They were partying, while their people were dying.
Vhalla caressed Tim’s cheek gently, unafraid of crystal taint. Sorrow was being smothered by anger, by pain. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to end it all, once and for all. She wanted to see that there never was another day, ever, where crystal taint would be feared.
“K-k-kill . . .” Tim’s lower lip quivered overtop her unnaturally shaped teeth.
“Tim, thank you.” Vhalla’s hand shifted to cover the woman’s mouth. “Thank you.”
Just enough magic, just enough to turn her insides to liquid. To shred her lungs and tear through her heart. Wind roared under Vhalla’s skin and poured into Tim. The woman shuddered and the second her neck burst Vhalla withdrew her palm.
Everyone looked on as the Empress slowly stood. Vhalla balled her hand into a fist, blood dripping between her clenched fingers. Vhalla raised her voice for all to hear.
“We march at dawn!”
“My lady, the army can’t possibly march at dawn.” One of the majors tried to catch up with her as she strode through the castle. “That’s not enough time.”
“Find time,” Vhalla demanded unapologetically.
“We need more supplies, carts are still being packed, and—”
“Essentials first, everything else second. The climate will be temperate in the West; we can forego some of the bedding now and pick it up at the Crossroads for the South. We’ll send word ahead on what we need.” Vhalla glanced at the party that developed around her. “Tina, please write to every Western lord and lady between here and the East demanding that supplies be sent to the Crossroads.”
“Major . . .” Vhalla didn’t know what the man’s name was and didn’t care enough to wait for him to say it. “Go with Lady Tina and help give instructions on everything we may need.”
They crossed through a series of inner gardens and back through another slew of halls before Vhalla broke out to the training grounds. She held up her hand, imagining she was winding a ball of wind in its center. The sky screeched briefly with the noise of the unseen twister she created, summoning every soldier’s focus.
“Men and women of the Solaris Army.” The woman in the golden dress, silver crown, and blood-stained hand captured their attention. “For too long we have sat quietly. For too long we have talked about preparing. For too long we have practiced. And I am no exception.”
Vhalla held out her dress, uncaring for the blood she smeared on the gold fabric. She hadn’t expected to be so right when she’d told Aldrik that she’d wear the blood of their subjects. “I have fulfilled my duties as a noblewoman at the cost of my duties as a soldier.”
She never thought she’d identify as a soldier.
“No more.” Vhalla had no idea who was behind her, listening to her words. She only remained focused ahead. “Tomorrow, I ride with the dawn. I make for the Crossroads and for the South. I march to put an end to the false king.
“The lords tell me that there is not enough time, that you are not ready.” Vhalla held out her arms, beseeching. “Is this true? Are you not ready to reclaim your Empire?”
They objected with a swift and powerful, “Nay!”
“Good. Go now, and do what you must to ready yourselves. I only want the best at my side!”
It was like she’d kicked an ants’ nest. The soldiers began running, quickly organizing themselves under their own ranks. Majors stepped forward to bark quick orders.
Vhalla turned. Aldrik stood at her side, his mouth made a firm line.
“Let us get into more fitting clothes for war,” he suggested.
Their momentary escape from the growing madness was unquestioned, and they quickly ascended away from the chaos to what was now their chambers. The morning of preparations and nerves was gone. In its wake came renewed purpose.
“Aldrik,” she started as soon as the door closed. “I know you likely do not approve.”
“But we have lingered long enough.” She held out her hands. Vhalla wanted him to understand. “We are ready for this. Sehra is ready. Every moment we wait is another death.”
“I know you can’t speak against me publically, but give me counsel here. I will not back down on this, but I want to know how you think we should go about it.”
“Vhalla.” He took both her hands firmly and silenced her. “I support you.”
She blinked. “You do?”
“I wouldn’t have proclaimed it in the street. I may have pushed in private.” Aldrik shook his head. “But we have done things as I wanted. You are Empress now, and your word holds just as much weight as mine, publically. I will let you lead this war.”
“We will,” Vhalla amended. “It is not I or you, it is now we. And even more than that, it is us, for our people.”
“Don your armor,” he suggested as they broke apart to dress. “At least the chainmail. It will set the right mindset.”
“Help me from this?” Vhalla asked as she was half sewn into her dress.
Aldrik obliged, chuckling softly. “This was not why I imagined I’d get you out of your dress on our wedding day.”