Fritz kept her company throughout the day, and Elecia played messenger between Vhalla’s and Aldrik’s rooms. Vhalla inquired as to what Aldrik was doing as she prepared; she was certain he was not having his face powered ten times over. Elecia informed her with a dramatic eye roll that Aldrik was on a mission to pace the room until his shoes had to be replaced.
The wedding was set for midday, when the sun would be at its apex, which left little time for anything else. As Vhalla’s gown was undergoing the final pinning around the hem, and the last embellishments were being stitched on, her aunts-to-be graced her with their presence. Tina eyed Vhalla up and down, passing silent approval.
“You look like a Solaris Empress,” she finally spoke.
“That’s what I’m supposed to look like, isn’t it?” Vhalla smoothed her hands over the skirt. Golden silks draped in the Southern fashion underneath a more Western-styled jacket that went from her hips all the way to her neck, capping her shoulders.
“We have something for you.” There was an odd mix of excitement and sorrow in Lilo’s voice. “However, it is silver, over the Imperial gold.”
The older woman motioned for a servant to bring forward a medium-sized box. Vhalla watched in curiosity that quickly turned to awe as it opened to reveal one of the most beautiful crowns she’d ever seen. Diamond-shaped rubies hung from delicate pointed archways that rose from the base of the crown. The silverwork around the brow looked more like lace than metal. It was delicate, feminine, beautiful, and strong in equal measure.
“She would have wanted you to have it.” Tina’s usually steely tones had gone soft as well. “Fiera was not one to change who she was. Even when she married an Emperor of the South, she wanted a crown of silver.”
“So, this crown truly is . . .” Vhalla looked between the women in shock.
“Our sister’s, Aldrik’s mother’s.” Vhalla had never seen a more joyfully heartbreaking smile than what Lilo wore on her lips. “She was the Empress this realm needed, if only she’d lived to fulfill that role.”
“But she gave us Aldrik. And hopefully he has brought us an Empress who will be worthy of picking up my sister’s crown.” Tina’s words left little doubt on what she truly thought of Vhalla.
“I will be,” Vhalla swore.
“Good. I would expect no less.” The older woman gave a firm nod.
Eventually, Vhalla and the crown were left alone. Aldrik’s aunts talked with her for a little bit longer, but they left shortly before the last servant. Vhalla sent away all remaining help, preferring the company of her thoughts in her final moments as an unmarried woman. It wasn’t that she was nervous about her and Aldrik. The time for such things was long gone. Their perfect imperfection, constantly striving and pushing each other to do better, it would be her life’s mission and joy—with or without crowns and vows.
The sound of the door opening again brought Vhalla back to reality. Her eyes met a pair nearly identical to her own, and Vhalla gave her father a small smile. Rex Yarl had been dressed up in Western fashions, but styled in Eastern purples. She had to stifle a laugh fueled by nerves at the sight of her father so polished.
“Little bird.” He opened his arms, and Vhalla went to him without hesitation so that he could wrap her in a tight embrace. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Her mouth had filled with cotton, and she was suddenly terrified she’d forget her vows. “You clean up well yourself, for a low-born, Eastern farmer.”
They shared a knowing laugh at what had been used against both of them.
“Well, this farmer’s daughter is about to marry a man befitting her status.”
Vhalla’s heart threatened to explode. In her father’s words, Aldrik was vying to be worthy of her, not the other way around. She leaned up and kissed him on a clean-shaven cheek.
“Was Mother nervous?” Vhalla whispered. Her parents had nothing but love for each other; in Vhalla’s mind, they’d had nothing to fear going into their union.
“She told me so the second we had said our vows before the Mother.” Rex offered his arm to his daughter. “Every chance worth taking will make you a little scared. That means you’re taking a risk. And where there is risk, there is reward.”
Her father rode with her in a closed carriage to the Cathedral of the Mother. Vhalla remained out of sight from the prying eyes of the public. Her hand never left her father’s as her heart threatened to choke her—it felt like it was beating in her throat instead of her chest.
Vhalla waited in a small antechamber with her father. She could hear the talking of people through the gilded doors before her muffled like it was a world away. She was about to cross the threshold to a place she thought she would never see, to be with a man she should’ve never met, to become someone she was never meant to be. The room fell to a hush, and Lord Ophain’s voice boomed through the following silence.
She took a deep breath as the doors swung open before her, and Vhalla didn’t look anywhere but forward. Her hand gripped her father’s elbow so hard that she’d have to apologize for bruises later. But, for now, she would just focus on being the Empress the people needed. Love, war, life was a series of battlefields strung together with the courage to march forward.
A sculpture of the Mother reaching out her arms, holding a giant fire that lit the entire room, dominated the center of the dome above. Men and women packed the large hall, blocking out the imagery of the Father depicted in the lower part of the room, that showed how he yearned for the Mother above. Vhalla walked toward a circular marble space where Lord Ophain waited next to a cowled Crone.