“You and Jax.” Vhalla focused on the corner of the room instead of the bare-chested man before her. “Are you truly close?”
“He told you,” Aldrik breathed.
“How can you let him stay as he is?” Vhalla couldn’t fathom why Aldrik tolerated Jax’s presence, how Aldrik seemed to consider the other Western lord his friend. It seemed against everything she thought she knew of her lover.
“He wants it this way,” Aldrik said gently. “I never had the ability to free him until recently.”
“You would free him?” she balked. “He-he did something wretched.”
“Men who have done worse walk free.” Guilt crossed Aldrik’s features.
“What he did is nothing like what happened with you and the caverns.” Vhalla gripped her Emperor’s hands tightly. Aldrik looked surprised a moment, confirming that she’d guessed correctly. She’d come to know the demons he carried as well as the man himself.
“Very well,” Aldrik thought aloud. “You were able to forgive me and my crimes, perhaps you will be able to forgive his. I attached his life to yours, so it’s only fitting.”
“What is?” She frowned.
“You control his freedom, his fate.”
“Vhalla, you will be Empress someday. If you cannot decide the fate of one man, how will you ever be able to pass judgment on the masses?” The infuriating royal was using this as a learning experience. “I wish I could spare you from it, but—”
“But you cannot,” she finished for him. The words were as heavy as lead. This was the price of her love. The cost of being with the man she had chosen. “What if I never decide that he has atoned?”
“Then that is your decision to live with.”
“You can be heartless,” Vhalla weakly replied with a small smile.
“You wound me.” His palms rested on her hips. “If I am heartless, it is because a library girl stole my heart.”
“You think you can distract me with your honeyed words?” She played coy, resting the back of her head against the doorframe.
“I think I can,” he proclaimed, and kissed her lightly.
Vhalla didn’t want to agree with him, but the Emperor could be persuasive when he wanted.
“Now, Vhalla, I know I am one gorgeous specimen of a man, but I fear you will make your intended jealous if you continue to stare like that.” Jax grinned at her.
“I was not staring,” she mumbled, looking at the road ahead. They’d been riding for three days straight and were nearing the border between the East and the West. And the only easiness she clung to was that her stomach had thankfull quieted down.
“My lord,” Jax called across her to Aldrik. “I do not think it safe to have your lady around me.”
“I do not think I have much cause for concern from the likes of you,” Aldrik remarked dryly.
“Vhal’s only ever had eyes for one man,” Fritz added helpfully.
Elecia hummed and glanced at Vhalla from the corners of her eyes. The woman kept her mouth shut, but the look put the thought of Daniel into Vhalla’s mind. Vhalla met the other woman’s gaze and held it until Elecia looked away. Elecia didn’t know what she and Daniel had been or, rather, hadn’t been. She would not be made guilty for it.
The moment Elecia’s attention was no longer on her, Vhalla shifted in her saddle, hiding another look in Jax’s direction.
She still felt uneasy around the long-haired Westerner whose life she now owned. She knew this was a test of Aldrik’s to keep her calm and to learn how to manage herself around someone who made her feel conflicted emotions. If she couldn’t figure out how she felt about Jax, she was going to be hopeless when it came to managing the snakes at the Southern court. Assuming the Southern court was ever in session again.
Word of the attack on Hastan had rippled throughout the East on the backs of the messengers Vhalla had sent to call for soldiers. The towns they had stopped in and the inns they stayed at held a quiet that hadn’t been present before. War was coming, and it didn’t care if the people were ready or not.
The fields around them changed, crops differing with the shifting landscape. The soil was lighter, sandier, and the small rivers and streams that wove through the East were less full as they approached the West.
At the end of the third day, they ran into another Inquisitor group. Aldrik offered them the same deal he’d offered the prior Inquisitors, and the Southerners were all too happy to forsake the false king. At least, that’s what it seemed like. Vhalla held her tongue and let her expression betray nothing throughout the encounter. She wasn’t going to give away their intentions like before and endanger more people.
Through the former-Inquisitors, they learned of Victor’s latest decrees. The madman was finally acknowledging Aldrik and Vhalla were alive, though they were being painted as demons who rose from the dead, twisted and corrupt. It wasn’t the first time Vhalla had been called a demon, and she’d happily wear the mantle again if it cracked the resolve of Victor’s followers.
The Inquisitors told them that dissenters in the South were becoming commonplace and more citizens were using the opportunity to be an Inquisitor to escape the perpetually red streets. Victor’s personal army—the Black Brigade, as they were called—weeded out anyone who was potentially loyal to the old crown.