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The Ever King: Chapter 34

The Serpent

Half the royal city came out to follow us to one of the Glass Isles. A plot of land off the shores of the city that was covered in the darkening. Heads bowed as we made our way to the docks, but most peeked to catch a glimpse at the princess.

Livia wrung her hands in the folds of her skirt until I thought she might tear a hole in the fabric. I reached back and slipped my fingers through hers. “Pretend there is no one here but me, love.”

Her cheek twitched. “Ah, but you are the problem, Bloodsinger.”

She didn’t release my hand until we reached the last dock where a long sloop was readied with the banner of the Ever King whipping about in the wind.

Livia’s expression brightened in an instant. “Sewell!”

She gathered her skirt in hand and hurried to the narrow gangplank.

“Glittering, this day.” Sewell tugged on a rope, managing the black canvas sail. “Comin’ aboard?”

Livia chuckled. “Seems that way.”

Sewell winked and offered a quick glance toward Celine before I stepped onto the deck. “Going under, little eel?”

He was asking if we were sailing the way our ships were meant to sail.

“That we are, Sewell. Ready her to dive.” I led Livia toward the helm. “I’ll be taking us beneath the tides, Songbird. As we did through the Chasm, don’t let go.”

With a snide grin, she pressed her chest against mine and wrapped her arms around my neck. Nestled between my arms, she was positioned the same way she’d been the night I stole her away. The difference between now and then was the look in her eyes. A flash of something warm and almost greedy burned in the blue.

“Like this, Serpent?”

“Yes.” Dammit. My voice was a rasp lined in grit and desire. The press of her curves rushed heat to the wrong places. I focused ahead. Once the skeleton crew was aboard, I whistled sharply and waved a hand. A gust of wind caught the sails and the sloop turned away from the shore.

Livia’s fingertips played with the ends of my hair behind my neck. She closed her eyes when the sea breeze kissed her cheeks. Gods, she looked made for the Ever.

“Take her down,” I called out. More boats followed in our wake. The people were coming to witness the last thread of hope. My stomach lurched in unease. What if it was too much and we couldn’t destroy it?

“We will,” Livia whispered.

I froze, but she wasn’t looking at me. I wasn’t sure she realized she’d taken hold and absorbed my fear unknowingly. Little by little, this tether between us was growing. Little by little, I was handing over my scorched, rotted heart.

I couldn’t stop.

A man he’s not . . . low hums and chants rumbled over the deck as the crew worked the sails and readied to dive.

“Hold tight, Songbird,” I whispered next to her ear.

Livia braced. Water spilled over the bow, the deck, until the sea swallowed us.

“They’re here to watch?” Livia glanced back at the numerous boats scattered along the shore.

“I want them to see your power.” I hesitated. “They need hope.”

She gave a curt nod and faced the small isle. Small knolls were once covered in lush ferns and tall grasses, trees with waxy, gilded leaves, and ponds with fish of all colors. Now the sand was left colorless, and the plants were withered and blackened.

“Erik.” Livia tugged up her sleeves, eyes forward. “If I fail, what will become of your people?”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “If you fail, which you won’t because you’re too bleeding stubborn to prove yourself, I will do what I must to find them somewhere else to live.”

“Where would you go?”

“Through the Chasm, Songbird. I would give myself to your people in exchange for refuge of mine.”

She closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, then took a step forward as she whispered, “I’d better not fail then. After all this, I’d wager my father doesn’t like you much. He would make life quite unpleasant, I’m afraid.”

“I’m sure he would.” The instant resentment at the mention of the earth bender was missing. In truth, I could understand his anger toward me. Should he come to take her back, I’d likely be the same.

Celine gnawed on her thumbnail, Sewell flicked his fingers by his sides, while Tait and Larsson watched from the sloop.

I trudged up the slope beside Livia, until she came to a stop, far enough away from the others no one would hear us. “Erik, I’m going to try my hardest. If it doesn’t work, please know that. Despite how I was brought here, I don’t want your people to suffer.”

Guilt tore through my chest until I couldn’t draw a deep breath. She wanted my people to live—her enemies—and all I’d done was threaten hers.

I should have recognized the dangers of getting too close to this damn woman at the first taste. Following her to that masquerade had begun my dangerous descent. From the first tug of the undeniable pull to the cautious chirp of her laughter, to the cunning look in her eyes when she tried to intimidate me, I should’ve kept a distance. When I saw the sea singer dragging her away, the tight, noxious panic ought to have been a signal I’d crossed a line.

But here, when she feared the judgment and blades of my people, yet stepped onto an unfamiliar shore ready to dig into a magic she feared all for their lives—I plummeted over a ledge for her, and I wasn’t coming back.

My lungs only filled when Livia kneeled and pressed her palms to the soil.

She winced. I ground my teeth to keep from shouting at her to stop. Slowly, her face softened. Five breaths passed, then ten more, before the sooty plague broke into soft mists and rippled away from her touch.

Against the sea wind, the crash of the waves on the isle shore, the gasps and choked sobs rose. My pulse raced. Shadows fled from beneath Livia’s hands. She stood, eyes clenched, and held her palms out to her sides.

“Stay with me, Erik,” she whispered and took a step forward. “I don’t know why, but the nearer you are, the stronger fury burns.”

“Always.” I kept her pace.

The ripple of retreating black grew under her hands, her steps. Like a great wind erupted from her body, darkness swept away and into the tides. Livia stumbled, gasping. I grabbed her arm.

“Gods.” She drew in a sharp breath. “Keep your hands on me.”

“Gladly, Songbird. Gladly.”

“You’re a wretch.” She grinned, and I’d say countless wretched things if it kept that smile in place. “I was fatiguing, but your touch brought it back.”

I was a fool. We were meant to take strength from each other.

My father always held his talisman when he commanded the seas to part or the waves to do his bidding.

To touch her as fury raged in her veins was strange. Like shards of it melted into mine, our magics spilled between us. Strong enough, I thought connected like this, Livia’s blood might be toxic. Perhaps, I might be able to summon the blooms as she did.

“You should try.” Livia swiped at the drops of sweat on her brow.

“Do you realize I’m not speaking?”

She blinked. “I . . . I didn’t. I’m feeling your thoughts.”

“Disconcerting, isn’t it?”

“Very.” She rolled her shoulders back. “Still, it made a bit of sense that you might be taking some of my fury. Try to call the life back to the soil. I’m not sure I can do both without exhausting too quickly.”

“I don’t know how.” My magic killed things. It wasn’t lovely and bright like hers.

“It’s warm,” she explained. “Almost like you call to it, and you’ll feel it here.” She pressed a hand over my heart. “Try.”

Livia took up her pace again. I kept my hand on her shoulder, but slowly unfurled one palm over the ground as we walked.

I didn’t know how to call to the damn earth, so I conjured up a memory of digging in soil, of placing dark seeds, then a blurry recollection of the elation when the tiny blooms broke the surface. The laughter and a woman’s gentle embraces that followed.

“Erik, look!” Tait shouted. My cousin was distant, reserved, and always on his guard, but there was a touch of relief in his voice.

I cracked my eyes. Beneath my palm, moss green clovers sprouted through the cracked soil. Livia paused, a little stunned, then beamed at me.

I lifted her knuckles to my lips. “You didn’t fail, Songbird. As I said.”

“Don’t be an I told you so kind of king.”

“But I did.”

Livia laughed. A true laugh, and I would kill anyone who tried to take such a sound from me.

Sobs from the people turned to cheers and praises and songs. We covered ground together, clearing away three knolls of the darkening before Livia lowered to her knees, and I fell back beside her, gasping, body aching.

“Larsson,” I said, and weakly waved him over to me when he stepped onto the shore. A man of jests and taunts, he looked down at me with a somber expression. “Tell the people . . . tonight we revel in the hall.”

He tipped the brim of his hat. “As you say, My King.”

I closed my eyes, grinning. For the first time in turns it felt as though I could take a damn breath.

“Livia,” I said through a pant. “Did you see anything? More thoughts when you connected to it?”

“Yes. The magic was potent today. I do believe this was caused by someone, not the earth. It was painful, as though it was a lash on the skin, an attack on the kingdom in a sense. But there was something else.” Her brow furrowed in disquiet. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

“What did you see?”

“More what I felt.” Livia dragged her bottom lip between her teeth. “Do you have a brother?”

Well, shit. “I don’t.”

She rubbed her forehead. “See, unreliable. There was this constant thought of the throne belonging to him. I don’t know who he is, but . . . Erik, you must promise me you will be wary.” Her eyes were round and pleading when she sat up. “I hate to say it, but what if someone caused a disaster like this all to take your crown?”

“Then they would not be the first.” I stood, desperate to hide my unease. If it was true, then I had an invisible enemy with a damn blood claim to the Ever.

Revels with the common people weren’t done beyond festivals, and we’d ceased with those after the darkening. There was nothing much to celebrate.

Unaccustomed to the flurry of drums, pipes, lyres, and laughter, part of me wanted to sink into the walls, but most of me was enraptured with the woman spinning about with Sewell in the center of the hall.

Livia’s hair spilled around her shoulders in dark waves, and the shimmer of laughter lived in her eyes when Sewell dipped her back, nearly toppling them both. She was a beacon through the dark. A beautiful distraction from blood claims and curses and enemies.

I abandoned the side of the hall. Tait and Larsson both made moves to follow, but I held up a hand. A hundred gazes burned into me; I only looked at Livia.

“Sewell.” I waited until he faced me. “Mind?”

For a pause, Sewell studied my open palm, then a sly kind of grin spread over his mouth. “Aye, little eel. Spin.”

The moment I’d stepped into the hall, the minstrels had slowed their playing, as though waiting for me to rage or end the revel. With a gentle tug I pulled Livia against me, and the music began again. Louder, with more spirit than before.


“Serpent.” She slid one arm around my shoulders. “I was beginning to think you did not know how to revel and intended to stand surly and aloof all evening.”

“I had planned exactly that.” Slowly, I drifted my fingertips along the divots of her spine. “Until I saw that Sewell made you laugh, and I felt more violent than anything.”

She chuckled. “Violent? I think you were jealous, Bloodsinger. As you should be. Sewell is my favorite.”

I touched my lips to the subtle point of her ear. “Not the thing a man wants to hear when he’s had his mouth on your body, dragging out those desperate sounds from your throat.”

Livia let out a warm breath against my neck. “Erik, don’t say those things.”

“Why not?” I dragged my nose across her smooth cheek.

“Because.” Livia dug her claws into my shoulders. “It makes me think . . . I’d like to make those sounds again.”

“Good.” My lips caressed the slope of her neck. “Because I’ve thought of nothing else other than your sweet legs wrapped around me, your naked body in my hands, and my name on your tongue right before you come apart.”

Livia’s lips parted against ragged pants. Her body went still in my hold.

With my thumb, I tugged on her bottom lip. “You want me as much as I want you, Songbird. Admit it.”

On the surface, I was calm, snide, even arrogant. Inside, I was pleading, pathetic, and simpering. I never knew how desperately I wanted to hear the words from her, the words telling me she ached for me back.

I wouldn’t get them.

One of the guards by the doors of the hall pounded on the wood and lifted his voice over the crowd. “Lady Narza of the House of Mists.”

I froze.

Livia’s hand pressed to my chest. “Why is she here?”

“Stay behind me.” I stepped in front of her, using one hand to tuck Livia close against my back, then faced the entrance.

Crowds parted for a procession of several ladies of the House of Mists. Witches and sirens were both hauntingly beautiful. The difference was the women with siren blood had the darker eyes and ruby lips. The witches were more like a sea storm. Colorful hair and eyes like smoke lived behind their irises.

All powerful. All frightening.

Fione was among them, a smug grin on her painted lips when she singled me out in the crowd. Narza’s guards surrounded the women with red tipped spears made from toxic corals and shells found in the House of Mist’s territory.

In her role as the lady, she carried herself as though she ruled from every corner of the Ever Sea. Half a head shorter than me, still she seemed as though she might crush me under her feet.

“Lady Narza.” I gritted her name through my teeth, sharp as jagged steel, and gave a nod of respect. “What a surprise to have you in the palace. I thought you vowed never to return.”

“You’ve thought many things.”

“Why are you here?”

“I’ve heard the strangest talk. Something about the king claiming his earth fae.” Narza’s painted blue lips twitched. “I wanted to see the truth of it for myself.”

Blood pounded in my head; I tugged Livia against me.

Narza chuckled. “Rather protective of your bond with the woman. Is that the only reason?”

“She is the mantle of the Ever King, Lady. You will give her the honor of such a title.”

“Still on about the mantle.” Narza drifted around people, those too stunned by her presence to move, and came to stand in front of me. “Does that remain her only purpose?”

I tightened my hold on Livia’s waist. “I owe you no answers, Lady Narza.”

Her mouth twitched, no mistake the disdain she held for me was fighting to break through. “You do, though. Since you believe it is the gift of my house that has bonded you both. You seem taken by her, but have you shown her your heart? Truly? Does she know you? To reveal the darkest pieces will only deepen the bond, and only strengthen the ability to heal this land.”

“I know exactly who he is.” Livia took a step forward, nearly in front of me.

“Livia.” I tried to pull her back. A woman who succumbed to nerves chose this as her bleeding moment of boldness? She didn’t know Narza; she didn’t know her power.

My damn songbird swatted me away. More than one whisper followed. No one struck at the king and lived.

Livia stopped a pace away from Narza. “I am willingly aiding the king. Perhaps it did not begin that way, but desires change. I know the beauty of his black heart, I’ve seen it. But I also know, every bleeding step he has taken has been to save his people. I’ve seen that this curse in the Ever was caused by enemies among you.”

A few gasps rippled through the hall.

“I also know the dark magic in the earth feels a great deal like a spell,” Livia said, an arrogant grin twisted over her mouth. “What house is it again that casts spells?”

Narza had the decency to look surprised. “A spell cast, you say?”

“You know what my fury does,” Livia said. “You know the earth reveals what was done to my heart and mind. That is the tale it told me.”

Narza arched one brow. “If this is true, I make assurances that I will search for the traitor in my house without rest.”

“See that you do.” Livia folded her arms over her chest. “And you can also take your warnings of the king elsewhere. I have no need of them.”

I didn’t know what moves to make other than I was going to kiss the reckless woman in another breath if she kept fighting my battles.

“Hmm.” Narza grinned a little viciously. “The last woman to hold such fire beside an Ever King was Thorvald’s mate. I hope your flame is not doused prematurely as was hers.”

Livia flicked her gaze to me. “Your mother?”

I didn’t look at her. I only glared at Narza. “Tell her. That’s why you brought it up, isn’t it? Go on, tell her. Frighten her away.”

“You think things, boy,” Narza said, dark and low. No one gasped at her spitting title. Truth be told, I was certain most of my folk feared the sea witch more than me. “But I am merely looking out for the wellbeing of the innocent. If she claims you like you’ve claimed her, she deserves to know everything.”

“Erik, what is she talking about?”

My fingernails dug into Livia’s waist. “My mother was the chosen mate of the Ever King, but she was killed when it was believed her gentle demeanor might soften the heir.”

Narza’s eyes glistened. “That’s enough talk of it.”

“No.” I scoffed and released Livia. She wouldn’t want me touching her soon enough. “You brought it up, so finish it. Tell her what you think of me for what I did, Grandmother.”

“Enough, Erik,” Narza insisted.

“It will never be enough for you,” I said, voice rough. I spun on Livia. “She wants you to know how my mother died, so you can save yourself.”

Livia’s countenance shadowed. There was a shard of my heart that seemed to break away. It felt as though we’d shifted to something different. Now, it would go back to scathing looks, to hatred and disgust.

“How did she die?” Livia spoke in a low whisper.

“Doesn’t Narza’s repulsion of me make it obvious?” I took another step for the door. “I killed her.”


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