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King of Merits: Chapter 6

The Princess of Air

Riven

the skies, I crash back into my body, waking with a jolt to find silver eyes peering down at me and an expanse of frowning brow above them.

No.

Please, no. Not Merri.

I release a low moan.

If I’m dead, this is a horrible punishment—doomed to spend my afterlife seeing my face reflected in the Seelie Princess’s eyes.

Merri.

Why?

Why her?

“Finally, the king awakes,” she says, her scarlet tresses tickling my throat as she hovers over me, palms planted on either side of my body. She utters the word king as if it’s the greatest of insults.

“Where am I?” I croak, struggling to lean on my elbows as I gaze at my surroundings.

The room is small, containing only the bed I lie in, an empty hearth, a carved rosewood cabinet, a curved bench opposite, frosty-green walls, and a ceiling so high it’s invisible. Candlelight flickers from crystal sconces and there’s not a window in sight, the room’s atmosphere strangely warm and intimate.

Merri sweeps her upturned palm around the space. “In case you’re wondering, this room is a secret chamber, and I’m holding you in it until you recover.”

“In the castle’s dungeons?” I shake the chain that tethers my ankle to the foot of the bed, and it chinks musically. “And is this cold iron?”

“No, and not quite. I don’t want to hinder your healing, only diminish your magic so you can’t try to kill me again.”

“My magic is already diminished on account of my being in your land. Right now, I’m easy prey. Easy to end. Given our last meeting and your family’s reaction to it, I’m surprised to find you helping me. Or are you?”

“I’m in two minds. The idea of twisting another arrow deep between your ribs is not without appeal, and if you don’t behave, I just might do it. But, at the moment, I want you well enough so you can return to the Merit lands as quickly as possible. Hopefully, before someone discovers you.”

“No one knows?”

“Only my most trusted friends.”

This is bad news. Why would Merrin want to keep me a secret? It would be better if she handed me over to the Fire king straight away. At least then I could go out fighting, and the end would be quicker. So long as Prince Ever had nothing to do with it, that is.

“What are the terms of my captivity?”

She taps her chin, the soft point of her heart-shaped face. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“My court knows I’ve journeyed to your kingdom. If they don’t hear from me, before long, they’ll send an army. Is that what you want?”

“They won’t. It’s been taken care of. Don’t worry. You only need to lie back and heal.”

I slow my breathing, attempting to gather some of her life force and pull it inside me, so I can sift through her feelings and motivations. But it doesn’t work. She’s either blocking me or my power is useless because I’m unwell.

“Lie back, Riven.” With a gentle push, she forces me down into the mattress. “The arrow’s poison was strong. You’re lucky to be alive.”

She rises and goes over to the bench, fills a goblet from what looks like a water jug, and then places it on the small table beside me. “Drink this as soon as you’re able. Don’t forget.”

“More poison?”

“Only one way to find out.” Narrowed silver eyes rake my body, and her lips curl in a sneer of distaste.

Anger burns deep in my chest, and I shake my foot again, testing the strength of the chain. She looks at me with pity.

“You should let me go, Princess. What’s the point of holding me here?”

“To keep you alive.”

“And why save me today? Why not leave me in the forest to die?”

“That was yesterday, Riven. You’ve been unconscious for some time. I saved you because, unlike you, I’m not a coldblooded killer.”

So, like her father, she believes I intended to harm her that day by the pond. She’s not entirely wrong.

“You saved me because you’re tenderhearted. Aren’t you afraid I’ll try to hurt you again?”

“You can’t harm me in my own land.”

“Oh, Merrin. Merrin.” I give her my most irritating smile, the one that never fails to make my sister thump me over the head. “You’re young. So innocent. You have no idea what I could do to you in the space of a breath.”

“Air is my element. As a Merit, you don’t even have an affinity. Honestly, I don’t understand your techno-magic, and whenever someone begins to speak of it, my eyes glaze over. Remind me how it works again?” She stifles a yawn.

“My magic is not the same as other Merits’. I’ve worked hard to retain my connection to nature, so you and I are not so different.”

Dark-red brows rise as she gestures with her hand for me to elaborate.

I drop my head back on the pillow. “If you promise to feed me well, I might describe it in stimulating detail another time.”

A long brown snout peeks through her thick red locks, sniffing the air. The nose must belong to her bonded creature. I struggle onto my elbows again and squint at the unattractive hairy lump. “You have something in your hair. What is it? A rat?”

She retrieves an animal the size of a squirrel, its brown fur banded with purple. It has small round ears, inquisitive black eyes, and the bushiest striped tail I’ve seen on any creature Seelie or Unseelie.

The princess smiles. “She’s a mire squirrel.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Cara.”

My throat tightens. “My mother’s name is Ciara. It’s similar.”

“Oh? And is she as sweet as my little Cara?”

The animal races down Merri’s gown, leaps on my bed and into my lap. She chirps as I stroke her thick fur.

“Yes, she was very kind for an Unseelie mother, remarkably so for a Merit queen.”

“Was?” Merri’s bow-shaped mouth twists, the tips of her ears turning pink. “I’m sorry. Of course, I remember the stories now. She died when you were a child. It must’ve been terrible to lose your mother so young.”

“Yes,” I say, my voice dropping low. “Magnified a thousand times over because she was murdered by my father, whose every thought and action was only to increase his power and influence, no matter the cost to others.” I groan. “Why am I telling you these things? The poison on the arrow must’ve contained a loose-tongue spell.”

“I doubt it. You speak as if you reject your father’s customs and yet,” she points at my chest, “you still wear that wretched object.”

I fist the twisted metal chain that Merri’s arrow hangs from, my pulse quickening. Has she seen it? The blanket slips down to my waist, revealing my bare chest and the fact that I’m naked beneath it. Of course she’s seen the arrow lying against my chest. But does she recognize it?

With relief, I realize she’s staring at my Merit pendant inactive against my skin, her arrow lying under it. Still, a distraction is required before she looks too closely. That arrow is mine, and I’m not giving it back.

“Couldn’t you find me any clothes to wear?” I ask.

“Unfortunately not. You’re too big to wear anything of mine. Suitable items from our laundry will be delivered at some point later today.”

I grin at her, then glance down at my body. “And you had the pleasure of divesting me of my clothing?”

She laughs. “No, that was Magret’s duty. As was the full report she gave me afterward.”

That comment wipes the smile from my face. “I trust it was favorable.”

“Don’t worry, Riven na Duinn.” She scoops up the mire squirrel and saunters toward a green door set into an ornate gold archway. “I’m sure on the whole you’re quite fashionable in the Merit Court.”

What does she mean by that? She can’t possibly have found me lacking.

“You’re leaving now?”

“Yes. I have a festival to dress for.” She raises an eyebrow while I stare blankly, then shrugs and whirls around, her hand reaching for the doorknob. Her shoulders drop and she faces me again. “Your mind has much healing to do. It’s Beltane tonight. Can you not feel it in your blood?”

That explains the warmth sliding through my veins. I’d wondered if it was her presence that caused the effect, but apparently not.

“Then why do you look so unhappy?” I ask. “This is the Bright Court after all. Isn’t Beltane a joyous festival for your kind?”

“Not if you have to jump the fires with someone you have no interest in…”

I lurch upright, pain blazing through my ribs and head. “You mean your family has selected a potential husband?”

She nods.

“Who?”

“The oldest son of the Shade Court.”

Prince Landolin?”

“The one and only.”

“That fae is a scoundrel. A demon dressed in silks and diamonds. Merrin, he would only bring you sorrow.”

“Tell that to our court’s advisers. They’re convinced Landolin Ravenseeker is the most desirable fae in all the seven realms for their princess to align herself with.”

Then by some foul trick or glamor, he has managed to fool them completely. He’s not evil through and through like my deceased brother, Temnen, was. Nor is he rumored to live for cruelty alone as my father did. But Landolin is weak and vain, and he could never make someone like Merri happy. Not even if his life depended on it. As it will, of course, with Prince Everend as his father-in-law. One misstep and the Prince of Air will exterminate him painfully.

“Anyway, Riven, your reputation is worse than Landolin’s. You’re the Silver King. The mad king. What High Fae family would consider you a worthy suitor? Not one is my best guess.” Smiling, she pats her creature. “Come, Cara, let’s leave the Merit in peace.”

The supposed mire squirrel scurries from her mistress’s arms and hides under her unruly mane of hair, popping out to chirp at me.

“At least Cara seems to like you,” Merri says.

“Wonderful news.” I wince as pain spikes my temples. Sarcasm is a sly form of lie, and it cannot be uttered without consequence.

“Good night, Riven.” Merri slams the door and locks it. The grind of the bolts sliding into place sets my teeth on edge.

Like an obedient Unseelie king, I follow Merri’s directions and gulp the goblet of water before lying back to consider my options. As I’m injured, poisoned, and chained to the bed, I quickly conclude they can be counted on one finger.

My only choice is to remain under her care while I heal and hope my powers return soon.

Then I’ll escape, but perhaps not before I bring a swift and merciful end to Merrin Fionbharr, the girl I’ve watched forever.

My secret desire and the greatest threat to my kingdom.


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