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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 14

THE SERPENT

I leaned over the rail at the bow, tossing bits of bread into the sea, watching the thrashing fins of yellow-tailed eels that only surfaced on moonless nights.

The journey to the Tower from the House of Bones was a distance, across the whole of the kingdom. The journey would normally amount to three days if sailed atop the surface. It took half that by sailing below.

I’d not given the royals a choice; we dove beneath the tides.

Since leaving Maelstrom, the day and into the night was spent beneath the surface until we reached the edges of House of Mist territory, and the earth fae practically sobbed for a breath of air.

“Bloodsinger.” Mira approached from behind. Her dark hair was done up in wrapped plaits like a crown around her head, and she’d donned a new skirt with a leather corset and thick red fabric that struck her ankles. No doubt, Celine would be grumbling about sharing her wardrobe all over again.

“Princess.” I didn’t look away from the feeding frenzy in the water.

“Listen.” She hesitated. “I wanted to tell you . . . I, well, I believe you.”

“Believe what?”

Mira sighed loudly and rested her elbows on the rail, mimicking my stance.

For a few moments, she watched the eels scour the water for any crumb of the bread. “I believe you truly love Livie. This isn’t a strange obsession or power move.”

I chuckled darkly. “Painful to say?”

“Yes. I’m certain I vomited a little.” She sighed. “The night you took her, I felt like I might die inside. I imagined all these horrid things you were doing to her.”

Sick turned in my stomach. I’d known it. It was my plan: make the earth folk suffer, make them think I was using her body, that I was slicing her to pieces.

The notion of harming any piece of Livia Ferus boiled in my brain, but I knew their fear too damn well. It was the same fear that lived in my every breath since Larsson snatched her away.

Mira flipped around, her back to the rail, and lifted her golden eyes toward the pitch sky. “I blamed myself. I encouraged her to go with you that night.”

“I assure you, nothing would’ve stopped me.”

“I know.” She hesitated. “One of the queens, the fate queen we call her, she is my cousin. I think Elise must’ve told her I wasn’t eating. Hells, I never left my chamber at the tower. My cousin, she and her king have a gift of knowing fated paths and destiny, I suppose. She sent this to me about ten days after the masquerade.”

The princess handed me a battered piece of parchment, thin and brittle from countless folding and unfolding.

It was a simple note, direct, loving.

Mir—

There is a bit of fate at play here. We ought to have some trust. You know how I feel about the damn Norns, so that is saying something coming from me.

It’s what I keep telling my Cursed King. He’s rather perturbed with me, you know, since I may have kept this particular twist of fate quiet. Yes, I’ve known there was still a connection to the sea since the war ended. Understand, the last time we tried to alter fate, our world descended into war. I had to let this go as it was destined to go.

But the moment we heard the news, both Silas and I felt the same pull that this was part of a new path of fate. We both had the same thought:

A heart stolen by hate and pain finds love unbending in his claim.

There is more to this tale, my love. Stay vigilant, stay strong. I have a feeling our eyes will soon be opened.

Calista

I read the missive once more before returning it to the princess. “You believe this speaks of me and Livia?”

Mira nodded. “You have claimed her heart, Bloodsinger. I think you claimed it ten turns ago. You know, when I saw you at the masque, I felt the draw you had to Liv. I even told her. I did not want to believe anything good could come from this, but . . . I have seen you here. The way you speak, the way you demand, all of it is only to find her. You are ready to slaughter your own people.”

“Those who took her are not my people.”

“You know what I mean.” The princess fiddled with the laces of the bodice. “I trust you. When we have Livia, when we return, you shall have another voice to speak for you. That’s all I wanted you to know.”

Gods, I hated moments as this. All I wanted was to be left alone with the remnants of my scabrous heart, perhaps wallow a bit in the misery, then dream up more ways to destroy those who’d kept my songbird from me. Now, I was here, and Livia would curse me if I did not acknowledge I had some sort of ability to feel.

I winced at the burn in my hip and faced the princess. “Turns out, you are rather useful. Your illusion magic is impressive.”

“I’m taking that compliment as your declaration of our undying friendship.”

“A foolish thing to do.”

“Far too late, Bloodsinger. It is done.” Mira’s face sobered. “Thank you. For fighting for her.”

“Even if you were the one who took her first, you bastard,” Jonas shouted. “Everyone seems to forget that detail.”

I rolled my eyes, turning back to the sea while three princes joined. Tait and Celine kept a step away, but slowly, much the same as Livia, the earth fae royals were finding a place among sea fae.

Except for Mira and Tait. The princess placed a great deal of distance between herself and my cousin the moment lanternlight revealed his features.

Celine snorted. “The sea singer effects are well gone, earth fae. Unless you’re worried there might be more reason—”

“Tidecaller,” Tait was the one who interjected.

“I assure you, there is nothing that draws me to Hearttalker—”

“Heartwalker,” Tait corrected as he yanked out one of his paper herb smokes.

“The only thing I’m grateful for is the man had the decency to keep his hands to himself.” Mira let out a huff of irritation. “You said yourself, Celine, it was unavoidable.”

“True, but it was amusing.” Tidecaller leveraged onto the rail, her legs dangling over the edge.

“We’re close to this Tower?” Sander asked. He unrolled a map of the Ever onto the deck.

“Aye,” I said. “We’ll be there well before sunrise.”

Sander poked his head over the rail. “There are many lush isles here, but near the Tower, it says we meet Ice Fjords?”

Seas around the House of Mists were more like thick, fog-soaked swamps. In the distance, rolling isles shaped against the horizon. Trees with coiled trunks and leaves so lush they blotted out the heavens in great canopies of green lined the shores of the territory. Rivers and ponds and marshes with colorful sea birds and scaled creatures that took to both water and land lived in every township.

Herbs and stones and crystals were aplenty in the House of Mists. A perfect residence for the witches and spell casters of the sea.

“The Ice Fjords are white stone,” I said. “Not truly made of ice.”

“Alek told us some of these noble houses did not take too kindly to the idea of a queen,” Jonas said. “Do you think they had anything to do with this?”

“It would be a bold move, a first. No king of the Ever has been overthrown. Not even an attempt.”

“Why would they?” Celine said. “Ever Kings before you kept house lords powerful, laden in coin and mates. The blood crown does not sit atop their heads, but they were like kings all the same.”

“Erik was changing things,” Aleksi said. “It angered some folk.”

“Larsson would’ve done this with or without Livia,” I said. “If he has the blood of Thorvald, clearly, he was biding his time.”

“Then why now?” Sander scratched his dark, mussed hair, studying the map as if it might offer up answers.

“That is what I intend to find out.” Unknowns stacked heavy and hot in my gut. Why did Larsson wait all this time if he was my brother? We’d met during my fifteenth turn. I was more vulnerable then. “The darkening is clearly some part of his attempt.”

Tait flicked his smoke into the sea and puffed out a long cloud. “Livia was here for weeks. What took so long for him to take her if this was all about healing the darkening and taking the crown?”

“What does it matter?” I snapped.

“It matters,” Sander offered, rolling the map. “Think of it. Your traitor waited, tried small attacks without drawing attention to himself. Until now. There is a reason he felt ready to betray you. He might have more support.”

I did not want to think of it. All I wanted to do was plan how I got my hands on Livia. Part of my mind wanted to shadow any of the other threats, Larsson included, as though all I needed was my songbird back and all would be well.

But the prince was right. There was a reason Larsson acted now.

“Lord Joron of the House of Tides was not pleased, but not as disgusted with the notion of a queen as Hesh of the House of Blades.”

Celine blew out her lips. “Joron only has a female heir. Perhaps he now sees merit in having a queen. Means his house has a chance of not passing on to a new male line.”

“This Hesh, though,” Jonas said, rubbing his chin in thought. “You suspect he was uneasy?”

“He is the High Farer of the Ever Sea, a war man. He lives for battle and blades and power. He does not want the Ever to change, so no, he was not pleased.”

“Then he has my suspicions,” Jonas said.

The prince could have his suspicions, but until I found my queen, every house of the Ever was guilty until they proved their innocence by kneeling at her feet.


Candlelight from sconces doused the sea-battered walls of the Tower in gold light. Shells and stones added a touch of whimsy to the refuse and dust at the entrance of the pub.

“Pesha is the one who knew Larsson best. She sticks close to the main rooms,” Tait said. “But she could be at the ladies’ house. We’ll need to send Tidecaller after her. Better yet, let’s send the princess. I’d love to see a pampered royal step foot in those rooms.”

“Hearttalker,” Mira shouted. “Thinking I am some pampered princess who plays with glass knives will be a grand mistake.”

“Heartwalker,” Tait grumbled under his breath. “Send her to the ladies’ house, Erik. I beg of you.”

“We go to the pub first,” I said. “Stormbringer.”

“Aye, My King.” Stormbringer’s broad shoulders cleared a swift path through the crew. He dipped his chin, adjusting the patch over his left eye socket. “What’s the word?”

“Keep the men close to the ship. Inform Tavish we will be in the pub, and if anyone finds Pesha, bring her to me.”

Stormbringer flicked his fingers away from his forehead in a simple salute, then barked the commands to the rest of the crew.

Inside the main tavern, my blood heated. Not so long ago, I’d had my first taste of my songbird within these walls. Her sighs, the sweetness of her on my tongue, the way she’d tangled my hair around those slender fingers and claimed what she wanted was a moment I’d not soon forget.

Gods, I was desperate for her to be back in my arms.

Savory hints of roots from the coves and herbs from dried grasses along the shores tangled with the hint of sweaty bodies and arousal. Doors to the rooms with cots and rough burlap quilts were closed. A full house. Each space would be filled with sailors and the body they’d chosen to love for the night.

I looked back to prepare the royals for debauchery, no need for more attention to ourselves, but Mira strode through the crowds with Sander and Aleksi, unbothered by the chaos.

Jonas was lost to us, chatting with one of the pub maids wiping down a table. The woman tucked her sleek, fiery hair behind her sharply tapered ear. Part siren, if I had to guess, with her crimson lips and the way she kept humming and touching the place over the prince’s heart.

“Gods.” Tait took hold of Jonas’s arm. “Are you a royal or not?”

Jonas winked at the pub maid, then followed Tait. “My parents were thieves, still are at heart. Sander and I feel most at ease around crooks. This is like home.”

“Royal thieves?” Celine rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it,” Sander said. “Our family bonding meant wild schemes to get anything—a honey cake from the cooking rooms, a nightly storybook from the repository, a new way into the market.”

“Our father still hasn’t accepted he’s a king, isn’t that right, Alek?”

Aleksi nodded, chuckling. “The royals back home are not as snobbish and pretentious as your royal here, Tidecaller. Probably why you like Livia better than him.”

Celine bit down on her lip, fighting a laugh, and pulled out a chair from one of the larger tables.

If Harald were here, he’d demand I take a bit of flesh from each of them. Any lightheartedness during a direct task would not be permitted. How many times had my uncle tossed me down to the ground, shouting at me to be ruthless, until my face was soaked in his spittle?

How many times had he demonstrated how a king ought to be brutal on Tait? A way to order my compliance all to get my cousin’s pain to stop, and a way to prove how weak I was. If a father could break his own son, why could a king not break his subjects?

It was unnerving the way the earth fae royals could tease and taunt, then snap into something vicious in the next breath. I was not lighthearted, and I did not care. Livia could drag out a laugh from my chest, a smile on my face. Others did not need those from me.

Still, in this moment, I knew Harald was wrong. There was a great deal to be said in fastening loyalty through respect and trust, not fear.

Tallow candles burned in the center of grimy tables. Paper cards and wooden chips slapped on the surfaces. Weapons clinked and clacked against the wooden table as the others leveraged their blades onto the top. I remained standing, scanning the pub.

Ladies with ruffled skirts sat on the laps of men tossing their bets and gambles. Men kissed the throats of women against the counter. A few gazes caught mine, dipping their chins in respect, then promptly dodged our table in the next breath.

“My King, welcome. Always a pleasure to serve the Ever Ship.” The pub matron swayed her rounded hips to our table. “Best wild pear wine just come in from the Glass Isles. A round for your lads?”

Celine cleared her throat.

The matron scoffed. “And your wee, tender ladies.”

A hiss slid through Celine’s teeth in the same moment she let loose one of her knives. The point slammed into the wooden lath wall a finger’s width from the pub matron’s ear.

Ack, such manners, girl.” The matron hardly flinched and ripped the knife out. She jabbed the blade toward Celine. “You’ll be gettin’ this when you be gettin’ gone from my pub. Not a chime sooner.”

I slammed a palm on the table. “Mariope. I’ve need for Pesha. Is she here tonight?”

“Oh. I did not realize you’d be wantin’ company, My King.”

“Pesha, woman. Where is she?”

Mariope ruffled and scrubbed a dingy linen over the table, as though scrubbing eased her nerves. “Was visiting the village earlier this evening. I’m certain she be back by now.”

“Send for her.”

Mariope dipped her chin and strode away.

“Who is this Pesha?” Aleksi asked.

“Larsson’s favorite company whenever we docked.”

One round of the wine promised made it to our table by the time Pesha sauntered into the pub. Her gilded curls were toppled on the crown of her head and pinned in with wildflowers from the shrubs near the shore. Her sun-darkened skin was dusted with too many powders, and her lips were glazed in red.

She smoothed her sea blue gown, adjusting the neckline so it plunged down her breasts and curled a palm over my shoulder. “King Erik. I was told you requested an audience. Tis an honor, My Lord.”

She tried to stoke my ego, but her voice trembled. Doubtless, my scars and the rumors of my brutality with lovers had reached her.

I pulled out the chair at my side. “Sit, Pesha. I’m here for your words, not you.”

“You don’t . . .” Pesha’s face heated. “My King, all respect, but I’ve got to earn coin like the rest of us. I have a meet within the chime, and if this crosses over—”

Tait slammed a pigskin filled with copper coin and silver chips. “Sit.”

The woman obliged, snatching her new purse, and tucked it inside the bust of her dress. With a wide grin, her needle-jagged teeth flashed. “Well, now that we’re in order, how may I serve you, King Erik?”

“Have you heard any word from Bonekeeper as of late?”

Pesha’s thick lashes fluttered like wings over her eyes. “Oh, Highness. I’ve not seen him for some time. But.” She paused. “I’ve taken company of a few menfolk who’ve been tangled in with my Bonekeeper. Not certain I recall everything they might’ve said.”

With a coy sneer, Pesha tugged one of her coins from the purse and rolled it between her forefinger and thumb.

“You dare keep secrets? You speak to your king, woman,” Tait said, voice thick and low.

“She knows.” I chuckled with a new sort of malice and scraped my thumb over the point of one tooth until a drop of blood bubbled to the surface.

Pesha tried to scramble away from the table. I’d expected it, and gripped the back of her neck, drawing her painted face close to mine.

“Dear Pesha, would you like to know what I expect?”

She closed her eyes, quivering, and let out a whimper when I traced her cheek with my blood.

My grip tightened on her neck. “Answer me!”

“Yes,” she sobbed. “Yes, My King. What . . . what d-d-do you expect?”

“I expect,” I said, drawing my face alongside hers, “that when I ask for something, something like finding my queen, you answer. You see, I’ve grown tired of liars and cheats and traitors. I’ve no patience for the lot of them, and I’d rather rid my kingdom of such folk than make deals.” I lowered my voice to a whisper and spoke directly into her ear. “Understand?”

Pesha nodded. “Y-Yes, My King. Yes.”

I released her, putting an arm’s length between us. “Good. Now, tell me what you know.”


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