberries, mangos, and all manner of exotic fruits. By the end of just one street, they both had new necklaces of braided leather and bellies full of sweets.
The castle loomed over them, barely visible between houses and towering high above the canopy of fabric that lined every stall. The farther she stepped from the place, the better she began to feel. Fritz had been right; this was what she’d needed. She needed to feel welcomed by the people, to see the blazing sun framed by two wings, and to forget about obligations and duties for just a little while.
The houses of Norin began to grow as they neared the harbor. Stores became richer and more elaborate, each competing for the attention of shoppers milling through the honeycombed streets and lavish squares. Live models posed in store windows, slowly changing pose to show off the fabric or cut in a new way. There were jewels as big as her fist, and Vhalla eyed the skilled craftsmanship of one shop, stopping long enough to be recognized by its owner—Erion Le’Dan.
With that, they gained a local guide for the rest of the day. Erion told them interesting notes of history and facts about the wealthiest nobles who lived around the harbor. He even gave his own take on the largest port in the world. But no amount of explanation or reading could have prepared Vhalla for what awaited at the Great Port of Norin.
Ships upon ships were docked as far as the eye could see. Some Vhalla recognized from reading, large hulls and wide sails with endless lengths of rope hanging and coiled about their decks. Others were strange and foreign. Some were long with flat oars sticking from the sides. Farther down the docks sat boats with sails that looked like the fins of a fish, pointed and folding like a fan.