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The Ever King: Chapter 39

The Songbird

Damn Erik Bloodsinger. He’d ignited an insatiable fire in my blood, then left me to burn.

Rationally, I knew a king was often called away on a moment’s notice, but the way my body still hummed in anticipation for his hands on my skin, for him to claim me in every way, was a new kind of torture.

I closed the door on him and paced the bedchamber.

Mere moments after the door closed, the latch from the garden door clicked. My heart stilled when three palace guards appeared.

“Lady?” A tall man with oddly dilated pupils spoke. “We were making rounds and saw the light, but not the king. Are you well?”

The hair prickled on my neck. “The king insisted no one was welcome in his chambers without his permission.”

The chill worsened when another man stepped closer. His eyes were a warm shade of yellow, but the inky pupil was slit like a snake.

I didn’t have time to command them to leave before the third guard, a fae with greasy hair braided behind his neck, rushed at me.

Startled, I knocked my hip against the table in the room and fell back. I managed to roll to my side before the guard had his hands on me. Alek was the fighter in our family. Sure strikes, instincts clad in steel, but my moves were swift. Before I’d even finished standing, I had one of Erik’s knives kept by the side of his bed in hand.

Blood pounded in my skull when I wheeled back and swung the point, nicking the greasy guard on the cheek.

“Bitch!” He doubled over, tapping his cheek gingerly.

Snake Eyes had me in his sights. He made his move. I tore a chair away from the table, letting it topple in front of him. He jumped over it, but nearly lost his footing on the landing.

Think, dammit.

“You’ve nowhere to go, Princess,” Snake Eyes said. “Nowhere!”

The door leading to the front chamber was on the other side of the guards, but they’d left the garden door wide open. I rushed through it and slammed it behind my back, bolting the lock in place.

Wood splintered when they crashed against it, cursing me with horrid threats.

I drew in a long breath. Think. Breathe. I rushed into the garden and ducked inside a lush shrub, tall enough it would strike Erik’s chest. Gods, where was Erik? I wasn’t fool enough to think he’d been separated from me without intention. This was planned. They wanted the king gone.

I wrenched my thoughts free of the dreary scenarios. He would be fine. He had to be all right. Erik was a damn impressive survivor. Today would be no different. Breath burned in my lungs when the door to the gardens cracked against the side of the palace wall. They were here.

“I want his creature before she touches too much of the darkening,” the man with the knife snapped. “Spread out.”

I tucked my knees to my chest and gripped a branch until the hum of warm fury magic filled my veins. I needed the leaves thicker, denser. Little by little, the burn of my ability to craft the earth took hold and the branches eased around me like a knotted cocoon.

Heavy boots shuffled down the stone steps into the garden. The whistle of blades against leaves and branches rattled to my bones.

Rapid breaths slid through my nose, hardly filling my lungs. Fear and harsh nerves would leave me gutted and bloodied if I couldn’t keep my wits while assassins prowled the garden. One look at the soil and a thought pressed against my skull, dancing a violent shudder down my spine.

Before I was born, my father had suffered beneath insatiable bloodlust once and fought every day since to keep the pull for bone and blood sated. Brutality, much the same, lived in me. I’d felt it before, and I’d been running from it for turns.

My fingers stopped trembling when I reached for the soil. Fury burned through my palms. Instead of blooms and sweet little buds on shrubs, I called for something else. I held my breath when the footsteps drew nearer. My palm hovered over the soil, the heat of my magic deepened to a bite. I winced. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe.

Nearby shrubs rustled. Dried leaves crackled.

A cruel laugh came from behind. “Lookit here. Found myself a little bird.”

Anger collided with fear, and it was as if I shielded the softer parts of my heart, only to release a different side—a darker piece I never showed to anyone. The corner of my mouth twisted. “I’m no one’s bird except the king’s.”

If ever it is a choice between your life or another, strangle them with thorns. When I flung my arms open, jagged roots burst through the soil. The points were splintered and sharp, and half a dozen new growths impaled through his boots, thighs, through his middle.

He choked and doubled over. With his body bent forward, the fleshy side of his throat hovered over the soil. I stood and gripped the back of his neck. His dilated pupils seemed to widen even more when I held out my free hand, wincing as fury fatigued my muscles. From the soil, a shard of a root shot skyward, like a broken blade, and rammed through the center of his throat.

He gurgled on his own blood. The splatter of it dribbled down the dark wood, then in the next breath his body went limp, pierced and mutilated over the mutant roots.

I stumbled. Gentle fury could keep me energized for the better part of a day. This sort of violence, this amount of power, drained my energy like a sieve, but I had to move. My fists gathered my blood-stained skirt, and I darted back for the door to the palace.

The two other men shouted ferociously across the garden when they caught sight of their brutalized companion.

I didn’t look at them; I kept my gaze schooled on the door. A little more, a few more paces. A little—

I screamed when thick arms wrapped around my middle and dragged me down into the soil. A heavy body rolled over my back, a knee jabbed between my shoulders, pinning me face down. I writhed and thrashed. I cursed and screamed.

Snake Eyes kicked me in the ribs. The harsh tang of blood soaked my tongue. I coughed and groaned, the blow dragged the air from my lungs. Weakened enough, one guard rolled me onto my back and leveraged each knee on either side of my hips, straddling me.

Snake Eyes tossed back his dark hood, white teeth bared. Like most sea fae, he was hauntingly lovely, stalky, and built like a wall with a thick neck and palms. His hair reminded me of rowan berries at the peak of ripeness.

The second assassin came up from behind and stood over me. A thinner man, but the blade in his hand was slim and swift, as I imagined he would be when he sliced up my innards. Snake Eyes reached for my throat. Somewhere in the mud of my brain, I found the strength to kick one foot into the soft point on his knee.

He roared and slapped my cheek.

The second guard yanked my wrists over my head, pinning me in place. Snake Eyes straddled me again. He wrapped one hand around my throat, then slowly lifted my skirt up my thighs.

Snake Eyes laughed. “No wonder the bastard claimed you. You’re almost pretty.” He spun a small knife in his hand. “At least for now.”

The guard holding my wrists kneeled over my arms when I started to roll, giving Snake Eyes freedom to slash his blade across my leg. From inside his cloak, he retrieved a glass vial, and pressed it against the trickle of blood.

“You’re not going to heal this place for Bloodsinger,” Snake Eyes said in a snarl. “You’ll have a new master soon enough, pet.”

All at once a new kind of rage took hold. Unlike my own, this was dark, vicious. I wanted to skin each guard alive. I knew just how to do it to cause the most pain. A brutal task I shouldn’t know but did. They’d beg for death, and when I gave it to them, I’d serve their hearts to the hounds at the gates.

I didn’t know hounds were at the gates, yet I saw them plainly in my head.

Air was fleeting. Black spots dotted the corners of my eyes, and I was out of time. I flung my body about as best I could, but the two men were too much.

I didn’t see a way out, and I could accept it. Part of me was prepared for death. I would die fighting. I would die before they broke me. I would die with honor and enter the hall of the gods where I’d raise endless drinking horns with those gone before me.

All I could do was watch as two blades aimed to carve me to shreds. I wouldn’t look away. They’d bleeding see me as they brutalized me. I stiffened, bracing, but Snake Eyes coughed. He choked.

A hand to his throat, he spluttered as water spilled over his lips. More and more, water flowed from his mouth, down his tunic, and he could not take a breath in without gargling more water.

“K-Kill her,” Snake Eyes choked out. “Said to k-k-kill her if we got the b-blood.”

The greasy assassin didn’t hesitate. He lifted his blade, ready to slice at my body, but a sudden pressure leveled over my chest.

I tilted my head, afraid and curious to look in the same breath, but a muffled scream, scratchy and sore from my bruised throat, spilled out. Sprawled over my body, covering me like a shield, was Erik. He was heavy, and slumped against me. When he shifted, his face contorted in a sharp wince.

I sat up, hands on his shoulders, and choked on my own breath at the sight of the blade pierced just above his hip.

“Erik!” My voice was rough, broken. It was little more than a rasp. I dug my fingernails into his shoulders. “Gods, you’re . . . dammit.”

“Not the words. One wants. To hear, Songbird,” he said through rough breaths. With a groan, he rolled off me onto his uninjured side.

The assassin choking on the water gasped and staggered to his hands and knees. The second hesitated, as if stunned his blade had found the king. Snake Eyes had turned pallid and had gone silent.

They were going to run.

With the last glimmer of fury in my veins, I slammed my palms over the soil, and the same as the other assassin, barbed roots pierced through their boots, pinning them in place. Alive, but screaming in agony as the bloody, jagged roots tore through their toes and feet.

I slumped back, then forced my limbs to keep moving and crawled, hand over knee, to the king.

The sword remained lodged in his back, and the soft bronze tint to his skin had gone pale. Blood soaked his tunic and the soil beneath him. Too much blood.

Erik let out a curse when he tried to shift. He’d taken a strike in my place. Teeth clenched, I leveraged behind him and took hold of his shoulders. When I tried to lay him back, Bloodsinger leaned forward. “Don’t.”

“Stop shifting,” I urged softly. “You’ll cause more damage.”

For a few moments he resisted, but soon enough, pain or exhaustion took hold and he slumped onto his side, his head on my lap. Mindlessly, my fingers raked through his thick hair with one hand, while my other kept a hand on the hilt of the blade, trying to keep it from sinking deeper.

“I mean what . . . I say, love.” Erik lifted his dazed eyes to mine. “Shouldn’t . . . touch me. Not with all the blood.”

Three hells. I closed my eyes, desperate to steady my pulse. His blood was poison, and here I was practically bathing in it.

He coughed. “Don’t get . . . any inside you.”

I nodded briskly, shifting my legs to avoid the open wounds of my thighs touching him. He would fight me off if he knew there were gashes on my skin, and if he fought me off, he’d bleed out, no mistake.

“I’ll do my best not to eat your blood, Bloodsinger.”

Another cough, but it sounded more like the bark of a laugh. He winced. “I should’ve . . . filled your . . . ass with sand, love.”

I placed a palm on his cheek and forced a smile. “You should’ve, you stupid fool.”

“Erik!” Tait’s rough voice came from the bedchamber.

I didn’t think of who spoke and shouted, “Out here!”

Tait filled the garden doorframe, shirtless, and his dark hair wilder, as if he’d been sleeping. Perhaps not alone. Two guards had blades raised at his back, and behind them, Celine and Larsson tried to get a look.

“Get your hands off him.” Tait’s face twisted with rage.

Well, damn.

How it must look. Blood all over my hands, my grip around the blade stabbed into the king. One dead man, and two more impaled by roots.

In quick steps, Tait was at my side, and yanked my hair. I cried out against the burn, but kept a tight hold on Erik’s shoulders.

“Release her, cousin,” Erik slurred. He tilted his chin toward the guards. “Look elsewhere for your king killers.”

You’re not going to die, I repeated the thought over and over, afraid to speak it out loud.

“I might,” he whispered, glassy eyes on me.

“No. I’ve seen worse wounds,” I whispered. “It’d be a shame to die over this one, Bloodsinger.”

“Right.” He closed his eyes, a sly grin twisted in the corner of his mouth. “I . . . forgot you were the one . . . with a blade in your gut.”

I snorted. My fingers stroked his hair swifter, as though the race of my pulse determined the speed of my touch. “It’s not in your gut. It’s lower; quit making this worse than it is to get sympathy.”

“Bring Murdock,” Tait snapped at Celine and Larsson in the doorway.

“He’s drunk,” Larsson said. “I mean it. Bastard is passed out in the great hall with his hands on the bare breasts of Sheeva.”

Larsson shuddered and grimaced.

“Then get him a damn tonic to clear his head,” Tait snapped.

“No time.” I tugged on Tait’s arm and pointed to the blood pooling under Erik.

Tait’s skin deepened to a heated red.

“We need to remove the blade,” Larsson said. “It’s too near the spine.”

“He’ll bleed too swiftly,” Tait insisted. “Send for the boneweavers in the vales. We will tend to it until they—”

“I can help.” I blinked, stunned to realize the words had come from me. But now that they were there, I lifted my chin in a show of determination. “I’m bonded with the king. He takes properties of my fury, wouldn’t I take properties of his?”

“She knows he doesn’t need a tree, doesn’t she?” Celine muttered to Larsson.

My cheeks warmed. “Not earth fury, his . . . healing blood.”

No one spoke for a moment, until Erik grunted. “No.”

I ignored him and implored Tait. “I can help him.”

“You do not have the voice of the sea, Lady,” Larsson offered, but his head tilted with a bit of curiosity. “Perhaps your blood might poison him.”

Ulterior motives, Songbird?

I pointed my glare at Erik. His brow was coated in sweat, and he tried to grin at his own tasteless sense of humor.

You die, then you take my heart to the Otherworld. Feel thatSerpent.

Erik’s eyes darkened against the furrow to his brow. When I tightened my hold around his shoulders, one of his hands gripped my wrist, squeezing gently.

“He can help me,” I whispered. “His blood does not heal himself, but what if mine can should he sing?”

“We’re running short on time, then.” Larsson shoved his hands in his pockets. “I say give the woman a chance. Might be the only way to deal with the king.”

“No.” Tait shook his head. “There’s too much risk.”

“Fine, if it doesn’t work, then I’ll use my earth fury.”

“Again, the king needs a boneweaver, not a shrub,” Celine insisted.

“My magic connects to the properties of each plant,” I said. “Are your boneweaving herbs not plants? I might be able to sense those that can heal him.”

“Erik’s blood is different, earth fae,” Tait snapped. “His blood is not only poisonous, it thins too quickly. Bleeds too much.”

“Tell her all my weak . . . weaknesses, cousin.”

Damn fool. I glared at Erik. I hoped he sensed that thought. If his smirk was any clue, I guessed he did.

“And he’s bleeding too much now.” Larsson removed his hat and scratched his sweaty head. “Let her try.”

“You’re mad.” Tait scoffed. “You think I’d let her put hands on my king under the guise that she’s healing him?”

I gestured to Bloodsinger’s wound. “Do you have a choice?”

No,” Erik warned. “It’s too . . . great a risk.”

Tait ignored him and glared at me. In the next breath, he had one palm covering my face. I let out a muffled shout, but broke it off soon enough. Tait wasn’t attacking, he was . . . doing something else.

A slow, gentle hum rolled over his tongue. Tait had a beautiful voice, and the more he sang, the more warmth coated his palm and bled into my skin, and in the next breath it was over.

Tait wrenched his hand away. He flicked his gaze to Erik, then to the guards. “Bring her whatever stores of medicinal herbs we have, and get the king into the room.”


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