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Crown of Blood and Ruin: Chapter 21

Night Prince

I was mistaken.

Even in a comfortable, warm room with food aplenty it was still torture.

We were no closer to finding a way out of whatever fury guarded the walls of our tower than we were ten sunrises ago.

Even Sol was disheartened. He’d taken to staring blankly out the window of the tower in long stretches.

Through the days, between our attempts to plot, I told Sol of the curse. How my memories of who I was were lost to me all this time. Of the wandering turns where I succumbed to vicious bloodlust like a rabid wolf in the trees.

The Black Tomb, the storyteller, and her part she played in my path to Elise Lysander.

It wasn’t much, but Sol took some comfort that I knew Calder, knew Runa, before they hid their true selves from me as the Night Prince. When I was no one to them but Legion Grey I did not realize how many traits I noticed.

Not until Sol pulled them out.

Calder craved power. He loved no one but his own ambition. But his weakness lived in debauchery and praise. If his people did not see him as the dog with the sharpest bite, it would grate at the false king.

Kvin Lysander was a spineless fool who would follow anyone on the throne. He’d be as loyal to me if I’d claimed the crown months ago as he was to Runa now. Weak and not a threat in my eyes.

Runa, however, was dangerously ambitious. Perhaps more than her husband. I’d always believed she had some affection toward her sister, but as time went on, I started to believe Runa tolerated Elise because she was not a threat to her.

Now, my wife was her greatest threat. And I was Elise’s weakness. Runa would use me against her.

But we still hadn’t seen Jarl Magnus. Nor Calder, or even Runa. It unsettled me. I imagined they’d revel in drawing our blood, torturing us endlessly, but this absent game was confusing. I didn’t know how to retaliate. And I hated the helplessness more than anything.

As the sun faded on the eleventh day, I went to Sol at the window.

“I was so sure we’d think of something, Valen,” he said, voice rough. “I knew it to my soul if you were here, it would unlock the way we could take Ravenspire back from the inside. Now, I see I’ve simply gotten my brother—the king—captured.”

I scoffed. “Always making things about you.”

For the first time that day, Sol released a smile. Weak, but it was there all the same. “Will you tell me of Torsten? How is he, truly?”

He hadn’t asked until now, and I hadn’t pressed. Heartache needed to be treated with care.

“Ill-tempered as ever.” One shoulder against the wall, I went on. “But loyal as ever too. Knowing you are alive has brought out the Torsten I always knew.”

“Stubborn. Deadly.” Sol grinned with a touch of longing. “Determined.”

“Yes. He’ll refuse to leave this world before he can at least touch you again.”

“I keep thinking how, as boys, Tor and I would mock Daj because of how much he spoke of Maj. Back then love and things of the heart were for weaklings, of course.”

“Of course.”

Sol rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the golden sunset. “Daj always told us grand tales of how loving her saved him in more than one way. He’d tell me how much he wished nothing more than for his children to find someone they could love like he loved his queen.”

I dug through my own conversations with my father. He often said similar things in different ways. But he was like that. Arvad Ferus always spoke to each of his children in ways that connected with our individuality. While Sol loved the Wild Hunt, I sparred with my father. Herja went for mountain rides with him on their favorite horses.

“I think he’d be pleased,” Sol said, “to know we’ve all found that love. It will be what pulls us through this. We fight for those we love, and they fight for us.”

“Love has always fueled the strength of Etta.” I squeezed his shoulder. “It always will.”

“Someone is coming.” Gunnar scrambled away from the door. “Let me use mesmer. I need to try again.”

“No. Last time got us an added guard and extra bindings.” I held up my wrists, now banded in two burning silver rings.

Days ago, we thought to have Gunnar convince one of the serfs to let us free. It worked. Next, he manipulated the guard, but his magic burned in his head so fiercely he nearly retched.

No one from Ravenspire knew exactly what had happened, but they suspected one of us had broken through the bindings, so they promptly secured our tower room even more.

Then Gunnar had been pale and ill for an entire day afterward.

Gunnar cursed under his breath, wishing for his father for the hundredth time. According to the boy, Hagen Strom had been teaching him about his magic. Another reason to find the man. His son needed him.

Our nightly serf was different each time. Tonight, a skinny woman with black curls kept her eyes on the floor, but when she lifted them, I had to blink. Her eyes were slit like a cat’s and greener than spring grass. No taper to her ear, but perhaps a bit of nymph or forest fae lived in her blood.

“You’ve been requested to dine at the high table tonight,” she said.

Ah. The game was changing.

Hair stood on end on the back of my neck, but I buried my disquiet beneath a sly grin. “And if we refuse?”

“I am to tell you there is no room for refusal.” Her eyes flitted to Gunnar. “Unless you do not care for your nephew. May I leave now?” Her voice squeaked like a soft breeze.

The two Ravens who stood at our door did not give her a choice before they shoved the woman aside and crowded the doorway. “What is your choice, Night Prince? I hope you refuse; I’d love to experiment on the boy. We have new methods we’ve been wanting to test.”

I locked my jaw. Not out of fear of this bleeding fool, but at the rush of dark violence, corrupting my desires in something sinister. With each new sunrise remnants of my curse simmered beneath the surface. Like waking from a long sleep, the desire—the need—to kill heated at every harsh word, every threat.

This Raven, like others, was locked in my mind, and I imagined a dozen ways I could draw out a scream. More than anything, I feared the bloodlust. By the time this was over would I still be the man Elise loved, or would I once more be a beast who lived for death and hate?

The Ravens were joined by five more at the top of the staircase. They surrounded us in a tight formation, making the trek down the tower difficult not to step on toes.

We remained silent, doubtless the three of us all puzzled through what was happening, preparing for anything. Runa and Calder played sly moves, but we’d been surviving this long. It’d take a great deal to break us by now.

The great hall was empty. Wooden shades were pulled over the upper windows near the eaves. Light came from the few torches in the corners and the candles on the massive table in the center of the room. Already plates had been set, and I hated how my body reacted to the savory hint of roasted meat and the warmth of hot bread and clean, fine ale.

Seed bread and boiled roots had kept us alive so far.

I frowned, almost disappointed. If food and fine things was the best manipulation they could manage, the false king and queen would need to play a different hand. Sol and I knew how to live on melted snow and tree bark for weeks at a time.

Doors swept open in the back.

My stomach soured. I’d waited for this moment. Hells, I’d been yearning for it, if only to gauge our enemies a little more. Even still, at the sight of Calder and Runa, rational thinking fled and all I saw was hate.

It did not help that Runa Lysander looked a great deal like her sister.

Calder wore an ostentatious crown and a black fur cloak that dragged behind him. Runa was draped in gold. From the sheen of her gown to the circlet secured with braids in her hair. Since we last met, Calder had aged his beard, allowing it to grow past his chin, and Runa’s eyes had lost even more feeling.

Unfortunately, the false king and queen were not alone.

Jarl Magnus strode into the hall, followed by Leif Lysander, and half a dozen women wearing fine woolen gowns. Courtiers, or mistresses for the king, no doubt.

At the sight of me, a few of them whispered and snickered as they followed their king.

“I half expected you to refuse us,” Calder said. “You’ve been so disagreeable to our hospitality thus far.”

“Room is a bit cramped.” Sol stepped forward. I might be king, but he would always be the older brother. An innate need to defend his family flowed through his blood and I think he might cuff the back of my head like he did when we were boys if I tried to stop him.

Calder chuckled without a drop of humor. “Would you prefer your old cell, Sun Prince.”

Sol didn’t falter. “My dear false king, you do not want to know the things I prefer.”

A few moments of silence settled between us, but it was enough to set the room in unease.

Calder’s lip twitched. He gestured to the table. “Sit. Please. You are our guests tonight.”

We had few choices and took places—Ravens watching our every move—in chairs as far from the Timoran king as possible. Jarl sat on the right hand of the king and sprinkled between us were the courtiers.

“So,” one woman whispered to me. “You are not Herr Legion?”

I studied her face. She looked at me with total sincerity. I supposed the bindings on my wrists, the points of my ears, and the guards aiming blades at my back were not enough evidence.

“Not today, de hӓn.”

The woman managed to giggle as if any of this were enjoyable for me. “I can hardly believe it. You look so much like him.”

“Because he was Legion Grey, you bleeding idiot,” Runa hissed at the woman, causing the mistress to hang her head in shame.

“That’s enough talk of past things. Eat. Enjoy,” Calder told everyone. His grin was cruel and twisted as he lifted a glass flute in the air. “We’re honored by fellow royalty, after all.”

His courtiers had no trouble following orders. But we remained unmoving. I stared down the table where Runa kept me in her sights. Kvin Lysander studied his plate, but every few breaths he would flick his eyes to Sol, to me, at times Gunnar.

Calder noticed and snorted into his ale. “I believe you make my father-in-law uncomfortable, Night Prince.”

“The best news I’ve heard all day.” I gave a significant look at Elise’s father.

“But I suppose he is your father-in-law too.” Calder sneered when Leif blanched. “Isn’t that right?”

“No.”

“No?” Calder’s puckered his mouth. “I was certain you had illegally taken vows with my poor, deranged sister. I thought you a fool, but perhaps you are wiser than I thought.”

“Don’t mistake me, False King,” I said. “Elise is my wife, my wife—” I repeated simply to watch Jarl fist one hand on the table. “But she has made it quite clear, she has no father here. So, you’ll forgive me if I do not honor him with such a title.”

“I see.” Calder sneered. “Well, it is about your so-called wife that we wanted to see you tonight.”

Sol shifted at my side. My insides numbed against any lies they’d tell me about Elise. She was dead—I wouldn’t believe it. She was captured—I’d demand proof.

Calder’s eyes narrowed. “Night Prince, I’ll not mince my words. Your brother and your sister’s son go free in exchange for Elise.”

I didn’t have time to take a breath before Sol laughed. “What a pathetic offer. I’m insulted you did not take the time to learn of the Ferus bloodline. If you had, you’d know that bargain would never stand, False King.”

“I’ll not be traded for anyone,” Gunnar said.

“There you have it.” I gestured at my brother and nephew. Loyalty, love, and honor were thrust into our heads as young boys, and it was clear Herja had taught the same to her children. “We do not sacrifice our family. Do what you will. Elise will never be part of the bargain.”

Calder sighed and slouched back in his chair. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t be difficult. We’ve treated you so well.”

“Well?” Sol’s voice darkened. “Ten days of a bed and a meal does nothing to erase centuries of curses and bloodshed after your people stole this land. Hells, the only reason it still blooms at all is because our bloodline still lives. You should be kissing our feet, you bastard.”

Ravens moved in, a few gasps rippled around the table, but Calder’s raised hand stilled the room.

“What would your people think,” I said, low and raw, “the ones who starve and freeze in winter while you eat such a feast, if they knew the land survives because their kings have kept the true royals trapped all this time?”

Calder’s fist slammed onto the table. “Those are lies. You speak valiantly, but how would those people react if they knew the one who robbed them of their goods and supplies is the Night Prince of Etta and his band of thieves?”

I glanced at the curious courtiers. Rumors and gossip thrived in the Timoran court. I would see to it talk ran like an uncontrolled flame after this night.

“Think hard at the strange events you’ve seen. Barren pieces of this kingdom now bloom with life. The Sun Prince escaped the centuries of Ravenspire control, and the princess regained her voice after being silent and captive all this time.” I slowly stood, leaning over my fingertips on the table. “Care to know why?”

The woman beside me seemed unable to control her voice and let out a breathy, “Yes.”

I looked nowhere but at Calder’s cold eyes. “The fury, long dormant in this soil, awakened when, once again, a Ferus took the throne.”

Calder’s jaw pulsed. “You spin the truth. Or have you forgotten another king took a different throne? I have raised Timoran from the failings of my father, restored mighty trade; I rid this land of his futile, foolish policies and laws. I have saved Timoran.”

“Yet you still keep us alive. Your enemies, the greatest threats to your throne.” My lip curled over my teeth. “Why take the risk? Admit it, False King, you keep us breathing because you know if our blood spills, your people will be thrust into the frigid wastes of my mother’s childhood when fury abandons this land forever.”

Violence flashed in Calder’s eyes. For a moment I thought I might have pushed him too far, and he might make good on my bluff and cut us down where we sat. But to my surprise and distrust, Runa rested a hand on Calder’s arm. She smiled, a kind smile on first look, but buried under her pretty face was a viciousness more cruel and wicked than her wretched husband. “Tell him, Husband. The Night Prince should know.”

Calder hesitated, but soon his expression softened. He kissed the back of Runa’s hand, but the way they looked at each other showed there was no love there. “My queen is right. Since House Ferus is so fond of prophecies and twists of fate, you might care to know you were not the only ones to receive a curse from the ancient storyteller.”

Calder snapped his fingers and a serf hurried forward, a wooden tray in hand. From the tray, Calder removed a pig skin purse. He handled it carefully, but from inside removed aged parchment sleeves, protected, and bound together by thin leather.

“Ettans and Night Folk have their sagas, but so do we. From the life of King Eli. Seems he was given his own predictions of his fate.”

“Why would I care about a dead false king?” I hated King Eli. Loathed him. Remembered him. The way he smiled, the way he desired my mother, his brutality.

“Because this dead king has a great deal to do with our current predicament, and its outcome if we do not come to some arrangement.”

“Is that what this is?” Sol said with a bitter scoff. “A peace meet? Brother, I think we have them scared and we have not even raised a blade.”

Calder frowned at the Sun Prince. “This is our last attempt to stop needless bloodshed—of your people.” He looked to me, voice unnaturally soft. “You think we beg for Elise because we wish her harm. We ask for her to save her, Night Prince. She will not survive this fight.”

His fingers deftly touched the parchment. Hells, I despised how my curiosity piqued.

“Valen,” Sol warned. “They lie.”

“See for yourself.” Runa stood with the parchment in hand. “We have the writings of the Fate Witch of old. Perhaps you will recognize some.”

She rounded to our side of the table. Jarl rose to his feet, hand on his blade. I made no move to look at Runa as she placed the sheets in front of me.

“What are they?” Gunnar asked after a long pause.

Jaw tight, I blinked my curiosity to the musty parchment. Sharp, hurried writing scrawled out on the pages. Faded with time, but still readable. My heart stilled in my chest, as if my body could not function as I read the words. Words I heard in my head during the night. Words of nightmares.

“The curse she wrote for me. But Sol’s and Herja’s too. We were all cursed.” Bloodlust. Silence. Madness. Why?

Perhaps Calder held a bit of magic and could read minds because he laughed and gestured to the parchment. “Eli had a brutal mind. He chose your suffering. Did you know that? The warrior of the two princes—” He pointed to me. “You’d wallow in the blood you might’ve spilled against him. I believe his original hope was you might be his fury weapon, but you never did cooperate, did you Night Prince?”

“Not when enraging the dead false king was such fun,” I snapped.

Calder’s gaze spun to Sol. “The clever prince. You’d lose your mind. And the princess—well, as I understand it Eli was not fond of female talk after keeping so much company with your mother and sister. She would be silent and learn that her place was on her back.”

Gunnar bolted from his seat, fist slamming the table. Sol gripped his shoulder and shoved him back down. My brother shook his head, silently urging the boy not to listen to their cruelty.

I pushed the parchment to my brother and nephew. I did not want to read them another moment.

“Until the crown is in place,” Sol whispered. “That is how mine ended. Herja’s too.” Sol tossed aside the parchment. “Proof my brother’s ascension is powerful enough to break this strange fury.”

“But which crown does it mean?” Calder pressed. “I took a crown, and you have not read King Eli’s curse.”

Runa took the liberty of removing a final sheet. She placed it in front of me and leaned over my shoulder. “Read it. Out loud.”

I hated them, but I recognized my curse. It was authentic. These were from the storyteller long ago, and curiosity, desperation, perhaps both were too much to resist. “From desire and greed, this land will live in a broken state of weakness. The kingdom you sought will never be yours before the Otherworld calls you home.”

“Which it never was,” Sol interrupted. “Timoran kings have smothered this land for centuries, and it is dying.”

“Go on,” Calder said, ignoring my brother. “Keep reading.”

I locked him in a glare but looked to the parchment. “Through the blood of the heirs from the bond you shattered, will the tomb of fury reopen. On that day, one queen rises to end another, and at the fall of the second will your kingdom at last be.”

Calder rose from his seat. “This is why you are unharmed, little prince. This is how you keep your brother and the boy safe. Give me what is in that tomb, tell me how to find it, and I vow not to kill them, and to let Elise live.”

It struck me from behind, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or rage. Calder had been to the tomb, or someone from Ravenspire had. When they placed the Lysander flags to signal to Elise Ravenspire knew of her involvement with traitors.

The fool didn’t know he’d been close to what he sought all this time.

I leaned back in my chair with an exaggerated sigh. “Forgive me, False King, but I know nothing of this tomb.”

Calder’s face twisted into hard stone. “So, like your brother, you need to be persuaded to speak.”

I laughed with venom. “Do what you will. My answer will not change.”

Calder’s skin heated to a deep, blood red. He muttered something low to Jarl who seemed rather pleased when he stood and left the room. The false king turned away, ignoring his wife, and gripping the arm of a mistress as he stormed from the hall.

Sol was right—Calder was slipping in his desperation.

We’d exploit it.

I jolted when Runa pulled the parchment away. “My husband focuses on the wrong motivation with a man like you. The part of this that really matters is obvious, isn’t it?”

Nothing was obvious. It was as if a dozen points needed to be made and the storyteller decided to be vague on purpose. My fist curled over one knee.

“I suppose it isn’t,” Runa went on. “Two queens. The second will fall, and the kingdom of King Eli will rise. Second Kvinna, second to be crowned.” Runa leaned forward, her lips against my ear. A dozen violent thoughts filled my head. She grinned as she spoke. “Elise’s blood will secure this kingdom, but she will not leave the battlefield alive.”


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