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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 2

The Ambassador

The Borough was a lush glen of foxglove and spruce trees and towering oaks. On all sides, the Mossgrove wood was filled with paths leading to the various towns and knolls of the lower courts. The Mossgrove was a labyrinth of oak and evergreen, and swamps and meadows. It coated the whole of the Southern Isles like a marshy cloak.

Tonight, the air was crisp and fresh with hints of damp soil and rain.

Down the center of the open clearing of the Borough was a shallow creek bubbling over smooth stones and a constant song of bullfrogs. Pillars carved with runes and celestial symbols kept thin wooden walls in place. The rooftop over the court was made of sod, ever-blooming with wildflowers and ivy vines. In truth, the Borough was less like a throne room and more like an outdoor pavilion with a royal dais, complete with the blackwood throne at one end.

Ever-glow lanterns flickered from wooden hooks on either side of the beams. The tallow candles inside could cast a gilded light without snuffing out. Banquet tables aligned beneath the canopy, and a layer of glimmer powders dusted the polished wooden floorboards.

When the light struck the powders just right, the entire Borough appeared to be made of gold.

Crowds gathered on the side of the creek where log benches draped in satin were set in a wide circle.

The space was filled with folk wearing horrendous headdresses of fresh blossoms and briars; fae with silver eyes and silver painted skin; ladies with tufted ears and sharpened black fingernails; men with slits down the center of their eyes and elongated canines.

The people of the Court of Stars were pale haired no matter their skin tone, and were named the visionaries of the South. They huddled close together, horns of wine and sweet berry ale in hand, finding their inspiration from the blanket of glittering stars.

Bjorn, a blood fae with a forked tongue, was the guard captain for Gorm, the lord of the Court of Blood. Some thought him the lover to his blood lord, but I was not certain blood fae knew how to love except in those instances where they bred more.

He stood near half a dozen guards from the blood court. They called themselves the Underground Folk. Dark fae with the glamour magic from blood, desire, and shapeshifting. Crafty and manipulative, the Court of Blood was the only fae territory with strict tariffs and regulations placed to keep them from using blood bindings against the High Court, stealing the likeness of others, or using their malicious glamour to wreak havoc in the South.

The blood fae had fought against Bracken in the battle of the Black Palace. I didn’t know why the king invited them, but I had to respect his call for unity.

They were traitors in my eyes, and I watched in a bit of horror as the young Princess Signe chatted with Bjorn himself. The girl had only turned seventeen. She still wore her russet hair in two braids, yet she laughed at something the captain said.

Bjorn’s yellow eyes gleamed at the princess as he lifted a drinking horn to his lips. Signe grinned and sipped a sparkling drink from a bubbled glass flute, listening to whatever Bjorn muttered to Cuyler, the blood lord’s only son and heir.

It was the first true appearance of the high-ranking blood fae since battles had settled.

I didn’t like it, but could admit Cuyler was not as frightening as the others. Near golden hair, but the same blue-gray complexion to his skin like most blood fae. He had eyes that were icy with a constricted black point in the center, but he was absent the fangs for which his father was well-known.

I had the instinct to rescue the princess, and perhaps I would’ve if she did not look so bleeding at ease with the blood folk.

Twenty paces from Bjorn, the rough, guttural voices of the Court of Serpents rose over the crowd. The court made of the forest fae: huldrafolk, troll folk, some fae with tufts of fur on their ears, or moss green skin.

They loved a good revel, however, were absent their lord and lady.

“What do you make of the absence of the serpent lord?” Frey asked, stepping to my side. He rubbed a hand over the scar across his throat from an attack by a Raven guard when he was barely nineteen turns.

Frey’s eyes followed a few doe-eyed fae girls who spun around to the spritely lyres and drums.

“I make nothing of it,” I said. “I did not expect them to come. Truth be told, Hawthorne is a wise man.”

Frey arched a brow. “The man is a lunatic.”

“Ah, true, but a devoted lover all the same.” A grin twitched in the corner of my mouth when two trolls rammed their thick skulls together in some petty argument. “He’s not out there scheming. Lady Yarrow is heavy with child, if you recall, and does not wish to travel. Hawthorne has insisted his sole duty for the remaining weeks will be seeing to his lady’s comfort.”

Frey scoffed. “What would it be like to be such a worthless monarch as he to be able to take time off his duties and do what? Rub his wife’s feet?”

I clapped a hand on Frey’s shoulder. “Hells, for Valen’s sake, I hope our king is doing the same. I would truly despise being on Elise’s angry side. Easy for me to say, for I have been quite far over the edge with our lovely queen more than once. I assure you, it is a frightening place to stand.”

Frey rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Well, I know for certainty if you were still king, you would never bend to the whims of anyone other than the needs of your people.”

“Careful, Frey.” My voice shifted from light to a low, gritty rasp. “It almost sounds as if you’re critiquing our king. Do you think his devotion to our queen lessens his devotion to our folk?”

I was no longer king of the North, but I would die for the one on the throne. I’d die for my queen. Hells, I would die for the thieves who ruled in the East. I did not say such things lightly, but it was a truth I would not deny.

“No. Hells, Ari. That isn’t what I meant.” Frey held up a hand in surrender. “I only meant you were motivated by people, by Ettans and their needs. King Valen is fueled by protecting his family first. He is ruthless, do not mistake me. But you did not . . . have a queen. It made you ruthless in other ways. That is all I meant.”

The words grated down the back of my neck. What Frey truly meant was I had no one. No family, no lover. No one but my people. I’d fought for them because there was no one who held my heart otherwise.

Two kingdoms had been won because of a fierce, unbreakable love for a queen. Seemed love and devotion worked well enough to rise victorious in battles. For the first time, the thought left a bitter taste on my tongue.

Loneliness was not a new sensation. In truth, I fared better when my heart did not love. Violence was more suited to fill the crags and crevices of my chest, rather than affection and intimacy.

Alas, the regard I held for two pairs of royals couldn’t be helped. My fondness for both the rulers of the North and the East was sealed and unbreakable. What I could do was see to it the remaining acquaintances in my life never went deeper. I’d learned long ago, those sort of attachments that imprinted on the bones caused strife, pain, and death.

I forced an apathetic smile and waved the discomfiting conversation away. “Let the forest lord tend to his wife without mocking him. I would not want his endless fretting to rob us of the revelry tonight. You know it is true.”

Frey’s shoulders slumped in a bit of relief, as though the abrupt ice in my voice had never happened. “Hawthorne does have a proclivity to fret, doesn’t he?”

With a laugh, I gripped Frey’s shoulder and slipped into the bustle of the Borough.

Folk from across the Southern Kingdom were gathering near the painted doors in the back, ready to greet their king.

Stieg stood beside Rune, one of Bracken’s inner guards. Rune was not a man of many words. Thick in muscles, dragonfly wings he kept tucked against his back, and black hair braided down the center of his head like a ridge. He was one of the few inner guards who was blood fae. The darkness of his glamour came from the ability to turn folk to stone should he wish it. I’d never witnessed Rune’s glamour, and knew he was bound through oaths to only use his magic against dire threats.

Most blood fae were bound in such oaths since most could enslave other fae to do their bidding with their incantations and blood rites. The exception to such spells, I’d had the misfortune to discover, came when the new king ordered a rite to be completed, binding an unwilling fae to an even more reluctant master.

A muscle in my jaw pulsed. Unbidden, my gaze lifted over the heads, searching for the glossy black of her hair and narrow slits of her cold, gray eyes. The king and the guests of honor would arrive any moment, and I’d expected those living in my household to be ready and waiting.

Damn woman.

I hated the nauseous waves in my gut when she was too far away. She was not here, and I knew it, for my insides were a storm of acidic dips and flips.

What more did Saga require? I’d left a bleeding gown, I’d sent Hodag to see to it she managed to rid herself of the dingy tunic and old boots she insisted on wearing. There was no point to a blood rite binding the woman to me if she did not even heed my damn orders.

I turned back toward the creek. A dozen thoughts on how to make her night particularly unbearable and more entertaining for myself were interrupted when the heavy Borough doors groaned and opened. Two fae guards on either side slammed their spears against two granite stones. The clatter silenced folk in the Borough.

My fingers flexed and curled twice before an easy grin spread over my mouth. Thoughts of Saga would be ignored. For now.

Bracken led the precession of courtiers into the Borough.

The king always looked as if he were about to tell bawdy tales. His hair was to his shoulders, the color of the snow-capped peaks back home, and tonight, his skin shimmered like bits of silver dust filled his pores. He wore a blue coat with a high collar and gold filigree along the sleeves, the hems stitched in silver constellations of the gods.

Sofia stood on his right hand. She’d traded her trousers for a simple, woolen gown, but more than one guard dropped their jaw as she passed. Doubtless her thrill for a fete released bursts of her lust glamour, and the bleeding fools couldn’t help themselves. Rune abandoned Stieg and was at Bracken’s left instantly. Bo, the king’s fiercest tracker, stood a pace behind. A wiry, wolf fur mantle hid his neck, and his eyes were lined in black kohl, making him seem crueler than was true.

Astrid strode in behind her son’s procession. The former queen kept her chin lifted with unwavering pride. Despite losing the game in the East, Astrid had not lost her dignity. Her hair was the color of raw sapphires, and her lip never unfurled from a sneer. We were paupers beneath her feet, and no matter her loss of the high crown, Astrid would never think herself beneath anyone.

Dozens of glittering eyes followed Bracken to the dais. Only once he reached the throne did he turn and face his people. “The stars are alive tonight.”

A rumble of agreement filtered from the crowd.

Bracken took a horn of ale when a ruby-eyed fae lifted a silver platter. The king scanned the crowd, his eyes landed on mine, and he winked before speaking again.

“It is my greatest honor to officially present the grandest union the city of Alvheim has witnessed in a thousand turns. My cousin, the lovely princess of our Court of Stars, destined to unite three kingdoms. The folk of the Southern Isles will welcome her betrothed, Prince Gunnar of Etta in the North, and Klockglas in the East.”

Applause and a few twittery voices lifted to the velvet night.

In the arched doorway, Gunnar stepped forward with Eryka on his arm. The young prince looked a great deal like his father. A strong face, pale honey eyes, and a mess of dark auburn hair that never seemed to stay off his brow. Eryka was lovely as snow. Silver hair, crystal eyes, and a taut, red scar trailing from her brow to her upper lip.

It was old news that the two desired to take vows, but once the heat of a foreign battle faded, the Southern Kingdom used the slightest bit of good news to throw a royal revel.

It was the start of a celebration that would last from now until the approaching eclipse, when they would take their vows, and the shores of Alvheim would be filled with foreign courts and visitors.

I chuckled as the young pair entered the Borough.

Such a match could only be designed by the gods. Gunnar had lash marks marring his forearms from the Northern war, and had a proclivity to thieve and manipulate from skills learned in the East.

Upon Eryka’s return from the East, the scar down her face was enough to send Lady Celeste, the mother who bore Eryka, into fits for a full week. Lady Iris, her gentler mother, had allowed her consort to whimper about their daughter’s scar, then insisted on dressing it in silver shimmer powder, calling it a streak of starlight.

Celeste still was not fond of the scar. Not surprising since the Court of Stars valued beauty nearly as fiercely as they valued their visions.

Gunnar and Eryka were a strange match, perhaps, but the two would be a bond between lands.

Gunnar caught my gaze and tipped his chin as they carved their way through the crowd. Bracken settled the couple in smaller seats on the dais, demanded the minstrels pick up their lyres once again, and the betrothal revel truly began.

I managed to slip out of the center of a rambunctious circle of dancing fae to a far wall. Folk from the various courts tipped their heads. Here, I had a bit of honor, but it mattered little. I was here to serve Valen and Elise, Herja and Hagen. I was here to keep the young couple safe and happy.

A hand gripped my wrist.

“Sofia.” I grinned when the huldra stepped in front of me. “As always, your loveliness rivals that of the stars.”

“Ambassador, as always, your words are sweetly shallow. That is the same endearment you gave me at the last fete.”

“Is this true? My words have become monotonous?” I clicked my tongue. “You have my vow to the gods, Sofia, that I will not rest until the sweetest endearments spill off my tongue when we next meet. I am a master of flattery, and urge you to prepare to be stunned silent by my astonishing gift for praise.”

Sofia snorted. “What would I do without your enthusiastic self-love?”

“Fall into a dreary temperament from which there is no escape.”

She grinned, sipping from her cup. “Tell me where you’ve sent our dear Saga. I promised her a night of rest, not meaningless tasks ordered by you.”

My brows tugged together. The familiar irritation from the mention of her name simmered hot and sharp in my veins. “I’ve not done anything to her. She has yet to show her face. A gift to us all, no mistake, but she was required to be here, and more than I dislike seeing her, I detest being slighted.”

Sofia rolled her eyes. “Binding the two of you together is truly a punishment for the rest of us.” She frowned and looked at the doors. “Ari, Saga was on her way here. There were a few townsfolk who shouted unseemly things at the two of us outside the gates. I had to join Bracken, but she assured me she was fine. Now, I’m worried.”

Tension gathered in my chest. Not concern. I would never feel such a thing for Saga, but it was an uneasy sensation all the same.

“You left her just beyond the gates?”

Sofia nodded and pointed in the direction of an archway made of dangling bell flowers. “Some folk say wicked things about her.”

I placed a palm on her arm. “I will see to it. Go, be free, dance and drink. I’m sure she is doing this to irritate me, for she is wretched and enjoys mocking me to the point an embarrassing flush fills my face. That’s all this is.”

Sofia laughed softly.

I hurried toward the Borough doors. If Saga had ignored my directive, I’d make her pay. If someone had touched her and prevented her from heeding my command, well, then they would pay.


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