“I said go,” Jax demanded.
Vhalla obliged him and stepped back into the sunlight of the dusty training ground.
She ignored every look from the soldiers, unashamed of her activities with Jax. There were some things that, as Empress, she didn’t have to explain. Vhalla didn’t want to exercise her authority often or without good reason. But this qualified as a good reason.
Vhalla escaped their eyes and started up a small stair that wound straight up to the king’s and queen’s—or now the Emperor’s and Empress’s—chambers. She made it several steps before she stopped to catch her breath, leaning against the wall for support. Her knees trembled, and her arm couldn’t seem to support her. She slid down the wall and sat on the steps, her chest heaving for air.
She’d gone hunting for the truth, and she had finally found it. But what did she do with it? Aldrik had said that he’d put Jax’s life into her hands. That it would fall to her to pardon the man or let him continue on with his service.
After meeting all the lords and ladies, Vhalla knew that the West valued tradition above all other things. They saw Jax as a fallen lord; pardoning him would likely earn their ire. But Vhalla didn’t want to keep him under her command by holding a leash that she didn’t think was necessary.
Though, did Jax even want to be pardoned? Was justice still just if it went against the person’s fundamental wishes? She had so many questions but not a single answer.
Vhalla pulled herself off the floor. There was someone else she hadn’t fielded thoughts from. Someone who had just as much noble training as Aldrik. Someone else who’d been born to lead.
She knocked on Elecia’s door and waited.
“Enter,” the woman called.
Vhalla obliged and was surprised to find she had company. “Fritz? What’re you doing here?”
“ ‘Cia is teaching me how to play carcivi.” He pointed to the board that sat on the low table between them.
“ ‘Cia? Does everyone get to call you ‘Cia but me?” Vhalla joined them in front of the open window.
“We’ll see if I ever deem you worthy,” Elecia joked back. She studied Vhalla for a long moment from the corners of her eyes. “So, future Empress, why are you here when I’m fairly certain you have other far more important people to be meeting?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Me?” She seemed surprised that Vhalla would seek her out.
“Yes. I want your advice,” Vhalla affirmed.
“What about mine?” Fritz squinted at Vhalla, making a show of pouting.
“Yours is always welcome, Fritz.” The Southerner would add a completely different perspective from someone who wasn’t of the West and wasn’t nobility either.
“Don’t you have an Emperor you could ask?” Elecia ignored the carcivi board entirely now, giving Vhalla her full attention.
“I do, but I know what he’ll say. I want to know what you’ll say.” Vhalla gave the skeptical woman a small smile. “What kind of Empress will I be if I ignore some of the best counsel available to me?”
Elecia seemed surprised. She tapped on one of the carcivi tokens for a moment in thought. “Very well, what is it you seek?”
“I spoke with Jax.” Vhalla let the weight of the interaction with Jax pull down her voice, taking the smile off her cheeks with it.
“I see.” Elecia heard everything Vhalla had hoped for.
“I know the truth now.”
“He told you?” Elecia seemed surprised. “The truth? Not one of his colorful lies that he uses to scare people away?”
“He told me one of those first.” Vhalla wanted to put to rest any confusion over what she really did or did not know.
“And you got the truth out of him . . .” There was a concerned glint to Elecia’s voice that Vhalla affirmed with a small nod. Got the truth out of him, that was a good way to put it, because it certainly hadn’t been graceful. “So, if you know, what do you need from me?”
“What are you two talking about?” Fritz reminded them both that he was still there.
Vhalla and Elecia shared an uncertain look. “Fritz—” they started at the same time.
“Fritz,” Vhalla took the lead. This was her responsibility now. She was the one who had dredged it up, she would be the one who would handle it. “Jax is owned by the crown as a punishment for a crime.”
Fritz didn’t seem shocked, but his expression told her clearly that this was the first time he was hearing it put so simply.
“But the crime, however heinous it seems on the surface, isn’t what it appears. He’s innocent.”
“Not quite,” Elecia interjected with a heavy sigh. “He did kill the lord—”
“But, given the circumstances—”
“I understand that.” Elecia held up a hand, indicating that she now had the floor, and Vhalla would wait to speak. “But that fact remains. And while that murder may have been in the defense of another, he killed the lord’s wife and other child in cold blood.”
Vhalla wouldn’t quite have described Jax’s blood as cold. “But only because they knew what was happening.”
“Even still,” Elecia shook her head. “It’s all a gray area mess. When his betrothed ran into the fire, his emotions were too far gone to stop the flames. He’s not as guilty as he makes himself sound, I’ll grant you that, but he’s not innocent either.”