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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.24
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.24

           Elise Kova

  Eventually, Aldrik began to pull away. She heard him choke down waves of grief before they could slip through his lips, and he straightened away from where they had lain intertwined on the floor.

  “He-he can’t be dead.” Suddenly, the prince was laughing. “This is a joke. This is all a joke.”

  “Aldrik, I saw it . . . he’s gone.” Vhalla reached out to smooth hair away from his face, but he jerked away at her touch.

  “Don’t lie to me!” the prince snarled. “Don’t you dare.”

  “I’m not lying,” she pleaded, trying to grab for his hand.

  Aldrik was on his feet, leaving Vhalla to try to scramble after him. “I’m going to see him.” Aldrik stilled, muttering to himself, “I’m going to see him, and he’ll laugh at me for believing his grand joke.”

  “Aldrik, he’s gone.”

  “I told you not to say that!” Aldrik yelled.

  Vhalla flinched at his tone, and the involuntary movement brought the sharpness of sanity back to his eyes.

  “I’m sorry, Aldrik.” Vhalla wiped her face, trying to keep her emotions under control. “If you need to see his body, I won’t stop you.” She stepped away from the door, gripping her tunic with trembling hands, the tunic that still had Baldair’s blood. “But I’m certain if you unlock that door, they will take me away—and who knows where, given the circumstances . . . They will make demands of you, and it’s too soon. It’s all right to grieve.”

  “Damn it,” he cursed. “Damn you, Baldair!” The prince spun in place and unleashed the sound of raw frustration. His hands were alight in flame. “If you were going to die, you couldn’t just do it!”

  “Aldrik, stop!” Vhalla cried as he lit the first piece of furniture aflame.

  “Damn you to the Mother’s fiery justice for eternity, for giving me hope.” He threw out a hand and the flames jumped to the desk. “No, no! You got the last laugh in the end. Aldrik, the heartless prince, bared himself for you on your deathbed.”

  “Aldrik, it wasn’t like that! You must know that!” she shouted, trying to reach the prince.

  “You-you agreed to take the throne knowing it’d never come to pass!”

  Her heart stopped. Baldair agreed to Aldrik abdicating his birthright to him?

  “You gave me hope, you bastard!” Aldrik turned up his gaze, and the flames turned white hot.

  Vhalla saw the dazzling library that spiraled above them, likely housing countless precious works, given their collector. She realized—in horror—that he was going to burn the books. She opened her Channel and took a deep breath.

  Her clothing singed as the fire burned up his forearms and she threw her arms around him. The flames were warm, hotter than any other time they had ever tested their Bond. But the fire didn’t burn her. Vhalla clung to his waist, her face buried in his chest.

  “Vhalla . . .” The flames vanished, and his arms crushed her against him. “Vhalla, I—I am a monster.”

  He let her go suddenly, and she swayed without the support. Vhalla watched him listlessly take in the charred remains of the room. She knew he was replaying in his mind the acerbic words he’d just uttered against his brother.

  “You’re not a monster,” she soothed gently. “Hurting, yes. Scared, yes. But not a monster.”

  “Baldair died because of me . . . I am a curse to anyone who would ever dare care for me.”

  “You’re not.” The way he cringed away when she approached him nearly broke her heart.

  “Don’t, Vhalla. Don’t come near me, or I will curse you further.” Whatever madness grew in his heart that made him say those words had taken root there long ago. He believed it completely.

  Vhalla moved with purpose, taking his face in both her hands and forcing him to look at her. “Aldrik, stop,” she demanded softly. “Don’t push me away, don’t even try. The opportunity for it came and went; I didn’t take it. You promised you wouldn’t.”

  “And you promised not to let me,” he whispered in reply. His hands went up to hers, and Vhalla saw his eyes glisten once more. Tears spilled over his high cheeks and onto her fingers. “You don’t know.”

  “I don’t know what?”

  Aldrik swayed and took her hand. He led her purposefully into the other room, seating her between the hearth and the low table at their backs. Vhalla made it a point not to look at the papers scattered upon it.

  Flames sparked to life in the fireplace, and Aldrik looked to them for answers. “Where do I start with this?”

  “We don’t have to do this now.” Whatever it was, it seemed to be the source of great pain for him, which was the last thing he needed.

  “We do,” he insisted. “Baldair, brother of my flesh, died and never knew the truth. I won’t let the same happen to you.”

  “I’m not going to die, at least not for a long time.” She attempted a reassuring smile.

  “I have seen it.”

  “Seen what?”

  “Your death.” Aldrik looked at her as though she was already swathed in burning cloth for the Rite of Sunset.

  “What?” The word was little more than a breath.

  “I have seen it, but I will do all I can to prevent it.” His hands were on her face, as if reminding himself that she was real. “I will fight the Mother herself to keep you safe.”

  “You’re not making any sense . . .” That fact didn’t make her any less frightened.

  “I saw it in a dream.”

  “It’s small wonder your dreams are consumed with death, with Baldair as he was.” Vhalla had her fair share of nights consumed with death.

  “They’re not just dreams.” The shadow of fear darkened his expression. “Vhalla, I can see your future.”

  “What? That makes no sense.”

  “Firebearers can see the future in flames.”

  “I know, but you’re not looking in flames.” She shook her head, his hands falling onto her thighs. She didn’t want to think of future tellers. “You never told me you could see the future.”

  “I couldn’t.” Aldrik emphasized the past tense. “I don’t look through the flames. I look through our Bond.”

  “They’re just dreams,” she insisted weakly.

  “Oh? Like your dreams are always ‘just’ dreams?” Aldrik’s voice found a touch of annoyance. “Do you have any idea how difficult this is for me to tell you? Why would I lie or paint a falsehood? I’m telling you because I’m scared. The crown prince of the realm is terrified. As much as it burns me to say it, I will because I need you to believe me. I’m not going to lose you.”

  Vhalla opened and closed her mouth like a fish above water, fighting for words.

  Aldrik turned back to the table, pushing together the papers. He spent a moment shuffling them in his hands before beginning to display them on the floor. He paired one piece of parchment with one another, and Vhalla instinctually began to skim their contents.

  “I don’t know exactly when it started . . .” he sighed. Despite being stressful, the action seemed to help him continue to move in the wake of his brother’s death. “But logically, it would’ve been after the Joining, since that’s when your dreams began.”

  “How are you not sure?” Vhalla whispered, giving him her attention rather than trying to read the papers.

  “I’ve dreamt about you for so long.” His hands ran over her, memorizing her shape again and again. “It wasn’t easy for me to tell what were my own wants or paranoia, and what were premonitions.”

  “If you dream so much, there would certainly be a chance for some of it to come true, right?” Vhalla thought aloud.

  “For months, that’s what I thought. It wasn’t until our last meeting in the garden that I put together that they may be more. When you actually came without my explaining, when you looked as I dreamt, when you said verbatim what I had seen.”

  “Are you real . . .” Vhalla repeated his former words, her eyes growing wide.

  Aldrik nodded solemnly. “After that, I set to writing it down. Ev
ery dream I could remember with you in it, in as much detail as I could manage. The premonitions are normally hazy, and I can see little beyond you. That helped me narrow it down some . . .” He motioned to the piles. “But I wrote them all, just in case.”

  Her eyes skimmed the papers, mirroring his own gaze as he struggled with words for a moment. Riding in the desert, she read the lines at the start of each page, blood on her face, reading together in the library, a crown upon her beautiful hair, writhing on the floor, dancing at a gala, holding hands on the Sunlit Stage, first child . . .

  Vhalla reached out and took the paper from where he’d sorted it, and Aldrik didn’t object.

  She is radiant, even when she has every right to be exhausted. Hair clings to the sweat that’s on her brow, and she is tired—I can see she is. But her smile is so brilliant, she is goodness incarnate. She’s reclining in a bed, though I cannot discern where it is or who else may be there. It is bright though, and warm. She’s reaching out to me, her mouth is moving, and I know what she is asking for. I look down, and perhaps it is the most perfect sight I have ever seen. The tuff of hair upon the babe’s head is black, though he has her eyes: bright, inquisitive, and almost yellow. He has more her than me in him, I can feel it, and I am so thankful for it. I pass him to her, and she seems almost afraid. I move to kiss her. There is nothing to be scared of. I will protect them both.

  The words became more difficult to read as the paper quivered in her trembling fingers. Vhalla blinked her eyes. Her emotions were too wild to handle this. She curled into a ball, clutching the paper to her chest. Aldrik’s arms were around her shoulders, and she wept into her knees, not caring for the folds or wrinkles it put in the parchment.

  This was what he’d been silently enduring for months. Each night he went to sleep, he risked a dream. He risked seeing joy, he risked seeing pain. Vhalla realized it was far worse than seeing his memories. Those were cemented in history. But, for Aldrik, the brightest hope could be torture because it may be a guiding light or a false beacon.

  “You say you are a curse, but I’m the one who’s cursed you. To torture you with such visions.” Even before he’d realized his dreams held the future, she knew they would’ve caused him the rainbow of agony to ecstasy, depending on their subject.

  “Hush,” he demanded. “Do you know how often I sleep wishing to see something like the paper you hold? It’s been the only thing that’s allowed me to sleep some nights. It’s the only thing that gave me the courage to ask you to be mine.” His long fingers wrapped around the watch at her neck.

  “You’re sure?”

  “I am.” He coaxed the paper from her hands and began to show her the sets he’d created of his dreams against records of events that had come to pass. His moments of confidence suddenly made more sense. She knew why he had so much faith in getting her to the front as Serien, why he’d easily refused her advances for something more at the last campsite before the North, how he’d known he could accomplish making her a lady. Even if the details were blurry, and the means of it all happening was slightly off, it matched dream to reality.

  “Did you know, about—” Vhalla swallowed hard and risked the name, “—Baldair?”

  “I didn’t.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Maybe, maybe I saw something. But I only ever see you. Perhaps it’s because I don’t possess general future sight?”

  “My death?” The word was like a curse upon her lips.

  “I don’t know,” Aldrik groaned. “I haven’t even written it down, I couldn’t manage with—” his voice quivered, and he drew a shaky breath, “—with Baldair.”

  His hands were on her again. They ran down her cheeks onto her neck. They were over her shoulders, intertwining his fingers with hers and back again. As though he was assuring himself that she wasn’t some phantom, that it wasn’t one of his dreams.

  “I saw you bleeding. You had a gash from your shoulder to your chest.” His forehead fell against hers. “I can’t lose you. I-I lost my brother, I won’t lose you. Baldair is gone, by the Mother, Baldair is gone. If I lost you, Vhalla, I would have no one, nothing.”

  Aldrik pulled her back to him, and she realized how his grief was beginning to manifest. It fed off his paranoia, his mistrust of the world. If he wasn’t prepared to do anything to protect her before, he was now.

  “You won’t lose me,” she assured him.

  “I never thought I’d lose Baldair.” He was crying again, she realized. “Oh, Gods, Baldair. I am cursed: my mother could not escape, Baldair could not escape, and I will damn you, too.”

  “Enough of that.” Vhalla struggled to pry herself far enough away from his chest to catch his eyes. “You didn’t damn anyone.”

  “My mother did not die in childbirth.”

  “What?” Every book she had ever read, everything she had ever heard, had said such to be true.

  “She died shortly after. The explanation of death in the birthing bed was easier than the truth.” Aldrik rubbed his eyes tiredly, withdrawing physically. “Isn’t that how it always is, a beautiful simple lie over the ugly truth?”

  “I’ve come to prefer the latter.” Vhalla rested a palm on his knee. “Tell me later; this is too much for one day.”

  “No.” He was focused on the dancing flames. “I need to tell you. I did not tell Baldair, now I never will. I need to tell you, Vhalla. I need to do things right for once in my miserable life.”

  “Aldrik, please,” she begged.

  “Listen, Vhalla, let me tell you what I should’ve before you let the Empire’s accursed monster into your bed.”

  “THE WEST FELL, and most did not want it to go down gracefully,” Aldrik began.

  “The Knights of Jadar?” Vhalla asked tentatively, wondering if she’d finally fill in the curious blanks of the histories she’d been trying to sift through for months.

  “Just so.” There was the ghost of appreciation for her haunting his eyes. “They loathed my mother’s family for kneeling before Solaris. Most of all, they loathed my mother for marrying my father.

  “My uncle tells me that, in her way, she loved my father for his conquest. When he speaks of her, he tells me she was as beautiful as a rose with thorns twice as sharp. My mother had never been bested in combat before, which made my father enthralling, despite the unusual circumstances under which they met.” Aldrik shook his head. “It wasn’t until I was engaged to the Northern girl I thought about how impossible my parents’ love was.

  “After the Knights disowned my family, they used their knowledge of the caverns to prepare a plot to drive out Solaris, to purge the Western court of all those who were no longer loyal to ‘King Jadar’s Ideals.’” Aldrik scowled. “They stole the Sword of Jadar. My mother’s father had told her where he had hidden it, and she discovered it missing within hours of my birth.”

  Vhalla remembered her conversation with Ophain; the lord had mentioned the sword had gone missing, but he so carefully left out the truth of the matter.

  Aldrik shifted uncomfortably and continued, “My mother left. She never even told my father where she was going. She disappeared into the night on the fastest War-strider and raced without rest to the caves, despite still recovering from the pains and blood loss of labor.”

  Vhalla grimaced at the thought.

  “She confronted the Knights before they could penetrate into the heart of the caverns.” Aldrik paused, blinking away shining tears. “She was alone, but she used the Knight’s knowledge against them. She was a Western princess and had access to Mhashan’s crimson history. She Bound her will with the crystals; she gave everything to block the Knights with a barrier of her magic. Even when they killed her, the barrier held.”

  “How do you know all this?”

  “She left a letter,” he answered. “When she went missing, my family went searching through the palace, keeping things hush before a search party was sent. I suppose there were places that she and her sisters would share, secrets with notes. My mother
hid a letter in one such place. By the time they knew, it was too late.”

  “Why didn’t she let someone else go?” Vhalla frowned. “Why did she run off?” Vhalla omitted what she really wanted to know. Why had Aldrik’s mother left her newborn son?

  But he heard it. “Who knows, really? I suppose she was magically the strongest. She knew she would be stopped by anyone she told. Perhaps she knew the route the best. Perhaps she had researched it best. If it had been me, and I had something I desperately wanted to protect, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do what must be done. The Knights were at all levels of Western society. She could have been assassinated by telling the wrong person while trying to mobilize a force, and then it would be far too late.”

  Aldrik paused and looked at her with sudden clarity. Vhalla realized that, for the first time, he understood what his mother had felt. She glanced at the paper she had clutched longingly, a mother, a father, and their child. Aldrik’s eyes betrayed his resolve; he was prepared to do the same for her and a child who may never even come into existence.

  “If your mother gave her life to form the barrier,” Vhalla thought aloud, “how do you know about it? She couldn’t have left word about what actually transpired in the caverns.”

  His expression darkened, and Aldrik looked away, cursing under his breath. “Vhalla, I am sorry.”

  “Sorry? For what?”

  “For taking your father from you all those years.” He winced.

  “What?” She blinked.

  “For taking all those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers from their homes. I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have . . .” He sounded like a boy pleading to a parent for forgiveness. “I didn’t know how much it hurt to lose someone you truly loved. It was my fault.”

  “What was?” she asked gently, deciding arguing would be more stressful for him.

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