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The Ever King: Chapter 27

The Songbird

The realization struck before we left the ship. Erik Bloodsinger had a heart, one buried deep inside. One that felt a great deal, but one he despised. A beautiful, black heart.

Last night created a crack in the rough surface of the king. He’d taunted me, but taught me about his weapons. He’d looked around his ship with a bit of pride, as though the vessel were deeply ingrained in his soul. A part of him.

How quickly it had all changed. Had I known any mention of Thorvald would emerge from innocent conversation, I never would have uttered a word.

Doubtless, Erik didn’t want to want me. The same way I didn’t want to want him. He wanted to avenge his father, I wanted to save mine. We were the children of a war we didn’t cause and were raised to despise each other, yet . . . we couldn’t seem to manage that one, simple task.

He’d lashed out, but I couldn’t puzzle out if his fury had been aimed at me or himself. Last night, the king had seemed almost peaceful for a moment. He’d seemed to forget I was a tool, nothing more, and saw me as the girl who read tales to him.

I wanted to hate him, to guard up my heart against his brutality for the things he’d done and likely still planned to do, but with each damn sunrise a bit of my shield against the Ever King slipped.

One side wanted to curse him, kill him, watch him suffer for the hurt he’d done to me. The other saw glimpses of the boy from the dark, lonely cell. The boy who said little, but lit up just enough to let me know he looked forward to the nights I’d come and read my songbird fairy tale.

Last night, when he fought to hide a grin, when he seemed at peace describing how his contraptions were fired, the boy was there. Not lost.

Not yet. Perhaps my plan ought to change. Perhaps instead of finding a weakness in the king to exploit for my escape, I should find his heart.

“Glitter and gold, sing me home.”

“What’s that, Sewell?” Rolled furs from the Tower made a sleeping mat on the floor. I hadn’t wanted to leave Sewell, and endured his roaring nose to ensure his healing wound didn’t split during the night. I’d thought he might’ve visited Blister Poppy for healing, but I learned after we returned to the ship, the cook didn’t join us ashore at the Tower.

I didn’t know why.

Now he was ignoring me. He was still locked on whatever he saw outside. Steps pounded beyond the door followed by muffled calls for action. A horn blew overhead. “What’s going on?”

With Sewell’s attention turned away, I slid on a pair of trousers tossed near the door. They hadn’t been there last night, and I suspected Celine had been forced to offer up more of her wardrobe. She’d only delivered the bottoms. Of course, why would I need a top?

I rolled my eyes and scoured through Bloodsinger’s armoire until I found a pale top with fabric as soft as satin, but sturdy as wool. It breathed deliciously of oakmoss and rain and a hint of smoke. It breathed of Erik.

Sewell was muttering gold and glitter again by the time I stepped onto the deck. Two men stood on either side of the door. The instant the sun kissed my cheeks, meaty palms gripped under each of my arms.

“What are you doing?” I tried to break free.

They said nothing and merely tightened their hold on me.

“No.” I struggled. “Get your . . . don’t touch me. I can walk alone, and—”

“Leave her be, boys.” Tait leaned against the main mast, sneering.

“The king had us keep watch,” the man on my left grumbled. He was missing a tooth in the front, and the rest were painted black. Not rotted, but made to look as such. “Didn’t want her wanderin’.”

“Where’d she be wanderin’?” Tait reached into his linen jerkin and removed what appeared to be a paper smoke like the ones we had back home, the difference was Tait stuffed his with herbs that looked poisonous and black. Tait dragged in a long breath before blowing out a plume of ashy smoke. “There’s nowhere for her to go now.”

The two guards laughed and left me alone.

“Welcome to the royal city, earth fae,” Tait went on. “Glittering, isn’t it? Pity folk like you rarely make it out alive.”

His threat dissolved. Numb, almost without control, I gripped the rail, dumbstruck. The sunrise reflected over the smooth sea like a mirror, painting the water in soft pinks and gold. Sand, white as bone, rolled over long beaches, and a wide cove seemed designed to welcome formidable vessels like the Ever Ship.

Iridescent fins sparkled in the sunlight as they dove in and out of the tide. From beneath the water, slender hands with four knuckles and long, pointed fingernails took hold of the hull. A woman’s face broke the surface. Horribly beautiful, with hair like a raven’s wing and skin like the summer sky. Her eyes were round as an owl’s and her lips were full and dark.

Skin prickled on my neck when the woman parted her lips, revealing a row of jagged teeth, and cried out. Not a harsh sound, more like a sob.

The ship jolted and the bow shifted as more fins beat against the water, guiding us into the cove.

“Merfolk,” Tait said.

The woman who’d made the cry lifted her orb eyes and grinned, a vicious kind of look, like she was starving. “My Lord.”

Hells, her voice was a song in the breeze. Tantalizing and innocent.

Tait propped a boot on the rail and sneered down at the water. “Nixie.”

“Do you not wish to swim, My Lord?”

“Ah, woman, do you never cease asking?”

“Not for a face as yours,” Nixie said, reaching her spindly fingers up the hull. “I’d so love to see how it fares in my realm. What adventures we’d have.”

Tait chuckled darkly. “Adventures with my bones, Nix? A man would be desperate to dive into the sea with you.”

She pouted. “One kiss, that is all I ask.”

“Not today.”

My heart jumped when she snapped her gaze to me and flashed her teeth. “So lovely. Swim with me, My Lady.”

Shouts of warning sounded in my head, yet a part of me wondered if diving deep alongside her might be one of the grandest adventures I would ever experience.

“Do your duty, Nix,” Tait said and shoved me aside. “Leave the king’s prizes to the king, or you shall deal with him.”

For the first time, the merwoman’s face lost its pallor. She offered a quick nod, then disappeared beneath the tides, taking away the draw for adventures in the deep.

“If you want them to take the air from your lungs, swim with merfolk,” Tait said sharply. “They will offer a kiss to see your thoughts. Be wise and never let them.”

I swallowed. “I’ll be sure to avoid it.”

Tait scoffed but said nothing more on merfolk. Truth be told, it seemed he battled on whether to throw me overboard now that he’d admitted to their brutality.

Crowds gathered along a stone road which carved its way from the docks into a village. Homes with red slats over pale stone walls. Towering buildings for craftsman and trade. A honeycomb of roads and archways, galleys and arcades, created a sprawling community, all surrounding an emerald hillside on which a fortress was built into the sides.

The palace was made of tall spires, sloped rooftops, bridges, and balconies. Gold edging flowed along parapet walls and watchtowers in front of two lofty doors. With the slope of the hill, the castle was staggered in partitions and connected by floating staircases or walkways. Through it all were several waterfalls spilling between the different levels.

“Gods, that’s—”

“The palace.” Tait leaned onto one elbow, smoking and sneering. “Speak true, Princess. You thought we, what? Lived in sea caves and ate our fish raw, bones and all?”

Tait could be handsome if he’d cease the snarl. His face was made of sharp lines and edges. The dark stubble on his chin was dignified, not sloppy. The points of his ears were untouched by the hoops and rings of his fellow crewmen, but like his cousin, he kept simple rings in the lobes.

And he was trying to goad me. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“You’re wrong,” I told him, grinning. “I didn’t think you were quite civilized enough to live in caves. I suspected you simply dug holes in the sand.”

A shadow deepened his eyes. With another puff of his herbs, he blew the smoke in my face. “Enjoy it while you can, Princess.”

He stalked away as the ship settled against one of the docks. Dock men secured thick rope to the king’s ship. Folk below lined up and cheered, ready to greet the crew.

It took time for the doors to open, for gangplanks to drop, and the crew to disembark. My fear of the ship didn’t outweigh my fear of what became of me once I stepped foot in this city. I hung near the king’s chamber door as long as I could.

“Glittering and gold.” Sewell hobbled to my side and took hold of my arm.

“I think I’ll stay right here.”

He gave his head a slight shake. “Come.”

“No, really, I—”

“Found the earth fae.” Larsson materialized around the post of the staircase. “Sewell, get on out there. You’re to see old Murdock.”

“Poor stitching, that one,” Sewell said, frowning.

“Aye, but you know how he’ll piss and moan if he doesn’t get a look.” Larsson clapped Sewell’s shoulder. “The man is practically insisting. But Tilly’s got her cherry rum for you already. It’ll burn that skin right off your bones.”

Sewell flicked his gaze to me. “Remember the dreary.” His gaze fell to my arm, the spot with the mark of kings. Remember the dreary, meaning remember he’d warned me to hide certain truths.

I dipped my chin, fighting my churning stomach, when a few crewmen helped Sewell limp off the ship.

Larsson removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “You staying here? I promise you the dock men who tidy the ship once we’re off are rougher than the crew.”

“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

“Oh, I expect you will someday, much like the rest of us.” He chuckled.

I couldn’t help myself—I smiled. Larsson had an easiness about him. He was loyal to his brutal king, no mistake, but he seemed a bit like Jonas. Playful, never taking life too seriously. He was a bit of home.

I followed him to the plank. Crowds had already swallowed up most of the crew. Wives swatted husbands on the cheek, shouting at them for being gone too long, then kissed them like it might be their last. Mothers found their sons and tried to clean off the sweat and blood they earned on the ship.

My heart hurt. It was so much like home, and now . . . I didn’t know when I’d ever be swallowed into my mother’s arms, or have my father pull me close and plant a kiss on my head.

I missed them.

I mourned them.

No matter what Bloodsinger told me about the early wars, I could never stop loving them.

I’d had lonely moments since being taken to think of what I knew of the final battle. There were holes in the history, secrets no one mentioned. Aleksi was one. Whenever Bloodsinger was brought up, Alek changed the conversation, and I didn’t know why.

My cousin was a little over eleven turns when the war ended. Like me, he was kept away, safe and hidden until the end. I could not recall a single interaction between Aleksi and Bloodsinger.

Stieg was another mystery. He knew the Ever King personally. Enough that my father’s captain did not address Erik with titles; instead, he addressed him by his given name. Seemed to think he could reach Bloodsinger differently than others. Was it truly because he’d manipulated a frightened boy in a cell to trust him once?

“Time to disembark.” Larsson’s voice shook me from the daze.

He stood at the top of the gangplank and pointed at a line of wagons and a black coach at the bottom. Each was pulled by a trio of strange charges. A kind of stag bred with a mule. Stubbed horns topped their thick crowns, but every mane was thick and luscious, and the hooves weren’t clefted.

“Horthane.” Larsson made a lazy gesture at the creatures. “Your horses don’t handle the air of the Ever well. But horthane are, what would you land folk say? Strong as an ox, yet swim as well as an eel. Quite tame creatures for the most part, but do not approach without your hand outstretched. They must catch your scent first and determine if you’re to be trusted.”

“And if they don’t?”

Larsson grinned, a divot puckered in his cheek, adding a bit more appeal to his face. “Well then, I hope you’re not attached to your fingers.”

I swallowed until I could stand with indifference again. In the back of the wagon line was a small cart with iron bars on the sides. Empty and ready for filling.

“Afraid you’ll be taking the barred wagon.”

There were bound to be bars eventually, no reason to be surprised, still I bit my cheek to hide the blur of tears. They’d try to break me, but I refused to let them. I’d fall into the Otherworld first.

Voices quieted once I stepped onto the dock. I kept my attention straight ahead while all around whispers followed me like a soft cloak. Words like dark faeearth worker, even a few muttered shouts of bitch followed.

It wasn’t until I stepped beside the barred cart that someone from the crowd hocked a glob of spit on my borrowed boots. Larsson shoved the man back into the crowd and unlocked the cage door.

That was what it was—a cage.

“Apologies, Princess,” he said softly. “They’re not on their best behavior.”

“I doubt it upsets you all that much.”

Larsson looked at the cobbles for a moment before he said, “I understand why my king must do what he has done, but whether you believe it or not, there are some of us who want peace. Not hatred.”

Stun ate my words. I accepted Larsson’s hand and stepped into the back of the cage. He locked the bars and gave me a final smile before striding away.

He’d been gone mere moments before folk pounded on the bars, before more spittle flew at my face. Angry words, threats, and curses were flung my way. More than one pebble, even a rotted pome splattered cloying juices on my cheeks after it struck one of the bars.

The people laughed, encouraging more, until silence, thick as death, fell over them.

I wiped the juices from my eyes as the back bars clanged open and a firm hand gripped my arm.

“Get out, love.” Erik glared at me like he might throw me to his ravenous people.

Don’t break. I gritted my teeth. “Plan to make me walk through all this, Bloodsinger? See if I arrive at my prison in one piece?”

“Your ability to conjure such brutal scenarios is, quite possibly, my favorite thing about you, but you won’t be doing any of it. You’ll be in the royal coach.”

“Why?”

A wickedness, dark and a little mad, lived in his gaze. He used a thumb to wipe some of the sour juice off my cheek. “Because you are mine.”


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