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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 29

THE SONGBIRD

I woke alone.

Panic, so sharp it was almost painful, carved through my chest. My palm swatted over Erik’s side of the bed. Still warm, but quickly cooling.

“Erik?” I snapped upright, blood rushing to my head until it pounded between my ears. Dark, satin shades were drawn over the windows, dimming the room, but through the cracks, a glare of sunlight sliced through, deeper than the dawn.

The washroom door connected the sitting chamber to our bedroom, but it was empty save for our discarded clothes that still littered the floor. I pressed the heel of my hand over my heart, the skin still sore from the lost heartbond.

“Erik.”

Gods, I felt much like a fool, crumbling in such a way. I was neither warrior nor queenlike. Cruel, unrelenting thoughts that tricked my mind slithered between my rationale, desperate to convince me it had all been a beautiful illusion, some game, and in truth my serpent was still lost to me.

The tips of my fingers traced the marks on my throat, marks left behind by Erik Bloodsinger’s wicked mouth.

Breathe. Focus. I blinked; tears fell off my lashes. I swiped them away, on the brink of spilling over the ledge of sobs, of panic.

The door leading to the sitting chamber opened. Erik, naked from the waist up, carried a tray of steaming herb drinks and a few spongy cakes with pink sugared glaze. He kept his eyes homed on the delicate balance of the tray, unaware I’d become as a weeping stone in the center of our bed.

Gods, he was beautiful—strong and built to glide through the sea. His dark hair still tousled from my fingers.

His crimson gaze lifted, followed by a natural smile. “I’d planned to wake you my way, but . . .” Erik’s voice fell to the wayside. A furrow dug over his brow as he briskly set the tray on a chest of drawers against the wall. “Songbird? What is it?”

Mortification heated my cheeks, unrelenting. I forced a smile, shaking my head. “Nothing.”

Erik crept over the bed, a gentle hand pressed over my heart, nudging me backward onto the mattress. With his body, he made a cage over me. “Is this the moment we begin lying to each other? I thought we determined long ago there was little point in such things.”

“It’s foolish,” I whispered.

“Then I’m even more intrigued, for I’ve yet to hear a foolish thing from your mouth.”

I rubbed one side of his arm, tracing a cluster of scars near his wrist. “Just rogue thoughts trying to run away again.”

Erik settled behind me, his arm possessive around my waist, lips brushing my ear. “You are Livia Ferus.”

I hugged his arm tightly, like he’d become part of the messy quilts around my body, reveling in the low grit of his voice.

“Daughter of warriors,” he went on, pressing kisses behind my ear. “Defeater of traitors, biter of the Ever King—”

“I did not bite you.”

Erik cocked his head to one side, revealing bruises in the shape of teeth all along the ridge of his shoulder.

Lips pinched, I turned away. “I heard no complaints.”

Slow strokes of his fingers traced the tapered tip of my ear. “Never keep your fears from me, Songbird.”

“Just a moment of worry when you weren’t here that it had all been a dream. I knew it wasn’t plausible but fell into the storm of spiraling thoughts all the same.”

“I’m disappointed,” he said, gripping my chin, urging me to look at him again. “I’ve still heard nothing foolish from your mouth.”

“You coddle me too much, Erik Bloodsinger.” I pinched his hip bone.

“I do not even know how to coddle.” Erik tugged on my waist until I rolled onto my shoulder to face him. “What did I tell you, love? Fear is powerful. Every mind sees it differently, but it is my honor to walk with you through yours. No matter how illogical you think them to be. Would you not do the same?”

I sighed. “Of course, I would. You, Ever King, could do with a few more stumbles, so I can pick you up a bit more. You’re rather unbending. It makes others”—I pointed at myself— “quite surly when we cannot be so stalwart.”

He pecked my lips. “You know more than anyone, love, it is only a mask I wear.”

I stroked the stubbled edge of his jaw. “No masks with me, Serpent.”

“Aye.” He kissed me again, slower, more tender. “So long as you do the same.”

“Fine.” I let out an exaggerated sigh. “By the gods, you’re demanding.”

Erik settled his body over mine, grinning with the same viciousness I’d loved since those nights peering into his prison cell.

“I have ways to make more demands you might enjoy.” He kissed both swells of my breasts, then rolled off the bed. “Unfortunately, it will need to be later. Our faces are required in the hall.” He gathered the food tray and laid it on the bed. Erik splayed on his side beside it, propped on one elbow. “I’ve tried to threaten death to Alistair to leave us be, even vowed to rid him of his damn doublets, but I’m afraid he’s the king here.”

I snickered and popped a small cake on my tongue. A groan of pleasure curled my toes. Milky glaze coated my throat in a burst of sweet, followed by the plush little cake.

Erik watched, his own sweet halfway to his mouth. “Say the word, love, and I will have you making more sounds like that. It would need to be swift, but I can’t stomach that again without being inside you.”

I tossed a small currant seed at his forehead. “It’s been days without good food. Larsson was not accommodating to his pet.”

I lifted a cup to my lips, pausing when Erik’s face shadowed.

“Don’t call yourself that.” His jaw pulsed. “Gavyn told us things he did to you.”

Bile churned in the back of my throat. I rested a hand on his arm. “I am still yours, Erik.”

“Gods, Livia.” He sat up and dropped his feet to the floor, leaning onto his knees. “Did you think you wouldn’t be? Did you think I would see you as something less?”

“No. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Erik hesitated, then, “For every moment he had you, I’d already planned to make him suffer. But to know he had his hands on you, that he drew blood from you, there is not a realm—from the gods to your people—who will not hear his screams. They will become myths, the haunts of the seas.” Erik turned his head, offering me the side of his face, but he didn’t lift his gaze. “I am not a man most consider heartfelt, but you can always speak with me, love. If ever you wish to—or need to—talk about what was done to you—”

“To both of us,” I interjected. “This was done to the both of us.”

With care, I crept over the bed and slid my arms around his waist from behind. My cheek pressed to the warmth of his spine, and I kissed the spot between the wings of his shoulders.

Erik covered my hands on his stomach with one of his. “I may not be skilled at gentility, but I don’t want the violence I feel to keep you from speaking to me about anything. I will always hear you first, then rage later.”

What Erik was truly saying burned a new vein of affection for the Ever King in my heart. Painful as it was to hear, Erik was offering his shoulder, his arms. He was offering his safety should it be needed.

I traced one of his scars over his upper back. “What I feared most was never seeing you again. When . . . when Larsson saw to it the heartbond was taken, I thought I might never breathe again. In my darkest thoughts, I considered you might believe me to be dead, and cease the search.”

Slowly, Erik adjusted on the edge of the mattress, one leg bent on the bed, the other foot still flat on the floor. He cupped a palm over my cheek. “I would storm the gates of the Otherworld to find you, Songbird. When the emptiness came, I never considered ending the search. Never allowed the belief that you were gone to enter. To me, it did not matter. I would never stop.”

A new tear burned down my cheek. Erik swiped it away with his thumb. “That night when he touched me . . . I still feel his hands—” My voice cracked, and Erik pulled me against his chest, holding me like he was frozen around my body. Breath came in sharp gasps over his skin. “His touch was cruel and ugly and . . . I felt I would never rid my skin of the remnants of it.”

Gentle kisses pressed to the side of my head. “If my hands are ever too much—”

“No.” I wrapped my arms around his waist. “Your touch is what I crave.” My eyes clenched shut. “Here, beside you, is where I am at peace, Erik. Never cease touching me.”

The Ever King was silent, but tightened his hold on my body, as if mutely assuring me those arms would never release me.

“My upbringing was always controlled,” he said, slow and hesitant. “After the war, I was still controlled by the expectations of the nobles and the people of the Ever. I’ve grown accustomed to controlling the Ever Ship. Be it a raid or simply sailing to meets with the houses, we kept a measure of order. Since he took you, I’ve felt nothing but chaos. I do not know what it is like for a mortal to drown, but I hear it feels like their lungs are bursting. That was every moment you were gone, love. Only when you were in my arms again did I breathe.”

I kissed his lips, soft, slow. “I felt much the same.”

“Never, in all my bitter life, have I craved such violence,” Erik went on. “Not with my uncle, not to avenge my father. Only for you. I suspect that makes me a wretch, hardly suitable for a heart as good as yours, but that is the ugliness of my truth, love.”

For a long moment, the only sound in the room was that of our breaths.

“Serpent?”

“Songbird.”

“I would follow your darkness, every ugly truth, across the skies and seas.”


I held Erik’s arm tightly outside the double doors of the throne room. We’d dressed quickly, Erik in his glossy black, me in a new jade gown filigreed in sun-kissed threads, like beams of light over the glades of the palace gardens.

Maids had come to the room to braid my hair, but I’d pleaded for them to tend to Mira or Celine (who would likely curse me for it) all to spend a moment more, alone and peaceful, with the Ever King.

Loose waves hung down my back, and even Erik had rid his shoulders and waist of the thick leather belts and numerous blades he kept close.

We were not here to be magnanimous. Those beyond the doors would hardly care if we arrived in night clothes.

The doors opened to boisterous chatter, but the moment we crossed the threshold, all talk stilled. Seated at the far end of the long sea oak table were my father and Stieg. Daj wore ominous clothing, much like Erik. His dark hair was braided off his face, his chin smoother than before. He’d shed a dozen turns since stepping off the Ever Ship.

Stieg had wiped dried blood from his face, split his beard in two braids with silver beads adorning the ends, and a thick plait ridged down the center of his skull. All Rave, always.

Jonas and Sander wore tunics that favored the Ever, unlaced over their chests, with dark trousers. Were they spares of Erik’s? Perhaps they borrowed from Tait. In truth, there was a chance the twins robbed some poor steward on their way to whatever chamber in which they’d been placed.

Mira sat beside Celine. The moment she cast her eyes to me, she stood, ruffling the skirt of her gown, blue as the lagoons near the shore, notably pleased with the thinner fabrics and higher slits in sea fae dresses.

Aleksi had one leg draped over the arm of his chair, slouched as he dragged a whetstone against the curved blade of a knife. On the other side of my cousin sat Sewell, Gavyn, and Tait, awaiting their king.

Erik did not lead us to the smaller chairs. Instead, he guided me to the wooden throne that had been arranged at the head of the table.

“This is your place, Songbird,” he whispered.

I blinked, chest tight, then slowly sat in the new throne. My fingers traced the foxes, the vines. I bunched a bit of the gold satin draped over the back, testing it, memorizing the feel of it between my fingers.

Erik ignored his throne and stood beside me, a hand on my back, as though he couldn’t withdraw his touch just yet.

Down the table, I met midnight eyes. Daj drummed his fingers over the edge of the table, teeth grinding like he was mulling words around in his mouth.

Finally, he stilled his hand. “They call you queen, Livie.”

“Yes, Daj.”

His gaze bounced from me to Erik, then back again. “Did you take vows?”

“Well . . . no.”

“Then, I don’t understand.”

“The king’s word made it so,” Tait explained. “He gave her the title of queen in front of the court.”

“And that’s that?”

“To sit in the throne of the Ever King makes one an equal of the king,” Erik said. “She was placed on the throne. I bowed the knee. The title has never been known in the Ever. We do not have a custom for it.”

“Made one up as you went, Bloodsinger.” Jonas lifted a tin filled with the king’s mead, grinning. “I respect that sort of brazen initiative.”

“It was quite a spectacle,” Alek said, tapping a knife back and forth on the tabletop.

“Most accepted my word,” Erik went on, “but clearly there are folk who resist every word I speak.”

My father frowned, but it seemed the disquiet rose more from being tossed into a new culture than disappointment. After a pause, he slapped his palm on the table. “Well, if this is my daughter’s kingdom, then we are here to fight for it. I take it you have no plans to let this bastard simply disappear into the sea, Bloodsinger.”

Erik’s fist tightened by his leg. “Not until he’s nothing more than bone.”

“Then, we need to know how to lure him back out and finish this.” My father turned to me. “We need to know everything about this isle, Liv. No matter how troubling you think it will be for us to hear, tell us.”

Us. I knew Valen Ferus well enough to know he did not mean the room. He spoke of himself and the man at my side. Affection, warm and heady, swelled in my chest. In a small way, it was my father’s way of accepting House Ferus had grown by one more.

And he was right. There was no time to speak gently to spare emotions. Larsson and Fione had too much potential for power on Natthaven, and it needed to be quashed. I began from the moment I awoke in that chamber. Talk of Skadi drew out a great deal of intrigue (particularly from Sander), and Erik sent for Alistair to bring any writings on elven folk he could find within the palace walls.

By the time I finished my description of Larsson’s confessions about his lineage, the darkening being a mark of their bloodthirsty spells, then onto his attack, my father was pacing, and Erik’s eyes had grown dark with hate.

“I must stop you,” Gavyn said, holding up a hand. “You left out my favorite detail—she bit off his damn ear.”

Celine’s expression shifted from one of fear and pity to jubilation. “Of course, she did. She’s of the Ever!”

“Sharp bites, deep strikes, little fox,” Sewell said with a wink.

I regaled the escape; Gavyn added his own input on the guards, the weapons, and the layout of the palace at Natthaven.

“Fury kept me safe.” I slipped my fingers through Erik’s. “Until I saw you. Larsson and Fione took the heartbond to shatter whatever keeps him from the blood crown—spells I don’t understand—but something called to me. Something brought me to the shore. It was like my fury, or that isle, knew you were mine.”

The burn of red flashed in Erik’s eyes. “I told you, they took nothing, Songbird. I will simply need to say all the sultry things I’ve told you privately, not so privately now.”

“I would rather you didn’t,” Aleksi grumbled.

“My palace, Bloodsummoner.”

Strange, but my father’s face did not contort in rage or grimace in disdain to have a man speak such things about me. He even chuckled when Stieg leaned over and murmured under his breath.

“What, Daj?”

“Nothing, little love.”

Stieg’s eyes brightened. “I was reminding the king of the many times he and your mother cleared us from the room during such talks as these, all to be alone. I said I’m waiting for you to do the same and toss us out.”

My face boiled in a shock of embarrassment that matched the flush of my father’s face. It was only made worse when Erik said, “Gladly.”

I elbowed the king in the ribs. “Now that I’ve learned more about my mother and father than I would like to know, where do we go from here?”

The room sobered.

Erik reached beneath his throne, removing a sheath wrapped around a blade that looked like white gold. “I don’t know if you recall, but the woman, right before the shore broke away, she dropped this. Seemed to appear out of nothing.”

The escape from Natthaven had been a blurred moment in time, I’d not noticed Skadi gave up a weapon, but my chest tightened with affection for a woman I hardly had a chance to know. Lost to whatever spell had taken her, she still offered aid, still fought.

Sleek, strange runes were etched along the edges with a hilt made of pale crystal.

“She called it white iron,” Erik said.

My heart stuttered. “White iron? An elven blade. Erik, she told me there are dark spells that protect Fione. She said as long as the sea witch lives, Larsson lives.”

“That is truly dark,” Tavish said, voice low. “To manipulate death draws out the cruelest bits of the soul.”

I inspected the blade. “Fione cannot be killed by a normal blade, according to Skadi. She’s too corrupted. Elven made, she told me, white iron has the power to burn the heart through any spell.”

“She dropped this with intention. Is that what you think?”

“Why else?”

Erik paused for a drawn breath. “Then she left it for you. Keep it, love. I’ll see to it you get the chance to use it.” He looked to the table. “Larsson has claim on the blood crown by blood, and now, it would seem by touch. Should he take it, should he sit atop the throne, the same reasoning I used to make Livia queen could be used to make him king.”

“It is never enough when a king only desires power,” my father said. “We’ve fought our fair share of arrogant sods as this, Ever King. Make his greed his undoing.”

Erik held my father’s scrutiny for a long pause. “Larsson has this isle that is unknown to us, he has his witch, and the help of this fire elven.”

“Arion,” I said. “An elven prince who is doing this to claim his own throne in their culture. Still, he is a threat, and he wants Skadi. She has power he needs, and I feel as though I’m missing a great deal. There are secrets aplenty on that isle.”

“Like Bonekeeper’s damn voice. How’d we not know he had a sea voice?” Celine massaged her head over her brows.

“He’s been well shielded thanks to Fione.”

“Stealing magic.” Gavyn scrubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly a few times. “That is a risk. Think he could drink your blood and live, Erik?”

“We could always dose him and find out,” Sander said, and in truth, I thought it was less about a jest and more sincere. Like he wanted to see the outcome for the sake of curiosity.

“Thorvald couldn’t stomach my blood,” Erik said.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Celine said. “But the earth bender was swimming in your blood when he pulled you back and nothing happened.”

My father slumped in his chair, arms folded over his chest. “It’s not some great feat or anything. I knew not to put it in my damn mouth. I’ve seen what his blood can do, remember? A whole war was fought across from the young Ever King.”

“You risked it, though,” I whispered. “You were the one who stopped his song before it harmed him, Daj.”

My father swallowed. “He was fading. You were healed. No sense having him bleed out.”

Erik took a deep interest in the grain of the table, and others had gone quiet. It was more than my father made it to be. Feign indifference all he liked, but Valen Ferus had stopped the Ever King from losing too much blood because the earth bender cared about Erik and his ability to keep breathing.

For me or for the king himself, it didn’t matter. My father was no threat to Erik Bloodsinger. Not anymore.

Erik finally took his place in his throne, ropes of tension taut in his neck. “Bruised as he is, Larsson will be on high guard to protect what he has left. Still, I know him. He won’t want to be seen as defeated by the loss of Hesh and Livia.”

“Then we better ready the gates,” Tait said, voice low. He looked to Gavyn. “Every house. Larsson will come against Erik. He won’t give us much time to paint him as the lesser choice between two kings.”

Erik hesitated. “This does not need to impact the earth realms. Hesh has been stopped. Narza remains to protect your borders—”

“Wait, what?” I looked at him.

“I’ll explain later, love.” Erik turned to Stieg, then my father. “You came to aid in Livia’s rescue and have done so.”

Jonas groaned with vigor, interrupting the king. “Gods, don’t tell me this will be a speech about how we don’t need to risk our necks any longer and can return home to our comfortable little lives.”

Erik glared at the prince. Jonas glared back, shading his eyes to the inky pitch of the darkness he hid beneath his levity.

“What, Bloodsinger? You heard the Night Folk king. This is now the kingdom of one of our royals—Liv is family. You get us whether you bleeding want us or not. I’ll expect my own private chambers in your palace, mind you, once I become a decorated hero of the Ever.”

I squeezed Erik’s forearm. “Serpent.”

“Songbird?”

“You don’t need to hate alone,” I whispered. “Not anymore. We will hate him with you, at your side.”

Erik kissed the back of my hand. “Then, we ought to begin planning how to kill my brother.”

“First,” my father said. A pale shell was pinched between his fingers. “There is someone who has been waiting to speak to Livia for a great while now.”

“What is this?” I asked once my daj came to my side and dropped the shell in my palm.

“Hold it to your ear.”

One brow arched, I lifted the shell to my ear and drew in a sharp breath.

“Hello? Daj? I don’t hear you. Hey, sea witch, s’not working.”

“Rorik.” I covered my mouth with one palm. My wild, vibrant brother’s voice rolled through the shell, distant, quiet, a little muffled like Rorik spoke through one of his downy pillows, but there all the same.

“Livie?” Rorik sniffled, then released a torrent of frenzied words. “I’m sorry I didn’t rescue you, but you should know I did save Bloodsinger. I snuck into that room like a damn—I mean, like a Rave—and let him go. Jo and Alek said he was the only way to get you back, so I guess, I kinda rescued you. Livie, what’s it like in the Ever? Is it under the water all the time and are there big old fish with sharp teeth? What are merfolk like—”

“Ror.” I laughed, interrupting his trembling rambles. Tears stung my eyes. “You are the bravest Rave I know.”

My brother paused, his voice softer, like he might be speaking to someone in the distance. “Hey, Livie, the sea witch—” He softened his voice to a raspy whisper. “I keep forgettin’ her name. She is askin’ me where you are in the Ever.”

“We’re at the palace in the royal city.”

Rorik paused. “She says go to a lady named Oline’s cove. I don’t know what that means, but she says all of you should go and have Bloodsinger drop some blood in the water. I bet she’s gonna do a spell. Livie, she does wild spells. Turned Alva’s face blue for a whole clock toll when she stole my bleeding boots!”

I lowered the shell. “Ror says we should go to Oline’s cove. Where is that?”

Erik stiffened. “My mother’s refuge.” He lowered his voice. “Our cove, Songbird.”

My heart sped against my ribs. Our cove—the secluded spot where I’d told the Ever King he was mine. The night we’d split open our hearts to each other. The night Larsson’s assassins tried to rip us apart.

“Ror,” I said, voice soft. “Tell her we’ll be there soon.”


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