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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 10

The Ambassador

Astrid bolted to the back room. Her screams were chilling.

I dropped my horn and tried to shove through folk, desperate to help, desperate to fix whatever had happened.

“No!” the former queen stumbled out of the back room. I shoved past slender forest fae and bulky warriors, and pulled back the bead covering over the room. Bile scorched the back of my throat.

Signe was sprawled over the fur rug, her skirt askew, and her throat slit.

I’d only seen her . . . slipping away into the shadows. Dammit. My fingers shot to my hair, tugging on the ends. I should’ve bleeding checked on who she’d gotten close to; I should’ve sent someone to watch her. She was a bleeding royal and . . .

“This is your doing!” Astrid shouted.

I froze in a bit of horror when I realized her finger was directed at me.

“Mother.” Bracken’s brow furrowed. His skin was pallid, and he seemed to be teetering on what to do, what to say. He was torn between a broken-hearted brother and king.

Astrid’s lip curled. “He only just told me he’d gone into a chamber with a lover. He . . . he defiled my girl and killed her.”

She crumbled to her knees, sobbing in the arms of two Borough guards.

“Ari?” Bracken looked at me with a wash of horror.

“No.” I held up my hands. Damn my tongue, my temper. I had implicated myself by taking a shot at Astrid. “I wasn’t in the room, King Bracken. I was in the kitchens. Dunker saw me.”

“A troll!” Astrid let out a keening wail. “We’re to take the word of a thick-headed troll?”

I ignored her and looked to the king. “I swear to you, Bracken. I did not do this.”

“He . . . was . . . with her!” Astrid sobbed, but there were few tears. More loathing and hatred, and a lust for blood in her eyes.

“No!” Gunnar shot from the table. “Ari would not do this.”

No one seemed to listen. Others all around studied me, peeled back my skin, as if to dig out my sinister desires.

Astrid’s voice quivered as she screamed. “Ari Sekundär is to blame.”

Bracken looked at me with a horrified stun. Once more he was torn, and it carved a new scar deep in my bones that buried underneath his disbelief. He wondered. He actually wondered if I was capable of violating and slaughtering an innocent girl.

“Ari, you’ve been placed at the death of a Southern royal,” the king said, somberly.

“I did not do this,” I insisted. My eyes turned to Gunnar. “You know I would not harm her.”

Gunnar did not have the same doubts as the king. I could see it in his gaze. “Ari is an ambassador of the Kingdom of Etta. If he is to face your tribunals, he is afforded our folk to speak for him.”

“That does not apply to spilling royal blood.” Astrid wailed. “Take him! Gods, take him!”

Bracken was the king. He would give the orders. It was a foolish hope. While the king stared blankly at the body of his sister, the folk of the revel turned on me.

Sofia cried for the folk to stop, even using a small blade to slice at them. They were bleeding, and only seemed to get worse.

The blade nicked Bo’s wrist, and he lifted his eyes to me. He’d been drunk before, now he looked at me with dark, hateful clarity. “Don’t do it, Ambassador. You are ordered to stay.”

A shock of anger sparked in my veins. All these turns since I arrived in the South, the same folk who bartered trade with Etta, who dined at revels beside me, even fought on damn battlefields next to my side, now turned against me. All at once I was an enemy without so much as a second thought.

Rune joined his fellow guard and held my gaze with his shocking dark green eyes as he slid the seax from his belt.

“Stop this.” Sofia shoved against Rune’s shoulder, but he hardly budged.

The huldra’s eyes darkened when more folk pushed through the inner guards, desperate to reach me. Forest fae shoved through them, some seers from the Court of Stars followed and clawed at my arms.

Bracken snapped back into his role as king and shouted for his people to stay calm, but a strange, almost unnatural rage lived in the eyes of the people. They wanted blood for what had happened to the gentle princess, and it was mine they sought.

I reached for my short blade when a bulky fae swung a bronze rapier for my neck. This was madness. A dozen moves filtered through my head. Did I run? Did I use reason? No one bleeding looked reasonable anymore.

What was happening? How had such feckless folk turned into bloodthirsty fae?

When an axe sliced through my jerkin, nicking my skin, I had no choice but to turn to fury. I’d taken an oath of loyalty to the people of the South when I first came that I would only use my illusions should threats arise.

I did not expect the threat to be against me, but the fae were ignoring their king; they were damn feral.

I raised a hand. The burn of fury scorched over my fingertips, and I created a misty illusion strong enough to disorient the folk attacking me. The only fury I’d used in the isles was my one slip with Einar. Simple vipers were nothing to containing a crowd.

“There is no time.” Eryka appeared in front of me, eyes white like starlight. “Not all is as it seems. Not all is as it seems. Run. Run!”

Her eerie seer’s voice rattled against the walls. It shook me to my bones. Eryka kept shouting for me to run, lost in a trance, and it only seemed to spark more primal rage in the fae. Gunnar dragged his lover away, his frantic gaze met mine, and over the ruckus I thought he might’ve shouted for me to go.

I didn’t wait to find out before sprinting toward the back door.

“Ari!” Frey met me there. Blood dripped from his nose, and his eyes had gone wild. “They’re out for your head.”

“Gods, Frey, do you think I don’t know this?”

He gripped my shoulders. “Run to the docks. They’re sealing the borders!”

“I am not leaving the prince.”

“Ari,” Frey shouted close to my face. “We will not leave him. Stieg and I will stand beside both him and Eryka.”

“Someone assassinated her,” I said, panic rising in my throat. “They’re framing me. They’re framing the North. Frey, they could come for you, for Bracken, for—”

“I know,” Frey said as he gave me a harsh shove. “You must keep your neck until we figure out what has happened here, now go!”

“I cannot leave—”

“You cannot protect Gunnar if you are dead.” Frey shook me once. “Something is wrong. They are nonsensical. There is some trick, some fae game at play.”

“Then we leave together.”

“And have hoards of feral fae chasing the prince? You are a danger to him right now, Ari. See that.” His jaw set as he lowered his tone. “We will protect him, you know this. But go to Etta; we may have need of armies.”

By the hells, he was right. The fae folk had shifted so swiftly. Calm forest fae were closer to the brutality of blood fae. Only a few shouted questions, only a few tried to calm their people.

I turned back to Frey and clapped a hand on his cheek. “You do not leave the prince and princess. Hide them if you must. I will return.”

He nodded and shoved me to the back of the longhouse. “Go. Go.”

I slammed the door at my back, and bolted it at the top. I pressed a hand to the wood, casting an illusion that would disorient anyone who came close to the door. My energy was waning. I’d created great feats of illusions in wars, but with peace, now drawing out great waves of fury was hatefully painful.

It would need to hold long enough for me to gather a few supplies.

I hadn’t realized Dunker was already in the room until the troll appeared from behind one of the drapes over a doorway. “Boisterous revel.”

“Fetch me my cloak and a travel pouch. Make haste!”

Dunker jolted. I did not speak sharply, not to troll folk, not to anyone but Saga. The troll plodded into the cooking room and returned a moment later, trying to dress me in the cloak. I didn’t wait for his help, and slipped the dark, heavy wool over my shoulders, and tethered a leather skin used for travel to my belt. A skin of water, bread, cheese, nuts, and dried quail jerky would hold me over for a few days.

I did not even know if there would be trade ships available. The murder of a princess would block the borders. The kingdom would be tossed into chaos, but I had to try. Even if I could get to the Eastern seas, to Klockglas or Skítkast. To have the aid of the Guild of Kryv and the Falkyns would offer reprieve until I could speak with Valen and Elise.

Stieg appeared in the back doorframe. His face was flushed, sweat gleamed on his brow. “Ari, out the back.”

“What is happening?” I snatched a knife with a silver hilt from the table and hurried for the door.

“Astrid keeps insisting you harmed the princess to start a war between kingdoms. Says you want Bracken’s power.” Stieg kept his voice low, and together we slunk through the shadows of the hog pens outside.

“She’s behind this.”

Stieg’s jaw pulsed. He swiped a hand and pushed a spatter of his wavy hair off his brow. “I can’t say for certain; she seems genuinely distressed. Bracken is calling for order, but the folk are demanding you face their tribunals.”

Dammit. Fae tribunals were laden with tricks, and the subtle bloodlust of the folk in the South always seeped through. I’d yet to witness a single tribunal where the accused did not have some punishment despite innocence or guilt. The folk here enjoyed being surprised. They yearned for a new thrill; turning a prisoner to stone, taking their eyes, and causing them to walk on their knees for a decade, were the sorts of tricks and schemes they lived to see.

It would not matter to them that I was innocent. While they investigated what had truly happened here, they would pluck off my fingernails for the mere delight of new screams until they found the true culprit.

One of Bracken’s vows when he took the throne was to add a touch of civility in his courts, but to alter a culture was in no way simple or swift. Not to mention, I suspected the king enjoyed his own bit of mischief, much like his folk.

I gripped the knife until my knuckles ached. A disaster was bound to happen. I should’ve known. Calamity followed me like a wicked shadow.

No mistake, someone had killed Signe intentionally. I believed it was to dissipate the peace between kingdoms, what else would it serve to accuse me? I would not stop until I knew why, then broke into their ribs and cut their heart in half.

“Ari.” Stieg shifted and peeked around the corner of the pen. “The time to go is now. I will guard your back.”

When the door to the longhouse pounded, Stieg lifted his hands. As an air fae, his fury sent a powerful surge of wind at the door, keeping the hinges locked in place as folk fought against the strength of the gust.

“We will find you, Ari!”

Dozens of words choked in the back of my throat. A man of many thoughts and quips, but I could not utter a sound. Stieg did not need it. I gripped his shoulder, shook him slightly, then nodded.

With Stieg keeping watch, I darted into the damp Mossgrove, chaos at my back.


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