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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 2

THE SONGBIRD

The air was strange, smooth and too rich with spices like cardamom and citrus. I drew in another long breath, seeking the clean sea and heat in the breeze from the royal city.

I groaned, shifting on a pulpy surface. Plush as bunches of moss under my spine, but pain bloomed through my chest as though someone took a rusted spike and rammed it through my body, pinning me in place.

I cracked one eye. My lashes were crusted in salt, from tears or the sea, I couldn’t recall. Truth be told, I couldn’t recall much for a few breaths until . . .

Larsson.

My other eye snapped open, sacrificing a few dried lashes to my wet cheeks. I shot upright, half expecting to be yanked backward by iron chains or a collar around my throat.

There were neither. All around were arched lancet windows, unlatched and allowing a morning breeze inside a . . . room. Rounded edges of a tower tapered up to sturdy rafters of a pointed rooftop.

Where the hells was I?

Thick green and gold drapes were hung around four impressively carved posts of the bed, a woven rug of pinks, oranges, and blues of a sunset on the sea coated the rough-cut floorboards, and a chestnut vanity, complete with silver brushes and combs and oils for perfuming the skin was pushed against one wall.

Someone had dressed me in a thin shift, clean, and made of handspun silk. My hair was in a tangled plait over my shoulder, as though I’d slept on it more than once, and it needed to be brushed. Only faint bruises from where I’d been tossed onto the deck of Larsson’s boat remained on my hip.

How long ago did he take me?

What sort of game was this?

I’d expected damp cells, piss and refuse around my feet, perhaps even waking in the Otherworld. Not a luxurious chamber reminiscent of my rooms in the Crimson Fort.

For a moment my feet hovered over the floorboards, like a scaled, toothy creature might reach up and bite, until I let them fall, toes wiggling. Pieces of the moment I’d been snatched from the royal city began sliding into place.

A ruse, Larsson had drawn me out of the king’s chambers, but . . . gods, Tait!

Heartwalker, bleeding out on the stone steps near the docks. The image was pungent in my brain, real and fierce until I was certain I could taste his blood on my tongue.

I fisted my hands and pressed them against my forehead. Tait, that scowly bastard. I always thought he despised me, but he’d known something was wrong and came for me all the same. He came to protect me.

I bent over my knees, fingers steepled in front of my mouth. Why was it Larsson?

“Brothers.” The word slid from my lips, a soft declaration to the empty room. My pulse quickened. Clear and poisonous in my mind—Larsson had named Erik as his brother.

The rumors of Thorvald fathering another little hadn’t concerned Erik; he was convinced if a child of Thorvald had existed, his position as king would’ve been challenged by now. But I’d sensed it—the strange bitterness, a claim to a lost birthright—buried beneath the corrupted soil of the darkening.

By the gods, we’d all been so duped.

A small, unfamiliar sneer pulled at the corner of my lips, a bit of hope—when Erik found Larsson, he’d peel his flesh from his bones. Brother or not. This time when the darker edge of my heart reared her head, I didn’t shove her away.

I pressed my thumbs across my brow, soothing an ache in my skull, and kept filtering through what had clashed with truth, and what wasn’t clear. Larsson believed he was the true king, and he wasn’t alone.

I dropped my hands into my lap, teeth clacking when my jaw clamped shut. Others aided Larsson in his treachery, and one face grew clearer the more fog emptied from my mind.

The sound of a latch clicking drew my focus to an arched door across the room. Constellations were carved along the frame and split when the door opened. I scrambled around to the opposite side of the bed, desperate for a blade, a shard of wood, anything to defend myself.

I’d expected Larsson’s face in the dim light. Instead, I met the brilliant gaze of a woman I didn’t recognize. Hair the color of silver twilight flowed down her slender spine. Her ears were sharply pointed and pierced in dainty gold chains. But it was her eyes that stunned me. Bright as a bursting star, so blue they nearly glowed.

Her full, darkly painted lips twitched. “You’re awake. I didn’t trust the sea witch to actually tend to you, so I took the liberty of supplying a few healing herbs myself.”

“You work with Fione,” I gritted out through my teeth, still searching for something jagged to break the skin on this woman.

The day Larsson took me, porcelain features had met me on the boat. The sea witch, she’d been part of this. To what end, to what depth, I didn’t know. If Erik slaughtered Larsson, those darker edges of my heart yearned to be the one to spill her blood.

“I work for no one.” The woman entered the room like a gentle dance. She was delicate in her hands and features, but her body seemed sturdy enough to lift a blade for a few kills. “Truth be told, I find the sea witch rather dull. Perhaps a little odious.”

My brow arched. “Who are you?”

The woman drifted to one of the windows and spread the thin, iridescent drapes aside, revealing a crisp black night. She inhaled, filling her lungs, then let out her breath with a whimsical sigh before she faced me again. “I am more like you than you know.”

She took a step closer; I took a step away. “Larsson took you?”

“Oh, no. Not exactly.” Silver rings adorned each of her fingers, catching the candlelight when she waved them about. “This is my home. Though I do not particularly care for some of the houseguests.” She was oddly calm, yet a flicker of annoyance sparked behind the blue of her eyes.

“Where am I?”

“The palace of Natthaven.”

“That explains nothing.”

“I’m not certain it matters to explain everything.” She laced her fingers together and came closer, stopping in the center of the room. “My ambition is to see that you are not harmed. I’ve had little choice in many things, but I will not stand for needless battering.”

I sneered. “You speak as though I should be grateful to you. I am not. Larsson Bonekeeper seeks to harm the Ever King, the man I love, and steal his crown. If you stand with such a fiend, you are no friend to me.”

“If he is a firstborn heir, is it truly stealing a crown if it is his right?”

“Erik Bloodsinger would have welcomed a brother,” I said, a break in my voice. “If you and Larsson think any of this was necessary, you do not know your king.”

The woman scoffed. “The sea king is no king of mine.”

“Good. I will be certain to list you amongst the traitors.”

Her lips spread, flashing white teeth. Not a cruel smile, almost like I’d said something amusing. “No, he is not my king. I am not a sea fae.”

I took in her features. She looked fae enough, but she had no sharpened teeth, no sea toughened skin. “Well, I am a royal of the earth fae. No matter what side you stand on, you have betrayed someone by working with Bonekeeper.”

“Unless I am not fae.” Again, she looked around, scanning the room. “I told you, this palace is my home. I’m honored to meet another princess.”

“Queen,” I spat. “I am a queen.” For a moment, I held steady, fists clenched, but slowly, I released the bitter air in my lungs. “If you are not fae, then—”

“You would call us elven,” she interrupted. “But specifically, I hail from the Dokkalfar clan, shadow elven.”

I blinked. “Elven?”

Dokkalfar. Elves. How many nights had my mother, father, my grandparents, read tales of the gods’ chosen folk?

The ancestors of the fae.

“Wars and disputes between other lands thousands of turns ago saw to it elven clans settled into their own distant corners to live peacefully.” The woman smiled and sat on the edge of the bed. “But we’ve always been here. Closer to sea fae than your folk, since we, too, live on isles in dark seas. Then again, your people are the youngest of cultures. You would know the least about elven lore.”

I adjusted on the other side of the bed, crossing one ankle under my leg, and faced her. The beat of my pulse quickened. Was she dangerous? Would she lash out? I licked my lips, dry as hot sand, and spoke carefully. “If you are a princess of elven, why do you align yourself with Larsson Bonekeeper?”

The woman couldn’t have been any older than me, but there was a heaviness in her eyes, as though life had not always been kind.

“Are your wounds healed?” The elven gathered her gown, crept over the mattress, and settled beside me, inspecting a few bruises on my neck.

I pulled away. “I’m fine. You’re avoiding my question.”

The façade of indifferent strength cracked over her features. With a heavy sigh, she stared at her hands, rolling one of her rings around a center finger. “Would you believe me if I told you I do not relish the thought of your suffering?”

“Seeing how I’m trapped here against my will and you are making no moves to release me, no. I would not.”

A burn of emotion tangled the glowing blue with the silver in her eyes. “I was not necessarily given much of a choice but to align myself with those who’ve risen against you.”

“You’re a prisoner here?”

“I am not bound, but there are reasons I cannot stop a raid against your king or your kingdom.” Words sliced over her lips like barbs. “It has been long in the making, well-planned, and arrangements have been made to see it done. But.” She swallowed. “I will see to it you are not harmed. They simply need you kept away from the sea king for now.”

“And I will never cease fighting to return to him.”

Her face fell. “Come with me, fae. I’d like to introduce you to Natthaven. Perhaps, I might explain a little more.”

The woman strode back toward the door. Another pause once she reached the latch. “I wonder if perhaps we might find a way to help each other.”

“I don’t trust you.” There was little point in avoiding the truth. She could very well be leading me into a trap, to death, to Larsson’s need for blood.

“I know.” She opened the door and gestured for me to follow. “But you will be planning your escape, with or without me. If you are to even have a chance, you’ll need to understand where you are and what stands against you.”

“You . . . you’re helping me escape?”

“Not at all.” She grinned over her shoulder. “I’m providing information, fae. What you do with it will be entirely up to you.”


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