“What do you want from me?” he cried.
“To be your friend.”
“I don’t have friends, I have masters!”
“What was Baldair, then?” Emotion betrayed her the second the younger prince’s name was mentioned. “Was he just a master? Is that all his memory is to you?”
Jax stared at her at with complete loss for words. Vhalla took a step away and started down the hall to leave him to his thoughts. She went straight up to the library, hunted down a familiar tome, and found the page listing Jax’s sentence. Alone in the library, Vhalla penned her name as the Empress for the first time, and she freed a man.
Come the dawn, Jax rode at her side. He remained at her left hand for the entire march to the Crossroads. It was as though their conversation had never happened. He didn’t bring it up again, and Vhalla honored his silent wish by doing the same. The only person she even told about the small confrontation was Aldrik.
The Emperor supported her decree with Jax like he did with most of her other decisions. Vhalla demanded a hard pace through the West and regular training for all groups. Sehra had been right; many soldiers were green, and she was determined that, by the time they arrived at the Southern border, all soldiers would have a shot at surviving the upcoming battles.
She intentionally kept her meetings short and restricted only to the mornings. Vhalla and Aldrik settled into a rotation where he focused on the appeasement of the lords and majors, and Vhalla spent her time among the soldiers. As much as possible, she wanted to lead by example. If she wanted them to perform three rounds of drills each day, she would perform them herself.
Vhalla also made sure the men and women saw her learning. She split her time between training with sorcerers and training with the sword. One where she could be a teacher, the other where she was still much the student.
Before leaving Norin, she’d commissioned a new blade. It was short and light, well balanced but sturdy. The pommel was wheat, in the shape of wings.
Every time she felt the weight of the blade in her hand or on her hip, every time the wind soared through the skies at her command, she thought of Victor. Vhalla tried to envision what his face would look like when she killed him. There was no other alternative in Vhalla’s mind. She would be the one to do it. She had created him—she would be the one to destroy him.
On the ride into the Crossroads, Vhalla tried—once again—to find the small curiosity shop where she’d met Vi. But between the crowds, the sun shades, and the tongues of fire celebrating their arrival, she couldn’t find it. It lingered on her mind for the rest of the day as Vhalla tried to recall exactly where it had been or what it had looked like. She began to wonder if the whole encounter was nothing more than a walking dream. Exhausted, Vhalla pushed it from her mind and fell into the arms of her lover in the first bed they’d had in weeks. If she was to meet Vi again, Vhalla was fairly confident that the woman would be the one to find her.
The next morning Vhalla met with the high-ranking warriors in Sehra’s forces. She took careful note of the princess’s advice on what was likely to offend those from the North and learned a few phrases of greeting in their native tongue. Despite her mouth struggling to form the words, the Northerners seemed to appreciate that an effort was made. It was one of the only things they appreciated about being faced with the Solaris family, who they still very obviously considered to be their Southern oppressors.
Elecia was at her side, in place of Aldrik, for the greetings. The woman couldn’t speak the Northern tongue either, but she already knew a few key words and phrases and could make the sounds with ease. Vhalla made her now-cousin promise to teach her a few phrases when the war was over so she could be a better delegate to the Empire’s newest addition.
Decisions became no easier to make with time. The day before they were intended to leave, they received a message that Hastan’s scouts had confirmed movement of Victor’s army further north. An attack on the Eastern capital was likely. Vhalla knew that if they pushed the army East, they may be able to make it to the capital in time to crush Victor’s offense. If they didn’t, Hastan had a fifty-fifty chance of enduring or falling.
Vhalla’s hand shook as she quilled the response back to the Eastern senator. Aldrik had offered to do it, but Vhalla was insistent. These were her people, and she had always made sure they knew orders that put them in danger—the decision that they could sacrifice the East—came from her and why.
Her world kept producing rainbows of conflict cast in deepening shades of gray. The only black and white was her ink on parchment informing Hastan that help would not be coming. That they would use Victor’s attack to strike when the Southern border was likely to be weaker.
Rested and restocked, the army proceeded south from the Crossroads. Vhalla resumed her previous regimen of training among the soldiers. As much as possible, she made herself available to them. Fritz had been right: the day that they had escaped from Norin’s castle, these were her people.
Her favorite Southerner was at her side one night when she took dinner with the swords she had trained with that day.
“My lady,” one remarked during a lull in the prior conversation. “I was there when you stopped the sandstorm.”
“Were you?” Vhalla smiled politely. She’d heard this story at least one hundred times on the march.