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The Ever King: Chapter 3

The Songbird

When we were littles, Aleksi and I would spend nights in sprawling forts we’d build out in the gardens. My fury connected to the earth like most Northern fae. I was able to thicken shrubs, brighten blossoms, even heal deadened soil.

Our forts used to look like something out of a storybook forest.

There we’d huddle around a lantern, and Aleksi would tell me scary stories about the sea singers and their proclivity to hunt the land folk for our strong bones. He had a knack for description, and I was still a little convinced every blade and necklace owned by a fae of the deep was made from the bones of their enemies.

If Jonas and Sander were visiting, the tales grew even darker. Their magic was different than my bright fury—they worked in nightmares and darkness.

Anyone who did not know the twin princes would never guess they could create such fearsome images, then force it into one’s mind. A fear that had not existed before, after they were through, would never be forgotten.

Once we all matured into our abilities, we didn’t use them against each other like we had as children. So, the fear clinging to my heart like a leech didn’t come from a trick of the twins. It was nothing more than my own cowardice.

I sat stiff on the bench of the longboat, one knee bouncing. Mira untied her thick, auburn hair and let the sea wind run through it like the fingers of a tender lover. Aleksi and Jonas rowed. No mistake, a subtle competition was underway with how they kept glancing at each other and digging deeper with each stroke.

I folded my fingers on my lap and kept a firm watch on the approaching shore of the jagged isles that marked the boundary of the Chasm of Seas.

Strange, sometimes, to think there was a world beneath the waves. I could read all the texts from poems, to sagas, to lore, and the truth was, none of us truly knew what lived in the Ever Kingdom.

Was it nothing but wet all the time? Did eels and fatted whales enter sea cave homes?

Black currents thrashed against the skiff as Aleksi and Jonas carefully guided the boat into a cove. Fear was heady, like stones piled in my belly, but there was a pull to the water. A fascination I couldn’t dull. The mightier I tried to turn from curiosity, the mightier came the pull to the sea. Like a thick rope around my belly, it yanked me back to the edges between two worlds.

“Out.” Jonas waved his hands at us and reached into a black leather satchel shoved under one of the benches. From it, he removed a bottle with rich, amber ale inside. “Tonight, we start the revelry off the way it should be done. Honey brän.”

I used the scratchy rigging to heave myself out of the skiff and onto the sun-heated stones. “Only you’d get sloshed so close to the Chasm.”

“This is why we’re here, Liv,” he said. “Hells, I’m half convinced Bloodsinger’s dead. Probably beheaded by his folk after they tossed him back into the sea.”

I ignored the way the thought burrowed like a thorny bramble in my chest. It’d be best if the heir of the Ever was dead and gone. I laughed, to prove to Jonas—and myself—I felt the same.

Sander built a fire on the shore. Mira handed out small sponge cakes with toffee syrup filling the center.

“Krasmira Sekundär,” I sang out her full name and popped a small cake onto my tongue. “Did you take these from the cooking rooms before the festivities began? Against the rules, my friend.”

She huffed; her stormy eyes narrowed. “Yes, I shall go down in the sagas as the vicious princess who stole some cake.”

Sunlight bled across the horizon like a streak of blood as night came to swallow the day. Soon enough we’d all be pulled by members of our unique courts, vying for our attention. The first festival we’d missed each other, and stole away to hide and celebrate amongst ourselves for half a night. Only us.

Ever since, we always spent the first night together as friends, away from duties and propriety.

We danced, laughed, and taunted Jonas about his confusion over how to handle two women in his bed. The way he finished off the last of the brän, I was certain he took our taunts as a challenge to take no less than three at once.

“Jonas, I beg of you, don’t do this.” I laughed; my head spun a bit in a lightless ale haze. “You’ll just get injured, and your father will have to get you un . . . unstuck.”

Mira giggled, letting her head fall to Aleksi’s shoulder.

Sander smirked. “Daj wouldn’t save him. He’d shame him by bringing everyone around to gawk at him.”

“This entire conversation is pointless.” Jonas blew out his lips and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “First, Daj would never shame me; I’m his favorite. Second, there is no realm in any kingdom where I would get stuck or injured doing what I am skilled at doing.”

“Oh?” I said. “And what is that?”

“I think you know, Liv, but I’d be happy to describe it in detail. You might learn a thing or two.”

I snorted and rose to my feet. “Ah, Jonas, one day some fearsome creature is going to steal your heart and you will not know what to do with yourself.”

He reclined onto his elbows and crossed his ankles, a wicked kind of grin on his face. “One lover for the rest of my days? I think not.”

“Speaking of lovers,” Aleksi said, eyes on me. “What do you think of rumors that more than one noble sod has been talking to Uncle Valen, Liv?”

The brän all at once didn’t sit right in my gut. I waved the thought away. “I think if rumors are true, they are brave souls to approach my father instead of me.”

“Well spoken, Livie! Make them kneel!” Mira shouted. She clapped a hand over her mouth, squeaking out a drunken laugh when it dawned on her she’d bellowed her declaration.

Sander laid back on the sand and closed his eyes. “They’re fools if they think your father would hand you over for some political alliance.”

A smile teased my lips. Talk of suitors had changed over the turns. In a different time, perhaps it would be common for a father to arrange his daughter’s marital vows. Not my father.

When my parents met each other, it had been at my mother’s dowry ball. The king had arranged for her to be bartered for a strategic match, and the highest bidder would be the winner. My father was not even in the running; now they were rulers over a realm. They of all people would never force a match on their children.

I supposed I’d always been waiting for the burn in my heart, a feeling of insatiable need and desire. I wanted the passion I saw among my own folk, and now, looking back, I’d likely passed opportunities to be daring, feckless, to be left breathless from a night meant solely for pleasure.

A Jonas way of thinking, but not such a silly idea. I had nothing but inexperience to offer anyone.

“Maybe you won’t be forced to take a husband,” Jonas said, voice heavy with drink. “But if drunken bastards start to hang all over either of you two, they’ll wind up missing.”

There was a bite to his tone. Even drunk, even nearly a turn younger than me, Jonas was like a protective brother who didn’t take well to men looking at Mira and me for our rank alone.

Hazy with drink herself, Mira hooked one of her slender arms around his neck and pressed a loud, wet kiss to his cheek. “You know, as stupid as you are most days, you have one of my favorite hearts.”

He sloughed her off and flopped back onto the sand, humming the eerie song of the sea—one that tantalized the hair on my arms, like a frightening memory. “A man he’s not, we work we rot . . .”

I turned away, their songs, laughter, and drunken insults to each other at my back. My steps were unsteady, so once I reached the water’s edge, I carefully positioned myself on the ledge of a thick stone to watch the sun fade over the dark sea.

A moment later, Aleksi sat beside me. “Thoughts?

With a sigh, I let my head fall to his shoulder. “Many.”

“I have two ears.”

“I don’t know, Alek. Something feels different. Now, all this chatter about vows and suitors. I feel like I’m spinning forward, yet not really living.”

“What do you mean? You’re the heir of the Night Folk.”

“Yes, because I was born to it. I spar with you and Uncle Tor, but beyond knowing the blade, what have I done? I hardly use my fury. I haven’t . . . well, I haven’t even tried to know people outside of you four.”

“You mean men?”

Heat flushed my face. “I mean everything. I look at you, all handsome in your new gambeson, and I realize I’ve not really strived to be more than comfortable. Even Rorik has a desire to be something more than his birthright, and he’s nine and insane.”

Aleksi grinned. “Then be reckless, Liv. This festival, forget propriety, forget the nerves. I know, I know, easy for me to say. But maybe this is your gut telling you to be daring. A little bold. Who knows what might happen?”

I nudged his side with my elbow. “Odd thing coming from you, honorable Rave.”

Alek scoffed and reclined onto his elbows. “Spend months with First Knight Halvar and his men, and you realize even the most honorable of our warriors have been more than reckless.”

I grinned. “Maybe you’re right and I should do something bold. Something out of the ordinary for me.”

My cousin hugged me to his side as the sun sank deeper until it was hardly a sliver over the sea. The fading, gilded light sliced through the dark water. It brought a calm, a strange peace, watching the water ebb and flow over the dangers of the Chasm.

“Alek,” I asked. “Do you really think Bloodsinger is dead?”

He stiffened. Aleksi never liked to speak about the sea fae, and I didn’t truly know why.

“I think he is nothing we need to think about. Dead or alive.”

I didn’t know why my mouth opened, nor why the words spilled out like vomit. Blame the drink, but I couldn’t stop myself before I whispered, “I lied.”

“About what?”

“I have been bold once before.”

“Oh really? How is that?”

A sting gathered behind my eyes. Gods, not here. When I drank too much, tears flowed over the simplest things. Sander was a sleepy drunk. Jonas grew pensive and thoughtful. Aleksi held ale like a stone. Mira giggled. I bleeding cried.

My voice croaked and whimpered with ale-soaked words as I blurted out the truth at Aleksi’s feet. The truth of the story I read to the boy in the dark, the token of friendship in the shape of a silver bird, the truth about the golden emblem of the Ever.

I left out the part about my scar. No doubt a critical part of the story, yet my brain was desperate for Aleksi to tell me I was overthinking. It didn’t want confirmation of the fears, not really.

I swiped my hand under my nose. “I was going to convince Erik Bloodsinger we didn’t have to be enemies. We could be friends. He even promised to return for his stupid golden disk someday.”

“Is that what’s been bothering you lately? His threat means nothing, Liv. Erik Bloodsinger cannot come through the barriers. Ever.” Aleksi’s jaw pulsed. “Did you not know this?”

I buried my teeth into my bottom lip. There were comments made through the turns that the Ever King would never see the land again, but I always took it for boastful talk amongst warriors.

“After the war, they used his blood to create the barriers. They guard against it. Nothing is strong enough to break those walls.” He eyed the sea for a few breaths, then smacked my knee with the back of his hand and stood. “I’ll prove it.”

My cousin stripped his tunic.

“What the hells are you—”

“Care to go for a swim?” The gold in his eyes flashed with a touch of mischief so rare for dear, honorable Aleksi.

“Are you insane?”

“No. I promise I won’t let your precious royal neck drown, but I want you to see what it means to cross the Chasm.”

A few more breaths, a few more inner words on why this was a terrible idea, the brän took hold, and I went to the water’s edge, hardly caring that I remained fully clothed.

Hand in mine, Aleksi winked and began to count to three. He made it to two, then wrenched me into the waves in one great leap. Cold stole my breath like dozens of stitching needles in my pores. I swallowed against the shock, then embraced the tug of the currents.

I’d always been drawn to the sea. Days spent fishing with my daj, or swimming in the fjords in the North were some of my fondest memories. Slowly, I blinked my eyes open. The sting of seawater irritated my eyes until they adjusted. Whether it was fury or simply the magic of the sea, my vision cleared like looking into glass.

Aleksi tugged on my hand at my side and pointed straight ahead. From the shore, the Chasm was nothing more than a dark stripe, a deep current that flowed in opposition to the rest of the sea. But here, beneath the waves, it was a bleeding cyclone.

Water thrashed and spun in a frenzy. The Chasm split between the gentler currents of our barriers like a true wall. White, frothy currents flowed from sky to sea floor, while the calmer sea stuck to the flow of the horizon.

I was enthralled, drawn forward like an insect captured by a web weaver. Somewhere in the chaos rose a sweet tune, a voice soft and gentle, one that blotted out any other sound. My pulse raced, like the song was calling to me.

Unbidden, my hand stretched forward. A tug somewhere deep in my belly drowned my muddled mind with nothing more than an insatiable need to draw closer. I flattened my hand against the roar of the Chasm wall. At once, I yanked it back. What felt like a hot barb jabbed my palm and scorched along my skin until it raised the ridges of the rune scar on my forearm.

Aleksi pulled me away, eyes narrowed, and used his head to gesture to the surface.

“What the hells, Livie? I wanted you to see it, not touch it.” He wiped water from his eyes and swam closer. “You get sucked in there, I’d be going in after you, then I’d get our family’s first mark of shame for being removed from the Rave the same day I was promoted.”

My pulse pounded in my skull. I wasn’t certain I heard much of his rant at all.

“Liv.” Aleksi nudged my ribs. “You all right?”

I licked my lips free of the salty water and smiled. “Yes. I’m glad you showed me. You’re right. How could anyone get through without emerging half dead?”

“Did you sods see that?” Jonas’s slurred voice drew our attention. He pointed the bottle of brän toward the darkening horizon. “Lightning, but it looked like fire.”

Aleksi pulled himself free of the water, then turned and offered a hand for me. “Sounds like lightning to me.”

“No, it was red.”

Mira whooped. “The gods are announcing Crimson Festival!”

Jonas laughed and loudly agreed. On shore, Alek handed me my clothes. “No more thinking he’s coming. He’s not.”

I wrung my damp hair and nodded. “You’ve proved your point.”

“Good, because we have greater worries right now.”

“Like what?”

My cousin looked over his shoulder. “Like how we’re going to get Jonas off his ass before this storm hits.”

Aleksi jabbed a finger toward the sky.

“Better hurry,” Mira called to us.

Mountains of ashy clouds rolled over the sea like a marching army. Aleksi hurried ahead, but a shudder rippled down my spine. The raised scar had grown red and irritated, almost scorched. I wasn’t troubled by my skin, not more than I was troubled by what I’d seen when I touched the Chasm.

An omen was the only explanation. The instant the water of the barrier licked my skin, for a fleeting moment, a golden city had shaped in my mind’s eye. Cheerful bells rang, like a signal or a summons.

As if they were beckoning me to come home.


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