There was a long moment of silence while Victor clearly weighed his options for how to proceed. “What do you know of the common girl named Vhalla Yarl?”
“Vhalla Yarl?” The Emperor shook his head. “The name is not familiar. I usually make little effort to remember the names of the lowborn.”
“He has not sent one report to you about her?” Victor stroked his goatee thoughtfully. He made a show of speaking to himself. “I’m sure it just slipped Aldrik’s mind.”
The Emperor’s expression changed momentarily at Victor’s words. The royal had taken the bait.
“I am sure her name will be well known by you soon enough,” Victor assured.
“Why?” the Emperor asked cautiously.
“Your son is with her now,” Victor reported triumphantly.
“Aldrik?” The Emperor seemed genuinely surprised, but quickly waved it off. “Aldrik is not one to fraternize with common folk. I try not to get in the way of his amusements when it comes to playing his mind games with them. Keeps a healthy amount of fear in those beneath our notice.”
“If anything, she has played a mind game on him.” Victor’s tone turned serious, not wanted to heed the obvious dismissal of the topic. “Every time he comes to me, he inquires after her well-being. He trained her personally. He carried her to me following an incident, cradled in his arms and begged me to help her. He races to her side at every possible moment. We both know he has previously made some less than ideal choices off the lower rungs of society.”
“I am not worried about a child.” The Emperor folded his hands behind his back and leisurely strolled over to a window, looking over his city. “If she is a problem, I will remove her like . . . Oh, what was her name?”
“Inad?” Victor finished easily.
Vhalla recognized the name of Aldrik’s first love.
“Yes, her.” The Emperor nodded. “I appreciate your diligence now, like then, Victor, but I am not worried. Now, I think this conversation—”
“This girl is able to give you the means to conquer the Crescent Continent,” Victor interjected quickly.
“What?” The Emperor turned in place, too invested in Victor’s words to be upset by the interruption.
“That’s why I thought Aldrik would tell you. I realize you’ve been keeping your overseas visions from him, but I thought he would tell you for the sake of taking the North.” Victor sighed heavily and pressed his fingers against his temple. “But he’s so protective of the girl.”
“You have found me a Windwalker.” The Emperor’s words were nearly reverent, his excitement palpable. Then his expression darkened. “Why would my son keep this from me?”
“Harnessing the true usefulness of her power, at the least, will require her enslavement. If not her death.” Victor shrugged, as though the thought was nothing to him.
“Aldrik, my idiot son with his mother’s heart.” The Emperor sighed heavily. “Thank you for telling me this. I will have the girl conscripted into service.”
“If I may advise you . . .” The Emperor motioned for Victor to continue. “Be patient. The two are fire and air. Aldrik can be untamed, as you know, and she can barely control her magic at present. I think there will come an opportunity for you to use her to your advantage.”
“Or I will see one made,” the Emperor remarked. “Victor, I am thankful to have such loyal servants such as yourself. It is a refreshing change from my last Minister of Sorcery.”
“There is one more thing, my lord,” Victor added, his eyes shining with manipulation. “One more thing; to make her truly the key to your conquest across the sea, I will need something from the North to unlock the caverns.”
“A small price for what you promise. I will see that we acquire what you need.”
“It is a treasure of Yargen, of the variety Egmun procured—an axe made of crystal. If I have it, I will see that you witness the true power of the caverns.” Victor barely hid his giddiness, even as his words held more than one meaning.
“Consider it done. And report back to me with any further knowledge you gain on the girl . . . and my son.”
“Of course, I am nothing if not your most obedient servant.” A mad grin spread triumphantly across Victor’s face the second he’d turned away from the Emperor.
That expression, the wicked glee, was what Vhalla woke to. She didn’t wake screaming or thrashing, but her whole body ached, and her head hurt as though she’d run a marathon in her sleep. The sun had yet to rise, and the canvas above her was a hazy and dull blue. Aldrik’s arm wrapped around her middle, and, judging from his deep and steady breathing, Vhalla knew he had yet to stir.
Vhalla didn’t wake him. She stayed still and quiet, trying to dissect the dream. She turned it over in her mind and picked it apart. Victor had played them all. He played on their hatred of each other, their distance. He knew Aldrik well enough to know that the prince would never fully trust his father. He knew the Emperor didn’t think Aldrik ready for his plans for the Crescent Continent.
Aldrik didn’t want to use the word “Bond” to describe what had happened between her and Victor, but Vhalla could offer no other alternative. She was Bonded to Victor. She had him within her. The madman, the monster who had stolen her magic. Vhalla was deeply connected with the one person in the world she truly wanted to kill.