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King of Merits: Chapter 11

A Spy

Merri

room three days later, I find him standing rigidly with his palms pressed against the rosewood cabinet, staring at a section of wall as though he can see the entire kingdom through it.

The frisson of dark energy that rolls off his body gives me pause to question yesterday’s decision to remove his leg chain. Perhaps I was too trusting, but I’ve never been able to bear the sight of a wounded creature trapped.

“Good morning,” I say with false gaiety, placing the breakfast tray on the bench opposite the fire. “Are you all right?”

“Perhaps.” Every one of the room’s seven candles gutter as his deep voice rumbles. “Am I to be served by the Seelie princess this morning? What an honor.” He speaks without turning, still focusing on the wall.

He doesn’t sound honored, more like furious.

“I wanted to see how you’re faring for myself. By the looks of you, it’s time for us to plan your journey home. What are you doing staring at the wall, anyway?”

“Losing my mind.”

Huh. Me, too.

Turning to fuss with the tray, the thud of Riven’s boots is the only warning I get before he grabs my shoulders and presses me against the rough tourmaline-lined walls, the stone scraping my skin through the delicate teal fabric of my gown.

Cool fingers wrap and squeeze my throat, his warm breath gusting over my lips in harsh pants. “Keen to be rid of me, Merri?”

“What? Of course, I…”

Thunder shakes the sky nearby, my shock affecting the weather. For some reason, my power is unusually strong this morning. If I wanted to, I could probably crush his lungs in one inhalation. Tear them from his chest in two. Mince his remains with three.

But I don’t move. Barely breathing, I stare at his sorrowful eyes as they trace over my throat, then my mouth.

Giving a low chuckle, his nail trails over the gold falcons swooping down my neckline. “I like this gown, Princess. The feathers are quite entrancing. But I don’t like its effect on me.” He shakes his head hard, clearing it. “It makes me feel… unsettled.”

I draw a ragged breath. “Let me go, Riven. I agree with your earlier claim. You seem to have lost your senses.”

“Can you help me find them, sweet Princess of Air?” Then his warm lips press against mine.

I can’t move. Don’t want to move, not for all the air magic in the seven realms.

“Help me,” he whispers, and opens my mouth with his own.

Electricity shoots through my veins.

His kiss deepens, the weight of his body trapping me against the wall. “Are you willing, Merri? Will you save me from this torture.”

“Riven…what are you talking about?”

“I don’t know…don’t care anymore.”

Warm hands skim my sides to my waist as he drugs me with slow, mind-melting kisses. Then he wraps his arms around my middle and lifts me off the ground, turning toward the bed.

“Stop! Riven, please.” I’m afraid, not of the Merit king, but of myself and of what I might do if I give in to my darkest desires. Once I do, there’ll be no turning back. And my heart will break when he leaves. My dreams of him will continue, and he’ll haunt my life forever.

Even knowing this, part of me wants to push him down on that bed and take and take and take.

The soles of my boots hit the ground, and he tears away from me and sinks onto the bed, rubbing his face with his palms.

Through a curtain of gleaming hair, he says, “My apologies, Princess Merrin. Life as a prisoner does not suit me. This doesn’t excuse my behavior, but I believe my mind has fractured. My thoughts are in tatters, and I no longer know what I’m doing.”

Silent, I stare. How do I find the words to reprimand him for starting down a path I secretly long to take myself?

His jaw clenches, a vein in his temple pulsing. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t appropriate behavior for a king, for a fae, or indeed any creature. And I don’t mean to mislead you with my actions. You’re exquisitely lovely, but I’m not in need of a mistress or a plaything. And even if I were, a Seelie princess would be a very poor choice.”

Well—a compliment delivered with a brutal insult. Charming. I work hard to keep my expression blank, to appear unaffected by his words. Before, I did want him to stop, but one more kiss, one more plea from his lips, and I would have changed my mind. Even now, part of me wishes I had.

“Can you ever forgive my transgression? I vow I shall never treat you with such disrespect again. I don’t know how to make it up to—”

“Of course I can forgive you,” I mumble, re-arranging cutlery on the tray. “It is already done. Think no more of it. This chamber has a peculiar energy that we’ve been unsuccessful in eradicating. I too am affected by its dark persuasions—I was a willing participant in those…um, kisses.” Hands on hips, I force a strained laugh, hoping to make light of the situation.

His expression only grows more troubled.

“Seriously, Riven, it’s rumored that a long-ago prince used this room for all manner of wild pleasures. I beg you not to think of what just happened ever again.” Even though I’ll certainly replay those melting kisses over and over, the fragrance of his soft hair as it caressed my cheeks, how perfectly I molded to his body.

Isla and Mother did warn me that pleasure could be magnified with the right male, but they didn’t tell me it would be addictive and devastating. Right now, I should regret that I removed Riven’s iron shackles yesterday, but I don’t regret a single moment of our closeness today, of breathing his essence deep.

I face him with a bright smile. “Eat your breakfast. Isla made brioche for you again. I’ll speak to her about getting you out of here, because it’s clear the sooner you leave the better. And, I’m sorry, but for both our sakes, that leg shackle should probably go back on.”

Closing his eyes, he nods, and my soft heart bleeds in sympathy. He must long for freedom, for home, and his people. Meanwhile, I stand here wishing things were different between us, mooning over him like a lonely leannán sídhe.

After I bid him goodbye, I race through the castle’s grand hallways and opulent rooms, seeing only the Merit king’s eyes, until I reach the Great Hall where my family is currently breakfasting with a small party of moss elves.

“And she is still secure, you say?” I hear my father ask Tanisha, the leader of the elves.

The tiny matriarch nods her assent, her palm crossing her heart.

Father must be speaking of Aer, the corrupt air mage, who lives in service of the moss elves with her powers bound to the High Mage’s.

As he leans back, chewing on a stick of twisted candy, Father’s boot thuds on the curved dining table that sits in the center of the hall. The table is laden with treats and surrounded by my family, seven moss elves, and a few favored members of the court.

Only Grandmother Varenus sits upon the dais with her consort, green-skinned Lord Stavros, clinging to pride and formality. With a resigned but withering look at Father’s boots, she clicks her fingers and sends a whisper of black moths to tangle in her eldest living son’s hair, tut-tutting at him the whole time. He merely laughs and clunks a second boot on the table’s edge—a brave and foolhardy fae.

Isla springs from her seat and skips up onto the dais to pass Aodhan into Varenus’s arms. The old queen scowls at the babe as though she detests the sight of him, but I see the secret smile flashing across her lips. She adores him as she does each member of her family, even the part-human ones.

According to the tales, once, she longed to drown Mom and Isla in a flood of water magic and cleanse her realm of humans forever. But, thankfully, times have changed.

In fact, here in Faery, change is the only thing we can count on. Kingdoms crumble into ruins while others continue to shine and sprawl ever larger. Old queens and young kings change, too, turning from bad to good and good to bad. I think of Riven and his spine-tingling kisses, wondering which category he fits into.

Ignoring my brother’s raised eyebrows and beckoning gestures, I take a bowl of sorrel soup and sit next to the moss elves.

Marelius entertains me with stories of the children’s recent antics while I feed baby Velvet tiny pieces of soup-soaked bread. Young Jasper begs me to join him in a dance to the piper’s jaunty music, but I decline. I’m still too unsettled by the encounter with the Merit, the hunger in his eyes, mirrored in my soul, and the way it felt to be held by him—perfect, as if I belonged in his arms.

When I finish my soup, I amble over to the banquet table and fill a plate with split figs and cream, then lean against a vine-covered column. Mother notices me and strides over, her green and silver dress floating around her legs.

“There you are, sweetheart.” She kisses my cheek. “I’ve missed you.”

“Yes, it’s been an age since last night’s dinner. Have I changed much since you last laid eyes on me?”

She slaps my shoulder. “Oh, shush. You’re so like your father with the constant sarcasm. Even though it nearly explodes Ever’s brain to skirt so close to lying all the time, he just can’t seem to help himself.”

“He’ll do anything to make you laugh, Mom. You know that, right?”

“Of course. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that it doesn’t hurt you to lie even half as much as it does him. Perhaps if it did, I’d know more about what you were scheming.”

“Me? Whatever could you mean, Mother darling?”

She shakes her head at the guilty blush blooming on my cheeks. “I haven’t seen you scampering around the castle much lately, and whenever I do, you seem preoccupied. Off with the fairies as we humans like to say.”

Of course she’d notice the slightest detail about me. She’s my mother and an astute one at that.

“So, what’s been preoccupying you? Has a boy from the court captured your attention?”

Why does it always have to be about romance? I fidget with my bracelet. “Yes, it’s something like that.” My preoccupation is male and he’s in the court, albeit hidden away from it. And the word captured fits the scenario better than Mother could possibly know.

“Be careful, won’t you, Merri? I want you to have fun, but believe me heartbreak isn’t very amusing.”

“That’s rich coming from the girl who ran away with a Faery prince after he tried to kill you!”

Laughter crinkles her eyes as she wipes tears of mirth away. I fail to see what’s so funny.

“It wasn’t like that, Merri,” she says. “I was Ever’s captive.”

“Oh, well that makes it all right then!” My thoughts fly to Riven, imprisoned alone in the ante-chamber, pining for his home, his people, and slowly going mad. Or maybe he was already insane before we met. According to rumors he was—and is.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful with this boy, whoever he is. As Aunt Clare used to say, handsome is as handsome does. Don’t be sucked in by a splendid face. Fae beauty is often a mask hiding unthinkable cruelty. You know this, but please don’t forget it.”

I look away, remembering the stories about Father before he met Mom, back when he was the Black Blood heir of Talamh Cúig. Whenever I look at my handsome, smiling father, I find those tales difficult to believe. Nonetheless, they’ve been fodder for many nightmares over the years.

The way Mother talks about the Folk, I think she sometimes forgets I’m half fae and that over her time in Faery, she herself has been remade into an in-between being—not quite human and not entirely Seelie.

“Please, tell me it’s not Kian.” A deep frown mars her lightly freckled skin.

“I’m not that stupid, Mom. Have a little faith.”

“I do. I promise, I do. But you know faeries—their tricks and deceits are legendary. Now don’t scowl at me. You wear your every thought on that pretty face. I can’t help it if I know when you’re up to no good.” Her smile disappears. “I’ll say it one last time; beware of this boy you’re dallying with.”

I draw a slow breath. “Of course. And for the record, I believe this fellow is fairly harmless.” For the moment.

Forest-blade eyes narrow. “Darling, I always know when you’re employing your halfling skill of not quite telling the truth. Be careful.”

“I will.” No lie there, because, much to my eternal annoyance, my mother is nearly always right. If she senses that I’m in danger, then I must be.

Glancing away from Mother, I notice Queen Isla at the other end of the banquet table, piling her plate high as she bounces Aodhan on her hip. I need to speak with her while she’s alone.

“Sorry, Mom, I need to finalize arrangements with Isla for this evening. She’s teaching me more about manipulating fire with air.” Among other things.

“After dinner? Shall Ever and I join you?”

“No. No need. She asked me to come alone. She probably wants to hear my thoughts on a fresh list of prospective husbands and talk about future alliances. I’m sure she’s already spoken to you and Dad about it. I wouldn’t want to put you through it again.”

“Fair enough. It’s difficult to hear you spoken of as a pawn in a political game, Merri. But you don’t have to agree to anyone until you get to know them first. Don’t forget that.”

“But Landolin—”

“Your destiny is to marry a prince, maybe a future king, and bring two lands together. Isla has seen this. I don’t know how, but she swears this will come to pass. But as your mother, I want you to know this fate needn’t be an unhappy one, my love.”

Relief and gratitude wash through me. “Thank you. Now it’s my turn to offer some advice. You should see to your husband. Look at him up there on the dais causing trouble with Grandma Varenus.”

She watches Father leaning over the Queen Mother and gesticulating wildly while wearing his most mischievous smirk. “Oh no,” says Mom. “What’s he up to now? Probably hoping to infuriate her into flooding another banquet. Remember what he made her do last sennight? It took much pleading and many gifts of gold to appease the Dún Mountain dwarfs. They really don’t like swimming!”

Laughing, I hug her hard, then stride across the marble floor toward Isla. I think of the queen’s prediction, how I’m destined to marry a king, wondering if she’s seen which particular king.

“How fares your king?” asks Isla in a low voice.

“I wish you’d stop calling him that.”

She laughs. “Here, take Aodhan, so I can eat properly. And be honest, do you really want me to stop calling Riven yours, Merri?”

I hug Aodhan closely, burying my nose in his golden curls. “Yes! I really do.” My fingers go to the holey stone beneath my spider-web silk gown. I rub the stone’s center, the action soothing. “You told me he was dangerous,” I whisper. “I should have listened to you.”

“Oh? Now the truth comes out.” She eats several mouthfuls of fragrant stew. “Mm. This is delicious. What herb has Elowen used? It’s very subtle. Wild aniseed, I think. Now what has Riven done exactly?”

“He hasn’t hurt me physically. Quite the opposite.”

Isla’s fair brow rises. “How interesting. Tell me more.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. What I do want, however, is to plot his return to the City of Merits. He’s in good enough shape to survive the journey. Is it worth considering Ether’s help to arrange a portal opening?”

She nods. “It would be simplest. But I’m not yet sure I want to involve her in this mess. Give me time to ponder it.” She rubs her hands together. “I feel a baking session coming on. After dinner, I still want you to meet me in the Onyx Courtyard as planned. We can train, and I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.”

She hip bumps me and steps backward, arms outstretched toward Aodhan who gurgles as I pass him back to his grinning mother. “See you then, Merri.” She smacks a kiss on her child’s cheek and spins to face the main table. “Come on you little rascal, let’s see what mischief your daddy and Spark are up to.”

The king slouches in his gilded chair as he laughs at his mire fox riding about on Balor as she waves Marelius’s sword like she’s riding into battle. The moss elf gives chase, hooting with laughter.

Isla passes Aodhan into Raff’s arms, then sits in the king’s lap and straightens his gold and citrine crown.

Wyn and my parents are dancing with courtiers who’ve recently joined the party, and a throng of winged fae stream in through the enormous doors flung open at the hall’s entrance, the bronze, six-pointed star embedded in the ancient wood flashing in the light.

I jostle my way through the assembly, drawn in to dance briefly with groups of revelers as I pass by.

When I reach the doors, Marelius peels away from the crowd, tugging my dress and sending gold feathers wafting into the air. “Princess,” he rasps in his deep-forest voice. “Don’t leave by this way. The red one awaits. He is not to be trusted.”

“The red one? I can handle Kian, but I thank you for the warning, sweet Marelius. I’ll be fine.”

I skip down the stairs, eager to breathe some revitalizing fresh air before I retreat to my bedroom for peace and quiet and prepare for my meeting with Isla.

As warned, Kian waits along the pathway, leaning against a black wall, his near-permanent sneer morphing into a wide smile when he spies me.

“Princess Merrin, how lovely to see you!” He bows, the tips of his bright hair scraping the ground. “How have your draygonet hunts been of late? Bountiful in the current season, no doubt.”

Unless it’s the Wild Hunt, he doesn’t give two hoots about hunting. He’s too busy preening to take part in any useful activity.

Kian snatches my hand and kisses it. To hide my grimace, I spin and walk away, but in the space of two breaths, he’s striding beside me.

“Yesterday’s hunt was very satisfying,” I say, finally answering his pointless question. “I felled five draygonets with my bow, and Mother sent the last three fleeing. You know how they despise her singing.”

“They’re the only creatures in the kingdom who dislike it,” he says.

He emits a hog-like grunt and stops walking, tugging me to a halt as well. “What is that you have there?” he asks, his voice quaking as he points at my chest.

“This?” I hold up the necklace peeking from my dress, my finger covering the hole. “It’s just a polished stone on a bit of leather. Nothing of consequence.”

Kian’s greedy eyes fix on it.

“It is hardly nothing. It’s a holey stone. Quite a powerful one.” Since Kian’s element is earth, he would know, and the hunger emanating from him tells me the stone calls to him strongly.

“I must have it,” he says, clawed hand snatching at my necklace.

I jump backward, laughing as I tuck it under my dress. “No, Kian. I found it.” Sort of. “It’s mine.” I take off, striding away as fast as I can without breaking into a run.

Within moments, his heels clack behind me. “What if we bargain for it?”

“You have nothing I want, Kian Leondearg.”

“Nothing? I doubt that. What if I were to offer my silence, pay for the stone by keeping your treacherous little secret from your father?”

My heart jolts in my chest as we round a corner. I stumble, and he grips my elbow, steadying me. “What secret?”

“The secret of the Silver King.”

I swallow hard, my stomach churning as I face the dirty rotten sneak. “What are you talking about, Kian?”

Wearing a gruesome smirk, he leans close, warm breath gusting against my cheek. “I saw you, Princess. Yesterday at Emerald Bay. I watched you have a picnic lunch with a phantom. At first, I was perplexed. I thought you’d gone mad, waving your hands around at nothing and flirting with the empty air. I sensed there was more to see than my eyes beheld. I squinted. I concentrated, drawing power from earth and stone and, finally, I saw the spectral crown, writhing in a void of nothing, directly above where your gaze was fixed.”

Fear ices my veins. I think of the strands of red I saw on our way back through the forest—Kian’s hair. “You’re the one who has lost your mind, Kian. You saw a figment of your overactive imagination, that is all. A crown waving in the air! What creature could hide in the presence of the Queen of the Land of Five? Ezili was present, too, a sea witch queen, no less.”

With one arm looping a jade column outside a house, he spins around it like a giddy child. “No. No. No, Princess Merrin. Your halfling lies don’t fool me. I know that crown, those hateful spires of jet. Its terrible, dark shape. That crown is famous throughout the realms, for it belongs to none other than the Silver King. The King of Merits, your father’s long-time enemy.”

Sheet lightning flashes above. The sky darkens, thunder rumbling in the distance. Kian’s low chuckle is vile. He believes he has me at his mercy, exactly where he’s always fancied me.

Briefly, I close my eyes and terrible images assault me. The snow. Blood. Riven’s silver hair streaked with both, his lips forming a gentle smile as his lifeless eyes stare into mine, blue as a butterfly’s wing.

Oh, Riven. No.

“Merri?” Kian shakes me out of my dream. “Merri, what are you doing?”

“Wishing you away.”

“Ah, so you admit it’s true? You and the queen have the missing king, Riven na Duinn, yes?”

I may be smitten with Riven, but I still don’t trust him or necessarily like him. Regardless, I won’t ever hand him over to Kian. I won’t give him up. Not to this conniving self-serving prig, not to my father, and not even to Raff, our King of Fire.

“We have him, but not for long.” I force my lips into a conspiratorial smile. “We’re helping him return safely to his home.”

Kian’s breath comes short and fast, triumph glinting in his eyes. “How did you come by him? Was it you who brought him down? If so, I would love to hear the tale.”

I give a breezy laugh. “No. I cannot lay claim to that impressive feat. A being unknown to us felled him. But don’t worry. When we find this creature, they’ll pay dearly for their crime.”

“Give me the necklace, Merrin, and I vow to keep your secret. In addition, you must speak favorably about me to your father, so the next time I press my suit for your hand, neither he nor you will reject it without due consideration. Do these two things and your family will never know that you helped the Merit King.”

“What of the queen? She obviously knows, too.”

His face reddens at the thought of Isla. Sensibly, he fears her greatly.

“Let’s not mention our little bargain to that nosy firebrand.”

Charming way to speak of his queen.

“Hmm. Let me think on it. I’ll give you an answer tomorrow.”

“Certainly, dear Princess. In the meantime, permit me to take the stone as a token.”

“Merri, there you are!” booms a voice from behind us. I turn to see Wyn and Ivor trotting down the path, the wolf’s black coat ruffling in the breeze.

“Prince Wynter,” says Kian as he makes a short bow. He hates my brother almost as much as he hates my father. In both cases, the feeling is mutual.

“Hello, Khan,” greets Wyn, grinning as he tucks an unbuttoned black shirt into leather pants.

Kian’s nostrils flare. “That’s my horse’s name.”

“Oh, is it? Sorry. I did think it sounded too regal for you.” Well in his cups, he staggers over a pebble, then rights himself, raking long black bangs out of unfocused emerald eyes. “Now what could you two possibly be discussing?” he inquires.

Kian thrusts his chin out. “Many fascinating prospects, I assure you.”

Laughing, Wyn takes my arm and drags me along the path toward his favorite rear entrance of the castle. Unfortunately, Kian keeps pace alongside us. My brother’s wolf bares his teeth and growls at him.

Wyn waves our unwanted companion away. “Begone, Kian,” he demands. “Ivor and I will walk my sister to her destination. We don’t require the clickety-clack of your mincing steps for sound effect. I already have the beginnings of a throbbing headache.”

“That’d be the mulberry wine,” I tease.

My brother elbows my ribs, and we quicken our steps, leaving the gaping red-headed beast behind us as fast as we can.

“Until tomorrow, Princess Merrin,” Kian calls, his voice edged with the shrill promise of payback.

I clutch my stone, its heat a comfort against the images that invade my mind of white and red and blue.

“Do I want to know what that was all about?” Wyn gives me a tight smile.

“No, Brother. You don’t.”

Nor would it do him any good to know what I’m thinking—that Kian is all talk and would never dare tell my father that I have the Merit king. Father would love nothing more than a good excuse to crush Kian’s lungs, and he’d happily shoot the messenger who delivered such dire news. Kian knows it, too.

So, I won’t meet him tomorrow, and because he’s not brave enough to risk his life or quite as foolish as he pretends to be, he’ll keep my secret.

With a shiver, the truth settles in my stomach—Riven’s safety now depends on Kian’s cowardice.

It’s high time for Isla and me to send the Merit king on his way.


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