Vhalla’s heart pounded in her ears, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear any more of this particular conversation. With a deep breath, and garnering more bravery than she had used to face the Northerners, Vhalla rounded into the main room, hoping her presence would stop the conversation. She assessed the royal family who stood in the far corner.
Aldrik’s hands were on the table, his shoulders squared against his father, who stood opposite. She saw a barely visible quivering in Aldrik’s arms. His jaw was clenched, and his face was actually flushed with anger. She had never seen him so out of control from rage alone. The Emperor’s arms were folded across his chest, and he sneered in disgust at his son.
Vhalla sympathized the most with Baldair, who was very much an innocent bystander. He had taken at least three full steps away and inched back further with the opportunity to look at her. Vhalla had never before felt so uncomfortable with the royal family’s attentions on her.
The Emperor barely contained a scowl at her. His eyes judged every inch of her short height. Aldrik turned to her, and she saw his anger drop completely to a pained expression. His mouth parted, and Vhalla stared at him hopelessly. He seemed to be unable to physically tolerate her visage for more than a second as he turned away with a shake of his head. Baldair’s eyes were the kindest with a mix of sorrow and pity that gave her no encouragement.
“Well, well, well, if it is not the ‘Hero of the North’,” the Emperor spoke slowly.
“My lord.” She gave a respectful bow.
“Come here.” He pointed to just before their table.
Vhalla was left with no other option, feeling like a child about to be chastised by her teacher. However, this teacher was a man bent on conquest and who had the power to kill her.
“Tell me, Miss Yarl.” Emperor Solaris rested his palm on the table, turning to Vhalla. “What is a fitting reward for someone of your status, for your achievements?”
Vhalla swallowed and resisted every urge to shred her clothing with fidgeting. Had Aldrik brought the notion of her ladyship up with his father? Was all this from simply the idea of her being raised to a member of the court? If it was, the Emperor must also know what Aldrik intended by it, otherwise he would not be so angered.
“My lord.” Vhalla’s mouth was dry, and not just from all the smoke. “It was simply an honor to serve the family Solaris.” She retreated into the safety of decorum and respect to avoid answering his question.
“I see.” His eyes flicked up and down over her. Vhalla shifted her feet, squirming at the feeling of his assessment stripping her bare. “I think some of the family Solaris were much better served than other members.”
The Emperor’s head swung back to Aldrik, and Vhalla’s mouth dropped open. The implications of his words were perfectly clear, and Vhalla wanted to scream. She wanted to lunge for him, she wanted to slap him, she wanted to put this power-hungry, maniacal man firmly in his place. What she ended up doing was standing there hopeless before the man who was her sovereign.
“Father!” Aldrik’s face turned upward in an instant, his voice was a low growl. “Don’t you dare.”
“Don’t I dare what?” the Emperor scolded his son like he was still a small boy. “Do not forget, Aldrik, I am the Emperor, not you. The world is under my rule, and my decision is law. You may not tell me what I do or do not dare to do.”
Aldrik’s hands clenched into fists on the table. Vhalla saw his barely contained control. The magic practically radiated off him, itching to set the whole building ablaze.
“You will not—” Aldrik’s voice was raised once more.
“Silence!” The Emperor’s other hand slammed down onto the table, and Aldrik’s head fell, he turned his face downward.
His defeat unnerved Vhalla more than anything else in that singular moment.
“Please excuse me, my lords.” She couldn’t take any more; she couldn’t handle one more suffocating moment of whatever was transpiring. Vhalla retreated before anyone could say otherwise.
She took in a deep breath of air outside of the doors, gagging and sputtering on the smoke. She brought a hand to her mouth with a grimace. However, no matter how awful it was outside, nothing compared to the suffocation of that room.
Vhalla started off aimlessly, no goal of where she should be other than not in the camp palace. The tents were smashed in lines from where the Northerners had launched their attacks. She could see some—most—were trampled beyond repair. Vhalla wondered how many people would be sharing an uncomfortable sleeping arrangement tonight. She wondered if she would be one of them, given the situation with the Emperor.
Her feet carried her instinctually to the one other place she’d been made comfortable after coming to the North. Astoundingly, the Golden Guard’s huts were still in order. She was halfway to them when the sharp sound of a door slamming echoed across camp.
Vhalla turned in the direction of the sound. The Emperor had a piece of paper clenched in his fist, and Aldrik trudged along behind him, Baldair lagging behind. She gulped nervously.
Jax and Erion were around the center campfire. Craig, Raylynn, and Daniel were nowhere to be seen. The men waved her over the second they noticed Vhalla’s presence.
“Good morning!” Jax greeted.
“Good afternoon,” Vhalla corrected, sitting on one of the stumps around the fire. She tugged on the chain around her neck, popping open the watch. “It’s almost three.”