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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.15
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.15

           Elise Kova
 

  “Daniel?” Vhalla blinked.

  “I heard the Windwalker was sparring.” The Easterner gave her an easy smile that removed the awkwardness the Court had created during their last encounter. “Thought I’d see if I fared any better than the last time I went against your winds.”

  “I’m not so sure you will,” Vhalla replied coyly.

  “No?” Daniel chuckled. “Let’s make a wager then.”

  “Of what sort?”

  “If I win, let me show you my home?”

  That certainly wasn’t what she’d been expecting. “And if I win?”

  “I’ll do any one thing you ask of me.” Daniel drew his sword, a beautiful rapier with a golden pommel in the shape of wheat.

  “Anything?” Vhalla raised her eyebrows.

  “They say make love, not war,” Jax shouted down from the spectators’ ring that lined the training pit. “I frankly don’t care as long as you two get to one or the other.”

  The peanut gallery burst into laughter.

  “Is that how you treat a lady, Jax? There’s more to it than just saying hello and putting a sword through her eye!” Daniel jested back.

  “Mate, if you’re going for the eye, your sword is in the wrong place!” A roar of laughter threatened to deafen them.

  Daniel rolled his eyes and Vhalla found herself joining in laughter with the rest of them. It was all lighthearted jesting. He eased himself into a fighting stance and held his sword as gently as she would a quill.

  “You have your deal!” The words rang out. What could it hurt?

  “Enough stalling. Fight!” Jax cried.

  Daniel waited for her to charge. Vhalla pressed the wind against her heels and targeted his face with an apparent attack. He swung his sword upward, and Vhalla nimbly stepped out of its arc, dropping and sweeping her foot. The soldier did a half jump-step to avoid being tripped.

  His sword cut through the air, whistling slightly as he wove it like an orchestra conductor’s baton, keeping her at length with a series of slashes. Vhalla realized he was cutting closer than he had before. He had more faith in her magic.

  Daniel’s eyes caught hers, and Vhalla grinned. He grinned in return, and Vhalla rewarded him with a gust straight to his chest. The soldier tumbled, head over heels, regaining his feet with a lunge off the ground.

  Vhalla was too fast for the blade and nimbly side-stepped. It was a good fight, but he was outclassed against her magic. With a flick of her wrist, the wind ripped his blade from his fingers, leaving Daniel prone and shocked, his blade hanging over him in the air.

  “I yield!” He raised his hands, and the soldiers cheered at their display.

  Vhalla helped him up from the ground, easing the rapier back into his palm. “You said you would do anything I wanted.”

  “I’m a man of my word.” Daniel sheathed his sword.

  “Well, I want to see your home.” There was still some air that she wanted to make sure was cleared and settled between them. It seemed as good an opportunity as any.

  His face lit up. “I must run some more drills, but I’ll be available soon. Can you wait?”

  Vhalla smiled and nodded.

  She passed the time alternating with Jax in the training ring. The other sorcerer began to feed her advice between rounds, and Vhalla heeded it with a keen ear. However, he did the same with her opponents, and their skill showed marked improvement. Jax was experienced in combat, and he’d worked with her enough to tell people exactly where the Windwalker’s skill was lacking.

  Vhalla was on her fifth consecutive opponent when there was a commotion from the spectators’ walk around the ring. She glanced up, unable to make out the source of the fuss with a blade swinging by her face. Vhalla dodged backwards, turning her attention to her attacker.

  And then she stopped. It all stopped.

  She felt his eyes on her, cutting into her soul. Everything slowed, and her gaze rose. Aldrik stood atop the spectators’ wall. His hands were folded behind his back. He looked down at her with guarded eyes, his expression betraying nothing.

  Her vision shifted. His betrothed stood two steps away. Her emerald eyes fixed on Vhalla as though Sehra was once more looking at the crystal magic that she claimed lingered on Vhalla.

  Her opponent was smart enough to capitalize on her complete distraction. The dull training blade came down on her shoulder, and she called out in surprise as it dug into her joint. Vhalla bent her knee and tilted to the side trying to absorb the shock of the impact.

  “Vhalla, you should know better. Don’t take your eyes off your opponent in a fight!” Jax shook his head, strolling away from the wall he’d been resting against. He glanced behind and gave a small nod to the prince before quietly adding, “Not for anything.”

  “Of course.” Vhalla glanced away. She felt the weight of Aldrik’s stare remain on her.

  “Why don’t you take a breather?” Jax patted her shoulder, and she winced. “Are you all right?”

  “Fine, fine.” Vhalla brushed by him, barely remembering to thank her opponent before she walked out of the ring. She didn’t know where she was heading, but she knew staying anywhere close to Aldrik was not a sound idea. There were too many things unsaid right now, and this was not the forum to say them.

  Familiar footsteps crunched the ground behind her, and Vhalla didn’t even have to turn to know the prince was there. Aldrik strolled by, his future wife in silent company. He didn’t look back at her once.

  Vhalla retreated to the tall table underneath the sunshade. Erion no longer occupied the space behind it. Now Baldair was managing the guard and working on schedules.

  “I heard you were here.” Baldair assessed her thoughtfully.

  “With how often people speak of me, I sometimes think I can exist in multiple places at once.” Vhalla massaged her shoulder.

  “My brother heard as well.”

  That explained it.

  “What’s going on with you and him?” Baldair’s voice was thoughtful, but it carried an unusual weight.

  “Nothing is going on.” Vhalla frowned. “Everything is over between us.”

  “Really? And, does he know that?” Vhalla narrowed her eyes at Baldair’s remark. It didn’t dissuade the prince from continuing. “We all know what happened the last time you both tried this path. But that will be nothing compared to what will happen if you try to get in the way of his engagement.”

  “Good thing I’m not trying then.” Vhalla pursed her lips, barely refraining from remarking how, despite her general hatred for the Emperor, she had never tried or suggested his assassination—unlike Aldrik’s current betrothed.

  Daniel appeared shortly thereafter, putting a blissful stop to the conversation. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

  “And what’s this?” Baldair glanced between his companions with a tiny smirk.

  “Two friends catching up,” Daniel responded easily.

  “Sure, sure.” The prince held the word for emphasis. But the tease was empty. It lacked the weight of any real suspicion for things going on between them.

  Daniel led her away from the prince, and Vhalla found herself breathing easier the farther they got from the Tower and the training grounds—the farther she got from the princes and the axe. They walked out of a side entrance into the common area of town. Daniel immediately turned to the right, and they strolled up a small street to the section where nobles and dignitaries lived. In the distance, Vhalla could see the high walls surrounding the water gardens around the golden ballroom. Vhalla smiled faintly.

  That was a different time. The dance she had shared with Aldrik was the last night he had just been a prince and she had just been a girl. She’d yet to learn of the depth of their Bond, and she’d yet to be known as the Windwalker.

  “Have you ever been to the mirror ballroom?” Daniel asked, seeing where her attentions were.

  “I have, once,” she sighed wistfully.

  “It’s quite the spectacle.” Vhalla hummed in agreement as
Daniel continued. “I hear that’s where they’re holding a gala following the wedding.”

  “The wedding?” Vhalla repeated, her voice revealing no emotion.

  “Yes.” Daniel’s voice was soft as he spoke. He knew what he was saying to her, what she was hearing. His words were the nails in the coffin of a love she’d once coveted above all else. Her hand went to the watch around her neck. “It should be sometime just after the new year; all the Court will be invited. They want to make it a wintertime ball.”

  “It’ll be lovely, I’m sure.” Vhalla forced a smile.

  “But you don’t think you’ll see it with your own eyes.” Daniel gave sound to the words between her words.

  “I doubt I’ll attend,” she agreed.

  “I’m not surprised.” He brought his eyes away from the towering walls of the water gardens. “I wouldn’t want to go, if I were you.”

  Vhalla regarded him cautiously. She didn’t know how to respond to the sentiment, so she kept her mouth shut and waited for him to give it more color. Daniel obliged.

  “You know, I was engaged.” Vhalla nodded, prompting him to continue. “She still lives in Paca. And, I still haven’t had the courage to go back there yet. Not even when I went East looking for you. I had thought, if I’d found someone new. . . If I could show that I had not been nearly as devastated from losing her as I was that it would be easier.”

  Vhalla realized he was talking about her. He had been her crutch, and she had been his validation.

  “Then again, I built a bit of home here instead.” Daniel quickly put an end to his prior train of thought.

  “Built a bit of home?” Vhalla was unfamiliar with the expression.

  “You’ll see. It’s what I wanted to show you.”

  Daniel finally stopped before an iron gate leading into a narrow alleyway. It was tucked between two large buildings, and Vhalla glanced around curiously. He produced a key, unlocking the gate and motioning for her to go ahead.

  The alley was so narrow that they could no longer walk side by side, and Vhalla was forced to take the lead. She ran her hand along the stone walls on either side of her, utterly overcome with curiosity about where they’d end up. The walkway opened into a courtyard that stole Vhalla’s breath.

  It smelled like Cyven.

  A large tree stretched upward to the watercolor sky, and tall Eastern grasses grew untamed at its base and across the ground to where she stood at the end of the stone alleyway. River rocks created a pathway to a building nestled against the others, which made up the courtyard his home was hidden within. It was construction she was familiar with; the roof was thatched instead of shingled with tile or wood like the West or South. She was frozen in time, unsure of how she’d stumbled across the alternate world in which she now stood.

  “What do you think?” Daniel leaned against the corner of the building behind them, a bittersweet expression overcoming his face.

  “It’s amazing, it’s like, like . . .”

  “Home,” Daniel finished for her. He started for the house. “No one wanted this plot because it had no real street access. Nobles couldn’t get their carriages or horses to it easily. They also couldn’t put their wealth on display. So they built up on the perimeter, and somehow the middle was left untouched while they fought over who would get to enlarge their house. No family could agree on who had the best claim, so my wanting it offered the city a solution.”

  Vhalla followed behind him as he spoke, the grasses tickling the fingertips of an outstretched hand.

  “I had intended my future bride to make her home here, with me. I thought it would ease her transition from the East.”

  “Do you ever intend on going back to Paca?”

  He shook his head. “Baldair needs me here. My future is here, especially after what happened.”

  Vhalla grabbed his elbow, stopping Daniel in his tracks. The motion made her shoulder hurt where a bruise had formed from the earlier training, but Vhalla kept the pain away from her face. She looked him in the eye and spoke slowly, hoping his heart would hear her every word.

  “You don’t need her. You’ve so much to give.”

  “I could say the same to you,” he whispered in reply.

  Vhalla’s chest felt hollow. Somehow, the weird circumstances that had brought them together had given them insights into the uglier portions of the other’s heart. They’d never been that different. They’d both been wanting to fill the gaps in their life. Perhaps they’d went about it the wrong way, but with someone who could have been the right person.

  “Show me your home.” Vhalla released his arm.

  “Gladly.”

  Daniel led her through the decently sized, two-storey home. There was more than enough room for a small family, which made it feel all the emptier. It was modestly furnished with the trimmings of a lord still building his name and his wealth.

  He stoked a fire, and Vhalla found herself baking bread. Daniel sliced cured meat and honored her as a special guest by bringing out spiced cheese from his larder. It made her homesick, as Vhalla remembered going through the same motions growing up.

  “I think I should go East,” Vhalla mused aloud.

  “I was wondering why you hadn’t yet.” Daniel pulled out a chair for her at the roughly crafted table that sat before the stone hearth of the kitchen. “I rode out to Leoul and asked for you after the North.”

  “It didn’t feel right,” she confessed. “I’m a danger to myself and others. I’ve changed so much. I just haven’t been ready.” Vhalla leaned back, watching the world darken outside the window. “But this reminds me of how much I miss it.”

  “I didn’t want for this to cause you turmoil.” Daniel rolled up his sleeves before carefully extracting the loaves from the oven.

  “You haven’t. It’s almost so peaceful it feels wrong,” Vhalla admitted with a laugh.

  “Don’t you think you deserve a little quiet?” Daniel placed the steaming bread between them.

  “Maybe,” Vhalla confessed. She burned her fingers slightly, as she always did on the hot bread, too impatient to wait. “But I still have things to do.”

  “What more could the world possibly expect of you?” Daniel shook his head. “You’ve given enough, you know.”

  “Thank you.” Vhalla smiled tiredly at him. She couldn’t tell him what she still had left to do. “For now, though, I’ll settle for the taste of home you’ve given me.”

  “You’re welcome to it anytime.”

  “I wouldn’t want to impose on you . . .”

  “Craig isn’t shy about occupying a room when things at his family’s home are less than ideal.” Daniel shrugged. “Jax has also slept in a bed many nights when he was too drunk to make it back to the palace.”

  “If I ever do stay, you are not allowed to make me sleep in the same bed that drunk Jax has,” Vhalla teased.

  “On my honor!” Daniel laughed. “But, truly. If you ever need to escape the palace . . .”

  The unspoken words hovered and Vhalla claimed them with a small sigh. “Things are a little awkward.” She tore a piece of bread into crumbs. “But it’s my home, too. I need to learn how to be around him.”

  “That’s fair. But the offer remains.” Vhalla was relieved that there was nothing in Daniel’s words or stare other than friendly compassion.

  After their meal concluded, Daniel insisted on walking her back to the Tower. He explained the process of joining the palace guard, how the training was for the new recruits and for guards seeking to move up in rank. Daniel had the job of deciding who the best swordsmen were to be sent out into the Empire as keepers of the peace.

  “Oh, one more thing.” Daniel shifted uneasily.

  “What?” There was something about his face that nearly called into question her entire understanding of the evening they’d shared.

  “I want you to know, that I didn’t lie to you then.”

  “Lie to me about what?” Vhalla’s voice had fallen to a whisper.

/>   “I did still look forward to seeing you return.” Daniel clearly struggled with putting his emotions into something tangible. But her heart was already beating in time with his. She already understood. “You really weren’t just something to ‘fill the hole in my heart’. You’re more than that. And, while sometimes I wish the stars had aligned for us just in a slightly different way . . .”

  “You don’t have to explain it.” Vhalla took his hand and squeezed it lightly. Relief eased its way into his eyes and smoothed the tense line his mouth had been. “I enjoyed myself tonight. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed time with you. And, it’s easier now, now that we’ve had that time and there isn’t death on our doorsteps.”

  Daniel’s fingers closed around hers for a brief moment. “So, come and visit me again?”

  “Soon, I promise.” It was a promise that Vhalla’s heart had no hesitation making. And, it was only affirmed as he pulled her in for one more quick embrace before departing.

  Daniel was everything that could have been. He was the embodiment of a simpler time and place where she was only a girl and he was a farm boy, where the only crowns in their lives would be the ones he’d braid for her out of field flowers. It was no wonder that they had both wanted to play at such a fantasy. But, neither of them were pretending anymore.

  Vhalla headed up the Tower. For the first time in a long time, things were starting to feel simple. She caressed the watch around her neck, passing a faint glow in the library.

  But nothing would ever be simple for long.

  Vhalla saw the rose on her desk before the door even clicked closed behind her. Attached with a black ribbon was a note, in the same fashion as one she’d received once before. Her fingers traced the delicate velvet of the petals before flipping open the message.

  Her eyes skimmed it twice, though it was only four words in a familiar, slanted script.

  We need to speak.

  VHALLA RESIGNED HERSELF to no sleep. She wasn’t going to sleep even if she stayed tucked in bed, so she decided to wander into the quiet palace.

  There was no location on the note, no time marker, nothing other than four words. The only words with which he dared to intrude upon her world again. He’d trusted her to understand, and she did.

 
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