“So, crystals are of the Gods?” Vhalla asked slowly as she warmed, thanks to Aldrik’s fire burning near her.
“They are,” Sehra affirmed. “It is their power in physical form. Something that we mortals can barely dip into without severe consequences.”
“The taint,” Fritz put “severe consequences” in more common words.
“And why I cannot do what I just did very often.” Sehra looked over Vhalla solemnly. “I could not break the connection you have with him, only stall it for a time. He will come back for you. If you can harness his magic, the crystal magic, you are the thing which stands in his way.”
“How often can you do it?” Aldrik asked.
“I’m far from Soricium.” Sehra shook her head. “Even surrounded by life here, there is much wickedness and impure magic upon these lands. My link to Yargen is not strong enough to do it more than every few days.”
“Every few days? She could die!” The Emperor wasn’t pleased with the news.
“You kill Sehra if she does more.” Za scowled. “Southern King be thankful.”
Aldrik opened his mouth to speak, and Vhalla stopped him with a touch. “Za is right. And I wouldn’t want Sehra to die for me.” Vhalla turned to the princess. “How much longer until he can be back in my mind?”
“I cannot say.” She shook her head solemnly. “It all depends on how badly he seeks it.”
“How much longer until we reach the capital?”
“Fifteen days,” Aldrik said finally.
He’d said a number. But all Vhalla heard was a death sentence.
Vhalla had the best sleep in what felt like years. There was no grating on the underside of her flesh, nor were there any nightmares. She could enjoy the loving support of her husband without fear, and Aldrik indulged her every want for comfort.
The next morning, Vhalla sought out Fritz first thing and apologized. Her friend was understanding, even apologetic himself for not being more understanding of the situation. They both said their peace and continued on as normal—as much as possible. She did the same with Jax, though the Westerner seemed to have already forgotten their tension.
Her heightened awareness did not serve her on the march, however. Vhalla forced herself to ignore the stares and whispers as the army mounted and began marching. She kept her head high and kept her face impassive. But her ears heard.
“Did you see how she fought?”
“The Empress of blood.”
Aldrik kept glaring from the corners of his eyes, a silent challenge for anyone to raise their voice to something more than a whisper. None rose to his challenge, and the gossip eventually faded. But it weighed heavy in her mind in the days that followed.
Vhalla woke from sleep with a searing pain through her mind.
All those things said of you.
She gripped her head, panting. Aldrik stirred.
They will never respect you. They will always fear you. You put your powers on display, your might, and that was their response? To call you a monster? Look at the ignorance of Commons. Victor’s voice echoed through her mind right behind her temples.
“Go away,” Vhalla hissed.
“Vhalla?” Aldrik sat, clearly hesitant to touch her. “Is he awake?”
Is that the man you claim to love? Tell Aldrik hello for me. I so look forward to killing him again. Do tell me, how did you survive the Crystal Caverns? The same way you forced me out of your mind yesterday? What power was that?
“I said go away.” Vhalla closed her eyes and imagined her mind like the wide plains of the East. Vast and overwhelmed with wind. Someplace that she knew, but any other man could be lost within.
Why don’t you come to me? Come to me, Vhalla. Victor’s voice was already weaker. Sehra had been right, he was certainly recovering from whatever the princess had done.
“Go away!” she screamed.
Victor released his hold on her mind.
Their tent flap opened without permission, a pair of concerned Western eyes looking between them. Vhalla stared back at Jax and realized her responses to Victor had been said aloud. Aldrik shook his head, and the guard retreated.
Vhalla did not want to acknowledge the looks the next morning. She ignored the faces of the people who she was supposed to lead. She tried to hold herself together as the world felt like it was slowly falling apart beneath her. She didn’t want to reveal the increasingly fragile sanity of their Empress.
No one would share her fire pit at night. No one would look at her for longer than a few seconds at a time. The majors spoke primarily to Aldrik. Everything she had worked for felt like it was falling between her fingertips.
The third night, the dreams returned.
Vhalla stood in a throne room, a place she once knew. On one end sat a large golden chair. On the other stood too massive ceremonial doors, so large they required chains and two men each to open and close. Large vaulted ceilings displayed stonework reminiscent of the Imperial library. Where golden pennons once hung, black velvet strips featuring a silver dragon ran the lengths of the long columns.
A man sat in a chair, a crystal crown upon his brow. It glinted off the light from the windows overhead, but glowed mostly with its own unnatural aura. The glow was mirrored in the faintly shining crystals that were overtaking the room from the floor beneath the throne. Victor’s hair had been cut, and he now wore it in a style similar to Aldrik—combed back. It was a slightly looser hairdo, but it was similar enough that Vhalla wondered if it had been a conscious change.