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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.3
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.3

           Elise Kova

  Her world stilled. That was an answer she hadn’t been expecting. “Do the Knights have it?”

  “Perhaps,” Lord Ophain answered vaguely and continued before she could persist. “You and Aldrik?”

  Reaching forward, she grabbed for the dark Western tea that she had little taste for and let its bitterness wash away the harshness of the memories of Aldrik. She wished it had something a bit stronger mixed in.

  “He traded his freedom for mine,” she whispered. “He was a reckless fool, and I was a girl pulled along by puppet strings. The fire burned too hot, and we didn’t notice until it consumed everything.” Vhalla passed the ice-cold glass between her hands.

  “I have worried deeply for him,” Lord Ophain began. “The sparse letters I received gave me concern for his mental state. My granddaughter’s reports offered little hope, for a time.”

  “For a time?” Vhalla wasn’t surprised to learn Elecia and Ophain had been in correspondence. She assumed it meant that Elecia was still well, and Vhalla was genuinely relieved to hear it.

  “I hear he gave up the bottle. Or, rather, he is still working on such.” Lord Ophain took a sip from his own glass, allowing that information to sink in. “Once he got through the weeks of shakes, sweats, and general sickness, he has been more active in leading his men. He is handling things with a more tempered grace.”

  Vhalla laughed bitterly. “So ending us was the best thing that could’ve happened to him.”

  “Loving you is.” Lord Ophain stilled her with three words. He had used present tense. Is, not was.

  “You said the Knights have the sword?” Vhalla navigated the conversation back to safer waters.

  “I said ‘perhaps’,” the lord insisted.

  She frowned. “How is something ‘perhaps’ owned?”

  “It is not something you should worry about.” His expression mirrored hers.


  “I concern myself with keeping madmen like the Knights in check so my subjects and honored guests of the West, like you, do not need to worry.”

  “I do not know what misplaced protection you think keeping me in the dark will provide, but you are ill-advised, my lord.” Vhalla placed her drink on the table delicately, sitting straighter. She elongated her words carefully, as a noble would. “The Knights have concerned themselves with me, and I do not foresee any future in which they will leave me be. Trying to keep the truth from me is a disservice.”

  “You will pursue this no matter what I say?”

  “I will,” Vhalla affirmed.

  The lord sighed heavily, stroking the stubble along his chin. “Very well. The sword was not created by King Jadar, as the legends say. The King was merely the one to find it.”

  Vhalla subconsciously moved to the edge of her seat as Lord Ophain spoke.

  “He became so obsessed with its power that he wanted to do whatever was needed to make more weapons like it, to equip an army with them, to use them to conquer the world. That pursuit drove him mad.

  “The son who succeeded him entrusted his brother with hiding the sword for good, after it had driven their father to madness. But his brother kept it secretly for the Knights of Jadar.” Lord Ophain paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “It remained in the care of the Ci’Dan family through the Knights of Jadar until the War in the West ended—and it went missing.”

  “So the Knights could have it?” Vhalla knew there was something he wasn’t telling her.

  “Perhaps, but I strongly doubt it,” he answered cryptically. “It is far more likely to have been lost to time.”

  “How can you be certain?”

  “If it was in anyone’s hands, it would have long since tainted them by now, so I have little cause to worry,” Ophain proclaimed definitively.

  Her eyes widened in shock. “It was a crystal weapon,” she breathed. It made gruesome sense. Crystal taint combined with the allure of power could drive a man to genocide.

  “You know of the weapons then?” Lord Ophain regarded her cautiously.

  Vhalla nodded, suddenly hesitant of the glint in the Western man’s eyes. It wasn’t dangerous, but deeply cautious and heavy with fear.

  “Does Aldrik know you are aware?” he asked.

  “He wouldn’t believe me if I told him.” A seed of worry for where her pursuits may lead her burrowed under her skin.

  Lord Ophain stood and folded his hands at the small of his back—a distinctly Aldrik-like motion. He walked over to the open paper screens and surveyed the garden. She let the silence hang until he spoke again.

  “I must agree, there is no benefit to dredging up the shadows of my nephew’s past. After all, there are no crystal weapons left to be concerned about.”

  Vhalla thought a long moment about her next words. “Would the Knights seek the weapons if they believed them to exist?”

  “Relentlessly.” The lord turned. “Just as they seek you now in the pursuit of crafting a greater power with your sorcery.”

  “Major Schnurr—”

  “Came to me asking for you.” Lord Ophain frowned. “The world is asking where you are.”

  “They don’t need to know.”

  “They will find out. The Knights are becoming bolder, as I’m certain you saw.” The lord crossed back to her, looking at her as though she was a child and he was the concerned parent. “The army will be at the Crossroads within the next few days. When this happens, there will be a celebration in my nephew’s honor. All the Western nobles will be there, and Aldrik will have no option but to be in attendance.”

  Vhalla’s heart began to race.

  “You must be present,” he demanded. “Speak with Aldrik. He will use his title to give you protection no one else can. Return South with him and—”

  “No!” She jumped to her feet. Despite being a head shorter, she somehow managed to look down at the lord. “I do not need his protection. I can protect myself.”

  “You are speaking folly.”

  “No more than you are,” she said sharply. The lord was visibly taken aback, clearly unused to such boldness. “His protection comes with a price I am not willing to pay.” Her heart had nothing left to give him.

  “Vhalla, I am only trying to help you.” Ophain’s features were overcome with sorrow. “You and him.”

  “There is no help for us.” Vhalla gave a small bow. “Thank you for your time today, and for your answers.”


  She halted stiffly.

  Lord Ophain crossed the room to where she stood before the door. Slowly, he pulled at the scarf around her neck, carefully folding it once more around her head. The nearly familial touch smoothed some of the roughness in her heart.

  “Keep yourself hidden, at least. Be careful and, by the Mother, consider what you are doing.”

  Vhalla nodded.

  “And if you are ever in need, come to Norin. My protection has no price. Though I can only do so much against the Knights; they are quite the nuisance, even for me.”

  Her face cracked, and she folded her bitterness into a smile. His protection had the same price as Aldrik’s. To accept it would mean to accept his family. It would invite Aldrik into her world. It would inevitably gravitate her into his orbit again, and they would both collapse in on each other like dying stars. She wasn’t ready for it.

  “Thank you,” she said, and left.

  Vhalla kept her head down on the way back to the bookstore, her satchel heavy. She fingered Aldrik’s watch around her neck, feeling its warmth against her palm. On the way, she stopped to buy new clothes. She’d need to get rid of the ones she was wearing. Major Schnurr had seen her in them, and Vhalla had no doubt he had imprinted them on his memory.

  For the hundredth time in a few short weeks, Vhalla thought about returning home. Her feet dragged up the stairs of the shop, Gianna making no motion to switch places on shop duty with the distracted woman. But if she returned East, they would only hunt here there, too.

  As long as s
he was a Windwalker, as long as people knew she could be used for their gains, she’d never be free. Vhalla knelt at her bedside, shifting through a pile of clothing packed underneath. Her fingers fell on a solid bundle of rough cotton.

  Retrieving it, she stared at the familiar parcel. Vhalla remembered when Daniel had cut off his shirt to help her hide it. Distance had helped her sort a little through her heart, and Vhalla didn’t like the woman she saw when she replayed her interactions with the swordsman. She didn’t like her reliance on him or how she had abused the fact that he would be there for her without question.

  But, clarity in the present would not remedy the chaos of the past. And, the one thing that remained true at the end of it all was that he was someone whom she valued in her life. He’d understood when she’d left. The final look on his face had told her as much. And, if she was lucky, whenever she met the swordsman again, he would be someone she’d consider her friend without the pressures of war and loss pushing on them both in odd directions.

  Reverently, she unfolded the cloth, moving it aside. The axe was carved from a single stone, glittering like the cosmos underwater in the dim light of the setting sun. Vhalla now knew it may be the last of the legendary and mysterious crystal weapons—if the Knights didn’t already have one in their possession. She had been told it had the power to sever a soul.

  Vhalla held it up, feeling the weight of it. A deep power coursed through her, seeping into her bones. She didn’t need it to cut through souls. She only needed it to cut through the shadows that threatened to swallow her whole. To cut down those who would use her. To hack away at the oppressive darkness that continued to try to smother her so she could defend a new dawn.

  THE IDEA OF finding a single Southerner in the Crossroads was complete and utter idiocy. Still, Vhalla waded through the sea of people flooding the streets and markets, foolishly hopeful. She saw soldiers she felt like she should know. Men and women who still donned the dark scale mail of the Black Legion. But the messy-haired man that she sought eluded her.

  Cautiously, she ventured back to the center of the Crossroads. She’d not been there in the three days since speaking to Lord Ophain, and now it seemed all the riskier knowing the royal family was present. Yet Vhalla lingered, watching the other hotels and inns around the center of the world. Men and women came and went, but she didn’t see Fritz.

  Then again, even if she found her friend, she wasn’t sure what she would say to him. She wasn’t ready to return South yet. She still had more to learn about the Knights, and she had to ensure they knew she wasn’t easy prey to hunt—to dissuade them from their foolish mission of furthering the cause of the long dead King Jadar. Truthfully, she didn’t want to say anything to him, she just wanted to listen to Fritz talk. She wanted to hear her friend’s voice.

  Vhalla adjusted the hood on her newly acquired cape. The plain garment was the second most important thing she’d purchased recently. Strapped tightly around her waist and buckled around her thigh, just above her knee, was a specially made axe holster. Vhalla hadn’t brought the actual crystal weapon to a craftsman to measure, of course; she’d purchased an axe of similar size and shape. As such, the fit wasn’t perfect, but it kept the weapon concealed and on her person at all times.

  There wasn’t any other safe place for it, she reasoned. The longer it stayed with her, the more Vhalla wondered how she could’ve ever been foolish enough to think of leaving it unattended for weeks, hidden beneath her bed.

  Finally giving up her hunt, Vhalla wandered back in the direction of Gianna’s bookstore. The sun was low in the sky by the time she arrived, and the shop-keeper was already closing up. Vhalla said nothing and started for the stairs.

  “You haven’t been the same since the day you went off for ink.”

  “A lot on my mind.” Vhalla paused, halfway up the stair.

  “That much is apparent.” Gianna appraised her helper thoughtfully. Something in the Western woman’s gaze reminded Vhalla of another set of eyes; a dark pair that also missed nothing, a pair she would never be able to look into again for as long as she lived. “You haven’t been working as much on learning the Western language. It’s going to go stale if you don’t practice.”

  “It’s only been three days,” Vhalla pointed out.

  “For you, three days away from books means something is terribly wrong.” The woman gave Vhalla a sweet smile. “Come, we’ll go somewhere you’ll be forced to practice.”

  Vhalla fell into step alongside Gianna as they walked away from the now locked and dim store. She hadn’t put up much of a fight and didn’t bother questioning where they were going. Gianna hadn’t ever done anything to slight or harm her. In fact, when Vhalla had arrived in Gianna’s shop on a whim weeks ago, the Westerner hadn’t kicked the younger woman out after Vhalla had huddled up in the corner for hours, reading as much as she could.

  Vhalla had slept on the street that night, then returned to Gianna’s the next morning. Gianna had shared her lunch and let the odd patron stay the day again, despite Vhalla not actually buying anything. By the fourth morning, Gianna had figured out her latest ‘customer’ had nowhere else to be and put Vhalla up in the small attic in exchange for an extra pair of hands in the shop.

  It’d taken three weeks for Vhalla to realize that Gianna had no need of a shop assistant. Now, it’d taken over six weeks for her to say anything about it.

  “Thank you,” Vhalla blurted suddenly.

  “For what?” Gianna’s question reminded Vhalla that her companion could not actually read her mind.

  “For taking me in.”

  “Hon, you know that is nothing to thank me for.” Gianna laughed. “My girl is gone and grown and married and raising kids of her own in Norin. It’s good to have company in the house again.”

  The statement made Vhalla think of her own father, which only brought a fresh wave of shame over having yet to return to the East. No matter how much gold she sent, it wouldn’t make up for her absence. But that absence had crept on so long that now Vhalla had no idea how to break it.

  Gianna led them to a restaurant that specialized in Western foods. Proud of its authenticity, the entire staff and most of the patrons spoke exclusively the language of old Mhashan. Vhalla’s tongue curled and rolled off the words, doing her best to pronounce them as carefully as Gianna had taught her.

  Their conversation fluctuated between Southern Common and the old tongue. Vhalla was relieved by the time food arrived, using the excuse to busy her mouth as an opportunity to listen to Gianna’s description of the great castle of Norin rather than speak.

  “. . . though, I suppose it’s nothing like what you’re accustomed to.”

  “Me?” Vhalla had explained her humble beginnings to Gianna; that, despite her current status and wealth, she wasn’t accustomed to luxury.

  “With having grown up in the Southern Palace.”

  “Ah,” Vhalla uttered a noise of comprehension.

  “When will you be returning?”

  Food paused on Vhalla’s spoon halfway between her mouth and the bowl. That was the one thing Gianna could ask that Vhalla wanted to avoid discussing at all costs. “I don’t know.”

  “Don’t you miss it?”

  “I . . .” Vhalla wanted to object. She wanted to say she didn’t miss the palace and its winding passages. She didn’t long for the chill and crisp mountain air, more refreshing than the coldest water she’d ever drank, even if it did set into her bones too quickly and made her shiver. She wanted to claim she didn’t want to run through the Imperial library again like a rebel child, running her fingers gleefully along the spines of the books.

  But it would all be a lie.

  “I do,” Vhalla confessed.

  “But there’s something keeping you from returning.” Gianna’s dark eyes regarded Vhalla thoughtfully.

  “There is.” Vhalla sighed, frustrated. It’d been so long since she’d talked with anyone openly about the heaviness in her heart; Vhalla wasn’t sure i
f she could remember how. But everyone else in Vhalla’s life had a reason to be kept at arm’s length. Gianna, however, was a neutral third party. “There is a man.”

  Gianna burst out laughing, and she only laughed harder at Vhalla’s scowl. She quickly reduced her voice to a wheeze. “Vhalla Yarl, the Windwalker, the champion of the North, terrified about seeing a man?”

  Vhalla’s eyes darted around for any who may have heard the name said aloud. Spying no one, she rolled her eyes. Just saying the name of the man would’ve explained the cause of her concern.

  “We were involved,” Vhalla started delicately. “Things became complicated. His family wanted him to be with someone else, and now he’s betrothed.”

  “I take it he’s a noble?” Gianna questioned.

  Vhalla gave a gesture of affirmation. It was an easy assumption to make since only nobles considered arranged marriages. It was a trend that was going out of style across the continent.

  “And he still loves you?”

  The question stilled her. As much as Vhalla didn’t want to think about it, she had to ask: Was that the truth? Her eyes didn’t want to see it, her mind wanted to ignore it, but her heart knew it with every certain thrum.

  “I think so,” Vhalla sighed softly.

  “And you clearly still have feelings for him.” Gianna leaned against the tall back of the booth they sat in. “I don’t think you should be so worried.”


  “Listen,” Gianna demanded, and Vhalla obliged. “Whatever bride his family strapped him with cannot be better than the woman sitting before me. If I were you, I would gamble on going back. You may discover that they are more amenable to changing their minds when the Hero of the North stands before them.”

  “I doubt it.” Vhalla thought of the Emperor, which immediately soured her appetite. She couldn’t settle with just normal people loathing her existence. She had to have some of the most powerful leaders in the world craving her demise.

  “Then show them what they’re missing,” Gianna suggested with a shrug.


  The Western woman laughed at Vhalla’s startled expression. “Show his family what they lost in you. Spread your wings, tokshi, and fly. Soar above them, make their eyes tear as they stare into the sun to watch you reach new heights.”

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