“You did?” Vhalla realized the low display case the woman stood behind was empty. Shelves that were once cluttered with all manner of items were now barren, occupied only by shadow.
“That was not the first time you have heard such, Vhalla Yarl.” The woman stepped into the circle of light created by the candle, and Vhalla could see her more clearly. She was once more draped in robes, but this time they were of a pristine white, trimmed in gold. Her long black hair cut a sharp contrast against the garment. Vhalla blinked in surprise at someone so boldly wearing the Imperial colors. “Wasn’t it true then, as well?”
“What are you talking about?” Aldrik’s face from the first night they had met in the library was clear across her memory.
“You know of what I speak.” The woman placed her fingertips on the table, dragging them as she slowly walked around. “The man whose crown you have worn spoke those words to you.”
“How do you know that?” Vhalla raised a hand to her forehead, remembering when Aldrik had placed his crown upon her brow in his chambers at the palace. There was no one else there then, and she nor Aldrik had told anyone.
“I know it the same way I knew your name the first time we met. This knowing is why you have sought me out.”
“If you know so much, then you know why I am here.” Vhalla reminded herself to be brave. She would not show fear, no matter what powers this woman possessed. Her bravery came easy, a soft whisper in the back of Vhalla’s mind reassuring her that she would not be harmed here.
“I do.” The woman folded her hands before her, leaning against the case. With the candle at her back, the woman’s features were shrouded in shadow. But her eyes. Vhalla was surely imagining their unnatural glow, a trick of the light, perhaps . . .
“Then let’s begin. Do you still have the supplies?” Vhalla looked around the empty room.
“Let us,” the woman agreed. “But I do not need supplies this night.”
“Isn’t that how curiosity shops work?”
“You have already cast your future to the flames and marked the three intersections of fate, Vhalla Yarl.” The woman held up a fist, uncurling fingers as she spoke. “At one such intersection I tried to guide you. At the other, I made an effort of saving you. You only have one meeting left now with me.”
“What?” Vhalla struggled to comprehend the woman’s meaning. She had only met Vi once before, and that was in this shop. Or so she thought. The night she stole Achel, the image of magic, glittering through the air like feathers, came to mind. “In the North? Was it you?”
“And the Knights of Jadar, the windmill.” Wheat.
“It was,” she repeated.
“What are you?” Chill horror poured ice into Vhalla’s veins. The Crossroads suddenly felt a world away, and Vhalla felt very alone with the woman before her. “Why are you doing this?”
“Tonight is not a night for your questions,” Vi declared. “I possess great strength, but coming to you when you are not at an intersection of fate is exhausting for even me.”
“If you will not answer my questions, then we have no further business.” Vhalla stepped backward, reaching for the curtain of the door and unable to find it.
“Tell me, do you love this world?”
The question caught Vhalla off-guard. “Of course I do.”
“Of course,” the woman repeated. “You don’t realize how much you say that. Of course you will do this, of course you will go there, of course you will oblige the demands made upon you.”
The many times Vhalla had said those words rushed through her mind. She didn’t say it that often, did she? Surely no more often than anyone else.
“Do you know why?” Strands of hair slipped over the woman’s shoulder as she tilted her head to the side quizzically. The question was clearly rhetorical as she continued, “Because it is what you were made for. Those things were what you were meant to do. Long before you ever met your prince or arrived at his castle, red strands of fate pulled you from the East, setting it all into motion.”
“You speak of the Mother.”
“If that is the name you choose.” The woman smiled. “You are trapped in a vortex. Time and again, you will repeat your fate dutifully. If we cannot change fate itself and save our world.”
The woman stepped away from the case. Barefoot, she didn’t make a sound as she floated over to Vhalla. Closer now, Vhalla could no longer deny the red glint to Vi’s eyes.
“Let me see you,” she whispered.
Vhalla was transfixed, helpless to do anything more than let the woman lower her hood. The woman’s face held an odd sort of longing tinted with sorrow.
“You are younger than I expected, and so much weight on your shoulders, future Empress.”
“I will be the Empress?” Vhalla jumped at the first definitive thing she’d heard in the Firebearer’s words.
“You will be.” The woman stepped away. “I told you then, you would find what you sought.”
“But I never sought—”
“You sought him,” the woman interrupted with a sudden intensity. “You knew who he was and what his title meant. You knew, even if you didn’t admit it to yourself; you knew what being with him would lead to. And now you have him.”