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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.18
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.18

           Elise Kova
 

  “I’d like to keep sleeping, you know,” she mumbled and buried her face into her pillow. It was cramped with two, but having someone next to her again was relaxing. Larel and Aldrik had both been Firebearers, and Jax was equally warm.

  “But I need you.”

  Vhalla cracked open one eye. “How?”

  “Oh, in all the worst ways.” Jax waggled his eyebrows.

  “Mother, you’re awful.” Vhalla’s dry remark earned a laugh. “Jax, really, why are you crawling into my bed?”

  “Really, we could use your help on the grounds today.” Serious notes had finally worked their way into his words.

  “I’ve been helping you for weeks. Why are you suddenly bothering with asking?” He had her attention now.

  “We’re short-handed.”

  “Have Baldair and Raylynn finally run off together?” Vhalla couldn’t stop herself. The more she’d come to know the guard, the more she’d learned who and what the easy targets were for jokes.

  “One of those said parties is missing, though not who you’d expect. Ray is actually pulling her weight.” Even Jax sounded impressed. “But Baldair is still gone, and Craig woke feeling unwell.”

  “Still gone?” The word had Vhalla wondering when was the last time she’d actually seen the golden-haired royal.

  “Oh, you know him. Last I saw he was chasing Lady Imaj around the court. I’m sure they just ran off.” Jax’s laugh didn’t have the strength it usually did. He quickly rolled off the bed and pushed the topic along before Vhalla could linger further. “So, help?”

  “Yes, yes.” Vhalla sat, realizing she was done with sleeping.

  She knew she should go to the minister. They were so close to finishing the axe, and then it would be over. But it was one day, and Vhalla didn’t want to ignore her friends when they were in need. So, after quickly dressing, her feet carried her to the grounds with Jax.

  Erion was relieved the second Jax arrived with her, and Vhalla was quickly put to work. The difference two sets of hands made in managing the palace guard and their training was noticeable. Her practice with Daniel actually qualified Vhalla to help train young swordsmen and women in training, so Vhalla haunted the grounds until dusk.

  She ate with the guard following, and lingered until the moon had crested the horizion. Sweaty and exhausted, she finally dragged her feet up the Tower. Her crystal work was taking a lot out of her, and she was on a mission for a hot bath and her bed.

  The heavy thud of a book dropping drew Vhalla’s attention into the dimly lit library. Footsteps moved across the floor, and Vhalla watched the flickering light of a single flame dance through over the tops of the books on the bookshelves. For once, she was thankful for his insomnia.

  She needed to talk to Aldrik. She needed to speak with the prince about the crystal taint, about the princess, about making sure his father and the fragile peace that he’d bought with so much blood would last into spring, and about Aldrik’s succession as the Emperor of Peace. It had nothing to do with her admission the night prior, she assured herself.

  She rounded a bookcase, looking at the dark form scanning a high shelf for a manuscript. Vhalla leaned against the shelves watching him. His hair was limp and messed, his shoulders had an uncharacteristic sway. For a brief moment, she feared everything she’d heard about his old habits was really a lie, that he’d never stopped—or had returned to—his less than healthy ways of coping with a problem.

  Aldrik sighed heavily, pulling a book and scanning it. Something was wrong, but Vhalla couldn’t place her fingers on it.

  “My prince,” she whispered, not wanting to startle him too badly. It didn’t work, and Aldrik nearly dropped the book he was holding. Vhalla realized too late that she had used their former term of endearment; she wondered if her presence or her words startled him more.

  “What—when did you get here?” Dark circles blemished the area under his eyes.

  “Aldrik.” Vhalla took a step closer, noticing his rumpled, extremely casual attire for the man who was usually perfection incarnate. “What’s wrong?”

  His defensive instinct took over, but only for a brief moment. The tension in his shoulders vanished, and the man swayed, nearly collapsing in on himself. “Baldair. He’s sick, Vhalla.”

  “It’s serious, isn’t it?” The day was still fresh in her mind, Baldair missing training yet again.

  “It started as a cold, aches, chills,” Aldrik spoke softly to the bookshelf, unable to meet her gaze. “It’s Autumn Fever.”

  “This late?” The fever normally set in at the first transition between summer and fall. Not into the winter.

  “You’ll hear more cases of it soon, I am certain.” Aldrik looked back to her. “The clerics say the years it appears late are the worst.”

  “Has he had it before?” She remembered clerics telling her once that because she had contracted the disease as a child, it would not be as severe if she were to catch it again. Aldrik shook his head, and her heart sank. “How long has he been ill?”

  “They’ve had him on bed rest for over a week,” Aldrik answered.

  “The coughing?” she asked tentatively.

  “It is only now beginning to worsen,” he answered. “You had it as a girl, didn’t you?”

  Vhalla stared at her toes, remembering her mother’s coughing, so much coughing and then the blood . . . “I did.”

  “Come see him?”

  “What?” Her head snapped up, startled at the idea.

  “I want you to see him.” Aldrik stepped forward and boldly took both her hands. His touch had the same familiar warmth as it always had, but it held no lightning given the subject of conversation. “I don’t know how much the clerics may not be saying. I’ve never been sick with the fever, so my knowledge is limited to second-hand study only. You’re at less of a risk of contracting the fever again, having had it before.”

  “I know . . .” she sighed. It wasn’t about getting sick. She didn’t want to go into a room and confront that illness. “I’m sure the clerics are doing their best, Aldrik.”

  “I trust you. I trust you, not them.”

  Vhalla met his eyes with trepidation. That was the truth of it. When the cards fell, when all else was taken away, there remained the assumption that the other would be there—that somehow their existence as unit, as a force, remained.

  “I’ll go see him,” she agreed.

  Aldrik scooped up the small stack of books he’d pilfered and started out the library without a word.

  “Wait, now?” Vhalla fell into hasty step with the long-legged prince.

  “Clerics will be in his room without stop when the day comes,” Aldrik explained. “Night will be the only time that you can give me an honest assessment without having to dance around the egos of the bumbling idiots that my father seems to think pass for competent.”

  Vhalla allowed herself a small smile and held her tongue. There was something reassuring about Aldrik being well enough to insult something. He led her down to one of the many doors lining the Tower staircase. Aldrik paused, fumbling to adjust the stack of books into a single arm.

  “Give me them.”

  “They’re heavy.” Aldrik looked at her uncertainly.

  “Oh, yes, you’re too right, my prince. I am a delicate flower.” She batted her eyelashes for emphasis. “Allow me to do nothing more than stand and look pretty while you struggle.”

  Aldrik shook his head with a huff of amusement and passed her the stack of books. It was hardly the largest she’d ever carried, and Vhalla adjusted her grip, managing it with ease. With his hands free, Aldrik unlocked the door and led her into a hallway that was completely dark, save for the mote of flame at his side.

  Vhalla smiled tiredly at his back. How many times would she follow the prince into darkness, trusting his light to guide her?

  Upon reaching a dead end, Aldrik pushed on the wall, and it swung open under his palms. Vhalla followed him into a large room. Moonlight streamed in through
diamond-checkered glass doors that overlooked a massive balcony. A four-poster bed with large, black, square posts dominated the space. Around it was a stone hearth, a number of armoires, and doors leading in other directions. Vhalla stopped in her tracks as he closed the secret door, which was concealed as a large mirror. She looked at the gilded ceiling, the white marble flooring, the decorative tapestries and rich textiles that adorned the floor, walls, ceiling, windows, and doors.

  “This-this is your room,” she stuttered.

  Aldrik stopped. “It is indeed.”

  “Where is the princess?” Vhalla asked delicately.

  “Do you think she stays with me?” he asked incredulously. “Scandal aside, I would never let the girl into my haven.”

  Vhalla swallowed as he crossed back over to her. Aldrik always said more between his words, and she heard him as clearly as ever. His hands rested on hers.

  “Let me take those.”

  “It’s fine. You have to open more doors, right?” His soft words coaxed her into whispering.

  “I was going to do it alone before.”

  “But you’re not alone, are you?” It was her turn to speak between words, and Aldrik’s expression let her know he’d heard her.

  The prince’s hands fell from hers, and he started for the door to the left. She focused only on him, ignoring the opulent sitting area he’d led her into. Even if they were never anything more than they were now, would she be happy?

  Aldrik poked his head out of the main door, glancing up and down the hall. He motioned for her to follow, and Vhalla walked on air over the plush white runner that went the length of the hall. They crossed to a door opposite.

  As he opened the second door, Vhalla realized that she had been in this hall before. The day Baldair had invited her to the gala, he had taken her to the same room she now faced. But it didn’t have the same brightness as then. Now it was cast in darkness, with vials—empty and full alike—littering nearly every surface. The room smelled strongly of herbs and salves.

  A blanket was thrown over one of the couches in the sitting area, a pillow keeping it company. A semi-circle of books stood in defense of the cleric’s equipment that encroached in on a set of parchments with familiar handwriting on them. As she put the books down with the others, Vhalla wondered how long the elder prince had been living with his brother.

  Aldrik held out a length of cloth to her. She noticed he’d already covered his own nose and mouth with one. Vhalla brought it to her nose and covered the lower half of her face with it.

  They walked over to a secondary door that was almost entirely gilded. Aldrik knocked twice lightly, then paused. There was rough coughing barely muffled by the door. Vhalla braced herself, as if she was headed into battle once more.

  “Enter,” came a tired voice from within. Baldair faded into another fit of coughing as Aldrik pushed open the door.

  “Brother.” The older prince took a few steps in, holding the door open. “I brought a guest.”

  “A guest?” Baldair wheezed. There was a rough and raspy chuckle after a short pause. “Vhalla, come in.”

  “How did you?” she mumbled as she inched into the room.

  “Who else would my brother bring at this hour of the night? Without prior word? Directly into my room?” Baldair reclined in a large bed with a golden canopy.

  Vhalla noticed a chair set by his bedside and glanced back knowingly at Aldrik. These brothers were impossible, and it was almost hilarious how the world thought they hated each other. How they tried to insist sometimes that they did.

  “How do you feel?” she asked gently, crossing over to the edge of the younger prince’s bed, leaving the chair for Aldrik.

  The crown prince lit the candles at the bedside tables with a thought, then sat.

  “Almost like the time I had a sword through my shoulder.” Baldair coughed. “But closer to my chest.”

  “Here, cough into this for me?” She took a small piece of cloth off his bedside table and handed it to the prince.

  “Coughing is not a problem.” Baldair chuckled, and it sent him into another fit.

  Vhalla sat directly on his bed and held out her hand for the cloth when his coughing subsided. She looked at the mucus; it had a distinctively red tinge. Her heart sank.

  “What is it?” Aldrik read her face without difficulty.

  Vhalla wanted to scream at the cloth and burn it, as if that would make its truth disappear. Blood, the blood was starting. It would get worse from here. She took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm, to not panic. Aldrik had brought her for her experience, but her experience was only death once the blood set in.

  “You need to eat.” She looked back at Baldair. His usually glowing face was hollow and pale. “When was the last time you ate?”

  “Do I have a new cleric?” Baldair asked his brother with a tired grin.

  “She had Autumn Fever when she was a girl, Baldair,” Aldrik answered. “She has seen it, she has lived through it. You know how the clerics are.”

  Vhalla glanced back at the cloth in her hand. She had lived through it. She had also lived with her mother dying from it.

  “Food,” she said again, not entertaining the memories of her ailing mother. “You have to eat, Baldair.”

  “Vhalla,” he groaned. “It hurts to breathe, and you want me to eat?”

  “It will get worse, if you . . .” Vhalla shook her head, trying to part the flood of emotions that assaulted her. “Don’t stop eating. Keep up your strength,” she insisted. “Aldrik, can you get him food?”

  “I can find something.” He nodded, standing. “Will you stay here until I return?”

  “I’ll stay with him.” Aldrik’s concern for his brother was not lost on her, not for a moment. The prince left the room briskly, without further word.

  “Vhalla.” Baldair struggled to sit.

  “Lie down.” She placed her hands on his shoulders.

  “If I’m going to eat, I need to sit a little.” Even his coy grins looked tired. Vhalla relinquished his shoulders and helped him adjust his pillows. The covers fell to his stomach, and Vhalla saw his skin had truly lost its luster. He was starting to thin. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m helping you.” Vhalla had assumed that much to be obvious.

  “With Aldrik,” Baldair clarified.

  “He asked me to come and help.” Vhalla sat back with a sigh.

  “My brother went to you?” Even exhausted and sick, Baldair managed skepticism.

  “Not entirely . . .” She suddenly remembered the original reason she’d sought out the prince. With all that was occurring, how could she broach the subject of crystals, taint, and his family being targeted from within? “I had something I needed to speak with him about, and then he asked me to come here.”

  “What were you going to speak with him about?”

  “It’s personal,” she avoided answering.

  “With you two, I bet it is.”

  “You know, I don’t think you’re that sick after all.” Vhalla peered at the prince.

  “I’m trying to help.” Baldair was unrelenting.

  “And I’m trying to tell you to focus on nothing other than getting better.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

  “Fine.” Baldair’s eyes lingered on her chest and Vhalla knew he wasn’t checking out her figure. She tucked the watch under her shirt as she unfolded her arms. “Well, whatever the reason, I am happy to see you around again. I was worried about Aldrik.”

  “Has he fallen into any . . . bad habits?” she asked delicately.

  “Surprisingly not,” Baldair praised his sibling. “He’s held himself together, done what he’s supposed to do and then some. He’s the man I always knew my brother could be, and he did it on his own this time. And yet, it feels so empty.”

  Vhalla stared at the candles, flickering with Aldrik’s flames.

  Baldair continued in her silence, “When he fought for you, he fought. It was bad, it was u
gly, but he fought. The man I knew to have fire in his veins now does nothing more than simmer. I know I said everything between you both was a bad idea.”

  “It was,” she interjected.

  “It was,” he affirmed. “But you did it anyway, and now I don’t see him ever being happy again without you. He may be the best Emperor the Empire will ever know, and he’ll be empty inside.” He paused before adding, “I know, I am a hypocrite for this . . . But, I’ve gained some new perspectives since I’ve been trapped in this bed. Don’t leave him now, Vhalla.” Baldair wheezed, “Especially, if something happens to me. He’d have no one else who knows that the Fire Lord is capable of joy.”

  “Don’t say that.” Vhalla brought her eyes back to the golden prince. “Please, don’t say things like that.”

  “I know what this illness does.” Baldair shifted uncomfortably. “Especially in adults who contract it with no history.”

  “You will be fine,” Vhalla insisted bravely.

  The outer door opened and closed again. Aldrik appeared in the inner doorway before anything else could be said.

  He brought a tray, setting it down on his brother’s lap. “Will this do?”

  “It’s perfect.” She nodded, appraising the soup and small roll of bread. “Now, Baldair, will you eat this or do I need to force feed it to you?”

  “I’ll eat, I’ll eat,” he chuckled.

  The golden prince ate slowly, and Vhalla and Aldrik both had to push him toward the end. But eventually the whole bowl and bread were consumed. He complained about it sitting uncomfortably, but Vhalla told him to stop moaning about what would make him better. It was followed up with a firm order to eat all of whatever the clerics put before him from then on, no matter how he felt. She could imagine the clerics going soft on the prince when he needed to be pushed.

  They helped him lie back once more. The older brother supported the younger as she situated the pillows. Aldrik produced a potion for the cough, and Baldair took it without question. It coated his throat and took effect almost instantly. Baldair was asleep within a few minutes, and Vhalla suspected there might have also been deep sleep potion in the now empty vial.

 
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