The last boy shook his head.
“Hey, hey.” He held out his arms and placed his palms on the half frozen children. The ice vanished into the air. “Look, we can all still be friends.”
Two just chattered, while the third looked too horrified to speak.
“I need you to remember two things though . . . The first is to never think you’re better than a sorcerer—ever again.” Victor patted what had been the leader on the shoulder, grinning brightly.
“The second is to remember that you belong to me now.”
The boys, the alley, faded away like black smoke. There was only the young Victor before her, as arrogant and triumphant as his adult counterpart.
He looked up at her, and Vhalla was frozen, helpless to do anything.
“Now, you’ve been very naughty, raiding my mind,” the boy spoke slowly. “Let’s see what’s in yours.”
Vhalla felt him. She felt his magic like icy fingers peeling back and penetrating the depths of her mind without her consent. He probed her, taking what was most precious to her.
“No . . .” Her protest was weak, his magic already within her.
A young woman with a mess of hair sprinted through the darkness, a new world building under her footsteps. She put her shoulder to the Imperial library’s door and pushed. Vhalla willed it to stop. She wished for nothing more than to stop the replay of her life before her eyes.
“There he is.” Victor’s voice echoed in her ears. “Let’s see, did you find him attractive then?”
Vhalla remained silent, trying to hide her emotions. But she felt the echo of her dream self. The way Aldrik had first captivated her with his unconventional appeal. Victor felt it too; she knew he did by the satisfaction in his voice.
“I read all his little notes to you. The ones you hid away in your room. He never had time for apprentices, he always claimed, but I guess that didn’t extend to girls whose legs he wanted to spread.”
Rage betrayed her.
“There it is! There’s the anger!” he egged on.
Vhalla focused on the young woman before her, watching Aldrik lead her past self through the bookshelves. They both looked so much younger. There wasn’t a scar on her body. The dark circles under his eyes were only just forming.
“Yes, yes, you love him so much, you can’t hide it from me. But, Vhalla, I-I can be kind. I will show you. Tell him to give up his claim to the throne, and I will let you both fade away. If his army bows to me, I will let you both flee across the sea.”
“I will kill you.” Her voice quivered with barely controllable rage.
“No, I think not.” Victor chuckled, his voice growing distant. “The longer we are linked, the more our lives grow entwined. If I die, you will die.”
“That’s not true. Bonds don’t work that way.” She remembered Aldrik telling her so, and Vhalla needed it to be true now more than ever.
“But it is true. I will make sure it is. Because I don’t think he will kill me if it means killing you.”
“You lie,” Vhalla screamed mentally. “You lie!”
Vhalla woke with a start. Her skin was flushed, and her blood boiled within her as if trying to purge Victor like an infection. She cradled her face in her hands and, for the first time, contemplated running.
No, Vhalla shook her head at herself. There was no one else. Even if she could find another Windwalker, they’d never withstand this burden. Even if they were willing, they would die before they ever had enough training to be a threat.
A movement from behind startled her. Vhalla turned, her hands flying from her face. Magic was ready upon her fingertips when Aldrik caught them effortlessly. She panted softly, withdrawing the power she’d been ready to unleash on him.
“Vhalla,” Aldrik whispered softly. The blankets pooled around his waist as he sat. “What is it?”
“Don’t touch me.” She twisted, avoiding the hand that sought her cheek.
“Vhalla!” He heaped frustration upon her name. “You waste away before my eyes. I cannot convince you to eat. You thrash in your sleep. And now, now I may not touch you?”
Vhalla stared at her bare-chested husband. Their rations had yet to expire, and the training had been good on his body. In stark contrast, her arms looking more gangly, her waist thinner. She resisted a stirring of want, not the first she’d fought on the march since the gate. Monsters weren’t allowed to want Emperors.
“No.” She withdrew. “You may not.”
Aldrik stared as though she had slapped him. He didn’t utter another word as Vhalla dressed and clipped into her armor.
The Emperor let her go.
Jax waited outside the tent, scrambling to his feet as she stormed out.
“Go,” Vhalla ordered. She was struggling to contain the rage within her.
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Jax jested.
Vhalla spun on her heel, glaring up at the Westerner. Her hand had flattened and her fingertips stopped at his throat. The broken nail of her middle finger scratched lightly against the hard knot in his neck, right where she had been ready to gouge. Jax didn’t even flinch. He either trusted her a great deal, or he truly didn’t care about dying. Both seemed equally likely.
“Elecia’s right, you are not well, are you?” he whispered.