The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 16

THE SERPENT

Steel sliced over leather. I had my cutlass freed, but at my back, so did Celine, Sewell, and Tait. Valen merely rested his hands on the blacksteel heads of his axes, twin death tethered to his belt.

From the same room, another man emerged, dressed like a tall assassin. A woolen cowl bunched around his throat, thick belts that slimmed his waist, and the glitter of knives and daggers on each limb.

“Warrior.”

“Erik.” Stieg stepped between the tip of my sword and his king. “Put your blade away.”

“They are not here to kill you, King Erik,” Narza said, an eerie calmness to her voice.

“You were not there.” My gaze locked on the earth bender, unblinking. “I assure you, nothing would please him more.”

Valen stepped around Stieg, but he faced the royals—all lost in a sort of bewilderment.

Aleksi swallowed with effort. “Uncle.”

“Tor arrived at the fort,” Valen said stiffly. “Sol sent word to the North the instant you turned up alive. So, your father arrived at a fort devoid of the son he believed was dead for weeks. I watched both your fathers mourn all over again.” The earth bender wheeled on the princess. “I saw your parents when they arrived. Two souls who’ve lost so many, I watched them lose their wits trying to get through the sea to a daughter they fear will go missing, much like mine. And you two.”

The twin princes stiffened, but held their tongues, respect for the earth bender shadowed on their faces.

“Your mother and father are some of the most resilient folk I’ve ever met.” Valen stepped close enough their noses nearly touched. “I never want to see the likes of them break the way they did when they arrived without their sons there to greet them.”

Silence thickened in the space. Ten breaths, even more, pressure dug into the pores on my skin, as though the agonizing remorse from every earth fae royal flowed through my veins. With a touch of caution, Tait and Celine lowered their blades and stepped beside Sewell.

I sheathed my sword, uncertain what moves to make.

At long last, when the walls felt as though they might crush us all, Aleksi dipped his chin and faced the earth bender. “Forgive us, Uncle. We freed the Ever King. This was not Bloodsinger’s doing. I know of the Ever. I know of this enemy, and we could not wait for the others to arrive. We could not wait for a council and strategy.”

“So, you thought it wise to manipulate my son into freeing a man who’s killed many of our people, who took a princess of the realms, and follow him without a word of goodbye.”

“I left a note,” Mira whispered.

“Ah, yes.” Valen scowled at her. “Exactly the thing every mother and father wants. A missive telling them they may never see their child again, tucked away—I might add—so it was not seen for nearly two days.”

Narza touched my arm. She tilted her head, mutely commanding I speak. What the hells was I supposed to say? I was not taking the time to return the royals to soothe the hearts of their families.

They made their choices, and I was going forward from here. Not back.

“Be angry if you wish, Earth Bender, but they weren’t wrong.” My voice was even, steady. Inside, I was flowing in heavy apprehension. “We would be days behind if I’d been left in that room while kings and queens counseled on how to execute me.”

Valen’s mouth tightened. Doubtless, he wanted to crush my skull under his boots.

“We aren’t saying you or anyone else did not want to begin the search, Uncle,” Aleksi said. “But it was taking time we did not have.”

“He knows.” Stieg sat on the edge of the bed, a misplaced smirk on his face. “It is why we are here with only two of us. We had to do the same.”

Mira arched a brow. “What do you mean?”

Valen’s features softened, still burdened, still furious, but there was a bit of a crack in the rage. “Were you all not listening? Every crown is at the fort. Do you think any of your parents would’ve stayed behind willingly?”

“You’ve now seen for yourself and might take my word with more ease,” Narza said. “Our ships simply cannot house full armies and our crews.”

Jonas chuckled, tentative and strained, but slowly the prince’s flash of mischief returned to his eyes. “You snuck away? Elise will murder you.”

“Elise was the mind behind it. Someone had to go after you, and she believed Bloodsinger when he said that current would crush her. After sailing through it, I agree. I came since this animosity was built between my house and the Ever King.”

Now Sander laughed softly. “So, we’re all dead when we return, you included, Valen?”

The earth bender cleared his throat and folded his arms over his chest. “I am certain my fellow kings will have strong words about my departure.”

“He’s not worried about the kings,” said Stieg. “It’s the queens.”

Valen tugged an axe off his belt, then the other. He laid them on the table, crossed at the handles, then stepped back. “I call a truce, Bloodsinger. For now. Our ambitions align. I only wish to find my daughter, and since you gave me no choice but to follow you here, I am with you. For now.”

He darkened his tone on the second declaration, proving whatever alliance might be forming in this musty room would be temporary.

I would take temporary.

I dropped my cutlass on the table. “Agreed, Earth Bender.”

Valen kicked the leg of a chair, sliding it out, and sat. He gestured for me to take the seat opposite him. “Then tell me what you’ve learned.”


By the time I’d finished explaining the betrayal of Larsson, the belief he could be Thorvald’s bastard, and rehashing Pesha’s tale, the others had found places to perch in the room.

Stieg sat beside Celine and Sander on the narrow cot. Jonas and Aleksi had both leveraged onto the windowsill, while Sewell, Mira, and Narza joined us at the table.

“Your son,” Valen asked, glancing at Sewell. “He does not disappear like this?”

There was no reason to keep the truth of Gavyn’s bloodline hidden from Valen. The earth fae would find the destruction of Sewell’s mate and family despicable.

Sewell drummed his fingers on the table. “Boy speaks in the seas. Soothes our hearts.”

“He’s telling you, my brother will usually send word,” Celine said. “Even if it’s just to let us know he’s alive. I’m always with Daj on the ship, but Gavyn is kept apart. We speak through missives or the tides often.”

“Because you can hear him and speak through the sea?” Valen asked, more like he was repeating words to let it solidify in his mind.

“Aye.” Celine stared at her hands, knee bouncing. “Earth bender, I don’t . . . I don’t want you to take her from us.”

“Tidecaller,” I said through my teeth.

“Let her speak,” Valen said. “What do you mean?”

Celine was bold, rather deadly with a blade, when she was not unsettled. Around anyone beyond her blood, me, and now Livia, she was silent as a whisper in the storm.

Still, she straightened her spine and met Valen’s gaze without falter. “I know you hate what my king did, but it was old magic that brought them together, the kind none of us understood. Not even him. The Ever called to her, and she’s, well, she’s part of us now. She matters to you, but she matters to us, as well. I’ve seen the bond; it’s real, Earth Bender.”

For the first time, the furrow over Valen’s brows faded. He leaned back in his chair, studying Celine. After a moment, a slight grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “I am glad she was not alone when she was forced here.”

Livia’s father would always despise me for what I’d done. I could not blame him—I would always despise Larsson for doing the same.

“I must set sail,” Narza interrupted. My grandmother remained silent, stoic, a mere spectator during the meet.

“You return to the House of Mists?” I asked.

“No. I return through the Chasm.”

“What?”

“I told you, King Erik, deals were made.”

“That tells me nothing.”

Narza rose and made her way for the door. “With such fierce trust broken, there needed to be something that would leave them assurance I was not there to cause harm, nor was I going to harm a king.”

My grandmother nodded at the earth bender.

“What are you getting at?”

“There is old magic that was once performed during peace treaties, a show of strong alliances after battles or skirmishes. It is a spell called neach-dai. Each bond creates a compulsion to protect, but that is the only similarity. The rest are quite unique, for the specifications of what would bring the most peace are set by those who will receive a bonded.”

“What have you done, Narza?” My voice was a blade, sharp and cutting.

“It is a lifetime bond,” she went on, voice rough. “A bonded is only released through death or an exchange, where another will accept the neach-dai on their behalf. I am bonded to the earth fae now and have vowed to protect them according to their specified needs.”

“What the hells?” I gaped at the earth bender. “She is a lady of the Ever.”

Valen’s face burned. “And my daughter is a princess.”

Bleeding gods. I shook my head, facing my grandmother. “What specifications? What does that mean?”

When Narza hesitated, Valen stood. “We requested she remain in our realms to shield against the sea folk should they bring a threat. Fitting since it sounds as though more are planning to bring that threat.”

“She leads the House of Mists here,” I argued in a frenzy. “She has family here.”

Valen held a bit of distress in his gaze for half a breath, then his face hardened. “I have no quarrel with the sea witch, but you are learning how devastating it can be, Bloodsinger.”

I hated every word, but he was right. I’d taken Livia with the intention of devastating her people and those she loved. I was not particularly close to Lady Narza, yet the idea she would be forced to live elsewhere knotted my chest in a discomfiting pressure.

“I agreed, Erik,” Narza whispered, approaching slowly. “This, what you fight for, what you are doing, is more important than where I live out the rest of my days. They are not cruel people. They won’t harm me. The neach-dai is meant to be a peaceful bond for new allies. I protect them, but they also protect me. As the bonded, I simply comply to their parameters in the agreement. They have open shores, and I know the moves of the sea fae; the need for protection in their realms is reasonable.”

“Will you ever return?”

“I can’t stay long if I do. Already it is swiftly urging me to go back.”

“If you don’t?”

Narza tilted her head. “I think you understand deep bonds enough to guess, Grandson.”

She would die. Break the bond and die.

“You cannot keep her,” I told Valen. “She wouldn’t have betrayed you. You have a lie taster. Was her word not enough?”

“Junius had already gone to meet her folk, hoping to pass on what she’d learned, to save time in our councils. This bond was a compromise, Bloodsinger,” Valen said. “After everything you have done, how do you expect us to trust sea fae? Not to mention, every damn heir to every damn throne is here in the Ever, but for my son. We needed to know every royal line would not be crushed from existence by misplaced trust.”

“Erik,” Stieg said. “This was how we made a swift decision. We needed assurance.”

“Really now,” Narza said, a soft smile on her lips. “You think me so fragile that I cannot defend myself? Now that we suspect Hesh, admit it, King Erik, this will show the unity you craved for our people. Should he arrive, he will be met with forces of two worlds.”

“We do not know what forces Larsson has gathered,” I whispered. “What if you are needed here?”

“You will have every support from my house, Erik.” Narza’s eyes were glass when she looked at me. “I should’ve fought harder. I should not have resigned you so quickly to being another Thorvald, beyond reproach. I was wrong. You are the king the Ever needs, and the House of Mists stands with you.”

I wanted nothing more than to fade into the floorboards. Every damn eye watched the unnerving interaction.

My grandmother was no soft, gentle woman. She was a leader, a sea witch capable of casting horrifying spells. To see this side, a bit of remorse in her features, I hated every breath of it. I did not want her to stop.

“Your people will not harm her?” I asked Valen, voice rough.

“Not in the least,” he said. “And when we return, I will personally see to it she has anything she desires. Any of her folk, as you said, her family, would be welcome to join her in our lands.”

It didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to lash at the earth bender, at the warrior. I wanted to blame them for what was done, for the deals made, but it fell on my shoulders.

“You ought to use the shell soon, Earth King,” Narza said. “You recall how it is done?”

From inside his tunic, Valen tugged on a silver chain. Tied in the center was a pale, coiled seashell. “I simply speak into it?”

“Always begin with his name.”

The earth bender looked unconvinced, but slowly lifted the mouth of the shell to his lips. “Ror. Do you hear me?”

My grandmother stepped next to my side. “Do you recall this spell?”

“The harvest festival.” I watched the earth bender lift the shell to his ear, waiting. “When I kept running off, and my mother feared I’d get lost. You bewitched two shells, so I could call to her.”

“You were a horribly busy child.” Narza lowered her chin. “It brought Oline a bit of peace knowing she could always speak to you. I thought it might do the same for those left behind.”

“Thank you.” I cleared my throat. “Grandmother. This sacrifice, it will never be forgotten.”

“Their help is needed. You and your queen are destined to heal the hatred between worlds, Erik. I know it to my bones.”

Narza paused, taking a moment to smile at the chatter in the room. “I mean what I say, they are not cruel, Erik. They are in pain. You did not know a kind father, but he—” She nodded at the earth bender. “Is a father who will go to any lengths to protect his children. This bond is not something he took lightly and only at my encouragement. He wants his daughter safe, that is all. Do not blame him for my choice, don’t blame yourself, and don’t let it be in vain. Find her. And of course, do come see me from time to time.”

I chuckled, soft and hardly there.

“I hear him!” Valen stood, a laugh scraping from his throat. The sound was odd. I knew him only from a war, stern and desperate for peace, and now as a man who likely dreamt of spilling my blood. Not this, not a father, laughing at the sound of his boy’s voice.

“Yes,” he spoke into the shell again. “Tell Maj we found them. No, Rorik—hush for a moment—your mother will handle Ari, not you.” Valen glanced at Mira, whose chin trembled. “Yes, we have a lead on Liv.” Valen’s smile was genuine as he listened to Rorik’s response. “No, son, I haven’t killed him.” The earth bender shook his head. “No. Nor am I decided if I appreciate that you took a liking to him.”

Jonas snorted. “Winning over Ror by a few words, Ever King.”

“Told him he was fearsome with a blade.”

“That’ll do it,” Aleksi said. “Make him think he’s the next captain of the Rave, and Ror will be your most loyal friend.”

This was too strange, too odd. Finding an alliance to save Livia was one thing, but to feel a sense of kinship with earth fae was another matter I did not know how to absorb.

“Ror, I can’t hear you.”

“It fades,” Narza explained. “Only a few moments every time you begin to speak. With this distance, it will likely only be open once, perhaps twice a day.”

“It’s fading, son. I will speak to you soon,” Valen said, voice soft. “Listen to whatever your mother and uncles ask of you. I’m proud of you. I love you.”

A strange feeling took root in my chest, a bit of envy, a touch of longing, a heap of remorse. Not once had my father said such a thing to me. When I’d been snatched at four turns, he’d shouted to return his heir—not his son. A blurry memory of Thorvald demanding I honor the Ever was all I had of the man in my most frightening moment.

“I can’t hear him.” Valen looked to Stieg, then returned the bespelled shell under his tunic. “So, Bloodsinger, are we going or not?”

Outside the Tower, we stood near the docks while the Ever Crew loaded skiffs and rowboats with a few supplies.

Tavish had disembarked his ship and stood beside Narza, discussing the crew of her ship, and occasionally arguing with her on the merits of a neach-dai bond. Until he saw the futility of it, bid her a somber farewell, and left to ready his crew.

Narza draped her shoulders in a silver cloak that resembled starlight, a glare pointed at the Ever Ship in the sea. “Stay safe, Grandson. The bond is pulling me back.”

I swallowed. “I will send word when I can.”

Strange, but there was a new emptiness in my chest when Narza slipped away to the smaller vessel Tavish had sailed. She’d insisted the Shadow Wing, the ship of the House of Mists, be left for our uses, and Tavish would sail it alongside the Ever Ship.

“My King.” Halfway down the dock, Pesha waved her hands.

“We’ve wind to meet, woman.” I didn’t stop and aimed for the shore.

“King Erik!” Pesha grew shrill and touched my arm. “Wait.”

“What is it?”

“Paedar . . . I didn’t tell you, and I should’ve, but . . . I can’t keep it any longer. Not after what I know.”

“Speak!” I hissed.

“He was . . . he was my meet, My King.”

Pesha screamed when I grabbed her arm, not enough to be painful, more a bit of panic, more a hope that maybe . . . “He’s here? Does he have her?”

Tears lined her lengthy eyelashes. “No, My King. Just came for a meet, but this time, he be bein’ joined with another man from the crew. They . . . saw the royal ship. They be slinking aboard your decks.”

I snapped my gaze to the Ever Ship. A dark kind of smirk played over the scarred side of my mouth. Hesh’s men boarded the king’s ship?

They’d expect to send me to the Otherworld.

And, instead, I’d be certain to send them.

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