Aurel’s fingertip traced the curve of his wife’s cheekbone, admiring the way her eyelashes kissed the digit, the way her cheeks rose with her smile. Oh, how he adored that smile.
Brunhilda tilted her head into his touch, raising fingers to gently grasp his wrist as she pressed her ear into the pane of bare flesh just below his collarbone. The dual points of contact thrummed with a distinct, languid pulse that seared heat into her flushed skin, making colour rise under Aurel’s attentive touch. She laced fingers through the warmed bracelet on his wrist, tracing the gold linkwork that was a twin of her own. Their bracelets chimed against one another, reminding each of the other’s presence.
Their quite moment of adoration was broken by the soft-spoken words of their personal guard.
“Sage,” Chesk murmured, and Aurel glanced up to meet his chestnut gaze. His hand rested leisurely on his sword, but there was a dutiful ease to his demeanour; in the past four months, he had grown into his role of commander, become comfortable with the responsibilities and privileges he was awarded, even if they had come with a reluctance and mourning burden.
Brunhilda’s eyes fluttered open to answer his tentative prompt, her head rising from Aurel’s chest.
“The Empress is ready to see you now,” he informed them, and their gazes both turned to the doors which now stood open.
A woman stood framed in the massive archway, the throne room sprawled beyond. Her mahogany hair was curled up into a bun, a few locks left to frame her vibrant brown eyes. “Please don’t call me that,” she implored, but her gentle chastising gave way to a grateful smile as Brunhilda rose to embrace her. “It’s good to see you two again.”
Aurel rose and gave her the salute for honesty, to which the Empress answered with peace. “You look healthy, if tired.”
“I feel tired,” Adelheid responded with a curl of a smile. “Please, come in. It’s good to see you too, Chesk.”
The Feuer commander nodded his gratitude as he brushed past her, following his Great Mage into the echoing expanse of the hall. Adelheid followed, joining the couple where they gazed up at the empty throne. Bare as it was, it seemed more imposing in nature, and Aurel couldn’t help but get the impression that Adelheid found it most imposing.
In the months following Heike’s surrender and voluntary banishment, Adelheid had taken up the mantle of leadership, pledging to restore the Six Realms to their former harmony before the attack on the citadel and the assassination of the only member of the royal family – High Empress Asche Zauberin.
The Regenmeer lowlady had refused to take the full title, as reluctant as she was to take any title that would impose her duty over others’. She had done wonders in the short time she had to bring the Six Realms to heel after the liberation Aurel’s army had led upon the Ether citadel.
Without an official leader, the citizens of the Realms had grown easy; Adelheid had settled both their discomfort and her own over her impromptu leadership by appointing the High Council the governing authority of the Realms, tasked with ensuring the fair and just direction the six nations were to take. At its current stage, it consisted of its former members – Emmerich Totersieg, Kuren Rotehre, Behende Flusswelle, and Flugel Luftzweiten – as well as several new additions of the noble households, including Summern Adlerbrise, Hagel Klinge, and Idalia Wasserste, Adelheid’s close friend. Svetya Erdefunfte had resigned from her position on the original council under Heike to tend to her family’s estate and the Erde Realm’s rule following her mother and elder siblings’ murders. Adelheid still headed the High Council, as per their request, but she was reported to distance herself from most decision-making, so as – by her own words – to not influence the others members in popularity vote.
It still, Aurel knew, did not live up to her aspirations for the Realms. Adelheid had told them briefly of her plans for the High Council in the days before his and Brunhilda’s wedding. She envisaged a council of ten members, comprised of two members elected to represent each of the individual Realms, able to call on the services of Froh Bezaubernd, the commander of the new United Forces, in her capacity as militaristic protector of the entirety of the Realms. In short, Adelheid visualized a world in which she could relieve herself not only of the responsibility the Realms inflicted on her, but also of the influence she inflicted on it. For whatever reason, she didn’t think a single leader capable of embodying all the wishes of an entire civilisation effectively and justly.
In Heike’s abdication, the Realms had needed guidance, and Adelheid was not one to shy from duty where it was called for. She had taken up the role, but it played on her tensions, and her strength.
“How are you coping,” Brunhilda asked, gesturing forlornly to the empty hall, “with all of this? It must be stressful.”
Adelheid nodded, but smiled nonetheless. “Spending time in familiar company certainly helps, but yes, it’s a heavy responsibility. But let’s not talk about me; how are the newly-weds?”
There was a grin on her lips, and Aurel couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled Brunhilda to his side, winding his hand around her waist. Her other hand came up to link fingers into his, their wedding bands gleaming on their wrists in the torchlight. He could feel the heat of them in his core, feel how it danced across his skin and invigorated Brunhilda too.
“Magnificent,” he murmured into the curve of her neck.
“It’s been magical,” Brunhilda agreed. “And we’ve needed the uplift, since…”
There was a hesitancy that hung around them, a reticence in mentioning his name, but Adelheid broke the silence. “Since Coiriuil’s funeral,” she supplied, her gaze on Aurel.
Coiriuil had been the Feuerborn’s eldest friend since their childhood, had grown with him, and Aurel had appointed him commander of his army after the death of the Great Mage, Aurel’s father. He had been shot down by Blair Eisen and Klauen Stahldritten, on the orders of Heike Stahldritten on the eve of her attack on the Ether citadel, and had not survived through the next day.
Aurel tried not to think of his death too often; it was like picking at a recently healed wound, threatening to spill blood anew if he dug too deep. He had seen him off properly though, had sat by his deathbed into the next morning, had arranged his funeral in the midst of mounting an attack of Heike for the liberation of the Realm. Brunhilda had been his buoy in that time, keeping his afloat when he most wanted to sink into silence and blackness, where he wouldn’t have to think about his best friend bleeding his last breath into his suffocating lungs-
Aurel took a deep breath, and felt Brunhilda’s grip on his wrist tighten, to remind him of her presence, prying open his eyes to find her watching him. There was a confidence she had in him, that he could pull through this, that he had and would continue to. He bent down to press a light kiss to her lips.
“It’s been difficult,” he admitted softly. “But I’ve had Brunhilda, always, with me. And Chesk certainly helped to keep me on track.”
“We have him still,” Adelheid said solemnly. “Klauen Stahldritten: we have him in custody. He’ll stand trial for what he’s done.”
“I know,” Aurel said, a faint note of resentment in his tone. “And I know you’ll do what’s right. I don’t want to get involved though. I don’t want to go through it all again.”
“I understand. The High Council certainly appreciates his value, though,” she said with bitterness, her lips twisting in disapproval. “They’re appealing for someone to stand trial for Heike’s crimes. Since she was banished, there’s been no one to account for the destruction and death she caused, even if it was – as she put it – for the benefit of the Realms. The public want justice; they want accountability. So her brother’s become the obvious one to carry the burden of her crimes, and the High Council wants to do what’s best for public moral, as delicate as it is right now.”
“He deserves a fair trial,” Brunhilda cut in, and their eyes snapped to her. She didn’t flinch under their stares, merely setting her shoulder as she elaborated. “He was probably as damaged by Heike as we all were. There weren’t many who didn’t act in their best interest in joining her; they did what was safest for themselves, their families, their loved ones. Even if he did despicable things, he was following her orders.”
“He was never under her command,” Adelheid reminded her. “Unlike his brothers, whom we also have detained, he wasn’t a member of her military, or her guard. He’s not afforded the same immunity. He was her executioner; nothing more and nothing less. He has to answer to the crimes he committed, justly and fairly.”
“Will he be executed?” Chesk asked, his brown gaze pensive.
“No,” Adelheid sighed. “As much as the public will call for it, the High Council won’t call for an execution. The last thing the Realms’ need is more bloodshed. The High Court will determine a suitable sentence.”
“And his brothers? Heike’s legion commanders?” Brunhilda pressed.
“They’ll be cleared of the crimes they committed under Heike’s orders, acting in their capacities as military men and commanders – just as Kolben, Finte and Macht Eisen were acquitted for their service.”
“I hear they joined the United Forces on your recommendation,” Chesk interjected.
“Yes,” the Regenmeer conceded. “They’re now all lieutenants under Froh Bezaubernd. I was in need of some familiar leaders after the influx of soldiers. Bitva Stahldritten transferred five of the six Stahl legions into the United Forces in her capacity of acting Great Mage of the Stahl Realm. She’s staying in the citadel now, to oversee their integration; it’s over five thousand new soldiers, and after Tylion reappointed most of the Wasser Army into my command, the United Forces numbers have swelled to nearly twelve-thousand.”
“That’s amazing, Adelheid,” Brunhilda exclaimed genuinely.
“At least the Realms now have a single military force for their protection, rather than relying on the goodwill of the militarised realms.”
“You’ve been busy,” Aurel admitted with an easy smile. “Four months is a short time to achieve so much progress, especially after such chaos.”
“I hear you’ve also been busy with your appointment to Great Mage of the Feuer Realm.”
Aurel chuckled. “It still feels weird to hear people refer to me as that, even if it has been nearly a month now. You must know the feeling?”
“I do. I’m still not comfortable with it, even after this long. I shouldn’t be Empress.”
“Why don’t you step down, then?” Chesk suggested, and her blue gaze rose to meet his. “Appoint yourself commander of the United Forces and relinquish governance completely to the High Council.”
Adelheid shook her head. “It’s the same problem, just with a different view. The Realms’ doesn’t need a single powerful authority figure. It needs fair, representative democratic rule. There’s too much opportunity for abuse of power – intentional or otherwise – with just a single commander. The United Forces is a step towards harmony; it can’t afford to fall into old ruts.”
Brunhilda laid a hand on her shoulder, instilling comfort, compassion and confidence in her warm gaze. “You’ll decide what’s best for the Realms; you always do. You’re not one to give up, and we’re all here to offer help where we can. Call on us if you need us, okay?”
Adelheid embraced her in a hug, enjoying the sorely missed company of old friends. “I will. Stay safe, and if you need any advice on ruling,” she added, glancing in Aurel’s direction, “I’m happy to tell you what I can. It has to be useful to someone; either Great Mage, orGreat Lady.”
Brunhilda laughed. “We’re all new to this. We can only do our best. No one expects any more, even if it feels like it. Trust yourself, Adelheid, just as we entrust the Six Realms’ resurrection to you. You’ll make the right decision when it comes to it.”