“She is Vhalla Yarl,” Geral spoke up. “I would know that mess of hair from anyone.”
“You live,” the other Inquisitor Jax was threatening spoke with awe. “It’s true, the Prince of Mhashan lives.” The Westerner dropped to her knees as well.
“Vhalla Yarl,” the mother hiccupped her name softly. Everyone turned. “Will you end this?”
“I will,” she vowed without hesitation. Her people looked to her, and Vhalla would never fail them again. Vhalla jumped back onto the stage, addressing Paca. “The fires of Solaris, the fires of justice, burn bright and hot. The sun is rising, and it will cast this darkness from the earth. We will end the Supreme King.
“We ride to Hastan.” She barely noticed that Aldrik gave her an odd look from the corners of his eyes, but Vhalla was too focused on reassuring those gathered to give it much heed. “We will ensure the East stands with us, with the West, and the North! And we will end this.”
“So stand with Solaris, or die with the false king,” Aldrik decreed.
“The West harbors no love for the false king,” the nearest Inquisitor assistant spoke. “I am glad to kneel with my Emperor.”
“You’re pardoning them?” the grieving mother shrieked.
Vhalla looked between her and Aldrik uncertainly.
The Emperor took a long and slow breath through his nose. “Why did you serve the false king?”
“My daughter was in the Tower,” the man answered. Vhalla noticed the other Westerner shift, bowing her head. The family resemblance was suddenly apparent. “The King said she would remain safe if her family answered his call for Inquisitors.”
“And you?” Aldrik had noticed the apparent familial connection between the two Westerners and he turned to the Southerner.
“I-I-” the man stuttered. “There was no other choice. This or die.”
The Westerner to Vhalla’s left narrowed his eyes some, but he didn’t say anything. Vhalla keenly remembered Daniel’s description of the state of the capital. She understood many likely couldn’t understand what the Inquisitors had faced.
“Are your hearts loyal to Solaris?” Aldrik asked.
The three gave their affirmation.
“Then I will pardon you.”
“On one condition!” Vhalla knew that grieving mother could whip Paca into an angry mob if there wasn’t a condition added. Some form of punishment was due for the people to rest at night.
Aldrik turned to Vhalla. He gave her a long stare, but didn’t object. The singular act spoke volumes about the authority he had already given her.
Vhalla took a deep breath, praying she had formulated a good enough idea so quickly. “If you run off or oppose Victor, he will take your lives and the lives of those you love. Your deaths will help no one. There are patrols, I assume you are meant to report in, and he has the power to find you beyond all that. You do not want to be examples for that maniac.”
No one objected.
“Loyalty at the cost of innocent blood is not the foundation for a throne.” She stared into the eyes of the Easterners, pleading with them to understand what she was saying. “Two wrongs do not make a right. And killing those who have only fought for their freedom, killing them for the sake of vengeance does not make us any better than that which we are fighting against.
“So you may keep your lives, if you use them to help your brothers and sisters here in the East. Go as you were told. Use the crystal to find Windwalkers. But for every one you find, tell them to hide. Turn that wretched thing that Victor has saddled you wish as a gift. Be not the harbingers of death but the devotees of life. Tell the Windwalkers to flee, to perpetuate the belief that there are and will be no more in the East, for now.”
Vhalla would not let go of her secret dream that one day Windwalkers could study safely alongside other sorcerers.
“Spread this word to other Inquisitors who do not want to take children from their mothers. Do this and you will have earned your pardon.”
The Inquisitors looked from Aldrik to Vhalla, trying to decipher if she truly had the ability to make such a decree.
The Western man finally spoke. “At least if I am to die, then it would be as someone I can look in the mirror.” He stood. “If it would please our lord?”
Aldrik took a deep breath and gave Vhalla a look that she couldn’t quite decipher. His eyes were sad, but bright with passion. His shoulders were limp and heavy, but the corners of his mouth tugged upward ever so slightly in the smallest of smiles.
“It would please me greatly. As it is the first decree of your future Empress.”
Vhalla would forever remember the reaction of the people in Paca to Aldrik’s announcement that Vhalla would be their future Empress. The people embracing her, celebrating her, replayed over in her mind during their ride out of the small town. It played over until a different nagging thought crept up from the back of her brain, until this new thought spoke so loudly that she had no other choice but to address it.
“I’m sorry,” Vhalla said guiltily. “For running off as I did towards the Inquisitors.”
Her four companions looked at her in surprise.
“You don’t need to apologize, Vhal,” Fritz said cheerfully.
Vhalla shook her head. “It was reckless of me, and it put you all at risk as well. I’ll be more careful in the future.”