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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.2
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.2

           Elise Kova

  “So what happened to the sword?” Vhalla asked.

  “Who knows?” Gianna shrugged. “I doubt it was even real to begin with. King Jadar is quite the legend in his own right.”

  Vhalla pursed her lips, a physical reminder to keep silent. Gianna was as proud as most Westerners she’d ever met. While she was fairly forward-thinking, enough so to not harbor any hate toward Vhalla as a Windwalker, Vhalla didn’t want to push the woman’s kindness by speaking ill of the infamous Western king.

  “What happened to the Knight’s rebellion?” Vhalla asked.

  “I assume they tired of it.” Gianna clearly had not given it much thought. “After the death of our princess, no one in the West thought much about anything for a while.”

  Gianna didn’t speak of the Knights again after that, and Vhalla didn’t ask. She did, however, return the next morning to The Knights’ Code, scouring for any mention of a sword, of the will of Jadar, anything. Two days of tedious translations yielded nothing other than rankling her fraying nerves.

  “Gianna,” Vhalla called and stood. The woman appeared from upstairs. “We’re running low on ink. I’m going to buy more.”

  “I’ll give you coin.”

  “No need.” Vhalla shook her head, grabbing her bag off a peg from behind the desk.

  “You could at least let me pay you.” Gianna placed her hands on her hips. “You’ve worked for weeks.”

  “I have gold.” Vhalla patted her bag. “And I used all the ink for personal reasons.”

  “Can’t argue with either,” Gianna said lightly.

  Vhalla slipped out of the store and onto the dusty street, adjusting her hood to hide her Eastern brown hair. It was average by many Eastern standards, but practically golden compared to the black hair of Westerners. The Crossroads held all peoples, sizes, and shapes. But the past few times Vhalla had been to the market she was beginning to notice more soldiers returning home from the warfront, and the last thing she wanted to be was recognized.

  Sidestepping around carts and tiptoeing over bile from the prior night’s revelries, Vhalla made her way to the main markets. Pennons fluttered overhead, and Vhalla made it a point to ignore them. For every two of the West, there was one of the Empire. And for every two of the Empire, there was one black pennon bearing a silver wing—a silver wing that matched the one on the watch around her neck, a silver wing that had somehow become synonymous with the Windwalker.

  Stories travelled as fast as the wind, and Vhalla had listened in on conversation after conversation about the Windwalker. A woman given shape on the Night of Fire and Wind, partly her own air, partly flames of the crown prince. A woman who brought Shaldan to its knees and made fire rain from the sky during the North’s last stand.

  It was fascinating to Vhalla. She had learned long ago that rumors and reputation could be crafted as easily as armor. But underneath it all, she was still very mortal. A mortal who bled if she was cut too deep, a mortal afflicted with life’s great curse: death.

  “Are you closing shop?” Vhalla arrived at her preferred sundries store, only to find the owner locking the door.

  “For the day.” The man nodded, recognizing one of his common patrons.

  “May I get ink?”

  “I’m afraid it’s already late—”

  “Two silver for it,” Vhalla interjected.

  The man’s keys paused in the lock before turning the opposite direction. “Be quick about it.”

  That wasn’t hard. Vhalla knew exactly where his writing supplies were stored and raided them liberally. Within a minute, her bag was two ink blocks heavier and two silver coins lighter.

  “Why are you closing so early?” Vhalla hovered, curiosity getting the better of her.

  “You haven’t heard?”

  Vhalla shook her head no.

  “Lord Ci’Dan is coming ahead of the Imperial army. He’ll be holding audiences open to the public.” The man started toward the center of the Crossroads, and Vhalla fell into step alongside him. He eyed her up and down, taking an extra step ahead. “But nobles will be given priority, then land owners, then merchants, then Westerners . . .” The man accounted for her brown eyes. “I doubt there will be time for others.”

  Vhalla’s lips twitched with the makings of a smirk. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t cut your place or try to go against convention.”

  She walked with the merchant. Soon, they walked alongside half the Crossroads as the masses poured into the sunlight at the center of the world. Vhalla adjusted her scarf once more and found a perch atop one of the pedestals bearing a lamppost. She waited with the rest of the crowd, and then watched as a group of nobles trotted in to all the cries and the pomp and circumstance the Crossroads could muster.

  Atop the largest War-strider was a man with short-cut black hair, graying at the ears, and a closely cropped beard along his chin. He was an older image of a royal she knew well; the family resemblance between him and Aldrik was uncanny. Vhalla gripped the lamppost tighter, the only one not screaming the Ci’Dan name.

  Aldrik had told her to seek out his uncle if he died in the North because he trusted the man to see to her well-being. Aldrik had told her she would be safer with his uncle than anyone else because Lord Ophain knew the movements of the Knights of Jadar. Her chest ached at the memory, but Vhalla ignored the pain. She needed to know if it was true.

  She needed answers.

  THE LINE FOR hopefuls seeking an audience with Lord Ophain was long, wrapping around the center of the Crossroads and snaking down the main market and out of sight. Vhalla wondered how many people Lord Ophain could possibly see in one day. She watched the steady flow of people entering and leaving the lavish hotel, which had a front dominated by three large, circular windows.

  It reminded her of the day her father had brought her to the palace seeking to trade his place in the Palace Guard following the War of the Crystal Caverns for an apprenticeship for his daughter. That day, Vhalla had felt much the same as the commoners’ faces appeared now as they anticipated meeting the Lord of the West: excited, hopeful, and enthralled with avid anticipation. She slid down the lamppost to sit on the base, kicking it lightly with her heels.

  She was older now, more versed in the world. Lord Ophain’s advisors were hard at work prepping every person. By the time people were brought before the Ophain, he’d already been told what his council thought the best decision was and echoed it after the person had their moment to speak. Leadership, Vhalla had learned, was about illusions. The people were happy because they felt their voice was heard by their lord, but their fate was decided before they even stepped foot in the same room as he.

  She’d come with the mission of asking questions, but now Vhalla wasn’t sure how she’d go about it. Certainly, she could just stroll in, and he’d make time for her. She was Vhalla Yarl, Duchess in the West, Lady of the Southern Court, Hero of the North, and the Windwalker. Her name had become such an unnecessary mouthful.

  But doing so would draw attention to herself. It would shed the thin veil of anonymity that she’d attempted to don by coming West rather than the East or South. Beyond that, her questions weren’t going to have short answers, which would mean she’d take time from all the excited Westerners who were patiently waiting their turn.

  The sun drifted lazily through the sky and finally forced Vhalla off her perch, but it wasn’t enough to deter the determined people out of their place in line. Vhalla found a shaded nook and adjusted her satchel. It made a soft clinking sound as she sat. Vhalla scowled at the gold as she pulled her notebook from the bag.

  She had discovered that by raising her to ladyship, Aldrik had gifted her an incomprehensible quantity of wealth. They didn’t even bother counting how much gold she took out from the Imperial Bank; she had enough for ten lifetimes. Her fingers ghosted over the black notebook she’d been using to keep her records of Aldrik’s memories and histories.

  What was she doing?

  The question crept upon her regularly.
She had severed ties with everything and everyone that had brought her to the North. She would always hold the friends she had made along the way dear to her heart, but she had come into so much coin that she could go back East and rebuild her family’s home, make sure they had enough hands to help her father and his aging joints with the harvest every year, with still enough left over to never worry about drought or blight. She had enough to buy a ship and sail away. She had the option to go anywhere and do anything she wanted now. She didn’t have to return South.

  Vhalla stood.

  The one place she wanted to go was to the place she could no longer be. It was a place surrounded by lies and treachery. It was a place so warm that even the heat of the Waste’s sun would seem cold in comparison.

  The Crossroads had become quiet with the afternoon heat. Fewer people were being taken inside and fewer new folk were willing to line up in the sun to wait.

  Aware of this, a well-dressed nobleman walked to the center of the square before the hotel, tapping a cane on the ground for attention. “The Lord Ophain has taken to rest out the midday heat. Audiences will resume in the evening.” The man tapped his cane again over the disapproving mumbling that ripped through the crowd. “Do not hold the line, we will form a new system upon your return.”

  Vhalla watched as the people begrudgingly gave up their coveted spots. She wondered how many would come back and how they would be re-sorted. Many seemed discouraged enough that she’d bet they wouldn’t return. She overheard speculation that the Lord of the West was likely done for the day.

  Realizing this was her opportunity, she strolled over to the hotel, easing past the few guards and excusing herself up the steps. No one questioned her in the small shuffle of the last nobles leaving. A group went out, and Vhalla slipped in.

  It only took a moment to figure out which room the lord was in. His voice made the walls hum with its velvety tones.

  “Excuse me,” hotel staff stopped her. “What do you think you’re doing?”

  “I am here for an audience with Lord Ophain,” Vhalla stated imperiously, like a noble would. It was a mantle that didn’t quite fit.

  “He’s in the middle of a conversation right now. You should come back later with everyone else.” The woman looked Vhalla up and down.

  “He’ll want to talk to me. I suspect I outrank the man he’s talking with now.”

  “Do you?” she was skeptical. But not so skeptical to ignore the fact that if Vhalla’s words were true, she’d need to defer to the higher ranked guest. “What is your title?”

  “Duchess of the West,” Vhalla replied, using the title Lord Ophain had placed upon her.

  The woman paused a moment, trying to process why a non-Westerner would have such a title. She squinted and leaned slightly to get a better look at Vhalla’s face under her hood. The woman’s eyes went wide in surprise. “You must be . . . You’re—”

  “Let’s not say any more.” Vhalla held up a hand with a smile. “I would very much like an audience.”

  “Of course, of course!” The woman ran off.

  Vhalla adjusted her scarf carefully. She liked it when people had to bend over to see her eyes; it meant she knew when she was being identified—one perk of being shorter than most people. Her hands paused on the scarf as a major was led out of the room. Vhalla’s jaw went taut, and howling wind filled her ears.

  Major Schnurr was most known for his moustache. But Vhalla knew him for other reasons; he’d made a sport of undermining her and being her appointed executioner if Aldrik hadn’t bought her freedom with his hand in marriage to the Northern princess. The major turned, and Vhalla pursed her lips together. She watched his eyes widen and his lips curl into a snarl.

  On his arm, he sported a band of Western Crimson, something many soldiers did to show their pride to their homeland. However, printed upon it was the sun phoenix of the West with a sword clutched in its talons. The symbol was an adjustment on the Western Standard and was notably favored by the Knights of Jadar.

  It was a bold display, and Vhalla fearlessly scowled, radiating her disapproval. The Knight was unbothered. If anything, he was amused. Mother, how hadn’t she pegged Schnurr as the rat in the council at the warfront and found a way to kill him in the North? Now he could be a problem.

  “Enter,” a deep voice reverberated.

  Vhalla turned pointedly on her heel and strode toward a side room to meet the Lord of the West.

  Paper screens had been pulled open to a small inner garden that Vhalla had not known existed during her previous visits to this particular hotel. Riding the wind, the scent of roses filled the room. Vhalla nearly lost her step as it assaulted her senses. Her chest ached, and she suddenly struggled to breathe. The Western crimson flowers tangled and grew, oblivious to the power they could command over her.

  Aldrik. Her heart ached.

  A man’s silhouette contrasted against the brightness of the garden. Lord Ophain wore a sleeveless jerkin atop linen pants that were not unlike hers in cut. However, his were crafted of far finer fabrics. Dyed and embroidered, laden with beads and gems in intricate and bright patterns that reminded Vhalla of the way sun could hit a pool of water lilies.

  Lord Ophain turned, and the air became thick with the question his eyes asked. He had supplied the magic shackles that had been used on Vhalla in the North. It seemed irrelevant whether or not he knew that they had been placed upon her wrists. The Lord of the West was clearly unsure how to meet the Windwalker before him.

  “Fiarum evantes,” Vhalla enunciated the Western greeting delicately. She held a firm gaze, but her words were soft enough to convey her intent.

  “Kotun un nox.” The lord’s shoulders relaxed, and his lips turned upward into a small smile. “It is good to see you again, Lady Yarl.”

  “I can honestly say the same, Lord Ci’Dan.” Her mouth eased into a smile of its own, remembering with bittersweet fondness the last time she had seen the man. “And Vhalla is fine.”

  “Then I must insist upon the same, just Ophain.” As if sensing her instinct to object, the lord continued, rendering the matter no longer up for discussion, “What a sight you are. You wear the clothes of my people, speak our tongue with adept pronunciation.” He appraised her thoughtfully. “And you are adorned in the mark of my nephew, despite what I hear of his engagement to a Northern bride.”

  “I’d like to speak with you.” Vhalla tried to remain focused despite her hand seeking out the watch instinctually at its mention. It must have ended up above her scarf while she was playing with it as she waited.

  “I surmised as much.” The lord nodded.

  The door opened, and a servant hurriedly delivered a tray of food and the black tea Westerners preferred, served over ice.

  Vhalla took the time to compose herself, swearing she was not going to be lost in the intense familiarity of the lord’s endlessly black eyes. “I suppose I should apologize for not arranging time with you in advance.”

  “You are one who is always welcome in my presence.” The lord gave her a tired smile that spoke volumes as he motioned at one of the chairs positioned around the table where the food and drink sat.

  Taking the offered seat, Vhalla pulled the scarf off her head and became distracted once more with the roses.

  “They weren’t always so popular.” Lord Ophain followed her attention out to the garden. “My sister loved them, and she became known for it. Their color, combined with the princess’s favor, made them synonymous with Mhashan.”

  “Princess Fiera?” Vhalla asked, making the easy assumption that he wasn’t talking about his two living sisters.

  He hummed in affirmation. “Her garden in Norin is one of the most beautiful in the world.”

  “It’s why Aldrik has a rose garden, isn’t it?” Vhalla mused softly.

  “It is.” She hadn’t been expecting an answer, but Lord Ophain gave her one, and then some. “The Emperor built it for his wife as a welcome present for when she moved to the South, though she
never got to see it.”

  Vhalla turned her attention inside, meeting the lord’s gaze. “I have some questions for you.”

  “And I have questions for you, as well.” Lord Ophain helped himself to some of the tea sweating heavily in the midday heat.

  She shifted in her seat. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be curious also. The military host had yet to return from the warfront, and whatever information he possessed must be relegated to delayed letters and reports from soldiers returning home. None of them would know what she knew.

  “I’d like to go first,” she said hastily. If the lord asked her a question she didn’t want to answer, Vhalla wanted to leave this visit with at least getting one inquiry answered.

  “I have no intent to rush this meeting.” Ophain motioned for her to continue.

  Vhalla chewed on her bottom lip, thinking about the most elegant approach to her question. She knew Aldrik had learned from Lord Ophain, which meant the man was well versed in avoiding giving answers he didn’t want to give. And, unlike Aldrik, she couldn’t just demand he tell her the full truth of everything she wanted to know.

  “Is the Sword of Jadar real?” Vhalla finally decided on. It was the one thing she couldn’t find conclusive evidence of in any manuscript. And, if the legends were to be believed, there would be no way he could answer her without mention of the Knights.

  Lord Ophain leaned back in his chair, an appreciative grin teasing at the corners of his mouth. “You want to know about the Knights.”

  It wasn’t phrased as a question, and Vhalla did not hide her intentions, she gave a definitive nod. “And the sword.”

  “What makes you think I know about them?”

  “Aldrik told me you would.” Their words were like a dance of rapiers. Sharp, pointed, elegant, and prepared to cut to bone.

  “What happened between you and my nephew?”

  Vhalla knew the question would come, but she couldn’t keep in the heavy sigh. “Tell me first: is the sword real?”

  “It is,” the lord finally relented.

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