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The Ever King: Chapter 19

The Serpent

Livia rose from the sand, dusted off her knees, and looked at me with contempt.

“I made a child smile. If you find it so disgusting, then I wonder what that makes you?”

I was only half listening. My attention was on the brilliance of a bloom sprouting through land poisoned by the darkening. The Daire had sent word to the royal city nearly a month ago to report a new isle being touched by the plague. But she felt it was oddly placed, completely avoiding the lotus fields. Now, Lucien attacked to take the flowers for his own uses?

There was something that did not sit well about this spread, and it was made worse now.

Here, in cursed soil, my little songbird brought back life.

My gaze flicked back to hers. “What did you do? Explain it to me.”

“Explain . . .” She faced the new growth. “I . . . I used my fury. My magic. You do realize you’ve taken a land fae from the Night Folk clans. That means our abilities involve the earth.”

“I know this,” I snapped. The day the earth bender king slaughtered my father, he’d lifted a rocky wall from the sea floor to prove his power. “What did you do?”

“I healed it,” she said, voice soft, but it seemed like she was holding back. “That is one ability I have, though I’m not incredibly powerful with it. My strengths lie in giving more life to growth already in place. Like an amplifier.”

It didn’t make sense. I rubbed the scars on the back of my neck, trying to puzzle it out in my mind how it was possible. Nothing, no spell casts, no song, no magic in the Ever had summoned life from the darkening since it began, and the edges of Skondell were thick with it.

A single touch from the blood of an enemy and new life sprouted.

How? I narrowed my gaze. “Do it again.”

Livia swallowed. She lowered to her knees, fingers trembling, and reached for the dark soil. She winced, a vein of effort gathered in the center of her forehead, but slowly, a verdant patch of grass shed the curse, even brighter than before.

“By the seas,” Celine whispered.

She stood behind me. Tait and Larsson had returned, blood soaked their clothes and skin, but the same as Celine, both gawked at Livia’s trick.

“What do you make of it?” Larsson asked under his breath.

Livia pulled her hand away. “This isn’t normal soil, is it? It feels a little strange, and the way you all keep staring like I might burst into flames, I’d like to know what’s going on.”

No one spoke.

My mind reeled with thoughts, yet never led anywhere. I turned away. “To the ship. We go to the Tower.” I paused to take hold of Tait’s tunic, drawing his face close. “See to it the folk of Skondell leave for the royal city as soon as possible.”

“Where do we put them?” His voice darkened. “They are solitary clans; it goes against their vows with the old gods to associate too freely with outsiders.”

“I know my people,” I said with a snarl. “Your lack of faith in my preparation is truly telling. From the first report of the darkening in Skondell, space was saved for the clan in the river caverns.”

Tait’s face softened, and he had the bleeding decency to look sheepish. “It is a good place.”

“Is it?” I released his bloody tunic and stepped back. “What a foolish king I might’ve been if I’d not recalled they needed darkness before sunset for their prayers. Continue to presume I am not worthy of this crown, and you will join Lucien.”

“They’re illusionists.” Celine paced behind me. “That must be what it is. A farce.”

My grip tightened on the helm. I said nothing.

“Surprising she had the ability.” Larsson shaved a piece of pear with his knife and lifted it to his mouth. “But not so far into the realm of disbelief. Her father is the earth bender; it’s possible she is an earth healer. You’re taking her to the Tower because that is where it began, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said stiffly. I had to see if the poison locked in the soil of the Ever the longest could be removed. But I needed to understand what had happened with Livia’s magic, why it healed the land, why it frightened her.

I needed to meet her—the lady of the sea witches and sirens. Narza refused to set foot in the royal city. I hated her for it, and understood her reasons in the same breath.

Truth be told, I wasn’t certain if she’d agree to meet at the Tower, a neutral ground where every noble house of the Ever could meet for council without fear of mutinies or underhanded deals.

“Celine,” I said. “Call for Lady Narza, tell her the fate of the Ever depends on her agreeing to meet.”

Celine’s eyes widened. “You want . . . to see her?”

“I don’t have a choice. I have need of her particular talents.”

To face Narza turned my insides backward. Necessary, but if the fiercest sea witch in the Ever Sea had her way, she’d see to it Livia hated me more than she already did. She’d see to it Livia found a way to be free of me for good.

Celine followed Larsson up the staircase to the main deck, pausing at the top. “Risked her skinny neck for Sewell. I’m not letting anything happen to her after that, Erik. You know I won’t.” Celine shook her head, grinning in a bit of disbelief. “Didn’t even know him. She’s either got no brains, or bigger balls than you.”

“Keep your head down. Don’t you be drawing any attention to us. I want to drink and forget I have to play nursemaid. Hear me?”

I didn’t need Celine’s sharp tone to know Livia had stepped onto the deck. There was a knot in my stomach that split, surging through my blood whenever my songbird drew near.

The way the mark of the House of Kings on my arm burned, the insatiable need to lay eyes on her now that I had her, all of it meant something, and I’d rather it didn’t. Too much was at stake to see the princess as anything other than a pawn in an endless war.

I didn’t need to look; I did anyway.

She’d dressed in a pair of Celine’s trousers and, again, wore one of my damn shirts.

One fist clenched at my side. That skin, her scent, was pressed against my clothing. I was a fool. A simple thought of naked flesh had me reeling like a feckless boy who discovered his cock for the first time.

Livia’s eyes darkened at the sight of me. Every joint and limb tensed and appeared ready to bolt or swing a fist at my head.

One elbow on the rail, I grinned. “Songbird.”

“Serpent.” Livia tried to hold her gaze steady when I stepped close enough, her breasts brushed over my chest with each draw of air. She failed. Her eyes bounced between mine, fear heady and perfect.

With my center knuckle, I brushed a lock of her hair away. Not one to touch gently—ever—I took a bit of gratification clawing my way under her skin by shattering the defenses she tried to build between us.

Hate me, curse me, I cared little, so long as I was the first thought of her day and the last of her night.

“Behave today, love,” I whispered. “This is no place for a sudden burst of bravery.”

Livia’s mouth curled into an unexpected sneer, and she leaned into me.

All at once, I wanted nothing more than to step back. There was a vast difference between me breaking through her boundaries compared to when she broke through mine.

The princess added another slice of discomfort when she walked her fingers up the center of my chest. “I will tell you something, Bloodsinger.” Her voice was soft and breathless. “When I claim that moment of bravery, it will not be sudden. It will be slow. It will be well thought out. I will wait until I have you in my grasp. You may not even realize it has happened. In that moment, I will strike and watch you bleed.”

I couldn’t help the grin that followed her beautifully violent speech. Innocent and gentle, yet when prodded enough, out came the vicious beauty within. And she was mine. In what capacity, I hadn’t decided. To ruin, to manipulate, to claim. Each had its merit and appeal.

“I do love when you try to seduce me.” I pinched a lock of her satin hair between my fingers, drawing the curl beneath my nose.

Livia’s mouth tightened, but she said nothing more.

Larsson leaned his hip against the rail, his back to the princess, voice low. “Lady Narza surprised us all. She arrived before dawn and wishes to first speak with you alone.”

“Of course, she does.” I tightened my hold on the hilt of my cutlass. “Stay with the women.”

“Have I done something to offend you, My King?”

Bastard chuckled like he’d won some great victory when I failed to keep the amusement hidden behind a scowl.

Tait glowered and smoked sweet herbs, avoiding my gaze.

“With me,” was all I said, and strode down the gangplank into a growing crowd of people who lived on the isle of the Tower, all awaiting their king.

Gods, I despised them all.


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