“This is wrong,” the prince insisted. He pulled Vhalla a half step closer, her balled fists resting against his chest. “She has served you dutifully and without question. She has saved my life—more than once—as well as the lives of countless others in your army. And she has likely saved your campaign today. And you would put her in irons?”
Vhalla absorbed the words that practically dripped disgust. There was a fearsome, barely controlled anger to the crown prince’s features. His jaw was set and his mouth pressed into a thin line as he glared at his father. Vhalla could feel the power radiating off of him, and even Jax took a step away.
“My son, I know you are intrigued by the girl’s magic. But this is for the best.” The Emperor’s eyes shone dangerously. “Go back to the table, so that we may move on from this and resume our discussion.”
Aldrik pointedly ignored his father, looking down at Vhalla. His voice audibly softened as he spoke, “Come, Vhalla. Since my father is so insistent on privacy, let me escort you to where you can rest; I am sure you’re tired from your Projections earlier.”
Vhalla nodded, grateful. She didn’t know if Aldrik really believed his words. Or if he saw her shaking like an autumn leaf and knew she needed to be anywhere else to compose herself.
“Aldrik!” the Emperor spoke his son’s name like a curse.
“I know you have been asked this before, but may we have your word that your magic will never be used against the will of the Solaris Empire?” Aldrik’s thumbs grazed gently over her wrists.
“You have my word, my prince,” she said softly, the tenderness in his eyes and manner reassuring her.
“Is her word good enough for you, Majors?” Aldrik turned back to the table.
No one moved. Vhalla was not surprised. He was asking them to openly defy the Emperor for his son. The right or wrong choice no longer mattered.
“It is good enough for me,” Daniel was the first to speak. His eyes met hers with determination, and Vhalla swallowed in relief. Even when she was half in Aldrik’s embrace, Daniel stood by her.
“And me,” Jax seconded. He wore a frown looking at the shackles the Emperor still held.
“I will say it, again: the Le’Dans stand with the Windwalker and the Lord of the West,” Erion proclaimed proudly.
“I see no reason why we should not trust her.” Vhalla had not expected Major Zerian’s support.
“I have always known Vhalla to be a woman of her word,” Baldair spoke as well.
The other majors seemed to be reassured that the second son was giving a nod or small voice of approval for Aldrik’s position.
“We have moved on from the time when such things were needed.” Aldrik turned back to his father. “Put the relic away so that it may return to the dark corner of the museum from where it came.”
There was a long silence. The Emperor squinted at Aldrik, looked to the table, and then focused only on her. Vhalla held her breath. Aldrik’s fingers were hot on her skin, and she took comfort in the fact that he had not let her go.
“Miss Yarl,” the Emperor addressed only her. “This is no longer about what you are, or are not, able to do. It is no longer about your word on what you will or will not do. What is most imperative is that you respect the will of your Emperor, your true lord.”
Aldrik’s hands clenched over her quivering wrists. She hated the position she stood in. She loathed the Emperor with every fiber of her being. Vhalla took a deep breath and, in spite of it all, she knew what she had to do.
The prince’s attention snapped to her as Vhalla tugged against his fingers. His shock uncurled his grasp, and Vhalla’s wrists slipped away. Recklessness made her bold, and Vhalla wrapped her fingers around his where they hovered in the air.
“My prince, thank you for your trust and faith in me,” she whispered softly. Aldrik’s lips parted to object, but Vhalla shook her head firmly. “I am a loyal subject and must follow the will of my Emperor.”
Her hands released his, and Aldrik made a motion to reclaim them. Vhalla stopped him with a cautionary stare. She had made her choice.
But, contrary to her words and all the words she would ever say publicly about it from then on, it was not a choice made from desire to follow her Emperor. It was inspired by the opposite feelings. With the majors’ support behind her, she would cement herself as the obedient soldier. She would knowingly turn herself into the humble servant, abused by their power-hungry master.
Or that was what she hoped would happen as Vhalla held out her wrists.
Finally having what he wanted, the Emperor placed the cold metal on her skin, snapping the cuffs shut. As soon as they latched, the crystals shone with a faint glow, the connection made in a complete circle. Vhalla gasped and staggered before doubling over and falling to her knees; it was as though someone had kicked her in the gut. No, it was as though someone had carved out her chest entirely.
“Vhalla!” Aldrik was on his knees beside her.
“Don’t touch her,” Jax cautioned. “Her body is now under the influence of the crystals, my prince; it could react poorly with your magic.”
She fought for air. It was as though the cuffs had taken away her ability to breathe or think. Her whole body felt strange, and she reeled from the vertigo.
“Are you all right?” Daniel’s step forward vaguely registered for Vhalla.