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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 4

The Ambassador

“You’re distracted tonight, Ambassador.” Bracken escaped the throngs of fae folk keening for his attention and came to stand beside me in one of the back corners of the Borough.

I clinked a drinking horn to his, smiling. “I am never distracted, only lost in profound thought. How are you tonight? The moon is nearly full.”

Bracken chuckled. “Filled with impenetrable glamour, my friend.”

The king had strange glamour. As I’d gotten to know him, I wondered if it was more a curse than a gift. The fuller the moon, the more Bracken’s skin hardened like stone. He could not be killed unless someone severed his whole bleeding head during those few days. When the moon was a sliver in the sky, or there was no moon at all, at his command, his body could be like mist.

In those days, he was nearly invincible; no blade could pierce his skin, after all. A specific, well-trained poison might impact the king, but even then, to poison blood when veins and flesh disappeared was no small feat.

The king’s weakness was fiercest in the middle of the moon cycle. Bracken became almost sickly. It was then enemies could plot to kill the king. The struggle came since everyone knew the pitfalls of his glamour. Added protections were increased during the mid-cycle.

Bracken often mused that his death would surely come when a blade found his body on a vulnerable night. He’d accepted it, and called it the lot of the king. Until then, he’d revel, drink, and take to battle when he was least vulnerable.

Dancers spun wildly about the Borough. Gowns made only of ribbons, tunics threaded in every starry image of the gods, folk with bird nests complete with speckled eggs sewn into their hair, others with so many gold rings in their ears, the points flopped over.

It was a horribly beautiful sight. I doubted I’d ever grow tired of the oddities in the Southern Isles.

Fae folk from the various courts were a spectacle. The forest fae were fascinated by the foliage, and took great pleasure in causing more of the blossoms to grow brighter, while star fae took to the velvet heavens, making grand predictions on the new couple’s future or the prosperity of their kingdom.

My attention fell to a crooked elm tree near the creek. Sofia laughed with two Borough guards, one with yellow goat eyes, and the other with a beard so long it struck his belt. There I held my stare for a mere moment before my attention slid to the silent, stoic figure beside her.

My frown was instant. As if the sight of her taut jaw and stiff stance drew out any dreariness hiding within.

Saga hugged her middle, fiddling with the leather strap keeping her coat over her shoulders, and kept her eyes down. So bleeding defiant and stubborn and . . . confusing. I thought of my captive often, not always pleasantly, but not always terribly either.

Moments like her nearly falling to her knees to keep that gods-awful coat around her body had me intrigued. What was hiding beneath it?

I tipped my own drinking horn to my lips. The wine was sour on first taste, but sweetened and thickened like honey when it was swallowed. I took a second drink, unashamed when my attention drifted lower to the slit in the satin fabric.

Pale curves of Saga’s legs were peeking through. Beneath the gleam of lanterns, the shine of a white scar on her thigh was visible, but nothing so horrid it ought to be covered.

Sofia laughed again and reached for Saga, clearly trying to include her in the conversation. The two guards slowly falling in love with Sofia did not appreciate the addition, and made no attempt to hide how they barred Saga away.

Her shoulders slumped slightly. Doubtless no one else would notice, but I’d grown accustomed to her unwavering confidence before the battle of the East. Her stalwart positions on where she stood.

How things had changed. She fought valiantly to remain the aloof, unmovable woman I’d always known. But perhaps our close proximity had afforded me glimpses to a new side. A twitch to her lip, or how she wrung her hands too much, or the deep breaths she took whenever another fae approached her, as if she might be readying to flee.

As if sensing my stare, Saga looked toward the king. Her eyes skipped over Bracken and locked with mine.

I detested her. So much I could hardly look away; I could hardly breathe when the lantern hanging over her head in the tree cast an eerie glow over the pulpy bruise on her face. She was a curse to me, a bane, and I could not get her out of my head.

“Ari? By the gods, have you heard a word I said?” Bracken used the back of his hand to strike my shoulder.

I blinked away from her narrowed gaze that meant she was, no doubt, plotting all the ways to murder me in my sleep.

“Apologies, but I’m afraid you might be right, and I am rather out of sorts.” I handed an impish looking fae servant with a rounded spine my drinking horn. “I think I could use a bit of air. I am not my usual, delightful self.”

Bracken lifted a brow, high enough it nearly touched the sharp edge of his silver crown. “Go. I’ll inform Frey and Axel, and no worries, I’ll keep watch on your captive.”

The king laughed heartily, still pleased with his jest of binding Saga to my every whim. I forced a wry grin and slipped out of the wide doors of the Borough canopy. Sweat formed a damp layer over my palms as I gripped the black, leather hilt of my seax.

I shouldn’t be doing this. I’d be wise to turn my bleeding ass back around. I kept walking into the dead of the night.

The docks were empty of most folk. A few interesting fae chatting to no one but themselves wandered about. Lack of crowds made it simpler to find the docker and his repulsive guild.

When I stepped into the light of their small fire, Einar shot to his feet from the crate he’d used as a chair. “Ambassador.” Nerves shadowed his eyes. Good. “What a pleasant surprise. What . . . what brings you back?”

With my thumb I flicked the strap keeping the guard and hilt of my blade in place on my sheath. “I owe you my apologies for earlier.”

Einar hesitated, then a vicious sort of light pulsed in his gaze. “Not at all, although I still think we might come to an accord on the snake in your house. She is a traitor to our king, but a pretty traitor all the same.”

I removed my blade.

“No, I think you’ve misunderstood,” I said, voice chilly. “I came to apologize, for I cannot forget earlier, and I said I could.”

Einar’s smile faded.

With my free hand I opened my palm until the burn of my fury spread over my palms. Einar sucked in a sharp breath as I created the illusion of dozens of black vipers slithering around his feet. His companions shouted cries of disbelief and fear and bolted.

Loyalty was in short supply, it would seem.

The act of using illusions to torment another fae would be frowned upon by the High Court. I’d made oaths never to use my fury for ill, but tonight, I made a grand exception.

“Get them off!” Einar kicked at the illusions. His greasy hair fell into his eyes. With a bit of desperation, he swatted at the locks and stumbled backward over the crate.

In three strides, I was in front of him, gripping the front of his sweaty tunic. I yanked him back to sitting and pressed my brow to his. He looked at me with heady fear glistening in his widely set eyes.

“I want to make certain my point is made.”

“It’s made. I swear.”

I scoffed. “No, I don’t think it is. But when we’re through, it will be. You do not touch what is mine, and the woman is mine.”

I waved my hand again and the illusion of snakes attacked.

All gods, I loved his screams.


A small bit of blood seeped from the gashes over my knuckles. With a scrap of leather I’d cut from Einar’s satchel, I wiped it away, then tore the leather into narrow strips, wrapping each knuckle to hide the gashes. The bastard had a jaw of iron, but he’d sobbed like a newborn babe. I felt confident my point had now been made with dear Einar.

The thick tangle of ancient oaks marking the entrance to the Borough came into view. I’d been absent too long. Folk would begin to press Stieg or Frey or Bracken, then I’d have to think of something to excuse myself. Doubtless I could conjure up some bawdy tale, but I’d rather not.

A sharp caw overhead sent my heart into my throat. By the damn hells.

Not again. I ground my teeth and glared up at the branches in the oak trees. The bleeding raven would be the thing to drive me to madness. I was cursed by the creature. I knew it even more since the fae isles did not have any damn ravens. It was a demon sent to torment me.

It had followed me through war and had yet to give me up. True, I’d seen less of the beast since we arrived in the South, but there it was.

A missive from Calista, a fate worker in the West, implied a raven would play a role in my life. The note did not help my disquiet around the birds.

I let out a strange hiss through my teeth, sneering at the creature. It merely cawed and followed my steps with its beady eyes as I shoved back into the Borough. Gunnar danced with Eryka in the center, and seemed blissfully unaware anyone else was even there.

The young prince would be well looked after by his lover tonight. He had little need of me remaining here, gawking at him like a child.

I planned to return only to inform Frey or Stieg I was leaving for the longhouse. After my visit to the docks, my head was locked in a storm. There were moments when thoughts spun too wildly in my head, and I craved solitude until I could bring them to a calm.

“Frey.” I found him near a group of huldrafolk, brushing his fingertips along the cheek of one woman with at least a dozen gold rings in each ear.

“Ari.” He swayed a bit on his feet. “There you are!”

“Yes. I realize this is a grand moment, seeing my face again, but I’ve come simply to tell you I will be returning home.”

Frey’s expression fell. He rubbed a hand over the scar across his throat. “Oh. Of course, I’ll—”

“No.” I held up a hand. “Stay. I was only telling you. I know how you worry yourself over my whereabouts.”

Drunk and unsteady, Frey barked a laugh and pulled my forehead to his. “All thanks, Ambassador. I shall return . . . soon.”

His hungry gaze soaked up the two huldra. I’d likely not see Frey until dawn.

Stieg opted to leave Frey in the hands of the women and join me back to the longhouse.

“Have you seen Saga?” I hated how the worry of her wellbeing showed. She had survived this long without my help, and I did not care for her wellbeing anyway.

“There.” Stieg gestured to the front gates.

Saga stepped out of the shadows. What the hells? She was draped in an old, musty robe. No fur coat, no glamorous satin gown. And the braids crowning her head were disheveled and unkempt.

A groove formed in my brow. “What happened to your gown?”

Saga looked back at me like she wanted to dig out my eyes. “It was stifling.”

The way she hugged the cloak around her body, the flush to her face, the way her shoulders rose a little swiftly, a sick twist tightened in my gut. I gripped her arm tightly and lowered my voice. “Did you bed someone?”

She was naked underneath the robe, no mistake. I ignored the curiosity to see her, refusing to let it take root in my head, but I could not deny the sour burn of misplaced jealousy in my throat.

Saga yanked her arm out of my grip. “No, I did not bed someone. How can I when you are the only one who owns my body?”

Poor choice of words. I shook the thought of this aggravating creature sprawled out beneath me away and nudged her forward. “I will ask you a series of questions, and I will demand you answer truthfully as we walk.”

“I have no desire to be interrogated.”

“I have no desire to care.” I dug my fingers deeper into her arm. “Is your gown lost?”

“No.”

“Wearable?”

She licked her lips. “No. It has been torn and ruined.”

Blood pounded in my skull. “Did a man touch you? Force you to undress?”

“No.”

“A woman?”

Stieg snorted, but pretended as though he hadn’t when I shot him a sharp look.

“Ari, no.” Saga sighed. “I undressed on my own. You have no taste in women’s clothing, and the gown was terribly uncomfortable. No one saw me, I assure you.”

“Are you lying? I have never known you to suddenly undress yourself in a perfectly acceptable gown.”

“It was an unacceptable gown that made me itch!”

The grin tugged at my mouth. “Ah, you noticed.”

“Yes.” She swiped a hand under her nose as if proving her point. “I noticed, and if I am lying, then I suppose I won’t be keen to tell you the truth simply because you asked, now will I?”

I was going to kill her. Slowly. My hands wringing her pretty little neck.

“I am persuasive, Saga,” I warned. “I know how to break folk, and if you are lying and giving yourself to someone, or if someone has harmed you, then I will find out.”

She dug her heels in, stopping us abruptly. Saga didn’t back down, she didn’t pull away. Instead, she stepped closer, our faces close, noses nearly touching. “You may try, Ari Sekundär, but I promise you, I will never allow you to break me. Never.”

“We’ll see, sweet menace,” I said. “Now, pick up your feet and keep pace.”

“Oh, well, since you asked so nicely.” Her voice was trite and intentionally ironic. “Where are we going?”

“Home. Tomorrow is a rather busy day, and you’ll need all the rest you can get to be up with the sun serving us hungry men.”

“You’re despicable.”

Saga stormed past me, taking the path away from the Borough two paces ahead of me.

I was despicable. I hated her in one breath, accused her of lying when I was lying in my own way, for I could think of nothing else but touching her. Of Saga on her bleeding knees, with a new kind of look in her eyes.


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