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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.22
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.22

           Elise Kova

  He sighed, running a hand over his hair, trying to tame the stray pieces that escaped over the events of the evening into place. “I’m always all right.”

  “No.” She stood as well to bring a palm to his cheek. His mask broke under her touch. “Don’t hide from me, my prince.”

  “Vhalla, please,” he pleaded, his voice thin and strained. “Come back tomorrow?” He closed his eyes and tilted his head toward her hand. “I need you.”

  “All you ever need to do is ask,” she whispered in thankful awe that he relented so quickly to accept whatever comfort she could offer.

  “I’ll fetch you when I can,” Aldrik affirmed.

  “I may be with the minister.”

  He paused, searching her face. “You’re still working on crystals with him, aren’t you?”

  “I am.” Vhalla didn’t even try to lie. “I’ve meant to speak with you further about it but . . .”

  “I know, with my brother being how he is,” Aldrik agreed with a sigh. “Later, but soon. When Baldair is better, we need to speak on it.”

  She was relieved he relented. Whatever the conversation would reveal, Vhalla already suspected it would be exhausting for the prince. Perhaps, if she played her cards right, she could have already closed the caverns for good by the time they had it.

  Aldrik led her through the secret passageway behind his mirror. Vhalla returned to the Tower without a word. They’d moved past the point of words long ago. A look was all it took for them to communicate.

  Into the night, he weighed on her thoughts. Vhalla tossed and turned in her small bed, a bed that suddenly was cold and uncomfortable and far too small. Exhausted, Vhalla finally relented and closed her eyes, slipping out of her body with ease.

  Her Projected form was unhindered by doors and darkness. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t find him in his bed as she’d hoped. He was hunched over in front of his hearth, scribbling frantically on the papers that he’d hidden from her.

  You need to sleep. Vhalla nearly startled the prince out of his skin.

  “What are you doing?” He blinked at her ghost-like presence.

  Making you take care of yourself.

  “You’re so annoying, you know that?” he said after a long pause, the tiniest of smirks curling the corner of his lips.

  Pot meet kettle. Go to bed, Aldrik. Vhalla was glad she returned. He was going to exhaust himself, which only increased the odds of him falling ill also.

  Vhalla stayed with him until he crawled into bed, watching as his body relaxed, his brow softened. She waited until she saw her prince’s breathing deepen, telling her he was asleep. She lingered long after in the darkness, a silent sentry to the crown prince, until her body was too exhausted to maintain the Projection. She finally withdrew into a deep and dreamless sleep.

  “ARE YOU FEELING all right?” Victor asked, glancing up from his workstation in the far corner of the room.

  “I’m fine,” she mumbled.

  The minister laughed. “Dear Vhalla, you don’t think I believe that for a moment, do you?” He crossed over to stand before her, blocking her view of the axe. The minister summoned her attention with a tap on the chin. “Tell me.”

  Where should she start? The ailing Prince Baldair? The gray area she’d walked back into with the crown prince? Keeping crystal magic a secret?

  “It’s nothing.” It was too much to tell.

  “Vhalla, trust me. I cannot protect you if you shut me out.”

  “I don’t need your protection,” she snapped. She was too tired and too weathered to be treated like a child.

  “No?” the minister asked slowly. “If I were to dismiss you from the Tower, where would you go? Where could your safety be assured? Where could you remain out of the hands of the Knights of Jadar?”

  “I handled myself when it came to the Knights.” Vhalla ignored the magic and still mysterious fire that was the catalyst for her escape.

  “And Egmun?”

  “Were you absent at the Sunlit Stage?” Her ability to manage the Senate should’ve been apparent.

  “What about the Emperor?” Victor folded his arms over his chest. “When he demands you become a weapon in his war, what will you do to refuse him?”

  Vhalla’s tongue was stilled. That required some thought. But she wasn’t exactly a novice at defending herself to the Emperor either.

  “Perhaps you will use Aldrik for that?”

  She was on her feet. “Are you threatening me?”

  “By the Mother, no!” Victor held up his hands with a chuckle. “I simply want you to understand how this relationship works.”

  “Which is?”

  “That I have put all bets on you and your skill.” Victor placed a palm on her shoulder, squeezing it encouragingly. “That I know you will do what must be done in the caverns.”

  “Thank you.” She pulled her shoulder away, not wanting to be touched by the minister.

  “I think we’re both ready to put all this behind us,” Victor remarked thoughtfully. “How close are you to finishing the axe?”

  “I just finished, actually,” she announced confidently.

  “You did?” The minister paused in awe. “You’re certain?”

  “I am.”

  “Then we could set for the caverns tomorrow.” The minister turned, going back to his workstation where he was diligently tempering crystals he’d said would be necessary to access the heart of the caverns.

  “Tomorrow.” All Vhalla thought of was the ailing Baldair, of leaving Aldrik alone when his brother was in such a fragile state. “Can it wait?”

  The world seemed to hold its breath as the minister assessed her. “I thought you wanted this done as much as I do.”

  “I do, but . . .”

  “So why do you stall?” He scrutinized her once more.

  “I have my reasons.” And she didn’t owe him any of them.

  “You have one.” Victor held up a single finger, slowly pointing at the watch that rested under her tunic. “A man to whom you remain foolishly devoted, despite his hand being promised to another.”

  “If you speak about Aldrik again—” Vhalla didn’t even think twice about the fact that she had just acknowledged the prince and her being devoted.

  “A man who can throw you off a roof, build you up only to cast you aside.”

  “Enough!” Vhalla cut her arm through the air. The breeze sent the papers on his desk fluttering to the floor, but Victor smiled in the face of the warning shot.

  “A man who can hurt you.” He started for her. Vhalla’s heart was racing in the limbo of fight or flight. “A man who can break you, drive you to madness, only to have you running to his side at a word.”

  “You know nothing about us,” she seethed. “Don’t come one step closer.”

  Victor took that step, and Vhalla raised her hand. His arm was as fast as a viper, and his fingers closed around her wrist, crunching the tendons together. His grip was like ice.

  “Vhalla,” he said in a dangerously soft voice, “you may be incredibly special to me, but never lash out at me again.”

  A shiver coursed through her as his magic reached its icy tendrils into her veins. His magic was numbing, dulling. It was the antithesis to the life Aldrik’s exuded, and Vhalla loathed it instantly.

  A knock prevented the moment from escalating further. The minister released her at the sound, and Vhalla rubbed her wrist with a shiver. He walked back to his desk, quickly scooping up the majority of the papers, stashing the axe, and smiling as though nothing had happened. “Enter.”

  The door opened. Vhalla had never been happier to see the pair of dark eyes.

  “My prince,” the minister spoke first. “To what do we owe the honor?”

  “Forgive my intrusion.” Aldrik spoke but didn’t take his eyes off her. Vhalla could see him working through the silent messages she was sending him.

  “Never an intrusion by the crown prince. Tea?”

  Vhalla didn’t even recognize the ma
n casually talking to the prince as the same man who had just stashed a legendary crystal weapon and threatened her outright.

  “Not today,” Aldrik thankfully refused. “I need to steal the Lady Yarl for Imperial business.”

  “Imperial business?” The minister smiled, glancing between them. “Sounds important.”

  “My brother has requested her presence,” Aldrik explained. “You know Baldair and pretty girls.” Aldrik gave a smirk.

  Vhalla kept her mouth from falling agape at how lightly he was mentioning his brother, given Baldair’s state.

  “I certainly do.” The minister nodded, his body language clearly conveying that he knew there was much more beneath the surface. “We’ll speak again soon, Vhalla.”

  “Please follow me, Lady Yarl.” Aldrik put on a stiff and formal front. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought he had no feelings toward her whatsoever.

  Aldrik stepped out first. As he closed the door behind her, she caught a glimpse of the minister. He stood leaning against the back counter, stroking his goatee, a knowing grin on his mouth. Vhalla shook him from her mind, focusing on what was important.

  “Baldair?” she asked softly, taking two hasty steps for every one of Aldrik’s long strides.

  “I did not lie.” Aldrik looked forward and kept his voice low. “He has requested to see you.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Where on the list would you like me to start?” Aldrik muttered. She shot him a look that caused him to sigh. She stopped at the usual door, but Aldrik shook his head. “Not there.”

  “Then?” Vhalla asked as he continued down a bit more.

  “Here.” Aldrik opened an unlocked and unmarked door, and they were plunged into one of the many secret passageways that led in and out of the Tower. “You are coming formally, not through the back door.”

  Vhalla grabbed his hand. Aldrik stopped instantly at her touch. “You still haven’t told me what that means.”

  “It means my father and Baldair’s mother know you are on your way.” Vhalla didn’t miss Aldrik acknowledging the Empress as only Baldair’s mother. “It means they know I am with you now, this very moment. It means you will have to endure the delicate dance that is my family, and who knows what that really ever means.” Aldrik swallowed and grimaced. “It means you are going to see the girl.”

  “I already met her, remember?” Vhalla tried to sound brave, unbothered.

  “Vhalla,” he sighed softly. Time stopped a moment as his fingers intertwined with hers. “They aren’t allowing me in still.”

  “I figured.”

  “It means, I will—I will be waiting in her company.” His tone was apologetic.

  Vhalla laughed softly, looking down at their laced fingers. He apologized to her for time spent with his intended. She realized that however good they were struggling to be, some lines had already been crossed.

  “It’s all right,” she whispered. “I figured you to do that a lot. Be in her company.”

  “I don’t,” Aldrik breathed, and his other hand found her face. “I don’t want to.”

  “We should go,” she reminded him.

  Aldrik nodded reluctantly. His hand fell, but he allowed his fingers to remain entwined with hers until they departed through the castle-side door.

  Vhalla was led in an upward direction. The staff hall gave way to a more public walkway. This opened into a larger hall that led upward to a pair of golden gates. They had a pattern of suns that were thin and delicate, like lace. Their purpose was clearly more metaphorical than functional, as they’d be useless at actually keeping out anyone trying to forcibly gain entry.

  Two guards snapped to attention as Aldrik walked upward. His hands were folded behind his back, his shoulders were tall, and he was every inch the prince. Vhalla looked at him and could see her future Emperor. She had no doubt he would command respect, but she prayed he could do so with love more than fear.

  “My prince.” The guards saluted in unison, hastily opening the gates.

  “Lady Yarl, this way.” His voice was detached, and he hardly even glanced back at her.

  She tried to play her part and look as uncomfortable as any average citizen would be in tow of the Fire Lord. It still behooved them both to conceal their affections.

  They walked through the dazzling central atrium Baldair had led her through months ago, navigating down a side hall that Vhalla recognized instantly. Clerics passed them hastily, their hands laden with crimson rags that made her heart lodge in her throat.

  Aldrik led with his cold and distant mask as he brought her into the hive of activity of Baldair’s sitting room. Clerics flitted about and mixed potions, but Vhalla’s eyes rested on the one outsider to the group.

  The princess’s hair was tied atop her head with delicate white lace. The girl was swathed in the Imperial color, white fabric trimmed in gold flowing elegantly down to her feet. She turned from her place at the window when Vhalla entered. Sehra and Aldrik must have attended the same school for training their expressions, as her eyes gave nothing to Vhalla’s searching stare.

  “Lady Yarl,” a cleric called for her attention. Vhalla jerked her eyes away from the princess before her stare could linger too long. “Thank you for coming. The prince personally requested to see you.”

  “It’s hardly trouble. An honor to be called on by the family Solaris,” she replied dutifully. Vhalla’s eyes widened a moment; she recognized the gray hair and bushy eyebrows as the cleric who had come earlier to attend Baldair.

  “You see, the prince is quite sick,” he explained as though it was Vhalla’s first time in the room. “We have been told you have contracted Autumn Fever before?”

  She nodded. “I have.”

  “Excellent; your risk is far lower then. Still, for your protection.” The man handed her a mask.

  “I understand.” Vhalla tied the mask around her face adeptly.

  “Given the prince’s condition, we ask that you limit your time. We do not want to exhaust him, so please try not to let him talk too much,” the cleric explained as they started for the door.

  Aldrik settled himself on the couch, a book in his lap as though he hadn’t a care in the world.

  The bedroom door opened suddenly to reveal the Empress. Vhalla saw the woman’s normally youthful radiance had been reduced to red and puffy eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, and her hair was pulled into a single braid. She inspected Vhalla up and down.

  “No one other than family,” she announced sharply.

  “My Empress,” the cleric faltered. “The Lady Yarl was only brought here because of his direct request.”

  She continued to block the doorway. “I did not hear such a request.”

  “You had stepped out a moment,” the bushy-eyebrowed cleric explained.

  “Isn’t it convenient that the request occurred then?” she murmured with a nasty look to the back of Aldrik’s head.

  “I don’t want to make trouble.” Vhalla was sincere, which shone through enough that it made the woman pause. Vhalla could only imagine the pain the Empress was shouldering; now was not a time for Vhalla to insist on her pride. “I am more than happy to depart, if that is best.”

  The woman opened her mouth to speak, only to be cut off by a tired wheezing. “Vhalla, don’t be crazy,” Baldair managed from the bed within. “My mother said only family. Clearly—” He coughed, and Vhalla heard the blood come up. “Clearly, the little sister I never had is included in that.”

  The woman looked toward her son in shock, then back at Vhalla. A lot of eyes were on her at once, and Vhalla gripped her hands more tightly. Clearly Baldair’s condition had made him fearless, and Vhalla knew she had to also be so in order to give the prince what he was asking for.

  Vhalla followed the Empress into the room, startled to see the Emperor on the opposite side of Baldair’s bed. The Empress assumed her seat next to her husband, and Vhalla awkwardly took the seat on the opposite side of the bed. She tried to ig
nore her sovereigns as much as possible, focusing on Baldair instead. His normally brilliant eyes were listless and dull.

  “Come now, Vhalla.” He coughed. “Don’t give me those sad eyes.”

  Her hands moved before a cleric could. Vhalla mindlessly picked up the cloth from his bedside table so she could blot the blood from the corner of his mouth gently without a thought, just as she had done for her mother.

  “Forgive me, my prince.” She forced her voice to sound strong.

  “Baldair,” he wheezed. “I don’t have time for pretense anymore.”

  Vhalla finally glanced at the Emperor and Empress. She couldn’t make much from their expressions. The Emperor’s was hard and shut off. The Empress’s eyes glistened.

  “Don’t say that, Baldair,” she whispered. Vhalla turned her eyes back to him, and the world went away. “Please don’t.”

  “I know.” Baldair lifted his hand, and she took it gently. “I can feel it.” He coughed again, and a muffled whimper escaped her lips.

  “No, no! You’re going to keep fighting. You’ve been eating right? I told you to keep eating and—” Vhalla blinked several times in quick succession, her eyes burning frustratingly.

  “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Baldair coughed again, and Vhalla’s hand quickly caught the blood. The other held his tightly.

  She shook her head. “You-you’ve never disappointed me.”

  “How foolish is it?” He leaned against his pillows. “The mighty golden prince, felled by a cold.”

  “No.” All she could do was shake her head and refuse. It was a never-ending loop, refusal at the world, at fate. “No, Baldair, please. Don’t talk like this. You will get better, you will. My mother couldn’t because we didn’t have anything, because I couldn’t save her. But-but,” Vhalla took a shaky breath through her nose, her chest ached. “But they can save you.”

  “Your mother?” Baldair asked softly.

  Vhalla blinked. She wanted to laugh or cry, a strangled noise of pain was her body’s compromise. “I had the fever. So did my mother. I got better, she-she didn’t.” Vhalla hung her head. Before he could say anything else, she looked up suddenly, swinging between emotions. “But like I said, you are much stronger. You can keep fighting.”

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