“And if-if Fritz is still with you . . . If he’s there. Fritz, by the Mother. I am doing all I can. Tell me he is well. Tell me my dreams are not lies. Because I still, I can still dream.”
The water stilled and mirrored the motionless trio standing around the dish. Fritz made a strangled noise and dropped his face into his wet palms. Vhalla was at his side in a rush, clutching him, supporting him as his knees went weak. His sobs burned her eyes and ripped through the remaining shreds of her heart.
“Vh-Vhal, we must go to him.”
“We are,” she soothed, rubbing her friend’s back.
“He-he sounds so scared!” Fritz buried his face where her neck met her shoulder.
“I know.” Vhalla took a deep breath. “But he is also strong. Just as you are. We will stand with him on the other side of this.”
Her words may have been lies. Vhalla knew she would live with that forever if they were. But as the truth had yet to unfurl its grand design upon the tapestry of time, Vhalla was content to make such a vow.
She helped Fritz back to his room. Aldrik excused himself to handle other business, giving the two friends time with just each other. The sun was already setting, and, in a complete reversal of what he had once done before, Vhalla saw him bathed and tucked into bed before leaving. Reminding him that the sooner he slept, the sooner the dawn would come.
The day had been one somber reminder after the next that death was at their doorstep. Their time of preparation and—for lack of more eloquent, nicer words—hiding was over. They were about to stand upon the precipice and greet true evil. And Vhalla only wanted people to join of their own free will.
She found Jax and Elecia talking near a back storeroom in the training grounds. They were arguing over how many potions of this or that to bring when Vhalla interrupted them.
“Jax, a moment.”
“Ah, how I have longed for the moment you seek me out by your lonesome when the moon is in the heavens above,” he held out his arms dramatically, as though Vhalla would believe a word of what he said as sincerity.
“It’s important.” Her words shifted Jax’s expression from the light-hearted and fun-loving major to the darker soldier that Vhalla had become more familiar with during her time in Norin. Elecia was keen enough to excuse herself.
“What is it, Lady Solaris?” he asked as Vhalla shut the door behind him in a small side hall. “I don’t think either of us need to be reminded of, or want to repeat, the last time you pulled me off the training grounds for a private little chat.”
“Why do you think I picked a hallway this time?” Vhalla motioned to the left and right. “Look, we can both pick a different escape route.”
The Jax she plucked from the grounds would’ve laughed. This Jax remained solemn at her remark, assessing her warily. Vhalla clenched her fists, opening her Channel for good measure.
“We march with the dawn.”
“You didn’t pull me here to tell me that.”
“Do you want to go?” Vhalla cut straight to the point.
“I don’t know where else I would be. I have not been told to vacate my post as your guard. I realize it’s not been necessary here, but when we march again—”
“Is that what you want to do?” she interrupted him. “Do you want that post?”
“It is an order.” The panic she’d been expecting all along finally began to sneak up on him.
“No, that’s what I’m telling you; it’s not.”
He shook his head in horror. Vhalla could feel him willing her not to say the words, but she would say them anyway, for them both.
“I pardon you.” Vhalla stood as tall as she could, trying to evoke the Empress that people expected to see. An Empress that Vhalla didn’t even know if she’d ever be. “Jax Wendyl, for your crimes—”
“Don’t,” he breathed.
“I hereby grant you an Imperial pardon. You are a free man and you can now go where you will.”
“Your first Imperial pardon, on me?” His words were cut with laughter. “They will make a fool of you.”
“Let them.” Vhalla shrugged. “You know how I care so deeply for the opinions of others. I will write my name and your pardon in the Western record. A record no one will ever see. It’s up to you from here.”
“So I am your shameful act in a dark hall?” he sneered.
“No.” Vhalla remained resolute. “If you want to tell the world, then tell them. I merely am respecting your choice as a free man.” Vhalla braved a step forward. “Jax, if you stand with me as my guard, I want you to stand with me of your own will. Not because you are ordered. Not as my slave. But as my friend and comrade—or I don’t want you there at all.”
“You don’t understand . . . I’m the mad dog. I’m the fallen lord. I’m the one who the lords hide their daughters from and only feel safe around when I am on an imperial leash!” he snapped. “Do you think you can make me worth her? That you can absolve me and make me someone that she could look upon with fondness from the Father’s realms?”
“No.” Vhalla kept her voice calm and level, realizing he was very close to lashing out as he had last time. “That’s something that is well beyond my power to give. Such a thing must come from you.”