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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.13
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.13

           Elise Kova
 

  Jax turned with a laugh, breaking away from his conversation and noticing her for the first time. He put his hands on his hips and tilted his head to the side. “No blood, no weapon, no armor? This may be the first time you’ve disappointed me.”

  She debated between punching him and kissing him the second he was in arms reach.

  “You’ve been back for days, and you didn’t think to tell me you were alive?” Her voice couldn’t make up its mind either, and it alternated between cracking with rage and relief.

  “I figured someone else did.” Jax shrugged. “It’s not like it makes that much of a difference.”

  “Of course it does!” Her intensity startled him. Vhalla spoke over his loss for words. “You think that you dying ‘doesn’t make a difference’?”

  The Easterner in her finally won out, and Vhalla wrapped her arms around his waist. The hug was awkward, but she persisted all the same. His hands fell on her shoulders, but he didn’t instantly push her away. It seemed as though he was at an utter loss for what to do when someone showed him affection.

  Vhalla broke the short embrace, staring up at him. “I’m glad you’re okay, Jax. I thought I’d killed you.”

  “You don’t need to worry about someone like me,” Jax replied. He glanced around, catching the eyes of the other guards staring curiously. The man thumped the top of her head with a fist in a brotherly fashion. Laughing, he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, “Bleeding heart Easterners! You don’t need to worry so much about us tough Western stock. Right, Erion?”

  Erion gave a marginally committal grunt.

  Some of the men chuckled, and Vhalla let them have their laugh. The look she received from the corner of Jax’s eyes spoke volumes of his true feelings toward her concerns.

  “How did you survive?” Vhalla was still trying to process that the man before her was real.

  “One of Schnurr’s servants found me,” Jax explained. “I was able to cauterize most of the wounds myself, so I didn’t bleed out entirely. Unsurprisingly, they had little love for their most generous lord, and helped me get back on my feet.”

  Her presence had been enough of a break from the normal routine that others were noticing. Among them was the golden prince, Raylynn at his side, with Craig and Daniel in tow.

  “Vhalla!” The Eastern man nearly sprinted over to her.

  If Vhalla hadn’t pushed wind at her back, the force of his embrace would’ve knocked her over. But Vhalla locked her arms around him tightly for a long moment. Daniel pulled away, beaming.

  “It’s such a relief to see you all right.” He hooked an arm around her shoulders and shook her lightly. “You had me so worried!”

  “Jax told me you were foolish enough to feel responsible for letting me leave alone.” Vhalla grinned, appreciating the now effortless atmosphere time had created between them.

  “If it isn’t the troublemaker herself.” Baldair joined the group.

  “You’re one to talk.” Without hesitation, Vhalla hugged the youngest prince tightly. Baldair squeezed her in reply. “How many hearts have you broken while I was gone?”

  “Me? I never break hearts!”

  Raylynn snorted.

  “At least five,” Erion outed the golden prince.

  “No, no, only three.”

  “Only,” Vhalla teased.

  “It’s not my fault if they think there’s more to it than a night! I never advertise any differently,” the prince defended himself with a laugh.

  Vhalla decided it was true after a moment’s consideration. He didn’t seem to have many repeat offenses. Her eyes shifted to the blonde at Baldair’s side. Maybe he had one repeat offense.

  Raylynn rolled her eyes. “The paragon of innocence.”

  “I’m about to make all of you run double drills,” Baldair threatened.

  “Speaking of,” Erion said as he caught Daniel and Craig’s attention, “where are they at so far?”

  The men began conversing on the status of the swordsmen. Vhalla was quickly forgotten, until Baldair took a step closer to her.

  “Take a walk around the grounds with me, Vhalla? I’d like to show them to you.”

  She knew by his tone, by the way that the rest of the Golden Guard seemed to take a step away, that the prince showing her the grounds was a front for other intentions.

  “Certainly. I’d like to see them,” Vhalla agreed with grace.

  The prince offered her his elbow, which she took without hesitation.

  “I remember a time when you wouldn’t be seen touching me.” He chuckled softly.

  “How times have changed.” She smiled in bittersweet fondness at the unconventional start of their relationship.

  “You are the only woman who ever was of such an opinion. I should’ve known then you were already practically family.”

  “Jax informed me that you told the guard to protect me as if I was kin.” Vhalla glanced at the Western man, reaffirming he was actually alive.

  “I heard you were to be family.” Baldair’s usually booming voice was soft and rich with sorrow.

  Vhalla couldn’t stop her hand from flying to the watch at her neck, confirming his words with a single action. “How did you know?”

  “When Aldrik came to his senses, finally, he went to Father and begged once more for you.”

  “Begged?”

  “He said that he loved you and that he had already promised his heart and future to you.”

  Vhalla stopped in place with shock. “He said that, to your father?”

  “Not one of his finer ideas, I agree. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Father’s eyes had fallen out of their sockets as they bulged with rage.” Baldair shook his head, and they continued their walk. “We all should’ve known what that token meant.”

  Vhalla focused on the dusty ground, not even bothering to pretend the prince was showing her the regimen of the palace guard. “How is he?” she breathed.

  “Rough, beyond rough, for a while. He snapped, broke completely in a way I’d never seen him break before.” Baldair paused, chewing over his words. “Then, one morning, like magic, he woke up and changed everything. Or, at least, he started trying. It was like he finally got it, what everyone had been trying to tell him all along. He worked to put a stop to all his nasty habits, he endured the shakes, the sickness. He withdrew more, but it tempered his anger.”

  “Ophain said much the same,” Vhalla recalled.

  “Aldrik’s uncle? You met with him?”

  “In the West,” she confirmed.

  “Right . . . Were you really ambushed by the Knights?”

  Vhalla shook her head in exasperation. “You think I’d lie about that?”

  “I suppose you wouldn’t,” the prince laughed. “The fools, like you could ever be chained. If my father couldn’t, no one could.”

  She never thought she’d laugh about the Emperor trying to enslave her. The conversation reminded her of what she’d learned about Jax’s history during her brief time on the run.

  Before she had a chance to ask, Daniel interrupted them. “My prince, were you still planning on heading to Court?”

  “Oh, by the Mother,” Baldair groaned as he glanced at the sky. “I was, but I’ve no time to change.”

  “Neither do we.” Daniel shrugged. “I thought we might present the Lady Vhalla to the Court today.”

  “Present me to the Court?” Vhalla wasn’t sure if she liked the sideways look Baldair was giving her.

  “I suppose you haven’t been here since the last Court day,” Baldair murmured. “If the lady wishes it, I’ll come for moral support. But, Mother, don’t make me speak more than I must.”

  “What does being presented entail?” Vhalla asked uneasily.

  “You’re just formally announced as a new lady,” Daniel answered easily. “If Baldair doesn’t wish to speak, I’d be honored to do the announcing.”

  He held out a hand, and Vhalla considered it briefly before taking it. “Couldn’t hurt, righ
t?”

  “It’s easy!” Daniel encouraged.

  “By the Mother,” Baldair muttered under his breath. He turned and raised his hands to his mouth, calling across the field. “Ray, we’re going to Court.”

  The blonde let out a monumental groan at that information.

  “That’s not encouraging,” Vhalla said uneasily.

  “Raylynn’s just dramatic. She hates Court.”

  “For good reason.” Baldair actually frowned.

  “It’s not that bad,” Daniel insisted.

  Vhalla stared at the prince until he yielded an explanation, “I’ve been around the Court for too long. Just know there really are vipers.”

  Daniel escorted an apprehensive Vhalla through a short series of outer hallways and then across a lavish series of gardens to the building in which Court was held. Vhalla knew of the place conceptually, but she’d never had reason to explore it before.

  She knew instantly what Baldair had meant about dressing once she saw the nobles strolling into the building. Lucky enough for her, it wasn’t the first time she’d worn unconventional attire to a noble function. Vhalla adjusted her black robes proudly and squeezed Daniel’s arm tightly as they crossed the threshold of the Imperial Court.

  They were noticed within seconds. Clipped whispers echoed through the assembled nobles, and the hum of conversation was quickly snuffed. Curiosity, fear, resentment, admiration, the expressions they gave her crossed the spectrum. And were no different than what she was used to receiving.

  Daniel cleared his throat. “I’d like to have the honor of presenting the Lady Vhalla Yarl to the Court.”

  The expected convention observed, the first man stepped forward to play his role. “May the sun shine brightly on your house, Lady Yarl.”

  The next person said some similar equivalent, the person after said another. Vhalla feared they’d have to go through every person assembled, but Daniel explained later that the ten or so nobles who greeted her were the heads of some of the oldest families on the continent. Naturally, not every noble family was in attendance. Court wasn’t a mandatory function, but nobility often had little else to do to pass the hours and were kept happy and complacent toward the Empire by milling about and gossiping with each other.

  “Vhalla, I’m glad you’re here,” Daniel spoke the moment they were free of the initial party that was brave enough to break the ice with the Windwalker. “I did a lot of thinking after the North . . .”

  “I did too,” Vhalla said quickly. His expression mirrored her heart and Vhalla was inclined to spare them any awkward moments. “It’s good to be home.” Whatever home had now become.

  “Speaking of home, I have something I want to show you.”

  “What is it?” Vhalla tried to decipher his cryptic words.

  “Lady Yarl.” A man interrupted their conversation before Daniel had time to elaborate. “I heard word of your ordeal in the West. Appalling, really, that Lord Ophain allows those zealots to run so freely.”

  Vhalla turned to face the Western man, trying to gauge his sincerity. “Lord Ophain does what he can. He’s worked to make it clear where the West now stands toward Windwalkers.”

  “And where do you think that is?” The man gave her a slow smile.

  “I think—”

  Another hush fell over the crowd, and Vhalla was stilled by the man and girl standing, hand in hand, in the back doorway to the large hall. Vhalla tried to look at anything else. She tried to look at the vaulted ceiling with carved archways. She tried to look at the patterns the stained glass printed on the alabaster floor. She tried to look back at the lord and strike a conversation.

  But she was trapped, her eyes focused on the hand wrapped in Aldrik’s.

  She had seen the princess before. She’d stood on the Sunlit Stage upon Vhalla’s return. But she might as well have been half a world away from Aldrik then. Now she stood poised and tense at his side, and in them Vhalla saw the future Emperor and Empress.

  She wanted to leave. She didn’t want to see anymore. She didn’t want to confront the mess his perfect façade created in her heart.

  Aldrik scanned the crowd and his lips parted to speak, freezing halfway open the second his attention found her. She saw his confusion at her presence, a similar feeling to the panic she was already drowning in.

  The nobles missed nothing and hastily pointed out the awkward exchange between the prince and the newest lady.

  “Prince Aldrik, so good of you to join us today! The Lady Yarl was presented by the Lord Taffl earlier,” came a voice that broke the silence with malicious excitement, the same Western man whom she’d been speaking to a moment before.

  “Lady Yarl,” the prince’s lips formed her name with such precision that it sent a shiver up Vhalla’s spine. “It is an honor to have you as a member of this Court.”

  The words were stiff and formal, but his eyes were alive.

  “Thank you, my—” Her voice wavered as she caught herself before she could use her former term of endearment. Aldrik’s eyes widened a fraction, and she could hear him hold his breath. “Prince Aldrik.”

  Disappointment attempted to pull his shoulders down. What did he want from her? What did he think would happen?

  “I believe this is the first time the Lady Yarl has met the future Empress,” a woman tittered. “She wasn’t there for the presentation of our dear prince’s betrothed during the Festival of the Sun.”

  Vhalla’s hand went to her neck. Baldair had been right; these people were awful. She sought him out, and the younger prince looked on helplessly.

  “Lady Yarl, Hero of the North, why don’t you introduce yourself to your future ruler?” the woman suggested.

  Vhalla was tempted to show them all exactly how she’d gotten the title of the Hero of the North. She’d reaped destruction and rained hellfire upon her enemies. Vhalla straightened, holding herself taller. But she’d also earned her title and freedom by playing this noble game. If they wanted her to play, then she would show them how to play to win.

  All eyes were fixed on the Windwalker as she crossed the room to the prince and princess. Her feet echoed across the floor, the only thing breaking the silence. Vhalla swallowed her frantically fluttering heart. She would do not only what she had to do, but what was right, what she wanted to do.

  “Princess—” Vhalla didn’t even know the girl’s name and was forced to leave it as such. The young royal pursed her lips slightly, but didn’t betray any other emotions. In that way, perhaps she was a fitting match for Aldrik. Vhalla was honestly loathe to think it. “You truly grace us with your presence.”

  No one moved a muscle.

  “Your poise in the face of those who have committed such transgressions against your home is beyond your years.” Murmurs swept through the room. “Your poise in the face of the people who no doubt gossip over the massacre of your innocent people, as though it were sport, is a grace that I clearly cannot command!”

  “Treason!”

  “Truth!” The word was as fast as a whip from her lips, and it silenced the noble who had interrupted her. Vhalla turned back to the girl, her expressionless mask cracking with shock. Vhalla pressed her eyes closed with a sigh. “If this is the grace by which you will rule, then the Mother has smiled upon the Solaris Empire with your union.”

  Vhalla braved a look at Aldrik. The prince wavered between the look he got when he was about to tell her off, and when he wanted to sweep her into his arms and kiss her until she saw stars. Vhalla took a cautionary step away.

  “My presence is likely uncomfortable for you, so I will excuse myself and set the example for any who seek to foster rifts in our Empire, an Empire for peace now, by leaving.”

  Vhalla turned and didn’t look back. She strode out the Court’s meeting hall and into the sunlight. She walked, hands clenched, until she was out of eyeshot and then broke out into a run. Her lungs burned from the sudden sprint, and her eyes stung. Aldrik, Aldrik, Aldrik, her heart screamed. What had s
he done?

  Vhalla slowed to a stop, sighing. She’d heard the footsteps not long after she’d left the Court and turned, expecting to tell Daniel not to worry so much. Vhalla froze, face to face with an emerald-eyed Northern woman.

  “Gwaeru.” It was fitting that the first word she spoke to Vhalla was the same word that had confirmed that this woman had tried to shoot her down in the North.

  “Za,” Vhalla replied tensely.

  “You know my name?”

  “I do.”

  “You know who I am?”

  “I do.” At least, Vhalla could assume the woman was here as some guard for the princess. “I didn’t see you in the Court.”

  “You not notice a fire in room if Fire Lord not start it.” Za’s Southern common was broken, but the meaning was still clear enough to convey her message.

  “What do you want?” Vhalla asked tensely.

  “Sehra wish to meet.”

  “Sehra?” Vhalla put it together after only a second. “The princess?”

  “Child of Yargen.” Za corrected, setting Vhalla’s mind to whirring around anything she knew as to the significance of the title.

  “Why in the name of the Mother would she want to meet me?” Vhalla asked cautiously.

  “She has deal.”

  “What kind of a deal?”

  “Meet tonight. Same place.” Za started back for the hall of the Imperial Court.

  Vhalla went to call for Za as she disappeared in a side alcove.

  “Vhalla!” Daniel broke the moment, jogging up to her. Vhalla glanced between the Eastern man and where Za had disappeared. He watched her attention shift. “What is it?”

  “Nothing,” Vhalla mumbled.

  Daniel escorted her back to the Tower, apologizing for what happened and explaining how his first day at Court was nothing short of magical. He could’ve made all the excuses in the world, but they wouldn’t make Vhalla forget what had transpired, and they wouldn’t make her any more interested in returning.

  At least, not when Court was in session.

  THE PALACE GROUNDS were quiet, the fall night air nearly freezing. Vhalla wore the cloak made for her in Tim’s village to stave off the chill. It was hardly subtle, but if she was walking into a trap, then it didn’t really matter anyway.

 
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