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The Ever King: Chapter 28

The Songbird

Erik kept satin curtains drawn over the coach windows. I was glad for it. The less I had to see the hatred in the eyes of his people, the easier I breathed.

“You’ll be taken to my chambers first,” he said, tipping back one of the curtains and watching the procession for a moment. Bloodsinger slumped back on the padded bench and turned his attention back to me. “You’re not to go anywhere else. Understood?”

“The king’s chambers? Not a dungeon?”

“They’re rather damp. I think you’ll prefer the chambers.” The corner of his mouth twitched.

“So everyone knows I’m your whore?”

Erik leaned over his knees. “Is that what you want, love?”

“Never yours. But perhaps you should ask Larsson if he’d be interested in taking me. He’s rather handsome and doesn’t make me think I’m going to die every moment I turn around.”

Erik studied me for a long pause. Enough I could not puzzle if he battled with the thought of cutting out my tongue or . . . something else.

“Feel better getting that out?” he asked and propped an elbow on the window’s ledge, a fist against his cheek. “I am preparing to claim you as mine, so you should know that will be the last time another man’s name is on your tongue.”

“I might be your property, but you do not control what words come from my mouth.”

Bloodsinger chuckled. “We’ll see.”

I stared at the curtains, refusing to look at him. The coach tilted up the hillside. Tension blistered like my skin might split open at every bend in the road.

Only once we reached the doors of the palace did Erik speak. “You will be untouched in my rooms. They are well guarded.”

The door on the coach swung open, and Erik left me with a scathing look before he stepped outside.

All at once the coach became my haven. The moment I abandoned it, I would be isolated and forgotten from a world that didn’t even know me apart from being the daughter of an enemy king.

Sweat beaded over my brow. The familiar, suffocating grip tightened around my lungs. All I desired was to draw a deep breath, to watch my chest expand as I took it in. Instead, breaths came in sharp, shallow puffs. Gods, I wished I had asked Blister Poppy for more of her calming leaf.

Breathe.

I smoothed my open palms over my knees, closed my eyes, and tried to hear the voices of those I loved.

Breathe.

Sometimes it was my mother’s voice. Maybe Alek’s. Other times it was the playful rumble of Jonas or the soothing tone of Malin, his mother. My father’s voice was the one that replayed the most. Steadfast. Deep. Safe.

Be fierce, little love. I clung to it like a tether in the night, almost like Daj were seated right next to me.

I closed my eyes, drew in a long breath through my nose, filling my chest and unshackling the panic that held me captive. I clenched my fists for a count of three, then flexed my fingers until the tremble subsided, and stepped outside.

Air in the Ever was always heavy with water. We were not truly beneath the waves, but every gust of a breeze left a glisten of droplets over my skin. No mistake, it served the sea fae well with their need for water. Beside the palace it was richer, like a warm rain fell against my flesh.

The front entrance of the royal house was formidable. Sun glared against the pale stones on the walls and two panels of dark, glossy wood looked as if they were in a constant state of damp. There were no less than fifteen steps up to the doors, and all along the cobbled walk were men and women in simple blue dresses or tunic tops.

Hands crossed in front, they lifted their chins, looking to the heavens when Erik stepped into the center of the path. A man approached the king. His trousers only struck his knees, and his boots seemed ill-fitted for his spindly limbs.

With a whirl of his hand, he bowed. “Welcome back, My Lord. Your chambers have been prepared, and your guest has arrived for—”

“Alistair,” Erik interjected. “I do not need to know what I already know.”

Loose skin under the man’s chin wobbled as he spoke. “As you say, My King. Now, regarding the return feast.”

Erik groaned, pointing his face to the sky. “What lies do I have left to use in order to escape it?”

“Afraid we’ve used the most common already. You’ve been ill too many times to be believable, and if I say you’ve fallen into a drunken stupor again, they’ll replace your rum and wine with water,” Alistair droned without a dip in his tone. “At this point we’ve reached kidnapping, poisoning, or lost at sea. Your return has quite clearly abolished the latter. And unless an assassin is lying in wait—”

“Always a possibility,” Erik said.

“And I’m afraid there is little risk of kidnapping to take place from the doors to your chamber.” Alistair sniffed. “If I may, My King, the feast is tradition and, frankly, expected.”

“Ah, but this journey was anything but expected.” Bloodsinger reached for me, gripped my wrist, and pulled me against his hard body. One knuckle traced the bridge of my cheek.

I narrowed my eyes and stepped back, furious and repulsed. Not at Bloodsinger exactly—although he ought to shoulder a great deal of blame for being repugnant—but at the way my body trembled beneath his touch. The slice of his fierce gaze stilled my heart for two breaths every damn time.

“Quite,” said Alistair. “Likely the reason your people are most anxious to meet you at the feast.”

“Of course they are. Oh.” Erik snapped his fingers at his steward. “Before the day is done, send a summons to House Skurk. Tell them their brother is dead, killed by the Ever Crew for treason. I’ll expect their penance on behalf of his dishonor by the fortnight.”

“Shall I request penance be made personally, or by offering?”

“What do you think, Alistair? Why would I want to see their wretched faces?”

The man dipped his chin. “I shall see to it the offering is here by the fortnight.”

“See what you can find out about House Skurk using the lotus of Skondell for spell casts. Then, remind them that should they disappoint me as their brother did, their bones will be hung over the coves to greet incoming ships.” Erik turned to me. A cruel grin twisted the scar on his lip a little more as he held out a hand. “How is my wallowing in brutality, Songbird?”

“Horrid.” Wildly, my mind beat against the notion of going near the man, but every eye turned to me. Some arched brows, others looked on in curiosity, but most glared with such violence I half expected someone to spring forward and ram a knife in my chest.

When the rest of the wagons rambled up the path and some of the higher-ranked crew appeared, half-drunken in their pungent wines already, I had nowhere to turn.

To the crew that hated me, the people who despised me even more, or the king who’d sometimes touched gently?

I placed my hand in Erik’s.

For a mere heartbeat, heat irritated my palm. I winced, but promptly buried it with a frown as Erik lifted my knuckles to his lips.

“Such a well-behaved princess,” he said, voice low.

I forced a grin. No doubt it looked more like a grimace. Erik kept a possessive hold on my hand; his body was stiff, rigid. The thrum of nerves pounded in my skull. He tried to hide it, but there was unease written in every sharp angle of his face.

If the Ever King was unsettled walking into his own palace, what horrors awaited me?


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