“I-I am. It’s ...” she panted, struggling to breathe. It was as though the air itself had vanished. The world was too still. Even her own voice sounded distant and dull. “A shock.”
“I believe they are called Channels, the way a sorcerer draws their power.” The Emperor had a curious glint to his eyes. “These cuffs were engineered by Windwalkers in old Mhashan to be used on other sorcerers to block such passageways.”
On other Windwalkers, Vhalla corrected mentally. Her vision clouded, staring at the shackles. These had been made by slaves, for slaves.
“They work by blocking the source of a sorcerer’s magic and prevent it from being opened for the duration which the cuffs are worn,” the Emperor explained to a generally horrified table. “Given the abilities of a Windwalker, I can agree that removing her sorcery is the best course of action.”
Vhalla hadn’t realized how accustomed she had become to feeling magic. It was a part of her, and its absence made it feel as though it had been torn from her like a limb. Yet she struggled to her feet. Aldrik grabbed her elbow, helping her. She didn’t have the strength to caution him against touching her.
“She has proven her loyalty, Father. Take them off.” Baldair frowned at Vhalla’s empty expression.
“You are dismissed, Miss Yarl.” The Emperor walked back toward the table.
Vhalla stared at her feet, trying to ignore her hands bound together before her. She tried to will herself to move.
“Enough! I have had enough of this!” Aldrik gripped the box Jax was still holding, ripping it from his grasp. It fell loudly as Aldrik cast it aside for a small key contained within. The prince grabbed for her wrists. The crystals flared, reacting to Aldrik’s touch.
Aldrik grit his teeth and placed the key in the center hinge holding the shackles together. The cuffs popped open and fell off her wrists with a metallic thud. His jaw set, Aldrik picked them off the floor and threw them back into the box, snapping it shut.
“Jax,” Aldrik growled. “You take that into the forest, and you bury it somewhere far and deep. And you keep its location secret to your grave.”
Jax gave Aldrik an approving nod, taking advantage of the chaos and departing before any objections could be raised.
“My prince, that is the West’s heritage!” Major Schnurr was horrified.
“It is a heritage of hate.” The prince glowered at the dissenter. “It is a heritage that true Westerners do not take pride in.”
Major Schnurr shook his head, a mixture of anger and disgust on his face. He opened his mouth to speak but quickly thought better of it, storming out the door.
“Vhalla, come.” Aldrik took her hand in his.
“Son, you will not—” the Emperor began, his composure finally beginning to break under the public insolence, under not having his power play work out as planned.
“Father, I have found your behavior toward Lady Yarl—our guest, your loyal subject, the person whom you have brought here to help with your victory—appalling. You have tested her time and again, where each test she passes more stunningly than the last.” Aldrik pointed at his father. “No more. I will not let you harm her again—or demand for her to harm herself—for your amusement or to abate your insecurity. I understand the pressures of war have misplaced your better judgment. Hopefully you quickly realize the same, for I have no interest in any further discussion until a much deserved apology has been given.”
All stared at the prince in shock, including Vhalla. Aldrik was oblivious to it, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and ushering her quickly to the back hall. Vhalla expected to hear the Emperor stomping behind them, but no footsteps came. It all disappeared as Aldrik led her into the one place they had made their haven, slamming his door shut.
“I cannot believe he-he would—by the Mother,” Aldrik seethed. “Crystals, he brought crystals here? He’s a mad man! I cannot believe my uncle would produce them.”
“I’m sure Lord Ophain didn’t have a choice,” Vhalla pointed out what she hoped was true.
Aldrik continued, ignoring her. “How dare he use the chains the West used to treat Windwalkers like cattle—to use them, to kill them—on you.”
Around his hands, fire sparked to a blaze. Vhalla gripped his fist with both of hers, the flames licking around her fingers. “Don’t burn anything.”
His rage on her behalf was as comforting as it was fearsome. But she knew more anger would not solve the problems that needed solving. It was anger like this that drove the prince to dark places. She needed him to see that; she needed to keep him from it. Aldrik’s rage softened the moment his eyes met hers.
“Vhalla! Gods, Vhalla.” His hands went to her face, the fire extinguished. “How dare he ... How could you? You should not have let him.”
“By doing so, I think it made him appear worse,” she explained.
Aldrik gave a raspy laugh. “You really thought that way?”
“Was I right?” Vhalla searched his stunned expression.
“You certainly were.” Aldrik brought his lips to her forehead, and she closed her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have, Aldrik.” Vhalla thought of his hands on her as she was under the effects of crystals, of Jax’s warning. She thought of his insolence before his father.
“No. Do not tell me that,” he demanded firmly. “That was entirely the right thing to do. I’m tired of standing by while my father treats you as he does. Appearances be damned.”