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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 25

The Ambassador

Someone had split my skull down the center. A rock, a hammer? Something brutally heavy had, no doubt, divided my brain in two.

“Wake now.”

A gruff, demanding voice rattled in my skull before a leathery hand smacked my cheek. The touch left behind a hint of rosemary and cloves.

I blinked against the dull glow of candlelight. A bulbous shape created a shadow on the wooden slat wall of . . . a room?

“Wake now. Eat.”

Despite the protest of my skull, I rolled my head to look beside me. “Dunker?”

The house troll bowed his thick head. The points of his rough ears fell forward for a mere moment before he shoved a wooden plate of blubbery, oily, pale meat at me. I didn’t want to know what it was, nor why it smelled as though it had been dug up after turns underground.


“Dunker,” I said, wincing as I sat up in . . . a cot. Why was I on a cot? “What are you doing here? In fact, where is here?”

Where the hells was Saga?


My breath stilled. “The Blood Lord. Gorm captured us?”

Dunker grumbled a few mumbled words, but shook his head, brushing a bit of dust off a cupboard against the wall as if he could not help himself. “Lord Gorm invited Ambassador Ari to ‘is blood cottage as a guest.”

Blood cottage? I scanned the walls. Shields with runes painted across the surface dotted the walls. The beams were made of thick blackwood, and there were serrated knives on display across two bubbled glass cabinets.

Gorm was known for his love of painful blades. He had bleeding fangs yet took pleasure in carving flesh with his weapons like teeth tore into it.

His knives were all accounted for, but I was absent one beautifully bothersome travel companion.

“Where is Saga?” I asked, clearing away the dryness in my throat.


I’d been furious with the woman, but it paled in the rush of tension to know if she lived or if Dunker meant her dismembered limbs were spread about. The fierce concern took me like an attack from the shadows. A fist gripped my lungs. I felt such worry for her wellbeing, yet I constantly spat bitter words at her, forcing her to raise her shields.

I was angry when the blood fae arrived, but only because her betrayal cut too deeply for a man who pretended to care nothing for the woman.

She’d cut me. The thought of her scheming somewhere in the dark was a lash I hated. Somewhere in the turns, I’d started to care. I used sharp words to keep her at bay. To keep her from the curse that always followed when I opened my damn heart.

“Hurry, now.” Dunker clapped a rough hand against my cheek twice, jolting me from my melancholy musings.

I scrubbed the weariness from my face.

I’d visited the Court of Blood once after first becoming the Northern Ambassador. It was rockier than most courts, but had sturdy foundations for stronger longhouses and cottages. There were hot springs from fiery undersea mountain ranges, and it created lush soil and vibrant crops the whole of the kingdom coveted.

After facing the sluagh in the East, I lost my desire to ever cross this border again.

“Dunker,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose. “How many days was I sleeping?”

“Most the day. Tis nearly night. Up.”

Dunker tugged on my elbow. I fought mightily hard to remind myself the troll was oddly enjoyable despite his rough demeanor, so I wouldn’t kill him.

“I am not wandering around the Court of Blood, you bleeding sod.”

A trill of fear danced down my spine, and I was not ashamed to admit the blood fae were chilling folk. Not the sort you spent time laughing with during Jul or grand feasts.

They were the sort one might invite to council but keep a stealthy arrow trained on their backs at a distance.

Dunker was less than impressed. He punched his fists into his thick hip bones and stared at me like I was a misbehaving little. “Guest.” The troll pointed to the door. “Go. Tis rude.”

“Oh, well, if my manners are in question, by all means, I ought to stroll right out into a den of bleeding blood fae so they may feast on my delightful soul.”

Laughter spurred me from my pointless argument with a thick-headed troll. “Ah, Ari, it has only been a few nights and I have forgotten how greatly I missed your stupid voice.”

“Frey.” I swung my legs over the edge of the cot, ignoring the fierce blast of an ache in my head, and crossed the small room.

Frey looked weary. His hair wasn’t braided but tied loosely in a knot at the base of his neck. The bone beads weren’t in his ears, and the only piercing he wore was the one in his nose. His face was smudged in dirt that stood out against his tanned skin, but his smile was bright. The way it always lit up before our rebel camps went out to fight an enemy when we were younger.

I clasped his forearm. He tugged and pulled me into a tight embrace, clapping my back.

“I wasn’t certain I’d find you alive,” he said.

“I’m rather offended. A mere walk through the wood is not bound to kill me after all we’ve survived.”

“True,” he said, laughing. “But when an entire court of oddly behaving fae are after your neck, it had me worried.”

I clenched my fists. “The Court of Hearts is still . . .”

“Rabid for your blood? Yes.”


Frey opened an arm, gesturing me to join him outside. “We’ve been discussing it.”


He didn’t have time to answer before I noted the fire pit surrounded by familiar faces. A few blood fae warriors stood among them, but I tried not to think too long on it, and focused on those I could trust.

“There he is.” Stieg shot to his feet with enough vigor the log he’d been sitting atop wobbled, nearly knocking Hodag off the back.

Three paces and Stieg forewent the common forearm clasp and instead slammed me against his broader chest. I coughed as the breath knocked out of my lungs.

“I did not . . . know how much you desired me . . . Stieg,” I mumbled against his sweat-stained leather gambeson.

“Shut it. I want to savor this for a mere moment before your voice ruins it,” he said, stroking my hair, no doubt to get me swinging my fist. I did, slugging him in the ribs until he released me, laughing as I dragged my hands through my tousled hair.

“Bastard,” I grumbled. My eyes drifted back to the fire and my heart shot out through my feet. “Gunnar.”

I crossed the space to the solemn face of my prince. Gunnar Strom was a prince, but also a thief, a survivor, a bleeding frightening man who was raised to defend those he loved no matter the cost. His pale brown eyes were filled with dark bloodlust now.

“Eryka?” I whispered.

“Here!” Eryka poked her head out from behind a blood fae. She was dressed simply, and sticks and dirt coated her pale hair.

“She is regal,” Gunnar said with a touch of pride. “She’s keeping her whole damn court from turning against us.”

I clapped a hand behind his neck and waited until he met my gaze. “I won’t stop until we find a way to fix this. I never wanted this burden for either of you.”

“Her folk are reconsidering an alliance,” he said grimly. “I overheard the council speaking.”

“It will not happen, my love! I’ve told you this. You are too beautiful to give up for some somber, mystical star seer.” Eryka leaned around the blood fae warrior again.

Gunnar chuckled. “I don’t know how she hears me.”

“She’s right,” I insisted. “They left Eryka to the wilds of the East, she chose you, and it will remain her choice.”

“But we’re here now,” he said. “We play by their laws, their bleeding rules. Already her mothers are trying to arrange courtships for Eryka in case she has a change of heart.” Gunnar scrubbed his palms down his face. “On a happier note, I received a missive from Maj. Elise had the child.”

My heart jumped. “And? Is she well?”

“She and the new princess are quite well.”

I broke out in a laugh. “A princess? I do hope her name is Arianna or something similarly magnificent.”

Gunnar chuckled. “It’s Livia.”

“Close enough.”

“Maj said the kingdom is in full celebration for the new princess and the vows. She spoke of the excitement in Etta, how Laila—” He winced. “How she’s designed all these damn moonvane crowns for the girls to wear when they come here, and . . .”

“Gunnar, look at me.” There were no titles in this moment. “We will find a way to set this right. No one is taking your lover from you.”

“Yes,” he muttered. “That is what my parents always said, yet . . . folk did.”

There were times I allowed myself to forget Gunnar had been raised as a captive. He was brought into the world where his parents were forced apart all his life until they won their family through blood.

“History will not repeat itself,” I said. “I vow it.”

“I won’t stop. But I must keep my family away.” The prince lowered his voice, stepping closer. “Ari, this is what Calista meant. Our people cannot come here or their lives will be put at great risk. I think it must have something to do with what has happened with the fae folk.”

“And I, for one, wholeheartedly agree.”

I whipped around, stunned when Bracken stepped out of a longhouse, Gorm, his son Cuyler, and his captain at his side.

My jaw tightened when behind them, Sofia appeared with her arm laced through Saga’s.

Without a pause, my eyes locked on my traitorous captive. I wished they hadn’t, for Sofia and Saga had been dressed in inky black gowns. Sofia’s plunged down her breastbone, leaving little to the imagination, like the style for most blood fae females. But Saga had rich indigo fabric laced throughout the neckline and arms. Sheer enough skin could be seen shadowed beneath it, but it concealed too much, so I was left to imagine.

Imagining was exactly what I did.

The gown fit her too well. She was not a rod of skin and bones. She was full and female. The sort of woman one could grip and feel beneath the palms. I despised the way the blood fae had braided her hair, lacing the dark tresses in silver and gold ribbon with painted beads that shimmered in the firelight. It was too perfect.

The worst part was the way Saga scanned me from head to foot, the wretch who’d been petted by his warrior and likely still had spittle on his chin from sleeping for too damn long.

“Oh, Ambassador Ari.” Sofia released Saga’s arm and ran to my side. “We weren’t sure how to get you here. You’ll need to forgive Cuyler’s men.”

I shot Gorm’s son a narrowed look. It turned to steel when he returned it with a bleeding wink. The fool had silver bands on either arm, his chest bare. He had the same gray-blue skin as his father, but his features were softer.

“Ari,” Sofia said, snickering. “I’m not certain I’ve ever seen you so lost for words.”

“A tragedy,” I said, grinning down at Sofia. “Don’t you think?”

“What I think is,” Sofia said as she circled Saga, “you’ve been caught off guard by how delectable our dear Saga looks this evening.”

“You are quite right, Sofia,” I said. “It’s unnerving to see her look as though she has a heart after all.”

“Ambassador.” Sofia shoved my shoulder.

I chuckled, but it faded abruptly.

My chest cramped at the fleeting flash of hurt on Saga’s face. No, we sparred with words all the time; she wouldn’t be bruised over such a weak attempt. Except she was clearly avoiding my eyes, and she shifted with unease side to side.

I lost all desire to play the snide, talkative ambassador when I watched the way her arms wrapped around her middle, hugging herself, subtly hiding. From my words?

Regret was a wretched look, and I rather despised wearing it.

The truth was, Sofia was right. Tonight, Saga lived up to my name for her, and was the sweetest menace, a thorn in my side, a beautiful reminder of the reasons I ought to lock feckless emotions like desire, want, and affection deep inside.

Perhaps I should’ve made mention of her loveliness, but instead, I forced myself to recall the reasons we were paused in the ravine, in the open, so the blood fae could impale us with their darts.

I still had no answers as to why Saga slipped me during the night, and now we were in the blood court.

“Why did you take us?” I asked, voice low.

“We heard you were coming to our gates,” Gorm said.

“So, you shot us?”

“You were resisting my men,” Cuyler said.

“Oh, I disagree.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Gorm interjected. “You’re here now. We’ve much to discuss and have already spoken a great deal to your lovely companion.”

The way Gorm looked at Saga, it was as though she were a bleeding queen in his eyes. She flushed and looked to the ground. Hells, did she find the blood fae appealing?

It didn’t matter. We had more pressing troubles.

“Are you still prejudiced against our court?” Gorm asked.

“What?” My pulse raced as a dozen excuses, a dozen ways to feign offense at the insinuation, rattled in my head. I had no desire to learn more about Gorm’s jagged teeth. “I am prejudiced against no one. Unless one is dangerously stupid. You know the type, the ones who walk into danger without a care for the lives of others. In my mind, they may keep walking and meet their fate while the wiser folk watch. Wouldn’t you agree?”

My mouth was rambling. A bleeding sign I needed to calm my heart or I’d chatter off and Gorm might bite out my tongue simply to shut me up.

Gorm paused for too many heartbeats, long enough my skin prickled like hundreds of creeping things ran up my skin.

Then, he laughed. A deep, booming sound that even split the sober grimace on Bjorn’s face.

“So many unneeded words.” Gorm shook his head, grinning.

“Apologies, Ambassador,” Cuyler spoke for his father. “We were told most plainly you despised sluagh folk.”

What game was this? Gorm was known as a cruel lord, one who defended his people mercilessly. He clearly knew I’d slaughtered a handful of young sluagh not so many months ago, but I’d yet to have a knife pressed to my throat.

Standing there like a frightened pup would do nothing. I was the ambassador, and it was my unbending task to keep peace between the North and South.

I cleared my throat and forced myself to be dignified. “I am sorry you lost some folk during the Eastern battles.”

“Yes, the young ones,” Gorm said, rubbing his chin. “Most troubling to their families. We mourned them.”

And? I waited for his blame, for his threats, for his games of penance for being the one who killed the young blood fae.

But Gorm returned my stare as if he expected me to speak next.

“Right,” I said. “Unfortunate, but you must know it was done to defend my queen and the Eastern queen.”

“We are aware.” Gorm began to face his son.

“That’s it?”

Gorm arched one of his thick, shapely brows. “What is it?”

I opened my mouth to rattle off the anxious thoughts on my tongue, but Saga surprised me. She took the lead. “The ambassador is used to the notion of an eye for an eye, Lord Gorm. He expects you to retaliate for his actions against the sluagh.”

“Why would I do this?” Gorm looked utterly befuddled. “Tragic as it was, is it not the actions any of us would take for our folk? I would do the same should Night Folk suddenly lunge at the ones I love.” Gorm studied me, his yellow eyes boring into my bones. “You did not understand this?”

“I believed differently, yes.”

“We seek no vengeance against you,” Gorm insisted, but lowered his voice as he went on. “Although, should an unprovoked attack come at my people, then I would not hesitate to peel every sliver of flesh from your bones and perhaps serve it at our table.”

“Three hells, I applaud you on your descriptiveness,” I said, dragging my fingers through my dirty hair. “It’s quite inspiring the way your words cut, never to be forgotten. Rather terrifying.”

Frey chuckled and peeled me away from Gorm. “Enough talking about the past. We must focus on what is before us now.”

I’d talk about anything if it got me out of the wake of the blood lord.

Bracken materialized at my side. “Come sit, we have much to discuss.”


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