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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 5

The Ambassador

Pale dawn spilled in through one window as Hodag and Dunker opened the shutters.

Dunker was the head steward of the foreign household. A gift from the High Court when I’d first arrived in the Southern Kingdom nearly three turns ago. The troll was less amiable than Hodag, and had a strange insistence Night Folk fae did not eat enough sun seal blubber, and the troll kept having packages of it delivered from the inlet sea.

A delicacy to Dunker; oily, tasteless leather to me.

Dunker grunted when I nudged the milky globule with my knife.

I didn’t lift my head, but rolled my eyes up to look at the troll. Dunker huffed and jabbed his heavy fists into his plump hips. The troll had full lips, always blue as if he’d frozen over during the frosts, and his eyes were wide like an owl. Round, golden, practically lidless, with silken black pupils.

Dunker used his hooked nose to point at my plate. Not a troll of many words, but we got on well enough.

“Eat it up, sweetling. Good for your bones.” Hodag patted my head and pointed at my plate. She blinked a few times, waiting, then seemed to give up, and set to work beating the dust out of a woven rug through the window.

The troll woman did not need to serve in the foreign longhouse, but she’d taken a liking to Stieg when he’d replaced Axel, Frey’s brother, here in the isles. Axel was skilled with the written word and took the position as a royal tradesman for Elise and Valen.

Hodag remembered Stieg from the battles, and something touched the troll about the way the warrior had defended a handful of littles during the fighting. He’d nearly given his life protecting a sea fae boy whose father was the cause of Eryka’s scar.

It seemed in order to win Hodag’s heart, you need only be a bleeding man and defend the most innocent among us. A feat, I felt, many of us had done a time or two, but she only batted her long lashes at Stieg.

Proof of her love was on his plate in the shape of sugared cream cakes with a drizzle of sweet glaze made from the sap off the black aspens surrounding our small grove.

Blubber leather for me. Cream cakes for Stieg.

If anyone believed I had a lick of power in this damn house, they’d be frightfully mistaken.

Stieg took note of my longing. The bastard winked and ate half a cake with his next bite. Stieg kept his dark hair short and his wiry beard to his chest, where Frey kept his chin trimmed to a layer of whiskers. Both Frey and Stieg wore bone beads in their ears, and after the end of the Eastern war, they’d pierced a gold ring through the center of their noses. The old warrior fashion. A way to honor those who’d fallen in both battles.

Across the table from me, Frey drank potent, hot ale made from lingonberries and honey. His eyes were rimmed red, and what looked like teeth marks had grown pink and blistered on his neck. We’d attended numerous revels in the Borough. One day, Frey would learn to keep his wits around the wine and huldrafolk.

When his chin slipped off the heel of his palm and hit the table, Stieg barked a laugh and shoved his fellow warrior. “What the hells did she do to you this time?”

Frey frowned. “What did they do to me.”

Stieg rolled his eyes. “Bodil and . . . who?”

“Gud . . . Gudrun, I think her name was. Golden hair.” Frey closed his eyes and smiled dumbly. “The things she could do with those hands.”

“Huldra use lust, you fool.” Stieg chuckled and settled back in his chair. “It’s not real.”

“I know!” Frey took a ginger sip out of his horn. “And I shall let them use me until the day I greet the Otherworld.”

Stieg shook his head. What was the point of convincing Frey otherwise? He knew it was meant for pleasure only, and that was all he desired.

A side door in the longhouse swung open. Saga stepped inside, shoulder first, a stack of logs cradled in her arms. Worse than last night, the sable bruise puffed up her left cheekbone. The way she tried to hide a wince when her toe caught on the lip of the doorway gave up the aches in her bones.

My fist curled over my knee. The anger didn’t rise from her discomfort or pain. No. Anger could only be because some bleeding docker thought he could stake a claim on what was mine.

Still, it was unsettling to see a bit of the fight in her eyes lost. She’d always carried an arrogant air about her since the first time I met the woman. Stalwart, devoted to the crown of the South. But upon my first word, Saga had decided to despise me. Genuinely combat my every uttered sound.

It did not take long to learn the woman’s devotion to her crown usurped decency. She would’ve stood beside Queen Astrid if she burned the whole of the Eastern Kingdom. If Astrid would’ve taken a war to my homeland, Saga would not have stood against her brutality. Be it women or children, I had no doubt Saga would stand beside her monarch and watch the atrocities unfold.

Devotion was nothing if given to tyrants.

All the same, in the light of morning, she appeared utterly empty. No rage. No joy. No spirit. I despised this hollow look more than any of her sneers and scorn.

Once again, Saga wore a high-collared tunic and sleeves to her wrists, despite the pleasant warmth of days. She’d endured the heat from hundreds of bodies in the Borough with her ridiculous fur coat the night before. Now, she stoked a fire dressed like the frosts were about to wheel back around and start again.

Do not force me. Her pleading to keep herself covered had pierced a hole in my heart. The word force, the way she’d uttered it, I had few doubts the woman had been forced to act on more than one occasion. What I could not figure was why it bothered me so. Why it settled in my stomach like a rock.

“Ari.” Frey slapped his open palm over the table.

I hadn’t realized he’d been trying to speak to me. “What? Apologies.”

“Your thoughts are elsewhere.”

“When you have such interesting thoughts as mine, it is an easy thing to do.”

Frey grinned. “I was saying you should join me at the next fete. The huldra will remind you that you are a bleeding man with vigor you’ve not experienced before. Gudrun mentioned a few of her sister folk have eyes for you.”

Frey flicked his brows and took a long drink of his hot ale.

I didn’t understand why, but my attention drifted—subtly—to the inglenook where Saga stacked the kindling. She’d frozen, one log in hand, and as if she could sense my scrutiny, glanced over her shoulder.

I glared at her and forced my irritation to the table settings. Satin shimmered on a runner on the table. Crystal and silver plates and goblets.

The finery of the isles still set me on edge. Raised during the harshest parts of the Timoran raids, I grew up in hovels carved out of soil and mud. Then, as a Northern rebel, the slums and shanties in Ruskig became my castles.

The odd clink and scrape of silver spoons made the status levels between folk too obvious. A pang of homesickness dug into my chest. Nights of laughing with kings and queens, thieves and crooks. It did not matter the blood in our veins, for in those moments we were equals.

I cracked my neck to one side, forcing myself to slump in my chair. Angst was unbecoming on me. I was at my best when I was at ease, making folk laugh, or chatting incessantly.

A gust of blossom-scented breeze filled the house when the heavy front doors opened, saving me from any sort of answer to Frey’s invitation, and an excuse to never glance toward the fire again.

“Morning, all.” Gunnar strode inside, a grin wide on his face, and snagged a fresh, white bread roll from a clay plate near the entrance.

Together, Stieg, Frey, and I dipped our chins.

“Young prince,” I said. “Have you eaten? Join us.”

Gunnar slid into a chair beside me. His eyes were like mead, bright and gilded, and his russet hair was untamed, as though he’d only rolled from his bed.

Dunker rapped his knuckle on the top of Saga’s head. “Drink for a prince.”

“Touch me again, troll, and you will lose a finger,” she snapped. There was the venom she’d lost. Returned and well.

Saga took a drinking horn off a shelf and poured Gunnar a cup. My prince did little to acknowledge her. Doubtless not from spite. Gunnar’s eyes were too alight with excitement, and as a child born into captivity, I was certain if he were not so distracted by his approaching vows, Gunnar Strom might have a great deal to say about my hundred-turn serf.

“Ari, I received two posts today, one is for you, and you’ll never believe from whom.”

“You are correct,” I said, tipping my horn to my lips. “I doubt I shall ever guess, but I’ll give it a go—Princess Laila?”

The prince’s sister adored her older brother and his future bride; she often sent letters begging Gunnar to allow her to stay in the South during the summers when Etta was unbearably hot.

I snapped my fingers. “Or your newest siblings. I hear they’ve taken a liking to drawing as well. And they love me best.”

Gunnar laughed. “No, but Dain and Metta do like to send me pictures. They’re fascinated with my grandfather’s armory and keep sending drawings of themselves as knights.”

I grinned, pleased to hear simple things from home. It meant our land was at peace.

During the battles of the East, Hagen, Gunnar’s father, had learned his dear friend and his wife had been slaughtered for protecting Hagen’s sister. Their two young ones were orphaned, and without question, Hagen and Princess Herja adopted them, taking them to be raised as young royals in Etta.

“I give up,” I said. “Who sent us missives?”

“Calista. They make little sense, but she’s odd, so that’s to be expected, right?”

I snapped upright, nearly spilling my wine on my wrist. “Calista? From the West?”

Gunnar nodded and slid an unopened piece of parchment across the table.

I tore the black wax seal. Calista was a fate worker, and I’d not forgotten the cryptic words she’d given me not so many months ago:

Hate burns with love when moonlight makes hidden truths known. Follow the raven and heal a broken crown and broken heart.

Ravens and love had no place in my mind.

Her scratchy handwriting was slanted, like she wrote on an angle. At first, it was as if the girl’s true, blunt voice were speaking to me.

Hello Stand-in King.

Funny to think of you, but I have no say in the stupid ramblings of my gift, so what’s the point of trying to resist? I want to, since I was in the middle of eating, after all. I don’t like to be interrupted, but I’ve learned it’s no use ignoring it.

So, how lucky for you—I have something to say.

I glanced at the final lines of the missive. A different tone, and as Gunnar said, utterly confusing.

. . . Seek no aid from a land of thieves and land of your blood, lest it destroy those you love. Instead, search the skies for where your heart should lie.

Sounds like a rough one, Stand-in King. Best of luck,

Cal

I lifted my gaze off the parchment to Gunnar. “What the hells did yours say?”

“Something about when he falls, keep my folk safe by delivering the call. It didn’t make much sense, to be honest. What about you?”

I showed him the parchment. Gunnar snorted. “Seems we ought to avoid Etta and Klockglas, then.”

Gunnar didn’t seem discomposed. His lover was a seer, and he knew better than anyone what happened when fate talkers went into a trance. Eryka’s voice didn’t put as much fear into my blood; her prophecies seemed more like guidance, but Calista’s were like a dangerous promise.

The hair lifted on the back of my neck. If Gunnar was right and we were to keep our folk between two kingdoms distant for now, I had to wonder why? What would put them at risk at all?

“Ari, do you still wish to join me at the Wind Knolls?” Gunnar asked, interrupting my wandering thoughts. The prince took a long drink of his ale. “Eryka said it was important to have your thoughts today.”

I grinned, smothering the disquiet until I could be alone. “You are vowing with a wise woman. My thoughts are always of importance and should be offered no less than a dozen times a day.”

I ignored the snort of disgust from the area near the firewood.

“Good.” Gunnar shoved the remaining half of his roll in his mouth, then brushed the crumbs off his palms. “Shall we go now?”

I chuckled. Hells, the young prince had been nothing but jittery nerves since plans for the vows began. The South did not rush anything. The Southern fae were wistful creatures, and the Court of Stars was tiresome with their demands for perfection. His ceremony was delayed out of respect for his future bride’s kin and would never arrive swift enough for Gunnar.

But it was more. When his parents arrived next month, it would be the first time in Gunnar Strom’s life where his family was together, no cruel masters tearing them apart, no wars keeping them afraid if they would live or die.

These vows were more than uniting two hearts. These vows were healing turns of broken souls.

I stood, along with Frey and Stieg. We sheathed blades and knives. Frey gulped down the last of his medicinal ale and shook away the final pieces of his debauchery haze.

Gunnar had arrived in an open coach, pulled by four charges, with dazzling painted stars all along the sides. At the door, I hesitated, and was overtaken by a moment of lunacy.

“Saga.” My throat tightened. Why? She seemed mortified that I’d spoken to her, but waited patiently for me to go on. My gaze dropped to the tether on my belt holding my seax. Pretending to tighten the strap, I barreled on. “You will join us. Inspect for weak points where threats might hide once two more kingdoms arrive.”

Saga lifted one brow. “You want me to inspect . . . the place where the king has approved his cousin to take vows?”

“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “One can never be too careful.”

I hurried outside, face boiling.

“Ari, did you hear about the docker?” Gunnar asked, once we’d all found a position in the coach. Me, as distant from my unwilling prisoner as possible.

“What docker?” Stieg asked.

Gunnar shrugged and propped his chin onto the top of one fist as he leaned against the side of the coach. “Some shipping merchant’s son was found beaten and hanging stark naked near the docks this morning. Been there all night. Won’t say a bleeding thing about who did it.” Gunnar shared a laugh with Stieg. “Sod had the piss scared out of him.”

The others laughed.

“Must’ve been Ari,” Frey said, a wide grin on his face.

My gaze snapped his way. “Why would you say that?”

Frey still had too much ale in his veins to notice the strain in my voice. “You were the one who slipped out of the Borough for a toll at the revel.”

I smirked and leaned back on the bench. “Perhaps I found my own huldra, and there are some sounds too loud to be had even in the ruckus of the Borough.”

Frey’s mouth parted for a half a breath. He glanced at Stieg, next Gunnar. Then, at once, the three men laughed. Tears filled their eyes at the thought of me and a lover holed away, doing all manner of indecencies.

With a grin, I turned away, watching the trees and shrubs pass us by.

As the others prattled on about my secret lover, moments at the revel, and an occasional comment about Einar, the hair on the back of my neck lifted. She was watching me; she knew I was spewing lies. I knew it, but what did it matter if she believed I’d returned to the docks? She was my property to protect, and that’s all it was.

I’d been telling myself the same thing all night and morning.

No one would dig too deep into poor Einar’s predicament. Dockers were notorious for roughing up the helpless. When one of the fools received a bit of retribution, it was a delight.

And everyone in the coach was delighted. All but one.

Saga’s gaze was palpable. A discomfiting ache like thorns dragging up and down my skin. My chest cramped when the storm in her eyes met mine. She knew the truth, and it had brought out something new in her eyes.

This was not irritation or annoyance or dislike.

Hells, in the moment, Saga hated every bleeding breath I took.


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