“Her family tried to stop me. They returned at her screams, and they tried to stop me. But they knew. They knew what had been happening. They needed to die as well. They burned, and she . . .”
Jax began laughing. It was a growl that rose from the depths of his throat and had him howling in morbid amusement in a moment. Vhalla failed to see the humor, but it was clearly the truth to his insanity. He stopped suddenly, looking back at her.
“Then, there was only me. I honestly don’t even remember half the magic that leapt from my fingers as arcs of fire across their flesh. But I do remember the satisfaction when they burned. Their blood was the first on my virgin hands.”
Vhalla was mortal. She’d had her streaks of jealousy, and she’d overcome them. She understood the nasty feelings that could rise in people; she’d lived enough now to have seen it from all sides. But this, this was more than she could comprehend. No matter what situation, she could never imagine herself harming Aldrik. What kind of love was a love that led a man to kill that which he coveted? Was such a love stronger than the one she held?
“I didn’t resist capture. By the Mother, I even pled guilty! There was nothing more for me. My future died with her, the woman I loved, the woman I killed. Lord Ophain stripped me of my title and rank.” Jax stood, wrapping up his tale with a nonchalant motion. “I should’ve been killed; that is the punishment for murder, after all.”
“Why weren’t you?” She tried to make sense of it all. Jax had survived for years. He had served under and even been respected by Baldair. Vhalla knew well what opinions the younger prince had held toward men who harmed women.
“You want me dead that badly?” Jax laughed.
“Answer the question.” Vhalla was no longer in the mood for his games.
Jax rolled his eyes and obliged. “I had a friend, someone better than I deserved. His brother and I had studied at the academy together, which was how we met. He came to my defense, pleading madness. He argued that the woman was the one who erred in breaking our contract. He came from an old family, and his name was both a help and a hindrance in court.”
“Erion.” Vhalla pieced it together. If Lord Ophain Ci’Dan had been overseeing Jax’s trial, the only name that could be a hindrance was the Le’Dan name. It also explained Jax’s connection to the guard.
“Bing-bong,” Jax chimed. He was morbidly chipper for being knee-deep in rehashing his dark history. “He managed to stall everything long enough for him to explain things to his friend, who was even higher.”
“Baldair . . .” Just the name evoked sorrow.
“The two of them constructed a new punishment for me. One that even Lord Ophain decided was fitting.” The Westerner paused at the door. “I would serve in the Golden Guard to pay my debt back to the people. If I did anything questionable, I would be killed.”
The terms were all too familiar to Vhalla. “For how long?”
“Until the end of my days.”
“Forever?” Even though she was once owned by the crown, Vhalla couldn’t imagine the notion of never-ending servitude. “You’re a slave.”
“I still prefer the title soldier.” He shrugged. “Though some still prefer to call me lord, as though it never happened, as though I could have been justified in what I did, as though I still have a family. Others at least add ‘fallen’ first.”
“Have you ever sought freedom?”
“No.” Jax looked through her. “That would be something I’d need to earn, not ask for. And my sins would never merit a pardon.”
“But your family—”
“I can’t look at myself in the mirror. Do you think I could ever face them again? I died to them the day I killed the woman I loved.”
Silence settled between them, still and heavy. Vhalla knew that, as the Empress, she’d have to face ugliness, horrors. But she wasn’t ready for those horrors to come from those she considered her friends. Then again, what were she and Jax now? It seemed she’d never really known the man.
Vhalla looked at him with fresh eyes, and it seemed he did the same. Things had changed between them, and Vhalla knew it was on her to decide how that change would manifest. Luckily, Jax didn’t seem eager to force her into a choice.
“If you require anything, future Empress, call for me and I will fetch it.” Jax gave a small bow. “Don’t forget, our Emperor decreed that my life is yours.”
“As if I needed a reminder . . .” Vhalla muttered at the door as it clicked closed behind Jax.
She leaned back, gripping her shirt over her stomach. She had been feeling better, but that unsettled sick feeling had returned in all its fury. Vhalla barely had enough time to escape the records room, bolting for her own chambers, before the sickness bubbled up.
“Vhalla?” Aldrik emerged from the door connecting their rooms.
Vhalla peeled herself away from the basin. Her knees felt a little shaky, and she leaned against the wall for support. She hadn’t expected Jax’s story to affect her so strongly.
“I thought you’d be out with the Western lords.”
“I came back to change before lunch.” He cast aside the muddy trousers he’d been carrying, crossing over to her. “Are you still unwell? Have you seen Elecia?”
Vhalla shook her head. She didn’t need a cleric. She needed the truth. She needed to know if everything Jax had just filled her head with was real.