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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 36

The Ambassador

“Idon’t dare look.” Saga whispered. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at me over her shoulder. She held the parchment from the ring box in her hands.

I blinked awake against the afternoon sunlight. Saga’s eyes were glassy and filled with a fierce worry. I cleared the sleep from my throat. “Would you like me to do it?”

She hung her head and fiddled with the wax seal. “It’s in my brother’s hand, Ari. I need to tell you of him. I need to tell you everything.”

“I want to know everything.”

Before we’d fallen asleep, Saga had told me how Astrid beat her with her fire ropes. For turns she’d been used as Astrid’s spy, her warrior.

“She has you in her sights, and it frightens me. She has underestimated power,” Saga had whispered.

I’d kissed her, tasted her, touched her until she no longer had the fear in her eyes, then made no less than ten declarations that I planned to kill the former queen before she got her grimy hands on me.

Each insistence grew more violent.

Saga had gone on to explain the raven curse and a little about her heart cursed into numbness. I’d suggested a swift escape to Calista in the West, but Saga had dozed off in my arms by then.

Saga returned the parchment to the top of the chest. “I hope you won’t be angry with the secrets I’ve kept.”

I pulled her against me. “Tell me.”

She rolled over, facing me. Her fingertips teased the ends of the hair fallen over my brow. “I told you my heart was unfeeling for turns, but I did not tell you it only began to thaw because of you. Gorm called it an awakening.”

“Gorm knows you shape shift then? No wonder the blood fae were so enamored with you. And it was a good thing we spent time with the blood lord, for I’d have a great many aversions to being vowed with a blood fae before our visit.”

“Ah. The fact that I am part blood fae is more unsettling than a raven being my second form.”

I grinned. “I’m not too proud to admit blood fae once terrified me. Now, I find it is only to my benefit since they also terrify others. I have a blood fae wife, a rare blood fae wife, and now if anyone irritates me I can simply threaten them with you. You will be greater than any sword.”

She chuckled. “I’m not sure everyone is as unnerved with the Court of Blood as you.”

“I hope you aren’t calling me a coward.”

Saga pinched my side, smiling. “Focus. I need to explain this, and your tongue keeps interrupting.”

“I can think of other ways to put my tongue to good use if—”

Ari.”

“Fine. I’ll be quiet unless I must respond.” I clamped my teeth together to prove my point.

Saga rolled her eyes, but kept the grin on her face. “Lord Gorm is quite knowledgeable about many things, curses being one. He said curses were always cracked through some awakening of the heart, and I cannot describe it any other way.

“The first day I saw you, all you were doing was greeting folk at the Borough docks, and it was like a fire stoker rammed into my chest. I didn’t know what to do. I’d not felt for as long as I could remember.”

I rolled onto my back, one hand in my hair. “What does that mean? Don’t mistake me, I’m incredibly pleased my face stunned a curse away, but it’s also unsettling.”

She shoved my ribs. “I hated you for it for a few reasons. Once my heart was restored, I felt everything. Pain, sorrow, fear. So much fear. It terrified me, so I blamed you.”

I tugged her tighter into my side. “I wish I would have known. I am recalling all the cruel ways I mocked your animosity. I often called your heart hard as stone.”

“I don’t resent you for your words. How could you know?”

She was being kind, but I still wished I had not said them.

“I know who cursed my heart,” she said. “It was my brother.”

“Your pardon? Your brother cursed you?”

“To protect me.”

“What was he protecting you from, and why do you all at once seem afraid of me?” I studied her face. The way she kept flicking her gaze to her hands, the subtle shift of her shoulders so she wasn’t exactly facing me anymore.

“Not afraid . . . but I might’ve kept a small piece of the story from you, and I’m not sure how you’ll take it.”

“Remarkably well. I’m incredibly level-headed when I need to be.”

Saga dragged her lip between her teeth. “Riot had a different father, so with the death of my father it left me the lone descendant of the raven line. But through our mother, Riot and I were part of a revered bloodline.”

“Saga.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Explain as if I’ve only been born a few turns ago. When you say revered . . .”

She didn’t need to answer. Now, I understood.

“Royal.” I blew out a breath. “That’s why you’re being strange. It’s a royal line, isn’t it?” I shot up, kneeling on the bed, my hands in my hair. “You’re a bleeding cursed royal. It’s the Ferus’s all over again.”

“This is you being level-headed?” Saga had the gall to laugh at my bluster. She kneeled in front of me, took my face in her hands, and kissed me until I forgot to be uneasy. “I’m still the same menacing thorn in your side, Ambassador.”

“Yes, but a royal one. I vowed with a royal.”

“There is no throne for me, Ari. It was destroyed many turns ago,” she said. “But I don’t want one anyway. I hope when this is over, we can return to the longhouse and live peacefully.”

I studied her for a long breath, my fingers tracing the line of her jaw. “You want that? To return to my household?”

Until this moment, I hadn’t realized how desperately it would ache if Saga remained with me only for the debt to Bracken’s binding glamour. I already planned to demand the king dissolve it. Saga was no traitor. She deserved freedom.

A bit of red stained her cheeks. “I want that.”

“Not because you are bound?”

“I have felt safe, annoying as you are—” she shrieked when I tried to pinch her side. “—in your household. I want to return with you and be part of it. I’d like to see your homeland, and this refuge where you were once a peasant king.”

I smiled and kissed her gently. “I will take you.”

We settled against the soft pillows of the bed before she continued. “I thought my family lost an old war, and as punishment I was bound to serve the queens of the land. I always believed Riot cursed me since he knew he’d lost and did not want me to suffer. I could not feel pain if my heart was frozen, right?”

“So, you could not feel at all?”

“I was a mindless servant for many turns.” Saga brushed hair off my brow. “You’ve always asked why I fought on the side of Astrid. I had no other choice, but by then, the connection to you was growing. The awakening you caused dulls the compulsion glamour to the crown here, and I was able to fight against it. More so when you were in danger.”

I didn’t know what it meant, this connection I had to Saga’s curse, but it made me want to kiss her and talk later. I bit the inside of my cheek and forced myself to listen.

“If you already were bound to her throne, why the two-night curse?”

“Astrid is cruel; she wanted to force me to be her little spy.”

“Do you know how to break it?” I said with a bit of desperation.

Saga held up one finger. “Kill her.”

“Done. With pleasure.”

She snickered and pecked my lips before going on. “Or, if I’m right, if Lord Gorm is right, what we find now that we have these,” she pointed at her ring, “will restore power I didn’t know I had.”

“Then we leave now.”

Saga tilted her head. “Just like that? No concerns, no frustration?”

“Saga, what do you want me to say? I understand why you’ve kept secrets. You didn’t trust me, and I’m certain you didn’t quite understand what was happening. What is it that Gorm thinks these will lead to?”

She described the blood feather and how holding it gave the blood heir claim over the land. She told me everything Gorm had explained, and how Yarrow’s spells unlocked the last of her memories. There was more to the tale with Yarrow, but she hinted as best she could the serpent lady had made certain she could not speak details.

Enough for me. The woman had done something devious, and I held a new resentment against the Court of Serpents.

“My bloodline could connect to the land, the creatures, the folk. My blood feather was the source of power for me, but it was a crown too. If I claim it for myself, I am the blood heir. But . . .” She paused, meeting my gaze. “If I willingly share my feather with another’s heart, they will have equal claim. And I did once. This is where my memories were wrong. There was a war, but I was not cursed as a consequence to a lost battle. My brother cursed me to hide me from Davorin.”

She settled her head on my chest once we laid back down again. I pinched my lips together, desperate to keep quiet so she could recount the rest of the story. When my mind whirled, silence was a curse all its own.

Saga dove into a tale of a past life she’d forgotten. Her half-brother who’d been on the throne, who’d ruled with his wife with the seidr magic Gorm mentioned.

She told me of her cruel consort.

Saga dropped a hand to the top of one of my fists when it clenched until my knuckles turned white.

I lifted my gaze to hers. “The tale from the tavern is true?”

“Yes. It was the tale of Riot and Davorin and how they became enemies. After my father died, Riot took his role as my protector seriously, but he shared his heart with me and Anneli. She was the only one who could truly tame him.”

“That was his wife?”

“Yes. She was gentle, yet wild. The perfect sister.”

I grinned only because she did.

“Davorin,” she said, softer than before. “He was my brother’s truest friend. The memories I could not recall were of him. Riot altered fate through the heart. Together, he and Anneli guided the kingdom with the power of the Norns. Davorin was their battle lord.”

I braced, waiting for the violence to fill my head. It couldn’t be helped, in fact, I’d welcome it.

“When I was old enough,” she went on, “he showed interest. I’d always found him a bit handsome, and my young heart could hardly understand why such a man would want to be the prince consort to the king’s raven sister.

“Riot agreed after some persuasion.” Saga let out a long breath. “It was good, at first. Davorin was dedicated to the throne. I was young and silly. I did not even know how to hold a blade properly, but why would I? My consort was the battle lord. In all my frivolity, I suppose I never noticed the darkness Davorin was exploring.

“He grew enamored with dark spells and enchantments that shadowed the heart and grew things like greed, and power, and hatred. Davorin slowly became envious of Riot’s throne and influence. The pathetic part was he almost had me convinced Riot and Anneli were the ones corrupting the land.”

Saga’s face pinched. “Until I caught him slaughtering one of Riot’s inner guards. Davorin was a mimicker fae, but with dark glamour he had the power to slip into the heart of another, like he possessed them. He would kill that way, tell them to take their own lives. I saw him slip out as the guard fell in a pool of his own blood.”

I’d never heard of such a creature outside of scary tales to tell littles when you wanted to punish them or get them to stay out of danger.

“What did he do when he knew he’d been found out?”

“I thought he might kill me, but I lied and said I’d always stand by him. I’d planned to find a way to secretly tell Riot.” Saga released my hand and maneuvered into sitting. She hugged her knees to her chest. “I never got the chance. Davorin said I’d need to prove my loyalty to him since he no longer trusted me. He told me I needed to break for him like a good lover should.”

Violence, as expected, came to my head.

I studied the scars on her back as she described the painful lashings the man who was supposed to protect her caused. I imagined taking his eyes and forcing him to swallow them as she recounted how he found pleasure in chaining her, rendering her helpless, then selling her out to the vicious dock men and filthy nobles keen to betray their princess.

I could not stay silent, and gripped her chin, pulling her mouth to mine. I kissed her. When I pulled away, my brow fell to hers.

“I will slaughter anyone who dares touch you.” I trapped her face in my palms. “You will never have need to fear me, Saga. Never.”

She smiled as I kissed her knuckles.

“It was Anneli who found me,” she said. “Davorin kept me holed away, telling my brother I was not well, or we were traveling. I think Anneli grew suspicious, and after about a month, she forced her way into the house and found me bloodied and battered.”

“And your brother killed Davorin.” I could not conjure up another satisfactory ending.

“I thought the kingdom would sink into the sea from Riot’s rage. They were brothers in every way but blood, yet he did not hesitate, and sentenced Davorin to death, along with any man guilty of touching me.”

“And this is the bastard you shared your power with?”

“Yes. Not my best idea.”

“I don’t understand how sharing the blood feather gave him the same claim as you, since you are a blood heir.”

Saga covered the place over my heart. “If I give the blood feather to another, it takes hold of their heart and gives them my power in equal share. To share the blood feather is a show of trust and unity and . . . love. I was foolish and lovestruck. When my brother learned of Davorin’s betrayal, Riot tore it from his body.”

“This feather was inside him?”

“Yes. The spell is meant to create an unbreakable bond into the Otherworld. It’s how I knew Riot would’ve made certain deeper vows were in place if I found the feather again. He would make it so the one who joined me was more than a lover.”

I glanced at the ring on my finger. Even in the Otherworld, her brother was ensuring her safety. The draw to Saga had grown over the turns, an annoyance at first, but now with no secrets between us, it was undeniable I would give my life in place of hers. I planned to devote my life to the vow we’d made.

“By taking the feather from Davorin, Riot destroyed any claim he might’ve had,” she said.

“He probably accepted that as well as could be expected from a limp-length bastard.”

Saga scoffed. “I now remember the aftermath. Everything. By then, Davorin was well-schooled in dark glamour. Even wounded from the loss of the feather, he was nearly impossible to catch, since he kept slipping into the hearts of others.

“As lord over war and battle, he’d twisted his talents and grew the ability to stir up the lust for death and gore. Folk fought their own brothers, mothers, and fathers in Davorin’s chaos.”

I held her for a moment. She might’ve been thinking of her wars. I thought of mine. The darkness that had infected our kingdom when the raiders came was like a plague of hatred.

“What did your brother do?”

“He tried to keep all the isles and the lands in the distance safe, but he was weakening. Then, one night, Davorin possessed Anneli.”

“All gods.”

“She nearly slit her own throat. Riot was desperate. He hid us away and said he would hide the feather from Davorin’s influence.” Saga let out a heavy sigh. “Anneli begged him not to do his fate spell. She understood he was twisting such a powerful new path, it would unravel our world.

“He took us somewhere, I can’t really see it in my head anymore, but I remember Riot’s cries of pain, then a wash of cold run through me. I can hardly see the moment in my mind, but his face . . . it was covered in blood. I still don’t know what price he paid to alter such a path, but it put a curse on the whole of the kingdom. Our line was faded, and others rose to power.

“Davorin was nothing but a presence that leapt into hearts. He was weak, powerless, and would depend on the bodies of others to allow him to enter.”

“But the curse over yours made it impossible to find?” I dragged my finger down her breastbone.

“Yes.” She smiled and placed a hand on my face. “But there must be ends to curses as part of the journey. Riot’s song ensured my cold heart would only awaken should someone come along who was worthy of it.”

I smiled and hovered my lips over hers. “You’re not just telling me that to inflate my already overly inflated opinion of myself?”

She laughed and shook her head. “No. Fate’s songs are usually about the heart and love. I mean, even your king had to have someone care enough to break his curse, right?”

I nodded. “Elise nearly gave her life for him.”

“A devoted, worthy heart was Riot’s ending for me. Which is why the tasks to retrieve his guide make a bit of sense. He needed to be sure loyalty and honor were at the heart of seeking the feather again.”

She touched the tip of one of my ears, a distant look in her eyes. “I think he would’ve liked you. I don’t know what happened to my brother and Anneli. They faded. I just remember screaming, then numbness. I am glad to feel again, but I think it is the reason the isles are under attack.”

“How so?”

She nestled closer. “Since meeting you, I’ve heard voices in the dark, Ari. Cruel laughter. The voice calls me little raven. Davorin can sense me and is returning to his strength. He told me so in Yarrow’s spell to bring back the memories. It is like me knowing everything broke the barriers Riot built between us.”

My breath stilled in my chest. “Davorin is alive?”

Saga didn’t answer straightaway, but slowly nodded. “I believe he is. Riot never could destroy him entirely. He’s always been a presence, inciting violence, desperate to take back his claim to a throne he never deserved. He’s found me, and he knows what we’re after.”

“We don’t know if Yarrow’s spell will bring him to us.”

“He said he would see me soon. But . . . I think he’s always been near. I think when my heart began to thaw, he sensed me, and got as close as possible. I believe he’s possessed Astrid’s heart.”

I sat up again, head spinning. “Truly?”

“She’s embraced darkness. For months she’s spoken of a being she calls the Draugr, like Bracken mentioned. But I think it’s Davorin. I think everything is Davorin.”

“So, the plague—”

“Feels like his chaos. You heard Hawthorne say he has seen such things before. This is what Davorin did to turn folk against Riot. Irrational violence.”

Keep steady. I needed to keep my thoughts clear. The more she spoke, unbelievable as it was, the more my heart raced as if we were at last onto something.

“So, what do we do?”

“He’s after my power,” she said.

“I don’t care if he’s a damn god,” I snapped. “I promised no one would hurt you again, and he cannot have you.”

Her stormy eyes locked with mine. She picked up the parchment again and tore back the wax seal. “Then we must reach it first and end him.”


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