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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.17
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.17

           Elise Kova
 

  “The prince and I, we’re Bonded.” Vhalla wanted to explain as little as possible, but she’d already come this far. “He knew because he felt the magic of the crystals through the Channel between us.”

  “A Bond . . .” Victor breathed, as though the veil had suddenly been lifted from a great mechanism he’d been trying to understand for ages. “You and Aldrik have a Bond.”

  Vhalla nodded, uncomfortable.

  “His ability to see you Projected, his surviving the fall in The Pass, the feats of magic that I hear you two performed together.” Victor pressed his fingertips together in thought, as though he was running through every possibility that surrounded the idea of her and Aldrik being Bonded. “It’s more than a Bond, isn’t it?”

  “Joined as well,” she confessed like a child who was put on the spot.

  “Bonded and Joined . . .” Victor stood, walking to the window. He surveyed the gray sky for a long moment. “So then, is it safe for me to assume you have his magic in you?”

  “I think so.”

  “You think so—or you know?” Victor turned and looked at her with an intense expression.

  “His fire doesn’t hurt me, so I’m fairly certain,” Vhalla insisted.

  “Without doubt?”

  “Yes!”

  “This is excellent,” he breathed, turning back to the window, tapping the sill. The Minister of Sorcery was suddenly overcome with barely contained energy. “Most excellent, indeed.”

  “What is excellent?” Vhalla asked when it became apparent that he wasn’t about to expand upon his mutterings.

  “Oh.” He turned quickly, as if remembering she was there. “Because you don’t need to worry so much!” Victor clapped his hands with a smile. “Whatever Aldrik is feeling now should be the worst of what he will feel.”

  “Are you sure?” She wasn’t nearly convinced by the minister’s optimistic words.

  “You know Aldrik’s and my history.”

  “More or less.”

  “He’ll act as he needs to avoid taint,” the minister continued, avoiding giving her any more of the aforementioned history. “But this means we can move faster. The Emperor is pressing hard for the axe. I don’t know why the North hasn’t told him yet they don’t have it, but the Emperor will eventually find out it’s gone. I thought we would have to stall until spring, but now—no, we can push, we can move. I’ve found the other pieces. We can end this vicious cycle we’re trapped within.”

  “Other pieces? What vicious cycle?” Vhalla tried to remember if she’d ever seen the minister before her; something was alive in him, and he seemed like a different person as a result.

  “The oppression of sorcerers.” He ignored her initial question.

  “Minister?” she asked, suddenly cautious.

  He was at her feet, kneeling before her. “Vhalla, you can remove the possibility once and for all of being used by the crystals. You can set us all free.”

  “Right . . .” Vhalla wished she could move the chair away from him. The man before her made her uneasy. He had a glint to his eye that Vhalla recognized. It was the same glint the Emperor had, that the Northern Chieftain had, that Major Schnurr had had. The look that would overcome a reasonable and sane person when presented with power.

  She would not be used again.

  “How are we going to use the axe to close the caverns?” Vhalla asked as the minister stood.

  “I’ll tell you once we get there. For now, let’s get to work.”

  Vhalla hid her reservations and did as Victor instructed. She needed to speak with Aldrik. But she didn’t think she could even tell her prince everything since it involved crystals. Day by day, it came more abundantly clear that she was the only one truly fighting for peace. Not a peace anchored in blood and power, but a lasting peace that would benefit the people of the Empire. A peace that would focus on the citizens more than their leaders.

  She’d learn Victor’s knowledge. She’d destroy the caverns herself.

  At each of their meetings, she worked to learn his greater plan. If Victor suspected she was trying to procure information, he didn’t change his actions. Vhalla continued to cleanse the axe and probe the minister gently.

  She didn’t disagree that the faster it all happened, the better they’d be. Vhalla prayed that the minister was everything he said he was. That she could trust him. As the days passed, Vhalla began to believe it more by the lack of any note from Aldrik. Surely, if the prince was ailing from her labors with the axe, he would inform her?

  At night, she would go to the training ground and relax with Baldair and the guards. It was a different atmosphere from the Tower, and Vhalla relinquished her concerns in the white puffs of breath she panted in the training pit. She kept it to herself, but she was training for something once more. She didn’t know what she’d find in the caves, and she wanted to make sure her body was ready for it.

  Every once in a while, Vhalla would take dinner at Daniel’s home. She used the opportunity to quiz him about swordplay and, more than once, they ended up sparing in the grass around the tree. The bouts were even better practice than at the grounds, and would go until one of the lords or ladies in the surrounding homes complained about the noise. Vhalla’s skill steadily improved.

  Winter was upon the world when Vhalla was almost finished with the axe. She knew it would only need one more session, two at most, and she was ready to wash her hands of it. Fear of the caverns had been so constant that she indulged in her curiosity of what her life would be like when they would no longer be a worry.

  She went out to the training ground again that evening. In addition to trying to figure out how to destroy the fount of the most fearsome magic the world knew, she was still determined to bridge the gap between the guard and sorcerers; tonight, there would be more than just the Windwalker in the ring.

  “Vhal, I didn’t join the guard after the war because I am tired of fighting,” Fritz whined playfully.

  “But you’re so good at it with your illusions.” Vhalla threw her arm around his shoulders, ruffling his hair. “And it’ll do the other soldiers good.”

  “It’s hard,” Fritz mumbled.

  “I think it’s a good idea, also.” Grahm nudged Fritz playfully, shaking away the other man’s pout. Vhalla had actually gone to Grahm first. He and Fritz were hard to find apart these days, and she knew if she got him on board with her idea, Fritz would be sure to follow.

  “You would, you’re too hard-working not to.” Fritz’s shoulder brushed against Grahm’s side as they walked, and the Eastern man took Fritz’s hand, the one that wasn’t wrapped around Vhalla’s waist.

  They had become so adorable it was blinding.

  Erion was behind the main table again. Vhalla headed straight for him. “Erion,” she called as they neared.

  His head shot up, and he gave her a tired smile. “Here for the ring?”

  She nodded.

  “And you bring friends, I see.” Erion appraised the two Waterrunners at her sides.

  “Hopefully the start of a trend,” Vhalla replied, making her intentions known.

  “It’s a trend I’ll live with right now.” Erion sighed softly. “Can I have you two in the pit? And can I put you with the archers?” He motioned to Fritz and Grahm, then Vhalla, in turn.

  “No problem!” Fritz gave a rallying cry and led an amused Grahm over. It was amazing the sway Grahm had on Fritz with such little effort. In the short walk from the Tower to the training grounds, he’d completely transformed Fritz’s mood.

  “I’ll walk you to the archers, outline what needs to be done.”

  “Is everything all right?” Vhalla asked, falling into step at the Westerner’s side.

  “What?” Erion was jarred from his thoughts. “Oh, yes, everything is fine.”

  The man quickly launched into an explanation of what he wanted Vhalla to do. It was a simple enough task, producing wind for the archers to train in. Vhalla listened absentmindedly, her mind churning over
the fact that something was definitely wrong with her companion.

  But Erion kept his secrets to himself, returning to the center table alone.

  At first, the archers were skeptical about her presence, but Vhalla had an unexpected ace. Tim was among them, and the young woman was hasty to tell the grand tales of the Windwalker to her comrades who hadn’t been to war and hadn’t already heard. So they approached the range with a timid curiosity that quickly vanished into annoyance when most of their arrows shot wide of their targets due to Vhalla’s wind.

  It ended up being a competition of the Windwalker versus the Empire’s best archers. They began taking her seriously, finding ways for their arrows hit their targets in spite of her winds. Those arrows were points for them, the ones on the ground were points for her.

  She could make it so that not one arrow hit its target, but Vhalla kept the sport fair, enjoying the game. The score was almost even when three archers left the shooting line to make room for one more. Vhalla’s hands fell to her sides, and the winds quieted.

  “Gwaeru,” the Northern woman called.

  Vhalla stared at Za blankly. She wasn’t sure what emotion she should summon for the woman who was plotting treason.

  “I prefer Lady Yarl, actually,” she corrected loudly. Vhalla hardly cared for the use of titles, but she didn’t want to give the woman the power of taking her name from her—of reducing Vhalla once more to nothing more than the Emperor’s Windwalker.

  “Lady Yarl,” the woman smiled, which quickly turned into a sneer. “I want shoot.”

  “We are practicing shooting in the wind tonight,” Vhalla announced.

  “Fine.” The woman fixed her armguard to her left wrist, adjusting a large wooden bow in her hand.

  Without another word Za reached for an arrow in the quiver at her side. Vhalla raised her hands. A strong wind blew across the range. All arrows were knocked off course—all except for one. Vhalla met the eyes of the Northern archer, a frown tugging at her lips.

  The next arrow hit. The wind blew harder. The third almost missed. Vhalla shifted the direction of the breeze. The fourth was knocked off course. She fought a smirk and looked back to the woman. It had begun.

  Four quivers in, Vhalla was almost breathless, as was the other woman. The ground looked like a porcupine made of arrows, illuminated by the high moon.

  “That’s enough,” Za announced, throwing her bow over her shoulder.

  Vhalla shrugged, wiping her brow. She looked for Fritz and Grahm, but it appeared that they had already departed without her. In fact, almost no one was around. Time seemed to have escaped her.

  “Gwaeru.” Za’s voice was close, and Vhalla turned, unsurprised to find the woman a few short steps away. The bow was still in her hand, armguard still on, quiver mostly full. Vhalla eyed them uneasily, keeping the wind under her palms.

  “I said my name was Lady Yarl.”

  Za ignored Vhalla’s correction. “Sehra wish to give you chance.”

  Vhalla scowled. “I don’t want to be involved with either of you.”

  “And I don’t want you,” Za hissed. “But you keep with Achel. You and Fire Lord.”

  Vhalla stilled, bringing her eyes to Za’s emerald ones.

  “Sehra know, she know he now touch Achel, too.”

  A quiet horror crept through her, whispering her worst fears. Vhalla’s lips were quiet, but her mind was loud. The taint creeping through her bond with Aldrik must have progressed farther if Sehra could pick it up. Or maybe it was just consistent, but no worse?

  Vhalla knew she had to find him. She hadn’t sought him out once in the weeks since their meeting in his garden. But now she’d haunt the library for a certain sorcerer prince.

  “Give us Achel.”

  “No.” Vhalla frowned. She was so close to getting rid of it for good.

  “Prince already half monster. If he become whole monster, I will shoot to kill.”

  Vhalla’s arm snapped out, gripping Za’s bow before the woman had time to pull it away. Za tugged but Vhalla held fast. The Northerner’s gaze met hers, and Vhalla narrowed her eyes threateningly.

  “If you as much as think of touching him, I will kill you myself,” Vhalla growled.

  “Sehra has new deal.” Za smiled maliciously, knowing what she was about to do would drive Vhalla mad. “But she tell her future husband, no more deals with Gwaeru.”

  Vhalla shoved the bow back into Za’s hand in frustration. The woman grinned and took a few steps backward before starting for the palace. This was a bigger game than Vhalla and Aldrik. They all knew it. But her love for the prince was being made into an easy pawn.

  She stilled.

  Her love for the prince.

  For the first time in months, Vhalla had admitted it to herself. She gripped her watch tightly. There it was, the truth. Now, what to do with it?

  Vhalla found herself looking for Aldrik’s light on her way up the Tower. She looked for the tiny, flickering mote that stood against the darkness. And didn’t find it.

  HE RAN THROUGH the halls with a blond-haired toddler on his heels. His excitement for the small bundle he held in his hands was palpable. Aldrik couldn’t be more than seven or eight. He had a goofy smile, and his hair was cut straight across the middle of his neck.

  “Do you think she’ll like it?” Aldrik asked the boy. Vhalla looked at the little Baldair struggling to keep up with his brother’s longer strides.

  “Yes!” he said with all the black and white certainty of a child. Baldair carried a little parcel himself.

  They ended up at the top of a grand staircase with a large pair of doors that formed a blazing sun between them. There were two guards stationed outside who both gave small nods to the princes. Baldair stood regally tall for his small stature.

  “I am here to see mommy!” he announced. Aldrik actually laughed at his brother’s antics.

  A guard chuckled and opened the door. “After you, little prince.”

  The room was massive. The main area was just a sitting room. On the ceiling, there was a large dome with a sun, and on the floor was a mosaic map of the continent made in painstaking detail. More rooms indicated that the Imperial quarters extended beyond, but Aldrik and Baldair ran to a woman sitting on the wide balcony.

  “Happy birthday!” Baldair proclaimed.

  “Happy birthday.” Aldrik stood a step back, fussing with the wrapping on his gift.

  “My little Baldair.” The even younger Empress was pure radiance. Long golden hair flowed to her mid-back in waves. Her skin was aglow with youth, a soft pink on her cheeks. There was not a single sign of exhaustion or stress upon her face. She picked up the younger boy and placed him in her lap. “Did you remember my birthday?”

  “We did,” Baldair announced proudly. “Look! Look!” He held out the present, far too close to her face, and she accepted it with a laugh.

  “All right, all right, let us see here.” The woman wrapped her arms around the boy in her lap, opening the gift.

  Aldrik shifted his hands again around his gift, looking up at the woman, his heart beating in anticipation.

  “Oh, my little noble prince, this is simply perfect.” The woman held a small wreath, haphazardly put together with twigs and sticks. There was some twine in some places; in others, it seemed to have come undone and a stick popped open awkwardly.

  “It’s a crown!” Baldair explained. “A birthday crown!”

  “A birthday crown indeed.” The woman put it on her head nicely and gave a kiss on the boy’s forehead. Aldrik looked on with longing and sadness.

  “I-I brought a present also.” Aldrik took a step forward.

  “So I see.” The woman turned to the elder child staring up at her as she stroked Baldair’s hair lovingly.

  “I hope you like it.” Aldrik presented it with both hands.

  The woman took in a deep breath and held in a sigh. She took Aldrik’s present with one hand and unwrapped it quickly. It was a little mass of molten silver, li
ke a sun, with a loop around the top.

  “I’ve been study—”

  “I have, Aldrik; speak properly,” the woman interrupted.

  “I have been studying my sorcery,” Aldrik began again. “I-it’s a, it’s-“

  “It is, and don’t stutter,” the Empress corrected for a second time.

  Nervousness radiated off the boy. How could this woman not see the same?

  “It is a pendant,” the boy Aldrik finally managed. “I thought you would—”

  “Yes, thank you, Aldrik.” The Empress looked away and adjusted the twig crown on her head. “Did you see the gift Baldair made?”

  “I did.” Aldrik looked at his feet.

  “He helped me, mother!” Baldair grinned, completely oblivious to any tension.

  “I am sure you picked up quickly and did it even better, my smart son.” The woman kissed his golden forehead again.

  Baldair nodded. “I did try!”

  “It shows.” The Empress gave her child a hug.

  Aldrik was left standing alone, staring at his feet, a few steps away.

  A rapid set of knocks jolted her from sleep.

  Vhalla sat with a start, clutching her watch, the memory of the child Aldrik fresh. Her heart ached for the elder prince. Aldrik being called the black sheep and him taking it to heart suddenly made a lot more sense.

  More knocks on the door jarred her from her thoughts. Vhalla flopped back on the bed, rolling over and burying herself under the covers. The mornings were frigid now, nearly cold enough to form frost on the glass of her window. The chill combined with her latest dream made her utterly uninterested in company.

  The knocking persisted, the person clearly not getting the point.

  “What?” she said with a groan.

  The door opened a crack, and a pair of Western eyes looked in at her. Vhalla peered at Jax through thin slits. The man chuckled and let himself into her room.

  “Lucky you, sleeping past dawn.” He wiggled onto the small bed next to her.

  Vhalla rolled her eyes and pressed against the wall. The tall man was comically large atop the small mattress, his side flush against hers. But Vhalla had come to an understanding with the strange man known as Jax Wendyll. After their short time in the Crossroads, there was something base, gritty, yet simple about their relationship; it was ugly beautiful.

 
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