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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 3

THE SERPENT

Nose to nose, a flash of hateful red flooded the earth bender’s eyes. I recalled what Livia told me once—her father had succumbed to a curse of bloodlust in earlier days. She’d made it seem as though he was free of it; looking at him now, I wasn’t so certain.

Valen was going to strangle me before I could utter a word.

Wise of him; he knew what my blood could do. No doubt this way was preferable so he could watch the light leave my damn eyes.

Valen gave more weight to his axe; my lips curled against the anguish of the handle. “After everything, boy, taking my daughter was your greatest mistake. To know you harmed my son and my nephew as well, will send you to the Otherworld in mere shards of bone!”

I tried to shake my head. Black spots, like flecks of night mist, spilled into the corners of my eyes from the pressure. Somehow, I managed to lift my hand and grip his wrist, desperate to shove him back. Valen drew closer, his body trembling from rage, from anguish, from fear.

“No,” I gritted out. It wasn’t enough, but I could not gather breath to speak anything else.

“Valen, he can’t die.” A slender hand curled around his arm. Hells, Livia’s mother. She tugged on her husband’s arm, pale eyes on me, fierce as jagged ice. “Not yet.”

“He can, and he will.”

The queen stepped between me and her king. “We do not find her if he is dead.”

Another heartbeat, two, then the earth bender slowly retreated. His body stiffened, taut and hard, as though each step taking him from me caused hot agony to rage through his limbs.

When, at last, the handle of his axe fell away, my body gave out. I landed on my knees, gasping, the tang of hot blood on my tongue. Bile curdled in the back of my throat. Gods, I was going to vomit on his damn boots.

I drew swift breaths through my nose until the rancid mix of blood and acid soothed. With the back of my hand, I swiped my mouth. A red streak was left behind. More than one earth fae let out a gasp and stepped back.

Even the king and queen gave me more space.

They feared my blood. I blinked and wiped my hand on my trousers. My leg burned as though the bones had turned to liquid fire when I sat back on my heels. To stand would level me as a threat. It would place me as a foe, an equal.

For Livia, I’d remain on my damn knees in the hall of my enemies for as long as it took. Wherever my father was in the Otherworld, I had no doubt he was boiling in shame.

Thorvald could kiss my ass.

“I didn’t harm them.” The words came out in a low rasp, hardly distinguishable over the heavy draw of breath.

The earth bender tilted his head to one side, a wild, feral sort of look on his face. He lowered to one knee and used the curved blade of his axe to tilt my chin. “Give them back to me, Bloodsinger, and I will end you swiftly. Each moment you postpone, I add another day to your torture. You think your blood frightens me?” He leaned close, voice low. “You have forced me to face my greatest fear already. Nothing about you frightens me.”

When he tore the axe away, it sliced my skin. True to his word, the king didn’t flinch at the sight of my blood dripping onto the floorboards. The only hint he gave that my blood was unsettling at all was the way he held out an arm, shielding the queen from getting too close.

“I didn’t harm her,” seemed to be the only words I could scrape out.

“Then return her, Ever King,” the queen said, her face hard and lovely as polished marble.

Over the shoulder of Livia’s mother, I caught the dark gaze of a broad fae with similar brown skin to the earth bender and the same midnight hair.

I would never forget the face of Aleksi’s father, the one who’d threatened me over the body of his consort, not believing I’d agreed to heal his dying lover.

Now Alek’s father looked at me with a conflicted sort of hatred. I’d saved his mate, yet in his eyes, I’d also robbed him of his son.

“Don’t look to my brother. He won’t stand for you anymore.” Valen leaned in close again. “You destroyed any debt for what happened during the war by taking our children.”

“I do not come for battle, King. I—”

“If you’ve come to barter a ransom, you will not find it,” he snapped. “You will give me my daughter, then I will take your head.”

Valen shoved my chest, knocking me onto my back. In the next breath, he reared over me, one knee pressed against my heart.

Shouts rose in the hall. Angry, sharp.

I coughed against the weight of the king. I could practically see the rational thought leave his mind as a dark kind of madness took hold, a sort of wild expression where he likely planned how to reopen every scar and pluck every bone from my body until I was nothing but flesh and gore.

“Uncle Valen, stop!”

Valen, still pressing me into the floor, held a blade half raised over my skull. My eyes opened, but I did not dare breathe, certain any movement would draw out the call for blood in the king’s eyes again.

“Don’t kill him!”

All gods. Aleksi.

The prince shoved through the crowd, a small unit of warriors at his back, two of whom had a hold on Tait.

A strange bit of relief bloomed through my chest at the sight of my cousin’s dirt-smudged face. Tait tilted his head as if silently inquiring on the damage done to me.

I was alive. That was the best we could hope for in the moment.

“Alek!” The prince’s father shoved through the crowd.

From my angle on the floor, I could make out Jonas and his brother. The prince, who moments ago had been ferocious and filled with venom, dropped his chin, hiding his face. He closed his eyes, and if I had to guess, the man felt a great deal.

He simply did not want anyone else to see it.

I lifted my head just enough to watch Alek’s long arms embrace his father fiercely. He clapped his back.

“You’re alive,” his father pulled him away, hands holding his son’s face.

“I’m alive.” The prince offered a wet grin. “Where’s Daj?”

“In the North, guarding the borders with your grandparents. There . . . there’s been chaos across the realms since you were lost.”

Alek’s brow furrowed. My insides tightened. It explained why the fort was less guarded than I’d expected. Warriors and royals seemed to be scattered. Why? What had happened here?

Aleksi stepped around his father. His face was painted with dirt, sweat, and hair that stuck to his stubbled jaw. He glanced at me on the ground, then faced the room.

“Have the Rave grown so desperate they lose all sense?” Alek’s voice rose, fierce and rough. He strode to Jonas. The other prince blinked until Alek cupped the back of his head and drew his forehead to his own. “Use your head, my friend.”

“I thought you were gone,” Jonas whispered; a simple, breathless declaration.

Alek clapped the side of Jonas’s neck, then clasped arms with his brother, and embraced the woman between them. She clung to Aleksi, saying nothing, but her slender shoulders shook with silent tears.

To get a glimpse at their anguish settled in my chest like heavy stones stacked atop one another. Bitterness, vengeance, a singular focus in my own dark mind had uprooted friends, family. It had left them to imagine the dreariest of things until their unified warriors acted first before strategy.

Alek turned toward his uncle. “Ask yourself, why would Bloodsinger come to our shores without a full crew after what he did? Don’t kill him, Uncle. It would be the worst mistake you could make in this moment.”

Valen rose, eyes wide as though he were still locked in a bit of stun. “I saw you get dragged under. How did you survive the Chasm?”

“Because of him.” He gestured in my direction. Alek cleared his throat, raising his voice again. “The Chasm tore me to pieces. I would not have survived if Erik Bloodsinger had not saved me. The way he saved my father.”

“Aleksi.” Alek’s other father gripped his arm. “You know?”

“I’ve always known,” Alek said, then faced the hall again. “Be the warriors I admire and use your damn heads. He is not here for blood and does not deserve to have his spilled. After seeing the Ever Kingdom, I learned swiftly that despite the pain of that night, the sea fae came for a reason.”

“You think I give a damn about his reasons? Where is she?” Valen Ferus was losing his grip on patience with each heartbeat.

Aleksi dropped his chin. “Livia was . . . she was well in the Ever. I saw her, spoke with her. But the Ever is under attack and . . . their enemies have taken her.”

I’d barely staggered back to my feet before Valen Ferus wheeled on me again. “You lost my daughter?”

If he hesitated to kill me before, he looked wholly prepared to do it now.

“It was a betrayal none of us saw,” Aleksi said. One of his mud-caked hands pressed against Valen’s chest. “Livia was betrayed by a friend of us all.”

No one spoke for a breath, then another, until Valen let out a deep, wretched shout of anger. He let an axe fly. The blade dug into the wooden slats of the back wall.

“I want him out of my sight!”

The king raged, but the queen approached with a chilling silence, as though she were made of ice. Livia’s mother drank me in with unwavering scrutiny. She, perhaps, was more frightening than the king. If I had to guess, I would not be surprised if Livia’s mother knew how to kill without her victim even knowing they were wounded.

“Take the Ever King away while we hear our prince’s tale.” The queen leaned close, voice rough. “Then we’ll decide his fate.”

It happened swiftly. Fae guards took hold of my arms, then more surrounded Tait, dragging both of us toward a side door.

“No.” For the first time, I resisted. A bit of panicked madness dug into my brain. “There is no time for this! I must lead you through the Chasm. Do not waste time due to hatred of me. She will pay for it!”

The king and queen wouldn’t look at me, like I’d become nothing more than a haunt in the room.

Cruel, burning panic tugged at my throat. How long would the earth fae leave me in a cell while Livia was tortured, battered, or worse, beneath Larsson’s search for power?

Guards yanked me toward the corridor.

Aleksi frantically spoke to his uncle, his father, to his aunt, to anyone. They muttered something I could not hear, and he groaned, shaking his head.

A frenzy of horrid possibilities took hold of my mind. By the time they dragged me into the doorway, sweat coated my brow, and my leg ached from thrashing.

“Gods, don’t do this.” I managed to slip my arm free of one of the guards and gripped the frame of the door. “King, please.” My voice cracked; I hardly knew what I was saying. “She needs me to find her; she . . . she needs me to remind her to breathe.”

For a moment, I thought Valen jolted at my words. Livia’s mother peered over his shoulder. A bit of wet glass coated her pale eyes.

The queen’s tears were the last thing I saw before the door slammed in my face, and I was tossed out of the great hall.


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