The Crone carried on in this manner, binding their hands after every blessing. The Mother was to give Vhalla beauty, kindness, and many heirs. The Father was to give Aldrik strength, determination, and foresight. Vhalla had the distinct feeling that he was getting the better end of the bargain, but she held her tongue. They’d practiced the ceremony enough times that she knew every stage of what was coming.
“Vhalla Yarl, what do you pledge to your Emperor?”
“I will be yours,” she spoke with raw and delicate earnest. “I will be faithful to you. I will be yours from this day, and every day, into eternity.”
“Aldrik Ci’Dan Solaris?”
“I will be yours,” Aldrik replied. Vhalla’s eyes widened a fraction. He’d gone off-script. It was slight, and he quickly returned to the expected words, but it had been there. He had offered himself as much to her as she had to him. It was a subtle statement, but a statement nonetheless. “I will shelter you. I will protect you. I will keep you as my own, as my Empress.”
“These vows have been said before Gods and men,” the Crone continued, as though Aldrik’s modification hadn’t even happened. “May they never be broken, and may these two never prove unfaithful to the words that have been spoken.
“Should the Mother above bless this union, may she touch this couple with her flame. Should the Father above bless this union, may the Mother’s flames leave their skin unmarred.” The Crone raised her hands.
A golden flame sparked at the short bottoms of the ribbon wrapped around their hands. Vhalla held Aldrik’s hand tightly. Her fingers already bore burn scars, and she could endure the pain for formality’s sake.
But the fire did not burn her. It consumed the ribbon, but only licked lightly on their skin. It was true magic, a type she had never seen before.
“With this sign from the Gods themselves, you are now united as one, husband and wife. May your life, and reign, be one of light,” the Crone announced.
Just like that, it was done. The crowd burst into fierce applause, and Vhalla blinked as if returning from a trance. Even if it was just for appearances, the masses seemed happy. They celebrated. And, for that moment, Vhalla, too, allowed herself to pretend that the world wasn’t at war. That they wouldn’t march out at dawn.
“Vhalla, kneel,” Aldrik whispered.
She swallowed hard and adjusted her skirts. Falling as gracefully as possible to one knee, she suddenly felt more nervous than she had all day. Aldrik released her hand slowly, making sure she was stable, before turning to his uncle.
The box Lord Ophain held was of no surprise to Vhalla. But, judging from the look on Aldrik’s face, it was a surprise to him. His hands paused, hovering mid-air just before opening the box.
“Uncle . . .” he breathed.
“She would’ve wanted it,” the lord insisted.
Aldrik’s long fingers ran over the top of the box before settling on the latch and opening it. Reaching in, he produced the same glittering crown Vhalla had seen earlier. Clearly, some of the nobles recognized it and were all too eager to tell their friends in the near vicinity all about the important history of the relic.
“Lady Vhalla Ya—” he caught himself. “Lady Vhalla Solaris.”
Hearing her new name was quite a strange, yet wonderful, sensation.
“Wife of the Emperor, common born and nobly appointed.” Aldrik lowered the crown upon her waiting brow. The moment his fingers vanished she felt the weight of it upon her head. “Rise and stand with me—as Empress Solaris.”
Just like that, the world changed. Aldrik held out both hands before her and helped her to her feet. Vhalla stood, not as a common-born library girl, a soldier, a sorcerer, or a lady, but as an Empress.
If the cheers for their wedding had been loud, the cheers for her coronation were near deafening. It was as though the people truly believed that, by having a whole royal family again, they stood a better chance against the madman in the south.
“My Empress.” Aldrik gripped her hands tightly, a beaming smile threatening to break through his trained decorum. “Ascend with me.”
Vhalla walked at his side up the stairs that he had descended earlier. She held her skirts with one hand, his hand in the other. She was terrified but hopeful. And all she wanted was him.
The door at the top of the balcony closed behind them, and the sound broke her trance. Vhalla found herself in a dimly lit hall, alone with the man who was now her husband. There were no words for the joy, the triumph. Vhalla threw out all necessary decorum and forced the Emperor against the door.
Her mouth crashed against his, and Aldrik’s arms closed around her waist. They had done it. In spite of it all, they had found each other. He tasted of pure elation and of something much sweeter, something she hadn’t dared even breathe in for some time: hope.
“Sooo,” Jax drawled from the end of the hall. “You two skipping the party?”
Vhalla pulled away, grinning wildly. She still had his jacket balled in her fists. His hands were halfway under the upper layer she wore overtop her skirts.
“What do you think, Empress?” Aldrik cocked his head to the side with a small grin.
“I think we are our own party.”
Aldrik laughed and pressed his lips against hers. Vhalla returned his kiss in earnest. Though she couldn’t commit to it fully due to the sensation of someone else’s eyes.