“Damn you both.” Elecia wasn’t giving up gracefully. “You’ll get yourselves killed, and that’s the end of that.”
“Nothing will happen to either of us.”
“You can’t honestly believe that, Aldrik.”
“Oh, enough,” Jax groaned. “If you’re that worried, I’ll do it.”
“What?” the three said in unison.
“ ‘Cia is right, Aldrik.” Vhalla had never heard anyone other than Aldrik use Elecia’s childhood nickname, but Elecia made no objection to it being uttered by Jax’s lips. “You must live, and you know it. But me? My life means nothing. So I’ll be her sworn defender.”
“Your life isn’t nothing,” Vhalla couldn’t stop herself from objecting.
Jax tilted his head back with laughter. “You still don’t really know much about me, do you?”
Vhalla pressed her lips together in frustrated thought. She searched for a way to object, and yet she couldn’t, which was all the more aggravating.
“Why?” Aldrik seemed more curious than disbelieving.
Vhalla inhaled a sharp breath, the name like an ice dagger to her gut. She remembered what Victor had said about the late prince, about quartering his body and feeding it to the dogs. Her hand rose up to massage the angry scar that covered her shoulder to chest.
“The last order I received from him was to protect her—”
“Fine job you did of it,” Aldrik remarked curtly.
Jax faltered a moment, a wounded expression overcoming his face.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Vhalla insisted, equally sharp. “What happened is on my shoulders.” She wasn’t going to let Jax take Aldrik’s ire for it.
“Let me have another chance.” Jax was relentless. “I am owned by the crown. It’s a fitting duty.”
Elecia averted her eyes at the reminder, as though she could un-hear the truth that spilled from Jax’s lips. Vhalla knew his situation had been similar to her previous enslavement, but she had no idea how it had come to pass. It was now something she desperately wanted to know.
“That leash now transfers to you, my Emperor.” Aldrik seemed more bothered by what Jax was saying than Jax himself.
The conversation was moving too fast for Vhalla to inquire about what leash.
“Order me to do it, and I’ll defend her to my dying breath. I’ll treat her life as my own. I’ll do it for Baldair and for you, my sovereign.”
Aldrik considered it, much to Vhalla’s shock.
“Come now, I’m not the hero type. Let me have this moment as we go out and save the world.” Jax gave a toothy grin as easily as if he was talking about the weather.
“Jax, I am not in the mood for levity.” Aldrik pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. “Very well.”
“Excuse me?” Vhalla finally entered the conversation, sharply. “I get no say in this? I said I can take care of myself.”
“Then use me only for those times when you can’t take care of yourself,” Jax countered easily. Sensing her continuing objection, he added, “Don’t take Baldair’s last order from me.”
It was part threat, part anger, part sorrow, and all determination. Vhalla bowed her head, frustrated. He was tugging on just the right heartstring to get what he wanted, and she hated him for it.
“All right,” she agreed weakly. “But find me a sword the first moment we can.”
“Well, if there is nothing else.” Aldrik cast a wary eye toward Elecia. “We leave at sundown.”
They followed their Emperor’s decrees, every last one of them. They tacked the horses and filled their bellies with the last hot meal they were likely to get for the foreseeable future. The Charem family swore their secret loyalty even as Aldrik ordered them to bend knee in body—but not in heart—to Victor. After the moon had begun its journey into the sky, they rode out swathed in the darkest cloaks the Charems owned.
The Emperor Solaris led his loyal few into the uncertain darkness.
They had underestimated Victor, specifically the speed at which his abominations could be created and moved. Those forced to follow his will were going to be subjected to death by ten thousand papercuts from witnessing those they loved being turned into horrors. And this would be before Victor began mobilizing an actual structured army to take the continent. That is if any survived to object to Victor’s rule.
As the Emperor and his loyalists arrived at the first tiny town beyond Fritz’s home, they discovered it painted red with blood.
Half frozen bodies, glistening crimson, littered the ground in the mid-morning sun. Men, women, children—the young and old—were reduced to shades of former life. Vhalla stared on tiredly. It shouldn’t hurt any longer, but pain sat rooted in her chest. She had seen this before. She had lived this blood-stained life recently, now more real than when she had filed books away in the Imperial Library.
Vhalla unfurled the vise-like grip she held on her reins and raised a hand to her shoulder, soaked through to skin from the heavily falling snow. Her fingers massaged the angry scar tissue. It ached and stung all the way down her arm. The physical pain was a mask for the visceral guilt that tore its way through her.