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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.20
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.20

           Elise Kova
 

  “The Minister of Coin didn’t agree to half of the funding for the Festival of the Sun this year?” She blinked at Aldrik. She had no idea, missing it during her time away. “Why?”

  “He’s trying to rein in the spending,” Aldrik explained. “We have a lot of soldiers still on retainer. After my demand of spending at least half of the spoils from war on rebuilding the North, we didn’t come back with as much.”

  Vhalla stared at him, her mouth halfway open. Her words, those had been her words when she demanded of him to help the North. “Why are you helping them still?”

  “You know why.” The words were gentle, thoughtful.

  “They’re conspiring to kill your father,” Vhalla reminded him.

  “Hardly surprising. And I have no doubt that half the North would do the same if given the chance.” Aldrik looked over the papers and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment to collect his thoughts. “But the people of the North didn’t start that war, and I cannot blame them for hating the man who did; just as I cannot and will not punish them for it.”

  Admiration swelled her chest, competing in space with pride for her prince. He was making hard decisions and fighting for peace at the same time. Some would call him foolish for it, but she chose to describe it as noble. Vhalla put the papers back in order, averting her eyes. “I suppose I can see the Minister of Coin’s concerns, then.”

  “Shall we move on?”

  He led her back into the main room and through to another room. It opened into a smaller space that was clearly more lived in than the first. It was a room designed for casual entertaining, but Vhalla couldn’t imagine Aldrik taking many visitors. Her eyes fell on a bar that stood barren.

  “I haven’t touched it in months,” he admitted as shame deepened the prince’s voice. “I couldn’t. I promised you I wouldn’t and then . . .”

  Vhalla watched the prince struggle to continue, neither stopping nor encouraging.

  “Then I decided I wouldn’t let it have the better of me. I couldn’t stop quitting.”

  She took a half step into his personal space, tilting her head to catch the prince’s gaze where it had fallen on a corner of the room. The lump in his neck bobbed as he swallowed hard, awaiting her judgment.

  “I’m proud of you,” Vhalla whispered. “I know your struggles.”

  “Better than anyone.”

  Vhalla stepped away, avoiding becoming too engulfed by his essence. Her eyes scanned the rest of the room, darting over a carcivi board, across another bookshelf, and to the hearth. Around the crackling flame was a low area built into the floor with pillows and a low table in the style she had come to associate with the traditional West. Papers littered this table as well, a looser script across them. Vhalla instinctively walked over, curious.

  “Not those,” he said suddenly. She stopped, surprised. He had let her nib through the Empire’s secrets, but would not let her see what was on those papers.

  “Aldrik, secrets,” she reminded him, unconcerned if it was or wasn’t her place anymore.

  “Not yet.” His expression softened a fraction. “I’m working through it. I’ll tell you when I’ve written them all.”

  “Them all?” Vhalla repeated.

  “Yes, my parrot.” The term now brought a smile to her lips. Something dawned on him, and Aldrik suddenly sported a wide grin. “Come, I wish to see something.”

  Aldrik led her through yet another door that emptied into a throughway with his bedroom on one end and had a third door into his bathing room—which was as large as a small house—and his closet. No, closet was a loose term. It was an open space with racks of clothes and glass cabinets as big as people—cabinets that displayed gems, jewels, and fine trimmings of the crown prince.

  Vhalla ran her fingers along the glass. The jewels weren’t tempting in the slightest. They were cold and meaningless.

  “Aldrik.”

  He hummed in reply, fumbling through a cabinet.

  “When your father made me a lady, the gold . . .”

  The prince paused, staring at her for a long moment, trying to read her expression. “I told you in the North, I wanted to shower you with the trappings the world had so woefully denied my giving you before.”

  “I thought it may be something like that.” Vhalla laughed softly, turning back to the gems.

  “Do you see something you like?” Aldrik asked over her shoulder.

  “Not really.” There were women who would die to be in her position. Vhalla knew she could point at any of the shining jewels, and Aldrik would give it to her without a thought.

  “How about this?”

  She gave him her attention, her eyes quickly falling to the golden circlet he held in his hands. Vhalla remembered taking a similar, larger crown off the prince’s brow during the first night he’d held her, during their dance. Aldrik searched her expression, waiting, his message clear.

  “Don’t do this,” Vhalla cautioned. “Don’t do this to us.” He was going to shatter the fragile peace. He was going to throw them into chaos again. The madness they always devolved into. She didn’t know if she was ready to take that leap just yet.

  “I want to save us.” The prince stood in limbo. “I want to find a way to honor our promises in more than shadow. You said the princess conspired for my father’s life? I’m trying to find proof, to have her—at the least—removed from being my bride.”

  “She must be!” Vhalla’s voice cracked and fractured. “She must be, Aldrik.” Her hands gripped his and the crown he was holding. “She must wear this or you condemn countless more lives to death. Even though she conspires and everyone knows it, it changes nothing . . .”

  “If I could find a way,” he whispered.

  “You can’t.”

  “Believe in me!” Aldrik’s voice rose by a fraction before softening. “I have crawled out of deeper holes this past year. Believe I can do this, because if you will be by my side, I will let nothing stop me.” He took a deep breath and continued his earlier thought. “If I could find a way to keep the peace and allow us to be together, would you still take me? Would you forgive me? Would you want me?”

  Vhalla bit her lip, containing her cry of, “Yes!” She pressed her eyes closed. He spoke of escaping pits, but they were about to be thrown back into one if they did this. He was risking everything.

  “Vhalla, you are the dawn at the end of a seemingly endless night, and I never showed you enough appreciation for the essential part of my life that you are.” He leaned forward and caught her eyes.

  “That’s not true.” She shook her head.

  “It is,” Aldrik insisted, his tone suggesting how he would feel about further objections. “I kept you too far, and I let you slip from between my fingers. At the end of it all, I do not blame the Northern girl or my father, I blame myself for not being enough of a man at the moment I gave you the papers decreeing your nobility; instead of severing our relationship I should have taken you into my arms and comforted you, promised you that I would find a solution if you only stayed by my side. I should have never been the person I was that drove you to, alone, walk out of those camp doors.”

  “I wish I could hate you, you frustrating man,” she breathed hopelessly.

  “And I wish I could stop loving you, my frustrating woman,” he laughed. It was an equally hopeless sound. “I wish I could see the sun rise without thinking of how beautiful you are in the dawn, your hair an impossible mess and your body contorted in that weird way you call sleeping.”

  He shook his head and stared up at the heavens, as if beseeching the Mother for help. “I wish I could go to my rose garden without thinking of sitting there with you, of reading, of just . . . just hearing you breathe.”

  Vhalla’s back pressed against the cases.

  “I wish I could see you smile without thinking of how it feels when your lips make that shape against mine.” Aldrik braced himself with a hand by her shoulder. “I wish I was not utterly, hopelessly in love with you, Vhal
la Yarl.”

  “But you are,” she finished for him, searching the prince’s expression.

  “But I am,” he repeated. “And I have promised myself that if I was ever privileged enough to be in your grace again, I would hold you closer to all that I am, more than I have ever held anyone or anything before—that I would never lose you again.”

  “What do you want from me?” She already knew, and she had long since given it to him.

  “I need to know what you still feel for me.” He swallowed, his words becoming thick and heavy. “Tell me truthfully, what is your heart’s design? Do you still see me as the man who is wandering lost in his own darkness?” His breath quivered. “Or . . . could we, could you, see me as the man that I want to be and try to be every morning?”

  Vhalla stared into the darkness of his eyes. Absorbing them, falling into them, into him. They’d been ensnared in a labyrinth of eternal night. Finding each other again didn’t mean absolution; if anything, it likely meant they may be trapped forever.

  But it would mean they were together.

  It would mean the long hands that slowly lowered the golden circlet atop her hair would seek her out. It would mean that the blazing sun that burned away their fantasies of the night would be a little more bearable. It would be torture. But it would be the most beautiful torture they had ever known.

  “I love you, Aldrik, and I always will.” He leaned forward, and Vhalla stopped his progress with two palms, flat on his chest. “I love you, I respect you . . . and I respect myself. And, because of that, I will not become the other woman. I will not let you take me when you are engaged to another.”

  Aldrik stared at her, stunned as though he didn’t understand what she was saying.

  “If you find a way, Aldrik. Yes.” Vhalla enjoyed the feeling of his chest, his heartbeat, his breathing, underneath her palms once more. “But before then, we are no more or less than we are now.”

  VHALLA NEVER DID talk to Aldrik about the crystals. He’d returned her to the Tower hallway after a somewhat begrudging acceptance of her condition. Their conversation put everything else far from her mind.

  Vhalla groaned softly at herself, rubbing her now barren forehead. What were they doing?

  “Vhal . . .” Fritz nudged her shoulder for the second time. Vhalla blinked and looked at him. “What’s the matter?”

  She shook her head. “Sorry, it’s nothing.”

  “You’ve been wandering away from the world today.”

  “I haven’t moved from this spot all morning.” She motioned to the table they worked at in the library.

  “Exactly, you’re like a statue. You’ve been on that page for over an hour.” Fritz flipped the book closed and glanced around the mostly empty library. “Talk to me.”

  “Fritz,” she groaned, sitting back in her chair and burying her face in her hands.

  Her friend grabbed her wrists, pulling her palms from her eyes and replacing them with his gaze. Worry marred the usual laughter that lit Fritz’s eyes. Vhalla relaxed, and he shifted her hands into his, holding them tightly.

  “Vhal, I’m not Larel, I don’t magically know the depths of the human heart with a glance at someone’s eyes. So talk to me.”

  She opened her mouth and choked on the truth. Fritz let her work through the lump of confessions that had been building for months. “I’ve been working on crystals.”

  “What?” His grip went slack, but he didn’t let go of her.

  “Victor and I are working to put an end to the caverns, once and for all.”

  Fritz blinked as his mind struggled to process what she was saying. “That’s . . . not possible.”

  “It is. It has a heart, and we know how to get to it and destroy it.”

  “No . . . Vhal, no. This, this is dangerous.”

  “My existence is dangerous,” she countered hastily. “As long as I, a known Windwalker, and the caverns exist, there is danger. Either I need to be removed or the caverns do.”

  “Well, I’m glad you picked the caverns.” Fritz grinned weakly. “I can’t believe Victor is letting you do this . . .”

  “He has years of research. He’s been working toward this for a long time in secret, he’s just needed someone like me.”

  Fritz frowned. “Doesn’t it seem a little weird that he was developing a plan for someone that might not have ever come to be? I’ve heard some of the teachers speak on his theories and opinions of sorcerers in society. They make him sound like he can be a bit radical. Plus, he couldn’t have known the Windwalkers would return.”

  “People always make plans for things that may never come to pass.” Vhalla bit her tongue on the truth of Windwalkers. Without knowing the truth about it all, she could see how Victor’s musings could come off as a little intense to the average person.

  “I don’t like it, Vhal. Every time someone goes into those caves, it results in something bad,” her friend insisted.

  Vhalla wished it didn’t, but her friends concerns did put the conversation she overheard between Victor and the Emperor back in her mind. “Has the minister ever done anything to make you suspicious?”

  “Me, personally? Not really . . . I just don’t like the caverns, and I don’t like that you’re mixed up in something bad. Again.” Fritz leaned back in his chair, staring at her hopelessly. “Vhalla Yarl, you’re going to worry me to death.”

  “I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want you to worry,” she mumbled guiltily.

  “I’m glad you did though.” Fritz squeezed her knee. “When is all this happening?”

  “I don’t know . . . It was supposed to be before winter was over, but now . . .” Her mind returned to Baldair and Aldrik—the reasons why she hadn’t found the strength to return to Victor that morning.

  “Now . . . what?” Fritz studied her carefully. “What else are you involved in?”

  Vhalla glanced away. Baldair’s condition wasn’t common knowledge. She wouldn’t lie, but she wasn’t going to share it either—it wasn’t her place. Beyond that, she wanted to keep it out of people’s minds. As if by more knowing, it would condemn him to a horrible fate.

  “Vhal . . .” Fritz pressured.

  “Aldrik.” Her guilt snuck out as a quiet confession.

  “Vhal, you can’t, you mean . . .” Fritz leaned forward, struggling to keep his voice no louder than hasty whispers. “Vhalla, he is engaged.”

  “I know!” She shook her head. “It’s not right though. His bride conspires against him, against his family.”

  “Her wrongs do not absolve you of yours.” Fritz was gentle, but his words hit her as hard as a battering ram.

  “We haven’t done anything untoward.” Physically at least, though Vhalla was certain confessing love and intent edged up to or crossed quite a few lines. “Aldrik is going to find a way.”

  “What way?” Fritz frowned. “Think through this. What could he possibly do? Kill her?”

  “What? No!” She was aghast. “He wouldn’t.”

  “If you have proof she’s treasonous, why not?” Fritz countered.

  “Do you think so little of him?”

  “I think he’s had to do worse things to achieve his ends.” Fritz wasn’t wrong, which only made Vhalla feel worse. “Would you want to be with him, if that’s what it took?”

  “No . . .” Vhalla slumped in her chair, hating the world. For a brief moment she almost wondered if it would be better if she went off to the caves and never came back. She should’ve never stayed in the palace. “What should I do?”

  “Not be the illicit lover of our engaged sovereign,” Fritz replied easily.

  Vhalla shot him a glare. “We’ve done nothing physical.”

  “Infidelity of the heart to some is a greater crime than infidelity of the flesh,” Fritz countered, and then sighed heavily. “Vhal, I know you love him,” he relented. “But think about what you’re doing.”

  Thinking about it wasn’t hard. It weighed on her mind for the rest of the day
and into the night when she returned to the library to look for the prince. He had no books today. Aldrik waited, hands folded across his chest and his mouth curling into a satisfied grin the moment he saw her.

  Vhalla could feel her face betray her, listening to her heart over her head, as it mirrored his expression. He looked more himself than the previous day. His clothes were tailored and fitted, tucked in and buttoned up. His hair fixed.

  “My lady.” He pushed away from the table he’d been leaning against and held out a hand.

  “My prince.” She took his fingers as if by trance. Their terms of endearment rang sweetly in her mind.

  Aldrik gripped her hand tightly, pulling her to him. Vhalla almost stumbled at the sudden movement, but the prince was quick to catch her, one hand on her hip, the other buried in her hair.

  “Oh, Vhalla.” Her name was a low growl resonating up from his chest, which sent goosebumps over her arms. Aldrik pulled away, smirking at her flush. The arrogant royal knew exactly what he was doing to her. “I missed you.”

  “Aldrik . . .” Her voice was almost pleading, though she wasn’t sure what she pleaded for.

  “Come.” If Aldrik knew what she was begging him for, he wasn’t about to give it.

  Aldrik led her boldly, hand in hand, down the Tower. One person seeing them together would be enough to set people to talking. Walking hand in hand? Vhalla had no idea what that would incite. She looked at each door that they passed, waiting for someone to catch them. Her fingers nervously closed tighter around his.

  Baldair was coughing as they entered his room, and all the magic that filled her chest at the nearness of Aldrik vanished with each of his wheezes and gasps for air.

  “How is he today?” she whispered.

  “Saw Erion and Jax for a while, until the clerics removed them so he could rest. But that only made him inquire after you. So he must be feeling better.” Aldrik gave her a hopeful smile and affirmed the reason for his more jovial nature. Vhalla accepted the cloth he handed her for her nose and mouth. His fingers fell upon the fabric as she tied it to her face. “I’m certain he will come out of this.”

  “I thought I heard—” Baldair coughed from the doorway of his bedroom. “Talking,” he finally finished, managing to slip out a breathless word.

 
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