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The Ever King: Chapter 49

The Serpent

The bow of the ship carved through the surface. Water slapped against the hull and spilled over the deck. My first glance at the palace, and I turned the helm to Skulleater and ran for the rail. An isle over, one bleeding isle away, when Celine called to me.

There was no report of darkening on the Black Isles. Narza would’ve sounded an alarm. There was no need for Livia to be sailing anywhere.

I’d never experienced such fierce panic. My chest felt as though it had caved in. I couldn’t catch a deep enough breath, and instantly abandoned the iron filled isles in Gavyn’s province. The royal smith resided there and had prepared blades for the Chasm journey, but also gifts of the Ever for the earth fae.

None of it mattered now. I’d left it all in a frenzied rush to return home.

“Erik. Straight ahead.” Gavyn pointed for the cove. He’d not hesitated before following me onto the Ever Ship. “On the docks.”

A man was sprawled over the stairs, making a pathetic attempt to pull himself up the long journey back to the palace.

Shit!” I went over the rail before the ship docked. The tides drew me in, then in a rough wave of my hand, tossed me back onto the shore. I sprinted to the staircase until fire spread through my leg. “Tait, you bastard.”

Tait coughed, blood on his chin. He clutched his middle and had the nerve to grin. “Took you long enough . . . I came straight . . . straightaway when you . . . got stabbed.”

I leveraged his head into my lap, pulse racing. Tait was bleeding out. I dragged the meat of my palm over my teeth until blood bubbled out and pressed it against Tait’s open wound.

He closed his eyes. With his head against my chest, I sang. A low melody the same as I did when Alek arrived broken. Tait’s insides were pooling with blood. I called it back. The wound sliced through his innards; I demanded it to close. He hissed against the discomfort when his outer flesh threaded at the sinews and started to pull back into place.

“Enough.” He elbowed my ribs. “I can walk now.”

“It’s not sealed.”

“Then I’ll get a damn bandage. He took her, Erik.”

Panic danced through my chest, pulling my thoughts down a narrow ledge between madness and destruction. Tait staggered to his feet and gripped my arm.

“Erik.” With a smack to my face, he drew me to look at him. “Keep your head.”

“Too late, cousin,” I said, a chill to my voice. “He took it when he took her. Thoughts of his head in my hands are all I have now.”

“Good enough.”

I took the stairs to the main doors of the palace three at a time. “How did Larsson get around the blood bond of the crew?”

“I don’t know,” Tait said, breathless, but he kept a steady pace behind me.

“There are spells to break such things,” Gavyn insisted. “Might have had the help of sea witches.”

I let out a hiss of frustration and imagined every way I’d take bits of Larsson’s bone from every damn limb once I found him again.

The pain of it was crushing, almost suffocating. For nearly ten damn turns Larsson had sailed at my side. He’d been loyal. Now to do this. To hate me so fiercely in such a way he’d risk his own kingdom—it was a betrayal that lashed to the deepest sinews of my scabrous heart.

We didn’t make it through the doors to the palace before being bombarded by Celine, Sewell, and Aleksi.

“Why are you covered in blood?” Celine paled at the sight of Tait.

“Not important.” He swatted her hands away from his middle.

“Where is she?” Alek shoved through the others.

“Gone,” was all I said before storming into the great hall.

“Erik,” Tait said. “You need to know Larsson has a desire for the crown. I took hold for a few moments before he was gone. He believes the crown is his.”

“He’s a lunatic,” Celine snapped.

“Two eels,” Sewell said. “Winds whisper tales of two eels.”

My jaw tightened. ‘Winds’ meant rumors to Sewell. Two eels. Two of me. “A bastard of Thorvald?”

“Once thought it true,” Sewell said, clear and direct. He pounded a fist to his chest. “Saw whispers in the daylight.”

I paused. “You saw Thorvald with another child?”

Sewell shook his head, frustration on his face when he tried to find the words. “Saw him and a . . . fox.”

Sewell had known Thorvald more than anyone still living. He’d sailed alongside the Ever Ship before the Chasm was sealed off from the earth fae. Before I’d been taken as a child, Ever Folk often surfaced to the fae of the earth realms. Trade, barter of magics, seedy deals, it was all done with a healthy trepidation between the different fae.

It changed when they summoned my father and stole his heir. But before the betrayal was it possible my father bedded earth fae? Possible he’d fathered a bastard between worlds?

“Anything’s possible,” Tait grumbled when I mumbled my thoughts under my breath. “Our fathers were the same when it came to bedmates, you know that. There was no loyalty.”

“Might explain Larsson’s ability to avoid a blood bond,” Gavyn added. “Blood of the king or the lord doesn’t need to bond to his own damn ship, now does he?”

If he shared Thorvald’s blood, it could be a possibility the Ever Ship would bow to him. I was dangling over a damn precipice of madness and bloodlust. Either would do so long as it brought me Livia.

“But to be an heir of the Ever, a chosen mate must bear the child,” Celine said. “A bastard wouldn’t be able to wear the crown.”

“We’ve all heard the rumors of Thorvald’s bastard,” Tait said. “Even if Larsson has the blood of the Ever King, he’ll never have the same power, not since Erik and Livia restored a united throne. Their heart bond is unmatched.”

“Unless Larsson has a heart bond too,” Gavyn muttered.

Tait paled. “You think Larsson has a woman at his side?”

“I think he has whatever damn sea witch helped cast the darkening.”

“Why destroy the Ever if he wants to overtake it?” Celine asked.

“It doesn’t matter!” I spun on them. “He has Livia. She is what matters. I will find her, then tear the answers from his damn mouth when I have my hands on him.”

I was done speculating. Every breath took Livia farther from me. I kept a hand on my leg, wishing someone might cut it off to stop the pain, and gave into the significant limp until I reached my chambers. Inside, no one waited before they dug into a hidden panel in the wall and removed knives, cutlasses, daggers, even barbed arrows.

I secured a black scarf over my head, my blade to my waist, and shouted down the corridor to Alistair to signal the bells of the Ever, a signal to sound an emergency departure for the Ever Crew.

“Dammit!” All at once, my heart stilled. “I can’t feel her. I can’t feel Livia.”

She should be calling to me. I should hear her in my damn heart. Bile burned my throat. It couldn’t mean she was gone. If he hurt her, I’d tear Larsson’s body apart piece by piece.

“Then I’m beginning the hunt,” Gavyn said, gripping my shoulder. “I will scour the kingdom, Erik. The smallest body of water, I will search it until I find her.”

Words I wanted to say, that politeness and gratitude Livia wanted from me, tightened in the back of my throat. I said nothing, merely nodded and clapped my palm on the side of his neck.

Gavyn turned to Celine and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Look after the king, Tidecaller.”

“Larsson will know of you.” Tears glistened over her long lashes. “Don’t you dare die, you arrogant lord.”

Gavyn pulled her close, but his gaze lifted over her head to Sewell. The ship’s cook shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and pointed his gaze to the floor, avoiding Gavyn’s eyes.

“Daj.” Gavyn released Celine but kept his arm around her shoulder and wrapped the other around Sewell’s neck. “I’ll be all right. You watch your own back. Watch Cel’s.”

Sewell cradled Celine’s head to his shoulder when she hugged his waist.

When Livia asked me if Gavyn had freed his father from the prisons after that first day of torture, I’d offered vague truths. I’d kept the secret for so many turns, it was instinct. Since I was a boy, I’d known Gavyn broke into the cell and released his father through an unbarred window. After all, it was me who’d left a bucket of rainwater in the corner of the cell.

For too many turns we’d tried to hide Sewell’s face from the house lords, hidden him in plain sight on the Ever Ship where he could embrace the sea, but be safe. Where the truth that his daughter still lived could die into the sagas and histories of the sea.

Where all three would be left alone at long last.

His mind was sharp, his body strong, his love for his children unchanged. Harald’s brutal torture merely confused a few words.

“I have no more time,” I said. “We need to find Larsson.”

“Erik, if he has the blood of Thorvald, if he uses Livia to clear the darkening, then he could turn the houses against you,” Gavyn said.

“Makes sense,” Tait replied bitterly. “You’ve caused enough turmoil.” He held up his hands in surrender when I glared at him. “I didn’t say it wasn’t good turmoil. I’m simply saying we know Joron and Hesh did not approve of a queen.”

“You need more blades at your back to bury him,” Gavyn said.

Aleksi gripped my shoulder, a feral gleam in his gaze. “You need the aid of those who would fight for your queen with the same ferocity as you.”

My body tensed, but I understood exactly what he meant. For Livia I’d do anything. I only hoped this move didn’t get my head removed before I found her.

Crouched in front of a full flowering shrub, I cupped one bloom and stroked the velvet petals between my fingers. Leaves and vines were remnants of Livia. One fist curled around the silver swallow around my neck.

She’d be here again, taming the wild branches and flowers. I wouldn’t stop until she was back. Until I heard the playful way she called me Serpent. Until her skin was pressed against mine.

The bells rang out over the city.

“Erik.” Tait stepped around a bower. “The crew is gathering.”

I rose and offered a final look at Livia’s gardens. She’d brought life back to the Ever. To me.

Sleepy and disheveled, the Ever Crew gathered on the docks, bidding their wives, their littles, their rum, farewell. At the sight of me, most tried to bow their heads, but I carved through the crowds too swiftly to care.

“Erik,” Tait said at my back. “Before we do this, be certain this is the move to make.”

“What am I to think through, cousin?” I snapped. “She is gone. There is no risk I will not take to get her back.”

Tait gripped my shoulder and forced me to turn around. “They could kill you, and I—” His jaw pulsed. “Erik, you were my brother once. You are all I have.”

I hesitated for half a breath before patting his face. “I’m not greeting the Otherworld until she is back. Help me get her back.”

He shook my shoulder twice. “To the end.”

I gave him a nod.

“I know you killed him,” he whispered as we approached the gangplank. “You had my loyalty already, but after you killed Harald, it was sealed in blood that day.”

I kept silent, not admitting anything, but I didn’t deny it either.

Behind closed doors, Harald beat and brutalized Tait to the gates of the Otherworld often. He’d forced distance between us as boys, but the bond of brotherhood still had a glimmer of light left. I’d never told anyone that I’d slipped into Harald’s war tent when the battle drew closer to its end, poisoned him, then slit his throat to make it look like an assassination.

I always suspected Tait knew by the way he’d studied me across the camp when they took Harald’s body to the sea.

We stormed onto the deck, already much of the crew was in place, humming their eerie shanties and setting to work beneath a high moon.

Celine stood near the steps of the quarterdeck and handed me my tricorn.

I swallowed back the unease and slowly placed it on my head. “He left?”

She nodded. “Gavyn will be hunting the seas. House of Bones stands with the true Ever King.”

I climbed the steps to the helm. Aleksi leaned over the rail. Shadows coated his eyes when he looked at me. He would be needed to speak, and to speak quickly. But there was always the chance the earth bender’s rage would overpower even his nephew’s voice when we stepped foot on land.

I gripped the handles of the helm, offered a last look at the moonlit glitter of the royal city, then waved a palm. Wind snapped the crimson sails. The ship lurched. Eyes narrowed, I took in the bustle of the crew. “Make ready to dive, you wretches.”

Shouts and commands spilled across the deck. I kept my sights on the stars in the sky. The gleam of Nightfire and his lover. I’d cross the skies, Songbird.

The bow tilted forward, carving through the black surface. Songs of the crew were haunting as the water boiled around us, taking us below the waves mouthful by mouthful.

A man he’s not, we work we rot,

No sleep until it’s through.

A sailor’s grave is all we crave.

We are the Ever King’s crew.

Aleksi was pale when the ship surfaced through the Chasm. His knuckles had gone white from clenching the rail.

Tait clapped him on the shoulder. “All right, earth fae? I thought you were supposed to be a warrior.”

Aleksi shoved him off. “It’s disorienting.”

“Better than coming through without a ship, though.”

“I’ll take a ship over being crushed.” He came to my side. “Keep a distance. Rave don’t come too near the Chasm line. The ship will be safe here.”

I peeled my grip off the handles.

“Tidecaller.” I crossed the deck to her side. “Man the helm. The ship is yours until I return.”

“I should come with you,” she whispered so only I could hear.

“You must remain here. Guard the ship.” I removed my tricorn and handed it to her. “I need you to be here so you will know if Gavyn finds her.”

Celine swallowed with effort but placed the tricorn on her head. “Aye, My King.”

The Ever Crew would remain behind. Only Tait and Aleksi joined me in the small boat. Alek guided us to the darker side of the jagged isles. Rough tides made it impossible for their longships to sail this route.

With the Ever King, the seas soothed soon enough.

“Shore patrols should be here,” Alek said once we pulled the boat onto the rocky beach. He tugged a dagger from a sheath on his leg, his gaze on the empty paths leading toward the fort. “Stay low. They might be at the point of striking first and asking questions over graves later.”

Meaning, they might kill their own prince before we ever got a word in for our defense.

We kept low up the hillside, Alek and Tait three paces in front of me. Every few steps, I’d run my fingers through the long grass. Livia’s fury magic lived in this soil, and it brought a sense of nearness to her.

“They’re not here,” Tait muttered and took out his own blade. “Something’s off.”

“Agreed.” Aleksi spun the dagger in his grip and stepped over the crest of the ridge.

In the next breath, shadows seemed to fall upon us.

“Illusions!” Alek shouted.

Dammit. Some fae clans had wretched magic that tormented the mind with illusions and tricks of the eye.

Roars of warriors broke the darkness. It sounded as though they came from all sides—overhead, underfoot, from the flanks. I reached for my blade, but the moment my hand curled around the hilt, Aleksi and Tait were gone.

I shouted their names and made a run for where the ground fell out from beneath them. A hidden pit dug into the top of the knoll swallowed them up. Beneath a plume of dust, a net released from its snare and snapped over the top of the pit.

Shadows faded and cloaked warriors erupted from the tall grass.

Dammit. Aleksi’s shouts were muffled over the roar of the guards. Without a moment’s pause they surrounded me. I didn’t fight. I didn’t pull back. Hands took hold of me and shoved my face down in the soil.

I held steady when a cold blade leveled at my throat. A laugh, cruel and raw, followed. “Bloodsinger himself. Some balls you have to show your face.”

A man peered down at me. His hair was braided off his face and runes inked along his throat and chest. Kohl painted his chin and pitch eyes. An unnatural darkness, like the whites were blotted out. His face was stubbled, and there was a madness to his grin. “My name is Jonas of House Eriksson. I hoped I’d be the one to catch you.”

Jonas. I knew the name. Livia mentioned it when . . . all hells, he was her friend. Another royal of the earth fae. He’d need no reason to cut us down.

“Nothing to say?” Jonas landed a kick to my ribs. I grunted, but kept my jaw locked. He lowered into a crouch. “You took them from me. From us all. I ought to slit you open right here.”

Pain was speaking. No doubt he thought I’d slaughtered both Livia and Aleksi. I gave him the honor of holding his stare but didn’t speak. What was the point? He wouldn’t believe a word, not without Alek.

Slowly, he sheathed his blade and stood. “Gather the sea fae caught in the trap.” He sneered back at me. “I’ll be taking Bloodsinger to Valen. Remember my face, sea king. For I will not look away, not for a moment, as the Night Folk king tears you apart.”


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