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King of Always: Chapter 10

The Wedding

Raff

tonight since the moon rose and illuminated the shadows of Merrin Creek, I scan the gathering in search of Isla. And once again, she is nowhere to be found.

The black poison rolls like red-hot lava inside my chest—a dark warning—something is very wrong.

In a few moments, Ever and Lara’s wedding ceremony will commence, and I know Isla would not miss this event for all the pistachio cookies in the seven realms. So, where is she?

Perched on my shoulders, Spark tugs the tips of my ears, chirping loudly. She is worried about the human too.

“Yes, I know. Calm yourself. We will find her.”

The entire court, including my mother and her advisers are assembled underneath the star-strung purple sky, anticipation humming in the air.

A representative of nearly all of the kingdom’s creatures is in attendance. Water sprites. Merrows. Nixies. Even a group of deadly white ladies—the infamous bean fionn, who I hope won’t attempt to drown any guests tonight—are seated on the creek’s mossy banks.

Gnomes and trolls peek from between long blades of grass and foliage. Dryads wearing crowns of twisted branches, vines wrapping their thick, tree-like bodies, sway at the edges of the forest. There are fauns, brownies, and moss elves milling about. And the seven órga falcons drift through the currents of the night air, calling softly to their master and his lady.

Surely one of these beings noticed where Isla went. In the short time I’ve been acquainted with her, I’ve seen enough of her disposition and behavior to realize she will, no doubt, be up to mischief.

Pipers’ music floats on the warm breeze, along with the scent of honeysuckle and wisteria that drip from the wedding arches where Ever and Lara stand, their hands clasped together, their smiles as lustrous as their silver and gold attire.

Lara whispers something to Ever, then with a slight frown marring her serene countenance, her gaze scans the faeries gathered nearest the altar. Then she glances toward the queen who presides over all on her elaborate throne of tree roots, moonstones and diamonds sparkling brightly between the woven branches. Lara looks worried. No doubt she is wondering where Isla is, too.

I will find her cousin and return her safely. And if any creature present has tricked or misused her, they will be regretting the day they were born for all eternity.

Moving quickly, I inspect the edges of the assembly and find no golden-haired human. Working my way inward, I weave through the crowd toward Orlinda who’s stationed in full battle armor below the wedding arbor. “Where is Isla?” I ask, my voice rough and urgent.

With a jolt, her spine straightens. “When I inquired a few moments ago, Alorus said she was busy helping Magret. But I do not remember seeing her once with Magret and the maids. In fact, I do not recall seeing her since this afternoon. But every time I inquired after Isla’s wellbeing, Alorus said she was nearby.”

“Dana be damned! Find Alorus. Now.” The fire in my veins burns like ice. “Ask every creature you pass if they’ve seen the human. Do not alert Prince Ever until we have thoroughly checked the area.”

“I shall find folk with strong air magic. They may be able to locate her.” She salutes and rushes into the fray, taking three more guards with her.

I will search along the creek bank. I pray to Dana that she has not fallen in. If she entered the water, the bean fionn could not resist such a tasty morsel.

“Raff, wait,” calls Lara as I spin on my heels, ready to begin searching. “Has anyone seen Isla lately? I haven’t. Not for ages, and I’m getting worried.”

Me too.

“Be at ease. Orlinda and I will find her.”

Lara nods. “Look! She’s on her way back now.”

Isla is? My head whips around, hope pounding in my chest, dread filling my gut when I see Orlinda striding toward us, dragging only a muttering Alorus behind her. But no Isla. No Isla.

“As I’ve told you many times over, I haven’t seen the girl since last eve,” he says to the guard.

“That cannot be possible.” Orlinda pushes him and he stumbles, falling at my feet. “And it is not what you told me several times this afternoon and this evening.”

I drag Alorus up, and Ever appears beside me, his silver gaze quickly assessing the faun. “Isla is gone?” he asks, immediately closing his eyes, his head dropping back as he expands his senses along air currents searching for disturbances, searching for Isla. His head lifts, a terrible expression on his face. “Nothing. There is no trace of her.”

Lara gasps, fingers covering her mouth.

“We saw Alorus with Isla today,” squeal a band of pixie girls as they fall over each other, drunk on cherry wine. “He spoke with her this afternoon beside her carriage. Alorus lies. Yes! Alorus is a liar.”

My blood burns, flames licking my fingertips, and I fix a death-glare on the faun, wondering how long it will take him to die as my flames eat his flesh and his heart continues to beat, his mind conscious through every gruesome moment. My palm outstretched, I step forward ready to find out.

“Wait, Brother.” Ever slams his hand into my shoulder. “Before you flay him, recall that, like us, he is fae and cannot lie.” He gives me a hard shake. “Look! Look at his silver pupils. Alorus has been glamored.”

Flanked by her consort, green-skinned Lord Stavros, and her war commander, Lord Ephron, the queen glides from her forest throne to join us on the banks of the creek. The diamond encrusted needles of black obsidian in her crown spray glittering light over courtiers’ gaping grins and the treetops overhead. As light as sea foam, white hair floats around her body, and she reaches pale fingers out to stroke Alorus’s arm.

“Dear Alorus,” she says. “How can we trust your words when you have a vile glamor muddling your mind?” She cups his trembling jaw, long blue nails piercing his skin. “Let your queen help you, dear heart.”

She closes her eyes and releases a moist sigh. Condensation drips from the forest as her water magic surges, sheets of rain pouring down and washing Alorus clean. They touch no one else and roll back into themselves, disappearing as if they had never been.

Rubbing his face, Alorus shudders and whimpers like a child. “I remember now. I am so sorry. Prince Temnen he—”

Temnen?” Ever, Mother, and I bellow, our combined shouts shaking birds from their nests.

“The Merit prince took Isla?” I ask.

Spark falls from my shoulders as I wrench Alorus by the collar of his leather vest and drag him until our noses touch. His hooves swing in the air, kicking my shins. I release him, and he tumbles to the ground. “Tell me!” I command.

Ever paces. Lara wrings her hands together. Mother stares into space as if she’s flying through it. And I cannot take my eyes off the stupid, stupid fae who let my mate be stolen away. “I said, tell me!” Spot fires ignite in the surrounding bushes, thick black smoke curling toward Alorus.

“Isla went to complete the task humans are much preoccupied with—peeing, she called it. She refused to let me accompany her. The moment she went through the trees, Temnen appeared declaring that Isla belonged to the Court of Merits. I drew my sword, but then he was gone. A girl stood in his place. She spoke strange words and a spell was cast. Next thing I know, I am here standing before you. I am sorry, Queen Varenus. I’m sorry Prince Everend. I’ve failed you all.”

Lightning flashes, turning the creek silver as Ever approaches him. “It is my brother, your future king, who you should apologize to. You have allowed his queen to be taken by our enemy.”

As one, the court gasps and titters. Kian’s laughter floats over the din. I can even hear his ugly little wings grating together as they flap in excitement.

Mother clutches my arm, her terrible gaze narrowing on me. “Is this true, Rafael? The human is your mate and you have told no one but Everend? If this is so, you are foolish indeed. How can you expect our court to honor and protect something if we do not realize it is precious?”

“She’s a person not a thing, but regardless you are right. I should have informed you. Isla has refused me. She doesn’t believe the prophecy or at least doesn’t care about it, and my pride was wounded. I wanted to win her over before I told you. Can you forgive my prideful disrespect, Mother?”

“There is no time for forgiveness. We must leave at once,” says Ever.

“If you’re going, I’m coming too,” Lara tells him as she takes Merri from Magret’s arms and hugs her close, kissing the little halfling’s red curls.

“Absolutely not. You must stay, Ever,” I say. “Complete the Five Bonds ceremony. Stay with your wife and keep your babe safe. Do not worry, Lara. I will bring Isla back to you.” I turn to the Supreme Commander. “Lord Ephron, gather your men. We will raze the Merit city to ashes. Come, follow me.”

At my back, the queen’s voice crawls down my spine like the deepest winter chill. “I will not sacrifice two of my land’s sons to the scrapheap of the Merit court.” Her body shakes, her hair dancing like furious snakes around her shoulders. “I refuse to allow it, and my will is law until Rafael weds his queen and takes the crown. On this matter, I will not be defied.”

“Indeed, your wishes are law,” agrees Ever, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “And I will not defy them.”

“Lord Ephron,” the queen continues. “You will take no men. Rafael will go alone.”

My chest tightens. She is giving me permission to go after Isla? And by myself.

What?” Ever’s jaw snaps shut with an audible click. “Well, then, it seems you are determined to sacrifice at least one of your sons. Have you lost your mind? What will become of the kingdom if Raff cannot retrieve her? You have already watched one son die. Do you want to lose another? Let at least the guards accompany him.”

Mother’s features elongate, her eyes flashing murder. “How dare you speak of your brother’s passing. No pain is equal to that of a mother’s who has lost her child—Rain’s death destroyed my light, crushed my soul. I will bear the insufferable horror of his death until my last breath.”

Her chin lifts and she stabs a blue talon at Ever’s chest. “But I am your queen and must do what is best for Talamh Cúig. Rafael is the heir and only he can bring the girl back without starting a full-scale war.”

“The queen is right,” I tell Ever. “Temnen wants war. He always has. Stealing Isla is his attempt at starting one. I can slip into their kingdom undetected, find her, and bring her back safely.”

“If you do not return in a sennight, we will follow and…” Ever’s words melt away as Mother’s cold eyes skewer him.

“You will not follow, Everend. What you will do should Raff fail to return, is become the kingdom’s heir once more.”

Wild wind and silver hair swirl around my brother, the sky above rumbling. He is angry. So very, very angry. “If Raff dies, it will undoubtedly be your hand that will have killed him, Mother. How will you reconcile yourself with that pain?”

“That is quite enough!” With a single clap, giant black moths burst from between her hands. They whirl in a dark cloud toward the forest canopy before crumbling to glittery dust, death by Queen Varenus’s infamous temper.

“Your time in the human realm has changed you greatly, Everend. You have grown even more insolent. Happiness has softened your heart, dulled your understanding of the ways of our people. But hear my words and comprehend their full meaning—your brother must find his mate. War must be prevented. Your involvement is forbidden. Vow it now or I will henceforth withdraw all protection for your human family in the realm of Faery.”

The sky shudders with Ever’s fury, but he yields to her wishes as he must. “So be it, Your Majesty. I swear to obey your commands, at least regarding Isla and Rafael and their rescue from the Merit court.”

“Only that and no more?” she asks, silver brow arching. “We shall see about that.”

“Yes, we shall,” I agree loudly, thumping Ever’s back to startle him from his anger. “As much as I dislike breaking up fascinating family discussions, I must depart. I have some shifting to do.”

Lord Ephron steps forward, battle armor clanking. “What are your plans? We must call the war council and meet at the Five Ways Table as soon as we return to the city.”

“You may call as many councils as you like, Lord Commander, but I won’t be here to attend them.” I peel my heavy cloak off. I prefer to make the change hindered by as few clothes as possible. I can always magic up a passable outfit when back in my fae form.

“And here is my excellent plan. I believe I’ll shift. Find the girl. And return promptly. A flawless scheme if ever there was one. Do you agree?”

The commander’s face tightens. “Please, Prince Rafael, you must—”

I push him gently aside just as Spark tries to clamber up my legs. I shove her down. “You’re staying here, Imp.”

She squeals like I’ve set her on fire and clings to my boots.

Throwing Ever and Lara a quick grin, I say, “Felicitations on your wedding. Do not let this ruin it. It is the last thing Isla would want. And please take care of Spark for me. I’m sure I will see you all again soon.”

“Raff, wait!” Ever reaches for my shoulder plate, but I rip it off, quickly stripping down to my leggings.

Ignoring my brother, Lara, and even the queen, I mutter the words that will begin the painful shift as I remove my boots. “By flesh, bone, wing, and fire—the Five gives life. The Five changes all. Lig é a dhéanamh.

Fire rushes through my blood as my entire being explodes, sinews stretching, bones shifting and crunching, feathers piercing through skin like so many burning needles. I curse. I moan and roar, my final howl transforming into the phoenix’s terrible shriek as I take to the sky. The firebird brings destruction; he is my dark heart set free.

I am the phoenix. At last. At last.

Orange flames rippling behind me, I turn on a wing and head southward toward the Obsidian Sea, toward the Land of Merits and a small human girl who I beg the Elements Five is still alive and unharmed.


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