Some vessels were in dry dock, supported and suspended mid-air. Workers scrubbed the hulls, repainting and repairing as necessary.
Others ships were leaving to make space.
Somehow, in the bustle of Norin’s mecca of trade and commerce, even the future Empress could go unnoticed. Burly men carried chests up and down gangplanks. Nets full of fish were hoisted from cargo holds and dragged to shops, where the fish were then butchered and sold. People of every shape and color went about their business as if the world was as it had always been.
War did not affect these people, Vhalla realized. Famine, religion, nobility, or turmoil, it did not change their lives. One thing reigned supreme, and everything else fell around it: gold.
She expressed such thoughts to Erion over an icy cocktail, a red dragon, while they rested their legs.
“That’s astute of you,” Erion praised her without any apparent ulterior motive. “Because these men and women have little care for who is in power. They’ll work for the highest bidder.”
“Is that how your family is?” Vhalla asked. The question struck a surprising cord, one she hadn’t expected.
“Do you think so?”
“I can’t say I know your lineage well enough to have an opinion.”
“Don’t dodge the question,” Erion scolded lightly.
“There must be a nugget of truth.” Vhalla could blame the alcohol for her loose tongue. It’d been months since Vhalla had really drank, mainly out of respect for Aldrik’s continuing struggle to avoid alcohol in times of stress. And while she wasn’t about to lose her head, the liquor had a welcome burn. But she didn’t use the likely excuse.
No, her loose tongue was entirely the fault of the sun, the warm sea breeze on her cheeks, and the freeing sensation of not feeling like the world was on her shoulders. “You seemed very quick to support me in the North.”
“Fair enough.” He raised his glass in acknowledgement of her point. “Any family who has thrived for as long as we have didn’t do it by strapping themselves to dogma. Even if you were chosen by a Ci’Dan, that Ci’Dan happened to be the Emperor’s crowned son, and supporting you could support us in the long run.”
She laughed at his candor and let the fact lie, picking something else that had been nagging at her to focus on. “Then why does dogma seem so important to the Western Court?”
“This has been bothering her,” Fritz outed.
Vhalla shot him a look that he just grinned away.
“They want to see what you do when rules are imposed upon you. They want to push you and see if you break,” Erion answered easily. “They’re testing you, Vhalla.”
“But how do I pass? Do I do as they ask? Do I thwart them at every turn?” She honestly was at a loss.
“You’re thinking too small.” Erion hummed, looking out over the port. “You see all these ships?”
“When do you think they come and go?”
“When they have somewhere to be?” She assumed the merchants had deadlines and the rest were chartered.
Erion shook his head. “When the wind is good,” he answered his own question. “All that rigging and lumber and men, it’s all at the whim of the wind. Now they try to tame it, they try to control it. They have created hulking sails and innovative drafts to cut through the water as quickly as possible. But they remain at the whim of the wind. A force that cannot be understood, nor explained, for it just happens.”
The lord looked back at her, but Vhalla had already processed his point.
“They are the ships, and you are the wind. You do not lower yourself to their rules or expectations. You blow in whatever direction you feel is needed and leave them with no choice but to oblige.”
Vhalla thought about Erion’s words as they finished slowly strolling through the port. The only thing that distracted her was when he pointed out a particularly colorful vessel. She noted that it was a trade ship from the Crescent Continent, an uncommon sight even for the grandest port in the world. Vhalla wanted to investigate further, but that was the one thing Erion advised against. He cautioned that the people of the Crescent Continent could be quite backwards and barbaric, and it was best to leave any dealings to their approved liaisons.
Vhalla held her tongue that “backwards and barbaric” were often times only used when one culture didn’t properly understand another. She had heard people describe the North that way before she’d come to properly understand a region of the Empire that she now held in deep respect.
By the time Fritz and Vhalla returned to the castle, the sun hung low in the sky. The stable hand who had helped them tack the horses earlier in the day reported that the Lord Ophain and the Emperor had inquired about where they had gone. Whatever the lad had said must have been sufficient because neither had launched any kind of search.
Vhalla bid farewell to Fritz and ended her walk in silence. She eased the door open to Aldrik’s room, uncaring if there was a servant walking by who saw her entering the Emperor’s chambers. She was done with their propriety. She wanted to see the man she loved.
Taking her shoes off at the door, Vhalla walked on small pockets of wind, avoiding making a sound. She stopped the second Aldrik came into view. His hair was still styled for the obligations of the day, and he sat facing the hearth. He had an empty cup by him, but no sign of a bottle anywhere that could betray what its contents may have been.