“I know all this already.” Vhalla was desperate for her to return to whatever comments she had on the future.
“Tell me, was the sacrifice worth it?” The woman once more folded her hands and leaned against the counter.
“Sacrifice?” Vhalla could think of a good many sacrifices, but she wasn’t about to let them roll off her tongue freely.
“The sacrifice of this world.”
“No, I didn’t—”
“For him, you hesitated in eradicating your magic when it was first born. For his defense, for his Empire, you took the axe, the last of the crystal weapons, and returned it to its birthplace. When you could have remained hidden, you sought answers to his truths. You cast aside the night’s shroud and dreams of home to stand on a sunlit stage.”
“No . . .” Vhalla’s heart was beginning to race. “No, I-I thought I was doing the right thing. Not just for him, but for everyone. I didn’t know. You should have told me all this before.”
“I did.” The ghost of a smile haunted the woman’s cheeks.
“No, yes, no!” Vhalla shook her head in frustration.
“Not in so many words,” Vi relented. “But the language of the Gods is hard to translate into mortal tongue. I did my best for you.”
“If I had known—”
“You wouldn’t have done anything differently.” Now there was a heavy sorrow in the woman’s voice. “I know that now. I have seen the vortex of fate clearly.”
“That’s not true,” Vhalla insisted.
The woman paused and passed judgment on Vhalla for a handful of minutes. “You were drawn by a man who ran the Black Tower, just as Aldrik was. You were taken to the caverns, just as he was. You were used to open a gate, just as he was. You were raised without a mother, just as he was. Pushed to battle, just as he was.
“In many ways, just as his father was before him.”
“Your mother was forced to watch her mother live in hiding, be persecuted and face the threat of judgment, or worse.” Vhalla’s fairly recent discoveries about her childhood added extra gravity to the woman’s words. “Your mother saw the same future in you.”
“You don’t know any of this,” Vhalla said stiffly.
“Just as I did not know the first words he ever spoke to you?” The woman arched a dark eyebrow.
“Who are you?” Vhalla’s voice was beginning to rise.
“I am the one who is about to offer you a choice. A choice that will change everything and set into motion that which can break the vortex.” Vi had finally reached her point. “Tell me, Vhalla, with what you can see in your limited view, how will a child of the Emperor grow?”
“What?” She didn’t even realize the palm that had instinctually covered her lower abdomen.
Vhalla’s eyes widened as the woman’s words finally hit home. She had lived without her mother. Aldrik had lived without his. If the woman’s implications were to be believed, then his father had lived without at least one of his parents. In light of recent information, Vhalla was forced to wonder about the exact details of why her mother had lived without her grandmother.
“No.” Vhalla had seen the briefest glimpse of the vortex the woman spoke of. The spinning fate that had trapped her and everyone she loved within it. She stumbled over to Vi, grabbing the woman’s warm hand. “Tell me this is not the truth you see in the flames!” Vhalla didn’t plead for her own mortality, but at the thought of leaving Aldrik and a child she had never met.
“Do you want me to lie?” the woman’s voice was a cool contrast to her skin. “I will not lie to you, but I will offer you a choice.”
“A choice?” she repeated numbly, a strange tingling surrounding Vhalla’s body, starting from the woman’s fingertips.
“If you leave now, you will remain trapped. You and all you know and love will continue onward, time and time again, forever. Fate has grown too hungry, and it will never have its fill.”
“Or . . .?” Vhalla braced herself.
“Or you build a new fate.” The woman reached into the wide sash wrapped around her waist. She pulled on a silver chain, producing a familiar plain pocket watch. “Regain your powers as a Windwalker and be the crux by which balance can be restored to this world.”
“Is that . . .” Had she made an unintentional vessel all those months ago? “Of cour—” Vhalla stopped herself, changing her words. “Yes, I want to build a new fate.”
The woman pulled the watch away, snapping it into her palm when Vhalla reached for it. “I told you, fate is hungry, and it must have its due. You cannot gain a future without sacrificing the one that lies before you.”
“What must I do?”
“You choose if you will be the Empress this world needs. If you will sacrifice your future upon the altar of fate, before the eyes of Gods and men. If you will become an Empress that can save this world. If you will enter into a pact with me to ensure that the vortex is finally quieted.” Vi watched Vhalla’s reaction carefully with her glittering, dangerous eyes. “Buy time, with time.”
A hand clasped around Aldrik’s watch, knowing instantly what the woman wanted.