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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.8
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.8

           Elise Kova
 

  The guards glanced between the Emperor and the senator, seeking confirmation of orders.

  “Arrest her!” the man raged.

  “If she has accusations of murder against her, then she is to be taken into custody,” Egmun finally spoke. “Fetch irons.”

  Vhalla shook her head, laughing softly to herself. A hush fell over the people as they strained to hear the reason for her strange reaction. Vhalla reached into her saddle bag.

  “If it is irons you desire to put on me,” she said as she straightened, “then make sure they are stronger than the ones the Knights of Jadar shackled me in!” Vhalla threw the crystal cuffs, propelling them with the wind to the feet of the Senators.

  Chaos erupted.

  “Lies!” the Western senator raged.

  “Citizens of the Empire,” Vhalla cried. “I am not your enemy. I have never been your enemy.”

  “Order!” the Emperor boomed.

  Every man, woman, and child focused on Vhalla with avid attention.

  “On the Night of Fire and Wind, I fought to save you.” Her heart was beating so hard it hurt, so hard she could choke on it. “I went to the North in good faith of the Empire, as punishment for crimes I did not truly commit. I fought against the Knights of Jadar when they sought to bring down our army on the march. They were behind an attack that nearly caused the death of our future sovereign.”

  Murmurs erupted.

  “Lies! She lies!” The Western Senator’s face was red with rage.

  “Enough, Lady Yarl!” the Emperor called. His words went unheeded again.

  “I fought for your Empire, and when the Emperor saw fit to grant me my freedom for my service, others sought to chain me.” Vhalla jerked her head in the direction of the Western senator. “Yes!” she screamed. “Yes, I killed those men at the Crossroads because they sought the tainted powers within the Crystal Caverns!”

  The crowd was worked to a near fever-pitch.

  “They sought to bring a new war upon the Empire.” Vhalla met the Emperor’s eyes. “Once more I have defended the Empire, and my reward is to be more chains?”

  “Justice for the Windwalker!” a woman screamed.

  “Justice for the Hero of the North!” another cried.

  The Sunlit Stage filled with their demands.

  “Are you going to let her spout these lies?” Her ears picked up the strained words of the Western senator.

  Those upon the stage were quickly losing their control of the situation as the crowd slipped into anarchy. Wind howled through the archways, howled for her justice. Vhalla met the Emperor’s eyes with a level stare and waited.

  Fire arced across the sky. The crowd was silenced as they shied away from the wave of heat. Aldrik had taken a step forward.

  He stared down at her, and Vhalla met his gaze as an equal—for the world to see. What was to become of them now?

  “It seems a trial is not necessary.” His voice filled the square. It filled the cavernous volume of her chest as two perfectly dark eyes met hers.

  “My prince!” Egmun was aghast alongside the Western Senator.

  “Senators, you exist so that the will of the people may be channeled to my father and to me.” Aldrik motioned to the masses that were growing by the second. “The people have spoken.”

  “But a trial—”

  “Is not needed for one who is so clearly innocent.” The crown prince pointed to the crystal-laden irons. “Unless you have an alternate explanation for those?”

  The Western fumed in silence.

  “She is a Lady of the Court.” Aldrik shifted his focus back on her. Everyone could’ve screamed at once, and Vhalla was certain she’d somehow still hear the frantic pulse in his neck as he stared at her once more. “She was given her freedom by the Emperor. And I, as the future Emperor, will pardon her for any crimes that were committed in her own defense against the Western madmen who call themselves the Knights of Jadar.”

  The crowd did scream then. It was deafening, but her ears were already ringing; they were echoing Aldrik’s words so loudly that Vhalla felt the resonance of his voice in her bones.

  The prince’s eyes soaked in her form for one moment longer before he turned, starting alone for the palace. The rest of his family followed behind him. Vhalla caught the Emperor’s eyes only briefly, but long enough to see the cautionary stare.

  Swinging her leg over, she dismounted gracefully. Vhalla grabbed the saddlebag with the axe, holding it tight against her as the crowd amassed to welcome her back. She didn’t want their false smiles and misplaced praise. It had suited her when she needed their love to cement her freedom, but she knew better than to take it to heart. The people would just as easily shift against her once more if Vhalla wasn’t careful to keep the wind blowing her way.

  The silence of the palace hallway was welcome, and Vhalla breathed a sigh of relief the second she was free of the crowd. She clutched the saddlebag tightly to her side, setting off in the hall toward the center of the palace. She didn’t know quite where she was, but she knew the general direction. Nostalgia crept into her mind, welcoming her despite her disorientation.

  It was a sweet dulling of the senses. The way her feet sounded against the floor or the candles that dripped years of wax over their sconces, it was all familiar. It felt like home.

  But it was a façade. She’d seen first-hand the ugliness that festered in the hearts of the people who had built this palace. She was now one of them. And the illusion could only last for so long before it was broken.

  “Look at you,” a voice sneered.

  Vhalla reeled in place.

  Egmun stepped slowly from a side hall. Had he been following her? “Put a title on her and she becomes bold. Do you think yourself powerful?”

  “I know I am.” Vhalla did nothing to hide her scowl. There was no one around, and it seemed Egmun had no interest in “playing nice” either.

  “You should’ve never left this palace alive.” Egmun took a step closer, and Vhalla took a step back. “I should’ve killed you myself when I had the chance.”

  “Another step closer and I will be the one killing you,” she threatened.

  He paused, chuckling darkly. “We both know you won’t.”

  “You have no idea what I’m capable of,” Vhalla whispered.

  “Oh, I have more idea than you realize.” Egmun bore his teeth in a wide grin. “But you won’t kill me, because you would do anything to avoid giving me what I want, even if that means denying yourself that particular satisfaction.”

  “You want me to kill you?” That was a turn she hadn’t been expecting.

  “Oh, dying like this would be less than ideal. But I would hope the Knights, the Emperor, someone, would put on a better showing of getting you condemned for the death of the Head of Senate.” Egmun pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh and the distinctly Aldrik-like motion threw her mentally off-balance. “The Knights were a failure. But it all comes down to the fact that I will do whatever it takes to see your end, ended in such a horrible way that no one will dare speak the name Vhalla Yarl, the Windwalker, for years.”

  “You’re mad.” She’d never been more certain.

  “I was, once. Now I’m the only sane one here,” Egmun observed quietly.

  “What is your obsession with me?” she finally asked. The question was out, and Vhalla held her breath to await what she knew would be a terrible answer.

  “Oh, you already know,” Egmun hummed. “I want you to die. I thought the Knights would do it, or the North would, or you, in your feebleness, would be broken by the trials of war. Disappointments, the lot of them; now here we are.”

  “Why do you want me dead? I never did anything to you!”

  “You existed!” the senator snarled. “No, it’s worse than that. You let your existence be known. You, you didn’t stay put. They should’ve never let you out of the East.”

  “What do you know?” Vhalla whispered.

  “I know you will be the death of
us all.” It seemed to be the most level thing he’d said and for that it was all the more terrifying. “I know, I know better than any what you are capable of.”

  “How?”

  “I sought wisdom that was never meant for mortal men, and I traded my magic for it. No one else will pay that price, and now I am the only one who can protect our world.”

  “You’re mad,” Vhalla breathed. Something was seriously broken within the Head of Senate. A god-complex, a power-hungry madman, a deranged lunatic stood before her and affirmed it with every word.

  “I am the only one of us who isn’t.” Egmun frowned.

  “So why don’t you kill me now then?”

  “You’ve made yourself untouchable.” The Head of Senate finally took a step away. “You’ve powers that I cannot compete with. You’ve put a spell over the people. You’ve crawled into bed with a prince.”

  Vhalla clenched her fists and grit her teeth.

  “And now you’ll return to the Tower to study under the puppet-master of those powers that be.” Egmun shook his head, starting in the opposite direction. “I have only one final thing I could try.”

  Vhalla braced herself for an attack. She readied for an ambush, for Egmun to turn and lunge for her. But the senator only glanced over his shoulder, his eyes glittering with crazed and broken amusement.

  “Ask yourself, Vhalla Yarl. . . Ask yourself, is your life worth more than this world?”

  With that, the senator departed.

  Long after he’d vanished, Vhalla contemplated the hall where he had disappeared. She took a step, stumbling over her feet and leaning against the wall for support. She was shaken down to her soul. Egmun, her most hated entity in the world, had shown her an emotion she didn’t know he’d had: compassion. Not for her, but for the people of the Empire.

  She gripped the saddlebag with white knuckles, holding an axe that could sever souls. Another piece fell clearly into her mind as Vhalla realized she’d just succeeded in bringing the last crystal weapon back to the South, nearly back to the land of the Crystal Caverns.

  The North had just been the battle. There was a much greater struggle at play here, and people had yet to show their true hands. The war still raged on.

  ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Vhalla hadn’t really spoken much with the Head of Senate. But it seemed every time she did, the impression was destined to linger, and Egmun’s words repeated in Vhalla’s mind, imprinting themselves as she made her way for the bottom entry of the Tower of Sorcerers. She clutched the saddlebag, her fingers tracing the outlines of its stitching in thought. Egmun.

  Egmun had been the Minister of Sorcery, and then something changed. He said he had traded his magic; was it taken from him somehow? If so, by what? Vhalla’s mind went down every dark path when thinking of the Senator and came up with a memory that wasn’t even hers, of Egmun egging on a boy Aldrik to commit his first murder.

  The questions circled like a tornado, faster and faster, until all other thoughts were destroyed by their repetition. Vhalla pushed open the door for the Tower of Sorcerers, completely absorbed in trying to recall every word she’d ever written in her journal on Aldrik and deeply wishing she’d taken it with her from Gianna’s. It took her five steps to notice she wasn’t alone.

  The large, circular lobby was filled with people, as it had been the last time she’d been there. But now they weren’t wearing armor, and there wasn’t the tension of dread. Hope glittered in every flame bulb. Hope for a future that they would see because they were the ones who had survived the battles. Their eyes looked to her in admiration, as though she was the foundation of those dreams.

  Vhalla hastily took in those assembled, and her eyes fell on a man. Words and thoughts and emotions tangled into a knot and lodged themselves in her throat. She had cried so many tears of sorrow that it made the moisture at the corners of her eyes burn sweetly with joy.

  Fritznangle Charem, Waterrunner and friend of the Windwalker, stood opposite her, already crying like a babe. The room blurred until only he remained in focus. Fritz took a step forward, and Vhalla matched his sprint.

  There was only one thing that could’ve made her part with the bag containing the axe, and that was the man she threw her arms around. The saddlebag was forgotten on the floor, and Vhalla clutched Fritz as though he was nothing more than an illusion about to fade on the wind.

  The room was congratulating her; there may have even been cheers. But Vhalla focused on her friend’s face, wiping away the rivulets of tears streaming around his wide grin with her thumbs.

  “I missed you, Vhal,” Fritz hiccupped.

  “I missed you, too.” Vhalla leaned forward and rose to her toes to give her friend a light kiss on the forehead.

  The room hummed around her, and Vhalla took stock of the other Sorcerers. Their robes bore the seal of the Tower of Sorcerers, a dragon curling in on itself as a circle, split in two and off-set. But above the standard insigna, were pins of a silver wing.

  “We knew the Windwalker would return to us, heralding her good fortune.” A man rose his hand to his chest, explaining the pin.

  “I don’t know about that,” Vhalla laughed.

  “Do not discredit yourself, Lady Yarl.” Vhalla turned to the source of the voice. A man with sharp blue eyes and a neatly cut goatee stood in long black robes, different from the rest of the apprentices. Victor, the current Minister of Sorcery, smiled down at her. “You have brought much good fortune, without even being here, by helping ease tensions between sorcerers and the common folk.”

  “Tensions I made worse with the Night of Fire and Wind.” Vhalla couldn’t let herself just take the compliment.

  “That debt has been repaid, and then some.” Victor proceeded down the sloped walkway. “I can imagine you are exhausted after your ordeal at the Sunlit Stage. The chill is still on your cloak, and you’ve yet to shake the dust from your hair. Let us all give our Windwalker the best welcome home we can and allow her to take a much needed rest.”

  As the room began to empty, the minister took a half step toward her, placing his hand on the small of her back. He leaned forward slightly to speak only for her. “When you are refreshed, come to my quarters. We have much to discuss of your time at war and your future in the Tower.”

  Vhalla nodded, starting to speak when Fritz interrupted her.

  “Here.” He held out the saddlebag. “You dropped—”

  “Don’t!” She snatched it away in horror, and the wounded look on Fritz’s face left no question for Vhalla as to the expression she’d given him. Vhalla fumbled for words, turning to the minister for assistance, but he had already departed. “Don’t touch it, Fritz.”

  Fritz’s brow furrowed in confusion.

  “Sorry, I . . .” She didn’t want to lie to him. She didn’t want to lie to her friends. She had sworn off lying. But what else could she tell him? Her hands tightened around the saddlebag. “There’s something precious inside.”

  “What is it?”

  “Just something I picked up along the way,” Vhalla muttered, grabbing at straws for a new topic. Her eyes fell on an Eastern man who had been lingering by Fritz’s side since Vhalla had first seen him. “Grahm? Right?”

  “Welcome home.” The man beamed at her. “I’m surprised you remember me.”

  “Of course I would!” Vhalla stared up the Tower. “I heard so much about you.”

  “You did?” Grahm seemed honestly surprised.

  “Vhal!” Fritz was redder than scarlet.

  “Just that you’re quite talented,” Vhalla spoke to Grahm, giving Fritz a knowing wink while the other man’s eyes were averted. Clearly, Fritz had been making slow use of his time when it came to the man he was so obviously pining for. Vhalla paused. “Where’s Elecia?”

  “Still in the West.” Fritz pouted, affirming Vhalla’s suspicion that she wasn’t in the Tower. If she had been, Vhalla had no doubt that things with Grahm wouldn’t have faltered so.

  “Wasn’t she coming to study here
a bit?” Trying to recall details between the final battle and leaving the North was a struggle, it all blurred together into one ugly mess.

  “In spring.” Fritz sighed heavily. “She doesn’t like Southern winters.”

  “You can’t blame her.” Vhalla thought back to the time she’d spent in the West. If she’d grown up in such a climate, she’d truly loathe the chill that was already slipping into the halls.

  “I can blame her and I do!” Fritz grumbled. “I’ve missed her, and you.”

  “Tell me what I’ve missed.” Vhalla pulled her friend close, enjoying having him at her side once more.

  They strolled leisurely and began what would be the long process of catching up. How she had missed her favorite Southerner. His laughter was like sunlight, and his heart was more golden than his scraggly hair.

  “You remember where your room is, right?” Fritz asked, pausing with Grahm at a door.

  “You’re not coming with me?” Vhalla blinked. She expected Fritz to be glued to her side, demanding all the details of their adventures apart. But it seemed he presently had other priorities.

  “To your room?” Fritz laughed. “No, I figured you’d want some time to wash up alone. Unless you want me to scrub your back?”

  Vhalla grinned. “I doubt you’d be let into the women’s baths.”

  “Grahm was beginning to teach me the process of making vessels, you see,” Fritz explained, taking a step closer to the other man. “I want to keep studying.”

  Fritz was studying something, all right.

  “I’d enjoy learning more about vessels, from an expert.” Vhalla smiled nicely at Grahm.

  “I actually need to speak with you on the subject, now that you’re back.” Her fellow Easterner was completely oblivious to the silent but certain exchange between his two companions.

  “Oh?”

  “Yes, but it’ll keep for now. Go and relax,” Grahm encouraged.

  So Vhalla finished her journey as it had begun, in silence and alone. Her future felt as equally uncertain now as it had the first time she’d entered the Tower. Vhalla ran her fingers over the nameplate that was on the door of one of the highest rooms in the Tower of Sorcerers. Her name had been engraved in tight, slanted script.

 
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