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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 7

The Ambassador

“Ilook forward to this union,” Bracken said. He crossed his arms over his chest. He smiled at Gunnar and Eryka as the young prince tucked a green-petaled blossom behind the princess’s ear.

“It will be a strong alliance,” I agreed. “One forged in love and loyalty.”

Since my kingdom found its liberty, I’d concluded true loyalty was born in battle and blood. I’d witnessed it with my king and queen; the way they fought for each other and risked everything to keep the other breathing, they’d shaped an unbreakable bond. The same had been done in the Eastern battles. Devotion had won their kingdom, not honor, not morals. The East was owned by thieves and crooks because they would burn worlds for each other.

Eryka and Gunnar would be the same. They’d battled together, defended each other. They would be unbreakable.

“This will be a historic gathering when the other kingdoms arrive,” Bracken went on. “To my knowledge, such a gathering has not been done for centuries. Long before your kingdom was even overthrown by the ice folk.”

“It is quite a feat keeping my prince’s parents from invading your shores now.”

Bracken laughed, but I wasn’t making light of it. Herja and Hagen were not pleased with waiting.

“Keeping watch will be easy enough,” Bo said in a rocky rasp. He shielded his dark eyes from the sun as he scanned the willow branches hidden behind curtains of blooming vines.

“I find this place utterly romantic.” Sofia winked at the king and dragged one finger seductively across his shoulder. “Don’t you, Ari? Look how it blossoms around Saga and makes her even more beautiful.”

I hated that I did, but I glanced over at my serf. She was near Astrid, and it boiled my blood. Two traitors did not leave me with kind thoughts, more those of violence and gore. To her small favor, Saga was turned away from the queen, as if she were trying to ignore her.

Over her head, low-hanging branches bloomed. The petals peeled aside and looked ready to kiss the crown of her head.

The isles were alive with glamour. It didn’t mean anything.

“Lovely,” I told Sofia through my teeth. “But I find you the most radiant of all.”

She rolled her eyes. “Liar.”

Gunnar came over to us, Eryka’s hand clasped in his. “I think it’ll accommodate everyone. Unless Niklas brings his entire guild.” His brow furrowed as he considered the notion. “The Falkyns might take up more room than we have.”

“Nik wouldn’t leave his precious nest unguarded completely,” I said. “So, you approve?”

“It’s peaceful here,” Gunnar said. “Truth be told, I’d take vows with her in a dank alley. Where it happens does not matter to me.”

Eryka grinned and rested her head against Gunnar’s shoulder.

Bracken scoffed, almost disgusted at the idea. “No dank alleys. Only the best for our kin.”

“We approve, cousin,” Eryka said wistfully.

“We will find an equally lovely spot in Etta when you visit Gunnar’s folk,” I told Eryka.

“To return to the land of your birth will be one of joy or despair.” Eryka’s voice shifted. A rote, deep tone abandoned the whimsical song.

Gunnar didn’t hesitate. He’d been schooled to keep her words flowing by conversing with Eryka when the prophecies took hold. “Joy or despair for Ari to return home? Why is that?”

“When next you meet the land of silver blooms, a new king’s crown tops your brow, or pyres of death seal your doom.”

Gunnar flicked his gaze to mine. My pulse raced, and a sour burn scorched my insides, but there was no sense showing the unease. I shrugged, and Gunnar turned back to Eryka. “A crown or a funeral pyre? Sounds like the options of war, Eryka.”

She swayed a little until her eyes weren’t as cloudy. The trance was fading. “Seek the raven. Not all is as it seems.”

Gunnar held her tightly against his side, wholly focused on her face. Trances occurred with the princess more and more, and we often let them be until she woke again. But those words lifted the hair on my arms. A king’s crown or the sorrow of a pyre? And that damn raven.

A new fear gathered in my chest for Valen, for Elise. Or was it for Kase? For Bracken? It could not mean me. I did not wear a crown.

“Interesting,” Sofia said, her brow arched, and her smirk pointed at me. “I wonder what raven she means? There are no ravens here.”

I shrugged. It was true. Sparrows lined the trees. Pheasants. Even crows, but unlike home, there were no ravens in the Southern Isles. I would not be the one to let on there was one that followed me mercilessly. They’d think I’d gone mad.

“Could be a metaphor, dear Sofia.”

She grinned almost viciously. “It could. Or it might mean something thrilling is about to happen to your fated path, Ambassador. Best watch your step.”

“Ah, I’m afraid I’ve attained all my fated thrills,” I said, laughing to hide the unease in my tone. “The Norns have chosen to move on to others in the hopes they might reach my level of greatness. I plan to get plump with too much of Dunker’s seal blubber until I age into the Otherworld.”

“She’s still stuck,” Princess Signe said, almost petulantly as she studied her cousin’s face. The young princess fanned her face against the morning sun. “Touch her, Brack. Make her wake so we can continue.”

Bracken shook Eryka’s arm again, and the jolt woke her at once. She blinked. “We approve, cousin.”

Bracken glanced at Gunnar, then me.

“Seems you might be trouble for us, Ambassador.” Astrid frowned.

I hated her. If it were up to me, I’d have slaughtered the scheming queen before we left the Eastern shores. Astrid’s steely gaze fell to me, as if she knew some harrowing secret no one else did.

“Never.” I had many more things to say, witty things, sharp, jagged things, but she did not deserve any of them.

“Oh.” Eryka slumped. “I spoke again, yes?”

The seams of my skin would split into a gory mess if the pressure of the awkward prophecy gathered any more. With a forced laugh, I waved her worry away. “I’m afraid the stars must still be sleeping off their nightly revelry. Talk of kings’ crowns atop my head, let us all admit, is utter nonsense. Although, I’ve worn a crown before, have I told you?”

Gunnar snorted. “At least one hundred times.”

“Well, My Prince, I shall make it one hundred and one.” I slung an arm around Gunnar’s shoulders.

A quick glance at Bracken told me the king was still unsettled. Most often, Bracken was inclined to levity the same as me. Slowly, the longer I paraded my days as temporary king in the North, Bracken’s smile returned.

“So,” Frey said, taking hold of the conversation. “How else do you plan to celebrate the impending vows between now and the eclipse? I have been told grand tales of Alvheim’s ability to host endless festivals.”

Sofia whispered into Bracken’s ear until the king chuckled, a wicked sort of grin twisted the corners of his mouth. “You know, I don’t believe your own ambassador has even offered to host a revel in your honor, Prince Gunnar.”

“Shameful,” Sofia said with a wink.

Unexpected, but Bracken was often tossing ideas around to unsettle everyone around him. He saw discomposure as a game, and took pride when he could cause others to fluster in unease.

Out of stubborn pride, I rarely gave him the satisfaction.

“I think it’s a grand idea, and have been waiting for you to stop hoarding all the revelry days in your court, King Bracken.”

Even Rune, who never seemed to alter his expression, smirked when Bracken barked a laugh.

“Tomorrow, then.”

Three hells. To expect more than a day to arrange an entire revel was foolish of me. Bracken was bleeding determined to pull the ground out from under me. This tug and pull between us was his favorite sort of jest.

I dipped my chin, a wry grin on my face. “I’d be offended on behalf of my favorite young couple if we put it off any later. They should be celebrated every moment of the day, King Bracken.”

“Agreed.”

I offered a pretentious sort of bow and raised my voice so all could hear. “Tomorrow, another revel for the betrothed. Grander and more glittering than those we’ve yet seen.”

Saga groaned her displeasure of me, but no one else seemed to notice.

In most cases, the woman silently disapproved of me, but there were moments when her irritation slipped through those awfully tempting lips. It was then I knew the limit of boasting and praising myself to draw out the laughter and smiles of others was approaching.

Perhaps the others ignored her intentionally. A woman not worth their attentions. The most irritating piece was how bothered I was becoming on her behalf, for folk who once called themselves her companions continually shunned her.

It was a wretched struggle I planned to forget straightaway. She picked her sides. Fought her wars. She dug her own grave.

With a wave to Frey and Stieg, I said, “We should return if we’re to send word to folk and give time to the staff to ready the tables.”

I laughed with the others as we made our way back to the coach. From the corner of my eye, I took note of the way Astrid muttered something sharp, something that twisted her petite mouth into a snarl, and it was aimed at Saga.

A moment in time. Hardly enough to carry on a full conversation, but whatever words were spoken had done a bit of damage by the time the former queen left my reluctant thrall in peace.

Underneath her unwarranted disdain of my amusing taunts, was something worse. Something tragic.

Beneath her bitterness was something broken.

Something like fear.


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