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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 30

THE SERPENT

The verdant water was undisturbed—a sheet of emeralds over white sand. The stillness and shade of the cove had been what my mother loved most. Sometimes when I stepped onto the narrow beach, I could hear her voice, distant memories of a small boy’s mind.

Can you imagine it, my love? This water is like looking into a new world, a place filled with marvelous adventures. That is what I like to imagine here—you and me, on a grand journey in a distant sea.

I’d spent many a night here, dreaming of those adventures after the war, alone and angry. These shores had always been a horrid reminder of what had been lost at my hands. Truth be told, I thought I might’ve come here to torture my own sanity, like a penance for being the cause of my mother’s death.

Then, a persistent, beautiful songbird had peeled back the final layers over a scorched heart, and turned this cove—from the wind-weathered stone walls to the alabaster sand—into a sanctuary. A new place of memories I’d hold close until my final breaths.

I held out a hand, guiding Livia over a lip on the old moss-soaked stairs that opened to the beach. Valen was nearest Celine and held out a hand on instinct.

Celine ogled the earth bender’s palm for half a breath before a smile cut over her lips. She lifted her chin like a damn lady of a noble house and accepted. “Many thanks, Earth Bender.”

Tait stood in front of Princess Mira. She narrowed her eyes, gathered her skirt, and stepped onto the shore on her own. “Don’t trouble yourself, Hearttalker. I can manage.”

“I had no intention of troubling myself,” Tait grumbled. “And it’s Heartwalker.”

I waded out into the water to my knees and dragged my thumb along the point of my tooth. Spells of witches often required blood. No doubt, Narza had a trick planned, so I did not waste time questioning and let a splatter of my blood drop into the glassy water.

A ring of foam shaped around the drops, frothing and building. I backed away. Livia took hold of my arm and peered over my shoulder, eyes wide. Water spun and bubbled, like a school of netted fish were drawing close to the surface. Soon, the water smoothed again but kept a faint glow within the ring.

Livia tightened her hold on my arm. “Are those . . . voices?”

From the water, voices echoed. Fingers laced, I urged Livia into the water and peered into the foam ring on the surface. A short, breathy cough broke from Livia, a sound caught between a sob and a laugh.

“Maj!”

There, in the ripples, was the fractured face of Queen Elise. The queen was positioned in a way that it looked like she were peering into a looking glass on the floor.

I gawked, taken back; I’d never seen such a spell. There were many ways to speak through the tides, through voice or a witch’s tricks, but to behold a face? The more I learned of my grandmother, the more I realized how little I knew of her.

No wonder why my father had a bit of fear of Lady Narza.

“Livia!” Elise’s voice was an echo on the wind—a sound in a dream. Still, it was clear enough. The queen reached her fingers. Her touch rippled the surface, breaking the image for a moment. When it steadied, the queen was beaming, eyes tight, and if the water were not so blurred, I was certain there would be tears on her cheeks. “My girl. You’re really there.”

Elise sobbed, and reached for Livia again, desperate to touch her. She halted before breaking the watery image again.

Livia knelt in the shallows, voice soft. “I’ve missed you.”

Elise sniffed. “I have missed you every moment of every day. Tell me you’re unharmed. Tell me you’re safe.”

“I’m safe.” Livia peered up at me, grinning. “I’m as safe as I can possibly be, Maj.”

Elise grunted when Rorik shoved in front of her.

“Livie,” the boy said, breathless. “Bleeding hells—I mean, wow—I can see you. Is Bloodsinger there? I want to show him how I can throw the knife he left with me. Oh, and Daj. I wanna see Daj too.”

Elise mussed her son’s hair and asked, too, for Valen. A little aghast, the earth bender and Stieg joined Livia at the rim of the spectral.

Elise let out a wet laugh at the sight of her husband, but a fierce battle ensued between Prince Rorik and his mother on who earned the privilege to speak first. In the end, Valen settled to watch his son throw a knife, never letting on that he couldn’t actually see where the blade landed outside the spell cast on the water.

“You won’t be returning this moment as I wish, will you?” Elise asked, softer than before.

“Not yet, my love. There are a few battles left to fight here.” Valen’s face, whenever he spoke to his queen, was hardly the enemy I’d always imagined from my memories. He looked upon his wife the way I hoped I looked at his daughter—soft, almost in awe of her with every glance.

Valen and Stieg briefly explained Larsson’s plans, his threat against the Ever, against Livia. He was not short on the risks; the earth bender did not shield his wife from the dreary, he treated her as his equal on a battlefield. A warrior queen.

“You’ve not killed the Ever King yet?” A hidden laugh lived in Elise’s tone.

“Maj,” Livia complained and took my hand.

Valen cast me a glance over his shoulder. “I haven’t. Strange, but the sea king almost grows on you.”

I looked away, rather inclined to storm back into the palace to avoid another half-compliment. Alas, I was compelled to stay when Livia began tearfully speaking with her mother and brother again.

Somewhere in their chatter, both of Aleksi’s fathers stepped into the ring. The prince spent the first few breaths filled with apologies, then like Livia, it turned to affectionate affirmations, grand promises he would return in one piece, and laughter about the earth fae ladies who’d already approached his fathers to praise their son about his bravery and boldness facing the horrid sea fae.

Jonas had watched the interactions with his familiar bravado, but the prince’s face blanched when a deep growl of a voice called his name, then Sander’s.

Jonas shook out his hands and smacked his brother’s chest. “All right, you speak to Daj first. Soften him up. I’ll handle Maj.”

In the end, they faced their parents and people as one. Their father, though I did not see his face, spoke in a dark rasp, threatening his sons for their stupidity, all while demanding they return their asses back home so he could berate them a bit more to their faces.

Mira was drawn to the water next. Her folk were more frantic, more chaotic. They’d shout, curse, then laugh together, only to begin again in the next breath.

The spell cast over the water began to fade, and the royals gathered around, shouting hurried farewells.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Celine whispered, stepping to my side while Livia bid her mother a tearful goodbye. “Not so long ago, we’d wanted the lot of these sods dead and gone. Now, it’s like they were . . . always here.”

“Don’t get sentimental, Tidecaller.”

“Fine.” Celine tossed her hands in the air. “I won’t finish what I’d planned to say. I’ll keep my thoughts in about how I think it’s a little wonderful to see these changes in the kingdom. I’ll bite my tongue before I dare tell you I know you’re the king the Ever needs.”

I didn’t meet her gaze, didn’t look away from the sea. I merely dipped my chin and murmured, “Wise choice. Best to keep such thoughts to yourself.”


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