“The woman has sense.” Vhalla gained yet another reason to appreciate Aldrik’s cousin.
“That I cannot argue.”
Jax’s unfiltered praise reminded Vhalla of the conversation she previously overheard. While she wouldn’t dare bring up the details, there was one thing that still nagged at her. Vhalla turned away from the scroll, studying Jax’s dark Western eyes. She tried to forage through their blackness, hoping they would somehow reveal the secret everyone had been so content to allude to but never speak of.
“Why are you owned by the crown?”
Panic flashed across his face. She’d caught him off-guard, and the defensive walls quickly rose in response. Vhalla pressed her lips together and fought a sad smile. She’d been with Aldrik now for so long that she knew what it looked like when a man was trying to smother the truth behind a mental defense.
“That’s not a story you want to hear.” He laughed suddenly. “Trust me.”
“That’s not for you to decide.” Vhalla leaned back in her chair and motioned to the only other seat in the room across from her. “Sit and tell me.”
“I do not think—”
“It’s an order, Jax.” She tried to make the words as gentle as possible, but no amount of tenderness could remove the hurt in his eyes. She’d crossed a line commanding him, a line she might not be able to erase.
He fell heavily into the chair, starting his tale with hasty resentment. “I was born into a noble family in the West. We weren’t important, not like the Le’Dans or Ci’Dans, but my family had pride and a few generations of nobility. I was the eldest and the only son, my sisters just a few years younger.”
“So you were set to inherit the estate.” Vhalla shifted in her chair and leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table. For the first time, she was getting a glimpse of the man underneath the madness.
“I would have,” Jax affirmed. “It was all set, and I was quite the little lord. The only thing that remained was finding a suitable match with another noble.”
“An arranged marriage,” she pieced together. It brought back memories of the last arranged marriage she had experienced: Aldrik’s. It tugged at the corners of her lips, pulling them into a frown at the thought.
“I loved her.” Jax wiped the expression from her face with three words, and Vhalla listened in surprise. “I loved her like the Father loves the Mother. I loved her more than the sun, more than life itself. I would have waited a thousand years had she needed it to be ready to accept my hand.”
“Did she need it?” Vhalla tried to weed out the imperfection in his currently glowing tale.
“No, the feelings were mutual.” Jax looked at nothing for a long moment. Then a shift. Vhalla wasn’t sure if she imagined it. But his expression clicked into something different. “Or rather, I thought they were . . .
“We would spend days on end together. Every chance we had we would see each other, be with each other. We wanted nothing more than to be around each other just breathing each other’s air. Everything was going to be so perfect, a love arranged but that was also meant to be.”
There was an uneasy shroud hovering over his words. He rattled them off his tongue with nearly rehearsed precision. As though it was no longer Jax speaking, and he was possessed by the shroud of someone else, someone who had not actually endured what he was about to tell her.
“Until, one day, I decided I would surprise her. I was studying at the Academia of Arcane Arts. Or maybe I was instructing a class. I don’t remember why . . . maybe they needed my assistance.” He shook his head. “Either way, I was early home. Earlier than anyone expected.
“It had been a few days since I had seen her. Days that may as well have been eternity. I surprised her at her family’s home . . . It was quiet, so quiet.”
Vhalla’s heart slowed with unease at the mad glint overcoming Jax’s eyes.
“So quiet that I could hear them. I followed the sounds, the cries, to her room. I found her there. I found her completely bare and beneath another man.” Jax began to chuckle. It was dark and as ominous as low thunder across a stormy sky. “I’d never even had a woman. I thought it romantic that I’d save my flesh for her hands alone. But she had known this man. Time and time again from what I discovered in that dim room.
“Coupling has no romance to it.”
Vhalla bit her tongue at an immediate objection. The man before her was a world away from reason.
“Trust me, Vhalla. It is the most animalistic need that craves satiation. I’ve scoured the world for something more, but I’ve never found it. We’re all just carnal beings, hunting, clawing, seeking to consume each other to fill the holes we’ve carved into our hearts from trying to scrape out our own inadequacies.”
“What happened next?” Vhalla spoke after a long moment. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know the answer. But she knew she needed to know it.
“I killed them all.” He leaned back, slouching in his chair until his head rested on the back. His limbs were like long, willowy branches all stretched out. “First him. He had to die. He had to burn. He had touched her and oh, oh I killed him for it. I made her watch and she—” Jax choked on his tale a moment, but quickly regained his composure, “—she begged me to save him. She screamed for his life, as though she somehow loved him.