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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.14
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.14

           Elise Kova

  She stared up at the Court Hall, as silent as a tomb and equally warm. In just a short hour, it had made an astonishingly negative impression on her, to the point that she’d lost all interest in ever returning. Well, returning for any conventional reasons.

  Vhalla clenched her fists and opened her Channel; if they meant to attack her, she wouldn’t be going down without a fight. The door swung open easily and silently on well-greased hinges. Vhalla stepped inside, catching sight of the small candle that cast a faint glow on the two women sitting in the far corner of the hall.

  Both of their heads turned, and Za stood from where she had been busy fletching arrows, sending scraps of feathers and wood fluttering like tiny sprites in the candlelight. The Princess Sehra didn’t stand, she merely turned, watching Vhalla warily. She was garbed in a loose and warm looking dress, reminiscent of patterns that Vhalla had seen on the Northern warriors’ tabards, rather than the Southern fashions she’d been wearing in court.

  “You come alone?” Za called.

  “I have.” Vhalla didn’t move far from the door, ready to run if needed. Though she didn’t really know what these two women could do to hurt her. Vhalla outclassed them both in combat—unless they had some secret prowess Vhalla didn’t know about—and they were severely outnumbered in the South. Vhalla suspected that the Southern people would jump on any excuse to remove a Northerner from their throne.

  “What do you want?”

  “I have a deal for you.” The girl’s Southern Common was elegant, simple. Her voice was gentle and bright, like morning dew.

  “What could you possible want with me?”

  “Sit, share our light, and I will tell.” Sehra motioned to the circle of light the candle cast on the floor.

  Cautiously, Vhalla crossed the room, sitting on the outer edge. Za sat stiffly as well, close to her princess.

  “You know who I am, what I am.” Vhalla didn’t want to mince words. “You know what I’ve done against your home, your people.”

  “I do,” Sehra affirmed. Her eyes flashed dangerously in the candlelight. “And for it, I hate you deeper than any I have ever hated before.”

  “You didn’t call me here to tell me that.” If the girl had meant to wound Vhalla, she should start by saying something that Vhalla couldn’t already assume.

  “No, but I don’t want you to think you will make an easy friend in me.” As Sehra spoke, Za shifted closer to the princess, her hands busy fletching arrows in as threatening a manner as possible.

  “That would never be something I’d be confused about.” Vhalla shook her head. “Though I harbor no ill will toward you and your people. The Empire invaded you without cause, no matter what is said here.”

  “Not without cause,” Sehra corrected. “You know the cause.”

  Vhalla met the girl’s green eyes, suddenly seeing a woman much older than her years staring back.

  “Perhaps.” Vhalla wasn’t going to be the first one to bring up the axe.

  “Do not lie,” Sehra scolded. “I can sense the magic on you. You have touched Achel.”

  Vhalla stiffened and blinked her eyes quickly, shifting her vision into magic sight. The girl looked no different from Za, whom Vhalla knew was a Commons. Did she have a closed Channel? Had Vhalla somehow been misled that Aldrik’s bride wasn’t a sorceress?

  “My mother speaks to me; she tells me the Achel has been stolen. But the Emperor rages daily for it to be given to him. It is gone, but not into the Empire’s hands. Only your hands have its shimmering remnants upon them.”

  “How are you so certain?” Vhalla asked uneasily.

  “I am a child of Yargen.” Sehra sat straighter at the word. “I know the old ways. I know the old magic that has long been forgotten by the southern peoples.”

  “Why does Shaldan want the axe?” Vhalla hoped the question didn’t confirm or deny her possession of it.

  “Because it is our history,” Sehra answered as Za shook her head in disgust at Vhalla’s question. “Because it is not yours to take, or have, or use.”

  Vhalla had no argument to any of those. “You wish to use it to fight for your sovereignty?”

  She couldn’t exactly fault the North for it. She personally knew what it felt like to be chained under the Emperor. She couldn’t imagine a good leader’s agony at the knowledge of their entire people being reduced in such a way.

  “Not fight.” Sehra shook her head. “Make a deal for it.”

  “With me?”

  The princess nodded.

  “What do you think I can do?” Vhalla hardly had any say in the future of the North, even less the power to give them their sovereignty.

  “You hold no more love for this Empire than my people do, this much I have seen. It gives me faith for you. However, with the axe in hand, you are a danger to us as a tool of the war-hungry men who sleep in these stone walls,” Sehra said, revealing nothing Vhalla didn’t already know.

  “Yet,” the princess held a long pause, “you also hold the future of Solaris in your hands.”

  “How?” Vhalla frowned.

  “Not hands, perhaps. Around your neck would be a better way to say it?”

  Vhalla’s hand went up to the watch, buried under the cloak and layers of clothing. Vhalla knew that Sehra had never seen the token, and even if she had, there was no reason for her to be so certain as to its origin. “How did you know?”

  “His heart sings for you, his eyes search for you, his magic calls for and embraces you. Even a fool could see it, and I am no fool.” Sehra raised a finger, pointing at Vhalla’s chest. “He may not even realize what he has given you.”

  “What?” Vhalla’s curiosity got the better of her.

  “His magic sleeps within,” Sehra was gracious enough to inform Vhalla, in not so many words, that Aldrik had given her what was well likely an unintentional vessel. “Do you deny the rumors of your involvement with the crown prince?”

  Vhalla remained silent. It was an odd thing for a bride-to-be to ask about her groom. But the whole night so far had been anything but conventional.

  “No . . . One who screams for truth cannot turn and deny her heart.” Sehra leaned slightly against Za. “You can have him. I give him to you.”

  “What?” Vhalla blinked.

  “You cry for an Empire of peace; here is your chance, Vhalla Yarl.” Sehra narrowed her eyes slightly, a challenge carried in her words. “Give me Achel. Let me return the weapon to its tomb to await its true master’s return. I will disappear, return to my home from your frigid, barren mountaintop. The North will write me off as dead so long as the Empire relinquishes its hold on my people.”

  Vhalla processed this for a moment, and somehow managed to keep in insane laughter. “You want me to make a deal, that if I give you the axe and convince the Empire to give up the land the Emperor has just won at the highest price, I can be with Prince Aldrik?” She commended herself for remembering the prince’s proper title.

  Sehra frowned at Vhalla’s amusement.

  “You’re delusional.” Vhalla stood. As if she would ever try to bargain for Aldrik’s heart. Vhalla ignored that part and focused on one of the many other reasons why the girl’s proposal wouldn’t work. “There’s no way the Empire could, or would, let go of Shaldan now. To do so would admit failure, which no one will do.”

  “And I thought you were different, that you had reason and a sense of justice.”

  “Those are luxuries we cannot afford. We’re all trying to survive in a world that doesn’t give a damn about reason or justice, so learn well, princess.” Vhalla sighed. “Even if I wanted to take your deal, I’d never be with the crown prince. The Emperor would refuse it. Nothing is ever that simple.”

  Za engaged in a quick series of harsh words punctuated with nasty glances at Vhalla. Sehra nodded a few times, frowned, and held up her hand.

  “Then help us kill the Emperor.”

  Vhalla’s head jerked around instinctually at the deeply treasonous words, lookin
g for someone to spring from the shadows and lock her up. She returned her attention to the princess once it was clear no one else had been in the empty hall for hours. Vhalla clenched and unclenched her fists. She should be appalled. But the thought settled easily upon her mind. It complemented the dark history she had with the Emperor Solaris and the utter hatred she generally held for the man.

  Sehra took Vhalla’s hesitation as an invitation to continue. “If the Emperor dies, then you could be with your prince, and our deal could stand.”

  “Aldrik would never love someone who killed his family.” Vhalla frowned. “And I thought my dismissal would be clear, this is about more than me and him.”

  “And here I thought you would be foolish enough to make a deal for love.” The princess grinned briefly before sobering once more. “You don’t need to swing the axe. Za will.”

  “Then why haven’t you already?”

  “You would help us escape,” Sehra explained.

  Vhalla turned, finally letting out mad laughter as she started for the door. “Princess,” she called, her voice echoing through the empty space, “I realize that you are doing what you must to defend your people. But I have no interest in actually committing one of the crimes the Senate has been trying to pin on me for months.”

  “If you do not help us, we will consider you our enemy.”

  Vhalla paused with a sigh. “Frankly, I don’t care if I am your enemy.” She met the child princess’s eyes once more. “But if you brought a deal to me that wasn’t rooted in wishful thinking and delusions, I could be willing to help you. I meant what I said today, I hold no ill will toward your people. But I’m tired of senseless bloodshed, and that’s what your resistance would end up bringing.”

  The princess didn’t like hearing this, her guard even less. Vhalla didn’t care, the truth wasn’t always easy or beautiful. Often, the only joy Vhalla had found since growing up was in spite of the truth. She left the other two women to their thoughts.

  The walk back to the Tower was lonely and cold. Vhalla kept her hands under the heavy cloak, passing back the watch from fingertips to fingertips. She’d learned two things. The first was that the princess and her bodyguard were unsurprisingly mutinous against their new sovereign. The second was that she held a vessel of Aldrik’s magic, strong enough that the princess could sense it with whatever strange magic she wielded.

  Now Vhalla was presented with the debate of what to tell Aldrik, if anything. Had he intended to give her a vessel? Should she tell him about Za and Sehra? Certainly he already knew . . .

  Vhalla focused on the sloping floor of the Tower, counting the cracks between the stones. She paused as the ghost of light illuminated the otherwise dim hall. Vhalla turned to see a mote of fire shine through the bookshelves of the Tower library, following some late night patron.

  She didn’t know if she truly believed in all the utterings of the Goddess. Of fate. Of a grander meaning to the world. But in that moment, it felt like something greater had shown her a light.

  The flame reminded her of Aldrik’s, and Vhalla knew that whatever she did next, she had to somehow restore some lines of communication with the man she had once promised to marry. She had things that she needed to say and, if his expression at court was any indication, so did he.

  THE MAGIC OF the axe shimmered around her fingertips, and Vhalla focused on it intensely. She delicately pulled and pried, separating the layers of foreign magic entangled around the blade. The more her own power mingled with the axe, the cleaner it became, the waves of power radiating outward.

  It had been three days since she decided she needed to speak with Aldrik. Instead of seeking the prince out, she’d spent the majority of her time throwing herself into her work with Victor. It was a cheap diversion from what she really needed to do, but Vhalla could insist to herself the importance of cleansing the axe and destroying it—especially after her conversation with Za and Sehra.

  She was so exhausted by the time she called it a day that her body nearly ached from magic depletion. But she wasn’t too tired to miss spending time with her messy-haired friend. So in the late afternoon, Vhalla found herself leaning against the wall of the alcove she shared with Fritz, reading in the Tower library.

  Fritz broke the silence with a stretch and a yawn. “Vhal, I’ve been wondering.”

  “Wondering what?” Vhalla’s eyes continued to scan the words of the book she was reading.

  “What do you do with the minister?”

  Vhalla knew the question would come eventually. She should’ve thought of some kind of response before being put on the spot. But she hadn’t, and there she was, struggling to form an answer. Lying would be easiest.

  “We’re working on something.”

  “What?” Fritz couldn’t just let it be.

  “Something involving my magic.”

  “So, special Windwalker training?” Fritz hummed.

  “Something like that,” Vhalla replied with a nod, flipping the page.

  “Do you like it here?” His question surprised her, and the silence prompted him to continue. “In the Tower, do you like being part of the Tower?”

  “Where else would I be?” She had nowhere else to go. If she went home, she was likely to bring danger to her father. She was safest in the Tower and could help the most there also. Maybe she’d go home after the axe was destroyed.

  Fritz frowned slightly. “You never leave. You’re tired all the time, on edge.”

  Vhalla rubbed her eyes, instantly annoyed with her friend for being right.

  “You’re almost as bad as you were on the march.”

  “I just have some things on my mind.” Vhalla closed her book with a sigh.

  “Talk about them? We’re friends, talk to me.”

  She smiled sadly at her friend. Fritz had such an innocent hopefulness about him, despite the fact that Vhalla knew he had just as much blood on his hands as she. How he had managed to salvage his soul from the Northern campaign escaped Vhalla, but she wished he could’ve taught her before the war ended.

  “It’s nothing.” Vhalla squeezed Fritz’s hand encouragingly. “I’m trying out some new Windwalker things with the minister, so I am exhausted.”

  “All right.” Fritz still looked skeptical.

  “Tell me, how have things with Grahm been?” Vhalla knew just what change in topic would shift the Southerner’s focus completely.

  However, she still felt a little guilty for not being entirely honest with him. It was the least she could do, she felt, to heed his words and escape the Tower for a bit. So after Fritz had gone off to work with Grahm on vessels again, Vhalla wandered out for the first time since the Court day.

  She wasn’t going to head to the Imperial library, not without purpose, given her last confrontation with Roan. So Vhalla headed to the only other place in the palace she knew she would find friends—the training grounds. The Golden Guard was present, as expected. Raylynn worked with archers, Daniel was drilling swords again, and Erion sat behind a table under a sun shade propped up by four posts.

  “I hear you caused quite the stir at court.” Erion glanced up at her as she crossed out of the sun. He had papers spread across the table with times and names written on them. Vhalla could only assume it was some sort of schedule for the guards.

  “I tend to cause a stir wherever I go.” Vhalla leaned against the table and looked out over the training grounds.

  “That you do,” Erion chuckled. “Are you here to interrupt my training, then?”

  “Maybe,” Vhalla mused. “Why, do you need a stir caused?” She grinned back at the Western man.

  “Oh, I’m sure I could find something for you to do.” Erion made some marks on the papers, pressing the parchment down to the table as the wind tried to carry it away. Vhalla waved a hand and the wind stopped. His eyes jumped up to her.

  “You looked like you were having trouble.”

  “Practical as ever.” Erion focused for a moment, before speaking in betwee
n scribing.

  A thought occurred to her as she stared across the men and women practicing at war. “Why don’t the Tower sorcerers train here?”

  “They have their own training grounds in the Tower,” Erion answered.

  “These are better. Why don’t they use this?”

  “If I had to guess, it’s because of tensions between the soldiers and the sorcerers.”

  “Foolish,” Vhalla muttered. “Let me train with them?”

  Erion glanced up at her, gauging her intent. Finding her serious, he spoke, “What would you like to do?”

  “Just some sparring would be sufficient, I think. You said you could find something for me to do.” Vhalla smiled. Baldair had once told her to ride with the men so they saw her with him. That didn’t stop now that the march was over, she resolved. She’d be seen among the soldiers, and she’d work to bridge the gap between them and their brothers and sisters in black.

  Vhalla was put into the main ring with Jax. It had a short wall built around the perimeter with a ledge above for spectators. Erion sent swords and pole arms in batches so each would get a round with the two soldiers in black. Being a member of the Golden Guard, Jax had trained with them before. As it was Vhalla’s first time, it took coaxing and encouragement of the soldiers who remembered her from the front in order to get the other soldiers into the ring with her.

  Vhalla leaned against the side wall, catching her breath while Jax trained. His fighting style was a rough and wild combination of jumps and kicks. His flames soared through the air and crackled along the ground. It was different from the close-ranged combat Aldrik preferred. Jax kept his opponents at bay with bursts of fire, finishing with him plucking a dagger from some hidden location as soon as his opponent was prone on the ground.

  “I need a breather, fight the lady.” He waved off the next soldier, crossing over to her. “All yours.” Jax motioned for her to enter the ring.

  Vhalla adjusted the jerkin she’d been lent, shaking out the stiffness in her muscles. It’d been too long since she’d last trained, and she made a vow to do so more often.

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