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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 36

THE SERPENT

Endless water dragged me deeper, deeper, until I was lost to a bottomless sea. Then, my feet struck solid ground, buckling my weak leg.

Floorboards met my cheek, bruising my shoulder and hip. I groaned and rolled onto my back. Overhead, dim light split through droplets of muggy sea air, catching bits of dust over the dark wood laths.

Minimalism blanketed the room. Small, dim, and when the floor swayed it was clear—I was on a ship.

A chest of cherry-stained wood was topped with tin mugs and goblets of old wine and a rich, amber mead. Dried herbs added rustic potency to the room, and scattered in disarray amidst the ale were bones. Slivers and full pieces, teeth, and fingers.

Another moan, not from my chest, tilted my attention to the narrow bed pushed against one wall.

When his eyes blinked open, when he caught my gaze, Larsson scrambled for a discarded blade on the floor.

I rolled out of reach when the edge slammed into the wood, splintering a few boards from the gash. He swiped again. Hands lifted, I dodged and struggled to my knees. Too slow, too disoriented, the point of his cutlass sliced through my chest.

A sharp breath, then . . . nothing.

Not pain, not blood, nothing but an eerie mist of cold.

“What is this?”

A cruel grin split over my mouth. With his blade still impaled deep through my heart, I stood. Larsson stumbled backward, dropping the sword. It spilled through my body like I was nothing but a projection of his nightmares.

“Hello, brother.” The word was poison on the tongue, sharp and painful.

The sight of his gnarled ear brought a flush of pride and numbing rage in the same breath. Larsson, dark hair scattered over his brow, twisted his features into one of disdain. A face I’d trusted, on my ship, in my palace, with Livia.

I no longer recognized this face.

With buried resentment, I strode past him and sat on the bed. It neither gave under my weight nor felt like much of anything. Still, I frowned. “Rather uncomfortable for a royal, don’t you think? What ship are we on?”

“What is this?”

“You keep saying that. Afraid, Bonekeeper?”

“You are nothing more than a spectral. Having a bit of fun with the sea witches, Bloodsinger?” Larsson peered over his shoulder as though he might find Narza hiding in the shadows.

“Likely as much as you.”

Larsson spread his arms over his chest and glared at me. “What do you want?”

“A meet,” I said. “Is that not what enemies are meant to do? Parlay to make their demands.”

“Ah, but we’re not enemies.” His teeth flashed in the morning light. “We’re brothers.”

Anything glib faded from my smile. “We could’ve been. You knew how I detested the crown.”

“I knew how much you wanted to please our dead father. Don’t pretend you would ever have given up your title.”

He knew so little. “I see Thorvald has done the same with you.”

Venom poisoned Larsson’s grin. “I care nothing about Thorvald. The only thing I needed from him was the power he left behind in the earth realms. It was the only way to break through the wards he leveled against me.”

My brow arched.

“Didn’t know that, did you, brother?” Larsson selected a piece of bone off the chest and inspected it. “Ever wonder why he did not favor a half-elven son? Rather unique bloodline, after all. My mother was even the niece of an elven king.” He curled his fingers around the bone shard, eyes like a moonless night. “But Thorvald feared me.”

Questions battered my skull, but I kept quiet.

“You want me to tell you everything.” He scoffed. “Want to know all my secrets? I assure you, knowing how I came to be here will not aid you in this fight, Erik. You cannot stop it. I have too much on my side.”

“Then where is the risk? I cannot touch you. I’m not even certain I’ll remember what you say. I detest you. I want your blood to spill. But I don’t understand how you could destroy the kingdom you plan to take. How do you ever expect the people to follow you after what you have done?”

“They will. I am the firstborn, and we both know what sort of power that wields in the Ever.”

I feigned boredom and disbelief. Sewell had agreed with the earth bender to prey on Larsson’s arrogance, his certainty he would win this battle. To make light of it, to make him feel less than. Larsson was the sort of man who would spew everything to prove me wrong.

“You think too highly of yourself.” I picked at my fingertips, as though wholly indifferent. “You’ve nothing to entice the people of the Ever. You’re a bastard who was abandoned and left behind, unwanted. Hardly impressive.”

“Impressive?” Larsson’s face hardened. “You have no idea what power I hold, Bloodsinger.” Once the bone shard was returned to the chest, Larsson faced me again. “As I said, I was not unwanted, I was feared. After the boneweavers inspected me, the Ever King found my voice to be too great a risk.”

“You were inspected by boneweavers?” I cursed myself for letting the question slip. Indifference, smugness—those would infuriate Larsson more than feckless intrigue.

A grin of satisfaction proved me right. “Of course. For a time I even slept in your little princely bed. When our father realized I was a voice thief, he washed his hands of me. Thorvald knew once I was strong enough, I could take his blood, grow stronger than him, and overrule his legacy.”

I folded my arms over my chest as if bored. “If it is all true, why does no one recall the elven? You say they are your folk, yet they are spoken of like they are myths.”

“You ought to ask Lady Narza.”

My heart stuttered. No. Narza didn’t know, she couldn’t have known.

Larsson leaned forward. “When Thorvald came to her with his dreary mistake, she placed wards against elven folk and the Ever, long before you existed, Bloodsinger. Her abilities were impressive enough. I imagine the Ever King found merit in joining with her house. I am told that is when he began his new crusade to manipulate Narza’s daughter. In hopes he might create a powerful—yet, controllable—heir.”

Damn the hells. My folk, everyone who’d known of my father’s regrets, had only offered lies and deception to me.

“If this is so, how did you return?”

“Through death,” Larsson said. “Once the Ever King faded, old wards keeping me from the borders of the kingdom began to weaken. The final piece before I could cross into the Ever Sea was my mother.” He shook his head and touched a slender piece of bone. “Took me some time to realize he’d warded her blood. Fair, I suppose. You had to kill your mother too.”

Bastard. His grin was chilling, like ice flowed in my veins. Proud, almost maniacal, as he described ending his own mother’s life to break the final threads of barriers from the elven and the Ever.

“How many turns have you been plotting?”

“From the beginning, Erik.”

My jaw pulsed. None of his loyalty, none of the simple nights aboard the Ever Ship, none of it was sincere.

Larsson shook his head. “It takes time to overthrow spells and blood crowns.”

I clicked my tongue. “Rather pitiful that you nearly destroyed the Ever with the darkening.”

“Dark spells leave remnants. Of course, I didn’t realize it would spread and poison.”

“Why now? Why take her?”

“Your lover?” Larsson clicked his tongue. “She is the power of the Ever.”

“Narza said she is not the mantle of Thorvald.”

“Ah, but she absorbed the mantle. Even if it now belongs to you, it was once Thorvald’s. The last remnant of his voice was what I needed.”

“So, you took the heartbond.” I was speaking more to myself than him. All of it had tangled in my mind, overwhelming and infuriating.

“I took it. And Fione has already broken the wards against that crown. It will sit atop my head the moment it is in my hands.” Larsson crossed the room, tilting his head, practically snarling down at me. “Enjoy your earth fae, brother. I’ll be taking her again, and without the wards against me, you won’t be able to stop me. Not with the power I have.”

“You’ve no purpose for her any longer. You got what you wanted.”

“I did.” His voice lowered, low and cruel. “But I would so enjoy watching your face when I claim her myself before I kill you.”

“Careful, Bonekeeper,” I said. “She might bite off your nose should you try it again.”

Larsson’s eyes narrowed to dark slits. “As long as I have her, the earth fae will remain tamed.”

Erik . . . A voice, gentle, warm, rose in the distance. Time . . . return.

I peered over my shoulder but saw nothing. An urgency took root in my chest, like I’d been racing down a corridor for too long. Like there was a place I needed to be.

I rose from the bed, brushing off a bit of dust from my fall into the room. “So disappointing. You boast your power while knowing nothing of mine.”

He laughed. “What do you have? I hold the House of Blades—”

“I believe Hesh’s corpse will soon be fashioned into my queen’s crown.”

“I have his crew, you bastard.” Larsson’s face hardened. “I have elven ships. And I have elven with the affinity capable of keeping folk docile, including your little earth fae, well enough. I assure you, brother, you’ve no idea what she—what they can do.”

A slip. That was all I needed. She, not they. It had to be the woman Livia knew. What magic she held, I doubted Larsson would confess to it. Still, he’d given enough to know she was part of his plans for overtaking both the Ever and even leeching his influence against Livia’s folk.

Erik. Come back to me.

The voice, soft as a gentle current, tugged at the center of my chest, like strings in my heart. Like a bond I could not shake. I rubbed a hand over the bloom of warmth. The room seemed smaller, the air colder.

“You have your weapons,” I said. “But it’s not enough. Listen well, Bonekeeper, I have the power of the earth fae. They stand with the true king.”

“Lies.”

“You think so?” I leaned my face close enough I could almost touch his brow with mine. “How do you think we sank into the damn sea to get away from you?”

For the first time, Larsson paled, uncertain.

“I have the House of Mists—”

“As do I.” He slammed his fist over his chest. “Fione rivals Narza.”

“I doubt that.” I lowered my voice to a dark purr. “More importantly, I wear the blood crown and have no need to steal it. The Ever answers to me. She will never answer to you, a bastard who had no home, no birthright despite claiming to be from two royal lines.”

Larsson’s chest heaved. His body trembled like his skin might split beneath his fury in the next breath. “We shall see soon, brother.”

“I’m terrified.” I waved him away like he was nothing. “Here I am, standing in front of you, and you can do nothing. You will always be nothing.”

“Nothing?” Larsson spat. “We shall see who is nothing. Look to the seas, Bloodsinger. I will come for you with armies of land and sea, greater than the ones you think you possess. You will never see us coming until it is too late.”

Erik Bloodsinger. Come back to me now.

Songbird.

Livia. She was there. I felt her, deep to my bones, as much as I’d felt her before the heartbond was stolen from us.

Gods, I even felt the stun from my response. Had she heard me? I wanted to hold her, touch her, see her eyes gleam in the sunlight a great deal more than I wanted to stare at Larsson’s face.

The room dulled, grew somber and gray.

“Consider our parlay at an end.” An echo soaked my voice. “You will never bear the weight of the crown, Bonekeeper.” I paused, sneering one last time. “It would crush you. Best to leave it to the true king and keep cowering in your shadows.”

Larsson lunged forward, but the room drowned into the endless sea.

I was tossed back, clawing my way through thrashing tides, until light burned behind my eyes. I snapped upright, gasping. In the next breath, arms wrapped around my throat, holding me like I would never be free again.

No mistake, that was the sort of freedom I would never want.


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