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The Ever King: Chapter 41

The Serpent

Clumsy hands prodded at the wound in my side, drawing vomit to my throat from the pain, and I wanted nothing more than to cut them off.

A looming form hovered over me in the dark, and loud, nasally breaths blew against my face.

“Murdock,” I said, voice rough. “Touch me again, and you lose your fingers.”

The boneweaver smelled of sweet ale, but his eyes were clear when he glared at me. “Your flesh is packed with more linens than your bedding, Sire.”

No wonder it felt as though my ribs were made of stone. Still, I swatted him away. “That stuffing kept me breathing, no thanks to you.”

Murdock’s bulbous cheeks flushed in a deep rouge. His hair was shorn to his scalp, and his head seemed too small for the plumpness of his body. If the bastard hadn’t built up an immunity to my blood, I’d send him to the far seas to heal spiked silver fish for the rest of his days.

“Next time, do try to avoid getting stabbed on the first true revel in turns.”

“An excuse you made up in your own head.” I propped myself onto one elbow, wincing at the tug of skin beneath the bandages. “You are boneweaver to the king, there are no excuses.”

Murdock rolled his eyes and pointed to a tray beside the bed filled with varying vials and powders and tonics. He went through each one, describing how it would help with the healing, the pain, even the potency of my blood until the wound sealed.

“Then, of course, here is a serenleaf tonic should the nightmares continue.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You’re losing your touch, and I’m rethinking my decision to keep you on the employ of the palace. No Mare demons have touched my head.”

“Ah, My King.” Murdock chuckled and stuffed his leather satchel with the supplies he didn’t plan to leave. “I’ll remain in your employ not only because you trust me with your life, but I am the greatest boneweaver in the royal city. Perhaps the whole of the Ever.”

I balked. “Tell that to Poppy.”

“The old hag—”

“Your aunt.”

Murdock ruffled. I took a great deal of pleasure drawing out the unspoken rivalry between my boneweaver and Poppy.

The man cleared his throat, mouth tight, and held up the vial again. “As I was saying, for the nightmares. Not yours, my arrogant king. For your claimed.” He waved toward the door leading to my mother’s tattered gardens. “Girl hasn’t slept in the two nights you’ve been healing.”

Two nights. I sat up too abruptly and cursed when fire bit along the edges of the wound. In all my muddled thoughts, Livia had slipped through the cracks. She’d stayed with me; she bleeding saved me.

“Where is she?”

“Wandering.” Murdock tucked his satchel beneath his thick arm with a sigh. “Well, it has been another pleasant visit. Follow my instructions, and I shall look in on the wound in the morning.”

I wasn’t listening. I kicked my legs off the edge of the bed and yanked my boots on. The wound ached, but I was no stranger to pain, and buried it until all that remained was a dull jab in my side. Outside, the top tier of the garden was empty but for the blood and bits of flesh still mangled on jagged roots in the soil.

Shit, I’d forgotten. Livia impaled one of the bastards, nearly lost her life for it.

One hand on my side, I spun around, an unease that was not my own grew heavy in my stomach. Where was she?

On the shore of the cove, a dim lantern flickered and cast ghostly shadows over the curves of a woman. I quickened my step down the staircases, carving through each garden tier until my boots sunk into the damp sand of the beach.

Livia paced, eyes on the sea. She was dressed in a pale dress, with the bodice laces loose and open over her chest. I’d never been truly struck silent before, as in words couldn’t form. I was too absorbed in the smooth curves of her legs, her wild, dark hair whipping around her cheeks.

Much the same as I’d been struck when I caught sight of my songbird buying ribbons for her masquerade, I was lost to her now.

“Erik.” Livia startled when she turned to pace the opposite direction. Her blue eyes narrowed on my bandages. “You shouldn’t be up. You’ll split the skin open.”

“I’ve dealt with flesh wounds before,” I said lightly, but there was a harsh truth to it. “Why are you wandering about after more than one blade nearly took your head?”

A furrow of worry gathered between her brows. “Celine assured me your private gardens and cove were well-guarded. Well, she told me they were ridiculously guarded, and if you never want another person to enter, your guards will make it impossible for folk to do so.”

Her words rambled and quivered, and the longer she spoke, the tighter her grip wrenched on the lantern’s handle.

I limped toward her, unashamed of the wince. She saw the damage; there’d be no point hiding it. Livia didn’t back away. She held my gaze, unblinking, and her chin quivered just enough to be seen when I curled a hand around her wrist.

“Why are you out here, love?” I asked again, softer than before.

She sniffed. “I killed a man.”

“And he doesn’t deserve your tears.”

“He was still a someone. I-I-I’ve never killed anyone, and I thought . . . I suppose, I thought I should feel some great remorse, but it hasn’t come, and I keep thinking what sort of woman does that make me? I could’ve snared him like the others, but I chose to kill him. My fury can be dark and dangerous, and I knew it; I wanted to kill him. Because I knew they’d come to kill you. I’ve never felt so . . . so violent.”

She bloodied her hands to save me. Beautiful, reckless woman. If I was not cautious, Livia Ferus would unravel my every dark, wretched belief of what I was to become as king. Of what I deserved.

I placed my hand on her cheek, my thumb traced the gentle line of her lip. “I know the feeling.”

Livia let out a sigh and rested her forehead against mine. “Every time I try to sleep, I replay it over and over, as if my mind is trying to find some shred of humanity, some proof I’d exhausted all my options. But I keep realizing, I killed because I could. Because I wanted to and—”

“Livia.” I clasped her face between my palms, silencing her breathless words. She hiccupped and drew in a few more sharp gusts of air through her nose. My thumbs stroked the ridges of her cheeks until her shoulders slumped. “You killed a man who tried to kill you.”

She shook her head, ready to argue the point.

“Yes.” I wrapped an arm around her waist, palm open on her back. The movement, hells even standing, was beginning to unravel the healing skin on my side. I hardly cared. “Taking a life is no small thing, but doing so to save your own does not make you a monster.”

A tear fell onto her cheek. She let her head fall until her brow pressed against my chest. “What if I am?”

For a moment, I hesitated, then placed a hand on the back of her head, holding her against me. “Then you are the most beautiful monster I’ve ever seen.”

Livia’s fingers curled around my shirt. Her cheeks lifted into a hidden smile.

“We all have darkness in us.” I closed my eyes, recalling the words my mother spoke to me before she died. “But there is beauty in the darker pieces as much as there is in the light. We find it by how we use our darkness. What were you thinking when you killed him?”

Livia lifted her head. She used the back of her hand to wipe a trail of tears away. “I was thinking he’d kill me, then . . . he’d kill you. They wanted to use my fury to steal your throne. They wanted credit for saving the Ever. But . . . mostly I knew they would hurt you.”

“You protected folk from a dangerous ruse,” I said, guiding me out of the scenario. “That is darkness well spent.”

Her eyes were red from fatigue and tears. Her body trembled slightly. She needed to sleep. The gentle roll of water over the sand was soothing, and Livia seemed drawn to it.

I tilted my head to the stars. With a bit of reluctance, I released her and lowered to the sand. My leg throbbed. My side burned. No mistake, I likely moved like I’d met my thousandth turn, but once I was seated, I sprawled my legs out and laid back.

“What are you doing?”

“Sit with me,” I said, opening one arm to the side. “Let the worries rest for a moment.”

She paused for a few breaths, then slowly lowered to her knees, then her side, and curled against my body.

“I kicked you at the fort,” Livia whispered. “Does your leg still hurt terribly from it?”

I cradled her head against my chest, chuckling. “Ah, don’t sound so hopeful, love.”

I jolted when she bleeding pinched me, then snickered into my shirt. “I wasn’t hopeful, you bastard. I was starting to get slightly concerned—hardly worth noting it is such a finite amount.”

No doubt, she’d unravel all of me.

“You kicked—a rather sloppy kick at that—an old injury,” I admitted. “When I was taken captive for my blood, I tried to run, but didn’t realize how high the room was from the ground. Snapped the bones of my leg straight through the skin. Never healed right.”

The truth was the bones were never allowed to heal right. I’d been left to become a symbol of the brutality of our enemies in the hope our people would fight for Harald’s revenge and win him the power of the lands on either side of the Chasm.

Livia nestled closer. “I hate what was done to you.”

“Yes, well.” I was desperate to talk of other things. “There’s nothing to be done about it now.”

Livia gingerly fiddled with the laces of my shirt. “I’m sorry. No one from my clan has likely ever said it to you, but I’m sorry for what my people did.”

Gods, I was a bastard for truths I kept unsaid.

I cleared my throat and raised a hand, pointing at the sky. “Do you see that star, the flickering one, right over the horizon?” Livia tilted her head and nodded. “Good. Follow it to the star on the northern point, then across, and down. Do you see the line of three?”

I lifted her hand in mine, extended her finger, and together we traced the stars.

“What is it?”

“His name is Voidwalker.” The corner of my mouth twisted. “A fearsome warrior who can cross worlds. See his head, then his steady arrow he holds?”

Livia squinted. “Bit of a stretch, but I suppose it might look like a man with an arrow.”

“Watch what you say about his likeness, or he may never lead you straight and you’ll be lost to the tides.” The corner of my mouth curved. “When we sail the Ever Sea, Voidwalker leads us. That point of his arrow remains throughout the seasons, steady and sure. It is the only star that follows us through the Chasm and connects to your sky, Songbird.”

I lifted her hand again. “Follow that string of five, see how they tilt and curve as though spilling over a ledge?”

“I see it.”

“She is named Starfall. A lesser goddess who was shunned from her mother, the maker of sea storms. Her mother is a wretched woman who uses the skies to devour sailors and their vessels. Now, to be a constant thorn in her mother’s side, Starfall fades on nights before the sky turns violent, giving ships the chance to make berth or tie back sails.”

Livia snickered. “Sounds like a terror for her mother.”

“I rather like her tantrums. Saved my ass a time or two.” Once more, I raised her hand to a trio of stars straight overhead. The center star gleamed brightest, while the two on the sides seemed to flicker dim then bright. “But Nightfire, he is who I wanted you to meet. Cursed to remain in the sky for his acts against the gods.”

“What did he do?”

“Saved his love from the clutches of arranged vows. He slaughtered the whole of the vow feast and hid his lover away, deep in the skies. For his crime, he was chained in the sky, and the only way he might get free is if his love finds her way back to him by using the stars of his blade as her guide. The trouble is, they never stay as bright as the center star. See that? She can’t find her way.”

“That’s a sad tale, Bloodsinger.”

“It’s not finished.” I eased her pointed finger across the heavens to a star nearest the pale moon. It blazed in a cold, blue glow. “She improvised and made a barter with the goddess of hearts. She would give up her life on the lands and become a beacon for her love to find his way to her instead. She loved him for his darkness, you see. Even after the blood he’d spilled, she wanted to live out her days with him. To her, he was a beautiful monster.”

Livia yawned, voice soft and slurred. “Did he find her?”

I looked down. She’d closed her eyes and draped one arm over my stomach. I tightened my hold on Livia’s shoulders. “I think he did.”


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