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King of Merits: Chapter 2

The Silver Pond

Merri

city’s vine-covered walls, then wind down the green-tourmaline pathway that leads to the massive jade gates at the entrance to town.

Terra River’s waterfalls roar below us as we trot along the golden bridge, then Nahla breaks into a gallop, her hooves thudding over the grassy plains of the Lowlands, the Dún Mountains a dark line in the distance. I let loose a long shout. Freedom at last.

Smiling, I scan the azure sky. The seven órga falcons circle above, calling to each other as they angle their wings for home and swoop over me, their bellies as white as fair-weather clouds.

With the castle’s green towers disappearing behind me, I fix my gaze on the mountain and lean low over Nahla’s neck, her hooves barely touching the ground as we fly along.

Bearded firecrest swallows follow in our tracks, flitting through the long grass in rainbow-colored flocks. Greencoats, the small trooping fairies of the Lowlands, colorful rabbits, mice, and all manner of tiny creatures scatter, taking shelter as we thunder past.

This is blissful, Nahla and I racing with the wind under an expanse of blue sky, Cara curled around my neck, and the last wisps of this morning’s dream finally dissolving. Energy courses through me, power, joy. Life is better than good—it’s perfect.

Without warning, everything changes.

Nahla’s pace falters, and she slows to a clumsy trot, then a walk that zigzags aimlessly across the green plains. Something is very wrong. I give a light tug on the reins, and she stops, hanging her head listlessly.

As I dismount, Cara crawls around my shoulders, her striped tail wrapping too tightly around my neck. “Calm down. Everything’s all right,” I tell her. “Nahla isn’t feeling well, that’s all.”

I cradle my horse’s head and stroke the white star on her face. Her brown eyes are glazed, her ears barely flickering. She looks exhausted. Sick. Or worse—bewitched.

A bubble of fear expands in my throat, and I lift my eyes and scrutinize the plains, shocked that I barely recognize them. I squint eastward in the direction of Waylon’s Tor. The usual cuts and curves of the landscape that indicate the way to the Crystalline Oak have disappeared, and in their place, a purple mist hovers, stretching as far as the eye can see.

I spin on my heels, circling around and around and can see no pathway out, no familiar landmarks. This has to be magic. Powerful magic.

But whose?

“Hello?” I call out, as if whoever trapped me in this fog will happily pop out and introduce themselves. Of course, no one answers.

I’m completely lost, which makes no sense at all. My brother and I have spent our lives ranging over this territory, and I know it as well as the Emerald Castle’s every nook and cranny.

Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply, examining the insidious purple vapor. The taste of strong power vibrates over my tongue. I let my senses drift along the air currents but don’t get very far. Something blocks me, a spell too dense to penetrate. It feels like high magic. Could the insane air mage finally have escaped her prison deep in the Emerald Forest?

A veil of gray clouds covers the sky, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t sweep them away. I may be a halfling, but I’m an Elemental Princess of Air. A little cloud manipulation should be a cinch.

Okay. So this is bad. I need to get home, and fast. Talamh Cúig is north-west, but with this darned fog, I can’t see the sun or sense the currents on the breeze.

I’m lost.

Hopelessly lost.

Nahla makes a distressed sound, and I kiss her nose. “I think we should keep moving. The fog might clear if we do, and we’ll go slowly. Do you think you can walk?”

My horse whinnies in agreement, and Cara crawls farther underneath my hair. Bravery isn’t my mire squirrel’s greatest strength.

“All right. Let’s do this.” With jerky movements, I string my bow, then gripping it tightly, I take the reins with my other hand and lead Nahla forward.

The strange silence that surrounds us is eerie and complete, as if the seven realms have imploded and left only the three of us alive. Knowing it will be futile, I call my father in my mind. I get the answer I expected—more oppressive silence.

Think rationally. How do I escape this?

So far, no creature has jumped out of the gloomy vapor and attacked us. And if they do, I have my bow. I’m not a sitting ballybog, stuck in the mud, flailing my limbs while I wait to have my head kicked off my shoulders. I’m a fighter. I’ll survive. I just have to keep moving until this mist clears, until I can see where I am again.

Maybe Nahla knows. “Nahla, can you take us home?”

She nickers and changes course, speeding up. Hope flares in my chest as I walk beside her, periodically attempting to surf the air currents, not entirely convinced I should trust my spell-drugged horse’s sense of direction.

My thoughts meander to my parents. I think of Mom, how she coined the term surf-the-currents to describe Dad’s and my ability to send our magic along the air and seek disturbances in its patterns and learn from them.

Dad always teases her when she admonishes him for not paying attention during important court events by replying that he’s busy surfing for the benefit of others. This answer always wins him a clip over the head, which he loves.

At this moment, I’d give anything to see them.

Nahla and I struggle along blindly for some time. The skin on the back of my neck crawls as if unseen eyes are watching close by. My muscles ache, my mind growing sleepy and dull, and I have to remind myself to keep a firm grip on the cherry wood of my bow to stop it from slipping to the ground.

With every step I take, the grass looks more comfortable and softer than a bed. I consider lying down to gather my strength while I come up with a plan.

Yes.

A little rest sounds wonderful.

My steps halt. I close my eyes, lowering myself to the ground. I’ll just stop a moment…

Cara screeches and buries her claws in my hair, digging her nails in hard.

“Ouch! Why in the Elements are you attacking me?” Stupid question—because when I open my eyes, the answer is obvious. While I was busy falling asleep on my feet, a winding pathway has appeared in the fog. I intend to follow it, no matter where or what it leads to, because even a battle to the death would be preferable than wandering in this purple haze for all eternity.

We walk slowly, the mist guiding us along a shifting, writhing tunnel. Barren trees appear at the edges of the fog, their skeletal branches sprouting leaves as we go until, finally, the mist lowers to knee-height, and we come out in the middle of a thick, dark forest.

Silver light shines through arrow-straight fir trunks, the trees opening onto a dark glade, a pool of sparkling water at its center. No birds chirp or call. No animals scratch or yip or growl. This place is weird. Unnatural even for Faery, because there have never been any forests on this side of the Dún Mountains.

So where am I?

My pulse pounds. I draw an arrow from my quiver that’s strapped to the saddle and hold it alongside my bow. I whisper soothing words to Nahla and walk steadily forward because whatever this is, I intend to face it head-on. Even if my arms are too shaky to aim straight.

The temperature drops. A cold wind rises, howling like a mad creature as its icy tongue licks over my skin. I try to manipulate it, to change it, but I can’t.

Dropping Nahla’s reins, I fasten my cloak tighter and move as if in a dream toward the water. My thoughts turn sluggish, my heartbeat, too.

I stop at the pond’s edge, my gaze scanning the boughs of a gigantic ash tree, and I admire the way its gnarled branches reach over the water, embracing it. It’s such a pretty sight. So comforting.

Nahla wanders into the trees to nibble on some grass. I’m not worried. She’ll be fine. Nothing can harm her in this lovely, special place.

As I crouch down beside the pond, preparing to scoop clear water into my dry mouth, a pair of dragonflies lands on my arm. Their electric blue bodies distract me, reminding me of my mother’s tattoo. I swallow past a dull ache in my throat, yearning for one of Mom’s warm hugs.

But, no, I don’t need my mother in this wonderful place—so dark and cold and beautiful.

Yes, it really is enchanting.

To think that only a few moments ago, I was desperate to go home, but now I feel quite happy to stay here forever. Lie down. Fall asleep. Rest.

What was I doing? Oh, yes, having a drink. Then I’ll sleep.

I dip my hand in the water, the icy temperature making me draw it back briefly. It’s winter-cold, freezing. Then I take a sip and close my eyes.

A twig cracks nearby, then a deep male voice echoes behind me, paralyzing my muscles. Cara shivers against me, but for some reason, I can’t lift a finger to comfort her.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, his angry tone alarming me.

Okay. What happens now?

I should turn around and face my foe, leap up with my bow drawn, but I can’t move. And, also, my bow seems to have vanished.

“You shouldn’t drink that,” he says.

My hands shake, my insides, too. I’m very familiar with the dark timbre of that voice. I know it well, because I last heard it this morning in my dream.

Forcing my muscles to relax, very slowly I peer over my shoulder.

A tall figure, wreathed in shadows, stands on the edge of the trees. Silver hair. Pale skin. A cruel expression. His lips part and his shockingly blue eyes widen.

You,” he breathes out.

My gaze focuses, and I stare, taking in every inch of him.

The fae standing before me is a young warrior with a face as beautiful as the brightest star in the midnight sky. His expression severe and cold, he glitters like a god of old.

A wavy curtain of snow-white hair frames his cheekbones and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. His clothes are black, his spiked crown, too. He wears a dark tunic over leather and silver armor with pointed shoulder pauldrons in the typical style of fae royalty.

The jeweled sword belt hanging from his lean hips holds no weapon. One arm is folded behind his back in a genteel pose, but in contrast, his lips form a feral curve.

Without a doubt, this is the fae who haunts my dreams. I know his face as well as I do my own. He doesn’t look friendly or pleased to see me here, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m drawn to him like no other before.

He’s a dream come to life. An attraction spell made of flesh and bone come to lure me to Dana knows what or where. Perhaps to my ruin. Or my death.

This is madness. Or deep magic. No, I must be hallucinating. Why else would he stay silent, unmoving, like a ghost?

All fae know the best way to dispel an illusion is to talk to it. That usually sends them packing in a puff of indignant smoke.

I point at the pond. “I’ve already drank some water. It tasted fine. What do you predict will happen to me?” I try smiling, and blue-tourmaline eyes stare back. “Well, has it been poisoned or enchanted?”

The charged silence grows heavier. He doesn’t move. Nor do I.

As we stare at each other, my heart hammers against my chest.

“You wear a beautiful crown,” I say. “Are you a prince of this lonely place?”

“No. I am not that.” He takes a step toward me. Then another. His intense gaze traps me, keeping me in place.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

Silence.

“Shall I guess? Have you come from one of the dark realms, Tech Duinn, perhaps?”

He cants his head again, studying me. An elegant hand lifts and reaches toward me as though he wants to check if I’m real, then it falls against his thigh.

I fumble onto my feet, brushing twigs and dirt off my clothes. “You don’t say much. Or, indeed, answer any questions.”

Wind rustles the leaves as the temperature drops to glacial. Soft flakes of snow begin to fall, swirling lazily from the ashen sky above. Snow? It’s springtime. Or at least it was in my world this morning.

As my dream fae steps closer, snowflakes melt on our hair and shoulders, but they don’t touch the trees nor the surface of the water. Or the grass. Only the two of us.

Cara is a warm lump beneath my hair, snoring softly and not affected by unfolding events. In this mysterious threshold place, perhaps the silver fae and I are the only two creatures who matter.

He moves forward, stopping only a finger’s length away. Too close.

The air between us vibrates and pulses. And I, the Princess of Air, can barely draw breath as his gaze traces my face, lingering on my freckles, my hair, then repeating the pattern. His attention is suffocating, dangerous, but I want more of it.

So much more.

“So, are you going to tell me where you’re from?” I ask.

Slowly, he shakes his head, and then slays me with a soft smile.

Frustration builds in my stomach. “At least give me your name.”

His smile grows, then twists into a grimace. He lifts his cold fingers and skims them down my cheek, his feather-light touch scalding like frostbite. I gasp.

Why is he touching me? And why in the realms am I letting him?

This is wrong. I should back away. Or run. But I don’t. I just stand there shivering.

“Why would I give you the gift of my name?” he asks. “You could easily use it against me. Would you do that, Merrin? Plot my downfall?”

My pulse races. “How do you know my name?”

“I have always known it.”

“So, was it your magic that brought me here?”

He ignores my question, his thumb dragging over my lower lip.

My limbs grow heavy, and I sway toward him. “You’re right,” I say. “I can’t plot against you if I don’t know who you are.” Or what he is, for that matter. “So the reason you won’t tell me must be because you’re afraid of me. Am I right?”

He laughs darkly. “You ask too many questions.”

“And you answer none of them.”

“It is safer if I don’t.” He gives me a sad smile. “I always imagined that if I found myself in this moment with you, I’d be strong, but I’m weak. Your freckles make me want impossible things.”

“Tell me… tell me about these impossible things. And name the worst of them first.”

His gaze drops to my lips, and he leans closer, his mouth parting.

My heart pounds as I tilt my chin up. “Is it a kiss you want?” I ask, my voice thin and breathy. “If so, that’s neither horrible nor impossible.”

Against my lips, he says, “You cannot know how much I wish to—”

“Wait,” I cry out, stepping back. Something bright flickers near the sharp point of his ear. “Look! The snow falling around you has turned red, red as blood.”

Just like in my dreams.

“What?” His hand swipes the air, capturing tiny flakes of crimson. He frowns as they melt on his palm. “This is a warning. I should not have touched you.”

Around me the snow swirls pure and white, but on the mysterious fae, it falls flecked with blood. His expression darkens, now full of pain and terrifying to behold. The arm he keeps behind his back tenses as though he’s tightening his grip on something he’s hiding there.

A noise like glass shattering startles me, and the whole pond ices over.

What is happening?

I shuffle backward as a branch snaps in the trees behind me. The sound makes the fae flick his head up, and I look over my shoulder, my jaw dropping at what I see.

On one side of the glade is a golden stag, a jeweled black crescent moon strung between its enormous antlers. On the other side stands Kian. His red hair is dry, untouched by snow, his cornflower eyes wide with what appears to be glee.

“Merri,” Kian shouts, taking a step forward. “Quickly, move away! He has a blade drawn behind his back. He’ll kill you.”

The ground shudders and the nameless fae spreads his arms, a black-bladed dagger held loosely in his left hand. “Untrue. I was not about to slit your throat,” he tells me, his eyes burning with fury.

I focus my energies and attempt to raise a barrier of wind between us. Nothing happens. In this strange place, my magic is impotent. Kian’s must be, too, or he would’ve already struck out at the stranger whose anger, it seems, can still affect the elements.

Kian takes another careful step toward us. As always, his chief concern is his own neck. “Well, maybe he can say he wasn’t going to murder you at that moment, Merrin, but perhaps he planned to or was about to abduct you away to the Merit kingdom, just as his brother did to Queen Isla.”

“His brother? What?” My gaze shoots to the silver fae.

A breeze parts his cloak, revealing a flashing pendant in an ornate frame. “You’re a Merit!”

“Yes,” says Kian. “And no ordinary one at that. Before you stands the Merit king himself, his court our long-sworn enemy.”

All these years I’ve been dreaming about a Merit? My legs buckle, and it takes all my strength to stay upright. “You’re Riven? The King of Merits?”

It makes no sense. He can’t be the king. With his soft, translucent skin and lambent eyes, he’s far too young and exquisite to be the ruler of that dark and terrible land.

“It is true.” The fae points his sword tip at the ground. “That’s why I couldn’t tell you my name. I didn’t want to frighten you, Merrin.”

“Frighten her?” Kian snarls. “You’re her natural born enemy. I’m sure you would sooner crush her skull than calm her fears.”

“I’ve heard stories about you,” I tell the Silver King. “According to our queen, out of El Fannon’s two sons, you’re meant to be the good brother. But if that’s the case, then why would you bring me here?”

“Queen Isla knew him when he was but a prince. Power must have changed him,” says Kian. “I swear he was going for his sword, Princess Merrin. I saw it. He no doubt wished to take your lovely head from your shoulders and carry it back to his court as a trophy.”

Kian draws his sword and struts around the clearing, maintaining a measured distance from Riven. The king, with his weapon now sheathed, looks far more dangerous.

If I don’t tread carefully here, this incident could ignite a war between our courts—a truly horrible outcome. What would the diplomatic Queen Isla say if she were here?

With my mind racing, I turn to Kian. “No. I don’t believe he was planning to harm me. It didn’t feel that way at all. Times have changed. Temnen and King El Fannon are dead. Their reign of terror has passed, and it’s time we forged a more amicable relationship with the Court of Merits.”

The king stares at me, his body frozen like an ice sculpture, dark-red snow staining his hair and cloak. I don’t understand why a king would stand in silence and let Kian speak ill of him.

Kian scoffs. “If he meant you no harm, then why would he pretend to be someone other than who he is? The worst of the Merits may be dead but, lately, I hear whisperings about their court that disturb even me.”

Yes, the rumors must be dire indeed if they trouble Kian, a lover of mayhem and debauchery.

“He must have a reason for not introducing himself. Perhaps he’ll explain it to us now.” My gaze locks with the Merit’s. “Speak plainly, King Riven. Were you planning to murder or abduct me?”

“No,” he says. “This meeting was an accident. I have no knowledge of how you came to be in this liminal space.”

“This is my kingdom! We’re somewhere in the Lowlands, north-east of Talamh Cúig.”

He laughs, a rumbling sound that vibrates deep in my stomach. “If you cannot guess what has happened here today, then you’re very naive for a Land of Five princess.”

“What?” Heat flushes through me. “King or not, your manners need a polish.”

“This is high magic,” he says. “Although not mine. And obviously not yours. It’s a border land, a space between worlds. Neutral territory, if you like.”

“Listen to how he distracts you from the issue at hand.” Kian takes a tiny step toward Riven. “Let me frame a different question. King of Merits, have you ever imagined causing harm to Merrin Fionbharr, be it by your hand or another’s?”

I sigh. What is Kian up to?

The king’s fists ball at his thighs, his knuckles white as bone. His mouth opens but no words come out of it.

“See?” Kian points a finger at the Merit. “He cannot answer truthfully without admitting his schemes! He is a fiend, wishing only for the downfall of your family through any means possible.”

Time stills as I stare at the Merit king, the snow suspended in the air around his tall form. Part of me never wants to forget this moment—his face, the harsh bone structure, the too-lovely features, the angry pout of his lips. The rest of me wishes I’d never seen such a perfect being.

He likely wants to destroy my life in some way, and I want to do unspeakable things with him.

Why?

I do not know.

All fae are beautiful. He shouldn’t have this effect on me. A tear runs down my cheek, my heart freezing over.

Riven’s palm lifts toward me. “Merri, please—”

A black and white owl alights on the ash tree branch nearest the king. “Riven. Riven!” it calls. “Come. Come now!”

With its fierce green eyes fixed on me, it ruffles its bi-colored feathers, soft and white on one side of its body and rows of tiny black metal scales on the other. If I remember Queen Isla’s stories correctly, it’s a techno-beast, most likely the king’s bonded creature.

The king inspects the owl, his black crown glittering darkly against the moonlight shade of his hair. “Meerade,” he says, in a broken rasp.

The owl shrieks, and the air warps and buckles, a jagged tear forming in the space between me and the king. Snow continues to fall on him, but spring blossoms appear on my side of the glade. The Merit king is right; this is a place between worlds, a portal that’s caused our separate kingdoms to somehow merge. An accidental meeting that should never have happened.

Riven’s body shudders and blurs. He bends and retrieves something from the ground, quickly stuffing it under his cloak, then he fades, vanishing in front of my eyes.

A sound like the keening of a thousand banshees rises, growing louder and louder until I think my ears might explode. Then it disappears, and all is silent.

The Merit’s world has gone, leaving Kian and me surrounded by the Lowland’s bright-green plains.

“Well, that was quite a morning,” I say. “Do you think he’s dead now? The king, I mean.”

“I wish it were so. But some Merits possess the ability to disappear in such a way. They call it transferring. They can reassemble their bodies in the exact spot they concentrate their minds upon.”

“Quite a useful talent. I remember Raff speaking of it. Where are our horses? I presume you brought one and didn’t slither all the way here on your belly,” I say as dizziness overcomes me.

I’ve never fainted in my life, and I don’t recall feeling like this before, horribly lightheaded and nauseous. I blame Riven—the King of Merits—for turning my world upside down.

Cara wakes and crawls into my arms, the movement making my stomach lurch. I hug my shivering mire squirrel tighter, wondering why I’ve been dreaming about the Unseelie king my whole life.

I whistle, and Nahla and Kian’s chestnut stallion appear in the distance, their manes streaming as they gallop toward us. The urge to laugh shudders through me, just as it always does whenever I think of the name Kian gave his horse—Khan—so ridiculously similar to his own. It’s endlessly entertaining—even when one’s head is spinning madly.

“Merri.” Kian’s palm presses into my back as he nudges me toward his horse. “You are unwell and should ride with me. We’ll return home slowly.”

The thought of being that close to him makes my stomach roil again. I want to protest but can’t find the energy to make a fuss. “I’m fine. But Nahla is feeling a little wobbly today, so you’re right. It’s probably for the best.”

Wearing a sly smile, he nods, and ties Nahla’s reins to Khan’s saddle.

“Kian, wait. My bow,” I say as he helps me into the saddle. “I dropped it somewhere.”

Kian sneers. “No. The Merit took it.”

Riven took my bow? I suppose I should be glad he didn’t shoot me with it.

As Kian prepares to mount, I shuffle backward in the saddle. “You ride in front.” At least that way I can attempt to keep as much distance as possible between our bodies.

He scowls but obeys. As he should. After all, I’m his princess, and he’s been my fawning follower since as long as I can remember, always appearing when he’s not invited and slobbering in my wake. It’s repulsive. And unnerving. So I try to never be alone with him if I can help it.

As Kian drives the horses forward, I release a deep sigh.

Disoriented and weak, I’m in shock and not just from the aftereffects of high magic. At the in-between place, I felt a deep connection to the Unseelie king—the fae who has long haunted my dreams. When our eyes first met, something locked into place, link by link, breath by breath. But I have no idea why.

Because he is yours, whispers the wind in my ears. Always yours.

Pleasure shivers down my spine, a sign I’m not opposed to the idea, even though a match between the Merit king and a Land of Five princess is a ridiculous idea. My parents would never allow it. And besides, according to Kian, he just tried to kill me, which isn’t an ideal start to a courtship.

But then again, my father did try to kill my mother within minutes of meeting her. Perhaps my rendezvous with the Merit king was auspicious after all.

I glance over my shoulder at the Dún Mountains, their indigo curves growing smaller as we ride away from them in the direction of the Emerald Castle. Home.

As I turn back around, my head spins, and I press my forehead against Kian’s cloak. “Actually, I do feel quite sick.”

Then the plains dissolve into blackness.


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