She blinked, frozen in place. After everything, after all she had done, now he was kicking her out?
“Do you misunderstand an order?” He finally turned to her, and she was startled into action.
“Of course not.” She stepped away from the table, starting for Aldrik’s room.
“I would like this to be a private conversation, Miss Yarl,” the Emperor added.
She paused, something about the bite in his implications sent a shiver up her spine. “I would never—”
“You seem to have a habit of listening on the private conversations of leaders,” he cut her off.
“But that was ...” She blinked. Was he turning his own orders against her? Was he that arrogant to do it before everyone?
“I would rather not take any chances. Jax,” the Emperor said as he turned to the Westerner, “do you have what I entrusted to your care?”
“My lord, I would caution you against this.” Pure disgust fueled Jax’s weak objection.
“You do what I command!” the Emperor nearly shouted.
Jax turned helplessly to Baldair, and then to Aldrik. Neither prince seemed to be able to say anything otherwise. All eyes remained expectantly on the long-haired Westerner.
The major dragged his feet from the room as the Emperor turned to face her. Vhalla had never before seen the expression he wore in that moment. Of all her encounters with the Emperor, this was the one she feared the most. Because there was a morbid and dangerous satisfaction that was beginning to curl his mouth, like that of a wild beast who had found wounded prey.
“MISS YARL,” THE Emperor asked as he stepped away from the table, “do you fully comprehend what you are?” Vhalla kept her mouth shut and let the Emperor continue, all eyes on him. “Allow me to educate you, and my majors. You are a tool, you are a weapon, you are someone I need to take the North, and because you are my most loyal servant, you are more than happy to do so for me.”
“I am, my lord,” she agreed softly. For the first time in a long time, the Emperor’s emotionless stare truly unnerved her.
“Of course you are, child.” The Emperor stood before her, staring down the bridge of his nose. “I do not have you here to think. What a foolish thing that would be. Do not entertain the idea that your powers make you something you are not.”
Vhalla bit her lip to the point of pain, keeping in any protests.
Jax reentered, holding a square wooden box. There was a latch on the front that had been unlocked. Vhalla considered the Western writing upon it uncertainly.
“My lord.” Jax clutched the box with white knuckles. “Reconsider this course of action. You don’t know what—”
“Silence!” Major Schnurr snapped. “You are not one to object to the Emperor.” The major threw an ugly look in Jax’s direction.
“I know quite well what forces I am dealing with.” The Emperor opened the box reverently, admiring its contents. “It seems I must remind everyone that I alone command such forces.”
Vhalla’s eyes widened in panic seeing the box’s contents. She opened her mouth to speak, to grovel if she had to. She wouldn’t let them put her back there, back in a small, dark jail cell. Her mind didn’t comprehend that she was in the North, a world away from where she had been held during her trial following the Night of Fire and Wind.
“I swear to you, my lord, I won’t use my powers without your permission—never against the Empire,” she promised in a wavering voice.
“Oh, Miss Yarl, you were so much more impressive when you did not sound afraid,” the Emperor spoke so softly that no one but the Western major heard.
Emperor Solaris lifted the box’s contents: a large pair of shackles, worn as thick bands around the wrists and connected by a hinge. Inlaid upon the iron were polished stones that Vhalla vaguely recognized as crystals.
Aldrik finally saw as well. “Father, what are those?”
“Where did you get those?” Erion scowled deeply.
“Lord Ophain brought them on my request. Some still seem to remember to follow my orders. They were made in the West to keep creatures like her contained.” The Emperor glared at the lord who spoke out of turn.
“Lord Ophain would not wish for this.” Erion didn’t back down.
“You are too bold, Lord Erion! Everything falls to me, my word is law, and I must ensure the law is obeyed without question,” the Emperor declared, putting the fuming Western lord in his place. “Your hands, Miss Yarl.”
She was going to be sick. All Vhalla could think of was the feeling of iron closing around her wrists once more. They were going to hurt her again, worse than they had before. The Emperor was going to make good on all his promises about the dark future that awaited her.
“Your hands!” His patience ran thin.
Vhalla clenched her palms into fists to keep them from shaking, swallowing the taste of bile. Slowly, she raised her wrists. But where iron was to meet skin, warm fingers closed instead.
Aldrik pulled her away, his fingers tight and his eyes alight. She hadn’t even heard him move. “You will not put those on her,” he uttered threateningly. The prince angled his body halfway between Vhalla and his father.
The Emperor seemed completely taken aback at his son’s outward refusal of his will before their subjects. “Aldrik, you are making a fool of yourself.”