“Jax, are you . . . just going to stand there?” She fell back down onto her heels.
“It’s not every day you get to watch your sovereigns put on a show like two raging teens.” Jax leaned against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. “Since it’s in a public place, I figured that meant you didn’t mind spectators. Or maybe you’d finally take me up on my offer of a third.”
“Oh, by the Mother.” Vhalla rolled her eyes and finally stepped away from her husband. “I suppose we should go.”
“If we must.” Aldrik’s cheeks held a faint rosy flush.
The rest of the royals and highest nobility were waiting for them in a small antechamber. Tina and Lilo both pressed their cheeks to hers in modest signs of affection. For the West, however, they were overt displays. Ophain welcomed her to the family as well.
Vhalla was momentarily distracted by Aldrik and her father sharing a brief familial embrace. He had lost his family in the South, but, in their own way, they were rebuilding anew. She hoped that her father could be someone Aldrik felt comfortable with.
Her eyes shifted towards foreign whispers. Za and Sehra stood a few paces away from everyone else, talking between themselves.
Vhalla crossed over. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Are you?” the princess asked thoughtfully.
“I am,” she affirmed. “It was an important display for the Empire.” Vhalla didn’t mince words. She knew the princess wouldn’t want it, and there was no longer time for it.
“You seem to be settling into your crown already, Lady Empress,” Sehra praised.
“The crown has little to do with it. I am no longer interested in fronts. I want action.”
Aldrik walked over, placing his palm on the small of her back.
“Emperor Solaris.” Sehra gave a small nod of her head, the most subservience the girl had ever demonstrated.
“Princess Sehra.” Aldrik mirrored the motion. “How did you find the ceremony?”
“Long and needlessly cumbersome, as I find most things in the South to be.” She gave the tiniest of smiles. “And one that I am very glad I was not forced to be at the center of.”
Vhalla should be offended, but she found herself amused. “Join us in the carriage?” she asked as they started for the large doors out of the cathedral.
“I would think those just married would seek some time alone,” the other royal hummed.
“We have had ample time to be alone. I am much more interested in speaking to you regarding the status of the North’s armies and any strategies you may have for reclaiming the South.” Vhalla readjusted her crown as the doors to the cathedral opened.
They lost the ability to converse due to the deafening cheers. Aldrik’s fingers remained entwined with hers as the Imperial couple waved at the gathered masses. Firebearers sent tongues of flame toward the heavens, and Commons waved pennons. With the world at its most beautiful and his hand in hers, for a second, it was a perfect dream. But Vhalla had yet to earn her happily ever after, if there was one to be had after the long march South.
Sehra and Za entered the carriage first and settled as Vhalla and Aldrik continued to smile and wave. Za was awkward with her bow and quiver, tools that never left the warrior’s side. Vhalla and Aldrik navigated around them while they took their seats.
“We have amassed an army of three thousand strong from Norin and the surrounding coastal cities,” Aldrik said, wasting no time in bringing Sehra up to speed on the most recent numbers. “That will join with another fifteen hundred from around the Crossroads and the East.”
“So then we will have nearly five thousand in total,” Sehra summed up gravely. It was a number that most strategists would be pleased with. But the princess’s emerald eyes still carried weight.
“What do you fear?” Vhalla asked.
“These men, they’re green. We have spent much time using our best to kill each other that we are now lame before a real force,” Sehra replied. “The earth quivers before this man’s magic. Even in Yargen, the trees shudder and cry out. He is tapping into something great.”
“That is why we will move as fast as we can.” Vhalla glanced at Aldrik, who gave an affirmative nod. They’d fulfilled their obligations to the nobles and secured their crowns and their armies. “Our army is set to march in three days’ time.”
“My warriors will arrive at the Crossroads in five.”
“Then forgive me, princess, because I know you have just arrived, but I will ask you and Za to ride ahead and meet them. The Western nobility will feel more at ease if they know the Northern army’s leader is present to keep them under control.”
“You think Shaldan people need keep under control?” Za frowned.
“Peace, Za.” Sehra rested a hand on her guard’s knee. “She is worried for perception, not reality. The Southern peoples yet fear our might.”
Vhalla didn’t correct Sehra. She was truthfully afraid of the Western lords looking for any reason to pick a fight with the people who had been their enemies only months ago. Vhalla knew men and women whose sons and daughters had died in the Northern campaigns. If Vhalla and Aldrik could send letters in advance informing them that the North had an appointed and native commander who was holding them accountable, it would help keep the chain of command streamlined and respected.