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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.23
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.23

           Elise Kova
 

  “Oh, Vhalla . . .” Baldair looked at her sadly. “I am so sorry.”

  She shook her head, knowing the cause of his guilt. He wouldn’t have a reason for it, she insisted to herself. He would get better.

  He sighed softly. “I’m tired.”

  “No.” Vhalla shook her head. She was completely oblivious to the clerics around her, the hovering healers who did not know how to react to her proximity and actions toward healing the dying man whom she clung to. She did not see the looks from the Emperor or Empress. All she saw was the golden haired prince, the heartbreaker, wasting away from an evil that could not be fought with swords or arrows or wind. “Please, please . . .”

  “Do you remember . . . when we met?” Baldair breathed. “You were . . . so . . . jumpy.” He laughed, which only lead to more coughing.

  “My prince, please,” a cleric finally pleaded.

  Baldair shook his head at them and continued, “You had, you have still, a beautiful heart, Vhalla. I’m glad I somehow found a place in it. You healed things, things I didn’t think could be healed. I don’t think I have spoken as much to my brother in years as I have in these past months. I am thankful for it.”

  He spoke of her healing things, but she couldn’t heal what mattered. She couldn’t escape the curse of her existence that threatened to consume everyone and everything she loved. Vhalla clung onto him and his words.

  “Tell him—they don’t let him in here now—tell him I am sorry, I don’t think I’ll live up to our agreement.” Baldair coughed again.

  “It’s fine,” she whispered. It didn’t matter whatever the brothers had agreed. “Aldrik just wants you well.” Vhalla had completely forgotten herself as she used the name of the crown prince loosely, without title.

  “I know he does,” Baldair confessed. “I love that idiot brother of mine. Will you tell him that for me?”

  “You will tell him yourself,” she insisted. Vhalla threw a bold look to the Emperor and Empress. There should be a fourth. There was another soul who needed to be present more than she did.

  “Don’t change,” Baldair continued on. “Don’t let the world change you.”

  “Stop saying goodbye!” Her voice was louder than she intended it to be. “Don’t you do this! I did not come here for this!”

  “Vhalla, please.” He coughed again, and she was right back to tending to him. “Listen. They do not see you for what you are. Or perhaps, they see you only for what you are upon the surface. Don’t let them define you.”

  Vhalla shifted her clean palm to his forehead as Baldair’s eyes fluttered closed. Beads of sweat dotted his skin.

  “He needs more fever reducer,” Vhalla observed aloud.

  The cleric shook her head. “We can’t give him anymore.”

  “Then cool him with water.” Her mind drifted back to the icy feeling Victor had put in her veins earlier. “Are any of you sorcerers? Waterrunners?” They all shook their heads. Aldrik was right, they were all incompetent. “Then get someone from the Tower!”

  “Who are you to order our clerics?” The Empress’s voice was shrill and thin.

  “I am the woman who is going to try anything I’ve ever seen or read to save your son’s life,” Vhalla proclaimed with ferocity. “Because clearly no one else will step up to the task and try whatever needs to be tried.”

  “It is a method common folk use in situations without medicine.” Bushy eyebrows stroked his chin. “Go, tell the crown prince.” A cleric raced out of the room.

  “Vhalla,” Baldair chuckled weakly. “You’re scary when you let your ferocity show—a little twister.”

  “Don’t talk too much,” she whispered softly and ran her hand through his hair. “Save your strength. Elecia is coming, did you know that? She’s so strong, Baldair. She will fix you, I know it.”

  Coughing was his only response, and Vhalla clutched his hand all the tighter.

  Vhalla shouldn’t have been surprised when Victor was the one to appear not long after. A mask around his mouth and nose, he walked into the room with purpose. A short briefing from the clerics, a once-over of Baldair, and he set to work. For an hour, the minister lightly cooled the prince’s skin, each time colder than the last to not send his body into shock all at once. Vhalla retracted all negative thoughts she had on Victor, mentally sending a sincere apology—if he could save Baldair. She’d do whatever the man wanted if he healed Baldair. Eventually, nothing more could be done, and the sorcerer departed.

  Baldair shivered. “It’s too cold.”

  “You need it to be,” Vhalla soothed gently. “It won’t work if it’s not.”

  “Vhalla, let me rest?” he asked.

  “No, not now . . .” It was the third time he’d asked. “Stay awake, stay with us.”

  His fever was down, thanks to her idea, and it had allowed enough time to lapse that the clerics could give him another round of potions. Baldair struggled to swallow. The first batch he coughed up, and Vhalla was the one to clean up the mix of blood and potion off his chest. She was going to fight. She was going to lead him by her example.

  “Do you remember when I got in trouble on the march?” Vhalla said softly as she cleaned his collarbone and neck. “Grun, he really hated me, didn’t he? I guess a lot of them did. They were afraid.”

  “They didn’t know you yet.” Baldair looked at her from under drooping eyelids.

  “I suppose not,” she agreed.

  “They didn’t know how . . . strong . . . the little girl from the library was.” Baldair struggled to keep in a cough.

  “No, let the blood come up,” she insisted. “Or you’ll choke.”

  He obliged her, and Vhalla set to cleaning again, covered in his blood.

  “Vhalla, I am tired,” he reminded her.

  “Don’t sleep yet,” she begged again and looked across to the Emperor and Empress. While Vhalla knew they’d never acknowledge it, her presence had saved them from being in the position of calling the shots around their dying son. How she hated her sovereigns. But this wasn’t about her. “Tell your mother about your favorite memory with her. Tell your father what the best thing he taught you was. Tell them how much you love them.”

  Vhalla remained as Baldair spoke, cleaning up the blood and helping the clerics shift the prince as he needed. She heard the story of the first time he went riding with his father. She saw the Emperor affectionately put a hand on his son’s shoulder. She bore witness to the Heartbreaker Prince apologizing to his mother for never feeling like settling down with any woman she approved of.

  Baldair told them everything a son could say to their parents, and then some. He made confessions. He reminisced. He told them of his love.

  But something was still missing.

  “Can Aldrik please come, just for a moment?” she asked softly. “He should be here.”

  “No,” the Emperor’s voice responded sternly. “The health of the crown prince cannot be risked.”

  “Just for a moment, please.” Vhalla looked at the blue-eyed man across from her. She braced herself to go against what she believed, that appealing to his humanity was foolish. “He’s your son. He’s Baldair’s brother. He should be—he needs to be here. Don’t do this to him. Don’t make him live without this moment.”

  The Emperor regarded her thoughtfully.

  “My Lord Solaris, this isn’t about you or me.” She remembered how adamantly the man had gone against her on principle in the North. “This is only about your sons.”

  “Bring Aldrik in,” he commanded suddenly. “But only for a moment.”

  Baldair looked at his father in shock, and Vhalla gave a breath of relief. A cleric left and returned soon after with a cautiously stunned Aldrik in tow.

  “My prince.” The cleric paused their step a bit away from the bed as Vhalla was about to stand and give him her chair. “Do not go any closer, for your health.”

  “Baldair.” Aldrik managed. His voice sounded as though he’d been screaming for hours, even tho
ugh the man hadn’t said a word.

  “Aldrik.” Baldair struggled to sit higher.

  “Always the center of attention, aren’t you?”

  Vhalla heard the crack of emotion to the crown prince’s voice.

  “Annoying little brother, ‘til the end.”

  “You are stronger than this,” Aldrik admonished.

  “I know,” Baldair wheezed. “I am, aren’t I? Isn’t that what’s frustrating about it all?”

  “You don’t lose,” Aldrik insisted.

  “Not normally.” Baldair had a tired grin again. “Brother, I never got to finish paying back what I owe to you.”

  “You are debt free.” Aldrik shifted his hands awkwardly as though he was trying to keep from fidgeting. “Get better, that’s all I ask.”

  “We should go, my prince.” The cleric turned at a nod from the Emperor.

  “Aldrik!” Baldair struggled to sit fully upright. The dark haired prince turned and looked at his younger brother. They couldn’t be more different while still needing the same things. “Aldrik, I love you, brother. I always have, even if I’ve been awful about it.”

  There was a pregnant silence, one that Vhalla wanted to scream over at the unmoving crown prince. This was a moment that would live with him forever.

  “I love you, too, Baldair,” Aldrik managed. It was awkward and forced.

  Vhalla’s lips pressed together in a heartbreaking smile under her mask.

  And the crown prince was ushered away.

  The day turned to night, and Aldrik was not allowed back again. Vhalla tried everything she knew about medicine, from real life experience to what she’d read in books. She tried different ways of positioning him or pacing potions with food. She questioned the clerics on everything. But there was one thing that haunted her the whole day.

  “Vhalla, thank you, for staying by my side.” His voice was little more than a breathless whisper. She knew the words were coming. “But I am tired now. I would like to rest.”

  “No,” she choked out. Nothing was working. The inevitable truth that she had known from the moment she walked in the door crashed down around her. “You can’t . . . I won’t let you . . .”

  “You tried so hard; you always do. You didn’t give up, even when everyone else had.” His hand found its way to her cheek. Vhalla didn’t care that blood smeared along with his touch. “Please, keep trying. Don’t give up. This world needs you, I feel it.”

  “Baldair, no.” She was choking on her words again. “Let’s talk—”

  “Fine.” He sighed softly, settling into his pillows. “Tell me about your home in the East.”

  “It’s so boring, you don’t want to hear that.” Her forced laughter had a sharp edge, almost crazed.

  “I do. Please?” he encouraged.

  Vhalla sighed, stroking his hand with her thumbs. All she could think about in that oppressing moment was her mother, and Vhalla told him the story of the token her mother and she had crafted one year together, a token to bring a good harvest. They’d put their hearts and souls into making it before burying it in the field.

  Baldair closed his eyes, and she stopped the moment she noticed.

  “Baldair, you can’t fall asleep. I agreed because you were going to listen.” Vhalla nudged his shoulder. Her heart stopped and fell from her chest. “Baldair,” she repeated. “Baldair.”

  The Emperor and Empress were on their feet. Clerics rushed in. She was finally, and literally, pushed aside. Vhalla looked at his lifeless form, at the soulless visage of the golden prince.

  “Don’t go,” she whispered to the golden-haired man, stumbling a few steps backward. The clerics were talking, but she didn’t hear them. It was just wind in her ears. They were wiping blood from her hands and face and clothes, so much blood, but all Vhalla saw was the Empress burying her sobs in her hands as the Emperor took her into his arms. “Don’t go . . .”

  Vhalla turned and stumbled for the door numbly. She couldn’t save him. He died, just as her mother had. She was helpless to change it. Her destiny was full of horrible history repeating itself, and her being forced to watch as it happened.

  The princess still lingered, reading in a chair away from the group. Vhalla instantly despised the woman for her casual demeanor and relaxed expression. Her emerald eyes rose. Vhalla looked away quickly to hide her hate.

  Aldrik was on his feet by the time their eyes met. Vhalla struggled with her mask, casting it aside. The clerics continued to struggle to get the blood off her, with mixed success. Noise, it was all noise. Aldrik’s eyes bore into her.

  Vhalla broke under their weight.

  “Aldrik, I-I-I am so sorry.” Her sobs came. Vhalla covered her mouth with her hand and hung her head. She fought for control. He needed her to be strong. She had to be.

  Aldrik swayed, he stumbled. He hovered in the limbo that was living after death, a cage that was crafted by grief and imprisoned the heart. She heard a choked noise rise from his throat. Her head snapped up, and she looked up at him. His face twisted in torment. He struggled to keep his breathing under control.

  Aldrik grabbed her hand and, before anyone could say anything, bolted for the door. Vhalla’s eyes caught the princess as the girl’s future husband dragged another woman from the room. Aldrik’s hand was already in his pocket for a key. His door across the hall was unlocked in a breath. He pulled her in and locked it again behind them, shutting out the world.

  Aldrik let her go, and he brought the palms of his hands to his eyes. He leaned against the door and slid down into a ball on the floor. Vhalla’s own tears left rivulets down both her cheeks, falling onto the floor at his feet. His shoulders began to shudder.

  “No,” he whimpered. “Baldair, you, no, you idiot!”

  Aldrik’s voice cracked and broke. The tears came freely, and she watched as he allowed his composure to shatter. Vhalla turned, placing her back against the hard wood of the door, and slid down to meet him. There was no thought or second-guessing as she wrapped her arms around him and pulled her prince to her.

  At first, he was a tense ball. But slowly his arms wrapped themselves around her waist. His head found her chest, situated away from the blood, and Aldrik sobbed into her as Vhalla cried softly into his hair.

  They did not move from their spot. Not for the commotion that was being raised in the other room. Not for the footsteps that were in the hall. Not even for the Emperor’s angry cries and banging on the door at their backs.

  It all only made them cling tighter to each other.

  “ALDRIK.” THERE WAS more banging from the Emperor. “We will not make a scene of this. Open the door.”

  Vhalla clutched the prince’s shoulders protectively. His face was pressed firmly against her upper chest and shoulder. She shifted, wrapping a leg around his.

  “Grief can be maddening,” the Emperor attempted coolly. “I am certain your future wife would be happy to console you.”

  Vhalla knew from the moment Aldrik had grabbed her that they were headed toward this moment. Vhalla took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar and comforting scent of eucalyptus. He had chosen her. And it had been a deliberate and public choice. Now, they would reap the consequences together.

  Aldrik drew a slow breath.

  “No.” She shook her head. “Don’t.” Vhalla whispered through her ragged breathing. “Just don’t say anything.”

  Aldrik obliged.

  They both jumped as the Emperor banged aggressively at the door behind them. Vhalla put her hands over his ears. Let him be, she thought to herself. Let him be, she prayed to the Mother above. If there was a Goddess or God, surely, they had to take pity on the grieving man she held in her arms.

  Eventually, when shouting a few more times did not work, the Emperor stalked away. Silence did not greet them in his absence. Preparations were being made; she could hear the clerics calling to each other for cleaning, cleansing, and the handling of the body. Aldrik’s shoulders heaved; he let out a rough sob. Nothing else bu
t the prince in her arms mattered right now.

  “Baldair,” he panted softly. “My little brother, Vhalla, he’s dead. I wasn’t supposed to outlive him. I was supposed to be on my deathbed when he also was wrinkled and gray.”

  Vhalla rubbed her eyes with her palm. His pain was worse than hers, which meant she had to be the strong one now. She had to be in control of herself.

  “I was awful to him,” Aldrik sobbed. “I-I never, I never forgave him for so much. It didn’t matter, Vhalla. I don’t care about it all now.”

  “I’m sure he knew,” she whispered softly, trying to find some stability in her voice.

  “No,” Aldrik shook his head; she made a soft shhing noise. “He knew nothing. He knew nothing because I told him nothing. It wasn’t because he wouldn’t understand, or because it was safer for him not to know, or because he didn’t care, or any of the other reasons I told myself.

  “It was because I simply did not tell him. I was too scared or too weak to let Baldair know that he was foremost my brother. That I loved him.” Aldrik pressed his face further into her. His forehead was uncomfortable against her collarbone, but she said nothing. “He never knew why I wore black. He never knew how badly I just wanted to be him, just for one moment. How jealous—by the Mother—I was jealous of my little brother for all the love and admiration he seemed to just have from birth. He never knew that I attempted . . . he never knew why . . .” Aldrik’s voice cut itself off with a pained groan.

  Vhalla ran her fingers through his hair, not caring that she was messing up the appearance he had so carefully crafted for himself.

  “Baldair loved you,” she tried to soothe her crown prince’s broken heart. “Despite all what may or may not be, he loved you.”

  “He did not know me,” Aldrik spat.

  “He knew you were his brother, and that was worth more than anything,” Vhalla replied firmly.

  Aldrik’s weak retort was lost to tears. Vhalla kept one hand in his hair, the other stroking his back lightly. It hurt, the world hurt. It hurt to look, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to see. It hurt to be in the place where Baldair had been only an hour before. It hurt to admit that he was gone, forever. His golden hair and charming demeanor were gone from their lives—that hurt the most.

 
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