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The Ever King: Chapter 33

The Songbird

“Deep bites. Long swipes.” Sewell demonstrated a brutal strike with one of the cutlass blades used on the Ever Ship.

I was more accustomed to knives and battle axes, but I’d sweated from the early morning hours to the lavender light of the dusk in the days since the claiming. I saw little of Erik, but he’d insisted on seeing to it I could hold my own with a blade.

I tightened my grip on the hilt of the sparring blade. Sewell struggled with his words, but his body moved like a warrior, one that knew how to strike from the shadows. Swift, deliberate, and unseen.

The edge of his blade came down on mine. My shoulders throbbed from the pressure, but I spun out, dislodging his blade. Sewell struck again. I parried. He jabbed. I sliced. When he ducked, I attempted to knock him off balance. With his elbow he slammed me between the shoulders, and I fell with a roll back to my feet as he showed me.

From the side of the hall, Celine shouted her opinions on my form, mostly criticisms, but occasionally she groaned at Sewell.

“Come on, you taught me better than that, old man.” She shook her head.

Sewell pointed his blade at her, grinning. “Back your talk, Thunder Fish.”

Celine blew out her lips. “I stand by my word that I could flatten you.”

Sewell huffed and tossed Celine a blade. Forgotten, and given a moment’s rest, I observed their fight for a few breaths before the cool steel of a blade leveled against my neck.

I froze.

“Don’t let down your guard, love. Not in the Ever.”

Erik lowered his blade, but kept close to me. His fingers brushed over the back of my neck when he leaned his mouth against my ear. “Fight me.”

Each word dripped through me like liquid fire. I swallowed and rammed my elbow into Erik’s ribs. He didn’t let out the slightest grunt, simply laughed and spun a gold-hilted cutlass in his grip.

I kept low, circling the king. Guards lined the hall. More courtiers gathered to watch. Even Celine and Sewell paused their match.

“Show me you can defend yourself,” he said in a sharp tone, but beneath it all there seemed to be a strange plea to his voice.

Doubtless, I imagined it.

Erik didn’t wait for me to catch my breath before he lunged. Like Sewell, the king moved with a captivating finesse. His strikes came before I caught up to the previous move. I fought to gain the offensive, but kept backstepping, blocking every strike in a frenzy.

I managed to spin out and get behind him, but an off-center strike to his back ended with Erik finding the leverage to curl one of his legs around my ankle and knock my feet out from under me. I landed flat on my back with a grunt.

Erik made a cage with his arms and legs, pinning me to the ground. The red of his eyes was like a soft flame. Dark hair pinned to his brow from a thin layer of sweat. His body was hard and strong, and too close to mine. The bastard only made it worse when he leaned his mouth over my lips.

“I think of you like this too often,” he whispered. “The fire in your eyes, sweat on your brow.”

“It will only be in your head, Bloodsinger.”

He chuckled. “Ah, but I’ve had a taste already, Songbird.”

“I was feeling generous.”

His lips brushed mine and I bit down on my tongue to keep in a moan. “You often rob me of words, but I want you to hear me when I say this—” Erik pulled back, waiting until I looked at him before going on. “You have horrific footwork.”

I rammed a fist into his shoulder. “Get off me.”

He laughed and pulled away, but held out a hand to help me up. I took it, almost on instinct, as if our dance kept us touching but too uneasy—perhaps too reluctant—to cross those lines again.

The king didn’t say anything before he turned away.

“Where are you going now?” Gods, I sounded like a child about to pout, but there was a growing side of me that didn’t like watching the back of Bloodsinger’s head walk away.

“Kingly business, love.” Erik offered his horrid, beautiful grin. “Miss me often?”

“Never.” I spun in the opposite direction, ignoring the way Sewell and Celine grinned like they knew something.

They knew nothing.

By the gods, I wasn’t certain I knew how to explain what happened to me whenever the damn Ever King came near either.


The king spoke true. He was absent enough sometimes I thought I might miss him. A bond from the claiming, no doubt. There must’ve been some kind of magic that tethered me to Bloodsinger, and it was aggravating when he wasn’t close.

Erik would slip into his chambers, take a moment to wash, dress, then leave again. For days he hardly said a word beyond a mere, “Songbird,” greeting.

I tried to ask Celine where the king spent his days. She’d tell me I shouldn’t pester him about his time, and insist I was aggravating. But after the feast, she rarely left my side. I didn’t think it was only on the order of the king.

Celine spent the days showing me the palace, introducing me to the wide-eyed servants who rarely spoke with me, and testing me on the numerous stairwells that led to the uneven levels of the palace.

“Well?” I asked a week after Erik claimed me as his. “What do you think?”

Alistair, the old steward, tilted his head, full lips pouted as he squinted at the window. “What is it?”

I balked. “What is it?” The paintbrush was still in my fingers as I opened my arms wide to the glossy window. “It’s Jormungandr! The great sea serpent. Who else would it be?”

Alistair sniffed and took another breath to study the black body wrapped around wild, blue waves. “I appreciate the artistic liberties, however, that is no Jormungandr I’ve ever seen.”

Celine snickered behind her hand. I puffed a strand of hair out of my face and glared at the steward as I packed the paint basket again. “Well, Alistair, I’m afraid I have terrible news.”

“What is that, Lady Livia?”

“You have no damn taste in art.”

Again, the man sniffed, but his folded skin lifted on his cheeks with a rare grin as he turned on his heel. “There are windows aplenty with which to practice upon, My Lady. Don’t lose heart just yet.”


More than a week after the claiming, Erik slipped into his chamber when the moon was highest. I pretended to sleep, grateful he’d left me in peace all day—perhaps a little frustrated he seemed content to avoid me.

He rustled through his wardrobe. After I’d listened to the sounds of him shedding off his clothes for clean ones, after I’d imagined the way his body looked with nothing on it, he stepped beside the bed.

My heart stilled when he gently eased the quilts higher on my shoulders, then the soft touch of his fingertips brushed away a lock of hair from my brow, a touch there and gone like the kiss of a breeze.

Then he left me alone.

Again.


“We call it the great hall,” Celine said, grinning as she turned around the throne room where the return feast had been served nearly two weeks before. “It’s what you call yours, too, right?”

I’d started to take note of the subtle ways Celine tried to find similarities between our worlds. Styles of hair, the way soil grew vibrant plants, even the shape of our ears.

“Yes,” I said. “We eat and revel in the great halls back home.” I dragged my fingertips over the filigreed throne made of black wood and engraved with crashing waves and sea plants across the back and armrests. I gave Celine a wink and started to sit. “Shall we see what it’s like to be Bloodsinger?”

“No!” She wrenched my arm back with such force, I nearly fell over. “No, only the king can sit atop the throne.”

“Why?”

Celine licked her lips. “To sit on a throne would mean you are the equal of the king. There is no equal to an Ever King. It would lessen Erik’s status and power.”

“Gods, it’s that symbolic or is it some kind of spell?”

“It’s the way of things. If the Ever King is powerless, then he has nothing.”

I stared at the empty throne; a bite of sympathy took hold for Bloodsinger. He was forced to bear the weight of his kingdom alone, and fight to keep his back from bending in the sights of others.

He was practically forbidden from having . . . anyone.

There are no Ever queens. I thought of my parents and how they confided in each other, depended on each other. They ruled together. When one bent under the weight of their crown, the other would take it for them both.

Erik could have bedmates, he could make another heir to pass on the burden of an entire world, but could he give his heart to anyone? His fears? His troubles? The more I learned of the treatment of the king, the more I hated it.

Celine kept me from the throne room after that and showed me the balconies, the numerous corridors, the unkempt gardens.

The gardens were terraced into four levels. Some levels were covered with bowers and blossoming nettles. Others with herbs and spiked fruits. The top level outside Erik’s chamber was surrounded by stone walls, a single gate leading to the lower terraces, and filled with shrubs and strange willow-like trees with blue-veined leaves that seemed to glow beneath the moonlight.

I found particular comfort in the lowest garden near the king’s private cove.

The slow, gentle roll of the waves called to me and added a touch of peace as I strolled through strange ferns that smelled of mint and trees growing odd plums with yellow skin.

Celine walked nearly twenty paces in front of me before she realized I’d stopped and lowered to my knees in front of a wild bush with satin black leaves.

“You do like soil, don’t you?” She chuckled.

“I thought everything in the Ever was underwater. It’s always a surprise to see so much . . . land.”

“My daj always explained the different fae realms to me as two sides of a coin. Either side can be flipped to the top.”

Once I discovered the gardens, I spent most of my time there. Fury magic burned wild and desperate to connect to this new land, this new soil. Since the king was too busy to be seen, I didn’t know how to ask his permission—and frankly, I didn’t care to get it—before I began taming the grounds.

My blood heated as I cupped wilted blossoms until they burst into a flurry of colors and sweet, milky scents.

I conquered the sprawling, chaotic vines. My magic connected to the barest levels of the soil and plant life. My father could command the earth to break and bend, I commanded it to live. A sort of give and take of energy. I offered my magic, and the more vibrancy the earth returned, the longer I could use my own power.

On the days spent in the terraced gardens, Celine would sit with me, chatting about life on the Ever Ship while I worked. Soon, I laughed with her, like I did with Mira. Even told her about Aleksi as a new Rave officer, Sander’s studious nature, and Jonas’s proclivity to bed jealous women.

“One time a woman discovered he’d been with someone else,” I said. “She broke into the other woman’s bedchamber—not his—and cut her hair. Then, she managed to use her familiarity with his side of his family’s palace to slip into his chamber and leave it on his pillow. In the middle of the night. I’ve never seen the man so quiet and pale.”

I snickered and touched a brittle vine with pink petals like a calm dawn.

Celine handed me a scoop of soil. “How was she executed?”

“Oh, she wasn’t executed, simply banned from the palace. I think Jonas’s mother and father laughed about it for two days. The poor girl whose hair was cut is what we call an Elixist, a potion master in a way. She was able to craft a tonic to grow it back even more luscious than before.”

Celine gave me a bemused look. “A woman terrorized a royal and lived?”

“She wasn’t a threat, and Jonas did bring it on himself, but we don’t go around slaughtering people, Celine.” I paused to wipe sweat off my brow. “Is that what you’re taught about us? That we kill everything?”

She considered me for a breath. “I was born into the rivalry between our worlds. When Lord Harald still lived, he never let us forget how the fae of the other lands slaughtered the Ever King and tortured the heir. We’d have what he called blood feasts every quarter moon, and he’d repeat the tale. He’d stir the hatred. He’d bring Erik out and—” Celine cut off her words and shook her head.

“What?” I brushed soil from my palms and squared to her. “What did he do?”

“He’d strip me down and force my people to look at my mangled skin, love.”

I jumped as Celine flinched and closed her eyes. Ten paces off, Erik leaned against an arched bower, glaring.

I despised how my pulse raced, and not from the surprise. Erik had the scarf around his head, a black hoop in his ear, and the pressed top was unlaced, revealing too much of his broad chest.

At his side, Larsson gave me a wink. Tait kept his eyes pinned to the ground. His father was Harald, the bastard who’d truly been the one to bring the war to our shores. Erik might’ve been king at the time, but he’d been young, and from what it sounded like, he’d been trapped under the influence of a vindictive uncle.

Hells, I didn’t know what to say, and merely gaped like a fool, unable to grasp the cruelty of it all.

The king looked around the garden. Only half healed, but it was more orderly and healthier. Shrubs had aligned in neat rows, tangles of weeds and nettles were taken back and replaced with berms and lush, flowering bushes.

“You’ve done all this alone?” Erik asked.

“Celine has been here.”

She raised her hands. “I haven’t lifted a finger, My King.”

“The gardens nearly look like they once did.”

“Why do you neglect them?” I asked before I could swallow the words.

“They’re not mine,” Erik said, voice flat. “They were my mother’s. Walk with me, love.”

I offered a quick glance at Celine, but she’d already moved a distance away with Tait and Larsson.

We took a few languid strides through flowering shrubs, silent for a few breaths.

“You’ve avoided me,” I said.

“Avoided? Not at all.”

“Of course, how silly of me.” I cracked three knuckles. “I haven’t dined alone, slept alone, been alone but for Celine and Alistair, whom, by the way, is quite fond of me.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“You’re avoiding me.”

“I thought you would appreciate knowing you have freedom to go about as you please without a king breathing down your neck.” Erik stopped and leaned his face closer. “Unless you’d like me to.”

I took a step back, irritated, a little overheated. “I’m managing fine.”

Erik smirked. “Good. But I do have need to speak with you about something. Your magic, I want to understand it. Even those parts Narza said you’re afraid to talk about.”

“I’m . . . I’m not afraid.”

He tapped the side of his head, a twist to his lips. “Bonded, love. I know there are parts that frighten you, and I want to understand the darker parts.” He looked at the vibrant garden. “Seems rather bright to me, but you did mention you see frightening things. I want to understand, to better protect you.”

Breaths tightened in my chest like a tangle of knotted ribbons. “Protect me from what?”

“You were revealed as a powerful earth fae, a vein of power for the throne, that power attracts all manner of crooked gazes. That bastard we killed in Skondell? There are more pirates like him out there. I’ve seen you fight—”

“And you mocked me.”

“Sewell told me your footwork improved, so I think what you mean is I assisted you.” Erik’s hand rested on my cheek. “I won’t hide dangers from you, not when you deserve to hear them.”

He didn’t treat me like some fragile piece of glass; he told me to breathe and take the good with the bad. Erik let me shoulder it, let me know the truth to find a way to live with it, instead of the fear.

It took a moment, but his steady gaze, the warmth of his palm kept me grounded and firm until the knot faded, and the thoughts of all the dreary unknowns slid back into the crags and crevices of my mind.

“People always keep darker truths from me,” I whispered.

“That is something I can’t afford. Not in the Ever. You are safer if you know what risks you face, Songbird. The same way it is safer if I know what you can do. I can’t defend you if you keep things from me.”

“I know.” My palm covered his hand on my cheek. “I like that you tell me even if my mind conjures up a thousand drearier possibilities.” I spoke lightly, but Erik didn’t grin. His thumb brushed over my cheek. “I’m not weak because of it, but sometimes my thoughts—”

“Did I say you were weak?” he snapped. “You are not weak because of fears, but I will do what I can to help you wade between the fears that are plausible and the ones that are the mind trying to paralyze you.”

My lips parted. No one spoke so directly about my proclivity to fret. I . . . I liked it. There was something about his firm tone, his logical words, that helped chip away at what was true and what was a dark story my mind created.

“It started when I used my fury too fast and too deep once. I don’t talk about this much.” Truth be told, I never spoke of it, never opened that piece of me, afraid it might happen again. I didn’t want to relive the nightmares in my head, didn’t want to see the gory images that plagued a child’s mind.

Erik didn’t remove his hand; he didn’t push or prod. He was simply there, violently beautiful as the heavy tides.

“I told you my fury has another side to it. I can—if I’m open enough—I can feel the land. I didn’t know I could even do that until the war,” I said softly. “I would see the battles.”

“You were near the fighting?” A bit of rage flushed his face.

“No. I took it into my mind’s eye.” I closed my eyes. “I wanted to make certain my parents were all right, so I dug deeper than I’d ever gone with my magic. I saw the blood, the pain, heard the screams. Every life lost clung to my soul. My parents had given me such a peaceful life, I never knew such horrors could exist. All the young royals knew how to hold a blade and fight if we needed, but I had never seen death. Not like that.

“When I opened the connection, I didn’t know how to control it, and was devoured. It’s not reliable, which makes me wonder if it is trustworthy with the darkening.”

“Why do you think it’s unreliable?”

“During one of the final battles, I saw my uncle die. I felt it, and I couldn’t stop sobbing, and couldn’t tell anyone why. I’m glad I didn’t, for when the battle ended, Tor was there to greet us. Bloodied, but alive.”

A muscle pulsed in Erik’s jaw. He clenched his fists, then flexed his fingers as if unknotting an ache in his knuckles, but he said nothing.

I looked away. “Nightmares came after that; I still have them. I started to fear my fury, and nerves took hold. Now, unknowns, possibilities of what could be, fester like poison in my head, and I let them consume me until I can’t breathe.”

The heat of embarrassment flooded my cheeks. I chuckled and rose to my feet. “Telling you all this now sounds ridiculous since you were there. You fought. I merely heard them and had blurry images cast through my mind and can hardly think straight when the panic takes hold.”

“Don’t negate the pain of your experience.” His tone was sharp as broken glass. Angry, but not at me, more for me.

“I only mean, it must’ve been much worse to fight in those battles.”

“I was there, true,” he said. “But it was not the same for me. While that was your first experience with gruesome pain, I was born into brutality. My earliest memories are of blood and death.”

A cinch tugged at my chest. “Even before your father died?”

Erik laughed, a dry, raw sound. “Thorvald was not what I would call a gentle father, I assure you, and his greatest fear was producing a gentle heir. He had his ways of seeing to it his fears were never realized.”

I didn’t know what his father had done to him as a child, but I hated King Thorvald for it. For the first time, I hoped my father had made him suffer. The fierce defensiveness and near bloodlust on behalf of the Ever King was startling, a little intriguing.

I didn’t shove it away or fight the pull to stand between Erik and more pain. In truth, I wasn’t certain I could.

“I could probably make tree roots stab someone, maybe a thorn bush strangle someone too. I’ve never tried, but it’s a thought I’ve had, a feeling that I could.”

Erik looked at me as though he couldn’t gauge if I was teasing. When I kept quiet, he chuckled. “Do that, Songbird. If ever it is a choice between your life or another, strangle them with thorns.”

My insides twisted. Such a dark thought, and I doubted I’d ever be able to truly stomach such a thing.

“This is helpful,” he said. “It helps me understand you a little better. Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

Erik took my hand. “To heal the Ever.”


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