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The Ever King: Chapter 21

The Songbird

“Keep your head up.” Celine smacked the back of my shoulder. The woman was brisk, but I was starting to think it wasn’t entirely because she hated me. More that she was on edge around all the cutthroats as much as me.

Hair stood on my arms and my blood ran too hot. No. Fear would not take me now. I bit down on the inside of my lip to keep my breath steady.

Unfamiliar tunes strummed over lyres. Savory hints of pungent herbs and sauces covered the reek of sweat and unwashed clothing. Loud, barking laughter rattled from rafter to floorboard.

I took in the leaning doorframe, the dim flickers of tallow candles nearly burned down to the wick, the slap of paper cards from playing tables in the corner. I picked out what was familiar and kept those in my focus. This was nothing more than an alehouse like the ones near the docks at the fort. Loud, pungent, and vulgar.

When the flutter in my veins subsided, I fell into step with Celine and Larsson.

Bloodsinger had abandoned us with Tait to some upper room. He’d hardly spared a glance at anyone in the rugged township beyond the confines of the sticky, boisterous tavern.

“This way.” Celine swatted my arm and gestured toward a table in the corner. “We’ll be out of the way. No one’ll pay you much attention.”

“What if they do?”

Larsson chuckled. “Hope they don’t. The king would be forced to draw blood and he’s in his best coat.”

They were mocking me, but I suspected they were also warning me. A bit of truth to their taunts. I was in a strange realm with different customs and laws.

Bloodsinger said he wanted to draw out my torment, but the man had hardly raised a hand to me, let alone a blade. I didn’t know his game, but he put a great deal of thought into keeping me under watch by two of his crew—I wasn’t entirely convinced Erik Bloodsinger wanted me dead as much as he insisted.

The clink of metal against wood sounded as Celine and Larsson adjusted their weapons and sat on ale-stained wooden chairs. Near the table, a hunched fae with a tattered cloak around his shoulders played a melancholy tune on a pan pipe, occasionally humming along.

I smiled. The music, simple as it was, soothed a bit of my unease.

Through the dim light, I strained to catch any glimpse of Bloodsinger. No one lifted a gaze to us, no one even seemed to note a new crew had washed ashore. It was as if the patrons didn’t even realize their king was nearby.

“Larsson Bonekeeper.” A woman approached from behind and draped her plump arms around Larsson’s shoulders. She pulled out a chain from inside his tunic. White, polished beads—no, hollowed out finger bones—were threaded on the silver.

Bonekeeper. He kept the bones from his kills.

The woman grinned sweetly as she fiddled with one of the bone beads. Her face was lovely but overpainted in reds and pinks. She had her hair in tight curls piled over her head, and slid her fingertips down the front of Larsson’s tunic, groping his chest. “Been so long since you last came. Care for a visit?”

Larsson lifted the woman’s palm and pressed a kiss to her fingertips. “Not today, Pesha.”

She pouted her full lips. “All this way and not even a dance?”

“On the king’s order, my girl.” Larsson removed his leather hat and used one of the edges to point at me. “I’ll be staying put for now.”

Pesha narrowed her dark eyes at me; she bared her teeth to reveal several serrated points. Oddly positioned, as though every other tooth grew like a dagger. She huffed, then sauntered through the crowd, seeking company elsewhere.

“She’s part merfolk. Rare, since it’s not often a sea fae rides a male with a fin.” Celine snickered and poured a tin cup filled with crimson wine. She plopped the cup in front of Larsson. “Makes Pesha a favorite here, and Larsson is fortunate enough to be her favorite. Sorry, mate. Drink up, you’ve had quite a loss tonight.”

He frowned but took a long gulp.

“Ah.” I feigned a bit of sympathy. “Playing my captor ruined your plans with bedmates.”

Larsson paused the cup to his lips. “Trust me, lady, if I want to take time to bed someone, I’ll do it. And thoroughly.”

A sudden ache for Jonas and his haughty bravado struck me like a molten bolt. I craved my friends. Hells, what a different sight this place would be if they were here. Instead of terrifying, drinking and laughing in an Ever alehouse would be a vibrant kind of adventure.

I faced the somber musician again. His tune was warm and comforting.

Celine and Larsson spoke on the state of the Tower. They commented on the number of patrons, and traders, and unfamiliar fae. Sometimes they’d laugh at their fellow crewmen as they stumbled over their own drunken feet.

They ignored me. I didn’t mind and kept focused on the delightful music. The minstrel lifted his eyes, as if sensing my study, and grinned. He gained a touch of energy from my attention and swayed his slender shoulders.

Now that I could make out his face, the musician wasn’t as hardened on the outside as I thought. He was, in fact, terribly captivating. Strong features, a sharp jaw, a divot in the center of his radiant chin.

“You do not hail from these seas?” His voice was gentle as a summer’s night and rich as an autumn afternoon.

“No.” I couldn’t recall a time I’d heard a sweeter voice than his. Every note flowed through my body, heating my blood, pooling deep in my belly until I . . . all hells, I had to clench my thighs together when a rush of unbidden need throbbed between my legs.

I sighed to keep from moaning.

“Beautiful.” I applauded, silently pleading for more of the man’s song.

“What’s beaut—” Celine tracked to where my gaze lingered and shot up from her chair. “Shit!”

I cried out when her rough hands clamped over my ears. The minstrel rose to his feet, eyes on me, that pipe growing louder. I clawed at Celine’s hands. How dare she try to block such a marvelous sound.

“You hear the call,” the man sang.

He didn’t speak it—no. Not even his spoken words could be so bland and tedious as normal conversation. Every sound was a melody. A sensual, delicious melody that had my chest heaving, my skin boiling in a desire I’d not felt since . . . since Bloodsinger had fooled me in my chamber.

“No, earth fae,” Celine screeched. “Shut it out. Larsson, get the king. Get the king!”

I shoved Celine away and stood. Part of my mind was wholly aware patrons had paused their revelry to observe the struggle. I didn’t care. How was it that the longer he played the more youthful he seemed? His skin was the color of tilled soil, his hair golden like sweet pears.

He smiled—I nearly stumbled when a rush of anguished want pulsed along my center.

“Let her go, you damn sea singer.” Celine tossed one of the tin cups at my minstrel’s head.

I might slit her throat should she harm his ability to sing and play.

The minstrel paused, studying Celine with a narrowed gaze, then flashed a cruel grin. “Lost your voice, little siren? Go ahead, try to sing me back, seductress.”

Siren? Foolish of my lovely minstrel. Celine spoke to the tides, not the seduction of the heart.

“How about I cut out your tongue instead?” Celine said in a low snarl. “Release her.”

“Tis my right,” he shouted back. It only added to the harmony in my head. His eyes were a darker shade, and for a moment, his face twisted into something gaunt and sunken. “Claim a heart, my debt is paid, and I leave this pit.”

“She belongs to your king, and—”

“She belongs to me.”

I startled when the minstrel’s face flashed in a horrible, skeletal image. Sharp cheek bones, cracked skin, rotted teeth. In the next breath, when his lips touched the flutes of his pipe, his roguish delight returned.

My pulse slowed.

The surface of my body was overheated. Sweat gathered on my brow, and my breaths were more rasps than anything. I feared any moment I’d combust if the pressure across my body was not satisfied. Before I could stop, my hand slid over my belly, reaching beneath the waist of my trousers for the apex of my thighs. If my minstrel would not bring me relief, I would.

A hand slapped over my wrist, guiding my hand away from my belt.

“Erik?” His name rolled off my tongue like a reverent kind of praise. His name was beautiful. More lovely than even the song in my head. Something about the Ever King pulled me to him, drew a want greater than the minstrel’s haunting tune. Memories of Erik’s body pressed against mine and—all gods—the way he’d kissed me in the sea.

A shudder danced down my spine. I might do anything for a taste of him again.

“Erik.” I stroked my fingertips down the stubble of his jaw, my thumb lingered on the scar over his top lip.

Bloodsinger gripped my wrists and gently eased my palms away. He seethed at Celine and Larsson. “How long did you let her listen?”

“We hardly heard it,” Celine said, a little desperately. “You know I’m numb to their songs, and Larsson favors women.”

Heard it? Yes! My minstrel.

I clutched Erik’s hands and tugged him forward. “You must hear it. It’s beautiful.”

“Aye, love. I’ve heard it.” He looked over my shoulder. “End it, sea singer. She’s not yours to claim.”

“Not even the king can keep her from me,” the minstrel sang. “By right, I’m due the heart I capture. Was a vow of the debt.”

Erik sighed. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’ve only just won her, now I must let her go.” He faced the strange minstrel and held out one hand. “The Ever King will abide by your vow and set you free.”

With a twisted sort of glee, the minstrel ceased his playing long enough to clasp the king’s hand. It happened swiftly. The moment Erik had a hold on the minstrel, he slashed his first two fingers on the points of his teeth until a gush of blood slipped over his knuckles.

Without warning, the king shoved the bloodied tips into the ear of my minstrel. I might’ve screamed, I wasn’t certain, most sound was drowned out by bone-splitting wails.

The minstrel clutched his ear and fell to his knees. His beautiful face twisted and split into something horrific. Pockets of skin on his cheeks were missing, and through fleshy tendons his yellowed teeth were visible. His complexion was colorless. Not even pale; it was nearly translucent.

The king took hold of my arm and pulled me against his side. “No vow of servitude outweighs the word of your king.”

“Sing,” the minstrel sobbed. “Sing, I beg of you.”

He convulsed. What looked like sea foam frothed from his ear. His horrid eyes rolled back in his skull. Jaw tight, the creature kept pleading through his teeth for the king to save him.

A crowd gathered. No one tried to help the dying heap of a sea singer, most watched as though it were a delightsome part of the evening. A few gazes lifted to me, curious, maybe a bit unsettled. My body was still pressed against Bloodsinger’s, and the feel of the hard planes of his form had the constant heat on my skin devolve into a maddening boil. I dug my fingernails into his arm, needing him closer.

Hells, I would fall to my knees and plead if only he’d put his clever hands on my skin again.

I arched against him, seeking pressure, any sort of relief from the ache pooling between my thighs.

Erik frowned and dragged me through the crowd, pausing at Larsson. He was handsome, with a strong jaw, and the right amount of beard. Without a thought, I stroked the curve of Larsson’s arm. Gods, he was strong.

Bloodsinger let out a strange kind of hiss and pulled me back. “Get the draught, Larsson.”

I never thought long on how much I liked his name. Larsson. Not as much as I enjoyed saying Erik Bloodsinger, but close.

Larsson chuckled. “You may call me whatever you’d like, lady. I’ll be Bloodsinger for an eve—”

“Go, or you lose an eye,” Erik snarled.

Larsson paused when Erik looked ready to follow through on his threat and lifted his hands in surrender. “I’ll find Poppy.”

Hells, I said all that out loud.

“Aye, love.”

“Quit making me talk.” I pawed at my chest, unable to keep the burn of desire tamed. “These are . . . they’re private thoughts.”

“I assure you it isn’t me making you speak.” Bloodsinger led me into a back room, already occupied by a man and woman, naked, her body bent over a table, and his rocking hard enough the edge slammed against the wall. “Out!”

The couple screamed and scrambled for cover, never truly looking at the king. Within a few heartbeats they were fleeing, and Erik slammed the latch on the door into the locked position.

I tugged at my top. So bleeding hot. A fire must’ve burned in some inconspicuous place within the room. I gathered the skirt up my legs; if I did not rid myself of these suffocating clothes, I’d scream.

“Livia.” Erik took my hands.

“Say it again.” I pressed against his chest with enough strength, Erik was forced to catch me, but lost his footing. His back slammed into the wall. “I love how you say my name.”

Pressure from his thigh burned against my aching core. I moaned, eyes closed, and could not stop the need to seek more. Against his leg, I arched and writhed.

“Damn the hells,” Erik muttered under his breath. He held his hands on my waist, letting me rock against him for a few breaths before shaking his head. “No, this ends now.”

My body, from crown to foot, trembled in unforgiving need. He was refusing me, and I could not fathom it; the thought made me feel as though I’d retch any moment. Perhaps he didn’t believe I wanted him. We’d been at odds, that must’ve been the cause of his reluctance.

I could show him—yes—I’d show the Ever King every seed of my desire belonged to him.

I stepped back and slid one arm out of my sleeve.

Erik’s mouth tightened. His eyes went wide. “Livia. Stop.”

“Don’t you want me?” The shirt opened enough, cool air brushed over the slope of my breast. A little more and I’d be bared to the king. “We never did finish what we started—”

“Songbird.” He took hold of my wrists again, breaths heavy. Erik let his forehead fall to mine. “Sea singers have a lure to their voice. You’ve heard lore of a siren song—male sea singers use their pipes and lyres the way a siren uses her voice. For earth fae, it draws out lust, and you can’t resist the song. I should’ve thought to look for one, but—”

I cut him off and slammed my lips to his. He needed to cease speaking. Erik was stiff, but placed his hands to my hips, digging his fingernails into my skin. I slid my tongue against the seam of his bottom lip, and a deep groan rumbled in the back of his throat. The king tightened his hold on my body.

A new pulse of desire burned through me. This time it began at the scar on my arm, shooting to my heart in a single breath. I wanted him. Not the minstrel. Not handsome Larsson. I wanted Erik Bloodsinger.

With care, his palm slid up my spine. His fingers speared through my hair, gripping it at the roots, angling my mouth to his. I deepened the kiss eagerly. His tongue was warm and furious, and drew out an embarrassing whimper from my chest with demanding strokes.

He tasted like rain, fresh and clean, and an earthy smoke. I needed him everywhere. Even then, I was certain it wouldn’t be enough.

I hooked a leg around his waist. His hips rocked against mine, but stiffened straightaway, as though he were still battling his own need. I could see it in the fiery spark in his gaze, the way his chest rose in frantic breaths, he was as greedy as me.

My teeth dug into his lip. I bit down and scraped as I pulled back.

“Songbird.” Erik moaned, breaking the kiss, and buried his face against my throat. “No blood.”

Right. His blood meant death, a painful death. I panted in quick gasps. A death he’d proffered the seedy minstrel for taunting me with his song.

Erik killed for me. Never did I believe I’d embrace anyone’s darkness in such a way, but the more I thought of how he tore me away, the more his eyes flashed in a possessive violence when he thought I’d belong to the minstrel—gods, I wanted to tear my way inside him and never leave.

Frantic, my body pressed into his, wild and lost in a path I knew led to destruction, but there was nothing I cared to do to stop it. Poison blood and all.

Heat reached a breaking point inside me. I needed him. All of him. Before he could protest, I took hold of one of his wrists and guided his palm off my hip, up my ribs, until he cupped the underside of my breast.

Erik snapped back, breaking the connection, and returned his hands to my hips.

He tried to maneuver me a few paces from him, but I planted my feet and glowered. “I am freely yours. Isn’t that what you wanted? I’m letting you take me.”

A shadow passed over his features, something almost heartbreaking. His thumb traced the line of my bottom lip. “It’s not real, love. I took you; I plan to slaughter your family. Remember all those gory details?”

“Stop it. Stop it.” I shook my head, trapped in a delirious spin of unsatisfied sensual lust and the truth of his words that dug deep into my chest like a rusted blade. I clutched the sides of my head. No. I wanted him. He was like a hidden piece of my heart. Yet, I hated him. I should hate him.

“It’ll be over soon.” Erik’s voice was distant, almost like he spoke to me underwater.

Another person was there. My head was swimming, but I recognized Larsson. He spoke to the king, glanced at me, then left the room. In Erik’s hand was a cup of something hot, the steam was pungent with a tart, fishy scent.

Erik curled his hand around the back of my head. “Drink this.”

I shook my head, pinching my lips.

He scoffed. “Not afraid of my blood in your mouth, but a tonic is where you draw your line?” He stroked my lips, easing them apart, and forced a few swallows onto my tongue.

A rancid flavor like old bread and sun rotted fish caused me to gag and splutter. But soon, my eyes grew heavy, and the throbbing need eased. My pulse slowed. I was vaguely aware that Bloodsinger was guiding me back on the bed. He scooped my legs in his arms and slid them beneath the mussed quilts.

He whispered something I didn’t hear. Then, I fell into syrupy black.


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