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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.21
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.21

           Elise Kova
 

  The butterflies Aldrik’s happiness had been breeding in Vhalla’s stomach lost their wings as she saw the golden prince grabbing the doorframe for support. Coughs heaved his shoulders, and Baldair put a hand around his upper stomach where his ribs were. He winced in-between every relentless attack of the disease that plagued his body.

  “Baldair.” Aldrik’s smile fleeted from his eyes. “You should not be out of bed.”

  “Ah, you would like me to soil myself then, dear brother?” Baldair jested. “Perhaps I should, then insist you be the one to clean my sheets.”

  “Don’t threaten the person who brings you company twice in one day,” Aldrik retorted. He walked over to his brother and held out his arms. “Let me help you back to the bed?”

  “I can do it just fine on my own,” Baldair insisted.

  Vhalla gave a faint smile at the princes’ stubborn kinship. Aldrik did not end up helping his brother to the bed, but he was there adjusting the younger prince’s pillows and helping with the covers as Baldair collapsed in a fit of coughing. The elder prince then crossed over to the side of the room.

  “Vhalla, help me with this?”

  She went to Aldrik’s aide, helping him maneuver a small table made at the perfect height to sit between the chair and the bed. It was perfect enough that Vhalla suspected, with a note of sorrow, that it had likely been commissioned during the prince’s illness. She sat herself in one of the waiting chairs, pulling up her feet.

  “Is that any way for a lady to sit?” Aldrik teased.

  “I am a lady, and I am sitting this way; therefore, yes.” Vhalla nodded her head to underscore her response.

  “I can’t refute such sound logic.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, standing behind her chair.

  “Oh, brother, I think the lady promised me a game of carcivi.” Baldair glanced at Aldrik, a slightly odd inflection padding his words. “Will you go get the nice marble one you use?”

  “You have plenty of boards here.” Aldrik pushed off Vhalla’s shoulders lightly, starting for the door.

  “But I like yours.” Baldair called between coughs as Aldrik shook his head, closing the door behind him.

  Vhalla smiled faintly at the prince’s departure, turning back to Baldair. “How do you feel?”

  “Oh, I’m managing.” Baldair gave her a weak smile. “It’s nice to have visitors other than Aldrik. Not that his company isn’t a bundle of sunshine.”

  “He’s not so bad, and you know it.”

  “Small doses,” Baldair wheezed.

  “He said you had Erion and Jax here today?”

  “I did. Seems as though they are doing a good job of managing the guard.” Baldair settled into his pillows. “They said you were joining them as well.”

  “I’ve tried to lend a hand,” Vhalla affirmed.

  “I appreciate it, really I do.” The prince paused for a long moment. “Do you want to join the guard, Vhalla?”

  She considered it. “I don’t think I’d say no. Erion, Jax, Daniel, Craig, even Raylynn, they all feel like family already.”

  “But?” He picked up on her pause.

  “But . . .” Vhalla didn’t know where her hesitation stemmed from. A sense of direction was pulling at her, telling her that the Golden Guard was not what she was meant to be.

  “What do you want, Vhalla?”

  “Freedom, peace,” she breathed longingly. Her mind drifted over the Knights of Jadar, the Emperor, the War in the North. War, bloodshed, turmoil—it seemed her world had been punctuated by them since she was a girl. Before she really saw it all for what it was. “I think real peace begets freedom. So, more than anything, I want peace.”

  “What do you want,” Baldair emphasized. “Not for the Empire, for you.”

  Vhalla thought about it a long moment. “Peace, still?”

  “Will you ever find it when my brother marries his Northern bride?” She stiffened instantly at the younger prince’s soft words. “What will you do then? Will you always wonder what could have been?”

  “Why are you asking this?” Vhalla looked to the door, praying Aldrik would walk in and save her.

  “I need to know.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I told you something in that very room,” Baldair replied with a nod at the door with a tired smile, evoking memories of the day he taught her to dance. “I told you that you deserved some sort of real thanks for your service to the Empire, and it fell to me to give it to you. If anyone deserves peace, Vhalla, it’s you.”

  “I don’t want to talk about this.” She grabbed the watch around her neck tightly, her heart aching.

  Baldair’s eyes focused on the token she held, but his inquiry remained. “Indulge me one question, and I’ll ask nothing more. Would you be with him still, after everything? Does love spring eternal between you both?”

  “I—” She relented and didn’t push the ailing prince further. “It does. I would stand at his side until my dying day.” Vhalla shook her head and ran a hand through her hair. “It doesn’t matter. We’re not, we can’t be anything because my peace, as you call it, isn’t worth the Empire’s.”

  “They don’t have to be exclusive.” Baldair leaned forward, squeezing her hand. He opened his mouth to speak again but devolved into an aggressive coughing fit. Vhalla was up, rubbing the back of the younger prince when Aldrik returned almost immediately after.

  Aldrik placed the carcivi board on the table. Vhalla assumed her previous seat, beginning to pull out alabaster tokens from a garnet colored bag. Unlike the carcivi boards she’d used before, these had small sculptures of the warriors, archers, and sorcerers on them.

  “It’s weird.” Vhalla paused, staring at two sorcerer tokens. “I never thought about it before; all sorcerers have the same range. . . . But a Groundbreaker would need to attack much closer than a Firebearer.”

  Baldair burst out with laughter that dissolved once more into coughing. It sounded wetter. “Brother, didn’t you have the same argument with me once?”

  “Perhaps.” Amusement lit Aldrik’s eyes; his mask hiding the grin Vhalla knew was there.

  “You two would think alike,” Baldair chuckled.

  “Would we?” Aldrik pulled away the partition in the middle of their board, revealing the full field of play to Vhalla and Baldair.

  “She’s the only one who’s ever been able to stand you. It makes perfect sense.” Baldair smirked.

  “Brother, your words just warm my heart,” Aldrik muttered.

  “As if you have one,” the younger prince said in obvious jest.

  “You are quite right,” Aldrik agreed. Baldair paused to look at his brother curiously. “I gave it away long ago.”

  The golden prince wheezed in amusement, his eyes fluttering partway closed.

  “Baldair, it’s getting late. Perhaps we shouldn’t begin a game,” Vhalla suggested thoughtfully.

  “What? And miss out on this beating that I was promised from you?” Baldair’s brave smile looked exhausted.

  “You’re sure?”

  “Now I just think you’re scared.” Vhalla watched as he made his first move, using it as an opportunity to assess his condition. The prince was worn thin, his cheeks looked more hollowed than yesterday. His skin was almost translucent.

  “Perhaps I am a little scared,” Vhalla remarked. Aldrik glanced at her, and Vhalla held his stare from the corners of her eyes. For once, he seemed to miss her nonverbal concerns.

  “My brother favors the direct approach, if that surprises you,” Aldrik commented on the board instead. “Don’t be looking for subtlety or finesse.”

  “Do you play?” Vhalla tried to ignore the worrying panic creeping up her spine.

  “To whom do you speak, my lady?” Aldrik smirked at her foolish question.

  Vhalla rolled her eyes at the elder prince.

  “Brother, I am truly glad I was able to see this.” Baldair smiled weakly, countering Vhalla’s move.

  “See what?” Vhalla
heard the caution in Aldrik’s voice. After all this time, he still withdrew when it came to publically acknowledging things that made him happy.

  “Seeing you acting like a normal man.” Baldair gave his brother a tired but affectionate smile. “It has given me hope for you.”

  Aldrik looked away in awkward bashfulness.

  “When I get better,” Baldair wheezed. “I agree.”

  The crown prince snapped his head back to his brother. Vhalla blinked at the sudden intensity to his eyes. She had no idea what they were talking about. He took a sharp breath.

  “Do you mean it?” Aldrik’s voice quivered with anticipation, or excitement.

  Whatever it was, she clearly wasn’t meant to understand. Rather than pressing the matter, Vhalla pretended to consider her move so the princes could have their moment.

  “I do.” Baldair nodded. Aldrik seemed to be utterly baffled. He fought for words. “Brother, just-just be happy for once.” Baldair leaned back on his pillows.

  “Thank you.” Aldrik jumped to his feet. He hovered awkwardly a moment.

  Vhalla realized her presence had been completely forgotten. The elder brother took one step, then another to kneel down at his brother’s bedside. Vhalla watched him take Baldair’s hand and hold it tightly.

  “Thank you,” Aldrik repeated, his voice soft.

  Baldair gave him a familial and loving smile that held for a long moment. “Come now, Aldrik.” Baldair grinned and sat forward again. “Don’t get all weird.” He punctuated the end of the moment by taking his turn on the carcivi board.

  Vhalla tried to focus on the board as Aldrik resumed his seat. But something felt different, and she was forced to pretend to not notice the princes’ glances. Whatever had just happened between them was a genuine moment that felt like both men were no longer interested in waging war, that they were one team. The last thing she wanted to do was break such a fragile, yet welcome, calm between them by pointing it out.

  “You’re not even making this a challenge for me,” Vhalla teased, knocking out two of his warrior tokens with a sorcerer token.

  “I don’t think a sorcerer should be allowed to play with their own tokens,” Baldair mumbled.

  “Then you’d remove all the warriors from your side of the board?” Aldrik smirked.

  “Oh right.” Baldair coughed. “You’d want-want—”

  Baldair’s shoulders lurched as he leaned forward to make his move. Vhalla watched in horror at the moment that the prince’s eyes widened in surprise at the blood that she knew suddenly filled his throat. The crimson liquid spilled out, splattering across the board and the table.

  “Brother!” Aldrik exclaimed, on his feet.

  “Aldrik!” Vhalla snapped. “Don’t touch him!” Aldrik stopped mid-step, like an animal before the hunter’s bow. “The blood will get you sick far easier than breathing his air. Let me, I’ve had the fever before. Go get the clerics.”

  She moved without thought. Vhalla grabbed the clerics’ rags, wiping Baldair, her hand around the prince’s shoulders, feeling the tremors that signified another cough. The younger prince shuddered and coughed into her waiting hand. The fabric was saturated and as she reached for another rag, Baldair coughed a crimson puddle into her lap.

  “Aldrik.” Her rough voice snapped the elder prince back from his horror. “I can’t, I won’t leave him like this. Get the cleric you trust most who won’t say anything about my being here.” Vhalla took a deep breath through her nose, forcing herself to remain calm through the memories of being covered in her mother’s blood. “Now! Aldrik, now!”

  The crown prince ran from the room, and Vhalla turned back to Baldair. She wiped his mouth, moving her clean hand from his back to his forehead. He was burning alive. “Sit back on your pillows.”

  “Vhalla,” he wheezed.

  “I know, it’s an awful taste, isn’t it?” She allowed him to slump into her. “Try stay upright, it comes up easier that way.”

  “I-I’ve been worse . . .” Baldair gave her a foolish grin. It would’ve been more convincing if he didn’t have blood dribbling down his chin.

  “Don’t talk, it’ll only aggravate the coughing.” Vhalla tried to sound brave as she took another attempt at cleaning his face. “I know being quiet is hard for you.”

  The door to the outer room slammed open and shut again. Hasty footsteps made their way to the bedroom door, and a man with graying hair and bushy eyebrows darted into the room. He fearlessly set his clerical box down upon the table, sending the carcivi pieces scattering. Vhalla stood, giving him room to access Baldair.

  “Excuse me, Lady Vhalla.” The man stepped around her. “Prince Aldrik, I will need you to fetch the full team.”

  “With haste.” Aldrik’s voice was level, but his eyes betrayed his panic for his younger brother, who began coughing again.

  Vhalla followed him out of Baldair’s room, dripping a trail of blood onto the pristine carpet. She took two steps for every one of Aldrik’s long strides and still fell behind.

  “Wait for me here,” he whispered, ushering her into his room.

  “Go help him,” Vhalla encouraged bravely.

  “Wash, get the blood off you before it can infect you. Help yourself to whatever you may need.” Aldrik looked fearfully at the crimson stains on her lap and sides.

  “I will. Now go.”

  Aldrik needed no further prompting. He stepped back into the hallway, locking the door behind him.

  Vhalla stepped back into the room and took a deep breath. Her inhale was weak. Her exhale quivered. She turned and sprinted for the bathroom. She had to wash it away.

  She leaned over the side of the large, golden tub in Aldrik’s bathing room, turning on only the faucet for hot water. It came out steaming, and Vhalla nearly burned her hands in it. The blood fell in large droplets down onto the floor of the tub. Vhalla rung her hands even after they were clean.

  Putting in the stopper, she stripped off her soiled clothing and tossed it into a corner of the marble-tiled room with a cry. The night air was icy on her bare skin as Vhalla plunged herself into the water, still shivering.

  Her mother had been thinner, she had been weaker. They didn’t have the food or the medicine available to Baldair. He would be all right.

  Not once, in all her racing thoughts, did she give note to the fact that she was naked in the crown prince’s chambers. All her contemplations circled around how hot Baldair’s forehead had felt, how much blood had come up. Vhalla began to scrub, going over her skin until it was raw, as if she could wash away the memories.

  Aldrik still wasn’t back by the time her bathwater began to cool, and Vhalla emerged numb to the dull gray world. She pulled a drying cloth over her shoulders before she raided his dressing chambers. Many women would’ve been satisfied with just one of his oversized shirts as a dress, but Vhalla never felt comfortable without wearing some kind of trouser or legging.

  Awkwardly dressed, she wandered listlessly to his bedroom. His bed was large enough for three people, and it was extraordinarily comfortable. In that moment, it could’ve been made of rocks and felt the same. Vhalla bundled herself beneath the blankets, shivering against the cold until she fell into a restless sleep.

  Long fingers buried themselves in her hair, the bed shifting to accommodate a weight at her side. The scent of the blankets, the heat of the man next to her, the familiar tingle under his fingertips, it reminded her where she was and who was gently pulling her from sleep.

  “Aldrik.” Vhalla sat, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her palms. The sound of coughing filled her ears and the smell of smoke, sweat, leather, and Aldrik on the sheets was replaced with the tangy metallic aroma of blood that still lingered in her nose. “How is Baldair?”

  “The clerics say my annoying little brother is presently stable.”

  There wasn’t any bite to Aldrik’s words. “They’ll be staying with him around the clock now. About time.”

  Vhalla saw Aldrik’s mannerisms for w
hat they were: a retreat. He was withdrawing into the temperamental indifferent front he’d always used to keep out the world, to hide his emotions. A deep sorrow settled into her chest for her fearful prince.

  “I swear, Baldair just wants to make a show of this.” Aldrik shook his head. “Always, always the showman, that Baldair. He wants all the attention, as if he hasn’t had it. He just—he loves when—he loves when people are fawning over him.”

  Aldrik’s words became weaker as he rambled on. Vhalla looked on in torment. It was a pain she knew so well, and yet she couldn’t do anything to lessen it. Saying nothing, she took both of Aldrik’s hands in hers.

  “The clerics say he can still make it,” Aldrik finally added, after a short silence. “Elecia should be here soon, too.”

  “Elecia?” Vhalla asked, surprised. Last she’d heard, Aldrik’s cousin wasn’t coming until spring.

  “I called for her when Baldair fell ill. If she could heal me after the North, she’ll make quick work of Baldair and then complain to me for years for bringing her to the South during the winter. Between her and the clerics, he has to make it.” Aldrik allowed himself a tired, fragile smile.

  “They don’t want me going in anymore. They say it’s too much of a risk now that it has progressed this far.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Well, it’s not as if I wanted to be there in the first place,” he said begrudgingly. “Why would I want to spend more time with my loud, annoying little brother? I was only there because my father insists on having morons in his staff. No one else was watching him, so I had to, right? They should have been there from the start. Complete, utter incompetence . . .”

  Vhalla squeezed his hands lightly, and let him hide behind the security of his jabs. She knew just as well as he did the real reason why he had been in his brother’s room. She knew from the moment she had seen a pillow and blanket on Baldair’s couch.

  “Speaking of incompetent nitwits, I should bring you back to the fools who run my Tower.” He stood and swayed from exhaustion.

  “Will you be all right without me?” Vhalla braved the question. Leaving was the appropriate thing to do, but worry changed the rules.

 
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