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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.16
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.16

           Elise Kova
 

  She had to stop to catch her breath as she stood at the window overlooking the Imperial garden. She hadn’t laid eyes on it since leaving for war. The last time she’d seen it, she’d snuck in to meet him for a lunch that had seemed so harmless at the time. Now she was sneaking in again to meet with that same prince under the cover of darkness.

  Vhalla walked on the wind; she barely touched the ground, and the gravel didn’t crunch under her boots. As silent as a wraith, she slunk toward the central greenhouse, mindful of all the windows that overlooked the garden overhead. She doubted that any held watching eyes, but if there were . . . Baldair’s words of warning no doubt had merit.

  She composed herself briefly, reminding and reaffirming what she was doing, before slipping into the greenhouse. The air was hot against the chill air outside. Her clothes instantly felt too heavy. Vhalla squinted into the dim light of the greenhouse.

  Her eyes met another set, dark as the night sky. They belonged to a figure who was swathed in moonlight and shadow. His clothes were plain and comfortable, but stitched to perfection upon his lean form. Always the prince, ever perfect.

  He watched her watching him. Vhalla studied the man who could still set her heart to racing.

  “Are you real?” A voice, deep as ever, broke the silence; eternal, yet fleeting like the midnight hour.

  “You’ve asked me that before,” Vhalla replied.

  Aldrik looked away, thought knitting his brow. “I have, haven’t I?”

  “When I first met you here,” she affirmed softly.

  “I owed you an apology then also.” Aldrik let nothing be forgotten. He wasn’t the type to let a single detail slide. It was the right thing, but Vhalla resented the notion of confronting their last explosive time together. “I’m sorry for how I acted in the North.”

  Vhalla swallowed, hard. “There may come a time when your apologies aren’t enough, Aldrik.”

  The use of his name, plain on her tongue, gave him pause. He searched her face. “Is now that time?”

  “No.” She didn’t string him along; there wasn’t any point to it. She was tired of playing games and hiding feelings. “What I said to you then, about the Bond—”

  “And that you had no romantic feelings for my brother? Was the truth,” Aldrik finished bluntly. “I was too wrapped up in my world of lies to see it, even when you confessed it to me. By the time I was ready to admit it to you, you were gone, and all I could do was admit it to myself.”

  Vhalla leaned against the door, her eyes fluttering closed with a sigh. Everything seemed out of time and place. Someone should’ve told her about her magic before it had spiraled out of control. Daniel was the one she should’ve met long before the prince. She should’ve split her time between swords and books. And the Aldrik standing before her was the man she’d needed months ago.

  Nothing happened when she needed it to.

  “I told you once,” Aldrik continued, “that I am not a good man.”

  “You did.” Vhalla met his eyes once more.

  “That I have never been a good man.” Aldrik took a step forward, moonlight outlining his form in silver. “But I realized that I was only the man I’ve let myself be. That if I want something beautiful in my life, if I wanted you, I had to make myself a person that could be the soil in which such beauty could take root.”

  “It doesn’t work that way; you don’t just get to change and then we are something once more.”

  “I know,” he spoke hastily before she could get too far down her train of thought. “I didn’t do it for you.” Aldrik paused. “Maybe, at first. But then I continued because I wanted to, for me. And every day I still struggle with that goal. Vhalla, I want to see if I can be a man that I can look in the eye when I look into a mirror.”

  “How’s it working out?”

  “Some days are better than others.” Aldrik shrugged. “I can still be an ass.”

  His deadpan remark sparked laughter in her. The notes were still heavy, but it was enough to tug the corners of his mouth into a small smile.

  “We’re hopeless, you and I,” Vhalla whispered.

  “If I am going to be hopeless for anyone, let it be for you, Vhalla Yarl.”

  Vhalla’s hand reached for her watch, her heart doing acrobatics. This feeling was one only he could instill in her. It put everything else to shame, and it rose every warning flag and rang every alarm.

  Aldrik watched her motions thoughtfully. After a long internal debate, he crossed the remaining distance between them. A half step too close, every part of him was easily within reach. He reached out a hand, hesitantly, slowly. He searched for permission, and Vhalla wanted to deny him, she wanted to push him away. She wanted to hold him so hard her hands would leave bruises.

  His fingertips fell gingerly on her neck, lightning striking in their wake as they slid down to her collarbone. His elegant hand hooked the metal chain and pulled free the watch from under her clothes. The prince hardly touched her, and yet it was the most intimate act Vhalla had experienced in weeks.

  Aldrik’s eyes smoldered as he confirmed what her hands perpetually sought was indeed the watch he’d given her. Vhalla watched a flame alight at the knowledge. He turned his attention to her face, and Vhalla knew what he sought.

  “My . . . lady?” he breathed.

  “We can’t,” Vhalla reminded him.

  “Do you still love me?” He’d gone from glancing blows straight for the kill.

  Vhalla frowned slightly. “It doesn’t matter.”

  “It matters to me.” His words were quick and breathy. “Tell me, Vhalla, do you still love me as you once did? Do you hold any feelings for me in your heart? Is there a single ember of love that I might, honorably, fan to life once more?”

  “You are engaged,” Vhalla whispered weakly. “I’ve seen you with her.”

  “With her? Publically, yes.” Aldrik laughed, a deep and sorrowful sound. “Do you think I love her because I have to put on a show? Because I tolerate her as I must?” He met her eyes, and Vhalla witnessed the unfiltered truth as he spoke it. “Vhalla, you should know, out of everyone, you know I chose the woman I wanted to be my wife long before I knew the Northern girl even existed.”

  Fire raged through her veins, flushing her skin at his words.

  “I made my choice. And, while I cannot honor that choice with my hands, I shall honor it eternally with my heart.” Aldrik leaned forward, almost close enough for her to feel his breath. “If you will not say it, then I will. Vhalla, I—”

  “She means to kill your father,” Vhalla blurted out. Somehow, confessing to knowledge of treason was less frightening than knowing, beyond all doubt, that Aldrik still loved her.

  “What?” Aldrik straightened away. “How do you know that?”

  Vhalla swallowed. If it had been anyone else, she would’ve been afraid of telling the truth. But she knew Aldrik wouldn’t subject her to a trial, use her knowledge as an opportunity to jail her—or worse. “She and Za called me for a meeting.”

  “When?” Aldrik’s expression darkened.

  “After my day at court.” Vhalla launched into a quick recount of the evening, ending with the princess’s suggestion that Vhalla help them escape after killing the Emperor.

  “We expected this.” Aldrik began to pace. “I’ll have to shift the guards on her room, change the watch patterns so she can’t learn them.” He paused, as if remembering Vhalla was there. “Why did you tell me this?”

  “Why wouldn’t I?”

  “You, of all people, should hate my father,” Aldrik pointed out.

  “I do,” Vhalla had no hesitation in affirming such. Her bluntness brought some amusement to Aldrik’s expression. “But I’m tired of the bloodshed. If she kills your father, then she’ll be put to death, and it’ll likely spark a rebellion in the North. You’ll be forced to subdue them because the only other alternative to appease them, possibly, would be letting the North go from the Empire. That may cause a different sort of civil wa
r from people who would rebel against freeing them after so many lives were lost to bring Shaldan into the Empire.”

  He watched her with sorrow that matched what she felt in her heart.

  “It’s why she must be the future Empress . . . There isn’t another way now that doesn’t end in blood.”

  The truth they both were loath to admit was out, and now they had no choice but to face it. Whatever Aldrik had been playing at was nothing more than a fool’s dream. It was the same dream they’d indulged in during the war in the North. Vhalla knew how quickly it could become a nightmare and had no desire to linger over it further.

  “Speaking of Northern rebellions,” Aldrik paused, clearly struggling with his words as he became suddenly uncomfortable. “The axe, the one Sehra asked for . . .”

  Vhalla dreaded what Aldrik was about to ask her next, so much so that her skin crawled.

  “You have it, don’t you?”

  “How do you know?” Vhalla breathed. She heard it in his tone, the way he asked, and the way he moved. The question was only a formality, as he already knew the truth.

  Aldrik frowned and cursed slightly under his breath. “Does anyone else know?”

  “Yes.” She braced herself for what she expected would devolve into a fiery confrontation.

  “Who?”

  “Daniel was there when I found it in the North,” she confessed.

  “Daniel?” Aldrik said the name as though it was sour on his tongue. “My brother’s Easterner?”

  She nodded.

  “You and he . . .” Aldrik looked at her hopelessly.

  Vhalla fought to suppress her instinctive response that Daniel and she were nothing more than friends. Maybe it was better if Aldrik believed her heart could belong to another.

  “Never mind,” he muttered. “Does anyone else know?”

  “Victor.” She was in too deep to hold anything back.

  Aldrik pinched the bridge of his nose with a heavy sigh. “That’s it?”

  “That’s it,” Vhalla affirmed with a nod.

  “Baldair’s Easterner.” Vhalla noticed that Aldrik wouldn’t use his name. “Will he tell anyone?”

  “He hasn’t told a soul so far; I don’t know why he would now.”

  “Pleasure, pain, power—men have many motivators.” Aldrik ran a hand over his hair. “Daniel won’t,” she insisted.

  “I leave him to you, then.” Aldrik glanced at her from the corners of his eyes. She let her expression betray nothing. “I’ll take care of Victor.”

  “Do you trust him?” Vhalla asked quickly.

  “Victor? I do,” Aldrik affirmed. “He was my mentor. We went through a lot together.”

  Vhalla bit her lip and refrained from bringing up the crystals. Aldrik had been fairly level-headed throughout it all, surprisingly so. But she knew there were some things that would likely trigger his anger. And now that she knew more of his history, she could see why crystals may be one such thing.

  “Aldrik.” She jarred him from his planning once more. “How did you know I had the axe?” Vhalla had a few theories, and the prince was quick to prove them all wrong.

  “The Bond.”

  “What?” The explanation made no sense.

  “Think, Vhalla. What is the Bond?” He crossed to her once more, waiting for her to put it together, acting the teacher he had once been.

  “It’s a Channel between us . . .” She shuddered in horror, looking up at the dark eyed prince. “An open Channel. Then you . . .” Vhalla couldn’t bring herself to say it. The guilt was suddenly too overwhelming.

  “I know what the early stages of Crystal taint feels like,” he whispered solemnly.

  Vhalla moved without thinking. She grabbed his hands in hers, clutching them tightly and assuaging the need to feel him, to hold onto and protect the man before her. “Are you all right?”

  “I’m fine,” he smiled tiredly at her, squeezing her hands in reply. “I’m fine.”

  She was suddenly too close again, so she quickly withdrew. The man was a dark star, brilliant and terrifying, and she was constantly being pulled into his gravity. “I should go.”

  “Must you?” Aldrik couldn’t keep the frown from tugging down his lips.

  “Yes,” she insisted.

  “When will I see you again?”

  “You know we can’t make a habit of this,” Vhalla cautioned.

  Aldrik opened his mouth, and she felt his protest. But he quickly caught himself. “I can’t sleep, you know I can’t. Most nights I’m in the Tower library.”

  “It was you?”

  “Me, what?” Aldrik clearly didn’t understand.

  “Never mind.” She didn’t want to explain how she’d seen his firelight on more than one occasion.

  Silence settled upon them. It was the calm lurking at the edge of a raging storm that would be there for as long as they lived, threatening to swallow them whole. Vhalla moved to the door. It was time to leave. They’d run out of “business” and any continued interaction now would be a dangerous indulgence in pleasure.

  “Vhalla,” Aldrik stopped her one last time. He crossed over to her, holding her in place with his stare. Vhalla swallowed a dry throat as Aldrik rummaged through his pocket. “You’re better than the cutthroats my brother tries to pass as soldiers. Don’t let them surprise you again.”

  Vhalla laughed softly at the small vial in his palm. “Thank you.”

  His hand closed around hers as she retrieved the vial. “No, thank you.” Aldrik opened and closed his mouth, searching for words. “For never giving up on me.”

  “I left you,” Vhalla blurted.

  “But you didn’t give up on me.” Aldrik paused, giving her an opportunity to object.

  Vhalla stayed quiet. “I never could, even when I was as angry as I was that day.” She gave him a small smile, which he returned in full. Vhalla resisted the urge to kiss him, then stepped away. Aldrik’s eyes followed her as she slipped back out into the night.

  Vhalla created pockets of air beneath her feet and walked her hands up the wall to scale back up to the window she’d left cracked open. Vhalla waited, watching the prince leave a short time later through the iron gate that led into the Imperial quarters. No one noticed her on the way back, and Vhalla downed the clerical potion for the bruise on her shoulder before crawling into her bed alone just before dawn.

  She didn’t bother with bathing or changing clothes. In her mind, she made the excuse she was too tired. But the truth was her heart wanted to have the scent of roses on her skin for just a little longer.

  VHALLA’S EYES WERE fixated on the axe. She sat in her usual chair, and Victor was fixing his usual tea. But her attention remained solely on the weapon as he went about his business.

  “Vhalla.”

  Could she continue going on as she had been? Aldrik was in the forefront of her thoughts.

  “Vhalla.”

  The steam tickled her nose, rising from the mug that Victor held in front of her face. It brought Vhalla back to life.

  “Oh, sorry, yes?” Vhalla took the mug carefully, her eyes returning to the axe at the earliest possible moment.

  “What is it?” The minister sat slowly behind his desk. “You’re out of sorts.”

  Vhalla’s nails scratched lightly against the mug. She couldn’t deny it, and she wanted to broach the subject that was burning brightly in her mind. But how could she without revealing what had transpired with the prince? Even if Victor was on her side, she didn’t want anyone to know of her meeting with Aldrik.

  “Is there another way?” Vhalla finally asked.

  “Another way to do what?” Victor leaned forward, his elbows on his desk.

  “Destroy the axe, the caves. Is there another way to do it?” Vhalla whispered.

  “There is no other way, Vhalla.” Victor frowned. “I have been researching this my whole life. I was the product of such research. Why the sudden hesitation?”

  “I just want to be certain,” she mumbled
, not wanting to explain herself further. “It is crystal magic, after all. I want to be careful before I get too far . . .”

  “Too far into what?” Victor laughed lightly and sat back in his chair. “Vhalla, what is the real root of this? You don’t think I really believe that you’re suddenly hesitant about taint after you carried this halfway across the world, do you?”

  Vhalla pressed her lips together. She couldn’t say and decided to busy her mouth with the tea to give her a chance to think of a different approach.

  “Is it because of the crown prince?”

  Vhalla nearly spit out her tea. She looked at Victor in shock.

  “He came to me asking very pointed questions. I know you spoke to him.” The minister’s voice was low and slow, a frigid edge to it. “I need you to trust me, Vhalla. I’m trying to help us all.”

  “I know, I do trust you, Victor.” Vhalla placed the cup on the desk, leaning back in her chair.

  “Above all else, I need your unquestioning faith.”

  “I do trust you.” She frowned, unappreciative of his tone.

  “Which is why you felt the need to tell the prince about the axe.” Victor’s words were sharp and clipped.

  “He asked!” Vhalla snapped back. “But even if he hadn’t, why can’t he know? He’s the prince and the ultimate head of the Tower.”

  At her final statement, Victor’s brow furrowed, and he opened his mouth for some hasty retort—then paused. “He asked?” Victor mulled this over. “Aldrik doesn’t ask unless he’s fairly certain he knows the answer. How did he know?”

  Vhalla looked away.

  “Vhalla, please,” the minister sighed, pleading. “Tell me the truth. I can’t help anyone if you don’t grant me that.”

  She sat at a crossroads—her personal vow to remove lying from her life, as much as possible, against the desire to keep one of the most personal aspects of her life private. Perhaps the minister was right, and she only needed to trust him. “We’re Bonded.”

  There was a long stretch of silence where Vhalla wasn’t even sure if Victor had heard her. The man stared at her in shock. “Excuse me?”

 
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