The rest of the table remained silent, not daring to enter the foolhardy volley of words the Windwalker had decided to engage in.
“You? A lowborn library apprentice? Taught your letters when you were fifteen, no doubt.” The major had no interest in conceding.
“I was taught my letters when I was six,” Vhalla interjected. A number of eyebrows raised.
“Major, with all due respect, you know nothing about me. I credit you, I credit you all.” Vhalla regarded the table, her neck long and chin strong. She was sure to elongate her words and avoid conjunctions like the upper classes did, like Aldrik and the Emperor. “You were raised in nobility. You know a world I do not. You know what forks to use at a formal settings, and you do not hesitate in battle. But I was raised in a world none of you can fathom.”
Vhalla turned back to Major Schnurr, refocusing her frustrations on him alone. “I was raised in a world where I had thousands of friends, each one waiting for me on a shelf every day. While you practiced with the bow or sword, I read. The Imperial Library houses my confidants, and I spent nearly a decade hanging onto their every word. I know them well, and if you will stop questioning me, I will be so kind to impart their secrets to you.”
Slack-jaws stayed silent, and wide eyes watched her intently. Vhalla swallowed hard. She still hadn’t slept enough. She was tired from lack of sleep and from being seen as the girl she was no longer.
“Continue, Vhalla Yarl. We all want to hear what you have to say,” Major Zerian finally spoke for the table.
Vhalla nodded in relief at him. She took a deep breath, trying to compose herself. No one would take her seriously if they considered her overemotional.
“We are not going to starve them out. We are not going push them to forfeit by making their lives difficult. The army has been doing that for eight months with no real results.” Vhalla motioned to all the papers of the table. “To the clans of Shaldan, Soricium is life.” She was not about to discredit their proud history by blanketing them as the North.
“In Shaldan’s lore, Soricium is the birthplace of the world. They consider that forest to be the primordial trees the old gods made first.” Vhalla racked her brain for every dusty book in the archives that she’d ever read. She pulled facts from the night Aldrik returned, the night she’d read more about the North in one sitting than ever before. The night that Vhalla had saved the prince, she prayed she’d also gained the knowledge to save countless more by ending this war quickly.
“The head clan is said to have descended from these original peoples, a pure line dating back to the beginning of time. They are a people who see their leaders as descending from gods. Expecting them to abandon their land, their home, their lineage is setting you up for failure. Soricium is Shaldan, and the Head Clan is Soricium. If you don’t understand that, you cannot comprehend why the clans continue to fight when the Empire has taken so much of their land.”
“So, what do you propose we do?” Baldair asked.
Vhalla gave him a small nod of appreciation for backing her. “To win this war, we must crush them. We must level Soricium and kill the head clan. Otherwise, they will have cause to rise again.”
“It seems an easy enough victory,” a woman mused.
“Do not expect it to be,” Vhalla cautioned. Hadn’t they been listening? “The Northerners will defend Soricium and the head clan until every last dying breath. If we were to gain a surrender, it would not be in awe of our power, or tactical prowess, or advantage in training.”
Vhalla turned to the Emperor, loathing simmering hotly in her veins. She saw what his mission was so clearly. He didn’t desire peace, he lusted for subjugation. He craved power and the ownership it gave him. His eyes shone dangerously at her, and Vhalla decided not to heed the warning in them.
“They will lay their swords at your feet and bend knee to salvage the last of their history, to protect the last tree standing from the savagery that we will show.”
Vhalla should have stopped herself, but she commanded the moment. This genocide had created an unlikely connection with her own history. She was of a people who had been used as slaves and burned for their existence. It made her disgusted with the ugly business she had sunk neck deep in.
“Doing this—hitting them when they are weak, damning the people who pose no threat—will send a message about the monster that has been unleashed upon their land. They will know true hopelessness as their symbols and culture are crushed into a bloody smear upon their sacred ground. So, the North will feed that monster to quell its appetite for conquest, and you will have your fat-bellied victory.”
Vhalla’s words faded away into the stunned silence, and everyone held their breath, watching for the Emperor’s reaction.
VHALLA FELT LIKE she was ready to burst from trying to keep all her nerves tightly bundled and stashed away. The Emperor had yet to display any reaction and everyone remained locked in limbo. She had just called Emperor Solaris a monster to his face, and now they waited for his reaction. His blue eyes studied her and she studied him. Vhalla searched for any scrap of humanity that lived within the man who was on the verge of conquering three countries, an entire continent, in his name. If he had any humanity, it was so far pushed away that he would not show it to her.
The Emperor finally opened his mouth to speak.