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King of Merits: Chapter 9

Confession

Merri

king captive in my antechamber, life at the Emerald Castle continues as it always has. Throughout the days, I pretend to be interested in tedious politics, while stifling yawns until moonlight leads our court into long, extravagant nights of feasting and dancing.

Most mornings, after sword training, I hunt draygonets with Father and Wyn, then in the afternoons, I meet Mother, Isla, and the ladies of the court to practice magic. After we’ve inflicted injuries, maimed, and healed each other, we eat candy and gossip, laughing until our sides split.

Mostly, I fill my time with trivial tasks interspersed with bouts of training and hunting. I live a life of whimsy and beauty, befitting a princess of Faery, with nary a hardship to bear.

Until the day I brought home the King of Merits and complicated everything.

I suppose I could ignore the Silver King’s foreboding energy radiating into my bedchamber night and day and leave Alorus and Magret to care for him. They have the necessary skills to nurse him back to health and don’t require my assistance at all. But still, I can’t seem to stay away.

It’s been a full sennight since I found Riven, and thankfully, he’s improving. But I worry constantly that he’ll be discovered in my rooms and killed, or perish on the journey back to his court, and all this deceit will have been for naught.

By now, my sporadic visions should have given me a hint, a tiny glimpse into his future—Riven lying in a ditch dead or sitting regally on the Merit throne—but where he’s concerned, for some reason, I am blind. And worse, knowing he’s near, I’m in a perpetual state of distraction.

Memories of Beltane night and my foolish blessing that turned into a kiss of equal parts hatred and passion taunt me. I felt his longing, then his rage at its existence. He could have killed me. He nearly did. Ever since, I’ve tried to keep a safe distance between us. But in all this turmoil, only two things are certain: the Merit king is my enemy, and I cannot stay away from him.

Sighing, I dig my fingers into Cara’s fur, so soft and warm as she snoozes on my lap.

“Merri,” barks a deep voice, jerking me from my reverie. “Am I competing against myself or are you participating in this game, too?”

Oh. I’d forgotten my brother was here.

My gaze skims over my family’s secluded garden—the ivy-covered stone walls, tangled weeping cherry branches, and the shimmering pond before finally settling on Wyn’s smirking eyes.

“What did you say?” I ask, inspecting his black mane, disheveled and stuck with leaves and twigs as if he’s spent the morning rolling in the meadow with a pretty fae. Knowing Wyn, he probably has.

“Nothing important, obviously.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.” I pick up a hnefatafl piece and pass it over my fingers. “Fortunately, I could beat you in my sleep.”

“That makes sense then. Most of the morning you’ve been comatose. What preoccupies you, Sister dear? Perhaps fears that the vain Landolin is still plotting to prick his diamond claws into your soft bridal flesh? Or are you dreaming about kissing a beautiful, azure-eyed fae again?”

“Azure! What?” My thoughts dart straight to the king of blue eyes himself…Riven na Duinn. “Why would you say that?”

Wyn laughs. “Well, I’ve never once seen your attention captured by a golden-gazed fellow. Your blood is heated by the hues of the sea and sky—night-deep indigo, gem-bright cobalt, and sometimes even by a mysterious, starry sapphire. Unlike mine, Merri, your tastes are conspicuous and unchanging.”

Guilt stains my cheeks wine-dark. What is obvious to my brother shames me, because after I saw Riven’s icy peepers in my dreams many years ago, no others could lure me. Over time, I may have glanced briefly at pale comparisons, but that is all.

If I’d known that the fae who haunted my dreams was my enemy, perhaps I’d have given serious consideration to a union with Landolin and currently be betrothed, preparing for a new life at the Shade Court.

“You wouldn’t like it,” says Wyn.

I drop my hnefatafl piece. “Wouldn’t like what?”

“Life at the Shade Court.” Wyn ruffles his hair, creating more disorder. “Landolin is as cruel as the rumors suggest, the court too dark for your liking. There, the pleasures of the night rule, and the practicalities and exertions of the day are barely valued. As a fae of the light, who thrills in the hunt and beauty of the land, you would no doubt wilt away under the shadows of their seven moons.”

“Did I speak that thought aloud, Wyn, or did you steal it from me?”

One of Wyn’s many talents is the random ability to read minds, and my heart pounds at the idea he may have breached Isla’s wards that block my thoughts about Riven. What would Wyn, who is impulsive and unpredictable at the best of times, do if he learned of my secret and believed me to be in danger?

“Ha ha! You should see your face. Have something to hide, do you, sweetest? Fear not, you spoke aloud about the Shade Court, that’s all. I didn’t pry inside the puzzle of your mind.”

I loose a long, slow breath that twirls the cherry leaves behind Wyn’s shoulders. Thankfully, he’s too busy scowling at the hnefatafl board to notice. Please, please don’t let him ask any more questions, because he’s the one fae who can see through my halfling lies with relative ease.

I long to tell him the Beltane rite was nothing but an elaborate pretense, but the less fae who know about it the better. I hate to think what would happen if the truth made its way back to Moiron Ravenseeker. A war with the Shade Court is the last thing we need at present.

Leaning forward, I skip pieces across the board—bang, bang, bang—and take his king. My yawn is wide, my smile triumphant, and his face is as astounded as I’ve ever seen it. “See? Even half asleep, I still won.”

“Son of a draygonet!” He kicks his feet onto the table, knocking the pieces over the board. “Damn. I didn’t see that coming. One day, I’ll beat you three times in a row.”

“Don’t hold your breath too long, Wynter. I won’t give you any of mine.”

He chuckles, gulps from his goblet, then slams it on the wooden table between us. “Listen, I have interesting information to share.” His boots hit the dust, and he props an elbow on his thigh, leaning forward. “Apparently, the Merit princess has a gripe with our king.”

Heavy as a crystal geode, my heart drops to my stomach. “What?”

“Is that the only word you can utter today? You are usually a smidgen more eloquent.” A single black eyebrow rises. “Listen, Merri, I overheard Raff and Isla while walking this morning in the Black Forest. They were arguing, and I was sneaking through the undergrowth.”

Splinters slide under my nails as I grip the chair’s armrests.

Wyn leans close, a chunk of hair curtaining his eye. “What I’m about to tell you is classified. A secret. You cannot tell a soul.”

“I know what a secret means, Brother. No need to describe it thrice.”

He waits.

I swallow a lump in my throat. “Okay, I won’t say a word. Now hurry up and tell me.”

“For some reason, Lidwinia believes her brother was on his way to our court and came by foul play and never arrived. His faithful steed returned home alone. The Merit king has disappeared, and neither the princess’s consort, the Merit Court’s powerful technomancer or their High Mage, Draírdon, can locate him. Riven na Duinn is lost. Can you believe it?”

I nod. I can certainly believe it because I know it to be true. “What a terrible thing,” is all I say.

He barks a laugh and slaps his thigh, sending Cara burrowing underneath my hair.

Of course, Wyn is thrilled. He lives for trouble and intrigue.

“Exactly!” he says. “The very idea of it is insane. The Merit Court rudderless and free to do as they please. As you can imagine, Lidwinia swore our king and queen to secrecy. The Merits can’t afford to have it bandied about that they’re presently without a ruler. Merri, think of it! But where in the realms could Riven be? The possibility that the Unseelie king met a gruesome end while wayfaring is unbelievable, but I find myself obsessed with the notion.”

So many questions boil inside me, bubbling up my throat and scalding my tongue and lips. What exactly did the Merit princess tell Isla and Raff? Does she suspect we’re holding Riven in our land? And what move will she make next?

“It’s shocking indeed. What else did you overhear?”

“Raff sensed a curious being nearby and threw a shield around them, blocking the rest of their conversation. I’ve told you everything I know. What do you think of the news?”

Tea spills over the embroidered tablecloth as I stand abruptly and brush off my tunic. “I’ve already given my opinion. What you say scares me. But forgive me, I must go and find Magret. I promised to visit a friend with her, but the morning has passed so quickly, and now I’m late.”

Without peeking over my shoulder to see his reaction, I hurry from the garden and head for the castle.

I must find out what the queen knows, and if she believes Lidwinia is a threat to us. Perhaps the Merits are currently preparing to send a war party or a demon monster to battle our mages and destroy our courtiers’ homes. Worst case scenario—chaos and mayhem could soon be upon us.

Trekking uphill, I follow the stone wall that encloses the orchard. I round a sharp corner and slam straight into Magret, who is hurrying from the rear of the castle, her eyes downcast.

“Oh, Merri, you’re precisely who I was hoping to find,” she says, smoothing silky hair around her antlers.

“Hello!” I twist the fabric of my dress. “Can we talk in a little while? I must do something first—”

“I’m afraid this cannot wait.” She stares at her boots before reluctantly meeting my gaze.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m worried about your guest. He’s not well today.”

“But yesterday, he was improving.”

“And, today, he was pale and weak when I delivered his breakfast, and even though his wound is healing, and he has no fever, he barely ate a thing.” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “The Merit king tells me he must be allowed to go outside.”

“That’s impossible. He’d be discovered, and Father would take great pleasure in murdering him slowly.”

“This is true, but the king says if he doesn’t revitalize his life forces in nature, he’ll die in your antechamber.”

“Did you remove his chains?”

“Immediately.”

“Good. That will buy us a little time. Can you bring Alorus to my chambers? I’ll find a way to get Riven into the forest today, Magret. I promise.”

She flashes a brilliant smile. “I’m so glad. I don’t want the king to die.”

“I’ll see you shortly.” I take one step toward the castle’s emerald spires, then turn back. “Magret? You like him, don’t you? The king I mean.”

“Yes. I know he’s a Merit, but I can’t seem to help myself.” She gazes toward the rolling hills wearing a foolish expression. “He smiles so kindly when I tend him. And those eyes, Merri… He doesn’t seem like a typical Unseelie—all those horrible stories we’ve heard. I cannot imagine Riven presiding over such events, let alone partaking in them. And before I enter his chamber in the mornings, I often hear him reciting the poetry of the wild woods, his voice full of sorrow. I refuse to believe he’s evil.”

“Remember, Magret, succubi are beautiful, yet we don’t invite them to our feasts. It isn’t wise to become attached to Riven. He wants you to feel safe and secure, so he can gobble you up when you close your eyes and await his kiss.”

“Unlike you, I wasn’t thinking of his kisses.” She laughs, a terribly judgmental sound. “But I promise to heed your warning if I’m certain that you’re doing the same.”

Before I can muster an outraged reply, she hurries off toward the orchard where Alorus is working.

Shaking my head, I pull Cara from my neck and into my arms. “Come on. Let’s go find the queen. Now we have two urgent reasons to visit her—Lidwinia’s message and Riven’s declining health.”

I’d love to include Mom and take her into my confidence, but out of love and worry for me, she’d only tell Father. And that would be disastrous.

Shoulders squared, I start up the hillside again.

Now, where might I find the queen at this hour? Perhaps in the High Council chambers with Raff and the advisers? In the falconry with Mother? Or lazing near the river with her ladies? No, when she’s troubled, as she likely is with Lidwinia breathing down her neck, she nearly always bakes. I hasten my steps toward the kitchens.

Sure enough, as I approach the stairs leading down to the series of white-washed rooms that form the castle’s main kitchen, the aromas of vanilla and chocolate assail my senses. Isla is making brioches again. A loud growl echoes in the stairwell. My stomach clearly approves.

Alone and wiping the massive scarred bench in the center of the room, Isla glances up as I enter. “I was wondering how long it would take you to come find me. Your big-mouth brother has no doubt told you the news?”

“Of course. He thinks he got away with spying on you and Raff in the forest.”

She laughs. “You have to love that boy’s confidence. Like his father, his belief in his skills is severely overinflated.”

“That’s true. What does Lidwinia know?”

“Nothing concrete, but it seems she hasn’t received my message advising her we’re keeping Riven safe. I’ll send her another salamander and hope it gets through this time. Thankfully, Lidwinia is a diplomat and, at this point, wouldn’t dare accuse us of mistreating a tribe of rabid red caps. But she suspects us. So, as soon as possible, we need to get rid of Riven and send him home. Do you think he’s ready for us to find a way?”

“Unfortunately, quite the opposite. Magret says he’s taken a turn for the worse, and according to Riven, he needs to connect with the elements to heal, which must be true if he said so. But I’m worried he may be seeking an opportunity to escape. When he leaves, it has to be well planned, so he doesn’t perish on the journey and his death start a three-hundred-year war.”

Pale eyebrows, dotted with labradorite crystals, rise. “Interesting that his health is connected to the elements. You see, Merri? He’s not so dissimilar to us.”

I beg to differ.

Isla glides to the largest oven and pulls three large trays out, clanging them on the stove top. With quick movements, she cuts the brioche loaves into thick slices, vanilla custard oozing over the fire opal and sunstone rings decorating her fingers.

“If the outdoors revitalizes him sufficiently, perhaps we should just let him go,” she suggests.

My stomach clenches at the idea, but I force my features into a thoughtful expression as I inspect a long, jagged cut in the bench. “Perhaps, but as I said, his departure requires good planning.”

A sly smile adorns her face as she eyes me, licking custard from her fingers.

I huff a breath. “Well, Your Majesty, can you assist me to get Riven outside, or do I need to visit the High Mage and seek her help?”

“Draygonets, no! Whatever you do, please don’t involve Ether. I can easily cloak Riven. As long as I stay close enough, he’ll be invisible to everyone but us. Right now, many of the court, including Raff, Ever, and your mother, are busy fawning over the new falcon chicks. Now is the perfect time to take brioche into the Black Forest and enjoy a picnic. This will be fun! Bring the Silver King and meet me at the stables as soon as you can.”

I fly up the fluorite staircases and along the hallways of the royal apartments and meet Magret and Alorus inside my chambers.

Palms on my thighs, I bend and catch my breath. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

I unlock the door to Riven’s room, and the three of us enter swiftly. Wasting no time, I stride straight to his reclining form and commence shaking him awake.

His arms flail in shock. “What are you doing?” The deep timbre of his voice rasps along my spine, heat pooling in my stomach.

“I heard you need some exercise, King of Merits.”

Hope flares in his fluorescent-blue eyes.

“Don’t get any ideas. I see your schemes brewing, and I must inform you that they’ll all fail. Yes, I plan to take you out of doors, but the queen will make you invisible to all eyes but ours. Is that how you want to flee, stumbling across our lands, incorporeal as a wraith and just as powerless? When we allow you to leave, Riven, I promise the circumstances will be in your favor.”

A silver brow lifts. “Just Riven, is it? Have you forgotten I’m king of the Unseelie?”

“There’s nothing wrong with my memory, Riven. While you’re at my mercy, I can call you whatever I please.”

Rubbing his temple, he sighs. “Fine. Tell me about these circumstances under which you’ll grant my release.”

“For starters, you’ll be strong when we let you go, and you will have enough provisions to make it home, so we can’t be blamed for your demise should it occur. Now, please, be quiet for a moment while I steal your breath.”

“What? Wait, Merrin—” The king chokes as my fingers draw patterns before his startled face, and I take just enough oxygen from his lungs to make him compliant.

I face my co-conspirators who are huddled near the door. “Magret. Alorus, the king is ready for his outing. Now stand up please, Riven na Duinn.” It’s difficult to watch him rise from the bed, his limbs weak, and the light in his eyes wavering between suspicion and hope.

By way of the castle’s hidden corridors, Alorus helps Riven to the stables. Isla meets us in the secret alcove above Jinn’s stall and works a fast invisibility spell—a simple enough task for a fae queen.

Cheerfully, she informs the grooms near the front of the stables that we’re off on a picnic and taking Jinn with us. The stable hands stare goggle-eyed as we ride away—the queen on her white stallion, Bainne, me astride, Nahla, and trotting gaily beside us, Father’s horse, Jinn, who appears riderless.

“We’ll take Riven to Emerald Bay behind the ruins, a place of thresholds and open boundaries where every element is heightened,” says Isla. “It’s the perfect environment to re-energize him.”

Hopefully, not too perfect. I’m not ready for him to escape just yet.


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