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The Ever King: Chapter 30

The Serpent

“Highness, he’s just arrived.” Alistair materialized as though he’d misted into shape from a shadow. The man was portly, a size too large for his clothing, but he couldn’t see what the rest did. His skin sagged around his mouth and eyes, and the tips of his tapered ears flopped over from age.

Bound to the palace until his final days, he’d served five Ever Kings. Next to Alistair, I was a bleeding infant.

Still, he blustered as he’d always done under the watch of my father, and had the decency to treat me as the lord of this land the moment I stepped foot into the halls as a broken, limping boy.

We quickened the pace to the council room in silence until we reached the double doors at the end of a narrow corridor.

“What is your word on our guest?” Alistair asked.

“Send Celine to tend to her. Make certain she doesn’t try to get bold and escape or slit her pretty neck out of desperation.”

Alistair muttered a prayer to the god of the tides and kissed his center knuckle. Old rituals from Skondell he’d adopted over the turns. “She is from the earthen fae?”

“Play the fool if you’d like, Alistair.” I scoffed. “You feast on gossip like you feast on air. The princess is to remain in my chambers, but send for a gown. She will be at the return feast.”

“A gown? My King, perhaps you do not understand this, but ladies come in differing sizes. The needleworker needs time to shape and tailor cloth and—”

“Alistair, I may have been raised by cruel men, but I’m no stranger to the female form. The princess seems built like my mother, does she not?”

Alistair blinked. I did not speak of my mother—ever. I waited for his stun to pass, and his smug propriety to return. “Aye, My Lord. Their figures seem close. I will see what we have in the old chambers.”

“Good.” I turned away, anxious to conceal the new corded tension in my neck.

“You think it wise to bring the woman to the feast?”

“You don’t?”

Alistair pinched his thin lips until they disappeared. “I think, My Lord, you have a fae from enemy lands. I think you have not claimed her as yours but for in your mind. I think there are many who seek vengeance for unjust wars.”

“True,” I agreed. “And I am the only one in this palace I trust.”

“Yet you leave her to be alone with Tidecaller?”

“Celine is loyal to me out of oath. She won’t touch her.”

“You plan to claim the earth fae?” The old man locked his fingers in front of his plump belly, unruffled, always seeking direct commands no matter how eccentric.

“Make no mistake, Alistair,” I said, grinning. “I claimed her long ago.”

He bowed at the waist, then left me on the outside bridge leading to the main halls of the palace. I paused and glared at the sails on the new ship aligned at the back docks below.

Skulls with bloody eyes adorned the banner of Gavyn’s vessel. White sea birch on the ship for the House of Bones was designed to be slender and sleek. Better for sailing through the narrow canyons in the isles where Gavyn ruled.

A turn older than me, Gavyn Seeker was the only face in the noble houses I could stomach, and it was a relief to see only his vessel.

Joron Seamaker from the House of Tides would’ve brought his eccentric ship with the dozens of angled sails, painted with the skull likeness in a rogue wave of his banner. The deck bulged, and his helm was crafted in the center.

No galley belowdecks, his crew survived by mastering their gifts to work the sea and its creatures. They fished with their songs, and if they failed, they starved.

Lord Hesh of the House of Blades was given his title of lord for reaching the uppermost rank of High Farer in the kingdom’s fleet. The House of Mists did not associate with the House of Kings unless forced or enticed. Even then, Narza would likely find a way around it.

Gavyn had a purpose for being here, but the others could stay away for good for all I cared.

I didn’t want Hesh or Joron to see Livia. Already, I wished my grandmother had not interacted with the princess.

She was my hope for defending the kingdom. With so many unknowns, anyone might try to take such a gift for themselves. But should I make it known she was mine, make her invaluable to the people, then they would stand for her, the same as me.

That was the hope. That was what had to happen.

Certain no one was near, I turned from the council room and pulled back a panel in the wall. Hidden corridors sprawled through the walls of the palace like a web. I emerged into an alcove of one of the numerous studies.

Two women, dressed in the blue and gold of the servants, polished the silver edging across the hearth, unaware I’d arrived.

“I always thought earth fae had more fur,” one woman muttered. “But you saw her? She’s almost dainty-like.”

The other woman snickered. “He arrives cold as ever, but all possessive over the earth woman. Talk says he’s gonna claim her.”

“She’ll want to keep the lights doused,” the first snorted through a laugh. “Think he’s ever bedded anyone in the daylight with them scars?”

“Only the ones I kill right after I come.” I stepped from the alcove, fists clenched.

A unified sob broke from both servants. The women fell to their knees. The first whimpered, “Highness, we . . . we didn’t mean—”

“Get out of my sight.”

They didn’t question, didn’t pause, before scrambling to their feet and fleeing. I lifted my palms, studying the rough calluses, the scars along the meat of my thumbs, my wrists, and forearms.

Mangled.

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to think Livia would ever truly crave a touch from a man like me. There was a bond to consider. Any pull she felt toward me came from fate twisting our paths together beyond our control.

I glared at the door where the women had fled. I hated them, hated the way everyone here looked at me as though any moment in my presence would be their final breath.

It had been the same since I was a boy when Harald barked his cruelty and drunken tirades through the hallways after the death of his brother. Once an uncle who laughed and allowed Tait to befriend me, all at once transformed into the bastard intent on molding the fiercest, cruelest Ever King the seas had seen.

The men and women of this palace were witness to it all and did nothing.

Unfair of me, perhaps, to hold resentments against folk unable to step over the confines of their station. I did not pretend to be a fair man. Resentment festered, a gangrenous poison in my bones, until the sight of them brought nothing but disgust.

Another panel slid out of place on a far wall. Gavyn stepped through without a sound. Dressed in black, he tugged the scarf he used to hide his features in the royal city away from his mouth.

Brown skin, dark eyes, but hair with a touch of fire in the color, he always wore a grin like he knew every salacious secret in the kingdom.

In truth, he likely did.

Gavyn offered a lavish bow. “King Erik, you’ve been greatly missed. How we’ve bemoaned your absence and prayed to the gods, to the cruel creatures of the depths for your safe—”

“Sit down, you bastard.” I yanked a chair from the table.

“I hear you have quite a tale to tell.” Gavyn kicked out his legs, grinning. “What’s this about Chasms and claimed?”

“I should have known when I took on your damn family nothing would ever be private.”

Gavyn’s grin widened. “I assure you, My King, I’d find out all your scandalous secrets on my own.” He winked with the arrogance he’d had since we were children and folded his fingers over his stomach. “Tell me about the earth fae, and how we’re not heading straight into a war.”

“She bears the mark of the House of Kings.” Trust did not come simple in the Ever, but Gavyn was one of the few I nearly trusted implicitly.

“Aye, so I heard. Makes little sense to me. After you went through the Chasm, I studied deeper into the mantle given to Thorvald.” He paused, drumming his fingers over the table. “From what I’ve learned, Thorvald’s mantle was meant to be the full power of the Ever, but in truth, it never really took. More like it amplified his own command of the sea. Thoughts as to why?”

“No. You know better than anyone how little Thorvald spoke to me.”

Gavyn scratched the side of his face and sighed. “It’s led me to wonder if she’s truly using the power of the Ever against the darkening.”

“What else would it be?”

“Her own magic?”

“Possible, but why does she feel drawn to the Ever? Why does she say it feels different?”

“Therein lies the question, My King. A living talisman for the House of Kings has just . . . never been.”

“You think I don’t know? You think any of this makes sense? There is no other answer. I’ve felt the mark on her skin, I’ve witnessed the land heal beneath her touch.”

“You know it puts you both at risk.”

My fist curled over my knee. Across the kingdom were more Lucien Skurks. More cutthroats desperate for a bit of power.

“I plan to claim her at the feast.”

“That’ll help, I suppose,” Gavyn said. “Fione will be devastated and likely force the whole House of Mists to curse you.”

I smirked. “Fione wants my cock for no other reason than growing her own title. The same as all those women you say surround you.”

He laughed and rocked back on two legs of his chair. “We’d be fools to think it meant anything more. Although, I’m not convinced it’s the same for you and the earth fae. I had a moment to speak with Tait upon your return.” Gavyn righted on his chair, and leaned over the table, a shadow in his gaze. “Enjoy your fight with the sea singer?”

My jaw pulsed. “Seems my cousin has a big mouth.”

“Tait has the smallest mouth in the entire kingdom and would not speak of you unless he had concern or reason.” Gavyn hesitated. “I ask if she is only a source of magic to you since you know as well as I do, a sea singer’s trance will attract the victim to the true desire of the heart.”

“Sea singers lure folk through lust.”

“Erik. She would lust after anyone, but she desired you. Tait saw it.” Gavyn studied his hands for a few breaths. “It can’t be helped, and you know it; the song reveals the truth.”

“What is the point of you saying this?”

“I speak as a friend.” A rare admission. Men like us could not afford to have friends. “A new fate seems to be at play for the Ever with the mark, but perhaps there is more than one purpose the Chasm drew you to her.”

Part of me wanted to agree, another wanted to stab Gavyn to get him to shut his damn mouth. Lust was physical, but a sea singer’s voice amplified a heart’s desire. I refused to see Livia’s behavior as anything other than the physical draw for a warm body in hers.

In my silence, Gavyn let out a long breath. “It’s not my place to offer conjectures, merely something to consider. Tell me what I am to do. It’s been too long since you’ve utilized my more remarkable qualities, and I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me.”

Needy bastard. “I will guard against threats here, but I need you to dull the threats on the other side of the Chasm.”

Gavyn’s brows arched. “A visit to the earth fae again?”

“A subtle one, and it must be done by you alone. Understand?”

“Ah. You wish violence upon me, I see.” With a grin, Gavyn tried to shield the unease in his eyes, but there was hesitation there.

“Can you manage it?”

“I’ll manage just fine.”

I wasn’t certain if he said it for my assurances or his own. “Bring the Night Folk clans word that their princess belongs to the Ever, she cannot be taken, then see to it they cannot find their own way through the barriers.”

Gavyn tilted his head, bemused. “You think they’d risk so many lives by attempting to cross through?”

I lowered my voice. “I think her father would burn every bleeding world to the ground to get her back.”

By taking Livia, I’d dug a blade into the earth bender’s heart—a deep, gaping wound. He’d owned my father’s power for two decades. He’d fight to take my Songbird back with even more ferocity.

Now that I had her as mine, I’d never allow it.

“As you say,” Gavyn said. “I’ll prepare to leave as soon as possible.”

“You’re certain you can do this without your ship?” I watched for any hint of deception or false bravado.

Gavyn’s jaw flinched. “It will be taxing to attempt the Chasm after so many turns, but I’ve done it before as you know. Hopefully, this time I’ll do so with fewer shattered bones.”

Gavyn traipsed the Chasm last during the war. An attempt that nearly cost him his life. Nearly cost us both our lives.

“If you cannot, then pull back,” I said. “We’ll find another way.”

No one knew Gavyn’s true ability. I called him by the name of Seeker, but to the kingdom he was known as Gavyn Bonerotter, thought to have an ability where he could crush bones with a touch. He couldn’t, yet he served as the lord to the House of Bones. It was a ruse to keep him breathing. True sea seekers didn’t live long before they were killed by blade or their own reckless magic.

A man like Gavyn didn’t merely use the tides to carry his voice like Celine. He could become as mist and slip through any body of water in an instant to wherever he desired. Be it from one isle to another across the sea, or perhaps a pond in the private courtyard of another lord. Perhaps he might materialize in a washroom, knife in hand, ready to plunge it through a rival’s throat.

Seekers, to most high-ranking nobles, were too great a risk to keep alive.

A journey through the Chasm without a ship was damn near fatal for anyone weaker than Gavyn.

“The earth bender king,” Gavyn said after a long pause. “He’ll truly fight for his daughter?”

I faced him. “I know he will.”

His dark eyes burned in the hidden rage he kept locked beneath wit and charm and his title. “Does it not trouble you how rare that is here? So few fathers would raise armies for one daughter. Even for a son, I suppose it would depend on the rank.”

True enough. When I was snatched by earth fae clans during their small wars to be harvested for healing blood as a tiny boy, there were a great many details I kept to myself about my father’s attempts to retrieve me, both during and after. Had I not been a son, I would’ve been forgotten.

“The earth bender almost reminds me of my own father,” Gavyn said.

“Don’t get sentimental,” I warned. “A great deal hinges on keeping protective fathers out of our kingdom.”

“I suppose.”

“Before you go,” I said, voice low, “see to the other lords and find something for me to use to force their loyalty. They will not take the news of Livia well.”

Lord Joron would try to study her, maybe be one to claim her power for himself. Lord Hesh would find it an abomination a woman bore the mark of the royal house and likely make a move to rid the Ever of such a stain.

“I’ll leave straightaway.”

“Wait until after the return feast. No doubt your ship has been seen. Your face will be expected.”

He smirked. “Debauchery in the royal city? With pleasure, My King.”

“Gavyn.” I didn’t turn to look at him. “You also might want to get that injury you mentioned looked at by my boneweaver.”

“I’m uninjured.”

“This is too important to take the risk with injuries. No matter how small.”

“Erik, I’m not injured—”

“I think you are.” I turned over my shoulder. “Murdock won’t be too occupied. Only one on my crew arrived with a wound and is being treated. My cook.”

Gavyn visibly paled. “I see. And was he quite injured?”

“Thanks to the earth fae princess, not so much he lost his words.”

“The princess?”

“Aye. She’s bold at the strangest times, and ran to help him during a damn attack from Lucien Skurk.” I tilted my head. “As I said, there is no one but him there if you needed to get that scratch you were complaining about just now inspected.”

Gavyn swallowed thickly, tugged at a small knife from a sheath hidden in his boot, and dragged the tip over the meat of his palm. He gave me a sly grin once a small stream of blood dripped down his wrist. “Glad you noticed the scratch, My King. Probably best to have a look, to be certain all goes well.”

Gavyn pressed a hand to his chest, bowed, then tugged the black mask over his chin. I faced the window before he slipped out, part of the shadows of the corridors.


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