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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 21

THE SERPENT

Whorls of bubbles popped around me as, one by one, those following the Ever King sank into the tides. I swam for the dark hull of the Fire Storm, dead ahead.

Soon, if Celine and Stormbringer did their duty, they’d pull back the storm, just enough to reveal the crimson sails, enough to set the pulses of the House of Blades racing.

I dug and kicked through the current, at ease, at home. Tait pulled ahead and touched a palm to the hull first. Jonas, Sander, the warriors in our wake, were a breath behind. To see underwater was hardly a feat for sea fae. Perhaps vision was a bit distorted, but it never ached, never burned. Tait gave a nod, his signal he’d keep on my flank.

Arms out, palms open, I hummed, calling the sea to lift us up. The roll of the currents answered their king, and the water line gently rose, up and up, until I surfaced and could hook an arm over the rail.

Under the cloak of night, we crept onto the deck with predatory precision.

Damp pieces of hair slid from my headscarf, cascading water over my curled lips, the knife between my teeth. Hesh’s crew shuffled about. Tunes of the sea flowed over the deck. Blades were stacked, some sharpened, others unpolished and tarnished in old blood.

I ducked behind a barrel, seated back-to-back with Tait, and took the knife from my mouth, the cutlass from its sheath. The twins slunk around coils of rigging. Like a dark wave, the others spilled over the rail.

Tension crackled in the air. No signal, no word, I abandoned the barrel and stepped into the cracked skeins of moonlight. In a fluid motion the edge of my knife swiped over a burly sod nursing a flacon of sour rum. The man crumbled with a wet grunt and drowned in his own blood.

One by one, our blades met flesh of the unsuspecting, a phantom dance of gore. Sander covered a mouth, Jonas slit the liver. Tait kept low, gutting men with his violent way of twisting his daggers. I preferred slicing once, muting their cries, then watching their eyes go wide with recognition of their king before I filled their necks with my steel.

Our steps carved in the blood across the deck. From the shoreline, a glimmer of rolling mist drifted nearer to the township. The princess, illusionist that she was, seemed to be proving quite useful indeed.

“Dammit.” Gavyn hissed when he rammed his knife in the chest of a sleeping man with a dark, patchy beard, only to realize the lump of cloaks next to his corpse shifted.

A brute, thick as stone, woke. With a wash of horror on his face he took in his bloodied companion.

It was enough time for the man to send out a whistle, shrill and deafening, before he slumped over, a knife rammed through his ear in a desperate strike.

But the warning had been given, and Hesh’s crew took to the fight.

Steel glided free of leather. Shouts for our heads rattled the laths. Somewhere near the bow, a burst of fire sparked in the night, a flare, a warning to the fort on the House of Blades.

On cue, bells rang across Hesh’s stone walls, shouts of his guards rolled over the beach.

Do your part, Earth Bender.

I slammed my sword into the soft belly of a man who rushed me, his cutlass foolishly raised overhead, allowing me a perfect place to strike. Another blade found me. I parried, kicked his knee. He was dead by the time I moved on to the next sod.

Jonas and Sander kept close to each other. Eyes black, the twin princes danced around a cluster of sobbing men, pleading for the horrors to cease.

Whatever they’d implanted in their heads was rotting them from the inside. With direct strikes, both princes put them out of their misery, then moved on to the next.

Tait was surrounded by five men, but a grin split over his face. Before the first could strike, Gavyn appeared from the damp on the deck. He stabbed his dagger into the side of a throat, then faded into the water again. Tait stepped in, killing one stunned fool, only to have Gavyn appear again and slaughter the next.

A man swung a wooden club at me. I twisted under his arm, the rod whistling close to my face. When I righted again, I swiped my cutlass against his middle, watching him fall at my back. Within the moment of respite, I unsheathed my knife, and gripped the blade, squeezing blood between my curled fingers.

Two men challenged me. Knife tossed, hand bloodied, I met their strikes. When blades crossed, I covered my opponent’s mouth with my wet palm.

One after the other, they dropped, coughing, spluttering, black veins coating their necks.

My limp grew more pronounced. I didn’t stop.

Five paces ahead was the captain’s chamber. Three men stood guard, but there was a glint of fear in their eyes. The center guard, he would break first.

The bastard raised a trembling hand, voice rough as he said, “M-My King, we did—”

I never learned what they did. I cut him down before he could utter another sound. To the man at the right, I covered his mouth and nose with my palm, pinning him to the door of Hesh’s chambers as his body succumbed to my poison.

To the man on the left, I snarled. “Open this door, or you meet the gods, followed by your mate, your mistress, and any of your little bastards. I will not stop until your blood is wiped from the Ever.”

He blinked, took a breath to scan the chaos on deck, the bodies heaped over rails and ropes. His fingers shuddered as he jabbed a brass key through the hole.

I kicked the door open, ignoring the white-hot shock that rolled up my thigh. “Hello, Hesh. Were you not expecting me?”

Lord Hesh rose off his cot, half-naked. A woman tucked her bare breasts beneath the quilts, whimpering.

“Bloodsinger.” Hesh spoke as though simply irritated I’d interrupted.

“Ah, am I no longer your king?”

He scoffed, taking up his cutlass from the table in the center of the room. “Boy, you know the answer to that, or you would not be here. Alas, you have wasted your time.”

“Killing you will never be a waste of time.”

“Kill me, and you will never find her. Leave me alive, and I will never guide you to her. It is better for you to forfeit your crown, spare us all a bit of bloodshed and embarrassment.”

Gods, the way I would make him scream. I could practically taste his cries on my tongue. “I think it would be in our best interest, at least for your house, if you revealed this key you have to the isle where he is keeping her.”

Hesh’s brow arched. “So, you’ve learned a few things.”

“More than you know.” I spun my blade in my grip, stepping to the left when Hesh mimicked my motion. We circled each other, two beasts looking for the weakest place to strike.

Despise me as he did, my uncle had insisted I learn the blade with more skill than I knew to walk. I yanked the dagger strapped to my lower back free of its sheath and threw it across the chamber.

Hesh roared, one hand on the hilt protruding from his hip. Strategic. I did not want the bastard dead. Not yet. He made a desperate swipe of his blade. I blocked with the edge of my cutlass and twisted his grip free of his sword.

“You were the best choice my father had for the blade lord?” I let out a derisive sigh. “What a disappointment.”

The woman in his bed screamed when I fisted a handful of Hesh’s thick, sun-lightened hair and dragged his bleeding ass onto the deck.

“Drop your blades,” I shouted over the din. “Or you watch your lord meet the hells, then you next.”

Bound by blood, what was left of the Fire Storm crew hesitated. Blades dropped in heavy thuds. The men tortured by Jonas and Sander sobbed as the two princes lightened their eyes to moss green. Tait ignored my halt, slit the throat of the man he’d pinned, then returned a smug sort of grin in my direction.

Gavyn crouched in front of Lord Hesh, teeth bared. “I know everything you have done, traitor. I’ve found her. Freed her from that room.”

Hesh’s eyes went wide. “Not possible.”

“Perhaps you should not have tossed your lot in with an imposter king.” Gavyn patted Hesh’s cheek with condescension, then rose.

“You say you found her, yet you are here without her.” Hesh chortled but winced when the blade still lodged in his hip shifted. “Discovered there is no escaping that place for the little earth fae, did you?”

I slammed the hilt of my dagger against his head. “Speaking of earth fae, they heard rumor that you had some grand delusion you would claim their realms. I think you’ll find they have no plans to let you.”

Before he could shirk me away, I ripped the dagger from his hip and pinned his back to the deck. One knee on the blade lord’s chest, I forced his arm to stretch out, then rammed the point of my blade through his wrist until the tip dug through bone and flesh into the deck of the ship.

Hesh cried out his anguish.

I propped one boot on the hilt of the dagger. Hesh squirmed and hissed his pain. “Better for you to admit your defeat and spare everyone a bit of blood and embarrassment.”

“Go to the hells, Bloodsinger.”

I shrugged and pulled the dagger out of his wrist. “I wonder what the people of your house will think knowing you brought this upon their heads.”

Tait and Celine helped hoist Hesh up against the rail of his ship, facing him toward his own shores.

Behind me, one of my men whooped into the night. It didn’t take long, mere moments, before an ember spear boomed, blasting a cinder stone at the shoreline of the House of Blades.

“Hardly frightening, I know,” I muttered close to Hesh’s ear in a low snarl. “Don’t worry. That was only the signal.”

Along the shoreline, the night shimmered. It faded like sea mist and revealed the truth hidden behind Mira’s illusion. The Ever Crew battled the guards at the gates and forced frightened folk in their night clothes to the shoreline.

“Watch that man.” I pointed to the place where a figure knelt on the ground.

On the ship, I could not feel the force of what was happening, but the screams were a sweet clue. Walls shuddered. Soil fractured. Great pots of molten stone the House of Blades drew from their fiery pools in their cliffs spilled over the gates, swallowing some of Hesh’s patrols in a blaze.

I watched, dark delight alive in my chest, as the ground quaked and groaned. My gaze drifted to the peak directly behind Hesh’s fortress. Smoke billowed from the vent at the top. A fire mountain. The longer the earth bender commanded the soil of the Ever to give, the more that mountain spluttered out bursts of ash and cinders.

Flames caught hold of sod roofs. Folk ran, their littles smashed to their bodies, desperate to escape the rainstorm of fire from their own hills.

I did not revel in the screams of children, but my crew was there to shuffle the innocent toward our skiffs in the surf. Sewell led the gathering, Aleksi at his side, shouting for littles and women.

Valen’s fury unleashed the fire beneath the soil of the House of Blades. If Hesh remained a stubborn ass, he’d watch his small part of the kingdom fall to the sea. The blade lord gaped at the chaos in a bit of horror.

“By now, I’m certain you realize,” I whispered, gripping the back of his throat. “The earth bender king did not take too kindly to your threats against his people.”

“My King, please!” The woman from Hesh’s chamber, wrapped in a quilt, sprinted across the deck. “Please, stop this. I beg of you.”

She fell to her knees, gripping my legs, tears in her eyes.

“Not me you ought to beg, lady. Your lord would watch it all burn to keep his secrets.”

Her glassy eyes drifted to Hesh. A flush burned through her cheeks, and her tears dried. “My King, please, my wee one remains on land. I-I-I’ve no one to reach her. She’s alone, she’s innocent.”

Godsdammit, Hesh. “And my queen is lost to me. Seems we both have trials, lady.”

The woman’s jaw set with such force it was as though her bones were trying to reposition teeth that had gotten loose. “His lordship speaks a great deal when he beds a woman, likes to spout off his feats and such. Tis the only way he gets off, talking about himself, I’m afraid.”

Laughter rippled across the deck from those who’d come with us.

“Shut your mouth or lose your tongue, Evanlee,” Hesh gritted.

“Oh.” I struck his head again with my fist. “Who will be taking it? You? I doubt that. What do you know, woman?”

She blew out a breath and slowly rose to her feet. “He said only he could find the hidden place where a new king is building his forces. A place on the edges of the Dark Isles.”

The fragile, stony exterior keeping me from sinking the whole of the house into the sea was cracking. “The Dark Isles. He’s been in the Dark Isles all this time.”

Mere lengths from the royal city. Mere lengths from the Tower. I’d sailed around my songbird without even knowing.

“If it be true, dark curses live in this hidden land,” Evanlee whispered. “No one else leaves without losing their way back, he tells me. Only he knows the way. ‘Tis marked within him. It calls to the curse of that gods-wretched soil.”

“Within him?”

“On his bones, My Lord.” She nodded frantically, ignoring Hesh’s curses and threats. “‘Tis over his heart. Told me himself, showed me the burn of the spell.”

You’ll find me in the heart.

I pinched the woman’s chin. “Thank you, lady. You and your child will find refuge in the royal city.”

Her breath quivered. She pressed a kiss to my fingers for a mere moment before I tossed Hesh backward. There was no telling how delicate this spell might be. I would not risk a wrong move. Not when we were this close.

I cupped the back of Gavyn’s neck. “I need you to go to the shore.”

“For what?”

“Bring me Fleshripper.”

“Erik, no.”

“Do it, Gavyn. Or do your own fears outweigh her life?”

Unfair of me, no mistake, and Gavyn would likely resent me for putting such an impossible choice atop his shoulders. I cared little.

He said nothing before dropping over the rail, part of the tides.


The House of Blades burned in the distance. A few sloops and row boats were skittering across the sea toward the House of Kings with the displaced, Evanlee and her daughter included. The rest would be left on their scorched lands to await their king’s return with a new lord of their house.

They would be waiting for some time.

Hesh still breathed, but he would not the moment his usefulness was spent.

We’d returned to the Ever Ship after sending the Fire Storm to the deepest ravines in the sea.

A few paces away, Valen drank an herb tea brewed by Skulleater to aid in replenishing the fury in his blood. The way he’d broken the earth enough to spout fire from their cliffs had brought a great deal of fatigue to Livia’s father. Still, he eyed Hesh over the tip of his mug with a bloodlust that bordered on madness.

Gavyn and Celine stood near Sewell like twin shields, both flinched when I approached. Celine pleaded under her breath. I ignored them.

“Sewell. Gavyn told you I have need of Fleshripper.”

Sewell shifted on his feet. “That was his whisper.”

I gripped his shoulder, voice low. “I know what I ask is a risk.”

The soft, kindhearted expression shifted to the man I’d known as a small boy—the bold lord who’d defended his kingdom, who’d sailed the most vicious of seas. “For our fox, little eel?”

I clapped his shoulder. “For our fox.”

Sewell approached Lord Hesh. Spoken words muddled on his tongue at times, but Harald’s torture had never dampened Sewell’s sea voice.

“Erik, if this gets him killed . . .” Gavyn didn’t finish his threat. He didn’t need to. This would expose Sewell. No one had the voice of the former bone lord, and for his sacrifice, I would spend the rest of my living days ensuring he was unharmed.

Folk who’d believed as Thorvald, those who would still see Sewell as a traitor, were dying off, either through war or assassination by a young lord. But it was time to let Sewell Fleshripper, at last, be free. He’d committed no sin in my eyes for loving his mate, nor had his children.

Sewell crouched in front of Hesh, grinning. “See me?”

Hesh squinted, searching Sewell’s face he kept hidden under brims and a wild beard and new scars.

After a moment, Hesh paled. “You’re alive.”

With a deep laugh, Sewell shoved Hesh flat onto the deck and straddled his hips. Injured and weakened, Hesh still tried to scramble away until an axe with a black blade sliced into his shin. The blade lord shrieked in agony.

“You took my girl.” Valen stared down at Hesh.

“No . . . I did not, earth king. Bonekeeper—”

“Yes, I’ve heard that name a great deal. Seems you aided the son of a bitch. Might as well have grabbed her yourself.” Valen backed away, trembling, and rolled his second axe in his grip. “If you do not want the other, you’ll stay put.”

Sewell flatted his palm over Hesh’s chest and hummed, soft and haunting. Much like a thin piece of parchment catching flame, Hesh’s bloodied skin over his heart burned and ebbed into ash until bone remained.

The blade lord’s eyes rolled back into his head. Murmurs lifted amongst the crew as they watched Sewell work. Fleshripper, a great value once to King Thorvald, was a man who could peel flesh from the bones while a soul still lived.

Harald always bemoaned what a pity it was to kill Fleshripper since he’d admired Sewell’s exquisite knack of torturing to get answers, to threaten, to keep folk trembling beneath the feet of the nobles of the Ever.

Layers of skin peeled away over Hesh’s body, but under Sewell’s touch, the edges scorched and cauterized, burning back the blood.

Gavyn told me King Thorvald had used Sewell many a time to leave gaping wounds on enemies—decidedly painful, yet they never bled out, simply lived for weeks, months, with monstrous, weeping holes in their bodies.

A few retching sounds came from the back of the ship. Jonas lowered to his knees, followed by Alek, as though the two princes were wholly fascinated.

Sewell’s voice cut off once Hesh’s chest was flayed, open and exposed. His bloody breastbone revealed. There, burned into the bone, was a symbol surrounded by small script written in a language I did not know.

I’d drag out any damn scholar, any witch, any sea fae who understood old words before the night’s end. I would find her tonight.


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