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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 40

THE SERPENT

New faces decorated the edges of the table in the great hall. Sea witches, some men from the House of Tides, and Tavish with Maelstrom waited near a back door.

Alistair fussed and bustled about, seeing to it those we’d brought into our schemes were fed, boarded in fine rooms, and tended to like they were helpless littles.

Livia sat beside me, and the high back of her seat made her look every bit a queen. Her hand was steady on my knee beneath the table. At least one of us was regal.

I lifted a drinking horn to hide the swift glance to where Stieg sat with Valen and Aleksi. They laughed at something Sewell said across the table.

Stieg’s confession brought a haze to my mind, one I didn’t understand. The warrior had wanted me to stay, not merely as a sea fae brought into his world out of pity, but . . . as a damn son. A member of his house. His legacy. His boy.

My insides were wrapped in coiled barbs, sharp and painful. What might life have been if Thorvald had never returned for me? No doubt I would’ve been a Rave, like Aleksi. I would’ve grown with Livia, deep in her world.

Would I have still had her taste on my tongue? Her body wrapped around mine?

The way Valen treated Stieg, despite the differences of their titles, it certainly wouldn’t have been impossible for a warrior to love a royal, not with earth fae.

But Tait, he would’ve been alone. My cousin was somber, but the occasional smile twitched on his face down the table whenever Gavyn tried to get Princess Mira to perform an illusion against a sea witch without being noticed.

Celine. My gaze drifted to her place where she sat between the twin princes, mocking something Jonas was attempting with a few spell herbs Tavish had offered up. She would be dead, the same as Sewell.

I could’ve had a life without war and hate. I could’ve had my songbird every day, but I would’ve been without the others.

The doors near Tavish and Maelstrom swung open. Livia jolted in her chair, jaw clenched. She fought to bury her unease.

I leaned over and pressed a kiss to her neck. “We do not need to do this.”

Blue glass found my gaze. “We need her through this, and even if she does not recall it, we now know she has placed wards against elven magic before.”

“The exchange must be done,” Jonas insisted from his place across the table.

“Yes, she might be able to stand against the elven, but it doesn’t mean any of you must make the sacrifice,” I argued. “We have the support of many.”

“If you are to finally be accepted as the king here, you need your people to be seen standing with you.” Jonas narrowed his eyes. “You need us all to stand with you. This allows your sea witch of a grandmother to be where she belongs. You’re stronger with her, and that’s the end of it.”

I did not know what to say. The offer to sacrifice for an enemy was foreign to me. Jonas Eriksson, a prince of the earth realms, was willingly taking the exchange of the neach-dai spell bond.

To make the proper exchange so Narza was free to return to her life in the Ever, the spell required an opposing bond. Where a powerful sea fae offered to defend the earth fae, now a powerful prince of the earth realms would vow devotion and protection to the Ever.

Across the hall, Narza, hair loose, clad in a simple gown, strode in with all the grace of a queen. Her eyes flickered to Maelstrom for a moment, then returned to the table. Another woman, tall and voluptuous, with hair like a dark storm followed, accompanied by three littles.

Squeals of delight shattered the melancholy when the tiniest girl toddled for Tavish, who’d crouched low, arms wide. Soon he was overthrown by squirming, squealing children.

The woman at Narza’s side beamed, kissing Tavish’s mouth through the swarm.

“Narza.” I stood from my seat once my grandmother made her way to the table. “Lady Catriona.”

“King Erik. Queen Livia.” Tavish’s mate bowed her head, but raised her golden eyes, bright as a sunrise. “Earth fae are terrifying, My Lady.”

“At times. I’m sure many of the royals did not appreciate being denied access through the Chasm again.”

“Not at all.” Catriona straightened. “Who claims the queen with red hair?”

Sander and Jonas lifted their hands with pride.

“Can she truly make folk forget how to breathe?”

Sander laughed. “She can. She has. Ask her to share those memories. I think it was a little manipulative of her as we were growing, honestly. She’d just happen to show us what she could do if we were misbehaving.”

“Manipulative or brilliant,” said Jonas. “Got us in line rather quickly.”

The blood hair queen who’d carried me out of my torture as a boy. Livia had told me a great deal about her ability to steal memories in vicious ways.

“We kept this situation vague, as promised. They aren’t aware of the longevity of this decision,” Catriona whispered, and a tremble was there, like she’d not wanted to do it at all.

Jonas picked at a thread on the table runner. “Thank you.”

Valen closed his eyes. “Can we not simply break the one that was done?”

“I told you, Earth Bender,” said Narza. “What’s done is always done. Death or an exchange.”

“I don’t want any more chatter about it,” Jonas said. “We’re not children anymore. We face a life and death moment. The sea witch can face the elven, which we must do to end this. Is that not true?”

I closed my eyes. There were powers on that isle we needed to shatter. Our schemes depended on unraveling spells cast amongst the elven folk, or we would not defeat Larsson.

When no one spoke, Jonas went on, “I will not shy away from this opportunity if I can help. Let’s move on.”

Catriona looked to me. “Before we do, I have something for the Ever King. I was asked by a young prince to deliver this on his behalf. With the hope of defending you in your fight.”

The sea witch passed over a wooden slab. Rough edges were rounded, still a little jagged. Leather straps were messily nailed on the opposing side, a place to slip the arm that would never fit the size of mine.

On the front was the symbol of the Rave warriors from the earth realms.

“Rorik made you a shield.” Livia pressed a hand to her chest, then her mouth tightened, and she pinched my shoulder.

“Gods, what?”

“How is it my brother made you a shield and not me, not our father? I have been gone, and already he cares more for you.”

“Bloodsinger told Ror he was good with a blade,” Aleksi said.

Livia snorted. “Ah, that explains it.”

Grit gathered in my throat when I looked down at the childish shield. No, it would never hold in battle, but . . . it meant something. It meant a great many things.

I rested the shield by the leg of the table and faced the room. “Many thanks, Catriona, for bringing Narza to the Ever.”

“We don’t have long,” Narza said, wincing. “It must be now, or I must return.”

Jonas rose from his chair, all levity washed of his face.

“Jo,” Sander whispered.

“Don’t.” Jonas shook his head. “What did I say? No more. I am the best choice for this. Alek and Stieg are Rave. I won’t take that from them. Valen is a king. Livie is already here as the queen. Mira is a sole heir.”

“But it could be me. You do this since there are two of us.”

Jonas stared at his brother. “I’m the eldest.”

“By moments.”

“Still.” He turned to Narza. “I’ll be the one taking the exchange. I’m much better with a blade than him. I assure you, I’m the best choice.”

Sander glared at his brother, cursed him, but when Mira took hold of his arm, she urged him back to his chair.

“This is Liv we’re talking about. They won’t trap him,” she whispered in a bit of reassurance.

“We need the king and the queen.” Catriona opened her arms, beckoning us forward to the center of the room.

Alistair and Tavish had already arranged seashell ewers filled with clear water and a bowl of tilled, soft soil inside a circle of painted runes.

With Livia’s hand in mine, we stepped inside, kneeling in the center at Catriona’s instruction. Narza took one side of the circle beside the ewers. Jonas knelt beside the soil.

“You remember how it is done?” Narza whispered to Catriona. “It’s slightly different than the first, since it is an exchange.”

“Yes. You showed me well.” The other sea witch rested a hand on the lady of the witches.

From inside a pouch made of gleaming scales and fishbone, Catriona removed emerald silk woven in dry threads of sea plants. Next, she removed a thread of slender roots, fine as weaving threads, and crossed them in front of Livia and me.

“One drop of blood from the bonded.” Catriona pricked Narza’s middle finger. “Added upon the heart of the willing.”

Jonas blinked, startled when Catriona paused in front of him. Fingers hurried, he unlaced the threads across his tunic, exposing the skin of his chest.

Catriona hummed. Jonas swallowed a grimace on his face that he buried with a laugh. “It’s getting warmer.”

“It’s growing colder,” Narza whispered.

Catriona paid them little mind and set about lifting one of the ewers and pouring water into the dark soil. “Sea and land, once at odds, now stand as one.”

The sea witch used her fingers to saturate the soil with the seawater until it was a gritty paste. Another gentle hum and a flash of crystalline flames rolled around the rim of the bowl, fading once it was complete.

“It is ready to set,” Catriona told us. “Once the parameters are given, the bond will fasten to the earth prince, releasing Lady Narza.”

I faced the prince. “I simply tell him what we want?”

“Yes.” Catriona nodded. “The bond offers the prince protection of the Ever since his vow will place him in the service of our people by creating a compulsion to defend us. Any other desires or needs are to be spoken by you that will add to his bond. The compulsion to protect is the common thread in every bond made. The rest is rather up to you.”

“Don’t make me sleep at the foot of your bed with my blade or something, Bloodsinger.” Jonas chuckled. “Make it impressive.”

Livia squeezed my hand and smiled. “I only ask that you protect my folk, the Ever King, and the land that comes with him, as fiercely as I will defend you and yours.”

Jonas smiled at her. “Always, Livie.”

“Protect the Ever Queen,” I said. “Above me. If ever we are in a position where it is a choice, always choose her.”

A shadow crossed his features. Jonas held my gaze, blood against moss. After a thick swallow, he dipped his chin. “As you say, Bloodsinger.”

To Catriona, I said, “The earth prince is free to leave the Ever, free to live wherever he may choose. I don’t want him bound in any other way.”

“No need to even speak it. If all you ask is his willingness to protect you the way you would protect him, then that is the bond that will hold fast.”

Again, Catriona sang over the gritty mud, and flames burned in the opposite direction around the edge of the bowl.

Jonas let out a rough breath, hand to his heart. “Strange. Felt like something pushed water through my veins.”

“It’s settled.” Catriona sat back on her knees but looked to the Lady of Witches. “Is the pressure gone?”

Narza inspected her palms, then looked to the nightmare prince. “Thank you.”

“Just be sure to make it worth it,” Jonas said. “I want to see you bring Jormungandr up from the depths or something equally incredible.”

I couldn’t recall the last time—if ever—I’d heard such a freeing, sincere laugh from my grandmother.


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