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King of Merits: Chapter 27

The King Must Choose


returned home, I assumed I would swiftly forget her. After all, the scene in my visions—the snow, a violent death, my blood-painted knife—it had all come to pass, and we’d both survived with our kingdoms still standing. But I haven’t forgotten Merri. Far from it.

A full moon’s turn has passed, but the dreams persist in an even more disturbing form. Instead of daggers and rust-colored blood, scarlet hair twines my fingers, smooth skin pebbles under my touch, and a wild silver gaze melts from the heat of our kisses.

These images torture me more than the visions of death ever did.

What do they mean? The answer is simple: if I allow desire to bring me to my knees, my obsession with the Elemental princess will tear me from my path and cause me to neglect my city.

But I won’t let it.

My kingdom must come first. Always. The druids taught me to focus my power for the good of my land, not to deplete my life force in lusty pursuits.

All I learned from my father was that I never wanted to be like him. After he rejected me, I only had the druids’ wisdom to nourish me, and I refuse to dishonor their legacy by failing them and my people now.

This morning, Meerade still sleeps on the metal beams at the foot of my bed, and I lie wretched and despondent under the furs. I cover my eyes with my arm and beg the gods to release me from my tortured thoughts and grant me a little more sleep. But, alas, peace must wait.

A loud knock sounds, and my attendant, Tiernan, enters bearing breakfast. He places a tray beside the bed and opens the curtains. Late morning sunshine streams over the black and gilt walls.

I squint against the glare then at the silver eyes staring at me from within complex patterns on the wallpaper. Why must I see Merri everywhere I look? I shake my head to clear the illusion.

Scowling, I watch Meerade hoot awake and fly onto Tiernan’s shoulder.

“Good morning, Your Majesty. And Meerade.” Tiernan’s leathery wings unfold as he bows, his draped sleeves skimming the floor. “Can I get you anything else?”

I force a less threatening expression. “No. That is all.”

Tiernan glides toward the exit, my owl whistling sweet nothings in his ear. She wants his help to gain entry to the kitchens, where she’ll eat copious food items not intended for her. As always, the fae is her happy and obedient accomplice.

“Wait…tell the bards I don’t want them to perform tonight. I’d prefer the court to eat in silence.”

Tiernan’s black brow rises. We’ve been friends since he tended me as a child, and for a Merit, he’s a kindly soul. “But, My King, you’ve told me many times that a meal cannot be enjoyed without music. What will the courtiers think of this change?”

“I don’t care to guess. See it done.”

“Yes, Majesty. Of course.”

“Thank you. And, Meerade, I’ll call for you after training. Please don’t eat too much. Remember how sick you made yourself yesterday?”

She answers with a shriek, then says, “Queen,” her favorite word of late.

As Tiernan departs, leaving a trail of glittering bronze dust behind, I recall what I said to Merri on the way to Emerald Bay. Three lifetimes must have passed since that day when I smirked and told her to never trust a fae who doesn’t enjoy music—that their hearts were impoverished wastelands.

With those words, I never imagined I’d be describing my future self.

Ignoring the breakfast tray, I walk out onto the balcony and survey the city, my gaze trailing over the sea to the single tower piercing the sky. Today, the black one is hidden and only the white is visible. Mother. I should visit her soon. Share my sorrows. Repent my sins. Request absolution.

The softest breeze caresses my bare chest, sending my thoughts reeling toward the Princess of Air.


The city has been awake for hours, and I’ve spent my time lying in my chamber feeling sorry for myself, achieving nothing. This can’t go on much longer.

A horn blows in the distance, Thorne telling me to hurry up and get to sword practice. Good. I look forward to the distraction.

I frown down at the linen pants barely clinging to my hips and glamor up suitable fighting armor. Every blow Thorne strikes upon my unprotected body will be a welcome punishment for my over-indulgent brooding.

After strapping on my favorite sword, the one I nearly killed that bogtroll Kian with, I jog to the training yard, quite enjoying the bemused greetings from the courtiers as I pass.

I round the wall and see Thorne’s teeth flashing at me and wish I’d stayed in bed. He looks far too pleased to see me stumbling through the gate, a mess.

“Riven, you look pained, and you’re not even wearing a circlet like a proper king would be at this time of day. I suppose this means you’re still moping, then.” He slashes his sword through the air between us.

“Correct. But I trust you’ll help me see the error of my ways.”

“Gladly. With each and every bite of my blade.” With those words he lunges, landing a brutal blow on my shoulder before I even have a chance to draw my sword.

“Is that all you’ve got for me?” Wincing in pain, I stalk toward Thorne and mutter, “Go harder. Faster.

He stops in his tracks, brow hiked high. “Is that glamored armor you’re wearing? It’s sort of wavering in and out.”

“What do you think?” I snarl.

“That you’re an idiot. And I refuse to take it easy on you just because you’ve—”

“I know it. Stop talking.”

He charges, and I lurch backward.

My mind is a mess, my limbs uncoordinated. This fight is a joke.

Swords clashing, our feet work fast. I clang my blade against Thorne’s chest plate, then stumble as he feints and slices his steel across my bicep. Pain bites hard, its toxic drug sluicing through my veins. Grunting, I spin on my heels, my face raised to the sun.

I turn to Thorne and close my eyes, taking a long breath. Then I open my eyes and lift my sword as he lowers his own. “Come on,” I say through gritted teeth.

“Riven, wait. Stop.” He circles me, frowning. “Raise a barrier and protect your bare flesh.”

No.” I growl and attack him with renewed energy. The combat grows fierce, our harsh breaths and soft grunts a comfort to me. Every strike of his blade is a blessing.

We scrape back and forth until I have him pinned against the wall, my sword at his throat. “You let me win.”

“And you’re bleeding,” he says.

I peer through my glamor at the dark rivulets trailing my skin, the red blood pooling on my bare feet and the ground. “Yes.”

I laugh, and he hits my shoulder with his palm, spinning my body and slamming me into the wall. I slide down it to the ground and fold my arms over my knees, then brace for what’s coming: conversation—the worst part of our battle. The question is will I let him defeat me?

He sits beside me and spears me with his amber gaze. “I never took you for a coward, let alone a fool. Just go to her, Riven. Be hers, and she can be yours. Can you not see that Merrin is perfect for you?”

“Perfect.” I scoff. “Perfectly capable of destroying me.”

“So then you are a coward.”

“Think of the city! My kingdom,” I boom.

“What of them?

“She’s a halfling. A Seelie halfling.

“And the Elementals take full-blooded humans for brides all the time. If anything, it’s only made them stronger. Faery blood has always required a little fortifying by the human race. How have you forgotten this?”

“Because, for the longest time, we Merits have considered ourselves above the corrupted frailty of humans.”

“Get over yourself. Take her for a lover, and I wager all your problems will disappear. I promise you, my friend. All you need is a good—”

“What about my druidic path?” I’m not sure I want to hear his answer, because I think I already know it.

“As you learned, Riven, but chose to repress, druidism reveres pleasure as a creative force, especially if you integrate and channel it responsibly. This is what the druids taught you. I know because you relayed many of your lessons to me when we were younger. Some of the most powerful druids had lovers, equal spiritual partners. Why have you decided to delude yourself about this?”

“Because I…” Sighing loudly, I grab a handful of glittery dirt and let it run through my fingers. “When did you become so smart?”

“I’ve always been brilliant. I suggest you speak with your sister. Take her council in the matter. Much joy awaits you, my friend. And my greatest wish is that you will be brave enough to reach out and take it.”

Joy. For me? It seems unlikely.

Merri’s parting words about her own secret wishes for me echo in my mind. One day, if you can raise the courage, you’re welcome to come and find me and ask me to unlock them, she told me, her face solemn.

She thinks me a coward, too.

All this time, I’ve considered my self-sacrifice as courageous, even heroic. But perhaps Merri and Thorne are right. My vision came true, and we’re both still alive.

Then there’s that damned curse, those final words that allude to Merri and me being the missing part of the puzzle—that together, reigning as one, we’ll create the peace I’ve long wished for. If all this is possible, then why do I resist?

Thorne slaps my back, jolting me from my thoughts. “I shall leave you to your self-torture. Should you need me, you know where I’ll be.”

“In the alehouse as usual?”

Laughing, he stands and brushes gravel from his leather pants. “Listen, if you decide to visit Lidwinia, I suggest you deal with those wounds first. In a heartbeat, she’ll see right through that shoddy glamor you’re wearing and have my head on a pike within two.”

“Of course,” I agree. “I will.” Soon.

After he leaves, I sit on the ground for hours, wrestling with what-ifs and letting my blood congeal in the dirt. When I can no longer bear it, I call down magic and seal my gashes. Then I leave the practice yard with haste, eager to test my resolution on my sister—hear myself say the words. Make it real.

I get distracted and transfer to Citrene Creek, sit on the bank, lost in memories of the picnic and the horrors of the nix nearly taking Merri from me.

By the time I leave, the gloaming wraps a purple sunset around my shoulders as I stalk toward the city in search of Lidwinia and Elas. I find them in the first place I look, alone in the Meritorium, heads bowed over a complicated contraption, bolts and metal shavings piled everywhere.

“I’m off,” I announce casually as I stride through the glass doors.

“Oh? And where are you going?” my sister asks, not bothering to raise her head from her work.

“I’ll get Merrin. Bring her back here.”

Lidwinia’s lips tilt in a not-so-secret smirk. “Why would you do that?”

“She belongs here.” I brace my feet wide, lift my chin.

“Tell me more,” she urges, finally lifting her head to bore her orange gaze through my skull. A stool squeaks as she pulls it out from the table, indicating with her head that I should sit.

I prefer to stand. What I have to say won’t take long, and I haven’t time to linger. “With me, I mean. She belongs here with me.”

“At last! What took you so long to realize this?” asks Elas. “We knew as soon as Merrin turned up here telling Lidwinia her role was to save you from some terrible fate that something big was about to happen.”

He rushes over and gives me a brutal one-armed hug as though I’ve announced we’re the victors in a seven-year war or something equally momentous.

“And then you were so desperate for her to leave before you caused her some mysterious harm. We knew, didn’t we, Lidwinia? You and the Seelie princess are a match made in Tír na nÓg, if ever there was one. We’ve laughed so hard at your blindness our stomachs ached.”

“Let him be, Elas,” Lidwinia chides. “You know Riven has always taken his time to make significant decisions.” She leaves her work and joins me on the polished concrete floor, pressing a kiss to my cheek.

“I must depart tonight before I change my mind. I won’t stay long at Talamh Cúig, but if Everend kills me, the scroll that makes you and Elas rulers in my stead is signed and sealed in the Great Vault. When I arrive safely, I’ll send Meerade back with a message.”

I hug her and transfer straight to the White Tower. When I enter the enormous circular room, five floating glass balls of various sizes greet me with their golden light.


Parting soft jewel-hued veils, I move slowly toward the sun bed and sit on its edge, my fingers burrowing into the thick, white covers. I lie back, warmed by the blazing fire, and stare into the void of the tower’s open ceiling, imagining a future with Merri.

With my mind, I show the dead queen my plans, my wild hopes, and ridiculous dreams and wait for her reaction. In return, she gifts me with images from my childhood, happy days bathed in the warmth of her love.

Then the pictures shift, and I see Merri wearing the crown of meteoric silver, her smile as luminous as the glittering spikes, and me standing beside her, my grin even brighter. I look different. Changed. I hardly recognize myself.

Golden light streams over me as Mother blesses my plan to leave my kingdom and pursue the daughter of the Land of Five. She communicates in images and a smattering of words that sound in my mind.

I thank her aloud, promising that when I return, I’ll bring Merri to the White Tower at the time of the Blood Sun when Mother’s energy is the most vital, and she can materialize and converse.

Closing my eyes, I transfer to the council chamber in search of the High Mage. It’s empty.

Next, I follow a hunch and materialize in the Starless Dungeons. There I find Draírdon and Tyzagarne skulking around the dank cells beneath the castle, engaged in what they loosely describe as a kind of maintenance inspection.

I stare blankly at them to indicate my doubt.

Tyzagarne’s shoulders hunch. Draírdon’s sneer grows. It’s clear the only objects these two schemers are interested in maintaining are their personal coffers.

They bow, the giant’s effort respectful, the mage’s bordering on offensive.

“I’m glad I’ve found you together. I wanted to inform you that I’m leaving for Talamh Cúig. Draírdon, I’ll require your assistance to open a portal and—”

“I beg your pardon?” says Draírdon. “I must have misheard you. I thought you said you were—”

“I did. And I am.” I face Tyzagarne. “Speak to Princess Lidwinia. She has my instructions and will wear the crown in my absence.” The giant shifts from foot to foot, huge jaw hanging loose.

“Go. Do it now. You know where she’ll be hiding.”

Another bow and his footsteps shake the foundations toward the exit. When he’s gone, I narrow my eyes at Draírdon. “If you have something to say, spit it out.”

“Your Majesty, I must express the greatest objection to your plan. Think of your father’s legacy. Consider—”

“Your disapproval is noted. We can argue about it when I return. I’m in a hurry.”

I must leave before I lose my courage.

Crossing my arms, I say, “The cave at Nemiah Bay where the human often wandered will be the perfect place to depart from. Unbeknown to them, humans in Faery often possess an innate sense for finding gateways where natural energy concentrates. Don’t you agree?”

The scent of Draírdon’s fury fills the air. His lips form a thin smile with malice lurking at its edges.

Lately, he’s seemed more hostile than usual. Perhaps he’s sulking because I sent his human pet away with Merri, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.

Draírdon was always Temnen’s creature, not mine, and he was grief-stricken when my brother died. Even though it was my birthright, I don’t think Draírdon ever believed he would have to see me take the throne.

Well, for better or worse, I’m the King of Merits, and whatever ridiculous scheme Draírdon plots now, it will have to wait until I return.

Grime-colored eyes lift and narrow. “Do not go to the Elemental land, My King. Furthermore, do not take their princess, your father’s enemy, as your consort. I beg you not to dishonor his memory with an irreversible violation of your Unseelie nature.”

Me? Dishonor my father’s memory? Every Blood Sun ceremony, King El Fannon dishonored it himself. And in addition, he was the worst father in the history of Faery.

Stepping closer, I loom over the mage. “My father’s honor is not your concern.” Despite my effort to control my temper, my voice comes out in a low snarl. “But, regardless, I require your assistance to open a portal. Together, our magic will be strong enough.”

He doesn’t back down. “I cannot in all good conscience help you bring about the downfall of our kingdom. I will not be complicit in the polluting and dilution of the royal Merit bloodline.”

A good conscience is the last thing I could accuse him of having. “At this point, Draírdon, I only wish to visit Merrin Fionbharr, not pledge my life to hers.”

I sense his power fighting against his restraint, longing to lash out and consume me. Spine cracking, his stooped goblin body unfurls to its full height, which isn’t very impressive. “I refuse to participate!”

“So be it.” I dematerialize before he can get another word in, making a mental note to send a message to Lidwinia. She’ll need to watch him closely until I return—which will be soon, I hope. Then I’ll deal with him myself.

Moonlight illuminates the entrance to the Selkie Cave as I materialize on the hill above it. I walk through the scrub onto the beach and call Chancellor Mareous to join me.

Within moments, I hear her siren’s song. She glides over the waves, then pads up the beach barefooted, her hair glowing a lustrous kelp-green and pearly silver.

“So, you think I can help you open a portal, Silver King?” Tiny fish slide and leap along her mesh gown. With a dark smile, she cuts her hand through the air and they fly like a sheet of liquid lightning toward the sea.

“Of course you can. Your power is immense, Mareous. Together we can do anything.”

“Prejudice and the trauma of your past have made you blind to the truth. The Elemental princess is the one you can do anything with, not I.”

She circles me, her critical gaze no doubt seeing through the glamored leather armor I haven’t had time to replace with real clothes. “This is how you’ve chosen to present yourself to your prospective bride? In your sleeping attire?”

“I was in a hurry, and also…there is the glamor.”

“That trickery will not deceive the eyes of the Seelie royals. What in the realms were you thinking?”

I grin at my bare chest and feet. “Nothing intelligent. Obviously.”

A long blue nail taps her cheek. “Then I shall gift you with a more suitable outfit. Be sure to wear it with pride.”

She throws her head back and releases a plaintive wail, and hundreds answer her call. Mer-creatures appear and surround me, their arms hung with fine cloth woven from plants of the deep, embedded with the finest iridescent shells and black pearls.

In a storm of magic, they wind these items around my body, sew panels together, and step back as one to admire their efforts.

“Much better,” declares the sea witch as she places a circlet of driftwood and sea glass on my brow.

Humbled, I bow and thank Mareous and her glittering subjects for their generosity.

Mareous’s cold palm smooths along my cheek, her head angled and eyes narrowed as though she’d like to bite my face off. “Silver King, surely you must know that portal energy is not ours to manipulate.”

“I suspected as much,” I admit.

She waves a hand at the horde of merfolk behind her. “But we can boost your power and help you transfer directly to the Seelie Court.”

My brow rises. It’s impossible to transfer such a great distance. When I traveled to the false meeting with the Seelie king, Raghnall and I materialized in Ithalah Forest, and then rode to the northern side of Mount Cúig.

I take the sea witch’s hands. “Let’s try.”

The merfolk form a circle around us and begin chanting a mournful song. Mareous and I direct our gazes to the stars as power rushes through us, forming a ring of silver light around our bodies. The waves gnash, wind roars, and images shuffle through my mind. Merri. Lidwinia. Meerade. Merri again.

Meerade! Damn, I almost forgot her. “Hold,” I tell the people of the sea, and the energy stabilizes. I shout Meerade’s name, and it echoes across the land.

Within moments, her wings beat the air nearby. She penetrates the circle of magic with ease and lands on my shoulder, giving my ear a savage bite.

The silver ring of light reappears, and then the transfer is upon us—a powerful one.

As the earth trembles below my feet and my body shudders, I say to Meerade. “Do not fret. I would never forget you.”

She emits a volley of high-pitched noises, and as my muscles begin to dissolve, a final thought occurs to me. If Merri greets me half as joyfully as Meerade just did, I shall be happy.


We are gone.


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