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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 26

The Ambassador

“Bracken,” I said, taking a step back. “You sent Bo and Rune for me.”

The king’s smile faded. “I’m afraid I did not. An order was given for them to pursue you, true, but my friends . . . well, they are not the same. When I heard they’d attacked, we sent Hodag and Dunker to track you right away.”

My brows lifted. “They have turned wild like the fae that night?”

“Ari, it is as though a plague lives in the soil of my isles. It is corrupting my folk.”

I didn’t know what to say to offer comfort, for there was none to give.

We gathered back around the fire. I kept Saga in my sights. She avoided me, rounding to the opposite side of the flame, and stood beside Cuyler and Gorm. The way Gorm’s son grinned at her, the way his slender fingers touched the small of her back, giving her space, added a bit of violence to my thoughts I opted to keep in the forefront instead of feigning indifference.

I would puzzle out why such thoughts came so swiftly and with such gruesomeness later.

“The Southern Isles are under attack,” Bracken said without hesitation the moment everyone was in a place.

“Bold to say, High King,” Gorm said.

“Well.” Bracken tossed his hands in the air. “I don’t know how else to say it, Lord Gorm. I thought you’d appreciate my directness.”

“What causes you to think such things?” Bjorn asked. He was even more fearsome looking than Gorm. Square jaw, black, jagged fingernails, and eyes that rarely blinked.

“I’d think it was quite obvious,” Bracken said. “The Court of Hearts is in an uproar, and it’s troublesome. It can be nothing more than dark cantrips and glamour.”

Bracken huffed and rested his chin in the palm of his hand. How different the young king was compared to Valen and Kase. Blood would already be spilled, a few fingers severed, perhaps a tongue or two if either the Northern king or new Eastern king thought their people were threatened. Bracken seemed more offended than anything.

Not long before, he’d been a reckless, whimsical prince. He’d learn.

I, on the other hand, favored the idea of blood spilling more than the new fae king.

Gorm snorted, so a vicious curl to his lips made his expression a strange mix of condescension and malice. “Is that all it could be? Or perhaps the High King does not have the control of his court and has now made our courts more burdened?”

Bracken’s eyes flashed with anger. “I would hold your tongue.”

“I cannot hold my tongue when it is inside my mouth,” Gorm said without a change in his tone.

“What I mean is if you know what is good for you, Lord Gorm, you will be silent.”

“Silence does nothing for my wellbeing, ill or good, High King. Silence is merely the absence of sound.”

“I think I might kill him,” Bracken said, a touch of a king’s necessary bloodlust.

“Bickering amongst ourselves will solve nothing.” Sofia rested a hand on the king’s arm. “Ari, Princess Eryka was keen to guide you here.”

“Oh, I did not,” Eryka said lightly. “The stars did.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sofia said. “Lord Gorm has granted Saga a guide that might be of use to you.”

I narrowed my gaze at Saga. More secrets. “What guide?”

Gorm spoke instead. “One meant for the true—”

“The truly hopeful and earnest. It might lead us to answers on how to heal this dark plague,” Saga interjected. She glared at Gorm.

The blood lord was leaning into Bjorn, listening to his whispered words. After a moment Gorm straightened. “I spoke out of turn.”

What a strange fae.

My knee bounced as I leaned forward, lacing my fingers together. “That is the question we’d hoped to have answered.”

“I have already explained this to Our Lady . . . visitor. Our lady visitor.” The blood lord gestured at Saga.

She was stiff and stalwart, a glimpse of the warrior inside, but I noted the way she flicked her fingers behind her back. A small thing, but one of the tells I’d learned of Saga without knowing I was learning one.

She was discomfited having all eyes turn on her.

A strange desire to stand at her side, or in front of her if it let her breathe a little, clung to the center of my chest like a bad swallow of old fish.

“What were you told, Saga?” I asked, a bite in my tone.

She held my gaze for a few breaths, then looked to Bracken. Her king. As she should, I supposed.

“Lord Gorm explained there could be glamour powerful enough to ease dark spells.” She lifted a wooden ring with a white, etched rune on the surface. “This could help.”

“What is it?”

“A clue to old world spells they call seidr,” she said.

Bracken’s eyes widened. “You wish to manipulate the Norns? Sounds dangerous.”

I rubbed the sides of my head, still aching. “I don’t know these terms.”

“Seidr is the magic of fate,” Bracken said. “Our legends always described it as the mother of all the magicks. Your illusions are fury, mine is glamour, your prince uses mesmer. Fate workers use seidr.”

“So, folk like Calista,” Gunnar said. “Maybe even Eryka, but she is not a true fate worker since she reads the stars. The old witches would write fate.”

“Princey knows his tales.” Hodag patted Gunnar’s cheek with a touch of pride.

Gunnar flushed with a shrug and wrapped an arm around Eryka’s shoulders. “I read a lot on star seers since I am vowing with one. I want to be versed on her glamour, so I might be of use if ever she is lost in a trance.”

“When you speak like that it makes me think sensual things about you,” Eryka said, though I thought she was trying to whisper. She failed.

Gunnar’s face turned a deeper red, but his hand drifted higher up Eryka’s thigh.

“You call this a clue,” I said. “So, where does it lead?”

“That is the unfortunate part,” Saga muttered. “The matching half is in the Court of Serpents. It could give us more insight. If you recall, serpents with silver tongues have a match.”

She arched her brows, and the words struck me like a boulder smashing my body. I looked to Eryka. She wasn’t even focused on us, but those were her words.

Could fate ever deliver a clear missive that said, go here, and find this, then do that?

“So this is our answer in the house of blood?”

“One of many,” Cuyler said, voice rough. He looked at me with a sharp glare. Seemed not everyone was keen to accept me here.

“To the Court of Serpents, then?” I looked to Saga. She bit her bottom lip and looked to the ground like she did not want my gaze, or my scrutiny. As if I might finally see all those twisted secrets she must’ve kept inside.

“Some say a Draugr has come to the isles and is infecting the folk with its undead darkness,” Bracken said. He closed his eyes. “Truth be told, it seems as if the people of my court are only half alive. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t care what that guide says, if it protects the folk, we do it.”

“We ought to involve the other kingdoms,” I suggested.

Gunnar shot me a look. Yes, true, Calista warned us not to involve our people in whatever she’d predicted, whatever this was. But I still did not want to disregard the use of the thieves in the East. They were sly and cunning and enjoyed a good battle that could be lucrative in the end.

“Ari,” Eryka said softly. “It is wise to keep your people away. For now. I think they will be needed once we are stronger, once we have answers to what it is we’re looking for.”

“All respect, Princess,” Sofia said, “but it might be useful to have all the kings and queens here, as a council, I mean. If there is some ailment spreading, it could only be a matter of time before it spreads to their lands.”

“That is what I fear,” I said.

Eryka shook her head. “I would take care on what guidance you disregard. If we seek the power of seidr, should we not heed a missive from one who uses it?”

By the hells. After all I’d witnessed since the battle of Etta, I could not so easily go against the word of Calista. She’d never steered our people wrong, and she loved my folk.

“A quest then,” I said with a touch of irritation. “That is what the other piece from the serpents will bring, I assume. We do not know how long it will take.”

“I suggest you get started at the dawn,” Gorm said.

Bracken huffed. “Does anyone wish to know what the king thinks? I suspect my mother could be stirring battles again in the meantime. We cannot sit on this, or I fear the courts are looking at civil battles.”

“A mother protects her child,” Gorm said, as if it should’ve been obvious. “They do not bring war to their child’s feet.”

Bracken laughed bitterly. “Ah, Lord Gorm, how soon you’ve forgotten that my mother imprisoned me and took war to the East while ensuring I was fed little.”

“I have not forgotten,” Gorm said. “I was there.”

He simply could not see the point, so Bracken didn’t push it further.

“I thought she didn’t have access to the crown for a dozen turns,” I said.

“She doesn’t.” Bracken’s jaw flinched. “But there has been talk. Accusations are leveled against you, true, but I am being quietly blamed for befriending you. Whispers filter through the Borough corridors, poisonous thoughts that I am not fit for the throne. Talk that I am feckless and live for debauchery and cannot see sense beyond those who revel with me.”

“You think it is your mother who stirs the talk?” Saga asked.

“Who else?” Bracken said with a sigh. “If she can turn the people against me enough that I am ousted or slaughtered, she will once again assume the throne.”

It was a sad thought. Bracken was not a ruthless man. He reveled too much, drank to excess, but he did have a love for his folk.

“Has your mother made any threats?” I asked. “I mean, has she suddenly taken a liking to knife play or an interest in the weakest point of your neck?”

Despite the trouble, Bracken laughed. “Not exactly. She degraded me in front of inner guards, and I was too stunned to even punish her. There is something dark possessing my court, and I have every belief it is glamour meant to undermine my ability to lead.”

“All the more reason to heal whatever is happening here,” Cuyler said, gruffly.

Bracken eyed the blood fae heir with a touch of suspicion. “And how does the Court of Blood see the Court of Hearts? Vulnerable?”

“Yes,” said Gorm. “It is very vulnerable.”

Bracken’s fists clenched over his knees. Gunnar gave me a wary look as if we might all be safer reaching for our blades.

Until Cuyler held up a hand. “My father speaks as he sees things, High King. Your weakness does not mean we plan to rise against you. We have no plans for such things unless you make this land a threat for our people.”

“I never spoke of battle,” Gorm said. “He merely asked if there were vulnerabilities. What else was I to say?”

I bit the inside of my cheek. Odd, but I rather liked Lord Gorm.

The king arched a brow as if he wasn’t entirely convinced, but in the end, simply nodded as he rose to his feet. “Then I shall count you as allies, for the good of all folk, in the hope we might find out what glamour has taken hold of our land. We will join you on your quest.”

“This quest belongs to no one but them,” Gorm said.

Bracken frowned. “The High King disagrees, Lord Gorm.”

“It does not matter.” Gorm didn’t ruffle in the slightest. “A journey designed for two long ago will be completed by the chosen two. Unless the High King wishes to alter a path of fate.”

What the hells was he talking about? What bleeding journey for two?

“My King,” Sofia said gently. “There are old curses at play here, we’ve discussed this.”

What they’d discussed seemed to be between the two of them, but it had an impact on Bracken. The king nodded. “Yes. It’s aggravating to see glamour I do not understand. Not incredibly High Kingly to be wandering blind.”

“We’ll keep the feral bastards from catching you, Ari,” Gunnar insisted. “Be glad to.”

“The prince speaks well,” Sofia said. “We’ll keep you shielded until the end. Lord Gorm has given them direction and I have every faith they’ll find their way.”

“A generous way to put it,” I said. “For I still feel rather lost at what we’re actually doing.”

“Would it kill you to trust me?” Saga muttered, and I wasn’t certain she meant to say it.

“It might,” I shot back. “Since you spend your nights sneaking away.”

“What?” Gunnar’s cheek twitched as his lip curled.

“Ari.” Saga glared at me, my name gritted out between her teeth. “I did not betray you.”

“Ah, that’s right. I am simply supposed to believe you.”

“You hesitate to follow the woman,” Bjorn said, “but you ought to trust your companion, and she, you. She is a daughter of this land, and this land calls to you.”

Bjorn gestured at the damp grass at my feet.

I staggered back, a little astonished. The small, white blossoms sprouting in the black soil were pointed at me. Not toward the sky, they bloomed at me.

Saga’s eyes widened. Sofia studied me with a coy grin. Frey and Stieg looked worried, and Gunnar stared at Eryka, oblivious to the conversation by now.

“The land accepts you,” Bracken said.

“It is more.” Bjorn pointed one of his long black fingernails between Saga and me. “Your strengths shall aid each other.”

“There are ways to see truth.” Gorm came around the boulder I used as a seat and sat beside me. “Bloodspeak.”

“I’m afraid this term is lost on me, my new, frightening friend,” I said.

“Bloodspeaking is a rite we use in our court to know the truth of another through emotion,” Cuyler said, almost angry at the idea. “But it is an intimate rite, Father.”

“Then it is perfect.” Gorm shrugged, but flinched when Cuyler tilted his head, gaping at his father. The blood lord lowered his voice. “All I mean is it is perfect, for it detects betrayal.”

Hells, why were they so bleeding enamored with Saga? Cuyler seemed like he’d like to shove me into the river, never to be seen again, and Gorm looked ready to bow to her bleeding feet.

“Lord Gorm, this is a lover’s rite,” Saga said, her face pale.

“Even better.” Sofia clapped her hands. “Mostly because I agree, if you do not trust each other, then there is a greater risk you will fail or die. Neither would be useful in securing the throne.”

“We run short on time,” Stieg said. “We must return before our absence is noticed when tensions are already high with the Court of Stars.”

“Not to mention the gates of Alvheim must be protected,” Bracken added.

I didn’t want them to leave, but I didn’t want to waste time. The longer we blustered about, the more this strange glamour could spread.

“Fine.” I crossed my arms over my chest, glancing at Gorm. “What do I need to do?”

“Stand.” Gorm gestured to both Saga and me, then arranged us face to face, close enough our chests brushed with each breath.

“I beg of you, don’t do this,” she whispered, a quiver in her voice.

“I do love it when you beg,” I returned. “But I don’t trust you. Only one who is guilty would fear the truth. What are you hiding inside, sweet menace?”

“What are you hiding?”

I didn’t have time to respond before Gorm took our hands. “This will hurt.”

He wasted no time slicing a deep gash across my palm; next, he turned to Saga. She closed her eyes when he drew her blood.

“To begin, make your vow that the truths shared between you will never cross your lips to anyone beyond this bloodspeak.”

“I can’t tell anyone if she is a traitor?”

Gorm sighed. “You cannot share the intimate details you will feel. If she is a traitor to you, then you shall feel it, and you may abandon her. We will understand. If she is not, then you shall have rest and food and drink until you can continue your journey at dawn.”

Fair enough. I faced Saga again.

Gorm placed a hand on her shoulder. “The center finger, use it to dip into the awaken . . . the ambassador’s blood.” He lifted his eyes to me. “With the same hand, same center finger, you do the same.”

“And what?”

“You ask many questions before I have time to continue,” Gorm grumbled.

I was almost certain Frey or Stieg chuckled. Clenching my teeth, I let the man go on.

“You must utter this simple prayer of truth: tala ärligt, followed by the name of the other. Then, a drop of the opposing blood on your tongue.”

I hid my disquiet and nodded. “After you, sweet menace.”

Saga looked wholly terrified, but she didn’t protest. With a trembling hand she dipped her fingertip into the gash on my palm. I did the same.

Tala ärligt, Saga.”

I dropped the warm, coppery speck of her blood onto my tongue. Glamour was strange magic. Fury bled from the earth or illusion. There were certainly attributes of it in the South. Some forest fae could manipulate blossoms or insist autumn leaves grow brighter. There were illusionists in the South, they compelled, they manipulated, but most glamour was used through incantations like this.

Warmth did not spread immediately. But soon enough, the droplet of Saga’s blood scorched into my tongue. I could track it as it sank into my blood, cascading down my limbs, my legs, until it spiraled to my heart.

Emotions not my own took hold.

I had never felt fear in this way. Like a child lost in the dark. There was a fear of truth I’d never had before. What truth did she fear? There was concern for Gunnar, for my folk, for hers. A mark in her favor. I sensed her frustration and resentment toward me. It went deep, like a root in the bedrock. She thought of me. There was a wash of irritation, next want, then desire. A muted feeling, but there all the same.

I looked at Saga. She had her hands over her face, eyes closed. All hells, what was she sensing from my blood? Could she sense my fears, my reluctance to trust folk? Gods, would she know the thoughts I’d had about her? The sight of her in that gown, the imaginings of my hands on her skin? Would she know they were there?

Her blood spoke a great deal, but nothing malicious. Fear, worry, but nothing about slaughtering me. Nothing truly hateful.

Saga’s eyes fluttered open. She held my stare for a long moment. I did not want to admit it, but there was a shift. A moment where I saw her for what I believed she truly was. A woman with secrets, and a heart she did not want to show.

I supposed we were not so different.

“Well?” Gunnar broke the stun.

I blinked away. The rite certainly was intimate. It was as though I’d been given a piece of Saga’s heart. All at once, I appreciated we could not speak of them to others.

I gave the prince a quick nod. “We’ll continue.”

“Good. We’ll return and see what we can uncover on our end,” Bracken said. He took hold of my forearm. “We’re in this with you, and you won’t be friendless.”

“On the morrow, we will ferry you to the Court of Serpents,” Gorm told us. “I will add a missive on your behalf to barter for the other match. As should the High King and Princess of Stars.”

“Agreed.” Eryka followed after Gorm and Bracken, but paused. Her voice went low as she gripped my arm, but turned her milky eyes on Saga. “Give the heart to the one deserving. Think twice, then greed and hate will soon drown the songs once lost.”

She broke the trance, grinned, then skipped after the king and blood lord.

“I do not think I shall ever grow accustomed to her prophecies,” Saga whispered.

I arched a brow. “We agree on something then.”

Gunnar clapped me on the shoulder. “I have been learning of Hawthorne and Yarrow. They seem . . . interesting. Good luck, but it might be time to embrace a bit of the Nightrender within you to make this deal.”

“Then I would never grin again, and it would break the hearts of too many to be worth it, My Prince.”

Gunnar laughed. I watched the prince follow his lover, and I was uncertain what step to take next.

No mistake, Hawthorne and Yarrow seemed like feckless folk who indulged in too much wine, but they were horribly entitled and often spoke in tricks and schemes during their barters. To make a trade with them, no doubt, we would not leave the serpent court without giving up a great deal in return.

I was still reeling from the truth that blood fae were aiding me. Blood fae. All these many months, I’d anticipated a dagger in the back. They were brisk, at times odd-looking, but it was strangely comforting to have their support, and to know they were yet to be impacted by whatever spell was taking hold.

The others gathered their things, anxious to return to the Court of Hearts before they were noticed. Through the Bridge Isles it would only take the night if the boats went fast enough.

They were at risk out here. Astrid had some wretched hand in this poison. Bracken could be harmed. I already knew his mother was not above such things. Gunnar could lose his hjärta, then lose himself. Frey, Stieg, if they stepped out of line, there truly was no telling what a lost fae might do to them.

“Pardon me.”

Saga’s voice brought me to look over my shoulder. She muttered something to Bjorn who handed her what looked like a crystal of some kind, then tipped her chin, and disappeared toward the longhouses of the blood court.

The light caught her face, and I did not want to believe it, but there was a shimmer of a tear on her cheek.


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