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King of Always: Chapter 24

Moping

Raff

chase the girl like a lovelorn sap,” snarls Kian as our swords clash, his face turning as scarlet as his flowing hair. “I beg you to do anything but that.”

I growl and push forward with all my might, sending his sword clattering over the black stones of the onyx courtyard. “It is time for you to shut up about, Isla. Anyone who heard you would think that you were the heir to the Crown of Five, not I. But in case you are still confused, let me make myself clear.” Nodding at his sword on the ground, I say, “I am the future King of Talamh Cúig, and I shall do as I please. Now cease your whining.”

Face wrinkling like an old plum, he paces before me, his blue-velvet cape billowing like a sail. “Even if it means binding yourself to an ill-tempered human for all eternity?”

“Yes, even that.” I incline my head and hurry toward the exit, rushing through it as I ignore his shouted requests for me to return and listen to his dubious version of sense.

I must find Lara. She will know where Isla is. Squinting, I search the skies until I spot the órga falcons eddying directly above my brother’s not-so-secret garden. Of course. On such a beautiful day, where else would they linger?

As I stride toward the eastern walls of the castle, I stretch my aching arms and shoulders. On account of my recent swim in the Lake of Spirits, the source of our land’s nature magic, my full strength has nearly returned. And due to Isla’s presence at Talamh Cúig, the effect of the poison in my blood diminishes. Since my return three days ago, I haven’t seen my human mate, but thoughts of her have plagued me.

I’ve fought with myself—give her space, or go to her and beg for a few moments of her company, my shifting opinion on which course to take more erratic than the flight of fireflies.

When Ever was the Black Blood heir, my life was very simple with only two things on my mind—having fun and making trouble. Now, everything is muddled and complicated, made worse these past few days by lack of sleep. But amid the turmoil of my buzzing thoughts, one thing is clear as a silver flame—I must speak to Isla. And soon. I hasten my pace accordingly.

Moments later, I burst into Ever and Lara’s garden, finding them deep in a game of hnefatafl. “Alright. You had better tell me where she is,” I demand.

“Who?” asks Ever, pretending he doesn’t know.

“Isla of course. Oh, hello, sweet Merrin. I didn’t see you there behind Balor’s over-sized form. What in the realms are you feeding your hound, Ever? He has grown wider since I last saw him.”

Balor whines, rolling onto his back like a pup.

“Sorry, old friend,” I tell him. “We will take you hunting soon. You’ve been playing dress up with the children for far too long.”

Smiling, young Merri waves in greeting then continues to braid sections of Balor’s shaggy coat, weaving tiny silver bells throughout. Tongue lolling in a foolish grin, the dog looks more like a court jester than a fierce beast of the Wild Hunt.

“Hello, Lara, how are you on this fine day?” I inquire. “And where is your cousin?”

Lara gives me a dazzling smile. “I couldn’t be happier now that you and she are safe and well.”

“Why do you need to see Isla?” my brother asks, employing his most annoying tone. The one that suggests he knows everything and is far superior to me in all ways. One day, I shall enjoy making him call me Your Majesty. Even if it’s just the once.

I pace back and forth before their table. “I do not fully know why I want to see her. And if I did, it would be my business. Perhaps I am curious to see how she fares.”

“In that case, I may be of assistance.” Ever grins. “Because I can report she is hale and hearty. Now there is no need to waste your time visiting her, and you may thank me for saving you the effort.”

“You sound alarmingly like our mother.” I try hard but fail to suppress my scowl. “And even so, I need to see her. Do you know her whereabouts or not?”

“Yes, I do,” he says, placing a grape in Lara’s mouth, the corners of their lips quirking, their eyes smoldering at each other.

Anger spikes hot inside me. “Well hurry up and tell me then!”

Slowly, Ever’s gaze slides from Lara’s to mine. “Calm yourself, Brother. First, I have a question for you. Do you love her?”

I glare at him. How dare he ask the very thing I have refused to ask myself.

For three days now, I have moped around my chambers, stalked through the forests, growled at servants and friends alike. The court is ablaze—bright with joyful celebrations—yet I remain shackled to the shadows of a tower cell, heated lips sliding over hers.

What is the truth anyway? Elusive. Subjective. Unutterable.

I can manage one truth: I love the taste of red-wine summer lips.

Another: I am obsessed with her.

And the third truth…

“Raff? Are you okay?” asks Lara. “Ever, look at him. I’ve never seen him look so unhappy.”

“That is because he cannot answer my question.” Turning to me, Ever sighs. “I’ll ask it again. Do you love her?”

I shake my head.

“Then say you do not,” he insists.

My mouth opens. I draw breath. “I do not…” Words trail away as I grimace down at the grass.

“There. You cannot speak the lie. It is obvious you possess feelings for her. And if my hunch is correct, to make her yours, you must prove your feelings to her. What woman truly desires a marriage of mere convenience? Certainly not Isla, a girl of rare courage and independence.”

“Perhaps I do feel something,” I cautiously admit. “So what if I do?”

“So what? Are you a fool? You’ve been home three days and not once tried to speak to her!”

“Kian advised me—”

“Oh, for Dana’s sake!” says Ever. “Since when has Kian’s advice been of use to anyone but himself?”

“Well… Never.”

“Precisely. Brother, you know what you must do.”

Yes. I do.

I finally do.

“I have been more stupid than a brainless draygonet. But I promise I will fix this as soon as you tell me where she is.”

“Gone,” Ever and Lara say.

“What? Where?”

Merri tugs my leg, squeezing her eyes shut as she looks inward and uses the sight she was born with. “Near the hazel trees,” she says in her bell-like voice. “Lila and the mages three.”

“She’s trying to go through the portal and return home without speaking to me. I cannot believe it!”

Lara laughs. “That’s Isla. Always a rash one. You’d better hurry.”

“And she had better still be in our realm,” I say, striding toward the gate that leads into the meadow behind the castle.

They have the gall to laugh at my back. “And what will you do if she isn’t?” calls Lara.

I walk through the gate, then leaping up, grip the wall and peer back over it. “I don’t know. Possibly cry.”

I let go and drop to the ground. Without looking up, I begin to run and slam straight into Magret, Lara and Isla’s closest confidante in Faery, who is now scrambling on the ground like a beetle trying to right itself.

“Prince Rafael! Greetings,” she says as I lift her back onto her feet. “I’ve been searching for you.”

Mustering up a charming smile, I sketch a hurried bow. “I am flattered to be in your thoughts. How can I assist you? You must speak quickly, however, for I am in a hurry.”

Antlers quivering, she grins and passes me a folded piece of parchment. “It is a letter from Isla. She bids you to read it immediately, so I may return with your reply.”

A letter from Isla? To me? Perhaps this is her farewell, and if that is the case, I’m not sure I want to read it.

Mouth dry, I open it and scan the words.

This is…unbelievable.

Perhaps this is a trick of Kian’s. Every muscle drawn tight, I read the words again:

To the Fire Prince of Talamh Cúig,

Cloaked in a midnight sky,

Beneath a sea of stars,

On a field of moonlit poppies,

From a girl to a boy, words must be spoken.

Truth must be told, and truth must be heard.

Tonight is this night.

And you are the boy.

Raff, will you meet me?

Please.

I’ll bring cookies…you bring the fire.

Yours,

Isla.

Swallowing hard, I meet Magret’s pale gaze. “This is truly from Isla?”

Magret’s smile is sweet but tinged with pity, as though she converses with a fool. I’m certain she does. “Of course it is. I saw her write the note with my own eyes.”

“Look at me.” I grip her chin, dragging her close to search her eyes for signs of tricks and glamor. Finding none, I release her gently. “Yes. Please tell Isla I shall be in the meadow at midnight as she requests.”

Meet my Fire Queen under a starlit sky?

Only death could keep me from her.


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