This is the Empress you were born to be.
“Lady Empress,” Jax said stiffly, interrupting her from her thoughts. His voice echoed through her ears as though she was trapped underwater. She was drowning, and they all still thought she was breathing. “The majors are meeting to regroup.”
He left her before she could say anything.
The meeting tent had clearly been treated by Waterrunners, as it was perfectly dry within. Flames hovered near every person, both drying and warming. Vhalla took her place at Aldrik’s right hand at the front of the room.
“The swords sustained the majority of the casualties,” a cleric reported.
“Though it is not so substantial that we would need to reform our ranks,” another added.
“If the false king continues to attack by trees, we may want to consider spreading archers through the column for a faster response.”
“It may be a safe thing to do,” another agreed.
“My Emperor, what do you think?” the major deferred the responsibility.
“Let me consult with the Empress,” Aldrik said suddenly.
Vhalla turned, realizing he’d been staring at her the whole time. The majors departed on command. Jax didn’t so much as look at her, whispering hastily to Elecia.
“Vhalla . . .” Aldrik crossed the gap between them. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” She avoided his gaze.
“You fought well.”
She winced at the compliment.
“You are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.” Aldrik tried leaning forward to catch her eyes. “So, what do you think we should do?”
“Whatever you and the majors think is best.” She sighed heavily. “I am very tired. I trust you.”
“I need your opinion.” He was being relentless.
“Well, you said you could feel him . . .” Vhalla looked up sharply at the Emperor, a scowl growing on her face as he spoke. It only made him speak faster, and the more he opened his mouth the further his foot went into it. “I know, I understand, that you may not want to. But for us—no, for everyone—for all of our subjects, if you can find out what his next move is, then we can prepare.”
The laughter escaped as a spasm of amusement. It quivered her breath, trembled her shoulders, until it erupted as a raspy noise between her lips. It silenced Aldrik and brought a paused, distant look she’d not seen in some time.
“I see.” She stepped away from him. “I see. You are your father’s son after all.”
“So willing to use my magic to get what you want. ‘Hush, Vhalla. It’s not a Bond Vhalla.’ It’s easy, not having him in your ear.”
Aldrik stepped back as though she’d struck him.
“You don’t know what it’s like having him in your head!” she shouted and didn’t care who may hear. “You want me to listen to him? To all the words he tries so hard to whisper into my subconscious? To all the visions he shows me if I dare shut my eyes and try to sleep.”
“Vhalla—” Aldrik returned to life.
“How many times must I tell you not to touch me?!” She wrapped her arms around herself, her nails breaking as they dug into her armor. “Don’t do it, Aldrik. Don’t give him one more scrap of emotion to take from me and turn into something else. To use as fuel to break me down.”
Her knees hit the ground, and Vhalla looked up at him, pleading. She looked at him as though he were the Father incarnate. Ready to beg him to take her to the realms beyond.
“By the Mother and Father, Gods, make it stop!” She could feel him in her. He wanted her to give him control. Victor wanted nothing more than to ransack her mind and claim her body. He would turn her into one of his crystal abominations if she let him. “Aldrik, I know you wanted it of me, but-but I can’t.”
Aldrik said nothing. Kneeling on the damp ground before her, Aldrik held out his arms. And the Emperor waited.
Vhalla’s self-control finally cracked. He was a risk worth taking; he’d always been. Aldrik’s arms enveloped her, and Vhalla pushed her face into his chest so hard it almost broke her nose again. She didn’t even try to stop the tears, and he held her all the harder.
“I don’t know—his magic is in me, Aldrik; it could hurt you.” Sense wasn’t winning as Vhalla sought out his comfort, her head finding its way to his neck and shoulder.
“You could never hurt me,” Aldrik whispered.
Vhalla could not choke down a sob, praying that it was still true. His heartbeat pulsed within his neck, and Vhalla listened closely. She focused on it above all other noise in her head.
“I’m sorry,” Aldrik continued, his breath ruffling her hair. “I shouldn’t have let you endure this for so long. I didn’t think it was this bad. I thought it was stress and war, and I was a fool. Forgive me.” He pressed his lips to her temple. “I love you, Vhalla Yarl Solaris.”
Vhalla closed her eyes and let her new, full name echo throughout her mind. It reverberated all the way down into the depths of emotions she had tried to hide. Her love for him would always be there, burning just under the surface. Vhalla opened her mouth to tell him the same, to make her own apologies, to commit to working together and building a new dawn.