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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 17

THE SERPENT

“Think she was speaking the truth?” Tait scratched his stubbled chin. “I’ve not seen anyone out of place.”

“Could’ve concealed themselves amongst the crew at the Tower,” Aleksi said.

“More half-witted assassins.” I slumped in a chair at the table. Assassins were bothersome on any day, but these sods, wherever they were on the deck, were wholly aggravating. Each pause, each delay, kept me from Livia and added another layer of violence in my soul.

Sewell tapped a finger onto the page of the book. “Dark tides, little eel. Dark tides, indeed. But get one to whisper, and we might see the minds of false eels.”

“Aye. True enough, Sewell.” I gripped his shoulder, shaking him slightly. “We get one screaming, we might learn exactly where Hesh or Larsson are keeping her. We make them scream now.”

Valen, somber and quiet against the wall, scrutinized my every movement. The earth bender had said little about traitors, merely followed, keeping a close ear to our rapidly spun plan to show what happened when the Ever King was betrayed.

Sewell’s mouth twitched. “Burn the bones, little eel.”

When I put hands on them, they’d do more than burn. They’d rot from the inside out.

On the main deck, Tait and the earth fae ordered the crew into a line. Men shifted with unease, others hardly cared, lighting their smoke herbs and puffing out clouds to the fading sunlight.

When I stepped onto the deck, their spines straightened.

No one appeared out of place, and it only fueled the rage in my blood more.

“Heartwalker,” I said, voice low, so no one would hear me over the thrash of the sea. “Any desire for my death?”

“I’m blocked, Erik. They came ready with spells or wards, knowing what my voice does, no doubt.”

Wards. Spells. An isle that could not be accessed without a bleeding key. The more tales that were said, the more I knew Larsson had his own aid from damn sea witches.

“Then we do it my way.”

“I prefer your way for this.” Tait’s teeth flashed viciously.

Tavish stepped away from the rail. He’d come aboard, insisting he aid us in the hunt. “I’ll work to break any curses or spells.”

“Unnoticed.”

“I’d never be noticed.” He faded to the far side of the deck.

I stood in the center of the front line of my crew, hands clasped behind my back. “Arms out, you wretches. If you move out of line, you eat your blade.”

Anxious murmurs filtered through the men as they rolled up their tunic sleeves, revealing all manner of scars and tattoos. Some cast wary glances, no mistake taking note that Sewell, Celine, and Tait were not in ranks, and were gathering weapons.

Valen would see the darker pieces, the edges of my soul his daughter said she loved, and I could not hold back despite his presence. It was damn close to a need to make anyone who’d associated with Livia’s harm suffer.

He would accept it, or he would not. I cared little in this moment.

The first man in line was an ancient bastard simply named Scar for the taut, grisly line of mutilated flesh that caved half his face.

I slashed the thin skin on his wrist.

Scar winced; his eyes slammed shut and disappeared behind folds of skin and thick brows. Before he could pull away, I sliced my own thumb on one pointed tooth and pressed the tip to the open wound on his arm.

More murmurs, more unease, came from the crew. No one questioned. No one shifted away, but fewer men met my gaze.

“Done nothing to hurt me bond, King Erik,” Scar whispered, eyes still closed.

I waited ten breaths, then inspected his veins. Blue and protruding through his ancient skin, but no ebony shades, no convulsing. The blood bond of the ship was intact. It was still being honored. The Ever Crew, so long as they were loyal, my blood could not touch them while aboard the ship.

I dropped Scar’s arm and moved down the line. One by one, the men allowed me to poison their blood.

Stormbringer volunteered his arm before I reached him. “I’m no fool, My King. I know what all this is about. Send me to the hells of the sea if I’ve gone and betrayed me king and our earth lovey.”

For the first time, I hesitated. When I’d been rescued from the earth fae as a little, Stormbringer had been a boy of fifteen, serving his first turn on the Ever Ship.

After Thorvald fell under Valen’s axe, to distract me, Stormbringer had taken me belowdecks, snatched a sweet honey drop from a secret store in the galley, and told me tales of his home isle near the Tower until I’d fallen asleep.

I was aloof, rather distant from my crew, but apart from Sewell, Celine, and Tait, Stormbringer was one I did not wish to kill.

“When the truth comes out,” Stormbringer said, leaning close until the strap of the patch covering his lost eye nearly brushed my brow, “best to make them pay in pain, says I.”

His blood did not rot when touched with mine. I might’ve imagined it, but I thought Celine released a breath of relief the moment I moved on to the next.

The third man on the second line, I did not know his name. Not entirely uncommon. Tait and Larsson recruited more than me, and over the turns, with the darkening, I’d long ago stopped trying to know much of the new crew, my thoughts elsewhere.

Still, the hair lifted on my neck when I studied the man’s face. “New recruit?”

“Aye,” he said gruffly, giving me a smirk from beneath a wiry, russet beard.

I snatched his wrist and sliced the skin. My blood dripped into the gash. One breath, five. Nothing.

I released the man’s wrist, uneasy, and went to move onto the next when he coughed. The bastard doubled over, a hand to his chest, dark, foamy spittle on his lips. His eyes shaded to a sickly sort of yellow and met my eyes in a shock of horror.

“How?” He gagged. “She s-s-said it’d shield . . . us.”

Tavish barked a laugh across the deck. “Oh, your little witch might’ve promised it, but such protections only work if spells are not broken by another.” He waggled his fingers, then winked, as though we were friendly. “Enjoy, My King. Looks like you have one more.”

From the back corner of the line, a man in a heavy canvas coat made a mad rush for the rail of the ship. The twin princes were nearest and blocked his retreat. Eyes the color of midnight, Jonas and Sander stalked the coward away from the rail. Soon, the fae pleaded for some creature, some horror to leave him be.

He whimpered and lowered to his knees. Pressure gathered in the air like an approaching storm. The princes knelt with their victim, saying nothing, but whatever their magic was doing seemed to be torturing the traitor from the mind outward. He screamed, swatting at things unseen.

Nightmare magic. I grinned, all at once pleased I’d taken on a few earth fae.

The bastard at my feet convulsed from the spreading poison. Too simple.

My fingers curled around his throat; I dragged his crimson face to mine and hummed. The sound was low, dark, vicious. His body stopped seizing, and his veins lightened.

Once his breaths slowed again, I tossed him back. “What is your name, traitor of the Ever?”

“Paedar Bladeclaimer, My King.”

“Ah, second mate of the Fire Storm I hear.”

He didn’t answer straightaway, but slowly he nodded. “But I-I-I did nothin’, swear to the gods. I didn’t do nothin’. I’m bonded to the crew, you see, and . . .” He paused to swallow some of the excess spittle on his lips. “We have no choice if our lord commands it. Swear we didn’t. But I did nothin’ to her.”

Molten heat split along the scars, the fractures remaining in the bones of my legs, when I crouched in front of the bastard. His features were roughened by long days beneath the sun. Stringy locks draped over his wide shoulders, and his bottom teeth jutted over his top, so the sharpened points of the canines were hidden.

He was larger than me, doubtless stronger, yet he quivered like an eel being reeled in off a hook.

“You did nothing, you say?”

I paused long enough to leave Bladeclaimer wondering what move I might make. Then, I rammed the point of my blade into the fat of his belly.

“What you didn’t do,” I hissed against his ear, “was confess to your king that the lord of your house had betrayed your kingdom. What you didn’t do—” I twisted the cutlass in his flesh, devouring the sob of pain. “Was prevent Bonekeeper from scheming against me.” Another twist, another yelp. “What you didn’t do, was speak up about where she was taken. The latter, of course, is the most grievous of the things you didn’t do.”

I nicked the tip of my tongue until the sour taste of blood coated my mouth, then spit in his face, watching as watery blood slid down his crooked nose to his lips. With one finger, I took the spittle and painted the insides of his mouth.

He screamed and thrashed, and I dug my sword still in his belly deeper.

With one knee, I nudged him backward, watching from the corner of my gaze as his body convulsed and writhed, as the blackened veins snaked along the sides of his neck.

Murmurs rose from the spectators, likely earth fae, as they watched in a bit of horror the truth of what my blood could do. I cared little. The claws of bloodlust had already latched on, and all I craved were those damn screams that shattered the night.

While Bladeclaimer succumbed to poison, he lost his fingers one by one. He was gasping by the time he lost his eyes. His heart stopped before I finished slicing off the points of his ears.

With the back of my sleeve, I wiped blood off my lashes and spat drops of the splatter onto the floorboards. I spun around to where Jonas and Sander still hovered close to the whimpering fae, curled at their feet.

“Take him to the brig!” I shouted, nodding at two crewmen. “Make sure he knows what happens to traitors aboard the Ever Ship!”

The men dragged Hesh’s second assassin past the fallen traitor. My lips twitched in an austere sort of grin when the bastard vomited at the gore.

“My King!” Tavish shouted across the deck.

My heart went still as the corpse at my feet when Alek shoved through the crew, another man’s arm draped over his shoulder.

“Erik.” Gavyn’s face was haggard, a trickle of blood fell off his lip. “I found her.”


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