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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.25
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.25

           Elise Kova
 

  “The war.” Aldrik swallowed. “The War of the Crystal Caverns was my fault.”

  “What?” Vhalla breathed, dazed and confused. “How? No, Aldrik, I’m sure . . . You’re just guilt ridden right now. Everything isn’t your fault. Even your mother. She didn’t die because of you, she died because of insane xenophobes.”

  “It is!” The fire in the hearth flared, emphasizing Aldrik’s wild emotions. “He told me that I was powerful, like my mother—that I would be great. I didn’t know the whole truth, and I believed him. He told me that I could serve my country, help my family. That I would be loved, more than my brother ever was, more than any prince, king, or emperor ever would be.”

  Vhalla opened her mouth, struggling for a word in his almost angry tirade.

  “I was a fool, a boy. I was innocent, wide-eyed. And, like the idiot I was, I believed him.” Aldrik cursed at himself. “I believed him because I wanted to. Because I did not yet know the world was full of liars and deceivers. But I should have known, I was too smart not to know.”

  “Who is ‘him’?” Something sunk heavy in her stomach.

  “Egmun.”

  “What did the bastard do to you?” Vhalla struggled to control her rage, her anger.

  “Nothing I didn’t ask for myself.” Aldrik hung his head.

  “I don’t understand,” she confessed, wishing she did so he would not have to endure another moment of the conversation.

  “He didn’t even choose me, not at first. I’m sure I would have been high on his list, but being the prince, I was a liability to his goals. Too many eyes on me, too much risk someone would find out.” Aldrik fell back onto the pillows limply.

  “Find out what?” Vhalla asked.

  “He was fascinated by the caverns, and he wanted to learn their secrets.”

  “For power?” she interjected.

  “I don’t think so . . .” Aldrik mused softly. “Egmun was never really like that. He was addicted to knowledge. It was beyond liking books or memorizing facts. He wanted to push the boundaries. He did not just want to know, he wanted to be the first to know. He wanted to discover, and each discovery was a drug stronger than any other. Even if he held all the power in the world, it would have bored him after the initial rush, I think.”

  Vhalla reclined on the pillows as well, too exhausted by the conversation to sit another moment.

  “Egmun chose Victor.”

  “Victor?”

  “Indeed. But because he was my mentor, I was eventually brought in on it, too.” Aldrik sighed. “I thought—I saw the crystals as the pinnacle of what it meant to be a sorcerer: to handle them, to wield them, to control them.

  “Egmun taught us both.” The prince stared at his hands. “He put crystals in our palms, he took notes, and he taught us what he knew. Victor had been at it longer than I had, but I took to it like a fish to water. I knew power, and I did not want to relinquish it. Egmun was an amazing teacher, really. He was charismatic, enthusiastic, encouraging. He wanted to watch us excel and to learn from us. I had a taste, and I was hungry and wanted more; however much he gave me wasn’t enough. It was never enough.”

  “But, crystal corruption?” Vhalla asked.

  “He was careful, or tried to be,” Aldrik addressed her concern. “He would only let us handle them every few days. Victor was the first to show signs of sickness though. Then we turned into test subjects without realizing it. Victor was constantly pushed to the limit to determine how much he could endure. Looking back, it was wild, it was reckless, and it was amazing Victor did not end up corrupted with taint.”

  Vhalla remembered Victor’s notebook. It was all true.

  “Egmun knew. Of course, he knew. The man knew everything, even beyond what was written in books. If there was a secret whispered on someone’s lips, it would find its way to him. Maybe that’s why he’s the perfect—in all the worst ways—Head of Senate now. He knew of my mother, of her sacrifice. He knew it was her magic that sealed the caverns.

  “He went to the caverns and tried to unlock it himself. He was a gifted sorcerer, but he wasn’t strong enough. The magic of the barrier rejected him.”

  “But it wouldn’t reject you.” She understood what happened with horrific clarity. Magic wasn’t in the blood, but she remembered Gianna explaining how there was something about magic passed through families.

  “Egmun had procured the sword, he had me. Victor was no longer needed.” Aldrik clenched his fists, barring his teeth in anger. “He took me to the caverns with our sacrifice. He paid the blood toll, but it wasn’t enough. The man we killed was simply a Commons, so it was rejected.

  “Everything went wrong. The delicate stasis of the crystals was thrown out of balance by my actions, letting the power seep into the world. It unleashed taint into our world, reaching out eagerly to corrupt as quickly as possible.” Aldrik’s voice weakened. “I rode back through the rain and told my father everything. That I’d damned our people and cursed our kingdom. He sent soldiers, but they were no match and became tainted monsters, spreading the taint further. I told my father, I told him I wasn’t fit to be a ruler . . .”

  Vhalla sat suddenly, staring at Aldrik. Suddenly the rainy night of a boy taking a knife to his skin made sense. “Don’t say it. I know.”

  “It was my fault,” he whispered.

  “No,” she said firmly. “It was Egmun’s fault. You were only a boy.”

  “My father was of the same inclination.” The prince sat again also, keeping his fingers intertwined with hers. “He told Egmun to seal the caverns, whatever price had to be paid was not nearly enough. But should Egmun be successful, he would be pardoned. He went back to the caverns, and he lived up to his word. At first, the lingering magic of my mother’s barrier rejected him, and I ended up being forced to help him establish a new barrier in the structure of the old one.”

  “That’s why he doesn’t have magic anymore,” she realized. The minister had given up his power to restore the barrier.

  “After that, Egmun was awarded his life and a position on the Senate for holding his tongue about how the crown prince had started the War of the Crystal Caverns,” he murmured.

  “I realized I was a bad person to be around. I caused countless deaths. I let evil, true evil, into the world.” Aldrik pressed his palms into his eyes. “My life, from then on, was built around a lie. A lie that I was not some monster who, had I not been the crown prince, would have been put to death. A lie that I was still a prince worthy of the crown that rested upon my head. So I became the prince of lies. I embraced being the black sheep. Perhaps I thought eventually it would make my father see I wasn’t fit for the throne. I still have never been punished properly for the weight of my crimes.”

  He finally ran out of words, and the sound of his unsteady breathing filled the room. Emotions assaulted her one after the next: shock, horror, anger, pain. Half a dozen more rose in her as she stared at the man quietly suffering before her.

  “You must hate me,” Aldrik said softly. “Now that you know me, truly know me, you must hate me.” He continued before she could get a word in, “I should’ve told you so long ago. But I was too selfish; I knew I’d lose you if I did.”

  “I’m still here,” she whispered after a long moment. Aldrik stilled, his breathing becoming shallow so he could hang on her every word. “I do not hate you. And I know if you had told Baldair, he would have felt the same as I. He would not have hated you for this. You have punished yourself enough, more than enough; stop blaming yourself for crimes long past, whatever role you may or may not have had in them.”

  “Vhalla,” he whispered weakly.

  She gripped his hand tightly and pulled him to her. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pressed him close. “I could never hate you.”

  Aldrik buried his face back into her chest and upper shoulder, much like he had before. Though this time, there were far fewer tears, far fewer emotions wracking his body. Then again, perhaps too many emotions were cours
ing through him that he was simply stunned numb. Either way, she held him gently, trying to offer him as much reassurance as she could.

  “I feel better,” he confessed.

  “Do you?”

  “Better being relative,” he sighed. “But yes.”

  “For a prince of lies, you seem to enjoy the truth.” Vhalla smiled weakly. He huffed in amusement. She relished that somehow; he had found the eye of the storm.

  “I’m tired.”

  “Me, too.”

  “Come.” He pulled them off the floor and out of the room.

  The prince led her to his room, and she joined him in his bed without a second thought. Singed, bloody clothes and red eyes, they became a tangled mess of limbs. Their chests alternated heaving with tears and feeling so empty that there was no more emotion from which to cry. He never explicitly asked for her to stay, but there was nowhere else Vhalla would’ve been. She eventually fell asleep with him tucked tightly in her arms as a storm brewed just outside the door.

  THERE WAS A knock on the outside door.

  Vhalla rolled over in her sleep, and Aldrik’s hands followed her. He pulled her to him instinctually, his body curling around her. She sighed softly. Everything hurt less when she was in his embrace.

  Another firm knock roused her further. It must have been loud, or it would’ve been impossible to hear from across the large main room and his bedroom. Vhalla blinked her eyes, opening and closing them with a wince at the blinding light.

  The knocking continued, and a soft call of Aldrik’s name finally brought him to life.

  “Who is it?” she mumbled, staring out the windows. It was just after dawn, so they couldn’t have slept for that long. The sun’s brilliant rays bounced off a thick layer of snow that had fallen on his balcony during the night. The first snow of winter, and Vhalla could feel no joy for it.

  “I’m not sure . . .” Aldrik proceeded cautiously to the main room.

  “Are you going to answer it?” she whispered, following him.

  Aldrik held up a hand in reply and listened.

  “Aldrik,” a voice called gently through his main door. “I know you’re in there.”

  Vhalla’s head was sluggish with exhaustion. It was too gentle to be the Empress, to clear to be Za. It wasn’t melodic enough to be the princess’s. She thought perhaps it was some cleric or staff, but none of them called the prince by his name. Who could it be?

  “Aldrik?” More knocking. “If you’re there, you don’t even have to open the door, just say something.”

  “Elecia?” he called into the door.

  “Aldrik.” Vhalla heard the sorrow in Elecia’s voice. She heard the grief, the guilt at having been too late. If Vhalla could have just switched places with her, then perhaps Baldair would have lived. She took a shaky breath. It wasn’t fair to blame the other woman but, by the Gods, Vhalla wanted to.

  “I want to talk to you.” Vhalla realized why she didn’t recognize Elecia’s voice immediately. There was a quivering strain to it. A tension pulled out her words in an unfamiliar way.

  Aldrik’s fingers closed around the lock. Vhalla watched him as he was just about to turn it. She opened her mouth to object, considering her soot stained clothes and obvious bed-head.

  “Aldrik, do you remember that time when you and Baldair came to the West together?” Elecia said quickly. Aldrik stilled. “You both had an official meeting that I so desperately wanted to attend. I thought it was viciously unfair that I couldn’t go.”

  Aldrik’s hand fell away from the door.

  “You promised me I could go. Baldair thought you were just telling another one of your lies, but you had a way, remember?” Elecia’s story was slowly told, her words enunciated one by one as though she was in desperate need of him to hear them. “I thought you were so kind then. Do you remember what you wore?”

  The prince took a step away, his face suddenly serious—a thin veil for the panic that lit his eyes. Vhalla didn’t understand.

  “I remember, I’m sure it’s no surprise . . .” Elecia continued rambling.

  Vhalla never heard the rest of the story. Aldrik spun on his heel and practically sprinted back toward her. Vhalla’s hand was in his, and he tugged her into the bedroom, closing the door quickly behind them, taking care not to slam it or make any loud noises.

  “Aldrik, what’s going on?”

  He threw open one of the large armoires in the room, reaching behind the familiar plate for a key.

  “My father is waiting out there,” he answered in a rush.

  “What do you mean?” She couldn’t fathom how he knew that.

  “I hate that memory,” he explained, taking her hand again and leading her into the secret hall between his room and the Tower. “We were kids. I snuck her in through a passage I’d discovered that people used to secretly listen to the conversations in the room.”

  “What?” Vhalla struggled to connect things in her head. Why did this matter now?

  “He punished me fiercely for taking her somewhere she didn’t belong. He said that if someone had discovered her presence, it would bring great shame to the crown for having a secret listener on official business. That I was lucky they didn’t.” Aldrik opened the door to the Tower, half-pulling her up it.

  “So, your father is there?”

  “I have no doubt. Elecia’s being forced to be a puppet right now. No matter what she may think of my stealing you into my room, if there’s one thing Elecia would hate more, it would be being someone else’s puppet.”

  “What will your father do?” Vhalla’s head hurt from all the crying the night before, from the grief, from panic.

  “I don’t know, and I don’t have enough time to figure it out,” Aldrik said with a curse.

  If there was one thing the Gods did for them that day, it was keeping the hallways bare of observers. Though Vhalla had no idea how it would matter if someone did. Clerics had surely already been talking of the crown prince stealing away the Windwalker in a fit of grief. There were likely already rumors running rampant through the castle about the future Emperor’s infidelity with his favored whore. She grimaced at herself for even thinking what was certainly the gritty truth.

  They stopped before the highest door in the Tower. Aldrik slipped the key into the lock and affirmed all her suspicions that these were the secondary quarters of the crown prince.

  Braziers around the room sprung to life with a wave of his hand, casting long shadows beneath the sparse furniture. There was a table and two chairs placed toward the center. Along the back wall were, unsurprisingly, shelves of books and cabinets of curiosities. There was a small bed pushed to the left corner, a door next to it. Another door led off somewhere to the right of the room. The few windows were covered with heavy black curtains. It wasn’t a large space, perhaps three of her personal quarters, and everything had a slightly stagnant and dusty smell to it.

  “Your Tower chambers.”

  “Yes, and they only have one exit or entry.” He pressed the key into her palm. “This is the only key. I need you to lock that door behind me and let no one in. If someone comes and knows you are in here, ignore whatever they say and ask them what is most beautiful just before it dies.”

  “What is most beautiful just before it dies?” she repeated, committing it to memory.

  “A rose,” he answered softly. “If they do not respond with that, do not let them in—even if it is me. No matter what else they do or say, do not open the door.” Aldrik swallowed. “And if someone forces entry, jump.”

  “What is going to happen next?” Vhalla tried to anticipate his thoughts and plans, to make some of her own. Everything was moving too quickly, and the world was still in flux from Baldair’s death.

  “I don’t know.” Aldrik pulled her to him suddenly. “I wasn’t thinking. I haven’t been thinking. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what will happen. I haven’t calculated how likely certain courses of action are. I don’t know, Vhalla, so I will plan for the w
orst.”

  “Let me help you.” She pried herself away from the warm safety of his embrace.

  “I will, but first I have to go and find out how the pieces are moving.” His palms were on her cheeks. “I will take you away myself, if I must. For now, just hide.”

  “But—”

  “Elecia will run out of that stupid story soon, if not already. When she does, she may be able to buy more time but, damn it, they may be knocking down my door already.” Aldrik shook his head and pressed his forehead against hers. Vhalla swallowed. All this because he took solace with her in his moment of grief? Would his father really go so far? “Stay here, stay safe. I will come back to you as soon as I can.”

  The door clicked closed behind him, and Vhalla was left alone in the room.

  She shivered as her bare feet stumbled across the stone to the door. Vhalla turned the lock with her shaking fingers and drew an unsteady breath. The world kept spinning, her head was thundering, and her heart would not relent in its panicked flutter.

  Vhalla sunk to the floor, staring at the small room. She was trapped like an animal backed into a corner. Even Aldrik was terrified, and he’d brought her to what was possibly the most secure place he had. He relied on his skill, the Tower, and time to keep her safe. But if all that failed, she had no idea what fate awaited her.

  “Baldair, this is all your fault.” Vhalla pressed her eyes closed and refrained from shouting at ghosts. She curled into a ball and buried her face in her knees, just focusing on breathing.

  Her eyes were jolted open again when a knock sounded on the door at her back. Exhaustion had somehow won out, and she had no idea how long she’d dozed. Vhalla struggled to rouse.

  “Open the door?”

  The voice gave her pause. “What is most beautiful before it dies?”

  “A rose,” Fritz answered, barely loud enough for her to hear.

  Vhalla scrambled to her feet and snapped the lock open. Fritz entered quickly and stopped just within, his eyes adjusting to the dim light, as Vhalla closed the door behind him. The small sack he’d brought fell to the floor as Vhalla pulled him in for a tight embrace.

 
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