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The Ever King: Chapter 29

The Songbird

The outer walls of the palace glittered with pale stones, but the inner corridors were ominous and dark. Black satin drapes were drawn over open windows, hiding away sunlight. The faintest glimmer of the dawn spread over the wood floors when the breeze caught the fabric. I slowed my step to look at one window. The satin rippled in a way reminiscent of a gentle sea. I thought it a coincidence until I breathed in the scent of the threads—wet sand and brine.

Erik pinched the fabric between his thumb and forefinger, stroking it gently. “Like your land gives to you, the sea gives to us.”

“These come from the sea?”

“A vine found in the lagoons. Spun into threads that trap heat during the frosts and cool during the warmer months.”

Without a chance to allow for more questions, the king dragged us forward. Rafters arched gently, and from each apex hung iron chandeliers with two dozen tallow candles. An occasional servant would pass us after stepping from one of the many rooms. The sight of Erik always drew a widened expression, one of fright, as though they could not wait until they were out of his presence.

We entered an expansive hall. On either side a new corridor branched off to some unseen place in the palace. Awaiting us in the center was a crowd of men in sharp gambesons or high-collared shirts and ladies in gowns frosted in jade or silver.

The king didn’t bring fear to these people. He brought competition. All eyes turned to Erik and his procession. While they looked as if their hands had never touched a grain of dirt, the king was travel worn, tousled, and wild, like his Ever Sea.

Still, every man seemed to seek Bloodsinger’s notice. Every lady whispered to the one at her side, snickering or flushing.

But for one. A woman, flanked by two docile ladies with hair like seaweed on either side, floated toward the king.

Her skin was the color of morning cream, and soft, golden curls flowed down her back to her slender waist. She was delicate and airy, like a thin piece of glass. The corner of her red painted lips tweaked into a coy grin as she lowered her chin in a nod. One to acknowledge her king’s rank, but not one that would ever lower her own.

“Welcome back, My Lord.”

Erik paused. He took half a step to one side, a step that placed him in front of me. “Fione.”

Fione laced her fingers in front of her body, smiling sweetly. “You have been missed.”

Someone snorted. I didn’t look, but I took a guess that Celine had joined the procession.

Erik scoffed and drew closer to the woman. She didn’t step back, and let her body press against his, and an unwelcome flash of annoyance lined my insides.

The king cocked his head, taking her in, tearing her apart with his scrutiny. Gods, were they lovers? The way she looked ready to devour him left me pleading with the cracks in the stone floor to widen and swallow me whole.

Memories of his tempting fingers sliding between my legs, the barest touch against my center, the way he’d tormented my breasts, his tongue, gods, it all had me aching in shame.

To add on the fact he might have a woman loyally awaiting his return brought bile to my throat.

Erik didn’t kiss her; he didn’t even touch her. After a tenuous gaze, he merely clicked his tongue and said, “Pleasure seeing you, Fione.”

In two steps, Bloodsinger was back at my side, his grip on my arm. For the first time, the glass woman took note of the unfamiliar face in the room. Her pale eyes narrowed sharply on the place where Erik touched my skin, then to my face.

“Who is this, My King?”

“Mine,” was all he said before he led us to the furthest corridor.

“Will we see you at the feast?” Fione called out.

Erik turned, the handsome curve of his mouth dimpled his cheek. “Unfortunately, I am told I must attend.”

“Perhaps I might have the honor of sitting near his Highness.”

“Perhaps.” Erik didn’t indulge the woman any longer before tugging me forward.

His focus remained locked ahead, his grip on my arm unyielding. The corridor came to an end at a large, arched doorway with a brass knob, and opened to a winding staircase.

Erik kept a steady pace up the tower steps, but the slightest slump of his left shoulder gave up the limp he tried to hide.

When we were far enough up the steps to be alone, I pulled back. “Who was that woman?”

He seemed surprised at the sound of my voice for a few breaths. “Envious?”

“Not at all.”

He chuckled. “Fione will tell you she is my mate, my woman, whatever you call such matches in your land.”

“Mate?” My blood burned. “What a snake you are.”

Again, the bastard chuckled. “Are mate matches so horrid to earth fae?”

“No, but . . .” I looked once over my shoulder, then lowered my voice.“But you touched me. You betrayed her.”

One lithe motion and Bloodsinger had my back to the cold stone of the stairwell, his body pinned over mine, and his palm on my throat.

“I betrayed no one, love.” His eyes dropped to my parted lips for one breath. “As I said, Fione will tell you we are mates based on an old agreement made before our births. Once I took the throne, I saw to it the agreement was dissolved.”

“Does she know this?”

“Oh yes. It does not mean she does not try to get me to see her more appealing qualities.” Erik flicked his brows.

“And have you? Do you play with women’s hearts for your own twisted pleasure?”

“I can’t figure out why you ask such things if you don’t care.”

“I’m sealing in my mind how horrid you are. Keep speaking,” I said. “It only makes it simpler.”

Bloodsinger’s thumb stroked the center of my throat. “I’ve no interest in hearts, Songbird. Put your mind at ease, I always make my intent clear before any woman shares my bed. I’m sickeningly honorable.”

I balked. “You are sickeningly something. Honorable is not what I would call it.”

Erik leaned his mouth against my ear. His breath was warm, his voice seductively low. “I did not hear your complaints when my tongue was slipping inside you.”

I shoved against his chest, ashamed of the sting of tears behind my eyes. Such hopes for the night of the masque had turned into such a nightmare. The first night I’d allowed a man to touch me so intimately, and I’d started a new war.

I turned away, and the king had enough brains not to carry on. Erik took my hand and continued up the staircase.

Four flights up, two guards stood outside an inconspicuous door. The king nor his men made the slightest hint the other existed. Bloodsinger merely shoved through the door and slammed it behind him.

For the first time since entering the palace, he released his hold on my arm. From the outside, I would not have anticipated such an ornate chamber in one of the towers. The sitting room was the size of the whole of my family’s tower at the fort. Woven rugs with blue fish and jade waves covered the stone floors. An inglenook capable of fitting ten men inside was alight with a white and blue dancing flame.

Like a curious child, I reached my fingers for the fire, mesmerized.

Erik slapped his grip around my wrist again, coming from nowhere, and pulled me back. “Do they not teach folk on land to keep away from fire?”

Heat flooded my cheeks. I yanked my hand away and looked anywhere but the king. “I’ve never seen fire like this, I thought . . .”

I let my voice trail off. Nothing I could say would make me sound less like a fool.

“The air here breathes differently,” he said briskly without looking at me. “Changes the shade of the flame. Still carries a bite that’ll boil the skin.”

The fire was beautiful, like molten sapphires. I readied to ask another question about the differences of the two realms, but words died off. Erik was gone.

I peeked through an arched doorway leading into a second room. The bedchamber. Two floor-length windows opened onto a balcony overlooking the sea. From here it glittered innocently. Everything seemed so bright, so peaceful.

The calm was deceptive and ensorcelled me into a false sense of security.

Full quilts and satin coverlets were smoothed over a plush mattress that looked as if it had never been used. A washroom branched off from the sleep area, and another open doorway led down a new staircase. I leaned my face against a narrow lancet to find where it let out.

My heart jumped. Below was a garden, untamed and made of dry, wild brambles, but beneath the neglect could be something stunning.

Erik opened a wardrobe with edges carved as though air bubbles floated to the surface of the sea. Unfazed by company, the king stripped his shoulders of the white, dingy shirt from the journey, and reached for something new.

I didn’t intend to utter a sound. I fought to remain indifferent. I failed.

Across Erik’s back, from the top of his shoulders, around his ribs, to the lower curves of his hips, were dozens of scars. Pink and gnarled. Some white and fading. Old wounds left behind from prolonged suffering.

By the hells, he must’ve been in horrid pain even now. Skin was left irritated, untreated. Movements would be uncomfortable; no mistake it would burn constantly pulling at the taut skin without proper cleansers and oils.

“They wouldn’t do that to you.” My voice was soft and small. Uncertain.

Erik slipped his head through a black tunic and faced me. “I know how disgusting it is for you to look upon such mangled skin.” A shadow dulled the sunset red of his eyes. “So, believe what you wish, Princess, but I did not do it to myself.”

To see the tormented flesh, my mind could not reconcile with the notion that it might be true. My family had humanity. They were just and fair. Loving.

The thought of them seeing an innocent as nothing more than a tool was nauseating.

“I will be gone for a time,” Erik said as he ran his palms over his dark, tousled hair. He paused at the doorway between his room and sitting area. “You will remain here.”

A sudden panic throttled my chest. I did not want him to leave. Not because he was tender and wonderful, but because Bloodsinger was clearly possessive. He wanted me and didn’t, but his want seemed to win out more than his resentment. Odd as it was to admit, Erik felt like the safest person in the palace right now.

Sweat dripped down my neck. The room tilted, and I couldn’t stop . . .

“Livia.” Erik’s voice shattered the panic. His eyes were narrowed. “Do not leave. I need to know you heard me.”

I shook out my hands and peered through the lancet once more. “May I go to your garden? It’s concealed.”

“No.” His jaw pulsed for a few breaths. “I say this for your own good.”

“Right. A glittering cage.”

Erik’s gaze hardened. “You’ll regret it should you choose not to listen.”

The threat hovered like a dark omen in the room. Bloodsinger didn’t wait for a retort, a plea, nothing before he abandoned me to the emptiness of his unfamiliar space.

A shock jolted my heart when the door slammed, dislodging a golden framed mirror from the wall. Glass cracked. My reflection stood amidst the pieces, a true likeness to the deepening fissures in my heart.

I slid down the cold stones of the wall and hugged my knees to my chest. Utterly alone.


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