“Like a God?” Vhalla tried to confirm she knew what Sehra was claiming before she passed judgment on it.
Za laughed at the question. “Only Gods are Gods.”
“More like an agent of the Gods,” Sehra elaborated. “You have much interest?”
“I do.” Vhalla swallowed, easing the next words between her lips with as much grace and strength as she possessed. “I want to know more about where my first born will spend their childhood, should it all come to pass.”
The wind agreed gustily with Vhalla’s words, whipping snow and hair across her face. Sehra remained so still that Vhalla wondered if she’d thought, rather than spoken, the words.
“Do not fear so deeply, Vhalla Yarl.” Sehra made a fist with her right hand, clasping the left over it. The gesture meant nothing to Vhalla, but she understood enough meaning—that there was peace, strength, and respect ahead for them all—from the princess’s expression. “The path you chose to walk with me is not easy. But it is right.”
Deeming the conversation finished, Za and Sehra disappeared. Vhalla felt like she’d ended up with more questions than answers. She paced around, racking her brain for everything she’d read on the North, but it was precious little. Vhalla felt frustrated with herself. She could name almost all the Southern kings in order, but not one of the Northern Head Clans.
The crunching of snow and the whinny of a horse cut through her thoughts. Vhalla turned away from the structure where the mounts were tethered. Something spooked the horse: a snow hare, a fox creeping from its den. Her fingers closed around the hilt of her sword, debating whether to drawing it. Would the sound alert any potential threat? Would it give up a potential advantage she had?
She briefly thought about waking Jax or Elecia or Aldrik, but the soft glow of the firelight winking through the gaps in the hung cloaks had just faded. They had only just fallen asleep, and she wouldn’t wake them for what was likely nothing.
Vhalla held her breath as she rounded the corner of the structure where the horses were tethered. She saw nothing. Just when she was about to relax, the snow crunched to her right.
She swung the sword on instinct. Vhalla caught sight of Imperial armor, a palace guard. The world slowed as she arced her sword down into the man’s shoulder. It rang out against his plate, alerting the rest of her group.
The sword hummed as it fell from Vhalla’s hands. She stared in shock at the ghost who confronted her. It couldn’t be.
“What the—?” Jax was the fastest to rouse, bursting through the hanging cloak and skidding to a stop as he rounded the corner.
The man gripped her without hesitation. Spinning her in place, Vhalla was compressed against a familiar chest, and he held her head against his shoulder with a palm over her mouth. A dagger was at her throat in an instant.
Aldrik was fast on Jax’s heels, his eyes were aflame with rage the moment they landed on the blade pressing into her throat.
“Don’t move,” a rough masculine voice demanded. “If you don’t want her to die, don’t move.”
“I’m going to take one of your horses,” the man continued. “You’ll let me or she dies.”
“You don’t know who you’ve picked a fight with, friend.” Jax shook his head with a laugh. He stepped forward into the snow and froze. Vhalla watched as his eyes alighted with comprehension. Jax heard what she had heard. He saw what had made her willingly disarm herself. “Daniel?”
Vhalla closed her eyes in relief.
“Wh-who-what?” Daniel’s grip loosened some. “No, no impossible. It’s not possible.” With a growl, Daniel jerked her back toward him, tightening his hold. “Don’t lie to me, specter.”
“Daniel.” Jax held up his hands in a motion that was meant to show harmlessness. Vhalla briefly appreciated its irony, coming from a man who could summon flame with a thought. “It’s me, Jax. The woman you are holding is Vhalla.”
The man holding her, the person who spoke with Daniel’s voice and wore enough of Daniel’s image to convince Jax, let out a rasp that was nearly inhuman in its craze. He cackled, and it squelched the small bud of hope that had bloomed in Vhalla’s stomach.
“I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re a liar. The Lady Vhalla Yarl is dead.”
She wished he’d loosen his grip over her mouth long enough for her to get a word in.
“Daniel,” Fritz spoke softly, taking a step from behind Jax. “She’s not dead, she’s right—”
“Don’t tell me she’s alive! I watched her die on the Sunlit Stage! I watched him force her to kneel as he let his monsters tear her apart limb from limb.” He was nearly shouting, and Vhalla hoped that Sehra had been correct in there being no crystal magic, and therefore abominations, nearby.
Who had died in the public execution?
“Next.” Daniel laughed again, the blade biting into her throat from his trembling hand. “Next you’ll be telling me that-that the man standing there is . . .”
The words faded into the wind. Aldrik’s eyes were alight with rage, his posture rigid. But his focus had shifted off Vhalla and onto Daniel, presumably meeting his eyes.
“I am the Emperor Solaris,” Aldrik finished, dangerously quiet.