“Well, something is different.” Elecia blinked her eyes a few times, and inspected her again. “I don’t know enough to determine if it is a Bond or not. But there is some kind of strange synthesis.”
“What do you think it is?” Aldrik asked.
“I just said I don’t know.” Elecia shook her head.
“Well, he doesn’t have your magic in him,” Aldrik pointed out with a finger. “It’s just the crown.”
“True.” Elecia didn’t put up much of a fight. “But who knows what he has accomplished with all his crystal work. Vhalla seems to already be able to use crystal magic like Victor. A feat she never really accomplished with your Bond, which was quite strong. Crystals break all the rules of magic we know, and those rules surrounding Bonding are fuzzy at best.”
“But this could be good.” Jax rubbed his chin, no longer the silent observer. “We saw it today; you can tear down what he makes like it’s nothing. This could be a useful tool.”
“I am not a tool.” Vhalla looked at him darkly. “Would you want the madman in you? How would you like to feel his rage burning under your flesh? Then maybe you wouldn’t think it’s so damned convenient!”
They all stared at her in shock. Vhalla’s mouth dropped open as well, struggling to find words—words that were truly hers. It was like a switch on her emotions that she no longer knew how to control. Jax, for once, had no dark or perverse retort. Vhalla buried her face into her palms.
“I’m tired,” she mumbled, unable to face them a moment longer.
Hands, hot palms, slid over her, easing over the invisible wounds that bled under her skin. Aldrik engulfed her, smoke, sweat, fire, and scent all his own. Vhalla trembled, she wanted to push away the emotions that were threatening to break out. She tried to drown the unwelcome disgust that coated the back of her mouth with thoughts of Aldrik’s love.
“Friends, leave us.”
Vhalla heard shuffling and was almost content to let them leave without another word. But she had to clutch onto the things that made her Vhalla, and her friends were one of those things.
“Jax.” She pulled her head away from Aldrik’s chest. He stopped, just within the light of the campfire. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t let it trouble you, Empress.” If Jax was putting on a front, he did quite a good job at feigning earnestness.
“Come, my Vhalla.” Aldrik pulled her to her feet. “There is a warm bedroll waiting for us.”
Vhalla stopped trying to fight him. She gave into the comfort of her husband’s presence. One foot, then the next, it was the only thing that she filled her mind with, afraid if she went too far in any direction, Victor would take over.
Under the blankets, Aldrik coaxed out the stubborn stiffness anxiety had put in her shoulders and arms. His heated caress, his soothing whisper. It drew Vhalla against him, basking in his love as though it were the only thing that would keep her alive now.
“I don’t want this . . .” she breathed in Aldrik’s essence to fuel her frightful confession. “I can feel him. Even now, lurking back behind my thoughts. Waiting for the currents of magic and minds to let him have a hold again.”
Aldrik held her hand bone-crushingly tight, bringing it to his lips to kiss her fingertips.
“I’m Bonded to that man. I lost our Bond, and now—”
“It is not a Bond,” Aldrik spoke with conviction.
“I know this feeling, this—”
He silenced her with a firm kiss. One that was magical enough to muster hope. “We shared a Bond,” he whispered across her lips. “A Bond is wonderous. A Bond is life. It is the most beautiful connection that can ever be shared. This—this is not a Bond.”
Vhalla kept her mouth silent. A wolf was not a dog because you called it so. But she would give her husband hope, even if she couldn’t share it. Vhalla closed her eyes and gave herself to his reassurances. She hoped that by morning she could actually believe them.
“Victor.” The Emperor Tiberus Solaris was removing his plate with the assistance of various servants. He stood in an open space with polearms displayed on the walls, their points still sharpened and oiled. The tiling was vaguely familiar, white marble laid at a diamond pattern. “You know I am very busy right now with the festival starting soon.”
“I know, my lord,” the Minister of Sorcery acknowledged with a bow. “But you told me to come to you with the results of my research on your future campaigns.”
“You have found something useful?” The Emperor looked at Victor through his reflection in a large mirror. His arms held straight out, the help had almost finished removing the many layers of complex plate that made up his ceremonial armor.
“Very useful.” Victor struggled to keep the apparent glee from curling his mouth. “But tell me first, where is your eldest son now?”
The Emperor turned to the minister and arched a single brow. Victor smiled calmly. It was a smug little look that breathed of arrogance and assurance. It was a bold front to put before the late-Emperor Solaris, and one people only did when they were certain that the information they possessed outweighed any potential ire.
“Leave us,” the Emperor ordered, his eyes focused on Victor. The servants cleared the room on command. Dressed down to just pants and a thick cotton tunic, the Emperor took a step toward Victor, regarding him carefully. “Were it not for your manner, I would presume he would be making the necessary preparations for our court dinner for the start of the Festival of the Sun.”