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The Ever King: Chapter 15

The Songbird

For three sunrises I rarely left the galley. I found a bit of peace with Sewell and his riddles. He had a laugh that built from somewhere deep in his belly, and when he rambled on with his nonsensical tales and struck a particularly humorous part, I forgot I was aboard the Ever Ship.

I forgot I wasn’t free.

I’d drift to somewhere safe. Nights on the shores with my friends around fires, laughing at whatever woman Jonas had chasing him, or Aleksi’s proclivity to follow rules only to break them when he wanted.

I’d let myself feel safe in the galley, like my family stood right outside the door.

On the third day, angry clouds mottled the sunlight, and the boisterous songs of the crew lowered to eerie hums and chants.

“Feed for an eel.” Sewell muttered after we’d worked side by side serving the crew a meager midday meal of flatbread and salted herring. He pointed to the tray with an added splatter of berry jelly the cook saved for his eel king.

Sewell winced and slumped against the wall.

“All right?” I asked, stacking the last wooden plate in the crate.

He waved me away with a hand. “Cracks and aches from tussles with wolves.”

Three days in, wolves I likened to my folk. I wasn’t certain if I took offense or if I liked that Sewell viewed us as a bit ferocious. Cracks and aches, the way he rubbed one shoulder, I could guess he had old wounds from the war.

“Save a stroll?” He gestured at Erik’s tray, then gave me one of his slow, sly smirks barely visible under his wiry beard.

I frowned. “You want me to take it? Sewell, I told you, I find the king’s manners appalling, and would rather never experience them again.”

Sewell tsked. “Feed the eel and warm the heart, little fox.”

I chuckled. “I assure you, feeding Bloodsinger will not warm my fox heart. But for you? Fine.”

I added a layer of charcoal soot over my rune to ease his concern about the mark, then nudged him gently with an elbow to his belly as I took the tray. Sewell pressed his fingers to his lips then blew out the kiss.

“You play unfair,” I told him. “You and your puzzle words, but I think that was your plan to get me to do your tasks all along.”

He turned away, humming and grinning, without a word.

I’d been locked away belowdecks long enough, a gasp escaped when I stepped from the hatch. Open seas no longer surrounded the ship. The dark laths maneuvered between serpentine cliffs, hundreds of lengths above us. White stone with mottled gray gave the illusion of frost and snow packed onto the ledges.

The water was gentle, but rows of hanging bones in omens and wardings left a heavy sense of dread in my belly.

“Finally braved the crew again?”

I startled, nearly spilling the plate over the rail.

Celine sat on top of an old cask. She pointed to the food. Her lips curled into a cruel grin. “I was starting to think Sewell either cooked you up in a stew or we’d scared you into madness.”

“You think too much of yourself.” I spun away from the rail. “You’re not that frightening.”

Celine let her face point toward the dreary sky and sighed. “Sure, earth fae. Better steady your hands then. With all that rattling, Bloodsinger won’t believe your lies.”

Dammit. Each step farther from the galley, my skin prickled with discontent and clinked the silver spoon against the tin of the cup. Fear was a constant companion, but if I was to survive this, then I needed to be sly, needed to learn all I could about the Ever, or I’d be better off pitching overboard and taking a chance on the creatures below the surface.

I knocked once, then shoved my way into Erik’s private chambers. In the days apart, I’d painted loathsome images of him eating bones or drinking blood. A way to keep him as a fiend in my head.

Erik disappointed me. Again.

He wasn’t eating bones or drinking blood. He leaned over the small table, a yellowed map sprawled out in front of him. Laces were parted on his shirt, and it gave me a clear view of the silver swallow dangling off his neck and the tips of a black line tattoo on his chest.

The cuffs of his shirt were rolled, baring his forearms, giving up the hard lines of his lean muscle and taut scars carefully placed over his veins.

Bloodsinger was a wretch. A horribly beautiful wretch. Was it possible to want someone dead, while taking too much pleasure in the sight of them?

Erik lifted his gaze without lifting his head. The rich, satin red in his eyes deepened. “Songbird.”

“Serpent.” I placed the platter on the cot without looking at him. “Sewell said you needed to eat.”

I was halfway back to the door when his soft laugh drew me back.

“I told you Sewell would take to you.”

“Sewell is the only one who has shown me kindness, and he’s much more entertaining than the rest of you, so I take that as the highest compliment.”

Half of Erik’s mouth curved. “You will not get an argument from me, except about the kindness. The way I see it, I’ve been quite kind.”

“Really?” I scoffed. “Your insight to your own actions is concerning, King.”

He chuckled and turned back to the map.

“Where are we?” Through the window another cliff drew close.

“We’re entering the Ice Fjords. Many smaller isles populate the area.” He didn’t lift his eyes. “We should arrive at the royal city in two days.”

“That long? I’ve always been told the Ever Ship traveled impossible distances swiftly.”

Erik chuckled. “That we can, love. Under the surface. As I understand it, the fae not of the sea—you—find that way of travel . . . discomfiting. We’ll take the longer route.”

I went still. He was keeping me more comfortable?

“I don’t understand you, Bloodsinger.”

His only reply was a deeper frown and shrug before he went back to his map. Anxious to be free of the cataclysm of conflicting emotions, I faced the door, but paused. The soot still shadowed the rune on my arm, but the pink edges were beginning to bleed through.

I shouldn’t. Fewer moments around this man was wisest. It was stupid, he wouldn’t even care . . .

“Bloodsinger.”

“Love?”

“I have a question to ask of you, and if you feel any hint of gratitude for the girl who tried to keep your spirits alive in that cell, I ask you not to mock me or lie to me.”

My back to the king, I clenched my fists by my sides, waiting for a taunt, a rant for speaking to him so briskly. All he did was clear his throat. The slide of his heavy steps sent a shudder down my spine.

I drew in a sharp breath when his grip curled around my arm and turned me into him.

“Consider this my opportunity to repay a girl for her folktales.” He leaned one shoulder against the wall. “What is it you want to ask?”

Slowly, I brushed the soot off the rune. “Sewell saw this, and . . . it upset him. He, well, in his way, told me to hide it. To not let them take it.”

“Them?” Bloodsinger’s callused hand slid beneath my elbow, cupping it in his palm. With his other thumb he traced the mark.

“I don’t know who he means.”

“But you’re here discussing it with me?”

“You have already seen it. I don’t imagine he’s speaking about you.”

His mouth tightened. “You haven’t asked a question.”

“Do you know what it means or why it would be a worry for Sewell?”

Bloodsinger gently released my arm and rolled one of his sleeves over his elbow, giving up his own rune. “That mark is from the House of Kings. I’m sure it unsettled Sewell because the mark has never been on a woman.”

My lips parted. “Never?”

“Never. To be seen not just on a woman, but an earth fae? I assure you, Songbird, if there had been time, I would have asked a great many questions in your chamber.”

He rounded the table again and pulled out two chairs. Taking one, Bloodsinger gestured at the other. I hesitated, but gave into the curiosity to know more.

“The rune is a symbol of the royal line of the Ever. What we call the mark of the king. It is the mark on the mantle you showed to me that night.” He practically spat the last word. “The only possibility I’ve considered for it to be on your skin is that you touched it when you brought it to me.”

What would become of me when he discovered the brittle golden disc was destroyed? I swallowed the knot in the back of my throat. I needed to admit the truth. Bloodsinger wanted my father’s head when the blame belonged to me. “There is—”

“The mantle—” Erik began at the same time. He paused. “What were you saying?”

My blood chilled. “Nothing. What were you saying?”

“The mantle is why I came to you,” he told me. “I have need of it, and perhaps, when it is mine again, we might put all this . . . tension between our worlds behind us at last.”

I clacked my teeth together with such force I thought they might chip. If Bloodsinger spoke true, the one possibility of peace with the sea fae didn’t exist. Because of me.

There had to be a way out of it. There had to be more I could learn, more I could use here, to convince the king one shattered talisman did not need to end in bloodshed. My knee bounced as I stared at the map of the provinces. “How do your houses fit here? You mentioned the House of Kings. Are these provinces all related somehow?”

Erik dropped his gaze back to the map. “There are five noble houses of the Ever. Each controls a province and a gift of the sea. They all have strengths and talents that are utilized for the benefit of the kingdom. When sea fae develop a song, they are classed amongst the houses.”

“A song?”

“Your magic lives in the earth. You likely know by now that ours is tangled with our voice.”

“But if you’re classed to the house,” I asked, “how do so many different powers serve on the crew?”

For a moment he studied me, brow arched, like I might have ulterior motives. I did, in a way, but found I wanted to know. Some twisted part of me enjoyed learning about the Ever Kingdom.

After a drawn pause, he folded his arms. “Our magic doesn’t force us to live within the origin house. Celine serves the House of Kings, though her ability to speak through the sea would be a voice from the House of Tides. The houses are kinship, as much as they are power. Taxes and offerings are paid to the house of your voice. Folk without a power of the sea, pay and honor the House of Kings.”

“So, blood families might be made of different magic?”

“Our voices are unique,” Erik said. “It is no different than the color of our hair or eyes. Every house is valuable, but the House of Kings rules all.” He rolled up his sleeve to the rune mark on his arm. “The royal blood is the one that is branded; a mark of a king. As I said, to see it on a woman who is not born of the sea is bewildering.”

“That mark was branded into you?”

He gave me a quizzical glance. “At birth.”

“That’s barbaric. Wear a damn crown to mark you as king.”

“It’s heavy and uncomfortable.” Erik chuckled. “I find it amusing you think a simple burn is barbaric when you’ve threatened much gorier things.”

“Don’t make it out like I wallow in brutality. I’m not you, Bloodsinger.”

“But you could be.” Erik leaned over the table. My lashes fluttered when his lips drew near to my ear. “When I look at you, I do not see a whimpering captive. I see the schemes in that beautiful head that have not stopped spinning since you were brought here—”

“Use better words. I was taken.”

“I’m convinced you live to antagonize me.”

Under the table, my knee bounced. “Words are hardly a weapon against your blade and crew.”

I drew in a sharp breath when he pinched my chin between his thumb and finger. “Do not sell yourself short and think you are not the most formidable of foes. I’ve no doubt you have the power to destroy me.”

“I suppose time will tell.” I tilted away to be free of his hands. Any longer, and I might lose the strength to pull away. “So, these lords, are they part of a council, or do you ignore them?”

“Only in my dreams.” Annoyance pinched his mouth. “An unfortunate effect of crossing the Chasm is the lords would have felt it. I’ll likely need to meet with those pious bastards soon enough.”

“About me.” I held his gaze. I didn’t blink. “To discuss what they plan to do with me.”

Erik leaned over the table. “What I plan to do with you, Songbird. Not them.”

His voice was dark as a violent storm. Threats wove through every word, and there was something horridly wrong with me. He was the most dangerous, he was the one with my life in his hands, and still I found some kind of wretched comfort in the possessiveness lining his voice.

“The way you’re staring at your hands, either they’ve done something to offend you, or your thoughts are telling you not to believe me.” Erik’s mouth curved into a grin when I peeled my gaze from my lap.

“It’s just what Sewell said. I’m already surrounded by fae who fought in the great war and despise my people. Now, I bear a mark that belongs to their king.”

“You’re not wrong, love. Many folk, including the lords of the houses, all fought for the Ever. They’re powerful and have loyalty to their purses and themselves. If I can help it, you won’t face them since they’ll see you as a ransom, not . . .”

I tilted my head when his voice trailed off. “Not as what?”

“Not as you.”

Erik Bloodsinger was a dangerous man. I’d expected it. But he was unexpected in moments as this. I kept anticipating his brutality to fall over my head. Yes, he’d taken me, but there was almost something desperate when he looked at me, like he didn’t truly want to bring me harm, but had schemes turning in his head and I was the key to them all.

“What are you thinking, love?” Erik shot one leg out and subtly rubbed the place near his hip. “I can’t tell if you’re going to war or tears are about to be shed. I’d prefer the first. I do love it when you fight me.”

The pressure in my chest felt like I might be doing both. “Sometimes I wish I’d listened to my people and never snuck out to those prison cells.”

He hesitated. “We share the same wish, no doubt for different reasons.”

The sudden ice in his voice fueled the fire in mine. “Want to know what I really think, Bloodsinger?”

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

“You’re all bloodthirsty and power mad.”

“Agreed.” He grinned, but it twisted into more of a sneer.

“All you want is that damn gold disk of yours. Who cares who dies, right? Who cares if it begins a war?” I shook my head. “And me, I’m a fool for all the moments I’ve wondered about you, about this world. I even felt sympathy for the barriers of the Chasm being placed against you. Now, I realize, I’m nothing but a gods-damned fool.”

Bloodsinger let me speak; he studied me, as though he listened to each word, and the weight of his focus turned my stomach backward.

“Were you done?” The king spoke, not with malice, more like he truly asked.

I blinked my gaze to my hands and nodded.

“You’re right. Partly.” Erik flipped the map around in front of me. “The mantle does hold the power of the Ever. If it is won by another, a king cannot challenge the victor for ten turns. It’s true, your father is the one I must challenge. Before I saw it on you, I was the only one with the mark of the House of Kings.”

He pointed to a spot on the map. It was more a map of territories. Each position had a banner with runes and titles. Bloodsinger pointed to the largest of the territories.

“Why must you challenge him at all?” I slouched, exhausted. “Why can’t you come to some agreement? He is not a fiend and would want peace.”

“Would you let the man who killed your father go unchallenged?’

My stomach cinched. “I suppose if you ever succeed in your plan, then you will find out.”

His face sobered for a breath. Like Bloodsinger was only now realizing if he slaughtered my father like he planned, it would ultimately position us as eternal enemies.

The door opened abruptly, banging against the wall. Tait, dressed and armed in the strange, curved swords the crew used, hurried into the room. “We’ve received a distress call from Skondell.”

Erik was on his feet in the next breath. “Has it spread?”

Tait shook his head. “They’re being raided. It’s Lucien again.”

A low, rumbling laugh broke from deep in the king’s chest. He held out a hand for me.

“You want to paint me as bloodthirsty, Songbird,” he said, voice rough. “Today, I’ll give you the opportunity.”


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