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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 31

THE SONGBIRD

“So, where does Bloodsinger sneak off to when he’s not consumed with staring at you?” Mira removed one of Erik’s daggers off two pegs next to the inglenook in our chambers.

“He’s with Gavyn and a surveyor. I’m sure they’re returning now.” I adjusted a bead in the plait over my shoulder. “The surveyor can breathe in spells of the sea and has been scouting for the isle. Tait is with them as well.”

“Not sure why you mentioned Heartwalker,” Mira said, a click of metal on wood gave up that she’d returned the blade to its place.

“Because that’s what you be truly asking, earth fae,” Celine said, chuckling as she stepped from the washroom. “You’ve no interest in the king’s whereabouts, speak true.”

Mira’s eyes flashed. “I absolutely was not. Frankly, Celine, I don’t know how you stomach sailing with such a man as the king’s cousin. He’s terribly surly.”

Celine snorted and snatched one of Erik’s smaller knives off a table and stuffed it into her boot. “You’ll not meet a more loyal sod than Heartwalker. But I must say, earth fae, you like to point out his moods more than, well, anyone.”

A splotch of pink rose over the ridge of Mira’s sun-kissed cheeks. She gave Celine a dark look, like a challenge, then turned. “Livie, did you know a rather handsome, rugged brute on the Ever Crew fancies Celine?”

“What?” I spun around. “Celine Tidecaller, what haven’t you told me?”

“Gods, nothing.” Celine’s fingers shot to the spike through her lone ear. “Never knew all you damn earth fae were so chatty. Let us dress and be off. Fewer words, I beg of you both.”

I looped my arm through Celine’s, staring at her profile, taking a bit of pleasure in the way she strategically avoided my gaze.

“Celine.” I drew out her name. “What happened in my absence? You must tell me.”

“I must do nothing.”

“I’ve been kidnapped twice now, starved, beaten, and threatened by an enemy, so it would be a kindness to tell me something glad.”

She huffed. “You are becoming far too manipulative. I think the king’s wretchedness is rubbing off on you.”

“Oh, I think more than that is rubbing off on her,” Mira said, shrieking when I pinched the back of her arm. “Come now, Livie, your daj isn’t here, nor is your lover, and I’ve been ravenous to know every bawdy detail since I saw you spin away with a masked man.”

“I thought you wanted to kill my king after that night,” Celine said, grinning.

“Oh, only for a few weeks.” Mira waved her away, then propped her chin on my shoulder, fluttering her lashes. “Now I just want to gossip, perhaps get a tad envious you’re being pleasured and I am not.”

“I’ll tell you what I told Alek, Erik is my hjärta, the song of my heart, and I will leave it at that.”

Mira wrinkled her nose. “Hardly satisfactory. At least soothe my worries and tell me he knows his proper way around a woman’s body.”

A rush of sordid heat spread through my belly, down between my legs where only this morning the king had masterfully tormented with his fingers and body until I’d been unable to draw in a deep breath.

“There is nothing proper about what he does,” I murmured, laughing when Mira offered a lazy applause and a wicked grin. “But I thought we were on about Celine and a crewman.”

Celine coughed, face red as a bloody blade. “We were not.”

“Who is it?”

“I must be off, My Queen.” Celine took a long step toward the door.

I hurriedly adjusted the bone necklace around my throat. A dark sort of grin tugged at the corners of my mouth when the gold-etched runes settled over my heart, a vicious reminder of what befell the enemies of the Ever King and his queen.

“Wait, Celine.” I spun toward the door before she slipped into the corridor. “We’re all going to the study, so don’t think I don’t realize there is plenty of time to tell me a name.”

“I’ll do it,” Mira said, snatching a few tattered scrolls we’d been studying about elven lore for nearly two days. “Stormdrawer, Stormcaller—”

Stormbringer?” My lips parted.

“It means nothing,” Celine protested. “It’s not like the Ever Crew has many options while out to sea, they’ll take what they can get.”

“Don’t downplay the spell you have on the man,” Mira said. “Liv, he looks at her like she lights the sky.”

Celine cursed. “Life was peaceful before the Ever was overrun with princesses.”

I took hold of Celine’s elbow, and Mira took the other as though it were something we’d always done, as though Celine Tidecaller had always made us a trio, not a duo.

I leaned in to whisper, “Stormbringer would be a fool not to hang the stars for the likes of you, and it’s not simply because you’re the only woman on the crew.”

Celine dragged her palms down her face, groaning, but when she quickened her step, the slightest hint of a grin tugged at her lips.

When we descended the staircase to the upper levels, the lot of us collided with Sewell and Tait as they made their way for the study. My heart tightened. Tait met my gaze for a slight glance, then stepped back. By my sides, my fingers danced in disquiet.

“Sewell, would you be kind enough to take my place and take your girl and Mira inside?”

Sewell, beaming with a touch of mischief, offered an arm for both women, leaving me with the back of Tait’s head.

He was making a clear dive for the study. Damn idiot wanted to avoid me as much as I’d struggled being in his presence.

“Heartwalker.”

Tait came to a halt but tilted his face to the crisscrossing rafters. “Nothing needs to be said.”

“You’re as infuriating as your cousin. Perhaps worse.”

Tait spun around. The red in his eyes was not as prominent as Erik’s, more gold and with dark streaks of brown like wet sand. Still, there were slices of crimson, like blood carved through the dark. “We are needed inside.”

“We will get there.”

I clasped my hands in front of my body and stepped a pace away. Chest to chest, eye to eye. For a moment, I said nothing, merely studied him. Tait was a brute on the outside, but beneath it all, every action he’d taken, every risk he’d faced, was laden in deadly loyalty.

The man risked it all to protect the House of Kings—aiding Erik when he’d been stabbed, no fear of his cousin’s blood. Taking a blade for me, no thought for his own life.

“I thought you died.”

He shoved a hand into the pocket of his trousers and removed a paper smoke, rolling it between his fingers. If I had to guess, it was more a nervous habit than a need.

He didn’t look at me. “It wasn’t a deep blow.”

“I saw it. It should’ve been fatal.”

Tait let out a rough sigh. “What do you want me to say? Should I have done nothing?”

A smile crept over my lips. “You don’t care for me much, I know, but I merely wanted to thank you.” I hesitated, then rested a hand on his upper arm. “I will never forget what you did, and I’m glad you’re alive.”

With that at an end, I turned for the study.

“Earth fae.” Tait cleared his throat. “Livia.”

I peered over my shoulder.

“You’re . . . you’re wrong.” At long last, Tait met my gaze.

“About what?”

He shuffled the paper roll between his teeth, unlit, and put his hands in his trouser pockets. “I care what happens to you. I know at times it does not seem that way. I . . . I am unaccustomed to showing—” Tait waved his hands around, searching for the words.

“Your heart, Heartwalker?” The corner of my mouth tilted up.

He frowned. “Erik was my brother when we were small, before my father became a brutal wretch. Some bonds never fade, no matter how others try to kill them. We were told to despise each other, but he killed Harald to save me, I know he did. He protected the Ever despite his critics, those who only saw him as a failure.”

I held my breath when Tait paused. This was, perhaps, the longest I’d ever heard the man speak.

“I did not want you here,” he admitted. “For I saw the way he looked at you, the changes that came damn near immediately. Even when I felt your affection toward him, I didn’t trust you. I thought you would use him, leave him, and eventually send your folk against him.”

Tears blurred my vision. I fought to keep my voice steady. “And now?”

“Now? I will take a thousand blades in your place.” A strange flush heated the ridges of Tait’s high cheekbones. “Because you bring my brother peace. You are the support, the family he always deserved but was never afforded due to a cruel father and cruel uncle. Let us leave it at that, shall we? No thanks, no guilt. I will do it again if need be.”

Without another word, Tait held out his arm for me to take.

I wiped a stray tear and hooked my hand around his elbow, smiling softly. “We’ll leave it at that then, Heartwalker.”

He tilted his head in a mute response.

“But,” I said, voice low, “I still think you’re a terribly surly bastard.”

For the first time since meeting the man, I witnessed a true, unburdened smile on his face.


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